Climate Tasmania

A Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

Have your say

I’ve fixed my spam problem (I hope). To leave a comment, just go to the bottom of the main text.

For those who labour, some cheering news

The US-China climate pact is shaping as a game-changer in the battle against global warming. [18 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

When things need doing and authorities are nowhere to be seen, people have a way of filling the gaps. I had this lesson brought home to me at the Australian Network for Plant Conservation’s 10th annual conference in Hobart last week.

“As we focus on our economy we cannot forget the need to lead on the global fight against climate change”: Barak Obama speaking at the University of Queensland in a speech in which he announced a US pledge of $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries deal with climate change. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

“As we focus on our economy we cannot forget the need to lead in the global fight against climate change”: Barak Obama speaking at the University of Queensland in a speech in which he announced a US pledge of $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries deal with climate change. PHOTO ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN

While most science is done by paid professionals aided by technology, human eyes, ears and hands remain in short supply, and that’s where the citizen comes in.

As “citizen scientists”, people with no formal scientific training are guided by trained scientists in collecting data about what’s happening out in the real world. They may also be involved in analysing the data, and sometimes get to be named as co-authors of scientific papers.

As the plant conservation conference heard in numerous presentations, citizen science is taking off in Australia as demand for scientific research rises in inverse proportion to government funding.

Large numbers of ordinary people me are getting down and dirty in field programs across the country, helping science get a better handle on how species and ecosystems are faring on land and, in the case of the Tasmanian-based Redmap scheme, out at sea.

They’re finding species that science had believed extinct, while watching others disappearing before their eyes. They’re catching fish that they’ve never seen before and reporting the catch to Redmap: evidence that the Australian marine environment is changing under our noses.

ClimateWatch, an initiative of Earthwatch Institute in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of Melbourne, organises groups around the country to help gather biodiversity data over land and sea around the country, including Tasmania.

Citizen scientists learn through their observations about happenings out in the natural world with immense, profound implications. Their effort rewards them with a precious and unique gift: intimate contact with the planet that sustains them.

It won’t resolve the climate crisis, however. Neither citizen scientists nor any of the countless other volunteers labouring for a sustainable future can manage the heavy lifting that’s badly needed. That must come from government.

In Beijing last week a remarkable thing happened which might just be a game-changer. In the first climate pact between the world’s leading economies, Barak Obama of the United States and Xi Jinping of China stood side by side to announce plans to rein in their countries’ carbon emissions.

Negotiations have been going on behind closed doors for nine months to secure this landmark agreement, under which the US committed to tough new emissions targets and China agreed on a deadline after which its emissions would begin to decline.

The commitment of both countries is not trivial. Obama’s pledge to have emissions in 2025 at least 26 per cent below what they were in 2005 effectively doubles the rate of emissions reduction required under his administration’s earlier commitment.

China’s goal is to have emissions on a downward path by 2030, although it is saying it expects the peak to come earlier. In announcing China’s first-ever emissions target, Xi is locking in an ambitious plan to displace King Coal with Russian gas and renewable energy.

There are obstacles in both countries, inevitable in a strategic shift on this scale. With a hostile majority in Congress Obama can’t get a legislated carbon price. His path is to take executive action under existing clean air laws while vetoing any Congressional bills that try to stop that.

A bigger challenge will be the 2016 US presidential elections. The China deal has ensured that climate change will feature prominently in the campaign to elect Obama’s successor.

The Democratic and Republican party primaries, which begin next year, will be crucial. If public opinion swings strongly behind Obama’s agreement there’s a chance that both parties’ selected candidates will support it too, though right now that looks unlikely.

For his part, Xi faces simmering discontent about the state of air in Chinese cities, laden with polluting particles from heavy industry and coal-fired power stations. If he can give his people blue skies again they will forgive him a great deal, even at the expense of a slowing economy.

The impact of the China-US deal is being felt around the world, but it has delivered a massive shock to the Australian body politic, an unfolding story that I’ll explore next week.

With our own political leadership indifferent to the science of man-made climate change or in outright denial of it, the vision of the leaders of the world’s economic superpowers acknowledging its truth and agreeing on plans to fight it has come as a huge relief.

The labourers in the field, citizen scientists or just plain citizens, have made a big investment – emotional, intellectual and in some cases financial – to try to get the world to see the threat of man-made climate change. To them, this is truly a breath of fresh air.

The high price of today’s inaction

What we do now and over the next decade to lessen our impact on the planet will determine our future. Doing nothing is not an option, says the IPCC. [11 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

A sprightly octogenarian scholar and a former car radio installer with a passion for flying, an unlikely team if ever there was one, took me on a trip down memory lane last week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon officially launches the AR5 Synthesis Report in Copenhagen on 2 November

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre) officially launches the AR5 Synthesis Report in Copenhagen on 2 November

I didn’t read Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling book The Population Bomb when it was published in 1968, but a few years later when my first child was born I felt its huge impact. We all got to hear about the political movement it helped to spawn, ZPG, for zero population growth.

The book’s dark prediction that over-population would bring mass starvation by the 1980s badly underestimated the impact of the post-war “green revolution”, which trebled world food yields. In the popular media Ehrlich became something of a laughing stock.

But Ehrlich, now 82, doesn’t know how to take a backward step. Treading the boards of the University of Tasmania’s Stanley Burbury Centre last week at his only public meeting while in Australia, he was as articulate, forthright and unapologetic as ever.

In his sights is the failure of politicians in Australia, Canada and his own United States to recognise the global climate and environmental crisis. The US Congress’s newly-elected, climate-blind Republican majority was made up of “morons”, he told his capacity audience.

Also on the double bill that night was Dick Smith, who turned his car radio business into a chain of electronics stores before selling out to Woolworths. As well as indulging his lifelong passion to explore the world from the air, he’s now busy educating us about the perils of over-population.

Ehrlich is gloomy about our future, but not Smith. He firmly believes that we have it in us to break our addiction to the false and pernicious idea that perpetual economic growth is possible. He thinks that Australians are beginning to “get it”, and that leaders will follow.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers some support for Smith’s optimism. Its latest “synthesis report” has found that undertaking sufficient mitigation to keep warming within acceptable limits would reduce economic growth by a very acceptable 0.06 per cent.

But the report, which distils and updates the thousands of pages of detailed analysis comprising the IPCC’s fifth comprehensive climate review released earlier this year, also supports Ehrlich’s concern that countries’ continuing failure to enact effective measures radically increases the challenge.

We’re running out of time, says the IPCC. To keep the cost of abatement within manageable limits we have to turn around our rising emissions trajectory within a decade. The longer we wait, the more it will cost us, and the more likely we are to suffer irreversible climate change.

Continuing as we are now, the report says, will deliver us a world close to 5C warmer than it was 100 years ago, along with a very unstable climate, vanishing food and water, irreversibly damaged ecosystems and biodiversity, and human misery and mayhem on a global scale.

We’re now experiencing more high temperature extremes and fewer cold extremes. As the century progresses, extreme rain events and heat waves will happen more often, and the heat waves will be hotter and last longer.

We already know what it will be like, says ANU epidemiologist Dr Elizabeth Hanna, an expert on the impact of global warming on human physiology. She told the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast that thousands of people are already dying because the world is too hot for them.

Human bodies generate heat, and ten times more heat when we move, which is why we prefer temperatures around 22C. Business as usual will lift summer extremes in Australia above 50C for prolonged periods, over 13C above humans’ core temperature and 28C above our comfort zone

How will our bodies deal with this? Not well, says Hanna. “If the temperature is close to our core temperature, or hotter, we cannot shed this extra heat. Our core temperature gets too high and we go into heat stress and ultimately death.” End of story.

ENERGY MINISTER Matthew Groom feels I should have acknowledged his effort in helping to persuade Canberra to retain a Renewable Energy Target. However, the RET that’s now the preferred option is not today’s legislated RET but a lesser one that would disadvantage hydro, solar and wind.

His public statements on the RET have focused on the Labor opposition. His target should have been the federal government. Besides trying to kill off the RET, it deprived Hydro Tasmania of many millions of dollars this financial year with the repeal of the carbon price.

We need both him and Will Hodgman to find it in them to break a taboo and confront the prevailing attitude in their party, and particularly in the Abbott government, that our rising carbon emissions are of no consequence. The continuing silence is costing us dearly.

