Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’

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.

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