The March for Science

By the time this blog is posted I hope I will have participated in the March for Science in Melbourne. As I get older I become more and more the reluctant traveller. Hopefully using my pensioners’ rail-pass I will have been in town a day or two, stayed with friends, and perhaps managed to do some unrelated research on Gippsland history.

Many years ago I spoke to a meeting on the Nungurner foreshore about climate change. “Trust the scientists not the politicians” was one appeal that the audience applauded. But there are exceptions to this generalisation such as the former science minister and historian Barry Jones who spoke at the meeting outside the State Library. The public address system was barely functioning so we heard little of what he said.

According to today’s Melbourne Age Barry commented that the political process is “driven by opinions rather than knowledge. Politicians no longer ask if it’s true, rather, whether it will sell.” Later after the disappointingly small crowd of about 3000 had dispersed we came across Barry by accident in Burke St and were able to shake his hand and thank him for his work.

As a layman my knowledge of science and scientists is limited. Nobel laureate Peter Doherty was the only speaker aside from Barry Jones I recognised. I have blogged on Peter here and the text of his  speech yesterday can be found here. As he noted in his A Light History of Hot Air (MUP, 2007) when commenting on science and public policy: “actions of presidents and prime ministers are best left to the measured judgement of history. Their policies often come back to haunt them.” In his speech he stated that “climate change is a human rights issue, not a partisan issue”.  All pollies take note!

There were lots of nice banners and slogans in the march. One in particular I liked “The good thing about science is that it is true – whether you believe it or not”. ‘Alternative facts’ after all are just lies.

Ian Enting: mathematician and climate scientist

Fifty years ago I was in the Monash Uni bushwalking club with mathematician Ian Enting. Even then he was the consummate and dedicated student whilst I was the layabout boozer and folksinger miraculously scraping through a pass degree in Economics. His career in mathematics blossomed whilst I retired to the bush to build a house of mud and beer bottles. (No I didn’t drink them all!) We are still good friends and Ian and his family are regular visitors to Gippsland. His impressive CV is listed in The Conversation: “Trained in mathematical physics, worked on carbon cycle modelling since 1980. One of the lead authors of the chapter “CO2 and the Carbon Cycle” in the 1994 IPCC special report on Radiative Forcing of Climate Change. Author of the books: Inverse Problems in Atmospheric Constituent Transport (2002) and Twisted: The Distorted Mathematics of Greenhouse Denial (2007).”

In Twisted Enting’s logical demolition of the denialists’ arguments of ten years ago highlights the absurdity of these arguments that are still being trumpeted (sorry!) in the most powerful political offices on earth today. He noted then that those: “who promote the views of ‘greenhouse sceptics’ are not presenting a scientific argument – the views of the greenhouse sceptics have too many inconsistencies to constitute an alternative to mainstream climate science.”

On Ian’s website (link above) there are two substantial critiques of ‘confusionist’ Ian Plimer who denies the human influence on climate change. The first is of Heaven and Earth (Connor Court Publ. 2009) comprised of 64 pages including references and an index. Summarising the work Enting notes:  “Ian Plimer’s book … claims to demolish the theory of human-induced global warming due to the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Overall: it has numerous internal inconsistencies; [and] in spite of the extensive referencing, key data are unattributed and the content of references is often mis-quoted.” The work is then examined page by page by Enting and others and, as such, is a work in progress.

The other is a critique of How to Get Expelled from School (Connor Court Publ. 2012). In this Enting examines each of the 101 questions that Plimer asks and notes: “Ian Plimer’s book… concludes with 101 questions that will supposedly get you expelled. Plimer’s proffered responses fall into four main groups (1) the answer agrees with mainstream science…(2) the question [is] based on a false premise, false dichotomy or a straw-man construction; (3) an incorrect answer is given; and/or (4) no answer is given for the specific question — just speculation about what a hypothetical ‘activist teacher’ might say.”

I hope to examine Ian’s climate change publications, both Twisted and the online Plimer critiques in more detail at a later date. Unfortunately the East Gippsland Shire Library has 2 copies of the bogus Heaven + Earth on it shelves but not a copy of the more legitimate and informed Twisted. How sad.


Blog critics and ‘climate extremism’

I get occasional criticisms of this blog though in some ways not as many as I would expect. Fair criticism is fine as it enables the work to be edited and improved with some sentences clarified and the occasional error corrected or omitted – a form of peer review. The blog is, after all, online journalism with deadlines to be met and is consequently prone to the occasional error. This may sometimes be compounded when I, as a non-scientist, try to explain or simplify matters of great scientific complexity.

Unfortunately only about half of the criticisms I receive are fair. The rest of them are of a non-specific nature and I suspect that these often come from entrenched opponents or vested interests who have either failed to read the article or misunderstood it. This has recently been so with my blogs on Mountain Ash as Carbon Store and Bushfires Climate and Logging written at the time of the threatened closure of the Heyfield mill. One long winded criticism went on about ‘environmentalism’ and saving the ‘leadbeater possum’ when in over 150 blogs this endangered marsupial has never been mentioned once (to be fair I am a supporter of the Great National Park as our goal is the same – the end of logging of native forests).The latter blog in fact was partly about having lived and worked in timber towns most of my life and of my consequent sympathies with the mill workers. Further I regularly argue that climate change is far more than just an environmental issue but a humanitarian and existential one.

Which leads me to a recent ‘critique’ from a member of a local sustainability group who, emotively, talked about the ‘religion of climate extremism’. Again the communication was non-specific, vague and ambiguous and in parts could even be interpreted as complimentary. The ‘history of the planet’ is of importance as the climate of the earth over the last 10,000 years (known as the Holocene) has been benign and has seen the growth of human civilisation. In geological time this is but an instant – something this particular critic did not appear to understand. We are now entering an era of a warmer climate never before experienced by human beings. The end of our current ice age is now a distinct (and human caused) possibility and the worst case scenarios of climate change threaten our existence.

There are a number of people who call themselves ‘environmentalists’ and ‘sustainability advocates’ who do not understand the science or have succumbed to the doubt messages of the climate change deniers. I try to work on what is currently considered ‘best science’. This science postulates a range of outcomes of business as usual (ie doing nothing) the worst case scenarios of which are truly diabolical and catastrophic for humanity. I am guided by the philosophy of the English divine Thomas Norton to ‘hope for best and plan for the worst” and apply it to the monumental and complex problem of climate change. This blog has been trying to do just that for the last 2 years. I wonder if that makes me a ‘climate extremist?



Logging Coupe Burns and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Usually in autumn the forestry department (currently DELWP –Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning) carry out asset protection burns across Victoria. At the same time the vegetation left in logging coupes – by now bulldozed into windrows and partially dried – is also burned. These burns contribute a large amount of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere and from experience I know that these burns can be intense, like big bonfires. One recent twitter account (above) noted that as well as the ‘asset protection’ burns in the Yarra Ranges there were also 37 logging coupe burns which the Melbourne Age had conveniently omitted from an article on the smoke pollution aspect of the burning on winemaking. It prompted me to do some very rough, back of the envelope, calculations on how much greenhouse gas was produced by these burns.

Starting with 1900 tons of carbon calculated as stored in mature mountain ash forest I proceeded as follows. I assumed that logging of other species (messmate) and less mature forests reduced this figure to 60% giving an average of carbon per hectare of the coupes logged at 1140 tons. I also assumed that 50% of this carbon was removed as logs leaving 570 tons per ha in the form of heads, leaves, stumps, roots and non-targeted species lying in the coupes in windrows.

This was then multiplied by an estimated average size of the coupe of 24 hectares, by the number of burns carried out (37) and by converting the carbon to carbon dioxide by a multiple of 3 – the weight of gas following the combustion process where each atom of carbon combines with 2 slightly heavier atoms of oxygen. The result is astounding. These Yarra Ranges coupe burns produced as much CO2 – more than 1,500,000 tones – as 60,000 Australian citizens produce in a year.  Alternatively each hectare of coupe burn produces 1690 tons of CO2 – a rule of thumb that can be applied across the State, especially to Gippsland and the Alps.

This calculation does not account for other greenhouse gases produced in this process, mainly methane and nitrous oxides. Further there is the total of greenhouse gases from those ‘asset protection’ burns designed specifically to protect the timber resource for future logging (I hope to look into this soon by examining the current DELWP fire protection plans and the Phoenix fire model). Nor is there any accounting of the CO2 produced in the felling, transporting and processing of the logs. How much CO2 then is produced per timber and forestry worker?  At a nominal value or cost of $30 per ton of CO2 the logging industry, and the employment it provides, can be classified as heavily subsidised indeed.

Catholicism and Climate Change Part 2 by Harry Creamer*

Laudato Si’: on care for our common home (St.Pauls Publications 2015)(Page number/Section number – refer to the original document.)

Pope Francis calls for a new approach to politics – ‘Politics must pay greater attention to foreseeing new conflicts and addressing the causes which can lead to them.  But powerful financial interests (‘the minority who wield economic and financial power’ (160/203)) prove most resistant to this effort’ (51/57).  Despite these reservations, he sets out an agenda for politics: ‘A strategy for real change… it is not enough to include a few superficial ecological considerations while failing to question the logic which underlies present-day culture’ (155/197).  ‘Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress’ (152/194).

The call to redefine our notion of progress includes – globalisation, consumerism, waste, things we can do as individuals, and more.  On the persistent ethos of growth, the Pope says: ‘… the idea of infinite or unlimited growth is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit’ (89/106).  ‘… in the midst of economic growth… talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses’ (152-3/194).

‘Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.  We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone’ (159/202).

‘The gravity of the ecological crisis demands that we all look to the common good, embarking on a path of dialogue which demands patience, self-discipline and generosity’ (158/201).

‘A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal’ (159/202).

Whether Catholic or not, it is now critical that we heed the Pope’s call.

*Harry Creamer was invited to comment on Laudato Si as a matter of importance to all Gippslanders. He is the President of Climate Change Australia –Hastings and can be contacted here.


Catholicism and Climate Change Part 1 by Harry Creamer*

Laudato Si’: on care for our common home (St.Pauls Publications 2015) (Page number/Section number – refer to the original document.)

The Pope’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, is an important statement from an enlightened and influential world leader.  The Church seems slow to adopt it, which I put down to a number of factors, not least of which is the majority of politically conservative leaders in the Church who do not understand the threat posed by climate change.  I suspect few Catholics have actually read it in full.

The Pope calls his encyclical, ‘this lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling’ (188/246) and explains his aims in writing it, ‘to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature’ (167/215).  ‘I urgently appeal, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet’ (19/14).

His thinking is well-informed and holistic – ‘There is an interrelation between ecosystems and various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that the whole is greater than the part’ (116/141).  Acknowledging ‘the human origins of the ecological crisis’ (84/101), he says, ‘The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone’ (81/95).  He refers to ‘ever new ways of despoiling nature, purely for the sake of new consumer items and quick profit’ (151/192).

The Pope says this destruction has led to a ‘sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life’ (9/2).  ‘The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’ (25/21).  He advocates ‘penalties for damage inflicted on the environment’ (167/214).

As an example of environment destruction His Holiness cites land clearing: ‘As long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed… the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution… businesses profit by paying only a fraction of the costs involved’ (153/195).

He argues that, ‘If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof’ (147/186), a call that should be applied to climate policy: ‘This is especially the case when a project may lead to a greater use of natural resources, higher levels of emission or discharge, an increase in refuse, or significant changes to the landscape, the habitats of protected species or public spaces (145-6/184)’.

On climate change the Pope says: ‘… the advances have been regrettably few.  Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility, above all on the part of those countries which are more powerful and pollute the most (135/169).  We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil, and to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay’ (132/165) and ‘A global consensus is essential for… developing renewable energy and less polluting forms of energy’ (132/164).

*Harry Creamer was invited to comment on Laudato Si as a matter of importance to all Gippslanders. He is the President of Climate Change Australia –Hastings and can be contacted here Part 2 will be published next Sunday

Cr. Ben Buckley the East Gippsland Shire and Climate Change

I have known Ben Buckley, pilot, politician and ordinary bloke, for a long time. About 1978 he took a group of school teachers on an aerial survey of the Victorian Alps, which included ‘rolling’ the plane through a rainbow to prove it did not touch the  ground and skimming the cairn  on top of Mt Bogong, Victoria’s highest mountain. Since then we have mostly, but not always, been political opponents. In the 1983 federal campaign for instance, Ben was an early advocate of solar energy and with the Iraq war he was a financial supporter of my irregular anti-Iraq war newsletter and an advocate of ‘armed neutrality’ for Australia – a policy with which I have strong sympathies.

Ben can best be described as a political ‘loose cannon’ and a larrikin and has stood for office as an Independent and as a representative for a number of different political parties – a criticism which can also be levelled at me. Recently as an anti-establishment local councillor he was the only councillor elected on first preferences. As a ‘populist conservative’ Ben has called for more open government and for far less Shire business to be held ‘in camera’. In this there is little doubt that he has the support of the general public.  But our major difference in recent years has been over climate change. Ben’s position has shifted from outright denial along the lines of Tony Abbott’s ‘crap’ to a more sophisticated form of “we have always had climate change”.

This is true as far as it goes but makes no allowance for the rate of change. It makes no allowance for events occurring on a human time scale and those on a geological one. It accepts the global warming statistics furnished by the major weather organisations but denies that the changes are man-made. There are a number of ways of looking at this. The basic physics and logic of the greenhouse effect clearly indicates that it is man-made. Also satellite temperature measurements of the stratosphere (upper atmosphere) indicate it is cooling whilst the troposphere is warming. If the warming was due to an increase in energy from sun the stratosphere should be warming. Events such as natural climate change occur over hundreds and thousands of years but man-made climate change (the Anthropocene) is happening rapidly now. I support Ben in his struggle with the council but do wish he would bring himself up to date on climate change.


Heatwaves, Normal Curves and Climate Change

The normal curves illustrated above are an excellent simplified representation of how extreme hot days increase with climate change. A normal curve is defined as “a bell-shaped curve showing a particular distribution of probability over the values of a random variable.”  In other words the curve represents the frequency that specific information occurs – in this case temperatures. The vertical axis here represents the frequency of days and the horizontal axis the range of temperatures. The average temperature occurs at the peak of the curve and is represented by the most number of days. The extremes representing the hot and cold are found at the edges of the curve.

The two curves show both old and new temperature patterns – the curve on the left representing the old, and with global warming, being shifted to the right to form the new curve. It becomes obvious that with the warming there will be less extreme cold and far more hot days. In particular what we previously considered very hot days become far more common and on the far right the extreme temperatures are now all record breaking. However the above graph is an oversimplification in that as average temperature increases the new normal curve tends to become wider and flatter as in the following example.

This means that whilst the number of warm records increase substantially, there are still the occasional cold records, but with less average days and the range of temperatures is increased. The extreme weather events now occurring in North America appear to be replicating this and verifying the work of Jennifer Francis and others on the northern hemisphere jet stream. It should also be noted that the right hand curve is not static and continually, if gradually on a human time scale, moving to the right as the earth warms. Eventually as the average temperature keeps increasing those days that we once considered warm to extremely warm will become the new average. Unchecked the rising temperatures alone would, and will, eventually make the earth uninhabitable for humans.



The Burning Question?

(Weekly Times)

In November 2014 I attended a meeting in Bairnsdale on the threat of bushfires at which Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2011) spoke. His message to the meeting was to burn often and burn everywhere and I noted a number of discrepancies between his lecture and his book which I may eventually document if I live long enough. His plea for a return to an ‘idyllic’ pre European situation of 200 years ago is of course impossible. Suffice to say the Gammage thesis only ever applied to some parts of Gippsland and the last 50 years of clear-fell logging and ‘farming’ of our native forests has made his arguments both obsolete and absurd. And most importantly the burning he advocates takes no account of our serious climate emergency.

I am familiar with many of the burning practices having been occasionally employed as a seasonal worker by the old forestry department. On a personal basis I used small fires regularly – along with mowing, slashing, pruning – to remove extra fuel from around our house in the bush. This was a common sense use of fire as ‘asset protection’. The current practice of ‘asset protection’ fuel reduction burns was instituted after the Black Saturday Royal Commission whereby 5% of public land is to be burned each year. This bureaucratic requirement means that substantial parts of the state are over burned and a large part of this ‘fuel reduction’ burning is nowhere near threatened assets. An example of this is the current proposal to burn bush south of Nowa Nowa between the township and Lake Tyers. One’s imagination must be stretched to see this as any form of asset protection.

This leads us to the question of climate change. Any bushfire, regardless of intensity, puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides. It is therefore a question of how to minimise this. There is a substantial argument that regular low intensity burns may help prevent catastrophic fires and the bushfires crowning. Some of the behaviour of the Black Saturday fires appears to contradict this argument and I will have to examine it more closely in another later blog, probably several. Despite this ‘debate’ there are a still a number of obvious conclusions. The logging industry must be phased out as quickly as possible at the same time as the forest and fire protection services are substantially expanded. And until the evidence definitely says otherwise, fuel reduction burns should be confined to real ‘asset protection’ and other, minimal, uses of fire such as ‘ecological’ burns.


Our ‘Energy Freedom’ Unit

We sold our house up the bush and moved to a small 2 bedroom unit in town five years ago. In the process of downsizing finance was no longer a restraint. For 6 months after purchasing the unit calculations were made as to how many solar panels would be needed to cover all current electricity costs including service charges. Other options were also looked at including whether to have a mix of photovoltaics, solar hot water and gas.

The solar hot water quotes were about $5000 not including any extra plumbing. As well gas had to be connected to the unit and there was a daily operating charge (about a dollar a day) whether any gas was used or not. It became clear that using gas solely as a hot water booster was not efficient and for a substantial part of the year little or no gas would be required. Thus more gas appliances such as a stove (and thus more plumbing) were needed. We decided to stay with the all-electric unit but one that was modernised and used solar as much as possible.

My calculation of how much solar PV we would need was based on the electricity usage of the old unit. Thus we opted to put a large array of 4 kilowatts on our slightly west of north roof at a cost of $10,000. This I calculated, when the solar subsidy of about 30c a kilowatthour (kwh) was taken into account, would mean we no longer have to pay any electricity bills and the system would pay for itself in six to ten years. We then proceeded over the next 4 years to make a range of changes to convert the unit from its old ‘energy guzzling’ to a modern ‘energy efficient’ home.

First to go was the wall heater replaced by the reverse cycle air conditioner, then all lighting to compact fluoro and LEDs, extra insulation was added to the roof and a heat pump replaced the electric hot water service. The most recent change was in the kitchen where the electric stove was replaced by an induction cooktop. The results of all this meant a sixfold reduction in average daily energy usage from about 12kwh in 2012 to 2kwh in 2016. The economics of this are also startling.  The $10,000 spent on our solar photovoltaic array has been recovered in four years with about $6000 in bills not paid and about $4000 in return cheques from our electricity providers.  The extra $10,000 spent on energy efficiency improvements hopefully will be recovered in four to six years.

With the subsidy gone and our solar now receiving only 7.2c a kwh instead of 31c it remains to be seen if we will be paying our Energy retailer for our bills. Currently we produce on average an extra 14 kwh per day which at 7.2c is about a dollar a day – somewhere near the daily service charge. Future options include looking for the last few ways of increasing energy efficiency and transferring as much energy usage to daytime. Putting more solar panels on the roof, and looking at a battery purchase are now being considered.