Doomed Planet

Heartland in Sydney: Part 1

The 5th International Climate Conference, sponsored by the Heartland Institute of Chicago, was the first to travel outside the USA. It was held in Sydney on 1 October, and provided a depth of interest and scholarship which delighted the hundred-plus attendees. 

As this was only my second such conference, I found the new information on offer rather overwhelming. Here is a sampling: 

Chris de Freitas set the stage: The big questions are – how much of the observed warming is due to humans and how much is natural? And, how high will temperatures rise? 

There is not one research-based journal article anywhere with real-world data showing that human-caused CO2 emissions will cause dangerous global warming. The evidence simply doesn’t exist. Unverified models are not useful for policy-making and nobody pretends that they can faithfully capture the critical roles of clouds, oceans or aerosols. 

Cloud-feedbacks to initial warming may be negative – which means the earth’s overall climate system is stable and self-correcting. Or they may be positive and cumulative – which means the system is prone to instability. The geological record shows that the earth has recovered from much higher temperatures many times in the past, and there has never been “runaway” warming. It has always stabilised. 

Recent research has shown that the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a major contributor to variations in global cloud cover and therefore to mean global temperature. Clouds have a massive effect, making CO2 impacts look petty. Although nobody can predict the future, current La Nina (and solar) conditions suggest that global cooling might well commence within a few months. 

Bob Carter explained how paleo-climatologists track long-term changes in the eustatic (global average) sea-level and in local relative sea levels (LRSLs) respectively. The latter are key to policy decisions in any locality, while the former is merely a statistical artifice used in scientific research. 

Using a notional global average sea level to guide planning for a local coastline is as absurd as using a notional global average temperature to guide design of a local building. Eustatic levels are simply irrelevant. LRSLs already vary enormously – and some will rise whilst others fall – so that global averages of LRSLs would be equally unhelpful. National or even state averages are almost as meaningless. 

Although eustatic sea levels have been rising slightly since the last ice age, the current rate of rise is clearly reducing and there is no prospect of acceleration. If any precautionary figure were to be used in national coastal planning it should allow for a maximum 25cm rise by 2100. 

There are over a hundred scientific disciplines involved in the various aspects of science change. Nobody is an expert in the entire field, and only a handful of modelling teams are focussed on analysing data which is relevant to causation. So how can there be any claimed consensus of experts? Or a cast of thousands? 

Barun Mitra marveled at the comity between the BASIC countries which achieved their pre-planned outcomes at the Copenhagen summit. “For the first time the world got a glimpse of the possible consequence when China and India join hands for a common cause”. 

Although the cornerstone of the global negotiations has long been carbon emission targets, the Copenhagen ‘Accord’ swung to a focus on actual temperature increase. The India/China positioning allowed all developing countries to demand an equitable share of the earth’s atmosphere and withstand the pressure to accept Kyoto-type obligations. 

EU governments had banked on a Copenhagen agreement to infuse new life into the Kyoto Protocol which is to expire in 2012. Hardly anyone could believe that a massive international event, organised by and held in a European capital, could lead to the marginalisation of Europe itself. The Americans recognised the tectonic shift that was occurring, and cut their losses by striking a deal on a political statement with BASIC countries. Europeans were not even present. 

Does this herald a new phase of China-India co-operation, ending the diplomatic dominance of the West? The two giant neighbours are working together on energy, and may seek common ground on environmental issues. 

They share the belief that only economic growth will enable countries to improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution, compete effectively and clean up the environment. As economies improve, they tend to decarbonise, as history has shown for the last 400 years. 

Senator Cory Bernardi opined that CO2 is not a credible driver of climate change, and a CPRS would produce no detectable environmental benefit. There are huge divisions over many aspects of the current science, and MP Dennis Jensen is quite right in saying there needs to be a public enquiry to act as a clearing-house for information. 

There is now every chance of a carbon tax getting through both Houses. Tax is better than an ETS because it does not build property rights and can be repealed at any future time (by a Coalition Government?). BHP is merely talking its book, and knows that “certainty” can’t be delivered by a tax. It doesn’t speak for the business community. 

The best way to defeat the tax is grass roots politics – challenges to false claims, letters, internet, word-of-mouth. 

Alan Moran, assessing the economic and political burdens of carbon taxes, firmly concluded that Australia should aspire to be a “fast follower” rather than a global leader. 

Quantitative abatement of CO2 has been legislated by the 20% renewable energy requirement. With wind costing 3 times as much as coal, this is an existing 30% tax on electricity – plus the extra cost of transmission and back-up. 

Subsidies are a further energy tax costing $3 billion per year. The cost of the ceiling insulation scheme has been about $200 per tonne of CO2. 

The national economic benefit is trivial. Averaged peer-reviewed economic estimates put the cost effect of a 3°C warming as ranging between plus or minus 2.5% of GDP over a hundred years – during which time GDP is estimated to increase 250%. 

Costs are non-trivial, and have already commenced. Estimates range from a doubling to a sevenfold real increase in electricity costs. The IPCC put the required tax at $100 per tonne, which translates to about $2,500 per year for the average Australian worker. Many trade-exposed industries would become uneconomic. 

IPA research asked how much Australians would be prepared to pay in carbon taxes. Only 6% said they would pay over $1000 a year to reduce emissions and 35% said they were not willing to pay any form of impost. These results explain why both major parties campaigned against carbon taxes. They also indicate why almost all other democracies have rejected a national carbon price. 

Resource-rich countries like Australia incur the emissions for products (eg aluminium) consumed in other countries. European countries outsource 20-50% of their total emissions. 

Australia is a coal minnow – its total capacity is about 30GW, while China is adding 200GW pa. Despite presidential pressure, new coal-based capacity is being added to the US energy portfolio at close to its existing proportions (30%). Although it has the world’s cheapest fuel, Australia has committed to no coal plants since 2002. 

Heartland in Sydney: Part 2 is here

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