Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China

This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.

Why do our politicians keep listening to idiots, not scientists?

I’ve reached the point now where I try to avoid Australian political news as much as possible. From the distance I’m at, it’s difficult – I feel angry at so much that is happening, but also utterly impotent. There is nothing I can do to change things from Texas.

Of course, avoiding news is hard these days – especially with a government whose gaffes are so spectacular that they tend to go viral on Facebook. Then my curiosity gets the better of me…and then I end up reading articles like this oneHoly crap on a cracker. 

It concerns me that our Prime Minister is a man who has previously described climate change science as ‘absolute crap’, but I’ll give him the begrudging benefit of the doubt because he has at least distanced himself from that kind of language a little (even if it’s blindingly obvious that it’s what he still believes). The fact that one of our ministers is suggesting we should be living in fear of another Ice Age though is in another realm altogether. Again though, I did my due diligence – Mr Newman obviously hadn’t pulled the theory from thin air and I wanted to know more about David Archibald who had authored Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish, and Short  – the book which inspired Newman’s opinion piece.

As it turns out, Archibald is a legit scientist. He has a BSc in Geology. Geology is a bit of a tenuous thread to claiming to be a climate scientist…but ok. What’s he worked in? Coal, oil and shale exploration…CEO of a mining company…operating 8.6 million acres of oil exploration permits in Australia…Right. So, there’s certainly some bias going on there. Still, that doesn’t preclude his having conducted some solid research with good evidence.

Well, no. He may have done some research, but he has no evidence for his theory. A better explanation than I could ever provide of just how scientifically lacking his theory is can be found on the Skeptical Science blog here, but if you don’t have time to read through all that, here’s a very short example:

From Skeptical Science


Other work that he’s done focuses largely on a theory developed in a dendroclimatology study from 1979, which he claims was confirmed by a group of Finnish foresters in 2007. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, because while dendroclimatology has been useful for getting some idea of what temperatures were like before we started recording them about 150 years ago, it’s no longer accurately reflecting the actual temperatures that we are recording right now. So sure, the trees are telling us that the weather is cooling – but unfortunately, our much more accurate thermometers are telling us otherwise (a simple explanation for why this might be, and a good assessment of Climategate is here).

And yet, our politicians are listening to a man who is frankly failing seventh grade science, rather than to the 97 percent of actual climate scientists who are saying that climate change and warming are real and caused by humans (not the sun).

I honestly don’t understand.

On the upside though:

“The more carbon dioxide you put into the atmosphere, the more you are helping all living things on the planet and of course that makes you a better person.”David Archibald

Well, that’s a relief.

Overwhelmed & Discouraged: The latest IPCC report

I’m feeling pretty deflated this today, I’ll admit. Deflated and frustrated.



It’s taken me a while to write this today, partly because there’s so much to read through, partly because it makes for such depressing reading, and partly because I can’t help but listen to this negative little voice that’s telling me that it’s pointless to even bother. Because people and nation states are still not going to change. You look at the Australian government right now, and then you look me in the eye and tell me seriously that Australia is going to kick off some real, meaningful action to reduce our emissions. You drive through Texas and tell me that all these people are going to give up their trucks, reduce their air-conditioning usage. Look at mining and gas companies and tell me that they’re going to look at ways of shifting across to green energy. Look at China and India and tell that they’ll put their industrial and economic development on ice, because those of us in developed countries (which have caused the problems in the first place) are asking nicely.

It’s not going to happen. And if it ever does, I can’t help but feel it will be right at that tipping point, where it’s already too late.

I’m sorry for being such an enormously melodramatic negative Nelly, but the enormity of this problem is starting to overwhelm me. With each IPCC report that comes out, the outlook looks bleaker and bleaker. A few quotes from the latest report on what has already happened:

In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological
systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of
climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts…Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate.

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods,
cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems
and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of
such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.

Of course, countries are trying to adapt to these new effects, but the description of these adaptations worldwide is just a half a page. Seriously. We are already feeling the effects of climate change worldwide, and our best efforts regarding adaptation can be summarised in a half page. The predictions for the future of climate change don’t offer us much promise unless we get ourselves into gear in terms of both prevention and adaptation though – again, some choice quotes:

Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger (medium confidence).

A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk
under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate
change interacts with other stressors, such as habitat modification, over-exploitation,
pollution, and invasive species (high confidence)

Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by
exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the
21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions
and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without
climate change (high confidence)

Reading through the report has left me overwhelmed. Eric Holthaus summarises my feelings beautifully in this paragraph from his article in Slate:

It’s difficult for me, as both a scientist and as a human, to emotionally process continued inaction on climate change. My characterization of this report may make it seem like the problem is hopeless. It’s not. There’s still time to stave off most of the worst effects if we all work together and realize that every single person’s actions, no matter how small, make a difference. But it will take massive action.

My greatest fear? We’re still not ready for the necessary ‘massive action.’

You can read the IPCC report for yourself here.


60 Minutes: When the media misinforms

You would think, that with a general scientific consensus on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, politicians, journalists, business leaders and the like would generally be positive and encouraging of any steps to mitigate out impact on GHG emissions. You would think that, because you would hope that we’d all be aiming for a better future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children. You would think that people would want to support efforts to better ourselves, rather than sitting back and doing nothing.

You would think that, but you would be wrong.

A screenshot from last night’s program.

I was relieved to read this piece by Will Oremus in Slate and this piece by Joe Romm and Emily Atkin on ThinkProgress today. Unfortunately, the readership of Slate and ThinkProgress combined versus the viewership of 60 Minutes is not really comparable and there are a going to be a lot of frustratingly misinformed people in the US today.

Misinforming the public, and cherry-picking the negatives as 60 Minutes did is concerning and curious. What I struggle to understand is why? Why would you consciously ignore the vast majority of Robert Rapier’s comments and only publicise those which damage the reputation of the cleantech industry? Why would you ignore the huge progress that cleantech has made in the last year, and the promise that it holds for the years ahead? Does CBS/ 60 Minutes have some vested interest in the traditional energy sector?

I can’t pretend that I understand the reasons, but I am angry that this happened. This is not reporting, this is not journalism, this is fantasy. And it is a fantasy that could damage the cleantech industry, by reducing investment in a supposedly failing, but actually booming industry. We need more money invested into cleantech research. We need it to help us reduce emissions and ensure the future of the planet, but the US also needs it if they want to continue to compete on the same playing field as China. China and the US’s industrial competition is not my battle, but I can’t help but feel that in ten years time, the US will suddenly realise that they have been left behind – and that misleading pieces like that aired last night were part of the reason.

A week of infographics: Day 2

There’s really not much I need to add to this infographic. While it only details potential impacts on Africa, South East and South Asia, many of them will not be unique to these areas. Australia is also likely to lose the use of much of its agricultural land, as temperatures rise, and some coastal areas are likely to become uninhabitable as sea levels rise. The Middle East is likely to struggle with severe water shortages. Parts of the USA are also likely to become less agriculturally viable, as droughts become more severe and other extreme weather conditions roll through.

I’m not saying anything new here, so I’ll leave the infographic to do the rest.

For the original source, click through

On the state of politics in Australia

It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve written anything here. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I’ve become immensely jaded and disappointed with the state of environmental and food politics lately. I’ve needed to take a bit of a break to reboot (the blog is mainly just a hobby that I love, but like any hobby, sometimes you need a bit of time away). In Australia, the Liberal Party was elected in September. You can scroll down to see a few of our new Prime Ministers choicest comments. It’s one of the major reasons that I haven’t been writing, and also the main reason that I felt the need to come back and write again today. Since election in September, the Abbott Government has

  • Dismantled the Climate Commission (see here)
  • Withdrawn all funding from the Environmental Defenders Offices around Australia (see here)
  • Approved the creation of one of the world’s biggest coal shipping ports near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (see here)
  • Proposed the repeal of Australia’s climate legislation, including the carbon tax, clean energy funding and the existing emissions trading system (see here)
  • Been singled out for its poor climate change performance in Warsaw (see here)

All this, in less than six months. Political terms in Australia are usually around 3 years – the thought of the damage that could be done during that time is unsettling, to say the very, very least. And the worst of it? This is what people voted for. This is not some crazy surprise package. People made a conscious decision to vote against the Climate Commission, against the carbon tax, and against climate legislation more generally. I’m not sure that they expected the coal port in the Great Barrier Reef as well, but it’s hardly unexpected given the pre-election, anti-environment rhetoric. What does all this mean? It means that Australia has gone from being at the forefront of carbon legislation to being part of a shame circle in Warsaw. It means that, as one of the developed countries most likely to be affected by climate change, we are doing less than most developed countries to prevent it. It means that, in spite of some supposedly high-level conditions on shipping through the Great Barrier Reef, we are placing our trust in mining companies to ensure the future of one of our greatest national treasures – which frankly, either means that we’re naive, stupid or both.

I’m finding it difficult to control my anger about all this. Climate change denial is a denial of science. It’s like saying that the earth is the centre of the universe, or contending that our planet is flat. And, in a manner similar to that when these were the beliefs, proponents of the scientific view are being silenced. Even if we accept that there is still a debate to be had about the cause and impact of climate change, dissent is being stifled, through the shutdown of organisations like the Climate Commission and the Environmental Defenders Office. Even if we accept (and it makes my skin itch to even type this) that there is no such thing as climate change, the Government, those people we elected to provide the greatest good to the greatest number, has completely disregarded the environmental and public health benefits that could have been achieved through reducing our emissions and investing in green technologies. The legislations that were introduced by the previous government may not have been perfect. But they were never given a chance to work. Just two years of a carbon tax gives us no real idea of what the potential impacts could have been, whether they could have reduced our emissions, increased investment in solar and wind power. What a wasted opportunity.

I’m angry, and I’m disappointed. I am furious with those who put a few dollars off their electricity bills ahead of the future of Australia’s citizens, and I’m sad that it’s the twenty first century and people are still treating science like they did five hundred years ago. I’m upset that there’s nothing that I can do about it when I’m living overseas, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed to be Australian at the moment.


As many of you may know, Australia is holding its Federal Election this Saturday 7th September. To say that it’s looking like an uninspiring election is an understatement of biblical proportions. This is particularly the case in terms of environmental policy. On the one hand, we have the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, of the Labor Party. Mr Rudd used to say excellent things about the environment, such as describing climate change as the “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.” That was when he was first elected, back in 2007. Since then, very little changed – especially considering the enormity and urgency of such a comment. There was a lot of talk about Emissions Trading Schemes. He went to Copenhagen and didn’t achieve a lot except for tarnishing his reputation with explosive outbursts about “ratf*****s.” And then he was removed as Prime Minister by his own party in 2010 and replaced by our first female PM, Julia Gillard. Ms Gillard introduced the Carbon Tax last year (a token effort but a step in the right direction). Then this year, in a moment of bizarre symmetry, she was removed as PM by her own party – i.e. the Labor Party. And then they put Mr Rudd back in. Are you following? If the Labor party had a Facebook “relationship status” with its leaders, it would say “It’s complicated” and people would sigh to themselves and decide that it really was complicated and they didn’t really care.

On the other hand though, we have the Liberal Party and Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. I’ve copied a few of Mr Abbott’s best quotes below, courtesy of Skeptical Science and a bunch of mugshots.



Tony Abbott_sq-3175c7140f2d703267209a549a8c3b5d1fa13221-s6-c30

Granted, its not a great choice. But, as Mr Rudd said of his own party “The core element here is that we believe climate change is real.” That huge gulf in acceptance of science is something to keep in mind on election day.

(And yes, even though I’m overseas, I did vote by post. I even voted  below the line this year, numbering all 110 Senate candidates in an effort to put all of the parties running on scientifically ignorant [The No Carbon Tax Climate Change Sceptics] and racist [unfortunately, too many to name, but highlights included Rise Up Australia and One Nation] platforms right down the bottom).

A little of everything

I’ll start by apologising (somewhat belatedly, I confess) in advance for the fact that my posting is likely to be very sporadic over the next few weeks.  With just a month now before we move to Austin, things are starting to get pretty hectic around our way – not to mention that we’re both still working full time and it’s the end of semester!  Free time is becoming rarer by the day.

With that out of the way, I thought I’d share a few of the excellent things I’ve come across lately on the interwebs. (I’ll also continue to share some articles via the Facebook page, even while I’m not able to keep up with blogging).

This piece on how we have slowly reduced the nutritional content of our fruits and vegetables over thousands of years was fascinating.  Given the likelihood of this process continuing, the importance of preserving genetic history where possible again seems absolutely crucial.  The associated graphic is a good summary for those lacking time:

Credit: NYT


Whether or not you are comfortable with the future of food including genetically modified crops, the unauthorised spread of unapproved GMO wheat in the US is alarming

and in stark contrast to Hungary’s vehement anti-GMO campaign of burning GMO corn fields.  GMO seeds remain banned in Hungary at this stage.

Phil Plait wins again with his Global Warming Firehose post on Bad Astronomy.  Following some of his links, I loved the 99 One-Liners to rebut climate change deniers and I hated the fact that I am moving to a state which can elect this guy representative of anything at all, ever.  That article nearly broke my brain.

I’m also glad not to live in Victoria, the state that brought us John Madigan who thinks that wind farms might break laws “both written and unwritten” (ummmm?).  The demanding requirements on wind farms fail to take into account that there is essentially no evidence of negative impacts on health and a whole lot which points to people’s wind-turbine-related “illness” being a case of a lot of fear and misinformation manifesting in a range of unrelated physical symptoms.


97%: The Consensus Project


You can learn so much more at The Consensus Project website.  Please share this information far and wide – 97% is conclusive.  There is a consensus and there should no longer be a debate. The only debate should be around how we best deal with the very real problem that we face.

Not that they’re likely to read this, but a huge thank you to The Consensus Project team on undertaking such an enormous and important task.  Oh, and presenting it so beautifully!  The Consensus project site is amazing.

Future refugees: now current

I’ll be back with a longer post shortly, but I really wanted to share this series in The Guardian this week about America’s climate refugees.  It makes me wonder if, with the issue this close to home, some of those promises about taking action on climate change may actually be fulfilled?  After all, if it costs $130 million to move a village of just 350 people, what will the long term cost of land lost to climate change be?