Environmental policy came from the side of the angels

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Lynton Caldwell, NEPA and the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

By Peter Burnett

When did the age of modern environmental policy begin? Some claim it kicked off with the publication of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) in 1987. This landmark document defined the notion of ‘sustainable development’ and stressed the need for integrating economic, social and environmental approaches. Others suggest 1972 is more appropriate as it was the year of the Stockholm Conference and the establishment of Environment departments in many countries around the world.

But I’m going to suggest to you that 1969 and drafting of the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is really when environmental policy began, and it owes much to a visionary political scientist named Professor Lynton Caldwell. And it’s not just that Caldwell was astute enough to understand what effective environmental policy needed, he was also canny enough to know when to make his pitch.

NEPA is famous for introducing the world to the concept of environmental impact assessment (EIA), a mechanism now used in almost every country. But NEPA stands for so much more.

Interdisciplinarity

Its antecedents lie in Caldwell’s earlier work. In 1963 he published an article entitled ‘Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?’ 1963! That’s only a year after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book often regarded as having launched the modern environment movement.

In his article, Caldwell argues for, and thus invents, ‘environmental policy’. He calls for, among other things, an interdisciplinary approach to this new creature. Caldwell was a Professor of Government at Indiana University and he practised what he preached. He embarked on a course of interdisciplinary training and started hanging around with ecologists. (In 1963, ecology was still a relatively small discipline.) These days, interdisciplinarity is a much lauded goal (if little practiced) but back then it was a very brave undertaking.

In 1964 Caldwell began to operationalise his ideas by presenting them to a workshop for economic planners. Brave again. Not surprisingly, most of them were, as Caldwell later reminisced, ‘baffled’ by his argument and most of them rejected it as irrelevant. That’s except for one now world famous economist, Abraham Maslow (of ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ fame). Maslow understood what Caldwell was advocating. He later offered Caldwell constructive suggestions, declaring Caldwell to be ‘on the side of the angels’.

The time was ripe

By the late 1960s a wave of environmental concern was sweeping the Western World, particularly in America. Some major environmental disasters contributed to this. In 1969 and in America alone, the Santa Barbara oil spill despoiled the California coastline while on the other side of the country the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it actually caught fire.

Various members of Congress responded by proposing environmental laws. Public opinion was galvanised.

Against this backdrop, one of the leading proponents of reform in Congress, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, hired Caldwell to help with Jackson’s environmental Bill. Initially, Caldwell wrote a report for a Congressional committee on what a national environmental policy might be.

He later wrote that he anticipated the need for ‘action forcing provisions such as impact statements’ to support a national policy statement. But Caldwell held back as he suspected Senator Jackson ‘did not appear ready to endorse so novel and intrusive a proposition’.

Later, however, in appearing before the committee, Caldwell was able to make his arguments for his action forcing provisions and they were then included in the compromise bill. That bill became the NEPA. Caldwell had bided his time and ‘threw his pebble’ (to borrow a term from one of our earlier blogs) when he perceived it would have maximum impact.

A remarkable piece of legislation

NEPA itself is a remarkable piece of legislation. Its statement of environmental policy goals is visionary. It talks about the need for a global approach three years before the world first met to talk about a global approach, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972.

The legislation talks about each generation being trustees of the environment for future generations and sharing life’s amenities – this was 18 years before the Brundtland Report proposed the concepts of sustainable development and intergenerational equity.

It refers to maintaining the diversity if life just 12 months after Dasmann first wrote of biological diversity and 20 years before Lovejoy coined the term ‘biodiversity’.

And NEPA required the preparation of state of the environment reports (as ‘environmental quality reports’), 10 years before the OECD produced one and called on its members to do likewise. NEPA sought to drive policy integration 10 years before the OECD began to promote the same concept.

Ahead of its time?

Unfortunately most of the enormous potential of NEPA was not realised. True, it brought environmental impact assessment, EIA, to the world. But Caldwell, Jackson and the others behind NEPA had a much bigger vision than EIA.

If NEPA had been applied as an ordinary reading of its words would suggest, all US government agencies would have brought their decisions in line with a long-term policy vision directed to avoiding environmental degradation, and these decisions would have been supported by comprehensive information and research facilitated by a new institution, the Council of Environmental Quality. These things did not happen because government agencies were antagonistic and the US Supreme Court read the law down to a set of procedural requirements.

Caldwell’s vision and achievements, which would have been much greater if others had not been working against them, are not widely known. And to top it off, he was a registered Republican voter, working for a Democrat: if only environment was the bipartisan issue today that it was then.

Image: Lynton Caldwell enjoying the great outdoors. Indiana University Archives

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

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Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in the developing countries. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Environmental FoIs & the ‘decision-making onion’

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Reasons behind an environmental decision are often concealed beneath layers of government process.

By Peter Burnett

Why is it that despite reforms to federal Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, it seems it’s getting more and more difficult to get information out of government on the reasons behind decisions about the environment? These reforms, by the way, declare that embarrassment, loss of confidence in government and public confusion are irrelevant to decisions about whether to release documents. And yet the reforms don’t seem to have helped much.

Where officials might once have claimed substantive exemptions to release, based on grounds like confidentiality, now governments starve FoI processes of funding so that requests are more likely to be strangled by delay or blocked under an exemption based on the request involving an unreasonable diversion of the agency’s resources. Requests are also constricted by charging fees.

Information hidden in layers

Issues of exemptions, delays and fees aside, there can be a question of where to look for pertinent information. Sometimes substantive information is concealed (not necessarily deliberately) under layers of government process. The example that comes to mind is that of decisions concerning the approval or refusal of development projects, following environmental impact assessment (EIA). In the example these decisions are made under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

Say you want to know why a minister has approved a controversial project. It’s like an onion: you will have to peel back the layers of advice and deliberation to get to the heart of the matter.

First, there’s the environmental impact statement. You would think this would be a public document, but it’s only public for a limited time, when it is published for public comment. After that you’ll have to make an FoI application. In any event, because it is prepared by the proponent it will tell you about the project but it won’t contain any ministerial thinking. Let’s call this layer 1.

Then there’s the environment department’s ‘recommendation report’, their statutory advice to the minister on whether the development should be approved and, if so, on what conditions (this is layer 2). This is available on application, under the EPBC Act rather than under FoI, although the department can still claim some FoI-style exemptions. Assume however that you’ll get it. As it’s a legal document, it will be couched in formal and evidence-based terms. It will tell you more, but it’s probably not the whole story.

