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The message from the IPCC report is familiar and shattering: it’s as bad as we thought it was
Already, a thousand blogs and columns insist the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report is a rabid concoction of scare stories whose purpose is to destroy the global economy. But it is, in reality, highly conservative.
Reaching agreement among hundreds of authors and reviewers ensures that only the statements which are hardest to dispute are allowed to pass. Even when the scientists have agreed, the report must be tempered in another forge, as politicians question anything they find disagreeable: the new report received 1,855 comments from 32 governments, and the arguments raged through the night before launch.
In other words, it’s perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history.
There are no radical departures in this report from the previous assessment, published in 2007; just more evidence demonstrating the extent of global temperature rises, the melting of ice sheets and sea ice, the retreat of the glaciers, the rising and acidification of the oceans and the changes in weather patterns. The message is familiar and shattering: “It’s as bad as we thought it was.”
What the report describes, in its dry, meticulous language, is the collapse of the benign climate in which humans evolved and have prospered, and the loss of the conditions upon which many other lifeforms depend. Climate change and global warming are inadequate terms for what it reveals. The story it tells is of climate breakdown.
This is a catastrophe we are capable of foreseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent.
The IPCC’s reports attract denial in all its forms: from a quiet turning away – the response of most people – to shrill disavowal. Despite – or perhaps because of – their rigours, the IPCC’s reports attract a magnificent collection of conspiracy theories: the panel is trying to tax us back to the stone age or establish a Nazi/communist dictatorship in which we are herded into camps and forced to crochet our own bicycles. (And they call the scientists scaremongers …)
In the Mail, the Telegraph and the dusty basements of the internet, Friday’s report (or a draft leaked a few weeks ago) has been trawled for any uncertainties that could be used to discredit. The panel reports that on every continent except Antarctica, man-made warming is likely to have made a substantial contribution to the surface temperature. So those who feel threatened by the evidence ignore the other continents and concentrate on Antarctica, as proof that climate change caused by fossil fuels can’t be happening.
They make great play of the IPCC’s acknowledgement that there has been a “reduction in surface warming trend over the period 1998–2012″, but somehow ignore the fact that the past decade is still the warmest in the instrumental record.
They manage to overlook the panel’s conclusion that this slowing of the trend is likely to have been caused by volcanic eruptions, fluctuations in solar radiation and natural variability in the planetary cycle.
Were it not for man-made global warming, these factors could have made the world significantly cooler over this period. That there has been a slight increase in temperature shows the power of the human contribution.
But denial is only part of the problem. More significant is the behaviour of powerful people who claim to accept the evidence. This week the former Irish president Mary Robinson added her voice to a call that some of us have been making for years: the only effective means of preventing climate breakdown is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Press any minister on this matter in private and, in one way or another, they will concede the point. Yet no government will act on it.
As if to mark the publication of the new report, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has now plastered a giant poster across its ground-floor windows: “UK oil and gas: Energising Britain. £13.5bn is being invested in recovering UK oil and gas this year, more than any other industrial sector.”
The message couldn’t have been clearer if it had said “up yours”. It is an example of the way in which all governments collaborate in the disaster they publicly bemoan. They sagely agree with the need to do something to avert the catastrophe the panel foresees, while promoting the industries that cause it.
It doesn’t matter how many windmills or solar panels or nuclear plants you build if you are not simultaneously retiring fossil fuel production. We need a global programme whose purpose is to leave most coal and oil and gas reserves in the ground, while developing new sources of power and reducing the amazing amount of energy we waste.
But, far from doing so, governments everywhere are still seeking to squeeze every drop out of their own reserves, while trying to secure access to other people’s. As more accessible reservoirs are emptied, energy companies exploit the remotest parts of the planet, bribing and bullying governments to allow them to break open unexploited places: from the deep ocean to the melting Arctic.
And the governments who let them do it weep sticky black tears over the state of the planet.
Environmental safeguards introduced by Labor government will affect coalmines owned by Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart
Huge coalmines proposed by Clive Palmer and a company co-owned by Gina Rinehart are among 47 projects that the new environment minister, Greg Hunt, has determined must comply with tough new federal rules about their impact on water, under laws enacted in the dying days of the former Labor government.
Hunt has decided that 47 of 50 projects waiting for a federal government decision did in fact have to complete extra environmental assessments under the new “water trigger” in the federal law.
He has asked the NSW government for more information on Cascade Coal’s controversial Mount Penny mine – caught up in an Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation – and is also seeking more information about the proposed Cameby Downs open-cut mine in south-east Queensland. The only project he has decided is not subject to the new provisions is an extension to the Pine Dale coalmine near Lithgow.
But Palmer’s $8.8bn China First coal project in Queensland’s Galilee basin and Rinehart’s co-owned $4.2bn Kevin’s Corner project in the same region will have to jump the additional environmental hurdle, along with Shenhua’s $840m Watermark coalmine on the NSW Liverpool Plains, the Indian Adani corporation’s $8bn coal, rail and port project also in the Galilee basin and Korea Resources Wallarah 2 underground coalmine on the NSW central coast, which opponents argue could pollute Sydney’s water catchment.
Hunt accused Labor of “grinding industry to a halt” by failing to tell project proponents whether or not they were subject to the new laws.
“Once the assessment process is complete I will carefully consider each assessment, the advice of my department, and all public comments received before deciding whether these proposals can go ahead,” he said.
“One of the projects on which I am seeking further information is the proposed Mount Penny coalmine in NSW.
“Given the recent findings by ICAC, particularly in relation to the directors of Cascade Coal, who are also directors of Mt Penny Coal Ltd, I have written to the NSW attorney general to seek his advice on whether the legal status of the proponent has implications for the validity of the assessment … In addition, I have also sought information from the NSW attorney general on the environmental record of the proponent as is my legal right.”
The former government angered the oil and gas industry when it legislated the water trigger in June – adding the water impact of coal seam gas (CSG) wells and large coalmines as a “trigger” for federal approval under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
It was passed just weeks before Julia Gillard was ousted as prime minister and a last-minute amendment by the former independent Tony Windsor ensured a future coalition government could not hand the water assessment responsibility back to state governments.
A recent report found that nine planned “mega-mines” in the Galilee basin region would drain the area of 1,354bn litres of water, equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of Sydney harbour, threatening the future of dozens of farming communities.
Hunt’s decisions come as his cabinet colleague, the resources minister Ian Macfarlane, announced he would convene a special committee of “farmers, gas producers, gas consumers, financiers, pipeliners and other stakeholders” to try to agree on regulations for the NSW coal seam gas industry so that drilling of new CSG wells could begin before Christmas.
“We’ve got to sort this out quickly, we’ve got to get the drill rigs going where the farmers want them going, where the geology’s safe, where the water’s safe, where the environment’s safe,” Macfarlane said after a special conference in NSW on the state’s energy “crisis”. “We’ve got to get them going before Christmas if we can.”
Macfarlane said NSW’s looming gas shortage made the situation “urgent” as the state government comes under pressure to speed up approval and water down its rules.
“People are going to lose jobs and they’re not farmers and they’re not greenies and they’re not people out in the bush,” he said.
“The people who are going to lose their jobs are honest people who go to work every day in Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong.
“When the gas gets short in a year or so’s time, probably very short by 2016, and it gets very expensive, it’s going to be average mum and dads who will lose their jobs because we haven’t acted fast enough.
“So I’m not looking back, I’m not attributing blame, I’m just getting on with it. We’ve got to save their jobs.”
In the longer term he said he would like to see the same regulation for CSG wells in every state and held up Queensland’s rules as an example for NSW, which is proposing a 2km buffer zone around residential areas, proposed residential areas and farming clusters in which CSG drilling would not be allowed.
“Look, there is a buffer zone in Queensland. It’s never been legislated. It was 2km from towns of a thousand or more and there was provision within that where the community agreed that work could be done inside that buffer zone. It wasn’t an exclusion zone.”
But the NSW resources and energy minister, Chris Hartcher, told the conference, which he convened, that NSW would not water down its environmental protections to allow more CSG wells.
“While we are determined to increase our energy security, we won’t be altering our protective framework,” he said. “That’s non-negotiable.”
The Business Council of Australia welcomed Hunt’s quick decision-making about the status of the projects.
“Environmental laws are in place to ensure major projects meet strong environmental requirements, not to be used as a tool to hold up applications indefinitely for political or other reasons,” said the BCA chief executive, Jennifer Westacott.
A spokesman for the Australian Conservation Foundation said the decision would “reassure farmers and the wider community that the impact of the projects on their precious water resources would be taken into account”.
Nine planned coalmines would threaten future of dozens of farming communities, lobby group Lock the Gate says
Nine planned “mega-mines” in the Galilee basin region of Queensland would drain the area of 1,354bn litres of water, equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of Sydney harbour, threatening the future of dozens of farming communities, a new report has found.
The study, undertaken by the anti-mining network Lock the Gate and overseen by Tom Crowthers, former general manager of water planning and allocation for the Queensland government, says the mines could cause “unacceptable impacts” on the region’s groundwater and surface water resources. Crowthers said communities would be affected “forever” if all the projects were to go ahead.
The six-month analysis found that a majority of the 200 water bores within the mine lease areas would become inoperable should the projects go ahead. One mine, the South Galilee project, could cause groundwater levels to drop by 70 metres.
The water would be lost because coal seams are located beneath the natural aquifers, requiring miners to release vast amounts of water to access the resource. The report predicts that 50bn to 70bn litres of water a year will be needed by the mines for washing coal and other operations. A lack of water is now being felt by the Queensland cattle industry, with some warning that 80% of the state could be in drought within weeks.
Lock the Gate’s report is compiled from publicly available environmental impact statements for five of the mines, with these figures used to extrapolate the impact of the other four mines.
The mines, which would consist of 34 open-cut pits and 11 underground mines along a 270km strip of central Queensland, would produce more than 300m tonnes of coal a year – doubling Australia’s annual coal haul for export.
Only one of the mines – the Alpha joint venture project backed by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Coal – has been given full state and federal government approval, although it faces a legal challenge over its impact on groundwater.
The other eight mines are in various stages of the approval process; Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal has won state government backing for its vast China First mine.
Under legislation passed in the final months of the federal Labor government, projects that will significantly impact the water table must be first assessed by the federal government. The environment minister, Greg Hunt, has said 50 projects have been left in “paralysis” by not being assessed under this so-called water trigger. He has pledged to speed up the process of environmental approval, handing power to state-run “one-stop shops”.
Lock the Gate said an immediate halt had to be placed on the proposed Galilee basin mines until a full assessment could be conducted to ensure groundwater wasn’t adversely affected.
“This is a desert region that’s highly dependent on groundwater, so dozens of farming properties will be impacted by these mines, as will the people in the towns of Alpha and Jericho,” Ellie Smith, Lock the Gate co-ordinator, told Guardian Australia.
“It’s now dawning on people what the impact of these mines will be on them. A lot of them have trusted the government but are now realising the situation isn’t fair. The mining companies have legal requirement to look after the surrounding graziers.
“This is now a huge test for the new government to see if it will use the new water trigger power by taking the evidence seriously. They have had a lot of rhetoric about allowing landholders to say no to mining, so it will be interesting to see what they do.”
Jeff Seeney, the deputy premier of Queensland, rejected the Lock the Gate report, saying a “rigorous” approval process would soon be supplemented by new monitoring of groundwater systems.
“Lock the Gate and [its president] Drew Hutton are against any resource development … and are working constantly to undermine industries which provide tens of thousands of jobs to Queenslanders and substantial revenue to the state and federal governments,” Seeney said.
“Their attempts to undermine development in the Galilee basin are part of a national co-ordinated campaign by various radical green groups to shut down the coal industry.
“Everything they say or do has that goal as their focus. Their most recent claims need to be viewed on that basis.
“Major coalmine projects have been part of the Queensland economy for decades and have provided substantial benefits to regional communities and the state as a whole.
“They operate to strict environmental standards – as will any future mines in the Galilee basin.”