Last week I used the Titanic tragedy as a metaphor for little understood aspects of global warming – inertia and tipping points. These I coupled with the hubris of the captain and crew in ignoring the warnings about their impending catastrophe and suggested that many of our politicians were acting similarly on global warming and concluded that we have been ‘warned many many times’.
The basic science of
the Greenhouse Effect was firmly grounded in the nineteenth century by Fourier,
Tyndall, Foote and Arrhenious. The science has not changed much in the 120
years since Arrhenious made his calculations in 1895. Veiled warnings of the effects
of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere began to be published in
various journals (see above) from the start of the twentieth century. And this
slowly but surely developed into a crescendo of warnings at the end of the
century by a wide range of scientists and some prominent politicians including
Margaret Thatcher who, when conservative Prime Minister of the UK in 1989 said “The
danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make
changes and sacrifices.”
But of all the politicians perhaps the most interesting, and early, warning came from President Lyndon Baines Johnston (LBJ) in an address to the US Congress in 1965 – an era unsullied by the lies and misinformation of the fossil fuel lobby. ‘Within a few short centuries, we are returning to the air a significant part of the carbon that was extracted by plants and buried in the sediments during half a billion years’ and ‘Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years’
Johnson suggested, in
part incorrectly, that ‘By the year 2000 the increase in CO2 will be close to
25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in
climate.’ The level of the greenhouse gas CO2 in fact only increased by half
that predicted by Johnson’s scientists but measurable, if not marked, climate
changes were already being found by the year 2000. He cautiously concluded that
the ‘climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be
deleterious from the point of view of human beings.’
These words were
spoken when very few individuals outside the scientific community had heard of
climate change or global warming. It was a time when as a 20 year old I was
confronted with the issues of conscription and Vietnam – political issues that
were to dominate the next 10 years of my life. It was another 10 years before I
began to consider the ‘climate’ question amongst a plethora of environmental
and political problems. And another 20 before I finally realised that
existential threat of the warming and that humankind faced a climate emergency.
Perhaps if the
climate change message and publicity had been more prominent and the Vietnam
fiasco somehow avoided we would have been able to agree with Australian Prime
Minister Harold Holt’s catch phrase in 1966 “all the way with LBJ.”
In a recent power point lecture I gave at Bairnsdale U3A I concentrated on 2 aspects of global warming imperfectly or not clearly understood by the general public – tipping points and inertia. This was coupled with repeated warnings of possible dire consequences of global warming that have generally been ignored.
As a metaphor for all these aspects I used the Titanic tragedy and most of the details of what follows can be found in the Wikipedia entry. It appears that the Titanic was warned at least 6 times that they were approaching ice. The first warning was received 2 ½ hours before the collision. Some of these warnings were acknowledged, some got through to the Captain and there was some human error. Despite the warnings the ship continued at close to full speed. Perhaps the Captain believed his ship was invincible or as one deckhand reputedly had said “God himself could not sink this ship!”
Wikipedia noted that on 14 April the Titanic “was travelling near her maximum speed when her lookouts sighted the iceberg” dead ahead 8 minutes before the collision occurred. From first sighting the Titanic went from full speed ahead to stopped engines and tried to pass the iceberg. But the inertia in the ships motion carried it almost inevitably to its fate and by the time the Titanic struck the Iceberg its speed had only been reduced to 22 knots.
The inertia of the ship powering along nearly at full speed and ignoring all the warnings meant that by the time the iceberg had been sighted the ‘tipping point’ of the Titanic – between its life and death – had already been passed. Had the previous warnings been listened to, and caution prevailed, the outcome may possibly have been different and the collision avoided.
As a metaphor of our climate systems the Titanic tragedy may be imperfect but it illustrates much of the predicament we are now facing. Many, possibly most of our political leaders, fail to understand the existential threat of global warming. And of those a number appear to have the same hubris as the Titanic captain and crew. Inertia in the system means the planet will continue warming for the foreseeable future regardless of any actions we take now. By the time humanity makes a concerted and organised effort to combat this threat it may be too late. Tipping points will be recognised only with hindsight. The Titanic metaphor also explains something often forgotten about tipping points – that of passing from one state to another completely new one from which there is no return.
