April 30, 2013

The last hurrah

Cyclone Zane developing, courtesy of BOM
Today is the last day, officially, of the tropical cyclone season. Not that the date makes the slightest difference to Zane (great name), which developed this morning from a tropical low into a category 1 tropical cyclone (TC1) some 600 kilometres off Cooktown on the east coast of the Pointy Bit of Far North Queensland. It has since been reclassified as a category 2, and is expected to lash the coast late tomorrow night or Thursday morning, including one of my favourite places, beautiful Cape Tribulation. Heavy rain and gusting winds are expected as far south as Cardwell.

We can't be surprised, especially following The Angry Summer (see April 2013), that extreme weather events fail to follow convention. Zane will be the first tropical cyclone to cross the coast in May for 43 years. Perversely, parts of Cape York have missed out on monsoonal rains this season, and graziers are hoping Zane might come up with the goods. Otherwise it's going to be a long dry winter. Last November, when we birdwatched on the Daintree, our guide told us the region had just had the coldest, driest and longest winter he could remember in decades. What is 'normal' any more?

Changing weather patterns produce unexpected side-effects. In the UK at the moment, hay fever sufferers are bracing themselves for a bumper pollen season. The interminable cold winter at last seems to be over, which means the imminent pollen burst will be condensed into a shorter time frame and also intensified by the double whammy of the tree pollen and grass pollen seasons overlapping.

Subtle changes have been occurring to the life cycles of plants and animals for years as a result of changes to the climate – and mismanagement of the land and a failure to conserve. Minute adaptations by one species can have a catastrophic impact on another species side by side it if the two don't adapt in the same way or at the same rate and are interdependent in some way. If you doubt it, read The Weather Makers and After the Future: Australia's New Extinction Crisis, both by Tim Flannery. Read them anyway. You'll learn a lot and he might just change your mindset.

Postscript 2 May: Zane did not live up to expectations. Although Our Jen (Jenny Woodward, the ABC's weather lady) was talking possible category 3 on Tuesday evening, the storm had weakened to a tropical low pressure system by Wednesday night. The Bureau of Meteorology cancelled its cyclone warning at 3am this morning, although 'gusty thunderstorms' were still expected over Cape York. What was left of Zane finally crossed the coast at Cape Grenville, pretty near the top of the Pointy Bit, at 10am: basically, it had been torn apart by a high-level trough. BOM's Rick Threlfall described it as 'a bit of a fizzer out over the sea'. That's the trouble with cyclones – oh so unpredictable.

April 29, 2013

The Anzac experience

I'm still grappling with Anzac Day. Every year the degree of fervour perplexes me. Pollies and others in the public eye, such as broadcasters, talk intently about paying their respects to fallen Aussie diggers in wars past and present. There is frequent appreciation of the Anzac spirit, which is as much about national character as courage and mateship on the battlefield. And I sense pressure on Australian citizens to turn up at Anzac Day ceremonies and verbalise their support for Australian soldiers currently in action. Callers to ABC local radio in Brisbane last Friday, the day after, were asked as part of the introductory, 'Hello, Brad of Manly, how are you?' routine whether or not they'd attended a dawn commemoration. So what if they hadn't? Did that make them less respectful of those who gave their lives for this country in battle on foreign fields?

Europe remembers its fallen soldiers on the 11th day of the 11th month. That was Armistice Day, the day on which hostilities on the Western Front ended in 1918. Two minutes' silence is observed at 11am, and in some countries there is a national holiday. In the run-up to 11 November, people buy and wear poppies, and the funds raised support those who have served or are currently serving, and their dependents. In the UK, public figures have to be seen to be wearing poppies. Ordinary people are under less social pressure than in Australia to attend commemorations at war memorials on Remembrance Sunday. Veterans march and bands play solemn music, but it's all rather understated.

Wherever and whenever we honour those who die in wartime, care must be taken to draw a clear line to separate respect and gratitude from militarism. Silent contemplation or sombre poems are appropriate, but political correctness has no part. Or 'poppy fascism', as described a few years ago by a well-known UK television newsreader who was the subject of viewers' complaints after his lapel was bare on air as Poppy Day approached.

This weekend I noticed a piece on independentaustralia.net expressing huge indignation at the selection of a young councillor to represent Blacktown council (in Sydney's western suburbs) at the local Anzac ceremony in preference to a former councillor, mayor and Korean veteran who has represented the council on this occasion for almost a quarter of a century. The outraged author of the piece saw this not only as blatant politicking – the young councillor happens to be a Parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming Federal election – but a slap in the face to Australian troops, 'at best unpatriotic and at worst an act of pure bastardry'. Such an overreaction is at best attention-seeking and at worst despotically nationalistic.

History is sometimes reinterpreted by governments seeking to add gravitas and verisimilitude to the modern context of their policies. The First World War was deeply unpopular in Australia and the debate about conscription divided the nation. No one marched to war memorials until 1965 and even then protests against the war in Vietnam were commonplace. Bob Hawke and John Howard in the 1990s marked the start of the rebranding of Anzac Day: for years attendance at dawn ceremonies had been only for the hardy. Amidst the brouhaha that surrounds the occasion these days, there are some who believe it has been hijacked by politicians and the media who use it to justify Australia's involvement in Afghanistan and its posturing in Asia Pacific as part of the power realignment in the region. Yet others believe it is a ploy by the military to keep them in business.

During my working life in London, if the company employing me did not observe two minutes' silence at 11am on the 11th of November, I would slip out of the office and find a park or a similarly suitable spot where I could sit and imagine how it was for those fighting in the muddy bloody battlefields of Northern Europe. I have always thought far differently about the World Wars than my country's involvement in the Falkland Islands, Iraq or Afghanistan. A man down is a man down, regardless of the cause, but Birdsong by Sebatian Foulks or the poems of Wilfred Owen did more to awaken my sense of responsibility to ensure that such a war should never happen again than any conflict during my lifetime. Along with a million other people, I marched through London on 14 February 2003 to message Prime Minister Tony Blair that I didn't approve of his taking us to war over oil. He didn't listen, and so forfeited his right to my support of the UK's involvement in someone else's conflict merely because I was a UK citizen.

Remembrance Day, for me, has never been about the UK's identity as a nation or its role on the world stage. Perhaps that is because the UK has such a long history. As I watched poppies fall poignantly during the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall, I thought only of life and death and the futility of war. I would never be less than respectful of those who have given their lives in patriotic duty, but what I believe about their cause and the manner in which I pay my respects are my business.

April 22, 2013

Earth Day

Monday 22 April: Earth Day. If you click on Google's doodle, first up is http://www.earthday.org/2013, and under 'About' there's a succinct explanation of this year's Earth Day theme – the many faces of climate change. These are the faces of people already feeling the impact of climate change, from New Jersey to the Niger River, as well as of many millions who will stand up for the protection of the planet and the promotion of a healthy, sustainable environment at thousands of events today.

I was surprised to learn that there have been Earth Days for over 40 years.

I typed 'Earth Day' into a few major news sites. ABC: nothing. Sydney Morning Herald: nothing. The Age: nothing. The Guardian: nothing. The Times: nothing.

Those that did mention Earth Day included Reuters, who rather missed the point, however. They 'honoured' the day by getting online travel advisor cheapflights.com to choose its '10 favourite forests' around the globe. (Australia's Daintree rainforest came in at number eight.)

The best the BBC could muster was in an episode of animated series dirtgirlworld. The Daily Mirror emphasised Google's doodle rather than the aims of Earth Day, although they did explain what it was. The Washington Post gets the prize for the most useful coverage.

If you've already read The Australian today, then you may wonder why I haven't already included its coverage in my survey so far. Unfortunately, I must decry yet another misleading headline (see also The Australian's deplorable headline, December 2012). This time Danish skeptical environmentalist* Bjorn Lomborg urges us to Celebrate Earth Day with a bit of fracking. His thesis is that natural gas should be exploited in the short term to reduce our emissions while further research is progressed to provide more viable green alternatives. He may have a point, but fracking is not a topic to be trifled with. The environmental fallout from shale gas production in the US and the risk to Australia's precious water reserves from inadequately investigated coal seam gas extraction undermine gas energy proponents' argument.

As I looked down on northern WA, the Territory and Queensland from 33,000 feet last weekend (picture above), I marvelled as ever at a truly remarkable landscape. I was too high to discern how much of it was being fracked up. Today I believe more befitting of Earth Day are topics based on the 5 Rs rather than the f-word.

Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist was published in 2001. While accepting the reality of anthropogenic global warming, he rejects short-term climate mitigation measures in favour of long-term solutions to a range of global problems that do not prioritise warming. Lomborg's work is controversial and he has been severely criticised, not least for scientific dishonesty

April 21, 2013


I've gushed about Byron Bay for so long, but until this Easter I had never been to Bluesfest, the most celebrated of Byron's festivals.

