Flannery, Steffen, Hughes on the state of Tasmania

Media briefing, University Club, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 10.30 am, 21 February 2012, for the launch of the Climate Commission Report, The Critical Decade: Tasmanian impacts and opportunities.

Participants: Professor Tim Flannery (chair), Professor Will Steffen and Professor Lesley Hughes, all of Climate Commission, and the Tasmanian Minister for Climate Change, Cassy O’Conner.

198Productivity+GarnautFLANNERY: Welcome everyone. Thank you for being here for quite an important event for the Australian Climate Commission. We’re here to launch our Tasmania report for the Critical Decade: Tasmanian Impacts and Opportunities, and I’m delighted to have Minister O’Connor here to accept the report from us.

The Climate Commission was set up about a year ago by the Federal Government, as a result of an election promise. Our brief is to get out among the Australian community and increase the level of understanding of various aspects of climate change, to try to make sure there’s a better quality of discussion around the science of climate change and around economic aspects of our response to climate change.

We’re also looking at what’s happening politically around the world — what action is being taken to combat it — because there’s a considerable deficit in that area for many of us. Even in a democracy you don’t get the big decisions you need to deal with long-term issues if you don’t have a decent understanding among the general public as to what the problem is and what we can do about it.

The Tasmanian report is the best of the regional reports that we’ve done so far, benefiting from the amount of research that has been done into Tasmania’s diverse natural systems, notably the work by Prof Nathan Bindoff’s Climate Futures group. I think this will be a signal document as we move forward, both in dealing with impacts but also in helping to identify clean energy opportunities particularly available to this state.

[Presents report to Minister O’Connor.]

O’CONNOR: Tasmania has the highest per capita concentration of scientists in the country. We have an opportunity to take a leading position on climate action here in Tasmania, because of our natural heritage, our renewable energy advantage, our marvellous carbon-sink forests and a close-knit, creative, innovative community.

My vision is that Tasmania can become a prosperous, carbon-neutral state. We’re tracking all right, but our emissions are still on the rise, and as this report says, this is the critical decade. The decisions we make now will shape our future, and we need to be sending a clear message to the community that our emissions must soon peak and start falling rapidly.

I currently have a private member’s bill before Parliament for a 40 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. At the moment neither of the major parties are showing any sign of supporting that bill, but it’s important that we have this debate and take the opportunity presented by a power-sharing parliament to introduce some effective climate-change policy.

I applaud with pride the work of our own Climate Futures Tasmania. This is world-leading science that is helping us to build a strong adaptation agenda, working with local councils, the agricultural and industrial sectors and communities so that we’re all tracking towards a cleaner, greener future.

We have sustainable agriculture and are moving towards a sustainable forest industry. The Commission draws attention in its report of the energy-generating opportunities presented by biomass. I think I should be up-front here: it is certainly not the Greens’ policy to support the burning of native forests for energy production.

We have an exciting body of work that’s being done on forest carbon — our consultants CO2 Australia are assessing the quantity of carbon in Tasmania’s public and private forests and the potential economic opportunities that will flow from that. We have taken steps to ensure that the report will be politically independent and scientifically rigorous.

STEFFEN: Climate change is already here. It’s not something that will affect us — it is affecting us. We can see this in the temperature record, which has risen pretty much as the global average has.

Rainfall is rather tricky. We see an overall drying trend in the past four or five decades, but within that trend there’s still a lot of variability, with intense rainfall events punctuating the dry periods.

The big changes for Tasmania have been in the surrounding sea. The East Australian current has extended southwards down the east coast which is warming Tasmanian waters well above the global average. Sea levels are rising as per the global average (about 3.2 mm per year and rising) but some parts of Australia’s coasts have seen much greater rises.

There’s an exceptional concentration of scientific talent in this state and it’s paid off with such work as that of Climate Futures Tasmania. The state’s variable topography makes it a better subject for the kind of detail sought in the CFT reports, and it’s affected to a greater extent than most parts of Australia by the winds and weather of the Southern Ocean which diminish the impact of big patterns of natural variability such as the El Nino-La Nina cycle and the Indian Ocean Dipole.

