Cli­mate stalling both here and in Amer­ica

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The fed­eral govern­ment is ig­nor­ing the re­al­i­ties of cli­mate change – mir­ror­ing trends to­wards inaction in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Mike Sec­combe re­ports.

Bill Shorten’s very first ques­tion in par­lia­ment this week was brief and ut­terly pre­dictable. Mal­colm Turnbull’s an­swer was not.

The op­po­si­tion leader noted that the Lib­eral Party had been in govern­ment since 2013, and asked whether power prices had gone up or down over that pe­riod.

It was not re­ally a ques­tion at all, ex­cept in the rhetor­i­cal sense. It was a de­vice to re­mind any­one lis­ten­ing that elec­tric­ity prices had gone through the roof dur­ing the term of this govern­ment.

As Turnbull rose to an­swer, op­po­si­tion mem­bers held up four fin­gers – to sig­nify four years of en­ergy pol­icy paral­y­sis un­der the Coali­tion govern­ment – and Turnbull had some kind of brain snap.

“I no­tice they’re all mak­ing a sign of sol­i­dar­ity with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood with the Rabia sign there,” he bel­lowed. “They might want to think about that.”

Up­roar en­sued. Turnbull was re­quired to with­draw, which he grudg­ingly and con­fus­edly did.

“I with­draw the com­ment, but I would re­fer hon­ourable mem­bers to the way in which that sign is used else­where and is well known. That’s a fact. That is a fact. If they can’t cope with the re­al­i­ties of the world to­day, that is a mat­ter for them. There it is.”

It was a brief episode that told us sev­eral things about the devo­lu­tion of Mal­colm Bligh Turnbull. Num­ber one, it was a first clear ex­am­ple of

Turnbull re­sort­ing to racial or re­li­gious dog-whistling. Over many years, the con­ser­va­tives have hosted many shame­less

dog-whistlers – Scott Mor­ri­son, Peter Dut­ton, Tony Ab­bott and, above all, John Howard among them – but to his great credit Turnbull had never gone there. Un­til Mon­day.

Num­ber two, it showed he was re­ally bad at it. The ref­er­ence to the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, in the con­text of de­bate on en­ergy and cli­mate change pol­icy, in­vited not prej­u­dice but head­scratch­ing. It was a baf­fling non se­quitur.

Num­ber three, it showed the frus­tra­tion of a man sad­dled with a prob­lem not of his mak­ing, who knows what needs to be done to fix it but is pre­vented from do­ing so by cir­cum­stance, vested in­ter­ests and ig­no­rance.

It’s apt to be­gin with the prime min­is­ter’s in­vi­ta­tion to con­sider some facts and “re­al­i­ties of the world to­day”.

The most im­pos­ing rel­e­vant re­al­ity of late – as mea­sured in terms of me­dia cov­er­age – is that two very large hur­ri­canes have hit the United States. First came Har­vey, the wettest storm ever to hit the US main­land, which dumped more than a me­tre of rain over large parts of south­ern Texas, and more than 1.3 me­tres in the worst-af­fected ar­eas.

Then came Irma, the strong­est storm ever in the At­lantic Ocean. Irma sus­tained winds of just un­der 300km/h for 37 hours straight, break­ing the pre­vi­ous in­ten­sity record for any cy­clone any­where.

Var­i­ous flaky the­o­ries sought to ex­plain this co­in­ci­dence. In a video posted on Face­book as he awaited an evac­u­a­tion flight from Orlando, Florida, and re­port­edly viewed 600,000 times, for­mer child ac­tor turned fun­da­men­tal­ist pas­tor Kirk Cameron in­sisted Irma was “sent to cause us to re­spond to God in hu­mil­ity, awe and re­pen­tance”.

Like­wise in the case of Har­vey, a num­ber of prom­i­nent me­dia evan­ge­lists var­i­ously claimed the del­uge was God’s judge­ment on abor­tion law, same-sex mar­riage or Hous­ton’s election of a les­bian mayor.

More sec­u­lar de­nial­ists, prom­i­nent among them the shock jock Rush Lim­baugh, in­sisted there was a “deep state” con­spir­acy at work, in which the “lib­eral me­dia” ex­ag­ger­ated the storms to scare peo­ple into be­liev­ing cli­mate change was real. Lim­baugh none­the­less fled Florida in a pri­vate jet be­fore Irma ar­rived.

