Government deception is trashing our future

Josh Frydenberg’s claim that our emissions are under control is a dangerous delusion.

Carbon dioxide data gathered at Cape Grim, Tasmania, since 1976 shows a steepening curve. [Bureau of Meteorology/CSIRO]

Carbon dioxide data gathered at Cape Grim, Tasmania, since 1976 shows a steepening curve. [Bureau of Meteorology/CSIRO]

He’s at it again. A month after spinning last year’s rising carbon emissions as being “on track”, Josh Frydenberg’s comment last week on even worse March quarter figures was that we have “a strong track record” in meeting our commitments.

National carbon emissions continue to cast a shadow over his record as environment minister. For months he delayed releasing damaging 2016 data, acting only after an FOI application was lodged by the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Now we know that in the September and December quarters last year, emissions were up by 0.4 per cent and 0.3 per cent respectively over the previous year. But that looks good against new data showing March quarter emissions up 1.6 per cent.

Our clear failure to put a dent in fossil fuel emissions is critically important news, but like his predecessor Greg Hunt, Frydenberg relies on land-use and waste data to assert that all is well.

This deception is hardly Frydenberg’s failure alone. In fact we can include ourselves in the pretence that our waste industry is under control, since we all participate in the economy that produces it.

The notion that waste management is helping to bring emissions down looks very dubious in light of what the ABC’s Four Corners revealed last week: a recycling industry whose “success” depends on illegal and interstate dumping on a massive scale.

While reasonably precise on fossil-fuel emissions, the national accounts on other sources are problematic. But it’s impossible to hide the global picture.

Tasmania’s Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station is one of three reference points for the 30-odd atmospheric gas observing stations in the global network, and its analysis of some of the world’s cleanest air is a grim picture indeed.

The Cape Grim carbon dioxide reading, which is close to the planetary average, is now firmly stuck above 400 parts per million, about 45 per cent higher than the pre-industrial level. And the upward curve is getting steeper.

This is more than worrying – it’s potentially catastrophic. To understand why, you just have to scan the scientific literature over recent years.

Every issue of every climate-related journal contains multiple papers on escalating risks and impacts. A US study of probable outcomes of current mitigation measures, published late July in Nature Climate Change, gives the world a 5 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2C and a miniscule 1 per cent chance of staying below the optimum target of 1.5C.

A paper this month in the journal Science Advances predicts business-as-usual will expose a billion people in southern Asia to lethal ultra-hot and humid conditions. That is backed up by a European paper in Scientific Reports, which also finds that a 4C temperature rise would bring regular super heatwaves of 55C for most of the inhabited world.

These are not outlying investigations but mainstream, peer-reviewed science about temperature – just one of many outcomes of high greenhouse emissions. Add to that multiple studies on sea level rise, storm surge, river flooding, glacier depletion, drought, acidifying oceans… the list goes on.

There is no point putting up a pretence of optimism. The outlook is very bad indeed.

This has happened because of abject policy failure. Few governments have the stomach to discuss this failure openly, and ours is no exception. The government has repeatedly and systematically tried to hide the fact that its mitigation policies, such as they are, have been utterly ineffectual.

Others have failed before. The Greens failed early in 2010 when they voted down a carbon price scheme that had bipartisan support. Julia Gillard’s Labor failed because it did nothing about transport emissions. But today’s policy failure is orders of magnitude worse than those past missteps.

It has happened because a few coalition MPs think they know how our climate works better than the scientists who study it. It’s the same mindset that prevents the Turnbull government from enacting a coherent energy policy while blaming everyone else for high power prices.

This minority clings to old certainties which, if they ever existed, no longer hold. Over many years, that mindset has saddled us with regressive and expensive crime and immigration laws, and now threatens us with another policy failure on same-sex marriage.

Having engineered a public opinion survey whose only certain outcome will be to give a platform to bigotry, the “no” campaign now welcomes John Howard into its ranks. The same John Howard who a month ago declared himself “increasingly more of a sceptic” on climate change.

The battle lines are drawn, and Malcolm Turnbull is floundering in no-man’s land. Confronted with the unwavering Old School dogma of the coalition’s right flank, he has been made to look weak and silly – anything but the “strong leader” he claimed to be last week.

But Turnbull’s personal career pales into insignificance against where all this stupidity is taking our country, delivering fourth-rate social, economic and energy policies. Most important by a country mile, it has forced us to vacate entirely the all-encompassing policy space of climate.

Children and grandchildren aside, I’m still young enough to want a good future. We are being robbed of that option, and we should all be mad as hell.

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