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Sustainability and climate change - why is the science sidelined?

Speaker: Associate Professor Michael Howes (Griffith University)

Title: Sustainability and climate change - why is the science sidelined?

Slides: click here

**This blog post has been inspired by A/Prof Howes presentation rather than a summary**

There have been recent debates in parliament over Australia’s new climate policy. Carbon tax, energy target, blah blah – no matter what you call it, Australia has been lagging behind a number of other countries in tackling the global problem of climate change. The question is, why?

What's Carbon got to do with it?

CO2, or carbon dioxide, is a gas that is released during several every day processes due to modern technology. The main contributors to the production of CO2 are the production of electricity and car emissions, both of which are the result of burning fossil fuels such as carbon and oil. Coal is used during electricity production to heat water and create steam. The steam's kinetic energy is used to spin turbines which uses magnets and copper wire to create electricity. Burning coal and other fossil fuels, it turns out, is the biggest contribute to our global footprint.

Unfortunately, CO2 is what we call a “greenhouse gas”. Other greenhouse gasses include methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). As the name implies, these gases make the earth’s atmosphere behave like a greenhouse –they result in greater absorption of heat from the sun and actually reflect heat back that is trying to escape the atmosphere back to earth (re-radiation)

This results in an overall rise in the average global temperature. What’s more is that there is a positive feedback loop resulting in an even steeper increase in global average temperature. Melting ice-caps means less “white” to reflect the sun’s heating rays back into atmosphere. Melting ice will also result in release of trapped methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Much like a boulder rolling down a mountain, putting on the breaks becomes increasingly harder and harder.

Warmer weather is good… right?

In short: no. Actually it's bad. Really, really bad.

The reason why we have moved away from the term “global warming” to “climate change” is that the overall increase in average global temperature is predicted to result in more extreme weather, NOT nicer weather. In recent years we have seen more powerful hurricanes/ cyclones that travel further north/ south (rather than increased number), colder winters and hotter dryer summers, flooding in some areas of the world and extreme drought in others. And it will only get worse.

Climate change is not only affecting the weather, but also our health. In addition, smoke and other particulate matter that is released through the burning of coal also adds to the greenhouse effect and has documented health consequences. The health effects of climate change and associate economic burden are being monitored by the Lancet Countdown.

Currently we are approx. 0.8-1.3 C above pre-industrial temperatures. Once we hit 3 C, it is predicted that we won't be able to stop climate change. The last time the earth's climate warmed this much, almost all life of earth was wiped out.

Encouragingly have been global efforts to try and come up with international solutions to climate change since the 1960’s. In the 1970’s the formation of the United Nations Environmental Program was set up that list sustainable development global goals, which include things like affordable clean energy and climate action. In 1992: Rio Earth Summit resulted in Agenda 21, but actions have been slow and patchy. More recently in 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals & Paris Accord on climate change resulted in a gathering of almost 200 countries who all agree on one thing - the need to"strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius". Currently, there are 169 countries signed up to the Paris Agreement, including Australia.

"Temperature data from four international science institutions. All show rapid warming in the past few decades and that the last decade has been the warmest on record. Data sources: NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NOAA National Climatic Data Center, Met Office Hadley Centre/Climatic Research Unit and the Japanese Meteorological Agency."

Despite this, rather than seeing a decline in global CO2 emissions, we have seen an exponential increase

Going coal free is cheaper than the status quo.

Yes that's right. We have the technology to produce sufficient energy without using coal and it is actually more affordable than using coal. Many people are now able to produce their own energy through solar panels, store the excess or put it back into the grid. What’s more is that it is also more affordable for energy companies to generate power from clean energy sources rather than fossil fuels. Despite this, in 2015, only 17.3% of Australia's energy were generated using renewable energy sources.

So what's the hold up?

Let's face it, Australia has been pretty f***ing useless at coming up with a climate change plan. The conservatives appear to have too much say in parliament, and appear to refuse to accept the science.

Our former Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, announced at UK's Global Warming Policy Foundation that climate change is good for the environment (if that doesn't hurt you brain from stupid, I don't know what will).

Our government has also attacked climate scientists and cut funds towards climate research

(e.g. CSIRO climate program). They have backtracked on previous policies and are stalling on new policy action, while current coal power plants are reaching the end of their life span. Without a clear energy policy, providers are left unsure of what to invest in. And while this government made claims that clean energy and carbon tax would increase household energy prices in order to to get into power, their lack of energy policy has caused prices to soar.

But why the inability to decide on a policy? A/Prof Michael Howes suggests the following:

1. Economics: some fossil fuel firms & lobby groups have questioned the science, sponsored environmental skeptics & climate deniers, & campaigned hard on costs to economy & jobs. Basically they are getting $$ for ignoring the science and sticking with coal.

2. Politics: some politicians (we know who they are) have exploited the debate to gain political advantage.

3. Philosophy: climate change challenges three core conservative beliefs by asserting a) that the market has failed, b) that government should intervene, and c) that some environmental concerns were correct.

Is it all doom and gloom?

There is hope. The majority of people are concerned about the impact of climate change and accept it as fact. The energy sector to realises that they need to move away from coal, but is merely seeking policy certainty. What is encouraging, is that the states have taken it upon themselves to set ambitious renewable energy targets as are conservative international governments like in the UK and Germany.

Contact Michael Howes

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