Ray Goodlass

Rays peace activism

Month: January, 2020

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for today, 28 January 2020

Insect extinction a major problem for humanity

That over a billion native animals perished in the current bushfires has been a hot topic recently. Apart from that statistic being itself food for thought it was a salutary reminder that it could push many species to extinction.

It also reminded me of another world-wide extinction crisis happening now. I’m referring to insects. Their extinction is a cause for concern in its own right, but as the Guardian Australia reported, “Plummeting insect numbers threaten collapse of nature”.

Some misguided souls might think the collapse of nature is no big deal, but it is, for our own species survival depends totally on the natural world. That’s a frightening thought, which provoked me to look further into the topic.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review, published in the journal Biological Conservation.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

Though the planet is at the start of the sixth mass extinction in its history through huge losses reported in larger animals, insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals. Apparently they outnumber humanity by 17 times.

Some may mistakenly feel their extinction is to be welcomed, as it will means less pesky flied buzzing around our heads. However, insects are essential for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients. And food for us.

The review strongly indicates the crisis is global. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The (insect) trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting on life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

Their analysis says intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, particularly the heavy use of pesticides. Urbanisation and climate change are also significant factors.

“The main cause of the decline is agricultural intensification,” said Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, at the University of Sydney. “That means the elimination of all trees and shrubs that normally surround the fields, so there are plain, bare fields that are treated with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.”

He thinks new classes of insecticides introduced in the last 20 years, including neonicotinoids and fipronil, have been particularly damaging as they are used routinely and persist in the environment. “They sterilise the soil, killing all the grubs.” This has effects even in nature reserves nearby. The 75% insect losses in Germany, for example, were in protected areas.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” he said.

This is of course very worrying news, which led me to investigate further to see if anything could be done about it.

It can. The world must eradicate pesticide use, prioritise nature-based farming methods and urgently reduce water, light and noise pollution to save plummeting insect populations, according to a new “roadmap to insect recovery” compiled by experts and published in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.

Phasing out synthetic pesticides and fertilisers used in industrial farming and aggressive greenhouse gas emission reductions are among a series of urgent “no-regret” solutions to reverse what conservationists have called the ‘unnoticed insect apocalypse’ as the researchers put it.

Alongside these measures, scientists must urgently establish which herbivores, detritivores, parasitoids, predators and pollinators are priority species for conservation.

Of course, until the world listens to the scientific research and decides to act on it nothing will happen. The failure of much of the world to listen and act on the science of human-made climate change unfortunately doesn’t fill me with confidence that it will act on this new research.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for today, 21 January 2020



Religious Freedom bill gives licence to discriminate

The second draft of the government’s religious discrimination bill was released just before Christmas.

This follows the Morrison government’s usual policy of ‘hiding’ issues likely to be unpopular or controversial at a time when our attention is elsewhere.

The plan to bury the issue of course also benefited from the unprecedented bushfires, which deservedly took all our attention. But as we seem, at the time of writing, to be reaching a point of slightly more favourable weather and the prospect of containment, now is the time to look at the draft bill and see if it is an improvement on the first draft.

The short answer is that it is no better than the Attorney-General’s first attempt.

The second draft was intended to appease critics of the contentious legislation. But many experts still fear that if it passes parliament, Australians will have greater liberty to discriminate. This is a curious outcome for anti-discrimination legislation.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC said “It should be unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion, as well as on race, sex, sexual orientation, age and so forth. Such prohibitions are best contained in a human rights act.”

“This is George Brandis’s ‘right to be a bigot’ on steroids,” says Associate Professor Luke Beck of Monash University, a leading authority on freedom of religion.

The problem is the government has taken a standard anti-discrimination law template, already applied in the context of race, sex, disability and age, and mutated it with several unprecedented additions. If the bill is enacted, religious rights will be elevated above other rights.

Most controversial within this bill are protections for religiously motivated statements and actions, even when these would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination. This will enable a range of organisations, including charities, hospitals and aged-care bodies, to hire and fire based on religion. They also enable any individual to make statements of belief, free from the spectre of anti-discrimination laws. And they permit doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and psychologists to decline to provide healthcare on religious grounds.

More specifically, if passed, the legislation would mean that a religious doctor could tell a transgender patient that gender is binary, a Catholic doctor could refuse to provide contraceptives and a Jewish school could insist that staff must be Jewish and act consistently with Judaism. These examples are not far-fetched, for each is taken from the draft bill’s own explanatory notes.

Susan Ryan, who was involved in the creation of several anti-discrimination laws, is damning about the new draft. “If the government was genuinely interested in advancing equality in Australia, it would create a national bill of rights” she said.

Nonetheless, it is true that some stakeholders appear to have been placated by the changes. “The second draft is a significant improvement over the first,” says Bishop Michael Stead, of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

But others remain unpersuaded. “Recent amendments have made the bill worse overall,” observes Hugh de Kretser, executive director at the Human Rights Law Centre. “If the major flaws in the bill are not fixed, MPs should reject it. “The bill gives religious bodies a licence to discriminate,” he says.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper, Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations (FAIR) executive director Kuranda Seyit expressed concern that “The ‘right to be a bigot’ clause could potentially embolden far-right groups to ramp up their vitriol and continue their campaigns of hate.”

The proposed law is likely to cause headaches for employers. One provision would make it unlawful for larger employers to implement codes of conduct that restrict an employee expressing statements of belief outside work hours. This has been dubbed the ‘Israel Folau clause’ because the bill’s explanatory notes offer a familiar example of a Christian stating that “unrepentant sinners will go to hell”.

For Hugh de Kretser, the existence of the Folau clause is striking. “Existing workplace law dealt with this issue in the Rugby Australia case,” he says. “The standard discrimination tests should have been used in the bill.”

The Attorney-General’s Department is now accepting submissions on the second draft until the end of January, so there are only a few days to get them in.

I’m supporting Equity Australia’s campaign, as the bill as drafted would be a disaster for LGBTIQ communities.

Laws which should protect religious people from discrimination will be used to hand a licence to discriminate against LGBTIQ people, threatening our access to healthcare and undermining inclusive workplaces, schools and services.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for this week

Claims of a ‘greenies’ conspiracy to block hazard reduction rejected by bushfire experts

In spite of the evidence, many falsely claim that a major contributing factor of Australia’s devastating fire season is a conspiracy by environmentalists to “lock up” national parks and prevent hazard reduction activities. Such accusations have also been shouted at me in the streets of Wagga. This is despite all the evidence that clearly proves the early arrival and ferocity of the fire season is due to human caused climate change.

It is time to put this dangerous misconception to rest.

The ‘blame the ‘greenies’ rhetoric is rife at several levels, including commercial TV, the Murdoch press’s Daily Telegraph, on social media, and from the very top. At the height of the fires prime minister, Scott Morrison called for more hazard reduction and said “The most constant issue that has been raised with me has been the issue of managing fuel loads in national parks.”

Are greenies really stopping hazard reduction? A look at the evidence proves otherwise.

The Australian Greens policy on hazard reduction quite clearly calls for  “An effective and sustainable strategy for fuel-reduction management that will protect biodiversity and moderate the effects of wildfire for the protection of people and assets, developed in consultation with experts, custodians and land managers”.

The claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has also been firmly rejected by bushfire experts, who have unequivocally said it is disproved by hard data on actual hazard reduction activities in national parks.

The head of the NSW Rural Fire Service has dismissed claims by Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce that a lack of hazard reduction burns, not climate change, is the main culprit for Australia’s ongoing bushfire crisis.

Indeed, hazard reduction burning is “not a silver bullet” said Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

As the DA reported, “Scientists have disputed claims a lack of hazard reduction burns have led to the size of the bushfires, with senior fire chiefs blaming the effects of climate change”.

Prof David Bowman, the director of the fire centre research hub at the University of Tasmania, said: “It’s ridiculous. To frame this as an issue of hazard reduction in national parks is just lazy political rhetoric.”

Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, has said “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”

In the last full fire season of 2018 and 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service in NSW told Guardian Australia it carried out hazard reduction activities across more than 139,000 hectares, slightly above its target.

There are two major restricting factors for carrying out prescribed burning. One is the availability of funds and personnel, and the second is the availability of weather windows.

The 2018-19 annual report of the NSW Rural Fire Service says: “The ability of the NSW RFS and partner agencies to complete hazard reduction activities is highly weather dependent, with limited windows of opportunity.”

A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, has written that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning.

He said: “There has been lots of hazard reductions done over the years, more by national parks than previous years, but the fires have burned through those hazard reduction areas.”

Mullins dismissed suggestions that the bushfires were down to “greenies” preventing hazard reduction activities. “This is the blame game. We’ll blame arsonists, we’ll blame greenies,” he said.

“When will the penny drop with this government?”

The National Parks Association of NSW’s president, Anne Dickson, has also responded to the attacks on environmentalists. “It may be politically expedient to pretend that conservationists exercise some mythical power over fire legislation and bushfire management committees, but it is not so.”

So let’s stop blaming the ‘greenies’ and instead look to how we can mitigate the bushfire risk by using good management practices. As Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge said, “This will be resolved by careful policy, by proper resourcing and by people putting the science before the politics.” Mr Shoebridge has never voted against hazard reduction burns.

Unfortunately, as with climate change, some people adamantly deny the truth of the science.

My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for today, 7 January 2020

In 2019 the public recognised the climate crisis. When will the politicians?

In 2019 opinion poll after opinion poll showed that the public had become very aware that human-caused climate change was real. We are now living through a climate emergency, as record temperatures and unprecedented bushfires clearly demonstrated, despite Scott Morrison saying “We have faced these disasters before”. We haven’t. This is new, and the way the world is going unless politicians act immediately and decisively.

But at the local, state, federal and international level progress has been deliberately stymied. I’ll use my column this week to examine why no real progress was made in 2019.

Thankfully there are exceptions. Unlike Wagga Wagga, several local governments have declared climate emergencies. Many Pacific Island states are all too very aware of the results of global warming, and even the UK government declared a climate emergency.

In late 2019 Time magazine selected Greta Thunberg as its person of the year. That wouldn’t have been possible even this time last year. The biggest story in climate in 2019 is the way in which, after years of languishing outside the mainstream, climate activism finally broke through.

Young people were the key. Self-organised, serious, and frank about their anger at seeing their futures denied by politicians who won’t even live to see the consequences, they have lent a powerful moral drive to the entire movement.

So now the link between the climate emergency and our own lives has never seemed clearer. Finally, after decades of activists struggling to push the crisis into the larger consciousness, poll after poll shows that public concern, and desire for action, is at an all-time high.

The question that became clearer as 2019 moved on, was it possible to effect any actual political change? The spectacle of Thunberg and the larger youth climate movement arriving at international meetings and parliaments and accusing heads of state of hypocrisy to their faces made for good TV news, but climate politics itself still seems far from any genuine watershed moment.

Indeed, there has been little concrete progress. What the protests have sparked, instead, is that some governments declared a “climate emergency”. A few even reset future emissions targets. In previous years this alone would have seemed radical enough, but now, however, the gap between words and actions has widened too far, and credulity is in short supply.

The climate researcher Rebecca Willis put it very succinctly when she said “Targets don’t reduce carbon. Policies do.”

True, there has been some glimmers of hope on that front. Parties in the recent UK election and candidates in the US Democratic primaries took on comprehensive climate platforms for the first time. These either directly or indirectly reference the concept of a ‘Green New Deal’, pairing increased spending on climate with a larger social transformation, and breaking down the wall that separates climate policy from the rest of national politics. But unfortunately, nothing similar has been brought forward by a government actually in power.

Many had high hopes for the  UN’s 2019 climate change conference, COP, held in Madrid, which fell at the end of the year. It is the forum where countries affirm their climate commitments under the UN framework convention on climate change.

This year’s COP may not have been the worst, but a loose coalition of rightwing governments, very sadly including Australia, effectively sabotaged the conference’s goal of strengthening the Paris agreement.

As the Saturday Paper wrote, in Copenhagen in 2009, Australia took a leadership role in the fight against climate change. Ten years on, at COP25, the winds had changed, and our government tried to use carryover credits from the Kyoto agreement to ‘prove’ we are meeting our Paris commitments.  Countries opposed to Australia’s cheating attempted to insert a ban into the Madrid conference’s final statement, barring Australia from carrying over carbon credits.

Unfortunately, in the end, the ban didn’t succeed.

It got even worse. Following the positions taken by Australia, Brazil, China, India and others on key issues up for negotiation, the international effort to secure the next stage of global action on climate change didn’t succeed either. The Madrid meeting failed to set any new, binding targets.

It’s a sad end to a year that showed that though the people have got the message many of the politicians, including our own, haven’t. Let’s hope they start not only to listen, but in 2020 develop policies that will mitigate climate change before it is too late.

Despite some last minute and very limited federal assistance Messrs Morrison and McCormack have shown a distinct lack of leadership and should make way for those who can provide it.