Gippsland Stuff Ups: planning and jobs

The bad news about climate change was spread around the world in the late 80s by James Hansen. In 1990 the conservative British PM Margaret Thatcher made a landmark speech (and one for which she will ultimately be remembered) to the United Nations on this matter. Thus politicians and bureaucrats around the world, and more importantly from our local perspective in Victoria, have been aware of possible adverse effects of climate change since this time. These effects included more of, and increasingly severe, extreme weather events – droughts, floods, heatwaves with related bushfires, sea level rise as the ice melted and various threats to life and property. As well there were, and are, a bevy of ‘unknown unknowns’ that may affect the very existence of humanity itself. To counter these possible outcomes a number of responsible actions were both judicious and advisable.

What then were these responsible actions? They should have been designed to reduce and eventually stop all activities that contribute to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – that is those burning fossil fuels and industries relying on cheap fossil fuels like aluminium and the timber. This plan should have been implemented over time with the least possible disturbance to society and the economy. Substantial planning should have commenced then and been treated in a bipartisan fashion supported by all political parties. Unfortunately these industries – oil and gas, brown coal electricity generation and much of the timber industry – are concentrated in Gippsland. Instead of science and common sense vested interests have opposed even the smallest changes necessary and exploited to their advantage both the adversarial nature of politics and the public’s dire concern over employment.

The planners have been missing in action all this time and some government actions have made matters worse. Far beyond anything else the privatisation of the SEC in the 1990s has been an unmitigated disaster – for employment, for planning and above all coping with climate change. Politicians, bureaucrats and the conglomerates purchasing the mines and power stations must all have been aware of the warming threat. So Hazelwood has continued producing its dirty – in terms of carbon pollution – electricity well beyond its planned date of retirement. The conglomerates have profited by streamlining production (read putting people out of work), rapidly depreciating their assets, running the operations on minimal maintenance and ignoring the problem of climate change.

The same applies to Heyfield which is a slightly different though related situation. The Kennett Liberal government emasculated small bush towns with 101 cuts to improve the economy (read cutting down on employment). The logging industry became increasingly centralised and carbon intensive. There are two reasons to phase out logging as quickly as possible – to cut down on a carbon intensive industry and to preserve the forests as a carbon store. Naturally enough the valley and Heyfield residents cling to every job that they can.

What then is the answer? In the short term the Victorian government should re-employ any dismissed workers that cannot find alternative employment initially as locally as possible. There must be more jobs available than those being lost.  In the longer term this will probably involve conscription of some kind. But above all some planning has to be brought back into the system whereby the problem of climate change is given priority and engineers and planners show the pollies how it should be done. Without careful planning the anger and reaction will continue to grow.

Bairnsdale’s Grey Headed Flying Foxes: heatwaves, climate and us

I live a few hundred yards from the Bairnsdale flying fox colony and have been a regular observer of them for the last four years. On or about the third week of January the regular (permanent?) colony grew in size suddenly from 10,000 by about four or five times. Some estimates of their numbers have been as high as 70,000. From the resident population near McCulloch Street they now camp along the river right into town and occupy the tops of the 100 year old plain trees that line the river. The reason why this sudden increase in population occurs is as yet unexplained. As a threatened species the grey headed flying fox is protected.

I have written about them previously here and here and have argued that their continued presence may be another sign of global warming. The recent population growth has had residents complaining about noise and possible communication of disease and was front page news in our local throwaway the East Gippsland News. This week in the Bairnsdale Advertiser there were two letters in defence of the flying fox – one claiming that you were 1000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than getting any disease from them.

In the recent heatwaves in SA and NSW flying foxes started dropping dead in Adelaide and Singleton as they also did in Bairnsdale in the summers of 2012-13 and 2015. The flying fox is extremely sensitive to heatwave temperatures as is homo sapiens sapiens and it is enlightening to compare them. The 2009 heatwave preceding Black Saturday is, using mortality figures, estimated to have caused 400 extra deaths. More recently ‘attribution science’ is now saying that the events of February 2009 were at least 17% more likely because of climate change.  Does this mean about 20% of these people died because of climate change? If so this would give us more than 100 fatalities directly caused by global warming if we include the poor souls burnt on Black Saturday. Such extrapolation from one set of data to the other is hardly legitimate. What is clear is that the climate change influence in this one event in 2009 killed far more people than the handful killed in more than 100 years of terrorist acts in Australia.

The flying foxes are quite mobile but have more or less reached the southern-most possibilities of extending their range in response to warming. It also represents a wide range of other mammals and living things threatened by climate change that are entirely innocent of its cause and have nowhere to run or hide.  A large part of mankind remains ignorant and unaware of human caused climate change. Fewer still are prepared to act against the inertia of the status quo and the criminal activities of the vested interests opposing any action. Each heatwave fatality is a victim of human folly and the demise of each flying fox heralds our own.


The Gippsland Coast in 2100 revisited

About four years ago I wrote a fairly detailed paper looking at a range of scenarios for the Gippsland coast and sea level rise. I added a postscript in May 2014 outlining possible abrupt changes if any volcanic activity under the Antarctic ice occurred. The paper considered both the possibilities of subsidence due to the lowering of the Gippsland basin aquifer and the various effects of climate change – sea level rise, increased severity and frequency of storms and storm surges. The worst case scenarios predicted were an outcome of ‘business as usual’. This state of affairs continues with big coal still the main influence in politics and with Exxon and others still removing oil and gas offshore in the Gippsland basin.

Whilst it is still ‘early days’ so far none of the predictions have materialised. There has been no measurable subsidence anywhere on the coast and sea level rise continues at a rate of about the world average – 3.5mm per annum – hardly discernible in the short to medium term. Nor have any of the storms and floods predicted occurred, or as far as I am aware, any severe erosion along the coast. As well as this the totals in the tables are substantial overestimates due to an error in my method of calculations with regards the rate of change of sea level rise and they may be one third or more too high. On the other hand it is possible that at some specific locations the rate of subsidence I have used is an underestimate. The purpose of the different scenarios is to give you a rough idea of the future, not to say what exactly will happen or when.

There are a number of problems with applying all these variables to our coast. Will the changes be abrupt or gradual? Will the rate of doubling of the amount of sea level rise be fast – about every ten to twenty years – or slow with the latter meaning the sea level rise will be just discernible over a lifetime and manageable in human terms? There are also other factors which may influence outcomes – the ‘unknown unknowns’. It is also unlikely that any subsidence will be general or uniform but may be severe in specific localities. Where it may occur is critical and combined with sea level rise subsidence at or near Golden Beach, for instance, would threaten the Gippsland Lakes system.

As well sea level rise varies substantially around the earth and the figures we use are global averages. The oceans slosh around the earth and they have measurably warmed round our coast. Whilst it easy to come to a conclusion that in a paper like mine if you can find one or more errors in it then it is all bull. However the general thrust is still valid even with allowances for subsidence and possible overestimations in my tables. The latest worst-case indicators are for sea level rise of up to 2.5 metres by 2100. Not too far off my own predictions.

Real Science and Climate Change

Recently a ‘friend’ shared an article from a climate change denier on my facebook page and called it ‘real science’. Somewhat bemused I asked what he meant by ‘real science’ and after a quick scan of his quite detailed and complicated article on the ‘carboniferous age’ added that the article was suspicious and concluded that the findings were wrong. In his case the ‘real science’ is that which he wanted to believe – a case of wishful thinking.

Everyman and his dog can have a blog or webpage on the net (yours truly included) to promote their views and hopefully facts. This means there is a vast range of accessible material from the factual, valid and important to the lies, distortions, misinformation (alternative facts?) obscure information and even an array of conspiracy theories. The misinformation on climate change is part of a process, often deliberate, to ‘muddy the waters’ creating confusion and doubt. What then constitutes ‘real science’ and does ‘real science’ exist?

I am not qualified to answer this question. What I do know is that science is not fixed and that there is often debate in the scientific community about various aspects of a phenomenon. Every aspect of a statement, claim or experiment must be verifiable or repeatable. Climate science covers an array of disciplines and in general the findings of these various fields complement one another. Before a paper is published in a journal it usually goes through a rigorous process of peer review where various aspects of it are examined by relevant experts in their fields and suggestions, alterations and even rejections are made. The journal itself should be the product of a creditable organisation or university and its high standing is dependent on the continued veracity of the papers it publishes.

As a layman I am working at a very basic level to try to clarify and simplify the problem for ‘Joe Blow’. Everybody has an opinion on the weather and often confuses it with climate. We are all weather experts with our anecdotal accounts. Possibly we have been influenced by a criminal media campaign originating with vested interests such as Exxon. Also the idea that a harmful and threatening climate change is not happening fits comfortably with our beliefs and hopes for the future.

But the question of whether you ‘believe’ in climate change is absurd. It is either happening or not. Why do we have an opinion on climate science but leave flying, heart surgery, the workings of our computers and mobile phones and a vast array of other complicated practices to the experts and do not question them?  The public perception that there is a debate about climate change is false. In the specialised climate science community – that is those that know what they are talking about – more than 97.5% accept the fact of human induced global warming. I suspect the real figure is even higher.


Local farmers and Climate Change


The gist of a conversation on global warming by local farmers at a party was recently relayed to me by a friend. Those concerned (all people I know and one or two I may have taught) stated that it was ‘good thing’ as they were having the best run of seasons they have had for a very long time. Some of it – perhaps a lot – may have been ‘tongue in cheek’ or the usual party banter. However there can be no doubt that, combined with good stock prices, the rainfall for much of east Gippsland and in this case the  Tambo Valley has been at least average and sometimes very much above average for the last five years, giving their statements an element of truth. Especially as an expected dry spell in an El Nino year did not materialise.

The problem with all this is that they are confusing weather and climate. If we examine the climate beyond the last five years we find that it is the dry spells, with the occasional severe drought, that was common. The El Nino year of 1983, when the Tambo was bone dry for miles, was perhaps more representative of our climate, which helps make last year such an exception. Or 1998 when in April following dust storms, small sand dunes formed in the lee of the Ensay hills to be followed by the June floods. Much of the first decade of this century was dry with our two big, one in 100 year, bushfires.

The variability of rainfall, where and when it is going to fall, is the most difficult of all things to predict. We all have probably experienced a summer thunderstorm where a few miles down the road from a downpour the country is dry. With each degree of warming around the world there is 7% increase in moisture in atmosphere, which means a corresponding increase of the same amount in global rainfall. Where it is going to fall is the problem. Science predicts that this rainfall will probably come in less days of rain but with heavier events.

Another aspect of this is the pervasive influence of the Murdoch media and in particular some of their populist commentators who appear to know more about climate than those who have made lifetime studies of various aspects of it. Also as many farmers are rusted on to the Nationals (the old country party) for their political representation so too are they rusted on to News Corp as a source of information. In this their trust is misguided.

It is easy to ‘muddy the waters’ of one of the most complicated, if not the most complicated, subjects on earth. This is a job News Corp does thoroughly despite the fact that every day half a dozen peer reviewed papers are published in scientific journals somewhere around the world verifying some aspect of climate change. For the man in the street the answer should be simple – earth’s temperature is dependent on greenhouse gases, increase them and the temperature rises and vice versa. We have been increasing the main greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – since the start of the industrial revolution. Therefore the earth is getting warmer (and measurably so) whatever the President of the USA, one or two obscure Nobel Prize winners, News Corp and a few renegade and/or mercenary scientists say.

