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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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

Tim Flannery finds some silver linings

Is there any light down that long dark tunnel? [29 September | Peter Boyer]

Spring has sprung and life is full of promise. This is surely a season for hope.

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

Tim Flannery [PHOTO ABC] and his new book

In Washington (where it’s autumn), a joint weekend statement by Presidents Barak Obama and Xi Jinping announced that within two years China will have the world’s biggest emissions trading scheme, covering power generation, steel, cement and other industries.

The two countries, between them responsible for nearly half the world’s emissions, also pledged to introduce new heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards by 2019 and to spend billions on helping countries accelerate their transition to low-carbon economies.

Most of this is old news, but it does show that climate is on the minds of the two superpower leaders and offers a glimmer of hope that some good may come from the crucial Paris climate meeting, now just two short months away.

Hope is also the theme of Tim Flannery’s new book. Introduced to Tasmanian readers at a Hobart launch last week, Atmosphere of Hope is based on Flannery’s belief that amid all the dire predictions about our climate future, there are some distinctly positive prospects.

Flannery, now heading Australia’s crowd-funded Climate Council, told his Hobart audience that our principal concern must be to cut our emissions. But even our best efforts won’t stop what is already locked in by past emissions. Warming will continue no matter what we do.

This has given rise to “geo-engineering” proposals to cool the planet, such as deflecting sunlight by shooting particles into the air or sinking massive tubes into the oceans to strengthen vertical circulation.

We should dismiss such schemes outright, says Flannery. Intensive studies show major practical problems, uncertain outcomes and a guarantee of international conflict.

But those studies leave open prospects for another geo-engineering option, to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it forever in a form that does no harm. Ideas for achieving that enticing prospect make up Flannery’s “third way”.

The “third way” seeks to amplify natural processes whereby the sun’s energy is used to draw carbon from air and water and turn it into energy and solid matter. Such schemes might use oceanic plants, carbon-absorbing rocks and cement, and storage in the deep ocean or Antarctica.

It has to be said that much-hyped “clean coal” technology has never come close to success, beset by practical and financial problems. But there are many other untried options, says Flannery.

The aim of such technologies is first to neutralise human emissions and then to continue drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide from its present level of about 400 parts per million to where it was before the industrial revolution, 280 parts per million or less.

Since 1750 humans have put around 1800 gigatonnes, or billions of tonnes, of carbon dioxide into the air. Each year now we add about 40 gigatonnes, and we’re at the stage where we can’t avoid dangerous warming unless we intervene to remove carbon.

Flannery is confident there are enough workable technologies together to handle such an enterprise, even at the stupendous scale required, but they will require massive capital investment and a long lead time to test and develop.

A recent Nature Climate Change paper pointed to the “vital flexibility” provided by carbon removal methods, and urged that they be brought into mainstream climate policy as soon as possible to invite innovation and identify the best technologies for large-scale deployment.

We need a positive outlook just to survive, but that alone isn’t enough, which is why nature has also given us fear. Hope to get us up in the morning, fear to grab our attention and get us moving.

I’m glad Tim Flannery has written this book, and I hope a lot of policymakers get to read it ahead of the Paris meeting. Above all, I hope it will help them appreciate that against the effort and money demanded by carbon removal, deep and early emissions cuts are a cakewalk.

Tomorrow at 5.30 pm, at IMAS Aurora Theatre (Castray Esplanade), Nils Axel Braathen, head of OECD’s Environment Directorate, will discuss economic instruments for managing climate policy, including taxes, trading systems, subsidies and regulations.

Exxon’s long conspiracy of silence

The failure of Exxon to act on critically important scientific information 30 years ago is a reflection on us all. [22 September 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The Pullitzer-prizewinning US news service Inside Climate News has just lifted the lid on a 30-year secret: how the world’s biggest oil company reacted to bad news about fossil fuels and climate.

Delivering fuel to an Exxon station in Texas. PHOTO Daily Telegraph (UK)

Delivering fuel to an Exxon station in Texas. PHOTO Daily Telegraph (UK)

ICN revealed last week that in the early 1980s Exxon funded cutting-edge research which found that humans were causing global warming. Confronted with this, the company quietly ended the program and then sought to cast doubt on the science.

Copies of company letters and internal memos released last week by ICN showed that as early as 1977 a senior scientist employed by Exxon reported strong scientific agreement that carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel combustion was influencing global climate.

James Black’s assessment of evidence for human-induced greenhouse warming was delivered to the Exxon board more than a decade before NASA physicist James Hansen gave his celebrated climate change warning to the US Congress.

Black warned the company of significant warming by 2050 – as much as 10 degrees at the poles – and radical shifts in rainfall if fossil fuel use was not curbed. He wrote in 1978 that hard decisions on energy strategies could become critical within a decade.

The company’s initial response wasn’t what we might have expected today. It launched its own climate studies, fitting out one of its supertankers with advanced air sampling equipment and employing scientists to work cooperatively with academic researchers.

In the early 1980s the company supported publication of several world-leading research papers by Exxon and Columbia University scientists. It even funded an international climate science conference in October 1982.

Exxon research was the basis of a climate change primer circulated to senior staff in 1982. While pointing out areas needing further study, the primer said that “major reductions in fossil fuel combustion” would eventually be needed to prevent “potentially catastrophic events”.

All this was known to the company’s board more than 30 years ago, which then elected to say nothing about the research and carry on as if it had never happened. It was a fateful decision.

In those 30 years, about 650 billion tonnes of emissions have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by 15 per cent to nearly double what it was in pre-industrial times. Warming has exceeded those early projections, with the global mean rising by around 0.5C. The 18 warmest years on the 134-year thermometer record are the 18 completed years since 1996. Last year was the warmest on record and this year looks like being warmer still.

One of those Exxon scientists, Richard Werthamer, recently reflected wistfully on how different things might have been had the company put its corporate weight behind a global effort: “There’s virtually no country that it doesn’t have a presence in. It would have helped a great deal.”

Exxon might have chosen to publicise its research findings, persuade shareholders that the company should develop alternative energy sources and strategies, and lean on government to do the same. But that would have been a lot to ask in an era which legitimised corporate misbehaviour and rebranded greed as patriotism. So much easier to pretend nothing had happened.

Like all fossil fuel companies, Exxon remains opposed to effective measures to limit climate change, aiming to exploit every last molecule of its fossil fuel reserves. The same attitude prevails among politicians and governments wanting to retain these companies’ financial support.

In Australia and everywhere, legislated abatement measures like pricing schemes or direct action are repeatedly emasculated in the name of minimising business costs and protecting the economy. That is, sacrificing tomorrow’s profits on the altar of today’s.

The libertarian notion that red tape is inherently bad and that business is best left unrestrained is another way of saying that business always acts in the public interest. And pigs fly.

This is written in sadness as well as anger. Voters support those mindless notions. Exxon’s failure reflects on us all.

The Hobart launch of Atmosphere of Hope at Dechaineux Theatre (Hunter Street, Hobart, 6pm Thursday), featuring Bob Brown in conversation with the book’s author, Tim Flannery, is a sell-out. To get on a waiting list call Hobart Bookshop on 6223 1803.

Fingers crossed on Turnbull’s climate plans

There are many obstacles that could prevent Malcolm Turnbull recalibrating climate policy, but also huge opportunities. [16 September 2015 | Peter Boyer]

At long last there’s hope that Australia under a Liberal government might actually contribute something to the global battle against global warming.

Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. PHOTO Guardian Australia

Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott. PHOTO Guardian Australia

That’s not immediately obvious. On the face of it, Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to party leadership on Monday night gives no great cause for optimism.

There’s the fact that Australia’s broadband network, administered until Monday by Turnbull, remains in a legal, technical and financial mess that seriously compromises its effectiveness. Now a new communications minister will have to pick up the pieces. Not a good omen for the top job.

There’s also Turnbull’s stated support for a climate policy that no-one outside government seems to think will do anything to reduce emissions. Replacing Labor’s carbon pricing scheme, “Direct Action” involves a significant cost to revenue. Its “safeguard mechanism” against excessive carbon pollution imposes no effective penalty and according to environment minister Greg Hunt the government expects no revenue from it.

At his first media conference on Monday night, Turnbull said he continued to support that policy, which he declared to be “very well designed, a very, very good piece of work”.

Remarkable. This is the same person who in December 2009, days after Tony Abbott had ousted him from Liberal leadership over climate policy, wrote bitterly that Abbott’s Direct Action was “a con, an environmental fig-leaf to cover a determination to do nothing”.

“You cannot cut emissions without a cost…someone has to pay,” Turnbull said then. “So any suggestion that you can dramatically cut emissions without any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Abbott, ‘bullshit’.

“Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are now without integrity. We have given our opponents the irrefutable, undeniable evidence that we cannot be trusted.”

Two months later Turnbull told parliament that the policy was “a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale”, and in 2011 said that if it were implemented over a long period it would be “a very expensive charge on the budget in the years ahead”.

When the Coalition came to power in 2013, Turnbull became a member of Tony Abbott’s cabinet, with Hunt given charge of killing the carbon pricing scheme and implementing his party’s climate policies. On that subject, Turnbull went quiet. Now, with his ascendency, a policy he once loathed has become “a very, very good piece of work”. That’s politics.

Nearly six years have passed since Abbott took over from Turnbull. In those six years – notwithstanding carbon pricing – the public debate about climate change has lost out, lacking any direction or leadership.

For that waste of good time, Tony Abbott must take primary responsibility. This was not deliberate neglect nor an act of sabotage; rather it was the inevitable outcome of electing a leader who never understood, nor sought to understand, why climate change matters.

It’s now Turnbull’s task to declare afresh the party’s commitment to climate action and to ensure that a re-worked Direct Action policy really does what it’s supposed to do: get emissions down. Turning things around won’t be easy for a government used to the lazy, unscientific position that emissions don’t matter and that “climate is always changing – we just need to adapt”.

Many Coalition MPs, including all the Nationals, remain sceptical about the need to do anything. Driven by what is becoming something of a religion, they’ll move heaven and earth to keep it that way, even to the extent of open party revolt against their leader.

But Turnbull does have some things on his side. The optimistic tone of his manifesto on the day he was elected was a sign that he would be favouring innovation, and there’s no more fertile field for that than effective measures to cut emissions.

Thanks to Clive Palmer some key instruments of climate policy – the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – were saved from the Abbott axe. They are now available to help Turnbull resurrect a credible policy.

Renewable energy in particular is ripe for development. Turnbull can build on the success of CEFC and ARENA (achieved despite government opposition) to foster a resurgent renewable energy industry in a country with world-leading solar and wind energy resources.

Turnbull is sticking with our 2030 emissions targets, despite the near-universal consensus outside government circles that they should be tougher. He maintains his environment minister’s line that the Emissions Reduction Fund is working “spectacularly”, flying in the face of economic analysis that says it’s a spectacular failure. These are not positions he can maintain if he wishes to have credibility among those who want real, physical results in our drive to cut emissions.

But at least he understands the problem. Given that, it’s sensible to allow him a little breathing space.