Embracing change

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Embracing Change: Why We Need Leadership on the Climate Crisis

Brian Walters, 11th August 2008

This past week we have seen Penny Wong, the Federal Minister for Climate Change and Water, after negligible effort, give up on restoring river flows to the Murray Darling, and announce support for allowing the sea in to the lower Murray system so as to permanently destroy the freshwater ecology of the Coorong and associated wetlands - which are internationally listed and protected.

At the same time, our Victorian government has refused to accept the independent VEAC report into saving the river red gums of the Barmah forest along the Murray by giving them the regular drinks they need.

What the Brumby government will do is spend millions of dollars on a pipeline to take water away from the Murray and bring it to Melbourne.

Over the last 30 years a third of Melbourne’s water catchments have been logged. According to Melbourne Water and CSIRO studies, we lose at least 30 gigalitres each year from these catchments because of logging – equivalent to the water used by 150,000 Melbourne households.

Instead of buying out all the timber licences for a mere $3.9 million, the State government has committed – not to water conservation – but to spending over $3 billion on an energy intensive and environmentally destructive desalination plant.

Under its present leaders, our political system seems as arterially sclerotic as the Murray Darling itself.

Petrol prices

This year oil prices have gone up. We feel it when we pay at the bowser. But it is hurting our economy – factoring in to the cost of just about everything. We are currently spending about $1 billion a month more on importing fuel than we did a year ago. There will be variations in price, but the basic facts are simple. Demand – particularly in India and China - is growing faster than we can discover new supplies. Demand is outstripping supply, and prices are rising like the incoming tide.

The spectacle of Brendan Nelson offering to cut 5 cents a litre off fuel excise, and then the response of Kevin Rudd offering 2 cents a litre, when these sums were being wiped off by the rises in a single day, were as daft as King Canute trying to hold the tide back. Australians saw the disconnect: It’s not a matter of 5 cents here or 2 cents there.

The fact is that petrol is costing us the Earth, and we need leadership and action accordingly.


Weather

In the past few years we have experienced unusual weather events around the world:

  • A cyclone causing catastrophic flooding in Burma,
  • A super typhoon hitting the Philippines and then Taiwan,
  • A hurricane destroying most of New Orleans,
  • Wildfires in Greece and the Amazon and California,
  • Last week an event the New Zealanders called a “weather bomb”,
  • And here in Australia, we’ve had enormous bushfires in 2003 and then in 2006,
  • And last year, in the midst of a prolonged drought, two major floods in Gippsland.

Our planet is now 0.7 degrees warmer than it used to be. That temperature rise, scientists tell us, gives rise to more extreme weather events.

There are several known causes of global variation in temperature which are beyond human influence:

  • Changes in the axial tilt of the Earth’s orbit round the sun,
  • Sunspots
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Variables such as El Niño.

However, we are currently experiencing changes which cannot be explained by any of these causes, alone or in combination. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere does explain this warming – and suggests we’re in for serious rises in future.

Sea level rise

Last week we saw VCAT refuse building approval in coastal areas, because of the threat of sea level rise.

This follows a number of cases overseas dealing with the climate crisis. In April last year a landmark case was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States - the highest court in the US.

The State of Massachusetts sued the Bush administration’s Environment Protection Authority, for its refusal to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA said that Massachusetts could not yet show injury had been suffered as a result of its failure.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and ordered the EPA to comply with the request of the State of Massachusetts. Evidence of sea level rise, together with credible predictions of future harms resulting from climate change, were sufficient in their view to show that the injuries in question were “concrete”. They held that the EPA’s refusal to regulate was a likely cause of present injuries and future damage.

The court accepted the evidence of the scientific consensus on climate change and the harms it would cause. The court said that mere regulation by the EPA would not of itself stop climate change – but the failure to do so would be a contributing factor, and should not be permitted.

Today summer Arctic ice makes up just 20 per cent of its volume 30 years ago.

Greenland is losing ice very fast – the current net loss of ice from Greenland is 257 cubic kilometres a year.

For a time it seemed we had a respite in Antarctica, because global warming has caused increased precipitation over the Antarctic, and studies suggested that for a time the total volume of ice there was actually increasing.

That trend has now reversed. In 2006 University of Colorado researchers calculated that Antarctica was losing ice at the rate of 152 cubic kilometres per annum.

Earlier this year a joint study by NASA and UCI (University of California Irvine) found a sharp jump in Antarctica’s ice loss. It was by then almost as great as the loss in Greenland.

Since that study, on March 25 this year a 405 km² chunk of the Wilkins ice shelf disintegrated, putting an even larger portion of the glacial ice shelf at risk. Scientists were surprised when they discovered the rest of the 14,000 km² Wilkins ice shelf is beginning to break away from the continent. What is left of the Wilkins ice shelf is now connected by only a narrow beam of ice.

