It’s pig-headed thinking that has us in this climate change mess, that’s what I reckon.

Up the Track; conference of the AAEE
Darwin, July 9 – 12, 2008

 Acting in the face of uncertainty

 Greg Hunt
Executive officer
Western Port Greenhouse Alliance


Climate change will bring big change, but just how big we cannot know. How hot will the earth become? Which bits of the earth will become the hottest? Will sea levels rise? By how much? What will happen in Victoria? How will positive feedback affect these changes? 

 We cannot know with any certainty answers to these questions. Yet we must respond to them. This paper will explore some responses to climate change in the Western Port region of Victoria, how an alliance of local governments is dealing with this uncertainty and it will present some examples of project responses and the thinking that underpins them.

 We need a community that is prepared to embrace complex issues and is prepared to deal in best guesses. And we need a variety of responses to climate change and we need them now – or the changes will be just too big.

As Donald Rumsfeld so memorably put it: “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Can we know that the climate is changing, is this a known known  or is this a known unknown? If the former, we just have to work out the best way to respond; if the latter can we afford not to respond and just shrug our collective shoulders until it does become a known? Either can be a problem.

We deal all the time with the things we know, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. The way we deal with them depends on many factors – motivation and capacity being two of them.

For example, we’ve known for a long time that there is a strong correlation between smoking tobacco and lung cancer and the science now tells us that there is a causal link. There is however, a range of response as to how we deal with this information. Why do people keep smoking when the known knowns about smoking include the following: it is killing 50 Australians daily, 350 each week, and around 19,000 every year, it causes 20% of all cancers, 21% of all heart disease and costs $12.7 billion a year in health care, lost productivity and other costs. Who would argue that it is ok to smoke?

If however, your livelihood depends on the tobacco industry or your research is funded by them, your motivation for dealing with this known might be lacking. Similarly, if you are addicted to nicotine, you just mightn’t be able to give up. If someone knowingly sets out to create the next generation of addicts, perhaps where the motivation is to appear cool before one’s youthful peers, there will be strong sanctions – indeed, there are laws to regulate this.

In this paper, I wish to explore the issues of correlation and causation when it comes to dealing with the knowns and the unknowns of climate change. The known knowns should be easy, we know the issues and we argue within bounds regarding the best way to respond. It is within the known unknowns that we must operate and turn those unknowns into knowns. But there is no guarantee that we will always succeed in this and we cannot afford to wait anyway.

Are we confident that climate change is occurring? Why are there still sceptics? When we don’t know the direction that some changes will take and we certainly don’t know the precise magnitude of these changes, why should we make responses that could seriously disrupt our way of life? Can our unknowns become knowns?

ENSO and complexity

I think that difficulties in answering these questions stem from our science – science that is developing, reductionist and lacking in humility. Our science is still developing in that we are only now finding ways to deal with modelling complex systems. ENSO, the El Nino Southern Oscillation Index is an extremely complex meteorological phenomenon with enormous implications for Australia. El Nino is characterised by periods of severe drought and consequent rural hardship.

The Southern Oscillation Index first appeared in the literature in 1942, while ice-cores taken from the Antarctic are contributing to the knowledge we have now regarding atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Best guesses based on available data are regularly overtaken as further data becomes available. Our responses to data are regularly updated also.

Sucking the site of a snake-bite stopped being the recommended treatment once we found about movement of venom across skin-breaks in mouth lesions. Wearing seat belts became mandatory once the data regarding occupant injuries upon being ejected from vehicles in collisions was investigated. This is how science works and, in the most part, for this we should be thankful.

But it is also a feature of this development that we do not yet have answers to some highly significant questions. When precisely will the next El Nino arrive? For how long he will stay? How severe will be his effects? And when will his more welcome sibling La Nina visit? We are building this capacity, however through investigating fluctuations in rainfall, winds, ocean currents and sea surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. That we don’t know answers to these questions neither stops us seeking answers nor taking steps to minimise the devastating effects visited upon the Australian landscape.

Cane toads and reductionist science

I claim that our reductionist science isn’t always helpful either. A systems approach, which is a common way to deal with a complex inter-related set of phenomena, is a feature of science. Take the mountain and break into down into constituent molehills and deal with them, as they are now on a scale that is manageable whereas the mountain is just too daunting. But inter-related means just that and there are synergies within interrelationships. A telling example of reductionism leading us seriously awry is in the introduction to Australia of the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) in North Queensland in 1935. One hundred and one toads were released to control two pest beetles of sugar cane. Unfortunately, they were singularly unsuccessful in this but an insecticide, developed for use five years, later gave a control that the toads couldn’t. Meanwhile, cane toads were eating their way through many, many other species in the northern tropics ecosystem. The people who were working on the protection of sugar cane farms concentrated on simple food chains without considering food webs. Cane toads crossed into the Northern territory in the 1980s and are now threatening to move into Western Australia eating a range of prey species and poisoning those that eat them.

PV Rebates and framing issues

Something that else that doesn’t help is our inability to look beyond simple responses. An example here is the Rudd Government 2008 budget measure to confine the rebate for PV cells to this earning less that $100,000 p a. On social justice grounds, this looks to be reasonable thing – after all, who is in favour of welfare for the rich? Why is there a rebate at all? Because PVs at current production, materials, process and volumes manufactured, are quite expensive and are unlikely to be purchased in any volumes at all. With a rebate, what is a marginal decision for purchasing becomes a possible decision to purchase and there are sales for manufacturers. The greater the sales, the greater the investment in R and D for materials, for more efficient and hence cheaper manufacturing processes and so cheaper prices – which will mean the thresh-hold for purchasing becomes lower, more and more are sold and more and more carbon-free energy is produced. Isn’t this what is needed? PVs are not a social justice issue – they are an environmental issue.

Environment, economy and hierarchies of thinking

Many of our environmental problems stem from a fundamental cause – the hierarchy of importance with we view the environment, society and economy. Our current paradigm sees the economy as central to human concerns. The graphic below compares a Pig-headed model with a Nested model in a schema that shows the hierarchies of the current thinking of too many of our political and business leaders.

Nightly the TV news tells us of progress in the All Ordinaries, the FTSE and the Hang Sen. The value of the Aussie dollar against the Greenback, the price of TAPIS crude and the value of the Trade Weighted Index are nightly fare – clearly they are important. Their own segment within the news, with their own news-reader tells how these indicators of market are faring.

The economy is all important, and when we have the policy settings that ensure that we are in permanent growth, we can then pay attention to social indicators. The economy is healthy so that we can pay for schools and hospitals, a police force to ensure sufficient social harmony and a safety net so that those that the economy passed by can survive. We can then turn our attention to the environment and see what is left over to protect biodiversity or allocate environmental flows for depleted rivers. Figure 1 depicts this hierarchy and is what Prof Ian Low, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, calls the ‘pig-headed model’.

The fundamental question

The hierarchy is shown in considering BHP’s exploitation of gold in the Ok Tedi mine on Papua New Guinea’s Fly River. A rich ore body was discovered, and with the support of the PNG government, which relished the 20% increase in foreign exchange that the mine would bring, steps were taken to mine it. That it was in over 1000 inch per year rainfall country was an engineering challenge, not one that had been met before but surely nothing insurmountable for some determined engineers.

We know the result. There were no known engineering solutions that would prevent wholesale spillage of the mine tailings into the river. It became so degraded that people could no longer live there. BHP attracted considerable opprobrium and wanted to withdraw to salvage their corporate reputation. However, the PNG government was dependent upon the foreign exchange and wouldn’t allow the mine to be closed – eventually a buyer was found and BHP, with a much-besmirched name, retired hurt.

A mine with the gold that it contained was always going to add to the economy. The fundamental question to be asked, according to the paradigm described in the graphic was “would the mine produce gold and contribute to the economy?” The answer was yes. That answer was considered sufficient for it to proceed, the implications for the society and the environment were subsidiary issues to be treated as the project allowed.

Contrast this approach with that shown in the second set of Venn diagrams that sees the environment as all there is. Earth = environment = earth. This is the largest set and it contains many many subsets – society, biodiversity, geology, oceans. Within the subset Society, we have Australian society, Chinese society, PNG society. Each of these societies, and all other societies, depend upon the environment. Destroy the environment and there can be no society. Within the subset Australian Society, we have a strategy to make it work – our economy. We have other strategies to make our society work also – religion, the arts, ethics, engineering. Other societies have different religions, different arts, different ethics and different versions of economy. The way our economy works varies with time, and with context. It is a strategy for responding to circumstance – it is an artefact of our society.

Back to the Ok Tedi mine, if we subscribed to the paradigm in Figure 2, the question would be “will this mine harm the environment”. With our state of engineering knowledge, the answer is either “we don’t know” or “yes”. Either answer would be enough to not proceed with the mine, to damage the environment upon which society, the PNG society, depended. The mine would simply not be countenanced, in which case the economy which that society used as a strategy to manage their society would not even enter into considerations. This, I argue, is the appropriate hierarchy.

Water and forestry

The decreasing availability of water as Australia continues to experience very dry times, and possible becoming drier if this is climate change that is occurring, has led to calls for farm foresters and carbon biosequesterers to pay for the water that their growing forests consume. Indeed, according to Watermark Australia, a forest uses 5 to 6 megalitres per hectare for the first 20 to 25 years, the most active growth phase for a forest. This is water that is not going to reach a waterway or water storage for biodiversity or productive purposes.

There is a major problem with this, to be found in considering the very nature of plant growth and the need to replace vegetation to redress land clearing, to combat salinity and increase biosequestration rates and lock up carbon in response to climate change. Plants photosynthesise, that’s how they live and grow, taking the sun’s light energy to rearrange carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) to form carbohydrates such as cellulose and lignin and release oxygen.


CO2 + H2O = CH20 + 02


The world needs photosynthesis to occur at maximal rates. Any disincentive to photosynthesis, such as charging for water for example, will work against biosequestration of carbon, which is being favoured by any number of schemes, including the many offset providers that are active in the marketplace.

Ecosystem services

Deforestation has been denuding landscapes and diminishing biodiversity while it is bringing privately-held land into productive farming. Meanwhile, we lose the carbon sequestration that forests provide, we contribute to salinity problems and we allow in weed species. Indeed, Australia might meet its Kyoto target of 108% emissions at 1990 levels only through reducing astoundingly-high levels of land-clearing. Why deforest, we might ask? If you are farming, you need land to farm and if it is covered with uneconomic species, they must be cleared before the selected economic species, crop or pasture, can be planted. Clearing land is what you do, isn’t it?

Swamps should be drained too, shouldn’t they? But draining swamps and reclaiming wetlands for farming removes much-needed habitat from native species. Monocultures are susceptible to broad-scale pest invasions and when they are of exotic economic species, they provide scant succour for native species. Adjacent biodiverse environments such as swamps provide nesting areas for birds such as ibis which eat many crop and pasture pests, tree hollows harbour bees and other insects which provide pollination services while billabongs and other wetlands themselves remove nutrients from the water in a process of bioremediation. It is therefore in everyone’s interests that natural vegetation and wetlands, and the biodiversity that they support, are protected. The landholder, on whose land these features occur, foregoes the opportunity for productivity from this much of their land however.

If they don’t clear their privately-held property, they are providing a general public benefit in not doing so. Rather than the private benefit they would gain from their land, they should gain a benefit, from the public, for maintaining their property in a condition to provide the ecosystem services on which our biodiversity, and ultimately we, depend.

Climate Change

So to come back to climate change, or not climate change, as the few remaining sceptics have it. How can there still be scepticism, one asks? Scepticism can be a logically consistent position if one dislikes and is suspicious of change. If climate change is known to be real, a rational person must make a response. If one can convince oneself that it is not real, then no unsettling and possible costly changes have to be made.

There is still support for scepticism to be found if one looks in the right (?) places. Andrew Bolt’s columns in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, almost any article by Mathew Warren, environment reporter for The Australian (and ex-Director of External Affairs for the New South Wales Mineral Council – an industry association heavily invested in the promotion of coal-fired electricity and clean coal) and the dwindling number of scientists from a range of disciplines, not often from climatology however, who can attract media attention in an adversarial intellectual climate.

The noted environmentalist David Bellamy is sometimes cited in support of climate scepticism. The following excerpt is taken from Wikipedia:

In his foreword to the 1989 book The Greenhouse Effect Dr Bellamy wrote:

“The profligate demands of humankind are causing far reaching changes to the atmosphere of planet Earth, of this there is no doubt. Earth’s temperature is showing an upward swing, the so-called greenhouse effect, now a subject of international concern. The greenhouse effect may melt the glaciers and ice caps of the world causing the sea to rise and flood many of our great cities and much of our best farmland.”

Dr Bellamy’s later statements on global warming indicate that he subsequently changed his views completely.

In 2004, he wrote an article in the Daily Mail in which he described the theory of man-made global warming as “poppycock”. A letter he published in New Scientist (16 April 2005) asserted that a large percentage (555 of 625) of the glaciers being observed by the World Glacier Monitoring Service were advancing, not retreating. George Monbiot of The Guardian tracked down Bellamy’s original source for this information and found that it was Fred Singer‘s website. Singer claimed to have obtained these figures from a 1989 article in the journal Science, but to date this article has not been found. Bellamy has since admitted that the figures on glaciers were wrong, and announced in a letter to The Sunday Times on 29 May 2005  that he had “decided to draw back from the debate on global warming”. However he has not withdrawn his assertions about the causes of global warming.

A possible source of Bellamy’s error might be found on looking at a qwerty keyboard. The number 5 and the percentage symbol are on the same key. 555 can be readily derived from 55% by forgetting to press shift when hitting that key. Spellcheck won’t help and lax proof reading results in Bellamy’s assertion that over 88% of glaciers are advancing rather than retreating. Relax – climate change isn’t happening, you are invited to conclude. But it’s worse. The claim that 55% of glaciers were advancing, tracked down by George Monbiot, cannot be independently verified. It appears we are playing Chinese Whispers with the world’s climate.

It appears that there are many reasons to be sceptical about the sceptics. From a report published in June 2008: A review of environmental skepticism literature from the past 30 years has found that the vast majority of skeptics, often identified as independent, are directly linked to politically oriented, conservative think tanks. The study, published in this month’s issue of Environmental Politics, analyzed books written between 1972 and 2005 that deny the authenticity of environmental problems. The researchers found that more than 92 percent of the skeptical authors were in some way affiliated to conservative think tanks – non-profit research and advocacy organizations that promote core conservative ideals. .. The popular media often regard environmental skeptics as independent experts, despite their connection to industry-funded campaigns that seek to de-legitimize sound environmental science reports, especially on climate change, says lead author Peter Jacques, an environmental politics professor at the University of Central Florida. (Environmental Politics, Volume 17, Issue 3 June 2008 , pages 349 – 385)

Positive feedback

Because climate change is a monumentally complex issue and requires the effluxion of much time (try millennia) before it can be observed, there is ample room for differences of opinion. We do have many opportunities to reflect on the possibilities however.

To describe climate change we have a range of models, into which many many variables have been programmed, to suggest to us what might happen some time into the future as a result of elevated CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide levels. We cannot say precisely what will happen. The interplay of increased CO2 concentration which traps heat and increased levels of particulate matter, which reflect heat, is simply one variable. The decrease in albedo as the Greenland ice layer melts could cause an increase in temperature which means that albedo is further decreased and more ice melts. This decreases albedo  …  and you can fill in the rest. This is positive feedback, where a response magnifies the stimulus which results in a increased response and .. an exponential increase is the result. The corollary is negative feedback, where the response reduces the stimulus which results in a smaller response  ..  and a steady state.

Then there is the matter of CH4 release from the Arctic Tundra’s permafrost. There is a vast store of CH4 locked up in the frozen soil of the permafrost. As this warms, CH4 which is a 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is released into the atmosphere, thus increasing the rate of warming. If the arctic tundra warms sufficiently to release significant amounts of the methane stored there currently, the positive feedback that results might lead you to consider buying an inland Great Dividing Range property for beach access you are going to have.

Greenhouse Alliances

We, or most of us at least, know that there are many and major unknowns in regard to climate change. However, we cannot put off making our best efforts, the range of uncertainty notwithstanding, to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and implement adaptation actions now. For Victoria’s Greenhouse Alliances, mitigation and adaptation is what we do.

Alliances are groupings of local governments formed to implement practical responses to climate change. They seek funding from all levels of government to carry out project-based responses to climate change. Forty of Victoria’s seventy-nine councils are currently involved in Alliances. Local government, with their responsibility for rates, roads and rubbish, is the level of government with direct responsibility for resources and recycling, with knowledge of responsibility for local planning and with supporting local economic development and environmental protection.

The Western Port Greenhouse Alliance comprises the five councils surrounding Victoria’s Western Port, a bay an hour or so to Melbourne’s south-east. These councils span the full gamut of social and environmental challenges – the urban/rural interface, coastal development, urban growth areas, maintaining food production in the face of urban encroachment, providing services for growing populations of retirees, maintaining the environmental values of coastal areas, dealing with dispersed communities and managing areas with social and cultural diversity. Responses that are developed by the WPGA, in concert with member councils, will have applicability almost everywhere.

Where climate change issues relevant to the concerns of councils can be met with a project response, the WPGA will develop the project concept, construct the partnership for its delivery and seek funding.

These are the current projects of the Western Port Greenhouse Alliance.

Mitigation projects

Planet Savers

This school program involves school energy audits, retrofitting greenhouse mitigation technologies, training in the use of a tracking system to monitor energy use and professional development for teachers to strengthen the links between curriculum and school operations. In 2006, 13 schools reduced emissions by 150 tonnes and saved on average Aud$3,800 each. The WPGA, and schools everywhere, is looking to see the Australian Department of Climate Change implement programs such as this across the nation’s schools.

Sustainable public lighting

A significant proportion, in the case of City of Casey over 60%, of local government greenhouse gas emissions, let alone energy costs, emanate form the provision of public lighting. This project led to the development of SPLAPs or Sustainable Public Lighting Action Plans to show public lighting can still be provided but less environmental and economic cost. In a subsequent project the WPGA has prepared Business Plans for each member council for their Sustainable Public Lighting, including full cost/benefit analysis, to implement their SPLAP.

Agricultural greenhouse emissions

Fifty beef and dairy farmers are delivering, over this 3 year project, farm-level changes to bring about a 10% reduction in energy use, a 15% reduction in water use and a 10% reduction in waste to landfill, at the same time increasing farm productivity. Environmental auditors work with each farmer to identify changes that suit the farm’s management plan, the changes are implemented, their effects are monitored and the learnings are shared with other farms. Early indications suggest that the energy targets alone may be exceeded 4-fold. A challenge for the entire agriculture, and indeed the entire food sector, is the marketing that will result in consumers being prepared to pay the premium that enables producers to bear increased costs of sustainable production.

An offset project – Bio-sequestration

The WPGA manages a carbon-trading program for its council members to offset vehicle fleet emissions or perhaps corporate building emissions. The first tranche of 4 hectares has been planted with appropriate vegetation to sequester 3,800 tonnes of Carbon over 80 years. Use is made of council-owned land and plantings have biodiversity benefits and they contribute to public amenity. After completing this first planting, the WPGA will develop further carbon sinks on council-owned land to enable more council’s greenhouse emissions to be offset.

Geosequestration, upon which there is considerable current focus, delivers none of the multiple benefits of biosequestration and is akin to sweeping the problem under the carpet, or in this case burying it in depleted gas-fields. This focus on geosequestartion allows the wasteful use of energy which has placed us in this predicament to continue unabated. The oxymoronic ‘clean coal’ (coal is solid carbon after, so how can we have carbon-less carbon?) seems to be part of the argument. Allow current forms of stationary energy, remove as much carbon as possible from their emissions and then bury the rest and we don’t have a problem. This appeared to be the approach of the previous federal government and we look thus far in vain for major policy change from the current government.

Adaptation projects

Biophysical impacts

What are the likely biophysical changes in the low-lying Western Port region of Victoria as a result of climate change? In this project, the WPGA is working with CSIRO to quantify the likely extent of changes in Temperature, Rainfall, Sea level rise, Storm surge and Fire weather. Work then turned to local councils to identify what infrastructure for human settlement might be at risk with the level of predicted change. Economic modellers and risk assessors became involved to advise councils on their need to manage risk regarding  Thermal Comfort, Damage to Existing Infrastructure, Wildfire Risk, Emergency services, Existing Land Use, Protection of council assets, Location of Planned Major Assets and Future Land-use Planning.

Adaptation workshops have just been completed in which state and local government staff have developed the range of responses that can be taken to protect infrastructure and the communities that depend upon them.

A regional heat wave strategy

Research completed by CSIRO in the project referred to above indicates that currently there are, in the western port region, 38 days above 300 C currently. Their climate change modelling indicates that this is expected to rise by another 29 days by 2070. Heat waves pose risks for older people and infants and young children particularly. The WPGA is preparing a regional heat wave strategy to help identify areas of vulnerability and develop responses that will help avoid the consequences for vulnerable communities.

Phillip Island Penguin Parade

Over 500,000 people per annum visit Phillip Island’s penguin colony, the most significant regional tourism operation in Victoria and a major employer in the Western Port region. The coastal location could well face climate change impacts, while the 6,000 penguins in the colony could suffer if there are changes to temperature regimes and food availability. In this project, the possible impacts will be modelled and the options available to protect the penguins and the tourism infrastructure will be investigated.

Acting in the face of uncertainty

Projects such as these comprise insurance – insurance against the possibility that we are already facing serious climate change impacts. The nature of our science means that we cannot state unequivocally that this is the case. But correlations between changes in concentration in atmospheric carbon dioxide and increases in temperature, theories about the heat retention qualities of range of gases and observations about changes in the physical world suggests that taking out insurance is a prudent act. In many cases, there are other benefits as well. Implementing sustainable public lighting will cut a council’s energy bills by around 50%, carbon plantings provide biodiversity and public amenity benefits, schools deliver stronger whole-school approaches through Planet Savers and the region’s farmers are operating more profitable farms.

We could spend time arguing over whether climate change is real, whether it is human-caused or whether we should wait until we have certainty before we do anything. Or we can act prudently, follow the precautionary principle and mitigate, offset and implement adaptation plans and take the subsidiary benefits on the way through.

Not really a choice, is there?


Greg Hunt
Executive Officer
Western Port Greenhouse Alliance
c/- City of Casey
P O Box 1000
Narre Warren Vic  3805
0400 948 546