Houston, we have a problem

Despite Harvey’s battering, US political and opinion leaders are holding fast to the idea that extreme events are unrelated to man-made climate change.

Downtown Houston and its not-so-free ways. PHOTO CNBC.com

Downtown Houston and its not-so-free ways. PHOTO CNBC.com

Deluged with news from Texas, we can be forgiven for thinking that Hurricane Harvey was the worst global weather event ever.

Measured in lives and livelihoods lost, it didn’t come near last week’s monsoonal flooding across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh that has crippled food production over vast acreages and killed over 1200 people.

Many other recent rain events in (among other places) southern and eastern Asia, the Philippines, central and South America and Africa – too many to list here – have had a more devastating impact on lives and economies than Harvey. But they weren’t in a developed western country.

It’s a sad reality that global news puts far less focus on poor places than rich ones. Houston is a big, bustling, wealthy city, supported by one of the biggest ports in the US and large chemical and research industries. That made Harvey very big news.

Nearly all of Houston’s Fortune 500 companies (it has more of them than any US city except New York) are involved in some way with oil and gas. Needless to say, they’ve so far had nothing to say about whether their industry might have contributed to the storm that wrecked the city.

It’s true, as many people are keen to point out, that human-induced climate change and weather events are different phenomena, and that rain events have always happened and will continue to do so regardless of what we put into the atmosphere.

In 2005 Al Gore pointed out that a warmer world breeds stronger storms, believing that the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina might alert his country to dangerous climate change. He thought the same of ex-Hurricane Sandy when it smashed into New York in 2012.

But the only lesson learned from these events seems to be that people and governments don’t like to dwell on bad memories. Many senior politicians, including the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, have claimed that big wind and rain events have no connection with climate change, man-made or not.

Recent events like Typhoon Haiyan (which killed over 6000 people in 2013) and our own Cyclones Yasi (2011) and Monica (2015) had an apocalyptic feel to them. But while not always reliable, old records have turned up a few storms in the distant past that seemed comparable in size.

Commentators like me have learned to be wary of attributing big weather events to changing climate. I’ve found it useful to avoid such discussion while focusing on the bleeding obvious – higher average temperatures, melting polar ice sheets and the like.

The social and political tensions in play during storm events inhibit talk about attribution. Raising the topic of man-made climate change when homes have been inundated and people drowned (or when wildfires have incinerated homes and people) is, as they say, playing with fire.

But scientific method finds a way around inhibitions. Since Hurricane Sandy, various studies have identified extended polar jet streams as a major reason for storm systems staying stalled for long periods, allowing them time to take up more water from the sea and to dump more of it over land.

Add to that very warm, energising Gulf waters along with warm air above (warm air can hold more moisture) and you have a recipe for Houston’s third “500-year flood” in three years, and by far its most damaging wind-and-rain event on record.

A 2015 US-Korean study found that while warmer ocean water inhibited formation of tropical cyclones overall, leading to fewer storms, it also increased the intensity of those that did form. In the same year a European study found a 12 per cent rise since 1980 in record-breaking rain events.

Across the continental divide in California at the weekend a crisis of an entirely different kind was playing out, the biggest forest fire in memory besieging the city of Los Angeles, while up the coast San Francisco baked in its hottest day on record. It was the opposite face of the same stalled weather systems that caused the Houston floods.

Unlike devastated parts of south Asia, Houston is a rich city in a rich country. But with nearly 200,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 80 per cent of which lack flood insurance, the damage bill may be as high as $150 billion, far ahead of any past natural disaster in the US.

Add to that the economic cost of closing 10 Gulf coast refineries accounting for about 17 per cent of US refining capacity, and it’s unsurprising that governor Abbott is calling for more national help.

In the past, Abbott has taken out law suits against federal climate regulations, and when campaigning to be governor in 2014 he railed about “political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy.”

Harvey, which is having a fair shot on its own at remaking the economy, ought to change Abbott’s mind about climate change, but that’s unlikely given the powerful resistance across southern US states to identifying underlying causes of extreme weather events.

“I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor,” said widely-syndicated conservative commentator Ann Coulter on Twitter last week. “But that is more credible than ‘climate change’.”

She offered no basis for her bald assertion. I suggest it’s based on faith alone bolstered by 1.7 million Twitter followers, and with numbers like that behind you, who needs facts?

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Energy taskforce opens a door to bolder policies

If the government needed an opening for bold action on emissions, this is a pretty good one.

517TaskforceReportThe final report of the Tasmanian Energy Security Taskforce, released by the state government earlier this month, is a positive step towards a more secure future.

Not a ringing endorsement, but I have to bear in mind that others don’t share my sense of urgency about emissions abatement. The wheels of authority tend to move slowly and we should be thankful whenever there’s a move in the right direction

In this case there are several, including recommendations that the government support monitoring of energy security, that water storage management be improved and that more local generation be encouraged, including innovative customer solutions.

The report recommends that the Tasmanian Economic Regulator be given the task of assessing and monitoring the state’s energy security risk, and that the Director of Energy Planning be in charge of coordinating responses to low water storages.

It proposes that an “energy security risk response framework” be introduced to clarify when Hydro Tasmania may enjoy full commercial freedom and when it must act to address energy security risks.

To start the ball rolling, the taskforce has developed profiles for high reliability and prudent storage levels, based on conservative assumptions for rainfall and Basslink availability.

On those same rainfall assumptions, the taskforce calculates that Tasmania’s annual generating capacity is below what it should be by between 700 and 1000 GWh, or seven to 10 per cent. It recommends that market barriers be lifted to allow new players to develop new renewable projects.

“Piloting of fast moving consumer-led technologies and other innovations would be positive for business sentiment,” says the report. It proposes that private interests join local businesses and researchers to trial such new technologies as storage integration and electric vehicles.

The idea isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it’s good to see it coming from a Hodgman government inquiry by high-level industry players – former Hydro and Aurora CEO Geoff Willis and energy market experts Sibylle Krieger and Tony Concannon

For years Tasmania has dined out on its clean-green image and the wisdom of the market, whatever that is. On the key issues identified by the taskforce – storage integration and electric cars – the Hodgman government has chosen to wait for a lead from the marketplace.

But leaving all the running to business is no longer an option. Both in Australia and abroad the public mood has been steadily shifting in favour of more assertive governments prepared when necessary to intervene in markets.

Energy minister Matthew Groom flagged a new direction earlier this month, announcing an upgrade of the Derwent hydro system along with a plan to add 1000 gigawatt hours of renewable energy using pumped hydro with new wind, solar and biomass projects.

That’s very laudable, but it does little to cut fossil-fuel emissions. Transport is the biggest polluter in Tasmania. Latest state greenhouse accounts have road transport contributing over 1.6 megatonnes a year, or 30 per cent of total emissions, of which cars contribute more than half.

So besides boosting renewables to secure our electricity supply, Matthew Groom must also make a decisive move to curb emissions from fossil-fuelled transport. His clean energy strategy won’t add up to much if it doesn’t address this elephant in the room.

But with an election due in March next year, the energy security taskforce has opened a door for the Hodgman government to take the running on our energy future. It’s not a huge opening – just a crack, actually – but that may be all that’s needed.

The taskforce noted that “there is some obligation on governments to address barriers (to electric vehicle take-up) that are within their scope of influence”, including tariff structures, safety and affordability.

Cutting Tasmanian emissions was not part of the inquiry’s terms of reference. It should have been, and in that case the taskforce would have had to go much further along this path, such as we’re starting to see in other jurisdictions.

While Australia has sat on its hands over transport emissions, chronic urban air pollution has led western European governments to focus hard on this issue for a long time. Now we have a clear idea where their thinking is taking them.

The scene was set by various carmakers accelerating electric vehicle rollout. In March, for instance, Mercedes announced 10 new electric models and last month Peugeot and Volvo committed to make only hybrid or pure electric vehicles within eight years.

Then in July there were a couple of bombshells. First, France’s Macron administration announced that it would ban sales of petrol or diesel vehicles from 2040. Not to be outdone, the Conservative government in Britain declared four weeks ago that it would be doing the same.

When these targets translate into firm measures they will have an inevitable impact on the motor vehicle industry and new car buyers. If more European or other countries follow those leads, sales of electric vehicles globally are bound to increase, perhaps soon and perhaps dramatically.

An action like this seems impossible for Tasmania. Our governments are too tied to the status quo, or too insignificant, lacking in vision or fearful of consequences. But you never know.

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The battle over how we depart this life

Dying with dignity is an elusive goal, made more so by our inability to put our laws in order.

Death happens to us all – but how will we get there? PHOTO Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

Death happens to us all – but how will we get there? PHOTO Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

We’re all going to die – you, me, everyone. For a few of us it will be quick and unexpected, but for most it will be a long, often uncomfortable process.

When in good health we don’t think about this much, which is as it should be because life is for living. Talking about it we resort to euphemisms like “passing”, as if the D-word will bring on an epidemic.

My first brush with death, a long time ago, was much like that. My mother told me and my twin sister that Grandad (her father) had “gone to sleep” and would not wake up because he had gone to heaven. A lot for six-year-olds to take in. We didn’t attend the funeral.

Heaven wasn’t in the picture when my own parents aged and died. Their focus was physical and practical: how to survive day-to-day with minimal discomfort. I’ve observed that in others in advanced years, for whom there can be no peace of mind without physical comfort.

I saw it also in Fade to Black, a fine documentary about the last months of Peter Short, who before he died from oesophageal cancer in December 2014 had been national CEO of Coles Express. Director Jeremy Ervine attended the film’s Tasmanian premiere in Hobart last week.

This is a confronting and deeply-personal look at something as old as humanity: voluntary assisted dying, or voluntary euthanasia. It was a fringe issue in my youth, but since the 1990s it has moved steadily closer to the centre of public debate, driven by baby-boomers like Peter Short.

There are a lot of us boomers, born during the 20-odd years when the world was pulling out of economic depression and war. We’ve spent most of our lives getting on with living. But as we get ever-nearer to the end, we can’t help but think about how it might happen.

Like most people I haven’t taken easily to the idea of assisted dying. I’m part of a community, and communities suffer loss with every death. Our first instinct is always to keep people alive.

But sometimes this instinct doesn’t work. For instance, few among us would think a person on life-support, with no chance of recovery and obviously suffering severe pain, should be kept alive.

Fade to Black revolves around Peter Short’s engaging, no-nonsense, often funny discussion of his difficult end-of-life journey and his wish to die with dignity. The story involved his wife Elizabeth (who was at the film screening) and his son Mitch, and drew on the expert advice of Melbourne physician Rodney Syme. But Short makes clear in the movie that the choice as to how he would die was entirely his own.

At a Senate inquiry in the year of his death, Short pointed out that we have rules for using roads and alcohol. “Is it rational to take a position of denying the terminally ill and suffering the choice at the end of their life, because we are concerned we cannot put effective rules around a dying process?”

The answer is no, it’s not rational. Voluntary assisted dying is not about creating new ways to kill, but finding a way to regularise and codify actions that physicians and their patients are already taking to end lives which chronic pain and discomfort have rendered unbearable.

In jurisdictions around the world this subject has given rise to passionate, sometimes anguished, debate. The most recent Australian experience was in Tasmania in May, when a bill put up by Labor’s Lara Giddings and the Greens’ Cassy O’Connor was defeated, 16 votes to 8.

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was not to be taken lightly – a culmination of years of painstaking work by a dedicated group, Dying with Dignity Tasmania, consulting patients, medical professionals and other interested parties to improve on bills voted down in 2009 and 2013.

The vote was said to have been on the basis of individual conscience, but while the Labor vote was split four-three in favour of the bill, just one of 14 Liberals supported it. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking there was some party discipline at work here.

The language in those opposing speeches is instructive. Health minister Michael Ferguson characterised the legislation as a “death bill” To human services minister Jacquie Petrusma “assisted suicide” was “the ultimate form of elder abuse”.

Police minister Rene Hidding said the bill sought to have Tasmania “relax its murder laws to allow for the early taking of life by the medical profession”, skating over the present reality that in treating pain the medical profession already takes life, sometimes without a patient’s knowledge.

The Northern Territory passed the world’s first euthanasia legislation back in 1996, but the Howard government overturned it. Had Tasmania passed this bill, it would have been the first Australian state to have taken responsibility for assisted dying.

But this is one of those issues that will not go away. Nine months ago a bill just failed to pass the South Australian lower house. It’s back on the legislative agenda in Western Australia, and Victoria and NSW are scheduled to debate bills within weeks.

In 1990 no-one would have anticipated that Australia’s anti-gay laws would be gone within the decade. Voluntary assisted dying has already been legislated in many other jurisdictions, including Canada, several European countries and some US states. It’s time we joined them.

Dying with Dignity Tasmania is a community organisation addressing all end-of-life issues – planning, services and law reform – on the basis that people should be able to plan and make choices according to their own beliefs. For further information, email info@dwdtas.org.au

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