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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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Peter Boyer’s professional site: writing, editing, illustration services.

ClimateTasmania

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.

Danger looms but politics continues regardless

Once more the government shows its skill in avoiding real issues. [16 December 2014 | Boyer]

What is a stable climate worth? What price should each country pay in the global effort to get greenhouse gases down to a level that will allow our grandchildren to enjoy the climate we did?

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop at the 20th UNFCCC meeting in Lima, Peru. PHOTO GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop at the 20th UNFCCC meeting in Lima, Peru. PHOTO GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA

The answer depends on how you measure it.

It’s clear that each of the big national emitters has to be part of the solution. In recent years these have been China (nearly a quarter of global emissions), the US (around 16 per cent) and the European Union with 11 per cent.

Of other major emitters, India’s contribution is 6 per cent and growing. Russia’s is nearly that, with the rest of the top 10 made up of Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada and Iran. Australia comes in at 14th with a modest 1.3 per cent of the total.

Responsibility at a personal level is another story. Australia’s per-capita emissions are higher than those of any other G20 country and 2½ times those of China, putting us in the same league as inefficient rust-belt economies and profligate Middle East oil sheikdoms.

Another measure is the ratio of a country’s emissions to its economic output. Australia is about half-way down the list. We’re more efficient than Russia, China and India and about the same as Israel and South Korea, but we’re behind Canada and the US, and well behind Europe, Japan and our neighbour across the Tasman, New Zealand.

Then there’s historical emissions. In global diplomacy this measure gives an advantage to developing countries such as China, India and Brazil, so it tends to get ignored by the leaders of richer countries, including Australia.

But it’s not without merit. Carbon dioxide molecules can remain in the atmosphere for many centuries. Emissions from the start of the Industrial Revolution still affect our climate today and will do so for centuries more.

Over those 270-odd years, accumulated emissions from developed economies including Europe, North America, Japan and Australia add up to nearly three-quarters of the global total.

The remainder includes China and India. While they stand to lose enormously from global warming, their total historical contribution to it remains small compared with developed countries, so they have held back on making tough commitments.

But it’s complicated. For example, China’s booming economy gives scope to cut emissions more, while former Soviet states with historically high emissions have much less capacity to do so.

This is by way of a backdrop to the appearance at the 20th formal UN climate meeting in Lima last week of foreign minister Julie Bishop and her “chaperone”, trade minister Andrew Robb. The internal politics behind that arrangement is interesting, but that’s another story.

Historical emissions don’t wash with Bishop. She told delegates not to distinguish developing from developed countries, and that China and India needed to stop using their developing status as an excuse not to put in more effort to cut emissions.

She also pulled $A200 million ($US166 million) from her foreign aid kitty to put into the Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries deal with climate change, despite Tony Abbott’s earlier refusal to have anything to do with what he called the Bob Brown Bank. More interesting politics.

But banish any thought that Australia might lead by example. Bishop said Australia won’t set up a post-2020 target until our trading partners have announced theirs. Robb even intimated that if trading partners didn’t pull their weight we’d opt out altogether.

Climate, however, doesn’t wait for politics. The sense of urgency that keeps finding its way into these meetings came this year in the form of the UN Environment Program’s fifth annual Emissions Gap Report, released as the Lima meeting started.

There’s no precise danger line for global warming, but it will certainly be dangerous when the world’s mean surface temperature is 2C above pre-industrial levels. In 2010 governments including Australia pledged to stay below that line. We’re now nearly halfway there and closing fast.

The Emissions Gap Report says that if we’re to stay under 2C, by around 2060 global carbon dioxide emissions will need to be balanced by CO2 uptake (carbon neutrality) and by around 2090 the same will have to apply to all greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide.

Within about 15 years global emissions will need to be more than 10 per cent below 2010 levels, and by 2050 will need to be less than half those in 2010. Postponing stringent cuts, the report says, will carry big social risks and cost more. By which you should read: be beyond our means.

Without stronger policies, the report says, in coming decades global greenhouse gas emissions “will increase hugely”. It points out that Australian emissions have risen since carbon pricing ended in July, and says we’re now on track to reach 2020 nearly 30 per cent above our very modest target.

The politics go on regardless. Despair seems appropriate, but despair is not an option.

A new climate group rises from TCAC’s ashes

The Hodgman government seems to want to go it alone on climate policy. That’s not a good idea. [9 December 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Coincidentally, on World Environment Day this year Tasmania’s energy minister Matthew Groom introduced legislation to abolish the Tasmanian Climate Action Council.

TOP: Phil Harrington (left) and Matthew Pitt, Climate Tasmania co-conveners. BOTTOM: The Climate Tasmania team with Lesley Hughes (third from right): (LtoR) Phil Harrington, Jess Fehely, Jan McDonald, James Risbey, Margaret Steadman, John Hunter, Matthew Pitt, Chris Harries. Absent: Nick Towle. PHOTOS Chris Harries, Michael Harries

TOP: Phil Harrington (left) and Matthew Pitt, Climate Tasmania co-conveners. BOTTOM: The Climate Tasmania team with Lesley Hughes (third from right): (LtoR) Phil Harrington, Jess Fehely, Jan McDonald, James Risbey, Margaret Steadman, John Hunter, Matthew Pitt, Chris Harries. Absent: Nick Towle. PHOTOS Chris Harries, Michael Harries

The TCAC ceased to exist when the bill got vice-regal assent on 11 September, the infamous date on which another institution came crashing down in New York. That also was pure coincidence.

Led first by the University of Tasmania’s Kate Crowley and then by Macquarie University ecologist Lesley Hughes, the TCAC had steadily built a reputation for solid achievement over six turbulent years in which national climate policy changed direction several times.

Given the new task of gathering data from a huge array of sources to inform policymakers, the council did well to produce detailed, ground-breaking analyses of Tasmania’s emissions profile and avenues for cost-effective mitigation and adaptation.

In his two-minute speech to open the parliamentary debate, Groom said the bill delivered on a commitment to save money by cutting boards and committees. Later, in response to a question, he also revealed the “important” savings from killing off “this piece of bureaucratic architecture”.

Considering that Lesley Hughes, who is based in Sydney, had to fly to Tasmania several times a year, and given what it costs to send a politician to an out-of-state meeting, one might think these “important” savings amounted to millions of dollars. Half a million at the very least.

But the full outlay for the committee in its final year, 2013-14, including remuneration for nine members and all their expenses, amounted to the princely sum of $152,000.

Taking account of salary, office accommodation and other costs, that total would barely pay for a single mid-level public servant, let alone a parliamentarian or a political minder. Let alone a minister. The TCAC’s top-level professional expertise came at a bargain-basement price.

The House of Assembly took 2½ hours to pass the bill, but only because four Green and Labor MPs took up speaking time to oppose it. With just one dissenting voice (Rob Valentine, Hobart), the Legislative Council to its shame took a mere 38 minutes to decide we didn’t need the TCAC.

Some MPs claimed Tasmania was “insignificant” on the world climate scene. This is nonsense. Climate change is everyone’s responsibility, and leadership can come from any quarter, Tasmania included. That should include our state’s parliament, by the way.

Except for the handful of dissenters, no-one in either house was interested in how the group differed from internal advisers, or the value of bringing together specialist knowledge to provide independent advice at arm’s length from government. This was a classic parliamentary snow job.

To its credit the government kept the highly-effective Tasmanian Climate Change Office. But this small internal body is directly answerable to government and cannot call it to account.

I’m revisiting all this, three months after the TCAC died, because in Hobart last week Leslie Hughes (at her own expense) officiated at the launch of a body seeking to fill the gap it left behind.

Climate Tasmania brings together recognised experts in agriculture, climate science, economics, energy markets, environmental education, law, public health and public policy, most of them former TCAC members, who aim to continue the council’s work on a voluntary basis.

They will produce an annual scorecard of Tasmania’s progress in cutting emissions and try to engage with the Hodgman government to secure a low-carbon development strategy for the state.

They will be contacting state and local government, business and the community to raise awareness of climate issues and help identify solutions. Next year they will convene a series of public events seeking community input into their priorities.

The Hodgman government tried going it alone on another front, forestry. With the forest agreement torn up and hostilities resuming, the industry now looks in danger of complete collapse. The government would be ill-advised to adopt the same do-it-yourself approach to climate policy.

That approach led the Abbott government to axe the Climate Commission and sideline the Climate Change Authority. Killing off the TCAC was depressingly familiar. Both governments have signalled a dislike for advisory groups that don’t follow their script.

Groom’s assertion that the TCAC is giving way to “sensible, practical action” is troublingly complacent. The government continues to need information to ensure the right practical measures are chosen and properly targeted, and it needs broad community support to implement them.

• Climate Tasmania members include environmental lawyers Jan McDonald and Jess Feehely, climate scientists John Hunter and James Risbey, medical doctor Nick Towle, environmental educator Chris Harries and Margaret Steadman, former head of Sustainable Living Tasmania. It is headed by two co-conveners, Matthew Pitt, a Derwent Valley farmer, and Pitt & Sherry economist Phil Harrington. More information about the new group can be found at ClimateTasmania.org.

Consumerism, the real meaning of Christmas

We consume because of biological imperatives. So how do we stop it being so destructive? [2 December 2014 | Peter Boyer]

You’ll need to know this: including today there are just 23 days left in which to buy your Christmas presents. A season of peace and goodwill it may be, but above all it’s a season of spending.

Advertisement for Sydney-based online supermarket Aldi Stores [PHOTO ALDI]

Season of plenty: an advertisement for Sydney-based online supermarket Aldi Stores [PHOTO ALDI]

Most seem to welcome it. Governments and economists like it because it puts money into circulation. Retailers like it because it’s insurance against harder times.

For the rest of us, there’s pleasure to be had in being out and about doing deals and rubbing shoulders with others doing the same thing. Shopping satisfies a lot of human needs.

We do it without thinking, which is just as well because the quantum of today’s Christmas shopping doesn’t bear thinking about. Along with all the love and sharing is an awful lot of stuff that we didn’t really need and a sudden spike in the quantity of local landfill.

Buying and selling goods and labour to meet daily needs is natural, normal, necessary. But now, as the economists would have it, we do it for a higher purpose: economic growth.

In 1955, with an evangelist’s fervour, US economist and self-styled marketing consultant Victor Lebow called on Americans to “make consumption our way of life” in response to the demands of a booming post-war economy.

“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace,” said Lebow. “We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

People took him at his word. Consumption per-capita has doubled since then, and in the internet age advertising has gone through the roof – more ads in a day than in a whole year back then. With obsolescence built into the system, we throw out nearly all the consumables we buy within a year.

Met with an abundance of wondrous things, huge possibilities, an enormous variety of experience and an unprecedented level of intellectual, emotional and physical stimulation, we still crave more, and it’s driving us mental.

Two centuries ago Wordsworth lamented the “getting and spending” of newly-industrialised Britain. If behaviour was excessive then, today’s consumer revolution must surely amount to a global crisis.

The endlessly-growing frenzy of modern consumerism is now beginning to overwhelm us and the planet that’s our home. There’s an irony to this, captured beautifully in the title of a fine 2011 UK documentary on the subject, Consumed: inside the belly of the beast.

As the movie reveals, consumer behaviour isn’t rational, it’s primeval. We have food virtually on tap but we still gorge ourselves. The planet is crawling with homo sapiens yet we’re still programmed to show ourselves in the best possible light for mating and reproduction.

Having the latest smart technology answers at least two evolutionary needs. It offers prestige, the appearance of being one up on the Joneses, while also providing stimulation – food for the big brains we’ve inherited – in the form of games, social networks and expanded horizons.

Marketing people like Lebow know how to press these evolutionary buttons, tapping into our urges to survive, reproduce and seek stimulation while encouraging each person to believe that they’re the centre of the universe. This is the potent mix that drives the consumer revolution.

Marketing has given each of us a false sense of power and security. Food keeps appearing as if by magic, high-speed transport whisks us across the world and computer technology gives us the power to communicate globally at the press of a button.

Yet most of us don’t have a clue how our technologies work or what sort of impact they’re having on nature. The marketers’ seductive narrative has led us down dangerous paths. What we think is real is a fabrication. The control we think we exercise is an illusion.

It’s been said that to lessen our impact on the planet we have to change how we behave, including our drive to consume. But how do we do this when the behaviour is part of our genetic make-up, deeply-rooted in our evolutionary past, as natural as eating and breathing?

This is the conundrum of the age. If we can’t stop ourselves consuming, perhaps consuming behaviour can be harnessed and redirected. We need a new narrative, one that re-frames and channels our basic needs and aspirations in such a way that instead of destroying the natural world we reconnect with it.

In such a narrative, less will be seen to be more. The smart, sexy choice for the consumer, the only way to the top of the heap, will be low-impact technologies. There’s a marketing challenge for you.

• CLIMATE TASMANIA (climatetasmania.org) is a new independent expert climate body (unconnected with this website) which will be launched in a public event at the Waterside Pavilion in Mawson Place, near Constitution Dock, at 1 pm on Thursday. RSVP by emailing climatetasmania@gmail.com