Category Archives: Sunday morning musings

A man exploiting the moment, or a man for all seasons? Tony Abbott’s legacy will be defined by climate change

A_man_for_all

On September 7 2013, the Australian voting public put into high office a man known for his scepticism of climate change, for surrounding himself with a coterie of fellow sceptics and for turning his back on partisan efforts to introduce a price on carbon. 

It is scarcely acknowledged today, but as late as June 2009 Tony Abbott argued for a price on carbon. In Sky News interview, Abbott stated: 

“If you want to put a price on carbon why not just do it with a simple tax. Why not ask motorists to pay more? Why not ask electricity consumers to pay more? 

And then at the end of the year, you can take your invoices to the tax office and get a rebate on the carbon tax you paid. 

It would be burdensome, all taxes are burdensome, but it would certainly change the price on carbon, raise the price of carbon without increasing in any way the overall tax burden.” 

Abbott’s repudiation of his own position and that of perceived wisdom is one of the most stunning turnarounds in Australia political history. The question, though it may never be answered, is what prompted Abbott’s about face? There are clues given to us but the man himself. 

Following the defeat of Howard Government in 2007 Abbott found solace in writing what should be regarded as his manifesto for the government he leads, Battlelines. 

Of it’s almost 200 pages, Abbott dedicates a scant four of them to climate change. And yet those four pages tell us all we need to know about Abbott the man and his view on the issue.

Abbott cites notable climate sceptic Ian Plimer as an authority, regurgitating many of the same arguments made by Plimer that have been widely dismissed by the scientific community. He also cites the equally discredited economist Bjorn Lomberg, of “sceptical environmentalist” fame. Lomberg acknowledges global warming but cherry picks facts without reservation to downplay it’s seriousness. It is an argument Abbott uncritically adopts in Battlelines, and without doubt guides his actions on climate change.

A clue to Abbott’s radical shift can be found in his concluding sentences on the issue, where he notes:

“Australians will continue to tell pollsters that they want action for a cleaner environment, but they are unlikely to support policy changes that they think might make daily life harder or much more expensive” (Battlelines, page 173).

Perhaps climate change is real. Perhaps not. Perhaps technology solutions and nuclear energy is the answer. Or not.

Regardless, it seems Abbott has cynically read the mood of parts of the electorate and played to them. Abbott is now in a position to impose the views expressed in his Battlelines manifesto upon the country.

There is much irony in that Abbott, the man who grudgingly acknowledges the science (in public at least), who will dismantle the carbon price and who has closed institutions such as the Climate Commission is defined by the politics global warming.

Without doubt Abbott, his government and his legacy will be measured against his policy approach to climate change, the very issue he denies is a genuine risk to Australia or the world. 

A man for our time, or a man for all seasons?

In the play A man for all seasons, playwright Robert Bolt muses on questions of identity and personal conscience in politics.

Based upon the life and death of Thomas More, Bolt suggests via the narrative of the play a person of conscience will stand by their principles regardless of external pressures and the temptations of short term gain.

By abiding by their principles, such individuals forfeit the temptations of power and its abuse. They remain true to themselves, a person “for all seasons”,

In the plays most famous scene, More argues against those who would put aside laws for the sake of expediency. He argues with his son-in-law, who urges the illegal arrest of a man who would eventually go on to betray him:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

It is well known tony Abbott has yearned for the Prime Ministership all his life. 

When the opportunity was presented to him, Abbott recognised the thicket of laws he needed to cut down to achieve his ambitions. He read discontent is some parts of the electorate, and played to their fears.

At this moment of writing, fire-storms are wiping out communities across New South Wales. There is no respite at this point, conditions such as these may last for weeks.

It is early spring, Australia’s extended fire season is upon us. The ill winds of climate change are upon us. 

Against this background Prime Minster Tony Abbott moves steadily, without pause or consideration to cut down laws. 

Who is Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a man cynically exploiting the moment or a man for all seasons?

We’re made of starstuff: video of the week

Nothing climate today: being Sunday, let’s share a moment of wonder.

“We are their children”.

Silence of the milestone: how humanity is greeting 400ppm with continuing indifference

The world at >400ppm during the Pliocene: sea surface temperatures relative to today

History affords us lessons if we are prepared to pay attention.

To paraphrase, those who ignores the Earth’s geologic history seem destined to relive it.

Among those who follow such things (scientists, climate bloggers and the journalists chronicling this act of civilisational suicide) the passing of the 400ppm milestone was met with a mixture of resignation, calls for action and a hint of fatalism.

The last time the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was at this level was 3 million years ago during the mid-Pliocene. It was a very different world, with average global temperatures 3-4 degrees higher. Even more concerning, sea levels were at least 5-40 meters higher than today.

But what does 400ppm mean, if having nothing more than the arbitrary significance we assign?

As atmospheric scientist Joanna Haigh notes in a recent BBC interview “In itself, the value 400ppm of CO2 has no particular significance for the physics of the climate system: concentration levels have been in the 300s for so long and now we’ve passed the 400 mark. However, this does give us the chance to mark the ongoing increase in CO2 concentration and talk about why it’s a problem for the climate.”