At the end of May this year, another break-off further reduced the width of the connecting ice strip from 6 km to 2.7 km. This is the first documented break-up to have occurred in winter.

The industrial revolution began in 1780 with the invention of the steam engine. At that time, and for about 8,000 years before then, The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. By 1930, it had reached about 315 ppm – an increase of 35 ppm over 150 years but already well outside pre-industrial levels. By the mid 1970s it reached 330 ppm, 360 ppm by the 1990s, and 387 ppm today.

As Lord Robert May – Australian-born former president of the Royal Society and chief scientific adviser to the British government has pointed out: This change of magnitude by 20 ppm over only a decade has not been seen since the most recent ice-age ended. And if current trends continue, by about 2050 atmospheric CO² levels will have reached at least 500 ppm, roughly double preindustrial levels.

Columbia University’s Professor James Hansen, who heads the climate section of NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is one of the most respected experts in this area. His latest estimate is that the tipping point for the loss of all ice is 425 ppm plus or minus 75.

At 387 ppm, we are already well into the danger zone.

A loss of all ice would lead to sea level rises of some 70 to 90 metres.

The problem and the goal

All these problems – too little water, rising oil prices, rising temperatures, have one common element: we are putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We do it in two main ways:

  1. by burning fossil fuels;
  2. by destroying biocarbon – such as forests.

In the debate in Australia there has been remarkable silence

About the role of biocarbon

Our forests have a vital role to play – both in holding carbon in the trees themselves – and in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – they are carbon “stores” and carbon “sinks”.

Native forest logging - unlike plantations – is a massive contributor to greenhouse gases. Sir Nicholas Stern found that ending the logging and burning of the world’s old growth forests would reduce global greenhouse emissions by more than the combined emissions of all the world’s transport systems.

Australian National University studies under Professor Brendan Mackey have found that our old growth forests store up to 2000 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

When we log a hectare of forest, most of the carbon is lost in the subsequent regeneration burn, but the paper and cardboard products soon deteriorate, releasing most of the balance of the carbon within a space of a few years.

Replanting with 80 year logging cycles only restores a fraction of the original carbon.

Over time, we lose about 1000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every time a hectare of mature forest is logged.

In Victoria, logging in 2004-5 contributed over 10 million tonnes to Victoria’s greenhouse gas emissions – that’s equivalent to 2.4 million cars – nearly all of Melbourne’s domestic fleet.

Fever

It is sometimes said that we must adapt to a temperature rise of 2 degrees or even 3 or 4 degrees, because it’s too much effort to stop that rise. Sir Nicholas Stern said that a rise of 2 degrees in the Earth’s temperature would mean the loss of 15 to 40% of the Earth’s species, loss of 20-30% of freshwater in vulnerable regions, and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet causing a rise in sea level of several metres.

That was 2 degrees.

We cannot calmly contemplate giving the planet the third degree, and the Earth does not have some kind of thermostat enabling us to hold its rising temperature at a certain level.

The earth has a fever. We don’t want to stabilize the temperature in the fever zone, or let it get a few degrees higher. We need to take the medicine now that’s needed to get the temperature down.

We need to control the release of both fossil carbon and also bio carbon, and nurture our carbon sinks. To get the temperature down to a safe level, we now need to remove from the atmosphere 200 billion tonnes of carbon. We must move to zero emissions.

Exponential change

We cannot expect the climate crisis to proceed at a steady, linear pace. There are multiple positive reinforcing feedback loops which are expected to lead to very rapid deterioration. Three examples will suffice:

  1. When Arctic sea ice melts, the sun’s rays are no longer reflected by bright white ice: the deep blue sea water absorbs much more heat, leading to an acceleration of warming;
  2. Inuit villages built on the permafrost are now subsiding as that tundra thaws. The thawing of this permafrost releases huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas much worse than carbon dioxide, which accelerates the greenhouse effect.
  3. Higher temperatures have caused a large increase in forest fires in the Amazon – spilling millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating the greenhouse effect.

Most models show not a linear change, but an exponential curve of increasing change.

The changes that we are now seeing could, Professor James Hansen warns, rapidly run out of control into catastrophic and unstoppable change.

The exponential curve of increasing effects poses special problems for policy makers. With increasing change, the action required now to avert future disaster will always be more than is needed to turn around the present symptoms. On the other hand, the failure to take action now will require much greater action in future.

In addition, we are confronted with a lag time between action, and results – often two or three decades.

We cannot rely on external disaster to be the driver of our action – then it will be too late.

Winston Churchill warned about the growing threat of Nazi Germany for years. In 1936 he warned, in words that could be echoed today:

The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

Two years later, he rose to speak in the House of Commons immediately after the Munich agreement in late 1938, but he could hardly make himself heard above the boos and catcalls. When he said “We have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat” he was drowned out for minutes. That year he survived a challenge to his preselection by his own Conservative Party Branch by a single vote.

