We can’t drought-proof Australia, and trying is a fool’s errand



The push to ‘drought-proof’ Australia is dangerous nonsense.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Emma Kathryn White, University of Melbourne

There is a phrase in the novel East of Eden that springs to mind every time politicians speak of “drought-proofing” Australia:

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.

While author John Steinbeck was referring to California’s Salinas Valley, the phrase is particularly pertinent to Australia where the El Niño-Southern Oscillation exerts a profound influence. Water availability varies greatly across the country, both in space and time. El Niño conditions bring droughts and devastating bushfires, while La Niña is accompanied by violent rainfall, floods and cyclones.




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This variability is innate to the Australian environment. And now, climate change means that in some regions, the dry years are becoming drier and the wet years are becoming less frequent. Managing water resources under a changing climate and burgeoning population requires innovative and realistic solutions that are different to those that have worked in the past.

Drought-proofing is impossible

Planning for the dry years involves setting sustainable usage limits, using more than one source of water, efficiency improvements, managed aquifer recharge, water recycling and evaluation of the best usage of water resources. It does not involve misleading claims of drought-proofing that infer we can somehow tame the unruly nature of our arid environment instead of planning and preparing for reality.

Unlike managing for the wet and dry periods, drought-proofing seeks to negate dry periods through infrastructure schemes such as large dams (subject to huge evaporative losses) and dubious river diversions. It fails to acknowledge the intrinsic variability of water availability in Australia, and modify our behaviour accordingly.

The reality is that in many parts of the country, groundwater is the sole source of water and the climate is very dry. A cornerstone of the recently launched $100 million National Water Grid Authority is the construction of more dams. But dams need rain to fill them, because without rain, all we have is empty dams. And we have enough of those already.

A history of denial

Just because Dorothea Mackellar wrote of “droughts and flooding rains” over 100 years ago, it doesn’t mean water management should proceed in the same vein it always has.

Australia has always had a variable climate, which changes significantly from year to year and also decade to decade. This not the same as a long-term climatic trend, better known as climate change.




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Climate change is making parts of Australia even drier. Rainfall in the south-eastern part of Australia is projected to keep declining. We cannot rely on blind faith that rains will fill dams once more because they have in the past.

Yet inevitably, during the dry years, claims that Australia can be “drought-proofed” are renewed. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack recently praised the Bradfield scheme, an 80 year old infrastructure project intending to divert northern river flows inland. It has been so thoroughly debunked on all scales, it is better described as a pipe-dream than piping scheme. It has no place in reasonable water management discourse.

The concept of drought-proofing harks back to the days of European settlement. Early water management techniques were more appropriate for verdant English fields than the arid plains of Australia.

In the early twentieth century, water resources were vigorously developed, with government-sponsored irrigation schemes and large dams constructed. During this time, little thought was given to sustainability. Instead, the goal was to stimulate inland settlement, agriculture and industry. Development was pursued despite the cost and ill-advised nature of irrigation in particular areas.

Shifting long entrenched perceptions of water management

All this said, irrigation certainly has its place: it supports a quarter of Australia’s agricultural output. And there are substantial efforts underway to rebalance water usage between irrigation and the environment.

However, acknowledgement of the relative scarcity of water in certain parts of Australia has only really occurred in the last 30 years or so.

Widespread droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s highlighted the importance of effective water management and shifted long-entrenched perceptions of irrigation and development. Water reforms were passed, mandating future water development be environmentally sustainable development, which meant, for the first time, water resource management sought a balance between economic, social and environmental needs.

Antiquated ideas about drought-proofing, pushed by politicians, promise much yet deliver little. They distract attention and siphon funds from realistic solutions, or actually re-evaluating where and how we use our limited water resources.




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We need practical, effective and well-considered management such as water recycling, efficiency measures and source-divestment that accounts for both shorter term climatic variability and long term changes in temperature and rainfall due to climate change. A big part of this is managing expectations through education.

Attempting to drought-proof Australia is not “managing for the dry periods”, as advocates claim. It is sticking our heads in the dry, salty sand and pretending the land is cool and green and wet.The Conversation

Emma Kathryn White, PhD Candidate, Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Our land abounds in nature strips – surely we can do more than mow a third of urban green space



Even the standard grassed nature strip has value for local wildlife.
Michelle/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Adrian Marshall, University of Melbourne

You may mock the national anthem by singing “Our land abounds in nature strips” but what you might not know is how true that is. In Melbourne, for example, more than a third of all public green space is nature strips. (That figure includes roundabouts, medians and other green bits of the street.)

That’s a remarkable amount. The nature strip is everywhere. A million small patches combine into a giant park spanning the city, making it a significant player in our urban ecosystems.




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A second remarkable thing is that the nature strip is public land that private citizens are required by law to maintain. Councils manage the trees, but we residents mow the lawn.

What are the rules on nature strips?

Succulents, Agapanthus and Gazanias are the most common plantings on nature strips.
Adrian Marshall CC BY 4.0, Author provided

Many residents go further and plant a street tree or some garden plants – succulents, Agapanthus and Gazanias are the most common. But the chances are that, whatever the garden on the nature strip, it’s against the rules.

The rules on nature strips vary from council to council. Some councils don’t allow any plantings. Others restrict plantings by height or allow only plants indigenous to the local area. In some areas, nature strips can only be planted to prevent erosion on steep slopes.

Some councils disallow food plants, for fear of historic lead contamination from leaded petrol. Others insist on no plants within a metre of the kerb and two metres of the footpath.




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These bylaws are inconsistent and illogical. For instance, councils that insist on indigenous species nevertheless plant exotic street trees. Councils that say plants must be less than 30cm high to ensure they don’t block drivers’ sight lines still allow vehicles to park on the street, blocking sight lines.

Bylaws deny us many benefits

To have council bylaws restrict or disallow gardening in the nature strip flies in the face of common sense. Street greenery, whether its trees, shrubs or lawn, provides many benefits. The science is in on this.

Urban wildlife uses street greenery for habitat and food and as green corridors for movement.

Even for those who mow, the lawns of nature strips are not just turf grass. They are home to over 150 species of plants, based on my yet-to-be-published survey data for nearly 50 neighbourhoods, confirming earlier studies. Many of these, like the clovers, provide important resources for pollinators.

One US study showed that changing from a weekly mow to every three weeks increased the number of flowers in a lawn by 250%. Less mowing is good news for bees and butterflies.

An unpublished recent survey by the author and colleagues found gardening in the nature strip adds native plants to the streetscape, increases biodiversity and add structural complexity (more layers of plants, more types of stuff), which is important for many species.

The greater the diversity of plantings, the greater the benefits a nature strip can provide.
TEDxMelbourne/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Street greenery helps water soak into the ground, filtering out pollutants, recharging aquifers and making rivers healthier. It cools streets and helps counter the urban heat island effect. It also promotes a sense of community, encourages walking and lowers the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and depression.




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But councils tend to be risk-averse. They worry they will be sued if someone trips on groundcover or stubs their toe on an out-of-place garden gnome.

Fortunately, this risk aversion isn’t universal. For instance, the City of Vincent in Western Australia is so keen for residents to convert lawn to waterwise plantings that it will remove turf and provide native plants.

But, as climate change looms, stubbed toes are not the main risk we should be worrying about. Rather, we must urgently remake our cities and our culture for sustainability and resilience.




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Gardening becomes a neighbourly act

One of the great things about gardening in the nature strip is that people are more likely to do it if their neighbours do it. It’s contagious, a positive-feedback loop creating a greener street.

Our recent survey found residents who garden in the nature strip have a greater sense of community than those who don’t.

A well-designed street garden, fully covering the nature strip, allowing pedestrian access to cars and using indigenous plants.
Adrian Marshall CC BY 4.0, Author provided

Interestingly, the benefits nature strips provide are not equally distributed across the city. For instance, newer neighbourhoods have more nature strip than older neighbourhoods (though their trees are younger). People garden the nature strip more on minor roads than major roads, and in more socially advantaged neighbourhoods.

Almost a quarter of residential properties in Melbourne have some sort of nature strip gardening. If councils were to encourage this activity we might achieve more street greening with little cost to our cash-strapped councils. Such encouragement would also free many residents of their sense of frustration at being required to maintain the nature strip but forbidden to do anything more than mow.

Given that more than a third of our public green space is nature strip, the many small actions of residents can add up to substantial positive change.The Conversation

Adrian Marshall, Lecturer, Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Double counting of emissions cuts may undermine Paris climate deal


Ice floe adrift in Vincennes Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory. There are fears efforts to combat global warming will be undermined by double counting of carbon credits.
AAP/Torsten Blackwood

Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lambert Schneider, Oeko-Institut, and Maosheng DUAN, Tsinghua University

In the four years since the Paris climate agreement was adopted, countries have debated the fine print of how emissions reduction should be tracked and reported. One critical detail is proving particularly hard to work out – and a weak result would threaten the environmental integrity of the entire deal.

The sticking point is rules for carbon markets: specifically, how to prevent double counting of emissions reductions by both the country selling and buying carbon credits.

These rules are proving a major barrier to reaching consensus. In December, the negotiations move to Chile for this year’s major climate talks, known as COP25. The double counting issue needs to be resolved. It will not be an easy job, and the outcome matters to many countries, including Australia.




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The Morrison government says Australia will meet the Paris emissions targets by 2030 without international trading – partly by counting old carbon credits towards its Paris efforts. But in future Australia may adopt a stronger target in line with global climate goals. This may entail government and businesses buying carbon credits from overseas.

In an article just published in the journal Science, we and our co-authors* explain why double counting could undermine the Paris goals, and how a robust outcome could be achieved.

The Port Kembla industrial works in Wollongong. Industrial activity is a major contributor to overall global emissions.
AAP/Deal Lewins

What’s the problem here?

International carbon trading allows two or more countries to achieve their emissions targets more cheaply than if going it alone. Countries where cutting emissions is relatively cheap do more than is required by their targets. They then sell the additional emissions reductions, in the form of credits, to countries that find it harder to achieve their targets.

Carbon credits could be produced through activity such as replacing fossil fuels with zero-emissions energy, greater energy efficiency and electrification in transport and buildings, new technologies in industry and better practices in agriculture and forestry.

Rules for carbon trading are defined under Article 6 of the Paris agreement. Trading under the deal could be big: almost half the parties to the agreement have signalled they want to use carbon markets. Airlines might also become major buyers of emissions credits, under rules requiring them to offset increases in carbon emissions from international flights above 2020 levels.

The cost savings from using carbon markets could make it easier for countries to adopt more ambitious targets – ultimately resulting in greater emissions reductions.




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But if trading rules are not watertight then the use of carbon markets could lead to greater emissions, undermining the agreement.

One fundamental risk is double counting: a country selling a carbon credit might claim the underlying emissions reduction for itself, while at the same time the country buying the credit also claims the same emissions reduction.

Obviously any international transfer of emission reductions should not lead to higher total emissions than if participating countries had met their targets individually. This could be ensured through a form of double-entry bookkeeping, wherein the country selling carbon credits adjusts its emissions upwards, and the country acquiring the carbon credits adjusts, by the same amount, downwards.

But the devil lies in the detail – and in the self interest of the parties involved.

Planes lined up at Sydney Airport. The aviation industry will likely buy carbon credits to offset its emissions growth from 2020.
AAP

The bones of contention

Countries are wrangling over what double counting is, how it should be avoided and whether it should sometimes be allowed.

Some countries hoping to sell emissions credits, notably Brazil, propose rules under which emissions reductions sold to another country could effectively also be claimed by the selling country. Such rules existed under the Kyoto Protocol, which came before the Paris agreement. However under Kyoto developing countries did not have emission targets. All major countries have emissions targets under Paris, making the method unsuitable now.




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Another potential pitfall lies in the potential purchase by international airlines of large amounts of credits to offset increases in their emissions. Aviation emissions are not counted in national emissions inventories. So it would be logical to adjust the selling country’s inventory for any emissions reduction sold to airlines.

But some countries, notably Saudi Arabia, argue that this should not be done because the airline industry is governed by a separate international treaty. This approach would allow emissions reductions to be included in both agreements and counted twice.

