Gippsland News & Views

Gippsland Hot, Dry and Burning

The news is just in from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) that Australia has just experienced its hottest summer since records began (see here and here). Not only were the records beaten they were ‘smashed’ by 2 degrees above the long term average. It comes as no surprise, as the BOM map indicates, that all of Gippsland (except for the far south west around Grant and Wonthaggi) experienced a record breaking summer.

Also Australia wide rainfall was 30% below average “making it the driest summer since 1982-83, a season affected by a strong El Nino event.” The summer rainfall map for Gippsland is more complicated with a most of the region experiencing a rainfall deficiency with an area in south Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley experiencing a ‘severe deficiency’. Only in the far-east, Cann River to Mallacoota, was average summer rainfall received. It must be remembered that this is for summer rainfall only and consequently most of the region remains in drought. I have commented on this recently here.

The current bushfires across Gippsland from Bunyip to Dargo and in the Strzeleckis near Yinnar combined with the early autumn low intensity heatwave felt across most of the region are indicative of how dry it is. But I have yet to see a media article that mentions the planet warming or the words ‘climate change’ in association with either the fires, the unusual warmth or the dry. Like the ‘Timbarra’ these bushfires will continue to burn for some time and may await substantial rain to put them out completely. It is of more than passing interest that the region has experienced bushfires across the last four seasons – from the winter bushfire at Cape Conran to those currently burning.

And unfortunately the autumn outlet is not looking promising. We have entered the season with low intensity heatwave temperatures and the BOM predictions for the eastern half of the continent are for a below average rainfall in autumn. For Gippsland the predicted chances of exceeding ‘median’ rainfall are low – in the 25-30% range.

Action to combat global warming poses a dilemma for whatever we do now is not going to solve anything in the short term. But by doing nothing or making tokenistic efforts, or worse still fiddling our carbon accounts, we can be sure that it will get worse and worse and worse – hotter and dryer with the occasional catastrophic bushfire or drought breaking flood thrown in. That we are in a climate emergency has been apparent for some time.

Bogong Moth another victim of climate change?

A recent statement by ecologist John Morgan on twitter alerted us to the possible demise of the iconic Bogong moth. He stated “Another beautiful evening in the Victorian Alps. But not a Bogong Moth to be seen……..for the 2nd year running. Once in their tens of millions (indeed it was often newsworthy), their failure to arrive in the alps to aestivate has almost gone unnoticed.”

This was closely followed by a Guardian article by Graham Readfearn that noted the direct connection between climate change exacerbated drought in their breeding grounds and the drastic drop in their numbers. “The ecologist Dr Ken Green has been monitoring bogong moths for 40 years. He said: “Last summer numbers were atrocious. It was not just really bad, it was the worst I had ever seen. Now this year it’s got even worse.”

“The moths find caves and cracks in boulders to hide away in a torpor state. A cave at Mount Gingera, near Canberra, has been known to house millions of the moths but last month Green and colleagues counted just three individuals. Searches of about 50 known sites have turned up similar catastrophic absences. They haven’t just declined. They’ve gone…”  The article also emphasised the impact that this was having on the endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum – heavily dependent on the moth as a food source.

Wikipedia notes that “The bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) is a temperate species of night-flying moth, notable for its biannual long-distance seasonal migrations towards and from the Australian Alps, similar to the diurnal monarch butterfly. During the autumn and winter it is found in southern Queensland, western New South Wales, western Victoria… Adult bogong moths breed and larvae hatch during this period, consuming winter pasture plants during their growth. During the spring, the moths migrate south or east and reside in mountains such as Mount Bogong, where they gregariously aestivate over the summer until their return towards breeding grounds again in the autumn.”

Of some interest is a review I recently posted of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior – an account of how the changing climate messed up the aestivation and migration of the monarch butterfly. Now it appears as though some of the bizarre fictional accounts are being realised in our own backyard, with the bogong moth a species with a similar life cycle to the monarch.

Like the recent dreadful mortalities amongst Bairnsdale’s flying-fox colony, the plight of the bogong moth is another wake-up call – another ‘canary in the coal mine’ – that tells us urgent action is required on climate change now. I hope to do a follow up post on this in the next few weeks.

