Climate Change

Error message

Deprecated function: The each() function is deprecated. This message will be suppressed on further calls in _menu_load_objects() (line 579 of /var/www/drupal-7.x/includes/menu.inc).

The Year of Fire.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 20/09/2020 - 5:05am in

Wildfires in the western states of the American Union have received considerable attention in Australian media, perhaps because the story looks a lot like what we witnessed here a few months back and because Australian firefighters were sent there to help in the effort to contain the fires.

Much less coverage has been given to fires in the Pantanal in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul currently affected by a drought. The Pantanal (a Portuguese word whose literal translation is “swamp”), as Brazilians call that area, is a wetland, thus, the numerous pictures of carbonised “jacarés” (i.e. alligators). Readers may remember that last year forest fires had already visited the Amazon rainforest, a little to the north/northeast of the Pantanal.

But it is the wildfires in Siberia (also for the second year in a row) which have received next to no mention in Australian media.

Arctic warming: are record temperatures and fires arriving earlier than scientists predicted? LuYago/Shutterstock Christopher J White, University of Strathclyde

It was a grim record. On June 20 2020, the mercury reached 38°C in Verkhoyansk, Siberia – the hottest it’s ever been in the Arctic in recorded history. With the heatwaves came fire, and by the start of August around 600 individual fires were being detected every day. By early September, parts of the Siberian Arctic had been burning since the second week of June.

CO2 emissions from these fires increased by more than a third compared to 2019, according to scientists at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. The wildfires produced an estimated 244 megatons of CO2 between January and August, releasing thousands of years’ worth of stored carbon.

The summer of 2019 was already a record breaker for temperatures and fires across the Arctic. Seeing these events unfold again in 2020 – on an even larger scale – has the scientific community worried. What does it all mean for the Arctic, climate change and the rest of the world?

Sooner than predicted?

Even with climate change, the severe summer heatwave of 2020 was expected to occur, on average, less than once every 130 years. Wildfire observations in the Arctic are fairly limited prior to the mid-1990s, but there is no evidence of similarly extreme fires in the years before routine monitoring started.

Higher temperatures globally are likely to be driving the increase in wildfire frequency and duration. But modelling wildfires is difficult. Climate models don’t predict wildfires, and they cannot indicate when future extreme events will occur year-on-year. Instead, climate modellers focus on whether they are able to predict the right conditions for events like wildfires, such as high temperatures and strong winds.

Read more: Siberia heatwave: why the Arctic is warming so much faster than the rest of the world

And these climate model projections show that the kind of extreme summer temperatures we’ve seen in the Arctic in 2020 weren’t likely to occur until the mid-21st century, exceeding predictions by decades.

So even though an increasing trend of high temperatures and conditions suitable for wildfires are predicted in climate models, it’s alarming that these fires are so severe, have occurred in the same region two years in a row, and were caused by conditions which weren’t expected until further in the future.

Fire burns the understory of a boreal woodland. The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the global average. Yelantsevv/Shutterstock Climate feedback loops

So what is causing this rapid change? Over recent decades, temperatures in the most northerly reaches of Earth have been increasing at a faster rate than the rest of the world, with the polar region heating at more than twice the rate of the global average.

The fires caused by these hot, dry conditions are occurring in remote and sparsely populated forests, tundra and peat bogs, where there is ample fuel.

But these extreme events are also providing worrying evidence of climate “feedback loops”, which were predicted to happen as the climate warms. This is where increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere contribute to further warming by promoting events – like wildfires – which release even more greenhouse gas, creating a self-perpetuating process that accelerates climate change.

Read more: Arctic breakdown: what climate change in the far north means for the rest of us

Record CO2 emissions released from burning Arctic forests during the summer of 2020 will make future conditions even warmer. But ash and other particulates from the wildfires will eventually settle on the ice and snow, making them darker and accelerating their melting by reducing how easily their surface reflects sunlight.

Climate change is not the direct cause of this summer’s fires, but it is helping to create the right conditions for them. The extreme temperatures and wildfires seen throughout the Arctic in 2020 would have been almost impossible without the influence of human-induced climate change – and they are feeding themselves.

Ice surface with black stain from soot. Soot-stained ice absorbs more of the sun’s heat and melts more quickly. Trifonov Aleksey/Shutterstock What about the rest of the world?

When we think of the Arctic, we don’t tend to picture wildfires and heatwaves – we think of snow and ice and long, brutal winters. Yet the region is changing before our eyes. It’s too early to say whether the last two summers represent a permanent step-change, or new “fire regime”, for the Arctic. Only observations over a much longer timescale could confirm this.

But these record-breaking events in the Arctic are being fuelled by human influences that are changing our world’s climate sooner than many expected. With climate models predicting a future where already hot and fire-prone areas are likely to become more so, 2020’s record temperatures paint a worrying trend towards more of the same.

The Arctic is at the frontline of climate change. What we are witnessing here first are some of the most rapid and intense effects of climate change. While the impact is devastating – record CO2 emissions, damaged forests and soils, melting permafrost – these events may prove to be a portent of things to come for the rest of the world.The Conversation

Christopher J White, Senior Lecturer in Water & Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not Making the Climate Connection to California’s Fires is Media Malpractice

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/09/2020 - 1:48am in

The effect of such climate silence is to imply that the wildfires are random—a stroke of bad luck, perhaps, in an already woefully unlucky year. But we know better than this. We know that we humans are causing disasters like this. And we know that we can solve the climate crisis, should we muster the political will to do so.  Continue reading

The post Not Making the Climate Connection to California’s Fires is Media Malpractice appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

The Bonfire of our Sanity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 3:18pm in

Any Australian who has paid even cursory attention to this country’s poisonous politics over climate change these past two decades will be familiar with this long and sorry story, but to see it all laid out in sequence, in every depressing detail, is breath-taking. In ‘The Carbon Club’ (Allen& Unwin), […]

The post The Bonfire of our Sanity first appeared on The Failed Estate.

Wealth Transfers, Carbon Dioxide Removal, and the Steady State Economy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 5:24am in

By Brian Snyder

In 2019, the U.S. per capita GDP was $65,000. It seems obvious that this level of economic activity is more than sufficient to meet the needs of the U.S. population; after all, if we can’t live fulfilled, productive lives in an economy producing $65,000 per person per year, more money and production will never be enough. Further, additional per capita economic growth in the USA is uneconomic. For example, economic growth to $75,000 per person per year will not increase our economic wellbeing nearly as much as it will decrease ecological wellbeing; hence, the justification for a steady state economy.


Just one example of wealth in the USA. Mansion in Newport, RI. (Image: CC BY 3.0, Credit: silvervoyager)

But much of the world is not like the USA. Afghanistan’s per capita GDP was $502 in 2019. Burundi’s was $261, and the average per capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa was less than $1600. In these nations, most citizens cannot meet their basic needs—food, water, sanitation, electricity, education, and healthcare—at current levels of economic activity. In these places, a steady state economy is unsustainable because poverty is unsustainable.

There are two reasons we may consider poverty unsustainable. The first is simply definitional. One of my favorite definitions of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While this definition was originally used by the Brundtland Commission for “sustainable development” rather than “sustainability,” it works just as well for either. Given this definition, poverty is unsustainable because it does not allow for present generations to meet their basic needs.

But there is also a more fundamental reason why poverty is unsustainable, and it has less to do with poverty per se than the unequal distribution of wealth. If we consider sustainability to be “able to be sustained” or “able to be repeated for long periods,” then poverty itself is actually quite sustainable. Almost every human in history has lived in what we would consider abject poverty and could continue to do so for millennia.

Syrian Army

Poverty and an uneven distribution of wealth are major factors of the Syrian Civil War. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Freedom)

Yet while poverty may be sustained over long periods, a vastly uneven distribution of wealth cannot; just ask Marie Antoinette or Tsar Nicholas II. While the French and Soviet Revolutions were, in part, a reaction to the inequal distribution of wealth and extreme poverty within a country, unequal power and wealth between nations can also fuel international rivalries, terrorism, and wars, all of which are unsustainable regardless of the definition you choose. A large part of the reason that Afghanistan and Somalia have been fertile soil for terrorism over the last three decades is that they are some of the poorest nations on Earth. Likewise, intranational economic inequality and poverty is an important cause of the Syrian Civil War, the deadliest conflict of the 21st century.

In sum, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth between nations is unsustainable, and per capita GDP growth is required in the developing world to rectify it. Without such growth, asymmetries in wealth will continue to incite violence.

CDR Systems as a Solution

If we agree that economic growth is counterproductive in wealthy nations yet productive in poor nations, we may then ask which policies will be useful for transferring economic growth from the developed to the developing world. One obvious alternative is to transfer wealth from rich countries to poor countries. However, if this wealth is used to invest in industries, especially extractive industries, such wealth transfers may become counterproductive. For example, imagine that the developed world provides $100 million in cash to country X to build a factory that exports goods to developed markets. In this case, the developed world may benefit from cheap goods, facilitating economic growth in the developed world and defeating the purpose of the transfer. In other words, creating more low-cost production centers in a Western-financed race to the bottom is not in anyone’s interest.

Instead, we need to find a cash flow that facilitates economic growth in the developing world without creating economic growth in the developed world. Given that the economies of poor and rich nations are intertwined, this is unlikely to be possible, but there may be industries that could be targeted and developed that come close. One possibility is investments in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems financed with developed-world cash and using developing-world labor and land.

Reforestation

Reforestation in Haiti. (Image: CC BY-SA 4.0, Credit: Cunningchrisw)

CDR, also called negative emissions technologies, are systems that use energy to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. CDR systems range in technology from very low tech (like reforestation) to very high tech (like direct air carbon capture), and, at first glance, might not be the sort of thing many steady staters are inclined to support. After all, steady-state folks tend toward technological moderation and generally favor halting consumption growth, rather than developing new, often energy-intensive means for mitigating the impacts of consumption. Further, many CDR systems are likely to be unworkable or create larger problems than they solve. Hence, some skepticism is warranted.

But many CDR systems have considerable potential. Reforestation stores carbon and produces ecosystem services like soil protection, water retention, and wildlife habitat provision. Some bioenergy with carbon capture and storage systems may likewise produce ecosystem services if the biomass is harvested and managed sustainably. Enhanced weathering also is promising as a low energy means for sequestering carbon. And while direct air carbon capture systems are energy intensive, that energy could be supplied by renewable resources, especially in parts of sub-Saharan Africa with exceptional solar resources.  

Furthermore, CDR is likely the only plausible path toward meeting the Paris commitments. To limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, we need to be at about net zero CO2 emissions in 30 years and achieve net negative emissions in the last decades of the 21st century. Because of our dependence on fossil fuels in industrial and power applications, it is highly unlikely that our gross emissions of CO2 will be zero around 2050. We would need some negative emissions to achieve a net zero emission. In other words, even if we decarbonize rapidly, it likely won’t be enough.  

The Function of Wealth Transfers and CDR

Consider a policy in which developed-world nations transfer wealth to the developing world for investments in CDR systems. This wealth transfer would act like a tax in the developed world, potentially reducing economic growth. Of course, some portion of this wealth transfer will return back to the developed world for purchasing technology for CDR implementation, subverting the purpose of increasing growth in the developing world without increasing growth in the developed world. Yet much of the wealth will be used to pay for labor in the developed world, especially in lower-tech CDR systems like reforestation and biomass-based systems. If much of the wealth from the policy stays in the developing world and isn’t used to buy developed-world goods and services, the policy may be effective at transferring wealth.

Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos has accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars. Image how many countries could be supported on his income alone. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: Seattle City Council)

The use of wealth transfers to fund CDR has an advantage that less targeted wealth transfers do not have because CDR is, in a sense, parasitic. CDR does not produce something of value that can be sold in the same way that a factory or a coal mine does. Instead, it consumes wealth to produce a theoretical emissions credit that can only have value because governments require them. The physical “thing” itself, stored carbon, has no value—especially in its oxidized form stored in underground formations. Thus, CDR systems are akin to wealth furnaces that take land, labor, and capital and turn them into nothing that can be used to stimulate economic growth in the developed world.

We can think of investing in CDR as akin to investing in sanitation. Like sanitation, CDR produces a public good that is absolutely necessary, but funding it serves as an inefficiency for the economy. By tying CDR with wealth transfers, we may be able to increase this inefficiency, and thus slow growth, for the developed world while creating employment and infrastructure in the developing world.

A Just Transition

The nations of the developing world did nearly nothing to cause climate change, yet they are likely to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of the direct impacts of climate change and the indirect economic impacts of decarbonization. Not only are poorer countries less able to adapt to climate change, but by using up the carbon budget, wealthy nations have effectively foreclosed poorer nations’ abilities to extract and use their own fossil fuels.

village child

We need a just transition for countries who will suffer from climate change and are not economically stable. (Image: CC0, Credit: ajaykhadka)

As mentioned above, the transfer of wealth will help to rectify this injustice, but we need a means to determine how much money to transfer. One possibility is to use a climate easement system in which developing-world nations are compensated for the lost value of their hydrocarbon resources. In such a policy, nations may estimate the net value of their hydrocarbon resources and enter into easements with wealthy nations that compensate them for their lost value and ensure that the resources remain underground.

Climate and Energy are Not Just Developed World Problems

In discussions about climate policy, we tend to focus on wealthy emitters—the USA, China, Europe—and ignore the developing world. This makes sense because it is how we have dealt with nearly every international problem in history: The rich people get together and make decisions, and the poor people get ignored. But energy and climate are the glue that binds us all together. We cannot craft an energy and climate policy that ignores the developing world because, if we do, developing-world nations will either develop into major emitters or remain mired in poverty, susceptible to conflict as temperatures rise and resources decline. Thus, we need a climate and energy policy that includes an explicit path toward sustainable development (as opposed to unsustainable growth) for the developing world. Without such a path, climate policy will fail.

Brian F. Snyder is an assistant professor of environmental science at Louisiana State University and CASSE’s LSU Chapter director.

The post Wealth Transfers, Carbon Dioxide Removal, and the Steady State Economy appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Logging Old Growth Forests as the World Burns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/09/2020 - 3:00am in

The struggle to save old-growth forests is one of the longest-running environmental campaigns in the country. Since the first blockades at Terania Creek in northern New South Wales in the 1970s, through the ‘woodchip wars’ and the efforts to see the forests of the wet tropics, Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania protected, safeguarding the forests has long been a part of life in modern Australia. Bit by bit, areas have been protected, always as a result of community action. As the great parks of Tasmania, East Gippsland, the north coast of New South Wales and southern New South Wales were declared, the park estate has grown over the years.

But despite these wins, the logging of old forests continues. And now we have an added threat: climate change–fuelled wildfire. This was shown in last summer’s terrible fires, which devastated huge areas of forest. The Gospers Mountain fire in the Blue Mountains was the largest ever recorded in our country. These fires have led to industry demands that government allow ‘salvage’ logging in burnt areas in both New South Wales and Victoria and access to areas that were not burnt.  Despite warnings from environmental experts, logging has recommenced in NSW forests ravaged by the Black Summer bushfires. The same has happened in Victoria, where more than 3000 hectares of ‘fire affected’ alpine ash is being salvage logged.

Leading conservation biologist Professor David Lindenmayer says it would take more than 100 years for wet and damp forests to recover from the ferocity of last summer’s fires. He and fellow researchers make it clear that salvage logging will just compound the damage and should be opposed on ecological grounds. Yet both state governments have continued with ‘business as usual’ logging regimes despite the ground shift in the health of forests. With so much of our old forests destroyed through decades of logging, we are down to the final fight over the last incredibly significant scraps that are not yet in a conservation reserve. Researchers in Victoria have identified that only a little more than 1 per cent of old-growth mountain ash and just 0.47 per cent of old-growth alpine ash is left in the state. 

We are now at the point where we need to manage forests to allow them to be restored—to eventually see the creation of new old growth—not subject them to continued unsustainable logging regimes. Young, regrowth forests are more fire prone. Older forests tend to be more fire resistant.

In November 2019, the Andrews government in Victoria announced a commitment to immediately end logging in remaining old-growth forests, protecting around 90,000 hectares, with all logging in native forests across the state to stop by 2030. The announcement included the release of the Greater Glider Action Statement, which made another 96,000 hectares of forest across Victoria immediately exempt from logging in order to protect this and other threatened species. The government also announced a 30-year plan to support the timber sector as it transitions out of native forests. It allocated $120 million to ensure that the industry is fully supported in the transition.

Sadly, before the announcement could be implemented, the summer’s fires cut through vast sections of the forests of eastern Victoria. Since then the logging companies have been offered continued access to forests, yet there has been no further announcement on the long-awaited protection and industry-transition plan.

The only positive forward movement has been as a result of community campaigning: volunteer citizen groups such as the Fauna and Flora Research Collective have searched for threatened species in areas due to be logged, then launched court injunctions to save them. In April, logging was temporarily halted in twenty-six unburnt areas of Victorian native forest after environmentalists argued in court that there was a risk of ‘serious and irreversible damage’ to threatened species after last summer’s bushfires.

In New South Wales, logging continues in many areas of state forest. Recently released documents from the NSW state government’s logging agency, the Forestry Corporation, reveal that at least 85 per cent of harvestable native hardwood forests in the South Coast region was burnt in the fires. An additional complication is the internal conflict within the ruling Coalition regarding land-clearing legislation, which led the Nationals to make an ill-fated attempt to force the Liberals to drop the legislation. Proposed changes to planning regulations would give farmers responsibility for managing koalas on their properties. Under the new regulations, more trees would be classed as koala habitat, which wwould restrict land clearing. The aim is to reduce the scale and extent of forest and vegetation destruction in the state, but the Nationals opposed the regulations in their current form. The NSW premier called their bluff and they quickly retreated from their threat to walk away from the Coalition.

Meanwhile, Tasmania seems to be heading back to the Bad Old Days of the ‘forest wars’. Tasmania’s economy is now geared towards tourism, and the huge areas of intact wild country are a cornerstone of the nature-based tourism that the state relies on. After a long truce, the current government seems intent on restarting conflict between conservationists and the logging industry.

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement, or ‘forest peace deal’, was passed in 2013, and effectively ended that conflict. However, it was repealed by the Liberals after an election win a year later. The conflict was held at arm’s length because of a moratorium on logging 356,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest that had been designated as Future Potential Production Forest (FPPF). The moratorium allowed the Liberals to create an image of ‘unlocking’ the forests for the timber industry, without having to deal with the conflict that would follow. But now, with the moratorium having ended in April 2020, the old battle lines have been redrawn.

Premier Peter Gutwein recently announced that some of the ancient forests in the Styx Valley in the south-west of the state will be allocated to the government’s forestry company, Sustainable Timber Tasmania. Forests such as the Styx were protected after long campaigns, and environmentalists will not step aside and let them be logged. To up the ante, the government is also pushing ahead with implementing anti-protest laws that would create draconian measures intended to stop conservationists from directly protesting against the renewed logging.In response to these plans to restart logging, the Bob Brown Foundation has launched a legal action that it hopes might end native-forest logging in Tasmania by establishing that the industry is breaking federal environmental laws. The foundation lodged the case against the Tasmanian government, the federal government and Sustainable Timber Tasmania at the Federal Court in late August.

The political adage goes that ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’. Sadly, it is a truism when we consider the state of our forests. We live on the driest continent on the planet, and we face ever more intense fire seasons because of climate change. We should have ended logging of old forests decades ago. But here we are, fighting over the scraps as the forests of the planet literally burn, from Tasmania to the Amazon, from Siberia to California. Yet we must see the end of this campaign, as time is running out.

There’s No Time Left Not To Do Everything

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 11:36am in

‘Does anyone here think that’s actually going to happen?’ 

We’d just spent two days at the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne in February, discussing the need for governments to declare a climate emergency and act on it. This was after the horrific summer of fires and smoke, but before we realised that a pandemic was on its way, and before the murder of George Floyd and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. There had, over the weekend, been vociferous discussions about the need for climate emergency action, what such action might look like, and to what extent emergency declarations might be anti-democratic, inequitable and otherwise problematic, with a worrying lack of concern by some of the speakers about that last question. 

I was speaking on a panel about citizen action, arguing for a focus on community-building projects that construct grassroots democracy as a critical path to urgent and deep climate action. The question was put to me, as it often is: ‘Do we have time for the deep change you’re talking about? Isn’t it too late? Don’t we just need governments to declare an emergency and get on with it?’ 

So, perhaps a bit heatedly, I put it to the room: ‘Does anyone here think that’s actually going to happen?’ Does anyone think that there is any realistic chance that the current federal government, or the next one, will actually declare a climate emergency and act on it with the seriousness and urgency that that requires? 

There was a bit of nervous tittering. One or two shouts of ‘No!’ Not a single person raised their hand. Among the 250 or so passionate climate activists in the room, nobody—not even the questioner—said yes. 

Afterwards, I chatted with people who had a sense of flailing desperation in their eyes. I’ve seen the same desperation in the eyes of numerous people leaving the huge School Strike for Climate rallies, inspired by the event and the turnout, but hearing already the rejection from government and alternative government, and not knowing what to do next. It’s the same desperation I saw among so many after last year’s federal election. ‘But we have so little time.’ ‘We’ve missed another opportunity.’ ‘Another few years will go past with nothing to show.’ 

We don’t have time any more to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We don’t have time not to rewrite the rules. We don’t have time not to change everything. 

*** 

Australians, or at least most of us, like to think of our democratic systems as robust. In a country that prides itself on larrikinism and counts Ned Kelly among its cultural heroes, it’s perhaps odd how much we seem to trust authority. Until 2007, confidence in Australia’s democratic systems was astonishingly high, floating around 80 per cent. After a plunge in confidence matching global trends over the next decade to a low of 30 per cent in 2019, trust has risen dramatically in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching 54 per cent for the federal government and far higher for some state governments. When times are scary, it seems we might be willing to invest our trust in those in power to do what’s right to keep us safe. At least at first. As a second wave of the pandemic arrives, there are signs that that trust is weak. There has been a return to the panic buying that, alongside a swift rise in mutual aid, revealed the lack of trust that characterised the early stages of the first wave. 

Of course, as a settler-colonial nation built on the genocide of the continent’s original inhabitants, it’s fair to say that our democratic systems have always been, at best, incomplete, exclusive and fragile. Despite hard-won reforms expanding the franchise—to women ahead of most of the world, to Indigenous people horrifyingly late—structural inequities and systems of entrenched power that undermine that franchise have always lurked beneath the surface, occasionally becoming visible. The lockdown of public housing flats with armed police ahead of broader quarantine measures in Melbourne, and the role of the aptly named Neville Power in facilitating his own private profit through a federal ‘gas-led recovery’, are recent examples. 

