On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster

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When the going gets tough, the government hides behind resilience

By David Salt

Have you noticed that when the chips are down, and I mean really down, our political leaders frequently invoke ‘resilience’ as the thing that’s most important? We’ve seen it following massive floods, devastating cyclones and, most recently, in response to the bushfire catastrophe (that continues to unfold as I write).

What’s this about?

In my time I’ve written a bit on resilience. While I think resilience science can offer many insights on the challenges that currently beset us, I don’t see its current deployment as anything more than a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan.

When a massive disturbance overwhelms a country’s capacity to continue with ‘business as usual’, governments do their best to reassure the community that everything will be alright, even though they are often impotent in the face of that crisis.

When that flood wipes out critical infrastructure, for example, it’s often apparent that despite the government’s grand claims, it can’t make the rain stop or move people and emergency services to where they are needed. And when that happens, they often fall back by saying: ‘we’ll get over this, we are resilient.’

Or when the fires are so extensive, as we are witnessing now, and whole communication networks and the road system goes down (and everyone is on edge while choking on endless smoke), we know there is only so much the government can do, but we want reassurance that it’ll all be right. And what is the Prime Minister telling us our priorities should be? “That resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” he said.

We are resilient

What’s the attraction in invoking resilience? From a political point of view, I think it’s twofold.

The first relates to our belief of the ‘rightness’ of the system we are in. Yes a fire/drought/flood might knock us down but we are ‘good, hard working people that care for each other’. We may be knocked down but our inherent qualities will help us triumph over adversity, get us back on our feet and prosper.

You’ll hear this refrain time and again following disasters from political leaders at every level, from the town mayor to the prime minister, each crafting their message of resilience to their own group of people, reassuring them that they are ‘right’, they are ‘good’ and ‘they’ll get over it’.

Consider Premier Anna Bligh’s now famous statement following the unprecedented Queensland floods in 2011: “We are Queenslanders,” she told the public. “We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

That’s the basic definition of ‘resilience’, it’s all about how we cope with disturbance, and we like to think there’s something inherently right and good about our system (municipality/state/country) that will enable us to triumph. ‘We are Queenslanders/Victorians/south coasters/insert place name here, and we are tough…’

Politically speaking that’s exactly the ‘we-are-righteous-and-shall-overcome’ message that a government wants to convey to the electorate so invoking ‘resilience’ is an attractive notion; especially when it’s clear there’s not much they can actually do.

The second attraction for invoking ‘resilience’ is that everyone has their own idea of what it means and it’s impossible to measure in a precise manner. Consequently, it’s an ambiguous goal that is easy to hide behind while avoiding accountability.

So far, our Prime Minister’s invocation of resilience seems more about avoiding talk on emissions targets and climate change policy than any genuine engagement with the idea.

The new ‘sustainability’?

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has similar weaknesses (or strengths, depending on your perspective and degree of cynicism) to resilience but sustainability (and sustainable development) have been around for longer as a policy goal. Having been seriously worked on for at least the past 40 years, sustainability has had a lot of time and energy spent on working out how it might be operationalised.

‘Sustainability’ was also a ‘made up’ word to embody efforts to respond to the damaging effects of unbounded economic growth. In this way, sustainability had meanings loaded into it. ‘Resilience’, on the other hand, is a real word that now labels many different approaches to managing systems (people, families, communities, cities, nations and ecosystems to name a few) to help them overcome disturbance. People have their own idea what it is to be resilient.

All models (or framings) are wrong but some are useful (to paraphrase George Box). Sustainability, with all of its shortcomings, enabled national and international conversations to take place around the connections between the economy, society and the environment. It also allowed notions of equity and justice to be incorporated into our thinking. And, while it’s still a work in progress, the sustainability project is still an important and potentially critical element of our species ongoing survival.

Many faces of resilience

Resilience too has many weaknesses as a strategy and policy goal. For starters, what resilience approach are you talking about? It has separate origins and applications from many disciplinary areas with the disciplines of psychology, emergency relief, engineering and ecology being the main four fields from which it has emerged. Each considers resilience at a different scale and with a different purpose though all are concerned with how the systems we are interested in cope with disturbance.

The value of resilience is that it is a systems approach that engages with the complexity of the system of our interest (for example, in psychology that’s individual people, for ecology that’s social-ecological systems).

When I use the term resilience science I’m talking about ecological resilience, the topic I have helped write two text books on. It’s a rich body of research and academic discussion that has revealed much about how linked systems of nature and people endure over time coping with a range of disturbances. It’s all about thresholds and tipping points, linked scales, adaptive cycles and transformation.

To really make a difference with resilience science you need to honestly engage with the complexity of the system of your interest. You need to respect those people with expert knowledge on how it functions, maintain healthy buffers of economic, environmental and social capital, and work within the limits of your system rather than ignoring them. (These are themes I will explore in future blogs.)

Unfortunately, when governments invoke resilience they use it as cover to continue doing whatever it is their vested interests dictate (which seems in Australia at the moment the continued support for more coal mining). They usually spin resilience as a magic bullet that solves a multitude of problems without ever being accountable for what it is they are specifically attempting to achieve.

And isn’t that the perfect escape for a government – ‘because of this fire/flood/drought we are down but we are not out. We are resilient and we shall triumph come what may.’

Image: Epicormic regrowth from bark of Eucalypt, four months after Black Saturday bushfires, Strathewen, Victoria, in 2009. (Photo by Robert Kerton, CSIRO. Creative Commons 3.0.)

Now is the summer of our discontent

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I want this summer to be over and I want our government to do something

By Peter Burnett

I’ve never seen a summer like it. If fire, smoke, dust and drought weren’t enough, Canberra has just been rocked by a ferocious storm. Most of the inner city has been clobbered by big hail and I reckon it’s another record breaking weather event.

This time, I’ve felt the impact first hand. I’ve just been down looking at my car, parked at the ANU. The front and rear windows are broken, the back one shattered letting hailstones into the car. The front windscreen is spider-webbed with cracks, dropping glass fragments onto the driver’s seat. The car is covered in dents and several plastic components have been broken off. The reversing sensors are now dangling by their connecting wires from the rear bumper.

I tried contacting my insurance company but their help line was jammed. Based on the news I’m hearing, hundreds and possibly thousands of other people are similarly impacted, so that’s no surprise.

Raining cats and dogs, and then leaves and branches

The day began well; pleasant, warm and sunny. Such a relief after the debilitating heat and acrid smoke.

But then the storms swept in, with the rain following quickly. At first it was just heavy rain, but then came the wind and the hail. Some said the approaching hail sounded like a freight train. Others reported hearing a ‘chittering’ like a swarm of ravenous locusts.

The wind was strong and the hail large, but what really struck me was the dense fall of leaves and small branches being stripped off the trees by the hail. I think this what the ‘chittering’ people heard.

I’ve never seen anything like it. The grass under the large oak tree in the courtyard has disappeared under a carpet of leaves and twigs, while the canopy looked as if it had had a haircut, looking noticeably denuded.

As the rain eased I went downstairs to take some photos of the hail. Then I noticed a car with a broken window, then two, three and more.

Farewell to my trusty wagon …

For some reason I thought my car would be undamaged, but as I approached it I realised not only that my car was damaged but that the car wasn’t drivable and was probably a write off. I’m upset about this. The car is 10 years old and due for replacement but I was quite attached to it. It’s been good to me.

More importantly, I’m on a buyer’s strike and had sworn to wait for an electric car in my category and price range. I’m probably two years early for such a purchase.

Funnily enough, I had considered really stretching the finances to buy a Tesla Model 3. This storm, however, has given me pause for thought. The roof on this model of Tesla is made entirely of glass. And glass, I suddenly realised, is not a great material in a climate of extreme hail storms. I wonder how all the solar panels fared?

I’m lucky, but I still want action

I don’t want to make too much of this incident (or pretend to be a martyr). I didn’t lose my home or business and everyone I know is safe – though everyone I speak to was either impacted (literally) or knows someone who was. My car is probably a write-off but I was safe inside a building and the car’s insured. Others are doing it much tougher.

The point is that this storm is just one more weather event linked, if indirectly, to climate, that is wearing the community down. Apart from all the suffering in the bushfire disasters, in the last few days there have been one-in-a-hundred year storms causing flash flooding on the Gold Coast and fast-moving dust storms in western NSW. These dust storms are so thick, according to the ABC, ‘that it went completely dark’.

