The calculated negligence of withholding climate data

The Turnbull government is concealing massive policy failure

The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s trend line: June quarter emissions from 2007 to 2017. Figure 3 from “Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, June 2017”.

The National Greenhouse Gas Inventory’s trend line: June quarter emissions from 2007 to 2017. Figure 3 from “Quarterly Update of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, June 2017”.

I’m seeing red this Christmas. It’s happened in years past, but now at the end of 2017 it’s deeper and darker than ever.

I don’t mean the red in shop windows or bus drivers in Santa hats, of which I thoroughly approve, nor the bright glow lighting up the dark of a northern winter as a huge wildfire eats into the outskirts of Los Angeles. (Whoever heard of such a thing?)

The red I’m seeing is caused by a malignant trend in public life: the wilful, calculated, planned use of the festive season to disguise government failure to meet its obligations.

In this case it’s about accounting for national carbon emissions as required under an international agreement to which we’re party, and the principal culprits are environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

I’d rather not keep coming back to this issue year after year, but it’s getting to me. Climate change is not just some trivial idea to be tossed aside at will. It’s real and it’s dangerous, and in failing to take their reporting obligations seriously the minister and his leader are seriously negligent.

This latest example of government misbehaviour also happened last year. By rights the pair should be made publicly accountable, and applying their own party’s law-and-order mantra about repeat offenders they should at the very least lose their jobs. Fat chance, I know.

The emissions data released before Christmas takes us up to June 2017, fully six months ago. The government has had all that time to put it out there for public and parliamentary scrutiny. But this matter of crucial importance was relegated to a footnote that got buried in the Christmas rush.

To understand why the official figures have been withheld for so long we need to set aside land use data, which since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has repeatedly been used by successive Australian governments to make the picture look much rosier than it really is.

The government’s climate policy centrepiece, the Emissions Reduction Fund, has been focused mainly on land use, including tree growing and clearing. The problem with that is huge uncertainty around the data, making it impossible to measure the scheme’s effectiveness.

With fossil fuel use, which the ERF does not address, we know where we stand. The good news from the year to June was that our per-capita emissions were at their lowest for 28 years and the emissions intensity of the economy was nearly 60 per cent below its 1990 level.

But the really important figure is the actual amount of emissions, which in 2016-17 totalled 550.2 megatonnes. That is a rise of 0.7 per cent on the previous year, and continues a clear, steady rising trend since early 2014.

One of the messages from the June data is that electricity generation, while it remains the main source of emissions, showed marked improvement in 2016-17, an encouraging sign that new wind and solar power, despite the looming end of the renewable energy target, is having an impact.

But there are big concerns elsewhere. The Rudd and Gillard governments failed to incorporate petrol and diesel emissions in their carbon pricing schemes, and then the Abbott government made things worse by abolishing all carbon pricing.

In 2016-17, emissions from transport rose by 0.9 per cent and from non-electrical stationary energy by 3.3 per cent. These sectors’ combined emissions, mainly from burning petrol and diesel, now exceed those from electricity generation, yet both major parties continue to ignore them.

This troublesome issue will only get bigger while we fail to curb liquid fuel emissions. Bipartisan agreement seems the only way out, but in the absence of agreement on how, or whether, a price should be put on carbon, that looks out of the question.

The Turnbull government’s National Electricity Guarantee, which is being heavily promoted in the government’s climate policy review, does no more than shut the stable door after the horses have bolted. It will do little to cut electricity emissions and will not affect petrol and diesel use.

Expectations were low ahead of the release of the policy document this month, but even so it’s a big disappointment. Having set weak emission targets for 2020 and 2030, the government seeks to avoid heavy lifting by using foreign carbon credits while relaxing the obligations of business.

We have nothing to look forward to in 2018. Malcolm Turnbull may be a better policy salesman than Tony Abbott, but the awkward truth is that, just like his predecessor, while having no climate measures of any substance to offer he hoodwinks electors into thinking all is as it should be.

It isn’t. National climate policy is a shambles. Frydenberg’s attempts to hide emissions data show that he knows the figures are damning, yet he and his leader continue to play games with us.

We need an explanation, and they need to be called to account. They will be hoping the silly season erases all this from people’s memories. I hope and expect they’ll be proved wrong.

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“A massive, surging, irresistible force”

The Australian government seems to take little pride in the fact that a handful of our doctors has won the world’s top gong.

Melbourne physician Tilman Ruff with ICAN director Beatrice Fihn PHOTO: ICAN

Melbourne physician Tilman Ruff with ICAN director Beatrice Fihn. PHOTO: ICAN

Malcolm Turnbull is rarely stuck for words, but the award of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to an organisation founded in Australia has left him speechless.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, was set up a decade ago in Melbourne. ICAN’s current director, Swedish lawyer Beatrice Fihn, received the award at a gala ceremony in Oslo, Norway last week.

Geneva-based Fihn is one of just three salaried staff – the other two are in Australia – on the ICAN payroll. For an organisation that knows how to survive on almost nothing, the $1.42 million that comes with the prize promises a long future.

In early October, when the prize was first announced, a prime ministerial spokesman acknowledged “the commitment of ICAN and its supporters to promoting awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons”, adding that banning these weapons was not the answer.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop, who a fortnight earlier had stressed Australia’s commitment to “a world free of nuclear weapons”, made no comment. Both she and the PM remain silent.

To put ICAN’s achievement into context, five months ago this tiny organisation managed to win the support of enough UN member countries – 122 of them – to vote into existence the legally-binding Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which aims to eliminate these weapons entirely.

Every Latin American country, including Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, voted for the treaty. So did Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, nearly all African countries, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and most of the Middle East including perennial antagonists Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In our own region the treaty got the support of New Zealand along with Pacific island nations, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Bangladesh. We alone opposed it.

The 71 countries against the treaty included the world’s biggest economies and nuclear powers, one of which, the US, was identified by Turnbull’s October spokesman as providing Australia’s best defence against nuclear attack in the form of “extended deterrence”.

The US “nuclear shield”, a key part of our US strategic alliance, has some serious imponderables. In her response at the Nobel ceremony last week, Beatrice Fihn pointed to one of them: the vulnerability of established norms and rules if leaders are prepared to ignore them.

At any time, said Fihn, a “bruised ego” and “a moment of panic” could bring on a nuclear crisis; “the deaths of millions may be one tiny tantrum away.” After the angry personal exchanges between Presidents Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un this year that’s not too hard to imagine.

In the US at least, military top brass have ways of stopping a nuclear strike ordered by a rogue commander-in-chief. But in a crisis, with jobs, reputations and lives on the line, who knows how things might play out?

Most strategic decisions, such as deploying troops and weaponry to a battlefield, take days or weeks to unfold – enough for other influences including public opinion to be brought to bear. But the speed of a nuclear strike doesn’t allow that.

Ever since atomic bombs levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 the world has sought to control nuclear weaponry with ideas like non-proliferation and limitation. The long string of bilateral and multilateral treaties since the 1960s is testament to that struggle.

But so long as nuclear weapons exist, there is no failsafe way to stop them being used, which is what impelled a group of doctors back in 2005 to go for broke.

Ronald McCoy, a Malaysian member of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize) suggested a global convention driven by a campaign to ban nuclear weapons. Colleagues in Melbourne took up the idea and ran with it.

Tilman Ruff, Felicity Ruby, Dimity Hawkins, Bill Williams and Tim Wright were among the Australian doctors who organised the launch of ICAN in Vienna in 2007: a cut-through moment in the long, weary saga of nuclear weaponry.

Bill Williams, who was a GP in Torquay, Victoria, when he died last year, saw ICAN as “a determined worldwide movement to outlaw and abolish nukes”. He went on: “We need to build the wave of public opinion into a mighty crescendo: a massive, surging, irresistible force which carries us all the way to absolutely zero nukes. Without it, even the most inspirational of leaders will falter on the way.”

The most pernicious of the many obstacles to a comprehensive nuclear ban is the silent treatment by nuclear powers and their acolytes – notably from the land that gave rise to ICAN, Australia.

Seventy years of debate and ten treaties have left us with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still in existence. ICAN has put nuclear disarmament back on the table. We need to have this debate, and our leaders, inspirational or not, must understand that silence is not an option.

