Saturday, June 20, 2009

Show the world Australians want serious targets

The official website for December's international climate negotiations in Copenhagen has launched a novel way of promoting views on climate from around the world.

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 targets

If 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

Government spins letter threat against all greenies

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:

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.

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
...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

Case against tasers mounts

Following the most recent death associated with police use of a taser in Queensland, the evidence is mounting that the alternative offered by the weapon is too often an alternative lethality, not a means of subduing violent behaviour with the least harm. The false belief that tasers are a non-lethal option may lead police to use them more often in cases where they are threatened, despite the possibility of other de-escalation strategies that might well succeed in defusing conflict.

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

Kelvin Thomson gets the climate-bushfire link

A submission to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission by Kelvin Thomson MP shows the Federal Member for the Victorian seat of Wills has a firm grasp of the connection between climate change and the 7 February Black Saturday bushfires.

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

Swine flu poses broader questions for society

As swine flu spreads, hitting dozens of Victorian schools and communities, questions emerge whatever our response to the epidemic – from concern to unreasoned fear, from mild caution to unhindered business as usual.

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. CafĂ© 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.