Galileo’s mantle is a poor fit for new Senator Malcolm Roberts

Malcolm Roberts is no Galileo, but he would make a fine Inquisitor.

Galileo’s appearance before the Roman Inquisition is depicted in this 1847 painting, “Galileo before the Holy Office”, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (Musée du Luxembourg)

Galileo’s appearance before the Roman Inquisition is depicted in this 1847 painting, Galileo before the Holy Office, by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (Musée du Luxembourg)

The self-belief of Malcolm Roberts was put to the test in last week’s ABC panel discussion, Q&A, and the newly-minted One Nation senator for Queensland came out with flying colours.

There was laughter in the audience and indifference from the panel at his claim that the world isn’t warming and there’s no human link to climate change, but that only seemed to stiffen his resolve.

He didn’t blink when he said that most climate scientists don’t believe humans cause warming, that global climate models are “hopelessly wrong”, that current sea level rise is “natural and normal” and that rising carbon dioxide levels are a result of warming, not a cause.

When British physicist Brian Cox run through a string of broken climate records, culminating in a NASA graph showing unprecedented global temperatures, his composure was something to behold.

He cited a 2014 claim by a Steven Goddard that “the 1930s were warmer than today” and that NASA had manipulated temperature data to reduce temperatures in the 1930s and inflate them in recent years, adding, “That’s a fact.”

Saying “that’s a fact” doesn’t make it so. Goddard (a pseudonym – his real name is Tony Heller) has never authored a paper on climate change in a peer-reviewed science journal, and his claims about NASA corruption have been supported only by the most rusted-on contrarians.

Roberts would wear that badge with pride. If we want to understand his self-assurance, a good starting point is an Australian group in which he has been the leading voice, the Galileo Movement.

In the early 1600s, when the Catholic Church was teaching that God made Earth the centre of the universe, Galileo’s observations of the heavens led him to write that Earth revolved around the sun. He wasn’t the first to say so, but he’s the one Roberts wants us to remember.

In 1633 the Roman Inquisition formally found Galileo guilty of heresy and ordered him to recant, which he did. Contrary to the views of some he wasn’t executed or tortured or thrown into a dungeon. He died an old man after living out his days under house arrest at his Tuscan villa.

Galileo defied the orthodoxy of his time and was ultimately vindicated. In the 21st century Malcolm Roberts has sought to take on that mantle, but it’s not a good fit.

The Galileo Movement says it honours Galileo’s achievement in replacing religious doctrine with “solid observable data” and standing up to “entrenched, dogmatic religious and state beliefs suppressing the truth”.

“He was enslaved that we could be free,” says the movement’s manifesto. “His greatest gift is beyond his science, it is our freedom… That is now threatened as ideology seeks to replace science and control seeks to replace freedom.”

To Roberts, scientists who don’t share his views are dogmatic ideologues suppressing truth and threatening freedom. That sentiment has motivated a string of hectoring letters he has written over a decade (posted on his website) to scientists, their employers, bureaucrats and politicians.

He would have us believe that the modern equivalent of the Inquisition, manipulating the public debate about climate, is the established scientific order, represented in Australia by universities and bodies like the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.

Dan Brown or Michael Crichton couldn’t have come up with a thicker plot: Brian Cox as front man for a bunch of grand inquisitors hell-bent on taking over the world (via the UN) and ruining the global economy on the false pretext that burning fossil fuels is bad for us.

It sounds funny, but Malcolm Roberts, mining engineer, is soon to be sworn in as Senator Roberts. Alongside his party leader, Pauline Hanson, and two other One Nation senators he can now bring his zeal to our nation’s parliament, already home to a cohort of climate change deniers.

The spirit of the Inquisition lives on, as Malcolm Roberts says. Ideology is being used to mask some inconvenient science and protect entrenched positions.

But the inquisitors of today are not to be found in the Brian Coxes of this world. Cloaked in certainty and impervious to criticism, they come in the likeness of Roberts himself.

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A battery power revolution in the making

Analysts predict a huge future for batteries in global energy storage. On Tasmania’s Bruny Island we have a chance to see what this might look like.

South Bruny, focal point of the Consort project. PHOTO Bruny Island Life

Dusk on South Bruny Island, focal point of the Consort project. PHOTO Bruny Island Life Blogspot

A revolution is brewing in meeting rooms and computer laboratories around Australia, and right now Bruny Island, of all places, is at its epicentre.

It won’t shake our civilisation to its foundations and it will take time to have a widespread impact, but it will eventually affect us all. It’s all about energy storage, and it comes in the form of batteries.

A current focal point of battery storage is Consort, a project to enlist Bruny energy consumers to help make the electricity grid work as it should. The name comes from the opening and closing letters of “consumer energy systems providing cost-effective grid support”.

Over the 100 years or so of grid-supplied electricity we’ve grown to expect power to be there when we want it, but a host of challenges is making it harder for utilities to maintain standards. Consort aims to turn that around with the active help of consumers.

That’s especially challenging in light of past campaigns by various power utilities against government support for renewable energy. At times this has come across to rooftop solar owners as a hostile act, stopping them from getting a fair return for the energy their systems put into the grid.

TasNetworks, the state-owned utility that delivers electricity to Tasmanian homes and businesses, is confronting that challenge by joining home owners on Bruny Island, along with Reposit Power, a Canberra energy company, and three universities in the Consort project.

Reposit is dedicated to “smart energy”, using advanced solar-battery control software to get maximum return for owners by learning, adapting and predicting electricity usage, even enabling them to sell their power back to the grid when prices are highest.

In doing this, the Reposit system considers things like the current cost of grid energy, anticipated weather conditions and energy use over the next day or so, and network requests for support.

An Australian National University team is developing algorithms to enhance this system, to which TasNetworks will contribute its grid management expertise.

Analysis of human behaviour – always the big unknown in any game-changing venture – brings in specialists from the Universities of Sydney and Tasmania.

The Sydney group is looking at how to value what batteries contribute to a grid and how people might be encouraged to use them, while the University of Tasmania’s School of Social Sciences is studying how people use battery storage systems in their homes.

The social research seeks to know how people respond to feedback from the battery-controlling software, to ensure that it informs them clearly, simply and comprehensively about what’s happening to their home’s energy.

What brings all this together is the particular challenge of supplying power to Bruny Island. Here, peak demand often exceeds the capacity of the island’s main undersea cable, requiring a diesel generator to fill the gap, and voltage can get too low at the extremities of the network.

TasNetworks wants a consumer-led solution whereby home battery systems set up for the financial benefit of the customer provide the energy needed to compensate for network deficiencies.

Last April ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – announced a $2.9 million, three-year grant for the consortium to run a trial to allow about 40 Bruny Island households to use battery storage while providing the incentive to sell power back to the grid.

Bruny residents except for those in the far north (who use a different undersea cable) have until the end of next week to apply for the trial. Successful ones will get a new solar-battery system for their home, mostly funded out of the ARENA grant. Installation will begin in a month or so.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that Australia will lead the world in battery capacity by 2040, with four out of five households contributing in total a whopping 20 gigawatt-hours. The Australian Energy Market Operator has a similar view.

Consort still has a way to run – this is the first year of a three-year project – but it marks a refreshing shift in the approach of power utilities to the challenge of managing the disruptive influence of rooftop solar.

If it works as proponents expect, it will show Australia and all the world’s developed countries how centralised power utilities and decentralised renewable energy providers can enjoy a positive and mutually beneficial relationship. It can’t come too soon.

• Bruny residents can apply to join the Consort trial at brunybatterytrial.org

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Symposium explores the sorry state of the climate

Scientists are continuing to wrestle with the ramifications of climate change, but who’s listening?

ACE-CRC glaciologist Tessa Vance holds a drill core of ancient Antarctic ice, which has much to tell us about Australia’s evolving climate. PHOTO ABC

ACE-CRC glaciologist Tessa Vance holds a drill core of Antarctic ice. As she told the symposium, ancient Antarctic ice has much to tell us about Australia’s evolving climate. PHOTO ABC

In times when government support for science is generally declining, every opposite step, no matter how small, is welcome news indeed.

Last week, just after I’d castigated him over his performance in the environment portfolio, newly-appointed science minister Greg Hunt announced that he’d directed CSIRO to make climate science a core activity and to create 15 new climate research jobs.

It was a reassuringly positive sign from the new minister, and a breath of fresh air in the very rank atmosphere created by CSIRO chief Larry Marshall’s decision six months ago to abandon most research into climate change and focus on technical “solutions”.

But it came too late to save some CSIRO careers cut short by Marshall’s decision. World-leading sea level expert John Church, who had 38 years with the organisation, is among casualties.

Church has work options elsewhere, but it should never have come to this. Back in February the previous minister, Christopher Pyne, could have immediately directed Marshall not to axe climate jobs. Why didn’t he? Did he not have the ticker? Was he silenced by Coalition colleagues?

As Church reminded me last week, clarifying the complexities of climate change requires many disciplines and institutions to come together and share resources, and successful climate research demands continuity – crucial factors that Marshall’s disruptive plans ignored.

Church was one of around 150 scientists who came together in Hobart for the biennial Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC symposium discussing current and future research in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean and showcasing the work of emerging Antarctic scientists.

The symposium marked 25 years since the Hawke government established the first Antarctic CRC (for “cooperative research centre”) as a partnership between CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania.

The secret of this CRC’s success has been in drawing these separate institutions together, providing the strength in numbers that has driven Hobart’s emergence as a major global climate research hub.

If this year’s CSIRO disruptions can be overcome there’s much to be optimistic about in Australia’s climate science capacity. Last week’s symposium attested to a healthy research community in presentations and posters covering a wide array of climate subjects.

A strong indication that the CRC formula continues to work here is overturning circulation, to use an oceanographic term. Presentations from different generations of scientists, recently-graduated to nearly-retired, showed how a wide range of ages in a workforce benefits everyone.

The symposium reached out to non-scientific expertise. Papers by military strategist David Millar, Climate Investment Group CEO Emma Herd, senior public servant John Whittington and fire chief officer Chris Arnol explored impacts of climate change on the wider community.

Senior CSIRO scientist Steve Rintoul spelled out the big scientific questions arising out of the Paris summit: What do the 1.5C and 2C targets mean? What are the tipping points, and how will things change in coming years and decades? Can we remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?

It was good to see Tasmanian environment minister Matthew Groom involved at the opening, but duty called him away before he could hear from Rintoul and others. It’s always disconcerting to see how little our political representatives are exposed to these crucial messages about our future.

The challenges laid out at the ACE-CRC meeting were amplified in the 2015 State of the Climate report released last week by the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, authored by over 400 climate scientists including 19 Australians.

Last year’s multiple broken records included highest global mean surface temperature, warmest upper ocean, highest average sea level and lowest extent of Arctic sea ice.

Climate records are being broken so often these days that they’re in danger of losing their impact. All advocates of stronger action – scientists and non-scientists – need to find new ways to express their concern.

“The heat IS on” is the name of a Festival of Bright Ideas public forum on Saturday (Princes Wharf Shed, Hobart, 1 pm). Experts from science, local government, the law and public health will discuss what’s happening to our climate – and what needs to happen.

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