Jane Morton to speak in Bairnsdale

Jane Morton, author of Don’t Mention the Emergency: making the case for emergency climate action will be speaking in Bairnsdale on Tuesday March 19 (see here for full details). Jane “is a clinical psychologist, who worked for 30 years in public sector mental health services. She is the lead author of a book on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and a number of consultants reports to the Victorian government. Five years ago, she went into semi-retirement to campaign on the climate emergency. She is convenor of Darebin Climate Action Now, and active in the Australian campaign to declare a climate emergency.”

In her introduction she notes that “Recently, climate experts have started talking about a new category of threat: not just ‘dangerous’, or even ‘catastrophic’, but ‘existential’ – a threat that could annihilate most people on earth” and that the current warming we are experiencing is not safe. “Even the current level of warming (just over one degree) is clearly far from safe: extreme weather is increasing, ice caps are melting, and coral reefs are dying.”

The need for emergency action is not reaching the public. “Time is running out to address the climate emergency, but there remains a vast gulf between what political leaders and the media say, and the truth. The most frequently heard message is that staying under two degrees of warming will keep us safe, and that gradual emissions reductions of around 26% (Coalition) or 45% (Labor) represent ‘our fair share’ of the challenge. The catastrophic risks are not explained and the speed and scale of action required is massively understated.”

There is a need for “leaders to step up, but they must hear a clear, strong emergency message coming from all sides before they will be willing to lead the public on emergency action.”

Organiser of the event Ro Gooch stated: “The aim of the meeting is to help inform people and to discuss ways we can help both locally and globally.” Ro heard Jane recently speak at the Sustainability Festival and invited her to speak in Bairnsdale. Hopefully the audience will include local councillors and representatives of the media, as well as a cross-section of the general public. A full report will follow the meeting.

Senate Estimates and the Star of the South by Pat Simons

Australia could soon be home to the world’s largest offshore wind farm, with the 2GW Star of the South proposed off Victoria’s Gippsland coast in June 2017.  But more than 18 months later, the federal Coalition government remains quiet about the proposal despite receiving departmental recommendations, as revealed in Senate estimates yesterday.

Answering questions from ALP Senator Anthony Chisholm in Senate estimates during the final sitting days of Parliament, the Department of Environment and Energy revealed it has made a recommendation to the Energy Minister as part of a briefing about the project. The decision now rests with Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

In order to proceed to the first stage of detailed planning processes to properly assess wind resource and any possible environmental impacts, the project requires an exploration license from the federal government. The obvious question is why the delay?

If it goes ahead the Star of the South offshore wind farm could create as many as 2,000 direct jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs, and avoid up to 10.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector every year. The prospect of powering as much as 20% of Victoria with clean energy shows that Star of the South could be a game changer for action on climate change. Not only that, at a time when the federal Coalition insists it is squarely focused on reducing power prices, it is bizarre that the Morrison government appears to be delaying a landmark renewable energy project that would bring on new electricity supply.

We’re calling on the Energy Minister to:

1. Immediately provide a status update on the Star of the South Energy Project.

2. Approve the requisite exploration license so the project can undertake detailed ecological, social and economic assessment.

3. Clarify his position on the role of wind energy technology in Australia’s electricity grid as part of action on climate change.

Original article here.

Strategic Voting, Climate Independents and the Federal Election

Former Nationals leader spruiking coal (ABC)

Climate Independent candidates for the approaching federal election are coming ‘out of the woodwork’ on a regular basis now. Some very high profile candidates – Zali Steggall in Warringah, Oliver Yates in Kooyong – are already campaigning strongly and getting publicity in the main stream media. There are also some climate independents with a high local profile getting onto the bandwagon. I believe that there are two climate candidates in the seat of Mallee. We await further climate independents – preferably high profile – to appear in the seats of climate change deniers Joyce (New England) Kelly (Hughes) and Andrews (Menzies).

Having a large number of climate independents is a great first step. On its own it will help push the election towards a referendum on climate change. It is of note that some candidates are far more ‘progressive’ on the climate solutions than Labor. Steggalls for instance wants Labor to drop any support for Adani. Many of these candidates accept that there is a climate emergency. Their high profile and public support means the media – even News Corp – are obliged to give them some coverage. This will also give momentum to the climate referendum.

Voting strategically is not new to Australians. They have been doing it for many years with first the Democrats and then more recently with the Greens. This has mainly involved switching votes from one party to another between the lower and upper houses. Only occasionally it has helped elect an independent in the lower house. And in these instances it has almost always involved splitting the conservative vote as in the case of Kerryn Phelps and the recent Wentworth by-election.

For the climate independent to succeed two critical factors are involved – reducing the incumbent’s primary vote to 45% or below and garnering enough primary votes to come second in the contest. This will involve ‘strategic’ voting by Labor and Greens supporters who, for a number of reasons, may cast their primary vote for the climate independent. The remainder – ‘rusted on’ voters of these parties – must direct their preferences away from the incumbent to the climate independent.

I don’t hold out much hope for this in Gippsland but it would be nice for climate independents to step up in the Gippsland and Monash electorates to help focus our region on the real issues that confront us. On a national scale the election of one or more climate independents and the removal of some of the climate dinosaurs will be a big step towards a common sense approach towards the climate emergency.

Latrobe Valley Coal to Hydrogen Farce Continues

Edited Media Release from Friends of the Earth (FOE) 15.02.19

Environment group FOE has criticized the Environment Protection Authority’s (EPA) decision to approve a trial brown coal to hydrogen project in Latrobe Valley* on the 14th of February as a costly distraction from action on climate change.

The project is led by the multinational corporation Kawasaki Heavy Industries. It involves building a test plant to extract hydrogen from brown coal from the Loy Yang to be exported to Japan. This trial project requires the dredging of Westernport to enable the export of the hydrogen from the Port of Hastings, and the injecting of carbon-waste into the seabed off Ninety Mile Beach using unproven and risky technology. “Kawaski’s brown coal project is yet another clean coal pipe-dream, a false-promise to the Latrobe Valley community and an expensive distraction in a time when we need urgent action on climate change,” FOE coal spokesperson Kate Wattchow said.

The Federal Government has committed $50 million in public funding to Kawasaki’s trail project, in addition to $100 million towards CarbonNet, who are leading the proposed carbon-waste injection project. “This project is entirely dependent on the successful injection and long term storage of carbon waste into the Ninety Mile Beach seabed, yet despite billions of dollars of investment in this technology it has failed to become viable in Australia,” campaigns coordinator Cam Walker from FOE said.

“Any assurance from advocates for this new brown coal project is not based on the evidence we see across Australia, which is that waste-carbon injection technology is not reliable. In Western Australia Chevron started a new gas plant in 2016 with the commitment they would be storing a majority of emissions, to keep Australia in line with its Paris Agreement targets. However in their continued failure to do so by March this year we will have roughly 6.2 million tonnes of extra CO2 added to Australia’s emissions. Because of this, the State Government and EPA’s approval of Kawasaki’s brown coal project is not in line with their own policies and standards.”

“The fact that the EPA has approved this project reveals a significant flaw in the approval process, as well as a disregard of the viability of the technologies involved and the impacts on the community of even a trial project,” Kate Wattchow said.

The coal to hydrogen trial plant in Latrobe Valley, the connected port expansions in Westernport, and the carbon-waste trial project on Ninety Mile Beach, are all opposed by local community groups. Opposition is broad ranging, though all groups share common themes of opposition based on the impacts on human health and the local environment, the need to act on climate change, and the wasteful spending of public funds.

“We are in a climate emergency and cannot afford to waste public funds, resources, and time with projects that prop up the fossil fuel industry,” Kate Wattchow said. “The EPA and Premier Andrews have a responsibility to Victorians to stop twiddling their thumbs and get serious about climate change.”

The full MR is here.

*I have blogged on this several times. See here and here.

The East Gippsland Dry Continues

Tambo River stopped at Bark Sheds (image Lilli Antonoff)

Despite some good showers in Bairnsdale over summer the East Gippsland dry continues. How far it extends into central and south Gippsland I am not aware and without ploughing through the rainfall records I can only assume that it is still fairly dire across Gippsland but with a green flush in many places from the latest rain. The large bushfires that have burned at Rosedale, Walhalla and Timbarra over the last month indicate that the dry is still widespread across our region although they, too, have been subdued by the recent storms.

