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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

The right to care deeply about the climate while being utterly useless

Adelaide doesn’t get much in the way of obstructive protests, but Extinction Rebellion has been in the news recently for blocking traffic; yes, that’s right, interfering with the god-given right to rapid transit in petrol-powered vehicles along state-built infrastructure. A woman, Meme Thorne, became a thorn in the lion’s paw of the state by suspending herself from a bridge in downtown Adelaide in such a way as to block traffic on one of the city's busiest roadways.

The Advertiser reported the views of various people who didn’t think much of the stunt. The Premier said he had no problem with protests, but this was “reckless”.

As a consequence of this reckless act, the ALP State Government, with Liberal Party support, rushed legislation through the State Parliament’s lower house to fine people up to $50,000 or three years in jail.

What were they thinking? It’s like they’ve been offended by a candle and decided to extinguish it with a fine mist of petroleum.

Then again, maybe it’s a carefully crafted conspiracy between the ALP and Extinction Rebellion? The over-the-top response will most certainly result in an influx of funds and people-power. Judging from the double page advertisement in the Adelaide Advertiser on May 30th, the money is already flowing; but perhaps only in the Advertiser's direction. The tag line of the ad was "Women didn't win the right to vote by asking politely!". The difference between expanding voting rights ... requiring a trivial legislative change, and the vast array of technical breakthroughs, mining expansions, and infrastructure redesign and rebuilding couldn't be more stark. Who thought these were analogous or comparable? We'll get to that later, but first.

I don’t have a problem with some kinds of protests which are unlawful and far more radical and costly (to somebody) than this stunt.

Consider direct action.

People trying to stop the live export of sheep (or other animals) have occasionally taken direct action to stop the ships by either interfering with port activities or the transit of sheep to wharves. In 2003, sheep waiting to be loaded had their feed contaminated by ham, thus rendering them unfit for consumption by devout Muslims. That’s direct action. Blocking a coal export ship or mining activity would also be direct action – non-violent direct action.

It’s tough to plan direct actions to make a substantive difference. Disrupting supply chains might cause them to be reconfigured, impacting activities and costs along the chain. But governments typically lose patience if you succeed in moving from the symbolic to the genuinely effective. But you might cause sufficient financial losses to bankrupt a guilty party that the state wasn’t controlling. That may not cause the industry as a whole much of a problem, but replacing a “bad actor” with a less bad actor, or even a genuinely good one, could certainly be a noble outcome. Getting rid of sheep ships with high mortality rates would be an example. Likewise, driving a mining company out of business that was building dodgy tailings dams could, in some cases, be simply forcing an action that regulators should have taken but didn’t.

Dangling from a bridge isn’t any kind of direct action. It delays traffic and causes a small increase in transportation emissions on the day it happens.

The book How to Blow Up a Pipeline (google it if you want, I won’t provide a link), has now been made into a film and is getting some discussion. Blowing up a gas, oil or hydrogen pipeline would certainly qualify as direct action. It’s taking action that delays fossil fuel use from that pipeline for a bit. But it will most likely have collateral damage that is missing from high-quality direct action. The collateral damage of a pipeline explosion would, more than likely, seriously offset and undermine any impacts of the action itself.

Any substantive pipeline leak, whether caused by accident and incompetence or deliberate sabotage, would be classified as a climate or environmental disaster, so it’s kind of interesting how you can cause such a problem and claim to be one of the “good guys” while probably wanting jail time for any industry executive who presided over a similar sized unintentional leak.

As direct actions go, blowing up pipelines is really in the brain-dead moron category. Which is probably why so few people do it; although I suspect plenty of people cast themselves in their own direct-action dreams with classic Bond or Schwarzenegger style.

However you look at it, neither blowing up a fossil fuel pipeline nor blocking traffic is direct action.

So what is it? Is there anybody in Australia who hasn’t heard of climate change? Of course not. So it isn’t about raising consciousness for an obscure and serious issue; I’d be fine with that.

Examples where consciousness-raising might be a reasonable goal, could include stopping traffic as a way of drawing attention to the plight of Uyghurs in solar panel (or polysilicon) production, or perhaps children in cobalt mines digging metal for battery makers, or to the ocean dumping of tailings waste from nickel mining in Indonesia; also for battery makers. In fact, all over the world, big miners are carving up resources in a dramatic race to get the lion’s share of metals required to harvest “free” “renewable” energy. I used the quotes to indicate that the life cycle impacts of harvesting renewable energy can be substantial; after all, the resources used to harvest the energy aren’t renewable. Often, these mineral carve-ups are in developing countries where legal standards, regulation and governance are weak. The consequences of energy blindness and anti-nuclear stupidity have produced more than a few issues requiring consciousness-raising.

But our own miners are also carving up the country. If you aren’t aware of it, then perhaps I should abseil off a bridge to help focus your attention. But being aware isn’t the same as understanding. Carving up Australia in support of bad energy decisions may be more benign than mining in countries where governance is weaker. But generalisations are dangerous; mining in developing countries could also help enrich those countries, assuming reasonable contracts.

I certainly share Meme Thorne’s frustration that Australia has been a climate laggard for a couple of decades. But my outrage is also directed at the morons who have us dependent on gas, when we could have switched to nuclear. I suspect Thorne is among them, Adam Bandt certainly is. As was I, until I started fact-checking anti-nuclear bullshit.

But inadequate consciousness about the climate problem hasn’t been an issue for at least a decade. The fact that some people don’t give a damn won’t be fixed by anybody else simply shouting more loudly… or hanging off of bridges.

The current problems with our (global) climate response aren’t so much a lack of will as they are a surfeit of naivety. This is hardly surprising, considering the:

  1. Multifactorial nature of the problem. We like single causal chains and are constantly befuddled by multifactorial problems.

  2. Engineering and scale issues. Decarbonising transport, for example, isn’t simply a matter of switching from one kind of vehicle to another. EVs aren’t zero carbon, they aren’t even close. They are like switching from coal to gas. Useful in the short term, but with a real risk of locking in something that can’t be a big part of a long-term solution.

Looking around the world at present, I see no shortage of will to solve all the various problems we need to solve to get to net zero. But will isn’t the same as ability.

What’s a suitable punishment for climate protest disruption?

I’d be dolling out little projects to each protester. Perhaps come up with an alternative to nylon for climbing ropes. Ms Thorn was almost certainly relying on a fossil fuel product to keep her safe while dangling under the Morphett St bridge. The carbon footprint of nylon is much smaller than something like leather, but it is still a problem which needs fixing. Or perhaps a 6,000-word essay (with pictures) on how to build a clean aluminium smelter? Or a 3,000-word essay describing the machinery and processes required to recycle tyres into oil, complete with the calculations of the costs and benefits? Perhaps design a carbon offsetting scheme to compensate for all the non-zero- carbon EVs sold over the next decade. BMW reckon their cars will be, in total, about 40% less carbon intensive in 2030 than they were in 2019.

Even better than words would be to establish a pilot plant to recycle Tesla batteries or a method of recycling solar panels that can deal with the deadly fluorine gas resulting from heating from some of the best backing sheets.

There is no shortage of tasks that need doing but the real purpose of this kind of “punishment” is to raise consciousness about the scale and difficulty of all the problems we need to solve.

All these problems require considerably more brainpower than is required to stop traffic or paint a slogan on some corflute. A project with a little depth might convince people that the “breakthroughs” reported daily in newspapers are a long way from being scalable solutions.

Consider steelmaking.

The global production of over 2 billion tonnes of steel a year is responsible for 7-9% of greenhouse gas emissions. British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta is proposing to clean up steelmaking in South Australia with a $500 million dollar project. He has ordered the electric arc furnace … a big part of the solution. The term “electric arc furnace” is a bit of a giveaway; run it on coal and it won’t be clean, you need 24x7 reliable power. Recall when South Australia was blacked out in 2016? Steelmaker Arrium spent plenty of time jackhammering slag off its blast furnaces. The company was already in trouble and didn’t need to lose an extra $30 million as a result of that blackout. It later collapsed.

Plenty of European companies are getting started on low-carbon steel making.

The Economist reports 28 projects around the world at various stages. If they all succeed during the next decade or so, they’ll make 60 million tonnes of clean steel a year. That sounds like a lot.

That’s 5% of global steel production, which is, as I mentioned, over 2 billion tonnes.

Each of these projects is massive. It’s really hard to explain how big and complex each of these tasks is to people whose idea of a tough problem is getting 20 people to arrive on time and armed with a can of spray paint.

People who think abseiling off a bridge is a complex and impressive feat might like to try designing a clean steel process. I don’t know what sized furnace Gupta has ordered, but the largest of these furnaces that I know of can produce about 4 million tonnes of steel per year. That's certainly the scale of what is required in this single site. Divide 2 billion by 4 million to get the number of these sites required. And this isn't the only thing needed for zero-net-carbon steel.

Let’s try and understand the scale of this.

Four million tonnes of steel a year from a big electric arc furnace is 450 tonnes per hour. Imagine standing on a road where a 2-tonne vehicle goes past every 16 seconds; that’s roughly 450 tonnes of steel per hour. At 475kWh per tonne, you are looking at a 200MW power supply. Victoria’s so-called “Big Battery” would be flat in under an hour.

Or consider aluminium. The Tomago smelter in NSW needs a reliable 1,000MW power supply to be running at full capacity. There are no batteries anywhere on the planet that can keep a plant like that running during an evening lull in wind power. I’m writing a separate post on aluminium … stay tuned.

The problem isn’t (any longer) that people don’t take the climate crisis seriously, it’s that climate activists rarely understand either the engineering problems or the scale of the required solutions. Even top-class scientists can fail to appreciate the scale of problems we face. Their focus is often on the exquisite details of tiny components. They often fail to grasp the yawning chasm separating today's “breakthrough” from the 20 years of engineering required for deployment.

The people who will get us to net zero will be engineers, non-animal farmers, miners, tradies and some of our scientists. It’s hard to rank these groups, and differentiating science and engineering isn’t always simple. The great thing about Australia’s AUKUS submarine deal isn’t the submarines, it’s the STEM-skilled workforce that will be developed as a result. Why does it take a submarine to spur such things?

Abseiling off bridges might be heaps of fun, but it isn’t on the list of climate-cooling skills. The rest of us do our venting in private or perhaps write the occasional blog post!



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