Australia makes a bad start at Warsaw climate change meeting

By Ian McGregor, University of Technology, Sydney

It’s been embarrassment after embarrassment for Australia at the Warsaw climate change meeting.

Former UN Climate Chief, Yvo de Boer, upbraided Australia for its failure to send a Minister. Australia was also criticised for its topsy-turvy climate policy in the opening issue of ECO, the non-government organisation newsletter produced at the talks.

Australia pulled a triple bad start by being awarded Fossil of the Day on the summit’s first day. The award is given by the international Climate Action Network to the country which has done the most to block progress at the climate change negotiations on that day.

Australia also topped the Fossil of the Day Awards on Wednesday beating out Turkey. This one was for seeking to repeal the carbon price (hence “hurling Australia back into the abyss of time”, as opposed to the more than 40 countries, states and provinces who have moved into the modern times with a carbon price) and also stripping $435 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and removing $10 billion of investment in clean energy.

Australia is blocking progress in a myriad of ways, but the outstanding one is its statement that it will not sign up to new finance commitments in Warsaw. Many would have thought Australia’s position at the climate summit could not have got much worse after the dismantling of its climate change department, abolishing the Climate Change Authority which provides independent advice on policy, ridding itself of the burden of a climate change minister and putting removal of its carbon price before Parliament during this summit.

But the lack of committed climate finance seems to do so. That it’s done in the face of the crushing losses suffered by the Philippines this week – a country which is a Pacific neighbour to Australia and needs international climate finance to build resilience against future tragedy – makes it even more telling.

It illustrates starkly this government’s lack of understanding about why climate finance is needed. Our Cabinet ministers apparently characterise climate finance as “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”. But I have news for you: it’s not socialism, its equity – our fair share – and it’s our responsibility as one of the richest countries and highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.

Perhaps Australia could do better on emissions reductions? The US and China have made important announcements on strengthening their climate action this year. And the Climate Change Authority has described our the existing emissions reduction target of 5% by 2020 as “inadequate” and “not a credible option”. So it would have been good to see the Australian Government seeking to keep up with the ambition of other developed countries.

But instead our Government continues to prevaricate. Tony Abbott said yesterday:

Australia will meet our 5% emissions reduction target, but this government has made no commitments to go further than that. We certainly are in no way looking to make further binding commitments in the absence of very serious like binding commitments from other countries, and there is no evidence of that.

This statement is despite repeated assertions by both the prime minister and the environment minister Greg Hunt that the Coalition still support increasing Australia’s emissions reduction target to up to 25% under a specific conditions for global action accepted by both major parties.

And this is despite a finding by the Climate Change Authority that the conditions for a target higher than 5% had already been met.

The mood of the climate talks are clearly with the lead negotiator for the Philippines, Yeb Sano, whose hometown of Tacloban City was among the worst affected by last week’s typhoon. He said:

It’s time to stop this madness.

To anyone who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare you to get off your ivory tower and away from the comfort of your armchair. I dare you to go to the islands of the Pacific… and see the impacts of rising sea levels; … to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water becomes scarce… And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.

The science has given us a picture that is getting ever more focussed. The IPCC report on climate change and extreme events underscored the risks associated with changes in the patterns as well as frequency of extreme weather events. Typhoons such as Yolanda (Haiyan) and its impacts are a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change.

Australia’s reputation at these talks needs to change, and it will rely on Prime Minister Abbott’s political will and good diplomatic sense. If Abbott agrees with the science, and has confidence in his own proposed policies, it can’t be too hard to accept the independent advice about the level of action needed.

Ian McGregor is a Lecturer at University of Technology, Sydney and Official Adviser at the Climate Change Negotiations to the Government of Afghanistan. He is also a Steering Committee Member of Climate Action Network Australia.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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A Viking Legacy and Australian Cuisine

A perspective piece I wrote for the Solutions Journal has now been published.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.

In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.

Read more here.

Sequestration, like so many other “solutions,” no silver bullet

Following my post, Carbon Sequestration; what no-one tells you, I received a couple comments from a reader, pointing out the potential of chemical sequestration, commonly referred to as enhanced weathering.

Of course, none of this was provided with case studies or research into it’s viability and the individual quickly left the conversation, having made their point.

But it’s worth reviewing, because I’m becoming increasingly aware of two camps, both very distinct, but sharing an absolutism approach to their favoured climate change mitigation strategy; the pro-nukes and the sequestration mob. Both are sure that their answer is the one and only true reply, but neither stack up.

I won’t bother here with the pro-nukes, because I’ve discussed them various times in the past.

Yes, biological sequestration is only one possibility. Even the modest targets set by the current Australian government within “direct action” represent massive effort, as my analysis showed. However, there is another, apparently low energy, form of sequestration which relies on rock chemically reacting with atmospheric CO2 to capture it.

This is know as “enhanced weathering” as it is a natural process in itself and what the fans of this want to do is speed it up. It’s euphemism for enhanced erosion. I’ll get to the numbers in just a moment, but we’re talking about billions of tonnes of material needed, to match the CO2. Who honestly believes that mining to this degree is viable, let alone desirable when we factor in the necessary impact to landscapes and aquatic environments both through the direct mining activities and resulting compounds as residue from this process, which will hit environments (unless we go to even greater effort and expense to again bury it) in far great amounts than the background levels?

As for numbers, looking at the Azimuth Project, two minerals that could be used for this process are Olivine and Serpentine.

The ratios for these;

Olivine  Olivine (forsterite) Serpentine Serpentine
CO2 Fe2SiO4 Mg2SiO4 Fe3Si2O5(OH)4 Mg3Si2O5(OH)4
Molar Mass (g/mol) 44.01 203.77 140.69 371.73 277.11
Weight ratio to CO2 1 4.63 3.2 8.45 6.3
Molecules requires for every CO2 0.25 to 1 0.25 to 1 0.25 0.25
1 unit weight of CO2 requires how many units?  – 1.6 to 4.63 0.8 to 3.2 2.11 1.57

Annual emissions of CO2 reached 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Therefore, for Olivine or Serpentine to capture all of this, we would need between 27.6 and 159.74 billion tonnes of these rocks annually.

From the Azimuth Project page;

Supposedly all the CO2 that is produced by burning 1 liter of oil can be sequestered by less than 1 liter of olivine. The market value of olivine is US $50 to US $100 per ton depending on quality. Plugging in the larger number then 5 trillion dollars a year of this material would absorb all the CO2 currently produced. But of course this calculation is oversimplified, since the spike in demand would send the price much higher.

None of this begins to address the billions of tonnes of residue materials as well.

Some might say that I’m being unfair – most targets aim at around 5% below, say 2000 or 1990 levels. To be generous, let’s say the emissions value was 25 billion tonnes, meaning that we want to reach emissions targets below 23.75 billion tonnes. This means that we want to capture 10.75 billion tonnes of CO2 based on 2012 levels.

This amounts to between 8.6 and 49.77 billion tonnes of Olivine and Serpentine annually for enhanced weathering. This is still a massive industry devoted entirely to scrubbing the atmosphere of our CO2 emissions.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, may call emissions trading a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one,” but how can sequestration be anything but a non-delivery market, as much a sink of money as it is carbon?

It doesn’t matter whether you rely on trees, soil, weathering or any other mechanism, sequestration is not the cheap and easy solution that it has been sold as. In every case you are also left with a bank that is useless unless it keeps carbon locked and what then of this material?

There is no such thing as a silver bullet. Reducing our emissions will require a lot of effort, behavioural change and a diversity of solutions, each contributing their own small part. Thus far, very little of this is being addressed or adopted above the barest effort.

Carbon dioxide; the pollutant

There’s three permanent intertidal rock pools teaming with life.

In the first, you pour bleach. The bleach kills everything in the pool. You deem it an environmental pollutant.

In the second, you pour crude oil. Slowly, but surely, the oil kills everything in the pool. You deem it an environmental pollutant.

In the third, you pour in fresh water. Even slower, you find that the freshening water kills the life in the pool. This fresh water you deem is not a pollutant…

Wait… What? Why?

Well, you can drink it. In fact, you need to drink it to survive.

However, you’re not a marine organism living in the pool. All three experience a change to the chemical composition of the pool which alter it so much that life, as it had existed, could no longer function in the same manner.

As far as each pool is concerned, each one, including the freshened pool, has been polluted.

In the same fashion, increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 leads to environments no longer functioning in the way we have experienced them throughout the Holocene. Just like the freshening pool, this is effectively polluting the atmosphere, regardless of previous times where life (species that no longer exist) thrived under different atmospheric compositions.

We are digging up long trapped carbon, which has not been part of the biosphere or atmosphere for many millions of years and converting it into CO2 emissions, measured in the gigatonnes in annual atmospheric addition.

It is a slow process, but we are already witnessing coral bleaching, die back in drying / warming forests, parasitic species getting the edge on host (due to heat stress), shifting timing of breeding, blooming and migration; all of which negatively impact on ecosystems as they currently function.

Enough of any chemical is detrimental.

We are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere in such a way that the resulting climate is less accommodating to current ecosystems and, if it’s difficult to appreciate just how dependent upon ecosystems we really are, also our current agricultural practices. Sure, it doesn’t mean death, but it means otherwise avoidable hardship.

Even CO2 can be a pollutant.

Australian Liberal Party; Our very own Tea Party

Recent news about this new government has left me wondering if they have any intention of remaining in serious consideration for the next federal election.

I mean, the Environmental minister, Greg Hunt, turning to Wikipedia as a reference on climate change (admittedly, dismantling the commission on this field of research might have the minister confused as to where he could obtain quality information).

And then there’s the “socialism” scare tactics employed by our Prime Minister while talking to party faithfuls’ in Tasmania, which is clearly a move, taking a page out the paranoia textbook of none other than Chris Monckton himself.

Now we have word that a cross section of senior economists stand by a similar conclusion that many have been making for some time now; direct action is anything but “direct” and certainly not “action” on climate change mitigation.

As well as this, the mentor of our current Prime Minister, former PM, booted out from even his own electorate, John Howard, is endorsing an anti-science booklet aimed to teach children how to disrupt a classroom where anti-science has been rejected. This is of course the exact tactic also employed by creationists where their “science” hasn’t been allowed to infiltrate the science class room in the US.

Are we getting a picture just how important critically derived and quality information is to this party? The “head in the sand” approach is well and truly centre stage.

No good is good news, hence why boat arrivals and talk of unpleasant environmental impacts, such as climate change, are all off the table of discussion. The current make-up of the Australian Liberal party is starting to share too many similarities to the US Tea party whose battiness is finally losing them friends… what is the future for a similar party here in Australia?

As NSW burns, we refuse to learn

I know I’m largely repeating what I wrote back in January. However repetition is required until the message sinks in.

The tragedy currently unfolding across NSW shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, the only surprise would be if it doesn’t eventually spread to cover areas of SA and Vic.

The reason being the recent so-called “break” in the drought. In reality, the weather turned on the Aussie sprinklers for a couple years before returning to normal. In turn we had above average flora growth across the Great Dividing Range and arterial waterways of Eastern the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee.

This is now returning to normal, leading to die-back, hence fuel loading.

Expect some serious fire threats into the coming hot and dry El Nino period.

We celebrate the breaking of a drought, but looking over great periods than election cycles and waterway plans, we should be concerned about the wets; how we manage the water and the landscape beyond that period.

We are a fickle species with a tendency for the short term and will continue to feel the pain wild fires (not to mention the carbon loss) until we can move beyond our tendencies and plan for the longer term.

Hobbling Australian Universities

He was a small man. At 5’8″ I’m no giant myself, but even I looked down on this lanky character. Yet, a decade on, I still remember that smug leer he would wear in response to my stress. He was the manager of another department, a life long friend of the store manager and my tormentor as a retail trainee.

If I knew then the career trajectory I would later take, his bullying would have had less of an impact.

As a trainee, I reported to the head office with frequent reviews of my traineeship. My experience was far from unique, talking with other trainees from other stores when we had our theory lessons.

Anonymously, I decided to report this back where it would be on record and could be audited.

However, as inappropriate as it was, eventually, by my handwriting, I was discovered. In the proceeding conversation, I was informed that my report would be seen by the independent auditors (which was my intention) and that I was risking the possibility of others enjoying this excellent opportunity I currently had.

And so, in that small oppressive room in the basement of my store (the door closed, of course), with two people from the head office looking at sternly at my from across the table, I took it back…

To go on and enjoy that smug leer.

Is it really possible to discuss uncomfortable criticisms about a boss in front of them? Arguably answering this question has been one of the hallmarks to the success of any religion; with the pretext of some invisible Big Brother overhead, capable of unthinkable punishment, why challenge the orthodoxy?

Gagging the free agent

The new government closed the Climate Commission. Of all the discussions relating to that, what interests me most is in response to the governments claim that Australian universities and the CSIRO are enough to provide the scientific evidence regarding climate change.

The response to this questions their ability to do so with the various political pressures placed on such institutes.

I don’t doubt the reality of this concern. Funding being a major concern, for one thing. Budget cuts seem forever on the horizon… Why would an institute want to be very vocal on a topic that the current boss seems at odds with? Especially when this boss is willing to close down vocal scientific organisations?

Politically correcting reality?

This is a real concern. Can we really have much confidence in the potency of Australian universities if their contribution to scientific endeavour and communication are, at least in part, stunted by political favour?

Micheal Mann once noted that a glacier was neither a Democrat or Republican, it just melts. Science is about precision and accuracy of our interpretation of the universe, regardless of its emotional or political ramifications.

How can a scientific institute possibly hope to function if it needs to place emotional or political pressures before precision and accuracy? It may as well offer Bachelors of Science in “Everything is okay” and “Don’t worry, you’re immortal”.

The school of good feelings and bad jokes

As it stands, it seems that Australia finds many of its so-called prime research institutes at the table, expected to respond to an emotional position before power brokers. For many reasons, I can’t help but feel they are stepping away, even if only a little, from uncomfortable conclusions opposing the position of these power brokers.

The smug leer is, as it was for me in retrospect, the least of anyone’s concern. We threaten to lose all respect in ourselves and our research if we allow political or emotional pressures to undermine the process. Research cannot be expected to place politics or emotions before rigour and still command respect.

About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

Honest Reply to anti-science

It was a windy, dry day this last Thursday in central NSW. Winds in the region were recorded at 100km per hour. Much of the state was under fire restrictions. The dust, the pollen… Hay-fever had gripped me as well.

The group was large for our standard field trip, which in its own way worked against my natural rhythm, leaving me frustrated with my personal pace.

At one point, the WordPress app on my phone informed me of pending comment which I later reviewed while finally getting to my sun baked lunch.

What I found was another ambiguous comment, with nothing more than a link and a title. It was from an anti-fluoridation individual which was not, in itself directly related to the actual post under which the comment was made. I had to spam it.

But I didn’t do so straight away. I simply sat on it, thinking over my choices.

To dance the Rain Dance or not?

Did I really want to approve the comment, follow the link and reply? In short, no. My time is very limited at the moment and not well spent on each and every bundle of garbage that someone dreamed up as a rebuttal to the standing position within the scientific literature and then posted online in a forum completely devoid of that methodical, expert critical review process.

In essence, this is entirely the realm of the blogosphere discussion, whether it’s fluoridation, climate change, vaccination, evolution or any other topic that sparks an anti-science reaction.

Each communicator whom supports the most accurate conclusion as understood via scientific methodology is only responding to media that happily avoids such scrutiny. In a lot of ways, part of my chosen role has been in this arena. In retrospect, I did this because it way easy and generated traffic.

It was easy because there is no limit to the rubbish that can be generated, pretending to have some leverage in an informed debate; it’s fuel for the lazy writer. As for the traffic it generated, this is not as valuable as the raw statistics would have you believe.

Feeding the Beast of Attention

I remember a few years ago, one environmental senior academic writer thanked his audience, showing a graphic of his traffic. From my experiences with that blog, it was a sizable audience true enough, by the posts themselves were not really the focus. It was an echo chamber where a few individuals, the host included, would incite a reaction with strong comments and then berate, at length, anyone who disagreed or simply questioned this position.

My traffic is some what less, but am I actually being read a great deal less by an engaged audience? Certainly a little, but I think I largely lack the antagonist audience. It’s quality, not quantity.

Such a style is cheap and ineffective. It’s more about the fight than the case. Yes, I’ve been there myself, but why waste my time stirring up a reaction from conspiracy theory proponents unless the basic traffic information feeds my ego.

Honestly, it’s spam

Mulling over all this, I had to admit to myself that the newest comment was indeed spam. The creator didn’t question or even relate to the post, which referred to osteosarcoma and fluoridation except that it linked to the creators personal space in which they “prove” that fluoride is generally bad.

The comment would have better suited other posts I’ve made on the subject, which leaves me with the impression that the creator made this generic comment, did an online search and just posted it on whatever the search returned.

That’s spam.

Further, this individual obviously didn’t read the post and, like all anti-science proponents, simply knows the science is wrong and is waiting for the evidence to support this faith-based position.

It might generate traffic, but this is deaf traffic to information accuracy.

The knock-on effect

The only element of that harsh day was that at least the winds were so fast that they kept the flies at bay.

By the time I sat down to dinner, I had decided to spam the comment, but more than that, I had decided that such an approach wouldn’t work for me anymore.

While my readership may remain lower, at least I can feel confident that it’s engaged and interested in scientific accuracy.

I’ll turn my attention more so on the analysis of policies in the public domain and on the science where suitable. I will no longer chase the creationists, the climate deniers, the anti-vax or anti-fluoridation fan. I won’t remove any of this material, only focus on an audience interested in genuine reality as best our species understands it.