Gippsland News & Views

Leadership and climate change

Flannery portrait

To my mind the main attribute of leadership is doing something first and bringing your followers with you. It is a far more difficult task than people imagine. Often it is a very long process, and often for the leader, a very lonely one. My grandfather, a grocery store manager, was the first to introduce a self-service grocery in Victoria after the Second World War. It was a failure. Fifty years later it is ubiquitous. My own experience in writing on Gippsland history has been much more satisfying but the results also a long time coming. In the early 1970s I began writing about the local indigenous tribe – the Kurnai – and the shameful and violent treatment they had received in the past. Nearly fifty years later this part of our history is generally recognised and accepted across the region. But (like my grandfather) it is unlikely that I will live to see the fruits of my own meagre efforts on Climate Change in Gippsland.

Our parliamentarians, even our prime ministers, seldom qualify as true leaders. In 2007 the Labor PM Kevin Rudd recognised climate change as the most important issue of our times but lost courage at the crucial moment when the implementation of an emissions trading scheme was defeated. (He should have called a double dissolution – over a real issue unlike the one we have just had.) Likewise our current PM continues to disappoint, seemingly a prisoner of the hard right denialist faction of his coalition. In my last blog I highlighted Margaret Thatcher as an early political leader. In America President Obama also leads though he is restrained by reactionary politics and the hugely powerful fossil fuel lobby. We exaggerate the US trends with our so-called leaders controlled and constrained by the same reactionary politics and lobby.

In science and religion leaders have been calling for concerted action on climate change for many years including James Hansen, formerly of NASA, in Australia Tim Flannery and more recently Pope Francis. Others include former business leader Ian Dunlop and former Liberal Party leader John Hewson. In the media – a crucial sector forming public opinion – leadership is largely absent with a small number of exceptions including Peter Hannam of Fairfax and a few other journalists. The main part of our print media (guess who?) remains in the denialist camp.

In Gippsland leadership is hard to find, in the media or amongst our political representatives. Shire councils are by far the most encouraging in this regard. Our local parliamentarians are either nowhere to be found on this issue (State) or still in a state of denial (Federal). It is hardly comforting to know that the laws of physics and the course of events will eventually force momentous changes. Aside from the inevitable loss of life our freedom will probably be amongst the early casualties.

Wellington Shire Council and CSG by CSG-free Maffra & District

(Gippsland Times)
(Gippsland Times)

The Wednesday 19 July Wellington Shire Council meeting was focused on the future of onshore gas mining. Prior to the meeting CSG-free Maffra noted “It is important we fill the public gallery with supporters holding signs to display the need for a permanent ban on onshore gas mining in Victoria. The Mayor, Darren McCubbin, will report on his meeting with Resources Minister, Wade Noonan and then call for comment from the gallery. With an August decision due about an onshore gas industry in Victoria, it is imperative we utilise every media opportunity to back our stance on a permanent ban of onshore gas mining.”

Darren McCubbin opened the meeting with his Mayor’s Report on discussions with Resources Minister, Wade Noonan earlier this month, to a packed public gallery. He outlined surrounding doubts on endorsing an onshore gas industry in Gippsland. His report was articulate and that of a progressive thinker, leaving Councillors to agree that there seemed little evidence an onshore gas industry would deliver economic benefits to outweigh the protection of our water and farmland.

Councillor Rossetti congratulated Darren McCubbin on, ‘The most exciting Mayor’s Report,’ he had heard in chambers, Councillor Crossley called for a ‘Permanent Ban’ and other Councillors stood to publicly announce the need for further scientific studies and an overhaul of the current regulatory framework surrounding onshore mining practices, with one Councillor announcing he would fight against an onshore gas industry.

Members from the public gallery were invited to respond before leaving the meeting to other tabled items on the agenda. Thanks echoed around the chambers. While supporters and councillors have met time and again over the past four years of the Gasfield-Free campaign, last night’s ‘on the record’ meeting has cemented a real sense of community cohesion on the issue. To have the backing of Wellington Shire Council will take us a long way in seeking a permanent ban on onshore gas mining in Gippsland.

