The script that burns us

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But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire

By David Salt

The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.

We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.

There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.

We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.

The script

So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.

At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.

Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.

The ideology

Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.

Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.

For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).

This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.

Dominion

The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.

Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.

This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.

It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.

Future replay

Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.

Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.

By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).

*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay

Supplementary Environmental Estimates

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More questions, a few answers and an unwelcome appearance by Dorothy Dix

By Peter Burnett

Senate Estimates are potentially an important process throwing light and meaning on government expenditure and process. Unfortunately, over the years it’s become a bit of a political circus with all parties doing their best to score political points by squeezing answers from unwilling public servants, who in turn try to avoid being drawn into the politics by giving very flat ‘dull-as-dishwater’ and ‘nothing-to-see-here’ answers.

The main Estimates examination of the Department of the Environment occurred in October (and was the topic of my last blog). But there was a follow up; in early November the Estimates Committee held a supplementary hearing on environmental matters.

This doesn’t happen very often, but one circumstance in which it does occur is when an issue has ‘legs’ (ie, is of topical interest) and Senators are in hot pursuit. This was one such occasion, so it’s worth a look.

‘Nothing to see here’

The Senators were pursuing more information on several controversial and well-reported matters on which they no doubt feel they have the Government well and truly on the back foot:

  • Minister Angus Taylor’s letter to Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney, concerning the climate impacts of the Council’s allegedly excessive travel expenditure
  • allegations of inappropriate interference by Minister Angus Taylor in compliance action under national environmental law concerning endangered ecological grassland communities in the Monaro region (the ‘Jam Land’ case);
  • the associated review by Dr Wendy Craik into interactions between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector, said by some to have been initiated to appease angry farmers;
  • a letter from retired fire chiefs to the Prime Minister seeking a meeting to discuss their concerns about the increasing frequency and severity of fires as a result of climate change; and
  • the $443m grant made by the Turnbull Government to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body, and, now, whether the grant was motivated by a desire to avoid the Reef being given a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ listing.

The transcript on what transpired is here if you want to take a look.

None of the responses to questions on these issues revealed anything of great note. Most were to the effect that officers had followed standard bureaucratic processes and either were not privy to, or in the case of the Reef grant, were prevented by Cabinet confidentiality from revealing, anything nefarious that may or may not have been done by the Government.

The most that can be said about the answers is that they show first, that the Government appointed Craik without asking the Environment Department for the usual list of potential appointees; and second that they replaced the Department’s standard flat answer to Clover Moore with a letter of their own. Both of these things tend only to confirm the obvious, that these were purely political decisions rather than standard government decisions on advice.

A new participant at Estimates: Dorothy Dix

One thing that did concern me was the response of officials to a question from Senator McMahon, a government member from the Northern Territory, concerning the recent endorsement by Federal and State environment ministers of Australia’s new national biodiversity strategy, known as ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’. This strategy replaces Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy: 2010 – 2030.

In my earlier blog on the Estimates I reported the questioning that officials received about this strategy being late. This time around at the Supplementary hearing, the question and the answers it elicited resembled a ‘Dorothy Dixer’, the friendly questions that government backbenchers ask of Ministers in Question Time, providing them with an opportunity to make an announcement or other statement favourable to the Government. They also serve the very valuable purpose of using up time that might otherwise be devoted to attacking the Government.

Use of this self-serving practice has attracted increasing criticism to the point that it is under review by a Parliamentary Committee.

We are, however, talking about Estimates, not Question Time. Sometimes government members on Estimates Committees do ask benign questions that have a Dorothy-Dix feel to them. However, it takes both a benign question and a self-congratulatory answer to make a Dixer, and this is the first time I’ve seen an answer from officials that had the feel of a Dixer in Estimates.

A new more ‘flexible’ strategy for saving Nature

In responding to Senator McMahon’s question, officials in effect criticised the previous government’s strategy and complimented the Government for developing a ‘flexible framework’ that would place Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to expected developments, including the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is due to be adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) when it meets in Kunming, China, in February 2020.

This post-2020 framework will replace the ‘Aichi Targets’, which were adopted in 2010 and mature in 2020.

According to the officers, the Strategy for Nature enabled all Australian jurisdictions to be represented on an ‘innovative’ website known as Australia’s Nature Hub which demonstrates ‘how much good work is happening across this country in relation to biodiversity conservation at multiple levels’. The strategy would ‘place us well in the international space’.

And on it went. Rather than simply explaining why the Government had elected to replace the previous government’s strategy before its expiry, and perhaps outlining the content of the new strategy, as public servants would normally do, one official ventured that ‘we thought it was really important to update’ the previous strategy and that ‘we think this will be an important international contribution for how we can frame our global efforts with respect to diversity’. In doing so officials were either revealing their advice to government, something that officials normally refuse to do, or portraying themselves as players, with their own independent views, another no-no.

The use of Estimates by officials to promote government positions and to deploy the promotional language of ‘spin’ is an unwelcome development and, I hope, an unfortunate aberration rather than evidence of a trend.

What’s in the Strategy for Nature?

As for the value of this new Strategy for Nature; well, that’s a big topic and an important one in this time of major and ongoing biodiversity decline. In an up an coming blog I’ll review the Strategy, not only to see if it puts Australia in a ‘strong’ position to respond to the post-Aichi world, but also to see how it might enhance the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!!

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How do scientists get attention when their science is ignored?

By David Salt

Our elected leaders are ignoring the science on climate change, turning their back on an unfolding biodiversity catastrophe and, in so doing, increasing our vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters while dispossessing future generations. If the scientist’s science is not making a difference, what’s a scientist supposed to do? Well, it seems increasingly they’re penning public letters to our elected leaders pleading with them to acknowledge the science and act on the evidence (rather than hide within their ideology and continue to prop up vested interests).

Last week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries and multiple disciplines published an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for urgent action on climate change. It pointed out that science on climate change has been well known for the past 40 years and, indeed, had only grown stronger over that time. While the letter generated considerable media attention, it was largely ignored by our political leaders.

Strengthen our environmental law

A couple of weeks ago, 240 of Australia’s leading conservation scientists published an open letter to our Prime Minister calling for stronger environmental law to protect our imperilled biodiversity. This was done in the hope that a soon to be announced decadal review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act might strengthen the legislation.

That review has since been announced but, despite considerable media attention given to the scientists’ letter, the government has framed the review as a way of making the environmental law more efficient, cutting the green tape that blocks economic development. And not one of the 240 scientists who signed the letter to the PM asking for stronger environmental law are on the EPBC Review Panel; indeed no biodiversity scientist is included.

Letters to governments from scientists are not an uncommon strategy employed to raise public awareness on issues, most often issues connected with sustainability. More than 12,000 European scientists signed a letter supporting the student climate strikes that took place in March this year. In New Zealand more than 1,500 academics released a similar statement of support.

Canadian scientists also seem very partial to a protest letter. Sixty Canadian scientists wrote to the Canadian PM on climate action in 2006. Eighteen hundred early-career researchers in Canada wrote to the Canadian Government in 2016 demanding scientific integrity in environmental decision making. And 250 international scientists signed a letter to the Canadian PM in 2017 warning about the international importance of Canada’s efforts on climate change.

A warning to humanity

One of the more notable letters penned by scientists on sustainability was the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, released back in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was signed by more than 1700 scientists including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences.

These concerned professionals called on humankind to cut back on our environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Now, surely in a rational world, when your best brains tell you we need to change because we’re heading for disaster, you sit up and listen. But did we? Not in any way that was really measurable.

You didn’t listen last time!

Twenty five years later in 2017 a new cohort of our ‘best brain’ scientists put out a second notice to humanity pointing out we didn’t listen to the 1992 warning. In this article they also showed graphs of resource use, carbon emissions and other key environmental indicators. In their timelines of these graphs they helpfully mark 1992, the year of the first letter. In almost all cases, consumption or levels of emissions either continued on their merry ascent or even increased in rate following the first ‘warning to humanity’. No government or industry, it seems, was too concerned by what the Union of Concerned Scientists thought was important.

In the second notice to humanity the authors wrote: “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.”

So what is a letter worth? If the response to the second notice is the same as to the first (‘well articulated’) letter, expect business as usual to continue or even to ramp up.

The pros and cons of letters

It’s easy to be cynical about these letter-writing exercises. They often come over as self-righteous and pious. First notice: ‘Listen to me, I am your oracle scientist. If you keep doing what you’re doing you will be sorry.’ Second notice: ‘You didn’t listen to me last time, now you will be very very sorry if you don’t stop what you’re doing!’

As we discovered in Australia in our recent national elections, people don’t like being told they are wrong and need to change, even when the evidence is overwhelming that we do need to change.

There’s also the argument that while a ‘first’ letter sounds revelatory, by the time we reach the 14th letter, it’s beginning to sound whiny and possibly ‘crying wolf’.

Having said this, it’s easy to be cynical and when these letters come out the deniers, party hacks and apparatchiks line up to start throwing stones; it’s easy to be cynical, but possibly it’s not all that helpful. Scientists should be encouraged to take their concerns to the broader public more often. The have the insights and knowledge that will likely prove critical when we get serious about sustainability and climate change. They need to be an active part of the broader conversation.

Communicating with non-scientists on technical and complex issues is never easy. Scientists should be rewarded when they make the effort. Many universities are now encouraging their scientists to be more active in the communication of their science (and its impact on society) to a broader non-scientist audience. We need more, not less of it.

There’s also the argument that throwing out one warning is unlikely to shift society. Change is always a challenge; just ask anyone who attempted to shift the status quo. You need to keep throwing pebbles because you never know when a message cuts through possibly precipitating widespread change.

And sometimes – when the message is well crafted, the timing is right and the need is obvious to all – sometimes a letter is what really makes all the difference. Einstein wrote* to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the US should start its own nuclear program – the rest is history.

*Actually, the letter was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who few people knew and signed by Albert Einstein who everyone knew. The message was well crafted, the timing was right and the need obvious to all.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Little gems from the 2019 Senate Environment Estimates

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What’s hot and what’s goss in the Federal Department of Environment

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held one of its regular ‘Estimates’ hearings in October. Some of the high profile issues raised in Estimates get reported in the mainstream media, but for those with sufficient interest, Estimates are also a treasure trove of small gems. As these small gems are rarely reported I thought I’d share what came out of the session on the Environment Department with you here. But first, some background.

Preparing for battle

Estimates is a strange ritual. To the casual observer, it is the very acme of boring. Public servants file in and out of the hearing room in troupes, while Senators put a miscellany of questions about what appears to be administrative detail, such as: ‘How many staff in the department?’ ‘How many times has the Minister met with representatives of Rio Tinto while this mine was under environmental impact assessment?’ ‘How much have you allocated to the Threatened Species Recovery Plan for the Striped Earless Dragon?’

Estimates has some of the trappings of a court. For many years I participated as a departmental ‘witness’, giving ‘evidence’. Preparing for it reminded me of preparing for court as well: a lot of swatting, including much time spent learning material that did not attract any questions.

It also reminded me of what people say it’s like to fight in a war: long periods of boredom (while others are questioned) punctuated by intense periods of action when suddenly it’s your turn and Senators are trying to lure you into confirming their suspicions about what the minister has been up to. The media and the minister’s office are nowhere to be seen, but you are acutely aware they are able to watch your every word on closed-circuit TV.

Rules of engagement

It seems to me that Estimates has become increasingly political. A colleague who had participated in early Estimates hearings in the 1970s told me that he attended as a relatively junior officer (now a no-no) and that he was actually asked straight and detailed questions about the ‘estimates’ of expenditure, a much less common phenomenon now. Certainly during my time I felt that some of the interchanges were becoming more combative.

Despite the apparent focus on spending proposals, at some point the Senate ruled that almost any question was an Estimates question, because anything done by ministers or public servants involved government spending, if only on their salaries.

Despite this broad scope, in my experience environment estimates questions tended to fall into a small number of categories, all with political intent. For example:

Questions to buttress a political point on the environment generally; for example, questions about staff reductions or budget cuts, to show that a government was reducing its support for the environment.
‘Spill the beans’ questions, designed to get public servants to reveal what ministers were doing or failing to do; for example, ‘How many meetings did you attend between the Minister and the Farmers’ Federation?’ or ‘How long ago did you brief the minister on these grant applications?’
Probing of policy and regulatory processes, looking at a minimum for some insider detail that might serve as grist for the political mill; such as ‘Have you engaged expert advice on this application to take water from a Ramsar wetland?’

Even though the rules exempt officials from revealing departmental advice to ministers, this doesn’t stop those questions being asked anyway, as a revelation that a minister had departed from public service advice would be potent politically.

Don’t be ‘interesting’

No public servant wants to be remembered for saying something ‘interesting’, so most would endeavour to make their honest answers as dull as dishwater. 

Environment Estimates this October was nothing out of the ordinary, with ‘dishwater’ answers aplenty. Despite this, if you’re prepared to pay attention, there are always a few little gems arising from each session of estimates. And so it was this year.

Below is list of topics that I found interesting. (And you can read the full transcript yourself if you like.)

One thing that stands out for me is the under-resourcing of the Department. There’s mention below for example of non-compliance with FOI regulation because of IT problems, delays in listing threatened species, an overdue national biodiversity report, and an inability to fast track development proposals.

Small gems from the October hearings:

Interference by a minister: Top of the list were attempts to elicit information that might support allegations that Energy Minister Angus Taylor had attempted to interfere with compliance action affecting his farming interests (this has been covered in the mainstream media).

Admit it’s a ‘crisis’: The Greens tried to get the senior climate change official to use the phrases ‘climate emergency’ ‘climate crisis’ and ‘getting worse’ but the replies used the flattest of language such as ‘the climate is definitely changing’.

FOI non-compliance: Labor quizzed the department about its non-compliance with FOI (Freedom of Information requests) and what the minister knew about it – the Department claimed that IT problems had put it many months behind in disclosing FoI releases on its website.

GBR conflict of interest:  Several Senators asked about the Great Barrier Reef (‘GBR’), including an alleged conflict of interest associated with a contract from the GBR Foundation, which holds over $400m of government reef funding, to the Cane Growers Association, which had also hosted a speaking event by a climate skeptic.

Delays in uplisting the Australian Sea Lion: South Australian Senators probed delays in listing threatened species, especially the ‘uplisting’ of the Australian Sea Lion. The Sea Lion questions seemed connected with concerns about oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight.

Underwhelming Special Envoys: There were questions about the role of backbencher Warren Entsch as ‘Special Envoy’ for the GBR–this seemed to be linked to criticisms that efforts by the Drought Envoy, Barnaby Joyce, had been underwhelming (eg ‘briefing’ the PM by text message).

EPBC Review: Senators probed officials for information about the review of the EPBC Act, which was about to be announced — answers revealed little, but it did emerge that a review of the biodiversity offsets policy, due in 2017, had in effect been rolled into the EPBC review.

Ban on exporting waste: Officials expect the government’s proposed ban on export of major waste streams — paper, plastics, tyres and glass — to be in place next year.

GBR – World Heritage in Danger: There were questions about the forthcoming lodgement of a ‘State of Conservation’ report on the GBR to the World Heritage Committee — Senators seemed to be probing for any indication that the Committee might revisit the possibility of a ‘World Heritage In Danger’ listing.

Overdue response to Convention on Biological Diversity: There were also questions about Australia’s overdue sixth national report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) — the ‘dishwater’ answer was that ‘it’s taken longer than we anticipated’. In the course of answering this, the Deputy Secretary revealed that there was a new national biodiversity strategy, the ‘National Strategy for Nature’, was going for endorsement at a meeting of environment ministers on 8 November.

Fast tracking dam proposals: There were questions about the ‘fast-tracking’ of NSW proposals to build dams, to which a Deputy Secretary replied that the Environment Minister’s expectation was that ‘we will meet the statutory requirement of the Act and not be late in our approvals-which, sadly, is fast-tracking for us these days.’

Follow up on the Craik Report on ag: As to the fate of the Craik Report on agriculture and the EPBC Act, [Ed: apparently done to appease farmers angry about the impact of threatened species listings on their ability to farm] it seems that there will be no response. Rather, it ‘would certainly be a … document that we would draw to the attention’ of the EPBC Act review.

Adani: Not surprisingly, there were several Adani questions. First, a new referral for the North Galilee Water Scheme had attracted 7,000 submissions, but there was no decision yet as to whether this proposal needed an environmental assessment. Second, Adani still had not identified the last 3% of a Brigalow offset required under an earlier approval.

Kyoto carryover credits: As to Australia’s carbon emissions and whether we would meet the 2030 target — we will meet the target, using Kyoto carryover credits ‘to the extent necessary’. Interestingly, officials were not aware of any other country proposing to use Kyoto carryover credits.

Electric vehicle strategy: The government is developing an electric vehicle strategy and expects it to yield no more than a (very small) 10m tonnes of abatement (from an overall target of 695 m).

Abatement vs land clearing: Vegetation accounts for 125.7m tonnes out of the 192m tonnes of abatement contracted under the Emissions Reduction Fund but there is no comparison available to contrast this with the amount of native vegetation lost to land clearing.