Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Australia's hypocrisy, its current dark trajectory, and how we can change this

Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (the photo of the signers of the 1951 convention on the UNHCR webpage appears to show people of entirely European origin, about 20 are men, possibly 3 are female) and also of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last financial year the federal government spent more than $1 billion to house about 2200 asylum seekers in offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The children of adults who seek asylum in Australia experience considerable mental health problems; these are consistently downplayed and hidden by Australian authorities.

We now flout both Conventions. No one expels us. No other country even seems to criticise our flagrant disregard, approaching contempt, especially for the refugee convention, even though many Australians seem to look down on nations that have not signed it. No refugee, harmed by our actions, has the means to take us to court, and even if they did, no international court yet exists that would rule in their favour. So, this situation is likely to continue.

Although it would be more honest for Australia to withdraw from these conventions (that we once did a much better job of observing), most of us still appear to think of Australians as a humane, "First World" country. In some ways we are, but in many ways that is not so. I think we are now not so different to Nazi Germany. There were winners and losers there and then, there are winners and losers here and now. It is a question of where to focus our gaze. Most of us prefer to look away from those who suffer due to our policies, just as many in Nazi Germany seemed to ignore the victims of Nazi racial and cultural hygiene policy, such as Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies and the disabled.

Australia's record is increasingly blemished (though White Australia's invasion of Aboriginal Australia is evidence that we have never been benign) and our trajectory looks darker every year, for example as shown by yet deeper cuts to our already miserly foreign aid budget. For over fifteen years (before 9-11) I have published articles (eg "Inequality, Global Change and the Sustainability of Civilisation", published in 2000) (a free version is here) and chapters arguing that such selfishness will increasingly drive resentment and terrorism, both external and home-grown. 

Somehow, collectively, people in Australia who want to promote and defend the rights, health and well-being of the "other" need to struggle on. To do so not only protects the other, but it also - in the long run - protects us.

How can we change? Enough people need to realise that  it is in our collective self-interest to change. We also need to be a lot more generous, especially to people in low-income countries. If we disregard international law, then, one day, which nation will come to protect us?

The siege in Sydney has just ended. There is an outpouring of grief over its victims, which occurred around the same day as foreign aid was cut further. Yet, too many companies pay too little tax (according to the Economist, $20 trillion is held in tax havens). Collectively, Australia is prepared to spend billions subsidising fossil fuels that poison our common future. Instead of cutting aid we could raise taxes from the rich and well-lawyered.

My view that forms of inequality drive terrorism is virtually completely unrepresented in the mainstream media. Instead, I repeatedly hear claims to the effect that "nothing can be done to prevent such events" (eg the Martin Place siege). But a lot could be done. Yet, for the time being I am forced to conclude that my views appear to be in a tiny minority.

PS Oct 13, 2016: Nothing has improved since I wrote this. Doctors are banned from speaking out about conditions offshore. Australia's cheating of Timor Leste is better understood, and China's contempt for the Law of the Sea is clear. Fear of China is rising, and Australia's bullying behaviour towards Timor Leste is like that of China towards its neighbours. I hope I am wrong, but feel World War III is evolving.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Sydney siege and simple explanations: reflections

Al Jazeera recently published an article by Nazry Bahrawi criticising the "I'll ride with you" hashtag. I was under-impressed. It seems to reflect and reinforce stereotypes, even making the egregious error that the instigator was white (so what? except that Bahrawi appeared to have reflexly assumed that and even tried to make it a central important point). (Rachael Jacobs, a lecturer in Education at the Australia Catholic University in Brisbane was the Greens candidate for the seat of Brisbane. Her parents were born in India, and her appearance suggests Indian heritage.) (A later version of Bahrawi's paper corrects his error.)

My fundamental criticism of Bahrawi's argument is that he seems to suggest that factors such as "religion", "race" and "nationality" are entirely discrete .. if one accepts that then you can conclude causation is all "x" and zero "y". We see the same logical flaw when asylum seekers are labeled "economic" (ie 100% economic), thus ignoring driving elements in migration such as persecution, environmental scarcity and other forms of hardship. Indeed, failing to see the deeper complexity of things, just picking one explanation, may be a characteristic of racism and racists.

Bahrawi asserts that it is others who see dichotomies, who fail to see nuance. He even says "Western colonisers began to think of their "Other" in one of two antithetical ways - either as a barbaric savage or a noble savage." Now, maybe some colonisers did see one or either extreme, only but is it not plausible that many people always perceived the "other" as somewhere between these poles? But, even if they did see complexity, I do agree that many representations of mass opinion are simplified, digitally, either "on" or "off".

But, even if some colonisers used to think so simplistically, are such views still common? I have certainly met racists (especially when I was a general practitioner), but they don't generally - if at all - think of the "other" in barbaric or noble terms .. they simply think selfishly. Most of the early (and shameful) racism in Australia against Chinese was economic, i.e. selfish. I don't think it was much to do with an idea that the Chinese were barbaric, though there undoubtedly were mass media depictions of Chinese as barbaric. It was instead foreseen that many Chinese immigrants would endure lower living standards, work for lower wages and thus drive down the incomes of the European Australians. Perhaps that couldn't be admitted .. alleged Chinese barbarism was instead proposed.

But even if some authorities and individuals did think in those black and white terms I cannot see the relevance to the Sydney siege. Furthermore, separation into "otherness" has no monopoly by "Westerners". The Rwandan genocide, the modern tribal barbarism in South Sudan, and indeed division among Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East easily show that.

Also, the main point of the "I'll ride with you" movement is that many people are challenging extremist views.

It is also fallacious to use arguments such as because the perpetrator of the Sydney siege is mentally unstable and a criminal (or synonyms for that) that the siege therefore had nothing to do with the Middle East (even though the perpetrator had an Islamic flag and sent messages delivered by his hostages on YouTube that he was launching an attack on Australia for Islamic State). There is a large supply of unstable people in the community, and they will reflect like misty mirrors the larger issues in the world. And one such large issue is the morass of Western involvement in the Middle East (and no doubt involvement and competition of myriad other groups there, Islamic and non-Islamic.) And there is undeniably a Muslim dimension to it all. 

The reputation of modern Islam has been greatly harmed among the non-Islamic world by actions such as the fatwah against Salman Rushdie (irrespective of how representative of Islam that intolerance is). Islam appears not only intolerant, and pockets within it seek to actively and violently enforce intolerance on non-Muslims, such as the January 2015 attack on the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. According to an article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian as many as 20% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world have some sympathy for radical Islam.

There is a strong defence that freedom of speech and satire are legitimate in democracies. I am a Buddhist. Buddhism talks of right speech and I am personally uncomfortable with some forms of satire and ridicule, including towards religious figures. But ridicule can never justify violence towards those who utter it. I utterly condemn this latest attack.

However there is insufficient recognition, especially in the West, that we need far more progress towards a global democracy. I don't know how many non-Muslims support Western intervention in predominantly Muslim countries but my guess it is far higher than 20%, a point that is rarely made.

It is irrefutable that many terrorist actions aimed at liberal values (not just here, but in Nigeria, Pakistan, France etc) come from people acting, at least in part, in the cause of Islam. I do not think Bahrawi faces up to that. He is far from alone in the Islamic intelligentsia in his seeming denial.

But, of course, numerous other groups (Israelis, George Bush-led US invasions, supported by John Howard and Tony Abbott-led Australian support, Buddhists in Myanmar and in Sri Lanka etc) also practice violence; but those forms of violence are not directed against Australian citizens (or French for that matter). It is not just the
the Islamic intelligentsia who are capable of denial.

Let's hope that "I'll ride with you" acts to ease tensions .. I think it will (slightly) .. but the underlying problems will not fade, in a world where limits to material growth continue to tighten, and where the claim that scarcity drives co-operation is true only to a point. 

At about the same time as the Sydney siege Australia cut its foreign aid, yet again. I know aid is hard to do well, but to me, the general level of Australian support (or at least acquiescence) for that cut in aid is evidence we are a rather spoiled nation that would like to forget there are other peoples in the world, and we have with very little understanding that a fairer world is actually safer for us, at least in the long run.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reflections on non violent civil disobedience to oppose Australia's coal export frenzy

I have been thinking a lot re non violent civil disobedience (NVCD) lately .. as some of you know I was arrested last week. I blocked a road for 50 minutes, the charge was damage to mine property by “rendering a road useless” . The maximum penalty is 7 years in jail, and the police statement stated that Whitehaven Coal would be seeking damages of at least $40,000.

