return to letters list

The real story of climate change and the IPCC - and the example set by the Australian Climate Commission

On 6 July I attended a critique of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by Canadian investigative journalist and internationally renowned author Donna Laframboise. It will be recalled that the fourth IPCC report was in 2007 and the next is scheduled for 2014.

Below is a summary of her comments (her presentation is here) and a brief reference to last week’s report by the Climate Commission on The Critical Decade: Victorian Climate Impacts and Opportunities. The Commission is headed by Professor Tim Flannery and its members include Professor Will Steffen, one of the principal climate science advisers to the Gillard government. While established “to provide reliable and authoritative source of information on climate change, and help inform the debate on this issue of national significance”, this report in fact contains obvious errors and misinformation. As a summary of the report I include Steffen’s article published in The Australian and, as a critique, Bill Kininmonth’s response letter published the day after, as well as some supplementary comments by him.

Laframboise’s critique illustrates the serious problem arising from the failure to properly consider claims by bodies that have a barrow to push. Donna shows that IPCC reports are compiled from advice from those who include many far from expert either in climate science or in assessing the implications of changes in climate. Most importantly, however, she points out that there was a close inter-relationship between the IPCC and the World Wildlife Fund– she describes it as an “infiltration” by WWF. In reality her analysis of the IPCC is that its 2007 report was heavily influenced by greenies and that it operated as if it is an environmental lobby group. How could governments have swallowed such advice?

Donna’s visit was sponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs, which has been doing great work in bringing climate sceptics to Australia to help overcome our cultural cringe of largely ignoring local expert sceptics (although in this case Professor Bob Carter also spoke briefly). Her presentation, which was attended by considerable numbers both in Melbourne and three other capitals, was excellent: no aggressive or over-espousing of a cause but a careful dissection of claims on an important subject. Unfortunately, it received minimal media coverage.

Initially Donna explained that, after starting about three years ago with a belief that there may be something in the dangerous global warming thesis, she had then examined in fine detail claims made by the IPCC (and its supporters) about the science and the research undertaken to support those claims. She claimed that every conclusion she reached had been double checked with scientific and other knowledgeable persons. She also indicated that with her book, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert, she deliberately avoided a title that might give the impression that it is pursuing a cause.

Laframboise also referred to an evaluation of targets adopted by Australian political parties by Roger Pielke Jnr, Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado. His conclusion is that, to attempt to reduce by 20 per cent (compared with 2000) the use of fossil fuel energy by 2020, "will be all but impossible to meet without creative approaches to accounting as they would require a level of effort equivalent to the deployment of dozens of new nuclear power plants or thousands of new solar thermal plants within the next decade”. This is relevant to both major parties’ policies.

I have drawn principally on the slides Laframboise presented as my main source for her remarks. Her major stated conclusions were that “almost nothing you've heard about the IPCC is true” and that the IPCC is far from being the unbiased, rigorously scientific body that it portrays itself”. Hence “no sane government should be making billion-dollar decisions on the IPCC’s say-so”. These are also of course relevant to policies adopted by both the government and opposition.

Laframboise supported her conclusion with the following points:

Australian Climate Commission

The gist of the latest report by this body is in the article below by Steffen and a critique below is in the response letter by Bill Kininmonth and his supplementary comments. Note, however, that part of Bill’s letter was not published and, as he says, it would require a book to provide all corrections.

Clean up energy for the sake of our grandchildren
(letter by Will Steffan published in The Australian, 23 July 2012.)

THE next chapter of the climate change story is unfolding as the focus turns towards the many opportunities that are opening up in the transition to an economy powered by clean energy.

Victoria is a good example of a state poised to move rapidly into this transition. The state has barely begun to develop the considerable renewable energy resources that lie within its borders. Victoria receives enough energy from the sun to produce double the state's current energy needs, and there are considerable wind resources yet to be exploited. These resources are becoming even more valuable as the cost of renewable energy around the world is dropping rapidly.

Although there will no doubt be some short-term costs to some industries and communities, as there always are in any type of major economic restructuring, there is an impressive array of extra benefits that can accrue from the transition to cleaner energy.

Enhanced public transport systems, for example, not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also make cities healthier and more liveable. A shift to more active transport such as walking and cycling leads to health benefits such as a reduction in cardiovascular problems, respiratory disease and obesity, and thus reduces healthcare costs for individuals and society.

Buildings can be constructed or retrofitted with more efficient heating, lighting, cooling and ventilation, which save energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create healthier and more productive conditions for workers. Melbourne has several state-of-the-art examples of green buildings.

Economies as a whole can benefit from the transition to clean energy and Sweden, for example, already has the runs on the board. Over the past decade, the Swedes have reduced their emissions of carbon dioxide by about 13 per cent, the best performance of any of the world's wealthy countries.

Over the same period, the Swedish economy has recorded a higher rate of GDP growth than any of the OECD's "big seven" economies, the US, Japan, Canada, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. So much for the myth that taking vigorous action on climate change will damage or slow the economy. Quite the opposite seems to be the case.

Economists Nicholas Stern and Ross Garnaut have estimated the long-term economic costs associated with a transition to a very low-carbon economy and found them to be very much smaller than the costs of failing to take action on climate change.

Some estimates of the drop in GDP towards the end of this century resulting from a lack of effective climate action are as much as 20 per cent. And Sweden is showing that there are actually economic benefits from taking effective climate action.

Scientists have painted a clear picture of the risks from failing to act on climate change. The natural world would experience the sixth great extinction event in Earth's history, coral reefs would almost completely disappear, and we would be facing metres of sea-level rise as oceans continue to warm and polar ice sheets melt and disintegrate.

Over the past decade Victorians have seen a window into that possible future in their own backyard.

The 2009 heatwave in Melbourne caused 374 excess deaths as well as triggering disruptions to electricity supplies and transport systems. The Black Saturday bushfires caused more deaths and significant amounts of physical and psychological suffering.

The Big Dry of 1997-2009 put severe pressure on Melbourne's water supply and damaged the state's agricultural production, leading to an 80 per cent drop in grain production and a 40 per cent reduction in livestock production in the Wimmera Southern Mallee region.

There is strong evidence that climate change influenced the extreme events Victorians experienced over the past decade. Without effective action on climate change, we can expect more such damaging weather and climate events in the future, and they will likely become more severe.

But this is a future we don't have to have. Although we are already committed to some additional rises in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns over the coming decades, the worst impacts -- even more extreme heatwaves, mass extinctions and an ice-free world -- are still avoidable. But time is running out. This is the critical decade to decisively turn towards a future powered by clean energy, and to grab the considerable opportunities that are opening up in front of us.

The choice between our two possible futures could not be starker. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make the right choice.

Will Steffen is a climate researcher at the Australian National University and is a Climate Commissioner. The Commission is visiting Melbourne this week and will hold a public forum tomorrow night

Letter & Supplementary Comments Sent to me by Bill Kininmonth, plus Letter by John McLean

WILL Steffen's samples of ideas for a glorious green future expose factual errors and faulty logic. Let us consider his hyperbole of global warming bringing on the sixth great extinction event in history. Fortunately, life flourishes in wet environments but is challenged in the cold and dry. Evidence and real-world experience are contrary to Steffen's apocalyptic pronouncements.

Should we follow Steffen's example of Sweden for the development of Australia's energy supplies to meet present needs and for future generations? The Swedish Energy Agency reports that for 2009 primary sources were: fossil 37 per cent, nuclear 26 per cent, biofuels 22 per cent and hydro 11 per cent. Wind energy comprised 0.4 per cent. Wind supply had increased 250 per cent over the previous decade but hydro had doubled. There are plans to update nuclear generators.

Steffen says that Victoria receives enough energy from the sun to produce double the state's energy needs. If such a vision for renewable energy should come to pass, what life would exist in the shadow of the expanse of solar collectors?

William Kininmonth, Kew, Vic

One could write a book if the objective was to refute all of Steffen’s thought bubbles – he seems to be reciting the Green’s manifesto without analysis. As an example, would a shift from motor vehicles to walking and cycling increase productivity and overall community welfare? In my letter I selected 3 examples but I must have exceeded my word limit judging by the editing, especially with regard to the prophecy of the sixth great extinction.

I notice that the comments on the Sweden energy breakdown and productivity were taken up in the Cut and Paste section below the letters (Note that I was referring to total energy production while the C & P figures refer to electricity generation – the reason for the different percentages). The main point was retained – Sweden gets 26 percent of its energy from nuclear and 11 percent from hydro. A significant reason for the drop in CO2 emissions is the expansion of hydro and there are plans to replace/upgrade all of the nuclear reactors with more modern, safer and higher capacity plants. Either Steffen is hoist on his own petard or he is consciously in favour of nuclear as an alternative to fossil. It should also be mentioned that a large fraction of the biofuel component is peat: essentially non-renewable, wetter and dirtier than brown coal.

As to use of wind power, I only have hearsay knowledge on the Danes electricity supply but it is my understanding that they export excess electricity to Germany when the wind blows and import fossil/nuclear generated electricity when the winds cease or blow too strongly. In the Sweden Energy Agency data there is also about 1 percent import/export. Australia’s non-fossil backup to wind would have to be nuclear in the absence of geothermal.


Letter by John McLean

I NOTICE Will Steffen didn't mention that increases in carbon dioxide over the past 12 years have not been matched by temperature increases. He failed to mention that drought conditions cause higher temperatures because heat isn't used by the evaporation of surface moisture.

He failed to mention that hot, dry winds from drought-ravaged western NSW drove Victoria's 2009 Black Saturday temperature. He failed to mention that coral bleaching is not caused by air temperature but by solar-driven heating of the water coupled with reductions in winds.

John McLean, Croydon, Vic

return to letters list