Snow on snow: vanishing glacial ice

Winter’s white blanket of snow is becoming rarer. We must learn to appreciate it.

Antarctica is losing ice from coastal glaciers at a record rate. PHOTO Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctica is losing ice from coastal glaciers at a record rate. PHOTO Australian Antarctic Division

There could be no better description of how our planet begins its descent into an ice age than Christina Rossetti’s haunting 1872 Christmas carol: “Snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter long ago”.

Year after year snow stays longer on the ground, reflecting sunlight as it builds layer upon layer as subtle shifts in Earth’s axis and rotation around the sun cause a drop in mean temperature over thousands of years. Thus did mountain glaciers form, and ice sheets on polar lands.

It was on the edge of the world’s biggest ice sheet, in Antarctica, that I had my first and only experience of skiing. Large drifts on coastal sea ice were an ideal place for a timid novice to learn some basics without breaking a leg.

I never took up the sport, but that happy memory helps me understand why people put so much effort and money into chasing snow. And why, when the snow doesn’t come, they feel so let down.

The first appearance of snow on the ground, transforming dull browns and greens to a brilliant white, is for the child and the romantic in all of us. If you have to live with it for a while it’s possible to dislike it. But you can never be indifferent to it.

Snowfall often comes as a surprise because it’s hard to predict. The Australian ski season got a lift with the weekend’s snow and ought to be in full swing pretty soon, but the Bureau of Meteorology cannot say with any assurance how things are going to pan out.

The global long-term picture is clearer, with today’s small downward trend in snow cover set to become more pronounced. Mean snow cover will become less deep, less extensive, and of shorter duration in coming decades with higher winter temperatures and more erratic precipitation.

Science is telling us Australia should anticipate a relatively rapid decline in snow cover. Altitude is a telling factor, and that’s something this country doesn’t have.

Tasmania’s low-altitude ski slopes are most vulnerable, but the higher mainland fields are little better off. A Victorian study out last week anticipates most resorts will close by mid-century. By 2100 skiing on natural snow in this country is likely to be just a faded memory.

The much younger, much higher Southern Alps will ensure New Zealand’s skiing industry survives longer, but its diminishing mountain glaciers remind us that nowhere is safe from climate change. Last summer’s record warmth there saw some glaciers retreat hundreds of metres.

Plenty of people other than skiers worry about glaciers. Disappearing ice in the Himalayas and Andes is causing real hardship for people downstream, while the fate of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers is a nagging worry for all the world’s coastal dwellers.

The scale of the glaciers that drain the Antarctic ice sheet is almost beyond imagining. The largest ones could swallow up an average-sized European country, with an ocean frontage stretching over the horizon. Their fate is linked inextricably with that of coastal lands everywhere.

Antarctica was a late starter in responding to global warming, decades behind Greenland. Since 1992 melting of glaciers and coastal ice shelves has contributed 8 mm to global sea level, but on a steadily warming planet the Antarctic contribution will eventually be measured in metres.

Last week a team of 84 scientists from over 40 international organisations, including some from Australia, released a combined verdict on what is currently happening there.

The news is not good. They found that Antarctica’s ice sheet currently sheds over 200 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean each year, which equates to half a millimetre a year of global sea level rise.

The ice sheet’s melt rate is now three times what it was 15 years ago. Parts of the continent, notably the Antarctic Peninsula, are experiencing melting at five times the level in the 1990s.

This is not what nature intended. Our planet has been relatively cool since modern glacial-interglacial cycles began 2.6 million years ago. The present state of our ever-changing relationship with the sun tells us we should soon be starting a very slow descent into another glacial period.

But the more powerful forcing of man-made greenhouse warming has disrupted that pattern. Science has calculated that left unchecked, our emissions will delay the next glaciation for at least 500,000 years, and indefinitely if emissions remain unmitigated.

All the humans who ever lived, and all of our humanoid ancestors, knew only a world that includes ice and snow. If we bring about the end of the ice ages we will truly be living in a new world.

The skiers are right. We need snow – snow on snow, in fact – to replace lost glacial ice. With David Walsh and Dark Mofo, we should wholeheartedly celebrate bracing winters. They become more precious with each passing year.

