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The federal government is ignoring the realities of climate change – mirroring trends towards inaction in American politics. By Mike Seccombe.

Climate action stalling here and in America

Bill Shorten’s very first question in parliament this week was brief and utterly predictable. Malcolm Turnbull’s answer was not.

The opposition leader noted that the Liberal Party had been in government since 2013, and asked whether power prices had gone up or down over that period.

It was not really a question at all, except in the rhetorical sense. It was a device to remind anyone listening that electricity prices had gone through the roof during the term of this government.

As Turnbull rose to answer, opposition members held up four fingers – to signify four years of energy policy paralysis under the Coalition government – and Turnbull had some kind of brain snap.

“I notice they’re all making a sign of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood with the Rabia sign there,” he bellowed. “They might want to think about that.”

Uproar ensued. Turnbull was required to withdraw, which he grudgingly and confusedly did.

“I withdraw the comment, but I would refer honourable members to the way in which that sign is used elsewhere and is well known. That’s a fact. That is a fact. If they can’t cope with the realities of the world today, that is a matter for them. There it is.”

It was a brief episode that told us several things about the devolution of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. Number one, it was a first clear example of Turnbull resorting to racial or religious dog-whistling. Over many years, the conservatives have hosted many shameless dog-whistlers – Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott and, above all, John Howard among them – but to his great credit Turnbull had never gone there. Until Monday.

Number two, it showed he was really bad at it. The reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, in the context of debate on energy and climate change policy, invited not prejudice but head-scratching. It was a baffling non sequitur.

Number three, it showed the frustration of a man saddled with a problem not of his making, who knows what needs to be done to fix it but is prevented from doing so by circumstance, vested interests and ignorance.

It’s apt to begin with the prime minister’s invitation to consider some facts and “realities of the world today”.

The most imposing relevant reality of late – as measured in terms of media coverage – is that two very large hurricanes have hit the United States. First came Harvey, the wettest storm ever to hit the US mainland, which dumped more than a metre of rain over large parts of southern Texas, and more than 1.3 metres in the worst-affected areas.

Then came Irma, the strongest storm ever in the Atlantic Ocean. Irma sustained winds of just under 300km/h for 37 hours straight, breaking the previous intensity record for any cyclone anywhere.

Various flaky theories sought to explain this coincidence. In a video posted on Facebook as he awaited an evacuation flight from Orlando, Florida, and reportedly viewed 600,000 times, former child actor turned fundamentalist pastor Kirk Cameron insisted Irma was “sent to cause us to respond to God in humility, awe and repentance”.

Likewise in the case of Harvey, a number of prominent media evangelists variously claimed the deluge was God’s judgement on abortion law, same-sex marriage or Houston’s election of a lesbian mayor.

More secular denialists, prominent among them the shock jock Rush Limbaugh, insisted there was a “deep state” conspiracy at work, in which the “liberal media” exaggerated the storms to scare people into believing climate change was real. Limbaugh nonetheless fled Florida in a private jet before Irma arrived.

Don’t laugh, this is serious. Limbaugh’s views are not very different from the official views of the Trump administration.

Scott Pruitt, the climate change denier chosen by Donald Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency, refused outright to answer questions about climate change in the context of the hurricanes. To do so, he said, would be “insensitive to the victims”.

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if the hurricanes had caused the president to change his views on climate change. She said no.

Trump has previously, consistently said he does not believe in human-induced climate change, and has repeatedly dismissed it as a hoax. At his more extreme moments, he has claimed it was a fraud promulgated by the Chinese “to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

If this were just rhetoric aimed at the climate sceptics in the Republican voter base, it would be bad enough, but it goes much further than that. Pruitt has ordered mass sackings of climate scientists from the EPA and the hiring of fossil fuel industry advocates. Last month, The New York Times reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US equivalent of the Bureau of Meteorology, abolished its 15-member climate science advisory committee. Obama-era regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants and gas fracking wells have been scrapped, grants for climate research have been pulled and Orwellian instructions have gone out to many government departments suggesting they avoid the use of the words “climate change”.

Meanwhile, Trump rhapsodises about a jobs boom from more mining of “clean, beautiful coal”.

The science that Trump and his cronies despise tells us that no single weather event should be attributed to climate change, and that holds for hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Climate science is not that exact. But it can quite precisely measure the long-term trends and patterns that are exacerbating the impacts of storms such as these.

Warmer oceans, for example, mean more atmospheric moisture.

“A fundamental rule of atmospheric thermodynamics known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation indicates an increase of roughly 7 per cent more moisture in the air for each degree Celsius of increase in sea surface temperature,” wrote several of America’s leading climate scientists in the journal Scientific American last week.

Given that global sea surface temperatures are about a degree warmer than they were before humans poured so much carbon dioxide into the environment, big storms are likely to be wetter. And where water temperatures are several degrees warmer than usual – as they were in the Gulf of Mexico when Harvey blew in – much wetter still.

Similarly, as the climate warms, storms get windier, wrote the eminent authors, by “roughly eight metres per second [about 25km/h] increase in wind speed per degree Celsius of warming”.

“And so it is not likely to be a coincidence that almost all of the strongest hurricanes on record (as measured by sustained wind speeds) for the globe … have occurred over the past two years,” they wrote.

Stronger winds in turn mean bigger waves and storm surges. This comes on top of sea levels that are ineluctably rising.

Before the industrial revolution, the seas were rising by about one-tenth of a millimetre per year, and had been since the peak of the last ice age. The rate of sea level rise is now more than 30 times as fast, and accelerating rapidly, says Professor John Church, one of the world’s leading researchers in the area of climate change and sea level.

Church worked for the CSIRO before the organisation’s new chief executive, venture capitalist Larry Marshall, cut a swath through the ranks of its climate scientists. He is now with the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

At the moment, Church says, sea level rise is driven roughly equally by thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of the world’s glaciers. But bigger threats loom. At some point, if the warming continues, we will reach a threshold beyond which the Greenland ice sheet will melt away.

“We don’t know where the threshold is, but it’s somewhere between 1 and 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial. We’re already at 1 degree, so we’re close to the threshold. Once we cross it, we commit the future world to metres of sea level rise.

“Greenland’s already losing mass through increased surface melt. If it all melted, it would raise global sea levels by seven metres.”

And then there is the much bigger ice mass of Antarctica. Here, too, the exact threshold beyond which major melting happens is not known. But in the case of the west Antarctic ice sheet in particular, Church says, “people think it has already commenced”.

Questions remain about the rate and magnitude of climate change, but the phenomena of temperature rise on land and sea, wetter and windier storms, rising oceans and melting ice are empirically established. They are observable realities, and serious action is required to prevent catastrophic consequences.

Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt have never accepted that, but Malcolm Turnbull once did. He once crossed the floor of the federal parliament to support Labor government measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He once said: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.”

He was right about that, at least at the time. His party colleagues dumped him for a bellicose climate denier, Tony Abbott, who won government on a massive scare campaign about the cost of addressing climate change. Abbott’s chief of staff later confessed the carbon tax they campaigned against was never a tax, and that it was only “brutal retail politics” that allowed them to make the fight about household budgets rather than the environment. But in order to take back the leadership of his party – and the prime ministership – Turnbull found it necessary to realign his views to those of his party.

As John Roskam, head of the Liberal-aligned Institute of Public Affairs recently told The Australian Financial Review, a majority of Liberal Party members are “solid sceptics” about the science of climate change but pretend for political reasons to support emissions reductions.

It hardly needed to be said: the reality is obvious in their actions. It is obvious, as John Church says, in the empirical data.

“Australia’s emissions were decreasing up until the election of this government and now they’re increasing again,” he notes.

“The debate that’s occurring, the proposals being put forward by the current government, are just mind-bogglingly bizarre.”

