IPCC gives us just a decade to fix things

…but who’s listening?

576IPCC-1.5Report
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that dangerous climate change will be unavoidable without a rapid, powerful and unprecedented global effort, starting now. Our government’s response can best be described as a shrug.

Coming at a time when the public debate struggles to get beyond headlines, and when opinion and “fake news” count for more than fact, the IPCC’s “1.5C” report is packed with information about our future. But in this country, no-one in charge seems to be reading it.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said Australia would meet its Paris target “in a canter”, adding, “I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that sort of nonsense”.

Deputy prime minister Michael McCormack said Australia should continue to mine its “many many decades” of coal reserves regardless of what the IPCC said in its special report on 1.5C of warming.

Our country contributes a “small fraction” of global carbon emissions, said energy minister Angus Taylor, and the main responsibility for mitigation rests with developing countries.

Finally, dismissing scientific analysis that says Australia will overshoot its modest Paris target, environment minister Melissa Price said she was “very comfortable with where we’re heading”.

It’s hard to get the head around such indifference to this report, commissioned by the UN to investigate what a warming limit of 1.5C will mean. But a response by The Australian’s economics correspondent Judith Sloan is a good place to begin.

Sloan said that the IPCC’s use of climate models to study the future – “not that far from making astrological prophecies” – wasn’t really science because “it doesn’t set out refutable hypotheses and test them”.

All I can say is, it’s a long time since Sloan discussed any of this with a practising scientist, certainly not since science started grappling seriously with global systems.

Testing hypotheses about complex planetary processes is all very well, but we don’t have a second identical planet on which to test them. Increasingly sophisticated models help plug that gap, yielding remarkable advances in our knowledge of Earth’s inherently ambiguous climate system.

Sloan also wrote this: “To suggest that all coal-fired power stations will need to be closed by 2050 is not just silly, it is also completely naïve.” Silly and naïve are not the point. Unless we capture and sequester their carbon emissions, the IPCC is telling us we have no choice but to shut them down.

Sloan sees the IPCC advice as dispensable and the status quo as non-negotiable, which in a nutshell is why climate policy has proven so wretchedly difficult for our political masters.

Today’s energy technologies and infrastructures, not to mention current political and economic paradigms, are not immutable. Humans made them and humans can remake them. If enough people around the world believe they should be changed, it can happen.

For the record, the IPCC report’s 91 authors, including leading scientists, economists and other experts from 40 countries, contributed over 1100 pages of information-rich text and supporting annexes, along with 6,000 references to peer-reviewed research.

Like the above-mentioned members of the government I haven’t read the full text and won’t try. But in exploring the IPCC’s advice to policymakers I am struck by a change in tone since the last full IPCC report in 2014: darker, more direct, with a much greater sense of urgency.

The report identifies today’s Arctic sea ice loss, rising sea levels and more extreme weather as strong signs of what is to come. Even a warming limit of 1.5C increases the risk of long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems. We cannot afford to set it any higher.

In 2018 global (and Australian) emissions are rising and showing little sign of peaking, but the IPCC says a 1.5C limit requires global emissions to be on a steep downward path by 2030.

The world has 12 years to lower emissions by something like a billion tonnes a year. In doing this, says the report, we will have to rely partly on drawing down carbon dioxide from the air using currently-known techniques applied on an unprecedented scale.

Paris Agreement national pledges are clearly inadequate; by the end of this century they would have temperatures 3C above pre-industrial levels, or 2C warmer than today. Australia’s 2030 pledge to have emissions 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels is among the weakest of those commitments.

If the PM is right (and expert analysis is wrong) about Australia reaching its target “in a canter”, then he should be spurring the country into a gallop.

Let’s be real. A nation can change rapidly only when all the pieces are in place – when governors and governed alike are shocked into realising there is no option. We are still nowhere near that.

Posted in Arctic, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, contrarians, future climate, international politics, leadership, modelling, science, temperature | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The scourge of public bullying

The male-female divide in Australia and the US is now wider than ever.

Senator Jeff Flake, who ultimately supported Kavanaugh’s nomination, faces Maria Gallagher in the US Capitol. PHOTO CNN

Senator Jeff Flake, who ultimately supported Kavanaugh’s nomination, faces Maria Gallagher in the US Capitol. PHOTO CNN


Australia and the US are both frontier societies, it is said. In both cases, people came from overseas and fought to win control of the land, against adversaries both human and non-human.

In such a situation the male way of doing things predominates. Men build the fences, railways and all the paraphernalia of power, and deal with opponents physically and aggressively.

But old habits are hard to shake. Just after Malcolm Turnbull was forced out of office, a number of women Liberal MPs strongly criticised aggressive behaviour by their male colleagues in the lead-up to the party-room vote. Victorian MP Julia Banks said she wouldn’t stand at the next election, Senator Lucy Gichuhi threatened to name culprits, and former deputy leader Julie Bishop called for a more female-friendly parliament.

In Canberra, as in most parliaments around Australia, Liberal women have always been a small, not very vocal minority in their party. To come out in public and accuse some male colleagues of bullying is a significant departure from normal. They must have been seriously bothered.

In the push-back, Craig Kelly MP advised Banks to “roll with the punches” and Victorian party president Michael Kroger thought complainants should “toughen up”. Alan Jones, who knows a thing or two about bullying, said on 2GB there was “no substantive proof” that it had happened.

Prime minister Scott Morrison doesn’t seem to have an opinion, but he has everything to lose from yet another internal brawl. His plan is to avoid any further offence by keeping it all in house.

Accusations by women that men have behaved aggressively toward them are not confined to the Liberal Party – the Nationals, Labor and the Greens have all seen similar issues raised this year – nor to Australia.

The gender divide in the United States turned into a chasm last week during an angry Senate hearing to confirm Donald Trump’s nominee for a Supreme Court vacancy. Federal court judge Brett Kavanaugh was accused of a drunken sexual assault, when he was 17, on a 15-year-old girl.

Trump, who has some interesting history of his own around women, mocked the testimony of Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, branding her and other Kavanaugh opponents as “evil people” out to destroy the judge and his family.

As the hearing drew to a close, Republican Senator Jeff Flake was cornered in a lift as a couple of women, each of whom said she was a victim of sexual assault, angrily accused him of not taking their experience seriously enough. Their names were Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher.

Trump later tweeted about “very rude elevator screamers” whom he claimed were “paid professionals”. The two were loud, and they insisted on being heard, but calling them “elevator screamers” was insulting. Both women said they had received no money for their efforts.

I watched Ford’s full testimony on video (and Kavanaugh’s testy response) and the astonishing scene at the lift as Jeff Flake tried to get away. Of course women are capable of deceiving, but I’ve been around long enough to know fake when I see it. This was not fake.

None of this made any difference to the final Senate decision. The Republican majority confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment for life, a decision stitched up long ago to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Just five of the 50 yes votes were by women.

This was a momentous outcome, representing a huge boost for the power of corporate America and the anti-abortion movement. In the US and around the world, its impact will be felt for decades.

A large part of the impact will fall on the rights of women, who came out in large numbers at the weekend to protest the Senate vote. I can remember no previous time, going back to the 1960s, when US gender politics has been so fraught. It may change the nation in unexpected ways.

Learning how to deal with the opposite sex is part of growing up. Most men come to understand women’s fundamental right to take part in public life, at any level, and to realise their value in the workplace. Needless to say, they deserve the same courtesy and respect as a man.

The culprits in the above shenanigans – the Canberra bullies and Kavanaugh’s backers in the US – seem never to have left the frontier. Oblivious of the damage they are doing, they see nothing wrong in treating with contempt women’s remembered experiences and righteous anger.

There will be payback. If women perceive injustice and constantly feel thwarted in having it addressed, it should be remembered that they make up half the electorate, and they vote. In the US, where voting is voluntary, they come out in greater numbers than men.

Women’s full, open and unfettered participation in the processes and institutions of democracy is a cornerstone of civil society. By trivialising them and riding roughshod over their legitimate protest, these ignorant, greedy bullies are doing us all an injustice.

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Words the Hodgman government dares not utter

The Tasmanian government’s climate change narrative is that if climate change is real and man-made, what we do doesn’t matter. But it does.

Michael Ferguson MP, minister for health, emergency management and science. PHOTO Matthew Farrell/Mercury

Michael Ferguson MP, minister for health, emergency management and science. PHOTO Matthew Farrell/Mercury


If you’re in power and want to stay there, all you need to know is this: own the narrative.

Whenever and wherever the story is to be told about your time in charge, you and no-one else must determine what’s true and what’s false, what’s important and what isn’t – a rule that prevails in government here and everywhere.

Donald Trump fostered the persona of the strong man restoring American power, pride and traditional values while campaigning for the US presidency in 2016, a narrative he has kept more or less under control during his tumultuous first term in office.

“In less than two years,” he told assembled world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York last week, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” – the sort of Trump hubris that usually gets cheers and applause.

This time there was just a murmur, to which he responded, “So true”, at which point laughter erupted. Trump paused in surprise. “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay”, he said. For just a moment he seemed vulnerable, all-too-human. Then he returned to his narrative.

There’s a story around this that has its origins in India 1000 years ago. You may know Hans Christian Andersen’s 1835 version, in which a couple of swindlers, pretending to weave magic clothes that can be seen and felt by all but the gullible and stupid, offer the “clothes” to a king.

Not wanting to appear a dope, the vain king pretends to see the clothes, accepts the swindler’s “gift” and parades in the street. For the same reason street folk accept the tale. But the bubble bursts when an innocent boy declares the king to be naked and (king excepted) everyone falls about laughing

Foolish pride invites ridicule, says the story. It also points out how we can be sucked into accepting as true a narrative that common sense tells us is false.

One such story permeating the politics of many developed countries says that because climate has always changed in the past, we have nothing to fear from climate change now. Most people doubt this but let it ride. They have enough problems without buying into more.

This falsehood, that climate change today should be of no more concern than change in the past, got an airing in Tasmania’s parliament last week.

During debate on emergency management legislation, Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff argued that the bill’s definition of an emergency clearly included today’s climate change, and this required the government to “wake up” and put measures in place to protect people.

Besides coordinated state and local government action to cut emissions, Woodruff advocated establishing “climate change recovery centres” in all regions and informing communities about protection against “increasingly extreme climate change conditions”.

Emergency management minister Michael Ferguson said he had been advised that consequences of climate change were encompassed by the bill, “but we are not seeking to include climate change as a definable event which triggers emergency.”

“I reject any suggestion the Government will take on any liability for climate change. That is not what is going to happen… and we definitely do not accept that at all,” he said.

When Woodruff continued to press her point, Ferguson responded with this: “I thought I was being nice to you about climate change… and said to you that it is real and it is happening and it probably always has. That is what you get for being nice.”

Ferguson’s breezy commentary raises weighty issues. Science is one of his portfolio tasks, so he should be aware that scientific academies around the world, including our own, conclude that today’s rate of change is many times more rapid than anything ever detected in ancient records.

Second, global climate change is not a mere device for “being nice” to someone, but a matter of fact, caused beyond doubt by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Finally, the Tasmanian government, like every government, is accountable for what is happening to the climate. The longer it delays action the greater the danger to its people and ultimately the risk to governance itself. And the greater its legal liability, despite Ferguson’s contrary view.

The Hodgman government has controlled the climate narrative by avoiding any mention of it and taking no substantial policy steps to curb emissions. When it can’t avoid the c-word it says it is a world leader, a claim based not on emission cuts but on a low level of forest harvesting.

That narrative has held up because it seems like good news, but will collapse when voters are hit with grim reality. It’s significant that in wildfire-ravaged California few people question the role of climate change. The same is starting to happen in drought-stricken inland Australia.

In cool-temperate Tasmania it may be some time before that bridge is crossed. But when it happens – and it will – nobody will be rolling around laughing, and there will be no fairy-tale ending.

Posted in Adaptation, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, contrarians, economic threat from climate, local government, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment