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Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Waiting, waiting for a sign from heaven

Are we waiting for a non-negotiable climate change signal? [20 January 2015 | Peter Boyer]

With one-seventh of the 21st century already gone (can you believe it?), it’s time to take stock. A warning: readers may find the following depressing.

A non-negotiable event: the broken Tasman Bridge on the night of the disaster, 5 January 1975. PHOTO Don Stephens, Mercury

A non-negotiable event: the Tasman Bridge on the night it was broken, 5 January 1975. PHOTO Don Stephens, Mercury

It’s now 120 years since Svante Arrhenius calculated that burning coal could cause the planet to heat up, and nearly 80 years since Guy Callendar produced evidence that this was actually happening. Virtually no-one believed them.

It’s over half a century since science was hit with much stronger evidence that humans affect the climate, including data showing unmistakeably rising carbon dioxide levels in the air and calculations that warming may get out of hand.

In 1988 NASA physicist James Hansen alerted the US Congress to a potential climate crisis and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up. Since then countless international meetings have happened and a handful of major political agreements have been secured.

Much of this has been window-dressing. Agreements and targets have been sidestepped, ignored or repudiated. In the past few years political and corporate leaders, “forgetting” earlier pledges of unwavering support for climate action, have returned to their business-as-usual comfort zone.

That also spelt the end of a brief period of enhanced public support for climate science. Contrary to claims that climate scientists are a powerful lobby group living high on public money, securing funding support has in recent years been a losing battle.

Despite steadily-mounting evidence that human-induced climate change is upon us, with grave implications for the future of humanity, leaders continue to behave as if it’s of no consequence. How has all this happened?

The big problem is that our economic future has become so enmeshed with the burning of fossil fuel that no-one, neither governments nor the population at large, can accommodate the thought of living without it. So we sideline the subject using a variety of devices.

One such device is to label the issue of climate change as “green” (code for “irrelevant”). This was the thinking behind the Abbott government’s prompt action on winning office to abolish the climate change department and transfer its responsibilities to the environment department.

Under this scenario scientists are “greenies”, or alternatively green parties have hijacked their work and twisted their findings to make things seem worse than they really are. Both notions are manifestly false, but the implication is that climate change isn’t a serious policy issue.

Many who say they accept man-made climate change behave as if they believe no such thing. They continue to treat it as second-order policy, as opposed to “higher level” matters like economic development, trade, defence or the state of government coffers.

This isn’t confined to conservative politicians. In response to Tony Abbott’s relentless attacks on its carbon price scheme, the Labor government failed to defend the significant structural reforms built into it and in the end lamely followed Abbott’s lead by promising to “axe the tax”.

Then there’s the “techno-fix” argument, that the inexorable advance of technology will see us through. It comes in many forms.

Adopting renewable power, smart electricity metering and electric transport makes sense. But we have no replacement for the fossil power deployed in aviation, shipping and some heavy industrial applications like steelmaking. Only tough economic and behavioural change will address that.

More pernicious, and much crazier, are ideas like shooting particles into the air to deflect sunlight and cool the surface, designed to allow us to burn all the fossil fuel we like. There’s no way of testing the potentially catastrophic impact of any of these planetary-scale “solutions”.

All these are ways of setting aside the unattractive reality that fixing the world’s climate woes requires heavy lifting, not just from all governments, including state and local governments, but also from all business (especially big business) and all the rest of us.

Each passing year makes it more difficult to implement effective climate policies and plans, yet we remain in our comfort zones, waiting for a sign from heaven that we hope will never come.

We’ve had some hints from up there – damaging heatwaves, droughts, bushfires and floods which have been causally linked to carbon emissions. But the connection remains elusive for many Australians, and governments don’t seem to like people talking about it.

The collapse of three spans of the Tasman Bridge 40 years ago was a killer punch to the people of Hobart. No-one questioned that they had to abandon the car and take to the ferry, because the answer was staring them in the face. Are we waiting for another non-negotiable event like that?

• A Japanese global temperature analysis released a fortnight ago and three more from the US last week all said 2014 was the warmest year on record. I’ll comment on this after release of British and World Meteorological Organization analyses around the end of January.