But it’s worse than that. For some time now, around the world, democracies have been quite directly under attack and various forms of authoritarianism on the rise. In countries such as Hungary and Poland, the step away from democracy is explicit. In Australia, suppression and criminalisation of protest and advocacy, prosecution of whistle-blowers, raiding of media organisations, and corporate capture of political parties and regulatory processes are the tip of the iceberg. The situation for First Nations people, refugees, culturally and linguistically diverse and gender diverse communities, and the ever-expanding group of unemployed and working poor is far worse than for the well-to-do dominant minority. But we share a common, dark future if we fail to address this very rapidly. Because we have to introduce the failure to address the climate crisis into this picture. And when we do, entangling power, inequality and ecology, two things become clear. 

Firstly, our current democratic institutions and norms are simply incapable of tackling the immense, overwhelming and interconnected crises we face. 

It’s not just that we haven’t yet succeeded. It’s not that we need to fight harder, shout louder, to convince those in power to act, on the climate crisis, on Aboriginal deaths in custody, on intimate-partner violence, on economic inequality and on so much more. The systems we are working within are built on, and structured so as to enforce and buttress, the fundamental interlinked inequities—capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, resource extractivism—that are the cause of these crises. As such, they cannot enable the solutions—certainly not in the time frame we have. The interplay between the major parliamentary players, the executive government, the media, and corporate power, as well as the adversarial system itself and the culture of our politics—the common sense of our political discourse—make the necessary changes inconceivable. 

It has ever been thus, in the modern world at least. But here’s the kicker, at this particular historical moment: these systems are spectacularly ill-suited to enabling human survival in the far less hospitable world that they have created. 

In the years ahead, as climate disruption worsens, as ecological collapse introduces more pandemics into human society, as food supplies teeter, as desperate governments lean more towards authoritarianism to hold onto control, political systems based on adversarialism, individualism, narrow efficiency, the primacy of money, and brute force will only increase the chaos. They only make human extinction, taking with us so much of the precious and beautiful diversity of life on this planet, more likely. What we will need is more networks of support, more social cohesion, more layers of redundancy, so that when one safety net fails another several remain, and more cooperation and generosity—all aspects of society that are currently unvalued, indeed erased, by our political norms and institutions. 

In order to both turn around ecological collapse and generate the collective resilience that our societies need to survive and thrive in the decades ahead, we need to cultivate new democratic norms and institutions, based on the principles of ecology itself. We need to cultivate complex, adaptive political systems, embracing interdependence, appreciation for diversity, and the certainty of change, turning our adversarial, antagonistic, gladiatorial politics into a space for agonistic, deliberative, creative discussion. And we need to grow it from the grassroots up, pushing through cracks in the pavement, sprouting from the trunks of rotting trees, ready to flourish as the monocultures break up and the old edifices come tumbling down. 

*** 

This situation raises vital questions for environmental and social campaigning organisations, and for Greens parties worldwide. We have all, throughout our history, had a complex and ambivalent relationship with the existing democratic systems that have continued to facilitate massive environmental destruction, ongoing abuses of power, and increasing inequality. From the earliest days, the Greens’ place in parliaments has been a strained one, pulling between advocacy and negotiation, legislative amendments and deep change, revolutionising the system and reforming policy. Greens parties have always trodden a delicate line, critiquing the system while operating inside it. Similarly, there’s been a constant tension among, between and inside campaigning groups of all kinds. This is often characterised as choosing between being inside the tent or outside it. But, of course, where you see the walls of the tent is very much in the eye of the beholder. The most inside-game campaigners are still kept away from the true inner sanctums of power. And, problematically, the most outside-game activists are still playing inside the tent of the system itself. 

Climate campaigning has already evolved substantially over the past two decades, from very instrumentalist activities aimed at directly lobbying governments and corporations to change specific policies into a more sophisticated social-change movement, interweaving its demands with broader efforts towards social, economic and racial justice. Imperfectly, of course. But the progress has been tremendous. Nevertheless, at essentially every level, it is still aimed at asking governments and corporations to act—even if it is framed as ‘building a mass movement’ to ‘demand’ action. The movement still operates within a supplicant politics, seeking to build the maximum possible influence over those with the real power. The same could be said of Greens campaigning and advocacy, which, while presenting the option of voting Green as an alternative, tend to fall back on demands for governments to act, for oppositions to change policy, for those in power to work with us towards change. 

When we know that this won’t happen, as all those in our citizen-activism panel recognised, and as so many attending rallies and campaigning at elections realise, this is an inherently self-defeating and demotivating approach. It can even be dangerous. 

For example, currently, ‘climate emergency’ campaigns targeting governments at various levels, and often using ‘war mobilisation’ language, are seemingly blithely unconcerned that the standard response from government at times of declared emergency is to suspend democracy. If we give credence to the idea of governments declaring emergency, do we realise what we’re opening the door to? Yes, in fact, we do. At February’s National Climate Emergency Summit, more than one keynote speaker, from a position of immense privilege, explicitly stated that this was a Faustian bargain that they were willing to make. Other speakers, and many attendees, pushed back hard against that view. But, if that type of emergency action isn’t what we want, what do we want? And how do we intend to achieve it through a government-declared emergency? 

At the same time, Extinction Rebellion has arrived with the explicit goal of disrupting the status quo so deeply as to trigger crisis. The absence, however, of a concept of what might follow that crisis beyond an undefined proposal for a citizens’ assembly should scare us in the same way that government-led emergency declarations should. In the paraphrased words of one of the most important philosophers of political change, Antonio Gramsci, ‘when the old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born, there will be monsters’. If we aren’t actively building the new institutions to replace the old ones, the answer is ready and waiting for us: authoritarianism. A brief glance at the Queensland (Labor) government’s response to Extinction Rebellion (introducing new laws to suppress protest) and the Victorian (Labor) government’s response to protests at the International Mining and Resources Conference (sending in mounted riot police to clear the way for mining executives) shows how real that danger is. 

Meanwhile, many are mobilising around ‘3.5 per cent’, a figure drawn from Erica Chenoweth’s research, as the proportion of a population needed to reach a tipping point that forces change.1 But the number is quoted, generally, within a goal of driving policy change, when in fact it’s the threshold Chenoweth and colleagues identified as necessary for overthrowing oppressive regimes. Which is our goal? What change are we mobilising for? 

The rapid growth of Extinction Rebellion, long-term sustainability activist Michael Mobbs’ declaration of survivalism,2 and the desperation in the voices of school strikers all reveal a community searching for answers, seeking a way forward, and finding precious little in contemporary politics and activism to give them real hope. 

There is, however, a tremendous amount to give us hope. And it can be seen in the extraordinary and exciting experiments with different forms of collective organising, innovations and rebirth of old forms of democracy, across the globe over the past decade, as confidence and trust in existing democratic forms has collapsed. From Zuccotti Park to Syntagma Square, from Barcelona en Comú to London’s Participatory City, citizen-led, grassroots democracy has taken root and sprouted. From the Next Economy bringing communities in coal regions together to imagine a different future to Voices for Indi building a new constituency for progressive politics in regional Victoria, from the growth of neighbourhood sharing groups and repair cafes to the advent of welcome dinners for refugees, people around the globe craving community cohesion are refusing to wait for someone else to do it. In 2019 we saw massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chile and Lebanon. In 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, we saw an explosion of mutual-aid projects, as communities chose not to wait for government to act but to take matters into their own hands and support each other collectively. And then, following the police murder of George Floyd, millions of people around the world became aware of the reality of community protection as the idea of defunding the police took hold. 

In this context, continuing a supplicant politics, where we beg or demand of governments that they act, is both destined to fail and underplaying our hand. At this moment in history, with the pandemic forcing social, economic and political changes unlike anything any of us have ever seen, with the rise of extreme right anti-politics, and with the failures of the current system exposed for all to see, we urgently need to consider this relationship afresh. While, of course, the urgency is such that we must keep constant pressure on all actors, our strategic goals should reach far beyond such pressure and into cultivating the new democratic systems and institutions we need in order to survive and thrive—grassroots-driven, multilayered, polycentric institutions based on ecological principles of interconnection, diversity, flexibility, and the recognition that we are all part of and entirely reliant on the natural world. 

Looked at in this light, we could embrace this terrifying moment as an opportunity to evolve our campaigning and advocacy towards cultivating deep, regenerative democracy that will benefit all of us and all of our causes together. 

*** 

The centralised, dominance-based, adversarialist power structures of our current system, in government, business and civil society, and in the relationships between them, are the heart of the problem. Through them, we can only see power, like everything else in our late-capitalist world, as linear, as transactional, as a zero-sum game. Within this world view, the only option for those seeking social change is to organise as supplicants, to build influence over those in power, or occasionally seek to change who holds this power. While there is a temptation for those seeking change to attempt to take control of centralised power to drive swift transformation, the structure of that power makes that impossible. In addition, in the highly unlikely event of success in taking control, the exercise of such power is deeply problematic, and unhelpful in the task of enabling survival. 

One of the reasons campaigning organisations and the Greens have always been ambivalent about involvement in existing political institutions is that we are sceptical of dominance-based power and of adversarialism. The principle of grassroots democracy that underpins modern environmentalism, and the (not always successful) practice of consensus decision-making that much of the movement works with, means that we seek to practise power very differently, emphasising cooperative and creative modes of ‘power with’ and ‘power to’ rather than ‘power over’. 

It is ironic, then, that our campaigning and advocacy have a tendency to emphasise the existing model. When we demand action of governments and ask people to demand action with us, we are effectively buttressing the dominance-based power structures. This is both a structural process of effectively abdicating our own power and also a values-based process, emphasising dominance over cooperation. 

But we don’t have to accept and abide by that model of power. Like everything else in our ecological world, power operates at many levels, in different ways, intersecting and interwoven, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes in cross-currents. Power both inhabits and determines the structures of the system. Only by changing power can we change the system. 

It was Gramsci who developed the idea of hegemony—world-defining power—as a combination of institutional power and cultural power. Control of institutions (parliaments, executive government, media, the economy) exists in interplay with control of the common sense—shared understandings of how the world should be. If those who hold the institutional reins lose control of the world-shaping narratives, the whole edifice can disintegrate. 

From our historical vantage point, we might add another layer: an extra-human layer of ecological power. When human powers reach ecological limits, both cultural and institutional power begin to crumble. 

Welcome to 2020. 

Ecological reality is making itself felt, with fire, flood and plague. The common sense of capitalism—that the invisible hand of the market will take care of things if we all follow our own self-interest; that eternal growth on a finite planet is possible; that we are separate from and superior to the natural world; that we are all individuals and there is no such thing as society—cannot withstand that reality. Those whose power depends on that common sense are holding onto their institutional power as hard as they can, while also scrambling to adapt to an emerging, new common sense. 

In this context, the true struggle is between those who want ‘power over’ others and those who seek ‘power to’ effect change for a better world. 

*** 

Although the citizens’ assembly demand of Extinction Rebellion remains largely unexplained and unexplored, its presence in the discourse provides an opportunity. It’s the first pointer to the climate movement embracing the radically different, citizen-led politics that is growing around the globe, involving the active participation of the people in determining our own common future. 

Citizens’ assemblies are not, of course, the beginning and end of the story. A true citizen-led approach encompasses a wide array of projects that involve living more sustainably and cultivating social cohesion and social justice while not just building political power but distributing power as widely as possible. In essence, it aims to pivot the broad but shallow community mobilisation around specific goals that environmental and social movements and the Greens have become experts at into deep, community-building projects. What’s the difference? 

Sophia Burns, in a 2018 blog about social organising after Trump’s election, wrote: 

It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.3 

Community mobilising primarily sees Greens and campaigning organisations reaching out to large numbers of community members, by email or social media or at their doorsteps, and asking them to vote for us, or to back our calls for governments to take certain actions. Everybody involved knows that, while we might get occasional discrete wins, our chances of delivering the necessary deep changes are vanishingly small. This can risk contributing to disenchantment, making it ever harder for us to engage people in our campaigns. It also adds to the already high levels of climate anxiety and depression, as people lose still more hope. In addition, with these campaigns often being inherently adversarial, it drives us further apart from one another. 

In real terms, right now, in the context of the arrival of the era of climate consequences, this style of community mobilising won’t help us succeed, and it won’t help us survive. Community building just might help us succeed, and it will definitely help us survive. 

Community building creates hope for people by actively involving them in building our common future together. Instead of recruiting people to our ‘mass movement’ to ‘demand’ policy change, failing to get that change, and having to reach out again to ask for the next thing, community building recruits people to get involved long term in fun, creative, mutually beneficial activities, projects that make people’s lives better while also benefiting the community and the environment. It then, subtly and gently, cultivates those separate and diverse projects as the seeds of a new set of democratic institutions, grown from the grassroots up. 

For some, it might start with walking school buses or local ‘last-mile’ transport initiatives that help elderly people get their groceries; the introduction for others might be community gardens or communal food preparation, with meals set aside for struggling members of the community; it might be repair cafes or renewable-energy co-ops, dinner discussion forums, nonviolent direct-action groups, or formal citizens’ assemblies that bring another group of people in. Professional groups might be involved by imposing green bans, residents by converting streets to parks, or groups of small businesses by establishing a local non-monetary currency. The projects could be interlinked in appropriate ways with Indigenous, refugee and multicultural groups, sports associations, community arts projects and much more. All these diverse, grassroots, citizen-led projects might overlap with party branch meetings or meetings coordinated by established campaigning organisation, or they might be at arm’s length or entirely separate. Over time, with the right approach, they will combine, cohere and intertwine to form new, deeper, longer-lasting forms of power. 

Because people enjoy being active participants, they stay involved, are willing to commit more to political and electoral campaigns, and become effective ambassadors. If their electoral campaigns and political demands don’t succeed, participants know that their local projects are making a real difference regardless. The diversity of approaches makes involvement more accessible for a wide range of people. Learning by doing, they develop expertise in democratic practice, taking part in and facilitating creative disagreement and collective decision-making for common benefit. By building social cohesion, growing food, and sharing stuff, they are creating care, connection and resilience in their community in the face of climate disasters, economic disruption, or the next pandemic. They push through the sense of impending doom into an ‘apocaloptimistic’ attitude: although we know collapse is coming, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. 

The movements we will build together through this approach will be stronger, deeper and broader than anything we have done before, because they will be truly intersectional, understanding that all our causes are as inextricably intertwined as our lives are. They will be more capable of shifting public opinion, of bringing potential allies on board, and of creating the major systemic changes we know are needed, because they will hold ‘power to’, distributed among them, rather than still needing to beg governments with ‘power over’ them to act. 

