Is climate change still crap Tony?

This is the forth in a series of TPS Extra opinion pieces by Ad astra, originally posted in comments on The Political Sword.

It is holiday time, where your overworked ministers take a ‘well earned break’ from the turmoil and anguish of trying to work out how to run a vast nation of 23 million with a federal budget near one and a half trillion, so it might be excusable Tony that so far there has been no response from you or your Environment Minister to the the latest alarming report on climate. We will be interested to see how long it takes you to respond, if indeed you bother at all.

Now we all know that what you really said at that fateful meeting in Beaufort was: “the science behind climate change was crap”, and that since that unwise utterance, designed to curry favour with your audience, you have backtracked, as you so often do. But we wonder how you regard the latest science that confirms what rational people, who have regard for the facts, already know, namely that the planet is warming steadily and dangerously.

NASA has just released its annual report, which states categorically that: “The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists. The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York. In an independent analysis of the raw data, also released Friday, NOAA scientists also found 2014 to be the warmest on record.”

The report goes onto say: “Since 1880, Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), a trend that is largely driven by the increase in carbon dioxide and other human emissions into the planet’s atmosphere. The majority of that warming has occurred in the past three decades.

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades. While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt.

“While 2014 temperatures continue the planet’s long-term warming trend, scientists still expect to see year-to-year fluctuations in average global temperature caused by phenomena such as El Niño or La Niña. These phenomena warm or cool the tropical Pacific and are thought to have played a role in the flattening of the long-term warming trend over the past 15 years. However, 2014’s record warmth occurred during an El Niño-neutral year.”

You don’t have to believe me Tony – read the report for yourself, and do take the time to play the short video at the top of the page and the graphics in the right panel.  They might startle you; at least I hope they will. www.nasa.gov/…/#.VLmnp8YihHh

Commenting on the report, our own Professor Will Steffen, Director of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute said: “Effects of the steadily warming climate such as heatwaves, bushfires and extreme weather were happening more frequently and closer together. Historically in Australia, more people die from heatwaves than they do from any other type of natural disaster.” He told ABC’s AM: “It does have consequences and it isn’t the meteorological record that scientists and geeks like to look at, it’s actually affecting us on the ground, now.”

“There is no doubt that to really get on top of this problem we have to have deeper targets, more ambitious targets for 2020.”

Professor Steffen said the rise in sea level temperatures was the most significant aspect of the reports: “This is a real cause for concern because 93 per cent of the excess heat – because of the greenhouse gases we’re popping into the atmosphere – actually ends up in the ocean. When you start to see the ocean warming up as much as it is, there’s a lot more heat down there that’s going to come back to bite us.” www.abc.net.au/…/6022714  Hear him for yourself: www.abc.net.au/…/6022804

We know you’ve countered arguments supporting the reality of climate change by reminding us that it was hotter in Jesus’ time and that in this country we’ve had bushfires and floods for centuries, although you have conceded that man might have contributed to global warming.  But we are still to be convinced that you or your Environment Minister are taking global warming seriously.  You killed off the carbon tax that was reducing carbon pollution, and you tried unsuccessfully to knock it off the G20 agenda on the spurious grounds that this forum was about the global economy, although we all know climate is global too and affects every economy.

If you can remember any of the chemistry you learned at school, you will recall that when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, as it now is in alarming amounts, it forms carbonic acid, which dissolves calcium, a major component of coral reefs. You may also recall that as water gets warmer it expands, and so the sea level rises.  Warming also melts ice, which falls into the sea and raises its level too, which will lead to inundation of low-lying seafronts, of which we have many in Australia.

For someone as intelligent as you must be to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and to become PM of this nation, it is complete mystery to me why you seem unwilling to acknowledge what climate scientists have been telling us for ages. NASA’s report now strongly reinforces the data scientists have assembled for many years.

Instead, you continue to be a vocal advocate for the coal industry, happy to tell us that it will be our main energy source for decades (while our scientists insist it should stay in the ground), and at the same time you have been seemingly prepared to reduce our renewable energy target, leaving environmentalists and the rewewables industry convinced you are determined to put renewables out of business.

The only explanation of this illogic I can muster is that you are so ideologically driven, so wedded to coal interests, so determined to prevent renewables from damaging the coal industry, that you have abandoned scientific facts and logic. Are you really prepared to irreparably damage our planet so that its becomes uninhabitable for your grandchildren and mine?

Tony, do you really still believe that the science behind climate change is crap?

Please awaken; please accept the science; please take decisive action now; please persuade all your counterparts to do so next year in Paris. Otherwise, life on earth is doomed. Seriously!

What do you, the readers, think?

Don’t miss out – make sure you also check out the current piece at TPS, ‘And that was . . . 2014‘. At this stage, the new more in-depth weekly pieces at TPS are due to return from January 25th.

Ad astra is a retired academic who lives two metres above sea level.

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Abbott’s carbon tax chickens come home to roost

This is the third in a series of TPS Extra opinion pieces by Ad astra, originally posted in comments on The Political Sword.

So imprinted is it in our collective memories that it’s hard to forget Abbott’s ‘Axe the tax’ mantra. Over and again he repeated his intent to get rid of this ‘toxic tax’, which after about nine months in government he finally managed to have repealed by a reluctant Senate following some PUP contortions. It’s also hard to forget his promise that ‘Australian families would be $550 better off after its repeal’.

He failed to tell us what he already knew – that carbon pollution would rise again, and that the revenue the tax was raising would cease. So the inevitable happened. Carbon emissions, after falling as a result of the tax, began to rise again, and the revenue the tax generated dried up. Soon Joe Hockey was bemoaning his diminishing revenue base, made worse by the fall in iron ore prices and receding demand for that commodity. Suddenly we had a fiscal ‘crisis’ and a ‘budget emergency’ that Hockey felt compelled to fix by whatever draconian means he could find.

It could be argued I suppose that the sacrifice of revenue could at least be offset by the benefit that would flow to families as electricity prices plummeted and they pocketed the promised $550. But something funny happened on the way to the $550 bonanza. It hasn’t eventuated, and likely won’t.  Wouldn’t we love to know how that magic figure was generated. Hockey uses Treasury as a cop out, insisting that they generated the estimate, and therefore it must be right.  Mind you, in the past he has repeatedly disparaged Treasury estimates when that suited his political agenda, but on this occasion insists they ought to be trusted without question.

Will anyone in the MSM bother to monitor how many families get their hands on the $550 prize, a reward for voting in the Abbott government? You can lay long odds that the Murdoch media will neither monitor it, nor report it if anyone bothers to check if the $550 ever arrived, and especially if it failed to turn up. So we may never know from any authoritative source what became of the elusive $550.

But there are other information streams.  Talkback radio and social media will not remain silent.

Yesterday morning on 774 radio Melbourne, Steve Martin, standing in for Jon Faine who is on holiday, raised the matter with his listeners, and soon got a flood of responses. Steve (from Ballarat ABC) has been a fine substitute for Jon. Astute and well-informed politically, he is balanced in his appraisals and comments.

Soon a listener was annoyedly telling Steve that his electricity bills were going up, not down. We know that there are reasons for that: higher charges for transmission (the old poles and wires story), and higher charges imposed by electricity providers on the grounds that diminished demand has reduced their profits, and therefore they have to compensate for that by charging consumers more per kilowatt hour. The diminished demand is the result of several factors: consumers are deliberately using less electricity to reduce their bills; many are installing solar panels to augment their domestic supply and are therefore using less coal generated power; and many have opted to receive power from renewable sources. Because electricity companies are steadily reducing the refund on electricity generated from solar panels and fed back into the grid, householders who expected a return on their solar cell investment to offset its cost, are now very angry, and more determined than ever to use alternative energy. Moreover, as electricity prices rise, more and more consumers are reducing their dependence on the grid, resorting to solar power despite fewer inducements and lower feed-in rebates.

The death spiral of coal generated power companies has begun.

As it continues, it will become fatal for some providers. The problem for government then will become how to support failing electricity companies who will still need to supply industry and commerce with the power they need. If some of these, for example supermarkets, install solar power to meet some or all of their needs, the crisis will widen, and the death spiral will accelerate.

Talkback callers were uniform in their criticism of the power companies, angry that they have been, and would be further dudded by them, sceptical about whether they would ever see the elusive $550, and generally offside with the Abbott government, who were seen as reneging on yet another promise – the hard to get hold of $550 bonanza.

The solar energy debate continued on ABC radio this morning. It attracted many callers and text messages, portraying the great community interest in solar power. The guest, the CEO of the Australian Solar Council, among fielding many pertinent questions, asserted that some power companies are actively campaigning to end the solar industry and the Abbott government is out to destroy it via reductions to the renewable energy target.  Given Abbott’s public support for the coal industry, that assertion is plausible.

Abbott’s carbon tax chickens are coming home to roost with deafening wing-flapping. Carbon tax revenue has ceased; carbon pollution is rising again; the price of power is rising, not falling; electricity companies are charging more to offset falling revenue; householders are economising and turning more and more to power from renewables; the death spiral in which power providers are trapped continues relentlessly; the $550 seems as difficult for consumers to grasp as it ever was; yet another of Abbott’s pre-election promises is a dud, and Abbott’s trustworthiness takes yet another dive.

None of us are surprised, nor should we be.

What do you think?

Don’t miss out – make sure you also check out the current piece at TPS, ‘And that was . . . 2014‘. At this stage, the new more in-depth weekly pieces at TPS are due to return from January 25th.

Ad astra is a retired academic with years of experience in rural family practice.

Medicare – Has Abbott the nous of Howard?

A TPS Extra opinion piece by Ad astra originally posted in comments on The Political Sword. This is a follow up to yesterday’s Messing with Medicare

When John Howard tried to change Medicare many years ago, he soon picked up the unmistakable message from the electorate: ‘Don’t mess with our Medicare’. He had the nous to listen to the people and pull back. The question today is: ‘Has Abbott got enough of Howard’s nous to do the same?’ Sadly, I doubt if he has. When did he last allow the voice of the punters to override his ideological intent?

The clarion call from both the users and the providers to withdraw his changes to Medicare are likely to be ignored. Abbott is stubborn, ideologically driven and vengeful. The only hope is that his newly-appointed Health Minister, Sussan Ley, a smart politician with an abundance of common sense, will persuade him to back off before the implementation date of 19 January, especially now that the numbers in the Senate indicate that the proposed changes to the regulations are likely to be disallowed later in the month. If Abbott proceeds, it looks as if his punitive changes will have a very brief and inglorious life.

Yet there is a need to make Medicare, now a revered Australian institution, sustainable in the long term and able to accommodate the accumulating needs of an ageing population, many of which will suffer dementia or other disabilities, and to adapt to a healthcare system that offers more and more with each passing year, but at great expense. There is a better way to achieve this, but Abbott, Hockey and Co. seem to know only the punitive. What alternatives are there?

Listen to the doctors
This nasty assault on Medicare seems to have ignored the advice of the very people who provide healthcare: the doctors and those who work with them. The Abbott government, in an exercise in arrogant presumptuousness, has declared war on ‘six minute consultations’, which by inference they regard as ‘bad medicine’. Yet doctors with many years of experience assert, correctly, that some GP consultations require only six minutes, or less. How long does it take a doctor who knows the patient very well to check a hypertensive’s blood pressure and renew a script; how long does it take a doctor to review their patients with type 2 diabetes and their medication; how long does it take to check the response of a skin rash to treatment; how long does it take to give an elderly person a flu shot? As anyone who has ever attended a doctor knows, not long.

Of course some consultations need much longer: a new patient; a patient with important new symptoms; the initial visit for pregnancy; the annual health check; counselling of the worried and the mentally disturbed. That’s why there are graded consultation lengths that attract different Medicare rebates. But Abbott thinks he knows better when he makes what he regards as a virtuous move ‘to get rid of six minute medicine’. He would certainly need a consultation longer than six minutes to unravel his disordered thinking about consultation length. If he thinks he can force doctors to spend an extra few minutes with each ‘short consultation’ patient to attract the current Medicare rebate, what is that supposed to achieve medically? Doctors know how long patients need; what makes Abbott think he knows better? Longer consultations would result in fewer patients being seen each day, or doctors working longer, with no additional health benefits.

The president of the AMA, backed by the many thousands of GPs that he represents, is out today imploring Abbott to back off and scrap the proposed changes. Some will see this simply as promoting the self-interest of doctors, and will back Abbott; most will see it for what it is: a plea to Abbott to abandon his ideologically-driven move to punish the less-well-off in pursuit of his budgetary objectives, disregardful of the fallout for healthcare.

Listen, Abbott, Listen.

Go slowly
The Abbott government seems to have no sense of timing. Its bull in a china shop approach is applied to everything it does. The people are not unreasonable. They know that if they want our first class healthcare system to be sustainable, more revenue is needed now and in the long term. They are amenable to gradual solutions, to solutions that do not hit them like a sledgehammer. There is no need for a sledgehammer today or tomorrow; what is needed is long-run change to which the people and the economy can gradually adapt.

Review the Medicare levy
Remember how little protest resulted from a proposed increase in the Medicare levy to fund the NDIS; the people recognised the inadequate deal those with disabilities were receiving.

Then why not implement a gradual increase in the Medicare levy, a progressive tax that does not disproportionately disadvantage lower income earners. Why not increase it progressively, by say a half or a quarter of one percent each year until sufficient money is levied to cover costs. The people are much less concerned about paying more tax if they can see where the tax is going, where they can see the benefits flowing to them. What they resent are sudden tax hikes where the money disappears into a black hole where its use is a mystery, where it is used at the discretion of governments to pursue their ideological objectives.

Review Health Card eligibility
Millionaires with vast assets do not need a Health Card which affords the holder benefits, especially substantial pharmaceutical benefits. Are all holders needful? Could money be saved by restricting benefits to those who really need them?

Prevention is better than cure
This old adage is as true as when it was first uttered. Avoiding illness, especially avoiding hospital care, has been documented over and again as a way to contain and even reduce health care costs. Yet the Abbott government, which is burdened with an anti-science mindset, has reduced funding for preventive care, as if this established approach is a variety of green imposition. Encouraging and facilitating good nutrition, regular exercise, smoking cessation and moderation in alcohol use are all proven measures in maintaining health. The government should be strongly encouraging and properly funding prevention, knowing for certain that this will curtail health costs in the long term. Abbott and Hockey talk a lot about long term sustainability, yet ignore a powerful device for achieving it in healthcare.

Has Abbott the nous of Howard?
In my view, the answer is a resounding NO. His stubbornness in pursuing his ideological imperatives in spite of good advice and public protest has been evident since his election. Think about how he clings tenaciously to his Paid Parental Leave scheme, as if it was his favourite Teddy Bear, in the face of trenchant opposition, even among his own backbench.

Once more, I expect we will see him persist until yet again the Senate throws out another Abbott brain failure. But I suppose miracles are possible still.

What do you think?

Don’t miss out – make sure you also check out the current piece at TPS, ‘And that was . . . 2014‘. At this stage, the new more in-depth weekly pieces at TPS are due to return from January 25th.

Ad astra is a retired academic with years of experience in rural family practice.

Messing with Medicare

A TPS Extra opinion piece by Ad astra originally posted in comments on The Political Sword.

We ought not to be surprised that the federal Coalition is once again messing with Medicare. It was never enamoured of it, and PM Howard would have deleted it if he were able. But being a consummate politician though, with his ear to the ground, he came to realise that it would be political poison to remove or damage an iconic institution that the electorate values and wants to retain. Taxpayers readily pay the Medicare levy; they know what good value they get for their money.

So why is the Abbott government making a play that will diminish Medicare and harm the less-well-off who depend on it for their health care? In my view the reasons given are spurious. The pretence that they must curtail its use and the cost of it for budgetary and sustainability reasons is a facade, behind which lurks their ideological imperatives of user-pays and opposition to welfare and the ‘leaners’ that ‘exploit’ it. They are doing what Howard wanted to do; instead killing Medicare by stealth.

As so far they have failed to get their $7 GP co-payment past the Senate, they are now resorting to ‘back-door’ methods of forcing GPs to accept $5 less for for their consultations, and where they refuse to accept this, to charge that to their patients, a virtual co-payment. They are also changing the length of the consultations that will attract the usual short consultation Medicare rebate from six to ten minutes on the pretext that it will stop or reduce ‘six minute consultations’, which by implication are deemed undesirable. Yet this time interval is all that is needed for many consultations, such as, for example, a blood pressure check and repeat prescription, or an immunisation shot. In other words, the Abbott government is dictating to doctors how long they need to spend with their patients, irrespective of the patient’s needs, an exercise in gross presumptuousness.

There is no need here to furnish the details, which are well documented in a January 14 article by Julia Medew in the SMH. Read all about it there.

What are the implications?

General practice, or family practice as we prefer to call it, is a business. Those who run family practices have the costs of rent, staff and supplies to pay, like all other small businesses. While GPs are not poor, nor are they noticeably wealthy. Few drive expensive cars (take a look at their car parks) or live in mansions. Like all small businesses, when changes to their income stream are arbitrarily imposed upon them, their ability to survive is jeopardised. Wholly bulk-billing practices assert that the proposed changes will force them to charge co-payments or go out of business. The electorate would be wise to listen to what they say, especially those who rely on their services because they can afford no other. These folk will have no other option than to seek care in emergency departments of public hospitals. The consequence of a surge in ER patients are so obvious that they need no elaboration.

What does all this mean for the electorate? The Coalition is messing with Medicare, and attempting to do it by regulation because it can’t persuade the Senate of the merits of its case. Left untrammelled, it will destroy Medicare. Like a cancer, the affects of the government’s moves will multiply, metastasise, and eventually overwhelm the basic structure of this Aussie institution. And all in pursuit of a neoliberal ideology, a user-pays mindset, and the intent to punish Hockey’s ‘leaners’ whom he believes rip-off welfare entitlements. We can only hope that the intent of some senators to disallow this move is successful.

As if it was not inherently hard enough to institute these draconian measures, Abbott appoints Peter Dutton to do the job, a man recently voted by doctors as the worst health minister in 35 years and described as “…the dullest, least innovative and most gullible for swallowing the reforms from his think tank…” . Read the awful details here.

Are there no better solutions to the task of making Medicare sustainable in the long term? Yes. That’s for next time.

What do you think?

Ad astra is a retired academic with years of experience in rural family practice.