Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

The danse macabre of politics, business and carbon dioxide

Business’s bottom line is now the favoured target of activists seeking to have an impact on our relentlessly-rising CO2 levels [24 March 2015 | Peter Boyer]

By the end of next year, for the first time in human history, the air everywhere will contain above 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. It will stay above that level through our lives and beyond.

The air monitoring station at Cape Grim, on  the far north-western tip of Tasmania

The air monitoring station at Cape Grim, on the far north-western tip of Tasmania

Tasmania’s Cape Grim was the last of the world’s three baseline stations to climb above the 400 ppm line. By mid-2015, says the CSIRO scientific team in charge, the fluctuating annual cycle of the Cape Grim record will remain above it indefinitely.

Air bubbles trapped in 800,000-year-old ice reveal that carbon dioxide over all that time never got higher than 280 ppm. Older proxy sources indicate a strong likelihood that today’s CO2 loading is higher than for millions of years, possibly 20 to 30 million years.

Carbon dioxide levels and temperature tend to move in tandem. Our leaders have declared they’ll do everything to limit warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels. At that point, Earth will be warmer at the surface than it’s been for over 10 million years.

We’re now on track to reach 5C or more of warming by the end of this century. If we manage that, the average surface temperature will be about what it was when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the stable climate we’ve enjoyed since long before the dawn of civilisation will be gone.

Climate change should be the political issue of the century, and developing national and global policies to deal with it should be the most pressing task for any political leader, anywhere.

But just as relentless as the rise of carbon dioxide is the determination of leaders in Hobart, in Canberra and everywhere else, to avoid probing the effectiveness of our response. When it’s raised they’ll suggest that the matter is in hand, not something to be concerned about.

A few leaders including our own prime minister summarily dismiss climate change as a second-order issue, but most know that it’s a genuine threat. But the perceived political pain of acting seriously to reduce that threat is too much to bear.

Here’s one explanation: President Barak Obama told New York Times writer Thomas Friedman last year he tended not to “lead with the climate change issue” because people didn’t see it as an immediate problem like “whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills”.

In the battle against political indifference, words have been the weapons of choice for US writer Bill McKibben, but in 2012 he decided that money was a more potent weapon. He began what would become a global campaign to starve fossil fuel companies of investment funds.

That “divestment” campaign is now beginning to bite. Around 200 investment funds, universities and other organisations in the US and many other countries including Australia have now announced they would sell their shares in fossil fuel interests, and the list is growing daily.

Last week the Australian Conservation Foundation, a strong supporter of McKibben, launched a campaign of its own to lift the lid on Australia’s biggest carbon polluters.

The Top 10 Polluters report is something of a departure for the ACF. While active in the debate about climate policy in Australia, it has never confronted companies about their track record on emissions. Now under its new president, former advertising executive Geoff Cousins, the gloves are off.

Cousins has built his activist reputation on successful campaigns against major companies seen to be acting against conservation values, notably Woodside Petroleum and the Tasmanian forestry company Gunns. They were big, but in scope and ambition this campaign could dwarf them all.

The 10 ACF-listed companies are responsible for a third of all Australian emissions. Just two energy companies, Melbourne-based Energy Australia and the Sydney company AGL, between them produce over 12 per cent of the national total.

The aim of the ACF campaign, Cousins told me last week, was “a people-and-community” approach, “reaching out to people to bring pressure to bear on government to change policy”. In his introduction to the report, Cousins wrote of the choices facing the federal government: “Will it continue listening only to the big polluters, or will it start listening to the needs of the people and future generations?”

No prizes for guessing the government response. And in the continuing silence the carbon dioxide budget, like Canberra’s financial deficit, just keeps growing and growing.

Tasmanians have a chance to discuss such matters in Hobart on 31 March at the first of a series of Climate Tasmania evening forums. Details in my next post.

The Wings of the Sun, a film about a sun-powered flight across America in 2013, will screen at 6.30 tonight at the Dechaineux Theatre, UTAS School of Art, Hunter Street, Hobart, in support of the current round-the-world flight of Solar Impulse 2.

Vehicles of hope: solar flight and African windpower

We should never give up our struggle for clean energy; that’s the lesson from opposite ends of the technology spectrum. [17 March 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Life’s full of surprises. Just when it seems there’s no hope for humanity’s tangled mess, a couple of wonderful stories turn up to show why we should never stop trying.

Solar Impulse 2

Solar Impulse 2

One of them is about a propeller-driven flying machine with a payload of just two people, their food, a stack of batteries and an emergency life-raft. Nothing special, you’d think.

But this aircraft challenges everything we’ve ever thought about energy. A week ago Solar Impulse 2, the creation of two Swiss men, explorer Bertrand Piccard and engineer-pilot Andre Borschberg, took off on a long journey fuelled entirely by sunlight.

Solar Impulse 2 is on a months-long circumnavigation of the globe. Starting from Abu Dhabi, it’s already flown thousands of kilometres across the Arabian Sea and India. Barring misadventure, it will continue via Myanmar and China, across the Pacific to the US, then to Abu Dhabi via Europe.

It weighs about the same as a Mercedes saloon and its speed is modest to say the least: maximum 140 km/h and cruising speeds of 90 km/h in the day-time and 60 km/h at night.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The upper side of its huge wings, rivalling those of an Airbus 380, are covered in 250 square metres of 17,248 advanced solar cells with a combined output of 45,000 watts, embedded in an ultra-thin lightweight film developed especially for the aircraft.

With super-efficient foam insulation around the cabin, the aircraft flies as high as 12,000 metres during the day to soak up as much solar power as possible. After sundown it descends slowly while drawing on 164,580 watt-hours of surplus power stored in a state-of-the-art battery system.

It’s not hard to characterise this project as an extravagance. This very expensive aircraft is no sure pointer to the future of aviation. But its symbolic value as a vehicle of hope is priceless.

William Kamkwamba on his graduation as an engineer

William Kamkwamba on graduating as an engineer

Another vehicle of hope is to be found in a gem of a book given to me by a friend who shares my interest in clean energy.

Wimbe is a tiny village serving a subsistence farming community in the small southern African nation of Malawi. Its favourite son is an exceptional young man named William Kamkwamba.

Like most Malawians, Kamkwamba was born into a dirt-poor family, living on what a small land-holding could yield and depending heavily on the annual wet-dry weather cycle.

The failure of the 2000 wet season started a devastating famine across the country, which took the lives of many people in Kamkwamba’s own village. His early adolescence was dominated by desperate hunger in which corn husks and pumpkin leaves were often all there was to eat.

Hunger of another kind was to change his life. Kamkwamba yearned to know how things work and how technology might make life better.

It wasn’t easy. He had to drop out from school for years because his parents couldn’t afford to pay his fees. He found a way round that by teaching himself to read, borrowing books from the village library. (Never say that libraries are a luxury we can’t afford.)

Wimbe’s first windmill

Wimbe’s first windmill

Physics fascinated him. A book about wind turbines inspired him to try building one for his family and village. The story of how he did this is told in The boy who harnessed the wind, a book ghost-written by US journalist Bryan Mealer.

Guided by a textbook from his library called Understanding Physics, Kamkwamba put together a room full of bits and pieces scrounged from disused vehicles and other items around his village: small lengths of copper wire, a fan from a tractor, blades from a PVC pipe, pulleys and belts.

He persuaded his father to give up his treasured bicycle for parts, and a passing cyclist sold him a dynamo. He applied physics principles from the textbook to build a transformer to power different devices, and a circuit-breaker to prevent an electrical spark from causing a house fire.

The story of Wimbe, its wind-tower (built from spindly lengths of Tasmanian bluegum!) and its “school dropout with a streak of genius” found its way into Malawi’s Daily Times. A US activist read about him and took him in hand, securing funding to complete his education.

Kamkwambe repaid his benefactors in spades. He successfully completed a secondary education and a couple of years ago graduated from a US college as an engineer.

Now back his home village, he’s built school classrooms, a bio-digester, solar plants and other windmills. William is not alone; in Malawi and across Africa local champions are now powering their communities with solar and wind technologies. We have much to learn from them.

William’s rickety windmill and the sleek, slickly-promoted Solar Impulse 2 are at opposite ends of the technology and economic spectrum. But in its own way, each is an inspiration for careworn humanity to stay the course.

The real intergenerational theft

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey make much of their concern for future generations. Their cavalier attitude to climate policy says otherwise. [10 March 2015 | Peter Boyer]

It’s February 2010. Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme” is the key climate policy measure in play, and Tony Abbott has just been elected leader of the opposition.

Joe Hockey launches his 2015 Intergenerational Report. PHOTO Guardian Australia

Joe Hockey launches his 2015 Intergenerational Report. PHOTO Guardian Australia

On the first day of the month, treasurer Wayne Swan releases his Intergenerational Report, fully 20 per cent of which is devoted to the environment, notably the impact of climate change.

Swan’s report cites projections by economist Ross Garnaut and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics that taking no action on carbon emissions would diminish the economy by $17,000 per person by 2100 and cut food productivity by up to 17 per cent by 2050.

Swan writes about the need to make the state of the environment integral to economic forecasting in this country, an achievement that’s eluded governments the world over except Denmark. The 2010 IGR is a start but that’s still a long way behind Denmark on this important reform.

Fast-forward five years and some significant wins by Tony Abbott. Kevin Rudd is now history along with his carbon pricing scheme. So is his successor Julia Gillard and her carbon scheme, although she at least managed to put hers into effect before the Senate finally killed it last year.

Leading the charge against carbon pricing didn’t protect Abbott from his Liberal critics, but he’s stared them down and kept his job as prime minister. That means Joe Hockey is still treasurer, so it fell to him last week to deliver Australia’s fourth Intergenerational Report.

In return for the Greens’ vote in 2013 to lift the limit on government debt, Hockey promised in effect to extend the 2010 initiative with a dedicated environment section in the IGR, including the effect of climate policies on the economy and budget.

His report has a section called “Managing the environment”, with a subsection about climate change that includes a summary of the 2014 “State of the Climate” findings by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. All this suggests Hockey kept his promise. Except he didn’t.

Far from advancing the 2010 proposition that economic statements should take full account of climate change and the environment, Hockey’s “key facts” about how Australia will change over the next 40 years contain no mention of either climate or the environment generally.

The report dedicated a scant five lines to vaguely speculating on how climate change might affect agriculture and transport, leading off with the benefits. Beyond this there was nothing on the potential economic or budgetary impact of a warming/drying/wetting climate.

Hockey and the Abbott government generally have adopted a small-target strategy on human-caused climate change. While they won’t deny its existence, they won’t give it any prominence either. Wherever possible they will ignore it altogether.

In effect that’s denial, which in a government is nothing short of negligence. But negligence is harder to attack than actual missteps, as MPs found when they tackled Abbott in question time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten asked Abbott to confirm “that the government believes that climate change may be beneficial”, and Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler asked why the report ignored climate in coming decades.

Greens MP Adam Bandt characterised the absence of climate parameters as “intergenerational theft”, the term used by Abbott and Hockey to describe overspending by Labor governments.

Abbott responded that far from stealing from the future, “we are taking strong and effective action on climate change”. He predicted that by 2020 emissions will be 12 per cent below those of 2005, and 30 per cent lower on a per-capita basis.

He went on: “We are not a government that runs around habitually blowing our trumpet, but when it comes to climate change, when it comes to actually reducing emissions, this country’s record, under the policies of this government, will be absolutely amongst the best in the world.”

Bravo, except that the government doesn’t yet have any major abatement measure in place. Any current emissions reduction is a result of rooftop solar take-up, high power prices and other things it has had little or no part in. It did, however, have a say about one abatement instrument.

The carbon tax was dragging coal-power emissions down when the Abbott government scrapped it last June. Analysis of National Electricity Market data by Pitt and Sherry shows that in the eight months since then those emissions rose at a rate of over four million tonnes a year.

But in politics, confidence counts for a lot more than facts. Buoyed by last week’s favourable polls, Tony Abbott’s body language responding to those questions showed a man well on top of things.

History, which deals with the meaning of what’s happening, won’t be so kind, but that won’t bother the prime minister. History doesn’t vote at the next election.