The traffic congestion between the Gold Coast and Byron was the worst we've ever seen in Australia, but all the world is put to rights with one glimpse of this upon arrival...
We headed off to the festival around 3. It was cloudy, with the forecast threatening showers. We went on the shuttle bus: no driving through lots more traffic, queueing to find a park and then the risk of getting bogged in mud. (They say it nearly always rains at Bluesfest.) From midday to midnight the buses ply backwards and forwards to the festival, which used to be at Belongil in town but since 2010 has been held at Tyagarah, a few kilometres north between Byron and Brunswick Heads. Next year will be the 25th East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival, and if that's not a reason to party I don't know what is.
If you buy a 5-day ticket for next year now, you'll get it for a special price, but you won't know the line-up for a while. The best thing to do, especially if you only want to attend for one or two days, is to sign up on the Bluesfest website. Regular emails will update you about who's appearing and ticket availability. We signed up last January, the full line-up was known by the end of that month and we had our tickets booked shortly afterwards. I suspect more people than ever will want to go next year, so you know what to do to avoid disappointment. Ticket buying in Australia is usually something of a nightmare: a couple of agencies share the monopoly; many tickets are released selectively before the general release date when websites crash with high demand but tickets are in fact in short supply. Bluesfest tickets are available on the Bluesfest website.

The mastermind behind this festival is Peter Noble who has been in music all his life, first as a bass guitarist and later as a concert and festival promoter. The latter is a risky business but Noble has been very successful. Byron Bluesfest attracts big names from all over the world – this year's line-up included Paul Simon, Santana, Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Plant, Madness, Steve Miller Band, Jon Anderson, Iggy Pop, Manu Chao and Jimmy Cliff. Over the years, many artists have rated the Bluesfest gig among the best they've ever played. Audiences are appreciative and there's a great sense of camaraderie among like-minded souls. Byron's culture of individuality is omnipresent: the man in stripes would get up every now and again to dance minimalistically in his own little world.
When we first arrived, we wandered round from arena to arena, catching Ben Harper first in Crossroads, then drifting from stall to stall, and listening to Pasión Flamenca in the busking tent. We've seen them before, at Byron Sunday markets. The singer's voice sends shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile the sky grew greyer.
You can't just wander from venue to venue and expect to be able to see anything other than on the big screen. Festival goers bag their spots from early on and stay there, operating relays and leaving guards if they have to visit the loos or the booze tent. Large areas at the back of each arena are for the folding chair brigade. When the heavens opened early evening I sympathised with those pressing in at the back of the tent while lots of people spread out on their chairs in the dry.

I wasn't interested in chairs. I was there to dance – on and off for at least five hours – to ska from Jimmy Cliff, blues-rock from Steve Miller, Latin rock from Santana, and alternative stuff from Manu Chao that I've no idea how to label. The programme ran like clockwork: bands came on stage when they were supposed to and went off in order to allow the next act to set up and do likewise.

Talking of the booze tent, there was, as you might expect in this land of Aussie rules, exceptionally strict control of sale. First you had to queue for tickets, and know what you wanted to drink then and later if you were buying more than one ticket. (You'd be mad not to: cans of beer, for example, were very small, and you wouldn't want to keep leaving your spot.) So you couldn't buy a premium beer ticket and decide a couple of hours later you fancied a different tipple. The staff issuing tickets were behind bars with a little hole through which to conduct the transaction. If they had to leave their station to get more tickets, a tiny gate closed the hole so the dosh was safe from The Borrowers.

To collect the drinks in an adjoining area, you were funnelled through a narrow gap guarded by burly bouncers before approaching 'the bar'. All drinks were opened for you, presumably to prevent resale. That does speed up consumption, however, because you don't want flat beer or the cans kicked over. All in all, far from ideal. But more drinking means more toilet trips and less dancing, so I didn't really care.
Ensconced in Mojo, cans in hand, we rocked on.
I want to go again. I loved it. Naturally, I got the T-shirt.

April 5, 2013

The Angry Summer

Once again, I recommend you read a new Climate Commission report.

The Commission does its best. It produces regular reports about the state of weather and climate in Australia. These present the facts in the best possible of ways, with graphics and simple statements that even your dog will grasp. These reports are researched and produced by internationally respected scientists: the Commission's spokespeople are similarly recognised. But their words for the most part fall on deaf ears, both in Canberra and among the wider population.

The Commission has been busy. Read The Critical Decade: Extreme Weather, its latest report: http://climatecommission.gov.au/
report/extreme-weather/. Here you can study the key facts; look at a summary table or the images from the report; or watch a short video. So you have no excuse. DO IT.

In addition, you can go to http://climatecommission.gov.au/
report/the-angry-summer/ to put into context the fierce weather almost everyone in Australia has experienced over the last few months, whether it was searing temperatures, scary cyclonic winds or phenomenal deluges.

Here are three simple statements from the latter:
Extreme weather has always occurred. But due to additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the climate system now contains significantly more heat compared to 50 years ago.
This means that all extreme weather events are influenced by climate change.
The severity and frequency of many extreme weather events are increasing due to climate change.
Finally, a plea: would presenters at the ABC, purported to be the bastion of reliable and unbiased populist reporting in this country, please desist from asking experts questions inferring that doubt remains about evidence for anthropogenic climate change, thus accommodating further debate about this particular bit of the issue. It is wasting valuable time. Move on. Demand to know what the hell we are going to do about it.
Cyclone Oswald hits Ballina, NSW

The Rainbow Warriors are in town

Greenpeace's third Rainbow Warrior sailed into Brisbane on Wednesday. The first was sunk in Auckland Harbour on 10 July 1985 by French secret service operatives following the involvement of the vessel in protests against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. A Portuguese photographer, Fernando Pereira, lost his life. I remember the incident well; I recall especially the shame of the French when it was revealed that the directive had come all the way down from the Elysée Palace. American Peter Willcox was on that boat, and today he is skipper of its reincarnation.

For the first time, Greenpeace has a brand new motor-assisted yacht, built in Germany in 2011 to their specific requirements, which included a helipad and rapid-launch dinghies. Their number one ask was that it be truly a sail boat. So it has five huge sails around two 50 metre A-frame masts, for stability. The crew uses the power of the wind whenever they can. The ship weighs more than 850 tonnes.

It looked splendid in the sunshine at Hamilton Portside Wharf yesterday. I queued with hundreds of people to go on board and try to imagine racing with the roaring forties across the Indian Ocean ready for the Save the Reef Australia Tour 2013. It's school holidays, so there were thankfully lots of kids and their parents – the generation that really has to wake up to the realities of climate change and biodiversity loss – which cheered me and a like-minded Queenslander from Ipswich who helped me pass the time as we stood in line, putting the world to rights, for one and a half hours.

Rainbow Warrior III cost €22.5 million to build. Greenpeace accepts no donations from business or political groups, so the money was raised from more than 100,000 private donations, large and small, from around the world, which is almost as impressive as the vessel itself.
The Warrior sails this evening for Townsville (12 and 13 April), Bowen (14), Airlie Beach (17) and Mackay (18 and 19). Catch it if you can.

April 4, 2013

Cutting Corners

At risk – the Gloucester Basin in NSW
Monday's Four Corners created quite a stir, although the only surprise as far as many people were concerned was that their worst fears were being confirmed by someone directly involved in the Queensland Government's environmental assessment process.

Senior bureaucrat turned whistleblower Simone Marsh described the pressure put on her and her colleagues in 2010 by the then Labor government and, by inference, two of Australia's major coal seam gas developers, Santos and the Queensland Gas Company, to fast-track approval of two CSG projects worth billions of dollars.

One of the issues here is the adoption of an 'adaptive management framework'. Because the areas the companies are licensed to explore are so large, they defer from providing precise details of pipeline, well and infrastructure locations at the stage permissions are sought. Simone Marsh says it was therefore impossible to assess whether or not environmentally sensitive areas would be impacted. In addition to fundamental site information, she lacked baseline studies* of the potential impact of mining CSG on groundwater – perhaps the single most important issue for farming communities.

Furthermore, Ms Marsh was informed directly that there would be no groundwater baseline studies to come. And one of her colleagues reported being given four weeks to deal with 10,000 pages of material, which is not the first time public servants involved in environmental assessment have described the impossibility of their task. Not to mention the pressure of achieving a 'bankable outcome'.

The Greens have called for a moratorium on further CSG development until the potential risks to the environment and groundwater are fully investigated. The effects on water of increasing numbers of wells are cumulative and studies would of necessity be lengthy. Legislation currently before the Senate would make independent water assessment for future projects and Environment Minister Tony Burke's approval mandatory.

The Lock the Gate Alliance has called for a public inquiry into the allegations on the basis that Queensland Government employees were put under inappropriate political pressure.

We also learn that Premier Campbell Newman is in favour of investigation of the claims. This must be because it would present him with another opportunity to take a swipe at his predecessor, Anna Bligh, rather than the result of a genuine concern that approvals were rushed through and environmental regulation in particular severely compromised. That is surely what his removal-of-green-tape legislation is all about, no?

* the analysis of a situation or location to identify the starting points for a project or programme