Temperatures will continue to rise as it will everywhere (“that’s a no-brainer”), there will be some drying but with more intense rainfall events especially in the south-west and the north-east, and there will be some seasonal shifts caused by warmer air and surrounding seas. Sea level to rise by somewhere between 0.5m and 1m or more.

HUGHES: Rainfall changes have implications for hydro-electricity (eg drier summers in the west) and agriculture. Agriculture also affected by rising temperatures (eg invasive species such as fruit-fly).

Of most concern is the biodiversity of alpine and sub-alpine regions, with a number of species that will be threatened by warmer conditions and increasing fire risk in places not well adapted to fire.

Similarly, uplands, moorlands and peatlands are highly vulnerable to warming and drying. Drier peatlands will raise the prospect of a feedback effect because they are big stores of carbon which will be added to the atmosphere with drying.

Tasmania relies heavily on fisheries (worth over $500 million a year), and these are already being affected by ocean waters warming at a rate 2 to 3 times the global average. Projections to 2100 are for another 2-3 deg of warming compared to the average from 1961 to 1990. This has implications for aquaculture industry as well as fishing.

QUESTION: What sort of response have you got, in general terms, from your audiences so far around Australia?

FLANNERY: My perception is that people retain an open mind on climate. There’s concern about economic impacts, especially in regions with a high dependence on fossil fuels, but equally there’s a great thirst for opportunity in this area, particularly in regional Australia which stands to benefit greatly from clean energy technologies. It’s a varied response, but I’m generally heartened by the response of the people of Australia. You wouldn’t guess this from the Australian media.

QUESTION: What’s the long-term agenda for you — how long will you be around?

FLANNERY: The Commission was set up for a four-year period starting February 2011. Our contracts as Commissioners are two-yearly — we don’t know what will happen after that period is up. My personal view is that we’re dealing with a long-term issue here. The problems presented by climate change aren’t going to go away; they will be with us for many decades. The need for greater public understanding will be on-going, well into the future. The Commission isn’t a quick fix, but part of a long-term adaptation by the community.

QUESTION: Have you had a chance to sit down with Tony Abbott yet to discuss climate change?

FLANNERY: No, not yet. We have tried to set up some meetings but schedules have got in the way, but we have talked to members of the Opposition and our Critical Decade report (released May 2011) was supported by both sides of politics as an authoritative statement on the state of climate science as it applied to Australia, which was heartening to us. We want to establish a reputation as honest brokers, not biased politically, presenting the facts as science determines them.

QUESTION: What areas will you be looking at over coming months?

FLANNERY: This year we’ll be producing a report on international action. There’s been a lot of discussion about Australia being ahead of the pack, and we will seek to answer that. We’re also going to be looking at case studies of where people have found opportunities in a low-carbon economy. We’ve been surprised going round Australia at some of the traditional businesses doing very well — dairy, sugar, even mining — so we’re trying to document some of the secrets of their success.

QUESTION: The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has been subjected to a lot of criticism along the lines that it’s not a scientific organisation but a political one with a political agenda — how is the IPCC responding to this attack?

STEFFEN: The IPCC Scientific Report is the most thoroughly reviewed document I’ve ever come across. We’re always careful about how we do reviews; now we’re extra careful to make sure it’s as thorough as we can make it, because in the end that produces a better report.

HUGHES: The IPCC reports are the most thoroughly-reviewed documents anywhere. There were three major inquiries into the controversy surrounding the last IPCC report and each of these found that IPCC procedures were extremely robust. For this round they’ve been made even more robust — the level of scrutiny and what we call the “traceable account” of every single word in those documents is quite extraordinary. That’s provided a great deal of work to those of us writing these documents, which is appropriate because these are important syntheses of where we’re at and where we’re going.

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