Politicians on the treadmill, going nowhere

Our leaders have abandoned the arts of listening and reflecting.

Our political leaders can talk, but can they really listen? PHOTO ABC

Our political leaders can talk, but can they really listen? PHOTO ABC

Political life is nothing if not a buzz – all the hoopla of the campaign followed by a life of meetings, speeches, interviews, openings, launches, rallies, more meetings, more speeches. Busy busy busy.

As an advocate for climate action I’ve tried to engage with many politicians of all persuasions. I’ve found them all smart people and conversations have invariably been interesting and cordial. All have agreed that climate change is a problem that must be addressed.

But nearly all discussions left me with the uneasy sense that this was just one of a long line of events in that political day, destined to be put aside when the next event came along.

Looking back at the hundreds of climate-related gatherings I’ve attended I can recall just one politician from either of the two major parties spending time in the audience. That’s aside from the odd minister who opened a conference then departed soon after speaking.

In the cauldron of electoral and party politics, politicians seem to have lost the habit of reflection. The long list of missteps in climate policy over the past few years, I’m convinced, are a product of a dangerous resistance among government ministers to objective, expert information.

Take prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s and environment minister Josh Frydenberg’s crazy arguments that our coal has a long-term economic future, is good for India, and can be shipped in huge quantities through the Great Barrier Reef without posing any threat to the reef’s future.

Or the assertion of multiple Turnbull government ministers that South Australia’s power blackouts were mainly due to that state’s wind and solar power, contrary to the advice of chief scientist Alan Finkel – Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment – and the National Energy Market Operator.

Or the PM’s January decision, against the overwhelming weight of advice from Australian economists, to rule out the most cost-effective tool for reining in emissions, a price on carbon.

Or the Turnbull government’s repeated claim that we’re meeting targets when its own data show national carbon emissions have climbed by an average of 3.75 per cent a year since the carbon tax was abolished.

Here in Tasmania, environment minister Matthew Groom glossed over a 20 per cent rise in the state’s energy emissions since 1990 when he asserted that Tasmanian per capita carbon emissions were “amongst the lowest of any reporting jurisdiction in the developed world”.

We know how both Groom and the PM justified those last two claims, by invoking 20-year-old land-use accounting protocols which nailed a last-minute agreement at the Kyoto climate meeting – protocols whose main use today is to hide the impact of fossil-fuel emissions.

There’s a huge weight of evidence, including from government sources, that all of the above ministerial statements are not just wrong, but dangerously so because of the way they continue to undermine effective counter-action. Party politics explains a lot of this, but not all.

I believe that government MPs are essentially decent people. I don’t believe they would have countenanced such statements if they had fully grasped the huge present and future impact of fossil-fuel emissions on global climate and the potentially crippling cost of turning this around.

Terrorism, rogue states and bank failure are said to be our biggest military and economic security threats, but the US military high command and Australia’s finance industry regulator (APRA) both say the pre-eminent security threat is climate change. End of story.

Governments’ primary role is to keep citizens safe. With each day that passes, far from keeping us safe from climate change, the federal and state governments are making us less so. The primary culprit is politicians’ individual and collective ignorance of what’s now happening to the climate.

It’s incumbent on us all to understand what is safe and what isn’t and behave accordingly.  An ordinary citizen who puts others in danger can’t offer ignorance as an excuse in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, we should be demanding no less of our leaders.

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A musical pathway to a better future

Science has all but closed the door on preventing damaging warming. Could creative arts help prise it open it again?

The Simon Kerr perspective

The Simon Kerr perspective

The lows and highs, pain and pleasure of fighting the climate fight came to the fore last week when some exceptional people visited Hobart.

For nearly 30 years Dutch-born Eelco Rohling, professor of ocean and climate change at the Australian National University and the University of Southampton (UK), has studied how the world’s ocean has changed over millions of years.

Every second that passes, Rohling told a Hobart audience last week, Earth’s ocean waters are now taking up heat energy from the air equivalent to that produced by four to five Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb blasts, or hundreds of thousands of these bomb blasts every day.

That much ocean heat will have a lasting impact, accelerating overall warming and helping to increase the melt rate of land ice in Greenland and Antarctica. There’s nothing we can now do, says Rohling, to stop the ocean rising by about a metre by the end of this century.

The world has already overshot targets for containing warming to a safe long-term level. Present carbon dioxide concentrations of over 400 parts per million already far exceed anything our species has ever experienced. Yet we continue to pour extra carbon into the air.

Previous warming episodes in the past few million years indicate that in coming centuries the sea will rise at an accelerating rate, displacing millions of people as coastal cities are submerged, says Rohling. That is, unless we decisively cut atmospheric carbon dioxide – a very unlikely prospect.

I’ve been avoiding disaster rhetoric because it seems unhelpful. The entire campaign for a stronger response to the climate challenge is based on the premise that success is possible. If Rohling didn’t shut the door on that aspiration, he came damn close.

At times like this we need something to lift the spirits. Enter Simon Kerr.

Humans are complex. Kerr, a Melbourne-based musician and academic, would point out that we have many different ways of dealing with difficulty, including the enjoyment of others’ company and creative endeavours.

Kerr’s Music for a Warming World is an eclectic mix of music, science and some inspired thinking around the human condition. His collaborator is Melbourne University law professor Christine Parker.

In a five-venue, four-day tour through southern Tasmania, Kerr, violinist Kylie Morrigan and keyboardist Scott Lewis explored the connotations of climate change through voice, guitar, violin, keyboard and some stunning still and moving images.

Over 80 minutes, the show explores the science of climate change via a “storm” metaphor, the losses that will inevitably result, how we can fight back through changing ourselves and our society, and how we can still thrive through these challenging times.

There are many great moments and valuable messages throughout the show, but for me its most powerful contribution is its final section, on getting through hard times by using our imagination, living simply, and finding support and inspiration in our own communities.

John Hunter, whose efforts brought Rohling and Kerr’s ensemble to Hobart, is a semi-retired climate scientist. He said when first introducing the group that he was well out of his comfort zone, but was the first to admit he’d enjoyed himself when the concert was done.

That’s the point. The immersive audio-visual experience of Music for a Warming World takes you beyond hard facts to a place where you see things differently.

As Kerr pointed out, the runaway success of solar and the collapse of long-term investment in coal are showing that government indifference is not the end of the story. The potential remains for economic forces to drive massive, dramatic change.

Kerr and his group also opened a door to another, inner, subjective realm of human experience, in which things not believed humanly possible can suddenly become so.

We won’t begin to mitigate climate change without the benefits flowing from families, friends, communities and the products of their imagination. May Simon Kerr survive and thrive, to continue to help build the resilience and vision that we need to get through this unholy mess.

Posted in adaptation, Adaptation, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate system, coal-fired, community action, disruption, divestment, education, fossil fuels, future climate, psychology, public opinion, renewable energy, science, sea level, social and personal issues, social mindsets, solar, temperature, wind | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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