The Oz strikes back

I’ve been pretty relentlessly critical of the coverage of climate change issues by The Australian, and unsurprisingly, they’ve struck back in their editorial column, which attacks my opinion piece in yesterday’s Fin (over the fold). It doesn’t appear to be online, but the line is that since Australia only contributes some small proportion of global emissions, it doesn’t matter what we do, and therefore we shouldn’t feel bad about the impending destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

Somewhat unusually for Oz editorials of this kind, I got mentioned by name, rather than being given a description obvious to those in the know but darkly obscure to readers in general. So, I’ll give them a serious reply. Of course, as stated in my article, what matters is that all developed countries should cut emissions. As in all international negotiations, our capacity to affect the outcome is limited but not zero. The only real capacity we have for influence is to make a clear demonstration that we will do our part (given our past laggardliness, the notion that we can “take the lead” is just silly) and it seems obvious that, in deciding whether or not to do this, we should focus on impacts of particular relevance to us, hoping that others will do likewise.

Over the next week, the Australian Parliament will make, or perhaps decide not to make, its most important decision in many years, on the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. But for some of Australia’s most vulnerable environmental assets, such as the Great Barrier Reef, it may already be too late.

I recently joined a group of scientists from a range of disciplines to prepare a statement on the policies needed to save the Great Barrier Reef, as we know it, from destruction by climate change. The group was organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), a peak body for over 60 professional organizations, representing more than 60 000 Australian scientists.

The evidence the scientists presented was sobering. An effective global agreement to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at or below 450 parts per million would give a 50-50 chance of holding the long-term increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees C.

Even warming of 2 degrees C, combined with increasing acidity due to the absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean, will pose a major challenge. Regular bleaching events, of the kind seen in 1998 and 2002 will make it more and more difficult for reefs to recover.

If we can manage other stresses such as runoff from fertilizers and other nutrients, there is still a chance that the best-managed and most resilient reef ecosystems will survive. But, even with the best possible policies, there are no 100 per cent guarantees. Even if we stopped emissions of greenhouse gases tomorrow, the warming that is already locked in might overwhelm fragile reef ecosystems. The best we can do is to improve the odds of survival by acting fast to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In working with scientists on this statement, I was struck by the care with which every sentence was checked to ensure that it was consistent with well-supported, peer-reviewed scientific studies. FASTS also produced a paper with advice on how policymakers and members of the public could distinguish valid scientific work from pseudoscience.

The contrast with the attitude of the conspiracy theorists, charlatans and cranks commonly presented as the other side of a scientific ‘debate’ is striking. Unconstrained by any standards of scientific research or even of simple honesty, these self-described “sceptics” jump from one silly talking point to another, without any concern for accuracy or logical consistency.

The ‘experts’ presented on the ‘sceptical’ side of the debate are a motley crew including water diviners, science fiction novelists. astrologers and even a dotty British peer. Depressingly, but inevitably, they include a handful of former scientists who have chosen, for one reason or another, to abandon the tested, peer-reviewed research in favor of error-ridden polemics.

The absurdity of this material has not affected its rapturous reception among those in the Liberal Party accurately described by a more realistic colleague as ‘fruit loops’. Senate Leader Nick Minchin, the most senior member of this group, explained the work of thousands of scientists on climate change as an extreme left plot to ‘sort of deindustrialise the Western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the Left, and … they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.’

Loopy or not, the conspiracy theorists will have a major influence on Parliament’s decisions. At this point it seems likely that, in the absence of concessions that would render the already weakened CPRS utterly useless, the Liberals will take the easy option of deferring a vote.

The Rudd government will then be faced with a simple choice. They can capitulate to a divided and discredited opposition, a choice that will avoid short-term trouble but ensure long-term disaster. Alternatively, the government can take a stand on the basis of the mandate it received at the last election and go to a double dissolution. This is the appropriate option prescribed by the Constitution in to resolve irreconcilable differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

If the current Parliament cannot summon the political will and common sense to save the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems on which we all depend, it should be dissolved sent back to the Australian people. Unlike the politicians, most ordinary Australians care enough about the planet and its future to make the right decisions.

120 thoughts on “The Oz strikes back

  1. I’m unimpressed by politicians who say we should follow not lead. It seems to me Australia has
    – the need, headed by losing the GBR and MDB
    – the leverage, with yellowcake and LNG as coal alternatives, both traded and at home
    – international soft power though sport and entertainment.
    Yes I did leave out renewables as I think they will never scale up. I think there is a possibility that the first countries to seriously reduce emissions could end up as the long term winners. As to anti carbon leakage mechanisms like tariffs leave them on the table and see if they are needed.

    If there is a DD election I will not vote for Libs, Labs or Greens but determined pragmatists should they stand.

  2. @Hermit
    Similarly unimpressed by that line of argument Hermit. Its a beggar they neighbour attitude isnt it? Given that we profit from the export of massive amounts of coal…to be seen to lead rather than follow is the least we could do so that Australians dont appear like completely selfish outback rednecks on global climate initiatives (alas I think the image is already there, given the ridiculous arguments and delusionist commentary by our charming media).

  3. I’m forced to wonder if we should support and accept the current legislation and then push for further change, rather than rejecting an insufficient solution outright. My thinking is that we won’t get a stronger outcome, yet, but by making this the base plank, perhaps we can progress it. By refusing to contemplate this, do we risk asking for nothing at all?

    Alternatively, if Rudd gets his CPRS DD trigger, is anyone able to amend it in the event of a joint sitting? If amendments are permissible, that could be worth considering…

  4. @Alice
    Wait there’s more. I think we should cap coal exports around 2007 levels (~230 Mt?) and reduce the amount by 2% a year. The alternatives would be that customers can have yellowcake or LNG of an equivalent energy value provided they don’t get the coal somewhere else. Otherwise it’s a blanket 10% tariff on goods imported from that country.

    Australia is in the box seat to strongly influence global carbon flows. Question; if China isn’t running out of coal why do they need to increase their imports? Of course we must get our own act together first, a bit like a fat dieting consultant. When the GBR is bleached for the last time we’ll wish we’d done it.

  5. @Hermit, you’re simply wrong about renewables not scaling up. We already know that there was no technical reason why renewables couldn’t completely power Australia over two years ago, with a report by the Parliamentary library.

  6. Renewables already have scaled up. Europe has gigawatt-scale wind farms, China is currently building a 10GW wind farm, and California has multiple hundred megawatt-scale solar thermal plants and is building more. So we know that these technologies can be deployed on the same scale as coal and nuclear installations. They also have the virtue of being faster to build.

  7. @Hermit
    Yeah Hermit – I wouldnt mind to see a cap on coal exports either – the big polluters have already managed to garb themsleves a concession on the cprs. These are real solutions. But waht government here has enough b**lls to fight big business. I only see a bunch of wimps.

    But where is Moshie? Ill give Rees the thumbs up for fighting developer donations in NSW labor. Trouble is the malcontent creepy power mongers in the right who have been benefitting from developer donations are likely to stab him in the back asap. If they do that they will lose for sure (and their only chance of winning is slim any way). Rees is the ONLY chance they have got.

    Now …about Coles and Woolies??

  8. Over 50% of Spain’s electricity generation was powered by wind last week (albeit for a short time).

    Diesendorf’s greenhouse solutions with sustainable energy is the book to read for those who state “Yes I did leave out renewables as I think they will never scale up”.

    If what you think is in clear contradiction to the science and known engineering capabilities, then it is probably time to re-evaluate your thinking.

  9. It was to be expected, that you would be named Pr Q. Good reply.

    I have a request. If there is anyway of including it, I reckon Plimer’s immensely damaging distortions of climate science, and attacks on scientists who are in his way needs addressing head on.

    The particular serious point I think Plimer should be nailed on, in an article in a newspaper, is this:

    He has stated that his book “is not science”^fn1 on Lateline. Nothing in his book resembles a coherent alternative theory, or an accurate critical analysis of climate change in the current industrial-technological era. As far as I can see, none of it has been subject to any sort of formal process of review by independent experts. He has by-passed the scientific process entirely.
    Therefore, to use this book as the centre-piece for attacking all and sundry climate scientists from all four corners of the world, is breathtaking in its conceit and dishonesty. It is made all the more reprehensible because Plimer’s background as an academic geologist means that he knows full well just how important the scientific process is to its successful progress. He would be one of the first to scream blue murder if something like creationism/intelligent design was introduced into schools’s biology classes – he’d no doubt see it as an insult to the principles of the Enlightenment, and yet he has chosen to chuck this scientific and cultural Heritage away. In this regard Plime is hardly different to Allen Roberts.

    fn1: To quote Plimer from Lateline:

    By contrast to what Barry Brooks says, this book is not a book of science. It’s a book for the public who have felt quite disenfranchised and quite helpless that they have scientists talking down to them and they know there’s a smell, they can’t quite work out where the smell’s from, but they know there’s a smell, and this book is to give the public some information such that they can say, I think we’re being led astray.