It was only in 1940, when the facts were clear because the Nazis had actually done what Churchill predicted, that he achieved power. On the day he became British Prime Minister, 10th May 1940 – the very day the Nazis struck in the Netherlands, Belgium and France – he said:

I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is.

He had been proved right just in time.

We do not have that luxury. With a lead time of decades between taking action and seeing its results, we cannot wait until the sea levels rise and prove the scientists right: by then it will be too late.

What are we doing?

Faced with this challenge, what are we doing? Here in Victoria, John Brumby is making sea level much more dangerous by blasting the rock barrier at the Rip which protects Port Phillip Bay.

In the week when the Garnaut report came down, Brumby announced a gas fired power station. then a new coal fired power station, and, as if two such fire breathing monsters were not enough, the extension of a gas-guzzling car race until 2015.

It seems that not just the planet has a fever, but our political leaders as well.

Political factors

We are dealing in a contested area where there are powerful “vested” interests who do not want their privilege eroded and will if necessary distort the debate to secure their own advantage – even if that is destructive to the community as a whole.

Here in Australia, the powerful industry lobby group “The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network” – or AIGN has been fighting a powerful delaying action against greenhouse mitigation. So has the Lavoisier Group – with its large funding from the carbon industries.

Labor and Liberal are beholden to these large lobby groups. Huge political donations distort the democratic process by buying influence at the expense of the community.

At a national level, the Liberal Party has said we should wait and see what China and India and the US do (Brendan Nelson has completely ignored what Europe is already doing.)

It is not leadership to wait and see what everyone else is doing before deciding what we might do ourselves. It is not leadership to follow the rest of the world.

Leadership means moving out in front: that’s how we get others to follow. Does anyone really think we should wait to see what a poor country like India does before deciding what we can afford? Leadership does not play short term politics on an issue like this.

In the May budget, the Federal Labor government announced that it would means test the subsidy on solar roof panels. Overnight, projects for this renewable form of energy collapsed. Since then, the relevant minister, Peter Garrett, has been quite frankly incoherent in his attempts to explain this bizarre policy.

At the same time, the government gave $500 million to the immensely profitable coal industry. They said this was to explore carbon capture. On no view will carbon capture become viable in the time frame needed to avert the climate crisis. And the model the Australian government is promoting involves the community not only paying for the R & D, but also accepting all the risk: the proposal is that the carbon will be pumped underground, and the minister will issue a closure certificate, under which the company walks away and the taxpayer assumes responsibility if the carbon leaks out again.

If the coal industry can take responsibility for making carbon sequestration work, well and good, but not one cent of public money should be spent on this distraction from the main game – moving to zero emissions as quickly as possible.

Turning its back on the Garnaut report, the government came out with its green paper, which reflects a set of deals with big business.

The Green Paper fails the acid test: it does not quickly reduce emissions.

Whenever there is change, there will be winners and losers. Where those losers are the big polluters who caused the problem in the first place no handouts should go to them at all.

By giving large compensation to large polluters, the government’s proposed ETS will actually encourage further emission in coming years.

Right now, under pressure from the logging industry the Federal government is actively considering Including as part of the mandatory renewable energy target scheme the burning of native forests. In other words, a process which contributes massive CO2 into the atmosphere, and which destroys the very carbon sinks which take CO2 from the atmosphere, is currently being pushed as “green”.

We can and we must do better.

Australia has been at the forefront of many great social advances:

  • the 8 hour day
  • free universal education
  • women’s suffrage
  • the basic wage.

Sixty years ago it was an Australian Attorney General who presided over the United Nations as it passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now we are called upon to join the forefront once more, And for that we need leadership.

Leadership

Today we need leaders who have imagination. The imagination to see the world as it might be; the imagination to see the world as it could be. Small thinkers, who cannot see past the way things are now, who find it hard to believe that things might be frighteningly different, or inspiringly better, are not the leaders we need, and they should be encouraged to move on.

Too much of our political decision making is based on short term political gain – viewed through the prism of the three year electoral cycle, or the 24 hour news cycle, or the ten second grab, When we must now have a perspective of decades, generations and centuries.

In the 1930s, when the growing menace of Nazi Germany was all too real in Europe, those who disturbed the comfort of the Great Powers and warned of the danger were treated as pariahs, and as years went by, nothing was done to stem the rise in this threat, leaving the world, when it finally woke to its danger, to fight a costly and destructive war. Greenhouse is our threat today. It is hard to prevail against comfort, but the evidence requires us to take the leap of imagination into a world very different from the one we know.

Rather than have change we don’t want forced on us, we can choose the change we do want.

We need leaders whose vision embraces the whole world.

