Posts Tagged With: policy

Stumbling Backwards into the Future

I’m angry.

Scratch that. I’m furious.

An axe is about to crunch into the lives and careers of people whose work I value more than almost any in the world.

Australia is my home. Our society clings to the edges of a vast continent, one of sharp contrasts and harsh beauty. The wide land affords us riches, through agriculture and mining. Our very borders are defined and shaped by three mighty oceans. Water, and its scarcity, regulates life in Australia, human, plant and animal. And our atmosphere – that thin varnish that separates us from the cold vacuum of space – carries the mighty storms that sweep across the south and the drama of El Nino with its drought and fire.

Sunset Mountain

We have an almost miraculous network of publicly-accessible tools for finding and forecasting what we need to know about our weather, climate and oceans. Even with all the work that’s brought us to this point, those models and forecasts can still be spectacularly wrong. This is hard science.

That’s why I’m speechless to read that the CSIRO is cutting 300 jobs in those very scientific divisions – Oceans and Atmosphere, and Land and Water – leaving a barely-functional skeleton of staff.

The official explanation points to a shift from basic climate science toward climate adaptation and alternative research areas – cybersecurity and robotics (with our internet? Ha). The CSIRO has seen its budget slashed under the Abbott, and now Turnbull, governments, and I pity those having to make hard decisions about what gets the chop.

This smacks of a small-minded and short-sighted vision of the world, and disrespect for Australia’s trajectory into the future. Earth is the only home we have. Humanity wields more technology, more power, more population, than ever before, and we know that systems we rely on planet-wide are teetering toward collapse. We must do better, know more, and damage less. The notion that we have ‘done enough’ to understand our climate – Australia, of all countries, after Paris, of all times – is a humourless joke.

At an individual level, lives and livelihoods are at stake. A grim picture faces Aussie farmers, already a community under incredible strain. For a generation of aspiring scientists, hearts and minds ready to reach out to the world around them, news like this dashes their hopes, and they dejectedly apply to institutions on the other side of the planet. I cannot imagine the morale of the hard-working CSIRO experts whose jobs have been pulled from under them; the collective knowledge they’ve earned, the projects that will be abandoned, unfinished. My heart goes out to them.

Most of us walk backwards into the future – our past visible, unable to see what’s coming next. Our basic scientists are a tiny few who point their headlights outward and forward into the huge expanse of the unknown, not for profit, but to understand what is there and, perhaps, help us choose our path. These cuts dim those lights and blind our society as we hurtle into a long, dark future.

A Storm Is Coming

A gathering storm. Would you turn your back?

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Grossly Deficient Politics: why we must create heaven

A genuine and unshakeable commitment to improving the lot of their constituents. Compassion for the underprivileged. Informed and interested in the developments in healthcare. Capable of making, and justifying, difficult ethical, financial, social and developmental decisions.

Voters who consider the needs of others, not just themselves, when they go to the polling booth. Voters who take the time to look at the policy proposals of different representatives, and more importantly, are willing to hold their personal representatives to account. Voters with a keen outlook for their future.

National success measured in a diverse way. International scrutiny not merely of GDP – an indicator which reflects well only on economies built to game the algorithm – but on individual welfare, on maintaining the environment they survive in, on transparency and innovation and adding real value to the way we live.

It sounds like a vision of heaven. What do we have now? Politicians being summoned to inquiries for shady dealings with the empires of press barons. Huge income inequalities, widening even as the economy contracts. International negotiations limply flailing away from any useful agreement to protect natural resources and environments the entire human population of Earth rely upon. We’re well on the road to hell. And not the fist-in-the-air AC/DC hell.

I went to Science Question Time on Monday evening, and the issue was “Growth”, or more precisely, the relationship between science and growth. I was impressed at the quality of the speakers, but was struck by what seemed to be bubbling below the surface of many of the comments. There was a deep dissatisfaction with the structure of business, government and finance. The ‘rules of the game’ suit those in suits, and even though science has typically played its hand pretty well, the problems it seeks to investigate and solve are being amplified by the very money needed to study them (check out the Storify of the event here – lots of good points).

There were two passages of discussion that really hit me. One made the point that the government – not private industry – should be the basis of support for the crazy ones.

The second key point was that science can deliver good information and outcomes, but not necessarily growth in the way it’s currently economically worshiped defined. What is needed, instead, is for our communities to speak out on the problems we need solved, with a strong voice. Then we need to shape how we value enterprise, business and science against those goals. We need new metrics, and those metrics cannot be based on the sheer quantity of monetary transactions.

Science is one of the best tools we have to discover more about our world and lay the groundwork for innovation. But it rolls along, one vehicle in a motorcade led by politicians lacking vision and integrity, towards checkpoints laid down by vested interests. Science Question Time firmed one thing in my mind: science is only as good as its context, and the current context is one I can’t accept. I want it to be better. You should too, because it can be. If we make it.

Here’s a simple question: if you could replace economic growth/GDP as a measure of national success with a single indicator, what would it be? Education? Health? Military? Research output? Art? Happiness?

And then the question I want you to really think about, and take with you, and talk about: what would the world look like in 10 years if we implemented your indicator with the same vigor and zeal we currently pursue growth? How do we get to the kind of world you want to live in? We must ask ourselves these questions, and try to answer them. Heaven is waiting for us to shape it.

Categories: communication, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

We need substitutes, not extras

I check my phone. “Already inside, some good ales on.” I quickly flick my wallet open to see a £20 note, then open the door to my local pub. A wave of warm air, infused with familiar and somewhat questionable odours, washes over me. An evening of chatter and drinking with friends awaits. Unexpectedly, the pub has a promotion running, and I’m handed a voucher for a free drink as I walk in.

Here’s the question: over the course of the evening, will I now drink the same amount, or more, than I otherwise would have?

How much is our behaviour influenced by the actual and perceived cost of what we consume?

It’s a simple question. Let’s say I intended to get three pints of beer. Will I now get a free extra drink, and thus consume four pints, or substitute the free drink for one I’d buy?

I’m sure you can think of ways of answering this kind of question in a scientific way. Perhaps we could give a random selection of people vouchers and compare how many drinks they buy, on average, to people without vouchers. Understanding why they behave that way is much more complicated. Without asking why, though, we can’t begin to generalise and predict what might happen in other promotions, in other situations, with other resources.

Two recent studies have tried to answer a question like the one I posed, but at a much bigger scale. Candice Moy, in Geographical Research, examined whether owning a rainwater tank changes how people react to water becoming more scarce during a drought. More recently, Richard York, in Nature Climate Change, analysed whether development of renewable energy displaces fossil fuel energy, or simply adds to it. In other words, do rainwater tanks and renewable energy supplies function as extra resources, or substitute for resources in our existing systems?

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Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Finally, Australia starts to move on carbon

It’s probably a good thing. I heard about it about five hours after the official announcement, when the howling and spinning had already started. That’s right: the leader of the country with the highest CO2 emissions per capita (tip: it’s Australia) has announced plans for a price on carbon, starting in mid 2012.

The details are yet to be negotiated; the actual price per tonne, compensation schemes and exclusions. So, while the move is a positive step, it could turn out to be a fizzer of a scheme. If the price is too low, little will change: new bureaucratic infrastructure will be required, the cost of goods will rise a little but investment in renewables or efficiency may not be stimulated to a significant extent.

Two things are particularly important for me about the proposed scheme. One is the extent of exclusions and omissions from the scheme. The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, negotiated by Labour and the Liberals in late 2009, gave huge amounts of credits to the most polluting industries and would have done little to bring about either emissions reductions or economic restructuring towards lower carbon technology.

The other is where the money raised actually goes. The Liberals are screaming about it being a new tax and the like, but that is only likely to be the case for higher income earners who lead carbon-intensive lifestyles. If the money is managed properly (… can’t say I hold out a huge amount of hope for this, though the recent reputation of Labour for wastefulness is only partially deserved) then lower income earners and small businesses can be compensated under the scheme, easing their financial burden.

The proposal is a relatively slow start, and I’m not sure if it’s a winner from a PR perspective. I fail to see how Julia has won much positive support; people who want to see action on climate change must be cautious, because the scheme may be gutted of effectiveness in the 16 months before it kicks in. It’s an ‘about time’ moment. Yes, it provides business with a bit more certainty when investing, which is a good thing, but I’m unconvinced that it’s going to win people over with vision and a true plan for the future.

Anyway, having had a look over at Twitter where the messages to Gillard range between raving lunatic madness and cautious encouragement, and seeing the framing taken on by most mainstream Australian media, this is going to be a difficult one for Labour to turn into a success. I hope they can… it’ll be interesting to watch!

Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Science | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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