Gippsland News & Views

Local Snakes and Climate Change by a Gippsland Naturalist

Highlands Copperhead (Shawn Scott)

(My blog a few weeks ago Tiger Snakes and a warming Gippsland attracted a lot of attention. Here is some feedback from a well-informed source who prefers to remain anonymous.)

Just a couple of points on your comments about snakes and climate change.

As for Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus), they have always occurred at significant altitude in places like Benambra. But according to some researchers who have studied alpine/sub alpine moss beds, tiger snakes were never seen in these beds thirty years or so ago, but now are reasonably frequently seen. The Copperhead and the Highlands Copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi) have always been the snake of these areas, but the changing climate has given the Tiger a helping hand.

However, the best reptile indicator of climate change in the Gippsland Plains is the Eastern Brown Snake (Psuedonaja textilis). They have always occurred in significant numbers in the gorges and higher valleys where they are out of the cooling easterlies, and have significant rock outcrops to retain the heat they need to hatch their eggs. The Tiger, Copperhead and Black snake give live birth to their young (viviparous), so the gravid female can move to find warm niches, but the Brown snake cannot do this, as they lay eggs (oviparous) and the locality becomes more important.

In the 40 years I have been in this area, I have noticed a significant increase in sightings of Brown Snakes in the past 15 years on the Gippsland plains, compared to when I first arrived in this area, and was very active in the field. Also, during this same period, I have noticed the disappearance of the Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) from the Gippsland Plains pasture country, and they are now only found in and around wetlands.

An excellent website on snake varieties in Gippsland can be found here.

 

A Climate Friendly Gippsland Business – Black Rainbow Printing

Charley Daniel, proprietor of Black Rainbow Printing, has been an environmental activist for most of his life. A natural part of his activism – leading by example – was the establishment of his printing business in 1987. Originally located in Gelantipy the business is now located just north of Bairnsdale at Mount Lookout. It is little known that in 2008 Black Rainbow was acknowledged as one of the top ‘environmentally responsible’ printers in the worldwide Heidelberg International Eco Printing Awards.

The business is climate friendly for a number of reasons starting with the impressive array of solar panels which powers all of Black Rainbow’s operations. Associated with this is the use of 100% recycled paper in all the operations as part of the protection of native forests. Charley was amongst those small group of heroes tirelessly advocating for the preservation of native forests long before climate change was even recognised. He is well aware of the value of these forests as a carbon store and through his management and protection of “100 acres of native forest in East Gippsland”. As a carbon sink the business is carbon negative – that is it sequests more carbon than it produces.

A selection from the long list of other climate friendly credentials on his website includes: “Australia’s first green printers, still setting international benchmarks for environmentally responsible printing”; specialising “in the use of recycled, alternative fibre and reclaimed papers and environmentally responsible stocks”; “Thoroughly research(ing) the origin of paper and the authenticity of manufacturers environmental claims”; “Fully recycle 100% of all paper waste in our paper recovery program”; “Reduce, re-use, recycle in all aspects of our business operations” and lobbying “paper manufacturers (1980’s) to supply responsible stocks resulting in first Australian availability”.

Of his recent extra activities Charley is the retiring secretary of the Gippsland Environment Group. On a personal note he has done a number of small printing jobs for me – pamphlets, posters, How to Vote and Business Cards – for my political candidacy (mostly as a ‘climate independent’) in various elections over the last few years. In this he has been competitive and generous in his time and labour.

Terrorism and Climate Change in Perspective

Temperature Anomalies Australia first week October 2015

The crimes and threats of terrorism often dominate the mainstream media in Australia. From the horrific beheadings by ISIS to the murder of journalists in Paris the publicity of these events engenders a certain amount of fear across the country. This fear is easily exploited by cynical politicians who use scare campaigns to maintain their hold on government. But these threats are illusory and the real threat – the various disastrous ramifications of climate change – is hidden on page 12 of the news or not even mentioned at all.

