On climate change and world hunger

Bjorn Lomborg, writing in The Australian newspaper of January 19 2018, claims that climate change policies may be making world hunger worse.

He notes that after years of decline in global hunger, it increased in 2016 affecting 815 million people, an increase of 38 million from 2015.

He notes that the FAO blames the rise on a proliferation of violent conflicts and climate-related shocks.

He says that achieving the Paris agreement on climate change will not change the frequency and severity of climate-related shocks and that the huge investment in mitigating climate change could make global hunger worse – by encouraging the production of bio fuels rather than food and by diverting resources from strategies to reduce world hunger.

I am not as confident as Lomborg that actions to reduce climate change will have no impact on the frequency and severity of future droughts and floods that can reduce food production.  Also, violent conflicts which affect world hunger can in themselves be an outcome of climate change.

We do have to tackle multiple problems, on multiple time horizons, simultaneously.

Here is a suggestion that can reduce world hunger and mitigate climate change.


In Australia, and in many other countries, greenhouse gas emissions are rising even though they are falling on a per capita basis (an excused used recently by Josh Frydenberg, the Australian government’s minister for energy and the environment, to justify Australia’s continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions).

Reducing world population growth will tend to reduce both future world hunger and future greenhouse gas emissions.

Increased access to family planning services in countries which are prone to bouts of food shortage would be a great investment for the future.

Will electric car dreams come true?

It is very pleasing that Josh Frydenberg is talking of a bright future for electric cars (More than electric dreams, The Age, January 13).  He cites three reasons for the low take-up of electric cars in Australia (high purchase price, low range, and lack of infrastructure).  There are at least two other reasons.  The price of electricity has increased by 126% in the past ten years, while the price of motor fuel has risen by only 3% and no doubt drivers are expecting more steep price increases for electricity in the future.  In addition, the vast majority of electricity is produced by burning coal, so recharging the battery will still result in carbon dioxide emissions.  What is needed is a plan to generate significantly more renewable energy at cheaper prices and to stop blaming renewable energy for electricity price rises.  Only then will electric cars become more than an electric dream.

The above is my original letter to The Age, which was published on January 17 2018.  The published letter was edited because the 3% increase in the price of automotive fuel over the past 10 years, while true, was considered to be unbelievable.  The price index fell during 2015 and 2016 which compensated for rises before and since.

There is another reason for resistance to electric cars, in Australia and elsewhere.  The batteries do not charge as quickly as filling a tank with petrol or diesel.  New technology, probably in the form of super-capacitors may fix that problem in the future.

The rainbow and marriage equality

The rainbow is an important symbol in most cultures dating back millennia.

In the Bible (Genesis 9:13) the “bow in the clouds” is an important symbol of the covenant between God and Earth.

In the legends of Australian Aboriginals, the Rainbow Serpent came from beneath the ground and created huge ridges, mountains, and gorges as it pushed upward. The Rainbow Serpent is understood to be of immense proportions and inhabits deep permanent waterholes.  It is in control of life’s most precious resource, water.

In Norse mythology, the rainbow connects the realms of the gods and humans.

Newton explained the physics of the rainbow and, according to Keats and others took the mysticism out of the rainbow.

The rainbow is a symbol of diversity and it has been adopted by the marriage equality campaign in Australia.  I support marriage equality because I think it will make a lot of people happy and I have seen no compelling evidence that it will do any harm.

Another reason I have for supporting marriage equality is that there are a lot of urgent problems confronting Australia, including a stagnant economy, energy supply, and climate change.  If we pass marriage equality into law, which is easy to do, we can then focus our minds on these other issues.

I have created a postcard to mark the magic and legends of the rainbow, as well as the diversity of Australians. – which should be celebrated and nurtured.

The postcard depicts the rainbow with one end on a termite mound at Cape Range national park near Exmouth in north western Australia (no pot of gold there).  It shows that the parliament and churches are overarched by the rainbow, as we all are.

The postcard can be purchased here.

Russia’s key role in resolving climate change

New Scientist magazine (5 October 2013, page 17) reported that the collapse of the USSR resulted in the largest ever human-made carbon sink.

When the USSR split into separate republics in 1991, the loss of government subsidies and privatisation of land resulted in 455,000 square kilometres of farmland being abandoned.

As plants reclaimed the land, 42.6 million tonnes of carbon have been locked away every year since 1990 – equivalent to storing 10% of Russia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel.

More recently, The Age reported that Russian villages are disappearing as the population declines.  As a result of some villages and hamlets becoming deserted, trees grow up through the old roads, making them impassable (July 31, 2017, reproduced from the New York Times).

This is a good situation for mitigating climate change, even if it is not a deliberate strategy.  A smaller population, assuming that carbon dioxide emissions per capita are not growing, means a fall in total emissions.  And an increase in the number of trees means more absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

United Nations population projections are for Russia’s population to decline from a figure of 144 million in 2017 to 133 million in 2050 and 124 million in 2100 (World Population Prospects, 2017 Revision).

Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions are rising after a large drop in the 1990’s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Russia’s plans for emissions reductions are not ambitious and it is not clear that President Putin is convinced of the need for reductions (http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/russianfederation.html, accessed 6 September 2017).

It is just as well that new trees are growing – Russia is a relatively large emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Russia is important to resolving climate change in another way.  It has vast forests, greater than the Amazon.  It has approximately one-fifth of the world’s forest areas.  Significant clearing would release vast amounts of carbon dioxide, so it is vital that these forests are protected.

With a better commitment and strategy, Russia has the potential to make a major contribution to a global reduction in net emissions.

Light of Life

My photo book contains a selection of momentary ethereal lights.  Here are captions for the photographs.

Front cover: just after sunset in winter from Princes Bridge in Melbourne.  The Yarra river seems luminous.

Some versions have a different front cover: sunrise over a mist-shrouded Ararat.

Page 2: just before sunrise, Brunswick.

Page 3: Sunrise, Brunswick

Page 4: Stonehenge inspiration.  Sunrise at the winter solstice, Brunswick.

Page 5: Hawaii sunset

Page 6: Sunset, Great Western, Victoria

Page 7:  Just after sunset, Hawaii

Page 8:  Rainbow, Melbourne

Page 9: Rainbow, Melbourne

Page 10: Rainbow, Cape Range National Park, north western Australia

Page 11: Rainbow, Bali

Page 12:  Sunset, Ningaloo Reef, north western Australia

Page 13:  Storm viewed from St Kilda Pier, Melbourne.

Page 14: Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.

Page 15: Yarra River reflections, Melbourne.

Page 16: Rainbow, Puerto Williams, Chile

Page 17: Rain and shafts of sunlight mingle, Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

Page 18:  Sunset, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Page 19: Aurora Borealis, Tromso, Norway.

Page 20: clockwise from top left.  Sundog, Brunswick, 2012; total eclipse of the sun, Port Douglas 2012; Transit of Venus, Melbourne, 2012; total eclipse of the moon, Melbourne, 2011.

Back cover:  Sunset from Spencer Street Bridge, Melbourne.

Some versions have a different back cover: Morning colour at Philip Island.

Purchase the photobook.


Fallout from the Trump Paris Pullout

US President Donald Trump dumped America’s involvement in the 2015 Paris climate accord on 1 June 2017.  In doing so, he fulfilled an election pledge but also sealed the fate on a global climate change strategy.  We have been trying to achieve one since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit without a lasting agreement involving all major emitters.

His pullout is unlikely to result in more coal jobs in America, nor will it stop America’s progress towards a lower carbon dioxide intensity economy.  It is likely. However, that progress will be slower and it is possible that other countries will follow suit.

In May, the US Energy Information Administration reported that carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation was the lowest in 2015 since 1993 – and 21% below the 2005 level.  The amount of electricity generated from coal powered stations peaked in 2005, displaced by natural gas (which emits 60% less carbon dioxide per kilowatthour of electricity) and renewables.   In 2015, coal provided 34% of total electricity generated, natural gas 32%, nuclear 20%, and renewables 13% (up from 8% in 2005).

Of more concern is the possible return to the debate about whether the climate is changing and whether we should do anything at all about it.  The re-emergence of anthropogenic climate change denial may slow progress and in particular, prevent bipartisan agreements on government strategy in countries like Australia.  This appears to be happening, threatening a repeat of bitter political fighting over the issue of emissions trading in the US and Australia in 2009 which resulted in an absence of effective long-term national strategy in both countries.

While we should continue to achieve a global accord, we need to increase efforts aimed at resolving the issue of climate change in the absence of one.  Indeed, other governments (federal, state, and local), companies, and individuals will need to step up their efforts to reduce emissions.  There is some evidence that this is happening.

This is a short extract from a book I am writing about how we can effectively deal with climate change, even in the absence of an international agreement – or in the case of Australia and the USA, without even a national agreement.


Orangutans in Sumatra

Report to supporters

Gail and Charlie’s field trip to Sumatra, May 2017

We had a very successful trip, which was both enjoyable and informative.  It also presented a few challenges.  We are in no doubt that the work of The Orangutan Project (TOP) in re-establishing a viable orangutan population is successful and worthy of support.  TOP also has projects elsewhere in Sumatra and in Borneo.  Details are available on their website.

The Project

Orangutans have been extinct in central Sumatra for over a century.  The project, led by Leif Cocks as chief of TOP, has been running for 15 years and is based on 38,000 hectares of concession bordering a national park of 144,000 hectares.  They hope to take over another concession of 20,000 hectares.

A population of over 170 orangutans has been established.  These are mostly formerly captive animals who TOP staff have schooled in how to live in the wild.  The objective is to increase the population to 500 so that there is sufficient genetic diversity to support natural growth to 2,000.

There are also 150 elephants, about 40 tigers, some sun bears, and many other animals.  The Sumatran tiger is nearly extinct and this represents perhaps one-third of the total population left.  The elephants are tracked to minimise the risks to them and to minimise conflicts with local villagers.

They employ 200 staff working in a wide range of activities, including security.

Our activities

There was no vehicle access to the Bukit Tigapuluh camp because heavy rain had caused some bridges to be damaged.  So after our six hour trip by car from Jambi, we had a four hour walk, carrying our backpacks, over a very muddy track and wading rivers.  It was hot and humid, plus we had been out of bed since 3am to fly from Jakarta to Jambi.  We were all tired by the time we got to bed.

We went out with technicians to observe recently released orangutans.  They use telemetry, which is enabled by a small transmitter attached to the orangutans, to track them.  This process goes on for three years after release, to ensure that they are thriving.  We saw several orangutans, including some who were no longer being tracked but came to observe us!

We were attacked by leeches from the forest floor, so we lost some blood.

Three days later, we had the four hour walk out so that we could be transported to the orangutan sanctuary where jungle school is conducted, on the other side of the national park.  This is where orangutans are taught how to live in the jungle.  They are kept in cages and fed what they will eat in the wild, but they are released for several hours a day to learn about the jungle.  They are monitored by observers during this time.  They are also provided with enrichment, which develops their problem solving skills.

This photo shows construction of one enrichment activity, which hides fruit and bush honey in amongst leaves within a section of fire hose,  Many other enrichment designs are deployed.

In the evenings, Leif Cocks provided interesting talks on the various aspects of the project.

A thief in the night

One night, at 12.30 am, Charlie heard something shuffling across the porch outside our hut.  Then there was something banging a short distance away.  It was a clear night with a full moon.  In the shadows of the trees, an animal was banging something onto the ground.  It looked like an orangutan so Charlie woke Gail to have a look.  She thought it unlikely that it was an orangutan because they sleep in their nests in the trees at night.

A short while later, there were more noises outside and the animal was closer and not shaded by the trees.  It was carrying a sheet of some material in one of its feet.  Charlie called Gail again and it was agreed that it was an orangutan.

Next morning, we found one of our neighbour’s boots on the track and Gail’s poncho also, that was what it had been dragging along.  We had left waterlogged boots and clothes on the porch to dry.  We had also left small containers of sunscreen and insect repellent.  These too were on the track – they had been opened and a finger had clearly explored the contents.

Coming back from breakfast, we noticed a muddy handprint on our neighbour’s door.  It was clearly left by an orangutan.  The doors were not locked.

The full moon plus a clear sky had provided an opportunity for exploration and mischief.

Our learnings

The establishment of a new orangutan population is the best way to release captive animals.  In other areas we have visited, they have been released into areas with existing populations – this may limit the opportunity for growth of existing populations despite being a good thing for the released animals.

Palm oil plantations are destroying what little forest is left.  We knew this, but did not know that plantations for paper are also increasing rapidly.  This means we must reduce demand for both palm oil and paper.  About 80% of the Sumatran forest has been lost to plantations and (mostly illegal) logging.

Leif Cocks is looking to establish rainforest shade grown coffee so that locals can make money from the forest while orangutans can still live in it.

There are rubber plantations and orangutans can survive in these, so long as a range of food trees are also established (green rubber?).

This visit confirmed that orangutans are our closest cousins.  They are very intelligent and capable of learning at all ages.

Overall, we were heartened by the work of TOP.  It is increasing the orangutan population and both protecting and expanding habitat for orangutans and other threatened animals.

The forest is vibrant with a diverse range of flora and fauna living in a symbiotic relationship.


Resolving Climate Change

In June 2017, it will be 25 years since the first Rio Earth Summit.  Planning for that event started in 1989 and it was attended by representatives of 172 nations, 108 of whom were heads of state.  Amongst the many resolutions was a United Nations Framework on Climate Change which set out plans for avoiding dangerous climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and has produced five detailed climate assessments (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, 2014) each of them containing increasingly certain conclusions that human activity is affecting the climate and that the consequences for future decades are dire.  Thousands of scientists have contributed to these assessments.

Despite all this, not everybody believes that the climate is changing, or if it is, that human activity is responsible.  Not everyone believes the scientists.  In fact, not all scientists believe the majority of scientists.

Accordingly, politicians have not acted with sufficient resolve to implement effective measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The result is that the amount of the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, continues to rise and the rate of increase is not decreasing.

International agreements have been too weak and have not been universally supported.  US President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of the 2015 Paris agreement, which came into effect in November 2016.

Federal governments in Australia (under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) and the USA (under President Barak Obama) failed in their efforts to legislate the implementation of emissions trading schemes in 2009.

The trends in measured temperatures globally and the predictions of climate models suggest that we could pass the target of not exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius increase on pre-industrial temperatures within 25 years.

If that is to be avoided, a very different approach to reducing atmospheric greenhouse gasses is urgently needed.

The book I am writing on this problem, Resolving Climate Change, develops a new strategy to address climate change.  I am seeking funding to assist in bringing the book to market.

More information at OzCrowd

The planned chapters of the book include:

·         A review of the empirical and theoretical evidence that human activity is causing climate change.  This includes analysis of trends in temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Global and Australian data is analysed.

·         A breakdown of the contributing sources of carbon dioxide emissions in Australia and trends over time.

·         Analysis of changes in the levels of belief in climate change and support for action.  This identifies and quantifies the factors driving changing levels of belief and support for action.  Several time series data sets are analysed, from both Australia and the USA, as there are strong parallel trends in these countries.

·         Analysis of the levels of support for several specific types of action to reduce greenhouse gasses.  This is mostly Australian data.

·         Development of strategies to mitigate climate change which are less dependent on the level of belief in climate change amongst the general public and politicians.

As well as seeking donations to cover the costs of additional research, writing, producing, and marketing the book, I will seek the inputs of donors in the form of opinions and assessments of strategic options.  This is optional and opinions will be analysed in total only to guarantee anonymity.  It does not matter whether you believe in climate change or not – your opinions are an important contribution to the resolution of climate change.  Contributors will receive a summary of this survey and first drafts of chapters.

Progress towards the writing and publication of the book can be monitored at www.climatefuture.com.au.  The book will be published anyway if my target level of funding is not achieved, but it will take longer.

I have been monitoring climate change and related opinions of the general public for over a decade.  I am a member of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and attend their conferences.  I subscribe to Nature Climate Change.  I understand the science and the drivers of belief.

My company, foreseechange (www.foreseechange.com) has been tracking the level of belief in imminent global warming since 2005 – the longest continuous annual survey in Australia.  Analysis of this data, along with data from the Lowy Institute, the Climate Institute, IPSOS, and others in Australia, plus Gallup data from the USA appears in the book.  This data analysis identifies and quantifies the drivers of the level of belief in climate change and support for action.

Prudent risk management requires that we take action to avoid dangerous climate change, whatever our beliefs about its existence and causes.  Fortunately, many actions to minimise the risk bring with them co-benefits and so are worth doing in their own right.  I seek your help to highlight the risks and co-benefits of action.  We cannot afford another 25 years of procrastination.

You can support this project at OzCrowd


Consumer spending slowdown in Australia

Consumer spending growth is clearly slowing.  This was predicted by me in September 2016 and reported in The Australian by Robert Gottliebsen on September 14 2016 (the following day in the print edition).

In this article, I analyze the recent evidence for the slowdown, identify the causes, discuss the changes in consumer behaviour, and present scenarios for future growth.

This issue is important for retailers and their suppliers, marketers of consumer goods and services, and for the federal government because GST paid by consumers affects government revenue.

The evidence

The broadest measure of consumer spending volume is household consumption expenditure published by the ABS (Chart 1).  Spending growth has been slow since the GFC and clearly slowed in the second half of 2016.  Growth in 2015 was 2.9% and dropped to 2.6% in 2016.  This measure includes both discretionary and non-discretionary spending and the evidence is worse for discretionary spending.  For example, sales of new vehicles to private buyers increased by 3.7% in 2015 but fell by 5.8% in 2016.

Chart 1

Retail sales dollar growth also slumped during 2016 and early 2017.  In the year to June 2016, total retail sales growth was 3.0%, down from 5.2% in the year to June 2015.  Sales growth has dropped further since: in the year to February 2017, sales growth was 2.7% and in the four months to February 2017, sales grew at an annualised rate of only 1.2% (based on seasonally adjusted data).

The evidence is clear: consumer spending growth is slowing.

The causes

There are several causes of this slowdown.  Most obvious is weak income growth.

Employment growth was only 0.9% in the year to February 2017, compared with 2.1% in the year to 2016.  Hourly wage growth was only 1.9% in the year to December 2016 (a record low) and the rate has slowed progressively from mid-2012 when the growth rate was 3.8%.

The income growth slowdown was offset for some time by the fall in interest rates (since 2011) a fall in the price of motor fuel (since 2014) and a fall in the price of electricity (since 2014 following the repeal of the carbon tax).

These offsets have now been exhausted and are now, or soon will be, subtracting from discretionary spending power.  See Chart 2 for interest payments, which will rise as some mortgage interest rates are now increasing, and Chart 3 for motor fuel and electricity price inflation.

Other factors which have moderated the slowdown are the rise in household wealth (Chart 4) and an increase in consumer willingness to spend (Chart 5).

The household assets to income ratio has hit a record high in the December 2016 quarter and, given house price inflation, seems set to break the record again in early 2017.  This is a boom that cannot continue for much longer, especially as interest rates are rising and prudential standards for lending to investors are tightening.

Willingness to spend has lifted since late 2014 and was quite high in late 2016.  Without this rise, consumer spending growth would be even weaker.

Chart 2

Chart 3

Chart 4

Chart 5

Changed consumer behaviour

We can get some clues on how consumer behaviour has changed by analyzing retail sales by industry (Chart 6).

Food retail sales increased by 3.7% in the year to February 2017 and growth accelerated slightly over the four months to February 2017 (based on annualised growth of seasonally adjusted data).

Household goods growth went into recession over the past four months, clothing has been weak throughout, department stores recovered from recession to very slow growth, while growth slowed significantly in other retail (including pharmacy and newsagents) and especially in cafes, restaurants, and take away food.

Over the past four months, total retail dollars increased by $97 million.  Food added $140 million, household goods subtracted $53 million, and the combined total of the other categories added just $11 million

Chart 6

This is all suggestive of an increase in the proportion of households hunkering down – spending more time at home and limiting non-essential spending.

Scenarios for the future

Clearly, without a significant increase in household income growth, consumer spending growth will remain anaemic.  Could growth weaken?  Yes, because it is being propped up by house price inflation, which must weaken soon, and higher willingness to spend which may not continue.

A reduction of house price inflation from 5% to zero would reduce retail sales growth by 1%, all other factors being equal.  A fall in house prices could send retail sales into recession.

A fall in willingness to spend, from the recent level of $263 per discretionary $1,000, of $50 would reduce retail sales growth by 1%.  This could happen if interest rates were to rise, or if the price of non-discretionary items rose significantly.

Interest rates loom as a problem because they are rising for standard variable mortgages but not for savings.  While household debt is at a record high relative to household disposable income, deposits have also risen very significantly to $1 trillion and now more people prefer higher interest rates than prefer lower interest rates (Chart 7).

Chart 7

A fall in employment growth would also be a serious problem and this can’t be ruled out later this year, given the imminent closure of automotive manufacturing and the peaking of the housing construction boom.  We really do need the federal government to deliver on its “jobs and growth” promise asap.


The slowdown in consumer spending growth will be painful for consumer marketers and for the federal government struggling with a budget deficit.   There seems to be little prospect of improvement and a high likelihood of growth slowing even further.

The federal government needs to find a way to engender business willingness to invest in future growth and to employ more people in well paid jobs.  Blaming the opposition and a recalcitrant Senate will not achieve the needed outcome.

Consumer marketers are going to have to get better at finding those consumers who are both willing and able to spend.  Some 20% + of consumers fit this bill and are increasingly to be found amongst the over 45’s who hold most of the household wealth and are less exposed to the negative impact of rising interest rates.

Robert Gottliebsen drew extensively on this article in his column in The Australian on 7 April 2017 (it appeared a day earlier online).

Orangutans and their habitat

Gail and I have visited forests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra several times to observe orangutans and their habitat.  The continued existence of orangutans and the forests are in doubt.

We have also visited Uganda and Rwanda to observe Gorillas and Chimpanzees in the wild.  These too are threatened.  Our observations have led us to the conclusion that orangutans are our closest cousins. Not just in terms of DNA but also in the way they think and behave.

Orangutans are, in our minds, a test of our humanity.  Will we wipe out our closest cousins in order to satisfy our most selfish desires?

For Gail, most heartfelt are the animals themselves.  She sees wisdom in their eyes and has experienced social connections with them.  For Charlie, the forests are his passion – without them, many animals would not be able to survive.  Indeed, humans may not be able to survive without the forests.  Forests provide homes for insects needed for pollination of our crops; they contain medicines which are yet to be discovered, and they are our only proven technology for absorbing the carbon dioxide emissions our industrial lifestyles cause.

Our visits to forests, as tourists, has sent a message to governments and human inhabitants that the forests and their creatures are valued in both moral and monetary dimensions.  We have also donated to organisations which protect and improve habitats and care for creatures such as orangutans.  But now we wish to do more.

We are making a visit to Sumatra, in May, to go into the forest with the rangers and researchers of The Orangutan Project to observe and participate in their activities.  The Orangutan Project is a not-for-profit organisation which has been working in the field for many years and we will be travelling with its founder and chief, Leif Cocks.

We have paid our own fares and accommodation and we are raising a further $5,000 to donate to the works of The Orangutan Project.

If you would like to donate to this worthy cause, please do so at  www.justgiving.com/Gail-Thomson6.
Donations are tax deductible and information about The Orangutan Project is available at this page.

Fundraising closes on 28 April.