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Australia is on fire, literally — and so are its climate politics –



More than 100 bushfires are raging in Australia as the continent swelters under record-setting heat, a double whammy of extremes that has amplified scrutiny of what experts say is stark inaction from the Australian government on climate change.

Blazes across New South Wales and Queensland have already scorched almost 7 million acres, and Australia experienced its hottest day on record Wednesday when the average temperature across the country hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.9 degrees Celsius).

The nation’s woes are unfolding as Australia faces criticism for its inadequate climate policies, including the role of federal officials in thwarting negotiations at a recent United Nations summit on climate change.

Richie Merzian, director of the climate and energy program at The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that conducts public policy research, called the outcome of the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change a letdown. The summit ended Sunday in a stalemate, with countries largely delaying major decisions on plans to cut carbon emissions until next year’s conference.

“It was terribly disappointing,” Merzian said. “Australia is literally on fire right now, and it’s clearly linked to climate change in terms of its severity and duration. But instead of going there to rally the world behind the need for greater climate action, Australia was lobbying to do as little as possible.”

Seasonal bushfires occur naturally in Australia, but hotter and drier conditions due to climate change have increased the frequency of fires and their severity, according to Andy Pitman, a climate modeler at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“There is an uncontroversial link whereby higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from climate change increase bushfire risk,” Pitman said. “All other things being equal, a fire that occurs now will be worse than a fire that occurred 20 to 30 years ago.”

People view smoke from scattered bush fires on a look out platform in the Blue Mountains on Dec. 4, 2019 in Katoomba, Australia.Brett Hemmings / Getty Images

Trees play an integral role in the planet’s carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow. But research has shown that when vegetation dries out — such as during hot and dry summer months — that increased amount of carbon dioxide acts as extra fuel for wildfires.

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Human activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that trap heat and increase surface temperatures on the planet. A 2018 State of the Climate report from the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology found that the country has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, “leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.”

These heat waves combined with dry conditions are dangerous ingredients for bushfires, Pitman said, with circumstances appearing to be particularly severe at the moment.

“This is unprecedented,” Pitman said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen bushfires at this scale before.”

Bushfires themselves are also problematic because they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Australia’s fires have already emitted an estimated 250 million tons of carbon dioxide — equivalent to nearly half of the nation’s total yearly emissions — according to NASA data provided to The Guardian.

These events have renewed focus on Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, who has refused to answer questions about climate change and their link to the fires. His conservative administration has also faced backlash for its policies and rhetoric surrounding global warming.

In November, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate change concerns are stoked by “raving inner-city lefties,” adding that there have been fires in Australia “since time began.”

Pitman said that while there has been some progress made on the state level, the federal government has displayed a lack of political will to address climate change.

“They almost see it as a negotiating or debating point, and it’s not,” Pitman said. “This is an existential risk to communities and major regions of the planet, and if governments don’t act, then the situation will simply deteriorate.”

Imran Ahmad, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, said the Morrison administration’s stance is symptomatic of Australia’s complex history of climate change policy.

“There is an ideological drive against climate change by certain vested interests,” he said.

Dec. 18, 201900:51

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and the third-largest exporter of fossil fuels, after Russia and Saudi Arabia. Merzian, who worked as a climate negotiator for the Australian government for almost a decade, said these economic ties have shaped the country’s climate policies for decades — and invite international criticism.

“You can’t be the largest exporter of coal, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions when consumed, and not take any responsibility for that,” Merzian said.

In 2012, Australia’s Labor Government introduced a carbon tax that helped the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.4 percent by the end of its second year. But the policy was unpopular, and in 2014, the newly elected government promptly repealed the tax.

“Any new tax is unpopular, but unfortunately by the time it was dismantled, we could see that it was working,” Merzian said. “It was reducing emissions, but it just didn’t have enough momentum to survive quite a strong negative campaign.”

As one of the countries that ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, a global pact aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, Australia will join 187 other countries in pledging to meet its reduction goals next year. Pitman said Australia has much at stake, with fragile ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef under severe threat from warming oceans and the country grappling with bushfires. Still, he added that it’s difficult to be optimistic about the country’s direction on climate change.

“The Great Barrier Reef is a multibillion-dollar asset to Australia, and it’s being sacrificed at the altar of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “It’s really important to understand that decisions that need to be made on carbon emission are politically painful, and there is no one more skilled at avoiding difficult political decisions than politicians.”

