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Climate change makes a comeback – with the help of social media

The Conversation - Tue, 2016-06-14 15:22
AAP/Lukas Coch

In what has been shaping up as the election that forgot climate change, there are signs emerging in the Coalition’s election campaign that it is starting to listen to polls, its own focus groups and social media chat on climate.

So far it is the Great Barrier Reef that has drawn out the biggest campaign fight on climate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that A$1 billion of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) fund would be directed towards a Reef Fund. 10% of the money from the CEFC will be quarantined to make loans available to farmers in North Queensland.

While Turnbull declared the greatest threat to the reef was global warming, he nevertheless specified that the run-off from farming into the reef was what would be tackled. This is seen to be a measure that could prolong the reef in a region where the Coalition is at risk of losing some marginal seats.

So, one pitch is that saving the reef is about retaining 70,000 jobs that it sustains. But a less believable pitch is that the fund will battle climate change, with Turnbull saying that solar panels for farms in the region will reduce reliance on diesel, and that farmers would have loans for more energy-efficient farm equipment.

Labor’s shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, derided the Reef Fund as a “shameless exercise in spin” insofar as such loans have already been available to farmers for years.

Not far from the reef, in the Galilee Basin, is one of the largest coal deposits in the world, which both Labor and the Coalition have approved mining leases for, but which the Greens’ Larissa Waters insisted must be stopped if we are not going to:

… further cook the reef.

But on Monday night on the ABC’s Q&A, Bill Shorten reaffirmed Labor’s commitment to coal. He said:

A Labor government isn’t going to ban coal mining in this country … Coal is going to be part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, he acknowledged:

… when we talk about the reef and when we talk about climate change, they are inextricably linked.

But Shorten’s message was identical to Turnbull’s in referring to jobs, saying that:

… good environments generate good jobs. 70,000 people make a living from the reef. It generates $6 billion in turnover for the Australian economy.

Weather and climate

In another climate change publicity opportunity, in the wash-up of the east coast storm last week, Shorten and Turnbull spent a day surveying the flood damage in Tasmania – but only Turnbull ventured so far as to link the floods to climate change.

While Shorten was happy to link climate change to the reef, he did not want to go near linking climate and weather:

In terms of climate and weather, today for me is not a day where I will join the dots about extreme weather events.

But Turnbull had no such hesitation. In a rare moment, the Turnbull of old came out in a moment that harked back to his days as environment minister, when he had no problem talking up the dangers of climate change:

Certainly, larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming but you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that.

Turnbull is incorrect about subtropical lows becoming more frequent, but he is right about climate scientists’ forecasts that storms will get bigger.

If national policies in Australia and around the world are not calibrated to the 2℃ guardrail, the energy we saw released by last week’s storms will pale compared to what might be in store for future generations.

Referring to the Eemian period of 120,000 years ago, which was the last time the global average temperature was as high as the threshold that the Paris agreement is trying to avoid, scientists are uncovering evidence of storms that were of an order not compatible with the built environments of today’s human settlements.

In recent research, James Hansen, the author of the book Storms Of My Grandchildren, points to the puzzle of giant rocks in the Bahamas, up to one thousand tonnes, that are in a place they just shouldn’t be. Scientists warn these geological freaks harbour a terrifying secret – epic superstorms capable of tossing around boulders like bored Olympians.

But so as to reassure voters, both leaders did talk up the importance of mitigating damage (through the likes of building levies) – but not mitigating climate change itself.

While it was remarkable for Turnbull to discuss climate change at all in this election campaign, he failed to join the dots between the adequacy of the Coalition’s emissions reduction targets for Australia realising a responsible contribution to avoiding a 2℃ threshold.

Social media as a barometer of climate concern

A likely explanation as to why Turnbull in particular is reasserting climate change and the reef as an issue – but not asserting any kind of policy that will fix it – may be his reverence for the power of social media, and what it is telling his media team about neglecting climate change.

An analysis of 150,000 conversations on social media in Australia for the first three weeks of the election campaign reveals climate change is among the top five political topics Australians are talking about on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs.

More than half of the discourse is negative towards each leader, with only 22% positive about Turnbull and 35% positive on Shorten. But of these posts, grouped around leaders, the only issue (other than negative gearing) that is common to discussion of both leaders is climate change. Climate change also stands out as the only issue in the top five that was not being aired by the leaders.

The analysis, by Meltwater, is significant in that it is so different from a poll. Those who answer a poll know that it will be aggregated and is likely to have a political impact. Their answers may not actually reflect their concerns as much as it does the desire to have an impact.

Analysis of social media, however, is more likely to capture the “backstage” of what people are actually concerned about in their daily conversations.

Could it be that, buried in these backstage conversations, are clues as to why voters are turning away from the major parties? And that neglect of climate change is a big part of this? Could it also be why the major parties have made panicked preference decisions to block the Greens and independents, who combined may capture 25% of the national vote?

There is evidence also that the Coalition’s announcements on the Great Barrier Reef are calculated to neutralise social media concern about it as an issue.

Perhaps it is its focus groups or it could be simply the impact of talk show mega-star Ellen DeGeneres’ “Remember the Reef” video-message campaign.

The campaign, which is also part of a promotion for a new film, Finding Dory, has seen Disney, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority collaborate on raising awareness about the threats to the reef.

But more remarkable than this campaign was the barrage of tweets from Environment Minister Greg Hunt, strenuously defending the government’s management of the reef.

A further tweet personally invited DeGeneres out to visit the reef to allay her fears. But the fear is mostly coming from Hunt it seems, that the Disney campaign really could get out of control, based on an animated movie that is to be screened just two weeks out from election day.

The Conversation
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Koalas hug trees to battle climate change

ABC Environment - Tue, 2016-06-14 14:06
Koalas in the hotter, more arid parts of Australia could become extinct in the face of climate change, new modelling suggests.
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Hedgehogs continue to disappear from British gardens, wildlife survey shows

The Guardian - Tue, 2016-06-14 14:01

RSPB campaign urges gardeners to do one thing to help wildlife this summer after survey reveals rise and fall of familiar species

Gardeners are being urged to do more to help hedgehogs this summer after new figures showed that fewer people than ever are seeing the once-familiar species.

Results from the from the RSPB’s citizen science survey showed that only 25% of people see hedgehogs in their garden at least once a month, around three percentage points less than last year and than in 2014.

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Revealed: first mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change

The Guardian - Tue, 2016-06-14 13:44

Exclusive: scientists find no trace of the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that was the only mammal endemic to Great Barrier Reef

Human-caused climate change appears to have driven the Great Barrier Reef’s only endemic mammal species into the history books, with the Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent that lives on a tiny island in the eastern Torres Strait, being completely wiped-out from its only known location.

It is also the first recorded extinction of a mammal anywhere in the world thought to be primarily due to human-caused climate change.

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The Paris climate agreement needs coordinated carbon prices to be successful

The Conversation - Tue, 2016-06-14 11:49
All countries will have to reduce emissions. Coal image from

The Paris climate agreement was an important success for climate diplomacy as nation states showed a strong will to cooperate on climate action.

But instead of imposing binding national emission targets, the Paris Agreement is based on voluntary country commitments (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions- INDCs). This poses some challenges.

First, the INDCs proposed so far are not enough to limit warming to well below 2℃, aiming for 1.5℃, as agreed in Paris. The INDCs shift a large burden of the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to after 2030.

Second, the INDCs cannot, yet, be verified and compared in a transparent manner to build mutual trust over time.

Third, countries lack incentives to increase their level of ambition without reducing their competitiveness as well as securities that other countries do not free-ride; to counteract this the right institutions are needed.

Lastly, the INDCs do not automatically become national law after a country ratifies the Paris agreement. Only the promise to review and revise INDCs every five years is legally binding. Countries have to make an additional effort to include their proposed climate policy in their other national policies – for example to counteract the expansion of coal power plants.

Raising the bar

To be effective, the Paris agreement, or any international agreement, has to address these challenges. In this respect, sufficiently high national carbon prices that increase over time would be a meaningful climate policy instrument for three main reasons.

First, carbon prices are relatively easy to compare and represent a transparent indicator of the ambition level of national climate policies.

Second, a carbon price drives up the cost of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions, rendering high-emission forms of energy (such as coal power) unprofitable over the long term and low-emission technologies (such as wind and solar) competitive.

Third, the additional revenue from carbon pricing could remain in the respective countries and be used to achieve other societal targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

When negotiating international carbon prices, for example in the context of the G20, individual countries would pledge to increase their domestic carbon price levels via emission taxes, fossil energy taxes, or emissions trading schemes featuring a price floor.

However, these price increases would only come into effect if other countries were likewise implementing high prices. This strategy would circumvent the concern that carbon pricing leads to competitive disadvantages. It would also include a sanctioning mechanism if participants were to lower their carbon prices.

Sharing the burden

A truly global coordination and increase of carbon prices can only occur if an effective burden sharing scheme is implemented. To engage developing countries, transfer payments are necessary. A particular country would receive international support if they accept a national carbon price.

Funds would have to increase with the price level, compensating for higher emissions reduction costs. Reducing the level of ambition would lead to a loss of international support.

This mechanism in turn increases the trust that other countries will pursue ambitious climate policies themselves. The climate finance envisaged in the Paris Agreement could be a main pillar of this strategy.

This article was co-authored by Christian Flachsland, head of governance group, and Ulrike Kornek post-doc in the governance group at the Mercator Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.

Ottmar Edenhofer will be in Australia from 13-17 June and will present public lectures in Brisbane (University of Queensland), Canberra (ANU) and Melbourne (Climate and Energy College).

The Conversation

Ottmar Edenhofer is Director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.

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Baboons return to Tbilisi zoo

BBC - Tue, 2016-06-14 09:29
The zoo in Georgia's capital Tbilisi has been slowly re-populating with animals, after flooding last year killed nearly half of its former residents.
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Bitcoin: from the beginning

ABC Science - Tue, 2016-06-14 09:00
GREAT MOMENTS IN SCIENCE: How did the Bitcoin virtual money system get started? Dr Karl takes a bite out of history.
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How swifts survive a wet British June

The Guardian - Tue, 2016-06-14 06:30

Long-distance flights enable aerial hunters to feed their young whatever the weather

For Britain’s breeding birds – especially those migrants that spend only a short time here before heading back to their winter home in Africa – June is a crucial month.

Plentiful sunshine – June is usually the sunniest month of the year in England and Wales, thanks to the long hours of daylight – provide the vast amounts of insects and invertebrates that these birds require to feed their young.

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Is coal the only way to deal with energy poverty in developing economies?

The Conversation - Tue, 2016-06-14 06:10
Coal is a relatively cheap, abundant and well-established source of energy. Ray Hornsay/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As the world moves to combat climate change, it’s increasingly doubtful that coal will continue to be a viable energy source, because of its high greenhouse gas emissions. But coal played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution and continues to fuel some of the world’s largest economies. This series looks at coal’s past, present and uncertain future.

The availability of efficient and reliable energy for industrial, agricultural and household use is critical for productivity growth and improvement in human wellbeing. But many people across the planet live in a state of energy poverty.

The energy-poor are people living without electricity services and clean energy – for cooking, lighting, heating and other daily needs. According to the World Bank, one-third of the world’s economies have severe energy crises and about 1.1 billion people lack access to electricity.

A large population in developing economies, particularly in Africa, relies on traditional biomass sources of energy that themselves cause problems, such as severe deforestation and carbon pollution. What’s more, many inhabitants of these countries face power outages of up to 20 hours a day.

An economical and sustainable energy source for deprived populations is clearly needed.

Enter coal

Coal is a relatively cheap, abundant and well-established source of energy, but it’s also a major source of carbon pollution. Hence the controversy about whether burning coal can end energy poverty in the coming decades.

In the past, coal has occupied a significant share in the energy mix of developing economies, but it has been under attack due to its emissions, which include sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

Amid calls for the use of efficient and clean technologies for electricity generation, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal has already embarked on dynamic pathways to achieve energy efficiency and sustainability and combat carbon emissions. China’s initiatives for boosting the use of renewable energy sources, cutting the use of high-ash coal and resuming import tariffs on coal have reshaped the global energy mix landscape.

