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Tag Archives: national security

Will This Kill Americans?

Politics used to be hard. You had to balance the needs and desires of a wide range of stakeholders with competing interests. You needed to communicate the benefits of your actions, and contrast them to the failures and flaws of other approaches as proposed by your political opponents, interest groups, lobbyists and the media. You needed to worry about balancing the budget, setting an appropriate level of tax and impost on those with plenty without offending them so they would prefer to spend their money on pulling you down, and an appropriate level of social support for those with little so they don’t spend their time marching on the streets. Politics used to be about a million little decisions and benchmarks and complicated analysis of every possible decision to identify, as closely as possible, the full range of those it could hurt or help.

With the rise of right-wing populism, and the ensuing assumption to the Presidency of Donald Trump, it is becoming apparent that these considerations are luxuries. There are basic, fundamental questions and requirements that must be met before higher-level consideration of costs and benefits can be addressed. The United States of America, to date, has been blessed with leadership that can largely take these fundamental questions as granted; Presidents and Congressmen for whom common sense and fundamental decency provided a baseline of behaviour and practice allowing politics to move on to the more complicated and difficult questions of policy.

Through Donald Trump’s published positions, his appointments to key roles in government, and the avowed desires of the Republican party he leads, these basic requirements can no longer be assumed. Accordingly, it may be appropriate to boil fundamental policy deliberation down to a simple benchmark, which may be summarised as follows:

Will this kill Americans?

If this is a fundamental benchmark, unfortunately in the lead-up to his inauguration, Donald Trump’s record so far is not promising.

The Affordable Care Act

Even before Trump has entered the Oval Office, he and his incoming administration are taking the first steps to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Commonly (and derogatively) referred to as “Obamacare”, the ACA made significant changes to America’s healthcare systems. (A simplified explanation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZkk6ueZt-U) Whilst there were some people who faced higher taxes, and some who were forced to buy (subsidised) health insurance or face a levy, the main outcome of Obamacare was to massively increase the coverage of health insurance. Suddenly, millions of Americans who previously did not have and could not get insurance were able (and required) to get insurance. Empirically and provably, this saved lives, and continues to do so.

Provisions in Obamacare improved hospital care standards and reduced preventable deaths. The Affordable Care Act made it illegal for insurers to deny insurance to those with prior conditions. The ACA made it illegal for insurers to classify “being a woman” as a pre-existing condition and charge higher premiums. The ACA provides means-tested subsidies for health insurance. The ACA significantly expanded Medicaid (America’s version of Medicare). The ACA regulated subsidies for medicines and ensured access to those who needed them. And the Affordable Care Act prevented insurers from unilaterally cancelling insurance for Americans when they got sick.

Even if the Republican Senate and Congress replace the Affordable Care Act promptly, the kind of plans they have suggested and are still promoting will be a return to the bad old days and all of these things, demonstrably detrimental to the lives and health of the American public, will return.

According to critics, repealing Obamacare would put coverage at risk for more than 20 million Americans covered under the law’s insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion. Repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, with no replacement scheme ready and potentially no intention to ever implement such a replacement scheme, will inarguably kill Americans.

Commission on Vaccine Safety

On 10 January, President-Elect Donald Trump had a private meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who later the same morning claimed that Trump had asked him to lead a government Commission into Vaccine Safety, including ensuring “scientific integrity in the vaccine process for efficacy and safety effects.” Kennedy is a well-known vaccine skeptic, a proponent of ideas first raised by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s research was later proved to be falsified, with the British Medical Council finding Wakefield guilty of dishonesty and of “callous disregard” for the pain of the children in his study.

Despite being struck off the register of licensed medical practicioners and thoroughly disgraced, Wakefield’s ficticious link between vaccines (and the preservatives in them) and autism has persisted. Thanks to some high-profile advocates (Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Rob Schneider are amongst the most well-known) there remains a substantial undercurrent of skepticism towards vaccination of children, a trend that public health advocates have struggled for decades to address.

To the list of public proponents of the vaccines-autism link you can add Donald Trump, who has been a critic of immunisation for decades. Now, as President-Elect, he has the public profile that takes his beliefs from “dangerously misguided” to “actively harmful”. As President, the things that Trump believes and states will hold some weight with Americans. The things he chooses to support – such as an official investigation into the “dangers of vaccination” – will affect the beliefs and actions of Americans. By appearing to support the connection of vaccination and autism (and other, unspecified harms) Trump gives legitimacy to those who oppose immunisation and either choose not to vaccinate their own children or encourage others likewise.

The antivaccination movement is already too strong. Increases in the rate of unvaccinated have contributed to outbreaks of preventable disease in the last few years – for example, a measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2014, which contributed to a resurgence of the disease after it was almost eradicated in the year 2000. That outbreak did not cause any deaths, but it could have. The CDC estimates that 164,000 people around the world die from measles each year. Whooping cough, another vaccine-preventable disease, is experiencing a resurgence in the United States and, globally, causes almost 200,000 deaths per year.

Preventable diseases will not always kill those that experience them. Healthcare in the United States is reasonably high-quality and most of those admitted to hospital with measles or whooping cough or other diseases will survive. However, not all will. And with the increase in the rates of non-vaccination, major outbreaks of disease become more likely, herd immunity decreases, and the severity of diseases will increase. Playing with unscientific, dangerous screeds like vaccine-autism linkages will contribute to a reduction in the American public’s health and well-being, and whilst the linkages might be tenuous, will kill Americans.

Trump’s Attitude Towards National Security

By now you may have heard about Michael Moore’s recent prediction about Donald Trump’s Presidency. No, not the one that correctly predicted, six months in advance, that Trump would win. The other one. “Donald Trump is Gonna Get Us Killed“. Moore argues that Trump’s attitude towards the daily security briefings each President receives from the combined services of the country – to wit, that he doesn’t “need to hear the same thing over and over each day for eight years” and won’t bother to attend them – will weaken America’s readiness for the next terrorist attack. Perhaps starting as he intends to continue, reportedly Trump had only attended “two or three” of the first 36 briefings.

It might be argued that the security apparatus of the United States has things well in hand, and Trump’s inattention won’t, by itself, lead to security breaches. Moore points to George W Bush, who allegedly ignored briefings that, if acted upon correctly, might have prevented Bin Laden’s 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It’s easy in retrospect to say that more attention to any specific piece of information could have reached a different outcome, but there are a multitude of threats and countries do have to rely primarily on their security forces, not the actions of a specific Head of State.

It is surely, however, incumbent upon that Head of State to pour oil upon troubled waters, not petrol onto fires. The world in 2017 is rife with threats – from climate change and the global unrest it will create, to the imperial ambitions of China and Trump’s good friend Russia, to the bellicose rumblings of North Korea and Iran, and the ongoing threat of Isis. So is Trump a peacemaker? Or is he a trembling finger-breadth from pressing the nuclear button?

The President of the United States is the only person in the world with the ability to unilaterally launch a nuclear strike. The executive powers granted to him do not require a second person to confirm the order, and nobody in the US government has the authority to countermand or disobey him. The only thing stopping a President from laying waste to a city full of civilians – and seventy years of tacit agreement not to use nuclear weapons – is an appreciation of the ramifications.

Donald Trump’s instant response to any form of criticism or threat is to attack with full force. America’s early warning systems have malfunctioned and provided erroneous information about an incoming nuclear attack on the USA on many previous occasions. It may be unreasonably optimistic to think that Trump, given a maximum of twelve minutes to make up his mind, would delay a counterstrike long enough to ensure that the information was correct. A nuclear war, however short and brutal, would definitively kill Americans.

Trump can kill Americans without ever triggering a nuclear attack on US soil. The President-Elect’s pronouncements on nuclear proliferation are in direct contradiction to the USA’s official push for nuclear disarmament. Trump seems to think that the development of nuclear weapons by Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia is a good thing. Nuclear strategists know that proliferation is probably the worst possible outcome for prevention of a nuclear war – smaller nations having access to nuclear weapons raises the possibility of a nuclear engagement that could be regarded as “localised”. Until now, the chief reason nobody has used nuclear weapons is because to do so invites global armageddon. A world in which a nuclear weapon can be seriously considered as a military tactic is a world one step closer to their use, but to think that a nuclear engagement could stay localised may be wishful thinking: wars of any stripe have a long history of escalating.

Trump’s aggressive posture towards ISIS and Islamic extremism make Americans a more tempting target for Jihadis and invite further terrorist attacks, both on US soil and wherever American troops may be stationed overseas. Trump’s disdain for NATO reduces the effectiveness of a flawed but necessary deterrent to European wars. And Trump’s America-First approach to military treaties threatens to destabilise regions including Australia’s own region.

To form his administration, Trump has assembled a cadre of conspiracy theorists and right-wing media barons, of redneck generals and billionaire businessmen. Notably lacking are cool heads and long experience in the fields of national security or international diplomacy. The Trump presidency has the potential to be one of ongoing global strife, and the man at the helm is not one to act as a force of moderation. Whether or not the nukes start flying, Donald Trump is likely to get Americans killed.

Dear America, please don’t make Donald Trump your president

So Donald Trump wants to be president.

Well I would implore all Americans to think long and hard before casting a vote in his favour. Do you really, really want him in the White House?

I love America. One of the great things about America is that it embraces religious freedom. Take that away and not only will you diminish as the ‘land of the free’ but it just might not have the results that Trump hopes for. However, I’m not here to talk about that. There’s something else I want to warn you about.

I’ll start off with what a commenter on one of the articles on this site wrote:

I remember the first couple of weeks of Trump’s campaigning.

There were those who said that it was funny. They insisted the buffoon was in it just for publicity, he’d be gone in a month. The man was so ridiculous that common sense would prevail and people would dismiss him.

Rather than burn out, Trump has dragged the Republican candidates to [a] dangerous group … he has normalised ideas that should be abhorrent … he is desensitising the mass media. His comments draw much less outrage than they should.

Letting Trump spew his relentless, loathsome rubbish has not caused people to turn away in disgust. Rather, it has placed him as a front runner to be the next US president.

As a nation [Australia] we took a laid-back attitude . . . And how did that turn out? Well, as usual, the politicians resorted to pandering to the lowest denominators … fear and ignorance.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

The underlying message there is that we in Australia know exactly how it turns out. We’ve had a glimpse of what life under a Trump-like disaster can be like.

And that’s how it was under our recently dethroned prime minister, Tony Abbott. In two short but destructive years Tony Abbott completely turned on its head the character and soul of our nation. In two frightening years under this manipulating dangerous man we saw the rise of patriot groups, supported by rogue politicians … encouraging racists to whip up fear and hatred with a passion never before seen in this country. And that, simply, is what changed us.

Dangerous, powerful men – supported by an obliging media – can easily change any nation. If they can change an easy going, laid back nation like Australia one can only shudder what they might do to a nation that has been on edge since the terrible events of 9/11.

You’ve been lucky not having a leader anything like Abbott: One that has made us frightened of shadows; of having us fear anyone with a long beard, a tanned skin, or a different religion. Of making us afraid that these people, at best, will take our jobs and security. At worst, slit our throats.

He turned us into a nation of nervous, frightened, angry vigilantes. Vigilantes who have set fire to homes belonging to people who speak Arabic; who threatened to kill people just because their skin was dark; who wanted people expelled from this country simply because they spoke a different language; who assaulted people in the streets because they wore a scarf around their head. No questions asked. Anyone who looked ‘different’ was a threat to our national security and had to be dealt with. Attacks on these people have become more daring, more devastating, and more frequent as each week passes.

It hasn’t helped us or ‘saved’ us one little bit, because to put it simply, the threat wasn’t there in the first place. If anything, payback might be on the horizon. Or worse still, blowback.

Tony Abbott was removed from office a few months ago but the seeds of hate he planted are now growing uncontrollably wild and unchecked.

It is as if overnight we were no longer a tolerant and welcoming nation. Fear mongering prime ministers (or presidents) don’t succeed in such nations. Their political survival hinges on maintaining their political capital: fear. And then more fear.

Yes, there are troubles in the world which must be addressed, but are they being addressed by turning people against their neighbours, their work colleagues or people sharing the same bus? Are the troubles of the world being addressed when a young Muslim lady is bashed in a busy street in your city by stirred-up punks? Punks who, only a couple of years ago, would not have batted an eye lid at the same lady.

What good is it when the public discourse is one of hatred and violence? When talk around the local bar, the restaurant table, the coffee break at work or at family get-togethers is filled with nonsense at how people from other lands or other religions are obsessed with destroying us and our country. Yes, it’s nonsense, but people are frightened into believing it to be true.

Abbott frightened us and feasted on it. Trump will do the same to you.

And like Australia you have the same gutter-dwelling media who will keep boiling the pot of racism and bigotry for their own selfish needs.

Having said all that, I must say though that we’ve been lucky to date in that only kicks, punches and threats have been flowing. Blood has not been spilled. And that’s probably because of the one big difference we have with you. We don’t carry guns.

 

What do Labor voters want?

Judging from the latest polls one would assume that Bill Shorten’s head is what Labor voters want first and foremost. But moments before this disastrous poll was splashed liberally on the front pages of most media sites, Labor voters had been talking about something equally as important as leadership woes: national issues.

A few months ago Labor voters were invited to vote on the issues they wanted to discuss most with Labor (which I wrote about here). Yesterday they announced the findings of this poll, which some of you might be interested in seeing:

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Poll of Labor voters

The thing that strikes me the most is that it looks the reverse of what the media (over the last couple of years) and the Right-wing have been shrill about. It is also a message to Labor that Labor voters disapprove of the policies the Opposition is quick to show bipartisan support for with the Government.

It must be remembered that the poll closed (presumably) before the Paris attacks, and given that 7’s Sunrise have been telling us that 75 per cent of Australians believe there will be a terrorist attack on our soil, it would also be presumed that National Security might rate much higher than its low ranking.

The Paris attacks (and national security aside), one can only hope that Labor will start listening to Labor voters on the issues that are important to them. They asked what Labor voters wanted, and now they’ve been told.

I won’t hold my breath though.

 

Is ISIS a threat to national security?

Tony Abbott has repeatedly decried the “apocalyptic death cult” ISIS as a threat to our national security but is that true?

Do they present a military threat to, or engage in political coercion in, Australia?

Do they threaten our economic security, energy security, or environmental security?

Perhaps, to a very small degree, yes, but is the risk worth the investment?

Authorities believe that around 150 Australians are currently fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, making the country the highest foreign per capita contributor to the violence according to Time.

Speaking to the ABC, Julie Bishop said “This is one of the most disturbing developments in our domestic security in quite some time.  There’s a real danger that these extremists also come back home as trained terrorists and pose a threat to our security.”

I guess so.  But none of them have returned and carried out a successful attack here.  Apparently some threatened/planned to and got locked up, which tells me that our security forces have adequate resources to protect us from organised domestic threats.

What they cannot, and will never be able to, protect us from is random attacks carried out by people with mental illnesses.  The man who carried out the Lindt café siege was well known to authorities and deemed not a threat but he snapped, just like the woman in Cairns who, the next day, stabbed to death 8 children.  Where is the report on our mental health industry which has been sitting on someone’s desk since last November?

As has been pointed out countless times, domestic violence is a far greater threat to Australian society, taking a far greater toll, yet compare the money devoted to addressing it with the billions spent on a foreign war and increased surveillance in Australia.

As far as threats to our economic. energy, or environmental security are concerned, our government, in cahoots with big business, pose a far greater threat on that front.

As Jocelyn Chey of the Australian Institute of International Affairs points out,

  1. There is no UN agreement on this campaign
  2. Our Defence policy is to concentrate on regional issues
  3. No clear goals or outcomes have been defined so that the campaign, as the PM has admitted, may well drag on for years
  4. Civilian casualties are likely to be high
  5. Australia’s security threat will be increased
  6. The drain on our budget is hard to justify when the public is told that there is a national emergency and social services are being cut.

Robert O’Neill, from the same organisation argues that

“The size and nature of the conflict which is building there and in Syria suggests that we should be employing political, social and economic means to help local governments and religious groups to settle their differences. The local people have to do it – we cannot force a solution on the region with military means. Military intervention on the scale proposed is likely to undercut other efforts without achieving a lasting result. So it would be better not to send forces now; let us not forget that the lives of the men and women that we send are on the line in such a deployment. We should be very careful about balancing the risks they have to run in the line of duty with the worth of the goals that a forced deployment might achieve.”

Tony Abbott has repeatedly said they we were invited to take part in military action by the Iraqi government.  This is not true.  In his obscene haste to deflect attention from domestic problems by confecting a threat to “national security”, Abbott even caught Obama off guard.  Our defence force was sent over with no diplomatic agreement and then spent months cooling their heels in the United Arab Emirates while our government tried to nut out a deal to allow them to carry out military operations in countries that had no desire to see foreign troops invade yet again.

Many people have argued that our previous involvement in Iraq, combined with draconian sanctions, has led to the rise of ISIS.  Whilst I agree it has been a contributing factor, so have many other issues like ethnic and sectarian violence and discrimination, political disenfranchisement, the subjugation of women, government corruption, poverty and lack of education.

One thing I find very hard to reconcile is Abbott’s rhetoric about an apocalyptic death cult with his desire to return asylum seekers to face it.  Far from supporting those who reject the violence and ideology of extremist cults like ISIS, we revile them, lock them up, and then try to send them back to the horror they risked their lives to flee.

To risk the lives of people who have fled this torment, and now the lives of our armed forces for a battle we cannot win, all for political gain, is unconscionable.  What do we hope to achieve?

As Tony simplistically pointed out, this fight is often baddies vs baddies.  Many of those involved have legitimate grievances against their oppressive, non-representative governments.  We have no business being there other than to offer humanitarian aid.

This has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with our subservience to the US coupled with a desire to deflect attention from our government’s inability to do their job.

Deconstructing a dog whistle

Tony Abbott’s government has taken some body-blows in recent weeks, and Abbott’s own leadership standing is suffering. Some say that this is due to a savage budget that seeks to address a non-existent budget emergency by penalising those who can least afford it and by punching the powerless, compounded by poor communications and head-scratching political decisions. If this were the case, one might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of recovering the party’s fortunes might be to revisit the thinking behind the budget, to seek to appropriately identify who the real lifters and leaners in the economy are, and to fix the way that the government goes about doing business.

Or you could go for the approach of sowing distrust and disunity, painting an amorphous group as the “Other” in order to convince Australians that you are “One of them” and being strong to protect them from the forces of darkness. This is a skill-set and a rulebook Tony Abbott inherited from his great hero John Howard and this weekend’s video message shows that he has enthusiastically embraced it.

If national security is so important that it has prompted an address to the nation, at the expense of attention to Joe Hockey’s “Never back to surplus” budget and Andrew Robb’s TPP negotiations and the likely forthcoming execution of the Bali Nine kingpins, then it would seem worthwhile to examine the detail of Mr Abbott’s speech.

When you look at what Mr Abbott had to say, it becomes clear that he is taking two specific incidents and generalising threats from them, generalising failures from them, and using them to beat up the necessity for changes. In two minutes and 23 seconds, he commiserates with the victims of violence, generalises the threat to all Australians, spruiks the actions of the government, reminds us of the threat and reassures us that he is keeping us safe.

An examination of the specific incidents to which Abbott refers, however, tells a more sobering story. There have been no significant failures of our immigration and border protection regulations, no breaches of our balanced and considered jurisprudence and bail system. There are no practical measures that could have prevented these specific events that prompt Abbott’s address. Once you understand that any measures the government might propose can have no possible effect on preventing these specific events, the low-brow dog whistle becomes crystal clear, and it becomes possible to see the real threat behind the words – the threat of further intrusive and unwarranted interference into people’s everyday lives.

A Message from the PM

Abbott begins by referring to the recent Lindt cafe attack by Man Haron Monis. It is perfectly appropriate to “acknowledge the atrocity”. It was one man with a shotgun and three people, including the attacker, died in the event. “Atrocity” is a strong word, but Abbott commences as he means to continue. In any case, the scene is set, the tone of the address is identified: this is a message about terrorism.

Abbott continues with a pledge to keep Australia as “safe and secure” as humanly possible. Federal and State governments are conducting a joint review into the siege, and the report will be released soon. The report will make recommendations and the government intends to take some actions. History has shown us that actions taken by a government are often only a subset, or sometimes a completely different set, to the recommendations of any given report, but we will reserve judgement. In effect, Abbott is attempting to take credit in advance for an announcement the government has yet to make. He is showing the government is strong, by pointing to the future when it intends to take strong action that it can’t tell us about yet.

We may get an inkling of the actions the government has in mind when Abbott addresses the Parliament on the topic of national security next Monday. But we may have a sneak preview as Abbott continues on.

“For too long we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt. There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

When we unpack this statement, in the context of recent events and of the preceding text, Abbott is effectively telling us that we have not been strong enough in our immigration policies, and failures in our bail and justice systems. Abbott refers very specifically to the one example he has mentioned, Man Haron Monis, the attacker in the Lindt cafe event. Australians – particularly those in Sydney, Abbott’s home constituency – will be very aware
also of the arrest this week of two young men, home-grown potential jihadists. Despite not mentioning them specifically, the media has been quick to connect the dots between their arrest and this statement by Abbott.

The problem is that neither our immigration, residency, citizenship nor bail processes failed in any of these cases.

Man Haron Monis was on bail for a variety of criminal offenses at the time of his cafe attack. These cases were not religious in nature. He was accused of being accessory before and after the fact for the murder of his wife by his girlfriend. Separately, he was on bail on indecency charges. Neither case could have given indication that he was planning to turn into a shotgun-wielding maniac. [Read: How was Man Haron Monis not on a security watchlist?]

There were indications perhaps of mental instability, of paranoia, and definite isolation and marginalisation. Monis was known for holding “extremist” views. That’s easy to say in retrospect. His views on the West’s involvement in Middle-Eastern conflicts would not be out of place in a Greens party room meeting. He was, until very shortly before his act of terror, a well-dressed and urbane Australian.

Could the Lindt Cafe attack have been avoided if Man Haron Monis was denied bail? Certainly. On what basis could bail have been denied, though? This was not a wild-haired fanatic before the magistrate.

Bail is a State issue of law enforcement. As it happens, laws have already been tightened in NSW that would have prevented Monis’ bail. So what exactly does Abbott, in the Federal sphere, expect to do to make Australians still safer?

The recent arrests in Sydney were of two young men, Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi. Allegedly they were arrested just hours before they intended to attack members of the public with knives. Could either of these alleged terrorists have been captured earlier with tighter border protection policies, or more intelligence resources? Were they abusing their Centrelink entitlements?

It would appear not. Kiad, now 25, came into Australia four years ago on a family visa to join his wife. al-Kutobi fled Iraq with his family ten years ago; he came to Australia in 2009. Shortly thereafter he received a protection visa and he became an Australian citizen in 2013. Neither man was a wild-haired fanatic, nor obviously a danger to the public.

The pair were not known to police. They were not known as religious extremists. Until recently, it doesn’t appear that they were. Instead, they were young Aussie men, fond of barbeques and American TV and luxury goods. Their radicalisation occurred over the last few weeks, perhaps triggered by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices last month in Paris. Their rapid radicalisation was reported to Australian authorities by their own community about a week ago. Mere days later, police swooped.

How were tighter immigration rules four years ago going to prevent a planned terror attack that took months, at most, to be conceived and instigated, from men who by all reports only became extreme within the last six months, and on Australian soil?

The other problematic element of this densely offensive paragraph is the reference to Centrelink. In the context of this strident message, the inference is clear: that terrorists rely on Newstart. This is so ridiculous as to be laughable – yet it plays to the same crowd who lapped up the election rhetoric about boat people clogging up the motorways of Sydney.

The other possible reading is that people who rely on welfare are as bad as terrorists. I’m not certain which interpretation is the more offensive.

Abbott continues his address with the key message: all too often, “bad people play us for mugs. Well, that’s going to stop.”

Who are these bad people? That’s not been shown. Hopefully it’s not Man Haron Monis, because if we’re going to stop people like him from “taking us for mugs”, we presumably will no longer be providing welfare to those with mental issue. Hopefully it’s not Mohammad Kiad and Omar al-Kutobi, because in order to curtail the terrorist threat they pose, we would need to prevent muslims in general from entering the country.

Abbott makes a variety of references to the “Islamist death cult”. There’s a three-word slogan that’s earned him a couple of poll points before. It is also simultaneously emotive, highly offensive to large groups of undeserving people, and impossible to criticise without coming across as an apologist. Well, this author will criticise it. Islamic State might possibly be Islamist, but using the term paints all Muslims alike. IS is most certainly not a death cult. Yes, it uses unsupportable means and revels in bloodshed, but it does so not for the sake of killing people, but rather to attract those it considers devout. The killings are a means, not an end. And the idea of a world caliphate of muslims is dear to many. Nobody should seek to defend the actions or the Islamic State. However, belittling IS with a three-word slogan ignores the complexities and the real grievances and aspirations of millions of muslims everywhere.

Abbott goes on to talk about the much-discussed “new threats” of home-grown backyard terrorists, armed with “a knife, a flag, a camera phone, and a victim”. Terrorists are everywhere, around every corner, lurking under every bed.

By all means, do what you can to identify potential attackers before they take a life. But in the same way that it’s impossible to protect the public from an armed robber in a milk bar, it is impossible to protect the public from a quiet young man who just wants to be respected.

Abbott finishes his presentation by proudly boasting of working with other nations to degrade the Islamic State through military means; and improving the powers and resources of Australian intelligence agencies. Finally, he claims the need for stronger laws to “make it easier to keep you safe”. These include the data retention laws currently before parliament, but, worryingly, might also include other laws and regulations Abbott does not describe, but which will inevitably further encroach on our liberties and our privacy. Of course, it’s all for our own good. The government is being strong to keep Us safe from Them.

“As a country we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.” As Kaye Lee has written today, it’s a pity that credo doesn’t stretch to include the current government.

A Perfect Storm

Image by climate-change-guide.com

Image by climate-change-guide.com

The implications of peak oil and global warming for world security

“The modern global economy has been built on cheap oil and its abundant availability.” –

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2011/02/11/opinion/Peak-oil-will-have-an-adverse-effect-on-all-econom-30148420.html

The security agencies and defense departments of the world’s strongest superpowers do not have the luxury of pretending that climate change is not happening. They’re not able to blithely deny that resource shortages, burgeoning world populations and runaway global warming will have ramifications for their regions and their countries. While their governments and politicians might outwardly deny that climate change is real or that society has any real limits, their militaries and their policy hardheads are quietly planning for the worst.

The reality is that our world economy, the political structures that shape it and the peoples that make up her nations are fragile, susceptible to any number of crises that could bring the system down. The 21st century sees a number of separate but related crises arriving more or less at once, and these crises will undeniably reshape the world around us.

At the root of these crises is oil, and our planet’s industrialisation borne on the back of cheap, plentiful energy. This boon has led to top-heavy societies that are too globalised to survive on their own. The abundance of oil has led to unparalleled prosperity, booming populations and mind-boggling technology, all entirely reliant on the continued availability of the resources that sustained their growth. And it has led inexorably to climate change and the host of disasters that this presents.

Governments and academics around the world are waking up to the geopolitical ramifications of climate change. Indeed, in the past few years we’ve seen the first upheavals whose roots can be attributed to changing climate. If unchecked, climate change will lead to a bleak future of climate refugees and interminable, bloody war. This is not histrionics. This is the considered view of very senior academics and powerful military strategists. The only questions are whether we might be in time to slow climate change through global action, and how first-world countries with resources available will respond as the world sinks into deprivation and conflict. The signs on both fronts, unfortunately, are not good.

By itself, climate change does not have to lead to war and tyranny. Climate change and its effects are, like any other political force, a challenge for governments to overcome. The real danger is in how governments respond to climate change. But the challenges of the future are likely to be too great to ameliorate.

The 21st Century will see a perfect storm of crises upon us. They are already in view.

Climate change – driven by the industrialised world’s dependence on oil for energy – is striking us hardest just when oil is becoming harder to supply. The world depends on cheap oil for energy as well as for agriculture, but we are reaching the limits of our ability to provide this essential resource before we’ve gotten serious about finding alternatives. And the intensive and growing use of oil is leading to global climate change that will have the effect of accelerating collapse and disorder.

So what are some of the national security implications of climate change allied to resource shortages? In terms of security, the outcomes are unrest and revolution, climate refugees and conflict and war.

Instability, unrest and revolution

In just the last few years we have watched from afar as nations across the globe have struggled with upheaval, revolution and internal strife. Many in the comfortable west probably put these conflicts down to tribal politics, racial hatreds or religious intolerance. Whilst these elements are undoubtedly present, religious ideals rarely lead to revolutions in the real world. From the Crusades onwards, people with extreme views on religion and race have taken advantage of conflicts already begun for other purposes. In the modern day we have seen this in Iraq, in Syria, and in Afghanistan, conflicts that began for other reasons but are now entrenched in the narrative of “sectarian warfare”.

At core, however, most or all of these conflicts can be attributed to the perfect storm of resource shortages and climate change. Let’s look at a few of the most current examples.

SYRIA

The core of the conflict in Syria is not, as some would have you believe, islamic militants trying to overthrow a democracy, nor a tyrant attempting to mercilessly crush freedom-fighters. The core of the issue is drought and food shortages.

Drought and agricultural collapse have forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians into the cities where they become dependent upon the government’s support. However, the government’s ability to support these climate refugees has collapsed along with the country’s economy. It doesn’t help that the regime is not sympathetic to the peoples’ needs. This combination of factors has led to a situation where, for many people, simple survival becomes a higher priority than good social behaviour.

If Syria had plentiful monetary resources and the willingness to spend, it could provide food and water for its people. Through purchasing food, desalinating water, irrigating and artificially managing its agriculture, it could deal with the challenges. But it is neither able nor willing to go down this path. The result, as we have seen, is civil war and a country in miserable turmoil. But they’re not alone.

THE ARAB SPRING

The Arab Spring had its roots in a water and food crisis. The series of uprisings across the middle east is held up as a shining example of populations attempting to throw off the shackles of oppressive masters, and to some extent there is some validity to this interpretation. But people will tolerate a lot of tyranny so long as they are comfortable. Freedom is not the panacea the US would have people believe. (This is why the Chinese people, on the whole, are very happy with their situation despite their lack of freedom: they have the comforts they require for daily living.) At the core of the Arab Spring was not a hunger for freedom, but simply hunger. The regimes were not living up to their side of the bargain.

THAILAND

In Thailand, drought and floods combined to hit domestic food supplies and food exports. Recovery from the floods, plus the hit to export revenue caused by the decimation of their food exports, combined with the country’s dependence on foreign oil to eat into the government’s ability to afford to meet the needs of its people now, let alone plan into the future for energy diversification and economic renewal.

This combination of factors has led to high levels of debt for the low-paid workers, high living costs and high unemployment. The eventual and inevitable result has been social unrest. In Thailand’s case this had led to martial law and, currently, to yet another military coup. But the people continue to suffer and while guns on the street may enforce order, they can’t address poverty and starvation.

EGYPT

For a final example, consider Egypt. Egypt also suffers water and food shortages. For decades it has been a net importer of food. When the price of wheat effectively doubled in 2010 and 2011, the result was swift and fateful. Mubarak fell in early 2011. That revolution, so full of hope at the time, has not led to the utopian society Egyptians hoped for, as it does nothing to address the core issues. In truth, the core issues are largely outside the scope of Egypt’s government to contend with.

“As energy accounts for over a third of the costs of grain production, high food prices are generally underpinned by high oil prices. Since 2005, world oil production has remained on an undulating plateau that has kept prices high, contributing to surging global food prices.
According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, if food prices go over a threshold of 210 on the FAO Food Price Index, the probability of civil unrest is greatly magnified.”

http://qz.com/116276/at-the-root-of-egyptian-rage-is-a-deepening-resource-crisis/

The FAO has been hovering at or above 210 since at least 2010. If climate change reduces global food output, inevitably the price of food will increase. If oil becomes scarcer or more expensive, the price of food will increase. To these issues, under the current system, there is no clear or easy resolution.

Conflict and war

Internal conflict is not the only outcome of resource shortages and climate change. As nations across the world find it harder to keep their populations supplied with the food, water, energy and goods that keep them happy, the pressures will increase to find and secure new sources. Despite the comforting narratives that keep western civilians believing that conflicts in far-flung and uncivilised nations are due to local religious squabbles, modern nations are very aware of the precarious nature of their power, and will be willing to go to great lengths to avoid travelling down the same path.

CONFLICTS OVER OIL

As a result, in the past decades we have seen conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq explode into worldwide wars with the involvement of great powers. It is hardly a secret that America was not in Iraq primarily because of the sufferings of a few Iraqis, but because Saddam was not friendly to the oil needs of the US. Much of the current situation in Ukraine can also be attributed to Russia’s intent to secure oil reserves.

At the current moment there are territorial disputes across the South China sea: primarily, conflicts between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, and between China and the Philippines over the Reed Bank. Even Australia is not immune from territorial disputes over oil: witness the dispute between Australia and Timor over the Timor Sea maritime boundary. Whilst all of these disputes are currently diplomatic, there have already been military incidents in some of them, and any of them could blow up into serious conflict. They will not be the last such disputes of this century.

CONFLICTS OVER FOOD AND WATER

Water shortages are arguably the greatest challenge facing the world of the immediate future. According to the UN, “…by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls.”

China is in perilous state with drought affecting its farmlands: it’s the world’s biggest user of imported water. “Land grabs” in Africa – and Australia – are intended not as assaults on those continents but are an attempt to secure productive land to grow food and ship it back home.

Attempts by China to procure land in Australia may be a false economy; there is a decent chance that Australia may soon be joining China in a need for fresh sources of fresh water and arable land. The oncoming El Nino may be salutary.

Desalination can play a part in providing for the water needs of cities and of agriculture. But desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, and requires a large amount of political capital. Things will need to get worse before the people will realise the need for things to get better.

CONFLICTS OVER TERRITORY

We live in a post-Empire world. In the modern era, nations do not generally invade or annex other nations for the sake of world domination; the world has reached a form of equilibrium and any such attempts would be roundly resisted. International conflicts now are driven by more prosaic concerns, such as the desire to secure energy and mineral resources.

In such a world, any unclaimed or untapped resources take on a greater level of significance. Currently, there are three major fields which may help nations address their ongoing needs, and it is in these fields that we are likely to see expansionist movements and potential conflicts over the next decades. These fields are the open ocean, Antarctica and space.

We are already seeing conflicts over claimed areas of ocean. We can expect to see ongoing exploration in international waters for new resource fields. However, in general, resources are both rarer and harder to extract when they are in international waters. Deep sea trenches were never landmasses, never supported forests and ecosystems, and thus hold little or no oil. Combine this with the fact that at present we find it difficult even to reach the ocean floor across much of the world – witness the fruitless search for MH370 – and drilling for oil or minerals across the ocean becomes a prohibitive challenge.

Similar challenges exist for space. Enormous resources and energy are required just to get there, let alone manage any attempts at extraction. However, even within our own solar system there are greater reserves of resources than our planet contains in its entirety. Space is the battleground of the future. It will not, however, be practically useful to nations in the first half of the 21st century.

Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits any change in territorial claims. The Madrid Protocol, an addendum to the Treaty, prevents mining within Antarctica. Treaties, as history has shown us, are made to be broken. Many nations have significant interest in the untapped resources of Antarctica and some are already beginning to explore and plan their exploitation of this continent on Australia’s doorstep. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that the next major battleground of the 21st century might be this southernmost continent – particularly as global warming potentially makes the continent more accessible and, eventually, suitable for habitation and agriculture.

Peak oil by any definition

Global social unrest and international warfare might be avoided if the world can continue to provide fresh reserves of oil to support our insatiable need for growth and industry. Unfortunately this is not going to be possible. Many commentators have discussed the concepts of peak oil; for decades the idea has been a looming threat. Official estimates have consistently denied that crisis is imminent, but it now appears that peak oil may be closer than anyone had hoped. The US seems to think so.

That we are at or near ‘peak oil’ is demonstrated by the industry’s continual push to open new resource fields and extraction methods, regardless of the expense and complexity. The end of the world’s access to cheap fossil fuel energy is a threat worthy of an article of its own – or perhaps even its own blog. Suffice it to say here that the price of oil, and the price of food, is not going to stop increasing any time soon.

With resource crises, food shortages, water shortages and increasing climatic disruption
caused by hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods, not to mention sea level rise over the
coming decades which will flood and permanently destroy huge swathes of the world’s low-lying agricultural lands, the 21st century is in the grip of a perfect storm of crises that have the potential to reshape the face of humanity on this planet far more quickly than most Australians realise.

What can Australia learn?

Both Syria and Egypt are finding that their economies are suffering due to a downturn in
fossil fuel exports – both due to depletion. Without the revenue from oil exports, these governments have found themselves less able to provide for the needs of their people. Australia needs to heed this example. We are not a heavy exporter of oil; however, our economy is heavily reliant on the export of coal and mineral resources. If these markets collapse, we will find ourselves in a parlous economic situation. The Abbott government is effectively pursuing an austerity budget even whilst the nation is not in economic crisis. As climate change and El Nino drive our farmers off the land and our food production inevitably declines over the rest of this decade, we will see increased demands on government resources. Diversifying our economy is absolutely vital.

The uprisings in the middle east may have been driven by economic and resource woes, but they were enabled by despotic regimes that did not do enough to support the needs of the people. Uprising became the only way out for populations on the edge of starvation.

Australia does not have an autocratic dictatorship in command – although it pains me to have to add the word “arguably”. Despite our inclusive system of politics, already we have seen social unrest with government policies and with the democratic process in general. Already we see protests against governments of both breeds. We’re a long way short of the critical mass of the people who would rebel against their government but the seeds are there. It is hubris to think that Australia could never suffer the kind of uprising that has been witnessed in Thailand or Egypt. It won’t happen in the next ten years; we’re still a prosperous nation. But the decisions made now will have impacts on the society and governance of the 2050s and beyond.

It is more likely, in the immediate term, that we will face the ramifications of unrest from neighboring regions than experience it ourselves. This will manifest as growing pressure to accept climate refugees, combined with an increasing range of domestic crises.

How will we respond?

Most of the current areas of unrest are in the middle east, for a reason. These regions suffer a combination of resource dependence, early effects of disruptive climate change, and despotic or immature regimes with too great a reliance on resources that are now declining.

Australia, for the moment, is buffered by our remote location, delaying the worst impacts of climate change; by our system of government and our existing social contract and social support structures; and by our relatively high standard of living. This gives us time to consider the future and our response to the oncoming challenges – if we choose to recognise them.

We have seen the trajectories of nations where these crises come together. With a little forethought, we can see our own nation’s weaknesses and start to plan wisely for the future.

An obvious and critical answer to all of these challenges is to divest from oil. Renewable energy is not just an answer to climate change; it’s a solution to the energy crisis that will affect us all. With efficient renewable energy, we can manage our water resources better, and this will allow us to secure our domestic food production. If we act now, we may be able to retain our standard of living.

Alternatively, we could dismantle our climate change bodies and our renewable energy institutions. We could defund solar and wind power, while funnelling ever greater subsidies into fossil fuels in an attempt to shore up our revenues for a few more years. We could leave the challenges of the oncoming food, fuel and water crises to future governments and future generations.

Yes, I guess we could do that.

A proxy for the future

london-flood

Governmental and community denial of the fundamental truths of climate change can’t last forever.

Climate change impacts are going to operate over the long term. That’s why we can’t immediately envisage the danger and it’s why climate change isn’t regarded as being as pressing as balancing the budget or “securing our borders”. It is primarily for this reason that the world has missed opportunity after opportunity to respond appropriately, to the point that it is universally regarded as too late to prevent cascading climate change from occurring. Instead of falling rapidly, worldwide carbon emissions continue to accelerate. This does not mean that we should stop trying to save the environment; the eventual extent of the destruction can yet be ameliorated. But governments and populaces worldwide are deliberately kept in a state of confusion by entrenched interest groups, and confusion allows governments and populations to continue to operate in a state of denial.

At the moment in Australia, denial manifests itself in a “business as usual” approach. The Coalition is busily dismantling anything that conflicts with the idea of status quo – business as usual doesn’t include things like climate commissions, carbon prices or renewable energy research. (For the Coalition, “business as usual” also doesn’t include things like modern broadband, up-to-date healthcare or new ways of doing education either, but that’s another blog post.)

Despite this, there are things that we do now that operate on the same timescale as climate change effects, and these may begin to act as a proxy for the future. Whilst it is possible to take a “business as usual” approach to these things, doing so is neither prudent nor effective for the future.

Case in point: demographic and developmental planning for cities in Australia’s north. Under both Labor and the Coalition, development of the north of Australia is an expectation. Growth in population, increasing urbanisation, technological advance and infrastructure dissemination are a part of governmental planning. But whilst these plans are being laid, cold-eyed scientists are looking at the north of Australia and saying bluntly that, far from developing into a new demographic powerhouse, whole latitudes may need to be abandoned as not suitable for human habitation. The best laid plans of our politicians are likely to be sabotaged by the remorseless, uncaring forces of the unleashed beast of nature. It is only stubborn denial that allows governments to continue to plan future expansions that will simply not be viable.

This kind of planning quandary extends into every aspect of the future. Urban planning in cities needs to take into account projected rises in sea levels. Whilst

Urban planning is but one area where future expectations will need to be revised to cope with the new truths of a +4°C world. Other areas that come to mind include:

  • The future of mining and resource exploitation;
  • Food security;
  • Refugee and migration policy; and
  • National security.

The latter of these warrants a post of its own. Suffice to say here, that we live in a world where current generations of Australians are not ready for the concept of a war of defense. Since the 1940s, Australia has not been seriously under direct threat of military force, and our involvements have been remote. We send our boys off to war and welcome them home; we lament and mourn (rightfully so) at the loss of individual soldiers. But climate change carries with it the risk – the near certainty – of regional conflict, as whole countries start to starve, due to desertification and loss of arable land. Australia will have cause to be thankful for its remote location and inaccessibility. Our military is likely to be too concerned with domestic issues of food security to be able to worry too much about billions of starving people in India and China.

These areas of concern fall squarely into the remit of our national government, which has shown an unparalleled recalcitrance to accept the truth of global warming. It is unlikely that government policy under the current government will include much consideration of a world shaped by forces that the Coalition denies actually exist.

The best hope for future climate action, discounting the remote possibility of a spectacular implosion of our new government, is a change in public opinion forcing our governing bodies to reconsider their attitude to climate change science. The Coalition government is unlikely to change its mind without being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an unpalatable recognisation of the truth. There is more potential for change at other levels of government. From city planners to urban land management authorities, from companies divesting from coal and backing out of investments such as the Abbot Point port expansion to the application of new mandatory building codes, we need regulations and laws, based on empirical understandings of the future, which will impact on the everyday lives of Australians and people around the world.

If these bodies and organisations allow their agenda to be dictated to them by those with investments in the status quo, then not only will the investments made now be seen as foolhardy at best and downright negligent at worst, but the trajectory for the future will continue to deteriorate.

We can’t afford that. The push for climate action must come from the individual upwards, because it’s clearly not going to be led by the government on high. So, on an individual level, when we look to investments in property, when we consider our shareholdings and our superannuation, there are questions to ask. Have those who seek to sell you a future considered what climate change will mean for the investment they are proposing?

Tony Abbott’s “mandate” about removing the carbon price is not as strong as he wishes it to appear. There is already a large and growing force in the community that is concerned about climate change and willing to agitate for action. We can hope that it will not take a revolution in public attitude to tip the balance. Every individual who is confronted with the reality of climate change and the impact it will have on their own life – and the lives of their loved ones – is an important step closer to the critical mass needed to get Australia on the path of the righteous. So if your job involves you in any form of future planning, or if you are undertaking any investments of your own, make certain that climate change is an important part of your consideration. The outcomes of your planning depend on it. And the future of your planet depends on it.

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