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Putnam: The character of our politics – SC Times



When I first considered running for office, many of the people I care about offered their own version of “Why would you want to do something like that?” But my daughter Eliza, who was 13 at the time, said it best: “But Dad, then you’ll have to talk to people, and people suck.” 

She meant politicians. 

Eliza and my friends clearly thought politics was a place for questionable characters. Countering Eliza’s cynicism was a big part of why I ran for office that first time. After being involved in local politics for a couple years, it pains me, but low expectations for politicians are sometimes justified.      

We’ve all heard people lament how our politics have gotten too personal. In some ways I agree, but in others I think we haven’t gotten personal enough. 

I believe politics are about character — but not just expecting a politician not to indulge conflicts of interest or demanding that they keep their word, although clearly we should expect as much. It’s also more than personality. While many folks consider who they’d like to have a beer with before they vote, that’s not the only issue that matters. Character is bigger than professional ethics or likeability.

I believe character is about who we are and who we want to be. Character isn’t about a moment, an individual decision; it’s about the patterns of behavior that define us as individuals or as groups. 

You know my character from how I behave when you’ve been around me. We know our character when we recognize it in our neighbors. Some patterns of choices are better than others. Some are aspirational. Sometimes we make choices that reflect concern for the best of us, the best for us, the best from us.  Character is not about one day, but is reflected in the choices we make every day. 

Recently, questions about the character of our politics and the characters in our politics have taken on a new urgency. Rep. John Thompson was stopped for not having a license plate on the front of his car. According to reports, during the traffic stop, Thompson first made sure to mention that he was an elected official, and then he provided the officer a Wisconsin driver’s license that had been renewed the same month that he was elected to the Minnesota legislature. 

In the aftermath of this traffic stop, as reporters tried to ascertain his legal residence, they discovered repeated allegations that Thompson had committed domestic violence.    

I don’t know Thompson personally, and I haven’t really worked with him in the legislature. He’s in the House, I’m in the Senate. That doesn’t really matter, though. I still find his pattern of alleged behavior to be abhorrent. It’s not good enough for an elected official. He does not deserve to serve.     

This issue is not about a particular ideology or politics. It’s about an individual accused of repeated moments of unacceptable behavior, habits that come together to demonstrate character that simply isn’t good enough. We need to expect more from our politics.

This doesn’t mean that we should expect our politicians to be exactly like us, to have exactly the same values we have on every issue or never to make mistakes. But I do believe we need to hold them to a higher standard. Public service is about service. That’s the foundation, and it should be assumed that those who run for elected office have hearts of servants and habits of them too.

Next time you write to an elected official, don’t be surprised when they write you back. Demand it. If they answer you with talking points, tell them that’s not good enough and they need to think for themselves just like you do. If you have high expectations and they fail to meet them, well, then it’s your turn. Run for office.  

Of course voting is important too. I’m not a big fan of participation trophies, in sports or in politics. Voting for or against someone just because of their party identification is setting the bar way too low. Our character is constituted in the decisions we make. We need to have higher expectations when we make those decisions. It’s not good enough to say someone else doesn’t do this work well. We all need to do it better.

Politicians needn’t be role models. Parents are best at that job. But we do need people in office who can be trusted, who show up and put work into listening, who finish what they start, who recognize the dignity of all people not just because that’s what’s useful, but because that’s who we want to be.

— Sen. Aric Putnam, a Democrat, represents Minnesota Senate District 14. His column is published monthly. 

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Germans divided over restrictions for the unvaccinated – Associated Press



BERLIN (AP) — German politicians were deeply divided Sunday over a warning by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff that restrictions for unvaccinated people may be necessary if COVID-19 infection numbers reach new heights in the coming months.

Chief of staff Helge Braun told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that he doesn’t expect another coronavirus-related lockdown in Germany. But Braun said that unvaccinated people may be barred from entering venues like restaurants, movie theaters or sports stadiums “because the residual risk is too high.”

Braun said getting vaccinated is important to protect against severe disease and because “vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people.” He said such policies would be legal because “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens.”

His comments fueled a debate in German politics about potential vaccination requirements. The issue has proven divisive, even within Merkel’s own Christian Democrats party. Its candidate to replace Merkel as Germany’s leader, Armin Laschet, said he opposes any formal or informal vaccine requirements for the time being.

“I don’t believe in compulsory vaccinations and I don’t believe we should put indirect pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told the German broadcaster ZDF on Sunday. “In a free country there are rights to freedom, not just for specific groups.”

If Germany’s vaccination rates remain too low this fall, other options could be considered, Laschet said, adding “but not now.”

With the highly transmissible delta variant spreading in Germany, politicians have debated the possibility of compulsory vaccinations for specific professions, including medical workers. No such requirements have been implemented yet.

Germany’s vaccine efforts have slowed in recent weeks and that has led to discussions about how to encourage those who haven’t yet received a vaccine to do so. More than 60% of the German population has received at least one dose while over 49% are fully vaccinated.

During a recent visit to the Robert Koch Institute, the government run disease control agency, Merkel ruled out new vaccine requirements “at the moment,” but added, “I’m not ruling out that this might be talked about differently in a few months either.”

Other elected officials have struck a similar tone. Baden-Württemberg governor Winfried Kretschmann, a member of the Greens, noted Sunday that the delta variant and others that may emerge could make vaccine requirements more attractive down the line.

While there are no current plans to require people to get vaccinated, he told the German news agency dpa that “I can’t rule out compulsory vaccinations for all time.”

Karl Lauterbach, a health expert from the center-left Social Democrats, spoke in favor of possible restrictions. He told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that soon one of the only remaining options to fight new variants will be “to restrict access to spaces where many people come together” to those who have either been vaccinated or recovered from the virus.

Others immediately pushed back against Braun’s comments on Sunday. Some expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of such restrictions, while others warned against having rights based on one’s vaccination status.

“Of course, we need incentives to reach the highest possible vaccination rate,” Marco Buschmann, parliamentary group leader for the pro-business Free Democrats, told the RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group.

Still, he said, if unvaccinated people who have been tested or recovered from the virus pose no greater danger than vaccinated people, to impose such restrictions on the unvaccinated “would be a violation of their basic rights.”

Rolf Mützenich, head of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, said politicians should be focusing more on getting willing citizens vaccinated than penalizing the unvaccinated.

“We’re not going to sustainably change the vaccination behavior of individuals with threats,” he told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland.


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Caballeros are right to stay out of politics – Santa Fe New Mexican



My compliments and support for the recent decision of the Caballeros de Vargas to abstain from local politics.

I am an Anglo and not a Roman Catholic, but consider Santa Fe my home, my community. It is where I feel a connection with the Earth, with fellow human beings, with life itself. Compassion, respect, coexistence, hospitality to the stranger; these are all values that I see as a part of the history of the Santa Fe community. I see these values being reflected in how the Caballeros honor La Conquistadora, Our Lady of Peace, the Virgin Mary statue so central to the city’s history.

I used to feel that one did not need to be a Hispanic Catholic of Santa Fe heritage to be a contributing member of the community, as long as you recognized and supported these values. Unfortunately, the last several years I have seen communications by, and received from, members of the community that made me feel that not being of “Spanish” heritage in New Mexico, I was not welcomed in the community. I thought there was a rich, historic heritage of different opinions being welcomed here, to be civilly debated, as long as the focus was on what was best for the community, the people, the land. One’s history and experiences give each of us a different perspective. It is that blend of views and ideas that can generate healthy change, while preserving these historic values of the community.

The history of La Conquistadora and of Don Diego de Vargas should not be forgotten. But history is messy and complicated, a reflection of human life. Mistakes, errors in judgment, happen. New knowledge of the past is learned. But, if the focus is on reverence of life and support of the community, no matter if community is defined locally or worldwide, then one’s actions should be respected.

Fiesta de Santa Fe, and the role of Los Caballeros in it, is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse history of Santa Fe. All of the history, good and bad. A time to give thanks for life, for harvest, for family, for my fellow citizens, my fellow human beings. Making it exclusive to only certain people does not reflect the values being celebrated.

La Conquistadora, Our Lady of Peace, may not be part of my personal faith or cultural heritage. But her values have captured my heart. I will always honor her and those who reflect the community values I feel she represents. I am glad the Caballeros will continue to honor and reflect those values and have chosen to not become part of the current visceral and vindictive local politics.

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