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QLD floods: don’t mention climate change (or the number of ‘tiny’ emissions from coal)

Journalist Graham Readfearn writes: As the floods in Queensland and Victoria gushed through homes, businesses and streets leaving tragedy behind, all of that murky water and grime sent moral compasses and other measures of taste and decency spinning and cavorting in all directions.

What outrages you, or anyone else, depends on which way your moral, political or ideological compass tends to point. Talking about building dams or the role of climate change while people are suffering could enrage some people, while for others it could simply drift by unnoticed.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown’s assertion that the floods in Queensland were caused in part by the coal industry is a case in point. He made the statement on Sunday, January 16 well after the majority of floodwaters in Queensland had subsided but before the communities of Toowoomba, Grantham and Ipswich had begun to bury their dead. Brown said the coal industry should be picking up some of the clean-up bill for future extreme weather events.

Ralph Hillman, executive director the Australian Coal Association (ACA), responded by saying that, in any case, the emissions from domestically-mined coal in Australia made only a “tiny” contribution to world emissions of greenhouse gases.

Steven Davis, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Energy at Stanford, California, is a climate energy specialist. In research currently in peer-review, Davis has been mapping the sources of emissions of different countries around the globe to see how footprints look when you include emissions caused by fossil fuels, regardless of where they’re burned.

Davis tells me that based on 2004 export figures, Australian coal burned overseas emitted about 511 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. The same year, his calculations show Australian domestic coal emissions of about 191 Mt CO2. All together Aussie coal, says Davis, accounted for 696Mt or about 2.5% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels worldwide.

Brown was accused by some, including Resources Minister Stephen Robertson, of using the floods to make a political point. Several mining companies and industry groups including ACA, Macarthur Coal, Xstrata and the Minerals Council of Australia expressed outrage but some could not pass up the chance to make a political point of their own. Macarthur Coal chairman Keith DeLacy branded Brown as “irrelevant to mainstream Australia”.

It was time to pull together, commentators said, rather than point the finger of blame or making political points. Yet in the days preceding Brown’s comments, there had been plenty of wagging fingers.

We heard and read open discussions about the virtues or otherwise of more dams, the ability of the home insurance industry to help flood victims, the wisdom of allowing development on flood plains and discussions of early warning systems.

Before tragedy hit Toowoomba and Grantham (but while residents in areas around Rockhampton and Bundaberg were still underwater) opposition leader Tony Abbott and Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce both took the opportunity to push the idea of building more dams as an answer to future flooding woes. Abbott had also previously suggested the Gillard government should scrap the National Broadband Network and instead use the funds to help the recovery.

Except in the case of Brown, the two “c” words (climate change) had not been taboo to everyone. International news agencies, including Associated Press and Reuters, published stories discussing the link between climate change and the floods. I wrote one too earlier this week. Some climate scientists are willing to apportion some blame for the floods on climate change while others are not. But few are willing to rule it out.

As the Fitzroy River peaked, Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter told reporters: “The thing that we need to appreciate is that we are starting to see the impact of climate change in this region.”

There was no political outrage over the mayor’s statement. No line-up of resource companies bearing condemnation. This could lead some to believe it’s not what you say about the Queensland floods, but who says it.

And what is the cause of climate change? You could of course go to any source for a summary of this, including the website of the ACA which states: “Human activities such as agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) produce additional greenhouse gases, which are accumulating in the atmosphere.”

Many observers, myself included, feel that Premier Anna Bligh has displayed some great communication skills and leadership over the last two weeks. This, in my view, is what happens when someone stops seeing themselves as the head of a political party and instead decides to be a leader.

Premier Bligh has not mentioned climate change either and her public inquiry hasn’t been asked to consider it. On Thursday, January 13 as flood waters were just receding in Brisbane, Premier Bligh — or her advisors — did decide it was appropriate to thank the backers of a $16 billion coal seam gas project for their decision to go ahead.

“The millions of dollars in state royalties this project will generate will help bolster the state’s economic recovery after the devastating floods. At times like this we need to be able to look to the future with hope and optimism and the LNG industry will play an important part in our State’s recovery from this flood crisis,” she said.

You have to wonder whether Premier Bligh shares the view of Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter that climate change played some role in the floods. The GLNG gas project, a project being managed by resources companies Santos, PETRONAS, Total and KOGAS, is huge in scale with 2650 exploration wells and more than 2000km of pipeline. According to GLNG, the project will emit between 11 million tonnes and 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year (this also includes the burning of the gas for energy).

Queensland’s annual emissions currently stand at about 160 million tonnes of equivalent CO2 — which doesn’t include emissions from the coal and gas extracted in the state but burned abroad. Australia’s total emissions of 549 million tonnes similarly does not account for what’s dug here but burned overseas.

