Warming record gets the cold shoulder

Those who govern us are alarmingly indifferent to warming extremes


More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center

More heat = less ice: 2016 data from NASA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center GRAPHS courtesy OpenMind

As I write this, climate monitoring organisations around the world including our own Bureau of Meteorology are assessing where 2016 sits on Earth’s 136-year temperature record.

Very soon the various conclusions will be out. Monthly year-to-date data indicate that 2016 will be the third successive record-warm year, after 2014 and 2015 had each set new highs.

This amazing run of record-breaking global warming is likely to end in 2017, in the absence of the powerful El Niño weather event that dominated conditions in 2015-16. But any lull will be temporary as high greenhouse gas levels continue to drive a relentless upward trend.

Temperature wasn’t the only bad news from 2016. The average extent of sea ice globally – taking in both northern and southern polar regions – was the lowest on record, driven by near-record lows in the Arctic and a dramatic drop in Antarctic sea ice cover from August onward.

We keep hearing about government progress in cutting emissions, but data from air monitoring stations, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim, tell a different story – not just a record high level of CO2 at the end of the year, but a record rate of increase. That’s truly disturbing.

Veteran US physicist James Hansen told an interviewer for the magazine Rolling Stone last month that our only chance of stabilising climate is to reverse the present emissions trend by making deep emissions cuts year-on-year, beginning now.

The last time Earth experienced today’s mean temperature, around 120,000 years ago, said Hansen, sea level was six to nine metres higher than now. He added that if warming gets to 2C above pre-industrial levels, seas will eventually rise even higher than that and weather will be dangerously unstable.

Yet our current trajectory has us headed for 3C to 4C of warming, possibly more. Hansen believes the point where an unstable climate causes the global economy to collapse and the world to become ungovernable isn’t far away.

In 1988 Hansen testified before congress about the danger of greenhouse warming. Many scientists consider his projections to be on the high side, but while they sometimes chide him for going out on a limb they don’t reject what he says out of hand. He knows too much for that.

Here’s the thing. A few thousand people on the planet have taken the trouble to develop the tools and skills necessary to work out what’s happening to the climate. Unlike everyone else, they’ve done the sums – and they say that if we don’t change things, we’re cooked.

Most people with power and influence know nothing about the science but feel threatened by the message and pretend they didn’t hear it. Others even declare the message to be wrong, and try to undermine scientists’ credibility. Unfortunately for us all, those tactics are working.

In May 1940, when Nazi Germany had Britain on its knees, Winston Churchill spoke of “an ordeal of the most grievous kind” ahead, for which he could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

If we had leaders able to articulate the climate challenge with that kind of courage and honesty we just might secure what is needed: an agreement crossing the full political and social spectrum to do whatever it takes to achieve real, substantial, permanent emission cuts.

But to articulate the challenge you first must understand something about science and its method, and that is in alarmingly short supply among our political and opinion leaders. Instead, we’ve had to put up with wimps and charlatans unprepared to call this for the crisis that it is.

Above all we must end the silence. More dangerous than the outright deniers in political ranks are those who pretend to be on the side of the science and then ignore it, turn away and do nothing.

In Australia, while our political masters see, hear and say nothing, the crazies bang at the gates demanding to be let in. In America the crazies are in already and about to take over the whole show.

The hard-won achievements of science and learning can be all too easily lost. Maybe a short, sharp dose of madness at the top will teach us to appreciate anew the value of sanity, knowledge, thoughtfulness and sweet reason, and commit ourselves to a science-driven regime.

Maybe, but why are we even countenancing such a thing? Why has it come to this?

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A government at a crossroads

It’s time Tasmanian leaders accepted responsibility for mitigating climate change.

Matthew Groom’s first draft of a climate strategy, “Embracing the Climate Challenge”, released in December 2015.

Matthew Groom’s first draft of a climate strategy, “Embracing the Climate Challenge”, released in December 2015.

Will Hodgman’s government is nothing if not busy when it comes to getting the message out.

In the past month it has put out 126 media releases – over four every day including weekends. The long list includes worthy initiatives in infrastructure, job training, gender equality, suicide, cyber-bullying, domestic violence and Aboriginal recognition.

Some media releases touch on energy and environment issues, including the big winter floods, energy security and bushfire preparation. Just one of them mentions climate change, in the context of the review of last summer’s wilderness fires led by environmental scientist Tony Press.

Press’s December report warns that climate change is causing summers to extend into autumn and increasing the incidence of fires sparked by lightning, especially since 2000. That in turn is raising wilderness fire risk and will make fire management more challenging as this century progresses.

Environment minister Matthew Groom made no mention of that rising challenge in his long media release on Press’s review, but he did say that wilderness fires weren’t unique to 2016 and had been recorded as far back as the 1930s. What’s that about? Is he saying that Press exaggerates future climate change?

In 2014 Groom disbanded the Tasmanian Climate Action Council, which for six years had advised government on climate change, on grounds that it didn’t justify its cost. In its last full year that cost amounted to $152,000. By my reckoning it would have been one of the cheapest advisory bodies.

In late 2014 former TCAC members re-assembled in a new voluntary group called Climate Tasmania. Today its numbers include climate scientists, lawyers, economists and others with something to offer public policy on climate change. I have been a member since January 2016.

Last week the co-convener of Climate Tasmania, economist Phillip Harrington, challenged the government “to make 2017 the year to re-set the clock on the state’s climate change strategies, to protect Tasmania from further economic harm”.

Harrington pointed out that weather events last year were the direct cause of a costly energy crisis, devastating wildfires, road and rail damage and loss of agricultural soils. This, he said, showed the fallacy of decision-makers’ attitude that Tasmania was a low-risk part of the world.

He lamented the failure of successive governments to implement any effective climate strategy for Tasmania and called for leaders to jointly enter a “fresh dialogue” and acknowledge the crucial place of climate action in Tasmania’s future economic and social well-being.

The annual Bureau of Meteorology climate report issued last week underlined Harrington’s words. 2016 was the state’s warmest year and included two notable extremes: the wettest eight months on record (May to December) immediately after the driest eight months on record.

Approaching three years into the Hodgman government, having dumped the policy work of his predecessors, Groom has again put off finalising a climate change strategy. It’s as if he harbours a vain hope that delaying the process will cause this difficult problem to go away.

Besides risk, this is about responsibility. Every jurisdiction, no matter how small, has a duty to its people and the world to do all it can to reduce carbon emissions. Inaction up the pecking order, which is true for Australia at present, makes the responsibility that much greater.

The Hodgman government isn’t the first to shirk its responsibility. Since the first climate legislation was passed under Paul Lennon, successive Labor governments – and the present opposition – have like their opposite numbers treated climate change as “non-core” business.

That attitude will not be favoured by history. Despite the protests of self-styled “sceptics”, our scientific understanding of climate change and the human actions that have driven it are steadily building, and with that inexorable progress will come increasing electoral support for action.

The Hodgman government is at a crossroads. It can continue to avoid climate action under the delusion that this will not be a future electoral issue. If that happens it will join history’s also-rans.

Or it can seek agreement across parliament and community to make climate change a top public priority, and act accordingly. If it succeeds in that, it will become a government for the ages.

Posted in Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, community action, contrarians, future climate, leadership, public opinion, science, social and personal issues, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where is Turnbull in the renewable revolution?

While Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers bang the coal industry drum, renewable energy is powering along. Whatever happened to Turnbull’s spirit of innovation?

Elon Musk and his solar roof, at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. PHOTO YouTube

Elon Musk and his solar roof, at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. PHOTO YouTube

Just over a year ago, amid much fanfare, Malcolm Turnbull announced the program that he wanted to define his prime ministership: the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Since then we’ve seen many announcements, sometimes several a week, about what NISA is delivering to the country, but it’s impossible at this early stage to gauge its impact.

The political spin hasn’t mentioned that money is being restored to CSIRO and universities that they shouldn’t have lost, and that these institutions are being pushed into collaboration with industry at the expense of independent research. That should never be a choice. We need both.

That isn’t to say the money is wasted. Innovation is not spun up overnight. Some goals will only be realised many years hence, through more focused education, training and research. If those long-term programs bear fruit it will be good reason to thank NISA.

No broad-based public program should focus on a single research area. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that the question dominating today’s public discourse on innovative technology – how we might power our lives without fossil fuels – is missing from NISA’s list of announcements.

But it does suggest that the government is unenthusiastic about renewable energy, a view supported by multiple attacks by the PM, energy minister Josh Frydenberg and others in government on South Australia’s advanced wind-solar energy policy.

That defies reason. The Coalition’s own emissions figures, which it released late in the week before Christmas, show that in June 2016 national carbon emissions were 2.2 per cent higher than in June 2014, when Tony Abbott’s government abolished carbon pricing.

With the government continuing to scratch around for an effective alternative it makes eminent good sense to get solidly behind low-carbon energy, a view underlined by the December report of the government’s expert panel on energy security led by chief scientist Alan Finkel.

Finkel’s report says that consumers are driving a low-emission energy transformation, and that with current technology and the right governance, variable renewables – wind and solar power – can be effectively integrated into the system. So why all the fuss over South Australia?

A lot is happening – and very quickly – in the global renewable energy market. There’s no better indication of this brewing revolution than the latest initiative by the darling of leading-edge venture capital, Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Musk is a man on several missions. His name has become synonymous with space rocketry, electric cars and home battery packs. Now he’s moving in a direction which could shake energy policy to its foundations throughout the developed world.

In mid-2016 Musk announced Tesla’s full takeover of the biggest US solar panel company, Solar City. The strategic importance of that move became clear at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, in October, when he stood on an outdoor stage on the leafy suburban set of “Desperate Housewives”.

Steve Jobs made an art form out of announcing various Apple revolutions. Musk’s foreshadowed revolution is even bigger: millions of solar roofs able to produce more power than today’s centralised generators, at less cost, feeding into a grid to help drive a zero-carbon future.

This all-electric miracle will be achieved by new, more powerful batteries fed by cells embedded in textured-glass roof tiles “that look better than a normal roof, generate electricity, last longer, have better insulation, and cost less than a normal roof plus cost of electricity,” said Musk.

Around him at Universal Studios were three renovated Desperate Housewives’ homes, each with a new solar roof and, in the garage, Tesla cars and battery packs.

Yes, this is Hollywood, and yes, “cost of electricity” isn’t fully explained or the scheduled mid-2017 release date set in stone. And like most ground-breakers, SolarCity and Tesla are currently trading at a substantial loss. But even if these fail, there are many others snapping at Musk’s heels.

As it’s getting more powerful, rooftop power is getting cheaper. A roof that supplies free energy in perpetuity is all but irresistible, and a growing legion of global players, drawing on advanced science in numerous institutions, will eventually deliver the solar power revolution Musk envisages.

The disruption will be felt keenly by Australia, with its big coal reserves, but denying that it will happen will only add to the economic and social damage. We need the government to accept the inevitable and help prepare us for the change – or even to help lead it. It’s never too late.

As Malcolm Turnbull says, this is an exciting time to be alive. But it remains to be seen whether he or his government will be able to take any credit for it.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, built environment, business interests, climate politics, coal-fired, community action, consumption, economic activity, energy, energy research, investment, leadership, renewable energy, science, social and personal issues, social mindsets, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment