Saturday, September 16, 2017

90 Companies Helped Cause the Climate Crisis - They Should Pay for It

Pic by J Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
by Sarah van Gelder, Yes! magazine:

Pacific Northwest forests are on fire. Several blazes are out of control, threatening rural towns, jumping rivers and highways, and covering Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and other cities in smoke and falling ash.

Temperatures this summer are an average of 3.6 degrees higher than the last half of the 20th century, according to the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group analysis published in The Seattle Times.

Fire crews have been battling fires for months. In spite of all the effort, though, officials expect the fires to continue burning until major rains come sometime this fall. Meanwhile, firefighting coffers are running dry as costs run into the hundreds of millions.

The scale and costs of these disasters pale in comparison to the impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma: Accuweather is estimating the combined cost of these unprecedented storms at $290 billion (then there is the flooding in India and Bangladesh - less noted in U.S. news media - where 40 million were affected and 1,200 died).

What these disasters have in common is that they are all exactly the sort predicted by climate models - and they will get terrifyingly worse over coming years.

So who will cover the costs? Who will pay for the first responders, for sheltering and relocating climate refugees, and for rebuilding homes, businesses, and infrastructure?

Our planet is quickly getting hotter, more volatile, and more dangerous. But Republicans are working to cut nearly $1 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and to give large corporations and the wealthy a big tax break. So who should pay for the climate disasters?

A report published in early September by the journal Climatic Change helps pinpoint a possible answer. According to the report, 90 companies are responsible for 42 to 50 percent of the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature and 26 to 32 percent of sea level rise.

Some say we are all to blame for the climate crisis - at least all of us who get around in cars and planes. But there are reasons these 90 companies owe a major debt to the entire planet.

First, many of them knew what damage they were causing. According to the report, more than half of the carbon emissions produced since the industrial revolution were emitted since 1986, when the dangers of global warming were well-known. But these companies buried their own research findings and doubled down on fossil fuel extraction.

Second, many of these companies spend vast sums promoting climate denial and undermining support for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and other responses to the climate crisis. Industry lobbyists and think tanks, flush with money from fossil fuel companies and their executives, distort our democracy, making government accountable to their interests rather than to We the People.

Third, by doing these things, these companies prevented action during the brief window of time between climate science becoming clear and it becoming too late to avert disaster.

Now we are very short on time. This year’s fires and floods are just the beginning. But we can still make choices that would curb catastrophic outcomes. To make that difference, we need an all-out effort now on all fronts - in agriculture, transportation, and energy generation, conservation, and efficiency upgrades. That will take a lot of money.

A good place to start would be requiring those who caused the climate catastrophe to pay. The 90 companies could start by helping families and communities recover from the floods, wind damage, and fires, and helping homeowners and cities everywhere build resilience for withstanding the effects of future disasters. But they shouldn’t stop there. The companies that are responsible for the damage should pay their share for the transition to a carbon-free future.

There is a precedent for this. Tobacco companies too had been hiding and dismissing the evidence that their product caused massive damage. Big Tobacco and Big Oil even hired some of the same scientists and public relations firms to obscure the damage their industries were causing, according to ClimateWire. The 1998 tobacco settlement of lawsuits brought by nearly every U.S. state required the major tobacco companies to pay over $200 billion toward the increased cost of health care resulting from smoking and for prevention education.

There are far more victims of the fossil fuel industries’ deception - billions of people today, future generations, and many other species.

We’ve got a precedent, we’ve got a dire need, and we have clearly defined culprits.

Monday, August 28, 2017

China Plants Billions of Trees in the Desert: Can a “Green Great Wall” Stop Sand From Devouring the Country?

by Vince Beiser, Mother Jones:

The view from the top of this windblown hill in Duolun County, in China’s Inner Mongolia region, could be described as either profoundly inspiring or deeply strange. For miles around, the earth is dun-colored and dry, stubbled with yellow grass. But the hillsides directly across from me are emblazoned with vast swaths of trees planted in geometric shapes: a square, a circle, overlapping triangles. The flatland below is striped with bands of identical young pines, standing in rigid formation like soldiers on parade.

Zuo Hongfei, the deputy director of the State Forestry Admin­istration’s local “greening office,” directs my attention to a display with photos and satellite images showing how barren this place was just 15 years ago - a desert landscape dotted with spindly trees and shrubs. “See?” he says, pointing to one photo. “The houses were almost buried by sand!”

One recent estimate said China had 21,000 square miles more desert than what existed in 1975. As the Tengger expands, it is merging with two other deserts to form a vast sea of sand that could become uninhabitable.

Duolun, southeast of the Gobi Desert, has always been dry. But decades of overfarming and over­grazing turned vast tracts of it into pure desert. Climate change is partly to blame, but population growth is the main culprit. The number of people in Inner Mongolia has quadrupled in the last half-century, and the number of livestock has increased sixfold. With so many people cutting trees for firewood, so many farms and factories sucking up groundwater, and so many animals chomping grass, the land simply dries up. Lacking roots to anchor it and moisture to weigh it down, fertile topsoil blows away, leaving only sand and pebbles behind.

By 2000, Duolun was up to 87 percent desert, fueling sandstorms that regularly engulfed Beijing to the south. The situation was so dire that then-Premier Zhu Rongji visited Duolun and declared, “It is imperative to build green barriers.” And build they did. Since Zhu’s pronouncement, millions of pines have been planted over a total of nearly 200,000 acres, with more going in every spring. According to official statistics, 31 percent of Duolun is now forested.

Workers planting trees.

The Duolun project is but a sliver of a titanic tree-planting effort unfolding across China. The sand lands that cover as much as 27 percent of the country have expanded rapidly - by 2006, they were devouring usable land at a rate of almost 1,000 square miles per year (nearly the area of Yosemite National Park), up from 600 square miles in the 1950s. Sand and dust regularly inundate farms and villages and shut down roads and railways. Hundreds of thousands of tons of it blow into Beijing and other cities, creating a vicious health hazard. Researchers estimate that desertification costs the Chinese economy billions of dollars per year.

China’s solution is to build a “Green Great Wall.” The Communist Party has promoted tree planting as a righteous cause, even a civic duty, for decades, but the Green Great Wall is staggeringly ambitious: By 2050, the government intends to plant 88 million acres of forests in a belt nearly 3,000 miles long and up to 900 miles wide in places. The project has global relevance. According to the United Nations, desertification directly affects more than 250 million people across the world. The United States and the Soviet Union launched massive afforestation projects in the last century, and more than two dozen African nations are today working fitfully on a green barrier against the encroaching Sahara. But China’s sylvan crusade is one of the most ambitious tests to date of whether humankind can geoengineer its way out of a major environmental problem.

After more than a decade of the Green Great Wall, the typical landscape in Duolun today is filled with trees and shrubs. However, expert opinion is divided as to the success of the program.

The results so far have been splendid - if you believe the government. Thousands of acres of desert have been stabilized. The frequency of sandstorms nationwide fell by 20 percent between 2009 and 2014. The State Forestry Administration even claims the Green Great Wall, along with some additional planting programs it oversees, has begun to reverse the deserts’ overall expansion.

But plenty of scientists remain unimpressed. Many of the trees, planted in places they don’t grow naturally, eventually die. The survivors soak up precious groundwater that native grasses and shrubs need, causing more soil degradation. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers and herders are forced off their lands to make way for the trees. China may be winning its war against nature for now, but at what cost?

Wang Yue, 65, with his granddaugther at home. He was forced to move from his village to make way for tree planting projects.

The Green Great Wall was launched in 1978, the same year Beijing began opening up the economy, and afforestation efforts have steadily increased since then. Rather than relying on revolutionary fervor, the government now harnesses capitalism to grow trees. Villagers are paid to plant seedlings. In some places, the government leases private land for afforestation. Entrepreneurs cultivate and sell saplings and harvest mature trees for lumber. All of this has reportedly reduced poverty in many areas. It has certainly made a few people very rich.

Wang Wenbiao grew up in a family of sheep ranchers on the edge of Inner Mongolia’s vast Kubuqi Desert. “Two words were very important in my childhood,” Wang says. “Sand and poverty.” Sand is still important to Wang, but the poverty is long gone. I meet him one spring morning in the sleek Beijing headquarters of Elion Resources Group, the multibillion-dollar company he leads. A mirthless, heavyset man of 57, he sits in a white leather chair in front of a mural depicting waterfalls and forests, flanked by company PR reps.

