This febrile environment

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The election is called, ‘peak crazy’ is on, and cynicism reigns at a time we can’t afford it

By David Salt

Australia has entered an election period (described as ‘peak crazy’ by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) and chickens everywhere are running around claiming the sky is falling.

Right-wing politicians are describing animal-rights activists as equivalent to terrorists and calling for them to be thrown in jail.

Our Prime Minister has accused the opposition Labor Party of attempting to steal our weekends because they announced a policy of 50% electric cars by 2030.

Carbon emissions are rising but our Government leaders are telling us we’ll make our targets at a canter (and their policy to date has actually seen emissions on average rise).

Adani’s new coal mine proposal in outback Queensland is being lauded in the regions as a source of jobs while simultaneously being condemned in the cities as an environmental horror.

It’s all so shrill, so hysterical, that large slabs of the electorate have simply switched off. No-one believes anyone and everyone seems to stop caring.

The same but different

On the one hand it was ever thus. Every election period is shrill and hysterical, every candidate smeared and compromised by the time it’s over. Then the government is returned (or changed) and life goes on. Normalcy returns.

On the other hand, things are different and we won’t be bouncing back to ‘normal’ no matter who wins.

We look around us and the evidence of climate change is real and present be it in the bleached degrading skeleton of the Great Barrier Reef or the millions of stinking fish corpses clogging the Murray Darling. Species are going extinct, droughts and floods are becoming more punishing.

We’ve just survived the most brutal summer on record but no-one believes there isn’t worse down the line.

The world is burning, figuratively and literally, but the chorus from leaders standing for election is that ‘she’ll be right’, and ‘trust us’. Such platitudes simply don’t cut it anymore, and voters are retreating into a bleak cynicism.

Rome is burning

Sometimes, however, a plaintive cry cuts through the crap.

Just prior to the commencement of the official election period I heard a former head fire fighter say on public radio that he was scared. The bushfires he was seeing in the last couple of years were unlike anything he had had to confront throughout his career. The fire seasons were longer, the burns more intense and covered a greater area. Our available resources weren’t coping.

He, along with former fire chiefs from every state and territory, were making a plea for government to acknowledge and act on the escalating risks associated with climate change. But as the country descends into a frenzy of election madness their hopes of being heard are dashed.

Your house is burning

So, our dedicated expert emergency managers are scared.

Well, I’m scared too. I’m scared of what’s coming at us; and I’m scared that our democratic process is not up to the challenge of engaging with the problems growing from the global changes we are creating.

I’m scared because our political leaders are presenting simplistic solutions to complex problems.

They tell us we can meet the challenge of sustainability and we don’t even have to sacrifice anything to achieve it. We can have our economic development and rest assured that it isn’t going to cost us the environmental capital upon which it’s based. We can have our cake and eat it.

And their assertions are so demonstrably wrong, with the evidence of this mounting around us all the time.

Yes, this is a rant*. It’s a release of the frustration that I (and many other voters) feel towards this election period that reduces important issues to sound bites, slogans and attack dogs.

The Earth is boiling and our polity is increasingly febrile.

If only our political leaders could show they care in a way I believe. Exhibit a little humility instead of hubris; acknowledge uncertainty instead of parading simplistic absolutism; and demonstrate that they too are a little scared of an increasingly frightening future.

“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

Those aren’t my words. They were uttered by a Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg back in January when she admonished the planet’s economic leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos for not acknowledging the growing catastrophe of climate change.

I feel that fear. I wish my elected representatives might too.

*I commit to be less ranty and more constructive in future posts. And I would point out that much of the angst the electorate feels during election periods (that I am ranting about here) results from our political parties pandering to vested interests, whipping up tribalism and focussing on the short term – three problems my colleague Peter Burnett focussed on in an earlier Sustainability Bite (in which he proposed several constructive solutions).

Environmental policy came from the side of the angels

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Lynton Caldwell, NEPA and the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

By Peter Burnett

When did the age of modern environmental policy begin? Some claim it kicked off with the publication of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland Report) in 1987. This landmark document defined the notion of ‘sustainable development’ and stressed the need for integrating economic, social and environmental approaches. Others suggest 1972 is more appropriate as it was the year of the Stockholm Conference and the establishment of Environment departments in many countries around the world.

But I’m going to suggest to you that 1969 and drafting of the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is really when environmental policy began, and it owes much to a visionary political scientist named Professor Lynton Caldwell. And it’s not just that Caldwell was astute enough to understand what effective environmental policy needed, he was also canny enough to know when to make his pitch.

NEPA is famous for introducing the world to the concept of environmental impact assessment (EIA), a mechanism now used in almost every country. But NEPA stands for so much more.

Interdisciplinarity

Its antecedents lie in Caldwell’s earlier work. In 1963 he published an article entitled ‘Environment: A New Focus for Public Policy?’ 1963! That’s only a year after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the book often regarded as having launched the modern environment movement.

In his article, Caldwell argues for, and thus invents, ‘environmental policy’. He calls for, among other things, an interdisciplinary approach to this new creature. Caldwell was a Professor of Government at Indiana University and he practised what he preached. He embarked on a course of interdisciplinary training and started hanging around with ecologists. (In 1963, ecology was still a relatively small discipline.) These days, interdisciplinarity is a much lauded goal (if little practiced) but back then it was a very brave undertaking.

In 1964 Caldwell began to operationalise his ideas by presenting them to a workshop for economic planners. Brave again. Not surprisingly, most of them were, as Caldwell later reminisced, ‘baffled’ by his argument and most of them rejected it as irrelevant. That’s except for one now world famous economist, Abraham Maslow (of ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ fame). Maslow understood what Caldwell was advocating. He later offered Caldwell constructive suggestions, declaring Caldwell to be ‘on the side of the angels’.

The time was ripe

By the late 1960s a wave of environmental concern was sweeping the Western World, particularly in America. Some major environmental disasters contributed to this. In 1969 and in America alone, the Santa Barbara oil spill despoiled the California coastline while on the other side of the country the Cuyahoga River was so polluted it actually caught fire.

Various members of Congress responded by proposing environmental laws. Public opinion was galvanised.

Against this backdrop, one of the leading proponents of reform in Congress, Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, hired Caldwell to help with Jackson’s environmental Bill. Initially, Caldwell wrote a report for a Congressional committee on what a national environmental policy might be.

He later wrote that he anticipated the need for ‘action forcing provisions such as impact statements’ to support a national policy statement. But Caldwell held back as he suspected Senator Jackson ‘did not appear ready to endorse so novel and intrusive a proposition’.

Later, however, in appearing before the committee, Caldwell was able to make his arguments for his action forcing provisions and they were then included in the compromise bill. That bill became the NEPA. Caldwell had bided his time and ‘threw his pebble’ (to borrow a term from one of our earlier blogs) when he perceived it would have maximum impact.

A remarkable piece of legislation

NEPA itself is a remarkable piece of legislation. Its statement of environmental policy goals is visionary. It talks about the need for a global approach three years before the world first met to talk about a global approach, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in 1972.

The legislation talks about each generation being trustees of the environment for future generations and sharing life’s amenities – this was 18 years before the Brundtland Report proposed the concepts of sustainable development and intergenerational equity.

It refers to maintaining the diversity if life just 12 months after Dasmann first wrote of biological diversity and 20 years before Lovejoy coined the term ‘biodiversity’.

And NEPA required the preparation of state of the environment reports (as ‘environmental quality reports’), 10 years before the OECD produced one and called on its members to do likewise. NEPA sought to drive policy integration 10 years before the OECD began to promote the same concept.

Ahead of its time?

Unfortunately most of the enormous potential of NEPA was not realised. True, it brought environmental impact assessment, EIA, to the world. But Caldwell, Jackson and the others behind NEPA had a much bigger vision than EIA.

If NEPA had been applied as an ordinary reading of its words would suggest, all US government agencies would have brought their decisions in line with a long-term policy vision directed to avoiding environmental degradation, and these decisions would have been supported by comprehensive information and research facilitated by a new institution, the Council of Environmental Quality. These things did not happen because government agencies were antagonistic and the US Supreme Court read the law down to a set of procedural requirements.

Caldwell’s vision and achievements, which would have been much greater if others had not been working against them, are not widely known. And to top it off, he was a registered Republican voter, working for a Democrat: if only environment was the bipartisan issue today that it was then.

Image: Lynton Caldwell enjoying the great outdoors. Indiana University Archives

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

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Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Environmental FoIs & the ‘decision-making onion’

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Reasons behind an environmental decision are often concealed beneath layers of government process.

By Peter Burnett

Why is it that despite reforms to federal Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, it seems it’s getting more and more difficult to get information out of government on the reasons behind decisions about the environment? These reforms, by the way, declare that embarrassment, loss of confidence in government and public confusion are irrelevant to decisions about whether to release documents. And yet the reforms don’t seem to have helped much.

Where officials might once have claimed substantive exemptions to release, based on grounds like confidentiality, now governments starve FoI processes of funding so that requests are more likely to be strangled by delay or blocked under an exemption based on the request involving an unreasonable diversion of the agency’s resources. Requests are also constricted by charging fees.

Information hidden in layers

Issues of exemptions, delays and fees aside, there can be a question of where to look for pertinent information. Sometimes substantive information is concealed (not necessarily deliberately) under layers of government process. The example that comes to mind is that of decisions concerning the approval or refusal of development projects, following environmental impact assessment (EIA). In the example these decisions are made under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).

Say you want to know why a minister has approved a controversial project. It’s like an onion: you will have to peel back the layers of advice and deliberation to get to the heart of the matter.

First, there’s the environmental impact statement. You would think this would be a public document, but it’s only public for a limited time, when it is published for public comment. After that you’ll have to make an FoI application. In any event, because it is prepared by the proponent it will tell you about the project but it won’t contain any ministerial thinking. Let’s call this layer 1.

Then there’s the environment department’s ‘recommendation report’, their statutory advice to the minister on whether the development should be approved and, if so, on what conditions (this is layer 2). This is available on application, under the EPBC Act rather than under FoI, although the department can still claim some FoI-style exemptions. Assume however that you’ll get it. As it’s a legal document, it will be couched in formal and evidence-based terms. It will tell you more, but it’s probably not the whole story.

Then there’s the department’s ‘covering brief’ (layer 3) to which the statutory documents are attached. While the brief might blandly transmit the recommendation report and other decisional documents to the minister, equally it might get more directly to the nub of the issue than the recommendation report, and better reveal the ‘flavour’ of the department’s advice. The brief will be available under FoI, subject to the usual exemptions and processes, but a separate application will be needed.

The next layer (number 4) might be advice from a political adviser in the minister’s office. Advisers are not officials, not bound by public service rules or ethics. This advice might be oral or written. If it’s written, it’s still subject to FoI, but in practice it probably won’t be available because often takes an ephemeral form, such as a ‘sticky note’, which might be discarded once the decision is made and the documents returned to departmental custody.

Invisible and hidden layers

The Minister might also meet with the department to discuss its advice. While officials may make a record of the meeting (number 5), such records are often bland: a minister may probe departmental advice, but even if that probing reveals the minister’s political thinking, officials may think that it is not their business to record political comments or inferences.

The minister may also discuss the issue with proponents, lobbyists or other political players, many of whom pride themselves on working invisibly behind the scenes. Such discussions are not likely to be recorded in detail.

There is another process for obtaining reasons (behind decisions), but it doesn’t seem to yield much. Under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act (ADJR Act), a person aggrieved by a decision can ask for a formal statement of reasons. The idea is to elicit enough detail about a decision to help the person get legal advice on a legal challenge. The problem is that ministers get government lawyers to draw-up these statements, so they become legally-justifying rather than records of actual thinking. These ‘section 13’ statements are likely to tell you that the minister had regard to all the considerations laid down in the Act and then balanced them carefully in the exercise of discretion. Unless someone’s made a legal mistake in the decision process, it can be a story of ‘move along, nothing to see here’.

Why not just ask?

Rather than wade through FoI processes, there’s always the option of asking. A journalist for example might ask about the reasons for a decision. Politicians of course are legendary for not answering questions.

Another channel for asking is for Senators to ask questions in Estimates Committees. These questions are usually answered by public servants. You could be forgiven for expecting public servants, with their statutory duties of honesty and integrity, and their mantra of ‘frank-and-fearless’ advice, to be straight-shooters. However, in public forums they often aren’t, at least not in response to ‘advice’ questions. This is because public servants ‘advise’ government on policy, but usually do not ‘advise’ other parties.

My experience in Senate Estimates Committee hearings was one of public servants (including myself) answering questions directly, but literally and without elaboration, thereby meeting legal and ethical obligations, but sometimes frustrating Senators who were, in effect, asking for or about advice. Sometimes Senators don’t ask quite the right question, but if they do, the answer might be that the public servant can’t answer because it’s a question about advice!

At the end of the day, you can trust public servants, but they often won’t be much help on the most important questions: the information is concealed by the nature of their duties.

The decision onion

So there you have it. If you try to peel all the layers of the ‘decision onion’, the outer layers will come away easily enough, if slowly, and won’t tell you much. But the inner layers are resistant to removal. Advice from advisers is likely to be ephemeral. Discussions between Ministers and lobbyists or colleagues probably won’t be recorded in detail. An ADJR statement of reasons will be formal and unlikely to offer any real insight. And Estimates hearings won’t reveal advice.

But if you want to know what really was really driving a controversial decision, official processes probably aren’t the way to find out. Perhaps the story will come out years later in a political ‘tell all’ book.

Image by Chris Stermitz from Pixabay