Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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We are in a dark place indeed

The refugee policies of successive governments have broken all the rules of decent behaviour [26 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

There’s little to dispute in the words of “Advance Australia Fair”, an unremarkable string of platitudes about our glorious country, until close to the end.

Unregistered Rohingya refugees in Thailand. PHOTO Jonathan Saruk

Unregistered Rohingya refugees in Thailand. PHOTO Jonathan Saruk

“For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share” is the ringing declaration written into the two-verse version which parliament approved in 1984.

Back then not one politician raised an eyebrow. I bet they would now.

When the UN Refugee Convention came into force in 1951, refugees were seen as people displaced by war between nations. The convention didn’t consider victims of nasty regimes, or boat people or people smugglers.

At that time Australia had a positive outlook on the world. We were a leading contributor to global debate about immigration and refugees. Within the next quarter-century we ended the White Australia Policy and accepted Vietnamese boat people as refugees.

Then for some reason we hardened our hearts, to the point where in 2001 we deemed people approaching in boats to be a security threat and elected a government on its promise to stop them.

Old jingoistic fears of foreigners have returned in a new form. Far from sharing boundless plains we’ve retreated into Fortress Australia. Instead of regarding our neighbours as equals in the family of nations, we use them as convenient repositories for people we don’t want.

Having got Nauru and Papua New Guinea to help us deal with boat people, we reinterpreted the law of the sea to allow us to waylay boats on the high seas and tow them to Indonesia. Now we’re refusing to help relieve the burden on three neighbours, including Indonesia, as they battle to deal with thousands of refugees from a little-known corner of Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Settlement of Muslim people in Myanmar’s western coastal state, Rakhine, goes back many centuries, into the dim unrecorded past. The Rohingyas, as they’re known, have lived there so long that they have their own distinct language.

In the 19th century, British overlords imported labourers from Bengal in India, giving rise to the belief among Buddhists that all Muslim people in Rakhine are recent arrivals. For over half a century Myanmar’s military rulers have taken advantage of this to deny Rohingyas citizenship.

Fearing they were becoming a minority, Buddhists in Rakhine attacked Muslims in 2012. Violence on both sides has left around 140,000 Rohingya people without homes.

The myth persists that the now-stateless Rohingyas are intruders. They have been forced into what can only be called concentration camps, restricted in their movement and having what little government support was available taken away.

One of those supports was healthcare. The international organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres stepped in to provide medical services but was expelled by the government early last year.

Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants on a fishing boat off the coast of Julok, Indonesia, last week. PHOTO Reuters

Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants on a fishing boat off the coast of Julok, Indonesia, last week. PHOTO Reuters

Seeking to escape from their virtual imprisonment, large numbers of Rohingyas have managed to move east across Myanmar to the Thai border. With passage into Thailand now blocked they are holed up in border camps no better than what they left behind.

The Rohingyas are coastal people. With the land avenue to the east closed it was natural for them to take to the sea. That’s how thousands of them ended up bobbing about on waters off Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, short of food and water and desperate to find a safe landing place.

Many died while those three countries took the Australian position and stopped them from landing. They relented only after the Philippine government offered to take in refugees. They allowed the boats in to shore so the Rohingyas’ immediate needs could be addressed.

As we have a “Pacific solution”, Myanmar has its “Bangladesh solution”. Continuing to peddle the line that Rohingyas are illegal migrant workers, the Myanmar government seeks to ensure that as many of them as possible are “repatriated” to Bangladesh.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop points to the need for Myanmar to understand it must treat Rohingyas properly. The prime minister supports her; “in the end, the culprit is Burma”, he said last week. They’re right, but who’s listening? Australia long ago gave up the high ground on refugee policy.

Callousness in Australian refugee policy is bipartisan. Under Julia Gillard, John Howard’s detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island were reopened after the High Court rejected the government’s “Malaysia solution”. Kevin Rudd’s contribution was to declare that Pacific detainees will never be settled in Australia.

We send children to these places and claim they’re no longer our responsibility. We turn back boat people while proclaiming to be doing it just for their own good, to stop them drowning, and we tell the Rohingyas that they’re not to use boats because that’s cheating, entering through the back door.