In a separate point of debate some countries – including Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States – oppose the idea of a single international body overseeing carbon trading under the Paris agreement, arguing for more national sovereignty and flexibility between nations buying and selling.

Making things even more complex, the Paris agreement allows each country to determine how to frame their emissions target. Some countries frame them as absolute emissions, others as a reduction relative to business-as-usual, or as a ratio of emissions to gross domestic product. Some countries’ targets are simply unclear.

A deforested area in the Amazon forest in Brazil. Carbon credits can be earned by nations that retain forest rather than cutting it down.
Marcelo Sayao/EPA

Letting each country determine its own ambitions and approach was key in making the Paris agreement a reality. But it makes accounting for carbon markets more complex.

There are also questions over whether a portion of carbon trading revenue should be allocated to help pay for climate change resilience in developing countries, and whether old credits from a trading scheme under the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism, should be tradable in the new scheme.

The way forward in Chile

The solutions to all these issues will be nuanced, but will require that governments agree on some fundamentals.

The first is that a single set of common international accounting rules should apply, irrespective of which carbon market mechanism is used by countries or groups of countries.

The second is to ensure robust emissions accounting, regardless of how mitigation targets are expressed.

The third is that over time, all countries should move toward economy-wide emissions targets, as the Paris Agreement foresees.

The need to reach a political deal in Chile must not result in loopholes for international carbon markets. The rules must ensure environmental integrity and avoid double counting. If this is achieved, emissions reductions can be made more cheaply and global ambition can be more readily raised. If not, then the accord could be seriously undermined.

The article in the journal Science “Double counting and the Paris Agreement rulebook” is authored by Lambert Schneider, Maosheng Duan, Robert Stavins, Kelley Kizzier, Derik Broekhoff, Frank Jotzo, Harald Winkler, Michael Lazarus, Andrew Howard, Christina Hood. See here for the full manuscript.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University; Lambert Schneider, Research coordinator for international climate policy, Oeko-Institut, and Maosheng DUAN, professor, Tsinghua University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia could see fewer cyclones, but more heat and fire risk in coming months


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Northern Australia is likely to see fewer cyclones than usual this season, but hot, dry weather will increase the risk of fire and heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology today released its forecast for the tropical cyclone season, which officially runs from November 1 to April 30.




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Also published today is the October to April Severe Weather Outlook, which examines the risk of other weather extremes like flooding, heatwaves and bushfires.

Warmer oceans means more cyclones

On average, 11 tropical cyclones form each season in the Australian region. Around four of those cross the coast. The total number each season is roughly related to how much cooler or warmer than average the tropical oceans near Australia are during the cyclone season.

Map showing the average number of tropical cyclones through the Australian region and surrounding waters in ENSO-neutral years, using all years of data from the 1969-70 to 2017-18 tropical cyclone season.

One of the biggest drivers of change in ocean temperatures is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. During La Niña phases of ENSO, the warmest waters in the equatorial Pacific build up in the western Pacific and to the north of Australia. That region then becomes the focus for more cloud, rainfall and tropical cyclones.

But during El Niño, the warmest water shifts towards the central Pacific and away from northern Australia. This decreases the likelihood of cyclones in our region.




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And when ENSO is neutral, there is little push towards above or below average numbers of cyclones.

Temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have been ENSO-neutral since April and are likely to stay neutral until at least February 2020. However, some tropical patterns are El Niño-like, including higher-than-average air pressure at Darwin. This may be related to the current record-strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole – another of Australia’s major climate drivers – and the cooler waters surrounding northern Australia.

The neutral ENSO phase alongside higher-than-average air pressure over northern Australia means we expect fewer-than-average tropical cyclones in the Australian region this season. The bureau’s Tropical Cyclone Season Outlook model predicts a 65% chance of fewer-than-average cyclones.

At least one tropical cyclone has crossed the Australian coast every season since reliable records began in the 1970s, so people across northern Australia need to be prepared every year. In ENSO-neutral cyclone seasons, this first cyclone crossing typically occurs in late December.




