When craziness is too much

When craziness is too much

Sometimes the craziness is too much, it blows your synapses away. You are left in a bucket of incredulity.

Cop this quote from the former Australian PM Tony Abbott reported by SBS online from a summit in Hungary trying to explain the real threat to the existence of his kind…

“It seems to me that it is not so much our failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against”

Tony Abbott, Former Australian Prime Minister

Let’s just pause a moment.

This blatant click-baiting is trying to trick us that even though Australia failed to reduce emissions, that’s not the biggest problem. That accolade goes to our inability to produce enough white people.

Seriously, enough white people. You are kidding, right?

At first, I thought that I should write the obvious rebuttal that we are already reproducing 8,000 people per hour. An hourly net increase into the grand diaspora of the world, and it should matter little what tribes they come from. There are more than enough people to go around and satisfy every neoliberals wet dream.

Only when we last looked, the distribution of people and resources is uneven across the world. This means that some places will be crowded and run out of resources. And when the population growth rate is high, crowded places will become difficult to live in and people will want to leave to find a better opportunity. Emigration is inevitable and these people have to go somewhere.

Do you want to live in these crowded places? No, neither does Tony.

But then I thought again.

This kind of craziness is too common compared to the proportion of people who might actually believe the nonsense.

Here is a fascinating graphic from Statista chart of the day

What it says is that less than 1 in 20 people actually deny the existence of climate change in most developed countries. A party representing this minority would never win an election and yet the rhetoric from the deniers remains powerful in the social mix.

This is what Abbot and his cronies bank on.

They know their opinions are not shared by most but that is not what matters. Influence is the game and, no matter there are kids on strike and a 16 year old girl calling out the UN, these noisy minorities are good at it.

It turns out I can’t push the incredulity aside. It is gut-wrenching because these people are incorrigible.

What I have to learn is that numbers are not enough.

Should there be drought relief payments?

Should there be drought relief payments?

When it’s been dry for months, the last two crops have failed, and it’s still 40 degrees in the shade, you’d have to be a sociopath not to have empathy for the farmer.

No matter how courageous and resilient farmers might be, there are limits to what any human being can handle, physically, financially and emotionally. And drought is tough, really tough.

Even the most closeted city dweller should feel something and want to help. Donate maybe. Perhaps lobby for governments to assist in what is an obvious emergency. And that is what has happened in the current drought in NSW.

Public donations have come from all around the country and state and federal government have allocated drought relief funding because, more often than not, the human response to a crisis is to help.

Emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the worst of this for those most affected. It is a natural and proper response. What is known about the effects of drought on rural communities is that not everyone is affected the same way, some really struggle and others ride it out.

Some farmers suffer acute or prolonged hardship. Other survive, some relatively unscathed. Typically the survivors have prepared their stock, kept fodder on their paddocks by resting them, closed down their crop production early and planted a cover crop, or have cash in hand from a financial plan that anticipated lean times. Some or all of these tactics make it possible to sit out dry times. These landholders are also in great shape to benefit when the drought breaks as it always does.

The thing is it was the same in the previous drought and will be the same in the next one. And there will be a next one. Some farmers need emergency help and others do not.

But Jacki Schirmer and her colleagues suggest that multiple inquiries and research studies have concluded that this approach is not enough and we need to support farmers in good times as well as bad. Perhaps get a little ahead of the emergency and promote some of the actions that the survivors knew about.

When water supplies dwindle we panic and forget about it when it’s been raining. The Australian federal government did the same with energy supply. Forget about it until the lights go out.

This is poor planning and terrible leadership.

There is great irony in a Minister handing out drought relief and making it a photo op for his leadership. If he was a true leader he would ask if there was anything that could be done about a drought in advance of it happening. For example, is there insurance that can reduce some of the pain? There is a solution for most farmers and, although this is a contentious suggestion, most farms can be drought-proofed to some degree. However, it requires planning, a long game and as Schirmer et al, support in the good times.

What should drought relief look like?

If the idea is not to need the emergency response, then ‘relief’ should happen before the drought, embedded in the production system.

This would include actions that are

  • more conservative to production
  • that promote retention of soil moisture (most actions that retain ground cover and reduce tillage),
  • that encourage soil carbon (because this helps retain soil moisture)
  • keep water on the farm by slowing down water movements (as Peter Andrews advocates)
  • production system change

Suppose you take the drought relief money, several billion at the last count, and use it as incentive payments to undertake actions that are consistent with this list.

It might just help.

Alternatively, incentivise commodity prices from drought-resistant production systems

Perhaps force landholders to pay back drought relief payments during the years of plenty.

Whatever the carrot or stick policy approach you’d prefer, they can all result in fewer landholders in strife.

