Bearing witness to humanity’s peril

A public reading of a key scientific report is an appropriate response to our government’s pointed rejection of climate science

“Bear witness to the most important issue of our age,” says a video promoting an exceptional public event starting at Adelaide’s Flinders University on Thursday.

The promo continues: “The clock is ticking. Experience 1.5 Degrees Live! A five-day reading of this fascinating and devastating climate report. Performers, activists, authors, members of the public and more will raise their voices and bear witness to the most important issue of our age. Join us as we confront our history and our future.”

The video is an invitation to 1.5 Degrees Live! – 34 hours of public readings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report about what our planet will be like to live on when we have warmed another half-degree, or 1.5C above the average temperature 200 years ago.

The idea is based on a fringe event at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, in turn inspired by earlier public readings of the landmark UK Chilcot Report on the Iraq war.

People familiar with the IPCC report may see this as an invitation to watch grass grow. Trained to explore all possibilities, the report’s many authors came up with over 600 pages of densely written text, full of caveats and qualifications, with long lists of references. It is definitely not a page-turner.

Like IPCC reports and human history, climate unfolds at a slow pace. It can include highly charged moments, but mostly its story is a slow progression through anything from centuries to millions of years. Research is complex, scientific advances are incremental, and findings are rarely clear-cut.

That’s the impression most people – people who haven’t been directly and radically impacted by climate change – have been taking away from the climate story. But that apparent slowness is an illusion.

Earth’s system is now being transformed at exceptional speed, like the rare asteroid strike 66 million years ago that virtually wiped out dinosaurs. Most climate transformations have in the past taken millennia to unfold; this one is happening before our eyes over just a few decades.

This is what is exercising the minds of climate scientists, now speaking out as never before. No-one who has listened to them, or read and absorbed what they are writing, can remain unaffected.

The IPCC’s 2018 report says that the heating of air and ocean caused by humanity’s carbon emissions is a ticking time-bomb which we must defuse. If we don’t rapidly and decisively cut emissions, large parts of our planet will become uninhabitable and civilisation will break down.

We have already warmed over 1C. Another half-degree of warming is definitely not “safe”, the report says, but it is relatively far safer than a rise of 2C or more. Our present trajectory takes us to nearly 4C of warming, which would be catastrophic.

The report is not all gloom and doom. It highlights benefits from transforming how we do business – especially the way we harness energy – including more jobs, more accessible energy, better health and transportation. But the scale of this is unprecedented, demanding full government backing.

With many other concerns closer to home, most people put all this out of their minds. But it’s they – “most people” – who vote and decide governments. They need to appreciate what 1.5 Degrees Live! seeks to convey: the anxiety felt by the world’s scientists about our perilous situation.

Bear in mind that in the 17 months since that report – 17 months less time to turn around the global energy colossus – Australia has had a federal election. Climate change was prominent, but other things captured the electorate’s attention and kept the government in power.

Since the IPCC report Australia has continued to support extraction, use and export of fossil fuels while taking no decisive steps against emissions. It has told the global climate summit that it has a technology-driven climate policy, promoting pumped hydro and hydrogen production as viable options. But it has published no detailed, practical, convincing business plan for either.

A COVID-19 pandemic will have a severe impact on the lives of people everywhere, but climate change affects every species on the planet. The Morrison government is accepting without demur scientific advice on the virus. Yet it remains unresponsive to scientific advice on climate.

The government is a leadership in denial. It treats the IPCC as some sort of ideological opponent while pointedly and persistently ignoring the desperate urgings of global science about our planet’s future.

Against that madness, a public reading of a critical IPCC report doesn’t seem so crazy after all. In fact, it’s a damn fine idea.

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The slippery slope to tyranny

Russia, China and North Korea have pretend parliaments. Is that where we’re headed?

Bill Maher is an old-fashioned, rough and tough kind of comedian, not above profanity if it suits the purpose. But he’s from New York, with Irish and Jewish parents, so what do you expect?

But he had a liberal-arts university education, and if that taught him anything it’s how a democracy ought to work. He learned about fair elections, about open, equitable and civil societies ruled by law, and why power should never be all in one place, or in one person.

He also has one of the sharpest political minds in America. Right now, as he’s been making clear on his HBO show Real Time, these democratic principles are in big trouble. Come to think of it, they’re not in such good shape on this side of the Pacific. Or this side of Bass Strait.

Maher has been focusing his keen satirical gaze on the Republican Senate’s idea of a fair impeachment trial (no witnesses) and Donald Trump’s triumphalism in the wake of his unsurprising acquittal.

Here’s Maher’s take on the Senate Republican majority: “Republicans have to admit they don’t just hate Democrats. They hate democracy… Stop saying Republicans don’t have principles. They do; they are deeply committed to all things undemocratic.”

On the Republican majority’s year-long refusal to endorse Barak Obama’s crucial Supreme Court nominee, abandoning the tradition of holding hearings promptly: “That’s the old America. A nation of laws. We’re living in the new America, with only one law: ‘Make me’.”

Audience laughter subsides when Maher describes a country sliding into authoritarian rule: “You don’t get a text alert. Things will look the same on the surface. The buses will still be running. The cops will still be patrolling. You’ll still get your hair done…

“Americans are always worried that when we lose our freedom it’ll look like the movie Red Dawn, with tanks in the streets. That’s not how a republic ends. We keep the names on the institutions; we just change what’s inside. We still have trials; we just don’t have witnesses. And you still subpoena people; they just don’t show up…

“When Rome stopped being a republic, it didn’t stop having a senate. And neither have we; it’s just more like student government now. Because that’s what dictators do. Russia has a pretend parliament. So does China. And North Korea.”

Maher believes that if Trump is defeated in November he will refuse to leave the White House. No fan of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, he wonders aloud that maybe the “angry mob” Sanders controls might be good, “because at least Sanders people will fight. They’ll fight Hillary [Clinton], but it’s a start.”

Democrats, says Maher, must follow the Republican lead: “Republicans always have dirty tricksters on their payroll… Well, we’re going to need some reptilian scumbags of our own – good Democrats who are willing to stand up and do the wrong thing.”

As a Democratic “reptilian scumbag” he suggests Michael Avenatti, a lawyer who after pursuing Trump on behalf of porn star Stormy Daniels was convicted for trying to extort millions of dollars from Nike, the sportsgear company. “But he’s in prison, so let me get the ball rolling.”

Maher wants the Democrats to use a few Republican tricks, like a video ad with edited footage of Trump stumbling over words, to get across the idea that he’s a “neurological mess”. Or by shouting “You lie” during State of the Union addresses, as a Republican member of Congress did to Obama in 2009.

Showing an actual “deep fake” ad making Obama seem to say something he didn’t, Maher scrapes the bottom of the barrel in offering a fake video pretending to be “lost” 2013 CCTV footage from a Moscow hotel room showing Trump with prostitutes doing kinky things.

All totally out of order, but it makes the telling point that any political gain from using lies and fakery entices others to follow, dragging everyone progressively lower into the dirt.

In Australia, Clive Palmer’s $80 million election campaign featured that kind of fakery, deep or otherwise. But dirty tricks were not confined to Palmer and many were successful, setting the worst kind of example for future campaigns.

As in the US, our own politics have become a battle for the low ground, as principles are cheapened, precedents flouted and public institutions diminished for party or personal gain.

Liberal democracy is under siege. It still exists in name. Rituals are still observed. We’ve heard no alarms and seen no troops. But as Maher says, when coups happen there are no text alerts.

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Zali Steggall’s bold move for a national climate Act

Despite a lack of interest in the major parties, the Steggall bill may yet get traction

Last week Zali Steggall, the skier turned barrister who ousted former PM Tony Abbott from his blue-ribbon seat of Warringah nine months ago, unveiled what’s been keeping her busy lately: her framework legislation on climate change.

Modelled on the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008, it seeks to emulate its predecessor’s success in drawing opposing parties together and creating a tamper-proof institution to determine the general direction of the country’s climate policies into the indefinite future.

The UK legislation was a joint achievement by Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s conservative opposition. There is no such cross-party effort happening here, so Steggall has stepped up, supported by some other independents including Tasmanian Andrew Wilkie.

Our sad history on climate change policy says this will be like climbing a mountain, but Steggall has climbed mountains before. Though born in Manly, where she has lived for many years, she spent most of her childhood with her family in the French Alps, where she learned to ski exceptionally well.

It was a privileged upbringing, but that’s not the whole story. In 1999 she was world’s best in the slalom, a sport virtually unknown in her own country, and she remains the only Australian to win any world title in alpine skiing. Talent and luck no doubt played a part, but so did grit and effort.

Another thing she learned from skiing was a deep love of the alpine environment and an awareness of the rhythms of weather and climate. It was a given that her campaign would focus on climate change and Abbott’s well-known denial of its human cause.

Steggall won Warringah, held by the Liberal party and its predecessors since it was created nearly a century ago, with more first-preference votes than Abbott himself. Her final winning margin was over 14 per cent, a fact not lost on other inner-city Liberal MPs like Trent Zimmerman.

Nine months into her term Steggall has managed to draft framework climate legislation mandating processes for targets, actions and reporting, including binding legal commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement and to a 2050 target of net zero emissions.

The bill’s centrepiece is an independent Climate Change Commission, whose role Steggall described as “to assess risks, advise Parliament and monitor climate change actions and impacts.” Like the UK committee on which it is modelled, it would be at arm’s length from government.

Scientific, economic and administrative expertise would be well represented in the commission, which would be tasked with reviewing climate changes including water availability, plant cover and air quality, and assessing risks each year, taking in international climate and trade policies.

The proposed legislation would lay down principles for Australia’s international engagement on climate. It would provide for five-year emissions budgets and plans to be set in advance, with safeguards to ensure the pathway to the long-term target is both achievable and equitable.

It would also require government to set five-year national and regional adaptation plans, taking in nominated sectors such as agriculture, biodiversity, health, energy, transport, education, planning and infrastructure.

“A large and growing majority of Australians”, says Steggall, expect their government to abandon “fear mongering and misinformation” and plan for Australia to become a low carbon economy drawing on “our enormous natural, human and financial wealth.”

Some inner-metropolitan Liberals like Zimmerman are wondering aloud whether they should agree, but the broad Coalition view, expressed by Nationals leader Michael McCormack on Sunday, is that coal jobs and export income are more important than the science telling us that global emissions must fall to net zero by 2050, preferably much earlier.

Since 2010, when Abbott began the campaign that ultimately trashed Julia Gillard’s national carbon price scheme, the Coalition has failed to grasp that cutting emissions is like stopping the spread of the COVID-19 virus: a real imperative that business-as-usual cannot deal with. Now another woman is trying to get a bunch of clueless blokes to lift their gaze and see what we’re facing.

Steggall’s draft bill has a long way to go. The Morrison government is not going to offer help to the woman who replaced its former leader, even just to get a debate, and Labor is not currently inclined to help. So that would seem to be that.

But nothing is ever certain in these unusual times. This summer’s fire and flood experiences, and some missteps by the Morrison government, have disturbed people’s comfort zone and shifted the mood in the electorate. If that mood persists, the unlikely might become possible. You never know.

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