Don’t laugh, this is se­ri­ous. Lim­baugh’s views are not very dif­fer­ent from the of­fi­cial views of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Scott Pruitt, the cli­mate change de­nier cho­sen by Don­ald Trump to head the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, re­fused out­right to an­swer ques­tions about cli­mate change in the con­text of the hur­ri­canes. To do so, he said, would be “in­sen­si­tive to the vic­tims”.

On Mon­day, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders was asked if the hur­ri­canes had caused the pres­i­dent to change his views on cli­mate change. She said no.

Trump has pre­vi­ously, con­sis­tently said he does not be­lieve in hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, and has re­peat­edly dis­missed it as a hoax. At his more ex­treme mo­ments, he has claimed it was a fraud pro­mul­gated by the Chi­nese “to make US man­u­fac­tur­ing non-com­pet­i­tive”.

If this were just rhetoric aimed at the cli­mate scep­tics in the Repub­li­can voter base, it would be bad enough, but it goes much fur­ther than that. Pruitt has or­dered mass sack­ings of cli­mate sci­en­tists from the EPA and the hir­ing of fos­sil fuel in­dus­try ad­vo­cates. Last month, The New York Times re­ports, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the US equiv­a­lent of the Bu­reau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy, abol­ished its 15-mem­ber cli­mate sci­ence ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee. Obama-era reg­u­la­tions on emis­sions from coal-fired power plants and gas frack­ing wells have been scrapped, grants for cli­mate re­search have been pulled and Or­wellian in­struc­tions have gone out to many govern­ment depart­ments sug­gest­ing they avoid the use of the words “cli­mate change”.

Mean­while, Trump rhap­sodises about a jobs boom from more min­ing of “clean, beau­ti­ful coal”.

The sci­ence that Trump and his cronies de­spise tells us that no sin­gle weather event should be at­trib­uted to cli­mate change, and that holds for hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma. Cli­mate sci­ence is not that ex­act. But it can quite pre­cisely mea­sure the long-term trends and pat­terns that are ex­ac­er­bat­ing the im­pacts of storms such as these.

Warmer oceans, for ex­am­ple, mean more at­mo­spheric mois­ture.

“A fun­da­men­tal rule of at­mo­spheric ther­mo­dy­nam­ics known as the Clau­sius-Clapey­ron equa­tion in­di­cates an in­crease of roughly 7 per cent more mois­ture in the air for each de­gree Cel­sius of in­crease in sea sur­face tem­per­a­ture,” wrote sev­eral of Amer­ica’s lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists in the jour­nal Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can last week.

Given that global sea sur­face tem­per­a­tures are about a de­gree warmer than they were be­fore hu­mans poured so much car­bon diox­ide into the en­vi­ron­ment, big storms are likely to be wet­ter. And where wa­ter tem­per­a­tures are sev­eral de­grees warmer than usual – as they were in the Gulf of Mex­ico when Har­vey blew in – much wet­ter still.

Sim­i­larly, as the cli­mate warms, storms get windier, wrote the em­i­nent au­thors, by “roughly eight me­tres per sec­ond [about 25km/h] in­crease in wind speed per de­gree Cel­sius of warm­ing”.

“And so it is not likely to be a co­in­ci­dence that al­most all of the strong­est hur­ri­canes on record (as mea­sured by sus­tained wind speeds) for the globe … have oc­curred over the past two years,” they wrote.

Stronger winds in turn mean big­ger waves and storm surges. This comes on top of sea lev­els that are in­eluctably ris­ing.

Be­fore the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, the seas were ris­ing by about one-tenth of a mil­lime­tre per year, and had been since the peak of the last ice age. The rate of sea level rise is now more than 30 times as fast, and ac­cel­er­at­ing rapidly, says Pro­fes­sor John Church, one of the world’s lead­ing re­searchers in the area of cli­mate change and sea level.

Church worked for the CSIRO be­fore the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Larry Mar­shall, cut a swath through the ranks of its cli­mate sci­en­tists. He is now with the Cli­mate Change Re­search Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of New South Wales.

At the mo­ment, Church says, sea level rise is driven roughly equally by ther­mal ex­pan­sion of the oceans and the melt­ing of the world’s glaciers. But big­ger threats loom. At some point, if the warm­ing con­tin­ues, we will reach a thresh­old beyond which the Green­land ice sheet will melt away.

“We don’t know where the thresh­old is, but it’s some­where be­tween 1 and 4 de­grees Cel­sius above prein­dus­trial. We’re al­ready at 1 de­gree, so we’re close to the thresh­old. Once we cross it, we com­mit the fu­ture world to me­tres of sea level rise.

“Green­land’s al­ready los­ing mass through in­creased sur­face melt. If it all melted, it would raise global sea lev­els by seven me­tres.”

And then there is the much big­ger ice mass of Antarc­tica. Here, too, the ex­act thresh­old beyond which ma­jor melt­ing hap­pens is not known. But in the case of the west Antarc­tic ice sheet in par­tic­u­lar, Church says, “peo­ple think it has al­ready com­menced”.

Ques­tions re­main about the rate and mag­ni­tude of cli­mate change, but the phe­nom­ena of tem­per­a­ture rise on land and sea, wet­ter and windier storms, ris­ing oceans and melt­ing ice are em­pir­i­cally es­tab­lished. They are ob­serv­able re­al­i­ties, and se­ri­ous ac­tion is re­quired to pre­vent cat­a­strophic con­se­quences.

Don­ald Trump and Scott Pruitt have never ac­cepted that, but Mal­colm Turnbull once did. He once crossed the floor of the fed­eral par­lia­ment to sup­port La­bor govern­ment mea­sures to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions. He once said:

“I will not lead a party that is not as com­mit­ted to ef­fec­tive ac­tion on cli­mate change as I am.”

He was right about that, at least at the time. His party col­leagues dumped him for a bel­li­cose cli­mate de­nier, Tony Ab­bott, who won govern­ment on a mas­sive scare cam­paign about the cost of ad­dress­ing cli­mate change. Ab­bott’s chief of staff later con­fessed the car­bon tax they cam­paigned against was never a tax, and that it was only “bru­tal re­tail pol­i­tics” that al­lowed them to make the fight about house­hold bud­gets rather than the en­vi­ron­ment. But in or­der to take back the lead­er­ship of his party – and the prime min­is­ter­ship – Turnbull found it nec­es­sary to re­align his views to those of his party.

As John Roskam, head of the Lib­eral-aligned In­sti­tute of Public Af­fairs re­cently told The Aus­tralian Fi­nan­cial Re­view, a ma­jor­ity of Lib­eral Party mem­bers are “solid scep­tics” about the sci­ence of cli­mate change but pre­tend for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons to sup­port emis­sions re­duc­tions.

It hardly needed to be said: the re­al­ity is ob­vi­ous in their ac­tions. It is ob­vi­ous, as John Church says, in the em­pir­i­cal data.

“Aus­tralia’s emis­sions were de­creas­ing up un­til the election of this govern­ment and now they’re in­creas­ing again,” he notes.

“The de­bate that’s oc­cur­ring, the pro­pos­als be­ing put for­ward by the cur­rent govern­ment, are just mind­bog­glingly bizarre.”

It’s bad enough, Church says, that Aus­tralia’s com­mit­ment un­der the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, to re­duce green­house emis­sions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 lev­els by 2030, is “grossly in­ad­e­quate”.

It’s far worse that the Ab­bott–Turnbull govern­ment ap­pears to have “no idea” for meet­ing that tar­get.

“How can we make com­mit­ments and then talk about build­ing more coal­fired power sta­tions? We re­ally need a long-term co­her­ent pol­icy and this govern­ment has failed to de­liver.”

The an­swer to his ques­tion is ex­plicit in Roskam’s words: the govern­ment is not sin­cere in its com­mit­ment.

Thus last year we saw Turnbull rule out a so-called emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme – a mar­ket mech­a­nism that would have pro­gres­sively re­duced emis­sions. In­stead, he com­mis­sioned Aus­tralia’s chief sci­en­tist, Alan Finkel, to come up with an al­ter­na­tive that might re­move the pol­icy un­cer­tainty that has dis­cour­aged new in­vest­ment in power gen­er­a­tion for the bet­ter part of five years.

But now Turnbull can’t get Finkel’s key pro­posal – the es­tab­lish­ment of a clean en­ergy tar­get – past the fos­sil fuel ide­o­logues in his govern­ment. So the push is on to amend the tar­get to in­cor­po­rate govern­ment fund­ing of new coal-fired power sta­tions. The rea­son for this is that such projects can­not get fund­ing any­where else. Sim­ply put, the pri­vate sec­tor can see no long-term fu­ture for coal gen­er­a­tion.

Mean­while, the Turnbull govern­ment is des­per­ately try­ing to do what the Ab­bott op­po­si­tion did, and gin up an election-win­ning cam­paign based on public con­cerns about power prices.

And the con­cerns are real. Power prices, as we noted at the be­gin­ning of this story, have in­creased dra­mat­i­cally. The rea­son the govern­ment gives for the rises, though, is sub­stan­tially false. It blames re­new­ables and the ac­tions of the for­mer La­bor govern­ment.

But the ex­perts will tell you there are many rea­sons for Aus­tralia’s en­ergy prob­lems: the push to dereg­u­late and pri­va­tise the elec­tric­ity mar­ket; a pric­ing struc­ture that re­warded so-called “gold­plat­ing” of the power grid; un­con­trolled gas ex­ports and goug­ing by gas com­pa­nies; a crazily com­pli­cated sys­tem for set­ting short-term elec­tric­ity prices; and the de­com­mis­sion­ing of a num­ber of old, in­ef­fi­cient coal-fired gen­er­a­tors that had reached the end of their use­ful lives. One thing al­most all agree on, though, is that long years of pol­icy un­cer­tainty played a big part.

The prob­lem is press­ing, but there are so­lu­tions: re­new­able so­lu­tions and de­mand-re­duc­tion so­lu­tions.

In­stead, we watched the uned­i­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of a govern­ment lean­ing heav­ily on AGL this week to ex­tend the life of its ge­ri­atric Lid­dell power sta­tion in New South Wales, past its sched­uled clo­sure in 2022.

The anal­ogy most com­monly used about Lid­dell is that it’s like an old car that has reached the point where the cost of re­pairs is greater than its worth. It’s a good com­par­i­son. Lid­dell was built al­most 50 years ago, and, like a

1971 model car, it is dirty, in­ef­fi­cient, old tech­nol­ogy. It is a clunker, and a threat to hu­man health.

Apart from its green­house gas con­tri­bu­tions, Lid­dell pumped the fol­low­ing pol­lu­tants out its smoke­stacks in 2015-16: 1.9 tonnes of am­mo­nia, 970 tonnes of car­bon monox­ide, 310 tonnes of hy­drochlo­ric acid, 360 tonnes of sul­phuric acid, 260 tonnes of flu­o­ride com­pounds, 17,000 tonnes of ni­tro­gen ox­ides, 31,000 tonnes of sul­phur diox­ide, 550 tonnes of course par­tic­u­late mat­ter and 170 tonnes of car­cino­genic fine par­tic­u­lates. There was a wide range of other tox­ins, too.

It also is un­re­li­able. Last Fe­bru­ary, when south-east­ern Aus­tralia was in the grip of an un­prece­dented heat­wave, the elec­tric­ity grid was stretched al­most to break­ing point. The av­er­age max­i­mum tem­per­a­ture for all of NSW was a record 42.5 on Fe­bru­ary 10, bro­ken the next day with 44 de­grees.

The cri­sis was made worse by the fact that Lid­dell had bro­ken down, as it of­ten does. One of its four gen­er­a­tors had lost half ca­pac­ity on Fe­bru­ary 6, and failed com­pletely on Fe­bru­ary 9. It was not back on line un­til Fe­bru­ary 28. A sec­ond unit failed on Fe­bru­ary 6, but work­ers scram­bled to have it back up the day be­fore the record heat hit. A third went down on Fe­bru­ary 7, and did not come back on­line un­til four days later.

No won­der Lid­dell’s op­er­a­tor, AGL, wants to shut it and move, like most of the rest of the world, away from coal gen­er­a­tion into cleaner and more re­li­able tech­nol­ogy.

And no won­der AGL’s boss,

An­drew Ve­sey, was scorn­ful of Turnbull’s sug­ges­tion that Lid­dell was an an­swer to the govern­ment’s self-cre­ated en­ergy cri­sis.

The re­al­ity is that Lid­dell is clapped out now, and will be even more clapped out in another five years.

The big­ger re­al­ity is that Aus­tralia does face a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem in the fact that our elec­tric­ity fleet is old and in need of re­place­ment. But this could also present a big op­por­tu­nity, if we had a govern­ment that was not stuck on its ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment to the fos­sil-fuel econ­omy.

In­stead of the pol­icy cer­tainty the na­tion re­quires, though, the govern­ment is fo­cused on de­flect­ing blame for our high power bills and set­ting up ex­cuses for when the lights go out.

These ex­cuses are many, and their worth is ex­em­pli­fied by a con­fected al­le­giance be­tween La­bor and the Mus­lim



MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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