The Climate Narrative

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On Citizens' Assemblies

2018 Irish Climate Action Report

The Irish Example SMH article

The Fossil Fuel Devil's Advocate

The Hotel's On Fire

Understanding the Climate Action Battlefield

What subsidies? Show me!

The need for a Political Arm

Send a letter

Find an Action

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What's happening In the Ocean

What's happening on Land

What's happening In the Atmosphere

What's happening in Government

Climate Narrative

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The Climate Narrative...    

Citizens' Assemblies

☞ For everything you need to know about creating a Citizens Assembly" download this great pdf by The RSA.
(NB. This will download "iidp-citizens-assembly.pdf" to wherever your downloads are stored as )

The Irish Climate Report

The Irish Climate Report
Recommendations on Climate Action made by the Irish Citizens Assembly-

i. 97% of the Members recommended that to ensure climate change is at the centre of policy-making in Ireland, as a matter of urgency a new or existing independent body should be resourced appropriately, operate in an open and transparent manner, and be given a broad range of new functions and powers in legislation to urgently address climate change.

ii. 100% of the Members recommended that the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation measures, including, for example, retrofitting public buildings, having low carbon public vehicles, renewable generation on public buildings and through adaptation measures including, for example, increasing the resilience of public land and infrastructure.

iii. 80% of the Members stated that they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities, subject to the qualifications identified in the question.

iv. 96% of the Members recommended that the State should undertake a
comprehensive assessment of the vulnerability of all critical infrastructure (including energy, transport, built environment, water and communications) with a view to building resilience to ongoing climate change and extreme weather events. The outcome of this assessment should be implemented. Recognising the significant costs that the State would bear in the event of failure of critical infrastructure, spending on infrastructure should be prioritised to take account of this.

v. 99% of the Members recommended that the State should enable, through legislation, the selling back into the grid of electricity from micro-generation by private citizens (for example energy from solar panels or wind turbines on people’s homes or land) at a price which is at least equivalent to the wholesale price.

vi. 100% of the Members recommended that the State should act to ensure the greatest possible levels of community ownership in all future renewable energy projects by encouraging communities to develop their own projects and by requiring that developer-led projects make share offers to communities to encourage greater local involvement and ownership.

vii. (a) 97% of the Members recommended that the State should end all subsidies for peat extraction and instead spend that money on peat bog restoration and making proper provision for the protection of the rights of the workers impacted; and
(b) 61% recommended that the State should end all subsidies on a phased basis
over 5 years.

viii. 93% of the Members recommended that the number of bus lanes, cycling lanes and park and ride facilities should be greatly increased in the next five years, and much greater priority should be given to these modes over private car use.

ix. 96% of the Members recommended that the State should immediately take many
steps to support the transition to electric vehicles.

x. 92% of the Members recommended that the State should prioritise the expansion of public transport spending over new road infrastructure spending at a ratio of no less than 2-to-1 to facilitate the broader availability and uptake of public transport options with attention to rural areas.

xi. 89% of the Members recommended that there should be a tax on greenhouse gas
(GHG) emissions from agriculture. There should be rewards for the farmer for land management that sequesters carbon. Any resulting revenue should be reinvested to support climate friendly agricultural practices.

xii. 93% of the Members recommended the State should introduce a standard form of
mandatory measurement and reporting of food waste at every level of the food
distribution and supply chain, with the objective of reducing food waste in the future.

xiii. 99% of the Members recommended that the State should review and revise supports for land use diversification with attention to supports for planting forests and encouraging organic farming.

The Assembly focussed its discussion on the energy, transport and agriculture sectors, together with an examination of what leadership in the area of climate change looks like. However, it was acknowledged that there may be other areas…Therefore, the Members were provided with a response form on the final weekend to complete…. to allow the Members to make comments and suggestions on such further recommendations to be referenced in the final report. I undertook to deliver any emerging consensus themes or issues as ancillary recommendations in the final report. The four ancillary recommendations set out below are informed by the matters on which the greatest consensus emerged.

