That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

That lump of coal stunt looks even more lame now

Last year Scott Morrison, then the Treasurer, carried a lump of coal into Parliament during Question Time, where he brandished it about, saying

“This is coal. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you…It’s coal that has ensured Australia has for over one hundred years enjoyed an energy advantage that has delivered prosperity”.

He went on to describe the Opposition as suffering from the malady of  coalaphobia and possessing an

“ideological, pathological opposition to coal as being part of our sustainable and more  certain energy future.”

Yesterday the  international body responsible for updating our knowledge of climate change, the IPCC, release its latest report on keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. Their report included this paragraph:

In modelled 1.5°C pathways with limited or no overshoot, the use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share of gas to be approximately 8% (3–11% interquartile range) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal shows a steep reduction in all pathways and would be reduced to close to 0% (0–2%) of electricity (high confidence). While acknowledging the challenges, and differences between the options and national circumstances, political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved over the past few years (high confidence). These improvements signal a potential system transition in electricity generation (IPCC SR15 SPM p33)

The report notes that keeping temperature rises to 1.5° would have significantly fewer impacts upon the planet and the well-being of its people then a rise to 2°.   The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is likely to  diminish in size at 1.5° temperature rise,   but at 2° would  likely disappear completely.

This has  certainly wiped the smug tone from the government’s defence of coal,  but not their determination to see coal as an ongoing part of Australia’s energy mix  long into the future.  The conversation we should be having is how we  will replace coal with renewable forms of energy over the course of the next  couple of decades.  We have time to do it and to do it right. Instead we have a government burying its head in the sand, denying the IPCC report has any significance for us, and declaring support for the coal industry.  I think we all know who the pathological ideologues are.

We Need a Reality Check on Energy Prices

Rising energy prices have become a cause of widespread complaint and are cited as a reason we need to cling coal-powered electricity.   As far as I can tell all the anxiety around rising electricity prices is way out of proportion to reality.

First, our electricity costs are only a small proportion of our household budgets. A 2012 ABS survey found that the households with the lowest 10% of income spend 2.7% of their income on household energy. The dollar amount spent on energy rises with income but falls as a proportion of income, so that the households with the top 10% of income spend just 1.7% of their income on household energy. 1)ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, 2012. Prices have risen by about 20% since the survey, which would mean lower income households are now paying around 3% of their household income in energy bills.

Second, energy prices have gone up. In real terms (i.e. after allowing for inflation) the cost of residential electricity in Australia has almost doubled over the last decade 2)https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf.This means that the price rises in electricity have added 1.0%-1.5% to our household costs over the course of the last 10 years. While this presents a challenge to lower income households, for whom 1 in 5 could not pay their electricity, gas or telephone bills on time 3)ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2012 , for those who aren’t in the bottom 10-20% of household incomes the hysteria over rising electricity prices is misplaced.

Third, the rise in energy prices is not due to the switch to renewables. In 2013/14 emissions reduction schemes and the renewable energy targets accounted for just 17% of the cost of electricity4)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf.  The bulk of the cost is in providing the networks (poles and wires). These accounted for 50% of the retail cost of electricity 5)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf. Only a small proportion of the rise in electricity prices is  being driven by the switch to renewables. The primary reason we have seen accelerating price rises is that we all want to run our air conditioners on really hot days. The Department of Industry’s own fact sheet says

Australia’s economic growth and increasing use of appliances such as air conditioners have put new pressures on networks, particularly at peak times – typically for a few hours in the afternoon on the hottest days of the year. Network companies are required to meet peak demand and generally build their infrastructure to meet energy demand at its forecast peak. This means that around $11 billion worth of infrastructure across the National Electricity Market is only being used for 100 hours each year.6)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf

The really disturbing thing about this debate is the way it is being used to argue against the use of renewable sources of energy. We have the Prime Minister, who was once a devotee of action to reduce the risk of climate change, now arguing that the Government should use the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund “clean coal”. Banks are refusing to finance new coal stations and businesses are getting out of them because they can see the writing on the wall. They are a bad investment. How ironic that we have a Coalition government now arguing that taxpayers should subsidise what the business sector sees as a lousy investment!

Even if countries reach the emissions the emission reduction targets they pledged in Paris in 2015, the world is still on track for a rise in temperatures in the vicinity of 3 degrees.7)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/03/world-on-track-for-3c-of-warming-under-current-global-climate-pledges-warns-un. If there’s anything we should be getting anxious about it’s that.

 

References   [ + ]

1. ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, 2012
2. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf
3. ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2012 
4. Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf
5, 6. Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf
7. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/03/world-on-track-for-3c-of-warming-under-current-global-climate-pledges-warns-un

I’ve Just Published A Book. This is What It’s About.

I released a short book today, A Beautiful World. Reframing our Relationship to Creation.  It’s just four chapters and 70 pages long, plus a study guide at the back. The aim is for it to be short enough that a pastor could  comfortably  build a sermon around each chapter; that those who don’t regularly read books may find it surprisingly manageable to read a chapter a week and then join a  small group  using the discussion guide at the back; but that it will prove substantial enough that both voracious readers and those who don’t read much will find  plenty of food for thought.

The book asks the question, what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the age of “the Anthropocene”? The Anthropocene is the term a number of scientists are using to describe  the age in which we live.  It identifies humankind  as the most significant natural force on earth, the species that has become so widespread and powerful that we are reshaping key environmental systems on which we all depend for survival. Our  greenhouse emissions are changing the climate; our insatiable demand for land on which to live and farm and build is one of the chief culprits in the terrifyingly rapid decline of wild animal populations;  our oceans are acidifying;  and nitrogen that we artificially create is leaching into the rivers and lakes creating large algal blooms that suck the oxygen from the water.

For Christians there’s a lot of catch up. Most of us are the heirs of a theological tradition that  undervalues the earth and its living creatures. This tradition taught us to see the drama of  history as the struggle for the salvation of the human soul. The planet on which we live  is but the stage on which this drama is played out and the nonhuman living creatures mere props designed to serve the real focus, which is the relationship of God and humanity.

I argue that from start to finish the story told by the Bible is far broader, richer, and exciting. The earth is imagined as the temple of God; the place God is to be found and that reflects God’s gracious and loving character, unrivalled wisdom, and extraordinary power. In the biblical universe God’s love blazes for every living thing and God’s attention is turned towards every living creature.

Far from the earth being merely the stage upon which the great drama of history is played out,  it is part of the drama. Salvation is not God taking us from the earth and from our bodies to an immaterial heaven, but the work of God to make all things new, to bring everything  to unity and completion under the reign of Christ –  people, communities, planet,  animals, environmental systems, and anything else you can think of.  The image of eternity that it offers me is not an angel on a cloud playing a harp but whales dancing through oceans;  humans  in bodies, minds and hearts that are turned towards love, generosity, kindness and justice; a God whose presence is as tangible as the touch of a lover.

If this be the case, humankind’s  commission to rule and subdue the earth must be understood through the biblical lens of  service. Our responsibility is to secure the well-being of the planet and its living creatures and of one another, to be God’s representatives in this temple that is the world, caretakers of God’s creation.

In the age of the Anthropocene we bring a vision that is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric but theocentric. Our engagement with the earth is an opportunity to know God  and to experience God’s love; to love and serve God; to participate in the joy of God; and to love our neighbour.

The book has been published by A Just Cause as a preaching, Bible study, and reflection tool. Before publishing we sought feedback from an Old Testament scholar, a scientist working on the environment, and an environmental activist, who all offered useful critique and helpful suggestions. Any flaws of course are mine.

You can buy the book  in digital version at Amazon and Kobo ($8.00 AUD), and a paperback version at ajustcause.com.au ($9.99 + postage). .

Going, going, gone…the tragic story of the decline of life on earth

Over the course of my life I’ve had the thrill of seeing some of the amazing forms of life on this earth. I have dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Australia; been delighted by fairy penguins making their way en masse from the ocean to their burrows in the sands of Phillip Island; been mesmerised by the giant sea turtles that haul themselves across the sandy beach of Selingen Island to dig a nest and lay their eggs, and then watched as hatchlings pop-up from the sand, furiously rotate their flippers and make their dash for the ocean; snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef with its kaleidoscope of colourful fish and corals; watched orangutans swing through the trees in Borneo; and spent a glorious day in a long extinct volcanic crater in Tanzania viewing lions, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, and hippopotamus.

Every one of these experiences has been an occasion for joy and wonder. It is a truly amazing world in which we live. Being a person of faith, this amazing diversity of life has pointed me to the wild imagination and stunning creativity of God.

It was with some dismay then that I recently read the Worldwide Fund Living Planet Report for 2016. It showed that between 1970 and 2012 the number of animals in the wild declined by 58%. Read that again. 58%. That’s over half the world’s population of wild animals gone in my lifetime.

The primary drivers are over-exploitation and habitat loss/degradation, along with climate change, introduction of invasive species and pollution. When it comes to over-exploitation, logging, hunting and over-fishing are the biggest culprits. With respect to habitat loss, the biggest contributing factor is land used for farming crops and livestock.1)Sean L. Maxwell,Richard A. Fuller,Thomas M. Brooks,James E. M. Watson, “Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers” in Nature news (Nature Publishing Group, 2016)

Not only are wild animal populations in decline, but many scientists believe we are experiencing the world’s sixth great extinction event. On five previous occasions the bulk of species on earth have become extinct. Today we are witnessing extinctions at 1,000-10,000 times the rate that would occur were it not for human impacts. What makes this extinction event different from the past is the rapid pace at which it is occurring and that humankind is the cause.

Of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75% were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both (often in combination with the introduction of invasive alien species). Climate change will become an increasingly dominant problem in the biodiversity crisis. But human development and population growth mean that the impacts of overexploitation and agricultural expansion will also increase.2)Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221

If we ever needed a sign that there is something deeply flawed in how we are engaging the planet, surely we have it.

Bill Laurance, a research professor at Australia’s James Cook University, and Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at America’s Stanford University, argue that we need to:
1. Slow the rate of human population growth;
2. Reduce overconsumption and overhunting;
3. Save remaining wilderness areas;
4. Expand and better protect our nature reserves;
5. Invest in conserving critically endangered species3)Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221.

What does that look like for me? I’ll continue supporting antipoverty projects around the world, for reducing poverty is the only realistic way to slow population growth. I’ll seek to reduce my meat consumption, for rearing livestock and growing the grains that we feed them require more land to be cleared any other form of food production; I’ll make sure that I demand much better from my politicians; and I will weep at the loss to this earth.

References   [ + ]

1. Sean L. Maxwell,Richard A. Fuller,Thomas M. Brooks,James E. M. Watson, “Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers” in Nature news (Nature Publishing Group, 2016)
2, 3. Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221

So it turns out that pause in global warming was really no pause at all

One of the most repeated claims of climate  change sceptics is that over the past decade or so warming has either paused or  the rate of warming slowed dramatically.  It’s often their killer argument in their case against climate change “alarmism”. Take this from Andrew Bolt

The facts: i have pointed out that satellite measurements show no statistically significant warming of the Earth’s atmosphere for 18 years. This is against the predictions of almost every climate model. And I have noted that rationalisations for this failure of the atmosphere to warm as predicted (for instance, by claiming the missing heat is hiding in the ocean) is contested or in fact  contradicted by data. http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/andrewbolt/index.php/dailytelegraph/comments/waleed_aly_should_apologise_for_misleading_viewers_with_his_warming_rant/

Turns out that that warming has been hiding in the ocean.  Research published this week in Climate Change Nature shows that the oceans have been warming at a far more rapid rate than scientists previously thought. Indeed the research suggests that half the warming of the oceans since the Industrial Revolution has occurred in the last 18 years.

This is what happens when sceptics cling to gaps in what is otherwise a very consistent and clear scientific picture. Those gaps will get filled. So all sceptics, please, it’s time to give up the hiatus in global warming line.

On Leaving Lord Howe

Today we fly home from Lord Howe Island. It has been a wonderful experience. The views are spectacular, the snorkelling a glorious kaleidoscope of colourful corals and fish, the people friendly and the food delicious. Yet the thing that I will carry strongest in my heart is the way this community preserves its sense of community.

Two of the greatest threats to the community are isolation and the predatory rich. Isolation has given the island a unique flora and fauna, yet ever since people settled here to provision passing whaling ships it has also left the island economically and environmentally vulnerable. When the whaling industry died out the economy shifted to export of palm trees and when that died out to tourism. With each adaptation the islanders have found a way to work together for the common good. When, for example, planes are unable to fly out due to bad weather, leaving more tourists than beds, islanders take tourists into their homes. There seems to be a strong recognition that for their community to prosper they all need to work together. Their isolation and small population requires cooperation to be valued over competition.

The isolation likewise imparts a strong sense of environmental stewardship. On such a small island where the impact of human habitation is so evident, every resident I encounter has a strong sense of the need to be proactive in protecting the ecosystem.

And then there is the threat of the predatory rich, those who, given the chance, would buy up land, build large holiday homes and visit a few weeks a year. This would turn the island from a community of islanders into a tourist playground for the wealthy. There is no chance of this. To buy land on the island you need to live here for 10 years, your dwelling can occupy no more than 15% of the block, and you must live on your allotment for six months a year. It’s rigorous and demanding but the islanders have learned that to preserve the riches of community sometimes means saying no to money.

I couldn’t live here. The isolation and in-each-other’s-pockets nature of the small community would drive me crazy. But I leave here with more than wonderful memories of spectacular scenery. I leave reminded once more that to enjoy this life and world to the full our planet must be treasured and our communities very intentionally nurtured.

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