Wednesday night’s historic Wellington Shire Council meeting is detailed via live streaming on the Council’s website. For further information contact Lorraine 0423 368 518

Why a single issue climate party is necessary

margaret-thatcher

From the moment the problem of climate change was politicised in Australia a single issue climate change party became necessary. Politicisation means division and in our political system becomes inevitably viewed as a ‘left’ versus ‘right’ contest. On the ‘left’ we have Labor with a barely creditable climate policy and on the far left we have the greens with the only policies of any credibility on climate. On the ‘right’ we have the Liberals with no policy to speak of and on the far right we have the denialists – the Abetz-Bernardi hard right faction of the Liberals, the Nationals, and now in the Senate the Hansonites. The current counting of votes makes clear that the general population is evenly divided between ‘left’ and ‘right’. What this probably means in terms of policies and positive action on climate is that little or nothing can, or will, be achieved.

In the long run the politicisation of science will be defeated and, in this case, shown as a pointless, negative and possibly a criminal exercise. But as JM Keynes pointed out ‘we are all dead in the long run’. Politicising science is absurd as I have tried to point out on many occasions. We can deny gravity or the shape of the earth till the cows come home, but it is still there. We can have an opinion on ‘climate change’ or even deny it but it makes no difference.

The then British conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a rallying call to the UN General Assembly in 1989 to act on climate change. She stated that “…the danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.” Nearly 30 years later there has been little or none of the “changes and sacrifices” that Thatcher called for. This is one rare example of a conservative politician concerned about the welfare and future of her nation and the earth, rather than personal ambition and short term political advantage.

The role of the single issue climate change party is to counter the politicisation trend and even defeat it. To do this it must garner support across the political spectrum and especially from the centre and the ‘right’. Of course rusted on denialists – which Gippsland unfortunately has more than its fair share – will never be convinced. But there must be large numbers of ordinary people who are conservative voters who are alienated by this process and who understand that something needs to be done, perhaps even urgently. When this political party begins to take large chunks of voters from the major parties, when climate change is placed to the forefront of the news, then we will see rapid and positive action.

 

Joseph Fourier (1768- 1830) and the Greenhouse effect

Fourier

If someone was to ask ‘What keeps the earth warm?’ almost all of us would answer, perhaps without thinking, ‘the sun’. In this we would either be wrong or at least only partially correct. For although the original energy source is indeed the sun what keeps the earth warm is the greenhouse effect or more accurately a blanket of gases that allow the suns energy to reach the surface of the earth but prevents it from escaping back out of the atmosphere.

The Greenhouse Effect was discovered by French mathematician Joseph Fourier in about 1820 when he calculated that given the size of the earth and the distance of the earth from the sun the average temperature should have been a lot colder than it actually was. (Some calculations have the earth about 30 degrees cooler without the presence of the greenhouse effect, about the same temperature as Mars. These temperatures would have the earth as a ball of ice making it impossible for life as we know it on the planet.) Fourier postulated that there were other insulating factors present that helped the earth retain its heat and kept it much warmer than it would otherwise be. He had discovered, though not named, the Greenhouse Effect.

The Greenhouse Effect is the main physical law underpinning the science of climate change. Since Fourier other scientists have identified the main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and methane – (Tyndall) and made calculations as to how much increasing greenhouse gases will warm the planet (Arrhenious). These experiments and calculations have been repeated and refined many times since but have generally stood the test of time.

The relevance of the greenhouse effect to climate change and to global temperatures is obvious. I use the analogy of a playground see-saw where there is a balance between greenhouse gases and global temperatures giving a nice level for human existence. The see-saw has more or less been in balance for 10,000 years in an age known as the Holocene which has seen the rise of human civilisation. The see-saw analogy shows that if you reduce greenhouse gases the temperature goes down, if you increase them the temperature goes up.

What is clear and measured is that the by burning fossil fuels we have been pouring extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution. These greenhouse gases have been accurately measured since 1957 and show a steady increase. The science states that the earth will consequently warm as measurements from major scientific bodies across the earth have also established. There can be no debate about this. It is all about how bad the consequences of global warming will be and in particular the unknown and unintended consequences. We should be urgently preparing for the worst case scenarios.

 

 

Defective Democracy and Climate Change

Tony-Abbott-bushfires-coherent-argument

David Arnault from Mirboo North started off his recent weekly climate change email newsletter with a quote from the Old Testament: “Pay attention you foolish and stupid people, who have eyes but cannot see, who have ears but cannot hear.” (Jeremiah 5:21) It started me thinking about my own rather pathetic polling in last week’s election where, despite TV adverts and regular appearances in local newspapers, I received just 1.5% of the total vote. Whilst it is tempting to attribute my failure to Jeremiah’s throng I don’t think that this is so.

It is difficult if not impossible to estimate how many in Gippsland would fit the ‘stupid’ description. Perhaps it could be equated with the informal vote. Since climate change is an existential threat – something that is already killing people now, and in worst case scenarios threatens the survival of humanity – then the vast majority of voters in Gippsland and Australia may be considered ‘foolish’. Climate Change is beyond doubt the greatest issue that mankind has ever faced and thus in Australia anyone who voted for either of the major parties may be considered foolish, but I would prefer to use the terms ill-informed and uninformed.

The ill-informed include the following: the rusted on supporters and followers of the major parties whose support is based on a trust of their leaders, and due to the failure of that leadership to actually lead and act decisively on climate change betray that trust; the readers of the Murdoch media and followers of The Australian and journalists like Andrew Bolt who, in their ignorance of the scientific process, deliberately mislead their readers – a process that is criminally negligent; those who followed the election process on the media where the major parties, and the media in general, failed to publicise or discuss this issue. In a word almost all of us.

The education system must also be considered a failure and that the vast majority of us, myself included, lack an understanding of basic science and physics leaving us uninformed in this complex situation. We also seldom apply logic to this problem or seek rational solutions for it. We know that burning coal increases global warming but are reluctant to close down an export earning coal industry. We trust the journalist and the politician when we should be trusting the scientist.

Whether we can rectify these basic deficiencies in our education and political systems is doubtful. Sadly our response will probably be reactionary. We will eventually react to catastrophic events – possibly bushfires or heatwaves – that kill large numbers of people when ‘x’ amount of these deaths is the result of global warming. Perhaps then those who attended the “meet the candidates” event in Bairnsdale may realise that their, and their children’s futures, are threatened and the issue that concerned them most on the night – same sex marriage – was of no consequence.

 

Oz votes: connecting coal and climate change

(Huffington Post)
(Huffington Post)

A Lowy Institute Poll on climate change for June 2015 found that 50% considered global warming a serious problem and 63% thought the government should commit to significant emissions reductions. But one wonders about how clearly electors think these through questions when, for instance, 13% of respondents thought that nuclear energy would be the major source of electricity in 10 years. Even if it was starting now (which of course it isn’t) any electricity at all from nuclear sources in Australia is at least 30 years down the track and 10 years is clearly impossible. One wonders what triggers a result like this – ignorance, stupidity or just wishful thinking.

A more recent Reachtel Poll (May 2016) indicated that 56.4% want government to do more on climate change and 61.9% agreed that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming, which in turn is destroying the Great Barrier Reef. The results support the general thrust from a wide variety of polls -that climate change is an important issue and that quite a large majority across all parties support the rapid adoption of renewable energy, in particular solar. However although the man in the street may be worried about global warming many still think that exporting coal is still a good idea. A large section of the public fails to make the link of cause and effect – that the burning of fossil fuels increases global warming and therefore we should endeavour to eliminate this source of greenhouse gas as quickly as possible.

The failure to make the connection between burning coal and global warming, between the development of the giant Adani coal mine and a dying Great Barrier Reef, enables the major political parties to abrogate all responsibility on this most pressing issue. It enables large sections of the media – mostly Murdoch – to continue their scurrilous denialist campaigns and anti-science propaganda. It enable politicians like Abbott and Frydenberg (puppets of the coal lobby) to make outrageous claims that “coal is good for humanity” and “coal will lift people out of poverty” and get away with it.

Ian Dunlop writing in last Friday’s Guardian  noted “Parts of [the] media [are] also to be blamed. The Australian has been an offender but even the more balanced Fairfax press falls into the same trap. Not surprisingly, it still features prominently on coal company websites. The government and opposition, who accept donations from fossil fuel interests… both sing the praises of the Adani Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin, Shenhua’s Watermark Mine on the Liverpool Plains, Kepco’s Bylong Valley adventure and Hume Coal in the Southern Highlands. All based on ill-informed premises and substantially contributing to increasing global temperatures well above 2C. The cost to Australia, if this irresponsible misallocation of resources proceeds, would be enormous.”

The disconnect between cause and effect appears to be most visible in conservative ranks. It highlights a failure in our education system, and is an example of the Jeffersonian principle that “self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.” What we have currently experienced in the recent election campaign is that of an ill-informed or uninformed public, bombarded from all sides on all manner of issues from the trivial upwards, confused and heartily sick of adversarial politics. The result appears to be a stalemate or very close to it. Each day of indecision, of delay, brings us closer to the ‘climate emergency’.

Another Plea for a Government of National Unity

parliament house Canberra

Last year after Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister I wrote a plea in this blog for a government of National Unity. I was hopeful that Turnbull – a far more acute and reasonable mind than his predecessor – might realise the impossibility of carrying with him the reactionary right wing of his own party, and that of the Nationals, on crucial matters like climate change and renewable energy.

I concluded that “it is high time that the overwhelming issue of climate change took priority over party. A government of National Unity on Climate Change will probably be the precursor to an Emergency (war-time style) government. Major changes in direction, policy, finances will be required across all levels of government where measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change become paramount” and “at the moment a government of national unity would be comprised of about half the Liberals, most of Labor, all the Greens, some Independents and even perhaps one or two Nationals. It would have an overwhelming majority in both houses. It could even be led by Malcolm Turnbull who, of the leaders of both major parties, has been most outspoken on climate change in the past.”

With the results of the July 2 Election possibly not known for some time it seems that such a government is again a possibility made more so by the likelihood of either a hung parliament or even a minority government. Furthermore a government of National Unity, which would include the greens, NXT and some of the Independents, may be the only way to achieve a workable Senate. It would inevitably mean a split in the coalition ranks with the Nationals, Hansonites, IPA idealogues and a clique of reactionary liberals going into opposition.

Such a government should legislate according to best science, start working on a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and begin a program of basic education for the general public. It should depoliticize climate change as an issue and commence action as though we are facing worst case scenarios.

 

The Renewable Energy Party (REP) and the election

REP 2

This blog was penned before election day. Most followers of this column will be aware that I was a candidate for the REP in Gippsland. Prior to the registration of the REP and less than one month before the election was called I had decided that I would not contest the upcoming election once more as a ‘climate independent’. The registration of the REP changed that. Here was the single-issue climate party I had been seeking for 8 years so I decided to give it one last hurrah. I must admit that I am not confident of the outcome – locally or nationally.

The REP entered the election fray with considerable drawbacks. The organisers had put a lot of energy into achieving registration status and then had the election called on top of that. The party was organised in Northern NSW and Tassie and virtually nowhere else. Candidates like myself sprang out of the woodwork and as a result have contested 4 lower house seats in Victoria, 1 in NSW and 3 in Tasmania. Co-ordination and communication in some areas has been a bit chaotic. The decision to contest Batman in the lower house was probably, with hindsight, a mistake. The fact that a strong climate independent was standing there and the possibility of a greens victory if preference votes flowed well, made for much contention (my personal preference has always been for targeting conservative seats – especially those occupied by the climate change deniers). In the last week or two there have been lots of rumours surfacing – mostly malicious but some concerned – on dirty tricks and preference deals. Finally getting traction in the mainstream national media has proved exceedingly difficult if not impossible.

On the positive side the Renewable Energy Party is a great name. It can appeal right across the political spectrum that a name with ‘environmental’ associations never can. Whoever designed the simple logo was a genius. The Q and A sheet provided by central office for candidates was also most helpful. The fact that 18 candidates could be fielded at such short notice was also an achievement. And a start has been made in working the social media in 4 states although we have much to learn.

Whatever the outcome of the election the task ahead for the REP is formidable. Hopefully it will continue as before and emerge to form a strong party able to front up to elections around Australia, and hopefully communicating with our fellow travellers inside and outside other political parties. My own part from now on will be as a supporter, a behind the scenes worker and a not too critical adviser from this column, putting in my ‘tuppence worth’.

My Senate Predictions

Victorin Senate Ballot Paper (ABC)
Victorian Senate Ballot Paper (ABC)

Whilst the polls continue to predict a close result in the House of Reps the outcome in the Senate remains unknown. For some years many Australians have had the habit of voting for one of the major parties in the lower house and switching to a minor party in the Senate. The proportional representation voting system in this house has meant that minor parties often held the balance of power with the success first of Democratic Labour, then the Democrats and now the Greens. The last Senate has seen this feature continue to grow with extra influences including big money (Palmer United) ballot position plus name (Lib Dems) and preference deals (Motoring Enthusiasts).

The recent changes to the way in which a ballot in the Senate can be cast may have solved one problem (preference deals) but created others. We can now vote above the line 1 to 6 showing our preference for parties or you can vote below the line 1 to 12 (at least) for each candidate. By adopting the latter choice you decide the order of candidates and not the party. There is so little difference between the energy required to number to 12 rather than 6 that in many ways the above the line vote is now superfluous and an added complication.

Another complication is how widely understood (or misunderstood) the changes are to the general population. Two well educated friends I have talked to both assumed that a 1 vote above the line was still valid. Reports indicate that a single 1 vote above the line will be counted as will 1 to 6 below the line. The problem with the single vote above the line is that it may be quickly exhausted – especially if that vote is to a minor party with two candidates. This dramatically increases the chances of a candidate being elected with only a part quota and a small primary vote – something the changes were supposed to remove. Add to these complications the trend to the minor parties, throw in a few wild cards like Xenothon in SA and the results may be that the Senate crossbench remains the about the same of even gets a bit bigger.

My predictions over the last 20 years, for what they’re worth, have been a mixed bag. Those on economic matters have been particularly woeful although I did predict by a month or two the collapse of the dotcom boom in 2000(?). My political predictions may be slightly better but my most recent one about the Renewable Energy Party – that they would not be able to get the numbers to be registered before this election – was also well wide of the mark. Whenever I am asked about the Senate I tell my friends to vote below the line. One can only hope that in Victoria we can elect an ordinary worker or two rather than a media ‘personality’ and that the climate change denier ranks are thinned a bit more.

Climate Change is Science not Belief

Climate Meme Consensus

This truism holds even with climate change deniers who ‘cherry pick’ evidence to support their case and ignore that information they dislike or are prejudiced against. It applies to the most rabid followers of Andrew Bolt and other reactionary, mercenary wordsmiths of the Murdoch monopoly (following Andrew Bolt on so complex a matter as climate change is like asking your local plumber how to carry out a heart operation). It applies to the editorial writer of the Bairnsdale Advertiser. For people are mistaken when they say they hold a belief or opinion on climate change. They are asking the wrong question when they say “Do you believe in climate change” for it is like asking “Do you believe in gravity?”

The science of climate change has been established for many years and is based on laws of physics – the Greenhouse effect, the law of conservation of mass, and the carbon cycle. The latter is fairly commonly known and understood and I have explained the greenhouse effect on a number of occasions in this column. (for the latest see here)

Hardest of all for me to explain is the ‘conservation of mass’ – that matter cannot be created or destroyed. As a non-scientist I sometimes get myself into difficulties over this. I use the example of burning one ton of anthracite – nearly pure carbon – in the atmosphere. To the naïve observer the coal has disappeared leaving a small pile of ash. But in the combustion process heat is released and the carbon atoms are joined by oxygen atoms. Each carbon atom is joined with two oxygen atoms to create the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. And as each oxygen atom is heavier than a carbon atom the combustion process turns the one ton of anthracite into about 3 tons of CO2. To be precise burning 1 (short) ton of ordinary black coal produces 2.86 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Since Arrhenious set his formula of the ‘forcing’ power of CO2 in 1896 little has changed except that his work has been continually refined. His conclusion that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase earth’s average temperature more than 6 degrees may not be so wide of the mark. From all this we can deduce that climate change is not a matter of belief; that by burning coal we are gradually ‘forcing’ temperatures upwards and that if we can’t quickly kick this habit we humans are in diabolical trouble.