Coal is a relatively cheap, abundant and well-established source of energy, but it’s a major source of carbon pollution. Señor Codo/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Likewise, other developing countries including India are changing their energy mix by shifting their focus to renewables to reduce their reliance on coal-based energy. Although more than 50% of India’s new electricity generation is expected to be met by renewables, the country still needs to rely on coal-based generation to meet expanding demand.

The World Bank has already paused funding for new coal power generation except for exceptional cases, leaving a question mark over coal as a cure for global energy poverty.

But the slowdown in world coal demand is partly due to China’s structural shift away from construction and export-led manufacturing, which has significantly reduced coal prices. This has, in turn, slashed revenues of many exporting countries. And the collapse in prices is resulting in the closure of many mining businesses as companies are unable to recover production costs.

Still, energy-poor developing economies need coal as a cheap and readily available resource to provide electricity for their growing populations unless they find a way to completely replace it with alternative renewable sources.

Current and future trends

Many developing economies are facing a huge shortfall in electricity and are expanding their energy production capacity. This situation is likely to intensify as the world population increases. By the end of 2030, developing countries will need about 950 terawatt-hours electricity to meet their energy needs.

Consider India, which has the second-largest population in the world. It accounts for only 6% of global energy consumption and has 240 million people without access to electricity. With another 315 million Indians expected to move to urban areas in the next few decades, the country’s energy demand is likely to surge in the coming years.

Neighbouring Pakistan is facing a serious energy crisis and many people in that country are spending more than 12 hours each day without electricity. The new Pak-China economic corridor has created an opportunity for the country to use indigenous Thar coal reserves to generate 6,600 megawatts (MW) power, expanding its installed capacity of 24,829 MW by 25%.

According to global statistics, coal contributed to 39% of the world’s energy mix in 2014. The World Coal Association claims that about 1 billion people around the globe have received electricity from coal-powered energy generation. And that the industry has created 7 million jobs worldwide.

A large population in developing economies is reliant on traditional biomass sources of energy that themselves cause problems. Colleen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Many developing economies, including China and India, are connecting millions of their inhabitants to coal-based electricity systems. Over the last two decades, China has been able to electrify about 700 million households through coal-fired energy production.

India is still meeting the majority of its energy demand from coal-fired electricity generation and was among the world’s three largest coal importers in 2015.

Prospects of coal energy

Energy poverty is a major human and environmental crisis. A balanced energy mix with a high degree of physical safety, low environmental hazards and sustainable supply prospects is essential for poverty alleviation and energy security.

But, in the face of competing alternative energy sources, the role of the coal industry in energy poverty alleviation has become even more challenging.

While renewable energy sources are in their infancy and facing many uncertainties, developing economies have a long way to go before they can completely abandon fossil fuel energy sources. Indeed, these countries need major structural reforms and risk-tolerant investment capital in the renewable sector if the twin goals of reduced carbon emissions and the elimination of energy poverty are to be achieved.

All that means the coal industry will potentially remain a major part of the world’s energy mix. But it needs drastic measures to produce clean and efficient energy if it is to play a role in energy security and poverty alleviation without the adverse environmental effects that threaten to introduce other risks to water, global climate and food security.

The author would like to thank Associate Professor John Steen and Dr Jo-Anne Everingham for their valuable comments on this article.

This is the third article in our series on the past, present and future of coal. Look out for others over the next week or two.

The Conversation

Shabbir Ahmad does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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Carbon dioxide levels in atmosphere forecast to shatter milestone

The Guardian - Tue, 2016-06-14 01:41

Scientists warn that global warming target will be overshot within two decades, as annual concentrations of CO2 set to pass 400 parts per million in 2016

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will shatter the symbolic barrier of 400 parts per million (ppm) this year and will not fall below it our in our lifetimes, according to a new Met Office study.

Carbon dioxide measurements at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii are forecast to soar by a record 3.1ppm this year – up from an annual average of 2.1ppm – due in large part to the cyclical El Niño weather event in the Pacific, the paper says.

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El Niño likely to boost CO2 in 2016

BBC - Tue, 2016-06-14 01:34
A big spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels means the greenhouse gas is about to pass a symbolic threshold.
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Legal ivory sale drove dramatic increase in elephant poaching, study shows

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 23:00

Research shows the legal sale in 2008 catastrophically backfired – but two African nations want to repeat the stockpile sell-off

A huge legal sale of ivory intended to cut elephant poaching instead catastrophically backfired by dramatically increasing elephant deaths, according to new research.

The revelation comes just months before a decision on whether to permit another legal sale and against a backdrop of more African elephants being killed for ivory than are being born. In 2015 alone, 20,000 elephants were illegally killed.

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Spread of human disease from animals mapped

BBC - Mon, 2016-06-13 21:19
Scientists say they have developed a better way to predict how diseases such as Lassa fever jump from animals to humans.
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Would Brexit compromise the future of UK science?

BBC - Mon, 2016-06-13 20:58
Leading scientists have been particularly vocal in arguing against the UK leaving the European Union. But how would Brexit really affect UK science, asks Tom Feilden.
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Scrap destructive Gwent Levels motorway plan, charities say

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 20:04

In open letter charities say environmental evidence should lead Welsh government to stop plan that would cut through wetland

Ten leading environmental charities have claimed a proposed section of motorway that would cut through wildlife-rich wetland represents “ecological destruction on an unprecedented scale”.

The charities have written an open letter to the Welsh government calling for it to scrap £1bn plans to build a 14-mile stretch of motorway through the Gwent Levels near Newport in south Wales.

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Biggest US coal company funded dozens of groups questioning climate change

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 20:00

Analysis of Peabody Energy court documents show company backed trade groups, lobbyists and thinktanks dubbed ‘heart and soul of climate denial’

Peabody Energy, America’s biggest coalmining company, has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations, analysis by the Guardian reveals.

The funding spanned trade associations, corporate lobby groups, and industry front groups as well as conservative thinktanks and was exposed in court filings last month.

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The Grand Oil Party: House Republicans denounce a carbon tax | Dana Nuccitelli

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 20:00

Lobbying from the petroleum industry may have convinced Republicans to denounce a carbon tax

On Friday, the US House of Representatives voted on a Resolution condemning a carbon tax. As The Hill reported:

Lawmakers passed, by a 237-163 vote, a GOP-backed resolution listing pitfalls from a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and concluding that such a policy “would be detrimental to American families and businesses, and is not in the best interest of the United States.”

Six Democrats voted with the GOP for the resolution. No Republicans dissented.

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Air pollution linked to increased mental illness in children

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 18:57

New research is first to establish the link and builds on other evidence that children are particularly vulnerable to even low levels of pollution

A major new study has linked air pollution to increased mental illness in children, even at low levels of pollution.

The new research found that relatively small increases in air pollution were associated with a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems. It is the first study to establish the link but is consistent with a growing body of evidence that air pollution can affect mental and cognitive health and that children are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality.

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Lazarus rising to Pauline Hanson challenge as major parties make NBN, Great Barrier Reef and stadium pledges

ABC Environment - Mon, 2016-06-13 18:15
There's a lot more to Sunshine State politics than just the major parties, with a record number of names crowding the Senate ballot paper -- including a few very recognisable ones.
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Where have all our curlew gone?

The Guardian - Mon, 2016-06-13 14:30

The Stiperstones, Shropshire We might have been walking towards a future devoid of the riveting, other-worldly call of the curlew

A few Sundays ago, Mary Colwell-Hector and I were walking with a bunch of ornithologists and conservationists along the Stiperstones ridge. The scent of gorse drifted on warm air. Sunlight moved over the heather and farmland finding sheep, meadows and cattle. But our talk was more of what wasn’t there. We should have been seeing curlew, returned from the coast to breed here in the Shropshire-Powys borderlands.

The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that 68,000 breeding pairs remain in the UK – about 46% of the 1994 figure. “But where are they? They’re not here, and they’re not in Wales or Ireland,” said Mary, the former producer of Shared Planet, who is walking 500 miles through Ireland and England to highlight fears about the decline of these distinctive waders.

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