When is a miracle the ultimate disaster?

When it results in a man who is bent on destroying all…

Is China a bully?

By Ad astra  Is China a bully? If you stopped the average person…

Let’s Burn the Whole Thing Down: Death, Protest…

Mobs are unruly, headless things. The message is the action. The platform…

The killing of America

By Christian Marx  America is teetering on the edge of collapse and possible…

Running with cows

I admit I was pleasantly surprised that my stories of growing up…

Letters from the Queen’s secretary on a touchy…

To people of my vintage it seems like yesterday that these events…

Change and difference

I would like to amend the statement "The only certainties in life…

Robodebt: Part man. Part machine. All crap.

Ok, I paraphrased one of the tagline from Robocop for the title…

«
»
Facebook

OzFenric has a background in biological sciences and information management. He has worked as a librarian, a web designer and a social researcher. In his spare time he leads a church choir, performs in amateur musical theatre and writes fiction. He has won peer awards for editing and for writing, but never anything with money attached!

The Precedent Set

With the acquittal this week (Tuesday 7 April 2020) of Cardinal George Pell, many words will be written, both in published media and in social channels. Many people will be appalled by the decision and personally offended that the Cardinal will walk free. For many people, victims of abuse and families of victims, this will come across as a further blow in a society where the odds are already rigged against them. Yet this decision is the only way that justice, in this case, could have been served, and it redresses a terrible travesty of jurisprudence and a frankly horrifying legal precedent.

The case against George Pell has been found insupportable in the High Court of Australia. On the basis of the evidence presented in the trial, the seven judges of the High Court found unanimously that it would be impossible for an unbiased person to dispel all reasonable doubt as to Pell’s guilt.

The prosecution built their case on the sworn testimony of a single victim/witness. Testifying over multiple days, undergoing cross-examination and providing a level of detail the judges and jury found believable and credible, the victim’s statement was damning.

Against that, the defence arrayed a formidable collection of testimony, evidence and witness statements casting doubt on every aspect of the prosecution’s case. From the physical ability to commit the alleged crime, to the opportunity to do so (was Pell really alone with the boys for any length of time after a Sunday service, when his attested habit was to meet-and-greet parishioners on the front steps, and when he was always attended while in robes), right through to personal character references.

By most accounts, the prosecution in the case spent their time explaining why the crime was possible, in the face of this defence evidence, rather than showing that the crime was committed, based on prosecution evidence. According to the statement released by the High Court, the defence evidence was “uncontested” by the prosecution.

It is not the job of the defence to prove that their version of events is true. Which makes it remarkable that the prosecution spent their energies introducing “reasonable doubt” about the defense testimony. It was uncontested, for example, that the Cardinal was in the habit of greeting parishioners on the steps of the cathedral after a Sunday service. All the prosecution could do was argue that it was possible that on this occasion that habit was not followed.

In our modern system of jurisprudence, the accused is considered “innocent until proven guilty”. It is the job of the prosecution to show how and why the accused committed a crime, and provide evidence to support the contention. The defence has the job of casting doubt upon the evidence presented with their own, contrary evidence. The prosecution must then disprove the defence evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

The High Court has concluded that the prosecution in Pell’s case did not do this. Showing that a particular event is possible is not equivalent to proving that it happened, or even is likely. Proving that commission of a crime is possible does not constitute proof that it happened.

A criminal trial rests on one equation and one only: does the evidence for the prosecution outweigh the evidence for the defence? If not, reasonable doubt must remain.

In the case of Pell v The Queen, every piece of evidence tendered – excepting the testimony of Witness A – was provided by the defence. The High Court has adjudged that the prosecution did not adequately disprove that evidence, such that an unbiased jury could dismiss it out of hand. The High Court case was not a judgement on the guilt or innocence of Pell, or the honesty or otherwise of the witness, but a reflection on the flawed processes of the earlier trials. Simply put, the prior trials convicted George Pell on the strength of one person’s testimony and ignored all the evidence to the contrary. The precedent this sets, should it have been allowed to stand, is monstrous.

The requirement for evidence protects us all from abuse by those who would do us harm. The presumption of innocence protects us from being judged before the evidence has a chance to convict. Arguably it has failed George Pell, perhaps because too many people look at him with a presumption of guilt, due to his history, his involvement in church cover-ups, or merely the fact he is a Catholic priest. Pell’s history, his sordid past protecting abusers in the priesthood, his faith and his personal arrogance are irrelevant to the case at hand: was there evidence that he committed the crimes of which he was accused? And does that evidence outweigh the evidence from the defence?

When a citizen is prosecuted for a crime, evidence is required. To successfully make a case, there must be cause to believe the accused person committed the crime. Convicting them in the absence of such evidence is something we have colloquial terms for. Kangaroo Court is one. Witch-Hunt is another. The trial against George Pell edges perilously close to being a witch hunt, and as multiple commentators have noted should never have come to trial. The prosecution did not have evidence to support their case, and could not adequately dispute the evidence that supported the defence.

This will not be a popular opinion. For many, the knowledge that a victim will not get justice rankles. More, it points to the continuing imbalance of power: when those in positions of authority abuse their trust, it can be nigh impossible for the powerless to obtain redress. In cases of sexual or other abuse, there is often no trial-ready evidence available, and in the current system this means that some victims will never receive justice.

Are there only two ways to handle this kind of crime? Either unquestioning acceptance of an accusation, or rigid adherence to a system that makes a conviction nearly impossible in all but the most egregious of cases, the worst of offenders? There ought to be a middle path, where the wronged can be heard and redress made, but the accused sinner might only have their life irrevocably ruined when there is enough proof to convict.

The National Redress Scheme goes some way to accomplishing this middle way, but it will not suit all cases. The shift in public opinion and the way such cases are treated will also have some effect. We now treat allegations of abuse with the importance they deserve and we are not so quick to dismiss or belittle them. We are able to believe the testimony of a victim without necessarily being in a position to bring their abuser to justice.

The fact remains that for many victims the only proof they have is their word, against which can be arrayed an army of evidence and cabals of powerful men. In many cases – maybe even most – it is not worth bringing a case to trial. And this means that many victims will never have their day in court, and that some offenders will never face justice.

Nevertheless, George Pell’s acquittal was the right decision, and should give every Australian some comfort that they, too, cannot be convicted of a crime where there is no evidence to support it. If there is to be any silver lining found in the court’s decision, it is here.

Perhaps a guilty man went free, but that’s a better system than one where the innocent person can be convicted.

Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Donate Button

You will catch it

You are going to catch it.

Not everyone who reads this article will contract COVID-19, the novel coronavirus originating in Hubei province, China. On the current rates of transmission and expected trajectory, however, the chances are better than even that if you are reading these words, in the near future you will catch this virus.

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch believes that the virus has moved beyond any attempts to contain it. Whilst governments around the world, Australia included, continue to talk about containing the virus and preventing its spread, they are also mobilising their plans for responding to a global pandemic. Dr Nancy Messonnier, head of the US government’s Centre for Disease Control, said on Tuesday that COVID-19 could not be stopped and that public policy would have to switch from containment to mitigation.

“Pandemic” has a formal definition. Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, explains: “A pandemic is a label that simply says that there’s sustained community transmission in several countries. We are already preparing for the eventuality that we have further outbreaks in Australia should they happen. So that’s what the preparation is about. So, declaring a pandemic doesn’t change what we do.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced that the government is preparing its full response plan for management of the crisis. Current plans include securing the supply chains for required medical supplies and personnel, and as reported elsewhere, the repurposing of sports stadiums and other infrastructure as temporary medical facilities.

The truth is, it is likely this virus already qualifies for “pandemic” status. Whilst the majority of cases have so far been detected in China, the disease is spreading rapidly and largely uncontrolled throughout Asia. The United States has seen its first case of an apparently disconnected diagnosis – a confirmed case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact to people from affected areas. There have been reports of people becoming symptomatic up to 28 days after exposure, which is well outside the accepted quarantine measures. In all likelihood, in several countries or many, the disease is spreading unchecked and unseen throughout populations.

They won’t know about it for some time yet. The disease is often mild, or even for some asymptomatic. This virus appears to be more contagious than influenza, and every individual affected may on average infect four others (reducing, as the virus becomes more endemic in the population). In combination, a highly contagious virus with mild effects is likely to be impossible to control. Once it gets out of control in any one place, in practical terms our globalised economic system ensures it will spread everywhere.

The most important direct response anyone can take towards this sobering thought is: Don’t panic!

The moments of greatest disruption from this virus are right now. There is much that is yet unknown, but from the cases we have so far seen, we can draw some conclusions.

COVID-19 is far more virulent than the common cold, it’s true. It’s more severe than normal strains of influenza. Typical influenza hospitalises a small percentage of sufferers, with complications and severe outcomes including death for between 0.1% and 0.5% of all infected. COVID-19 has a mortality rate between 1.5% and 4%. The wide range reflects that the severity of virus outcomes depends largely on the quality of medical care sufferers receive. Untreated, obviously more people die than those in countries with advanced medical systems, such as Australia. COVID-19 appears also to be particularly severe in the elderly and those with co-morbid conditions (pre-existing conditions such as Diabetes or Asthma). This is no different to the regular strains of annual influenza and related cold and flu viruses.

COVID-19 is not a devastating new epidemic to kill vast swathes of Australians. It’s far more akin to a particularly severe flu strain. The more pernicious effect of the virus is measured in how societies are responding to its threat.

Governments have already closed borders, and even after a few short weeks the global economy is shuddering under the strain. Australia’s universities are suffering a loss of international students, many of whom will not return. Global trade markets are at a standstill, as are many major industrial facilities in China. (As a result, China’s CO2 emissions for the quarter are hugely reduced, although if COVID-19 is contained and restrictions are lifted there is an expectation that China’s factories will roar back into life, seeking to make up for lost time.) There have been reports already of panic buying of medical and infection prevention materials in various cities. Japan is terrified about the possibility of the Olympic Games not going ahead, or (worse) being run without an influx of tourists. International art, fashion and music festivals have been postponed or cancelled for fear of spreading the virus amongst attendees. Forget making people sick, COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on modern society, in much the same way terror of terrorism used to.

Our modern economy cannot operate if people are reluctant to go out in public, if they avoid sporting events and art galleries, beaches and rock concerts, if they avoid Chinatown and restaurants and shopping centres, the whole edifice that is our carefully constructed and tended economy may crumble.

Already stock markets are tottering, and the worst effects have not yet begun to bite. Investors have been so far reluctant to admit the worst possibilities of this pandemic, assuming that the effects of the virus will be to depress the stock market for a short while – perhaps one fiscal quarter – before the inevitable rebound. It seems hugely optimistic to assume that COVID-19 will be under control in a single quarter. This crisis has, almost certainly, a lot longer yet to run. Some analysts fear that the results of COVID-19 will be worse than the GFC. Compared to the damage this could do to modern societies and nations, the physical effects of this virus seem positively benign.

In reality COVID-19 is not too dissimilar, in many ways, to the existing strains of flu. If it becomes endemic in world populations, to the extent that governments cease attempting to contain and eliminate it, we will treat it much as any other flu-like illness: with symptomatic treatment. It is important to note also that there are vaccines currently being developed for this disease. Contrary to some breathless reporting elsewhere, such efforts will not be providing an immunisation against COVID-19 any time soon. The best-case scenario is for a working, mass-produced vaccine to be available 22-24 months from now. This timeline is unprecedentedly swift: most vaccines take up to a decade to bring to market. Two years from now, COVID-19 will either be eliminated in practical terms, or it will be everywhere, sweeping across the globe in annual waves with the weather.

So what would a world with COVID-19 look like? Largely this depends on a couple of factors, which are currently not known.

One of the most important questions is whether COVID-19 might, like existing influenza strains, be highly mutable, changing form every year such that the touted vaccine for this year will be less effective next year. If this proves the case, COVID-19 might be here to stay. The good news is that the severity of COVID-19 might be due in part to its novelty – it is a new virus not previously found in human populations, so it’s feasible to suppose that this virus is proving harder for the human immune system to beat. Unlike the flu, nobody has immunity to COVID-19 from either immunisation or having experienced an earlier strain. After we’ve all experienced COVID-19 once, the likelihood is that many will resist any future strains, should they come. Once you’ve recovered from this year’s strain, your body might more easily fight off the next iteration.

Our most probable future is one where COVID-19 has swept through most global populations and most, at least in western, advanced societies, are now either immune or vaccinated against it. Perhaps the virus will be mutable, each year seeing a new strain, with the medical fraternity encouraging us all to get our Flu-and-COVID shots as each flu season rolls around. Or it will be a one-and-done. In either case, we will no longer be afraid to step outside our doors, to interact with our fellow humans, to socialise and share company and food and experiences. In truth, we shouldn’t be afraid of these things now. Either the authorities will prevail, against the odds, and COVID-19 will go the way of Polio and Ebola, eliminated in most human populations with only a rare outbreak occurring from time to time. Under this scenario the chances of a typical Australian contracting the virus are slim. We are protected by our strong biosecurity and the tyranny of distance. If any country can retain control of such a disease it is Australia. Or else the virus will slip past our defenses anyway and run amok through our cities. Your chances of avoiding the disease then, due to your own vigilance, become unfeasibly small. You are likely to catch it. And that shouldn’t bother you. Most of us will catch it, and for the vast majority of us the result will be a case of coughs-and-sniffles.

At 2% morbidity, COVID-19 would be a substantial killer of the old, the sick, the vulnerable, but as always this cost will be borne most heavily in third world countries, rural areas or those with undeveloped medical systems. Here in affluent Australia it will be a mere sub-component of the list of diseases which can kill us, and we will give no more thought to it than we do to Measles. So, don’t panic. If COVID-19 becomes a pandemic, the likelihood is we’ll just have to live with it. So we shouldn’t let it stop us living now.

Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Donate Button

Rorts sports

The “sports rorts” saga that has lately claimed the privileged position of Bridget McKenzie has consumed many newspaper front pages and exercised many peoples’ outrage – and not just those of us on the left. McKenzie is gone, relegated to the back bench for a token period of contrition.

(If there’s one thing the last week and Barnaby Joyce’s resurgence should have taught us, it’s that no matter how egregious the sin, the redemption is only a few news cycles away. After all, McKenzie knows first-hand how deeply embroiled the office of the PM – and conceivably, the PM himself along with Cabinet – were with this and other electoral misuses of public funds. It seems entirely likely that McKenzie’s demotion is a handshake deal with the understanding that her star will once again rise, given enough water under the bridge.)

Many in the ranks of the Liberal and National government may be relieved that the erstwhile Sports minister fell on her sword. McKenzie’s elevation to cabinet and the deputy leadership was unexpected and (some argue) unwarranted. McKenzie herself perhaps never expected to receive such a prominent role. Upon reaching the big chair she and her department have been the subject of many a scandal and rort. She seems to have capitalised on the perks of the job for all they’re worth, notching up the government’s largest travel bill in 2019.

McKenzie was not a high-performing minister in her other roles. In her capacity as Minister for Agriculture, arguably one of the Nationals’ core constituencies, McKenzie earned the ire of her colleagues for her poor communication skills, lack of visibility and poor organisation.  Nationals were furious that McKenzie capitulated quickly to demands from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, allowing PHON to claim credit for something the Nationals themselves had been agitating for over many months, something McKenzie had argued could not be achieved so quickly.

Most importantly, of course, the finding from Phil Gaetjens that McKenzie breached ministerial guidelines by not declaring the gift of a membership to a shooting club (which had, quite coincidentally, been given a grant under McKenzie’s funding program) allows the Liberal/National coalition government to safely demote the Minister for Sports without copping to the much more substantial claim that said funding program had been systematically rorted.

Because of course, that rorting was entirely according to Coalition policy and methods. McKenzie was not an outlier running a private little game. She was doing exactly what she had been told and what was expected of her.

We know this, even if the government won’t come out and admit it. The government knows this, and they know we know it. We know it, because they’re effectively admitting to it.

On ABC radio this week, Nationals MP Damian Drum admitted, on air, that “Every jurisdiction does it… “.

It’s hardly a new observation. Just after the 2013 federal election Sophie Mirabella, smarting from defeat in the battle for the seat of Indi against Cathy McGowan, claimed that “I had a commitment for a $10 million allocation for the Wangaratta Hospital that, if elected, I was going to announce a week after the election. That is $10 million that Wangaratta hasn’t had because [independent] Cathy [McGowan] was elected.”

The Coalition has a long tradition of paying back its benefactors. After all, this is why the Coalition is so hell-bent on sending the planet to hell, supporting the coal/oil/gas/fossil fuels industry against all scientific advice, despite world opprobrium and against the economic and environmental interests of the Australian public. Not because coal and fossil fuels are essentially good for us. Not even because the sums add up. If making plans to ditch coal would really send Australia’s economy into freefall you could understand the government’s position, but any rudimentary analysis shows that the market for coal and gas is a very short road indeed, and if we have not made significant inroads into renewable energy and associated industries by the time nobody else wants to buy our coal, we will be deep in it.

No, the reason the Coalition won’t ditch coal is that they owe their benefactors. The Liberals, like the Lannisters, always pay their debts.

So the idea that a voter needs to vote for the Coalition to secure any love from a Coalition government feels right at home. The thought of granting, or withholding, funds for a needy project not on the basis of need but because of the political party in control of that seat, is just and right in their eyes. Or if not “just and right”, it’s a case of “Every jurisdiction does it.”

Which raises two questions. Do they? And should they?

To be clear, we’re not talking about the time-honoured Australian method of “pork-barrelling” here. It’s true that both Labor and the Coalition talk the talk when it comes time for an election. An election is a battle of purses, each contender seeking to out-promise the other without ever stepping over the tenuous line beyond which the electorate wonders how the debt will be paid. We understand this. We accept it. To some extent, we reward it – politicians wouldn’t commit themselves to spending promises if it didn’t work at least some of the time.

The sports rorts is a deeper issue. Rather than promises to spend money in your electorate should you vote the correct way (and the promiser be in the position to grant their beneficence), these grants are intended to be retrospective. It’s not “Vote for us and we’ll do something for you”. It’s “See what we’ve done for you? Vote for us and you’ll get more.”

The corollary being, “Vote for somebody else and you won’t get a dime from us.” Or, in the case of Indi, a hospital.

We’re talking about a government, which actually has its hands on the levers of government, being partisan in the distribution of its funds. We’re not talking about fulfilling election promises.

So is Labor just as bad – or, as Damian Drum avers, worse? It’s hard to tell. I am not sure if the required analysis has been done. There certainly have not been as many scandals under Labor governments than Liberal ones, but perhaps Labor is better at keeping the lid on it. They appear to be better than the Liberals at many things, winning elections being the notable exception.

If it’s hard to tell whether it’s true that “every jurisdiction does it” – and let’s assume, for the sake of convenience, that they do – then, should they?

After all, MPs are expected to advocate for their electorates. They bring the needs and desires of their voters to those Ministers with the wherewithal to provide government support. Some would argue that Coalition MPs have better access to Coalition Ministers and receive a friendlier ear.

But this means that projects of merit can only receive funding if it suits the government of the day. It means that some electorates suffer in neglect due to being safe seats for either party, while marginal seats are showered in largess. It means that public funds – money coming from Australian taxpayers – is overtly funneled for political purposes, and only secondarily for public gain. I would argue that this should not happen. But how to avoid it, in a democratic two-party system where only the government of the day can call the shots?

If only there were an independent body, something like an overarching Sports Australia body, which could give advice as to the merits of any applicants to a funding scheme. A body with appropriate expertise – for the sake of imagination, let’s call it Infrastructure Victoria, and let it rule on the cost/benefits of something like the East/West Link. If only governments would commit to evidence-based policy.

But what kind of a political party would ever countenance such a thing? Certainly not the one we have now.

Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Donate Button

Doing it for ourselves

I’ve previously written about conservative politics being unconvinced about the very purpose of government. It is becoming clearer, through repeated example, that the Australian people are unconvinced about the very purpose of government.

The recent bushfires and the ongoing drought are just two of the more recent examples that show how Australians will step up to the challenge, dig deep, give generously and demonstrate just how all-round spiffy they are.

The point that gets forgotten in this ongoing round of self-congratulations is that they shouldn’t have to.

We maintain a government not because we desperately want somebody to rule over us, but because there are things in a modern society we should not have to do for ourselves.

At least some of us recognise this. If we look just a little below the surface of all the many examples of altruism, we can see an undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

When Australians are able to make statements such as “They are facing catastrophic conditions. The town has been left to fend for itself”, when we read articles that “Volunteers are keeping Australians safe, not the Government”.  When we can seriously suggest that “We have reached a point where the long-running downgrading of our institutional apparatus of government means that the most efficient way of getting money out to people in desperate circumstances is via non-government organisations like Vinnies and the Red Cross” we need to ask if our government is doing the job we pay it for.

The bushfire crisis has been on the front page for a month or two. The ongoing drought crisis has been going much longer, and here also we see individuals stepping in where the government has not.

“I feel f—ing sick because I am taking honest people’s money and they shouldn’t be helping me. But 100 per cent, the government is where the money should be coming from.”

All this is just the latest symptom of a long-standing ideological disagreement about what government is for. Conservative governments have an ideological opposition to providing assistance.

The idea that governments should provide services such as healthcare and hospitals, education and schools, social security and welfare, is relatively recent in historical times. Prior to the 1700s all these services would be provided by the churches or not at all. Government’s role was to maintain law and order and support the armed forces, and that was about it.

If you look at modern-day Coalition budgets, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what we’ve returned to. In any area you name the Coalition has, since its election in 2013, slashed and burned, cut and where possible dismantled. Government bodies have been merged, defunded or decommissioned. Public benefit projects like the NBN have been hollowed out and repurposed to avoid them becoming useful to the undeserving poor. Public benefits have been taxed, indexed and regulated into submission.

Coalition governments are welded onto the idea of privatising profits and socialising losses. That’s how they approach energy generation, mining, any provision of services where they can get away with it. And allowing the public to pay out of their own pockets what they should instead expect from the apparatus of State is the ultimate outcome of this ethic.

As I previously wrote:

Money to pay for education, fire services, health, broadband, has to come from somewhere. The social structures – primarily church – which previously might have supported these things no longer have the resources or the popular support to be able to take up the slack. Charities around the country are crying out for support and berating the government for not providing enough basic resources/support; something has to give. In this environment, the idea of “small government” doesn’t make sense.

The government has to be big enough to do the things that the monasteries aren’t around to do anymore.

Of course, the budget cuts that cut deepest are not the ones to frontline funding. The government has learned its lesson from Tony Abbott’s 2014 shocker budget: the Australian people do not like to see cuts to the bottom line of the ABC, of healthcare and social security and roads.

Instead the government makes budget cuts that are relatively invisible: slashing and burning a path through the public service. This allows them to crow that they are “increasing funds” to education, healthcare or other services, while concealing the fact that there’s nobody left in the responsible Departments to process the paperwork. So waiting lists blow out, but also, money is left unspent at the end of the financial year. Not because services don’t need it, but because those who needed it could not access it. Thus we have money left in the NDIS allocation that can be re-allocated to drought relief. Does anybody want to make a wager that this funding will be effectively used in a timely manner?

The Australian people want these services. They have come to expect them. But Coalition politicians just want to win elections, and they’ve convinced themselves (with some justification) that the way to win elections is to cut taxes. When they cut taxes, they can’t afford to pay for these services.

That’s when the beneficent Australian public – the battlers, the Quiet Australians – rise to the challenge. This is when we see crowdfunding campaigns to pay for playgrounds, to enable life-saving operations not covered by the PBS, to support art bodies that have lost their funding or to provide hoses and trucks and face masks to firefighters. And we give. Australians want these services and we’ve shown that we’re happy to pay for them.

This is evidence of a disconnect in the electorate. The same people who donate generously to charitable causes are often the same people who will cheerfully vote in a Coalition government and cheer on the hollowing-out of any ability or willingness Government might have to do its part.

Of course no politician ever saw a way of raising money they didn’t like.

Now we have political aspirants crowdfunding their election campaigns.

We have government bodies, starved of public funds, reduced to fundraising to be able to achieve the things their constituents want.

When we accept the thought of crowdfunding to pay for services that should come out of our taxes, we let governments off the hook. We allow the argument to be framed in terms of what we can afford. When we allow politicians to sway our votes on the basis of promised tax cuts, we should remember that in doing so we are contributing to a worldview in which governments don’t pay for firefighting, individuals do. Where governments don’t pay for healthcare, societal infrastructure: instead the market will provide.

But there are certain things only Government can do. Nobody can crowdfund a closure of coal power stations, or the building of solar farms. We can’t crowdfund an ETS into existence. How, practically, can we the people contribute to the things our Government ought to be doing for us?

Every time we see an article about What you can do to save the planet or confront a blog comment challenging you about how often you fly and whether you use light bulbs, this is contributing to the distraction campaign. Individuals, acting alone, cannot save us from global environmental collapse. Not while governments continue to support coal mining, gas exports, coal-fired power and the infrastructure that supports them.

So don’t let the government get away with claiming that it can’t afford to pay for these services. Don’t allow it to laud the efforts of well-meaning, altruistic Australians without demanding an explanation of why the private altruism was necessary. We have a government for the purposes of providing healthcare, emergency management, social welfare and a host of other social provisions that we can’t do on our own. We expect our government to provide these services without fear or favour, to the needy regardless of how loud or visible they are.

If our government is not doing these things, it is not fit for purpose. So why exactly does it exist?

Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Donate Button

Enemy of the good

For many years I have been furious with the Greens for their sabotage of Labor’s ETS in 2009. Perhaps the policy was flawed. Certainly it did not go far enough. But it would have been a start. Imagine if the CPRS had begun more than a decade ago? Rather than a decade of arguments over whether we should act on pricing carbon, we could have spent the decade refining the targets and methodologies. I’m still mad about it. But in the wake of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m making exactly the same egregious error.

More than one opinion article has been published in recent weeks suggesting the Morrison government might use the fires as an excuse, a trigger, to recalibrate the Coalition’s approach to climate change policy. Each time I read such an article I find myself thinking along a well-worn track:

Don’t do it! Don’t start taking climate change seriously. Don’t deal with the deniers in your own ranks. Don’t suddenly start sounding reasonable!

We know that the bushfires have focussed Australia’s attention in a way never before achieved. We know that the last vestiges of AGW denial are crumbling in the real world. We don’t want the Coalition to be a part of the real world. We prefer our Coalition politicians to be outliers, historical artefacts, easily pushed aside in favour of progressive parties whose policies are obviously simply better.

Fantasy politics

There’s a narrative that has the Coalition remaining intransigent on the issue, clinging stubbornly to coal mines and fossil fuel oligarchs, carbon exports and the revolving door of post-politics coal company directorships. In this fantasy world, Labor drops its own recidivist approach, ceases clinging to coal and instead brings a decent selection of climate policies to the next election. And the Australian public, woken up by repeated disasters and environmental collapse, consign the conservative parties to history where they belong and sweep progressives into power across the country.

It’s a good dream – but it’s little more than a fantasy.

2019 was supposed to be the climate change election. The Coalition came into that election clinging stubbornly to coal and gas. By contrast, Labor brought a stable of progressive climate policies, along with the Greens on the far left. This was supposed to be the election at which Australia stated, loud and clear, that the preceding decade of policy stagnation and climate inaction would not continue.

And we know how that turned out.

When polled about important electoral issues, climate change ranked highly in the estimations of Australians. When push came to shove, though, it was not as important as taxes, cost of living and “death taxes”. (Never mind that the Coalition is higher-taxing, presides over escalating costs of living and entirely made up the threat of death taxes.) The Australian people increasingly understand the importance of climate change, but they won’t vote for decent environmental policies if it means foregoing franking credits.

Obviously there were many factors at play in the 2019 election. But that’s the point. There will always be many factors at play in any election. Climate change may persuade some hesitant Australians that environmental policies are needed, but the Coalition can play that game – they like to wave fig-leaf policies around, just enough to assuage conservative voters that they have the issue in hand, while not enough to actually force any kind of change. The expectation that climate change policies will be a vote-changer, let alone an election-decider, has so far proven unfounded.

It’s seductive, thinking that our dying environment (or, really, any one major issue) could be the defining factor in the next election, in the contest of ideas and the competition for government. It’s always foolish. There are no single-issue elections.

What’s a single-issue voter to do?

For many voters, the exigency of global warming and the existential threat to human civilisation trumps all other considerations. To the extent that if the Coalition had the best suite of climate policies on offer (and any feasible likelihood of being serious at carrying them out) a single-issue voter would need to consider voting for them, against their better interest in every other area of social policy. Climate change is so important that it can take priority over healthcare, education, tax policy or industrial relations.

So far in the 2010s and 2020s, there has not been a need to weigh climate change policy against other progressive issues. The progressive parties have also offered the best climate and environmental policies.

But what if the Coalition were to pivot to a decent environment strategy? How would that impact on the left, who fully expect – nay rely on – them to remain troglodytes on the issue?

The problem with being a single-issue voter is that political operators like to neutralise issues. If climate change is a perceived area of weakness – which it undeniably is, for the Coalition – then they will seek to minimise its impact in any election, through a combination of downplaying the issue’s importance, and offering policies so it can appear to be interested in doing something.

Adopting a single-issue approach willfully ignores and demotes the dozens of other defining policy areas on which the parties compete. It relegates consideration of a rejuvenated NBN. It discounts overt corruption, pork-barreling and electoral tampering. It devalues the Coalition’s continual budget cuts to the ABC, childcare, social security and just about any other area excepting the military and politicians’ salaries.

There are so many other political issues worth our attention. But in this hyper-partisan age it hurts us to consider that in any specific area, let alone the area of possibly greatest consequence for the future of the country, the other team might get something right. If it’s difficult for conservative voters to imagine the Coalition’s approach could be wrong, perhaps it could be almost as hard for us on the progressive side to give credit for things they do right.

Of course, this is likely all academic. It doesn’t seem likely that the Coalition will change its stance. They are too riddled through with entrenched climate change deniers. Too embedded with the mindset that coal is the energy source of the future and will be the backbone of Australia’s economy for the foreseeable future. Too dependent on the financial backing of their masters and supporters in Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and the Minerals Council of Australia. They seem unable to grasp that the market for coal exports will die, suddenly and quickly, and that climate change action can bring economic benefits rather than costs.

Most likely, I’ll never be confronted with the cognitive dissonance of the Coalition finding the way forward on climate change. I just need to accept that there’s a big part of me that hopes they never will.

Like what we do at The AIMN?

You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.

Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!

Donate Button

Just a (new normal) drought

Recently there has been a lot of commentary about the Big Dry. From news.com.au to the 7:30 report  to your nearest Facebook page and a dozen appeals for corporations and individuals to contribute to “drought relief” efforts, the winter of 2018 is full of stories of struggling farmers and dying animals. Farmers in NSW and Queensland are calling it “the worst drought in living memory“.

So how bad is it really? Much of what we hear is anecdotal, and that’s bad enough. We hear that some regions have had no rain for more than a year. In other areas, farmers describe having had “almost no rain since 2010”. It’s bad enough that Scott Morrison calls it the highest priority for his new government, and State governments are falling over themselves to throw money at the problem (the NSW government has increased its drought relief package by another half a billion dollars).

The current drought has been going for up to a decade now; Tony Abbott’s government called it a “once-in-a-century” drought when they announced a federal support package in 2014. And there’s no end in sight.

There’s no question about it: Australian farmers, particularly in the food bowl to the continent’s south and east, are doing it tough. We are in the middle of a drought possibly more severe and more protracted than the Millenium Drought.

But calling it a drought obscures our understanding of the true situation. Throwing more and more money – Federal and State relief packages, public “Save a Farmer” appeals, statewide Bunnings BBQs – however well-intentioned, might just be making things worse.

This drought was already well-established when we were talking about it back in 2014. When Tony Abbott was doing the tour of drought-affected regions and declaiming ““If you look at the records of Australian agriculture going back 150 years, there have always been good times and bad times. There have always been tough times and lush times and farmers ought to be able to deal with the sorts of things that are expected every few years,” the drought had been ongoing for four years. Four years later and there is no indication of the weather changing soon.

And when it does change? When the rains come, will farmers be able to pick up their shovels and go back to business as usual? Will we wipe our brows with relief and thank providence that the bad times are over?

Perhaps. But not for long.

The current dry in Queensland and NSW is not a short-term anomaly. It’s not a once-in-a-century drought event. Certainly, it’s not the kind of conditions you would have expected to see a century ago, but the world now is not as it was then.

Our climate has changed. That’s a past-tense statement, and while it is also true that our climate continues to change, it would be foolish of us to think that things can ever go back to business as usual. For decades scientists warned us what would happen if our carbon-driven course was not changed. We largely missed our opportunity to avoid the consequences we are now seeing.

These consequences were predicted and should surprise nobody.

(Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-droughts/10051956

This chart is from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO’s State of the Climate report in 2016 and represents measured rainfall figures. (The full report is available at http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/State-of-the-Climate-2016.pdf)

Source: http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/awap/rain/index.jsp?colour=colour&time=latest&step=0&map=drought&period=daily&area=nat

This is the Bureau of Meteorology’s drought map for the past three months (May-June-July 2018).

Looking at recent data is just one part of the equation. The real test is identifying trends, extrapolating those trends into the future, and seeing how they match up with the predictions of climate science.

Fortunately we have access to trend data.

The chart on the left shows the trend in annual mean temperature (°C/decade) from
1950–2015, showing warming over most of the continent. The chart on the right is of trends in annual-average rainfall (mm/decade) from 1950–2015,
showing an increase in rainfall in much of the north and a decrease in
many southern areas.

These charts are from the report Australia’s Changing Climate (available at https://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/media/ccia/2.1.6/cms_page_media/176/AUSTRALIAS_CHANGING_CLIMATE_1.pdf).

There is strong congruence between what we are seeing in current climate trends and what has been consistently predicted. And what has been predicted, is that droughts will be more common and more severe in the years ahead.

This drought will break. At some point in the future, whether it be one year from now or five or ten, the rains will come and Australia will once again bloom to life. In some places, we will still have farmers, doing it tough, waiting for the Dry to end. For a while, there will be celebrations.

But this drought will have permanent, irreversible consequences. When trees that are 100 years old die, they don’t grow back. The land is permanently changed. It is less able to absorb and hold the water when the rains do come, leading to erosion and land degradation and a further reduction in the water table.

And how long will it be until the next drought arrives? Everything we know and everything we learn tells us that droughts will become more frequent and more severe. This current drought is not the worst we will have.

Australia is a land where the cycles of drought and flood are etched into the landscape. But trees that are 100 years old survived the last drought, and the one before that. In some respects, this drought is no different to the ones that came before. Yet the straw that broke the camel’s back is for all intents and purposes identical to all the others.

This is just a drought. But it is also an inevitable outcome of the new normal climate that we have created, that we are still creating. This is the natural outcome of a changed climate and the sooner we get used to the idea, the better. Only then can we start to think about longer-term solutions – which probably do not include farmers and graziers staying on the land as they have done in past decades.

Coalition MPs push for legislation to ban opposition to change to race-hate laws

Yesterday in Parliament several government MPs, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, decried Labor’s opposition to proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) as a claim that Australians are racist. “[The Opposition] believe[s] that Australia is a nation of racists only held in check by Gillian Triggs and section 18C,” said Turnbull. “We have more respect for the Australian people.” Turnbull and at least three other government members claimed that Labor’s opposition to the changes stemmed from Labor’s belief that Australians are deeply racist.

Now some government MPs and Senators are pushing for opposition to the changes to the bill to be outlawed as discriminatory and offensive. “When Labor opposes our very reasonable changes to strengthen the race hate laws by weakening them, they make the very clear, very specific claim that I personally am irretrievably racist,” said Senator Eric Abetz. “This personal attack is intolerable and I have suggested to my colleagues that we need a new package of free speech law to protect against this kind of bullying.”

The government is trying to secure support for its changes to the RDA to remove the words “offend, insult or humiliate” and replace them with the single word “harrass”. “We are strengthening the race hate laws,” Prime Minister Turnbull told reporters in a press conference on Monday. “We are strengthening it because it’s clearer, it will be a more effective protection against race/hate.”

Senator Mathias Cormann said that “Blocking our very necessary changes to 18C is profoundly un-Australian. I’m proud to be a real Aussie, not like those Aboriginals who just want to cause trouble.”

The concerns about the 18C provisions were sparked by multiple court cases brought against columnist Andrew Bolt and cartoonist Bill Leak. Some conservative members of the Government would prefer clause 18C to be abandoned entirely, arguing it is a constraint against free speech. Even the current changes, however, face an uphill battle in the Senate.

The existing provisions of 18C have been in place for two decades and there now exists many years of case law clarifying the legal definitions of the terms “offend, insult or humiliate”. Experts have warned that changing the wording of 18C to remove these terms and replace them with “harrass” will inevitably lead to a large number of new cases as complainants seek to test the law.

When asked about the likelihood that changes to the law would embolden potential offenders to use hate speech and that vulnerable minorities could be damaged, Senator Cormann argued that this was part of the process of legislative reform. “These people should be proud. By being bullied and harrassed they are helping to make Australia a place where bullying and harrassing behaviours are not tolerated.”

Some Coalition MPs are understood to be investigating whether they can bring a lawsuit against Opposition members under the provisions of 18C. “I am offended that Labor is making me out to be a racist just because I want the freedom to mouth off at will about those people,” said one Minister who did not want to be named. “That’s exactly the kind of offensive behaviour these laws are intended to protect against.”

Note: this is a work of satire and should not be taken as news, either real or alternative. Yet.

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.

The Emperor’s New Truth

So there’s been another boat.

Never mind that Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have been insisting for years that “the boats have stopped”, now, during a contested election that’s not all going the Coalition’s way, suddenly the people smugglers have started up again. Bit of a coincidence, that.

One might be tempted to suspect that perhaps the boats had not stopped at all. As all knowledge of such matters falls into the Coalition’s “on-water” black hole, there’s no way we would know. Reasonable people may entertain the glimmers of doubt about the information we’re being fed. But the Coalition’s latest announcement is not aimed at reasonable people.

On any reasonable metric, the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition government has been an abject failure since 2013.  On the domestic issues, whichever your primary priority – economic success, reduction of the deficit, unemployment rate, government spend as share of GDP, real wages, broadband speed, and even general standard of living – every metric has declined since Abbott toppled the Gillard/Rudd government. If you turn your attention to the “moral” issues – those that have no immediate, material impact on the national economy – the Abbott / Turnbull government is similarly unimpressive. From environmental protection, to action on climate change, to refugees and immigration – both in how we “stop the boats”, and in how we treat those who have reached our shores – Australia’s performance over the past three years has dropped from substantial to dismal. So why would people still choose to vote for the Coalition, with this litany of failures behind them?

