Fixing the Environment is the right thing to do? Isn’t it?

Featured

Beware the Siren’s call of populism

By Peter Burnett

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.

To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.

The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.

Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.

Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.

Why the gridlock?

This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?

In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.

But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.

Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?

The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism

I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.

Let me explain.

Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.

As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.

In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.

In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.

‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.

Does it really matter?

Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?

These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.

The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.

In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.

In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.

So how does this explain the politics?

Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:

“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”

The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):

“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”

Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.

Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.

If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Environmental implications

At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.

This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.

Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.

So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?

A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.

The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.

We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).

Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!

Image: To save ourselves from the Siren’s call of populism we need greater institutional integrity — bring on the independent watch dogs! Image by Andy Faeth from Pixabay

Forget charisma, save our insects! Never underestimate the politics swirling around charismatic megafauna

Featured

By David Salt

Three insect scientists* recently spoke on Off Track on Radio National bemoaning the lack of resources going into invertebrate research and conservation.

If invertebrates make up over 90% of animals on earth, why do they receive so little conservation funding the researchers wanted to know? Good question insect scientists.

As the program finished, one of the researchers challenged the host of Off Track, a show devoted to exploring the world of nature, to ensure that future programming better reflected this breakdown of species. In other words, rather than doing most shows on birds, mammals and reptiles, the majority of programs should be on invertebrates, the things that make up most of nature. Everyone laughed at the comment, acknowledging the truth of the mismatch of current programming. However, there was possibly a fatalistic merriment in the laughter because they all knew in their insect hearts** that the media*** is always going to focus on the charismatic megafauna before all else when it comes to talking about nature. Such is life.

Hating koalas

And such was the disappointment of the insect scientists on radio about the plight of invertebrate knowledge and conservation that at one point they agreed that they were totally against koalas, Australias’ most iconic mammal (and so cute and cuddly). Of course, their ‘hatred’ was not aimed at the animal itself, but at the mismatch between the resources allocated to conserving the koala when the rest of nature was facing profound decline and in many cases extinction.

Rational conservation should be looking beyond species to ecosystems, the scientists opined. If we looked beyond saving individual species to the places that sustain all species (ultimately including ourselves) then we’d be achieving better conservation outcomes. We’d be saving the charismatic megafauna and all the unseen (often unknown) invertebrates at the same time.

They make a good point and it’s an argument that has been made many times in the past by many good hearted and wise conservation scientists and conservationists. Hearing it again last week on radio got me thinking about what happened when this approach was suggested at the national level some ten years ago, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

Unfortunately, being rational and looking beyond the charismatic threatened megafauna when framing your conservation priorities is an argument that simply doesn’t work. I wish it did. I wish society could be a little more honest with how it stewards biodiversity and do the job a little better, I really do. But with the world as it is at the moment, rational (and compassionate and humane) decision making around biodiversity conservation just doesn’t happen.

I base this belief on years of involvement with a group of environmental decision scientists from all around Australia and across the world (the main network was called the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions or CEED, you can read about the fabulous research it did on its archived website at http://ceed.edu.au/). The prime focus of all of these scientists was how to conserve biodiversity through better decision making. And the key to better conservation outcomes is decision making that is transparent, accountable and adaptable.

If we wanted better conservation we would be putting more resources into monitoring and managing our biodiversity. We wouldn’t only be worried about the cute and cuddlies (which always get the lion share of the resources), we’d be monitoring and improving our efforts over time, and we’d be considering our biodiversity on a number of scales (genes, species and ecosystems), not just charismatic species. (We’d be doing everything the insect scientists were pleading for last week on radio.)

The decision scientists in these networks published thousands of peer reviewed papers (in high impact journals) demonstrating why this is the way to go. They delivered hundreds of briefings to governments, business and industry groups; and produced stories and briefings for newspapers, magazines and social media.

We made a difference (?)

And there was a time, a bit over a decade ago, that I thought all this work, research and energy was making a real difference at the national policy level. We were being listened to and it felt like we were influencing national policy.

Possibly this was best expressed when the then Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, announced a change in focus in tackling conservation and threatened species. He said there needed to be a greater emphasis on ecosystems and how they function. We needed to be more holistic rather than adopting a band-aid approach of simply working on the most threatened species (all of which were mammals, birds or reptiles; insects hardly got a look in).

This would have been a major shift in conservation policy and reflected the science of the conservation scientists I was working with. Could it be that our political leaders were actually being influenced by what we were doing?

The political reflex

Possibly we were being listened to, but before the new approach could be enacted the opposition conservative party, led by Tony Abbott, cynically declared the new approach as ‘giving up on species’, something they would never do.

For this is always the problem with anyone proposing a shift away from a tight focus on only worrying about (and resourcing) charismatic megafauna. The first political response is always: ‘look, they’re giving up the koala (or mallee fowl or Tasmanian Devil or ‘insert favourite threatened species here’).’ And I do mean ‘always’, it’s a political reflex action. Voters care about koalas, they’ve never even heard of the Lord Howe Island Phasmid (a threatened giant stick insect).

Abbott’s (climate-change denialist-dominated) Liberal party threw out many bland and empty slogans in the run up to the next federal election like ‘We’ will: ‘kill 2-million feral cats’, ‘plant 20-million trees’ and ‘deploy a Green Army’ (and, most famously, ‘axe the carbon tax’). And, against a shambolically disorganised Labor Party, the conservatives won. The environmental decision networks got no more funding but the government instead funded a Threatened Species Recovery Hub while at the same time drastically slashing the budget of the environment department. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub did some great research, including a study on what resources would be needed to improve our failing track record on saving threatened species, but found there are no quick fixes for solving the problem of threatened species. The Hub was defunded earlier this year.

Better conservation policy

I don’t want to suggest that better policy on threatened species is impossible, just that it’s very difficult to achieve and no-one should kid themselves that it’s rational, accountable or transparent. Science is important but a hell a lot of science has been done in this area and politicians rarely use it to guide reform in this area.

What is needed is greater community awareness on the need for better decision making and the state of our country’s biodiversity. Citizen science and greater engagement with the public (and the education system) by environmental scientists play an important role here (eg, like the insect scientists on Off Track).

Just as important is the need for a process that feeds environmental values into our political and policy decision-making. Environmental accounts are possibly our best bet here but for it to flourish we need society to demand that it happens, and that requires a greater community awareness (which would be achieved if environmental accounts were more prominent). It’s a bit chicken-and-egg; one gives you the other but you need both.

I don’t know-what pathway will deliver us better environmental decision making (ie, transparent, accountable and adaptable). However, when people start demanding more of our political candidates than simply: ‘Save the koala!’ (kakapo/Tassie devil whatever) I’ll be satisfied that we’re making progress. What we should be demanding is: ‘Prove to us you’re investing our money in a way that’s making a difference when it comes to protecting biodiversity!’

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that at the moment.

*Scientists who study insects, not scientists who are insects.

**These scientists are super passionate about the things they study, but they have human hearts. One of the insect scientists is Manu Saunders (based at the Uni of New England). She produces an excellent blog on conservation and insects at Ecology is not a dirty word.

***Off Track, IMHO, is an excellent nature program that does much better than most media in providing balanced coverage on biodiversity conservation and science. It does more than pay lip service to covering issues relating to invertebrates and its last four programs (at the time of writing) were devoted to insects. Having said that, most of its programs are devoted to charismatic megafauna.

Image: Who could hate a koala? But is it fair that it gets most of the funding when so many other species are on the lip of extinction? (Image by Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay)

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

Featured

The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)

Crunch time for reform of national environmental law

Featured

Does the Government’s ‘pathway for reforming national environmental law’ lead anywhere?

By Peter Burnett

With Parliament rising this Thursday for the winter recess, this week is crunch time for reform of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

When Environment Minister Sussan Ley popped up to address the National Press Club last Tuesday, and simultaneously released a document and timeline under the title ‘A pathway for reforming national environmental law’, it was clear that the push was on to get the government’s environmental reform agenda through, before MPs leave Canberra’s cold winter behind for their (mostly) warmer electorates.

The story so far

The EPBC Act must be reviewed every 10 years. In 2020 the second such review was undertaken by Professor Graeme Samuel, who submitted an interim report last June and a final report in October.

Professor Samuel was very critical of the Act, and the government’s administration of it, in both these reports. So was the Auditor General, who also released a highly critical report in June.

While it might seem that the government were stung into action by the release of two critical reports last June, it seems more likely that they wanted to capitalise on the sense of urgency created by these reports to pursue their own agenda. This agenda was confined to one of the many issues raised in the Review, that of regulatory duplication and overlap, or what the government terms ‘green tape’.

In any event, the government responded without waiting for the final Samuel Report, introducing an EPBC ‘Streamlining Bill’ last August, guillotining it through the House of Representatives and introducing it in the Senate, where it became stuck in November, following a Senate Committee Inquiry.

In that Inquiry, three key cross-benchers – Senators Rex Patrick, Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff – sided with Labor and the Greens in opposing what they saw as a rushed attempt to devolve environmental decision-making to the states.

In response, and no doubt seeking to win over these key votes, the government introduced a second bill, the EPBC ‘Standards and Assurance Bill’ early this year. This Bill provided for the environment minister to set national environmental standards and for an independent ‘watchdog’ over the new devolved arrangements, the Environment Assurance Commissioner.

The government also announced that the first and interim set of national environmental standards would reflect the existing (and much criticised) Act, rather than the new draft standards that Professor Samuel had included in his final report.

Like the Streamlining Bill, the Standards and Assurance Bill was referred to a Senate Inquiry, which reported earlier this month.

This time the position of the three critical cross-benchers is less clear, as only Senator Patrick prepared a dissenting report. However, Senator Lambie later commented to the media.

Senator Patrick was critical of both the standards and the Assurance Commissioner. He was concerned that the government’s proposed standards were much weaker than Professor Samuel had recommended. He was also critical of the fact that the standards would be made by the minister rather than by Parliament.

As to the Assurance Commissioner, Senator Patrick’s view was that, for the watchdog to be effective, ‘it must have a sharp set of teeth.’

Quoted later in The Guardian, Senator Lambie said was her usual feisty self but did not rule out compromise. The reforms would be reforms would be ‘dead in the water if [Minister Ley] doesn’t tighten up the standards’ she said.

Woo any waverers while also preparing for loss

While Senator Lambie hasn’t ruled out compromise, the government have made it clear that it will not compromise on devolving many EPBC decisions to the states and starting out with standards that merely reflect the current law.

However, it clearly feels vulnerable to the criticism that it has simply cherry-picked Professor Samuel’s recommendations, something that he warned against in his report.

As a result, Minister Ley has released a document entitled ‘A pathway for reforming national environmental law’, supported by a proposed timeline depicting four stages of reform through to 2024.

The problem with this pathway is that it contains very little of substance beyond what has already put on the table. The pathway and timeline are generic; they outline a staged process and contain a commitment to consultation.

However, the pathway could lead to anywhere or to nowhere in particular. There is no vision, no sense of where the government wants to go in terms of substantive policy, beyond the barebones commitment to moving to standards-based decisions.

Left with questions

As a result of the government’s decision not to respond to the Samuel Review, but instead to start a reform process leading who-knows-where, we are left with some big questions.

Does the government agree with Professor Samuel that ‘Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline in the under increasing threat’? We do not know.

Do they agree with him that ‘broad restoration is required to address past loss, build resilience and reverse the current trajectory of environmental decline’? We do not know.

Do they agree with Professor Samuel that ‘to shy away from the fundamental reforms proposed by this Review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems’? In my view, clearly not, although the government is trying to build a credible argument to say otherwise.

Will the government manage to secure the vote of at least one of the three key cross-bench Senators to get this hollow plan through the Parliament? We’ll know very soon, possibly even before you read this.

Image by Seashalia Gibb from Pixabay.

Risky business: When dealing with complexity, it all comes down to trust.

Featured

Trust is the cornerstone of sustainability in an uncertain world

By David Salt

Humans are lousy at risk assessment. In some situations it’s close to non-existent. I have a very clear memory of how poor I was at calculating risk when the chips were down.

When my wife was in hospital delivering our first child, things didn’t go to plan; the plan being a short, easy, natural birth unassisted by pain relief. What actually happened was a long and painful labour which ended in an emergency caesarean. During this trial, after a seemingly endless and traumatic labour, the doctor offered my wife an epidural (a local anaesthetic in to the space around the spinal nerves in the lower back) to ease her suffering. It was in the early hours of the morning, we were at our wit’s end, and were open to any medical intervention that would ease my wife’s pain. However, before the epidural could be delivered, the doctor first needed us to sign a form acknowledging that we had had explained to us all the risks associated with the injection. These ranged from a 1-in-a-hundred chance of feeling nauseous to a 1-in-a-ten thousand chance of paraplegia or even death. We simply didn’t care, my wife needed an intervention. The doctor thought an epidural was sensible; we signed the form, the injection was given and relief was found.

Those risk numbers I just ‘quoted’ I made up. That’s because I really can’t remember what we were told. My wife can’t remember the whole episode. I was pretty stressed out, too. However, I do remember there was a risk, a low risk, of catastrophic outcomes of paraplegia and death.

I also remember being appalled that we were being asked to consider these possible catastrophic outcomes when we were so stressed already; it only added to our trauma. I assumed it was simply to give the hospital cover from litigation if things turned pear shaped. But, I thought, there had to be a better way.

That was many years ago. The pain and anxiety is long forgotten but the memory of my incapacity to rationally consider risk remains very strong.

Clots in the system

Fast forward to now, the end phase (hopefully) of a global pandemic. The risk assessment most of us (in Australia) are making is ‘should I get vaccinated’? For older people, like me, that means a jab of AstraZeneca, but a couple of people have died from a rare side effect involving blood clotting.

According to the Australian Government, the chances of getting this serious but rare side effect (called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS) is four to six in a million people for the AstraZeneca vaccine. About one in four people with this condition may die.

Attempting to work out whether it’s worth the risk, I phrase it like this: there’s approximately a 1-in-a-million chance of dying of TTS from getting the AstraZeneca jab! But if corona breaks out we know it can, in some situations, kill over 1 in every hundred people*. Take the jab I say (and I did).

But my back-of-an-envelope risk assessment isn’t worth the shred of metaphorical paper it’s written on because, according to health experts, everything depends on context. It depends on your age, your genetic makeup, your country (and the laws of that country) and your behaviour. Each factor dramatically affects the risk calculation.

So, hoping for a more nuanced and understandable explanation of the risk I turned to the official government explanations** where they tell us:
“It is important that consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm from COVID 19 Vaccine AstraZeneca to ensure that they make a fully informed decision about receiving the vaccine.”

And then they provided numbers (cases of TTS per 100,000 vs hospitalisations and deaths prevented per 100,000 people in different age groups) for low, medium and high exposure risks to COVID.

I could not make any sense of this information (which contained no understandable summary or recommendation) and I would be surprise if your average “consumer” could do much better.

Indeed, so upset was I at the government’s effort to give the impression that it was doing a good job at helping “consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm” that my blood pressure went dangerously high (thereby significantly increasing my risk of harm).

Who do you trust?

I present these two cases of risk assessment – one personal, one affecting everyone – because I believe they reflect something well known to cognitive psychologists and decision scientists: humans are lousy at assessing risk. We are riddled with biases, delusions and faith-based truisms which skew and distort the information at hand; even if we had the mathematical acuity to combine the many factors that need to be considered as we make our risk calculation.

And yet, in spite of this, we make decisions around risk every day; and most of the time we get it right (or maybe that should read we don’t get it so badly wrong that we reap the worst consequences possible). How is that?

That’s because, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it, we follow the cues of the people and institutions we trust.

I was so angry at the hospital for forcing a risk assessment on me when I was least prepared to do it, but at the end of the day, the doctor thought an epidural was good and I trusted doctors and hospitals in general. I was able to move past the risk.

I can’t understand the government’s risk explanation around AstraZeneca but, at the end of the day, I do trust most of the people advocating AstraZeneca for the over 50s (including Australian Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, who had one himself), so I got the jab.

In a complex world with growing uncertainty, trust enables us to move forward. Or, conversely, when we stop trusting the institutions upon which our society is based (think governments, the rule of law, science, emergency services), our capacity to deal with risk is also lost.

Risky business

Which is why recent trends suggesting trust in governments in many OECD countries is deteriorating (and particularly in the supposed leader of the free world, the USA) we should all be very worried.

The future is increasingly uncertain. Report after report (such as on climate change or biodiversity decline or land degradation or pollution) is telling us we are moving in the wrong direction, often at an accelerating pace. We are living unsustainably with dark and risky consequences for the generations to come.

At the very time we should be placing a premium on trust and cooperation to help us navigate the choppy waters ahead, our political leaders seem instead hell bent on ramping up prejudice and tribal fear. Populism and nationalism seem to be winning formula, trust seems to be the victim.

Australia’s traumatic Black Summer and the ongoing unravelling story of the COVID pandemic tells us the world is an unpredictable and risky place. The best response would be a concerted effort to build up the trust bank in regards to government and our many important institutions. We need transparency and accountability around all forms of decision making, and a rock solid foundation of integrity upon which we can reliably place our trust.

If we believed in the manner in which decisions were being made by our elected leaders then we would all be in a much better position when it came to making our own decisions in the face of enormous (and often growing) uncertainty and risk. Trust me on this.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*According to some calculations I’ve read, while COVID poses a real and present threat, you’re around 12 times more likely to die by drowning; around 30 times more likely to die while driving a car; and 170 times more likely to die during a Caesarean.

**It’s important to point out that I read this vaccine advice on 11 June. I looked at this site a month earlier and the advice was different in terms of details, though the overall approach was the same. On both occasions their explanations and scenarios were essentially meaningless to me.

Sharma v Minister for the Environment

Featured

A big win for children on climate change, but for how long?

By Peter Burnett

Never underestimate children. Last week I was telling my family, over dinner, about a recent decision by Justice Bromberg in the Federal Court, concerning climate change. You’ve probably seen media reports of the case, Sharma v Minister for the Environment; in part because it features a group of children.

“The case was brought by half a dozen teenagers,” I pronounced, pleased to be able to talk about my work, “represented by a nun in her eighties.

“There were eight children,” corrected my 11-year-old granddaughter, who is in Year 6.

Well picked up granddaughter, there were indeed eight.

While my main purpose here is to discuss the court case, I have to say it’s heart-warming to see such awareness in one so young. After all, the case concerned her future. Yet it is also heart rending, given the Court’s finding that the climate future facing today’s children was ‘potentially catastrophic’.

The court challenge

The children sought a declaration that the federal environment minister owed them a duty of care in relation to a proposal by a subsidiary of Whitehaven Coal to undertake a major expansion of its Vickery mine in northern NSW.

The Environment Minister came into the equation because the mine could only proceed if she approved it under the EPBC Act, an approval the minister had not yet given.

The expansion would extract an additional 33 million tonnes of coal over 25 years, which would generate 100 million tonnes of C02 when burned.

This is equivalent to about a quarter of Australia’s annual emissions. Although the Court found that, in isolation, these emissions would result in a global temperature increase of only one eighteen-thousandth of a degree Celsius, it rejected an argument that it should disregard this increase as negligible under a legal rule known as de minimis.

The argument for the Minister owing a duty of care was that potentially catastrophic future climate impacts were the foreseeable result of approving the mine and that the children were so vulnerable and so closely and directly affected by a decision under the control of the Minister that she ought to take reasonable care to avoid personal injury to them.

The Minister’s arguments in reply were based on the EPBC Act being a statutory scheme that should, for reasons of both principle and legal interpretation, be regarded as not amenable to common law principles of negligence. A common law duty of care would, the Minister argued, skew her regulatory task.

Interestingly, the minister did not challenge evidence from Emeritus Professor Will Steffen and other experts about the future impacts of climate change on the children. Clearly the government did not want to open itself to accusations of denialism by putting the facts in question, and so it relied exclusively on legal arguments.

The court decision

The Court accepted the argument that the minister owed the children a duty of care not to injure them when exercising her power under the EPBC Act to approve or not approve the mine extension. However, because the judge was not satisfied that there was a reasonable apprehension that this duty would be breached (basically because it was too early to know what the minister might decide), he refused to grant an injunction.

This simple decision sits atop nearly 150 pages of complex legal analysis about the law of negligence, the circumstances in which the courts might find a novel duty of care, such as the one here, and the interaction between statutory schemes such as the EPBC Act and the common law of negligence.

Implications of the decision

There’s enough raw material in this decision for a PhD thesis. So for present circumstances, let’s just look at implications and prospects.

If the decision stands, the implication of the case for decisions under the EPBC Act is that the Minister, when considering whether to approve a development, must now turn her mind to an additional mandatory consideration, the likelihood of personal injury, at least to children if not to others.

This would most likely be of relevance in situations similar to this case; ie, to very large fossil fuel projects, given their climate impacts. The ironic fact that the EPBC Act does not directly regulate climate impacts would not affect this outcome.

It is also conceivable that the precedent might apply to other projects with very large impacts, for example where a project might lead to extensive contamination of the waters of the Great Artesian Basin.

The decision also has potential implications far beyond the EPBC Act. If this duty exists under that Act, it may also apply to other government decisions, possibly even to Cabinet and Budget decisions. And if the duty applies to the minister in approving a mine, it may also apply to those, like Whitehaven, who build and operate mines.

The prospects of the decision standing

This is only the latest in a series of cases which have put fairly adventurous arguments before the courts in the hope of giving the EPBC Act some real teeth. Unlike most of the other cases, on this occasion the arguments have been successful.

However, I think this decision will be appealed and overturned. The arguments would be complex, but in my view, the one most likely to succeed is straight-forward: that the EPBC Act contains a specific direction to the minister to the effect that, in deciding whether or not to approve a development, he or she must only consider the things listed in the relevant division of the Act. That division makes no mention of a duty of care.

If I am right, in one sense it will be back to business as usual, with the Environment Minister approving individual developments on the basis that their impacts are ‘not unacceptable’, while the environment continues to decline.

However, climate litigation is becoming more common around the world as climate risks and impacts increase. Corporations are becoming increasingly responsive to those risks. Even if the case is reversed on appeal, the decision will have given Australian businesses pause for thought and can only add to the momentum towards ‘net zero by 2050′, even in the absence of a government policy to that effect.

Image by Wi Pa from Pixabay

Out of control with a smidgen of humility

Featured

We do so much better when we acknowledge we aren’t in control

By David Salt

The wealthier a country or an individual household, the less concerned they were toward the seriousness of climate change. So concluded French and Australian researchers reviewing survey data from 10,000 households in 11 OECD countries. They hypothesized that richer households (and countries) are less concerned about climate change because wealth provides a buffer against some of the related risks. This leads people in wealthier countries and households to perceive a greater sense of control over climate change impacts, which in turn results in lower levels of concern.

Pretty disturbing, huh?

And yet it’s quite in keeping with Australia’s laggardly response to the growing spectre of climate change. Coral reefs can bleach and biodiversity can collapse but, as a developed nation, we continue to elect conservative governments that turn their back on climate change using misleading arguments about the cost of climate action on the economy (misleading and dishonest because it never factors in the cost of not acting – but that would involve listening to the science!). Whereas our poorer Pacific neighbours are very concerned about climate change and begging for us to do more yet we happily ignore them and their concerns.

And yet, in recent years the threat (and reality) of not being in control has brought out the best in many Australians (just not so much in our national government).

A Black Summer

Australians have considerable experience with bushfires but the fire season of 2019/20 – our Black Summer – was of a scale without precedent. The forest ecosystems along our eastern seaboard all went up in flames, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Prior to this fiery catastrophe, an eminent group of retired emergency workers pleaded with the government to take heed of the climate science, predicting a catastrophic fire season was just around the corner; but they were ignored.

“Don’t tell us what to do,” our national government effectively said. “We’re in control, we’ve got it covered.” Of course, as events were to show, they didn’t.

There was enormous loss of property and life; although given the intensity and scale of the conflagration mercifully few people perished when compared to earlier wildfires (173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday fire of 2009 as compared to 34 throughout the much bigger Black Summer period).

Indeed, it was the tragedy of the 2009 Black Saturday event that changed our national mindset to how we approach big wildfires. The hard truth of these fires is that they can’t be managed and when they occur the priority has to be saving life and getting out.

To my mind, the brutal savagery of the Black Summer was a wakeup call to our national identity. We’re not actually in control, and we should set our priorities accordingly.

The silver lining

We were still licking our wounds from the fires when a new uncontrollable menace began rolling around the world at the beginning of 2020 in the form of a novel corona virus, slaying the sick and aged in its wake.

Overseas, every populist leader who downplayed the threat of CoVid 19 in order to keep their economies chugging along (think Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte) invited mass death into their populations with legacies still to be reckoned. A sense of superiority and control mixed with a fair degree of libertarian dismissal about the fate of others proved to be a fertile pasture for an incredibly infectious and highly lethal disease.

Back here we watched unfolding events with an uncharacteristic humility and respect for science. We had just been defeated by an environmental disturbance that had scorched the nation, and we demanded our leaders to do more than pay lip service to the science of epidemiology. We also acknowledged that we were all in this together, as we had done during the Black Summer, and that everyone needed to do their part.

Combine this with our island status and a modular federal constitution that enabled state governments to block internal movement, and Australia was the poster child of the pandemic. We eliminated the virus on our shores and the government dropped its ideological control and spent up big to keep the economic home-fires going.

However, in a globalised world, no country is an island, even if it occupies one. In Australia we saw multiple breaches of our quarantine defences as people returned from overseas. Victoria’s second wave was a massive wakeup call that this virus needed to be taken seriously and, again, as a nation we observed the rules (even when it meant constraining our personal liberties), trusted the judgements of our science experts and we prevailed. This thing was bigger than any individual regardless of their wealth, so we pulled together and responded well to the scientific evidence.

Victoria has now undergone two more lockdowns (we’re currently in the fourth). It is telling the nation again and again, we are not in control. And our response has been good.

Contrast that with India’s crippling outbreak when their leaders decided they had beaten the bug and declared business as usual prematurely. India, an emerging superpower, has been hobbled; it will likely never be the same again.

Giving up control

Giving up control is never easy, be it as a government with a strong ideological focus or individuals with a strong belief in their own wealth and personal freedoms. However, sometimes circumstances in the form of massive disturbances make giving up control not only possible but the desirable thing to do. Most recently we’ve seen it in the Black Summer and the pandemic, but examples of giving up control go back to the beginning of civilisation.

Researchers from Germany Italy have just published an analysis of studies on Mesopotamian civilisations that demonstrates that severe droughts actually led to society’s elites giving up control in order that their societies might cope better during these environmental crises. They showed that severe drought actually stimulated greater levels of cooperation between political elites and non-elites, and led to the development of important institutional processes that can still be seen in our societies today.

Incurable optimists (and most politicians) will often say every crisis is an opportunity. Australia, with its highly variable climate, seems to slip from environmental crisis to crisis. Maybe to really make the most of these events we need a smidgen of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not in control. If we could achieve this, then maybe we’d learn, adapt and prosper in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

We’ve shown we do well when we pull together, when the chips are down. Let’s hope our recent experiences with fire and contagion will enable us to sustain that humility long into the future.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

Words are cheap, but conservation is expensive

Featured

The new Threatened Species Strategy is big on rhetoric and small on resources.

By Peter Burnett

What is it the Government is trying to achieve with its new Threatened Species Strategy? It’s stated aim, as its title suggests, is saving threatened species. However, if you consider the evidence it’s hard not to conclude its real aim is something very different.

Saving species

Several years ago, Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne and his colleagues published a study, Spending to save: What will it cost to halt Australia’s extinction crisis?, which found that, based on US expenditure, Australia would need to spend something between $910 million and $1.7 billion per year to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species.

This was roughly 7 to 14 times the $122 million that federal and state governments were spending each year between them on threatened species recovery. In other words, on a median figure, we’re spending around 10% of what is needed.

If you think that’s a lot, argued the authors, Australians spend twice as much on pet care. In fact, as Professor Wintle explained recently to a Senate Committee, it’s about the same as Australians spend on pet trinkets – diamanté collars and the like. [

What price the new threatened species strategy?

Last week, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley released the Australian Government’s new 10 year Threatened Species Strategy. According to the minister, this new strategy builds on the momentum of the first strategy, which was launched in 2015.

It’s not easy to tie actions under these strategies to expenditure, as successive governments have worked hard to make evaluation and thus accountability difficult. However, in the recent 2021-22 Budget the Government announced $18 million to protect ‘iconic’ threatened marine species such as turtles and seabirds, and $29.1 million to protect native species from invasive pests.

The Budget papers don’t break these particular figures down over the four year period that is generally used for budget funding, but on average that’s an extra $11.8m per year, roughly a 10% increase on the $122 million figure from the Wintle et al study or an extra 1% of what is needed. That’s very small beer.

The strategy will be underpinned by consecutive five year action plans, which are intended to identify priority spaces and places, along with ‘concrete actions and practical, measurable targets to assess progress’. The first action plan is in preparation.

A little history

Before releasing the new strategy, the Government released a discussion paper, in October 2020. The discussion paper described the previous strategy, which had concluded four months earlier, but gave no information on how successful the completed strategy had been.

It simply stated that the Threatened Species Commissioner was ‘working on a final report which will present a robust, evidence-based analysis of progress against these 2020 targets’.

Now, some seven months later, we have a new strategy, but still no evaluation on the previous one. So we don’t know if the new strategy addresses the failings of the old.

Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen before, with Australia’s overarching national biodiversity strategy as well: roll out the new strategy without evaluating the old. This conveniently avoids unnecessary embarrassment about poor performance, or, perhaps worse, the inability even to measure performance.

Anyone who contributed to developing the strategy would have had to make do with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s annual progress reports, which include extremely general statements such as the Year 3 report that ‘eleven of these targets were met, four were partially met and six were unmet’ and the Year 4 headline that ‘we continued work to support all targets, with a sharpened focus on those the year 3 report identified as needing greater effort’.

A little strategy

So now we have new strategy, but it’s all high level stuff, broad descriptions on problems and approaches that few could disagree with, such as the vision that ‘Australia’s threatened species are valued, protected and on the path to recovery’.

We do know that, responding to stakeholder comments, the new strategy has been broadened to add reptiles, frogs, insects and fish to the priority birds, mammals and plants identified in the first Strategy. And that it will include marine and freshwater species, as well as terrestrials.

The strategy also includes a new focus on ‘priority places’ to ‘expand the new Strategy’s influence across our land and seascapes’. These priority places will include sites where threat mitigation and habitat protection efforts will benefit multiple species and ecological communities.

The strategy will also expand the number of key action areas to focus Australian Government efforts to landscape-scale actions, including major threats like weeds and diseases.

The devil’s in the detail

As to the detail, well that’s coming in the first action plan, development of which will commence in June; ie, 12 months after the last plan expired. This delay in dealing with such an urgent problem doesn’t fill one with confidence.

But we know that the action plan will cover at least 100 priority species and 20 priority places. There will be a continued focus on feral cats and a new focus on invasive pests and weeds.

We also know that the action plan will attempt to foster greater community engagement through citizen science and partnerships between First Nations people, business and non-government organisations.

Forgive my cynicism, but references to partnerships with business and the like are often code for Government attempts to avoid responsibility and share blame. It reminds me of the statement in our national biodiversity strategy that ‘caring for nature is the shared responsibility of all Australians’.

But one problem is already apparent: the broader the plan the more thinly the meagre available resources are likely to be spread, because I can’t see the government suddenly turning on the money taps. (At least not in a properly targeted way. As I discussed in an earlier blog, the government announced a $100m Environmental Restoration Fund just before the last election, and then promptly committed most of it through election announcements, without any expert advice as to how this money might best be spent.)

What’s the real strategy?

From a policy point of view, there is a complete disconnect between the size of the problem (enormous) and the approach to the solution (narrow focus, tiny resources). Governments are not irrational; when they do something that seems irrational it’s usually because they are actually solving a different problem.

In this case, I think the problem they are solving is the political problem of being seen to be doing something credible about a problem that they either don’t acknowledge or don’t want to engage with.

On that logic, the recipe of conferring the title of Threatened Species Commissioner on a public servant; engaging stakeholders in lots of consultation; producing a glossy strategy and sprinkling a little money around looks quite good to me.

Unfortunately, unless and until there’s a real groundswell of concern among voters about biodiversity loss, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.

Banner image: The Endangered cassowary is threatened by a loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease. Recovering just this species alone requires serious resources. (Image by Jessica Rockeman from Pixabay)

From Babel to babble and back again

Featured

Information without trust is just dangerous hot air

By David Salt

Once upon a time the humans of Earth thought it would be a good idea to build a tower that reached high into the sky; so high that we could gaze across all the land, so high that they would be able to reach heaven and humans would be on the same level as God.

God saw the tower, the tower of Babel, going up and thought this was a very dumb idea, positively blasphemous.

He also noted that putting together such a large scale piece of infrastructure took a lot planning, coordination and cooperation. So, rather than smiting the tower, which some might label as an overreaction and would no doubt just cause them to build another, he instead invoked the curse of babble on the tower builders. The curse meant they could no longer understand what each other were saying. Sure enough, work on the tower came to an abrupt halt.

That should stop them talking up more stupid ideas, the Divine One probably thought.

And so it was that humans went off in their little tribes and developed separate cultures and civilizations. They knew about each other (the tribe on the other side of the divide) but direct communication was always a hassle because everyone used a different language.

Going to be a revolution

But you can’t keep a good (or a bad) human down. We figured out how to grow vast quantities of food (the Agricultural Revolution) and harness the energy of fossil fuels (the Industrial Revolution) and our numbers grew and grew.

More recently, we built clever machines called computers that could process vast quantities of information very quickly. And then we enabled those clever machines to talk to each other, and they became so portable that we could carry them around meaning that everyone could swap information with everyone else all the time (the Information Revolution).

And language became a trifling technicality solved with the push of a button.

The curse of babble was lifted, and who needed God anyway, because now our beautiful internet had given each of us access to the world’s information. Once again, we were elevating ourselves to the status of an omnipotent deity.

We had all of human knowledge at our finger tips. And that knowledge base was pretty impressive. Our technology, for example, had allowed us to understand more about the Earth and its component systems with greater precision than at any time in history.

Ironically, the technology that underpinned ‘the Great Acceleration’ of our ‘progress’ was also revealing that our activity was totally unsustainable.

Rising babble

But then bizarre things began happening as our infrastructure of information was again raising us up to God-like heights.

Many of our leaders (political and social) began declaring any news or information coming from other tribes was wrong or false.

And because there was so much information flowing through our media feeds, set to our specific profiles, it became possible to be completely inundated by the views and passions of just our own tribe (amplified in our own personal echo chambers) to the point that we began losing the capacity to listen to (or trust) information coming from other sources.

Somehow the curse of babble has descended on us again. We can understand the words being used by the other tribes, but we are losing the ability to actually hear what is being said. We don’t trust the source of the words and information being shared so we attack it or ignore it.

The cost of babble

Okay, all of the above is written in allegorical parable speak but you get my general thrust. Knowledge is power but without trust it’s as useless (and dangerous) as babble.

Writ large we see this modern babble weaponized by leaders and malicious actors all around the world. These days our many information sources all contain some degree of fake news, conspiracy thinking and fear mongering. It’s used to polarize, obfuscate and delegitimize the people outside of the tribe.

It’s a game played by the powerful to consolidate their power while weakening their enemy, those in the other tribe – be that another country or the opposing political party. But it’s a game with a horrible and enduring cost – the loss of trust and the erosion of social capital. And that sets up a vicious cycle in which the avalanche of information we all experience simply confirms our biases – that our tribe speaks ‘truth’ while the other tribe spreads falsehood, and should not be listened to.

A clear example of this is the Republican Party’s prosecution of the BIG LIE, that President Trump was robbed of election victory by the total corruption of the US democratic system. The Republican position has nothing to do with truth or evidence, and everything to do with power, polarisation and division. Trust lies bleeding and drowning under an avalanche of babble.

The consequences of this new curse of babble are profound and far reaching. In the short term we can expect it to manifest as rising levels of vaccine hesitancy (something already evident) as people stop trusting governments.

In the medium to longer term it delays and derails effective responses to climate change and environmental degradation (something we see at the moment in Australia) as people stop trusting science.

Nations with poor democratic safeguards like Russia and China are using weaponized forms of babble to interfere with the running of the other countries be it undermining trust in electoral processes (think Trump’s rise in 2016) through to directly degrading infrastructure and markets.

Indeed, if we can’t see the signal (information) from the noise (babble), we’re all one step closer to the shouting turning to real world fighting. Armed conflict, with the horrible price it brings, is not far behind any descent into babble.

Investing in trust

Trust is the only sure inoculation to the malaise of babble.

We need to trust our governments and the information they base their decisions on. That trust is based on a strong institutional framework that ensures the integrity and transparency surrounding government and corporate processes. And that institutional framework must constantly be tested, queried and scrutinized (through audits, corruption watchdogs, fair elections and a vital free independent press).

In the age of babble, none of this is guaranteed.

Mighty vested interests are attacking the foundations of our trust every day. If those foundations give way, all that we hold precious could tumble down.

Image: Hubris goes before a fall: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

The Fraser Government 1975-1982, greener than you might think

Featured

By Peter Burnett

Another in our series on environmental policy under Australian governments of the past.

I lived through the Fraser years. Because he was controversial, I have strong memories of how he was regarded, but on matters environmental my only immediate memory was that one of the reasons Fraser lost government was because he would not match Labor’s promise to stop the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. And yet, if you actually dig into his record, his government did get things done for the environment.

Dogged at the outset

Malcom Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 till 1982. He was dogged by the controversy of how he came to the Prime Ministership, having collaborated with Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

This was especially true during his early years. People used to turn up wherever Fraser was, yelling ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ After all, Whitlam had urged his followers to ‘Maintain Your Rage!’

Yet everything mellowed with time. Whitlam and Fraser even became firm friends, something that would have appeared inconceivable during the ‘maintain-your-rage’ period.

Fraser went on to develop a strong personal record on human rights, especially on Apartheid, and late in his life, he even endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for re-election, with the comment that she had been a ‘reasonable and fair-minded voice’!

And when I started researching Fraser’s environmental policies, I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Growing federal power on the environment

The Fraser Government came to power on a relatively bland platform of striking a balance between conservation and economic growth. It also made the specific commitment, which it did not deliver, to develop national pollution standards with the States. (These eventually came under the Keating government in the early 1990s.)

Its most prominent decisions were connected with major developments: the banning of sand mining on Fraser Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef; allowing the Ranger uranium mine while establishing Kakadu National Park to surround it; and failing to stop the proposed Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Yet Fraser was also active in ratifying and implementing international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

On World Heritage, Fraser secured the listing of Australia’s first five properties: Wilandra Lakes in western NSW, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island and the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Fraser also carried through on several major Whitlam Government reforms, despite the rancour of the Dismissal. He developed the Register of the National Estate and signed the Emerald Agreement with Queensland to provide for cooperative management of the Great Barrier Reef.

But back to development projects. In 1976, following an Inquiry, the Government decided to block sand mining on Fraser Island and to list the island on the Register of the National Estate. Lacking the constitutional power to block mining directly, it did so by refusing to grant an export permit, a decision which it then defended successfully in the High Court.

Constitutionally, this was a very significant decision, as it would confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to insert itself into many areas of traditional state responsibility, including the environment.

In 1977, this time following two Inquiries, the Fraser Government decided to allow uranium mining in the Northern Territory, but subject to extensive safeguards, including a dedicated statutory monitoring regime, due to the sensitive location of the Ranger mine within an area subsequently established as the Kakadu National Park. (Despite being located in the middle of the area concerned, the mine and its access road were excised from the area declared as national park. Over 40 years later, the Ranger uranium mine is only now closing.)

This might be regarded as an example of the ‘striking a balance’ platform on which the government was elected; mining was permitted but the National Park was created and the potential impacts of the mine on the park were regulated by special regime.

A dam in Tasmania

In the dying days of the Fraser Government, one environmental issue, the Tasmanian Government’s decision to build the Gordon below Franklin dam, would come to dominate the political discourse.

The Federal Government opposed the dam, but, despite the precedent of Fraser Island, regarded legislative intervention as a bridge too far. So, instead, Fraser offered Tasmania $500 million not to proceed with the dam, but the offer was rejected.

Despite acknowledging that it may have the legal power to stop the dam, the government argued that its World Heritage obligations did not require it to override responsibilities that it thought properly resided with the States. It would thus fall to the new Hawke government to stop the dam (something I’ll discuss in a future instalment).

The World Conservation Strategy

The Fraser Government also deserves to be remembered for its work on conservation policy.

The United Nations had adopted the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. Fraser later announced that all Australian governments had adopted one of its principal recommendations, that every country should prepare its own National Conservation Strategy.

This was a significant initiative, not only because it initiated Australia’s first national statement on environmental policy objectives, but also because the government’s intention was that the national policy conform to the principal objectives of the WCS, which were visionary: maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems; preserving genetic diversity, and ensuring ‘sustainable utilisation’ of species and ecosystems.

In fact, this concept of sustainable utilisation anticipated the concept of ‘sustainable development’ by seven years.

With the Fraser government losing office before the strategy, the strategy passed to the incoming Hawke government as unfinished business (again, more on this in my next instalment).

How green was the Fraser Government?

Although they couldn’t bring themselves to stop the Franklin Dam by legislation, the Fraser government presided over an active environment agenda and a significant expansion of the federal environmental role. They were particularly strong on World Heritage and got the ball rolling on a coherent national conservation policy.

And the ban on sand mining on Fraser Island is a landmark in our constitutional and environmental history.

Fraser would later write in his memoirs that if he had his time again he would have used the federal power to stop the Franklin Dam.

I once heard Fraser say of his exit from the Liberal Party, ‘I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, they left me.’ I’m not entirely sure that’s right.

Image: Malcolm Fraser emerges from Parliament House on 11 November 1975, after announcing that Governor-General Sir John Kerr had appointed him caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser’s pathway to the prime ministership now dominates our memory of his time. (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/31; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence, Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2019).

Nine reasons to make more of an effort on climate change, PM

Featured

And if you can’t see the sense of this, then speak to your wife

Dear Prime Minister

Please take real action on climate change.
Please follow the advice of our best scientists, thinkers and institutions.

Yours sincerely

David Salt
Sustainability Bites

PS: Here are nine other groups who feel the same way.
If you feel able to dismiss this combined wisdom, maybe consult your wife [see item 10]!

1. The World’s brain trust

The Dalai Lama and Australia’s Peter Doherty are among 101 Nobel Laureates calling for real action on climate change and an end to coal and gas expansion. They believe that acts to invest further in the fossil fuel industry are “unconscionable” and have said so in an open letter to political leaders on the eve of US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate. The Nobel Laureates – including economics, physics, peace, medicine, chemistry and literature prize winners – are united on this. Please don’t dismiss the world’s brain trust.

Dalai Lama and Australia’s Peter Doherty among 101 Nobel Laureates Calling for End to Coal, Gas Expansion | The Australia Institute

2. Australia’s brain trust

If you’re in doubt about the world’s best scientists have to say (most of them are foreigners after all), maybe you’re more open to what Australia’s finest scientists are saying on the topic. And, indeed, the Australian Academy of Science has just released a landmark report exploring the risks to Australia’s future based on the current global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. And those risks are big to our economy, environment and society [and indeed, to your family, see item 10].

That report states that the world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is an absolute minimum, if Australia is to avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems.

Prime Minister, please read this report compiled by Australia’s finest science brains.

https://www.science.org.au/supporting-science/science-policy-and-analysis/reports-and-publications/risks-australia-three-degrees-c-warmer-world

3. The Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE)

This is Australia’s technological brains trust. ATSE believes this is a critical and timely opportunity for Australia to demonstrate strong action and leadership on climate. The evidence is unequivocal that extreme weather events like the recent devastating bushfires, storms and floods in Australia will increase in frequency as the planet warms. Please listen to them.

Leaders summit opportunity for strong action on climate | ATSE

4. Our premier science agencies: the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO

These are Australia’s two leading scientific agencies. They’re telling us that climate change is real and present, and the evidence is incontrovertible. The continued warming of Australia’s climate, an increase in extreme fire weather and length of the fire season, declining rainfall in the southeast and southwest of the continent, and rising sea levels are some of the key trends detailed in their latest State of the Climate report.

So far Australia’s climate has warmed by around 1.4°C since 1910. Southern Australia has seen a 10–20% reduction in cool season (April–October) rainfall in recent decades, while rainfall during the northern wet season (October–April) has increased since the late 1990’s, especially for northern Australia, with a greater proportion of high intensity short duration rainfall events. This impacts all Australians. Please listen to our own government scientists.

http://media.bom.gov.au/releases/805/state-of-the-climate-2020-shows-continued-warming-and-increase-in-extreme-weather-events/

5. The Climate and Health Alliance

Climate change is impacting our health Prime Minister. Thirty-two health groups recently released a joint statement calling on the federal government to address climate change in its National Preventive Health Strategy, which is currently in development. The Strategy’s Consultation Paper does not include climate change in its six focus areas, nor even mention “climate change”. Thousands more Australians will suffer from infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, heat stress, mental illness, violence, food insecurity, poor water quality and poorer nutrition. Surely you have to acknowledge this Prime Minister?

https://www.medianet.com.au/releases/191785/ and https://chf.org.au/media-releases/win-win-win-health-and-consumers-climate

6. Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

Former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services. This call went out prior to the Black Summer of 2019/2020, our horror fire season. It vindicated every word of caution from the Emergency Leaders group yet you’re still not listening Prime Minister.

Australia Unprepared for Worsening Extreme Weather

7. The Australian Medical Association

The AMA and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) recently called on the Federal Government to adopt a suite of key measures to help reduce the risk of further climate-related disasters. Everyone trusts their doctor, why can’t you Prime Minister.

https://ama.com.au/media/bushfire-anniversary-doctors-commit-work-together-health-impacts-climate-change

8. Farmers for climate action

More and more farmers are realising what the changing climate is doing to their security and their economic bottom line. 1.4 degrees temperature rise already is already pushing them to the limit. For example, broadacre crops such as wheat and barley have seen reductions in profitability by up to 22% since 2000. Decreasing farm profitability is leaving many Australians in rural and regional communities at risk of declining health and economic wellbeing.

Farmers want you to act now. As one farmer from Farmers for climate action puts it: “Over the last year, farmers have grappled with droughts, floods and some of the worst fires in living memory. Today we have a choice, but very soon that choice is going to be taken away. Will we choose to invest in a sustainable and profitable renewables-led recovery, or will we sacrifice our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren.”

You’re on the record saying you listen to farmers, that your respect them, Prime Minister; why are you ignoring them on this.

Farmers for Climate Action

9. Our biggest ally – the US

Last week, President Joe Biden announced the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is almost double Australia’s commitment (of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030) that was announced back in 2015.

The US administration is already racing towards net zero with a $US2 trillion infrastructure plan, including $US100 billion in rebates for electric vehicles. It is also eliminating oil and gas subsidies and has placed climate action at the heart of its foreign policy.

We are not in lock step with our biggest ally on this Prime Minister, indeed we are trailing the world on climate change intention and action.

US Climate Plan Dwarfs Australia | Climate Council

10. Jenny Morrison

If you dismiss this chorus of pleas for greater effort (from world-leading and nation-leading scientists and institutions) then please have a chat with your wife, Jenny. You have repeatedly claimed she and your children are at the centre of your world yet your government’s inaction on climate change is destroying their future.

The summer bushfires of 2019–20 in a tinder-dry country, or the three severe coral bleaching events within five years that caused a loss of over 50% of hard coral cover in the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef, demonstrate some of the consequences of a warming planet for Australia’s people, economy and environment. The risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, severe storms, major floods, bushfires and coastal inundation from sea level rise continue to increase and will be more intense and frequent as temperatures exceed 2°C of warming.

Your children are now teenagers. As they mature into their 20’s and 30’s (and beyond) they can expect many more ‘Black Summers’, severe floods and punishing droughts. This will impact on the economy and society they will inherit; it will directly affect their quality of life.

Jenny, you’re a former nurse, you know what all this means. Even if you don’t follow the science, surely you must acknowledge what the health sector is saying about the growing risk of climate change [see items 5, 6 and 7] and what this means for your children. Your husband, as our Prime Minister, can make more difference now than anyone but he’s not listening. Please, for you children, help him listen. There’s a lot riding on it.

Image by sippakorn yamkasikorn from Pixabay

At last, an international standard for ecosystem accounting! Now what?

Featured

A backgrounder on the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounts

By Peter Burnett

Just last month the United Nations Statistical Commission adopted an international standard for ecosystem accounting. The new standard is the latest addition to the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) and is often known by its acronym, SEEA EA.

SEEA EA has been a long time coming. Countries agreed to pursue environmental accounting at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but it took until 2012 to develop and adopt the SEEA ‘Central Framework’. There was a companion draft ecosystem standard at that point, but countries couldn’t agree on its content, so they adopted it as ‘experimental’.

Joyful family welcome new arrival

It’s taken another eight years to adopt the SEEA EA as a full international standard, so it’s not surprising that top international officials were enthusiastic in their media releases:

‘A historic step towards transforming the way how we view and value nature’ said UN Secretary General António Guterres. ‘No longer will we allow mindless environmental destruction to be considered as economic progress.’

‘This is a major step forward’, said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment. ‘The new framework can be a game changer in decision-making. By highlighting the contribution of nature, we now have a tool that allows us to properly view and value nature. It can help us bring about a rapid and lasting shift toward sustainability for both people and the environment.’

‘This is a giant leap towards measuring nature’s contributions to the economy’ said World Bank Global Director for Environment, Karin Kemper.

There were more quotes from more officials, but you get the drift. This is definitely good news.

Is this a big deal?

So will the SEEA EA be all that it’s cracked up to be?

Just having a standard is quite a big deal. It means authority and consistency. It should mean that national statisticians, treasury departments and other key government agencies will accept statistics derived from ecosystem accounts as being just as authoritative as mainstream economic statistics, which are derived from the National Accounts. (The SEEA and System of National Accounts, SNA, are designed to be compatible.)

It should also mean general government acceptance of the dependence of the economy on the environment, because the SEEA EA opens as follows:

1.1 It is well established that healthy ecosystems and biodiversity are fundamental to supporting and sustaining our wellbeing …

1.2 … there has been growing recognition that the degradation of nature is not purely an environmental issue requiring environmental policy responses. Thus, decision makers across all sectors need to consider their environmental context and the associated dependencies and impacts.

If that’s good enough for national statisticians, it should be good enough for government as a whole. While these statements may reflect old news in the academic literature; they could be new news for official analysis and government decision-making.

For starters, it certainly should mean that State of the Environment reports should be replaced by comprehensive ecosystem accounts. The resulting statistics on environmental degradation should then be just as authoritative as inflation or unemployment statistics. And a proposal for a new environmental program based on such statistics should be taken just as seriously by a Cabinet as a proposal for a program to support an emerging industry.

What’s in the box?

The SEEA EA is built on five core accounts:

1. Ecosystem extent accounts, which record the total area of each ecosystem, by type, within an ecosystem accounting area (eg, nation, political or natural region, river basin, protected area);

2. Ecosystem condition accounts, which record the condition of ecosystem assets in terms of selected characteristics (eg, physical and structural state, soil condition) over time;

3. Physical ecosystem services flow accounts, which record the supply of ecosystem services by ecosystem assets and the use of those services by economic units, including households;

4. Monetary ecosystem services flow accounts, as for physical flow accounts but measured, of course, in money;

5. Monetary ecosystem accounts record information on stocks of ecosystem assets and changes in those stocks (gains and losses).

The SEEA EA also supports ‘thematic accounting’, which organizes data around specific policy-relevant environmental themes, such as biodiversity, climate change, oceans and urban areas. Other important thematic accounts would include accounting for protected areas, wetlands and forests. It also contains a section on ‘applications and extensions’, such as using accounting data to support decision-making on biodiversity, or how to account for the oceans.

Is this a sell-out?

People often worry that environmental accounting means putting a dollar value on everything, the so-called ‘commodification of the environment’. Although the SEEA EA provides for ecosystem accounting in monetary terms, it does not require it. It is up to the user and could be a matter of horses for courses.

Where ecosystems provide direct ecosystem services to human economic activity, it might be both feasible and useful to keep monetary accounts. For example, a mountain native forest adjacent to both urban and horticultural areas might readily support monetary flow accounts for ecosystem services such as water purification, pollination and carbon sequestration, because it is possible to derive economic values for all of these.

Equally, it might not be feasible or useful to attempt monetary accounts for a remote island, little visited but providing habitat for listed threatened species. Here the benefits to humans are largely indirect, through biodiversity conservation. Monetary accounts would be very difficult to construct, because of the difficulty of valuing biodiversity for its own sake, but physical accounts would be very useful, offering the benefits of a standardised approach, not only to monitoring the extent and condition of the species concerned but for managing those characteristics.

What now?

I’d like to go on but I’ve run out of space! I think ecosystem accounts could have something in common with lasers: when first discovered, nobody knew quite what to do with them, but over time they have become indispensable.

Now that the hard technical work has been done, the big challenge is for governments to pick up this powerful new tool and put it to good use. That’s a much harder task than developing the SEEA EA. And we can’t wait nearly as long.

Image by Ronny Overhate from Pixabay

Dead in the water

Featured

Making more of the Royal Commission into ‘our greatest environmental catastrophe’

By David Salt

We all know the Murray Darling Basin is in trouble. We’ve all seen the graphic images of millions of fish gasping for air as they died and heard the desperate stories of towns running dry. But we also know the causes of this distress are complex and involve multiple layers of government, countless players and many vested interests. In an effort to uncover the truth behind this mess, the South Australian State Government set up a Royal Commission in 2018 to examine the effectiveness of the $13 billion Basin Plan, supposedly a blue print for saving the mighty Murray Darling River system.

Earlier this year Richard Beasley, Senior Counsel Assisting at the Murray-Darling Royal Commission, published a book, Dead in the water, on what the Royal Commission found. You should read it. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the failure of our environmental law and policy.

Many angry texts have been written about how our environment has been let down by government but this book stands head and shoulders above them all in terms of forensic rage. Dead in the water takes readers on a whistle stop tour of the ill-fated Basin Plan, one of our Nation’s biggest environmental investments. The Plan was supposed to repair the mighty Murray Darling River system but is instead enabling (and probably accelerating) its continued degradation and desecration.

If you want to read the full 756-page Royal Commission Report, please do. The Analysis & Policy Observatory has a neat summary of it here, together with a link to download the full report.

If you want to read a single plain-speaking, short article on the Report and what it found, you could do worse than scanning this story in The Guardian (summed up by its title: ‘Murray-Darling basin royal commission report finds gross maladministration’).

But if you want to experience the full rage of how bastard politics and corporate power was able to pervert science while despoiling some of our most prized natural and cultural heritage while having the audacity to claim the opposite, then read Dead in the water. It will leave you very angry. Indeed, Beasley subtitled his book – ‘A very angry book’. A bit of background helps you understand why.

An ill-fated Royal Commission

Beasley’s perspective on the management of the Murray Darling Basin was informed by his experience as Senior Counsel Assisting at the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission was established in 2018 by the South Australian Labor State Government to investigate the Basin Plan and how it impacts on South Australia. South Australia has a keen interest in this as it sits at the end of the Murray River. Leading the investigation was Commissioner Bret Walker SC, often said to be Australia’s pre-eminent senior counsel.

Walker handed down a damning report at the beginning of 2019. Among other things, he found that Commonwealth officials had committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multibillion-dollar deal to save Australia’s largest river system; that the Plan ignored potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change and failed to make use of the best science available. He concluded that the Basin Plan needed a complete overhaul including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.

Unfortunately, politics dogged the Royal Commission at every step. The Commonwealth Government prevented public servants from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources from appearing at the Royal Commission (the two key agencies overseeing the Basin Plan); and when Commissioner Walker asked for more time to complete his investigation the South Australian Government, now a conservative Liberal Government after a recent election, turned him down. When Walker submitted his 746-page report (containing 111 findings and 44 recommendations) they were warmly welcomed by the SA Government and then politely ignored.

A very angry book

Richard Beasley witnessed all this, indeed was a central player in the Commission’s search for truth.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to hear and see and read all the testimonies from multiple experts, stakeholders and witnesses on the degrading state of the Basin and the inadequacy of the Basin Plan to address this decline. To hear statement after statement that the Basin Plan clearly is not based on the best science available, is unlawful, probably unconstitutional, and definitely not fit for purpose.

And rather than have the bureaucrats, managers and public servants responsible for implementing the plan explain and justify why it is as it is, the Federal Government gags them, prevents them from speaking. And then the final report is effectively forgotten because there’s been a change in the South Australian state government.

If I were watching all this I think I’d whither with rage, shrivel with impotence. What would you do?

Richard Beasley walked away from the Royal Commission and wrote an angry book. And, because he’s a skilful writer with a lawyer’s sharp eye for detail and a wicked sense of humour, he laced his observations with wry humour, amusing anecdotes and personal asides. And his anger is palpable, and there are expletives aplenty.

Beasley didn’t want to simply serve up a slightly more plain-speaking version of the Royal Commission Report; he wanted to record his fury at the environmental disaster that is unfolding up and down our nation’s most important river systems. He wanted to enrage his readers about the deep injustices this disaster is propagating across the landscape (for starters the appalling dispossession of First Nations people). And he wanted to highlight the horrific failure in governance that has allowed this to happen.

We need more angry books

I wish there were more ‘Richard Beasleys’ out there who could capture so well the multi-dimensional nature surrounding poor governance, ecosystem collapse and the subsequent societal loss it brings. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many like him around. Most scientists, for example, are scared to get too emotional or personal in order to tell stories that really move people (and I say this having worked in science communication and with scientists for over 30 years).

I’m sure part of Beasley’s intent with Dead in the water was to vent his own rage. But possibly the greater aim was to enrage the broader community to challenge our governments (at all levels) on their appalling mismanagement of our natural heritage. I know I finished the book feeling quite outraged at what has been allowed to occur.

Beasley’s book carries the subtitle: “A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe… the Murray Darling Basin”. I think it’s possible to cast the Great Barrier Reef, our Box Gum Grassy Woodlands and many of our forest systems in the same light. If only we had more storytellers like Richard Beasley to get people angry enough to demand real action on all these catastrophes from our elected leaders.

Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

Featured

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

From the promise of technology to the ‘tragedy of the commons’

Featured

Why ‘technology, not taxes’ is such a bad idea

By David Salt

Rarely has it been stated so clearly, so explicitly: ‘Technology, not taxes’ will be the pathway to a sustainable and prosperous future.

What I’m talking about, if it’s not apparent, is the Australian Government’s response to climate change. Our national government is playing the same game it has played for years: refusing to commit to real and significant action on reducing our country’s carbon emissions by claiming it’ll cost our country too much and that technology will solve the problem in the years ahead.

It’s a morally bankrupt and false argument on so many levels, not the least of which is that it fails to acknowledge the cost we’re increasingly paying by doing nothing – think dying coral reefs, continental-scale wild-fires and – this week’s disaster – historically huge flooding*.

Buried at the heart of the ‘technology, not taxes’ mantra, however, is a political truth: big change is hard to sell and voters would rather go for the option that doesn’t require personal sacrifice. And technology is just the trick to enable the government to sell the lie that we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ – in other words, we can keep growing our carbon emitting activities without concern because science will develop a pill to deal with those pesky environmental climate problems.

From the tragedy of the commons

About a year ago I wrote a blog on the Government hiding behind techno-tricks to convince us the Great Barrier Reef was being saved when in actual fact it was being left to rot. I quoted an eminent ecologist named Garrett Hardin, author of the famous essay ‘The tragedy of the Commons’. Given the ‘Technology, not taxes’ approach adopted by the Government it’s worth repeating that quote here.

Hardin observed: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semi popular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently for politicians selling technological fixes, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.

Hardin’s observation was made back in 1968. It was both perspicacious and bold for this was a time in which humans were literally reaching for the Moon, and many really believed that science and technology could move worlds. The environment movement hadn’t really taken off and ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a thing (though even then atmospheric scientists were well aware that levels of carbon dioxide were steadily on the increase).

However, even back then, a growing number of scientists were noting our rates of economic growth were simply unsustainable while broader society was increasingly concerned about dying rivers, toxic pollution and disappearing wildlife. These fears would crystallise in the coming decades but be largely discounted and ignored by our political elites. And one common trick they have used to discount these fears has been to claim technology will provide the solution.

