I was recommended to read an article by Bjorn Lomborg in The Australian the other day. So lets look at it.
It was called “We don’t have money to burn on green mania”
Presumably the headline is meant to imply that we should not spend money on climate change, new green technology, or developing the green technology we already have that works? However the headline might be the Murdoch Empire’s gloss and not his. So we should probably ignore it, even if it is part of the articles’ rhetoric.
The article opens by arguing that the bushfires we have had were not that significant, and do not call for “drastic climate policies”
Apparently in 1900 “11 per cent of [Australia’s] surface burned annually. These days, 5 per cent of the country burns every year.” I’m not sure where the satellite pictures for that information came from, and he gives no source, but let us assume he is correct. Does this mean what we call traditional burning was still happening across Australia? How intense were these burns? For instance, were long established rain forests burning (the type that have not burned in 100s or perhaps thousands of years)? Where the burns patchy, leaving areas which could shelter animals and plants and let them spread out again, as is normal, but unlike the current burns?
Everything else I’ve read and heard implies that the bushfires last year, were more extensive than previously after we started using modern firefighting techniques. For example the Bureau of Meteorology, in its annual Climate statement, says:
The extensive and long-lived fires appear to be the largest in scale in the modern record in New South Wales, while the total area burnt appears to be the largest in a single recorded fire season for eastern Australia.
Although it is not a formal study the chief of the Rural Fire service in a press released entitled ‘Fire season comes to a close in NSW‘ remarked:
Today marks the official end to the most devastating bush fire season in the state’s history.
NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said this season had been unprecedented in terms of conditions experienced, the loss of lives and property, and the threat to communities across large parts of NSW.
“NSW RFS crews and other agencies have responded to more than 11,400 bush and grass fires that have burnt more than 5.5 million hectares, the equivalent of 6.2% of the state,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.
“Fires this season have destroyed 2,448 homes; however, the great work of firefighters saw 14,481 homes saved.”
“This season there were six days where areas across NSW recorded catastrophic fire weather conditions.
“At the height of activity, there was on average around 2,500 firefighters in the field each shift with up to 4,000 on days of increased fire danger and impact.
The fires were behaving in manners seen rarely by fire fighters (such as burning back over the same areas (making hazard reduction burns less useful than normal), generating their own weather, burning down previously untouched rainforests, and so on). We had weeks of dust and ash in Sydney, which I’ve never seen before. It certainly looked different. I’ve written about this before, and plenty of commercial media has discussed reports from fire fighters. Even newsltd can point out:
The deadliest bushfires in the past 200 years took place in 1851, then 1939, then 1983, 2009, now 2019-20. The years between them are shrinking rapidly.news.com.au 17 Jan 2020
For a summary see the climate council.
The point is that it is the intensity and destructiveness of burns which count, not the area of burning, and he should know that.
He might even be missing the fact that some parts of Australia are wetter as a result of climate change and may have fewer fires as a result; that could seem to explain his argument and observations, assuming they are correct in the first place.
It is odd, but throughout his article, which is (at best) arguing for an ‘unusual position’, he gives no references at all. For example “A new review of available data suggests it’s not actually possible to detect a link between global warming and fire for Australia today.” Surely it would not be hard to name this review and where it was, or will be, published? Given that Lomborg is supposedly a scientist and an expert, who is not writing a blog but in the public media to convince people of a position, this lack is pretty inexcusable (whether it comes from him, or his copy editor).
Then he implies that doing something (presumably in Australia alone, as that seems to be his focus?) would not make any appreciable difference to the fires. This is something which might be possible, but he simply cannot know, and he gives a spuriously accurate figure, so it seems empty talk. (The “burnt area in 2100 would be 5.997 per cent instead of 6 per cent.” Given the precision of 5.997% then we can accurately predict that the burnt area will be exactly 6%?) But obviously the situation would be better if everyone did something.
In the long run, climate change action has to be global, but if we wait for everyone to act then it will be too late. Countries who can, and are relatively wealthy have to move first. Nobody will act if the wealthy countries do not act first.
He suggests that “for decades to come, solar and wind energy will be neither cheap enough nor effective enough to replace fossil fuels.” That is something that many people dispute (including the CSIRO). See also , , , , . In Australia people are prepared to build renewable energy, or to put it on their rooftops, but no one will build coal power without government subsidy. It would be nice to have some arguments and figures in favour of Lomborg’s position, but none are presented.
He is correct that the IEA reports state that the amounts of energy currently (2018) coming from renewables is trivial, although it is going to be significant soon in some parts of the world (the UK apparently, for not that much cost outside the Hinkley Point reactor which will be boosting electricity prices, way above their current levels).
Lomborg oddly neglects the parts of the IEA reports where they state we have to reduce emissions, and we have to do carbon extraction because of those emissions, if we are not going to face massive and extremely costly disaster. There is a real problem with emissions which he chooses to ignore, altogether. I guess he hopes his audience will not remember the stuff about carbon budgets and how we are exceeding them.
He then seems to imply that people concerned about climate don’t want innovation, which is odd. He writes:
We need to find breakthroughs for batteries, nuclear, carbon capture and a plethora of other promising technologies. Innovation can solve our climate challenge. Unfortunately, many reports on Australia’s fires have exploited the carnage to push a specific agenda.
First of all, wanting to do something is an agenda – well I guess that is True!
However, the only people opposed to innovation are those that don’t want anything to happen to fossil fuels.
It would be great if Australia was supporting innovation, but politically this is not happening. The federal government even ran scare campaigns about electric vehicles…. hardly an innovative, or constructive move. And of course there is the Federal government’s continuing war against science and the CSIRO, which was almost the first move of the Abbott regime (cf The Land), and has been continued since. That is war against both innovation and accurate data. It seems to be a war in favour of ignorance or ideology.
But putting all hope in innovation is silly; we have to work with what we have as well. While innovation is great, we cannot guarantee innovation will come in time, or in the form we want it, or cheaply. Indeed his talk of costs, implies he would only accept innovation if it did not cost that much; for example “The costs alone make this ‘solution’ to climate change [that is, reducing carbon emissions] wishful thinking.” Perhaps, to both himself and neoliberals, not spending taxpayers’ money on anything other than themselves is more important than survival?
He also neglects to mention the cost of the massive amounts of subsidy still pouring into fossil fuels, through direct taxpayer handouts and special tax and royalty favours. There were people in the Coalition wanting to give Adani billions of dollars, including the royalty holiday they are already getting, for a mine which will produce trivial numbers of jobs, as admitted by Adani in court, where there are penalties for lying. But Australia is not the only place cheerfully using taxpayers’ money to subsidise fossil fuels, and harm the taxpayer.
Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil. European Union subsidies are estimated to total 55 billion euros annually.Environmental and Energy Study Institute 29 July 2019
An IMF working paper, argued that figuring in destruction (including deaths from air pollution) as part of the free costs that fossil fuel companies receive, then global fossil fuel subsidies grew to $4.7 trillion, representing 6.3 per cent of combined global GDP, with annual energy subsidies in Australia totaling $29 billion. They said:
Efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015 would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP
untargeted subsidy policies encourage wasteful consumption, pushing up emissions and straining government budgets. Phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies is a pillar of sound energy policy.
Forbes, not known as a radical magazine, summed it up as:
“the $649 billion the US spent on these subsidies in 2015 is more than the country’s defense budget and 10 times the federal spending for education”
To return to Australia, the group, Market Forces, estimates:
that tax-based fossil fuel subsidies cost over $12 billion a year federally… Direct handouts and contributions to the industry are doled out at both federal and state levels. On top of this, public money is used to finance fossil fuels through our national export credit agency EFIC, as well as our involvement with international financial institutions.Market forces
It would probably be useful to reduce handouts for harmful industries. Fossil fuels are established and destructive and should not need help if they are still viable. At this moment fossil fuels not only cost us death through pollution, despoilation of the environment, and climate change, but they also cost taxpayers large amounts of money which could be used elsewhere.
What is odd about this, is that a recurring theme in Lomborg’s earlier work is a call for ending fossil fuel subsidies. For example:
Governments around the world still subsidise the use of fossil fuels to the tune of over $500bn each year. Cutting these subsidies would reduce pollution and free up resources for investments in health, education and infrastructure.The Guardian 20 Jul 2016
It might sound cynical, but it is more than likely he knows who he is writing for.
It also seems to be the case that conventional nuclear needs massive governmental support, not only to get built and decommissioned, but for insurance purposes which could encourage shortcuts as the company does not pay for damage, as I have written before. So I guess for him, nuclear is out, even if he gives it a token welcome in his list of needed research.
This seems to be the standard neoliberal approach to problem solving. They say the left is causing a problem by stopping them from having nuclear energy, but they neglect that they are in power, and could have nuclear energy if they wanted, and they rarely actually do anything towards getting it; probably because of the costs, and possibly because it would go against their support for fossil fuels at all costs.
Carbon Capture and Storage has numerous problems, as I have mentioned before. It is also massively expensive, and nowhere near ready to solve any climate problems. It has had money thrown at it, and little has resulted. So that is two out of three of his recommended research areas which he then seems to delete because of costs.
So while we can agree “We need to spend far more resources on green energy research”, Lomborg’s argument seems directed at reducing our real ability to do green energy research. Again in previous articles for a different audience he has said things like:
[a better option than compulsory emissions reduction is to] make low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind energy competitive with old carbon sources. This requires much more spending on research and development of low-carbon energy technology…..The New York Times 25 April 2009
I should probably add that, at least according to the people I’ve discussed these issue with in business, local councils, community energy and so on, the main obstacle to renewable energy in NSW is not lack of subsidy and not the supposed cheapness of fossil fuels, as renewables are said to be relatively cheap to build and supply, but government regulation which favours the fossil fuel and established power companies, and makes doing supposedly simple things like having solar power on one roof power a building over the road, or on a new piece of property, more or less impossible.
