Category Archives: Climate, Environment

The reasons for action: how the world’s climate is changing and what that means for oceans, deserts, forests, rivers, plains, and the people who live there.

A responsible nation?

Early or late, this year will bring a federal election where all voters can influence policy on emissions reduction and climate change. Philip Walker outlines some policy possibilities.

Australia must properly address its emissions reduction responsibilities now

Federal elections are approaching this year. There is a very important issue we are still not hearing much about. Many Australians are increasingly concerned about the future of our world under the effects of climate change. In spite of this, our decision makers continue to avoid addressing the issue seriously.

Australia remains one of the highest greenhouse gas-emitting countries, per unit of energy supply and consumption.

Dr Ross Garnaut

Ross Garnaut

Most Australians are not scientists, engineers or economists. It is difficult for many of us to hold an informed opinion about what measures should be taken in Australia in order to play our proper part in reducing carbon emissions world wide. However voters do have the opportunity to understand the fundamentals and to express their concerns.

A few years back we had the carbon tax. Some politicians, by stressing biased negative argument, soured public opinion about the tax, resulting in its repeal. However, there is considerable informed opinion worldwide advocating carbon taxes or fees to be the most effective form of carbon pricing to adequately address the problem.

A couple of US proposals could be applied to Australia

Economist William G. Gale, a US expert on tax policy, discussed options in the US economy at The Miller Center of the University of Virginia. He said: Carbon taxes would contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment and better environmental and energy policy by providing price signals to those who pollute. Not surprisingly, most analyses find that a carbon tax could indeed significantly reduce emissions.

Dr James Hansen

Dr James Hansen

Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen has proposed a “carbon fee” system under which fossil fuels are taxed when they are produced or imported, rather than when they are consumed. Under his proposal, countries would collect a fee when fossil fuels are mined or imported, and distribute the revenue to their citizens, while charging extra border duties to countries without a similar scheme.

Such carbon pricing, used effectively, would discourage emissions in favour of clean energy sources. Whilst accounting for the external costs of impacts on climate and environment, it fairly distributes compensation to the people. There should be no subsequent incentives to selected energy sources. The energy markets should be allowed to determine the mix of clean energy systems used.

In July 2015 Renew Economy published Hugh Saddler’s discussion of the take-home messages from abolition of Australian carbon tax, illustrating the proven effectiveness of the tax in Australia. In reading his conclusions, it is evident that the induced changes were modest in both supply and consumption but were what economic theory would have predicted. Larger impacts of a price on carbon will only appear if the policy is maintained over the long term. Many factors besides the carbon price have influenced changes in the behaviour of electricity consumers and suppliers. Achieving larger and faster emissions reductions will require a wide range of policies, all working in the same direction. A price on emissions, whether through an emissions trading scheme or a tax, will be a key component of such a suite, but only one component.

Professor Ross Garnaut, speaking at University of Technology, Sydney on 24th September 2015, said: Once emissions reduction responsibilities have been allocated amongst countries, it is possible for each country to contribute its share of the mitigation responsibility not only through the application of a Carbon Tax or an ETS, but also by direct regulation of emissions-intensive activity, or by fiscal payments to low-emissions activities, or through multifarious regulatory and fiscal interventions. He indicated that small countries with currently high emissions, like Australia, will not be able to resist indefinitely the pressure from the larger countries to do their fair shares in a global mitigation effort. Sooner or later proper action will be required, which will then be at higher cost than if steady progress had been made from an early time.

Sometimes in Australia we see the leading political parties’ bilateral support for action on selected issues. Why not with action on climate change?

We need to be continually demanding that our politicians put forward policies that, once implemented, would enable us to effectively play our part in addressing world climate change.

References

Economist William G. Gale, US expert on tax policy, discussing options in the US economy, at The Miller Center of the University of Virginia. The wisdom of a carbon tax

US environmental scientist James Hansen, addressing a “carbon fee” in The Conversation December 2, 2015. James Hansen: emissions trading won’t work, but my global ‘carbon fee’ will

Hugh Saddler, One Year on from the Carbon Price Australia’s Emissions Rebound is Clear, Renew Economy 22 July 2015

Professor Ross Garnaut, speaking at University of Technology, Sydney on 24th September 2015. The Essential Role of Carbon Pricing

The Prime Minister’s droughts

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 2 April 2014. More articles from the CANWin column.

Image: Peripitus via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Peripitus via Wikimedia Commons

As the Prime Minister says, a cycle of drought and flooding rain is normal for Australia. Thirty years ago scientists worked out that the source of this natural cycle is not on land, but in the Pacific Ocean.

In a four-stage cycle called the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), warmth and moisture move back and forth between Australia and the Americas.

Westerly winds skim off the warm surface layer of the sea, transport it westward and pile it up to the north of Australia. This warm surface layer evaporates, the source of our La Nina rains. Then eastward winds flow back across the Pacific towards central America, bringing rain to Peru and Ecuador but leaving Australasia in El Nino drought.

This cycle has been going on for centuries; it’s the normal drought regime. Well done Prime Minister!

FloodedPlaygroundSignsBut our times are not normal, and the sooner you learn the difference, the better it will be for all of us. Man-made greenhouse warming is disturbing the natural balance. If we don’t all take the present global warming trend seriously, man-made greenhouse warming will double the frequency of extreme droughts. Prime Minister, it’s time to listen to the experts.

The experts will tell you that the surface mixed layer in the eastern Pacific gains more heat from man-made fossil fuel emissions than the west, where evaporation has a net cooling effect. This means that extreme droughts (such as 1982-83) are likely to return every 10 years instead of every 20. That leaves the food sources of the nation with not enough time to recover from the last severe drought.

So Prime Minister, why are you so heavily subsidizing dirty coal-fired power stations when renewable alternatives are available? Why do you allow such industries to off-load the costs of their pollution to other industries and the populace at large? Where is the level playing field for electricity generation? Why do you expect people to bear the cost of profligate spending on poles and wires for outdated, grid-based, 19th century technology?”

How about taking care of your grand-children’s future rather than your own?

Will Steffen: Science Meets Action

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 5 March 2014. More articles from the CANWin column.

At CANWin’s first Speaker Night for 2014 Professor Will Steffen, of the crowd-funded Climate Council, gave a lot of information and a powerful call to action:

To stabilise the climate at a manageable level, most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

The global carbon cycle

Professor Steffen showed that the carbon in fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – was locked away under the ground for millions of years. Right up till about 1850, that locked carbon could not affect the climate. The remaining carbon cycled naturally through the “earth system” – air, soil, oceans, plants and animals – but the total amount of carbon in the system stayed pretty much the same.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, when humans started burning fossil fuels. That sets free the carbon that was safely locked away. We are overloading the natural carbon cycle, and the unintended result is that we are changing the world’s climate.

That’s why energy efficiency and renewable energy are critically important. It’s also one, maybe even bigger than the risk to water and food, of many reasons to oppose coal and gas mining. In Professor Steffen’s words:

The evidence for climate change is overwhelming and clear. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause.
We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate, especially extreme events. The risks rise as climate shifts further.

Six things you can do

  • Learn as much as you can. CANWin’s website resources are one good starting point. Facebook can be an excellent source for breaking news. You’ll find free online courses at websites such as www.coursera.org. Spencer Weart’s excellent The Discovery of Global Warming is available as both a book and a website.
  • Connect with other people who understand that climate is critical. Local groups include CANWin, Lock the Gate, SHCAG, and Stop CSG Illawarra.
  • Just turn up to as many events as you can. Most events are publicised on Facebook, and the CANWin website has a calendar of local events.
  • Keep up those electricity, gas, and water saving habits. They really do help your wallet as well as the climate.
  • Switch to renewable energy or green power.
  • Support renewable energy projects, through organisations such as CANWin partner CORENA

Plus One

And a bonus action: Support the Climate Council. It’s one of Australia’s best sources of climate information that’s both understandable and reliable.

Boffins, Balls, and Brass Monkeys

We live at much the same latitude south as Texas USA is north. Yet this year Texas has been cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. How does that fit with the current global warming theory? Have the boffins got it all wrong?

Three wise monkeys, in brassWell no, they haven’t. Global warming turbo-charges the ocean and the atmosphere, generating heat waves here, freezing there, floods here, droughts there. One in a hundred year events, such as extreme bushfires in Australia, are now coming thick and fast. The weather is going haywire. The extra heat is destabilizing the global climate as if it has a fever.

Freezing weather in the southern states of the US, starts with changes in the Arctic. For ten thousand years the Arctic cold was kept in the north by a strong “Polar Front”. That’s a thermal barrier that normally keeps cold in the Arctic and warmth in the tropics, and incidentally drives the Jet Stream.

But the Arctic is warming, and the barrier between Arctic cold and tropic warmth is getting weaker. The Polar Front and the Jet Stream can now meander north and south, bringing Texans a taste of the Arctic and Greenlanders a taste of the tropics.

Those southward meandering loops of Arctic origin eventually pinch off from the jet stream to become separate storms. In the USA these storms sweep southeast across the midlands like fierce tops, spin-freezing unsuspecting Texas and leaving devastation in their wake.

Geology exam cartoonNo, the boffins have not got it wrong.; they predicted such weird events. It is global warming that allows the Arctic to cut loose and sweep across the States. There’s a saying: “To every complex problem there’s a simple answer – but it is usually wrong.” Climate science is a good example.

The good news for ordinary people is that we know how to live with complex science. Medical science, for example, is just as complex as climate science. When we have a health problem we go to medical specialists to find out what’s wrong and what to do about it.

That’s the role of specialists; they specialize, and they become boffins. We respect the advice of boffins because they have specialist knowledge and they’re more likely to be right than wrong.

Same thing with climate boffins. It’s betting against Nature to disregard their advice, and Nature always wins.

Welcome 2014

Clive amid the externalitiesWouldn’t it be nice if next New Year everyone got that climate change denial is a very bad joke. Even Mr Maurice Newman, chief business advisor to the Prime Minister, and Clive, our boiling froggy friend.

Looks like 2014 will be another busy year for all who care about a safe climate. Here’s wishing you a restorative New Year and an energetic 2014.

Climate is dead, extreme weather rules

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 4 December 2013. More articles from the CANWin column.

There’s been some odd weather lately. Wonder what’s going on? It’s simple really.

The world is getting warmer because we are burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and gas. Burning them releases carbon into the air from its safe storage under the ground. Carbon in the air stops the Earth from shedding heat into space. More carbon in the air, more heat trapped around the Earth.

Cartoon climate denialist unfazed by the cold reality of climate changeThe trapped heat doesn’t affect every place the same way. Most of it is warming up the oceans and we can’t see that directly. But here in Australia the Bureau of Meteorology has recorded an average of 1°C increase over the last hundred years or so. At the north and south poles the increase is 2 or 3 times as much. This may not seem much but…

Climate is the long-term behaviour of weather. Weather varies in natural cycles and in some places more than others, but over time and around the world climate was stable for the past 10,000 years.

But today, because burning fossil fuels has disturbed the balance of nature, many things are changing
Some days all the little imbalances of nature add up to make it stinking hot and dry; great for bushfires. Sometimes they combine to cause sudden deluges, enormous hailstones, or massive cyclones that have killed thousands. Sometimes all the imbalances cancel each other out and the weather seems back to normal.

Remember the husband who had a leaky roof? In the rain it was too wet to fix; when the sun came out the roof didn’t need mending. Excuses, avoidance and denial don’t fix a problem. It takes action.

Climate will never be back to normal in our lifetime. Last September was the hottest on record, this year is the hottest on record in Australia. The global warming trend will continue, with huge, damaging fluctuations. These fluctuations will get worse. Look at the world’s weather, look at Australia’s weather!

We can’t prepare well for conditions we’ve never seen, but we can do something. We can reduce future climate change by moving to renewable energy and minimising our consumption of fossil fuels. This should be a national and international imperative.

But for the next thousand years climate is dead, extreme weather rules.

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib at Other Words. http://www.otherwords.org/

Bushfires and global warming

This article is adapted from Links between global warming and NSW bush fires, an article submitted by astone to the website of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. The full article, with references, is available there.

Bushfires are a natural phenomenon in Australia and a specific fire event as seen in the Blue Mountains in the last week is not caused by global warming.

RFS firefighterThe questions are more around:
• Is global warming increasing the risk of bushfires?
• Did global warming make the recent fires more likely?
• Is there a global warming link to the fires in the Blue Mountains?

Fuel Amount

Global warming does increase the amount of fuel. Elevated CO2 acts as a fertiliser and increases net primary productivity. So far as anyone knows, this effect is not sustainable over the long term due to limits imposed by nutrients. The fertilisation effect works in a farmer’s greenhouse where CO2 is elevated because the farmer also waters and fertilises the crops. We do not water or fertilise native bush.

