Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Urgent action shelved by Rudd as climate burns

The news that the ETS has been shelved might have been welcome if there had been stronger, science-based action to replace it. While the current Bill in no way represents any sort of effective measure against climate change, its ditching comes with no other proposal for the urgent action the global climate needs.

Labor is selling the delay as biding its time for political conditions that will be more favourable for the passing of its current ineffective Bill. In reality, the Government welcomes any delay even on half-measures that come with massive inappropriate compensation for the fossil fuel industry and heavy emitters.

With a bit of guts, the Government could have instead introduced science-based legislation in the first place. By now it would have had a double-dissolution trigger on a Bill that might have been worth passing. Even now, it could negotiate with the Greens in good faith to put in place an interim carbon tax that would make a start on climate action when the science says we need it - now.

Earlier in April I met with Martin Ferguson on these issues, and even then he was flagging that the ETS would again fail in the Senate and the Government would not be taking a carbon price to the next election - how prescient seems our energy and resources minister and champion of fossil fuels. As for the Greens, Ferguson said there would never be a "settlement" with them on climate change.

While Ferguson is the real face of Rudd on this vital issue, we must remember it is in the hands of all voting citizens to decide the terms on which we make our settlement with the global climate.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Response to comments at Crikey on Ferguson

I thought I'd offer a response here to comments on my piece on Martin Ferguson at Crikey. You need to register to view the (free) Crikey piece, but the comments and my response also relate to an extended version of the article published here, 'Ferguson the real face of Rudd on climate'.

First of all, as one comment suggested, I'd love to be able to offer a transcript of the interview, but I can't imagine there was ever any prospect of a recording being allowed - or of a frank discussion on Ferguson's part if it had been. Of course, if Ferguson has any argument with anything I've said here, he's either silent or letting others do the talking for him. He certainly knows about the piece, I can assure you.

On the Hansen supporting nuclear comment (and why did I only mention his views on coal), I did actually think about that while writing the piece. I guess his support for nuclear power really isn't any part of why he's right about climate change and the contribution of coal and other fossil fuels to the problem.

Barry Brook is another example of someone who is very strong on climate science but supports nuclear. Because I disagree with Hansen and Brook (and agree with Al Gore) on the nuclear issue, I don't think Ferguson is any part of the solution. There are just too many problems with proliferation, the risk of accident and waste - and too many sound alternatives - to think about nuclear energy as a (radioactive) silver bullet.

I suspect that, for Ferguson, a similar principle applies to uranium as with coal: it appears unthinkable for him to adopt any solution that entails not cashing in on a mineral resource. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground isn't destroying industry and jobs etc. as some commenters suggested, it's the action needed to avoid catastrophic climate impacts and the far greater economic costs of 'adapting' to them (we can't) rather than preventing them from happening in the first place.

The volcano argument - why bother about human causes when a bloody big volcano has erupted - I think is a red herring. Even if there were a net contribution from the eruption not 'offset' by the reduction in emissions from flights, would that really justify us continuing to increase our own massive emissions, or argue even more strongly to reduce them? The answer is pretty clear, in my view. It's an interesting example of the opportunism of climate denialism - unfortunately, there are millions of man-made carbon dioxide volcanoes all over the planet that we call coal-fired power stations, oil-fuelled transport etc. etc. that we can do something about and really should.

Commenter Michael James I think is clearly wrong that we climate campaigners brought nothing to the table in meeting with Ferguson. If Ferguson and other politicians listened to the climate movement, we would stand a much better chance of avoiding the worst climate impacts - pretty tangible, I'd say. The claim that renewables can't provide baseload is the old argument Ferguson likes to trot out, but it's dead in the water. A combination of renewables connected via a smart grid can readily supply baseload power. In fact Beyond Zero Emissions has a Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Project to prove it. They say a 60/40 solar/wind mix will do it, creating thousands of jobs in the process.

Finally, one commenter still bothered to quote Plimer I thought the excellent John van Tiggelen piece in The Age Good Weekend magazine a while back would have put a stop to that.

