2019: Not Such a Good Year (Environment, Part II)

The endangered greater glider, nearly a metre long, one of the biggest gliding mammals in the world, lives for 15 years, eats gum leaves, glides for 100 m between, ideally, tall old trees with hollows to bunk down in.

Today is World Environment Day.  It prompted me to tidy up, in a minimal kinda way, and publish this hitherto unfinished and unpublished blog post from the ‘2019, Not Such a Good Year’ series.  Of course, 2020 brought a new perspective on things.  But the environment has kept going to shit, as I will no doubt expand upon in a future post.

After 2.2 million other Australian homes went solar, I eventually got an army of solar panels in 2019, the biggest ever year for solar installations in Australia, and greatly enjoyed harnessing the sun to defeat itself through airconditioning. (Two great long reads about the pernicious cycle of (non-solar powered) airconditioning here and — damn Qatar’s bad — here.)

But other things to bring cheer were mainly predictions, proposals and plans (see this post).

An area bigger than Scotland, more than a Denmark in NSW alone, was burnt, much of it forests, estimated to result in the deaths of billions of birds, mammals and reptiles alone, possibly resulting in several species’ extinctions. Maybe three trillion beetles from just one family, Staphylinidae, were incinerated. Some species of much-loved Christmas beetles may have been extinguished. Some shocking images of the detritus of Mallacoota’s once-cacophany of birds were published by The Age, but I managed to get 80 kg of wild bird seed to my mates in Mallacoota by boat to help feed the many birds he says have returned.

It was in fact an extravagantly bad year for the environment, especially Australia’s bits of it. Japan even recommenced whaling (though only in Japanese waters) after Australia single-handedly had them banned only a couple of years ago by the International Court of Justice from the Southern Ocean.

Climate change basics are incredibly simple to the extent it is necessary for ordinary folk like us to understand them, but for the purposes of this post, I thought I would force myself to write them down, and learnt a bit in the process, like that what I cook with on my plumbed in barbie is called ‘gas’ but is in fact largely methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases if allowed to float up into the atmosphere, but which when burnt produces less carbon dioxide than coal. And let’s just say there was a lot about hydrogen I didn’t know. So here goes:

Mining, selling and burning fossil fuels — coal is the worst in terms of greenhouse emissions when burnt — generates carbon dioxide some of which is breathed in by plants which breathe out oxygen and some of the remainder of which is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, hindering the reflection of sunlight, or absorbed into the oceans, acidifying them.

More than 90% of the warmth which is trapped is absorbed by the oceans which expand (contributing to about one-third of rising sea levels), and messing with the water cycle so that as a rule of thumb, dry places will get drier, wet places wetter, and rain will fall in bigger downbursts. Land temperatures will see a general but by no means geographically uniform warming of the world (the Arctic is warming fastest), and other on balance detrimental changes to its weather patterns, including more extreme weather events.

One consequence is that ice melts, and sea levels rise further, flooding low-lying and coastal areas with sea water (nasty). When the soil under the ice (permafrost) is exposed upon the melting of the ice, bacteria frozen into it wake up and belch vast amounts of carbon dioxide, and this bit is not very predictable at all, but is big.

Another consequence is that generally warming temperatures sometimes mean it specifically gets hotter and drier than ever before and the cool and the rains don’t come as soon as before. That causes or worsens bushfires which themselves belch vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and burn down forests which would otherwise magically convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Hydrogen can be, but isn’t much yet, burnt as a fuel without greenhouse gas emissions, and can be generated from water using a process called electrolysis, or generated by burning fossil fuels. Natural gas is another fossil fuel energy source, but can generate electricity with half the greenhouse emissions occasioned by generating electricity by burning coal. But natural gas is largely methane, which is a super-potent greenhouse gas which often escapes (‘fugitive emissions’) in the course of mining and extracting fossil fuels, and is also generated by cow burps and farts and by food waste rotting in landfill rather than being composted. Thirty percent of all food is wasted, they say, and if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

