The catastrophe of fires and climate change in Tasmania
Richard Flanagan is probably the most famous living Tasmanian, known for his 2014 Booker Prize and his many essays critical of the abuse of power. He was once called “a traitor to Tasmania” in the Tasmanian parliament, and later told by the then premier that he and his writing were “not welcome in the New Tasmania” after he published an essay critical of the culture of the state Labor government of the day.
Yesterday (Feb 5, 2019), Richard published a typically eloquent essay; this time about climate change, government apathy (his sub-title was "those in power laugh at us", referring especially to the current Australian prime minister's highly visible support for coal) and, the terrifying, health-damaging fires in Tasmania, which for the third time in six years (2013, 2016, 2019) are devastating parts of the state. The current one seems the worst, and its health impact will be greatly magnified by smoke inhalation, in an island which already has a high rate of asthma, especially in indigenous children.
My petition and its complications (updated Feb 7)
A few days before Richard's essay was published I started a petition. This calls for the Tasmanian government, led by Liberal premier Will Hodgman, to play a more active role in educating the Tasmanian people about climate change. Although it is now clear, including in Tasmania, that the climate has changed (mainly due to greenhouse gas forcing), there is still time to reduce even worse consequences. In the three decades I have been researching climate change, mainstream politicians, whether socially conservative or left wing, have largely missed the point. Overwhelmingly, they have been indifferent to the arguments made by the environmental movement that adequate environmental resources are necessary for human well-being. We are steadily eroding our environmental buffer, in a process I call "environmental brinkmanship".
I have signed petitions before, but never initiated one. I used a web platform called "Change.org". According to their FAQs I was supposed to be notified via email once my petition became "promotable", presumably when it reached a threshold (as far as I can tell, the number is not stated on their website, but an email received Feb 7 advised that the number was 500 - however, when I discovered they were using my petition as a vehicle to raise money for themselves and their allies the number who signed was less than 300). Even now, (i.e. Feb 7) I have not received such notification, and the number who have signed exceeds 500.
When I accidentally discovered that people who signed this petition were being asked for money I felt deeply embarrassed. I now realise, after reading the fine print, that I could have asked for this fund raising option to be disabled, but not by ticking a box (which would have alerted me to its possibility) but instead by writing to their help section. I believe the box option would be more ethical.
I asked Change.org if they could contact the donors to offer a refund, but they declined, though they stated that they will make a refund if donors contact them. They suggested that I do this by posting an update. I will also try to contact some of the people who gave money; I think I have identified some by capturing their names, and in some cases facebook pics, as they flash past. I hope this update might reach some of them.
Change.org is a profit-seeking company, and they provided a service to me for which I did not pay. But if they made this donation feature more transparent many would still agree; Change.org would still make money.
I am trying to find out what happens to these funds if the donated sum cannot be returned. At the moment, it seems that the funds raised can only be spent on advertising the petition (i.e. all the donated funds go to the company and its allies with whom ads can be placed). If this is correct then I am in a "lose lose" position. That is, I either spend the money on advertising, or the money is lost (and presumably goes to Change.org - I have written to ask them, and will update this blog if I learn more). Either way, I feel the donors have been ripped off and I sincerely apologise.
I have long felt ambivalent about petitions, now I feel distinctly uncomfortable, at least for those on Change.org. This article also expresses concern, while this one sheds more light on their tactics and profitability. Change.org presents itself as an ethical business, and I don't mind if they make a profit. But I don't like the way they currently operate.
If you have read this far, thank you. Please consider signing the petition, but please do not make a donation unless you want to give money to Change.org. If you want to use your hard earned money to bring about change in Tasmania (and don't have time to directly contact a politician or use another method that takes time) then you might consider donating to an independent climate change lobby group such as the Climate Council. Or, you could donate to a charity such as the Red Cross that helps people harmed by fires and other emergencies (including in Tasmania), and which is also aware of how climate change is increasing the risks of disasters.
You might also reflect on this plea by firefighters for us all to take climate change far more seriously. It says, in part: “Having just spent a majority of January supporting firefighting operations in Tasmania and New South Wales, I have seen the exhaustion that firefighters power through to battle increasingly uncontrollable fires, and the fear, anxiety and loss that communities suffer,” he said.