It’s the environment, stupid

In the aftermath of the 2013 Australian election, I spoke to a variety of my friends and colleagues about the core issues that motivated my voting intention. Chief amongst these was the issue of climate change, and the various parties’ approach to Labor’s ETS or another alternative. I voted below the line and took into account several important areas of policy, to the extent it was known, but the primary consideration for me was climate change.

In many cases during my discussions, I was disheartened to hear that climate change just wasn’t top of mind for these people I valued. For them, other issues took priority: Australia’s budget, its productivity, its two-tiered economy. There were others for whom provision of healthcare, education, housing and social benefits were of higher import. And there were some for whom the key issue was the two parties’ policies on refugees and boat arrivals.

What people perhaps fail to fully understand is that climate change will fundamentally alter every aspect of life and governance in this country and around the world. It is already having adverse effects on health, on productivity, on national economies and on food production. And all the scientists tell us that we are on the cusp of a downward slope, that things will get far worse from here. Continue reading

Why the world must die.

The human species is evolved to be supreme risk analysts. We have no thick pelts to keep us warm in winter; we do not have talons, or armoured skin, or poison glands. Despite these handicaps we have survived harsh environments, we have outlived diseases, we have evaded and avoided and defeated predators, and turned the tables to become the planet’s quintessential predatory species. We have achieved all of this thanks to our unparalleled ability to think through problems, to develop strategies to mitigate risks, to build tools and alter our environment to our own advantage. Oh, and opposable thumbs have helped as well.

Evolution has gifted us with supremely honed survival traits. We can survive extremes of heat and cold – not in our own physical resilience, but with the aid of our ability to artificially cool or warm ourselves. We can cope with the turn of the seasons, because we have learned to harvest and store and preserve. Sometimes our evolutionary heritage turns on us and reminds us that it is the product, we are the product, of harsher, bygone ages – thus the human race, in an era of untrammeled prosperity, grows fatter and ever more sedentary. But we are clever. Given enough time, we can even notice this trend in ourselves, and some of us fight against it. We are slowly becoming masters of our own destinies, rulers over the tyranny of our own heritage. We are fighting against the pressures that cause mankind to evolve, and we are winning.

Nonetheless, our own victory over nature, over our environment, and over our own evolutionary destiny may yet be our undoing. Continue reading

The government that doesn’t want to govern

Originally published on The Australian Independent Media Network on 26 August 2013.

On 1 October, the Affordable Health Care Act comes into force in the United States. It has split the US down the middle – by some polls, over half of the population hates the Act. Detractors call it “Obamacare”, as if to identify it with a single person is to devalue the raft of policy and the nation-changing effects it will have. Republicans, quite simply, hate it outright.

I recently requested clarification from a right-wing, evangelical Christian blog as to why, if the Act is of so much benefit to the poor and downtrodden of America, the right oppose it. Continue reading

Worst-case scenario

Climate science today is suffering from an acute crisis of confidence. You could point to the “ClimateGate” conspiracy-that-wasn’t, or the occasional mis-statements, over-estimates and outright exaggerations in the writings and statements of prominent climate change activists, from Tim Flannery to the IPCC itself. But put aside the ad hominem attacks, ignore the wilfully misconstrued attacks on the impartiality of science, and at the root of the problem is the nature of the science itself. Climate science, like so much else in our modern world, relies upon models in order to predict outcomes on the basis of changed starting conditions.

In this, climate science is not dissimilar to virtually any other discipline of science. There are very few sciences that rest solely upon observation of the natural world. Our understanding of everything from meteorology to the physics of light and electromagnetism, from chemistry to biochemistry, to genetics and growth… virtually every scientific endeavour operates within modelled frameworks that allow us to understand, make sense of and frame the raw data. But in the case of climate science, the politics and entrenched interests with an intent to discredit the science have latched upon the “falsifiability” component of modern scientific practice as a means to challenge the outcomes. Climate science appears to be uniquely privileged in this way: we don’t hear armchair critics arguing that the law of gravity might be wrong because it’s built on models.

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Fukushima and the Whale

The last couple of weeks have been busy ones for Australian political news, so it might have flown under the radar that Australia and Japan finished their concluding cases at the International Court of Justice regarding Japan’s whaling program. Australia has argued strongly that there is nothing scientific about Japan’s scientific whaling program. Japan’s closing argument, in response, threatened to quit the International Whaling Commission entirely if the verdict of the court didn’t go its own way. Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s deputy foreign minister, argued: “What will happen to stable multi-lateral frameworks when one morning suddenly you find your state bound by a policy of the majority and the only way out is to leave such an organisation?” Continue reading

The New Puritanism

As a research professional with a scientific background and a professional expertise in information technology, I keep coming across arguments and beliefs that make me cringe. Whether the topic be immunisation, or climate change policy, or the National Broadband network, the health risks of genetically modified foods, or the effect of genetics on personal capability and life prospects, you can be sure that some commenters will challenge the “orthodoxy”. Now I don’t have a problem with challenging orthodoxies. The very basis of modern scientific practice revolves around the concept of putting up hypotheses and then trying to shoot them down.  But when a challenge to the prevailing paradigm is made without a suitable basis in fact and understanding, it contributes to an ongoing sense that we live in a country that is actively hostile to the idea of expertise.

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