July 31, 2015

The Dutch case

A government is expected to protect its citizens from external threat. If a neighbouring country were to invade these shores, Australians would rely on their government to organise a response.

According to climate science, the warming of the planet poses an immense threat to the every nation in one way or another. Unfortunately, here in Australia the level of consensus on the danger presented is low.

In The Netherlands, however, in 2013, 886 citizens, with the support of an organisation that promotes sustainability, Urgenda, brought a case against the Dutch government for failing in their duty of care to protect their people from dangerous climate change. That year, renewable energy supplied only 4.5 per cent of Dutch energy demand, some way off the country's 2020 target, and well behind European leaders such as Germany and Denmark. The Netherlands were supposed to cut their emissions by 25 per cent from 1990 levels (under international climate treaties), but the government had admitted they were aiming for 16 per cent. Urgenda argued that they should in fact be cutting emissions by 40 per cent, in line with climate science, and in order to ensure that the planet does not warm by more than two degrees. The country was a laggard rather than a leader.

No prizes for guessing which label fits Australia.

Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma came to Brisbane last week to meet with the Environmental Defenders Office* of Queensland and speak to a public meeting about the landmark legal decision that required the government of The Netherlands to tackle climate change adequately.

When governments continually fail in their duty of care to protect the people they represent, then the people will eventually take action to protect themselves. There are increasing numbers of frustrated and alarmed Australians who despair of the feeble attempts of the current Federal government to address even the first stage of preparedness in a climatically challenged continent. It is not surprising that many of them are concluding that only the law can save them now.

'The Dutch Case' was not about environmental law nor human rights issues, but civil law; tort, in fact. Tort is concerned with a breach of duty under Dutch law, and one that affords a right of action for damages. The unlawful act in this case was to not take sufficient action to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

The Dutch lawyers presented the judge with the facts of the matter: they had written evidence, for example, of the government's meagre target of 16 per cent. And they gave him the scientific evidence. The judge applied logic to the facts to address questions of law, not politics. Does the state have discretionary powers? Yes, but not to do the absolute minimum required.

He judged there to be a new precedent – unlawful hazardous negligence. He concluded from the climate science that the chances of dangerous climate change are very high, and that mitigating measures should be taken expeditiously. The current emissions target was insufficient to achieve only a 2-degree warming. Democratic law protects citizens, and in this case the state has a crucial duty of care to reduce emissions to between 25 and 40 per cent.

Tort law in Australia is different, and constitutional law is conservative. Duty of care is based upon groups of individuals being responsible for care rather than the government. Also, it adopts the 'but for' test to determine negligence and neglect. The 'but for' test simply asks, 'but for the existence of A, would B have occurred?' If the action is yes, then A is an actual cause of the result B. But for the Australian government not taking mitigating measures, would the Australian people suffer harm?

Clearly it is not going to be as easy for citizens in Australia to do what the Dutch did. EDOs across the land are busy considering their options under the law, however.

In the meantime, Ms Minnesma had some advice for citizens to take matters into their own hands. Let the government know what you think they should do and how it is possible. Make your presence felt: write them letters; turn up to street protests. Practise crowd pleading: appeal to like minds and those who might take action with you. Be practical: make your house energy-neutral; use an electric car. She stressed that if something is possible, and you want it to happen, then it can happen.

She was like a breath of fresh air blowing through Brisbane. She gave many jaded climate change and environmental activists new hope. It will be a long tough ride to force the laggard government to act in a necessarily responsible way with regard to reducing this nation's emissions. But we left the lecture theatre in the Queensland State Library with smiles on our faces and renewed energy to continue the struggle.


July 23, 2015

Darn crazy Aussie rule of the week

Last Friday we went to Lang Park to a watch a friendly between Liverpool FC and Brisbane Roar.

