Strangled by cynicism and world-weariness

Australia’s responsiveness to global problems has slipped badly

Refugees fleeing war-ravaged Europe arrive by ship in Australia after World War II. PHOTO Keith Woodward/Australian National Maritime Museum

Refugees fleeing war-ravaged Europe arrive by ship in Australia after World War II. PHOTO Keith Woodward/Australian National Maritime Museum

Australia would rate pretty well as a citizen of the world if the sole measure of that was being open to the global market. With protectionism on the rise, fuelled by vanishing jobs and anger about the excesses of multinational corporations, Australia gets top marks for its open economy.

That’s the good news, but we’re dragging our heels against other measures of global citizenship, including our response to the principle of human rights, which dictates that everyone should be treated decently.

Human rights came under a spotlight this month when three investigations, by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Amnesty International and the ABC’s Four Corners, independently targeted the heartbreaking plight of around 50 child refugees on the island nation of Nauru.

They are among over 1200 asylum-seekers corralled there or on Manus Island (PNG) for trying to get to Australia by boat. They were then ungrateful enough to decline government requests that they resettle in Cambodia or return to the country they fled from.

Fifteen years of partisan one-upmanship have hardened the government authorities pulling the strings. They claim that the distressing reports coming out of these remote centres are nothing to do with them, then in the same breath argue that this is a small price to pay for stopping the boats.

Their continuing regime of secrecy, subterfuge and sleight-of-hand, with its bland indifference to the detainees’ nightmare of permanent uncertainty, is a deep and abiding shame for Australia.

We do a lot better with refugees arriving via “proper” UN channels, ranking third on resettlements per-capita behind Norway and Canada. But even there our standards are slipping. Refugees comprised above 5 per cent of total immigration in the 1990s; today they’re just 3.2 per cent.

The toughest of all measures of global citizenship is climate policy. Last year’s Paris Agreement calls on us and the other 190 signatory nations to achieve results not just for this generation, but for generations to come – decades and even centuries ahead. That takes real vision.

Australia is not short of people with vision, including some in government service. Over the past 10 years Australian diplomats and scholars have played a big part in the long, painstaking task of developing international carbon mitigation instruments.

One of these is Howard Bamsey, a Canberra-based academic and climate policy specialist, who has been co-chair of the UN’s Dialogue on Long-term Cooperative Action on Climate Change and Australia’s climate change envoy under Kevin Rudd.

A fortnight ago Bamsey landed one of the toughest gigs on the planet: executive director of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, based in South Korea. Next week the Paris Agreement enters into force, and this agency has a pivotal role in making it work.

Bamsey must ensure that richer countries honour their pledges to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries tackle climate change. He also has to get money now available flowing into the 100-odd projects in the pipeline. So far the fund has disbursed just $5.4 million.

The EU, the US, China and 81 other countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, which means it becomes legally binding on Friday week. The whole process took less than 11 months – as against nearly eight years for the Kyoto Protocol. Australia, which hasn’t ratified, remains out in the cold.

Despite government claims, Australia’s 2030 emissions target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels is well below what multiple authorities, including the Climate Change Authority in 2015, contend would be a fair contribution to keeping the world below 2C.

For half a century Australia was a leading player in the UN. We strongly backed its conventions on human rights and refugees, we took in war refugees from Europe and Asia, and we were leading players in a succession of UN environmental and climate conventions.

But all that took a hit when John Howard rejected Afghan boat people and then refused to ratify the Kyoto climate protocol. His was a vote for world-weary, self-serving cynicism over youthful enthusiasm.

That narrow cynicism prevails, and it’s strangling the life out of our country.

Posted in Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, economic activity, economic restructuring, emissions trading, international politics, leadership | Leave a comment

Trump’s many failings threaten us all

Republicans head for the exits as Trump’s campaign goes into meltdown

This coastal bridge at St Augustine, in north-coastal Florida, feels the force of Hurricane Matthew as it passes offshore on 7 October. PHOTO Minneapolis Star Tribune

A coastal bridge at St Augustine, in north-coastal Florida, as Hurricane Matthew passes offshore on 7 October. PHOTO Minneapolis Star Tribune

Four years ago this month a US presidential election campaign was brought to a halt as Hurricane Sandy smashed into New York and New Jersey, leaving death and devastation in its wake.

