On the taboo of triage

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Some hard choices we don’t want to even think about

By David Salt

Former leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson, made an astounding comment last week during an address to farmers and industry leaders. “Government ministers are not turning up at events if they have the word ‘climate’ in the title,” he claimed.

Hard to believe but everyone knows that political parties of different stripes avoid certain words that trouble the ideologies that underpin the core beliefs of that party. As George Orwell frequently noted (and dictators often put into practice), language is power.

And it’s not just things tagged ‘climate’. I was amazed to observe the word ‘biodiversity’ disappeared from almost all Government messaging after the Liberal Party (under Tony Abbott) took office in 2013. How is it possible that a term like biodiversity*, that emerged from the academic field of conservation science and surely carries no political baggage at all, is seen to be politically taboo?

Priorities

In a general sense I’d ascribe it to broad government priorities: first we fix the economy, then we look after the environment. It’s a common mantra of political leaders and particularly so for those at the conservative end of the spectrum. I won’t discuss here why I believe this prioritisation of economy first/environment later is wrong (on so many levels) because that’s a big and hairy discussion better left to another time. However, it’s closely related to another taboo: don’t question the primacy of economic growth – growth is good, ad infinitum.

Of course, the empirical evidence on climate change and biodiversity decline is incontestable in terms of evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus. Which is not to say the evidence isn’t contested in the ideological arena of political power? Just consider the denialists’ most recent effort, a publication titled ‘There is no climate emergency’. It was reviewed and shown to be a text-book example of the denialist dark arts exhibiting bias, inaccuracy and cherry-picked information.

However, surely it’s easier to not mention something rather than expend considerable effort in constructing an ever more elaborate lie to deny the existence of that thing.

Which leads me to a taboo word so consequential that we must never breathe its name: triage.

Well, that’s not completely true. In medical settings like hospitals and treating wounded soldiers on battlefields, ‘triage’ is a common and accepted term. Indeed, the idea was born on the Napoleonic battlefield.

Triage comes from the French word ‘trier’, which means to separate, sort, sift or select. It’s all about setting priorities when the need is urgent and resources are limited. On the battlefield (or in a hospital’s emergency ward) doctors and nurses triage patients to ensure appropriate care is given as quickly as possible depending on available resources: “This soldier we can save, this soldier we can’t.” “This patient needs immediate care, that patient will have to wait.”

Triage this

Medical triage underpins some of the toughest decisions humans have to make but society accepts this process because these decisions are made by trusted experts working for the common good.

But when it comes to other forms of triage – namely conservation triage, landscape triage or enterprise triage – we’re entering dangerously taboo terrain.

Conservation triage refers to prioritising resources for threatened species (eg, “this species we can save, this species we can’t do much for so let’s stop wasting funds on it”); landscape triage refers to prioritising resources for different types of land use (eg, “we’ll support farmers working in this region but not those working over there”); and enterprise triage refers to prioritising resources for different business sectors (eg, “renewables is an emerging industry that should be supported but manufacturing is a mature sector that can’t be propped up”).

From a political perspective, these forms of triage are never to be mentioned because as soon as you do you draw a target on yourself. If you suggest that government should favour one thing while letting another fade away you’ll be accused of picking winners and giving up on losers.

Winners and losers

When triage is applied to threatened species the debate becomes particularly heated. If any politician even dares to suggest that resources might be better used if they were prioritised to where they might have the greatest impact, the media (and opportunistic politicians from the other side) immediately ask: “Which species are you giving up on?!”

It’s an effective attack because the broader community believes no species should go extinct, and the government is careful to avoid any discussion on whether this expectation is being met.

Of course, this expectation is not being met. Indeed, the reverse applies. The world is witnessing a biodiversity catastrophe and Australia leads the developed world in our rate of extinction.

The tragic irony of not undertaking robust conservation triage (which necessarily involves transparency and accountability) is that the pitifully inadequate resources available for threatened species conservation are poorly applied resulting in waste and ineffective conservation. Politicians pretend that all species will be saved while making ad hoc, reactive and opaque decisions to save whatever species is the flavour of the month. It’s not only inefficient, it’s quite immoral and represents a deep failure in leadership.