CO2 Concentration

There is evidence that the Earth’s biosphere is sucking up more CO2 now than in the past, but failing to keep up with the increase in human emissions (Raupach et al., 2008). Whichever way you consider the system, increased CO2, if absorbed into the biosphere, must increase the amount of fuel. Therefore, increased CO2, linked to increased activity by vegetation, has increased fuel loads. This need not lead to more fires, but it means that if a fire occurs then there is more fuel to burn.

Rainfall

While there has been low rainfall over the last 3 and 6 months this is not particularly unusual and it is not possible to prove that the low rainfall has any global warming link. That is, the low recent rainfall cannot be shown to be linked to global warming. This does not mean it is not. It might be, but it might not be, and we cannot say anything more definitive than that. The short story is that global warming explains, to an important degree, observations of warming over Australia and global warming increases the risks of very warm summers and very warm winters a great deal.

Vegetation Dryness

There is a reasonable link between how dry the growing trees are and global warming which we cannot currently put numbers on, but at the very least means no one can say no link exists. So, it is very likely that as a consequence of the unusually hot summer, and the unusually warm winter, the landscape was unusually dry and a natural feedback that cools was switched off. Therefore, the question is, was the last summer and winter unusually warm because of global warming because if it was, then there is a legitimate link between global warming, warmth, and dryness. The short story is that global warming explains, to an important degree, observations of warming over Australia, and global warming increases the risks of very warm summers and very warm winters a great deal.

Risk

The risk for fire is linked to temperature, humidity, wind and dryness. One way to link these together is to use the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). Clarke et al. (2012) analysed observations from high quality stations from the Bureau of Meteorology and calculated the FFDI from 1973 to 2010. There is an upward trend overall in FFDI. Most individual stations show an upward trend. No stations show a downward trend. In short, the risk of fire, as measured by FFDI, has increased since 1973 over NSW.

BurntOutTheir results suggested a doubling in risk of extreme bushfire risk by 2050. In short, so far as I know, no study has ever found that fire risk will reduce, or stay the same, in the future; every study points to increasing risks.

Impact

Outstanding risk minimisation by emergency services, changes in individual preparedness, improved weather forecasting by the Bureau of Meteorology, better building codes, new fire fighting technologies and a considerable and sustained effort by professional and volunteer fire fighters have all helped reduce the vulnerability of settlements in the Blue Mountains to fire. However, if we continue to drive climate through emissions of greenhouse gases, the risk of fire and associated losses will continue to grow.

Failure to accept a link between global warming and fire risk means not reducing the climate linked risk. It therefore leaves all management of the risk to NSW state agencies and mitigation by Rural Fire Service employees and volunteers. So, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was right in noting a link between climate change and bush fire risk.

A Milder Moss Vale?

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 9 October 2013. More articles from the CANWin column.
Australian Bureau of Meteorology climate data search screenTwo signs of a warming climate are warmer night-time temperatures and milder winters. Are these signs visible in the Highlands?

One region, still less one town, can neither prove nor disprove that the climate of the whole Earth is warming. But a look into the detailed historical records for places we know can give a better idea of how much and what kind of data goes into weather and climate models. We can also see for ourselves some of the limitations and difficulties that scientists must deal with in order to extract useful information from raw data.

The Bureau of Meteorology website ( www.bom.gov.au ) provides weather and climate data to the public. You have to dig for it, but if you’re interested in weather and climate trends you can find a vast amount of information from this site.
For instance, there are Annual Potential Frost Maps that show where frost can form. A typical frost in the Wingecarribee area is ‘radiation’ frost, caused when the temperature drops below 2 degrees on a clear and windless night. Over the last 30 years the average number of frosts has gone down from 75 to 72 per year.

This does not mean that we will see the end of winter frosts any time soon, but the trend towards fewer frosts will continue.

You can also find temperature records from the Highlands weather stations. For example, for Moss Vale they show that from 2001 to 2013 the average minimum for June was 3.4C, and for July was 2.3C. By contrast, for the period from 1962 to 1975 the average minimum for June was 3.0C and for July was 1.0C. So it looks as if the Moss Vale winter has become a little milder (out of the wind anyway).

The June mean minimum has been quite high for four out of the last five years, which might indicate that winter is starting later.

Last June CANWin and Wingecarribee Council hosted a public talk by BoM climatologist Dr Blair Trewin, whose specialty is analysing long-term Australian rainfall and temperature records. You can find a report of his talk at http://canwin.org.au/entry/2013/06/24/whats-up-with-the-weather/