Things are stirring out in the bush

The National Party is being forced to address the zealots in its ranks who keep denying the bleeding obvious.

Not so long ago policy battles over climate change in Australia were a city thing: latte-sipping climate junkies versus old-school establishment types who thought they should just shut up.

Except for noisy politicians opposed to any climate action, regional Australia barely got a look-in. As a child of the bush who sips coffee (not latte though), I find that odd. Because it’s plain as day that the impact of climate change is most keenly felt and observed out in the country.

Over the past few weeks former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, former deputy Matt Canavan and others have been darkly warning their colleagues and anyone else who will listen that government commitment to a 2050 net-zero emissions target would kill Australia’s regional economy.

Deputy PM Michael McCormack doesn’t directly oppose PM Scott Morrison’s preferred 2050 net-zero target, but did say last week he won’t “sign up to anything that’s going to mean massive job losses in regional Australia, and food prices… that can’t be afforded by families.”

But there are signs emerging from the back blocks that what these self-styled champions of the bush keep repeating is out of step with the people they claim to represent. As bodies like the National Farmers Federation call for stronger policies, there’s a building unease in the regions about the climate. Once-private, scattered concerns are now publicly stated and widely shared.

2019 was a massive turning point. By midyear, an intense drought was really biting over vast stretches of eastern and southern Australia. Along with millions of trees and river fish, farms were dying. In towns forced to spend scarce financial resources on water cartage, residents began thinking the unthinkable: that they might have to pack up and leave.

As that arid year wore on, talk among firefighters, farmers and rural townsfolk about a rising bushfire threat drew little response from Scott Morrison, Michael McCormack and their senior colleagues. As fires erupted over spring the talk intensified. Then everyone’s nightmare came true.

All the catastrophe talk around Black Summer is true. The biggest fire event in world history burnt 186,000 square km – nearly three Tasmanias in area – of bush and farm and town, killing 34 people. It consumed incalculable numbers of wild animals and plants: an ecological disaster. It destroyed livelihoods, hitting the national economy to the tune of over $100 billion.

The fires traumatised whole towns and districts. Video of the flames, the smoke and the fire-induced weather shocked the world at the time, and remains a scary sight. Those of us who weren’t there can only imagine the personal trauma suffered by people confronted by the inferno and forced to live through its bleak aftermath.

Over that summer, inland Australia suffered weeks of 40C-plus maximum temperatures. When rain came, benefits were patchy. Science coined the name “flash drought” for the heat’s rapid, devastating impact on soils and plants. A year on in far-western NSW, centuries-old river trees and whole stretches of natural bush hardened to normal drought cycles are dying.

The Nationals’ current deputy leader, David Littleproud, is one of the smarter people in that party. Unlike some of his colleagues he has not written off supporting Morrison’s target preference. “We’re open to it,” he said last week. “I’ll be part of the solution… as we move forward.”

Littleproud supports the active involvement of the farm sector in increasing carbon take-up by soils, while preventing carbon loss and improving biodiversity through better farm practices. But the success of that, he said last week, depends on finding ways of quantifying the benefit.

That is most interesting. In 2014 the Coalition abolished a carbon price scheme that was already measurably cutting coal emissions, and applied its own “Direct Action” policy requiring public money to be spent on private land carbon projects. In 2015 then-environment minister Greg Hunt asserted that in its first year the scheme cut emissions by precisely 124 million tonnes.

Direct Action looked dodgy from the outset. Now, David Littleproud says we’re still figuring out how to measure such emissions. So we have it from the horse’s mouth that Hunt’s figures were a guess – exaggerated, it’s reasonable to assume, for extra polish.

For many precious years a belligerent minority in government, mainly Nationals, has peddled fantasies about an unchanging climate and coal’s essential role in the economy. Now that party has a choice: drop those zealots and their mindless fantasies and get to work on a future without coal and gas, or cop some nasty surprises from regional Australia at the next poll.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Unsettling questions about dam-building

New dams may appeal to politicians, but they don’t solve water shortages.

Sometimes the steady drip-drip of melting ice in a warming climate can turn into a catastrophe, as was evident in last week’s video of water, mud and rocks rushing down a Himalayan valley. Two Indian hydro-electric installations were badly damaged and many workers were killed.

Himalayan glaciers have been melting at a steadily rising rate for decades. Meltwater accumulating behind glacier fronts can at intervals break through and cause flash flooding.

Pressure to invest in renewable energy has made dam-building all the rage in the Himalayas. What India is doing in the upper reaches of the Ganges system, China is easily surpassing on Yarlung Zangbo, which flows east out of the Himalayas and across Tibet before crossing into India and becoming the Brahmaputra.

China’s vast “Three Gorges” hydro scheme, currently the world’s largest, will be dwarfed by five Yarlung Zangbo projects, culminating in a planned power station near the Indian border that alone will have three times the generating capacity of Three Gorges.

To put that into perspective, that single Yarlung Zangbo power station will have over 30 times the generating capacity of Tasmania’s entire hydro-electric system, comprising 34 power stations.

Not everyone is happy about Asia’s massive investment in new dams. Indigenous people of the high country see any disturbance to river flow as an insult to their gods, and rice-growers in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are upset over Chinese dams on the upper Mekong, which they say are disrupting the river’s flow downstream.

Australians know a lot about these sorts of disputes. For most of this century our only large river system, the Murray-Darling, has been afflicted by some big flood events and three major droughts, and a lot of squabbling over who owns the water and whether dams capture more than they should.

Last week the Productivity Commission released a draft water reform report which found that while some good things have been done since the signing of the National Water Initiative in 2004, “there is a compelling case for continued reform”. Based on what else the commission had to say about how we manage our water, that’s an understatement.

The commission wants better water accounting “to build trust and confidence in… system integrity”, higher priority for environmental management in response to a drier, more variable climate, more attention to urban water services including waste and stormwater, and stronger recognition of the water needs of Indigenous Australians.

The commission found the $3.5 billion National Water Infrastructure Development Fund had approved grants for major dam projects likely to incur net costs to the communities they were supposed to benefit. It criticised inadequate business cases using flawed assumptions, a lack of transparency in decision-making, and a failure to investigate non-infrastructure options.

Last week the ABC’s Fran Kelly asked federal water minister Keith Pitt about the commission’s assessment that water to be provided from a $484 million NSW dam, yet to be completed, could be bought at a vastly lower cost from local water entitlement holders. His response? “If you want more water resilience, you require more water infrastructure – it’s pretty fundamental.”

Kelly asked Pitt repeatedly about the commission’s finding that the federal government did not do enough to investigate lower-cost alternatives to expensive dams. Admitting that he had not read the report, he avoided the question while repeating his belief in the need for more dams and pipelines.

Much-used by a previous water minister, Barnaby Joyce, the commission called this a “just add water” approach, adding that the ready availability of Canberra money for dams risked biasing states towards infrastructure solutions and away from much cheaper ways to achieve water security.

The muddy patch when a dam runs dry is a quagmire. A quagmire is also what the states, including Tasmania, can land in when federal money for more dams is thrown at them with little or no call for due diligence before construction gets under way.

MPs and other interests continue to press for new dams for the same reason that certain sport or community projects suddenly become important ahead of elections. The power that government ministers have to direct millions into infrastructure projects to win votes, otherwise known as pork-barrelling, will not easily be given up.

As the Productivity Commission report implies, and contrary to what the Pitts and Joyces of this world say, new infrastructure is no catch-all solution. To the contrary, it’s a relatively minor element in sustainable land management. We need government to give a lot more thought to natural water flows, alternative land practices and climate trends. The best options are often the cheapest.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The stories that shape our lives

Our lives are being determined not by objective truth but by the stories we spin around it.

As a second wave of COVID-19 swept across the US late last year, hospital staff were confronted by patients who didn’t like them wearing masks, and by others who angrily protested, even to their last breath, that they could not possibly have the virus because it was fake news.

It’s hard to take this in. The nurses, aides and doctors in these incidents, themselves suffering from too little sleep and the trauma of caring for very ill patients in an overstretched hospital, had a right to think patients would at least be civil to them.

But that’s what happens when people who believe any regulation is a breach of their human rights have their prejudice reinforced by everything they see, hear and read. For them, traditional news sources have been supplanted by search and social platforms like Google and Facebook, whose often-useful algorithms can also draw users into some very narrow, very dark alleys indeed.

Those dark alleys led to the Congressional censure last week of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly-elected member who has repeated false slurs against political enemies, while promoting calls for House speaker Nancy Pelosi to be shot and claims that Joe Biden cheated to win the presidency.

Last week she sought to distance herself from some of the more hair-raising conspiracy theories doing the rounds under the QAnon banner. But she clearly likes going down those dark alleys – like many public figures, including Australian federal MP Craig Kelly.

Drawing on clinical evidence, Australian health specialists have concluded that drugs widely touted by non-scientific sources as effective treatments for COVID-19 are not just ineffective but probably unsafe. Though neither a doctor nor a medical scientist, Kelly has objected strongly to their findings. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Such blatant challenges to established historical and scientific knowledge by people with no specialist expertise would have been unimaginable to this cadet journalist in the 1960s. Back then, journalism was presented to me as something akin to science, where objective truth reigns supreme.

Like all conscientious journalists I worked hard to separate objective truth from my beliefs and prejudices. It’s why so many journalists were driven to despair by Donald Trump as he sought to make his fabricated universe the national norm.

Despite Trump’s best efforts, objective truth remains the main touchstone of modern journalism. But over many years I came to discover that in the free-for-all of humanity, it’s not the whole story.

The problem about understanding human life is that it requires us to investigate ourselves. Scientists have been able to reach objective truth – or something quite close to it – about a vast swathe of things from the composition of stars and the dynamics of climates and ecosystems to how atoms and viruses behave. But they have never quite nailed themselves.

For instance, centuries of scientific study have failed to reveal what the mind is, or consciousness. We know a lot about how our brains and nervous systems pass signals by means of electrical impulses, but science is all at sea over feelings like hope, love, anger, fear and pain. We know they exist, and science can tell us what caused them, but it cannot pinpoint what they actually are.

Science also struggles with our allegiance to religion, political ideology, nation, corporation, and law. We have invented all these, and more, as part of the process of organising ourselves. They are not real objects or phenomena, things that science can define and categorise for us. Yet these imagined things shape the stories that dominate our lives.

As a journalist, I can’t observe humanity objectively because I’m part of it. We all attach ourselves to one or other of those imagined things and their stories not because we’re in la-la land but because they help organise us and make sense of our place in the great scheme of things.

Kelly, Green, the protesting patients who survived the virus and the people who trashed the US Capitol a month ago all have their stories of things they blame for their states of mind, like the “dark state” and the do-gooders who support it. Saying they’re wrong, poking fun at them, even prosecuting them will not change their minds. Only time and changing circumstances can do that.

My own story goes like this: The Trump nightmare laid bare the fragility of liberal democracy, the lure of an artful narrative, and the power of immersive experience over objective truth. The road ahead will meander all over the place, and be very bumpy. But as always, it won’t be dull.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment