Archive for the ‘australia’ Category

At least mathematics is commendable

Today the Australian government announced a proposal to force tech companies to provide government agencies with the contents of encrypted communications.

I don’t think any draft of proposed legislation exists yet — my understanding is that a bill will be introduced later in the year — but the most recent announcement today and the press conferences by Turnbull and Brandis essentially follow on from the G20 statement last week, which has a paragraph including such ideas.

Since there are no specifics, it’s hard to comment beyond generalities. But in general the whole proposal seems to me to be, to the extent it is not technically impossible or entirely misconceived, a threat to the privacy and safety of everyone.

The best thing to come out of the Turnbull’s press conference was that he said

The laws of mathematics are very commendable but the only laws that apply in Australia is the law of Australia.

I am very glad to see that Turnbull thinks mathematics is commendable. In this case, he should, for instance, take seriously the results of applying the laws of mathematics in climate models, which show just how dire the planetary climate situation is. He would be better advised to spend his precious days as Prime Minister bringing the laws of Australia into line with the laws of mathematics as applied to climate, than to try to fight the mathematics behind encryption by legislation.

I am afraid that, however commendable Turnbull thinks they are, the laws of mathematics simply cannot be avoided, whatever he thinks of them, and they cannot be legislated away. That’s the way the universe works.

You cannot legislate that messages sent by properly implemented end-to-end encryption be decrypted any more than you can legislate that pi is 3. Central results in cryptography show that properly implemented encryption schemes make decryption practically impossible. (This is putting aside potential futuristic technologies like quantum computers.)

So, in practice what this means is that the government wants to force tech companies to not implement end-to-end encryption properly, but to make some modification, whether by using a weakened implementation or malware or a backdoor of some sort, so that the government can access it. Such proposals by law enforcement and intelligence have a long and ignominious history going back to at least the 1990s and the Clipper Chip. Technical dificulties aside, the important point which has come out of all that history is that there is no way to make encryption subject to government-mandated decryption without making it vulnerable to other attacks as well. If encryption is weak enough that a conversation can be decrypted by someone other than the parties to the conversation, then it is weak enough to be decrypted by many others, hackers, other governments, and so on. If it is implemented through government-mandated malware, then anyone who gains access to that malware has similar power — and we have seen precisely this happen, for instance, with NSA malware and WannaCrypt attacks.

The government’s approach with the present proposal appears to be to transfer responsibility to tech companies. Rather than legislate government backdoors, they seem to want to legislate that the tech companies must do what they can to assist. They want to use the legal language of rendering “proportionate” and “reasonable” assistance. But breaking end-to-end encryption, or implementing backdoors, is not at all proportionate or reasonable. If a company makes such a change, then they no longer implement end-to-end encryption and the promises of privacy provided to their users are null and void. There is no proportionate way to break an algorithm which mathematically provides secure encryption. It is either secure, or it is not.

In recent years there has been a mass takeup of encrypted messaging by people around the world. End-to-end encryption has been implemented by many major technology companies. This is largely sparked by revelations of mass warrantless surveillance by the NSA, not only of individuals, but also of those very tech companies. People are right to be wary of their privacy.

The Australian authorities, I’m afraid, do not inspire a great deal of confidence. They have already been given draconian powers. Quite aside from other draconian laws which, for instance, criminalise government leaks and whistleblowing from within refugee detention centres, metadata laws have come into effect. These metadata laws allow many government agencies, without any court warrant, to access the metadata of almost any Australian’s online activity. These agencies have been invested with great power, and yet even the mild protections for journalists have been violated, as we found out in April, when the Australian Federal Police admitted that a journalist’s data had been accessed. No charges were laid and no action was taken, so far as I’m aware, beyond the Federal Police holding a press conference. Given the approach the AFP takes to journalists — a class of people with special legal protections — one wonders what approach they take to ordinary citizens. How will they then treat whistleblowers, activists, and government critics?

Police and intelligence already have enormous powers of surveillance and monitoring. Terrorism, child pornography and sex trafficking are important issues, but these proposals are not the way to deal with them.


Written by dan

July 14th, 2017 at 6:50 am

Of all the things

The year is 2016. It is the future. Incredible technology exists. It is feasible for all human knowledge to be available to every person at an instant. It is feasible to run all of human civilization on a sustainable basis. It is feasible, technologically, as it has never been before, for advanced civilization to run for a million years. It is feasible technologically, as it has been for a long time, for human society to exist without hunger, poverty, and war. It is even feasible to satisfy all human needs and almost all (maybe all) material desires, with a minimal burden of toil.

We have won. We have triumphed. From here on the technological questions are mere improvements, icing on the cake, and the engineering questions are mere practicalities; as to the possibility of the above, there is really no question.

It is entirely possible now to banish to the annals of pre-modern barbarism all the accumulated damage of the history of the world. Old petty divisions and sectarianisms need not exist. Ancient moral codes of honour, shame and violence can be discarded for tolerance, dignity, autonomy, solidarity, community, diversity, freedom, and justice. The root causes of most human problems can dry up and wither, and flowers may bloom in their place.

Human life will never be perfect; human life will never be without suffering. The pangs of lost love, thoughts in old age of what one’s life might have been, the knowledge of mortality, the contemplation of non-existence, disease, decay, and death — and jealousy, bitterness, anger, quarrels, and the full spectrum of human emotional life when fully lived — the mystery of the universe, our place in it, how it works, our conscious selves — all these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life will never be without these. (Though perhaps some optimistic transhumanists, biologists and physicists might even disagree on some of these.) Existential drama will never cease as long as we exist. But the drama of material poverty, of stunted human development, of resource depletion, of ignorance, of civilization powered by sickening, polluting, dirty fossil fuels — all these can, at least as a matter of technology and engineering, be avoided. In this regard, we really have won, as much as it is possible to win.

There have been past eons of more or less indefinitely sustainable living — epochal climate change, meteor strikes, and supernovae aside. And there have been past eons of peace. There have even been, to some extent, past eons of human societies that were sustainable and, relatively speaking, at peace. But there has not been a human society that had the capacity to do all that, simultaneously with advanced technology, material comfort, and instant total knowledge.

Until now. That possibility exists now. Possibly it existed a decade ago; but renewable energy technology has developed so quickly that we can now say “now” without hesitation.

The future is bright. And yet, it is not. It is terribly, tragically, world-shatteringly not.

But it is only social structures — more specifically, political, economic and cultural structures — that lie in its way. By now everybody recognises the crisis of capitalism, and increasingly many understand the need for a new system. It is the economic system that prevents goods from going where they need to go. And it is increasingly recognised how intractable the problems are, within the present system.

There are a million pressing needs in the present. Wars are continuing right now. Carbon emissions are increasing right now. New coal mines and power plants are being built. Rising carbon, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, warming seas, dying coral, extreme weather. Mass extinctions. Nuclear proliferation. Ethnic violence. Failed states. Marginalisation, dispossession, incarceration, violence against women, poor, black, brown, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled people. Hunger. Unemployment. Precarious employment. Demeaning, soul-crushing, underpaid, sweatshop employment. Religious hatred and extremism. Nationalist hatred and extremism. Anti-religious warmongering. Drone murders. Unregulated weapons exports. War crimes. Impunity. Refugee outpourings. Xenophobia. Media misinformation. Total government surveillance, surveillance capitalism, collecting it all. Governments that treat the governed like mushrooms: kept in the dark, fed shit. Dissent criminalised; whistleblowers demonised and prosecuted. Militarised, racialized, brutal policing. Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Deregulations. Privatisations. IP stealing knowledge from the commons. Defunding of health, education, welfare institutions. Tax breaks for the rich. Trade treaties for multinational corporations. Corporate capture of the state. Unregulated corrupt political donations. Abyssal gap between rich and poor. The 1%. A financialised, Ponzi economy. Mass unpayable debt. International financial markets holding governments to ransom. Greece crushed. Occupation of Palestine. Coup in Brazil. ISIS. Putin in Russia. Authoritarian China. Obama a terrorist on Tuesdays. Trump in the US. Erdogan in Turkey. The House of Saud. EU collapsing. NATO aggressing. Unions in decline. Social democracy in decline. Neoliberalism ascendant. Fascism rising. How many fronts are there to fight on?

