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Climate Change



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Issue #1775      May 3, 2017

Climate change

Looking back and looking forward

When Richard Nixon was US President (late ’60s - early’70s) a government scientific report anticipated climate change. It advocated “climate engineering” initiatives to deal with an expected “greenhouse effect”, a rise in global temperatures caused by the release of industrial carbon gases into the atmosphere.

The report recommended spraying aerosol chemicals into the stratosphere, and spreading pieces of silver foil across the oceans. These hair-raising recommendations were never implemented. They would undoubtedly have had a major adverse impact on the environment, even if they succeeded in moderating global warming.

Even now, climate engineering is occasionally posed as the solution to climate change, rather than the very obvious solution of phasing out industrial processes that emit carbon gases.

The tardiness of governments and the resurrection of “red herring” solutions to environmental problems stems from the political power and greed of corporations that benefit from polluting industries.

The current struggle over climate change has a historical parallel. The first scientific paper linking asbestos to lung disease was published in 1909, but the material wasn’t banned in developed nations until the 1970s and only after bitter opposition by the asbestos industry. Asbestos is still exported from Canada, where its use is banned, to India, for sale on the open market.

The unspeakable pursuing the unthinkable

In Australia the largest contributors to carbon emissions, the coal-fired power stations, are nearing the end of their working lives. The giant privately-operated Hazelwood plant ceased operation recently, and others will probably close within ten years.

Corporations are unwilling to invest in new coal-fired power stations, because renewable energy now offers greater long-term profits than either coal or gas.

Yet the government is determined to preserve coal-fired power generation, and is advocating construction of new-technology coal-fired plants, on the false pretext that they’re necessary to meet base load power demand.

The US government has funded construction of nuclear power stations for decades. It appears the Turnbull government will take a similar approach, using taxpayer funds to prop up coal-fired power generation, even though the corporate world itself is writing that industry off.

The only beneficiaries of that policy will be the shareholders of the “stranded asset” corporations that run coal-fired power stations.

The government has set a $100 billion target for new investment in coal mining in Australia. It’s also considering granting the Indian corporation Adani Group a low-interest $1 billion loan to build a 400 kilometre rail track, to facilitate the transport of coal from the company’s proposed new coal mine at Carmichael in Queensland but only on condition that the line could be used by other companies to transport even more coal from their new mines.

The Queensland Labor government has promised Adani unlimited access to groundwater for 60 years, plus 30 gigalitres of dammed surface water. Bill Shorten says a federal Labor government would approve the project, providing it meets environmental requirements.

But how could it? The project, the biggest coal mine in Australia’s history, will endanger the Great Barrier Reef. Two thirds of the Reef is already bleached and dying because of rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change, which in turn is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal.

And combustion of coal from the $21 billion Carmichael mine complex would accelerate climate change and would help to drive the atmospheric temperature rise beyond the perilous 2 degree “tipping point” mark.

When the bottom falls out of coal mining, as it eventually will, the Adani directors will doubtless shrug their shoulders, claim that the company cannot pay its debts, and derive consolation from vast profits stashed away with the benefit of their numerous offshore tax havens.

The worst of times, the best of times

One effect of climate change – hand in hand with wars being waged – is the mass displacement of people from countries that experience its worst impact. That’s already happening, with hundreds of thousands of people from drought-affected African and middle-eastern countries crushed into refugee camps in neighbouring nations.

Scientists predict that because of climate change the annual monsoons that fall on South-east Asia will begin to move easterly, forcing water-deprived citizens of those nations to seek asylum elsewhere. Many would undoubtedly head for Australia, and most would travel by sea.

Enforcing the deliberately cruel practice of “turning back the boats” would result in bitter opposition, and possibly military retaliation from the governments of the stricken nations from which the asylum seekers had sailed.

In these circumstances, carrying the government’s “Fortress Australia” immigration policies to their logical conclusion would involve treating the asylum seekers as hostile invaders, and taking the unthinkable step of leaving the boats abandoned at sea, or even sinking them.

But an Australian government could adopt a completely different approach and actually turn the situation to advantage, by taking initiatives that offer long-term benefits well beyond the period of climate change mitigation.

The climate crisis has already forced the world to develop renewable energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels, which have polluted the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

In Australia, the obvious way forward is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy production and phase out the mining and export of coal and other fossil fuels. But we could do much more.

To help feed the world, we could investigate the feasibility of managing our water systems with a view to diverting the floodwater that carries off our precious, fragile-thin topsoil, and transforming parched inland areas into fertile plains for agriculture or grazing.

To preserve animal and plant species threatened by climate change, we could increase our contribution to the international struggle to store grain and genetic material

And to find cures or immunisation against tropical diseases we could fund medical research to deal with those diseases as they move towards temperate climes because of climate change. As a priority we should implement the climate change mitigation measures coming out of successive international climate change summits, the most recent in Paris in 2016.

But the Turnbull government isn’t interested. It’s solely focused on slowing down the transition to renewable energy production, rather than phasing it out.

To meet the climate crisis we must replace climate-conservative state and federal governments with political coalitions that are seriously dedicated to protecting the environment. And we must do it as fast as possible.

Next article – Public sector job cuts

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