The reason, of course, is that voters do not vote on the basis of performance and record. They’re voting on the basis of promise and expectation. But the promises of the Coalition don’t fare much better than their record of successes. Delving deeply into the government’s budget and forecasts, it’s reasonably fair to say that their entire policy platform rests on a single “innovation” – a $50bn tax cut for businesses.  In all other areas, they promise more of the same. More of the ineffective, expensive Direct Action plan – a plan which Liberal true believers still think is efficient, but which most of Australia has recognised as wasteful and well insufficient to the task. More attempts to implement the 2014 budget of cuts to health and education. More attempts to establish a co-payment by stealth, more attacks on Medicare, more invective directed towards those who haven’t been successful in acquiring one of the increasingly sparse jobs in our “exciting” economy. But thank goodness, no more of those juvenile “knights and dames”, so that’s okay.

For some, the pertinent measure of a good government is stability. For these voters, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years were a debacle to be resolutely punished, and punished the Labor government was. It’s a good thing that the Abbott government is so committed to stability. Sorry, the Turnbull government. At least their policy platform is stable – it has barely changed since the 1950s, and the Coalition parties wouldn’t dream of proposing half-baked policy.

So if people aren’t voting on the basis of what the Government has done so far, and they’re not paying attention to what the Government is promising to do should it be returned, why then does Malcolm Turnbull stand a good chance of being reelected in his own right on July 3?

The reason is that voters are voting on the basis of a fiction. They’re playing a game of Fantasy Government in their heads and they’re voting for their imagined Good Government. Their vision of governance is informed by the established truths that attach to each of the major parties. For Coalition supporters, this might be the established truth that the Coalition is better at managing the economy and that Labor will put the country further into unsustainable debt. For Labor supporters, it might be that workers’ unions always act in the best interests of its members. Greens supporters cling to the belief that the party is above normal politics, and every action and position is taken on the basis of the best outcomes for the environment and social equality rather than grubby vote-grabbing. All of these established truths are at best open to debate, but to the true believer they are sacrosanct.

To someone with an interest in politics and attention to the actual facts and statistics, it can be eye-gouging to watch voters in critical electorates responding to voting intention questionnaires with platitudes about Labor’s debt and the Coalition’s savings. On this site and others, the usual suspects may be relied upon to always populate the comments section with their opinion on any political topic of the day, and their opinions are always the same and undented by being shown proven, empirical evidence that what they’re claiming just isn’t true.

It is well known that people seek out and pay credence to evidence and opinion that matches or reinforces their own beliefs. Confirmation Bias is a phenomenon recognised sufficiently to warrant its own term in psychological textbooks.  However, it doesn’t work alone. Recent research shows that attempting to debunk a political rumour – or an entrenched belief – may have the contrary outcome of making them stronger.  Possibly, this is due to the believer discounting the efforts of the debunker because of perceived bias. Once Fairfax media acquires a reputation as a left-wing outlet, nothing printed in one of its mastheads is likely to change the minds of a conservative voter and may instead reinforce perverse beliefs in the face of published evidence.

So it seems that propaganda exists in two phases. The first phase is the implantation of an idea. Think about it in terms of “brain ownership”: once you’ve acquired someone’s loyalty, it’s extremely hard to dislodge. Political strategists know this. There is strength in the approach of lying with impunity, in order to seed a belief in the understanding that it will become a new truth. Tony Abbott’s government was a master at this technique, but really it’s been a modus operandi for conservative politics for decades.

Once seeded, repetition is the fertiliser that helps it to flower. Repetition of an idea plays directly into confirmation bias, and every repetition makes it harder for a contrary idea to cut through.

Finally, once the idea has been seeded and watered and has taken root in the desired electorate, it is important to discredit all potential sources of contrary information with allegations of bias. This explains why Gillian Triggs has been represented as such a threat. Her empirical report into offshore processing camps had to be discredited, and the best way to do that is to taint the figurehead with allegations of bias. The Coalition succeeded in creating this impression, and from that point on any reference to her report simply reinforces the Coalition’s position of the necessity and tolerability of those camps.

This is why a boat has suddenly appeared on our borders for the first time in years. Logically, both things cannot be true: either the boats have stopped, or the people smugglers are still “trying our resolve” and sending the boats. But voters don’t think about it in this manner. The Coalition is having its cake and eating it too. For those who wish to believe the Coalition’s policies have been successful and should continue, the Boats have Stopped. For another part of the electorate, fear of the incoming hordes is the stronger motivator, and the news of a new boat reinforces that fear. Both things do not have to be true; one of these things simply needs to be accepted as true for the Coalition’s stance to be justified.

So how can a propaganda-driven New Truth be combatted by those with facts and data on their side?

First, it is important to be – and to be perceived to be – impartial. Opponents of the inconvenient facts will attempt to discredit them as biased. If possible, it is best to lead people to discover the facts on their own, rather than simply telling. Contrary to normal argumentative rhetoric, it may be most effective to find out first what sources of information would be regarded as acceptably impartial before presenting any facts at all.

A single instance of leading a horse to water may not be enough to make them drink. The second component of re-education is repetition. You can never allow a statement of New Truth to pass unchallenged. Much of the time this is a recipe for frustration: New Truth will regularly be spouted in the media and there is no immediate way to respond to this. But on a one-to-one basis, in daily communication with your friends, family and workmates, a response is possible – and indeed, the only ethical choice.

Whether you’re interested in the virtue of truthfulness and data rather than lies and misinformation, or you’re concerned for the future governance of the country, or if you just want to prevent the next generation being implanted with New Truth before they’re old enough to make up their own minds with the evidence, we must respond. We must do so carefully, without reference to the information resources we ourselves find so convincing. But respond we must. Otherwise the New Truth will live on to poison the next election – it’s probably too late for this one.

Dystopian Reality – a Climate Change Future

A Climate Change Future

Predicting the future is a no-win scenario. There are so many variables that virtually anything is possible. Futurism inevitably becomes a matter of balancing likely outcomes from current trends, known factors and easily predictable future developments. Any attempt to predict the future will result in either one possible future or a range of possible futures. The one certain thing is that almost all the visions of the future must be wrong, because only one can be right.

This article offers one possible timeline for the next few decades, sketching environmental, socioeconomic, technological and military developments. This article considers the future between now and 2050 – well within the lifetimes of many reading this blog today. Consider it a thought experiment, designed to encourage consideration and discussion.

This timeline deliberately eschews disruptive events such as global pandemics, nuclear terrorism, asteroid impacts or the eruption of Yellowstone. These developments are possible, even (in the case of pandemic infections) likely, but placing them into a timeline would be entirely arbitrary, and the future may well unfold without them. Similarly, no deus ex machinae are included: there is no recourse to world-saving geoengineering or biotechnology developments. Altogether, what follows is a not unreasonable extrapolation of what the near future might hold for us, our children and our grandchildren.

These developments are all sourced in current literature and scientific research and linked directly to supporting evidence and analysis. These are processes that are happening now, and unless human civilisations immediately and radically change course, will continue to their inevitable end. An understanding of these likelihoods is necessary before we can honestly address the challenges of climate change, as the Paris agreements of 2015 recede into our past.

2016 – 2025

In the third world, civil unrest that arose in the early years of the 21st century continues unabated. Over the decades, the US and allies expend profligate effort to viciously subdue Islamic insurgencies in Syria and Iran, but new conflicts spring up more quickly than they can be put down. By 2025 the American people are thoroughly tired of continuing wars and American deaths and the US scales back its involvement, followed by its allies. The Middle East and large parts of the South-East Pacific dissolve into squabbles and conflict, swelling the ranks of refugees from tens of thousands into the low millions. The spark for all of these conflicts is increasing food scarcity and lack of drinkable water.

In Europe, the continued and growing influx of migrants contributes to the rise of right-wing political movements and a tightening of borders. In a desperate attempt to preserve the EU as member countries squabble over refugee policy and relative responsibilities, the Common European Asylum System border protection policy is progressively tightened and, slowly, refugee resettlement efforts give way to the establishment of giant refugee camps in barely habitable areas. The misery in these camps puts Australia’s Nauru to shame.

In Asia, China is pushing strongly for hegemony in the Pacific and the Arctic and Antarctic. Small chains of islands in the Pacific are claimed by China and forcibly pacified despite opposition. The territorial claims include oil fields and China doesn’t take long to start enforcing its ownership there. Other nations suffer as a result as they lose energy sources, but can’t challenge China. China is taken to international courts for a variety of cases, but while the legal proceedings drag on for years, China doesn’t hesitate to consolidate its hold, building artificial islands and industrial city-complexes as bases for its military forces. At the same time, enormous resources are poured into renewable energy generation. China begins to take a lead in solar and wind technology but does not share this technology easily. Large parts of China are becoming desertified at a rapid rate, with internal displacement of millions of Chinese into more fertile areas. Chinese cities, already congested, become ever more crowded and poor. China responds by commencing construction on new urban centres, completely powered by renewable energy, each built as industrial or research hubs.

Drilling for oil by US companies commences in the Arctic. However, China and Russia are also exploring here and not inclined to respect national borders and national territorial claims. This instability leads inevitably to clashes of forces, first between commercial enterprises (and, occasionally, environmental campaigners) and, later, military forces as all sides start patrolling the area with their own navies to protect the operations of their drillers. The distinction between US government and commercial entities begins to blur, to match the situation with both China and Russia. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change continue to accelerate. Tornadoes and freak storms batter coastal cities such as New Orleans, while unprecedented bushfires rage across large parts of the continental US and destroy many consecutive seasons of crops. Food prices, already increasing rapidly, escalate further.

In Australia, the narrow election victory of a Labor government in 2016 gives brief hope to many climate observers, but these hopes fade as it becomes clear that the new government, whilst not as outspokenly climate hostile as the Abbott/Turnbull regime it replaced, is still constrained by the narrative created by it and by the general attitudes of a climate-skeptical populace. Policy adjustments to reduce reliance on coal and oil and to increase renewables are slow and tentative, and by 2025 Australia is still heavily coal dependent and still exporting large volumes of coal and LNG. However, as predicted in the early parts of the decade, the demand for coal has decreased markedly as target markets accelerate their move towards renewables as well as their own domestic sources. Accordingly, the export price of coal and gas has fallen significantly, putting increasing pressure on Australia’s economy.

The economic downturn causes problems for Labor. The 2024 election sees a return to power of conservatives, but after eight years in the wilderness this new breed of liberals are far truer to the description and bring a raft of climate policies to the table, painting Labor as being “the friend of Big Coal”. By 2025, deep government “transition” subsidies to existing fossil fuel companies are on offer, but this disrupts the burgeoning renewable energy market which has until now been dominated by new entrants and innovators. 2024 sees the start of a process where most renewable energy companies and entrepeneurs will be bought up by BP, Shell, Exxon and others. By 2024, the first generation of university leavers, beneficiaries of Labor’s education investments, are graduating and entering the workforce.

It is likely that the first off-Earth colony will be established on Mars. Manned exploration of near-earth asteroids is either planned or commenced.

2025 – 2050

Rising sea levels, declining rainfall and frequent heatwaves are combining to turn vast swathes of South Asia uninhabitable. Asian and African countries are slowly but surely depopulating, both through climate refugee immigration and through deaths to disease, dehydration and starvation. Climate refugees are now an unstoppable tide numbering in the millions, swamping Europe as they arrive daily by the thousands. The EU is attempting to enforce borders with paramilitary forces but the refugees are too desperate and borders too expansive to be successfully patrolled.

Europe is now populated by two subgroups: Citizens and non-Citizens. Two parallel economies now exist. The grey economy is populated by and largely serves illegal immigrants. Not being covered by social support or healthcare from European governments, immigrant populations look after their own needs as much as possible, but are treated as second-class citizens. Crime, while still low on a per-capita basis, has exploded and public areas are now constantly patrolled by heavily armed police forces.

Populations already strongly influenced by hard-right governing parties, the first pogroms of the 21st century commence in some European countries.

In Asia, territorial wars are breaking out. Some are short skirmishes but the whole region is a simmering pot of conflicts. North Korea annexes South; without the US being willing to come to the aid of the South, the North has military superiority. However, within a few years the unified Korea is on the verge of collapse as, rather than benefiting from the economy and technology of the South, the whole of Korea starts to devolve towards its conquerors. By 2050, Korea attempts military expansion elsewhere but fails in its attempt at imperialism, and Korea collapses into a failed state. Japan is now fully self-sufficient, imports no oil and is falling behind economically; however, powered almost entirely by nuclear, the populace is relatively content. Rising sea levels are a concern for Japanese policymakers and resources are poured into levies and protection efforts. China is aggressively advancing its space exploration program and has a permanent settlement on Mars (and one on the Moon). It is starting to mine asteroids for rare minerals and metals.

China’s investment is starting to pay off, with thousands of high-level scientists and engineers living in custom-built technology cities, many completely enclosed in atmospheric domes: technology developed for their Mars colonies is now adapted for use on Earth. Inland desertification is continuing and food production is the country’s biggest ongoing concern. Coal is completely phased out for energy generation. At the same time, laws are passed banning export of fossil fuels. China begins construction of enormous enclosed farms for fish and crops, and continues an aggressive program of purchasing arable land in Australia and other locations. These efforts are now meeting with resistance as other governments see the signs but global courts and national economic systems are slow to react.

The global oil crisis plunges America into a deep depression, as the price of oil extraction climbs to make fossil fuels uneconomic. Attempts are made to leverage renewable and distributed power generation, but the process has been too slow and costs are extreme: the transition was not accomplished while energy was cheap. The US reduces its military spending to focus on a new insular approach – gone is the “muscular diplomacy” doctrine, as the government simply can’t afford to continue it and still put the resources into decarbonising the economy. Strong legislation is drafted to recraft the economy, putting caps on corporate and individual profits and ensuring a greater proportion goes to government revenue. Rebates and exceptions are drafted if individuals put significant resources into approved renewable energy projects. Belatedly the US starts subsidising renewable energy generation programs, but the oil crisis puts a significant brake on these efforts. Exacerbating the concerns for America, many of its cities are slowly becoming too hot for habitation. Americans still live in New York and Washington, but the hotter climate is having a measurable impact on productivity.

By 2030, China has banned the use of coal for energy generation, closing one of Australia’s major export markets entirely. India is advanced in its push to renewable energy and domestic coal sources, and the majority of Australia’s export coal has no buyer. The price of coal-fired energy in Australia plummets, putting downwards pressure on renewable energy research and take-up; nonetheless, major coal miners go out of business. The Australian economy is in terminal decline with high levels of unemployment nationwide and continual government deficits. New political microparties are in the ascendancy as both Labor and the Liberals suffer from public dissatisfaction, but the microparties do not have the strength or discipline to govern for the country’s future; governance devolves into a multitude of partisan interests, populist policies and pork barrelling. Australia has a brief advantage from an influx of technology students, but with few high-tech companies to employ new graduates and a new conservative government reluctant to fund placements and subsidies, many are forced to seek work overseas.

Some parts of Australia are becoming difficult to live in: the vaunted “New North” program is stalling due to high levels of heat stress, regular flooding and low productivity due to high wet-bulb readings. Towards the end of this period, the collapse in farmland, the continued sale to China and others of food-producing territory, and lowering aquifers and water levels are major concerns. Food prices are increasing. Meat, in particular, is becoming too expensive to eat regularly, and most Australians’ diets now include less meat overall. The 2040s see the last of the baby boomers retiring. Government revenue is insufficient to pay for comfortable social security for many, and the ranks of the elderly poor are swelling. Healthcare is also overstretched and death rates among both the young and the elderly are rising.

Beyond 2050

The world after 2050 may appear, to our 2016 eyes, as a dystopia, but this is no fantasy. There are no happy endings in store. The seeds which are planted over the next thirty years – both good and bad – will direct the fate of humanity as the state of the planet Earth continues to deteriorate.

By the 2050s, the Amazon rainforest is in irreversible decline. Deforestation by humans, combined with wildfires exacerbated by climate change, have had an irreversible effect. The eventual death of the rainforest is now a certainty, and as the forest itself plays a major role in regulating the planet’s climate, its loss is one further accelerant to climate change.

The most immediate outcome is the emergence of major human diseases. As climate change pushes humans and remote insect and mammalian species into direct contact and conflict, new animal-to-human diseases emerge with alarming regularity. Fortunately, most of these diseases are suppressed before they become airborne and cut a swathe through remaining human populations, but each new disease emergency has the potential to kill millions.

International flight has been curtailed: a combination of oil shortage and punishing carbon restrictions means that jet fuel is too expensive. There’s nowhere to go, in any case: people now want to escape tropical locations with their daytime temperatures in the 40s, rather than travelling there for holidays. The Great Barrier Reef has been dead for decades, and the annual vacation overseas is now, except for the very wealthy, an indulgence of the past.

By the second half of the 21st century, death from starvation is one of the major killers of humans. Large swathes of Asia, Africa and central Europe are becoming quickly depopulated. Deserts are spreading across the United States midwest, and it is likely that at some point in the century, one or more States may secede from the union. By 2100, it seems likely that the United States will be united no longer.

Disunity in the former European Union is no less severe. Pressures over resources and land, particularly water, lead to armed conflicts. The European wars of this era are localised and in many cases informal, but they are wars nonetheless. Some smaller countries are either annexed by their neighbours, or left without sufficient water resources to feed their own peoples. Other European countries are dealing with their own civil wars or popular uprisings, ostensibly on grounds of race or nationality, but triggered by food and water shortages caused by climate change.

By the late 21st century, capitalism as we know it will have been largely replaced by a kind of socialism. The loss of the oil economy has the effect of making individual prosperity much more difficult, as a large proportion of energy generation comes from state-owned solar and wind farms that dwarf those run by private concerns. Continued and growing pressure from an ever-expanding base of unemployed citizens requires an ever-increasing investment into social security. Governmental caps and curbs on individual profit gradually metamorphise into a socialist structure, and the most prosperous in society receive an increasing proportion of their windfall gains in non-monetary forms.

By the time 2100 arrives, it is likely that our planet will be harsh and unforgiving, covered in billowing deserts and rising oceans. Sea levels will continue to rise, unstoppably, for the next three hundred years at least, and by the time this process is over they will be a minimum of six metres higher than now. This will entirely cover the vast majority of current human cities, but sheer physics constrain how quickly this can happen, and human civilisation will have either collapsed or entirely changed by then.

If humans survive in this new world, most likely they will exist in artificial environments. These self-contained cities will utilise much of the renewable energy they gather for cooling, for water purification, and for agriculture. We are building a future where we will need to be terraforming our own planet in order to continue to live there.

Near-term future

The 20th century saw immense changes in human technology, civilisation and society. The development of mankind is an accelerating trajectory, and the first decades of this century have showed that we’re not slowing down. However, the effects of climate change place severe constraints on the direction of our species for the immediate future.

The one thing that can surely be said of the next hundred years is that the world in 2100 will be mostly unrecognisable to what we know today. The predictions made in this article are strongly supported by current trends and analysis, but may easily prove to be conservative. What we do know is that we will see this future coming to pass.

Humans aren’t great at planning for the long term: anything outside of our own lifetime is so remote that we don’t generally bear it in mind when making decisions. However, we are capable of making long-term plans for our own future – we consider our retirement needs, the schooling of our children, our investments into property. So consider this: those taking out a new mortgage now will see this future shaping around them. People are buying houses now that will be underwater before the mortgage is fully paid. Or, to put it another way:

This future is nine elections away.

What do our politicians do?

What, exactly, do our politicians do?

Today, Monday 18 April 2016, the Turnbull government took the almost unprecedented step of recalling all of Parliament for a three-week “emergency sitting” to debate and pass – or, hopefully, fail to pass – two specific pieces of legislation.

Much has been written about the government’s real motivations behind this recall and debate. With the repeated defeat of the ABCC “productivity” bill, Malcolm Turnbull has his double dissolution trigger. But before the vote, with its commonly expected outcome, the Senate spent a large portion of the day discussing the bill.

I had the pleasure of listening to Senator Scott Ludlam’s speech on the subject. Senator Ludlam’s speeches are almost always worth listening to – go on, listen to one or two right now, we’ll wait.

If you just took the opportunity to watch some of Ludlam’s speeches, or have previously done so, beside the clear speaking, reliance on facts and withering irony that he brings to his every contribution, the other notable feature of Scott Ludlam’s speeches is that the chamber is almost invariably almost empty.

It would seem fair to assume that on a matter of such national importance that Malcolm Turnbull would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring “nearly 150 MPs and their staff… back to Parliament from around the country”, that said MPs would want to listen with avid attention to the speeches in response. Presumably the job of an MP is to attend sittings of Parliament, engage in the discussions and debate there, and form an opinion on the subject at hand prior to casting their vote.

One might make that assumption, but one would evidently be wrong. Any cursory viewing of either Parliament or the Senate will show the real situation – wide swathes of benches, primarily governmental and opposition, clear of occupants. That is, until the bells are rung for a vote.

Debates in the Parliament and the Senate, it seems, exist for the sake of posterity and inclusion in Hansard, not to inform the level of understanding of those about to decide on the future of the country. Is it any wonder Question Time so often descends into farce? The stakes are so low, with all – or at least most – MPs already set in their intended vote, that they need to pass the time somehow. The result is a system of government too easily interrupted by process – filibusters, suspensions of standing orders, points of order, and political games such as tying unpalatable bills to legislation of clear national and popular importance, forcing MPs to vote against the good to prevent the bad, or to vote for the bad to achieve the good.

So if they’re not spending their time in their seats in the Chamber, what do our politicians do?

They don’t write their own articles.

They don’t even fact-check, or apparently have very much knowledge about the subject matter of their portfolio. Scott Ryan’s recent snafu with plagiarism is only the most recent of a continual string of egregious failures. Sometimes it seems that if politics were a school class, most Australian politicians would get a failed grade on account of not bothering with even the most rudimentary editing of their copied work.

They don’t rely on expert witnesses.

Greg Hunt, apparently the closest thing the Coalition has to a climate expert, went no further in his research than to visit a wikipedia page. Relying on Wikipedia would bring a failing grade for a student’s essay; why should we accept it from our elected leaders?

They don’t appear to have much knowledge of party processes that fall into their direct remit.

Nor do they seem to take an active involvement in running the companies of which they are the directors.  Sometimes it appears that politicians spend more time disavowing any knowledge of things happening in their own department than it would have taken to simply be aware in the first place. It helps that they seem to have such fallible memories. Even if they know something now, they almost certainly won’t know it by the time it becomes the subject of an inquiry. This is a peculiarly specific talent that seems unique to our politicians.

What our politicians do appear to spend plenty of time doing is sledging. Almost every federal politician in Australia, a refined product of the political system, is well-versed in holding the party line, spouting off talking points and heckling during whatever speeches they don’t manage to avoid being present for. Some might consider these to be lower-order priorities than the activities that might actually lead to better legislation.

It’s not as if we don’t pay our politicians enough. Even the most obscure of backbenchers [not] sitting in the pews at the back of the chamber is earning six figures – twice. If you’re reading this, almost certainly every federal politician earns more than you by a number of multiples. It has been said that “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”, as if that were a defense of exorbitant parliamentary salaries, but research has shown that the benefits of lifting politicians’ pay start to even out once the level of remuneration reaches a comparative middle class wage. Middle class wage is approximately the average full-time wage, or just under $81,000. Clearly we pay above the curve. Politicians and economists are wont to point out that if you pay less, you won’t attract the people you want into politics, or keep them there. Amanda Vanstone has argued that Australian politicians earn much less than company directors and others in big business. This brings us to the corollary. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys; if you pay a corporate salary, you get businessmen. Oddly, people rarely seem to question whether businessmen make the best politicians.

So, whilst Parliament and the Senate spend the next three weeks in Canberra having already voted down the extremely critical piece of legislation the Government absolutely needed to have passed, just remember they’re earning a bare minimum of $11,483 for their efforts. And keep that number in mind when you see pictures of empty seats. You’re paying for them to not be sitting there.

We have failed.

There is no need to spend more than a very few words on this post. For the first time in recorded history, probably the first time since our species’ primitive ancestors crawled out of the sea, we have reached the point of two degrees above normal. Two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Think about that for a moment. That’s the figure that the world’s scientists and politicians have agreed marks the advent of dangerous climate change. It’s the figure that has been the de-facto goal of global efforts to avoid, ever since the Kyoto agreement in 1997 and agreed and reinforced innumerable times since. Two degrees is the figure the world has come to view as the mark of success or failure of our efforts to halt climate change. It’s half a degree above the goal agreed at the recent Paris accords.

Two degrees is probably enough to trigger tipping points, starting a chain of unstoppable changes that will irrevocably, radically and rapidly change the planet we live on to something unrecognisable.

We have just reached two degrees of warming, and we show no signs of even making progress towards reversing the trend. The two degrees figure incorporates the effects of a powerful El Nino effect in record heat for February, the hottest month ever recorded. It is possible that heat readings for March may be less terrifyingly extreme than February. Perhaps we’re not yet permanently two degrees above normal. Regardless, the trend is undeniable.

Climate change continues. Climate change is accelerating. Mankind is making no real effort to stop it. We will not survive this. If this milestone does not spur governments to action, likely nothing ever will.

It doesn’t get any more stark than that. We have failed, we are failing, we will fail.

Why we need Donald Trump, President of the United States

Over the past eight years, Australians have joined the rest of the world in being entertained and amused by the absurdities of American politics. Some amongst us thought Sarah Palin represented the nadir of democratic politicians worldwide, and the pinnacle of politics as satire.

We were so wrong. It appears that politics can become far more absurd than the gun-totin’ moose-slaying soccer mom. First we had the rise, froth and tumultuous fall of Tony Abbott. And now we have Donald Trump. For months we have watched in horrified fascination as The Donald utters a never-ending stream of non-sequiturs and racist jibes and calls them politics. We watch and wait for the inevitable fall and await the rise of a more reasonable contender – a presidential candidate capable, perhaps, of being Presidential. And still we wait, while Donald Trump rides high through every poll and, after a few shaky first steps, each Republican primary.

In short, it now seems relatively likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican party’s contender for the US election at the end of this year. How could it have come to this? And, more importantly, what does the rise of Donald Trump mean for America, for the world, and for Australia? It’s worth thinking about these matters now as Trump’s unstoppable momentum becomes clearer.

Donald Trump, POTUS

From the very beginning, Trump has been written off consistently by most political pundits and media outlets. Like us, the electoral sages wait for the awakening, the moment when the public wises up to the character of the man. Calculations are made about Trump’s lack of support from his own party, about the consistent polls which have his “would never vote for him” rating higher than any other politician in history, and about the likelihood of a collapse in Trump’s support once he loses a Primary or two.

Despite these predictions and analyses, Trump is still on course to securing the nomination. Every primary sees his lead bolstered. According to Trump’s own rhetoric, he is a “winner”, and in the American system, success breeds success. As his competitors in a broad field fall away, Trump’s own support just increases. It is difficult to see a situation now where Trump does not pull together the popular electoral support to secure the nomination, against the wishes of his own party’s leadership.

Trump’s stump speech of being politics’ answer to Kanye West – a winner, who beat the Chinese and can do it again, who made a fortune and can turn those skills towards making America great again – speaks to the heart of American self-identity. Americans truly believe that theirs is the world’s pre-eminent culture and the civilisation before which all others must bow. The psychological dissonance caused by needing to rationalise both this treasured, deeply-held belief, and the reality of the world around them – with high unemployment, declining industry, poor healthcare and literacy and constant crime and violence – leads a great many Americans to anger and a suspicion that, somewhere, corruption and betrayal are at fault.

Donald Trump speaks directly to that anger.

Trump’s entire political existence has revolved around manufacturing anger at the political elite. From his invention and support of the “Truther” movement, claiming betrayal and treason on a grand scale by Barak Obama, to his frothing pronouncements of Mexicans as thieves and rapists, his perorations towards Chinese encroachment on American jobs and industry, and his decrying of the “fat cats” in boardrooms and in Washington, Trump’s world is one where the good people of America have been governed by credulous fools, sold out by Wall Street and global trade organisations, and manipulated by corruption on a grand scale.

We see this kind of anger bubbling away across the western world. There are many contributing factors, but two in particular deserve mention. Primarily across Europe, but also a factor in Australia, there is fear and resentment of the tide of refugees. Right-wing politicians play directly to the prejudices of the electorate, blowing the size and resultant risks of refugee resettlement out of all proportion. A few thousand refugees in Australia become an existential threat. In Europe, the tens of thousands arriving annually are perhaps more justifiably a concern, but they still pale into insignificance next to existing populations. Regardless, some voters are scared that refugees are bringing with them disease and radicalism and an impenetrable culture, and stealing their jobs and welfare.

The other major cause of voter disaffection is the rise of inequality. Across most of the capitalist world, the gap between the haves and the have-nots continually grows. Unconstrained capitalism rewards the elite, suppresses the downtrodden, and thins out the middle class at the same time as it convinces them that they are poorly-off. For the majority of battlers, it is easier to blame corrupt politicians, greedy bankers and faceless international trade barons for their misfortunes, than to accept that their societal structures rely on there existing a pauper class. Politicians – always from the elite – are all too happy to shake a finger at the upper class and pretend to be on the side of the masses. Just as long as that will buy their vote. Donald Trump claims that his tax policies will hit the rich and improve the lot of the poor. Independent analysis shows that they would have the opposite effect, and likely bankrupt the country in the process.

Hillary Clinton, Trump’s most likely opponent from the Democrats, is the consummate product of the political elite that is the target of the people’s rage. If Trump secures the nomination and goes up against Clinton, the conflict will not be between persons: it will be between the old guard and The Rest of Us. This is ironic, because Trump has never been part of The Rest of Us and bears little but contempt for them, but anger is a powerful blindfold. In that kind of general election, the consensus is that Trump will be the hands-down winner.

Who still stands against Trump?

Ironically, the Republican party is the most sizeable stumbling block between Trump and the Presidency. The Republicans are desperate to stop Trump. They are afraid of the stubborn polls showing the highest levels for any candidate ever of “would never vote for him”. They don’t want to be beholden to a candidate who defies them, is not interested in bedrock Republican policy, and simply won’t work with them effectively. They are terrified of the prospect that Trump might irrevocably split the Republican party. If Donald Trump is still the forerunner after Super Tuesday, there is a decent likelihood that the Republican party leaders might attempt to destroy Trump, notwithstanding how fundamentally undemocratic that would be. “That’s assuming party officials don’t override the will of voters and tear him down at a contested Republican convention in July.”

If Trump is able to win the Republican nomination, he still needs to face a general election. General elections are a much different proposition than the primary race. In America, with voluntary voting, there are far fewer swinging voters than in Australia, where everyone must choose a side. The Republican powers that be fear, with some reason, that come polling day, many bolted-on Republican voters may just not vote. They won’t turn out for Hillary Clinton, but may not be comfortable enough to vote for Trump either. On the other hand, fear of a Trump presidency may be enough to ensure a high turnout of Democrats in support of Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, should he be the Democrat contender).

What this doesn’t take into account is the possibility of Trump earning votes from centrist Democrats, and from non-aligned new voters. Trump’s few stated policies borrow liberally from both Republican and Democrat playbooks, and he’s non-establishment enough to have some polled support amongst Democrat voters – whose opinions play no role in the Republican primaries. If controversies over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy – such as the unresolved issue of her use of a personal email address to do State business – cause her support to wane, some of those votes may fall to Trump. In any case, Trump’s chief appeal is not to the rusted-on base. He has wide support amongst swathes of the general population who may never have voted, and who also are not represented in the Primaries. If he can persuade them to attend voting booths in November, this could prove a deciding factor.

A wild card has also presented itself, in the form of the death of Supreme Court judge, Antonin Scalia. In the US, the appointment of a Supreme Court judge is a big deal – arguably more important than the general election itself. With one open position on the court bench, suddenly the 2016 election has turned into a contest for the future of law in the country in a way that Congress is not. How this plays out is anyone’s guess, but it again raises the stakes of this election and may work in Trump’s favour – or against him.

After her thumping win in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton is by far the most likely Democrat nominee. Unfortunately for Democrats, polls are not favourable for her. Clinton is a product of the same political elite that Trump has gained such momentum criticising. Her rhetoric is civilised, even warm, as opposed to the bombastic threats and insults of Trump. Her speeches might play well amongst the Democratic donor class, but can they sway the electorate? Many analysts think not. The general consensus – admittedly, still a long way out from the election – is that Trump would soundly beat Clinton for the Presidency.

If Bernie Sanders were to pull off a surprise victory and become nominee, would he do any better? Perhaps not. Sanders is a self-described “socialist”, which is still a pejorative term for many Americans. Sanders may well prove to be too progressive for Americans. As some have said, Americans will never elect someone who calls himself a socialist. This may not be eternally true – but it is likely true in 2016.

What would a Trump presidency look like?

So it is starting to look likely that Donald Trump will be the next American president. As with any fact-light political candidate for high office, it can be difficult to identify exactly what the policy positions of his Presidency would be, but we can make some educated guesses as to the kind of leader he would be and the choices he would make. None of it is pretty.

It seems inevitable that a Trump presidency would be defined by goals not met. Trump appears to have a highly individual view of the role of Commander-in-Chief, a role that he seems to expect has sole and unfettered executive power. As more than one President has found before him, this is very far from the truth. Many of the things Trump most wants to achieve cannot be done without the support of Congress, and on his road to power Trump is eagerly offending members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. It was a given that President Trump would receive little support in Congress from the Democrats, but on his present form, he will also find Republicans hard to rally to his side.

That is not to say that Trump will have no power at all. As Barak Obama has shown, in the face of a hostile Congress, there are a wide range of executive powers that are available to the President. Particularly in the fields of national security and international diplomacy, Trump will have some power to make unilateral decisions. Even where he has no real power, the President is a figurehead and a head of state. Trump has shown no hesitation in insulting and annoying heads of other States where it suits his electoral needs, and if Trump is not reined in by his advisors, he may well set America on a path to greater isolation. Bureaucrats in his administration are due for a torrid time of mending bridges.

There will be limits to the extent of the damage Trump can inflict even at his most perverse. Diplomats will continually point out to him that actions have repercussions, and forswearing some treaties for the sake of political capital may have implications for other treaties that work to America’s favour. As President, he will find himself constrained by the powerful military lobby and his Defense chiefs. He is unlikely to start any shooting wars on his own behalf – but he may well be more susceptible than Barak Obama to being baited into one.

It is perhaps some small consolation that most of Trump’s big-ticket policies will be impossible for him to implement. His idea for a Great Wall of Mexico will certainly not be paid for by Mexicans, which may give him an excuse not to build it with American dollars. His tax plan, according to all analyses, is nonsensical and unimplementable. There is no budget for his plan to forcibly deport all illegal immigrants from the country, and to do so would drive a spike into the heart of the American economy. And it is certain that Trump’s promised register of Muslims, were it even possible to implement, is entirely unconstitutional. Even the President can’t get around that.

President Trump could be disastrous for environmental policy in the US, and thus for the world. Trump is an avowed climate skeptic. A Trump presidency could see most of the gains made by Barak Obama overturned at the stroke of a pen. At the very least, America’s commitment to the Paris agreement would not be matched by its actions: Trump’s first budget would see to that.

Finally, a more isolationist America, at the hands of a President who feels that the US already spends too much holding up its end of military treaties, could have major ramifications for defense policy in Australia. Trump has little interest in protecting other countries’ interests. Trump is an opponent of the treaties that bind the US to come to the aid of allies in Europe and Asia. A Trump presidency might seriously undermine Australia’s own defense policy, which relies strongly on the strength of the US as a deterrent.

America’s Abbott

Many of Trump’s promises and policies are either impossible to deliver or are designed to sound good but never be implemented. His tax plan would reduce US government revenue by $9.5T over a decade and require “significant new borrowing or unprecedented spending cuts beyond anything Mr. Trump has detailed in his campaign”. According to Trump’s policy platform, “The Trump tax cuts are fully paid for by: Reducing or eliminating most deductions and loopholes available to the very rich…” However, the scarce details released fall far short of this, and analysis shows that the tax plan would actually benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. To Australians, a politician promising an economic plan to help the poor that actually ends up hurting them might sound familiar.

Other Trump promises will cost billions. “Immediately and fully enforcing current immigration law, as Trump has suggested, would cost the federal government from $400 billion to $600 billion.” The labour force would be decimated. Trump’s plans are a recipe for an immediate, long-lasting and devastating collapsed economy. There is no way he could get away with implementing them, even caring as little about the establishment as he does. Trump’s policy platform is a magic pudding: reducing taxes for all, spending more on the military and big-ticket policy promises, whilst making no cuts to social services. Once again, Australians have seen this pattern before, and are witnessing its apotheosis in the Turnbull government’s inability to chart a popularly acceptable way forward.

Trump is a bully. He is not above making sexist remarks when talking about his opponents – including other Republican contenders. He makes a virtue of playing the man, blithely insulting his opponents on the basis of race, gender, appearance, health and, in one notable instance, on the basis of having been captured by the Viet Cong. Like a recent Australian leader, the most outrageous bullying behaviour earns him dividends that more than outweigh the disapproval they cause.

Donald Trump is another Tony Abbott in the making. Trump is making grandiose promises to a desperate electorate, playing to people’s basest instincts and sowing fear and division, but has no way to implement the promises made. One wonders what Malcolm Turnbull thinks of Trump’s rise. In Turnbull’s case, the promises to the electorate were not so much on-camera statements of things he will not do – such as the promises Tony Abbott blithely betrayed soon thereafter. Rather, Turnbull’s promises are about things he will do, but which his backbench has now forced him to remove from the table: a GST rise, changes to capital gains or negative gearing or superannuation. In the end, politicians who ride to power on the strength of grandiose promises find they cannot fulfil those commitments and have to turn their attention to apologising to the electorate as to why they did not.

Trump is not a man to apologise.

Why we need Donald Trump, President of the USA

If it cannot be avoided, then it is best to consider some of the silver linings that a Trump presidency might bring. The truth is, the world needs Donald Trump, or somebody like him. It appears that we learn only from example, so here are some of the things we could learn.

Progressives need Donald Trump. They need him to demonstrate exactly how powerful anti-establishment feeling is, and how easy it is to underestimate fringe/extreme candidates. If a country like America can elect a racist, sexist, elitist bully, then it can happen anywhere. This will be a salutary lesson. Australian politics is very different to America’s; we can’t have an establishment outsider shaking things up like The Donald because our party political systems won’t let them. But the rise of Tony Abbott shows us how political parties can be shaped by extreme candidates and this can lead to perverse victories. Tony Abbott, as terrifying as this might sound, is not by any means the worst that could happen.

Conservatives need Donald Trump. They need him to demonstrate how bad things could get if they allow extreme candidates to rule the roost. A failing Trump presidency could have the effect of pushing Australian politics back towards the middle. It is easy for progressives to belittle the Coalition as a collection of ideological zealots, but very few in the ranks of the Coalition are stupid. Recent years have seen the Liberal and National parties embroiled in a conflict between hard-liners and moderates, and Turnbull’s constant capitulation to his back-bench indicates that the hard-liners are winning. The moderates desperately need the ammunition a Trump presidency could give them.

The political debate needs Donald Trump. We all need him, because his is the logical extension of conservative ideology. “…the party’s economic platform — cut taxes for the wealthiest and everything will somehow work out — long ago lost its purchase on public opinion.” Trump strips away a lot of the confusing rhetoric and claims such an extreme position that when his policies fail – and fail they must – progressive parties around the world will have no end of ammunition against that worldview when it appears.

The anger in the electorate is real, in America, in Europe and here in Australia. Partly it is a response to the formation of the political class, the concentration of power in a group of people born for it, groomed for it, and privileged above the average couch-dweller. (Even in the progressive left, politicians are born, not made – with the exception of the few superstars of rock music and literature whose names are enough to carry them.) But the anger is deeper than just a distrust of political dynasties.

Donald Trump is the living embodiment of truth-free electioneering. If Sarah Palin and Tony Abbott, Mary Le Pen and Geert Wilders have shown us anything, it is this: this brand of populist, fact-deprived anger-mongering must have its day. We need President Trump, because hopefully after him it will be a long time before another like him arises.

Still being lied to

So it seems that Bill Shorten will be taking a proposal for a 50% renewable target by 2030 to Labor’s national conference in Melbourne this weekend. Accordingly, climate change is shaping up to be a major battleground for the next election – probably much to Abbott’s chagrin. On this argument, the Coalition starts from behind. Tony Abbott would prefer the discussion to be neutralised and as a result the government is stepping up the rhetoric to attack Labor’s history and position on the climate change front. As a result, the laughably-named Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, has been working the airwaves furiously to poison the national consciousness.

Shorten’s laudable goal, as those who have been watching the development of renewable energy and its increasing prevalence in the energy mix of countries and even Australian States will know, is technically not difficult. Labor describes the proposal as “ambitious”, but the main challenge with achieving this is political. The primary difficulty is that the Australian people are skeptical about the ability of renewable energy to be a practical, economical choice for energy generation, and consecutive conservative governments have sought to play up on that uncertainty at the behest of their backers and overlords, the existing fossil fuel oligarchies. The Australian people have been lied to from the outset.

They’re still being lied to now. Greg Hunt has been given saturation coverage on news media outlets, parroting the Government’s official response to the reports of this labor policy proposal. The detail of Hunt’s interviews and discussions has varied slightly from broadcast to broadcast, but the salient points remain the same. Unfortunately but predictably, the Government’s official stance – and thus Hunt’s answers – is a farrago of lies and mistruths that often pass without challenge. The ABC is not immune to this mistreatment: in several ABC news interviews Hunt has made the same baldfaced statements without being challenged. The ABC can’t be blamed for this. In an already fraught environment with the national broadcaster under continual threat, challenge and attack by our government, it is vital for the ABC to retain an appearance of impartiality for its news arm. Rather, the problem is with our laws and systems that contain absolutely no penalty for a Government Minister to lie to a reporter, and to lie to the Australian people, so long as they can get away with it. A Minister can lie with impunity – as long as their lie goes unchallenged.

This is a problem, as we head into an election year in 2016. Standard practice in news reporting is to describe the news item of the day, interview appropriate persons involved with the policy or proposal or scandal, and drill into the detail to as shallow or deep an extent as time allows. Then, in the interest of “balance”, journalism will often seek a response from the other side. In politics, this brings us to a situation where the Coalition, with the benefit of incumbency, can coast with few policy announcements, leaving Labor few opportunities to respond. Labor’s situation is more challenging. Winning back government from opposition is difficult and requires a constant stream of policy announcements. When the last word in a news report comes from a Coalition minister in response, far too often the sound bite the audience will remember is the government’s position. If that position is in error, the voters have been misled.

A news reporter is not in a position to challenge a statement made. That comes down to us – the concerned public. It is incumbent on us to be informed, and to inform others who might otherwise be taken in by the lies.

Because the Coalition adheres to the concept that repeating a lie often enough will convince people to take it as truth, their talking points in response to Labor’s proposed policy are consistent and we will hear them trotted out regularly over the coming weeks. Each one of them is demonstrably untrue and the best response progressives can make is to have ready clear, concise explanations as to why each Coalition argument is based on a falsehood. With that in mind, what follows is a precis of the Coalition’s talking points on Labor’s proposed renewable energy target and ETS.

The centrepiece of the policy will be a new carbon tax.

“Carbon tax – they’ll call it an emissions trading scheme, but it’s the same thing, with the same effect, the same hit on electricity prices…” In a recent interview, asked several times for clarification, Hunt fell back on the government’s agreed attack line: that an ETS is just a carbon tax by another name. This was not true the first time around and it is certainly not true now. The reason why is very simple.

Under a carbon tax, every emitter pays for their emissions. Every tonne of carbon carries a cost. The incentive is obvious for the business to reduce its carbon emissions and pay less tax. All taxes raised go to the government, for use in whatever way it deems appropriate. The government may choose to return some of the taxes to companies in the form of incentives and subsidies, but to do so is to devalue the impact of the tax. Over time, unless you force changes to the tax rates through parliament, the price of carbon remains the same.

In contrast, under an ETS, businesses are permitted to release carbon emissions up to a cap, without any cost to them. If a business holds sufficient carbon permits, it can emit as much carbon as it likes with no financial cost at all. If it emits less carbon than it holds permits for, it can trade the excess permits on the market, allowing other businesses more latitude to emit carbon. This brings you to the question of how the business gets the permits in the first place.

Under the Gillard government’s ETS, initial permits were allocated for free to relevant industries to shield them from the immediate impact. Other organisations were forced to purchase initial permits. Over time, under an ETS, the number of permits available is regulated to decrease, providing incentive to companies to reduce their carbon emissions over time: as time goes on, carbon permits become more expensive, increasing the benefit to the company if it can trade its excess permits on the market, and increasing the cost of permits if it does not.

Due to compromises with the Greens required to get the legislation through a hostile senate, the price of permits was set for an initial three year period and the permits were not eligible to be traded, thus making the scheme’s initital appearance close enough to a “tax” to make it unworth arguing the semantics of “tax” and “ETS”. This led, in short order, to Labor being lambasted as a high-taxing regime (ironic, coming from the party which would soon implement a much more oppressive tax regime) and Julia Gillard as a liar.

Labor has learned its lesson on this front. It is fair to assume its new ETS will not commence with a set price and untradeable permits. For the government to claim that Labor’s new ETS will be “exactly the same” as a carbon tax is misrepresentation of the highest order. The ETS will be a different thing, with a very different effect, working in a very different way.

Greg Hunt knows this very well. This is the same Greg Hunt who won an award for co-authoring a thesis about implementing an ETS in Australia. Until recently some on the left held a grudging respect for Mr Hunt, being forced to toe the party line against his own documented beliefs, and pity, for being one of the few realists in a cabinet laced with flat-earthers. His recent performances have shown that he is a thorough convert to the Coalition’s paradigm that somehow a market-based scheme is far inferior to direct governmental intervention. As a result, his respect has died, leaving him only with pity.

Regardless of his personal beliefs, however, Greg Hunt knows very well that an ETS is not remotely similar to a carbon tax, and to claim that it is is to deliberately mislead Australian voters.

A higher renewable energy target will increase electricity prices

The talking point that a renewable energy puts upwards pressure on power prices seems an article of faith for the Coalition. This also is demonstrably untrue. ETS or carbon tax aside, all experience in Australia to date disproves the idea that renewable energy competition can push the price of electricity up. All models and analysis, including the government’s own modelling, show clearly that renewable energy puts competition and downwards pressure on energy prices. The only group that this hurts is the big energy generators and distributors, who coincidentally are big benefactors of the Coalition.

An ETS did have the expected outcome of pushing up power prices from carbon-heavy power generators. Gillard’s government allowed for this and overcompensated consumers for the expected price increases.

The one thing likely to place significant upwards pressure on energy prices is the effect of Queensland’s previous, liberal government opening its gas markets to export. The result is that gas, one of the major energy sources for much  of Australia’s eastern seaboard, will now be traded at the significantly higher international price rather than the domestic one.

The carbon tax “didn’t work”

Perhaps the most egregious lie of all is the continued insistence by the Government and Greg Hunt as their mouthpiece that the carbon tax was ineffective. It has been claimed that during the carbon price, emissions continued to increase. This is true. What is wilfully ignored in that discussion is that, under the influence of the carbon price, emissions rose less than they would have otherwise done. In fact, the carbon price was restricted to a relatively small part of Australia’s economy. In sectors where the carbon price applied, carbon emissions decreased markedly. (And, unsurprisingly, upon the repeal of the carbon price, carbon emissions in these sectors immediately increased again). Hunt has argued that Australia’s carbon emissions were already falling prior to the introduction of the carbon price and that the ETS had little effect. This also is untrue. In short, the government’s overblown claims about the carbon tax are almost universally deliberately misleading or even entirely untrue. The carbon price, even at a high price per tonne and acting like a tax, had little effect on the overall economy, destroyed no country towns, and was being remarkably successful at reducing Australia’s emissions.

A new ETS could do the same again.

Labor is inconsistent

Greg Hunt foamed that the parliament had “…just voted for stability in the renewable energy sector…”, referring to the recent passing through the parliament of a reduced renewable energy target for Australia. This criticism popped its head up but has now subsided; perhaps the Coalition has decided that talking about “the politics” is a little too fraught to be a certain winner. In any case, the fact that Labor reluctantly supported the government’s cut of the renewable energy target to 33,000 GW does not mean that Labor is inconsistent. Labor was able to forge a compromise position for the sake of settling the argument in the short term and giving certainty to the existing renewable energy market, but it was clear that this figure was not Labor’s preference.

Frankly, it seems amazing that Labor was able to secure any kind of a compromise from this government, after more than a year of the government steadfastly refusing to budge from its original position. As this government has shown, any policy agreed to under one government is not sacrosanct to the next.

The truth shall set you free

Armed with the facts, it becomes easier to counter the government’s wilful misinformation. Not easy, of course: there are none so blind as those who will not see, and for many in the Australian public the prevailing narrative being told by the government is emotionally compelling. But there are some who may be persuaded by actual facts and evidence. It is for these people that we must be prepared to call it out when we see the government deliberately distorting history and building straw men on Labor’s commitments. We must be able to point out that they have been lied to, and they are still being lied to.

 

Calling “Game Over”

Human-induced climate change is real. The risks of inaction are real and mounting.” So Fairfax editorialised in this week’s papers. The gist of the article is that we still have time to mobilise and get our governments and policymakers to take real action on stymieing climate change. It is probably true, as the article claims, that we are witnessing a slowly dawning awareness of the Australian people and by the global economy. But by some measures, this is significantly too little – and way too late.

“Two degrees celsius.” How many times have you heard the “two degrees” target proposed as the benchmark? Almost every popular media outlet, when writing about climate change (when they’re not claiming it isn’t happening or isn’t worth our attention) includes a statement like “We can still keep warming below two degrees, but we have to start now.” So we talk about carbon budgets. We talk about carbon capture and storage. We argue about the merits of a cap-and-trade system, an incentives system, a carbon tax – as if we still have time to compromise, time to experiment and find the ideal balance between maintaining our treasured social systems and the rescue of the global environment.

The current climate change narrative is based on a series of mistruths and falsities. We are told that we still have time to turn the ship around. The truth is that we do not.

We are told that two degrees is a hard and fast target, beyond which everything turns to disaster and before which we will be okay, if slightly uncomfortable. The truth is that there is no safe limit, that two degrees is not a magic number, and that two degrees is likely already beyond our prevention. The truth is that we have already emitted more than enough carbon to take us to two degrees and well beyond, and we’re showing no signs of slowing.

We are told that even if we go beyond two degrees, the disruption that results will come in the form of hurricanes and bushfires and rising tides. The truth is that while increased frequency and severity of hurricanes and bushfires will be a part of the outcomes of climate change, this is the merest tip of the iceberg. These visible disasters can be constrained and understood as freak occurrences that interrupt the status quo and from which we can recover. Less so is the permanent loss of arable land, the global starvation that may result, and potentially the tipping of our environment into a hellish morass incapable of supporting human life. That we are now seeing reputable sources raising the spectre of near-term human extinction in public narratives is telling of both how far the public discourse has gone ahead of public policy, and of the potential import of the fact that we’ve been so slow to act.

Whilst we have seen that the public and the media are far more accepting of the urgency of action on climate change than any of our leaders are willing to countenance, the public narrative is nevertheless generally years behind the science. Science has been telling us for the better part of a decade that two degrees is both insufficient and unattainable. Meanwhile the news media, and through them the general public, have been absorbed by the question of the reality of climate change, a question that climate researchers put to bed decades ago.

Only in the last few months have we started to see the global narrative start to catch up to reality, which is at the same time optimistic and disheartening. The truth that the media are slowly coming to understand is that two degrees might be possible, but not in the world that we know and live in now. As the media have finally started to catch on that yes, climate change is happening; yes, climate change is deadly serious; and no, we have not acted as quickly and as desperately as required; it begs the question. What is the current state of scientific understanding and how long will it take for the world to catch up to that?

An inevitable outcome?

There are reasons for the lag in public understanding. In years to come the placing of blame might become a hobby, but while attributing responsibility to various groups and individuals is easy, it is also simplistic. The long answer is that our inaction on climate change has been driven by the systems within which we work and live. These systems are well designed to order society and to offer freedom and opportunity to some. They are not effective, however, at providing for philanthropy. Our current systems of democracy and capitalism reward selfishness and self-interest and they pander to our genetic weaknesses. And the unstoppable forces of consumerism encourage and reward immediate gratification not only as a personal pleasure but a social good. The system requires us to buy and consume in order to sustain the order of things. More fundamentally, we need to buy and consume in order to feel good, and we are rewarded by a sense of accomplishment, we are rewarded by social approval and we are rewarded by endorphins. The same psychological tendencies that cause us to become fat and unfit also put barriers in our way to accepting bad news.

Bad news is a climate scientist’s stock in trade. Scientists are conservative by nature – they have to be. Crying wolf leads to a loss of respect and credence, and inevitably to a loss of funding. For a scientist or scientific organisation to decry an oncoming disaster, a high level of proof is required, and this takes time. The rumbling on the tracks isn’t enough: they need to be able to see the oncoming train’s lights before they’re willing to commit.

Scientists are not to blame for their reticence. One of the most constant criticisms of the IPCC’s work is not that the work is flawed, but that the resulting reports are universally conservative. They err on the side of caution. IPCC reports contain a range of projections, using a selection of different assumptions and resulting in very different outcomes, but they do not advise on the relative likelihood of being able to meet these curves. The effect is to allow policymakers to treat each projection as equally possible, and when one or more of the scenarios results in a temperature rise under two degrees, the opportunity arises to claim that this is still in reach. Scientists would say that the contents of the reports are reliable as a best-case scenarios, but that’s not how the reports are received in practice. The policy makers who must take IPCC reports into account largely consider them to be worst-case scenarios, and the urgency of the problem is diminished.

Tempting as it may be to do so, politicians also cannot be blamed for their inaction. Politicians are rewarded (in electoral popularity) for populist messages of hope and optimism. Politicians are punished, severely, for being the messenger that tells their people that they will have to make sacrifices (financial, creature comforts, lifestyle changes) for the sake of the public good. Far worse awaits those who attempt to impose these sacrifices. It is entirely reasonable to expect politicians to clutch at any straws offered, be they a possible solution that doesn’t carry electoral cost (e.g. direct action) or a skerrick of doubt about the science. In an environment filled with lobbyists arguing that there will be consequences to climate action, and think tanks and vested interests obscuring the science with manufactured doubt, motivated by a kind of economics that cannot afford to take climate change into account, it takes a special kind of political courage to take a stand. As we saw in the case of the 2013 election, all too often The People will punish such presumption.

We can’t even blame The People. The truth is that our evolution has not equipped us well to handle the kind of challenge that climate change presents. Humans are an immensely adaptable species, and when we cannot adjust our environment to suit our needs, we can adjust our own lifestyle to suit. However, we almost always need to be spurred into action. We evolved from hunter-gatherers who would gorge in the good times, in preparation for the long stretch of privation that would follow. At our core, we’re not prepared to leave the carcass on the ground.

Too little, too late

However it happens, whatever the cause, we are caught by it. Humanity is having a cook-out in a tunnel and we’ve ignored the rumblings underfoot for too long. It’s not until we see the lights of the oncoming train that we even start the engine of our getaway car and there’s no way we’re dodging this express train.

We read that we have, at most ten or fifteen years to turn the ship around. Here’s the thing, though: they told us this ten or fifteen years ago, too. If the problem was that urgent then, if the need for change was so pressing then, how can we still have a decade left to act now? The explanation is that the definition of “action” is changing. Climate scientists, pressured to give an optimistic outcome – to avoid calling “Game Over” – move the goalposts. They adopt increasingly unrealistic assumptions and expectations in their models of climate action. They invent ever more fanciful future technologies – magic bullets, couched in scientific-sounding terminology.

It is finally reaching the point where normal people – journalists, activists, even politicians – are calling them out on it. The likelihood of us being able to meet a trajectory to keep temperature increases below two degrees is presently somewhere between none and laughable. But so long as it is still technically possible to succeed at halting global warming, we keep hearing the “we still have time” message. So let’s have a look at what is actually required to stave off the kind of climate change that runs an even risk of killing every human on the planet.

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/12/two-degrees-will-we-avoid-dangerous-climate-change/ : “In order to get back on track, emissions need to peak and then fall by between 40 and 70 per cent by 2050, the IPCC says, with unabated fossil fuel burning almost entirely phased out by 2100… That would require a never-before seen global effort to be sustained for a generation.”

http://www.vox.com/2015/5/15/8612113/truth-climate-change : “Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.”

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119757/two-degrees-climate-change-no-longer-possible : “To be sure, the IPCC noted, it’s conceivable the world still could stay below that level – but only if governments immediately imposed stringent and internationally uniform carbon limits, and if a host of new low-carbon energy technologies proved able to scale up. Those are massive “ifs,” and though the IPCC wasn’t so impolite as to say so, there’s little to suggest that perfect trajectory will play out.”

In order to achieve the goal, humanity as a species must put aside national partisanship, untrammelled economic growth as a priority, and our current industrial machinery. Advanced economies must immediately and radically decarbonise their economies, at the same time as effectively building first-world economies in less advanced nations who would otherwise strive to catch up to “modern” standards of living via their own industrial revolutions. Humans in the affluent West must accept a curtailing of their profligate lifestyles and their aspirations.

Some have likened the effort required to the mobilization of the West in the early days of World War II, when entire economies were retooled to face an existential threat. But these similes were raised half a decade ago, and the problem has become even more dire since then. We must, as a species, put the good of the planet and the environment ahead of our own short-term interests. This is something that goes against our very nature.

But even our best intentions are not enough. At this point, there is enough carbon in the atmosphere to blow through two degrees and well beyond – potentially setting off the feedback loops and tipping points that bring us to a very final The End. In order to limit temperature rise to two degrees, current models include assumptions about negative carbon emissions – capturing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into the ground or into trees. This requires either huge swathes of territory to be converted to forests – and only good, arable, important-for-feeding-seven-billion-humans land will do – or the widespread adoption of technology that doesn’t even exist yet.

Is it time yet to call game over?

You can’t get there from here

There are a number of good reasons to declare “Game Over” on climate change.

Because there is a point beyond which hope becomes denial.

We see an example with Australian farmers in northern Queensland. Devastated by crippling floods in early 2013, it did not take long before large portions of Queensland were back in the Long Dry. By March 2014, the State’s largest ever drought had been declared, following the failure of the “wet season”. Drought is a largely artificial definition, designed primarily to enable governments to provide assistance to affected areas, predicated on the understanding that this is a “natural disaster” and will come to an end. The terminology of “drought”, at core, assumes that there is a normal state of being, and the lack of rain is an exception, an aberration, on par with storms or cyclones.

More than a year later, the rains have failed again and the drought has not broken – it has become worse. All this in advance of a predicted severe El Nino. The signs are not looking good for relief for our beleaguered Queensland farmers any time soon. And still we hear politicians State and Federal talking about drought assistance, of getting the farmers through the hard patch before the rains return.

According to my calculations, most of Queensland has been officially in drought for fifteen of the last twenty-five years. An El Nino can run for up to seven years, so we may be in for a significant period before the end of this cycle. If you’re living under drought conditions for more years than under wet conditions, can it really be called a drought any longer? At what point do we bow to the inevitable and admit that, rather than being a drought, this is the new normal? That climate change has made these areas untenable for ongoing agriculture? That continuing to support farmers with “drought assistance” is a never-ending battle that cannot be won?

Admitting defeat would mean the departure of farmers from these lands and force an alteration to the economy and markets of the State. It could be argued that reclassifying land as non-arable will destroy the lives of farmers trying to eke out a living on it, but it could as well be argued that those lives are destroyed anyway and farmers seeking support are modern-day King Canutes who will eventually have to move anyway.

Sometimes, it makes more sense to just admit defeat, rather than throwing good money after bad.

Because denial makes us focus on the actions that we need to take to win, rather than getting started on the actions required upon losing

As long as electors are told that two degrees is possible if only we find the right balance of punitive and reward policies the longer the policy debate remains mired in detail and technicality. It allows governments to hold out policies like Direct Action as a valid approach to climate change. It allows an ETS to include a variety of loopholes and concessions designed to protect vulnerable industries at the expense of the scheme’s effectiveness. This author has been a critic of the Greens’ approach to Labor’s ETS, scuttling a plan that might have gotten a foot in the door because it wasn’t ideal at the outset. But that was then, and this is now. It is far too late for half-measures. Unfortunately, we will never see full-strength climate policies as long as politicians can still argue that all will be well if we just cut our emissions by “five percent over 2000 levels”.

Because reality

If for no other reason, it might be valid to call an end to the charade of climate change action because it’s a colossal waste of time and money on the basis of a lie. It’s a lie, because none of those arguing loudly that we can still save the world are taking the next step and adding “only if we do what the world has never managed to do before and only if all the cards fall our way”. This is a lie of omission, and those telling it are often not even aware of it because they themselves have not been shown the sheer unlikelihood of what they’re proposing. If we reframe the argument in the appropriate terms, at least we can start talking about things with a sense of truth and reality rather than what we hope might be the case.

Reasons not to declare “Game Over”

Because it might not be

There may still be time – if atmospheric sensitivity is lower than modelled, and if we can invent and distribute carbon capture technology, and if the world radically reverses direction. Under the IPCC’s optimistic models, there is still time. Meeting these optimistic assumptions will be a heroic task, but we won’t get there if we don’t try and we won’t try if we’ve already thrown in the towel. An important first step would be the support of research into carbon capture / atmospheric cleaning technologies that will be absolutely fundamental to any kind of success from here.

Because it’s too important

Declaring “game over” sends the message to those who’d be most harmed by climate change that they aren’t worth saving.”  Our mythologies are full of humans in dire circumstances not giving up on hope. If there has ever been a cause around which the world could rally, that has the immediate threat to human survival on a global scale and the fortunes of small groups of people in specific, this is it. To give up on climate action is to give up on a large part of the world, raise the fences around the wagons and wait out the next great Human Extinction. Those most badly affected will be those who contributed to it the least and are least deserving. For the advanced nations to give up while there is still even the ghost of a chance is to add insult to lethal injury.

Because we need the urgency

We need urgency; we need the seriousness. There’s a fine line between panic-inducing immediacy and threat, and inertia-generating fatalism. World War II, in its size and ferocity and its immediacy, was enough to jolt the western world into action. We will see, over the next decade, increasingly dire climate outcomes. At some point, public attitudes and governmental policies will catch up with the exigencies of climate reality. The media and the government may always be a decade behind in understanding the threat, but action taken now on the basis of last decade’s threats will still have a beneficial effect on this decade’s crisis. We don’t know for sure that we can salvage the silverware, but we can be absolutely certain that nothing will survive if we stop fighting for it.

Because game over isn’t necessarily “game over”

We will miss two degrees – but the story doesn’t end there. “Everyone agrees on the general point — risks and damages keep piling up as the world gets hotter. So if the world can’t prevent 2°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to try and avoid 3°C of warming. If we can’t avoid 3°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to avoid 4°C. And so on.” The world doesn’t end at 2 degrees. Tipping points and reinforcing cycles may mean that the world is more fragile than it appears, but every extra degree of warming increases the inhospitability of our future world far more than the degree before it. If we can halt warming at three degrees, it’s still worth doing.

Because victory ain’t what it used to be

In the end, we may be forced to move the goalposts of what constitutes success. The two degrees scenario is aimed at preserving our current civilization. Restrain global warming to two degrees and we may be able to retain our present way of life, our creature comforts, our technology, and our populations. It may be – it probably is – too late for that: our world will change and our way of life must change to suit the new, hotter world we are creating.

But the end of our current, comfortable civilisation does not have to be the end of the human story. If the worst case scenarios are true, then the game is no longer about salvaging a world for our children: it is about salvaging a world for ANY children. If it is too late for current nation-states to survive, it’s not yet too late for modern life somewhere, somehow. If it becomes too late for capitalism as we know it, it’s not yet too late to preserve some kind of civilisation. If it is too late for us, it is not yet too late for humanity. We don’t know where we’ll end up, but however far beyond the point of no return we may have gone, we know that there is more road yet to travel. In the end, the best reason not to call Game Over – not to just stop trying and learn to love the bomb – is that there may yet be time to salvage some kind of future for some of us.

Just probably not all of us.

 

Scroll Up