The criminal negligence of ignoring climate

Challenges in key government seats reflect growing resentment about its neglect of climate policy. Some believe this failure should attract criminal sanction.

Rob White 2018: Climate Change Criminology. Bristol University Press.

There are signs that after a summer of natural disasters, in 2019 Australians will choose a federal government on the strength of its climate policies. That would make it our first climate election.

Over the quarter-century since governments first pledged at the Rio Earth Summit to stop global warming, we have had nine federal elections. Not once has climate change been a key campaign topic.

But you know something has changed when you hear a badly shaken Bob Katta, the Queensland MP who’s seen it all, declare he’s never seen anything like the Queensland flood disaster.

He couldn’t bring himself to mention climate. He knows it’s changing, like the shocked graziers who spoke of uncharted waters, but he opts for dumb luck as the cause rather than fossil fuels. That also seems to be the position of the Morrison government.

Late last year, Liberal heartland voted against the party without a climate policy and elected Kerryn Phelps as an independent MP for Wentworth on a promise to put climate back on the agenda.

Now, in this election year, three senior Liberal MPs intimately associated with the party’s climate policy fiasco are facing compelling challenges for their seats – all blue-ribbon urban Liberal and all vulnerable on the issue of climate.

In Victoria former environment ministers Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg have been challenged by MP Julia Banks and former clean energy bureaucrat Oliver Yates – both former Liberals who believe the party is in denial over climate change.

The most closely watched battle will be in Warringah on Sydney’s affluent north shore, where lawyer Zali Steggall, who was once a world champion skier, takes on another athletic type. Former prime minister Tony Abbott, the arch-enemy of climate action, has held the seat for 25 years.

These will be tough battles. Phelps stood in a by-election against a new Liberal candidate, but each of the new aspirants will be contesting a general election against well-entrenched incumbents with hefty majorities.

But all three challengers believe the government’s climate policy failure will be their gain. The memory of this summer’s events and the nagging questions about their connection with climate change will linger into autumn. Those incumbents must be more than a little concerned.

Australians are starting to understand that this is our future. They can see a time when dealing with what nature is throwing at us could conceivably overwhelm our economy, and they have come to resent the sustained neglect of climate change by government and vested corporate interests.

In Ireland a fortnight ago, EU president Donald Tusk enraged Tory rebels in the UK when he wondered aloud “what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”

Tusk was right. The failure of Brexit advocates to consider a foreseeable threat to peace in Ireland and numerous other bad outcomes is a sin against their people. Or in secular terms, criminal negligence.

If Brexit amounts to criminal negligence, how much more so is the failure of governments and corporations to address climate change? A school of thought in universities and legal circles holds that this demands a higher level of censure than mere electoral defeat or a falling share price.

There is growing support in legal circles and universities in many countries for codifying failure to take action on climate as an international crime: ecocide, or destruction of the natural environment.

Climate Change Criminology, a new book by the University of Tasmania’s professor of criminology, Rob White, addresses the multiple injustices that arise when governments, along with business and other leaders, fail to deal with continuing atmospheric pollution.

White, an Australian by choice having emigrated here from Canada many years ago, calls for an end to “narrow prescriptive patriotism” for the sake of the planet as a whole.

Nation-based perspectives are wholly unsuited for dealing with climate change, argues White. Trying to work within national security agendas translates too easily into resource protection and defence of dirty industries.

So climate change criminology must transcend national boundaries and politicians must think of their country as an integral part of the Earth system rather than just an entity in itself. Recent behaviour suggests that would not come easily to Scott Morrison.

As White says, Earth has a future with or without human civilisation. If we are to be part of that future, we need politicians and other leaders to put aside nationalistic agendas and support a universal eco-justice framework. Far-fetched, maybe, but also essential.

The effort needed to achieve this is on a truly epic scale, but we should not be leaving everything just to White and his colleagues. Preventing widespread destruction of Earth’s life systems is everyone’s responsibility. We should all be speaking up for eco-justice.

Rob White will talk about his work at 5.30pm on Thursday in Fullers Bookshop, Hobart, where I will launch his book. All are welcome subject to prior registration.

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A high fever, with worse to come

If most projections are correct, there are some torrid times ahead.

Global mean temperature since 1850 as determined by the five major public data repositories. SOURCE: World Meteorological Organisation

Last week saw release of the last of the 2018 reports from the institutions that take Earth’s temperature. Their unanimous diagnosis: we are running a high fever, with worse to come.

All the world’s big public bodies assessing global data – the World Meteorological Organisation and government agencies in the US, Japan and Europe – have determined that 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 are the warmest four years since records began in the 1800s.

The five main public data repositories are the UK’s Met Office and Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Copernicus (European Union), NASA and the National Climate Data Center (US), and the Japan Meteorological Agency. Berkeley Earth, a privately-funded research centre in California, offers an independent non-government assessment.

Despite a wide disparity in data sources and methodologies, the findings of all sources correlate closely with each other. All show strong warming since the late 1970s, with notable rises in the late 1990s and in the past seven years.

Last year was generally ranked fourth among the four hottest years, but that was little consolation considering that all of them were well above everything that had gone before.

Berkeley Earth pointed out that in a stable climate just 2.5 per cent of Earth’s surface would typically experience very high temperatures. In 2018 that figure stood at 44 per cent.

The year saw new temperature records set in the north Atlantic, Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, the western Pacific including parts of New Zealand, and inland Antarctica.

The Middle East’s exceptionally warm year doubtless contributed to continuing unrest in that region, and extreme warming in the Arctic led to further significant loss of ice from land and sea.

So will the present strong warming trend continue, and for how long?

Global mean temperature projected to 2060: The dotted line shows the continuation of the trend since 1980, which is +0.19C per decade. SOURCE: Berkeley Earth

Most agencies’ modelling indicates that next year’s mean temperature will be high and that within five years we may briefly be as much as 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which most scientists would regard as dangerous territory.

Not everyone agrees. James Hansen, former NASA chief climate scientist and still practising his trade, believes that an anticipated El Nino weather event may be weak and short-lived and that a developing solar minimum will be strong and prolonged, keeping temperatures below record levels.

The fact that annual temperature summaries are released in the northern winter must make it hard for some northern citizens, including President Trump, to appreciate the fact of global warming. That shouldn’t be an issue here, especially after this year’s overheated Australian summer.

Australia’s Climate Council, a crowd-funded body of experts set up in 2013 after Tony Abbott’s government abolished the Climate Commission, reports a big rise in extreme weather events here in recent years.

In 2018 Australia experienced exceptional heat across the inland and the south-east, drought from South Australia through the Murray-Darling basin to southern Queensland, severe bushfires in five states and intense rainfall triggering floods in Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia.

The Council reported that Australia’s average air temperature in 2018 was 1.14C above the 1961-1990 average, making last year the third hottest on record. Nine of our 10 hottest years have occurred since 2000, and heat records have exceeded cold ones 12 times over.

The Climate Council cited business records held by the German reinsurance giant Munich RE showing that whereas in the 1980s there were between 200 and 300 natural catastrophes globally, since 2000 that figure has averaged above 500, and since 2014 above 700.

Similarly, NOAA reports a strong rise in the US in the number of billion-dollar weather disasters (CPI-adjusted) since 2010. The cost in 2018 was more than double the post-1980 annual average, with coastal storms doing most of the damage.

Coastal real estate could bring a massive economic hit. Demand has pushed up its money value both here and in the US, which means a much greater loss when storms arrive. Properties on vulnerable coasts will inevitably become uninsurable, if they’re not already.

As for the longer term, the most reliable guide is the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Copernicus relies on satellite observations, which yield a lower CO2 count than surface observatories because they analyse the whole air column, not just CO2-rich surface air.

Even so, Copernicus has atmospheric CO2 in 2018 averaging 406.7 ppm, about 45 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels. More disturbing is the rate of growth, which in 2017 we had cause to think was declining. Instead, in 2018 it rose by 19 per cent.

Decades of warnings about a destabilised climate come down to this: the only action that really matters is cutting fossil fuel emissions rapidly and decisively. Government protests about “meeting targets” are a distraction. In the circumstances that amounts to to gross negligence.

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Contemplating a new normal: long, hot, fiery summers

This is our indefinite future as long as we fail to address climate change.

Fire in buttongrass, South-West Tasmania. PHOTO Parks & Wildlife Service

Of the many Tasmanian summers I remember, I cannot recall one quite like this.

Each of the main elements of this summer has happened many times before: blue haze from distant fires, smoke in the air, fiery suns, falling ash and embers, fire on the doorstep of the family home and smoke in city streets.

But this summer’s prolonged experiences – day after day of wood smoke permeating large parts of the island, of cloudless skies no longer blue, of red sunsets, of a lingering sense of foreboding hanging over multiple communities – add up to something new.

Some things stand out. The wisdom from past Tasmanian experiences was that devastating fire needs high winds in the north-western quarter. This summer shows that just dryness and relentless heat can do the job.

It was understood until recently that although odd fires are ignited by lighting strikes, humans are the main cause of wildfires. This year, nature has relegated humans to second place. Lightning storms without rain are now a significant ignition threat.

After a lightning fire devastated unique wilderness around Lake Mackenzie in 2016, a government-sponsored workshop concluded that preventing further such damage should be a primary goal.

If that was the aim this summer, it failed spectacularly. Despite heroic efforts to douse them, multiple fires sparked by dry lightning in late December and mid-January have damaged the Tasmanian wilderness on a scale that is rare if not unprecedented.

And long after the fires still threatening many communities are out, people will continue to feel the economic and psychological cost of the disruption they caused.

Tasmania’s hard-won reputation for clean air took a hit early on when smoke from the Gell River fires spread over Hobart. But if the sustained high level of smoke pollution in the south-east since mid-January is a sign of things to come, there are obvious health implications.

This very warm, very dry summer has exposed more than ever the vulnerability of both our wild places and our human communities to the ravages of fire. We have to do better.

This is in no way a criticism of Tasmania Fire Service, government and private land managers or the many paid and voluntary fire-fighters and supporters who have battled for weeks to keep the flames at bay. These organisations and people deserve our continuing gratitude and admiration.

Those charged with safeguarding settlements and natural values know the challenges and have done sterling work to prepare for wildfire attack, including holding community meetings and reducing fuel loads near residential areas.

They’re the first to agree much more remains to be done, but the means of making that happen are with the holders of the purse strings.

Premier Will Hodgman announced that disaster funding from Canberra, “certainly in the millions” will help meet public and community costs incurred by the fires. He added, I’m not sure why, that the money would not be used to rehabilitate burnt wilderness.

This is housekeeping, cleaning up after the event. It says nothing about how the government might address glaring gaps in our defences that allowed fires ignited by dry lightning to consume an area close to 200,000 hectares, most of it World Heritage property.

Meeting the challenge of future wildfire on this vegetation-rich island is a matter not just for this state but also for Canberra, which after all is responsible for the South-West World Heritage listing.

We have to continue improving our fire-fighting capacity. That demands people and other resources on the ground where they are needed to fight fires, but also to prepare ahead of time, which includes making permanent fire breaks near built-up areas and educating the public about wildfire.

Fire-fighting infrastructure will have to include purpose-designed water-bombing aircraft now routinely used in the US, but the high capital and running cost of this technology demands a national approach to funding and deployment. Melbourne is the logical base for such a resource.

Looming over all this is the elephant in the room, climate change. Australia’s problems with wildfire, coastal and river management, flooding and drought are seriously worsened by a hotter climate. We desperately need bipartisan federal and state action to meet that challenge.

This has to include steps to help Australians deal with and adapt to the above changes, and ultimately simply to survive in the kind of summer heat we can expect in future. Both Australia and Tasmania have just had their hottest January on record.

But summers will continue to get hotter as long as human carbon emissions keep rising. We can adapt all we like, but each year that we fail to mitigate will add more to the cost of adapting, ad infinitum.

The Hodgman and Morrison governments each claim to be meeting climate targets, but both have singularly failed in their clear obligation to bring emissions down. They owe it to us to get on their bikes and start pedalling – hard.

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