Australia: Extreme Weather Update


Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face



When polling resumes after the summer, Scott Morrison may be surprised by the public’s assessment of his government’s handling of the bushfires.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Chris Wallace, Australian National University

The hope of many people enduring this summer’s firestorms is that better climate policy will arise phoenix-like from the ashes.

It is expressed loudly, fervently, sometimes abusively by people directly affected and those feeling solidarity with them.

It is also expressed secretly, whispered to like-minded confidants, by others who are part of or allied with the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

On Sunday, Morrison indicated that he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires to his Cabinet.

But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.

What these three scenarios look like

Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.

As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.

Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.




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Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.

Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.

As Australian burns, its politicians squabble over who’s to blame and how to prevent future disasters.
David Mariuz/AAP

Avoiding the appearance of a backflip

Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.

When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.

This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.




Read more:
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The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.

The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.

The challenge for Labor and the Greens

Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.

Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.

This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.




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The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.

Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said the bushfires should be a
David Crosling/AAP

A possible way forward

There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.

Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.

The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.

In an address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in October 2007, Howard promised to establish a national ETS starting no later than 2012.

This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.

Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.

This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.

Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.

His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.

“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.

And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.


Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.

The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.

Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.

We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving “suspiciously”, compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.

Bots, trolls and trollbots

The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different “master narrative”.

Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter’s early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.

Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.

Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.

We’ve observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.

First, we used sophisticated software tools including tweetbotornot, Botometer, and Bot Sentinel.

There are various definitions for the word “bot” or “troll”. Bot Sentinel says:

Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.

Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.

These machine learning tools compared the behaviour of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a “score” for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.

We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.

Who to blame?

Unfortunately, we don’t know who is behind these accounts, as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information.

This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between December 31 last year and January 8 this year:

On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On January 7, there were 4726 tweets.
Author provided

Previous bot and troll campaigns have been thought to be the work of foreign interference, such as Russian trolls, or PR firms hired to distract and manipulate voters.

The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia’s bushfire debate.




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Weeding-out inauthentic behaviour

In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.

Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.

We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts.
Author provided

The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.

A much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.

On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.

The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them.
author provided

Bad publicity

Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.

Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis – and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.

What’s clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.




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Keep your eyes peeled

It’s difficult to debunk disinformation, as it often contains a grain of truth. In many cases, it leverages people’s previously held beliefs and biases.

Humans are particularly vulnerable to disinformation in times of emergency, or when addressing contentious issues like climate change.

Online users, especially journalists, need to stay on their toes.

The accounts we come across on social media may not represent genuine citizens and their concerns. A trending hashtag may be trying to mislead the public.

Right now, it’s more important than ever for us to prioritise factual news from reliable sources – and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth’s future could depend on it.The Conversation

Timothy Graham, Senior lecturer, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely



It’s in our power to influence the climate by influencing the nations who help determine the climate.
Victorian government

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

One of the dominant ideas buzzing around the internet is that there’s little we can do to escape the prospect of more frequent and worse bushfires – ever.

That’s because there’s little we can do to slow or reverse the change in the climate.

Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions. That’s much more than you would expect on the basis of our share of world’s population, which is 0.33%. But even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions as soon as we could and started sucking carbon back in (as would be possible with reafforestation) it’d make little difference to total global emissions, which is what matters – or so the argument goes.

But this argument ignores the huge out-of-proportion power we have to influence
other countries.

There’s no better indicator of that than in Ross Garnaut’s new book Super-power: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity.




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We’re more important than we think

The cover of ‘Super-power’ by Ross Garnaut.
Supplied

Garnaut conducted two climate change reviews for Australian governments, the first in 2008 for the state and Commonwealth governments, and the second in 2011 for the Gillard government.

In the second, he produced two projections of China’s emissions, based on what was known at the time.

One was “business as usual”, which showed continued very rapid increases. The other took into account China’s commitments at the just-completed 2010 United Nations Cancun climate change conference.

China’s annual emissions matter more than those of any other country – they account for 27% of the global total, which is a relatively new phenomenon.

The bulk of the industrial carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere was put there by the United States and the Soviet Union, who have been big emitters for much longer.

Egged on by the US Obama administration and by governments including Australia’s under Julia Gillard, China agreed at Cancun to slow its growth in emissions, and at the Paris talks in 2015 hardened this into a commitment to stabilise them by 2030.

The extraordinary graph

Garnaut’s 2011 projections showed growth moderating as a result of China’s commitment, which was at the time a cause for optimism.

When he returned to the numbers in 2019 to prepare his book, he was stunned. Egged on by the example of countries including the US and Australia, China had done far, far better than either “business as usual” or its Cancun commitments. Instead of continuing to grow rapidly, or less rapidly as China had said they would, they had almost stopped growing.

The graph, produced on page 29 of Garnaut’s book, is the most striking I have seen.



Since 2011, China’s emissions have been close to spirit-level flat. They climbed again only from 2017 when, under Trump in the US and various Coalition prime ministers in Australia, the moral pressure eased.

From the start of this century until 2011, China’s consumption of coal for electricity climbed at double-digit rates each year. From 2013 to 2016 (more than) every single bit of China’s extra electricity production came from non-emitting sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind and sun.

There are many potential explanations for the abrupt change. Pressure from nations including the US and Australia is only one.

What happened once could happen again

And there are many potential explanations for China’s return to form after Trump backslid on the Paris Agreement and Australia started quibbling about definitions.
An easing of overseas pressure is only one.

But, however brief, the extraordinary pause gives us cause for hope.

Australia can matter, in part because it is hugely respected in international forums for its technical expertise in accounting for carbon emissions, and in part because of its special role as one of the world’s leading energy exporters.

Garnaut’s book is about something else – an enormous and lucrative opportunity for Australia to produce and export embedded energy sourced from wind and the sun at a cost and scale other nations won’t be able to match.




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Some of it can be used to convert water into hydrogen. That can be used to turn what would otherwise be an intermittent power supply into a continuous one that enables around-the-clock production of the green steel, aluminium, and other zero-emission products Japan, Korea, the European Union and the United Kingdom are going to be demanding.

It’s a vision backed by Australia’s chief scientist.

It wouldn’t have been possible before. It has been made possible now by the extraordinary fall in the cost of solar and wind generation, and by something just as important – much lower global interest rates. Solar and wind generators cost money upfront but cost very little to operate. Interest rates are the cost of the money upfront.

At least three consortia are drawing up plans.

There’s not much to lose

There’s much that needs to be done, including establishing the right electricity transmission links. But Garnaut believes it can all be done within the government’s present emissions policy, helping it achieve its emission reduction targets along the way.

What’s relevant here is that moving to ultra-low emissions would do more. It could give us the kind of outsized international influence we are capable of. It could help us make a difference.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Listen to your people Scott Morrison: the bushfires demand a climate policy reboot



Scott Morrison’s response to the bushfires has been roundly criticised as being too slow and out of touch.
James Ross/AAP

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Frank Jotzo, the director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at Australian National University, has some constructive advice for Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a column today for the ABC: do not waste an opportunity to recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change.

Morrison should heed Jotzo’s suggestion that he and his cabinet need to “drop the old anti-climate change stance”. As Jotzo writes,

You’ve been politically locked into a no-action position, but the bushfires give you the reason to change […] You can make it your mission to protect the country from harm, an essential conservative cause.

Jotzo speaks with authority as one of the country’s foremost experts on climate reduction policies. He has a global reputation.




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Whether Morrison is capable of a course correction on climate change and, in the process, yield on an issue he has used to wedge his political opponents remains to be seen. However, he would be unwise to pretend that once the immediate bushfire danger passes and the smoke clears, the country will return to normal politically.

The nation will expect – indeed it will demand – that any government, conservative or Labor, face up to what is the new normal of a drying continent rendering human settlement increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. Failure to do so will exact a heavy political price.

Scott Morrison’s holiday trip to Hawaii immediately came under fire from those who accused him of being out of touch with fire victims.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Morrison’s fallback positions are less defensible

The prime minister insists he has not denied there is a link between climate change and bushfires, but at best his responses on the subject have been evasive and self-serving politically.

Pressed on the issue, his fallback position is to say

I am sure you would also agree that no response by any one government anywhere in the world can be linked to one fire event.

That might be true, but it is hardly the point in the wider scheme of what measures might be adopted to address problems of a sluggish response to the bushfire emergency.

Morrison and others in his government might also go easy on claims that local opposition to hazard reduction burning in native forests contributed to the fires. This is a coded attacked on the Greens and is not supported by the evidence.

When in doubt, politically you might say, blame the Greens.




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Memo to Scott Morrison: people are fed up with politics proving to be a constraint on the development of a credible and sustainable climate policy that involves reasonable transitional steps to a low-carbon economy over time.

As such, he might also drop his claim that calls to reduce carbon emissions are “reckless”.

Where the prime minister is particularly vulnerable – this will be subject studied closely by any future commission of inquiry – lies in his refusal to meet a group of former emergency services leaders calling itself Emergency Leaders for Climate Change.

In April, the leader of the group, Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, wrote to Morrison warning him of the threat of “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”.

In September, this expert group wrote again to the prime minister asking for a meeting.

They received no constructive response.

Likewise, academic warnings about risks of climate-induced extreme weather events have been ignored.

In a March 2019 report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ANU professor Robert Glasser called specifically for a national strategy to deal with climate disaster preparedness.

More than 500 Australians, about the same number who died in the Vietnam War, die each year from heat stress alone. The annual economic costs of natural disasters are projected to increase to A$39 billion by 2050, which is roughly equivalent to what the Australian government spends annually on defence.

Bear in mind Glasser’s report was written before these Christmas-New Year bushfire disasters.

We need to begin preparing now for this changing climate, by developing a national strategy that outlines exactly how we move on from business as usual and adopt a more responsible approach to climate disaster preparedness.

Demonstrating empathy, not political calculations

This bring us to issues surrounding the PM’s own leadership during the crisis.

Rosemary Williamson of the University of New England concluded a useful survey of Australian prime ministers’ responses to natural disasters last year with these words:

Australians will expect prime ministers to come and see for themselves, to demonstrate empathy and to instil confidence in recovery.

If these are the benchmarks for prime ministerial behaviour during a crisis brought on by disaster whether it is flood, fire or cyclone, Morrison has not lived up to these expectations.

First, he was – inexplicably – out of the country on holiday while uncontrollable fires began ravaging his home state of New South Wales.

Second, he has had trouble demonstrating reasonable empathy for victims of the fires.

And third, he has had difficulty accepting the Commonwealth had a shared responsibility for assisting the states in coping with the fallout from arguably the worst natural disaster in Australian history.

What has been most surprising is the time it has taken for Canberra to understand that such are the dimensions of this disaster that military assistance was necessary.

Weeks passed without the Australian Defence Force (ADF) being called out. The explanation for this delay is that states had not asked for military involvement, as if the out-of-control bushfires themselves respected state boundaries – or Commonwealth-state relations.

Coordination between Canberra and the states has improved in recent days, but in the early stages such cooperation left much to be desired.

In all of this, it is clear Morrison has laboured under a constraint of not wanting to antagonise the climate-sceptic right of his party by immediately conceding that global warming and bushfires are linked.

This would explain his tardiness in acknowledging the extent of the disaster.

Politically, he may well believe that climate remains an important point of difference between parties of left and right.




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Debate over climate – whether it is changing, and if so what to do about it – has become a culture wars issue over the years to the point where it has proved to be a useful political device for parties of the right.

As a politician of the right, Morrison would be reluctant to yield ground on issues to do with electricity prices that might benefit him politically in the future.

These are the political considerations that would be weighing in his calculations.

Morrison tours a scorched farm in Victoria last week.
James Ross/AAP

Charting a new course

However, the ground is shifting politically.

Polls indicate the environment is assuming greater importance among Australians. It is not far behind the economy and health in people’s concerns, according to an exhaustive poll conducted by the ANU’s 2019 Australian Election Study.

Among issues that will burden governments – both federal and state – over the next months will be the heavy costs associated with cleaning up the mess. All up, costs will run into the billions given the dimensions of destruction.

Inevitably, the bushfires will have an impact on economic activity in the December and March quarters. Growth is anaemic in any case, and may well become weaker as a consequence of reduced economic activity during the bushfire season.

Whatever economic fallout ensues, the political costs for the prime minister will continue to weigh heavily.

He would do himself a favour by advancing a credible climate and land management policy that ensures the country is better prepared when the next disaster strikes, as it surely will.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze


Multiple large, intense fires are stretching from Australia’s coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.
AAP Image/Supplied, JPSS

Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Western Sydney University

Last week saw an unprecedented outbreak of large, intense fires stretching from the mid-north coast of New South Wales into central Queensland.

The most tragic losses are concentrated in northern NSW, where 970,000 hectares have been burned, three people have died, and at least 150 homes have been destroyed.

A catastrophic fire warning for Tuesday has been issued for the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Shoalhaven and Illawarra areas. It is the first time Sydney has received a catastrophic rating since the rating system was developed in 2009.

No relief is in sight from this extremely hot, dry and windy weather, and the extraordinary magnitude of these fires is likely to increase in the coming week. Alarmingly, as Australians increasingly seek a sea-change or tree-change, more people are living in the path of these destructive fires.




Read more:
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Unprecedented state of emergency

Large fires have happened before in northern NSW and southern Queensland during spring and early summer (for example in 1994, 1997, 2000, 2002, and 2018 in northern NSW). But this latest extraordinary situation raises many questions.

It is as if many of the major fires in the past are now being rerun concurrently. What is unprecedented is the size and number of fires rather than the seasonal timing.

The potential for large, intense fires is determined by four fundamental ingredients: a continuous expanse of fuel; extensive and continuous dryness of that fuel; weather conditions conducive to the rapid spread of fire; and ignitions, either human or lightning. These act as a set of switches, in series: all must be “on” for major fires to occur.

Live fuel moisture content in late October 2019. The ‘dry’ and ‘transitional’ moisture categories correspond to conditions associated with over 95% of historical area burned by bushfire.
Estimated from MODIS satellite imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion.

The NSW north coast and tablelands, along with much of the southern coastal regions of Queensland are famous for their diverse range of eucalypt forest, heathlands and rainforests, which flourish in the warm temperate to subtropical climate.




Read more:
Climate change is bringing a new world of bushfires


These forests and shrublands can rapidly accumulate bushfire fuels such as leaf litter, twigs and grasses. The unprecedented drought across much of Australia has created exceptional dryness, including high-altitude areas and places like gullies, water courses, swamps and steep south-facing slopes that are normally too wet to burn.

These typically wet parts of the landscape have literally evaporated, allowing fire to spread unimpeded. The drought has been particularly acute in northern NSW where record low rainfall has led to widespread defoliation and tree death. It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.

Annual trends in live fuel moisture. The horizontal line represents the threshold for the critical ‘dry’ fuel category, which corresponds to the historical occurrence of most major wildfires in the Bioregion.
Estimated from MODIS imagery for the Sydney basin Bioregion

Thus, the North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires. A continuous swathe of critically dry fuels across these diverse landscapes existed well before last week, as shown by damaging fires in September and October.

High temperatures and wind speeds, low humidity, and a wave of new ignitions on top of pre-existing fires has created an unprecedented situation of multiple large, intense fires stretching from the coast to the tablelands and parts of the interior.

More people in harm’s way

Many parts of the NSW north coast, southern Queensland and adjacent hinterlands have seen population growth around major towns and cities, as people look for pleasant coastal and rural homes away from the capital cities.

The extraordinary number and ferocity of these fires, plus the increased exposure of people and property, have contributed to the tragic results of the past few days.




Read more:
How a bushfire can destroy a home


Communities flanked by forests along the coast and ranges are highly vulnerable because of the way fires spread under the influence of strong westerly winds. Coastal communities wedged between highly flammable forests and heathlands and the sea, are particularly at risk.

As a full picture of the extent and location of losses and damage becomes available, we will see the extent to which planning, building regulations, and fire preparation has mitigated losses and damage.

These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted. The week ahead will present high-stakes new challenges.

The most heavily populated region of the nation is now at critically dry levels of fuel moisture, below those at the time of the disastrous Christmas fires of 2001 and 2013. Climate change has been predicted to strongly increase the chance of large fires across this region. The conditions for Tuesday are a real and more extreme manifestation of these longstanding predictions.




Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire


Whatever the successes and failures in this crisis, it is likely that we will have to rethink the way we plan and prepare for wildfires in a hotter, drier and more flammable world.The Conversation

Ross Bradstock, Professor, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air



Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting.
Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author provided

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, The University of Queensland

Last month, scientists uncovered a mineral called Edscottite. Minerals are solid, naturally occurring substances that are not living, such as quartz or haematite. This new mineral was discovered after an examination of the Wedderburn Meteorite, a metallic-looking rock found in Central Victoria back in 1951.

Edscottite is made of iron and carbon, and was likely formed within the core of another planet. It’s a “true” mineral, meaning one which is naturally occurring and formed by geological processes either on Earth or in outer-space.

But while the Wedderburn Meteorite held the first-known discovery of Edscottite, other new mineral discoveries have been made on Earth, of substances formed as a result of human activities such as mining and mineral processing. These are called anthropogenic minerals.

While true minerals comprise the majority of the approximately 5,200 known minerals, there are about 208 human-made minerals which have been approved as minerals by the International Mineralogical Association.

Some are made on purpose and others are by-products. Either way, the ability to manufacture minerals has vast implications for the future of our rapidly growing population.

Modern-day alchemy

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. While governments debate the future of coal-burning power stations, carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere. We need innovative strategies to capture it.

Actively manufacturing minerals such as nesquehonite is one possible approach. It has applications in building and construction, and making it requires removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.




Read more:
Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate


Nesquehonite occurs naturally when magnesian rocks slowly break down. It has been identified at the Paddy’s River mine in the Australian Capital Territory and locations in New South Wales.

But scientists discovered it can also be made by passing carbon dioxide into an alkaline solution and having it react with magnesium chloride or sodium carbonate/bicarbonate.

This is a growing area of research.

Other synthetic minerals such as hydrotalcite are produced when asbestos tailings passively absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, as discovered by scientists at the Woodsreef asbestos mine in New South Wales.

You could say this is a kind of “modern-day alchemy” which, if taken advantage of, could be an effective way to suck carbon dioxide from the air at a large scale.

Meeting society’s metal demands

Mining and mineral processing is designed to recover metals from ore, which is a natural occurrence of rock or sediment containing sufficient minerals with economically important elements. But through mining and mineral processing, new minerals can also be created.

Smelting is used to produce a range of commodities such as lead, zinc and copper, by heating ore to high temperatures to produce pure metals.

The process also produces a glass-like waste product called slag, which is deposited as molten liquid, resembling lava.

This is a backscattered electron microscope image of historical slag collected from a Rio Tinto mine in Spain.
Image collected by Anita Parbhakar-Fox at the University of Tasmania (UTAS)

Once cooled, the textural and mineralogical similarities between lava and slag are crystal-clear.

Micro-scale inspection shows human-made minerals in slag have a unique ability to accommodate metals into their crystal lattice that would not be possible in nature.

This means metal recovery from mine waste (a potential secondary resource) could be an effective way to supplement society’s growing metal demands. The challenge lies in developing processes which are cost effective.




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Ethically-sourced jewellery

Our increasing knowledge on how to manufacture minerals may also have a major impact on the growing synthetic gem manufacturing industry.

In 2010, the world was awestruck by the engagement ring given to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, valued at about £300,000 (AUD$558,429).

The ring has a 12-carat blue sapphire, surrounded by 14 solitaire diamonds, with a setting made from 18-carat white gold.

Replicas of it have been acquired by people across the globe, but for only a fraction of the price. How?

In 1837, Marc Antoine Gardin demonstrated that sapphires (mineralogically known as corundum or aluminium oxide) can be replicated by reacting metals with other substances such as chromium or boric acid. This produces a range of seemingly identical coloured stones.

On close examination, some properties may vary such as the presence of flaws and air bubbles and the stone’s hardness. But only a gemologist or gem enthusiast would likely notice this.

Diamonds can also be synthetically made, through either a high pressure, high temperature, or chemical vapour deposition process.

Synthetic diamonds have essentially the same chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.
Instytut Fizyki Uniwersytet Kazimierza Wielkiego

Creating synthetic gems is increasingly important as natural stones are becoming more difficult and expensive to source. In some countries, the rights of miners are also violated and this poses ethical concerns.

Medical and industrial applications

Synthetic gems have industrial applications too. They can be used in window manufacturing, semi-conducting circuits and cutting tools.

One example of an entirely manufactured mineral is something called yttrium aluminum garnet (or YAG) which can be used as a laser.

In medicine, these lasers are used to correct glaucoma. In dental surgery, they allow soft gum and tissues to be cut away.

The move to develop new minerals will also support technologies enabling deep space exploration through the creation of ‘quantum materials’.

Quantum materials have unique properties and will help us create a new generation of electronic products, which could have a significant impact on space travel technologies. Maybe this will allow us to one day visit the birthplace of Edscottite?




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In decades to come, the number of human-made minerals is set to increase. And as it does, so too does the opportunity to find new uses for them.

By expanding our ability to manufacture minerals, we could reduce pressure on existing resources and find new ways to tackle global challenges.The Conversation

Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Senior Research Fellow in Geometallurgy/Applied Geochemistry, The University of Queensland and Paul Gow, Principal Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nuclear power should be allowed in Australia – but only with a carbon price



The Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney. It does not produce nuclear energy but is used to produce medical radioisotopes and for other purposes.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Looking at the state of policy on energy and climate change in Australia, it’s tempting to give in to despair. At the national level, following the abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee last year, we have no coherent energy policy and no serious policy to address climate change.

In this context, the announcement of two separate inquiries into the feasibility of nuclear power (by the New South Wales and federal parliaments) could reasonably give rise to cynicism. The only possible case for considering nuclear power, in my view, is that it might provide a way to decarbonise our electricity supply industry.

Yet many of the keenest boosters of nuclear power have consistently opposed any serious measure to address climate change, and quite a few have rejected mainstream science altogether.

Activists dressed as nuclear waste barrels protesting at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in 2001. Nuclear technology in Australia has long raised concern among environmentalists.
Laura Frriezer/AAP



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Yet in a situation which all responsible people view as a climate emergency, we can’t afford the luxury of despair. For this reason, rather than dismissing these inquiries as political stunts, I made a submission to the federal inquiry setting out the conditions required to allow for any possibility of nuclear power in Australia.

The submission was picked up by the national media, which largely focused on my proposal to lift the state ban on nuclear power and implement a carbon price.

The reception from commentators on the right, who want the ban lifted, and from renewables advocates, who want a price on carbon, suggests a middle ground on nuclear power may be achievable.

The three big problems with nuclear power

Three fundamental problems arise immediately when considering the prospect of nuclear power in Australia. First, the technology is expensive: more expensive than new fossil-fuelled power stations, and far too expensive to compete with existing fossil fuel generators under current market conditions.

Second, given the time lags involved, any substantial contribution from nuclear power in Australia won’t be available until well beyond 2030.

Third, given the strong public opposition to nuclear power, particularly from the environmental movement, any attempt to promote nuclear power at the expense of renewables would never get broad support. In these circumstances, any investor in nuclear power would face the prospect of losing their money the moment the balance of political power shifted.

A technician uses a hot cell which shields radioactive material at the Opal nuclear research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

On the first point, we have some evidence from the contract agreed by the UK government in for the construction of the Hinkley C nuclear power plant. This was the first new nuclear construction project to be approved in an OECD country for a number of years.

The agreement to construct Hinkley was based on a guaranteed “strike price” of £92.50/ megawatt hours (MWh), in 2012 prices, to be adjusted in line with the consumer price index during the construction period and over the subsequent 35-year tariff period. At current exchange rates, this price corresponds to approximately A$165.




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Prices in Australia’s National Electricity Market have generally averaged around A$90/MWh. This implies that, if new nuclear power is to compete with existing fossil fuel generators, a carbon price must impose a cost of A$75/MWh on fossil fuel generation.

Assuming emission rates of 1.3 tonnes/MWh for brown coal, 1 tonne/MWh for black and 0.5 tonnes for gas, the implied carbon price ranges from A$50/tonne (to displace brown coal) to $150/tonne (to displace gas). On the basis that nuclear power is most plausible as a competitor for baseload generation from brown coal, I considered a price of A$50/tonne.

A blueprint for reform

The central recommendations of my submission were as follows:

Nuclear power, while costly, could dramatically reduce Australia’s electricity sector emissions.
AAP

Recommendation 1: A carbon price of A$25/tonne should be introduced immediately, and increased at a real rate of 5% a year, reaching A$50/tonne by 2035.

Recommendation 2: The government should immediately adopt the recommendations of its own Climate Change Authority for a 40% to 60% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 2000 levels, and match other leading OECD countries in committing to complete decarbonisation of the economy by 2050.

Recommendation 3: The parliament should pass a motion:

  • affirming its confidence in mainstream climate science and its acceptance of the key conclusions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change;
  • legislating a commitment to emissions reductions;
  • removing the existing ban on nuclear power.

Let’s all meet in the middle

Rather to my surprise, this proposal received a favourable reception from a number of centre-right commentators.

Reaction from renewables proponents, on social media at least, was cautious. But it did not indicate the reflexive hostility that might be expected, given the polarised nature of the debate.

There are immediate political implications of my proposal at both the state and federal level. It will be more difficult for the Coalition-dominated committees running the two inquiries to bring down a report favourable to nuclear power without addressing the necessary conditions – including a carbon price. If the government’s hostility to carbon pricing is such that a serious proposal for nuclear power cannot be considered, it will at least be clear that this option can be abandoned for good.

Former Nationals leader and now backbencher Barnaby Joyce is a strong advocate for nuclear power.
Lukas Coch/AAP

In the admittedly unlikely event that the Coalition government shows itself open to new thinking, the focus turns to Labor and the Greens.

Given the urgency of addressing climate change – a task that is best addressed through a carbon price – it makes no sense to reject action now on the basis that it opens up the possibility of nuclear power sometime in the 2030s. And, if renewables and storage perform as well as most environmentalists expect, nuclear power will be unable to compete even then.

Political hardheads will doubtless say that this is all impossible, and they may be right. But in a world where Donald Trump can win a US presidential election, and major investment banks support UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “impossible” is a big claim

In the absence of any prospect of progress on either energy or climate, the grand bargain I’ve proposed is at least worth a try.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s still building 4 in every 5 new houses to no more than the minimum energy standard


Trivess Moore, RMIT University; Michael Ambrose, CSIRO, and Stephen Berry, University of South Australia

New housing in Australia must meet minimum energy performance requirements. We wondered how many buildings exceeded the minimum standard. What our analysis found is that four in five new houses are being built to the minimum standard and a negligible proportion to an optimal performance standard.

Before these standards were introduced the average performance of housing was found to be around 1.5 stars. The current minimum across most of Australia is six stars under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS).

This six-star minimum falls short of what is optimal in terms of environmental, economic and social outcomes. It’s also below the minimum set by many other countries.




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There have been calls for these minimum standards to be raised. However, many policymakers and building industry stakeholders believe the market will lift performance beyond minimum standards and so there is no need to raise these.

What did the data show?

We wanted to understand what was happening in the market to see if consumers or regulation were driving the energy performance of new housing. To do this we explored the NatHERS data set of building approvals for new Class 1 housing (detached and row houses) in Australia from May 2016 (when all data sets were integrated by CSIRO and Sustainability Victoria) to December 2018.

Our analysis focuses on new housing in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, all of which apply the minimum six-star NatHERS requirement. The other states have local variations to the standard, while New South Wales uses the BASIX index to determine the environmental impact of housing.

The chart below shows the performance for 187,320 house ratings. Almost 82% just met the minimum standard (6.0-6.4 star). Another 16% performed just above the minimum standard (6.5-6.9 star).

Only 1.5% were designed to perform at the economically optimal 7.5 stars and beyond. By this we mean a balance between the extra upfront building costs and the savings and benefits from lifetime building performance.

NatHERS star ratings across total data set for new housing approvals, May 2016–December 2018.
Author provided

The average rating is 6.2 stars across the states. This has not changed since 2016.

Average NatHERS star rating for each state, 2016-18.
Author provided

The data analysis shows that, while most housing is built to the minimum standard, the cooler temperate regions (Tasmania, ACT) have more houses above 7.0 stars compared with the warm temperate states.

NatHERS data spread by state.
Author provided

The ACT increased average performance each year from 6.5 stars in 2016 to 6.9 stars in 2018. This was not seen in any other state or territory.

The ACT is the only region with mandatory disclosure of the energy rating on sale or lease of property. The market can thus value the relative energy efficiency of buildings. Providing this otherwise invisible information may have empowered consumers to demand slightly better performance.




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We are paying for accepting a lower standard

The evidence suggests consumers are not acting rationally or making decisions to maximise their financial well-being. Rather, they just accept the minimum performance the building sector delivers.

Higher energy efficiency or even environmental sustainability in housing provides not only significant benefits to the individual but also to society. And these improvements can be delivered for little additional cost.




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The fact that these improvements aren’t being made suggests there are significant barriers to the market operating efficiently. This is despite increasing awareness among consumers and in the housing industry about the rising cost of energy.

Eight years after the introduction of the six-star NatHERS minimum requirement for new housing in Australia, the results show the market is delivering four out of five houses that just meet this requirement. With only 1.5% designed to 7.5 stars or beyond, regulation rather than the economically optimal energy rating is clearly driving the energy performance of Australian homes.

Increasing the minimum performance standard is the most effective way to improve the energy outcomes.

The next opportunity for increasing the minimum energy requirement will be 2022. Australian housing standards were already about 2.0 NatHERS stars behind comparable developed countries in 2008. If mandatory energy ratings aren’t increased, Australia will fall further behind international best practice.

If we continue to create a legacy of homes with relatively poor energy performance, making the transition to a low-energy and low-carbon economy is likely to get progressively more challenging and expensive. Recent research has calculated that a delay in increasing minimum performance requirements from 2019 to 2022 will result in an estimated A$1.1 billion (to 2050) in avoidable household energy bills. That’s an extra 3 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.




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Our research confirms the policy proposition that minimum house energy regulations based on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme are a powerful instrument for delivering better environmental and energy outcomes. While introducing minimum standards has significantly lifted the bottom end of the market, those standards should be reviewed regularly to ensure optimal economic and environmental outcomes.The Conversation

Trivess Moore, Lecturer, RMIT University; Michael Ambrose, Research Team Leader, CSIRO, and Stephen Berry, Research fellow, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s time for Australia to commit to the kind of future it wants: CSIRO Australian National Outlook 2019


Australia’s future prosperity will require bold action on a number of fronts and a deliberate commitment to careful and considered long-term thinking.
Hendra Pontomudis / unsplash, CC BY

James Deverell, CSIRO

Australia’s future prosperity is at risk unless we take bold action and commit to long-term thinking. This is the key message contained in the Australian National Outlook 2019 (ANO 2019), a report published today by CSIRO and its partners.

The research used a scenario approach to model different visions of Australia in 2060.

We contrasted two core scenarios: a base case called Slow Decline, and an Outlook Vision scenario which represents what Australia could achieve. These scenarios took account of 13 different national issues, as well as two global contexts relating to trade and action on climate change.

We found there are profound differences in long-term outcomes between these two scenarios.

In the Slow Decline scenario, Australia fails to adequately address identified challenges.
CSIRO, Author provided
The Outlook Vision scenario shows what could be possible if Australia meets identified challenges.
CSIRO, Author provided

Slow decline versus a new outlook

Australia’s living standards – as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita – could be 36% higher in 2060 in the Outlook Vision, compared with Slow Decline. This translates into a 90% increase in average wages (in real terms, adjusted for inflation) from today.

Australia’s real GDP per capita in 2016, and the modelled outcomes for Slow Decline and Outlook Vision. In Outlook Vision, the darker shade shows outcomes under a cooperative global context and the lighter shade under a fractious global context.
CSIRO, Author provided

Australia could maintain its world-class, highly liveable cities, while increasing its population to 41 million people by 2060. Urban congestion could be reduced, with per capita passenger vehicle travel 45% lower than today in the Outlook Vision.

Australia could achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 while reducing household spend on electricity (relative to incomes) by up to 64%. Importantly, our modelling shows this could be achieved without significant impact on economic growth.

Low-emissions, low-cost energy could even become a source of comparative advantage for Australia, opening up new export opportunities.

And inflation-adjusted returns to rural landholders in Australia could triple to 2060, with the land sector contribution to GDP increasing from around 2% today to over 5%.

At the same time, ecosystems could be restored through more biodiverse plantings and land management.




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Historical trend for vehicle kms travelled (VKT) on urban roads, per capita, and projections resulting from the modelled Slow Decline and Outlook Vision scenarios. The shaded area for Outlook Vision represents the range of outcomes possible depending on how regional satellites cities develop.
CSIRO, Author provided

The report, developed over the last two years, explores what Australia must do to secure a future with prosperous and globally competitive industries, inclusive and enabling communities, and sustainable natural endowments, all underpinned by strong public and civic institutions.

ANO 2019 uses CSIRO’s integrated modelling framework to project economic, environmental and social outcomes to 2060 across multiple scenarios.

The outlook also features input from more than 50 senior leaders drawn from Australia’s leading companies, universities and not-for-profits.

So how do we get there?

Achieving the outcomes in the Outlook Vision won’t be easy.

Australia will need to address the major challenges it faces, including the rise of Asia, technology disruption, climate change, changing demographics, and declining social cohesion. This will require long-term thinking and bold action across five major “shifts”:

  • industry shift
  • urban shift
  • energy shift
  • land shift
  • culture shift.

The report outlines the major actions that will underpin each of these shifts.

For example, the industry shift would see Australian firms adopt new technologies (such as automation and artificial intelligence) to boost productivity, which accounts for a little over half of the difference in living standards between the Outlook Vision and Slow Decline.

Developing human capital (through education and training) and investment in high-growth, export-facing industries (such as healthcare and advanced manufacturing) each account for around 20% of the difference between the two scenarios.

The urban shift would see Australia increase the density of its major cities by between 60-88%, while spreading this density across a wider cross-section of the urban landscape (such as multiple centres).

Combining this density with a greater diversity of housing types and land uses will allow more people to live closer to high-quality jobs, education, and services.

Enhancing transport infrastructure to support multi-centric cities, more active transport, and autonomous vehicles will alleviate congestion and enable the “30-minute city”.




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In the energy shift, across every scenario modelled, the electricity sector transitions to nearly 100% renewable generation by 2050, driven by market forces and declining electricity generation and storage costs.

Likewise, electric vehicles are on pace to hit price-parity with petrol ones by the mid-2020s and could account for 80% of passenger vehicles by 2060.

In addition, Australia could triple its energy productivity by 2060, meaning it would use only 6% more energy than today, despite the population growing by over 60% and GDP more than tripling.

Primary energy use in Australia under the modelled scenarios. Primary energy is the measure of energy before it has been converted or transformed, and includes electricity plus combustion of fuels in industry, commercial, residential and transport.
CSIRO, Author provided

The land shift would require boosting agricultural productivity (through a combination of plant genomics and digital agriculture) and changing how we use our land.

By 2060, up to 30 million hectares – or roughly half of Australia’s marginal land within more intensively farmed areas – could be profitably transitioned to carbon plantings, which would increase returns to landholders and offset emissions from other sectors.

As much as 700 millions of tonnes of CO₂ equivalent could be offset in 2060, which would allow Australia to become a net exporter of carbon credits.

A culture shift

The last, and perhaps most important shift, is the cultural shift.

Trust in government and industry has eroded in recent years, and Australia hasn’t escaped this trend. If these institutions, which have served Australia so well in its past, cannot regain the public’s trust, it will be difficult to achieve the long-term actions that underpin the other four shifts.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet here.The Conversation

James Deverell, Director, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.