To put the issues in perspective the total fatalities from terrorist crimes in Australia over the last 100 years, depending on how you define ‘terrorism’ and excluding actions of the criminally insane, is a handful. This hardly compares with the fact that between 2000 and 2016 there were 35 fatalities in Australia from snakebite. In 2015 alone there were 3000 suicides, 1209 road fatalities, 4 deaths from lightning strikes and 2 from german measles. Thus the chances of you being a victim of a terrorist attack in Australia are exceedingly small. You are far more likely to be struck by lightning or bitten by a snake.

On the other hand some of the effects of climate change, including floods, drought and heatwaves, are already causing substantial fatalities around the globe. The civil war in Syria, for instance, grew out of the worst drought in its history. This extreme weather event was almost certainly exacerbated by climate change. But in Australia it is almost certainly heatwaves (and their more visible and often associated bushfires) that are currently causing the most damage to life and property.

In his Atmosphere of Hope (Text, 2015) Tim Flannery wrote: “it was only with the arrival of the twenty-first century that our shifting climate began to influence heatwaves strongly. Humanity’s first intimation of just how great a threat to health heatwaves could become arrived in the summer of 2003. Europe’s summer in that year was the hottest since records began in 1540.” In France he noted there were “15,000 heat-related deaths” and that these heatwaves could become the norm by mid-century.

A Doctors for the Environment pamphlet noted that “Heatwaves have serious effects on human health. Often referred to as a ‘silent killer ’, heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia over the past 100 years than any other natural event. For example, the heatwave that preceded the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria resulted in 374 excess deaths, in comparison to the 173 tragically killed in the fires themselves. Across southeast Australia, the 2009 heatwave resulted in a total of nearly 500 excess deaths.”

At the moment there is great difficulty in attributing any particular extreme weather event to climate change but if the warming influence adds just a few degrees to the heatwave this can mean all the difference between a few and a very large number of fatalities. We can conclude that a substantial number of these heatwave deaths have been caused by climate change – certainly far more than terrorism. It goes without saying that Gippsland and the south-east are in the firing line with the threat of these heatwaves. And if the media – both mainstream and local – have an ‘elephant in the room’ this is it.

The Nuclear Energy Dead End

(Wikipedia)

I must declare my bias when writing on this subject as during the 1980s I was heavily involved in local peace politics and the People for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1984 I was the candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in Gippsland and concerned with the association between weaponry and the waste generated by nuclear power stations (locally though I campaigned on the threat of a ‘nuclear winter’). Whilst there are many issues associated with nuclear power (including major accidents at Chernobyl and Fukishima) from the perspective of climate change there are two main questions to be asked. Can it be done quickly and is the process carbon neutral?

The answer to the first question is definitely no. Any nuclear power plant started today would still be at least 25 years away from producing electricity. The Nimby movement (not in my back yard) in this instance is incredibly powerful. When nuclear power options were briefly considered by the Howard government it soon became apparent that the opposition would be immense to any nuclear power station located in the preferred localities – on French Island or in Gippsland. By comparison the whole gamut of renewable energy options, even pumped hydro, can be done relatively quickly.

The other aspect, that nuclear power is carbon neutral and therefore the ‘green’ power of the future also does not hold water. Many aspects of the nuclear energy cycle are carbon intensive including the various mining, concentration, processing and transport processes. The building of these plants requires huge amounts of concrete with large amounts of emissions embodied in their construction. It has been estimated that even with a high grade of Uranium ore the nuclear energy process in terms of emissions is still two to three times that of the various renewable energy options. This, however, does not apply to apply to operating nuclear power plants which in terms of emissions are far better than fossil fuels.

But nuclear energy has already lost the battle with wind and solar. Like coal it is yesterday’s energy source. The ‘nuclear fusion’ pipe dream where energy is so abundant it is free is sometimes raised in the social media but no such commercial generator exists on earth. Solar energy – produced by nuclear fusion in a safely remote source – is already approaching the free energy dream. Solar panels can be erected now whilst nuclear, and even coal plants, are many years down track. With the climate emergency rapidly approaching we need to get to zero emissions as quickly as possible. Thus we need technology that is readily available, can be installed now and producing tomorrow. Nuclear is not the answer.

The KISS Principle and Climate Change

It is helpful to apply the KISS principle (an acronym for “keep it simple stupid”) to climate change. The complexity of the climate change problem can be overwhelming with half a dozen peer-reviewed articles being published on a daily basis in creditable journals around the world. This complexity enables those vested interests to easily confuse, or at least placate, the ‘man in the street’. The general public also commonly confuses weather and climate and often uses the occasional record cold extreme weather event as an argument that climate change is not occurring. This confusion extends to large sections of the mainstream media and the social media where graphs and statistics are used to create doubt and confusion.

But the KISS principle is applicable here. Basic physics plus a small amount of logic, is all you need. The physics is, of course, the greenhouse effect where trace gases in our atmosphere – identified in 1857 as carbon dioxide and methane – help keep the earth warm. It may come as a surprise to many but without the greenhouse effect the earth would be a ball of ice. Knowledge of the greenhouse effect has been around for nearly two centuries and is as established as anything in science can be. The next part is simple logic. If we increase these gases in our atmosphere then the earth will get warmer and if they are reduced it will get cooler. This cause and effect has been verified by numerous studies of ice cores.

That human activity has been increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also fairly evident with the burning fossil fuels – coal and petroleum – since the industrial revolution. The combustion process where coal (carbon) combines with the air (oxygen) to produce the gas (carbon dioxide) and energy (heat) is the only other science required. To verify this stations at Mauna Loa and Cape Grim have measured the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last 70 years.

The science and the observations can be summarised in a few words. By burning fossil fuels we are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which in turn is warming the planet. That is all you need to know. It does not matter if a News Corps journo denies climate change, or someone with lots of letters after their name trots out an essay to prove the earth is getting colder, because what they are saying conflicts with basic physics and is therefore wrong. The brief article above on global warming conforms to the KISS principle. It was published in a country New Zealand newspaper in 1912.

Petitions and Pledges

I have signed many petitions in my lifetime and the signing of pledges and petitions has been a common and easily carried out political activity. I have always had some doubt about the efficacy of petitions but they were probably far more effective when they were a done by pen and paper requiring name and address and a real signature. They were also probably more effective when they were about local and specific matters. The proliferation of online petitions on almost every conceivable subject has also meant that they can be generally ignored by the body or administration they are directed at. Consequently I only rarely sign them. At best they should be considered as only one action in a ‘bag of tools’ for the climate activist.

A petition can be loosely defined as a statement to a higher authority by the signatories requesting that some form of action be carried out – for example the changing or abolition of a law. Petitions carry a lot more weight when they are signed by prominent citizens and they usually attract a certain amount of publicity in the mainstream media when this occurs. When they have significant financial backing large advertisements with lists of the signatories are often place in newspapers. Frequently they are also published as letters to the editor in the same paper. Such actions are combined to maximise publicity for the cause. The only other time a petition attracts notice is when it is signed by an exceptionally large number of people. Having said all that I am a signatory, and strong supporter of, of the Climate Emergency Declaration Petition.

A pledge on the other hand is a different matter. It can be signed by a few, by many or even one. Rather than requiring action or changes from the higher authority it is a statement by the signatory declaring how he or she will alter, modify, or carry out their activities. By their nature pledges are few and far between whilst petitions are common. I have signed two pledges in the last twenty years or so. The first was a commitment to make a political campaign ‘carbon neutral’ where estimated carbon dioxide produced when campaigning was offset by tree plantings. Since I was the only person signing the ‘pledge’ I made it official in a statuary declaration.

The main pledge done recently was a science pledge drawn from a book by Shawn Otto which basically stated that the signatory would act on the best scientific advice and knowledge. I submitted the ‘science pledge’ to all 39 candidates in last year’s council elections. Six candidates signed the pledge including my own. None were initially elected but one of the signatories Jackson Roberts was later elected after a resignation.

It is clear that if all our elected representatives signed a science pledge then reason and logic would triumph over ‘fake’ news (read lies and distortions). If a large number of them signed the Climate Emergency Declaration we might then get some of the action on climate change that is urgently required.

