How could you, Mr Abbott?

I spent the holidays with my family having the most wonderful holiday I can remember. We went to Heron Island, where not only were our myriad food issues just brilliantly catered for, we made breathtakingly wonderful new friends, and relaxed properly for the first time in years.

The reason we were so relaxed, apart from bonding with fabulous people, was the Great Barrier Reef. We snorkeled for hours every day, and without fail we saw new and wondrous things every time. We didn’t have to leave the island, we just stepped off the beach, put our masks in the water and were overcome with the incredible biodiversity all around us.

We swam with turtles, who were magnificently unconcerned with our presence.

green turtle

We discovered sea beds carpeted with cow tail rays, shovel headed rays, and white spotted eagle rays, so camouflaged against the sand that we often didn’t notice until we swam right over the top of them.

sting rays

We saw fish and coral of astounding colours and variation, and learnt bizarre and wondrous things about the lives and behaviour of a myriad of weird creatures – like the sea cucumber who can squirt out its internal organs at you when it feels threatened (I do feel that “Stop, or I’ll throw my kidneys at you!” doesn’t sound like the most frightening of threats), the sea star who can casually drop off one of its legs and feast on it if it feels like a snack, or the beautiful reef sharks who are harmless to humans, despite their clear and slightly creepy resemblance to their larger brethren.

While walking among the coral at low tide we had an Epaulette shark swim right up to us and pose, helpfully, for photos.

Epaulette SharkAnd we saw brilliantly coloured sea stars just hanging out on the rocks. Sometimes literally, as they eject their stomachs in order to digest large food.

Blue Linkia Sea StarI could rave on for pages and pages about the astonishing and wonderful things that we saw, but overlaying the trip was an overwhelming, desperate sadness. This richly biodiverse environment is under catastrophic threat, and our politicians seem to be actively hastening its demise.

They do things like ignore the overwhelmingly strong evidence that human driven climate change will spell the end of this kind of environment in an alarmingly short time, doing away with an effective carbon tax and subsidizing coal and fossil fuels to an absurdly uneconomic degree. They approve coal ports in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. They decide that this stunning environment and all its creatures would be the perfect place to dump dredging spoil.

They are trashing our environment, our world, and our future, for reasons I cannot possibly begin to fathom. They may not be  playing dice with the universe, but they are playing God in an all too tangible and destructive fashion, and we don’t have long to stop them before this exceptional place is gone for good. And that will be just the start of our woes.

Fish and coral at Heron Reef

What right do we have to wantonly and irrevocably destroy this most remarkable place for a fistful of dollars? And how do we stop it??

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Connections

“Studies have shown that inducing fear about the way things are, without simultaneously giving people a sense of purpose, can actually suppress their immune system – it will make them unwell.”

John-Paul Flintoff in “How to Change the World

Climate Change is a perfect storm of this kind of fear – it feels too large for us to have any impact, so it is depressing and demoralising.  But imagine if you rode to work a few times a week, or started walking to the local shops rather than driving. And imagine if that small act inspired one or two other people to try the same. And they inspired others. Suddenly you could have exponential growth in people using feet rather than cars – huge change, not just in your own network, but spreading out into the world. All from the example you set by changing your habits in a public, visible way.

In “How to Change the World,” the School of Life‘s John-Paul Flintoff points out that our every action, or inaction, does change the world. He argues convincingly that those of us who are no Gandhi or Martin Luther King nonetheless have an impact with everything we do. Sometimes we make things seem possible by showing that they can be done. Sometimes we teach people things, whether we meant to or not. Sometimes we inadvertently show people what not to do.

Perhaps, rather than being pure threat, climate change is an opportunity. Perhaps some of those things we need to do to tackle climate change – use less fossil fuels, grow more of our own food, learn ways of living more sustainably – are actually opportunities to build local communities?

I have noticed that walking to the local shops leads to lots of small conversations with local people – those tending their gardens, or checking their mail, or even getting in and out of their cars. When you are speeding through a neighbourhood doing 50kph in a big metal box, not only are conversations with people on the footpath impossible, you are most unlikely even to catch someone’s eye. On my bike, I have got to know the runner near my kids’ school. The guy who spends a lot of time in his driveway, working on his car. The gardener around the corner. The girl with a skateboard down the road. A couple of teenage boys at the local high school who like the look of our box bike. And countless others.

I don’t necessarily know their names, but they are tangible connections in an increasingly disconnected world.

One of my long held gripes with my suburban lifestyle is the lack of community. So often we step from our houses directly into our garages and then into our cars, sacrificing any opportunity to feel connected to our neighbourhood. We pick up the kids from school by driving up to the gate (or as close as we can get) and honking the horn. We are too busy and too stressed to arrange playdates for our kids, and when we do we frequently drop the kids and run, taking the opportunity to be busy, busy, busy – terribly productive, and terribly disconnected.

Perhaps this, too, is an opportunity. Perhaps I’m not the only person seeking a local community. Perhaps I’m not the only person worried about climate change and trying to live more sustainably. Perhaps I can find ways to build my own local network. Perhaps you can, too.

Hear me Roar

Tonight I went to a Wheeler Centre Fifth Estate discussion on Climate Change. I left home feeling despairing about climate change, politics, Australia’s treatment of refugees and my children’s chance of a future. I arrived at the talk buoyed by a catch up with a dear friend, yearning to find hope in a very bleak environmental and political landscape.

While they painted the initial picture, there were many moments when I sighed deeply and slumped in my seat. I am pretty well educated about climate change and its effects, but there was new information I really didn’t want to hear, and the general consensus was that we have left it way too late and are fairly seriously stuffed.

There is a tendency among people like me to gaze sadly into our lattes and bemoan the ignorance of the masses. To lambast the people who voted for Tony Abbott (never people we know). To assert that we would sort it out pdq if only our preferred political group were in power, for any given value of “sort” and “it” and indeed “political”.

We tend not to debate politics with those we don’t know, for fear of hearing something we might not like, or perhaps more charitably for fear of offending others. We don’t talk politics, religion or climate change, because they are too contentious. Upon hearing others spouting rubbish in the guise of facts, whether it’s about climate, refugees or vaccination, we sigh, or sneer, and turn away. We don’t take them on, because that wouldn’t be nice, or comfortable, or polite.

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

Katy Perry – Roar.

True, it’s difficult to debate these hot button topics without getting worked up – I am a clear cautionary tale. I find it incredibly challenging to discuss these issues calmly and with a clear head, because I am passionate about them. And yet that is precisely the reason why I should engage, discuss, dispute and contend at every available opportunity. One of the comments made tonight that resonated wildly with me is that the media has become a part of the corporate system.  There is no space between the interests of big business and the voice of the media. Because we are in a country where the political agenda is massively skewed by the interests of the resources sector, it is phenomenally important that independent voices are heard.

It is crucial that academics, writers, artists, teachers – anyone who thinks, reads, and engages with current issues, regardless of their trade or profession – have a huge responsibility to speak out. To write. To speak. To debate. To engage, not just in the comfortable sanctuary of like minded friends with lattes and chardonnay at the ready, but out in the real world, wherever people are talking, reading, listening and acting.

This is part of the reason I write. It’s not so that people will agree with me. Some of the best articles I’ve ever written have been the ones that people have disagreed with quite vehemently, because they have resulted in debate and forced me to think about my opinions – sometimes to change them. I write in the faint and desperate hope that people might think a little about the issues I write about.

We need more thought, and less doing what the advertising industry tells us to do. We need to think and talk about where we are headed, and what we want to do about it. We need to speak up.

On the way home I heard a snippet of  “Roar” by Katy Perry. It seemed appropriate. I am going to roar. Wherever possible I will roar politely and calmly, but roar I will. Join me. Engage. Debate. Roar.

To that end, I have included some of the most interesting quotes from this evening for your inspiration. The group consisted of Nobel Prize winning scientist Peter Doherty, CEO of Greenpeace Australia David Ritter, and writer & investigative journalist Chloe Hooper.

“All scientists are skeptics, and we are most skeptical about our own work. The one thing you will find about [climate change] deniers is that they are never skeptical about their own statements.” Peter Doherty.

“Climate change has been allowed to become a point in the culture wars.” David Ritter.

“I was operating under a set of assumptions about how much contact people have with the natural world.” David Ritter.

“The experience that people do have is increasingly mediated through screens.” David Ritter (or possibly Peter Doherty, I really need to learn shorthand or take a laptop to these events.)

“The problem is that the media has become part of the corporate system. There’s no space between the media and the interests of these big corporations.” Peter Doherty.

It is so important in a country where the political economy is so influenced by the resources sector that the thinking people of the country are vocal and honest about what they think – David Ritter (paraphrased).

“It’s very bad that this has been badged as a left/right issue.” Peter Doherty.

“It’s not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong, and the right is wrong and the left is right.” Rod Quantock.

“It is so fundamental that we get climate change out of the cul de sac of the culture wars.” David Ritter.

“The rise of renewables is to some extent inexorable.” David Ritter.

“I’d like to see us being a lot more hardnosed about our economic forecasting. If we plug our future in to fossil fuels I think we’re mad, quite frankly.” Peter Doherty. “We don’t seem to be capable of doing the wargaming around the economy and the effects of climate change.”

“Everything now is presented as though there is going to be no pain… We can’t tackle this issue without making very substantial changes, and that’s not going to be easy, because people don’t like change.” Peter Doherty.

“The time has come for civil disobedience… we have exhausted all of the existing lawful means for challenging the dominance of the fossil fuel industry and we are seeing criminal negligence in the face of civilization’s collapse.” (slightly paraphrased because I can’t write fast enough) David Ritter.

“I think it’s important not to take a reflexive ideological view of any technology, but I have not seen any modeling that says that [nuclear energy] can get there in time.” David Ritter.

Feeling the burn

Like many of my left-leaning compatriots, I have spent the weeks following our federal election alternately despairing and angry, while “our” government dismantles anything to do with climate change and renewable energy, signals its utter contempt for women (they just don’t have much merit, apparently), and sets about making it illegal to publicly support boycotting companies who do environmental or social damage (a move even Chris Berg of the IPA  seems to feel is going too far).

Climate change scares me. Not, as the likes of Andrew Bolt would have it, because I am a crazy alarmist, but because there is an utterly unprecedented degree of scientific consensus saying that we need to act, and act now. That the world is very close to environmental catastrophe. That it may already be too late to avert the worst of it, but that we are making things worse with every day we deny the need to change. Scientists. Climate Scientists. The Scientists whose job it is to study these things.

Sadly Tony Abbott doesn’t feel we need science. What Tony Abbott feels we need is big business making obscene profits at any cost. That’s what’s important. David Suzuki, on QandA on Monday night, said “We now have governments who seem to believe that the corporate agenda is the job of government.” As I watched him debate the audience, I alternated between cheering him on and despairing at some of the questions posed. Not to mention the comments on twitter.

I feel helpless. I can’t influence the government – I lack the billions of dollars required for that. I can’t change the world. I try to live as sustainably as I can, but ultimately what difference does one person – even one family – make?

But then at the end of the program, Dr Suzuki said something striking. He talked about the old slogan “think global, act local” and pointed out that as soon as you think global you are paralysed with horror, and you feel unutterably helpless. He said we need to think locally and act locally. That maybe we can’t influence governments, but we can influence the people around us. We can organise on a local level, and when we do these things successfully, they spread.

I am already trying to organise on a local level – I have a facebook group dedicated to sharing home grown produce (the Monash Area Shared Home grown Produce network, look it up if you are local!) such as fruit, herbs and veggies when they’re in season. It has a small but dedicated band of members, and I have hopes that it will take off. We can do more, like planting fruit trees on our nature strips, and lobbying the council to do the same, rather than planting merely decorative trees.

We are involved with a group organising a veggie garden for our school. We cycle everywhere we can, and encourage others to do the same. There is evidence that your network of friends influences everything from your behaviour to your weight, so perhaps just seeing us out and about with our various bikes is helping to change our corner of the world, just a little bit – just as seeing other people out on their bikes has influenced us.

I am planning to work really hard on my veggie garden this year, and share ideas, techniques and produce with the local network and other friends. I’m going to try to buy seasonal produce grown locally wherever possible, rather than grapes from the US in winter. I am going to stick with my “old” mobile phone when my contract falls due (sorry, telcos, no churn for me!), and put off buying new appliances until the old ones are quite, quite dead. I’m going to drive even less, ride and walk even more, and talk more about it.

Recently I had a birthday and several friends gave me plants, most of them edible. It might be that I have collected like-minded friends around me, but I think it’s also that they know me and know what I like. One friend said she thought about buying me flowers but decided on strawberry plants instead. They make me smile every time I see them, and soon they will be flowering, I hope, and making me salivate too.

Maybe I can’t change the whole world. But I have hopes that I can at least improve my small corner of it. And maybe, just maybe, we will build a future for our children.

What do we want? Rational Evidence based decision making.

What do we want? Rational Evidence based decision making.

When do we want it? NOW!

I want this on a t-shirt. It may not be the world’s catchiest protest slogan. I can already hear the crowd getting out of time and tripping over the detail of the chant. But really, this is at the heart of politics.

Policies these days are built firmly on the twin pillars of partisan politics and whoever lobbies the hardest. Each time I sign an online petition on an issue I feel strongly about I am conflicted. Part of me is thrilled that the internet provides tools like change.org where individuals can rally others to a cause and effect real change. Part of me despairs that this is what it takes. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease. Sure, we can squeak a lot louder now. But we have to keep squeaking. Things don’t get done because they are the right thing to do.  Things get done because there are votes in it, or because someone is paying for it, or because it’s party dogma to do it that way.

Why don’t more politicians support gay marriage, despite the polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Australians support it? Because it’s perceived to be politically dangerous. Because powerful lobby groups oppose it.

Why don’t politicians support decisive action on climate change? Because powerful lobby groups oppose it (like the fossil fuel/mining industries), and because decisive action on climate change will hurt in the short term. Nobody in power seems remotely fussed by the reality that without decisive action we are so much char grilled, cyclone battered, drought shrivelled toast. Nobody is bothered by the overwhelming scientific consensus that action is desperately needed. Our politicians look to the next vote, the next donation, the next squeaking.

Which brings me to my t-shirt. “Rational, evidence based decision making.” Sadly it seems to be a bizarre and outlandish concept, but surely it’s not so far fetched as all that. You can construct a plausible argument to justify any decision you want to make. The human brain is fantastically good at rationalising bad decisions. But in most cases the evidence is in about what works and what doesn’t. There are countries all over the world who have tried most things. There are examples of fantastic education systems – we know what works. There are examples of great healthcare systems – we know how to do that, too. And climate change? The evidence is in. We need to do everything that reduces our CO2 output and removes it from the atmosphere. Reforestation, radical reductions in energy use, renewable energy, new generation nuclear – we need it all, and we need it yesterday.

Research shows us what works. The evidence is in. This is what we truly need to lobby for – a political system that rewards evidence based action, rather than the loudest, richest lobby group, or the most marginal electorate.

Last night I dreamt that I confronted Australian Federal politicians on both sides and shouted at them to stop fighting amongst themselves and actually FIX things. Imagine that.

Fiddling while we burn

Our earth is burning up.

 ‘‘We know that global climate doesn’t respond monotonically – it does go up and down with natural variation. That’s why some years are hotter than others because of a range of factors. But we’re getting many more hot records than we’re getting cold records. That’s not an issue that is explained away by natural variation.’’

Dr David Jones, Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of climate monitoring and prediction as quoted in today’s Age.

We know the world is warming. We know it’s driven by human activity – primarily carbon dioxide emissions. We know the ice sheets are melting. We know the consequences are going to be catastrophic. We have a degree of scientific consensus unparalleled in human history. Gravity was more contentious that climate science is today.

“globally it has now been 27 years since the world experienced a month that was colder than average.”

And yet we have not significantly changed our behaviour. We still drive to the local shops, and use massive air conditioners to cool office buildings that are appallingly badly designed – without even windows to open. We still build coal power stations, clear fell forests and complain that we can’t possibly use recycled paper because it’s rather pricey.

The dangers we are facing are monumental. A decade ago David Suzuki made roughly this analogy (paraphrased):

“It feels as if we’re all in a giant car, hurtling towards a brick wall at 100 miles an hour, and we’re arguing about where we should sit. There are people screaming ‘stop! look out! turn the wheel!’ but they’re all locked in the trunk.”

The brick wall is really close now, and we’re still arguing about where we should sit. In part, this is the tragedy of the commons. No-one wants to be the one who pulls back from using our shared resources first, because of the economic cost. If we reduce our carbon emissions and tackle climate change vigorously, what’s to stop, say, China from overtaking us economically? That would be crazy, right?

Never mind that Australia had a chance to lead in climate friendly technologies. That we could have positioned ourselves to be the economic and technological gurus of renewable industry. That ship has sailed and is now sinking in climate-change induced super storms. It’s really not the economic arguments that depress me beyond bearing. It’s the climate change deniers who persist in believing that climate change is a vast and expensive hoax, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Melbourne is having a cold day today, so global warming is a myth.

Melbourne had rain over the last two years, so global warming is a myth.

Follow the money, they say. Climate scientists just want funding, they say, so they are trying to scare us into funding them. Well, ok, if you want to follow the money, at least be internally consistent, people. Where is the money in climate propaganda? Is it really coming from climate scientists? Nope. It’s coming from big business. From Coal and Oil companies. From mining magnates. From people whose fortunes are at risk if we suddenly decide to do something about the fate of our planet. What?? Industries mislead us on matters vital to our health? Unprecedented. Unless you consider Lead. Tobacco. Asbestos.

‘‘We are well past the time of niceties, of avoiding the dire nature of what is unfolding, and politely trying not to scare the public. The unparalleled setting of new heat extremes is forcing the continual upwards trending of warming predictions for the future, and the timescale is contracting.’’

Liz Hanna, convener of the human health division at the Australian National University’s Climate Change Adaptation Network.

I wish that I could finish this article with a positive message. With an answer. A solution to the political and social apathy that is allowing the whole world to plunge over a climate cliff that will make the American fiscal cliff look like a child’s sandpit. But I’ve got nothing. What have you got?

PS if you wish to comment here about climate change not being real, or not being human induced, don’t bother. I won’t publish it on my blog.

Fiddling while we drown

This is a hard post to write. It has been bubbling around my consciousness for months, if not years, but I struggle to frame it. It’s too big. Too important. And too lost to the public view. Buried in the politics. I speak, of course, of climate change. How do you react to something like this?

When the leader of one of our major parties – who came within a whisker of becoming the leader of our country – responds to major weather-related devastation with desperate political greed (I don’t know why he didn’t just blame Yasi on Julia Gillard and be done with it).

When the leader of our country responds with taxes to handle the devastation, but is alarmingly silent on the bigger issue of tackling the cause of the devastation.

When the public screams about taxes, cries about “one in a hundred year events” and fails to notice that we get those roughly once a year now.

When the government’s top climate change adviser says “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Well. What can you do? I feel a crushing sense of panic building inside me like the mother of all high pressure systems, yet the world seems to be sitting quietly in the eye of the storm, saying “It was a freak event. These things happen.” and then trundling along with business as usual.

Ross Garnaut makes it clear that the science shows these things happening with increasing frequency, and increasing severity – even if we STOP EMITTING CARBON RIGHT NOW. We can’t stop this. But we can make it infinitely worse, unless we get serious about climate change TODAY.

I know the psychology. How human beings aren’t good with threats that aren’t immediate and in our faces. That it’s easier to deny it and snuggle back into our cosy, fossil-fuelled cocoons. What did the man who cut down the last tree on Easter Island say? Well, I think I might have heard his echo, all around the world, over the last few years. He probably blamed the opposition.

I don’t know if we still have a chance to avert total catastrophe. But I know that doing nothing guarantees it. And yet nothing is precisely what we are doing. Sure, individuals ride their bikes, install solar panels, and plant trees. But what we need is urgent, global action on a governmental scale. And it will cost us. But not as much as Yasi’s big brother will cost us. Not as much as Katrina’s mum is going to cost us. Not as much as all the nameless floods, bushfires, droughts and ice storms will cost us.

What does it take for the world to take this seriously? How many people will die? Or is it more a case of which people? The headlines about Yasi are largely economic. Food prices will rise. Eating out will get more expensive. Insurance will get more expensive. Home owners will suffer as inflation rises and interest rates climb. Perhaps if more rich, white people died at the hands of extreme climate events, the media would care. Perhaps then the government would act.

Or perhaps it’s simply something the world won’t get its head around in time.