Firstly I'd say that there's very little doubt that we're markedly warming the planet because of our greenhouse gas contributions, despite their small percentage of the atmosphere's composition. To say there's so much more carbon trapped within the earth only supports urgent climate action. The carbon stored in the earth is naturally sequestered there, but we are releasing it and unleashing its warming effects through mining and burning fossil fuels, warming the frozen tundra that releases methane etc. etc. Our aim must be not to release carbon that is already stored safely, and to draw down the carbon that's already in the atmosphere.

Hansen, Gore, Four Corners and many other reputable sources have shown that the artificial (and unproven at scale) process of carbon capture and storage is not the way to do it - especially when the renewable options are abundant, especially in Australia.

What do you say, Martin? Anything at all?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ferguson the real face of Rudd on climate

Yesterday Crikey published an article I wrote about my recent meeting with Martin Ferguson, local federal member for Batman and the energy and resources minister in the Australian Government. The following is an extended version of that article.


You could say we’d hit the jackpot – four local climate campaigners scoring a meeting with their federal MP, who also happens to be the energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Martin Ferguson holds the eminently safe but greening Victorian seat of Batman. A couple of weekends earlier, his Preston electoral office – brightly lit in an otherwise dark industrial strip of High Street – had seen an Earth Hour demonstration complete with the surprisingly affable presence of the Australian Federal Police.

The call then was for a switch to renewables, and for public recognition of the link between Ferguson as local MP, and Ferguson as a federal minister championing emissions-intensive fossil fuel exports and domestic power generation. Australia is heavily dependent on coal for its domestic energy supply, and is the world’s largest coal exporter.

Now Ferguson was sitting across the table from us, a minder scribbling quietly beside him. The Government would go again with the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in May, but, he said, would fail again in the Senate and Labor would face the next election with no price on carbon. As for the future, Ferguson seemed to see a roadblock on every path to effective climate laws.

Why not strengthen the ETS, I offered, include science-based targets, and if necessary go to a double-dissolution on that basis? “Jobs,” Ferguson replied. I had never stood at the gates of a factory telling hundreds of workers they didn’t have one.

This notwithstanding the employment opportunities in a range of green industries, from energy efficiency, renewable retail and domestic power generation, even electric vehicle manufacture. To give just one example, the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 report on stationary energy projects 15,000 jobs in the transition to zero emissions, with 50,000 additional jobs in operations and maintenance.

Certainly few would dispute the need for a transition plan for workers displaced in the move to a green economy, but if restructuring is routinely justified by business on self-interested economic grounds, there is surely a case for it when seeking to achieve vital environmental goals in which everyone has a stake.

Ferguson’s jobs argument is, in fact, a sooty veil for the rejection of any climate strategy that would leave Australia without domestic and international markets for its huge coal reserves.

Yet the minister would not countenance any challenge on this front. “I’m not here to be cross-examined by you,” he replied when I attempted to put to him a pre-condition for a safe climate recently advanced by Dr James Hansen in his 2009 book, Storms of My Grandchildren. Hansen, arguably the world’s leading climate scientist, argues that the climate crisis is not solvable unless we capture coal emissions now, or leave remaining coal reserves in the ground.

What, then, of the Greens proposal for an interim carbon tax while agreement on climate legislation is hammered out? Ferguson offered two main objections. The first was a claimed lack of certainty for business; the second, the blunt statement that there would never be a “settlement” with the Greens on this issue.

On the first objection, it was put to Ferguson without response that the cost of rejecting any uncertainty for business was accepting the certainty of climate impacts for everyone else. I could have added that there has long been little doubt that business and industry would face a rising carbon price, and the Greens proposal would at least provide a baseline for that price on which planning could occur in the context of clear statements of intention by Government.

Nor is it unreasonable that, with the climate at stake, business and industry be required to operate within a market that typically calls for a variety of judgments about changing commercial conditions. When the world will share the damaging climate impacts but not the profits, why is certainty the prize of business but not a worthwhile goal for the environment?

On the second objection, Ferguson’s blanket exclusion of a climate settlement with the Greens seems at odds with claimed negotiations between climate change minister Senator Penny Wong and Greens Senator, Christine Milne. In the week following our meeting, in fact, The Age quoted Greens Senator Bob Brown as being “in a mood to do a deal” on the ETS.