Despite being one of the lucky ones, I’m sick of this summer, and it’s far from over yet. I’ve probably just lost my car. Because there’s been so much bushfire smoke and record-breaking heat we didn’t make the usual Christmas trip to visit family and I haven’t been able to do the daily commute on my bike.

I’m asthmatic, which calls for extra precautions. The asthma’s been ok, but I’ve been profoundly unsettled by the smoke at its thickest, especially around New Year when the sky was nicotine yellow at times. And I’ve had some bouts of cabin fever from spending extra time inside.

I know the government can’t fix this in the short term but like many Australians, I want them to acknowledge the problem and at the very least engage with it.

Governments over the last quarter century have failed us on the environment. They all share in the responsibility but there’s only one government in power and I want action.

I know that things will get much worse unless there’s dramatic, global, action. Australia is well-placed to be a lifter in such action; but instead we are leaners, claiming special exemptions.

What will they think of next? Nothing, probably.

So what will the government do? In the short term, they’ve done some straight-forward things, calling out the Army and splashing a lot of cash.

And in the long term, to deal with the complexities of climate change? Nothing new it seems. Our Paris targets are unchanged and Australia is ‘open for business’ (with our PM throwing $76 million at a new campaign telling the world this is the case.

This summer will be over in a few weeks but I suspect the discontent will continue to build. I certainly hope it does: something has to give, and I don’t want it to be us!

Image: My trusty white wagon, consigned to the scrap heap in a couple of minutes. (Photo by Peter Burnett)

Five lies that stain the nation’s soul

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What really burns me up about our climate denialism

By David Salt

As I wipe the tears from my smoke-stung eyes and choke down the bile rising from my indignation, I ask myself why the angst? A large part of it is the remorseless lying we get day after day from our national government on climate change. It’s the big lies and small lies, the obfuscations, distractions and falsehoods that come at such volume that we start to distrust everything we hear; which I feel sure is part of the government’s strategy.

Multiple media players and experts attempt to filter the truth from the falsehood but it just keeps coming regardless.

For me, there are five overarching lies that subsume all the smaller falsehoods. And those five are:

1. We are guided by the science
2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change
3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)
4. We are a responsible international player
5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

1. We are guided by the science

This is one of the most oft repeated lies the government gives us day after day. It’s a claim completely repudiated by its actions when it comes to climate change, environmental science and sustainability in general. The scientific consensus is crystal clear on what the problem is and the appropriate solution. Yet the government ignores the evidence, cherry picks data to suit its own narrative, constantly throws out red herrings to give it cover, and disparages climate science in general (all the while claiming they are ‘guided by the science’).

But this lie extends beyond climate science to expert knowledge in general. They ignored repeated pleas from retired emergency managers for greater action in the lead up to the current fire catastrophe. And they ignored the economic consensus that has been around for years on the need for a price on carbon (this government reversed the ‘carbon tax’, the only policy that appears to have had any measure of success in curbing Australia’s carbon emissions).

The government claims it is guided by the science, that their policy is evidence based, but they lie. And in many ways all the deceit that follows is based on this foundational deception.

2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change

The government’s target of a reduction of 26-28% in carbon emissions (below 2005 levels by 2030) is not ‘Australia doing our bit’. It is not based on evidence, science or equity. It is one of the weakest targets amongst developed countries, is not aligned to what the science says is necessary to tackle climate change (the government’s own Climate Change Authority recommended a minimum of 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, the government’s response was an attempt to abolish the Authority and, failing that, ignore it), and the target not proportionate to the size of our population or economy. Our Prime Minister claims it is “credible, fair, responsible and achievable” yet all the evidence suggests the exact opposite.

3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)

We ignore the evidence and refuse to even shoulder our fair share of the burden. Then we happily preach to the members of the Pacific Islands Forum that everything is okay and Australia is a great neighbour. To prove it, we throw $500 million in their direction (taken from the existing aid budget) so they can invest in “renewable energy, climate change and resilience in the Pacific”.

