Taking responsibility for humanity’s mess

As we know, everyone from individuals and families all the way up to national and international authorities are responsible for protecting the environment and stopping global warming. 

But responsibility that belongs to everyone belongs to no-one in particular – an opening for complacency, which is why the world is failing to rein in carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.

On these matters governments are as complacent as the rest of us. But since their whole job is to do what lesser beings find so difficult – taking hard decisions for long-term benefit and dealing with any discontent that may arise – their complacency is better described as negligence.

Tasmania offers enticing avenues for complacency about climate action. One stems from the fact that in the absence of the abundant coal available to mainland states, the state decided a long time ago to source most of its grid electricity from non-polluting hydro. A good decision, but not a climate measure.

Another huge Tasmanian advantage has been completely accidental, a result of a protracted decline in native forest logging. For over a decade native forests have remained largely intact while fast-growing regrowth has removed copious amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. 

This carbon drawdown has been claimed by successive Tasmanian governments as evidence of their climate leadership, even as they’re doing their utmost to revive logging, a development guaranteed to end the drawdown. You’d think no-one could get away with so stark a contradiction. But they can and they do.

Successive recent governments have named climate change as a ministerial responsibility, like health, education, transport, industry and so on, to the point where it no longer seemed novel. So it came as a surprise last April to find no mention of climate in Jeremy Rockliff’s post-election cabinet. 

We were informed that upper house MP Nick Duigan would be overseeing climate matters. But why any mention of climate was excluded from his formal portfolio titles – Minister for Energy and Renewables and Minister for Parks and Environment – is something only the premier can answer.

Those titles suggest that Duigan has carriage of the latest State of the Environment Report, a mandated five-yearly report which is now a decade overdue. But no – it’s the responsibility of the Minister for Housing and Planning, Felix Ellis, who recently announced it won’t even be finished before the end of August. When the public gets to see it is anyone’s guess. 

In compiling the report, the Tasmanian Planning Commission has had to rely on voluntary help from relevant scientific experts – a funding failure that once would have been completely out of order. This government clearly sees the natural environment as a portfolio responsibility of lesser importance. Like climate change.

Earlier this month Eric Abetz, whose portfolios cover business, industry, resources and transport, complained that environmental groups were using money from the federal government and crowdfunding to pay for expensive legal action to disrupt resource projects, undermine jobs and deter investment.

One of his old federal colleagues, Senator Jonathon Duniam, and Luke Martin, CEO of Salmon Tasmania, joined the pile-on by demanding that the federal government stop funding the “cashed up” Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), resumed in 2022 after the Abbott government withdrew federal funding a decade ago.

The effrontery of these attacks is breathtaking. The whole reason for the EDO’s existence, as its name says, is to defend the natural environment by supporting environmental laws, whose purpose is to ensure that business, government and everyone else are accountable for messing it up. 

The EDO serves anyone who believes this is worth doing regardless of their financial or political clout – including neighbourhoods suffering from a local business’s excessive noise or nasty effluent. It’s galling to see Martin seeking to disempower community groups who have the temerity to question the environmental record of the large foreign-owned interests he represents.

It’s even more galling to see elected representatives do the same thing. Government ministers have vastly broader responsibilities which clearly don’t include allowing corporations to dodge accountability for their environmental impact.

The technique employed here has been refined for decades by the fossil fuel industry: divert attention from the need for corporations to change their ways by representing them as benign job-creators, ignoring inconvenient facts and downplaying profit motives while characterising opponents as “cashed up”.

With the future of the climate and the broader environment at stake, we expect politicians to acknowledge damage done and act to fix it. Attacking citizens seeking a healthy natural environment and a safe climate future is as low as it gets.

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The relentless rise of the waters

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what a warming climate will deliver, but one thing is certain, locked into the story of our future. The seas will rise. 

Or rather, they’ll continue a 170-year rising trend that today averages 4 mm a year. If by a miracle we held warming below 1.5C, or even if all the world’s fossil fuel emissions stopped today, the extra heat now embedded in oceans and ice sheets will keep pushing up sea level, at a gradually slowing rate, for well over 1000 years.

But we won’t be that lucky. In its 2021 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies 3.5C of warming by 2100 as our most likely fate. On that basis NASA has posted data showing that the seas lapping Tasmania will be over 20 cm higher by 2050, up 60 cm by 2100, and 70 cm higher in 100 years’ time.

Scientists have a rule of thumb that the risk of coastal flooding triples for every 10 cm rise in sea level. If emissions don’t decline Tasmania can expect what today is a once-in-a-decade coastal flood to happen about once a year by 2050 and every day or two by 2100. Our new waterfront stadium will need a saltwater-tolerant playing surface and players attuned to, let’s say, damp conditions.

Another rule of thumb is that the vertical rise should be multiplied by 100 to get the impact horizontally, so we can expect that by 2050 coasts will have retreated an average of two metres. But not all coastlines are equal. Tasmania has many resilient rocky coasts, and many beaches – though not all – retain enough sand offshore to ensure they can be replenished by storms for some time yet.

If you think that’s good news, it ends there. In its latest report the IPCC warns of a high chance of abrupt change with significant ice loss from Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets over a short period of time and an increasing chance that by 2100 sea levels will have risen by around two metres.

It has happened before. The most recent large-scale ice sheet decay started 12,000 years ago, long after humans had walked across low-lying plains to occupy this southern part of Australia. There’s strong geological evidence that the final breach to create Bass Strait happened within one or two human lifetimes.

Earlier this century sea level rise was a big topic here and everywhere, and the Tasmanian government and some coastal councils were moved to consult people in the know. Those early studies called for more refined modelling of offshore sand – how much there is and how it moves about – and other conditions affecting coastal erosion. 

But despite the obvious need to protect vulnerable coastal areas and in some cases to prepare for evacuation, the practical response since then has been limited to occasional ad hoc repairs to damaged coasts.

One of those early consultants was Chris Sharples, a geologist with a lifetime’s accumulated knowledge of Tasmania’s coastal landforms and processes. That knowledge, extending back over many decades and now being further refined with each passing year, is surely pure gold to authorities needing to understand what rising seas will do to their domain, and how those seas might affect their coastal ratepayers. But it seems not.

Sharples is the quintessential scientist, driven to know how his world works, building on his science education in countless field trips, where he’s gathered mountains of data so that he can compare present shorelines with past aerial images.

Having finally decided to put his accumulated knowedge into a written thesis a few years ago, he can now call himself a doctor. But honorifics and public acclaim aren’t what drives him and self-promotion is not one of his strengths. 

Sharples is not a fixer, like a coastal engineer who’ll build you a sea wall or a breakwater if you can pay for it. That might fix your problem until you’ve been able to sell your property, but it won’t tell you what drives all that – the natural forces that shape our coastlines, how that reshaping will roll out in decades to come, and why today’s coastal defences may not be the long-term solution needed. That knowledge above all is what authorities need to pursue.

One of the fundamental lessons from studying how climate changes is that it’s never neat and tidy. Coming to grips with this untidiness requires sustained, disciplined, independent mental effort, the sort of thing we used to expect from universities. That kind of science rarely delivers living wages, but it’s long past time that it did.

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Nuclear is not the answer to the biggest question

There are plenty of important questions to be asked about the prospect of Australia going nuclear under a Peter Dutton-led Coalition, including a singular, critical one.

First, the non-critical questions. The Coalition says it has costed its seven nuclear plants – some with more than one reactor – but maintains that premature release of the figure would be a distraction from the important issue of “baseload” power.

A distraction it most certainly would be, and for good reason. Rod Sims, former ACCC head and now chair of the energy think-tank The Superpower Institute, said last week the Coalition’s nuclear plan would increase power bills by over $200 a year – “at best”.

He told ABC Radio National that a megawatt-hour of wind and solar energy firmed by a mix of sources including batteries currently costs about $110, but the same from new nuclear plants in Europe and the US is as much as $300. He said that CSIRO’s apparently high capital cost estimate for nuclear was actually “incredibly optimistic” – about half the cost of plants currently being built in Western countries.

Another curly one: in South Australia rooftop solar currently supplies all grid demand, and shortly the same will happen in Western Australia. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts that power from rooftop solar will increase from 20 gigawatts to over 70 gigawatts by 2040, when the Coalition expects nuclear plants to come on line.

Sims pointed out that “renewables will always get on to the grid because they come in at a zero price”, meaning that the only way AEMO will be able to accommodate nuclear power will be to shut off renewable energy – “which seems like a really silly thing to do”. Silly, and you’d think electorally suicidal given the number of households now getting paid for their rooftop power.

The Coalition’s “baseload” argument – that nuclear offers constant and uninterrupted supply to keep industry going – is less of an issue where there is a widely distributed renewable network. A reconstructed multi-state power grid will be able to access many energy sources at any given time, eventually including large-scale wind farms out in the restless ocean. 

There’s the question of radioactive waste. Peter Dutton claimed that new-age small modular reactors (SMRs) will produce vastly less waste than today’s reactors. But a 2022 Stanford University study concluded that SMR waste would be at least double that from standard reactors and possibly as much as 30 times greater – a bad sign in a country that can’t even find permanent storage for nuclear medicine waste.

All the above questions pale into insignificance alongside this, the big one:  On the basis of IPCC advice that the world faces catastrophic climate change unless it reduces carbon emissions this decade, what will nuclear do to help?

Answer: it will be a serious obstacle. The Coalition says it’s committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, but from the moment it takes office its funding focus will be on a power source that’s unavailable before 2040. Large-scale renewable rollout –  essential to cutting emissions this decade – will be curtailed and the crucial 2030 interim target will be abandoned. 

The Black Summer fires of 2019-20 and the record-breaking floods that followed  showed what global warming of just 1.2C can do to us. Left as they are, current national policies will see global temperatures rise between 2.3C and 4.5C, most likely around 3.5C. What’s that going to look like on the ground?

In her June Quarterly Essay, Highway to Hell, leading Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis reminded us that science expects the Paris Agreement’s danger threshold of 2C to be breached, with “profound and immeasurable” consequences, by the early 2040s – “within the lifetimes of most people alive today”. That’s about when the Coalition’s zero-emissions nuclear is supposed to kick in – sadly too late.

Gergis cited a 2023 Griffith University survey of 4000 Australians indicating that while most of us accept that climate change is real, only 15 per cent consider the problem to be “extremely serious”. Peter Dutton’s Coalition is clearly part of the remaining 85 per cent, but since PM Anthony Albanese and his cabinet continue to support gas and coal exploration, processing and export, should they be there too?

Cracks are appearing in the edifices of authority everywhere – including in the ageing leader of the world’s most powerful democracy – while at the same time humanity, in the words of UN chief Antonio Guterres, is heading for a clifftop with its foot on the accelerator. Democratic leaders seem powerless to lift the foot, while opponents, many of them climate change deniers, bay for their blood. 

Back to the drawing board. Ideas are most welcome.

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