Nothing, however, would be good enough for the Greens, Ferguson claimed – climate change was for them a political question, while for Labor it was an economic and environmental one. There was no reply to the argument that the Greens would be hard-pressed to reject for political motives any plan that actually reflected the climate science, in stark contrast with the measures currently proposed by Labor.

Unfortunately, such a plan would demand a Labor Government willing to be informed by that science, not intent on the half-measures it thinks will “bring the community along”. The suggestion that the public could in fact be persuaded to stronger climate action by more effective Government communication was met with the claim that “we’ve made it very hard for ourselves with political advertising”.

However, it was unclear how Ferguson would distinguish between a campaign addressing a public health threat based on medical science and a campaign addressing the threat of global warming based on the established science of climate. Why would one be legitimate Government communication, and the other “political advertising”? There could not be a campaign around a Bill in the Senate, was all he offered.

Closet sceptic?

So is Ferguson the Rudd Government’s “closet” sceptic? While, according to Ferguson, there is supposedly no debate within Government about the science, the question is almost irrelevant when their energy and climate policies paint Labor clearly as effective climate denialists, despite the progressive but ultimately empty rhetoric of Penny Wong.

It is true that Ferguson was expansive on renewable energy, apparently open to the possibility that the answer to our energy and climate challenges could well be a combination of some or even all energy sources currently on the table.

He spoke of the $1.5 billion Solar Flagships program, part of the Government’s $4.5 billion Clean Energy Initiative. He spoke of geothermal, and of an integrated solar, wind and biomass plant for King Island. Improvements to feed-in tariffs were put to him and discussed. It was not clear, though, how Labor’s 20% by 2020 Renewable Energy Target stacked up to what he suggested was equivalent to a $20 billion renewable feed-in tariff.

Yet the green turns to brown when the commitment to renewables is compared to that for fossil fuels. It was clear from the meeting, for example, that Ferguson is big on gas, which, despite its potential role as a transition fuel, is still a highly carbon-intensive energy source that is no substitute for the fast-tracking of solar, wind and geothermal with complementary efficiency and demand-reduction measures.

One suspects, however, that Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the massive North West Shelf Gorgon development is driven less by the role of gas in any climate solution than by its projected contribution of $40 billion in taxes to the Australian Government over the next 30 years. The same report in The Australian has Ferguson anticipating $100 billion of investment over the next 12–18 months following a $50 billion deal with China.

Again the theme emerges that, for Ferguson – and in reality, for Labor – there can be no solution that leaves Australia’s natural resources unexploited. Of course, that doesn’t mean that coal is going anywhere.

Despite Kevin Rudd’s $100 million “clean” coal research institute, for example, Ferguson asserted that carbon capture and storage (CCS), was a “proven technology”, challenged only by the “cost of deployment”. This contrasted with large-scale solar technologies already operational in Spain and the United States. Solar, according to Ferguson, needed to be “proved up”.

Yet for James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist, clean coal is an “illusion”. In September 2009, ABC TV Four Corners also questioned the beleaguered technology in its program, “The Coal Nightmare”. A few days after our meeting, it also aired “A Dirty Business”, a program exposing the health and environmental impacts of coal mining in the NSW Hunter valley.

As Al Gore points out in his recent book, Our Choice, without the elusive prospect of CCS coal is more than twice as carbon-intensive as gas, which itself is more than thirty times more carbon-intensive than concentrated solar thermal.

In spite of the profound challenges of such a massively carbon-intensive energy source, Ferguson said coal would be with us for “both our lifetimes”, echoing comments he made at a CCS conference in Bergen, Norway, in 2009.

This commitment to coal is, of course, played out front-and-centre in the current ETS proposal, which includes $1.5 billion compensation for the coal industry and $7.3 billion for fossil-fuel electricity generators.

To these billions of public funds can be added the slated $47 billion, five-year investment in an obsolete power grid that, according to Fairfax green business writer, Paddy Manning, “entrenches electricity generation from fossil fuels and will only accelerate climate change”.

