The grass is always greener problem

The grass is always greener problem

If I tell you that the grass is greener over there you will laugh at me. That’s just the old wives having a go. The grass is just as green as it wants to be. You’ll rightly say that I’m just jealous.

However, if I keep saying it, a sliver of doubt will creep in.

Could this guy be right?

I did see his neighbour with a bag of fertilizer the other day. Maybe he does have a greener lawn. It certainly looks greener. Maybe it is.

This doubt can grow if my claim of extra verdancy is delivered with passion and commitment… and often.

Everyone knows the adage though.

It is easy to think that others have it better than us but this is rarely, if ever, the case. The grass is not greener at all. And anyway, who cares? It is irrelevant if my neighbour has splashed out on fertilizer. It is his lawn, not mine.

I need to look down to my own grass and not over the fence.

In other words, I might find out that the grass is indeed greener but there is nothing I can do about it, it’s not my grass.

Let’s take this notion a little further.

Here is a section from a lengthy paper on the necessary and complex dialogue on climate change and sustainable development…

By excluding any obviously, social or political matters, the scientific
reductionism of climate change makes consensus possible, but the result
is, in some sense, irrelevant. The things that can be known with scientific certainty are not necessarily the most important to know. So, for example, the science of climate change can agree about the physical sources of carbon emissions, but only by refusing to consider the far more important and deeply political question of why they are increasing and how (or if) they should be curtailed.

Cohen, S., Demeritt, D., Robinson, J., & Rothman, D. (1998). Climate change and sustainable development: towards dialogue. Global Environmental Change, 8(4), 341-371.
Emphasis added by Alloporus

Alright, this is interesting.

It says that the evidence — and the level of inference in that evidence (what can reliably be said given the numbers) given the degree of reductionism (amount of inference) — should be enough to convince everyone that climate change is both real and the current warming event a result of human activities. The numbers are unequivocal.

We know where the emissions came from and we know what levels they are at in the atmosphere and we know what this does to the back radiation of energy from the sun.

The problem is that this is not what matters.

The real questions for climate changes are

  • why are the sources of greenhouse gas emissions increasing?
  • should we try to curtail the warming trend through greenhouse gas emission reduction and carbon sequestration?
  • is it even possible to curtail the worse of the climate changes given the scale at which humans can take action?

These are the psychological consequences of the emergence of a problem. It triggers strong emotional responses. The real questions are not about the truth of the matter but what we feel needs to be done if we accept the truth.

I might know intellectually that ‘the grass is greener over there’ adage can’t help me sort out my own grass, however, it does not stop me being jealous.

Here is another example…

Agricultural production

Take a look at this image of some paddocks in central NSW, Australia

This is sheep country and has been pretty soon after the Europeans arrived in 1788. This land has seen generation after generation sheep and the graziers that manage them.

The area in the image is around 400 ha (1,000 acres)

In the image, you can see the water source in the northeast with its bare perimeter reminiscent of water holes in game parks and the rectangle in the centre of the image is a holding pen. This is grazing on native vegetation but there is little grass among the patchy and occasionally dense trees and shrubs. Stocking rates are low and much of the land would be classified as degraded.

The land is tired after such a long period of production on what were initially old and nutrient-poor soils. The carbon content of the soil has declined and the production of grass become more and more volatile from year to year, season to season, in a hot, drought-prone region.

Given this, what happens if there is a run of poor years?

What does the grazier do?

Well, first of all, he will let any staff go for there is no money to pay salaries so any employees move on. Any slack in the operation he will take up himself. His long hours will just get longer — a poll by Agriland showed that 72% of farmers say they work more than a 60-hour week.

He might sell some of his herd or even loan them to other graziers with more grass and cut down as much as possible on any inputs he has from deworming to fence maintenance. His priority will be to keep what animals he has fed and watered enough for them to survive.

What he won’t do is give up.

His farm means more to him than a business. It is his home, livelihood and sense of place all in one. There is more to his bare paddocks than a place to grow some meat for the city folk, there is the opportunity that when it rains again there is serious money to be made, maybe a house on the coast or a holiday in Europe. The things that those city folk have begun to take for granted.