Our fossil-fuelled heaven is turning apocalyptic

Somehow we have to find a way of connecting political and business talk about fossil fuels with the physical consequences of burning them [13 January 2015 | Peter Boyer]

A paper published in the renowned science journal Nature last week delivered the sobering news that for a reasonable chance of keeping global warming within safe limits, almost all of Australia’s known coal reserves must stay where they are.

Digging for coal in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO Jeremy Buckingham/LockTheGate

Digging for coal in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO Jeremy Buckingham/LockTheGate

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, can think of “few things more damaging to our future” than leaving Australian coal in the ground. Exporting coal – “affordable energy” – was Australia’s gift to the world, Tony Abbott told mining industry leaders at a gala dinner last year.

Both can’t be right. If you believe Australian coal is a gift to the world you clearly reject the proposition that burning it endangers our future. It’s either science or the prime minister.

The Nature paper, by specialist scientists and economists from the University College London (UCL), builds on previous analyses by the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Given that average global temperature rises are closely related to cumulative fossil fuel emissions over a given timeframe, both these organisations say that it would be unsafe to burn more than a third of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves before 2050.

The UCL study factored in other data, including cost of extraction and distance from mine to market, to determine the extent to which particular national and regional reserves could continue to be exploited to stay within safe emission limits.

Australian coal reserves look anything but a long-term prospect. That applies with or without carbon capture and storage (CCS), a costly, unproven technology still sitting in the wings after 20 years of business and political promises that it will turn coal into a clean, green resource.

The UCL study finds that without CCS, to keep warming within safe limits we would need to leave 95 per cent of Australian coal where it is (along with 46 per cent of our oil and 51 per cent of our natural gas) in the period to 2050.

Effectively deploying CCS would still require Australia to leave 93 per cent of its coal in the ground over those 35 years, a princely gain of just 2 per cent after all those years of promises. I’m willing to bet that the CCS silver bullet will never be fired.

This and other evidence from multiple sources is telling us that to stay below the 2C target that governments committed to at Cancún in 2010, the only safe, cost-effective policy is to stop looking for more fossil fuel reserves and prepare to close most existing coal mines.

But as the Nature paper says, national leaders and policy makers have a natural instinct “to exploit rapidly and completely their territorial fossil fuels”. The result is generous public funding to support exploration for coal, oil and gas reserves, which fossil fuel interests carefully avoid mentioning when complaining about renewable subsidies.

Coal, oil and gas companies and their investors expect that known accessible reserves, and many that are currently inaccessible, will be exploited, and that governments will back them every step of the way. As they do, which puts a new light on those pledges to limit emissions.

It’s not just an Australian problem. If you take out those countries completely lacking fossil fuel reserves and one or two European administrations with established renewable policies, no government is prepared to rule out exploiting its fossil energy potential to the full.

The fossil-fuel bubble will inevitably burst. If this takes many years, the environmental devastation will continue, the climate crisis will get steadily worse, and that promise of a fossil fuelled heaven will be seen as something else entirely, a fossil-fuelled apocalypse.

In NSW and Queensland, the frontline symbols of the government-industry alliance are the police who deal with people protesting against the disruption to their lives caused by mineral activity.

In Tasmania, where mining of coal and gas is not currently in the spotlight, the alliance is manifested in the Hodgman government’s legislated moves against public protest and its plan to allow corporations to sue individuals for defamation.

Simon Bevilacqua’s perceptive “Road Runner” article (Mercury, January 1) describes the government tactic of looking for ways of dividing communities rather than seeking to engage with them. As he says, it misreads the public mood and is ultimately futile.

The protest scene everywhere is changing. Poorly-regulated exploitation of public resources, including landscapes, is breeding community resentment and bringing new people to the barricades. That mood will fester and grow for as long as governments favour private over public interest.

The tide is turning. Investors are starting to abandon fossil fuel. If industry players are to get out of the hole that (with government help) they’ve dug for themselves, they’ll have to stop digging.

The madness of mining for oil in Alberta

The things we will do for a quick buck [6 January 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The pictures show rich wheat fields under big prairie skies giving way in the west to rolling foothills and the pine-clad, snow-topped Canadian Rockies. Alberta is surely a beautiful part of the planet.