The reality is that Global Warming has been happening very gradually all our lives whilst the normal fluctuations of weather and seasons continue. Prof Will Steffen of the Climate Council stated that for the “last 40 years earth’s temperature has never been equal to or below the twentieth century average.” Such a figure is statistically impossible without human caused warming.

Mark Lynas, Barrie Pittock and the Nuclear question


I recently picked up a copy Mark Lynas’ High Tide: the truth about our climate crisis (Picador, New York, 2004) in an op shop. This was a different approach to the problem of climate change. Whilst using available scientific data to back his case the main thrust of the book was for him to visit sites around the globe where the effects of climate change were clearly visible.  Lynas has interesting accounts of the melting permafrost in Alaska with buckled roads and distorted buildings, sea level rise in Tuvalu where at high tide the water comes up through the floors of buildings and the disappearance of a glacier in Peru. Of particular interest was the divided politics of an Alaska heavily dependent on oil reserves – similar to a Gippsland dependent on coal and oil. Curious to see what Lynas had done since this publication a net search revealed a number of more recent publications including Six Degrees (2008).

The search also revealed that Lynas was one of a small group of activists advocating nuclear energy as the solution to global warming.  This group includes the most famous climate scientist James Hansen whose book Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury, London, 2009) I have on my shelves and whose ‘Fee and Dividend’ policy I promoted in a recent election as an alternative to a carbon tax. But due to my upbringing in the cold war and the age of the nuclear bomb I have always been suspicious of nuclear energy and in 1983 my first foray into politics was as a candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland. Since 2008 when I became increasingly focused on climate change I have modified my opposition to nuclear energy to the extent that I now accept operating and relatively safe nuclear plants as being ‘carbon neutral’.

But the ‘nuclear versus renewables’ is a harmful debate in that it detracts from the urgency of climate mitigation. The Fukushima tragedy for instance has meant that Germany, the renewable energy leader in Europe, has been phasing out nuclear energy plants before brown coal. To help clarify some of these issues I turned to my ‘bible’ -Barrie Pittock’s Climate Change: turning up the heat (CSIRO, Melbourne, 2005). Pittock notes that nuclear energy provides about 7% of the world’s energy but emphasises public concern over nuclear accidents like Chernoble in 1986 (his publication preceded Fukushima) and lists a number of criteria that are obstacles to any widespread adoption of nuclear power. These include safeguards against nuclear weapons proliferation, economic competitiveness and ‘heightened fears of terrorism’. In particular he noted the following:

“Another consideration is the energy payback time for nuclear reactors. The large materials investment in the building of a nuclear power station, such as in concrete and steel, requires large energy input. This leads to what are called ‘embedded emissions’. Thus the pay-back time before there is any net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, may be several decades for each reactor, and longer if hundreds of reactors are to be built over the next fifty years.”(p.173)

For those concerned about the ‘climate emergency’ and those getting on in years like myself ‘fifty years’ is far too long. Nor can we wait for the ‘holy grail’ breakthrough to safe and abundant ‘fusion’ energy. The answer must be the rapid adoption of renewable energy and in particular solar – safe, dependable and installable now.


Energy in a Warming World: my Senate Submission


Windmill & solar panels at Ensay
Windmill & solar panels at Ensay

The following is a brief submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Resilience of Energy Infrastructure in a Warming World.

I write in support of localised power generation, micro-grids, battery storage and the need for concerted action on climate change. Between 1982 and 2012 I lived in a house with a stand-alone power system. Initially this system was powered by a reconditioned wind-lite generator which was eventually replaced by solar panels. The storage was composed of heavy, expensive, deep cycle lead acid batteries.  Almost all of the materials used in this system have been obsolete for some time, although as far as I am aware it is still functioning. The recent advances in solar and battery design and their reduction in cost is nothing short of miraculous.

