Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Questioning the Role of Climate Change in the Wake of Vanuatu's Deadly Cyclone

Sometimes life just doesn't seem fair. When around 80% of your people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, when thousands live in homes made of corrugated iron and palm leaves, when you struggle with the after-effects of colonialism and the recent impacts of rising sea levels, the last thing you want is a category five cyclone to come bearing down upon your island nation. Which is exactly what happened in Vanuatu last Friday night.

Photo of the devastation in Vanuatu. Source: BBC.

Cyclone Pam made short work of Vanuatu's 83 low-lying islands. Wind gusts of up to 300kph devastated homes and vegetation, flinging roofs off houses and ripping trees into shreds. A state of emergency was declared. The southern island of Tanna was particularly badly affected, and the vast majority of homes in the capital Port Vila were severely damaged, along with key infrastructure such as the hospital and airport. The cyclone has taken at least 24 lives and displaced half of the entire population of 253,000. People have had to abandon their home villages and are taking shelter in church halls and school buildings. This is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. Even though Vanuatu is no stranger to tropical storms, Cyclone Pam is thought to be the biggest the island nation has seen, and one of the deadliest to have ever struck the Pacific region. According to Chloe Morrison of World Vision, speaking to New Zealand Herald reporters,

"Vanuatu is one of the most disaster-prone areas in the world... and this still shocked them."

John Key in Vanuatu, 2010.

Fortunately, governments and NGOs have been quick to respond. When disaster struck, President of Vanuatu Baldwin Lonsdale happened to be in Sendai, Japan, attending a UN conference on disaster preparation. He gave what has been described as an emotional plea for support, and before long, funds were amassing for the relief effort. The EU pledged 1 million Euro, the Australian government $5m (Aus), and our government recently bumped up its contribution by $1.5m, taking us to $2.5m in total assistance. Most of this money will be spent in Vanuatu, with the rest going to other Pacific nations affected. Prime Minister John Key has listed New Zealand's priorities:

  1. Check the safety of people including New Zealanders
  2. Restore basic services
  3. Look towards long-term development

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has detailed more of the government's plans for the rebuild. $1m of the additional $1.5m will be given to NGOs providing humanitarian relief, whilst the other $500,000 will be spent on technical assistance and supplies. Mere hours after the cyclone had passed, a New Zealand Defence Force flight travelled to Vanuatu from its base in Tonga to begin investigations of the damage. Two more flights set off yesterday, carrying defence force personnel, Red Cross staff and humanitarian supplies.

Vanuatu's President Baldwin Lonsdale (left) in Japan.
Source: Herald Online.

Civil Defence Minister Nikki Kaye has also been quick off the mark. Kaye warned New Zealand communities, especially those in the Chatham Islands, to stay alert and to make emergency preparations. Although New Zealand was not in the direct path of the cyclone, some areas still experienced severe weather. On Monday night, winds of more than 100kph battered the Chatham Islands and locals have been staying away from work and hunkering down in their homes in the expectation of more bad weather.

Back in Vanuatu, organisations such as Red Cross, World Vision, CARE International and UNICEF have deployed health, logistics and communications staff to help with disaster relief. The current aim for the agencies is to assess the extent of the damage, work out how best to respond, and get started distributing emergency supplies.

Kiwis being flown back from Vanuatu by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Source: New Zealand Defence Force via Newstalk ZB.

It is a difficult environment to operate in logistically. Vanuatu is made up of a large number of islands, and the challenge of providing assistance across the nation is complicated by the fact that communication lines are down. Some areas are experiencing blackouts and others have limited reception. Whilst all aid agencies are trying to achieve similar tasks, there are differences in focus for each organisation. World Vision reports that its first concern is the children of Vanuatu. UNICEF New Zealand highlights the importance of providing measles vaccines to stop the spread of infection at this vulnerable time. CARE International stresses the importance of providing medical supplies, especially given that the central hospital is damaged and out of power.

Some of the devastation that aid workers have been confronted with.
Source: CNN.

New Zealand Red Cross relief supplies including tarpaulins, water containers and first aid kits have been sent from the Auckland warehouse to the islands, where they will be distributed by the Vanuatu Red Cross. Red Cross teams have also been deployed in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati. If you are interested in seeing what's happening on the ground, I would recommend checking out the twitter page of Hanna Butler, @hannarosebutler, Communications Manager for New Zealand Red Cross.

The situation is dire, but the people of Vanuatu are doing their best to pull through. According to Tom Perry of CARE International, (as reported by Radio NZ), the mood is "still very calm," and even though they are worried about friends and family, the people of Vanuatu are focused on piecing the island back together. But will the people of Vanuatu stoically overcome the disaster and rebuild their lives, only to have another freak cyclone come ripping across the nation a few years later? Is Cyclone Pam, terrible as it is, only the harbinger of what is to come - all thanks to climate change?

Does our imagination run wild when we think about climate change?
Image source: The Telegraph.

It is the opinion of Baldwin Lonsdale that climate change is partly to blame for the latest  cyclone. In his Japan speech, the President of Vanuatu said: "We see the level of sea rise: the cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected... this year we have more than in any year. Yes, climate change is contributing to this." The President of Kiribati agreed, "for leaders of low-lying islands atolls, the hazards of global warming affect our people in different ways, and it is a catastrophe that impinges on our rights..."

But is it correct to suggest that climate change contributed to Cyclone Pam? I'm not a science student, but I am a law student, and if you ask me the answer would depend on how exactly you define the word "contributes"... But such semantics are beside the point. What is important to note is that the reality is not as straightforward as we might like. There is simply not enough evidence currently to figure out whether or not climate change brought about, or exacerbated, this particular cyclone. Scientists are naturally very cautious about drawing such conclusions, because results would have ripple effects throughout the scientific and public policy world.

The New Zealand Science Media Centre is an organisation which seeks to contribute to well-informed public discussions on matters related to science. I would highly recommend having a look at its website. The Centre puts out media releases, digs up pseudoscience and suggests experts for journalists. It was through this Centre that I was put in touch with Dr James Renwick of Victoria University of Wellington's School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. Dr Renwick was happy to talk to me and answer my questions. I asked if Cyclone Pam could be caused by climate change.

Dr James Renwick - climate expert at Victoria University.
Image source: Victoria University.

"The thing to understand is that we can't yet link one isolated event to climate change," Renwick explained. "It isn't certain whether or not we are experiencing more tropical cyclones; you'll find arguments for and against this. What is certain is that our atmosphere and oceans are getting increasingly warm in most locations.

"But many factors - more than just sea and atmospheric temperatures - control tropical cyclone strength. The composition of the atmosphere is one, the structure of winds is another. And of course it depends which statistics you look at as to whether or not you see a trend...

"So it's not clear at the moment if climate change will result in more cyclones, or even in more intense cyclones. We might get the same number and intensity of cyclones, but the one thing we can be sure of is that climate change will help these cyclones cause more damage. They would carry more rain with them since a warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, leading to more flooding, and higher seas would bring about stronger sea swells and a greater risk of coastal inundation."

Dr Renwick's comments were consistent with observations by UK academics recorded on the Science Media Centre's website. According to Dr Nick Klingaman of the University of Reading, (my italics) "The latest projections suggest that climate change will reduce the total number of tropical cyclones in the South Pacific, though the average intensity of those that do form may be stronger than at present. In a warmer world, rising sea levels and more intense tropical cyclones may increase the damage caused by an individual cyclone, even if the overall number of tropical cyclones decreases."

The Greens reckon we must address the root cause of disasters.

According to Myles Allen of Oxford University, "basic thermodynamics means that a warmer atmosphere... makes more intense cyclones possible... But this does not mean cyclones have necessarily become more likely. The latest assessment of the IPCC stated explicitly that there is no clear evidence at present for any human induced increase in tropic-wide cyclone frequency. Other factors such as sea-level rise will exacerbate any storm's impacts. Some of the observed sea level rise in this region, but probably not all, can be attributed to human-induced global warming...The science isn't there yet, but we are getting there."

Whether or not the science is there or not hasn't stopped the Green Party from getting their penny's worth on the issue. Dr Russell Norman has stressed that the New Zealand government must do more than just providing aid, it must also address the underlying causes behind the problem. On Monday Norman argued, "while solidarity and post-disaster assistance are normal, we must remember that it only goes so far if governments are not willing to proactively work on climate change... The Green Party would also like to see the government use this opportunity to develop a strategy around climate change refugees and help the people of Vanuatu."

The issue of climate change refugees is a terrible and fascinating one which will have to be the topic of a future blog post. For now it is interesting to note the international response to this question on the link between climate change and 'natural' disasters. The situation seems clear enough in the mind of Ban Ki-Moon, with the Secretary General of the United Nations making this telling comment at the summit in Japan:
"Climate change is intensifying the risks for hundreds of millions of people, particularly in small island developing states and coastal areas... What we are discussing here is very real for millions."

How long will it take for Vanuatu to rebuild?
Source: Island Escapes.

It remains to be seen how these important discussions will play out in the public forum. I notice that bloggers in New Zealand and abroad are already writing opinion pieces on the topic, some of which quickly become very emotive. In the interests of time I won't refer to these articles today, but you can google them yourself if interested.

What I do want to finish with today is a reflection on how society is so interlinked. I found this comment by Dr Ilan Kelman of University College London on the Science Media Centre's website: "A cyclone itself does not create a disaster. There must be vulnerability also." If you ever look at Helen Clark's twitter account (the former PM produces a steady stream of thought-provoking tweets and selfies at international conferences), you'll see the link between development and resilience come up time and time again. To reduce the impact of disaster, we need people to be educated and financially secure, and to have flexibility to responding to crises. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and a lack of access to quality infrastructure and support services are literally a recipe for disaster. 

Climate change also must be factored into the mix. Although the science is inconclusive on exactly how climate change will impact us, the great bulk of evidence suggests that it is happening and that people already vulnerable to disasters will (continue to?) be hit hard unless we take action. We don't want climate change to undo the progress we are making in many areas of development and poverty-alleviation around the world.

Sources for this post:
  • Radio New Zealand
  • New Zealand Herald
  • Twitter
  • The Guardian
  • The Independent
  • Deutsche Welle
  • New Zealand Red Cross
  • CARE International
  • UNICEF New Zealand
  • World Vision New Zealand
  • Science Media Centre

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Tree Hugging Taken to a New Level in Titirangi

It's a pretty iconic suburb nestled in the Auckland hills. It's artsy and the people take community seriously. They take the bush seriously too. If you stand in Titirangi village and do a 360 degree turn, you'll see native forest all around.

This was the response from my uni friend when I rang her out of the blue this morning wanting to know more about Titirangi, the place where she grew up. The suburb of native forest and community-minded Aucklanders is currently the scene for an ongoing protest as hundreds of residents gather at Paturoa Road in the hope of saving an ancient kauri tree slated for destruction. The 500-year-old kauri, along with a 200-year-old rimu, is standing on a site where two houses are to be built by Parnell-based property developers John Linehan and Jane Greensmith. The next step after securing resource consent from the Auckland City Council was to clear the land, and accordingly a team of contractors had set out on Monday morning with chainsaws in hand. Their task was complicated when they were met by a wall of protesters who had got wind of the plans. Locals associated with Save Our Kauri, led by organiser Aprilanne Bonar, are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent the kauri from being felled. One of the group, activist Michael Tavares, donned his climbing gear, scooted up the tree and refused to come down.

Protester Michael Tavares on his perch in the kauri tree.

As I write, Tavares must still be camped up in the tree, possibly reading from the book on Australian History he apparently brought along to keep him occupied, or perhaps snatching a nap in his hammock strung between the branches. Tavares spent last night and Monday night up the tree and has said to the media that he is willing to stay there for as long as is necessary - though he hopes the issue is quickly resolved. "This tree's been up for 500 years, it's got the time on its hands, and I've got the time to make sure that it doesn't fell," he said to One News. Tavares might be waiting a while, but he can rest assured that he has plenty of support. As of 3pm yesterday, Save Our Kauri had collected 15,000 signatures from New Zealanders around the country in support of the famous tree.

The kauri in question seems something of an unlikely hero. Its age is unclear - Save Our Kauri claims that it is around 500 years of age, whereas Environment Minister Nick Smith says he was advised it is closer to 200 years. The tree has been described as "majestic" in media reports. Perhaps you need to be there. Shots on Getty Images show Tavares peeping out from a unruly-looking specimen mostly obscured down a back section.

Majestic or not, the tree's appearance belies its symbolic importance. To the people of Titirangi, and to thousands of others around New Zealand, the tree symbolises the need to not only protect kauri and other endangered plants, but also to acknowledge and uphold environmental values in society. Save Our Kauri protesters are angry that the public was not consulted over proposals to fell the kauri. They are concerned at the effect of the Auckland City amalgamation on council decision-making, and at the apparent loosening of environmental protections through changes to the Resource Management Act.

Protesters gathering at Paturoa Road.

To start with the gripe about consultation, it appears that Save Our Kauri has objected to the Paturoa development for some time but that its submissions have been ignored by the council. Bonar claims that the group has been, "exhausting every possible legal avenue" over the last two years, presumably in the fight to save the tree. The actions on Monday, when contractors came onto the property to begin clearing, were the last straw.

The transformation of the Resource Management Act is a topic which has been bandied about the public sphere for a while and which will only increase in relevance this year. Changes to the RMA were introduced under the previous National government and appear to have had a role to play in bringing about the situation today. The legislation was amended to make it easier for trees to be felled; whereas once certain groups of trees were automatically protected under the Act unless special circumstances warranted their removal, now all trees are able to be destroyed with the exception of those which are first identified by district councils. It is up to councils to exercise their delegated powers in making decisions about resource consent for their regions. Save Our Kauri's complaint about the Auckland City amalgamation may stem from a fear that a larger council has less scope to properly investigate environmental issues in the course of its decision-making.

Does the Resource Management Act hinder development?

The protesters are also aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a priority of the current government to make sweeping changes to the Resource Management Act. According to Environment Minister Nick Smith, we are facing possibly "the most significant overhaul of the Act" since its inception. The thinking behind the changes is that it is high time that the RMA was updated, for our environmental regulations are inefficient and burdensome, and the Act hinders positive development. Minister Smith wants to see the process of gaining consents simplified and 10-day time limits for processing simple consents established. He cites Motu research which shows that over the last decade, the RMA has added $30 billion to the cost of building and reduced national housing stock by 40,000 homes. From the government's perspective, it is in the interests of addressing housing affordability and maintaining economic growth that the changes are passed. The aim is to have the bill before Parliament and through one select committee by the end of the year.

What worries environmental advocates is that the proposed changes, if adopted, may undermine national environmental protections. It is clear that the Act is being refocused to make it more development-friendly. Changes in the pipeline include combining the principles and purposes section of the Act and taking out key principles including: the ethic of stewardship, the intrinsic values of ecosystems and any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources. This would mean that Aprilanne Bonar's comment to media about the kauri, that there is "significant ecological value in (these) trees" would be a nice thought, but one of no relevance to legislation. Additional changes include that significant natural areas and landscapes to be protected under the Act would need to be individually specified. According to Cath Wallace of the Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand, changes made between 2009 and 2013 have "undermined urban tree protection... and it will get worse." Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, argues that the Act should not give equal weight to environmental and economic concerns. The RMA, "is not and should not become an economic development Act."

Provocative Forest and Bird poster on changes to the RMA.

But enough legal talk - time to look at the science. What's so important about an old kauri tree anyway? Endemic to New Zealand, the kauri tree is already endangered, and the recent spread of dieback disease to the mainland means that its numbers continue to deplete. According to Forset and Bird, dieback disease has made it from Great Barrier Island to Auckland and Coromandel, wiping out a large number of kauri trees, along with the species that can only exist in the micro environment creating around kauri roots. The disease is spread through the soil, so the government has invested in boot-cleaning stations and education schemes to try and combat the disease. Save Our Kauri point out the futility in spending money to save kauris whilst also making it easier to cut them down.

They're not the only ones making use of a sharp tongue. The protest has caused a stir in the political world and a number of politicians are keen to get a slice of the action. Search #saveourkauri on Twitter and, as you would expect, you'll see that the Greens have been frantically tweeting away on the subject throughout the week. Labour's David Cunliffe vowed that he would offer his support by climbing the tree - or at least hugging it. He received a stern cautioning from party leader Andrew Little for this comment. (Little clearly doesn't want to be thought of as getting too cosy with people of the tree-hugging variety.)

Environment Minister Nick Smith was questioned about the RMA by Eugenie Sage of the Greens at question time yesterday. When asked whether the proposed changes to the RMA would include increased protection for native trees, the Minister answered in the negative. He argued that ample opportunities already exist for environmental protection, and that the RMA gives individual councils discretion to make decisions about trees in their regions. Smith reiterated that the fault for this incident lies with the Auckland City Council and not with the government. The law as it stands, according to Smith, is not a cause for concern.

Environment Minister Nick Smith and Auckland Mayor Len Brown.

Despite his apparent satisfaction with the current law, Minister Smith did concede that he was a bit baffled that the council did give consent to fell the kauri. This surprise was echoed by Former Prime Minister Helen Clark who shared her dismay to thousands of followers on Twitter. One might be forgiven for thinking that the council decision-makers were rushed - that they somehow overlooked the importance of the kauri - but it seems that there was nothing haphazard about it, for the decision is backed up by an extensive report. Prime Minister John Key was apparently daunted by the length of this document, for his only comment on the issue so far has been to say that, "it's obviously an old tree, but I don't have any other details. I haven't read the report - it's over 70 pages long."

If it sounds like Key is trying to play down the incident and waiting for the fuss to die away, he's certainly not the only one. Auckland City councillors have been pressed on their views and released a statement insisting that the council "has no mandate to revoke the consent." From the Council's perspective, the protesters can shout and wave signs about as much as they like, but the Council is not going to and cannot budge. The public must instead pick its fight with the property developers. The protesters are taking the council's statement with a grain of salt, with Michael Tavares opining that the council is simply washing its hands of the responsibility. Save the Kauri continues to petition the council to change its stance.

Property developer John Linehan has found himself in a tricky position. He insists that he is doing nothing wrong and is only following the law. It is of course the protesters who are breaking the law by trespassing on private property, and Tavares has been issued with a verbal trespass order. Yet although Linehan's actions may be legal, he is certainly not the most popular kid on the block at the moment. It is inevitable that the protesters will turn their attention toward him if they haven't done so already. Worryingly, Lineham says he has received threats of violence and that he is fearing for his safety.

A poster designed for the Save Our Kauri group.

What does this all mean in terms of New Zealand's favourite kauri? The reality remains that it looks unlikely that the council is going to (even if it could) revoke resource consent. The situation rests on the good will of developers John and Jane, who must be brassed off about the whole affair. Everybody else in this saga is glad to apparently not have the fate of the centuries-old kauri on their hands. It is an inconvenience they would rather not have to worry about. But it is an inconvenience with a powerful symbolic allure. The fate of other trees about the country, and of natural areas in general, is hanging in the balance.

If this kauri is cut down despite all attempts to save it, what does that mean when it comes to other trees - has a precedent been set that it is okay for councils to destroy significant trees? Or on the contrary, does the public outrage at the intent to fell this tree serve as a warning to rethink the ease at which councils grant consents? Furthermore, given that any sensible government wants to keep on the good side of its voters, is it necessary to re-evaluate proposed changes to the RMA to avoid further protests? Or will people soon forget about the whole kerfuffle and pay scant attention to all the jargon and technicalities inherent in any discussion relating to the RMA?

So what do you think about the whole situation? I asked my Titirangi-raised university friend near the end of our phone conversation, should the kauri be saved? My friend paused a moment before replying. Well it's definitely a shame. I think public consultation would have been best. And if there was any way of saving the tree, I guess we should take that option. She laughed. But I guess saying that's not useful - it's a pretty common opinion.

I thought of her remark later in the day. On the contrary, I believe my friend's comment is all the more powerful by virtue of it being widely-held. It is a thought shared by hundreds of Titirangi residents and thousands of New Zealanders. Time will tell how this viewpoint shapes public discussions into the future.

Resources Consulted:

New Zealand Herald
Radio New Zealand
One News
Twitter and Facebook
New Zealand City
Ministry for the Environment
Forest and Bird
Environment and Conservation Organisation of New Zealand

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Listen Up! Today the Government Announces Plans for Iraq

The afternoon of my flight from Wellington to Christchurch is clear and cloudless, and I’m disappointed to find that my window seat has been taken. A guy about my age, with thick tattooed biceps protruding from under a black singlet, smiles innocently at me.
“You hadn’t come so I figured I’d just sit here. Hope you don’t mind. I’m Justin by the way.” Justin’s cleanshaven face seems at odds with his rough, working man’s body. By the time the safety demo has finished, I’ve learnt that Justin grew up in my hometown and is headed south to visit his girlfriend of two years for the weekend."
“I haven’t seen my Missus since Christmas y’know.”
“That’s tough, how come?”
“Oh just army stuff man. I’m training at the base in Palmy.”
“Is it hard doing long distance?”
“Yeah it's hard. But I call her every day. And we text all the time. She’s going to varsity soon.”
“Up north?”
“Nah. Dunedin.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, but if she came up…”
“Well, we’re waiting to hear about Iraq at the moment, right? If John Key’s gonna send troops to fight ISIL.”
“Would you go?”
“It depends.” Justin fingers a tattoo and the design crinkles under his nail. “I’d have to talk to Mum and Dad. And my Missus, she don’t want me to go. She keeps telling me scary stuff about ISIL she hears on the news. The beheadings and that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Me?” Justin looks thoughtfully out over Cook Strait, across the speckled white caps of the waves towards the South Island. When he turns back, his eyes are sparkling. "You gotta think about your country too," he replies cheerfully. "I'll know when the time comes." That was two weekends ago.

The government will release details of involvement in Iraq in Parliament today.

Justin (not his real name) is one of a number of Kiwi soldiers who will now be giving serious consideration to the life-changing decision of whether or not to travel to Iraq with a New Zealand deployment. It is all but confirmed that the government will send troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL; the decision was given the green light by Cabinet yesterday and will be debated in Parliament from 2pm today. Foreign policy decisions of this nature are a matter for the Executive government, so it is not necessary for National to amass support for a deployment through a vote in Parliament. Today's ministerial statement to Parliament will be an opportunity for John Key to set out the action plan in Iraq after months of difficult negotiations.

Although the finer details of the deployment - for example, the legal status of New Zealand troops and the structure of the army - are yet to be made public, many facts are already well-known. About 100 New Zealand soldiers will be sent to Iraq, most likely to the US training base Camp Taji north of Baghdad, in a training capacity only. This distinction is important, for the government insists that New Zealand is not getting involved in fighting and is not sending combat troops. Our men and women would be tasked with training soldiers in the Iraq army so the Iraqis can master new tactics to help defeat ISIL. In addition, New Zealand may help in intelligence gathering. New Zealanders won't go on military exercises and would only take up arms for self-defence purposes. They will likely be accompanied by Australian troops (possibly 300 Australians) in an alliance reminiscent of ANZAC, and there is no exit strategy in place at this point in time.

Gerry Brownlee (Defence Minister) and John Key.

New Zealanders around the country will no doubt be keenly following the updates from Parliament today. Opposition politicians, political commentators and academics in particular will be quick to subject the government's plans to scrutiny. There is already a great deal of debate taking place as to whether or not the government is making the right decision... would New Zealand's contribution even be effective? are we putting our soldiers and potentially our civilians in danger pointlessly? what other options exist that may have less adverse effects for all concerned?

According to the government, New Zealand cannot sit back and stay out of Iraq. ISIL is abhorrent and brutal and must be stopped. New Zealanders in the region are at risk, as well as New Zealanders in locations around the world which could be subject to terror attacks. For instance, New Zealanders have lost their lives in the past in 9/11 and the Bali bombings, and we cannot let this happen again. It is necessary to fight ISIL before they become too strong. Furthermore, around 60 other countries are supporting the Iraqi government, so it would be callous of New Zealand to refuse. John Key famously told the BBC that this is the price to pay for being part of the club.

The implication of this statement is that sending troops to Iraq is a gesture of solidarity with countries like the US, UK, and Australia who New Zealand would rely on in the event of a security lapse. In the wake of ISIL's rise, the government has committed more humanitarian aid to the region and beefed up security measures at home (for instance, New Zealand citizens suspected of being linked to ISIL are being observed), but the government has now decided it is to take action in the international arena. Key has noted that polls are showing that New Zealanders generally support involvement in Iraq. For instance, the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll showed that a majority of 48% of Kiwis would support sending troops abroad. (42% would not support this move and 10% were undecided.)

Murray McCully and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Foreign Ministers of New Zealand and Iraq.

Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is one of the sceptics. He argues that past experience should tell us that foreign involvement in the Middle East is only going to make the situation worse. Decisions taken by Western countries to bomb or arm IS will fail to bring peace and security to the region and will only lead to more terrorism and violence. Research tells us, he says, that terror attacks undertaken by al-Qaeda and ISIL have been arisen from a desire to take revenge on Westerners who have intervened in the region. Jackson views Western policies towards the Middle East harshly, as short-sighted and ill-informed.

Commentator Bryce Edwards echoes the sentiment sending troops to Iraq would be ineffective. 100 New Zealanders, however skillful they may be, are little more than a drop in the bucket, and it is the symbolism of the move that is most important: the extra flag being hoisted in the war effort. Our government is focused on the symbolic importance of providing greater political legitimacy to the actions of Western allies. However, Edwards believes we would be better to investigate other options of contributing to Iraq, such as increasing diplomatic efforts in the region, upping humanitarian aid and condemning Saudi funding of ISIL. He warns us to make no mistake about it, this move is political and we are being fooled if we think it is based on humanitarian reasons.

Is sending troops to Iraq the best way to fight ISIL?

It is clear that the government has faced international pressure to commit troops to the Middle East from a number of fronts. Barack Obama called for a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern forces, Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari came to the country recently to meet with officials and request assistance, and the British have made a similar plea. The government will engage in negotiations with Australia's Tony Abbott when he arrives in New Zealand this Friday. Yet should New Zealand make a stand and refuse to bow to international pressure?

Journalist Jon Stephenson argues that committing troops to Iraq would succeed only in heightening the risk to New Zealand: by placing our soldiers in harm's way and by increasing the likelihood of ISIL wanting to attack New Zealanders in retaliation. Other critics have noted that the risk of Iraqi troops defecting and turning their arms against New Zealanders cannot be ignored. Stephenson views the Iraqi army as woefully ineffective and believes it will take a long time for Iraq to find much-needed political solutions to the sectarian violence which is tearing its country apart.

Kennedy Graham of the Greens.

Journalist Jon Stephenson.

Another major bone of contention is the government's insistence that it does not need the support of Parliament in order to make this decision. Whilst this is factually correct, some individuals are arguing that the government would be better to seek parliamentary support, or even that it is undemocratic not to have a majority in the House. Victoria University lecturer Robert Ayson believes that the government should only proceed when it has the support of the House, especially given that the situation in Iraq may change rapidly. Kennedy Graham, the Greens spokesperson for Defence, labelled the government's actions as politically improper. Labour, the Greens, United Future, the Maori Party and New Zealand First do not support military involvement in Iraq, the only party siding with National - albeit reluctantly - is ACT. According to political commentator Gordon Campbell, the government's mandate is weak as it, appears to lack authority and support (a) among the Parliament of Iraq that we are supposed to be helping and (b) among the public here at home.

The government's response to these criticisms so far has been that polls show it does have widespread public support for this move, that troops are only travelling overseas in a supporting role, and that it is necessary to make the hard decisions sometimes. John Key has insisted that New Zealand is not bowing to international pressure and is making an independent decision. Finally, Key has stated that other opposition parties are speaking out against deployment because they see it will give them a political edge, when in reality, in their heart of hearts they know the right thing to do is to send troops.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the government's decision will have enormous repercussions on life in New Zealand (not to mention in Iraq): on our foreign relations, on National's popularity, and most importantly, on the lives of individuals like Justin, who may find themselves hoping on a plane, this time bound for the Middle East, in only a matter of months.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Soaking up the Sun... and Powering the Country. Renewable Energy Revolution in Germany.

There's a joke in Germany that you need upwards of five different rubbish bins just to recycle a teabag. (You imagine having to separate out the tea leaves, bag, string, paper label, even the little staple connecting it all together...) The Germans are certainly very fussy - or should we say efficient? - when it comes to their recycling. Like us Kiwis, the German people have built up an impressive culture of sustainability and environmental stewardship over the years. The German recycling system is highly specialised, the countryside is criss-crossed by woodlands, and the locals have a great appreciation of the outdoors. You can understand why New Zealand is a popular travel destination for this nation of hikers and skiers. Moreover, it seems that Germany is well on-track to becoming a renewable energy economy.

Green energy - the way of the future and here for good?

In 2000, the German federal government instigated the much-touted Energiewende (Energy Transition) policy which set the strategic direction of the energy sector for decades to come. The strategy aims to oversee a transition to renewable energy, with 50% of Germany's electricity predicted to come from renewables in 2050. I travelled through parts of southern Germany a few weeks back and was impressed to see the great number of wind turbines dotting the fields, as well as the solar panels gracing the roofs of farmhouses. We would drive past whole fields of solar panels, with the big black squares angling optimistically upward to the stormy winter skies.

Solar panels in the fields and on house roofs.
Germany, December 2014.

Germany's Green Party has been a powerful political force, and Merkel's current Christian Democratic Union & Social Democratic Party coalition is also determined to pave the way to a sustainable future. The government is phasing-out coal and nuclear energy and heavily subsidising solar, wind and biogas production. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, in response to widespread public disenchantment with nuclear power, the decision was made to close eight nuclear reactors and to phase out all nuclear power generation by 2022. Germany didn't want to risk a disaster like that experienced by Japan, even if this meant getting rid of one of its back-up power supplies in a difficult era of transition.

Germany has made remarkable progress in its energy transition. Between 1990 and 2010, renewables grew 10 times faster in Germany than the OECD average. At the North and Baltic sea, offshore wind turbines preside over vast hectares of ocean. Solar panels are a regular feature on the roofs of country homes and even inner city apartments. Germany is one of only a few OECD countries to have reduced its CO2 emissions whilst still growing its GDP. Thousands of jobs have been created in energy production; for scientists, engineers and construction workers amongst others.

Source: The Economist.

I made a timeline of some key dates and milestones for the energy transition.

  • 2000: The Renewable Energies Act comes into force. This kick starts the Energy Transition, with 100+ targets set for sustainable electricity, heat and transport. The blueprint for this transition had existed since the 1980s.
  • 2002: The National Strategy for Sustainable Development is adopted.
  • 2007: The Integrated Energy and Climate Programme is launched.
  • 2009: The environmental goods and services sector of Germany's economy accounts for a not insignificant 2% of total GDP.
  • 2011: At least 370,000 Germans are employed in the expanding renewable energy sector. The decision is made to close eight nuclear power plants.
  • 2012: The German government invests 8% of GDP in renewable energy, despite the fact that the country is also battling the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.
  • 2018: The date by which it is intended that all hard coal mines are decommissioned. Coal subsidies are already being phased out.
  • 2020: 35% of Germany's power should derive from renewable energy.
  • 2022: All nuclear power plants in Germany should be decommissioned.
  • 2030: 50% of Germany's power should come from renewable energy.
  • 2050: 80% of Germany's power should be renewable.

The government's policies have not escaped criticism. Electricity prices have spiked and Germany's poor have been hit particularly hard. Thousands of people are struggling to pay their power bills with the result that their power is switched off by electricity companies. This happened to 300,000 households in a single year. According to Der Spiegel, "(electricity) costs have reached levels comparable only to the euro-zone bailouts."

"Luxury Power: Why energy will keep getting more expensive and what politics must do to stop this." Source: Der Spiegel.

Critics are also quick to point out that the policies are not always having the desired impact of reducing the country's contribution to climate change. For instance, renewable energy production increased by 10% across Germany in 2012. The same year, more C02 was released into the atmosphere than in 2011. How was this possible? The answer seems to lie in the fact that renewable energy sources are not always reliable - their outputs vary depending on the weather conditions. At crucial times in the year, coal production had to be called upon to fill in the energy shortfalls, with the result that coal production actually increased by the same percentage, 10%. Although hard coal production is decreasing, and coal subsidies are dwindling, there are still more coal power plants under construction to help meet Germany's energy needs up to 2050. Perhaps - critics pipe up helpfully - Germany has got it all wrong and the country instead needs to follow the way of the Swedes? (We Kiwis are constantly being told that we should follow the example of the Nordic countries, for instance in tackling inequality, and apparently Germany gets the same.)

Wind power station in Sweden. Source.

In any case, Germany's Energy Transition is no mean feat. It is ambitious. It is controversial. Most importantly, it will be influential. Germany is located smack bang in the middle of Europe, it's well-connected, and it's proved itself a strong and resilient economy. Other states, in Europe and beyond, will be observing with keen interest the successes and failures of this green revolution. If you're anything like me, it will give you hope that renewable energies are being touted as the way of the future. That jobs are being created and industries are being developed. That renewable energies will be better for the environment, and for us. This is a very interesting and exciting time.

Key Sources for this Post:

IEA document.
OECD documents.
Spiegel Article.
Economist Article. article. YouTube clip.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Children in Detention Across the Ditch

When I first became interested in issues of social justice, as an alternatively idealistic and angsty small town teenager, I immediately presumed that human rights issues only occurred overseas. I read books about street kids in La Paz and displaced indigenous people in the Amazon and knew instantly, in my illuminated teenage way, that it was up to me to help fight for these people's rights. I'd have to prepare myself, but I had NCEA Level Two and a few phrases in foreign languages for that. And I'd have to travel, which was convenient, since that was an adventure for a small town girl. Then like the true postcolonial white (wo)man saviour, I would swoop in to these overseas nations and set everything right... or most things right, or a few things right since every little bit counts, as they told us at school assembly. (I also supposed at the time that I was one of a few to have such idealistic thoughts, but upon reaching university I found that there were scores of us in Wellington alone; we all got involved in campus politics and are now battling student debt from the Aro Valley...)

Aro Valley, Wellington.
A world and a half away from human rights violations?

If I have learnt anything since these teenage days, it is that what you see on the outside is always different from the reality. Maybe that's the sceptical PolSci student in me coming through. I do not deny that the human rights situation (to use the term loosely) in overseas countries is far graver than anything comparable in New Zealand, however, that does not mean that everything is cheery at home. Recently I wrote about the phenomenon of migrant exploitation which takes place on our dairy farms, in our fishing boats, in our homes even, and on other occasions I have written about the effects of inequality on at-risk populations within our shores. Today I want to write about a grave situation which is taking place a little further from home, but certainly not as far as La Paz or the Peruvian Amazon. This is the predicament of detained children in Australian prisons. It is an expansive topic, so this might transform into a duo of posts, but we'll see how we go.

It is the policy of the Australian government to keep children who reach Australia without a valid visa in closed detention until they are granted a visa or removed from the country. With large numbers of asylum seekers heading by sea for Australia, and the government taking a hard line against illegal immigrants, this has led to a situation where, in May last year, 983 children - who come from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan - were held in detention facilities across Australia. (The numbers are somewhat reduced now but still above 700.) Detention facilities are located not just on Christmas Island and Nauru, but also in cities such as Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Hobart. News sites have reported on the situation affecting two teenage Indonesian boys who were just recently released from prison after having remained there for two years, in facilities designed for adults.

Hundreds of immigrant children are held in detention in Australia.

The boys / men (depending on who is telling the story) were convicted under the Migration Act 1958 for their involvement in people smuggling and, along with an older man, sentenced through the Australian courts to a 3 1/2 year jail term with a non parole period of 21 months. (You can find the update on this news site.) This happened in spite of the judges knowing about the boys' peculiar circumstances, such as their impoverished backgrounds and lack of English language speaking ability. The sentence angered many Australian lawyers, politicians and activists who noted that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Australia has ratified), the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall... only be used as a measure of last resort... every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interests not to do so. The boys have just returned home to Indonesia, but one of the pair apparently spent both Christmas and New Years Day in detention.

This is not the only case which Australian lawyers and human rights activists have been ups in arms about. A large section of Australian society is outraged that so many children have been detained in their country. There are various reports to suggest that these children, who have needless to say already been through so much fleeing their country and travelling across the seas, have been suffering from severe trauma and mental health issues. For instance, paediatricians have reported speaking to children who have been having nightmares, wetting the bed and pulling their hair out. They believe that although some of this behaviour is to be expected given the children's recent experiences, detention is only exacerbating these problems. Other reports (including one which was leaked) suggest that frightened children, who may have travelled alone and are now far from their families, are engaging in self-harm. Andrew Wilkie, an MP in Tasmania who questioned Tony Abbott about the practice of child detention, noted that children were referring to one another in the detention centres by numbers rather than names. (Tony Abbott acknowledged Wilkie's concerns, but was adamant that this was the only way to stop the boats and that the Labour government had got them into this tight spot in the first place.)

MP Andrew Wilkie and PM Tony Abbott.

A Save the Children report testified that the situation was even more dire than feared; children were going unsupervised, they were living in unhygenic conditions, some had even been sexually abused on the island. The Australian government accused Save the Children (who were providing welfare and health services on the island) of fabricating these claims and ordered an independent inquiry to be undertaken. Paul Renolds, the Chief Executive of Save the Children, held that his staff would not make up such allegations. It will take some time until we can determine the real story, but in any case the government was quick to suspend Save the Children's contract on the island pending the findings of the investigation.

The Save the Children testimony was provided as evidence to a commission of inquiry on the situation of children in detention. In 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission examined the issue of children in detention and concluded, among other points, that the Australian government could well be breaching international human rights law to which it has subscribed. The Commission, lead by Chief Gillian Triggs, decided to launch a second inquiry ten years later, in response to growing numbers of children in detention (over 1o00 in 2013) and widespread concerns about their living conditions. The inquiry was guided by principles drawn from the Refugee Convention and the aforementioned Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last year the Commission received public submissions and conducted meetings on the topic at various locations around Australia. You can read the public submissions on this site.

HRC Chief Gillian Triggs has been embroiled in controversy.

To add another twist to this sad saga, it appears that the inquiry is now finalised but that it has not yet been released by the government. Critics accuse the government of lying low and trying to dodge responsibility. In the meantime, reports abound of detained men, women and children in Australian centres going on hunger strikes and sewing their lips together in protest at their living conditions and their indefinite detention. Large numbers of Australians have protested at this miserable situation and you can find YouTube campaigns calling for an end to the detention of children. (For example, in this one featuring Australian celebrities, we are told that "we're better than this.")

The situation in Australia is highly politicised and impassioned, and it is difficult to get the full story behind the reports and accusations. Whatever the case, large numbers of children have become political footballs and their daily lives have been particularly bleak. If you've made it to the end of this post, I encourage you to follow up on some of the links I have included here and to continue the reading. There is a lot of material out there and the topic is both frightening (especially given how close to home this is) and highly relevant today.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

End of Year Reflections

It's half past seven in the morning and I'm due to fly out of Wellington, and then New Zealand, in a few hours time. I'm still buzzing after attending a friend's wedding last night. It feels as though the year has come full circle, for it was near the beginning of this year when I was also preparing for an international flight, albeit in vastly different circumstances: bound for a conference in Mexico that time and a holiday in Germany today. Travelling is a time of action: new people, new locations, new experiences; but at the same time it is a time of quietness and reflection. It is in those places of transit such as airports and train stations, watching other people mill about and feeling a sense of contemplative solitude, that I am often most able to reflect on my life. I'm already beginning to feel suitably nostalgic and I haven't even got on the bus. (Or perhaps it was last night's wedding speeches and champagne that has made me feel this way...)

In any case, I wanted to briefly record a few observations. I went to a Christmas party the other night for my summer job in the public service. The party was international themed and swarming with hundreds of bureaucrats dressed in their best silks and colours. I spent half the night enjoying myself talking to people and dancing, and the other half perfecting the art of getting lost in the crowds and wandering pathetically about the maze of rooms in search for any familiar faces among the dirndls, kimonos and Mexican sombreros. In one of these moments I got talking to one of the sombreros: a friendly-faced woman who was happy to share some thoughts about her job. "It's a bit terrifying, isn't it?" she giggled, gesturing at all the public servants variously engaged in drinking, sampling sweet foods and posing for photos. "All these people, they spend their days helping make decisions about how to run the country. But we're just people. We make mistakes." When I nodded in agreement, she went on, "it's a shame we don't have another world. To experiment on first, you know?"

For that is the reality. There is no other world where we can trial our laws and policies and work out how to create a better society before we put our learning into action. We must resort to history books, comparative studies and thought experiments in order to to try and get it right the first time. This is a troubling prospect. Those people who govern our societies, they are only human: they may be influenced by irrelevant considerations, they may leap to conclusions, they may be swayed by personal grudges. But the decisions they make will have ripple effects across society. Decisions made by our governments, local councils, banks and health boards affect us all, for better or worse. And the individuals behind these decisions are no superhumans: they are just men and women trying to do their jobs, acting in many respects out of a willingness to help others, but also just wanting to finish work at 5pm and get back home to their partner and kids.

I believe we live in a world of incredible opportunities. The fact that I can jump on a plane in a few hours which will whisk me over to the other side of the world is nothing short of remarkable. I have no real understanding of the murky world of the internet, let alone how exactly we talk over telephones. This is a world where we live longer, where we enjoy foods from around the world, where we 3D print replacement parts of our bodies as needed. We have the ability to travel - I heard that some 1 million people are in the air at any one time - or if we prefer to stay at home, we can learn about other cultures on our laptops. Despite these opportunities, however, we humans have got ourselves into a right pickle in many ways. We have messed up our natural environment, we have the threat of nuclear warfare hanging over us, and millions of us die from hunger whereas others eat like kings.

We face very real problems as a human species, and this blog has been a way for me to capture some perspectives on global issues of our century. Yet, as I hope this blog has also demonstrated in some small way, we are also all part of the solution. It might sound soppy (again, I fully admit to currently being influenced by champagne and Wanderlust), but it is crucial that we communicate fully to resolve these problems. From my perspective, it is not that we don't have the knowledge required to address many of the issues, rather, we are not making good use of this knowledge. Or - as in the case of nuclear weapons - we are lacking the political will to make informed change. Too often we are blinded by perceived differences between races and religions, and we don't appreciate the wisdom which other people have to offer. For instance, the Maori people have an incredible amount of wisdom to contribute on issues of sustainability in New Zealand and abroad. Christian people - along with Muslims, Jews and many people of faith - have given extensive thought to issues of peace and war. What I want to continue investigating is the ways in which different people are approaching the same questions. The key is not that different groups must align in their thinking, but rather that they contribute their knowledge and perspectives to global discussions, so that those tasked with making final decisions on matters of law and policy are fully informed and act in the best interests of all. How deceptively simple.

This blog is going to be silent for the next couple of weeks. But I will resume it next year, so please do keep having a read. Enjoy the festive season!