The awful truth about our mastery over nature

A new book by Clive Hamilton puts it in a nutshell: we’re screwed but we don’t know it.


There is just one bottom line in the climate free-for-all – the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and this is looking more troubling as each year passes.

Carbon dioxide levels measured in Hawaii rose by a record-equalling three parts per million in 2016, marking five years of unprecedented growth in emissions. Carbon is now being added to the atmosphere over 100 times faster than when Earth emerged from the last ice age.

All technical alternatives to big cuts in our burning of fossil fuels, like removing carbon dioxide from the air and burying it, or shooting sunlight-reflecting particles into space, are either implausible or prohibitively expensive or threats to world peace, or combinations of these.

Australia has spent millions on a low-tech alternative, planting lots of trees, but it’s a delusion. Last week the journal Earth’s Future published a comprehensive European study which finds that planting trees in place of deep cuts to coal, oil and gas use is a waste of time and resources.

The study, led by Lena Boysen of the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany, concludes that this strategy would require plantations so big that most natural ecosystems would be eliminated and food production capacity severely reduced.

As emissions keep climbing, the climate signals have become all too clear. Humanity’s addiction to fossil energy got us into this situation, and as a direct consequence it now faces a destabilised Earth system that may already be beyond its control. We are in a new age.

Or perhaps more correctly, a new epoch, the term which science has applied to the time since we emerged from the last ice age, called the Holocene. Earlier geological epochs lasted millions of years; the Holocene has been going just 11,700 years.

A growing number of scientists say that human greenhouse gas emissions have caused a change so dramatic, even cataclysmic, that we can now be said to be in an entirely new epoch. They have proposed the name “Anthropocene”, based on the Greek “anthropos” (human).

In 2009 the International Commission on Stratigraphy formed a working group to look at the Anthropocene idea. It reported last August that the stratigraphic signal from the mid-20th century is distinctive and large enough to justify a new epoch. Approval may take years, but it looks likely.

In 2014 the New York Times environment writer Andy Revkin argued for a “good Anthropocene” in which humanity finds a way to recover from initial disruption, a notion which got a firm rebuke from Canberra-based writer and academic Clive Hamilton.

Such “eco-pragmatists” – people taking a more optimistic position on climate change – “live in a fantasy world of their own construction”, said Hamilton. “Unlike deniers who feel compelled to attack the science, advocates of the good Anthropocene just seem to glide over it.”

One of the sharpest minds in the climate space, Hamilton has just published a book, Defiant Earth, based on this concept. This is a dark, troubling work, the more so because it is no flight of fancy. It is based entirely on what current science is saying about the real world, now.

Hamilton draws attention to a fundamental contradiction in our species’ relationship with the world: we have become so dominant that “we have shifted the geological arc of the planet” yet “we refuse to face up to the profound importance of humans… to the Earth and its future.”

Our civilisation grew out of a benign Holocene. Now, says Hamilton, we face “a different kind of Earth, one that will increasingly render humans and their technologies feeble by comparison.”

While many would reject Hamilton’s thesis, for what it’s worth I don’t. We need hope and optimism, but not when they blind us to reality and the pressing need to act to lessen the damage.

Hamilton posits the possibility of a second civilisation emerging from “the planetary ashes of the old one”, and concludes these new humans would look at those ashes and declare “Never again”. So says Hamilton the rationalist. I’m not so sure.

Posted in atmospheric science, biodiversity, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, contrarians, disruption, economic threat from climate, extinction, fossil fuels, future climate, modelling, planetary limits, science, temperature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chinese stake in Hobart’s new ocean research centre

With help from China, CSIRO is reasserting its leading position in Southern Hemisphere climate science.

The Southern Ocean, engine room of the global ocean. PHOTO Steve Rintoul

The Southern Ocean, engine room of the global ocean. PHOTO Steve Rintoul

CSIRO is back in town and back on the world climate research stage. That was the real news in yesterday’s welcome announcement of a new Hobart-based Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research.

The centre, which has the nifty acronym CSHOR (seashore), is financially supported by China’s largest marine science research institute, Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology (QNLM).

