25 years ago the Australian government promised deep emissions cuts, and yet here we still are


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

A divided government firmly on the back foot ahead of a major climate conference, its green credentials shaky, and riven with bubbling tensions between those who want serious climate action and those resistant to it. Sound familiar? But the government I’m describing is not today’s version, but Bob Hawke’s federal government way back in October 1990.

October 11, 2015, marks a quarter-century to the day since the then environment minister, Ros Kelly, brought a proposed carbon emissions target to cabinet. At the time, Jon Bon Jovi was number one in Australia with “Blaze of Glory”, and some of the lyrics are apposite:

You ask about my conscience; And I offer you my soul; You ask if I’ll grow to be a wise man; Well I ask if I’ll grow old.

Of course, Australia is not the only nation to have dragged its feet on climate policy in the decades since the issue became a major concern, but its ups and downs have been perhaps steeper than most.

Climate change emerged on the world’s political agenda in 1988, following a three-year build-up from a scientific meeting in Villach, Austria. Australian politicians had already been bluntly warned about its impacts by CSIRO, at a 1986 briefing of the Australian Environment Council. In 1987 the Commission for the Future and CSIRO launched The Greenhouse Project, which briefed the business community, and held a scientific conference later that year.

In June 1988 Australian scientists were among those who attended an international summit in Toronto on the security implications of global warming. (It was shortly before this conference that NASA’s James Hansen gave his famous testimony to a US Senate hearing.) From it emerged the proposal that developed countries should commit to stabilising their emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and reduce them by 20% by 2005. This, rightly or wrongly, became a litmus test for politicians’ sincerity on the climate issue.

Back home, Australia was going through one of its periods of favouring green policies. Labor’s “small-g green” approach was widely credited with helping Hawke to squeak home in the 1987 federal election, although the real wake-up call that voters cared about the environment came in May 1989, when the Tasmanian Greens polled 15% in the state election.

Despite this, when Labor’s Graham Richardson tried the following month to get cabinet to accept the Toronto target, his attempt was crushed by the treasurer, Paul Keating. The Liberals ended up fighting the March 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor (as hard as that might be to believe today).

Aiming for the target

Big green groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace were reluctant to engage with Hawke’s Ecologically Sustainable Development policy program, fearing a stitch-up that would destroy their credibility. They held out for a statement about definitive greenhouse gas targets.

This game of chicken, combined with the impending Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in November 1990 (seen at the time as the starting gun for negotiations for a climate treaty at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit), would have been a significant consideration for Ros Kelly when she became environment minister in April 1990.

Her initial cabinet proposal seems to have been for a commitment without caveats, but this was unacceptable to resources-minded ministers. As treasurer, Keating was reportedly instrumental in modifying the text to demand that:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This seemed, in the short term, to satisfy both the green groups and the coal lobby – the ACF, Greenpeace and the Australian Coal Association all endorsed the new policy. Kelly flew to Geneva and was still in charge of her portfolio by the time of the Rio conference. There, the Toronto target was tweaked to call for stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels (rather than 1988) by 2000.

But business knows better than to rest on its laurels. The Business Council of Australia got together with a raft of resource industry peak bodies, mining firms and consultants to produce a May 1991 report on Australia’s “realistic” energy prospects. This, to no one’s surprise, declared that the target was “totally unachievable”.

Switching to gas for electricity might find half the cuts, but as the Australian Financial Review reported at the time, in an obliging article about the “unrealistic” scope of the proposed cuts, Australia’s energy use would be pushed still higher by its rapid population growth and economic reliance on the resources sector.

Nine months later, during the heated negotiations of the Rio summit, many of the same organisations behind the May 1991 Energy Prospects report funded another report that further outlined what it saw as the unacceptable economic damage that climate action would wreak. This primary and effective tactic hasn’t really changed since.

Will history repeat itself?

This is largely forgotten history (and for a fuller summary, read Maria Taylor’s recent book on the subject). Crucially, the Liberals are not the “bad guys” of the story. Labor was in power until March 1996, and by then emissions and coal exports were climbing inexorably and the coal lobby had consolidated its power. John Howard was merely more honest about it all.

Australia’s vexed history also shows that setting a climate target is only the beginning of the effort required. Targets are clearly needed – how else will we know if we are “on target”? But they can also allow politicians to say, “Look, we are aware of the problem, we’ve set challenging goals. Yes, progress isn’t quite as quick as we’d like, but we all need to be patient…”

Then, a few years later, once everyone has forgotten, a new target is set. And the wheel goes around again, while the carbon dioxide accumulates in our atmosphere.

Despite recent government attempts to deride and smear environmental activists, more and more people are realising that our leaders, of whatever political hue, have failed to show leadership on this issue. In the run-up to this year’s Paris climate summit and beyond, citizens of Australia have to decide how to create sustained political and social pressure so that history doesn’t repeat itself yet again, whether as tragedy or farce.


Marc will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Friday, October 9, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD candidate at Sustainable Consumption Institute , University of Manchester

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

The oceans are becoming too hot for coral, and sooner than we expected


Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland

This week, scientists registered their concern that super-warm conditions are building to a point where corals are severely threatened across the tropical Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They did so after seeing corals lose colour across the three major ocean basins – a sign of a truly momentous global change.

This is only the third global bleaching event in recorded history.

Underwater heat waves

The situation has been worrying scientists like myself for many months. Over the past 12 months, the temperatures of the upper layers of the ocean have been running unseasonably warm. Underwater heatwaves have torn through these tropical regions over summer, and corals across large areas of reef have lost their colour as the algal partners (or symbionts) that provide much of the food for corals have left their tissues. Bereft, corals are beginning to starve, get diseased and die.

The “heatwaves” that are causing the problem are characterised by extremes that are 1-3 degrees C warmer than the long-term average for summer. It doesn’t seem like much but past experience has shown us that exposure to small increases in temperatures for a couple of months is enough to kill corals in great numbers.

In the first global mass bleaching event in 1998, regions such as Okinawa, Palau and north-west Australia lost up to 90% of their corals as temperatures soared.

By the end of 1998 up to 16% of the corals on the world’s tropical reefs had died.

The key concern here is that corals are not an inconsequential part of the biology of the ocean. While geographically insignificant (less than 0.1% of the ocean), coral reefs punch well above their weight in terms of their importance to the ecology of the ocean and to humans.

Over a million species are thought to live in and around coral reefs, while an estimated 500 million people derive food, livelihoods and other benefits from coral reefs throughout the tropics.

Why the heatwaves?

Warm conditions were seen across the ocean in 2014, with an on-again off-again El Niño condition in the Pacific and similar conditions across Indian and Atlantic-Caribbean ocean regions.

As a result, surface waters came close to triggering mass coral bleaching in many places, and did trigger bleaching in many others. The equatorial Pacific, for example, experienced bleaching temperatures from April without relent, generating reports of extensive bleaching and mortality.

One question that is on everyone’s lips is, why the elevated temperatures?

At one level, the drivers for the current global bleaching event are clear. Climate change has been driving up sea temperatures. When natural variability adds to this trend, such as during El Niño, temperatures now exceed the threshold for mass coral bleaching and death.

This explanation has been sufficient for the last couple of decades. I have used it many times.

However, that may be changing as we learn that the intensity of El Niño may well also be vulnerable to changes in average global temperatures. A growing number of studies (see also here) are showing that strong El Niño are becoming more frequent, and climate change is likely a significant driver of this. This and phenomena such as the mysterious warm patch) in the eastern Pacific (nicknamed the “Blob”) suggest the simple model may need to be modified.

The Coral Reef Watch program run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed a number of models to estimate the likelihood of mass coral bleaching and mortality, as you can see in the figure below.

Projections of stress – NOAA
NOAA Coral Reef Watch

These models show considerable ability to predict where, when and how severe mass coral bleaching and mortality are likely to be. Looking at these projections reveals the spread of underwater heatwaves and the risk of mass coral bleaching and mortality.

Have we under-estimated the risk of a changing ocean?

Understanding the sensitivity of reef-building corals to elevated temperatures allows us to ask the question: if sea temperatures are increasing, when does it get too hot for corals every year in the future? I did this some years ago and came up with the answer that most oceans get too hot for their corals on a yearly basis by 2040-2050.

At the time, this was quite shocking – the idea that corals would be eliminated by mid-century. All those species, all those resources for people.

The problem is, I was only accounting for a doubling of greenhouse gases, as opposed to the tripling or more under the current business-as-usual approach, and the models used for estimating future sea temperatures didn’t account for more frequent extreme El Niño. And if so, then my original projections of when the oceans become too hot for coral reefs are too optimistic!

The current looming global stress event certainly emphasises this story. As I look at NOAA’s stress maps, I am reminded of the huge and unprecedented experiment that we are running. I am also conscious that the consequences of warming have been underestimated for almost everything we look at. I am compelled to question whether the negotiators headed for meeting in Paris in a month or so really appreciate the urgency.

Do they know that we need to pull the plug immediately on this crazy experiment? Given that the current pledges going into Paris are so woefully inadequate, it would seem not.

Perhaps we now have to hope that the dying gasps of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystem can jolt our negotiators into action. If not, then it would seem that nothing will.

The Conversation

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

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