Africa and Asia: signs of things to come

Australia is not an island, entire of itself…

Dabaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, the world’s largest and home to 350,000 Somali refugees. PHOTO Foreign Policy magazine

The World Meteorological Organisation’s annual “State of the global climate” is no longer just about signs of what is to come. Its 2018 report, released last week, describes climate change as it is now unfolding. It is not a pretty sight; if you’re after an easy read you’d better stop here.

Climate change is starting to bite among communities around the world, and in these early stages, as has long been anticipated, it is the poorest and most marginalised which are most affected.

Many people living in tropical and other hot regions are discovering that heat alone can be deadly. Last December experts from six continents reported strong trends toward greater frequency, intensity and duration of heat events, with wide-ranging health impacts.

This is not trivial. Being warm-blooded mammals, humans need to be able to throw off heat. Very hot days and high night-time temperatures make that difficult or impossible without air conditioning. In those conditions people become heat-stressed and die in large numbers.

Exposure to heat, said the WMO report, is potentially a huge health impact of climate change, with extreme exposures leading to “a cascade of illnesses including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke and hyperthermia”.

People most at risk are those undertaking physical activity outside and those with existing health issues. Multiple heatwaves create cumulative stress on the human body that exacerbate major causes of death, including respiratory, cardiovascular and kidney diseases and diabetes.

The WMO cited figures showing longer heatwaves this century afflicting about 125 million more people compared to a similar period from 1986. In 2015 alone, 175 million people were exposed to 627 heatwaves, including 65,000 residents of Karachi hospitalised with heat stress.

A bad situation is made worse when electricity supply is disrupted due to system overload, a situation familiar to tens of thousands of Australians last summer.

Food security is another major concern of the WMO report, which identified hunger resulting from wet-dry extremes as a rising global threat to human health, economic well-being and political stability.

Climate change threatened to reverse gains made during decades of steady progress in alleviating hunger, the report said. It cited new evidence that world hunger was now rising, with undernourished people now numbering over 820 million.

The biggest impact of climate change is being felt in Africa, where food insecurity and malnutrition is afflicting 59 million people in 24 countries. Most vulnerable are dryland farming and pastoral communities comprising 80 per cent of the continent’s rural population.

The report said that 40 countries globally, 31 of them in Africa, continue to need external food aid, a result of climate-induced production declines as well as persistent conflict. Cereal harvests declined in 2018 in western and northern Asia, South America and the Caribbean in 2018.

The number of people affected by food insecurity increased to 1.3 million in southern Africa and Madagascar in 2018, associated with dry spells and tropical cyclones that cut cereal production. In Somalia, about 2.7 million people needed emergency food aid.

In our own region, Typhoon Manghkut in mid-September resulted in crop and fishery losses that worsened food insecurity and malnutrition across the Philippines.

People on the move create an additional burden on food resources. In just the first eight months of 2018, the report said, over two million people globally were displaced by weather and climate disasters, notably drought, floods and storms.

Displacement resulting from conflict in Somalia and Myanmar was exacerbated in both cases by climate-related events, notably flooding and drought. Myanmar refugees were afflicted by extreme flooding in Bangladesh, forcing 200,000 to flee the camps supposed to give them sanctuary.

In Somalia, both sudden and slow-onset weather events during the year combined with conflict to displace 883,000 people, leaving at the year’s end a total of over a million displaced citizens.

The WMO report highlights how climate events and conflict feed off each other, making a bad situation much worse. The miserable experience of these countries today is a guide to what unmitigated climate change can do, and Australia should take note.

Our government claims success against emissions targets using Kyoto land-carbon credits, long abandoned by almost every other country, to disguise steadily rising industry and transport emissions and to lull Australians into a false sense of security.

Our country’s wealth shields us from the climate impacts being felt in poorer places, but that too is false security. We should not forget that we are the driest of inhabited continents and one of the countries identified as being most at risk from climate change.

Global warming means what it says. Australia is not a world on its own. People’s experiences today in Africa and Asia could one day be ours too. We need to start pulling our weight as global citizens.

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The crime of the century

Failing to act on carbon emissions is criminal negligence.

Brian Preston, chief justice of the NSW Land and Environment Court, found an unacceptable climate risk in opening a new coal mine in northern NSW.

Is it a crime to turn away when called on to stop damage being done to our planet’s life-support system? This question is now stirring in the public arena, and it will resonate for years to come.

When Rob White, the University of Tasmania’s professor of criminology, declared in the Hobart Mercury early this month that failure to act to stop climate change “can only be described as criminal”, he got a sharp rebuke from a Clarence alderman.

Responding in a letter to the editor, Dean Ewington asked: “If I reject placing a ban on plastic straws or other ill-considered policy stunt, are you proposing that I should be locked up?”

He went on to decry “this absurd call to criminalise thought or decisions you don’t like” which must be called out, “no matter how morally superior these people tell us they are.”

It’s a fair bet I would be seen as one of those “morally superior” people. Here’s my response.

Far from being morally superior, I know I’m a mere mortal, warts and all, just like our leaders. In their position I honestly don’t know how I would perform. But I’m not in the hot seat. They are.

At this advanced stage of the debate about climate change, it makes no sense for a non-scientist to question the finding of the world scientific community that climate change induced by human activity is happening now and poses the greatest imaginable risk to life on Earth.

There are alternative views, some dressed up as science, but none stacks up against the evidence. Private citizens are free to seek out such views and express them, but denial is not an option for governments or corporations, which are duty-bound to act on evidence.

Top-level scientific advice about the evidence around climate change is available in both Canberra and Hobart. Both federal and Tasmanian cabinets can get a face-to-face scientific briefing, if necessary within hours, from some of the best in the business. They just have to ask.

When that happens, they’ll hear that man-made climate change is well advanced and that we need deep emission cuts, quickly. They’ll be told that failure to do this increases the risk of future mayhem and misery, and that continuing failure will make that worse.

All governments are averse to bad news, and in democracies like ours they find it challenging to look ahead further than the next election. So climate change continues to be left unattended, a ticking time bomb set to go off in stages, each more devastating than the last.

As recent Royal Commissions have shown, ignoring or failing to act on damning evidence can amount to criminal negligence. The bigger the consequences the bigger the crime, and you don’t get bigger consequences than climate change.

The law as it presently exists is already seeing some movement on this, especially against business interests driving carbon pollution.

Last month the chief justice of the NSW land and environment court, Brian Preston, upheld a decision that a massive new coal mine near the farming centre of Gloucester, on the state’s north coast, should not go ahead because its contribution to global carbon emissions was unacceptable.

A week ago Rudolph Contreras, a US district court judge, halted gas projects on western public lands because in approving drilling applications the country’s Bureau of Land Management failed to establish their potential impact on the climate.

These are sanctions against future action; another movement is seeking redress for damage already inflicted. The plaintiff in Juliana v. the United States alleges that in failing to take climate action the US government has wrongly shifted the cost burden onto today’s children.

So where to from here? We’ve been on the tortuous climate road long enough to distinguish negligence and deception from genuine scepticism and honest error. Now it’s time to spell out the bad behaviours so that everyone understands what is and is not acceptable.

The ultimate aim has to be wide-ranging domestic and international laws against ecocide, “the systematic destruction and degradation of environments at the planetary level”, as White defines it. If that needs the support of politicians who have dragged their feet, it will be a tough battle.

But it’s a battle we need to have. Leaders continue to refuse to address the urgent need to free ourselves from fossil fuels, even after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in November that we have just a decade or so to cut global emissions in half.

We need all our so-called leaders to start heeding now-dire climate warnings. That means everyone in positions of public trust, including all company CEOs and board members and all participants in all levels of government – local, state and national.

Some of us may want to see leaders behind bars, but the real aim of criminal sanctions is changing behaviour, not punishing after the event. With time fast running out, I can think of no better incentive for a leader to switch tack than the need to avoid arrest.

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Youth speaks – and we would be wise to listen

It is utterly futile railing against kids wagging school. They have the moral high ground.

Hobart’s school students marched in their thousands for climate action. PHOTO Mercury

We live in remarkable times. Last Friday young Australians joined 1.3 million schoolchildren in 1769 cities around the world to announce a big fat failure for their elders.

In Australia an estimated 150,000 students, including tens of thousands in each of the bigger state capitals, abandoned their classrooms and took to the streets in an unprecedented show of defiance and anger over multiple governments’ indifference to the climate crisis.

In Hobart and Launceston the young came out in their thousands – according to organisers between 6000 and 8000 in Hobart alone – to vent their frustration.

There were no mass-produced placards as you tend to see at adult demonstrations. Theirs were crafted by hand, illustrated with burning Earths, rising seas and frightened wildlife. Straight from the heart, they expressed the anguish and anxiety being felt by children today.

There were adults sprinkled through the Hobart audience on the lawns of Parliament House – parents and teachers among them – but numbers were overwhelmingly in favour of young people, who organised and led the event.

A poet’s song and mime gave life to her words, speakers expressed passion and conviction, and musical offerings included a primary school band performing its own composition on the world’s parlous state. I have seen many public demonstrations over the years; this was as good as it gets.

Australian children have had a big part in this global movement. Last November they turned a Swedish schoolgirl’s solitary protest into a mass movement by taking to capital city streets in a “School Strike 4 Climate”. Now it is huge, and will only get bigger.

I was a dutiful school student and looked askance at odd fringe individuals who wagged classes (while secretly admiring them for their defiance). But their successors are in another league altogether. Their defiance is entirely justified, and elders’ complaints utterly pointless.

Daisy Cousens seems to have a reputation on Twitter as a defender of the good old days. Last week she started a conversation with the question, “Will some responsible parent/teacher PLEASE step in and punish these children for wagging school??”

If she had wanted attention, she got it. Hundreds of responses argued that education and school are not synonymous, and that informed protest is a valuable learning experience.

November’s demonstrations were hard to take for Scott Morrison, who called for more learning and less activism in schools. The PM might have learned something from the rubbishing he got over that, because he remained mercifully silent about last week’s event.

Others not so. Tasmanian energy minister Guy Barnett thought students should not protest in school hours, as did Labor leader Bill Shorten, while qualifying that this was “in an ideal world”. But as a union man he should have known that strikes are all about withdrawing labour.

Each and every politician who talked down the students’ actions ended up looking like a fading generation. The youth of the world are in this for the long haul. As one of the Hobart speakers said, “We’re 25 per cent of the population, but we’re 100 per cent of the future”.

Elders may lament the loss of the good old days. The problem is, as expressed by that 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, those good times came with “an unthinkable price tag”.

Last week, asked how she felt about her nomination by two Norwegian lawmakers for a Nobel Peace Prize, she fumbled for words, not knowing what to think.

But when it comes to things that really count she is assured and eloquent. At the World Economic Forum in Davos two months ago she admonished the world’s rich and powerful with these words:

“At places like Davos, people like to tell success stories, but their financial success has come with an unthinkable price tag… The bigger your carbon footprint is, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.

“Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. … I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”

Leading climate scientist Kevin Anderson, who teaches climate change leadership in the UK and in Thunberg’s Sweden, tweeted this adult’s response to the youth marches:

“Streaked in tears we may look back on this time when our children cried out but we were too arrogant to listen. Or perhaps we’ll look back and smile, we listened, and began to cooperate rather than compete.”

Our children should know this: large numbers of ordinary adults are grateful for their courage in calling out the incompetence and indifference of our leaders. Never give up.

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