News from behind the paywalls

Tips and tricks to assist in accessing articles and information that may be restricted by paywalls and not easily accessible by just sharing links.

Using the Firefox Focus browser on Android or Apple phones and tablets lets you browse many sites that have a restricted number of free article views per month, eg https://smh.com.au or https://theage.com.au. Using the default feature to clear out all history and cookies means you can reset the counter once the site says you have done you allowed number of articles.

But some sites like the Washington Post and New York Times have features that block view of any articles from those type of browsers, or when in Private mode with ad blockers and tracking blockers detected. In those cases it can be good to have a text based browser, or try the browser with pictures disabled or a plug-in for text only browser option -

https://listoffreeware.com/best-free-text-only-browser-for-windows/

There is also a utility/service at this web site -

http://boilerpipe-web.appspot.com/

Where you can paste the article links and have them rendered as text only. If you are on the main site page and don’t open any articles just copy the link location and paste it to the boilerpipe interface it won’t activate the page view counter.

Hopefully other people may have some other options and examples and hints and tips.

I’m also hoping this topic thread might be a place for people to copy in articles and reference materials that will be of interest and assistance to the XR community. Might also look at a channel in the national XR team on MatterMost.

2050 net zero: Australia left behind as Asia goes green

From - https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/environment/2021/01/30/2050-net-zero-australia-left-behind-asia-goes-green/161192520010999

While the Coalition continues to stall on a net zero emissions target, the biggest buyers of our coal are rapidly shifting to renewables. By Mike Seccombe .

2050 net zero: Australia left behind as Asia goes green

The Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, announcing his resignation from shadow cabinet last November.

Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

If you want to appreciate just how fast the global energy picture is changing, and how grim the future is for Australia’s fossil fuel exports, look first at Japan, says energy finance expert Tim Buckley.

In July last year, three months before Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga formally committed his country to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) moved decisively against coal-fired electricity generation.

“It committed to closing 100 of Japan’s 144 coal-fired power plants by 2030,” says Buckley, director of energy finance studies, Australia and South Asia, at the international Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

By Buckley’s calculation, that means closing plants with a generating capacity of 23 gigawatts. As to how the huge shortfall – equivalent to more than a third of Australia’s total generating capacity – would be made up, that was up to the utility companies.

Within three months, Japan’s largest power company, Jera, had not only pledged to the net zero target, and to closing its high-emitting plants, but had also announced it would begin using a clean alternative fuel in the rest.

“Two months later,” says Buckley, “they’ve got a ship and … they’re importing ammonia from Saudi Arabia.”

Burning ammonia, a compound of three hydrogen atoms bonded with one nitrogen, produces zero carbon emissions. And now Japan’s biggest coal plant, which generates 4.1 gigawatts of energy, is running on 20 per cent ammonia, which essentially means hydrogen power.

By early next decade, Jera has announced it will be using 20 per cent ammonia in all its coal plants, and by 2040 will phase out coal entirely.

What makes this a big deal for Australia is that Japan – not China as is often assumed – is the biggest buyer of Australian thermal coal, the type used to generate electricity.

In 2019, Japan accounted for 43 per cent of our $23 billion in thermal coal exports; followed by China, with 18 per cent, before its unofficial ban on Australian coal; South Korea, with 15 per cent; and Taiwan, 12 per cent.

Japan also is the biggest buyer of Australian liquid natural gas (LNG) – again followed by China, South Korea and Taiwan. And Jera, which generates about a third of all power in Japan, is Australia’s biggest single customer for both coal and LNG, according to Buckley.

But not for much longer. The transition away from coal is gaining speed.

“You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to appreciate that within five years, things are going to be critical … The entire economy is changing to clean and renewable resources.”

“By the early 2040s, they won’t be using thermal coal at all,” says Buckley. “They’ve even said the fuel source will be green ammonia. They’ve committed to net zero.

“So that means within 30 years, they’re not going to be using LNG either.”

For the planet, this is good news. Japan ranks fifth among nations in carbon dioxide emissions, and its use of fossil fuels for electricity generation now accounts for about 40 per cent of those emissions.

About another 15 per cent of Japan’s emissions are generated by its big steelmaking industry. But there, too, the country is cleaning up its act. The biggest of its steel companies, Nippon Steel, has fallen in line behind the government and committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Like Jera, the steelmaker is looking to replace coal with hydrogen.

As reported by Nikkei Asia on December 10, details of Nippon’s green shift, to be released in March, will include plans to “introduce a new way of steelmaking using hydrogen, which can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent compared with conventional methods of production”.

The report noted the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, the peak industry body, had previously set a target of getting to zero emissions by 2100, but that investor pressure, along with concerns that competitors in China and Europe were moving ahead in the use of hydrogen, had spurred a more ambitious target.

Nippon’s commitment will likely push the country’s other steelmakers to follow – just as Jera and METI will encourage the rest of Japan’s electricity generators to make the shift from fossil fuels to clean hydrogen to get to net zero.

Across the Sea of Japan, in South Korea, something similar is happening. In a speech to the parliament on October 28, President Moon Jae-in committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and pledged to replace coal power generation with renewable energy. And, just as in Japan, South Korea’s major power generation and steel companies quickly signed up.

South Korea’s Posco, one of the world’s largest steelmakers, is looking to hydrogen to help get there. As is the country’s biggest energy utility, Kepco.

The South Korean government is moving ahead with a $US61.9 billion Green New Deal, aiming by 2025 to have 42.7 gigawatts of wind and solar generation in place, 1.13 million electric cars and 200,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, with the vast infrastructure needed to recharge them installed, solar panels on 225,000 public buildings, and more. It is forecast this will create 319,000 jobs by 2022 and 659,000 by 2025.

Then there is China, which, as already noted, has stopped taking Australian coal. Four months ago, President Xi Jinping, in a video address to the United Nations, surprised the world by announcing his country – previously a laggard on climate – would be carbon neutral before 2060.

On Wednesday last week, China’s National Energy Administration reported that in 2020 the country installed a total of some 133 gigawatts of new renewables – largely wind, but also solar and hydro power.

That is about twice Australia’s total generating capacity, from renewables and fossil fuels. The number was so big some questioned it – China’s official figures are sometimes more than a little rubbery – but what is beyond question is that Beijing is serious about decarbonising the most populous nation on Earth.

Against this backdrop, the bleak future for Australia’s fossil fuel exports is clear. “Japan’s our No. 1 market for coal, and they are No. 1 for LNG,” says Tim Buckley. “Korea’s our No. 2 for coal and for LNG and China’s No. 3 for LNG and coal, or were until last year.”

And all three countries are rushing for the exit.

So is Taiwan, which has its own ambitious plan for renewables. India – a significant importer of Australian coking coal, used to make steel – is one of the rapidly diminishing cohort of countries yet to adopt a net zero target, but is widely expected to do so soon.

Suffice to say, things are changing very fast. Not only are export markets rapidly drying up, but so is finance for developments, here and around the world, which impacts domestic fossil fuel miners.

“We’ve now got more than 160 globally significant financial institutions that have formal exclusion policies across investments, debt and insurance,” says Buckley.

By this he means the companies have either divested their fossil fuel holdings, are in the process of doing so and/or have made a commitment not to invest in them.

Just in the past couple of days, Buckley says, two large US pension funds – the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and New York City Teachers’ Retirement System – have divested some $US4 billion of fossil fuel holdings.

Tim Flannery, chief councillor for the Climate Council, gives it about five years before major companies in dirty energy begin to fall over in large numbers. Maybe less.

“If you look at what’s happened to fossil fuel industries, and investment in them over the last 12 months, you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to appreciate that within five years, things are going to be critical,” he says.

And he’s not only talking about coal.

“You can’t just look at one sector of the fossil fuel industry, this is the whole thing changing, the entire economy changing from fossil fuels to clean and renewable resources.”

There are three main areas of change, he says. First, in electricity: “The battle for energy generation using clean sources is won. It’s cheaper to build than anything else. Storage is catching up.”

Second, transport. That will take longer, maybe a decade or so, but already it has reached “critical mass” in other parts of the world, if not Australia, and from here on, Flannery says, “we’re going to see a rapid replacement” of internal combustion vehicles with electric.

“And the last playing field really is the industrial playing field,” he says, “where there is a whole lot of uses for gas, and hydrogen is going to challenge that really quite rapidly.”

Most of the developed world has now adopted ambitious targets for decarbonisation. The European Union is not only committed to net zero by 2050, but in December EU members set an interim target of a 55 per cent cut, relative to 1990 emissions levels, by 2030. The same month, Britain went for 68 per cent by 2030.

And this all came before Joe Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States and committed the world’s largest emitter to net zero by 2050. Since his inauguration last week, Biden has issued a blizzard of executive orders across all arms of government, relating to what he calls the “existential threat” of climate change.

Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, spoke earlier this week with Australia’s Energy and Environment minister, Angus Taylor. The Americans welcomed Australia’s commitment to net zero “as soon as possible”. But the Morrison government has not yet committed to reaching this target by 2050 – and likely won’t do so before the UN climate conference in Glasgow later this year.

Meanwhile, the world’s largest petroleum exporter, Saudi Arabia, which was the source of that first shipment of ammonia to Japan, is moving to set itself up as a major global ammonia supplier. Initially, it will use fossil fuels to make ammonia, but the country has ambitious plans to create “green” hydrogen – that is, hydrogen made through a process of electrolysis, the splitting of water atoms, powered by solar or wind.

Other nations and the big corporations that are engaged in what amounts to a space race to develop and apply this clean energy are not doing so just because it is good for the climate, but because there are jobs in it, and big money.

Green hydrogen is currently more expensive to produce than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, usually natural gas, says Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute. But that cost is falling fast. Part of this, says Merzian, is that the cost of electrolysers is coming down, dramatically, as is the cost of batteries.

“A lot of investment is going behind it,” says Merzian. “And also because the cost of renewable energy, which will power the entire process, is coming down dramatically. So, within five or so years, you could see green hydrogen hit parity with gas hydrogen.”

When that happens, it’s game over for fossil fuels, as Andrew Forrest, the billionaire chairman of Fortescue Metals, said in his Boyer lecture last week.

“The shift will be lightning fast,” Forrest said. “Forget 2050 – zero emissions will begin to happen overnight. That’s how capitalism works …

“The green hydrogen market could generate revenues, at the very least, of $US12 trillion by 2050 – bigger than any industry we have now.”

Forrest is investing billions of dollars on a vision of turning his company’s iron ore into green steel, as are other governments and corporations and forward-thinking entrepreneurs here and around the world.

Atlassian co-founder and billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes is another. Like Forrest, he sees the potential to make Australia a renewables “superpower”, harnessing the country’s unparalleled solar and wind resources and converting them into exportable clean energy.

And where is the Australian government?

“Asleep at the wheel,” says Tim Buckley.

The Morrison government has, admittedly, invested modestly in hydrogen, but most of the money has gone towards the old technology of making hydrogen from gas, and the fraught process of capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide produced in the process.

But it persists in its commitment to a “gas-fired recovery” from the Covid-19 recession, and a substantial rump of the Coalition continues to advocate the development of new coal power generation.

On Tuesday this week, Nationals senator Matt Canavan did so again, releasing a backbench policy paper calling for the government to fund the construction of new coal-fired power stations, including – and this is significant – one in the New South Wales Hunter Valley.

To his credit the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, promptly ruled it out.

“We’re not about to fund a new coal-fired power station,” he told ABC Radio on Wednesday morning.

As to the reason Canavan and the Nationals are advocating a new coal power station in the Hunter, it’s all about politics. The Morrison government narrowly won the last election largely on the basis of the result in a small number of electorates in which the coal industry is a major employer. It ran a massive scare campaign against Labor’s climate policies, which included an emissions reduction target of 45 per cent by 2030.

The electorate of Hunter is a “coal” seat, and while the sitting Labor member, Joel Fitzgibbon, narrowly held on at the last election, he suffered a huge swing – almost 9.5 percentage points – towards the Nationals candidate, Josh Angus.

After the bruising election loss, Labor dumped its 45 per cent interim emissions target. Now Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has dumped the architect of the policy, Climate spokesman Mark Butler, installing the right-winger Chris Bowen in the job.

On Thursday morning – before the reshuffle had been formally announced – Fitzgibbon went on ABC and declared Butler’s removal to be “a good thing … a good start”. The MP went on to claim that a coal plant with carbon capture and storage “could be a net contributor to action on climate change” and said he would welcome a coal-fired generator in the Hunter.

Labor, Fitzgibbon said, needed “to recalibrate our policy and our messaging if we are to reassure our traditional base that while we are serious about taking action on climate change – meaningful action – we will do so without risk or threat to their livelihoods”.

Then Fitzgibbon – a second-generation Labor MP, whose father represented Hunter before him – went on to argue in favour of the Coalition’s paltry 2030 climate target – a 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions.

But ambitious targets, and the massive investment in clean energy required to achieve them, are not the threat to our livelihoods. Not according to Twiggy Forrest, or all the governments of Europe, our East Asian trading partners, or the corporate investors who are redirecting billions of dollars from dirty to clean energy. In fact, the reverse is true.

As the most powerful person on the planet, Joe Biden, said last August on his way to the US presidency, clean energy presents an opportunity to solve the climate crisis and boost the economy at the same time.

“When I hear the words ‘climate change,’ ” Biden tweeted, “I hear another word: ‘jobs.’ ”

But when Australia’s prime minister hears the words “climate change”, it seems he hears the word “Canavan”. And when our opposition leader hears them, he hears “Fitzgibbon”. They hear and fear the names of the climate dissidents in their party ranks.

And so, Australia’s government and its alternative government stumble along, increasingly isolated, towards a post-carbon world, more focused on the politics of climate change than on addressing the problem.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as “2050 net zero: Australia left behind as Asia goes green”.

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. [Now is the time to subscribe.]

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper ’s national correspondent.

The news you need.

Losing seam As the federal government harrumphs, Australia moves away from coal

Both its states and its export markets have pledged drastic cuts in carbon emissions

From - https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/12/05/as-the-federal-government-harrumphs-australia-moves-away-from-coal

Losing seam: As the federal government harrumphs, Australia moves away from coal

Both its states and its export markets have pledged drastic cuts in carbon emissions

IF A COAL-FREE future awaits the town of Muswellbrook, in New South Wales, there is little sign of it. It is surrounded by vast canyons of grey and brown rock—open-cast coal mines. Nearby, two huge power plants burn their output for electricity. More is piled onto sooty trains which rumble constantly through the town, conveying its riches east, to the port of Newcastle, from which the coal is shipped across Asia.

According to Muswellbrook’s mayor, Martin Rush, the surrounding region is the source of more than a tenth of the world’s internationally traded thermal coal (the sort burnt in power plants, as opposed to coking coal, which is used to make steel). Fully one third of locals rely on the stuff for well-paid work. The problem is that, in the next five years, three of the area’s mines will close. So will one of the ancient power stations, as utilities replace coal with cheaper, cleaner energy. Mr Rush reckons that it will take “between 20 and 30 years” for the local industry to die out altogether. Some miners hope for longer. Either way, says Mike Kelly of the local chamber of commerce, no one denies that the long-term trend is down.

The same realisation is dawning across Australia. Its three biggest export markets for fossil fuels—China, Japan and South Korea—have all recently pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century or just after. Another buyer of Australian coal, the Philippines, has banned new coal-fired power plants.

The federal government, a right-wing coalition, appears in denial about this changing outlook. Scott Morrison, the prime minister, insists he is “not concerned about our future exports”. When ANZ, a bank, said in October that it would stop funding new coal mines, coal-loving MPs griped that it was “virtue-signalling” and called for a boycott. (Australia’s three other big banks had already pledged to steer clear of coal.) A government minister told pension funds, which are also selling sooty investments, that their goal should be to maximise returns and “not to change the earth’s temperature”.

The politicians’ misgivings are understandable. Coal is Australia’s second-biggest export, bringing in almost A$70bn ($49bn) in 2019. It also provides two-thirds of its electricity. The industry’s hold over politics is such that three of Mr Morrison’s four most recent predecessors lost power after trying to curb the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

Yet even right-wingers in the federal parliament harp on less than they used to about the need to open new mines or subsidise coal-fired power stations, notes Greg Bourne of the Climate Council, a green pressure group. And while they may have prevented the federal government from taking steps to curb the use of coal, they cannot prevent Australia’s states and territories from trying to. In fact, every one of them has set a target of reducing net emissions to zero by 2050, although Mr Morrison refuses to do so. The tiny Australian Capital Territory, host to Mr Morrison’s government in Canberra, already generates all its power from clean sources. In October South Australia became, for an hour, the world’s first big jurisdiction to run only on solar power.

But it is a state run by the same coalition as the federal government, New South Wales, that has the most ambitious plan to decarbonise, notes Simon Holmes à Court of Melbourne University. It has pledged to underwrite 12 gigawatts of clean-energy projects and a further two gigawatts of energy storage to back them up over the next ten years. That would be enough to power several smaller states on its own.

The state’s energy minister, Matt Kean, won support from the coal lobby in the coalition by promising A$32bn of investment in regions that will need it as mining declines. When the legislation passed the state parliament in late November, only One Nation, a populist party, opposed it. Mr Kean takes this as a sign that “we have wrested back control” from “the coal barons that have decided energy policy in this country for generations”.

Miners, though, argue that these grand green plans will inevitably lead to higher power prices and thus crimp economic growth. Ditch coal, and all Australians “will have to downgrade their lifestyle”, says Gus Mather, who makes equipment for the mines. Muswellbrook is planning multiple clean-energy schemes, from pumped-hydro to biofuels. But Mr Rush, the mayor, worries that no coal town has ever managed to stop digging the stuff up and remain prosperous. ■

For more coverage of climate change, register for The Climate Issue, our fortnightly newsletter, or visit our climate-change hub

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Losing seam”

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From The Atlantic -
The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record
Our climate models could be missing something big.

Part 1 [article is too long for Base character limit]

Photo Illustrations by Brendan Pattengale | Maps by La Tigre

Images above: Glaciers from the Vatnajökull ice cap, in Iceland

Brendan Pattengale is a photographer who explores how color can convey emotions in an image. In his photo illustrations throughout this article, the colors of the original photos have been adjusted, but the images are otherwise unaltered.

This article was published online on February 3, 2021.

We live on a wild planet, a wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion in the void. Big rocks whiz by overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.

Since about the time of the American Civil War, CO2’s crucial role in warming the planet has been well understood. And not just based on mathematical models: The planet has run many experiments with different levels of atmospheric CO2. At some points in the Earth’s history, lots of CO2 has vented from the crust and leaped from the seas, and the planet has gotten warm. At others, lots of CO2 has been hidden away in the rocks and in the ocean’s depths, and the planet has gotten cold. The sea level, meanwhile, has tried to keep up—rising and falling over the ages, with coastlines racing out across the continental shelf, only to be drawn back in again. During the entire half-billion-year Phanerozoic eon of animal life, CO2 has been the primary driver of the Earth’s climate. And sometimes, when the planet has issued a truly titanic slug of CO2 into the atmosphere, things have gone horribly wrong.

Today, humans are injecting CO2 into the atmosphere at one of the fastest rates ever over this entire, near-eternal span. When hucksters tell you that the climate is always changing, they’re right, but that’s not the good news they think it is. “The climate system is an angry beast,” the late Columbia climate scientist Wally Broecker was fond of saying, “and we are poking it with sticks.”

The beast has only just begun to snarl. All of recorded human history—at only a few thousand years, a mere eyeblink in geologic time—has played out in perhaps the most stable climate window of the past 650,000 years. We have been shielded from the climate’s violence by our short civilizational memory, and our remarkably good fortune. But humanity’s ongoing chemistry experiment on our planet could push the climate well beyond those slim historical parameters, into a state it hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years, a world for which Homo sapiens did not evolve.

When there’s been as much carbon dioxide in the air as there already is today—not to mention how much there’s likely to be in 50 or 100 years—the world has been much, much warmer, with seas 70 feet higher than they are today. Why? The planet today is not yet in equilibrium with the warped atmosphere that industrial civilization has so recently created. If CO2 stays at its current levels, much less steadily increases, it will take centuries—even millennia—for the planet to fully find its new footing. The transition will be punishing in the near term and the long term, and when it’s over, Earth will look far different from the one that nursed humanity. This is the grim lesson of paleoclimatology: The planet seems to respond far more aggressively to small provocations than it’s been projected to by many of our models.

To truly appreciate the coming changes to our planet, we need to plumb the history of climate change. So let us take a trip back into deep time, a journey that will begin with the familiar climate of recorded history and end in the feverish, high-CO2 greenhouse of the early age of mammals, 50 million years ago. It is a sobering journey, one that warns of catastrophic surprises that may be in store.

Read: Scientists have uncovered a disturbing climate change precedent

The first couple of steps back in time won’t take us to a warmer world—but they will illuminate just what sort of ill-tempered planet we’re dealing with. As we pull back even slightly from the span of recorded history—our tiny sliver of geologic time—we’ll notice almost at once that the entire record of human civilization is perched at the edge of a climate cliff. Below is a punishing ice age. As it turns out, we live on an ice-age planet, one marked by the swelling and disintegration of massive polar ice sheets in response to tiny changes in sunlight and CO2 levels. Our current warmer period is merely one peak in a mountain range, with each summit an interglacial springtime like today, and each valley floor a deep freeze. It takes some doing to escape this cycle, but with CO2 as it is now, we won’t be returning to an ice age for the foreseeable future. And to reach analogues for the kind of warming we’ll likely see in the coming decades and centuries, we will need to move beyond the past 3 million years of ice ages entirely, and make drastic jumps back into the alien Earths of tens of millions of years ago. Our future may come to resemble these strange lost worlds.

Before we move more dramatically backwards in time, let us briefly pause over the history of civilization, and then some. Ten thousand years ago, the big mammals had just vanished, at human hands, in Eurasia and the Americas. Steppes once filled with mammoths and camels and wetlands stocked with giant beavers were suddenly, stunningly vacant.

The coastlines that civilization presumes to be eternal were still far beyond today’s horizon. But the seas were rising. The doomed vestiges of mile-thick ice sheets that had cloaked a third of North American land were retreating to the far corners of Canada, chased there by tundra and taiga. The roughly 13 quintillion gallons of meltwater these ice sheets would hemorrhage, in a matter of millennia, raised the sea level hundreds of feet, leaving coral reefs that had been bathed in sunlight under shallow waves now drowned in the deep.

By 9,000 years ago, humans in the Fertile Crescent, China, Mexico, and the Andes had independently developed agriculture and—after 200,000 years of wandering—had begun to stay put. Sedentary settlements blossomed. Humans, with a surfeit of calories, began to divide their labor, and artisans plied new arts. The Earth’s oldest cities, such as Jericho, were bustling.

By 5,000 years ago, sunlight had waned in the Northern summer, and rains drifted south toward the equator again. The green Sahara began to die, as it had many times before.

It’s easy to forget that the Earth—cozy, pastoral, familiar—is nevertheless a celestial body, and astronomy still has a vote in earthly affairs. Every 20,000 years or so the planet swivels about its axis, and 10,000 years ago, at civilization’s first light, the Earth’s top half was aimed toward the sun during the closest part of its orbit—an arrangement today enjoyed by the Southern Hemisphere. The resulting Northern-summer warmth turned the Sahara green. Lakes, hosting hippos, crocodiles, turtles, and buffalo, speckled North Africa, Arabia, and everywhere in between. Lake Chad, which today finds itself overtaxed and shrinking toward oblivion, was “Mega-Chad,” a 115,000-square-mile freshwater sea that sprawled across the continent. Beneath the Mediterranean today, hundreds of dark mud layers alternate with whiter muck, a barcode that marks the Sahara’s rhythmic switching from lush green to continent-spanning desert.

Imprinted on top of this cycle were the last gasps of an ice age that had gripped the planet for the previous 100,000 years. The Earth was still thawing, and amid the final approach of the rising tides, enormous plains and forests like Doggerland—a lowland that had joined mainland Europe to the British Isles—were abandoned by nomadic humans and offered to the surging seas. Vast islands like Georges Bank, 75 miles off Massachusetts—which once held mastodons and giant ground sloths—saw their menagerie overtaken. Scallop draggers still pull up their tusks and teeth today, far offshore.

By 5,000 years ago, as humanity was emerging from its unlettered millennia, the ice had stopped melting and oceans that had been surging for 15,000 years finally settled on modern shorelines. Sunlight had waned in the Northern summer, and rains drifted south toward the equator again. The green Sahara began to die, as it had many times before. Hunter-fisher-gatherers who for thousands of years had littered the verdant interior of North Africa with fishhooks and harpoon points abandoned the now-arid wastelands, and gathered along the Nile. The age of pharaohs began.

By geologic standards, the climate has been remarkably stable ever since, until the sudden warming of the past few decades. That’s unsettling, because history tells us that even local, trivial climate misadventures during this otherwise peaceful span can help bring societies to ruin. In fact, 3,200 years ago, an entire network of civilizations—a veritable globalized economy—fell apart when minor climate chaos struck.

“There is famine in [our] house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.” This letter was sent between associates at a commercial firm in Syria with outposts spread across the region, as cities from the Levant to the Euphrates fell. Across the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, dynasties that had ruled for centuries were all collapsing. The mortuary-temple walls of Ramses III—the last great pharaoh of Egypt’s New Kingdom period—speak of waves of mass migration, over land and sea, and warfare with mysterious invaders from afar. Within decades the entire Bronze Age world had collapsed.

Historians have advanced many culprits for the breakdown, including earthquakes and rebellions. But like our own teetering world—one strained by souring trade relations, with fractious populaces led by unsteady, unscrupulous leaders and now stricken by plague—the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean were ill-prepared to accommodate the deteriorating climate. While one must resist environmental determinism, it is nevertheless telling that when the region mildly cooled and a centuries-long drought struck around 1200 B.C., this network of ancient civilizations fell to pieces. Even Megiddo, the biblical site of Armageddon, was destroyed.

The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland

This same story is told elsewhere, over and over, throughout the extremely mild stretch of time that is written history. The Roman empire’s imperial power was vouchsafed by centuries of warm weather, but its end saw a return to an arid cold—perhaps conjured by distant pressure systems over Iceland and the Azores. In A.D. 536, known as the worst year to be alive, one of Iceland’s volcanoes exploded, and darkness descended over the Northern Hemisphere, bringing summer snow to China and starvation to Ireland. In Central America several centuries later, when the reliable band of tropical rainfall that rings the Earth left the Mayan lowlands and headed south, the megalithic civilization above it withered. In North America, a megadrought about 800 years ago made ancestral Puebloans abandon cliffside villages like Mesa Verde, as Nebraska was swept by giant sand dunes and California burned. In the 15th century, a 30-year drought bookended by equally unhelpful deluges brought the Khmer at Angkor low. The “hydraulic empire” had been fed and maintained by an elaborate irrigation system of canals and reservoirs. But when these canals ran dry for decades, then clogged with rains, invaders easily toppled the empire in 1431, and the Khmer forfeited their temples to the jungle.

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Hopscotching through these human disasters to the present day, we pass perhaps the most familiar historical climate event of all: the Little Ice Age. Lasting roughly from 1500 to 1850, the chill made ice rinks of Dutch canals, and swelled up Swiss mountain glaciers. Tent cities sprung up on a frozen Thames, and George Washington endured his winter of cold and privation at Valley Forge in 1777 (which wasn’t even particularly harsh for the times). The Little Ice Age might have been a regional event, perhaps the product of an exceptional run of sunlight-dimming volcanism. In 1816, its annus horribilis, the so-called year without a summer—which brought snows to New England in August—global temperatures dropped perhaps a mere half a degree Celsius. While it is perennially plumbed by historians for insights into future climate change, it is not even remotely on the same scale of disruption as that which might lie in our future.

As Europe emerged from its chill, coal from 300-million-year-old jungles was being fed into English furnaces. Although the Earth was now in the same configuration that, in the previous few million years, had invited a return to deep, unthinkable ice ages, for some reason the next ice age never took. Instead the planet embarked on an almost unprecedented global chemistry experiment. Halfway through the 20th century, the climate began behaving very strangely.

Read: The strange future Hurricane Harvey portends

So this is the climate of written history, a seemingly eventful stretch that has really been the random noise and variability of a climate essentially at peace. Indeed, if you were to find yourself in an industrial civilization somewhere else in the universe, you would almost certainly notice such similarly strange and improbably pleasant millennia behind you. This kind of climate stability seems to be a prerequisite for organized society. It is, in other words, as good as it gets.

As we jump back 20,000 years—to yesterday, geologically—the world ceases being recognizable. Whereas all of recorded history played out in a climate hovering well within a band of 1 degree Celsius, we now see what a difference 5 to 6 degrees can make—a scale of change similar to the one that humans may engineer in only the next century or so, though in this case, the world is 5 to 6 degrees colder, not warmer.

An Antarctica’s worth of ice now rests atop North America. Similar sheets smother northern Europe, and as a result, the sea level is now 400 feet lower. The midwestern United States is carpeted in stands of stunted spruce of the sort that would today look at home in northern Quebec. The Rockies are carved up, not by wildflower-dappled mountain valleys, but by overflowing rivers of ice and rock. California is a land of dire wolves. Where the Pacific Northwest edges up against the American Antarctica, it is a harsh and treeless place. Nevada and Utah fill up with cold rains.

During World War II, at Topaz, the desolate Japanese American internment camp in Utah, prisoners combed the flats of the Sevier Desert for unlikely seashells, fashioning miraculous little brooches from tiny mussel and snail shells to while away their exile. The desert seashells were roughly 20,000 years old, from the vanished depths of the giant Pleistocene-era Lake Bonneville—the product of a jet stream diverted south by the ice sheet. This was once a Utahan Lake Superior, more than 1,000 feet deep in places. It was joined by endless other verdant lakes scattered across today’s bleak Basin and Range region.

Elsewhere, the retreat of the seas made most of Indonesia a peninsula of mainland Asia. Vast savannas and swamps linked Australia and New Guinea, and of course Russia shared a tundra handshake with Alaska. There were reindeer in Spain, and glaciers in Morocco. And everywhere loess, loess, and more loess. This was the age of dust.

Ice is a rock that flows. Send it in massive sterilizing slabs across the continents, and it will quarry mountainsides, pulverize bedrock, and obliterate everything in its path. At the height of the last ice age, along the crumbling margins of the continental ice sheets, the rocky, dusty spoils of all this destruction spilled out onto the tundra. Dry winds carried this silt around the world in enormous dust storms, piling it up in seas of loess that buried the central U.S., China, and Eastern Europe under featureless drifts. In Austria, not far from the site of the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf figurine, carved some 30,000 years ago, are the remains of a campground of the same age—tents, hearths, burnt garbage pits, hoards of ivory jewelry—all abandoned in the face of these violent, smothering haboobs. Ice cores from both Antarctica and Greenland record a local environment that was 10 times dustier than today. All of this dust seeded the seas with iron, a vital nutrient for carbon-hogging plankton, which bloomed around Antarctica and pulled gigatons of CO2 out of the air and deep into the ocean, freezing the planet further.

Read: When a killer climate catastrophe struck the world’s oceans

This parched Pleistocene world would have appeared duller from space, hosting as it did a quarter less plant life. CO2 in the atmosphere registered only a paltry 180 ppm, less than half of what it is today. In fact, CO2 was so low, it might have been unable to drop any further. Photosynthesis starts to shut down at such trifling levels, a negative-feedback effect that might have left more CO2—unused by plants—in the air above, acting as a brake on the deep freeze.

This was the strange world of the Ice Age, one that, geologically speaking, is still remarkably recent. It’s so recent, in fact, that today, most of Canada and Scandinavia is still bouncing back up from the now-vanished ice sheets that had weighed those lands down.

The floods carried 30-foot boulders on biblical waves, through what were suddenly the world’s wildest rapids.

In 2021, we find ourselves in an unusual situation: We live on a world with massive ice sheets, one of which covers one of the seven continents and is more than a mile deep. For most of the planet’s past, it has had virtually no ice whatsoever. The periods of extreme cold—like the ultra-ancient, phantasmagoric nightmares of Snowball Earth, when the oceans might have been smothered by ice sheets all the way to the tropics—are outliers. There were a few other surprising pulses of frost here and there, but they merely punctuate the balmy stretches of the fossil record. For almost all of the Earth’s history, the planet was a much warmer place than it is today, with much higher CO2 levels. This is not a climate-denying talking point; it’s a physical fact, and acknowledging it does nothing to take away from the potential catastrophe of future warming. After all, we humans, along with everything else alive today, evolved to live in our familiar low-CO2 world—a process that took a long time.

How long, exactly? Fifty million years ago, as our tiny mammalian ancestors were still sweating through the jungly, high-CO2 greenhouse climate they had inherited from the dinosaurs, India was nearing the end of an extended journey. Long estranged from Africa and the august, bygone supercontinent of Gondwana, the subcontinent raced northeast across the proto–Indian Ocean and smashed into Asia in slow motion. The collision not only quieted CO2-spewing volcanoes along Asian subduction zones; it also thrust the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau toward the stars, to be continually weathered and eroded away.

As it turns out, weathering rocks—that is, breaking them down with CO2-rich rainwater—is one of the planet’s most effective long-term mechanisms for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one that modern geoengineers are frantically trying to reproduce in a lab, for obvious reasons.

Adding to this colossal Himalayan CO2 sink, the more recent buckling, tectonic mess that lifted Indonesia and its neighbors from the sea over the past 20 million years or so also exhumed vast tracts of highly weatherable ocean crust, exposing it all to the withering assault of tropical rainstorms. Today this corroding rock accounts for roughly 10 percent of the planet’s carbon sink. Over tens of millions of years, then, the stately march of plate tectonics—the balance of volcanic CO2 and rock weathering—seems to have driven long-term climate change, in our case toward a colder, lower-CO2 world. As we’ll see, humans now threaten to undo this entire epic, geologic-scale climate evolution of the Cenozoic era—and in only a few decades.

When Earth’s blanket of CO2 was finally thin enough, the planet’s regular wobbles were at long last sufficient to trigger deep glaciations. The ice ages began. But the climate was not stable during this period. The ice advanced and retreated, and while the descent into the wild episodes of the Pleistocene epoch could be leisurely—the depths of planetary winter taking tens of thousands of years to arrive—the leap out of the cold tended to be sudden and violent. This is where positive feedback loops come in: When the last ice age ended, it ended fast.

Glacial ice near the Torfajökull volcano, in Iceland

Coral reefs marking the ancient sea level—but today lying deep off the coasts of Tahiti and Indonesia—reveal that about 14,500 years ago, the seas suddenly jumped 50 feet or so in only a few centuries, as meltwater from the late, great North American ice sheet raged down the Mississippi. When a 300-foot-deep lake of glacial meltwater spanning at least 80,000 square miles of central Canada catastrophically drained into the ocean, it shut down the churn of the North Atlantic and arrested the seaborne flow of heat northward. As a result, tundra advanced to retake much of Europe for 1,000 years. But when ocean circulation kicked back into gear, and the dense, salty seawater began to sink again, the system rebooted, and currents carried the equator’s heat toward the Arctic once more. Temperatures in Greenland suddenly leaped 10 degrees Celsius in perhaps a decade, fires spread, and revanchist forests reclaimed Europe for good.

In Idaho, ice dams that had held back giant lakes of glacial meltwater about six times the volume of Lake Erie collapsed as the world warmed, and each released 10 times the flow of all the rivers on Earth into eastern Washington. The floods carried 30-foot boulders on biblical waves, through what were suddenly the world’s wildest rapids. They left behind a labyrinth of bedrock-scoured canyons that still covers the entire southeastern corner of the state like a scar. When the Earth’s climate changes, this is what it can look like on the ground.

As the ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere finally lost their grip, darker land around the melting margins became exposed to the sun for the first time in 100,000 years, accelerating the ice’s retreat. Permafrost melted, and methane bubbled up from thawing bogs. Colder, more CO2-soluble oceans warmed, and gave up the carbon they’d stolen in the Ice Age, warming the Earth even more. Relieved of their glacial burden, volcanoes in Iceland, Europe, and California awoke, adding even more CO2 to the atmosphere.

Soon the Sahara would green again, Jericho would be born, and humans would start writing things down. They would do so with the assumption that the world they saw was the way it had always been. “We were born only yesterday and know nothing,” one of them would write. “And our days on earth are but a shadow.”

As we leap back in time again, we emerge before the final Pleistocene glaciation. We’ve gone tremendously far back, 129,000 years, though in some ways we’ve only returned to our own world. This was the most recent interglacial period, the last of many breaks between the ice ages, and the last time the planet was roughly as warm as it is today. Once more, the seas have risen hundreds of feet, but something is awry.

As the Earth’s wobble and orbit conspired to melt more ice than the poles have shed so far today, the planet absorbed more sunlight. As a result, global temperatures were little more than 1 degree warmer than today’s Anthropocene chart-toppers—or maybe even the same. But sea level was 20 to 30 feet higher than it is now. (A full third of Florida was sunk beneath the waves.) This is “sobering,” as one paper put it.

The Dallol sulfur springs in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia, one of the hottest places on Earth

Modelers have tried and mostly failed to square how a world about as warm as today’s could produce seas so strangely high. Provisional, if nightmarish, explanations like the runaway, catastrophic collapse of monstrous ice cliffs more than 300 feet tall in Antarctica, which may or may not be set into motion in our own time, are fiercely debated in conference halls and geoscience departments.

Very soon, we may well have warmed the planet enough to trigger similarly dramatic sea-level rise, even if it takes centuries to play out. This is what the Exxon scientist James Black meant in 1977 when he warned higher-ups of the coming “super-interglacial” that would be brought about—as a matter of simple atmospheric physics—from burning fossil fuels. But our trajectory as a civilization is headed well beyond the warmth of the last interglacial, or any other interglacial period of the Pleistocene, for that matter. So it’s time to keep moving. We must take our first truly heroic leap into geologic time, millions of years into the past.

We’re more than 3 million years in the past now, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at 400 parts per million, a level the planet will not again see until September 2016. This world is 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than ours, and the sea level is up to 80 feet higher. Stunted beech trees and bogs line the foothills of the Transantarctic Mountains not far from the South Pole—the last members of a venerable line of once-majestic forests that had existed since long before the age of the dinosaurs.

What we’ve glossed over in our journey back to this ancient present: the entire evolutionary history of Homo sapiens , three Yellowstone super-eruptions, thousands of megafloods, the last of the giant terror birds, a mass extinction of whales, and the glacial creation and destruction of innumerable islands and moraines. As we make our way backwards in time to the Pliocene, the glaciations get briefer, and the ice sheets themselves become thinner and more temperamental. About 2.6 million years ago they all but disappear in North America, as CO2 levels continue their slow climb.

This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “The Dark Secrets of the Earth’s Deep Past.”

From The Atlantic -
The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record
Our climate models could be missing something big.

The Atlantic – 3 Feb 21

The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth’s Ancient Rock Record

Our climate models could be missing something big.

Part 2 [article is too long for Base character limit]

When we arrive in the middle of the Pliocene, just over 3 million years ago, CO2 levels are high enough that we’ve escaped the cycle of ice ages and warm interglacials altogether. Lucy the Australopithecus roams a heavily forested East Africa. We are now outside the evolutionary envelope of our modern world, sculpted as it was by the temperamental northern ice sheets and deep freezes of the Pleistocene. But as to atmospheric carbon dioxide, 3 million years is how far back we have to go to arrive at an analogue for 2021.

Despite the similarities between our world and that of the Pliocene, the differences are notable. In the Canadian High Arctic—where today tundra spreads to the horizon—evergreen forests come right to the edge of an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Though the world as a whole is only a few degrees warmer, the Arctic, as always, gets the brunt of the extra heat. This is called “polar amplification,” and it’s why maps of modern warming are crowned by a disturbing fog of maroon. Models struggle to reproduce the extreme level of warming in the Pliocene Arctic. It’s a full 10 to 15 degrees Celsius warmer in the long twilight of northern Canada, and the pine and birch woodlands of these Arctic shores are filled with gigantic forest-dwelling camels. Occasionally this boreal world erupts in wildfire, a phenomenon echoed by the blazes that today sweep ever farther north. Elsewhere, West Antarctica’s ice sheet may have disappeared entirely, and Greenland’s, if it exists at all, is shriveled and pathetic.

A common projection for our own warming world is that, while the wet places will get wetter, the dry places will get drier. But the Pliocene seems to defy this saw for reasons not yet fully understood. It’s a strangely wet world, especially the subtropics, where—in the Sahara, the Outback, the Atacama, the American Southwest, and Namibia—lakes, savannas, and woodlands replace deserts. This ancient wetness might come down to inadequacies in how we model clouds, which are under no obligation to behave in physical reality as they do in simplified lines of computer code. Hurricanes were almost certainly more consistently punishing 3 million years ago, just as our storms of the future will be. And a more sluggish circulation of the atmosphere might have lulled the trade winds, turning El Niño into “El Padre.” Perhaps this is what brought rains—and lakes—to the Mojave at this time.

Angeles National Forest, California

Our modern coastlines would have been so far underwater that you’d have to take great pains to avoid getting the bends if you tried scuba diving down to them. Today, traveling east through Virginia, or North or South Carolina, or Georgia, midway through your drive you’ll pass over a gentle 100-foot drop. This is the Orangeburg Scarp, a bluff—hundreds of miles long—that divides the broad, flat coastal plain of the American Southeast. It comprises the eroded and smoothed-out rumors of once-magnificent sea cliffs. Here, waves of the Pliocene high seas chewed away at the middle of the Carolinas—an East Coast Big Sur. This ancient shoreline is visible from space by the change in soil color that divides the states, and is visible on much closer inspection as well: To the east of this strange drop-off, giant megalodon-shark teeth and whale bones litter the Carolina Low Country. Though warped over the ages by the secret workings of the mantle far below, these subtle banks 90 miles inland nevertheless mark the highest shoreline of the Pliocene, when the seas were dozens of feet higher than they are today. But even within this warm Pliocene period, the sea level leaped and fell by as much as 60 feet every 20,000 years, to the rhythm of the Earth’s sway in space. This is because, under this higher-CO2 regime, the unstable ice sheet in Antarctica took on the volatile temperament that, 1 million years later, would come to characterize North America’s ice sheet, toying with the ancient coastline as if it were a marionette.

So this is the Pliocene, the world of the distant present. While today’s projections of future warming tend to end in 2100, the Pliocene illuminates just what sort of long-term changes might inevitably be set in motion by the atmosphere we’ve already engineered. As the great ice sheets melt, the permafrost awakens, and darker forested land encroaches on the world’s tundra, positive feedbacks may eventually launch our planet into a different state altogether, one that might resemble this bygone world. Nevertheless, human civilization is unlikely to keep atmospheric CO2 at a Pliocene level—so more ancient and extreme analogues must be retrieved.

We’re now deeper in the past, and the planet appears truly exotic. The Amazon is running backwards, and gathers in great pools at the foot of the Andes. A seaway stretches from Western Europe to Kazakhstan and spills into the Indian Ocean. California’s Central Valley is open ocean.

What today is the northwestern U.S. is especially unrecognizable. Today the airy, columnated canyons of the Columbia River in Oregon swarm with tiny kiteboarders zipping through gorges of basalt. But 16 million years ago, this was a black, unbreathable place, flowing with rivers of incandescent rock. The Columbia River basalts—old lava flows that spread across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, in some places more than two miles thick—were the creation of a class of extremely rare and world-changing volcanic eruptions known as large igneous provinces, or LIPs.

Some LIPs in Earth’s history span millions of square miles, erupt for millions of years, inject tens of thousands of gigatons of CO2 into the air, and are responsible for most of the worst mass extinctions in the history of the planet. They live up to their name—they are large. But these mid-Miocene eruptions were still rather small as far as LIPs go, and so the planet was spared mass death. Nevertheless, the billowing volcanoes raised atmospheric CO2 up to about 500 ppm, a level that today represents something close to the most ambitious and optimistic scenario possible for limiting our future carbon emissions.

In the Miocene, this volcanic CO2 warmed up the world to at least 4 degrees Celsius and perhaps as much as 8 degrees above modern temperatures. As a result, there were turtles and parrots in Siberia. Canada’s Devon Island, in the high Arctic, is today a desolate wasteland, the largest uninhabited island in the world—and one used by NASA to simulate life on Mars. In the Miocene, its flora resembled Lower Michigan’s.

The sweeping grasslands distinctive to our cooler, drier, low-CO2 world had yet to take over the planet, and so forests were everywhere—in the middle of Australia and Central Asia and Patagonia. All of this vegetation was one of the reasons it was so warm. Forests and shrubs made this planet darker than our own world—one still painted pallid hues in many places by bare land and ice—and allowed it to absorb more heat. This change in the planet’s color is just one of the many long-term feedback loops awaiting us after the ice melts. Long after our initial pulse of CO2, they will make our future world warmer and more alien still.

As for fauna, we’re now so distantly marooned in time from our own world that most of the creatures that inhabited this leafy planet range from the flatly unfamiliar to the uncannily so. There were big cats that weren’t cats, and rhino-size “hell pigs” that weren’t pigs. There were sloths that lived in the ocean and walruses that weren’t related to today’s walruses. Earth’s largest-ever meat-eating land mammals, African juggernauts like Megistotherium and Simbakubwa, not closely related to any living mammals today, tore early elephants apart with bladed mouths.

And with CO2 at 500 ppm, the sea level was about 150 feet higher than today. Approaching Antarctica in the middle Miocene by sea, the waters would be warmer than today, and virtually unvisited by ice. To get to the ice sheet, you’d have to hike far past lakes and forests of conifers that lined the coast. Trudging past the trees and finally over endless tundra, you would come at last to the edge of a much smaller ice sheet whose best days were still ahead of it. An axiom about this land-based Antarctic ice sheet in paleoclimatology is that it’s incredibly stubborn. That is, once you have an ice sheet atop the heart of Antarctica, feedback loops kick in to make it exceedingly hard to get rid of. Barring true climatic madness, a land-based Antarctic ice sheet is essentially there to stay.

Clouds in Death Valley, California

But in the middle Miocene this young Antarctic ice sheet seemed to have a temper. It might have been “surprisingly dynamic,” as one paper cheerfully puts it. As CO2 increased from just below today’s levels up to about 500 ppm, Miocene Antarctica shed what today would amount to 30 to 80 percent of the modern ice sheet. In the Miocene, Antarctica seemed exquisitely tuned to small changes in atmospheric CO2, in ways that we don’t fully understand and that we’re not incorporating into our models of the future. There will undoubtedly be surprises awaiting us in our high-CO2 future, just as there were for life that existed in the Miocene. In fact, the Antarctic ice sheet may be more vulnerable today to rapid retreat and disintegration than at any time in its entire 34-million-year history.

In the 16 million years since this mid-Miocene heat, the volcanic hot spot responsible for the Columbia River basalts has wandered under Yellowstone. Today it powers a much tamer kind of volcano. It could cover a few states in a few inches of ash and disrupt global agriculture for years, but it couldn’t launch the planet into a new climate for hundreds of thousands of years, or kill most life on the surface. Unfortunately, there is such a supervolcano active on Earth today: industrial civilization. With CO2 likely to soar past 500 ppm from future emissions, even the sweat-soaked, Siberian-parrot-populated world of the middle Miocene might not tell us everything we need to know about our future climate. It’s time to go back to a global greenhouse climate that ranks among the warmest climate regimes complex life has ever endured. In our final leap backwards, CO2 at last reaches levels that humans might reproduce in the next 100 years or so. What follows is something like a worst-case scenario for future carbon emissions. But these worst-case projections have continued to prove stubbornly accurate in the 21st century so far, and they remain a possible path for our future.

We’re now about to take our largest leap, by far, into the geologic past. We hurdle over 40 million years of history, past volcanic eruptions thousands of times bigger than that of Mount St. Helens, past an asteroid impact that punched out a gigantic crater where the Chesapeake Bay sits today. The Himalayas slump; India unhitches from Asia; and the further back we go, the higher the CO2 level rises and the warmer the Earth gets. The Antarctic ice sheet, in its death throes, vanishes altogether, and the polar continent instead gives way to monkey puzzle trees and marsupials. We have arrived, finally at the end of our journey, in the greenhouse world of the early age of mammals.

Today the last dry land one steps on in Canada before setting out across the ice-choked seas for the North Pole is Ellesmere Island, at the top of the world. But once upon a time there was a rainforest here. We know this because tree stumps still erode out of the barren hillsides, and they’re more than 50 million years old. They’re all that’s left of an ancient polar jungle now whipped by indifferent Arctic winds. But once upon a time, this island was a swampy cathedral of redwoods, whose canopy naves were filled with flying lemurs, giant salamanders, and hippolike beasts that pierced the waters. At this polar latitude, on some late-fall evening of the early Eocene, the sun tried and failed to lift itself from the horizon. A pink twilight reached deep into the jungle, but soon the sun would set entirely here for more than four months. In this unending Arctic dark, the stillness would be broken by the orphaned calls of tiny early primates, who hopped fearlessly over stilled alligators that would start moving again when the sun returned from beyond the horizon. In this unending night, tapirs hunted for mushrooms and munched on leaf litter that was left over from sunny days past and that in the far future would become coal.

Humans now threaten to undo the entire climate evolution of the Cenozoic era—and in only a few decades.

We have no modern analogue for a swampy rainforest teeming with reptiles that nevertheless endures months of Arctic twilight and polar night. But for each degree Celsius the planet warms, the atmosphere holds about 6 percent more water vapor, and given that global temperatures at the beginning of the age of mammals were roughly 13 degrees warmer than today, it’s difficult to imagine how uncomfortable this planet would be for Ice Age creatures like ourselves. In fact, much of the planet would be rendered off-limits to us, far too hot and humid for human physiology.

Not only was this a sweltering age, but it was also one cruelly punctuated by some of the most profound and sudden CO2-driven global-warming events in geologic history—on top of this already feverish baseline. Deep under the North Atlantic, the Eocene epoch kicked off in style 56 million years ago with massive sheets of magma that spread sideways through the crust, igniting vast, diffuse deposits of fossil fuels at the bottom of the ocean. This ignition of the underworld injected something like the carbon equivalent of all currently known fossil-fuel reserves into the seas and atmosphere in less than 20,000 years, warming the planet by another 5 to 9 degrees Celsius. Evidence abounds of violent storms and megafloods during this ancient spasm of climate change—episodic waves of torrential rains unlike any on Earth today. In some places, such storms would have been routine, separated by merciless droughts and long, brutal, cloudless heat waves. Seas near the equator may have been almost as hot as a Jacuzzi—too hot for most complex life. As for the rest of the planet, all of this excess CO2 acidified the oceans, and the world’s coral reefs collapsed. Ocean chemistry took 200,000 years to recover.

The most jarring thing about the early age of mammals, though, isn’t merely the extreme heat. It’s the testimony of the plants. In higher-CO2 conditions, plants reduce the number of pores on their leaves, and fossil leaves from the jungles of the early Eocene have tellingly fewer pores than today’s. By some estimates, CO2 50 million years ago was about 600 ppm. Other proxies point to higher CO2, just over 1,000 ppm, but even that amount has long bedeviled our computer models of climate change. For years, in fact, models have told us that to reproduce this feverish world, we’d need to ramp up CO2 to more than 4,000 ppm.

This ancient planet is far more extreme than anything being predicted for the end of the century by the United Nations or anyone else. After all, the world that hosted the rainforests of Ellesmere Island was 13 degrees Celsius warmer than our own, while the current global ambition, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, is to limit warming to less than 2, or even 1.5, degrees. Part of what explains this glaring disparity is that most climate projections end at the end of the century. Feedbacks that might get you to Eocene- or Miocene-level warmth play out over much longer timescales than a century. But the other, much scarier insight that Earth’s history is very starkly telling us is that we have been missing something crucial in the models we use to predict the future.

Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe volcanoes, in New Zealand

Some of the models are starting to catch up. In 2019, one of the most computationally demanding climate models ever run, by researchers at the California Institute of Technology, simulated global temperatures suddenly leaping 12 degrees Celsius by the next century if atmospheric CO2 reached 1,200 ppm—a very bad, but not impossible, emissions pathway. And later that year, scientists from the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona were similarly able to reproduce the warmth of the Eocene by using a more sophisticated model of how water behaves at the smallest scales.

The paleoclimatologist Jessica Tierney thinks the key may be the clouds. Today, the San Francisco fog reliably rolls in, stranding bridge towers high above the marine layer like birthday candles. These clouds are a mainstay of west coasts around the world, reflecting sunlight back to space from coastal California and Peru and Namibia. But under higher-CO2 conditions and higher temperatures, water droplets in incipient clouds could get bigger and rain down faster. In the Eocene, this might have caused these clouds to fall apart and disappear—inviting more solar energy to reach, and warm, the oceans. That might be why the Eocene was so outrageously hot.

This sauna of our early mammalian ancestors represents something close to the worst possible scenario for future warming (although some studies claim that humans, under truly nihilistic emissions scenarios, could make the planet even warmer). The good news is the inertia of the Earth’s climate system is such that we still have time to rapidly reverse course, heading off an encore of this world, or that of the Miocene, or even the Pliocene, in the coming decades. All it will require is instantaneously halting the super-eruption of CO2 disgorged into the atmosphere that began with the Industrial Revolution.

We know how to do this, and we cannot underplay the urgency. The fact is that none of these ancient periods is actually an apt analogue for the future if things go wrong. It took millions of years to produce the climates of the Miocene or the Eocene, and the rate of change right now is almost unprecedented in the history of animal life.

Humans are currently injecting CO2 into the air 10 times faster than even during the most extreme periods within the age of mammals. And you don’t need the planet to get as hot as it was in the early Eocene to catastrophically acidify the oceans. Acidification is all about the rate of CO2 emissions, and we are off the charts. Ocean acidification could reach the same level it did 56 million years ago by later this century, and then keep going.

When he coined the term mass extinction in a 1963 paper, “Crises in the History of Life,” the American paleontologist Norman Newell posited that this was what happened when the environment changed faster than evolution could accommodate. Life has speed limits. And in fact, life today is still trying to catch up with the thaw-out of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Meanwhile, our familiar seasons are growing ever more strange: Flycatchers arrive weeks after their caterpillar prey hatches; orchids bloom when there are no bees willing to pollinate them. The early melting of sea ice has driven polar bears ashore, shifting their diet from seals to goose eggs. And that’s after just 1 degree of warming.

Subtropical life may have been happy in a warmer Eocene Arctic, but there’s no reason to think such an intimately adapted ecosystem, evolved on a greenhouse planet over millions of years, could be reestablished in a few centuries or millennia. Drown the Florida Everglades, and its crocodilians wouldn’t have an easy time moving north into their old Miocene stomping grounds in New Jersey, much less migrating all the way to the unspoiled Arctic bayous if humans re-create the world of the Eocene. They will run into the levees and fortifications of drowning Florida exurbs. We are imposing a rate of change on the planet that has almost never happened before in geologic history, while largely preventing life on Earth from adjusting to that change.

Taking in the whole sweep of Earth’s history, now we see how unnatural, nightmarish, and profound our current experiment on the planet really is. A small population of our particular species of primate has, in only a few decades, unlocked a massive reservoir of old carbon slumbering in the Earth, gathering since the dawn of life, and set off on a global immolation of Earth’s history to power the modern world. As a result, up to half of the tropical coral reefs on Earth have died, 10 trillion tons of ice have melted, the ocean has grown 30 percent more acidic, and global temperatures have spiked. If we keep going down this path for a geologic nanosecond longer, who knows what will happen? The next few fleeting moments are ours, but they will echo for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. This is one of the most important times to be alive in the history of life.

From The Saturday Paper

A generation of Australian entrepreneurs is readying for a carbonless future, even as the Morrison government remains stubbornly committed to gas and coal. By Mike Seccombe .

Who’s about to get rich off the green energy revolution?

Anton Vikstrom’s course towards electric vehicle entrepreneurship was set in a Hobart bar in February 2019.

Vikstrom, who had a 15-year history in renewable energy, project managing solar installations for various organisations in Australia and Timor-Leste, was having drinks with his friends Sam Whitehead and Anthony Broese van Groenou, who also had long backgrounds fostering sustainable energy in various ways.

All three men wanted new vehicles for their businesses, and all wanted them to produce zero carbon emissions. But, Vikstrom says, “When you’ve worked in the environmental sphere your whole career, you can’t afford Teslas.”

And so, they started looking for another way. After a little research, the trio decided to import used electric vehicles from Japan, for a couple of reasons. First, there are five large car makers in Japan that have moved into electric vehicles in a big way. And second, the way the Japanese tax system works, “people are kind of forced to sell their cars after a few years [so] cars depreciate really quickly in Japan”.

So, they got their cars. Then friends wanted EVs. Then, in December 2019, they ran a community electric vehicle bulk buy in their local area and got 24 orders. “And that’s when we had a business,” says Vikstrom.

More than 100 sales later their small business, the Good Car Company, conceived out of concern for the climate rather than for profit, is growing well and expanding beyond the Apple Isle.

“We’re just about to do an EV bulk buy in the ACT, which is launching … on March 25,” says Vikstrom.

They already have 170 expressions of interest.

Vikstrom and his business partners represent just a small part of a huge and diverse ecosystem of renewables ventures that’s rapidly expanding in Australia, despite a harsh political climate.

The business life forms that make up this ecosystem are enormously varied in size and shape, ranging from the tiny – such as the Good Car Company and Jaunt, a Melbourne company that puts electric motors in classic Land Rovers – to those building giant solar and wind farms. Then there are those that install grid-scale batteries and work up technologies to process Australia’s mineral resources without fossil fuels, or those that send clean energy, in the form of electricity or green hydrogen, out to the world.

This ecosystem also supports a plethora of less visible species – the tech boffins, financiers, mentors and advisers who are helping behind the scenes.

What they all share is a vision of the post-carbon future and an adaptive capacity that is singularly lacking in our national government.

After almost eight years in power, the Coalition has taken Australia from being a world leader to a laggard when it comes to climate policy. In the background though, smart people are moving ahead anyway, despite the government – not only because it is the right thing to do by the climate, but also because there is money to be made. In some cases, huge amounts of money.

But let’s start small, with the Good Car Company, a business that was actually made possible by the government’s lack of vision.

In May 2019, just a couple of months after Vikstrom and his mates met in that bar, Australia went to the polls. One major party, Labor, had a detailed EV policy. It set a target of 50 per cent of new car sales by 2030. To help meet that target, it promised to make the government’s own car fleet 50 per cent electric by 2025. It also promised a generous depreciation allowance for business car fleets; to require that battery-charging infrastructure be built with new roads and commercial and residential developments; stricter fuel economy standards for internal combustion engines; and more.

The Morrison government did not even try to compete on policy. Instead, it embarked on a scare campaign, suggesting the opposition was intent on denying tradies their utes and forcing citizens into cars that wouldn’t tow their boats or take them off-road to camping spots.

“Bill Shorten wants to end the weekend, when it comes to his policy on electric vehicles,” said Scott Morrison at one carefully staged media event on April 7, 2019.

At the time, it seemed cynical; less than two years later, it looks patently ridiculous.

“Australia has a fundamental opportunity to be a powerhouse in renewable energy in decarbonisation. We can build a whole new energy system, manufacturing system off the back of a renewable energy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we just cannot afford to miss it.”

Tesla founder Elon Musk is now reputedly the richest person on the planet with a net worth $US182.9 billion as of January, according to Forbes magazine. His company is worth more than General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen and Ford combined. Such is the market’s faith in his vision for electric cars.

Most of the world’s major car makers have plans to produce only zero-emissions vehicles within 10 to 15 years, the most recent being GM of the United States, which announced two weeks ago that it would no longer make petrol or diesel cars, buses or SUVs after 2035.

And governments around the world have moved, too, through a variety of incentives – sales tax breaks, subsidies and more – to encourage the uptake of EVs.

But not our government.

As a consequence, EVs make up a tiny proportion – about 0.6 per cent – of new car sales in Australia, in part because the upfront cost of buying one is so high. And this is what makes viable the business model of the Good Car Company. Australians wouldn’t be buying second-hand EVs if new models were affordable.

Other nations are doing much better. Norway leads the pack. More than 50 per cent of new car sales there already are EVs, and the sale of new internal combustion vehicles will be banned from 2025. Most of the rest of Europe will follow within 10 or 15 years.

And their target dates are becoming more ambitious as technology advances and the sense of urgency about dealing with climate change intensifies. Britain’s Tory government, for example, originally set 2040 as its target date for banning vehicles powered solely by internal combustion engines (ICEs). Last February, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the target would be moved forward to 2035. In November, it was moved again, this time to 2030.

As the countries most important to Australia in trade terms, and the sources of most of our vehicles, move to ban ICE vehicles – here we are talking about Britain, Japan, China and European Union nations, though not yet South Korea – this country’s ICE vehicles remain a decade behind technologically. We can’t get the best and most economical engines in this country because our fuel is too dirty.

The one major ally the Morrison government had in its inertia was Donald Trump, but now the new Biden administration is moving with startling speed to bring in a raft of changes to incentivise American consumers to go electric. One of those is a plan to build 550,000 charging stations to support the shift to electric vehicles.

In Australia, despite the current government’s lack of interest, smart money is backing the inevitability of electric vehicles. Just three years ago, a new start-up named Chargefox managed to raise $17 million from various sources, including motoring organisations, private sector entrepreneurs and grants from the Victorian government and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) – a government funding body set up by Labor, slated for abolition by Tony Abbott when he was prime minister, then saved when Malcolm Turnbull came to power.

The new company faced what it called a “chicken-and-egg scenario” – people would not buy electric cars if they had nowhere to charge them, but unless people bought electric cars there was no incentive to build the infrastructure.

Nonetheless they built it, with an initial rollout of 21 charging stations. There now are 6000 EV charging stations across Australia, including 20 “ultra-rapid” ones, capable of delivering up to 400 kilometres of range in just 15 minutes. All using clean energy.

Big car makers have partnered with Chargefox, out of obvious self-interest, but so too have supermarkets and others, because it provides convenience for their customers.

Shopping centres have big buying power and also big roofs, thus big capacity to generate solar energy. Indeed, Tim Washington, a co-founder of Chargefox and a man with a finger in various other renewables pies, predicted to The New Daily ’s Alan Kohler, shopping centres could become the largest electricity retailers in the country, repowering EVs with clean energy as people shop.

This is a vision that makes Labor’s 2019 policy look modest.

In late 2017, Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes prevailed on Elon Musk to build what was then the world’s largest battery in South Australia. Scott Morrison responded with mockery, calling it a “Hollywood solution” to the state’s power supply problems.

“By all means, have the world’s biggest battery, have the world’s biggest banana, have the world’s biggest prawn like we have on the roadside along highways around the country, but that’s not solving the problem,” the prime minister told reporters in Adelaide.

“It is so at the margin it barely is worthy of a mention.”

The comments betrayed an ignorance of the battery’s main purpose, which was not so much in storing electricity as it was to regulate it. Because the battery could respond in milliseconds to variations in power supply and demand, it helped stabilise the grid, providing what experts call “frequency control ancillary services”.

In the first three months of 2018, the “big battery” – also known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve – reduced the cost of frequency control by some $33 million, or 57 per cent, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. The new technology was so successful that the South Australian government – a Liberal government – subsequently expanded it by 50 per cent to 150 megawatts.

Three years down the track, the “big battery” doesn’t look so big anymore. Plans for new batteries are appearing like mushrooms after rain, each bigger than the last.

In December last year, French company Neoen announced it is scoping a 500-megawatt battery near Lithgow in New South Wales. In early January, Origin Energy revealed plans for a new “Australia’s biggest battery” at its ageing coal-fired power plant in Eraring in the NSW Hunter region. Just last week came another, this time billed as the world’s largest battery, a $2.4 billion investment by CEP.Energy at Kurri Kurri, north-west of Newcastle, which will ultimately have a capacity of up to 1200 megawatts – eight times the size of Hornsdale.

Founded just four years ago, CEP.Energy has fast become a heavy hitter in the renewables space. Former NSW premier Morris Iemma is the chairman of its board; its chief executive, Peter Wright, is a former executive director of Macquarie Bank. The company is also engaged in the process of installing solar panels on the roofs of industrial parks around the country, to generate another 1500 megawatts of solar energy, with 400 megawatts of storage.

But all else is dwarfed by a couple of planned developments in northern Australia.

One of them is named the Asian Renewable Energy Hub. The plan is to install 1600 wind turbines and a 78-square-kilometre array of solar panels to generate 26 megawatts – three of which would go to users in the Pilbara, including miners, while the rest will power the production of green hydrogen for export around the world.

The logic behind it is simple, says project manager Andrew Dickson, who has 20 years’ experience developing wind farms.

“The next frontier really is exporting renewables,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of land and plenty of sun and wind. And many of our neighbours to the north don’t. Indonesia, Singapore … they don’t have options to do renewables like we can.”

He sees vast economic benefits for Australia and the world.

The other huge project on the horizon is Sun Cable, which proposes to put solar panels over 15,000 hectares of the Northern Territory, with a generating capacity of 10,000 kilowatts. This is battery storage equivalent to 150 of South Australia’s batteries.

Sun Cable is backed by big money interests, including Cannon-Brookes and fellow rich-lister Andrew Forrest.

The project is massive on any scale, including cost: $22 billion. The plan is that it will deliver electricity, night and day – hence the batteries to cover the hours of darkness – from sunny Elliott in the centre of the NT to Darwin, more than 700 kilometres away. From there the electricity will travel by undersea cable a further 3800 kilometres to Singapore, where it will provide some 20 per cent of the city-state’s electricity needs.

It’s not hard to understand Singapore’s enthusiasm for the project – it has no land to spare for harvesting the sun. Nor is it hard to see why investors foresee a handsome return.

Eytan Lenko is one of those such investor. He is like Cannon-Brookes in many ways: in his early 40s, smart, made a lot of money as a technology entrepreneur – although nowhere near as much as Cannon-Brookes – and is dedicated to a transition to clean energy. He is the chair of the green think tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) and a director of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network, which seeks to harness philanthropic money for green purposes.

If Sun Cable comes off, Lenko stands to make a lot more money, but his motivation is basically altruistic. And logical.

“I’ve been involved in BZE for 10 years,” he says, “and I’ve been talking about this stuff and understanding this stuff a long time.

“Once you’ve got that understanding … it becomes like a natural progression to start investing in the space. You know, whether it’s getting stuff off the ground that wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, because it was seen as too high-risk or … just putting your money where your mouth is.”

Simon Holmes à Court, a serial renewables entrepreneur, is excited about both the Asian Renewable Energy Hub and Sun Cable, although he hasn’t invested in either. “So, for the time being,” he jokes, “I don’t have any conflicts [of interest], but I’m looking for some.”

Holmes à Court is particularly bullish about the potential of green hydrogen to revolutionise manufacturing and heavy industry. He visited ThyssenKrupp, one of the world’s biggest steel makers in Germany, 18 months ago.

“They were working at two different processes for how to switch from coal to hydrogen for their steel-making. They said, ‘We don’t quite know how we’re going to get there. We don’t know how much it’s going to cost. But we know we’ve got to do a 30 per cent [carbon emissions] reduction by 2030, total decarbonisation by 2050,’ ” says Holmes à Court.

He is puzzled and irritated by the government’s, and particularly Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s, “obsession” with gas as the fuel of the future.

