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

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

By David Salt

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

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

Addressing symptoms

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

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

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

Silver bullets for dead fish

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

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

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

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

The biggest silver bullet of all

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

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

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

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

A sting in the tale

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

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

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

Making better sense of Australia’s Environmental Impact Assessment

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Surely we can put an end to overlap and duplication

By Peter Burnett

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

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

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

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

A short history of the fight to end duplication

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth another try?

Why is doing this so hard?

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

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

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

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

Environmental planning

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

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

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

[Image by Sumanley xulx from Pixabay]

Throwing pebbles and making waves

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Timing is important when to comes to bringing down dams

By David Salt

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

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

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

Paradise drowned

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

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

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

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

Sea change

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

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

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

For the times they are a changing

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

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

The FDR Gambit

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

By Peter Burnett

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

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

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

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

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

The policy straight-jacket

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

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

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

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

Presidential nous

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

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

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

Getting on with the job

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

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

Let’s get on with it

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

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

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