I agree with every politician who says “this is tough”. There never is, never was a simple solution to refugees. But we have to ask: beyond the astronomical dollar cost of turning back boats and processing offshore, what price are we prepared to pay to keep people out?

Jesus’ story about the good Samaratan told us that true goodness is blind to everything but essential humanity. Fear of the foreigner has trumped common decency. We’re in a dark place indeed.

Our love affair with burning stuff

Our governments’ addiction to fossil fuels won’t matter if the financial tap is turned off [19 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Fire and the fuels that feed it have been our bosom companions for as long as we’ve walked the earth. Maybe, after all those millennia sitting around the flickering flame, fire is part of our DNA.

Since its dizzying peak in mid-2008, the world coal price has declined by three-quarters, and is half what it was in April 2011.

The world coal price is now a quarter what it was at its dizzying peak in mid-2008, and much less than half its April 2011 price.

That may help explain why, knowing how carbon-based fuel emissions affect the climate and being fully aware of viable alternatives, we continue to burn coal, oil and gas at an increasing rate. And why we still clear and burn forests.

This last activity suddenly came back into the picture last week with a new proposal from the federal government that burning residue from forest operations should be defined as a source of renewable energy for the purpose of achieving Australia’s 2020 target.

The idea appeals to state MPs from both major parties, as if it’s the silver bullet to lift the industry out of its deep and abiding morass. But forest biomass energy has its own set of problems.

For a start, it’s neither renewable nor clean. Long-established biomass plants in the US have been shown to degrade forest carbon stocks and are frequent offenders against air pollution laws. Add to that handling and transport fuel costs to get the waste to generators and it’s looking very dubious.

Industry advocates hungry for ideas may be tempted, but if they set out down this road they face a lot of trouble and strife for very little return.

It’s a dumb idea, and its chief political proponents know it is. They don’t care about forest biomass energy; their main aim is an ineffectual renewable energy target. Here’s hoping they fail in that aim too.

What of fossil fuels? The companies that produce and burn coal, which remains the biggest single source of carbon pollution, back carbon capture and storage (CCS) to sort everything out. But we have little to see for billions of dollars invested in CCS, much of it coming from public sources.

The designers of 16 large-scale CCS projects operating or being constructed around the world today plan for them to store a total of 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year. That amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of current fossil fuel emissions.

CCS won’t fix the problem and we must stop pretending it will. Recognising this, the International Energy Agency advises that the only way to keep below a dangerous 2C of warming is to prevent most of the remaining coal, oil and gas from being burned.

If this were to happen, currently-undeveloped coal reserves such as Queensland’s vast Galilee Basin would have to stay untouched, and BP and others will have to be told they can’t exploit deep-water oil and gas deposits in the Great Australian Bight. Can you see that happening?

Fossil fuels are the life-blood of Australian governments, as they are of the corporations that mine them. They say they accept that burning fossil fuel destabilises the climate but they don’t dwell on it. Perhaps they figure they won’t be around when the climate has the final say.

There’s an alternative scenario. The coal, oil and gas industries discover that they can’t raise the huge amounts of money needed to develop new reserves. Their capital dries up as banks turn away. If they’re smart they cut their losses and get out; if not they collapse and die.

The University of Tasmania has one of Tasmania’s larger investment portfolios. A study by a group called Fossil Free UTAS has found that in the 10 months to the end of April 2015, the falling value of fossil fuel investments cost the university nearly $93,000.

The UTAS stocks reflect a global decline in fossil fuel investment. Coal stocks are now worth less than a quarter what they were in 2011. There’s reason to think the industry is close to an endgame.

So should universities divest from fossil fuels? Should banks support coal mining? These and other questions are being posed in “Raise the Heat”, a global campaign instigated by US-based

In Hobart on Thursday (6.30pm, Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay) a panel of representatives from, the University of Tasmania, the legal profession and the superannuation industry will debate the ethics of investing (or not) in fossil fuel.

At 12.15 pm on Friday there’s to be a public demonstration outside Commonwealth Bank offices near Elizabeth Mall, Hobart, where Hobart financial adviser Stuart Barry will speak about the power of consumers to change banks’ attitudes to coal and other fossil fuel investments.

• THE HOBART City Council invites community input for a survey (closing Monday) on the Nutgrove and Long Beach Coastal Adaptation Project, an initiative of the council and the state government.

Local government: voices from among us

With higher tiers of government falling victim to ideology and big business, we need to hear the voices of ordinary people. [12 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

It’s hard to ignore the solemn, deliberate voice of leading US climate scientist James Hansen talking about the “unthinkable” consequences of today’s emissions and what has to be done.

An ordinary person: Alderman Sue Hickey, Lord Mayor of Hobart  PHOTO Hobart Observer

An ordinary person: Alderman Sue Hickey, Lord Mayor of Hobart. PHOTO Hobart Observer

Last week Hansen told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National of his proposal for an “honest” price for fossil fuel: a fee for pollution payable at the source by responsible companies, with revenue to be distributed equally to all individuals regardless of standing or wealth.

Hansen is a physicist by training, but on economic policy he’s an ordinary layperson. Some might say he should stick to what he knows best, but I wonder if that’s relevant. The climate debate is no longer about specialist information, but about what ordinary people think.

Here in Australia, the unprecedented threat of climate change is proving beyond the imagination and brainpower of governments at both federal and state levels. The prevailing attitude in the political and business elite is to take the foetal position and avoid mentioning it.

Today’s MPs operate in a bubble. Their ability to serve the public interest has been seriously compromised by the rise of ideology and by well-heeled business lobbying that’s taken over their lines of communication, cutting them off from the rest of us.

Another tier of government – the local one – has two advantages over its state and federal masters: it’s not weighed down by party politics, and it’s closest to the lives of ordinary people.

Councils have always been on the front line of climate change impacts: heatwaves, wildfire, drought, storm, flooding and erosion.

The failure of higher tiers of government have exposed local government’s scant resources to complex financial and legal issues arising out of climate events. But with climate impacts already in train, it has no option but to get involved.

Tasmanian councils are well-attuned to the need to adapt to changing climate. Thanks to a multi-year southern councils project part-funded by the Hobart City Council, all councils now have access to a regional adaptation strategy, a comprehensive basis for their own local planning.

Some councils including Hobart, Kingborough and Clarence have staff dedicated to environmental issues, including planning for climate change and addressing climate-related issues as they arise. The question isn’t whether they should plan and act, but how.

Take the example of Hobart City Council. Having joined Cities for Climate Protection in 1999, it launched its “Greenhouse Local Action Plan” in 2001, seven years before Tasmania’s climate laws were enacted.

By 2006 the city administration had cut its own emissions by 75 per cent, including electricity generation from captured methane emissions at McRobie’s Gully landfill site. It’s since used heat-exchange technology to cut the Hobart Aquatic Centre’s heating bills by 65 per cent.

From 2007 to 2013 it gave rate rebates for solar hot water and energy-efficient homes, and worked with other councils, including Launceston, in helping householders improve their home insulation.

Currently pursuing a five-year low-energy LED street lighting plan, council officers are also looking at ways of saving transport energy, including charging stations for electric cars.

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Hobart’s new Lord Mayor, Alderman Sue Hickey, to explore her vision for the city’s future and her response to the city’s climate programs and policies.

Acknowledging that humans are influencing climate, Hickey emphasised that she considers herself an ordinary person. “I’m not a scientist, but I am a realist, and I know we have to do something.”

In preparing itself for future challenges, says Hickey, Hobart will be economically better off and a better place to live. She’s proud of the council’s achievements to date, but wants to open more doors to change and innovation in transport and recreation, building and planning.

On the day of our meeting the council voted to seek information from the major banks about energy projects in which its funds are invested and tell them it wants to ensure these meet ethical standards. That doesn’t yet amount to divestment from fossil fuels stocks, but it’s a good starting point.

Most of Hickey’s fellow-aldermen have expressed positions which would support strong climate action, all of which gives hope that this city may yet be a spark to fire up the public imagination.

Learning and expertise must now take a back seat. Climate change isn’t about other people but about us. We need authenticity that comes from among us, from ordinary people like Sue Hickey.