Another indicator of the dry may be water for irrigation. The Southern Rural Water website states “When river, creek and groundwater levels drop, Southern Rural Water often has to introduce rosters, restrictions or bans to ensure a fair distribution of available water to all licence holders.” I have been informed that irrigation on the Mitchell River may be “about to be banned” and that it is currently at Stage 9 – one step before a total ban.

Other anecdotal accounts abound.  Some farmers in the Swifts Creek district have been feeding out for 2 years although they have had some good summer rain. Lake Bunga at Lakes Entrance is almost as low as it can be without bursting out into the ocean and draining completely. The latter has only occurred 3 times in the last 30 years after periods of very heavy rainfall. It is also very salty indicating substantial water loss through evaporation.

This illustrates part of the problem of summer rainfall – that much more moisture is lost to evaporation and thus greater rainfall is required to make an impression on soil moisture. The rainfall is also often via storms which can result in heavy falls in some areas but varies substantially from place to place. Some time ago I was informed that parts of Glenaladale had missed most of the summer rains although hopefully they got some in the last dump.

Climate change predictions have been clear for many years; that the droughts we experience will be longer and more severe, and that they will often be broken by short periods of heavy rainfall causing floods. Such was the lot of the Omeo district in 1998. And if we need a reminder of what a grand disaster of this sort is like look to western Queensland now.

More on Bairnsdale’s Bat Die-off

A trailer load of carcases (image Shelly Nundra)

Our local throwaway the East Gippsland News (EGN) headlined the recent flying-fox die-off on the front page of the January 30 edition with ‘Bats overcome by Heat’. The EGN quoted police sources that the “incident had been declared a ‘natural emergency’” and that the “bats are diseased”.  Its emphasis was on a ‘natural emergency’ and ‘natural event’. An opponent of the Bairnsdale colony was interviewed without balance from Bairnsdale Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland group. There was no mention of the fact that clear-fell logging had reduced both their roosting sites and food supply. Climate change was not mentioned.

There is some basis of fact in the official statements and actions both with regards the ‘natural’ aspect of the event and ‘disease’. But both are misleading in the extreme and the die-off could at no stage be classified as a ‘human’ or ‘natural’ emergency. The police statement implied that all the bats were ‘diseased’ when in fact less than 1% of the bats in Australia carry the lyssavirus and as far as I am aware it has never been detected in the bats in the Bairnsdale colony. Further a bat carrying the virus has to bite someone to transfer the virus.

The probability of a death occurring as a result of lyssavirus from a bat is therefore extremely small and can hardly be called an ‘emergency’. The total number of known fatalities from lyssavirus in Australia is exactly three. So you have a far greater chance of being struck by lightning. On the other hand the increasing number of heatwaves making inroads into the flying-fox colonies are also killing humans. The heatwave that preceded and included Black Saturday caused an extra 370 fatalities in south-east Australia, some of whom, no doubt, were resident in Gippsland. So where is the real emergency to be found?

Whether the heatwave that caused the die-off was ‘natural’ is another matter. Whilst again it is true that we have had heatwaves before with climate change we are now experiencing them as longer, hotter and more frequent events. The temperature at which the bats begin to die is 42 degrees C. For human beings the temperatures at which we begin to die is less, especially when a heatwave over a number of days includes exceptionally high overnight minimum temperatures which prevents the body from recovering from the daytime heat. These temperatures are dry bulb temperatures.

I have written elsewhere in some detail about wet bulb temperatures. The thermometer that measures these temperatures has a wet cloth wrapped around the bulb and essentially it measures times of high temperatures with exceptionally high humidity. We start dying at wet bulb temperatures of about 30 degrees. Above 37 degrees because the body is unable to cool itself by sweating we all die without artificial cooling.

So the threat to human health is via climate change and the tragic demise of the Bairnsdale bats is another warning that our warming planet is more than an environmental problem or a ‘natural emergency’. It is an existential one. Whether we like it or not we are already in a climate emergency.

Greenhouse – the Monash 1987 Conference

In 1987 the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics held a conference at Monash University on the greenhouse effect. Entitled “Greenhouse 87: Planning for Climate Change” the papers presented to the conference were published in a volume edited by G.I. Pearman Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change (CSIRO 1988). This volume went to 752pages and there were 260 attendees at the conference. Over 100 papers were presented by prominent scientists including Barrie Pittock, David Karoly, Eric Bird and Pearman himself.

