Greg Hunt’s cultivated optimism gets us nowhere

It’s good to be optimistic – so long as you remain well-grounded.

Optimism at work: a Hazara boy learns to ski. PHOTO ABC Foreign Correspondent

Optimism at work: a Hazara boy learns to ski. PHOTO ABC Foreign Correspondent

Optimism has the power to sustain us through grim times, as an ABC Foreign Correspondent report from war-ravaged Afghanistan reminded me last week.

It showed young people on makeshift skis happily sliding down a snowy slope, watched by proud parents and friends.

The people were Hazaras, an ethnic minority living in constant fear of attack by Taliban fighters. Knowing the Taliban could attack them they still came out to play. Amazing.

Optimism gets us up in the morning, keeps us going through the day and reminds us that life is worth living. It’s an essential survival mechanism, built into our DNA.

But sometimes it defies evidence and logic. It’s plain’s wrong-headed, for instance, to assume that human cleverness will always fix problems and control nature, or not to heed plausible warnings of bad outcomes.

The well-established science telling us that humans have destabilised the climate and put future life at risk should have leaders in a state of high alert. Instead they’re acting out the charade that there are more important things to think about

Environment minister Greg Hunt cultivates the air of an optimist when he claims that Australia is reducing carbon emissions, in stark defiance of the evidence of electricity market data showing that emissions rose by 2.7 per cent over the year ending in March.

His bullish assertion that tree-planting and avoided land clearing are adequate offsets for fossil-fuel emissions is ironic, coming after he had repeatedly attacked his predecessors for using tree carbon to offset “real” emissions.

He boasts that our 2030 emissions targets are exceptionally tough on a per-capita basis but omits the important information that we start from a high base. Australia’s per-capita emissions are the highest in the developed world. And our targets are among the weakest.

He suggested last week that controlling crown of thorns starfish and water inflow to the Great Barrier Reef were effective counter-measures to coral bleaching. That was after he’d flown over the northern Reef and learned that warm ocean water had permanently wiped out half its coral.

His approval of the world’s largest coal mine flew in the face of all evidence, glossing over the risk of exporting this coal through the Reef and the fact that when burned it will add a New York City’s worth of emissions to the global total.

But self-assurance is everything in this game. Before flying off to New York last week to sign us up to the Paris Agreement he airily dismissed charges that unambitious targets, the Reef bleaching event, the Carmichael mine approval and CSIRO plans to sack climate scientists had put Australia in the international dogbox.

The down-side to optimism is that it can blind us to real and present danger. We like a cheery airline pilot, but flying a plane calls for pessimism. If Greg Hunt wants to be taken seriously he should lay off the hubris.

Climate change is crying out for leaders unafraid of telling it as it is. That’s why US activist Bill McKibben, who attracted a big Hobart audience last week, gets attention wherever he goes.

Young people made up a big part of that audience. They’re the real drivers of the push to get political leaders and electors to take climate change seriously.

They too want to be optimistic about their future. They’re putting in the effort to create a society that doesn’t trash the planet, and their Australian Youth Climate Coalition is a leading participant in 350.org, the global advocacy group co-founded by McKibben.

They know that politicians who say all is well are lying or deluded, and that McKibben is right to speak of the “terrifying” unfolding of global warming. Not because they’d believe anything he says but because they’ve read what science is saying and know what’s happening around them.

Our young are being taken for a ride, and they don’t like it. They have energy and motive, and the government ignores them at its peril.

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Scientists and economists must speak with one voice

In a fractured political environment, we need economists and scientists to take a unified position on the impact of climate change.

A depleted Lake Gordon in late March, with water levels below 7 per cent. PHOTO Mercury/Matthew Holz

A depleted Lake Gordon in late March, with water levels below 7 per cent. PHOTO Matthew Holz/Mercury

Tasmanians are rediscovering the fact that our economy depends heavily on a stable climate with a reliable rainfall – a lesson never lost on farmers but easily forgotten in the cocoon of urban life.

Last week’s Senate inquiry painted a grim picture of the cost of Tasmania’s energy emergency which we’ll eventually see in power bills, a small sample of the impact of a destabilised climate on local, national and global economies.

Some economists consider themselves scientific; some scientists say that’s bunkum, but the two vocations have much in common. They’re both forced to use modelling as a primary tool because so many of their research questions can’t be tested in controlled experiments. Both have a fundamental interest in human activity. The economist studies how we produce, consume and invest; the climate scientist focuses on what these activities are doing to the planet.

Yet there’s been little cross-fertilisation between the two, and that’s at the heart of our failure to address the threat from climate change. We need them to reclaim that common ground.

Some have sought to bridge the gap. Nearing the end of an distinguished career studying planetary systems, the US physicist James Hansen now campaigns for an economy-wide “fee-and-dividend” scheme for lowering emissions. So far he’s had little response from economists.

Herman Daly (US), Nicholas Stern and Tim Jackson (UK) and Australian Ross Garnaut are among economists who in different ways have drawn on science to formulate new economic paradigms for their post-industrial age.

The commercial world is just starting to realise the impact of economic activity on natural systems. A global economy has a huge environmental impact. If its cost structures don’t acknowledge this it will eventually collapse, and that might happen sooner than we think. Global business leaders including Bank of England governor Mark Carney and US magnate Michael Bloomberg are now openly advocating that companies include climate risk information in regular financial reports.

Economic study in this field has been looking at how climate change creates stranded assets, where it becomes clear that certain carbon-intensive businesses have no future. Now we’re seeing a shift in focus to the direct economic impact of unmitigated warming.

This month Nature Climate Change published UK research showing that continued high global emissions will dramatically hit future economic prosperity. It found that failure to contain warming below 2C by 2100 will put at risk 1.8 per cent of global assets worth a total of US$2.5 trillion, with a possibility that the risk could be as much as five times the total market capitalisation of all fossil fuel companies today.

