PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 24 May 2020

A guide to the Australian government’s plans for the post-COVID recovery and bureaucrats and scientists talk with feeling about Australia’s Climate Wars. Cyclone Amphan hits India and Bangladesh, providing a current example of the increasing frequency of strong tropical storms. Worldwide, animals big and small are going extinct, and Australia is working hard to fuel the trend.

Not too sure what the King Report on ‘additional sources of low cost abatement’ says? Or what Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, prepared by the Chief Scientist, is all about? Don’t know what ‘technology neutral’ and ‘gas led recovery’ mean? Confused by Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the government’s Climate Solutions Fund? Unclear why large global investors are dumping their coal shares?  Tim Buckley has provided a succinct overview and commentary of the challenges facing Australia as we grapple with moving beyond COVID, preparing for the next bushfire season and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As Buckley says, ‘it’s not just a restart that we’re after – it’s a new start’. Riffing off those little ‘staff notes’ you see in hipper bookstores:  A Highly recommended Read.

Interestingly, and ignoring the trend to divest from fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia seems to be doubling down on its long term budgetary problem caused by a dependence on oil revenues by buying into Alberta’s tar and oil sands. Perhaps it’s seeking to knobble the competition from within.

Also highly recommended is last Monday’s Four Corners that examined Australia’s political ‘Climate Wars’ over the last 15 years. The politicians (Rudd, Combet, Wong, Brown, Turnbull, Minchin, Taylor) recycled the usual tropes but real insights came from the former senior bureaucrats (Henry, Parkinson, Shergold) and chief scientists (Sackett, Chubb). They were truly discomforted by what they observed and participated in. At times, poor Ken Henry looked so distressed you wouldn’t have been surprised if he’s started to weep. It’s well worth watching but (**Spoiler Alert**) don’t expect a happy ending.

With Cyclone Amphan bearing down on eastern India and Bangladesh this week, it’s timely to consider the relationship between climate change and tropical storms. Theory says that global warming and warmer oceans will cause the air to take up more water vapour, increase the energy in the atmosphere and make tropical storms (cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons) more intense. However, it’s been difficult to demonstrate this effect in practice. Satellite data covering the whole globe from 1979-2017 has now confirmed the theory. During that period the strongest tropical cyclones (wind speeds over 185kph; category 3 and above) became 15% more common, with the North Atlantic experiencing the largest (49%) increase. Climate change increases the damage done to people and structures by cyclones such as Amphan by increasing wind speeds, increasing the rainfall during the event, raising sea levels and exposing more land to storm surges, and causing storms to strengthen more quickly which makes predicting their behaviour more difficult.

Big and small, land and marine, fins, feathers and fur – no sort of animal is exempt from the threat of extinction. Currently threatened animals, some critically, include giraffes, rhinos, frogs, tigers, gorillas, orangutans, vultures, turtles, wolves, vaquitas, leopards, cheetahs, lions, pangolins – all going silently extinct. The causes are well known: the loss and fragmentation of habitat, and for predators the consequent loss of prey; poaching and hunting by humans; destruction by invasive species; pollution and climate change. The New Big 5 project is an international initiative to create the Big 5 of photography: shooting with a camera, not a gun. Its broader goal is to make a difference before it’s too late to save wildlife generally, unsung little-known creatures as well as the iconic big mammals.

Australia has a terrible record of extinctions and it looks set to get worse. A paper published in 2018 identified the 20 mammals and 20 birds at greatest risk of extinction in Australia over the next 20 years. The authors estimated that ‘another seven Australian mammals and 10 Australian birds will be extinct by 2038 unless management improves’. The mammals most at risk tend to be concentrated in Australia’s far north and south-western corner, while the most at risk birds are concentrated in the west coast of Tasmania, Victoria and within 500 kilometres of the NSW coast.

It’s terrible but sort of understandable how the thylacine went extinct. The 19th and early 20th centuries were a different era: different mores, different attitudes towards the environment, and perhaps they could say ‘we didn’t know what we were doing’. But there can be no excuse for letting Greater Gliders drift into oblivion in the 21st century. About 40cm long, with a 40cm tail, Greater Gliders nest in hollows in old trees. They feed on eucalypt leaves and, remarkably, can glide up to 100 metres. Until recently, Greater Gliders were plentiful along Australia’s east coast but during just the last twenty years population numbers have crashed by a staggering 80%, despite Federal and state laws recognising that the species is facing extinction. The longer-term causes, of course, are land clearing and logging but the recent bushfires destroyed large swathes of their remaining habitat, about 1/4 to 1/2 in Victoria. And yet logging of their habitat in old growth forests continues – to produce such valuable products as paper and pallets.

Australian politicians quite possibly get the idea of biodiversity loss. What they seem to fail to realise is that every time they approve the logging of another area of native forest, or the extension of an open cut coal mine, or draining a wetland, or the extraction of more river flow or groundwater for agriculture or mining, they are contributing to that biodiversity loss. Every such decision they make, no matter how small, contributes to the global crisis.

With thanks to Environmental Justice Australia for the information about Greater Gliders and Josh Bowell for permission to reproduce his stunning photograph.



Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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6 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 24 May 2020

  1. Kien Choong says:

    I watched the Four Corners program until Kevin Rudd’s election and stopped … couldn’t bear to watch the developments downhill from there.

    Those of us who defend Western style democracy must ask ourselves: “Why do voters continue to re-elect these politicians who put their own career ahead of the country’s long-term interest?”

    Are there other ways to do democracy that ensure only competent people with integrity lead the country?

  2. Gavin O'Brien says:

    What a terrible report card for the Federal Government. I suspect self interest will determine where industry goes and it will not be along the lines of the Government’s so called Road Map for climate and energy. A turgid read one should undertake when suffering insomnia, full of officialese, bland statements and public service speak. A road map to nowhere using yesterday’s technology.
    As a climatologist, the report on increasing tropical cyclone intensity comes as no surprise, nor for that matter the intense hybrid system currently impacting Western Australia, fired up by heaps of tropical moisture, very warm Indian Ocean surface temperatures and an unstable upper level Jet Stream all courtesy of Global Warming?
    We can expect more such severe events this Winter across southern Australia.
    Gavin A. O’Brien, FRMetS

  3. Peter Farley says:

    Not all bad though, whale numbers have recovered dramatically over the last 30 years, kangaroos are much more abundant in Victoria than they were in my childhood. France, Spain and Germany have all increased forest area by 1 m hectares since the 70’s, China by 19 m ha in the last 15 years. Thermal coal consumption in North America and Western Europe down almost 40% in two years. Regenerative agriculture is starting to make gains vs chemical farming etc etc. There is a long way to go but we have made a start.
    The gas lead recovery is a joke. Regardless of emissions, there is no economic case for an increase in gas consumption, in fact it has been falling for years in Australia and the fall is accelerating so gas in Australia is like coal in the US, yesterdays’s fuel despite boosters in the government.

  4. Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Hello Peter,

    I thought the Four Corners program was pathetic.
    Over the last twelve years three Prime Ministers – Rudd, Gillard and then Turnbull – and two Opposition leaders – Turnbull and Shorten – have been destroyed over climate change. Even the drover’s dog knows that this political killing field was done under the orders of the all-powerful fossil fuel industry via the Murdock media, assisted by the ABC running dead on the issue.
    When it came to the influence of the coal and now gas industry to preserve their obsolescence what we got from Four Corners was again the Great Silence.

    • Peter Farley says:

      One small mercy Rosco, Apart from our poor deluded mates at Murdoch and some of the coalition, the power of the fossil fuel industry is declining quickly. For example in 2008 oil and gas were 18% of the S&P 500 now they are 3%. The rich old white men and their acolytes are hanging in there but not for much longer as their banker mates move away from them.
      The process is a bit slower here but we will probably average 26% renewables this year and 30% by 2022. The gas plan has not got a hope of getting far because the banks will run a mile from it because it doesn’t stack up financially and every week another 175,000 solar panels and an average of 10 wind turbines are commissioned in Australia. In every western European country and all of the Americas renewable generation is now greater than coal. It has fallen so fast that Germany generates less power from coal than Australia

  5. Richard Barnes says:

    Thanks so much Peter. As usual, a succinct and heart- breaking summary.
    The government has hit new lows this week: Angus Taylor’s road-map, drawn by fossil-fuel mates and lobbyists; Sco-mo’s COVID Recovery Team fuelled by gas. It’s good to see the word ‘corruption being used by a wide variety of commentators.

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