Climate change and Australian politics

Australia recently held a Federal election in which all the opinion polls for months had shown that the Labor Party was going to win by 52% to 48% and the Liberal National Party (LNP – the coalition of conservative parties in Australia) would lose government. Over the last 6 years, the LNP government has abandoned the country’s policy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, and effectively dropped its commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement (although it is pretending it will still meet the emissions-reduction target by use of misleading statistics).  The urgency of addressing climate change became a major issue, particularly for younger people, in the recent election campaign, and The Labor party ran with a much stronger set of policies to address climate change in the recent election campaign, and this issue was a principal issue for many urban and younger voters.

The Labor party also ran with a very detailed list of policies including getting rid of some tax breaks which predominantly favoured relatively rich investors, and some tax policies on ownership of second houses which had the impact of raising house prices to the disadvantage of first house buyers. The LPNP ran scare campaigns about Labor taxes (that were largely false) and together with the concern of working class voters particularly in rural areas where coal and other mining were important, this resulted in the loss for Labor.

Although the Australian media is going to some pains to say the Australian result should not be compared to the Trump election, there are certainly parallels in that the result was not anticipated, the opinion polls were wrong, and it partly seems to have been a swing of working class voters to extreme right politicians partly due to racism and partly economic fears.  The media is painting it as a revolt of the ageing baby boomers protecting their wallets, against the interests of the younger generation in addressing climate change.

There does appear to be a growing divide in Australian political views, as is happening elsewhere, and that does not bode well for democracy in the longer term.  Once the opposition (whoever it is) starts to be seen as an existential threat by a large proportion of the population, rather than an alternate legitimate political position, then the way is open to lying to the public (to prevent the election of the other side) and ultimately to fascism of the right or left. There is a strong right-wing element in the LNP which is in climate denial, along with the powerful Murdoch Press. My sense is that this is almost entirely strategic.  These politicians and media do not care whether climate change is real or not, they simply want to protect their vested interests. And the vested interests have sufficient media power to muddy the waters adequately and to trigger the hip pocket nerves of the economically vulnerable (the retired and the working class in this recent election). To a very real extent, humans care very much more about their very immediate economic wellbeing than any even medium term existential threats.

Ironically, the data on climate change are clearer for Australia than for many other regions of the world, and the short-term impacts on Australia (an old and arid landform) are greater than in many other places.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology and other Australian science agencies have networks of sensors that track sea, ground and air temperatures, with data going back to 1910 (https://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/en/climate-campus/australian-climate-change/australian-trends/). Sea surface temperatures in the Australian region have warmed by nearly 1 °C since 1900, with the past three years, 2013–2015, all in the region’s five warmest years on record. Land surface and sea surface average temperatures have have risen in close correlation with an acceleration in the rising trend since 1950 (see graph below).

The duration, frequency and intensity of heatwaves have increased across large parts of Australia since 1950. There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia since the 1970s.

I was in Australia over the last Christmas-New Year period and the southern parts of the country were sweltering in a heat wave. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has issued its 2018 climate statement, revealing a record breaking run of rising temperatures. The graph below shows average Australian temperature by year relative to the 1961-1990 average temperature.

The average maximum temperature for the country as a whole was particularly warm, 1.55 degrees Celsius above the 1961–1990 average, making 2018 Australia’s second warmest year on record for daily high temperatures. Nine of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. These rising temperatures have been accompanied by drought, bushfires, and the death of half of the Great Barrier Reef.

I was astounded to read the comments to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on this, where many commentators expressed complete disbelief that the climate was changing, or that humans were responsible, or indeed that the science was settled and not in dispute. A recent major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/  stated that human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. Achieving the global greenhouse gas emission targets set in the Paris Agreement will limit global warming to below 2°C this century.

The report also makes clear that limiting warming to 1.5°C will have huge benefits compared with allowing temperatures to surge to the 2°C level. But keeping to 1.5°C would require aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emission, going further than the targets set in the Paris Agreement. Even if nations could achieve that, the world would look very different: entire ecosystems could be destroyed across more than 6% of the earth’s land surface, sea levels would rise between half and 1 metre, and 70–90% of coral reefs would disappear. Moreover, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries, with projected long term increases in the range 3-13 metres.

The  most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, and the Keeling Curve summarizes the global accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. It is based on continuous measurements taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii from 1958 to the present day. The curve is named for the scientist Charles David Keeling, who started the monitoring program and supervised it until his death in 2005.

Source: Delorme [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Mauna_Loa_CO2_monthly_mean_concentration

This is one of the most important scientific results of the 20th century. It was the first significant evidence that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were rapidly increasing, and in a very real sense it continues to track our performance as a species. The curve continues to rise steadily at an undiminished pace, and is a stark indictment of a species that is ready to stand by as islands submerge, coastal lands flood, human habitats burn in wildfires, entire ecosystems disappear, species extinction accelerates, and coral reefs disappear.

Data from Antarctic ice cores has enabled levels of carbon dioxide to be measured back to 800,000 years ago. The graph below shows 800,000 years of CO2 data, based air bubbles trapped in ice cores. It shows that CO2 hasn’t ever been greater than 300 parts per million, with very slow and cyclical increases and decreases about every 100,000 years. Today it’s over 400 ppm, 33% higher than it’s been in 800,000 years, and on a very sharp upwards trajectory.

Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

A 2009 study, published in the journal Science, analyzed shells in deep sea sediments to estimate past CO2 levels, and found that CO2 levels have not been as high as they are now for at least the past 10 to 15 million years, during the Miocene epoch.This was a time when global temperatures were substantially warmer than today, and there was very little ice around anywhere on the planet. And so the sea level was considerably higher — around 100 feet higher — than it is today.

With global CO2 emissions continuing on an upward trajectory that is likely to put CO2 concentrations above 450 ppm or higher, it is extremely unlikely that the steadily rising shape of the Keeling Curve is going to change anytime soon. Particularly, as the United States has repudiated the Paris Agreement and started dismantling climate change regulations. Australia also recently abandoned emissions targets or any policy to address climate change, effectively also abandoning the Paris Agreement https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06675-9

National emissions have risen each year since 2014, when the Australian government repealed laws requiring big industrial emitters to pay for their emissions. There are also no significant policies to reduce the other major sources of pollution, such as transport, agriculture, heavy industry and mining, which together generate nearly two-thirds of Australia’s carbon emissions. Australia’s conservative government has rejected four national climate policies since it was elected in 2013, and rejection of climate change policy arguably played a role in the abrupt replacement of then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull by a climate sceptic Scott Morrison who was recently returned to government as Prime Minister in the May election.

The Australian government refusal to act on emissions is completely out of line with public opinion, with a recent poll finding that 68% of respondents wanted domestic climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement. Australia is among several industrialized nations that are not on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius as the Paris accord promises, according to independent analyses.

The failure of Australians to give priority to addressing climate change politically is in stark contrast to a recent new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (https://www.ipbes.net/). Over 15,000 scientific and government sources were assessed by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, to assess the combined impact of land-clearing, overfishing and man-made climate change.  The report estimates that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades — more than at any time in human history. Our planet faces the loss of more than 50 species per day, every day, for the next 50 years.

4 thoughts on “Climate change and Australian politics

  1. Pingback: Latest data show accelerating rise in carbon dioxide | Mountains and rivers

    • Agree. My relatives in Queensland are experiencing more frequent bushfires and extreme heat waves. In Switzerland, the major glaciers are retreating fast. The locals who live near the end of the Rhone Glacier, a major tourist attraction, are now spending their own money to cover around 5 acres of ice near its end, for part of the year, to try to delay the melting.

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