Maybe the $40K threat is bluff and maybe the police won’t follow through with that extreme charge but the severity of both threats surprised me (though not that much) and is forcing me to reconsider suggesting NVCD to others. Even if both threats evaporate, there is a risk that NSW (and Qld) will further evolve towards fossil fuel-police states; in good conscience I cannot now suggest to virtually anyone that they take the risk I did, at least in Australia. (Maybe a very wealthy public figure like Dick Smith could take the risk, but how many people like that do I know?)

If I was in Nazi Germany (ie after Hitler took power) protests (eg Bonhoeffer’s) would be heroic but almost certainly ineffective in the life of the protester. NSW/Australia is not as extreme as Nazi Germany, but it is far further along a trajectory towards extremism than is comfortable (witness our illegal and immoral treatment of asylum seekers for a start). Social media is much on my side (and that of the former Australian rugby captain David Pocock who was also arrested this week) and mainstream media too is sympathetic, so far anyway, but I think we have to accept social media is far from representing majority opinion in Australia.

I am wondering if a tactic that might evolve is a protest seeking media attention (and public recognition that climate change is a very serious issue .. far more than NIMBYism) but that does not in any conceivable way harm mine property .. except its reputation could be a vigil outside the peak body in charge of fossil fuel mining and exports; maybe the office of the Minister of Energy. But doing what? A fast for a week? I am not prepared to fast to death or even to serious risk (and no fast at all at least not for the next 12 months) .. and this probably seems extreme to most people (I think such a fast has been tried in Australia?) but I’m just thinking aloud.

As for reputation – Whitehaven etc could evolve to Gunns 20 tactics – SLAPPS .. especially if the protesters start to look effective or get under their skin. (Gunns 20 might have had much to do with its CEO, John Gay’s particularly unpleasant personality). Whitehaven doing a Gunns must be under consideration by them but could also backfire..

But as I mentioned, the proximity of the risk as a tactic by big coal inhibits me from suggesting to others that NVCD is desirable (even though three of us have an in press letter in a public health journal saying exactly that .. but that letter was written when a SLAPP against climate protest seemed, at least to me, less likely.)

If I was to be involved in a fast, that could perhaps trigger a SLAPP but I think at the moment that is also unlikely.

I have no conclusion – I strongly support disinvestment, conventional academic means, think tanks and lobby groups; IPCC good science etc . But I remain of the view that those tactics are not enough. (I am certain of one thing though – violence will be counter-productive.)

Extreme climatic events work in our favour, but too many of them mean we are in peril. I met a senior climate scientist in the US last month whose opinion was that the recent apparent slowdown of land-surface ocean warming may persist for an unknown time .. even decades .. (ie deep ocean warming will progress, so will ocean acidification, so will sea level rise .. but perhaps the acceleration of more direct effects on human well-being eg drought will slow). .. but at the end of the day that scientist does not know. And this year looks to be the warmest on record, and again not a strong El Nino.

On the positive side, the ABC contacted me today and I am to be the subject of a cover story in a magazine called Medical Observer, which goes to almost all GPs in Australia.

I recently had an email exchange with a US academic who thinks Australia is irrelevant to climate change, that what alone matters is China/US. But Australia seeks to be the world’s leading coal exporter so I think there is leverage here. Also, protests as apparently extreme as NVCD in Europe and perhaps even in the US are not as warranted I think, because in both places the rhetoric is shifting towards encouraging the clean energy transition.

Of rich countries, Australia shares with Canada (and perhaps Poland) unique characteristics that suggest NVCD could be particularly useful:

1. Reckless national (and some state) government rhetoric largely indifferent to climate risk; 
2. We are an important fossil fuel producer and 
3. We are not (fully) a police state .. there is still reasonable media, still a tradition of fairly free speech and respect for the right to protest. 

But note my caution re the evolution of this towards SLAPPs and prison.

The other recent IPCC contributor I know of who was arrested, a Canadian in Canada, I believe faced a much lighter charge than I am.

PS I removed this on the advice of my lawyer, but recently reposted it. Since I wrote this I got a two year good behaviour bond, with no conviction recorded.

Another consequence of being arrested was that I was denied a visa to the US to attend a scientific meeting to which I had been invited. I was eventually offered one, valid for a very short time that has long since expired, after considerable time, cost and aggravation, but it was not granted in time to organise my travel. Even today, despite no sentence being recorded, I cannot visit the US without going through the same process again.

The meeting I was unable to attend
was part of the process leading to the Lancet/Rockefeller Foundation Planetary Health Commission.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Economics, limits to growth, and the falling price of oil and coal

The price of oil and coal is falling, despite both resources clearly being finite.
In a nutshell, the price of both is falling because of temporary over-supply. I believe this has several reasons. In Australia some coal mines produce coal at a cost higher than they can now sell it for. It seems irrational to do this, but there are some cases where temporarily stopping production is even more expensive. There is a momentum which propels employment and investment. In some cases mines may have to pay penalties if they temporarily halt production. There must be articles on this, if I can find time I will investigate and link. 

Consider there are n (say 100) coal producers in this position (producing coal - or oil - at a loss). If n/2 (50) cease production then the supply falls, the prices rise and suppose the other 50 then become profitable. But many of the 100 gamble that they will survive the unprofitable "window" .. and if they do pull out then they definitely "lose" - they cannot (quickly) become profitable again .. i.e. join the 50 who in theory are profitable if 50 pull out .. so a kind of tragedy of the commons applies, inhibiting all 100 from behaving rationally.

Now, of those 100, some have much higher production costs and -- if they all know their production costs, in comparison to others then the most expensive would pull out first. Let's assume a few outliers (say 10) will, so we have 90 left. But of these, the production cost for many is similar. So they all see it as in their long term self-interest to hang on.

I think the duration of irrationally persisting with the loss-making exercise also depends on the patience (or desperation?) of the banks investing in the mine. I bet few if any of the coal company (or bank) executives making the decision to continue to produce at a loss are risking their own money, though some probably have shares in the company and bank.

In fact, the longer these executives delay ceasing production, the longer they draw their income, and the longer they delay the hassle of looking for another job. Maybe some of them take a paycut but hang on in their position (Alan Joyce comes to mind) .. thus many executives have a conflict of interest .. their own financial well-being is enhanced by decisions against the financial well-being of their company.

And I reckon something similar happens at the bank level .. and beyond that at the politician level. .. So, it is a house of cards.

If resources were not limited, it would not really matter (apart from the financial loss to small investors who, for example, see their investment in Whitehaven etc fall).. but physical and ecological resources are limited .. the embedded energy in the stranded assets has an opportunity cost and also a pollution cost.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Why I was arrested on November 26, 2014 at the Whitehaven coal complex, NSW Australia

Yesterday, I was arrested protesting the Whitehaven coal complex, in north-western NSW.

In 1991 my first scientific paper concerned climate change and health. Since then, concern for what I have called “environmental brinkmanship” (of which climate change is a major part) has steered my academic career. Now, increasingly, it drives my personal life. In early 2013 I sweltered through the two hottest days in Australian history. Unprecedented heat reached our cabin in the Tasmanian forest. What should have been a holiday was instead spent continually checking bushfire status. Towns were burned, some people survived only by sheltering in the sea. Australian fires can outrun cars. Had a fire entered our valley we could not have tried to leave on the single road. It was an anxious time.

On the second morning I was awoken at 3 am with sinus pain, caused by smoke. It roused me. I checked the internet. Luckily for us, at least at that time, the smoke was from 60 miles away. The fire was contained, the smoke was not. That personal experience, integrated with my academic work and the knowledge that, left unchecked, climate change will lead to many more such events (and worse) propelled my declaration of intent to be arrested by end 2014. That promise, made publicly, was fulfilled in northern NSW on November 26.

We need a whole-of society effort to transform to a clean-energy fuelled future. If we don’t, climate change will undermine civilisation, including by acting as a “risk multiplier” for famine, migration, social unrest and conflict. My recently released edited book “Climate Change and Global Health” explores these issues. But I now believe that my academic work of writing, speaking and editing, while necessary, is insufficient. We need to work even more effectively to end Australia’s coal frenzy, and civil disobedience is an essential component of that. 

Civil disobedience has a long and honourable history, and was central to giving the vote and other rights to women in some countries. Civil disobedience lessened racial discrimination in countries such as the US. Peaceful mass protests, including hunger strikes, helped free the Indian sub-continent from British rule. In Australia, a direct challenge to state power in the form of large-scale civil disobedience is now called for, in order to prevent the lucky country from becoming an even more aggressive “Earth poisoner”.

Coal combustion was once of net benefit. But today, we know that the enormous scale of coal burning loads the ocean and atmosphere with a dangerous burden of toxins, especially the invisible gas carbon dioxide. After decades of effort, affordable clean energy technologies are emerging. But instead of encouraging their rapid development so that Australia can become a clean energy superpower, the policies and statements of our government reveal attachment to the old energy paradigm that is marvellously contemptuous of modern science. Senior Australian officials openly express their disbelief in climate science, sometimes from national media platforms. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott even proclaimed recently that “coal is good for humanity”.

Yet climate science reveals that our addiction to fossil fuels, especially to coal and tarsands is poisoning our common future. The dose we are administering to the biosphere is toxic, especially to future generations. The “social license” to burn fossil fuels needs to be removed, just as is smoking in hospitals. 

Like Bill McKibben, I believe that people of my age (59) should be willing to make what is a tiny sacrifice compared to the enormous risk that the path pursued by our politicians is leading us along. I cannot stand by any longer. On the other hand, if NSW continues to evolve towards a coal-police state then the risk may not be so small after all.

There is also a spiritual dimension to these protests, as well described by the journalist Graham Readfearn.


A video was recorded in 2015, before the devastating 2016 fires in Tasmania. It tries to explain why I, a contributor to the 2014 IPCC health chapter, was arrested to protest coal exports from Australia. Thanks to Jody Lightfoot and everyone at Common Grace for this chance to explain my actions further.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why I am going to Maules Creek next week

I am travelling to Maules Ck on Monday to join the Leard forest blockade, to oppose the expansion of the Whiehaven coal mine. I am doing so as a member of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, and as co-founder of the Buddhist influenced NGO BODHI.

Primarily I am going to fulfill what I see as part of my responsibility as a professor of public health in Australia, an incredibly fortunate nation that should not be so wedded to coal.

I am a contributor to the recent IPCC health chapter, albeit only a minor one. More significantly, I think, I am sole editor of the recently released  book "Climate Change and Global Health" (CABI, UK) launched last month at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I attach a photograph of the cover. I am also first author for a forthcoming letter in the ANZ Journal of Public Health. It concludes "while continuing to write, speak, organise, and advocate for action we have also concluded that civil disobedience, by health professionals, as part of a wider social movement, is now necessary. Collectively, such actions may yet trigger sufficient corrective action to see the optimists vindicated."

I may be the first contributor to the recent IPCC report to publicly advocate such steps, though I am well aware of Jim Hansen’s role in climate science and civil disobedience.  Indeed Hansen’s actions have long inspired me.But I do not think Hansen has contributed to any recent IPCC reports – and I am pretty sure I won’t be asked again, either! Professor Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University , and a contributor to the 2007 IPCC report has also been arrested, after setting up a blockade on train tracks in British Columbia, Canada. I do not yet know if Prof  Jaccard has contributed to the most recent report.
No doubt people like Janet Albrechtson will argue that my actions show that the IPCC is politically compromised, but I believe the reverse is closer to truth. Few of the many IPCC contributors I have met or heard speak appear anything like as “politicised” as I am (or for that matter, as Albrechtson is).

From its origins, leaders in public health have interacted with politics, and have sought creative ways to influence public policy and public opinion. As a public health worker (first degrees medical science and medicine, post graduate qualifications in tropical medicine, epidemiology and population health), I am not fully qualified to form a definitive opinion about the accuracy of climate science. But what I can do is consider the implications of published climate science for public health. Having done so for many years, and in great detail (as the book is evidence of) I have concluded that it is appropriate to seek novel ways to influence public policy in ways that will protect and enhance public health, against the slowly worsening and seemingly inexorable assault from climate change.

As I said at the launch of the book I might be making a “type I error” – ie acting without complete certainty, but in medicine that was how I was trained .. eg diagnose appendicitis and recommend surgery; do not wait for the post mortem. I see my actions as nothing more than preventive medicine, but I do regret that more conventional ways to influence Australian opinion do not seem to be enough.

To give my actions more significance and weight I would appreciate any assistance with publicity that you might give.