Re-fashioning the truth to fit the bottom line

Industry captains reject the Climate Commission’s compelling evidence for leaving most coal, oil and gas in the ground, but offer none of their own. [25 June 2013 | Peter Boyer]

The black stuff in the US on its way to market.

Here’s a small admission: One of my pet gripes is hearing the word “refute” used to mean “deny”, as in “I refute what you say”. Any proper dictionary will tell you it means “disprove”.

Usage changes the meaning of language over time, and this little word may already have passed the point of no return. When we now hear that someone has refuted what someone else said we have to accept that the two people probably just disagree.

But this isn’t just about semantics. When someone claims to be refuting another’s statement, be aware that there may be a subtext involved, by which the “refuter” would like you to think that he or she didn’t just deny the other’s claim, but proved it to be wrong.

Proof is a buzzword among those disputing a human role in climate. They keep asking for proof, as if it’s possible to apply a neat mathematical solution to the chaotic jumble that we call reality. It isn’t, which is why science works instead by weight of evidence.

Overwhelming weight of evidence is what drove the Climate Commission’s latest and most comprehensive report, released last week, which noted that we’re already a quarter of the way into what the commission has dubbed the “critical decade” for action to cut emissions.

Written by leaders in their fields, ANU atmospheric scientist Prof Will Steffen and Macquarie University ecologist Prof Lesley Hughes, the report documented hundreds of peer-reviewed and institutional sources to support its case that we need to be concerned about how we’re tracking.

The signs of change that were identified many years ago have now become real, the report says. Around Australia, heatwaves and bushfire weather, rainfall shifts and rising sea levels are putting human health, property and infrastructure, agriculture and natural ecosystems at risk.

Tasmania doesn’t escape scot-free. The report found higher sea temperatures are extending the ranges of invasive northern marine species, high sea events are happening more often, endangered species are losing habitat, and a declining incidence of frosts is affecting some fruit production.

The rest of Australia is faring worse, according to the report. We can expect less rainfall in the WA wheat belt and the southern Murray-Darling basin, helping to push up the incidence of bushfires, and by 2030 average temperatures around 1C higher than in 1990, causing heat-related deaths.

Northern Australia may escape drought but will suffer greater sea level rise (already close to a centimetre every year), more frequent and forceful coastal storms, and coral bleaching and other degradation along the Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s premier natural tourist attraction.

Our task is pressing and compelling: “The decisions we make from now to 2020 will largely determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience.”

Putting aside our broader future, the question of survival hangs over the Climate Commission itself. It is to be disbanded if a Liberal-National government is elected in September, which gives extra punch to the final section of its report identifying the burning of fossil fuels as the biggest contributor to climate change.

“From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit”, said the report. Burning all the world’s fossil fuel reserves would exceed this by at least five times, with consequences that would “challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.”

The report concluded that take-up and storage of carbon in soil and vegetation “cannot substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions.” Soil and plant sequestration happens to be the Opposition’s primary emissions-cutting option. For reasons we can only guess, it declined to debate this can of worms.

The report touched some raw nerves in the Australian Coal Association and the Minerals Council of Australia, which accused the commission of crossing the line “from scientific analysis into taxpayer-funded environmental activism”.

MCA chief Mitchell Hooke said the commission’s case against coal was “without any foundation”, but offered no evidence to support this bald claim. Apparently when you run a lobby group as powerful as the MCA, refuting (disproving) an argument is just a matter of saying it’s wrong.

Hooke, ACA head Nikki Williams and Federal resources minister Gary Gray sang from the same hymn sheet in trotting out the frayed old line that we have to invest more in the process colloquially called “clean coal” — carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

Are we supposed to swallow this tripe? Whose money is to be used? Why after so many years of public funding are we still fumbling about for a viable CCS technology? What is left of their claims for CCS when these captains of industry accept without question Treasury forecasting that it won’t happen before 2030 — far too late to be of any use?

Clean coal hasn’t happened because it’s physically and economically impossible on the industrial scale that climate change demands. These so-called leaders are arguing for more public subsidies to prop up a doomed industry when they should focus on planning for a phased, orderly shut-down.

No-one gains from this doublespeak. If we are to give ourselves any chance of avoiding the worst of a destabilised climate we must read the writing on the wall — writing that applies not just to coal, but also to oil and the brash new kid on the block, natural gas.

The campaign disparaged as “extremist” by Hooke and Williams is simply asking that we accept the undisputed evidence that most remaining fossil fuel deposits must remain undisturbed, and that we resist the temptation to re-define truth to fit commercial considerations.

In the parallel universe of the fossil fuel industry and its powerful acolytes, it seems this is too much to ask.

• “Practical building solutions in a changing climate”, a two-day community conference on solar options for homes and small businesses organised by the Australian Solar Council, starts at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania, Hobart on Friday week, July 5, followed by a bus tour to solar-enhanced buildings in and around Hobart. Details at www.solar.org.au

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