Archive for commentary

Green is good for you

Many studies have shown the mental health benefits of being surrounded by even a small amount of nature. Patients in hospitals recover faster if they can see trees from their hospital beds, having plants in your office or a view of greenery from your office window makes you less likely to phone in sick. Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian cites some new research that people who move to a home in a ‘greener’ location enjoy long-lasting mental health benefits.

It’s not hard to see the logic. For most of human’s evolutionary history, we’ve lived amongst grass and trees and plants, so it makes sense that we feel most comfortable living in the type of environment in which we evolved.

Unfortunately, the general trend is for people to have less contact with nature. Overall there is a huge flow of people from rural to urban areas, driven by poverty and a search for work.

Research also suggests people in rich countries are spending less time in nature. US researcher Oliver Pergams has found visits to national parks has fallen in the last two decades. People are camping, hunting and fishing less. In America, the membership of Boy Scouts, probably the most nature-focused organised youth activity, has halved since 1972.

In Australia and elsewhere, gardens have shrunk as homes get bigger and blocks are sub-divided: indoor space eating up outdoor space.

Other research has shown that children spend much less time outdoors than in previous generations, with the rise of screen-based activities and increased traffic risks. Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder for this in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods.

For many children, their main contact with “nature” is now their Saturday morning soccer match. But a football field hardly has the rich natural diversity to be found exploring in the woods.

This line of research shows that it’s not wealth that matters: people in a more natural environment are happier, healthier, less stressed and suffer less mental illness. I believe this is an issue the green movement needs to highlight, to show how being “greener” is not just about giving up things to save the planet, but brings direct, immediate benefits to us all. It counters the dominant mantra in western capitalist societies that economic growth and wealth are the only measures of wellbeing.  There’s huge scope for greening cities, especially when you consider that a third of urban space is devoted to cars – roads, driveways, carparks. Reduce road space, increase trees, parks, community gardens, more outdoor education and gardening in schools, green walking and cycling corridors, green walls and roofs,

Right… I’m off to take my kids for a bushwalk.

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Falling emissions a free hit for Abbott’s Direct Action policy

Just before Christmas Environment Minister Greg Hunt released some (albeit still vague) details of the government’s Direct Action policy on climate change. Here’s an outline of the main points. Put simply, the government will provide $1.5billion over three years to fund projects that reduce Australia’s emissions, to reach a target of 5 per cent emissions cuts. (The Coalition went into the election promising to commit $3 billion to the scheme.) There will be solar panel rebates for low-income households, capped at 100,000 rebates per year.

Analysts say $1.5billion is not enough. But it’s possible the Coalition might be handed a free hit, because Australia’s emissions may fall anyway due to two factors. Firstly, manufacturing closures (such as Holden) may mean Australia’s industrial emissions fall naturally. Secondly, a report by the Australia Institute suggests Australian energy consumers are cutting energy use in response to the steep rise in energy prices over the past four years or so – and especially since the carbon tax debate brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. More efficient technology is also reducing big domestic greenhouse gas items such as air conditioning and televisions.

In contrast, if the carbon tax is left in place and its existing year-on-year emissions targets for are not revised, it’s been estimated it would deliver cuts of about 15 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020 – again because of the two factors mentioned above.

The Coalition may thus be gifted its 5 per cent cut and be able to present Direct Action as a success, even though any cuts it achieved will be far less than the carbon tax would have delivered – and manifestly inadequate for anyone following climate change science.

More analysis of Direct Action in the Sydney Morning Herald here.

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Coalition to axe Renewable Energy Target?

The one pillar of existing climate policy the Coalition has promised to keep is the Renewable Energy Target (RET), to have 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity generated by renewables by 2020. This is widely regarded as a vital driver of change, because power companies must meet this target. This may be because the RET was a Howard government policy, not a Labor one, and still has strong support in the Liberal party.

However, It seems there are many within the Coalition who want the RET scrapped, or at least put back until 2025. And just before Christmas Tony Abbott also fired a warning shot across the bows of the RET, saying the scheme is “causing pretty significant price pressure”  and needed to be reviewed.

Abbott said he would also “consult closely” with his Business Advisory Council, chaired by Maurice Newman, a climate sceptic and vocal opponent of windfarms who is on record as saying the RET should be scrapped. Abbott seems to be using Newman as his mouthpiece for what most people believe is Abbott’s own continuing climate scepticism.

The Coalition also made an election promise to conduct an enquiry into the health impacts of wind turbines, with many of its supporters pushing for a ban on wind turbines close to residential areas. Funnily enough, Maurice Newman is among a group of landowners threatening to sue their neighbour for installing wind turbines if it affects the value of their properties.

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Western Australia could scupper plans to ditch carbon tax

Without Green or Labor support, the Abbott government cannot get its bills to abolish the carbon tax  through parliament until the Senate changes in July. And there’s a potential fly in the ointment here, because the Senate election for Western

Already since the election, Coalition support has dropped, and voters may also be reluctant to vote for micro-parties again, after the election of the Sports Enthusiasts Party, and it’s possible that Labor could recover seats they “lost”. That would deny the government a friendly majority in the Senate and make it hard to actually abolish the carbon tax. In which case, Abbott would have to consider a double dissolution as a de facto referendum on the carbon tax.

Indeed, Abbott plans to make the WA senate rerun itself basically a referendum on the carbon tax. But, as I wrote in a previous blog, it’s not nearly as clear-cut as Abbott would have us believe that the last election really was a vote against the carbon tax – and in fact many voters still support it. If we have a hot summer with big bushfires that focuses voters’ minds on climate change, Abbott could be in for a nasty surprise.

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Does Abbott have mandate to repeal carbon tax?

Tony Abbott would have us believe the 2013 election was a referendum on the carbon tax and the Coalition’s win has given him a mandate to dismantle all of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. However, a survey done at the time of the election found 83.5 per cent of Australians wanted the same or more action on climate change, not less. Even on the  carbon tax, only 35 per cent of Australians did not want a price on carbon.

These results indicate most Australians accept climate change is real and support action to prevent it.

There is no mandate to repeal the carbon tax. In fact, only 3 per cent of voters said they regarded it as the main issue in casting their vote.

What’s more, the Coalition government has gone much further, moving quickly to abolish the Climate Commission, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and abandoning a bipartisan commitment to move beyond 5 per cent emissions cuts depending on international developments. What’s more, Abbott has effectively abandoned even the commitment to 5 per cent emissions cuts, saying the Direct Action budget will not be increased even if it falls short of delivering 5 per cent.

These actions were scarcely canvassed during the election. There is certainly no mandate for them.

A more recent Neilson poll found 57 per cent of Australians want the carbon tax gone, but only 12 per cent support Abbott’s Direct Action, while at 29 per cent, an emissions trading scheme is the most popular policy climate policy. Only 11 per cent favoured doing nothing about climate change.

This points to Labor’s failure to sell it’s climate policies as the real problem, not the policies themselves. Gillard was stupid to both promise there would be “no carbon tax” then agree that her scheme was a carbon tax (when it wasn’t). During Labor’s six years in office (during which the science became stronger and more compelling) the Lowy Institute found the number of Australians who felt global warming was a serious problem fell from 68 per cent to 36 per cent. It’s an indictment of Labor’s six years in office, in which climate change went from being the “greatest moral challenge” to an embarrassment the government dared not mention, as Labor ran an advertising campaign for the carbon tax that didn’t mention climate change, and Climate Change minister Greg Combet became the government’s invisible man.

The conclusion to draw is the exact opposite of Tony Abbott’s mandate. Labor’s flip-flopping on climate change may have contributed to voters’ sense that Labor was incompetent, but far from voting on climate change, the real problem is voters didn’t vote on climate. Most Australians want climate action, but it’s not their top priority. That’s the real challenge.


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Why isn’t there a proper climate change movement in Australia?

At the weekend GetUp! held a national “day of climate action” to demand action. An estimated 60,000 people took to the streets around Australia, in many cases in pouring rain, to call for real action to prevent global warming. It was the largest national global warming protest yet in Australia.

Far more people turned out than ever did for anti-carbon tax rallies in the previous parliament.

It highlights the fact that something like 69 per cent of Australians support stronger action on climate change.

Still, it could have been better. How much support did this event get from other green organisations? I searched the websites of Greenpeace, the ACF, WWF Australia, the Wilderness Society and the Greens. ACF gave it a passing mention. The others totally ignored it.

My question is: after all this time, why is there still not a single, unified, powerful climate action movement in this country?

The problem, I think, is green NGOs have adopted a pseudo-business mindset, with marketing departments concerned about branding and product differentation. They see themselves as competing with each other for supporter donations and membership fees. So they rarely work together.

Green organisations can still have their niches – Greenpeace for protest and action, the Wilderness Society for wild places, ACF less radical, and so on – but they need to come together in a single climate action coalition.

Organising rallies when you can’t pull a crowd is counterproductive. Instead of a show of strength, it’s a “show of weakness” that lets politicians know it’s safe to ignore you. Is 60,000 enough to make politicians take note? I doubt it. We need hundreds of thousands, rallies bigger than the anti-Iraq war demonstration, to startle politicians into taking climate change seriously.

We’ll only get meaningful climate action from our politicians when all green organisations stop thinking like seperate brands and start working together to build one climate movement.

Right now, the green movement is as culpable as anyone else on climate change.

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Bushfires, who’s talking hogwash?

Greens MP Adam Bandt came under fire for daring to mention a connection between the NSW bushfires and climate change. Indecent to talk about “politics”, apparently, while people were losing their homes. Tony Abbott was also quick to poo-poo the idea, calling any connection between global warming and the bushfires “hogwash”.

Climate deniers like Abbott would like us to believe that bushfires have always happened, and what’s more, any increase in bushfire danger is mainly due to nasty greenies preventing controlled burns. Because it follows that if bushfires are national disasters and climate change means a lot more of them, then the Australian government should be doing a lot more to help prevent it happening. That’s not a message that suits this government, busy dismantling Australia’s climate change policies.

Yet as this roundup from Climate Code Red amply demonstrates, plenty of scientists believe there is a link.

Of course bushfires have always happened, but the science says increased temperatures and reduced rainfall in many parts of Australia, due to climate change, are resulting in more days of extreme fire danger and therefore more frequent bushfires.

And is it true that Greens, or more broadly greenies, are preventing controlled burning?  but I haven’t found much actual evidence – only unsubstantiated claims by anti-greens. In fact it seems to me the main reason there isn’t more prescribed burning is due to a lack of funding from state governments. Permitting inappropriate residential development in heavily forested, high-risk bushfire zones is another key factor. Neither of these factors can be blamed on the Greens.

And a huge increase in controlled burning on urban fringes would significantly increase air pollution, which could even result in more (but less newsworthy) deaths than we currently get from bushfires. Not as simple as it seems, is it?

Is it even true more controlled burning would reduce the number of bushfires? My gut feeling, like most people’s, is surel it would. But expert opinion seems more nuanced than the “burn burn burn” cheersquad would have us believe.

For instance, bushfire researchers Matthias Boer and Ross Bradstock wrote in the Drum after the Victoria fires: “However, when weather conditions are severe, differences in fire behaviour between treated and untreated areas can become negligible or irrelevant, as seen during the 2009 bushfires in Victoria.”

That is to say, in extreme weather conditions we’ll get bushfires no matter what we do.

And climate change of course means more extreme conditions.

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