The biggest changes are presently taking place a long way off – the Arctic, the Antarctic, or the Amazon – and are not confronting us each day. The cause and effect is not intuitively apparent as we go about our daily lives.

But as our sapphire sphere spins through the vastness of space carrying all our hopes, and that most precious cargo – life itself – what happens in the waters of the Arctic, though we may not see it, is very close by, and it happens to us – and is caused by us. Any leadership now must embrace all peoples, all generations, all species.

A leader without a global vision is a leader without a vision for Australia.

We need leaders who take responsibility. We need leaders who can face uncomfortable facts, and rather than leaving them for future generations, deal with them now - and inspire the community to come with them.

A leader who ignores uncomfortable realities is likely to drive us bang smack into them.

We need leaders who are resolute – not in the protection of their own interests, but in the protection of the planet. It is easy to find excuses for inaction. We have seen a raft of those: We cannot have our trading scheme up and running before 2012. We cannot lose competitiveness to our neighbours. We should wait and see what emerges next year from the big emitters. Serious leadership cannot countenance such irresolute wavering. Serious leadership would take a stand for the future we want.

Australia

Australia is a wealthy country. We are the amongst the highest per capita greenhouse gas polluters. We are also a country with enormous resources for resolving this problem.

The low-hanging fruit available to us right now is the opportunity to stop native forest logging and land clearing. That would remove over 10% of our carbon emissions overnight.

We have abundant natural sunlight. It’s no longer true that solar energy cannot meet large power needs. There is easily enough roof space in Australia to meet all our energy needs from solar alone.

As economies of scale come on line, solar panels are now coming down in price in the same way that silicon chips are. A key way for governments to make this happen is to have a feed in tariff which rewards those who contribute solar power to the grid. The Victorian government set the feed in tariff too low to give an incentive to people putting solar panels on their rooves. The Australian government needs to set a feed in tariff now which makes it worthwhile for Australians to switch to renewable energy.

Australia also has some of the world’s most promising geothermal (hot rock) resources - and no shortage of places to put wind farms. We have scientists, technological know-how, the educational institutions, and business skills of a kind which can readily be put to work on reducing our carbon footprint.

As we move to zero emissions, Australia can be a beacon to the world.

Here in Victoria we already have the most advanced electric passenger car in the world. My friend Alan Gray – an old boy of this school – owns and drives a fully electric car.

Alan bought a new Hyundai Getz – a small 4 door hatchback, for $14,000. He then took it to Blade Electric Vehicles in Castlemaine, who removed the petrol engine, and replaced it with a state of the art electric engine. Cost $35,000.

Alan has solar panels on his office roof, and can completely recharge the car at no cost. Alternatively, he can plug in anywhere in Australia and take 97 cents worth of power to recharge. Recharging takes about 6 hours.

The top speed is 120 kph – with the same acceleration as an equivalent petrol car. The range is 100 ks between recharges.

It’s an urban runabout designed for 80% of the world’s car journeys that are less than 100 km per day.

It doesn’t matter what the price is at the service station – he just drives past. Now, as a company car, this will pay for itself in five years with petrol at $1.50 per litre – quicker if petrol goes back up to $1.60.

For less than $10 million, BEV could set up a plant in any state of Australia manufacturing 1000 of these cars a year. That would bring down the purchase price sharply.

Instead of giving $70 million to Toyota to build a slightly more efficient petrol car, why not give a modest amount to this company for a great export opportunity – the conversion “pack” can be dropped into a Hyundai Getz anywhere in the world.

Public transport will be a major feature of any zero emissions economy. We still have the 1929 timetable for the Sandringham line. In 1929, nearly 80 years ago, peak hour trains ran on that line every 3 minutes. Nothing is too good for those doing the right thing by the environment in using public transport. Our public transport should be clean, safe – with station staff and conductors, instead of transport inspectors – and efficient. It is none of those things now.

We should stop building new freeways, road tunnels, road widening measures. That is the old way of dealing with transport. We have to find new, innovative ways.

We need to relocalize. Many of us would prefer to live in small communities and have the jobs come to us, as they can now with the internet. Encouraging this approach will give us time for families which we currently lose with hours a day spent commuting.

The changes we must make are changes we should make even without the climate crisis, because they are changes which will make our impact on the Earth sustainable, but they are also changes which will be good for our lifestyle and our community anyway: if we were to properly value our carbon sinks, we’d also greatly alleviate our water problem. If we were to halt our reliance on imported oil, and replace it with our own renewable resources, we’ll improve our trade balance, and greatly strengthen our economy.

Energy efficiency does not cost money – it saves money.

In Europe, we are already seeing a massive growth in “green collar” jobs – and we could see the same here.

And there are countless other benefits: when was the last time two nations went to war over solar power? Over wind power?

The climate crisis is frightening, but in another way it is also exhilarating. This is the challenge of our time. Reaching for the future we want for our children is our highest calling.

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