Then there’s the department’s ‘covering brief’ (layer 3) to which the statutory documents are attached. While the brief might blandly transmit the recommendation report and other decisional documents to the minister, equally it might get more directly to the nub of the issue than the recommendation report, and better reveal the ‘flavour’ of the department’s advice. The brief will be available under FoI, subject to the usual exemptions and processes, but a separate application will be needed.

The next layer (number 4) might be advice from a political adviser in the minister’s office. Advisers are not officials, not bound by public service rules or ethics. This advice might be oral or written. If it’s written, it’s still subject to FoI, but in practice it probably won’t be available because often takes an ephemeral form, such as a ‘sticky note’, which might be discarded once the decision is made and the documents returned to departmental custody.

Invisible and hidden layers

The Minister might also meet with the department to discuss its advice. While officials may make a record of the meeting (number 5), such records are often bland: a minister may probe departmental advice, but even if that probing reveals the minister’s political thinking, officials may think that it is not their business to record political comments or inferences.

The minister may also discuss the issue with proponents, lobbyists or other political players, many of whom pride themselves on working invisibly behind the scenes. Such discussions are not likely to be recorded in detail.

There is another process for obtaining reasons (behind decisions), but it doesn’t seem to yield much. Under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act (ADJR Act), a person aggrieved by a decision can ask for a formal statement of reasons. The idea is to elicit enough detail about a decision to help the person get legal advice on a legal challenge. The problem is that ministers get government lawyers to draw-up these statements, so they become legally-justifying rather than records of actual thinking. These ‘section 13’ statements are likely to tell you that the minister had regard to all the considerations laid down in the Act and then balanced them carefully in the exercise of discretion. Unless someone’s made a legal mistake in the decision process, it can be a story of ‘move along, nothing to see here’.

Why not just ask?

Rather than wade through FoI processes, there’s always the option of asking. A journalist for example might ask about the reasons for a decision. Politicians of course are legendary for not answering questions.

Another channel for asking is for Senators to ask questions in Estimates Committees. These questions are usually answered by public servants. You could be forgiven for expecting public servants, with their statutory duties of honesty and integrity, and their mantra of ‘frank-and-fearless’ advice, to be straight-shooters. However, in public forums they often aren’t, at least not in response to ‘advice’ questions. This is because public servants ‘advise’ government on policy, but usually do not ‘advise’ other parties.

My experience in Senate Estimates Committee hearings was one of public servants (including myself) answering questions directly, but literally and without elaboration, thereby meeting legal and ethical obligations, but sometimes frustrating Senators who were, in effect, asking for or about advice. Sometimes Senators don’t ask quite the right question, but if they do, the answer might be that the public servant can’t answer because it’s a question about advice!

At the end of the day, you can trust public servants, but they often won’t be much help on the most important questions: the information is concealed by the nature of their duties.

The decision onion

So there you have it. If you try to peel all the layers of the ‘decision onion’, the outer layers will come away easily enough, if slowly, and won’t tell you much. But the inner layers are resistant to removal. Advice from advisers is likely to be ephemeral. Discussions between Ministers and lobbyists or colleagues probably won’t be recorded in detail. An ADJR statement of reasons will be formal and unlikely to offer any real insight. And Estimates hearings won’t reveal advice.

But if you want to know what really was really driving a controversial decision, official processes probably aren’t the way to find out. Perhaps the story will come out years later in a political ‘tell all’ book.

Image by Chris Stermitz from Pixabay

If science is the answer, what was the question again?

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THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.

Making better sense of Australia’s Environmental Impact Assessment

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Surely we can put an end to overlap and duplication

By Peter Burnett

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a cornerstone of our system for protecting environmental values in Australia. A long standing problem with the EIA process has been the need to do them to meet both state and federal requirements.

You wouldn’t think that eliminating duplication and overlap between federal and state EIA processes (without compromising environmental outcomes) would be that hard. And yet so it has proven to be.

To date, there have been four attempts to address this issue, on each occasion by creating a mechanism under which the Commonwealth could accredit state EIA processes. Success has been limited and, with an election coming on, some are returning to this rather muddy policy watering hole. The Minerals Council of Australia, a major industry stakeholder, has renewed its call for more progress in this area, while Labor on the other hand recently ruled accreditation out, though it remains in favour of efficient regulation.

Surely there’s a solution here? To appreciate how difficult the issue is, consider what has gone before.

A short history of the fight to end duplication

Prime Minister Hawke was the first to put this topic on the agenda. He raised it as part of his 1990 ‘New Federalism’ push. The overarching theme was efficiency, and removing duplication in EIA was one way to achieve it.

The main result was an accreditation mechanism in the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE, 1992). Unfortunately, attempts by several states to gain accreditation came to nought. This can be put down in part to the fact that Hawke had been replaced as Prime Minister by Paul Keating, and Keating wasn’t a great fan of cooperative federalism.

Next up it was Robert Hill, Environment Minister in the first Howard Government. He went one step further than the IGAE and included provision for accreditation in Australia’s new national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

There were two types of statutory agreement, one for accreditation of environmental impact assessment processes (‘assessment bilaterals’) and another for accreditation of state final decisions on development proposals (‘approval bilaterals’). With an assessment bilateral, there is only one EIA but still two decision-makers, one federal and one state. Only an approvals bilateral gets it down to a single process and a single (state) decision-maker. Despite the availability of a statutory process, agreement proved difficult and although some assessment bilaterals were negotiated in the early 2000s, approvals bilaterals proved a bridge too far.

The Gillard government was the next to take on the challenge, this time under the title of a ‘Seamless National Economy’ program. However, Prime Minister Gillard pulled the plug on negotiations, on the basis that the result of accrediting different state systems would be to ‘create the regulatory equivalent of a Dalmatian dog’.

Finally, the Abbott Government pursued a ‘one-stop-shop’ initiative to accredit the states. It managed to negotiate assessment bilaterals with every state, a modest achievement, but the holy grail of approvals bilaterals fell by the wayside when the Government discovered that it needed some minor tweaks to the EPBC Act to make accreditation work smoothly. Environment groups were successful in persuading several cross-benchers about the risks of environmental standards slipping, and the Government allowed its amendment Bill to lapse with the 2016 election, without calling on a final vote.

Is it worth another try?

Why is doing this so hard?

The first problem is partly that environment is a shared federal and state responsibility. Even though land management is primarily a state responsibility, the feds were actually on the scene first, with the Whitlam Government passing Australia’s first EIA law in 1974. The feds have been there ever since and I can’t see them vacating the field in favour of the states.

Nor can I see a solution in amending the Constitution. The Hawke Government looked at this in 1989 but, in contrast to some non-environmental Constitutional proposals it had taken to referendum, abandoned the idea without taking it to the people. Giving all the power to one level of government seems to be going too far, yet this is cake that resists the cutting knife.

