The sad decline of conservative conservationists

Conservative parties fit naturally with environmental imperatives, but they don’t see it.

Lake Pedder, February 1972, about a year before it was flooded. PHOTO Chris Eden/Mercury

Lake Pedder, February 1972, about a year before it was flooded. PHOTO Chris Eden/Mercury

When I was young, conservation and conservatism didn’t seem all that far apart.

That makes sense. The words have the same Latin root, meaning to save, preserve or watch over. Political conservatives want to keep things as they are and minimise change; nature conservationists want to prevent natural resources from being depleted.

Back then, conservationists tended to be members of a walking or nature club who went into the bush to enjoy its flowers, creatures and landforms. They were largely political conservatives associated with the parties of Robert Menzies and Jack McEwen.

The first two presidents of the Australian Conservation Foundation after it was set up in 1966 were Sir Garfield Barwick, a High Court Chief Justice and a former minister under Menzies, and Prince Philip. You can’t get more True Blue than that.

Conservation in any form was seen as a virtue. When a drought in 1967 crippled Tasmania’s electricity supply and people were asked to conserve power they responded well, if sometimes grudgingly, because it was obvious to them that nature always had the last word.

Then came Lake Pedder. The drowning of this wondrous place in the early 1970s, overseen by both Liberal and Labor governments in Hobart and Canberra, was the first sign that the old consensus was fracturing. Conservative environmentalists were among those who saw it as an act of madness.

A decade later, memories of Lake Pedder drove angry protest when a Tasmanian Liberal government sought to complete the Labor-initiated Gordon-below-Franklin hydro scheme. The High Court decision that stopped the scheme provoked fury in conservative political ranks.

By 1986, when Franklin River protester and independent MP Bob Brown took on old-growth logging, the gap between political conservatives and nature conservationists had widened to a chasm. But the big environmental barney, the global one, was yet to happen.

In the last years of that momentous decade, NASA physicist James Hansen told the US congress that the burning of coal and oil was causing the world to heat up, and Bill McKibben’s best-selling book The End of Nature put that message out to the masses.

About the same time the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By the time of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, made man-made climate change was a global political issue.

The rise of the Greens was an almost inevitable outcome of a growing fear that materialist society was trashing some essential, even existential, values. The Greens represent failure – the failure of mainstream politics to address these fundamental issues.

We must have functioning economies, but all political systems must be able to accommodate needs that have nothing to do with economics. The Greens slipped into the gap left by the major parties when they ignored growing evidence that unfettered growth is not always good for us.

In their endless quest for “jobs and growth”, governments behave as if Earth can accommodate anything we throw at it. Science tells us daily that this isn’t so – that the intuition of those early conservationists was on the money and our economic underpinnings are crumbling.

That message is getting through in the most unlikely quarters. In 2012 Tasmanian logging interests agreed with environmentalists to end the forest wars, Now, for the first time in my memory, none of Australia’s major banks will support opening up new coalfields for exploitation.

Both were hard-headed business decisions, based on national and international industry trends, yet the antipathy lives on. The Hodgman government “ripped up” the forest agreement and the Turnbull government is intent on seeing mines open in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, at whatever cost.

Conservative MPs label conservationists as extreme; one recently equated the “extreme green movement” with terrorism. The blue-rinse conservationists of the 1960s seem like a far-off dream.

The antipathy seems all wrong, and it is. The loggers and the banks read the tealeaves and saw a different future. Now governments must swallow their pride and get on board before the train leaves.

Posted in Australian politics, business, investment, employment, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, economic activity, economic threat from climate, environmental degradation, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, future climate, local economy, mining, planetary limits, stranded assets, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment

This is a war we must fight, and win

Australia’s efforts to cut emissions are floundering and the government needs help.

Australia is slipping behind where it needs to be to be in line with the global ambition of a 2C warming limit, as determined by the Climate Change Authority. GRAPHIC by Ndevr Environmental

Australia is slipping behind where it needs to be to be in line with the global ambition of a 2C warming limit, as determined by the Climate Change Authority. GRAPHIC by Ndevr Environmental

There’s plenty to talk about. Anzac Day talk is about life in the forces, but war in this century is also about terrorism and civil conflict. To add to the confusion we’ve invented new wars – on crime, drugs, diseases and the like – as a way of saying that we have a real battle on our hands.

The climate war is such a conflict. It is a war within and against ourselves, demanding new rules and paradigms. It will be the longest of all our long wars, and will have no decisive conclusion.

This war is being fought on many levels, from individual action all the way up to multi-national arrangements. It has no defined combatants, and the only clear boundary is our planet itself.

As is often the way with wars, the greatest impact of this one will be on young people, already under the hammer from various socio-economic pressures. When we make a decision about getting involved, their needs should be uppermost in our minds.

The best measure of success in this war is carbon dioxide emissions. In Australia, official data indicate some progress, with overall emissions down by over 15 per cent since 2005. But it’s worth unpacking that data. I’m using analysis by Melbourne-based carbon consultants Ndevr.

Science and other authorities say we need to cut emissions at an accelerating rate, but in Australia the reverse seems to be happening. All of that emissions decline happened before 2014. Since then our emissions have remained unchanged, or in some sectors even risen slightly.

Unpacking further, we find just one sector – forest management – that’s shown any marked decline, but most of that happened before 2011. There’s been little to show since, despite some big spending out of the Emissions Reduction Fund on projects to manage trees, land, soil and waste.

The drop in forestry emissions correlates not with ERF funding but with the 15-year decline in forest harvesting, which begs the question: Why do federal and state climate change ministers remain mute when others in their ranks seek to crank up the forest industry?

But forestry isn’t the main game in cutting emissions. It’s electricity generation, and its emissions have remained stubbornly high since 2013. It’s a similar story for stationary energy, land transport, waste, agriculture, fugitive emissions, industrial processes and product use.

Successive climate change ministers have repeated the mantra that we’re winning this war. Climate minister Josh Frydenberg took that optimistic position in the discussion paper for the long-awaited review of climate change policies. But the discussion paper itself gives the lie to that optimism.

It lists a collection of largely discrete programs: a revenue-funded scheme favouring agriculture and forestry over fossil fuels, a “safeguard mechanism” that penalises no-one, a renewable energy target with just three years to run, and peripheral support for innovation and efficiency.

We need coordinated, integrated programs targeting the big sources of carbon emissions – fossil-fuelled electricity, stationary energy and transport. Most economists say that the most cost-effective solution is to put a price on carbon through one of several possible mechanisms.

Malcolm Turnbull has said a lot about innovation, but there’s precious little sign of it in the way his government has addressed climate change. To me, the discussion paper is a well-disguised cry for help from a government that’s floundering and doesn’t know what to do.

We shouldn’t pass up the chance to help. This is a war we must win. We owe it to ourselves to make the effort, but also to those whose will be living later this century, when the perils of a changing climate will be all too real.

Anyone can put in a submission. It can be general or specific, long or brief. You are free to criticise, but you should also be positive and constructive. A call to arms would not be out of place.

We have until Friday week to submit our ideas. Search for “Australian climate change policy review” to find the discussion paper and instructions about making a submission.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, community action, forests and forestry, land use, transport, waste | Leave a comment

Realists, butterflies and the lunacy that is Carmichael

It’s up to science, not Barnaby Joyce, to determine what’s real and what isn’t.

Barnaby Joyce engaging in some political theatre with Scott Morrison. PHOTO The Australian

“Don’t be afraid of coal,” said Treasurer Scott Morrison to the Parliament on 10 February, before handing a lump of the black stuff to Barnaby Joyce. PHOTO Kym Smith, The Australian


In Barnaby Joyce’s eyes, people who support schemes like Queensland’s proposed $21.7 billion Carmichael coal mine are “realists”.

Those who don’t are people who prefer to “live with the butterflies”, and for them he had a grim warning last week on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast: “If you’re going to live with the butterflies you’re going to die with the butterflies.”

The deputy prime minister has a gift for the memorable image. Butterflies are the sort of species that, to the annoyance of many, can sometimes hold up a resource venture, and their brief, colourful lives conjure up flighty, frivolous behaviour. It fitted his purpose for that moment.

It also says everything about where he and his government sit in the great debate about climate, energy and the economy. He says developing one of the world’s biggest coal mines is realistic, when by any objective measure it’s pure lunacy.

Consider the outlay of nearly $1 billion of public money on a $2.2 billion railway line to carry vast quantities of coal to Abbot Point, on the coast near Bowen, so that it can be shipped through the Great Barrier Reef to India.

MAP: SouthWind

MAP: SouthWind

That’s despite an earlier statement by a spokesman for Adani, the Indian proponent of the mine, that the company could manage without government help. Multiple banks have declined to fund the project.

Barnaby Joyce and others in the government have been flaying renewable energy over its cost to taxpayers. But when you add the railway line to other rebates available to coal miners, nothing in renewables comes near the level of subsidy being proposed for the Carmichael venture.

In February Geoff Summerhayes, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority board member responsible for insurance regulation, warned that directors who fail to consider foreseeable climate risk will be personally liable under law for breaching corporate care and diligence obligations.

If the board of the Northern Australia Development Facility approves the Adani loan, its members open themselves to legal action for breaching not just the Corporations Act but also public governance laws identified last week by environmental lawyers.

The financial risk from climate change referred to by Summerhayes threatens to make Carmichael a gigantic stranded asset, which is a big problem for the NAIF board right now. But there are more material issues around this mine.

Not unreasonably, indigenous traditional owners don’t like what the mine will do to their land, and local farmers have objected to their state government’s gift to Adani of rights to an unlimited quantity of groundwater, in a normally dry part of Queensland lacking surface water infrastructure.

The plan to ship the coal via the Great Barrier Reef signals contempt for an incomparable natural resource. The Reef is already being damaged as a direct consequence of carbon emissions. The mine would be a substantial contributor to its further destruction.

The federal and Queensland governments have said they want other players mining the vast coalfields of the Galilee Basin, over three times the size of Tasmania. Even without those extra players, Adani’s segment would yield nearly eight billion tonnes of greenhouse gases when burnt.

At our current greenhouse gas accumulation rate, science tells us to expect well over 3C of warming within the lifetimes of babies alive today, with a climate getting steadily more unstable. Future climate will be nothing like what we grew up with.

This is not my personal opinion, nor anyone else’s. It’s science. Scientific knowledge has been built over centuries by thousands of people using time-honoured methods to observe, record and analyse planetary systems. Their findings are tested and re-tested in the exacting process of peer review.

It’s up to science, not Barnaby Joyce, to determine what’s real and what isn’t. Our governments are treating that noble pursuit as something that can be shoved aside when it suits, arrogantly assuming that people will fall into place behind them. Australians are better than this.

Show your support for science by joining the March for Science, this Saturday from 1pm on Hobart’s Parliament Lawns. More information at

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, business, investment, employment, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate sensitivity, coal-fired, divestment, economic activity, economic threat from climate, energy, fossil fuels, future climate, land use, mining, modelling, renewable energy, science, scientific method, stranded assets, temperature | Leave a comment