Friday, 21 November 2014

Denial in the Saudi Arabia of Coal

Australia's current little piece of political theatre, aside from the lunatic fringe festival that is the Palmer United Party, is provided by the fall-out from Barack Obama's speech at the University of Queensland during the G20.  In speaking about global climate change, Obama said "the incredible glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened" and went on to express the desire that his daughters, and their children, would be able to visit it long into the future.


It seems like a mild and self-evident thing to say, but in the delicate and nuanced world of diplomacy it has been understood as a rebuke of the Australian Government for trying - unsuccessfully as it turned out - to keep climate change off the G20 agenda.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (oddly not Environment Minister Greg Hunt) has come out swinging.  "Of course, the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come. And we do not believe that it is in danger," Ms Bishop said.  Her point is that the Australian and Queensland Governments have a strategy to protect the Reef from what she says are its two biggest threats, agricultural run-off and natural disasters (failing to mention dredging and dumping of dredge spoil, over which her government is still prevaricating - oh, and also climate change).  She is apparently sending a detailed briefing to the White House explaining just that.


It would be interesting to read that briefing, because it seems hard to find a marine scientist who agrees with her.  Today the Brisbane Times reports feedback from a number of scientists who confirm that yes, the Reef is under threat.  Even the Government's own report, the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, found "the reef to be in poor condition and the outlook for further deterioration".  Even if we deal with the run-off and dredging problems and the impact of cyclones, it will all be swamped by rising sea temperatures and acidity over the coming century.  A rising tide may not lift all boats, but it will certainly kill off a lot of coral.

So what's with all the furious denials from Bishop and her colleagues?  Why not just calmly say, "yes we all know this is a problem, it's great that the US and China are finally promising to do something about their massive emissions."?  Why, despite its official acceptance that climate change is a problem and its much criticised but nonetheless existent strategy for reducing emissions, does the government reach for the denial card almost as a reflex?

A number of countries claim the title of "the Saudi Arabia of Coal", including the US and Mongolia, but in actual fact Australia has the best claim to that title, as Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute pointed out in a recent article in The Conversation.  Australia is currently the world's largest exporter of coal, and has a bigger share of the global coal market than Saudi Arabia does of the oil market.  If Australia sneezes, the coal market gets a cold.  Or Black Lung, or whatever.

This presents Australia with a both an opportunity and a dilemma.  Coal, along with oil, is the major contributor to climate change.  The faster we can move away from coal and oil to renewables, the more we will limit global climate change.  Australia, despite it's small size and limited influence in the global economy generally, has a significant amount of power to influence this process.

If we limit our coal production, the global coal price will go up.  This will make renewables more competitive and hasten their development and adoption over the next few decades, both in Australia and around the world.  In the long run, this will mean some of our coal will stay in the ground, but in the short term what we dig up will be more profitable.

On the other hand, if we rush to produce more of it the price will go down.  The emergent renewables sector will have a much harder struggle, and we will be able to sell more coal for longer.  Good for the coal miners, bad for the rest of us, and the reef.

Which way will our government jump?  Before we could even get around to asking the question the government has answered it loud and clear.  The coal industry has said "jump", and the government has said "how high?".  "Coal is good for humanity," says our Prime Minister.  By which he means "Coal is good for coal miners".  And coal miners back his party, and fund his election campaigns, as well as having key media organisations in their back pockets to whip him with if he steps out of line.

Coal is not good for other members of humanity.  It's not good for Pacific Islanders whose islands are getting swamped.  It's not good for people in poor communities around the world who suffer increasing climatic volatility and food insecurity.  It's not good for the people of Beijing who have to breathe coal smoke all day.  And it is clearly not good for the reef.  But Julie Bishop has her instructions.  If she talks loudly enough she might be able to drown out the voices that are telling us this, and her backers will live to sell another day.  Not so the coral.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Land of the G20

So here we are, in sunny Brisbane, Awestralia, on the day after the G20.


For most of the world the event lasted two days, but for us here in Brisbane it seems to have been going on for months.  We have been peppered with mixed messages all year.  At one moment we were being warned of potential terrorist attacks and violent and disruptive protesters.  The next we were hearing the benefits of democracy extolled.  One moment we were being told about road closures, traffic chaos, public transport disruptions and heavy security around a rather large exclusion zone.  The next were being begged to come into town and join in the fun of the expensive G20 Cultural Celebration.

In the event the terrorists stayed away altogether along with the large proportion of Brisbane residents who took advantage of the long weekend to go elsewhere.  The protests were peaceful and creative, with people dressing up, creating events and generally performing for the huge international media contingent.  This was pretty much all that was open to them, since rules not only excluded them from a wide area around where the actual world leaders were gathering, but placed strict limits on the size of any banners to ensure visiting dignitaries would not have to read any disturbing messages from afar.

These things were strictly enforced, too, in fact some could say over-zealously so.  Yesterday evening I had a chat to someone at church who had been told his sign was too large.  When he was a little slow to pack it up and leave the area he was informed that he was now banned for the duration of the G20, which still had a few hours to run.  His dreadlocks probably didn't help his cause.  Other well-known non-violent activists were preemptively banned before the event, and another woman was banned after she was found carrying a "weapon" which turned out to be a multi-tool. Despite these examples of over-enthusiasm there were only 14 arrests and the specially-established temporary magistrate's court and watch-house only had to deal with one offender during the event.  The thousands of police mainly had to stand around looking impressive and ride their bicycles and motorbikes around the inner city.

There was not really a whole lot to be offended about in the protests in any case.  Many of the main concerns of the protesters ended up being covered in the official G20 communique - international tax reform, combating ebola and global poverty, even (despite our own government's attempt to keep it off the agenda) climate change.  Of course Vladimir Putin may have been a little miffed at some of the things protesters said about him (miffed enough, at least, for his local emissaries to organise a rival cheer squad) but they were only following the lead of our Prime Minister.

Channel 9 vainly attempted to whip up some outrage about the group of Aboriginal protesters who burnt some Australian flags in protest at Tony Abbot's latest attempt to write them out of our history.  "Why did the large police contingent do nothing to prevent it?" asked the reporter in shocked rhetorical tones.  Later at his press conference the Police Commissioner provided the obvious and non-shocking answer that it is not illegal to burn an Australian flag and that the police knew beforehand that it was going to happen thanks to the months of work they have put into building good relations with this and other protest groups.

Oh yes and while we're on the subject, somewhere amidst all this there was a meeting of the leaders of the world's 20 richest countries.  Solemn speeches were made and interpreted and at the end a relatively vague but non-trivial communique was signed, promising actions (not totally clearly specified) to promote global growth, share information and practice on infrastructure development, work towards a legally binding agreement to combat climate change, make better (or at least not worse) attempts to address global poverty and tackle the ebola crisis, continue working towards a system to reduce international tax avoidance, and to combat corruption.

All this came at a cost of something like $100m.  Which makes me wonder (and I know I'm not the only one) why bother?  In this time of international budget emergencies and so forth, was it all worth it?

Of course, international cooperation is better than the alternative, but we need to understand how these things really work.  For a start, the four-page communique was not worked up over the course of the past two days.  It, and the background documents that flesh it out, have been painstakingly negotiated by armies of diplomats and officials from the 20 countries over the 14 months since the last meeting in St Petersburgh, if not longer.  They have been the subject of endless consultation and scrutiny, referred to experts and committees of the 20 participating governments and other international agencies, redrafted scores of times before finally being presented at yesterday's conference and given the formal rubber stamp.  Very little of any value was added at the meeting itself - any last minute alterations were sorted out in the back rooms.

So the whole thing could technically have been done without any kind of meeting at all.  If an actual personal meeting of leaders was required, rumour has it that electronic communications technology is now in an advanced stage of development and it is a relatively trivial technical problem to link 20 leaders together via video from the safety and comfort of their own offices.  It certainly would cost a lot less that $100m.  So why all the trouble?

I think the answer is that it is a powerful piece of symbolism.  Just as the protesters outside the venues used various theatrical techniques to make their points, the leaders inside were engaging in their own form of theatrics.  Even the heavy handed security and police presence was its own form of theatre.  The point was not that the police or the soldiers should do anything, merely that they should be seen.  Indeed, the less they did, the happier everyone was.  Their massed uniforms were enough to create the aura of power.  Much better if the dark underbelly of such power - its brutality and ruthlessness - could be kept carefully under wraps.

The politicians themselves, of course, are mostly past masters at playing for an audience.  The pleasant speeches, handshakes and photo opportunities are what they were all here for, a show of unity, peace and cooperation carefully calculated to assure their various constituencies that things are heading in the right direction, that there will be peace in our time.

I say "mostly past masters" because our own Prime Minister seems to be still struggling with the idea.  His firm handshake with Putin was close enough to a "shirtfront" to satisfy his backers and the aggrieved demonstrators outside, but he did rather spoil it by joining his Russian counterpart in a bout of koala-hugging.


When he opened his mouth, on the other hand, Australians could only cringe at his insistence on trying to interest his global audience in the administrative minutiae of domestic politics.  The Shovel's wry headline about car-parking issues in Warringah is not so wide of the mark, really.

He could have learnt a thing or two from Barack Obama, whose side engagement at the University of Queensland involved the flights of visionary rhetoric we have come to expect, a sweeping humanitarian vision of the US role in world affairs which remains seductive despite the dismal outcomes of the past decade or so of US military intervention in the Middle East.  Still, any keen observer will wonder who exactly Obama was speaking to in this address.  When the head of the host department is unable to snaffle a seat in his own lecture hall it hardly seems likely that any other faculty staff would be allowed in, never mind those pesky students.  The risk of random departures from the script would have been too great.  The theatrics, and the international media, was everything.  Obama's carefully crafted message was designed for the world at large, conveyed via the international journalists who made up a large proportion of his audience.  Really, he could have been anywhere.

Of course all of this took place on a weekend of record November temperatures, as if to dramatise the urgency of the global warming task Abbot and co were trying to pretend wasn't important.  The gathered world leaders would hardly know it.  They only stepped out of their air-conditioned meeting rooms to climb into their air-conditioned limousines (or in Obama's case, helicopter) and get driven to their air-conditioned and security-cleansed hotel rooms.  And anyway, how hot is it supposed to be in...um...what city is this again?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Lone Wolf Terrorism

Over the past few weeks we've been hearing a new term in interviews and statements from government ministers and the heads of national security agencies - "lone wolf terrorism".  I've been trying for a little while to come to terms with this concept and what it means.

I think it's helpful to think about the deliberate killing of human beings as taking place along a continuum, as shown below.


I'm not suggesting this is a moral continuum.  All these forms of killing are awful.  The continuum is related to the public or political nature of the act.

Murder is essentially a private act.  When Brett Cowan killed Daniel Morcombe he was indulging his own twisted enjoyment of seeing someone else suffer.  When Carl Williams killed or arranged the killing of various members and associates of the Moran family he was protecting and extending his family's control of Melbourne's illicit drug trade.  When Adam Lanza shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut in December 2012, he seems to have been acting out his disturbed obsession with mass killings and violent video games.

Although quite different, each of these are very much private crimes, committed for personal reasons.  Intense public interest notwithstanding, they really only closely concern the perpetrators and their victims.

What, though, are we to make of Anders Breivik?  In July 2011 Breivik shot 77 people in Oslo, Norway, most of them attendees at a Labour Party youth camp.  Breivik was a member of the right-wing Progress Party and published a detailed political manifesto outlining the reasons for his actions.  However, neither the Progress Party nor any other right wing group appears to have approved of his actions, never mind collaborated in them.  Breivik, like Lanza or Williams, was killing for his own twisted personal reasons.  It matters little whether the trigger is a political ideology, a personal business interest or an addiction to violent video games, these are personal, private actions.

At the other end of the continuum, war is very much a public act.  Men and women participate in organised killing and violence at the behest of their governments, in pursuit of political objectives.  It is conducted within a well understood framework of international relations and international law (even if this is often honoured in the breach) which governs things like protection of civilians and treatment of prisoners of war.  Individual soldiers may or may not be passionate about the cause in which they are fighting - they may even disagree with it - and they rarely know the soldiers they are fighting against, much less hate them personally.  They are fighting because it's their job.

In between these two is a lot of murky ground, and some of it is what we loosely refer to as "terrorism".  Terrorism is a highly contested term.  The expression "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" was apparently coined by British novelist Gerald Seymour in a 1970s book set during the Irish troubles.  It provides us with a way of framing the question: is "terrorism" an act of war, or is it simply murder?

The usual context for terrorism is civil war.  Whereas war between nations is fought between officially sanctioned armies, raised and controlled by governments which are generally recognised to have some legitimacy, civil war involves a conflict within a country, between different ethnic, religious or political groupings who have not been able to reach a working agreement on the governance of their nation.  Most often one of these parties (for instance, the English and the Irish loyalists) represents the official government of the country while the other (the IRA) represents or purports to represent the disaffected or oppressed grouping within the nation.  This dynamic of conflict means it takes place in much more murky legal territory, in which each party will refer to the other as murderers or terrorists.

Such conflicts are generally very uneven.  One side is able to mobilise the resources of government - a trained and well-equipped army, control of official information channels and so forth.  The other has to operate underground with limited resources and firepower even if it enjoys widespread and even majority support within the population.

This means they will rarely try to meet their opponents in open battle.  Instead they engage in guerrilla warfare, using small forces to launch surprise attacks on key infrastructure or undefended installations.  Their aim is not to achieve an immediate military victory, it is to disrupt and weaken their opponents and undermine public confidence in them.  They are there for the long haul, hoping that either the government will eventually collapse under the pressure of war and the unpopular measures they are forced to take in the name of security, or else be forced to negotiate a compromise.

These guerrilla fighters may or may not be scrupulous about who they target.  Some stick to military installations, or more broadly to government infrastructure.  Others are more willing to target civilians, particularly those aligned with their opponents.  Irrespective of how they behave in this regard, they are likely to be labelled terrorists and their will be some justification for this because creating fear is one of their aims.  Official governments can at times be equally unscrupulous, as we have seen in the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict.

This continues to be the overwhelming driver of the type of activity we think of as terrorism.  The Tamil Tigers (inventors of modern suicide bombing) wanted to establish a separate Tamil state independent of Sri Lanka.  Hamas want to overthrow the Israeli rulers of their homeland and replace them with a Palestinian Islamic government.  Islamic State wants to establish an Islamist regime in Iraq and Syria.

At least from our Western standpoint, the leaders of these movements are seen as criminals but there is no guarantee that this will always be so.  Nelson Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist and supported armed conflict by the ANC, but died the father of a nation.  Menachem Begin was a leader of the Zionist terror group Irgun which carried out attacks on British military and civilian installations, but later became Israeli Prime Minister.  I could go on.  If your side wins, you are likely to be seen as a national hero.  If it loses, you will die a villain.

One of the features of terrorism that has so worried us in the 21st century is its internationalisation.  However, this is not a new development that has arrived out of the blue.  It goes hand in hand with the internationalisation of a number of civil and local wars.  Robert Pape's comprehensive study of suicide terrorism from 1980 onwards identifies that the key common factor in all of them was the bomber's understanding of their own country as occupied by foreign powers.

Hence Osama bin Laden was started on the path to radicalisation by his anger at the heavy US military presence in his native Saudi Arabia.  It is hardly coincidental that Al Qaeda's signature terrorist act involved the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC.  These attacks, although showing a geographic reach unprecedented in earlier incidents, still followed the basic guerrilla pattern.  They were organised and carried out by trained, disciplined underground militia groups, operating under a covert but more or less clear command structure with a defined military objective.  They were certainly crimes, but it is still arguable that they were war crimes.

"Lone wolf terrorism" represents a rather baffling and disturbing extension of this trend.  It has been kicked along by an address from IS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in late September in which he incited supporters in Western nations to acts of violence.

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,  Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.

This rather chilling summons could be seen as an act of terrorism in itself, given the fear it has caused in various Western nations.  As a statement it retains the elements of war that characterise other terrorist acts.  However, it departs from any form of warfare in that it asks people to act on their own.  In place of planned attacks like the World Trade Centre bombing or Irgun's attack on the King David Hotel, planned and authorised by a central command and carried out by people assigned to the task, it urges random acts of violence by unspecified supporters.

Adnani may in fact have been inspired to make this statement by the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby.  In May 2013 two young men of Nigerian descent killed an off-duty Rigby on a London street near his barracks.  While their motivation was a version of Islamic extremism and they had some links with Nigerian terror group Al Shabaab, it is not clear that they were acting under any kind of specific instruction, and their attack had no clear strategic motive.  It seems they simply wanted to kill a British soldier.

The actions of Abdul Numan Haider may in turn have been inspired by Adnani's statement.  Haider was under investigation by Victorian police as a result of his connections with Islamic extremism.  At a pre-arranged interview with investigating officers on September 23, just a day or two after Adnani's statement became public, he drew a knife and stabbed one of the officers before being shot dead.

How are we to understand the connection between Adnani's statement and Haider's attempted murder?  This is not a piece of guerilla warfare, even on the Al Qaeda model.  Haider acted alone, with minimal planning, no training and little technical know-how.  Indeed, Adnani's statement itself is the opposite of Al Qaeda's tactic.  He explicitly tells his listeners not to conspire, not to take advice or seek approval, to simply go and do it.  Adnani appears to know he doesn't have the infrastructure to launch an Al Qaeda style of attack, so instead he incites his listeners to murder.

In what sense is this different to Lanza's act, or Breivik's?  A troubled young man, acting alone under the influence of an extreme and destructive world view, commits a violent crime against unsuspecting and innocent victims.  Adnani has added another item to the list of influences that can push such young men into violence.  Alongside death metal music, violent video games, right wing paranoia and lifelong bullying we now have extreme Islam.

Calling the resultant murders and attempted murders "acts of terrorism" dignifies them with a heroism they don't deserve.  It holds out the possibility that at least in someone's eyes the perpetrators can be seen as heroes.  It inflates the power of distant extremists by attributing to them the ability to pull strings which, in reality, are not connected to anything.  Intensified surveillance, invasions of privacy, targeting of Muslims and political posturing will not help.  Troubled young men have always done this, under the banner of one excuse or another.  Instead we need to ask - why do we have so many troubled young men?