Since moving to a retirement unit in town 4 kilowatts of solar panels were put on a roof reconditioned with reflective paint. Initially it was planned to use gas for cooking and hot water but it was decided to remain an all-electric house adopting energy efficient practices where possible and when affordable. These included electric heater to reverse cycle air con, electric hot water to heat pump and electric stove to induction cooktop. Now that our solar subsidy is gone we plan to purchase a substantial battery coupled with software to maximise the return on energy sold to the grid.

I have always been a strong supporter of decentralised power and renewable energy, but since 2008 almost entirely motivated by the climate emergency we appear to be in. It is apparent now that our current climate extremes are performing closely to the predictions of the CSIRO and others in the late 80s. There is a pressing need for global emissions of greenhouse gases to be stabilised and then eventually reduced to something approaching pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. The first major step in this process is the replacement of all fossil fuel energy sources, including gas, with clean renewable energy. These include wind, solar and battery storage with other possibilities including tidal, wave, pumped hydro and geothermal in a decentralised system with micro grids.

There are only four possibilities with regards climate change – that it is happening or not and we either act or do nothing. Since scientific evidence is overwhelming that it is happening this leaves us with just two options. Of these “do nothing” is the path to catastrophic consequences. To paraphrase the noted barrister Julian Burnside “If we can’t fix climate nothing else matters”.


The Threatened Closure of Heyfield Timber Mill

Logged area

Was the news last week about the threatened closure of the Heyfield timber mill real? The media release from company was obviously designed to pressure the State government to secure future timber supplies. However our native forests as a natural resource cannot be continually mined – even in a world free from the pressures of climate change nothing lasts forever. It is clear our forests have been over-logged. The days of a single monster log on a timber truck are already a distant past. How can governments guarantee something that is not there? The company is now pressing for a guaranteed supply of timber – almost the same as guaranteeing profit – and holding over the government the threat of 250 job losses.

Work has always been important anywhere in the bush. 250 jobs is a big number and the potential loss of employment is always a big news story. But as an industry in decline timber milling has been losing jobs for some time. The Heyfield company got some of its logging concessions over the last 30 years by buying up small timber mills in the region including Ensay North, Bruthen and Benambra and then closing them down. In each of these instances not only the workers but the small towns suffered.

The problem with logging is that it is a carbon intensive operation and it is becoming increasingly obvious that all native forests should be preserved and protected! The jobs now in the industry should be transferred to those doing the protecting and necessarily be employed by the state. Climate change means that all this should happen as soon as possible. The forests are far more valuable as they stand. Timber must be now be sourced from plantations. Any retrenched worker should receive a decent redundancy package with the prospect of employment in the forest protection industry.

Occasionally proposals are made to prop up the logging industry by using biomass from state forests and falsely promoting the energy from such operations as renewable. There is also research indicating logging may be increasing the severity of bushfires. Both these issues are clearly related to climate change on which I will blog at a later date.

Part of the answer to the question of jobs and forests should be to place a value on the stored carbon in our native forests on both state and private land and to protect that store as much as possible. Another part must be employing workers to protect that store. Two of the major employers in Gippsland – the timber industry and brown coal – are in structural decline. This decline will be accelerated as the need to act on climate change becomes more urgent.

The Hazelwood Rehabilitation Bill


Unpublished Letter to the Age

Dear Sir,

Thanks for your front page headline today outlining the true cost of brown coal operations and the cost of rehabilitating the Hazelwood mine and power station (Age 20.1). However your article made no mention of possible savings off this rather exorbitant bill by adopting solutions that make use of the Latrobe Valley and the Hazelwood mine infrastructure.

Elsewhere the Hazelwood owner Engie has been advertising for expressions of interest for the development of large scale solar pv stations. They could start with one of the proposals to line the Hazelwood pit walls with solar cells and other appropriate localities in the district.

Instead of filling the open cut with expensive water from the Morwell River they might prefer to examine the opportunities for a pumped hydro plant exploiting the height difference between the pit bottom and the Hazelwood pondage (or some other nearby source) as suggested by the University of Melbourne Energy Institute.

