Getting ready for rising waters

Whatever else can be said about the Liberal-National government’s climate policies, they got this one right

Eroded coastline at Roches Beach, southern Tasmania, April 2012. PHOTO P. Boyer

Coastal erosion at Roches Beach, southern Tasmania, April 2012. PHOTO P. Boyer

Amid all the uncertainty about our climate future, here’s an absolute certainty: in coming decades our coasts will come under increasing attack from the sea.

By 2050, increased melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland – already locked into the global climate system – will have caused a perceptible rise in sea levels, possibly over 30 cm.

Science also tells us that every 10 cm of sea level rise makes coastal flooding from storms and high tides about three times more likely. By that reckoning, by 2050 our coasts will be flooding 27 times more often than now, and at record-high levels.

The world’s biggest island-nation has to look for ways to adapt to this reality. That was the challenge presented to the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) by the incoming Abbott government in 2013.

Set up by the Howard government in 2007 and based at Griffith University on Queensland’s Gold Coast, NCCARF has had a chequered history. Labor governments focused on mitigating carbon emissions rather than adapting to change, and in 2013 the facility seemed headed for oblivion.

But adaptation went to the top of the climate agenda when Greg Hunt took over the environment portfolio. With his encouragement, NCCARF set about creating a one-stop coastal information resource for use by anyone in Australia with a stake in our coastal lands.

Workshops around Australia in 2014-15 brought together representatives of local government, water, transport and other coastal authorities, small businesses and community-based groups. These, plus an online survey, helped established what we know and don’t know about our coasts.

The website combines old and new knowledge into an amazingly comprehensive coastal planning package. The beta version is available now and is scheduled to be launched in April next year.

CoastAdapt explores in detail the many dynamics that shape our coasts, taking in river flow, wind, waves and sea currents, sediment deposition, ocean chemistry and weather patterns. It offers guidance on assessing risk, including templates and modelling tools.

High-definition mapping tools explore sea level rise under different emission scenarios and vulnerability to erosion around the entire Australian coastline, using data sets compiled over many years.

It discusses the processes needed to adapt successfully to inevitable change, including working with consultants, legal risk and jurisdictional differences, and how to build in capacity to deal with new, unforeseen circumstances as they arise.

CoastAdapt incorporates two online forums, allowing users to share ideas and approaches with others in a similar situation and to get professional advice on adaptation issues.

Perhaps its most valuable tool is a collection of 54 case studies looking at the actual experience of a wide array of local governments, other coastal authorities, research projects, farms, other businesses and community groups.

Tasmanian case studies include a video about the work done by Kingborough Council, led by environment officer Jon Doole, to prepare Kingston Beach for a future subjected to both marine and river flooding exacerbated by rising sea level and more intense wind-rain events.

Eric Woehler of Birdlife Tasmania looked at the impact of sea level rise on the natural values of Tasmanian coasts, identifying Australia-wide priorities for landscape-scale coastal conservation.

Some of the information in CoastAdapt may come across as academic, but its basic value is good solid guidance on real-world issues, including potential legal and administrative pitfalls in dealing with a changing coastal landscape.

With the world feeling its way towards an uncertain future, it’s a relief to come across coherent, well-considered, practical information that we can apply to our own local circumstances. This is a real treasure-chest, and a credit to both NCCARF and Hunt (now science minister).

Unfortunately its charter does not extend to the biggest question of all: balancing the cost of mitigating change now against the cost of dealing with consequences later. We have yet to apply ourselves to that critical equation, but it’s way past time we did.

Posted in Adaptation, Australian politics, built environment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coastal management, economic threat from climate, extreme events, future climate, land use, local economy, oceanography, sea level | Leave a comment

Marrakech and the moving feast of climate politics

Could a Donald Trump presidency kill off effective global climate action?

The sombre executive table at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PHOTO AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

A sombre executive table at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PHOTO AP/Mosa’ab Elshamy

Politics is a game played around reality, which is to say it’s not about reality at all, but about what we’d like it to be.

The UN climate meeting at Marrakech, which ended last Friday, was full of such shadow-boxing, like the bravado of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the defiance of French president Francois Hollande and the wishful thinking of US secretary of state John Kerry.

“No going back” was a common theme at Marrakech, backed up by a leaders’ commitment to “full implementation” of the Paris Agreement, its ratification by 111 countries (including the US and Australia) and 47 developing countries pledging to use only renewable fuels by 2050.

But Ban, Hollande, Kerry and many others on the Marrakech podium are near the end of their political careers. What matters now is the political reality of US president-elect Donald Trump and his impact on a much more fundamental reality, man-made climate change.

A Global Carbon Project report for the Marrakech meeting found one positive. In each of the past three years global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have barely grown while economies have surged ahead – an unprecedented decoupling of emissions from growth.

That raises the possibility that this shift away from fossil fuels will continue regardless of politics.

But then there was the World Meteorological Organisation analysis of global climate, distilling the work of hundreds of meteorologists from multiple countries, which found that 2011 to 2015 was the warmest five-year period on record globally and for every continent except Africa.

It also found that human-induced climate change had increased by ten or more times the probability of heat waves and coastal inundation – a conclusion supported by southern Florida’s current experience of a steady year-on-year increase in flood tides.