And it will continue, it will feed back on itself, it will worsen, if nothing is done.

But the only lasting solution, to at least some of these, is, at least, a new system, a wholesale change in how our society is organised and run — political, economic, cultural. But it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

And yet the future is so close. We have to imagine it, and create it. Despite the poverty of our imagination, it is almost within our grasp. What could it look like? How could things be? These are the questions we must ask, and the answers we must create.

Meanwhile, in the forsaken and privileged south-east corner of the globe, an election will take place shortly for who is to govern 0.3% of the planet’s population. The major issues are whether a tax loophole favouring the rich should be closed; the appropriate degree of shame for politicians to make use of said loophole; and whether an actor in a political advertisement about said tax loophole is genuinely a tradesman. On the fringes, there are occasional murmurs that the gulag archipelago created to punish a tiny fraction of the world’s suffering refugee population, fleeing war and persecution, should be wound down; but such suggestions are largely ignored, drowned out of sight, along with the refugees, by three-word slogans.

Of all the things, this is what our system concerns itself with. This is our current incarnation of democracy. It is time for a new one.


Written by dan

June 21st, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Elections — or, how not to gnaw your arm off

Electoral politics in Australia. The mere thought of it makes me want to gnaw my arm off.

Actually, this thought is not confined to Australia. With one or two exceptions – but not many (and then, only perhaps) – it applies to the entire world.

We can take the humorous approach, and think about which clowns will best populate this circus. And it is a circus. It is a zero-ring circus under a far-too-big tent, whose antics are occasionally hilarious but almost always harmful. If only most of the people who populate it could go home and perform their shenanigans in the privacy of their own home!

The humorous approach to electoral politics is fun, but bad. These clowns are not funny; this is no laughing matter. We should take it seriously. Elected politicians are the ones entrusted with power in our system, and the clowns we elect become abusive clowns with power.

Moreover, it is an inaccurate approach. It is far too kind to refer to members of Parliament as mere clowns. They may behave like clowns in their role as politicians and parliamentarians, but mere clowns do not do harm. The Australian government regularly does harm, whether to asylum seekers, Aboriginal communities, the disabled, LGBT people, poor people, sick people, people on the receiving end of foreign policy, people on the receiving end of climate change – people in general.

I’ve long been of the view that real social change is best pursued outside of electoral channels. Channeling political activity into electoral channels constrains it, turns it into a vote-winning game, clouds issues with personalities, forces it into the system, weakens it, draws it towards the status quo.

As far as I’m concerned, one usually does better to work for social change outside the electoral realm. If we push institutions in a progressive direction, win over people, change their minds, spread good ideas, establish our own good institutions, and advance on matters of principle, we achieve lasting change. And this change will be reflected within electoral politics, because the people have changed, and vote-seeking politicians will go along with them.

Of course, the matter is not a simple one, as with anything in human affairs. At this level of generality one can say little. Electoral parties are certainly not equally bad, and some are certainly more harmful than others. Sometimes historical, economic and political circumstances are such as to make major gains possible through purely electoral means. Sometimes exceptional personalities appear on the electoral stage and are able to break through the impasse of electoral two-party sclerosis. Sometimes the circumstances may be such as to make a strategic intervention in electoral politics possible and desirable.

But it will not surprise many to assert that this political system is bad.

For one thing, it’s bad in principle. Not the fact that it is democratic — that is good. It’s the fact that it is barely democratic, and reduced to a façade of democracy, that is bad. The idea that we should entrust all power to party apparatchiks for several years at a time is nauseating. The fact that we have no power over our own affairs except to, once every 3 years, number a ballot paper ranking politicians from least to most bad is highly undemocratic, technologically backward and historically outmoded.  That it’s done on a geographic basis (in the lower house at least, which determines the government), with many seats clearly one way or the other, so that most votes will not make the slightest difference, makes its effectiveness negligible.  And the fact that we are constantly reminded that this is a supposedly wonderful democratic system — and expected not only to accept it, but to celebrate it — is patronising and demeaning. It is bad as a matter of principle — so bad that the task of finding a better system is an urgent one, merely as a matter of political morality.

There is also the small matter that the current Australian representative-democratic system takes no account of the fact that it was established illegitimately on the land of sovereign Aboriginal peoples, and will remain so until some form of treaty or sovereign agreement regularises the situation.

But even worse than all this — and it is very bad — is the way those institutions play out in practice. Large parties form; they become bureaucratic and oligarchic; they build a machine, factionalised, beholden, compromised. They attract sycophants, egomaniacs, social climbers, backstabbers, people who desire power rather than justice. Those who rise to the top are usually the worst. The parties as institutions may be founded on a set of principles, or to represent certain classes or interests, but they become machines to harvest, deliver, and manipulate votes. Having achieved power by winning enough votes, they seek to maintain power. They value votes over principle. They value power over principle. They will compromise on anything to win votes. They require financial resources to do so — and take money from powerful vested interests, compromising themselves further in the process. The party becomes more corporate, and corporations capture the party. In the end, the party privileges whatever they can use to their electoral advantage over anything that matters, and their agenda is the agenda of the status quo.

Not just one, but multiple parties — with all these faults, to a greater or lesser degree — arise and compete. The worse they are, the more attuned they are to the prejudices of the electorate, the better they are at distracting people from the most important issues, the best they are at manipulating emotions to their advantage, the better they perform. There are many exceptions, and in certain times and places there may be parties which are electorally successful by being highly principled — but if there is no external pressure to constrain them, such as a powerful extra-parliamentary activist or union movement, they will eventually become complacent.

The parties which are the best at this game — and therefore the worst — compete and compromise and adjust until they can win, until they can cobble together enough votes through a combination of class interest, voter inertia, policy, prejudice, demagoguery, fearmongering, vindictive attacks on the other side, and emotional manipulation. The other party does the same, until a stable equilibrium emerges, and the two parties compete on the margin. (In some countries it may be more than two.) They gravitate to their mutual centre. Like any commercial duopoly, they compete by minor adjustments to their policies, by attacking each other, by racing to the bottom. They aim for the 51st percentile from the left or right. They discard any coherence in their policy or (gasp!) philosophy in the process. They forget what ideas they are supposed to represent. Their whole purpose and meaning revolves around defeating the other team and taking power to — do what again? No matter, the corporate backers and think-tanks will fill in those details. They have power, they win the prize, and the rest does not matter.

Although we describe it as a race to the bottom, there is no bottom. We may speak of hitting rock bottom, but the rock is never there. Bitter experience shows that there is no depth which will not be plumbed in this process. We accelerate to negative infinity. We fall into a black hole.

Meanwhile, the electorate disengages. At best, politics becomes at best another sports match to discuss: we can opine on the various teams’ tactics and skills, and their latest results. At worst, it becomes an a subject of active aversion. We usually just vote however our parents did. We would rather gnaw our arms off than seriously engage with this nonsense. And rightly so.

But there are positive ways to engage.

Not all parties are so bad. The ones that are less bad, or even good, are usually those further from power. As parties get closer to power they will likely face the same process of degeneration, but in the meantime they can be worth supporting. In voting, we do not need to say how good each party is; we only need to say which is the least bad among them.

But that doesn’t mean we should never get involved with electoral parties; indeed I’ve done so myself. Without good people inside the parties, they will be even worse. There is much work to be done inside and outside political parties to try and keep them honest, keep them progressive, keep them from compromising principle in the name of power. Against the institutional pull of the system it may, over the long term, be a losing struggle, but that does not mean it is useless. If the party’s stance affects government policy, it affects people’s lives.

More importantly, we can recognise that politics is about far more than elections. Social change is a process which is affected by election, but it also affects elections. If we can work — however we think best, however best fits our skills and talents — to uphold, to promote, and to realise just social principles and institutions, then we can simply do it ourselves, along with our friends, colleagues, and communities. No matter how large or small — we should do what we are able. For much of the work that needs to be done, there is no need for an intermediary.

That sounds nice, of course. The reality is not quite so nice. It is not enough for every good citizen to be engaged in local issues, while horrendous politicians at the national level let the world burn. At the very least, whatever we do politically, we should do it with a view to how it affects the system as a whole, and have an idea about larger strategy and how our actions it into it. The system is bad, it is entrenched, and it is leading us towards multiple disasters. We need to stop it; but we cannot let it stop us.

In the meantime, there are elections occasionally. So we can take some time out from real politics once every few years to rank the parties best to worst, and then get back to the task of changing society — including those parties, and the system in which they operate — for the better.

That way, at least, I won’t have to gnaw my arm off.


Written by dan

June 15th, 2016 at 2:05 pm

The Impact of Impact

An interesting scholarly article appeared in the journal Studies in Higher Education in February of this year, by Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer. It investigates some aspects of the research funding system in the UK and Australia.

Give any research academic in Australia today (or the UK, or well, anywhere) a few minutes to vent about their job and you will most likely hear a tirade about grants — whether the writing of research grant applications, the application process, the chances of success, who and what tends to succeed, the pressures universities exert on researchers to obtain them, or any aspect of the related culture.

Well, come to think of it, there might be tirades against many possible things. The university universe is not short on tirades or things to tirade against.

While anyone in the academic world will be very familiar with the standard grievances — and it would take far too long to attempt to make a list — they are grievances usually only aired in private.

What is good about this article is that it uses the medium of a research article to air the views of academics, suitably anonymised, in public. The focus is on a particularly problematic aspect of the process of research funding in Australia and the UK: impact statements.

To quote the article,

In both UK and Australian funding contexts… the perceived merit of a research funding application is now linked to the capacity of the applicant to prescribe convincing (pathways to) research impacts, or more specifically, credible statements of how they will ensure economic and/or societal returns from their research… ‘Impact Statements’ … demand that academics demonstrate an awareness of their external communities and how they will benefit from the proposed research… [and] require that academics demonstrate methodological competency in engaging with their research users, showing how research will be translated and appropriated in ways that most effectively service users’ needs.

On its face, it looks like a good idea: any research asking for public money must make some attempt to justify its effect on society. And that doesn’t just look like a good idea, it is a good idea.

However, most research — including especially most important and worthy research — has zero-to-infinitesimal direct impact on society — or at least very little that can be explained in the few sentences of the word limit to create an “impact”. There are certainly areas that do have direct impact: most medical research; some (but not all) climate research; some renewable energy research; some biotechnology and nanotechnology research, and so on. But of course, that research with the most immediate direct economic or commercial impact is already funded by private capital and does not need public funding. Most research is much slower, uncertain, slowly and methodically working towards a long-term scientific or scholarly goal — with occasional surprises and breakthroughs.

But what impact statements, and the associated culture, demand are not accurate stories with all the complexity of scientific understanding, research programmes, educated guesswork and careful methodology that sensible research requires. That would take too long. Boring! We want impact. In a few words. Major impact. High velocity. Boom. That’s what we’re looking for. And that’s just not how research works.

Alas, simply saying that your research makes the world a better place by improving its store of important scientific and scholarly knowledge, and making society better because by supporting this research the society becomes the kind of society that supports this kind of research, is much too subtle for the politics of the situation to allow. Rather, the politics of the situation make the impact statement into a crude sales pitch.

Thus, we have a situation where, in the principal public statements made to support scientific and scholarly research, the predominant, sufficient and principal good reason for the public to support scientific and scholarly research is out of the question — it is inexpressible. It is also, in effectively preventing full justifications from being aired (at least where it counts), a scientific version of the censorship by concision so familiar in mainstream media.

How would, say, Euler have written an impact statement for his research into, say, analysis? The impact of theorems which gradually improve mathematical understanding, over decades and centuries, to the point where they enable breakthroughs in other sciences, engineering, or technology, is impossible to quantify. Even for those parts of Euler’s research which have had major, definite and decisive impact, like Euler’s theorem in number theory central to RSA encryption, the idea that Euler could have had any inkling of this application, over 200 years later, is laughable. Even in  1940 Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology sung the praises of number theory precisely because of its uselessness.

So, justification based on “impact” would have been an impossible task for Euler. And Euler is the most prolific mathematician of all time, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. God help any lesser mortal.

To be fair, pure mathematics is in some sense too easy a case. The very inapplicability of pure mathematics is so clear that any statement about “impact” in this context can only seriously be understood as a source of amusement. A three-year project to think hard and prove some theorems about some interesting and important field of mathematics — but which may have some practical applications, one day, but this is impossible to predict, and in all likelihood not — is so far from the average person’s concept of “impact” that we can only feel that the poor mathematician has been dragged by a faceless bureaucracy into a system designed for someone else, in some other time and place.

Or, perhaps slightly more accurately, and disturbingly, a pure mathematician made to justify their research based on “impact” is a lamb about to be fed to the lions. But thankfully, mathematicians will not be fed to the lions — or at least, not all of them — because the emperor has taken their side. A society without mathematicians produces none of the STEM-literate graduates that the emperor, capital, demands. The survival of the planet, as it turns out, also demands STEM-literate graduates, but as the perilous state of the planet so clearly attests, it is capital, not the planet, which is a much stronger determinant of social outcomes, at least under present social arrangements.

Mathematics aside, the point remains. Requiring 30-second written advertisements called “impact statements” leads to exaggeration, over-speculation, and, at best, twisting of the truth.

But don’t take if from me — it’s much more interesting to requote the senior academics at Australian/UK universities quoted in the article:

It’s virtually impossible to write one of these grants and be fully frank and honest in what it is you’re writing about. (Australia, Professor)

‘illusions’ (UK, Professor); ‘virtually meaningless’, or ‘made up stories’ (Australia, Professor) ‘…taking away from the absolute truth about what should be done’ (UK, Professor). Words such as lying, lies, stories, disguise, hoodwink, game – playing, distorting, fear, distrust, over- engineering, flower-up, bull-dust, disconnected, narrowing and the recurrence of the word ‘problem’

Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money – yes. (UK, Professor)

I will write my proposals which will have in the middle of them all this work, yeah but on the fringes will tell some untruths about what it might do because that’s the only way it’s going to get funded and you know I’ve got a job to do, and that’s the way I’ve got to do it. It’s a shame isn’t it? (UK, Professor)

If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable. (Australia, Professor)It’s about survival. It’s not sincere all the way through…that’s when it gets disheartening. It puts people on the back foot and fuels a climate of distrust. (UK, Professor)

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a scientific piece of work, and no matter what framework it is that you want to apply it will be artificial and come out with the wrong answer because if you try to predict things you are on a hiding to nothing. (UK, Professor)

The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ (Australia, Professor)

It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda- and that is it’s not true it’s wrong – it flies in the face of scientific practice. (UK, Professor)

It’s really virtually impossible to write an (Australian Research Council) ARC grant now without lying and this is the kind of issue that they should be looking at. (Australia, Professor)

It becomes increasingly difficult – one would be very hard pressed to write a successful grant application that’s fully truthful…you’re going to get phony answers, they’re setting themselves up for lies…[they go on]…it’s absurd to expect every grant proposal to have an impact story. (Australia, Professor)

Trying to force people to tell a causal story is really tight, it’s going to restrict impact to narrow immediate stuff, rather than the big stuff, and force people to be dishonest. (UK, Professor)

They’re just playing games – I mean, I think it’s a whole load of nonsense, you’re looking for short term impact and reward so you’re playing a game…it’s over inflated stuff. (Professor, Australia)


Written by dan

April 29th, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Easiest Election Ever

Most Australians must be glad the farce is almost over. The federal election is only a few days away.

And the farce has surely led the country to an historical ebb, an international embarrassment for democracy. A debate shifted to make way for a reality TV show; a candidate who “rebrands” herself as her “real” self as a major campaign strategy; another candidate who has been roundly criticised for his extreme and anti-scientific statements; the almost complete absence of “minor” parties from the media; in addition to the usual vacuum of substance in discussions, debates, and the mainstream media.

While an international embarrassment for democracy, these developments do make the election itself easy.

Essentially, there is one question in this election with dwarfs all others. The approach to this question of both major parties is a scientific catastrophe. And the approach of the third party is not — at the very least, its concern for the question is encoded in its DNA.

First, it’s worth making clear that electoral politics is always insufficient. It is never enough to cast one’s vote and then switch off for the next 3 years. One should never put one’s faith in a representative beholden to party discipline, poll marginalism, and the democratic deficit of a faraway capital. But elections do have real effects, and in this election the effects are undoubtedly serious.

There is one question which dwarfs all others, because the future of the planet is in question, depending on actions taken in the term of the next government.

Yesterday, the Australian Academy of Science released a new climate change report. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that the earth is warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that if business continues as usual, global temperatures will increase significantly, and that this will have serious effects. And it went into some detail about what those effects might be.

This is not an ordinary peer-reviewed scientific paper. It is not just an opinion backed up by evidence and reviewed by experts. This is a synthesis of hundreds of academic papers. Like the international IPCC, it summarises the consensus of all of them. It is the sense of the entire community of experts. As such, it is inherently conservative. It is a minimal statement of what we are scientifically sure about; and it is extremely careful with questions we are not sure about.

This consensus includes: “business as usual” is expected to lead to lead to a warming of 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, possibly only 3 degrees, but possibly as high as 7 degrees.

This consensus continues: A warming of 4.5 degrees

would mean that the world would be hotter than at any time in the last few million years. Sea level would continue to rise for many centuries. The impacts of such changes are difficult to predict, but are likely to be severe for human populations and for the natural world. The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia, the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation and ice sheet stability.

In other words, the question is not marginal. That is how you say, in scientific language, that the fate of the planet is at stake.

Even a warming of 2 degrees Celsius

would lead to a significantly different world from the one we now inhabit. Likely consequences would include more heat waves, fewer cold spells, changes to rainfall patterns and a higher global average rainfall, higher plant productivity in some places but decreases in others, disturbances to marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, disruption to food production in some regions, rising sea levels, and decreases in Arctic ice cover. While aspects of these changes may be beneficial in some regions, the overall impacts are likely to be negative under the present structure of global society.

And, modelling emissions pathways, to have a “better than even” chance of preventing temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”.

We are now about to elect a government for 3 of those 10 years.

To summarise: Australian society is about to elect a government for a time in which, in order to have a “better than even” chance of preventing a 2 degree temperature rise — which itself would still lead to a “significantly different” and more difficult world to live in — global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”. That requires a major structural shift in the global economy, starting immediately. Of course, that implies an immediate and major structural shift in the Australian economy too.

Three years ago, both Labor and Liberal parties were in favour of capping carbon emissions — that is, setting an upper limit on emissions, by law. A majority of the Australian public has consistently supported serious action on climate change regardless of international developments, despite disillusionment, the failure of the Copenhagen conference, and an upsurge in climate denialism. As the threat of climate change has worsened, and the state of scientific knowledge become even more disturbing, both major parties have responded by abandoning those policies.

The Labor party abandoned its policy of a cap-and-trade scheme after Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party. Abbott in 2009 described the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, and to this day disputes the scientific consensus — truly an heroic scientific dissent, since even his party colleagues describe him as “innumerate”.

Julia Gillard, Labor party leader, in her climate policy campaign speech, announced a new initiative: she would convoke a randomly-selected “Citizens’ Assembly” of 150 Australians, to examine the issue over 12 months, and wait for their opinion before taking any action. The policy has “become an ongoing joke in Labor ranks”. Needless to say, if emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, such a total abdication of policy is scarcely imaginable. The “policy” does not even appear on Labor’s policy website, such is the level of embarrassment. The independent Climate Institute estimates their policy will lead to no peak, no decline, but a 19% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

On the other hand, the climate change policy of the Liberal/National party coalition, under Abbott, who describes the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, includes no limit on carbon emissions, and centres around an “emissions reduction fund”. Under this policy, their document proudly announces, “businesses will not be penalised for continuing to operate at ‘business as usual’ levels” — truly likely to lead to a major structural shift in the economy within a decade. The Climate Institute estimate for their policy is no peak, no decline, but an 8% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

As far as I can find at the time of writing, neither major party has made any response to the Academy of Science report.

The Greens do have some commitments on the environment. In particular, their policy recognises “we have only 10-15 years to use our collective human intelligence to address the crisis of climate change and to prevent catstrophe.” They propose a cap on carbon, a 40% reduction on 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and other serious action.

The only electoral outcome which can give a non-catastrophic, science-based Australian climate policy, in the period in which emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, is a large swing to the Greens.

In Australia, with mandatory and preferential voting, the electoral system makes this choice easier than elsewhere. In the US and elsewhere, With a first-past-the-post system, a vote for the Greens takes a vote away from other parties. With Australia’s preferential voting system, if the Greens do not get your highest first vote, then your vote switches to the lesser of the other evils, as you decide. You decide where your vote goes and in what order.

The Greens may well obtain the balance of power in the Senate, as well as a lower house seat here in Melbourne. An increased vote may give them real leverage to force climate action upon whatever government takes office.

Of course, a mere vote at this election is not enough. It will take serious, urgent, international and sustained action to make the changes necessary to maintain a liveable planet, as the science demands. This electoral campaign, if nothing else, should be an education to Australians about the bankruptcy of their political system, the oncoming crisis in the climate system, and the need for vast changes in their society.


Written by dan

August 17th, 2010 at 3:49 am


By jingo, it’s ANZAC day, Australia’s favourite nationalist/gambling holiday!

Time to put aside pro-war ANZAC “lest we forget” mythology, which amounts to forgetting everything important in history.

Lest we forget Australia’s role in maintaining British, now American, domination of the world.

Lest Australians forget not only their own suffering, but also those slaughtered by Australian troops — slaughters scrupulously avoided in most patriotic rhetoric, even anti-war songs.

Lest we forget that the most recent glory of the ANZAC legend was the invasion of Iraq, an aggressive war, the supreme crime against humanity, in which Australia was an enthusiastic co-perpetrator.

Lest we forget the imperative to get out of Afghanistan and let all peoples determine their own destiny.

Lest we forget that Australia is one nation among many, an artificial political creation, a genocidally-colonised island, a small planet in an unfathomably vast universe.

“And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.”

And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda


Written by dan

April 25th, 2010 at 11:07 pm

The Herd strikes again

These have been around for a while now, but still, songs about history, US foreign policy, and war, are always interesting.

The first one in particular is one of the most educational music videos I’ve ever seen (read the headlines!).

And we you knew you were frauds
But onwards we went to war
Nothing could be said to convince you
We’ve already seen it before

I’m a Starship Trooper
This is my letter to dad, transferred from Saigon to Baghdad
and now I’m dead


Written by dan

March 25th, 2009 at 7:02 am


Written by dan

February 26th, 2009 at 8:01 am