Cool heads consider global warming

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

Perhaps because this can be a hot place anyway, there was little heat in the Alice Springs conversation with the Climate Commission; and perhaps because it’s an expensive place to live anyway, there was no whinging about the “great big tax”. The science was clearly accepted; people’s interest was in ‘where to from here’.

Were the commissioners worried, then, that they were preaching to the converted? This was put to them from the floor, with the speaker expressing concern over the polarisation of the debate in Australia.

Gerry Hueston, recently retired President of BP Australasia, representing a business perspective on the commission, pointed out that both major parties accept the science and both are committed to reducing emissions by 5% of the 2000 level by the year 2020. The debate is in how to go about it.

We’ll never get “perfect policy” coming out of the democratic process, said Mr Hueston, but we can get policy moving in the right direction. At the moment, short-term political issues are getting in the way but that will shift. In the USA, despite division at the national level, a lot of individual states will soon be more progressed in their climate change adaptations than Australia is, he said.

Commissioner Dr Susannah Eliott, an expert in science communication, said it was important not to be too focussed on the media’s tendency to highlight difference (rather than convergence). She wasn’t worried if the audience was “converted”, as they would all be “communicators” and providing them with good information would lead to more conversations in the community, based on better knowledge.

There was some concern about the impact of the Clean Energy Act, passed this week, on the poorest people in the region. Mr Hueston explained that the legislation has taken this into account through the tax system, raising the tax threshold and decreasing taxes at the lower end. This measure should more than compensate for rises in electricity costs, he said.

The perception that people in remote communities needing to travel to town for services will be hit by rising fuel costs was corrected by Chief Commissioner and former Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery: the tax is on the big polluting companies; fuel for personal vehicles is exempt. Fuel prices may go up but that will have nothing to do with putting a price on carbon, he said.

Disproportionate impact on remote communities

Professor Lesley Hughes, a biological scientist who has contributed to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that it is acknowledged that climate change will impact disproportionately on the most vulnerable, among them people in remote communities, and that the commission will be releasing a report highlighting this situation – though not necessarily providing answers.

Mr Hueston was asked whether the business community accepts “the science”, given the misinformation abroad in the national debate.  He said the majority either accepted the science or accepted that climate change is a “significant risk”: when you’ve got “97% of the world’s best scientists” saying that the science is “unequivocal”, then you realise you have to “take out some insurance”, he said.

He said most businesses in his field have been factoring in a price on carbon for a number of years now. What businesses want most is certainty about policy and price, he said.

Professor Hughes was challenged on her statement that with climate change Central Australia can expect more and more intense fires. Fire scientist Grant Allan of Bushfires NT suggested that this was a “southern view”, pointing out that our fires are driven by rainfall generating high fuel loads. A hotter drier future would present fewer rather than more opportunities for the landscape to burn, he said, emphasising also that fire is an important land management tool that, regardless of climate change, we need to continue to use and learn how to use it better. Professor Hughes took his point, acknowledging that adaptations need to be regionally specific.

There were a number of questions about urban density. One speaker criticised the Australian trend towards bigger houses. Professor Flannery said this had come about  on the back of cheap energy but that it will change as energy prices rise (as they have done recently in NSW by 40% – nothing to do with a carbon price).

Far-flung Kilgariff wise?

Domenico Pecorari asked the commissioners if there was “any wisdom” in the creation of Kilgariff as a suburb “far-flung” from the town. He prefaced his question by asking whether there were any aldermen or politicians in the room. There weren’t – “Why am I not surprised? The people making decisions about the town … are the least informed in my opinion,” said Mr Pecorari.  (Environment Minister Karl Hampton was represented by his minder, Mandy Taylor.)

Professor Flannery answered diplomatically: there would be contact with other groups in the community, including politicians, during the commission’s visit; and, any development now is a “splendid opportunity” to develop low environmental impact, energy-efficient urban design solutions.

Should people even live in Alice Springs or should we all move to high-density urban centres, asked a woman from the floor.

Professor Will Steffen, Executive Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, was familiar with some research in Canberra showing that people living in high density housing used less water and less electricity than people living in the suburbs. He said one of the big issues with densities is transport, a big greenhouse emitter. High density living provides the opportunity for the development of very good public transport and greatly reduced emissions.

Mr Hueston expressed his amazement at the continued development of new suburbs on the outskirts of Melbourne without “any proper transport infrastructure”.

Scott McConnell suggested that the growth of the human population “was the elephant in the room”. Professor Flannery agreed that it’s an issue. Most of it will come from the world’s 40 poorest countries, where women have an average 5.5 babies. Providing benefits to these women through a proper foreign aid program is the best way the richer countries can help hold down the increase in population, he said. (History shows that with improved education and economic opportunities women choose to have fewer children.) If this happened, population could be limited to eight billion by 2050 (the most optimistic scenario), as opposed to 9.3 billion.

Mr McConnell also suggested that we (in the developed countries) may have to “give up something” in order to allow people in “the third world” fulfillment of some of their development aspirations.

Professor Flannery thought that we could start by paying for pollution, which would lead to the development of cleaner, cheaper technologies with a much better chance of sustaining a population of eight billion.

Locking up productive land for carbon farming?

Another speaker took up the population theme, linking it to food production and asked if there was any sense in government spending money on locking up productive land for carbon “farming”.

Professor Flannery said he wasn’t familiar with local circumstances, such as the carbon sink developments on Henbury Station, but that he’s talked to lots of farmers and graziers, who are looking at the opportunities of doing both: viable food production and carbon sequestering.  For example, some graziers in northern Australia would be happy to lock up the “rough country” for carbon sequestering, while continuing to run their herd on more accessible country.

As we develop more experience with carbon farming – for example, changes in burning regimes – we’ll find more opportunities for doing both: it’s not an either/or situation, he said.

Jimmy Cocking of the Arid Lands Environment Centre asked about the emphasis of the Clean Energy Future policy on mitigation (reducing emissions) with “not a lot in there about adaptation”.

Professor Hughes noted the funding support from the current and previous government of adaptation research, but Mr Cocking was concerned more about money being available, through something like the Sovereign Wealth Fund, to future generations when the economy may have deteriorated and there may not be the money to pay for adaptive infrastructure.

Mr Hueston was sympathetic to this, saying that Australia runs the risk of squandering the short-term benefits it is getting out of the mining boom.

A question was asked about the possibility of large-scale solar power stations.

“Anything’s possible at a price, said Mr Hueston, but even with a carbon price solar is still not seen as an economic “base load provider”. He said a new power station built today would likely be gas-fired, a bridging solution until renewable energy sources can deliver base load. Battery and storage technology is critical and a lot of research is going into that right now.

Carbon storage (drawing carbon out of the atmosphere by mechanical means and storing it underground) was the subject of another question. Mr Hueston said there a “hello of a lot” of work being done on this globally, not as much in Australia but it’s “bubbling along”.

“It won’t be that long before we see a trial on an industrial scale,” he said, but answers to the challenges lie in lots of different technologies and activities – there’s “no silver bullet”.

 

 

Pictured: Top – Professors Tim Flannery and Lesley Hughes at the ‘Climate Conversation’ in Alice Springs on Wednesday. Above right – Gerry Hueston, formerly President of BP Australasia. Above – part of the crowd, some 300-strong, taking part.

Be Sociable, Share!

8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. M Webb
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    “We need advancement into clean energy,” says Steve Brown. Yes indeed – and the big players in the oil industry have been saying this for a while.
    “By 2030, energy demand could be 60% higher than today and by 2050 more than double, as the population grows and developing countries expand their economies. Meeting this demand and avoiding the environmental threat posed by climate change is a serious energy and sustainability challenge. Energy technology and use will have to evolve. The foundations for change have to be laid now and urgently.”
    Who put out this statement? Shell.
    The year? 2004.
    (The Shell Report: “Meeting the energy challenge – our progress in contributing to sustainable development”)
    And the other long-term planners, the insurance industry’s re-insurers:
    “If climate change accelerates and we fail to adapt to it in time, we will suffer losses in terms of safety and prosperity. The individual can make only a limited contribution to climate policy since this is primarily a task for governments. Who is affected by climate change? In a word, everyone.”
    (Bruno Porro, Chief Risk Officer, Swiss Re, Zurich)
    The quotes above are not from people who got to their position because they were stupid, but because they were intelligent and could look ahead. Notice how they don’t question that climate change is occurring, nor that we must take steps to combat it.

    View Comment
  2. Bogusbob
    Posted November 18, 2011 at 12:41 am

    I think the folks in Australia are taxed enough. Global warming / climate change is all bunk. Fat Algore started it way back in the 1980’s in the US. CO2 is a fertilizer. It occupies about 0.03% of the atmosphere. When I was growing up and going to school (1947-1960) climate change was called spring, summer, fall, and winter. It hasn’t changed. Only the con-artists have changed. Man will never be able to control the climate. We can prevent pollution, but not littering, and we have already done a pretty good job of controlling CO emissions from autos. Get rid of this bunch of con-artists. They will eventually start taxing your personal CO2 footprint, known as inhaling, then exhaling.

    View Comment
  3. DN
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    @ MWebb – have a bridge for sale – you interested? Come on, if this isn’t the greatest con going – the tax, no sorry is that the clean energy future?
    Give me a break!
    Will Steffen said on the Bolt Report on Sunday that it was irresponsible to say that the latest round of “wild weather” was down to climate change.
    As they say – you can fool some of the people some of the time.

    View Comment
  4. Steve Brown
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:27 am

    M Webb: so many wild weather changes in the life time of man. So we caused the ice age … we were the cause that changed the fertile land to desert in Egypt so many years ago. History is fact as it did happen and is recorded … so many wild weather changes. Facts … not your fiction read by cult extremist … that the sky is failing … and it is our fault … change is now available to us by technology, man made technology … like our computer age when first designed the cost came with an enormous price tag … with time everyone has one and the price is very affordable … green energy is at a cost that would put most of the consumers without the vital life line of power.
    We need more money into advancement of the technology to make it affordable … not forcing electrical suppliers to spend millions on technology that is new and costs are so high.
    We need advancement into clean energy. What we don’t need is high paid snake oil salesmen from the government with their lies and deceit blaming us for it all. So M Webb, like Mr Slattery, get your facts correct before you make wild statements.

    View Comment
  5. M Webb
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    I just don’t know what it would take to convince skeptics like Steve Brown that the effect of pumping vast quantities of heat and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not good.
    Yes, our weather in Central Australia is naturally very variable. Yes, plants need rain and carbon dioxide but unfortunately the outcomes of global warming are not nice and gentle. More frequent wild weather? Tick the boxes: Massive flooding (Bangkok), lethal droughts (E. Africa), warmest autumn on record (Moscow), snow storms (N America) – that’s just in the last few weeks. The effects of wilder weather are very varied, from coastal erosion, increase in shipping accidents, damage to crops and property etc. Just ask the insurance companies – they are the ones who first warned of the problem of global warming decades ago.
    Do we not have a responsibility to think of those who are already suffering from the many adverse effects of climate change right now, let alone the next generation? Who really thinks that global warming is going to help endangered species? Who really thinks that virtually all the scientists are idiots or conspirators? Who really thinks it’s okay to burn more and more fossil fuels?

    View Comment
  6. RASP
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Not everyone at the Climate Commission was a convert or devotee. It seemed not to be forum where a contrary view may have been countenanced – perhaps more so by the bulk of the attendees rather than by the commissioners.
    The statement by the main speaker that the science is all sorted and no-one questions it is a dangerous statement in scientific terms; particularly so in such a difficult discipline as climate change. Good science training emphasises multiple working hypotheses and the jury is never quite out on most issues.
    The presentation centred around the last century, and the major changes since the 1950s. There is more a need for a global millennial perspective which I expect is hard to gauge. Climate has always changed; it is never constant. There was no data shown at the forum which related climate change to historic information.
    Some attempt should have been made to outline what is known not only in regard to short-term (decade) changes but also changes in the medium-term (centuries?) and long-term (millennia?). Then of course there is geological time which sees a lot more variation and includes the influence of major geological events.
    A concern is the sudden interest by the Federal government in science. Where have they been?
    Despite doubts about the veracity of the current climate dreaming the nation should be making efforts to reduce emissions etc. In fact the nation did much more domestic recycling in the 1950s, e.g. refilled milk and beverage bottles.
    A carbon tax is a back door approach and demonstrates government remote from effective knowledge of and interaction with industry and domestic issues.
    Shouldn’t governments review industrial processes in consultation with business, and order changes where they are needed; and shouldn’t governments begin to tell architects and planners that buildings must require less dependence on air-conditioning and that suburbs require proper public transport infrastructure? Government needs to be more deeply involved, having its own well-resourced investigators and advisors working with industry and the community.

    View Comment
  7. Steve Brown
    Posted November 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Having read this and others articles by and about the visiting climate change circus I can’t help but wonder if it’s all a joke, or has the world been dummied down, taken over by some kind of sub-intelligent species! Where in the hell has common sense gone??
    You know, the innate human ability to know when you are being sold a pup! The ability to at the very least raise an intelligent question, such as why does our government feel the desperate need to sell this idiotic climate policy?? Is it really a belief in the horror stories being put about by this group or are they a bunch of idiots being carefully driven and manipulated by some crafty speculators set to make millions out of thin air. Carbon Sequestration my backside, what a shameful joke on us all! Whenever I hear mention of Professor Slattery [sic – ED] and his cronies I can’t help but think of the Bee Gees song, “I started a Joke”! That is certainly how History will view him. This week Mr Slattery tells us that we are going to face massive soul and body destroying temperatures, loss of species, severe storms and all sorts of other extreme horrors. This is complete fear mongering! A very grotesque and deliberate distortion of the facts! The language of a con man, not a scientist!
    Take one of the main premises of the argument, the one that means we should all panic and pay more tax to save ourselves, “the Greenhouse theory”. This theory has been around a long time, it is an extremely well understood set of effects getting its name as you would guess from the sort of conditions generated by a “greenhouse”. So what are those effects? Well, first off the effect does not lead to extreme temperatures or extreme anything for that matter, it actually has the opposite effect, it brings the extreme high temperatures down, whilst at the same time raising the minimum temperatures so overall temperature variation is much reduced. This is why we use greenhouses for agricultural purposes. The greenhouse effect also raises the level of humidity considerably which in short on a global scale means more precipitation, more rain which in turn means more growth, more plant life which also requires and uses more carbon dioxide. All of this means more overall production of food which by the way helps the survival chances of endangered species. Isn’t all this quite amazing? A self perpetuating balance, almost as if the earth can run itself without our assistance!! Possibly even without tax!
    The facts are if you want to ignore the sensationalised theories and study the available “proven” science closely, Alice Springs and its surrounds would be considerably “better off” under the premises of global warming. Alas, sadly for us however the most likely premise is that things will remain exactly as they are and always have been in the centre, completely unpredictable and we should go right on busily coping with that while filing Mr Slattery and his entourage of snake oil salesmen under the heading of the “world’s greatest cons”.

    View Comment
  8. DN
    Posted November 12, 2011 at 5:33 am

    Do you think there wasn’t much heat in the debate because many people aren’t interested in the foolishness that Flannery spouts and are waiting for Abbot and his blood oath?

    View Comment

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*