Among the many thoughts prompted by the bushfire disaster one relates to the shift from the “Defend or Leave” approach that was recommended in the 2000s, to the current policy of “evacuate before it’s too late”.
In the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, I did some work on this topic with a colleague, Tyron Venn. Our conclusion was summarised in the title of our paper “Early evacuation is the best policy“. We included a discussion of how climate change would make the problem worse.
When we first adopted this title, it represented advocacy of a radical shift in policy. But the time taken to prepare the paper, followed by several rounds of refereeing, and getting it published meant that, when it came out in 2017, it was old hat. And the referees raised so many quibbles about the climate change section that we had to drop it.
I don’t really know how to deal with this problem. Peer review is essential. But the process is so slow, particularly in economics, that papers addressing current policy problems can’t easily make it through in time to be relevant.
The global fire crisis has brought home the need for a drastic and rapid reduction in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We already have the technology needed to replace nearly all carbon-based electricity generation with renewables, and to use electricity to drive nearly all forms of transport.
Among the more intractable problems are those relating to industrial uses, of which the biggest single example is steel. We can make substantial shifts towards a “circular economy” by recycling scrap in electric arc furnaces, but we still need a carbon-free process for producing new steel from iron ore.
The most promising approach (DRI) involves using hydrogen to directly reduce iron ore to iron, which can then be used as feedstock for an electric arc furnace. An experimental plant has just opened up in Germany.
There is a catch, however. The most common approach to producing hydrogen is currently based on burning lignite, which wipes out any reduction in emissions (in the absence of a mythical sequestration technology), as in this LaTrobe Valley boondoggle.
The alternative, based on electrolysis of water requires, as you might expect, cheap electricity. Fortunately, with a marginal cost of zero, solar and wind can potentially fit the bill, at least if the electrolysis process can be adapted to work when power is cheap. Here’s a source claiming that electrolysis is already cheaper.
At this point, it’s clear that the problem isn’t technology or economics. It’s politicians and voters who would rather destroy the planet than admit they were wrong.
I don’t know how many referee reports I’ve received over the course of my career – certainly many thousand. Some have been insightful and helpful, some have missed the point entirely, and some have been outright nasty. But I just got the nicest report I’ve ever had, and I can’t resist sharing the opening paras, with my thanks to the anonymous referee. The paper in question is my contribution to a special issue of Econometrics on the replication crisis, arguing that the crisis can be understood as a kind of market failure. Here’s a link to the draft
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Between making calls not to politicise the bushfire disaster, Barnaby Joyce and others have been busy denouncing the Greens, who allegedly prevented hazard reduction burning. This isn’t actually true: The rate of burning in NSW has more than doubled.
But there is one factor that has clearly limited hazard reduction burning. Because of the increased frequency of hot, windy days, even in winter, the window of time in which burning can be undertaken without the risk of accidentally starting fires has been narrowing. Here’s an example from August 2017, with authorities calling on landholders to limit burning off whenever possible, and noting that a number of hazard reduction burns have already escaped.
It’s tempting to dismiss Deputy PM Michael McCormack’s attack on “inner city greenies” who draw the link between climate change and bushfires as an ignorant rant. In reality, McCormack is pointing to a central truth about rightwing denialism on this issue.
Deniers like McCormack don’t (in most cases) believe the stupid things they are saying about climate change. It’s a shibboleth (a signal of tribal membership) and for this purpose, the stupider the better.
Nor is primarily about the economic interests of the fossil fuel lobby. McCormack doesn’t (AFAIK) have any coal mines in his electorate, and the farmers who put him in Parliament are being hit harder by the drought than anyone else.
In reality, it’s all about the inner city greenies: that is, people like the readers of this blog, whether or not we live in the inner city, and whatever our attitude to cafe latte. The whole point of rightwing politics now is to express antagonism to people like us or, in the parlance of Donald Trump Jr to “trigger the libs”
Climate denial has been one of the main avenues of this antagonism. The fact that the right has been proved catastrophically wrong isn’t going to change anything: as McCormack has shown, it is just making them worse.
Welcome to Armageddon!