tip off

Risk? What risk? The fossil fuel industry walks both sides of the street

The IPCC report says climate change impacts are occurring now, and the risks of greater impacts need to be managed. The fossil fuel industry relies on politicians and business to ignore those risks.

The 29-page summary for policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report on climate change impacts gets straight to the point:

Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems …”

And these risks are significant. This report underlines the point that climate change impacts are occurring now, not in some distant future. But the most visible of these impacts — severe weather events and warmer summers — are just the tip of the (shrinking) iceberg, so to speak. Impacts are already occurring on natural and human systems on all continents, and this is likely to accelerate as warming continues.

This report has a lot of bad news in it,” co-author Chris Field told a news conference on Monday. “We are no longer living in a world where climate change is hypothetical.”

Water systems and crops are being impacted; land and ocean species are already shifting their geographic ranges; and food and water supplies, along with infrastructure and health, are becoming more vulnerable. It is not just animal species under threat, its section on health suggests; climate change is also a long-term threat to human survival.

The report, released in Japan this week following years of work and review by several thousand scientists, and a huge influx — a near doubling — of new evidence, introduces a new element to the way the issues is addressed: the management of risk. The report says:

Some risks of climate change are considerable at 1 or 2C above pre-industrial levels (pretty much what has already been built in). But global climate risks are high to very high with a global mean temperature rise of 4C or more, with failing crops, and huge risks to global and regional food security.

The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with cross multiple tipping points in the earth system, or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature.”

Why is risk management important? Because for the last several decades, those opposed to climate action — primarily the fossil fuel industry and those in the business and political world that hang on to its coattails — have asked us to ignore this risk. They have managed (quite successfully) to cast doubt over specific and detailed forecasts to suggest that the risk either does not exist, or can be safely ignored — as though people should decide not to insure their houses or cars because the insurer couldn’t tell them when the goods were likely to be stolen or damaged.

The irony is that this is an industry that goes to the trouble of building new infrastructure — such as coal loaders — designed to take into account likely future sea level rises, then asks the world — or more particularly, the politicians and the financiers and the shareholders that enable this to happen — to ignore those very same risks.

It can do so because it is protected by politicians who, like the oil and coal executives themselves, are focused on short-term outcomes.

Australia has excellent mechanisms to provide incentives to accelerate this transition to a decarbonised economy — but no minister speaks in those terms.”

The fossil fuel industry — and their boosters in the mainstream media — like to insist that they are “here to stay”. They do this by justifying their own business plans and investments with “official forecasts” — such as those from the International Energy Agency — that predict the dominance of fossil fuels for decades to come. Yet the IEA itself suggests these forecasts are based on “do nothing” or “do little” scenarios — either of which, it says, are completely untenable.

There is, of course, something that can be done about it, as this new IPCC report points out. Acting to reduce the rate of climate change will reduce the scale of adaptation (and cost) that might be required, and might just enable the world to escape the worst of the impacts.

The IPCC report says there are things the world  can do to manage these risk — across the political, economic, social and technological level. And not only will these make the world more climate resilient, it will help improve lives and social wellbeing. And it will cost less. It’s a win-win-win-win situation. But it needs to be done quickly.

This is a crucial and underplayed point. So much effort has been put into demonising any efforts to address climate change as costly and destructive to the economy and society. In Australia, the demonisation of the carbon price and the Renewable Energy Target on short-term (and not very honest) cost appraisals — by the very ministers who say they accept the science — is a case in point.

There are two things that can be done to reduce emissions and manage that risk: burn less fossil fuel, and become more energy efficient. Australia has excellent mechanisms to provide incentives to accelerate this transition to a decarbonised economy — but no minister speaks in those terms. It is still all about short-term targets, even patently inadequate ones such as the 5% reduction target by 2020.

There is an increasing sense in the wider population that this is claptrap. The success of solar energy — and the economic advantages it can offer to households — is a classic case in point. Households have a sense that this is having a positive impact, as well as saving them money and making a contribution to an important issue. And the technology is having a massive impact on incumbent industries, perhaps more than any climate policy might have done in such a short period.

The fossil fuel industry understands this — which is why they are so desperate to take such technologies out of the market and “back to the test tube”, as the likes of sceptic Bjorn Lomborg would have us believe. They want to do the same for that other “no-brainer”, energy efficiency. Australian governments are guilty on all fronts.

But this new IPCC report just may galvanise action at a global level. In China and the United States — the two principal players — there is no doubt that the impacts of climate change are here and now. In Beijing and other parts of China, the impact of fossil fuels is all too visible. There is a lot of work happening behind the scenes to ensure that the next major deadline for international agreement — Paris, 2015 — is not derailed in the same fashion as Copenhagen.

*This article was originally published at RenewEconomy

15
  • 1
    John Newton
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    In the Sydney Morning Herald, fittingly on April 1, our prime minister called carbon pricing (which he insists on erroneously calling a carbon tax) a “very dumb policy.” Many countries would disagree with him, all have some form of a price on carbon.

    Including ¬ 7 Chinese cities and China which will introduce a price on carbon in 2015;India, New Zealand, Japan, 27 countries of the EU, Switzerland, Ireland and South Africa. In America, 9 states have emissions trading schemes and the only reason that there is no price on carbon in America is that the United States administration, like our government and its minions, is stacked with climate change deniers.

    And many more countries are planning further action.

    It would see there are a lot of very dumb policymakers around the world Mr Abbott. But you know best.

  • 2
    Liamj
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Pricing pollution is dumb policy for Abbott because most of the people who vote for LNP believe they will either be dead before impacted and/or that their wealth will protect them.

    They’re mostly wrong on both fronts, but theres plenty of amoral profiteers willing to keep them deluded in the meanwhile. That these are the majority makes one question if we’re a species worth saving.

  • 3
    Honest Johnny
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    To think we almost had bi-partisan agreement on an ETS policy until Abbott saw it as his opportunity to gain control of his party and then the country. After he won the leadership by one vote, all the boiling frogs in his party joined him and they are now backed into a corner confronted by overwhelming evidence. Too stubborn to do anything about it, they will let everyone boil. History will not judge them kindly.

  • 4
    Stuart Coyle
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    At exactly what level of risk is this government going to take action?

    I have heard about the “Direct action” policy, but have not seen one single detail
    of how it is supposed to work. I’d rather a badly designed tax/pricing system (whatever you call it) than absolutely no action on this.

  • 5
    Simon Mansfield
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    HJ - despite Abbott’s game in late 2009. There were enough votes to pass the ETS - but the ever so pure Greens under Bob Brown’s leadership voted it down with Abbott’s mob. To this day they maintain the ETS would have locked in failure and would have cost billions in compensation to beef up further. Meanwhile the latest IPCC report says inaction will cost trillions. So there is plenty of blame to go around. And for those who try to argue that Rudd failed by NOT going to a DD - miss a very critical point to joint sittings after a DD - you still actually need to have a majority and given the policy of the Greens to oppose the ETS how could it be assumed that after a DD election they would vote for the ETS if Labor had needed their votes to get it over the line if the election had been a cliffhanger - which given all the events of 2010 and Abbott’s behaviour - was the most likely outcome. Both Bob Brown and Tony Abbott have a lot to answer for.

  • 6
    Malcolm Harrison
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    talk of conspiracies, sceptics and fossil fuel industry interference obscures the number of scientists and climate economists both within the ipcc and without who question many of the publicly released conclusions. though climate change poses risks, this kind of writing is completely unhelpful as it alienates those who would otherwise participate in solving the problem. the extreme conclusions of the climate change orthodoxy might eventuate and for that reason alone action should be taken, but total emphasis on that possible outcome is scaremongering which like intimidation merely strengthens the resolve of those who are unconvinced. we need a real risk assessment in order that action taken is taken with the knowledge that it may turn out to be cautionary. climate change may not be what we presently think it is. there are all sorts of reasons for critiquing the tone of this and similar articles, far too many to be discussed here, but more temperate voices are drowned out by the noise of denial or hysteria.

  • 7
    graybul
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    At what point in the drawn out Climate Change disputes do Govt(s) become accountable for their actions/non-action before the People? From the seminal report of Nicholas Stern through to the current day IPCC Report we have seen nought but the World’s Scientific community virtually unanimous in their declarations that Climate Change is a universal threat to all life forms on our Planet. Each degree of warming costs and changes the future living circumstance of the world’s children. Spin doctor ‘conversions’ will not recover ‘life as we know it’ or replace lost life forms. We need our Parliament to act now! If not, then the incumbents to dig deep and find the courage or decency to stand aside.

  • 8
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Harrison - the article emphasised risk management. BTW, could you please use capitals?

  • 9
    @chrispydog
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    The irony of the IPCC report being released in Japan should not go unnoticed: the very country which brought us the Kyoto Protocol has left it and is now projecting to increase its emissions, not decrease them.

    Likewise Germany, who caved into the Greens, turned off its nuclear power and is now paying the price, both in more expensive electricity and higher emissions, year on year.

    Spain went big on solar and wind too, but unlike Germany did not turn off its nuclear power, and guess what? Yep,it’s emissions actually fell (but its economy also fell into a hole for other reasons and now can’t keep subsidising renewables)

    The only thing the fossil fuel industry really fears is nuclear power…not wind and solar, because every gigawatt of wind/solar installed MUST have something to back it up for the large periods it doesn’t produce electricity.

    If there’s nuclear, there’s no need for fossil fuels to produce electricity.

    France decarbonised in two decades, and even if we reduced our CO2 by 15% of our current 850g/KWh we’d still be emitting at ten times the rate France does.

    Think about it.

  • 10
    PaulM
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Harrison at 5:43pm.

    Name ten scientists and climate economists both within the ipcc and without who question many of the publicly released conclusions.

  • 11
    The Old Bill
    Posted Wednesday, 2 April 2014 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    @Paul M #10
    Shouldn’t that be name 10 scientists with appropriate qualifications that question many of the publicly released conclusions? Don’t make it too easy for Mr Harrison, there is a lot of very strange science out there on the internet.

    As for all this mention of nuclear, I am sure that will be the next big push. At least that way we will still be digging up something, modifying it, transporting it and having the odd horrendous accident with it, thereby keeping the current world economic model ticking over nicely.
    A crashed nuclear powered flight MH370? Now that would create a few jobs. Might slow down Japanese fishing in the Antarctic too.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 3 April 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    The aspect of the White Old Rich Men (WORMs) that puzzles me is the hate & loathing they must feel for the descendants.
    If any.
    Perhaps they are without women in their lives? One can’t imagine any mother being so intent on leaving the warmed world to her children & grandchildren.

  • 13
    MJPC
    Posted Thursday, 3 April 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    @chrispydog
    Whilst Nuclear sounds benign I don’t believe you can run transport on uranium.
    The only real solution to the worlds problems and to change the carbon age is to go to Hydrogen as part of a renewable process together with solar, wind, wave and all other alternatives.
    Australia’s CSIRO is a world leader in fuel cell technology research, fuel cell run primarily on Hydrogen (or natural gas) and have supplied power to space craft (in an extreme environment) from the 1960’s with nary a problem). Jet engines can run on Hydrogen with few changes to their current structures and ships can run on jet turbines.
    Why are we driving around in 1 tonne+ steel gas guzzlers, instead of carbon fibre electric cars? This technology is already here.
    The problem is the carbonocracy want everything to stay the same only better. Keep drilling, keep digging, keep burning as long as the money rolls in. Tell lies about alternate technonogy, bribe politicians and media with lies. The extreme weather changes of climate change will adversley affect the poor the most but, what the heck, they don’t have the money to pay for the products of the carbon economy.
    The solutions are there, and not by going down old technology. If countries spent the subsidies for carbon on renewables (particularly fusion)the problem would be addressed. It won’t happen soon, but it will never happen if it isn’t started.

  • 14
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Thursday, 3 April 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm Harrison@6, have you ever read an IPCC summary? If you had you’d know that, far from providing extreme conclusions of “the climate change orthodoxy” (by which you mean the vast majority of the climate science community presumably, as distinct from Bolt, Jones, Abbott, et.al.) they offer a number of possible scenarios, all expressed as ranges of global average temperature increases over time, dependant on what we do or don’t do to reduce CO2 and other GHG emissions. In truth, if you studied the subject in any depth you’d very quickly find far more “scientists and climate economists both within the IPCC and without” who are deeply concerned the IPCC’s findings are too conservative.
    As for “talk of conspiracies, sceptics and fossil fuel industry interference” obscuring anything, I think you’re a little confused; it’s not talking of these things doing the obscuring, it’s the conspiracies, “sceptics” (read: “deniers”) and fossil fuel industry interference. You can easily confirm that for yourself by reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”.
    Finally, if you’ve got “all sorts of reasons for critiquing the tone of this and similar articles”, knock yourself out. My experience is that Crikey will give you as much space as you like.

    Well said, Simon Mansfield@5 - The Greens are too pure by half. It’s frustrating they can’t see that a compromised, half-arsed ETS would at least have provided a starting point with the option to add the other half-an-arse later, when the political climate allowed. It would also have denied Abbott the illegitimacy claim Rudd and Gillard’s fumbling efforts gifted him. Unfortunately they’re still more ideologues than politicians. (And don’t get me wrong. I share many of their views - just not sure they know the best way to achieve them.)

    MJPC@13. +1. Using renewables to hydrolyse water for hydrogen cells during periods of low demand is just one of the ways of dealing with the “intermittency problem” the obfuscators cite when insisting the fires must keep burning.

  • 15
    @chrispydog
    Posted Sunday, 6 April 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    @MJPC & @Tyger Tyger

    The energy required to make hydrogen, compress, store and transport is very large, which is why no one does it on any scale that’s even remotely near a ‘solution’.

    Renewables, wind/solar are inherently low energy density sources that require vast areas, and huge capital resources to extract, but with the downside that they are by their very nature, not reliable.

    Demand for electricity, on the other hand, is very reliable, and growing (albeit more slowly in advanced economies).

    The idea that wind/solar can even begin to decarbonise a modern economy is utterly absurd, and all the evidence of any attempting to points to the opposite conclusion.

    We have a serious problem, and it requires serious, scalable solutions.

    Solar and wind for the ‘low hanging fruit’, yes, but any attempt to go beyond that and we’ll end up like Germany: lots of VERY expensive electricity, and lots more coal emissions backing it up.

    Remember: reality bats last.

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