The second problem is that decisions to approve (or not) development proposals like mines are discretionary. While an approvals bilateral under the EPBC Act could protect against egregious decisions (eg a development likely to cause an extinction), it’s much harder to write an agreement that would stop a pro-development state minister from simply ‘going easy’ on a developer by imposing weak conditions. Standards might be maintained on paper, but accreditation might exacerbate the existing weakness of EIA, the so-called ‘death of a thousand cuts’, by making each of those cuts a little larger.

This leaves the option of going around the problem. If we can’t solve it by accreditation, what about a completely different approach? If there are two objectives, reducing duplication while protecting the environment to a high standard, I think there are only two approaches that can work.

Environmental planning

The first is environmental planning, which involves getting ahead of the game and working out, comprehensively, where development can and can’t occur and under what conditions. If environmental planning is done well, approving particular developments can become quite straightforward. Trouble is, it’s expensive and may also be politically unpalatable because it can bring on all your development disputes at once, as the planners start consulting society about various possibilities, some of which may otherwise never have arisen.

The second is a very detailed set of rules, for example a rule prohibiting development in areas of critical habitat for threatened species. A major problem with this approach is that you either have to identify sensitivities such as critical habitat in advance (which starts to look like environmental planning) or identify them during assessment, which could weigh individual assessments down with some expensive and time consuming extra work, thus failing the test of efficiency.

The solution? If there were an easy option, governments would have taken it long ago. My own view is that we have to bite the bullet and do environmental planning. It would cost, but if done well (which has to include doing the consultation well) I think the investment would pay long term dividends, both environmental and economic. Trouble is, modern governments are very focused on the short-term and tend to give short shrift to long term propositions. The solution is there, but don’t hold your breath.

[Image by Sumanley xulx from Pixabay]

Throwing pebbles and making waves

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Timing is important when to comes to bringing down dams

By David Salt

Sometimes you throw a pebble into a dam, it creates a ripple, and then disappears without a trace. Sometimes, however, you throw a pebble, and the ripple it creates forms a wave that grows and grows, sweeping away the status quo.

Sometimes the wave from a well-timed throw of a pebble can change the world. Consider the rise of environmentalism in Australia. There are many stories about people and campaigns which sought to save some precious piece of the Australian environment. One of the highest profile of these was the campaign to save the Gordon River in Tasmania.

This was a battle to stop a ‘wild’ river from being dammed for hydro-electricy. It was a case of economic development vs wilderness but it also tapped into a number of other tensions as well – state rights vs international obligations, jobs vs the intrinsic value of nature. However, this was not the first time this battle had been fought in Australia (it wasn’t even a first for Tasmania). In the years prior to the battle for the Gordon River another high profile battle had been waged over the pristine Lake Pedder.

Paradise drowned

Lake Pedder was a beautiful and remote mountain lake in remote south west Tasmania. It was formed about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age and was known for its unique brilliant white and pink quartzite beaches. And by remote I mean it was extremely difficult get to and was only really enjoyed by a few hardy bushwalkers. It was also in a region targeted by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission for hydro development; in other words, damming mountain valleys for water storage for hydro energy production.

The fight to save Lake Pedder raged for years but it was ultimately lost in the early 1970s; even though the Federal Government had promised to compensate the Tasmanian government for any economic losses if it stopped the project (an offer turned down by the Tasmanian state government).

It was the flooding of Lake Pedder that saw the birth of the United Tasmania Group – the first Green political party in the world. Despite the protests and demonstrations, more than 240 square kilometres of Tasmania’s wilderness were drowned and the original lake is now 20 metres underwater.

Lake Pedder was lost, and looking back from the vantage point of 2019 it seems unbelievable that such a unique environmental asset was destroyed on the altar of economic development (and that loss occurred with Australian governments flaunting their national and international responsibilities). But times were different back then.

Sea change

However, the Lake Pedder campaign led to sea change in the broader Australian community, a sensitization to environmental values, and it was during this period (the 1980s) that the campaign to stop the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam took off.

It was the same contest of values at play but the actors in this drama this time around threw pebbles that had resonance with the broader community.

As we now know, the battle to save the Gordon River was won and it was never dammed. But possibly just as important was that this campaign was the genesis of the political party the Greens, and an environmental movement that saw that community resistance could sway government intent. The Greens were led by one of the head pebble throwers, Bob Brown, who remained its leader for several turbulent decades.

For the times they are a changing

Throwing pebbles of dissent made no difference for Lake Pedder. It was lost. The times weren’t favourable. But that campaign helped energise public resistance against further economic development (that failed to balance environmental concerns) and a subsequent campaign generated a wave of dissent that actually made a big difference. And that difference marked a turning point for the environment movement in Australia.

Which actually begs the question: Is it the pebble or the timing of the throw that matters? In other words, if the times are right, ripe for change, then any pebble will do. However, if the times are not right, then it doesn’t matter who throws the pebble or how well they throw.

The FDR Gambit

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Making a difference (through environmental policy) without rocking the boat

By Peter Burnett

Our environment is in serious decline and our policy response is seriously inadequate. We need to act but, short of a serious crisis, it’s difficult to see what might cause our leaders to take action proportionate to the problem. The major parties are reluctant to move ahead of public opinion and even if there were a crisis and public opinion shifted quickly, would we be prepared to respond?

The efforts of US President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) to prepare his country for World War II, a ‘foreign’ or ‘European’ war of which most Americans wanted no part (before Pearl Harbour), suggest there is much that governments could do, even when determined not to rock the political boat.

One researcher, Andrew Macintosh, has noted that governments seem to be willing to deal with certain environmental problems (such as pollution or over-consumption of natural resources), but not others (such as climate change or biodiversity conservation). As a result, Macintosh has proposed some useful rules of thumb about the political limitations on what governments will or won’t tackle in our current policy climate.

First up, most governments only adopt environmental policy that offers some clear short term benefits, such as better health and amenity from reduced air pollution, or keeping a fishery going. These short-term benefits make it politically worthwhile to accept some limited costs.

Beyond these cases, Macintosh argues that governments are only prepared to take real action on environmental problems within boundaries defined by three rules of thumb: avoid significant budgetary costs, avoid significant impacts on economic growth and avoid significant conflict with vested interests.

The policy straight-jacket

That’s a useful heuristic to keep in mind for anyone proposing policy action on the environment.

First, does the policy have a significant impact on the budget? Increasing the environment budget to any noticeable degree will either require savings, and the attendant political pain, in other budget areas, or increasing the size of the budget overall, which will often be seen as putting a drag on the economy.

