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Environment

Feb 9, 2017

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Five minutes before we were due to leave, while 40 or so of us were gathered on the open station platform, beneath the big Montana sky, the train exploded. Well, not the whole train. Not even the whole engine, a huge two-storey Amtrak beast with stairways and running boards, pulling 20 double-storey carriages and another engine. But they’d started the electrics up, the lights had come on and pftttang, a huge burst of sparks and bits of flying metal had come out of the stairwell we were about to board through. The conductors, burly men in their retro-chic choof-choof peaked caps, paled a little and looked at each other. One of them put on thick boots, and thick gloves to the elbow, climbed gingerly aboard, and switched the whole thing off.

There’s something weird about a whole actual train being switched off. It turns the whole world around into a giant train set. The old platform, and the clapboard station, the passengers black, white and Latino, with their suitcases tied up with rope, and striped bags of clothes, the scrubby Montana street that  ran along the rail … suddenly it all looked like plastic accoutrements bought in packs of six from hobby shops. Still, there was no denying the seriousness of the situation — or at least the nuisance of it.

We were on the Empire Builder, the train that runs from Chicago, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana to Seattle on the coast, and we were halfway between each end. It was late November, three weeks after Trump’s victory, and I had finally got on to this trip, something I’d been planning to do for years. The scenery is magnificent of course, and that’s what most people go for, long prairie, the very south of tundra, big sky, wide in summer, lethal in winter, the country where The Revenant is set. In western Montana you pass through the top of the Rockies, endless mountains valleys stretching into blue mist out the window, glaciers gleaming in early winter sun.

Now, at eight in the evening, the scenery was less welcoming. A couple of mechanics were taking panels off the engine sides, tracing lines and circuits. By mechanics, I mean conductors who had put overalls on. They were not only baffled, they clearly realised that trained crew were hours away, they didn’t want to let anyone back on the train, and night was coming in.

No one was really fussed. There’s something about a minor disaster, the interruption of failure, that is more enjoyable than the actual purpose of the trip itself. People went across to the convenience store across the tracks and bought six packs and giant bags of Doritos; tinny music came out of iPhones. We all agreed that, now it was clear that no one was hurt, the spectacle of a quarter-mile-long train failing to work was much better than some boring old mountains. We talked about horses mainly. That’s what they talk about in Montana. These cowboys are still actual cowboys. Horses and the getting their cousin into meth rehab. And, of course, we got onto the weather:

“Least it’s mild.”

“Been that way all month.”

“Never seen anything like it.”

“So this is mild for this time of year?” I said.

“Yup, never seen anything like it.”

“I’m 70, I never seen anything like it.”

“I dunno what’s going on.”

I paused, and thought. Was it worth it? Well, in for a nickel …

“Well,” I said. “It could be global warming.”

Silence descended. The guys looked at their beer cans.

“I mean, it’s just the desert climate moving north.”

“Say, Frank, pass them Doritos.”

The conversation moved to sports.

Ha! I’d done it again. I’d be doing it all along the rails, right from Chicago. This rail was the “high line”, a massive boondoggle that helped settle the northwest. The rail was built before the settlers; the 50 or so towns along the rail are named after surveyors, engineers, their wives, girlfriends and dogs. Once the high line was completed, the land was sold for farming in the east, at cheap rates to people who knew nothing about farming — or how frikkin cold the place was (Jonathan Raban’s great book Bad Land has this history). The frozen ground resisted the plough; people went broke, mad, there were suicides and family annihilations, farmhouses left standing unoccupied for decades.

Now, of course, it is starting to get warmer. The winters are shortening, the flowers come out early. The ground is loosening up. No one, as the dude on the platform said, has seen anything like it. And no one I dropped the conversational “warming-bomb” on will admit to, or even talk of the possibility of it.

This is something that many people have observed recently. Climate change denialism, which rose in power about 15 years ago, had appeared to be in retreat about five to seven years ago. Now it is returning, and in great strength. Climate change activists are dismayed by it, and also bewildered. The science has got stronger, the evidence more plentiful. Why has the public become, it seems, even more resistant to the notion that global industrial activity is warming the planet to at least a disastrous and potentially catastrophic degree?

The answer, quite simply, is that we are facing a new phase of climate change denialism, working off a different basis to the old. There is less stuff about fictional “pauses” in warming created by small time samples, albedo, urban heat islands … all the tendentious arguments of the Ian Plimers, and the late Bob Carter. There is now simply, among many people, a refusal to acknowledge it, or even accept it. Why? Because climate change science — pretty much all science — is now being enrolled in the great culture/class war that is consuming Western society, the brutal fight for recognition and position between the progressive-knowledge classes, and the working and middle classes, who now feel themselves to be excluded from the processes of power, wealth and legitimacy.

For many people in these classes — especially those whose worlds of meaning are being dissolved like, well, cowboys — it is not simply social science, gender policy, cultural studies, etc, that is the enemy. The enemy is now science itself, which is seen as the master’s discourse, and an instrument of class power by the other. We have moved past the post-WW II notion that science, having been applied to the defeat of fascism, could now be applied to the creation of the good society, creating interesting work, nice houses, curing disease and opening up opportunity for personal development. Knowledge workers were a small group, in service to a large society divided on traditional class lines.