The full funding commitment for CSHOR is $20 million over 10 years, half of which will come from China. Two Australian universities, Tasmania and New South Wales, are also contributors, offering shared facilities and personnel.

The funding is modest, but the important point is the international connection, which will offer some protection against any further CSIRO funding cuts.

This is just what was needed after CSIRO’s decision early last year to cut climate research resources on grounds that it needed those resources to respond to a government drive for commercially-driven science.

Within a week of the decision’s announcement, thousands of climate scientists from around the world had put their names to a letter to the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, pointing out the critical importance of CSIRO’s multi-decadal investigation of Southern Hemisphere climate.

At the same time, some senior CSIRO scientists were questioning their board and chief executive, Larry Marshall, over declining to put in a submission on Australian climate policy. One of those scientists was world-leading sea level specialist John Church, who was sacked last May.

There was an immediate outcry over the sacking. Responding to the bad press, new science minister Greg Hunt issued a statement that “public good” research into climate change was here to stay.

Extra money was found and plans put together, and in March this year senior CSIRO atmospheric scientist Helen Cleugh took charge of a rebadged CSIRO climate research program, in which remaining climate scientists and programs came together in a new Climate Change Centre.

Key to the development of both CSHOR and the parent Climate Change Centre has been ocean scientist Steve Rintoul, whose long CSIRO career is approaching 30 years. He doesn’t talk about it, but my judgment is that he was an important steadying influence through some troubled times.

It will be fascinating to see how CSHOR’s Chinese connection develops over time. Qingdao, on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula roughly halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is a major Chinese port city with a long maritime history.

QNLM is a brand new institution being installed there by national, provincial and city governments. The aim is to make it a world-leading marine science institution, and given its financial and other resources (its workforce is already as big as CSIRO’s) that seems very likely.

The blend of QNLM resources and CSIRO’s decades of marine science experience looks propitious for both institutions. China is investing heavily in doing marine science, and CSHOR offers it a lot of hard-earned knowledge about ocean processes in southern regions.

CSHOR is a recognition by both governments of the fundamental importance of the global ocean, which covers more than 70 per cent of Earth’s surface, in Earth’s climate system. It takes up a quarter of our excess carbon dioxide from the air and over 90 per cent of excess heat energy.

Most of the world’s ocean waters are in the Southern Hemisphere, where fierce westerly winds drive huge currents which power the world’s ocean circulation. For marine scientists, the global action is here.

Both China and Australia are directly affected by two climate processes: the El Nino–Southern Oscillation, originating in the tropical Pacific, and an Indian Ocean phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. These will be a key focus of the new centre’s work.

In announcing the initiative yesterday, Larry Marshall said CSHOR would study the oceans from the tropics (including Northern Hemisphere tropics) to Antarctica and “tackle fundamental questions about the future climate of Australia, China and the rest of the world.”

He described the Chinese involvement as an “exciting opportunity”, a sentiment shared by QNLM director Professor Lixin Wu, who said he looked forward to working with CSIRO “in helping China, Australia and the rest of the world to better tackle and adjust to climate changes.”

It’s a relief to hear such positive sentiments from Larry Marshall. Sixteen months ago he said CSIRO would now focus on “delivering outcomes” because the question of climate change was “definitively answered” – a very unscientific response to the most complex science of all.

Any student of the scientific method will tell you that science is driven by questions and the testing of those questions against evidence, and cannot give definitive answers. It is slowly opening our eyes to the vast, intricate Earth system, but the process can never be complete.

Marshall said back then that CSIRO’s climate measurers and modellers “might not be the right people to figure out how to adapt [to climate]”. But without good data and well-constructed, evolving models, planned adaptation will be impossible. We’ll be flying blind.

But if the CSIRO board and chief executive slipped up, big institutions have ways of sorting these things out. Like the Earth system, CSIRO is a complex beast with a long history of multitasking.

While Marshall’s digital innovation program ramps up – and good luck to it – the arrival of the Climate Science Centre and CSHOR seems just what’s needed to put CSIRO back in its world-leading position in Southern Hemisphere climate science.