    PS: Good luck in getting published by the Oz, Pr Q. They haven’t accepted my letters for six or seven months now 😦

  10. Irrespective of what other countries do, any reduction in Australian emissions will have a trivial impact on the climate (even allowing for Australian influence on other countries). This means that our efforts to reduce emissions will make us poorer. This will be true for all small countries. The left are attempting to conceal this.

    Of course, if we consider the interests of people in other countries, the benefits from Australian abatment increase massively and substantial cut-backs could be justified. It’s as much a moral issue as a question of science or economics.

  11. John, if reports are correct the chances of a Double Dissolution are slim for Turnbull still has the numbers.

  12. No individual can make a significant difference.
    However, if every individual does nothing for that reason, nothing will happen.
    Every person, every politician, every party and every country needs to do all they can to mitigate this mess – and there is a hell of a lot that we can do.

  13. @harold sun
    Harold …just put your views in this scenario. Every country in the globe takes the same mean spirited and petty attitiudethat you do…(and then seek an imaginary bogey man called “the leftwing conspiracy” to justify your paltry miserly views on)… people with the “any reduction Australia does will have a trivial impact on the climate” are indeed the most trivial people. The left can be rlied on in this argument to be damn sight more honest than the fruit loops that are populating the right and bringing a complete circus to Australian politics and utterly decimating our international standing with their kangaroo brained ideas. Caught in a spotlight of lies and delusions of their own studied creation…they cant even hop effectively to save themselves.

    All efforts will make us poorer but so do efforts for new trains and new roads and if it saves some of the climate it will prevent worse losses from arable land that really will make us not only a lot poorer but damn hungry as well.

    I dont know why you come here. Your opinions are now a joke in case you hadnt observed the seismic shift under your feet.

  14. @Alice
    Alice, why don’t you attempt to respond to my argument rationally?

    I would have thought that “any reduction Australia does will have a trivial impact on the climate” was a uncontroversial statement.

    Australia produces around 1.5 per cent of world carbon dioxide emissions. Let’s imagine that Australian emissions were eliminated over the next generation. Being supposedly a person of science, what sort of impact do you think that would have on the climate? We might expect to reduce warming by 0.1 degrees or less. Let’s double that to take into acount the Australia’s influence on other countries.

    Your writing is a little be unclear, so correct me if neccessary, but you seem to suggest that abatment is worthwhile “if it saves some of the climate it will prevent worse losses from arable land”. This is obviously wrong — it depends on the magnitudes involved. If we’re talking about less than 0.2 degrees of additional warming the likely losses are small (from an Australian perspective; they are probably very large from a global perspective). I’m sure John’s modelling for the Garnaut review backs this up.

    More generally, I don’t see what is ‘mean spirited’ about looking at things objectively.

    And if I’m wrong about this being a massive ‘free-rider’ problem, why is it so hard to arrive at a substantive international agreement?

    Also I never said there was a ‘leftwing conspiracy’; that’s insane. Please don’t attribute things to me I haven’t written.

    “I dont know why you come here.”
    Aren’t you a nice person!

  15. The usual unthinking line from the Oz. Because we haven’t immediately solved a given problem we should just give up, go home, watch Foxtel and give up on the real world.
    Too hard, too complicated, besides she’ll be apples. It turned out that way the last time and the time before that and well, just because the proverbial stop sign is up at the T junction, doesn’t mean we will collect someone every time we ignore it and arrogantly just barge into traffic.

  16. harold sun, John explicitly addressed your point:

    Of course, as stated in my article, what matters is that all developed countries should cut emissions. As in all international negotiations, our capacity to affect the outcome is limited but not zero. The only real capacity we have for influence is to make a clear demonstration that we will do our part (given our past laggardliness, the notion that we can “take the lead” is just silly) and it seems obvious that, in deciding whether or not to do this, we should focus on impacts of particular relevance to us, hoping that others will do likewise.

    By all means, stick your fingers in your ears and sing “la la la, I can’t hear you”, just go and do it somewhere else. It’s tiresome.

  17. @SJ
    I’m not sure what this means:

    “and it seems obvious that, in deciding whether or not to do this, we should focus on impacts of particular relevance to us, hoping that others will do likewise”

    but I agree with the rest. What’s your point?

    “By all means, stick your fingers in your ears and sing “la la la, I can’t hear you”, just go and do it somewhere else. It’s tiresome.”

    Wow, what a classy group of people!

  18. Harold Sun, there is a problem with your argument for developed countries have a moral duty to correct past mistakes given that they were the ones that have largely benefitted in monetary terms at the expense of others and now must take responsibility in cleaning up their own mess. You could call it the polluter pays principle.

  19. @Alice
    I dont even know why I bothered to respond to your post at all Harold. Go back and read your irrational “oohh the bogey man lefties have attempted to hide the fact that climate change policies will cost us more”

    No they havent Harold. Bridges, roads, schools, dams and police cost us more. So does the environment. Noone is hiding anything. Its a tax. Its in the news every day. Its well known. Its out there. Only a fool would suggest it was a cover up. There is no conspiracy anywhere to hide it from anyone. Just open your measly wallet out and stop whining about it.

    Everyone else will have to.

  20. How do we even know Harold Sun isnt a sock puppet? First time he has been in here. Has Tony G got a new name or is it some other sock puppet (because they have exactly the same lines of denialism – its like there is a procedure manual out there somewhere for what you say when you are cold calling – is it a Catallyx raid or a young libs raid Harold?).

    If only they could come up with something halfway polished or urbane or amusing or witty instead of coming in here to wail on about the bogey man left (the imaginary enemy they blame when they cant get their own way).

  21. harold sun:

    Irrespective of what other countries do, any reduction in Australian emissions will have a trivial impact on the climate (even allowing for Australian influence on other countries).

    Also known as the litterbug’s defence. The litterbug says, “there’s plenty of litter around. If I stop, it won’t make any noticeable difference to the visible litter.”

    Do you normally drop your litter as soon as you’ve finished with it, harold?

  22. @Michael of Summer Hill
    Hi Michael,

    I agree with you, I think people in developed countries do have a moral duty to reduce emissions. I don’t think we’re entitled to a substantially greater share of the common resource (the atmosphere) than anyone else. I’m just making the argument that unless I’m alturistic, it’s not in my interests to cut back substantially. And the same holds for any small group (including small countries).

  23. @Alice
    “No they havent Harold. Bridges, roads, schools, dams and police cost us more. So does the environment. Noone is hiding anything. Its a tax. Its in the news every day. Its well known. Its out there. Only a fool would suggest it was a cover up. There is no conspiracy anywhere to hide it from anyone. Just open your measly wallet out and stop whining about it. ”
    I was clearly talking about misleading information on the benefits side — that we need Australian ‘climate action’ to save the GBR. I’m suprised you can’t tell the difference.

  24. The evidence the scientists presented was sobering. An effective global agreement to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at or below 450 parts per million would give a 50-50 chance of holding the long-term increase in global temperatures below 2 degrees C.

    A more immediate milestone is that half a doubling of carbon dioxide (i.e. multiplying by the square root of 2) would give a 50-50 chance of holding the long-term increase in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. From a pre-industrial level of 280 ppm, half a doubling comes to 396 ppm, which we will reach by 2013.

  25. I’ve never been accused of ‘delusionism and delaysionism’ before. Which is unsurprising since I accept the mainstream science and the argument for immediate action. I’m sorry if my argument was too subtle (reducing Australian emissions is probably not in our interests, but we should do it anyway because it’s moral). I was genuinly looking for intelligent debate — I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere.

  26. FFFT, and here I am with a bag full of Troll biscuits…oh well, the dog will be happy, anyway.

    BTW, seen the Saturday ed in Oz? FOFRLOL! To quote – sorry Rupert, I’m attributing, not stealing content – from said ed:

    This paper has given the planet the benefit of the doubt on global warming.

    Bwaahahaha!

  27. JQ, I think you are flattering yourself a bit to suggest that somehow the Australian editorial was in retaliation for your criticism of some of its AGW coverage.
    In the AFR piece you made a rather foolish – or at least careless – statement about the connection between our (presumably meaning Australia’s) need for action and the potential destruction of the reef.
    The Australian mentioned this because it fitted a point they have made before, that exaggerations and overstatements on the whole issue do not serve the cause of those who want action. Your attempts here and at Core Economics to justify your statement only make it worse. A better reply would have been “Well, yes, I did overstate it a bit but nevertheless Australia should act promptly to contribute whatever influence we might have over the rest of the world”
    The Australian has published sceptic/denialist/delusionist article – and others – but its editorial line has been consistent and clear: Australia must act.

  28. Loopy or not, the conspiracy theorists will have a major influence on Parliament’s decisions.

    Are they conspiracy theorists because they think there is a global left wing conspiracy using climate fear as an excuse to impose global socialism? Or are they conspiracy theorists because they are in a conspiracy to scuttle any agreement to control global CO2 emissions?

