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.

Posted in changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, contrarians, energy, fossil fuels, international politics, leadership, renewable energy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Preparing a new generation for living sustainably

How schools are stepping in where public discourse has failed

Snug Primary students during a day exploring the Conningham Nature Recreation Area. PHOTO Tasmanian Parks & Wildldife Service

Snug Primary students during a day exploring the Conningham Nature Recreation Area. PHOTO Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service

In September, carbon dioxide levels in the air are at their annual minimum. For the first time in human history, last month they stayed above 400 parts per million, making it all but certain that no-one alive today will ever again see CO2 below that symbolic mark.

We don’t yet have September global surface temperature data, but August produced the 16th successive monthly heat record and 2016 now seems certain to become the warmest year – the third year in a row to break the record.

Meanwhile, one-in-50- or 100-year weather events are happening often enough to question the point of such names.

Yet in Australia the public response to a rapidly-changing climate seems muted, as if we’ve moved on, tired of the endless succession of warnings. At least that’s what an unresponsive Turnbull government seems to be counting on.

But the story doesn’t end there. Four years ago a Climate Institute poll found just 52 per cent of people wanted Australia to be a climate action leader. Last week, another survey revealed that has risen to 65 per cent, with people aged under 35 being the main drivers of the trend.

Young people understand that if we fail to bite the bullet to reduce our carbon emissions, today’s climate trends could turn into something much less pleasant when they’re older. This is where schools come into the picture.

Sustainability is one of three cross-curriculum priorities in Australia’s world-leading national curriculum. That is seeing the biggest sustainability issue of all, climate change, explored in classrooms around the country.

But there’s another reason, driven by the students themselves. In discussions about climate change with many Tasmanian primary and secondary school groups over 10 years I’ve repeatedly been struck by the strength of feeling shown by many students about living sustainably.

That passion is shared with some truly dedicated teachers, led by people like Snug Primary School assistant principal Sue Hastie and class teacher Tracey Ozkilnic.

A school parent, the City of Hobart’s climate change officer Katrina Graham, introduced them to Hobart’s Home Energy Audit Toolkit (HEAT). The kits’ practical tools were an ideal fit with the school’s aim to get children working on real sustainability issues.

A Tasmanian government “Climate Connect” grant funded Snug Primary’s development of curriculum materials using expert outside knowledge – people like retired tertiary teacher and energy whiz John Todd and environmental educators Nel Smit and Margaret Steadman.

Secondary teacher Duncan Brain made the same linkage at New Town High, securing funding from Hobart City to develop secondary teaching materials.

Kingborough Council officers Jon Doole and Aby McGuire worked with Jocelyn Scopes and Maria Clippingdale (Hobart) in preparing “Take It Home” materials. Launched last month by Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey, the kits are available for all southern Tasmanian schools to borrow.

Experience is the best teacher. Take It Home enables whole classes of students to take HEAT kits into their own homes to help their families improve home energy use. In doing so, the students also learn how energy can be better managed to deliver a more sustainable world.

The power of practical learning was brought home to me a couple of years ago in Tracey Ozkilnic’s grade 6 class. It was an unforgettable experience to hear the children talk about models they had made of sustainable homes and villages and about their future vision of a sustainable world.

I learned that it wasn’t just teachers driving this, but children as well. As the Australian Curriculum kicks in around the country, a new generation entering the workforce and rearing yet another generation will have a far better grasp of living sustainably than we ever did.

Given an opening by good teaching, kids see the climate signals and grasp the essentials of what has to be done. They’re already causing parents to change their ways and their thinking. Eventually they will move whole governments.

Posted in changes to climate, climate system, coal-fired, coastal management, community action, education, energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, forests and forestry, future climate, human behaviour, local economy, science, Uncategorized, waste, wildlife management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment