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

Larry Marshall and the marketing of CSIRO

The Trump administration is defunding climate science. Is that to be our model for CSIRO?

Larry Marshall speaking to an American Chamber of Commerce gathering in Sydney, 28 April 2016. PHOTO AmCham

Larry Marshall speaking to an American Chamber of Commerce gathering in Sydney, 28 April 2017. PHOTO AmCham

Most government cockups happen when politics interferes with good administration, resulting in stupid decisions. Conspiracy, which requires careful thought, is rarely present.

This, I think, explains much about the sacking of CSIRO climate scientists a year ago, ending the long and exceptional CSIRO career of John Church, recognised as a global leader in sea level science.

But it doesn’t explain all of it, and a couple of revelations last week indicate an agenda – call it a conspiracy if you like – that wants our principal science agency to focus on making a profit.

Internal CSIRO emails ahead of the sackings, posted on ABC Radio National’s website last week, revealed a top management keen to ensure that in the review of Australian emissions targets for the 2015 Paris climate meeting, Church and other scientists did not voice their expert views.

CSIRO declined to put in its own official submission – a clear failure to meet its obligations – but its management did finally agree that scientific staff who were members of the Australian Academy of Science could contribute to a submission by that body.

Guided by John Church and other non-CSIRO scientists, the Academy recommended an Australian 2030 emissions target of 30 to 40 per cent below 2000 levels – 50 to 100 per cent stronger than the target the government finally settled on.

The second revelation came in a letter by Tasmanian public health academic Kathryn Barnsley published in the Sunday Tasmanian on April 30, which drew attention to a speech by CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall to the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) a few days earlier.

Barnsley’s main concerns were that AmCham was tarnished by its close association with the umbrella US Chamber of Commerce, well-known for its support of big tobacco and opposition to carbon emissions control, and that the head of CSIRO should have nothing to do with it.

I have another question. Why is Marshall, who is opening a new CSIRO office in the US, putting so much effort into spruiking CSIRO to US business while ignoring the far larger climate and environment issues confronting Australia and the world?

The drawn-out terminations of Church and other climate scientists, which got global attention in scientific and mainstream media a year ago, was an appalling misstep by both Marshall and the CSIRO board. Yet the Turnbull government behaved as if nothing had happened.

Months later, science minister Greg Hunt said that climate science would be a core activity of CSIRO, for which it would hire more researchers, and reached agreement with the board to pursue “pure public good science as a foundation stone for our national benefit”. But it was unconvincing.

Marshall and the CSIRO board clearly followed the dictum of successive governments that science must cost less, which has now come down to transforming what has been a world-leading science agency into a compliant, money-making tool of government.

Larry Marshall’s scientific credentials are overshadowed by his career as a US-based venture capitalist. The latter is what persuaded then-prime minister Tony Abbott, back in 2013, that Marshall was the man for the vacant top job at CSIRO.

Science is best able to attract patrons when it serves practical needs. Study of Earth’s physical and living systems is not obviously practical, while it also often brings bad news – not a good fit with business and politics. It’s the first to lose in funding wars.

Governments must be able to see beyond that. Science is first and foremost about knowledge, not money – something that Marshall, his board and the government have failed, or refused, to see.

The big, pressing questions that affect all of us, now and for the foreseeable future, need the best thinking our country can muster. Good science needs freedom to move, and that cannot happen when money is the determining factor in choosing which science is to be done.

In the United States we are seeing the systematic defunding of climate and environmental science because it doesn’t fit the Trump administration’s business model. Is that the model Marshall and his patrons have in mind for CSIRO?

Posted in advertising/marketing, Australian politics, business interests, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, economic activity, future climate, investment, leadership, science | Leave a comment

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