Rain in Greenland is our problem too

The US Summit Station, over 3 km above sea level on Greenland’s ice sheet, is the Northern Hemisphere’s coldest place. Only the higher Antarctic ice sheet is colder.

Field observers expected snow when a storm front approached one day in mid-August, because that was all you ever got in this frigid place where rain had never been recorded. But instead of snow they got several hours of drenching rain.

That day nearly half the surface area of Greenland’s ice sheet was subjected to melting, after a similar-sized melt in July. 2021 is just the second year on record, after the Arctic’s stand-out warm year of 2012, that melting on that scale has happened more than once. 

The Summit event shows that rain can now happen anywhere in Greenland, and that is seriously bad news. A US-German study published in The Cryosphere early last year found that rain is responsible for as much as 70 per cent of Greenland’s ice loss – currently running at around 270 billion tonnes a year.

Added to other indicators of a heating Earth – longer-lasting and deadlier summer heat, melting Arctic permafrost, animals on land and in oceans migrating to cooler places – Greenland’s vanishing ice is undeniable evidence that global warming is gathering pace. As the UN put it this month, its 2021 scientific report is a “code red for humanity”.

Tasmania and Greenland are truly poles apart. In this cool winter after a mild summer, climate change is not exactly on our minds. It’s even possible to imagine us avoiding the worst of it, just as (so far) we’ve managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic. 

Escalating Covid case numbers in south-eastern states are a warning to take nothing in nature for granted. But even in relatively untouched Tasmania, the immediacy of the coronavirus threat makes it hard to focus on anything else.

So it’s no surprise that a motion put to State Parliament by Greens leader Cassy O’Connor last Wednesday, asking it to declare that the state is in a climate emergency, raised little interest outside the three individual MPs who spoke to the motion.

It’s not the first time the Greens have sought such a declaration from parliament, and doubtless won’t be the last. But every time their effort has been stymied by the government standing firm, claiming there is no emergency, and this time was no exception.

Only O’Connor, Labor leader Rebecca White and Liberal Madeleine Ogilvie spoke to the motion. Absent were ministers responsible for climate change (Peter Gutwein), for emissions reduction (Guy Barnett), and for emergency management (Jacquie Petrusma). And Michael Ferguson, responsible for Tasmania’s biggest fossil fuel user, transport.

To an outsider those absences might seem outrageous, but it’s party politics at work. The government was never going to give any oxygen to a debate on climate. Especially premier Peter Gutwein, who having repeatedly declared Tasmania leads the world in cutting emissions would not want such claims opened up to scrutiny.

Tasmania’s effort to cut emissions is actually nothing special, especially when you take account of per capita emissions by our small population, but the premier  keeps claiming otherwise because carbon accounting conventions allow use of imprecise land carbon data to offset emissions. Note that he never refers to those offsets, just our “world leadership”.

Labor has gone along with this charade because it doesn’t want to miss out on any future tactical advantage offered by those accounting conventions, so White passed up the chance last week to call out Gutwein’s claim of reaching net-zero. But without realising it, Ogilvie hit the mark when she called the alleged achievement “incredible”. It is indeed not credible. 

The pandemic proves the premier is capable of grasping an unpleasant reality and acting on it. He knows that current multiple extreme events, including that rain on the Greenland ice sheet, underline that we’re in a climate emergency.

He gave his only response to the emergency motion outside the parliament, saying that the Greens were frightening children. If he had raised the topic in any primary or secondary school classroom, he would know instantly how silly that statement is. Children know the truth, and talk about it. They want action, not bland, baseless reassurance.

This month he did make a move in that direction by setting up the Premier’s Youth Advisory Council. He has not yet revealed its members – doubtless they’ve been carefully chosen – but he might be surprised at their views on a climate emergency.

We live on one planet. Rain at Summit Station, Greenland, is a warning sign for the world. Last time I checked that includes Tasmania.

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It is Australia’s duty to care for Afghan refugees

Accepting refugees demands courage from Australia’s leaders, but that is currently in very short supply.

Twenty years ago, in late August 2001, John Howard’s government was heading for electoral defeat after just 5½ years in office. All indications were that it would take a miracle to save it. Then, in Australian waters off Christmas Island, a miracle arrived.

Tampa, a Norwegian container ship, sought permission to transfer to the island 433 asylum seekers, mainly Afghan Hazaras, it had rescued from their sinking boat. The Howard government refused the request, sent in the Navy and packed the unfortunate people off to a hastily-arranged camp on Nauru – the beginning of Howard’s “Pacific solution”.

A fortnight later, on a September morning that would rival Pearl Harbour as America’s “day of infamy”, two New York skyscrapers were levelled and the Pentagon breached, killing thousands. Within days, the attacks were linked to terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 terrorists were Arab Sunni Moslems trained in a Sunni-governed Afghanistan, while the Afghans aboard the Tampa were Shia Moslems fleeing government victimisation. The only common thread in the two events was Afghanistan, but that didn’t stop John Howard from bringing the two stories together as one.

Within a month, another leaky boat carrying asylum seekers was stopped by the Navy. The government put out a story, discredited years later by official inquiries, that adults in the boat had thrown children overboard to force the Navy to rescue them. The next day writs were issued for an election whose dominant theme would be border protection.

The Howard government’s campaign narrative was this: Under the smokescreen of fleeing terror, some boat people were terrorists themselves, so ruthless they would put their children in harm’s way to force our country to rescue them and take them in. The story stuck, and the Coalition went on to win re-election.