    Kevin Rudd seems to like the latter version because according to him there is now a group of ”opponents of climate change action … active in every country” that is “powerful enough to threaten a deal on global climate change both in Copenhagen and beyond”. Kevin Rudd sounds a bit like a conspiracy theorist.

    I’d suggest that neither side of this debate entails a co-ordinated conspiracy. However both sides seek advantage by suggesting the opposite side is being manipulated and misled by secret powers that remain unseen. And of course they succeed in maintaining this perception simply because there are sufficient half truths apon which either side can build an argument for the existance of conspiracy.

    Personally I think the real issue is that large numbers of people disagree with eachother.

  29. Some factoids on renewables from just this past week. The first day of Adelaide’s heat wave windpower generated 70 MW out of 807 MW installed capacity. When the PM opened the Capital Wind Farm near Canberra capacity 132 MW it is was nearly becalmed with output alleged to be just 2 MW.

    I’m waiting to find out just how much the real workhorses coal, gas and nuclear were kept ticking over so the Spanish grid could make room for 55% windpower. If you think renewables will contribute more than 20% of our energy needs within a generation then in reality you are prolonging the reign of the fossil fuel industry.

  30. @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    says “Personally I think the real issue is that large numbers of people disagree with eachother”.

    When it comes to AGW I think a small number of noisy well funded organised denialists are producing propaganda to assert the proposition large numbers of people disagree with each other and that they have some sort of valid argument. They dont.

    I think that this small noisy minority are trying desperately to obstruct by whatever means, fair or foul, what the majority believe and want.

  31. @harold sun

    Irrespective of what other countries do, any reduction in Australian emissions will have a trivial impact on the climate (even allowing for Australian influence on other countries).

    What do you base this claim on?

    This means that our efforts to reduce emissions will make us poorer. This will be true for all small countries. The left are attempting to conceal this.

    How does any of this proceed from the first claim? Is there some way of independently making these inferences?

  32. @SJ
    Sj re DNFTT (I like it)

    There is a newspaper column in the Chicago Reader called “the Straight Dope” (no Im not referring to a person or persons…..) “the straight dope” is idiomatic for “the honest truth”.
    I do like the tagline for this newspaper column

    “Fighting ingnorance since 1973 (its taking longer than we thought).”

    Maybe the Prof could use this line somewhere?.

  33. I think that this small noisy minority are trying desperately to obstruct by whatever means, fair or foul, what the majority believe and want.

    It is a minority but I don’t think it is all that small. And what foul means are you referring to that have not been used by some on both sides of the debate?

  34. Perhaps if both sides tried to find a common thread on climate change, its issues could be addressed in a coherent way. The common thread I would say is that most people would agree that climate change is a reality to be addressed. They may disagree on the causes and the weight of influences of the causes. The second issue is what strategies and the speed with which those startegies be implemented. The first two points will be answered by science (that is only half the battle). The third issue who manages those issues and how the evidence is presented. Should the governements manage and control the agenda and money or should smaller local like minded communities do so. The proposed extent to which our governments are involved in the process from a legal and financial perspective for some is a big cause for skepticism .

    The climate change proposals have never addressed the above issues in the proposed manner and have preffered propaganda through consensus and political clout. This is a scource of skepticsim. It does start by educating the people. instead indoctrination is preffered (“it is easier”) due to a goverment centered managed model currently proposed. We have no hope of changing anything, with a multi-agenda government were people think we can behave as ONE through democratic mechanisms. Now that is obviously a delusional thought.

  35. Alice – That’s two words. You’re not impressing me with your numerical literacy. Are you sure that you’re adequately qualified to participate it this debate?

  36. Out of curiosity, has anyone bothered to check on what is happening at the – temperature determined – northernmost and southernmost coral reefs, at Bermuda and Lord Howe Island? Recent increased growth there would indeed suggest (but not prove) global warming, though the opposite is not as suggestive.

  37. To quantify a few:-

    30% of Australians think concerns about global warming are exaggerated.
    36% of country folk think concerns about global warming are exaggerated.
    37% of men think concerns about global warming are exaggerated.
    46% of Coalition voters think concerns about global warming are exaggerated.

    If you want to wedge the Coalition this is a good issue to do it on. It splits the party down the middle.

  38. Martin – the content is up on wikileaks. The guys at Climate Audit seem to be enjoying this new source of information:-

    http://www.climateaudit.org/

    Is it wrong to use information that was gained by unethical means? It is at times like these that we need a journalist to help answer such tricky questions.

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