So what to do, pending the discovery of a magic bullet, is particularly obvious if one steps back and takes a hundred years perspective of our kids’ kids, though who should do it in what proportion is complicated partly because global institutions are on the wane, partly because of resurgent nationalism. The remaining fossil fuels only have a limited shelf life. After a while no one will want to buy them. So Australia desperately wants to dig the coal up and get wealthy while it’s still kosher. What it is obvious we should do is:

a. Reduce the growth of the population of consumers of energy or convince them to alter their behaviours so as to use less fossil fuel energy and products whose cultivation or manufacture consumes fossil fuels.

b. Don’t mine, sell or burn coal, oil or gas, except to the extent necessary while we transition to non-fossil fuel generated energy (renewable energy: solar, wind, tidal; nuclear? energy).

c. Don’t clear land and chop down forests, and manage pasture differently.

d. Plant a lot more trees and prevent them from burning down. And eat more vegetables and kangaroos.

Instead, the world’s and Australia’s population is increasing dramatically, we are the world’s biggest exporter of coal, we are sitting on one of the world’s biggest unexploited coal reserves and are enthusiastically beginning to mine it, we continue to log forests and are nuts about clearing land still, and not a lot of trees are actually getting planted though everyone has plans to plant a billion or a trillion.

Metrics, politics It was the world’s second hottest year ever, just 0.1C lower than the 2016 record. 2019 represented the end of the world’s hottest decade, and Australia’s hottest year too. It was Australia’s driest year ever. The oceans — the simplest and most stable measure of global warming — were hotter than ever; 2019 was the end of the hottest decade for the oceans and the end of the hottest five year period, and the annual increase in temperature was the biggest ever.

Deforestation went sick in the Amazon and in Eastern Australia before the fires and as a consequence of the fires. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise to predicted record emissions and the fires were catastrophic in this regard, emitting two-thirds of Australia’s annual carbon emissions in one go (which will not be counted against our (or anyone’s) international emissions obligations).

While Britain, Europe’s and America’s greenhouse emissions were predicted to have fallen again, Australia’s were predicted to have continued to rise. Australia’s emissions in last year’s March quarter were the highest on record. Never before in the history of humankind has the world pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than 2019, despite the amount of coal being burnt decreasing. Never before have Australians collectively done more to contribute to the warming and destabilisation of the climate than in 2019. Never before in the history of humankind has there been more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse, and what we are fighting about is how soon we might start making it better, and by how much and by when. The only thing falling is how quickly emissions rise.

And a Liberal-National government captured, funded and boosted by climate denialists and coal mining enthusiasts (enumerated here) was re-elected federally despite greenhouse gas emissions having risen every year since the Coalition took office in 2013 and despite (or perhaps in fact because of) the Coalition supporting opening up the Galilee Basin in Queensland to coal mining, first up with the Adani mine which got the go ahead in 2019 immediately after the election result. The coal is to be exported and when it is burnt, it will not contribute to Australia’s emissions figures, but to India’s, the main purchaser, but the carbon dioxide burnt in India will still fuel future apocalypses in Australian summers.

A unique feature of the 2019 election was the involvement of Footscray-born former law student Clive Palmer, whose inspiration to join the National Party was Joh Bjelke-Peterson. He claims to have billions of tonnes of coal which he intends to dig up in the Galilee Basin, and sell to be burnt so as to boil his children’s world (compare the Adani mine which might yield 60 million tonnes a year). Mr Palmer put $60 million into his superficially eccentric United Australia Party’s campaign, more than any other party has ever previously spent in Australia on a campaign. According to Mr Palmer, but not most commentators, his campaign swung the election against Labor. He says he wasn’t even trying to win seats, opting instead to polarise the electorate to keep Labor out of office, though it is more likely he changed tack once he realised his party was not going to win any seats. After the election, he applied for a mining lease for a coal mine four times the size of Adani’s Carmichael mine.

For the Liberal Party’s environment policies, see this page: keep scrolling right down to the bottom, past ‘lower taxes’, ‘lower power prices’, and ‘backing regional Australia’. The Liberal Party’s environment policies, as summarised there, tellingly do not contain the words ‘warming’, ‘greenhouse’, or ‘climate change’. Those words are absent, too, from the Nationals’ environment policy similarly buried away otherwise than at the top of its page of policies. And Scott Morrison almost never utters any of those words. The policies are remarkably upbeat given that a trio of German based think tanks who prepare the Climate Change Performance Index to track compliance with Paris commitments gave Australia 0% for climate policy. Zero, last place in the rankings.

Unprecedented fires erupted, especially in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and Queensland, though fortunately with greatly less loss of human life so far. Though I don’t remember hearing anything much about fires in Western Australia, Wikipedia says 30 bushfires there have burnt one and a half times as much land as Victoria’s, and the Stirling Ranges, home to more species than the British Isles, has been burnt out per the ABC. One hundred and seventy three people died on Black Saturday 11 years ago. There is a tendency to think of those fires as much worse. But these latest fires are far more exentsive and far greater killers, the human death toll being lower because authorities now tell people to evacuate, and folks do. There was a plume of smoke as wide as Europe. I was flabbergasted when it floated over both islands of New Zealand, turning the sky orange. But then it floated right across the Pacific Ocean to Chile.

Australia continued to be an extravagantly bad global citizen, and the world noticed and took the view that Australia was suffering its apocalyptic punishment, incalculably damaging our brand in the long term. Frank Bainimarama, about as un-left wing as you can get, wrote a piece in The Guardian (weird) advising Australia that the time’s up for climate denialism. The Royal Family are climate activists now, and Russell Crowe too (‘Make no mistake, the tragedy in Australia is climate change-based. We need to act based on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future.’)

I hope you were not distracted by Greta Thunberg and the two million-strong protests she inspired because, as far as I am aware, she and they have not (yet) achieved a thing except to convince her parents to give up meat and aeroplanes. Extinction Rebellion on the other hand (best explainer of that phenomenon is here, on the excellent podcast by Black Inc, 7am), appears to have prompted the UK parliament to declare in a bipartisan fashion an environmental and climate emergency, but even that has not yet actually achieved anything useful, so far as I know.

Many in the civilised part of the world now thinks of us as ignorant hicks who are reaping what we have sown, who lead the world in cruelty to refugees and lead the democratic world in the erosion of basic freedoms, as evidenced by our searches of journalists’ homes and prosecution of whistleblowers. Footage of Cobargo locals expressing their anger at Prime Minister Morrison went around the world (a Labor politician got the same treatment in Nimbin in November, even before Labor announced its bizarre support for ongoing coal exports). Cobargo is a quaint historical village on NSW’s Sapphire Coast, north of the Victorian border, with many gnomes and a folk festival, in the general vicinity of Eden, Tilba Tilba, Bermagui, south of Bateman’s Bay. One of the hecklers published this testimony of huddling under wet blankets in his mates’ burning house, revealing himself to be an ordinary bloke of good heart.

The truth about the government kept on seeping out. First there was Barnaby Joyce’s Christmas message, referred to in my previous post. Then Craig Kelly, the Liberal member for part of Sydney peddled his climate change denialism on a UK tv show hosted by Piers Morgan, the Boris Johnston fan in charge of Rubert Murdoch’s Daily Mirror when the phone hacking was happening. Mr Kelly, who garnered 53% of the primary vote in the 2019 federal election, and who calls scientists ‘warmists’, probably thought he was in friendly territory, but things took an unexpected turn when Mr Morgan and a meteorologist whom Mr Kelly derided as ‘an ignorant pommy weather girl‘ who does not know what she’s talking about gave him gave him what the vernacular now refers to as ‘a thorough Cobargoing’. Mr Kelly is not just a backbencher. He was for a considerable time chair of the backbench environment and energy committee, giving advice to Josh Frydenberg when he was environment minister.

Population The world population continued growing, of course, and the disparity between rich and poor continued to grow. The richest 1% of people had more than twice the wealth of the remaining 99% of people combined in 2019. The global population grew c. 1% on 2018’s population, reaching 7.79 billion. It has more than doubled in my lifetime. Never before have fewer people lived outside urban areas, globally (44%), and Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised nations. Australia’s population grew at 1.18% to 25.5 million, with 86% of us in urban areas. More than 70% of all Australians live in capital cities.

China, Tibet and Taiwan’s combined population reached 1.46 billion (growing less than 0.4% on 2018), while India, Bangladesh and Pakistan’s combined population reached 1.77 billion (growing 1% on 2018). I lump them together because until not so long ago Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of India, and they speak Indian languages. India’s population alone (17.7% of world population) was 96% of China and Tibet’s combined populations (18.4% of world population), and is expected to overtake China’s and Tibet’s combined populations within 7 years.

Climate 2019 was Australia’s hottest year ever, 1.52C hotter than the 1961-1990 average. It was NSW’s hottest year, 1.95C above that long term average. So too Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and South Australia.

The Australian summer at the start of 2019 was the hottest ever. January 2019 was the hottest ever. It reached 49.9C in Nullabor, South Australia. Broken Hill saw maximums of 45C four days in a row. Canberra saw maximums of 40C or more four days in a row. But in Cloncurry, Qld, there were 43 days in a row above 40C.

It was the world’s hottest ever September, hot on the heels of the hottest ever June and the hottest ever July.

17 December 2019 was Australia’s hottest ever day. The following day was too, beating the day before’s record by a full 1 C, with an average maximum temperature of 40.9C.

20 December 2019 was the filthiest day I can remember: hot, windy, and otherworldly from the smoke of NSW fires. Melbourne city reached 43.5C, 0.2C below the record., but it was 45.2C in Laverton, and Hopetoun and Horsham reached 47.9C. Seaford, a suburb this side of Frankston, was on fire.

Nonetheless, Australia conspired with the fascists running America and Brazil to wreck completely the latest round of world climate talks in Madrid, a dismal failure. The combination of being the world’s biggest exporter of coal by value, the world’s highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita, the apocalyptic images coming from our shores, and the conduct of our diplomats, politicians and negotiators in the Pacific and in Madrid, tarnished the national brand extraordinarily.

Australia’s fire season Let’s take this step by step, the fire season — now said to have dramatically stretched to 6 months of the year — commenced in winter, reducing the window in which controlled burn-offs could safely be carried out so as to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires in the fire season.

By early spring, hundreds of fires were burning in northern NSW and southern Queensland where a terrible drought prevailed. Remember how Stanhope ran out of water? Ancient, globally unique, and precious Gondwanan sub-tropical rainforests were improbably burnt. Radio National’s report was excellent; print version here. Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park was burnt, for God’s sake, like Kangaroo Island’s Southern Ocean Lodge.

Unprecedented fires ripped through Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, and NSW burning almost 6 million hectares of precious forests, with catastrophic results for an estimated half a billion mammals (excluding bats), birds and reptiles, which will likely push countless species to extinction, perhaps even one of the cutest, Victoria’s greater glider. No other country had a worse record of mammalian extinction before the fires.

Goongerah, a town with a deep commitment to the conservation of surrounding temperate rainforests of Erinundra National Park, burnt.

An easy comparison Compare England, if you will. Climate change is not a party political issue in Britain. Baroness Thatcher, long ago gave ‘a classic exposition of the precautionary principle‘ in favour of tackling climate change. The UK parliament passed a bipartisan environment and climate emergency declaration in May 2019. You can listen to the debate and wonder why nothing similar could be imagined in our own parliament. No Tory publicly undermines the scientists in relation to climate change; the anti-science crew have largely been forced out to fringe parties. In 2019, the Tories amended the Climate Change Act so as to include a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the first member of the G7 to do so.


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