Dawn of the new normal(?)

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Is this a wakeup call we will heed? Or is it just more false light?

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

Was it when the rising seas swept away the last little native rat (a creature known as a melomys) from a tiny coral cay off the northern tip of Australia around ten years ago? This was reported as the first species extinction directly attributed to climate change.

Or was it Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when devastating bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people causing everyone to acknowledge that more intense wildfires could no longer be resisted.

Or was it in 2007 when our Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, declared climate change to be ‘the greatest moral challenge’ of our time (noting he was then displaced by a Prime Minister who claims climate change is ‘absolute crap’).

Or was it this Australian summer, dubbed by our current coal-loving Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to be our ‘Black Summer’? He then declared that we need to prepare for a ‘new normal’.

Of course, climate change has been impacting Australia for decades*, but it’s only been biting us with real venom in recent years. Unfortunately, rather than stimulate a significant, systematic and meaningful response, climate-change impact so far seems to have only galvanised the culture wars, entrenched the status quo and perpetuated inaction.

Scorched coral

To my mind, the inescapable consequences of ignoring climate change surfaced in the summer of 2016 with the mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. It destroyed around a third of the reef’s hard corals. It was then followed but another mass bleaching in 2017 destroying another third. The bleaching was caused by high water temperatures associate with global warming.

Of course, I say ‘inescapable’ because a larger more graphic example of the impacts of climate change would be harder to find; and it was an impact entirely predicted and widely communicated by a broad range of scientists. What’s more, those impacts came with severe economic, social and policy implications (in terms of World Heritage obligations) all of which had me believing this event would actually make a difference. (2016 also saw the massive loss of mangroves and kelp forests but these collapses didn’t carry the same direct human connection. They weren’t as visible, either.)

In the past we’ve discussed the importance of shocks and crises in breaking policy deadlocks. And I really thought the coral bleaching episodes might be a tipping point that might overturn our climate-change inaction. But I was sorely disappointed. Far-right, populist pollies like Pauline Hanson said the reef was in fine form, while holding up a piece of healthy coral from a portion of the reef unaffected by the bleaching; the Government said their policy settings were fine, while government agencies were putting out status reports describing the reef’s outlook as very poor; and fear campaigns on the possibility of losing regional mining jobs in Queensland outweighed concerns for the reef and led to the re-election of a conservative government with no effective policy for climate change.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of my incredulity, the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, a guy named Col McKenzie, urged the Federal Government to stop funding marine biologists because their reports on coral bleaching were “harming the tourism industry”.

The summer of 2016 (and 2017) left me somewhat desolate. If the ongoing death of Australia’s most beloved and precious ecosystem wasn’t a sufficiently powerful wake up call, what was?

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

I was sad about the ecological implications of the mass bleaching (and what it portends for the economically important eco-tourism industry of Queensland); but, truth to tell, it didn’t directly affect my quality of life.

The Black Summer of 2019/20, on the other hand, has shaken me to the core. In addition to scorching forests and beaches dear to my heart, it’s trashed the economies of regional towns where I know people; it’s battered the life out of the city in which I reside; indeed it’s poisoned the very air that I breathe. I’m also bracing myself for a set of dramatically increased insurance premiums on policies I’m already struggling to sustain.

All that has happened this past summer has been predicted by our climate scientists and climate workers (such as emergency service agencies). All of this has largely been discounted by our national government for most of the past decade.

But never before have so many Australian’s been hurt by so many climate extremes over such a large area and over such an extended period; nearly 80% of Australians according to a new survey. First it was drought, then wildfire (and smoke), flood, storms and hail.

Summer is almost over (according to the calendar) and it can’t come soon enough. ‘What else could go wrong,’ I asked myself. And, then, last night as I was closing down I spied an emerging story on the news wire – another wave of coral bleaching is hitting the Great Barrier Reef as temperature levels surge above average. Indeed, it could be even more extensive than the 2016/17 episodes.

In the next month we’ll see the extent of this bleaching event but it’s not looking good.

The new normal

In environmental terms, the ‘new normal’ has been with us for over half a century. Earth systems scientists have long been warning that the impact of humans on this planet has pushed our ‘spaceship Earth’ into a new way of behaving. Our activities are now distorting our planet’s very capacity to provide us with the stable habitat we need. Many refer to this as the Anthropocene.

This Black Summer is but a foretaste of the conditions we will need to endure in the summers ahead; summers that will likely be far blacker than this one past.

Our Prime Minister presents this new normal as merely a management issue, a need to organise our response agencies a bit better; so they can act with greater co-ordination if, god forbid, we should ever again see fires as bad as this seasons. He’s called a royal commission and seems to be looking among other things for a recommendation for new laws so that the Federal Government can declare states of emergency, call out the army and so forth without needed a request from the States,

But he’s not questioning our nation’s inadequate carbon emission targets or making any effort to show leadership to address the unsustainable trajectory our species is on. His ‘new normal’, then, is really just a minor iteration on the ‘old normal’. It simply isn’t going to do the job.

A new light of day?

A growing segment of the community is coming to this same conclusion. The student protests of last year, prior to the Black Summer, were suggesting the status quo may be breaking down. And the impact of these recent months may, finally, be the catalyst for genuine action.

And though I was upset over the lack of action following the bleaching events of 2016/17, the ‘truth’ they spoke about what is unfolding around us was heard by many, even those recalcitrant lobbyists for the reef tourism. Col McKenzie was much derided for suggesting marine biologists were the problem (rather than climate change). But he changed his tune. Following that episode he said it is time “to take a more public stance” on climate change.

“It was the bleaching events in 2016-17 that drove the message home,” he said. He added that it was reluctance within his 11-member board – particularly from tour operators who refused to accept ‘man-made’ climate change – that had restricted his own ability to speak out in the past. But those climate-change deniers have largely gone quiet, he said. “They realise it’s bullshit and we can’t be continuing it.”

So if the bleaching events of 2016/17 belatedly convinced this cohort of deniers, maybe there is reason to believe our Black Summer may belatedly raise the nation to action.

*Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Climate deniers will often suggest we don’t know enough or the jury is still out or it’s only an emerging science but the truth is the science has been around for over a century and the evidence confirming it has been conclusive since the 1970s – that’s 50 years ago! For an excellent guide to this history see the very readable ‘Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change’ in the New York Times.

Image: Bushfire smoke filters the sun in late January 2020. Image by David Salt

A tale of two climate bills

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One is about meaningful reform, the other more about politics

By Peter Burnett

Last month, Zali Stegall released her long-anticipated climate change bill. This month, the Australian Greens released a climate bill of their own. They are quite different pieces of legislation. One is quite solid, I think, while the other is more about politics than meaningful outcomes.

Zali Stegall, of course, is the Independent MP for Warringah. She stood against Tony Abbott, one of Australia’s leading climate change deniers (and former PM), on a platform of introducing meaningful climate change policy; and she won. Her bill has been under development since her election in May 2019. Against the backdrop of Australia’s horror summer, and the resulting rocketing of the environment to the top of the political agenda, it could not have been better timed.

The Greens’ climate bill, on the other hand, looks to me like it might have been drafted in a hurry, for reasons I will explain below.

Given the contrasting approaches of the two bills and the possibility that a Parliamentary committee might end up looking at both, it’s instructive to consider what they contain.

The Stegall Bill

The full title of Stegall’s bill is Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020. As the title suggests, the bill establishes a framework for climate policy leaving it up to the government to develop climate mitigation programs that meet the targets set by the framework.

The bill would legislate a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and establish an independent Climate Change Commission, tasked with preparing a national National Climate Risk Assessment every five years. In response, the Government must prepare a national adaptation plan, together with five-year national emissions budgets and emissions reduction plans to meet those budgets.

Space doesn’t allow a more detailed examination, but you get the drift: the Bill sets the overarching target, while the independent Commission looks after the framework and keeps an eye on the Government. The Government’s job is to develop and implement detailed plans to meet the targets. If both parties do their job properly, national emissions follow a trajectory down to net zero 2050 while inflicting the least possible pain.

The Greens’ Bill

By contrast, the Greens’ bill has a much narrower focus. It’s full title is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Climate Trigger) Bill 2020, and it seeks to amend parts of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to introduce a climate ‘trigger’ for ‘emissions-intensive actions’; specifically land clearing, drilling exploration and mining (with the capacity to add others later by regulation).

The EPBC Act has nine triggers, for example one for threatened species and one for large coal and gas projects affecting water resources. The basic idea is that if a trigger is, well, triggered, by a development proposal, the development can’t go ahead unless it has been the subject of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a decision by the environment minister as to whether the project can go ahead, and if so, on what conditions.

In short, the Greens’ bill extends existing environmental regulation to land clearing and mining projects in order to reduce their climate impacts.

Two bills compared

Stegall’s bill is impressive. Although she was able to draw heavily on overseas precedents, the bill is well drafted and specific to Australian law and circumstances. It is complete to every last detail, including administrative matters like pay-and-leave entitlements for the Commission’s CEO.

I know Stegall is a lawyer and probably had lots of free expert advice. Nevertheless, she’s a first term Independent MP, with no party colleagues or resources to draw on. Yet she has produced a bill that is just as good as one that might have been produced by the Government with the full resources of the public service.

The Greens bill on the other hand is disappointing. The Greens have been around for a long time and have a much greater depth of resources available to them. Yet the bill is narrow, doing little more than bringing two major categories of development into an existing regulatory net, one which leaves it almost entirely to the environment minister to decide what, if any, emissions-reducing conditions to impose.

Even within this narrow scope, the bill doesn’t seem to have been well thought through.

A mining or land clearing project will only trigger an EIA if its emissions would likely have a ‘significant impact’ on the environment. Under the EPBC act, the environment is defined in wide terms. And ‘significant impact’ is not defined. Greenhouse gas emissions do not have a direct impact on living things; they have an indirect impact in that they change the climate and it is the changed climate which has an adverse impact on the animals and plants.

Finally, the Act doesn’t regulate cumulative emissions, which means that a decision about whether a project triggers the Act only considers the project in isolation.

When you take these factors together, it means that the emissions from a single project, such as a proposed mine, may not be ‘significant’ under the act unless they are so great as to change the climate, by themselves, something that would only occur with an enormous project.

As a result, I think there is a good argument that the Greens’ climate trigger would never operate.

The politics and the process from here

It’s important to emphasise that Stegall’s bill has not been introduced in parliament. Rather, Ms Stegall has simply released it by public announcement. A key reason for doing this is that the government controls the numbers in the House of Representatives, where Ms Stegall is a member. It is very unlikely that the Government will ever allow her to introduce the bill formally, because this would cause the government to lose control of the climate change debate (more than it already has).

Significantly, the bill is supported by Rebecca Sharkey of the Centre Alliance Party, which also has members in the Senate. One scenario is that, once it becomes clear that the Government will not allow the Stegall bill to be introduced in the House of Representatives, Centre Alliance may introduce it in the Senate, which the Government does not control.

Once introduced, a bill can be referred to committee, which provides a good platform for public hearings and a committee report to keep public debate on the boil.

This may be where the Greens bill comes in. Rather than have a first-time Independent MP steal their thunder, perhaps the Greens foresaw this scenario and want to have their own bill that can be referred to committee as well. This way they would not be left dancing to someone else’s tune.

Outside Parliament, the temperatures will be dropping as we head towards winter. Inside, it’s likely that the Stegall bill will warm up the Winter Sittings one way or another, whether under my scenario or another. If that’s the case, let’s hope the deliberations produce some light as well as heat.

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

Conversations with the devil

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Polarisation and tribalism are short circuiting society’s capacity to reason, trust and recover

By David Salt

So I was sitting there having a chat over coffee with some colleagues and the conversation turned to bushfires, as it often does these days. This chat, however, turned unexpectedly fiery.

As it happens, one of my coffee colleagues is a leading researcher on the value of hazard-reduction burning and property protection. He’s carried out multiple analyses on what variables are important in the risk houses face when a catastrophic fire hits. His results have been peer reviewed and consistently point out the same thing.

The research has found that the four most important variables critical to house loss when big bush fires strike are (in order of importance): the weather, the amount of woody vegetation close to houses, proximity to large blocks of native vegetation and, last and of least importance, hazard-reduction burning close to houses (with hazard burning undertaken further away not having any significant influence). This is consistent with a growing body of evidence that hazard burning is a tool of limited value when it comes to protecting people and property.

So far, so good. We often disagree with each other but we’re usually in concord about the ‘facts’ (and open to hearing each other’s points of view).

Interjection

Then this older gentleman sitting a few seats away from us butts in saying what’s really needed to beat these fires is just getting in there with big machinery and clearing away the native vegetation, opening up fire trails and getting the fire fighters into the forests before the fire gets away. That’s what they’ve done in the United States, he said, and that’s what we should have been done here in Australia! It’s outrageous, he exclaimed, how we’ve allowed this situation to get so out of hand.

We were a bit taken aback by this guy’s uninvited interjection. We asked him where he was getting his information. The United States, we pointed out, was experiencing its own wildfire catastrophes; the evidence clearly shows hazard reduction has limited value; and when a fire starts in the middle of a forest (often by lightning strike) there’s no way fire fighters can get in and contain it before it gets out of control. To even try would be putting their lives at danger.