Whatever, don’t mention the word ‘triage’ as a tool of conservation. Not only is it a politically challenging process to prosecute, it also throws a light on our abject failure on threatened species conservation.

Don’t mention it

Similar arguments apply to other forms of triage, such as landscape and enterprise triage. Picking winners highlights the losers and throws a focus on the government’s failure in letting an unsustainable situation develop.

Attempting triage on land management, for example, would require the government to acknowledge that traditional farming is simply not appropriate in many Australian landscapes contexts, especially in light of predictions connected to climate change. Criticising farmers, of course, is another taboo.

It’s easier to simply not mention ‘climate’ (or ‘biodiversity’ or ‘triage’), and hope your pigeons don’t come home to roost until at least after the next election.

*On biodiversity: The word ‘biodiversity’ is a shortening of the term ‘biological diversity’ and broadly speaking refers to the variability of life on Earth. The word took on official usage in the 1980s (and its creation is attributed to the scientists Thomas Lovejoy and Walter Rosen). Truth to tell, while I attribute the demise of the term ‘biodiversity’ in political discourse to a plot by Abbott’s conservatives to avoid all science, a robust study of the decline of ‘biodiversity’ in conservation policy discourse in Australia has revealed that the downturn in usage began much earlier than Abbott’s rise to government in 2013. This study, led by Alex Kusmanoff at RMIT, suggests that from 2003 to 2014 the term ‘biodiversity’ was in steady decline while the term ‘ecosystem services’, an economic framing of the benefits of nature, was on the rise.

Image: Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’?

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Why companies don’t make the environmental their top priority

By Peter Burnett

Corporate Social Responsibility has been in the news a lot lately. Corporates have been active in recent social debates, for example as advocates for same sex marriage and Indigenous recognition; and most recently when some companies backed September’s School Strike for Climate. This has prompted the Australian Government to push back, urging corporations to ‘stick to their knitting’.

In the USA, the high profile Business Roundtable, whose members are the CEOs of ‘leading American companies’ such as Tim Cook of Apple, recently dumped their long-held position that the purpose of a corporation is to serve shareholders, in favour of a commitment to ‘all of our stakeholders’ (their emphasis). This included a commitment to ‘protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.’

The ‘rules’ for corporations

Can a corporation really embrace sustainable practices if it is not in their immediate commercial interests to do so?

This is an issue with a long history (even longer than post-war discussions on this thing called sustainability). In the 1910s, on the back of the success of his Model T car, Henry Ford cut prices, gave his workers significant pay rises and started building a war chest to fund future expansion. But Ford hit the wall when he proposed putting an end to special dividends as a way of making his war chest even larger. Two of Ford’s shareholders, the Dodge brothers (themselves car makers), successfully sued Ford for such an audacious proposal. The Michigan Supreme Court forced Ford to continue paying the dividends on the basis that the company must operate in the interests of shareholders.

This case is often discussed as a key source of two key principles of corporate law, namely shareholder primacy and the ‘business judgement’ rule. And these are not just US principles, but are reflected in modern corporate law in Australia. Section 181 of Corporations Act 2001 requires directors to act in good faith in the best interests of the corporation, while  section 180 enacts the business judgment rule, in essence that directors meet their duty to act in the best interest of the corporation if they believe, rationally and after exercising due diligence, that they are so doing.

The net result is that, while directors must act in the best interests of the corporation, directors have significant scope to apply their best judgment in determining what those interests are.

However, acting in the best interests of the corporation effectively means acting in the interests of the shareholders, since they are its owners. Furthermore, since (almost all) shareholders are investors, acting in the corporation’s best interests pretty much means making money, or at least increasing shareholder value, as much as possible.

So, broadly speaking, corporations are in it for the money. They have a one-track mind. And, allowing some leeway for management discretion, shareholders are entitled to make sure it stays that way.

Corporations and voluntary action for the environment

What does all this mean in terms of caring for the environment?

Well, corporations often claim they will care for the environment, as the US Business Roundtable has just done. Further, corporations often acknowledge the need for a social licence, which is not quite the same thing.

Finally, corporations sometimes take voluntary environmental action at the behest of government. A recent example came in a statement by Trevor Evans, Federal Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management, who said that creating a more circular economy in Australia is a responsibility shared between individuals, governments and industry. (Of course, industry mostly consists of corporations).

Despite the impression created by such statements, the bottom line is set not by business roundtables and ministers, but by the rights that the law gives to shareholders.

If a company is led by a visionary and the shareholders share the vision, almost anything is possible. Elon Musk for example has managed to spend hugely on his vision to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, pushing Tesla Corporation to the limits of viability through borrowing and even giving valuable rights away by opening patents to all-comers, without attracting shareholder litigation of the Dodge Bros v Ford type*.

Keeping out of ‘Dodge’ City

On the more likely scenario that there will inevitably be some modern Dodge brothers among the shareholders in any large company, how might a corporation take voluntary action for the environment without risking shareholder litigation?

For example, how might companies respond to Minister Evans’ call to share in responsibility for the circular economy without getting in trouble? The answer depends on whether the corporation is a direct participant in the circular economy, such as a recycler, or simply affected by it, say a department store.

It is in the commercial interests of a recycler to see the circular economy grow as it will increase demand for recycled products. Therefore the directors might justify going well beyond general industry engagement with government policy development. They might decide for example that the company will sell recycled product at a loss, or adopt unprofitable circular economy practices within its own business, to establish itself as an exemplar. They might even justify paying their employees a ‘recycling allowance’ to promote recycling at home and to spread the word on social media.

A department store, on the other hand, may not be able to justify any voluntary investment in circular economy practices, beyond some basic ‘greenwashing’ at the margins to support a general ‘we are environmentally responsible’ stance. In fact, it might be in the interests of an upmarket store to maximise the use of virgin materials and extravagant packaging, to enhance the overall ‘customer experience’. These interests might even lead it to oppose some circular economy initiatives in the name of customer choice.

So it’s horses for courses. Yet in either these examples or others, companies can only justify voluntary environmental action if there is a business case for that action. If companies go significantly beyond what a business case would justify, they are inviting challenge by our modern Dodge brothers.

So what’s the right approach?

In a recent commentary on the US Business Roundtable decision to adopt the ‘stakeholder value’ approach, company director and philanthropist Alan Schwartz argued that it is the job of companies to maximise their profits within the rules, and the job of governments to get the rules, including environmental rules right, for example by setting a carbon price (‘Why Friedman was right’ and the Business Roundtable wrong).

In his view, efforts by companies to go beyond shareholder interests in pursuit of broader stakeholder interests are likely to be no more than a sideshow.

Looking through an environmental lens, as we do in this blog, I think Mr Schwartz has it right. It’s much better to have clear and comprehensive environmental rules set by government than to rely on the social ambition of directors and the tolerance of investors.

Image: Arek Socha from Pixabay

* There is shareholder litigation over Tesla’s acquisition of solar panel manufacturer SolarCity, but this is based on other grounds.

Shame Greta Shame

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Is ‘shame’ a good tactic to get our shameless leaders to engage with the ‘truth’?

By David Salt

An open letter to Greta Thunberg from one Australian

Dear Greta

Thanks for your efforts. You’ve done well. Your speeches, UN discussions and the student rallies you helped inspire have, hopefully, shifted the debate on climate change. (God knows the outcries from scientists don’t seem to be achieving much.)

However, I have to say, I am terribly fatigued by the events of recent weeks. It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. I was elated by the grassroots nature of the students’ Climate Strike, impressed by your fearless denunciations of our world order, appalled by the vicious blowback you then endured, and, finally, I am incredulous at the shameless tissue of lies our national leader, Scott Morrison, told the UN Assembly in the wake of your efforts. His whole engagement with climate change (and his defence of Australia’s efforts to engage with it) fills me with shame.

And that, Greta, is a terrible shame in itself. Because, rather than engage with your heroic message, I find myself longing for the emotional turmoil of these recent weeks to simply recede, be swallowed by the media cycle and let me, us, them, get back to the comfort of business as usual.

Unfortunately, as you so passionately outlined (along with almost all the available science), ‘business as usual’ is neither sustainable nor fair. Business as usual is killing our life support systems, drowning our poorest citizens and disinheriting future generations (which, of course, includes you and the youth of today).

You have every right to stoke our shame on this but I worry that for some it simply causes them to double down on their lies. ‘Double down’, it’s an American piece of jargon that now dominates our media, possibly a sign of our partisan times. Rather than admit you’re caught out on a fib or deception, you reinforce it, double down, by telling an even bigger lie. But I digress.

In any case, Greta, I wanted to tell you that many Australians are very supportive of your crusade. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include our national leaders. They fervently don’t agree with you. Under their leadership, our country is not prepared to play its fair part in saving the future. But they’re not prepared to even acknowledge this, instead claiming Australia is doing its fair share. Sounds shameless, doesn’t it?

I won’t take you through the details of this denial. That has been done comprehensively by many others (for example, see the report by the Climate Council and this story in The Guardian). It seems the facts simply don’t count. But the broad gist of our Government’s defence is that our emission targets are strong (they’re not, they’re among the weakest of all developed countries); we’re doing our bit (we’re not, we’re responsible for 1.3% of global emissions but only represent 0.3% of the global population, indeed we have the highest per capita emissions in the developed world and we are the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world); and that we’ll reach our (inadequate) targets at a canter (we won’t, our emissions are actually increasing and have been from the past 5 years).

Our Prime Minister even had the audacity to throw in at the end of his UN statement that our most climate-threatened natural ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef is in good condition: “our Great Barrier Reef remains one of the world’s most pristine areas of natural beauty,” he trumpeted. “Feel free to visit it. Our reef is vibrant and resilient and protected under the world’s most comprehensive reef management plan.”

I’m sure you know this Greta but, in case you don’t, in 2016 and 2017 the Great Barrier Reef was severely damaged through back-to-back bleaching events which killed half of its corals. Australia’s current emissions target goal, if followed by other countries, would sign the death warrant of the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs around the world.

What can I say? It’s just shameless.

So, while I agree with your message, I worry about the strategy. How do you bring about change by shaming people who are shameless?

This is not just about Australia’s current political configuration. Populism, partisanship and win-at-all-costs seem to be the modus operandi of an increasing number of national leaders all around the world (Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro being three other examples). If they can so shamelessly deny the evidence (simply discount it as just ‘fake news’), then shaming them to change their position may be a futile endeavour.

In any event, keep up the good work. It could be I’m quite wrong. Our more ‘mature’ approach of appealing to rationality, logic and incremental improvement does not appear to be achieving much at the moment. The world is moving away from a sustainable space.

Your call to the younger generation, on the other hand, does appear to be generating grass roots support and action. Shaming our leaders may not influence the shameless behaviour of those leaders but maybe that’s not the point. Your efforts are creating a groundswell of engagement that may, in the years to come, be the thing that actually makes a difference. So, keep it up.

All the best

David

Federal environmental planning: the broken leg of the stool

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Our national environmental law is a bit wobbly because it doesn’t take planning seriously

By Peter Burnett

Our big and complex national environmental law is called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (or EPBC Act). When you unpack its major components (as I did in a recent blog) they sort themselves quite nicely into three streams: 1. Identify Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) for protection; 2. Plan for Conservation; and 3. Assess and Approve for Development or Trade.

The streams can be seen as the three legs of a stool, with protecting, conserving and approving designed to combine to ensure that our most important environmental values are looked after, but without blocking economic activity more than is necessary. At least, that’s the theory. Unsurprisingly, there are some problems in practice and in this blog I’ll start with the biggest: the planning leg is half-missing.

One leg is half-missing

The Act provides a planning mechanism for everything that it protects or conserves: bioregional plans for biodiversity and other values; wildlife conservation plans for listed marine, migratory and conservation-dependent species; recovery and threat abatement plans for threatened species; and management plans for heritage places, Ramsar sites and Commonwealth reserves.

