Yes, the world is paying attention to Australia’s climate inaction

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story Opening paras

Like their counterparts in many other countries, members of Australia’s political class are frequently accused of living inside a self-regarding bubble. That’s certainly true when it comes to climate policy. But bubbles can be punctured by shocks from the outside, and one arrived earlier this month in the shape of a demand from the European Union, led by France, that Australia must make stronger climate commitments if it wants a trade agreement with Europe.

Before looking at the EU position, it’s worth considering how far removed from reality our political class has become. As bushfires raged through October and November, a bipartisan consensus emerged: any discussion of the relationship between the fire catastrophe and climate change, let alone any suggestion of a policy response, would be divisive and unnecessary. Many media outlets were happy to go along with it.

The same willingness to ignore the deeper issues extends to climate-related policy more broadly. As energy minister, Angus Taylor has repeatedly and egregiously misled the public about key aspects of his portfolio. He has denounced renewable energy, made spurious claims about the benefits of coal-fired power, and promoted the government’s claim to be observing our emissions-reduction commitments while vetoing any policy action that might promote that goal.

For all of this, he has had a free pass from Labor and most of the media. Their attention has been focused on a series of trivial scandals, culminating in the publication of a forged document used to accuse the Sydney City Council of hypocrisy. These transgressions may or may not cost Taylor his job, but their pursuit will do nothing to tackle the climate emergency.

More over the fold

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Unmitigated failure

That’s been the response of Australia’s political class, politicians, pundits and journalists alike to the arrival of catastrophic climate change in the form of ubiquitous and semi-permanent bushfires. The failure has been so comprehensive, encompassing nearly everyone in Labor and the LNP, and most of the commentariat, that there is not much point in naming names.

I can’t motivate myself to write a proper analysis of this, so I’ve been reduced to writing a series of snarky tweets.

Update: Sean Kelly spells out the same point in the SMH.

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Decarbonizing steel production

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.

What limited hazard reduction burning? Climate change.

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.

Triggering global warming

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!

Talking about sustainable economy tonight: Kenmore

Live in the Kenmore area? Think we could use a more sustainable economy and want to take action locally?   Join us this Thursday Oct 10th, 6:30 for 7pm, at the Kenmore Library when Transition Town Kenmore hosts UQ’s John Quiggin. He’ll give us his big picture take on where things are heading with a  talk on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren: Why Keynes was wrong in 1930, but might be right today.” Free and open to all.