Well, contesting his ideas did not please this man at all. He said we were talking rubbish prompting one of us to walk off commenting “”I cannot stand such ignorance.”

The interjector then threw down his newspaper (The Australian) and accused us of getting all our information from The Guardian, and that we didn’t know what we were talking about – and then he stalked off as well.

What a buzzkill. We were all left feeling quite flat.

Your tribe wrong

From our perspective, the man was a nosy fool taking his information from the Murdoch press and accepting the denialist cant that the fires are simply a management problem that could be fixed with greater resolve. It’s a line echoing government rhetoric as they grapple with the unravelling implications of climate change.

From his perspective, I expect he thought we were a pack of big talking, know-nothing latte sippers (for the record, none of us were sipping lattes but we do like a good coffee).

Our conversation angered him, he threw his beliefs at us, we acted angrily, challenged his ‘facts’, and he stormed off. Nothing changed, no-one questioned their own tribe’s truth; if anything both parties probably hardened their position.

The thing is this minor, relatively inconsequential altercation is reflective of the broader debate currently infecting our society. Fuelled by fake news, hyper connectivity, prejudice and powerful vested interests, reasoned debate is impossible, polarisation and tribalism rule. We don’t trust anyone outside of our own tribe and we begin with an assumption that the other side is wrong.

I fervently believe the ‘other side’ in this little example was wrong, that the evidence supports my world view; but I did nothing to bring the tribes together, to explore the basis of the beliefs on both sides.

Not only did I think he was wrong, I also didn’t believe talking to him was going to change his opinion (or that his ‘facts’ would change mine).

A world on fire

It seems insane to me after the fire season we have endured that we’re even having the political debates we’re witnessing: that we can’t discuss climate change while the fires burn; it’s the greens fault; it’s all because we don’t do enough hazard reduction burning; these fires are not unprecedented; and the nation needs cheap reliable coal-powered generation; all entwined in the overarching lie – we are doing our bit when it comes to emission targets.

But the consequences of this tribal insanity are dire. First and foremost is the withering of trust. We don’t trust the other tribe or the information it’s producing, and the other tribe doesn’t trust us.

And we don’t trust our leaders because all too often they appear to be speaking from the other tribe, and completely disavowing my tribe.

Our Prime Minister speaks of the importance of building adaptation and resilience, but I don’t trust him. Adaptation is important but mitigation and moving to a carbon-free economy has to happen at the same time, but that would involve them taking on the denialist tribes which he doesn’t seem able to do.

Resilience is equally pointless when the government won’t even spell out what they mean. The bedrock of resilient communities is trust and other forms of social capital. It’s all about bringing people and communities together. The government seems more intent on dividing us and throws fuel on the fires of our hyper-partisanship.

Devil may care

When the devil whispers to us he plays on our prejudice and tells us the other side can’t be trusted. We will not follow our leaders because we do not trust them, and we will not listen to anyone but our own tribe. And then, when we are tested, our strength is divided and our resolve weak.

And then the devil wins.

The fires have served as a wakeup call for some and yet there have also been reports of political focus groups finding that many ordinary Australians are responding to the fires by entrenching their positions. There’s research backing this up showing fires and extreme weather do not change climate skeptics into believers. But drawing back into our tribes is not helping the situation.

There’s a real challenge here. How do we stop the compounding of a natural disaster with a human disaster of more polarisation? How do we nurture a more civil and productive discourse in our democracy?

A good start might involve a chat with our neighbours about how the fires affected them and what they think we should do? Or inviting that interjector into your coffee conversation and engaging with how he or she sees things. It’s only by understanding another person’s frame of reference that we can possibly hope to influence them.

Image: South Coast fire ground (Photo by David Salt)

By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity?

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Environmental accounting could be the key to saving nature

By Peter Burnett

It’s 2020, and the world is again discussing targets to save biodiversity. The approach hasn’t been very successful in the past and many are throwing up their hands in despair in the face of a rapidly unfolding biodiversity catastrophe. Could environmental accounting be the missing link in our thinking?

In an earlier blog I described the short history of environmental accounting and highlighted its potential. This was more than just extending the traditional (economic) national accounts to cover the environment, which was the original idea (especially to make GDP a much more accurate measure of economic performance by subtracting losses of ‘natural capital’). Governments could also use environmental accounting to manage the environment.