Now knowledge workers are a ruling group, science and knowledge are an omnipresent discourse obscure to many; politics, and even economics, appear to have little role in shaping our society; and technology reconstructs our life world in a process of ceaseless revolution. Post-WW2, science was something curing TB, improving crop yields, and beating back drudgery. Now, the skeletal black-skivvied figures — Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — get up on stage to announce another revolution, and down the street another workplace closes down, the truck driver (the single most common occupation in the West) realises that driverless cars means driverless trucks, and so on and so on. Increasingly, the excluded classes see science as abstract, alien and oppressive. To counter this, they cleave to a form of knowledge that is concrete and mythical. In our era, that form of discourse is inevitably conspiratorial, turning impersonal and uncontrollable processes into known and authored ones.

Thus the two processes have joined up. The folks with me on the platform in Montana watching people do something that you can’t often do anymore — repair something mechanically, so that to begins to work again — were ranchers worth a million or more, Latino farm workers heading to mid-Washington state, families from Fargo visiting family in Spokane, carrying three days of food with them, because they could only just pay for the ticket. But their class differences, once defining, increasingly yield to a commonality in the face of the high-tech world they live in, and the priestly knowledge class that runs it. Many of them will quite simply accept that climate change is real and happening, in the same way they will accept a doctor’s diagnosis. But an increasing number will simply shun such forms of knowledge altogether, as a way to recoup the meaning of their own class lives.

What can climate change activists do about this new historical process? The first thing they must recognise is that this class divide exists, and that it structures the reception of knowledge. Yes, science is a true picture of the world (or the least untrue picture of the world, which we successively refine through reality testing). But no form of knowledge establishes its truth simply by being stated. For classes and cultures, knowledge of the external world is a form of social organisation before it is a reality-testing, or action-steering device; science, in our era, is both. It allows us to command nature, and it allows a class to exercise power.

Climate change activists have failed to consider this sufficiently, in large part because they do not want to think of themselves as the ruling class. They’re the insurgents, the new old new left, the social movements, the global anti-capitalist veterans. Us? We’re the privileged ones? That omission, and the failure to understand the way in which culture structures knowledge has led to several failures in climate change activism:

1. A lot of climate change activists, drawn from the humanities, have not bothered to learn the science. Or any science. Any climate change activist should understand atmospherics, basic CO2 chemistry, and the factors that are often cited as counter-forces to anthropogenic global warming: cloud/ice reflectiveness, carbon sinking in oceans, etc, etc, and the more complex excuses like the bogus warming pause. The most important thing any climate change activist can do right now, if they don’t know this science, is to drop everything and learn it. You should be able to answer any feeble objection simply, forthrightly and effectively. One of the most important things at this stage is to refuse people the permission to believe that there is any reasonable doubt about the existence of disastrous/catastophic global warming;

2. Climate change activists, and organisations, need to study and learn more effectively, the strategies and tactics built up over a century of socialist and radical campaigning, the different modalities of it. The most important campaigning you do isn’t going on the marches; it’s the conversation at the BBQ, the craft beer tasting, or the Killing Kittens orgy. But you have to know when to attack head on, and when to be more open and allusive; you have to have sequences of arguments in your head, but be genuinely responsive in the dialogue; you have to, above all, remove any notion of shaming, duty or moral superiority from the dialogue;

3. Activists and writers have to stop doing readable, luxurious evocative books, and start writing a few “flat ephemeral” pamphlets. Three decades into this campaign and crisis, and there is no single book/pamphlet to compare to Tom Paine’s Common Sense, The Communist Manifesto, Mao’s Four Essays, or the Gospel of St Matthew. Someone needs to write a short volume that — as book, ebook, app, wallposter, rap song — combines the basic science with what basically needs to be done, showing, actually, how little disturbance there could be to global growth, and what a boon to global retooling action on climate change would be: connect the revival of Western economies to the greening of them; and

4. There is still no single volume that, chapter by chapter, takes apart the climate change denialists (if there is, and I’ve missed it, I’m welcome to be informed of it). There’s thousands of blogs, chatgroups, etc, etc, doing so. The failure of anyone with the necessary knowledge to sit down, and at 20 pages a go, eviscerate all denialist positions, from the mad denial of the second law of thermodynamics, to Lomborg-esque evasions, is simply a testament to the arrogance and self-indulgence of geeks. Yes, a 200 post thread on recalibrating heat islands using a modified Poisson distribution multiplier (I made that up), is fascinating, and the denialists are tiresome, repetitive, obsessive, and usually wrong on page 1, thus invalidating pages 2 through 500 of their books. But this has to be shown. And once again it has to be shown in such a way that arms people for the fight that I’ve sketched out above.

***

Yes, and yes, as the reader may be asking: on that platform, I didn’t tackle those questions, didn’t bite back. But the trip had become about something other than that — ad-hoc research into how far this new denialism had spread, and what that might mean for activist strategy. As far as I can tell, it runs all the way down the line, from the eastern cities sweltering in very late summer, to the distant mountains that — the train now fired up, with a whoop from the crew, the joy of making something work with your hands — we were about to head into, and the glaciers receding into them.

Federal

Feb 1, 2017

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The Australian Electoral Commission donations dump today reveals minor parties are flush with donations from eager candidates and elected representatives, but some also have the backing of big unions and businesses.

As Clive Palmer exited Parliament and his party effectively collapsed in the lead-up to the last election, Palmer’s mining businesses continued to pump money into the party, with Mineralogy, QN Resources and QN Metals, along with Palmer himself and PUP candidate Suellen Wrightson pumping over $2.2 million into the party.

As the Greens already disclosed last year, the biggest donations to that party came from mathematician Duncan Turpie and investor Graeme Wood, each tipping in $500,000.

Climate change sceptic Ian Plimer pumped $85,000 in total into Family First (which got $40,000) and the Liberal Democratic Party ($45,000). South Australian businessman Roostam Sadri — who was referred to the AFP by the Australian Electoral Commission over an agreement to sit at the top of the party’s Senate ticket in exchange for a donation — was the biggest donor to the Liberal Democrats at $200,000. Senator David Leyonhjelm donated $50,000 to the party, and candidate Sam Kennard donated $22,900. The libertarian party took $20,000 from cigarette company Philip Morris, which also donated $14,800 to the Nationals. As Leyonhjelm pushes for easing up on gun restrictions, the Sporting Shooters’ Association donated $15,856 to the LDP. 

Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson loaned her party $190,000 in the run-up to the election, according to the donation disclosures.

Jacqui Lambie’s party, the Jacqui Lambie Network, took $25,700 donations from the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, and $25,000 in donations from the Electrical Trades Union, along with $40,000 in donations, in total, from various organisations associated with wealthy businessman Ian Melrose.

Melrose also gave $100,000 to Nick Xenophon Team through Golden Lineage.

The party of Queensland MP Bob Katter, who was opposed to the government’s ABCC legislation, received $25,000 in donations from the CFMEU and also received $75,000 from the Sporting Shooters’ Association. The CFMEU also gave John Madigan’s Manufacturing and Farming Party $19,932.

Senator Derryn Hinch donated $16,000 to his own party, which also received $15,000 from Ross Garnaut.

Christian Democratic Party candidate Nella Hall put close to $200,000 into her failed bid to win a Senate seat in New South Wales. The fight within the CDP resulted in Fred Nile’s wife, Silvana Nero-Nile, running for the Senate in Tasmania instead. Nero-Nile donated $15,000 to the party but also failed to win a seat.

Garbage business JJ Richards and Sons donated $25,000 to the far-right Australian Liberty Alliance.

Books

Nov 24, 2015

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It’s hard to write a really memorable anti-Catholic book, as the genre is already so crowded. From Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to Christopher Hitchens’ book about Mother Teresa — a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf” — to Graham Greene, it’s a category seething with heresy, apostasy and murderous intent. In that spirit, I picked up Ian Plimer’s book Heaven and Hell: The Pope Condemns the Poor to Eternal Poverty with some interest. Plimer, of course, is one of Australia’s greatest contributions to science, a class-A climate change denier. But in this case, could the enemy of my enemy be my friend? In condemning the Catholic Church, could Plimer be revealing hitherto-undetected common sense?

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Plimer, a professor of geology, has written a whole book criticising the Catholic Church’s only progressive encyclical. In Laudato Si, released in April this year, Pope Francis acknowledged the existence of man-made climate change and called for action to stop it; overnight, he acquired a whole new set of enemies.

In the book, Plimer describes the encyclical (meaning a letter) as a blend of “pseudo-science and green left environmental activism”.

According to Plimer, much of the document is:

“… about environmental popularism, economic ideology with a Marxist bent and language that could have been written by Greenpeace. The two previously competing creeds for popular support in the Western world, Christianity and the atheistic belief system of communism, are both declining and the new religion of green left environmentalism is filling the vacuum.”

Plimer ascribes almost every aspect of human progress to the shiny black miracle that is coal. The basic difference between rich and poor countries is actually the use of fossil fuel resources, he says:

“Humans were once beasts of burden and the Industrial Revolution gave the burden to coal …

“[The] consequences of Laudato Si, I argue, will create more poverty. The Pope does not argue that free markets, personal freedoms, property rights, democracy and cheap and reliable energy will lift billions of people out of poverty.

“This happened in the West, primarily because of the coal-driven Industrial Revolution in Western countries during the Enlightenment. The Pope is ignoring the only tried and proven path out of poverty.”

Plimer also denies statements in the encyclical about species loss, saying that “forest areas of the planet are increasing and there is normal species turnover with no evidence for a significant human-induced extinction”. In fact, “normal species turnover” is what will happen over the next decade as climate change deniers die of old age, leaving the rest of us to live on a burning planet. Clearly, he thinks Jurassic Park is a documentary.

Plimer also says that he’s personally tested the belief of the ancient Greeks that the wearing of amethysts cured drunkenness and madness “and it is not true”.

I could go on and on but I won’t, because this item is a form of public service — I’ve read Heaven and Hell so you don’t have to. The book was launched at a glittering $85-a-head dinner last night, hosted by the Sydney Mining Club. Their upcoming Christmas dinner (dress code: elegant black tie) will feature an address from their spiritual leader, Gina Rinehart, on the topic of iron ore.

I’d hoped for something new from Plimer but as an anti-Catholic document, frankly, it’s a disappointment. If you really want to wallow in the wrongs of organised religion, may I suggest Hitchens equating Christianity with North Korea? Both are mental kingdoms, he writes, which offer their inhabitants the chance to commit “thought crimes” and deliver “everlasting praise” of the leader.

The late author was fond of quoting Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, in which he says that “where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor”. Maybe some of our climate-denying politicians should take note.

Books

Jul 15, 2014

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If I were an estate planner, I would definitely be sponsoring Professor Ian Plimer. Judging by the age of the audience at the launch of his latest book last night, they must need some help with their wills. And while they can’t help being old — it comes to us all — I’m still not sure why they were so angry. Surrounded by about 70 choleric, red-faced elderly blokes (there were only three women), I was terrified that one of them was going to have a stroke.

Not for Greens argues man-made climate change is a hoax, challenges the need for renewable energy, and argues environmentalists are damaging the planet. Yesterday and Friday Crikey published detailed critiques of the book by a climate scientist and renewable energy expert. Needless to say, this sixth outing from the University of Adelaide’s geology professor (he has no qualifications in climate science) gets a drubbing in those reviews.

Last night’s launch was held at the Tattersall’s Club in Sydney and hosted by the Sydney Mining Club, of which Plimer, who sits on several mining company boards, is a member. Crikey infiltrated the event. The evening felt like a Baptist revival meeting, with the 68-year-old academic as the high priest. Like a preacher, he related a long series of anecdotes about fighting the common enemies — the Greens, environmentalists, anyone who believes in climate change — to which the audience would respond with boos and jeers. But then he told us how he vanquished his foes with superior oratory and real science. Hooray, Ian will save us!

The content was immaterial, of course, as that audience has long since taken a position on this issue and is now untroubled by the facts. And by the time climate change has really taken hold most of them will be dead.

One audience member asked about getting Ian’s books into schools, complaining that she had been unable to get a previous tome onto the curriculum at prestigious eastern suburbs boys’ school Cranbrook. Plimer replied, with relish, that he had been banned from much more important places than Cranbook — in fact, he had been invited to speak at Buckingham Palace and then had his invitation withdrawn — and had the letter to prove it.

He had rewritten a previous book, Heaven and Earth, for younger readers, calling it How to Get Expelled from School, he said, and was considering turning the current book into an audio book for his mother, who was going blind. “But not blind to the truth!” an audience member exclaimed.

“Another man suggested that if Ian wanted to get some favourable media attention, he should go onto Michael Parkinson and ‘come out’ (huge laughs)”

Schools were unreceptive to his ideas, he complained, adding that universities were “toxic”. When he was at the University of Melbourne, he and Geoffrey Blainey were the only two conservatives, he said.

Plimer told us he had addressed Queensland’s Liberal National Party conference in Brisbane last weekend, telling them that they should fund a Climate Cooling Institute so that all the climate scientists would change sides (that got a good laugh).

One man asked about how to get Ian’s message out to the general public, to which another suggested going on to the website of the NSW Minerals Council, where you can sign up to become a “Voice for Mining”. The site also allows you to send emails of support for the mining industry to your MP,  which I assume is a digital version of “I Dig and I Vote”. This audience member then said he’d sent several of these emails to broadcaster Alan Jones, who’d had the temerity to oppose mining in the Hunter Valley. This particular remark totally threw me — what? Wouldn’t this audience love Alan Jones? If radio shock jocks are now the enemy then I’m going to need a white board.

Another man suggested that if Ian wanted to get some favourable media attention, he should go onto Michael Parkinson and “come out” — prompting Plimer to say that that was a “that is a line I will not cross” (huge laughs).

The only time the good professor looked put out was when one of the audience asked the wrong question — “aren’t there some advantages to a warmer climate, what about more wheat being grown in Canada” — and received a swift put down. But the climate isn’t warming, he said sternly.

There was then a bit of a debate about how their views were being stifled (being queried on your dubious scientific theories is now a freedom of speech issue). Plimer suggested contacting the Institute of Public Affairs, which “definitely punches above its weight”.

He also said that he had been on a plane recently with Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young (sustained booing), who was not only wearing leather shoes but also carrying a crocodile-skin handbag. While this seems unlikely — crocodile skin bags cost an arm and a leg, and not just for the reptile — I did ask her about it on Twitter and am awaiting a reply. If the Greens are now saving sharks and wearing crocodiles, then that’s the sort of policy inconsistency that the IPA needs to investigate.

The questions were interrupted while someone replenished Plimer’s drink — it was never a dry argument — and he related the story of having a very long lunch in Kalgoorlie. Stumbling out onto the street at 8pm, he had been assisted by the local Uniting Church minister, he said, who persuaded him to donate the royalties of the book to the church. Which does make Crikey’s purchase of several copies (for its reviewers) slightly more bearable.

Although under strict instructions from Crikey management to bail up the good professor and quiz him, feeling like the last Catholic in Belfast, my nerve failed and I slunk out into the night. There are many things I will do for the Crikey readers but outing myself to 70 angry pensioners at an Ian Plimer book launch isn’t one of them. Call it Voiceless for Mining.

News

Jul 14, 2014

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No doubt Professor Ian Plimer is an expert geologist. He drew upon that knowledge in writing his well-known 1994 book attacking creationists, Telling Lies for God. Unfortunately his attempts to critique renewable energy in his new book Not for Greens demonstrate that he is out of his depth in this field. His treatment of renewable energy is mostly nonsense from start to finish.

Not for Greens will be launched in Sydney today. Crikey ran a fact-check of Plimer’s key assertions on climate science last week; here I’m fact-checking what he says in my area of expertise, renewable energy.

Plimer’s book has no pretensions of scholarship, since it lacks references, and its discussion of renewable energy is clearly not based on scholarly research by himself. He simply rehashes false myths, mostly originating in propaganda disseminated by supporters of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. These myths have been refuted again and again by experts in renewable energy. Here I’ll address a few of Plimer’s howlers on wind and solar power.