Like turning 40 or celebrating a Silver Wedding anniversary, passing 400ppm has symbolic value. We all acknowledge significant milestones as they allow us to understand not merely where we have come from, but where we may going.

So now that the 7 billion humans on the planet have shared the passing of this milestone, how have we acknowledged it?

My own sense is in the same way humanity has responded as it has to date: in denial; indifference; the blaming of others and the pointing of fingers; ineffective and halfhearted attempts at solutions; inaction. 

George Monbiot  of The Guardian argues the only way to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is to completely overhaul politics: “This new climate milestone reflects a profound failure of politics, in which democracy has quietly been supplanted by plutocracy. Without a widespread reform of campaign finance, lobbying and influence-peddling and the systematic corruption they promote, our chances of preventing climate breakdown are close to zero.”

Monbiot wishes to lay the full blame the fossil-fuel industry for funding disinformation and corrupting the political system.

There is some truth to this, however I judge the success of such a campaign less likely than halting (let alone reducing) the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

We face political gridlock on such comparably simpler issues like tax reform or funding services for the disabled.

The probability of a root-and-branch renewal of politics as we know it seems unlikely – at least in the time frames required to bring down emissions within the next half decade.

On not wanting to know

Despite sharing some of the sentiments expressed by Monbiot, I’ve long argued we need to take a much more nuanced view on the causes of inaction.

Kari Marie Norgaard in her groundbreaking work of anthropology Living in Denial suggests it is the social organisation of denial to which we can attribute humanities failure.

At all levels of society – from the individual to the level of national politics – we are all engaged in the activity of denial.  We enforce silence on the climate issue within own minds, in our conversations with loved ones and neighbors and within the workplace and the political sphere. The problem – Norgaard suggests – is not that of a lack of information or the malign influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Simply put that vast majority of us do not want to know.

However both Monbiot and Norgaard are right: we cannot attribute this failure to a single cause.

And so between the Scylla and Charybdis of an indifferent populace and a political system inadequate to the task, what our humanities options?

“Daddy, why is the sky white?”

The once fringe science of geoengineering is now being entertained.

It is as the term implies: the deliberate act of engineering the climate. One approach is to examine how we can draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

Another suggestion is shooting sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, thus giving it greater reflective properties. It would reduce incoming solar radiation and keep temperatures down.

Paul J. Crutzen, the chemist who gave us the term Anthropocene, recently suggested in a paper we should at least begin looking into such options but he also notes the risks:

 Anthropogenic stratospheric aerosol injection would cool the planet, stop the melting of sea ice and land-based glaciers, slow sea level rise, and increase the terrestrial carbon sink, but produce regional drought, ozone depletion, less sunlight for solar power, and make skies less blue. Furthermore it would hamper Earth-based optical astronomy, do nothing to stop ocean acidification, and present many ethical and moral issues. Further work is needed to quantify many of these factors to allow informed decision-making.

It is the equivalent of blanketing the planet in reflective tinfoil.

One of the more likely consequences of such a strategy would be to change the colour of the sky from its characteristic blue to white: no more would children ask parents why the sky is blue.

We’ll have to explain to our children it is white because we made it so.

Steve Sherwood of the University of New South Wales has a piece on The Conversation that pays attention to these growing calls for geoengineering: “There are ideas around to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These would be great if they worked, but to me they look like impractical pipe dreams… We should resist this temptation. You do not apply a tourniquet to a man’s leg if, with a bit of extra effort, you could get him to a hospital and save the leg. Bringing down carbon emissions is a matter of rolling up our sleeves and choosing to do it. For this generation to say, “we can’t” would be a sad admission of failure for a civilisation that has achieved so much.”

In Sherwood’s piece, and so many others there is that talk about civilisation “failing”.

To return to the example of the Pliocene: many scientists see this as analogous to what we can expect as the concentration of CO2 climbs. The past is our best teacher of what to expect.

Is that what failure looks like?

Or is it Götterdämmerung – the twilight of the gods?

For very good reason science journalists Mark Lynas call humanity The God Species in his book of the same title – such is our impact on the planet.

Only time and the judgement of future generations will make sense of the what we have done to ourselves and the world.

Sic transit gloria mundi

I will end not with a call to arms, casting judgement or claiming civilisation is a failed project.

Only to say what is – is.

What will be – will be.

What will come – is coming.

There is enough blame to share in equal portions.

Our task is to watch and note the changing planet; to begin the great works of adaptation.

And to explain to those who follow how this came to pass.

——–

Mike @ WtD

Saving the Great Barrier Reef: is it in our own self interest?

The GBT seen from space (source: NASA)

The GBR seen from space (source: NASA)

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the true wonders of the planet, however thanks to climate change and development it is as risk.

The United Nations has let the Australian Federal and Queensland State government know that they plan to list it as an endangered world heritage site:

The United Nations has put the Queensland and federal governments on notice that the Great Barrier Reef could be added to a list of endangered world heritage sites. 