The farmer actually has no time to consider the greenness of his neighbour’s grass.

He is flat out trying to keep his animals alive… on his own.

This is important to know

The grazier can do well to tap into some of his real questions. He doesn’t need to know about the greenness of his neighbour’s pastures or the cause of climate change, we actually want him to ask

  • what are the sources of my declining productivity?
  • should I try to curtail these sources or change production altogether?
  • is it even possible to curtail the sources given the resources available to me right now and my needs for the next few years?

It is in his interests to focus on his own grass.

It is in our interests too and we should help however we can. We need every grazier to be producing as much food as possible without reducing the chance of producing food in the future not just to feed ourselves but to feed everyone.


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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

What an end to 2019.

Where I live there is a drought that is deep and wide. It is the biggest drought on record in Australia, the place renown as a parched land.

In our neighbourhood, the rainfall for the past two calendar years was less than half the longterm average. This means the soil is bone dry, the trees are gasping for some moisture, and the leaves and twigs they have shed in profusion are like tinder.

No surprise then that we have been ringed by bushfire since the beginning of December. When we are not on alert for the flames we are trying not to breathe in the smoke.

At the time of writing some 5 million hectares of NSW has burned including a huge swath of forest, some 512,000 hectares, to our north and an active fire still heading our way from the south.

Across the country, the area burned in this one fire season is 10.7 million hectares, an area bigger than Portugal.

Alloporus has written about bushfire before — Bushfire in our backyard — after we experienced one in 2013.

This is something else altogether.

The fires this year have made headlines around the world, devasted local communities and changed forever the lives of the people in them. Over 20 people have died and some 1,823 homes have been destroyed and already some 8,985 insurance claims lodged.

And it is still going.

It could be the end of January or later before significant rain — the kind that puts fires out — is likely to fall across many parts of the country.

There is some good news. The community has rallied. People have helped each other and the, mostly volunteer, firefighters have gone above and beyond and beyond again to tirelessly protect lives and property.

These fine people are remarkable as are those who lead them. The fire chiefs and local coordinators have put the politicians to shame with their calm and steady leadership.

All of the emergency services personnel are legends.

Compared to these people the politicians, especially the prime minister, need to take a very hard look at themselves and then do the honourable thing and resign. But we’ll leave that conversation to twitter.

Here is a practical point.

There is an ecological reality from the extent of these fires.

A large proportion of many forested areas have burnt all at once. This is not what we understand happens. We think that forests burn in a mosaic leaving patches, even small ones, unburnt in most fires. These unburnt areas are refuges for animals and sources of seed and dispersal for plants. They also hold reservoirs of source populations for the other 99% of biodiversity that we don’t normally think about — microbes, fungi and invertebrates.

When the whole forest burns, all 500,000+ hectares of it near us, there are far fewer, if any, refugia. The source populations of many organisms are gone. The likelihood for local extinctions of many species is very high. Not the iconic koala of course, despite what you will read, but a host of far more useful organisms.

Then we see that these big forests are all burning at the same time. Here is the extent for southern NSW on the 7 January 2020, green areas are the larger patches of native vegetation and most of them are shaded as a fire scar.

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The forest patches left unburnt are mostly small or isolated or intermingled with human habitation. The large, wild areas needed by many sensitive species burned, often intensively.

This is an ecological step change.

The pattern of disturbance (fire) is now more widespread, intense and all at the same time.

This will have any number of effects on the ecology of Australia’s southeastern forests. The regeneration will happen as it always does. But the plants were stressed by extended drought before the fires, the burns were mostly intense and so we cannot expect the vegetation to recover to its former state even though many of the trees and shrubs will miraculously resprout with epicormic growth and the seed bank will flourish in the ash beds, if and when it rains.

If the recovery effort for the ecology that will be tasked once the people are back on their feet must accept that what was before is no more. The future forests will be different. For a start, they will need to be resilient to this kind of disturbance on a much more regular basis.

Of course, this sort of fire season will have happened before. Not in the memory of the western settlers perhaps but no doubt the ancestors of the first peoples witnessed something like it. But only rarely. The climate record suggests this type of event is possible. What will be interesting is if it happens again and again. That the ecology has not seen before.

So not so much of a Happy New Year here.

We have experienced a step-change though. One that does not happen very often when the scale of a disturbance to the natural world is so wide and so deep that it changes the ecology.

There is an opportunity in such a change.

We can get rid of old and unhelpful conservation paradigms like our desperate focus on the rare things and look to resilience for the goods and service we need from nature whilst helping it protect itself from its own powers of destruction.

That’s it for now but we’ll come back to our need for dominion again soon.

Hope you have a Happy New Year and all your resolutions hold.

It is not everyday that you can point your phone directly at the sun and get away with it — smoke haze in the Blue Mountains, NSW
December 2019

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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.

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.


Post revisited — the missing link

Post revisited — the missing link

It used to be said that only death and taxes were certain. All else was a maybe. It seems Australians can now add ‘confused climate policy’ to the list of certainties. Since this post first appeared in August 2011 very little has changed. You could even argue that some of the uncertainty has leaked to other jurisdictions and tweets from the POTUS.

And the message is still missing.

The missing link

Some years ago I wrote an essay entitled ‘What if it’s not emissions’. I was not in denial or even sceptical about climate change, more concerned that we had become fixated with emission reduction as the solution to climate change. So convinced had we become that it was a given that if emissions came down, we would have fixed that awkward problem and all will be well with the world.

My real issue was that we risked putting all our eggs into the emission reduction basket.

After more years of political inaction than seems decent, the Australian government has just released a clean energy future policy on climate change. And, guess what? We still have the same fixation. The proposal is all about emission reduction, initially through a tax on pollution followed by a cap and trade system to make emitting greenhouse gas so expensive that no rational business could afford such behaviour.

It might be about emissions, but the policy formulation sees only a modest reduction target – 5% below 2000 emission levels by 2020. This means in 2020 Australia is pledging to emit 509 million tCO2e in greenhouse gases or 56 million less than it did in 2009.

Only by 2020, even with the proposed intricate emissions reduction policy fully functional, emissions of 679 million tCO2e are predicted.

Actual emissions will increase because the Australian population will grow in numbers at roughly 890 people per day, the economy will grow and so will affluence. Economic growth will require energy to follow the historical trend of a doubling in consumption every 30 years. And although the policy does talk about energy efficiency and alternative sources, the required capacity increase will inevitably be met by traditional means.

Emissions growth will leave a shortfall in the target of 170 million tCO2e or 30% of current emissions. So it would seem that the emissions reduction basket has few eggs.

This again begs the question ‘What if it’s not emissions?

Let us accept what the science tells us and agree that it is emissions that are a significant driver of the current climate warming. What the policy shows is that, rather like American debt ceiling, we cannot quite admit the severity of the problem. And, more importantly, we lack the courage to tackle the problem head on. It is just too hard and too scary.

And this would actually be ok if we hadn’t missed the critical issue in all this.

We have stopped talking about how 7 billion people are going to sustain growth in affluence on a warming planet. We have forgotten about adaptation. Forgotten that we will need to use water wisely, deliver sustainable production on farms, and manage our landscapes when the temperatures change, rains forget to fall, seasonality shifts, severe weather events become more frequent and the sea levels rise.

Less than $1 billion of the $25 billion revenue generated from the carbon tax will go incentive land management through carbon offset projects. They will mostly be Kyoto compliant activities such as permanent tree plantings and flaring methane – just as the international agreement to proceed with a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol teeters.

There will be money for biodiversity initiatives. Good stuff, but just more of what we have already been doing.

What happened to incentives to revegetate the landscape and put carbon back into the soil? The critical activities that will help us manage that scarce water, produce reliable quantities of food and help save what is left of nature. Missing, presumed dead.

Seems like we should ask again, ‘What if it’s not emissions?

Hidden in deep in the 2017 budget papers from the Australian government is an apparent cut to funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Centre. This centre is one of the few places in Australia with a focus on adaptation, the thing we have to do if emission reduction fails. Something like Plan B that, given the precariousness of Plan A, should be getting a boost not a cut.

Only this is where we are at just three years out from 2020. Devoid of policy, pushing rubbery emission targets out to the distant future, and cutting funding for Plan B.

For the sake of the grandkids, let’s pray that it is not emissions.

If this is leadership, heaven help us

If this is leadership, heaven help us

At various times I have ranted about the politics of climate change in Australia

The climate change action thing

Climate change policy – does Australia need it?

The Kardashian Index

And I am not alone. Many are tearing out what remains of their hair.

So I thought I would bring to your attention the latest from the current direct action policy option in place in Australia. This is the policy setting that hopes to achieve emission reduction targets through the purchase of greenhouse gas abatement at auctions.

At the end of 2016 the vehicle for this, the Emission Reduction Fund, had paid for 177 million tCO2e of abatement purchased across four auctions at an average price of $12 per tCO2e.

Yes, you read it right. Close to $2 billion, that is $2,000,000,000 or roughly enough to pay the annual salary of 100 cabinet ministers for over 50 years, has been spent to purchase roughly the amount of abatement needed to meet the emission reduction target Australia presented in Paris… for one year.

Let’s make this clear. Emitters of carbon are not paying for this abatement, the taxpayer is.

Now you could be generous and say that the taxpayer is really the economy, so the economy is footing the bill, but that is a very long bow. Industries that were previously under the carbon price and reducing their emissions to save money are not anymore. Instead, various activities from other players in the economy are offered to reduce emissions or to capture carbon into vegetation and the CO2e tonnage presented for sale.

The concept of ‘polluter pays’ that has been so successful in a host of situations, from cleaning up rivers to closing the hole in ozone layer, is not in play here. Polluters carry on polluting as they merrily pass on the externality to the taxpayer.

This is neither good policy nor good governance.

There is no incentive to reduce emissions across the economy only an opportunity for a few to make a fast buck if they have access to some abatement.

At current prices, $2 billion will buy you 400 million tCO2e of offset credit on the international markets, nearly 2.5 times the local option. So not only does the policy fail to incentivise prudence, it pays way over the top for mitigation.

You cannot help think that a few people are laughing all the way to the bank.

Can you answer these four easy questions?

factorySuppose that for an extra $5,000 on your home loan you could have unlimited electricity for all the household appliances and your electric car for the lifetime of your loan. Over the 25 years that must pass as you steadily pay the bank more than double the amount you borrowed [yes folks, it’s true] you would not have any energy bills.

Would you take the offer?

Now suppose you also own a factory that makes Halloween costumes for kids, the only one of its kind outside of China, and I said that for $20,000 you could have unlimited power day and night to run the machinery for as long as there are kids wanting lollies and parents willing to buy them scary outfits.

Would you find the money?

And now for your next car, whether you are in the market for an SUV or a hot hatch, what if you could purchase an electric version of you model of choice that had the acceleration of a Porsche, a 500km range, and cost 20% less than the petrol version?

What would you say?

It seems that Elon Musk the co-founder of the Tesla car company [among other things] knows your answers. He is building a solar-powered Gigafactory to make batteries. The plant will cover 93 ha of the Nevada desert and produce 50 GWh in annual production by 2020.

Because all it takes to realise these fantasies is the ability to capture and store sun or wind energy at a reasonable price. Reliable cheap batteries would make it happen

Here is the fourth and final question.

What would you do if you were on the board of a company and responsible for maintaining profits from a coal mine or coal-fired power station and you had the ear of the Australian prime minister?

Answers on a postcard.

Sounds Crazy #12 | Fossil fuel subsidies

Here’s a thing. Why would you have any international agreement to reduce carbon emissions when governments across the globe are spending 8.5% of tax revenue on fossil fuel subsidies?

Allow yourself to imagine that you come from a nation where the per capita emissions was less than the global average of around 4.5 tCO2e — you could choose any from around 120 different ones.

You would not be too chuffed at any international agreement on emission reduction when you find out that a big chunk of taxpayers money goes to propping up the problem. You could ask this perfectly sensible question: Why not reduce the subsidies? Wouldn’t that make emitting more expensive and be the very market force that complex trading schemes were designed to achieve?

Now you would be told, well yes, but it’s not as simple as that.

Except that it is.