Wang got his break at age 28 when he was appointed to run a salt factory in the Kubuqi. “A jeep took me there, but it got stuck in the sand outside the gate,” he recalls. Sand and transport, he soon realized, were his biggest problems. As the crow flies, the salt fields were 37 miles from the railway station, but getting his cargo to the trains required a 205-mile detour via the only available road. With local government funding, Wang began building direct roads through the desert, with trees and shrubs planted alongside them to help keep the sand at bay.

Workers clear sand off a road in the Kubuqi Desert.

Elion’s salt business boomed, and the company branched out. Today, with more than 6,000 employees and reportedly $6 billion in revenue - about half from “traditional” industries, including coal power - Elion has rebranded itself as an eco-friendly enterprise. The company runs solar power fields, cultivates desert plants prized in Chinese medicine, and claims to bring thousands of ecotourists to the Kubuqi every year. Elion is also a major Green Great Wall contractor - to date, the company has planted more than 30 percent of the Kubuqi Desert (some 2,300 square miles) and has installed instant forests in several other locations, including an area northwest of Beijing that will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. “Green land and green energy,” Wang says. “That will be the direction of our future development.”

Driving through a portion of the Kubuqi on an Elion-built road - an asphalt ribbon lined with upright rows of stubby young pines and slender poplars, most of them no taller than a fifth-grader - is a surreal experience. Beyond the trees, there is nothing but barren, rolling dunes. The road eventually leads to Elion’s palatial, dome-topped Seven Star Lakes Desert Hotel, which is surrounded by carefully irrigated rows of poplars, green lawns, and a fountain out front. The grounds include, improbably, a golf course. When a hotel staffer spots my photographer on the green, he demands the pictures be deleted. How can a desert sustain all this planting? “Everyone asks this question,” Wang told me. The trees use only a tiny amount of groundwater, he says. They are thriving, he insists, because Elion has literally made it rain. Increased transpiration from the greenery has made the climate more humid: “Twenty-nine years ago, there was only about 70 millimeters of rainfall. In recent years it has reached 400 millimeters,” Wang claims. “We changed the ecosystem.”

Researchers I asked about this were skeptical. Planting an area that large might slightly increase rainfall, but to quintuple it? “I would say that’s not correct,” says Howard Diamond, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Cao Shixiong, a professor at Minzu University of China, offers an alternative explanation: “When it’s profitable, people tell lies.”

“The central government gives out billions of yuan every year for tree planting,” Cao, a lean, banty guy with a roguish smile, tells me when we sit down together in a university conference room. “So there are many companies that want to take part. They’re not concerned with the environment.”

Cao used to be a believer. He spent nearly 20 years working on government projects in Shaanxi province. “I thought it was a very good way to combat desertification,” he says. But many of his trees didn’t survive. “I realized it’s because of policy. We were choosing the wrong place to plant trees.”

Wang Wenbiao, founder and chairman of Elion Resources Group.

He and most other critics of the greening campaign acknowledge it has helped in some places, though not to the extent the government claims. It’s undeniable that some of the billions of trees are thriving. But huge numbers have succumbed to the arid environment or diseases and pests to which monocultural forests are especially vulnerable. In 2000, a beetle infestation annihilated 1 billion poplars—two decades’ worth. Cao estimates a walloping 86 percent of the Green Great Wall trees planted since 1978 haven’t made it (other studies have concluded that in some regions, 60 percent of trees die over time).

Lu Qi, head of the SFA’s Institute of Desertification Studies, smiles tolerantly when I ask about those figures. He and Cao disagree over the efficacy of the Green Great Wall (“anyone who works for the government is not a scientist,” Cao snorted when I told him I was meeting Lu). Cao’s numbers are plain wrong, Lu says; contractors only get paid fully if at least 75 percent of their trees are still alive three years after planting. He points to the Duolun County project, which he helped design. “In 15 years,” Lu says, “we made trees grow in the desert.”

Duan Feng Quan, a horse breeder, and his son at home in New Storage Village.

The researchers’ biggest worry is that the trees are depleting subterranean aquifers so that eventually nothing will flourish. “For the past 1,000 years, only shrubs and grass have grown in those areas. Why would they think planting trees would be successful?” asks Sun Qingwei, a former Chinese Academy of Sciences desert researcher who now works for the National Geographic Society. “It’s not sustainable. Investing money in trees that are not supposed to be there is kind of crazy.”