It’s bad enough, Church says, that Australia’s commitment under the Paris climate accord, to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, is “grossly inadequate”. It’s far worse that the Abbott–Turnbull government appears to have “no idea” for meeting that target.

“How can we make commitments and then talk about building more coal-fired power stations? We really need a long-term coherent policy and this government has failed to deliver.”

The answer to his question is explicit in Roskam’s words: the government is not sincere in its commitment.

Thus last year we saw Turnbull rule out a so-called emissions intensity scheme – a market mechanism that would have progressively reduced emissions. Instead, he commissioned Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to come up with an alternative that might remove the policy uncertainty that has discouraged new investment in power generation for the better part of five years.

But now Turnbull can’t get Finkel’s key proposal – the establishment of a clean energy target – past the fossil fuel ideologues in his government. So the push is on to amend the target to incorporate government funding of new coal-fired power stations. The reason for this is that such projects cannot get funding anywhere else. Simply put, the private sector can see no long-term future for coal generation.

Meanwhile, the Turnbull government is desperately trying to do what the Abbott opposition did, and gin up an election-winning campaign based on public concerns about power prices.

And the concerns are real. Power prices, as we noted at the beginning of this story, have increased dramatically. The reason the government gives for the rises, though, is substantially false. It blames renewables and the actions of the former Labor government.

But the experts will tell you there are many reasons for Australia’s energy problems: the push to deregulate and privatise the electricity market; a pricing structure that rewarded so-called “gold-plating” of the power grid; uncontrolled gas exports and gouging by gas companies; a crazily complicated system for setting short-term electricity prices; and the decommissioning of a number of old, inefficient coal-fired generators that had reached the end of their useful lives. One thing almost all agree on, though, is that long years of policy uncertainty played a big part.

The problem is pressing, but there are solutions: renewable solutions and demand-reduction solutions.

Instead, we watched the unedifying spectacle of a government leaning heavily on AGL this week to extend the life of its geriatric Liddell power station in New South Wales, past its scheduled closure in 2022.

The analogy most commonly used about Liddell is that it’s like an old car that has reached the point where the cost of repairs is greater than its worth. It’s a good comparison. Liddell was built almost 50 years ago, and, like a 1971 model car, it is dirty, inefficient, old technology. It is a clunker, and a threat to human health.

Apart from its greenhouse gas contributions, Liddell pumped the following pollutants out its smokestacks in 2015-16: 1.9 tonnes of ammonia, 970 tonnes of carbon monoxide, 310 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 360 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 260 tonnes of fluoride compounds, 17,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 31,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 550 tonnes of course particulate matter and 170 tonnes of carcinogenic fine particulates. There was a wide range of other toxins, too.

It also is unreliable. Last February, when south-eastern Australia was in the grip of an unprecedented heatwave, the electricity grid was stretched almost to breaking point. The average maximum temperature for all of NSW was a record 42.5 on February 10, broken the next day with 44 degrees.

The crisis was made worse by the fact that Liddell had broken down, as it often does. One of its four generators had lost half capacity on February 6, and failed completely on February 9. It was not back on line until February 28. A second unit failed on February 6, but workers scrambled to have it back up the day before the record heat hit. A third went down on February 7, and did not come back online until four days later.

No wonder Liddell’s operator, AGL, wants to shut it and move, like most of the rest of the world, away from coal generation into cleaner and more reliable technology.

And no wonder AGL’s boss, Andrew Vesey, was scornful of Turnbull’s suggestion that Liddell was an answer to the government’s self-created energy crisis.

The reality is that Liddell is clapped out now, and will be even more clapped out in another five years.

The bigger reality is that Australia does face a significant problem in the fact that our electricity fleet is old and in need of replacement. But this could also present a big opportunity, if we had a government that was not stuck on its ideological commitment to the fossil-fuel economy.

Instead of the policy certainty the nation requires, though, the government is focused on deflecting blame for our high power bills and setting up excuses for when the lights go out.

These excuses are many, and their worth is exemplified by a confected allegiance between Labor and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Climate stalling both here and in America". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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