With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?
Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.
First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).
As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.
Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.
As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.
The Coalition on the Environment
The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.
Climate aside, three things stand out.
First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.
I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.
The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.
The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.
Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.
Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.
All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.
Labor on the Environment
While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.
Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.
They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.
A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.
Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.
All of this is at the margins.
But on the big issues … silence.
What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?
Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).
Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.
And the winner is …
If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.
The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.
With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.
Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.
Banner image: Look closely at what both major parties are offering on the Environment and there’s nothing to get excited over. (Image by yokewee from Pixabay)
Why do simplistic three-word slogans have such cut through? Why does incumbency give a political party such an advantage? Why does a simple lie so often trump an inconvenient and complex truth?
The answers to these questions (and so many other mysteries surrounding the way election campaigns are run) lies in the way we think. And one of the finest minds alive today who has devoted much of his life on trying to understand how we think is a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman.
Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, distilled the essence of his research on how we think in a book called ‘Thinking, fast and slow*’. It’s around 500 pages long and quite dense in parts as Kahneman explains how he and colleagues** rigorously tested many assumptions on how humans think and make decisions. There’s a lot of detail presented, and I’m not saying it’s an easy book to take in; however, if you have any interest in how our inherent biases distort our decision-making processes then this is a must read.
In a nutshell, Kahneman describes how ‘fast thinking’ is what we do intuitively, almost thinking without thinking. ‘Slow thinking’ is when we analyse the information we’re processing. It takes time (hence it’s ‘slow’) and, most importantly, it takes considerable mental effort. Slow thinking helps us correct the biases inherent in our fast thinking but because slow thinking is hard, our brain often gives up on it because it takes too much effort. When this happens, we default back to fast thinking usually without even being aware of it; which is fine a lot of the time (like when you’re fending off a sabre tooth tiger) but can often lead to sub optimal (and sometimes awful) outcomes.
In the words of Kahneman
How does this relate to the way politicians prosecute their election campaigns? I’ll let Kahneman spell out some of the consequences.
On the ‘illusion of understanding’, Kahneman says (p201 in Thinking, fast and slow):
“It is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
My take: Politicians capable of telling a ‘coherent’ narrative do better than scientists attempting to explain to you a complex story with all the details.
On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):
“The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.”
My take: We make many of our most important decisions based on what other people believe, people we trust, not on what we know. Scientists always believe more evidence and quality evidence will win the day (probably because the people they trust, other scientists, think the same way).
On ‘confidence’ (p212):
“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”
My take: Don’t confuse confidence with validity. Don’t believe, as most scientists do, that information with high uncertainty is always discounted.
On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):
“Optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession [GFC] is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organisations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.”
My take: Some people (in some circumstances) can fool all of the people some of the time.
On being a successful scientist (p264):
“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”
My take: Scientists are human, too.
On not seeing flaws in the tools you use (p277):
“I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.
…disbelieving is hard work, and System 2 [thinking slow] is easily tired.”
My take: When your only tool is a hammer, all you see are nails.
On ‘reform’ and attempting to change the status quo (p305):
“A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest”…
…In human affairs, the same simple rule explains much of what happens when institutions attempt to reform themselves…
As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favour and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned.
Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals. This conservatism helps keep us stable in our neighbourhood, our marriage, and our job; it is the gravitational force that holds our life together near the reference point.”
My take: Incumbent conservative governments have all the advantages when it comes elections involving reform and complex policy positions. Reformers wanting to shift the status quo have a very hard task because of the power of ‘loss aversion’. Also, a concentrated force beats a dissipated force, even if the dissipated force is greater overall.
On dealing with rare events (p333)
“When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.”
My take: Human thinking is not well adapted to deal with climate breakdown or biodiversity loss.
On good decision making (p418)
“They [decision makers] will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decisions to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.”
My take: Good decisions are not just about good outcomes. Decisions should be judged as much by the process by which they are made, and that people take better decisions when they think they are accountable. (This quote, by the way, is the final line in the book.)
Kahneman’s quotes aren’t pithy generalised reflections that came to him as he was thinking about thinking. They are direct conclusions of multiple rigorous trials in which subjects were given options to choose between in which they needed to assess risk and possible outcomes.
And the research isn’t new or unreviewed. Some of his findings on cognitive biases and decision heuristics (the mental rules-of-thumb that often guide our decision making) go back some 50 years. Kahneman is recognised as one of the world’s leading behavioural psychologists, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his work on prospect theory (pretty good for someone who had never studied economics), and his work has been a cornerstone to the developing field of behavioural economics.
Of course, all of this is also central to marketing and politics: how do you communicate (sell) information to score a sale or bag a vote? You don’t do it by providing every detail available, like many scientists try to do. This simply switches people off.
Rather, you build a simple coherent narrative that you can ‘sell’ with confidence. You scare people about their losses if the status quo is threatened (as will happen if you ‘vote for the opposition’), and you frame your arguments for maximum salience to your target group.
‘Good marketing’ is about exploiting people’s cognitive biases and not overloading them with detail they can’t absorb. ‘Good politics’ is about simplistic three-word slogans and scaring voters into believing that change means they will lose.
Elections are all about good marketing and good politics
Good marketing and good politics often add up to poor policy, short-term thinking and vulnerability in a climate ravaged world.
Fossil fuel corporations (and conservative politicians in their thrall) have been manipulating community sentiment for decades, stoking scepticism and denialism about complex science, and preventing the world from responding to an existential threat.
Kahneman didn’t give them the blueprint for how this is done, but his science has revealed just how easy it can be to steer and nudge a person’s behaviour and beliefs if you understand how inherently biased our thinking can be.
The solution? There is no pill (red or blue) that can help people do more slow thinking and better reflect on the biases inherent in their fast thinking. As Kahneman has demonstrated throughout his career, humans simply think the way that they think. However, society has created many institutions that provide checks and balances on the way marketeers sell products and politicians acquire and use power. The integrity of these institutions is the bridge between day-to-day politics and good policy outcomes.
Australia is currently in election mode with a federal election only days away. Political integrity and climate change are a major concern to most Australians. Despite this, the incumbent conservative government has long resisted the establishment of an independent integrity commission to test the many claims of corruption that have been levelled at it over the years. And this government has been seen as dragging the chain on climate action (and lying about what they are actually doing).
And yet, our Prime Minister, a man who has been described as lacking a moral compass and being a serial liar (by his own colleagues!), is a masterful marketeer. Nick named ‘Scotty from Marketing’, maybe he should be retitled Australia’s ‘Prime Marketeer’. He knows how to spin a simple and coherent story and stick to it. He knows how to scare people about the costs of change, and divide communities by playing on people’s prejudices and fears. Using these skills he pulled off ‘a miracle’ victory at the last election.
Thinking fast has served him well. Now, for a meaningful response to multiple environmental emergencies, it’s time for a little reflection; a little more thinking slow is called for.
To be honest, I had never heard of Daniel Kahneman 15 years ago. But then I began working for a group of environmental decision scientists and his name constantly came up. Kahneman was the leading light who illuminated why our internal decision-making processes were so flawed, so biased. He was the ‘god’ who (along with his friend Amos Tversky**) had published the landmark paper ‘Judgement under uncertainty: heuristics and biases’ in 1974 in the journal Science, one of the most widely read papers of all time I was told. Well, I tried reading it and found it too technical and dense to take in.
Then, in 2011, Kahneman published Thinking, fast and slow. Someone described it as a 500-page version of his 1974 paper. Not a great sales pitch for me, I’m afraid.
However, just prior to the corona pandemic, I spied Thinking, fast and slow on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. It took over a year before I found the courage to open it (it was my big pandemic read), six months to wade through it, and another three months before I’ve attempted to write down why I found its wisdom so compelling.
So, for me, my journey with Kahneman has been a long one. And now that I have finished this blog, I can return Thinking, fast and slow to my friend Michael Vardon, who loaned it to me many moons ago. Thanks Michael, sorry about the delay.
** Amos Tversky
If I’ve interested you at all in Daniel Kahneman but possibly put you off reading Thinking, fast and slow (because who has time to read a 500-page horse pill of information on cognitive biases) then I highly recommend another book that covers the same ground but from a more personal framing. This one is about Daniel Kahneman and his life-long colleague and closest friend, Amos Tversky. The book is called The Undoing Project and is written by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short and Moneyball, both about biases in the way we think and assess risk). It tells the story of Kahneman and Tversky, both Israeli psychologists, and how together they unpicked the many ways our thinking is biased without us even being aware of it. Not only does The Undoing Project give an excellent overview of the research described in greater detail by Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow, it also paints a touching portrait of the friendship between two of the world’s finest minds. Tversky tragically died of cancer in 1996.
When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.
When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro
I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.
The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.
Surely this was great news!
Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.
Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.
As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.
And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!
Are they any more serious at the OECD?
More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.
Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.
So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!
The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).
You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.
The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.
Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.
Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.
I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
Plastic promises in Paris
Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.
Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!
And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.
Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.
In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.
Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris
A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.
How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:
Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.
Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:
a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)
We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.
In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)
While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!
Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home. (Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)
In an effort to distract myself from Australia’s putrid federal election campaign, I’ve taken to watching disaster films, specifically Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, because they are both based on real-life events, they only remind me about the failings of our current political leaders. Both films carry powerful messages on the importance of good governance and the consequences of taking it for granted.
The award-winning series Chernobyl was created by HBO and went to air in 2019. It tells the events surrounding the explosion in Reactor 4 at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986. It’s a story of nuclear nightmare, self-sacrifice, heroism and cascading tragedy. Underpinning the disaster is a tale of greed, corruption and power in which an ossified Soviet empire censored science that had years earlier revealed that the nuclear reactor design was flawed, and a hierarchy that only wanted good news, a tight focus on production targets and punished anyone who pointed out when things were going wrong.
The power plant was under-resourced, poorly equipped, and badly managed. When the Reactor 4 blew up, the local emergency response was totally unprepared and ignorant about what to do in a nuclear accident. The consequences were horrific for the attending fireman and locals watching on.
The inadequate local response was then matched by the broader Soviet response of denial and cover up, but the scale of the disaster meant it couldn’t be ignored as radioactive debris sprayed over Europe.
It was the worst and most expensive nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and many scholars believe it directly contributed the collapse of the Soviet empire a few years later.
The HBO series brilliantly captures the unfolding horror of the disaster following it from the moment of the accident through to the investigation much later in which scientists do their best to reveal the rottenness of the system that allowed the catastrophe to occur. The message is not well received and the whistle blowers pay an enormous price for their courage.
If anyone thinks that major disasters like this are the preserve of sclerotic dictatorships like the Soviet Union, you’re kidding yourself. A couple of months before the melt down at Chernobyl in 1986, the US experienced its own catastrophic failure when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself to smithereens 73 seconds after lift off. Seven crew died as a result and the whole Space Shuttle program was suspended for years. Some suggest the program never really recovered.
And what caused this disaster?
The Space Shuttle was touted as the most complex machine ever put together by humans, but what destroyed the Challenger was the failure of simple rubber O-ring seal on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. Except it wasn’t really a failure of an O-ring so much as a failure of governance. Engineers had known for many years the O-rings didn’t work very well in extreme cold conditions, such as were experienced at the time of launch, and even recommended against launching at that time.
But the mission, which had already gone through long and costly delays, was under enormous time pressures and somehow the concerns of the engineers, who sat at the bottom of the management hierarchy, were not conveyed to the decision makers at the top of the tree. The decision to go ahead with the launch was made, and the rest is history. (HBO really should make a docu-drama on this.)
Now maybe you’re thinking big disasters like these only occur when state-controlled hierarchies are in charge. If that’s the case, I recommend you see the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon which recounts the origins of the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
The spill occurred when the Deepwater Horizon, an ocean oil drilling rig operated by BP, caught fire when high-pressure methane gas from the well expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig. There it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest environmental disaster in American history.
The film contends the disaster was the direct result of BP officials rushing through safety tests and ignoring the ageing infrastructure on board the drill rig. As with Chernobyl and Challenger, engineers were ignored, and production timetables were prioritized over safety and due diligence.
Though this was an accident in the commercial sector, it can also be said that government oversight and environmental protection and monitoring were found wanting.
When disaster strikes we are too often absorbed by the heat and light of the event itself. When we look past that, the real problem is almost always a failure in integrity around the way in which the system is being governed.
Good governance, transparency and accountability would have prevented Chernobyl, Challenger and Deepwater Horizon from ever becoming disasters. And if we want to prevent future disasters of this type, this is where we should be looking.
Which is why I got depressed when watching these movies because it just got me thinking about the failing integrity of leaders such as Johnson, Trump, Putin and our own Scott Morrison. These leaders have been actively eroding the integrity of the institutions that allow us to trust our governments and the processes they run. Without this integrity we won’t hear the warnings of the ‘engineers’ that the systems we depend upon have vulnerabilities and may be heading for collapse.
One excellent example of this in Australia is the recent revelations by Professor Andrew Macintosh that our system of carbon credits lacks integrity – that Australian Carbon Credit Units are being awarded to projects that are not actually capturing the carbon they claim. Macintosh, one of the architects of the system, claims the problem is poor governance, that the same people awarding the credits are doing the monitoring and the selling of the carbon credits. A market with integrity would allow for transparency, accountability and independent validation of what’s being bought and sold but our carbon market does not have these features.
The problem is that these carbon credits are being purchased by fossil fuel producers to offset their own carbon emissions. If, as Macintosh contends, 70-80% of the carbon credits do not represent captured carbon, then they’re not actually offsetting anything, but fossil fuel companies still have a green light to keep pumping out carbon emissions.
Now, maybe you can’t see Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon in this story. However, our government has simply denied Macintosh’s claims, even though he has considerable empirical evidence supporting his case (and our government isn’t releasing the information that Macintosh has asked to be made public). Our government says the carbon market is fine, they won’t fix it, and our carbon credits are in high demand. Our performance on climate change is beyond reproach, they say (even though we trail the developed world in reducing carbon emissions). It’s like the Chernobyl operators ignoring warnings on the basis that the project is too good (too big) to fail; and they’ll only be punished if they say something.
In our government’s admonishment of ‘engineer’ Macintosh’s attempts to blow the whistle on this broken carbon market I hear the echoes of Soviet administrators and BP corporates claiming ‘push on, there’s nothing to see here’.
But the system is not good, carbon emissions are rising, people and species are dying from climate-enhanced weather extremes. And in response, our political leaders tell us not to worry, the systems they have in place will protect us. But those systems have no integrity!
Then, one more straw is added to the camel’s back…
Banner image: A scene from the HBO series Chernobyl in which military officers spray the accident site to kill all life in order to prevent it spreading radioactive contamination. The ‘fallout’ from this nuclear accident is still being experienced today.
With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’
As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.
Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.
For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.
This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.
Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).
More budget honesty please
One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.
Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.
But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.
For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.
Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.
Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!
The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?’
So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?
Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)
Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!
State of the Environment Report
We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.
So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!
Environment Restoration Fund
In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.
The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.
My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?
Threatened species at warp speed
The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.
It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.
That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!
More disingenuous bundling
The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.
But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.
Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!
The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.
What prospects for change?
You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.
But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.
Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.
Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.
After six goes you’d think they’d try something different
By David Salt
The way we communicate climate change is not working. This is not a new situation but it’s about time we acknowledged it.
The IPCC has just released its sixth report on climate change. Did you miss it? Probably not if you’re a scientist or you worry about the environment. For the rest of humanity, it sunk without a ripple; which is pretty amazing when most of the world seems to be dealing with unprecedented supercharged weather, floods and droughts.
The story in detail
Thirty years ago I was a science writer working at CSIRO Education. I was doing a story on the ‘greenhouse effect’, something associated with global warming, a phenomenon scientists were talking about but governments were largely ignoring.
I was speaking by phone with the Information Officer at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, a former climate scientist himself.
“So, this greenhouse effect describes what’s happening on our planet?” I put to Dr Smith [not his real name]. “The Earth’s atmosphere is trapping heat like a greenhouse, is that the story?”
“No, no, no!” Exclaimed Dr Smith. “The ‘greenhouse’ analogy is completely misapplied because it doesn’t capture what’s really happening. The Earth’s atmosphere is not like a greenhouse holding in warm air. What really happens is the Sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere, over two thirds of it, anyway, and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. It then gets re radiated in the form of invisible infrared light and…”
But I didn’t hear anymore. Unfortunately, our phone connection had cut out. I rang Dr Smith straight back but I couldn’t get through to him because his phone was engaged. I tried again five minutes later but it was still engaged. I kept trying again and again.
Thirty minutes later I got through. The reason his phone had been engaged was because he hadn’t noticed the line had dropped out. He’d kept on talking to me – for 30 minutes without interruption, never pausing for breath or checking to see if I was keeping up with him.
This is a true story but it’s also emblematic of the problem of scientists communicating complicated stories to non-scientists. They include all the details, they lecture rather than listen, and they don’t have much awareness of their audience or how the audience hears the information. They are frequently unaware that their message is even getting through.
Well, that was 30 years ago. Things have changed, right?
We know a hell of a lot more now, that’s for sure. But we’re still not doing anything about it.
Summer of the Greenhouse
The science of global warming was well understood by the 1970s. Data collected since the 1950s was showing that carbon dioxide levels were steadily on the increase. By the mid 70s, it was well established that the rising carbon dioxide was due to anthropogenic emissions (ie, humans were producing them).
The consequences of this were even being observed by the late 1980s. 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history (at that point), and NASA’s Jim Hansen declared that the signal from climate change had emerged. He wrote: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
Indeed, the hot northern summer of 1988 has sometimes been called the ‘greenhouse summer’. It’s very appropriate then that this was the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being. Jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC was created to review all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic international responses to this global concern. The IPCC does not undertake scientific work itself but rather reports a consensus position.
In 1990 the IPCC published its first assessment report. It noted that greenhouse warming could result in ‘several degrees’ of warming by the middle of the following century.
More and more certain
In 1995 the IPCC released its second assessment report. Considerable progress had been made since the 1990 report in distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic influences on climate. The balance of evidence, it said, suggested a discernible human influence on global climate.
By the time of its third report, in 2001, the possibility had become a strong probability, and the rate of change was ‘without precedent for at least the last 10,000 years’. The ‘several degrees’ had become a precise band (somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius). This band of possible future warming became the basis for a mechanism to implement the Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 178 governments (though not the United States and initially not Australia either, though we came around in 2007 after a change of government).
The fourth assessment report, released in 2007, reported that anthropogenic harm was ‘already evident’ (though, as I already indicated, prominent climate scientists were actually claiming this back in the 80s).
2015 saw the fifth assessment report released. It basically said everything previous reports had said but with greater certainty and urgency. The IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become. And it spelt all this out in a report coming in at over 2,000 pages long and citing 9,200 scientific publications.
The most detailed ever
Which brings us to the sixth and current assessment. It has 278 authors from 65 countries, cites over 18,000 references and is almost 3,000 pages long!! What does it say? I’m not sure. I haven’t had time even to read the 64 page summary for policymakers. I am interested, it’s just I’m not too fussed by the details. I accepted the basic story of ‘need for change’ over 20 years ago.
(Also, I got the gist of the assessment through comments I read on twitter, where brevity is the rule. And that gist is that climate change is real and now; the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal; cost of inaction is much bigger than doing something; everyone will suffer if we continue down the current path; and the window of opportunity is closing quickly.)
I’m more interested in the fact that such a detailed report can be so comprehensively ignored by pretty much most of the developed world, the section of humanity that has created this problem. News instead has been dominated by an actor slapping the face of comedian at the Oscars. (And in Australia, there’s also been much attention to historic floods destroying whole communities up and down the eastern seaboard. These reports often note the likely link to climate change and then revert to reporting efforts to put everything back just the way it was!)
The IPCC is like my Dr Smith. It’s feeding loads of climate detail down the phone to an audience that may not be there.
We don’t need more detail.
We do need more effective communication, greater engagement with more of the community, real policy integration and better leadership.
The next assessment report might want to consider that.
(I tried ringing them but their phone was engaged.)
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s cash-splash budget has a firm eye on the upcoming federal election. In the environment portfolio, two spending measures are worth scrutinising closely.
First is a A$100 million round of the Environment Restoration Fund – one of several grants programs awarded through ministerial discretion which has been found to favour marginal and at-risk electorates.
Second is $62 million for up to ten so-called “bioregional plans” in regions prioritised for development. Environment Minister Sussan Ley has presented the measure as environmental law reform, but I argue it’s a political play dressed as reform.
It’s been more than a year since Graeme Samuel’s independent review of Australia’s environment law confirmed nature on this continent is in deep trouble. It called for a comprehensive overhaul – not the politically motivated tinkering delivered on Tuesday night.
A big barrel of pork?
The Environment Restoration Fund gives money to community groups for activities such as protecting threatened and migratory species, addressing erosion and water quality, and cleaning up waste.
The first $100 million round was established before the 2019 election. In March 2020 it emerged in Senate Estimates that the vast majority had been pre-committed in election announcements. In other words, it was essentially a pork-barelling exercise.
The grants reportedly had no eligibility guidelines and were given largely to projects chosen and announced as campaign promises – and mostly in seats held or targeted by the Coalition.
Given this appalling precedent, the allocation of grants under the second round of the fund must be watched closely in the coming election campaign.
A tricky Senate bypass
Australia’s primary federal environment law is known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Under provisions not used before, the need for EPBC Act approval of developments such as dams or mines can be switched off if the development complies with a so-called “bioregional plan”.
Bioregions are geographic areas that share landscape attributes, such as the semi-arid shrublands of the Pilbara.
In theory, bioregional plans deliver twin benefits. They remove the need for federal sign-off — a state approval will do the job – and so eliminate duplication. And national environmental interests are maintained, because state approvals must comply with the plans, which are backed by federal law.
But the government’s record strongly suggests it’s interested only in the first of these benefits.
Since the Samuel review was handed down, the government has largely sought only to remove so-called “green tape” – by streamlining environmental laws and reducing delays in project approvals.
Bills to advance these efforts have been stuck in the Senate. Now, the government has opted to fund bioregional plans which, as an existing mechanism, avoid Senate involvement.
Meanwhile, the government has barely acted on the myriad other problems Samuel identified in his review of the law, releasing only a detail-light “reform pathway”.
A rod for the government’s back?
Ironically, bioregional plans may create more problems for the government than they solves.
First, the surveys needed to prepare the plans are likely to spotlight the regional manifestations of broad environmental problems, such as biodiversity loss.
And the EPBC Act invites the environment minister to respond to such problems in the resulting plans. This implies spelling out new investments or protections – challenging for the government given its low policy ambition.
The federal government would also need to find state or territory governments willing to align themselves with its environmental politics, as well as its policy.
Of the two Coalition state governments, New South Wales’ is significantly more green than the Morrison government, while Tasmania is not home to a major development push.
Western Australia’s Labor government has been keen to work with Morrison on streamlining approvals, but fudging environmental protections is another thing altogether. And Labor governments, with a traditionally more eco-conscious voter base, are particularly vulnerable to criticism from environment groups.
The government may fudge the bioregional plans so they look good on paper, but don’t pose too many hurdles for development. Such a fudge may be necessary to fulfil Morrison’s obligations to the Liberals’ coalition partner, the Nationals.
Tuesday’s budget contained more than $21 billion for regional development such as dams, roads and mines – presumably their reward for the Nationals’ support of the government’s net-zero target.
Bioregional plans containing strict environmental protections could constrain or even strangle some of these developments.
But on the other hand, the government may be vulnerable to court challenges if it seeks to push through bioregional plans containing only vague environmental protection.
For a government of limited environmental ambition bioregional plans represent more a political gamble than a reform.
Morrison has clearly rejected the safer option of asking Ley to bring forward a comprehensive response to the Samuel review, casting streamlining as part of a wider agenda.
Such a reform would have better Senate prospects and created room to negotiate.
Morrison could also have promised to reintroduce the streamlining bills after the election. But he must have concluded that the measure has no better chance of getting through the next Senate than this one.
What price fundamental reform?
If the government successfully fudges bioregional plans, the result would be watered-down national environmental protections.
This would run completely counter to the key message of the Samuel review, that to shy away from fundamental law reforms:
“is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems”.
Clearly, good reform is too expensive — politically as well as fiscally — for this budget.
You’re driving along and one of the dials on the dashboard suddenly shoots way over normal. The car, however, seems to be travelling fine so you decide its an instrument error and ignore it.
But what if several dials begin overshooting? Oil pressure is up, heat is going through the roof, warning lights are flashing all over the console. What do you do? You pull over as fast as possible and try to find out what’s wrong because ignoring this multitude of warnings will likely wreck your car and possibly risk your life.
Quick, stop the car!
Well, multiple serious warning lights are flashing at us from all over the globe.
An unprecedented sixth mass coral bleaching event is sweeping up and down the Great Barrier Reef – in a La Nina year!
We’re still trying to dry out after historic floods generated by a series of ‘rain bombs’ up and down Australia’s east coast (with the possibility of more to come).
The US Mid-West is gripped by unprecedented drought (with Lake Powell behind the Hoover Dam, the world’s first super dam, hitting a record low this week).
Death Valley in the US has just recorded its hottest March day on record with a sweltering 40°C (records date back to 1911). Keep in mind winter has just finished for this part of the world.
But possibly the most alarming weather events being experienced at this moment are heat waves striking both Antarctica and the North Pole – alarming because it has climatologists and meteorologists in a spin.
Parts of eastern Antarctica have seen temperatures hover 40 degrees Celsius above normal for three days and counting.
“This event is completely unprecedented and upended our expectations about the Antarctic climate system,” said Jonathan Wille, a researcher studying polar meteorology at Université Grenoble Alpes in France.
“Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” tweeted Stefano Di Battista, another noted Antarctic researcher. He said that such temperature anomalies would have been considered “impossible” and “unthinkable” before they actually occurred.
Meanwhile, what is being described as a record-breaking ‘bomb cyclone’ that developed over the US East Coast a couple of weeks ago is bringing an exceptional insurgence of warm air to the Arctic. Temperatures around 28 degrees Celsius above normal could cover the North Pole this week, climbing to near the freezing mark. Keep in mind the North Pole is still in its ‘polar night’. It hasn’t seen the sun for nearly six months.
This is bonkers
This is all so far ‘outside of normal’ that the implications of these observations are not yet appreciated by the experts who study these things. Indeed, the solid peer-reviewed science we depend upon to understand what’s been happening will take months and possible years to generate.
However, if the dials on your car were giving you this feedback, even if you didn’t understand exactly what it meant, you’d likely be pulling over immediately for fear of a catastrophic failure.
If the heating we’ve been experiencing so far has been frying our coral reefs, incinerating our forest biomes and washing away our homes and human infrastructure, then these huge anomalies in our Artic and Antarctic weather are specters of coming climate catastrophes.
As a science writer working in the sustainability space, I’ve been keeping an eye on many of the ‘planetary dials’ for years if not decades. I’ve watched the remorseless rise in CO2 levels, methane levels and temperature. I’ve shed tears over the criminal decline in biodiversity, and noted the growing extent, ferocity and frequency of extreme weather (floods and wildfires).
Reading the dials
Keep in mind these ‘dials’ are not privileged or secret information. They’re available to anyone wanting to read them. They can be found in regular reports from international agencies and institutions like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES (look them up if the acronyms are new to you).
Within nations there are multiple organisations monitoring and reporting on the environment. In Australia we have the BoM, ABS and CSIRO as well as dozens of universities and specialist organisations focusing on particular aspects of the environment (for example, the Great Barrier Reef has GBRMPA and AIMS).
The information is there; it’s all cross checked and peer reviewed. It’s reliable and solid; and it’s all pointing the same way: human activity is distorting the Earth system and it’s beginning to behave in unusual and dangerous ways.
The problem is, the dials don’t seem to connect to our decision making, the information they present is not linked to policy action. Worse, many vested interests (like the fossil fuel sector) actively work to discredit and ignore what the dials are telling us.
Our political representatives have funded (with your taxes) and announced the construction of these myriad dials – “today I announce the launch of this great new environmental monitoring ‘machine/invention/organisation/report/dial/whatever’; so rest assured, our environment is now saved!” But when it comes time to respond to what the dial then begins to tell us, the readings are discounted, denied or deleted. Acknowledging the information, it seems, comes with too high a political price.
What we need is a mechanism that connects the dials to the decision making. In concept, such a mechanism already exists. It’s called environmental accounting and while many have called for its widespread implementation (including Sustainability Bites), it’s yet to be adopted in a meaningful manner.
Let it rip
What we have instead, to continue with our car analogy, is a modern economy cruising along the highway of Planet Earth at an ever increasing speed (indeed, this metaphorical vehicle has been steadily accelerating since the 1950s). The way ahead is becoming uncertain and the road itself is turning very dangerous, full of pot holes and gaping cracks. Many are suggesting we should slow down, we can’t see what’s beyond the next curve, and we’re not sure if the vehicle is safe anymore.
Our political leaders, however, are in no doubt.
“She’ll be right, mate. The car is purring. Indeed, our policies, based on ‘jobs and growth’, guarantee stability and strength. No need for brakes. Indeed, we reckon the solution is actually a little more pedal to the metal. So, let’s see what happens if we let it rip!”
Governments around the world have been ignoring the dials for decades but Australia’s current government are world beaters when it comes to climate denial and inaction. In Australia we’re on the brink of a national election. Maybe it’s time to switch drivers.
In 2020 I was a member of a consultative group established by Professor Graham Samuel in his review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
At several points in our discussions, Professor Samuel, a highly experienced and well-regarded former regulator, cautioned against ‘weasel words’: that is, hollow or ambiguous words that create a false sense of certainty or clarity.
I agreed with Professor Samuel whole-heartedly: one of the secrets of good regulation is to use simple and clear words that leave no scope for confusion or manoeuvre.
Say what you mean and mean only what you say. No legal fudges. It gives everyone certainty and increases trust in a regulatory system.
Governments in Australia have experimented over the years with biodiversity stewardship schemes (for example, see Learning from agri-environmental schemes in Australia). Typically, these schemes pay farmers to protect or restore native vegetation on their land. The Morrison government is the latest to trial such a scheme.
One difference this time around is that the government is going further than before, using the scheme to lay foundations for wider biodiversity markets. A key to doing this is to create ‘biodiversity credits’ as a new form of property readily bought and sold.
This requires legislation and hence the Biodiversity Credits Bill. The Bill is modelled on the Carbon Credits Act.
In principle, this is a good thing.
The problem is that the part of the Carbon Credits Act that deals with the integrity of carbon credits was watered down by the Abbott government in 2014 as part of its policy of replacing a carbon price with a (much more limited) purchasing of emission reductions by government.
At the time the government called this watering-down ‘streamlining’ and ‘simplification’, using its now-standard justification that the changes would ‘provide greater flexibility … while retaining the same high standards …’
Integrity is essential to ensuring that carbon or biodiversity credits represent a real gain for the environment at full face value. To achieve this, the credits must be both additional to business as usual and achieved in full compliance with a scientifically robust methodology (renamed ‘protocol’ in the new bill).
The methodology requirements for carbon credits, which are set by the minister, were watered down by the following changes:
The Biodiversity Credits Bill adopts this same watered-down system from the Carbon Credits Act.
It also lowers the bar on the integrity standards, dropping a requirement in the Carbon Credits Act that any necessary assumptions in an approved methodology be ‘conservative’ and replacing it with a requirement that any such assumptions be ‘reasonably certain’.
Superficially, the changes look minor, even trivial. In substance, they are very significant.
Their net effect was and is to weaken the benchmark for, and rigour of, the expert advice; to allow the minister to disregard the advice once given; and to allow more use of CSIRO scientists who, as government employees, can be subject to greater pressures from within government, subtle or otherwise.
In addition, the weaker and more subjective the language, the more difficult it becomes to mount a court challenge on the ground of failing to meet statutory requirements.
Rumour has it that the government is pushing for a quick passage of the Bill in the few days remaining before the Parliament is prorogued for a May election — presumably on the expectation of bipartisan support.
Such support would deliver another blow to the environment by opening the new biodiversity credits to political influence, compromising their integrity. As the market for credits grows, there will pressures from suppliers to make it easier to have approaches accredited, and from buyers to increase the supply of credits to meet demand and lower prices.
The 2014 carbon credit integrity model should not be adopted for biodiversity credits.
But more than that, biodiversity credits are like a currency. Just as the integrity of our currency has been entrusted to the Reserve Bank board, an independent and expert body, so too should the integrity of biodiversity (and carbon) credits be entrusted to an independent expert body.
I hope the Senate will not support the Biodiversity Credits Bill in its current form.
The Federal Minister for the Environment does not have a duty of care to protect young people from the harms of climate change. This was the unanimous finding of the Federal Court earlier this week. It was a finding that left high school students crying, legal scholars frowning and Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, beaming.
Given this, the big question I want answered is, if not the Minister for the Environment, then where (and with whom) does the ‘duty of care’ lie?
Much has been made about the Court decision and why the judges overturned an earlier decision that the Minister did have a duty of care when approving fossil fuel developments. (And for one of the best analyses of the legal case around this issue I’d point you to the excellent Sustainability Bite Does a ‘duty of care’ to future children make any difference to environmental approvals? written by my colleague Peter Burnett; who, incidentally, predicted exactly this outcome.)
At the end of the day the three judges each ruled in favour of the Environment Minister who, in her appeal against the original finding, contended that the stated duty should not be imposed on the Minister. However, each judge had their own reasoning for why this should be.
One judge said that climate change is a matter for government, not the courts. The ‘duty’ involves “questions of policy (scientific, economic, social, industrial and political) […] unsuitable for the Judicial branch to resolve”
Another said there wasn’t a direct link between minister’s power to approve the coal mine and the effect this would have on the children.
And the third said the EPBC Act (under which the fossil fuel development was being approved and which the Minister is responsible for) doesn’t create a duty-of-care relationship between the Minister and the children. He added that establishing a standard of care isn’t feasible and that it’s not currently foreseeable that approving the coal mine extension would cause the children personal injury, as the law is understood.
If not the Minister, then who?
All well and good, and I expect this makes much sense to all the lawyers out there. But, for me, it begs the question: if not the Minister, then who should hold the duty of care?
If we are allowing a development today that is harming the people of tomorrow, then shouldn’t someone be responsible for allowing this development to proceed?
Of course, the people of tomorrow include the youth of today. Some of these young people are profoundly worried about what they are seeing around them, about what the science is telling us.
For God’s sake, it’s not even being worried about gloomy forecasts; society is actually experiencing the horror of climate change as we speak. Climate enhanced flooding is wiping away families, businesses, hopes and histories up and down Australia’s east coast. Climate-enhanced wildfires are scorching communities, forest biomes and wildlife with a ferocity and at a scale never before witnessed. We’re losing our coral reefs, our wetlands and woodlands. We’re trashing our natural heritage and our prospects for the future.
Others are exploring different pathways to get the ‘grown ups’ to do the right thing for the future they will inherit; and one of these pathways involves testing our laws about who is taking responsibility for developments (like new coal mines and gas projects) that will only be adding to the already catastrophic level of carbon emissions our species are producing.
Where to look
I don’t appreciate the detail of the law on this but, like the students at the centre of this current court case, it seems to me that our political representative who has been made Minister for the Environment is a logical place to aim.
But, as the courts have ruled, this is a question of policy, not law! This is for the politicians to fix up.
Our political leaders are refusing to engage with climate change on any meaningful level. They’re happy to fight about over-the-horizon net zero targets that they will never be responsible for. They pay lip service to the mounting scientific evidence while happily turning a blind eye to the growing pile of misinformation and corporate malfeasance seeking to distract us from any measure to constrain (or reduce) our carbon economy.
If not the Environment Minister, then who? Our Prime Minister or the Minister for Emissions? Their track record for lies and integrity is even worse than our Environment Minister’s.
Is it the responsibility of our corporate leaders and billionaires? Seems their short-term interests are tied to unbounded economic growth, so I doubt we’ll see much effort here.
Or should we look to the world government to impose effective and just sustainability limits on us all. Sorry, I forgot; there’s no such thing as a world government (though conspiracy theorists like to pretend that one exists).
There are, of course, international agreements that sovereign nations can enter into on how we care for the environment and the future. Think Ramsar Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement; Australia has signed up to all of them, and then failed to meet our commitments on any of them, just like all other nations.
At the end of the day, whether you’re thinking (or acting) globally or locally, no-one is actually responsible for tomorrow. ‘Duty of care’ for tomorrow is more a ‘vibe*’ than an ‘actionable’ item.
If duty of care on climate change is a question of policy more than a question of law then our whole polity is failing us and is in need of transformation. Who’s up for some serious reform?
*‘Vibe’ is a particularly Australian term arising from the cult classic 1999 movie The Castle in which a lawyer, Dennis Denuto, struggles to articulate to the judge why his clients, the Kerrigans, should be allowed to keep their home and not be compulsorily acquired for an airport development. Denuto says: “In summing up: it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s the vibe and… no, that’s it. It’s the vibe.”
The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings
By Peter Burnett
Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.
Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.
In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.
Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.
As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.
Unfortunately, they usually do not.
The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.
Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)
I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.
My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.
(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)
The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.
The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.
Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.
Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.
The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.
You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.
The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!
In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.
So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.
Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.
Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.
Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.
That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!
A coincidence like that would never have done!
Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.
Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.
And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?
In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another
In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.
In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.
A better way?
As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.
And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!
One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.
To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!
Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)
A big pledge for a big problem is no solution without integrity
By David Salt
“So, Minister, how exactly did you arrive at this one-billion-dollar price tag for saving the Great Barrier Reef?” asked the newly appointed Director of Government Probity.
“Well Ms DGP, as you will see from the extensive paperwork we’ve submitted, the figure of a billion dollars is based on extensive scientific, social and economic research compiled by the good officers of our well-resourced Department for the Environment.
“It’s a lot of money but what price do you put on saving a priceless piece of World Heritage; not to mention the economic return derived from people enjoying the Reef.
“Our scientists have pin pointed exactly the threats assailing this coral wonderland; our economists have worked up a precise list of actions we need to take to address these threats – costed down to the last dollar; and our social scientists have undertaken rigorous process of community engagement to ensure that the people on and around the Reef know what the situation is, and are ready to put their backs to the wheel to ensure the Great Barrier Reef will be there in all its glory for them, their children and grandchildren.
“It all brings a tear to your eye,” said the Minister (and, indeed, her eyes were tearing up). “But with something this important, it’s worth all the effort. It is, of course, simply the Australian Way!”
“Yes, thank you Minister,” responded the DGP. “Well done. It seems you and your Department have really done the due diligence on this one. The Reef is in good hands! The world thanks you.”
The Australian Way
Of course, there’s nothing much real in the above exchange. There is no Director (or agency) of Government Probity; the Department of Environment (subsumed into the bigger Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) is underfunded and overworked; and scientists do know what is killing the Great Barrier Reef – it’s climate change – but the Government is not listening to them. Our Prime Minister has described this approach to climate change as “the Australian Way”; but the world is not thanking Australia for adopting this path.
For all that, the Federal Coalition Government has pledged $1 billion dollars towards saving the Great Barrier Reef, one of the single biggest investments on an ecosystem in Australia’s history; surely, even if it’s only been done as a sweetener in the run up to a Federal election – that’s a good thing, right?
Most of that money ($579.9m) won’t go on the Reef itself but will be dedicated to water quality projects on land, the adjoining catchments from which water runs off onto the reef. Declining water quality has long been identified as a major threat to reef health. In 2016 the Queensland Government contracted economists to estimate how much it would cost to meet water quality targets through actions such as changing land management, improving irrigation and repairing erosion. Their best estimate was that it would cost $8.2billion over 10 years (that’s $820 million per year).
The Government’s promise of $570 million over 9 years (or an average of $63.3 million per year) suddenly doesn’t look so grand.
The next largest slice of the billion dollars – $252.9m – will go towards reef management and conservation. Again, split that over 9 years and multiple institutions caring for the Reef and it’s not the boon the headline number suggests.
But it doesn’t really matter anyway because the best science says the reef is cooked if we don’t do anything about rising carbon emissions.
Indeed, the science on this is firming. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that 1.5°C of global warming would cause between 70 and 90% of the world’s coral reefs to disappear. In research just out, it’s been found that with 1.5°C of warming, which the world is predicted to reach in the early 2030s without drastic action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, 99% of the world’s reefs will experience heatwaves that are too frequent for them to recover.
None of the billion dollars promised to ‘fix’ the Reef is going towards reducing emissions. Analysts say Australia’s approach is aligned with heating closer to 3°C. The Australian Government is not introducing any new policies to tackle carbon emissions in the near term and claims that new (unspecified) technologies will deliver net zero emissions in 30 years’ time. Prime Minister Morrison describes this as the Australian Way.
A billion dollars of cover
At the same time, the Government is trumpeting its billion-dollar investment on saving the Reef to UNESCO in a bid to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage ‘in-danger’ list. A fortnight ago the Government released a report on why the Reef should be kept off this list.
The Morrison government argued every single World Heritage site can be considered in danger from climate change, and the Great Barrier Reef shouldn’t be singled out for a UNESCO status downgrade.
On the release of that report, Environment Minister Sussan Ley puzzlingly observed: “Reefs around the world are under pressure from warming oceans and in the face of that the Morrison government’s leadership in reef management and reef science is second to none.”
So, what are we to make of that? The Government acknowledges that climate change and warming oceans are killing our coral reefs – everywhere, not just around Australia – but chooses to do very little about it.
At the same time they are happy to commit a billion dollars to a cause they know is futile; maybe that’s why they don’t really care that this level of investment is patently inadequate to achieve even the outcomes on water quality they are targeting.
It’s enough to make you blush with embarrassment (and shed a tear of shame).
The real problem
The real problem at the heart of this treacherous affair is a total lack of probity. There is no transparency or accountability around these decisions; no connection between science, economics and funding pledges; no integrity behind government claims and action.
This is a billion-dollar bad idea but the greatest shame in this whole affair is that there is no mechanism (no independent office of government integrity) to hold our political leaders to account.
No, Minister. The Reef is not in good hands! And the world will not be thanking you now or in the future.
Banner image: The Great Barrier Reef is in big trouble. Will a big billion dollars make a difference? Not with an absence of probity. (Image by Sarah_Ackerman under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0)
For most people who take an interest in it, sustainability is the central idea of Our Common Future, a major United Nations report on environment and development. It was published in 1987.
You may know it as the Brundtland Report, after its principal author, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor who became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in the early 1980s and, later, Director General of the World Health Organisation.
Whenever I pick up my copy of Our Common Future I’m always drawn to a sentence on the back cover: ‘Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology…’
Due to the efforts of some pioneering economists and ecologists from the late 1980s, there is a marriage of economics and ecology within a new discipline created by those pioneers, that of ecological economics. But this marriage has few progenies beyond academia.
Even within ecological economics, there are some signs that the marriage is not an equal one. Ecology has influenced the approach of economics but not the other way round.
I began to wonder. What is ecology and what is its contribution to sustainability?
Economics comes in from the cold
Let’s start with economics. In the decades following the outbreak of World War II, economics ‘came in from the cold’, completely transforming itself from just another academic discipline, inhabited by retiring academics, to one that some critics attack as ‘imperialist’ or ‘hegemonic’ in its attitudes.
This transformation happened because governments invited economists into the very heart of government.
First, they wanted to win the war, a ‘total war’ requiring that the efforts of every sector of the economy be directed towards victory.
Then, governments wanted economists to assist them to win the peace, initially to find jobs for millions of returning allied soldiers and subsequently to show that capitalism had a better recipe for prosperity than communism in the ideological battles of the emerging Cold War.
The resulting mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ also helped win elections at home and became a fixed feature of the political landscape.
Economists delivered the goods. As a result, they wield an influence that is the envy of most other disciplines.
Oxford economist Kate Raworth encapsulated this influence in her description of economics as the ‘mother tongue of public policy’.
If economics is its ‘mother tongue’ then, unfortunately, ecology remains a foreign language to public policy.
What about ecology?
The term ‘ecology’ was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a 28-year-old German marine biologist, although some ecological ideas, like ‘the balance of nature’, go right back to the Greek philosophers.
Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things and their environment.
Ecology didn’t really take off until the mid-twentieth century. Raymond Lindeman’s (1915–1942) work on trophic dynamics (energy flows in particular food-web levels) was seminal for ecosystem ecology, while the brothers Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and Howard Odum (1924–2002)published their influential textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, in 1953.
Ecology entered the popular lexicon in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Many claim this book triggered what can be described as the modern environmental era.
The influence of ecology on sustainability
Sustainability seeks to identify the human behaviour that will allow the greatest possible level of economic activity consistent with maintaining the ‘ecosystem services’ that Nature provides to humans.
Because ecology is concerned with the natural relationship between plants and animals and their physical environment, ecologists can advise humans on what they may do, or must not do, if they want these ecosystem services to continue (let alone maintain Nature for its inherent value and beauty).
Economics is concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, all of which come, directly or indirectly, from Nature. Economic advice is given routinely in the context of constraints on the supply of resources.
Typically, those constraints have been related to humans factors, such as cost. But there is no reason why economics cannot operate equally well within restraints identified by ecologists, based on Nature’s ability to maintain ecosystem services.
In essence, this is the marriage of economics and ecology.
Economics does not have much to teach ecology in terms of its method, but it can help set ecology’s agenda: from a sustainability perspective, the key questions are ‘what is required to keep Nature operating’ and ‘how can humans restore ecological loss already sustained?’
Married, but not communicating
Both ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ come for the Greek oikos, meaning household, so it seems the attraction between the two disciplines is a natural one (pardon the pun).
However, they speak different languages and, unfortunately for ecology, the marital home, sustainability, lies in the (economic-speaking) land of government.
The challenges of communicating ecological insights in this foreign land are myriad. Apart from ecologists not being native speakers of economics (and vice-versa) their substantive ideas concerning ecological relationships and processes are not obvious to the ordinary person.
Great communicators wanted
It seems to me that, to put this marriage on a more equal footing, ecology needs more great communicators.
These are rare birds indeed. So rare, that of the first two who spring to my mind, one is of great age and the other passed away nearly 15 years ago.
Internationally, David Attenborough is a master and highly influential.
In Australia, the late Professor Peter Cullen of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also a master communicator. His passing in 2008 was a great loss to our country.
These two leaders exemplify the skills we need: they are (were) well-versed in biological science, relate naturally to ordinary people through media, speak fluent public policy and, to ice the cake, have mellifluous voices!
We need to do more to grow these skills.
In 2018 the ABC began awarding media residencies annually to Australia’s ‘Top Five Young Scientist Communicators’, a great initiative.
Who else will nurture our young ‘Attenboroughs’ and ‘Cullens’?
Building a truly sustainable future will require more of these vital bridge builders.
Every February we’re encouraged to think about wetlands as we celebrate World Wetlands Day. While society has come a long way in changing its mind about the value of wetlands – once they were smelly swamps, now they are precious, life-sustaining ecosystems – these days we’re stuck in a form of denialism about their prospects as climate change radically threatens their very existence.
The sad truth is, climate change modifies water levels, and the best protected wetland in the world ceases to be a wetland without water. Too much water, in the form of rising sea levels, will have the same outcome. If we can’t protect our wetlands in the space they exist today, do we need to make more effort to let our wetlands move with the flow?
Fifty-one years of Ramsar
Fifty-one years ago, on the 2nd of February 1971, one of the world’s most important international environmental conventions came into being with the adoption of the Convention of Wetlands. It’s important because it was the first international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international agreements on the environment. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas – being declared a Ramsar Wetland is akin to being listed as a World Heritage area – and the treaty has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.
The adoption ceremony for the Convention was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and most people know this Convention as the Ramsar Convention. To mark the day of the treaty’s creation, the Ramsar Secretariat has promoted the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day, and it’s been run on this date every year since 1997.
The Ramsar Convention together with World Wetlands Day have transformed the way humans engage with wetlands. They’ve gone from ‘swamps’ only fit for draining and development, to critical land and water scapes that provide humans with a range of valuable ecosystem services in addition to being critical habitat for biodiversity conservation. Wetlands, in all their forms, are now recognised as precious and irreplaceable.
However, our efforts to increase awareness about the state and value of our wetlands have also revealed they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Secretariat’s Global Wetland Outlook (newly revised this year) tells us that over a third of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since the Convention was enacted. Indeed, wetlands are our most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests. Land-use change is the biggest driver of degradation to inland wetlands since 1970. Agriculture, the most wide-spread form of land-use change, has damaged more than half of the Wetlands of International Importance (often referred to as Ramsar Wetlands). Climate impacts to wetlands are happening faster than anticipated. Rising sea-levels, coral bleaching and changing hydrology are all accelerating, with arctic and montane wetlands most at risk of degradation and loss.
Land locked and lost (or drowned)
And here’s an irony the Treaty’s designers probably never envisaged: The city of Ramsar, the place that gave the treaty its name, is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea shrinks under climate change and water extraction. Its surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades.
The Caspian Sea is actually a landlocked lake with a surface that is already around 28 metres below sea level. And it’s dropping by 7 centimetres every year. As temperatures rise with global warming, evaporation will accelerate this decline. The Caspian Sea will be nine to 18 metres lower by the end of the century and lose a quarter of its size. How do you sustain a wetland that can no longer be kept wet? Researchers believe the unfurling crisis will result in an ecocide as devastating as the one in the Aral Sea, a few hundred kilometres to the east.
Falling water levels are challenging many other major landlocked lakes and seas (consider the Aral Sea and Lake Chad) but most coastal wetland systems face the opposite problem – rising sea levels associated with warming oceans, another consequence of climate change. Sea levels are currently rising by between 3-4 mm per year but this is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. This could lead to the submergence of 20–78% of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100!
Whether water levels are rising, falling or doing major damage through extreme weather events (think of this season’s unprecedented flooding all around the world), the prospects for the planet’s precious wetlands are darkening with every year. World Wetlands Day (and the Ramsar Convention) have played a valuable role in highlighting the importance of these watery ecosystems, as well as identifying wetlands of particular significance; but as climate change bites we need to face the grim reality that changing water levels mean that many, possibly most, wetlands cannot be protected by surrounding them in strong laws, good signage and a more receptive society. The sad truth is that shifting water levels mean many wetlands cannot be protected in their current spaces.
Just as the city Ramsar heralds this grim reality, the history of the Caspian Sea upon which it lies, may hold a possible solution. The Caspian Sea has a history of rises and falls. Around 10,000 years ago the sea was about 100 metres lower. A few thousand years before that it was about 50 metres higher than today’s level. Yet people who lived beside the sea were able to move with the fluctuating sea level. Back then, no large human infrastructure was around to be destroyed, and people moved (adapted) as required. The same applied to animal and plant species. Ecosystems simply moved up and down as the sea level shifted, as they had done over the past 2 million years or so.
In today’s world, with massive city infrastructure and property rights attached to specific locations, moving with a changing water level presents enormous challenges. And yet, doing nothing (ie, not moving) is not an option either. Roughly a tenth of the world’s population and assets are based less than 10 metres above sea level. Sea level rise means land currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable to annual flooding by 2050.
Water is the messenger
Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, recently observed that “Water is the messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighborhood, and to your front door.” Our first response, unfortunately, is usually to deny the message as we have so much invested in ‘sustaining’ the status quo. Economists would say we worry too much protecting ‘sunk investments’.
We’d rather reinforce and armour our shores against the rising tides, than consider moving to adapt to rising (or falling) water levels. Not only is this expensive and fails to address the underlying problem – sea level rise is predicted to accelerate, not stabilise – it makes us more vulnerable to the multiple threats being generated by climate change (eg, more intense storms and extreme rainfall).
In many ways, we’re doing the same with our wetland reserves. We’re managing them for the proximate dangers that threaten their natural values such as guarding against pollution, overexploitation and development. But, as with our cities and towns, we’re ignoring the consequences of changing water levels in a time of climate change. The places where we find wetlands today may not sustain wetlands into the future.
In some cases, wetlands have the capacity to move (migrate) with the water level as it changes. Some research is suggesting that sea levels could rise faster than a wetland’s natural migration rate. Other studies have shown their capacity to move is limited by how land is being used around existing wetlands.
The challenge of sustaining our precious wetlands in a time of climate change and changing water levels is enormous. The first step in meeting this challenge is getting beyond denial. Seas are rising. Lakes in many places are shrinking. We can see it happen, and there is a strong scientific consensus it’s only going to get worse. Given this reality, we need to extend the tool box of policy measures to conserve these vital ecosystems. It’s not enough to increase our protection of existing wetlands. We need to start planning on how we can facilitate their ability to move with changing water levels – to go with the flow.
Research is happening in many places around the world to explore what’s possible. For example, Australian scientists are developing the idea of “rolling covenants” to protect coastal ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise. These are conditions on land titles that permit productive use of land in the short term, while ensuring land use can shift over time to allow for coastal ecosystem migration in the medium to long term.
Of course, such provisions require considerable funding and a change in mindset on what is an appropriate way to use (and set aside future uses) of land. But such change is possible when society gets beyond denying what climate change means and works with the change rather than attempting to control it.
‘Making room’ for water
One of the best examples of this is the response of the Netherlands to the threat of rising sea levels and increased flood risk. The Netherlands is both flat and low lying, and has always been prone to flooding. More than half of the Netherlands is located on flood-prone land. Following two particularly horrifying floods in the 1990s, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, the Netherland’s government adopted a new paradigm in water management.
Rather than building bigger dykes and dams to control the floods, they adopted an approach called making “Room for the Rivers” in which floods were better accommodated by the landscape. Many farms were converted to wetlands (proving a boon for bird life), land around rivers was dedicated to allow for flooding, and cities and towns were adapted to cope with flood waters.
The approach cost billions of dollars, many land holders were required to give up their homes and their farm land, and the whole community needed to change the way they dealt with flooding.
The result? Dutch rivers can now absorb about 25% more water than they could in 1995, and the recent episode of historic floods that devasted parts of Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, left the Netherlands relatively unscathed.
If the Netherlands can make room for their rivers and demonstrate the value of this approach to flood control, what would it take for the world community to ‘make room’ for our wetlands?
This World Wetland Day, we all need to consider how we can better go with the flow.
Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)
By Peter Burnett
This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.
The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …
In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.
Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.
Suddenly the environment was back at the centre of policy-making.
Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.
But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.
The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.
While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.
Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.
Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?
In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.
This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.
Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.
The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.
Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?
Policy fights back
But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.
At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.
But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:
“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”
Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.
Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.
While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.
Working the policy through
The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)
And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!
Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.
More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.
So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.
We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)
But what about the principles, I hear you say?
The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.
The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.
The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.
The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.
For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)
The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.
The Big Shift begins
Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.
It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.
Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.
Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.
In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.
Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)
What does the idea of ‘sustainability’ mean to you?
Most people, including me, would like to believe they are being sustainable, that they are passing on a meaningful future to their children; and you can only do this if you’re being sustainable.
At the same time, most people are a bit cynical about the use and abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ as it seems to appear in the sales pitch for every good and service we use. Governments claim it’s a criterion for every policy they develop; businesses build it into every mission statement they produce and every NGO currently operating cites it as one of their goals.
It’s a buzzword; it’s greenwash; it’s ubiquitous, amorphous and infinitely malleable. Depending on your political persuasion, cultural background, religion or socio-economic status, sustainability is ‘one person’s meat or another person’s poison’.
And yet, for all its ubiquity, the idea of sustainability is one that most people only have a hazy notion about. For most people, it relates to being kind to the environment, responsible for our behavior, and maybe fair with the choices we make.
The truth is, there is no universally agreed objective definition of what the idea means; and that’s despite whole journals, libraries and uni departments being devoted to it. However, if you’re involved in any area of policy, management or science relating to sustainability – or if you claim to be living a sustainable life – then you owe it to yourself to at least have given the idea some thought and be prepared to defend your own notion of what it means.
The emergence of ‘sustainability’
The idea of ‘sustainability’ was first given international prominence at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972. It’s 50 years old.
Over the following decade the idea was refined and developed into a process that governments might work with. This process was called sustainable development, and its principles were set out in report, commissioned by the UN, called Our Common Future. This was released in 1987.
The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Over the quarter of a century that has followed the publication of Our Common Future, ideas on what ‘sustainability’ means have been explored, dissected, contested, deconstructed, rebuilt, trashed and/or reified. (For more detail on the major milestones along this road, see A (very) short history of sustainability.)
Broad or narrow? Weak or strong?
Some scholars, particularly in the early days, insisted that discussions on sustainability needed a tight focus on long-term ecological sustainability. What was it about the Earth system that sustains us? What is it that we can’t afford to ignore? Birds and bees, water and nutrient cycling, and photosynthesising plants are all essential for humans to exist. Should these things lie at the centre of any plan for sustainability? This narrower focus might be termed ‘environmental sustainability’.
Our Common Future coupled sustainability with the notion of development – sustainable development. The publication identified a much broader spectrum of issues to be covered by the concept, including political, social, economic, and cultural issues. This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘broad sustainability’.
And if the cloak of sustainability enfolds more than just the natural world, is it okay to substitute nature (natural capital) with human and social capital? Does it matter if natural vegetation cover is lost if we can replace it with a water treatment plant (which would replace the water filtering properties of natural vegetation)? Those that subscribed to this view, including ‘techno-optimists’, are described as supporting ‘weak’ sustainability.
Those that didn’t, including ‘deep ecologists’, believe that natural capital and other types of capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. You don’t replace a species lost with a machine that does the same function; these are not acceptable trade offs.
Let’s get personal
All this merely touches the surface of the ongoing debate on sustainability. What I hope to provoke here is a little introspection: What does sustainability mean to you? And What does sustainability mean for you?
For example, speaking for me:
I believe that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing. We should all be sustainable. It’d be a better world if we all were.
And what is it that I think ‘sustainability’ is? I believe it has something to do with meeting the needs of today without trashing the needs of tomorrow; pretty much the ‘standard’ take on it.
Am I sustainable?
I recycle plastic, have solar panels and solar hot water, have long been involved in environmental education, use rainwater in the garden where I can, minimise the use of chemicals in the garden, drive on old car, compost, encourage my family to minimise our resource use, have been active in habitat restoration, grow food, work with recycled building materials, support worthy causes and, where possible, try to be a responsible consumer.
I’m not the best or the worst when it comes to ‘being sustainable’. But am I being sustainable?
While I haven’t done embodied energy and water accounting on my household and lifestyle, I am confident I am using way more than I am generating. At the scale of ‘me’, I am not sustainable.
And I know that my country, Australia, has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any nation, and the world is rushing towards a climate apocalypse and that my government is in total denial about this (we also lead the world in species extinctions). So, at the scale of my country, I am not sustainable.
And the world is currently suffering climate event after climate event. Australia is seeing its coral reefs, forests and mangrove systems wither under climate extremes, while the planet is careering past multiple planetary thresholds. On top of this, the world’s richest people are getting obscenely rich while the world’s poorest are drowning as the seas rise. At the scale of my planet, I am not sustainable.
Am I kidding myself?
Given this, do I really think I’m moving towards sustainability?
If I do, it must be a form of broad and weak sustainability? I must think that the natural capital being remorselessly lost at an accelerating rate around me today will be replaced by human capital (smart technology) and social capital (smart human organisation) at some time in the future. And I must believe it will happen before irreversible ecological decline makes our planet unliveable (for humans).
And, if I truly believe this, I must be an extremely optimistic techno-idealogue (who doesn’t read the news and is unaware of the negative environmental trends around me). Unfortunately, I am not these things but I still believe ‘sustainability’ is an important idea that we all should subscribe to. There’s more than a little cognitive dissonance here.
Of course, I’m not completely responsible for my country’s failings on sustainability. I didn’t vote for the bastards currently in office. And how responsible am I for the world’s efforts? Which introduces two other shades of sustainability – bottom up and top down; think global, act local; look after my own backyard but try and influence the backyards around me; while trying to get our political representatives to implement sustainable policy (at national and international scales).
All of which only hints at the incredible complexity embodied in the idea of sustainability.
Do you think our political leaders, our representatives, owe the children of the future, our children, a duty of care? I think most people would.
But what does that actually mean in practice?
Should a duty of care apply if the political leader is wearing a second hat as a regulator? What if the law the regulator is applying says nothing about a duty of care?
Our legal system is grappling with this issue right now.
Last year, in a case known as Sharma v Minister for the Environment, the Federal Court of Australia found that the environment minister, in her statutory capacity as a regulator under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), owed Australian children a common law (ie, non-statutory) duty of care not to injure them by approving a development that would exacerbate climate change.
At the time, the minister was considering making a statutory decision to approve an extension to the Vickery coal mine in NSW.
Is it okay to develop a coal mine if it results in increased emissions?
As I wrote in an earlier blog, the implication of the case for decisions under the EPBC Act (and other regulatory laws) was that regulators, when considering whether to approve a development, must now turn their mind to an additional mandatory consideration, the likelihood of harm, at least to children, if not others.
In that discussion, I argued that the decision was legally incorrect and would likely be overturned on appeal. In fact, an appeal has been heard, though not yet decided.
In the meantime, the original decision stands and must be applied — ie, regulators must consider the likelihood of future harm to children from a development.
What does this mean in practice? Well, documents released recently under freedom of information (FoI) laws have revealed how the environment minister was advised by her department concerning this new-found duty of care.
The documents concern another coal mine extension, this time by Glencore of its Mangoola mine in the NSW Hunter Valley.
For completeness, the Court also found that human safety is a mandatory relevant consideration under the EPBC Act, including when affected by the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG).
Rather than this being part of a duty of care, the Court said this implication was found in the ‘subject-matter, scope and purpose’ of the EPBC Act.
As a result, if a proposed development in fact posed a ‘real risk’ to human safety of Australians (not just children) the Minister should give ‘at least elevated weight’ to the need to avoid that risk.
This part of the decision may be less vulnerable on appeal because it results from the Court’s interpretation of the Act, rather than the (more radical) application of a duty of care from outside the Act.
Requirements on Minister: EPBC Act plus duty of care
The EPBC Act contains a fairly standard process for granting environmental approvals, based on considering an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and applying various statutory criteria.
Although the EPBC Act does not extend directly to climate impacts, it does cover indirect impacts on things that it does proect, eg threatened species. And GHG can have an indirect impact on threatened species, by changing the climate.
So, it is common under the EPBC Act to consider climate impacts from projects that are large GHG emitters, like coal mines.
Consistent with the Sharma decision, when environment minister Sussan Ley considered the Mangoola mine, she considered, in addition to the usual statutory matters, her duty of care to avoid causing harm to Australian children, as a result of GHG emissions from both the mine itself (scope 1 and 2) and the coal it would produce (scope 3).
Minister’s decision on climate impacts of mine
The minister decided that, even having regard both to her additional duty of care to children and the implied statutory duty to consider human safety, it was not necessary to refuse the mine extension, or to impose additional climate-related conditions.
While these duties might have been new, it turned out that considering those duties simply took the minister down the same path of reasoning that she and her predecessors had used before when considering indirect climate impacts.
This reasoning has been validated by earlier court decisions and it goes like this:
First, if the mine didn’t go ahead, potential customers would simply burn coal from other mines, with no overall difference for the climate (the market substitution argument).
Second, if this is wrong, and the mine does increase GHG emissions, national and international policies, such as ‘nationally determined contributions’ under the Paris Agreement, would prevent overall emission increases, because countries have agreed to phase coal down (the climate policy argument).
And Ley added a new argument: the coal phase down would be reinforced by private company commitments: mine proponent Glencore had itself adopted a target of reducing total global emissions from its operations (scope 1, 2 and 3) by 50% by 2035, reducing to net-zero by 2050.
Just more boxes to tick? Is that it?
So, at the end of the day, even considering a new duty to children and giving ‘elevated’ weight to human safety consistent with the Sharma decision, the minister ended up at the same place as earlier decisions.
The mine could go ahead because it would not increase emissions, or, alternatively, any increase would be ‘extremely small’.
Plus, of course, there were social and economic benefits that made approval, on balance, ‘appropriate’.
It turned out that the duty of care to children and human safety were just two more boxes to tick.
So, does it matter then whether the government wins or loses the Sharma appeal if the result is the same?
You might think not, but I can however see two reasons why it matters.
It does matter
First, Sharma found the environment minister had a duty of care. While this duty might not change environmental outcomes now, if the duty is upheld it will invite compensation claims in future decades, based on harm generated by approval decisions taken now.
This creates risks for government.
The second implication is environmental and political. If the duty of care to children remains, this will confirm a higher profile for the climate implications of development decisions. I think this increases the chances that someone will take the ‘market substitution’ and ‘climate policy’ arguments to the High Court.
I know I told you that these arguments had already been accepted in earlier Federal Court decisions. But I think there are grounds for challenging this.
Why? I’ll tell you in another blog, but a High Court appeal would put climate change issues before the highest court in the land. And that’s not something to be sneezed at.
The implications of this? If the children win again in court, I think the government will move in Parliament to legislate these legal and political risks away.
So the children will probably lose even if they win.
Banner image: On the one hand coal gives us ‘cheap’ energy. On the other, it emits a lot of GHG likely to harm future generations of children. (Image by Pavlofox @ Pixabay).
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
So opined Jodi Mitchell back in 1970 when she protested against the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, an anthemic reflection on the price of progress.
But the line seems particularly apposite today, fifty years on, as we consider the latest victim of ‘progress’, the seemingly ubiquitous Bogong moth. The IUCN (the international body that monitors planetary biodiversity), has just placed the Bogong moth on its Red List of Threatened Species, not a list any organism wants to join.
Of course, the Bogong is a migratory moth so it’s not actually ubiquitous. For much of the year you never saw them but come migration time in and around Canberra, where I live, they suddenly appeared everywhere; in your cupboards, around your lights, behind pictures, everywhere.
They were once so common that their swarms were said to “block out the moon”. Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of them disrupted the Sydney Olympics when they were attracted to stadium floodlights; and many times they’ve invaded Parliament House in Canberra where “they land in your tea, your hair, your handbag and litter office ceilings, walls and windows.” This account, I’m sad to say, was only eight years ago.
From boom to bust
It’s believed Bogong moths have been migrating to the Australia’s snowy mountains every year for thousands of years. They do this around Christmas to escape summer’s baking heat by aggregating in cool mountain caves, literally coating the rocky cave walls like the scales of a fish.
The moths provided a rich source of food for other animals like the Critically Endangered mountain pygmy possum. They are also eaten by humans. First Nations people used to come together from all over the region to feast on the moths. It was a time of celebration, to have a big eat up and strengthen relationships. These ceremonies stopped with European colonisation; though the moths still continued their yearly journey in their billions.
Since the 1980s, however, scientists have detected steady declines in numbers of bogong moths. Then, in 2017 and 2018, their numbers crashed. Ecologists visiting caves at Mount Gingera in 2018 near Canberra reported that this site that had been known to house millions of the moths (17,000 moths per square metre), now only contained three moths! Not three thousand or three million, just three moths. Searches of another 50 known sites have turned up similar catastrophic absences.
Of course, if you look back through the environmental records for this time (and you don’t have to look far, it was only a few years ago) you’ll discover the Great Barrier Reef was undergoing another mass bleaching event, kelp forests were disappearing along with mangroves, and the nation was suffering an unprecedented drought (which gave us our Black Summer in 2019/20).
The decline of the Bogong moth is being connected to extreme drought (associated with climate change), pesticides and changes in agricultural practices. Last summer (2020), numbers were a bit better however, at best, they are only at 5% of what they used to be.
A connection severed
With their loss, we lose a tangible cultural connection to the history of our First Nations people. With their loss it’s likely we will also see the demise of the mountain pygmy possum which depended on the moths as a primary food source. Checks on the pygmy possum, which exist only in Australia’s alpine regions, have revealed dead litters in the pouches of females.
And while we found the Bogong moth a bit of a pest when they invaded our homes, stadiums and gathering places, they have become a creature of our own folklore; their presence signalling one of nature’s miracles in progress. I’ve never thought of them as beautiful (or cuddly) but their existence and behaviour filled me with a sense of awe and joy for the ineffable wonder of the natural world.
In 2018, scientists revealed one more facet of the amazing story of the Bogongs. Apparently they use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate from the grasslands in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland to reach the mountains – sometimes at distances of 1,000km. Their use of magnetic fields for migratory navigation is believed to be a first for insects. Ironic, isn’t it. A miracle partially understood just at the species itself appears to be moving into the twilight of extinction.
Again and again
This is not the first time a populous species that we thought would be with us forever has disappeared. In the 1800s the passenger pigeon in North America formed flocks that darkened the skies for several days at a time. With a population in the billions, no-one believed it could be at risk. But it was hunted in large numbers and its forest habitat was cleared. Its population collapsed over a few decades. Even when it was realised the species was in decline, 250,000 birds – the last big flock – were shot on a single day in 1896! The last individual passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
The large grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) from the western US suffered the same fate. It went from a population of several trillion to zero in a few decades, when farmers destroyed its breeding grounds.
In Norway and across the whole of the North Atlantic, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) died out after people harvested them in large numbers.
We took all these species for granted and now they are gone – forever.
You don’t know what you’ve got
The loss of species and ecosystems is accelerating. It is not just the Bogong moth that has been added to the IUCN Red List. A number of other Australian species have gone on including the Grey-headed flying fox and the Arcadia velvet gecko.
Scientists have given us multiple warnings about the parlous and worsening state of biodiversity on planet Earth. Many believe it is a problem even more serious than climate change though the two issues are strongly interlinked. As with climate change, the collapse of biodiversity never seems to be a high priority with any government. It’s framed as a problem for tomorrow.
I grieve at this ongoing loss, but the demise of the Bogong is especially poignant. I have trekked up into nearby mountains to witness their summer cave refuges. I have seen them in their abundance, marvelled at their ancient life cycle and enjoyed eating a few cooked in the ashes of a camp fire (they taste like crunchy pine nuts). I have always looked forward to the yearly return of these large, ponderous brown moths. These simple experiences, however, are now no longer available.
What’s more, these experiences are unlikely to ever be available to my children or their children.
The idea that we will see Bogongs no more is an assault to our very identity.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ What does it take for our political leaders to acknowledge this loss and do something before its irreversible?
Banner image: Around Canberra there are several works of art celebrating the Bogong moth and its significance to our past and present. The one pictured here can be found on the grounds of the Crawford School at the Australian National University. I used it as a prop when lecturing to overseas students in an introduction to the Australian environment.
The bitter irony in the images shown here is that even as I was discussing this amazing insect with students (in 2017), ecologists were struggling to find any moths in the adjacent mountain range; a place they had over-summered in massive numbers since time immemorial.
Capitalism is a popular theme in Australian environmental policy at the moment, at least for Liberal governments.
Hardly surprising I suppose. The Liberal Party prides itself on being the natural home of free enterprise.
Addressing a business breakfast last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his audience that ‘We believe climate can be ultimately solved by “can-do capitalism” not “don’t do governments” seeking to control peoples’ lives.
As a three word slogan, ‘can-do capitalism’ would not have rated a further mention in this blog if it were not for the fact that, shortly afterwards, Matt Kean, recently-appointed NSW Treasurer (who also remains, for the time being, Environment Minister) popped up in a media interview spruiking ‘New Capitalism’ as the solution to environmental and other problems.
“I think it [New Capitalism] is very different [to Can-Co Capitalism],” Mr Kean told the Australian Financial Review. “I don’t want to make policies just for a news cycle, I want to make policies for a generation that will build a stronger and more prosperous nation for everyone,” Mr Kean said.
Kean’s ‘New Capitalism’
But there was more to it than that. Mr Kean went on to say that ‘I guess “New Capitalism” is looking at the environmental and social benefits of the decisions we take, not just the financial benefits.’
Still fairly ho hum and hardly new. This amounts to a very weak form of sustainability: ‘sustainable’ in a sense of requiring economic, social and environmental factors to be taken into account, but very weak because it does not require any particular weight to be given to social or environmental factors. Indeed, this formula doesn’t require any weight at all!
However, Kean continued, outlining “five pillars” of his economic portfolio, including “climate and sustainability”. A little more substance, but still just a topic and not really a policy.
Then it got interesting. Kean started talking about there being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the big structural issues in the economy. ‘There’s no point leaving our kids with a bucketful of money if we’ve left them with a mountain of environmental debt,’ he said.
What’s ‘environmental debt’?
Now you’re talking Matt. I’ve always thought ‘environmental debt’ was a useful concept, conveying clearly that we have borrowed someone else’s share of nature (the ‘someone else’ being future generations) and must pay it back.
But the term hasn’t been used much in our political discourse, perhaps because it is potentially so powerful and, to my mind, policy-specific.
In fact, the only serious mention of environmental debt I can recall in Australian political discourse comes from 30 years ago, when the Hawke government made reference to the importance of not saddling future generations with environmental debt, in the course of developing the now-long-forgotten National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development.
But why does using up nature create a debt? Because Nature can only produce what each generation of humans needs if there is enough of each of its component ecosystems, its ‘natural capital’, to do so.
Call it ‘critical mass’ if you like. That’s just the way Nature works. Drop below critical mass in any ecosystem and you are in trouble.
This phenomenon has been explained by comparing Nature to an inheritance, coming in the form of a large fund that has been invested.
We can live off the natural ‘dividends’ or ‘ecosystem services’ forever, but if we draw down more than just the dividends, we start eating into the natural capital, condemning future generations to receiving fewer ‘dividends’ (and more trouble) from Nature than we have.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have done.
So, if we value our children and grandchildren as much as ourselves, we owe it to future generations to pay back our over-consumption. (As an aside, try arguing against that proposition: Groucho Marx is reported to have said ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ But he was a comedian.)
And how do we pay back environmental debt? Through environmental restoration. Restoration can come from doing things that build Nature’ capacities (like planting trees) or from reducing things that harm Nature (like carbon emissions).
Don’t forget the accounts
And if Kean is serious about repaying environmental debt, there’s another implication: we need a way to measure it. Banks keep track of their loans by keeping accounts. As I’ve explained before, there is an now an internationally recognised way of keeping environmental accounts, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts, or ‘SEEA’.
By recording the extent and condition of our ecosystems, and then identifying the minimum of such extent and condition (‘critical mass’) needed to produce the ecosystem services on which we all rely, we can then identify any shortfall as our accumulated ecological debt.
Environmental accounts could also be used to keep track of the gains achieved through environmental restoration, as we reduce the debt.
As you can see, that this is dangerous territory for a politician. Talk of environmental debt raises issues that are moral (always tricky), long-term (when most politics goes for the quick fix) and specific (raising the risk of being boxed in, to a potentially-unpopular policy).
But Matt Kean is a highly unusual politician, not only because he comes from the political Right but outdoes the environmental commitment of many on the political Left, but also because he’s been unusually successful in bringing his conservative colleagues along with his pro-environment policies.
In deploying the language of environmental debt, Kean may now be striking out further, into waters that, while not newly discovered, are rarely sailed.
Let’s hope his boldness pays off. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.
Liberia is having problems with its environmental governance. And so are we.
Deforesting a biodiversity hotspot
Logging companies are exploiting weak monitoring and enforcement of Liberia’s forestry laws. Apparently, a 2019 audit had found that around 14,000 cubic metres of timber supposedly harvested legally was actually untraceable (and therefore probably illegal) yet permits for the sale and export of much of the timber were still approved. Authorities have known about the case for more than two years, and done nothing. What’s more, the logging company responsible has a long and troubled history of violations.
Well, is anyone surprised? Liberia, a biodiversity hotspot, is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. It’s been ripped apart by civil war and disease, and corruption is endemic at every level of the Liberian government. Illegal timber harvesting has, in particular, been an ongoing running sore; as is the case in so many developing countries (like our nearest neighbours, PNG).
Thank God we can trust environmental governance in Australia.
If that wasn’t bad enough, an investigation undertaken by the ABC suggests the government regulator, whose job it is to monitor VicForests, was alerted to the breaches but failed to properly investigate.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time the timber corporation has been accused of illegal logging, nor the first time the regulator has been accused of ignoring it.
According to leading ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer, who has been researching these forested landscapes for decades, it’s the story of Australia’s “lawless” loggers, and a regulator failing to regulate.
Buried without consent
And then there’s the sad tale of the mining company Whitehaven Coal attempting to carry out the mass disposal of its mining tyres by burying them in the Leard Forest Precinct, on the ancestral lands of the Gomeroi traditional owners. The land is under a Native Title claim. Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000, approval of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is required. Whitehaven has no such approval, something the Land Council has pointed out to them. Allegations have been circulating in the region that Whitehaven attempted to threaten Gomeroi with loss of jobs if they do not sign off on the tyre landfilling.
Sad as this sounds, the more worrying aspect of this story is that the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), has given the okay to conduct the mass burial of mining tyres. While technically termed “agency advice” and not “approval”, the NSW EPA’s approval of Whitehaven Coal’s application to bury off-the-road mining tyres for the life of the Maules Creek mine, would be subject only to a “review” every two years.
This has led some to suggest that the NSW EPA has been captured by the coal industry in north west NSW.
Against the flow of law
Maybe you think a few thousand giant tyres buried on Aboriginal land against its owners wishes is small beer not worthy of losing any sleep over. If so, what’s your view on the state’s water supply being governed for the interests of irrigators and not the public interest? Impossible you say? Well, not according to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). It found that the New South Wales Government was favouring irrigators over other water users in a manner that went against its own laws!
In November of last year, ICAC released a damning report on water mismanagement in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The report detailed a history of water agencies’ ‘undue focus on irrigator’s interests’, including more than a decade of failure to give ‘proper and full effect to the objects, principles and duties’ of the Water Management Act 2000.
For example, the ICAC found that one of the State’s former top water bureaucrats had held a clear bias in favour of irrigators. It confirmed that this person had provided a select group of irrigator lobbyists with confidential legal advice as part of a strategy to undermine national water laws; that he conflated the commercial interests of certain irrigator groups with the broader interests of the entire state; and that he assumed that the interests of ‘direct’ water users trumped those of ‘indirect’ users (whom he helpfully identified as the environment and First Nations peoples).
Despite this clear finding, the Commission did not find that this approach (let’s call it ‘business-as-usual’) was ‘corrupt’ behaviour. This has led many to suggest that anti-corruption watchdogs are perhaps unable – or unwilling – to take on ‘regulatory capture’ of entire agencies. Regulatory capture might be defined as decision making by public servants that favours particular and regulated interests, rather than incorporating the broader public interest, or the objects of the relevant legislation.
A slippery slope
Corruption is a slippery slope.
There will always be bad actors out there attempting to get the most they can out of a system. That’s why we have laws to constrain them. But those laws are meaningless unless there is monitoring and enforcement to ensure they are respected. And that’s why we have environmental regulators established with these powers.
But we kid ourselves if we believe you can simply set up an environmental regulator and then just leave it – set and forget – because over time things change. Environmental regulators often face funding cuts making it difficult for them to fulfil their mission. Lobbyists influence political parties to modify regulation and oversight to benefit their industry groups, and companies do everything in their power to get the regulators to smile on their enterprise.
The examples I cite here are just those that have come to light in recent months, but it’s happening all the time. That’s why, with the best will in the world, it’s not enough to believe our environmental regulators can be left alone, out of sight, to get on with the job.
Their accountability, transparency and capacity to operate at arm’s length from companies they regulate all need to be constantly reviewed and tested. They need to be examined by a robust free press, questioned by an enquiring general public, and audited and interrogated by anti-corruption government agencies (auditors and independent corruption commissions).
And even if this all happens, things can still turn rotten. It’s a big challenge.
However, in Australia, our national leaders are still unable to create a decent anti-corruption agency despite years of promises. It’s clearly not a priority despite multiple failures over time.
There are so many reasons to feel sorry for Liberia and its attempts curb environmental degradation.
We don’t have those excuses. And we kid ourselves if we believe our environmental regulators are fit for purpose.
