Thursday, August 13, 2009

Australia, Vanguard of Doom

While at Worldcon in Montreal earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of panels dealing with the subject of climate change: one explored potential ways to mitigate it through geoengineering, and the other investigated whether or not it was "storyable." Though I did get a few interesting ideas from it, the single overriding concept I left the two panels was this: we're fucked.1

The news I see after having returned home isn't much better. Australian newspapers have been charting the course of a potential emissions trading scheme in that country for at least the last few weeks, if not more, and nothing of what they're reporting looks good. On August 13th, Australia time, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article entitled "Doubters attend lecture as ETS bill heads for doom," with a simple message: this bill is fucked.

The proposed ETS is the work of Malcolm Turnbull, leader of Australia's Liberal Party and thus Leader of the Opposition in the Australian Parliament. Having never seen him in action, I've got no idea how Mr. Turnbull compares to Stéphane Dion in the charisma department, but I'm already seeing disturbing correspondences with Canada's own wrestling match with environmental legislation, after Canada's Liberal Party fought and lost an election with environmental issues as one of their prominent planks.

Granted, Australian PM Kevin Rudd's no Stephen Harper - though both their Wikipedia pages are, as of this writing, "semi-protected to prevent libelous additions." For one, Rudd actually seems to think that climate change is a problem, and has been making noise about Doing Something. Hell, his first official act as PM was to sign the Kyoto Protocol for Australia.

The problem here is one of coordination and correspondence. Sure, most countries say that climate change is a problem and that they want to do something about it, but none of them actually will until someone makes the first move. Rudd has delayed the introduction of emissions trading in Australia until at least 2011 for this very reason.

Predictably, the coal companies are throwing their weight around in this debate, and Australia is uniquely vulnerable to coal companies. It's a dry continent, so there are few rivers substantial enough to dam for hydroelectric power - only 6.8% of its electricity is from hydro sources, according to the World Nuclear Association - and while it is not quite as crazy as neighboring New Zealand, there is still enough anti-nuclear hysteria in Australia that nuclear power generation has no presence at all.

The end result is that Australia is utterly dependent on coal to a degree practically unmatched anywhere else - even China has a more diversified generation portfolio. According to the Australian Coal Association, more than eighty percent of Australia's electricity is derived from burning coal. Australian coal plants produced nearly 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in 2007. How can anyone down there possibly entertain fantasies of environmental stewardship without totally ignoring that?

The problem with governments is that governments have to, have to, govern with the status quo in mind, because if they rock the boat too much an angry electorate will throw the bums out. The problem with the status quo is that the assumption that goes along with it is that we have unlimited time to change things around, that we could keep burning fossil fuels at our steadily-climbing rate until the 22nd century or beyond, and that nothing bad would happen.

Science does not bear this out. Carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing, the icecaps are melting, and the permafrost is beginning to thaw - and the methane currently sequestered in the permafrost, the methane that has the potential to kick global warming into a seriously high gear, is the elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

At least in places like Canada, the United States, France, and even China, dirty and dysenvironmental coal-based generation is not the only source of power. Australia, handcuffed as it is to the fortunes and filth of burning coal, has a lot further to go.

1 For example, a solar shade with 8% reflectivity, stationed at the Sol-Earth L1 point to reduce solar impact on Earth by 0.25% and temperatures by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, would be a good way to create a "planetary thermometer" for environmental regulation, if only there was an easy way to build thirty-seven million tons worth of solar shade up there.

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