Another positive development: as it happens, the two Australian universities supporting CSHOR (NSW and Tasmania) have both engaged the expert services of John Church. So maybe, after all the trauma of 2016, things might turn out better than ever. Who would have thought it?

Posted in Adaptation, Antarctic, atmospheric science, Australian politics, changes to climate, CSIRO, future climate, meteorology, modelling, oceanography, planetary limits, science | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Failing government shamed by local advances

While “higher” levels of government dither, local authorities are wrestling with climate change.

Local government must bear the brunt of damage from weather events. PHOTO ABC News

Local government must bear the brunt of damage from weather events. PHOTO ABC News

When you think about it, it’s breathtaking. The 2017 federal budget is seeking to close the books on Australia’s biggest economic, social and environmental issue of this or any century.

Buried deep in the budget papers is the revelation that two national climate agencies – the Climate Change Authority and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility – are to be defunded before being wound up.

This, just as business is realising the challenge presented by our Paris policy commitments and the rising cost of a changing climate is driving insurers and local authorities to despair.

It’s not unexpected, and the government will say it doesn’t need those agencies because it can go elsewhere for expert help. It could, but past experience says it doesn’t care to. It closed its ears to climate advice long ago.

In his budget speech Scott Morrison said nothing of this, nor of climate change generally. He did mention, seemingly with pride, the billions already committed out of the government’s ineffectual, near-empty Emissions Reduction Fund. But without a wholesale work-over that too will go.

Contrast that miserable effort with rising local and regional concern in every state about existing and impending climate impacts on their lands and people.

“Higher” governments might turn a blind eye to these challenges, but local authorities are confronting them. Last week, the Local Government Association of Tasmania got together with Climate Tasmania, a non-government advisory group (of which I am a member), to bring local, state and national expertise together to look at climate change risks and discuss practical responses.

Some snippets of information from the day: Hobart climate scientist John Hunter described the separate challenges of mitigating and adapting, weighing the risk of climate impact, and the steps taken so far to understand what is ahead in Tasmania.

Brisbane climate change consultant Donovan Burton spoke of “cascading impacts” of climate change already happening, of the need to develop clear goals, to get good baseline data now, and to build good governance. Local reform – zero to hero – can happen quickly, with massive benefits.

Craig Plaisted gave a rundown of Meander Valley Council’s energy program involving embedded networks, solar panels with batteries, LED street lighting, retrofitted buildings for energy efficiency, electric vehicles and industrial-scale bioenergy.

Canberra climate policy officer Peta Olesen explained the ACT’s ambitious measures to achieve targets that put most other Australian jurisdictions to shame: 2020 goals of all-renewable electricity and emissions 40 per cent below the 1990 level, with net zero emissions before 2050.

Zero carbon emission targets are eminently attainable – “but you must invest to get there”, said Hobart climate policy specialist Philip Harrington, who has helped major Australian capital city councils develop strong targets. The successful cities, he says, consult their communities.

A team of Hobart City staff described our capital’s own considerable effort to get emissions down (over 70 per cent less since 2000) and encourage residents to do the same. Infrastructure planning manager Scott Morgan described the city’s large array of ingenious energy-saving measures.

Planning specialist Clive Attwater explained how electric cars, buses and trucks are set to transform our transport landscape, and Tristan Knowles described the many ways the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was helping communities add renewables to their energy mix.

Finally we had the view from “higher” government levels, including the Tasmanian Climate Change Office, a small, close-knit team of highly-committed public servants which since 2008 has punched well above its weight in leading Tasmania’s response to climate change.

A representative of the federal environment department gamely took us through the national climate change policy review, encouraging public submissions even after the closing date of 5 May.

As do I, despite the likelihood that the government, which is doing its best to vacate this space, will continue to turn its back on good climate policy ideas. The good news is, there are options.

Posted in Australian politics, built environment, bureaucracy, business interests, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coastal management, economic activity, economic threat from climate, extreme events, land use, leadership, local economy, local government, planning, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment