Sunday, December 13, 2009
Following yesterday's fantastic Walk Against Warming, I thought I'd write to the climate sceptics out there who oppose climate action even as the demands of science become increasingly urgent.
Dear climate sceptic,
Hope you're feeling better, though you might still be feeling a bit sad about the massive 40,000+ attendance at the Walk Against Warming in Melbourne on the weekend (and in many other places, we shouldn't forget).
The rally demanded strong action from Australia at the international climate talks now underway in Copenhagen. This includes effective binding targets by developed nations to achieve a safe climate below 350ppm - far beyond the paltry targets now on the table, which would lead us to 3.5 degrees of warming and climate catastrophe.
You may also be disappointed by the Associated Press review of the hacked climate emails dismissing the faking of science weakly claimed by the climate sceptics. Of course, this follows a similar conclusion by New Scientist, as discussed on Radio National's Science Show.
The climate science update in the Copenhagen Diagnosis might also not be quite the cup of tea you're looking for, but it's a necessary prescription for the planet, and I recommend you be brave and swallow your medicine.
Remember at this difficult time that you are not completely alone - the Rudd Government and the Coalition are far closer to the climate sceptics than they are to a safe climate policy. There were even a few lonely sceptical souls at the Walk Against Warming you would have met had you been there on Saturday.
Unfortunately for your team, they were as massively outnumbered by the crowds demanding climate action as Ian Plimer is dwarfed by the international scientific consensus that humans are causing the global warming we are now indisputably experiencing.
Finally, ABC Radio National reported this morning that 80 fires are burning across New South Wales. The CFA volunteers who spoke at the rally - veterans of Black Saturday - were clear about the relationship of climate change to increasingly frequent and severe bushfires in Australia. They are well backed, of course, by the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and a host of eminent climate scientists.
That's the news. Chin up! A change of heart is possible, and you're welcome to join the growing call for urgent climate action. Hope - like our clean energy sources - is renewable!
Sunday, December 6, 2009
On Sunday, Josh Gordon at The Age saw the federal by-election results as good for Tony Abbott, but, looking at Higgins, the Liberal primary vote increased from last time by only 0.82% (with an increase in 2CP of about 2%). With Labor not running, this could even be explained by a small migration of right-wing Labor voters to the Liberals.
In Bradfield, the Liberals did worse, with swing in the primary vote against them of 3.4%, albeit with an increase of less than 1% in the 2CP.
In addition, there was a poor turn-out in both by-elections. In Higgins 75.32% cf 93.7% (AEC 2009, 2007), and in Bradfield 74.24% cf 94.03% (AEC 2009, 2007).
In the absence of Labor, a substantial proportion of both electorates (32.54% primary in Higgins, and 25.9% primary in Bradfield) were quite willing to vote Green. How many might still be comfortable to do so even given a Labor candidate on the ballot?
This unknown surely can't be making Lindsay Tanner more comfortable in Melbourne. It seems there's plenty of scope for Rudd to lose quite a slab of ALP votes to the Greens, so it's far from a poor result for the most climate progressive party, and particularly for Clive Hamilton. It's also noteworthy that the climate sceptic candidate did very poorly in Higgins.Chin up, Greens! Well done!
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I suggest that Malcolm Turnbull's pithy expression is equally applicable to the Rudd Labor Government. There are 47 comments as of this writing, so why not join in?
A slightly longer, unedited version of the article with supporting links is available at issuu.com In it I talk about the Run for a Safe Climate event as a reminder that any action we take on climate must be strong enough to avoid the worst impacts - hovering just above denial with a weak ETS won't help anyone.
Comments welcome here as well!
Monday, November 30, 2009
I missed this one until this morning, as yesterday I was somewhat preoccupied with the fantastic achievement of the Run for a Safe Climate team, which arrived at St Kilda after more than 6000 kilometres of running from Cooktown to Melbourne via Adelaide (!). More on that soon - it was a pleasure to watch them come in.
Time to get up and go greenAS ONE who believes the Brumby Government to be deeply flawed, I nevertheless welcome its strong performance in your poll. That's because, with the prospect of a massive 62 seats for Labor if the swing were repeated at election time, there is surely little scope for a 2006-style fear campaign against Greens and independents who, if elected, might force a more progressive and accountable government than we now have.
The current Government is highly vulnerable on a range of issues where progressive candidates offer far better policies. With no risk of an accidental change of government by voting for progressives, the time is ripe for substantial movement on issues such as climate change, identified in your poll as third-most important. By all means, leave Ted for dead, but consider carefully the policies offered by alternative candidates. And kids, don't just GetUp! - though that is eminently worthwhile. Make sure you enrol to vote and have your say.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Update, 19 November: Seems the Herald Sun is somewhat reluctant to publish comments to which they are unable to respond. The sole comment on the story supports its feeble contention - nevermind.
Having heard of Andrew Bolt's climate views, I had a look at his Herald Sun blog this morning to see what he was offering by way of argument. Not much, as it turned out, and I posted to the site the following comment on today's offering, Bandwagon fully loaded.
So this is Bolt, the great climate change sceptic? I'd be surprised if your 'arguments' against global warming - and therefore against the overwhelming consensus of scientists and the world's nations - would persuade anyone smart enough to fill out an election ballot paper.Reflect on that, Mr Bolt.
With many of the hottest years falling in the last decade, saying the world hasn't warmed since 2001 is like saying bushfire trends will have stabilised if the next few years fail to match Black Saturday.
The new 'catastrophic' category for fire risk hasn't been implemented for nothing, and has already been declared in South Australia - this when it's not yet summer.
In a 2007 report, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre projected a markedly worsening trend in the frequency and severity of bushfires driven by climate change. The report clearly could not take into account the February fires, but they can only strengthen its conclusions.
Monday, November 9, 2009
IT AMAZES me that our Prime Minister can show such a clear understanding of the problem (''Rudd blames climate sceptics for global sabotage'', The Age, 7/11), and of the interests ranged against its solution, yet propose action that can only fail by the measure of the science he so strongly invokes.
Rejection of the emissions trading proposal is not necessarily driven by scepticism, but also by the knowledge that the scheme should only pass the Senate if it is strong enough to do the job.
When the Prime Minister says the sceptics' ''prescription for inaction has all the legitimacy of a roulette wheel'', it's not so much bizarre but more of a denial that Rudd himself has a hand on the wheel in the global climate gamble.
A team of emergency services workers is running 6000 kilometres down Australia's east coast in the Run for a Safe Climate. On November 29 they'll arrive in Melbourne. Kevin Rudd should meet them with real solutions that back the force of his climate rhetoric. Pick up the baton, Prime Minister, and carry it to Copenhagen - time is running out and it's a sprint to the finish line.
Now, the original, with links to the coverage to which I was responding:
The prime minister's spirited climate address to the Lowy Institute reported in your newspaper was a welcome departure from the bland "balance" of many of his speeches. I therefore disagree with Michelle Grattan's appeal for the PM to turn the volume down ("Turn the voulme down, PM", 7/11), but that doesn't mean Kevin Rudd is right.
What amazes me is that our prime minister can show such a clear understanding of the problem, and of the vested interests ranged against its solution, yet propose action that can only fail by the measure of the science he so strongly invokes. Rejection of the current emissions trading proposal is not necessarily driven by scepticism - as in the case of the hopelessly denialist Opposition - but also by the knowledge that the ETS should only pass the Senate if it is strong enough to do the job.
So when the prime minister says the sceptics' "prescription for inaction has all the legitimacy of a roulette wheel", it's not so much "bizarre" as Grattan claims, but more a denial that Rudd himself has a hand on the wheel in the global climate gamble.
Right now a team of emergency services workers is running 6000 kilometres down the east coast of Australia in their Run for a Safe Climate. On 29 November they'll arrive in Melbourne. Kevin Rudd should meet them there with real solutions that back the force of his climate rhetoric. Pick up the baton, prime minister, and carry it to Copenhagen - time is running out and it's a sprint to the finish line.
Monday, November 2, 2009
It's hard to believe, but weeks after the Montara oil rig began leaking disastrously into the Timor Sea, the company that owns it was granted further access and exploration licences for Australian off-shore oil fields green-lighted by resources and energy minister, Martin Ferguson.
Now the rig is on fire. In response, Ferguson struggled on Radio National's AM Program this morning, before again squirming tonight on ABC TV's 7.30 Report - a performance followed by a possibly more uncomfortable prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Ferguson highlighted stopping the fire as the proper current focus, noting that the government had sprung into action only 15 minutes after learning of the disaster. Yet weeks, thousands of litres of oil and an inferno after the incident began back on 21 August, what does the government have to show for it but the promise of an inquiry and a huge question mark over WA fisheries and the broader ecosystem?
Greens Senator Bob Brown was accused of playing politics when he called for Ferguson's resignation, but at what stage does the scale of this environmental catastrophe intersect with ministerial accountability?
If the minister does not resign - and I believe he should - will he immediately call for the suspension of the oil exploration and access rights of the company that owns the oil rig pending the inquiry? If he will not, then the minister will have put his green light for the exploitation of fossil fuels before an inquiry that will determine the role of the company in the mishap.
Regardless of the specific causes of this incident, as the scarcity of global oil supplies increases, are we likely to see more such disasters as expanding worldwide exploration strikes reserves in potentially unsuitable geological formations? If we can't get oil safely out of the ground, what hope for carbon capture and storage to bury our carbon dioxide?
Oil leaks in pristine waters, spiralling carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, and the hazards of exploiting Australia's uranium all underline the risks of digging energy resources out of the ground when we could be pursuing clean, renewable energy. There's no impact when wave energy, the wind, or the sun escape our efforts to harness them. Until Ferguson gets that message, our local member for Batman will continue to wreak global damage.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
There was a prime example of the malady in The Sunday Age last week, with Melissa Fyfe's strong article on brown coal and moves to muzzle protestors ("A show of power"), contrasted with James Kirby's weak apologia for Ian Plimer's climate denialist tome, Heaven and Earth ("Going against the current climate").
Fyfe delivered a tough-minded, factual account; Kirby suggested big sales of Plimer's book after it had been "sidelined" by major publishers meant that we have not been getting the full picture on climate (see today's letters in The Sunday Age for reader responses - beginning with Michael Down).
Now we have the ABC at it, with Margot O'Neill and her excellent Countdown to Copenhagen blog in the corner of climate science, and the 7.30 Report's Chris Uhlmann singing the praises of sceptics as one of the ABC's Off Air bloggers.
Uhlmann draws on Karl Popper to suggest there's something unscientific to claims about climate science being settled. First he notes Einstein's view that: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong".
Fair enough, but this doesn't justify the massive leap he then attempts by invoking Popper:
Popper became famous for his epistemological work demarking science from pseudo-science. It boiled down to testability. If a theory could be falsified by experimentation it was science, if it couldn't it wasn't.
So Popper would argue that to say any theory is "settled" means that you are not talking about science but pseudo-science.
The false leap is in the second paragraph. The claim that climate science is settled in terms of the basic mechanisms and impacts of global warming is not a claim that the science is beyond Popper's challenge of verifiability.
What can be said is that the weight of scientific evidence has created an increasingly high probability that the globe's unprecedented rate of warming is resulting from human actions. Global warming could be falsified by experimentation, but the chances are beginning to compare with those of falsifying the claim that the earth is in orbit around the sun.
Instead, Popper's challenge was to claims where there is no question that could be asked that could lead to results capable of testing. An example might be the claim: "Green looks the same to everyone".
While there might be a high level of consistency across healthy populations in the ability to identify the colour green, just how could you test that the experience of seeing it was exactly the same for every person? The unique subjective experience can only be known to the person actually seeing the colour.
In contrast, Uhlmann's challenge to climate modelling is in fact an admission of defeat in terms of Popper's challenge of verifiability. That's because he suggests modelling can be wrong. It is therefore verifiable, and is amenable to rigorous scientific scrutiny - leaving aside his weak comparisons of financial modelling and the GFC, and climate models that are proving increasingly robust not only in their predictions, but also in their ability to reproduce past climatic conditions using historic data.
It is on this basis that we are able to compare the claims of climate scientists arguing the case for urgent action to address global warming, and denialists unable to back their spurious claims with peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
Balance is without value if it has no basis in fact. Imagine listening to Dr Norman Swan's excellent Health Report only to find alternative, 'balancing' coverage elsewhere on the ABC suggesting that sufferers of cancer give faith-healing a go (see also Lynn Frankes' letter on "quacks" in The Sunday Age).
If it's not on in medicine, why should it be acceptable with climate? As laypeople, we don't reject the science of CAT scans and chemotherapy because we do not fully grasp their technical detail. While we certainly seek second opinions, we should do so from authoritative sources.
That's my invitation to James Kirby and Chris Uhlmann on climate science - unless we drastically reduce our carbon emissions, they'll find the diagnosis is consistent among those qualified to make it.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
The runners are emergency service workers who know we're facing a climate emergency and are calling for strong action to meet the challenge of catastrophic climate change that, among many severe impacts, will raise sea-level and spark more frequent and devastating bushfires.
Their short film is a powerful statement of why they're doing it - they're running for a safe climate because we're running out of time. Every Australian should know about this campaign. Get involved to say you care about climate.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
At Darebin Parklands, in the local electorate of federal energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, the community sent a clear message that he is failing them on climate - especially in his misguided support for fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.
Organised by Darebin Climate Action Now, the Darebin Parklands event highlighted the local connection between Martin Ferguson as the local MP for Batman and Martin Ferguson the keen listener to the fossil fuels lobby. In a rapidly greening electorate, that's not a link that Ferguson will be keen to have made, but it's a necessary one if we are to get effective action on climate change by the Australian Government.
We simply can't take our scientifically unjustified climate position to international climate talks in Copenhagen. That's because, even if they were adopted by every other developed nation, our current policies would simply have no impact on catastrophic global warming.
Good on you, DarebinCAN!
Friday, October 23, 2009
Dangerous climate change starkly underscores the connection between the local and the global - when emissions-intensive brown coal burns in the Latrobe Valley to produce more than 90 per cent of the State's electricity supply, it fuels global warming and disastrous impacts that are felt around the world.
In the same way, a local politician can contribute to climate destruction through a broader role in government policy and the promotion of fossil fuels. That's the connection the residents of the federal seat of Batman need to make between their local federal MP, Martin Ferguson, and his role as energy and resources minister in the Rudd Labor Government.
Ferguson supports the continuing exploitation of brown coal even though he knows it is destructive to the climate. Claims that coal-fired electricity can be made cleaner are belied by the billions of dollars of compensation promised by the Government's so-called climate measures. Why would coal-fired electricity generators need to be compensated under carbon trading if they could cleanly exploit their vast coal reserves?
The answer is that they can't, so they claim the need to be compensated for a carbon price, even though they should have long known a change was in the wind. As well as continuing to exploit coal, they want to exploit taxpayers and monetise climate damage for their own profit and the world's detriment.
As Environment Victoria's Mark Wakeham pointed out on tonight's edition of Stateline Victoria, the priority seems to be to dig the brown coal out of the ground and burn it, or export it to India, before the 'social licence' to do so expires with the realisation of just how damaging the fossil fuel is to our safe climate future. For Ferguson, coal is simply too commercially valuable to be left in the ground.
Often there's an appeal about job losses in this context. It's a diversion. Not only are green jobs to be had in renewables, but the coal lobby is asking us to believe they want to protect workers, when in normal circumstances they'd be trying to cut their workforce to the bone. Surely it is possible to compensate and retrain workers rather than their polluting, profit-taking employers?
Fortunately, with tomorrow's international day of climate action, the local can also impact upon the global - albeit in a far more hopeful way. At Darebin Parklands, in Ferguson's Batman electorate, Darebin Climate Action Now will be holding a picnic from 3.00-3.50pm as its 350.org event, and will be asking participants to send a postcard to Martin Ferguson.
Unfortunately, the fossil fuel lobby is much more likely to be heard by Martin than his local constituents' valid concerns about the consequences of his short-sighted quarry vision.
As the champion of fossil fuels, and the defender of massive oil slicks, it's no wonder Ferguson likes to ride on the coat-tails of local green initiatives, is it? They're good PR.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
To reduce our long-term risk, our current inadequate climate policies - including the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and those outlined in Victoria's Climate Change Green Paper - must be assessed according to whether they tend to increase, decrease or have no effect on climate impacts such as bushfires - any other approach amounts to climate blindness.
It was also ironic that 'code red' was chosen as the new warning for days of catastrophic bushfire risk when Climate Code Red is one of our leading books on the disastrous impacts of climate change. I commend that book to Premier Brumby, together with Mark Diesendorf's Climate Action, and, as of yesterday, the Greens' Safe Climate Bill (more on that soon).
Finally, The Age has today run my letter capturing some of these thoughts, unfortunately lopping the 'climate code red' bit at the end. Nevermind - it ends appropriately enough with the sad contrast of Bushfire Action Week and our climate inaction years (scroll down to 'Years of doing nothing' on their letters page).
So it's Bushfire Action Week in Victoria. No doubt Premier Brumby, climate minister Gavin Jennings and emergency services minister Bob Cameron will all be scrambling for the phone to tell Kevin Rudd that his emission reductions targets are so pathetic they will do nothing to reduce global bushfire risk even if adopted by all other developed nations.Comments welcome.
Maybe they will tell the prime minister that all climate policies should be assessed to see if their broad international adoption would increase, decrease or have no effect on the range of climate impacts we're now facing.
Of course, Rudd may ask why all the fuss now, when the bushfires royal commission didn't bother to make even one recommendation about effective climate policy as a tool of long-term bushfire prevention. Why all the fuss from the State that continues its addiction to the coal-fired electricity that is propelling carbon emissions, global temperatures and climate risks relentlessly upwards?
And of course we now have the new 'code red' for the increasing number of days we'll be facing 'catastrophic' bushfire risk. Sadly, Bushfire Action Week isn't helped by our long stretch of climate inaction years - especially when, in the title of a leading Australian book on the topic, we have already reached climate code red.
Read more about the 2009 Victorian bushfires and climate change.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
To quote Ferguson, the financial state of Solar Systems 'is unfortunate but is wholly linked to the commercial viability of this company and not a reflection on government policy related to renewable energy'. Well, according to Paddy Manning writing in The Age, this is not the kind of tough-minded, financially accountable commercialism that is being applied to the coal industry.
Manning points out that up to $10 billion could be destined for the coffers of our dirtiest coal-fired power generators if we add to the $3.5 billion compensation under the existing CPRS the Opposition push for a further $6.5 billion in its bid to amend the scheme to make it even more coal-friendly.
And while - unlike renewables - coal-fired power makes a monstrous contribution to carbon emissions and therefore to climate change, in no way can it be said that so-called 'clean coal' technologies are anywhere near implementation on a commercial scale anywhere in the world.
This was recently highlighted by the Four Corners program, 'The Coal Nightmare', and one can only conclude that the sheer scale of the Australian Government's proposed compensation to the industry is a huge vote of no confidence in the viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. If CCS were viable and allowed low-emission commercial exploitation of coal even with an appropriate price on carbon, why would compensation be considered?
As Manning points out in his most recent column, the viability of combined wind and solar is a different story according to a recent Deakin lecture by Dr David Mills, Chief Scientific Officer with US solar thermal developer Ausra, whom he quotes as follows:
We are finding that solar and wind are a beautiful match for each other and together can carry almost the entire electrical load of a large economyFerguson is fond of referring to 'energy security', but this argument for dirty fossil fuels is rapidly disappearing, and in any case has always ignored the pressing need to secure our global climate. It is in fact viable to provide baseload power supply by combining wind and technologies such as molten salt storage for solar thermal generation, and thereby secure our energy and climate at the same time.
As the development of truly clean renewable technologies increasingly outpaces the empty promises of 'clean' coal, Ferguson will be forced to admit that he's not really talking about energy security at all, but instead protecting the profits of the coal industry. As I've said before, if the coal barons owned the sun and the wind, it would be a different story, but they can't stand to leave their dirty coal in the ground when there's profit to be had. Too bad for the global climate.
Further commentary on the Solar Systems collapse at the ABC and David, a worker from the plant, is interviewed onsite here.
Read more about Martin Ferguson on this blog.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
My submission argues that Victorian policy needs to build in stronger advocacy for an effective national approach in the lead-up to Copenhagen. It also highlights the unwillingness of State and Federal Governments to explicitly link their climate measures - such as emissions targets - with the degree of climate impacts we experience.
For example, how will the Australian Government's current weak targets play out for bushfire risk if adopted by other developed nations? Of course, Rudd's targets will increase bushfire risk over time. If, as the Green Paper argues, 'effectiveness' will be one of the measures of climate policies, surely the link between policy and impacts must be explicitly acknowledged at State and Federal level?
Already with the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, we have seen a reticence to speak about climate policy as a means of long-term risk prevention. That must change in the policy discussion about all climate impacts.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Following a recent climate demonstration at HP Zwar Park in Preston, Martin got his nose out of joint when the protest sparked letters to The Melbourne Times. He responded with a misrepresentation of the protestors' arguments, and even letterboxed Preston locals specifically naming me as a 'Greens activist' - this when I am not and never have been a member of the Greens party.
Well, Martin's letterboxing efforts earned him coverage in Crikey, and today The Melbourne Times has published a strong letter by Anne Martinelli (OMG, isn't she with the Greens?), and my own response to Martin's earlier letter to the editor:
It is laughable that Martin Ferguson asserts the belief that 'science, not green faith, must form the basis of our response' to climate change. By that measure, if Australia's emissions reduction targets were adopted by all developed countries, we would come nowhere near the greenhouse levels science says we must achieve to avoid catastrophic global warming and further severe impacts such as the Black Saturday bushfires.All this coverage is tending towards a rather unpleasant outcome for our fossil-fuel-friendly energy and resources minister - constituents of his greening Batman electorate will increasingly make the link between the climate impacts of his ministerial actions and his role as their local federal MP. They might also begin to see the contradictions between the minister's climate recalcitrance and his riding on the coat-tails of worthwhile local initiatives to green up his image.
Ferguson also falsely implies that the climate change movement is uniformly prescribing zero emissions for Australia by 2020. While that is indeed a laudable aim, and has been adopted as a net community target by a newly progressive Darebin Council, it poses a considerable if not insurmountable challenge for the nation by that date. However, the transition to zero emissions that science does support as soon as possible surely calls for 2020 cuts far deeper than the token reductions being put forward by the Rudd Government.
Sadly, Ferguson does not support science-based solutions to climate change, and our resources minister favours renewable energy far, far less than the fossil fuels his mates in the coal industry gouge from the ground and flog for their massive profit at the expense of our relentlessly warming climate. If they owned the sun and the wind, Ferguson might have a change of heart. Until then, Australia is a quarry and our climate gets hotter.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
I disagree that climate change is 'ultimately a domestic question', though effective solutions certainly face domestic political barriers, such as those besetting President Obama in the US.
Such barriers cannot, however, be used as a licence for failure by leaders such as Kevin Rudd, who seems to prefer being seen to fail heroically as he feigns leadership while taking inadequate action and talking up the difficulties before him.
As you point out, other nations have shown some movement in these talks, and Kevin Rudd could offer true international leadership by advancing stronger, science-based targets for 2020. The test is whether such targets, if adopted by all developed nations, would be effective in limiting warming far below the 2-degree level at which we'd see far more of the catastrophic impacts we are already seeing at less than 1-degree warming above pre-industrial levels.
Our resilience in the face of the global financial crisis, our abundance of renewable energy, and our culpability as the world's largest coal exporter all argue strongly for our climate leadership. Kevin Rudd must overcome the self-serving climate scepticism of the fossil fuel industry, and of his own energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson, and take a stand.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Judging by Australia's 2020 emissions targets, I suggest that, far from breaking down the wall, Rudd is more concerned to be seen as heroically failing to climb it. The Age has run my letter responding to the article in today's edition (See also, 'Break down this wall, a brick at a time' on their letters page):
IF, as reported, Kevin Rudd sees a need for world leaders to restore momentum in climate negotiations, he should face up to his own role in building a wall too high to scale at the international talks in Copenhagen. Instead, he makes a show of false leadership that risks merely flagging the expectation of failure.The talks at the UN and G20 in New York would be a good place to start.Comments welcome.
The Prime Minister wrote recently that 'there will always be differences of opinion, but arguments grounded in fact will always win the day'. Given his acknowledgment that climate change is real and that its impacts are already happening, what better case could he make for basing Australia's emission reduction targets on science?
Unfortunately, if Australia's inadequate targets were adopted by the developed nations Mr Rudd purports to lead, science shows we would come nowhere near a solution to catastrophic climate change. If the Prime Minister wants to break down the wall at Copenhagen, he needs to go beyond lip service to the problem and adopt strong, science-based emissions targets for 2020.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Also speaking at the event were engineer, Tim Forcey, on energy solutions, and climate-savvy comedian, Rod Quantock, who was very funny on Penny Wong shortening the AFL footy season, John Howard spoiling our Ashes chances with his terrible climate policies, and why we should eat New Zealand meat-promoting actor, Sam Neill. I got some video of Tim, but the battery on my green-power charged video camera conked out before Rod came on - sorry about that, folks.
Update: I've now got Tim's video done, and here it is - enjoy.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
His letter in this week's edition of The Melbourne Times infers that the protest at the park called for zero net emissions for Australia by 2020. Instead, the climate advocates attending were simply supporting the 2020 zero net emissions community target recently adopted by a newly progressive Darebin Council.
True, zero net emissions is a worthwhile aim for Australia, but that will require a significant transition and many Darebins to achieve. What is certain is that achieving a safe climate will require far deeper emissions cuts by 2020 than are currently proposed by the government Ferguson serves as pro-fossil-fuel energy and resources minister. His appeal to science in framing a climate solution is laughable given that his proposed solution fails so miserably on every scientific measure.
Along with dirty coal and climate inaction, it was the contradiction between Ferguson's government role and the environmental values of the park that we were protesting - not the refurbishment itself, which was universally supported by everyone present on the day.
Yet in a letter to local residents, Ferguson claims I dismissed the park refurbishment, simply because for him it could only have been an empty, feel-good PR opportunity.
The letter also makes the false claim that I am a 'Greens activist', when I am not and never have been a member of the Greens party. I have, in fact, a strong record of running as an independent in Council and State elections. Still, far better the Greens than Ferguson's brand of climate vandalism.
So what is the upshot of Ferguson's cheap campaign? The answer is that it's nothing more than a desperate climate evasion by a federal MP sitting in a seat whose constituents are keenly aware of the threat of human-induced climate change. That's an awkward position to be in when the CEO of a resources company has you down as a prominent climate sceptic and you've been included in Clive Hamilton's Greenhouse Mafia 'dirty dozen'.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
With Victoria's marginally lower winter emissions receiving positive courage, I thought I'd make a point about coal and why we've been able to leave our heaters off. Today The Age has kindly run my letter:
OUR small reduction in winter carbon emissions would be a positive sign were it not for the fact that we've been able to leave our heaters off just a little bit more only because the global heater has been turned on high ('Emissions fall as states heat up', The Age, 7/9).At the moment I'm reading Diesendorf's Climate Action, which makes a clear and powerful case for replacing coal-fired power with renewables. While CCS may in time be developed, it won't be anywhere soon enough, brings the risks related to large-scale underground storage of carbon dioxide, and government investment in the technology is a distraction from much-needed support for renewable sources that are ready to go.
In large part that's due to the burning of fossil fuels, a huge industry in Victoria. The solution of federal Energy and Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, is carbon capture and storage Mark II. Why Mark II? The current version is to capture carbon-rich coal in the shovel of an excavator, burn it, then store the resulting carbon dioxide in our steadily warming atmosphere. Both versions are fatally flawed, and it's time we forgot about 'shovel-ready' coal and switched to a mix of renewables that can readily combine to give us a green power supply.
A good reason to Switch off Hazelwood, don't you think?
Update: Monday's Four Corners edition, 'The Coal Nightmare', turned out to be an excellent program that made clear that the coal industry itself isn't coming to the party in funding potential solutions to its own heavy emissions. At the same time it is undermining moves to put a price on carbon that would increase the pressure for it to do so. Martin Ferguson was, as expected, unconvincing in justifying the billions of dollars of public funds being directed to so-called clean coal development when the industry itself should be footing the bill.
It was good to see Mark Diesendorf interviewed, and I would like to have seen more of him, especially putting the strong case he makes in his book to move ahead with existing and maturing renewable energy technologies rather than speculating on CCS just so we can dig it out of the ground and flog it - we're the world's biggest exporter, as well as getting 82% of our energy from coal (thanks for the latter statistic, Mr Ferguson).
The ABC has extended interviews and lots of resources via the link above.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
As one of the protesters at the new, greener HP Zwar Park in Preston, I could not help but notice the irony of its opening by energy and resources minister, Martin Ferguson ["Keep it clean, protesters beg", TMT, 26/8/09]. Ferguson's lust for the exploitation of Australia's fossil fuels will, if unopposed, smother with greenhouse gases the many small, local measures to create a more sustainable world.Comments welcome, Martin.
Unfortunately, the contribution of federal money to the park obliged the involvement of our minister for climate destruction, who is also our federal member for Batman.
Mr Ferguson, veiling yourself in feel-good local projects does nothing to lessen the damage of spruiking emissions-intensive energy sources while paying lip-service to renewables. The true test of your policy is whether Australia's emissions take a much-needed plunge towards a safer climate with fewer devastating bushfires over time. The science is against you. It's time for tougher emissions targets and Australian leadership at international climate negotiations this December.
Update: Photos of the Saturday 22 August demonstration at HP Zwar Park in Preston are now available on DarebinCAN's Flickr page.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Michael Bachelard’s tough scrutiny of the Premier’s bushfire spin is most welcome as a call to face up to the challenges looming with the imminent fire season.Essentially, my argument here and in ABC Unleashed is that the inquiry should have made interim recommendations within a timeframe that best allowed action to implement them. With effective climate policy that should have meant the August interim report in the lead-up to December's international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, not July 2010 when the final report will be published.
Yet, as fires in California and Athens cluster around the commission’s release of its interim report, there is a glaring absence in its findings regarding the contribution of climate change to the Black Saturday bushfires, and how stronger climate policy - including science-based emissions targets - might help to address bushfire risk over time.
True, any such analysis would not result in a reduction of fire risk this coming season, but there was a crucial window of opportunity that makes the slated consideration of climate change in the commission's July 2010 final report far too late. That window was the lead-up to the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.
Bachelard’s comment on the stay or go policy, that ‘It’s crucial to get this right at the time this issue is the centre of attention’, applies equally to climate change. Australia is in the midst of its climate change legislative debate, and at Copenhagen will help frame an international agreement on climate that will succeed the Kyoto protocol.
If not now, when is the time that climate policy should be viewed and assessed through the lens of long-term bushfire prevention? That the interim report has not addressed this issue in its official findings before Copenhagen is testament to the political manipulation of the royal commission, and to the climate cowardice of our state and federal leaders.
Everyone concerned for our climate should now follow the second round of public hearings of the royal commission now underway. The hearings are webcast live and transcripts are available the following day. Since the first round, the website has introduced the improvement of listing witnesses for each day, which should make it easier to see when climate evidence has been heard.
Though any climate recommendations will come too late in the July 2010 final report, I am hopeful the media will highlight the clear relationship between climate change and long-term bushfire risk that should emerge in this second round of hearings if the inquiry does its job.
If state and federal governments are thereby forced to explicitly address bushfires in their climate policies, there's a better chance that Australia will show the kind of leadership in Copenhagen that might contribute to a stronger international climate that would help reduce global bushfire risk over time.
On the failure of the terms of reference of the royal commission to explicitly address climate change, see my March article for ABC Unleashed. For the kinds of climate policy recommendations I would like to have seen the inquiry consider, see my submission to the royal commission from May.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
While the Royal Commission will look at climate change in the next phase of the inquiry, any recommendations in its July 2010 final report will be well and truly too late for Copenhagen. An analysis of climate policy and recommendations to strengthen it were therefore urgent tasks for the royal commission before the next fire season, and should have been accommodated within the terms of reference. While such action would not influence that fire season, it may well have impacted on fire seasons to come. Unfortunately the opportunity to consider climate in a timely and urgent manner has been squandered through climate blindness.
For more on climate change and the 2009 Victorian bushfires, click on the links under the masthead of this page. Comments are welcome.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Gore's suggestion seems to reflect the kind of incrementalist view currently dividing environment groups in Australia. The argument is that we should support any step forward in the hope that further improvements will be possible down the track.
The trouble is, the timeframe for achieving such intermediate steps to a safe climate will see us run foul of climate tipping points that science shows are being approached far more rapidly than anticipated. Better to acknowledge the science and aim for an effective (and fair) agreement now.
An inferior international agreement will likely be sold politically as mission accomplished on climate, even though it sets us on a collision course with further severe climate impacts such as the Black Saturday bushfires.
Consequently, I think Gore, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Climate Institute are wrong in their endorsement of Australia's current climate policy. They are dealing themselves into a losing game and fragmenting the climate campaign for strong policy based on the only yardstick that matters - science.
Here's my letter, as submitted:
Despite the contribution of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, to raising awareness of the climate threat, I cannot agree with Gore's suggestion that passing inadequate Australian legislation will help frame an effective international climate treaty in Copenhagen this December. On the contrary, an emissions trading system with weak targets can only serve to curtail the ambition of these crucial negotiations.Comments are welcome.
It would be a different story if our legislation set strong science-based targets, including a 2020 reduction of at least 40% on 1990 greenhouse levels. That is not the case, however, and it is difficult to see how the proposed legislation's weak targets, once made law, could influence, or indeed be strengthened by, anything that played out in Denmark.
By the yardstick of the Coalition, Fielding and the climate denialists, Gore, Rudd and Wong look like climate progressives. The trouble is, that's the wrong yardstick. Targets can now be very specifically linked to levels of warming, and in turn to severe impacts such as the Black Saturday bushfires. We must heed the science and acknowledge the link between the targets we set and the impacts we will suffer. Only then will there be hope of returning to a safe climate.
Monday, July 6, 2009
As the ABC has reported (see link above), Jack Rush QC views the Premier's comments on changes to the 'stay or go' policy, plans for 'neighbourhood safer places' and 'township protection plans' as 'fundamental' to the inquiry's own investigations and therefore as risking pre-emption of the royal commission's preliminary findings.
The ABC has reported Premier Brumby's response as follows:
Isn't it the government's job to try and protect the state? To take actions and decisions now, to ensure we don't see a repeat of February 7th? And that's exactly what we're doing.On ABC Radio National's 6.00pm news he also said it was the government's 'obligation to adopt policies that protect the community'.
If that's the case, then the Premier should consider 'pre-empting' the royal commission on climate.
That's because, judging from the inquiry's shyness on climate change from anything but an adaptation perspective, it seems unlikely its interim report will make any recommendations on how stronger Australian climate policy could serve long-term bushfire prevention.
In my view stronger policy could do this by offering Australian leadership to December's Copenhagen talks on a new international climate agreement. A more effective agreement would better limit the global warming that is clearly linked to increased bushfire risk. In my submission to the royal commission, I set out six recommendations the royal commission could consider to prompt a climate policy rethink following the fires, which took the lives of 173 people.
If, as seems likely, there is little or nothing in the royal commission's interim report to this end, the inquiry will have missed the boat, as its final report falls after the crucial Copenhagen negotiations. If Premier Brumby truly wants to 'protect the state' by supporting a safe global climate, he should be making sure that we heed the climate warning of the tragic Black Saturday bushfires by pushing for a stronger Australian position when it really counts.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely there will be any kind of 'pre-emption' on this matter, because the terms of reference were clearly constructed by the Victorian State Government to avoid a politically awkward focus on climate change.
That's a pity, because the problem of severe bushfires is only set to worsen dramatically without climate action. Perhaps what Brumby needs to pre-empt is climate change itself, and not the proceedings of an inquiry he has seemingly formed to ignore it.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
The Australian Federal Opposition may well fold and end up voting for Australia's climate legislation when the Senate resumes in August. However, should a compromise be reached on the legislation and it is voted in, that will not mean Australia has a policy that will help lead us back to a safe climate with fewer severe bushfires and other climate change impacts we are already experiencing.
Nor will being guided by the US guarantee an effective outcome. Every government's position must be tested against the science, and international agreement reached that brings greenhouse gases much closer to pre-industrial levels. Science is the only true yardstick; not the relative merits of one scientifically inadequate position compared to another.
In Australia's case, we should be looking at 2020 cuts of at least 40% on 1990 levels, with the further aim of contributing to global stabilisation of carbon dioxide at around 300ppm as soon as possible.
As prominent US climate campaigner Bill McKibben has said, the earth's climate doesn't negotiate. In Copenhagen this December, the world needs to listen to the science and, hopefully with Australian leadership, work out a way to share the burden of effective action in a way that is fair for developed and developing nations.
Updates to the Copenhagen website can also be followed on Twitter and Facebook, or you can post your 'climate thoughts' on their spinning globe that shows climate views from around the world.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Though there has been some progress - 472 submissions appear to be up as of this writing, compared with 432 yesterday - where does that leave the balance of the 1300 or so received by the 18 May deadline according to telephone advice I received yesterday from one of the inquiry's solicitors?
There is also the curious fact that I was told yesterday that submissions were being published in order, and that mine came in in the high 700s, yet it is mysteriously there today, apparently ahead in the queue. The squeaky wheel, perhaps, but it raises questions about the transparency of the whole process.
Added to this is the fact that the published cover sheet for my submission failed to acknowledge the main topics I indicated in making my submission via the web. Concerned about this when I received initial email confirmation, I emailed the inquiry on the day of submission seeking an assurance that all the areas I had indicated would be included with my submission and considered accordingly. This email was acknowledged on 18 May, yet the submission as published only acknowledges climate change.
The other areas I had nominated on the inquiry's web submission form (all of which clearly relate to climate change) included:
Causes and circumstances of the bushfires
Policy, preparation and planning of governments, emergency services
Response to the bushfires
This is far from a trivial point, because the degree to which submissions relate to the terms of reference determines how they will be considered in the process - submissions that are not explicitly related to the terms are unlikely to feature in the inquiry's findings. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there.
Apart from the lengthy delay in publication (2 July following 15 May submission), my light-weight PDF document had blown out to an inaccessible 3MB, all the live links to references within the document had been killed, and a blog address included in the submission was deleted, despite having no implications for my privacy. In fact, my submission was prepared in accordance with the guidelines in a way that should have allowed its almost instant publication.
The fact that the vast majority of submissions are unavailable - including any by major climate groups - at a time when the interim August recommendations are already being talked about in the media is symptomatic of the obscurity of public information surrounding this royal commission.
For those without the privileged access of the media, try finding a list of witnesses, or searching across the transcripts for mention of climate change. Try merely linking to individual submissions from the public - good luck.
With the interim report due on 17 August the only opportunity to influence the climate debate in the lead-up to Copenhagen, the lack of transparency and the general failure to acknowledge climate change policy as an instrument of bushfire prevention should concern us all.
Read more coverage about the 2009 Victorian bushfires
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
So far, the inquiry has been reticent even to utter the words 'climate change', yet the interim report is the only real opportunity for it to influence the position Australia takes to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.
The Copenhagen negotiations will underpin world climate action post-Kyoto, and will be a big factor in determining whether countries such as Australia encounter ever more severe climate impacts like the Black Saturday fires, or whether the world turns the corner and heads back towards a safer climate.
So how might the Royal Commission seek to contribute to fire-proofing Australia through its interim recommendations? In my May submission to the inquiry, yet to appear on its official website, I concluded with the following specific recommendations:
- Granting that human-caused climate change falls within an appropriate construction of the terms of reference, I call on the Commissioners to acknowledge its contribution to the 2009 Victorian bushﬁres, especially with regard to the inﬂuence of climate change in pushing the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) to unprecedented levels during Black Saturday.
- To satisfy themselves of the above, the Commissioners should call such expert scientiﬁc witnesses, and avail themselves of such peer-reviewed scientiﬁc research as deemed necessary.
- The Commissioners should call for current State, Territory and Federal climate and energy policies to be assessed as a matter of urgency for their effect on bushﬁre mitigation in the broadest sense. The timing of such assessment must enable Australia's strengthening of its climate policy leading into international climate talks at Copenhagen in December 2009 (COP 15).
- The Commissioners should call on the Australian Government to adopt an unconditional emissions target as a parts-per-million measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide that would maximise the chances of bushﬁre mitigation if adopted universally via the international agreement to be considered at COP 15.
The target set must consider the most recent science indicating a level of the order of 300ppm CO2 is now considered necessary to offer a good chance of achieving a safe climate. It should also include the aspiration to achieve a zero carbon emissions economy at the earliest opportunity.
- The Commissioners should call for the publication by the Australian Government of the target it adopts for the Copenhagen negotiations, explicitly detailing the corresponding level of global warming related to international agreement at that level, together with the consequent reduction or increase in Australian ﬁre danger according to the Forest Fire Danger Index.
- The Commissioners should acknowledge the Copenhagen negotiations as the key remaining opportunity for Australian action to inﬂuence international climate measures before tipping points are crossed, rendering further human intervention ineffective, and entering an inexorable trend of more frequent and extreme bushﬁres in Australia.
Read more about the 2009 Victorian bushfires.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Climate Thoughts allows anyone to post their thoughts and have them represented on a globe as a point of light. The globe can be spun to browse thoughts posted from anywhere on the planet, and you can share and support thoughts, as well as post your own.
Australians (and everyone else, of course) can help light this globe in a new and hopeful way by posting their ideas to fight climate change.
You can read the climate thoughts of the famous, the top ten, and the most recent thoughts posted by anyone. Here's mine:
Australia must lead with strong targetsIf we are to have an international agreement that will help prevent the worst climate impacts, countries like Australia must lead with strong, science-based emissions reduction targets.
We should be aiming for at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2020, and stabilisation at 300ppm CO2 as soon as possible. A heavy per-capita polluter already experiencing severe impacts such as floods and deadly bushfires, we can't afford to sit on the fence, but must instead help lead the world towards a safe climate.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Following coverage of the letter threat to the CEO of the Hazelwood power station, The Age published my letter today arguing that the Victorian Government is trying to spin this unfortunate incident against environmental activism as such (See 'Don't fall for this spin on greenies' on The Age Letters page).
Here's the letter, with a small grammatical correction that didn't make it into the published version:
Since I wrote the letter, the article I was responding to has been expanded from the original AAP story that appeared yesterday, with text now including Peter Batchelor's reported view that
Threatening the boss of the heavily polluting Hazelwood power station does nothing to advance the campaign for action on climate, and such measures are rightly condemned (The Age, 15/6). However, media reports of Energy Minister Peter Batchelor's call for environmental groups to denounce such measures indicate a ham-fisted attempt to tie all environmental activism with this extreme.
The tactic is underlined by Treasurer John Lenders' reference to 'green extremists' in radio reports about the incident.
Contrary to the perception these politicians wish to create, the vast majority of environmental groups legitimately campaign against the huge contribution coal-fired power stations make to global warming and its consequent impacts on the planet. Following the Black Saturday bushfires, the Queensland floods and other impacts arriving much sooner than expected, global warming is a much bigger threat that the Government would do well to take seriously.
...the credibility of the whole of the environmental movement would be jeopardised unless the people involved were identified.This further underlines the Government's tactic, and seems to borrow from the ignorant practice of blaming all Muslims for instances of Islamist terrorism should they fail to identify terrorists whose identities are completely unknown to them. We reject outright the latter, and must therefore reject Batchelor's cheap PR ploy against environmental activism.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Following the tragic police shooting death of Tyler Cassidy in Northcote last December, there have been calls for the introduction of tasers, including by Tyler's mother and the police union. The latest fatality and others associated with tasers suggest their use in the Northcote case may not have reached a better outcome. The recent Victorian decision against the general adoption of tasers is therefore most welcome, though taser use within specialist units should also be closely scrutinised.
If we are to live in a civilised society, it is vital that we not give in to calls to further weaponise law enforcement in a manner that fatally multiplies the severity of outcomes, especially for those who are emotionally distressed or living with a mental illness.
While Victoria has committed to restricting tasers, their broader use nationally (e.g. QLD, SA, WA, NT and now NSW) is cause for great concern. Newsradio is conducting a poll on taser use by police, where you can vote to have your say online.
Update: Taser death: stun gun fired 28 times (ABC News)
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
The submission is well written and researched. Thomson states that 'We need to consider stronger action on climate change to help minimise the risk of more intense fires in the future' (p. 2) and that '...prudent risk management requires that we reduce the risk of fire in Australia by addressing climate change' (p. 5). His conclusion states that: 'By 2020 fires of the ferocity of Black Saturday may be a regular occurrence. At a national and international level this requires mitigation policies that reduce our carbon emissions'.
While I am impressed by Thomson's obvious grasp of the problem, his marshalling of research evidence to substantiate the climate-bushfire link, and the coherence of his arguments, his efforts fall short by recommending no specific climate policy action to address bushfire risk beyond repeating an inadequate Treaties Committee proposal of an 80% cut on current emissions by 2050 (as Senator Christine Milne noted in The Age), and stabilisation of greenhouse gases at 450ppm.
While I am far from certain that the former is consistent with the latter, I'm pretty confident that 450ppm is nothing like what we need to return us to the safe climate zone.
David Spratt, a climate campaigner, and co-author of Climate Code Red, who spoke with Thomson at a Moreland climate event back in April, has posted on the sorts of targets we need to achieve climate safety in light of the current science, and an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the order of 300ppm seems to be indicated (See under 'A safe-climate target').
That Thomson fails to follow through on his obvious conviction by proposing scientifically adequate climate measures is symptomatic of the current climate inertia of the Rudd Government. A key problem is the Government's seeming perception that it need only position itself relative to a climate-ignorant Coalition rather than subjecting itself to the objective measure of climate science. Unfortunately, that just won't be good enough to avoid dangerous climate impacts such as the 7 February Black Saturday bushfires.
With regard to the Royal Commission, I would have liked to see Thomson push for specific recommendations to shape the outcome of this inquiry (see my submission). If this royal commission merely nods its head at climate change - so far it has been virtually unable to utter the words - we will have missed a vital opportunity to acknowledge the bushfires as a climate impact in a way that might positively influence the position we take to international climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.
Australian climate leadership could help shape a stronger post-Kyoto agreement that would reduce our bushfire risk over time.
Finally, I encourage you to read Thomson's submission. Despite the criticisms made here, it is well worth the time, and has important things to say not only about the climate-bushfire link, but also on renewable energy, the need to address land-clearing, and the design of homes in bushfire-prone areas.
Read more on the 2009 Victorian bushfires. Comments welcome.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
In Northcote, close to the epicentre of reported cases, it’s easy to give in to fears that fragment families and communities, to look at others not as people but as potential carriers of the disease, as threats.
Differences can arise within families, and have in my own. I’m uneasy about what I see as needless visits to crowded places, choosing to do the big weekly shop early on a Sunday morning, when few people visit the supermarket. Even then, of course, coughs are echoing across the aisles, perhaps more loudly in the emptiness, amplifying my fears of the contagion they might carry.
A week or so ago, a high school friend of my daughter’s told me a case had been reported in her class. Self-consciously, but quite deliberately, I stepped back and asked my daughter to do the same. We were standing in the yard of the primary school attended by siblings of the girls, and I spoke with the other father about self-quarantine, feeling terrible as I raised the subject, with its suggestion of uncleanliness and contamination.
Though there are many kids with flu symptoms at the girls’ high school, and the arrival of swine flu there is probably inevitable, the case that caused my fears was a false alarm.
And what of the little primary school kids, with their beautiful camaraderie, their customary hugs of greeting and departure? One can see why schools are such a hotbed of transmission, but there’s a price in keeping them apart, of turning their gaze on each other as potential causes of illness.
Perhaps that’s why my wife is more mindful of the unnecessary anxiety children might suffer from an overly cautious approach. Café visits, play centres and weekend shopping are still on the cards, to some extent justified, it must be said, by the mildness of symptoms in the cases recorded to-date.
Yet, as recently reported in The Age (‘Infection a riskier prospect for some’, 2/6/09), a range of conditions, such as asthma and cystic fibrosis, threaten more severe outcomes for those who contract swine flu. So, while our sometimes unfounded fears may be amplified by fevered visions of pandemic, the consequences of thoughtless actions can be multiplied for those among us already ill with chronic conditions.
When it comes to individuals, thoughtful actions align fairly clearly with the kinds of public health messages being issued by the government – hand-washing, taking care to protect others from your coughs and sneezes, and staying away from people when you know or suspect you’re ill, or they are.
Unfortunately, while some of those Sunday morning supermarket coughs were no doubt from people who had no other choice in getting their weekly necessaries, in other cases it was quite possibly a failure to consider other people when they had no idea if they simply had a cold or something worse.
For some of us, downplaying swine flu is not so much driven by the impulse to avoid unnecessary anxiety and social division, as it is by the rejection of any constraint on our behaviour for the sake of others.
To these questions – of an appropriate balance between legitimate concern and groundless fears, between personal freedom and restraint – we must add consideration of the broader social and economic factors that seem geared to the spread of disease.
It is one thing, for example, to ask people to keep their sick children away from school, but another for employers to accept the absence of parents when they need to do this. Those without children are likely to encounter employers even less willing to accept absence for the sake of preventing the spread of illness through the workforce.
While a sick workforce is not a productive one, this simple truth is not reflected by the number of people who press on at work despite contagious illness. For whose sake? We need to ask ourselves whether the default position in our workplaces puts a greater premium on the continuity of business than on the broader public health.
We ride to work on crowded trains, increase the chances of catching or spreading illness at work, send our sick children to school for want of practical alternatives, and then seek help when we do fall ill from an over-stretched public health system.
For reassurance we can repeat the mantra, ‘The symptoms are mild’. But what if they weren’t? What if this highly transmissible flu does mutate into a more virulent form? While there is little current evidence that this will happen, there are historical precedents such as the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, and it’s a possibility that would seriously raise the stakes on the questions asked here.
How well are we prepared as a society for this eventuality? How might swine flu, hopefully continuing in its current mild form, help us devise better public health strategies, and how might these be complemented by a rethink of some of our social and economic assumptions?
For my part, I’m selling the noticeable increase in hand-washing to the kids as a good way to stop not just the swine flu, but the usual round of winter bugs. And maybe a family walk in the park is a better choice than those snazzy shoes at the crowded factory outlet.