Property values will be a big part of this risk; well over 100,000 Australian coastal properties are at risk from sea level rise and storm surge this century. If it was ever an option to meet adaptation costs through strong economic growth, that’s long gone.

Tasmanian economist Saul Eslake believes that last week’s International Monetary Fund’s multi-year forecast of weak economic growth is optimistic because it didn’t account for lower growth in labour productivity and the working-age population in wealthier countries, including Australia.

He told me last week that a slower economy made mitigation measures more important. “Like most other economists, I would put pricing carbon at the top of any list of such measures.”

Economists and scientists agree that early, decisive measures, with the cost spread over time and across the whole economy, will cost a fraction of the enormous price we’ll pay for failing to cut emissions. We discarded a pricing scheme; it’s now starkly obvious that we can’t do without one.

All parties supported carbon pricing until Tony Abbott declared war on it in 2009. Recovering political consensus will need time and a lot of effort by leading professionals in science and the economy, but it has to happen.

There could be no better time than now for scientists and economists to come together in numbers, perhaps through their professional organisations, and say with one voice, this has to change.

Posted in Australian politics, business, investment, employment, carbon cycle, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, disruption, divestment, economic activity, economic restructuring, economic threat from climate, electricity networks, emissions trading, extreme events, fossil fuels, hydro, investment, local economy, modelling, planetary limits, science, scientific method, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Australia’s climate effort falling behind in ‘critical decade’

While progress has been made internationally, Australia’s domestic climate effort is mired in ignorance and suspicion

UN and French leaders celebrate adoption of the Paris agreement, 12 December 2015. PHOTO Arnaud Bouissou

UN and French leaders celebrate adoption of the Paris agreement, 12 December 2015. PHOTO Arnaud Bouissou

Warning five years ago that decarbonising the economy had to start immediately, the Australian Climate Commission designated 2010-20 as “the critical decade.” Here’s a progress report as we enter the second half of that decade.

In 2014 the world had its warmest year on record, then again in 2015, by the biggest margin ever. Nineteen of the past 24 months broke the record for that particular month, including every single completed month since April last year.

Both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets continue to lose ice at an increasing rate, and with Arctic sea ice cover having just passed its lowest winter maximum ever, it seems certain that the 2012 record minimum will be broken during the coming northern summer.

Straight after Australia’s warmest summer on record, last month was its warmest-ever start to autumn. Sea surface temperatures off eastern Australia have been at record highs for many months.

So global warming is here. What are we doing about it?

Last year in Paris governments finally reached a binding agreement to curtail emissions. Next week a “very senior” Australian representative will join other countries’ representatives in New York to sign the agreement. Parliament’s ratification should follow quickly. That’s progress.

After some ambivalence under Tony Abbott and despite pockets of minority resistance, the Australian government and all state governments now accept as fact that man-made climate change is happening and we should reduce carbon emissions. More progress.

But – and it’s a big one – the federal and most state governments fail to acknowledge the stark responsibility that accompanies the pledge to turn around emissions.

The amount of carbon in the atmosphere continues to rise, as do Australian fossil-fuel emissions. Governments disguise this bothersome fact with a convenient reporting protocol merging fossil fuel and land management data, creating an illusion that we’re reducing emissions when we’re not.

Somewhere on the way to leadership Malcolm Turnbull lost his enthusiasm for climate action. Now we have the irony of an overzealous CSIRO management using Turnbull’s focus on innovation as a reason to decimate Australia’s climate science capability.

Hobart-based John Church, CSIRO’s leading sea level scientist, knows intimately the crucial role Australia has played in global climate science. Unlike his chief executive, Larry Marshall, he also knows how essential that guiding hand is in our national mitigation effort.

In a searing open letter to Marshall last week, Church described the decision to cut climate science jobs as a “major failure” that defied the intent of the Paris agreement, and denounced Marshall’s implication that CSIRO climate scientists were resting on their laurels on a path to mediocrity.

“I would prefer to leave that sort of judgement to stakeholders, national and international colleagues and reviewers and editors of journals like Nature,” Church wrote.

“I demand that you stop being disrespectful and insulting to your staff who have given so much of their lives in service to CSIRO and Australia.”

Internal management emails written in the lead-up to the announced job cuts in February, released ahead of a Senate budget committee hearing in Canberra last week, showed management’s ignorance of the vital global role of CSIRO’s southern hemisphere modelling and measurement.

It’s no surprise that both the emails and the hearing itself revealed an organisation prioritising money-making science above science for the public good. It fits with the Abbott government’s selection of a venture capitalist as chief executive and its withdrawal of public funding for non-commercial science.

There’s been no effort to revisit this latter move, to address the damage it’s doing to open, objective scientific inquiry. To their credit, Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman and his energy minister, Matthew Groom, have met with Marshall, two federal ministers and the PM to protest the job losses. Top-level political intervention could resolve this quickly.

But other forces are in play. There’s been scant objection from coalition MPs to the CSIRO staffing cuts because many of them believe the fallacy that climate scientists aren’t real scientists at all, but left-wing activists.

None of this looks much like progress. Science continues to show that we must lower emissions today to avoid centuries of climate damage, but as this critical decade approaches its close governments are choosing to avert their eyes. That deserves our strongest condemnation.

• BILL McKIBBEN, author of the first popular book on climate change published in 1989 and co-founder of the global movement 350.org, will deliver the Bob Brown Foundation’s annual Hobart Oration at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay, from 3 pm on Sunday.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Antarctic, Arctic, Australian politics, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, contrarians, CSIRO, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, future climate, international politics, land use, leadership, marine sciences, modelling, oceanography, sea level, Tasmanian politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment