Why we need to know

An educated, informed electorate is an essential bulwark of democracy.

Would I lie to you? The real Donald Trump on the campaign trail. PHOTO NBC News

Would I lie to you? The real Donald Trump on the campaign trail. PHOTO NBC News

People want things to be simpler, said voters in three big electoral events last year – Malcolm Turnbull’s narrow squeak, the Brexit plebiscite and the US presidential election.

Complexity almost defines modern life, and it can drive you batty. Any promise to sweep it all away seems very welcome. That’s how Pauline Hanson returned to parliament, how Britain found itself out of Europe, and how Donald Trump became the most powerful person in the world.

Simple slogans got these causes over the line. But reality isn’t simple. Voters must understand that complexity if they want good outcomes.

Of all the many possible reasons for choosing a government – creating jobs, keeping us safe, balancing a budget, caring for the vulnerable and so on – one reason stands way out on its own: education. In its impact on our lives and its value for the country, nothing else comes close.

I’ve been lucky. My parents weren’t wealthy, but I enjoyed well-funded, high-quality state schooling – the product of generations of struggle for universal secular education. For that I’m eternally grateful, because education is a lifelong pursuit with boundless reward.

Learning makes you happy. You see that in the faces of schoolchildren in parts of the world where schools may be just a teacher and where schooling can be hazardous. I saw and felt that pleasure during a stint as a volunteer tutor for adult learners, including refugees.

A good education teaches you about change over long periods of time – things that have evolved over hundreds, thousands or millions of years. You learn the value of slowly evolving institutions and procedures, like parliaments, courts, the rule of law, due process.

Through history I discovered the wisdom of ancient sages, and how modern science’s method of formulating and testing questions has expanded that early knowledge thousands of times over.

You discover through learning that however much you know, there’s infinitely more out there that you don’t know. You learn that like all life on this planet, human society is complex. But woven through it all are patterns, which we can use to manage that complexity.

Finding patterns and pathways in the maze of human affairs is hard. People in charge need to be smart enough to do that, and to know that solving social and political problems is never neat and simple. As any effective education will tell you.

Good government also needs effective news media. As a cadet journalist I was taught that my profession was as important as medicine and the law because it was people’s main means of separating fact from fiction in daily public life.

Good journalism must get to the truth of the matter, and that demands skill, experience, restraint and education. And objectivity. Like a court, a good journalist doesn’t rely on hearsay or gossip – the reason why online social media cannot be a complete news service.

“Elite” is a word with a lot of currency. “Political elites” of politicians and staffers cut off from the outside world are a genuine concern. The catchcry of the Brexit, Hanson and Trump campaigns – that a “cultural elite” of educated people is destroying the lives of ordinary people – is not.

While doing nothing for inequality, this cynical ploy ensures the public is denied the truth, and without truth democracy will fail. That’s why I find the rise of the first “post-truth” US president, for whom complex reality is a nuisance to be ignored or brushed aside, such a scary proposition.

• INFORMING us about climate is the focus of two events at IMAS (Princes Wharf, Hobart) this week: a lecture by Eelco Rohling, ANU professor of ocean and climate change, at 6 pm tonight; and an interpretation of dangerous climate change by musician Simon Kerr and Melbourne University law professor Christine Parker on Thursday at 1pm.

Kerr’s and Parker’s Music for a Warming World will travel to Clarence Uniting Church (York St, Bellerive, 7.30pm Friday), Brookfield Margate (1640 Channel Highway, Margate, 7.30pm Saturday), and Moonah Arts Centre (23 Albert Road, Moonah, 3 pm Sunday).

Posted in Australian politics, climate politics, contrarians, education, international politics, leadership, psychology, public opinion, social and personal issues, social mindsets | Leave a comment

The politics of ignorance

The party-political games being played over energy policy are beyond a joke.

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in parliament. PHOTO AAP

“Don’t be afraid” was the taunt of the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as he waved his piece of coal in federal parliament. PHOTO AAP

The only real story in Cory Bernardi’s inevitable divorce from the Liberals was the timing of his departure, just seven months after Liberal voters gave him a six-year senate term.

Ten weeks into that term Bernardi flew to New York, to represent our parliament at the United Nations for three months, along with Tasmanian Labor senator Lisa Singh. They were meant to get first-hand experience of UN operations, but Bernardi’s blog posts show that his real focus in New York was the election of Donald Trump, which he saw as vindication of his battle against “the advancing tide of the tyrannical progressive agenda”.

One of the things that Bernardi finds most attractive in Trump is an aversion to environmentalism and the science of climate change, which they both see as part of the “green agenda”. For both, fossil energy is king and renewables are the enemy.

So Trump’s win was Bernardi’s trigger to cut and run. But to hear his former party colleagues in parliament last week, from the PM down, doing such a splendid job of undermining renewable energy investment in Australia, you have to wonder why he felt so compelled to leave.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are now delivering “alternative facts”, repeated so often they become part of the furniture. Genuine information about the world – truth untainted by ideology, personal advancement or financial gain – is getting harder to identify.

The ideologies of Bernardi and others of his kind still inside the Coalition tent have have profoundly affected the thinking and behaviour of the Turnbull government. Nowhere is this more evident than in what passes for its climate and energy policy, which has now descended into farce.

Summer’s worst heatwave didn’t stop government MPs, in their air-conditioned bubble, last week shouting down any mention of the purpose of a strong renewable energy target – helping to cut emissions and limit global warming – while blaming renewables for power cuts and rising prices.

There was no debate of serious questions, like errors by the market operator, suppliers bidding up prices or the extreme heat that led to the South Australian blackouts. This was a fact-free zone, peppered with personal insults and cheap theatre with the obligatory prop, a piece of coal.

Such behaviour is commonplace in our parliament, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. When matters of immense, immediate public importance are treated in this way, it’s hard not to conclude that some in the parliament have an interest in maintaining public ignorance.

Politicians’ attitudes to climate change are doubtless shaped by the culture of the party room and discussions with colleagues, and it’s not always easy to separate manipulator from manipulated. Some people can come to believe myths that they themselves have helped to create.

But climate-energy policy here and elsewhere has been degraded by a determined push to keep the status quo, driven by commercial interests facing disruption, by conservative ideologues like Bernardi, or by Trump-style populists. None has any interest in the free flow of information.

Malcolm Turnbull’s own behaviour during this debacle has left his credibility in tatters. Having once stood for rational climate policy, he has now taken on Bernardi’s robotic denunciation of the only policy position that can bring some stability to the energy market – carbon pricing.

Whether they’re in public or private hands, electricity generators and networks need investment, and investment needs the long-term steadying impact of a carbon price. It isn’t just me saying this; it’s also engineers, economists, energy regulators and the companies themselves.

The network load of the past week will happen again, continuing to reveal deep flaws in the structure and operation of the national energy market. Fixing them will require sound, bipartisan political decisions at a national level, far removed from the mindless brawling we saw last week.

Above all, a functioning democracy requires an informed public, which has to be able to separate wheat from chaff – real, solid information from misinformation and spin, masquerading as fact. That’s a problem for the ages.

Posted in Australian politics, bureaucracy, business interests, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coal-fired, contrarians, disruption, economic activity, economic restructuring, energy, extreme events, gas-fired, international politics, investment, leadership, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning the lessons of Black Tuesday

We have learned a great deal since February 1967, but that doesn’t include how to curb our damaging carbon emissions.

Dr Jim Marwood took this photograph of the remains of Fern Tree Hotel on the afternoon of 7 February 1967.

Dr Jim Marwood took this photograph of the remains of Fern Tree Hotel on the afternoon of 7 February 1967.

This has been as near to perfect a Tasmanian summer as I can imagine. Rain when you need it but not too much, and just enough sun and wind. Not hot enough for some, but hot enough for me.

That wasn’t the case in early 1967. After a good spring, the rain stopped altogether and the heat came down from mainland Australia. I wasn’t bothered because I was young. But then, exactly 50 years ago today, the wind came, and we lost our youth.

The fires that devastated southern Tasmania that day are seared into the memories of all who experienced them. For some the memories were traumatic, and for some they remain so.

Over summer I’ve been privileged to be part of a group putting together an exhibit about the Fern Tree community’s 1967 fire experience, in the course of which people who were on the mountain that day recounted their stories of terror and courage and blind luck, good and bad.

Dominating the Fern Tree story is the experience of fire refugees who, early in the afternoon of Black Tuesday, gathered at the community’s only open space, in front of the Fern Tree Hotel, a large two-storey timber structure that had stood for 65 years.

As fire closed in on all sides and smoke turned day into night, some 200 people prepared to die. They all survived because a wind change allowed rescue trucks to carry them away from the burning hotel in a terrifying, unforgettable journey through burning bush to Hobart.

Working in the Mercury’s Macquarie Street building that afternoon, I had no such experience. It was only in stages, over that evening and the days following, that I realised the scale of devastation, including the death of my father’s sister as her Derwent Valley farmhouse burned around her.

We have since found out much more. Roger Wettenhall’s 1975 book, Bushfire Disaster, revealed losses worth $40 million (nearly $1 billion today), including over 1300 homes. Most shocking, there were many deaths; recent studies have brought the number killed to 64.

An important trigger for this disaster was over 100 fires burning that morning in southern Tasmania, including in the hills behind Hobart – far beyond the capacity of the available 200-odd men and 20 vehicles to extinguish even in still conditions.

Add to that the state of nature. Dry bush was made all the more flammable by a hot northerly airstream caused by a stationary high-pressure system over the Tasman Sea. That was predicted the previous day by the Bureau of Meteorology, which warned of “high to extreme” fire danger.

The map issued by the Hobart Weather Bureau the day before the 1967 fires showed barely a hint of the devastating weather to come.

The map issued by the Hobart Weather Bureau the day before the 1967 fires showed barely a hint of the devastating weather to come.

But the official forecast overlooked the potential impact of a low-pressure system forming on a front to the south-west. That brought much stronger winds than forecast and much hotter conditions – a Hobart maximum of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39C), well above the forecast 88F (31C).

To this day, Tasmania’s highly-variable weather remains hard to predict. Just last Monday, BOM’s forecast included high winds and high fire danger caused by an approaching cold front. Winds and temperature that day turned out to be moderate, accompanied by a little rain.

But whereas the forecast for Black Tuesday 1967 missed some danger signs, last Monday’s did not. BOM is well aware that if a fire weather forecast is in error, better that it be on the side of caution.

In 1967 computers and satellites were just beginning to be used as forecasting tools, and forecasts for Tasmania had to make do with just 20-odd observations across the entire Southern Ocean. Today they draw on thousands of automated observations over land and sea.

The result is that forecasting accuracy has increased many times – very high for one or two days ahead with a reasonable chance of getting it right a week ahead. That alone gives today’s fire and emergency services a distinct edge over their 1967 predecessors.

Fire-fighting capacity state-wide has increased tenfold, from 500 men using about 45 appliances and 23 separate, very flaky command and control systems to over 5000 fire-fighters (male and female) using over 450 appliances and a single, far more reliable control platform.

This is comforting, but Victoria’s 2009 disaster and Dunalley’s experience four years ago show the futility of imagining we can control nature. Climate change is bringing longer summers, hotter days and wilder winds. Devastating bushfire will figure in our future as well as our past.

Fire services understand that, because they see it happening year on year. They are now more prepared than they’ve ever been to fight it, but without a concerted local, national and global effort to curb greenhouse emissions, the battle will be a losing one.

Fern Tree Under Fire, a display about Black Tuesday on Mt Wellington (Fern Tree Community Centre, 8 Stephenson Place) has its final day today, opening from 10 am to 6 pm. Entry is free.

Posted in carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate system, community action, education, forest science, fossil fuels, human behaviour, social and personal issues, Tasmanian politics, trees, wildfire | Leave a comment