Second, does the policy slow economic growth? Economic growth has been the mantra of all western governments pretty much since the end of the World War II, when they first pursued growth as a way of giving everyone a job as the world returned to peace. This will often rule out measures such as environmental taxes and pricing (even though economic theory shows that proper environmental pricing will grow the economic pie in the long run, by reducing ‘spillovers’ from the economy onto the environment).

And third, does the policy cause significant conflict with vested interests? If it does, those interests may change their votes or influence others to do so. The 2010 campaign by the mining industry against the proposed mining tax in Australia is an example par excellence of how effective some interests can be when they feel threatened.

Presidential nous

Despite the policy straight-jacket these rules create, I’d like to argue that there is still some scope for significant policy action, without courting defeat at the next election. FDR took some very effective policy action as World War II loomed over his country, despite very strong isolationist sentiment among the public.

FDR acknowledged this sentiment by making and maintaining a pledge that ‘your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’ At the same time, he managed to provide considerable support to America’s soon-to-be allies, while also preparing America itself for war. He worked with the British to plan for war. He persuaded the Congress to pass a law that enabled America to become the ‘arsenal of democracy’, on the argument that giving him the discretion to make foreign military sales would help to keep the US out of the war! He also moved to expand and re-equip America’s own armed forces.

Admittedly FDR’s strategy involved some secrecy and deception, something I am not advocating here. Yet his efforts show just how much can be achieved within major policy constraints.

Getting on with the job

Taking a lesson from FDR, a government determined to address environmental degradation as far as possible might, without breaking Macintosh’s rules of thumb:

  • Engage in ongoing social dialogue to build broad support for stronger action. The Climate Commission, created under the Gillard Government’s 2011 Clean Energy Future package, to provide authoritative information to the community on climate change, including at ‘town hall’ style meetings, provides an example of how this might be done.
  • Review existing policy comprehensively, redirecting resources as necessary. This exercise might involve two stages. The first would be to adopt an overarching goal for environmental policy, eg to maintain ecological function. The second would be to redirect existing environment spending to the programs most likely to advance that goal. For example, this might result in resources being redirected into research on ecosystem restoration.
  • Establish a comprehensive and coherent environmental information policy optimised to support policy-relevant decision-making, for example by establishing environmental accounts based on the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), prioritising the population of accounts for key ecological functions and processes.
  • Increase environmental diplomacy, to promote international agreement and build capacity for quick action when attitudes change.
  • Establish or reform institutions such as an Environmental Protection Agency, to enhance expertise, transparency, continuity and accountability in environmental decision-making.
  • Renegotiate federal–state cooperation under a new Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment to improve the efficiency of overlapping responsibilities.
  • Negotiate reforms with business to exchange improved efficiency for improved environmental outcomes – for example, business might accept a stricter environmental offsets policy in return for decisions that are quicker and more predicable.

Let’s get on with it

While such measures might seem incremental, their combined effect could be considerable, as present policies often lack clear goal clarity and consistency. If a government thought such an approach a little too mild, it could always take a further leaf from FDR’s book and push the boundaries a little further!

Hopefully, it won’t take a Pearl Harbour moment (an environmental disaster) because, with better environmental information and communication, public opinion will change as evidence mounts that the risks arising from environment degradation are ever-increasing.

But, either way, we can still do a lot better in the meantime without rocking the political boat.

Duelling scientists at 10 paces

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When it comes to ecosystem collapse, will ‘my’ scientist say something that overshadows what ‘your’ scientist says? If the game of science is played according to its own rules, probably not. Unlike the game of politics, in science evidence is king.

By David Salt

When the environmental chips are down, who do you turn to? When an environmental crisis can’t be denied or ignored, who do you call?

For many politicians, the call is put out for scientists who can provide some expert advice that might help. At the very least, it gives the pollies something to say, it delays a difficult decision and sometimes pushes the problem far enough down the road till the issue-attention cycle has cooled (or it’s past the next election).

Smells fishy

So it was last month when millions of dead fish began bobbing to the surface along the Darling, one of Australia’s great river systems. The stench was horrid and the pictures graphic. Locals were disgusted and made videos accusing river managers, political leaders and irrigators of incompetence, corruption and malfeasance. Where lay the truth?

Everyone had an excuse – ‘it was the drought’s fault!’ was one of the most common invocations – but the disgust of the local community and the graphic imagery flooding the news media swamped all protestations and the pollies were looking for something to hide behind.

Who do you call? An expert scientific committee, of course. They’ll give us sage, technocratic advice couched in big words and heaps of caveats that will allow the pollies responsible for this area to escape immediate responsibility. So far, so normal.

Two reviews are better than none

But this story, the case of the mass fish kills at Menindee, has a few novel edges to it. For starters, it wasn’t the government who asked for an expert review, it was the opposition party. And they didn’t choose the reviewers. Instead they asked Australia’s scientific brain’s trust – the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) – to select an independent panel and provide feedback in weeks.

The Government’s response? First they disparaged the AAS accusing it of being too close to the opposition party, and then they set up their own scientific enquiry (“a fair dinkum independent panel”) to provide another independent scientific review that would deliver its interim findings days after the AAS review.

So, here we have two ‘duelling’ science reviews studying the same environmental disaster, releasing ‘competing’ reviews in days of each other; one for the government, one for the opposition. Such a ‘contest’ is in many ways farcical and potentially damaging to the brand value of science.

Or is it? Truth to tell, the game of science is not the game of politicians. Politicians play to win elections (to gain power). They’ll promise anything they can get away with, often shirk the hard decisions that upset their biggest donors, and bend the truth as far the system will allow (and often further). They are kept in line by voter awareness and the many checks and balances that the democratic system has built around their power (though the pollies always appear to be watering down these constraints).

The game of science

The game of science is based on the collection of evidence, and the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. Scientists are kept in line by peer review, transparency and accountability.

Which is why I parenthesised ‘duelling’, ‘competing’ and ‘contest’ in the above description. Because while the Government clearly intended its independent review to overshadow the opposition’s independent review, that’s not how the eminent scientists who undertook the review saw it. They saw it as an opportunity to review the facts, to collect the evidence and throw a little light on an epic environmental disaster.

And, because the institution of science is relatively strong in Australia (if poorly resourced in the environment sector), the resulting reports (just released) made strong statements about deficiencies in management that were, for the most part, in agreement and complementary with each other.

The Australian Academy of Science’s report, Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019, found that: There isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.

The second report, commissioned by the Government, Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the Lower Darling, found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions… amplified by climate change.

