The end of the world as we know it

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Revision as of 14:06, 30 June 2009

This article is a work in progress that describe the challenges and opportunities that we are posed by climate change and the need to live sustainability.

The topics to be expanded upon will be:

Contents

Where are we at?

In the 21st century the world has entered a time of great change. Following the industrial revolution, humans learned how to extract and use fossil fuels in great quantities. This led to an era of time of cheap and apparently abundant energy for keeping warm, artificial light, transport and creating electricity. First world countries in particular availed themselves of pleasures and benefits of using fossil fuels. Whole cities, indeed civilisations, came to depend on the use of fossil fuel for food production and transport.

In late 2008 the world's financial system collapsed. Inventive but dodgy financial products and practices were revealed as unsustainable and basically without value. The rot started in the United States with "sub prime loans" and Collateral Debt Obligations (CDOs), but it soon spread across all countries.

Suddenly, the doctrine of free markets and unfettered capitalism collapsed. Banks, car companies, car dealers and even real estate interests were bailed out across the globe by governments who suddenly regained prominence and power, basically because they alone are able to print money and raise taxes.

In Australia, the government even handed out about $42 billion as an "economic stimulus" to assist the Australian economy through the world wide recession. However, a large proportion of this money - over 75% - was handed out as cash payments (around $900 per person) for them to spend at their own discretion. This was a missed opportunity to invest in the infrastructure and new green jobs we need for a low carbon economy.

Where do we need to get to?

It is clear that humans needs to both reduce carbon emissions, and draw down excess carbon already in the atmosphere, to provide the best chance of us regaining a safe climate future. The latest science indicates that climate change tipping points are now upon us, with large scale polar ice cap melting, increased frequency of severe storms, droughts and bushfires now evident.

Reducing the growth in emissions is not enough. Firm targets for emission reductions are required - providing a trajectory for the world to attain zero net emissions.

In a nutshell, the best targets for ensuring a safe climate future are:

  • 100% zero emissions energy by 2020
  • Emission reductions each and every year providing a trajectory to the 2020 target
  • Atmospheric CO2 levels in the range of 300 to 350ppm. The current level is 387ppm.
  • Limit global temperature increase to 1C. The current increase above preindustrial levels is 0.8C
  • Immediate protection of all native forests across the world to keep the carbon they store safe.

Human behaviour and the psychology of change

Knowing about problems and their causes does not mean that people will take action to address them. For example, psychology students who learn about the causes of depression and suicide have comparatively high suicide rates within their student demographic.

Human responses to change caused by external forces vary. Some people like change and embrace it, while others may resist the change and even enter a state of denial regarding the change.

As the effects of climate change are increasingly manifest both these types of responses are evident. People who have feel that western first world lifestyles are excessive welcome the impetus to consume less and embrace clean energy.

Some others have been accustomed to using very large amounts of energy for heating, cooling and transport and react angrily to the prospect of adjusting their lifestyle to lower carbon emissions.

Some believe that climate change and global warming is a conspiracy to engender change in the world based on nefarious motives. They deny that climate change is happening, or that it is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuel. They insist that the vast majority of climate scientists research and opinions across the world who state that climate changes is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced are lying or have somehow got it wrong.

Responses the catastrophic Victorian bushfires in Australia in 2009 highlight different responses to climate change. Many attributed the bushfires and the hottest weather on record to climate change, while others claimed this was not the case and blamed "greenies" and a lack of fuel reduction burning as causes for the fires.

Our societies often rely on political leadership during times of crisis, but conflicting beliefs within the political arena can further polarise responses to climate change when unity and a common sense of purpose is needed.

Democracy and the failure of representation

We vote for candidates who are supposed to represent us in parliaments. For example, they might say they are committed to taking action on climate change and feel very strongly about the issue.

After an election, a government is formed in Australia by the party (or coalition) with the majority of lower house seats in bicameral parliaments.

Once elected, your local member will accept your correspondence and even meet with you to hear your views. They will not however stray from their "party line", which clearly takes precedence to any local issues.

So we are not truly represented. Most of our letters and emails are discarded without ceremony.

I have written to local members of parliament and asked them to represent my views (as one of their constituents) in parliament. The response is quite often a party political position (sometimes in the form of a media release), rather than an acknowledgement of my view, or any commitment to convey it to their party of the parliament.

Party politics

Political parties often started with their identity and policies associated with a cause or vision. However, they have now evolved into political machines which have the primary goal of forming government either in their own right or in a coalition. These political machines spend a lot of time and effort in contesting and winning elections. The consolation prize is opposition.

Conservative parties ("the right") such as the Liberal Party in Australia and the Republican Party in the United States believe that individual choice is a paramount concern. They surmise that the sum total of individual choices, perhaps in a "free market" (whatever that is) will yield the best outcomes for society and the country. They think that if many people get rich, some of their wealth will "trickle down" to lower echelons of society so everyone will benefit.

This theory is easily disproved when you observe that boom time economies such as the United States in the 1980s still include large socio-economics groups that do not participate or share the benefits. For example, unemployment among the black population of New York remained in double digit figures during this period.

Parties that are labelled as "left" or "progressive" on the political spectrum often purport to represent "workers", "working families" or even the "grass roots" general public. Some will have links with union movement too. Examples of such parties are the Australian Labor Party and the Democrats in the United States.

In the late 20th and 21st centuries these differences largely disappeared. The Keating Labor government implemented workplace and economic reforms that exceeded those a Liberal government could have achieved.

Political parties often have comparatively small memberships, but they do expend some effort maintaining their "brand" and traditional support base.

Industry is one of the major influences on government. They buy influence through political donations. Even banks donate to major political parties. Industry also has the money and resources to both lobby government directly and run media campaigns that can win or lose marginal seats, and thereby influence which party forms government.

The source of party policies

The actual source of party policies is often not clear to the average voter and the general public. There is no consistent model for how parties generate policies. Some will be based on external sources such as think tanks or lobby groups. Others may be written from individuals or working groups within a party and pass through a degree of scrutiny and/or input by party members.

Some policies may be based on examples of similar policies that have been adopted in other countries. Emissions trading schemes are an example of this. An ETS was pioneered and implemented in Europe as a measure to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Such schemes are popular with economists and politicians, as they can claim that "the market will sort out the price for carbon" and it fits with current economic theory regarding the function of markets. As a result, countries such as Australia and the United States are following the European lead and attempting to implement their own emissions trading schemes.

However, while a policy to introduce an emissions trading scheme may appear to be a good thing, once it has been modified by the political process the outcome can be greatly compromised. More on this later.

Policies are also usually viewed through a lens of "how will these help us get elected" and modified to "sanitize" them. Often details will be deliberately omitted, particularly if they could become contentious or a liability during an election campaign.

The vagaries of pre-selection and factions

Candidates of political parties have been through a preselection process, during which factional deals inside the party may have been done. Some parties tolerate (even condone) practices such as branch stacking by people to get themselves preselected. Parties that conduct a transparent ballot of members have the best process, but the general public of course does not participate in this.

A recent example of a long preselection campaign is that of Josh Frydenberg for the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong in Victoria, Australia. His campaign has run for several years and was characterised by media leaks and factional battles within the Liberal Party. On finally winning preselection, there is no comment from Mr Frydenberg on what he will do for the residents of Kooyong. It is regarded as safe Liberal seat, so most of the commentary was concerned with matters such him doing more fundraising and possibly becoming a minister in a future government.

Elections - substance or sideshow?

So what are elections for? The end game is to get enough party members elected to form a government. During the lead up period to an election, the mechanics of the election campaign is planned and crafted, including:

  • the theme of the campaign
  • deciding which issues will be the focus and the "vote winners"
  • identify issues which will be "liabilities" for a party and how they can be "neutralised".
  • fund raising
  • generating and distributing materials
  • running the media, including strategic events such as rallies, campaign and candidate launches and policy releases.
  • organising people (volunteers and paid employees) and rosters for handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booths - which can be a huge logistical exercise
  • organising preference deals with other parties

The key point is that election campaigns are focussed on winning the election. There is virtually no attempt by most political parties to engage in a genuine discourse with other parties or the general public on matters of policy, strategy, vision or outcomes. In general, the bigger and wealthier the political party, the more machine like the campaign. They are often run with military precision and discipline - in line with the saying "loose lips sink ships".

The reality is that most election campaigns are more sideshow and theatre than substance.

Obama's campaign in 2008 was an exception to this. His campaign was organised and funded from a grass roots movement and captivated a large proportion of Americans and international observers. He made genuine and successful attempts to articulate a clear vision for the future and to engage with large numbers of the American public. However, the campaign was still run using the formidable campaign and political apparatus of the Democratic party.

The party line in parliaments

Having formed government and sitting regularly in the parliament, what does your local member do? If you are very lucky and you communicate with them about a specific issue or policy, they may mention it in the parliament when making a speech or asking a question. The will often do this if there is a positive political benefit to them, such as appealing to a large constituency within their electorate.

However, when it comes to a vote, your viewpoint is forgotten. The only thing that matters is the party line - the party position - on the matter. This creates the curious spectacle of politicians often making passionate speeches against a piece of legislation so that they can appear to oppose it and have their comments on the parliamentary record (e.g. Hansard), but then they vote for it.

Recent examples of this include the Northern Territory intervention that the Howard government rammed through as an election-motivated stunt in the lead up the 2007 Australian Federal election. Supposedly progressive members such as Labor's Peter Garrett spoke at length about the problems with the legislation, but the Labor party voted as block to support the legislation. They appeared to have based their decision to support the legislation - which could only be implemented with a suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act - to prevent them becoming politically "wedged" on the issue.

Labor Party members are expelled from the party if they "cross the floor" and go against the party line to vote with other parties.

Liberal Party members are not automatically expelled, but there is usually a lot of repercussions for MPs who do cross the floor, so it is not a common occurrence.

On very odd occasions under special circumstances, a "conscience vote" can be allowed on a particular issue. This frees MPs from being bound to vote on the party line. It is interesting to watch the increased level of political discourse and public engagement that ensues. MPs positions are suddenly much more transparent and they are more accountable to their constituents on the issue in question. A healthy political system and parliament would make every vote a conscience vote, free from the shackles of party political positions.

The blame game and adversarial contests

The Westminster system of government combined with political parties has resulted in a situation where a party (or a coalition of parties) with a majority of seats in the parliament unite to form the government. Other parties, large or small, are by default in "opposition".

In countries such as the United States and Australia, two major parties have by far the highest numbers of seats. In the United States the contest is between the Democrats and the Republicans. Often one party controls the "lower house" such as the United States House of Representatives, while the other controls the "upper house" such as the United States Senate.

Politics often descends into the "blame game" syndrome, where politicians spend a lot of their time and effort blaming the "opposite" party for perceived faults with legislation, the economy, the health system, the education system and so on.

It is common after a change of government for the victorious party to indulge in blaming their predecessors for the "sins of the past" for several years after they have been elected. It is often thought to be more effective and easier to attack your political opponents, thereby discrediting them in the minds of the public, than attempting to convey positive messages about your own policies and achievements. This behavior reaches a climax during election campaigns when it common for strategically timed "attack ads" to appear which often target the personal attributes of politicians or highlight in a dramatic way supposed weaknesses in their policies.

Unfortunately this type of adversarial contest does not build consensus on matters of import. Usually it has the opposite effect and polarises public opinion. It is difficult to enact significant policy changes - such as those required to move to a low carbon economy - when they are constantly criticised, undermined or even blocked by political parties in opposition.

There is of course often a need for vigorous public and political debate on important matters, and amending legislation is an important role of parliaments. However, it is a major problem when the motives for blocking legislation are centered on political advancement rather than providing leadership to or meeting the needs of the public.

Attack-style politics indicates a lack of morals and "the end justifies the means" mentality, which many people out of political circles find innappropriate and distasteful.

President Obama in the United States, a Democrat, has recently broken down one of the traditional political barriers by appointing a Republican, Robert Michael Gates, as the United States Secretary of Defense. Gates is the fourteenth Cabinet member in history to serve under two Presidents of different parties[1]

The tendency toward incrementalism and compromise

Case studies in perverse outcomes

Water resource management and supplies

Power generation and usage

The logging and woodchip industries

Transport - excessive carbon emissions

Housing and buildings - energy efficiency is still seen as optional and costly

Stakeholders and their interests

The Legislature (parliament)

The Executive (government departments)

The Judiciary

Education

Industry

NGOs

Scientists

Unions

The public (you and I)

See also

References

  1. Wikipedia:Robert Gates


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