The grids are also not where the renewable power stations are due to be set up, the private grid owners generally see no reason to help their competition, and the Market regulator is cutting new business off until the late 2020s. So if we want to lower costs, let’s get rid of some of these restrictions, or start an infrastructure program to extend and refurbish the grid. We might make a significant path into that project for much less that the pointless and polluting Westconnex thing.
He says, correctly, that we also need to “to develop medium-term solutions to climate change,” but he then goes back to discussing how bushfire is not really a problem, and cutting emissions is “not going to do a thing.”
However, as well as ignoring the consequences of emissions again, he is silent on one of the real problems with the fires, namely that the Federal government would not even listen to people telling them there were likely to be intense fires because of climate change, and that the NSW government cut back the staffing in parks and wildlife so it was harder than usual to prepare for the worst. There was no political will to make:
better building codes, mechanical thinning, safer powerlines, reducing the potential for spread of lightning-caused bushfires, campaigns to reduce deliberate ignitions, and fuel reduction around the perimeter of human settlements.
There is, as far as I know no attempt to research these processes, or other processes, such as returning carbon to the soil to help moisture retention, changing patterns of agriculture so that paddocks and fields don’t burn, providing tree shade in paddocks to shelter animals and retain some more moisture, not logging forests after burning and disrupting soil carbon intake and regrowth and so on.
All of these processes might need research to see if they are effective, but as its the Murdoch Empire we must attack the Greens, and these problems were not mentioned.
We can probably guess that those people who decide that climate change is pure politics, will not want to respond either by preparing for the worst, or doing research into green technologies. Consequently, we probably will not put money into green energy research, or danger abatement research, without a change in government at the Federal level, although the State coalitions in SA and Tas seem to be moderately sensible about this.
Then if we are looking at costs, as a supreme factor, we need to look at the costs of not reducing emissions, and not preparing to respond. I have no idea what these will be, but we can assume they be massive. For example the Australian Tourism Export Council estimates via a survey that its members will lose $4.5b this year cf , . This effect will be exaggerated by the Coronavirus – that may have nothing to do with climate change, but it is an example of how crises can magnify each other, and that will happen under climate change.
With the runs of days over 40 centigrade, people will have to move out of the outback and we will start losing food supply as well as water. I’ve repeatedly heard farmers talk about this.
Antarctic temperatures seem to be rising in summer; they hit 20 degrees C this year, a few days after breaking previous records, and that will certainly lead to more ice melting and hence significant sea level rises, and this will probably form a feedback loop; more ice melts, warmer temps, more ice melts.
Torrents of meltwater pour from the Greenland ice cap, sweltering under a 15°C temperature anomaly. Daily ice losses on this scale are 50 years ahead of schedule: they were forecast by the climate models for 2070. A paper in Geophysical Research Letters reveals that the thawing of permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic now exceeds the depths of melting projected by scientists for 2090.George Monbiot 12 August 2019
Another piece of research, reportedly states that the “polar ice caps are melting six times faster than in the 1990s” which matches the worst case scenario for climate change.
I have heard scientists suggest that we are probably locked into 2 m rises already within our lifetimes. If so, this will be devastating and extremely costly all over the world. Coastal cities will become non-functional. But I guess there will be people who say, if we are locked into it, then we shouldn’t bother doing anything about it, and there are others saying that futures are unpredictable and so we should hope for the best and still not do anything.
One of the reasons that “if Australia were dramatically to change its climate policy overnight, the impact on fires would be effectively zero” is because people, such as Mr Murdoch, Mr Lomborg and the neoliberal right, have been pretending for the last 30 years we can keep increasing emissions forever. And the world has increased its emissions dramatically over the last 20 years. So they have been succesful.
Whatever the article implies, few people on the ‘climate change is real’ side, are saying we should not prepare for the worst and be ready to adapt. As I’ve said, quite a number of people think we have already passed tipping points, which have locked in change to weather patterns and water levels already. However, if we don’t cut back emissions more or less now, and stop planning to increase emissions in the future, the situation will almost certainly get worse and worse, and they strangely object to that…..
Getting worse and worse will increase the expense of dealing with the problems, will destroy living standards, destroy wealth, destroy political stability, destroy national standing, provoke refugee movement and so on. All of which people on the right might be thought to find objectionable, but apparently do not.
Australia has to reduce emissions to help political action to slow emissions elsewhere, as we are one of the highest per capita emitters in the world (even without counting our fossil fuel exports), and who will reduce their emissions if wealthy countries like use will not?
If we pollute more than the planetary ecology can process, or take more from the earth than it can replenish, then we end up harming our country. This is simply reality, and Lomborg simply ignores it.
The next post looks at Lomborg’s rhetoric.