In another blog I wrote about key meetings to be held this year in Kunming, China, under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP 15, CBD, and preparatory meetings). The aim is to develop a new 10-year international plan to replace the Aichi targets that have operated for the last decade.

Given the significance of 2020 internationally (and our extreme bushfires in Australia putting nature at the top of the agenda domestically) it seemed to me like a good time to come back to what role environmental accounting might play in saving biodiversity.

Aim for net positive outcomes

Conservation scientists have been questioning the value of biodiversity targets and the way they are applied for some time. Most recently, this call was made in Nature Ecology & Evolution by Joseph Bull and colleagues. They argue that policy must shift away from conservation targets that are based just on avoiding biodiversity losses, towards considering net outcomes for biodiversity.

This would involve tracking the cumulative net impact of both development and conservation, while aiming for an overarching objective such as ‘a positive outcome for nature’. It would be bringing things like restoration and offsets into the equation.

In effect, the argument is to take the mitigation hierarchy, the ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ approach most often associated with individual development approvals, and apply it at a global level. Yet Bull et al go even further, arguing that this language of net outcomes raises an even wider aspiration for tackling biodiversity loss, climate change and human development together.

This latter argument is similar to the one made by Malgorzata Blicharska and colleagues, that biodiversity supports sustainable development and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in many ways (‘Biodiversity’s contributions to sustainable development‘).

Also in a similar vein, Charlie Gardner and colleagues have argued that attention to biodiversity loss has been eclipsed by the climate crisis, and that conservationists must capitalise on the opportunities presented by the climate crisis to establish the idea that keeping ecosystems intact is one of the most cost-effective defences against climate impacts (‘conservation must capitalise on climates moment‘).

These recent articles suggest to me that there’s a growing realisation that the coming decade is not just the last chance to halt climate change, but also the last chance to address the ‘sixth great extinction’, before they get away from us completely. Hitching the two together might increase the chances of at least some success.

Biodiversity and sustainability: the accounting connection

If we were to turn ‘avoid, mitigate, offset’ into an overarching approach, one of the challenges identified by Bull et al was that the resulting need to measure net outcomes would require a plurality of metrics for measuring losses and gains to biodiversity.

With several colleagues, I responded by pointing out that environmental accounting, standardised globally in the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA), already does this well (our Nature Ecology & Evolution paper is titled ‘Measuring net-positive outcomes for nature using accounting’). All that is needed is for governments to make it happen.

A key but often misunderstood point is that although environmental accounts are often, like conventional accounts, kept in monetary terms, it is just as valid to keep them in physical terms such as population numbers and measures of condition. Environmental accounts could, for example, measure a variety of biodiversity-relevant attributes such as species occurrence, distribution, abundance and age-sex structure of populations.

In contrast to financial accounting, there is no need to consolidate these different accounts into a single ‘bottom line’ unless this would be both feasible and meaningful.

In other words, if you are counting echidnas and platypii, there is no need to aggregate these into a single ‘monotreme account’ unless this is a useful thing to do. While a single bottom line is always ideal (which prompts economists to push hard for it) it is by no means the only solution.

In an ecological context, it could be just as useful to take all the accounts relevant to a particular ecosystem, which might include our echidna and platypus accounts, and ask whether the bottom line of each and every account exceeds a predetermined measure of ecosystem health. If they do, then the collective ‘bottom line’ for the ecosystem is ‘in the black’. If only some do, the ones below the measure point to the management intervention needed.

Why accounts?

Why bother using accounts? Why not just do a census or a stocktake, or ongoing monitoring? The answer lies in the problem being solved. Environmental accounts are not kept by scientists for research, but by a new and specialised form of accountant for management purposes.

Importantly for governance, environmental accounts that comply with the SEEA are consistent and auditable. This facilitates transparency and, where appropriate, comparisons.

Further, because accounts don’t just contain entries but record transactions, they reveal something about when and why something occurred, and who it was connected with. For example, a reduction in a species population due to approved land clearing would reveal not only the quantum but the date and party undertaking the clearing.

In a comprehensive set of accounts this action would be reveal not only the loss of natural capital, but the corresponding loss of ecosystem services.

All of these attributes contribute to good decision-making. Environmental accounting may not have been invented as a management tool, but serendipity has delivered this as a bonus.

The capacity of environmental accounts to be used in environmental management has been demonstrated in some case studies but not in a general and ongoing manner. Ideally it would be nice to scale up slowly but we don’t have the luxury of time.

If we are to manage, by all accounts, to save biodiversity, it might be because environmental accounting was a key part of the decisions taken at Kunming.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay