DAVID MACILWAIN. Of Miracles, Mice and Men.

May 28, 2019

Following the disastrous failure to change the Australian government to one offering effective action on climate change, I take a scientific and personal look at just what lies ahead.

We might have now forgotten that some said “it would take a miracle” for the Coalition to retain power in what was coming to be a “climate election”. With a clutch of recent high profile warnings about the “climate emergency” resonating with many previously unconcerned citizens and businesses who had felt the effects of extreme heat and record floods already this year, the flat-earthists in the “COALition” were facing a huge challenge at their point of greatest weakness. And unlike his former leader, Scott “coaly” Morrison had simply no way out of this pit of his own making.

As a scientist and atheist I have a big problem with miracles; I don’t believe in them, under any circumstances. And with a reasonable comprehension of the mechanisms of climate change caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, I also believe that it would now take a miracle to avert disastrous and unprecedented changes to our climate system. Such is the lag time in the global system, of heat and carbon dioxide accumulated and stored in the oceans, and in the rate of carbon sequestration in natural systems such as growing forest, that we are already too late to avert major disruptions to our life support systems, if not man’s final demise.

The melting of Arctic ice, which Mike Pompeo declared to be a great business opportunity at the recent meeting of Arctic countries in Finland, causing the group’s failure to reach agreement on a statement for the first time in 20 years, is the canary in the coal-mine of global warming. Its progressive thinning and summer melting has been going on since satellite monitoring began in 1979, but noticeably accelerating over the last decade. In February last year, temperatures in the north of Greenland reached an unprecedented 25 degrees C above normal, staying above freezing for 60 hours.

The significant effect of this Arctic warming on the weather of Northern Europe is likely a reason that Europeans take global warming more seriously, and are taking more effective action to limit carbon emissions and expand renewable energy resources. Australia may feel itself unaffected by this warming, but there are multiple signs of equivalent heating in the Southern hemisphere, including the undermining of Antarctic ice shelves by abnormally warm water. It is the general disruption to ocean circulation linked to this ocean warming – the same warming that is causing the death of the Great Barrier reef – that is the prime cause of our own “climate disruptions”.

It’s not so hard to understand, even though the weather events that we experience locally may be hard to predict and to relate directly to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Where scientists and politicians and manipulators of public opinion fail however, is in explaining the fundamental role of coal in this equation, and why coal burning simply has to stop if we want our kids to live – in any reasonable sense of the word.

It’s not of course that the burning of natural gas and oil isn’t also a major source of the carbon dioxide build-up in our atmosphere, but coal not only produces far more of the gas but is much harder to burn efficiently. It’s a sobering thought that two thirds of the energy in coal goes straight up the power station chimney, and even in the so called “High Efficiency Low Emissions” plants spruiked by coal-burning lobbyists like Josh Frydenburg, this lost energy is still well over half the total at around 60%.

By comparison, the same quantity of electricity produced from Natural gas releases less than half the carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to both higher efficiency in burning the gas and its lower carbon content. The efficiency of gas as an electricity source is also greatly improved because of its flexibility, making it an ideal compliment for the variable output from wind and solar power stations. The direct burning of gas for domestic cooking and heating gives it an additional edge when compared with electricity generated inefficiently from coal and transported with significant losses over long distances; substituting gas for coal-fired electricity in homes could cut carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds.

But dirty old coal is dirt cheap, which translates to big profits for power generators, absent any carbon tax. It’s worth observing too, though it might seem obvious, that the cost of coal for the generators is no greater now than it was ten or fifty years ago; it may even be cheaper given lower labour costs from mechanisation. We are entitled to ask why the price of electricity has risen so much when the bulk of it is still generated from burning coal, and to be sceptical of the answers given.

This may all seem a bit technical, and only loosely related to the crisis we now face as a result of the re-election of the Morrison government, but it is absolutely central to understanding how it happened that the Australian electorate could vote for their own suicide.

As a member of a climate action group, and participant in some Stop Adani rallies, I admit to feeling disdain for those in Queensland and Tasmania whose vote sabotaged Labor’s chances of winning government, even though they were clearly victims of a campaign of lies and fear from the LNP and its allies. It is such irony that the worst effects of climate change have so recently been seen in both states, and the ongoing consequences that will inevitably cause. But few of us can claim not to be motivated by some self-interest, or a degree of tribalism in our allegiance to a particular group that might prejudice our sympathy for our “fellow Australians”, including Queenslanders.

Bearing that in mind, I nevertheless did find sympathy with the enemies of my climate action tribe at the moment of greatest conflict, – one which Wayne Swan has suggested as a key point in Labor’s loss – the tension over the arrival of Bob Brown’s Stop Adani convoy in Queensland.

It had been my first thought on hearing about Bob Brown’s plans to take a convoy of cars to Queensland, including electric ones. But then I heard my reservations about the “green convoy” echoed by an insulted Queenslander, who observed that Bob Brown’s Tesla would be recharged with electricity from the local coal-fired power station. Such ordinary common sense, but sense that seemed lacking amongst the climate missionaries from Tassie. And indeed, the message has still evidently not sunk in, as both Richard Di Natale and Bob Brown have claimed the convoy a success.

Unlike all my tribe however, I believe electric cars will do nothing to reduce emissions and will also create a whole new energy and resource hungry industry, epitomised by its pioneer, the tech-charlatan Elon Musk. Until such time as there is enough renewable energy generated by wind, solar and hydro to power all Australia’s electricity grid throughout the year, electric cars will be running on fossil fuel power by default, and giving rise to carbon dioxide emissions at least double those from today’s highly efficient small diesel engines. This is besides the cost of the solar system required to charge an electric car’s batteries, and the big problem that the sun doesn’t shine at night when it’s convenient to do so.

Having lived off the grid for thirty-odd years, I am all too familiar with the limitations of solar power and the cost and problems of relying on batteries, especially in winter. And here again I part company with my climate action and 100% Renewable colleagues. It is their insistence that Australia couldsupply the grid with 100% renewable energy by 2030, coupled with the closure of coal-fired electricity plants, that has been the road block to any agreement with the big power loving opposition, as well as a chronic weakness in our case for real action to cut emissions and avert the coming climate change disaster. It may be theoretically possible, like a world without nuclear weapons – or for that matter man’s ultimate survival – but it is simply not realistic to think it achievable within the necessary time-scale.

Neither was it reasonable to expect ordinary Australians to countenance such a change to their lifestyles and energy-profligate habits, without real evidence of a dire need for it. Even though they might care for their kids’ futures as much as anyone, would they accept the word of the “scientists” that this gas they can’t see or smell will make life difficult for those children in fifty years’ time? “Go and pull the other one” you can hear them say, as the Murdoch word goes round that it’s all “fake news”.

Well it’s too late now. And as long as Australian coal continues to be dug and burnt, nothing we do will make a jot of difference. Cycling and recycling, planting trees and eating beans, sitting in the dark or sitting in the street – it’s all for nothing now. Nothing but to “guess and fear”, as Scotland’s bard Robert Burns described man’s relationship with nature in “To a Mouse”:

“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union, And justifies that ill opinion which mak’s thee startle at me, thy poor earth-born companion, and fellow mortal.”

And after describing the mouse frightened from its “wee bit housie, too in ruin” by a farmer’s plough:

“The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley, And lea’e us nought but grief and pain, for promised joy.”

“Still thou art blest, compared wi me! The present only toucheth thee; But, och! I backward cast my e’e on prospects drear! And forward, though I canna see, I guess and fear.”

David Macilwain – studied Agriculural science in Scotland, and now contemplates the changing times of mice and men from his off-grid home in NE Victoria.

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