Asked about network implications of the necessary shift to renewables, Ferguson said the Ministerial Council for Energy (which he chairs) is looking at “rules and regulations for connecting renewables to the grid”. Yet, in December, the Total Environment Centre published a statement that a communiqué issued by the Council “approved a business-as-usual approach to building more inefficient, carbon intensive infrastructure and accepts inefficient growth in energy demand as inevitable”.

There was, in Ferguson’s fondness for a grid that has “served us well”, a seeming nostalgia for dubious past glories, when accelerating warming calls instead for a questioning of the grid’s readiness for the renewables that will form the core of any solution to dangerous climate change.

That warming is already costing lives through the spread of disease, water scarcity, and extreme climate events such as the 2003 European heatwave that left 35,000 people dead. Warming is also increasingly implicated in a global trend towards more frequent and severe bushfire.

On this last point, Ferguson seemed to draw support for his multi-billion-dollar fossil-fuel grid from questions at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission about the role of faulty power lines in the Black Saturday fires. A safe grid is, of course, a necessity, but one geared to fossil fuels will only promote global warming and a consequent worsening of bushfire risk in Australia.

By this stage of the meeting, however, Ferguson had relaxed. He sat back in his chair, smiling. Here, after all, was the minister for the prevention of black-outs, the voice of “sanity” standing against the extreme environmentalists he claimed would flick the switch on the super-polluting Hazelwood coal-fired power station tomorrow, without any plan for the workers, or to keep the lights on.

He wasn’t, it seemed, the minister for catastrophic climate impacts, for the Montara oil spill, or for the grounding of the coal-laden Sheng Neng 1 on the Great Barrier Reef. Get those fossil fuels out of the ground, spill them into our oceans and air – job done.

I met with Martin Ferguson on Friday 9 April 2010 together with representatives from Darebin Climate Action Now, organisers of the meeting, and of the Earth Hour event at Ferguson’s electorate office on 27 March 2010. These are my personal views. Comments welcome.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Climate and energy policies fuel fire danger

Following Karen Kissane's piece on Black Saturday, An appetite for revenge, The Age has today published my letter (scroll to "Policies fuel danger") arguing that, amid scrutiny of the chaos of failures during the fires, we should not lose sight of the urgent necessity for better climate and energy policies to reduce long-term bushfire risk.

At present, Christine Nixon appears to be the focal point of blame, when in fact there were so many failures in a range of critical areas. For that reason climate and energy policy are at risk of disappearing from the range of options we have to minimise bushfire risk in Victoria. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has the power, and the moral obligation, to address this in its final report.

Here's the submitted version of my letter that was only very slightly edited in the paper:
Karen Kissane points to such an incoherent dispersal of accountability for the failures on Black Saturday that the blame must chiefly lie with the Victorian Government itself. That conclusion is based not only on the Government being ultimately accountable for emergency management, but on the inclusion of the emergency services minister in the list of those missing when their support and leadership were most needed.

Unfortunately, the same compartmentalised thinking being used to cover backsides is also at play in the broad examination of the causes of the fires. The same Government so sorely lacking in emergency management can blithely continue with energy and climate policies that will fuel more frequent and severe bushfires in Victoria. This has been pointed out by the firefighters themselves, and is supported by research from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre.

Unless the Victorian Government frames energy and climate policy to reduce long-term bushfire risk, a major driver of future bushfire events will continue to be lost among what should rightfully be seen as a chaos of failures in a multitude of critical areas.
Comments welcome.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Earth Hour more than a token

Last week's edition of The Sunday Age carried Stephen Cauchi's story, "Melbourne's Earth Hour enthusiasm dims". The story notes the lower engagement with the event by Melbourne residents, and Clive Hamilton's fear that the event risks tokenism.

While this may well be true for some, it certainly isn't the case for many climate advocates for whom the event is part of sustained local campaigns - including that being run by Darebin Climate Action Now to draw attention to the climate impacts sanctioned by local federal member for Batman, Martin Ferguson, who is also resources and energy minister in the Rudd Labor Government.