Tiger Snakes and a warming Gippsland

(aecvets.com)

Sad stories of tiger snake fatalities (at least 2) are doing the rounds of Bairnsdale at the moment. As well there was a piece last week in the Bairnsdale Advertiser where an unlucky dog owner lost two of her dogs to tiger snake bites. In a way snakes are a natural hazard of our town. The Mitchell River is probably like a super highway for them. As well for most of the river’s passage it is lined with scrub or bush. Even in town suitable snake habitat exists alongside the popular walking track between the two bridges – much of it in the process of restoration and revegetation by the admirable efforts of the Bairnsdale Urban Landcare Group.

After nearly 40 years of living in remote locations in the foothills of the high country I have had some experience with a number of different snake varieties. In Ensay the main species was the relatively docile, but still venomous, red bellied black snake. However towards the end of my stay there browns (possibly copperheads) were more frequently seen. Only once in that time did I see a tiger snake in Ensay and it had obviously been brought down from the high country or the bush in a flooded Little River. Conversely when in the high country it was the tiger that was most frequently come across. The other thing of note was that there was a sort of unofficial competition amongst locals as to the first snake siting in the spring – usually during the AFL finals series.

I have written at some length about the Grey Headed Flying Fox occupation of the riverside near the junction of McCulloch and Riverine Streets and suggested that the occupation and size of the colony may have been influenced by climate change. See here and here. The point of this is that climate change is obviously affecting all life on the planet. Most of the results of these effects remain unrecorded or unrecognised. My anecdotal history of snakes in the Ensay district suggests that the ranges of the different species may be changing. Warming winters will have some effect on the length of period of hibernation. Likewise these venomous species may become more active and for longer periods as our climate warms.

Recently I witnessed a kangaroo travelling at speed down one of our suburban roads towards Main Street. It was obviously both lost and terrified, and had most likely come from the bush beside the river. This sighting undoubtedly is a rarity but I fear the visits to our streets and gardens by the tiger snake will become more common as Gippsland warms.

 

Our Pollies Legacy and Climate Change

Witnessing the nonsensical and disgraceful behaviour of some – even many – of our politicians often leaves me shaking my head in disbelief. How can they continue their actions against any efforts to ameliorate the threat of climate change? A threat that has been evident for the last thirty years and more so over time with increasing clarity? What motivates them to continue their aggressive rear-guard action against all attempts to mitigate global warming?

It is hard to believe that a good meal ticket is much more than a small part of this consideration for professional politicians obviously want to stay in power, and failing that, hold their own seats for as long as possible. Many of this ilk are promoted beyond their level of competence (the Peter Principle) including recent Prime Ministers. There is also personal ambition, with its associated power and ephemeral fame.

But this is all delusory as politicians are soon forgotten. Asked to name a politician before 1939 only a few spring to mind such as Bob Menzies (Pig Iron Bob) and Billy Hughes (a Labour Rat). They are usually remembered for their mistakes rather than any beneficial action. The legacy of our politicians in the post war era is not much better. Harold Holt is recalled for his spectacular demise, Gough Whitlam for the end of conscription and Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and John Howard for his gun laws (reactive but necessary).

It has been clear for many years to anyone who bothered to study the evidence and was not swayed by lobbyists or pressure groups that our region, state and nation have to wean ourselves off all fossil fuel as quickly as possible. Whilst the brown coal generators are the obvious targets in Gippsland, this also includes our logging industry, offshore oil and gas and notably onshore gas and the fracking process.

It is also clear that a large number of extra fatalities have been caused by extreme weather events – notably heatwaves and bushfires. If the extra morbidity statistics of the heatwave that preceded Black Saturday are added to the fire casualties we have a figure of over 500 deaths directly caused by this one extreme event. Events like this have been made more frequent and more severe by climate change. But it is not yet possible to attribute an accurate figure as to how many of these Black Saturday deaths were caused by climate change.

And what of the politicians? Either in their ignorance, laziness, reluctance to change, being seen to ‘toe the line’ or in deference to their paymasters, the fossil fuel industry, they continue their rear-guard actions. As I have frequently stated these actions are bordering on criminal negligence. At best history will not treat them kindly. At worst they will he hated and reviled. Their legacy is already in tatters.

