Truth in politics is stranger, and darker, than fiction

Utopia beautifully satirises the failings of politics and the bureaucracy. The trouble is, the reality is so much worse.

The Darling River at Bourke, NSW. PHOTO Murray-Darling Basin Authority

The Darling River at Bourke, NSW. PHOTO Murray-Darling Basin Authority

The fuss over dual citizenship is a reminder that no matter how many flags are behind MPs when they strut the national stage, the pomp is just an illusion. They are simply human, no more, no less.

Another current reminder of that is Utopia, the aptly-named ABC television show about bureaucracy, directed by Rob Sitch and written by Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner.

A great strength of this wonderful satire, now in its third season, is that it’s so close to reality. I know this because much of my career was spent in government, struggling with political and bureaucratic demands and the public interest. They often seemed poles apart.

Take last week’s episode. “Smart cities” is an idea that crops up a lot in the debate about improving urban spaces and cutting carbon emissions. In the hands of Sitch et al it’s more about empty ideas driven by the big egos of town planners, architects, bureaucrats and politicians.

The story is about a project ordered by the minister six months earlier, to develop Australia’s freight network. Plans have been finished ready for a COAG meeting, thanks to the diligent work of agency head Tony Woodford (Sitch) and his thoroughly competent offsider Nat (Celia Pacquola).

But the project is derailed, so to speak, by a fickle infrastructure minister and Tony’s equally fickle manager returning from a long lunch with thought bubbles about smart cities.

The public servants I knew would all, I’m sure, identify closely with Utopia’s  leadership dysfunction. Add to that an endless stream of meetings, consultations and procedures which, with the best of intentions, can defeat good thinking. Tony and Nat have a lot to put up with.

To a point this is to be expected in democratic government, where bureaucracy and politics have always made an awkward marriage. But it’s more serious when public servants charged with implementing agreed and often legislated measures come up against resistance from above.

That resistance can have massive consequences. Yesterday in the Hobart Mercury Greg Barns highlighted the damage done to hard-won social standards, policies and laws when political leaders and opinion-moulders exploit popular resentment.

I want to look at two more key policy areas – environment and climate change – where that ego-driven resistance to law and good practice amounts to misbehaviour, with serious repercussions.

Australia’s wellbeing is largely defined by the health of the Murray-Darling, our preeminent river system draining more than a million square kilometres in five jurisdictions. Over many decades its lower reaches, denied water by rising irrigation demands upstream, have been slowly dying.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan seeks to ensure adequate “environmental flow” right down to the Murray mouth in South Australia. Set in motion under John Howard and finally implemented under Julia Gillard, it has bipartisan support, which should ensure its success. Right? Wrong.

The ABC’s Four Corners revealed last week that some cotton growers had taken billions of litres of water they weren’t entitled to. More disturbing: a top-level NSW bureaucrat seemed to be in on the water heist, and the state government ignored a report by its own compliance officers providing full details of unmetered removal of water from the system.

Deputy PM and federal water minister Barnaby Joyce was silent for a day or two, until a video from a Shepparton pub showed him proudly declaring he had “taken water and put it back into agriculture so we can look after you and make sure we don’t have the greenies running the show.”

Joyce said last year he likes nothing better than seeing “big, yellow things pushing dirt around. It is marvellous. It gives a sense of opportunity… of hope.” It’s a fair assumption that in his eyes, a big cotton dam holding Murray-Darling water wins hands down over environmental flows.

He’s not alone there. As Utopia shows, big, highly-visible infrastructure is political campaign gold, whereas environmental flows are like watching grass grow. Bor-ing.

So it is with policy on human-induced climate change. Governments around Australia and the world have given their bureaucrats the task of keeping political leaders informed about climate science and carbon emissions so that workable plans can be made.

So far so good. But Utopia shows that the most crucial information or plans suddenly lose their importance if a government doesn’t want to hear about them.

Environment minister Josh Frydenberg, like Greg Hunt before him, has been regularly advised by his department that emissions from Australian transport and power generation have risen by a big amount. By last December they were between 40 and 60 per cent higher than in 1990*.

That’s the complete opposite of the impression given by both ministers about “meeting and beating” targets. Following the practice of his predecessor in quietly releasing this information just before Christmas last year, Frydenberg avoided any mention of those rising emissions.

It’s not hard to see why. Bad emissions data would make renewable systems and big batteries seem like a good idea, and would have done nothing for the government’s argument for exploiting Galilee Basin coal and spending $1 billion on a mine-to-port railway.

Both the Turnbull government’s emission-cutting measures and the Murray-Darling water theft clearly represent policy failures with ramifications extending far into the future. No objective evaluation would find otherwise, yet our political masters seem oblivious of that fact.

I’m sure some viewers laugh out loud at Utopia’s wit and wisdom. I just smile, because however outrageous the behaviour dreamed up by Sitch and his fellow writers, real life is more so.

* See Fig. 7 in Department of the Environment and Energy: Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: December 2016

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, built environment, bureaucracy, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, coal-fired, energy, fossil fuels, human behaviour, leadership, mining, planning, public opinion, renewable energy, social and personal issues, social mindsets, water | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The huge and endless cost of rising seas

Protecting coastal infrastructures is just the beginning of our battle to survive the rising tide.

Coastal erosion, Pacifica, California. The apartment block was subsequently demolished. PHOTO Terry Chea/Associated Press

Coastal erosion, Pacifica, California. PHOTO Terry Chea/Associated Press

Rising out of a coastal swamp, medieval Venice became a maritime power with a global reach. Now, that glorious relic of empire is being reclaimed by the sea.

It doesn’t help that the city is sinking – around 25 cm in the past 100 years – but the real problem now is that the sea is rising at a faster rate. For many years autumn and winter tides have flooded city pavements and buildings; now flooding can happen at any time of year.

On most days of the year Venice accommodates more visitors than residents, testament to the world’s great love of this beautiful city. No-one wants it to disappear, so in 2003 the Italian government launched a massive project to save it.

Construction of flood gates capable of holding back Adriatic tides by closing off the three coastal entrances to the Venetian Lagoon is now well advanced. Dogged by corruption, the massive project is still at least a year from completion and is expected to cost over $A8 billion.

Venice is not alone. The capital cost in today’s currency of works for London’s storm surge protection was $A2.6 billion; for St Petersburg’s, $A4.85 billion; and for the Netherlands’ main North Sea defence project, $A7 billion. Add to that many millions each year in running costs.

Holding back the sea is very expensive. It happened in these cases because protecting the cities of London, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Venice was deemed to be worth the effort and the country concerned was rich enough to pay for it.

For most cities, that’s not possible. A report last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Asian Development Bank found that three-quarters of vulnerable coastal cities are to be found around Indonesia, the Philippines and the coasts of East and South Asia.

In Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, rising seas, increased river flooding and sinking land have already forced people from their homes. In Jakarta’s case, Indonesia has grasped the folly of spending big on coastal defences and now plans to relocate its capital to a safer place.

Residents of these cities and coastal communities will mostly have to fend for themselves. We are seeing just the beginning of the slowly unfolding saga of rising sea levels, affecting huge numbers of people – as much as half the world’s population – living on or near sea coasts.

Subsistence farmers in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta, Java, Torres Strait, the Solomons and other oceanic islands are already losing homes and livelihoods to the sea – a miserable, dispiriting experience. The resulting refugee crisis will affect our own country.

Australians eventually displaced by rising seas can reasonably expect help in finding new homes and communities. But they won’t give up without a fight. Waterfront property has always been highly prized and comes at a premium price, so stakes for landowners are very high.

That makes for some hard bargaining with land authorities, much of it about protecting existing coastlines and meeting the high cost of coastal protection. In the end a lot of that cost will be carried by individual landowners. They will have to ask themselves, is it worth it?

Chris Sharples is a Tasmanian geomorphologist who has won a national reputation for many years spent studying shorelines’ shape and composition and how a rising sea level will affect them.

Sharples was a key contributor to what I think may be the world’s best tool for understanding the processes affecting our coasts – the CoastAdapt website (, now up and running – developed by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Even in times of stable sea level, shorelines can be a moving feast. Sharples is careful to note that some of Australia’s vulnerable coasts have receded and recovered in the past, like Tweed Heads and Old Bar (northern NSW) and Collaroy on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

But retreat due to higher sea level is becoming clear in many places. In Tasmania these include Ansons Bay, Roches Beach, Pittwater and (irony of ironies) Coal Mines Historic Site on Tasman Peninsula. Others include Port Campbell and Western Port (Victoria) and Nightcliffe (Darwin).

From here it’s only going to get worse. Three independent studies looking at discrepancies between satellite and surface measurements of sea level have just confirmed that sea level is rising at an accelerating rate.

The studies identified an error in satellite measurements of sea level rise in the 1990s which had indicated a flat or even decreasing rate of rise, despite contrary indicators from warming and melting ice. Resolving this was a satisfying scientific outcome, but it’s not good news for the world.

There are some huge uncertainties in projections of future sea level rise, varying from less than a metre by 2100 to more than 2 metres, and much more beyond then. That’s because we don’t know quite how, or at what rate, the big ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will decay.

But we can be sure of several things. The sea is now rising by an average of well over 3 millimetres a year and that rate will rise substantially through this century and beyond. Dealing with it will be horribly expensive, and we need to start planning now.

Even more urgently, we have to deal with the cause of all this – the growing amount of greenhouse gases that human activities have put up into the air. The toughest step of all is to stop chattering about meeting targets and to start actually reducing emissions.

Posted in Adaptation, Antarctic, built environment, carbon emissions and targets, coastal management, economic threat from climate, future climate, ice, land use, oceanography, science, sea level | Leave a comment

Doubt merchants and their self-inflicted blindness

The people obstructing our already difficult path to a low-carbon future

The video of Malcolm Roberts’ media conference last November, as it appeared in Andrew Bolt’s blog.

The video of Malcolm Roberts’ media conference last November, as it appeared in Andrew Bolt’s blog. Flanking Roberts are Tony Heller, a.k.a. Steven Goddard (left) and Ted Ball.

Want to know why power bills are so high? Look no further than South Australia’s battery project and other “make-believe solutions to a make-believe crisis”. That was Andrew Bolt’s advice last week in one of his Herald-Sun tirades.

Ignoring chief scientist Alan Finkel’s advice that high power prices are due to expensive gas, a malfunctioning electricity market, old technology, poor planning and business uncertainty, he chose to heap all the blame on the “fraud” of global warming.

Then, sidestepping recent record-breaking warming, he claimed that “leading global warming scientists” Ben Santer and Michael Mann “have just admitted in a paper in Nature Geoscience that the global temperature over the past two decades has not risen as their climate models predicted.”

“Admitted” implies that Santer and Mann were confessing to error, like defendants under cross-examination. But there was no error to confess; the paper was about the endless process of making climate models better able to account for the intricacies of Earth’s complex climate system.

A strange inclusion in the online article was a video captioned “Australian senator appears with American climate sceptic”, about a Canberra media conference featuring One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts. We aren’t told this, but the media conference happened eight months ago.

At the event Roberts introduced Canadian Tim Ball, calling him “the world’s most eminent climatologist” and Tony Heller, nom de guerre Steve Goddard (“a very devoted scientist”). Both men have tertiary degrees, but neither has a formal climate science qualification.

The 30-minute media conference – a string of tired old accusations of scientific fraud – highlights Andrew Bolt’s willingness to use every weapon to hand, regardless of currency or content, to hammer home his line that we’re being ripped off by “make-believe” science.

Meanwhile in Canberra, some noisy Coalition politicians are insisting there must be no price on carbon and that coal must be treated as “clean energy”. Like Bolt, they assert that high electricity prices are due to the pernicious influence of renewable wind and solar energy.

Government MP Craig Kelly went a step further last week, claiming that renewable energy is a killer. People will die from cold this winter, he told an ABC radio interviewer, because they can’t afford to pay for electricity to heat their homes – all because of subsidised solar and wind.

He’s far from alone in his Coalition party room. The Australian Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick reported at the weekend that more than half federal Liberal MPs and as much as 90 per cent of National Party MPs remain unconvinced about human-induced climate change.

Patrick cites the executive director of the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, saying that “more than 50 per cent are solid sceptics and more than 50 per cent feel they need to be seen to do something”.

That adds up to a massive headache for prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, desperately trying to convince their colleagues to support Finkel’s recommended Clean Energy Target.

Their cause wasn’t helped by former prime minister John Howard last week when he told a Sydney audience that he had become “increasingly more of a sceptic on climate change”, adding that “I was never a paid-up enthusiast”.

All this is happening because some people (nearly all men, actually) in positions of power and influence have predetermined that the science underpinning climate change, the work of thousands of physicists and chemists and geologists and biologists around the world, must be wrong.

They join others of like mind – almost invariably not climate specialists – in the self-contained world of climate change denial, in a cause that has become an ideology. I could almost call it religious, a word deputy PM Barnaby Joyce often uses to describe people opposing new coal mines.

Now, the projections of decades of modelling showing high carbon dioxide levels leading to higher global mean temperatures, more energetic storms, warmer oceans and higher sea levels are coming to pass, and people are already suffering as a result.

We keep hearing from Joyce, Kelly, Bolt and their kind that we export coal because it helps the world’s poor. Try telling that to villagers from Pacific atolls or coastal Java who have become climate refugees because rising seas – a result of burning coal – have forced them from their homes.

This wouldn’t matter, except that time is running out to contain carbon pollution. We desperately need the weight, muscle and focus which only national government can provide, but with a fervour worthy of any evangelist, these people are preventing that from happening.

They might accuse me in return of being a zealot, but there’s a crucial difference. Every major scientific institution including all national science academies and all but a handful of the world’s professional climate scientists are on my side of the argument, not theirs.

Their behaviour seems crazy, but to me it’s more like a kind of blind anger – obdurate, ego-driven, self-inflicted. I hope for all our sakes it’s curable.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coal-fired, contrarians, energy, extreme events, fossil fuels, future climate, human behaviour, modelling, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment