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Copenhagen Climate Change Conference

Dec 02, 2009

The coal, hard facts on climate policy

So a national climate showdown is looming. But while most of the focus has been on the federal Coalition's contortions over the emissions trading scheme, the Government is also struggling to launch the epic energy revolution necessary to dramatically slash carbon emissions.

This is for our kids, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his ministers are fond of saying about tackling climate change. That is why, they say, Australia needs an emissions trading scheme, renewable energy and - to sell more coal than ever before.

Read on...

Nov 26, 2009

Good for your health

Tony McMichael (http://nceph.anu.edu.au/) It's been a week full of climate change acrimony - from the so-called 'climategate' hacked emails of some scratchy scientists at East Anglia University in the UK to the stormy leadership tension in the federal coalition over the emissions trading scheme.

So it was a change of pace to interview the ANU's Professor Tony McMichael, a medical graduate and epidemiologist with vast credentials who is regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on the health impacts of climate change.

He speaks quietly, calmly. "The politicians have not got the message that the stakes in all of this go beyond economic inconvenience or disruption. The stakes are about the stability of human society and the health of the human population," he says.

His message is simple. Climate change will make us sick. The effects in Australia can already be seen, he says. More deaths and hospitalisations during heatwaves and more exposure to potentially fatal extreme weather events such as bushfires, floods and storms.

There are also indirect effects such as a greater incidence of diarrhoea which increases by 5 per cent for every 1 degree temperature rise as well as more debilitating mosquito-borne diseases such as Ross River virus and dengue fever. North Queensland recently suffered its worst outbreak of dengue fever in 50 years with more than 1,000 people infected from November last year.

"And there are problems for rural Australia where many communities are bearing the brunt at the front-end of climate change. I'm running a range of studies looking at the mental health consequences for people in eastern and south-eastern Australia which looks like it's facing long term drying and changed environmental and economic circumstances," says Professor McMichael.

There are longer term concerns that the potential displacement of millions of people from more vulnerable nations because of flooding or other severe climate change effects would break down authorities' ability to monitor the spread of various diseases. Or the arrival of new ones.

There is a growing body of work in this area. A report on the Copenhagen conference website states "there is growing evidence that ongoing deforestation, rising temperatures and unusual rainfall patterns have already expanded the risk of diseases being transmitted from animals and insects to humans."

These include malaria-carrying mosquitoes now found in South Korea and ticks that transmit Lyme disease now spreading in to Sweden and Canada because of warming temperatures.

Typically poorer nations will be hit hardest. Research done for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) says that disease levels in some areas of Zambia could jump four-fold due to climate change with some parts hit by dysentery because of drought and other regions hit by pneumonia and malaria because of flooding.

One contentious estimate by the Global Humanitarian Forum claims that 300,000 people are already dying each year because of climate change induced malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria as well as extreme weather events.

Not everyone agrees that increased temperatures are bad for us. I heard Dr Jay Lehr from the US Heartland Institute, which denies human-induced global warming, tell an Australian audience a few months ago that many people prefer hotter weather. And the US Chamber of Commerce, which called for a Scopes-style monkey trial over climate science, has also suggested that warmer weather could cause fewer deaths because not so many people would freeze or fatally fall on ice.

"There may, indeed, be some marginal health gains from warmer weather in some populations" says Professor McMichael. "But these objectors are missing the real point. Climate conditions are fundamentally important for all manner of things that our health and lives depend on. Mosquitoes and salmonella bacteria also like hotter weather, and rice yields decline by 10 per cent for each additional 1 deg C rise in temp. Slight warming of the sea surface heightens the intensity of cyclones, and, on land, increase the severity of droughts."

Not only do we need to urgently slash carbon emissions to avert dangerous climate change, but there are excellent public health reasons to do so even without global warming.

Professor McMichael and international colleagues, in conjunction with the medical journal Lancet, have released a new report highlighting the immediate health benefits of cutting greenhouse gases.

For instance, replacing heavily polluting indoor ovens in poor villages in China and India could save more than one million lives. Cutting meat consumption in western countries by 30 per cent could cut heart disease by 16 per cent. Relying less on cars and more on mass transit and bicycles would reduce rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and asthma around the globe. Cleaner air, more exercise, better nutrition, better public health - all of these goals are helped by cutting carbon emissions.

"It's a win-win," says Professor McMichael. "I hope the politicians will start to get the message."

Nov 12, 2009

Conspiracies and the IPCC

Politicians such as Tony Abbott (pictured) and Nick Minchin have accused the IPCC of being 'alarmist' A letter writer to a newspaper recently pleaded for guidance on how to get the facts about whether there is human-induced global warming. But the writer added emphatically that he did not want to read reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) because he wanted independent and reliable information.

Now, it could just be me, but I would have thought that the world's most comprehensive assessment and review of climate science by thousands of international experts should probably be the first port of call when searching for facts.

And make no mistake about how central the IPCC is to the global warming debate. The IPCC's reports are why ours and other governments around the world are calling for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; and why everyone will meet in Copenhagen next month.

But some of Australia's leading politicians such as Tony Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin have variously dismissed the IPCC as "alarmist" or fuelling a left-wing conspiracy to "de-industrialise" modern society.

During a visit to NSW's Henty Field Day this year (http://blogs.abc.net.au/events/2009/09/farmers-still-sceptical-about-climate-change-science.html) I met numerous farmers' representatives who also harboured a dark suspicion of the IPCC and of climate scientists.

So is the IPCC really that kooky? Have thousands of participating scientists from around the world who've contributed to four IPCC reports since 1990 duped the world with hidden agendas and manipulated science? Have they all got it wrong?

I should point out that the IPCC's conclusions are supported in most countries by most major scientific bodies. In Australia that includes the CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science, and the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, to name a few.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). It has issued four reports (1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007) each asserting with increasing certainty that the globe is warming (now 100 per cent certain) and that human driven greenhouse gas emissions are largely to blame (now 90 per cent certain). The next report is due 2014.

While it is called a 'panel,' the IPCC is actually one of the most ambitious scientific undertakings in history bringing together hundreds of scientists and other experts who are generally nominated by their governments or by non-government organisations (such as the Australian Academy of Science or the CSIRO). But the IPCC is also policy-neutral. Its job is to present the best science. There is not a single policy recommendation in its reports.

A different group of scientists is picked for each report and it is not just climate scientists - but biologists, physicists, geologists, economists, engineers, health experts and so on. Each report deals with three categories: the physical science, or how climate change works; impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, or how to deal with it; and mitigation, or how to minimise it.

Each of these working groups is headed by two scientists, one each from a developed and developing nation, supported by up to 500 other scientists known as lead authors who in turn are supported by up to 2000 further expert reviewers. Together they evaluate thousands of pieces of peer-reviewed research from around the globe.

Here is how Queensland University's Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a world expert on coral reefs and climate change, describes what happened when he contributed a small slice of the 2007 IPCC report:

"The IPCC has one of the most rigorous review processes I have ever experienced. There are various stages of review. The first round involves the working groups picking over the text (hundreds of eyes and qualified expert opinions). If you have been involved in this process, it is a quite an experience which takes months and years - involving a lot of pedantic haggling over detail - but always using the peer-reviewed literature as the base. When this is complete, then the documents are sent to signatory governments for review. Leading scientists from each of the countries pick over the details. And after this, the documents are placed for open comment (on the web). At this point, any government, industry, science group, special interest group, or individual is invited for comment, recommendations, amendments etc. In response, the lead and contributing authors are required to respond to each comment or suggestion in a precise fashion, however correct or off-the-wall they may be. The responses from the specialists are them independently reviewed to ensure that the documents have been amended to include the comment/suggestion/objection or the comment/suggestion/objection refuted scientifically (ie with peer-reviewed literature). Personally, I had to respond to 87 comments on a relatively small contribution to the Australian and NZ chapters within Working Group 2 of the IPCC report in 2007. At the end of the day, I don't think you could have a more rigorous process. The only problem is that it ends up being conservative (e.g. failure of AR4 IPCCC in 2007 to predict the current dramatic decline of Arctic sea ice). That may be its only flaw."

There were more than 30,000 comments from the open public review process for just one of the 2007 working groups - all of them given a written response that is publicly available.

One of the lead authors on the 2001 and 2007 reports, UNSW's Professor Andy Pitman, also worries it is unduly cautious especially because in the final stages all governments, including those with vested interests in fossil fuels like Saudi Arabia, have to approve what has been written "line by line."

Prof Pitman says he and others acknowledge there is much they don't know about how the earth and the climate work; that they have been wrong on some things and that they are eager to test and re-test emerging data. They are by nature a conservative bunch, he says. "All good scientists are sceptics to the core."

But so far nothing has seriously challenged their analysis of an underlying warming trend and its connection to human generated CO2 emissions. If anything, the latest data points to faster and stronger global warming.

"Don't you think ambitious scientists would love to make their name proving global warming wrong? To prove the IPCC is wrong? ," he says. "It would guarantee a Nobel prize!"

"Are we just biased and have we turned the profession into being distorted onto our side?" asks New Zealand's Professor Martin Manning of Victoria University who headed technical support for the 2007 IPCC report. "God, I wish that were the case, because I have grandchildren and practically every day I really, really wish we were wrong."

Which brings us to one of the enduring sources of frustration among IPCC and many other scientists. Just about all the scientists attacking the IPCC, Prof. Pitman says, have never researched nor published any climate science in peer-reviewed journals - and peer review is how science works.

"Climate Science is not about opinions. It is about what is provable and disprovable. There are no scientific publications that provide serious challenge to the IPCC conclusions. Not one. But there are literally thousands that support the conclusions of the IPCC."

When is science valid?

A valuable reference here is a short, sharp guide published by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies. It's worth a look.

In part, it provides a checklist to see whether a scientific idea has been validated:

  • Has it been published in the peer-reviewed literature in that field of science?
  • Have other scientists cited that publication as being valid (as opposed to citing it to show that it is wrong?)
  • Have other scientists conducted additional tests that show the idea to be valid?
  • Has the idea been built upon to create new understanding, i.e., has the idea become useful?

Nov 06, 2009

The psychology of climate change

Gore

Organisers of a youth rally told me earlier this year that climate change was the activist issue for their generation and that young people would turn out to protest in record numbers.

When hundreds of young people showed up on the anointed day I thought - where are the rest? If this is the issue, where is the mass demonstration of dissent?

You know that public movements must be struggling when incumbent politicians are forced to urge them on. UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, and his brother, Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, have both called for more public mobilisation on climate change, although the UK government has also used anti-terror powers against some climate activists as I described in this blog last week.

Former US vice-president, Nobel Laureate and prominent global warming activist, Al Gore, has called for young people to engage in civil disobedience over the issue.

Now in his new book, Our Choice - A Plan To Solve The Climate Crisis, Mr Gore devotes a chapter to analysing why climate change has failed to prompt a greater public outcry.

In it he asks "Why is it that humanity is failing to confront this unprecedented mortal threat? What is it about the way we human beings process information and make choices that promotes global procrastination?"

I suspect the chapter is part therapy for Mr Gore who must be hurting after years of relentless presentations around the world which, despite warning of the possible demise of human civilisation, have failed to ignite the collective action he'd hoped for.

I've heard exasperated climate scientists similarly ponder what they regard as bewildering inaction.

CSIRO's former climate director, Dr Graeme Pearman, suffered a personal crisis after confronting this question before deciding to study psychology, which he describes as the new frontier in climate change:

"Behavioural issues are likely to be much more important than the development of improved descriptions of exactly what happens or might happen to the climate. These are the main barriers to the actions that are needed." 

Mr Gore says he conducted 30 "solutions summits" with leading international experts to discuss how to design the multi-faceted battle plan in his book. They included brain scientists who told him the climate threat seemed too remote and unprecedented to trigger survival reflexes. In short, primordial human wiring is tuned to the likes of carnivorous predators, lightning strikes and blood-curdling rival clansmen.

Harvard University's Daniel Gilbert has provided a sharply amusing account of how global warming challenges our evolutionary psychology -  if it doesn't make us duck or twitch or even feel repulsed, can it really be so bad? 

Behavioural scientists also told him that "Simply laying out the facts won't work … The barrage of negative, even terrifying, information can trigger denial or paralysis or, at the very least, procrastination." Sounds like a bad rap for his Academy Award winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, which helped raise global awareness of the issue.

But scientists told Mr Gore that the human brain can commit to multigenerational goals although this can be undermined by constant stress and excessive distraction, both of which abound in modern society.

"The primary users of the new brain research are the marketers and advertisers of goods and services … the average American now sees an average of 3,000 advertising messages per day … material consumption in our society has reached absurd levels."  We have lots and lots more stuff even though there's been no measured increase in well-being and happiness. Maybe it also means we're less able to focus on long-term sustainability because we're too busy shopping. It's exceedingly difficult for reason to challenge the powerful forces of habit," he writes.

But Mr Gore remains optimistic that gorging on short-term gratification "can be … overridden by an innate and powerful desire to do right by those to whom we feel some connection." Like our kids and grandkids.

To deliver a more effective message, proponents must "… strengthen the linkage between solutions to global warming and solutions to other challenges (economic, strategic and social) that seem more immediate and are more likely to induce a desire to make the necessary changes."

A recent report released by the American Psychological Association suggests a series of practical approaches. For instance, most people want to fit in and some researchers found that people will cut their electricity use immediately if told their neighbours use less than they do. Other researchers found that people respond in the same way to future environmental decisions as they do to financial ones. Thus, schemes providing up-front cash for home insulation are more effective than promising long-term savings.

"Messages are more effective if framed to warn people that they will lose $500 over 10 years if they don't follow a particular course of action to limit climate change, than if they are told they'll be $500 better off if they do take action," the report says.

But is our psychology the only reason why climate change is slipping down our 'To Do' list?  Does lack of political and economic leadership, inaccessible science (how many people have really read the 2007 IPCC report?), aggressive vested industrial interests and extremist greenies all combine to dilute the collective will Mr Gore is trying to summon on this epic issue? Another one of his chapters analyses the political obstacles.

David Spratt, an Australian climate activist and co-author of Climate Code Red, blames apathy on "a systemic political under-estimation of the seriousness of the problem … Because governments are not honest with themselves about the size and urgency of the problem, they necessarily transmit a shallow view of the problem to the electorate, who follow suit in seeing climate as an incremental problem. Voters are sold a show-bag of dinky policy actions on climate as 'solving the problem', and they reasonably conclude the problem can't be all that serious. Much of the climate advocacy lobby is guilty of the same incapacity."

But a recent public campaign by the UK Government prompted complaints that its TV ad on climate change was too scary. Have a look and see what you think.

Oct 27, 2009

Climate change protesters face tougher penalties

Greenpeace protesters lock themselves onto a coal loader at Hay Point in Queensland

Climate change protesters beware. The Victorian Government may be the first state to announce it will dramatically increase sanctions to protect coal-fired power stations against a growing number of demonstrations - but other governments are reviewing penalties as well.

Protestors, governments and businesses alike recognize that coal-fired power stations are fast becoming the lightning rod for climate change protest. One of the world's leading climate change scientists, NASA's James Hansen, has called for a worldwide moratorium on new coal power stations which he's dubbed "factories of death" and former US vice president Al Gore has called for civil disobedience to prevent their construction if they don't have carbon capture and storage (a developing technology that could take decades to be applied, if at all).

Green groups in Australia guesstimate that about 100 protestors have been arrested so far this year in various actions including locking onto coal conveyor belts into power stations as well as blockading coal mines and ports. Last year about 160 people were arrested in similar actions. In 2007, activists shut down Victoria's Loy Yang power station for 5 hours.
 
Federal and state energy ministers have formally requested a COAG review of the relevant national laws protecting critical electricity infrastructure. Earlier this year, the then Queensland mines and energy minister, Geoff Wilson, told me that such a request "shows you how seriously all energy ministers around Australia, including the Federal Minister, see this (protest) action ... in various places."

Most protesters have generally escaped serious fines and jail in the past. But now the Victorian Government proposes that anyone who "invades or goes into a critical electricity infrastructure site without authority" will face the equivalent of up to a year in jail and a $14,000 fine. And anyone "interfering with critical electricity infrastructure" will face the equivalent of up to two years jail and a fine of up to $28,000.

Greenpeace and some of its activists are also facing serious maritime charges with potentially hefty fines arising out of a blockade of two coal ports in north Queensland while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns in August.

Victoria's Energy Minister, Peter Batchelor, says the proposed new laws will not affect the rights of peaceful protesters. But John Hepburn from Greenpeace describes them as a crackdown on community opposition to continued government support for coal power stations. Rather than deterring protests, he predicts the move will only escalate social conflict.

The issue is also being hotly debated in the UK where the government has been criticized for invoking anti-terror laws to deal with disruptive protests. And the UK has had its share - climate change protesters damaging a conveyer belt from a coal mine to a power station, disrupting the unloading of cargo which was to be used to build a new coal power station and ambushing and hijacking a freight train carrying coal to a power station, to name a few.

Just this week a group of more than 20 protesters stormed yet another UK coal power station climbing chimneys and trying to block a conveyer belt.

But British police reportedly hold a growing intelligence file on climate change protesters. Two weeks ago border police stopped a 31-year-old activist from crossing into mainland Europe to join other activists organizing for the Copenhagen summit in December. The activist, Chris Kitchen, who once glued himself to a statue in parliament, said police took him off a bus citing anti-terror laws which allow them to stop and search individuals to see if they're connected to terrorism. Mr Kitchen is reportedly linked to a network of green activist groups called Climate Justice Action which has plans to disrupt the UN conference in Copenhagen by occupying the conference centre. None of the groups espouse violence.

In midnight raids in April, British police arrested 114 activists believed to be planning direct action at a coal-fired power station. It was speculated the protesters may have been planning to chain themselves to a coal conveyor belt. Police seized bolt cutters and chains during the raids. Twenty-five people have since been charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass.

It remains to be seen how the cases are dealt with by the UK courts. So far it's been a varied outcome for protesters and prosecutors alike. A year ago, six activists were acquitted of criminal damage to a power station after scaling and defacing a 200-metre chimney. Their defence, accepted by the jury and aided by James Hansen who testified on their behalf, was that their actions were justified in a bid to prevent even greater damage to the community by the power station's emissions which were contributing to dangerous global warming.

But 29 protestors who hijacked a power station coal train were convicted after failing to convince the jury of the same 'greater good' defence in July this year. In this case, the judge refused to allow James Hansen to testify.

The same court room drama could unfold in Australia as well. Protest groups say new laws won't deter them. And two eminent climate change scientists, Professor David Karoly from Melbourne University and Professor Tony McMichael from the ANU, have told me they would be willing to testify on behalf of protesters a la James Hansen.

Oct 22, 2009

Global warming and monkey trials

John Scopes in 1925 (Photo: Watson Davis/Flickr) However global warming shakes down the weather in years to come, it's already playing havoc with political alliances.

The public split from the National Party's anti-carbon emissions trading scheme stance by one of its most important constituent groups, the National Farmers' Federation, is undoubtedly a blow to the increasingly independent coalition partner. But then the Liberal Party is famously struggling to hold the line on climate change in its ranks as well. And you won't hear a word from Labor critics while they're riding high in government.

One of the world's most powerful lobby groups has recently endured its own damaging public splits over similar issues. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the biggest American business lobby, boasting 3 million members. It has argued against domestic climate change legislation on the grounds that it could hurt American jobs and profits. It has also questioned the certitude of climate science in quite spectacular fashion.

The controversy erupted in August when the US Chamber of Commerce demanded that the US Environmental Protection Agency hold a public hearing on climate change science akin to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial which debated the teaching of evolution and creationism.

The Scopes trial concerned the prosecution of a high school teacher, John Scopes, for breaking a Tennessee law which upheld creationism and forbade the teaching of evolution. It was immortalised in a 1960 Hollywood film, Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy.

The chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs, William Kovacs, told the LA Times that the public hearing would include witnesses and cross-examinations. "It be would evolution versus creationism," he said. "It would be the science of climate on trial."

It's difficult to imagine why William Kovacs thought that was a helpful analogy.

Influential climate science blogger Dr Joseph Romm pounced: "Whoever could have imagined that the US Chamber of Commerce would publicly - and proudly - equate climate science with evolution and their denial with a belief in creationism? ... What's the next step for the Chamber - calling for a law banning the teaching of climate science...?"

Mr Kovacs was soon trying to douse the firestorm he'd ignited: "My 'Scopes monkey' analogy was inappropriate and detracted from my ability to effectively convey the Chamber's position... "

But the damage was done and over the last two months a series of influential, heavy-hitting companies have resigned from the Chamber. The first to go was utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co, which attacked the Chamber's extreme position on climate change, followed by two other utilities including the nation's biggest, Exelon Corp. Nike resigned from the Chamber's board of directors but stayed on as a member. But then the biggest blow of all to date - the resignation from the Chamber itself by Apple Inc.

"Will the last company to leave the Chamber's boardroom please turn off the lights!" joked Joe Romm.

The Chamber went into damage control, blaming "environmental extremists" for orchestrating a pressure campaign against it and declaring that it did not question the science of global warming.

Critics referred back to the trigger for William Kovacs' controversial remarks - this year's EPA ruling that global warming endangers public health and that carbon dioxide emissions (among others) are thus subject to regulation under the US Clean Air Act. The Chamber vigorously opposed the EPA ruling saying there is no conclusive evidence that higher global temperatures will lead to more deaths in the United States. Indeed, it cited data that it would mean fewer deaths because, for instance, fewer people were likely to slip on ice or freeze to death. (Climate scientists point to other studies predicting increased deaths overall because of increased heatwaves, severe storms, bushfires, floods and infectious diseases.)

So the Chamber argues with seemingly head-spinning nuance that it does not oppose global warming science, only some interpretations that global warming could endanger human health.
Which is presumably why it has already filed a lawsuit, along with the National Automobile Dealers Association, to block California from implementing greenhouse gas emissions limits for cars and trucks.

At the same time the Chamber proclaims it supports strong legislation with international backing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But an editorial in The New York Times declared that "no organisation in this country has done more to undermine" attempts to implement a legislative solution to climate change.

The National Party's Senate Leader, Barnaby Joyce, is not into nuance. He once compared global warming advocacy to "eco-totalitarianism." He told me that while he thought the idea of a Scopes Monkey Trial was wrong, he'd support a nationally televised ABC debate on the science of global warming. If the climate scientists are right about the energy revolution needed to avert global warming, he says, we may as well "all take off our clothes and run around the backyard." Like monkeys, I guess. Nevertheless he's sensitive to being dubbed a sceptic because it's used "to tag you as a lesser species by the Labor Party."

But he also realises the debate has moved on. He says he supports carbon abatement (nuclear, gas) but not an ETS because it will hurt the Australian economy without any great impact on domestic emissions or the planet. The last part of what he says lines him up directly with the Greens who are also voting against the ETS. Talk about strange new alliances. Without unforseen breakthroughs, it will be a rare sight in parliament next month - Nationals, Greens and Steve Fielding side by side.

Oct 15, 2009

Taking the temperature of climate scientists, part 2

Maldives ministers prepare for their underwater meeting (Image: APTN)

Just metres from the water's edge, under palm trees, tropical drink in hand, perfect weather. Of course it is North Queensland where holiday-makers like me blissfully nudge the shoreline alongside resorts and housing and business complexes. But scientists warn the shoreline is about to push back, catastrophically.


Think of the Maldives, that Indian Ocean idyll which could be wiped out by rising sea levels due to global warming by the end of the century. Maldives President, Mohamed Nasheed, recently announced plans to hold an underwater cabinet meeting to plead for global action to slash greenhouse gas emissions. That's right - he and his ministers will don scuba skins to meet six metres under the ocean using hand signals and a whiteboard to communicate. Talk about a photo opportunity.

Many beloved parts of Australia's coastline could face a similar fate - but scientists here say they're struggling to get their message across. They joke that one of the most depressing places you can be is the morning tea room of a climate research centre. It must have been pretty bleak last Tuesday when the latest Lowy Institute poll revealed Australian concern about climate change as a foreign policy issue had slipped from number one in 2007 to a lowly seventh place. No ribbons for that result.

So what's happening? Are sceptics having a serious impact? Is the drawn-out argy bargy over the proposed emissions trading scheme anesthetising public engagement? Have scientists failed to cut through because they've been too cautious or too inaccessible? Perhaps they need marketing advice from Mr Nasheed.

A couple of recent US books argue that scientists need to loosen their lab coats. Unscientific America by Chris Mooney urges young scientists to undertake communication courses. While the title of Randy Olson's Don't be SUCH a Scientist speaks for itself. (It has chapters called 'Don't Be So Cerebral', 'Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller' and 'Don't Be So Unlikeable.')

As previewed last week, here's a sample of how some of the world's leading climate change scientists who live in Australia are feeling as we hurtle towards the Copenhagen climate summit in just six weeks:

MONASH UNI, Amanda Lynch:  What I am sensing right now is a very high level of anger and frustration particularly at the 'sceptics' who continue to derail the discussion. That frustration is probably at the forefront, and from many I've heard a real sense that to play the nay-sayer in the face of such serious consequences is deeply unethical. I've heard this directed both at scientists of various stripes and at members of the press

MELBOURNE UNI, David Karoly
: The part that really concerns me is the separation between what the science says are the emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change, however that is defined, and what the politicians think needs to be done. A decision to wait is not a decision to do nothing; it is a decision to continue emissions at ever growing levels, which commits the Earth to ever more dangerous climate change.

CSIRO, James Risbey: With each passing year, my sense is that the issue is more urgent than I used to think it was. That is, the more we know about the interactions of climate warming with the biosphere, the more likely seem feedbacks of greenhouse gases from the biosphere. The more that is known about the current and past response of the major ice sheets to warming, the more apprehensive I become about them breaking down. The point at which we might commit to irreversible melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets seems closer with progressive assessments. What once seemed like a distant prospect suddenly feels like it could be inevitable.  Some of my colleagues feel that we are already committed to melting the Greenland ice sheet, bearing in mind how close we are now and how little progress has been made in reducing emissions. I prefer to emphasize the fact that we can still avoid committing to these impacts, but it will take serious action in the here and now.

UNSW, Andy Pitman: I guess I am (a) pleased to see some progress while (b) depressed by the lack of recognition of the scale of the problem. Debating 15 per cent or 25 per cent or 30 per cent cuts misses the point that we need 60-80 per cent ASAP and even that is not 100 per cent "safe".

CSIRO, Michael Raupach: As for how I'm feeling: hard to summarise, but one word that covers some of it is 'stretched' ... by the emerging gap between what the science says is necessary and what is humanly possible. Any way you look at it, there is now a nearly unbridgeable gap between emissions reductions needed to avoid 2 or even 2.5 degrees of warming and the reductions that can actually be achieved - not only because of the slowness of politics but also because the required reduction rates are approaching levels that can't be done technically, let alone economically and culturally.

ANU, Will Steffen: I'm probably not as depressed as some of my colleagues. From a longer term perspective, we've come a long way in just five years and certainly in the last 10 years in terms of recognition of the issue. It has become a mainstream issue. The critical time is the next 10 years. We'll have to be on top of the problem by then. Probably the most important challenge is getting a common way forward among the world's richest and poorest countries. The climate change problem can't be solved without solving the equity/development problem as well.

ADELAIDE UNI, Barry Brook: I think Copenhagen is doomed as an effective negotiating forum for carbon emissions reduction. I strongly suspect that even if we get 'agreement' to make cuts, it will be lip service only, like Kyoto turned out to be, with individual nations continuing to do what they perceive to be in their best interest. What is really now required is a very strong technology push, to commercialise and deploy energy systems that have the beneficial features of fossil fuels, but are as cheap, or potentially, cheaper. I can only realistically see nuclear power as doing that.

Oct 06, 2009

Taking the temperature of our climate scientists, part 1

Have you heard the one about the international climate scientist buying land in New Zealand? An isolated, cold and elevated hideaway could be become de rigeur in family wills to try to protect future generations against rising sea levels, drought and heatwaves. Actually there's no punchline here. It's just a rumour. But it's also an uncomfortable realisation that some experts studying the data may have already decided what the future looks like.

Australian climate scientists argue about how vividly they should describe in public their global warming projections. I listened over lunch one day as a group of well-known scientists shared darkening, urgent observations while referring anxiously to their children's future. Publicly they've been more cautious. One of the older scientists counselled they should never cross over into rhetorical advocacy but always speak precisely to the science with all its attendant qualifications. That's how science works. The system of research, peer review and publication has spawned remarkable and reliable leaps in understanding and invention from medicine to technology.

But a younger, passionate scientist argued that such niceties were not observed by climate change deniers and corporate opponents of greenhouse gas mitigation who regularly launched sweeping statements with no facts at all. Those campaigns were holding back vital, stronger political measures, he said. Wasn't it time scientists spoke out more?

Many of them have. NASA scientist James Hansen is probably the best known. He's even been arrested during an anti-coal mining protest. Less than a year ago I interviewed some of the world's other leading climate scientists who live in Australia. Even then they were willing to describe how the pace of global warming had left them gobsmacked: "... many, many scientists now ... are frantically, hysterically worried," said Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers, the former head of the UN's World Climate Research Program, now at Macquarie University.

Professor Dave Griggs, at Monash University, is the former head of the British Government's world-renowned Hadley Institute: "Another one of these facts comes in that catches even you unawares and you think, 'Oh shit! Not another one! I wasn't expecting that'. When we made predictions a couple of years ago that the Arctic sea ice might disappear by the end of the century, people were sceptical. Now people think, 'Well, it actually might be gone by mid-century.' Only a few years ago that was a really dramatic and controversial finding because it was something that was so far beyond our concept. Inherently scientists are very conservative, and they won't come out and make a statement in public unless they are very confident about it. But the sort of things that are going around in private, you know, (are) 'oh, the Barrier Reef's gone, the Murray Darling's gone'."

From melting polar caps to acidifying oceans to increased frequency of drought, floods and bushfires, climate scientists have worked harder than ever this year to bridge the communication gap between what they know, what the rest of us think and what the politicians are doing. There are so many science updates lately that I've decided to provide a summary of some of the most significant in this blog each week.

Here's one recent example from The New Scientist: "BY 2055, climate change is likely to have warmed the world by a dangerous 4 deg C unless we stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere the way we do now. This is the startling conclusion of a study by the UK Met Office, unveiled at a conference in Oxford.

Why so soon? Because temperature rises caused by greenhouse gas emissions are expected to trigger dangerous feedback loops, which will release ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases. The nature and scale of these feedback loops is a subject of vigorous debate among climate scientists, but warmer oceans, for instance, may liberate more dissolved CO2, and plants may decay faster in a warmer climate. The Met Office ran 17 different models with these feedbacks. All concluded a 4 deg C world by 2055 was likely if emissions continue to rise. Even if we are lucky, we are still likely to hit 4 deg C by 2070.

Photo by Alex Ip
What could this mean for Australia? The scientists found that "... a study of the probability of forest fires suggests that the number of 'extreme fire danger days' per year - when uncontrollable fires are likely to break out as a result of low humidity, strong winds and high temperature - will double to quadruple by 2050 under a high warming scenario. Even under a low warming scenario, the frequency rises by 10 to 50 per cent," says David Karoly of the University of Melbourne, who reviewed a range of wildfire projections.

"We are unleashing hell on Australia," said Neville Nicholls, Monash University's Professor Neville Nicholls, a world expert and lead author for the IPCC.

Interactive feature: Explore the 4 deg C world in Google Earth (.kmz file download)

I'm contacting many of Australia's most prominent climate scientists to hear directly how they're feeling about their research, public advocacy and the likelihood of political success at Copenhagen in December. Already one of the most common themes in some early replies is the yawning gap between the science and proposed political responses. I'll bring you their comments in greater detail next week.

Let me leave you with a taste from just one, Neville Nicholls: "We feel like Cassandra (able to see catastrophe but doomed to be disbelieved). I think this is especially the case with Australian scientists, where certain sections of the media would prefer to have an article about climate change written by the drover's dog rather than by a real climate scientist. Earlier this week I was contacted by a climate scientist friend at Columbia University in New York. He was being asked to participate in a briefing on climate change science for Australian Parliament members and senators, in New York on 6 October and wanted me to brief him on the scientific knowledge and political leanings of the politicians in the delegation. I am happy that Australian politicians are seeking briefings from real scientists. But I am bemused that they thought they needed to travel to New York to get a briefing from a climate scientist."

More next week.

Sep 30, 2009

Farmers still sceptical about climate change science

The day after drought-dry soil from the outback choked Sydney's sunrise, I flew down to the annual Henty Machinery Field Day in southern New South Wales to talk climate change. Amid the giant tractor wheels and gleaming, multi-storey harvesters, the talk was of "cycles," not global warming.

"Our city cousins get a little dust," says Terry Hogan, the Mayor of Jerilderie, "come out to my fields, they've been dusty for three years. I've got an irrigation property that hasn't grown a single grain for three years. Now if that's climate change, at this rate, we're in serious trouble. But it's a drought."

"I believe we're in a cycle of dryness," says Alison, a farmer. "If you go back to the 1890s, we had a period of a good 10 years where there was a lot of dryness, and I think that's how our weather works in Australia. I think we suffer from big cycles of dryness and big cycles of wetness."

Henty seems a long way from the sweeping corridors, sleek limousines and grand rhetoric of UN negotiations on global warming; and further still from the volumes of internationally peer reviewed science propelling world leaders to try to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

But Henty in the Riverina, which has been one of Australia's most fertile food bowls, is also on the frontline. Earlier this year, the LA Times ran an article declaring that the future face of Climate Change could already be seen in Australia - with increasing droughts, floods, bushfires, heat waves and biodiversity loss.

Many farmers I speak to wonder out loud about how traditional climate cycles seem to be changing. "The hard thing is to know how much the climate is changing and how much is just cyclical. It's that information we really need to build a picture," says Phillip. Some are even open to the possibility that the burning of fossil fuels may be contributing to changing climate variability. "Rapidly growing human consumption has got to have some impact," says Kellie. Some are already making dramatic changes. "We've moving out of cattle and into more sheep" because cattle require too much water, says Kellie. Unlike the rest of us "city cousins," their survival depends on knowing the answers.

But representatives of some of the most powerful rural lobby groups and the National Party were pushing an anti-global warming hardline. NSW Nationals Senator John Williams declares "We've had climate change for millions of years. If we didn't have, we'd still be living in the Ice Age." Charles Armstrong, president of the NSW National Farmers' Association, says his group wants a Royal Commission into global warming: "We don't believe both sides of the debate have been handled equally. There seems to have been one of those idiotic situations in the science world where if someone put up an opposing view, they'd shoot it down very quickly."

The Victorian Farmers' Federation president, Andrew Broad, was also recently quoted as saying "I have a healthy scepticism for scientists. But I will say that the doomsday people in climate change are robbing people of hope at a time when that's all they've got left."

"You never make a problem easier to handle by pretending it doesn't exist," counters Professor Ross Garnaut, who conducted the Federal Government's review of climate change. He blames "climate sharks" for the persistence of rural scepticism: "That's a sad thing. There you've got climate sharks preying on the vulnerability of people who aren't in a position to be well-informed themselves. That's a tragedy - the exploitation of people who would benefit from greater knowledge. I'm afraid that's what's going to happen in rural Australia is that the well-informed will make a lot of money out of the ignorant. And the ignorant include a lot of people who can't afford to be skinned in that way."
 

Bom-henty

Sitting quietly in a shed in another corner of Henty's exhibitors are two representatives of the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). Let's just say their table wasn't overwhelmed with inquiries about climate change but "whenever we're given the opportunity" they try to reassure farmers that knowing the facts will help them, said Julie Evans: "You just have to embrace it and see what you need to do to change, I think, and that's the message I guess we try and tell people."

Some recent scientific studies are particularly relevant. Like a three-year research collaboration between the BOM and CSIRO which found that the current drought is connected to global warming. "It's reasonable to say that a lot of the current drought of the last 12 to 13 years is due to ongoing global warming," according to the BOM's Bertran Timbal.

So as the drought drags on, are farmers more open to what the meteorologists have to say about Climate Change? "I wouldn't necessarily say that," says Julie Evans, who's been coming to Field Days for a few years. "But I think a lot of farmers are concerned about the lack of rain and they're open to the idea that the big wet might not be around the corner."

Her colleague, Agata Imielska, who's attending her first Field Day, believes their message got through to, well, at least a few farmers: "The great thing is we have had some people who've said, 'Look, I would like to find out more about this climate change business.' And it gives me the opportunity to be able to explain something and potentially give some information to somebody who might actually pass it on to their friends."

I approach Russell, a farm owner, as he leaves the BOM table. What does he think about climate change? "I suppose we've been trying to discount it, sort of living in hope that it's not happening," he says. "But the further and further we go on in years, perhaps it is relevant and maybe we've all tried to bury our head in the sands ... maybe we'll have to do something about it."

The exhibits are gone from Henty for another year. I hear more dust storms could be on their way to Sydney. Certainly the political storm in rural Australia over global warming is set to continue.

Sep 24, 2009

High stakes game played with a 'brick'

I hope this blog will be a journey for you as well as for me. There are few issues as complex and all-encompassing as climate change and my aim is to tap experts to help inform and explain its many profound impacts in bite-size chunks. From how we make money to how we spend money, from natural beauties to natural disasters, from town hall meetings to international negotiations, the Climate Change Debate is coming to your life somewhere soon. Let's start where world leaders might end up - Copenhagen, Denmark.

Obama

Certainly the rhetoric in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Summit in Copenhagen has been soaring and urgent: "The security and stability of each nation and all peoples - our prosperity, our health, our safety - are in jeopardy. And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out," US President Barack Obama told the United Nations.

"If those in this august gathering do not act in time, all of us would become leaders and citizens of failed states, because we would be failing in our sacred duty to protect this planet on which we live," said the UN's top climate scientist, Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

The stakes are high. Got that. So what are the hang-ups? And why are so many leaders including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warning that international negotiations could fail?

Partly it's because of the fear that turning away from cheap carbon energy sources means losing economic advantage and political power. Not easy hurdles for governments to jump. It's led to a "game of international chicken," according to The Climate Institute's, Erwin Jackson.

But let's take this step by step.

The goal of the Copenhagen Summit in early December is to forge an international agreement to slash global warming greenhouse gas emissions; the ideal outcome would be a legally binding successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto treaty which is due to expire in 2012. And to ensure it is an environmentally meaningful pact, it should involve cuts big enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees because scientists warn beyond that the planet could tip into potentially dangerous climate change.

The two most important players in the negotiations are China and the United States, followed by Europe, Japan, Russia and India. But there needs to be consensus among 192 different countries across three major areas including:

  • That industrialised countries agree to greenhouse gas reduction targets of between 25-40% by 2020 and 80-90% by 2050. Not surprisingly most have agreed to big cuts in the long term - when it will be up to other politicians to act. But agreeing to adequate cuts by 2020 has proved elusive. So far, according to Erwin Jackson, pledges to cut emissions by 2020 include 17% from the US; 20-30% from the Europeans; up to 25% from Japan and Australia; and up to 15% from Russia. The problem is that when you add them together, they risk exceeding 2 degrees warming. The other problem is that emerging economies like China and India have demanded far greater cuts by rich countries before they'll act.
  • That emerging economies agree to slow the rate of their greenhouse gas emissions growth. China has now overtaken the United States as the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter and emerging economies are among the fastest growing greenhouse gas emitters. It's been accepted that it would be unfair to demand the same kind of absolute emission cuts from developing nations when they are still trying to bring basic services to millions of people mired in poverty.  In a breakthrough, China has now announced it will curb the growth of its carbon emissions. But it is yet to spell out how much and when. Without a firm target from China, there are concerns that the United States Senate will block Climate Change legislation - and without the United States, the whole deal is off.
  • That rich countries should provide financial aid and technology transfer to poorer nations to help them cut their emissions and adapt to Climate Change. But for years there's been no agreement on how much money. Developing countries have asked for $250 billion a year. The UK government has suggested $100 billion. The US has remained tight-lipped. But this is a deal breaker. Without reliable, large-scale aid, it's unlikely the developing world, including China and India, will sign up to any agreement.

A lot of gaps there you'd have to agree - at the moment, with less than 80 days to go to the Copenhagen Summit, negotiators are working with a 200 page document, known as 'The Brick,' containing 2000 qualifying brackets.

And while negotiators enthuse about the momentum provided once world leaders are engaged, only one major player, UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has said he'll definitely attend the Climate Summit. President Obama and even Prime Minister Rudd are yet to commit.

Meanwhile I've spoken to many anxious scientists concerned that governments might produce hundreds more pages of proposals with thousands more qualifying brackets - while forgetting the most important party with which they can't negotiate  at all - the laws of nature.  Perhaps that's the next blog post.

Special Coverage

Climate Change: ABC News special coverage

About This Blog

Hi I'm Margot O'Neill. Join me each week as I explore the many facets of Climate Change - the personalities, science, lifestyle, business and politics of this mind-boggling challenge for us all.

About Margot O'Neill

Margot O'Neill is a senior reporter with ABC TV's Lateline program. She has been a journalist for 25 years in television, radio and newspapers here and overseas and has worked on a variety of ABC programs including Four Corners. Margot has twice won a Walkley Award including for 'Best Investigative Reporting' and has also been awarded a UN Media Peace Award and the national Human Rights Award for TV reporting. She has been nominated three times for a Logie.

Margot has written the critically acclaimed book, Blind Conscience, telling the harrowing and inspiring stories of some of the key players in the refugee advocacy movement during the Howard government. It was short-listed for the John Button Prize.

About This Blog

Landline's Pip Courtney has "saddled up" for a super-sized slice of Americana and she's sharing it right here. Pip will start her American journey at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists media summit in the Lone Star state of Texas. She'll then travel on to Chicago before a visit to the Iowa State Fair. Along the way there will be boot shopping, grain trading, banjo contests, the in-soil carbon program, butter cow sculpting, the Mary Johnson memorial cinnamon rolls competition, the American Quarterhorse Hall of Fame and 20 different deep-fried foods on a stick.

Map

About Pip Courtney

Pip Courtney grew up in Tasmania and studied politics at the University of Tasmania.

After graduating she joined the ABC in Hobart in 1986, where she worked in radio and then television news.

Pip joined ‘Landline' in 1993 working out of Canberra and then Melbourne. In 2000 she defected to the 7.30 Report, but came back to the Landline stable in 2001 when she moved to head office in Brisbane.

Pip's won awards for rural, business, environmental, medical and education reporting.

In 2007 Pip and former Landline presenter Sally Sara were named Queensland journalists of the year for a feature story on depression in the bush called “Black Dog”.

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