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Al Gore’s endless, ever-hopeful mission

While his government dismantles environmental laws and sacks climate scientists, Gore’s mission of a lifetime continues.

Still talking... Al Gore in 2017. PHOTO AP

Still talking… Al Gore in 2017. PHOTO AP

Al Gore is the great optimist of the global movement for climate action.

While warning about the dangers of global warming, the former US vice-president has also continued to spruik solutions, from the level of individuals all the way up to big corporations and governments.

Last week’s “24 hours of reality” broadcast – the seventh of this annual event – brought more messages of hope. Against the depressing backdrop of a climate change denier in the White House, this year’s effort was admirable indeed.

Bright ideas and solid achievements abounded: solar panels on roads, over canals and above disused coal mines, solar technology discoveries enabling ever-cheaper rollout of panels, previously unheard-of wind turbine efficiency, innovations in wave energy and large-scale battery technology.

But the most memorable part of the broadcast was the work of grass-roots activists across all continents and cultures. In living spaces, classrooms and community gathering places people are plotting their pathways to resilience, and then getting out and putting it into practice.

As Gore has said repeatedly, climate change is not a political problem but a human problem. He has laid out the gravity of our predicament and the need for urgent action, but also makes a strong case for renewed effort at all levels and in all segments of society. He doesn’t give up.

Gore has been a climate action advocate for 30 years. As vice-president under Bill Clinton he was the focal point for US government climate policy, and since his electoral defeat by George Bush has campaigned ceaselessly to raise awareness and galvanise action everywhere.

It became something more than a personal crusade when his documentary An Inconvenient Truth became a global sensation in 2006. In that year he came to Australia in the first of many visits to foster and help train volunteer advocates for action.

No-one can yet say that Gore’s effort has paid off. There have been too many stumbles and U-turns. But his persistence, experience and ability to move seamlessly from the humblest settings to halls of power have been of inestimable value in keeping open essential lines of communication.

His optimism is reinforced by humanity’s often-dazzling cleverness, against which no problem seems too intractable. Breakthrough technologies that seem to defy what’s possible are turning up increasingly often. It’s impossible to keep up.

For instance, distributed energy is now taking on a whole new meaning. As politicians fuss about ageing coal power, in prospect now are roof panels that combine solar energy capture and storage, and flexible capture/storage devices that can be built into hats or clothes.

Against such cheering developments are many reasons to be pessimistic, all underlined by Gore’s dictum that climate change is a human problem. We can be smart, but we can also be stupid, lazy, obdurate, easily diverted, or simply stuck in old habits.

A recent Australian study of climate responses from 2005 to 2015 of five big Australian corporations, in media, finance, insurance, energy and manufacturing, found that after initial fanfare, promises to act on carbon emissions and other climate imperatives came to almost nothing.

As described by the authors – Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, of the Universities of Sydney and Newcastle – the study explains how “grand challenges” get converted over time into “the mundane and comfortable concerns of ‘business as usual’.”

Comfortable maybe, but for how long? The connection between climate change and extreme weather is getting stronger with each passing year, and the risks attached to inaction rise with it.

While the US administration is busy sacking climate scientists, promoting coal and dismantling emission abatement laws, having withdrawn from the global climate agreement, the country of Trump and Al Gore continues to endure a horror year of hurricane, flood and fire.

Three months after Hurricane Harvey dumped unprecedented amounts of water on Texas, most of the state is now either abnormally dry or officially in drought. Seven of California’s 10 largest wildfires on record have occurred since 2002. The state’s average fire season is now well over two months longer than in 1970, and the area of land burned annually in western US has doubled since 1984.

Everyone wonders whether human-induced climate change is behind extreme weather, and science agrees it is a big contributor. But the moment the topic is raised it gets shouted down, because “now is not the time to talk about climate”. Which begs the question, when is the time?

Such pointless exchanges would not happen if political leaders were fully attuned to what science is saying about climate change. Yet despite Gore’s best efforts to get the message out, politicians in authority both in the US and here continue to turn their backs.

Al Gore turns 70 next year. Progress remains elusive, but still he feels compelled, as he said in An Inconvenient Truth all those years ago, to travel the world, meeting after meeting, and keep talking. That takes exceptional grit and faith in humanity, for which I salute him.

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