He recalls Taylor spruiking “huge baseload gas generators” well before he was elected to parliament. “I thought it bizarre then, and it’s even stupider now,” he says. “Now we are at rebuilding the whole energy system over the next, say, 20 years. And 20 years is probably going to be shifted up to 15 years, and then three years from now, I’d probably say 10.”

Australia should be better placed than most countries to cope, not just because of our geographic and climatic advantages, but also because we have the human capital to plan for it.

Martijn Wilder both exemplifies and attests to that. He is a former chair of ARENA and founding director of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and also was head of Baker McKenzie’s global climate law and finance practice for 20 years, among other things. Most recently he was co-founder of Pollination Group, a specialist climate change advisory and investment firm with offices in Australia, the US and across Asia and Europe.

“Australia has a fundamental opportunity to be a powerhouse in renewable energy in decarbonisation,” he says. “We can build a whole new energy system, manufacturing system off the back of a renewable energy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we just cannot afford to miss it.”

The “funny thing”, he says, is that a lot of Australian companies are looking overseas for the expert advice to help them transition, when many of the best people are Australian.

He credits that to the fact that Australia was once a leader, once had a carbon trading scheme, before this government abolished it, has long experience in renewables, and had structures set up by former governments to advise.

“Despite the politics of climate change, business has been quite engaged and entrepreneurs do still try their best to make things work,” he says.

In other words, capitalism may yet save the day, even as government fails.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as “Who’s about to get rich off the green energy revolution?”.

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From The Saturday Paper

https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2021/02/13/nationals-still-hot-coal/161313480011094

Paul Bongiorno

Nationals still hot on coal

On Monday Scott Morrison walked into RAAF Base Williamtown near Newcastle to the soundtrack of the movie Top Gun . It may have been appropriate to his mission that day – lauding the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter program – but it was a parody of his helplessness in the endless climate war.

Morrison is no top gun when it comes to delivering the sort of decisive leadership Australia needs if it is to take part in reinvigorated global efforts to contain catastrophic climate change. No longer does he have the cover provided by disgraced United States President Donald Trump, the leader of “our greatest ally”. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement made Australia look good, comparatively. Our Paris targets may have been well short of what is needed – just ask Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson – but at least we had some.

Now with Joe Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement, making climate change a pervasive imperative of his entire administration and taking concrete steps to get to net zero by 2050, Australia’s top gun looks more like a pilot in a simulator. Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor – whose other title, the minister for Emissions Reduction, sounds more like a spoof – are yet to sign up to that target. It is still only a preference.

In his discussion paper outlining his agenda for a future fuels strategy, Taylor actually increases transport emissions by 6 per cent over the decade to 2030. The government’s much hyped “gas-led recovery” also raises emissions as it sidelines renewables.

The Liberals, as you may remember, spent the 2019 election campaign deriding Labor’s interim target of 45 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 as an economy-wrecking prescription. The Biden climate plan aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector to net zero by 2035. Furthermore Biden, like the European Union and Britain, will factor in carbon tariffs for future trading arrangements. The new US president intends to exert as much pressure as possible in arresting climate change, which he sees as an existential threat to the planet.

Already the issue has come up in negotiations that are under way with Britain and the EU over new free trade agreements the Morrison government is assiduously pursuing. The evolving geopolitical situation will be an acid test of the prime minister’s claim that he will not be dictated to by other countries but will always put Australia’s interests first. Now those interests will inevitably lead to accommodations, which in the past decade the Coalition, with its militant coal champions, have rejected. Our prosperity as a major trading nation will depend on this reality check.

Those coal champions have certainly not vacated the field. The junior party of the Coalition that keeps Morrison in power, the Nationals, has served notice that it will not readily accept the net zero target. The pace is being set by a trio of hitherto senior members of the Nats now relegated to its backbench. They are determined to set the agenda and preferably replace the current leader and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack. Blitzing the media this week with their ultimatums were former party leader Barnaby Joyce, with ambitions for a comeback; former resources minister Matt Canavan; and former sports (rorts) minister Bridget McKenzie.

Joyce and Canavan wrote an opinion piece in The Australian where they said while they “can’t stop cabinet signing up to a target… [they] can vote against any subsequent legislation if it is noxious to our constituents”. When the Coalition was in opposition, Joyce was a serial floor crosser and says it gets easier the more you do it. But if Morrison was of a mind to call Joyce’s bluff, it could see the government’s effective one-seat majority disappear. Government sources are briefing that no legislation is needed to set the target, something Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed on radio this week.

Where this leaves Morrison’s caveat over setting the target is anyone’s guess. He told the National Press Club that when he can “tell you how we get there, that’s when I’ll tell you when we’re going to get there”. We know it will be by “technology and not taxation” but unless he is prepared to do much better than his electric vehicle plan – which has been debunked by experts including Dr Jake Whitehead of the University of Queensland – not even technology will achieve the Holy Grail. Whitehead, a transport economist, rejects Taylor’s claim that hybrid cars are cleaner than 100 per cent electric vehicles. Again, the nod to fossil fuels is not to be missed.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is accusing Morrison of being “all smirk and mirrors” for not legislating the net zero target. He has committed a Labor government to do so.

The prime minister has persuaded heavyweights in the Canberra press gallery that he will take a 2050 net zero commitment to the Glasgow climate conference at the end of the year. Realistically, he has little choice, but the plan to get there can’t rely on another of his “miracles”. Not even Morrison can believe that some new technology on the eve of New Year 2050 can make up for 30 years of doing nothing, as Barnaby Joyce and his mates are espousing. Richie Merzian of The Australia Institute says the strong signal sent by the Biden administration of the new president’s commitment, and the Democrats winning control of the US senate, “flipped General Motors on electric vehicles”. Once it was clear Trump was gone, Merzian says, the car manufacturer “flipped in a week and signed up to all-electric vehicles by 2025”.

New Zealand and Britain have legislated a net zero target. The latter has a carbon budget reviewed every five years, something independent Zali Steggall’s private member’s bill would achieve for Australia. The pathetically inadequate 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 – the Climate Change Authority recommended 40 to 60 per cent, which the climate sceptic Tony Abbott ignored as prime minister – simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Abbott never legislated his target. Morrison’s commitment to it is evidence of his awareness of public opinion.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is accusing Morrison of being “all smirk and mirrors” for not legislating the net zero target. He has committed a Labor government to do so, telling reporters in Brisbane “you can’t have a target unless it’s legislated” otherwise it is “an aspiration, it’s a theory”.

McCormack tried to sue for peace when he suggested agriculture could be excluded when compiling Australia’s net zero numbers. But Canavan rejected the idea. He says the net zero target is mythical because he believes no one actually will achieve it. On Sky News Canavan said, “It’s a bit like saying if we just shut down 95 per cent of the economy but protect 5 per cent, everything will be okay.” And then came the crunching conclusion, when he asked rhetorically, “How are we going to mine coal?”

This puts the Nationals rebels at odds with the National Farmers’ Federation, which supports the target. This divide angers many farmers. One from central Queensland, Domenica Jensen, on ABC Radio accused Canavan and his amigos of using farmers as a cover for their real agenda. She said they were doing it under the guise of protecting farmers and challenged him to be upfront in protecting coal, another “important iconic industry”, and leave farmers out of it. “The climate is getting hotter and hotter,” she said, “and more and more farmers are dealing with incredible suffering … We won’t have much of an industry if the climate keeps getting hotter and drier.”

Analysis of Climate Change Authority numbers by the Greens has found the Nationals’ support for Tony Abbott’s dismantling of everything to do with the “carbon tax” has cost farmers billions. The leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, says by repealing the carbon price, the Coalition nobbled the carbon farming initiative, which has seen farmers lose “over $12 billion in lost carbon credits”.

There is no doubt that over the decade of the climate wars, vested interests and the plutocrats have played a critical role in thwarting majority public opinion in Australia on a transition from fossil fuels. And no one has been more blatant in dancing to their tune than the LNP in Queensland – and their Liberal and National colleagues federally. Queensland billionaire Clive Palmer, with his huge coal investments in the Galilee Basin, is a prime example. Palmer spent upwards of $80 million to thwart Labor at the last election, even going to the trouble of setting up a straw political party to do it.

Palmer is at it again with an expensive media campaign, targeting the head of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, James Shipton. ASIC has charged Palmer with breaches of directors’ duties and fraud. The matter is listed for next month in Brisbane.

Labor’s Stephen Jones says Palmer’s campaign is outrageous and likens it to someone charged with housebreaking running an expensive advertising campaign against the police. That someone such as Palmer can ply such influence is a blight on our democracy. While his activities help fund the Liberal and National parties – along with fellow billionaire miner Gina Rinehart – the country is becoming functionally less of a democracy where citizens have an equal voice. A few rich people are disproportionately powerful.

Another farmer, Anika Molesworth, told RN Breakfast the Nationals rebels are making her extremely anxious about an “irresponsible failure of leadership to adapt to the future”, which is “incredibly irresponsible and damaging to the farming community”.

Certainly with them holding back any progress, Australia is not playing its part in the global effort, which Scott Morrison says he assured Joe Biden he was up for.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as “Friendly fire in climate dogfight”.

A great summary!

The truth is that the Coalition has been an bunch of criminals at least since Abbott was elected leader (but more accurately since Fraser was elected leader). They bear a large chunk of the responsibility for The World’s Last Mass Extinction - as it it reaches its inevitable conclusion . .

I thought the two articles paired well. The first outlining the industrial and structural changes already underway, the other highlighting obfuscation of the rent-seekers and others I now think of as suffering from “Standard Asset Denialism”.

I wonder how persuasive and powerful they might be with all their funding and investment returns cut off? Can they win the political arguments now they are on the wrong side of the financial and economic ones?

This is super effective. It works with chrome/chromium/brave/edge & Firefox. Not mobile as far as I can tell, if someone is able to make it, let me know!

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