When leaders are silent

As the Abbott government plays havoc with Tasmania’s bottom line, the state’s leadership remains mute [4 November 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Two events last week, one in Hobart, the other in Canberra, were depressing reminders of the yawning vacuum that in both places passes for climate policy.

A wind turbine on King Island, part of the community’s existing windfarm.

A wind turbine on King Island, part of the community’s existing windfarm.

In Hobart, Hydro Tasmania CEO Steve Davy announced the scrapping of a $2 billion project to build a giant wind farm on breezy King Island and send its power via cable into the national electricity market. It was the right decision, said energy minister Matthew Groom.

According to Davy, the “changing external factors” that made the project uneconomical included greater construction costs, a higher price for turbines and other imported equipment because of a lower Australian dollar, and a reduced general demand for grid electricity.

He also said that an undersea electric cable between Tasmania and Victoria via King Island was more expensive than a direct link such as the existing Basslink cable, and cited “a loss of industrial load” near where King Island power was to go ashore, south of Geelong.

All this may be true. The project may well have fallen over for these reasons alone. But doubts raised at the weekend about a proposal for a wind farm at Granville Harbour on the West Coast pointed the finger squarely at current uncertainty over renewable energy policy.

Economic viability is a complex beast with many moods and idiosyncrasies. A political shift can turn a viable proposition into a dead duck. Or breathe life into an apparently lifeless corpse.

The predominant view in government circles in Canberra is that climate change and renewable energy are low in the policy pecking order, well below things like coal, terrorism, people in boats and the cricket score.

That much was clear when federal environment minister Greg Hunt went on the airwaves to plug his government’s success in winning Senate support to get its climate plan through parliament.

Hunt’s interviews were long on blandishments and short on information. He kept harking back to Labor’s long-dead carbon tax, and when forced to discuss his own program revealed only that it would focus on tree-planting, improved farm soil management and greater energy efficiency.

He gave no hint as to how the farm and forest measures will cut emissions in the next few critical years, nor about what his government is doing for hydro and wind power, which isn’t surprising in light of Tony Abbott’s plan to cut the legislated renewable energy target.

The government shares with Labor a 2020 goal to have emissions 5 per cent below where they were in 2000, a minimal aspiration made easier by today’s falling electricity demand.

Direct Action is unsupported by economic modelling, as finance minister Mathias Cormann was forced to admit in the Senate last week, but independent models have found that the $2.5 billion allocated would achieve at most about half the abatement that’s needed. More likely, they say, it will be only a small fraction of that.

The government will be paying for industry abatement out of an Emissions Reduction Fund, but Abbott has decreed that if the fund runs out there will be no more money. That eliminates any chance of us setting a more ambitious target in response to mounting international calls for more stringent action.

Yet despite the obvious shortcomings of the government’s scheme, it’s better to have it out in the public domain strutting its stuff than continuing to gather dust in a dark corner.

The handful of other legal instruments for controlling emissions – the few that are left after the scrapping of Clean Energy Future laws in July – are all the work of others. It’s past time the government stopped attacking them and showed us how its own measures stack up.

Clive Palmer’s support for the legislation came with the condition that the Climate Change Authority will spend the next 18 months reviewing emissions trading schemes around the world.

It’s all but inevitable that the authority will find carbon cap-and-trade to be the best emissions-cutting tool. The government, for whom a carbon price is taboo, will try to ignore this and take the first opportunity to rub out the authority along with other remnants of Labor’s climate program.

“Taboo” is the word. Because he believes carbon emissions don’t affect the climate, Abbott discourages discussion of climate policy, and this colours conservative politics around the country.

Matthew Groom and premier Will Hodgman both say they believe that humans are changing the climate. That being so, they must be painfully aware that federal policies are undermining Tasmanian renewable energy initiatives.

They know that the Abbott government’s proposed cut to the renewable energy target will only add to the huge financial loss suffered by Hydro Tasmania when the carbon price was abolished in July.

Why won’t they say so? Tasmania is their responsibility. Why aren’t they out there calling Abbott’s anti-renewable, pro-coal stance for what it is, a threat to our economic future?

We are treading dangerous paths. This is when real leaders speak up.