The media still has questions to answer

“Self congratulatory lemmings” was the phrase used by Jon Faine on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne this week to describe the media, and in particular the Canberra Press Gallery. The context was the so-called ‘AWU slush fund scandal’. He was referring to the incessant, yet fruitless assault on the Prime Minister over her time as a lawyer at Slater & Gordon twenty years ago.

Faine repeated what he has been saying for ages: that despite this matter having been trawled over time and again over several years, despite two hour-long press conferences where the Press Gallery was invited to ask any and every question about this matter, despite repeated questioning all this week by Julie Bishop in the House, nothing, repeat nothing, has ever been unearthed to implicate Julia Gillard in any wrong-doing.  Even a fifteen minute opportunity yesterday in the House for Tony Abbott to put his case of criminal behaviour by the PM yielded nothing, nothing at all. Yet the cry: ‘She still has questions to answer’ has echoed around the Gallery and appeared in print and on air, and it still does. No matter how many answers she gives to no matter how many questions, there are always more. No allegations have ever been made, but there are still ‘questions to answer’. 

In my view it is the mainstream media and especially the Canberra Press Gallery that has questions to answer, not Julia Gillard.

As Faine used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe journalists’ behaviour, I was reminded of the first blog piece I wrote four years ago, in June 2008, on Possum Comitatus’ Possum Box: Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?

In that piece, having defined groupthink, and having given a number of examples, I concluded: ”The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.

“Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where has objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.”

Has anything changed over these last four years? In my view the answer is ‘Yes’. The mainstream media has deteriorated, and continues to decline. Faine says the MSM has reached its lowest point.

What is the evidence for this assertion? Think back. Can you recall a time when the media has made such a meal out of any story, as it has of the S&G ‘scandal’? Can you remember any catchphrase being repeated so often by so many on such a plethora of platforms: newsprint, radio, TV, blogs? ‘PM Gillard still has questions to answer’ has been everywhere.

So here’s the first question the media has to answer:

What is the genesis of this obsessive pursuit of a matter twenty years old, which has been mulled over hundreds of times, over many years, without uncovering a ‘smoking gun’ to condemn Julia Gillard?

Let me hazard an opinion.

We all know that the business model of many of the traditional outlets is now obsolete. The rivers of gold from advertising have slowed to a trickle, and circulation revenue is down. Digital media are replacing print, but making it profitable has been difficult. Media houses have sacked journalists, others have left, and those remaining feel apprehensive, insecure, and overworked as they now have to prepare material for several platforms, and in less time.

As the thrust of journalism has progressively morphed from reporting into entertainment and titillation, as the attention span of consumers has shrunk to tiny sound bites or strident headlines, the quality of their work has deteriorated, has become more reliant on press releases, has become degraded into ‘he said, she said’ accounts of events, and more and more susceptible to groupthink as journalists talk with colleagues in the next office, chatter to each other and their ‘sources’ in the corridors of power and at their favourite watering holes. This week on the Jon Faine radio show, News Limited CEO Kim Williams denied that there was any groupthink in his organization!

I am not alone in my views. Mike Seccombe, in a comprehensive appraisal of the media in The Global Mail: Truth Tally – What’s Wrong With Australian Political Debate quotes Malcolm Turnbull. ”He [Turnbull] made particular reference to the media, saying that as news organizations came under greater cost pressures, good reporting which held governments and oppositions to account "was diminishing".
 "Instead, he said, newspapers and other media were resorting more to commentary and opinion and more to analysis of the effectiveness of political spin than to analysis of the substantive issues.”

We ought not be surprised then that the same boring, unoriginal phrases creep into their writings, the same people are interviewed by journalists and the same ‘insiders’ talk to each other on radio and TV shows. Boot leather remains pristine as investigative journalism morphs into superficial, insubstantial accounts of events, light on facts but heavy on opinion. Following Rupert Murdoch’s dictum that ‘opinion is news’, journalists now believe they can avoid the arduous task of fact gathering and fact checking, and substitute for them their own opinion. But on what is their opinion based?

We have seen the result of this approach. The Canberra Press Gallery has expressed its learned opinion only to be found to be wrong again and again.

We have had countless predictions of the fall of Julia Gillard as leader, if not by Easter, by mid-year, by year-end, and although we are in her third year, she is still leader and going from strength to strength. They have told us this ‘hung’ minority parliament cannot possibly work, that it is unmanageable; indeed it is ‘toxic’. Yet 449 pieces of legislation have already been passed in this term, some of them historic reforms such as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, plans for more major reforms are in train this very week such as the NDIS and the Gonski education reform, and the economy is in great shape. How often can journalists be wrong before the electorate ignores them?

They were left standing mouths open wide when Kevin Rudd was replaced, and caught again when PM Gillard appeared with Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. And they got it completely wrong when they dismissed the PM’s ‘misogyny’ speech as inconsequential.

Indeed, I believe it is this stark exposure of their incompetence that has alienated many of them. They have resented looking stupid, they have been angered by PM Gillard’s unwillingness to kowtow to them and her readiness to pull them into line. ‘Don’t write crap’ upset them. Still seething, they are rude in press conferences, as was Sid Maher this week. Pulled into line, his antagonism will rise. The ‘experts’, the ‘insiders’, the ‘pontiffs’ have been exposed as pseudo emperors with no clothes. And they are angry, and express that anger in their vitriolic columns.

Add institutional antagonism to this personal resentment, and you have a formula for vituperative writing that seeks to demean the PM no matter what she does, that seeks to diminish whatever the Government achieves. We all know, and hear it from honest journalists, that News Limited has the institutional objective of bringing the Labor Government down, destroying the Greens at the ballot box, and installing an Abbott Government. Little attempt is made to disguise this. We know that Rupert Murdoch has this intent, as do the editors of his tabloids and broadsheets.

Recently, Fairfax has joined in the ‘let’s get Gillard’ campaign, and with some gusto by Peter Hartcher and Michelle Grattan, whose dislike of PM Gillard is palpable. Even the previously balanced AFR, now with ex-News Limited man Michael Stutchbury as its editor, has swung anti-Government, and some of its more balanced authors with it.

Returning to Seccombe’s article, he further quotes Turnbull: “…there is more media "narrowcasting" – strident partisanship aimed at like-minded consumers.
 "Fox News in the United States is an example of how commercially successful that strategy can be as are some of the shock jocks in Australia," he said. Dumbing down complex issues into sound bites, misrepresenting your or your opponent's policy does not respect 'Struggle Street'; it treats its residents with contempt. It is the opposite of the Jeffersonian ideal," said Turnbull.
 "This was extraordinary stuff, coming from a Liberal MP. He [Turnbull] was bagging the Murdoch media model – only Fox by name, but its Australian operation by implication – when he talked about that the "hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan" coverage of climate change. The News Ltd papers, and particularly The Australian, have led the climate-change deniers.”

There can be no doubt News Limited is partisan; it misrepresents facts that do not fit its case, lies when it suits it, and acts as a collaborative mouthpiece for the Coalition. Whilst it can do as it pleases, what it does do does not make a quality bipartisan balanced news outlet.

We know too that online media, the Internet, the Fifth Estate, and social media have made Old Media less relevant. News is available online before it can reach the newsstands. No longer is the Fourth Estate a repository of facts, figures, reasoned analysis and balanced opinion, as it once was. Opinion is available from a host of well-informed and articulate commentators in the Fifth Estate, who have access to as much information as journalists do, and who analyse it in a better-balanced way than most Fourth Estate journalists. We read their opinions every day, while eschewing the Fourth Estate, much of it locked behind pay walls, and not worth paying for.

Because Old Media cannot compete with the immediacy of online news, it seems to have taken on another role – advocacy. Look for example at The Australian. The front pages are now full of the S&G matter, every day, still. The paper is advocating the pursuit of our PM. There was nothing on its front page about the recent alarming reports on global warming which threatens our planet, just hundreds of column inches on S&G. Indeed the only major paper that reported on its front page the alarming global warming story out of the Doha talks was The Age. What has become of a media that gives precedence to a long-running non-story that it deems a ‘scandal’, but scarcely bothers to highlight a story about dangerous threats to our planet and everything on it?

So here is the next question the media has to answer.

What is the purpose of bringing down our PM and our elected Government?

Here again I offer an opinion. For News Limited there seems to be a commercial reason. We know Murdoch prefers conservative governments, as he believes they provide a more congenial environment for his empire and its expansion. That has come out starkly in the Leveson Inquiry. Ideologically too, Murdoch prefers conservative governments. He was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan, and although he supported Tony Blair, we now know that came at a price to Blair and his Labor Government. Here, Tony Abbott is his man. ‘I hope he liked me’ said Abbott after his only meeting with Murdoch.

There is another reason Murdoch wants Labor gone – the threat of a body being established to regulate the media, a move vehemently opposed by Murdoch’s man here, Kim Williams.

Ben Eltham has views on the media’s role in the S&G saga. He wrote a comprehensive piece this week on the facts of the matter: The AWU Scandal Unpacked. If you wish to read a summary, you won’t find one better than his.

But this piece is not about this matter; instead it is used as background to illustrate the current state of the media and the questions it still has to answer.

Eltham wrote another piece on the same day: Gillard Puts The Press To Shame. After giving a thorough analysis that will repay your attention, he concludes: “Throughout the coverage of this affair, the onus of proof has consistently been placed on the Prime Minister by the media. The common line has been that she has "questions to answer". That argument is dead in the water, given that the Prime Minister has twice answered all the questions the media has put, at considerable length.

“In fact, the onus of proof in investigative reporting should run the other way. The role of journalists is not simply to ask questions. It is to uncover evidence and to substantiate and corroborate serious allegations. The argument that the Prime Minister owes the public an explanation of her actions 17 years ago is valid. But she has provided an explanation, many times.

“Perhaps its time we asked some questions of journalists like Hedley Thomas and Mark Baker.”

“Some questions that come to my mind are:

When does an investigation become a giant fishing expedition?

What responsibilities do journalists have to back up their claims? 

And if you have evidence to support your leading questions, why won’t you release it?

Most importantly, in a week in which legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme was introduced to Parliament, we need to ask:

Why is this even news?

While these questions arise out of the S&G matter, they are generic. They could, and should be asked of journalists no matter what they are reporting.

Yes, journalists are the ones who have questions to answer. I have suggested some specific ones about the S&G matter, and some generic ones arising out of it.

Writing in The Conservation in AWU ‘scandal’ says more about the media’s ethics than the PM’s, Janine Little says: ”Mainstream campaign journalism being what it is, competing for its shrinking share of a public attention span focused largely on social media, journalists haven’t let a lack of evidence stop their pursuit of the prime minister. If mainstream media organizations are attempting to compete with the reach and timbre of social media at the expense of a sustained respect for evidence and fact-based reporting, then it’s journalists who practice such things who stand to lose most.

“Journalism based on solid research and verified source material has uncovered serious wrongdoing not so long ago in Australia’s past, and for the benefit of a public’s right to know what matters. When there’s hardly anyone willing to question why an array of facts pointing away from the prime minister somehow keeps media organisations hot on her trail, it becomes solely a question of ethics answerable by journalists rather than Julia Gillard.”

For the reasons suggested in this piece, the standard of journalism in the Fourth Estate has deteriorated since I first wrote about it over four years ago, and it continues to slide. The perversion of journalism brought about by the pursuit of partisan ideological objectives, aggravated by commercial and professional stresses within the Fourth Estate, accentuated by the loss of its status, prestige, and previously unchallenged authority, continues relentlessly.

It is depressing to see what was once a lofty and respected professional contribution to our society now so degenerate, ineffectual and disrespected.

This piece asserts that it is journalists and indeed the entire Fourth Estate that has questions to answer, questions about its intent, its behaviour, its ethics, its performance, and the quality of its offerings. Unless the Fourth Estate has the courage to answer these questions, unless it is willing to address its problems, it will sink into obscurity, replaced by a plethora of other providers of news, analysis and opinion, many in the Fifth Estate.

After seeing the media reaction to how Julia Gillard’s outmanoeuvered and humiliated Tony Abbott in the last QT for the year, I have little hope the Fourth Estate has learned anything at all. The commentators continue to insist that ‘She still has questions to answer’.

They remain self congratulatory lemmings.

What do you think?

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So the globe is warming after all

Climate skeptics and deniers should read no further. The factual information below will cause them to have acute cognitive dissonance as the facts and figures clash with their entrenched beliefs and fantasies.

I suppose it is coincidental, but recently there has been a spate of reports on the state of the globe, and all point in the one direction, the globe is warming, and the only plausible explanation is the man-made accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Let’s look first at the recent World Bank-commissioned report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided (pdf) (eBook version), carried out by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the Bank.

I will quote extensively from an article published on November 18 this year by the Bank: Climate Change Report Warns of Dramatically Warmer World This Century, which begins with these highlights:

“The New World Bank-commissioned report warns the world is on track to a ‘4°C world’ marked by extreme heat waves and life-threatening sea level rise.

“Adverse effects of global warming are “tilted against many of the world's poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and goals.

“In response, the Bank is contemplating increased support for adaptation, mitigation, inclusive green growth, and climate-smart development.”

Drawing attention to this summer’s satellite image of the melting Greenland ice sheet, the report suggests that “…time may be running out to temper the rising risks of climate change”, and the Bank “…warns we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”

The Bank adds that because the effects of a warming climate are “…tilted against many of the world's poorest regions”, they are “…likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals”. The report urges "…further mitigation action as the best insurance against an uncertain future."

Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group insists: "A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2°C. Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest."

The World Bank article continues: “The report, reviewed by some of the world’s top scientists, is being released ahead of the next comprehensive studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013/14, and follows the Bank’s own Strategic Framework for Development and Climate Change in 2008 and the World Development Report on climate change in 2010. ‘Turn Down the Heat’ combines a synthesis of recent scientific literature with new analysis of likely impacts and risks, focusing on developing countries. It chronicles already observed climate change and impacts, such as heat waves and other extreme events, and offers projections for the 21st century for droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, food, water, ecosystems and human health.

“The report says today’s climate could warm from the current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels, to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emissions-reduction pledges.

"This report reinforces the reality that today’s climate volatility affects everything we do," said Rachel Kyte, the Bank’s Vice President for Sustainable Development. "We will redouble our efforts to build adaptive capacity and resilience, as well as find solutions to the climate challenge."

“The World Bank doubled lending for climate change adaptation last year and plans to step up efforts to support countries’ initiatives to mitigate carbon emissions and promote inclusive green growth and climate-smart development. Among other measures, the Bank administers the $7.2 billion Climate Investment Funds now operating in 48 countries and leveraging an additional $43 billion in clean investment and climate resilience.”

Let’s look at some details:

Rising Sea Levels
“The report says sea levels have been rising faster in the last two decades than previously, and this rise is being seen in many tropical regions of the world. This phenomenon is partly due to melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; the rapid growth in melt area observed since the 1970s in Greenland’s ice sheet is a clear illustration of its increasing vulnerability. Arctic sea ice also reached a record minimum in September 2012. There are indications that the greatest melt extent in the past 225 years has occurred in the last decade. It’s early yet but clearly some of the small island states and coastal communities are beginning to take a hard look at their options. The need to adapt to climate change will increase as global population reaches 9 billion in 2050.”

Ocean Acidification
“Coral reefs are acutely sensitive to changes in water temperature and acidity levels. The report warns that by the time the warming levels reach 1.4° C in 2030s, coral reefs may stop growing. This would be a result of oceans becoming more acidic as a result of higher CO2 concentrations. And with 2.4° C, coral reefs in several areas may actually start to dissolve. This is likely to have profound consequences for people who depend on them for food, income, tourism and shoreline protection.”

Heat Extremes
“A 4°C warmer world would also suffer more extreme heat waves, and these events will not be evenly distributed across the world, according to the report.

“Sub-tropical Mediterranean, northern Africa, the Middle East, and the contiguous United States are likely to see monthly summer temperatures rise by more than 6°C. Temperatures of the warmest July between 2080-2100 in the Mediterranean are expected to approach 35°C – about 9°C warmer than the warmest July estimated for the present day. The warmest July month in the Sahara and the Middle East will see temperatures as high as 45°C, or 6-7°C above the warmest July simulated for the present day.”

Lower agricultural yields
”Hotter weather could in turn lower crop yields in a 4°C world, raising concerns about future food security. Field experiments have shown that crops are highly sensitive to temperatures above certain thresholds. One study cited in the report found that each “growing degree day” spent at a temperature of 30 degrees decreases yields by 1% under drought-free rain-fed conditions.

“The report also says drought-affected areas would increase from 15.4% of global cropland today, to around 44% by 2100. The most severely affected regions in the next 30 to 90 years will likely be in southern Africa, the United States, southern Europe and Southeast Asia, says the report. In Africa, the report predicts 35% of cropland will become unsuitable for cultivation in a 5°C world.”

Risks to Human Support Systems
”The report identifies severe risks related to adverse impacts on water availability, particularly in northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. River basins like the Ganges and the Nile are particularly vulnerable. In Amazonia, forest fires could as much double by 2050. The world could lose several habitats and species with a 4°C warming.”

Non-linear impacts
”As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global warming and impact entire continents.

“The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen".

And while the globe is burning, some politicians fiddle, filled with doubt as they are by the skeptics and deniers. It is criminal negligence on a monumental scale.

In case anyone thinks that sitting here down under we might be spared these terrifying consequences of global warming, let’s turn to the evidence, that is verifiable facts and figures presented on the 15 November edition of the ABC’s Catalyst, where Dr Jonica Newby interviewed several climate scientists. If you missed this informative program, you may wish to view it here.

Dr Kenneth Green says: ”In 60 years, we've lost a third of our total snow cover. But there is some rough comfort for my skiing aspirations. And that is that the beginning of the season hasn't really changed.

”So, basically, since 1954, snow depth in July is much the same. When you reach September, it starts to drop off. So that by October it's noticeably less. Essentially, spring is coming earlier.

“It's even clearer when you look at the records for the thaw, now two weeks earlier than in the '60s. And the snowline appears to have lately moved up from 1,500m to 1,600m.

“So we're looking at minimum temperatures. And, Karl, basically, this is how cold it gets at night.”

Dr Karl Braganza:
”That's correct, Jonica. If we start at the Snowy here, we've warmed by about 1.1 degrees since a century ago. And that's similar to Perth, Sydney. If we're looking over here at Cairns, it's almost 2 degrees since 1910.

”So that's night-time minimums, but I bet what most of you are more interested in is what's happened to daytime maximums. And, for that... I'm heading here.”

”You can see here - Sydney through to Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart, they've warmed up by about 0.7 of a degree. And in some capitals a lot less. Adelaide - 0.3. But if you go over to the west - Perth - and into the centre - Alice Springs - you've got 1.1 to almost 2 degrees of warming.
 Overall, averaging maximums and minimums, our nation's core temperature has gone up 0.9 of a degree.”

”Alright, so this next diagnostic is... a measure of extremes.”

”It is. And what we've seen is more and more stations are breaking extreme heat in the last 100 years, and less are breaking extreme cold.
 In fact, in the last ten years, the number of stations breaking extreme heat records has doubled those breaking extreme cold. So, frosty nights are becoming less common, but extreme heat days are becoming more common.”

Katherine Brown (of Brown Brothers vineyards):
”Talking to our scientists, winemakers and viticulturists, they really pretty much turned to the board and said, 'We have to find this cooler-climate property because within decades we could see a 2-degrees temperature rise in our current vineyards in Victoria.' So, they pretty much told us that if we continued to want to do what we do best, make quality wine, we had to come south.”

”So the chance of one month being above-average temperature, is one in two. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in four. The chance of the next month also being above-average temperature, is one in eight.”

So what do you think are the chances of having 330 months in a row of above-average temperatures? Because, since February 1985, we have had... 330 months in a row of above-average (global) temperatures.”

Dr Mark Howden:
 ”It's really extraordinary. If it was just by random chance alone, then there's only a 1 in 100,000 chance that that would have happened in the absence of human influence.”

”It's exciting times for Tasmanian fishermen. With so many new fish arriving, they've teamed up with scientists to plot them. They've seen leather jacks, green turtles, dusky morwong...”

Mark Nikolai: 
”It's actually really good news for Tasmanian fishermen, because all the New South Wales fish are moving south into our waters.
 “All in all, scientists have confirmed 45 new species have, like Brown Brothers, shipped on down to Tassie.”

 ”Well, obviously, if fish from the big island are moving down, the water here must have got warmer.”

“Alright, Dr Karl. National round-up time again. 100-year health check. Circulation.”

 ”What we're going to look at now, Jonica, is the sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And what we've seen is about a degree of warming over the last century. But you can see over the East Coast we have more warming than we do over the West Coast. There's some hot spots as well. And that's off the coast of Victoria and Tasmania. Sea temperatures here off Tasmania have risen an astounding 2.28 degrees. That's about four times the global ocean average.”

”When the original records were rediscovered just a decade ago, Dr John Hunter was able to work out what's happened.”

Dr John Hunter:
 ”OK, the total sea-level rise since 1841 is about 17 centimetres. So, if you raise sea level by just 10 centimetres...
you find you get a tripling of the number of flooding events. 
And if you raise it by another 10 centimetres, it goes up by another factor of three, so that's a total of nine.”

”So... so we've got nine times, effectively, the number of flooding events for structures at sea level than we did 100 years ago?”

 ”So what we're looking at here is basically from the satellite record from 1993. And we can see sea levels have risen everywhere.”

Newby: ”So, now, the last two years' rainfall have been quite extraordinary, haven't they?”

Braganza: ”They have. They've been record-breaking. So, over the last 24-month period, the two years, we've seen more rainfall in Australia for a 24-month period than we've ever seen in the historical record.”

 ”And tell me - does this have something to do with the fact that the ocean and the air temperatures are higher?”

 ”Normally, when you get a La Nina event you'll get almost record rainfall in Australia. This time, what we saw was record sea-surface temperatures around Australia. And so we've got basically a perfect storm. We've got a La Nina event. We've got global warming going on in the oceans around Australia. And then we've got this record rainfall as well.”

”Essentially, what the records show is that global warming isn't something that's coming - it's here in our backyards already. It's pointless now to ask, 'Is this climate change or natural variability?' What we see is one acting on top of the other.”

Braganza: ”So, every parcel of air, every ocean current, every weather system is now about a degree warmer. And when you go through and do the physics, that's actually a hell of a lot of energy added to the climate system in general.”

”You know, of all the things I learned on this investigation, it was that comment from Karl that really struck me. It was like, 'Aha! I finally get it.' There's one degree of extra heat across the whole planet. That's just a lot of new energy in our weather system. What happens when you add another degree? And another?”

Exactly, what happens? It gets worse and worse, until we get to the tipping point, where no matter what we do, the destructive process continues beyond the control of human beings.

Older people, those who make decisions about what to do about climate change, even if they acknowledge the disaster that looms, see it as far away and slow moving, something they can be relaxed about, something they can take action about when the time comes. What the World Bank Report tells us is that the time to act is NOW. If we don’t, our children and theirs will suffer the terrible consequences.

If you need any more convincing, read what Graham Readfearn had to say in Independent Australia in a piece titled: The Australian skews climate science… again that starts with how once more The Australian has misrepresented climate change science. The YouTube video that accompanies the piece will repay your attention. Make sure too that you scroll to the end where you will see a very revealing dynamic graph that shows how skeptics segment time periods in an attempt to show that the globe is not warming, in fact might be sometimes cooling, whereas if you look at the whole 40-year period the graph shows – 1970-2012, and insert a trend line (in red) the warming trend stands out starkly.

Writing in New Matilda in Our Role In The Climate Deadlock, Ben Eltham writes: ”The problem posed by climate change is difficult to overstate. It is global. It is endemic. It is devilishly difficult to address. But address it we must, or our children and grandchildren will inhabit a planet almost unimaginably different from our own: a world of dangerously destabilised climates, devastating natural disasters, flooded cities and dead coral reefs. A world most likely riven by conflict and war. A world in which the global economy struggles against the huge cost of dealing with a preventable global disaster that our generation did little to prevent.”

The ramifications of climate change go way beyond variations in climate. In an article by Tristan Edis in Climate Spectator, John Hewson: Climate change the next sub-prime meltdown he writes of his interview with Hewson, who has now taken up the Chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project, an initiative aimed at getting retirement and superannuation funds to pay more heed to the risks of climate change and the need to invest more money in companies that reduce carbon emissions. Hewson ”equates climate change as equivalent in its likely impacts on financial markets to that of the sub-prime loan crisis that led to the GFC. He also points out that governments across the globe are subsidizing carbon intensive industries, and board members can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the risks associated with investing in these industries.”

Again in Climate Spectator Julian Poulter writes in The climate for super fear: ”The largest pool of money in the world is held by the big pension and superannuation funds – called the ‘Asset Owners’. They have a fiduciary duty to us to invest wisely and the unique risk-return challenge of climate change and other ESG issues (Environment, Social, Governance) have prompted us in recent times to question whether they are carrying out their duties.

“The problem arises because we know that the Asset Owners give our money to fund managers who in turn invest in companies. And sages that we are, we have a sneaky suspicion that some of the investments aren’t sustainable and that in the context of climate change, we might wake up one day with the mixed news that the low carbon economy is fully underway but our retirement savings portfolios that are currently stuffed with high carbon assets are worth dramatically less than they were yesterday. And when this sudden low carbon tipping point occurs, causing inevitable portfolio destruction, it won’t be like the sub-prime crisis where the highly technical complexity of the issue engaged us all for months allowing everyone to avoid true scrutiny. No, this is climate change – it’s simple and we’ve been talking about it for years and trustees cannot now escape.”

In the face of all this evidence, in the face of all these warnings, how can anyone take a cavalier attitude to climate change, how can anyone ignore the reality of global warming so recklessly? The only explanation is that these people are the climate equivalent of the Obama ‘birthers’ and the Creationists who believe the planet is only 6000 years old, who cast aside evidence, ignore verifiable facts, so that their beliefs, their ‘faith’ can hold sway.

These people can never be convinced. But there must be some rational people out there who if they knew the facts would be so scared out of their wits for the welfare of their grandchildren that they would act, and would support any government that was acting decisively to mitigate the effects of climate change, even if the cost was high. The cost of not acting is much, much higher.

We must counter the deniers and skeptics. The survival of the human race, and indeed all living things, depends on it.

What do you think?

UPDATE 29 November 2012

Since writing this piece, two further reports on global warming have emerged that will repay your attention.

The first was: UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that alerts us to the extreme danger of the release of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, from melting permafrost in the Arctic.

It began: ”Permafrost lands across Siberia and Alaska that contain vast stores of carbon are beginning to thaw, bringing with it the threat of a big increase in global warming by 2100, a U.N. report said on Tuesday.

“A thaw of the vast areas of permanently frozen ground in Russia, Canada, China and the United States also threatens local homes, roads, railways and oil pipelines, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) said in the report which was released at the U.N. climate talks being held this week and next in Qatar.

“Permafrost has begun to thaw,” Kevin Schaefer, lead author at the University of Colorado told a news conference in Doha.

“An accelerating melt would free vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which has been trapped in organic matter in the subsoil, often for thousands of years, the report said.

“Warming permafrost could release the equivalent of between 43 and 135 billion tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by 2100. That would be up to 39 percent of annual emissions from human sources.

“Permafrost now contains 1,700 billion tons of carbon, or twice the amount now in the atmosphere, it said.

The second came out today from the Doha talks. It is reported in The New York Times in an article Global Warming & Climate Change (Doha Talks, 2012.UN Report: Melting Permafrost Seen as New Peril in Global Warming that begins:

”Global warming has become perhaps the most complicated issue facing world leaders. Warnings from the scientific community are becoming louder, as an increasing body of science points to rising dangers from the ongoing buildup of human-related greenhouse gases — produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

“Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, upending the notion that the brief decline during the recession might persist through the recovery. The increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.”

There is another version published in Salon: Area of Arctic sea ice larger than US melted this year U.N. weather agency released worrying report at Doha talks. It begins: ”An area of Arctic sea ice bigger than the United States melted this year, according the U.N. weather agency, which said the dramatic decline illustrates that climate change is happening “before our eyes.”

“In a report released at U.N. climate talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, the World Meteorological Organization said the Arctic ice melt was one of a myriad of extreme and record-breaking weather events to hit the planet in 2012. Droughts devastated nearly two-thirds of the United States as well western Russia and southern Europe. Floods swamped west Africa and heat waves left much of the Northern Hemisphere sweltering.

“But it was the ice melt that seemed to dominate the annual climate report, with the U.N. concluding ice cover had reached “a new record low” in the area around the North Pole and that the loss from March to September was a staggering 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) – an area bigger than the United States.

“The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said. “Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records.”

“The dire climate news – following on the heels of a report Tuesday that found melting permafrost could significantly amplify global warming – comes as delegates from nearly 200 countries struggled for a third day to lay the groundwork for a deal that would cut emissions in an attempt to ensure that temperatures don’t rise more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over what they were in preindustrial times. Temperatures have already risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), according to the latest report by the IPCC.”

These reports are scary.

Is there life after neoliberalism?

Yes there can be, says Hugh Stretton in his unfairly neglected book, Australia Fair (UNSW Press, 2005). I recently wrote about the general argument of this book in Australia Fair by Hugh Stretton. Here, I’m going to look at the specifics. But just to recap, Stretton argues that the neoliberal economic reforms of the past thirty years - floating the dollar, reducing tariffs, privatisation of public assets, lower taxation and spending cuts - have not brought the economic gains claimed for them. And he says they make for greater inequality. There have been a few improvements since he wrote in 2005, but not many. Mostly, things have got worse. He argues that a rich country like Australia should be able to assure a comfortable living for all citizens, and outlines a program involving both the public and the private sector to achieve this. Interested?

It’s not possible in a short review to do justice to all that Stretton is suggesting, or to include all the for and against arguments, reservations and complexities he mentions. For this, you must read the book. Furthermore, the policies that make up his program are inter-related, though I am mostly discussing them separately. His writes in a somewhat idiosyncratic style, and though he tries to keep his economic discussion simple, he loses me sometimes. Please forgive my oversimplification.

Stretton begins with ‘work’, because in his argument, full or fairly shared employment should be the main purpose of economic policy. He says that ‘every consideration of economy and humanity should drive us to see that there is paid work for everyone who wants it.’ But having given up most of their power to control the economy in favour of free market prescriptions, the only way governments can control inflation is by sustaining a significant level of unemployment. This is not only disastrous for those experiencing it; it results in less production, less demand and less investment. It also means a higher welfare bill – and/or the demonization of the unemployed, even though there are no jobs for them. Furthermore it often results in an increase in working hours for the employed, not always paid, which in turn affects their quality of life. Achieving full employment depends on other parts of his program, so what he is advocating is quite complicated. It seems to be a combination of stimulating demand, including increasing some benefits, increasing some public employment and stimulating some private employment, particularly in the housing industry.

Stretton has had a long involvement with housing policy. He considers housing a right in a rich society like Australia, alongside the right to education and health provision. (This is the sort of ‘stuff’ Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly think Americans who voted for Obama are so remiss as to expect.) Here Stretton addresses the situation where as part of the neoliberal agenda, the Commonwealth has cut funding to the States for new housing investment, and States have sold off most of their existing stock of public housing. This has been replaced by a first home buyer grant and rent allowances to poor tenants who have to compete in the private rental market. The result of simultaneously cutting the supply and subsidising the demand was to raise prices, as first home buyers bid against each other for a limited stock of moderately priced housing. Waiting lists for public housing are years long, and homelessness continues to grow. His solution, which rather elegantly pays for itself over time, is to give Commonwealth money to the States who contract private builders to build good quality but relatively modest housing, half of which is for sale or rent to working families who pay full cost or rent, and half as welfare housing. If full employment reduces the numbers on welfare and increases the number able to pay market rent, then this proportion can change. An increase in public housing acts as a dampener on the private market, and everyone gains except those who are hoping for a large capital gain when they sell mum and dad’s house at an inflated price.

The next issue is what Stretton calls ‘children’, but is actually parenting. He asks how we can best bring up children and respect parents’ right to choose either paid employment or staying home to care for their young children. As things stand, women usually end up doing the unpaid housework in addition to paid work, and children end up in less than satisfactory child care. He agrees that family friendly work places may help, but argues that in addition, there should be a parenting wage equivalent to the basic wage available on a means tested basis to one parent so they can stay at home if they wish. He knows the arguments about rorting the system, but considers that the social good of the proposal outweighs the possible abuses.

In both health and education, Stretton argues that the Howard government favoured private over public provision, and allowed the latter to decline. The Rudd/Gillard government has made a start on these issues. There are some moves to fix the buck-passing between Federal and State governments, and the private health insurance rebate has been cut for some rich families. Stretton would have abolished it altogether, and spent the money on the public health system. He would also likely approve the Gonksi proposals to fund the public education system properly.

More surprising to me, he is also highly critical of current superannuation provision; he quotes another historian’s conclusion that ‘the privatisers of superannuation have presided over the creation of a league of parasites on a scale not seen since the close of the eighteenth century.’ Transparency, which is the best we are offered in relation to fees and charges, is not enough; he argues there should be a public superannuation scheme alongside the private ones to add some genuine competition. I find this chapter technical and difficult, but his general drift is clear.

On the environment, he says: ‘The neoliberal change of direction to greater business freedom, less public production, less government and steeper inequality could have been designed specifically to disable our environmental management.’ He outlines a ‘green program’ which is perhaps now somewhat out-dated, but more important is his warning of the further damage to equality that climate change and greedy consumption of resources could bring.

I also find Stretton’s chapter on managing money difficult, and guess that he might well revise the details post the Global Financial Crisis – which can only have confirmed his general critique; ‘the real fruit,’ he says, ‘of 25 years of well-intended blundering should be to discredit the economic theories on which the mistaken expectations were based.’

He has had a stab at costing his program, and suggests ways of finding the money. And here, you have to decide on whether he is unreasonably optimistic, or whether, as he argues, Australians really might support a program that offered better services and a more equal society, even if it meant higher taxes and forgoing some luxury consumption. It would take ‘guts and ingenuity’ to try, and of course leadership – which has so far been leading us pretty much in the wrong direction.

I do not know of any other book that not only offers a reasoned critique of the impact of neoliberal economic policies in Australia in the last thirty years, but also offers an alternative set that could just work. If only there was someone who would try them.

Do Australian businessmen really believe Tony Abbott?

The attributes needed to run a successful business include intelligence, relevant knowledge, perspicacity, foresight, an eye for opportunity, willingness to take a calculated risk, skill in innovation, perseverance, and guts. Australian businessmen have these in spades. In simple terms, they are smart. Yet from what we as outsiders can see, they seem to be willing to accept the damaging rhetoric about our economy that Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and the Coalition front bench serve up day after day, with scarcely a murmur of concern, with almost no query about its validity, with no protest about its applicability, with no reservations about its effect on our economy and on the businesses they run.

As detailed in Abbott and Hockey are endangering Australian business, Abbott seems to be able to talk down the economy with impunity, thereby imperiling Australian businesses, without one word of condemnation from businessmen, without even a whisper of caution from them. Why is this so?

It is hard to believe that their silence is because they believe the rhetoric and accept the validity of the claims, as clearly many of them are preposterous and demonstrably untrue, the dire effects of the carbon tax being an obvious example. There must be other reasons.

It should not be surprising to anyone that businessmen who support entrepreneurship, free markets, competition, light regulation, minimal red and green tape, ‘flexible’ industrial policy, small government, and low taxes, find themselves attracted to Liberal policies that espouse these elements, although not necessarily following them in government. But that does not explain why they allow Abbott, Hockey, Robb and Cormann, the Coalition’s finance spokesmen, to continually talk down the economy, depress consumer confidence, imperil their businesses in the process, and put a brake on their own confidence, which is now lower, much lower than that of the consumers.

I shall attempt to tease out some explanations that I believe may be operating.

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters
One explanation is that some businessmen are such rusted on Coalition supporters, such entrenched Labor antagonists, that their support for the Coalition is unconditional. An example that springs to mind is Marcus Padley of the Marcus Today Newsletter, whose gloomy reports and prognostications about the stock market on ABC Radio every weekday are liberally sprinkled with overt anti-Government sentiment.

Unconditional support is the only explanation I can muster to explain how they can endorse the bumbling, foot-in-mouth, disingenuous Leader of the Coalition, with his overt ignorance of economics, his policy deficits, his shonky costings, and his policy ineptitude in the few areas he has already defined, his Direct Action Plan for climate change being a classic instance.

Some of course may not be unconditionally supportive, but because they accept the predictions of commentators on polls of voting intention that the Coalition is a shoo-in at the 2013 election, believe it is prudent for them to say nothing that would get them offside with what they expect to be the next government, from which they would be seeking favours, policies congenial to their business, and a leg-up when in strife. Perhaps they should pay more attention to polling trends that show a steady narrowing of the gap between the Coalition and Labor. Perhaps they should seriously contemplate the possibility of the Government being returned. If and when they do, they may be more inclined to call out Abbott and Co. when they make outrageous statements.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers
Another explanation of the reluctance of some businessmen to criticize the Coalition is that they are rent-seekers who want the Government to ease their burden as we saw when the carbon tax and the MMRT were introduced. Wanting the taxes removed or reduced, advocates were out in numbers with advertisements on TV and in the papers condemning these initiatives. Mitch Hooke of the Minerals Council led the charge, soon joined by Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest and Clive Palmer, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and other employer organizations, all predicting economic disaster for businesses in the wake of the taxes. The carbon tax was about to disrupt, dislocate, and destroy businesses across the nation. As Tony Abbott opportunistically jumped in with a vow made in his own blood that these taxes would be repealed should they elect the Coalition to office, the rent-seekers rallied to his support.

No businessman wants to pay more tax, although some willingly do so for the common good. But there was little concern shown by the rent-seekers for the common good. They simply wanted the taxes removed, and spent millions in advertising to this end, and to hell with the rationale behind the taxes: to reduce pollution and spread the benefits of the mining boom. The spectre of the slaughter of the many geese that were laying the golden eggs was raised before the eyes of the electorate. Apprehension was engendered and scare campaigns mounted of massive job losses, exploding unemployment, and whole industries and towns wiped out.

The rent-seekers were smart. They knew full well that their campaign was disingenuous, but self-interest trumped the common good. Their colleagues in other areas of industry and commerce also knew that their campaign was self-serving, but did they raise a murmur? No. As Ross Gittins put it in his article: What business needs to learn about politics “…big business won't get far until it abandons its code of honour among thieves. That is, when one industry goes into battle with the government to resist a new impost or get itself a special concession, all the other industries keep mum, even though they know the first industry is merely on the make.” That’s exactly what they did – kept mum. Referring to the MMRT, Gittins continues: “Big business looked the other way as the three big miners connived with the opposition to destroy the Rudd government. Its reward was to have its precious cut in company tax snatched away.”

The colleagues of the rent-seekers could have voiced their concern about one section of the economy seeking benefits at the expense of other sections and the common good. But they chose silence, and thereby gave tacit support to their colleagues and to the party that was promising repeal, the Coalition.

So here is another explanation of why businessmen seem to swallow the ‘talking down the economy’ rhetoric of Abbott/Hockey/Robb/Cormann without a protest, without a murmur, without so much as asking them to tone down the talk that is damaging their businesses day after day, week after week. They are part of the industrial/commercial club that sticks together, that exhibits the age-old ‘honour among thieves’. Unfortunately, it is the public’s rights and benefits that are being thieved.

Indifferent relationships exist between business and government
Writing in The Australian, John Durie attributes the adverse attitude of some businessmen to PM Gillard and her Government as due to the business community coming to grips with a flat economy that is a tough grind. He noted that some businesspeople are still smarting from policy changes and feel they have borne the brunt of tax changes, including the latest plans to bring forward payments.

He went on to say: “Big business isn't perfect and government bitterness is understandable after watching the big miners in open revolt over the tax changes. The public attacks on the government have died down as the better operators understand no one likes being slagged in public, so if they want to deal with the government it is better to be more cordial. They just wish Gillard would respond on the same terms.”

Durie conceded that the Asian Century white paper was welcomed as it offered a potential bridge between the two sides after a rocky relationship, but at the Business Council's annual dinner last week, he asserts that: “Gillard missed a chance to engage with a broad cross-section of business, welfare groups and community leaders.” He reported that: “Businesspeople say that in individual meetings Gillard is completely different, engaged and interested, but before big business audiences she speaks right over the top of them, apparently to a different audience…Just as she did last year, she used the occasion to lecture the audience rather than engage a genuinely open audience.”

Whether or not Durie is correct in laying the blame for this dissonance at the PM’s feet, it does seem that some businesspeople do. This is yet another explanation for the willingness of some to hold their tongue when Abbott and Co. are on their negative rampages, talking down the economy at the expense of business. Their antagonism to PM Gillard at the one time encourages them to be critical of her and her Government, while inhibiting them from being critical of the Coalition.

So there it is. Although it is very doubtful that businessmen really believe the rationale of Tony Abbott and his finance colleagues when they talk down the economy, they exhibit a regrettable reticence to pounce on them. Yet when that happens, people defer discretionary spending on their homes and cars, cut back on luxury items, use their clothes a little longer, shop online, eat out less often, take their own lunch to work, defer that holiday, pay off the credit card, reduce the mortgage, and save for the rainy day. And as they do, business suffers. Retail sales decline, restaurants languish, coffee/sandwich shops have fewer takers and some close, travel agents lose business, airlines have fewer flights. All of this distresses businesspeople, erodes profits, reduces dividends, diminishes stock prices, forces closures and bankrupts some, and results in personal dismay and depression. Yet, the business community stays mute.

A reasonable reaction would be to shout from the rooftops:

“Shut your mouths Abbott, Hockey, Robb, Cormann, your scaremongering is frightening people; your doom and gloom is driving customers away, it’s killing our business, sending us broke, and driving shareholders to desperation as their pensions erode and their dreams of comfortable retirement evaporate”.

But they say nothing. Why oh why?

Several explanations for this extraordinary behaviour are offered:

Many businessmen are Coalition supporters and won’t criticize their own. Others, believing that the Coalition will form the next government, out of self-interest refrain from disapproving their behaviour.

Some businessmen are rent-seekers and because they need the Coalition’s support, will not criticize. Honour among thieves inhibits other businessmen from entering the debate.

Indifferent relationships between business and the current government restrain some businessmen from criticizing the alternative government.

You may have other explanations for this astonishing unwillingness of businesspeople to insist that Abbott and Co. stop talking down our economy, the envy of the developed world, and stop wreaking havoc with their businesses.

What do you think?