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Climate-contrary Nationals, strawman arguments and rewriting Australia’s Kyoto history | Graham Readfearn

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Members of the National party and farming groups have been claiming for months that landholders have done all the “heavy lifting” on cuts to climate pollution in Australia.

On Tuesday morning, the resources minister and Queensland MP, Keith Pitt, was the latest to make the claim.

“We know for example that under Kyoto we lost property rights in Australia through the states, and in Queensland that has been particularly damaging,” Pitt said.

Pitt is claiming that as a direct result of the Kyoto protocol – a UN climate deal that Australia signed in 1997 – landholders lost out.

Anyone across the history of the Kyoto deal – and Australia’s emissions from land clearing – knows there is no way this can be true.

The Nationals are in the midst of fractious negotiations with their Coalition partners the Liberals over climate policy, and have used this “heavy lifting” argument to justify potential exemptions and even retrospective payouts for farmers.

But Pitt’s argument is based on a revision of history that would require a global agreement on climate to have been signed at least seven years earlier than it actually was.

Nationals Barnaby Joyce, left, David Littleproud and Keith Pitt.
Nationals Barnaby Joyce, left, David Littleproud and Keith Pitt. Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

In 1990, government figures show emissions from land clearing were at about 193m tonnes – roughly a third of the country’s entire footprint. But by 1997, this was down to about 53m tonnes.

The first deal under the United Nations climate convention was not agreed until late 1997 in Kyoto, when Australia secured a deal that would allow its emissions to actually go up from 1990 to 2010.

That means all of those cuts to Australia’s emissions from 1990 to 1997, which the Nationals and others have claimed were down to “heavy lifting”, were in fact entirely inconsequential to any concerns over climate change.

And any restrictions on land clearing could not have been “under Kyoto”, as the resources minister has suggested, because Kyoto didn’t exist when the bulk of the emissions cuts were being made.

A review of state land-clearing laws and how they relate to Australia’s emissions found the first reforms that were effective in cutting the rates of land clearing were introduced in Queensland and New South Wales in 1995.

But those laws were about slowing down habitat loss and erosion and had nothing at all to do with climate change and nothing to do with federal government policy.

Dr Megan Evans, a conservation policy expert at UNSW Canberra, says there has been “heavy lifting” done by landholders on emissions, but this has come through the generation of carbon offsets through the government’s emissions reduction fund.

“The changes to land clearing regulations in Queensland and New South Wales predates Kyoto by several years. These laws were changed because it was recognised that too much land clearing is unsustainable and detrimental for soils and biodiversity.

“Unfortunately, the federal government retrospectively claimed credit for these resulting emissions reductions. It’s like if you did a Maths assignment in year 5, and someone used your work to claim credit for their English test in year 12.”

Climate contrarians

We are less than two weeks until the start of pivotal international climate talks in Glasgow, and the Morrison government looks as though it won’t revise its ageing 2030 target agreed under the Abbott government in 2015.

Abbott, of course, is a contrarian on climate science who thinks – against the findings of scientific academies around the globe – that natural factors like changes in the Earth’s tilt and the sun’s energy reaching the planet “are at least as important for climate change” as carbon dioxide, which he says is “actually essential for life.”

Arguments like these are “strawman”.

No expert anywhere, ever, has suggested that CO2 isn’t a vital component in the Earth’s atmosphere. The problem comes when you liberate trillions of tonnes of it by digging up fossil fuels and burning them. Water is vital to life too, but you can drown in it.

On Monday, the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC the Coalition party room was “caught in this vice” of “climate denialists that basically don’t take global warming seriously”.

Turnbull named four Nationals – MP George Christensen, deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, Pitt and senator Matt Canavan.

“None of them believe in global warming. None of them think it’s real,” he said.

On Tuesday, ABC host Fran Kelly asked Pitt: “Do you think climate change is real?”

Pitt responded: “The climate is changing. It’s always changed.”

No expert anywhere, ever, has suggested the climate hasn’t changed before. Pitt’s glib response is a classic of climate contrarianism.

The point is not that the climate has changed before, but that human activity – mainly through fossil fuel burning – is causing changes at unprecedented rates that will have grave consequences for economies and societies if not checked.

Let us stop and wonder at the spectacle of a Morrison government resources minister who, when asked if he thinks climate change is real, responds with "the climate is always changing... it's always changed." #COP26Glasgow

— Graham Readfearn (@readfearn) October 18, 2021


Climate Study Group

Last Wednesday in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, a group of climate science contrarians calling themselves the Climate Study Group ran a half-page advertisement on page 19.

This unincorporated group of non-experts on climate science has run several ads over the years, all making claims that CO2 is not dangerous, or that climate models or the world’s climate scientists are all wrong.

Last week’s ad was no different. But it also included this factoid: “In 2012 the Griffith School of Environment forecast that by 2020 there would be no snow. The 2021 season has in fact commenced with record snow.”

Did the Griffith School of Environment really say that?

In 2012, the Australian newspaper ran a story with the headline “Enjoy snow now … by 2020, it’ll be gone.”

But the text of the story and quotes from Griffith University’s Prof Catherine Pickering – based on a media release from Griffith University – didn’t match the headline. Not even close.

Pickering actually said that by 2020, the Australian Alps would “lose something like 60% of the snow cover.”

In an email, Pickering says her statements then were based on research carried out by the CSIRO a few years earlier.

She wrote: “Since that newspaper article, there is even more research indicating temperatures are already rising and reductions in snow cover have already started to occur.”

One study from 2018 summarised several other studies of trends across the Australian Alps showing snow depths and the amount of snow cover all falling in recent decades.

So what about that other claim that 2021 had seen record snow?

Pickering says her team has looked at conditions at Spencers Creek in Kosciuszko national park in New South Wales – a site used for observations and modelling of snow conditions.

While 2021 was better than 2020, “it still started more than a month later than the best year for total snow – 1960 – and was down over 1.5 m for maximum snow depth compared to 1981.”

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