False promise

Fifty years on and our understanding is much improved on the scale and nature of the environmental degradation we have set in train. Earlier forecasts of killer weather, wide spread wildfires and mass coral death have proved to be well founded. Climate change is real, present and already costing us billions of dollars. And our best science is telling us this is only the beginning.

Given this understanding, and being honest about what we are actually experiencing, it seems simply incredible our government is choosing to deny the importance of this issue. We need to act as a society and our actions need to be fundamental and across all sectors. To achieve this we need strong leadership.

Instead, we have a government who has distilled their response to climate down into a simple and glib three word slogan – ‘technology, not taxes’. It’s a promise that the broader electorate doesn’t have to worry about climate change, that no-one has to change anything about the way they live, and that somewhere down the line science will yield a solution to one of humanity’s biggest and most complex challenges.

But this is a false and disingenuous promise of the worst kind. It’s a thin tissue of obfuscation, lies and smoke designed to kick the can down the road rather than acknowledge that deep and fundamental change needs to happen. It is the antithesis of leadership and, if we simply accept it, we are leaving an existential problem for our children to deal with; and they won’t be thanking us for it.

Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay

*What’s the connection between climate change with the floods Australia is enduring at the moment (impacting on around 10 million Australians in every mainland state and territory)?
Consider this statement from The Climate Council:
‘FLOOD DISASTERS, such as those currently unfolding in New South Wales and parts of Southern Queensland, are made more likely by climate change, say experts from the Climate Council.

“The intense rainfall and floods that have devastated NSW communities are taking place in an atmosphere made warmer and wetter by climate change, which is driven by the burning of coal, oil, and gas,” said Climate Council spokesperson Professor Will Steffen.

“For many communities dealing with floods right now, this is the latest in a line of climate change-exacerbated extreme weather events they have faced, including drought, the Black Summer bushfires, and scorching heatwaves,” he added.

Global temperatures have risen 1.1°C since pre-industrial levels, and this has led to a 7 percent increase in water vapour in the atmosphere—increasing the likelihood of extreme downpours.

“Climate change is harming the health, safety, and livelihoods of Australians, racking up billions of dollars in economic losses, and damaging many of our unique ecosystems. It’s time for all levels of government and businesses to step up their climate action efforts to protect people, our environment and the economy,” said Professor Steffen.

“We must take decisive action this decade to bring climate change under control. Australia must get to net zero emissions well before 2040, and accelerate efforts to shift away from coal and gas to a fully renewables-powered economy,” he said.

‘Standards’ in name only?

Featured

The government’s National Environmental Standards don’t do what you might expect

By Peter Burnett

Last month the federal government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 (the Standards and Assurance Bill).

The Standards and Assurance Bill is a follow-on to an earlier bill (the Streamlining Bill), which I’ve written about before (see Red Lines for Green Values).

The Streamlining Bill would amend the EPBC Act to ‘streamline’ environmental decision-making by enabling development approvals, following environmental impact assessment, to be devolved to states and territories. This idea used to be called the ‘one-stop shop’ approach but the government now calls it ‘single-touch approvals’.

The Standards and Assurance Bill provides for National Environmental Standards; it also establishes an independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner, tasked mainly with monitoring and auditing decision-making by states under devolved arrangements.

The standards should set hard environmental bottom lines, but if this bill goes through, they won’t. More on this in a minute, but first a little context.

Where are we going with this?

The government presents both bills as first steps in responding to the comprehensive reforms recommended by Professor Graham Samuel in his 2020 Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

While it is true that Professor Samuel envisaged the devolution of development approvals to the states as part of his reform package, it is quite a stretch to argue that these two bills are the first steps of a comprehensive reform process, for several reasons.

The most significant reason is that the government has not tabled a response to the Samuel Review and so we have no idea what the government’s environmental reform agenda is, if indeed it has one.

If these two bills are the first steps, then they are steps towards a secret, perhaps even unknown, destination. All we know about the government’s intentions is that its policy narrative on environmental reform has rarely strayed beyond its ‘cutting-green-tape’ mantra of regulatory efficiency.

Stuck in the Senate

But back to the two bills. The Streamlining Bill got stuck in the Senate after three crucial cross-benchers opposed it, not because they were fundamentally opposed to devolution, but because they wanted to be satisfied that devolved approvals would be made properly.

At that point, in November 2020, the government had tabled neither the Samuel Review, nor the template for bilateral agreements setting out accreditation arrangements. In other words, it was asking the Parliament to take it on trust (see Trust us? Well let’s look at your record.)

The government then introduced the Standards and Assurance Bill in February 2021. Environment minister Sussan Ley presented the Bill as a step in the reform process but, in the absence of a broader vision from the government, it’s hard not to see the Bill as an attempt to get the Streamlining Bill over the line by responding to cross bench concerns.

At first blush, the Standards and Assurance Bill does advance two key recommendations from Professor Samuel.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It’s very concerning that the government is resorting to a piecemeal approach to legislative reform.

With yet more horrific environmental news emerging in recent weeks (see ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing), the government’s approach is mystifying: they just don’t seem to get how urgent the need for action is, or don’t want to.

When is a standard not a standard?

As to the Standards and Assurance Bill itself, it’s the provisions on the standards that worry me.

In fact, I don’t think the ‘standards’ are standards at all. If standards for decisions are set by law, you’d be forgiven for expecting that an environmental approval that failed to meet the standards would automatically be invalid and that an interested party could get a court decision to that effect.

Not so with these standards. Here, compliance with standards will be a subjective question for the decision-maker. And the question will not be about compliance, but inconsistency. In other words, the question for the federal environment minister, or an accredited state decision-maker, won’t be ‘have I complied with the standard?’ but ‘in my opinion, is this decision not inconsistent with the standards?’

Because the question of inconsistency is made a matter of opinion, the courts will tend to uphold any decision based on that opinion, provided there is a rationality of some sort to it, because the courts are extremely reluctant to substitute their opinion for that of a statutory decision-maker.

This is particularly the case when one reads on in the bill and discovers that, in forming her or his opinion about inconsistency, the decision-maker can have regard to federal or state policy, plans, programs or spending decisions, indeed anything that might conceivably be relevant.

Lowering the bar

This opens up a giant back door to ‘trade-off’ decisions, the very antithesis of meeting standards.

The explanatory memorandum tabled by the government gives the example of a decision-maker approving impacts on the values of a National Heritage place if those impacts are ‘balanced by mechanisms that promote those values (which may, for example, be delivered through funding of activities by a state relating to the promotion of those values)’.

I have my own examples, hypothetical of course.

The federal environment minister might decide that a decision to demolish part of the Australian War Memorial (a National Heritage place) is ‘balanced’ by a government decision to spend a lot of money on building a new exhibition hall. Thus a standard that says the fabric of heritage buildings should be conserved could be met by demolishing some of that fabric!

Or a state minister might decide that the loss of a population of a critically endangered species is ‘balanced’ by an investment in research on the species, even if the standard says that all populations of critically endangered species should be maintained.

Note that these ‘balancing’ decisions would not required to comply with federal offsets policy, even though they are offsets by another name. So the bill opens a possible reduction in standards.

And just in case a nervous state decision-maker thought they couldn’t come up with a ‘balancing’ state policy, plan, program or spending decision (hardly likely), they can apply to the federal minister for an exemption in the ‘public interest’! Perhaps states will resort to this if they want to approve a controversial development and shift the environmental blame to Canberra!

But wait, there’s more

As if this wasn’t enough, the minister said in her second reading speech that the initial set of standards would reflect the existing EPBC Act, ie she will ignore the standards recommended by Professor Samuel, even though she’s had them since 30 October last year. The problem with the existing standards is that they are all either process driven, or so broad that only the most extreme decision would contravene them.

Moreover, once the states are accredited under existing standards, they, and development interests, can be expected to push back hard against any proposals to tighten the standards, probably relying on arguments about moving the goal posts and costing jobs.

Standards in name only

It all boils down to this: if the Standards and Assurance Bill is passed, the standards we will get will be standards in name only. They won’t be a step forward, but backwards.

Cross-benchers looking to be satisfied that devolved approvals would protect the environment are surely facing disappointment.

Postscript: The Senate Environment and Communications Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the Standards and Assurance Bill. Submissions are due by 25 March. See: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Protectionandbiocon

Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

How good is Australia?!!

Featured

How deep have we stuck our head in the sand when it comes to the environment?

By David Salt

On May 19 2019 the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, tweeted his now trademark catchcry following his ‘miracle’ election victory: “How good is Australia! How good are Australians!” (noting he was making a statement, not asking a question).

It’s now a standard part of his language of spin (how good is this, how good is that…) and it’s also much parodied. But in parodying ‘Scotty from Marketing’ I fear we often trivialise some of the damage his government is presiding over.

The opposition claims Australia is going backwards when it comes to productivity, equity, corruption, debt and trust; and have put forward numbers suggesting Australia is slipping back when compared with other nations.

However, for my money, the true problem with Australia’s performance is what we’re allowing to happen to the environment. We’re witnessing collapse after environmental collapse and our response it to talk up small victories (like our fight against plastic pollution) while ignoring the big picture. Our PM would have has pat ourselves on the back rather than focus on our withering natural heritage. We refuse to accept any form of responsible stewardship for our own environment while also shirking international effort to do better.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Consider these recent reports.

Australia the only developed nation on world list of deforestation hotspots
Australia remains one of the world’s hotspots for deforestation according to a new report by WWF, which finds an area six times the size of Tasmania has been cleared globally since 2004. The analysis identifies 24 “deforestation fronts” worldwide where a total of 43 million hectares of forest was destroyed in the period from 2004 until 2017.

Urgent action needed to save 19 ‘collapsing’ Australian ecosystemsA ‘confronting and sobering’ report details degradation of coral reefs, outback deserts, tropical savanna, Murray-Darling waterways, mangroves and forests.

Great Barrier Reef found to be in failing health as world heritage review loomsA government report card has found the marine environment along the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline remains in poor health, prompting conservationists to call for urgent action ahead of a world heritage committee meeting this year.

Implications of the 2019–2020 megafires for the conservation of Australian vegetation
More than 150 species of native vascular plants are estimated to have experienced fire across 90% or more of their ranges. More than three quarters of rainforest communities were burnt in parts of New South Wales. These contain many ancient Gondwanan plant lineages that are now only found in small, fragmented ranges.

The 2020 Threatened Species Index
Australia’s new Threatened Species Index (TSX) for birds, mammals and plants was released in December last year. According to the data released in the 2020 TSX, threatened plants have declined by 72% between 1995 and 2017 on average across all sites. At sites where conservation management actions were taken this decline is less pronounced, with a 60% average decline over the same time period. At sites with no known management, the average decline was 80%.

Australia confirms extinction of 13 more species, including first reptile since colonisationThis latest update cements Australia’s reputation as the mammal extinction capital of the world with 34 extinct mammal species. The next nearest nation is Haiti with 9 extinct mammal species.

These are all recent reports and they are all saying the same thing. Our environment is in severe decline.

How good is Australia? Well, in one respect we are world leaders. As Suzanne Milthorpe from the Wilderness Society puts it (following on from the announcement that 13 more species are now confirmed as extinct): “It’s official; 34 mammal species have been lost from Australia and as these species are found nowhere else, we’ve also lost them from the planet and from all of time. There’s not another country, rich or poor, that has anything like this record.”

Unaccountable, opaque and disingenuous

If that wasn’t bad enough, our national government is telling the world we’re doing a great job when it comes to reducing carbon emissions (something I discussed a year ago in Five lies that stain a nation’s soul) and we’re the world’s best coral reef managers (again, something the evidence categorically refutes, see ‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain).

The world is struggling with global change and climate disruption. In Australia, we’re doing our best to ignore what’s happening in our own backyard while denying we have any culpability.

To add injury to insult, our national government is attempting to shirk its responsibility to protect our national heritage by disabling key powers in our national environmental law (the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, EPBC Act); reducing accountability by cutting funds to the Auditor General; and reducing transparency by abusing Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions surrounding environmental decisions.

Just yesterday the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) filed a case at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal challenging Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s refusal to release documents requested under Freedom of Information laws about 15 ‘fast tracked’ environmental approvals. ACF’s case will challenge the Government’s use of ‘national cabinet’ exemptions to avoid FOI disclosures.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Given our sad record of environmental decline and wretched environmental stewardship, our repeated and growing failure to protect those natural values we told ourselves and the world we would look after, these questions/assertions border on the obscene; and yet they constantly go unchallenged.

Australia is doing an awful job of looking after its environmental heritage for today’s generation and generations to come. It’s time we stopped burying our head in the sand, for that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our national leaders to discount our common future. Consider Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s recent declaration (reported in The Guardian): “We are not worried, or I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time.”

How good is Australia?

Image: Image by smadalsl from Pixabay

A toe in the water: Australia gets its first Federal environment minister (1971) and the world comes together in Stockholm (1972)

Featured

How do you deal with this thing called ‘the Environment’?

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series reflecting on the history of Australian environmental policy.

Nineteen Sixty Nine was a year of great environmental concern in the West. These concerns had been growing for some time, and were coming to a head. In America, there was a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, while in Ohio the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire!

Nineteen Sixty Nine was also the year in which the Gorton Coalition Government was elected in Australia. (If you’ve seen David Williamson’s play Don’s Party, it’s that election.)

In 1970 Gorton called a half-senate election — ie, a general election, but only for half of the members of the Senate. We’ve only had four of these, of which 1970 was the last, so they are something of a Constitutional curiosity. But I digress.

One of Gorton’s policy commitments in the half-Senate campaign was to establish an Office of the Environment within the Prime Minister’s Department. In his campaign opening Gorton acknowledged ‘mounting, and justified, concern’ about the risks of pollution which ‘represent[ed] a failure to take fully into account the environmental consequences of our actions …’

The first Minister for the Environment

Gorton fulfilled his commitment and set up an Office of the Environment in the Prime Minister’s Department. However, he was soon replaced as Prime Minister by William (Bill) McMahon. McMahon made environment a portfolio and appointed Peter Howson as the first federal environment minister in May 1971.

There was a big international environment meeting scheduled for 1972. In fact, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to be held at Stockholm, was the first of what would become regular decadal international meetings between governments on the environment.

In the lead up to the Stockholm Conference, Howson made a Ministerial Statement to Parliament under the bland title ‘Australian Environment: Commonwealth Policy and Achievements’. The statement was pretty much intended to put a political toe in the water.

The key factor stressed in the statement was that the Commonwealth saw itself as having limited powers in an area. It saw the environment as being primarily a State responsibility. This was certainly true historically and the Commonwealth would not test its constitutional powers on the environment until the Tasmanian Dam case, a decade later.

Howson’s Ministerial Statement told of the recent establishment of a council of federal and state environment ministers, the Australian Environment Council, and announced a new requirement for “impact statements” to inform Cabinet decisions with environmental implications.

This was the first Australian requirement for environmental impact assessment. The idea was copied from the United States National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) although, unlike in the USA, there was no legislative backing.

Environmental principles

The Statement was also significant in its early domestic articulation of a number major principles of environmental policy. Two of the most important were the ‘polluter pays’ principle and the principle of harmonising international environmental standards to avoid trade distortions.

Both principles came from the OECD, which had recently moved into environmental issues, establishing a high level Environment Policy Committee, known as ‘EPOC’, in 1971. EPOC still exists today.

Although both the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘harmonised standards’ principles were really just applications of mainstream economics, their articulation as environmental policy broke significant new ground.

Despite regarding environment as mostly a State matter, Howson’s statement recognised that environmental concerns were a national problem requiring Commonwealth leadership, including public advocacy where necessary. This would obviously apply in international affairs but could also apply domestically because environmental problems were not confined to State boundaries.

The statement also recognised that environmental issues are not just a set of problems with common themes, but manifestations of an overarching challenge:

"So far as the Commonwealth is concerned the question is one of devising a pattern of national development in which environmental objectives go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural goals. Our philosophy is directed to this end—to devising and developing such a pattern in co-operation with the States, with local government, with business and industry and the community as a whole." [Emphasis added]

Indeed,

"The threat to man's environment is world-wide. It makes no distinctions. There is much to be gained, therefore, by Australia sharing its problems and the search for solutions with others."

And as a result:

"We are prepared to use all the international machinery at our disposal to achieve the sort of co-operation required for global action and to protect our own interests in problems with environmental implications."

On paper at least, Australia was recognising environment as an issue at all scales from local to global, and was reaching for some sort of overarching goal that would integrate environmental and other objectives – in other words, some form of sustainability.

This anticipated the soon-to-be-made Stockholm Declaration but doesn’t mean that the Australian government was prescient — the Government would have had fore-knowledge of the likely content of the Declaration through the circulation of official drafts.

The first major international environment meeting

In his later statement to the Stockholm Conference, Howson emphasised the need for better decision-making, firstly in terms of the need for environmental data to measure the full impact of human actions on the environment, and secondly in terms of improving the way in which economics addresses environmental issues, ‘though a spurious mathematical precision has to be avoided’.

As it turned out, excessive precision has never been the problem with environmental decision-making! Quite the opposite in fact: environmental decisions plagued by a lack of basic information, underdone policy guidance and in many cases a high degree of opacity.

Of course, Australia was not a major player at Stockholm and when we look at the Conference more broadly, the big story is that developing countries of the global South quickly forced a dramatic broadening of the original pollution-based agenda of rich Western countries, which, confusingly, also form the bulk of the global North.

Most members of the South were prepared to talk about fixing pollution, essentially a side-effect of the ever-increasing rate at which the North was consuming the Earth’s resources, as long as this didn’t constrain their right to a fair share of Earth’s resources. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s intervention was pivotal. Her statement that ‘poverty is the worst form of pollution’ must rank as one of the most powerful short sentences ever spoken in diplomacy.

More like a foot than a toe

Back home, it seems that the significance of Stockholm didn’t sink in at the time. Records in the National Archives show that officials briefed the government that ‘in substance, the Stockholm Declaration is a miscellany of injunctions to which individual objection would be difficult to carry in a Stockholm forum. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts …’

With the benefit of hindsight, the officials were wrong. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The pattern of North-South relations and the institutions spawned by the Stockholm Conference, especially UNEP (the United Nations Environment Program), still very much influence international environmental policy today.

The same is true of Howsen’s Ministerial Statement. Reflecting on it in his autobiography, Howson said that the Statement was more significant than he thought at the time, and I think he was right. Rather than a toe in the water, it was more like a foot (no pun intended).

Yet, these days, Howson and the Stockholm Declaration are largely forgotten. Such are the vicissitudes of history.

Fast forward fifty years to today and it seems that while the players have changed, too much of the script remains the same!

Image: The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) meets at Folkets Hus, Stockholm, in 1972. This became known as the Stockholm Conference, and was the first time governments met globally to talk about ‘the environment’. (Image by Yutaka Nagata, UN).

Gambling with Australia’s future – casinos before unis?

Featured

Building a resilient future requires supporting our higher education sector

By David Salt

Australia’s university sector has been hit hard by the CoVID pandemic. The Government’s response has been to look the other way. The Government claims it wants to build a resilient future, but then it does nothing when our unis, which lie at the heart of our nation’s research, higher education and innovation infrastructure, are crippled by the closing of our national borders.

Down by 99.7%

Of course, closing our borders was necessary to manage this horrific pandemic but it also prevents international students from attending and enrolling in our institutions of higher learning, institutions which now depend on that money stream to operate.

According to Peter Hurley from Victoria University, in October 2019 almost 51,000 new and returning international students arrived in Australia. In October 2020, following the lockdown, this figure had fallen by 99.7% — to just 130!

Australia’s universities could lose $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023 according to new modelling by Universities Australia.

To much applause, the Government set up Job Keeper to help employers hold onto workers and shore up the economy as the CoVID lockdown bit hard. For some reason, universities were left out of this equation.

Crown Casino, for example, received $115 million in Job Keeper payments in the first four months of the scheme while the university sector received zero.

As economist Ross Garnaut (from the University of Melbourne) recently pointed out in The Australian Financial Review, Crown Casinos employed 15,000 people compared with 130,000 in universities (though unis contribute indirectly to hundreds of thousands more jobs). That’s right, the disgraced gambling behemoth Crown Casino is seen as a more worthy recipient of taxpayer’s dollars than our respected university sector.

Garnaut also noted the Biden administration’s initial CoVID stimulus package to Congress included a $US35 billion funding boost to the higher education sector, the equivalent of $3.6 billion to the Australian sector.

So why the enmity towards universities from our conservative national government? According to Gavin Moodie at RMIT University there are many reasons for this lack of support – cultural, ideological and structural. And it has manifested itself in many forms in the past from interfering with supposedly independent grant processes, rejecting peer-reviewed science on climate change and attacking universities when they seek to divest themselves of fossil fuel interests.

And now, when a global disturbance in the form of a pandemic threatens to rip asunder our economy and society, the Government finds a new way to disabling the university sector’s capacity to function; by ignoring it.

Navigating an uncertain future

The future looks increasingly uncertain. A resilient society would be investing in learning, experimentation and adaptation, all capacities cultivated and made available to the broader society via the university sector. Leaving this sector to wither is tantamount to nobbling our nation’s capacity to navigate through an uncertain future, to prosper in an age of rising disturbance. It simply doesn’t make sense.

That our national Government boasts at every turn how our success in this time of pandemic is because their policy is ‘science led’ is just doubling down on their hypocrisy. As with their stance on climate change, they cherry pick whatever information suits their short term political advantage. (I’m firmly of the belief that our nations’ success in containing the pandemic had more to do with luck and our exposure to the existential threat of the wildfires of the Black Summer than our governments listening to the science.)

In any event, the ‘science’ they listen to and fund is the science they believe feeds most directly into their own electoral fortunes. Medical science trumps environmental science, and always has (regardless of the complexion of the government).

If you’re in any doubt about this, check out the ‘quick guide’ to university research released by the Australian Parliamentary Library last month. It explains how Australian universities resource research activities. Based on key Australian Government data, it sets out the major sources and distribution of university research funding.

It shows, for example, that medical and health sciences get 30.6% of the available funding (in 2018) but environmental sciences gets only 3.5%; and this breakdown is quite consistent over the past decade.

And ‘the regions’ get the short end of the stick (again)

The Library’s quick guide also reveals another piece of hypocritical posturing from the Coalition, the party that says it stands for regional Australia. It shows that the Group of Eight (Go8, Australia’s top eight universities, sometimes referred to as the ‘Sandstone’ universities) get two thirds of all available research funding while the other 35 regional unis battle it out for the remaining third. This is not an argument to redistribute the little funding that’s available; it’s a good reason to increase the overall funding.

A recent report from the Gonski Institute for Education (at the University of New South Wales) shows that regional Australia is doing woefully on basic primary school educational attainment. So the Government is failing many of their key constituents at both the beginning and the end of the educational and research spectrum.

That’s something our political leaders (of all persuasions) would do well to take note of. Rural and regional communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. What’s more, rural residents are waking up to this truth (as documented in recent research led by the University of Newcastle, one of those regional universities).

Another inconvenient truth for our Government to deal with as they gamble with our future.

@davidlimesalt

Image: The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest uni. Australia’s university sector is the keystone of our nation’s resilience, and it has been forsaken by our national government.

Did farmers do the ‘heavy lifting’ under Kyoto?

Featured

Did anyone?

By Peter Burnett

My ears pricked up last week when I heard Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, say that farmers should be exempt from any commitment Australia might make to a Net Zero by 2050 emissions target because farmers had done the heavy lifting under Kyoto.

My ears were not to deceiving me because the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, would soon repeat the comment (Regional Australia ‘should not pay bill for climate target‘).

Australia’s Kyoto policies

This struck me as passing strange, since I had been researching the Howard Government’s Kyoto policies, which were based on a principle of ‘no regrets’ – ie, that policies to abate emissions of greenhouse gases should not place a significant burden on the economy, the budget or key stakeholders.

And farmers are certainly key stakeholders.

Over time, this ‘no regrets’ principle started to fray at the edges. First, the government enacted a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) in 2000. And in 2004, it committed a non-trivial $700 million for emissions reduction programs, although the lion’s share of this was aimed at fossil fuel industries, who were key government supporters.

Finally, in 2006, the government announced a domestic Australian cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme to be established by 2012, although it lost office before the scheme was fully developed.

Anyhow, the point is that even though the Howard Government did start to move away from ‘no regrets’ as public opinion shifted, at no time did any of their Kyoto- or climate-badged policies place any significant obligations on farmers (or on anyone for that matter).

They were some programs aimed at supporting farmers to take voluntary action, such as the Farm Forestry Program, which sought to encourage the incorporation of commercial tree growing and management into farming systems, but of course these don’t count as burdens.

So, if there were no Kyoto regrets, might ministers McCormack and Littleproud been thinking of something else?

Maybe the heavy lifting was for the EPBC Act?

Perhaps they were thinking of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)? Many farmers were outraged in 2001 when Environment Minister Robert Hill listed the Brigalow Ecological Community in Queensland as endangered. This meant that a farmer could not clear a significant area in brigalow country without an approval under the EPBC Act.

In practice, however, very few farmers seek land clearing approvals under the EPBC Act. Between the commencement of the Act in July 2000 and July 2008 (ie, early in the first Kyoto commitment period) the EPBC Act was only applied to 10 agricultural-related land clearing projects involving the removal of 6,200 ha of vegetation, constituting less than 0.2% of total national land clearing over the period (Macintosh 2009).

In any event, the EPBC protects biodiversity, not the climate.

Perhaps they were thinking of state land clearing laws? Certainly, several states did pass land-clearing laws in the 1990s. The most significant states here are Queensland and New South Wales, because that is where most of Australia’s land clearing was occurring at the time.

New South Wales began to limit the land clearing in a significant way in 1995, initially by policy and then by law, passing the Native Vegetation Conservation Act in 1997 and replacing this with the Native Vegetation Act 2003.

Land Clearing in Queensland in the First Kyoto Commitment Period

Queensland also began to restrict land clearing in 1995, enacting the Vegetation Management Act in 1999 and introducing a new regime in 2003-2004 with the aim of ending broad-scale land clearing by 2006. This new regime was apparently extremely effective, so, as a case study, it is the more interesting of the two states.

Andrew Macintosh from ANU has explained that when the Queensland reforms of 1999 and 2003-2004 were introduced, the Australian Government was engaged in negotiations with Queensland over the design of the laws and financial assistance for affected landholders.*

These negotiations were acrimonious and failed. As a result, the 1999 laws were watered-down and their commencement delayed, and there was no financial assistance, federal or state.

In fact, the Australian Government wasn’t just negotiating with Queensland, but with all states and territories. And its objective, at least on the surface, was not to support Kyoto but to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biodiversity, which had just received a poor review.

But back to Queensland, which rolled out a $150 million package to support the 2003-2004 laws. Macintosh found that while this helped farmers, it by no means eliminated their opposition and there were ongoing complaints about the scheme in operation.

Interestingly, Macintosh interviewed Peter Beattie about the Queensland scheme some years later. Mr Beattie, who was Queensland Premier at the time, said that there was little doubt the laws would have been introduced irrespective of concerns about climate change.**

Apparently it’s the same story with New South Wales; the laws made no mention of climate change and it was not raised as a significant issue when the laws were being designed.**

Who’s been doing the heavy lifting?

So, did farmers do the heavy lifting under Kyoto? The answer is ‘no’, because nobody did any heavy lifting under Kyoto. It is certainly true however that environmental laws have had an impact on farmers and that this has been the cause of considerable grief over the years, although sometimes affected farmers have been compensated.

The underlying and more difficult question is whether it is fair to curtail or even prevent land clearing, in the interests of protecting and conserving the environment?

For my own part, although I would not acknowledge an absolute right to clear land, as some farmers claim, I do argue that environmental laws are for the benefit of all. As a result, where they have a disproportionate impact, for example by removing from farmers a right to clear land, I believe we should spread the burden of those impacts across the entire community.

This might mean that we should be making structural adjustment payments to some farmers.

Or perhaps we should pay them for ecosystem services from their properties.

In that regard, the government is currently developing (again)*** trials for an Environmental Stewardship Program. If the trials are successful, we may see farmers being paid to protect or restore biodiversity on an ongoing basis.

In my view this would be a welcome development.

*Andrew Macintosh, ‘the Australia clause and REDD: a cautionary tale’, Climatic Change, 2012, Volume 112, Issue 2.

** Andrew Macintosh, ‘Mitigation Targets, Burden Sharing and the Role of Economic Modelling in Climate Policy’, (2014) Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 73 No 2.

*** An earlier Environment Stewardship Program was closed down.

Image by Alistair McLellan from Pixabay

We scored a ton! Open the champagne (?)

Featured

Confessions of a (now slightly less) befuddled blogger

By David Salt

A standing joke between Peter Burnett and me is the line: “First we take Manhattan…”

By that we mean this blog Sustainability Bites will change the world one reader, one group, one city at a time (“First we taken Manhattan, then we take Berlin*”).

Of course, ‘converting’ your first million people is the hardest bit.

I share this with you because Peter and I (and Sustainability Bites) have just scored a couple of milestones. Last we week we posted our 100th blog**! We also signed up our 200th follower! Do the math yourself; we’re still some 10 million short of taking Manhattan, and at this rate Manhattan will have sunk under the rising seas before we even reach its shores.

The magical ton

Sustainability Bites has been going now for two years. Peter and I began this project in an effort to explore our own ideas on ‘sustainability’ and, in so doing, maybe contribute to the debate. The stretch goal was that we might even influence a few people in their thinking and, by extension, possibly have an impact on sustainability policy. Our thinking on this is spelt out on Sustainability Bites’ About page, and I reckon the description there (which we’ve never altered) still sums up our intent and ambition quite well.

I’m delighted and not a little surprised that we have lasted as long as we have. And I say that having been associated with several blogs where the initial enthusiasm and optimism faded as the blog creators (usually a group of early career researchers) discovered blogging takes a bit of effort and gaining a sizeable audience doesn’t happen overnight.

What’s more, I’m happy to say that Sustainability Bites has been pretty consistent in running a blog most weeks (there’s two of us, so that’s one blog per person per fortnight). Almost all of these blogs are original but a handful are repostings of our own stories from other places; last week for example both of us reposted our blogs from other sites.

When we reached blog #33 (Have we bitten off more than we can chew?) I reflected on what we were doing and asked if there were any themes emerging from our stories. I could see five emergent themes (and these are listed below in Appendix 1).

When we reached blog #66 (Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites) I again reviewed our collection of stories, and commented on how the second set of 33 stories was more influenced by the disasters and disturbances we were seeing unravel around us.

Even in the selection of my points of reflection (#33 and #66 – one and two thirds of the way to 100), it’s clear I had in mind that we were aiming for the big century, that magical ton**. And, as I did in those earlier review blogs, I have included a list at the end of this post of all of our blogs with the themes they relate to (see Appendix 1).

I could spend the rest of this blog talking about how the world has changed in the last 33 blogs but in actual fact, they’ve stayed much the same. The pandemic has revealed many of the cracks in our society, it’s one of the biggest disturbances to hit the world; and yet in most ways we remain heedless of the mounting evidence that our species is on track for ecological disaster. Bleaching coral reefs, mass wildfires in our forests, freaky weather and collapsing biodiversity don’t appear to be enough to convince our political leaders that massive transformative change is needed. What’s happening to the planet and how we as a society respond (though mostly it’s not responding) is the content of most of our blogs (see Appendix 1).

Rather than reflect on how the sustainability debate isn’t changing, I’d like to instead briefly reflect on the blog (and blogging) itself.

Well, we’ve made 100. Was it worth the effort?

Most of our blog articles run for between 1,000-2,000 words; so in 100 blogs we’ve racked up around 100,000 words. That’s enough words to fill a decent sized book, and they took many many hours to produce. Has it been worth it? And where to from here?

In terms of directly influencing the world by the sheer weight of readers of our blog, possibly it hasn’t been worth it. We have 200 followers (which includes our close friends and family who ‘have to’ follow us but probably don’t actually read the blog) and in a good month we’ll get over 700 visitors.

That’s not bad, and it’s taken two years to build this following. However, by the same token, it’s not Manhattan, and most of our readers probably don’t need convincing on environmental protection and sustainability (and the need to do better). In many ways we’re probably singing to the converted.

Beyond our direct readership, our blogs have influenced lectures both I and Peter have delivered in the past two years, and informed submissions that Peter has made into government enquiries, especially those relating to the review of the EPBC Act. And I have anecdotal evidence of our blogs having informed the thinking of many of our readers, some of whom are influential people. So there has probably been a ripple impact from our efforts, though measuring that value is difficult.

However, for me, the real value in Sustainability Bites has been the opportunity to put down in writing what I believe are the important dimensions of sustainability, and how they play out over time. Sustainability Bites is a space in which I discuss how I think the world works (my mental model) and attempt to rationalise that model against events as they unfold.

For example, how can President Trump so easily get away with denying the science behind the massive Californian bushfires last year as they turned people and livelihoods to cinders? (“I don’t think science knows actually,” said Trump at the time; I discussed this in Trust lies bleeding)? Or why does Prime Minister Morrison seem to listen to medical experts while turning his back on ecological experts? (I discussed this in Health trumps economy; economy trumps environment) And how can we acknowledge the idea of the ‘new normal’ and then believe we’ll simply apply old economic levers to restore service as usual? (I discussed this in 2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene) And don’t get me started on the widespread abuse of the quest for resilience (see On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster).

I’m not saying my take in these stories is right but my efforts to assemble the evidence, articulate the case and engage readers with the arguments has generated some genuine insights for me. All these examples just mentioned relate to complexity, feedbacks, power, politics and dissonance; and these elements lie at the heart of sustainability.

Where to from here?

Good question. I hope I have another 100 stories in me but I don’t want them to be a simple rehashing of what I’ve already done. But I’m confident they won’t be because I honestly feel the process of being part of Sustainability Bites has changed the way I think and speak about sustainability, biodiversity conservation and science in general. And maybe that’s the most important value emerging from this blog, it keeps me thinking and it changes the way I view the world.

And sometimes, not always but sometimes, I finish a story and think to myself: “that wasn’t half bad.” Even if it doesn’t change the world, and even if no-one reads it, I have created prose that I’m quite proud of. That’s reward enough in itself.

Now, see if I can do it again, and again; and, who knows, maybe taking Manhattan isn’t a pipe dream.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay 

*Of course, First we take Manhattan is a song by Leonard Cohen, one of his most famous. The first verse might be a mantra for a sustainability warrior. It reads:
They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

**For our overseas readers (and we know we have several), to ‘score a ton’ is a term often used in the game of cricket (Australia’s national summer pastime) meaning to make 100 runs or a century. Sustainability Bites has racked up 100 blogs. We’ve scored a ton!

Appendix 1: Topics and themes in Sustainability Bites

Five themes emerging in our commentaries:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

[Blogs in order of appearance with themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]
34. Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites – looking back on 33 blogs[reflection, history]
35. What’s in the EPBC Box? – Unpacking Australia’s primary environmental law [policy, EPBC Act]

36. I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon – playing the crisis game [crisis, politics]
37. Federal environmental planning – planning should be strengthened in the EPBC Act [policy, EIA]
38. Shame Greta Shame – the use of ‘shame’ to affect change [politics, shame, denialism]
39. Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’? – [business, social responsibility]
40. On the taboo of triage – why politicians don’t talk about triage [politics, policy, denialism]

41. 2019 Senate Environment Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
42. I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!! – the value of the ‘letter’ from experts [politics, science culture, denialism]
43. Supplementary Environmental Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
44. The script that burns us – predicatable responses to wildfire [politics, ideology, denialism]
45. Announcing ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’ – what’s in this new policy [politics, policy]

46. But we’re only a tiny part of the problem! – unpacking denialist cant [politics, policy, denialism]
47. Will next year be a big one for biodiversity? – the importance of 2020 [policy, environmental accounts]
48. Positioning ‘The Environment’ – rearranging government departments [policy, politics]

49. Insights on government thinking from 20 years ago – release of parliamentary papers[policy, history]
50. Five lies that stain the nation’s soul – the government’s worst lies [politics, denialism]

51. Now is the summer of our discontent – reflecting on an awful summer [politics, disturbance]
52. On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster – hiding behind notions of resilience [politics, disturbance, resilience]
53. By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity? – environmental accounts to the rescue [policy, environmental accounts]
54. Conversations with the devil – false news is amplified by tribalism [polarization, tribalism]
55. A tale of two climate bills – laws proposed by an independent and the Greens [policy, politics]

56. Dawn of the new normal (?) – when will we acknowledge climate change [policy, politics, disturbance]
57. Insensible on coal – why is coal the elephant in the room[policy, politics, disturbance]
58. The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions – ‘net’ zero carbon emissions[policy, politics, offsets]
59. ‘Practical Environmental Restoration’– the Government always talks about ‘practical’ [policy, politics, offsets]
60. A good decision in a time of plague – the process is more important than the decision itself [policy, governance]

61. A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act – the 2020 climate policy toolkit [policy, politics, climate change]
62. Entering a no-analogue future – Covid 19 is giving us the world to come [Anthropocene, Covid 19]
63. Who’s the BOS? – Biodiversity offsets – state vs commonwealth [policy, politics, offsets]

64. Three letters on the apocalypse – putting a human frame on disaster [climate change, communication]
65. Washing off the virus – what happens to environmental regulation after the plague [policy, politics]

66. Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites– two thirds of the way to a ton [reflecting on Sustainability Bites]
67. Is a positive environmental narrative possible?– [policy, politics, history]
68. The man who shamed the PM – Aust govt follows pandemic science only after fire crisis [crisis, politics, good policy]
69. Saving the environment via human rights – using human rights to stop a coal mine [politics, ideology, policy]
70. Cultural vandalism in the land of Oz – heritage governance and the destruction of Juukan Gorge [policy, crisis, history]

71. Have I got a (new green) ‘deal’ for you – a Green New Deal [policy, politics, history]
72. For my next techno-trick – I’m going to make you forget about the problems facing the Reef – the delusion of the technofix [science, policy, politics]
73. All’s fair in love and law? – green tape and lawfare [politics, policy]
74. A bluffer’s guide to Australia’s premier environmental law – the EPBC Act and review [policy, politics, history]
75. It’s time: for a national conversation on the environment environmental goals and information [policy, politics]

76. Health trumps economy; economy trumps environmentpolitical priorities around health and environment [politics, policy, crisis]
77. Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry – EPBC review [politics, policy]
78. The choir – lobbyists and powerbrokers – lobbying on the environment [politics, policy]
79. Effective environmental reform: What are the prospects?– [policy, politics]
80. The schadenfreude of corona – intergenerational equity [politics, crisis]

81. Happy Earth Overshoot Day! – tracking global sustainability [history, crisis]
82. The bumblebee conspiracy political horse-trading over environmental law [politics, history]
83. Last chance to seesustainable tourism in a post pandemic world [crisis, science, change]
84.
Trust us? Well let’s look at your record – trusting the government’s promises [politics, history, policy]
85. On target for disappointment – biodiversity targets as policy [policy, politics, science, history]

86. Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow? – environmental standards as policy [policy, politics]
87. Trust lies bleeding – why we don’t trust in science [science, politics]
88. Australian court calls into question Regional Forest Agreements– forestry vs threatened possums [politics, policy, science]
89. Dissonance and disaster – disasters on the increase, climate change to blame [politics, science, crisis]
90. Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020– accountability on threatened species [policy, politics]

91. The frog in the equation – metaphors to understand how we deal with change [science, politics]
92. 2020 hindsight – changing planet in last two decades [science, history, policy, crisis]
93. Reforming national environmental law: first get rid of it, then fix it? – [policy, politics]
94. 2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene – change is the new normal [politics, crisis, science]
95. Red lines for green valuesenvironmental standards and what they mean [policy, politics]

96. We need a BIG win for the environment – historical environmental victories [history, politics]
97. From Silent Spring to the Franklin and back to Lake Pedder? – [history, policy]
98. Saving the Environment in a Day – the value of celebratory days for the environment [policy, history]
99. World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly – [history, policy]
100. A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky – [policy, politics]

A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky

Featured

By Peter Burnett

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s official: Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in deep trouble. They can’t withstand current and future threats, including climate change. And the national laws protecting them are flawed and badly outdated.

You could hardly imagine a worse report on the state of Australia’s environment, and the law’s capacity to protect it, than that released yesterday. The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, by former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel, did not mince words. Without urgent changes, most of Australia’s threatened plants, animals and ecosystems will become extinct.

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley released the report yesterday after sitting on it for three months. And she showed little sign of being spurred into action by Samuel’s scathing assessment.

Her response was confusing and contradictory. And the Morrison government seems hellbent on pushing through its preferred reforms without safeguards that Samuel says are crucial.

A bleak assessment

I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the EPBC Act. I believe Samuel’s report is a very good one.

Samuel has maintained the course laid out in his interim report last July. He found the state of Australia’s natural environment and iconic places is declining and under increasing threat.

Moreover, he says, the EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. The current approach results in piecemeal decisions rather than holistic environmental management, which he sees as essential for success. He went on:

The resounding message that I heard throughout the review is that Australians do not trust that the EPBC Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community.

A proposed way forward

Samuel recommended a suite of reforms, many of which were foreshadowed in his interim report. They include:

  • national environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, to guide development decisions and provide the ability to measure outcomes
  • applying the new standards to existing Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). Such a move could open up the forest debate in a way not seen since the 1990s
  • accrediting the regulatory processes and environmental policies of the states and territories, to ensure they can meet the new standards. Accredited regimes would be audited by an Environment Assurance Commissioner
  • a “quantum shift” in the availability of environmental information, such as accurate mapping of habitat for threatened species
  • an overhaul of environmental offsets, which compensate for environmental destruction by improving nature elsewhere. Offsets have become a routine development cost applied to proponents, rather than last-resort compensation invested in environmental restoration.

Under-resourcing is a major problem with the EPBC Act, and Samuel’s report reiterates this. For example, as I’ve noted previously, “bioregional plans” of land areas – intended to define the environmental values and objectives of a region – have never been funded.

Respecting Indigenous knowledge

One long-overdue reform would require decision-makers to respectfully consider Indigenous views and knowledge. Samuel found the law was failing in this regard.

He recommended national standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making. This would be developed through an Indigenous-led process and complemented by a comprehensive review of national cultural heritage protections.

The recommendations follow an international outcry last year over mining giant Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. In Samuel’s words:

National-level protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians is a long way out of step with community expectations. As a nation, we must do better.

Confusing signals

The government’s position on Samuel’s reforms is confusing. Ley yesterday welcomed the review and said the government was “committed to working through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders”.

But she last year ruled out Samuel’s call for an independent regulator to oversee federal environment laws. And her government is still prepared to devolve federal approvals to the states before Samuel’s new national standards are in place.

In July last year, Ley seized on interim reforms proposed by Samuel that suited her government’s agenda – streamlining the environmental approvals process – and started working towards them.

In September, the government pushed the change through parliament’s lower house, denying independent MP Zali Steggall the chance to move amendments to allow national environment standards.

Ley yesterday reiterated the government’s commitment to the standards – yet indicated the government would soon seek to progress the legislation through the Senate, then develop the new standards later.

Samuel did include devolution to the states in his first of three tranches of reform – the first to start by early 2021. But his first tranche also includes important safeguards. These include the new national environmental standards, the Environment Assurance Commissioner, various statutory committees, Indigenous reforms and more.

The government’s proposed unbundling of the reforms doesn’t pass the pub test. It would tempt the states to take accreditation under the existing, discredited rules and resist later attempts to hold them to higher standards. In this, they’d be supported by developers who don’t like the prospect of a higher approvals bar.

A big year ahead

Samuel noted “governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations”. But this is exactly what the Morrison government is doing.

I hope the Senate will force the government to work through the full detail of the recommendations with stakeholders, as Ley says she’d like to.

But at this stage there’s little sign the government plans to embrace the reforms in full, or indeed that it has any vision for Australia’s environment.

All this plays out against still-raw memories of last summer’s bushfires, and expected pressure from the United States, under President Joe Biden, for developed economies such as Australia to lift their climate game.

With the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November, it seems certain the environment will be high on Australia’s national agenda in 2021.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

Image by pen_ash from Pixabay

World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly

Featured

Happy World Wetlands Day. On the whole, our wetlands are anything but happy.

By David Salt

Last week I wrote about the value of ‘days for the environment’ in general. That story was inspired by a story I wrote for the Global Water Forum for World Wetlands Day. Well, today (Tuesday, 2 February 2021) is World Wetlands Day. Given the parlous and declining state of the world’s wetlands, is this ‘day of celebration’ a help or a hindrance in getting appropriate action to save these vital waterscapes? The Ramsar Convention, which is tightly linked to World Wetlands Day, was enacted on the 2 February 1971. Fifty years on, how is it going, and how does it measure up to the looming challenges facing us in the coming half century? The post below originally appeared on the Global Water Forum.

The 2nd of February was chosen as the date for World Wetlands Day because it marks the day that the Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, was adopted back in 1971 – so named because the adoption ceremony took place in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

So that means that in 2021 the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old, making it the oldest international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international environmental agreements. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas, and has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

And with the creation of World Wetlands Day, which kicked off in 1997 and is supported by the Ramsar Secretariat, it has served as a catalyst for many education programs, citizen science projects and community activities to raise awareness and help protect wetlands. Since 1997 the Ramsar website has posted reports from over 100 countries of their World Wetlands Day activities.

There was a time when a wetland was synonymous for ‘swamp’, a patch of water-soaked land ideal for reclamation and development; a place to be avoided. World Wetlands Day has played a significant role in alerting the broader community to the many values sustained in and around wetlands, and what is lost when they are transformed; which normally meant being drained, cultivated or built on. But is this annual celebration of wetland values actually contributing to saving them? There is much to celebrate but there is also so much more we need to do to secure the future of our precious wetlands as the planet moves into an increasingly uncertain future.

So, the question is: Fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Treaty, is World Wetlands Day saving wetlands or providing governments with an opportunity to window-dress conservation efforts through tokenistic listings? Of course, it’s not a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But consider the following.

The good

The Ramsar Convention has been going for 50 years and is widely respected. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

The first Outlook was released a couple of years ago. It reports that the accuracy of global wetland area data is increasing. Global inland and coastal wetlands cover over 12.1 million km2, an area larger than Canada, with 54% permanently inundated and 46% seasonally inundated.

And, as we get a clearer idea on their extent, we also are able to more accurately value the ecosystem services they provide. In 2019, Nick Davidson and colleagues recently updated our best estimates of the value of natural wetlands and found that the (2011) global monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services as being a staggering $47.4 trillion per year.

In area, natural wetlands are only a small percentage of all natural biomes, around about 3%. And yet the ecosystem services they provide (for example, water purification, fish nurseries, carbon storage and storm protection) represent 43.5% of the total value of all natural biomes – small in area, big on services to humans.

Indeed, the ecosystem service of water provision is the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day. Wetlands hold and provide most of our freshwater. They naturally filter pollutants, leaving water we can safely drink. (Each year World Wetlands Day focusses on a different part of the value provided by wetlands. In recent years the themes have been biodiversity, poverty alleviation and protection from natural disasters.)

In many places around the world efforts are now going into restoring and recreating urban wetlands to improve water quality and amenity. Such restoration efforts are expensive but underline just how valuable the ecosystem services provided by wetlands can be.

The bad

So, all this is good. Most of the world has signed up to the Ramsar Convention, and we’re really beginning to document the extent and the value of our natural wetland systems with growing precision (though we are still to incorporate this information into our national decision making systems in a meaningful way; environmental accounts would be a good start).

But the growth of the human population, the development of our coastal zones and river deltas, and our disruption of the Earth system (for example climate change) are exacting a horrible toll which is being disproportionately felt by our wetlands.

The following figures come from the Global Wetland Outlook (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 2018), and are worth reflecting on. Wetlands have been in steep decline for centuries as the human population has grown and spread. Up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700 in places where data exist.

Unfortunately this isn’t a case of ‘we didn’t know better’ because the losses have accelerated more recently. Approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000.

As we lose our wetlands so we also lose the biodiversity that depends on them. More than 25% of all wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

And it’s not just the declining extent of wetlands that’s the problem. It’s also about the degradation of the wetlands that remain. According to the UN, more than 80% of waste water is released into wetlands without adequate treatment. In catchments that feed these wetlands, fertilizer use in 2018 was estimated to be 25% higher than in 2008, exacerbating nutrification and levels of decomposition resulting in declining water quality with impacts for flora and fauna alike.

And the ugly

Our wetlands are important. They provide a range of ecosystem services that are extremely valuable to humans. Indeed, many scientists believe wetlands are critical to our very survival and central to our quest for sustainability. Wetlands contribute to 75 indicators contained in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite this, wetlands remain dangerously undervalued by policy and decision-makers in national plans. How can this be? Given the pivotal role wetlands play in delivering global commitments on climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity and disaster risk reduction, how is it they are given such low priority?

And if that wasn’t ugly enough, the spectre of climate change hangs over our (inadequate) efforts to save these vital ecosystems. Climate change promises to reconfigure our coasts and drown many of our low lying coastal systems, while drying out many of our inland wetlands through higher temperatures and changed precipitation. Then there’s the impact from the growing frequency of extreme events such as intense heatwaves and severe storms.

In my country, Australia, we have witnessed mass destruction of seagrass meadows and mass dieback of our extensive mangroves in recent years from elevated temperatures; and this is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Rising sea levels are even now visibly transforming the floodplains in and around Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, the jewel in the crown of my country’s National Reserve System. Kakadu is one of the best managed and resourced national parks in Australia and the world. It’s a World Heritage site and contains two Ramsar Sites. But good management on site and world recognition is not saving it from climate change and rising sea levels.

Talk less, do more

To underline the existential threat facing so many of the world’s remaining wetlands, consider the situation of the town of Ramsar, the place where the Wetlands Convention was adopted half a century ago and which now carries its name. The level of the Caspian Sea, on whose shore Ramsar sits, is dropping 7 cm every year due to evaporation, a trend expected to increase as temperatures rise with climate change. As the sea recedes, the town is becoming landlocked and the surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades. What does that say about the dire outlook for these vitally important waterscapes that wetlands around Ramsar itself will simply disappear in the coming years.

It’s steadily shrinking size combined with pollution and invasive species has many researchers believing the Caspian is headed for ecocide on a massive scale, with nature and people paying the cost. What stronger signal could there be that the Ramsar Convention in and of itself is not enough to protect our wetlands?

And what about World Wetlands Day, a celebration on the day the Ramsar Convention came to life? I’m not saying it doesn’t generate great activity and build valuable awareness. But since it’s running in 1997 we have only seen an acceleration in the loss and degradation of our wetlands. It’s hard to argue the convention is turning the situation around.

Governments around the world happily host World Wetlands Day events and put out glossy brochures describing how wonderful their wetlands are (consider this from the Australian Government). These same governments are signatories to the Ramsar Convention (and the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity) yet they are never held to account when they fail to live up to the commitments they have made to ensure that our precious wetlands are being protected for current and future generations.

The 2nd of February should be a day of celebration of wetlands. However, fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Convention, it should also be a ‘call to arms’ that so much more needs to be done to protect these precious ecosystems.

As the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Rojas Urrego) says: “Without the world’s wetlands, we all hang in the balance.”

Banner image: The famous mangrove boardwalk in Cairns (Queensland, Australia). World Wetlands Day celebrates the many values of our precious wetlands. Unfortunately, wetlands are being lost and degraded at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

Saving the Environment in a Day

Featured

You have 24 hours to save the planet! Your time starts now.

By David Salt

Can the environment be saved by proclaiming a ‘day for the environment’?

I once attempted to start a ‘day’ to save the environment. I called it ‘Anthropocene Day’ and its aim was to get people thinking about the impact of our species on Planet Earth (nothing too ambitious there).

What, you’ve never heard of ‘Anthropocene Day’? (Please tell me you know about the ‘Anthropocene’.) Well, that’s not surprising. The idea went nowhere. I managed to stage a public forum involving some leading scientists debating the pros and cons of when the Anthropocene began*.

The forum went well, we got a full house (at the National Museum of Australia) and generated some lively debate.

After the event, everyone said “what a great idea for a ‘think fest’; let’s do this again next year, but maybe even bigger! Heck, let’s make Anthropocene Day a Week!”

Then, when I attempted to get follow up action, everyone was too busy to do anything more and the idea, with my enthusiasm, fizzled. Clearly the world was too preoccupied for my great concept. (Or maybe the idea simply wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was.)

In any case, I began to think, does the Environment really need another ‘celebratory’ day to save it?

In a days

Now, most people are aware one environment day or another. Earth Day is celebrated on 22 April in more than 193 nations. World Environment Day, hailed as the “United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment”. It’s staged each 5 June in over 143 countries.

But do you know how many big days there are for the environment around the world? A quick net search turns up a Wikipedia list of around 130 days! That means approximately every third day the world is celebrating some worthy environmental cause – from International Zebra Day on 1 January through to Monkey Day on 14 December. (Sensibly the world is given time off in the week before Christmas to shop).

So, maybe the world simply can’t accommodate one more environmentally themed day; though Anthropocene Day was down for the 16 July* which meant it would only have had to share the time with World Snake Day.

However, even if we could squeeze in one more environment day (or even 10 more), would it actually make any difference?

World Reef Day (June 1) is not reversing the increased frequency of mass coral bleachings being witnessed around the world.

International Orangutan Day (19 August) isn’t doing much to reverse the clearing of the tropical forest the critically endangered orangutan depends on.

And Freshwater Dolphin Day (24 October) is unlikely to secure a certain future for the five remaining species of freshwater dolphin, all of which are endangered or critically endangered and live in degrading river systems.

In fact given the dire outlooks provided by multiple international groups like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES on climate change and biodiversity you really have to ask what difference any of these environment days make.

Seeds of hope or fig leaves of distraction?

I think there are several strong arguments for and against the big day for the environment.

They encourage increased focus and energy around single issues, something that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They generate activity that builds awareness and sometimes even makes a difference to specific locations and species. Sometimes these activities produce environmental champions that dedicate their lives to saving some part of the environment.

On the other hand, environmental days often give the impression that major issues of environmental degradation are being addressed when in fact they’re being ignored. Sometimes this is by putting out pretty brochures while not doing anything substantive for the issue in question; some would describe this as greenwashing. Sometimes it’s by doing great work on the issue in question while ignoring its connection to other environmental issues like climate change. In this way we focus on the small picture while ignoring the larger context.

Consider World Wetlands Day (2 February). It’s one of the big environmental days of the year and it occurs next week. The day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971. This occurred in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea (and the agreement is more often referred to as the Ramsar Convention).

Wetlands going under

This year the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old making it one of the oldest and most significant international environmental agreements ever formulated. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat supports World Wetlands Day (which has been running since 1997) and also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

All this is good but in their very own Outlook statement they record that 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. More worrying, approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000. In other words, since World Wetlands Day has been running we’ve been losing wetlands at an accelerating rate. You could argue that the result may have been worse had World Wetlands Day never existed but you couldn’t claim this Day has saved our wetlands.

By the way, the city of Ramsar is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea retreats as temperatures rise with climate change. Its wetlands will soon be no more.

On our side of the planet, the wetlands of Kakadu, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, is facing the opposite problem. The floodplains are being inundated by saltwater as sea levels rise, again associated with climate change. Our national government proudly supports World Wetlands Day and the Ramsar Convention while doing as little as possible against climate change.

More than greenwash

This isn’t an argument against World Wetlands Day or environmental days in general. But it is a call that such celebrations need to be more honest and reflective rather than just celebratory. They cannot merely be an exercise to making us feel good.

All indicators are telling us the environment is in serious trouble and in most cases that degradation is accelerating. If you are a fervent supporter of one of these events, ask yourself if it’s making a real difference to the situation it was established to address. If it’s not, look around for something that is making a difference and invest your blood, sweat and tears there.

But also ask yourself what you might do to make more of these events because they are opportunities to raise issues that maybe are forgotten most of the time. One colleague of mine checks each day to see what environmental theme is being celebrated. He uses this as a conversation starter with his work mates to find out what they think about the plight of sea turtles, frogs, zebras, pangolins…

I reckon that’s the right spirit to engage with these Days. Don’t ask “what this Day can do for me?”, rather consider “what can I do for this Day?”

*The Anthropocene refers to the age of humans, a time in which human activity has distorted the Earth System. Many researchers are campaigning to have it be declared as official geological time period. It began at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945 (the dawn of the Great Acceleration) though some scientists contend that it actually began with the invention of the steam engine (in 1778, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) or the development of agriculture (some 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution). Either way, it’s a great concept to get people engaged with what we humans are doing to the planet. And, while climate change is a central part of this story, it’s not the first thing argued so discussions on the Anthropocene don’t instantly polarise the debate as occurs when the topic of climate change is raised on its own.

Image: World Wetlands Day is held on 2 February every year. It encourages the community to learn about and celebrate the many values of wetlands, and governments to protect them for current and future generations. World Wetlands Day has been running since 1997. Since then, wetlands around the world have been lost at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

From Silent Spring to the Franklin and back to Lake Pedder?

Featured

Some things never seem to change. Some things change in unexpected ways.

By Peter Burnett

What might be described as the ‘modern environmental era’ is often dated from the publication in America of Rachel Carson’s hugely influential book, Silent Spring, in 1962. This book, which dealt with the impacts of the indiscriminate use of pesticides such as DDT is widely credited with spawning modern environmental action.

Don’t cry over spilt oil?

It was not until the late 1960s that environmental awareness really took off however, accelerated by a spate of major pollution incidents including the shipwreck of oil tanker Torrey Canyon off Cornwall in 1967 and two incidents in America in 1969, a huge oil spill from a drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California, and the spontaneous ignition of the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River near one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie.

These events helped propel the world’s first comprehensive environment law, the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, known as NEPA, through the US Congress with an overwhelming 372-15 vote in the House of Representatives and unanimous support in the Senate. Shortly afterwards, Americans celebrated 22 April as ‘Earth Day’, an event marked in America by an estimated 20 million friendly marchers in various cities.

All this consensus and community spirit in America seems strange to the contemporary observer.

Meanwhile, in Australia, things were getting electric

Environmental concern was also rising dramatically in Australia. These international events were influential, but the dominant issue at the time was the proposal to dam the pristine Lake Pedder in Tasmania, known especially for its stunning pink quartzite beaches.

The protests began in 1967 when the Tasmanian government, led by Premier ‘Electric Eric’ Reece, revoked Pedder’s National Park status as a precursor to damming the lake.

The campaign to save Lake Pedder failed, but it did spawn a number of political and policy firsts with enduring impacts, including the formation of the United Tasmania Group, now seen as the world’s first green party, and a campaign to secure federal intervention to stop the dam.

Some things change, some things don’t

Sixty years later, one thing about Silent Spring that still speaks strongly to us is the response it elicited. The chemical industry launched a fierce campaign to discredit Carson and to frame the real threat to society as pest insects, not insecticides.

Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, this kind of ‘hard ball’ response is still found today, a recent Australian example being then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s campaign to portray a fixed price for carbon introduced in 2011 as a ‘tax’. Only some years after Abbott had won government on the back of this campaign would his then Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, acknowledge that ‘it wasn’t a tax as you know… we made it a tax … [T]hat was brutal retail politics …’

Our inability to find a collaborative way of dealing with what are, after all, shared problems, remains our heaviest policy shackle.

On the other hand, while federal intervention didn’t save Pedder in the 1970s, it did save the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin (‘Franklin’) dam in the 1980s.

In fact, the Hawke Labor government came to power in 1983 on the back of a promise to do just that. Even my conservative mother wrote ‘No Dams’ on her ballot paper, something I still find hard to believe nearly 40 years later.

The Pedder campaign and the subsequent campaign to block the nearby Gordon-below-Franklin dam a decade later present a graphic illustration of just how rapidly environmental politics and power could evolve.

The Pedder campaign failed where the Franklin campaign succeeded. Pedder was protected but its (State) protected status did not save it; the Franklin was saved by gaining that status (federally).

Federal intervention failed in the case of Pedder but succeeded for Franklin. More accurately, federal intervention in the form of federal offers, in effect, to buy Tasmania out of its development plans, failed in both cases; federal intervention ultimately succeeded for the Franklin because of federal legislation.

The Commonwealth was able to use a Constitutional springboard, World Heritage listing, that did not exist at the time of Pedder. By the time of the Franklin controversy this springboard had come into existence by dint of Australia’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention in 1974. (The full legal mechanics of this, including the High Court battle over the Commonwealth’s World Heritage Properties Act 1983, are a story for another blog).

And when things do change, sometimes it’s forever and sometimes maybe not …

But the Lake Pedder story may not be finished. Now there’s a campaign, fifty years after it was flooded, to restore the lake to its original glory. They say restoration is possible.

Unfortunately, for many things environmental, restoration is not possible. But dialogue about our shared environmental problems, including the need to invest in restoration, remains possible, no matter how unlikely it may appear at present.

About as likely as the restoration of Lake Pedder.

Post Script: This is the first instalment of a new series of occasional blogs I am working on that reflects on environmental policy failures and successes, and the lessons they provide. The series has the working title of ‘policy lessons’.

Image: The shores of Lake Pedder prior to it being drowned in 1972 for a hydro-electric scheme. (Photo by Stefan Karpiniec, CC BY 2.0)

We need a BIG win for the environment

Featured

Something to make us proud again

By David Salt

When was the last time our government did something really big, something landmark in scale, for the Australian environment?

Putting a price on carbon in 2011 was pretty big. Unfortunately, thanks to the ideological malfeasance of the Abbott Coalition Government, this was aborted in 2014 just as it was starting to make a difference to our country’s carbon emissions, so this was more of a big loss than a win. (Also, that was more about our nation’s contribution to global sustainability than to Australia’s environment per se.)

BIG wins in our Nation’s history

No, for something ‘big’ I think you need to look further back. Maybe it was 2004 when the Howard Coalition Government established one of the world’s best marine national parks on the Great Barrier Reef by increasing no-take areas from 5% to 33% (using some of the world’s cutting edge conservation science – which happened to be Australian led!).

And, on the topic of the Great Barrier Reef, maybe you’d cite the disallowance of oil drilling on the Reef in 1975, or the Reef’s successful selection as a World Heritage site for its outstanding natural values in 1981.

These were all world-leading big wins for the Australian environment; actions that made us feel proud of our environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, though each action was internationally noteworthy, none of them are saving the Great Barrier Reef (or coral reefs anywhere) from climate change.

But big wins weren’t merely reserved for our beautiful and much loved coral reef (with the earning potential of billions of dollars each year). The nation also felt proud when conservationists (represented by the Australian Conservation Foundation) shook hands with farmers (represented by the National Farmers Federation) to launch the movement known as Landcare in 1989. The Hawke Labor Government threw in $360 million and proclaimed a Decade of Landcare.

So popular was Landcare that it paved the way for even bigger packages of funding in the form of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) in 1997. The Howard Coalition Government forked up over $1 billion dollars (generated by the sale of Telstra) to drive the NHT. Some claim it was a bribe to get the public to accept the sale of our public telecommunications company (a claim I’ve made myself on occasion) but the significance here is that the success of Landcare and our desire to heal the land was strong enough for us to take the money.

The fact that Landcare hasn’t reversed the pattern of environmental degradation being witnessed across Australia or that the Australian National Audit Office found the NHT was ineffectual because the money was spread too thinly and without any real strategy reflected the enormity of the challenges we were facing. However, their establishment signalled the government was serious about the environment and the effort gave the electorate at least some reason to hope.

Standing together on ‘No Dams’

For my money, one of the biggest environmental wins in Australia was back in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government blocked the Tasmanian Government from building the Franklin Dam in south west Tasmania. The ‘No Dams’ campaign saw the will of the Australian people triumph over the vested interests of the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. As a nation we stood up, through the national government, and defended the values of a World Heritage river that was destined to be drowned. Saving it made the nation proud.

I think it’s true that we have had big environmental wins in the past; symbolic and real. But the examples I cite (from 1983, 1989 and 2004) are now many years old. And, if ever there was a time we needed something to make us feel good and try harder, now is that time.

Now more than ever

Now, as we see climate-fuelled disasters rise and rise we need a signal that we still have a capacity for wise environmental stewardship.

Now, as we see our children throw up their hands in despair, we need to provide them something to believe in.

Now, as we see tribalalised politics and polarising partisanship tear asunder community trust, we need to provide examples of partnerships and alliances between traditional adversaries (farmers and conservationists for example) to demonstrate good faith and common purpose.

Now, as we see fake news, conspiracy and hate speak fill our media feeds, we need to see good governance, accountability and transparency in taking on the environmental challenges that beset us.

So, as we launch into a new decade, I call on environmentalists and nature lovers everywhere (individuals, NGOs, public servants, business people, farmers, researchers and decision makers): keep up your good fight for sustainability, call out injustice where you see it, but put some of your mental reserves into coming up with ideas for something BIG for the environment that has the potential to build hope, common purpose and pride.

Image by alicia3690 from Pixabay 

Red lines for green values

Featured

What ‘standards’ are we prepared to accept in an overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws?

By Peter Burnett

When Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is tabled, which must occur by early February, we can expect to see recommendations for a complete overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws.

In an interim report in July, Samuel declared the EPBC Act to be a failure. Auditor-General Grant Hehir reached similar conclusions in his contemporaneous review of federal environmental approval processes under the same Act.

Despite having received the Samuel Review on 30 October, the Government continued to press a bill it had introduced in August to ‘streamline’ environmental approvals by devolving approval powers to the States in advance of the Review.

Professor Samuel had supported devolution in his interim report in July, but only in the context of a full reform package built on a foundation of his proposed National Environmental Standards.

A Senate Inquiry into the streamlining bill prompted key crossbench Senators to oppose it, not because they were necessarily opposed to devolution but because the government refused to provide them with the Samuel Review and other key supporting documents.

At the last moment, environment minister Sussan Ley provided the Inquiry, and thus all of us, with a copy of the draft Standards from the Samuel Report.

The draft Standards are the key to national environmental reform and thus worth a closer look, even without the benefit of the full Samuel Report.

Why set standards?

The standards deal with the so-called ‘matters of national environmental significance’ that are protected by the EPBC Act. Some of these like World Heritage and threatened species are well known. Others, such as internationally significant ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, are not.

Despite being confined to the Commonwealth’s responsibilities, the standards address the bulk of Australia’s most significant natural environmental and heritage values (other than climate), and have implications for the rest.

A key problem with many environment protection laws, including the EPBC Act, is that they require decision makers to follow due process and to consider various policies and principles (in Australia, often built around the concept of ‘ecologically sustainable development’) but without setting a bottom line based on maintaining essential environmental values and functions.

This enables a culture in which decision-makers can, and often do, pay lip service to the environment while approving its ongoing decline. Sometimes this lip service is paid by burdening industry with numerous ‘strict conditions’, thus delivering a ‘lose-lose’ outcome.

National Environmental Standards could change all that. Their key purpose is to set minimum environmental outcomes, including for decisions devolved to states.

A good set of environmental standards will identify our most important environment and heritage values and define the level of environmental function needed to maintain those values over time. The effect of standards is to place off-limits any deliberate degrading of these values and functions. One result is that significant or irreversible environmental loss cannot be traded for an economic or social gain, no matter how large, except possibly in national emergencies.

The Samuel Standards

Professor Samuel delivered a set of 10 national environmental standards, one overarching and one for each of nine matters of national environmental significance. The Standards would be relevant to activities and decisions at all scales but their most obvious application would be in assessing development proposals.

Apart from being innovative in themselves, the standards introduce policy concepts such as a ‘principle of non-regression’ and the ‘ecological feasibility’ of biodiversity offsets.

They also give new recognition to some not-so-new concepts such as the need to consider the impacts of development proposals on a cumulative basis. This would address a long-standing concern of environmentalists that individual developments chip away at environmental values, a process known colloquially as ‘the death of a thousand cuts’.

Addressing cumulative impacts implies there should be a bottom line for each species and ecosystem. To take a current example, it implies that government should determine a minimum viable habitat and population for koalas, probably for each population region. As this threshold of viability was approached, development approvals with koala impacts would become increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to obtain. (The corollary is that if the threshold has been crossed, investment in recovery and restoration is an imperitive).

The standards are certainly not perfect. In discussions within a consultative group of which I was a member, Professor Samuel made clear his dislike for ‘weasel words’, a dislike that I share.

Unfortunately, the standards retain too many of these undesirable creatures. Some, such as ‘promote’ and ‘not inconsistent with’ come from the existing Act, while others such as ‘all reasonable efforts’ are new.

There is much to welcome and discuss in these standards, but I would start with an edit. This would be for policy clarity, not drafting elegance.

Red lines for a green solution?

The standards present the Government with a conundrum. On the one hand, with the EPBC Act declared a failure and the environment in ongoing and increasingly obvious decline, the case for reform is overwhelming and the potential of the standards as a foundation for action is great.

On the other hand, implementing standards would require a major and costly upgrade of our regulatory infrastructure, starting with what Samuel has described as a ‘quantum shift’ in the availability of environmental information.

Setting standards would also amount to drawing red lines for nature. As the Brexit negotiations most-recently illustrate, red lines can attract a world of political pain.

Image by Shell brown from Pixabay

2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene

Featured

Banking on yesterday’s ‘normal’ is the worst form of denial

By David Salt

As 2020 draws to a close everyone is praying for a return to ‘normal’. We crave free social (mask-less) interaction and we all want to go to the beach for a swim without fear of catastrophic bush fires. And we want to jump on a plane and head to exotic locations and not worry about our health. And we also want the economy to be strong so we and our children are gainfully employed.

None of this was available to us in 2020 but hopes are high for decent rain this summer (in Australia, anyway), and effective CoVID vaccines are being deployed so there are growing expectations that we may now be able to control the CoVID pandemic.

But does that mean a return to ‘normal’ is coming our way? Our political leaders would like you to believe it; and all the rhetoric is about firing up the economy so the good times can flow.

Three new reports on what climate change is doing to our environment, society and economy paint a very different picture.

Bye bye world heritage

Last week the IUCN released a sobering Outlook report on the condition and trajectory of the planet’s 252 natural World Heritage sites. It found that a third of these sites are being threatened by climate change.

The outlook for five Australian World Heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. The conservation outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from “significant concern” to “critical” – the most urgent status under the IUCN system. Of course, the GBR is in serious trouble having suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years during the 2019-20 (Black) summer.

Three years ago UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that under a business-as-usual emissions scenario all 29 coral-containing World Heritage sites would cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century.

Keep in mind that World Heritage status is only awarded to places of outstanding universal value and where national governments make commitments to protect those values. Australia acknowledges the existential threat that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef but still refuses to taken any meaningful action on reducing our own emissions, let alone campaigning for better emission reductions around the world. That contradiction makes my country a major convention abuser.

Hello health blues

And if the loss of our world’s most precious natural ecosystems doesn’t sober you up, then maybe the annual report from The Lancet on Health and Climate Change will. Among other things it found:

-there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades),

-that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019

-145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.

These numbers put CoVID impacts into the shade but our political leaders feel free to ignore them because they range over temporal and spatial scales that lie beyond their electoral timeframes.

However, as the authors of The Lancet report note: “We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.”

Adding up our sovereign climate risk

Mirroring The Lancet’s report but coming from the economic end of town, a new report from Four Twenty Seven (an affiliate of Moody’s) has assessed sovereign climate risk. Among other things it found:

-Heatwaves: Over 25% of the world’s population in 2040 could be in areas where the frequency and severity of hot days far exceeds local historical extremes, with negative implications for human health, labour productivity, and agriculture. In some areas of Latin America, climate change will expose 80-100% of agriculture to increased heat stress in 2040.

-Flooding: By 2040, the number of people exposed to damaging floods is predicted to rise from 2.2 billion to 3.6 billion people, or from 28% to 41% of the global population, with roughly $78 trillion, equivalent to about 57% of the world’s current GDP exposed to flooding.

-Tropical storms: Over half of the population in small island developing nations are exposed to either hurricanes and typhoons or coastal flooding amplified by sea level rise. In the United States and China alone, over $10 Trillion worth of GDP (PPP) is exposed to hurricanes and typhoons.

The new normal

These are just three reports in recent weeks. They are backed by hundreds of other reports, analyses and research programs from all sectors of society that have emerged throughout this year and over recent decades. And they all bear the same message – human induced climate change has disrupted the ‘normal’. The devastation of recent years is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Yes, we need action on carbon emissions today but we also need a real acknowledgement from our governments of what is happening around us.

In Australia we are led by a Conservative government that is in profound denial of what the ‘new normal’ means. They place their faith in technology to deliver an endlessly growing economy in which no-one needs to sacrifice a scintilla of their way of life – it’s win win all the way.

They believe the certainty of yesteryear will return with a few percentage points of extra productivity and maybe a slightly better resourced emergency services sector.

And this can be seen in their refusal to commit to zero net emissions by 2050. They claim they won’t make such a commitment till they fully understand its impact on economic growth, till they know its cost.

They believe their economic modelling of what lies over the event horizon is more robust and dependable than the hundreds and hundreds of evidence-based reports warning us of the impacts of the climate change today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

The economy of 2050 will be so totally different, both in form and function, to the economy of 2020 that our Government’s position of using future economic cost to defend its lack of action on climate change today is fatuous, abhorrent and immoral. It is a fundamental denial of everything that’s happening around us today.

(This implicit denial also frequently spills over into explicit statements of denial. Consider yesterday’s outburst from Australia’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt who castigated a climate change warning from the United Nations secretary-general as an inconsequential “grand statement”.)

A new niche for humanity

Our Government’s denial of what the new normal means for society leaves us vulnerable. They claim they are making Australia resilient, when in truth they are doing the opposite, leaving us exposed.

Humanity has changed the very Earth system and we are only just beginning to appreciate what life in the Anthropocene means.

Earlier this year a group of eminent Earth systems scientists asked what this new normal meant for humanity. They found that temperature increases over the coming 50 years will see the migration of 1 to 3 billion people. One of the scientists, Marten Scheffer, explains the logic behind this analysis in a short engaging YouTube clip.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war destabilised much of Europe. We still don’t know what lasting scars this migration event will have. Multiply that by a hundred, by a thousand, and the world looks quite a different place.

We live in challenging times with an uncertain future. To be better prepared for that future we need real, widespread and effective efforts to eliminate carbon emissions. But we also need our leaders to acknowledge that this world is changing, and that they (with us) need to work with that change, not deny it.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Reforming national environmental law: first get rid of it, then fix it?

Featured

By Peter Burnett

While our country (and the world) has been gripped by the unravelling saga of the CoVID pandemic, our national government has been conducting a quiet plan to devolve most decision-making under our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), to the States, before a major review of the Act hit the deck.

I think this plan has now been derailed, though as I write, a couple of sitting days remain for cross-bench deal making in the Senate.

Some background

Regular readers will know that I often write about the EPBC Act. In part this is because I have worked with this law for a long time (both as a public servant and as a researcher) and have developed a strange kind of affection for its labyrinthine ways.

But I am also keenly interested in the performance of this legislation because its ups and downs are a reasonable proxy for the general health of Australian environmental policy. Unfortunately, the EPBC Act has been having a lot more downs than ups recently.

The Act has just undergone its second 10-year review by Professor Graeme Samuel AC. Professor Samuel was scathing in his Interim Report delivered in July. He found that the Act was ineffective and had lost the trust of business and environmentalists alike. An Auditor-General’s report tabled at the same time was equally scathing of the way the Act was being administered.

The key recommendation of Samuel’s Interim Report was that a revamped EPBC Act should be based on National Environmental Standards. These would actually set some bottom lines for environmental approvals and put an end to the current ‘tick-the-process-boxes-and-then-decide-anything-you-like’ approach.

The Government received Professor Samuel’s Final Report at the end of October 2020. The Government has yet to release it.

The ‘green tape’ narrative and ‘streamlining’ environmental decisions

In the meantime, and even after the Interim Report revealed the story of a failed law and ongoing environmental decline, the Government has maintained its single-track narrative of ‘cutting green tape’ and the need for ‘streamlining’ to increase regulatory efficiency.

In fact, the Government has long wanted to devolve Federal environmental approvals to the States and it would be fair to say that since it won the 2019 election it has been champing at the bit to make it happen.

Unfortunately for the Government, the mechanism built into the EPBC Act to allow this devolution cannot work without some mostly-minor legislative tweaks, requiring the support of a Senate it does not control.

The Government’s sense of urgency seems to have got the better of it, possibly because the Prime Minister tagged environmental devolution as one of the ingredients for a post-Covid economic recovery. Documents released under freedom of information reveal that back in February the Prime Minister’s position was that to avoid pre-empting the Samuel review, the legislative tweaks would need bipartisan support.

By August, when the ‘Streamlining Bill’ was introduced, this was no longer the Government’s position. Now, the narrative was that the Streamlining Bill, although a replica of a failed bill from back in 2014 (when Tony Abbott was in charge) and lacking any of the Samuel reforms including provision for National Environmental Standards, was in fact the first tranche of reform linked to the Samuel Review.

It was left to others to make the argument that the Streamlining Bill was pre-emptive and should not proceed ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.

Initially the Government was in a great hurry, to the point that it guillotined the vote in the House of Representatives and prevented independent MP Zali Steggall from introducing an amendment to provide for National Environmental Standards.

Still in a hurry, the Government successfully opposed two attempts to have the Bill considered by a Senate Committee. Eventually however it rolled over and supported a third motion to refer the bill to committee; presumably when it became clear that the Government would not have any chance or wooing the cross-bench without committee consideration.

Senate Inquiry

So the Senate Environment and Communications Committee established an Inquiry into the Bill. Normally these things take some months, but on this occasion the Inquiry was to report within several weeks, which meant that submissions had to be written quickly and a hearing conducted within days of submissions closing.

Was this part of a deal with the cross-bench, I wondered? Is there any point in dropping everything to dash off a submission? Putting my doubts aside I wrote a submission and was lucky enough to be invited to give evidence before this Committee.

Although I had often appeared before Senate Estimates Committees as a public servant, this was the first time in which I had appeared on my own behalf and was free to say pretty much anything I wanted.

I have to say I enjoyed the experience. It was good to be having my say and to be heard by members of our apex institution.

What’s more, the questions were relevant and informed. A colleague had recently been on the receiving end of some politically-loaded questions in another committee, but there were no such antics here.

The Committee reported quickly. At the end of the day the crucial cross-bench Senators accepted the argument that it was pre-emptive to be pushing this bill through ahead of Samuel’s Final Report.

So it looks like the Streamlining Bill will not pass before that report is tabled; this must occur before the end of February.

An unexpected revelation

Sometimes this kind of proceeding produces some unexpected revelations, which is one reason that governments don’t like them: such developments can derail a carefully constructed narrative.

On this occasion, officials revealed that in addition to the Streamlining Bill, the Government had drafted, but not tabled, a provision to provide for the making of National Environmental Standards by legislative instrument (ie, something similar to what Ms Zali Steggall MP had tried to do).

This is significant because by long-standing policy, set out in the Legislation Handbook, legislation is only drafted once the Government has approved the underlying policy. In other words, laws are only drafted for introduction. The system does not allow for drafting on a contingent or speculative basis, including by individual ministers.

The implication is that the Government has actually decided to support the idea of legislated National Environmental Standards. The fact that draft legislation for the standards has not been tabled suggests one of two things.

The first is that the government is breaking its own rules by drafting legislation on a contingent basis, presumably to introduce only if it couldn’t get its Streamlining Bill through. This would be an attempt to game the Senate and is a display of bad faith.

An alternative explanation is that there was some kind of rear-guard action within the Government, most likely a move from conservatives to block legislation for national standards that might constrain State development approvals under devolved arrangements.

Both explanations seem somewhat unikely but I favour the second, as a display of bad faith towards the Senate could cruel the pitch for other government proposals. If I am right, the cause of reforming biodiversity and heritage protections could be as fraught as that of climate policy reform.

Assuming the Streamlining Bill is dead, the next step is for the Government to table the Samuel Review. Hopefully this will trigger a wide-ranging debate on the environment, focused around a set of draft environmental standards and overwhelm the government’s one-track focus on ‘green tape’.

In my view we have never really had this debate and it would be good for us all to be confronted with the question, in the broad, of how much environment protection we want and whether we are prepared to pay for it.

But will the Government table an effective reform package to replace an Act which, all seem to agree, is a failure? Or, based on the climate policy precedent, should we expect a continued one-track focus on ‘green tape’ and ‘reforms’ that do little to address the policy failures that Professor Samuel and the Auditor General have identified?

Image by 3Dinaani from Pixabay

2020 hindsight

Featured

Earth, fire and water; and a deep foreboding on opportunities lost

By David Salt

Today [as I write this] is the first day of the Australian summer*. A hot north westerly is whipping up the temperature to an ‘uncomfortable’ 35 degrees C. I’d like to say ‘unseasonable’ but increasingly the ‘seasons’ make no sense. They did once, but that was about 20 years ago.

What a year

This time last year (December 2019) a fire raged down on the NSW south coast, unseasonably early but nothing to lose sleep over; fires, after all, are a natural part of the Australian environment.

But this fire simply didn’t go out. It burnt for months; chewing up forests, wildlife, homes, people, infrastructure and dreams. It stole Xmas, killed New Years, and blanketed eastern Australia in choking noxious fumes (closing down cities and killing scores of people in the process).

Then our city of Canberra was clobbered by an unseasonal hail storm (actually, it was the season for hail storms but this one was unprecedented in its ferocity). Forty thousand cars were destroyed in less than 15 minutes!

You may not believe this, but many of us joked at the time that given the run of disasters we had just endured that a plague just had to be just around the corner (CoVID had not been named at that instant)…

And now it is summer again. Temperature records are again being broken*; fires are again breaking out across Australia (though not with the intensity or scale of last year because it’s been raining); and forecasts are (again) for another mass coral bleaching.

Expect severe conditions, expect disruption; welcome to the Anthropocene.

By the way, everything we’ve experienced in the past year has been long forecast by science, if not in detail then definitely in spirit. However, our political leaders, experts in discounting long-term uncertainty while capitalising on short-term political expediency, have encouraged us not to worry about counting the costs decades down the line. (In fact, Prime Minister Morrison claims he can’t sign up to net zero by 2050 because he’s not able to count the costs 30 years ahead.)

But think where things were only 20 years ago. Imagine what we might have achieved if we had been honestly thinking about the costs we (and our children) would be paying in a couple of decades.

Twenty years in hindsight

So what were you doing, thinking and worrying about 20 years ago? Because Australia’s Radio National, along with many other organisations, journalists and academics (and the odd errant blogger), have been asking how has the world developed over the past 20 years – one fifth of the way into the first century of this new millennium. Among other things they looked at pop culture, technology, Indigenous affairs and health (apparently in the high income world in the last 20 years we’ve done well on aids and infectious disease but not so well on heart disease and obesity – who’d have thought).

What I haven’t seen is too many commentaries on sustainability policy over the last two decades – and yet there is so much to comment on in this space in Australia. Some pretty big ‘landmark’ laws and policies were put in place but have they addressed the challenges they were created for?

1999 (pretty much the same thing as 2000 so I include it in my 2020 retrospective) saw the launch of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act aimed at protecting our nation’s natural values (and specifically our biodiversity). It’s undergone two decadal independent reviews; has been the centre of an ongoing fight about green tape, farmer’s rights to clear and miner’s rights to destroy. It’s generated a lot of heat and light, and been the whipping boy of every conservative government we’ve had in that time (even though it was established by a conservative government). What it hasn’t done is slow or reverse Australia’s biodiversity crisis and during its operation we’ve lost a species of bat, skink and rat (and probably a whole lot more that we haven’t even noticed). More recently, we’ve watched on while once common icons like Tasmanian devils, koalas and platypuses have slid towards the precipice.

Then there was the National Water Initiative launched in 2004 aimed at dealing with the over-allocation of water to agriculture from Australia’s major river systems in the Murray-Darling Basin. This was followed a $10bn national plan in 2007, built around the nation’s first national Water Act, that aimed to place water management in the Murray-Darling basin on a sustainable footing and in particular to halt salinity, reverse the collapse of the Coorong and Lower Lakes in South Australia and the widespread degradation of wetlands, floodplain forests, native fish and waterbirds across the Basin. The Basin Plan made under the Water Act has been a failure. Remorseless politicking by irrigators and farmer lobby groups, and gaming of the system by the states saw cuts to the amounts of water provided for environmental flows, failing governance, water theft and cheating. Toxic algal blooms, dying towns and mass fish kills were the result.

And who could forget our merry lark involving putting a price on carbon? The Greens Party managed to block the first serious effort (something called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) in a tangled dance involving a mega-maniacal Prime Minister named Rudd, a Machiavellian-styled opposition leader called Abbott and a failed international consensus staged in Copenhagen. It all came to tears in 2009 and directly led to the toppling of Rudd the following year (opening up a torrid decade of political instability at the national level).

The next serious effort was undertaken by the Gillard Government and resulted in a Clean Energy Plan that came with a carbon price scheme launched in mid 2012. And it worked. It’s been estimated that the scheme cut carbon emissions by as much as 17 million tonnes, the biggest annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 24 years of records in 2013 as the carbon tax helped drive a large drop in pollution from the electricity sector. But it also didn’t work in that the incoming Abbott Government was able to dismantle the scheme and Australia has gone from being a world leader in tackling carbon emissions to a world laggard.

No certainty

Of course, since then a lot of bad stuff has happened to Australia’s environment (and its people). In addition to the mass fish kills we’ve endured mass coral bleachings, collapsing ecosystems on land and unprecedented wild fires.

We’ve seen the brutal rise of despotism and nepotism around the world, the collapse of traditional media, the contraction of the rule of law, and an epidemic of conspiracy and fake news.

Looking back from the present day, the world of two decades ago seems a very different place. Back then I thought science held the answer, and truth would eventually win out. By and large, however, we have failed to meet the environmental challenges facing our nation (biodiversity, water security and climate emissions as three important examples), and we are increasingly unable to trust the very words that fill our multiple media feeds.

On the plus side, a new generation of young people are asking hard questions about the environment they are inheriting. They are prepared to talk truth to power, are questioning the paradigm of unfettered economic growth and are demanding climate justice in an increasingly unfair world.

There is no certainty about what the future holds, but with 40 years of climate change already locked in even if we could stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, we know that 2040 will be a place very different from the space we occupy today.

Banner image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*Mercury rising: And, as you may now have heard, on this the first day of summer, the data (from the Bureau of Meteorology) is in and Australia just had its warmest spring (and November) on record! The national mean temperature for spring was 2.03ºC above the 1961-1990 average, the first ever spring with an anomaly above 2ºC.

The frog in the equation

Featured

In this story, the sting is in the tale

By David Salt

Frogs figure heavily in cautionary moral fables. But some frog tales are more helpful than others in serving as a guide to sustainable living. Consider these batrachian parables.

The boiling frog

Possibly best known is the parable of the boiling frog.

So this frog notices the water it’s in is warming, but doesn’t sense danger because the increase in temperature is so gradual that it doesn’t think to get out. Unfortunately, at a certain point, the water becomes so hot the frog dies.

This the fable of the frog in the saucepan, often referred to as the boiling frog story*. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring small changes and has been much used to warn of us about a variety of concerns from environmental degradation through to the rising tide of communism. Indeed, I alluded to it in my last discussion on humanity ignoring the increasing frequency of ‘natural’ disasters due to climate change.

While the story itself is has no basis in reality, frogs don’t hang around when the temperature increases beyond its comfort zone** – they are ecotherms, hard wired to respond to changing temperatures – the moral of the metaphor is important; don’t take incremental changes for granted when the trend suggests it will take you to a bad (even disastrous) place.

As metaphors go, it’s a great cautionary story; simple, evocative and brimming with intuitive truth. Don’t take cumulative little changes for granted.

And it’s been much used in campaigns on sustainability to warn us about where our rampant consumption of the Earth’s resources is taking us. We think it’s okay to clear that patch of bush (it’s only a tiny piece of nature); to turn a blind eye to a few more parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (parts per million! for God’s sake how insignificant is that); and to not even notice sea levels are rising (we’re talking millimetres, tides and waves are measured in metres, sea level rise is nothing by comparison) – we take it all for granted, only think of ourselves in the short term and, before you know it, we’re roasting in hell like a boiled frog.

So, the message and the metaphor is clear; be alert, be alarmed, temperature’s rising, do something. Don’t wait till tomorrow.

The drowning frog

Then there’s scorpion that wants to cross a river. It asks the frog to carry it over. The frog says: “No, you’ll sting me.”

“But then I’d drown with you,” responds the scorpion, “that simply doesn’t make sense.”

The frog acknowledges this, allows the scorpion to climb on its back and begins swimming. Half way over the scorpion stings the frog. As they go under the frog wants to know why: “Why did you do that? Now we’re both going to die!”

The scorpion responds: “Because I’m a scorpion.”

Of course, what the scorpion means is that scorpions, by their nature, will always sting. It’s not rational; it’s just how things work.

It’s been pointed out by some that this is a strange fable; there’s no obvious moral here. Everyone dies. And yet I suspect the ‘drowning’ frog is possibly more instructive than the ‘boiling frog’.

The disappearing frog

Actually, this final tale is not a parable but it alludes to an important metaphor – take note of the ‘canary in the climate coal mine’.

Species of frogs are disappearing all over the world. Over a third of all known species of frogs (and amphibians more generally) are considered at risk of extinction making them the most at risk group of vertebrates on the planet.

Frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s, coincidently the same period that saw unbounded economic growth begin to distort the Earth system, the so called Great Acceleration. The Great Acceleration continues to this day, but it now underpins an exploding biodiversity crisis.

More than 120 species of frog are believed to have gone extinct since the 1980s. Among these species are the gastric-brooding frog of Australia and the golden toad of Costa Rica. Habitat loss and degradation, pollution, disease, invasive species and climate change are the main threats putting amphibians at risk of extinction though in some cases what’s knocking them off isn’t clear.

Many environmental scientists believe frogs are good biological indicators of broader ecosystem health because of their intermediate position in food chains, their permeable skin (making them sensitive to toxins in the environment), and their aquatic/terrestrial life cycles. If something is slowly disturbing natural balances, it’s expected impacts will show up first in frog populations.

It’s not known why populations of the golden toad in Costa Rica crashed in 1987, along with about 20 other frog species in the area. These species lived in the pristine Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the population crash could not be linked directly to human activities, such as deforestation; but something was happening. Are frogs our planetary early warning system, our canaries?

Canaries were once used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. The little birds would keel over before the gas was detected by the miners.

Temperature’s still rising

So what should we take away from these tales of frogs?

Clearly something is killing them at rates never before seen. Most of the drivers of their extinction are well understood (though not all) but humanity is not responding to the many small (and sometimes big) changes we’re seeing around us.

There’s a lot we could do immediately to slow their rate of loss: stop clearing native vegetation, invest more in our protected area system, and better resource research into frog disease (especially the chytrid fungus disease).

And the ‘elephant’ in the room is climate change as it multiplies all the other stressors impacting on frogs. And tackling climate change requires a transformation of the way humanity does business.

As it stands, humanity is doing neither (that is acting on immediate or longer term threats to frogs) and this is reflected in our abysmal multiple failures on meeting agreed targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

On the one hand, it’s all so ‘boiling frog’; except it’s humans not frogs who are basking in the slowly heating water, relishing the warmth while wondering why the canary has just fallen off its perch; could it have anything to do with that elephant over there that no one wants to talk about? What a menagerie of metaphor we find ourselves in.

For me, however, the ‘boiling frog’ fable simply doesn’t cut it. We can claim that we, as individuals, aren’t experiencing the changing ‘climate signal’ because it’s lost in the ‘weather noise’ – “gee it was hot last summer, wasn’t it?; and what about those fires”; “but summers are meant to be hot, and we’re always having fires”…

However, as a society, we can’t hide behind the incremental nature of global change. With an overwhelming scientific consensus coupled with over 50 years of empirical evidence, we can’t deny the ‘rising water temperature’ around us or the consequences of what all this means for future generations.

Which is where the ‘drowning frog’ (with the stinging scorpion on its back) comes to the fore. Except in this parable, it’s we humans who are the scorpion (and the frog is the Earth system that sustains us).

Why did we do it? It’s simply in our nature.

*Here’s another telling of the boiling frog story, a rather more eloquent version, from Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B: “If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”

**Whit Gibbons from the University of Georgia wrote up this rebuttal on the truth of boiling frogs back in 2007. Quoting Dr Vic Hutchison, Whit recorded: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Image by David Salt

Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020

Featured

“Yes Senator? When will we save that adorable possum? I’ll take that on notice.”

By Peter Burnett

It seems that there are 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and that not a single plan had been finalised in the last 16 months! How do we hold government to account about this? Maybe the Senate Estimates Committee can extract some answers.

The average person is unlikely to have heard of Senate Estimates Committee hearings. Even when these obscure (and typically dull) proceedings generate the occasional political frisson, as they did with last month’s unexpected revelation that Australia Post had rewarded high performing executives with Cartier watches, the brand ‘Estimates’ will barely register.

Yet the Cartier watches revelation has now cost Christine Holgate, Australia Post’s Chief Executive, her job, and there were also casualties in the corporate regulator, ASIC. So, despite their obscurity, these are definitely proceedings to keep an eye on.

While Environment Estimates produced nothing as coruscating as the toppling of a CEO, for the aficionado there were, as ever, a few small gems among the dross.

To illustrate my point, in this blog I’ve focused on a perennial favourite with Senators in Environment Estimates – programs dealing with threatened species.

Nothing to see here, possums

One reason for the popularity of threatened species in estimates is that individual ‘cute-and-cuddly’ species such as the koala are very useful in drawing political attention to the complex issues of biodiversity decline and the parlous state of government efforts to do something about it.

Take for example the ongoing failure of the Commonwealth and Victorian governments to produce a recovery plan for Leadbeater’s possum after more than a decade.

Despite the very long delay in producing a recovery plan for the possum, officials gave evidence that they were “working very closely with Victoria”. Was the problem with the Victorian end, asked a Senator? Admirably, the Commonwealth official replied that she did not want to pass the buck to Victoria and so would “take responsibility for the timeframes”.

In that case, could the official give the Senator any information about why it was taking so long and what were the problematic issues? It turned out that Commonwealth officials were trying to understand the implications of Victoria’s 2019 decision to exit native forest industries. Were Victorian officials not being forthcoming with the details? “It is taking longer than I would have expected to get those details from Victoria” came the understated reply.

In that case, could the official tell the Senator what monitoring there was of the possums? Answer: “there is a range of monitoring underway undertaken by the Victorian government under the regional forest agreement” [RFA] but the detail was a matter for the officials who looked after RFA’s and they would not be available until the evening.

What then was the official’s expectation as to the timeframe for completing the recovery plan negotiations? Official: “Knowing that I said ‘shortly’ last time, I’m hesitant to repeat that time frame.”

And so it went on, ultimately leaving us none the wiser as to why the plan was taking so long or when it might be finished.

Not much to see anywhere else, either

The story is no better and the information no more forthcoming at a higher level. So, on this matter of 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and not a single plan being finalised in the last 16 months: And how long will it take to get through this backlog, asked one Senator? “It will take a very long time,” came the helpful senior official’s reply.

The Senator moved on to the government’s Threatened Species Strategy. This initiative was announced by then-environment minister Hunt in 2015. It set targets to improve the recovery trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plant species by 2020. Although the announcement included several grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, there was no ‘new’ money associated with the initiative.  

In thinking about a flagship strategy such as the Threatened Species Strategy, one can almost see the political wheels turning in the minister’s mind. The ‘cute-and-cuddly’ factor works for governments just as well as it does for oppositions and cross-benchers. If one is responsible for nearly 2000 listed species and communities, has a small budget and cannot even keep pace with the paperwork involved in producing recovery plans, what does one do?

The answer, one might infer from the Threatened Species Strategy, is to focus on eliminating something can be the ‘enemy’ (feral cats), and on turning things around for a small number of well-known and/or photogenic species, representing about 3.5% of all listed species and communities. Even these limited objectives are characterised as a ‘stretch target’.

The evidence of officials at Estimates was that, although a final report would not be available until early 2021, after three years the trajectories of the 6 of 20 birds and 8 of 20 mammals had improved. It’s clearly hard to make progress even with a narrow focus.

Perhaps the final results will be better. Perhaps in anticipation of this the current environment minister, Susan Ley, announced recently that there would be a follow-on strategy, this time with a 10 year horizon.

Officials were coy, but the tenor of their evidence concerning this new program was that, once again, there would be no new money involved. So we should probably expect something much like the strategy just ending.

Of course, the government had recently put some significant new money on the table, announcing $150 million for bushfire recovery. Officials said that $28 million of this would go to the department for administration, including to support the preparation of recovery plans.

So we may be about to see a jump in production, and even implementation, of recovery plans. However, this is a one off figure in the context of the enormous environmental damage done by the Black Summer, so it’s hardly something to be welcomed.

And the game goes on

As a former public servant, now an outsider looking in, I find Estimates frustrating to watch. Although you do stumble upon the odd gem, most of what you hear consists of politicians asking politically loaded questions of bureaucrats, who respond with reams of blather, including repeated procedural statements like “I’ll take that on notice” and “that question needs to be directed to [someone else who isn’t here]”.

After one estimates committee which I attended, nearly 30 years ago, my department head commented that “they didn’t lay a glove on us.” From the public servant’s point of you, it’s about running the gauntlet without being wounded.

From my present vantage point as a citizen however, estimates is yet another accountability mechanism where the practice of holding governments to account falls far short of the theory. The game goes on: non-government politicians try and extract information from public servants for political purposes, while ministers and public servants work studiously to reveal nothing beyond the mundane.

As serious as the accountability issue is, the more significant problem lies with programs such as the Threatened Species Strategy, which target a tiny slice of the problem and even then struggle to achieve a modest set of objectives.

Like Rome, the Australia’s environment has been burning. And, like Nero, it seems that for government, the fiddle will remain the instrument of choice.

Image by David Salt

Dissonance and disaster

Featured

These numbers simply don’t make sense

By David Salt

“It’s baffling,” says Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. She simply doesn’t understand why nations are continuing to knowingly “sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”.

That’s a pretty strong statement but Mami has a special insight on the topic being the Chief of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. She’s seen the numbers (and was talking about them on Disaster Risk Reduction Day earlier this month).

In the last two decades there have been 7,348 recorded disaster events worldwide. By comparison, the previous 20-year period (1980 to 1999) saw 4,212 reported disasters from natural hazards. And the science is clear as to why, the rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike. (‘Spike’ is the word used in the UN press release but I feel its use is quite inappropriate here. The word ‘spike’ suggests to me a sudden deviation from some ‘normal’ state. Once you’ve passed the spike you return to normal but that’s not what’s happening here. There’s no return to normal in any historical timeframe.)

Here are some other numbers that should chill you. From 1980 to 1999, natural hazards killed 1.19 million people, resulted in economic losses totalling $1.63 trillion and impacted more than three billion people.

From 2000 to 2019, natural hazards killed 1.23 million people, resulted in economic losses of $2.97 trillion, and impacted more than four billion people.

Rationalise this

A rationalist might suggest these numbers are suggesting we’re doing better at ‘disaster’. We had almost twice the number of disasters in these last two decades but roughly only a quarter more deaths and a only a third more people impacted (mind you, economic losses almost doubled). In other words, on average each disaster is killing fewer people.

But such a rationalisation only works if you believe we have a better handle on preventing disasters as we sail into the future. The trend, regrettably, is ever upwards; just as it is with carbon emissions, global temperatures and sea level. Of course, that’s no coincidence, as climate change is at the core of most of these disasters.

Indeed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported that the increase in disasters from natural hazards is a direct result of climate change: “This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires.”

Floods accounted for more than 40% of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people, storms 28%, and extreme temperatures 6%.

If human activity (associated with unbounded economic growth) is the driving problem here, it makes you wonder about the label ‘natural’ when we talk about disasters caused by ‘natural’ hazards.

Dissonance

And this is where Mami Mizutori admits to being “baffled”. The science is clear, and has been since the 1970s, but now the evidence of what’s happening (that this science has long predicted) is rolling in like a killer hurricane. Species are going extinct and ecosystems are collapsing before our eyes. Coral reefs are withering while forests at unprecedented scales are going up in flames.

Maybe we can insulate ourselves from such evidence by closing the blinds and turning the air con up. But when the roofs and walls are ripped from our homes by cyclonic wind, and floodwaters tear through our accumulated economic capital, surely we begin to do something about it. And this is what these disaster statistics are telling us. Climate change is beginning to rip apart the human world as much as it is destroying the natural world.

Now when it comes to disaster management, it has to be said some folks in some places are doing it better. The UNDRR report indicates that there has been some success in protecting vulnerable communities from isolated hazards, thanks to more effective early warning systems, disaster preparedness and response. However, the agency warned that projected global temperature rises could make these improvements “obsolete in many countries”.

Currently, the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2% annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

Do something!

So with the scorching winds of disaster bearing down on us, why aren’t we doing more?

Because change is hard, it’s difficult, there will be losers, and there are powerful vested interests with their hands firmly on the levers of power – all the reasons we’ve discussed over time in this blog – because sustainability bites.

And there are aspects of equity and justice woven into this equation too. The poor are much more vulnerable to disasters. The UNDRR report said that the data indicates that poorer nations experience death rates more than four times higher than richer nations.

So the richer industrialised nations which are creating the problem of increased disasters (through climate change) are not, in the first instance, the places that are suffering the most. In other words, they don’t see it as their problem.

Then, on top of all this, there is that wonderful capacity of humans to adapt to changing conditions, in this case to normalise extreme weather. A study released last year in PNAS found people have short memories when it comes to what they consider ‘normal’ weather. On average, people base their idea of normal weather on what has happened in just the past two to eight years. This disconnect with the historical climate record is thought to obscure the public’s perception of climate change.

The researchers behind this PNAS study suggested this is a classic case of the boiling-frog metaphor: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling hot water and immediately hops out. If, instead, the frog in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature, it doesn’t hop out and is eventually cooked. While scientifically inaccurate, this metaphor has long been used as a cautionary tale warning against normalizing the steadily changing conditions caused by climate change.

This latest report on disaster and climate change is another wake-up call – the water’s scorching! Surely we have more sense than a boiling frog?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Australian court calls into question Regional Forest Agreements

Featured

The days of RFAs may be numbered if the successful challenge by Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is anything to go by

By Peter Burnett

The recent decision of the Federal Court in Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc v VicForests (hereafter, the Possum Case) could have significant and possibly profound implications for the logging of native forests in Australia. In this case the court found that VicForests, a Victorian Government forestry corporation, was in breach of a statutory Code of Practice for Timber Production that had been accredited under a federal-state Regional Forest Agreement (RFA).

Being covered by an RFA has meant that VicForests was exempt from the normal requirements of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Because of this exemption, VicForests didn’t have to go through an environmental assessment and approval process each time it wanted to log in new areas that might contain endangered species or other ‘matters of national environmental significance’.

Of course, being in breach meant that this exemption was lost.

No simple fix

You might think that VicForests could deal with such a finding by simply bringing itself back into compliance with the code. It’s not that simple, however.

The code of practice required VicForests to comply with the precautionary principle. This in turn required them to conduct on-ground ecological surveys, with a view to avoiding serious and irreversible environmental damage. In this case, damage was possible to two endangered possums, the Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider.

In considering impacts on the possums, VicForests had relied on desktop modelling (including habitat mapping) instead of conducting surveys. The court said this was a flawed approach. It also found that policies such as VicForests’ Interim Greater Glider Strategy didn’t represent the required ‘careful evaluation of management options’ but rather were defensive documents. The content of these documents suggested that VicForests developed policies out of a sense of obligation and were reluctant to implement them.

The implication is that coming into compliance with the Code would be no small thing. It would require significant changes of approach and attitude. More significantly, given expert evidence that the possums had been detected in or around all of the 66 logging coupes considered in the case, it was likely that the possums, let alone any other environmental value, could severely restrict or even prevent logging altogether.

Playing possum

The Possum Case is on appeal, and of course the appeal could be successful. If it is not successful (and I think Justice Mortimer’s 444 page judgement will be difficult to pull apart in an appeal court because it rests much more on scientific evidence and practice than on the points of law to which an appeal court is confined) the Victorian government’s hand will be forced.

The government will either have to underwrite further losses as VicForests brings itself into compliance with environmental standards, or it will decide to accelerate the transition out of native forest logging. The option of watering down the rules, which is what the federal and Tasmanian governments did in an earlier case, is less likely because, again, the issues relate more to good science and practice than to legalities, making a lowering of the bar more obvious and thus harder to defend.

This is not the first challenge to Australia’s ten RFAs. Green activist and former Senator Bob Brown challenged the Tasmanian RFA in 2006 in the Weilangta case. He won in the first instance but lost on appeal. The Possum Case seems to have prompted him to try again: Brown has already commenced a fresh challenge to the Tasmanian RFA.

The main implication of the Possum Case may be that the days of RFAs are numbered.

A fresh approach

In one respect the end of RFAs would be unfortunate, as the underlying model of regional environmental assessments and approvals is a good one.

In another respect, if RFAs simply provide cover for defensive box ticking and green-washing rather than substantive conservation (something I discussed in an early blog), this would be no great loss.

RFAs provided a mechanism to settle the ‘forest wars’ of the 1990s. So, if RFAs are rendered inoperable by court challenges, will it be back to the forest wars?

Or do we now have a much better appreciation of the many values that our native forests provide; values that include a whole range of ecosystem services beyond timber production, such as carbon sequestration, water yield, habitat provisioning and recreational amenity? Heather Keith and her colleagues reached this conclusion in an important article published in Nature in 2017.

Sometimes we need a jolt to the system to get us thinking differently.

Image: This possum is stuffed: George is a taxidermied male Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) that Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum uses for its educational work relating to this threatened species. George was found dead but intact on the side of a logging road in 2011 in the Victorian Central Highlands. It is assumed that George’s home in the mountain ash (Eucalyptus Regnans) forests was a victim of logging, and as his home was being carted away he fell off the logging truck. (Image by Tirin (www.takver.com) and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Trust lies bleeding

Featured

A world of science is there to save us – and nobody trusts it

By David Salt

Every day the world goes a little crazier, and with every slip everyone grows more fearful of what the future holds. Central to our fears is trust, or a lack of it. If we can’t trust our leaders, or the institutions upon which civilisation is founded, then how can we trust in the future?

2020 has been an awful and tumultuous year full of ‘natural’ disasters, plague and populist politics. We want it to be over; we want some return to normal; but most of us are too scared to honestly engage with what science is telling us – that there is no return to ‘normal’ in respect of the Earth System.

Yesterday, as I write this, Trump announced he was CoVID positive (one of his few ‘positive’ tweets quipped one larrikin tweeter), one month out from the US election. Today it’s turning out the White House is actually a hotbed of infection. If things were uncertain, now they seem to be slipping towards deep chaos.

And chaos creates a feedback loop that can lead to despair.

The antidote to chaos is trust. When the chips are down, when the fire is lapping at our front door, when a pandemic stalks the streets; it’s trust in our leaders, our friends, our neighbours, our mainstream media, our emergency workers, and health workers (and other miscellaneous experts) that will see us through.

Trust is one of the bulwarks of community resilience, and in this year of tumult, I fear it’s often forgotten and been allowed to whither.

Science and truth

Trust lies bleeding and this has enabled our partisan politics to eviscerate truth; and that comes with some awful consequences. Consider the strange paradox of the power of science (and technology). It has enabled us to transform our planet while seemingly being impotent to save it.

On the one hand we have an enormous bank of evidence and a scientific consensus telling us that human activity has pushed Earth into a new state of being, referred to by many as the Anthropocene. Global modification involving too many carbon emissions, biodiversity decline and nutrient pollution (to name three planetary boundaries) is causing changes to our climate and life support systems. Our coral reefs are bleaching while our great forests are going up in flames. Sea ice is disappearing, the permafrost is melting and seas are rising – it’s everything science has been predicting but 2020 has seen those predictions become horrifyingly real.

Science has also told us what we need to do to reduce the impact of these changes.

On the other hand we see our political leaders pandering to the lowest common denominator; prioritising the short term over the long; and ignoring, discounting or rubbishing the science.

Consider this exchange a couple of weeks ago between President Trump and the California Secretary for Natural Resources in the wake of California’s horror fires:

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” – President Trump.

“I wish science agreed with you” – CA Natural Resources Secretary.

“I don’t think science knows actually.”- President Trump.

Trump has been denigrating and discounting the institution of science since he took office, as have many other populist leaders. It serves his political agenda and the coterie of vested interests that stand behind him.

He can stare into the flames of a massive and unprecedented conflagration and simply deny its reality and the science that explains it. That he is allowed to get away with this strikes me as surreal and absurd. However, that a sizeable chunk of America will simply accept what he says (they don’t think ‘science actually knows’ either) I find horrifying. They don’t trust science.

Trust this knowledge

It’s strange to think that we live at a time in history when science and technology (and specifically Information Technology) has made the world’s storehouses of knowledge (think libraries, universities and scientific journals) available to anyone with a smart phone or tablet. We have more scientists working today than at any time in history, and the power of science enables us to see further, or closer or finer than ever before.

And yet, in this same age, some 40% of Americans lap up every falsehood blurted out by a sociopathic anti-science president who has ignored all the warnings on climate change and CoVID to the detriment of his own country (and now looks to have fallen to the same infection he has shown no leadership on). A time when anti-vaxxers are on the rise, conspiracy theories abound and voodoo cures have as much currency as mainstream science.

I try to understand what explains this growing abyss between our burgeoning knowledge and the floundering confidence in that knowledge being shown by so many in the community; with one symptom of this gulf being the rise and rise of anti-truth tellers like Trump (and Bolsonaro in Brazil). And I think the answer has everything to do with the loss of trust.

Inequity and dispossession

It’s widely said that a major reason that Trump won in 2016 was because Hilary Clinton inadvisably described Trump’s supporters as “basket of deplorables”, people of little worth, who are ignorant and wrong-headed. It was enough, some believed, to rile them up and get them to spit in the eye of traditional politics and vote for Trump the outsider.

I think of that basket of deplorables as more of a barrel of the dispossessed. They largely come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and they no longer believe the future holds much for them. The status quo in recent decades seems to have enabled the rich to get even richer (truly filthy rich) while most of humanity looks at a bleaker and bleaker future.

Science reinforces this bleakness, shouting from the side lines that we’ll all be ruined if society doesn’t change to a more sustainable pathway.

And all the time inequity grows, while the winners of the status quo increase their stranglehold on the levers of power.

Trust lies bleeding.

In such an atmosphere, hyper charged by the reach and speed of social media, the simple solutions put forward by the Trumps, Johnsons and Bolsonaros of the world find fertile ground. And rather than solving the complex challenges rising around us, they sow further distrust and chaos.

Here’s just one topical example. According to Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic, 38% of media stories containing misinformation about the virus refer to the President: Trump is literally, not metaphorically, the single most important reason so many Americans distrust information they receive about the disease.

Cause or symptom

But the rise of the sociopathic liars I believe is a more a symptom than the cause of the problem. Their capacity to spread untruth is only made possible when a significant portion of the community don’t trust the mainstream media or the science it reports on.

Anti-vaxxers and Q-Anonists don’t get to spread their vicious conspiracies if the broader public is resistant to their poison; informed and responsive to real emerging threats.

And climate deniers (and the many vested interests that use them to sustain their wealth) won’t be able to distort and pervert important policy reform to move humanity to a more sustainable footing.

Today leaders are so obsessed with the impact of CoVID on our economic life (which clearly preferences society’s winners). Maybe we should all be rethinking our slavish neoliberal obsession with protecting traditional stocks of capital and investing more in social and environmental capital, and specifically making a few deposits into the rapidly draining trust bank.

Our capacity to absorb disturbance and sustain a quality life as we move into an increasingly uncertain future absolutely depends upon it.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow?

Featured

What would happen if we actually got decent environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

After several months of turbulent debate over what will become of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, we are approaching the end zone of Professor Graeme Samuel’s review. ‘Environmental Standards’ look set to become part of environmental regulation in Australia and many people, including me, are wondering whether they will be good enough and, even if they are, how will it change things.

Professor Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act is due in a month. The Government has jumped the reform gun by introducing ‘streamlining’ amendments to the Act designed to enable ‘single touch’ environmental decisions by states, replacing the dual system of federal and state decisions that we have now.

Although pitched by federal environment minister Sussan Ley as ‘the first tranche of EPBC Act reforms linked to the independent statutory review of the Act’, [link: ] this Bill is no more than a rebadged version of the Abbott Government’s 2014 ‘one stop shop’ Bill that failed to pass the Senate. It doesn’t include any of the reforms identified by Professor Samuel in his Interim Report, such as the application of binding National Environmental Standards to accredited State environmental decisions.

Once again the Government finds its path blocked in the Senate, although this time the three cross-benchers concerned are not necessarily opposed to the Bill, but only to the idea of passing ‘reforms’ without seeing the report to which the Government links them, or without a Senate Inquiry into the Bill, or perhaps both.

How will things play out?

My crystal ball isn’t good enough to see how all this might play out. Perhaps we’ll see a Senate Inquiry, not just into the streamlining Bill but into the full Samuel Report. This would put everything on the table, from threatened species protection to Indigenous heritage failures (think Juukan Gorge).

On this scenario, instead of being able to deliver the ‘single touch’ model by Christmas as part of its COVID-19 recovery plan, the Government might find itself wading through the environmental policy swamp in the Senate for months, where it does not control the numbers.

Another scenario is that, in an effort to avoid wading into the swamp, that the government cuts a deal with Labor on the policy. What if we ended up with bipartisan support for accreditation based on standards?

Are standards the answer?

On the surface, such a deal could be attractive politically and environmentally. We’d get the efficiency of ‘single touch’ decisions, with checks and balances in the form of standards: quick decisions, but not at the expense of the environment.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Professor Samuel recommended a phased approach, starting with interim standards, but refined over time with increasing ‘granularity’. This might mean that early standards are too general to be enforceable and so make little difference on the ground. Moreover, once interim standards were in place, States and developers alike would probably resist the progressive tightening that would come if the Commonwealth embarked on a program of rolling out progressively more-detailed standards.

Standards would be a new element in the environmental decision-making equation. As such, they represent something of a wild card and would probably attract legal challenges as environment groups tried to establish that standards should make a real difference to decisions.

So we could get standards that don’t really work, or standards that generate controversy. Not all standards are good standards.

But what if we actually got a decent set of standards?

But what if the standards were ideal, clearly and accurately identifying what was needed to maintain or enhance the condition of important environmental values such as threatened species?

We’d still face significant problems.

First, we lack the ability to measure what’s happening to the environment on a routine and ongoing basis. We’d need to complement the standards with quality and up-to-date information. Professor Samuels said a ‘quantum shift is required in the quality of information, accessible data and information available to decision-makers’. This would be expensive and take years to implement.

Then there’s the politics. Given the parlous state of the environment, well-defined standards, applied with precision, would often throw up the answer ‘You can’t approve that. It would result in the degradation or loss of [insert environmental value here, eg significant area of critical habitat, river-flow needed to maintain a Ramsar wetland, etc]’.

I think many politicians know this, if not consciously, at least instinctively, and would not wish to go down this track. We’d be tapping into what makes the environment such a wicked problem.

‘Doing the right thing’ could come at significant opportunity cost to the economy, not to mention direct impacts on various vested interests, while the standards would place any failure to do so in stark relief. There’d be nowhere to hide, no fudges available.

The recent threatened walk-out from Government by the National Party in NSW, over new and more precise guidelines concerning koala habitat provides a foretaste of this.

Standards alone are not enough

To me, the missing link is a means to bring society along with new standards, to create a broad acceptance that maintaining a quality of life for our children, even our future selves, will require difficult decisions.

The Gillard Government sought to do this in its ‘Clean Energy Future’ climate package in 2011. One element of the package was a Climate Commission, charged with engaging with the ordinary person, through ‘town hall’ meetings and the like, to explain the need for climate action. Unfortunately, the Commission bit the dust along with the carbon price, in 2014.

I know that anything associated with the repealed carbon price is political anathema, but this is where we need to go. We need broad community acceptance that we can’t live beyond our environmental means, and to explain what that means.

After 75 years of ‘jobs and growth’ messages from Western governments, going back to US President Truman’s urging in his State of the Union address in 1945 to ‘move forward … to the full utilisation and development of our physical and human resources’, that’s a tall order indeed.

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

On target for disappointment

Featured

The Fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook is in and the judges are unanimous – we need better targets

By David Salt

Guess what? Humanity has missed its targets and is failing life on Earth.

We know this because the latest (and grandest) stocktake of efforts to save biodiversity has just been released and it shows that the world has failed to meet a single target it agreed to back in 2010. The stocktake is known as the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO), and this is the fifth such report.

GBO 5 reports on progress of 20 targets signed up to by signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Aichi in Japan in 2010. They are known as the Aichi Targets.

Rather than demonstrating that humanity acknowledges the existential importance of our natural capital and that we might be making steps to look after it, this Outlook report has told us we’re doing the opposite – we’re burning up that capital faster than ever before.

One stand out failure, among many, is that governments around the world are still subsidising environmental damage to the tune of $500 billion, rather than dismantling these perverse policies as they committed to do.

The funny thing is, rather than serving as a wakeup call galvanising governments to change their course, the general response has been to debate what will go into the next set of targets being discussed soon in Kunming China. If the current targets simply set us up for failure – even though they were designed to slow and maybe reverse the destruction of humanity’s life support – then maybe we should adopt more measured targets that are achievable. See the humour there?

Countdown to disappointment

The lead up to this epic fail (as documented by GBO 5) goes back some 30 years, in a documentable sense anyway; the broader history of biodiversity decline is really the flip side of the rise of Homo sapiens.

From the 1960s on there was growing concern around the world that rampant economic growth was resulting in unsustainable environmental degradation with the decline of biodiversity being one of its most worrying manifestations. To address this, most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to refine this somewhat vague aspiration by agreeing to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what nations signing up to the CBD hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

Well, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010 revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

I remember reading the press statements put out at the time of the release of the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 – in what was supposed to be a celebratory International Year of Biodiversity – and feeling both disappointed and disgusted. The issue wasn’t being meaningfully addressed, the losses were accelerating and forecasts were of worse to come.

So, how did the UN and the organisers of the CBD respond to the breathtaking failure of 2010? They came up with a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) for what was needed to be achieved by 2020!

Well now it’s 2020

The fact we’ve failed again comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying even half attention to the news in the past decade. But it does leave you gasping. It also makes you wonder what it would take to convince humanity to start making a difference when it comes to conserving biodiversity.

Last year the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its own global assessment of biodiversity. Amidst headlines shouting that 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction, IPBES said the world needs ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I expressed significant pessimism that the world would listen or do anything because transformative change never comes easy. It requires considerable sacrifice, and the elites who hold the power and derive the most benefits from the existing status quo do the most to block any change that threatens that balance.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires the rich to forego their privilege.

Which means if you want international consensus on biodiversity you have to be very careful with the targets you choose and the way you word them.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

However, if your targets are consistently not being met, and collapsing ecosystems (the Great Barrier Reef is but one high profile example) and accelerating species loss and histrionic calls to arms are not galvanising widespread action, then what do you do?

What do you do in the face of an existential threat when the world doesn’t seem to want to know? It’s a question I’ve asked myself so many times between 2010 (the failed International Year of Biodiversity) and this latest gloomy report and I think many people resort to nihilism or fundamentalism. Others stay engaged and attempt to make the next step something that works better.

And yet those policy makers, conservationists and diplomats working for a more effective set of targets in 2030 (or whenever) do so in the knowledge there’s little prospect for significant improvement in government policy on the horizon (just consider our own government’s efforts over environmental policy reform).

However, even if we missed the boat on CBD targets, there’s considerable evidence suggesting efforts to conserve biodiversity since the CBD came into force in 1993 have had some impact. As Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at Birdlife International, points out, without those efforts 28-48 bird and mammal species would have gone extinct and the extinction rate in recent decades would have been at least 3-4 times higher. What’s more, he says that protected areas are contributing measurably to conserving species in some of the world’s most diverse and threatened terrestrial ecosystems.

So, the future looks grim but we know there are conservation tools that can make a difference. Our real target should be how we make our political leaders agree to deploy them.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Trust us? Well let’s look at your record

Featured

Can governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards?

By Peter Burnett

Can Governments be trusted to set and enforce effective environmental standards? By ‘effective’, I mean standards that protect the environment to the point of halting long-term environmental decline?

I’m asking this question because in the current debate about reform of Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, environment minister Sussan Ley is saying ‘trust me’ on two major issues, both arising from Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

First, she is rushing through a small but controversial set of legislative changes while promising more extensive reforms to come.

These initial changes are about reducing duplication and ‘green tape’ by introducing ‘single touch’ environmental decisions. They are posing as the first tranche of reform but are in fact a recycled version of the Abbott government’s ‘one stop shop’.

Second, the Government has rejected the recommendation of the Independent Review that there should be an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to regulate States accredited to make ‘single touch’ decisions. Without such a regulator, it would be up to Minister Ley to call to account any State making decisions that didn’t comply with Samuel’s proposed National Environmental Standards.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the government can be trusted on this. But it’s not about anyone’s personal qualities. It’s about the politics. I base my argument on two examples, Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) and the Environment Restoration Fund (ERF).

Trust us on the forests

RFA’s were developed in the 1990s as the solution to the ‘forest wars’, especially over the harvesting of old growth forests to produce wood chips. The idea was that, following an environmental assessment, Federal and State governments would produce a 20-year plan, in the form of an RFA, for each forestry region.

There are 10 RFAs across southern Australia. Each one identifies areas for harvest and sets out how the State will conserve ecological values such as threatened species. In return, the Commonwealth grants export licences for forest products covered by the RFA and exempts forestry in RFA areas from the need for development approvals under the EPBC Act.

In 2006 Bob Brown challenged a Tasmanian RFA on the ground that Forestry Tasmania were failing to deliver the protection required by the RFA for several threatened species. He won the initial challenge but lost on appeal.

The interesting point however is not who won or lost but what happened between the initial case and the appeal.

Obviously the Federal and Tasmanian governments were concerned that the appeal court would uphold Brown’s win. So they changed the wording of the RFA. Instead of requiring that the species be protected (by applying agreed management prescriptions), the amended RFA specified that the establishment of the CAR (Comprehensive Adequate and Representative) Reserve System, together with the application of the agreed prescriptions, protected the species.

In other words, instead of requiring an actual environmental outcome, the RFA deemed the agreed inputs to be delivering the outcome.* The two governments were concerned that the law might require, not just that they take action, but that they actually achieve a result!

Trust us on endangered possums

Similar sentiments can be seen at play in the Leadbeater’s Possum Cases of 2018 and 2020, in which environment group Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum took VicForests to court, twice, arguing that the corporation was failing to comply with the RFA and that as a result it had lost its RFA exemption under the EPBC Act. (The cases also related to the Greater Glider.)

The cases are complex, but in brief the Court held that to maintain its EPBC Act exemption, VicForests had to conduct its forestry operations ‘in accordance with’ the RFA.

The first challenge failed because it was based on the failure of the Federal and Victorian governments to conduct, in a timely way, the five year reviews required under RFAs. The court said these reviews, though performing a ‘critical’ role in preserving the currency, appropriateness and effectiveness of the RFA, were not integral to forestry operations.

The second challenge was based on VicForests’ failure to comply to apply the precautionary principle, as required by the Victorian Code of Practice for Timber Production, in planning its logging activities. This time the challenge succeed, because the planning process was integral to forestry operations.

Again, the interesting point here is not so much the outcomes of the cases but the attitude of governments.

First, the Federal and Victorian governments were significantly late in conducting regular reviews of the RFAs. In fact, they missed the first one altogether. And, in playing ‘catch up’, they didn’t review the five Victorian agreements individually but rolled the reviews into one.

This creates a strong impression of initial neglect on both sides, followed by a scramble to get into compliance.

Second, rather than comply with the precautionary principle by undertaking serious on-ground monitoring work, VicForests relied on ‘desktop and other theoretical methods’ which the Court found to be flawed. In fact, the Court said that VicForests had prepared ‘defensive documents … suggesting VicForests felt obliged to have a policy addressing further protection for the Greater Glider, but was reluctant to implement it’.

Again, one is left with the strong impression that protecting the environment was far from the minds of those concerned.

Trust us on restoration

As I’ve written about the Environment Restoration Fund before, I’ll just recap briefly.

This $100m fund was announced in the 2019 Federal Budget, just before the election. The fund was presented as representing ‘practical environmental action’.

The government committed nearly 80% of the funds in the form of election commitments, ie. immediately, without calling for applications and without access to the usual expert advice about how to prioritise the spending for best environmental effect.

In other words, despite serious and ongoing environmental decline, the government’s ‘practical environmental action’ was, in reality, a pork barrel. When challenged about their approach in the Senate, the government’s main defence was that the Opposition did this sort of thing too.

So, who do ya trust?

I could go on, but in my view these two significant examples alone suggest strongly that governments, irrespective of political persuasion, or whether Federal or State, cannot be trusted to implement good environmental policy. Without ginger groups such as Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum to keep them honest, or Professor Samuel’s ‘independent cop on the beat’, they have a strong tendency to ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’.

The politics are just too hard.

With the RFA’s, I’m betting politicians still have an indelible memory of the timber trucks encircling Parliament House, like ‘Indians’ riding around the circled wagons in an old Western, even though this occurred more than 25 years ago. Once bitten, not just twice shy but pathologically averse to stirring up the timber industry.

With the ERF, the Morrison Government was widely expected to lose the 2019 election and perhaps this was an initiative born of desperation. The fact that it worked will only suffice as justification to the most rusted-on Coalition supporters. For the rest of us, it’s only helped to reinforce the widely held view that governments can’t be trusted.

So, while it’s possible that we’ll get a reasonable set of National Environmental Standards out of the current national environmental law review, because talk and even laws are cheap, it’s much less likely that governments would implement them effectively, if left to their own devices.

Bring on Professor Samuel’s independent cop on the beat!

Image by Pixabay

*On appeal, the Full Federal Court said that the change was unnecessary and that, as a matter of interpretation, the original words only required the application of the agreed prescriptions and not the achievement of protection, but this is beside the point.

Last chance to see

Featured

The contradictions of ‘sustainable’ tourism in a post pandemic world

By David Salt

Tourism is riven by irony. It can empower local economies, support meaningful conservation efforts and enable people to learn more about other cultures while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect upon their own. At the same time, the act of travelling to distant locations creates greater strain on the already stressed Earth system, homogenizes and commodifies intangible culture and often places intolerable pressure on limited resources in poor regions.

Tourism can bring out the best in us and yet it frequently comes with a price that few of us want to acknowledge.

But why even talk about this in a time of global pandemic lockdown? No-one is actually travelling at the moment (far fewer people, anyway)!

Well, as Joni Mitchell says: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and now that global tourism has been effectively shut down most of us are yearning for our holiday escape.

As the hotel reservations dry up and jet contrails that once criss-crossed our international skies fade away, what is it we can say about tourism and its impacts (both good and bad)? And what will (or should) happen when we get passed the pandemic?

Last week the UN released a policy brief asking these very questions, and it makes some telling points. We might all say we want things to return to ‘normal’, but when it comes to tourism, we really need a new normal. The old ways of doing things are clearly unsustainable.

The loss of an economic powerhouse

Something that is becoming blindingly obvious as the corona lockdown grinds on is that tourism plays a massive role in our economy.

According to 2019 data, tourism generated 7% of global trade, employed one in ten people and provided livelihoods to millions of people in developed and developing countries. As borders closed due to the COVID lockdown, hotels shut and air travel dropped dramatically. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals decreased by 56%, and $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost in the first five months of 2020. And most forecasts suggest worse is to come.

The UN is particularly concerned about the impact on small island developing states (in, for example, Palau, tourism generates almost 90% of its exports) and developing countries (in Africa, tourism represented 10% of all exports in 2019).

Tourism also provides a critical source of money for conservation, often in developing countries where there is little capacity for such work. For example, a 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization survey determined that 14 African countries generate an estimated US$142 million in protected-area entrance fees alone. The shutdown of tourism activities has meant months of no income for many protected areas and the communities living around them.

The loss of tourism income further endangers protected and other conserved areas for biodiversity, where most wildlife tourism takes place. Without alternative opportunities, communities may turn to the over-exploitation of nature, either for their own consumption or to generate income. There has already been a rise in poaching and looting, partly due to the decreased presence of tourists and staff.

Cultural conservation is also taking a beating. Many cultural organizations have also seen their revenues plummet with the lockdown. During the crisis, 90% of countries fully or partially closed World Heritage sites, and around 85,000 museums were temporarily closed.

And yet the pandemic has also had an environmental upside with significantly fewer carbon emissions resulting from the downturn in tourism activity. The tourism sector has an incredibly high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. The growth of tourism over recent years has put achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement at risk. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism has been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.

Return to normal

Taken together, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum. Everyone is pushing for a return to normal, an opening of our borders and the return of the stimulus provided by a growing economy. But that very return to business as usual would see an increase in the environmental decline that international tourism helps create. It’s the conundrum that modern life seems unable to solve, that our societal addiction to economic growth prevents us from engaging with the real costs of that growth.

Even the UN report on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism seems blind to this contradiction. It points out all the advantages that modern tourism brings but, even though it acknowledges its high environmental footprint, it proposes that we ‘tranform’ tourism as we get past the pandemic by doing it exactly the way we did it before but be a bit more clever about it.

Okay, I’m sure the authors of this report would disagree with my summation. The report uses all the right words (resilience, competitiveness, innovation, green growth, digitalization and inclusiveness) but as far as I can see they are asking for all the benefits of mass tourism without acknowledging the costs of tourism when done as ‘business as usual’ (or the difficulty of reforming this business-as-usual approach).

The term ‘transform’ means different things to different people. To me it means a fundamental shift from the system you are a part of to something quite different. Transformation is not about a little change around the edges, and yet that is what I read in the UN report (noble though its aspirations are).

A new normal

If society was to really to engage with the sustainability of tourism in an uncertain future then maybe we should be talking about how we can protect the many environmental and cultural values of our top tourism destinations in a way that doesn’t involve travelling to see them.

How do we generate the resources required to steward our world heritage in a carbon constrained future? How might we enable access to these rich experiences in a meaningful and fair manner? How do we make tourism more than its current tradition of seeking the new, the pleasurable and the exciting? How do we cultivate this new tourism so that people in the developing world still receive the support they have come to depend upon from traditional tourism?

I believe most people would simply reject any notion of tourism that leaves behind the travel component, and people are hungering for their next hit of travel after this prolonged period of enforced homestay.

However, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that tourism is already under mounting pressure from a changing world, and that’s been happening long before COVID 19. Increasing areas of the world are falling out of bounds because of environmental collapse (think fire and storm for starters), political instability, lawlessness and disease.

Last chance to see

If you reject my thesis that tourism as we have known it has to profoundly change – to transform – then may I recommend this itinerary as your next grand tour: the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and Tuvalu. Call it your ‘last-chance-to-see’ tour, and tell your grandchildren you were among the lucky few who used their tourist dollars to experience some of the world’s wonders before they were lost forever.

Maybe that’s the human condition – ‘that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.’

Image: Image by kendallpools from Pixabay

The bumblebee conspiracy

Featured

Could the quest for ‘single touch’ environmental approvals spread a dangerous feral species?

By Peter Burnett

The Government is intent on pushing through its partial agenda on environmental reform — it’s so called ‘single touch’ approvals approach — even at the expense of pre-empting the current independent review of the EPBC Act. To do that it’ll need to buy a few votes from the Senate cross benches.

In anticipation of a Parliamentary debate I’ve been digging through some recent legislative history and I’ve started to hear a loud buzzing noise. There’s a bumblebee in this equation and if we’re not careful it may soon be pollinating a weed near you.

Before I reveal the bumblebee, some background.

The buzz of ‘green tape’

As most of our readers will know (because we’ve discussed it from many angles), Professor Graeme Samuel is conducting a 10-year review of the EPBC (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act and has released an Interim Report. He has recommended a new approach to environmental protection based on National Environmental Standards (which would be interim in the first instance).

One of the drivers for EPBC reform is duplication and overlap between Commonwealth and State environmental impact assessment (EIA) systems. This problem is real enough, although the Government is one-eyed about it, framing the issue pejoratively as ‘green tape’ and talking little of anything else in the environmental reform space beyond its response to this issue, ‘single touch approval’.

‘Single touch approval’ is the Government’s new name for the failed ‘one stop shop’ initiative.

The Government is so focused on this issue that it will be introducing hastily-drafted legislation, probably this week, to hand over most Commonwealth EIA decision-making authority to the States.

It says that this accreditation will be based on Professor Samuel’s Interim Standards, even though they do not exist yet.

In the meantime, Professor Samuel continues with his review. He has formed a Consultative Group to help develop an interim set of Standards. The Group consists mostly of major stakeholders such as the Business Council of Australia and Australian Conservation Foundation, but it also includes a couple of individuals (including me).

Enter the bumblebee

Apart from EIA, the EPBC Act also plays a significant part in dealing with landscape-scale threats, including weeds and pests.

One of the Threat Abatement Plans made under the Act deals with gamba grass and four other invasive grasses in Northern Australia. Ironically, many of these grasses were deliberately introduced as improved pasture plants that then escaped to become major environmental threats.

The EPBC Act also makes it an offence to possess a exotic plants or animals that are not on the Live Import List. This offence applies even to feral species that have become established here.

One such species is the large earth bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), which apparently was smuggled into Tasmania from New Zealand in the 1990s and has since become established there. (At this time, the bumblebee is not found on the mainland). The likely reason for smuggling is that the bumblebee is a very efficient crop pollinator and could be a boon to horticulture, including tomato-growing.

Several applications have been made by the horticulture industry to include the bumblebee on the Live Import List and so allow its use as a pollinator, but each application has been rejected because of the biosecurity risks, which include out-competing native bees and, through their efficiency as pollinators, exacerbating the impacts of weeds.

Could a bumblebee buy a vote?

Why am I linking weeds and feral animals with environmental review and reform? Well, as I write, the Commonwealth’s urgent Bill has yet to see the light of day. However, rumour has it that it will draw heavily on the Abbott Government’s ‘one-stop-shop’ EPBC Amendment Bill, which was introduced in 2014 and was allowed to lapse in 2016 after it became clear that it would not pass the Senate.

I went back over that 2014 Bill. Initially, I was puzzled by blandly described amendments in the proposed Bill that would allow people to apply for permission to possess live specimens of feral animals. These seemed to have no connection to the one-stop-shop reforms.

Further research revealed that this amendment was proposed by the Government to secure the support of Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie. The amendments would allow a two year ‘trial’ in Tasmania of the pollination of greenhouse-grown tomatoes by bumblebees.

Given previous assessments that this would pose unacceptable risks to biosecurity, I was shocked that Senator Lambie would seek, or worse, that the Government would agree to, such an amendment. It was only by luck that the ‘trial’ did not proceed because of opposition to the Bill on other grounds.

But some bad ideas just will not die. I was shocked again to find that even though the Bill had lapsed, the bumblebee proposal was later considered by a Senate Committee, which supported the idea unanimously! Even Senator Whish-Wilson of The Greens supported it!

The shock of the bumblebee

I also discovered that I was not the only one shocked. The Invasive Species Council, a non-profit advocacy group, published an article in the Feral Herald (best newsletter name ever!) expressing their shock that the warnings from the CSIRO and the Environment Department, together with opposition from the Honeybee Industry Council, the South Australian Government (plus bans in NSW and Victoria) and the Council itself, were not enough to deter the Committee from supporting the plan.

I’m raising all this because, once again, the Government are likely to need Senator Lambie’s support to secure passage of their hasty reforms. Given this, and the Government’s subsequent endorsement in 2019 of the Committee recommendations, I expect they will include it in their ‘single touch approval’ Bill.

As the Invasive Species Council has pointed out, legalising the use of feral bumblebees in Tasmania will create a perverse incentive for someone to smuggle them to the mainland.

A cost-benefit analysis taking this into account would find the small benefits in Tasmania to be vastly outweighed by the likely costs nationwide.

The contested arena of environmental reform is already littered with complexity, ideological conflict and vested interests. In case there was any doubt, now we can add irrationality to the list. And irresponsibility.

Image by Nel Botha from Pixabay

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

Featured

For once it’s later in the year but that’s nothing to cheer about

By David Salt

In 2020, Earth Overshoot Day is Saturday 22 August.

What that means is that humanity has consumed all the biological resources that the Earth can renew during an entire year (365 days) in just 235 days.

In other words, humanity currently uses 64% more than what can be renewed – or as much as if we lived on 1.6 planets.

Of course, the world doesn’t shut down on Earth Overshoot Day, it continues to function by borrowing from the future. However, there’ll be a reckoning some day; no-one can overrun their account for ever. Today’s crop of political leaders are betting that reckoning will occur on someone else’s watch.

The date for Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by the Global Footprint Network, an environmental NGO that has been making this calculation since 2006. The Network calculates the Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of resources the planet’s land and seas can generate in a year) and compares this to humanity’s ecological footprint (that year’s demand for things like food and urban space, and forests to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide). Researchers then calculate the gap and project the results onto the calendar.

According to their calculations, we use up Earth’s biocapacity this Saturday (tomorrow as I type this).

Not everyone supports these types of calculations but I reckon any effort to get humanity to reflect on its unsustainable trajectory is worth noting. And Earth Overshoot Day is something that brings together a lot of data and gets relatively widespread attention so it’s worth a little discussion.

Are we there yet?

So what does Earth Overshoot Day tell us?

The prime message is that we’re unsustainable, living beyond our means, and stealing from the future of our children.

What’s more, we’ve been stealing from their future for some time now – since the early 1970s according to the Global Footprint Network (see Figure 1). Back then the Earth had the capacity to renew all that we consumed.

Figure 1: Earth Overshoot Day; 1970-2020

Earth Overshoot Day is not a fixed calendar day (like, for example, World Wetlands Day on the 2 February) as humanity’s ecological footprint the planet’s biocapacity is not constant. Our use of resources increases as our population grows and decreases as resource efficiency improves. Indeed, you can see a flattening of the curve during the past decade (maybe that’s the efficiency dividend from technology). And the Earth’s biocapacity changes as the planet changes (see the postscript on how Australia’s biocapacity was much reduced by the wildfires of our Black Summer).

Back when the Network began making these assessments in 2006, Earth Overshoot Day occured in late August. For most of the past decade it’s been in early August. The earlier the calendar day the greater the ecological overshoot.

Of course, different parts of humanity make different contributions to this unsustainable overshoot. The Global Footprint Network has calculated how life styles in different countries use up the planet’s biocapacity to different degrees (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Overshoot Days country by country

For example, if the whole world consumed like the United States we would hit Earth Overshoot Day on the 14 March – a whopping six months earlier than if it’s calculated for humanity as a whole.

But before we Aussies gloat about America’s profligate overconsumption, if the whole world consumed like Australia then we’d reach Earth Overshoot Day two weeks later on the 30 March – nothing to be proud about.

An unprecedented shift

But the reason a lot of people are talking about Earth Overshoot Day this year is because it arrives more than three weeks later than it did last year – that’s movement in the direction we want; to be sustainable using this measure we want the smallest overshoot possible (New Year’s Eve would be great!)

That’s an unprecedented shift between years. It reflects the 9.3% reduction of humanity’s Ecological Footprint from 1 January to Earth Overshoot Day compared to the same period last year.

Of course, this result was due to an unprecedented disturbance in the form of a pandemic that has crushed economic growth around the world. The Global Footprint Network has calculated this ‘improvement’ in sustainability is a direct consequence of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world. This caused decreases in wood harvest and CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

“The fact that Earth Overshoot Day is later this year is a reflection of a lot of suffering, and the reflection of imposed changes to our lives,” says Laurel Hanscom, Global Footprint Network’s Chief Executive.

“I don’t think there’s a silver lining to that. One way or another, humanity will come into balance with the Earth. We don’t want it to be through disaster. We want it to be through intentional, designed efforts to make sure it doesn’t come at such a high and terrible human cost.”

Mind the overshoot

We’re all waiting for a vaccine for COVID. We all want international travel to recommence. We all want a job. Governments everywhere are promising to ramp up the economy as fast as they can (and they’ll cut back environmental regulation if they can to speed it up).

But we all want a quality future for our children too.

On Earth Overshoot Day 2020, maybe we should all reflect on exactly what it is we want and what we are prepared to sacrifice.

As Lauren says: “One way or another, humanity will come into balance with the Earth.”

Image by stokpic from Pixabay

PS: Australia Wildfires 2019-2020: Running a biocapacity deficit for the first time in its history According to the Global Footprint Network, the devastating fires of the Black Summer of 2019-2020 have turned Australia’s biocapacity reserve into a deficit. This is startling since Australia has long been considered a biocapacity giant. With its enormous landmass characterized by wide-open spaces and its relatively small population, it has been blessed with a significant biocapacity reserve: since record keeping started in 1961, its biocapacity was consistently estimated to be two to three times the size of its Ecological Footprint. But not for the year of the fire!



The schadenfreude of corona

Featured

and other lessons on intergenerational equity

By David Salt

It’s payback time for society; payback for the hypocrisy and self-serving twaddle that society cares about truth, freedom and justice. In practice we (as the individuals that collectively make up society) really only care about ourselves, our own resources and our own freedom; and we’ll do anything to hold onto the power to preserve our privilege. And the gulf between the lie we tell ourselves and what we actually do is now horrifyingly revealed as corona virus tears our communities apart.

Too strong? Well, you have to admit that there are many interesting intersections between the impact of corona and our notions of truth, freedom and justice. It also throws a wan light on society’s efforts on sustainability.

Truth

For starters, corona impacts are greatest in countries whose leaders have discounted or rejected medical expertise; think the US, Brazil and the UK.

There’s one classic graph going around (see figure 1) showing the escalating rates of infection in the United States over time. Next to the rising line are many of Trump’s tweets (with comments from other officials as well) constantly lying about the severity of the disease and the closeness of a cure. It’s surreal if you think about it. It’s also funny and very scary. It says something is quite rotten about the world’s ‘greatest democracy’, that blatant denial and lying can be the sustained response to a medical emergency that is seeing the needless death of tens of thousands of American citizens.

Figure 1: A graph showing US COVID-19 cases over time, and the US Government’s truth-less commentary as the pandemic unfolds.

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is another agent of falsehood constantly downplaying the coronavirus as nothing more than a “little flu.” He refused to take measures to contain the infection and undermined the work of mayors and governors who had sought to do so. He sacked two health ministers with whom he disagreed while praising the effectiveness of antimalarial drugs that science said were useless.

And then he came down with COVID-19 himself causing many Brazilians to say it serves him right after he downplayed the dangers of the pandemic – the headlines screamed Schadenfreude in Brazil, and who could blame them.

Freedom

Who can forget the protests both here in Australia and overseas (and especially in the US) of crowds of people demanding their right to associate as they like; no bans on their movements and no forcing of wearing face masks. It was surreal again with the medical experts telling us this way lays folly, this path leads to a blossoming pandemic and widespread death.

And did these freedom fighters accept this advice on what was responsible community behaviour? Not at all. They crowded the beaches, the shopping malls and bars; and the pandemic ramped up, death rates soared and everyone looked for someone to blame.

Officials in many US states that had demanded the economy be opened up immediately were now saying they had acted too quickly. A little more schadenfreude possibly?

It constantly amazes me how people demanding freedom are blind to responsibilities that go with that right.

Justice

The burden of a pandemic is never shared equally. The poor, the old and the sick always suffer disproportionately, and so it has proved with corona virus.

The virus follows paths of least resistance; it breeds in places where people aggregate, places like migrant camps and ghettoes where social distancing is a physical impossibility. It’s spread by people who can’t afford to stay at home and self-isolate, so common now in our super-casualised workforce; or those who simply don’t know better, having not been included in government awareness programs. And once it takes hold it hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

The rich can lock themselves away, drive out of town to their beach homes, live on their savings while wagging their fingers at all those people they perceive to have done wrong, regardless of their circumstance. But, at some point, even the rich suffer as the economy freezes, their financial buffers drain away or they discover their friends, or parents or even themselves have been caught in the sticky web of infection.

Is this real justice then? We turn our backs on the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, and we’re surprised with the virus breaks out because people are going to work instead of isolating (or simply not doing the right thing because they were never told). Before we know it, it’s not just the poor; everyone is suffering as the economy goes into lockdown, and everyone is worried that it might be their parents next.

Intergenerational equity

Because that’s one feature about the COVID 19 pandemic that no-one can avoid. While it can lead to the death of younger people, overwhelmingly it’s killing the old.

And therein lies irony and possibly the ultimate schadenfreude.

Younger people aren’t as afraid of corona as older people. In many places younger people are breaking the rules, partying and mixing like there’s no tomorrow; and acting as the vector that spreads the disease. They’re also locked into low paying, insecure casualised jobs. They can’t afford not to turn up to work, so again the disease spreads.

Yes, they hear lectures about ‘doing the right thing’; but, increasingly, why should they care? The older generation clearly isn’t doing much to pass on a liveable planet, so why should they care about the older generation?

The older generation doesn’t seem to worry too much about the integrity of truth, or concerned about sharing their privilege, so maybe it’s only ‘fair’ that the older generation has to wear the cost of a pandemic disease that is disproportionately hitting older people.

There are many parallels here with climate change. Truth, freedom and justice are central to our effort to find some form of sustainable solution to the challenge of climate change. Yet our engagement with these ideas is mired in self-interest, the preservation of the status quo and holding on to existing power.

Humanity is on an unsustainable pathway. The science is clear but a meaningful moral response is absent. The rich and the elite will suffer as much as the poor and the vulnerable. And when the rich fall, some might say that’s schadenfreude*.

*[Justice-based] schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or “bad” is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a “bad” person being harmed or receiving retribution.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Effective environmental reform: What are the prospects?

Featured

Change is in the wind. There is cause for hope but also for caution

By Peter Burnett

The Review of the nation’s premier environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is showing signs that it could reshape the environmental policy agenda in Australia.

The Review is being led by Professor Graeme Samuel. Despite having no background in environment, Professor Samuel has shown in his interim report (released last month) that he is well-across the problems of the environment and the failings of the EPBC Act. And he has taken a clear stance on solutions through his proposal for National Environmental Standards.

On the other hand, the Government has stuck to its very narrow focus on efficiency through its ‘green tape’ narrative. It is also in an unseemly rush (as I discussed last time), proposing to push legislation through the Parliament this month to accredit states to give federal environmental approvals on the basis of interim Standards, without even waiting for Professor Samuel’s final report, due on 31 October.

With a potential clash looming between policy-driven reform and politically-driven change, what are the prospects for effective reform, by which I mean reform that has reasonable prospects of halting Australia’s well documented environmental decline?

The positives

A cynic would say we’ve been pursuing environmental protection for fifty years now, with limited impact, so why would things change now? My response is that there are some significant new factors at play and that, as an optimist, I’m hoping some of them might carry the day.

First, there are some significant shifts taking place in business in terms of climate change. A number of major companies have adopted policies of ’net zero by 2050’, as has the Business Council of Australia, which represents Australia’s largest companies.

My own explanation for this change is that climate issues are now emerging over the business horizon. Factors such as shareholder concern, directions from business regulators to address climate risk and rising insurance premiums, not to mention the risk of being sued, all mean that climate change is, for them, no longer ‘out there’.

Second, Australia’s Black Summer of 2019-2020 confronted the nation not just with the impacts of climate change on humans, but with the impacts on nature as well. Initial reports were that the fires killed over a billion vertebrate animals, but a new report concludes that the figure is around three billion if the casualty list is expanded to include injured and displaced animals.

Third, Professor Samuel himself, appointed by a government of the political Right and coming from a background in law and business, is, through his report and public statements, helping to legitimise the environment as a concern of all rather than just those on the Left.

Significantly, Professor Samuel’s framing of environment policy in terms of desired outcomes and standards, across the board, could prove instrumental in shifting debate away from individual controversies such as the Adani coal project, towards policy-relevant questions like ‘what are we trying to achieve?’ and ‘what does a sustainable environment look like?’

If general environmental decline is socially unacceptable (which I think it is), then it is hard to argue against a goal of halting the decline and setting legally-binding standards to give it effect.

It’s also harder to get traction at a high level for a general ‘jobs-and-growth’ argument, than it is to make a project level claim that ‘this mine will create thousands of jobs in this region’.

And if a leading business person like Professor Samuel is driving a process to nail down exactly what halting that decline will require, political arguments about ‘green agendas’ and the like will not apply.

Negatives

Of course, it would be one thing to persuade a Professor writing a report and something else entirely to carry the day politically.

The influence of these positive factors may not extend beyond Samuel’s report. The Government may be unmoved and has already ruled out one critical element of the Samuel model, an independent compliance regulator.

Indeed, the Government may have its first (and possibly only) tranche of reforms enacted before he submits his final report.

In that regard, even if Labor and the Greens oppose the Government’s plan, it needs the support of only three cross-benchers to get its Bill through the Senate. The prospects of securing three votes from among two One Nation senators, two Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie, must be reasonably good.

At this stage then, the likely scenario is that Professor Samuel’s final report in October will make strong recommendations for National Environmental Standards and supporting measures, but the Government will pre-empt that by securing passage of EPBC Act amendments that will see States accredited to make the Prime Minister’s ‘single touch’ development decisions on the basis of ‘interim’ standards by Christmas.

And on balance?

What prospects then for major reform? If the Government wins over the Senate, the reform horse will have bolted. It will be very hard to implement Professor Samuel’s strategy of progressive development and tightening of interim standards while no longer holding the carrot of State accreditation.

Despite this, I remain hopeful. The Senate Cross-bench may be persuaded to insist on considering the final Samuel Report before legislating. And that final report may make a convincing case for comprehensive reform.

It is even possible that the Prime Minister meant what he said in May in his National Press Club address on post-pandemic recovery:

As we reset for growth, [we] will be guided by principles that we as Liberals and Nationals have always believed in, to secure Australia’s future and put people first in our economy...

Secondly, is the principle of caring for country, a principle that indigenous Australians have practiced for tens of thousands of years.

It means responsible management and stewardship of what has been left to us, to sustainably manage that inheritance for current and future generations.

We must not borrow from generations in the future, from what we cannot return.

This is as true for our environmental, cultural and natural resources as it is for our economic and financial ones.

Governments therefore must live within their means, so we don’t impose impossible debt burdens on future generations that violates that important caring for country principle.

Image: Image by christels from Pixabay

The choir – lobbyists and powerbrokers

Featured

Who is singing and who is listening in the biggest environmental game in town?

By David Salt

The biggest environmental policy game in town at the moment is the review of the EPBC Act. That’s because the outcome of this review will have a major bearing on how governments deal with the perennial tension between economic development and environmental protection. It could influence how our nation looks after our environmental values for years, maybe decades, to come. It is a big deal.

Last week the government belatedly released the draft report of the review (led by Professor Graeme Samuel). This draft pointed out the EPBC Act was failing on multiple fronts. It was failing to protect the environment and it was too slow in processing development approvals. It proposed a range of reforms (and these have been discussed at length by many).

I’m always fascinated by what lobby groups say when reviews such as this are released. Their public statements come out so fast on the heels of the release I really wonder if they have even read the document (or even its executive summary). Reading their statements it quickly becomes apparent that most of their words are simple rehashes of their lobby platforms – what they want the public to think about them, and what they want the government to do in respect of the stakeholders they represent.

Let’s look at a few of those statements

Political statements

First up, there’s the draft review itself. It’s released by the Department of Agriculture and Environment (DAWE), the Department that oversees the EPBC Act (we’re already getting a signal even in the Department’s title on the priority given to the environment). The media statement provides a fairly good summary of the draft review with a link to the review itself.

Central to Samuel’s review is the belief that a set of National Environment Standards need to be developed, duplication between state and federal levels needs to be reduced and that an enforcement regulator needs to be established. On this final point, he said: “Community trust in the EPBC Act and its administration is low. To build confidence, the Interim Report proposes that an independent cop on the beat is required to deliver rigorous, transparent compliance and enforcement.”

Following simultaneously on this release comes the statement from the Government which thanks Professor Samuel for delivering the report, agrees we must end duplication and instantly squashes any idea that an ‘independent cop’ will be brought in. The government will not “support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator.” (It should be noted that when Labor was in government when the EPBC Act was last reviewed in 2009 that it similarly rejected the proposal for a ‘greenhouse trigger’ because it added layers of bureaucracy to the Act.)

The opposition party then follows with a statement saying it’s all the government’s fault: “In considering the Samuel Review Interim Report, it’s important to understand that Australia’s biggest problem in environmental management has been blue tape: delays and poor decision-making caused by Liberal and National cuts and mismanagement.”

Predictably, the Greens are also blaming the government for everything that’s wrong, and bitterly disappointed in their flat rejection of a regulator: “Environmental standards will be worthless if there is no one there to enforce them. This report shows the government can’t be trusted.”

Business statements

The Business Council of Australia was complimentary in its appraisal of the review: “What has been achieved in this review is a way forward that increases accountability, increases the transparency of decision making and retains the central goal of protecting the environment.” Pity the government’s already killed the prime mechanism for enhanced accountability.

The Minerals Council of Australia sees it as a greenlight for development: “Faster approvals, greater national cooperation and clearer guidelines on environmental management will boost jobs and investment and improve biodiversity outcomes.” They’re delighted by the government’s commitment to develop a ‘single touch’ approach to assessment: “The interim report highlights the need to address unnecessary regulatory complexity and duplication – including overlapping state and federal processes which deter investment.”

The Association of Mining and Exploration Companies and the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association pretty much parrot the Minerals Council’s thoughts. Less duplication and faster approvals are essential; though they don’t have much to say about improved environmental outcomes beyond suggesting they think they are important too.

But it’s not just the miners who see gold in the report, the farmers see carrots. The National Farmers Federation said: ““For too long the regulatory stick has been preferred, despite biodiversity outcomes actually declining. The solution is in a market-based approach rather than a stronger stick. It is time for some carrots.” I think the NFF are also not a fan of the ‘independent cop’ idea.

The foresters are also keen to support the report’s call for greater clarity, in their case clarity between the EPBC Act the Regional Forestry Agreement process. The Australian Forestry Products Association said: “This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of every-day Australians.”

Environmental sector statements

So business interests everywhere are in furious concord, the review is good if it reduces transaction costs around environmental protection. What are environmental NGOs saying? They are somewhat worried.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said: “the Federal Government would be lining up Australian wildlife for extinction if it rushes to devolve environmental approval powers to states”.

The Wilderness Society is also concerned by an apparent devolution to the states. It said: “Professor Samuel’s report outlines that environment laws are rarely policed, that endangered species recovery plans are rarely implemented, that Australia’s most important environmental values are in decline and yet the central Government response is to seek to hand environmental approval powers to the states with no concrete proposals to address any of the main environmental challenges facing Australia.”

The Invasive Species Council’s response was that it welcomed what it said was a “less reactive, more comprehensive response to Australia’s growing biodiversity crisis”. It supported the call for ‘strategic national plans’ and ‘regional plans’ but was “greatly disappointed that the Environment Minister today ruled out Samuel’s proposal for an ‘independent monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance regulator’.”

The choir

These were just the statements I saw in response to the release of the draft review of the EPBC Act. I’m sure there were many more but they give you a good flavour of the push and shove following such an announcement.

Most people never see these statements beyond, maybe, a quote here and there used in news stories, normally to add a bit of colour to the otherwise drier reportage. However, these statements are always coming out from the different lobby groups whenever the government makes a statement on anything, the story being reported here is just one from the environment sector.

These statements telegraph to the government what different stakeholder groups are expecting from our political leaders. You’ll often see lobby groups repeating phrases used by the government (like ‘single touch’ approval processes) giving them credence and solidity. Sometimes it’s the other way around; the government will pick up on phrases coined by a lobby group.

And, of course, this is just the visible signs of the lobbying process. There’s a whole industry based on cultivating influence of the government and most of it happens behind closed doors and is unseen by the public.

Having worked for many years in science communication connected with biodiversity conservation I’ve seen this game of duelling public statements many times. It amazes me the seeming co-ordination with which it happens, with each side singing to their own constituency and maybe pulling the strings behind some of the important decisions.

In this current situation relating to the EPBC Act, the industry groups seem to be at one with the government’s message of shorter approval times, less regulation and less bureaucracy. This is only an interim report but it provides a clear idea of what the final report will contain, and we also have a good idea which bits the government will act on (and which bits it will reject).

Missed the boat

The review is currently calling for public feedback on the interim report. But you’ll have to be quick. Having been given the report by Graeme Samuels last month but only releasing it last week, the government will only accept feedback till 17 August. The final report is due in October.

Though, even if you respond through the official channels, it could be you’ve already missed the boat. It seems the Government is not waiting for the final report and have promised legislation in late August. The Prime Minister’s statement from the most recent National Cabinet yesterday said the Premiers were all on board and keen to sign up to ‘single touch’ asap (why wouldn’t they)?

It is quite clear which choir the Government is listening to.

Image by stanbalik from Pixabay

Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry

Featured

The Morrison government has just released a long-awaited interim review into Australia’s federal environment law. The ten-year review found Australia’s natural environment is declining and under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is “unsustainable” and the law “ineffective”.

The report, by businessman and academic Professor Graeme Samuel, called for fundamental reform of the law, known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act, Professor Samuel says:
“[…] does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

He confirmed the health of Australia’s environment is in dire straits, and proposes many good ways to address this.

Worryingly though, Environment Minister Sussan Ley immediately seized on proposed reforms that seem to suit her government’s agenda – notably, streamlining the environmental approvals process – and will start working towards them. This is before the review has been finalised, and before public comment on the draft has been received.

This rushed response is very concerning. I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. I know the huge undertaking involved in reform of the scale Professor Samuel suggests. The stakes are far too high to risk squandering this once-a-decade reform opportunity for quick wins.

‘Fundamental reform’ needed: Samuel

The EPBC Act is designed to protect and conserve Australia’s most important environmental and heritage assets – most commonly, threatened plant and animal species.

Professor Samuel’s diagnosis is on the money: the current trajectory of environmental decline is clearly unsustainable. And reform is long overdue – although unlike Graeme Samuel, I would put the blame less on the Act itself and more on government failings, such as a badly under-resourced federal environment department.

Samuel also hits the sweet spot in terms of a solution, at least in principle. National environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, would switch the focus from the development approvals process to environmental outcomes. In essence, the Commonwealth would regulate the states for environmental results, rather than proponents for (mostly) process.

Samuel’s recommendation for a quantum shift to a “single source of truth” for environmental data and information is also welcome. Effective administration of the Act requires good information, but this has proven hard to deliver. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.

Importantly, Samuel also called for a new standard for “best practice Indigenous engagement”, ensuring traditional knowledge and views are fully valued in decision-making. The lack of protection of Indigenous cultural assets has been under scrutiny of late following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Indigenous site Juukan caves. Reform in this area is long overdue.

And notably, Samuel says environmental restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Habitat, he says “needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment”.

Streamlined approvals

Samuel pointed to duplication between the EPBC Act and state and territory regulations. He said efforts have been made to streamline these laws but they “have not gone far enough”. The result, he says, is “slow and cumbersome regulation” resulting in significant costs for business, with little environmental benefit.

This finding would have been music to the ears of the Morrison government. From the outset, the government framed Samuel’s review around a narrative of cutting the “green tape” that it believed unnecessarily held up development.

In June the government announced fast-tracked approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects in response to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. And on Monday, Ley indicated the government will prioritise the new national environmental standards, including further streamlining approval processes.

Here’s where the danger lies. The government wants to introduce legislation in August. Minister Ley said “prototype” environmental standards proposed by Professor Samuel will be introduced at the same time. This is well before Samuel’s final report, due in October.

I believe this timeframe is unwise, and wildly ambitious.

Even though Samuel proposes a two-stage process, with interim standards as the first step, these initial standards risk being too vague. And once they’re in place, states may resist moving to a stricter second stage.

To take one example, the prototype standards in Samuel’s report say approved development projects must not have unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance. He says more work is needed on the definition of “unacceptable”, adding this requires “granular and specific guidance”.

I believe this requires standards being tailored to different ecosystems across our wide and diverse landscapes, and being specific enough to usefully guide the assessment of any given project. This is an enormous task which cannot be rushed. And if Samuel’s prototype were adopted on an interim basis, states would be free, within some limits, to decide what is “unacceptable”.

It’s also worth noting that the national standards model will need significant financial resources. Samuel’s model would see the Commonwealth doing fewer individual project approvals and less on-ground compliance. However, it would enter a new and complex world of developing environmental standards.

More haste, less speed

Samuel’s interim report will go out for public comment before the final report is delivered in October. Ley concedes further consultation is needed on some issues. But in other areas, the government is not willing to wait.

After years of substantive policy inaction it seems the government wants to set a new land-speed record for environmental reform.

The government’s fixation with cutting “green tape” should not unduly colour its reform direction. By rushing efforts to streamline approvals, the government risks creating a jumbled process with, once again, poor environmental outcomes.

Image by MrsKirk72 from Pixabay

This story originally appeared in The Conversation.

Health trumps economy; economy trumps environment

Featured

Political priorities hinge on voter values

By David Salt

As CoVID 19 burns it way through 2020, the economy is taking a king hit. And I don’t simply mean a downturn in economic activity and ‘wealth’ creation; I also refer to the hegemony of economic advice in our national decision making. Traditional economic advice is taking a back seat to health advice.

The environment, as always, isn’t given any priority despite the environmental catastrophe of the wildfires at the beginning of the year.

Political priorities

The reason behind this switch of priorities is self evidently political. We have been receiving an avalanche of information and media showing us how bad the pandemic can be and our political leaders have had little choice but to follow expert advice on how to tackle this highly contagious virus because the consequences of not following this advice would be political death.

As I have discussed earlier (see ‘The man who shamed the PM’), Australia was uniquely lucky in its engagement with CoVID 19. Our national government was reluctant to bring on the lockdown because of the economic pain it would cause (even in the dying moments prior to the lockdown the PM was keen to promote mass crowd gatherings and wanted to personally attend rugby league matches) but the Black Summer of fire had our leaders hypersensitive to the perils of delay in the face of disaster. Consequently, they listened and responded quickly to the expert advice they were receiving.

And when that advice (and the government’s response) appeared to halt the virus in its tracks in Australia there was wide spread praise for government action and a belief that we had defeated CoVID 19.

Now we’re facing a second wave of disease with an explosion of cases in Victoria stemming from a breakdown in quarantine procedures. The critics are lining up to berate the Victorian State Government for not doing enough (often the same critics who castigated the Government for being too slow to reopen the economy) but all governments (state and federal) appear to be very responsive to the expert medical advice on how we need to respond as a society – close the borders, step up testing, enforce a lockdown of affected areas and increase community awareness of appropriate (and inappropriate) social behaviour.

Just as the bushfire emergency primed us for this pandemic emergency, so this breakout in Victoria is sustaining our vigilance and readiness to act on expert advice.

Real costs

Of course, this advice runs contrary to many economic advisers and business interests encouraging the government to open up the economy again.

Indeed some economists, such as Professor Gigi Foster from the University of NSW, say there’s a strong argument suggesting Australians would have been better off if the economy was never locked down, even if a “very extreme epidemic” had occurred. She points out that there are real and significant costs (including increased loss of life) associated with the economic lockdown that are not acknowledged by health experts who are just focussing on the impacts of the corona virus.

The Prime Minister tells us the lockdown is costing the economy $4 billion a week and that we need to get one million Australians back to work.

Of course, every decision has a cost, but these costs vary over time and space with different impacts on different people. The costs that matter most to our political leaders are those costs their voters perceive to be the most important to them. At this instant, voters are most scared about the immediate health implications of an unraveling pandemic.

A hierarchy of concern

Yes, those same voters are worried about the death of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change. Indeed, a recent ABC poll found 60% of Australians believer climate change is real and present and “immediate action is necessary” (with another 24% feeling “some action” should be taken). The experts have provided the government with detailed advice on what action it needs to take to counter climate change but that advice by and large has been ignored, primarily behind the cover that it will hurt our economy.

The government is currently reviewing its premier environmental law and the line it is running is the primary focus needs to be on how it can be reformed to speed up economic growth (a line strongly backed by the resources industry).

Time and again we see it, the economy trumps the environment. Recall former Prime Minister Abbott’s words after the last election: “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

However, in these strange times we’re seeing something new – health is trumping the economy. Could this be the proximity of the issue to your average voter? Considerations about the Great Barrier Reef don’t affect your average Australian on a day-to-day basis. The cost of petrol (and the strength of the economy and the employment market) does. However, the availability of toilet paper and the fear of your workmates, neighbours and family, trumps your concern about the strength of the economy.

Environment first

Which leads to a fairly sad conclusion when it comes to environmental protection; it will only become a significant priority (to our political leaders) when it is perceived (by voters) as being fundamental to their day-to-day welfare and intrinsic to their economic wellbeing.

As one voter, I hold these truths to be self-evident (ie, the environment is central to our quality of life), as do many of the voters whose lives were shattered by the Black Summer fires. But I’m certain this is not the case for the wider electorate where the environment is only a consideration after everything else has been addressed.

Until the environment is perceived as central to our sustainable health and wellbeing (and under immediate threat), it will always be trumped by other values. That’s something every environmental expert should keep in mind when telling the world about their latest scientific insight.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

It’s time: for a national conversation on the environment

Featured

And that conversation should include national goals and environmental measurement

By Peter Burnett

Soon after she became federal environment minister last year, Sussan Ley spoke of a collaborative approach to the environment.

Foreshadowing what is now Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, Ley said the review was ‘the right time to have a conversation about the best ways we can ensure strong environmental and biodiversity protection measures that encourage people to work together in supporting the environment’.

Professor Samuel has handed his draft report to Ley, who is expected to release it soon.

So it’s about time to start that conversation.

Of course, it would have been better to have the conversation a long time ago, when the environment wasn’t in such dire straits, but as the Chinese proverb puts it, ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’

I’d like to suggest a couple of conversation-starters.

An agreed goal: what kind of environment do we want?

The first is to make sure the conversation leads to an agreed national statement of the kind of environment Australians want.

This is not an easy thing to do. For example, while most might support a goal of a ‘healthy’ environment, translating that vision into policy raises difficult questions like ‘how healthy?’ and ‘at what cost?’

Yet we need to commit to a clear goal. Otherwise we are left with our ongoing focus on the short term, something which has only delivered what Australia’s doyen of environmental policy, Professor Steve Dovers, has described as ‘policy ad hocery and amnesia’.

In colloquial terms this is a constant chopping and changing and it severely undermines our efforts to address environmental problems.

Earlier efforts at defining that national goal

So far, the closest we’ve come to adopting a clear national goal was through the ‘ESD [Ecologically Sustainable Development] process’, an intense dialogue between government, business, unions and environment groups in the early 1990s.

The ESD process produced a massive 12 volume consensus report containing hundreds of substantial recommendations. However, politics, especially Paul Keating’s ousting of Bob Hawke as Prime Minister, got in the way.

In the end, Australia’s governments gave us a vaguely-written and unfunded National Strategy on ESD.

As a conversation, the ESD process had at least two major flaws.

First, hardly anyone really knew what ESD meant. Unlike the ‘sustainability’ of political discourse, which means all things to all people, ESD is a real but complex and often misunderstood concept.

Second, the ESD process was a conversation between elites, which largely passed the rest of us by.

So we signed up to ESD through the National Strategy, without really ‘buying’ it. One consequence was that ESD was then written into many laws and policies, though usually in ways that allow lip service, which is what ESD usually gets.

But every now and again someone takes it seriously, as the Federal Court did recently in finding that VicForests had failed to apply the precautionary principle (one element of ESD) and were thus logging unlawfully.

This kind of outcome, where we set, but then ignore, environmental speed limits, while occasionally dabbing the brakes, is hardly good policy.

If we are going to have a national conversation, it needs to be widely publicised, well-informed, run at ‘town hall’ level and continued for as long as it takes to get a real sense of the aspirations of the Australian people for the future.

We especially need to grapple with the tension underlying ESD, which is how to reconcile our desires for ongoing economic growth with the capacity of the environment to support our ever-growing consumption of environmental goods and services.

If we squib this major challenge, we will likely continue as we have, nibbling away at various parts of the environment with a limited understanding of the cumulative impact of our daily decisions, large and small.

This nibbling away is what a famous American economist, Alfred Kahn, once described as ‘the tyranny of small decisions.’ And as the leading ecologist William Odum recognized, it is particularly pertinent to the environment.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure

My second suggestion concerns the dry but vital topic of environmental information.

One of the shibboleths of modern management is ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. Managing the environment is doubly difficult because, even if we had unlimited data, we still wouldn’t fully understand nature in its complexity.

However a comprehensive information system, including environmental accounts to help arrange information for decision-making, would be a major advance.

Despite governments actively seeking to manage the environment for nearly 50 years, we still don’t have such a system. There have been many programs and promises over the years, but governments have tended to scale them back or drop them as they change focus.

Maybe that’s because environmental information isn’t politically ‘sexy’; most people neither know nor care.

A good example is the Rudd Government’s 2010 National Plan for Environmental Information (NPEI). This plan grew out of a recommendation from Prime Minister Rudd’s 2020 Summit (held in 2007) that Australia develop national environmental accounts.

But the NPEI was underfunded from the outset and then cut after a change of government.

We still have no national baseline biodiversity monitoring, first promised in 1996.

And although the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been experimenting with national environmental-economic accounts for decades, these accounts remain experimental, partial or intermittent. They are certainly not developed to the point where they could support specific environmental management decisions.

If we were having a national conversation, I would argue for a national institution to gather and hold environmental information.

We do this for mineral resources, through Geoscience Australia; for health and welfare, through the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; and for water resources, through the Bureau of Meteorology. An institution for environmental information is a logical next step.

And I would expand dramatically the environmental accounts prepared by the ABS, requiring them to be used in real environmental decisions.

The coming national conversation?

So we badly need a national conversation on protecting the environment, but will we get one?

Sussan Ley is hardly paving the way, having spoken of the Samuel Review only in the context of ‘cutting green tape’, a slogan.

Perhaps Ley will surprise us, by making some speeches about biodiversity or convening public forums to discuss the review.

Whether the conversation is led by government or not, we need to rise above slogans for a broad and respectful conversation about our environmental values.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A bluffer’s guide to Australia’s premier environmental law

Featured

and why it’s going so horribly wrong

By David Salt

Any casual reader of the news (and of this blog) probably would have noticed that Australia’s environmental law is in the spotlight at the moment. It’s being reviewed, analysed and attacked from multiple directions.

Anyone with half an interest in nature or biodiversity conservation probably believes it’s important that Australia’s environmental laws are strong and effective. However, most people have very little idea what those laws are, how they work and whether they are adequate.

Well, here’s a quick summary of what Australia’s premier environmental law is and what all the fuss is about. Think of it as your ‘bluffer’s guide’ to Australia’s environmental law.

Why would you bother with a bluffer’s guide? Because the legislation itself is impenetrable (see item 1).

1. What is Australia’s premier environmental law?

Each state and territory has its own environmental legislation but the nation’s premier law is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) created and implemented by the Federal Government. It was enacted in 1999, is over 1000 pages long, full of arcane legal language and has been described by some as ‘impenetrable’.

Fortunately, Peter Burnett (the co-producer of Sustainability Bites) is a lawyer and has taken the time to break the Act down into its constituent part and explain them in plain English (see ‘What’s in the EPBC Box’). It has 16 major components which come together to serve three broad functions:

Identify: The Act identifies which environmental values (threatened species and special places) should be protected. These are often referred to as ‘matters of national environmental significance’ and include World Heritage places (like the Great Barrier Reef) and nationally-listed species (like the Leadbeater’s possum).

Plan: The Act provides planning for the conservation of these environmental values; for example, developing recovery plans for threatened species and management plans for protected areas.

Assess: The EPBC Act assesses and approves developments that might harm the environmental values protected by the Act. The best known component in this third stream is project-based environmental impact assessment. The Act gives the government the power to block projects that adversely impact matters of national environmental significance.

2. Who doesn’t like the law?

Everyone.

Everyone has problems with the EPBC Act, but the issues are different depending on where you’re coming from.

Environmentalists complain the Act is not protecting the values it was set up to protect. Species and ecosystems are going extinct or degrading at an accelerating rate, and areas of special significance (like the Great Barrier Reef) are not being protected from global changes such as climate change.

Developers and farmers, on the other hand, complain the Act is making it harder to turn a profit and get projects off the ground. They claim the approval process is green tape that adds to the cost of a development and enables political green groups to attack them in the courts (lawfare).

3. What’s wrong with the law?

The problem with pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ with the EPBC Act is that you’ll be instantly dismissed by the ‘opposing’ side; and clearly I’m on the pro-environmental side. On this side of the fence, the claims of green tape and lawfare appear unsubstantiated and ideological (and for an excellent discussion on this see Peter Burnett’s last blog green tape and lawfare). However, they have been repeated so often they have become articles of faith to some groups.

On the other hand, there are a substantial number of studies showing the EPBC Act is failing to protect the things it was established to protect. For example, a new analysis by WWF Australia shows that more than a million hectares of threatened species’ habitat was cleared for agriculture in New South Wales and Queensland without referral to the federal environment department for assessment, one of the main purposes of the EPBC Act.

The Australian Conservation Foundation found that in the past 20 years, the period during which the EPBC Act was in force, an area of threatened species habitat larger than Tasmania (7.7 million hectares) has been logged, bulldozed and cleared. And they cite numerous case studies of where the government has failed to act even when something is referred under the EPBC Act.

Those who see the EPBC Act as a hindrance would simply discount such evidence no matter how well researched – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they!” Then they’d probably follow up with something like “but we’re here for jobs and growth!”

Possibly harder to dismiss (on ideological grounds) is the review undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office. Just released, it found the government’s administration of the EPBC Act to be inefficient, ineffective and had failed to manage environmental risk. It also found funding cuts to the department since 2014-15 had slowed down the assessment and approval times for developments. It is a scathing reflection on the Government’s management of the Act.

4. How could we make it work better?

It’s been pointed out by many people that the existing EPBC Act could operate with fewer delays while still affording the same level of protection simply by providing more resources for its operation. Between 2013 and 2019, the federal environment department’s budget was cut by 40%, according to an assessment by the Australian Conservation Foundation. So it’s little wonder approval processes slowed.

Underlining this, at the end of last year the Government put $25 million towards speeding up environmental approvals, in effect simply reversing part of their cost cutting over the years.

In addition to resourcing, more effort towards coordinating assessments between the federal and state governments would go some way towards speeding up the approval process.

Changing the law itself is another approach but this is a chancy approach because it’s hard to negotiate anything through the unpredictable numbers in the Senate. Towards this end, the Act itself requires that it be independently reviewed every 10 years. The first review in 2009 came up with a comprehensive set of reforms to improve the operation of the Act but amidst the political turmoil of the time nothing every materialised.

Today we are waiting on the interim report of the second EPBC review led by Graeme Samuel, former Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Much rides on this report and everyone is wondering what it will say so close on the release of so many other damning reports on the EPBC Act’s inability to protect Australia’s environmental values.

5. What’s right about the EPBC Act?

The EPBC Act is a strong piece of legislation. It gives the Minister for the Environment the power to block actions and developments that threaten environmental values that the Government has said it would protect. It causes developers to consider the environmental impact of their projects and hopefully modify their plans to ameliorate potential impact. These things are good.

However, if the Minister chooses to use her (or his) discretion to determine a development isn’t threatening ‘matters of national environmental significance’, and the government starves the Department of Environment (currently sitting in the Department of Agriculture) of resources making it impossible to collect the evidence and assess the true nature of any potential development, the Act is disempowered.

At the end of the day, every piece of law is only as good as its implementation. If the government is failing in its duty of care for the nation’s natural heritage then we should be holding the government to account, not blaming the law that is supposed to protect that heritage.

Which begs the question, when will we demand our Government be true to its stated claim that it does care for our environment? Will it be before the predicted extinction of koalas in NSW by 2050? What about the impending destruction of the last remaining habitat of the stocky galaxias, a critically endangered native fish threatened by the Snowy 2.0 project (a project that has just been given the green light by Environment Minister Sussan Ley)? These are just two stories in the news this week. Thousands of other environmental values are similarly at risk, awaiting the Government’s next move on how it deals with Australia’s premier environmental law.

Image by Bruce McLennan from Pixabay

All’s fair in love and law?

Featured

Framing environmental regulation as ‘green tape’ and challenges to environmental approvals as ‘lawfare’

By Peter Burnett

‘Green tape’ and ‘lawfare’ are back in the headlines. This time the impetus comes from the Government’s latest ‘congestion-busting’ initiative and the impending publication of a new study into litigation by environment groups.

So, is there a tangle of ‘green tape’ out there that needs to be ‘busted’? What about an environmental conspiracy to bog down coal mines and other development projects in litigation? Or are we witnessing another round in the seemingly endless political struggle to control the environmental policy agenda?

These are timely questions because Australia’s premier environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is under review and due to report in October. This will lead to major policy decisions and probably new legislation.

There’s a lot at stake.

More than coloured tape

The term ‘red tape’ has been with us for a long time. It goes back to the 16th century and the Spanish king Charles V, who ordered the use of red tape to bind important state papers (the modern equivalent would be Cabinet papers). String was deemed good enough for the rest.

Only in more recent times did the term acquire the pejorative meaning of ‘unnecessary bureaucratic process’.

The term ‘green tape’ is a modern variation on this theme, and I think it may have emerged in Australia. I first noticed it when the Campbell Newman government in Queensland tabled a bill in 2012 with ‘Greentape Reduction’ in the title. It appears to be a deliberate attempt to extend the pejorative connotations of ‘red tape’ to environmental regulation.

Part of the problem in challenging this framing is that there is some truth underlying the term. Environmental impact assessment (EIA) in particular seems to take a long time, and some of this is caused by overlap, if not duplication, between federal and state EIA laws.

‘Green tape’ is also linked to things beyond the laws themselves. In 2010, compliance with statutory EIA timelines under EPBC was around 90%. From 2013 governments, initially Labor but mostly Coalition, started cutting the Public Service, including the Environment Department. Compliance with timelines dropped to about 60% in the last financial year, prompting the Morrison government to fund ‘congestion-busting’ measures that have brought compliance with timelines back up to around 90%.

In other words, it’s partly a question of resourcing. Governments take the money away, don’t like the resulting drop in performance, and then reinstate the funding and return to previous performance levels, thus ‘fixing’ the problem.

It’s complicated

Many federal EIA’s involve state EIA as well. Federal and state laws overlap but don’t necessarily align. Federal and state officials work in different cultures and usually apply different policies. All this complicates the regulatory process.

Another complication is that the time taken to assess and approve a project is the sum of the time taken by government to take its regulatory steps and the time taken by the proponent company to respond to requests for information or comment from the regulator.

Companies, especially big ones like BHP and Rio Tinto, have bureaucracies too. Sometimes they are slow to respond. Sometimes, I’m told by assessment officers, they resist providing the requested information, either because it’s expensive and time-consuming to collect, or because the information might not be convenient to their cause.

At the end of the day, there is a problem to be fixed here and the government’s recent announcement that federal and state officials will form ‘joint assessment teams’ for major projects is a good one, provided they resource the teams properly and don’t just pressure officials to meet unrealistic deadlines.

But the ‘green tape’ framing devalues the work of public servants and is, in part, caused by those who use this terminology.

‘Lawfare’ and the right to challenge

The government and some businesses have argued at several points in recent years that environmental groups have used their right to challenge environmental approvals in the Courts on a tactical basis, hoping to obstruct development. This is referred to as ‘lawfare’.

Once again, there is some factual basis to the term. In 2012, someone hacked into Greenpeace computers and subsequently leaked a document entitled Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom: Funding proposal for the Australian anti-coal movement to the media.

One element of the plan to was to ‘run legal challenges that delay, limit or stop … major infrastructure projects (mines, rail and ports)’.

Subsequent academic research has found no significant evidence that the courts have been used to delay projects.

One recent study finds that federal court records do not reveal evidence of the worst kind of delaying tactic, which is to abuse court processes by bringing unmeritorious cases.

The courts have strong powers to deal with unmeritorious claims, including throwing them straight out (‘summary judgment’) and even banning the applicant from bringing further claims without their approval (‘vexatious litigant’). So it’s not surprising that such cases are rare.

But what about meritorious cases, by which I mean cases based on arguable legal grounds? In that case, it’s hard to separate cases based on genuine objections to the individual development from cases driven by a wider agenda, such as the strategy proposed by Greenpeace. This is because the motive, and perhaps the source of funding, often remains hidden.

Further, there is an argument that if the case is meritorious, then it doesn’t matter if the applicant has a wider agenda. This is because well-founded challenges help to ensure that decisions are made properly, thus advancing once of our foundational social values, the ‘rule of law’.

You can see what a tricky issue this is.

Political framings

In the meantime, the EPBC Act is undergoing its second 10-year review and there are many serious issues to address, most especially concerning how to halt the ongoing decline of the environment itself.

‘Green tape’ and ‘lawfare’ are political framings designed to advance a particular agenda. That agenda reflects some valid concerns but there is much more at stake.

What we need is a political framing of ‘environment degradation’ that supports an agenda of ‘we need to fix this before it’s too late’.

Image by Gerhard Lipold from Pixabay