A serious error is Plimer’s claim that wind is “totally unreliable” and that “no carbon dioxide-emitting coal-fired thermal power station has been replaced by a wind farm“. Actually South Australia has nominally two coal-fired power stations, several gas-fired power stations and many wind farms. As a result of the growth of wind generation to an annual average of over 27% of electricity generation, one of the coal stations is now shut down for half the year and the other for the whole year. Although gas capacity has not increased, the state’s electricity supply system is operating reliably. Clearly wind is partially reliable, despite its fluctuations.

Plimer then attempts to generalise his above incorrect claims to the notion that wind farms “cannot produce continuous electricity without coal, gas, nuclear, hydro or geothermal backup“. This notion has been refuted by hourly computer simulations of the operation of large-scale electricity supply systems with 80 to 100% renewable energy in several countries and regions (reviewed in Chapter 3 of Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change). These studies use actual hourly data on electricity demand and renewable energy supply, striving to balance supply and demand each hour over periods ranging from 1 to 10 years.

For instance, our research at UNSW simulating the Australian National Electricity Market uses only commercially available renewable energy technologies (scaled-up wind, solar and biomass, together with existing hydro). We find that 100% renewable energy could have supplied electricity in 2010 with the same reliability as the polluting fossil-fuelled system. While we would not operate the grid on 100% wind alone, we could operate it on the above mix of renewable energy technologies with different statistical properties. Furthermore, using the Australian government’s own conservative projections to 2030 for the costs of renewable energy technologies, we find that 100% renewable electricity would be affordable.

The relevant papers by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and myself, published in peer-reviewed international journals, can be downloaded from my UNSW website.

In discussing the energy inputs needed to build a wind turbine, Plimer claims that “the correct figure for payback of just the embedded energy is probably more in the order of 15 to 20 years. Whatever the figure is …“. The weasel words “probably,” “in the order of” and “whatever the figure is” suggest that Plimer is either guessing or misrepresenting the result and trying to cover himself. Actual life-cycle assessments find that, depending upon the site and type of wind turbine, the energy payback period (in terms of energy, not money) is actually three to nine months!

Plimer greatly exaggerates the land use and associated environmental impacts of wind farms, by taking the land they span and misrepresenting it as the land they occupy. Wind farms actually occupy only 1% to 3% of the land they span. They are normally erected on agricultural land and it’s rare that a single tree is cleared. They bring supplementary rental income to the farmers who host them (typically $8000 to $10,000 per turbine per year in Australia), and increasingly bring financial benefits to local communities.

Other errors and misrepresentations abounding in Plimer’s account include:

  • The small subsidies to renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Target are not paid “even when a wind farm is shut down”, because they are paid per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, not per megawatt of generating capacity.
  • Furthermore, they are not paid by taxpayers, but by a tiny increase in retail electricity price paid by electricity consumers (except large consumers who have gained exemptions). This increase is offset by a decrease in wholesale price of electricity.
  • Although Plimer correctly writes that “wind turbines can only extract about 45% of the available kinetic energy,” he omits to put this into context: ordinary coal-fired power stations can only convert into electricity 30% to 40% of the energy stored in the coal.
  • The best solar cells have efficiencies of around 25% (laboratory) and 21.5% (commercial), rather than Plimer’s “not much higher than 10%”.
  • Solar power stations do not depend on floodlighting the mirrors to operate at night. Concentrated solar thermal power stations actually store part of the solar energy collected during daytime in tanks of molten salt, to generate at night.

These and other myths are busted in my new book Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change. Are Plimer’s errors and misrepresentations the result of ignorance or deliberate deception? I don’t know, but it is worrying to see them uttered by a senior scientist.

Plimer’s book is not for anyone seeking a rational, accurate, up-to-date account of renewable energy. I wonder whether some will rename it Telling Lies for the Fossil Fuel Industry.

Books

Jul 11, 2014

5 comments

In 1988, Professor Ian Plimer — accomplished geologist, author and company director — debated the theory of evolution with creationist Duane Gish. Gish so exemplified a particular debating strategy, stunning one’s opponent with a disorienting fusillade of factoids, that it became known as the “Gish Gallop“. Since then, Plimer has developed a knack for the Gallop that would leave the (late) master flat-footed.

And so it is with Plimer’s latest book, Not For Greens, to be launched on Monday. The book is a broadside against both the theory of anthropogenic climate change and accompanying arguments for a transition towards renewable energy. In terms of scientific content, little has changed since Plimer’s 2009 climate “sceptic” opus, Heaven and Earth (critiqued herehere, here, here, here, here and here). Plimer did not respond to these critiques, presumably because, in his own words, “Climate ‘scientists’ are certainly green activists but not scientists” (page 44 of Not For Greens). Heaven on Earth sold plenty of copies and can be found on many Coalition MPs’ bookshelves.

Not For Greens nevertheless claims to be scientific. Crikey thought the book was ripe for some scientific fact-checking. Let’s start with Plimer’s questioning of whether the rise in CO2 is human-induced.

Claim (page 26): “If annual total emissions of carbon comprise 33 molecules, only one is from human emissions and the rest is from natural processes.”

In 2012, human activity (fossil fuel combustion, land-clearing and cement production) produced approximately 9.7 gigatonnes (billion tonnes of carbon, or GtC). This is dwarfed by emissions from the terrestrial bioshpere (about 120 GtC) and the oceans (about 80 GtC). That makes human emissions around 1 part in 21. Plimer’s numbers need updating but it isn’t fatal to his point.

The problem is the accounting sleight of hand that follows. In typically uncompromising language (page 26): “… if human emissions drive climate change then it has to be demonstrated that this one molecule in 85,000 drives climate change and that the 32 molecules of carbon dioxide derived from natural processes do not.”

Uncompromising. Wrong. Plimer excludes a salient point. The earth has a carbon cycle. So carbon entering the atmosphere through natural processes cycles back to the biosphere and oceans via natural processes, so net natural emissions are zero (in fact, slightly less, since these reservoirs currently act as a sink for anthropogenic carbon). Thus the rise in CO2 concentration is drive by humans.

For clarity, I have rendered Plimer’s argument in diagram form below.

Figure 1: The emissions cycle according to Plimer.

Claim (page 27): “It has yet to be shown that the atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide is due to natural degassing or human emissions of carbon dioxide” and (page 66) “… a very slight change in ocean degassing easily accounts for increases in carbon dioxide.”

Again uncompromising. Again wrong. We know the CO2 composition of the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years from analysis of gas extracted from ice cores. For more than 10,000 years, it remained between 260 and 280 parts per million (ppm). In the late 17th century — around the time of the industrial revolution — it began rising slowly before accelerating through the 20th century. Nature would seem to be astonishingly attuned to the tide of human affairs.

Here’s Plimer’s argument in diagram form below, as done by me.

Figure 2: The Plimer interpretation of recent variations in CO2 concentration.

Plimer’s favoured natural CO2 source is volcanoes. But we also know something of the origins of the carbon from isotopic evidence. CO2 derived from organic matter (eg fossil fuels) has a distinct chemical signature, because plants preferentially absorb lighter forms (or isotopes) of carbon when they photosynthesise. The chemical signature for volcanoes is different. We also know that the carbon is old, because it contains almost none of the heaviest carbon isotope, which decays over time.

Further, the US Geological Survey published this article in 2011 with a best estimate of the ratio of human to volcanic CO2 emissions of 130 to 1. Plimer once claimed that human emissions were only 3% of volcanic emissions, but is less explicit here, possibly because of the comprehensive comprehensive debunking he received.

Here’s Plimer’s argument in diagram form.

Figure 3: The Plimer interpretation of anthropogenic versus volcanic CO2 production ratio.

Claim (page 9): “As CO2 is increasing and temperature is not, therefore this gas could not be driving global warming.”

Uncompromising. Wrong. This would only be true if no other factors influenced temperature. But as Plimer emphasises, other factors (primarily ENSO, aerosols and solar variation) are important. Straightforward statistical analysis shows that most of the recent variation in temperature can be explained by these factors — in combination with CO2. Moreover, as Plimer himself states (page 10): “The oceans contain a lot of heat, far more than the atmosphere.” True. Then this (page 10): “The key to climate change is the oceans …“. So — is the ocean warming? Yes. My last diagram (this time without Plimer ‘s input) presents changes in energy content of the atmosphere, ocean, land and ice. The oceans store 90% of the additional energy being retained by earth (as opposed to about 2% into the atmosphere). No sign of a slowdown.

Figure 4: Energy accumulation in earth system components (IPCC WG1 AR5)

The above is a small selection of the many dubious claims made in the book. But this is probably irrelevant. The target audience will buy this book because they select their spokespeople in the same way as Plimer selects his facts: those which are convenient to their interests.

Science aside, much of Plimer’s rambling prose is devoted to insulting his imagined ideological foes, as here (page 4): “Past experience shows that the greens’ response to criticism is to plagiarise and repeat the rantings of others …”

I wouldn’t go so far as to charge plagiarism, but sometimes the echoes ricocheting around in the climate contrarian echo chamber can be of remarkable fidelity. Here’s Deepak Lal in the Business Standard (July 17, 2007):

“Today, the peer reviewed process of funding and validation of scientific research in climatology is equally controlled by the modern equivalent of the Collegium Romanum (the Vatican’s Institute of Research), the Inter-government Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).  They in turn answer to the equivalent of the Inquisition, the Green ideologists, who, mercifully, can only torment through derision or denying the heretics research funding, and not the frightening instruments of torture.”

And here’s Plimer in Heaven and Earth (2009, page 463):

“The peer review process in climatology research is controlled by the Collegium Romanum, the IPCC. They in turn are answerable to the Inquisition, the global warming fundamentalists, who in today’s world cannot yet resort to torture.”

Spooky, isn’t it?

Tips and rumours

May 13, 2014

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Bullying in corporate spinning. Is the corporate affairs team of a top Sydney-based ASX leader about to collapse? “Following several dubious senior executive hires, more than 60% of staff have left amid claims of bullying,” according to our source. One of the executive hires has apparently been appointed to “independently” review the bullying claims. Stay tuned.

Leighton considering Spanish sell-off? As it battles to tackle corruption in its India and Indonesian operations, rumours are rife within besieged construction giant Leighton Holdings that Spanish majority owners ACS are about to decide to sell off the Leighton Contractors division (including parts of the infrastructure division focusing on roads, about to get a funding boost from the federal government). Local staff are worried and are being managed out as Spaniards are imported to fill key roles.

With unemployment in Spain nudging 30% Spanish employees are very keen to transfer to secure jobs in Australia, particularly as most are offered packages including free housing and cars. Substantially more expensive than locally employed staff. Are 457 visa application requirements being met, including a review reviewing whether engineers are available in this country? A spokeswoman refused to comment on the possible sale of Leighton Contractors, pointing to earlier statements about an ongoing review of Leighton’s operating businesses, and would neither confirm nor deny local redundancies.

Cor Plimer, ready for launch. Our readers got very excited at a recent Crikey story on climate change sceptic/hero Ian Plimer’s new book, about how environmentalists harm the planet and have a “totalitarian” approach. He uses a teaspoon to prove his case. Anyway, the book is due to come out later this month, and excitement is building. An email from the Sydney Mining Club is doing the rounds promoting the book, and the Institute of Public Affairs is also on board. Will it be launched at the Mining Club, like Plimer’s last tome? And will John Howard do the honours again? We’ll keep you posted.

Man-heavy Young Labor responds. Yesterday we passed on a grumble that ACT Young Labor has had male presidents for years and it’s time for some affirmative action. We’ve heard back from recently re-elected president Michael Pettersson, who noted he was re-elected “through an open process”. Pettersson says he’s “happy to report that ACTYL elected women to fill both senior and junior vice presidents. ACTYL supports, and conducts all of its elections, with affirmative action in place.” We would have assumed.

Not all photography dead at Fairfax. A visitor to Fairfax’s Media House in Melbourne spotted a bunch of pamphlets to the “cute little amateur photography club Fairfax is starting up”. In case you haven’t heard of it, Clique is a photography club Fairfax started last November to “inspire, teach and guide you to become a better photographer”. Since January 28, Fairfax has been setting a monthly photography challenge, with the winning photographs printed in its papers, along with other prizes. It costs $50 a year to join ($25 if you’re a Fairfax subscriber already). Given Fairfax just announced plans to sack most of its photographers, we don’t imagine too many of its journalists would appreciate this …

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips toboss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Tips and rumours

May 9, 2014

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

An update on those missing literary awards. Yesterday we wondered if the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards would continue under the Abbott government. Usually the judges start their reading over the Christmas holidays, ready to announce the winners in August the following year. Entries for 2014 closed in March, but there’s been no announcement of a judging panel. A tipster from within the publishing industry tells us: “I know [Arts Minister] George Brandis has appointed some right-leaning judges in the last few weeks — so proceeding with right-wing influence coming from Peter Coleman/Quadrant.” Coleman, FYI, is a former Bulletin ed.

Perhaps only books on Brandis’ expensive taxpayer-funded bookshelves will be eligible for the gongs this year?

Flush with cash. The tabs were very excited that a cleaner who found $100,000 in cash stuffed into a sanitary bin in the toilets at Channel Nine’s Melbourne HQ will get to keep most of it. Chamindu Amarsinghe handed the money in as soon as he found it. Our interest is: who was carrying all that cash and why were they trying to get rid of it? Perhaps a Channel Nine staffer was stocking up on chemical performance enhancers from a freelance pharmaceutical distributor, but decided against it at the last minute? If you happen to know, why not tell Crikey via this anonymous link.

ABC rumblings. There are some worried people at the ABC as the federal budget looms. “All staff are worried about budgets at the ABC but not apparently the 7pm news, which has been dropping in the ratings of late. The answer it seems is to spend more money than they have got,” an insider told us. There’s some grousing about who gets what and whether some people are overpaid. Hold it for Tuesday — you might have more to worry about then.

Wheat on the up. Here’s a message from the bush:

“A farmer tells me Australian premium wheat is in hot demand because ships are turning away from Ukraine ports due to the civil disruption. Apparently smaller grains ships are appearing in the lesser Australian ports to load for Europe.”

Catholic does not equal creationist. It turns out author, climate change sceptic and noted anti-creationist Ian Plimer signing to a Catholic-aligned publishing house mightn’t be as ironic as we thought. Says a religious observer:

“Catholics are traditionally not creationists. Creationism comes from the very scripture-centric position of fundamentalist Protestants. The Catholic church rates church tradition and “general revelation” of what can be known by observing the world much more highly and is accepting of the possibility of the evolution (guided by God) of the human body. So Ian Plimer is publishing with a relatively sympathetic group who also dislike creationists (albeit for different reasons). He’s also carrying on his decades old war with ‘greenies’, absolutely refusing to admit the possibility that they might be right or have science fully on their side for once, but that’s a different matter.”

Separated at birth? Ms Tips thought she was seeing double when she glanced at this morning’s Greens press conference. Melbourne MP Adam Bandt and Senator Richard Di Natale do bear a striking resemblance to one another …

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Comments & corrections

May 8, 2014

5 comments

On Ian Plimer’s climate change denialism

Ken Boyne writes: Re. “Ian Plimer takes on the ‘totalitarian’ greens in latest book” (yesterday). I wonder if federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne will be directing all Australian schools to ensure that their libraries are stocked with at least one copy of Plimer’s latest work?

Kim Hudson writes: I remember the days when Plimer sued for misleading and deceptive advertising over claims about Noah’s Ark, and now here he is saying “wind farms and solar panels use more energy to build than they will ever generate”. Irony, anyone?

George Brandis backs the wrong team

Joe Boswell writes: Re. “Who — and what country — is driving Brandis’ conservative shift?” (Monday). How far can someone go in working for the interests of another nation while disregarding their own before becoming a subversive? As Kissinger pointed out, the USA does not have permanent friends or enemies, it only has interests. A minister who serves the interests of the USA to the detriment of Australian interests and sovereignty lacks loyalty and is obviously unfit for office in this country.

Public sector debt is the least of Australia’s financial worries

Roy Ramage writes: Re. “OECD points to sensible fiscal policy, not ‘budget crisis’” (yesterday). As bad as the federal government debt is and as poor as the Abbott response will be, it is nothing when compared to private sector debt within the banking system. It was running at $2, 232, 441, 699, 400 at 9.00pm yesterday and is continuing to climb. That’s right — in the trillions. What happens if interest rates go up? If Abbott is concerned about how they bring the federal deficit down we should be utterly terrified of private debt because we have no hope of redressing it as China comes off the boil.

There has never been an accounting of who lost what during the last recession and few if any did jail time ,while tens of thousands lost their money and now have to work till they drop — if they can get a job. There will be no consumer-led recovery while Australia has approximately 1.7 million people on one of six pension schemes and an official unemployment rate of approximately 6%. Stats here are always questionable especially with the auto industry shutting down and the continual demise of  main-street Australia. So with an increasingly small tax base overlaid with three tiers of rent-seeking government whose legions of public servants need their pensions paid, it matters little what those born to rule in Canberra come up with. I reckon we are stuffed.

Tips and rumours

May 8, 2014

5 comments

From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Sun sets in the West. We knew the Coalition government dislikes “utterly offensive” renewable energy, but apparently some states do, too. This from Western Australia:

“I’ve heard that the Public Utilities Office of the WA Department of Finance has announced cuts that will see its Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Programs team redeployed and the programs wound up. In addition, Western Power yesterday got rid of most of its Solar Cities team.”

Plimer’s conversion. Yesterday we told you about the new anti-environmentalist polemic from Australia’s darling of the climate sceptic movement, Ian Plimer. It comes out in a few weeks. Like his previous work, Heaven and Earth (the climate sceptic’s bible), it’s published by Connor Court, a small Ballarat publishing house that specialises in Christian books. George Pell is a key author in the Connor stable.

Oh, the irony — as some of our readers pointed out. Plimer made a name for himself in the 1990s by taking on Christian creationism. Plimer, a geologist, argued that scientific evidence shows the earth was not created a few thousand years ago, as creationists believe. He took out joint legal action against historian/minister Dr Allen Roberts, who had claimed to have found Noah’s Ark in eastern Turkey (Plimer lost the case, but was given some comfort from the findings). Plimer wrote a book about it in 1994, Telling Lies for God: Reason vs creationism.

Here’s what Plimer said at the time about the need to look properly at scientific evidence:

“I think there is a responsibility to tell the lay audience that we have very good evidence to show that the planet is old. And the leaders of the creationist movement are not using that evidence … I wanted to expose creationism for what it is, and it’s bad religion, bad science and bad business.”

Now, of course, Plimer is writing books claiming anthropogenic climate change is not real for a Christian-aligned publishing house. Telling Lies for God, indeed?

IPA love-in. Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Nick Cater and Tim Wilson on Western civilisation? Ms Tips hastened to dash off her request for a media ticket to this IPA event in Melbourne tomorrow. But sadly we were told we’d have to pay, and civilisation doesn’t come cheap at the IPA. It’s $290 for the day for non-members. If any Tips readers are going along, please do report back on what happens.

Tas Labor identity rises again. David O’Byrne was supposed to be the next leader of the parliamentary Labor Party in Tasmania — until he lost his seat in the 2014 electoral rout (sis Michelle held hers — no doubt earning some points in the sibling rivalry. She’s the party’s deputy leader). Now O’Byrne has a new gig …

… and keep an eye on him. Is there a return to Parliament in his future?

Speaking of family ties, Ms Tips has crunched some numbers and found almost a third of Tasmania’s lower house is related to, or in a relationship with (hopefully not both), another parliamentarian or former parliamentarian. Will Hodgman is son of Michael, Scott Bacon is son of Jim, Matthew Groom is son of Ray. Greens MHAs Nick McKim and Cassy O’Connor are in a relationship. Michelle O’Byrne is the sister of David, Jacquie Petrusma is related by marriage to Hank Petrusma. We almost included Guy Barnett, for being related to himself (he’s now a state MHA and was formerly a senator). There. Have we missed anyone?

Missing: literary awards. You’re not the only person wondering this, Kate …

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards seem to be on ice. Tony Abbott claimed they were going ahead in 2014, and entries closed in March, but it’s May and no judges have been announced yet — let alone a shortlist. Usually the judges would have started reading over the Christmas holidays ahead of winners being announced in July/August. Judges have to read up to 150 books per category, so there’s not much time left to do these awards properly.

They’re worth a cool $600,000 across six categories. Some literary types are really annoyed at the delay, some are worried the awards may be scrapped (a la Campbell Newman), and some have suggested the Abbott government is tweaking the judging panel to be more Coalition-aligned. We understand the holdup is in Arts Minister George Brandis’ office. Is there some bad news coming on budget night for the PMLA? If you know what’s going on, email us.

Meanwhile the Stella Prize, for female authors, has its act together and announced its 2014 winner (Clare Wright) in April. Perhaps Brandis could take some lessons from the women. Catch up, George!

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips toboss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form