Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Archive for the ‘GHG emissions’ Category

Step change hypothesis and working paper

with 11 comments

Imagine you didn’t know anything about climate change and the greenhouse effect but were interested and you know a bit about general science. Would you accept the following story?

“Earth’s climate is a large, complex system, affected by forces that produce both linear and nonlinear responses. Shortwave radiation – basically UV – from the sun comes in and heats up the planet, producing infrared radiation. Some UV gets reflected straight back out by clouds, snow and ice and stuff. The land can heat up quite a lot, but it cools back down again and doesn’t store much. If a forest is cleared and replaced by buildings, it will warm up a bit but the effect is only local.”

“But the ocean – that’s another story. It absorbs a lot of radiation, so is taking up heat all the time. Huge streams of energy are entering and leaving the ocean store each year. Some is ‘dry’ or sensible heat, which is ordinary warmth. Some is ‘wet heat’ or evaporated moisture. Energy gets taken up when the moisture is evaporated and it will be released again when the moisture cools, condenses and then gets rained out. In this way, the oceans provide a lot of heat to the land every year, largely as rainfall and a bit of snow.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2012

leave a comment »

The Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Edition, released today, reveals that climate change has already held back global development and inaction is a leading global cause of death. Harm is most acute for poor and vulnerable groups but no country is spared either the costs of inaction or the benefits of an alternative path.

Key findings include estimates that carbon-intensive economies and associated climate change are responsible for five million deaths a year, 90 per cent of them related to air pollution, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

“Failure to act on climate change already costs the world economy 1.6 per cent of global GDP amounting to $US1.2 trillion ($A1.16 trillion) in forgone prosperity a year,” said the report, produced by the DARA research centre and released at the Asia Society in New York.

In addition, “rapidly escalating temperatures and carbon-related pollution will double costs to 3.2 per cent of world GDP by 2030.”

According to the report, “unprecedented harm” is being inflicted on humanity.

However, tackling climate change’s causes would bring “significant economic benefits for world, major economies and poor nations alike,” the report said.

The report was published by DARA, and compiled by the World Vulnerability Forum. 45 Mb download of the entire report is here and the page where parts of the report can be downloaded is here – data can be downloaded as well.

It contains complex information and graphics, so is not easy to decipher. Hopefully, I’ll have time to digest the main points and summarise them here. Hat-tip Rob Gell.

Spooner’s war on climate policy

with 12 comments

John Spooner, cartoonist for The Age has fired his latest salvo in his war on climate policy in yesterday’s (7-7-2012) paper. It mentions me so I feel obliged to provide a response. J’accuse Spooner of being a propagandist.

Illustration: John Spooner

Yep, that’s me down by the *. Quoted as measuring Australia’s policy impact as being 0.0038°C in 2100. Which would happen if Australia was to reduce its emissions by 5% from 2000 by 2020 and maintain that until 2100. But is this cartoon an accurate and amusing reflection of the conversation Gillard would have with her imaginary friend? Well yes, until the fourth panel. Then it falls away — and that’s worth a bit of scrutiny. And he gets IPCC wrong. What is the IPPC? Read the rest of this entry »

Alan Pears on the flawed Clean Energy Future

leave a comment »

Both the Victorian and Queensland governments have recently announced they are dropping emissions targets set within state climate change legislation. They say that the presence of national targets make state targets redundant. Alan Pears, writing in The Conversation disagrees. He says that because of flaws within the federal legislation there is no incentive beyond doing the bare minimum:

The Commonwealth Government’s Clean Energy Future scheme design is flawed. I, along with Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute, the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association and others have been pointing out this flaw and showing how it could be fixed, for over three years.

The problem is that if a state government, council, business or household voluntarily cuts its emissions beyond what it is legally required to do (for example, under building energy regulations), this simply frees up more permits for other emitters to use, so their efforts don’t cut the total amount of carbon emissions. But Canberra econocrats and politicians have simply turned deaf ears.

The frustrating thing is that this flaw is easily fixed.

Read more at The Conversation:

Written by Roger Jones

March 28, 2012 at 11:49 am

Two summary climate reports for Oz

leave a comment »

Yesterday the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO released their State of the Climate 2012 report and today the Climate Commission released The science behind southeast Australia’s wet, cool summer. Both documents outline the latest changes with clear explanations and useful diagrams.

State of the Climate 2012 showed a general trend toward increased spring and summer monsoonal rainfall across Australia’s north, and a decline in late autumn and winter rainfall across southern Australia.

Sea-levels had risen around Australia at rates equal to or greater than the global average, and sea-surface temperatures in the region had increased faster than the global average.

State of the Climate 2012 documents the annual growth in global fossil-fuel CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases. The CO2 concentration of the atmosphere had risen to around 390 parts per million in 2011, a level unprecedented in the past 800,000 years. During the past decade it has risen at more than 3% per year, which is projected to cause significant further global warming.

The Climate Commission Report was written by Professors Will Steffen, Matt England and David Karoly:

Most parts of Australia have experienced exceptionally heavy rains over the past two years, filling many dams around the country and breaking the drought of 1997–2009. There has been much confusion in the media about what this means for climate change. This report seeks to set the record straight.

The main point for me, which I fully endorse:

Climate change cannot be ruled out as a factor in recent heavy rainfall events. The Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) around northern Australia during the spring and early summer of 2010–2011 were the highest on record. This has very likely contributed to the exceptionally heavy rainfall over much of Australia in the last two years. La Niña events bring high SSTs to the seas around northern Australia, but warming over the past century has also contributed to the recent record high SSTs.

Written by Roger Jones

March 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm

The pink surfboard conundrum

leave a comment »

The pink surfboard conundrum: calculating risk v a social licence to operate

by Professor Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University and FAQ Research writer. Cross-posted at Crikey.

Coal seam gas issue presents a wicked problem. Wicked problems are hard to define, have competing values and cannot be definitively solved. For wicked risks, perceptions are just as important as the risks themselves.

So when a wicked risk becomes a hot political issue how do you know whether you’re being reliably informed or being sold a pink surfboard?

Recently, Ben Cubby reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on the public relations challenges discussed at an industry conference:

“A consultant, Daniel Tormey, recounted his experience with the development of oil drilling off California’s coast, and drew parallels with opposition to the coal seam gas industry in Australia.

“Environmental concerns were addressed, and the public had not logged any major objections, he said, but then the Hollywood actor Daryl Hannah was photographed carrying a pink surfboard and protesting about oil drilling. At that point, support for the industry collapsed, and he warned gas executives that the same thing could happen here. ‘Once you see the pink surfboard you know you can’t win.’”

Advocates, both pro and con CSG, are trying to capture public opinion and create their own pink surfboard moment, while preventing their opposition from getting the upper hand.

The CSG industry and a social licence to operate

The coal seam gas industry is seeking a social licence to operate.

Part of that social licence is tacit, where the community recognises the benefits of an industry and accepts that it is acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Another part of that licence is exercised by government in permitting the activity and ensuring that a range of conditions are met on behalf of the community.

Here’s what the Australian coal industry says about their social licence:

“The Australian coal industry respects that its long-term future relies on its ‘social licence’ to operate. This means that the majority of the community remains supportive of Australia’s coal mining industry once aware of the economic and employment the industry provides; the essential products that it produces for domestic and overseas markets for energy, steelmaking and other industrial processes; and the impacts it can have on the environment and some local communities.”

They also state:

“The Australian coal industry places premium value on maintaining its social licence to operate. In order to do so, the industry promotes the pro-active steps that it is taking to address impacts on the environment and some local communities, and works with those communities and governments to address concerns as they arise. The objective is to ensure the responsible, long-term development of Australia’s coal resources in a manner that is accepted and supported by the Australian community.”

The industry’s licence to operate is focused on maintaining a healthy coal industry. This is also relevant to other fossil fuel resources including coal seam gas. Continuation of the industry is a core part of their social LTO. Transforming the industry away from fossil fuel extraction to another form of energy resource is not on the table.

Other players would like to see this licence suspended or even cancelled because of the risks from fossil fuel emissions to groundwater and to agricultural productivity.

So the stakes are high.

Wicked risks

Three areas of risk are particularly relevant to negotiating wicked risks: calculated risk, perceived risk and political risk.

Calculated risk

Calculated risk is the estimate of risk calculated by expert assessment.

This combines science and values to estimate the likelihood of risk and assess the costs and benefits of various options for risk management. Aspects of calculated risk surrounding CSG include the identification of reserves, exploration and extraction, the interaction of CSG and groundwater, the greenhouse gas footprint of the production and consumption cycle, land-use and land planning, onsite environmental impacts and broader social and environmental outcomes.

Critical environmental issues include the extraction and injection of groundwater, the chemistry of the coal seam gas and groundwater, the chemical agents used to extract the gas, and the volumes  and quality of groundwater consumed in the process.

Perceived risk

Perceived risk is how a risk and risk management options are seen by an observer.

It includes how that person frames that risk via their personal values, but is also affected by a number of heuristics, or mental rules of thumb. For example, the short-term framing of economic gains from fossil fuel extraction is very different to long-term values attached to the sustainable use of groundwater. The value that a farmer puts on their livelihood is often very different to how a mining company will maximise shareholder return.

If external costs are to be allowed for, utilitarian economics will put a dollar value on all commercial, social and environmental aspects of risk, claiming that costs and benefits can be balanced this way.

Broader measures of welfare suggest these different viewpoints are very differently balanced. For perceived risk, emotional, rather than analytic, decision-making is likely to dominate.

Political risk

For political risk, the rubber hits the road on calculated versus perceived risk.

Good policy requires credible estimates of calculated risk, whereas good politics has to navigate the emotional currents of perceived risk. Much of this takes place in the rough and tumble market of public opinion, dialogues of power and privilege, and social discourses describing personal and institutional aspirations.

Pink surfboards can be game breakers.

How these come together is shown in the following cartoon. It combines calculated and perceived risks in “good” policy making where the various economic, social and environmental interests in a complex risk are combined. The prize is a social licence to operate.

Risk and pink surfboards

Reading the material being presented to the public via the social, print and broadcast media the debate on CSG is clearly dominated by the pink surfboard aspects of risk management. The main links are between perceived and political risk. That’s not to say that efforts aren’t being made to calculate the technical aspects of risk, it’s just that this is mainly taking place behind the scenes.

In the time it takes to assess things like the long-term effect of widespread CSG on groundwater, the socio-economic  balance between agriculture and CSG in rich fields, strategies for environmental management, how to substitute CSG for higher-emitting fuels rather than just add to them, the argument could be won or lost (depending which “side” it is viewed from).

Also, it is not a good strategy to admit to areas where the level of knowledge, therefore the ability to calculate risk, is low. It’s easier and cheaper for the media to report on pink surfboards. It’s cheaper and more politically effective to influence perceived risk, which requires a working knowledge of the psychology of selling, of pink surfboards and purple pachyderms. Look over there – a big shiny thing!

But if CSG is to be extracted sustainably, then good policy is vital.

In future articles we will look at how risk is being assessed and contrast that with appeals to risk perceptions. A pink surfboard on an astroturf background may be eye-catching but it’s not informative.

Professor Roger Jones is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies (CSES) at Victoria University. Read more about FAQ Research writers here.

Coal Seam Gas in depth media project

with one comment

Coal Seam Gas presents a wicked problem. It provides a possible transitional fuel for managing greenhouse gas emissions and contributes a stream of income to the economy but it also has its downsides.

There are conflicting interests around land use, there is uncertainty about the factual basis of the debate, there are apprehensions that governments will roll over in the face of a $40 billion industry. And the debate can often become very clouded by claim, counter-claim, framing and spin.

For some time, a group of bloggers and analysts have been working on a model of analytical and interactive journalism which will hold such a debate accountable to fact. Led by Mark Bahnisch of Larvatus Prodeo, other LP bloggers Brian, Kim and Robert Merkel have partnered with some leading researchers and bloggers, among them John Quiggin and moi, FAQ Research has been launched.

First cab off the rank is a major media project being launched to coincide with the Queensland election campaign, in which Coal Seam Gas and its impacts is a very live issue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Roger Jones

February 21, 2012 at 9:54 am