Northern Alberta’s new-look landscape, courtesy of Big Oil. PHOTO Howl Arts Collective, Montreal

Northern Alberta’s new-look landscape, courtesy of Big Oil and the Harper government. PHOTO Howl Arts Collective, Montreal

I’ve not been there, but I have a lifelong friend from whom I learned something of what it’s like to grow up there. Knowing him and having met his family, I feel a kind of affinity with the place.

There’s another connection. Brothers of my great-grandfather once panned for gold in Alberta’s far north, in the Peace River basin. There’s a Boyer River flowing into the Peace which I like to imagine got its name from them.

When the northern half of Alberta isn’t frozen it’s very wet, covered with rivers, lakes and swamps. And abundant vegetation, part of the great boreal forests which add up to the world’s biggest above-ground store of carbon. It has few humans but is rich in wildlife. Nature reigns supreme.

Or it did until the 1970s, when Middle East oil supply shocks prompted Big Oil to tackle bitumen deposits in northern Alberta’s Athabasca and Peace valleys. Mining activity stuttered along for decades, waiting for the price of oil to rise above break-even level. Now it’s full steam ahead.

More than two Tasmanias would fit into the area of the deposits, historically known as tar sands but officially given the more marketable name of “oil sands”. If the oil price stays high enough there are enough recoverable hydrocarbons there to make Canada the world’s biggest oil producer.

In 2006 Stephen Harper became prime minister of Canada. Just as his good friend Tony Abbott was later to champion coal as Australia’s gift to the world, Harper took on the cause of Alberta oil and declared Canada “an emerging energy superpower”.

Since then his government has massively promoted the oil sand deposits at home and abroad, and with bureaucratic obstacles removed global oil consortiums have joined the party. Over the next decade the area being mined is expected to treble in size.

Getting usable petroleum out of oil sand is neither easy nor cheap, which is why it took so long for extraction to reach today’s levels. It involves draining all wetlands and diverting rivers before removing trees, peat moss and soil above the deposits. All wildlife dies or is displaced.

Huge mechanical shovels scoop up tar-saturated sand in surface deposits and put it in trucks the size of a two-storey house. These take it to local plants where bitumen is extracted using very large quantities of water heated by a lot of natural gas to make steam.

But only about a fifth of deposits can be obtained in this way; the rest lie more than 100 metres underground. To extract this, yet more superheated steam is injected down into the deposit to make the bitumen fluid enough to be pumped to the surface.

All recovered bitumen must then be further liquefied before being pumped by pipeline from landlocked Alberta south into the United States and west through the Rockies to be shipped abroad. An already large pipeline network is being hugely augmented with ambitious new schemes.

Toxic water from the process is stored in vast tailings ponds, some just metres from rivers. If the rivers flowed south, millions in Edmonton and Calgary would use their water. But they go north, through small mainly-indigenous settlements and into the Arctic. Out of sight, out of mind.

A doctor who reported a sharp rise in cancer cases among people eating fish caught downstream from the mines was charged with causing “undue alarm”. The charges were dismissed. An Alberta Cancer Board report was inconclusive, but a university study found toxins in river water. Indigenous leader Allen Adam has recently called for a new assessment independent of both industry and government.

Carbon is lost to the atmosphere not only in removed trees and through heating, treating and transporting the crude. A 2012 University of Alberta study found that carbon emissions from just the surface peat removed for the mines then operating could top 45 million tonnes.

There may be mitigating circumstances. Some of the peat may be saved, and remediation may eventually allow something approaching a new forest to grow on mined land. But what has been lost can never be recovered, and much more will be lost in years to come.

Like mining for coal by destroying farms, forests and mountaintops, the huge environmental and human cost of exploiting the oil sands can never be justified by “economic benefit”. There’s something unhinged about this reckless adventure, and more than a whiff of megalomania.

“Ozymandias” comes to mind, Percy Shelley’s powerful sonnet about the remains of an ancient despot’s once-massive statue. The broken head reveals a “frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” is inscribed on the statue’s base.

The poem ends: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”