In any case, the Green Great Wall’s long-term ecological effects may take decades to reveal themselves. Local data on the environmental and socioeconomic changes the project has already wrought is “often not available or unreliable,” explains a 2014 study by American and Chinese scientists. Another study, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing Normal University, notes “there is surprisingly little unassailable evidence” to support claims that “the afforestation has successfully combated desertification and controlled dust storms.”

A farmer working on the edge of the desert. Trees are planted in an effort to block the wind and stabilize the soil.

State bureaucrats and researchers have ample motivation to hype the project. “Combating sand is the [government’s] project, so it has deep political meaning,” Lu acknowledges. “There are bureaucrats in every province and county,” adds Sun. “They get a lot of money for planting trees.”

The day after admiring the view from the Duolun hilltop, I drive a short distance to a grim assemblage of squat brick homes. Called New Storage Village, this settlement was built to house some of the 10,000-plus farmers forced off their land to make way for the local tree projects - across Inner Mongolia, more than 600,000 farmers and herders have met this fate. Officially, this was an effort to reduce the overgrazing that abets desertification, but many of the displaced people believe it’s just a land grab to free up resources for Han Chinese businesses; in some areas, herders have resisted with violent protests. “They would have demolished our home if we had stayed,” says Wang Yue, a sinewy 65-year-old born and raised in a now-vanished village where his family had lived for generations.

Today, Wang has a house in New Storage Village - a couple of rooms with a sleeping platform, a coal stove, and a tiny courtyard out front. “Life was better in the old village,” he says. “Here, we have to buy oats to feed the animals. We used to just let them graze.” He ekes out a living doing odd jobs, but at his age it’s getting difficult. His wife is dead and his two daughters have moved away. He never received subsidies the government promised, he says - a complaint I heard from several others here. “They lied to us,” he says. “Tree planting is making some officials rich, but we lost so many things.”

After we say our goodbyes, I walk down to where Wang’s dirt road meets the paved route through town. Off in the distance, I can make out a group of men with shovels. They are busy planting a line of spindly young trees.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Photos by Ian Teh/Panos.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Green Norway: Will it be the World’s First Post-Carbon Society?
Norway has the renewable resources and political will to become the world’s first country to use entirely clean electricity for its power demands, according to a new report by Energi Norge, a non-profit industry group representing Norwegian electricity companies.
“Our target is for Norway, based on hydro power and better collaboration between businesses and the authorities, to become the world’s first fully electric society by 2050,” Energi Norge head Oluf Ulseth told the Norwegian News Agency NTB.
Norway’s government ministers recently announced that the sale of combustion engine cars will be phased out by 2025, a move that has been copied to some degree in other European countries like France and the United Kingdom.
Norway wants to increase the number of electric cars on its roads, which already tops 100,000. The government has introduced policies to encourage that, like tax exemption for leased e-cars or allowing owners of the vehicles to use bus lanes, toll roads and ferries free of charge.
Electric car sales represented 22% of the country’s market in 2015 and that number is expected to grow to 30% by the end of next year. However, Energi Norge cautioned that converting Norway’s fleet of vehicles will need “considerable effort within the transport industry”.
Norway has set itself ambitious targets under the European Clean Power for Transport directive, which calls for an “appropriate number of publicly accessible [charging] points”. Oslo hopes to have one point per every ten cars, meaning it will need around 25,000 in place by 2020.
Norway spearheads Europe’s electric vehicle surge
European electromobility is beginning to take off. The targets set by the Paris climate deal depend on it. The EU’s Nordic neighbour, Norway, is showing the rest of Europe the way forward. EURACTIV’s partner The Guardian reports.
E-mobility efforts are often criticised by green campaigners because carbon footprint is ultimately linked to whatever the power source is at the end of the charging cable.
More than 96% of Norway’s electricity demand is met by hydropower at the moment, with another 2% coming from other renewables. Three natural gas power plants make up the remaining portion of the energy mix.
New electrification alliance seeks top billing in EU’s decarbonisation efforts
Industry groups representing sectors as varied as wind and solar power, fuel cell batteries, copper and heat pumps, have clubbed together to launch the Electrification Alliance, with the hope that electricity will be recognised as the main energy carrier in Europe’s decarbonisation drive.
Energy Norge’s Ulseth added that the conversion to electricity would boost the job market and innovation, and the process would “enable us to take a leading role in climate work while improving our competitiveness”.
Norway’s electrification is set to benefit its closest EU neighbours, Denmark and Sweden, as the Nordic countries’ grids have long been connected.
The Norwegian grid will soon be connected to the United Kingdom and Germany too, as numerous interconnector projects are currently in different stages of development.
NordLink, which would connect Norway and Germany via a 500km-long subsea cable, is due to come online in 2019, while the North Sea Link with the UK is slated to be completed in 2021. There are also plans to link up with Scotland, under the NorthConnect project.
Both NordLink and NorthConnect have been the subject of EU funding under its Projects of Common Interest programme.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Australia’s New Marine Parks Plan is a Case of the Emperor's New Clothes
Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia and David Booth, University of Technology Sydney

The federal government’s new draft marine park plans are based on an unsubstantiated premise: that protection of Australia’s ocean wildlife is consistent with activities such as fishing and oil and gas exploration.

Under the proposed plans, there would be no change to the boundaries of existing marine parks, which cover 36% of Commonwealth waters, or almost 2.4 million square kilometres. But many areas inside these boundaries will be rezoned to allow for a range of activities besides conservation.

The plans propose dividing marine parks into three types of zones:
  • Green: “National Park Zones” with full conservation protection
  • Yellow: “Habitat Protection Zones” where fishing is allowed as long as the seafloor is not harmed
  • Blue: “Special Purpose Zones” that allow for specific commercial activities.
Crucially, under the new draft plans, the amount of green zones will be almost halved, from 36% to 20% of the marine park network, whereas yellow zones will almost double from 24% to 43%, compared with when the marine parks were established in 2012.

The government has said that this approach will “allow sustainable activities like commercial fishing while protecting key conservation features”. But like the courtiers told to admire the Emperor’s non-existent new clothes, we’re being asked to believe something to be true despite strong evidence to the contrary.

The Emperor’s unrobing

The new plans follow on from last year’s release of an independent review, commissioned by the Abbott government after suspending the previous network of marine reserves implemented under Julia Gillard in 2012.

Yet the latest draft plans, which propose to gut the network of green zones, ignore many of the recommendations made in the review, which was itself an erosion of the suspended 2012 plans.
The extent of green zones is crucial, because the science says they are the engine room of conservation. Fully protected marine national parks – with no fishing, no mining, and no oil and gas drilling – deliver far more benefits to biodiversity than other zone types.

The best estimates suggest that 30-40% of the seascape should ideally be fully protected, rather than the 20% proposed under the new plans.

Partially protected areas, such as the yellow zones that allow fishing while protecting the seabed, do not generate conservation benefits equivalent to those of full protection.

While some studies suggest that partial protection is better than nothing, others suggest that these zones offer little to no improvement relative to areas fully open to exploitation.

Environment minister Josh Frydenberg has pointed out that, under the new plans, the total area zoned as either green or yellow will rise from 60% to 63% compared with the 2012 network. But yellow is not the new green. What’s more, yellow zones have similar management costs to green zones, which means that the government is proposing to spend the same amount of money for far inferior protection. And as any decent sex-ed teacher will tell you, partial protection is a risky business.

What do the draft plans mean?

Let’s take a couple of examples, starting with the Coral Sea Marine Park. This is perhaps the most disappointing rollback in the new draft plan. The green zone, which would have been one of the largest fully protected areas on the planet, has been reduced by half to allow for fishing activity in a significantly expanded yellow zone.

Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by Independent Review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green). From and

This yellow zone would allow the use of pelagic longlines to fish for tuna. This is despite government statistics showing that around 30% of the catch in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish fishery consists of species that are either overexploited or uncertain in their sustainability, and the government’s own risk assessment that found these types of fishing lines are incompatible with conservation.

What this means, in effect, is that the plans to establish a world-class marine park in the Coral Sea will be significantly undermined for the sake of saving commercial tuna fishers A$4.1 million per year, or 0.3% of the total revenue from Australia’s wild-catch fisheries.

Contrast this with the A$6.4 billion generated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2015-16, the majority of which comes from non-extractive industries.

This same erosion of protection is also proposed in Western Australia, where the government’s draft plan would reduce green zones by 43% across the largest marine parks in the region.

Zoning for the Gascoyne Marine Park as recommended by the Independent Review (left) and the new draft plan (right). and

Again, this is despite clear evidence that the fishing activities occurring in these areas are not compatible with conservation. Such proposals also ignore future pressures such as deep-sea mining.
The overall effect is summarised neatly by Frydenberg’s statement that the government’s plans will:
…increase the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64% to 80% … (and) make 97% of waters within 100 kilometres of the coast open for recreational fishing.

Building ocean resilience

Science shows that full protection creates resilience by supporting intact ecosystems. Fully protected green zones recover faster from flooding and coral bleaching, have reduced rates of disease, and fend off climate invaders more effectively than areas that are open to fishing.

Green zones also contribute indirectly to the blue economy. They help support fisheries and function as “nurseries” for fish larvae. For commercial fisheries, these sanctuaries are more important than ever in view of the declines in global catches since we hit “peak fish” in 1996.

Of course it is important to balance conservation with sustainable economic use of our oceans. Yet the government’s new draft plan leaves a huge majority of Australia’s waters open to business as usual. It’s a brave Emperor who thinks this will protect our oceans.

The ConversationSo let’s put some real clothes on the Emperor and create a network of marine protection that supports our blue economy and is backed by science.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia and David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Brief History of Al Gore's Climate Missions to Australia
Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Al Gore has been visiting Australia this week – partly because he has a new film to promote, but also because he and Australian climate policy have had a surprisingly long entanglement.

Given that this year is likely to be a bloody one as far as climate policy goes, don’t be surprised if he’s back again before 2017 is out.

Gore has a long and honourable record on climate change, although ironically his weakest period on climate coincided with the peak of his political power, as US Vice President.

As he says in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he was first alerted to climate change by Roger Revelle, who can justly be called the (American) father of climate science. On becoming a Congressman, Gore was part of the move by Democrats to sustain momentum on climate policy that had stalled with the arrival of Ronald Reagan as President.

Gore organised Congressional hearings in 1981, and 1982 (NASA climatologist James Hansen’s first congressional testimony).

Even back then, the familiar political narrative around climate change had already formed, as journalism academic David Sachsman recalls:
The CBS Evening News for March 25, 1982, included a two minute and 50 second story by David Culhane on the greenhouse effect. Chemist Melvin Calvin raised the threat of global warming, Representative Al Gore called for further research, and James Kane of the Energy Department said there was no need for haste.
This report from the following year tells a similar tale, noting the political difficulty of solving the climate problem:

A youthful Gore in 1983.

By the time of the seminal Villach conference of October 1985, Gore was a Senator, and helped to organise the first Senate hearings since 1979. Gore’s colleague, Republican Senator David Durenberger remarked that “grappling with this problem [of climate change] is going to be just about as easy as nailing Jello to the wall”.

The following year, as Joshua Howe notes in his excellent book on the politics and science of climate change, Behind the Curve (2014), the then Senator Joe Biden introduced an initiative mandating that the president commission an executive-level task force to devise a strategy for responding to global warming – a strategy the president was meant to deliver to Congress within one year.

Gore scored another political victory on May 8, 1989, when Hansen testified that George H. W. Bush’s administration had ordered him to change the conclusions in written testimony regarding the seriousness of global warming

From Vice President to movie star

However, as Vice President to Bill Clinton, Gore disappointed environmentalists. An energy tax was defeated by industry lobbyists in 1993, and the Clinton administration (perhaps wisely) opted not to try and pass the Kyoto Protocol through a defiant Senate.

After leaving the West Wing he embraced Hollywood, where his budding movie career attracted derision in some quarters, despite the hefty policy achievements earlier in Gore’s career.

Besides an Inconvenient Truth (see here for an account of its impact in Australia), Gore “starred” in another movie, the 1990 philosophy-based talkie Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston as Senator Jack Edwards, a thinly veiled version of Gore.

Former Australian industry minister Ian Macfarlane certainly considered Gore more entertainer than policymaker when speculating on his reasons for visiting in 2006:
Well, Al Gore’s here to sell tickets to a movie, and no one can begrudge him that. It’s just entertainment, and really that’s all it is.

Gore and Australia

Gore has been on these shores many times. During his May 2003 visit Gore urged the then Prime Minister John Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He met with the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and also with former Liberal leader and current climate hawk John Hewson. He spoke at an event co-hosted by the Business Council of Australia to advocate sustainable development.

After a controversial visit in 2005, Gore visited twice in 2006. As Joan Staples notes in her PhD, he teamed up with the Australian Conservation Foundation to launch his Climate Project:
Having reached out to the wider NGO sector, to doctors, unions, and the corporate sector, this initiative then moved ACF’s efforts towards influencing individual citizens. Gore’s organisation aimed to harness the power of mass mobilisation by expanding the message of his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore returned in 2007 and spoke at a A$1,000-a-plate event on the Sustainability and Cleantech Investment Market, with Carr introducing him while clutching a copy of Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance.

He had his share of Australian critics too. On a frosty morning in July 2009 Gore’s launch speech of the Safe Climate Australia initiative attracted around 30 members of the newly formed Climate Sceptics Party, who handed out leaflets and wore t-shirts bearing their slogan: “Carbon Really Ain’t Pollution – CRAP”.

Gore also offered an opinion on Kevin Rudd’s proposed climate legislation:
It’s not what I would have written, I would have written it as a stronger bill, but I’m realistic about what can be accomplished in the political system as it is.
Gore seems to have (wisely) eschewed direct involvement during the tumultuous Julia Gillard years, but pitched in in October 2013 when the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to link bushfires with climate change.

The Palmer moment

Perhaps the most bizarre, rub-my-eyes-did-that-just-happen moment came in June 2014, when Gore stood alongside Clive Palmer in a deal to save some of Gillard’s carbon policy package from Tony Abbott’s axe.

In July 2015, with the Paris climate conference approaching, Gore visited on a whistlestop tour that included meetings with senior business figures (BHP, National Australia Bank, Qantas, and Victorian state government ministers) to try and build momentum ahead of the crucial summit.

Looking into the crystal ball

Despite his Nobel Prize shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not everyone is a fan, with Canadian journalism academic Chris Russill arguing that Gore’s approach “narrows our understanding of climate change discourse”.

And just because some climate sceptics think he’s a very naughty boy – and can change the weather by his mere presence – that doesn’t mean he’s the messiah.

Ultimately, we all need to find new and better ways of exerting more sustained pressure, not only on policymakers but also other institutions and norm-makers in our society, to change the trajectory we’re currently on.

The ConversationGore will keep banging on about climate change. He will turn up to give speeches, and will be both praised and derided. What matters is not what he does the same, but what we all do differently.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, July 14, 2017

How Did Australia Get This Stupid About Clean Energy?

Just when you thought that the public debate around clean energy in Australia could not possibly get any worse, any dumber, or any further divorced from reality, it did.
Conservatives have been railing against renewables and carbon pricing for at least a decade. So ingrained has it become in our national psyche that it is like a State of Origin contest between energy sources and their fans. “Queenslander”, shout the league fans. “Fossil fuels” screech the incumbents.
But it plumbed further depths this week. And it got really stupid and really nasty. Conservatives in the government and the media rebooted their attacks on wind and solar energy, and extended it to battery storage and vehicle emission standards, with the Murdoch media dubbing the latter as a “carbon tax on cars.”
Craig Kelly, the chair of Coalition’s energy policy committee, said renewable energy “would kill people”, a claim happily repeated by columnist Andrew Bolt.
Resources Minister Matt Canavan urged the Queensland government to “forget about climate change”, while the LNP in Queensland will this weekend consider a motion urging Australia to quit the Paris climate deal.
Worse, the conservatives started attacking individuals. The verbal assault on chief scientist Alan Finkel was launched way back in February when it was clear he would not toe the fossil fuel line. And even after delivering what many consider a “soft option”, the conservatives rekindled their attack.
“The Finkel report is a blueprint for destruction — of the Australian economy and destruction of the Liberal Party,” Murdoch columnist Piers Akerman wrote.
Then they added another target – the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman. Broadcaster Alan Jones urged that “this woman”, who he accused of being a “global warming advocate and a promoter of wind turbines”, be “run out of town”.
On the same day, writing in Quadrant magazine, Alan Moran, the former head of regulation for the Institute of Public Affairs, described Zibelman as a “refugee from Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat.” (Actually she worked for New York governor Andrew Cuomo).
“Alan Finkel’s otherworldly prognosis is bad enough. But toss in Malcolm Turnbull’s advocacy of renewables and then add an imported American chief regulator who would have been happier working for Hillary Clinton and where are you? The simple answer: thoroughly stuffed,” Moran wrote.
These attacks on Finkel, and now Zibelman, come in groups. It begs the question, are they co-ordinated? And if so, by whom?
But really, how did Australia get this stupid? And this ugly?
South Australia’s energy minister Tom Koutsantonis thinks it’s because the conservatives, or at least the Coalition, are in the pockets of the fossil fuel lobby.
“The only thing standing in the way of lower prices, improved grid security and meeting our carbon reduction commitments is a divided federal Liberal Party that is completely beholden to the coal lobby,” Koutsantonis said on Thursday.
He may have a point, because ideology alone does not explain the absurdity and ignorance of some of the remarks made this past week.
It seems there is nothing about the clean energy economy that these people like. The conservatives and the Murdoch camp has been relentless against wind farms for years now and this week they turned its target to battery storage and solar panels.
One story focused on fires from solar panels, claiming 40 such fires occurred over the last five years in Victoria.
Context: Victoria has around 3,000 house fires a year, mostly from heaters and clothes dryers and electric blankets. Fridges cause one fire a week in London, including the recent tragedy at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington that claimed 80 lives.
The Murdoch media’s campaign against Elon Musk’s “bulldust boutique batteries” was actually kick-started by energy minister Josh Frydenberg, who made some ridiculous remarks about how a single battery could not power the whole state, or store its entire wind output.
(But it was 20 times bigger than the 5MW battery storage “virtual power plant” he was hailing earlier in the year).
No one is suggesting that this battery storage array can provide all of the state’s power needs: It is designed to help make up any energy shortfall, which occurred last year when the biggest gas plants sat idle, or when they unexpectedly tripped, and to help ride through network faults and generator failures.
And battery storage would have prevented, or at least reduced, all three major outages that occurred in South Australia since November 2015. It would certainly be smarter and quicker than the dumb, slow responding fossil fuel generator that did the wrong thing and extended the blackout on that day last November.
Battery storage is a threat to the incumbents, and their defenders, because it and other storage will make wind and solar dispatchable, will make more expensive gas peaking plant redundant, and eventually – with the addition of pumped hydro and solar thermal – allow the coal fleet to be entirely replaced.
The attack on proposed vehicle emissions standards was extraordinary. Australia has become a dumping ground for inefficient and polluting vehicles because of its absence of any such standards.
That is causing health issues and higher prices (it means more fuel consumption), but the Murdoch media had no hesitation in calling it a “carbon tax” on cars, and epithet that even Fairfax used to lead its coverage.
“Hands off our cars, warmists,” warned Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun, echoing the extraordinary push back by conservatives against the idea of autonomous driving. “Don’t try and steal my pick-up, I’ve got a gun.”
One wonders: Do any of these people use modern technologies? Or are they still riding a horse and cart, sending telegrams and listening to the wireless, storing their beers in an ice box.
Of course, the clean energy industry doesn’t help itself – either too brow-beaten by the media or scared to offend the government. When I started writing about clean energy a decade ago, I was astonished by the circular nature of the mutual put-downs from the wind, solar, geothermal and biomass industries.
Last week, when the Murdoch media got their “scoop” on an issue well reported in RenewEconomy, the draft standards that may effectively ban lithium-ion batteries from the inside of homes, and bring a halt to the nascent household battery storage industry – a major threat to incumbent utilities.
The response from some of Australia’s leading battery storage developers? The promoters of vanadium and zinc bromine flow batteries hopped on to their soap-box and crowed about how their product was not affected.
No sense of a common purpose there. Sauve qui peux! Every man for themselves. The story of Australia’s energy industry.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel push continues unrelenting. The Minerals Council producing yet another report claiming that “High efficiency, low emissions” coal plants could meet climate targets. To understand how preposterous that claim is, read this.
“Low emissions” is just another marketing lie. “High emissions, low efficiency” might be a more accurate description of HELE coal plants compared to the alternative smart technologies.
It is an absurd situation we find ourselves in. The public support for these new technologies is overwhelming, as it is in business (apart from those seeking to protect stranded assets), and among most politicians – even many in the Liberal Party, as NSW energy minister Don Harwin revealed late last month.
Yet here we are: Short-term policies; a patchwork of rules on energy efficiency; the worst building stock in the world; the most inefficient and polluting cars; and the world’s most expensive and dirty grid, soaring emissions, and rising temperatures.
And two years after obtaining power, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is still defending policies he once describes as “bullshit,” too afraid to call out the nonsense spread by those keeping him in power.