Ideological fiddling while the world burns

Josh Frydenberg protests that the Turnbull government is on track to achieve climate goals. Unfortunately that’s not the same as cutting emissions.

Annual average global surface temperatures over the past 40 years, derived from NASA, Copernicus and WMO data.

Annual average global surface temperatures over the past 40 years, derived from NASA, Copernicus and WMO data.

If you’re feeling relieved that the average temperature in 2017 around the world and in Australia was slightly lower than that of the record-breaking year of 2016, stop right now.

There is nothing in the latest temperature data to feel good about. While 2016 experienced an El Niño weather event, which tends to push global temperatures markedly higher, 2017 didn’t.

Even so, the European Union’s climate-monitoring service Copernicus says that last year was still warmer than 2015 and 2014 and all other years on the record going back to the mid-1800s. It was also half a degree warmer than the 1981-2010 average and 1.2C warmer than in the 1700s.

The Bureau of Meteorology announced last month that the world was in a weak La Niña phase, which may help ensure 2018 remains below 2016. But that’s little comfort.

In Australia, the Bureau said last week, 2017 continued the trend of warmer-than-average years, coming in third hottest behind 2016 and 2015, both of which had been affected by a strong El Niño.

Nobody could be surprised by any of this. Science revealed 150 years ago that carbon dioxide retains heat energy. It’s 70 years since we knew that carbon dioxide levels in the air were rising, and strong evidence that this was causing global warming surfaced in the 1980s.

In the 25 years since nations resolved to act in 1992, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has continued to climb ever more rapidly. It is now well clear of 400 parts per million everywhere in the world – 45 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times.

Some nations, notably European ones, are performing better than others, but China still depends heavily on coal to power its growth and Donald Trump and the US Congress continue to behave as if nothing is happening. Small successes are being dwarfed by monumental failure.

All nations are culpable, but as the only nation to ditch carbon pricing, Australia is especially so. We replaced a promising but deficient pricing scheme (it didn’t tackle transport) with a mish-mash of ineffectual measures that skirt around the central problem, fossil-fuel emissions.

In the Hobart Mercury on 2 January, environment minister Josh Frydenberg took issue with my negative comments in December about his government’s performance on climate, writing that I overlooked “significant action”.

He wrote that the government would “easily surpass” its 2020 emission target and had a much better “emissions outlook” than when Labor was in power. He said the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency had lowered the cost of innovation.

While both those agencies are doing well, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy in underpinning an argument with such Labor initiatives without mentioning that his own government sought to abolish them. And surpassing modest targets using highly-uncertain land-use data is nothing to be proud of.

Frydenberg said I had belittled and “ridiculed” key measures of his government. I admit to angry words, but my message was that the schemes’ emissions-cutting capacity was overblown. Ignoring transport emissions, for instance, is surely a shortcoming as it was under Labor’s carbon price.

The failure of existing measures to bring down fossil-fuel emissions is on clear display in the government’s own data. The passage of time means new measures need be tougher than what previously applied. My complaint is that they’re actually weaker.

Frydenberg referred to my “latest polemic against the Turnbull government”. This says a lot about the parlous state of climate policy in the government. Branding criticism as a polemic apparently gives licence to ignore the substance of the criticism, which gets us nowhere.

This should not be so personal. The PM and his environment minister may mean well, but they have fallen captive to a minority sentiment in their party that sees global warming as nothing more than politics, a leftist plot. Such a sentiment precludes rational discussion of climate issues.

It’s a disease that has persisted here and elsewhere in the developed world, led by perhaps the most ideologically-driven, least informed president ever to sit in the Oval Office.

With gung-ho Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as his attack dogs, Donald Trump has presided over the systematic dismantling of previous administrations’ climate measures, while also sacking or silencing government scientists.

So far successive Coalition governments have not rejected wholesale the advice of professional scientists and other specialists, although Tony Abbott as PM dipped a toe in this murky water.

In light of its repeated failure to respond to scientists’ pleas to put teeth into climate measures – not to mention Turnbull’s demotion of science to a non-cabinet portfolio during the Christmas rush (funny, that) – it’s reasonable to conclude that the government is putting ideology ahead of reality.

The world has wasted precious time playing politics with climate change. Now we are reaping the miserable consequences.