A “tiny” contribution which seems to add up to quite a lot.

This post first appeared on Graham Readfearn’s blog.

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  • 1
    N McGaw
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Great overview and analysis. Would love to see much more comment by climate scientists in the mainstream press though. Surely it can’t be disputed that the world’s thermal coal sector is definitely contributing to global warming and that this is resulting in more intense, more regular extreme weather events! Not sure why this stuff is ‘political’ when it’s really just a major wake up call. We need some urgency about moving to a low carbon economy before more money disappears on mopping up more frequent disasters which have previously been forecast by the world’s scientists!

  • 2
    Liz45
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Graham and Dan. Nothing more to add really! I just hope those who castigated Bob Brown read this article too! I’ll be interested to read any future comments!

    Incidently, isn’t the proposed method of extracting the gas dangerous? It could ‘crack walls’ and release dangerous toxins into the water catchment areas. A similar proposal is being considered in the Illawarra.

  • 3
    PeeBee
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Graham has obvously brushed over the fact that the vast majority of coal, the coal industry produces, isn’t burnt in Australia.

  • 4
    Liz45
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    @PeeBee – Your point being? My understanding is, that when it comes to climate change, it doesn’t matter where the coal is burnt – we only have one atmosphere – burn it anywhere, the result is the same. How do they obtain their electricity – most states/territories use coal don’t they?

  • 5
    Megan
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    @PeeBee
    Did you even read the article?
    The funny thing about global climate change is that it is influenced by global emissions. Coal burnt elsewhere still goes into the one atmosphere the the Earth shares. Suggesting that Australia’s climate is independant to the rest of the world is absurd.

  • 6
    Rohan
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    PeeBee@2 – he hasn’t. Read it again.

  • 7
    Fair Go
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    The point that’s forgotten is that the Qld floods are the product of a very strong La Nina event and fly in the face of predictions during the drought that *dry* weather was going to be the persistent feature of Australian climate.

    Actually 50% of the models predicted drier weather, and 50% predicted wetter weather. *Now* the proponents of catastrophic CAGW claim the floods as evidence of CAGW when previously they said desal plants were required due to a drier climate being the result of “global warming”.

    It seems that CAGW has become an un-falsifiable theory, and we need to consider what Karl Popper said about such theories.

    Further, this all ignores the fact that even in the limited history of white settlement there have been worse floods. There is *no* prima facie case to associate these flood events with CAGW. It’s all within the realms of previously observed weather.

  • 8
    D. John Hunwick
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Good on ya Liz45. We have only one atmosphere and it doesn’t matter a damn who pays to burn the coal (us or them) all humans and other forms of life will suffer. Why won’t people who can read, question and debate following the advice of James Hansen and work towards the complete elimination of burning coal before 2030 ,and before the whole situation gets a bloody sight worse

  • 9
    syzygium
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Fair Go: You’re confusing weather with climate. All climate models are predicting a drier climate for most of southern Australia (for the tropics it’s 50/50 – in other words we don’t know). All models predict more extreme weather events (how many times must we say this?), including floods and cyclones. Science (the journal) recently published an article discussing the recent La Nina, and the conclusion was that it’s a very worrying sign that the extreme events may be happening more quickly than we thought.

    I don’t believe the climate gives a rat’s what Karl Popper said. The point is what we are seeing in the world is fitting, almost exactly, our best predictions of what extra greenhouse gases do.

  • 10
    PeeBee
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Whoops meant to say Ralph Hillman not Graham….brushed over the fact that most of the coal the coal industry produces is burnt overseas. My point being that we probably produce a small percentage of C02 overall (but still large by per capita standards), the Australian coal industry is still responsible for a very large amount of C02 because it is exporting large quantities of coal to be burnt overseas.

  • 11
    Fran Barlow
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    meant to say Ralph Hillman not Graham

    Much better PeeBee … it did seem an odd comment for you to advance, given your posting pattern.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    The Trojan princess Cassandra was cursed to always tell the truth when predicting the future. mayhaps her brother was Bob Brown?

  • 13
    George Mason
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    When are people who have got as far as noticing that extra energy in a system is likely to make it work more energetically (so more heat in the atmosphere may produce somewhat more and bigger cyclones) but that is no reason for Australians whose future climate, to the extent that it may be affected by fossil fuel burning, will be determined by China, India and the US, to stop burning and selling coal. What we do with the wealth produced is open to sensible argument but not the idiocy of impoverishing ourselves (relatively anyway) because Bob Brown and Tim Flanner et al. say a lot more than they know about climate change and the causes of it.

  • 14
    Flower
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    While we mourn for the recently deceased I do not see a reason why people should feel outraged over the allusion to the potential correlation between anthropogenic climate change and intensified natural disasters given the very urgent need to adopt the “Precautionary Principle.” It certainly appears to me to be much less callous than the big miner who conducted BAU, seeking out its next customer while its operations managed to kill 17 workers in one year during this decade.

    Australia has been mining and burning coal since 1798 and as a result (and considering the very long time of CO2 in the atmosphere) Australia’s cumulative impact on CO2 global emissions would be massive (and inexcusable.)

    I wonder how our CO2 emissions are calculated. Do they include carbon chemicals that burn to CO2 such as CO, benzene, VOCs etc? What about the massive amounts of GHGs in the oxides of nitrogen Australia’s coal-fired electricity generators spew out to the troposphere and beyond?

    So Steven Davis, referring to 2004 emissions, estimates that Australia contributes about 2.5% of CO2 from fossil fuels worldwide. However, Mike Raupach from CSIRO and a core contributor to the Global Carbon Project has been quoted as saying:

    1. “Australia’s per capita emissions in 2004 were 4.5 times the global average.

    2. “Australia’s carbon intensity of GDP (amount of carbon burned as fossil fuel per dollar of wealth created) is 25 per cent higher than the world average. It is a little higher than the USA and nearly double that of Europe and Japan.

    3. “Over the last 25 years, the average growth rate of Australian emissions was approximately twice the growth rate for the world as a whole, twice the growth rate for the USA and Japan, and five times the growth rate for Europe.”

    So where is our moral credibility on climate change and global pollution? Shot to pieces I daresay.

  • 15
    Eponymous
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Flower, the answers to all of your questions regarding how emissions are calculated are in the NGERS Act and the associated guidelines.

    http://www.climatechange.gov.au/en/government/initiatives/national-greenhouse-energy-reporting/tools-resources/publications.aspx

    Dive in! It’s thrilling stuff.

  • 16
    Norman Hanscombe
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Once again enthusiasm has trumped analysis above. True Believers of all stipes are always able to feel ‘noble’, but all it does in the long run is make careful analysis of problems even more elusive.

  • 17
    Flower
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Many thanks for the link Eponymous – very much appreciated. I shall endeavour to study the contents over the weekend.

  • 18
    Fitz
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    @ Flower

    Your history of assertiveness about your AGW beliefs looks truly amazing when it appears you needed Eponymous to provide you with such an elementary link.

    You should join a faith-but-no-thinking society with that Aussie born nuty Muslim convert who has formed Sharia4Australia.

  • 19
    Flower
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    “Ah revenge is sweet,” says Fitz – called out on his deplorable behaviour and his absurd fabrications on the Royal Society’s paper on climate change.

    And better for one to be in possession of an enquiring mind than those who remain incapable of differentiating between a VOC and sock and who defend polluters dumping carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic organic chemicals on the environment and over hapless communities with impunity.

    Fables inherent in Fitz’s whoppers are also revealed in our prominent sceptics’ approach to scholarship:

    1. Sceptic, Bob Carter and John McLean caught fudging data

    2. Sceptic, Patrick Michaels – big bucks from fossil fuel industry

    3. Sceptic, Ross McKitrick – $120,000 from ExxonMobil

    4. Don Easterbrook playing fast and loose with data – school boy stuff

    5.Sceptics, Heartland Institute over $190,000 from Philip Morris, over $670,000 from ExxonMobil, $335,000 from right-wing Scaife Foundations, $77,578 from right-wing Koch Foundations. (Mmm – must remember to update those figures.)

    Heartland’s 2009 – conference sponsors collectively receive over $40 million from oil companies and right-wing foundations

    6. Sceptic – WA Premier, Colin Barnett denied receiving any correspondence from mining magnate Clive Palmer when FOI revealed the sum total of 420 pieces of correspondence. Palmer weasling out of paying environment bond on iron ore project

    7. Tea Party supporters funded by BP and major polluters

    8. Sceptic, Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and “Mirth” – over 140 flaws. Ghastly reviews from Australia’s most eminent scientists and beyond

    9, 10, 11, 12, 13 etc etc etc.

    Trick: Spot the geologists

    Will Fitz remove foot from mouth and keep both hands on the keyboard?

  • 20
    tones9
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Or you could look at what the CSIRO and BoM projected:
    Decresed rainfall for central and southern Queensland. Northern Queensland is negligible.
    http://climatechangeinaustralia.com.au/natrain15.php

    Oh but you say there will be more regular events of intense rainfall.
    Not according to IPCC projections for australia:

    “Commonly, return periods of extreme rainfall events halve in late 21st-century simulations. ”

    Now please let us know which climate scientists, or politicians to believe?

  • 21
    senior
    Posted January 24, 2011 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    So Bob Brown finally comes out and claims the coal industry is to blame for the floods.
    Surprise, surprise.
    Because we should all know by now that when it’s too hot = AGW
    when it’s too cold = AGW
    when it’s too dry = AGW
    and of course when it’s too wet = AGW.
    Do you ‘friends of the earth’ have any idea how ridiculous you appear when you make these claims ? I mean what do you want ? Do you honestly believe that if every car and power station disappears tomorrow that the earth will last longer ?
    But you’d love if that happened wouldn’t you, you could rejoice in the steets “we saved the world”
    The greens party makes me think of a group of marketing psychologists that are only just realising how much of society can be ‘influenced’.
    It’s a dirty conjob tricking poor and uneducated australians into making them feel guilty for this yet to be proven man made effect on the climate.

  • 22
    PeeBee
    Posted January 24, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Senior,

    It is a complex issue, and I can see that you are having trouble understanding it. Keep this in mind, you can have a variety of effects of climate change, but of course not at the same time in the same place (which I think you are having difficulty understanding). This is the problem that vast majority of scientists that have spent years studying this topic need to address – teaching the ‘poor and uneducated’ to understand what is going on. Its not an issue about making you feel guilty, it is making sure you understand what is going on, so you can make informed decisions.

    It is far easier for the Merchants of Doubt to cause confusion in people like you. They had decades of success in telling people that smoking was harmless, and are using the same tactics with AGW. The trouble is that by the time the ‘poor and uneducated’ wake up to the fact that they have been had, it will be too late to do anything about it.

  • 23
    Fran Barlow
    Posted January 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Senior asked:

    Do you honestly believe that if every car and power station disappears tomorrow that the earth will last longer?

    Misdirection. The Earth‘s longevity isn’t affected by cars and power stations. The quality of ecosystem services relevant to the wellbeing of 6.8->9.0 bn humans is quite another thing. As we have seen graphically demonstrated in QLD and Victoria recently, we humans don’t do at all well when even quite minor (in relation to the biosphere as a whole over time) volatility in the quality of those services arises. We humans have occupied so much of the really useful space on the land surface, that we have almost no margin for volatility at all. Just a bit too hot, or too cold or too wet or too dry or wet and dry and the wrong time or even a minor rise in sea level and large numbers of us start suffering. Our management systems are devised to smooth out the kind of volatility that is minor to us.

    But you’d love if that happened wouldn’t you, you could rejoice in the streets “we saved the world”

    That’s just a silly strawman. What we want is something that maximises the quality and sustainability of ecosystem services because trying to manufacture or compensate for their deterioration with human labour is technically very difficult, very expensive and thus likely to make most of us a lot poorer. It’s analogous with moving out of home. When your parents provided you with free board, paid your food, clothes and medical expenses and have you a stipend, the relationship between personal time and work was very much in favour of the former. When you moved out, a large part of your time was spent working just to meet the expenses your personal ecosystem (your parents’ home) used to give you just for being you.

    If we humans foul our own nest badly enough to have to move our infrastructure away from the coast, concede arable, industrial, residential or commercial land to inundation, have to build new agricultural systems, use more power to heat and cool homes, sustain armies to keep out other displaced humans etc then we are going to live a lot harder than now.

    The greens party makes me think of a group of marketing psychologists that are only just realising how much of society can be ‘influenced’. It’s a dirty conjob {salutary warning} tricking {alerting} poor and uneducated Australians into making them feel guilty for {aware of} this yet to be proven {now well attested} man made effect on the climate. {my corrections

    It’s interesting that in your rant you offer no reason why Greens or others would want to “influence” anyone, that is not related to the basic public interest we all have in looking after the wellbeing of humans.

  • 24
    senior
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    The greens want to influence you to support them so they gain political control, isn’t that what most parties do ?
    anyway..in all that rubbish I just read I think I seen ‘sea level rise’.

    In 1842 the “Isle of the Dead” in SE Tasmania was selected for the site of a “Mean Sea Level” refernce mark by Capt. James Clark Ross. Today this mark can clearly be seen 35 cm ABOVE the current mean sea level.

  • 25
    PeeBee
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Senior,

    Quick question, how far ABOVE sea level was the mark when it was first put there by Capt. James Ross in 1941?

  • 26
    PeeBee
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Sorry 1841.

  • 27
    kdkd
    Posted March 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Peebee: yeah, the levels of irrationality and delusional stupidity from the likes of danr and tones9 are pretty amazing.

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