The title of Pearman’s lead paper was “Greenhouse gases: evidence for atmospheric changes and anthropogenic causes” and he noted all the papers were “refereed and revised”. Importantly the conference was opened by Barry Jones then Minster for Science in the Hawke government. Beyond noting that there was a science minister, the most important aspect of Jones opening the conference is that knowledge of the threat posed by global warming went to the highest level of government. Thirty years later a climate change denying coalition still conducts a rear-guard action against the science.

But much else has changed in those 30 years. The evidence from a wide variety of sources confirms many of these early predictions and most emphatically the basic physics of the greenhouse effect.  Only a few mercenary journalists in the columns of the Australian and other Murdoch publications, some politicians in reactionary think tanks and a coterie of social media activists carry on their campaigns of denying both the basic science and the accumulated and overwhelming evidence of a warming planet that is now available.

As computer power has increased exponentially climate models have become more sophisticated and this remains a work in progress. One recent advance has been the science of ‘climate attribution’ or working out the likelihood of an extreme weather event occurring with and without climate change. This is done by running computers through a number of variables millions of times.  Also more sophisticated communications and the rise of the social media has meant that reasonably accurate information can be readily dispersed although the bogie of ‘false news’ (read climate denial propaganda) sometimes confuses the issue.

The point remains that the basics of the greenhouse effect have been known for well over a century and that has not changed. The failure of the media (with one or two exceptions) to join the dots and alert the public to this dire threat is paramount. That a number of concerted and mostly well financed campaigns continue to deny the science, confuse the public and importantly delay political attempts at tackling the problem is criminally negligent.

‘Canaries in the Coalmine’: Bairnsdale’s bat deaths

(image Shelly Nundra)

The tragic news of the loss of one third of the grey headed flying-fox colony in Bairnsdale – due to the excessive heat of Friday 25th when the maximum temperature of 45.8 was just short of the record* – was widely reported across the media. This included mainstream media reports in the Guardian, the Age and the ABC through to a front page header in the local throwaway, the East Gippsland News.

Of all the reports I have read only ABC Gippsland journalist Emma Field mentioned climate change as a contributing factor. She tweeted: “More than 2,000 flying foxes die from heat stress in eastern Victoria. I read a flying fox expert [who] calls these events the ‘canary is the coal mine’ for climate change.” The tweet was a link to her online article on the event which unfortunately did not include any reference to climate change or the ‘flying fox expert’.

The implications of Field’s ‘canary in the coal mine’ quote are not spelled out and the expert she is referring to is Justin Welbergen.** Welbergen used the metaphor in the title of his 2014 conference paper “Canaries in the coalmine: flying-foxes and extreme heat events in a warming climate”.  The paper dealt in detail with the overwhelming evidence of global warming and how this increased the likelihood of extreme hot days occurring.

The paper stated that “The probability that a grey-headed flying-fox will encounter temperatures greater than 42C has increased almost three-fold since the 1970s” and that besides climate change, man-made factors threatening flying-fox populations included “ongoing loss of foraging and roosting habitat”. As well as adversely affecting our carbon store the intensive clear fell logging practiced in Gippsland for the last 50 years has also severely restricted the flying-fox options of food and home.

Welbergen also confirmed that “Beyond 42C thermoregulatory mechanisms become overwhelmed and individuals begin to die” and that “There is little doubt that as summers become hotter [with global warming] die-offs will become more frequent and widespread.” Finally he noted that “Flying-fox die-offs are particularly conspicuous events” and that “heat related die-offs have been reported in other fauna including koalas…”

The original ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphor was a practical way for coal miners to protect their safety. The dead canary was an advanced warning of danger. As used by Welbergen the metaphor, exemplified in the current die-off, is an otherwise unspoken warning to Gippslanders and all humanity. It is we who are being warned. If climate change can decimate the flying-fox populations we almost certainly will be next.

* record maximum temperature 46.2 on Black Saturday (7.2.09)

** I have Lisa Roberts of Bairnsdale Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland group to thank for providing me with the Justin Welbergen paper. An earlier paper published by the Royal Society can be found here.