December 16, 2015

Has Australia learned nothing from Paris?

Courtesy of Kim Maute, BTFRT
President (of the Land Court) Carmel MacDonald kept us waiting 10 minutes yesterday. If I'd have been her, I, too, would have preferred to drink tea in my rooms rather than come to the bench and announce the most ludicrously bad decision, just two days 'after Paris'.

Within seven minutes, and without a shred of emotion, she told us that she was recommending that the relevant Queensland government departments grant mining leases and environmental approvals for Adani's Carmichael Mine in the Galilee Basin, but with additional conditions to improve the survival prospects of the endangered Black-throated Finch and the Doongmabulla Springs.

She may have made her decision last week, or several weeks ago. She may even have known since the last day of the case, back in the autumn*. Unless she lives in a sealed box, however, she cannot have missed the salient point from COP21. One may have been disappointed by the absence of a concrete commitment to keep coal in the ground, or the vague aspirational statements of intent all the countries of the world agreed to in the final agreement, but there was an overwhelming impression of the coal industry's days being well and truly numbered. Hence this headline in The Guardian this morning.
Europe's chief coal lobbyist is concerned about the bad press his industry has been getting lately. You and I, of course, haven't looked at the science and worked out for ourselves that more coal mines will mean the world warms by degrees less than comfortable; no, we've been 'brainwashed' by the United Nations' lies about climate change, and bullied by the 'mob rule' of world governments (what, all of them?) and protestors at the climate summit.

He can't know much about Australia, this chap, otherwise he'd be confident we wouldn't let the United Nations tell us what to do. About the Great Barrier Reef; or the massive coal mines that will transform the Galilee Basin if both state and federal governments continue to get their way.

How they do this is by basing the framework used by resource companies to obtain approvals on outmoded (input-output) economic models based on 'best' assumptions that often lead to overstated economic benefits rather than a true cost-benefit analysis of real-world social, economic and environmental impacts that are harder to assess. Member MacDonald drew attention in her comments to the inflated numbers of jobs the Carmichael mine would create claimed initially by Adani, and their similarly enhanced estimates of royalties that might flow to the Queensland treasury.

Unfortunately, however, she did not accept that declining demand for thermal coal would make the Carmichael mine economically unviable.

Community action such as that brought by Land Services of Coast and Country in this case is often criticised by the right wing of politics as merely delaying tactics on the part of rabid greenie/leftie fringe activists rather than the legitimate concerns of conservationists in a country with a long history of land clearance and degradation that has impacted severely on biodiversity. The research of expert witnesses in this instance performed a necessary part of the assessment process as new information about the Black-throated Finch's range, as well as the inadequacies of surveying done by Adani's ecology team, came to light. The birds' core habitat, formerly believed to be further east, would be destroyed by the mine, and Member MacDonald's recommendations for additional monitoring – by the appropriate people, that is the Black-throated Finch Recovery Team (BTFRT) – underlies her concern about the 'serious or irreversible environmental damage to the continued survival' of the BTF.

Similarly, she noted that groundwater modelling should have included the ecologically important Doongmabulla Spring Complex. This exemplifies other flaws in the approvals framework which include insufficient scope of baseline studies, limited ecological field work, and inadequately researched potential biodiversity offsets.

Arguably the most contentious part of the Land Court's findings was that greenhouse gas emissions produced by countries importing and burning Galilee Basin coal had been correctly excluded from an assessment of the Adani mine's environmental impact. This was justified by what its critics call the drug dealer's defence: that is, if Adani don't supply Indians with coal, someone else will. This is a specious argument if ever there was one. By the time a suitable alternative supplier was found, there is more than a distinct possibility renewable sources of energy will be on stream, rendering the burning of coal unnecessary; and/or the price of coal will have fallen to such a level as to render exporting it an undesirable option.

Member MacDonald's overall conclusion that the mine should be approved seemed particularly inappropriate following as it did what is claimed to have been a ground-breaking climate conference, during which, unfortunately, Australia's reputation as a reluctant climate change activist was further enhanced rather than allayed. It is not, of course, the Land Court's place to make a course correction on behalf of the Australian government. Neither was it likely that the President of the Land Court would stick her neck out like Member Smith did in the Alpha case. Hence the huge disappointment of conservationists hoping for an early sign of a much-needed change of mindset in Canberra.

Despite Ms MacDonald's efforts, Adani do not yet have the go-ahead. The Queensland government has not approved the project and the Federal government's re-approval faces appeal in the Federal Court by the Australian Conservation Foundation. Let's hope sense soon prevails in a country with a hell of a lot of catching up to do.

* for the background to this case, see also Another little bird, Leaky aquitards, A model of imperfection, Hope springs eternal, Waxing lyrical and BTF?, from this blog in April 2015; and Would members of the public please leave the CourtA financial folly and Not the end of the matter from May 2015

December 13, 2015

We'll all remember Paris

Polar bears in Paris (credit: Matt Dunham/AP)
This morning was like waking up the day exam results are due. Important exam results. Overnight, while we slept in a country far away from climate change action, a 31-page agreement was adopted by all 196 countries of the world, in Paris. As we had gone to bed, the UN and French organisers of COP21 were making their last heartfelt appeals. In stressing the last opportunity to be history makers putting the planet on course to avert calamitous climate change, they were cleverly making it well nigh impossible for any country to put the kibosh on a deal. Imagine the global opprobrium.

The key difference between exam results day and the finale of the Paris climate conference is that pass marks soon become less meaningful as time passes; whereas the lesser or greater degree of commitment to defined and necessary actions agreed at the Conference of the Parties will be of increasing significance in a warming world over the next couple of decades. Exactly how we will remember Paris is the point.

While I am pleased about delegates' positivism about their achievements, it's highly unlikely I would ever have been happy with the outcome. I do, however, acknowledge that it could have been far less satisfactory. For two weeks, the attention of the world has been focused on climate change, all the more so because the leaders of the world's greatest powers took it seriously. And renewable energy will get a bigger profile as a result; witness Malcolm Turnbull's reversal today of That Idiot Abbott's ban on government funding of wind power.

There are big buts, however. 'Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognising that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties…' is disappointingly woolly, and no more than an aspirational statement.

There's no statement of intent to leave all coal reserves in the ground. That means no new mines, anywhere, from this day forward. Coal isn't mentioned at all in the agreement, in fact. Nor oil. There is no directive that says further fossil fuel exploitation must cease. Now.

There's nothing about protecting the oceans, from death by oxygen depletion, acidification or overfishing. And no suggestion of curbing the vast emissions from animal agriculture. Or details of how to accommodate large numbers of climate refugees forced to move by overpopulation, harvest failures, dust-bowlification, rising sea levels, and so on.

Worst of all, the biggest issue didn't even get a look-in at COP21. System change. Was it even on the agenda of a fringe meeting, bearing in mind that the world's largest corporations and industrial lobbyists funded the whole shebang and packed it out? Business as usual is simply not compatible with big enough action on climate change. Alternatives to capitalism have always been in the too-difficult box, however, and no one took along the key with them to Paris.

It's admirable that everyone agreed that a 2-degree rise in global temps was too high and a maximum of 1.5 degrees should be the target. But the pledges (Intended Nationally Defined Contributions, or INDCs) to curb emissions made by countries before they got to Paris would see temperatures rise by 2.7 degrees, and don't forget that Earth has already warmed by one degree. So, the hard work starts once delegates are back home and left to their own devices. That's why there's going to be a 'stock-taking' of emissions achievements every five years. The INDCs, though recognised by the Paris agreement, are not legally binding, so a review mechanism is essential to ramp up pledges so that the target temperature is met. It could be argued that, given the degree of warming already, five-year gaps in monitoring are too long. And where are the fines (with proceeds to the climate aid fund) for laggards?

In addition, mechanisms were put in place recognising 'the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change'. And to make finance available for developing countries to adapt to climate change and make the transition to clean energy. In case you think these points are obvious and must have been relatively easy to insert into the agreement, bear in mind that Saudi Arabia, a 'developing country' apparently, lobbied for financial aid beyond the point at which the bottom drops out of the oil market completely.

In years to come, perhaps people will ask, 'Where were you when the climate change talks in Paris changed the course of the world?' I'd like to think so. I'd also like to think my awareness of an accelerating sea change is more than wishful thinking. It's not where I am right now, on the bottom right edge of the planetary map, but it's out there. It was in Paris, but among the 10,000 who filled the streets, post-COP, and created red lines of danger o'er which we step by not doing enough soon enough. There are reasons to be cheerful, as long as you relish the prospect of the challenge facing everyone in future. Ostensibly not much has changed, but maybe it's too early to see that everything has.


December 5, 2015

Bimblebox feels the heat

Last Tuesday was officially the first day of summer in Australia, but Queenslanders may be finding that hard to believe. It was sweltering here most of last month. Temperatures in the far west frequently climbed into the 40s; Brisbane hit 33 several days, with humidity at February levels; and the storm season arrived. At one point, over several days, a big heat extended over all the Australian continent except the western half of WA; and Sydney hit 40+.

Feel free to think about climate change at the moment: world leaders are talking about it in Paris, at COP21, which is short for the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If you don't know much about this frequently farcical and forever frustrating annual bash, first of all shame on you, and secondly, gen up quickly using this BBC guide.

The leaders are already mired in one of the knottiest problems of all, differentiation. Definitions of developed (rich) and developing (poor) countries described at the first COP in 1992, and the requirements made of them, are not considered by some members to be appropriate more than two decades later, so the financing of climate aid to poorer countries, and a common-to-all method of monitoring reductions in carbon emissions committed to are topics that have occupied a disproportionately large amount of time during the first week in Paris. These difficulties are explained well by The Guardian's political editor and Walkley award-winner, Lenore Taylor. Having read this piece, however, especially if ye be of a cynical temperament, you will lack optimism about the likelihood of a Big Global Agreement by the end of next week.

Thinking about the various front lines of climate change, it occurred to me that I have not written about a certain Central Queensland Nature Refuge in a while. The Bimblebox Alliance (see The Bimblebox Alliance, December 2014) continues to raise the profile of the threat to Bimblebox Nature Refuge from development of the Galilee Basin. We also campaign more widely for enhanced and legally binding preservation of Protected Areas. High-conservation-value reserves must be elevated almost to the status of national parks in order to prevent their degradation by mining, logging or pastoral entitlements.

Some members of TBA committee attended a Private Land Conservation Conference organised by the Queensland Trust for Nature in August. Day one consisted of a field trip to two Nature Refuges located between Brisbane and the Scenic Rim. At the first we observed the use of scent dogs for conservation (of koalas), and methods of eliminating ferals from wildlife refuges; and at the second the emphasis was on balancing production, eco-tourism and conservation, with particular attention to the planting of koala trees. Day 2 consisted of presentations and discussions about topics ranging from landscape-scale conservation, focussing on the Great Eastern Ranges; the role of Protected Areas in mitigating climate change; combining grazing with conservation; and the opportunities for private conservation and eco-tourism, biodiversity offsetting or tree planting.

As hard work on Bimblebox NR continued as usual, all around it in the Galilee and further afield, and in the Land Court and the Federal Court, debate raged about the legitimacy of permissions given for vast mines, given their impact on and risk to precious artesian water resources, unique remnant ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef and a warming planet.

As a being from temperate climes originally, I often struggle in heat combined with high humidity in my semi-tropical surroundings. I have only ever experienced temperatures in the 40s a few times in my entire life. I can only try to imagine hard graft in such conditions, day in, day out. For me, the sanctuary of an airconditioned cocoon is only ever a short hop away.

There came my way the other day an insightful and incisive piece written by someone who works and nurtures the long-parched earth at Bimblebox, and is only too well aware of what many people have yet to fully comprehend and address. He wrote this recently, recalling a day almost two years ago, in mid-December 2013, mid-afternoon, at the Nature Refuge. It is entitled The See of Galilee.
   48 degrees in the shade. Bared to merciless sun, mercury strains the glass at 61. The heat is a wake-up wave, intense and portentous. Far from relief, wind gusts are inversed iron lungs. You fight for air in searing gasps, your eyes sting, blood thins and head spins. What's left of sanity warns explicitly – entering no-go zone, to proceed is unsafe. But body resists commands. You cannot trust rationale. Nor quell anxiety or overcome delirium. There is no avoiding or escape. Murmuring directives, you flail yourself forth, a good shepherd has no choice. Hundreds depend on you for their survival and wellbeing. So on and out you go.
   On dusty stable floor you replenish drinking water for fledgling honeyeaters and dethroned king of fishers. And see primeval fear in empathic eye of fellow living creatures. Note with detachment, little improvement on faraway yesterday. They look just like you feel. At wits' desperate end. And note remotely, ants are absent from charity bowls, their glazed highways now ghost tracks through parched grass. A stock trough is ringed by birds of many feathers, silent manikins bobbing and bowing together. Tawny grey diversity, black and white enmities overruled by adversity. Note with curiosity none is perturbed by your proximity. Blue- and red-winged flash a shivered chill of summer fever. Crow's macabre caw the creak of heaven's door. Two legless emus mirage to camel gnomes, humped in solemn prayer. Bees smother one another at the altar of plastic float, their sacrificial skin the sacred communal water.
   A twenty-minute mercy ride to restart station's heart, nothing moves save for insane you, the quivering trees and falling triaged leaves. Kangaroos huddle, dazed upright rigid in the shade, radiator arms soaking wet from spider paws to scrawny breast, scrub ticks are rosary beads, a living necklace of imminent death. At intervals two lay prostrate beside the road, plump and young, first to succumb to ambient heat that boils the blood of mortal beast, boils the oil of man's infernal machine and brings a troubled soul unto his knees. Anxiously stirred to motion, reliable Lister beats purposeful in the trees, drawing life's essence from deep beneath, drawing life's lessons from deep within, and under spell of sun's fervid stroke man finally sees the dire predicament he is in.
   Modern world energy needs sourced from ancient fuels sets us smugly flying high, sets us up to fall. Human ingenuity relieves servitude and drudgery, and paradoxically lulls us into complacency and peril. Provides unhindered rate of progress far faster than limited state of redress, until the weight and speed and momentum of nine billion all at once propelled like this old engine can only stop with vessels emptied or when everything ends with a clunk.
   Galilee's Goliath lies entombed within this earth but there are philistines alive today who from airconditioned comfort prepare to awaken the prehistoric monster from eternal silent slumber. They feel not this ominous portent nor heed the honourable science that has served us all so well so far but today serves us notice. Secluded by wealth and blinded by greed, they contort thoughts and words and figures to persuade us all that more of same is needed. Unless latter-day Davids poised with dialectic slings and intellectual arrows can put paid to these foolish ways – and fast – our ordained days are numbered.
With thanks to Ian Hoch for his thoughts and Greg Harm for the photographs of Bimblebox Nature Refuge.

December 2, 2015

Oh, the disappointment

I have marched through Brisbane several times before: for greater protection of the Great Barrier Reef (August 2013); for improved carbon emissions policies (November 2013); and I marched in March (2014) with disparate disgruntled groups protesting about Abbott's bad governance and broken promises.

On each occasion, I expected to see bands of marchers converging by ferry and bus, streaming up from North Quay or the Cultural Centre, wearing their aptly sloganed tees and hoisting scathingly witty placards. I believed they'd be spilling out of Queens Park into nearby streets before I'd even got there.

This never happens, of course. I take photos of clever signs and cute kids and Greens speakers and support bands, and try to make it look as if the CBD is bursting with ordinary folk rather than campaigners. With rising anger followed by debilitating disappointment in my heart, I return home to learn that Brisbane's 4000 or 5000, at best, pale into insignificance against Sydney's and Melbourne's tens of thousands more. I'm sure you'll tell me in your defence, Brisbane, that they are much larger cities. Percentages give the game away, however.

But last Saturday's People's Climate March was going to be different, right? I had attended the planning meetings, distributed the flyers, pinned up the posters, bought the T-shirts in advance, and posted the countdown to action on Facebook and Twitter. This would be the biggy. Drought-declared Queenslanders had pulled their heads out of the spreading sands in time to send their pathetic, lily-livered leaders in Paris a strong message: if you don't act now, the devastating consequences of beyond-the-tipping-point climate change will soon be felt.

I cannot fault the enthusiasm of the many dedicated environmental protectors I have come to know who gave up weekends and evenings and days after days, to brainstorm and organise, create and paint, door-knock and chat and cajole and maybe even lambast a bit. But I do believe that rather more energy should have been expended engaging consumers on the high street than colour co-ordinating like-minds and their protest paraphernalia.

I acknowledge that across Australia that weekend more people marched for climate change than had ever done before. In Sydney there were 45,000, and Melbourne between 40,000 and 60,000, depending on whose figures you trust – and both were fantastic turn-outs. Even in Hobart, there were 4000. Here in Brisbane, in a so-called New World City of 2.3 million, there were 5000 (ABC) or 10,000 (event organisers). I know, however much I would love to believe otherwise, that there were nothing like 10,000. Five thousand would be 0.2 per cent of the population of this city. In fact, it was less than that, because coach loads came from Ipswich, the Darling Downs, the Gold and Sunny Coasts, and further afield in Southeast Queensland.

Really, Brisbanites, it was nowhere near good enough. Complacency and the blind hope that you can hang on to your hedonistic lifestyle, whingeing about the rising costs of electricity and how tough you're doing it, but not engaging with effective methods of curtailing this state's, this nation's, love affair with inappropriate development, is no longer the least bit excusable. It is within your power to bring about a transformation; but only if you have the determination to do so. You are naïve if you think parliaments will do it presently.

An inspirational lady and dear friend worked tirelessly on the climate march preparation as well as her usual conservation projects, despite a huge personal struggle of her own these past months. I know she will drag me to my feet from a heap of despond upon the floor. And I will most likely not make plans to move to a city that cares bigtime, as was my inclination on Sunday. There is so much more work to do here than I believed a week ago.

This woman's T-shirt got my best-in-show vote. (She bought it in Sydney.)

November 30, 2015

Take me back

17 Black-winged Stilts
Gosse Bluff comet crater
Mary Kathleen uranium mine

And, almost finally, a photograph that isn't a particularly good picture because I snapped it too quickly when I spotted a man with his dog and his swag leaving town. He could have been the man in Busby Marou's song, moving on to the next town. It struck me as essentially Outback.
We saw this on leaving Cloncurry. I hope we will.