Fight for planet A: hope, lies and stunt based TV
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
In the lead up to my sister's death in 2018, we had a number of traumatic conversations about hope and lies. "Why do doctors have to tell the truth, when their patients would be better served by hope?" she asked. Climate change tosses the question into the ring yet again. What do we want? Truth, lies or hope? I'd opt for the first and the last.
Towards the end, my sister embraced all manner of alternative quackery with enthusiasm and gusto, desperate for hope in the face of a debilitating degenerative brain disease. She didn't want doctors telling her the truth. Every second of her daily struggle to do the most mundane of tasks already told her that truth; she was dying. So she invoked that most remarkable of human traits, the ability to keep all manner of contradictory beliefs in mind and rapidly oscillate between them. She'd scour the medical literature for the 1 in 100 studies that demonstrated an effect of whatever mumbo jumbo "cure" she decided to try; while meticulously planning her death.
Which brings us to Craig Reucassel's "Fight for Planet A".
Is he telling us lies in a desperate effort to provide hope in the face of a now obvious decline in the stability of our climate? Yes. But there is also plenty of truth. Reucassel shows us, by personal example, the failings of expecting personal actions to fix the climate. He enlists a few families and a tiny army of school children. The Governments who have failed us just love this kind of thing. It lets them off the hook. It hides a failure of public policy under the rubric of slogans. "Be the change you want", "You can make a difference", "Small things can make a big difference", etc, ad infinitum.
Why burden our children with the pressures of dealing with climate change? Greta Thunberg may well ask: "How dare he!" But he does. Keeping in mind that Reucassel is just the presenter. Perhaps it is the writers, producers or the entire ABC that deserve the blame.
Reucassel could have delivered hope without telling lies. I can do it with a single graph. Here are the per person annual greenhouse emissions from electricity production in 3 countries: Australia, France and Sweden.
This is 30 years of data. The solution to producing clean electricity has been obvious for decades. Of all the problems associated with fixing the climate, it's the easiest and we should have fixed it decades ago to buy time to fix the hard stuff. But we didn't.
Forget shorter showers, turning the lights off or changing them, or living in an overly hot or cold house. Sweden achieved her low emissions while also using far more electricity per person than Australia. It gets seriously cold in Sweden and they use some 13.3 megawatt-hours per person compared to just 9.9 megawatt-hours per person in Australia. The French use a little less than Australia per person ... but electricity usage is largely irrelevant if your electricity is clean (meaning sufficiently close to zero carbon).
Why didn't Reucassel present this kind of data? Probably because both France and Sweden achieved this result using nuclear power. "Don't mention the N word" isn't just about BLM and race relations.
The UAE have put us to shame. The first of 4 x South Korean nuclear reactors was connected to the grid recently. It will produce as much electricity each year as 47 Nyngan solar farms (one of Australia's largest). And it will do it 24x7. And there are three more to come in the next 3 years. And they won't leave a toxic legacy of cadmium panels and fluorine backsheets that will stay toxic forever. Not that I'm particularly worried about solar waste, it just happens to be harder to handle than nuclear waste because there is so much more of it and it is so widely distributed.
The UAE began construction on these reactors in 2009. Meaning they set up the formal bureaucratic structures required to plan, call tenders, and the like. That was the same year I started thinking that renewables (meaning wind and solar) weren't up the the task. When I reinvestigated nuclear power, I realised I'd been wrong for decades; about waste, cancer, radiation, mining, toxicity ... the full swag. Anybody seriously concerned about the climate should look at the above graph and start reading the science on nuclear. If you are illiterate about all these topics, here's a great place to start.
Bringing a disposable wooden knife to a gun fight
Many people have remarked about the difference between the global response to Covid-19 compared to the climate problem. Globally, our approach to this tiny virus is a pretty good example of applied problem solving.
Australia, like pretty well everybody else, didn't leave it to individuals to solve the problem. It didn't call on journalists or school children to come up with ideas. The Government didn't put up suggestion boxes or hold a plebiscite prior to taking action.
Nor did we opt for a market "solution".
Nobody proposed tax breaks to encourage people to stay home or wear masks. Nobody proposed a cap and trade system with limits on mobility where people who wanted to leave home could purchase permits from a fixed number on offer and with the price decided by supply and demand.
We didn't do that and nobody proposed it.
Instead our Government, like everybody else, made laws and rules and backed them with the full force of the police. Even the Swedes did this; despite what you may have heard. They didn't go as far as other countries, but they made laws and gave police powers to break up prohibited gatherings and penalise people. Many Governments even rolled out their military! That's the kind of action that pretty much defines taking a problem seriously.
Some countries certainly did better than others and there was some virus-denier nutter behaviour which flummoxed everybody and made effective action much harder. But almost unanimously ... Governments did their best to enlist experts, to listen to them, and to act forcefully and decisively.
So why does Reucassel spend so much time in his "fight" trying to enlist the public to act?
Is it because stunts are more fun than politics? I get that. Or is the entire series just stunt-TV?
"Oh look, here's me chasing Scott Morrison" ... "Oh look, here's me driving a $170,000 Tesla really fast" ... "Oh look, here's me delivering trees to bad people in really big shiny buildings" ... "Oh look, here's me diving on the reef" ... I'm surprised he didn't think of a stunt that required him to be in Antarctica.
Yes, that was a cheap shot.
But Reucassel's approach to diet and meat was so bad that he deserves some serious flak. It was pretty much the equivalent of Scott Morrison and his lump of coal in Parliament. Why would a journalist seek information on meat from industry advocates? And if they did, then why wouldn't they analyse that information critically ... instead of just suck it in and spray it around like an oil spill? Why didn't Reucassel visit a bowel cancer ward to look at one of the other consequences of red (and processed) meat? Why didn't he fact-check what he was told about methane?
Climate forcing; what's a forcing?
Australia's most powerful climate forcing is our ruminants, not our coal and gas fired power stations. How did the writers and producers and Reucassel get it so wrong? Probably because they wanted to.
The word "forcing" is climate science jargon, but it's not complicated. But if you, like Reucassel, are desperate to please, both yourself and others, then its safer to stay ignorant and just regurgitate the words of cattle industry advocates.
I wrote an op-ed in The Age about Australia's methane in 2008 with the then Professor of Climate Change at Adelaide University, Barry Brook. It was in response to economist Ross Garnaut also getting it wrong. Every climate scientist on the planet understands what climate forcing means and it even has it's own Wikipedia page ... so why, after literally decades of popular books on climate science which explain the concept, do we have people still talking about emissions and misleading people?
Probably because we live in a country with more cattle than people.
What is a climate forcing? Anything which changes the ratio of energy arriving at and leaving the planet. Think of a supermarket. If more people arrive than leave, over an extended period, then you have a problem. Close enough exits and you change the ratio of arriving to leaving. Slow people down in the aisles and you will change the ratio. In climate terms, changing the amount of global ice cover changes the ratio of energy arriving to leaving. Gases like methane and carbon dioxide do it also. As does soot from fires. Climate scientists will tell you that the forcing from an emitted tonne of methane over the next 20 years is over 100 times the forcing due to a tonne of carbon dioxide. Why did I pick 20 years? Because almost all the methane is broken down during that period. When Ruecassel asked Dr Roger Hegarty how much more powerful methane was than carbon dioxide ... Hegarty deliberately gave a misleading answer. I can assure you he knows the truth, he either didn't share, or perhaps it was edited out. Methane isn't 28 times more powerful weight for weight. If that was the factor climate scientists used in their models, they'd get the wrong answer.
Here's the trick. Suppose I drive from Sydney to Canberra and calculate my average speed by dividing the distance by the time. What time do you use? The driving time of course. If it took you 5 hours, then you wouldn't divide the distance by 50 hours. That would give you a false answer. The factor of 28 given by Hegarty divides the impact of methane by 100 years, despite it's impact actually happening over less than 20. Why would he do this? If enough people do something, it becomes normal, regardless of how ridiculous. All countries use emission inventories based on a standard that divides the impact of ALL gases by 100 years, regardless of the time they exert their impact, because it's easy. The actual science behind methane's impacts can't be captured in a single number and climate scientists don't even try ... they use precise modelling. Inventories are just accounting tools and not very good ones.
Innumeracy down under
Reucassel began his first episode with a bang. A chilling little display about why we need Government action on the climate. He asked people to rank some countries in order of their per person greenhouse gas emissions. The chilling discovery was not that people didn't know the rankings, but rather that so many people in one of the most educated populations on the planet found the concept of per person emissions either complicated or inscrutable. Happily a 12 year old girl understood the concept, so wishful thinking tells me that all is not lost!
Asking people to rank countries by per person carbon dioxide emissions was an inspired example to illustrate the need for top down decisive action. But Reucassel could have increased the value of the example by deeper probing.
If we need to globally slash climate forcings to a few percent of their current level, which we do, then that implies the every group of 25 million people need to slash their forcings. The fact that we are just one such group is irrelevant. Anybody in our Parliament running a line that our 1.5% of global emissions is insignificant should be sacked for culpable innumeracy; they are not fit for purpose. That would, in the current climate, free two birds with one key ... we'd get rid of parliamentary dead wood and the blank space would make social distancing a doddle.
There are 4 big problems that top the climate problem rankings: food, energy, transport and land use. Transport is the toughest because we have long had the Reucassel-style self centred solar rooftop approach to transport. i.e., We have such a high penetration of private transport solutions that public transport faces huge financial hurdles. Only in very high density cities does it make financial sense to have the level of investment required to shift people efficiently and conveniently en-mass.
Opting for individual energy generation and storage proves that some people learn nothing from history. We are doing it again, but this time with electricity. We are making it really hard for the kind of large infrastructure that we know can solve the problem. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice? shame on me.
Australia's energy market operator (AEMO) has been making noises about grid stability in the face of the solar rooftop roll out for years, but it is now taking action. When solar from rooftops spikes on hot days, the big generators can't sell electricity, so they turn off rather than lose money. AEMO's focus has been on the grid instability that this produces, but the deeper issue is the financial one. The decline in big generators will mean the rich will start buying more batteries, which will add fuel to the fire ... making the problem even tougher again. But of course, all the big mining companies just love batteries, making it even tougher to implement a workable solution.
So what are we to do with transport? Somehow we need to claw back individual car ownership and probably the only way to do that is by increasing the densities of our cities. Rack us and pack us. Australian urban sprawl not only maximises the space our cities occupy, but amplifies transport problems. The richer European cities tell us that it is possible to combine higher densities with more parks and gardens. But while we are still wasting time with the simplest climate problem, we don't have the time to focus on planning for the toughest!
And then there's food. I've already talked a bit about meat; particularly red meat.
But what about chicken?
Ask anybody why they care about the climate and their response will probably include something about wildlife or biodiversity. Reucassel showed footage of a burnt kangaroo collapsing; presumably during last year's fire season. We used to have 4 seasons, but I understand that there is a shuffling of the players with "summer" officially changing its name; spring, fire, autumn and winter is the new linup.
Why show that animal suffering if you don't care about animal suffering? But most people do care, they just use my sister's trick to simultaneously care on the one hand while shovelling chicken or bacon into their mouth with the other. And kangaroos? As a food source? How daft is that. The sustainability of a food source depends on the quantify of food you expect to extract. Kangaroos can supply only a percent or so of Australia's current meat consumption and even that amount entails significant cruelty ... particularly to the joeys whose mother is shot, either deliberately or by mistake. The science on both the suffering and pandemic risks associated with chicken production is very clear. Given current covid concerns, how could Reucassel not think about the chicken industry and future pandemics?
But again, food production is, like energy production, far too important to be left to markets and individuals. It needs bipartisan (or tripartisan) support for effective policies. Currently, thanks to people like Reucassel and many others, action on food from our politicians looks all but impossible.
Change without changing
People like Patrick Brown, the developer of the "Impossible Burger" realised early on that many so called environmentalists, not to mention everybody else, would never care enough about the planet to change their diet. Reucassel demonstrated this graphically. His tears watching climate demonstrations and obvious distress at land clearing were not accompanied by personal change. I've been dealing with environmentalists for decades and they are frequently disappointing; which is why I prefer vegans, for all their sanctimonious self-righteousness ... they at least walk the talk.
Brown realised this early on and set out to make a burger that was indistinguishable from a beef burger. This is to food what nuclear power is to energy. A solution that doesn't require people to conscientiously give up anything.
But electricity and food and pretty easy problems. Nuclear is a quick and easy fix for the first and veganism or fake meat can solve the second. Not that retraining the meat industry will be trivial. Many in that industry will fight, and it won't be metaphorical. They have a long history of violence and lies and they have plenty of friends in high places ... including the ABC. It's no accident that globally, slaugherhouses had some of the biggest Covid-19 clusters. They've never cared about their workers anymore than the animals they kill. The can, of course, talk the talk about caring ... there it is again, that duality of contradictory human beliefs.