Will the federal government engage in real environmental reform before the election?
By Peter Burnett
One of my favourite environmental cartoons appeared in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris climate meeting. It depicts Australia’s environment minister (who was then Josh Frydenberg) as a magician performing for a domestic audience. The magician pulls a climate policy rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, a giant rabbit called ‘Paris’ peers round a curtain on the stage …
This October Prime Minister Morrison tried something of a similar trick, releasing the ‘Australian Way’, a climate ‘plan’ that ramped up Australia’s climate ambition to Net Zero by 2050, without the benefit of any new policy to support this heightened ambition.
With almost breathtaking hutzpah, Mr Morrison even told the domestic audience that ‘the Australian way shows a way for other countries to follow’! Meanwhile, a justified monstering awaited him at Glasgow …
A Magic Pudding
At the time of the PM’s announcement, my immediate thought was not of magicians but of Norman Lindsay’s 1917 children’s book, The Magic Pudding, in which Albert, the irascible pudding, is forever being eaten but is never consumed.
When the ‘modelling’ behind the plan was released, it confirmed my suspicion of ‘magical thinking’. For example, it uses an unrealistic baseline scenario called ‘No Australian Action’, in which every country except Australia reduces their emissions to achieve a below 2 degrees emissions trajectory. The scenario then assumes that the only adverse reaction to such free riding by Australia comes from investors imposing a capital risk premium.
Meanwhile, the costs of climate inaction, imposed by extreme weather, climate refugees and so on do not rate a mention.
While the government has yet to display such blatant ‘magical thinking’ in its approach to reforming Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), it is certainly showing ‘magical’ tendencies in the sense that the ‘reforms’ it has announced to date contain nothing real.
Readers will recall that the EPBC Act was the subject of a major independent review by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020. The centrepiece of the Samuel Review was a shift from process-based regulation to outcome-based National Environmental Standards.
Releasing a reform ‘pathway’ in response to the Samuel Review in June this year, the Government announced that it would adopt Interim Standards that — wait for it — reflected the (process-based) status quo!
Yet all is not quite as vacuous as it seems. The government does have an agenda, just not one concerned with halting environmental decline.
Rather, its priority is to devolve environmental approvals to the states. It has labelled its devolution proposals as ‘single touch’ approvals and declared these to be the ‘priority reforms’ in its response to the Samuel Review.
While, on paper, there’s a timeline for substantive environmental reforms to come later, in reality, nothing happens until Parliament passes the necessary legislation.
The subtext? If you want environmental reform, you’ll pass our devolution laws.
Trouble is, the devolution laws are stuck in the Senate and are looking increasingly unlikely to pass. Cross-benchers have called the government’s bluff.
So, with an election looming, will the government be content to leave it at that?
One more shot in the environmental reform locker?
Well, the government has another shot in its environmental reform locker, but it is not clear how they will use it.
In the last federal Budget, they announced $2.7 million over three years to pilot a Commonwealth-accredited regional plan to ‘support and accelerate development in a priority regional area’. Tiny as it is, this is a response to one of Professor Samuel’s 38 reform recommendations.
Accrediting bioregional plans under the EPBC Act holds the prospect of both better-protecting the environment while also fulfilling the government’s dream of getting the federal government out of giving environmental approvals on a case-by-case basis and leaving that to the states.
Especially in light of the Senate bottleneck with the ‘single touch’ legislation, you’d think the government would have moved quickly with this project, to get some runs on the board before the election.
This expectation is reinforced by the Budget itself, with the largest share of the funding, $1.179 million, allocated to the current financial year.
Yet with the year almost half over, there’s been no announcement of a partnership with a state or territory for the pilot plan.
Going to plan(?)
So, is the federal government taking regional environmental planning seriously? If it does, there’s a lot of groundwork to do and statutory requirements to be met. ‘Bioregional’ plans, as the EPBC Act calls them, can be disallowed by either House of Parliament; they could also be subject to court challenge if substantive requirements were not met.
With nearly half the year gone, there’s probably not time before the election for much more than an announcement of a deal with one lucky state or territory to develop a pilot regional plan.
Not a lot of electoral bang there.
And there are also potential downsides. For example, the exercise of preparing a regional plan might reveal that the environment in that region in fact needs more protection (and more investment in recovery) that the government might like.
There’s always the base political option of not taking regional planning seriously and simply putting a federal ‘koala stamp’ on an existing, or rustled up, state plan. This could then be trumpeted as the first instalment of a major reform, though it would almost certainly bring on Parliamentary and legal challenges.
Certainly nothing for the environment in that. But would the Coalition see votes in it?
CoP26 has just concluded. Many are crying our leaders have lied to us; they’re not being ‘fair dinkum*’ when it comes to climate change.
And the Australian Government has just released its modelling behind their “Plan to Deliver Net Zero” emissions by 2050 (releasing it on the final scheduled day of the CoP, late on a Friday, guaranteed to minimise timely efforts to scrutinise it).
But you don’t even have to study it to see something’s amiss. Before you even interrogate the assumptions in the modelling (assumptions described as ‘wild’ by many experts) it becomes clear it doesn’t even meet it owns objective. Fifteen per cent of the reductions is based on unspecified future technology (with a further 10-20% is achieved through carbon offsets) so it’s actually a plan for 85% emissions reductions at best. Does this mean the Government is lying?
Lies all the way down
The business of ‘telling lies’ is dominating the news cycle at the moment with the very integrity of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, being put under the spotlight following the French President Macron saying “I don’t think, I know” when asked if he thought our Prime Minister Morrison had lied to him over the breaking of $90billion contract for submarines. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull endorsed this sentiment by observing: “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”
Following this, Morrison was asked on radio if he had ever told a lie in public life. He replied: “I don’t believe I have, no. No.”
But, if he’s a liar, he would say that, wouldn’t he? The fact is, he’s been caught out on many occasions. News group Crikey, as just one example, has published a list of 42 lies Morrison has made in recent years with the evidence to prove it.
Some might say lying is merely a politician’s stock in trade, they all do it; and we have elections to enable voters to make a judgement on where lies the truth (or what ‘lies’ they are prepared to accept). But is this good enough with an existential threat like climate change coming at us like a runaway freight train? Lies might win votes but they don’t redefine the way the earth system functions. They might grease your way to an election win but they don’t deliver a sustainable future.
A world of lies
There are lies and there are lies; and, if we’re going to be honest, we all tell them.
The most obvious lie is the untrue statement told to deceive, often referred to as a lie of commission. It seems our ‘plan to deliver net zero’ is full of these.
Then there are the lies of omission, where we distort meaning by not including appropriate information in our pronouncements. In our ‘plan’, the biggest omission is a failure to model what happens if we don’t take action. That’s an omission big enough to drive a planet through.
Or there are lies of fabrication where we make stuff up; lies of minimisation where we underplay aspects of the situation we are describing; or lies of exaggeration in which we overstate things. The ‘plan’ is overflowing with each of these.
So many ways to lie. There are white lies, often told to comfort people; gray lies, in which we’re not sure who benefits; black lies where there’s no confusion, you’re clearly doing it for self-gain; and red lies, told out of spite to damage someone else.
Indeed, it’s easy to find any number of typologies to categorise lies (eg, the 5 types of lies) and liars (eg, the 3 type of liars). However, if you believe lying is ultimately wrong and damaging, possibly the more important questions to pose are: -is it on the increase (and why)? and -what’s the consequence of allowing ‘lying’ to become the new normal?
Liar, liar, pants on fire
Morrison has been caught out many times lying but few leaders can hold a candle to the mendacity displayed by President Trump. The Washington Post tallied up Trumps lies at a staggering 30,573 over the four years he was in office.
But Trump is hardly alone when it comes to outrageous lying. Whether its Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippine’s Duterte, the UK’s Johnson or Russia’s Putin, lying seems to be a standard tool of the trade, and it’s being wielded all the time. The strong impression is that more world leaders are lying more and more often; but how do you prove such a subjective assessment? Measuring the aggregate load of lies and how it changes over time is no easy task.
There are attempts by various groups to measure trends in transparency, corruption and good governance, all good surrogates for the lies of the land. But making meaningful, representative and repeatable comparisons is devilishly difficult.
Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index didn’t make any grand general statements like the world has declined overall or improved; but it did find that countries with strong democratic governance managed better, equitable and effective responses to COVID-19. Countries that performed well on the index invested more in health care, are better able to provide universal health coverage and are less likely to violate democratic norms and institutions or the rule of law. Countries with higher levels of corruption tend to be the worst perpetrators of rule of law and democratic breaches while managing the COVID-19 crisis.
On this index, Australia comes in 11th place (of 180 countries), scoring 77 points on the 100-point scale. Australia’s score has dropped 8 points since its peak in 2012 so even on a coarse index like this it seems our integrity is on the decline.
Another NGO studying governance trends around the world, the Global State of Democracy, found that populist parties are on the rise everywhere, nearly doubling in number over the last 15 years.
The Global State of Democracy contends that the recent growth of electoral support for populist political actors around the world is rooted in several interacting trends: economic and cultural globalization, weakening nation state policy/autonomy, societal change, a polarized digital public sphere and a decline in support for mainstream political parties. The rise of populist parties, movements and politicians opposing established political elites can be seen as a reaction to the perceived underperformance of democracies and as a sign of crisis among mainstream political parties.
My interpretation of this is that when mainstream parties lie they erode confidence and trust in the electorate driving voters to populist parties, who usually lie even more. It’s a slippery slope.
Some lies are just seen as business as usual be it denial over the health risks of tobacco smoking to denial that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. These lies have the potential to kill millions.
There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence demonstrating that lying by our political leaders is becoming more prevalent. And every lie erodes the trust bank of social capital, the keystone of our society’s resilience to deal with the growing environmental challenges coming at us with greater frequency.
Morrison is a liar. His Government’s response to climate change and the CoP26 is tantamount to a lie. The Government’s calculation is that this doesn’t matter, that the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and our forest biome (as just two examples of the impacts of climate change) is a matter for future governments and generations, and that lying about this won’t cost them the next election.
But what is the cost if they do win the next election based on a lie? What is the cost of political leaders pulling down the blinds on transparency, junking accountability and dismissing integrity because it’s simply easier to get by with a lie? Incalculable.
*’fair dinkum’: to be true, authentic and to not lie (Australian synonym: passes the pub test). None of this applies to our current Prime Minister.
Government priorities revealed in the detail of evidence from officials
By Peter Burnett
The Australian Senate holds ‘Estimates’ hearings three times each year. The official purpose of these hearings is to scrutinise estimates of proposed expenditure contained in Budget-related legislation.
In practice, the hearings are used mostly to extract information from public servants that can be used to attack the Government. The Senate rules aid in this by allowing questions on any spending, including money already spent, or any activity supported by government funds, including the activities of ministers and officials.
A favourite ‘game’ for Opposition MPs and journalists over the years has been to use the information to suggest that government members have their snouts in the trough. Examples include spending on redecorating the Prime Minister’s Lodge, or on flying ministers to Party fundraisers under the pretext of official business (including in helicopters).
I follow Estimates hearings for different reasons. I look for little gems of information about environmental programs, the sort of information that reveals something new, but which is not significant enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media.
The Senate held its second round of Estimates hearings for 2021 in late October. The Environment and Communications Committee heard evidence from officials administering a wide range of environment programs, including on climate change.
The government ‘team’ is always led by a government minister, who must be a Senator.
This often means that the minister at the table is not the actual minister for the portfolio concerned. For example, Environment Minister Sussan Ley was represented by Senator Jane Hume, Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy.
As a result, the minister at the table often does not have a deep knowledge of the portfolio. This amplifies the tendency, already strong in all ministers, to rely on speaking points and otherwise to argue, deflect and otherwise stonewall.
But the minister at the table can’t block officials from answering factual questions about government activities, like how much was spent flying the environment minister around the world to lobby against the proposed World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing of the Great Barrier Reef, where she went and who went with her?
The answer may or may not be a ‘little gem’.
On this occasion, I didn’t find the answer to the question about Sussan Ley’s peregrinations all that interesting. Rather, my little gems relate to climate, environment protection and Indigenous heritage.
These Estimates hearings took place before the government announced its switch to a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ climate goal. So, a lot of the questions were directed to pressuring officials to reveal what they knew about the as yet unannounced deal between the Liberals and Nationals on climate policy.
This generated a lot of verbal jousting, but little information. Much heat, little light.
My climate gem, however, involved an official confirming that the government’s projections on emissions (and thus its measure of progress towards targets) counted commitments made by the states, but only where officials had some confidence that the state concerned would actually take the promised action.
For example, if a State announced funding for a commitment, Commonwealth officials would count it in projections, but they wouldn’t if the announcement were ‘just a statement, for example’.
Later, once the government had released its plan to deliver Net Zero, ‘The Australian Way’, this gave me pause for thought.
I had read all 126 pages of this plan but could not find any new policies. This must mean that Australia’s projections before and after the release of the plan would be identical — some plan!
Labor Senator Nita Green quizzed officials about media reports that the deal with the Nationals included changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Sources said that changes proposed to the Act would make it easier for farmers and miners to do what they do, rather than have obstacles in the way.
Had the department been asked to provide any advice on potential changes or amendments to the Act in the last two weeks?
‘No, Senator’ was the reply.
If the Liberals and Nationals have agreed to amend the EPBC Act, and without advice from officials, the most likely amendment for farmers would be to exempt them from applying for approval to clear native vegetation on their properties, where this vegetation might be habitat for nationally-listed threatened species.
For miners, the exemption might be for the clearing of sites under a certain size.
I expect the justification would be that native vegetation is already protected by State land clearing laws and that the EPBC act should only apply where there was a direct impact on a known population of threatened species.
Such amendments would ignore the fact that threatened species rely on habitat to survive, that they are not always present in habitat and that State native vegetation laws are not necessarily designed to protect Matters of National Environmental Significance.
Those pillars include reversing the unsustainable trajectory of Australian environmental decline through comprehensive and legally enforceable National Environmental Standards.
Would this inconsistency concern the government? I don’t think so. In fact, without advice from officials, they might not even be aware of it.
Indigenous heritage reform
Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in May 2020 precipitated a national outcry. Although the approval was given by a WA Minister under its fifty-year-old Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, attempts by Traditional Owners to seek federal intervention through environment minister Ley’s office came to nought.
This was despite the existence of federal laws which might have been invoked to prevent the destruction.
The government scrambled to defend itself against allegations of bungling by Minister Ley.
This included convening a national roundtable meeting on Indigenous heritage reform. At the meeting, Ley linked reform to the then-current Samuel Review of the EPBC Act and advised of the government’s intention to address Indigenous heritage protection reform as part of its response to that review.
In its subsequent, partial, response to the Samuel review, the government committed only to ‘engaging’ with Indigenous peoples to ‘further canvass options and determine the key priorities and a pathway for this important area of reform.’
Asked whether this process was underway, an official replied that:
We have been discussing the issue with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance in relation to a pathway for consultation that would include Indigenous groups. So I would characterise that as certainly being underway but still at relatively early stages from the department’s perspective.
This is bureaucratic speak for consulting about consulting.
Officials then advised that they were close to an agreement with the Alliance. Once that was done, they planned to start consulting about the substantive issues of Indigenous heritage protection.
‘Is there a timeline for that?’ asked a Senator. ‘Not as yet’ replied the official. ‘What we are hoping is that when the partnership agreement is finalised and put forward will also be able to release an implementation plan at the same time.’
More process, more delay!
Was there ‘any truth to the assertion that this whole process is being run by the Prime Minister’s office and the environment minister, your boss, is just the face of the show?’ asked a Senator.
This prompted an intervention by the Secretary of the department, Andrew Metcalfe:
I think that’s a very unfair assertion given we have worked extensively with the minister and her office … But I can absolutely assure the committee that the minister is very heavily across the detail and has been very much determining the progress of the matter.
With all respect to Mr Metcalfe, a distinguished public servant, the minister could be ‘heavily across the detail’ and giving his department specific directions, without him knowing that she was being directed by the Prime Minister.
This is borne out by the next question: How involved has the Cabinet Secretary [a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s office] been? asked the Senator. ‘We have no knowledge of that …’ replied the Secretary.
While I have no inside knowledge, it would certainly be consistent with Scott Morrison’s political style, and the high risk of embarrassment associated with the destruction of the Juukan Gorge, that his office would be calling the shots
And that the government would be dragging things out to avoid having to make any substantive calls on Indigenous heritage reform before the election due by May 2022.
What these little gems reflect
While these little gems hardly sparkle, they do shed some light on the directions of the Morrison Government on environment.
Unfortunately, it looks to me to be politics all the way down with little priority on good policy reform.
On climate, the government has delivered a content-free ‘strategy’ on achieving its Net Zero target, while officials have confirmed that the federal government can claim the benefit of substantive state action. Great politics, poor policy.
On environment protection, it seems that the government is willing to ignore the parlous state of the environment and to run counter to its own rhetoric on reform, to buy off the National Party.
And on Indigenous heritage, it appears the strategy is to kick the can down the road, avoiding real reform before the next election. This is because real reforms would involve an impossible (for the government) choice between popular support for proper Indigenous heritage protection and maintaining the ability of industry to operate in culturally-sensitive places without having to risk a veto from Traditional Owners.
Good government requires hard decisions, doesn’t it? That’s why we have them!
Banner image: When it comes to the environment, the devil’s in the detail. (Image by pen_ash from Pixabay)
Forget the Anthropocene – Australia’s ‘bold plan’ for net zero by 2050 marks the beginning of an amazing new geological epoch: The Absurdicene, the age where the ridiculous and the self-serving trumps evidence and science. As our children are discovering, it’s not a great time for hope.
The much-discussed Anthropocene was one of the shortest geological epochs of the modern era. It began on the 16 July 1945 and ended on the 26 October 2021.
Why these dates?
Well, the 16 July 1945 was the day of the first atomic bomb test, a few weeks before Hiroshima was obliterated by the world’s first atomic attack. That first test left trace (but measurable) fission products in soil strata around the world. 1945 marked the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Great Acceleration, a time of unparalleled economic growth that has continued to this day.
From that time, humans have literally transformed the Earth System: slaughtering our biodiversity, modifying our climate, and polluting our land, sea and air. Earth systems scientists believe humans have become the dominant force on our planet, and that this warrants labelling this time as a new geological epoch – the age of humans or the Anthropocene.
Some Anthropocene scholars have nominated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the true beginning of this epoch (18th Century); others have nominated the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution (some 10,000 years ago). The Earth System scientists I follow, however, reckon the Great Acceleration is a better starting point as it’s really when human activity began distorting the Earth System and we can exactly measure the transition with that first atomic test.
Nominating an end date is even more contentious, and doubling down with the declaration of a new geological epoch called the Absurdicene requires a degree of hubris rarely seen in the academic literature (and yet quite characteristic of many of my columns).
The 26 October 2021 was the ‘proud’ day the Australian Government launched a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. So ridiculous, hollow and surreal was the plan – so full of assumptions, half-truths and outright lies – that academics would look back on the launch of this plan as the day humanity lost its marbles and officially entered the geological period known as the Absurdicene. (I’m using Australia as a case study reflecting the absurdity of the wider world.)
Frankly, given the parlous and deteriorating state of the Australian environment (bleaching coral reefs and burning forest biomes being two of the most recent and horrific examples), and the impact this is causing to the Australian society, I feel it is simply inadequate to label the Government’s efforts to address this situation as even remotely acceptable or reasonable.
Indeed, not only does the Government fail to take effective action, it is, as I write this, undermining international efforts to address climate change at the COP26 in Glasgow. It is a part of a cabal of nations trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. A leak has revealed that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.
And while this is happening, our Government tells us they have a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 that is based on taking no proactive action now and leaving the heavy lifting to future generations using yet to be developed technology.
This is more than just ‘inadequate’, it is so perverse that it no longer makes sense; it’s surreal, it is positively absurd.
Acknowledging the absurd
Which leads me to conclude that human interference with the Earth system has now gone beyond disturbing our biophysical systems to polluting our very social systems. Calling it the Anthropocene is simply inadequate because the human response to the global change that humans have caused is no longer rational.
The best science tells us our species is not sustainable. The evidence of this truth is mounting, and the impacts are being felt but our government’s response is one of denial and obfuscation while actually claiming they follow the science.
I regard the Anthropocene as a term that suggests that humans are acknowledging what we are doing to the Earth system and attempting to minimise the adverse impacts we are seeing around us. The Anthropocene is an age of human potency and amazing scientific insight. We have seen further, risen faster and influenced the very nature of things in ways that inspire awe, generate wealth and have transformed the very functioning of our planet.
The wealthiest have grown super wealthy, most of humanity have improved their quality of life, and everyone has unparalleled access to information (and the thoughts of everyone else).
But all these advances have come at the cost of declining natural capital, rising seas and a warming climate.
In the Anthropocene, we studied these changes, modelled their trajectories and discussed in meaningful ways what we needed to do to sustain humanity. We acted rationally, we believed in our leaders (many of them, anyway, and a few of them made a difference).
But, as the failure of COP26 (and the farce of Australia’s plan) is showing, this is no longer happening.
So, if you accept that humanity is now acting in an absurd way (ie, you accept the premise of the Absurdicene) then maybe we need to be honest about the prospects of a rational process towards sustainability. Maybe we need to focus on why this absurdity prevails, and what we need to do to short circuit it.
Maybe the answer is not more or a better set of scientific evidence. What more evidence do we require?
Rather, we need a greater priority placed on those things that prevent absurdity from dominating, namely: greater integrity of our institutions, more robust accountability, transparency and a reason to trust our leaders – morality anyone?
At the end of my earlier blog on Professor Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of The Economics Of Biodiversity for the UK Government, I posed the question of why the UK Government seems to be taking the challenge of biodiversity decline reasonably seriously while the Australian Government had made the biodiversity crisis such a low priority?
After all, it’s hard not to agree with Dasgupta’s basic argument that Nature is our most precious asset, that it is biodiversity that enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable, and that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to continue supplying us with the goods and services on which we will rely.
And, helpfully, Dasgupta has given us a clear recipe for fixing the problem:
First, ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply.
Second, change our measures of economic success to base them on wealth, not income alone (ie GDP).
Third, transform our institutions and systems to enable these changes for the long term.
The UK response
The UK’s response to Dasgupta formed part of a multi-pronged environmental push, taking advantage of the coincidence of three major global meetings being held in 2021. The first two were or are being hosted in the UK: the G7 in Cornwall, (June) and the COP 26 Climate Convention meeting in Glasgow (November). Then there was the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, earlier this month.
The Dasgupta Review helped the UK negotiate the G7 2030 Nature Compact, in which the G7 leaders committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of a double commitment that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’.
A ‘nature positive’ outcome would be actioned across four ‘core pillars’:
Transition for example by reviewing environmentally-harmful subsidies;
Investment in nature, including identifying ways to account for nature in economic and financial decision making;
Conservation, including through new global targets to conserve or protect at least 30% of land globally and 30% of the global oceans by 2030; and
Accountability, including by producing ambitious and strengthened National biodiversity plans and more transparent metrics and success indicators.
The UK is also seeking to leveraging its COP 26 Presidency in Glasgow to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable international supply chains (supply chains that factor in impacts to biodiversity).
In its domestic response to the Dasgupta Review, the UK’s headline commitments were first, to adopt the ‘nature positive’ goal, defining it as ‘leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, and reversing biodiversity loss globally by 2030’; and second, to reform economic and financial decision-making, including the systems and institutions that underpin it, to support the delivery of a nature positive future.
Specifically, the government amended its Environment Bill, which already contained a mechanism for setting environmental targets, to include a legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030. It is also legislating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ standard for nationally-significant infrastructure projects.
Finally, the UK co-sponsored a ‘30 by 30’ Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at the CBD COP 15 in Kunming, China. This pledge, currently supported by some 70 countries, is to protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
What about Australia?
While Australia has now moved, with great reluctance, to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it has displayed no interest in the Dasgupta Review or in making serious biodiversity commitments more generally.
Nevertheless, because Prime Minister Morrison announced this at the G7 meeting in Cornwall (as an invited guest) I think we can give part of the credit for this to Dasgupta and the UK: the PM would not have wanted to attend without a good ‘announceable’ in his pocket.
Anyhow, our 30×30 commitment comes on top of having exceeded (or, as the PM would say, beaten) our Aichi 2020 targets of 17% of land in reserve and 10% of marine areas in reserve, by reaching nearly 20% of land in reserve and 37% of marine areas.
In announcing our 30×30 commitment, the PM announced an intention to increase the area in marine reserves to 45%.
In her subsequent statement to COP 15 in Kunming, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced plans to increase Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area network by another 3.7 million hectares of land and sea, and to establish two new Australian Marine Parks around the waters of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These would increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37% to 45%.
Despite the size of this increase, I think it represents talking up easy goals. As you can see, the marine reserves are in the Indian Ocean, well away from areas of significant economic activity on the Australian mainland.
Similarly, I think the government has found it easy to add further Indigenous Protected Areas to the reserve system because, again, most of them are away from areas of significant economic activity. The government has acknowledged this in Australia’s most recent report to the CBD in our most recent national report:
“despite this growth [in the size of the reserve system], only minor progress has been made since 2011 in meeting representation targets for ecosystems and threatened species. In part, this is because most growth has been in desert bioregions, so that representation improvements have been highly localised.”
UK v Australia: what’s the difference?
While no doubt there’s plenty of politics and padding in the UK’s response to Dasgupta, I think there is also plenty of substance to the actions they are taking. And legislating targets for species abundance and biodiversity net gain for major developments (along with an independent monitoring agency) should reduce the wriggle room substantially.
Australia, on the other hand, is all for the talk but not much for the walk.
Its not a plan at any cost. There’s no blank cheques here. It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports. It will not impact households, businesses or the broader economy with new costs or taxes imposed by the initiatives that we are undertaking. It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas, because what we’re doing in this plan is positive things, enabling things. It will not increase energy bills. It won’t. It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.
That’s right. We’re all in favour of action, provided this comes at no significant cost to the budget, no taxes or other costs to households and no loss of production, exports or jobs (ie no costs to the economy. And no legislation.
Can you imagine what kind of policies meet these stringent no-cost, no-obligation criteria? That’s right. Marine reserves thousands of kilometres from both population centres and economically-significant activity.
UK v Australia: why the difference?
And why is this ‘Australian way’, as Morrison calls his approach, so different to the British way? I think it’s just the way the politics have played out. In Australia, the Coalition has demonised environmental policy for so long as being a creature of the ‘green left’, that the political cost of substantive action on the environment is just too high.
In the UK, it played out differently. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of climate action in the 1980s, while in the 2000s, David Cameron, then still in Opposition, was able to galvanise support for the Conservative Party with his line ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.
Will the Coalition in Australia ever run such a slogan? Not in this political generation.
On the one hand we have Australia’s richest woman telling the privileged students of one of Australia’s most exclusive schools that global warming is not caused by humans.
On the other, we have the NGO Save the Childrenreleasing an extensively researched (and independently reviewed) report pointing out global warming is caused by humans and the consequences of this are that children worldwide will suffer.
There is somewhat of a cosmic gulf between these two positions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to government action on climate change, it seems the beliefs of Australia’s richest woman are more important than the suffering of coming generations.
“Be very careful about information spread on an emotional basis or tied to money”
Australia’s richest woman, if you’re in any doubt, is the iron ore billionaire Gina Rhinehart; and she made her comments denying the link between human activity and climate change in an address to students at St Hilda’s in Perth, her old school.
In her speech she said humans do not cause global warming and warned against climate change ‘propaganda’. She said the girls should consider influences such as the sun’s orbit, volcanoes and “other scientific facts that I had the benefit of learning when I was at school.” (Note, these are standard red herrings put forward by the ‘Church of Climate Denial’.)
She believes people are being “overwhelmed by media and propaganda” regarding climate change and urged St Hilda’s students to “research for the facts.”
Gina Rhinehart is on old world climate denier with deep investments in the coal industry and a major supporter of the National Party, the political party that has effectively blocked national action on climate change in Australia for most of the last decade.
Her most breathtaking statement in her speech to her old, privileged school was: “Please be very careful about information spread on an emotional basis, or tied to money, or egos or power-seekers.” Breathtaking for its irony, lack of reflection and hypocrisy. And so sad for the truth it enfolds – that the money, egos and power-seeking of the super-rich trump the sustainable future of civil society itself; the ‘truth’ is that the power that the super-rich wield to protect their investments (against the interests of everyone else) is more potent than the democratic processes we established to steward the common good.
All of this came to mind as I read Rhinehart’s message to her old school, and all of it I’m sure she would have simply discounted as emotional, biased and fear mongering being driven by people with vested interests.
What about the children?
About the same time as Rhinehart was delivering her world view on the state of the world, I saw a report from Save the Children painting a stark future for the children of the world. The report, titled Born into the climate crisis, reveals the devastating impact the climate crisis will have on children and their rights if nations do not work together to limit warming to 1.5C as a matter of the greatest urgency. Launched ahead of global climate talks in Glasgow, the report is based on new modelling led by researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
The report reveals that even if nations meet their Paris Agreement pledges, a child born in 2020 will experience on average: twice as many bushfires; almost three times as many crop failures; two and half times as many droughts; three times as many river floods; and seven times more heatwaves in their lifetime compared to what Baby Boomers have lived with (Rhinehart, I note, was born in 1954; right in the middle of the Baby Boomers).
In Australia, children born in 2020 can expect to experience four times as many heatwaves, three times as many droughts, as well as 1.5 times as many bushfires and river floods, under the current trajectory of global emissions.
This is not an isolated or ‘out there’ conclusion. It’s in keeping with predictions from a range of different sources attempting to understand and manage the consequences of climate change. The World Health Organization, as one other recent example, has just released a report confirming that climate change is the most pressing concern and threat to people’s health saying rising temperatures threaten to undo the past 50 years of improving global health!
It’s just not fair
According to the Oxfam, the world’s wealthiest 1% of people produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%. Thing about that.
The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called “polluter elite” – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
The world’s richest enjoy the fruits of economic growth. The world’s poorest, pay for it.
Oxfam makes a very strong connection between inequity and climate change. It says: “The fight against inequality and the fight for climate justice are the same fight.”
Further, it says governments everywhere need to end subsidies for fossil fuels (according to the IMF, the fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute!) and stop mining and burning coal. It’s fairly explicit about this: “Nowhere in the world should governments allow the construction of a single new coal-fired power station, the public health and climate costs of which are borne by the poorest and most marginalized communities worldwide.” Against this background it is to be noted that the Australian Government has just last week signed off on four new coal mines to proceed.
And, as Oxfam points out, climate impacts hit the poorest hardest. What’s more, climate change is pushing more people into poverty. The World Bank estimates that an additional 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 because of climate change.
Is it any wonder the super wealthy would rather not reflect on the many inconvenient truths associated with climate change?
Let them eat cake
It’s reputed that in the 1789 during an awful famine in France, the plight of the peasants was brought to attention of the queen, Marie Antoinette. They are starving and have no bread, she was told; to which she replied: “Let them eat cake.”
The queen was not popular with the people, seen as profligate and out of touch. The massive inequities present in France at the time precipitated the French Revolution, which led to the annihilation of the royal family. Marie Antoinette lost her head on the guillotine in 1793. Maybe she should have shown a little more concern and empathy for the poor of her nation.
Gina Rhinehart is a member of our planet’s super elite. Her outrageous fortune is based on minerals extraction and fossil fuel. She rejects the science underpinning our understanding of anthropogenic climate change, encourages others to do the same, and shows little regard for the plight of a growing number of people on this planet (including coming generations).
She has the right to her own beliefs but when those beliefs shore up the recalcitrant National Party causing our nation to turn our back on an effective climate change response, people have the right to call her out.
It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she were to respond with “Let them eat cake.”
Banner image: Anthropogenic climate change is an inconvenient (and oft discounted) truth in the eyes of the super-rich. (Image by Tumisu from Pixabay)
United Kingdom acts on biodiversity, while Australia says ‘Das who?’
By Peter Burnett
Author’s note: this is the first part of a two part blog.
In our colonial past (and, more recently, as a pre-World War II British ‘Dominion’), Australia used to look routinely to the United Kingdom for policy leadership.
For example, when we were hit by the Great Depression, the Australian Government invited Sir Otto Niemeyer, of the Bank of England, to visit and advise on how to respond to the crisis. Mind you, we owed the Brits a lot of money, which we were now struggling to pay, so in many respects the visit was a negotiation between debtor and creditor.
More relevant to the environment, Australia’s post-war planning laws were heavily influenced by British reforms such as their Town and Country Planning Act 1932.
These days, while Australia retains a strong affinity with Britain, the UK is just one among many countries whose policies we might consider as possible models.
In the case of biodiversity, it’s a pity we aren’t still a little tied to the old apron strings, as the British are leaders in this area while we are laggards. (As one recent example, Australia has been singled out for mammal extinction in a recent UN biodiversity report.)
I know they were in a hurry, so as to leverage their hosting and thus chairing, two out of three major international meetings this year — the G7 Summit in Cornwall (June), the Biodiversity COP 15 in Kunming (this month, October) and the Glasgow Climate COP 26 (November) — but the speed and substance of this response are impressive nonetheless. This is especially true given the limited impact of an earlier report from 2010, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), an initiative of the G8 environment ministers.
What Dasgupta found
Some of Professor Dasgupta’s findings will not surprise readers of this blog:
Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature. Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too …
Biodiversity enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable. Our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on …
Our unsustainable engagement with Nature is endangering the prosperity of current and future generations …
Some of Dasgupta’s conclusions about existing policy will also have a familiar ring to many readers, though they bear a welcome clarity (remember, this is an economist advising a Treasury):
At the heart of the problem lies deep-rooted, widespread institutional failure …
Nature’s worth to society – the true value of the various goods and services it provides – is not reflected in market prices because much of it is open to all at no monetary charge …
These pricing distortions have led us to invest relatively more in other assets, such as produced capital, and underinvest in our natural assets …
Many of our institutions have proved unfit to manage the externalities …
Governments almost everywhere exacerbate the problem by paying people more to exploit Nature than to protect it … A conservative estimate of the total cost globally of subsidies that damage Nature is around US$4 to 6 trillion per year …
From this point, the narrative becomes less familiar and more enticing. Choosing a sustainable path, says Professor Dasgupta, will require transformative change, underpinned by levels of ambition, coordination, and political will akin to, or even greater than, those of the Marshall Plan*.
(*The Marshall Plan was a huge five year US program that invested in rebuilding Western Europe after World War II and which spawned the OECD and, in part, the EU itself.)
Although Dasgupta does not make specific policy recommendations, he does provide clear advice for change, geared towards three broad transitions:
(i) Ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply, and that we increase Nature’s supply relative to its current level.
In this regard, he says we cannot rely on technology alone. Instead, we need to restructure our patterns of reduction and consumption, fundamentally.
Consistent with this strong advice, Dasgupta favours some types of policy that one might expect to find in a report on biodiversity policy, such as major investment in environmental restoration.
But nor does he hesitate to go into more controversial areas.
For example, many of Dasgupta’s economist colleagues, including those in government, will balk at his rejection of the economic truism that correct pricing will solve all problems:
In the face of significant risk and uncertainty about the consequences of degrading ecosystems, in many cases there is a strong economic rationale for quantity restrictions over pricing mechanisms.
(ii) Change our measures of economic success to guide us on a more sustainable path.
It is not new to argue that GDP does not account for the depreciation of assets, including Nature, and that an inclusive measure of wealth is needed.
Nor is Dasgupta breaking new ground in finding it critical that natural capital be incorporated into national accounting systems. In fact, the UK has been a leader in natural capital accounting.
Nevertheless, until governments really take policy integration to heart, especially by measuring and managing the natural capital impacts of every significant decision, it is good to see strong advice on this point going from an internationally-eminent economist direct to Treasury and government.
(iii) Transform our institutions and systems – in particular our finance and education systems – to enable these changes and sustain them for future generations.
Here, Dasgupta has again been brave enough to enter controversial territory. He says that ecosystems that are global public goods require supra-national institutional arrangements. This is indeed sensitive territory for a government that has just ‘Brexited’ from such a supra-national institution.
For those ecosystems or biomes located within national boundaries such as tropical rainforests, Dasgupta says we need a system of payments to nations for protecting the ecosystems on which we all rely.
Where ecosystems are beyond national boundaries, eg, the oceans beyond exclusive economic zones, he says there should either be globally-accepted charges for their use, eg, for fisheries or, in ecologically sensitive areas, prohibitions.
And this collective international action would not be confined to direct protection of the physical environment. Sustained collective action is needed to transform the systems that underpin our engagements with Nature, above all our financial and education systems.
The global financial system should channel public and private investment towards economic activities that enhance stocks of natural assets and encourage sustainable consumption and production.
Businesses and financial institutions could be required to measure and disclose, not only climate-related risks but Nature- related risks as well. And central banks and financial regulators could support increased understanding by assessing the systemic extent of Nature-related financial risks.
Ultimately, says the report, a set of global standards is needed, underpinned by credible, decision-grade data.
Finally, individual citizens could be empowered to make informed choices and demand the change that is needed. For example, citizens could be educated to insist that financiers invest their money sustainably and that firms disclose environmental conditions along their supply chains, and even to boycott products that do not meet standards.
This recommendation, too, will tread on many toes.
Where to next?
At the end of the day, Dasgupta acknowledges the enormous challenge of the biodiversity crisis but concludes that the same ingenuity that has led us to make such large and damaging demands on Nature can also be deployed to bring about the transformative change we need.
‘We and our descendants deserve nothing less,’ he says.
In other words, we know how we came to fall into this hole, and we have both the capacity and the duty to climb out.
Why then does the UK Government seem to be taking this challenge reasonably seriously while Australian Government makes our biodiversity crisis such a low priority? It’s a question I’ll attempt to answer in my next blog …
Banner image: Detail from the cover of the Dasgupta Report.
Our response to our greatest challenge is becoming increasingly absurd, surreal and totally untrustworthy
By David Salt
On opening this morning’s newspaper (Canberra Times, 4 October 2021, p7) I was punched in the guts by an enormous advertisement proclaiming: “GOOD NEWS. AUSTRALIA’S ALREADY REDUCED EMISSIONS BY 20% (since 2005) FIND OUT MORE AT POSITIVEENERGY.GOV.AU AUSTRALIA’S MAKING POSITIVE ENERGY”
That’s really all it said, and the website it directs you to contains little more info either.
(Not so) Pretty in pink
This vivid pink ad was brought to me by the Australian Government. In other words, my taxes were paying for this craven attempt to reframe the Government’s woeful efforts to address the existential challenge of our age – climate change. It’s enough to make you choke on your weetbix (which is what I literally did).
This, when the Government won’t even release a statement on what it intends to do about Australia’s carbon emissions weeks out from what’s regarded as the world’s most important climate conference ever in Glasgow – the crucial COP26 climate summit starting at the end of October (which the Prime Minister is now hinting he will not attend!).
This, following climate carnage around the world in the form of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes (not to mention Australia’s own climate catastrophes in the shape of bleaching coral reefs and record fire seasons).
This, following statements from our Deputy Prime Minister (leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce) that his party won’t sign up to any climate plan (a plan he’s responsible for producing) without knowing the cost (at the same time his party happily signed up to an un-costed nuclear submarine program expected to run to hundreds of billions of dollars).
Absurd, surreal and missing the point
It’s so absurd that it’d be funny if it wasn’t about the future of everything I care about.
It’s almost surreal in that Australia is now the climate laggard of the developed world, and yet we boldly (and wrongly) shout we’re doing our fair share, while the rest of the world gets on with serious discussions and greater commitments. And there’s plenty of evidence exposing our duplicity. Australia has been ranked last for climate action out of nearly 200 countries; we’ve become the climate joke of the 21st Century, a pariah on the world stage.
For let’s be clear about this, the Australian Government’s target of 26-28% emissions reductions (from 2005 levels) by 2030 is patently inadequate. Even when the targets were declared in 2015 by Tony Abbott, a renowned climate denier, they were perceived to be inadequate by the Government’s own climate science agency (which nominated a target of 45% as being what was required if we are guided by the science, a level rejected by Abbott). Since then the science has firmed (and delay has raised the urgency for action) and the call from climate scientists is now for reductions in emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The Australian Government, by contrast, has perverted the discussion to focus exclusively on ‘over-the-horizon’ net-zero targets for 2050, and won’t even commit to this aspiration for that distant year (over 8 election cycles away). It’s academic anyway as climate scientists point out that the world achieving net zero by 2050 is at least a decade too late. In this sense, the climate denialists steering Government policy have won in their efforts to stop meaningful action.
And untrustworthy to boot
Unfortunately, even if we could accept the Government’s claims that our existing targets are acceptable and will play a role in the world addressing climate change, we can’t trust what they’re actually doing to meet those targets.
Recent investigations on Government emission abatement schemes are revealing them to be ‘cheap tricks and hot air’. The report by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and The Australia Institute found “avoided deforestation” projects do not represent genuine abatement as in most cases the areas were never going to be cleared. About 20% of carbon credits created under the federal Coalition’s main climate change policy do not represent real cuts in carbon dioxide and are essentially “junk”, the research suggests. The projects involve landholders being issued with carbon credits and paid from the government’s $4.5bn emissions reduction fund for not removing vegetation from their land.
Of course, the Government’s mantra is “technology not taxes” when it comes to emission reductions. However, once again, there’s little reason to believe their technology push is real or effective. Front and centre is their investment of $250m in carbon capture and storage. So far there’s been little success with this venture and now Australia’s leading miner, Fortescue metals chief Andrew Forrest, has come out and said : “it’s a good soundbite but it doesn’t work.” Indeed, he claims (and he should know) such projects fail “19 out of 20 times” (and even when they do work, they aren’t cost effective).
And we’re not pulling our weight even if these sham policies were to work. Another constantly repeated note in our siren song of denial is that we’re but a small part of the problem emitting a paltry 1.3% of global emissions. We never then acknowledges that 1.3% coming from only 0.3% of the world’s population is actually a shocking record making us the highest emitter per capita in the developed world and one of the world’s top 20 polluting countries. We are among the top 20 biggest polluters in the world, and if you count our exports we’re the fifth largest.
Why is this occurring? According to Angela Dewan, an American journalist discussing Australia’s appalling performance on climate policy (see Australia is shaping up to be the villain of COP26 climate talks), the answer is simple: “It appears that lobbying fossil fuel companies have hijacked climate policy from the Australian people.”
What do you do?
So, what do you do if you have no effective climate policy but you’re worried that you’re lack of action might be hurting your chances of re-election? (The most recent Lowy Climate Poll, for example, found most Australians want Australia to increase its ambitions on climate change policy.)
Easy, simply tell everyone loudly and repeatedly you’re doing a great job, put up yet another catchy slogan (Australia is making Positive Energy!) and take out large striking ads across every form of media (in bright pink).
You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. Our current government seems to believe it can fool all of the people all of the time. I’m betting they’re wrong.
Banner image: ‘We’re on a road to nowhere…’ (Image by G John from Pixabay)
A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes
Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?
By Peter Burnett
This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.
Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.
Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The two wetlands
The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.
The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.
The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.
Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.
Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.
Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted
In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.
In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.
But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received twoconsecutivebriefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.
The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.
In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.
In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.
Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.
Why the different decisions?
Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.
But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.
Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.
Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).
Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.
This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.
The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.
Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’
A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?
Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.
And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.
On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.
Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.
Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.
In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.
Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)
The new space race is as unsustainable as it is unfair
By David Salt
Anthropologists in the 23rd Century struggled to make sense of the The Big Fall that had occurred some two hundred years earlier. So much of the human record had been lost. Clearly, as written in the physical record (tree rings, sediments, ice cores), there had been some form of climate catastrophe but the humans back then would have been aware of this, and their technology was strong, more powerful in many ways than the technology available to people after The Fall. Why then, didn’t they do something about it before it was too late?
Most peculiar, the anthropologists had found a series of massive rockets sitting silently on launch pads across a country once known as the United States. These weren’t weapons. They were launch vehicles but with minimal payloads. All they could do was carry a handful of people up into space for a short time before dropping back to Earth. In doing so, they emitted vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis, but to what end? Was it simply to give a few people a higher view of what was already obvious – that the planet was at breaking point? It really was a mystery.
Coming back down to Earth
Who could blame future generations from wondering what the hell we were thinking in allowing a small group of the super rich to spend billions of dollars on the quest to get into space at a time that our planet was slipping towards serious and irreversible environmental decline.
Our coral reefs are bleaching, the forest biome is burning, the sea is rising, and biodiversity is crashing. Human suffering is growing and the young are starting to give up hope.
So, in these dire times, what do the planet’s richest men think is the most important thing to do with their amassed wealth – fire up a race for space, and develop their own private rocket companies.
The shameless super rich
And, maybe to underline the sheer perversity of their priorities, they are going about this contest in a completely shameless manner.
Richard Branson (billionaire no. 1) turns up to the launch pad on the day of lift off (of the his Virgin Galactic) on a push bike, underscoring the enormity of the feat he is about to undertake, and shining a nice light on his dependence on a mode of transport that doesn’t use fossil fuel. Except it was all a marketing exercise to promote a bike company doing a cross promotional deal with Virgin, something they confessed to several days later.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (billionaire no. 2), returns to Earth on his spacecraft the Blue Origin and immediately expressed his gratitude: “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. At first it was taken as a joke but everyone quickly realised he meant it; and he was then roundly criticised for the unsafe work conditions and low pay his Amazon employees have to endure.
Elon Musk (billionaire no. 3) set up a company SpaceX to develop his commercial space program. He purchased a large tract of land just off the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Texas border with Mexico, to build a launch pad and declared: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” That proved fortunate as several test rockets blew themselves to smithereens. But it wasn’t ‘cool’ because that land ‘with nobody around’ was a mosaic of nature reserves and home to a plethora of vulnerable species. Many conservationists are appalled that these ‘protected’ areas are now being showered in broken rocket bits.
Are they just toying with us
Or, if you want to be completely cynical, you might see these acts of lying, worker exploitation and environmental destruction as deliberate acts of misdirection – be my guest, get angry at these lesser crimes of self-centred narcissism; just don’t start examining the bigger issues behind this private space race. Those bigger issues include the misuse of precious resources, resource use that exacerbates dangerous global change, and the appropriate governance of the mega rich.
According to Eloise Marais, a physical geographer at University College London, each rocket launch releases 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide (split between 4 or so passengers). For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.
Of course, there are many more plane flights than rocket launches but these early investments by the billionaire club are predicated on the belief that space tourism (and space industry in general) are about to take off big time so this mass release of carbon is only set to dramatically increase.
And it’s not just carbon that’s the problem. Space scientists in Australia recently identified stratospheric ozone depletion as a key environmental concern for space launches.
Of course, the billionaires claim this all about saving Earth, not burning it. Bezos, for example, said he hoped the flight would be the first step in a process that would eventually see environmentally-damaging industries relocated to other planets in order to protect Earth. He acknowledged it might take decades but you gotta start somewhere! I’m not sure we have decades, Jeff, so maybe we need another strategy to deal with those environmentally-damaging industries.
Maybe the biggest moral issue with billionaire’s space club is the sheer unfairness of it. The rich get richer on the benefits of ‘unbounded’ economic growth, and the poor get hit with the impacts generated by that growth. According to the UN, the world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%! The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called ‘polluter elite’ – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
Well, the billionaire’s space club is the latest manifestation of the disconnection between the wealthy elite and the planet that supports them. Do they really think their wealth will insulate them from mass ecosystem collapse?
Back to the future
Our 23rd Century anthropologists have made an important discovery in their quest to understand the mystery of the ‘rockets of the billionaire club’. The answer, they say, lies in an earlier anthropological work by a scientist of that time named Jared Diamond. A book of his called Collapse has been recovered. This book examined the fall of earlier civilisations, and detailed the end days of the civilisation that once existed on remote Easter Island.
According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island built great stone god heads to ensure their ongoing prosperity. The construction of these god heads consumed enormous resources but their faith in them was strong, and they kept producing them.
As the Easter Islander civilisation grew they chopped down all the trees and, in so doing, lost the capacity to build canoes to fish for food. Society was at risk so what did they do, they started carving more stone god heads, even bigger ones. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work. Society collapsed, people starved, and their biggest stone god heads can still be found half carved from the cliffs from where they originated.
Of course, said the 23rd Century anthropologists. The rockets of the 21st Century are the same thing – acts of blind faith in the face of environmental collapse. My faith is strong, my God will protect me, and here is my technological monument to prove it.
In light of what they must have known about the planet at that time, what can we say from this, the anthropologists asked themselves? They were blinded by their mastery and their technology, they weren’t very reflective, and possibly they were idiots, they concluded.
Banner image: Stone god heads in the quarry on Easter Island. Some scholars believe these were being excavated at the time of societal collapse on the island. Are our billionaire’s rockets possible filling the same function? (Image by SoniaJane from Pixabay)
Court tells NSW EPA to do its duty and make policies to protect the state environment from climate change
By Peter Burnett
Governments know that most of us would place more trust in a seller of used cars than in a politician.
One by-product of this lack of trust is that politicians like to tell us that they are solving a problem by setting up an independent authority. Or, better still, an ‘independent watchdog’. People you can trust.
The trouble is, governments also like to be in control; especially in this age of ‘gotcha’ political journalism. Governments don’t like to create legitimate opportunities for public officials, including those who staff independent authorities, to embarrass, or, worse, defy them.
So, when governments establish these bodies, often enshrining their independence in law, they do so in the knowledge that there are ‘back door’ ways to control them.
Watchdog on a leash
One obvious method of controlling the watchdog is to punish ‘bad’ behaviour by reducing rations. A recent example is the Morrison government’s decision to cut the Auditor General’s budget, just when the auditor is proving very successful at sniffing out corruption in government grant programs — think ‘Sports Rorts’ and ‘Car Porks’.
Another approach is to nobble the authority in plain sight. Federal environment minister Sussan Ley took this option in response to a recent recommendation to create an ‘independent cop on the beat’ to oversee the devolution of environmental approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
While the independent Environment Assurance Commissioner proposed by Minister Ley has superficial appeal, the bill establishing this ‘watchdog’ also puts him or her on a leash by requiring them to seek the minister’s input to their annual workplan, to report to the minister rather than Parliament, and not to investigate individual cases.
If the minister manages to get this bill through the Senate, which is currently looking unlikely, the minister may get to have her (watchdog) cake while eating (leashing) it too.
The case of Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action v the EPA
One recent case that does not fit so comfortably into this theory involves the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) and its engagement with climate change.
A group of bushfire survivors sued the EPA in the Land and Environment Court to compel them to develop policies to protect the state environment from climate change.
Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, I would have expected it to argue that climate change was not part of its brief. However, when the case came to court, the EPA conceded that it did have power to address climate change. Instead of arguing a lack of power, it raised two technical legal arguments as to why it shouldn’t be forced by the court to exercise its climate powers.
The first argument was based on the fact that the EPA’s powers to develop environmental policies and standards are expressed in broad general terms. Because the EPA had indeed been getting on with the job of developing policies and standards on various environmental issues, the EPA argued that the court could not and should not intervene to tell it to develop a policy on this specific topic at this particular time.
In other words, given the EPA’s broad and multi-faceted role, the Court should not hijack the EPA’s agenda, which was a matter for its own expert judgement over time.
The second argument was a back-up, in case it lost the first argument. The EPA said that it had in fact complied with any duty it might have to deal with climate change, by issuing policies and plans that dealt with climate change in various minor ways.
For example, the EPA’s Regulatory Strategy 2021-24 identified climate change as a ‘global challenge’ and set out various ways in which it would contribute to addressing it, including by ‘encouraging’ industry to respond to climate risks and by reporting on NSW government (ie not EPA) climate policies in the State of the Environment Report.
Chief Judge Preston rejected both these arguments and directed the EPA to ‘develop environmental quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure environment protection from climate change’.
In effect, the Court said that while the EPA’s duty to develop environmental policies was indeed cast in general terms, giving the EPA significant discretion as to how it should go about its business, this duty would require, at a minimum, that the EPA address threats of greater magnitude and impact, obviously including climate change.
By implication, it would be irrational to fix small problems while ignoring big ones. (Irrationality is one of the few grounds on which a court can intervene in the exercise of administrative discretion).
What’s going on here?
But back to the theory of governments exercising back door control. If the EPA had the power all along to address climate change, why hadn’t they done so in any substantive way?
The reasons might have been cultural. Given that the EPA’s founding legislation makes no mention of climate change, and that its regulatory heritage goes all the way back to the regulation of ‘smoke stack’ industries under the NSW Clean Air Act of 1961, it may have been that the EPA simply saw climate policy as falling outside its mandate.
Alternatively, under the theory of backdoor control, perhaps the NSW government had been whispering in the EPA’s ear, or rejecting climate-related budget bids, all along, without this being public knowledge.
In any event, the government’s response to the court case certainly doesn’t fit the theory.
I had expected them to announce that they would be appealing the decision. If nothing else, statements in the High Court about the ‘irrationality’ ground being one to invoke only in extreme cases certainly suggest an appeal would have some prospects.
But in a surprising and refreshing development NSW Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean announced on Friday that the government would not be appealing the decision, saying that “the Board and myself have decided … we’ll be putting in place the policies that are needed to give effect to the court ruling”.
Not only that, but “in fact, we’ll be doing everything necessary to give it full effect … [this] is significant because we want to use all our agencies, all the levers within government, to set the quality objectives, guidelines and policies to ensure that we protect the environment from climate change, as we should be doing”…
I suspect this unexpected embracing of a loss in court is mostly down to Kean himself, who certainly seems to be an ‘out-of-the-box’ politician. I reckon he would have had a hard time winning the NSW Cabinet over to this approach of leaning into the wind.
Here comes Matt Kean
But more power to his arm. When Kean first annoyed the Prime Minister last year by calling for stronger action on climate change, Morrison commented that most federal ministers ‘wouldn’t even know who Matt Kean was.’
I can’t think of a better way to raise one’s profile than by having the Prime Minister tell the media that one has no profile!
In any event, I have a feeling that if Kean doesn’t already have a national profile, he soon will.
What happens when the ‘Big Australian’ sees the writing on the wall
By David Salt
Heard the news? BHP, one of our biggest miners (and biggest emitters), is going ‘green’! Indeed this big news from the company that once promoted itself as the ‘Big Australian’. It began selling off its coal assets a couple of years ago and now it it’s dumping its oil and gas assets. It looks like it’s getting out of fossil fuels (such a dirty business), focussing instead on its profitable iron ore and buying up potash mines (so you can grow healthier plants, potash being an essential potassium plant fertiliser).
With carbon emitting fossil fuels so on the nose, it’s great to see our big corporates finally pulling their weight…
…until you look at the detail and realise it’s just ‘business as usual’ – profits before people and smoke and mirrors with a little greenwashing to tick the corporate responsibility box.
Better do something
As everyone is now noting, our planet is suffering under climate change (this week it’s Louisiana’s turn) and our very future is increasingly uncertain. The science, now half a century strong, is being borne out and the underlying problem is the carbon emissions from how we do business.
Coal, being a dirty (carbon intense) source of energy, is particularly smelly. In recent years many sections of society (for example institutions in law, economics and science) have been trying hard to stop our use of coal and this has led to coal assets falling in value.
Regarding its oil and gas assets, BHP is giving Woodside all of them in exchange for shares in Woodside meaning BHP shareholders will own 48% of Woodside. Which sounds like a sleight of hand to me in which BHP can claim it doesn’t own them because the assets are actually owned by BHP shareholders. This means, according to the Guardian, that shareholders will be able to sell their shares if they want to reduce their exposure to fossil fuel assets.
Meanwhile, Green groups are saying Woodside doesn’t have a good record on managing fossil fuel assets after it sold a floating oil rig, Northern Endeavour, for a nominal amount to a company that collapsed three years later without paying decommissioning costs estimated at between $200m and $1bn. Woodside claimed the sale was all above board.
Passing the buck
Which raises the big and complex issue of what is to become of all these ‘stranded’ fossil fuel assets. Will big companies simply off load them for whatever they can get and let some other hapless soul deal with the repercussions?
And does getting rid of these assets mean they’ll stop producing carbon emissions?
Political philosopher Jeremy Moss believes BHP (along with other companies) is banking the profits from their failing assets, while washing their hands of the responsibility to do something about their past and ongoing contribution to climate change. Instead of selling these assets, he says, companies should retire the assets and wear the costs.
In a recent Conversation editorial, Professor Moss reckons that if fossil fuel producers are truly serious about their climate responsibilities then two things need to happen: Fossil fuel producers should retire their mines or wells instead of selling them and they should pay for the cost of restoring mined land. Governments also need to step up to the plate and establish a national inventory of liabilities and an independent body to monitor safety of former mine and well sites.
Sounds reasonable and logical, just not doable. Based on past performance (eg, decades of climate denial and effective lobbying to prevent proactive climate policy), I think it’s safe to say the big fossil fuel miners think it’s cheaper to manipulate government than be true to their rhetoric on social responsibility.
Having said that, fossil fuel miners are now being hard hit by the divestment movement. Financial institutions around the world have adopted divestment policies aiming to end or reduce their involvement in the carbon economy and it does appear that new investments in oil, gas and coal are drying up. Which is likely why BHP is quarantining its fossil fuel assets in this joint venture with Woodside.
The non-fossil fuel BHP entity (which gave away its oil and gas assets) is no longer a target of the divestment movement and can once again access international capital. The exclusive fossil-fuel BHP/Woodside entity will carry on emitting because of the enormous injection of assets from BHP, possibly the only way it could develop given the divestment movement is depriving it of traditional forms of capital and insurance.
And then the music stops…
It’s a win-win for the corporates (and their shareholders), and a lose-lose for the planet (and its inhabitants).
Of course, one day the music will stop and the corporates betting their profits on stranded fossil fuel assets will find there’s no chair for them to sit on. The Bank for International Settlements has suggested that when this happens there could be a collapse in asset prices of fossil fuel industries that could lead to a wider economic collapse along the lines of the GFC.
What might a win-win look like? That’s a win for corporates and a win for society. Based on a realistic costing of the impacts of climate change in coming years* and being realistic about the tiny chance that the big corporates play fair (ie, be true to their social responsibility and not interfere with governmental policy), I think the best we could hope for might be governments stepping in and buying out the whole fossil fuel sector at some cut (heavily-discounted) rate based on their falling asset value.
Corporates will always pass the buck. But governments are elected to protect society. So why not accept the situation and get our governments to actually accept the buck on our behalf?
Haven’t we already spent trillions coping with the corona pandemic (and misbegotten adventures in Afghanistan). Why not draw down the debt a bit further and buy all the stranded fossil fuel assets? We can then restore the minesites (a few good jobs there, I reckon), repurpose the assets we’ve picked up to maximise their social utility (oil rigs make excellent platforms for hotels) and wear the cost?
Yes, I know this will have me labelled as a pixie in cloud cuckoo land (and a communist to boot) but do the maths yourselves. The cost to us of buying these stranded assets versus the cost of allowing them to continue functioning (ie, destroying the planet after taking out the economy) surely makes it a rational thing to do.
“Off with her head”, said the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland, when Alice couldn’t read the values of some face-down playing cards. The word of the Queen of Hearts was law. Not a good law, actually.
In the real world, ‘Bad King John’ of England (1166-1216) wanted his word to be law as well. While he might not have been quite so capricious as the Queen of Hearts, he was arbitrary and unjust enough to drive his barons to rebellion.
And that rebellion was settled by a set of rules called the Magna Carta in 1215.
While the Magna Carta is best known for establishing the mother of Parliaments and guaranteeing trial by jury (at least for ‘free men’), it also contained a number of guarantees against arbitrary action by the King and his officials — in other words, by government.
For example, King John guaranteed not to take anyone’s corn or chattels without payment and not to appoint incompetent or corrupt judges and officials.
As a result, the Magna Carta is also known for establishing the principle that government is not above the law and thus cannot behave in arbitrary and unjust ways.
This is the foundational principle of administrative law.
Now some believe ‘law’ is dry and boring, with the very mention of administrative law enough to send you to sleep.
I’m here to convince you that administrative law is far too important to be boring, though I will concede that it can be dry and tedious in the detail. In his book The Rule of Law, one of the great modern British judges, (Lord) Tom Bingham, gives the example par excellence of a tedious regulation:
Any reference in these regulations to a regulation is a reference to a regulation contained in these regulations. (!!)
And administrative law certainly has failings, as we shall see.
What has this got to do with the environment?
How is this relevant to the environment?
Anyone who has followed environmental issues through the courts will know that many court cases concerning the environment turn not on environment-specific principles (such as precaution or intergenerational equity), but on general principles of administrative law.
One such principle is that decision-makers should not be biased, or even appear biased.
A recent, if extreme, example of an environmental case involving that principle concerned the proposed extension to New Acland Coal’s mine near Oakey, Queensland.
This case has a history of appeals and re-hearings too long to recount, but in brief, an environmental assessment was done and a draft approval issued. However, because there were objections raised, the case was referred to the Land Court of Queensland, which had the role of making non-binding recommendations to the Minister for Natural Resources.
The key point for our purposes is that when the case eventually reached the High Court, they sent it back to the Queensland Land Court for a third hearing. This unusual outcome was required because the first and second hearings were affected by the appearance of bias, rendering both hearings invalid.
In the first hearing, the judge had apparently been deeply offended by a newspaper article on the mine extension, raising the possibility that his subsequent decision to recommend against approving the development might have been biased by his taking offence, while the reasoning of the judge in the second hearing became ‘infected’ by the apprehended bias of the first because she adopted some of his findings (at the direction of one of the intermediate appeal courts).
Yet the case also highlights the process-heavy downside of administrative law. Even if the third hearing is finalised without further appeal, there will have been a total of seven court hearings and a decisional timeframe spanning nine years and counting.
And we still don’t know whether the mine will be approved!
One feature of administrative law is that although its substantive principles are relatively constant, governments provide new ways to apply those principles by passing a constant stream of new laws.
Take for example the current challenge by the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) to the $21 million grant by Minister for Resources Keith Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas, to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.
In the past, it has not been easy to bring legal challenges to government decisions to give money away. Some recent High Court decisions and federal legislation have changed this.
For example, since 2013, federal government grants must comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which requires, among other things, that the minister making the grant be ‘satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of [public] money’.
A ‘proper’ use of money is defined in the Act as one that is ‘efficient, effective, economical and ethical’.
ECNT’s argument is that Minister Pitt committed an (administrative) error of law by failing to make enquiries about the climate risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin, as well as the economic risks of that development as the world transitions to a zero carbon economy.
As far as I can tell this is the first time this line of attack has been used, although the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which is challenging the ‘Sports Rorts’ grants made by the Australian Sports Commission, may well be using similar arguments. (Did I hear you mention ‘car parks’ as well?)
Boring in parts, but definitely useful
So, there you have it. While aspects of administrative law can be boring, overall it is far too useful in securing good environmental decisions to be ignored.
It does however have its problems, as the tortured and scandalously expensive chain of decisions in the New Acland Coal case show.
As a result, one of the challenges of environmental reform, beyond saving the environment of course, is to design decision-making processes that are not only fair and effective, but efficient as well.
There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.
The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.
The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.
The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.
Enter the politician
“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”
“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”
“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”
“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…
“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.
“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.
“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.
“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.
“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!
“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.
Shifting piles of sand
“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.
“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.
“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”
“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”
Pile high society
“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.
“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”
“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?
“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.
“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.
“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.
“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”
Nowhere to sit
“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.
“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”
This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.
By Peter Burnett
The blocking of Tasmania’s Franklin Dam project by the Hawke government in 1983 is legendary, even to many who weren’t around at the time. But who can remember what came next for the nation on the environment front?
The answer, for a few years at least, was ‘not that much’.
That dam case
The Hawke Labor government came to power partly on the back of a commitment to stopping the Franklin Dam. There had been a national groundswell against the project although, unsurprisingly, Hawke’s promise to block the dam was not popular in Tasmania, where the Labor Party failed to win a single seat.
Reflecting the prominent role the Franklin-Dam issue had played in the election, the Government made stopping the dam its first item of legislative business. The World Heritage Properties Conservation Bill, enabling the government to block the dam, waSs rushed through Parliament in a month.
And Tasmania immediately challenged the law in the High Court.
The High Court’s decision in the Franklin Dam Case, upholding the validity of the federal legislation, was of enormous significance. The Government won the case by a narrow 4-3 majority, but the implications of the majority’s wide view of the federal constitutional power to turn not just environmental commitments, but any international commitment, into domestic law, were by no means marginal.
Don’t forget Biggles
The case was also significant to political cartoonists, who from then on drew Attorney General Gareth Evans as a ‘Biggles’-style World War I flying ace.
This happened because the government needed some high-quality aerial photos of the dam site for the court case. What higher quality could there be than Air Force photo reconnaissance?
The problem was that the Air Force tasked an F-111 bomber to take high-altitude photos. No one would have noticed. Unfortunately for the Attorney General, the pilot, on finding the area overcast, decided to make his photographic runs at low altitude and high speed. You can guess the rest.
A national responsibility?
The effect of the Franklin Dam Case was to validate the theme of ‘national responsibility’ that Hawke had written into the Governor- General’s Speech for the opening of Parliament in 1983:
“My new Government has been elected with a very clear mandate from the people of Australia to protect the Australian environment. My Government is convinced that it would be a gross dereliction of its Constitutional responsibility were it to fail to carry out the clear wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people.
“The national Government is obliged to protect Australia’s natural and cultural heritage, including the South-West Tasmanian wilderness.
The problem was that, aside from stopping the Franklin Dam itself, the Hawke government didn’t do much to implement this ‘national responsibility’ policy during its first two terms.
In fact, the post-Franklin Dam period, through to 1987, could be regarded as rather lacklustre when it came to the environment.
The National Conservation Strategy
This lack of lustre is particularly evident in the fate of the National Conservation Strategy.
This was a Fraser government initiative [see my blog on the Fraser years], continued by Hawke. The Strategy had involved two years’ consultation and culminated in a national conference under the chairmanship of scientist and former Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW, Sir Rupert Meyers.
Environment Minister Barry Cohen presented the completed strategy to Cabinet in 1984 as ‘a blueprint for tackling environmental problems’.
This presented the Government with an important opportunity to adopt a set of high-level objectives and principles of environmental policy and to translate these into action.
However, the States were tepid towards the strategy, even though they all ultimately endorsed it, and the Government’s central agencies gave some advice of which Sir Humphrey would be proud: that advice was summarised in the cabinet submission as ‘the definition of endorsement should not include a commitment to implement the Priority National Actions’!
Cabinet thus squibbed a major opportunity for early action, endorsing the strategy in principle and deciding that it would consider implementation later.
Of course, ‘later’ never came. This was despite Hawke emphasising in the published version that ‘[t]he real significance of the strategy … will be measured not so much by the words it contains but by the actions it generates’!
Unfortunately, this was by no means the last occasion on which Australian governments would talk the talk but not walk the walk.
More talking the talk …
This same failure can also be seen in Australia’s contribution to the OECD during this period.
Australia played significant role in persuading OECD environment ministers in 1985 to commit their governments to ‘an integrated approach, with a view to ensuring long-term environmental and economic sustainability’.
Indeed, in deploying the ‘natural capital’ metaphor in his speech to the meeting, Australia’s delegation leader, Employment Minister Ralph Willis, placed himself at the very cutting edge of policy:
“To our cost we have given inadequate attention to the need for an environmentally and economically integrated approach to the management of natural resources or ‘natural capital’…It is in our mutual interest that each country should manage its ‘natural capital’ as efficiently as possible and with the same concern as accorded the efficient use of other physical, financial and human capital.”
Domestically however we did nothing to develop programs based on maintaining natural capital.
In the meantime, the government had established national State of the Environment (SoE) reporting in 1985. The second SoE Report in 1986 reported that much had been achieved in establishing institutions, enacting laws and implementing programs, but warned that “continuation of these efforts is essential, and important environmental problems remain.”
And one of its conclusions was that “greater emphasis [needs] to be given to developing anticipatory policies designed to prevent future problems …”
Displaying a tin ear, the Government promptly discontinued SoE reporting as a budget savings measure. (National SoE reporting was re-established in 1996.)
Not the end of the story
If the Hawke Government were an environmental policy student in 1985, its report card would start with an A+, followed by a string of D’s. The card would bear the teacher’s comment that ‘this talented student has lost interest and is skipping class’.
However, things began to change in the lead-up to the 1987 election and Hawke would go on to become, in my view, Australia’s most pro-environmental Prime Minister to date.
But that’s another story for a future blog.
Banner image: The bright triangle ‘no dams’ sticker was emblematic of the Franklin Dam protests. It was the first big environmental issue tackled by the new Hawke Government in 1983.
Simple solutions for complex problems don’t exist and it’s dangerous to think they do
By David Salt
The Morrison Government is placing enormous faith in silver bullets to solve Australia’s biggest challenges. And that should worry every Australian because silver bullets are based on faith, not evidence.
Consider, for starters, their underwhelming response to the corona pandemic.
Simple solutions for complex issues
First they told us (sold us) a covid app would be our passport to living free. If enough people signed up to it, they promised, it would be the key to unlocking our economy. Costing millions of dollars to develop and promote, the COVIDSafe app was indeed supported by most Australians but, unfortunately, it quickly sank without a trace as its promise of infection tracing proved hollow.
Then they reckoned AstraZeneca would be a silver-bullet vaccine enabling an exit from pandemic living, and they put all their (and our) eggs into the AZ basket. So sure of this were they that they supported the production of AstraZeneca in Australia ensuring there would be no supply line issues. And, because they were so confident in the AZ fix, they turned their back on the Pfizer vaccine when it was offered to Australia mid last year.
Unfortunately for the government (and all Australians), the AZ vaccine had a rare blood-clotting side effect (limiting who could get it) and it wasn’t as effective against COVID variants. The Pfizer vaccine, on the other hand, came up trumps but we hardly had any. The consequences of this are playing out as I write this.
There was never going to be a simple solution to the COVID pandemic – too many variables, too many things changing over time, too many fallible humans acting in irrational ways – and we really should never have expected one. But we SO hoped for one, and that’s what politicians excel at – selling hope.
They sold us fool-proof technology, gold-standard tracing and guaranteed vaccine solutions without risk, and we wanted to believe it was true. But, as American journalist Henry Mencken described it: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” And how wrong have we been so far in this pandemic.
The biggest silver bullet
But the biggest silver bullet being deployed by the Morrison Government is their promise that climate change will be easily solved by “technology not taxes.”
This isn’t even a ‘real’ silver bullet but some ambiguous future aspiration held up to convince voters that they (we) don’t have to worry about climate change; we don’t have to change or sacrifice how we live (symbolised by the term ‘raising taxes’) because science and technology will come to our rescue. A simple sales pitch to solve a massive and complex problem. And though it’s not credible, it’s a sales pitch that had wide resonance at the last national election where the price of responding to climate change was front and centre but the cost of ignoring it was largely ignored.
Of course the phrase ‘this isn’t even a real silver bullet’ is problematic in itself. That’s because ‘silver bullets’ aren’t real. They are a weapon from folklore, a means of killing werewolves (or in some fairy tales, witches). Given their mythical value, the term has become a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical and conclusive solution to a difficult and diabolical problem, like killing a powerful werewolf.
Given our politicians predilections for selling hope, silver bullets are their weapon of choice. Just keep in mind they aren’t real.
Beyond the fact that they’re mythical and don’t work, the problems associated with believing in silver-bullet solutions are legion. High up on the list are self-deception, lost opportunity cost and wasted time.
Dangerous on so many levels
If you buy into the belief that climate change can be fixed with a silver bullet – like say geoengineering a planetary heat shield to bring down temperature – than you’re deceiving yourself that you understand climate change. Instead of seeing our planet as a massively complex system you’re accepting the notion that the environment is a simple thing with knobs that humans can twiddle to optimise conditions. This is a dangerous self-deception held by some of the world’s most powerful people (who like to think they are in control). Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, is a proponent of geoengineering and once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem”.
And if we prioritise our limited resources to develop these silver bullet solutions because we’re kidding ourselves about the nature of the problem, then we’re not investing in the many capacities we need to stay resilient in a changing world. Believing in a quick fix, a magical solution that solves the issue without wholesale change, means we don’t have to tackle the deep, multi-scaled dimensions of the problem. If you can convince the electorate, for example, that pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere will keep the Earth cool, we stop investing in all the other things we should be doing in bringing down carbon emissions at all levels of society (which might explain why the fossil fuel sector is quite keen on geoengineering fixes).
Failing to acknowledge the real nature of the problem and investing in the wrong solution is obviously not a winning policy formulation, and this will eventually be apparent (in the long run Nature can’t be fooled). Unfortunately, by then the problem is usually worse, the damage often irreversible and addressing the issue a lot more expensive. If we opt for geoengineering solutions to climate change, following the same example, we may well be investing in silver bullets that use up what time we have to steer humanity away from the yawning abyss of climate breakdown. Indeed, it has been shown that the cooling effects of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere by natural events (eg, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1993) are short lived. They last a year or two then the heating trend caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions returns to its original trajectory as if the cooling effect had never occurred.
Firing silver bullets at coral
Consider the consequences of relying on silver bullets to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s recently endured three mass bleaching events from rising water temperatures. The scientific consensus is that the Great Barrier Reef is cactus if humanity can’t radically reduce carbon emissions.
While I am sure there is merit in all of these investigations, they don’t address the central issue of climate change and increasing temperatures, and they won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. They are silver bullets deployed by the government to convince the electorate that a magical solution exists for a diabolical problem. And the solutions they are promoting (as the world’s best reef managers) don’t involve voters having to change behaviour or a need for the economy to be restructured.
The cost in believing in these silver bullets (above and beyond that they won’t work) is a failure to acknowledge what the real problem is, a diversion of resources away from solutions that do address the challenge, and the loss of critical years during which the Reef slips further and further into irreversible decline.
The metaphor of silver bullets is now firmly part of the political lexicon. Next time you hear it being invoked, ask where the werewolves are and then remind the speaker that simple solutions to complex problems are simply myths.
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?
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
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.
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.
Let’s say a new irrigation scheme is proposed and all the land it’ll take up needs to be cleared — trees felled, soil upturned, and habitats destroyed. Water will also have to be allocated. Would the economic gain of the scheme outweigh the damage to the environment?
This is the kind of question so-called “land accounts” grapple with. Land accounts are a type of “environmental account”, which measures our interactions with the environment by recording them as transactions. They help us understand the environmental and economic outcomes of land use decisions.
Environmental accounting, for which Australia has a national strategy, seeks to integrate environmental and economic data to ensure sustainable decision making. Last month, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the country’s first national land account under the strategy, describing it as “experimental”.
Environmental accounting could be a game changer for conserving nature, but the account released by the ABS falls flat. It’s yet another example of Australia’s environmental policy culture: we develop or adopt good ideas, but then just tinker with them, or even discard them.
A (really) long time coming
Environmental accounting has been a long time coming and dates back to the 1980s. It’s closely related to sustainable development, and in fact, the two ideas developed in parallel.
Then, in March this year, the international standard was finally extended to cover ecosystem accounting.
So, how are environmental accounts used?
“National accounts” are a way to measure the economic activity of Australia and they tell us our gross domestic product (GDP). Linking existing national accounts to environmental accounts means important decisions can capture environmental and economic outcomes, obviously making for better decisions.
For example, the case for orienting a stimulus package towards investing in renewable energy and land restoration will be much stronger if it can quantify not only economic benefits, but gains to natural assets, such as through revegetation.
Stuck in ‘experimental’ mode
Australia, through the ABS, was an early mover in developing environmental accounting. It has produced experimental accounts since the mid-1990s.
Some countries are now taking significant steps to produce and apply accounts. And a communiqué issued by the G7 in May endorses the UN’s SEEA and encourages making nature a regular part of all decision-making – in other words, “mainstreaming nature”. This is something for which SEEA is ideal.
It’s no accident this communiqué emerged from London. The UK is a leader in the field of applying accounting to environmental and economic management. It had a Natural Capital Committee for some years and its 25-year environmental plan provides for further account development, including for urban areas, fisheries and forestry.
Australian governments, on the other hand, have been slow to use environmental accounts. They took until 2018 to agree on an unambitious national strategy, which specified “intermediate” outcomes, only to 2023.
These targets include such policy basics as making environmental information for accounts “findable” and “accessible”. This is not far removed from what federal and state governments first signed up to in an agreement 30 years ago.
And the strategy places the holy grail of policy integration “into the future” beyond 2023 — for example, off into the never-never. As a result, we are on a slow track and seemingly stuck in “experimental” mode.
So, what’s the problem with the new land account?
The new land account is a very small step. While it has gathered a lot of information in one place, it tells us little, and essentially repackages old information (the newest data is for 2016).
It’s also in a format that cannot be integrated with national accounts, or even with other environmental accounts so far produced in Australia, such as those covering waste, water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Integration of environmental and economic information is the raison d’etre for the international system. So how did this happen?
For accounts produced outside the ABS (such as for greenhouse gas emissions), different accounting frameworks were used, so this is understandable, though unfortunate. For the land accounts, it is less understandable and we can only speculate.
Not being able to integrate the land, water and national accounts means the environmental-economic trade-offs cannot be assessed. It seems the government is struggling to integrate an exercise of integration!
The environment section of the report acknowledges climate change and biodiversity loss as major problems, and the need to account for and maintain natural capital. But it goes on to do little more than make general observations and recite standard government talking points about existing policies.
If the report was informed by comprehensive environmental accounts, it could support the modelling of environmental trends going forward. This would give us a real sense of likely changes to natural capital and its impact on the economy.
But there are no plans for such an approach. In fact, this kind of “high potential, low ambition” approach to environmental policy is something of a trademark for this government. Another example is the recent cherry picking of recommendations from an independent review of Australia’s environment law.
While such an approach may deliver a successful political placebo, it is a formula for policy failure.
Just how loud will the wake-up call have to be? Recently, a climate-change-induced “heat dome” hit western North America. Lytton, Canada, which is closer to the North Pole than the equator, shattered temperature records with a staggering 49.6℃, before being decimated by wildfire.
If only such disasters, including our own Black Summer, would raise policy ambition more than the temperature.
Peter Burnett is an Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University. Michael Vardon is an Associate Professor at the Fenner School, Australian National University
Postscript from the authors: While space didn’t allow the inclusion of this point in the original article in The Conversation, a key feature of environmental accounts is that they can be kept in both monetary and physical units. As a result, they do not require the commodification of nature. When accounts use monetary units, these are ‘exchange values’, ie actual market rates.
Where there is no market, as typically there is not for, say, biodiversity, the accounts can be kept in physical units such as hectares and a condition indicator. While the absence of a common monetary denominator does of course make the economic and environmental data less than fully commensurable, it does not prevent integrated decision-making if accounts are suitably comprehensive and there is ecological advice as to the minimum extent and condition required to sustain the environmental asset concerned into the future.
Extending the example in the article of a proposed irrigation scheme, the economic consequences of the proposed development (eg jobs, primary production) can be set alongside the environmental consequences (eg aquifer draw-down, habitat loss). If the accounts show that these losses would place the ecological assets at significant risk of loss or ongoing decline, say by drawing down aquifers faster than replenishment rate, or significantly increasing extinction risk for a species, the correct decision environmentally is not to approve. This is a major advance over a conventional environmental impact assessment because the information would be collected in advance and routinely, quantified in a standardised way and, though accounting records, measured cumulatively.
Banner image: Young Henri plants a tree for the future. (Image by David Salt)
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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. [
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)
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 extentaccounts, 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.
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.
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.