In a draft decision released Friday night, expected to be adopted when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meets in Cambodia next month, it will be recommended the Great Barrier Reef be included in the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2014 ‘‘in the absence of a firm and demonstrable commitment’’ from the state and federal governments to take action…

Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters said it was worrying that Australia was on the brink of joining the ‘‘list of shame’’ as a country that could not manage its world heritage sites.

‘‘Australia would be the only developed country in the world to have a world heritage site on endangered list. It would be a huge international embarrassment and it would be a big blow to our tourism industry,’’ she said.

‘‘We’ve got 54,000 people who rely on a healthy reef and a thriving tourism industry and those jobs would be at risk if international tourists think, ‘Oh, the reef’s on the endangered list, gee it must be completely trashed, we won’t bother coming to visit’.‘‘It would be a massive blow to the tourism industry, which is about $5 billion a year in revenue and that’s revenue we could have for years to come – it’s not just a one-off mining boom.’’

I’ve only visited the reef once but count it as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is a place of extraordinary beauty. It also provides many Australians with a livelihood, supporting a $5 billion a year industry.

But is that only way we should we value the reef? Should we consider its own intrinsic value – and those of the myriad of species that live among it – or do we value it in purely economic terms and the aesthetic value it provides to us?

Do we simply sweep aside any concerns about environmental degradation and species loss and place the interests of humanity – and the economy – first?

Should we save the Great Barrier Reef?

The interests of humanity, other species and ecosystems  are not mutually exclusive: there is a relatedness between all species and environments. This includes not only natural environments, but urban ones as well.

Humanity is not separate to nature: our civilisation has become a geologic force of nature by ushering in the Anthropocene.  No part of the planet has escaped the impact of our footfall.

So, let us think of the planet as a continuum of environments: from the great cities of the world to the frozen wilds of Antarctica. At risk environments such as the GBR demand our attention because they are at risk: they are fragile, and the loss of the reef would impact both species and the people whose livelihood depend upon it.

Thus – put crudely – in protecting the GBR the interests of humanity, the reef and the many species it hosts converge.

In preserving the reef we save a place of extraordinary natural beauty, maintain a $5 billion a year industry and – just as importantly – help sustain an ecosystem that supports countless species.

The continuum of urban, natural and at risk environments: managing the planet

[Warning: speculation ahead!]

Now extend this kind of thinking to the continuum of both urban and natural environments. Every part of the planet is inter-related: from the atmosphere, to the oceans, farmlands, cities, the suburbs and remaining wild spaces.

The Earth is now a system of both anthropogenic and natural systems – each impacting the other. The system we call the economy is embedded within and impacts systems such as the carbon cycle. A warming planet will impact our economic system in the form of increased weather extremes and the destruction of property. Likewise there will be increased economic opportunities driven by a warming planet – investment in alternative energy and the redistribution of agricultural production to more benign parts of the globe.

This kind of systems approach does not distinguish between natural and man-made systems – such distinctions are now meaningless.

What defines humanity: our intelligence as a species or our impact on the planet? 

Planetary boundaries: how we impact the planet

We presently view the Anthropocene as a tragedy: the sixth great extinction and a period of immanent environmental collapse.

At the same time we are continually urged to “save the planet”, however I don’t see it that way: calls to save abstract notions as “the environment” fall in deaf ears. And for good reason.

I take an exception to those environmentalists who believe we can return the world to a pristine state: there is no going back to some romanticized pre-civilisational Eden. There are billions who still live in poverty who need to be lifted from the conditions that prevent their flourishing. We cannot overlook the need to redress such inequality.

And yet, to return to my original point, the interests of humanity and other species converge.

Climate sceptics deny we’re having such an impact on the planet. And yet many environmentalists deny the end of nature. Ironically both sceptics and environmentalists deny the role our species has to play in actively managing the planet.

Our environmental policies, governance arrangements and crucially how we view ourselves need to change: what defines us as a species is not our intelligence, societal structure, economic system or even the constitution of our genes.

What defines humanity is the act of geoengineering. 

So its good-bye homo sapiens and hello homo ingeniare. 

I say this somewhat facetiously – but to make a point. How we see ourselves and the world matters.

For thousands of years we have been accidental geoengineers: at this point in history the future of our species and all others depends on us accepting the role of self conscious planetary engineers.  

After all, it is in our own self-interest.

Sunday morning musings

….hopefully the above makes some sense. Treat this post as my Sunday morning musings over coffee.

My thinking has been shaped by environmental philosopher Bryan Norton and his “convergence hypothesis” outlined in his 1991 book Towards unity among environmentalists. I’m also interested in the writings of Anthony Weston who has written on environmental pragmatism. Also consider Eaarth by Bill McKibbon; The God Species by Mark Lynas; The New Nature by Tim Low; Here on Earth by Tim Flannery; Earth Masters by Clive Hamilton; and Al Gore’s The Future. In addition concepts such as planetary boundaries.

There is a great deal of literature on this subject, and I appreciate I’m not doing it justice – or my own thoughts.

Being somewhat overwhelmed at work I have little time to write – thus the sparsity of posts. So feel free to agree, argue or pass over these musings.

Cheers

Mike @ WtD

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