The story was too valuable to give up easily. Over the years, bolstered by slick campaign slogans and paranoia in our national security apparatus, it became a mantra. A national jurisdiction which in the time of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke took pride in its humane treatment of refugees was now an implacable fortress, suspicious of outsiders.

That attitude lingers even now, in the wake of the US military withdrawal and the collapse of anti-Taliban resistance. The only conclusion to draw from the tardy, meagre Australian response to pressure to rescue Afghans who helped our forces over the years is that the spirit of the Tampa remains alive and well.

The skills and personalities needed when things are going smoothly, when we benefit from a neat bureaucratic mindset, are very different from those needed when established paradigms do not apply. This applies across the board, for every leader in every country.

In normal times (if such a term applies any more) Scott Morrison has the skills needed to get to the top and stay there: a good talker, a deft persuader, with an eye to detail and antennae finely tuned to political trouble. But out of his element, he struggles.

Courage is an elusive quality. In some situations it can have negative connotations. Humphrey Appleby of the classic BBC comedy “Yes Minister” would alarm his political master Jim Hacker by describing a decision as “courageous”. Courage does not come easily to people used to a stage-managed life.

Going to war in a Moslem country was a dangerous assignment back in 2001; even more so in 2003 when, with John Howard as cheerleader, George W. Bush embarked on the biggest political and military bungle of modern times, the invasion of Iraq. Dealing with the fallout when things went wrong, as was inevitable, would demand courage of those in charge. 

But no-one stood up, least of all John Howard, who in jumping into line behind Bush failed to see beyond the doctrine of American supremacy that held sway at the time. Now that fatuous nonsense has been fully exposed, Australia needs Scott Morrison to find the courage to change course and break bureaucratic norms. But that would seem a bridge too far. 

Courage in a leader demands empathy for the people caught up in the mess of war – not just those who served with our troops, but the vastly bigger cohort of Afghanis who found much to like in the open society encouraged by the Western intervention.

Having ceded any authority in Afghanistan, the least we can now do is open ourselves up to Afghanis seeking to come here, stop being paranoid about terrorists breaching our borders, and reverse the idiotic rule that boat people can’t get permanent visas. And start behaving like responsible world citizens.

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After the IPCC report, some recalibrating

The prime minister and his deputy are now wrestling with the implications of an unfolding climate emergency. This is not going to be easy for them.

First, the good news. Australia’s political leaders have finally grasped the fact that a warming climate is not fake news or some vague future threat but something real and present, among us, right now. Just like the coronavirus.

They should have known anyway. If Australia’s droughts, heatwaves, fires, floods and coral bleaching of recent years hadn’t convinced them, the sight of similar conditions erupting through this northern summer would surely have nailed it.

The 750 scientists who compiled the sixth global survey of climate science, released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, needed no further persuasion about the imminence and magnitude of the climate emergency now enveloping the world. Their language in 2021 is firmer, their tone more urgent than in any previous such report.

In 2014 the assessment was that human greenhouse gas emissions were “extremely likely” to have caused warming. Now there is no doubt: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” resulting in “widespread and rapid” changes.

But today’s most telling messages about the climate are not about things we currently know, but about questions yet to be answered. 

One of these questions is Arctic methane. The Arctic’s rate of warming, fastest on the planet, raises the question of whether its frozen methane deposits – equivalent to 240 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – might erupt rapidly into the atmosphere, throwing into chaos all our calculations about future warming.

Another is the largely submerged West Antarctic ice sheet, containing enough ice to raise global sea level by several metres. We know next to nothing about the rate and nature of its decay – about when, how and how quickly it might break up.

The biggest unanswered question of all is how much warming we can expect from any given increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

A 2020 study concluded that doubling of those levels could raise the average global temperature by as much as 5.6C, or nearly a degree higher than previously calculated. If that projection is even close to the mark, the already-small window of time for cutting emissions so as to avoid the worst effects of climate change would be radically reduced.

Information such as this, in spirit if not in detail, is at long last filtering through the Coalition leadership, which presents those leaders with a significant challenge. People like the prime minister, Scott Morrison and his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, must now get their heads around what a changing climate means for the present and future of all Australians.

The PM had built up a head of steam when he fronted the media the morning after the IPCC report came out. Gone was the “coal forever” champion. Gone were the doubts he once had about climate science. It was as if they’d never existed. With the fervour of a recent convert, he was showing us he knew this all along, and we mustn’t worry because he has it all in hand.

The IPCC report, he said, presented “a serious challenge not just for Australia and advanced countries around the world, but all countries around the world… [It] affirms to me again my fundamental belief about how we must address this global challenge”. 

His declared strategy is not to tax Australians or make things any tougher for them, “but to enable them” by means of technology, “the game changer”. He and energy minister Angus Taylor ran through a checklist of possibilities including hydrogen and carbon capture. Which is all very well, but nothing significant is even on the horizon and time is against us.

Then there was the PM’s claim that Australia has actually lowered emissions by 20 per cent since 2005. What he didn’t say is that this was mainly because post-2005 Queensland vegetation laws caused a huge drop in land-clearing after that year. Without Queensland, Australian emissions would actually have risen by 7 percent, a performance well behind that of Europe, the UK and the US.

Scott Morrison would know that. I suspect he just chose not to tell us.

For his part, Barnaby Joyce was totally in the dark. “What exactly is the plan?” he threw out to a radio interviewer, implying that a 2050 emissions plan was a problem for others, not something to bother a deputy prime minister with. “We don’t actually come up with a plan,” he said. “The CSIRO, other competent people come up with a plan.”

The truth is that Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison alike are having to reinvent themselves on the run. After so many years ignoring the science and deriding efforts to contain emissions, this is not going to be easy for them.

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