Community Renewable Energy Meeting in Bairnsdale

The second meeting to discuss various community renewable energy proposals for the East Gippsland Shire’s ‘Bright Futures’ program was held in Bairnsdale on Tuesday night (17.10). Co-ordinator Martin Richardson gave a summary of the work done so far. He emphasised that they were concentrating on projects that were feasible and could be implemented at short notice. This excluded most large-scale projects that required substantial organisation and planning such as wind farms. This narrowed the options down to rooftop solar.

The results of the “Bright Futures” renewable energy survey were summarised. It was pointed out that the survey was biased in favour solar with about half the 250 odd respondents having rooftop solar on their residences. Even so 88% want the shire to turn to renewable energy and 76% support the region moving to renewables. Martin also reported that Shire councillors were enthusiastic about the progress so far.

Consultant Rob Passey presented a more technical report outlining a range of choices within the “solar strategy”.  These included solar panel ‘bulk buys’ to bring down the price of panels, assistance to low income earners to overcome the high capital cost of installation (a targeted form of loan being gradually implemented across the state), and importantly, helping businesses struggling with large power bills.

Using donations to finance solar arrays on community and private buildings was also considered, as was the option for locals to invest in local renewable projects. In the case of the latter Rob thought the “Repower Shoalhaven” model the best to adopt. He also emphasised the need to adopt projects that can be implemented quickly with a strong effect on local employment. He preferred projects of a small scale as the best means of reducing greenhouse gases, and mentioned the whole shire could retain up to $11 million with widespread adoption of renewable energy.

I support the adoption of the ‘Repower Shoalhaven’ model or something similar as a financial means of dramatically boosting the adoption of solar energy. The ingredients are all here: an aging population most likely to have savings which are generally earning a very low rate of return, a community that is generally enthusiastic towards renewable energy, high power prices, and a demand for rooftop solar by individuals and businesses that is restricted by lack of finances.

What is needed is local organisation, done for instance by the Shire or a bank, to arrange this. The East Gippsland ‘Solar Bonds” should be secured, guaranteed to be invested locally in renewable energy projects and offer a return on investment slightly above bank interest. My savings sit in term deposits that, for all I know, are financing the urban sprawl or, worse, a coal mine in Queensland. I will gladly invest in these ‘Solar Bonds’.

 

Urgent Action on Climate Change and our Politicians

In my last blog I was critical of the Victorian Labor government and their defence of ‘status quo’ forestry operations. My conclusion was that there were enough holes in the Kyoto forestry rules to ‘drive a truck through’ and that the government, probably with some union support, was using these loopholes to claim forestry operations in Victoria were a ‘carbon sink’ – something that anyone familiar with logging operations could easily see was false. The problem with both major parties is that a substantial number of their elected members do not understand the global warming threat or how urgent action is required. They are, at best, happy to play by the rules with perhaps token actions.

Labor’s predicament can be clearly seen with its support at both a Federal and State level for the Adani mine in Queensland. No politician who understands the warming threat – that further fossil fuel use will make the warming worse – can even consider such a proposal. Understanding the dire nature of the threat – that it is existential and already an emergency – means we have to transition from the use of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.

At the other extreme we have a most enlightened SA government (also Labor) that, as it has recently been reported,  if it was a separate country would be the world’s leader in the adoption of renewable energy and innovative technology of the future. Victoria is following SA with support for a number of wind and solar projects but still clings to the brown coal generators and outmoded forestry practices which as I have said indicates a level of ignorance of, or unwillingness to cope with, the problem.

Almost nothing has been said of the largest and most immediate benefit of saving carbon dioxide emissions through energy efficiency as it is not something that the pollies can easily sell. The same is also true with ‘demand response’ where energy users are paid not to use energy when there is peak demand. Batteries and energy storage can help facilitate the latter.

Whilst the reactionaries – many Liberals and most of the Nationals – and others still cling to the idea of ‘clean coal’, and even nuclear energy, their window of opportunity has long passed. Both wind and solar are now cheaper than these energy sources with the huge advantage that they can built in a very short period of time and their fuel is free and emits no greenhouse gases. This is exactly what the climate emergency requires. We should be covering the available flat surfaces of all our cities with solar panels in large and small projects, on rooftops, carparks, roads and dams.