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Australia's departing Chief Scientist on climate change

Posted on 27 February 2011 by steve.oconnor

Professor Penny Sackett, the articulate and charming Nebraskan who came to be Australia's Chief Scientist, resigned last week smack-bang in the middle of her five-year term. Although she was reluctant to discuss the reasons publicly, she was emphatic that the decision was hers and hers alone.

Penny was perhaps best known for her clear stance on global warming, especially her view that we need to halt global increases in CO2 emissions by 2015 and decrease them rapidly thereafter. I had met and interviewed Penny last year and found her to be funny, warm, immensely intelligent and an exceptional communicator. I had become intrigued at why her public speeches on the urgency of global warming were so completely at odds with the policies that our government was putting forward.

The ABC recently published a fuller version of our conversation. Here's an excerpt:

On committed warming:

"There's a fundamental concept that I think is ill-understood and that is the relationship between the emissions and the global temperature. I worry about this because there is actually something we can do about it and still we're not acting quickly enough. It's my feeling that most people think that the temperature curve looks just like the emissions curve but it's not that way at all. I believe our emissions will start to decrease, but it's very important to realise that the temperature will not drop when that happens because the CO2 will not come back down out of the atmosphere. Most of it stays there for a very long period of time, and it continues day after day to contribute to the greenhouse effect."

On Australia's potential to take advantage of the new economy.

"I think that as a developed nation, each and every Australian has two of the biggest carbon feet in the world, and - let's face it - an economy that is highly dependant at the moment on fossil fuel. If we can change, then surely anyone in the developed world can change, and then we become leaders. Not only moral leaders, but we will be better placed in an economic sense to take advantage of the new economy, which is coming and has already arrived in many places."

Read more...

In what may be some of her final words in the role of Chief Scientist, she warned that "all countries should immediately seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also prepare for the effects of climate change that are already underway, and those that the current science tells us we have yet to expect from the emissions that are already in the atmosphere."

Indeed.

I personally hope she can continue to educate people about the science of climate change and the necessity of urgent action.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 24:

  1. She “resigned last week smack-bang in the middle of her five-year term”.

    Perhaps she knows the end is nearer than we think.
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  2. This is very sad. I would anticipate the denial community will consider using the reduction time lag as an argument for unidentfied variables or non-causal relationships.
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  3. We really need this woman, and not just you Australians. Let's home Sackett lands where she can do some good- on television, here in the US if it doesn't work out Down Under.
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  4. This is the first I've heard of Ms. Sackett, but her stepping down certainly sounds like a serious loss for Australia. Hopefully for all of us she will stay engaged with the climate issue in some influential capacity.

    I'm glad to see her (and Steve) emphasize the committed warming point. I could not agree more strongly with her assessment that this is a misunderstood detail. I'd had numerous conversations, some of them with long-time, committed environmentalists, who have no clue whatsoever that CO2 has this incredibly inconvenient characteristic. When I tell them about it, usually quoting David Archer (The Long Thaw, p. 162) that 40% of the warming from CO2 emissions up to 2100 will only appear after that date, they're horrified. Some argue with me, saying it can't possibly be that bad, some immediately question the value of fighting the emissions fight at all, which turns into a whole other conversation.

    This is why I so hate our fixation with the year 2100. To lay people it often sounds as if it's a magic finish line -- keep warming below 2C by then and we've dodged the asteroid. When I tell them it's anything but that simple, they are not happy campers.

    And as for the value of 2C as a guideline or what happens if we "succeed" in cutting way back on sulfate aerosols and thereby unmask another big dollop of warming, I usually don't mention either one; they're depressed enough by then.
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  5. Like Lou, the first I heard of Ms Sackett was the news story about her resignation. A sad state of affairs, but I don't know who is to blame (although a fair share could be laid at the feet of the media for not considering science 'sexy' enough to get airtime, there are other players around).

    Regarding the committed warming - I was chatting to my brother the other night about the recent estimates of the effects of albedo change, due to less snow & ice cover. The estimated energy difference is 100 petawatts. That sounds awfully big, if you know what the 'peta' prefix means. For everyone else, it's 100,000,000,000,000,000 watts, which is just a ridiculously big number. What does it mean, though?
    Wivenhoe Dam, the main water storage for Brisbane, holds 1.4 million megalitres of water - at current rate of usage, that's enough to supply Brisbane for five and a half years.
    The energy imbalance due to albedo changes is enough extra energy to boil that dam dry in 30 seconds.
    (about 3 seconds to raise it from 20º to 100ºC, and another 27 or so to boil it)
    Firstly, I'm glad that it's spread over a very large area, rather than concentrated.
    Secondly, that's a scary amount of extra heat, and it's no wonder the permafrost up north is defrosting, and the arctic ice is shrinking each year...
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  6. Bern,

    >>> from math import pi
    >>> pi*6371e3**2
    127516117977447.06
    >>> _*1e3
    1.2751611797744706e+17

    Total insolation absorbed by the Earth ~= 127 PW. I think you're probably over-estimating by a factor of 1000 or it's 100 PJ/year change due to albedo change or something.
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  7. May be a good idea to listen to her personally, if you listen
    carefully, the interview and answers tell it all:

    http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2011/02/setting-the-record-straight/

    Everybody knows what is unfolding, some (actually most uf us) are just trying to keep on going for as long as possible.

    All the best to all.
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  8. What I find disconcerting is that Professor Penny Sackett, Chief Scientist for Australia should be leaving office after 2.5 years without having ever met Prime Minister Gillard and without ever having briefed her on AGW, "the most pressing issue of our time".

    Julia Gillards' protestations that she believes in AGW, her policy of not adopting a meaningful 2020 CO2 reduction target and her ongoing deferral (5-7 years) of an ETA, combined with Penny Sacketts' departure makes Australia a double looser.

    Let us hope that before leaving our shores and thereafter Dr Sackett will remind us of the very real urgency for Australia and the rest of the world, particularly the top 20 emitters, of the urgent need to deal effectively with curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Thank you Penny Sackett for all your work.
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  9. Ed Davies - it wasn't my estimate - it came from the University of Michigan. (was a story linked from the SkS tweets on the right side of the page) I have to admit I didn't do the calcs to see how realistic it is.

    I understand insolation is a bit higher than 1000 W/m2, though, so your figure is a bit low - but I agree, 150-odd petawatts total insolation, so the albedo figure should be at least an order of magnitude less, probably several, as it still only affects a small part of the earth's surface.
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  10. I read and copied (luckily) a long post from BP. It corrected Bern's numbers.

    It has been deleted without comment by moderators.

    It should be compulsory reading for all SKS contributors.

    John Cook et al; this is unwarranted censorship of a valuable contribution which will do harm to the credibility of this site.
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  11. Ken Lambert - The post you refer to was a long Gish Gallop of topics better discussed (and quite disproved) on other threads, with added ad hominem remarks. I'm not surprised it was deleted.
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  12. Bern #5

    I have a better example Bern.

    Think of all Australia's current electricity generation capacity as 100 units - about 83 of which comes from coal, 6 from hydro and the balance from hydrocarbon gas, diesel and 'renewables'.

    China alone will build the equal of 100 units of coal fired generators each year for the next 10 years - that is 1000 units. China will also build vast nuclear and other energy generation sources including renewables (mainly for export to advanced economies). The Chinese already have coal fired capacity 14 times Oz's total generating capacity so in fact by 2020 China will have 24 x 100 = 2400 units of carbon emissions compared with our current 83.

    Our great leaders have a target of reducing all carbon emissions across the board by roughly 5% by 2020. I can't recall if that is 1990 or 2010 emission levels - but it makes little difference compared with China and the rest of the planet.

    Electricity generation is about 40% of total carbon emissions. So roughly 2% of the 5% must come from de- carbonizing (shutting down) coal fired power stations.

    That is 2 out of little Oz's 83 units of coal fired generator capacity. Net result in 2020; 81 units of carbon emitted from our coal fired generators.

    To do this PM Gillard has just sprung a carbon tax, and prior to that, ex-PM Rudd had an ETS, a great moral challenge, a great abandoning of his ETS and a great fall, resulting in political decapitation by his own Party.

    Meanwhile back at the ranch (mainly in Qld and NSW), vast amounts of coal are being dug up and exported to China and elsewhere. In fact Oz's main exports are steaming, coking coal and iron ore. All that carbon gets turned into CO2 by the Chinese (and Koreans, Japanese, Indians and other economies).

    Crucially, our Federal and several State budgets heavily rely on this 'resources' boom for revenue (taxes and royalties) and dare we say - balance.

    So in the next 10 years, Australia will put itself through a 'carbon tax' to save effectively 2 units of carbon, while the Chinese alone will add 1000 units of carbon to the atmosphere, in addition to the 1400 units it emits today - a large portion of which will come from Australian coal mines.

    By doing this we will save the Barrier Reef and damaging climate change all over our fair land, and launch ourselves into the new 'renewables' economy and lots of 'green' jobs.

    Although we love home grown products, our 81 units of C in our CO2 don't know they are Australian. Off they go and mix shamelessly with those 2400 units of C in all that Chinese CO2 and spread all over the planet.

    Looks more like Chinese CO2 will ruin the Great Barrier Reef, derived from lots of Oz coal which finances Oz prosperity. 2400 is a bit bigger number than 81?

    I am sure a clever lady like Prof Penny Sackett can do the sums just like me, however, my feeble brain just can't work out the bit about: "If we can change, then surely anyone in the developed world can change, and then we become leaders."

    Prof Sackett - how do we leverage our current 83 units of carbon emissions and 2 units of reduction via the Gillard Carbon Tax to stop the Chinese *alone* from emitting 2400 units in the next 10 years? Do we shut down all our coal mines? Shut all our coal fired power? Freeze to death in the dark?

    Or, having no nuclear technology or industry due to labor and green politics - do we instantly go nuclear?

    Please explain??
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  13. Ken,
    In the USA deniers often make the argument that if we are the only ones who take action it will make no difference. This despite the fact that the USA has taken no action to reduce carbon emissions while some Europpean countries have taken actions. Spain generated 16% of its electricity in 2010 by wind, that would be 13 of your Ozzie units. Why are you claiming it cannot be done without "shutting down all of our coal mines"? It has been done without hurting the economy. As fossil fuel prices escalate the Spainish look better all the time. It is clear from your numbers that only by engaging all the countries in the world can this problem be truly addressed. If we want the Chinese to take action the developed countries have to lead the way. Your argument that we should wait for the Chinese to lead is simply a call for inaction. The Chinese make the same argument and say the developed countries should lead.

    Once the developed countries show how economies can function with less carbon the developing countries will follow. We can start with efficiency improvements and then add wind and solar electricity. We will see what the next steps are after we have started.
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  14. #10 Ken Lambert at 12:20 PM on 28 February, 2011
    I read and copied (luckily) a long post from BP. It corrected Bern's numbers.

    It has been deleted without comment by moderators.

    It should be compulsory reading for all SKS contributors.

    John Cook et al; this is unwarranted censorship of a valuable contribution which will do harm to the credibility of this site.


    Yes, it will. The more so because I've tried to respond to the act of deletion and KR's comments on it, but that post was also deleted.

    Anyway, here is the original one for anyone to see. Just make sure you've passed the Age-Verification Test before proceeding, please.
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  15. BP... I read through it and I see exactly why it was deleted.
    Go to the comments policy statement: "No politics. Rants about politics, ideology or one world governments will be deleted."

    You just took it a little too far and started turning it into a political statement.

    We've all had comments deleted for going a little too far over the line.
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  16. BP... I also have to say your whole thesis is jaw-droppingly pretentious. You are claiming that, "...any talk on committed warming is based on conjecture, not facts."

    In other words, all the radiative physics related to the greenhouse effect is wrong. In one sweeping gesture you push 150 years of accepted science onto the floor so you can make your case. From that point, for you to be correct, you must completely redefine and re-explain a vast body of work spanning a wide range of sciences, something you do not accomplish in the few remaining paragraphs of your post.

    I'm sorry but I honestly think the moderators were doing you a favor by deleting your comment.
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  17. #15 Rob Honeycutt at 10:16 AM on 1 March, 2011
    You just took it a little too far and started turning it into a political statement.

    The only remotely political statement was about my preference for saving people instead of a globe made of iron. I understand not everyone shares my priorities, but tolerance for expression of a diversity of opinions and beliefs is supposed to have some merit after all. Let's not forget it is a sui generis political thread where I've ventured that far. It is about the resignation of Dr. Sackett from a genuinely political post while quoting some of her political pronouncements like "I worry about this because there is actually something we can do about it and still we're not acting quickly enough."

    In other words, all the radiative physics related to the greenhouse effect is wrong. In one sweeping gesture you push 150 years of accepted science onto the floor so you can make your case.

    No, you have not read it carefully. There is nothing wrong with radiation physics. If there is a body heated by a steady incoming flux which is only radiatively coupled to its environment and its effective emissivity ε is decreasing while its absolute temperature T is increasing in a way that ε×T4 is kept constant, there is no heat accumulation in that body whatsoever. That is, as soon as its effective emissivity stops decreasing, its temperature also stops increasing. In this case there is no committed warming at all.

    Now, effective emissivity of Earth is not measured properly. If satellite measurements are to be believed, there's a 6.4 W/m2 radiative imbalance, which is impossible.

    Direct measurement of heat accumulation rate shows it is negligible. Therefore the pipeline is empty, the radiative balance is almost perfect.

    It simply means the surface warming which has already happened was enough to restore balance.

    Of course we can not conclude from this that equilibrium climate sensitivity is small. But there's a somewhat subtler proposition which is true: it is either small or the time constants involved are huge. That is, either there's nothing to worry about or we have plenty of time for adaptation, so we can relax anyway. The conspicuous urgency in Dr. Sackett's public pronouncements is unwarranted.
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  18. BP... Please show me the research that backs up what you're saying.
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  19. #18 Rob Honeycutt at 14:58 PM on 1 March, 2011
    BP... Please show me the research that backs up what you're saying.

    I can't because it gets deleted. Do your own research. You can start here or here then look around.
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    Moderator Response: The original post was deleted as it was off topic for this thread. It should be reposted on one of the pages linked to in your comment.
  20. michael sweet #13

    My points are simple ones. The Australian economy relies on coal and iron ore exports for a large chunk of its export income. The Federal Govt counts on this income and the taxes raised therefrom to run its budget - and so do State Govts in Qld and NSW.

    Our own carbon emissions are a tiny fraction of what carbon we export to China, Japan, Korea, India, Taiwan and other emitters.

    There is a massive contradiction in a Federal Govt imposing a carbon tax on Australians for negligible real effect on global CO2 emissions, while depending on and factoring in the income from increasing coal exports.

    Some would call it breathtaking hypocrisy.
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  21. In order to deal with the AGW problem the world needs to leave all the rest of the coal in the ground. When politicians realize that it is cheaper to leave the coal in the ground than to pay to rebuild after floods, like this years in Queensland, than something may be done. The developed world will have to lead before the developing world will follow. It is too bad that Australia has such a dependence on coal. They will have to find new sources of revenue. Hopefully they will not wait until AGW has destroyed their agriculture base before the change is made. If they wait that long it will be even more difficult to adjust. Right now the deniers are succeeding in delaying any action.
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  22. I hope you are wrong. I think we need to leave thermal coal in the ground and get energy elsewhere. However, making steel without coking coal is challenging. Surely the climate can cope with steel emissions provided other CO2 source are brought down?
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  23. michael sweet #21, scaddenp #22

    Both you comments betray a lack of appreciation of the realities of scaling up 'renewable' sources of base load power to replace 83% of Australia's - let alone the developed world's energy needs.

    PV Solar is still 4-5 times the cost of coal - without storage devices - and would need huge capital investment. Wind is simply too dilute and far from population centres and suffers from the same increased cost of storage devices and transmission costs.

    Geothermal is a serious 24/7 contender - but still too small, experimental and far from loads.

    Nuclear is the only ready to go technology which can deliver base load. Australia has 40% of the world's uranium reserves but again our politicians live out a hyprocrisy that it is OK to sell to China and NNPT signatories and let them dispose of the waste but we are too pure to use it ourselves.

    Prof Sackett would not be smart if she did not know all these things - yet she makes these unrealistic exit statements in the knowledge that she would never have to deliver a renewable future.
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  24. I am not expert on Australian resources but would have thought CSP not PV would have considerable resource in Australia. I agree though nuclear seems a pretty obvious way forward for Australia.
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