*** 

The keystone of this approach is the shift from alternative to transformative, connecting diverse projects into a collective whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts—an ecology of projects that grows from random ideas at the margins into genuine new, distributed democratic institutions of the commons. For this to work, it must be collective and coordinated but not dominated by centralised power. That is a major challenge, but there’s been a tremendous amount of work done by Elinor Ostrom, Murray Bookchin, Abdullah Öcalan and others, learning from Indigenous governance, around how to facilitate and support distributed, interconnected, polycentric models. It is difficult but entirely possible. The Greens, Friends of the Earth and others, having practised a distributed model more or less successfully for thirty years, have pre-existing structures and expertise to help make this happen. Newer groups such as the school strikers are building on the same model. And, of course, we must step back and learn directly from Indigenous people, who have brought their ancient shared-governance structures into current operation through locally controlled models such as Community Controlled Health Organisations. 

One important path will be to parlay existing centralised outreach into open-source community building. What if we used doorknocking and letterboxing, which we already do so much of, to let people know about local sharing groups and community gardens, repair cafes, co-ops and sports associations, and invite them to community meetings to co-design their own local climate-positive, social-cohesion projects? What if, where we had the capacity, we used elected office to provide resources to communities for such projects, and invited community members to help inform our decision-making? What if branches, volunteers, and elected representatives supported communities to hold formal and informal citizens’ assemblies, or whatever form of community planning meeting they were interested in, perhaps connected through those local groups, through unions, creating space for Indigenous leadership, actively embracing culturally and otherwise diverse community members, connecting over distance among communities of interest, or just gathering around a group of streets, to discuss what each community could do to confront and prepare for the climate crisis? 

What if each of those assemblies and gatherings sent representatives to regional assemblies, and shared what they’re doing through online clearing houses, so they could learn from and inspire each other, and so they could consciously envisage their actions as vital pieces of collective action that, together, are cultivating the new, ecological democratic alternative? 

That’s starting to look like a new set of democratic institutions, similar to Bookchin and Öcalan’s ideas. It’s starting to turn those fun, life-improving projects at the margins into the foundations of a new civic space, venues for debate and discussion, the basis for a new democracy. 

If this is to happen, it needs to be led from the grassroots up. But it also needs to be enabled and resourced properly, with resources made available by many currently in the space, such as larger NGOs, open-minded philanthropists, and supportive elected representatives. There may even be opportunities for forward-thinking local and even state and territory governments to actively encourage and enable the kind of community-building work that underpins this approach. For all these groups, it will take a shift in focus—a radical vision, a willingness to let go of control, or at least to collaborate more deeply and openly with others who have a dramatically different approach to change-making. 

This will be hard. But it’s well past time we admitted to ourselves that the current path is a dead end. Working within the system that created this crisis, or at best attempting to tweak it closer to what it was a generation ago, will see us continue to fail to address spiralling inequality and social injustice, or to avert catastrophic ecological collapse. Worse, it will leave us living in a system spectacularly ill-suited to enabling our survival in that world. 

But, if we take the citizen-led path, embracing the different modes of power we already believe in, the opportunities and possibilities are extraordinary. At the very least, we will create a serious grassroots counterbalance to existing power. At the most, we will lay the groundwork for radically transforming, if not replacing, state and corporate power. 

We won’t just be building a movement to demand change of those in power. We will be building our own power, distributing it widely, and creating new, regenerative democratic institutions and norms that will enable us to not just survive the coming storms, but thrive. 

Notes 

1. International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict, The Success of Nonviolent Civil Resistance, November 2013.

2. Tim Hollo, ‘As the climate collapses, we can either stand together—or perish alone’, The Guardian, 4 October 2019.

3. Sophia Burns, ‘Strategize, Don’t Moralize’, Gods and Radicals, April 2018.

Two Tips For Dealing With Smoke

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/09/2020 - 7:22pm in

A large part of the world, not just the West coast of America, is currently experiencing fires.


September 14th Fire Map

Much of this is bad fire management (not allowing regular fires in forests that need them) and much of it is caused by bad maintainance of power lines, but without climate change it wouldn’t be happening this badly. Simply enough, forests are burning off as the climate reshapes the ecology of various areas.

None of which is much use for those stuck in the fires, though you should take climate change into account if you can choose where you live.

I’m no expert, but I saw two suggestions on how to improve air quality for those stuck in smoky rooms I thought worth passing on.

The first is to fill every container you have with water and place them around your house. They will absorb smoke particles, and over about half an hour, the air quality will get better. Replace the water every few hours. Similarly you can run a hot shower till the bathtub is half full every few hours.

The second is the so-called Beijing filter, which is just a filter taped over a box fan. Any filter will do. (Second link has a brief how-to.)

Not normally the sort of info I’d pass on, but I’ve seen a lot of people in distress who didn’t know these simple tips.

Obviously wear a mask, and wash your masks often.

These sorts of fires have been going on for a few years now, but they’re becoming far more widespread and will continue as our environment is re-shaped to the new normal.

I always wanted to live in a Mediterranean climate like California’s, but who knows where will have that climate in a few years?

If you have another tips for coping with the smoke (or fires in general) put them in comments.

Edit: A commenter points out that open still water in tropical countries could lead to issues with Dengue fever. Another commenter suggests dust bowl remedies from the 30s, like putting wet towels around windows and doors might help.

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

 

 

Facebook
Twitter
WhatsApp
LinkedIn

Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 8:22am in

Now seems like a good time for a reminder that the official Republican Party platform for 2020 — recycled from 2016 — barely mentions climate change, except to say that market forces and innovations will solve it. In a bulleted … Continue reading

The post Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

Oregon Can’t Fight Wildfires Because Its Helicopters Were Sent To Afghanistan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 2:03am in

More than half a million Oregonians have been forced to flee their homes, as wildfires continue to ravage the West Coast of the United States. Amid record-breaking temperatures, the wildfires, which have charred one million acres of land, have caused the sky to turn a terrifying shade of red, with many comparing it to Mars, hell, or the apocalypse. Air quality in Portland, the state’s largest city, is currently the lowest in the world, below even that of infamously polluted cities like Delhi and Beijing.

The state’s Democratic governor Kate Brown did not mince words when advising what to do. “Get the hell out,” she told her fellow Oregonians. While Brown described the fires as “unprecedented,” she also warned that they “will not be a one time event.” “Unfortunately, it is a bellwether of the future,” she said. “We are seeing the devastating effects of climate change in Oregon, on the entire West Coast, and throughout the world.”

Firefighters are having a great deal of trouble dealing with blazes of this size and ferocity, despite receiving support from the rest of the country. A group of Mexican firefighters also arrived in the state yesterday, keen to help their American compatriots. One major reason they are having such difficulties combatting the blazes, the Portland Tribune noted deep in one article, is that many of the state’s largest firefighting aircraft are not available because the Department of Defense has sent them to Afghanistan to fight in a 20-year-old war. Six Chinook helicopters, for example, have been redeployed to the Asian nation, critically undermining both rescue and firefighting missions at home.

The Defense Department’s decision is the latest example of the skewed priorities of the U.S. government when it comes to protecting its citizens. More than twice as many people have already died in California alone from the summer’s wildfires than Americans in Afghanistan all year. The occupation of Afghanistan will turn 20 years old next month, and, with troops removals being blocked, shows no sign of coming to an end soon. Even before the latest increase, the United States’ military budget already rivaled that of the rest of the world combined. In July, both Congress and Senate rejected a bill calling for a modest reduction in defense spending, overwhelmingly voting against it.

What the government could have done to improve the country with the savings is considerable. The National Priorities Project calculated that a ten percent cut in military spending would be enough to end homelessness in America, fund free college for two million students, convert the U.S. to renewable energy, hire 900,000 new teachers, or send two more $1,200 checks to every American.

While Oregon is among the hardest hit, states across the western United States are feeling the impact of colossal wildfires. In Washington state, more acres were burned on Monday alone than in 12 of the past 18 years of forest fires, according to Governor Jay Inslee, with the large majority of the state under a red flag fire warning.

Meanwhile, the fire season has been particularly harsh in California, with six of the state’s twenty largest fires in recorded history occurring this summer. Authorities have been critically short on firefighters as the prisoners it normally uses to tackle the blazes have been locked down because of a COVID-19 epidemic raging through the state’s prisons. Inmates are paid between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, plus $1 per hour to risk their lives, and are barred from applying for jobs in the fire department once they are released.

Oregon has fared relatively well at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, with fewer than 500 deaths statewide. However, with half a million people fleeing their homes, it is feared that the communal indoor spaces they are being relocated to will become hotbeds of transmission.

Governors like Brown and Inslee, as well as scientists, have explicitly framed the fires within the context of man-made climate change. “[The] West is on fire. Air can’t be breathed. Sky is pink. A half million [are] fleeing Oregon. An environmental reckoning has come. Whatever we call it — Green New Deal, Climate Revolution, End of Fossil Fuels — we must radically alter the way we live, or our lands will be uninhabitable,” wrote former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Yet corporate media have been far less willing to discuss global warming. In a 1,700 word article entitled, “Extreme Heat Turns State Into a Furnace,” for instance, the New York Times failed to mention climate change even once. Perhaps more alarming was the choice of outlets across the spectrum to illustrate the historic and deadly September heatwave with happy pictures of Americans enjoying themselves at the beach, completely missing the severity of the climate crisis.

The diversion of crucial firefighting resources away from high risk areas of the United States so they can be turned into weapons for a 20-year-long war on the other side of the world is an axiomatic example of the priorities of the United States government. While the rhetoric of war planners is all about keeping Americans safe, the huge concentration of resources devoted to conflicts in the Middle East, it could be argued, is actually undermining Americans’ safety at home.

Feature photo | Maria Centeno, right, from Mexico, is consoled by her neighbor Hector Rocha after seeing their destroyed mobile homes at the Talent Mobile Estates, Sept. 10, 2020, in Talent, Ore., after as wildfires devastate the region. Paula Bronstein | AP

Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in ReportingThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin MagazineCommon Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.

The post Oregon Can’t Fight Wildfires Because Its Helicopters Were Sent To Afghanistan appeared first on MintPress News.

Can we Trust the Public Service? (Updated)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/09/2020 - 12:14pm in

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon – Matthew 6:24, KJV

In representative liberal democracies, educational/professional qualifications are not required of candidates to public office. Take an aspirant to the Prime Ministership or the Presidency. There are neither schools offering “Prime Minister 101” courses nor licensing requirements, as there are for would-be plumbers or lawyers.

Sometimes candidates may have somewhat related experience: say, a former state Premier could wind up in the top job. But generally that experience is neither fully compatible (say, a Premier must prioritise public health, a PM focuses on the economy) nor, as far as I can tell, is that the usual situation (how many premiers do you know went on to become PMs?).

In countries under a parliamentary system, unlike those under a presidential system, that extends to Cabinet members: health ministers don’t need to be doctors, say.

That’s why the public service is important: public servants are supposed to provide the expertise their political masters lack. (No doubt readers have heard about the “checks and balances” included in the institutional design of liberal democracies to prevent dysfunction. Arguably, the bureaucracy is another such check and balance.)

----------
To their credit, PM Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, when confronted with the COVID-19 crisis, understood that (although Scotty from Marketing, in his recent dealings with VIC Premier Daniel Andrews, seems to have already forgotten it all).

Notwithstanding the inevitable mistake, their decision prevented a potential catastrophe. And that’s how Brendan Murphy (then federal Chief Health Officer) and Kerry Chant (NSW CHO) – to mention only those most prominent in NSW – became household names. A little earlier Shane Fitzsimmons, former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, had already been a protagonist in crisis management. All of them public servants, all of them performing well, with dedication and – most evidently in Fitzsimmons’ case – strength of character.

----------
However, to emulate those guys is easier said than done. Career public servants  – or Mandarins, as they are often called – at least in Australia could bear testimony to that. Ask Josh Krook:

Australian Public Servant Condemns Censorship After Blogpost Cost Him His Job
Three months after writing how Covid helped big tech, Josh Krook was given a choice: remove the post or be sacked
by Christopher Knaus (Aug 24, 2020)

Unlike Michaela Banerji, who last year lost her job for exercising her right to criticise the Morrison Government, Krook did not even voice a criticism.

----------
Fair-minded readers will understand politicians of all stripes refusing to be their advisers’ puppets, something would-be technocrats seem eager to ignore. Politicians were elected to represent their constituencies – whoever their real constituencies are. It’s to their constituencies that they are accountable.

Moreover, politicians may have a reputation for having a thick skin, but they – understandably as well – certainly don’t enjoy being criticised in public, however fairly, however sincerely, by their servants of the public: bureaucrats, therefore, are placed between God and Mammon, for there is no guarantee, let alone warranty, that God and Mammon want the same thing. And there’s no clear “sensible middle”.

Our Evangelical Prime Minister, for whom that quote should speak clearly, made it also very clear, last year, in a speech to the Australian Public Service what he expected of them. In his chosen sporty analogy, the APS and their respective Ministers are a team, where “Ministers set and drive the agenda of the Government” and public servants are “implementers”.

In other words, public servants’ job “is about telling Governments how things can be done, not just the risks of doing them, or saying why they shouldn’t be done. The public service is meant to be an enabler of Government policy not an obstacle.”

----------
Now, skeptics may think – rightly in my opinion – that by themselves, cases like those of Krook and Banerji are unimportant in the greater scheme of things. If that is the worst to fear from Morrison’s speech, then one can relax.

The thing is that those cases are not the whole story. This is closer to a half:

(source)
Euan Ritchie from Deakin University, co-author of that report, is quoted as saying:

“Functional democracies rely on an informed voting public. If the best scientific data and information isn’t available then that’s a real problem.”

Indeed, that’s one of the problems I’m trying to highlight here. It’s not for nothing that Mandarins were often eunuchs.

Serious, honest bureaucrats like Murphy, Chant, and Fitzsimmons should be worried, for next time the public may be less receptive to their advise. Unfair and dangerous as that may be, I can understand where that negative comes from. Can we really trust them? And can you blame the public if they don’t? (think well your answer before you move on.)

----------
Those gagged scientists no doubt feel frustrated by Morrison’s rules of the game. Other bureaucrats, however, seem not only to have understood their role as Government enablers but are proving themselves willing team players. That’s the other half of the problem I’m trying to highlight.

For those with patience, here is a long and irritating, but highly instructive, exchange between Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Deputy Chair of the Environment and Communications - Legislation Committee, and Jo Evans, Deputy Secretary, Department of Environment and Energy.

It took place on October 21, 2019, in the mid of the Black Summer. The following day a group of independent and Greens parliamentarians were scheduled to table for discussion an official Parliament-sponsored petition, backed by over 400,000 signatures. The petition asked the Morrison Government to declare a climate emergency.

A couple months later or so, NSW Premier Berejiklian declared the first of three statewide States of Emergency. To the best of my knowledge, the petition fell on deaf ears and was forgotten.

Without further ado:

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I’d like to start by referring to the growing community concern about emissions rising, climate change getting worse, and watching comparable countries around the world declaring a climate emergency. Has anyone in the department given any thought to briefing the government about the state of the climate emergency that we face?

Ms Evans: We regularly brief the government on the facts of climate science and the nature of the impacts, both for Australia and globally. Your choice of language about how you describe that is yours; we would stick to a factual description.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is the description? What kind of emergency are we in?

Ms Evans: Again, I’m not using the word ‘emergency’; you are. If you look at the scientific basis for climate change, in Australia you’re already seeing increases in average temperature of around one degree. We’ve already had eight of Australia’s 10 warmest years since 2005. We have evidence here that the sea level around Australia is rising. The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO regularly put out a summary of changes in the climate around Australia. The last one of those was put out at the end of 2018. It’s called State of the climate and it talks about the frequency and intensity of various different types of extreme weather events. For example, very high monthly maximum temperatures that occurred around two per cent of the time in the past now occur around 12 per cent of the time, based on a time period comparison between 1950 and 1980, for when it was two per cent of the time, and between 2003 and 2017 for 12 per cent of the time. There are a lot of these facts; they are all on the public record. We have briefed the government on those in relation to Australia.

In regard to global impacts, you would be aware that there have recently been a number of special reports by the IPCC, one most recently in relation to the oceans and cryosphere. Before that, there was one on the impacts on land and, prior to that, there was a comparison or a look at what the impacts would be if we were to achieve a 1.5—degree increase in global average temperature compared to two degrees. All of those reports contain a large amount of information about the types of impacts that will happen with different temperature changes, which have impacts on the climate. We have certainly briefed the government on those.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Have you briefed the government on those with the clear indication that things are getting worse?

Ms Evans: We simply describe what is happening and what the scientific community says might happen in the future if emissions achieve different levels of outcomes. At that point, they are projections for the future.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Does the scientific evidence currently point to the state of the climate getting worse?

Ms Evans: It points to changes in the climate. Certainly, we have seen an increase in the average global temperature and various other changes in the climate that have resulted from the greenhouse effect. We know carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, and has increased to date. We know that a large part or the substantive part of that increase in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is primarily from human activity, and we know that is adding to the natural greenhouse effect. These are the things that we advise the government on.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You read these reports and you have to brief the government on them. Is the situation getting worse?

Ms Evans: The climate is definitely changing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: For the worse?

Ms Evans: That’s a judgement call and it’s an opinion. The climate is changing.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I’m not asking for an opinion; I’m asking for the scientific evidence.

Ms Evans: The scientific evidence says that the climate is definitely changing. It is changing in a direction that implies that temperatures are increasing. It implies that a range of climatic events that had certain probability levels in the past are likely to get higher in the future. Whether you choose to use terminology to describe that as ’worse’ or ’better’ depends on where you are on the globe. In some parts of the world, they will find some of those changes working to their advantage and some of them not so much. I don’t want to put a label across the whole lot. What I can describe is what the scientific community is saying will happen.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do you believe that we’re in a climate crisis?

CHAIR: Order! Senator Hanson-Young—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I’ll rephrase that. With all of the evidence that we have before us, does the science point to a climate crisis?

Ms Evans: That’s not something that the department is going to put a view on. We simply advise on the facts of what is happening and what the view of the scientific community is.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What is the view of the scientific community?

Ms Evans: When I say that—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there a crisis or is there not?

Ms Evans: When I say ‘the view of the scientific community’, I mean in relation to the scientific facts and evidence.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is the scientific evidence that has been presented—you’ve referenced the most recent report in relation to oceans as an example—having a damaging impact on biodiversity?

Ms Evans: Certainly, it’s been the case in Australia that climate change and the impacts of climate change have been identified as one of the key threatening processes associated with the decline in species and so on, and threatened species in Australia.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is the change in climate, as you’ve described it from evidence in these reports, a concern for the economy?

Ms Evans: The need to be prepared for a climate that is different from what we have had in the past is certainly very important for our economy. Exactly what the impacts will be depends very much on the nature of our response to the changes that are coming, so it’s hard to quantify exactly what the impact could be. Certainly, both the response to the impacts of the change in the climate itself and the need for the economy to adapt to a world in which emissions are constrained compared to what they are today are both important impacts on the economy.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Extreme weather events are going to become or are becoming more frequent. Is that a fact?

Ms Evans: That’s correct.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Does that have an impact on the economy?

Ms Evans: Again, the impact on the economy of those events depends on how well-prepared we are for them and how we respond to them when they occur. The fact that those things are going to become more frequent doesn’t, in and of itself, mean that the costs will be higher, but we do need to have responded in the knowledge that they will become more frequent and be prepared to manage that in a different way than we have in the past.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Would one of those responses be reducing carbon pollution?

Ms Evans: At a global level, certainly the Australian government, like many others, has signed up to the Paris Agreement, which is a global agreement to make sure that we control emissions in such a way that we minimise or keep the temperature increase to well below two degrees and preferably to 1.5. In that global sense, acting to reduce emissions is certainly part of the solution to keeping the costs of the impacts on the economy at their lowest. Australia is an active participant in that process. We have a target, which is quite ambitious, to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, so we are playing our part in that global commitment to keep emissions lower.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Who defines those targets as ‘ambitious’?

Ms Evans: The government has described it that way.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What’s the scientific fact that makes them ‘ambitious’?

Ms Evans: If you look at what other countries have done and compare Australia’s target to it, we are certainly among the strongest targets in the OECD. Even if you look at the way that different international agencies report on Australia’s challenge—and I might even refer to the recent report by the IMF, and the government has never indicated that it would ever consider putting in a carbon price—the fact is that that report, in comparing Australia and our task to other countries and their tasks, suggests that the cost of the action that we are proposing appears to be higher than for other countries. That’s an independent assessment that says that our target is quite challenging. So we take that view that it’s an ambitious target from a range of places: by comparing it to other countries; by thinking about the nature of the changes that would need to occur in Australia to achieve that, and they are quite substantial; and by looking at what other reputable agencies say about our target when it’s announced.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: But what about what the science requires? Is it ambitious in relation to what the science requires?

Ms Evans: The science doesn’t specify a specific target for Australia. What the science says is that, if we are to have a good chance of holding temperatures to below two degrees, then at least developed countries need to be at net zero emissions by sometime in the second half of the century. Whether Australia’s current target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 is in line with that, I think we are potentially in line with that, especially since it’s part of a global solution; it’s a collective action problem.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yet if we’re using carryover targets, how does it make any of this ambitious?

Ms Evans: The fact that Australia has overachieved on targets that it has set in the past, and that’s always been a part of the international framework—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, but we did start this conversation with you saying that there have been a number of more recent reports that have said that the climate is changing even more than perhaps previously anticipated. How can using carryover targets fit with the claim that what Australia is proposing to do is ambitious?

Ms Evans: Using carryover fits because the intention always of the structure of the availability of carryover was to ensure that countries did not feel like they were being disadvantaged by overachieving on targets in the past. The whole mechanism of the Paris Agreement is that you ratchet up or you ratchet towards lower emissions over time. These targets for 2030 are the first set of targets that we will set under the Paris Agreement. There will be further targets set by Australia down the track. That’s what the intent of the agreement is. So carryover fits in that context, because we wouldn’t want any country to feel that they were being penalised for having overachieved any particular target as they consider setting the next one.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Is there any other country that has come out and said that Australia is more ambitious than others, as you’ve claimed today?

Ms Evans: As I’ve said, I don’t know if that language is used but, when they look at Australia and they calculate the cost of the abatement that might have to be taken here, we tend to come out in the higher cost categories and that says that our target is ambitious.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What do other countries think about the idea that Australia is being sneaky?

Ms Evans: I’m sorry; what’s your question?

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: The carryover target is to alleviate Australia actually doing much more at the moment, isn’t it?

Ms Evans: No. The government is committed to the 26 to 28 per cent target, as it always has been.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Has there been any concern raised with Australia about the use of the carryover target?

Ms Evans: I’d have to take that on notice or perhaps come back to it when I have my team here who are more deeply involved in the international discussions, but I’m not aware of it being raised formally with Australia at all.

UPDATE:
14-09-2020. No comments:
(source)

Pages