Damned Lies, Minister Hunt and Climate Models

Clive Hamilton

If you believe what you read in the Daily Telegraph saving the planet must mean trashing the economy. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it, no matter what the evidence shows. If the numbers show the opposite, well, they have ways.

And so last week the Murdoch tabloid took a bunch of numbers concocted in Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s office and turned them into the screaming headline “ALP’s $600B Carbon Bill”.

One of the most egregious beat-ups you’ll ever read, the story was chock full of terrifying predictions about what will happen if Australia joins global efforts to limit global warming. The story was full of “shocking predictions”: “Economic growth shattered”, “Thousand of jobs lost”, and “a devastating blow to the economy, slashing thousands of jobs”.

The story was purportedly based on modelling results commissioned by the Climate Change Authority from Treasury and the then Department of Climate Change. Yet the conclusions Minister Hunt and the Telegraph reached were the opposite of those drawn by Treasury (and endorsed by the Climate Change Authority in its 2014 report).

Gazing at the same modelling printouts, Treasury wrote that the economic effects of all scenarios considered “are small compared with the ongoing growth in GDP and GNI per person over time” (p. 72).

They present “only modestly different economic outlooks”, wrote the boffins. In fact, so modest are the economic effects of even strong climate action that when they are depicted on a chart it is quite difficult to pick out the difference between the “No carbon price” scenario and the “High price” scenario, the gap that the Telegraph, and Minister Hunt, claim would “shatter” the economy.

I reproduce Chart 3.32 from the Treasury report above, which measures real GDP over 2010-2030, the same figures that the Telegraph found “shocking”. You might need a magnifying glass to see it but all of the fuss is over the gap between the mustard coloured top line and the green bottom line. It is this difference that will wreck the Australian economy, if you believe Minister Hunt and his friends at the Telegraph.

To Do Nothing or Not To Do Nothing

It turns out that the Minister’s office possesses a very large magnifying glass indeed. But before they used it they needed to decide what to look at, and here they engaged in several blatant deceptions.

First they compared the “No carbon price” (do nothing) scenario with the “High price” scenario (limit warming to 2°C) and attributed the difference in economic trajectories to Labor’s planned policy. Apart from the fact that Labor has not adopted the latter policy (although in my view it should), this comparison is irrelevant.

No government is going to pursue the do-nothing “No carbon price” trajectory, which would mean abolishing the Direct Action scheme, the Renewable Energy Target and everything else.

The Abbott Government has itself just announced a target that is similar to the “Central policy” scenario (the blue line in the chart). Any policy to cut emissions will impose a cost, so the Government’s 26-28% by 2030 target will be a “hit” to real GDP that will account for a large chunk of the $600 billion.

Secondly, Treasury’s horrifying “High price” scenario is the only one that would limit global warming to 2°C. The 2°C objective is the official policy of the present Government, so by concocting these figures Minister Hunt is undermining himself (unless he is deceiving us over his commitment to 2°C, which is possible).

Thirdly, a substantial portion of the economic impact (previous modelling exercises indicate around one third) is due not to Australia’s carbon abatement policies but to the actions of other countries. In no sense can that part of it be attributed to the Labor Party’s “carbon bill”. Nor can the Coalition’s weak target change what other countries do.

How to turn a mouse into an elephant

Having chosen the comparison that will provide the loudest headlines in a Murdoch tabloid, Minister Hunt then pulled out his king-sized magnifying glass. How did he get this apparently huge number of $600 billion?

Well, he looked at the real GDP figures (the figures accompanying Chart 3.32) and saw that the difference between the “No carbon price” and the “High price” scenarios in the year 2030 is only $64 billion. Hmmm, not big enough for a scare campaign.

So he added up all of the differences in real GDP over 2013-2030, that is, what you would get by colouring in the gap between the mustard and green lines in the chart. But, hey, real GDP (that is, adjusted to exclude the effects of inflation) is always going to be less impressive than nominal GDP. So he picked an inflation rate of 2.5% (making the basic error of using the CPI instead of the GDP deflator) and, Hey Presto, out pops $633 billion.

Now that’s a headline.

Except it isn’t. At least, it would not be in any newspaper that subjected government claims to a modicum of scrutiny.

$633 billion sounds big, but compared to what? Well, compared to cumulative nominal GDP over 2013-2030, which, using the Minister’s figuring, will amount to $46.1 trillion. So over the whole period the “devastating blow” amounts to a shortfall in nominal GDP of 1.37% in 2030.

But there’s a better way to look at it.

The Treasury modelling shows that, compared with doing nothing, if we join the rest of the world to limit warming to 2°C Australia’s real GDP will be $64 billion dollars lower in 2030. How much is that? Well, under the do-nothing scenario real GDP is projected to grow by almost two thirds between 2013 and 2030. In the last of those years, 2029-2030, it is expected to grow by $69 billion, a little more than the $64 billion decline in GDP due to strong climate policy.

In other words, the “economic devastation” amounts to no more than one year’s delay before Australia’s real GDP expands by two thirds.

Who is mean and tricky?

So here is the question: Are Australians willing to delay the growth in real GDP by 12 months and in doing so play their part in global efforts to tackle climate change, or would they prefer to have the growth a year earlier and do nothing about climate change, sponge off the rest of the world and become an international pariah?

Mr Hunt’s attacks on reasonable efforts to tackle climate change assume that Australians are a mean and nasty people who put tiny increases in future incomes above a safe climate for their children.

I can’t finish without one last comment.

One of the more dishonest deceptions in this saga is the Telegraph’s claim that it has uncovered “the report Shorten didn’t want you to see”. In fact Greg Hunt was the author of this deceit, claiming Labor “would never want these numbers to see the light of day.”

But all of the modelling by Treasury and the Department of Climate Change (now the Department of Environment) was posted on the Authority’s website at the time of the release of its report. The secret “devastating” GDP data from Treasury’s Chart 3.32 were reproduced in its report to the Climate Change Authority plain as day in Table 3.3, and the modelling results were discussed extensively in the Authority’s report.

No Minister, there is no conspiracy between Treasury, your department, the Climate Change Authority and the Labor Party.

Mr Hunt’s confabulations and the Telegraph’s beat-up add to the sorry history of climate scare campaigns. The journalist who accepted uncritically this steaming pile of horse manure from Minister Hunt and spread it thickly over the pages of the Daily Telegraph was the tabloid’s national political editor Simon Benson.

The Conversation

Clive Hamilton is Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE)

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


2015-16 is shaping up to deliver a rollercoaster from strong El Niño to La Niña

Wenju Cai, CSIRO; Agus Santoso, UNSW Australia, and Guojian Wang, CSIRO

The anticipation is growing that this year’s newly formed El Niño will turn out to be very big. All climate models surveyed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology are currently predicting a strong event later this year.

We’ve been here before – last year, in fact, when fears of a 2014 “super El Niño” proved anticlimactic. But it’s not over yet. The El Niño – Spanish for “the little boy”, which refers to a particular pattern of ocean and atmospheric temperatures across the Pacific – has resumed its growth this year and this time it is not showing any signs of slowing down.

It’s easy to see why this little boy gets so much attention. First, we are talking about a climate phenomenon that brings drought, rains, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather events to many parts of the world.

Second, it is almost 20 years since the previous extreme El Niño. The 1997-98 event was the biggest in modern records and its worldwide catastrophic impacts earned it the infamous description of “the climate event of the 20th century”. A comparable but slightly weaker El Niño occurred in the summer of 1982-83, which was marked by severe drought in eastern Australia and the tragic Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Third, the latest climate model projections – reviewed by us in a study published today in Nature Climate Change – have shown that Earth will probably experience more super El Niños as the global climate warms. The projections also suggest that the extreme version of La Niña – the sister and “opposite” of El Niño – will also increase in frequency, as will the positive phase of the siblings’
“cousin”, a related phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole. This also includes more successive occurrences of the trio.

A family gathering

This atypical “family gathering” has happened before. A positive Indian Ocean Dipole occurred in the southern spring of 1997, before the El Niño peaked the following summer. A La Niña then followed in the summer of 1998-99. For western Pacific rim countries, the overall result was drier-than-normal conditions in 1997, followed by unusually wet conditions in 1998. A similar series of events also occurred in 1982-83.

To understand this and to see how global warming spurs such events, we need to understand the physics of El Niño, taking the most recent unfolding events as a start.

The 2014-2016 chain of events would be interesting in its own right. While the failed 2014 super El Niño left many experts scrabbling for an explanation, its warming remnants in the central Pacific have now transformed into the official 2015 El Niño.

It is not common that two El Niño events would occur consecutively. The heat accumulated in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that fuels an El Niño is usually discharged, and some of this heat goes into the atmosphere, where it helps to accelerate warming in global surface temperature.

The discharge is proportional to the intensity of an El Niño. So the stronger the El Niño, the stronger the discharge. Also, the stronger the El Niño, the more dramatic the weakening of the Walker Circulation, with slackened trade winds and equatorial currents. This weakening Walker Circulation extends into the Indian Ocean which tends to induce a positive Indian Ocean Dipole during the southern spring.

Following the peak of an El Niño in the southern summer, the equatorial Pacific Ocean is depleted of heat and needs to be recharged. Winds associated with La Niña are effective in this recharge, and so an El Niño tends to be followed immediately by a La Niña.

Clearly the 2014 El Niño conditions were not strong enough for this to happen. Another similar exception occurred during 1986-1988. The 1986-87 El Niño was weak, the Pacific Ocean heat was not completely depleted, allowing for another somewhat stronger El Niño in 1987-88. These two events are considered weak to moderate.

The impact was mild and confined to northeastern Australia, in part because there were no concurrent positive Indian Ocean Dipole events which also act to channel El Niño’s impact to southern Australia.

However, after the two consecutive events, the equatorial Pacific was finally depleted of heat. The subsurface ocean was colder, facilitating surface cooling in the central Pacific through a suite of atmosphere-ocean positive feedback processes, leading to the extreme La Niña of 1988-89.

What is in store?

In terms of intensity and the growth rate up to July, the 2015 El Niño is second only to corresponding time of the 1997 event, and looks set to outpower the 1982 event. However, the eventual intensity of the 2015 El Niño is still hard to predict. What seems more certain is a La Niña in 2016.

For Australia, the extent and strength of the impact of the 2015 El Niño to a large extent depends on whether there is a concurrent positive Indian Ocean Dipole. In 2014, there was no positive Indian Ocean Dipole. To date, most models are predicting a positive dipole this year, raising the prospect of a strong El Niño preceded by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole and followed by a La Niña event – exactly as occurred in 1982-84 and 1997-99.

The pattern of Pacific Ocean temperatures during the last strong El Nino event in 1997.

For Australia, the impacts of this sequence could be significant, as attested by the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfire in 1983 over southern Australia and the floods that hit the country’s northeast in early 1984.

This swing between opposite extremes from one year to the next could have globally damaging consequences too. On the far side of the Pacific, California may get a break from its a prolonged drought, although this hopefully won’t be in the form of intense storms and flooding.

Climate change bringing extremes

We cannot be sure if climate change plays a role in an individual event, and climate models are certainly not perfect. Observations need to be sustained to gather and compare robust statistics. But due to recent research we can now say that stronger El Ninos, La Ninas, and positive Indian Ocean Dipoles are all to be expected on a warming planet.

Climate models project an overall weakening of the Walker Circulation over the 21st century, underpinned by faster warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific (which is favourable for extreme El Niños, and in turn conducive to extreme La Niña). There will also be faster warming in the western than the eastern Indian Ocean, which would tend to promote positive Indian Ocean Dipole events. As a consequence, the sequence of an El Niño preceded by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole and followed by a La Niña event is projected to occur more frequently.

These sequences of events are likely to affect a vast swathe of the planet, extending from Africa, right through to South Asia and Australasia, and all the way across to the coastlines of the eastern Pacific.

The Conversation

Wenju Cai is Principal Research Scientist, Wealth from Oceans Flagship at CSIRO; Agus Santoso is Senior Research Associate at UNSW Australia, and Guojian Wang is Postdoctoral fellow at CSIRO

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