Keep in mind these are our neighbours. Unlike us, they haven’t contributed any carbon emissions to speak of, they haven’t enjoyed the benefits of economic growth but they are faced with existential threats arising from climate change caused by that growth.

We disregarded their fears and did our best to stop the Islands Forum from releasing a communique including references to phasing out coal and limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.

4. We are a responsible international player

Having repudiated our neighbours our Prime Minister then visited the UN to tell the world what a great job we’re doing when it comes to climate change; both overhyping what we were actually doing while underplaying our culpability. He also did his best to distract everyone’s attention by talking up our efforts on plastics in the ocean, as if it were a problem of the same order as climate change.

Another constantly repeated note in our siren song of denial is that we’re but a small part of the problem emitting a paltry 1.3% of global emissions. He never then acknowledges that 1.3% coming from only 0.3% of the world’s population is actually a shocking record making us the highest emitter per capita in the developed world and one of the world’s top 20 polluting countries.

But it’s not enough to deny our responsibilities and mislead on our effort to this global cause, we have also gone out of our way to thwart efforts to curb global carbon emissions. At a UN conference on climate targets in Madrid only weeks ago Australia was accused of ‘cheating’ and blocking efforts to reach a consensus on how to make the Paris agreements on emissions work. ““The conference fell victim to the base positions of a handful of major polluting countries, Australia included,” a former Australian diplomat was quoted as saying.

So, it’s not enough that Australia is rated as the worst-performing country on climate change policy out of 57 countries, a new report prepared by international think tanks also criticises the Morrison government for being a ‘regressive force’ internationally.

We bully our neighbouring nations in local forums and then snuggle up to the world’s biggest climate change bullies (in this case the US and Brazil) on the international stage.

5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

After lecturing the world on how great Australia was in terms of its climate action at the UN in September, our Prime Minister then rebuked younger Australians for taking time off school to protest his climate inaction. He suggested Australian kids needed to be given more

“context and perspective” on the issue because, he says, “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.” He said it was important Australian children were confident they would live in a “wonderful country and pristine environment”.

Well, that ‘pristine environment’ is now being engulfed in flames, communities are in despair and everyone is scared of a future in which we can only expect worse. What context and perspective is he talking about? And how is it possible for our children to be optimistic about their future when their present is in chaos and our national leaders won’t even engage with the real problem. They may be young but they’re not stupid.

Many many lies

Yes I get angry at most of the other deceptions foisted on us daily by this denialist government, this farrago of lies. I get upset when they blame a lack of hazard reduction burning as the real problem behind the fires, that they claim their policies are protecting the Great Barrier Reef or that this Coalition Government is responsible for the enormous investment in renewable energy. They are all dissembling untruths with strong evidence revealing what the real situation is.

But overarching these untruths are the five deceptions I have discussed here. We ignore the science and the expertise on climate change, we are not doing our fair share in addressing this challenge, we are poor neighbours and wretched global partners; and in doing all this we are destroying the hope of upcoming generations.

There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets; this is a wicked problem. But we cannot redeem our nation’s soul in regards to climate change until we honestly acknowledge the nature of this challenge and get real with our response.

2020 hindsight – insights on government thinking from 20 years ago

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1998 and 1999 were important years for environmental policy in Australia

By Peter Burnett

As policy researcher, I love New Year’s Day. Not because it’s a public holiday but because it’s when the National Archives of Australia release government records, including Cabinet papers, from several decades earlier. Documents used to be released after 30 years but, under a Rudd Government reform, this is being reduced progressively to 20 years. And this is great for anyone seeking deeper insights into how policies are conceived and developed.

This year Archives released documents from 1998 and 1999. I’ve been looking at the Cabinet submissions and decisions from these two years to see what environmental issues were preoccupying the first and second Howard Cabinets (there was an election in 1998).

At least, I’ve been looking at the ones that are available. Even though there are only a few hundred cabinet documents prepared each year, and their annual release is of significant media interest, Archives actually only release the ones that their history adviser regards as newsworthy. Most of the others are available on application, but you have to wait, sometimes for many months, for these files to be ‘examined’, to decide whether they contain any exempt material, usually related to national security.

The need to apply for files and then wait for some months has limited what I can write about one of the major issues, as you’ll see below. Such are the frustrations of anyone seeking insight from the official records.

What were the issues in 1998–99?

The final years of last century were very important for environmental policy, nationally and around the world.

Internationally the Kyoto Protocol had been concluded at the end of the previous year, with Australia securing a special deal, sometimes called the Australia Clause. This allowed us to increase our emissions by 8% on 1990 levels in the coming decade, when other developed countries had committed to a 5% reduction.

We had based our case on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, a principle developed originally to accommodate the circumstances of developing countries. We argued that this should apply to us because of our population growth and fossil fuel-intensive economy. (Which, of course, has great relevance in current debates on whether Australia is pulling its weight on climate change.)

Domestically, the Government was busy rolling out the first tranche of spending under the Natural Heritage Trust, which had been funded through the partial sale of the national telecommunications utility, Telstra. It was also in the midst of reforming national environmental law, tabling the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Bill, later passed in 1999 as the EPBC Act (now up for its second decadal review).

While all this was important, top of the Government’s reform agenda was the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST). This reform would deliver unexpected, possibly even accidental, environmental benefits (as I discuss below).

Winning our emissions bargain

As you might expect in the immediate aftermath of the Kyoto climate meeting, the environmental issue taking most of Cabinet’s attention was whether to ratify the protocol, and its implications for domestic policy.

Having been worried in the lead up to Kyoto that Australia’s hard line might lead to diplomatic isolation, the Government could rest easy. Australia’s tough negotiating stance had been very successful and the three ministers with climate responsibilities were able to report that the Kyoto agreement had met all of Australia’s primary objectives. (I once heard that Environment Minister Robert Hill was applauded when he entered the Cabinet room on return from Kyoto.)

They advised Cabinet that the 108% target represented a cut to business-as-usual growth of 30%, which was ‘comparable to the average for industrialised countries as a whole’. Another important achievement was international agreement that emissions from land use change and forestry (now known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, or LULUCF) would be treated much the same as other anthropogenic emissions. This was important for Australia because much of our target would be obtained through a reduction in emissions from a reduction in land clearing.

Even though Kyoto was done, the climate change caravan kept on rolling. Australia also had to settle its position for the fourth Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP 4 – we’ve just had COP 25).

The interesting point in our position was that we decided to push for the widest possible and most flexible international emissions trading scheme. This did not come from any government convictions about the efficacy of emissions trading, but simply to keep our options open: the US had estimated that they might meet up to 75% of their emissions task by purchasing international permits, reducing compliance costs by something between 60 and 90%!

Domestically, Cabinet agreed to update the National Greenhouse Strategy (‘National’ indicating that the States were parties) in light of Kyoto, but without allocating extra money. This was because the Government had already announced a $180 million package in the lead-up to Kyoto.

But nothing on the EPBC Act

To my surprise, there was no Cabinet submission on the EPBC Bill. I find it hard to believe that Environment Minister Robert Hill got such a major reform through without a stand-alone Cabinet submission, but I double-checked and Archives does not list any submission related to this reform beyond an earlier authority to negotiate an EPBC precursor, what became the 1997 COAG Heads of Agreement on Roles and Responsibilities for the Environment. This was the document by which the States endorsed Hill’s set of ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’.

So I’ve requested access to some related files to dig deeper. Watch this space: I’ll report what I find.

Show me the money

There were a number of submissions relating to environmental spending. Most are no longer interesting but there was one interesting money story.

In 1999 the Government persuaded the Australian Democrats to support the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) by funding a new environmental package, known as Measures for a Better Environment. This package included some significant reforms designed to reduce transport emissions and greenhouse gases.

Some reforms were vehicle-based, including incentives for buses and trucks to shift to CNG and LPG, while others were fuels- based, including a commitment to develop national fuel standards. There were also rebates for installing solar panels and increased support for the commercialisation of renewable energy.

I heard an interesting story recently that suggests that the strength of this package might have been fortuitous. Apparently Prime Minister John Howard asked Treasurer Peter Costello how much they should be prepared to spend on such initiatives. ‘About 400’ was the reply. Howard duly offered $400m. It seems Costello was thinking $400,000.

Could it be that this is how we get significant environmental reform? Through horse-trading or accident?

Image by Pexels from Pixabay