The recent retreat of the shoreline near Inverloch invites a closer look at the Bruun Rule – whether it is applicable in Gippsland, and if so what it means in practice. Wikipedia states that “The Bruun Rule is a formula for estimating the magnitude of the retreat of the shoreline of a sandy shore in response to changes in sea level. Originally published in 1962 by Per Bruun, the Bruun Rule was the first to give a relationship between sea level rise and shoreline recession.” The ‘rule’ is a simple two dimensional model highly controversial, little known, and as far as I am aware has not been considered in Gippsland.
The rule is often
illustrated in a simple diagram (see above). These diagrams seldom accurately depict
the actuality of the rule where the retreat is usually illustrated as one or
two times the sea level rise rather than the 50 times that rule maintains.
Understandably it is difficult to illustrate these dimensions in diagrams of
The standard approach
of measuring sea level rise is static – that is it factors in a vertical rise
in the levels but does not take storm surge or coastal erosion into account.
This is often applied to images of Lakes Entrance where flood levels (or the sea
level rise equivalent) only are taken into account and not the retreat or even
disappearance of the coastal dune barrier.
The fact that sand
dunes are readily erodible is obvious but the sand when removed has to be
deposited elsewhere, either in deeper water or somewhere along the coast. If
the latter occurs then there will be a build up of beaches in other parts of
the coast. This seems quite likely to occur whilst the sea level rises are small
in the short to medium term. On the other hand large rises over a longer period
of time are almost certain to be catastrophic.
The measurements taken by citizen scientist Aileen Vening at Inverloch indicates the coastal retreat, at least in this location and at this time, is far greater than the Bruun Rule suggests and that it is at best a very rough guide only. To reiterate the retreat of the coast is a result of a combination of several climate change factors. As well as sea level rise there is the number and intensity of storms all of which are predicted to get worse. It follows that replenishing the sand on the beach as is currently proposed is a waste of time, energy and money and that planning for a long term retreat from the coast is the only viable option. What is happening now at Inverloch will soon be occurring, if it is not already, along most of Gippsland’s coast.
The second meeting of EGCAN (or the third if the Jane Morton lecture is counted) went off smoothly and was well supported with 17 attending and 4 apologies. The group now has two Facebook pages – an open one for the public and a closed page called ‘EGCAN What’s Next’ accessible only to group members. Some members held a market stall at Paynesville and a “number of t-shirts and bags have been screen printed with an experimental logo.”
On membership “It has
been decided that anyone who agrees with our principles and values can join the
group. That is we are: not for profit, not affiliated with any political party,
accepts the science of human induced climate change” and that “We work under
the following principles: respectful
listening, respectful behaviour, non-violent, inclusive, kind.”
East Gippsland Shire
Sustainability Officer Bec Lamble spoke to the meeting at some length outlining
what the shire has been doing on the renewable energy front including some
encouraging news on electric vehicles and the continuing expansion of the
rooftop solar program on Shire buildings including the Bairnsdale Library. Some
discussion followed on whether we should ask the shire to declare a ‘climate
There was discussion about a wide range of future activities of the group including participating with the ‘Extinction Rebellion’, support for any local striking students, various aspects of climate education and practical aspects such as banner making and letter writing. One idea that was popular was having “climate coffee mornings” of which the first will be held this week. Also the film ‘2040’ will be screening at the local cinema. Members and supporters are encouraged to attend at the Bairnsdale Cinema at 4.30pm on Saturday 8th. The film explores what the earth could be like if we address the climate emergency with the tools that are available now.
The next meeting will
be held on Tuesday 18th June 7pm at the Butter Factory. Please note the change
Peter Turner’s Climate Change (Redback Publ. 2019)* is a colourful, informative and fairly accurate 32 page book aimed at “Upper Primary – Lower Secondary’ students. It is part of a series on ‘Australia’s Environmental Issues’ and the book description states “Climate change is one of Australia’s biggest environmental problems. Why is climate change occurring and how does it affect Australia? Climate Change explores the problem, as well as explaining the steps that need to be taken to combat it.” I would agree with most of this except perhaps the understatement that it is only ‘one’ rather than by far the biggest problem.
Generally the book is very good but has a few minor factual
blemishes such as having 2 pages on nuclear energy (pp26-7) which is now
probably priced out of consideration in any future energy mix. The exception to
this is that existing plants have only small amount of emissions – all from the
mining and processing of the ore. Some statements such as “Solar energy is
currently more expensive than standard fossil fuel electricity” (p.21) are
already outdated and no longer the case. But perhaps the major defect of the
book is that the recent advances in battery storage are absent, although they
get a brief mention under ‘Cars of the Future’. Nor is there any mention of
pumped hydro as energy storage. This however remains a problem with any work
dealing with the ‘cutting edge’ of solutions.
Normally I would not review a children’s book. But it
is important because of the burgeoning youth movement across the globe and
their need to be well informed and know that their cause is right. I have no
doubt that those student strikers are already better informed than many adults.
For the young activists this would only be a primer but works like these can be
very helpful in the process of persuading friends and relations of the need for
urgent action. Also often the clarity of works such as this can sometimes
better inform adults as I have found from experience in my own family. It is a
pity that some of our ill-informed or uninformed politicians cannot grasp the
basics that are presented in this book. At most it would take them, or their
minders, an hour or two.
The 27th of May was the first really cold
day of the year. Prior to that the year, and autumn, has seemed warmer than
usual. And through May Bairnsdale has had a couple of runs of 20 degree plus
days to reinforce this perception. Outside the plants seem in agreement as the
autumn leaves of plane trees are only about half gone and the leaves of oak
trees are still mostly green with some leaves barely turned and a few others
scattered on the ground. It remains to be seen whether the region has notched
up another warming record.
With regards rainfall we still appear to be in a
deficit and the irrigation ban on the Mitchell River at Lindenow remains. I
have not had any other river reports recently. In the hinterland following one
or two nice falls of an inch or more much of the grazing land is now in a green
drought. One farmer told me there is enough feed to ‘run a lawn mower over the place
without cutting any grass’ – in other words not very much. Another mentioned
there was enough ‘green pick’ for his lambs whilst still feeding out for his
But the most astounding thing about my weather report
is that in my garden I have for the first time ever ripe tomatoes on the vine
in winter. Like the winter bushfire we had near Cape Conran less than 2 years
ago this is just another indicator that the warming we so often think of as happening
in some indeterminate future is with us now and has been for some time. It is a
reminder that much of this warming will be gradual and barely discernible – in
the milder seasons, as well as at night.
And in case you are wondering if I am the only person
observing these minor variations around me some agile individual recently
painted the above graffiti on the old Bairnsdale railway bridge. He or she no
doubt is not so concerned with the ‘barely discernible’ warming, but with the
increase in extreme weather events – floods, droughts and related bushfires.
Increasingly it looks as though the current green drought will only be broken
by one or more of these floods.
Some of my friends perceive the climate election as a failure. But this is not necessarily so. There have been faults with both the major parties – both are clearly divided over climate change and energy. Further a number of strategic errors were made by the Greens who have the best climate policies and the various NGOs supporting the climate election.
A majority of the members of parliament of the major parties at both State and Federal level have yet to understand, let alone come to grips with, the climate emergency we are facing. This is clearly indicated by the lack of policies (or their hostility to them) by the LNP and the conflict and contradictions within ALP policies. The Greens made a number of tactical blunders including listing the only party in the Senate to accept the best science and the climate emergency well down their preferences. NGOs of various organisations failed to co-operate and co-ordinate their activities and except in one or two cases these were poorly targeted.
There are critical gaps in the education of voters on this issue. In particular large segments of the population still accept the myth that the global warming is all, or partly, natural and that therefore they cannot do anything about it. A further larger group accept climate change is happening but choose to ignore the implications. These were findings from a CSIRO survey of some 4 years ago but I suspect little has changed in this regard and the results are similar to a survey done 2 years ago by Sustainability Victoria.
The election highlights a general failure of the previous Labour government to educate and inform the voters on climate change. And spruiking the enormous opportunities for Australia as a renewable energy superpower was an opportunity in this campaign Labour also missed. I have been calling for such a just transition in Gippsland for many years. Full employment is an essential prior requirement in localities about to be affected by dramatic changes such as mine or power station closures. At the moment this foresight and planning is seldom to be found. And this election has shown the less educated and uninformed voting with conservative parties where jobs are the immediate concern.
Both major parties are clearly split on the climate crisis and renewable energy. In the election the ALP leader Shorten mentioned the climate emergency on one hand and then supported a massive CSG project in the Northern Territory. Within the LNP moderates like Senator Sinidinos are now calling for an expansion of renewables whilst Queenslander members are pushing Adani and calling for government to fund new coal powered stations.
This suggests that Federal government activity on climate will be token at best with a dying coal industry still promoted by the hard core denialists in the LNP ranks. The way forward in climate politics is widespread public education on the issue and adopting sound grass roots action along the Haines/McGowan (Indi) and Steggalls models. As the climate emergency deepens every election will be a climate election.
Storm surges at Inverloch are actively eroding the coast. Roads and lifesaving towers have been threatened and some severely undermined. Friends of the Earth Act on Climate campaigner Lee Ewebank recently visited the area with Victorian Minister for Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio and saw “an emerging frontline of the crisis—to survey dramatic coastal erosion from intensifying storm surges and rising sea levels.” He wrote of his trip here and the following quotes are from Lee’s article.
The visit followed closely on an ABC News Report with local citizen scientist Aileen Vening. She noted that “It’s a relief that what I’ve been recording and talking about for several years is now finding a wider audience,” and “Unfortunately it has taken the loss of such huge amounts of sand, which means infrastructure is under threat, to make authorities act…This delay has made it so much more difficult and costly to make action effective.” Since 2012 Vening has “documented 36 metres of erosion” – presumably horizontal coastal retreat.
There is a need to elaborate on certain aspects of this. Storm surge as opposed to a gradual but evenly increasing sea level rise is almost certainly the way humans will experience this phenomenon. Further the sand the storm surges remove may be deposited offshore or possibly at other places along the coast leading to an accretion of sand elsewhere.
The natural sea level rise that occurred in Bass
Strait from the end of the last ice age till about 6000 years ago saw the sea
level rise on average a metre every 100 years for over 12,000 years. Now with
human caused warming the sea level rise may be even more rapid than this though
at the moment it is still only 3-4 mm per annum. The predictions of sea level
rise vary widely and range from about 30cm to approaching 2 metres by 2100.
Another aspect concerning coastal retreat is the not well known and controversial. Bruun’s rule predicts that coastlines will retreat by about 50 times each unit of sea level rise. That would indicate with a sea level rise of about a metre the coast would retreat 50 metres. The current rapid retreat of the coast reinforces this and if it proceeded at the same pace for next 70 – 80 years the coastline would at least be a further 200m inland.
Which leads us to another aspect of this complex
situation. The last time greenhouse gases were this high was 3 million years
ago. Then the sea level was approximately 25 metres higher than it is now.
Unless there is a rapid drawdown of these gases sea levels will rise inexorably
until they reach this level perhaps in a thousand years, or with catastrophic
change far less. Amongst the large list of urgently needed actions is a long
term, planned, orderly retreat from the vulnerable coast.
I wish to offer my
congratulations to the outstanding election campaign run by Independents for
Climate Action Now (ICAN) of which I am a member and supporter. In their brief
life so far – only as old as the formal election campaign itself – ICAN has
managed to stage a quite credible election campaign. In the short time
available they have put up excellent Senate candidates in three states – all
highly qualified and local – and in each managed to run prominent, if unco-ordinated
campaigns. Their presence on social media has been boosted by having Anglican
priest Fr. Rod Bower as lead NSW candidate. Rod is an accomplished and
outspoken twitter user with a large following. The other candidates quickly
adapted to using twitter though I am not sure how they fared on facebook. It
remains to be seen whether this translates into primary votes.
Comparing ICAN with
previous ‘climate’ party efforts this seems to be, hopefully, third time lucky.
ICAN’s organisation and efforts appear to be much more closely aligned with the
Climate Change Coalition (CCC) of 2007 than that of the Renewable Energy Party
(REP)* of 2016. The CCC were swamped in the Ruddslide and although they had
excellent candidates with a polarised election they found it difficult to get
any publicity in the mainstream media. Whilst ICAN’s situation is similar the
burgeoning social media has helped them immensely. As well they have gained TV
slots by both science and stunt, in all of the eastern states except Tassie.
The REP’s campaign was, aside from a few online articles, ignored and they had
little traction in the media. Possibly working to ICAN’s advantage has been the
promotion of the election by NGOs as the ‘climate election’ – notably by the
Australian Conservation Foundation.
As I noted last week
the chances of ICAN getting a candidate up are very small indeed and even
getting funding and deposits returned (4% of primary votes) may be hard to achieve.
But the next steps for ICAN may be the most difficult of all especially if their
electoral performance is below expectations. Both the CCC and the REP failed to
survive their one election disappointments. So the need is for ICAN to now step
up, whatever the election results, and to build, organise and capitalise on
their energetic, welcome and necessary introduction to our electoral politics.
*by the time I attempted to join the
CCC in 2008 it was already defunct, a demise brought on by conflict over previous
bizarre preference deals. I was a member, candidate and eventually secretary of
the REP before it was deregistered in 2018.
The seat of Gippsland held by
Darren Chester is one of the safest in Victoria and the opposition candidates
have a difficult task making any inroads into his majority. It will be
interesting to see whether the severe drought, clearly influenced by climate change,
has any impact on the vote. More importantly the Greens Deb Foskey has run on a
‘Climate Election’ platform and has made three short videos on this subject –
with a winemaker, an organic farmer and on the Toora windfarm. As far as I am
aware she is also the only candidate in Gippsland or Monash to actually sign
the climate emergency declaration.
Deb also agreed to the question ‘Do you accept the scientific consensus on human caused global warming?’ as did ALP candidate Antoinette Holm. Surprisingly, sitting member Darren Chester has also agreed, though this conflicts with his previous (and continuing?) promotion of coal. I was recently quite severe on his position with regards the promotion of electric vehicles and commented on his, and his government’s, failure to act. But his agreement to the question must be considered a positive step.
If any electorate changes hands it will be the newly named Monash. Catherine Watson of the Bass Coast Post has interviewed a number of the candidates and points out that the boundaries have been redrawn – adding Bass coast and Phillip Island and removing a strong labour area in Pakenham. Another unknown is the youth vote. The margin for current incumbent Russell Broadbent is about 6% making him vulnerable to any swing against the LNP. This is about the same margin as in the state seat of Bass* that changed hands last year.
Of the candidates interviewed all
seemed concerned with the severe coastal erosion at Inverloch, though only one
of them took the extra step to link this with climate change. The Greens
candidate Will Hornstra emphasised renewable energy projects whilst Independent
Michael Fozard was the only one to actually mention climate change. He said “At our end of the
electorate one of the most pressing issues is beach erosion. It’s urgent, we
need now to be taking action now. It’s
part of climate change and rising sea levels. Whether climate change is
cyclical or man-made, we need to take action. We can’t just put our heads in
the sand.” This otherwise good comment was somewhat spoilt by his ambivalence
on the warming being man-made. If Monash changes hands it will almost certainly
go to ALP candidate Jessica O’Donnell.
Unless there is a very
large swing against the government the Victorian Senators will remain
the same except perhaps for the last seat held by Derryn Hinch. There is a very
small possibility of this going to a climate party independent**. Whichever way
the vote goes the outcome in the Senate will probably take several weeks to be
finalised. And May 18 will be the first in a long series of climate elections
*I was one of the few commentators to suggest the State Electorate of Bass could change hands in the State Election. See here.