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The man behind the black armbands

Tom Maggs was remembered by Australia’s cricket elite on Boxing Day, though cricket was not his scene. He was a champion of another kind.

Tom Maggs

Tom Maggs

Last week I went to the funeral of a man who died on Christmas Eve after a stroke, just a week shy of his 65th birthday. His son-in-law happened to be Australia’s test wicketkeeper, Tim Paine.

Millions of cricket watchers would have noticed Australians wearing black armbands when they went out to bat in Melbourne on Boxing Day. It was duly noted in the media, but with virtually no information about the person who inspired it. I want to help fill in that gap.

It’s ironic that Tom Maggs was remembered at a major international cricket match. He had absolutely no interest in sport throughout his life – until a year or two ago. He started following cricket only after his daughter Bonnie brought a champion of the game into the family.

Tom loved doing stuff outdoors – tending to animals, tramping in the wilderness and such like. He had a physical grace about him and in his younger days might have passed for a sportsman except for his short-sightedness. But he was another kind of champion.

Tom Maggs served as radio operator and sledge dog handler (he loved all animals) through two Antarctic winters at Mawson station. He joined the staff of the Australian Antarctic Division when it was still based in Melbourne, and moved to Hobart when the AAD was relocated there in 1981.

When I first met him soon after I joined AAD staff in 1987 he was preparing for a stint as station leader at another Antarctic base, Casey, through the winter of 1988.

That same year Sydney entrepreneur Dick Smith decided to spend some of the fortune he’d made in electronic retailing to show the AAD why it should be flying planes. In November 1988 he and British pilot Giles Kershaw landed on Antarctic ice to complete the first-ever Hobart-Casey flight.

Exeditioner Owen Holmwood, one of the welcoming party at the landing strip as the two aviators stepped on to the ice, later recalled how station leader Maggs dealt with this historic occasion:

“Tom was just starting to wax lyrical about the staggering importance of the event, when there darted out from among the assembled multitude two St. Trinians schoolgirls, with blond wigs, fulsome blouses, short blue tunics, frilly knickers and fishnet stockings.

“They skipped straight past the official party, and presented the startled airmen with bunches of plastic flowers and kisses on both cheeks. The two interlopers then dashed back into the crowd to put on warm clothes, before anything that girls don’t have dropped off.

“Tom, ever the pragmatist, realised that he had no chance of restoring that sense of decorum which is so characteristic of [Australian Antarctic] ceremonies, and dispensed with further formalities.”

Two things about Tom come out of this. First, his sense of humour.

Some official speakers might take offence at such an interruption, but not Tom. Whatever Smith and Kershaw thought, Tom knew a good joke when he saw it, and doubtless led the laughter. He was himself a real wit, but his was a gentle humour, never at others’ expense.

Second, he was eloquent in both speech and writing. Wondrous Antarctica came to life in his words, whether it was the exploits of ice explorers, sea ice exploding against a ship’s hull, sledge dogs howling at the moon or the first sunrise after a long winter. I only wish I had his gift.

He loved listening to music, mostly classical. He was an avid reader and a deep thinker, and enjoyed wrestling with complex questions. He was very much at home among the scientists he worked with, and had a rare ability to articulate the complex processes they studied.

Tom Maggs had a long and distinguished career at the AAD and in the wider international Antarctic community. His leadership, skills in writing and analysis and love of nature landed him a succession of management roles in environmental policy and strategic development.

Underlying his career was a deep humanity, evident in all that was said about him at his crowded funeral in Hobart last week. Memories shared by his beloved daughters, Bonnie and Georgie, were touching testament to his finest attribute, a father’s unstinting commitment to his own.

When I left the AAD in difficult circumstances in 2002, Tom was MC in a rousing send-off at which he and other colleagues said many nice things about me. I felt as if I was listening to especially friendly eulogies at my own funeral. It was a huge fillip and a great start to my new life.

Such compliments are to be taken with a pinch of salt. I think Tom knew his strengths and his weaknesses. If he had been able to hear the eulogies about him last week, he’d have enjoyed the moment with his characteristic smile and then got on with the rest of his life.

I’ll always remember that smile. Tom Maggs richly deserved a black armband on the MCG. I am proud to have known this humble, generous man and sad indeed that he is lost to us.

Posted in Antarctic, aviation, ice, workplace issues | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The battle to tame Prosser’s shifting sands

Bending nature to our will is not a straightforward matter.

