Compassion = Communism?


1950s Anti-Comunist Poster

Predictably enough, the Pope’s encyclical, highlighting man-made climate change and poverty as moral issues which need to be addressed globally, has raised the hackles of Right-leaning politicians and media, particularly in the US.  Politicians, including Presidential candidates, have suggested that the Pope should refrain from meddling in politics. Devout Catholic Rick Santorum last week said:
The Church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focussing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”    Jeb Bush has also called for the Pope to step out of the political debate, with a strange suggestion that politics and morality be disconnected. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

These are the same politicians who are happy to be openly driven by their religious faith on issues such as marriage equality and abortion. Bush has justified his stance against same-sex marriage through his believe in the need for “a child-centred family system” which is “at the core of the Catholic faith”. However, when their religious leader calls for a renewal of the Christian values of compassion for the needy and respect for our natural world, this is rejected as being outside the remit of religion.

Rick Santorum has famously called climate change “junk science” and suggested that it is merely a left-wing scheme and “an excuse for more government control in your life”, and here lies the root of the problem for many on the Right with the Pope’s views. Ideas of the rich and powerful taking responsibility for the future of the planet and fighting global poverty involve wealth redistribution, which raises the spectre of the country’s ultimate boogeyman, Communism. As such, Pope Francis’ critiques of the free-market economy, consumerism, global inequality and climate change have led some to label him as a ‘South American Marxist’

From the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s, through the Cold War, Communism, and it’s bedfellow Socialism, have been portrayed as an insidious, creeping danger, just waiting to take all your hard-earned wealth and give it to someone else. As a result, any suggestion that the world should be a more equitable place than it currently is, is shot down as ‘tree-hugging’, ‘bleeding-heart socialism’ and ‘communism in disguise’. Much of the Right’s vehemence against the idea of universal health care in the US was that it was viewed as a socialist redistribution of wealth, encouraging government interference and the start of the slippery slope towards a Communist state.

Another example recently was the reaction of Right-leaning media towards the CEO of Seattle company Gravity Payments, Dan Price. Price took a cut in his own $1 million salary in order to provide his 130 employees with a minimum salary of $70,000. Price believes that, in the long term, his happier, committed staff will help the company to become even more successful. He suggested that other CEO’s could afford to do the same and lead the way in tackling wage inequality (last year CEO incomes were 354 times higher than the average employee). Predictably, The Fox network, champion of the war on Communism, lampooned Price, with Eric Bolling’s show Cashin’ In calling him a “socialist” and a “tree-hugger”, and Stuart Varney, in an interview with Price, several times asking disparagingly, “Are you a socialist?”

Be it a businessman, a politician or a religious leader, has it come to the stage where any sign of compassion for others and concern for the environment in which we live is equated with Communism? Where any rejection of the amassing of personal wealth and unlimited exploitation of resources is seen as a cloaked attempt to bring down the economic systems as we know them? Or is it the case that those threatened by the ideas of equality and responsibility for each other and for our planet can find no other criticism of the idea than to invoke a monster under the bed which lost much of its menace somewhere back in the 1990s.

19th June 2015

Dangerous Denial: Recognition of the Problem is the First Step to Recovery



We can all breathe a sigh of relief; Australia is heeding UNESCO’s warnings about the risks to the wellbeing of the Great Barrier Reef and taking action to protect this wonder of the natural world for future generations. In the face of evidence that 50% of the reef’s corals have been lost in the past 30 years, the Australian government published their Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan and announced increased spending earlier this year. Their plan includes a ban on the dumping of dredged material in the protected areas of the reef to cut sediment by 50%, a review of fishing practices and a scheme to reduce farmland nitrogen run-off by 80%, all supported by a $2bn ten-year financial package. Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated at the launch of the plan that, “We’re making our position clear right around the world; this is a number one priority of the Australian government to protect the Great Barrier Reef”. This is progress indeed.

But let’s take a closer look at Australia’s plans for the reef before rushing off to don our snorkels and fill our air tanks. There have already been a raft of criticisms that the proposed level of funding is abysmally inadequate to successfully protect the reef. However, even more concerning is the current Australian government’s continued insistence on relegating climate change to the status of a slight niggle rather than a immediate global malady. The government’s own report on the condition of the reef, The Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report states:

Climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef. It is already affecting the Reef and is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come. Sea temperatures are on the rise and this trend is expected to continue, leading to an increased risk of mass coral bleaching; gradual ocean acidification will increasingly restrict coral growth and survival; and there are likely to be more intense weather events. The extent and persistence of these impacts depends to a large degree on how effectively the issue of rising levels of greenhouse gases is addressed worldwide

Australia’s scientific research is clearly in agreement with the IPCC and the World Wildlife Fund, to name just a few, that the greatest risk to the world’s reefs is climate change. This is supported by the fact that the recent high levels of damage to the Great Barrier Reef have been caused predominantly by the increased occurrence of cyclones in the area. Yet, in the face of such evidence, Tony Abbott has stated in parliament that, “water quality is the key to reef protection” and “at the heart of the long-term plan is water quality“, while foreign minister Julie Bishop has stated that the reef “is not under threat from climate change“.

So why does the government’s Reef Sustainability Plan blatantly ignore the issues of climate change and focus solely on water quality?

What we have is a serious case of denial; a denial that Abbott’s government feel must be maintained in order to protect the country’s economic interests. Queensland, home to the reef, is also the site of the Galilee Basin where plans are underway for what will become one of the world’s largest coal mine developments. The project is hoped to attract $28bn in investment and create 15,000 jobs, while the carbon emissions created by this development would reach 700 million tonnes a year, more than doubling Australia’s current output.  Meanwhile, Abbott and his government stand by the assertion that “coal is good for humanity“. When the Green Party questioned this in parliament they were heckled and decried as, “a bunch of clowns” by government members.

Recently however, some investors in the Galilee Basin project have become nervous in the face of advice that coal reserves need to be left in the ground if global warming is to remain under 2 degrees. What the Australian government is desperately trying to avoid is a direct link between the Galilee Basin and the Great Barrier Reef being made, resulting in further pressure to restrict economically lucrative mining in favour of environmental protection.

So what the Long-Term Sustainability Plan is is a band-aid, not the start of a recovery process. And more than just being a band aid for the Reef, it is a band aid for Australia’s increasingly questionable environmental record. In the face of criticism by UNESCO and Barak Obama, Abbot needed to be seen to be doing something to protect his country’s number one natural heritage site. The Reef itself feeds over $5bn into the economy annually and any suggestion that its beauty is fading needs to be suppressed. The Abbott government has spent $100,000 lobbying 19 of the 21 member nations of the World Heritage Committee in order to avoid an ‘in danger’ classification for the Reef at the UNESCO meeting in Germany next month. The lobbyists are brandishing reports, including one by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (an agency who report directly to the Ministry for Industry and Science), which detail aspects of the reef’s recovery. However, on closer inspection, these show recovery solely in terms of water quality and sea grass growth, not the health of the corals themselves.

Abbott believes that, “a stronger economy and a better environment should go hand in hand” but until he recognises and fully believes that the environment can only truly be protected by addressing climate change, he will continue to allow the scales to tip in the favour of the economy in this delicate balancing act.

22nd May 2015

Climate Change: Doubt & Divestment


The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988 to monitor changes in climate, has concluded that limiting the impacts of global warming “is necessary to achieve sustainable development and equity, including poverty eradication”. It has also shown that, in order to effectively tackle climate change, by limiting environmental warming to less than 2 degrees celsius, over two thirds of our carbon reserves must now be left in the ground. The IPCC report has been approved by 195 of the world’s nations and the G20 has launched an investigation into the potential global financial risks posed by fossil fuel companies continuing to invest in projects that could be left worthless by international action on climate change. There is both scientific and political consensus that climate change, as a man-made problem, requires human intervention to slow it’s steady progress. So why then, do certain individuals and groups within business and politics continue to cast doubt on the validity of climate change science?

At a fossil fuel conference in Houston last week, the chairman of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, said that global warming was “an environmental crisis predicted by flawed computer models”. In Australia, a country already facing increased extreme weather events, an Australian Academy of Science report has warned that a 2C temperature rise will “lead directly to loss of life and will have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of communities.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, until recently a complete climate change denier, has declared that “coal is good for humanity”. While many struggle to envisage the long-term impact of the fossil fuel industry on our environment, even the immediate dangers are being ignored by some. A US Geological Survey report last week confirmed what many have suspected for several years; that the injection of wastewater from the fracking process into underground wells can result in earthquakes. In Oklahoma last year, there were 600 quakes of more than magnitude 3, an average of almost 2 a day compared to an average of 2 per year prior to 2008. In 2013, the fracking industry in that state disposed of 1.1 billion barrels of water into the ground. While Oklahoma finally accepted the scientific evidence connecting these two events, the following day state legislation was passed prohibiting cities and towns from regulating oil and gas drilling in their areas. It was argued that local regulation would create too much confusion for the oil operators. Additionally, calls for a moratorium on fracking in parts of the state have also been met with resistance by the oil and gas companies, with the state regulatory body, the Oklahoma Corporation Committee, having no authority to impose such a halt to drilling.

There are obvious economic reasons for those profiting from the fossil fuel industry to argue for its continuation. However, fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels”, 45 years after the first Earth Day and Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and 25 years after George H. W. Bush declared, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways”, there is still doubt being cast on the scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change and damage to the environment.

In their fascinating 2010 book Merchants of Doubt (also a 2014 documentary), Naomi Oreskes and Erik M.Conway track how a handful of scientists, funded by governments and corporations, have cast doubt on the science surrounding the dangers of tobacco, DDT, acid rain, the ozone hole and now climate change. Driven by free market fundamentalism they pushed an agenda to discredit scientific consensus on those issues in order to avert any calls for government regulation of business. They have been aided by the media, who give as much attention to the minority of doubters as to the thousands of peer reviewed scientific reports produced over the past 40 years which have proven climate change and humankind’s role in it. The doubts that have been created by this allow politicians, business leaders and media mouthpieces to continue calling climate change a “theory”, based on “flawed evidence” and to cite a heavy fall of snow as proof of its falsity, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

As economic gain is what is driving the fossil fuel companies who remain entrenched in climate change denial, the answer may lie in divestment. In September last year, the Rockefellers, a family whose wealth was originally built on oil, divested $50 billion from fossil fuel companies. Some of the world’s top universities have also made such divestments, investing instead in the development of renewable energies. Even the banks, including HSBC and the Bank of England, are warning that continued investment in fossil fuels is a risky business, given that you may be investing in a product that, ultimately, will never leave the ground, through either regulation or demand being increasingly met by alternative energy sources. While many still seem happy to ignore or belittle the scientific evidence of rising temperatures and sea levels, it is hard to imagine such a display of bravado in the face of falling share prices and profits.


Naomi Oreskes on Merchants of Doubt:

Jon Stewart on Oklahoma Fracking:

Other information from:

30th April 2015