The problem is that many of these plans are dated, underdone, or were never created in the first place. I’ll illustrate by examples. In each case I looked up the relevant place or plan on the Department of the Environment and Energy website [www.environment.gov.au] and followed the links.

Dated plans

A number of plans look dated to me. For example, the very first recovery plan listed in the Species Profile and Threats Database, for the great desert skink, was made in 2001 and expired in 2011. The executive summary of the plan says that the Recovery Team will review implementation progress annually and any changes made to the plan will be made available to all stakeholders. There was nothing on SPRAT to indicate whether this had occurred.

Underdone plans

Other plans look underdone. I picked the recovery plan for Carnaby’s cockatoo, an endangered species found in the woodlands and plains around Perth. The species has been controversial because Perth’s development often involves clearance of the cockatoo’s habitat.

The recovery plan identifies eucalypt woodlands as critical to the survival of the cockatoo, in part because they provide breeding hollows, which the plan notes take 100-200 years to develop. It goes on to identify protection of nesting habitat as a recovery action and adopts as a performance measure for this the maintenance of the extent of nesting habitat (trees with nesting hollows).

The implication seems clear: don’t clear old growth woodlands. Moreover, the EPBC Act prohibits the environment minister from acting inconsistently with a recovery plan, so a plan containing a statement like this would block development in these areas.

However, the plan stops far short of such language. Under the heading ‘guide for decision makers’, it states only that the success of the plan requires that decision-makers avoid approving activities that will adversely affect the cockatoo, and that they should minimise or mitigate those impacts that cannot be avoided (ie. apply the ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ hierarchy). The plan goes on to cite WA EPA guidance that it is ‘unlikely to recommend’ approval of projects with a significant adverse impact on the species.

In effect, the plan simply points out that if decision-makers want to save the cockatoo, significant impacts should be avoided, or at least minimised. By pulling its punches, the plan leaves it open to the federal minister to approve the destruction of critical habitat, provided he or she duly considers the plan and applies the mitigation hierarchy to the extent the minister regards as practicable.

Missing plans

At a larger scale, looking at biodiversity more generally, there are no bioregional plans for Australia’s 89 terrestrial bioregions. Nil, none, zero!

Fortunately, Australia’s marine area is much better catered for, with bioregional plans for four of five marine bioregions, supplemented by management plans for marine park networks in each bioregion plus one for the Coral Sea Marine Park.

It’s the politics stupid

Of course, there is a practical explanation for the absence of terrestrial plans. Bioregional plans require joint federal-state action, except on the small portion of land classed as Commonwealth land. Federal cooperation is never easy, even between governments of the same political flavour. Moreover, preparing lots of plans would be expensive and could well stir up local concerns about the whole gamut of development and conservation issues in the region concerned. Such a scenario is, to say the least, politically unappealing.

Yet without bioregional plans project-based environmental impact assessment (EIA) must proceed without contextualised, place-specific guidance on what needs to be conserved and where development can occur. This perpetuates one of the major flaws with project-based EIA, the ‘death of a thousand cuts’, where small environmental impacts are approved in ignorance of their cumulative effect.

The bottom line

While under-done recovery plans may provide some of the guidance that should be coming from the absent bioregional plans, at the end of the day the stool has only two-and-a-bit legs, leaving development decisions pretty much at the minister’s discretion.

This means that a minister who wasn’t really interested in protecting Matters of National Environmental Significance won’t find themselves hemmed in by plans. Even a minister determined to protect and conserve MNES would find that the absence of contextual information a major problem in seeking to make good decisions, just as it’s hard to see where you’re going in a fog.

Who wants a stool with two and half legs?

Image: A pair of Carnaby’s cockatoos feeding on banksia. This species is endemic to south-western Australia. It has experienced widespread loss of nesting and feeding habitat and is considered endangered under the IUCN Red List, and Australian federal and state legislation. Since the 1950s, numbers of the Carnaby’s cockatoo have declined by more than 50%, with its range contracting by over 30%. Image by Leonie Valentine.