Many, including those advising Donald Trump on climate change, are untouched by such evidence. Often driven by ideology, they take their cue from popular media, blogs, recollections of youthful science studies, or personal experience of weather.

Few of these detractors will have gone to the source – original science published in established, recognised journals whose contents are determined by practising scientists – and fewer still will have attempted to read and analyse for themselves the contents of such research papers.

When I hear of research findings that seem to throw important new light on climate change I get a copy of the original research paper, and for further guidance consult scientists who know the field – many of whom I’ve got to know personally over years or decades.

That’s how I understand the frustration of those people closest to climate change, the ones who work and live with it every day, when ministers and others in government, business or the wider world treat their science as mere opinion.

It’s how I understand their grief over our failure to contain carbon emissions. US carbon chemist David Archer has calculated that we have a six-year time horizon before we pass the relatively safe limit of 1.5C of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Archer thinks that Trump’s election may make little real difference to the fight for a stable climate, but that alarmingly-small six-year window gives his four-year term a whole new meaning.

Last week I speculated that businessman Trump might do a deal that would keep his country in the Paris Agreement. If there are enough moderates in his cabinet, like 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, they might persuade him to stay put.

But against that is the rock-hard ideology of Trump’s current climate adviser, Myron Ebell, whose target won’t be just Paris but the entire UN climate change convention. Developments in other policy fields last week pointed to Ebell getting his way.

If the US pulls out of the global climate convention, those of us seeking a universal focus on the looming menace of global warming will face an unpalatable choice: should we redouble our efforts, or step back from the public debate and just wait, as climate’s ultimate reality becomes clear to all?

Watch this space.

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Coming to terms with President Trump

Donald Trump has much to learn about a lot of things, including climate change. But he will learn nothing from Myron Ebell.

President-elect Donald Trump, left, talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, right, in the Oval Office on Thursday. PHOTO Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump with Barak Obama in the Oval Office on 10 November. PHOTO Win McNamee/Getty Images

Every four years, till we’re sick of hearing it, US presidential candidates tell their electors and the world what a great country they seek to lead.

They’re right. America has great institutions, intellectual life, social diversity and cultural richness, from which billions of people, me included, draw great inspiration. It also has great flaws.

All this greatness – good, bad and very ugly – was laid bare in the excoriating 2016 election: democracy in action as we’ve never seen it before, capped by Donald Trump’s spectacular triumph.

Trump has much to learn about the job. The 66 days left before his inauguration will be a blur of activity for him and his team, and one of the busiest people in that team will be one Myron Ebell.

Since the 1990s Ebell has been a senior figure in the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank whose corporate supporters include fossil fuel interests.

Trump has given him the job of leading the transition team dealing with the US Environmental Protection Agency – code for unpicking Barak Obama’s climate measures before Trump tosses them out.

Ebell is a public policy analyst with degrees in arts and political theory, whose mild manner and scholarly demeanour lend an air of respectability to the Trump camp.

That appearance is deceptive. In 1998 Ebell was one of the authors of a leaked fossil-fuel industry scheme to sow public doubt about man-made climate change, and has since dedicated his career to doing just that. He says otherwise, but effectively he’s an industry lobbyist.

In 2012 Trump said that global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. More recently he’s complained about “global warming bullshit”.

In a policy statement in the gas-rich state of North Dakota in May, Trump said he would back the Keystone tar-sands oil pipeline, save the US coal industry, rescind Obama’s emissions control measures and pull out of the Paris Agreement (which Australia finally ratified last week).

All that fits perfectly with Ebell’s life’s work. Charged by the president-elect with opening the pathways that will make it all happen, and buoyed by a compliant Republican-dominated congress, he is finally to have his time in the sun.

Asked in 2012 what he would do if he found he was wrong about climate change, Ebell said he’d say sorry and try to undo policies he had supported. Since then we’ve had the two warmest years on record, with 2016 all but certain to be the third in a row.

Over those four years the science supporting a climate crisis has only strengthened, underlined in a research paper about unmitigated emissions – the scenario envisaged by Ebell and Trump – published the day after the election in the journal Science Advances.

The US-German study found that the impact of greenhouse gases on temperature grows as Earth’s surface warms. Its modelling showed “business as usual” emissions warming the planet between 4.78C and 7.36C – far above previous calculations of a 4.8C maximum.

None of the above matters to Ebell. It’s not scientific evidence that moves him, but ideology. There’s been no apology from him, but plenty of spin.

Yet Trump might not prove the ogre many of us envisage. His motivators are neither evidence nor ideology, but the art of the deal. We’re used to thinking of pre-election statements as promises to be kept or broken, but Trump treats them as bargaining positions. Perhaps climate is another one.

Maybe all political establishments need a Trump shock now and again, as a reminder not to take power for granted. Maybe this political novice with a short attention span and a distrust of all things intellectual will prove an effective antidote to the toxic ideologies that have dogged us for so long.

The reckless appointment of Ebell to the Trump team needn’t be the whole story. Hillary Clinton’s best moment was her election-night advice to keep an open mind on Trump, and that’s what I intend to do. Because right now the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

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