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Other severe weather

While cyclones are one of the key concerns during the coming months, the summer months also bring the threat of several other forms of severe weather, including bushfires, heatwaves and flooding rain.

With dry soils inland, and hence little moisture available to cool the air, and a forecast for clear skies and warmer days, there is an increased chance that heat will build up over central Australia during the spring and summer months. This increases the chance of heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia when that hot air is drawn towards the coast by passing weather systems.

Australian seasonal bushfire outlook, as of August 2019. Vast areas of Australia, particularly the east coast, have an above-normal fire potential this season.
Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC/Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council

Likewise, the dry landscape and the chance of extreme heat also raise the risk of more bushfires throughout similar parts of Australia, especially on windy days. And with fewer natural firebreaks such as full rivers and streams, even greater care is needed in some areas.

Widespread floods are less likely this season. This is because of forecast below-average rainfall and also because dry soils mean the first rains will soak into the ground rather than run across the landscape.

However, as we saw in northern Queensland in January and February this year, when up to 2 metres of rainfall fell in less than 10 days, localised flooding can occur in any wet season if a tropical low parks itself in one location for any length of time.




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Most of all, it’s always important to follow advice from emergency services on what to do before, during and after severe weather. Know your weather, know your risk and be prepared. You can stay up to date with the latest forecast and warnings on the bureau’s website and subscribe to receive climate information emails.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Head of Long-range Forecasts, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, BOM, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cattle prods and welfare cuts: mounting threats to Extinction Rebellion show demands are being heard, but ignored


Piero Moraro, Charles Sturt University

Scores of arrests have been made across Australia as the Extinction Rebellion enters its fifth day of protests.

The activists are desperately trying to force the Australian government to take serious and effective action against climate change. And their brand of civil disobedience has caused major inconveniences, from hanging off bridges to locking themselves to gates, vehicles or cement blocks.

But while inconvenient, their protests are still non-violent. This is an important point to stress, as the members of state and federal government peddle the view that they are criminals and anarchists.

In fact, as the movement grows stronger, so do the governments’ attempt to stop it. It shows the Extinction Rebellion’s demands are actually being heard, but at the same time, the drastic responses make it clear policy-makers will still choose to ignore them.

Draconian responses to social protest

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk last month used social media to denounce the “sinister” tactics of “stupid” protesters. She claims the current XR protests are “absolutely ridiculous” and are endangering people’s lives.

Her government is now fast-tracking new legislation that would mean possessing a locking device could lead to a jail term of up to two years, or a fine of up to $6,000.

Pauline Hanson has said Queenslanders should use cattle prods on climate change activists, whom she labelled “unwashed idiots”. And a few days ago, Studio 10 host Kerri-Anne Kennerley said motorists should run over XR protesters.




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Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash added fuel to the fire. The Home Affairs minister labelled the XR protesters “fringe-dwellers”, and claimed they should face mandatory jail sentences and welfare cuts.

Senator Cash added: “taxpayers should not be expected to subsidise the protests of others”, since protesting is not an exemption from a welfare recipient’s obligation to look for a job.

What’s more, NSW Police have imposed stringent bail conditions on protesters, traditionally used with members of bikie gangs. The bail conditions prevent them from “going near, or contacting or trying to go near or contact (except through a legal representative) any members of the group Extinction Rebellion”. They’re also not allowed to be within 2.5 kilometres of Sydney’s CBD.

These conditions had the curious result of also preventing defendants from attending court in the Sydney CBD.

Ad hoc laws

Yesterday, former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had his bail conditions revoked by deputy chief magistrate Jane Mottley, who said they were not necessary given the low seriousness of the offences. It’s expected many more cases will be dismissed on the same ground.

Nevertheless, this use of bail conditions against XR activists raises serious concerns, as citizens are threatened with jail if they insist on partaking in political activism.

The conditions appear to violate basic democratic rights, namely, freedom of opinion, movement and assembly, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.




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But it’s not the first time we see these kinds of ad hoc responses to social protest. Earlier this year, the federal government introduced The Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019, specifically targeting the growing animal rights movement in Australia.

Before then, the NSW government introduced the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, targeting anti-mining protests.

And some have expressed concerns that Palaszczuk’s efforts to crack down on civil disobedience are reminiscent of the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen era, when the QLD government allowed extreme police violence against peaceful protesters.




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But it’s worth remembering these XR protests have so far only caused traffic disruptions. While it constitutes a punishable offence, they are fine-only offences at most, as the judge noticed in Ludlam’s case.

Laws already exist to sanction those who breach traffic regulation. With reference to Queensland’s proposed anti-protest legislation, the Human Rights Law Centre noticed:

devices such as sleeping dragons, monopoles and tripods are commonly used in peaceful protest across Australia — our criminal laws already adequately cover their use when they cause major disruption.

The new laws may allow the police to search and arrest anyone who engages in a peaceful protest.

Communicative nature of protest

As I argue in my recent book on civil disobedience, this form of illegal protest has an inherent communicative nature. It seeks to elicit a reply from governments concerning the necessity of changing a law or policy.

From this standpoint, the tough, and seemingly unnecessary, responses to the XR movement are, paradoxically, encouraging. They reveal governments cannot continue to ignore the voices of environmental activists.

On the other hand, the way state and federal governments have chosen to respond show their unwillingness to entertain the activists’ demands.

Besides the mere goal of deterring people from engaging in further protest, governments are also following a familiar strategy involving the use of patronising language, aiming to dismiss XR activists as not worthy of its attention. For instance, the millions of young people who took part in the School Strike for Climate were just “skipping school”.




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These are all ways for governments to avoid having to answer for the legitimate questions about its controversial policies and careless attitude about scientists’ warning about rising global temperatures.

As they strives to come up with more demeaning labels for the XR movement, we are left to hope they may eventually apply their creative skills towards finding ways to finally cut Australia’s carbon emissions.The Conversation

Piero Moraro, Lecturer in Criminal Justice, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal miners and urban greenies have one thing in common, and Labor must use it



Coal stockpiled before being loaded on to ships at a terminal in Gladstone. researchers say Labor should not “cozy up” to the coal industry.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Fabio Mattioli, University of Melbourne and Kari Dahlgren, London School of Economics and Political Science

Months after Labor’s shock election loss, it is still pondering how the Liberals metamorphosed from party of the bosses to party of the workers – one that stole an election win from under them.

At the May 18 federal election, several working class seats in Queensland did not fall into Labor’s hands as expected, and the party narrowly retained others in New South Wales with large negative swings.

They include the coal seat of Hunter, north of Sydney, where Labor’s resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon suffered a 10% swing against him. He this week claimed constituents were scared off by Labor’s ambitious emissions reduction goal – which necessarily entails curbing the burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

Fitzgibbon called on Labor to adopt the government’s weak emissions targets – a call that drew ire from some of his colleagues. But there is no doubt that since Labor’s election loss, the party has set about proving itself as pro-coal.




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Days after the election, the controversial Adani mine received long-outstanding approvals from the Queensland Labor government, which also adopted a strong pro-coal message at its party conference. Federal Labor MPs were reportedly tripping over themselves to join the newly formed group Parliamentary Friends of Coal Exports.

But cosying up to coal is not the way forward for Labor. Instead, it must find the common ground that unites workers in the cities and the regions – job insecurity – and build a consensus for climate action on that basis.

Now-Labor leader Anthony Albanese in Brisbane in 2017, followed by anti-Adani protesters.
Darren England/AAP

Neo-liberalism has gutted coal communities

The rise in populist votes in Australia is to an extent part of a larger global movement spanning the UK’s Brexit vote, the election of US President Donald Trump, and the rise of far-right agitators across Europe. In Australia, as abroad, this process is the outcome of almost 50 years of neo-liberalism.

Large companies have departed from industrial heartlands, relocating abroad without implementing the same level of social protection and welfare. Blue-collar jobs have been supplanted by white- or pink-collar positions, offering careers in the immaterial world of finance and the service economy.

For some, this shift is not a bad thing, as it opens opportunities in less gruelling urban service jobs. But for working-class and coal communities, it means a loss of their way of life.

In their heyday, industrial factories were holistic experiences that synchronised workers’ lives to the rhythms of production. In coal communities, intergenerational attachments grew to the towns that were constructed to house mining workforces. So pervasive are the emotional attachments to mining that the prospect of moving into a different industry is not appealing to most. Not everyone wants to be a consultant, a service worker or a financial trader.

Office workers are seen on a lunch break at Martin Place in Sydney. Casualisation of the workforce is not confined to the mining industry.
AAP/Mich Tsikas

Labor is between a rock (of coal) and a hard place

This global trend pulls Labor in two directions. Urban workers in the services, finance or creative industries perceive climate change as the greatest threat to their futures and demand a transition from coal to renewables. Labor’s traditional base, however, is mining communities who feel threatened by the policies environmentalists are calling for.

Is there a way to navigate these apparently conflicting voter needs? Yes. But not by embracing coal and hoping city voters won’t notice. Instead, Labor must build a coalition across both coal communities and its urban base, recognising that the political issues around coal in Australia are about more than climate change.

The biggest threat to existing coal jobs is not climate policy, but the increased casualisation of the mining workforce. Coal miners are significant victims of what unions such as the the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union has termed the “permanent-casual rort”.




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Coal workers are increasingly employed on casual contracts through labour hire companies. They work the same shifts and do the same jobs for years, but are not entitled to paid holidays or sick leave and are liable to be sacked at any time.

Insecure jobs also mean casuals are less likely to raise safety concerns. In the past year there have been six Queensland mining fatalities, the highest rate in 20 years.

This shift is not confined to mining and industrial manufacturing. Fewer than half of working Australians have full-time permanent jobs. Employers such as rideshare service Uber and others in the gig economy offer flexibility in exchange for exploitation, insecurity, and a lack of workplace protections.

Like coal miners, people working in the immaterial economy – many of whom are concerned about climate change – also face increasingly insecure workplaces.
Yet few on the side of climate action see these commonalities, or think of coal communities as potential allies.

A CFMMEU video arguing against incensed workforce casualistaion.

Labor should broker a new kind of coalition

For Labor, a pro-coal message designed to win back coal miners will only alienate its urban base. Instead of flipping scripts between electorates, the party should build a broad coalition on the common job insecurity faced by both coal miners and urban, post-industrial workers.

This would create spaces of solidarity between environmentalists and miners. It would refocus the discussion from how environmental policy puts jobs at risk to how it can address workforce insecurity across industries.




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Labor’s existing “Just Transition” policy goes part-way there. But it allocated just $15 million over four years to administer redundancies, and fund worker training and economic diversification. Judging by the election result, coal communities were not convinced by it.

Labor should look to the US, where the proposed Green New Deal promises to cut climate pollution while creating millions of safe, stable jobs, whether in weather-proofing homes, expanding railways or making wind turbines. It is underpinned by the notion that structural reform to address inequality is central to climate policy.

Coal miners are not ignorant of the changing economics of their industry. But Labor will gain ground only if it devises a climate policy that is environmentally sound and offers protection against precarious employment.The Conversation

Fabio Mattioli, Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Melbourne and Kari Dahlgren, PhD in Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: A little more confusion added to the climate policy debate



Australia’s overall emissions are rising, high electricity prices remain a burden, and there is nervousness about the summer power supply.
Shutterstock

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Joel Fitzgibbon was on his mobile at a cafe at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Sydney on Thursday when he encountered Scott Morrison getting a mid-morning coffee.

“You’re making a lot of sense,” Morrison said to Labor’s resources spokesman, who’d set off a fire storm in his party by suggesting the ALP revise its climate policy to adopt the upper end of the government’s target of reducing emissions by 26-28% by 2030.

“Your love won’t help me, Prime Minister,” Fitzgibbon shot back.

He’s right there. Fitzgibbon’s radical proposal has burst open the conundrum the opposition has in reshaping one of the ALP’s centrepiece election pitches.

It’s a great deal more complicated than, for example, dealing with the franking credits plan, which Labor can’t afford to keep in its present form. That can be restructured, or dumped, without much political angst.

But the climate policy – for a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030 and a target of net zero by 2050 – has become an article of faith within Labor, and among many of its supporters. It’s also a policy that in the election split the voters Labor needed, attracting some but driving away others.

Weaken the policy and there will be a reaction from the ALP’s inner city constituents, who tend to look toward the Greens out of the corner of their eye. Keep a very high target and lose people once again – to the Coalition or minor parties on the right – from the traditional base, including in regional areas, especially in Queensland where coal mining is a thing.




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Labor’s climate and resources spokesmen at odds over future policy


Fitzgibbon maintains that by adopting the 28% target, Labor would not just be more acceptable to blue collar voters but would put more pressure on the government to act – although this latter point seems a stretch.

Getting to 28% without destroying blue collar jobs or harming the economy would also provide “a great foundation” for prosecuting the case for further action, he claims.

Among the multiple problems Labor has in reviewing its policy is that it will be considering a more pragmatic, less ambitious approach just when the climate debate is once again taking off in public consciousness.

It’s hard to assess precisely the extent to which the step up in activism represents the wider public view. Indeed the civil disobedience demonstrations are infuriating some people because of the disruption. Nevertheless, the period ahead could see the issue biting more, as the ALP is considering easing back.

Given how quickly things change and the relevance of what other countries do, in strict policy terms Labor arguably would be best not to settle a policy until, say, early 2021, for a 2022 election. But the government (and the media) will be able to exploit a Labor vacuum, so that holding out does carry political cost.

Fitzgibbon, who represents the NSW coal seat of Hunter and experienced voter wrath in May, won’t get the ambit claim he outlined this week. That would be going too far for the party, and for its climate spokesman Mark Butler who has a lot of reputation at stake. As soon as Fitzgibbon made public his proposal, Butler said it wouldn’t be embraced by Labor, declaring it was “fundamentally inconsistent with the Paris agreement and would lead to global warming of 3℃.”

Fortunately for the government, Fitzgibbon’s intervention reduced the attention on its energy policy, the inadequacy of which was again highlighted this week.




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Labor’s climate policy: back in the game but missing detail


As the Coalition pushes ahead with seeking to get its “big stick” legislation to deal with recalcitrant power companies through parliament, criticisms of its policy came from, among others, the chair of the Energy Security Board Kerry Schott and the Grattan Institute.

Schott, whose board advises federal and state governments, wrote in the Australian Financial Review, ahead of the paper’s energy summit, that “government interventions to cap prices and to effectively subsidise certain generation projects will not encourage the considerable new investment and innovation that is needed”.

The Grattan Institute, which released a report on Australia’s electricity markets, said the government’s “fight to avoid the impending closure of the Liddell coal power station in NSW makes it harder for Australia to achieve its emissions reduction targets, and is likely to increase electricity prices and reduce the reliability of supplies”.

The AFR summit saw much finger pointing, with energy minister Angus Taylor blaming industry for the lack of investment, and industry blaming the government.

Taylor said dismissively: “Time and again we’ve seen industry participants and commentators swept up in the excitement of complex new programs represented by the latest fashionable acronym that everyone pretends to understand but few ever do.” Origin Energy’s CEO Frank Calabria said “the mere existence of the big stick is acting as a handbrake on investment, right when we need investment the most”.




Read more:
Australia to attend climate summit empty-handed despite UN pleas to ‘come with a plan’


In theory, Morrison could have tried to use the great authority his unexpected election win gave him to pursue more appropriate energy and emissions reduction policies. Admittedly, it would have been extremely difficult, as it would have contradicted much the government had been saying and doing.

But it was never an option. Morrison is either wilfully blind to what needs to be done (although when treasurer he supported the more rational policy of a National Energy Guarantee), or he is afraid to stir those powerful naysayers in his party.

So where are we left?

With a government stubbornly tied to a set of policies that experts insist won’t deliver effective results. And an opposition that’s in a funk about where it should position itself in the future.

Meanwhile Australia’s overall emissions rise (although electricity emissions are down, as some coal fired power goes out of the system); high electricity prices remain a burden on private and business consumers alike; and there is nervousness about the summer power supply.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.