Both reports said there had been inadequate scientific monitoring and a lamentable lack of consultation with the local communities on the Darling River over time. As the AAS report put it: “engagement with local residents, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, has been cursory at best, resulting in insufficient use of their knowledge and engagement around how the system is best managed.”

The evidence is in

In this short space it’s impossible to dissect the full set of causes (and solutions) of the eco catastrophe that the mass fish kills at Menindee has become. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that adverse weather, climate change, mismanagement, poor governance, greed and corruption have all played a role. It’s a complex, richly layered story that spreads out over multiple scales of time and space.

Politics will always look for simple solutions when disaster strikes, and politicians will often claim they have the silver bullet to slay the problem beast that has emerged. But complex environmental problems rarely have simple solutions (and silver bullets are but a myth). Good science usually points this out, though whether that results in better policy depends on many factors.

In this particular case, both sides of politics sought to use science as a political weapon. And both resulting reviews have concluded it was a lack of science in the first place that led to such a horrific environmental outcome.

The BIG fix

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Why can’t we just fix the environment?

By Peter Burnett

Environmental experts tell us that there are big problems with the environment. Increasingly, our own senses are telling us this too (consider this past year and recent summers). Yet, although we talk about it all the time and governments make announcements, things just get worse. Why can’t we just fix it, once and for all?

There are many reasons why we don’t come up with a big fix. Environmental decline is a complex problem operating at different scales and involving many uncertainties and unknowns. Often we are not sure what needs to be done. How do you restore a degraded landscape for example?

Overspending our natural income

But most of the problem is us. We are consuming nature faster than it can renew itself. We are like a family with a large inheritance (ie nature) in the bank, living off the interest. Except that we don’t. We are over-spending our ‘natural income’, using up nature faster than it can renew itself and making up for it by drawing down the inheritance instead, the ‘natural capital’. If we keep doing this, there won’t be enough nature left for future generations: it’s their inheritance too.

But going back to living off our natural income means not just tightening our belts as individuals or countries, but settling all the ‘family squabbles’ between countries about a fair sharing of the belt-tightening. And paying back our environmental debt, replacing the natural capital we shouldn’t have consumed, eg by going beyond reductions in carbon emissions, and actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

So it’s difficult scientifically and it’s difficult socially. The environment is not called a ‘wicked problem’ for nothing! Despite this, there are some things we could do relatively easily. We waste a lot of stuff, eg food. And technology can help us do more with less – eg, renewable energy. But even these ‘low-hanging fruit’ aren’t as easy to pick as it might seem because any change, even positive change, creates winners and losers.

It’s a moving target and we are ‘predictably irrational’

Even if we could pick these low-hanging fruit, by themselves they aren’t enough. New technology and more efficiency will not bring the Earth System back into a safe operating space. The Earth’s population is growing, and so are standards of living, which usually means consuming more. We will still need to take some hard decisions, with far-reaching consequences.

For some on the political Right this raises a spectre of ‘big government’, even ‘world government’. But many others among us are wary too, not because of ideologies about big government but for practical reasons. We don’t like tough decisions. They hit our ‘hip pocket nerve’ and deflate our ingrained expectations of ‘progress’, the sense that our quality of life will always improve.

This is why many of us take the irrational position that we want the environment fixed, but at someone else’s cost. A recent article in The Economist summed this phenomenon up well: ‘Few people like change, even when they have voted for it, and those touched the most like it the least.’ And they weren’t even talking about the environment! Countries think like this too. No-one likes to slip back down the greasy pole.

The environment and the issue-attention cycle

One theorist, Anthony Downs, offered an early explanation as to why we avoid major change as a solution to environmental (and other) problems. He called his article ‘Up and Down with Ecology: the “issue-attention cycle”. He discussed this idea back in the early 1970s and you can probably guess the drift of this argument.

The cycle goes like this: When we first become aware of a major problem like the environment we are alarmed, and then enthusiastically demand action. Sometimes, and the environment is an example of this, we expect a technological solution. Then, as we realise over time how difficult and expensive it is to solve the problem, we lose interest, some because they feel threatened by it, while others become bored or inured.

The reasons may differ, but people are united in not wanting to confront the need for major social change. Other issues emerge (health, immigration, education etc) and the caravan moves on, although even in 1972 Downs thought this would occur more slowly with the environment because of the significance and impact of environmental issues.

Mainstream economics, which underpins most mainstream policy, reinforces our instinctive reactions with its ‘Pareto efficiency’ benchmark. That is based on the idea of making people as well off as possible, without making anyone else worse off (or at least compensating them if they are). It’s a ‘no disadvantage’ test.

Unfortunately, with the environment being a problem of a collective overdrawing of nature’s bank account, there’s no way we could apply such a test. It’s not a matter of compensating a few losers at the margins.

Get real

In fact, we’ve all been winners to varying degrees but between us we’ve consumed the winnings. To fix the problem properly, we’d have to stop increasing our withdrawals of natural capital, pay our ecological debt back to future generations, and work out how to share the belt-tightening, all without sending the current economy into a tailspin.

Given the enormity of this challenge, is it any wonder we either put our heads in the sand, or fall back on weak measures. For example, the best we’ve been able to achieve internationally on climate change is the Paris climate agreement in 2015. This agreement relies on countries taking voluntary action, and (hopefully) then succumbing to peer pressure to push their voluntary commitments up. So far, this has left us a long way short of what’s needed.

Taken together, these arguments suggest, unfortunately, that we won’t demand real action, and governments will not take it, until a crisis makes the problem impossible to ignore. How big a crisis will it take?

Throwing pebbles to make change

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Is it aim or timing that makes for the biggest impact?

By David Salt

“What do we want!”

“We want action on climate change!”

“When do we want it it!”

“We want it now!!”

And what are you going to do make it happen? Sign a petition? Throw a few bucks at some climate action group? Maybe even march in a protest rally (if you’re not off on holiday and the weather is pleasant).

At the end of the day, most of us wishing for action on climate change (and more broadly, sustainability) will happily talk about it and vote for a political representative that promises they will deliver on it (but seemingly never do). And that’s pretty much it. We’re all busy, and most of us in Australia do pretty well by global standards so why rock the boat too much.

And yet the status quo is increasingly letting us down, and climate change is becoming more real and present every year (and particularly every summer and particularly this summer). We want change, we need change; but the pathway that might deliver it is never clear and the status quo is stubbornly resistant.

Breaking the status quo

Crises often break a status quo but are normally very messy coming with mass destruction and suffering. In any case, individual citizens rarely have the capacity or opportunity to ‘engineer’ a crisis.

But citizens in many parts of the world (including Australia) do have the power to speak out and be heard. And sometimes a message resonates and is amplified. And sometimes, what starts as a single pebble of discontent being thrown against the edifice of orthodoxy, goes on to change the world. #Me Too and the Arab Spring are two examples where a few voices raised against inequality led to a massive shift in social norms and order.

Sudden shifts in the social order are sometimes referred to as tipping points, and they are one of the characteristics of complex systems. That is, a hallmark of complexity is that small changes (pebbles) can sometimes produce unexpectedly large and enduring shifts in the structure and function of the broader system.

Tipping points

Back in 2000, the pop psych author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book titled The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in which he suggested it was possible to create a tipping point if you could identify and harness the three groups of people (connectors, mavens and salesmen) that enable social trends to take off. “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” explained Gladwell. (Connectors are people who know lots of people, mavens are helpful information specialists and salesman are persuaders.)

Gladwell is a gifted writer and he did a lot to popularise the notion of tipping points but the idea that you can create your own tipping point seems a bit ridiculous to me. Indeed, some of Gladwell’s detractors suggest that if it was possible to do easily then marketeers and politicians would be creating tipping points all the time. The reason they don’t is because complex systems are unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Yes, tipping points exist but they usually only recognised after we’ve crossed one. Yes, highly connected people (Gladwells’ ‘connectors’ and ‘mavens’) can play important role is precipitating a tipping point, but their part in making it happen is usually serendipitous and unplanned. (And, I would note, there are potentially millions more of these people around now with the rise of social media like Twitter and YouTube – neither of which existed when ‘The Tipping Point’ came out).

It’s all in the timing

My belief on tipping points is that there are times when they are more easily triggered (like when the whole community is sick of the status quo and is demanding change) and times when they are less likely (such as when strong economic growth means most in the community are enjoying a degree of prosperity and stability). You throw a pebble in one time and it might foment a revolution. In another, it raises barely a ripple.

So what might this mean to someone wanting to throw pebbles to cause change? I think it means that both your aim and timing is important. You want your message/concern/demand to be acknowledged by people who will make a difference (this relates to the aim of your throw) but you also want to make sure the timing of your throw is in a period that, should you hit your target, the message will be acted upon.

But here’s the thing. While it might be obvious after the event (eg, #Me Too and the Arab Spring) that ‘change’ was in the wind, nobody spotted it beforehand; and nobody predicted where the first seed would take off from.

If you want change then start throwing pebbles at the status quo. Sign those petitions, march in those protests, support those groups advocating for change. But don’t kid yourself you’re achieved anything with a single pebble. What it takes is many pebbles thrown at many targets over a sustained period. And if others in the community start throwing pebbles too then you never know, that tipping point might be closer than you think.

And in this summer of extremes and at the end of four of the hottest years on record during which Australia has witnessed unprecedented mass coral bleaching and mass river death, the time might be right.

How are we going?

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What’s in Australia’s decadal Environmental Report Card?

By Peter Burnett

The OECD has just released its ten yearly environmental report card on Australia. It’s called OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Australia 2019. This is the third review of Australia, following reviews in 1998 and 2007, so we can look at some trends as well as the current report card.

How did we do? Good and bad.

Being reviewed by our ‘peers’

Before reviewing its findings, some background. The OECD’s environmental review program was established in 1991. Since then around 85 reviews have been conducted. The review teams include members from other OECD countries. For the 2019 Australian review these reviewers came from Canada and New Zealand. So the report is not just ‘the view from Paris.’

These reviews aim to help countries assess their environmental progress while promoting domestic accountability and international peer review. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much sign of this has happened with past reviews. Perhaps Australian governments use the reviews behind the scenes, but publicly at least governments have not said much about them beyond the formal welcome when they hit the desk. And they haven’t generated much debate either. Nor is there much sign of international peer learning.

But these reviews offer a unique opportunity to governments seeking genuine environmental policy advance. Perhaps it’s time to try some encouragement from the sidelines.

Could do better

The report says some nice things about Australia. They acknowledge that we perform well in the OECD ‘Better Life Index’, showing that we rate better, often significantly better, than the OECD average on a range of things, including on environmental quality. That’s great, but our environmental quality rating was earned largely on the back of good scores on urban air quality and public satisfaction with water quality in an OECD index (see www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/australia).

These are both factors where we get a boost from being a small population in a large country and from the absence of the high-polluting neighbours that you can find elsewhere (South Korea, for example, chokes on China’s industrial emmissions).

The OECD also compliments us on being one of the few OECD countries that has a green investment bank (the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, CEFC) to help finance renewable energy, but they either don’t know, or diplomatically overlook, the fact that we only kept the CEFC because, in one of the stranger events in recent Australian political history, Al Gore dropped in and talked Clive Palmer into opposing its abolition.

So some of our success is more down to good luck than good management. But, of course, it’s the brickbats rather than the bouquets that are more important here. The headlines of the 2019 Review amount to saying ‘this student is not working to potential’, or the old-fashioned ‘could try harder’.

On climate policy and resource efficiency, the OECD recommends that we intensify our efforts to reach our Paris Agreement goal and produce an integrated energy and climate policy framework for 2030. Of course, we nearly did the latter with the National Energy Guarantee, but the politics got too hard.

On governance, which in Australia’s federal system is as much about federal-state cooperation as anything else, the OECD calls for more effort, but they add a new emphasis on state-to-state cooperation, to encourage best-practice and increase efficiency. For example, they recommend standardised approaches to cleaning up old mine sites and a nationally-consistent approach to landfill levies to remove incentives to truck waste interstate. While federal-state cooperation is less politically-sensitive than topics like climate policy, it’s profoundly and perennially challenging. In fact, there aren’t many examples of genuine success, except where there are large federal government carrots or sticks involved, as there were with the successful National Competition Policy of the 1990s. The trouble is that the carrots are expensive and the sticks take great political skill to wield effectively.

On economic efficiency, a key recommendation relates to environmental taxes: to tax fuels that are currently exempt (eg, coal) and increase rates on fuels that are too low (eg, petrol and diesel taxes don’t include an environmental component). In principle this is simple enough but fuel taxes can be political dynamite, not just here but elsewhere, as recent demonstrations in France and Zimbabwe show.

Our ‘special topics’

Finally, the report included two ‘in depth’ chapters on topics chosen by Australia, one on threatened species and biodiversity and the other on chemicals.

The OECD was blunt about species and biodiversity: things were poor and worsening. It found that pressures from humans, such as agriculture and urban development, were increasingly interacting to exacerbate challenges for threatened species. They recommended that Australia invest time and resources in regional plans and strategic assessments and that we get our act together on environmental information, including biodiversity baselines to measure progress. Sensible, but complicated, expensive and a political minefield.

In contrast, the recipe for success on chemicals seems easier: we already have reforms in the works and could achieve much just by getting a move on.

Recurring themes

Some of the themes that recur in the reports include the need for ongoing water reforms, full policy integration and enhanced Indigenous engagement in land management. Some of these themes are really tough because they affect vested interests or might constrain economic growth, but surely we can get Indigenous engagement right.

Other recommendations that I think are achievable without too much pain are the greening of government procurement and comprehensive and consistent approach to environmental information, especially baseline monitoring.

These are very useful reports and hopefully government will do more with the 2019 report than it did with the earlier ones. The ANU has given the reports some early attention by holding several events to mark the release of the report, and the report has already received some significant publicity, eg on the ABC: www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/pm/oecd-says-australia-not-on-track-to-meet-paris-agreement-targets/10764274.

Watch this space.

Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’

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Would a crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet make a difference?

By David Salt

How do we break the current gridlock on sustainability? What would it take to get our political leaders to commit to meaningful long-term change?

If we could break the hold of vested interests by full public funding of elections it’d be a great start. Blunting tribalism by mobilising public opinion and ending short-termism through longer parliamentary terms might also help. Such solutions (very sensibly proposed by Peter) are easy to argue but diabolically difficult to implement.

Or are they? Maybe what we need is a good crisis, a catalyst to dissolve all those pesky impediments standing in the way of real policy reform; a call to arms to the broader population that we need to get serious about sustainability.

A ‘good’ crisis

A student of mine recently opined that to break the gridlock on climate change we needed a new ‘Pearl Harbour’ moment. He was referring to the day Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War, thrusting the US into that global conflagration. Over 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbour but the event transformed the nation overnight into a war machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

We need another transformative moment for the environment, something that would lead to deep and enduring engagement with the challenge of sustainability. So what might it take?

Several years ago I covered an environmental futures conference in Canberra where the mood was decidedly glum (It was titled ‘Can Homo sapiens survive?’ and included luminaries such as Frank Fenner and Stephen Boyden). The general consensus was that prospects for the future of our planet were not looking good. Many said we needed a wakeup call. One scientist commented that he felt nothing short of a massive crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet would be enough.

Is there anything in the history of environmental science (and policy) that gives us hope that a shock might make a difference to our seeming deep indifference to declining environmental health?

Some point to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the mid 1980s, a phenomenon caused by stratospheric ozone depletion caused by human created gases (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs). The existence of a massive and growing hole in our upper atmosphere came as a complete shock – some even claimed it was an existential threat to human life on Earth.

And, as an international community, we did something about it. We agreed via the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out ozone depleting substances and it seems our actions are reducing concentrations of ozone depleting substances in the atmosphere, and the hole is shrinking. Though, when it comes to big environmental challenges, this success seems more the exception than the rule.

Another crack

Another ‘crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet’ (if we use that as a metaphor for an environmental wakeup call) appeared in Australia in 2016. This time in the form of a mass bleaching event of the Great Barrier Reef. Unprecedented in size and intensity, this bleaching event led to the death of up to a third of the reef; and it was followed up by a similar sized event in 2017.

The cause was crystal clear: climate change and overheating. The scientific consensus on what we need to do about it is overwhelming: reduce carbon emissions and, specifically, stop burning coal. And what was the political response at the national level? The response was one of denial and withdrawal from any engagement with the topic of climate change (though millions of dollars was thrown at a Great Barrier Reef restoration fund to give the impression the government was doing something, but that’s a topic for another day).

Of course, there are crises and crises. Each is unique in terms of magnitude, longevity, frequency and impact. And each has a different legacy; some good, some bad and some of no consequence.

So how big does a crisis need to be to create meaningful change? Some observers reckon that Australia’s Millennial Drought, reckoned to be Australia’s worst drought since European settlement, enabled some progress in water reform but that it might have been better had it lasted just that bit longer for the reform to have had real enduring bite. (Not that any suffering farmer would agree that a historic drought might have achieved more had it been longer).

It’s hard to conceive that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017 could have been any worse, and yet it failed to achieve any meaningful action on climate change policy at all.

What we need is a Goldilocks’ crisis: not so small that it fails to break the policy gridlock; but not so large that it brings down the whole system and it can’t rebuild.

The flip side of crisis

Complex systems science has a bit to say about disturbance and crisis, and their capacity to produce change. Whether a disturbance will cause deep and long lasting change to a system depends a lot on the system’s resilience at the time of disturbance. A disturbance in one circumstance (say the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the event that precipitated World War I) might change the world whereas in another situation, no-one might notice. This is something to discuss in future blogs.

No-one actually wishes for a crisis. Drought, fire and flooding rain bring destruction, death, suffering and uncertainty. But, as any politician will tell you, the flip side of a crisis is that it’s also a window of opportunity to change things (“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” said Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel).

And today’s status quo is propelling us towards an increasingly uncertain and impoverished future. We need deep change. A Goldilocks crisis now might be better than a mama or papa of a crisis later.

Why can’t we agree on fixing the Environment?

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Of tribalism and short-termism, and other diabolical drivers of disagreement

By Peter Burnett

There are strong arguments that looking after the environment is as much a conservative idea as a progressive one. Since most on the political Left also support pro-environment policies, why then can’t we get bipartisanship on the environment?’

Some believe there is a Conservative fundamentalism that is so wedded to the free market and opposed to ‘big government’ that, when confronted with a global problem requiring a collective response, such as climate change, they’d rather deny the facts than accept any form of collectivism.

Free market fundamentalism is not the only factor pushing politicians on the Right in particular (although not exclusively on the Right) to oppose substantive action on the environment.

The major parties of the political Left and the Right are really coalitions of groups with overlapping world views. Labor is a coalition of unionised labour and social progressives, while the Coalition includes ‘small l’ liberals, social conservatives, free market fundamentalists, regional interests and even libertarians. Different pressures have more or less traction with different groups within these coalitions and some of these pressures combine to drive opposition to comprehensive action on the environment.

I’ve tried to describe some of these drivers below. As all of them are socially undesirable, I’ve also included suggestions (potential solutions) for how society might weaken their influence.

Vested interests

Politics is resource-intensive. Politicians need to get their messages to voters, but mass media advertising is costly. Both old fashioned approaches such as door-knocking, and modern social media are low-cost, but using them (legitimately) is still resource-intensive and volunteers are scarcer than ever. We have public funding for elections, but it’s not enough. As a result, politicians are dependent on campaign donations, especially large ones from big business and other vested interests. This makes the politicians beholden to these donors.

Solution: Full public funding of elections and more transparency about who’s influencing whom; eg, making ministerial diaries public (currently this is done only in Queensland and NSW).

Tribalism

We live in a time of declining support for traditional institutions and values, and increasing polarisation. Social values are now more diverse, relative and fluid: your truth is as good as mine and people are not ‘rusted on’ any more. As a result, coalitions of support in politics are based less on ideological commitment and more on loyalties. These loyalties are more personal and thus less amenable to compromise. People are more likely to defend positions because they are loyal to, or face pressures from, members of their political tribe. In the environmental sphere, this polarisation has been exacerbated by the rise of Green parties and the resulting association of the environment with them as a Left, even far Left, issue. The Greens are seen by many on the Right as extreme and their ideas not to be associated with, reinforcing the tribalism.

Because tribalism is driven by interests more than values, it can seem irrational when viewed through a policy lens. On the Left, it might mean, for example, propping up an uneconomic industry in preference to facilitating industry restructuring, driven by loyalty to unions and existing workers. On the Right, it might mean opposing a price on carbon in the face of any amount of advice from economists that this is the most economically efficient response to climate change, driven by loyalty to business interests.

Solution: seek to mobilise public opinion to override tribal loyalties. Of course this is more easily said than done. ‘Get Up’ may an example of doing this, although some argue that it is really an arm of the Labor Party. Transparency measures will help here too.

Short-termism

Another problem is short-termism, the constant focus of governments on the next election, which is never far off under three year terms. Short-termism tends to squeeze out any good policy which has a political downside, which includes most things environmental.

This problem is exacerbated by careerism, the modern political phenomenon of pursuing politics as a career straight out of university, rather than starting later in life, after a successful career in the real world (including in trades and the many other careers that don’t call for tertiary education). The result is to increase the incentive for politicians to place their political careers ahead of everything else because, politics aside, they have mortgages and no other experience to fall back on.

The result of all this is a major disjunct: most environmental issues involve short term pain for long term gain, while politicians seeking election crave short term gain, even at the expense long term pain (for others). Their priority is to dispense the sugar hit to win votes, and to sweep the structural issues under the carpet. This will encourage, for example, small one-off environmental grants while discouraging major reforms such as carbon pricing.

Solution: longer Parliamentary terms and independent institutions, one to monitor and report on the environment over the long term and another to provide deep policy analysis and advice on environmental sustainability, as the Productivity Commission does for the economy.

Diabolical drivers of disagreement

At the end of the day, despite the availability of mitigating reforms, the tribalism of modern politics seems entrenched. In the current political culture, a pro-environment coalition of conservatives and progressives is fanciful, despite the underlying common ground.

I think it will take an environmental crisis, and a very large one at that, to change that culture. I’d love to be wrong.

Sustainability and ‘big government’

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A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change

By David Salt

Why do people deny climate change? Are they ignorant? Are they stupid?

I’m a science writer. I place great store in the scientific process and accept what the overwhelming majority of scientists say about climate change – that it is real and endangers all that I hold dear (including the wellbeing of my children).

But I’m also aware that many powerful people don’t accept the scientific evidence on climate change, and these people go out of their way to block meaningful engagement and action relating to it.

A case study in denialism

As one example, Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of Australia (our most powerful elected office), recently told an international forum: “Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million or from 0.03 to 0.04 per cent. Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased. More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Now Abbott is dead wrong about the two central points in this quote. Weather events are becoming more severe because of climate change, and sea levels are rising. There are vast quantities of empirical evidence from multiple studies demonstrating this. What’s more, there is a strong scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change will increase significantly as carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise.

And yet Abbott is far from alone in his beliefs, and many powerful people from the Conservative side of politics peddle the same set of falsehoods that prop up climate-change denialism.

Are they ignorant? As Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott had ready access to the world’s finest scientists; indeed many have gone out to their way to explain the science to him. He had at his fingertips the best knowledge around but has either chosen to ignore it or not engage with it.

Is he stupid? He was a Rhodes Scholar and made it to the top office in the land. He’s not stupid.

In any case, ignorance and stupidity are just two ‘excuses’ that might be invoked in an effort to explain the irrational situation of powerful people denying a demonstrable truth. Greed, vested interest and corruption might be other explanations, as might the ideas of sunk investments and system inertia. While each of these ‘justifications’ might apply in some situations, for me they simply don’t explain the entrenched visceral opposition to the idea that we need deep and concerted action to address climate change.

A core belief

As a younger man I believed in ‘rationality’ and common sense, and that a fact was a fact. The challenge of climate change (and sustainability) was simply a problem of information deficit. In other words, more information would eventually solve the problem.

As I matured, the evidence supporting climate change increased. The case for doing something became ever more compelling. But, rather than act on that evidence, political forces gathered to neutralize our capacity to deal with it. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, as one example, have been rising in recent years when our international commitment was to reduce them.

Better science and science communication is not working. Stupidity, ignorance and all the other possible reasons mentioned above play a role but for me they don’t explain the underlying force behind denialism.

And then I heard a talk by Naomi Oreske, a prominent science historian from the University of California (and co-author of the widely acclaimed book Merchants of Doubt) discuss the strategies of denialism. Whether it’s tobacco or ozone depletion or acid rain or pesticide regulation, the claims being made by deniers (she said) is always the same: extra regulation means an expansion of government and a constriction of freedoms – and this is an assault on Neoliberalism Conservative ideology which holds that big government is bad, markets are good and individuals should be free to maximize their wealth as they see fit.

As I reflected on this, it became crystal clear: the ‘idea’ of climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change).

And the longer I thought about it the more I was convinced that here is ‘good’ reason underpinning climate change denialism. That’s ‘good’ as in strong, deep and powerful, not as in virtuous or right.

Anathema

Our world view is the well spring of our identity, the thing that gives substance to our meaning and to what we hold as important. And our world view is the frame through which we interpret everything around us, and the information presented to us. If that information does not conform to our world view, we often ignore it or distort it so that it does. Indeed, psychology has often demonstrated that attacks on our core identities often make them stronger.

In any case, the argument that a Libertarian ideology lies at the core of climate denialism makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also my response to Peter’s reflection on sustainability being a Conservative idea.

Maybe Peter is right; maybe I am too. Our arguments are not mutually exclusive.

If we are right, however, it’s reasonable to suggest that effective policy for sustainability will necessarily involve an engagement with Conservative and neoliberal ideology on several fronts. At the very least it will involve presenting ideas on sustainability and global change that are framed in a manner that Conservatives will engage with.

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

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In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?