So the answer culd be no, we shouldn’t have drought relief payments. Perhaps drought mitigation payments and restructuringturing instead.

How to interpret a percentage change

How to interpret a percentage change

Here is what the International Energy Authority said happened to carbon emissions last year across the globe.

Carbon emissions rose by 1.7 per cent in 2018 to a record 33.1 billion tonnes, with coal making up a third of the total increase

That is 560 million tCO2 more carbon emitted than the previous year.

That increase is equivalent to the total emissions of the international aviation industry or if you prefer, the annual emissions for Australia.

Recall that 1990 was a pivotal year for climate change issues. It was chosen, arbitrarily for those not in the know and all those with an ounce of common sense, as the benchmark year to compare targets for emission reduction.

In 1990 global greenhouse gas emissions were roughly 22.4 billion tCO2.

Rather than concern ourselves with the increase since then, yep it is half as much again, let’s focus on what a 1.7 per cent increase on 22.4 billion looks like.

It’s 381 million tCO2e

Buckets of water example

Now, let’s suppose that I have two buckets the size of laundry baskets. Each bucket is big enough to hold 50 litres of water.

The first bucket is the 1990 bucket. It contains 22.4 litres of water.

The second is the 2018 bucket and it contains 33.1 litres of water.

If each day I added 1.7% of the starting volume to each bucket (381 ml and 560 ml) in 72 days the 1990 bucket would be full.

The 2018 bucket is spilling water on the floor in 30 days.

Less than half the time!

Same percentage. Very different result.

The analogy is not quite reliable for the greenhouse gas issue. The atmosphere may be like a bucket in that it has a finite volume but it is a huge bucket unlikely to overflow with gas.

The issue for greenhouse gases is, of course, the way they alter the atmospheric composition and change the warming potential, retaining more of the sun’s energy as the proportion of greenhouse gases rises.

The per cent change result still holds. 1.7 per cent of the 2018 amount has a much bigger effect than 1.7 per cent of the 1990 amount.

Global population example

The global population growth rate in 2018 is around 1.1% or roughly 83 million people added to the mix each year.

This percentage gain is less than the 1.6% gain in 1990 that delivered roughly the same number of new people.

So again let’s do the bucket test. This time we’ll go with the 1.1 per cent gain and use slightly smaller, 10-litre buckets.

The 1990 bucket starts with 5.3 litres of water and the 2018 bucket has 7.2 litres.

If each day I added 1.1% of the starting volume to each bucket (58 ml and 79 ml) in 81 days the 1990 bucket would be full.

The 2018 bucket is spilling water on the floor in 35 days.

Lower percentage but a faster fill. Ouch.

Pay rise example

Is it fair to give a 1% pay rise to all employees in the company? Sounds fair.

Everyone gets the same proportional raise, all the boats get to float. Except that the CEOs 1% gets him a new fridge out of the first paycheck and the tea lady gets a coffee at Starbucks.

Be aware of percentages when the media spout them.

They are only useful if you know the amount the percentage refers to.

What to do about drought

What to do about drought

If you live in Australia long enough there are a few things that you will experience first hand.

You will witness the removal of a sitting prime minister by his or her best mates.

There will be storms and floods that will drown livestock, wet low lying carpet and put an array of dents in the bonnet of your Holden Commodore.

Hang around some more and you will come close to a bushfire because many of the native plants are highly flammable, especially when they dry out, the wind gets up and it’s 40 degrees Celcius in the shade, and they burn with terrible ferocity.

And there will be drought.

At some point, probably several, there will be weeks and months when it is so dry even the bones are thirsty. Likely this will coincide with temperatures that basking lizards find challenging. This is the truth and it always has been the truth.

Australia is not called the land of drought and flooding rain for nothing.

What to do about drought?

Well, it will happen. No amount of rain dancing, prayers and speeches from aged ministers can change this fact. There will be drought and it will be hard, harsh and intense for everyone who lives off the land.

So here is what we should do

  • Accept
  • Prepare
  • Let things go

Accept

The first thing is, do not to treat drought as a natural disaster or blame it on climate change, even if the frequency and intensity of drought might be changing for the worse.

Drought is an inevitable, unstoppable reality of life on a large dry continent, accept it.

Prepare

If anything is as inevitable as death and taxes, then it makes a lot of sense to do the boy scout thing and be prepared.

This means drought proofing water supplies, food production systems and the wider economy.

The many specifics would bloat this post but we are talking about investment in water infrastructure, grazing practices that retain groundcover, rural insurance subsidised by city folk through realistic food prices, choosing the local supply chains that are sustainable… the list is long.

Then, and this may be that hardest of the three, let things go.

Let some things go

It may not be possible for Joe to rear livestock on a property that has poor soils, no reliable water and was infested with rabbits for 50 years since the 1920’s. That landholding might just have to rest.

It may not be that the cod in the Murray can survive a drought if we choose to put the water onto the crops. Should we choose the cod, then we have to let go at least some of the irrigation.

In drought, there are zero-sum games everywhere that require specific choices.

Accept, prepare, let go

Accept, prepare, let go is very different to do nothing, act surprised and prop up poor preparation with drought relief payments.

We should give it a try.

Why are carbon emissions increasing?

Why are carbon emissions increasing?

The climate is changing.

After a few glasses of Chardonnay, even the most ardent sceptic would concede this reality. And the consequences are increasingly dire. The headlines of fire, flood, heatwave and crippling cold (all increasing in frequency and intensity because more energy is retained in the global atmosphere-ocean systems) are more frequent and dramatic, yet are only part of the story.

The everyday consequences are far-reaching too.

Ask a Sydneysider how often they turned on the air conditioner this summer; pretty much every day they’d say. Extreme heat keeps people indoors and makes them worry about their energy bills. Cold in Chicago does the same thing. There are some heavy psychological challenges from these consequences that run far deeper than cabin fever.

Then there is the guilt trip.

Rhetoric and considerable evidence have convinced most of us that climate change is our fault, the consequence of profligate emissions of greenhouse gases coming roughly a third each from our needs for energy, transport and agriculture.  

We are also told that the solution is emission reduction.

So why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

First reason is
context

One inevitability of the industrial revolution that began in the late 1800’s is that most human societies are not only dependent on fossil fuel energy, but they have also used it to grow.

More people, with ever greater needs and wants. This success means that use of fossil fuel to power people and agriculture are greater than ever. Indeed, most of the carbon emissions have happened in the lifetime of the baby boomers. Three-quarters of our fossil fuel burning has happened since ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.


This is a ‘locked in’ reason. We cannot go back and make different decisions any more than we could turn off the needs and wants of the 4 billion people around in 1974 or the 7.5 billion people doing their thing today.

Just like we cannot go back and imagine if Mouth & MacNeal from the Netherlands had won Eurovision in 1974 with their little ditty, “I see a star”. They came second.

Second reason is
behaviour

Estimates suggest that up to half of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of inefficiencies and waste: poor construction practices, food waste, sloppy supply chains, replacing goods that work fine with shiny new ones.

We also like to copy ostriches. Subsidies to fossil fuel businesses are estimated at $5 trillion globally. That is a lot of money to prop up emissions we are told we should be curbing.

Third reason is
we don’t want to stop emitting

The willingness to make the sacrifices to our lifestyles and wellbeing, real or perceived, to reduce carbon emissions is absent for most of us. Way too many everyday issues are way more important to us than breaking a few weather records. So what if they have to shovel some snow in Chicago.

The formal government agreements to counter individual indifference have failed too. The infamous Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, that’s 20 years ago. Since then global emissions have continued to rise.

There is some hope that renewable energy sources are becoming cheap enough for us to want to use them purely for back pocket reasons. This will see emission rates stall and even for coal and oil trail off towards an ignominious retirement (they will not go gracefully).

Again the reality is that market pressure was always needed to move the dial. Climate advocacy, legislation, or protocols were never going to generate the necessary willingness to act.


Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

Will global greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing?

Yes they will.

Most likely emissions will decline to pre-industrial revolution levels for three main reasons:

  1. Fossil fuels will become scarce and eventually run out
  2. Conversion of land for agriculture will slow to nothing once all the land that could be farmed is farmed
  3. Low to no emission alternatives to our current behaviours that produce greenhouse gases will be cheaper but just as satisfying

A more significant question is not will but when.

Should the three reasons follow their natural course it could be decades or longer before emissions slow and reverse back toward the natural background rate.

This means that every day in Sydney or Chicago will be a headliner for its extreme heat or cold, until it’s the norm and the headline changes back to the inane actions of famous human beings.

Why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

Because of people.

Trite perhaps, but true nonetheless.


Dust storm over Sydney

Dust storm over Sydney

When the wind blows hard from the south-west it can get murky in Sydney. Dust is picked off paddocks across the vast inland and carried way away from where it belongs fouling the air for Sydneysiders as it goes.

The wind was blowing this week when I went to visit colleagues in Mildura, an outback town in northern Victoria right on the border with NSW. The countryside around the town donated at least some of the dust that reached Sydney. I saw it happen.

Bare soil frisked up and spat skyward at the corners of paddocks is quite a sight. Immediately you say, “Good on ya, Mildura. Giving it up for Australia” without any hint of sarcasm. At least that’s what the Qantas lady at the information desk said when she found out I had just visited her hometown. She really thought it was a good thing even as the wind and dust played havoc with her companies flight schedule.

How can this be?

A schoolkid should know that topsoil blowing up into the sky is not a good thing at all. It is expense and potential for production leaving the land for the ocean contaminating the air as it goes. The farmer is in despair. He just spent a fortune on fertilizer and a lot of that nutrient left too.

It is dry in the outback just now, with drought conditions declared for most of NSW. Without rain, it is hard to keep the ground cover that holds onto the soil unless the farmer plans well in advance and takes care to choose the right cover crop and grazing regime. The blanket over the soil needs to roll out early, otherwise production declines and with it income. It is a perennial problem in drought-affected areas.

What would it take for the Qantas staffer to instinctively say “Oh no, that’s not good. Those poor farmers”?

Or better still, “Oh no, that’s not good. Why can’t the farmers put on a cover crop”?

This should be everyone’s immediate response.

Whilst topsoil careering off into the Tasman Sea is a natural process of erosion that has whittled Australia down for millions of years, it hampers the production of crops and livestock. Speeding upwind erosion by leaving fields bare just makes it worse.

And so one of this year’s great ironies rounds off this conundrum. On the flight, the cabin crew member announces that Qantas will match all donations up to $1 million for drought affected farmers.

Perhaps they could spend some of the funds on an awareness program.

Meat

Meat

“Less Meat Less Heat (LMLH) is a grassroots, non-profit organisation dedicated to shifting societal attitudes towards meat consumption and as such curtailing agriculture’s damaging influence on the global climate. Our work encompasses educating the public through sound science about the massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb. Through helping individuals transition to low-carbon eating habits we aim to leverage the power of individual action as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.

From the home page of Less Meat Less Heat website

Cows belch often.

They are ruminants, mammals that enlist microbes to ferment plants they ingest in a specialised stomach prior to digestion. This symbiosis means they able to exist on a diet high in cellulose, a key constituent of grass.

Only it also means that cows belch a lot. The bacteria that assist the cow to digest cellulose include methanogens that produce methane as a metabolic byproduct. This gas builds up and has to be let out. It’s similar for us only we tend to fart more than belch.

The problem for the climate change conundrum is that methane is a greenhouse gas over 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And methane is what ruminants burp.

An average dairy cow puts out around 100 kg of methane each year. Depending on how you calculate it, this is roughly equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from a car. Beef cattle belch a little less so it takes two to match up to a car. The global numbers are interesting though. There are a little over 1 billion cars on earth and somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion cows.

As far as the greenhouse gas balance goes, human consumption of meat and dairy products is roughly equivalent to the impact from our cars.

Note that this is without counting emissions from the clearing of woody vegetation to find or grow enough grass for the livestock.

Methane from ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) makes up over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and up to 14% of all global emissions.

This is a big deal.

So much so that some people, such as those responsible for the quote above, are adamant that meat from cows and sheep is an environmental disaster. Only there is a significant reason why agriculture is often left out of any national carbon accounting even though it is the source of a third of global emissions.

People have to eat.

In the next hour as souls depart and new ones join the human diaspora there will be a change. In an hours time, there will be at least 9,700 more souls on the planet than we have right now. Funerals and births are not yet in balance.

Assuming that these souls are nourished around 500ha of productive land will be needed to grow enough calories for their daily needs.

A year from now when 83 million new souls have joined, the planet has to give up 4.6 million ha of productive land to feed them.

This crude calculation makes some simple assumptions. Calorie intake is 20% more than is needed to avoid starvation but half that consumed by the average US citizen. Calories come from growing wheat, and not from animal products. All else is equal, so the 7.5 billion souls already here are being fed and watered too.

Having meandered away to the big picture reality, let’s look again at the “massive carbon footprint of beef and lamb” and “low-carbon eating habits… as the best tool for mitigating the threat of climate change.”

If we all grew dreadlocks and avoided meat, then the calorific conversion from land to the plate would be improved. No need for the respiration of animals burning the calories before we got at them. And no need for their nasty methane emissions.

But we still need 2,500 calories per person per day.

If all this energy came from plant products, agriculture was near perfect efficiency and all else was equal, the 7.5 billion souls need a little over 4 million km2 of productive land to generate enough vegetarian calories.

There are roughly 48 million km2 of agricultural land on earth, so we should be fine. Plus there are ever more sophisticated technologies that can intensify food production to deliver greater yield from smaller areas. Hydroponics is a fine example.

So in theory at least there is enough land to feed perhaps 9 or even 11 billion souls. No worries and no fuss.

And as ‘less meat, less heat’ proclaim, without meat, we can mitigate the threat of climate change.

If only it were that simple.