Today The Sunday Age published my response to the Cauchi piece:
I CAN'T agree with Clive Hamilton that Earth Hour is tokenistic. The small crowd gathered outside Martin Ferguson's office in High Street, Preston, wasn't there to tick a box and then go home to resume carbon-intensive lifestyles. Instead, they highlighted the connection between Ferguson as their federal member for Batman and his role as the Rudd government's energy and resources minister, in which he ceaselessly promotes the fossil fuels that scientists say must be phased out if we are to avoid dangerous warming.

Ferguson is, in essence, our local member for global damage. Climate risk - unlike coal - can never truly be exported. Wherever the stuff is burnt, its carbon emissions accumulate in the only atmosphere we have and we all share the impacts while the coal companies keep the profits.

Calling for Ferguson to turn away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy didn't feel at all tokenistic.

The letter can also be read on The Sunday Age letters page (scroll down to "More than a token").

For those interested in how longer letters get edited, here's the version submitted:
Perhaps the response to Earth Hour was somewhat muted this year. That is understandable given the fiasco of the Copenhagen climate talks and the essentially political, unscientific climate debate in Australia, where the two major parties both advocate climate inaction despite the apparent differences in their rhetoric.

However, I can't agree with Clive Hamilton that Earth Hour is tokenistic. The small crowd gathered outside Martin Ferguson's office in High Street Preston wasn't there to tick a box and then go home to resume carbon-intensive lifestyles. Instead they highlighted the connection between Ferguson as their local federal member for Batman and his role as the Rudd Government's energy and resources minister, in which he ceaselessly promotes the fossil fuels that scientists say must be phased out if we are to avoid dangerous warming.

Ferguson is, in essence, our local member for global damage. Climate risk - unlike coal - can never truly be exported. Wherever the stuff is burnt, its carbon emissions accumulate in the only atmosphere we have, and we all share the impacts while the coal companies keep the profits. Climate risk is a very dangerous boomerang for Australia, the world's largest exporter of coal and among the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Calling for Ferguson to turn away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy didn't feel at all tokenistic, and I thank Darebin Climate Action Now for organising this important local event - part of a sustained campaign that will follow Ferguson all the way to the ballot box.
See Earth Hour "with" Martin Ferguson for details and a short video about DarebinCAN's Earth Hour event.

Comments welcome.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Costello muddles climate with politics

Yesterday's edition of The Age carried Peter Costello's muddled opinion piece dismissing the climate crisis because he thinks it has fallen below the prime minister's pragmatic political radar - as if climate were an expendable pawn in a cynical political game.

Costello's argument rests on an egotism that suggests an issue's importance or lack thereof is decided at the often uninformed whim of politicians, not based on the objective evidence - in this case, the compelling scientific argument that climate change is happening and impacts are already with us.

While political posturing is plainly irrelevant to the relentless physical processes of the atmosphere, it is sadly true that political action is crucial to framing climate solutions. Costello should therefore consider the real-world consequences of muddling climate with politics.

Today The Age published my letter responding to Costello. Here's a slightly longer, unedited version, in which I also address Costello's weak swipe at Earth Hour.
Dismissing the urgency of climate change, Peter Costello obviously hasn't read Rajendra Pachauri's piece (30/3) on the failure of denialist challenges to undermine the fundamentally compelling body of climate science. He also appears not to have read the recent 'State of the Climate' report jointly released by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Both add to the already convincing case that climate change is happening and that impacts already being felt will worsen if we fail to curb our spiralling carbon emissions.

Instead, Costello's lack of reading allows him to consider the climate inaction of the Rudd Government as some kind of objective measure of the urgency of the climate crisis. Perhaps it is the egotism of the political class that can say 'If I don't think it's important, it's not important', despite what the international scientific consensus clearly says. Nor should we be distracted by asking which of the major parties is stronger on policy in this area, when the reality is that both are closer to denialism than they are to the receding possibility of a safe climate.

As for Earth Hour, no-one who was sitting outside Martin Ferguson's office on Saturday night thinks the climate issue can be switched on and off like the lights. Darebin Climate Action Now will be following the Batman MP and resources and energy minister with a sustained campaign all the way to the ballot box.

Your hat won't be in the ring come election day, Peter, but at least you could do some reading - especially if you have grandchildren.
Comments welcome.