Can environmental populism save the planet?


Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Populism and environmentalism are words seldom seen in the same sentence. One is associated predominantly with nationalists and charismatic leaders of “real people”, the other with broadly-based collective action to address the world’s single most pressing problem.

Differences don’t get much starker, it would seem. But we are increasingly seeing the two strands combine in countries around the world.

Exhibit A in support of this thesis is the remarkable growth and impact of Extinction Rebellion, often known as XR.

When I finished writing a book on the possibility of environmental populism little more than six months ago, I’d never even heard of XR. Now it is a global phenomenon, beginning to be taken seriously by policymakers in some of the world’s more consequential democracies. Britain’s decision earlier this year to declare a climate emergency is attributed in part to 11 days of Extinction Rebellion protest that paralysed parts of London.




Read more:
UK becomes first country to declare a ‘climate emergency’


Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish schoolgirl who has rapidly become one of the world’s leading climate activists, is another – rather inspiring – example of a rising tide of popular opinion demanding political leaders take action before it is too late. It is also a telling indictment of the quality and imagination of the current crop of international leaders that schoolchildren are taking the lead on an issue that will, for better or worse, define their future.

It is striking that so many prominent figures in international politics are not just buffoonish, self-obsessed and ludicrously underqualified for the positions they hold, but are also rather old.

I speak as an ageing baby boomer myself, and a childless one at that. My rather ageist point is that I simply don’t have the same stake in the future that young people do, who have perhaps 70 or 80 years yet to live.

The world will be a very different place by then. Without action on climate change, it could be positively apocalyptic. A “progressive” variety of bottom-up, populist political mobilisation of precisely the sort that XR is developing could encourage even the most obdurate elders to take note.

Even if there’s merit in the point that younger leaders might take climate change more seriously than leading members of the gerontocracy such as Donald Trump, does this make the redoubtable Ms Thunberg a populist? Not if we subscribe to the views of some of populism’s more prominent critics.




Read more:
The pathologies of populism


Political scholar John Keane described populism (in The Conversation, as it happens) as “a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy”, and a “pseudo-democratic style of politics”.

He’s got a point. The idea one person is uniquely capable of representing the otherwise inarticulate and neglected will of the people is highly implausible, not to say potentially dangerous.

History is replete with examples of things going badly wrong under the leadership of messianic megalomaniacs. There is a growing number of populists and demagogues in our own time, and many – especially among the young – are losing faith in democracy.




Read more:
Australians’ trust in politicians and democracy hits an all-time low: new research


When democracies can be captured by powerful vested interests and even the most compelling scientific evidence can be deliberately undermined and discredited, such scepticism is understandable.

But there is also a “progressive” version of populism championed by some on the Left (if such labels actually mean anything anymore) as a potential way forward. The anti-globalisation movement and the re-emergence of radical politics in Europe are seen as positive examples of this possibility. However, given the demise of Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, the collapse in support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the disappearance of the Occupy movement, such claims look increasingly unpersuasive.




Read more:
In defence of left-wing populism


And yet there are two features of climate change activism that make it different from normal politics, if such a thing exists any longer.

First, climate change transcends class, race, nationality, gender and religion – even if you don’t believe it’s actually happening, it will affect all of us (although it will disproportionately weigh on poorer nations, and the poorest within those nations). The good news is even some of the more conservative groups in our society are beginning to accept the evidence, if only of their own eyes.




Read more:
Farmers’ climate denial begins to wane as reality bites


Second, the unambiguous impact of climate change is only a foretaste of what’s to come. Things are going to get a lot worse, as Australia’s strategic thinkers are beginning to recognise.

It is not clear whether the climate change movement is popular enough, however, as our recent federal election showed. Although it’s unlikely any of our major political parties will go the polls offering ambitious policies in the foreseeable future, eventually the climate will change politics everywhere. The only question is in what way.

Political pressure is one thing; meaningful change is quite another. The scale of the transformation needed in the way we collectively live and organise economic activity is formidable and frankly unlikely – especially in the very short time available to take collective action on an historically unprecedented scale. Policy change on this scale will inevitably create winners and losers.

What is to be done? Enlightened populism is – or could be part of – the answer. If our leaders are too dim, compromised or gutless to act, we have to keep nagging them until they do – or vote for someone who might.

Indeed, democracies are still fortunately positioned in this regard, and we should take advantage of that.




Read more:
China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


A “lucky country” like Australia could actually play a leadership role by championing a Green New Deal and retrofitting the entire economy along sustainable lines. (If we were serious, it would also mean closing down the coal industry.)

While climate activists might conceivably pressure governments to act, it might be harder to win over the average voter. These are big issues. Unlikely as it might sound, the necessary counterpart of environmental populism is a micro-level engagement with the large numbers of people who either don’t know or don’t care.

Beyond lip service, we need to mobilise truly popular support for change. Now is a good time to start.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

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

Advertisements

Climate explained: why we need to cut emissions as well as prepare for impacts



Research shows the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of reducing emissions.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Victoria University of Wellington


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

First, let’s accept climate change is happening and will have major negative impacts on New Zealand. Second, let’s also accept that even if New Zealand did absolutely everything possible to reduce emissions to zero, it would still happen, i.e. our impact on climate change is negligible. Third, reducing our emissions will come with a high financial cost. Fourth, the cost of dealing with the negative impacts of climate change (rising seas etc), will also come at a high financial cost. Based on the above, would it not be smarter to focus our money and energy on preparing New Zealand for a world where climate change is a reality, rather than quixotically trying to avert the unavoidable? – a question from Milton

To argue that we should not act to reduce emissions because it is not in our interests to make a contribution to global mitigation is ultimately self-defeating. It would be to put short-term self-interest first, rather than considering both our long-term interests and those of the wider global community.

Our options on climate are looking increasingly dire, since we as a global community have postponed combating climate change so long. But in New Zealand – and indeed in any country – we should still do as much as we can to reduce the extent of climate change, and not, at this stage, divert significant resources away from mitigation into “preparing for” it.

Starting with the physics, it is clear that climate change is not a given and fixed phenomenon. It is unhelpful to say simply that “it is happening”. How much heating will occur will be determined by human actions: it is within humanity’s grasp to limit it.

Any significant action taken over the next decade in particular will have high payoffs in terms of reducing future warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in effect says emission cuts of 45% or more over the next decade might just avert catastrophic change. Inaction, on the other hand, could condemn humankind to experiencing perhaps 3℃ or more of heating. Each further degree represents a huge increase in human misery – death, suffering and associated conflict – and increases the threat of passing dangerous tipping points.

Climate outcomes are so sensitive to what we do over the next decade because eventual heating depends on the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We are still adding to that stock every year, and we are still raising the costs of cutting emissions to an “acceptable” level (such as that consistent with 1.5℃ or 2℃ of heating).




Read more:
Climate explained: will we be less healthy because of climate change?


Limiting future warming

Under President Obama, a report was published which pointed out that every decade of delay in making cuts in emissions raises the cost of stabilising within a given target temperature (e.g. 2℃) by about 40%.

Each year’s emissions add to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, even though some of the gases are absorbed into oceans, trees and soils. Until we can get global emissions down close to zero, atmospheric concentrations will rise. When the Paris agreement was adopted in 2015, it was expected that government pledges at the time might limit heating to under 2℃, conceivably 1.5℃ degrees, if pledges were soon strengthened. It is now even more vital to cut emissions, as it reduces the risk of even higher, and nastier, temperatures.

What of New Zealand’s role in this? New Zealand is indeed a small country. Like most groups of five million or so emitters, we generate a small fraction of global emissions (less than 0.2%). But because we are a well respected, independent nation, with a positive international profile, what we do has disproportionate influence. If we manage to find creative and effective ways to cut emissions, we can be sure the world will be interested and some countries may be motivated to follow suit.

Just as we notice Norway’s effective promotion of electric vehicles, and Denmark’s success with wind power, so too can New Zealand have an outsized impact if we can achieve breakthroughs in mitigation. Reaching 100% renewable electricity generation would be a significant and persuasive milestone, as would any breakthroughs in agricultural emissions.




Read more:
Climate explained: why plants don’t simply grow faster with more carbon dioxide in air


Reducing emissions makes economic sense

In economic terms, mitigation is an excellent investment. The Stern Review crystallised the argument in 2007: unmitigated climate change will cause damage that would reduce worldwide incomes by substantially more than the costs of active mitigation. Since then, further research has underlined that the cost of damage through climate change will be much greater than the costs of mitigation. Put in investment terms, the benefits from mitigation vastly exceed the costs.

Mitigation is one of the best investments humanity will ever make. Recent findings are that increasing mitigation efforts to ensure that warming is limited to 1.5℃, rather than 2℃ or more, will yield high returns on investment, as damage is averted. We also now know many energy and transport sector mitigation investments, such as in electric vehicles, generate good returns.

So why haven’t we invested enough in mitigation already? The answer is the free rider problem – the “I will if you will” conundrum. The Paris agreement in 2015 is the best solution so far to this: essentially all countries globally have agreed to cut emissions, so relatively concerted action is likely. Given this, it is worthwhile for New Zealand to act, as our efforts are likely to be matched by the actions of others. In addition, of course, we have an ethical duty to future generations to cut emissions.

The fact that New Zealand is a small country with limited emissions is irrelevant to these arguments. We must play our part in the global push to cut emissions. The reality is that it is worthwhile to mitigate, and we are committed to doing so. In this situation, it makes no sense to move mitigation resources away to preparation for climate change. We do of course need to plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change, in myriad ways, but not at the expense of mitigation.The Conversation

Ralph Brougham Chapman, Associate Professor , Director Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Climate change may change the way ocean waves impact 50% of the world’s coastlines


Mark Hemer, CSIRO; Ian Young, University of Melbourne; Joao Morim Nascimento, Griffith University, and Nobuhito Mori, Kyoto University

The rise in sea levels is not the only way climate change will affect the coasts. Our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, found a warming planet will also alter ocean waves along more than 50% of the world’s coastlines.

If the climate warms by more than 2℃ beyond pre-industrial levels, southern Australia is likely to see longer, more southerly waves that could alter the stability of the coastline.

Scientists look at the way waves have shaped our coasts – forming beaches, spits, lagoons and sea caves – to work out how the coast looked in the past. This is our guide to understanding past sea levels.




Read more:
Rising seas threaten Australia’s major airports – and it may be happening faster than we think


But often this research assumes that while sea levels might change, wave conditions have stayed the same. This same assumption is used when considering how climate change will influence future coastlines – future sea-level rise is considered, but the effect of future change on waves, which shape the coastline, is overlooked.

Changing waves

Waves are generated by surface winds. Our changing climate will drive changes in wind patterns around the globe (and in turn alter rain patterns, for example by changing El Niño and La Niña patterns). Similarly, these changes in winds will alter global ocean wave conditions.




Read more:
Curious Kids: why are there waves?


Further to these “weather-driven” changes in waves, sea level rise can change how waves travel from deep to shallow water, as can other changes in coastal depths, such as affected reef systems.

Recent research analysed 33 years of wind and wave records from satellite measurements, and found average wind speeds have risen by 1.5 metres per second, and wave heights are up by 30cm – an 8% and 5% increase, respectively, over this relatively short historical record.

These changes were most pronounced in the Southern Ocean, which is important as waves generated in the Southern Ocean travel into all ocean basins as long swells, as far north as the latitude of San Francisco.

Sea level rise is only half the story

Given these historical changes in ocean wave conditions, we were interested in how projected future changes in atmospheric circulation, in a warmer climate, would alter wave conditions around the world.

As part of the Coordinated Ocean Wave Climate Project, ten research organisations combined to look at a range of different global wave models in a variety of future climate scenarios, to determine how waves might change in the future.

While we identified some differences between different studies, we found if the 2℃ Paris agreement target is kept, changes in wave patterns are likely to stay inside natural climate variability.

However in a business-as-usual climate, where warming continues in line with current trends, the models agreed we’re likely to see significant changes in wave conditions along 50% of the world’s coasts. These changes varied by region.

Less than 5% of the global coastline is at risk of seeing increasing wave heights. These include the southern coasts of Australia, and segments of the Pacific coast of South and Central America.

On the other hand decreases in wave heights, forecast for about 15% of the world’s coasts, can also alter coastal systems.

But describing waves by height only is the equivalent of describing an orchestra simply by the volume at which it plays.

Some areas will see the height of waves remain the same, but their length or frequency change. This can result in more force exerted on the coast (or coastal infrastructure), perhaps seeing waves run further up a beach and increasing wave-driven flooding.

Similarly, waves travelling from a slightly altered direction (suggested to occur over 20% of global coasts) can change how much sand they shunt along the coast – important considerations for how the coast might respond. Infrastructure built on the coast, or offshore, is sensitive to these many characteristics of waves.

While each of these wave characteristics is important on its own, our research identified that about 40% of the world’s coastlines are likely to see changes in wave height, period and direction happening simultaneously.

While some readers may see intense waves offering some benefit to their next surf holiday, there are much greater implications for our coastal and offshore environments. Flooding from rising sea levels could cost US$14 trillion worldwide annually by 2100 if we miss the target of 2℃ warming.




Read more:
Droughts and flooding rains already more likely as climate change plays havoc with Pacific weather


How coastlines respond to future climate change will be a response to a complex interplay of many processes, many of which respond to variable and changing climate. To focus on sea level rise alone, and overlooking the role waves play in shaping our coasts, is a simplification which has great potential to be costly.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Xiaolan Wang, Senior Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change, Canada, to this article.The Conversation

Mark Hemer, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Ian Young, Kernot Professor of Engineering, University of Melbourne; Joao Morim Nascimento, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, and Nobuhito Mori, Professor, Kyoto University

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

We built a network of greenhouses and rain shelters to simulate what climate change will do to soils



Mimicking the future.
Joe Fontaine, Author provided

Anna Hopkins, Edith Cowan University; Christina Birnbaum, Deakin University; Joe Fontaine, Murdoch University, and Neal Enright, Murdoch University

As most of the science community knows, the climate emergency is here now. Weather extremes such as droughts and heatwaves are increasing in frequency and intensity and are measurably exacerbated by climate change. The significant impacts of these extremes are well documented on both our native terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Less documented is what’s happening beneath our feet. Changes below the ground are hard to measure, so most previous research has focused on what can be readily observed above the ground, such as tree deaths.

But soil is a crucial element of the climate system, being the second-largest store of carbon after the ocean. Climate change can result either in an increase in soil carbon storage (through plant growth), or in more carbon being released into the atmosphere (through plant death). Soil is also full of microbes such as fungi, bacteria and algae, and these organisms play a vital role in determining how well an ecosystem functions and how it responds to changes in climate.




Read more:
Eyes down: how setting our sights on soil could help save the climate


We have completed one of the first studies to examine the impact of drought and warmer temperatures on living organisms below the ground (known as the soil biota), in biodiverse shrublands in Western Australia, near Eneabba, about 280km north of Perth. These areas are already suffering immense climate-related stress above ground as a result of rising temperatures and longer droughts. This is making these ecosystems extremely vulnerable with many plant species facing likely extinctions in the future.

We documented significant impacts for soil biota too, with implications for the health of ecosystems in regions that are expected to experience increased drought and climate warming in the future.

We found that lower rainfall and higher temperatures are likely to affect the overall composition of soil fungal communities, and that some groups may be lost altogether.

We saw an increase in the number of fungal species that cause plant disease, whereas many common and beneficial fungi declined in response to warming and drying. These beneficial fungi contribute to many important ecosystem processes, such as boosting plant growth, and ensuring that plants get enough water and nutrients such as phosphorus.

Western Australia’s shrublands are already suffering climate stress.
Joe Fontaine, Author provided

How we did it

We built specially constructed shelters and mini-greenhouses over plots of shrubland 4x4m in size, to recreate the drier, hotter weather conditions predicted to arise between now and the end of the 21st century. This allowed us to assess how the projected future climate will affect the composition, richness and diversity of soil fungi.

Our rain shelters consisted of a roof made of gutters, widely spaced so as to intercept about 30% of the rain that fell on the plot and funnel it away.




Read more:
We need more carbon in our soil to help Australian farmers through the drought


To study the impact of increased temperature, we enclosed separate plots on the same sites in walls made of transparent fibreglass sheeting. These worked in a similar way to a greenhouse, by reducing air flow and increasing daytime temperatures inside the shelter by 5.5℃.

We left the rain shelters and mini-greenhouses in place for four years. Then we collected soil from each plot and examined the fungi in the soil using DNA sequencing techniques.

How to engineer an artificial drought.
Joe Fontaine, Author provided

Our study revealed that it is vital to understand patterns of below-ground ecosystems as well as those we can see, if we are to accurately predict how our shrublands and other valuable ecosystems will be altered by climate change.The Conversation

Anna Hopkins, Lecturer in conservation biology and microbial ecology, Edith Cowan University; Christina Birnbaum, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University; Joe Fontaine, Lecturer, Environmental Science, Murdoch University, and Neal Enright, Professor in Plant Ecology, Murdoch University

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

New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean



Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.




Read more:
Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather


History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.




Read more:
Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf


Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Adani beware: coal is on the road to becoming completely uninsurable



Insurers have to protect themselves against foreseeable risks. For insurers of fossil fuel projects, those risks are growing.
Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by Suncorp that it will no longer insure new thermal coal projects, along with a similar announcement by QBE Insurance a few months earlier, brings Australia into line with Europe where most major insurers have broken with coal.

US firms have been a little slower to move, but Chubb announced a divestment policy in July, and Liberty has confirmed it will not insure Australia’s Adani project.

Other big firms such as America’s AIG are coming under increasing pressure.

Even more than divestment of coal shares by banks and managed funds, the withdrawal of insurance has the potential to make coal mining and coal-fired power generation businesses unsustainable.

As the chairman and founder of Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has shown in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a sufficiently rich developer can use its own resources to finance a coal mine that banks won’t touch.




Read more:
Echoes of 2008: Could climate change spark a global financial crisis?


But without insurance, mines can’t operate.

(Adani claims to have insurers for the Carmichael project, but has declined to reveal their names.)

Why are insurers abandoning coal?

By the nature of their business, insurers cannot afford to indulge the denialist fantasies still popular in some sectors of industry. Damage caused by climate disasters is one of their biggest expenses, and insurers are fully aware that that damage is set to rise over time.

Even so, a sufficiently hard-headed company might choose to work both sides of the street – continuing to do business with fossil fuel companies, while also writing more expensive insurance against climate damage.

The bigger problem insurers face is the risk of litigation holding fossil fuel companies responsible for climate-related damage. For the moment, this is a potential rather than an immediate risk.

As US insurer AIG, yet to announce a divestment policy, has observed:

Based on our monitoring, while the overall volume of litigation activity has increased, past litigation seems to have largely been unsuccessful on numerous grounds including difficulties in determining and attributing fault and liability to a particular company, and the judiciary’s deference to the political branches of government on questions relating to climate change.

Recent development suggest these difficulties will be overcome.

It’s becoming easier to finger climate culprits…

Until recently, the most immediate problem facing potential litigants has been demonstrating that an event was the result of climate change as opposed to something else, such as random fluctuations in climatic conditions.

Scientific progress on this “extreme event attribution problem” has been rapid.

It is now possible to say with confidence that climate change is causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and weather-related events such as extreme heatwaves, drought, heavy rains, tropical storms and bushfires.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has highlighted three extremes in 2016 that would not have occurred if not for the added influence of climate change:

  • a persistent area of unusually warm water that lingered off the Alaskan coast, causing reduced marine productivity and other ecological disruptions

  • the extreme heatwave that happened in Asia, killing hundreds and destroying crops

  • the overall global atmospheric heat record set that year.

…and to allocate liability

The second line of defence against climate litigation that has held so far is the difficulty of imputing damage to the companies that burn fossil fuels.

While it is true that all weather events have multiple causes, in many circumstances climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been a necessary condition for those events to take place.

Courts routinely use arguments about necessary conditions to determine liability.

For example, a spark from a power line might cause a bushfire on a hot, dry, windy day, but would be harmless on a wet cold day. That can be enough to establish liability on the part of the company that operates the power line.

These issues are playing out in California, where devastating fires in 2017 caused damage estimated at US$30 billion and drove the biggest of the power companies, PG&E, into bankruptcy.

As a result there has been pressure to loosen liability laws, leaving the cost of future disasters to be borne by Californians in general, and their insurers.

Lawyers will be looking for someone to sue.

Adani is a convenient target

The question facing potential litigants is whether any single company contributes enough to climate change to make it meaningfully liable for particular disaster.

Adani’s Carmichael mine provides a convenient example.

Adani says the 10 million tonnes of coal it plans to mine will produce only 240,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but this is semantic trickery. The firm is referring only to so-called “scope 2” emissions associated with the mining process itself.

When the coal is burned it might produce an extra 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, amounting to about 0.05% of global emissions.

A 0.1% share of the damage associated with the California fires is US$15 million, enough to be worth suing for. Other similarly sized mines will face similar potential liabilities.

Once a precedent is established, any company in the business of producing or burning fossil fuels on a large scale can expect to be named in a regular stream of suits seeking substantial damages.

When governments are successfully sued…

The remaining line of defence for companies responsible for emissions is the history of courts in attributing climate change to decisions by governments rather than corporations.

In the Netherlands, a citizen action group called Urgenda has won a case against the Dutch government arguing it has breached its legal duty of care by not taking appropriate steps to significantly restrain greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

The government is appealing, but it has lost every legal round so far. Sooner or later, this kind of litigation will be successful. Then, governments will look for another party that can be sued instead of them.

…they’ll look for someone else to blame

Insurance companies are an easy target with deep pockets. Despite its hopeful talk quoted above, AIG would find it very difficult to avoid paying up if Californian courts found the firms it insured liable for their contributions to a climate-related wildfires or floods.

This is not a message coal-friendly governments in the US or Australia want to hear.

But the decision of Suncorp to dump coal, just a couple of months after the re-election of the Morrison government, makes it clear that businesses with a time horizon measured in decades cannot afford wishful thinking. They need to protect themselves against what they can see coming.




Read more:
Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?


The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University

The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu this week has ended in open division over climate change. Australia ensured its official communique watered down commitments to respond to climate change, gaining a hollow victory.

Traditionally, communiques capture the consensus reached at the meeting. In this case, the division on display between Australia and the Pacific meant the only commitment is to commission yet another report into what action needs to be taken.

The cost of Australia’s victory is likely to be great, as it questions the sincerity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment to “step up” engagement in the Pacific.




Read more:
Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


Australia’s stance on climate change has become untenable in the Pacific. The inability to meet Pacific Island expectations will erode Australia’s influence and leadership credentials in the region, and provide opportunities for other countries to grow influence in the region.

An unprecedented show of dissent

When Morrison arrived in Tuvalu, he was met with an uncompromising mood. In fact, the text of an official communique was only finished after 12 hours of pointed negotiations.

While the “need for urgent, immediate actions on the threats and challenges of climate change”, is acknowledged, the Pacific was looking for action, not words.

What’s more, the document reaffirmed that “strong political leadership to advance climate change action” was needed, but leadership from Australia was sorely missing. It led Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga to note:

I think we can say we should’ve done more work for our people.

Presumably, he would have hoped Australia could be convinced to take more climate action.

In an unprecedented show of dissent, smaller Pacific Island countries produced the alternative Kainaki II Declaration. It captures the mood of the Pacific in relation to the existential threat posed by climate change, and the need to act decisively now to ensure their survival.

And it details the commitments needed to effectively address the threat of climate change. It’s clear nothing short of transformational change is needed to ensure their survival, and there is rising frustration in Australia’s repeated delays to take effective action.

Australia hasn’t endorsed the alternative declaration and Canberra has signalled once and for all that compromise on climate change is not possible. This is not what Pacific leaders hoped for and will come at a diplomatic cost to Australia.




Read more:
Response to rumours of a Chinese military base in Vanuatu speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy


Canberra can’t buy off the Pacific

Conflict had already begun brewing in the lead up to the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific Islands Development Forum – the brainchild of the Fijian government, which sought a forum to engage with Pacific Island Nations without the influence of Australia and New Zealand – released the the Nadi Bay Declaration in July this year.

This declaration called on coal producing countries like Australia to cease all production within a decade.

But it’s clear Canberra believes compromise of this sort on climate change would undermine Australia’s economic growth and this is the key stumbling block to Australia answering its Pacific critics with action.

As Sopoaga said to Morrison:

You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia […] I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.

And a day before the meeting, Canberra announced half a billion dollars to tackle climate change in the region. But it received a lukewarm reception from the Pacific.

The message is clear: Canberra cannot buy off the Pacific. In part, this is because Pacific Island countries have new options, especially from China, which has offered Pacific island countries concessional loans.




Read more:
As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


China is becoming an attractive alternate partner

As tension built at the Pacific Island Forum meeting, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters argued there was a double standard with respect to the treatment of China on climate change.

China is the world’s largest emitter of climate change gasses, but if there is a double standard it’s of Australia’s making.

Australia purports to be part of the Pacific family that can speak and act to protect the interests of Pacific Island countries in the face of China’s “insidious” attempts to gain influence through “debt trap” diplomacy. This is where unsustainable loans are offered with the aim of gaining political advantage.

But countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is Australia’s prime security interest, and is a secondary issue for the Pacific.

But unlike Australia, China has never claimed the moral high ground and provides an attractive alternative partner, so it will likely gain ground in the battle for influence in the Pacific.

For the Pacific Island Forum itself, open dissent is a very un-Pacific outcome. Open dissent highlights the strains in the region’s premier intergovernmental organisation.

Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand’s dominance has often been a source of criticism, but growing confidence among Pacific leaders has changed diplomatic dynamics forever.




Read more:
Climate change forced these Fijian communities to move – and with 80 more at risk, here’s what they learned


This new pacific diplomacy has led Pacific leaders to more steadfastly identify their security interests. And for them, the need to respond to climate change is non-negotiable.

If winning the geopolitical contest with China in Pacific is Canberra’s priority, then far greater creativity will be needed as meeting the Pacific half way on climate change is a prerequisite for success.The Conversation

Michael O’Keefe, Head of Department, Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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