Posted in Antarctic, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate sensitivity, glaciology, marine sciences, modelling, palaeoclimatology, science, sea level | Leave a comment

Richard Denniss and the scourge of neoliberalism

Fern Tree Tavern hosts some dangerous ideas

Richard Denniss and his new Quarterly Essay

Richard Denniss and his new Quarterly Essay

This island community we call Tasmania (or is it Lutruwita?) has a radical streak.

Think of the 1850s and anti-transportation, or the federalist lawyer and politician Andrew Inglis Clark, or our unique voting system that carries his name, or our bold, brave experiment with hydro-electricity, or the “clean-green” movement that stopped it in its tracks.

We’re not above dangerous thinking when the occasion demands. On these cold, dark evenings up here on the Mountain we tend to think a lot, to keep warm, and that was the spirit in the crowded front bar of our local watering hole, the Fern Tree Tavern, last Thursday.

We’re lucky in Fern Tree to have publicans who like to host some serious public thinking every week or two. One of the partners, Leanne Minshull, also happens to manage Tasmanian activities for The Australia Institute.

Hence last week’s guest extraordinaire of sharp tongue and sharper mind. As well as being the chief economist of the Canberra-based think-tank that employs Minshull, Richard Denniss is author of several books about society, money and “affluenza”.

Denniss is now taking aim at neoliberalism, an idea thought up 70 years ago by economists with the reasonable aim of limiting state power. Its alternative vision, in the name of individual freedom, was a world dominated by private property and the “invisible hand” of the competitive market.

In the 1980s it swept through Britain and the US. Keen not to seem like unclad emperors, successive Australian governments floated the dollar, dumped tariffs, deregulated finance and privatised many public functions, including (except in Tasmania, thankfully) electricity.

Those were strange times to work in government, as I did then. I well remember the market-testing madness that overtook the public service in the late 1990s, when John Howard’s men decreed that any activity listed in the phone book’s Yellow Pages should be handed over to the private sector.

To many Australians, myself included, it seemed like a revolution. It was astonishing to observe politicians and bureaucrats willingly ditching time-honoured probity, equity and justice standards, the product of centuries of collective effort by all sides of politics.

In Dead Right, the latest Quarterly Essay, Denniss takes stock of this fire-sale of our public inheritance, in which some politicians and public servants who led the selling orgy took lucrative consultancies with beneficiaries of their largesse, to augment already generous pensions.

In the name of continuous growth and “global competitiveness”, neoliberalism radically increased inequality and hardened social division, says Denniss: “Australians now work some of the longest hours in the developed world, unpaid overtime is the norm for most workers, and our unemployment benefits are among the stingiest in the developed world.”

Denniss points out that decades of economic growth have delivered Australia unprecedented wealth, measured per person – richer than Russia and on a par with the richest European countries – a lucky break driven largely by overseas demand for our minerals.

Yet we claim we can’t afford to pay our unemployed enough to live on, or to provide universal health care, free education for our children and other things considered to be citizen’s natural rights.

The country is rolling in money, yet people in increasing numbers – one in four Australians according to a survey released last week by the not-for-profit group Good Shepherd Microfinance – are too poor to pay a mortgage or buy everyday items. Where has all the money gone?

We need look no further than the rich list. I don’t want their money, but like most Australians I want a fairer proportion of their windfall from this country’s natural resources to find its way back to funding our sadly neglected public good.

Neoliberalism, says Denniss, is now a spent force, with even its most ardent past acolytes now reversing their stance on the central issue of private versus public ownership. The question is, what must we now do to restore damaged Australian values and institutions?

Simple: first we fix the tax system so that everyone shares equally in the cost of those cherished egalitarian ideals, then we use the billions of reclaimed tax dollars to make a better country.

A better country, says Denniss, would include things like a charter of rights, a sovereign wealth fund, a federal corruption watchdog, education to support democracy, and a national interest commission to help direct resources where they’re really needed.

Most of these ideas have been kicked around for years. Fearing unforeseen consequences, leaders treat them like the plague. But they all speak to the appalling deficit in humanity that has marked governments of all colours since they first took on the mantle of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism conned people into thinking that governments should defer to self-serving elites. But as Denniss says, in electing our representatives and holding them to account, we voters have all the power. All we have to do is to use it.

Posted in Australian politics, business, investment, employment, economic activity, economic restructuring, growth, international politics, leadership, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The slippery slope of ‘direct action’

With the conservative side of politics locked in battle over climate and energy policies, the rest of us can only look on in dismay.

Abbott and Turnbull in more collegial times. PHOTO ABC

Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull in friendlier times (early 2015). PHOTO ABC

When Tony Abbott first took aim at Julia Gillard’s carbon tax all those years ago, he set in motion a chain of events which still reverberates through the Australian political landscape.

Now, long after Abbott’s angry, divisive campaign to discredit “Ju-liar” and her tax, the Coalition faces its own credibility demons. It is now bitterly divided over how to stop what little remains of its tattered energy policy from going the same way as the carbon tax.

Last week’s party-room debate over the National Energy Guarantee – which the Labor opposition thinks it may support to help put some sort of price control on carbon pollution – would be hard to imagine in democratic governing circles anywhere except Donald Trump’s America.

Australia had this same debate in 2008 and 2009, in what now seem more rational times when European democracies including the UK, appreciating the scale of the challenge ahead, tackled economy-wide controls over fossil-fuel pollution.

Now, according to the World Bank’s Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, 42 national and 25 subnational jurisdictions are pricing carbon or have legislated a schedule to do so. In our own part of the world that includes China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.

When the carbon tax passed in 2011, I thought that this big economic shift would eventually prevail despite the lack of Coalition support, but I underestimated the skill and determination of Tony Abbott as opposition leader.

If we want to know how things are now at this pretty pass, we need go back no further than Abbott’s deeply sceptical comment on carbon pricing – “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one” – just before he became prime minister in 2013.

This is the thing: many conservative politicians, including MPs Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Senators Ian Macdonald, Eric Abetz, Jonathon Duniam and pretty well all National MPs and senators, see human-induced climate change as a plot to scare people.

Ignoring science, they base their belief on ideology, religion, distrust of expert knowledge and “gut instinct”. In turn they can influence colleagues who are just tired of the constant background pressure around climate change.

Hardly anyone now seriously believes in “direct action”, the narrative crafted in opposition by Abbott and his climate policy spokesman Greg Hunt as an alternative to carbon pricing, and continued now by Hunt’s successor as environment minister, Josh Frydenberg.

That narrative says that the carbon tax and support for renewable energy were responsible for all our electricity price woes. In reality the carbon tax added about 10 per cent to power bills, but that pales into insignificance when compared to other market factors over the past decade.

The head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, told a forum of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia last week that the main cause of rising power prices was the cost of the network, while the carbon tax was simply a victim of poor timing.

Both Hunt and Frydenberg have said repeatedly that the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), which draws from a limited revenue pool to fund land carbon schemes, mostly to do with trees, has been less costly and more effective than the carbon tax.

Most scientific and economic opinion, and the government’s own emissions data, say otherwise. So did Malcolm Turnbull himself in 2010, telling parliament that direct subsidies to cut emissions were “a slippery slope” leading to “higher taxes and more costly and less effective abatement”.

But this is about party-room politics, not evidence or expertise.

The irony is that recent and planned land clearing operations, mainly in Queensland, are more than neutralising the 124 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions that the government claims to have saved as a result of ERF-supported tree carbon schemes since 2015.

The government’s emissions projections for this year indicate that 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted from land-clearing this year alone, on top of over 160 million tonnes released since 2015.

The contradictions are everywhere, including in Tasmania. The Hodgman government’s claim to lead the world in making Tasmania carbon-neutral depends entirely on a low level of forest harvesting.

Meanwhile resources minister Guy Barnett wants to open up 356,000 hectares of native forest to logging. If business-as-usual resumes when that moratorium is lifted or expires, Tasmania’s tenuous climate leadership claims will vanish in the smoke from the clear-fell burns.

Contradictions are irrelevant in these political games, played by people in an alternative universe who think climate change is nothing to worry about. The constant question for those of us who do take this seriously is, what on earth will awaken them to reality?

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, climate politics, emissions trading, forests and forestry, land use, leadership, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment