Duelling scientists at 10 paces

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

By David Salt

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

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

Smells fishy

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

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

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

Two reviews are better than none

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

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

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

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

The game of science

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

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

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

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

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

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

The evidence is in

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

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

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

The BIG fix

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Why can’t we just fix the environment?

By Peter Burnett

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

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

Overspending our natural income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The environment and the issue-attention cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Get real

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

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

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

Throwing pebbles to make change

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

By David Salt

“What do we want!”

“We want action on climate change!”

“When do we want it it!”

“We want it now!!”

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

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

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

Breaking the status quo

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

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

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

Tipping points

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

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

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

It’s all in the timing

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

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

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

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

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

How are we going?

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

By Peter Burnett

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

How did we do? Good and bad.

Being reviewed by our ‘peers’

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

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

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

Could do better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our ‘special topics’

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

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

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

Recurring themes

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

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

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

Watch this space.

Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

A ‘good’ crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another crack

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flip side of crisis

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

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

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