That exceptional storm brought climate change into the election debate and lent impetus to Barak Obama’s final-term executive measures to cut carbon, in defiance of a recalcitrant congress.

The 2016 campaign has been marked by Hurricane Matthew’s deadly late-season rampage through the Caribbean and southern states, but this was to be no repeat performance. The country’s commercial heartland was spared when Matthew veered out to sea.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have so far spent 4½ hours debating each other about all manner of things including the economy, foreign relations, defence, health insurance and (mainly) the moral bankruptcy of their opponent. But there’s been barely a whisper about climate change.

The world’s biggest issue got just one oblique reference in a single question in the last debate: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimising job loss for fossil power plant workers?”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on 9 October. PHOTO AP/John Locher

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Missouri on 9 October. PHOTO AP/John Locher

“Remaining environmentally friendly” was the moderator’s way of avoiding the dreaded c-word. Trump answered in that spirit, saying nothing about climate while attacking Obama for putting coal energy “under siege” and Clinton for policies that he said would destroy miners’ jobs.

Clinton did say she would fight climate change – “a serious problem” – while creating “millions of new jobs and businesses” in renewable energy to make the US a “clean-energy superpower”. But that was it. No follow-up questions, no candidates’ responses to what the other had said.

The question reflects ambivalence out in the wider US population. A recent study published in the journal Environment, led by Oklahoma State University sociologist Riley Dunlap, found Americans’ attitudes to climate change had polarised over the past decade.

Dunlap’s team found that from relatively close cross-party positions in 2008, only 43 per cent of Republicans now think humans change the climate while 84 per cent of Democrats do, and less than a quarter of Republicans feel threatened by climate change compared to over half of Democrats.

Standing beside Clinton on a Florida stage last week, former vice-president and climate campaigner Al Gore played up the differences between the parties and their respective candidates.

Voters had an “extremely clear” choice in 2016, he said. “Hillary Clinton will make solving the climate crisis a top national priority. Very important. Her opponent, based on the ideas that he has presented, would take us toward a climate catastrophe.”

He didn’t mention that Clinton’s interest in climate policy had been lukewarm, to say the least, until challenged by Bernie Sanders. But at least she’s now talking about it, coherently and with apparent conviction. Trump is another story altogether.

Clinton’s well-documented flaws pale into insignificance against Trump’s unsavoury personal attributes, not least among them his threats against Clinton and his attitude to women.

Equally disturbing is his failure to grasp public policy. Questioned on policy detail during the debates, Trump repeatedly drifted into irrelevant, often-incoherent ramblings or personal attacks on his opponent. Policy, he seemed to say, is not something a leader need bother about.

Four years ago Trump wrote that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He recently called the Paris climate talks “ridiculous” and says he will repudiate the agreement as President.

Such threats seriously destabilise this delicately-balanced international agreement, with big long-term implications for the world, but it’s the mark of the man and of the party that nominated him.

With three weeks still to go in this extraordinary campaign Trump can’t be written off, but advocates for climate action are pinning hopes on opinion polls that put Clinton well ahead. For their part, Republican congressional candidates are turning their backs on their purported leader, in a desperate effort to salvage their own campaigns.

The Republicans are now in a crisis of their own making. Trump is the end product of a kind of mindless libertarian populism that drove the party to the right in the 1990s and captured it entirely during the Obama presidency. Now they face some shattering consequences.

So do we all. When a major party fails, the biggest loser is democracy.

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A fool’s choice of energy options in a world of extremes

The Coalition’s combative approach to energy policy is getting us nowhere.

After the storm: the remains of a transmission tower north of Adelaide. PHOTO ABC

After the storm: the remains of a transmission tower north of Adelaide. PHOTO ABC

Extreme weather is a fraught business. The fact that it can kill us and destroy homes and crops and infrastructures is reason enough to become anxious when it descends on us.

Add to that man-made greenhouse warming. Of all its predicted outcomes – including rising sea levels, warmer nights and changing rain patterns – extreme weather is by far the most disputed.

Arguments were bound to erupt in the chaotic wake of the big Southern Ocean storm front that swept across settled parts of South Australia late last month, but no-one could have predicted how ferocious they would become.

What made this storm exceptional was the damage it did to the state’s electricity network and the state-wide power blackout that resulted. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was so consumed by this the next day that he forgot to mention people’s enduring distress in the continuing emergency.

For many the distress will continue for some time yet. It can take months to even begin to repair severe wind and flood damage, as thousands of 2016 victims from every state can genuinely attest. Full recovery, if it happens, can take years.

It’s time to stop quibbling over whether storms and flooding are getting worse. Reinsurers have complained for years that they’re causing more damage than they used to, and science has identified multiple examples of rising intensity and frequency of extreme events.

Even the most unscientific energy minister should be able to grasp the physics behind this. A warmer ocean is a more energetic one, able to contribute more energy to storms, while a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture and result in more high-rainfall events.

Electricity blackouts support the view that extreme events are on the rise. Last year a US study showed that country’s 2014 power outages, which according to the US energy department are caused mainly by severe weather, were four times higher than in 2000.

A similar picture – more extreme weather driving more outages – emerges from Australian and New Zealand data published last year by Eaton Industries, including rises over just one year (2013 to 2014) of 24 per cent in the number of outages and 37 per cent in their duration.

Another disruptive factor, discussed at length in Friday’s energy ministers conference called by federal energy and climate change minister Josh Frydenberg, is the grid’s physical and technical capacity to deal with the kinds of stresses now being experienced.

Both Frydenberg and his leader allowed that the South Australian blackout was primarily caused by the storm, but both also added that the intermittency of wind energy coupled with an “aggressive” state renewable energy target threatened the stability of the state’s power supply.

Frydenberg persisted with that line of argument after the Friday meeting, characterising South Australia’s high level of renewable energy as “a big experiment which failed”.

Some over-eager commentators found “evidence” for such claims in a preliminary report by the Australian Energy Markets Operator that identified loss of output from wind generators just before the interconnector carrying Victorian power switched itself off and blacked out the state.

But the report did not identify any inherent instability in wind power and was careful to warn against forming conclusions before further analysis is done.

In any event, Turnbull’s stated order of priority for the national electricity market (grid stability first, followed by affordability followed by reduced emissions) is a fool’s choice.

Of course we need and expect reliable, affordable power. But what kind of thought process would assign it a higher priority than a stable climate, and what does it say about the PM’s seriousness in Paris last December when he committed Australia to the huge task of securing that goal?

The main outcome of last Friday’s energy ministers’ meeting – a direction to the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to draw up a plan for long-term energy security, affordability and sustainability – is a nod in that direction. His interim report due in December will be eagerly awaited.

Frydenberg saw the outcome as prioritising energy security, but there’s no getting around the imperatives hanging off the Paris Agreement. Whatever else it does, Finkel’s plan is going to have to incorporate practical steps for decarbonising the electricity market.

One more curly question arises out of the South Australian experience. State renewable energy targets fade almost to insignificance compared to the need to resolve the mishmash disarmingly called the national energy market.

Australia’s electricity “system” isn’t really a system at all, but a rough and incomplete amalgam of formerly self-contained state grids linked by a handful of inadequate interconnectors. In Victoria and South Australia those grids are privately owned.

Privatisation has not brought down power prices, but it has raised questions about market manipulation. A notable example of that was in July when the price of South Australian gas-fired power jumped to nearly $9000 a megawatt hour because the market mechanism allowed it.

Every energy minister must strive to ensure grids are as stable and storm-proof as humanly possible. That calls for better engineering and improved system integration across state boundaries, but it also calls for much more rigorous public administration.

And underlying all that is the ticking time bomb of climate change. After years of leaning, as Joe Hockey might put it, Australia has to start lifting, and the main target remains the biggest polluter, coal-fired electricity.

If the world fails to turn around a rising emissions trajectory, the most robust power systems in the world will likely prove unable to withstand the fury of mother nature.

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, built environment, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coal-fired, economic threat from climate, electricity networks, energy, energy research, extreme events, fossil fuels, gas-fired, leadership, renewable energy, science, wind | Leave a comment