Pleasure craft using the newly-made channel through Prosser’s sands.

Pleasure craft using the newly-made channel through Prosser’s sands.

The little beach near Port Arthur where my family used to camp over summer was the perfect place for a boy to play out fantasies about coastal engineering.

As with so many beaches around Tasmania, at one end of Stewarts Bay there’s a little lagoon with a creek, which with enough flow finds its way over the sand to the sea.

I think I found nature all too irregular, because I used to like damming the creek with the camping spade, then diverting the overflow along a channel down to the waves. Every high tide washed out my handiwork, but it didn’t stop me doing it all again, and again.

We sometimes travelled up the east coast to Orford, which offered a similar scenario. Except that the Prosser is a river and messing about with a spade isn’t going to change its course. Instead we dug great holes in the beach, because you could.

There’s a lot of sand at the head of Prosser Bay, which makes for big landform changes as a stormy sea does its handiwork, or a river in flood – a wonderful place for children, or anyone, to explore.

Others haven’t seen things quite that way. Chris Dillon, boat-owner and member of the Orford-Triabunna Chamber of Commerce, has been campaigning for years for a permanent channel to allow boats to pass freely from the Prosser estuary to the sea.

I see what he’s getting at. Orford could be a pleasure-boat paradise. Its lagoon is perfect for tying up, and Maria Island stops big ocean swells in Prosser Bay. But there’s that damn sandbar.

Various dredging operations in the past came to nought as the beach quickly reverted to its natural form, so the boat-owners called for something more serious.

Enter Glamorgan-Spring Bay mayor Michael Kent, who committed $250,000 in council funds, and infrastructure minister Rene Hidding, who found the remaining three-quarters of a $1.04 million estimate for making a channel through the sand to the sea.

Last April Tasmanian-based engineers Burbury Consulting were contracted to do pretty much what I used to do, except on a grander scale. And unlike my constructions, doomed to be obliterated with the next high tide, this one is intended to last 30 years.

The key to this bit of geoengineering is a “geotextile revetment” on either side of the channel, whereby bags made from a woven synthetic fabric are filled with sand and stacked to form a sloping wall to hold back the beach sand.

Since April Burbury Consulting have cut through the sandbar and put the removed sand into huge bags (each filled bag weighs around 200 tonnes) which they’ve stacked along either side of the river mouth to create a “permanent” channel.

One of the project’s complications was pressure from Birdlife Tasmania to protect shore bird habitat. The planned course of the channel has been shifted to allow more sandy area for birds to breed and forage, and this may have created some issues with the outflow through the channel.

Beach users have had the odd surprise. Debbie Wisby, a Glamorgan Spring Bay councillor, reported a person walking near the edge of the channel who suddenly dropped chest-deep into the sand, apparently a result of erosion behind the walls.

A few of the bags have been found to be torn, perhaps a manufacturing defect, resulting in sand being washed out, and there’s been criticism of irregularities in the way they were laid.

Engineering know-how and modern technology should find solutions to such problems. But redesigning sandy coasts is a very uncertain business, and greater certainty comes at a greater price. We may not have seen the last powerboat stranding on a Prosser River sandbar.

The paperwork shows that authorities considered opposing points of view in the approval process, including objections over bird breeding and other nature conservation issues, but judged they were not sufficient to stop the project going ahead.

The instigators of these sorts of infrastructure cases, the ones pushing hardest, tend to get most of the attention as “principal stakeholders”. In the Prosser case they’re marine administrators and owners of boats and waterfront property. The pressure they exert is hard to resist.

I’m just an occasional visitor with happy childhood memories of Orford’s beaches. I could never claim to be a major stakeholder, and I appreciate this project is now effectively done and dusted. But it doesn’t hurt to remind people that in cases like this doing nothing is a real option.

Had the channel not been built, crossing the sandbar would have remained a risk for boat-owners, but they always had the option of using the open-water port of Triabunna, a 15-minute drive away.

Without the channel the many beach users who treasured this spot could have continued to enjoy the natural pleasures of a meandering watercourse across an endlessly-changing beachscape, free of contrived coastlines and seawalls.

Sometimes, progress is just an illusion.

Posted in biodiversity, built environment, coastal management, ecology, geoengineering, local government, Tasmanian politics, water | Leave a comment