I bought the tickets ages ago. As the day got nearer, I felt odder, even a bit apprehensive. In the UK, Liverpool is our team's most loathed foe. It seemed a good idea back in February: we are so deprived of Premier League football because we won't subscribe to anything Murdoch.

I felt as if I was in enemy territory, even though we were supporting The Roar in Brisbane, where we live. The stadium was an ocean of red: it was hard to spot orange.
It was bitterly cold. I wore my United scarf. Not an obvious one, which would have been red, like the enemy's, but the one from the 1999 European Champions League final, in which United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in Barcelona to win 'The Treble' – Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League – in one season. The scarf is black and grey but has a large Manchester United badge at one end, which is unmistakeable. I folded the scarf, of course, so that the badge was visible. A Liverpool fan sitting next to me spotted it immediately. I must have spoiled his evening because he didn't come back to his seat for the second half. This can't have helped.
Unfortunately, that scoreline didn't last. Liverpool eventually won 2-1, but The Roar played better than I've seen them play before, and made a good fist of it against their famous opponents.

But to get to the point… We arrived at the stadium early, checked where our seats were and went to buy a drink. We wandered back to the corner of the stadium, close to where we'd come in. It was a relatively sheltered spot, and there was a good view over 'the Kop', the stand where Australian Liverpool fans were gathering enthusiastically. I wanted to take a specific photograph (below) and this was a good vantage point. We leaned against a railing and watched the stadium filling up.
Forty-five minutes before kick-off, a steward approached and asked us to move back from the railing. We were puzzled. He couldn't explain why he'd been asked to move people away. He had been told to do it, had asked for an explanation, but was not given a reason. He'd protested that it was unreasonable to expect people to stand away with no good cause.

We speculated. Was it health and safety? The crowd need to be in their seats before kick-off, but surely not quite so long beforehand. Was it a security measure? Once the stands are filling up, you can't have people lurking about directly above them. This didn't seem plausible. People were still pouring in and stopping to take their first look at the pitch.

People don't mind rules so much if they understand why they exist. Admittedly, in this nation built on rules, many do as they're told without question, for a quiet life, to avoid penalty points, so they don't get shot, whatever. If you are the questioning sort, however, and you don't know why a particular rule is in place, and when you ask you're not told, for whatever reason, then the rule can seem unnecessary, even silly, and the temptation to flout it irresistible.

There are so many instances when I see a list of rules where I wouldn't expect it (below, in a toilet); or it's so long I lose the will to live before I've finished reading it; or it's accompanied by dire threats and warnings. It makes me contemptuous and disrespectful.

The Lang Park steward was pleasant and not at all officious. He didn't get shirty when we asked why. He was as confused by the order as we were. We stood away from the railing compliantly, and then, for the next 15 minutes or so watched many others do as we had done. Nothing happened to them, and no one appeared to tell them not to. Maybe, by subtle body language, non-conformists attract enforcers.

July 22, 2015

Message to Adani

It is bad enough that the Carmichael mega mine will industrialise pastoral land in the Galilee Basin; decimate the last remaining populations of Waxy Cabbage Palms and Black-throated Finches; run dry a unique spring system in an arid region; carve up floodplains and paddocks with its rail link to Abbot Point coal port; increase bulk carrier traffic through the precious, endangered Reef; and be responsible for enough carbon emissions to rank among the world's top ten emitters. But neither has the project's Indian proponent, Adani, adequately considered the native title rights of the Traditional Owners of regions affected.

Some of those Traditional Owners (TOs) came to Brisbane last week*, to deliver the pledges of thousands of Australians who are concerned about the development of the Galilee for a whole host of reasons but are united as Reef Defenders and protectors of country. Juru elder Aunty Carol Prior led the TOs, and she asked to deliver the pledges personally up to Adani's office. She was not allowed into the building at 10 Eagle Street, however, let alone up to the office. An Adani representative came down, instead. He was William Haseler, Adani's counsel. He explained that the CEO was out of state and that he would accept the pledges on the company's behalf. I recognised this man from the Carmichael case in the Land Court earlier in the year: he was there part of most days.

Aunty Carol explained that the mine's infrastructure would impact on four different tribal lands.
In some areas, it goes right through sacred sites, sacred waterholes. And in my country it's going through 30 metres away from a rock art that's thousands of years old. Our concern is that the dust will destroy that rock art.
Traditional Owners approach Adani HQ
Bill Haseler didn't invite Aunty Carol in
Other Traditional Owners, the Birri, performed traditional dances. In one, they symbolically cleaned the land; later, they performed the Eagle Dance: they were in Eagle Street.
I was introduced to Aunty Carol by a mutual friend. She gave me a hug: I was by now quite moved by the event. I am frequently angered by Australia's treatment of its indigenous peoples, past and present. Seeing these Traditional Owners out of context in Brisbane's alien CBD reinforced my belief that they should not have to lobby for their land rights.
One sign seemed to sum up the mood during this successful, strong yet peaceful protest. It said simply: 'Hey, Adani, we won't stop until you do.'

* The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, whose land would be directly affected by the Carmichael mine excavation, have a Native Title claim to much of the Galilee Basin. They have submitted a Defence-of-Country Declaration to the Queensland government, opposing the mine, having failed to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with Adani. In May they appealed to the Federal Court, challenging Australia's National Native Title Tribunal's decision that the government of Queensland can issue a mining lease for the mine. Wangan and Jagalingou elder Adrian Burragubba has expressed an intention to take the case to the High Court if necessary.

July 18, 2015

An important promise kept

Last Monday lunchtime I went to Speakers' Corner near Parliament House in Brisbane to join a small gathering of people that included the Hon Peter Wellington. He was certainly in the right place, being the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament.

Mr Wellington expressed his support for the People's Common Rights and Provisions Bill 2014, which aims to restore democracy in a state whose last government momentarily forgot – let's give them the benefit of the doubt – that power resides in the people and is exercised by the people through their elected representatives, not by mining industry lobbyists through donations to those representatives.

We listened to the experience of Aileen Harrison, who bought her ideal retirement home in the eastern Darling Downs, little realising the impact New Hope's Acland mine, two kilometres away, would have on her family's health and happiness. When she finally concluded that life was 'unbearable', but couldn't sell the property, New Hope long resisted her request for an independent valuation. They finally agreed, but disputed the figure and refused to pay the going rate. In addition, some of Aileen's family had to sign a confidentiality agreement. She did not, and so we got to hear of her despair and disillusionment with a system that allowed New Hope to drill 24/7, light-out the night sky, immerse her world in orange dust; in other words, trample her dream.
Frank Ashman (above), like Aileen, is a member of Oakey Coal Action Alliance. He runs beef cattle on 270 hectares currently about eight kilometres from the mine. Frank is concerned, however, that if Acland Stage 3 goes ahead, it will impact on his bores and hence his cattle business.

With people like Aileen and Frank in mind, thousands of people signed a petition in support of the Queensland People's Bill*. One of several important aims of the Bill is to restore the rights of farmers, landowners and communities to object to inappropriate development threatening their livelihoods and good health. Peter Wellington accepted the petition from Aileen and promised to pass it on to the Clerk of the Parliament and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Aileen hands over the petition
I can imagine the joy of Aileen, Frank and hundreds of thousands of others on Thursday when Dr Anthony Lynham, Minister for State Development and for Natural Resources and Mines introduced the State Development and Public Works Organisation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015, honouring the Palaszczuk government's election promise to restore objection rights removed at five minutes to midnight on a particularly dark night during the previous LNP government's administration. Labor was supported by the Katter Party and Independent (formerly Labor) Billy Gordon, and the Bill was passed the following day.
Frank and Aileen listen to the Speaker
Labor has been working away at this piece of legislation since they were elected at the end of January, and were keen to have it in place for the 'New Acland Coal Mine Stage 3 Project'. For many people it represents a key part of the de-Newmanisation of Queensland. It was a great end to the week, despite the cold.

July 15, 2015

Watch on weather: big chill

Some of us knew it was going to get seriously cold long before Jenny the Weather Lady or BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) gave us the details.

Higgins Storm Chasing's Facebook posts are best-known for their notifications of tropical cyclonic events in the summer, but in fact they monitor all kinds of weather phenomena. And the freeze eastern Australia is currently experiencing is certainly phenomenal.

On 6 July HSC* posted these images. A big chill was spreading north from the cruel Southern Ocean and would reach Queensland the following week. Even tropical Queensland. It looked as if orange Bundy was the place to be. But subsequent days' isotherms revealed that I'd have to go to Weipa, right up in the Pointy Bit, to escape the blues.
The extreme blue straddles the state's southern border. As the weekend approached, chillier nights were heralded by biting southerly winds. 'Wind chill factor' became common parlance in weather forecasts. Clear night skies meant any warmth from sunny days was dissipated by sundown. 

I scanned the skies for signs of the storm's approach. 
Unsettled weather
Uniform mistiness
Pink early-morning light
A second icy low was following the first.
So, more than a week later, there's no let-up. BOM forecasts cold nights until at least this weekend.

It dropped to 6 degrees at 04:00 this morning where I live: BOM records 5 for Brisbane. It hasn't reached double figures yet and it's 08:15. The ABC is telling me (at 09:00) it's up to 11, which is only two degrees below average, they claim. Frost is being reported from various parts of Queensland: the Darling Downs had -3, and zero temps reached as far north as Hughenden, where we'll be in a month's time. There's been lots of snow in the southern states, and some not that much further south of here. There were flurries in the Granite Belt, which is 1000 metres above sea level; and blizzards in northern New South Wales just down the New England Highway from the Granites. There was even a report of a tornado at Burrumbuttock, NSW. (I have not made up that name.)

Australians get very excited about snow, and think nothing of driving for hours to see it. There have been some beautiful frost and snow pictures posted, proper wintery scenes, from almost the length of eastern Australia. Just wish I could record a snow-in-Queensland shot myself.

These temps are not record-breaking. I have little recollection of this, even from 12 months ago, but my diary entry for 12 July 2014 records the same lowest temperature as today. It was reported as the coldest July morning in Brisbane for 103 years.

Post script 17 July 07:50: there have been the heaviest snow falls in the Granite Belt for 30 years – 8cm overnight – but most of it is expected to have gone by 10:00. The lowest temp in Brisbane was 6.8 at 06:30. This is the best pic of the cold snap so far, taken near Stanthorpe.
PPS Midday 17 July: it was still snowing in Stanthorpe at 10:00. Later, ABC Radio's weatherman reported that Friday (17th) was the sixth consecutive day Brisbane temps failed to reach 20 degrees
This post was last edited on 18 July 2015

July 10, 2015

Another mining disaster waiting to happen

Coming soon… to your neck of the woods?
It's come to something if Barnaby Joyce – is that the Chattanooga choo-choo?* – declares 'the world has gone mad'. He was reacting to his Coalition government's approval of a big coal mine amidst some of Australia's finest agricultural land – in Joyce's constituency of New England in New South Wales (which is a crazy bit of naming, if you ask me). Some of us reached the same conclusion a while back.

If you read The Australian Institute's submission** to the Planning Assessment Commission on Shenhua's Watermark coal project in 2014, you'll see the same points as those made by the plaintiff in Brisbane's Land Court in April and May this year during the case against Adani's Carmichael mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin. That the input-output modelling used gives a biased impression of the economic benefits of the mine by underestimating operating costs and overestimating coal prices, job opportunities and state royalties. That the risks to agriculture and biodiversity extend beyond the mine site. Old data was used for agricultural impact assessment in Watermark's EIS, particularly in relation to groundwater and irrigation, and thermal coal market prices have shifted considerably since, the wrong way for Shenhua.

Not to mention the contribution of more coal burning to global carbon emissions and hence climate change. Politicians from both major political parties are disingenuous about this: the coal will not be burned on these shores so it's not adding to Australia's emissions total. If the Chinese didn't buy their coal from Australia, they'd get it from somewhere else. If it's Indian mining companies exploiting Aussie coal, then it's all in the cause of supplying the subcontinent's poorest communities with electricity. Noble, right?

Barnaby Joyce belongs to the National Party, who are in coalition with the Liberals. He is also Minister for Agriculture in Tony Abbott's Cabinet. He must be feeling the heat of farmers' outrage right now. Traditionally, the Nationals look after country folk; conservatively tending battlers on land that's been in their family for generations, stoically dealing with drought and flood and locust and invasive exotic weed and feral goat and worse, without complaint. It is not their way to expect, or ask for, help from governments in state capitals or Canberra. You only know when they've given their all and beyond when, one morning, they put starving cattle out of their misery before turning the gun on themselves. The mortgage company takes possession and sells the land to a Chinese buyer who's adding to hundreds of thousands of hectares already acquired across the country.

Some time in the next few decades, when climate extremes threaten key grain harvests in other parts of the world, Australia might have supplied nations in need of food for large populations, as well as catering for its own. Yet current politicians claim they lack funds, and are certainly without foresight or motivation, to prevent this sell-out or resist the lure of royalties promised by Asian mining giants.

Disaster capitalism may seem a long way off – in Greece in particular at the moment – but in fact it's alive and well among those who peddle the politics of fear – of credit-rating agencies or religious extremists.

If the National Party deserts the famers of the Liverpool plains then the party should be done for. But who do these poor people vote for instead? There's little to choose between the LNP and Labor when it comes to foreign investment in mining, and many Aussies appear to have an inbuilt aversion to Greens.

The proposed mine is, inevitably, dividing local communities†. There may be just as many who are fighting the mine as there are who do not want them to. Solutions are few on the ground where everyone wants to protect their children's children's future in the best way they see fit.

For the Agriculture Minister to claim he did all he could to prevent a decision made by the so-called Minister for the Environment in his own government is the cruelest deception. If ministers cannot about-turn current decision-making, and overturn that of previous governments – as Queensland's Environment Minister claimed a couple of weeks ago – then who can? Papa Francisco?

All parties, preferably together, must address, in detail rather than airy-fairy precursors to policy documents, how to create alternative, clean green jobs in small rural communities that hoped a big mine might keep their children at home even if it destroyed the landscape and everything in it. And air and water quality; peace and tranquility; tourism. (Watermark will be open cut.)

Did you know there's a Regional Renewable Energy Program†† in
New South Wales? And I came across this in my research online – http://www.climateinstitute.org.au/verve/_resources/cleanenergyjobssnapshot_queensland.pdf. I believe this was produced in 2011.

I suspect Barnaby Joyce doesn't really think the world's gone crazy, and I don't believe he fought against the approval of the Watermark mine. As more and more citizens find their voices against the sacrifice of land and biodiversity to increasingly unviable and undesirable fossil fuel exploitation, more politicians will feel obliged to exclaim largely empty words of dismay at the loss of cropping land, ecosystems and animal species, as they have about the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. Next we'll hear about plans for strategic regional land use policy aimed at restoring a balance between mining and agriculture – yet more fiddling while bushland burns.

I doubt that as we get closer to the climate conference in Paris in November, Tony Abbott's government will suddenly start making encouraging noises about emissions targets, having recently slashed the RET. The conveniently dropped budget deficit drama – the nation's debt has increased under Abbott – has been replaced by different smoke-and-mirror policies. Not even the international embarrassment of sticking Australia back out on a far-side planetary limb will dampen his ardour for coal, it seems.

Even the return to politics of New England's former MP, Independent Tony Windsor, is unlikely to halt the Shenhua abomination, although constituents would be better served, as they once were, by this honourable man. Perhaps if there were an early Federal election… or a further dramatic fall in coal prices… In any case, get ready to raise your voices, citizens, and drown out the ditherers and denialists, the pretenders and prevaricators.

The background to the Watermark project can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-09/shenhua-watermark-coal-explainer/6607142
* I will forever associate Barnaby Joyce with The Andrews Sisters' version of the Glen Miller classic thanks to Shaun Micallef https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_cflUkj9iE
** http://www.tai.org.au/content/submission-report-proposed-watermark-coal-project
† http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/26/battle-for-liverpool-plains-chinese-coal-project-tears-at-fabric-of-rural-nsw
†† http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/communities/clean-energy.htm
This post was last edited on 11 July 2015

July 4, 2015

Watch on weather: cyclone in July?

You may have missed this news, since the Queensland coast was never at risk of devastation, but it is remarkable nonetheless. The other night, while watching Jenny the Weather Lady on the seven o'clock news, we were jolted to attention by the mention of a possible cyclone developing over the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific. Hurricanes hardly ever happen in this part of world in July: actually, they've never happened in July in the zone monitored by the weather watchers of Queensland by means of satellite imagery (top). 

Tropical cyclones – otherwise known as hurricanes or typhoons, depending on where you are on the planet – have an official season here, from 1 November until 10 April; that is, the southern hemisphere summer, more or less. Only once has Queensland recorded a really late cyclone, at the end of May/early June in 1972 – TC Ida. There was, however, a July cyclone off Western Australia in 1996.

Some media have reported Raquel as an early tropical cyclone, but is that accurate? It is closer in time to the end of the last cyclone season than the start of the next one.

Tropical Cyclone Raquel was tracked by the Bureau of Meteorology, but it never posed a threat to the coast of Far North Queensland, 2000 kilometres away. A cyclone warning was posted, however. The storm became a category 1 system early on Wednesday morning, and was expected to intensify into a category 2 by Thursday as it moved slowly southwest towards the Solomons, before weakening to a tropical low by late yesterday. A sister storm formed north of the equator – and was therefore a typhoon (named Chan-Hom) – threatening Guam. Unfortunately no one at BOM commented on how unusual this twinning was.

An El Niño has been brewing in the central and eastern equatorial regions of the Pacific for a few months. Cyclone Raquel's development may be connected to the warmer sea surface temperatures associated with an El Niño, but this is only speculation since BOM have no data for cyclones in July. TC Ida coincided with an El Niño event, too.

El Niño is not good news for farmers already struggling with rainfall deficits in parts of every state and territory in Australia. (Click on map below to see detail.) Queensland registered its warmest first half of a year ever – and didn't we know it – with record-breaking temperatures in several towns in the state's north and west.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, London's Heathrow Airport hit its highest July temperature on record (since the 1870s) this week – 36.7 degrees. Ball boys collapsed at Wimbledon's tennis championship, and the Brits marvelled as they always do when tarmac softens and ice lolly shops sell out. Western Europe's current heatwave follows similar record-breaking events in India and Pakistan, the Pacific northwest of North America and parts of South America.

It seems that the Great Barrier Reef is not the only place in Australia where tourism is at great risk from climate change. There is little natural snowfall on the southern states' alpine slopes as we go into July and families head off for some early skiing in the last week of school holidays. Dependence on snow-making, even in a gadget-happy nation, is always a bit of a taboo subject among skiing fanatics, however. And you'll hear as few complaints about snow machines' carbon footprint as you do about multiple car and dog ownership.

Post script: read the latest on a series of unseasonal storms in the western Pacific at http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-04/chaotic-unseasonal-storms-strike-marshall-islands-and-guam/6595124