Monday, October 19, 2009

Time for a stronger climate change response

This evening, I wrote to Senator Penny Wong, Australia's Minister on Climate Change, urging her to resist the amendments being put forward by the Liberal opposition to water down the Rudd government's proposed greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme (ETS), and instead to strengthen Australia's greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

The email was prompted by Who on Earth Cares, the Australian Conservation Foundation's public climate change campaign. Personally, I find the Rudd government's ETS a whimpy, futile attempt at cutting greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global warming. The ALP government's targets for cutting emissions are pitiful – and certainly not based on what scientists say is needed to prevent dangerous climate change. However, the Turnbull Liberal opposition's attempts to weaken (let's not use mealy-mouthed 'water down', shall we?) the government's scheme and demand greater subsidies for carbon polluters to be worse!

The Who on Earth Cares/ACF online campaigning tool allowed me to send an email to Penny Wong (automatically generated), urging her to strengthen Australia's greenshouse gas reduction, not weaken it. It says:
Dear Minister Wong,

This week the Liberal Party has made it clear that it proposes to weaken the Government’s emissions trading scheme.

I ask you, as someone that is very concerned about climate change, not to cave in to their proposed amendments and weaken Australia’s response to climate change.

I ask you not to give more handouts to the big polluters. Doing so would take the scheme backwards, and impact greatly on Australian taxpayers.

Instead, I ask you to strengthen and pass the emissions trading scheme, and take real action on climate change ahead of the crucial climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

Australia has so much to lose from a climate change catastrophe, yet so much to gain in a clean, low carbon economy.

We have abundant renewable energy resources, and huge potential to grow jobs and investment by grabbing a fair share of the global boom in clean technologies.

You have the ability to strengthen the emissions trading scheme by:

• Improving the target for reducing greenhouse pollution. 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 is the minimum credible starting point for Australia; and scientists say we should be making a 40% reduction

• Decrease handouts of free permits to Australia’s biggest polluters – now that the economy is back on track we should be winding back corporate welfare, not increasing it

• Ramping up investment in clean energy jobs and industries that will ensure Australia remains prosperous in the 21st century

• Using funds raised by the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to help bring developing countries and their people out of poverty through clean economic development, and to cope with climate impacts that are already hurting them.

Australia has a history of leading by example and punching above its weight. I ask you to help continue this tradition.

I added some text below that, in the bit meant for us to 'personalise' our emails and
, I guess, prove we are real people rather than the digital version of the rent-a-mob governments so maligned a decade and more ago. I'm sharing it here as an open letter to Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change. Feel free to use it, or let it inspire your own emails or letters to the Minister. (Write to

To Penny Wong, Minister for Climate Change

On a further note, Minister Wong, I would like to strongly urge you to strengthen Australia's greenhouse gas reduction strategy with an insight from Victoria.

I am seriously concerned that in Australia we do all that we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent – not just slow down – dangerous climate change. If your government caves in to the demands of the Liberal Party and the carbon industry lobbyists, I strongly, strongly fear for the future of my children – my two boys, aged 9 and 3.

Last Saturday 17 October 2009, The Age reported that the huge aluminium smelters in Portland and Point Henry in south-western Victoria are costing Victorians more than $4.5 billion (by the time the contracts end in 2014 and 2016) in electricity subsidies for the smelters, and are likely to cost us more. Aluminium smelting is one of the most energy intensive – and greenhouse polluting – industries in the world, and it makes me angry that not only are we encouraging this industry, but we are actively subsidising it. Furthermore, these smelters are run on electricity generated from burning brown coal – one of the most carbon polluting forms of power generation there is!

If we instead subsidised and supported renewable energy such as solar power and wind turbines to anywhere the same amount, Australia would be in a much better position to tackle climate change!

Former Hamer and Kennett Liberal Victorian government minister Rob Maclellan, who was in the cabinet that decided to support and subsidise the smelters, was reported in that Age article as saying that decision was 'absolute madness' and a 'costly disaster' for our state. He clearly regrets those cabinet decisions! Please Minister, don't find yourself in a situation 10 years from now regretting any decisions you make to weaken Australia's greenhouse gas reduction strategy and throw greater subsidies at the carbon-polluting industries.

Victoria has already witnessed some of the most horrendous bushfires last summer, and I don't want my children living in a world where they have to fear every summer, rather than long for it and embrace the hope of its warmth and sunshine. This would be a horrendous future for us all. I want a carbon neutral future – and a brighter one – form my children. A future where my children will listen to Melbourne's weather report to figure out whether to take an umbrella or pack a jumper, or wear shorts and thongs – not whether to pack their belongings in a car and evacuate to a safe area to avoid a raging bushfire or a cyclonic storm.

Please – do the right thing. Strengthen Australia's greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Don't weaken it.

I welcome the opportunity to hear back from you about what you will do on this matter.

Mark Lawrence

From a (little) more innocent summer some 4 years ago, Jacob (now turning 9) building a sandcastle at Squeaky Beach in Wilsons Promontory. I say a little more innocent, or idyllic, as we were still amidst a terrible draught then, and the heatwave that Australia Day weekend was awful! Photo by me.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ride to work day

Ride to work day, originally uploaded by Mark Lawrence.

This morning I braved the rain (well, drizzle) to be part of Ride to work day. Surprisingly, it wasn't so bad riding in the wet. The breakfast was lovely, and a good crowd, put on by Yarra Council for participants in the municipality. I met my workmates there.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

The audacity of Obama's peace prize

I only just caught up on Saturday afternoon with the news that Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm amazed, and puzzled. I'm wondering: just what peace has Obama meant to have brought that is worth the Nobel? Iraq? Still tatters. Afghanistan? War. Well?

I haven't yet decided on Obama – on whether he is progressive enough and will be the catalyst for abiding positive change in the US and globally, or be another moderately liberal US President, like Clinton, hemmed in by powerful vested interests and neutralised by the desire to hang on to power. But based on his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, which I really enjoyed listening to the audio of, I’m open to seeing what he can and will do, and I hope it will be many good and important things. As well as something big on climate change. Because we certainly need it.

It is the kind of hope that I never really had for Kevin Rudd (other than that he take Howard from power). Thus, while I feel less disaffected with Rudd (having expected less of him and the ALP and, perversely, received even less), I do feel we have more to lose if Obama falters.

But this Nobel Peace Prize is another matter. My partner reckons it will damn him. Everything he does now will be judged against the Prize. Will we always be asking of Obama, 'Is he living up to the Peace Prize?' She has a point. Will this mean that the small but crucial steps to peace that he may (need to) put in train will be seen to count for less? We will always expect the grand gestures for peace – even if such gestures are often empty?

In an email to supporters, international human rights online campaigning site is more open to Obama’s Peace Prize, and sees in it the opportunity to push him to take stronger action on pressing issues of world peace, including climate change:
Obama himself says he's "surprised, humbled" and doesn't yet deserve it -- but he's accepted the Prize as a call to action, "to confront the common challenges of the 21st century" together. On too many pressing issues, the US President seems boxed-in by stubborn interests and has not yet taken courageous action. He deserves to hear our congratulations -- and our message to be bolder.

In his Cairo speech this June, Obama spoke of “the world we seek” -- one where “extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own” and nuclear energy does not trigger conflict -- a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all are respected.

Obama’s words have offered a vision of profound change: all this can perhaps not be achieved overnight. But his push for Middle East peace has not yet been strong enough to overcome the resistance of hardliners in the region. Meanwhile, hawks and conservatives in the US are pressing him to commit 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, instead of changing course to focus more on peace, development and diplomacy.

There is a real risk today that the hope of change will be lost. Leaders are judged finally by their actions, not their words. Only by following through with courageous, transformative action for peace can Obama fulfil his promise -- and only then will history judge that this Nobel Peace Prize is truly deserved. see nuclear disarmament, climate change, and peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan as needing Obama's focus and action in the coming months. They are calling on people globally to support Obama and prompt him to stronger action through an online petition:
Only by following through with courageous, transformative action for peace can Obama fulfill his promise -- and history judge that this prize is deserved.

Let's define this moment as a challenge to be bold -- let’s send Obama a million messages of encouragement and urgency, pressing him to turn hope into real and lasting change!
What do you think? Is this Nobel prize audacious? Will our hopes be dashed?

[Image: cliff1066™'s photo of Shepard Fairey’s Portrait of Barack Obama, used
under creative commons license

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Black-faced racism

When a group of Australian professional men – none of whom black – get together and paint up their faces black, wear large, black curly-haired wigs, dress in the style of '70s disco and R&B, and perform – very badly – a routine satirising 1970s African American family musical group the Jackson Five, you may think that they demonstrated more than just bad taste or a lack of good sense. You may, in fact, feel quite distressed at their racist portrayal of black people – not just African American people but all people of colour who have borne the brunt of white racism. This is quite likely if you are black, or a person of colour, yourself.

In such situations, you may express quiet disgust, you may walk out of the room during the performance, or you may, if you feel brave enough, have a word with one or two of the performers afterward and tell them why you think what they did was racist and wrong, and that they should rethink their attitudes towards African Americans, and black people generally. And it will likely be the subject of conversation amongst those who watched the performance for some time. Quite likely it will end there, or with a half-hearted apology from the performers and the excuse that they were just having a 'bit of fun'.

But when such an act is included in a variety program 'reunion' show broadcast on national television, with potentially hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of viewers, as it was last Wednesday night, you would surely wonder what this said about a country that condoned, celebrated, defended, and advocated such racist depictions and ridicule of black people.

Personally, I'm not really surprised that there are people who would perform such a show, and only a little surprised that Channel Nine broadcast it. I am certainly not surprised that the national conversation in Australia has been divided between those who are aghast and disgusted at the national broadcast of such racist ridicule, on the one side, and those who think it is all just a bit of humour and totally blown out of proportion by those too 'PC' to have a sense of humour and who should just 'get over it', on the other.

I am not surprised, but I am still angry.

I'm not surprised because I do believe that Australia has more than an undercurrent of racism that it not only denies, but actively cultivates. It is the vein of racism that runs under the inaction that allows child malnutrition and food insecurity to continue in Aboriginal communities while the country's richest city, Sydney, throws away AUD$1 billion worth of food a year. A vein that stretched across the string of desert, and now island, concentration camps where asylum seekers were indefinitely detained without trial.

It is the same vein of racism that Pauline Hanson open-cut into a bleeding sore, and that John Howard carefully capped and tapped, to draw on in an continuing drip, drip, drip that helped keep him in power on a wave of fear and hatred of invading asylum seekers, PC-police multiculturalists and dole-bludging blacks.

It is the same vein of racism that sees Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed by child protection authorities from their parents at over 8 times the rate of non-Indigenous children – over 10 years after the Bringing Them Home Report and over a year after the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

It is the same vein of racism that saw the Cronulla riots by white Australians expressing extreme racist sentiments and racist violence against Australians of Arab descent, and today sees South Asian international students and migrants, often working in low-paying jobs, fair game for racist attacks, muggings, and robbery.

No, I’m not surprised. But I am angry.

I am angry because this skit, this poor excuse for racist ridicule, was not an unfortunate slip-up of bad judgement by television executives. Channel Nine producers did not just 'let it happen', but in my opinion likely sought out the original performers of the skit broadcast 20 years ago on Hey Hey it's Saturday – when the men were medical students. More than a couple of people must have thought it a good idea to exhume the same group for the come-back show, with a triumphant ‘see where we are now’ punch line: all now medical specialists, with a urologist, anesthetist, and psychiatrist amongst them.

Until Channel Nine got egg on their faces and a clearly angry Harry Connick Jr criticised them for it on air. (The footage of both the skit and Connick’s criticism of it is online.) When Connick said on air, “we have spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart,” he wasn’t kidding. The media and opinion storm in the US has been huge, and overwhelmingly critical of the TV show and of Australia for perpetuating such racism.

Unfortunately for Australia, the criticism seems to have gotten white Australia’s collective back up, and instead of inspiring widespread reflection on the extent of racism in Australia, it seems to be provoking defensiveness and closed ears – as well as the current debate over whether the skit was really racist or just harmless Aussie humour. The opportunity for collective soul searching and effective anti-racism campaigning seems likely to be swamped by this debate.

If such an incident doesn’t prompt privileged white Australia to reflect on the extent of racism in this country, I’m not sure what will. I guess I’m inclined to agree with one of the American reactions reported in The Age:
"As a college-educated, African-American professional who confronts racism daily from cradle to grave, for no other reason than the colour of my skin; it is clear to me now more than ever, that racism against black people will never disappear but continue to be tolerated under various guises."

[Image: 'Poster for minstrel show, 1899', published on flickr by bobster855; used under Creative Commons license]

Originally written for Meanjin Journal's blog, Spike.

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Amazing big and little giants

This has to be the most gorgeous thing I've seen in a long, long while. Truly uplifting public art. And from what I can gather, celebratory and cathartic.

It is the street theatre performance '
The Berlin Reunion' by French Theatre company Royal de Luxe in Berlin on 4 October to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany's reunification. And it gives 'street theatre' new meaning!

You get a better idea of the scale of these giant puppets from this photo.

The story is of a giant who battles sea monsters and such to bring down a wall dividing him from his little niece, and on his victory goes searching through the streets to be reunited with her. 1.5 million people filled Berlin's streets to watch the performance!

The full page photographs featured on The Big Picture are truly amazing, and really capture the details, textures and size of the amazing puppets – the detail, the theatre company's technical feats, and the enormity of the project. And capture the story really well. I wonder if we would ever get anything like it in Melbourne, or elsewhere in Australia. Perhaps to celebrate reconciliation and a treaty between black and white Australia? Someday.

There's also a video of the performance.

The photos I've shown here are creative commons-licensed photos from flickr. From the top, there are by azrael74, derSven ¶ and derSven ¶.

There's also a Royal de Luxe Central photo pool on flickr.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Another beauty on a lovely spring day

I saw this gorgeous flower blooming this morning. There's a prize for whoever can correctly, or most accurately, tell me what the flower is. Comp details will be in the comments.

Update: More details on the competition, including the prizes, are in the comments. Keep your entries coming. Competition closes at 12pm on Thursday 8 October 2009. [Updated 12.00 pm Monday 5 October 2009]

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