Curse of the popularity contest

LIKE it, lump it or form it into a distasteful dough-like structure and swallow it, we’re all taking part in a popularity competition.

Politicians want our vote and to get it they need to say and do things that they think the majority of people will like.

Now of course politics is far more complex, devious and engaging than this and, occasionally yes, it’s sometimes a right-on righteous exercise too.

But what democracy boils down to for most politicians is the need to retain power with enough of the public on your side to keep your seat.

For want of a less clumsy alliteration, it’s a never-ending fascination that this fundamental fact gets forgotten, yet it colours every aspect of public life. We’re all part of it.

Take the resources tax and the current debate this has generated (please let it stop).

The Australian government proposes a new tax regime which, when times are good, will see mining companies making a little bit less profit than they would have otherwise.

In simple terms, the mining companies don’t like it too much because they stand to make less money.

This would effect the profits of companies such as Rio Tinto, which made more than $9 billion in pre-tax profits last year, and BHP Billiton, which made more than $7 billion in the last six months of 2009.

So faced with taking home a bit less money they decide to hit the Government where it hurts – by running some adverts on that other popularity medium, the telly. Others, such as the Australian Workers Union, have their own TV ad.

These adverts are unregulated in practical terms and run alongside miracle age-defying skin creams and deodorant brands that make men irresistible to women (or some men). They also make it nigh-on impossible to understand who’s right or wrong and, depending on which emotional triggers they pull, both will have a certain appeal.

Then the adverts are placed between other popularity competitions like, say, Australia’s Got Latent, So You Think You Can Dunce or My Kitchen Roos (a show, staged on genuine marbled bench tops, where kangaroos fight to the death armed only with… oh I don’t know… silicone oven mitts and a set of steak knives).

As any TV ratings expert will tell you, there are far more Australian people voting for talent shows than there are voting for more current affairs or arts coverage.

But what’s popular doesn’t always, or even most of the time, equal what’s actually best for the community or the individual.

This curse of the popularity contest is one reason why our democracy here in Australia, like other democracies across the globe, have been unable to take any meaningful action on climate change.

According to the United States Government’s National Climatic Data Center (yes, they persist with the ‘e’ in the wrong place), the world has just experienced its warmest March to May quarter of any time since 1880, when their records started.

At the same time, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (or, centre) reports that during May the Arctic was losing ice at a rate of 68,000 square kilometres per day.

This rate of melting ice was the highest for the month of May during the satellite record, which now runs to about 30 years.

And all this as climate change and emissions trading drops almost completely off the political agenda.

But try and win a popularity competition, such as the impending general election, by taxing emissions from burning fossil fuels (which, under the current regime, are linked to practically everything) or unsustainable resource extraction and you’ve got as much chance as an ice-block in Moreton Bay or, it seems, in the Arctic.

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Climate broken records

LATEST findings from the US government’s National Climatic Data Center show the average global temperature on sea and land in May was the warmest of any May since 1880, when the US records started.

Also showing the current state of affairs is the UK Met Office, which has recently been cleaning-up some of the data for its HadCRUT3 data record, which goes back even further to 1850.

Same story, different bunch of data.  The other biggie in the climate yardstick is the extent of Arctic sea-ice . How’s that going?

During May, the satellite data shows the Arctic was losing ice at a rate of 68,000 square kilometres a day, causing the US National Snow and Ice Data Center to conclude that “this rate of loss is the highest for the month of May during the satellite record”.

All these broken records are starting to sound like a broken record.

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Top Aussie carbonators and old men

ABC Carbon has just published a list of the 50 people in Australia contributing the most to awareness and action on climate change, conservation and green issues.

The list, which excludes journalists and politicians (there’s going to be another list of those types soon), has everything from world famous actresses to local campaigners, business people, scientists and activists, and a few who blur the lines.

Ken Hickson, author of the book ABC of Carbon and the excellent ABC Carbon newsletter, asked me to help review and shorten the long list of nominees – a process which made me realise just how many people really are trying to make a positive difference.

Boiling this list down a bit further, I’d be picking out the likes of the massive-brained author Clive Hamilton, the courageous climate activist Anna Keenan and Professor Will Steffen, the science advisor to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency.

I’ve just finished reading Clive’s book Requiem For A Species which examines why civilisation has failed to act on climate change and how, not to put too fine a point on it, we should all forget the notion of being able to “beat” climate change. You can buy a copy of Clive’s book all over the place, but in a plug for a local company you can also order it from Sustainable Insight.

Anna Keenan is a young women for whom I have the utmost admiration. No commitment issues for Anna, who managed a 40-day hunger strike in the run up to, and during, the ill-fated Copenhagen climate change conference. Here’s a blog she wrote for me in the middle of that ordeal.

A few weeks ago, Professor Will Steffen was brave enough to say publicly what most other climate scientists must surely be saying privately all the time when he described the manufactured debate over climate change to be “infantile”. Here’s a great profile of the Professor here, on The Age.

And now to the second bit of the headline for this blog (look up there), the bit about old men, because they came up in a seminar I attended last night hosted by Professor Steffen.

His main 45-minute speech covered the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to research on climate change adaptation, but it was an off-the-cuff remark made during questions which prompted the biggest round of applause of the evening.

He was talking about the general need for everyone in Australia to be innovative in finding ways to adapt to climate change. And why isn’t this happening now?

There’s a blockage caused by old men who largely block innovation.

So there you go. We can now add “old men” to the list of climate change foes which includes fossil fuels, money, consumerism and political cowardice.

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Climate blogging

ECOS magazineCHEERS go to bloggers Tim Lambert at Deltoid and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at Climate Shifts for giving a nod to a feature of mine just published in ECOS magazine.

The feature looked at climate blogging and had input from Ove, Tim and also John Cook at the excellent and world famous Skeptical Science website (well OK, maybe not world famous, but if you’ve been featured on the websites of The Guardian and the New York Times, then I reckon that’s as close as you’re going to get in this line of work).

All three of the blogs featured have done as much, if not more, to communicate the science of climate change than any politician has been able to manage, perhaps because it does actually take more than a 30-second news grab to explain the complexities.

Anyway, the feature is available free here.

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Didn’t see this whale-sized one coming

IN recent days I’ve been talking to several anti-whaling campaigners and an international professor of law but none of them saw this one coming.

Government initiates legal action against Japanese whaling

The headline on the joint statement from Australian ministers Stephen Smith (Foreign Affairs), Peter Garrett (Environmental Protection and Definitely-Nothing-To-Do-With-Insulation) and Attorney-General Robert McClelland sort of gives the story away really.

The statement comes as delegates arrive in Agadir for the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission where all eyes will be on agenda item 3 – a so-called compromise deal to bring the three whaling nations of Iceland, Norway and Japan into line.

At the end of April, in a speech to the Australian National University, Peter Garrett outlined Australia’s dislike of the new proposal and did warn we would pursue legal action if the Government’s demands were not met. Perhaps that’s why this announcement will have caught most people on the hop.

There has been much written about that compromise deal already. The BBC has a good summary here, but in short it would allow whaling by non-indigenous hunters from those nations still killing the animals – Japan, Iceland and Norway. It would also set up an international team of observers and set quotas (campaigners say more than half of the species included in the draft proposal have not had a scientific assessment conducted on the health of their populations).

There’s been a moratorium on commercial whaling since the 1985/86 hunting season, but it didn’t stop nations from killing the animals.

Norway and Iceland get around the moratorium by just objecting to it (if only parking fines worked that way). Japan also tried this tactic, but these days uses a condition from the original 1946 convention that allows whaling in the name of science, known as Article VIII.

We can see today’s announcement as a statement of intent by Australia – a bit of diplomatic positioning – that if it doesn’t get it’s own way in Agadir, it’ll be heading for The Hague.

By the way, I took the pic of the whale myself during a whale watching trip off the coast just north of Brisbane. They look better alive than dead.

UPDATE: Here’s why I was talking to the campaigners an law experts. Feature on ABC Environment.

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Future mapped out for lizards

IF you’ve not seen it in the wild then you’ve probably seen it on telly – lizards sat out in the daylight, sunning themselves when there’s surely some housework to be done.

So to the ignorant or uninformed (I’m one of them), you’d think that warmer global temperatures would just mean more fun in the sun for the world’s lizard populations. Not so, according to a new study in Science.

Australia lizard extinctions 2009

Even though lizards do love to warm up in the sunshine before going off to find food, they all have a point at which they’ve had enough.

Higher temperatures can force them to run for cover, which the international team of researchers explain cuts down the time they can spend foraging for food.

The researchers first looked at this physiology in the lizard and then developed a model taking into account rising temperatures across the globe.

They then used the model to see if it matched observed extinctions in 2009, which in Australia look like this first map. The model replicated their observations of extinction rates on five continents. Next, they used the model to see what will happen if emissions of greenhouse gases and, in correlation, global temperatures, both keep rising.

Then, the extinction rates for lizard populations looks like this. First for 2050….

… and then for 2080.

On a global scale, by the year 2050 the probability of any species becoming extinct was 6 per cent and by 2080, it was 20 per cent, the study concluded.

But with all those other pressures on lizards such as disease and human population growth, couldn’t those extinctions be just as easily blamed on something else? Lead researcher Professor Barry Sinervo, at the University of California, says:

We did a lot of work on the ground to validate the model and show that the extinctions are the result of climate change. None of these are due to habitat loss. These sites are not disturbed in any way, and most of them are in national parks or other protected areas.

The loss of lizards isn’t just bad for, well, lizards, but researchers said it would also have an impact up and down the food chain. Lizards represent food for other animals as well as keeping the insect population in check.

Sales of lizard sunscreens and shade umbrellas (also used in cocktails), could receive a boost, no one said.

Map images: Barry Sinervo.

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Gravel path for solar

ACCORDING to the International Energy Agency’s new roadmap for solar power the world could be getting as much as 25 per cent of its electricity from the sun by the year 2050.

But there are some big ifs and buts. Releasing the roadmaps for the PV and solar thermal industries, the IEA’s executive director Nobuo Tanaka says:

This decade is crucial for effective policies to enable the development of solar electricity. Long-term oriented, predictable solar-specific incentives are needed to sustain early deployment and bring both technologies to competitiveness in the most suitable locations and times.

What Mr Tanaka is suggesting is that the road ahead for solar should be relaid with nice smooth bitumen with as few traffic lights, stop signals and roadworks as possible. The Rudd Government may point to its $1.4 billion funding of solar projects, announced last year, as evidence of these incentives. You might even look at the hotch-potch of domestic feed-in-tariffs currently being played with in different states.

Earlier this week a shortlist of eight projects under Mr Rudd’s Solar Flagships scheme was announced – four are solar PV (electric generated via panels) and four are solar thermal (electric generated by concentrating the sun’s rays to create heat to eventually drive a turbine).

While the Government has been doing much chest beating about the virtues of its flagship programme, the unfortunate reality is that the resultant 1000 MW of power generation is dwarfed, nay trampled on, by plans already in the pipeline for new coal power generation.

To put that 1000MW into perspective, it’s about the same as one single medium sized coal-fired power station. This list of electricity generation capacity in Australia from 2008, leaves a 1000 MW solar thermal plant sticking out like a tiny chink of light among a swathe of black coal.

When Mr Tanaka asks for a shiny new road surface for the solar industry, Australia appears to be building something which looks a bit more like a gravel path.

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After first break, we’ll have some dogma

FROM an open letter penned by 255 members (including the President of the Australian Academy of Sciences Professor Kurt Lambeck) of the US-based National Academy of Sciences.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.

From Tony Abbott, leader of the Opposition in Australia, to some  year five and six kids at a school in Adelaide.

OK, so the climate has changed over the eons and we know from history, at the time of Julius Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth the climate was considerably warmer than it is now.

So which to choose – political dogma, religious dogma or the special interests? In this case, we can have all three.

The first telling of this classroom story came from The Australian which made no attempt to check the scientific validity of Abbott’s statement with any reputable working climate scientists. If it had, the story would have read more like the version told here by The Age, in which Professor David Karoly of Melbourne University has this to say.

It seems strange to me that the leader of a political party would be seeking to disagree with Australia’s chief scientist, the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and Australia’s support of the work of the IPCC. He obviously knows better.

Karoly suspects Abbott’s statement is derived from the book Heaven + Earth, written by mining director and denialist geologist Professor Ian Plimer. In 2008 and 2009, IR Plimer made $306,000 from his directorship with CBH Resources (see annual report here). Likewise, over the same period he made a whopping $475,579 from his directorship with another mining company, Ivanhoe Australia. That’s more than three quarters of a million dollars of special interest!

Then there’s the political dogma as espoused to ABC Four Corners by Liberal Senator Nick Minchin, the man who helped broker the deal that put Tony Abbott in his now unfortunately influential position.

NICK MINCHIN, SENATOR, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: For 10 years the left internationally have been very successful in exploiting peoples’ innate fears about global warming and climate change to achieve their political ends.

NICK MINCHIN: For the extreme left it provides the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do, to sort of de-industrialise the western world. You know the collapse of communism was a disaster for the left, and the, and really they embraced environmentalism as their new religion.

Special interests meet political and religious dogma, all wrapped up in Tony Abbott. Those poor kids in Adelaide never stood a chance.

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Climate voodoo nation?

Fairies anyone?LATE last year there was an opinion poll knocking around from Nielsen which suggested that some 56 per cent of Australians believed in a heaven.

There’s a lot to like about pearly gates, permanently-white linen smocks, fluffy clouds, twinkly escalator music, never ending lines of chilled carbon-neutral beer or whatever it is that people think a heaven might be.

Aussies like miracles too – 63% believed in those. Astrology got 41%, angels 51% and psychic power  gets 49%. Miracles score 63% but evolution came in at 42% – go figure.

But an interesting phenomenon which this survey, albeit on a small sample, revealed was the way many people are far more prepared to sign-up to fluffy stuff than they are the nasty or challenging bits.

Because while heaven scored 56%, hell only got 38%. Angels beat witches by 51 to 22.

I wonder how much of this is at play in the recent opinion polls suggesting increasing numbers of Australians think humans have had little or no effect on our climate.

The latest poll out today suggests a little over a third accept that humans are changing the climate (although it was commissioned by right-wing think tank and climate change deniers the Institute of Public Affairs).

So an issue backed by decades of peer-reviewed science and observations of the climate is less convincing than psychic powers, astrology, gods, angels and miracles.

Mumbo-jumbo trumps science.

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Not looking forward to getting to the End of the Line

I’M not really looking forward to seeing the “new” documentary movie End of the Line (first premiered in January 2009) when it opens in Australia on Friday, but see it I will.

Based on a book of the same name by British journalist Charles Clover, the film looks at… ahh, just watch the trailer and see for yourself. For screenings, go here.

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