They may also prefer to spend some of the funds saved from shelving their lake proposal on creating a pilot geothermal plant exploiting the warm rocks beneath the blanket of coal such as was proposed by the defeated ALP candidate for Morwell in the 2010 State Election.

Finally the power station should be left as is, with minimal disturbance, saving some $300 million at least. Perhaps it could be used to house flywheels to help balance the power load as renewable energy moves towards 100% of our power supply. Another suggestion is that it becomes a museum to the Age of Brown Coal – one that drove the state’s economy for a century but is now an albatross around our necks.

All this requires foresight, co-operation, agreement and certain amount of dedication between the interested parties – Engie, the State government, the Union and the local community. We can only hope that common sense prevails and that a ‘just transition’ occurs in the valley over the next 20 years.



Wet bulb temperatures and an uninhabitable earth

This map shows the maximum wet-bulb temperatures reached in a climate model from a high carbon dioxide emissions future climate scenario with a global-mean temperature 12 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than 2007. The white land areas exceed the wet-bulb limit at which researchers calculated humans would experience a potentially lethal level of heat stress. (Purdue University graphic/Matthew Huber)
This map shows the maximum wet-bulb temperatures reached in a climate model from a high carbon dioxide emissions future climate scenario with a global-mean temperature 12 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than 2007. The white land areas exceed the wet-bulb limit at which researchers calculated humans would experience a potentially lethal level of heat stress. (Purdue University graphic/Matthew Huber)

There are many parts of the earth we cannot live on without artificial support including the oceans, the poles, mountaintops and deserts. In a recent blog I suggested that many parts of the now inhabited earth areas will be made uninhabitable when the wet bulb temperature approaches 35 degrees (see below). The wet bulb temperature is explained here.

In a paper  published in 2010 Steven Sherwood of the University of NSW, stated: “prolonged wet-bulb temperatures above 95 degrees (Fahrenheit) would be intolerable after a matter of hours…The wet-bulb limit is basically the point at which one would overheat even if they were naked in the shade, soaking wet and standing in front of a large fan… Although we are very unlikely to reach such temperatures this century, they could happen in the next…Wet-bulb temperature estimates provide upper limits on the ability of people to cool themselves by sweating and otherwise dissipating this heat. In order for the heat dissipation process to work, the surrounding air must be cooler than the skin, which must be cooler than the core body temperature. The cooler skin is then able to absorb excess heat from the core and release it into the environment. If the wet-bulb temperature is warmer than the temperature of the skin, metabolic heat cannot be released and potentially dangerous overheating can ensue depending on the magnitude and duration of the heat stress.”

Sherwood’s reference that we were unlikely to reach wet bulb temperatures until next century may have been referring to large areas being made uninhabitable by this process. But in May 2016 Robert Scribbler reported that in places near the India Pakistan border the dry bulb temperatures topped 50 degrees and nearer the coast approached the crucial wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees. These temperatures caused a substantial number of heat stress casualties and fatalities across northern India. Pakistan had similar high wet bulb temperatures in 2015 with similar outcomes.

Approximately 40% of earth’s population – more than 3 billion people – live in the tropics. Likewise about one third of Australia lies within this highly vulnerable area. With each degree climate change warms the earth there is 7% more moisture in the atmosphere. Those areas where highest wet bulb temps have so far been recorded are in the tropics or adjacent to it. A worst-case scenario map (above) by Huber accompanied the Sherwood article.

There is a problem in examining this aspect of warming in isolation and not allowing for all the other climate induced changes happening simultaneously including sea level rise, heatwaves, population movements, crop failures, droughts and many other, some as yet unrecognised, consequences. In the worst-case scenario the Australian continent, including Gippsland, becomes uninhabitable. Meanwhile there is currently a push for a new coal fired power generator in the Valley. That is a sign of madness.