28 April 2012

Reader Mail: Win Some, Lose Some

I received the thoughtful comment below from a reader down under about my ANU talk on The Climate Fix. At almost the exact came time, I received an email from another reader who explained that he recommended the talk to two atmospheric scientists at a US state department of environmental protection, who refused to watch it because I do not "acknowledge atmospheric science data" -- whatever that means;-) As a policy scholar you quickly learn that some people are willing to engage and others are not (and it can be surprising who falls into which category). Win some, lose some!
Reader mail

Thank you for this lecture, it’s a breath of fresh air in what I feel is an increasingly putrid political atmosphere with regards to climate change in Australia (no lame puns intended).

For example, just a few days ago, the ABC here devoted 2 hours of airtime (a 1 hour documentary followed by a 1 hour talk show discussion) to a tiresome ‘debate’ between a climate-believer and climate-sceptic (called “Can I change your mind about climate?” http://www.abc.net.au/tv/changeyourmind/), with all of the predictable and useless shenanigans resulting. Thankfully, your lecture undermines the pure silliness of such a question in the space of a few seconds. If only all of the people who wasted those 2 hours could’ve watched your 1 hour lecture instead!

Your refreshingly straightforward use of measuring sticks got me thinking about how the issue of decarbonising the economy is communicated by some people in Australia. It occurred to me that there may well be people smart enough to comprehend the enormous engineering scale of the challenge, but have found clever ways to disguise its magnitude by saying, for example, that Australia could decarbonise its economy by simply building a big 50km x 50km solar panel. Considering the enormous arid, sunny expanses of Australia, this figure can actually come across as underwhelming (!), as mentioned in this government report by ABARES (the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics) – http://adl.brs.gov.au/data/warehouse/pe_aera_d9aae_002/aeraCh_10.pdf (part 10.3.1, page 268), and in this presentation by a Melbourne urban planner, Rob Adams, who is talking about future energy use in Australia (though he misquotes the 50km x 50km, i.e. 2500 sq. km figure as 50 sq. km) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYJpdH-VGwc (15:44 in).

I did some simple maths from your presentation, which I think produces a comparable figure to the one mentioned in the ABARES report and Adams' presentation (assuming that each Cloncurry solar farm is roughly a hectare, 100m x 100m, in area – though this may well be an underestimate):

25% decarbonisation = 50 776 solar farms

100% decarbonisation = 203 104 solar farms = 450 x 450 solar farms approx.

(450 solar farms x 100m) x (450 solar farms x 100m) = 45km x 45km (rounded up to 50km x 50km)

Undoubtedly, it is more appealing to say that Australia’s carbon-free future lies in building one big 50km x 50km solar panel somewhere in the middle of the desert, rather than saying that Australia’s carbon-free future lies in building more than 200 000 solar farms. This is similar to the example you give of the hard imagery of dozens of nuclear plants versus the soft imagery of clean, green initiatives in the UK – a case of same difference.

Do you think this communication barrier can ever be overcome, when it seems that communicators themselves have figured out ways to massage the use of measuring sticks to make their messages more palatable? Or are we doomed to be stuck in a situation where hard, objective realities are obfuscated by people projecting their own mentally pleasing imagery onto them? I think it's a fascinating question that goes to the heart of the efficacy of political communication.


  1. If find it a bit disturbing that people can say that a 50km x 50km solar array would give us 100% decarbonisation as though the scale was the only engineering challenge involved.

    How exactly are we going to store energy for use at night? There seem still to be no good answers to this.

  2. but have found clever ways to disguise its magnitude by saying, for example, that Australia could decarbonise its economy by simply building a big 50km x 50km solar panel.

    Do you guys not have night in Australia?

  3. “As a policy scholar you quickly learn that some people are willing to engage and others are not (and it can be surprising who falls into which category).”

    Is it surprising to find that the “policy scholar” himself falls into the latter category? If you ever decide to honor your nearly three year old promise, you be sure to let me know:


    As always, I will thank you for your work in helping to debunk hurricane hysteria and a few other falsehoods. But, you still need to explain directly in an upcoming post why you find it necessary for governments to regulate CO2.

  4. Roger,

    I am (unhappily) watching your Australian presentation. I’ve gotten far enough to see that you appear to have some confidence in the IPCC computer models. So, since a willingness to engage is your theme in this post, I’ll ask you what you think of my assertion in the post below that all the IPCC computer models have (with a 95% degree of confidence) been invalidated by more than 15 years of global cooling:


  5. Roger,

    Since a willingness to engage is your theme in this post…

    I’ve watched 18 minutes of your Australian presentation. It appears to me that the ONLY justification you offered for your position that governments must regulate CO2 was to offer a few seconds of hand waving about (laughable) IPCC computer models. From there, you jumped directly into the viper’s nest of government policy options. I’m guessing you never again returned to any alleged justification for these government policies.

    Based upon that assumption, I will not waste anymore of my time on your presentation. If my assumption is wrong, please let me know at what point (minutes and seconds) in your presentation you offered some compelling reason for jumping into this viper’s nest of government regulation.

  6. I'd echo the comments about your lecture. I attended it and found it very informative, reinforcing ideas from TCF which I'd just read - thank you.

    Our Productivity Commission has just released the draft of a report entitled 'Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaption' and there were a number of columns about it in this weekends AFR. According to the newspaper the report says that priority should be on better risk management in the current climate rather than trying to predict the future. Seems eminently sensible.

    No word on this so far from Our ABC. They rigorously adhere to the orthodoxy on climate change. Their idea of a debate on future energy is to gather together a few solar evangelists. As you've said previously - Nuclear? We don't do that in Australia.

  7. Eaten by Blogger:

    "In response to Tom and Mark,

    My impression is that the 50km x 50km solar panel is mainly to be thought of as an allegory, to give people a mental image of the scale of the challenge facing Australia if it is to decarbonise. So don't take it too literally!

    As I've mentioned, the irony is that Australia is such a massive, relatively empty, sunny country, that such an allegory can give people the impression that the challenge is not that great.

    If a real world example were used instead, like the Cloncurry solar farm in Roger's talk, the response to the magnitude of the problem would probably be different. 200 000 solar farms = big number, complex problem; 1 big solar panel = small number, simple problem, if you get me.

    It's similar to the example Roger uses of the UK government publishing a thick guide to the variety of clean, green initiatives that could be implemented in the UK - the intention is to wrap up the magnitude of the problem in nice, pleasing imagery, rather than confront the hard reality of the problem by saying, for example, that the equivalent of 40 nuclear plants will have to be built in 3 years.

    My view is that this disguising of hard reality with soft imagery can ultimately be unhelpful, as it leads people to underestimate the scale of the challenge to be confronted. I agree with Roger that a frank acknowledgement of the magnitude of a problem is a good step towards resolving it.


  8. Luke (via Roger)

    Yes, I see what you mean.

    It's like the obligatory references to using tidal and wave power we keep seeing. They are there to say "it is possible if we try hard enough". Never mind that neither tide nor wave power are going to be anything more than tiny supplements.

  9. what's the us state department of environmental protection? there's the state department (which has a bureau of oceans environment and science) and the us environmental protection agency...

  10. -9-John

    "a US state" not "the US state department" ;-)


  11. Here in California, the same naive idea of building massive solar farms in the desert, was proposed years ago. In addition to the problem of generating power at night, there are other significant challenges. You need to completely redesign the power grid. The giant high voltage power lines would eventually going reach the suburbs where Californians would fight tooth and nail to prevent an eyesore. After all, the view would be screwed up, dropping the real estate prices.
    The further the power needs to travel, the more you loose in transit.
    Remember a lot of people find the pristine desert serene and scenic. The panels, not so much.
    As I understand, solar panel maintenance involves regular washing. Where will the water come from? We have problems with water shortages now. I'm not sure if there is a significant agriculture industry (for lack of a better term)down under. I've noticed that we import meat from Australia. So you're feeding the livestock somehow, right?
    I guess I'm a little surprised that Australia hasn't thought this through yet. You're smart people though, compared to Californians. So if we figured this stuff out, I know you will.