Ancillary Recommendations

I. Greater emphasis should be placed on providing positive information to the public which encourages people to make changes to the aspects of their behaviour which impact on climate change. Such information should be targeted at all age groups using a wide variety of formats. The information provided should be focussed on highlighting the economic, social, health and other benefits of taking action rather than focussing on the negatives associated with a failure to act.

II. Steps should be taken to reduce packaging, particularly plastic packaging, and resulting waste. Suggestions for such steps include the eradication of single use plastics particularly in supermarkets and the imposition of penalties for failure to comply and the introduction of a deposit return scheme on plastic bottles.

III. The agriculture sector in Ireland requires ongoing support to make a transition towards models of production which give rise to lower GHG emissions. Cognisance must be taken of the impact which the sector has on the economy, particularly the rural economy.

IV. All new buildings should have a zero or low carbon footprint and planning permission should only be granted for new builds which comply with these requirements. The government should provide incentives to retrofit homes to achieve better energy efficiency ratings.

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The Irish Example

The Irish Example

How one man created Ireland's Citizen's Assemblies with no budget and no legislation
☞ The Irishman who could shape Australia's Future (Article Sydney Morning Herald)

If not available, here is the text:
"Citizens Assembly The Irish example

Art O’Leary was minding his own business and enjoying his role as a senior civil servant in Ireland’s parliament when the prime minister phoned to offer him a unique job. The self-described middle-aged man with a suit and a comb-over couldn’t have known that he was about to become a social revolutionary.

The newly elected government had promised to create a people’s assembly to discuss revising six articles in the country’s constitution – including the one touching the bombshell question of same-sex marriage.

The PM asked O’Leary to make it happen. “If I understand you correctly,” the civil servant replied after hearing him out, “as long as I don’t spend any money or kill anybody, I can do what I want with this constitutional convention?”

“I knew you were the fella for me,” rejoined Enda Kenny, the then prime minister, or taoiseach, as the Irish call it. “It was 10 years ago this year and nothing astonishes me more than the fact that I’m still telling this story,” O’Leary related to a group in Sydney this week.

He was given a bare office with not so much as a chair. When Kenny promised no money, he meant no money.

O’Leary managed to find a government warehouse full of broken and surplus furniture and begged himself a wastepaper bin, a desk and chair. “I was recycling furniture before it was fashionable,” he says.

From this humble beginning, “Ireland found a way to deal with really, really intractable political problems”. It used constitutional conventions peopled by ordinary citizens “to lead constitutional change in a traditional, conservative, Catholic society on a scale unheard of 20 years ago”.

“Now we continually use it,” O’Leary says, “to the extent that the political parties fight among themselves to put the next subject to a citizens’ assembly.”

Ireland used a citizens’ assembly to deal with an issue so inflammatory that no government wanted to approach it directly – abortion. Same-sex marriage and abortion are now legal in Ireland, and it happened with a minimum of rancour.

Today Ireland is running a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss and another on how to structure the local government of Dublin. “Not every issue is suitable for a citizens’ assembly – for example, you could do whether to use nuclear energy, but not on how to design a nuclear plant,” suggests O’Leary.

After speaking to audiences in 18 countries in the past four months, O’Leary says “there’s a hunger everywhere for more citizens’ engagement”.

So hungry that Colombia had to cancel one recently because 5000 people turned up, overwhelming the organisers. “It’s a case of, ‘I have something to say, and no one is listening’ – citizens’ assemblies are a counter to this feeling of disenfranchisement, it’s a global phenomenon.”

The citizens’ assembly is an idea inspired by ancient Athenian democracy where every male citizen over 20 had an automatic right to vote in the assembly. The modern version enjoyed a burst of popularity in the 1980s and a serious resurgence since 2010, so much so that the OECD studied almost 300 citizens’ assemblies from around the world and drew up a set of guidelines in a 2020 report titled Catching the Deliberative Wave.

A citizens’ assembly – or constitutional assembly - doesn’t displace a country’s parliament. It doesn’t have the power to make laws or allocate budgets. But it does seek to guide a legislature. In Ireland’s case, the government and parliament have kept close control.

A representative sample of about 100 to 150 citizens is chosen to meet on weekends, over a number of months, supported by a secretariat, and study an issue closely. They are given objective briefings on the subject and then presented with the arguments from advocates on all sides of an issue. The group then discusses the problem and reports its recommendations to the parliament.

In Ireland’s case, transparency is key. Plenary sessions are broadcast and live-streamed and journalists are present at the back of the room. The government commits to responding to every recommendation and explaining why it’s accepting or rejecting each.

The attraction? This approach removes the political partisanship, entrenched positions and vested-interest lobbying from the deliberative process. It turns out that a well-run citizens’ assembly can not only add to public understanding of an issue but also to public trust in any eventual government action.

O’Leary came to Australia not to proselytise but to learn. He’s been tasked with creating a new institution for Ireland – an independent election authority. He says this is the best place in the world to learn how to do it. “The Australian Electoral Commission is the gold standard,” he tells me.

But, along the way, he’s spoken to a number of audiences about citizens’ assemblies. Including the Albanese government’s Assistant Minister for the Republic, Matt Thistlethwaite.

O’Leary argues that a citizens’ assembly would be “perfect” for dealing with the question of whether and how Australia should hold a referendum on becoming a republic: “It’s big and national with lots of options. It would provide time and space for everybody to give their opinion and talk respectfully.”

Thistlethwaite is interested: “We are considering it for the republic, particularly as a means of educating Australians about the issue and trying to come to a consensus about the model,” he tells me. “I’m deeply conscious that the monarchists in the 1999 referendum called it a politicians’ model.”

“Looking at the facts, hearing from both sides, making recommendations to government without politicians’ involvement – it’s definitely worth considering,” Thistlethwaite says. “A big issue will be explaining to younger people; they’re looking for more transparency and accountability in the way government operates. I think this is a great way to look at an issue, engage Australians and give them a voice.

“If we used it, we’d use it as a consultative body with recommendations and advice to government.” The federal government has said it will consider holding a referendum on this in the next term of parliament.

More immediate is the question of whether to create an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the constitution. The Albanese government has promised to bring this referendum to the people during the term of the current parliament.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, has carriage of this. Could a citizens’ assembly be useful? “It has potential value,” she tells me. “It’s potentially a very good idea, but I haven’t considered it seriously. One step at a time.”

The government already has announced a consultation process for the Voice referendum. Is it not too late to add another step? “No, not at all,” says Burney. She didn’t meet O’Leary on his Australian visit this week but said she wanted to speak with him.

O’Leary says it’s important that a country’s first national citizens’ assembly should succeed. Many fail. Design is all. In Ireland’s case, its first constitutional convention – on same-sex marriage – comprised 66 citizens and 33 politicians.

A citizens’ assembly including politicians? There was good and bad, reports O’Leary. The bad was trying to enforce equal voice: “We had a job to shut down the minister to give the bus driver a say.” The good was that the parliament had a sense of ownership when the assembly’s report arrived.

Plus, the experience improved the people’s impressions of politicians: “People said the politicians were more knowledgeable than they’d suspected, and they worked a lot harder – ‘they work all the time’.”

Another surprise bonus from one citizens’ assembly? A woman who thanked the organisers for choosing her husband for a group – he’d started watching the news and reading the papers and they were having much more interesting conversations at dinner.

The Gillard government gave Australian politicians a bit of a phobia of citizens’ assemblies, says a local authority on the subject, Iain Walker of the New Democracy Foundation. When it proposed a citizens’ assembly on climate change, it was roundly ridiculed and the government quickly abandoned it.

But New Democracy has been rehabilitating the idea. It’s operated 32 citizens’ assemblies in Australia at various levels, none national. Some, like the one on South Australia’s potential as a site for global nuclear waste, failed. Others, like the one on how the City of Melbourne could cut its chronic deficits, was a success.

Years after retiring, Enda Kenny was asked to name his greatest achievement as prime minister. He didn’t boast of reducing Ireland’s unemployment rate from 15 per cent to 4 per cent. His outstanding achievement, he said, was the citizens’ assemblies."

The Fossil Fuel Devil’s Advocate.

The Fossil Fuel Devil’s Advocate.

“Australia needs fossil-fuel exports to balance our books and pay for our Australian Way of Life”. True or false?

Let’s look at the hard facts.

One: Australians received $2.6 billion in revenue from gas and oil. But that figure is falling. By 2025/26, it will have dropped to $2 billion, according to this ABC article.

Two: Under the 1998 “Resources Tax” legislation, gas (and oil), companies must pay 40% pay tax on their profits - but only once their gas and oil projects have entirely paid for themselves, ie. after exploration, construction and infrastructure costs are fully recouped. The article explains that’s the same rule as for all business taxation. So far so good

Three: And do not miss Three, it's important. The article points out this: the 1988 Resources Tax act legislated that Australia (you and I) must pay those gas and oil companies 18% interest on their investment. The idea being (back in the 80s) that this would incentivise gas exploration by amply covering the cost of the money borrowed to set up offshore gas fields. As the article says,: In this way a $10bn gas field, when compounded by this 18% p.a., could create for the gas company $15 bn of tax credits. So the $70 billion Barrow Island “Gorgon” project off WA's north-west coast may never be required to pay any Resources Tax.

To date the gas and oil industries in Australia have racked up $283 billion in future tax deductions - which means they can earn over $700 billion profits before they have exhausted these credits and start to pay tax.

And, back to point One; last year we, the Australian people, received $2.6 bn in oil and gas revenue - which looks sort of useful… But you need to know that last year we, the Australian people’s government, gave (Note that... “gave” not “loaned”) the fossil-fuel industry $3.6 bn in cash and other tax break just for operating in our country.

So exporting gas and oil cost the Australian people $1 billion last year, net. Not earned, but cost a billion. And that’s without factoring in the $7bn in “externalities” that we Australians pay anually for mopping up after the fossil-fuel fired floods and fires, for emergency funding to replace infrastructure, and homes, for loss of forests and habitat they destroyed, for not picking up the on-going health costs associated with their fossil-fuel fired pollution.

So... Does “Australia need fossil-fuel exports to balance our books and pay for our Australian Way of Life”? No... Busted! Not true. A lie.

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The Hotel's on Fire

The Hotel's On Fire.

One morning, my father - a large gentleman prone to irascibility if man-handled - was deeply offended to find a youngster rudely shaking him awake in the middle of the night. Recalling his surroundings as he swam into consciousness he recognised the man as the manager of the 4-star hotel he was staying in.

"What do you think you are doing?" demanded my father. To which the young man said "Can you not hear the fire alarms? The hotel is on fire!" But my elderly father could not hear the frequencies used by the high-pitched alarms, so upbraided the unfortunate manager rudely until a fireman appeared in the doorway and told him to go out into the street in his pyjamas and dressing gown.

This story is true. It is also, of course an metaphor.

The first thing we are told to do when we discover a fire is "Alert everybody". Our good friends in the Climate Movement have, for some time, been rousing sleeping residents of Hotel Earth and - like the poor young manager - getting roundly abused for their efforts.

Now this is important: it is imperative that we get more of our newly awakened residents banging on doors, making a noise, and sadly incurring the wrath of still-sleeping residents.

Equally important we absolutely need a plan for the swelling numbers of citizens milling around on the upper floors of our hotel. They demand we tell them which staircases are the best to avoid calamity. Sadly, the management of our world have cut corners - we know that. Their emergency procedures are vestigial. So it is up to us. What do we next? Do we have the knowledge to make fast, wise decisions as we contemplate Hotel Earth bursting into flames?

- Is exporting fossil fuels truly essential to Australia's economy, or is that a myth?
- How much of the annual $10.5 billion in fossil-fuel subsidies is "direct" (Cash and tax-breaks) and how much is "indirect", that is to say the external costs you and I pay in health, mitigation and emergency relief resulting from their line of business?
- Does the direct part of that subsidy return a profit to Australia - and if so, would that be before or after paying for those externalities?
- How much electricity does Australia actually use by day and by night? And how much more will it need as we electrify our heating and transport?
- How much electricity do we produce from each source (Coal, gas, wind, solar etc) and are there truly gaps between renewable and "base-load" supply... And so on, and so on.

We need a plan that will lead to the best possible outcome for the most possible people. And how can we guarantee that plan if we haven't asked those questions? Who do we ask, and how do we weigh their competence, and motivation?

We have made a lot of people afraid. To some degree that was our intention. Now they are asking us, quite reasonably, if our path will lead them to a long and healthy future.

Could you guarantee that to a mother looking down my metaphorical staircase, clutching her children around her?

And that is why we in the Climate Movement need to thrash out the fastest, yet most realistic plan for stage two - the path to a future for all the creatures living on Hotel Earth. WIll that plan require us to negotiate some of our demands? Should we even consider that possibility? We cannot know until we get down and do the numbers. We need to speak with people outside our own circle, and do that urgently.

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Understanding the Climate Action Battlefield

Part 2 - What subsidies? Show me!

Part 2 - What subsidies? Show me!

If our activism bears fruit and we do have a conversation with a Minister for Fossil Fuel Subsidies, we will need to have prepared, in advance, an argument they can present to their election-aware cabinet colleagues.

For some time, we have demanded that the government stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies” (let’s shorten that to FFS, if you’ll pardon the acronym). So let’s imagine a meeting with the Minister of FFS or “Minister of Fossil Fuel Subsidies”

No, wait… there is no Minister of FFS! Fossil-fuel subsidies are not given out by a single person, or even by a single government. How many people hand out these subsidies? Nine - the Ministers of FFS from 8 states/territories and one federal government. More than nine? The answer is many more than nine. FFS grants come in their hundreds, handed out by dozens of agencies, many of which are autonomous like the NT’s Power and Water Corporation; who, incidentally, are buying Australian gas from Italians on a “take-or-pay” fixed price contract whether there is a future market or not. We would need to talk turkey with hundreds of people, each with a vested interest in their particular brain-child.

But - for the purpose of this piece - let’s invent one Minister for FFS, and have one conversation with them. “So, Minister, we demand you stop subsidising the Fossil Fuel Industry!” The Minister of FFS steeples their fingers and asks, “What subsidies would that be?”

Of course, there is no actual $10.5 billion cheque that the government hands out once a year. That enormous sum is made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of grants, from the $4.3 million for a crane in Broome (was that a FFS, or was it to assist local industry?), and the $2.3 million for the Hopeland gasification plant’s remediation (wasn’t it reasonable to make it safe after Lync went bust? Or should it have been left a hazard to the public?)... to much bigger grants.

For example, the infrastructure funding at Gladstone Ports for upgrades to safety projects, tug projects, pontoon replacements, information systems, plant equipment, and other things. “Was that a FFS?” asks the Minister. Well, Gladstone does manage enormous amounts of fossil fuel products, so yes, in part it was.

“But it wasn’t billions,” says the Minster of FFS. “It was $134.2 million. And, Gladstone also handles timber, sugar, cargo, agricultural and food products. And it included upgrading local roads - surely the locals deserve upgraded roads, don’t they? Should we not have helped Gladstone upgrade their port? I think the people who work there were very happy we did that.”

And so on… If we are to argue every grant that has been budgeted for - many of them over a period of years to come - how long would that take?

“But look,” you say, “I can see an elephant - there in the corner of the room. Look, the Fuel Tax Rebate? That is a single quantifiable thing. And it comes under just one government, the Labor Federal government. This subsidy gave the fossil fuel industry $7.8 billion of subsidy in 2020-21, and that will be over $8 billion this year. So stop the FTR, the Fuel Tax Rebate! You can do that.”

Well, possibly… But is the FTR a subsidy? In fact what is the FTR?

The Australian Tax Office will help here. The FTR is “Fuel tax credits that provide businesses with a credit for the excise or customs duty that's included in the price of fuel used in machinery, plant, equipment, heavy vehicles, light vehicles travelling off public roads or on private roads.”

Is that a “subsidy to the fossil-fuel industry?” Well, the FTR artificially lowers the cost of fossil fuels, making them much more attractive and stimulating their use. So that’s a subsidy, and cancelling the Fuel Tax Rebate scheme would mean that every coal mine, gas field and oil well would immediately cost more to run because they currently claim about $1.3 billion a year in Fuel Tax Rebate on the fuels they use to run their mines, gas fields and oil wells.

So just stopping the FTR would make fossil fuels dearer and help cut CO2 emissions, which is great news.

But it would also mean that every farmer, manufacturer, haulier and major company in Australia would have - effectively, and in total - $7.8 billion added to their operating costs in higher fuel bills, and taken off their bottom line. “And,” points out the Minister of FFS, “that $7.8 billion will be passed on to their consumers, increasing the cost of living for ordinary Australians. Wouldn’t it just be a ‘Great Big Tax on Everything’? And the last time I heard those words,” the Minister concludes, “was for Julia Gillard’s proposed Carbon Price, which Tony Abbot’s Liberals used to bring down her government.”

Of course you and I know that Gillard’s carbon tax would have raised money from the polluters to be disbursed among Australians, and reduce their cost of living, while hurting the fossil fuel industry by making them compete on a level playing field. But ordinary people didn’t hear that bit back in 2013 when Labor lost power for a decade. Will they hear it now? Maybe that’s an area we should be educating in?

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Part 1 - The need for a Political Arm

Part 1 - The need for a Political Arm

This is the first of a short series of posts that I have titled “Understanding the Climate Battlefield”.

The reason for my asking random citizens “What does Climate Change mean to you?” is obviously to get a measure of the importance Australians are placing on Climate Change. Is there a broad acceptance of the issue? How well do they know the facts? Would they like to see more being done?

In Australia the Climate Movement has very limited resources - few personnel and even fewer funds. Without basic data how can we intelligently prioritise those resources? Do we need to prioritise the marshalling of concerned citizens over their education? Once we have data on public awareness, we can decide: should prioritise Direct Action, or create better political engagement?

On that subject, consider the Civil Rights movement. Was it successful because of the Direct Action of people like Rosa Parks’ stand on segregated buses and the few dozen “freedom riders”, or because Martin Luther King brilliantly voiced the issue to the public? Clearly the answer is “both”. Parks and the Freedom Riders catalysed the news coverage and public indignation which gave King his platform to speak from. And speak he did. He kept the fire of indignation stoked with powerful oration. And when not speaking out publicly, he spoke privately and powerfully with leaders in government and in society, both religious and secular. He debated and negotiated always looking for pathways forward for the cause to which he eventually gave his life.

Equally, Emiline Pankhurst addressed rallies of tens of thousands in the parks of Manchester. She travelled throughout the USA speaking in thronged halls on the issue of women’s suffrage. And both Emiline Pankhurst and Martin Luther King spoke with politicians and society’s leaders at every opportunity.

Would Civil Rights, or Women’s Votes have been won without King and Pankhurst’s public and private conversations? Would the courage of the Freedom Riders, or of the Suffragettes have been enough without their public and political engagement?

Probably they would both have been successful in the long term, but we - in the Climate Movement don’t have a “long term”. However, there is a new impetus now in Australia. Not a single Conservative government holds sway anywhere on the continent, and we need to move quickly and wisely to open another flank in the battlefield of Climate Action.

Organisations like “Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies” urgently need to add a political arm to their Direct Action cadre, people trained in opening and steering dialogues with public and with leaders of government and society, secular and religious.

I propose we move on that immediately.

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