Dissonance and disaster

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These numbers simply don’t make sense

By David Salt

“It’s baffling,” says Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. She simply doesn’t understand why nations are continuing to knowingly “sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”.

That’s a pretty strong statement but Mami has a special insight on the topic being the Chief of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. She’s seen the numbers (and was talking about them on Disaster Risk Reduction Day earlier this month).

In the last two decades there have been 7,348 recorded disaster events worldwide. By comparison, the previous 20-year period (1980 to 1999) saw 4,212 reported disasters from natural hazards. And the science is clear as to why, the rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike. (‘Spike’ is the word used in the UN press release but I feel its use is quite inappropriate here. The word ‘spike’ suggests to me a sudden deviation from some ‘normal’ state. Once you’ve passed the spike you return to normal but that’s not what’s happening here. There’s no return to normal in any historical timeframe.)

Here are some other numbers that should chill you. From 1980 to 1999, natural hazards killed 1.19 million people, resulted in economic losses totalling $1.63 trillion and impacted more than three billion people.

From 2000 to 2019, natural hazards killed 1.23 million people, resulted in economic losses of $2.97 trillion, and impacted more than four billion people.

Rationalise this

A rationalist might suggest these numbers are suggesting we’re doing better at ‘disaster’. We had almost twice the number of disasters in these last two decades but roughly only a quarter more deaths and a only a third more people impacted (mind you, economic losses almost doubled). In other words, on average each disaster is killing fewer people.

But such a rationalisation only works if you believe we have a better handle on preventing disasters as we sail into the future. The trend, regrettably, is ever upwards; just as it is with carbon emissions, global temperatures and sea level. Of course, that’s no coincidence, as climate change is at the core of most of these disasters.

Indeed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported that the increase in disasters from natural hazards is a direct result of climate change: “This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires.”

Floods accounted for more than 40% of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people, storms 28%, and extreme temperatures 6%.

If human activity (associated with unbounded economic growth) is the driving problem here, it makes you wonder about the label ‘natural’ when we talk about disasters caused by ‘natural’ hazards.

Dissonance

And this is where Mami Mizutori admits to being “baffled”. The science is clear, and has been since the 1970s, but now the evidence of what’s happening (that this science has long predicted) is rolling in like a killer hurricane. Species are going extinct and ecosystems are collapsing before our eyes. Coral reefs are withering while forests at unprecedented scales are going up in flames.

Maybe we can insulate ourselves from such evidence by closing the blinds and turning the air con up. But when the roofs and walls are ripped from our homes by cyclonic wind, and floodwaters tear through our accumulated economic capital, surely we begin to do something about it. And this is what these disaster statistics are telling us. Climate change is beginning to rip apart the human world as much as it is destroying the natural world.

Now when it comes to disaster management, it has to be said some folks in some places are doing it better. The UNDRR report indicates that there has been some success in protecting vulnerable communities from isolated hazards, thanks to more effective early warning systems, disaster preparedness and response. However, the agency warned that projected global temperature rises could make these improvements “obsolete in many countries”.

Currently, the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2% annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

Do something!

So with the scorching winds of disaster bearing down on us, why aren’t we doing more?

Because change is hard, it’s difficult, there will be losers, and there are powerful vested interests with their hands firmly on the levers of power – all the reasons we’ve discussed over time in this blog – because sustainability bites.

And there are aspects of equity and justice woven into this equation too. The poor are much more vulnerable to disasters. The UNDRR report said that the data indicates that poorer nations experience death rates more than four times higher than richer nations.

So the richer industrialised nations which are creating the problem of increased disasters (through climate change) are not, in the first instance, the places that are suffering the most. In other words, they don’t see it as their problem.

Then, on top of all this, there is that wonderful capacity of humans to adapt to changing conditions, in this case to normalise extreme weather. A study released last year in PNAS found people have short memories when it comes to what they consider ‘normal’ weather. On average, people base their idea of normal weather on what has happened in just the past two to eight years. This disconnect with the historical climate record is thought to obscure the public’s perception of climate change.

The researchers behind this PNAS study suggested this is a classic case of the boiling-frog metaphor: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling hot water and immediately hops out. If, instead, the frog in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature, it doesn’t hop out and is eventually cooked. While scientifically inaccurate, this metaphor has long been used as a cautionary tale warning against normalizing the steadily changing conditions caused by climate change.

This latest report on disaster and climate change is another wake-up call – the water’s scorching! Surely we have more sense than a boiling frog?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Australian court calls into question Regional Forest Agreements

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The days of RFAs may be numbered if the successful challenge by Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is anything to go by

By Peter Burnett

The recent decision of the Federal Court in Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc v VicForests (hereafter, the Possum Case) could have significant and possibly profound implications for the logging of native forests in Australia. In this case the court found that VicForests, a Victorian Government forestry corporation, was in breach of a statutory Code of Practice for Timber Production that had been accredited under a federal-state Regional Forest Agreement (RFA).

Being covered by an RFA has meant that VicForests was exempt from the normal requirements of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Because of this exemption, VicForests didn’t have to go through an environmental assessment and approval process each time it wanted to log in new areas that might contain endangered species or other ‘matters of national environmental significance’.

Of course, being in breach meant that this exemption was lost.

No simple fix

You might think that VicForests could deal with such a finding by simply bringing itself back into compliance with the code. It’s not that simple, however.

The code of practice required VicForests to comply with the precautionary principle. This in turn required them to conduct on-ground ecological surveys, with a view to avoiding serious and irreversible environmental damage. In this case, damage was possible to two endangered possums, the Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider.

In considering impacts on the possums, VicForests had relied on desktop modelling (including habitat mapping) instead of conducting surveys. The court said this was a flawed approach. It also found that policies such as VicForests’ Interim Greater Glider Strategy didn’t represent the required ‘careful evaluation of management options’ but rather were defensive documents. The content of these documents suggested that VicForests developed policies out of a sense of obligation and were reluctant to implement them.

The implication is that coming into compliance with the Code would be no small thing. It would require significant changes of approach and attitude. More significantly, given expert evidence that the possums had been detected in or around all of the 66 logging coupes considered in the case, it was likely that the possums, let alone any other environmental value, could severely restrict or even prevent logging altogether.

Playing possum

The Possum Case is on appeal, and of course the appeal could be successful. If it is not successful (and I think Justice Mortimer’s 444 page judgement will be difficult to pull apart in an appeal court because it rests much more on scientific evidence and practice than on the points of law to which an appeal court is confined) the Victorian government’s hand will be forced.

The government will either have to underwrite further losses as VicForests brings itself into compliance with environmental standards, or it will decide to accelerate the transition out of native forest logging. The option of watering down the rules, which is what the federal and Tasmanian governments did in an earlier case, is less likely because, again, the issues relate more to good science and practice than to legalities, making a lowering of the bar more obvious and thus harder to defend.

This is not the first challenge to Australia’s ten RFAs. Green activist and former Senator Bob Brown challenged the Tasmanian RFA in 2006 in the Weilangta case. He won in the first instance but lost on appeal. The Possum Case seems to have prompted him to try again: Brown has already commenced a fresh challenge to the Tasmanian RFA.

The main implication of the Possum Case may be that the days of RFAs are numbered.

A fresh approach

In one respect the end of RFAs would be unfortunate, as the underlying model of regional environmental assessments and approvals is a good one.

In another respect, if RFAs simply provide cover for defensive box ticking and green-washing rather than substantive conservation (something I discussed in an early blog), this would be no great loss.

RFAs provided a mechanism to settle the ‘forest wars’ of the 1990s. So, if RFAs are rendered inoperable by court challenges, will it be back to the forest wars?

Or do we now have a much better appreciation of the many values that our native forests provide; values that include a whole range of ecosystem services beyond timber production, such as carbon sequestration, water yield, habitat provisioning and recreational amenity? Heather Keith and her colleagues reached this conclusion in an important article published in Nature in 2017.

Sometimes we need a jolt to the system to get us thinking differently.

Image: This possum is stuffed: George is a taxidermied male Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) that Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum uses for its educational work relating to this threatened species. George was found dead but intact on the side of a logging road in 2011 in the Victorian Central Highlands. It is assumed that George’s home in the mountain ash (Eucalyptus Regnans) forests was a victim of logging, and as his home was being carted away he fell off the logging truck. (Image by Tirin (www.takver.com) and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Trust lies bleeding

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A world of science is there to save us – and nobody trusts it

By David Salt

Every day the world goes a little crazier, and with every slip everyone grows more fearful of what the future holds. Central to our fears is trust, or a lack of it. If we can’t trust our leaders, or the institutions upon which civilisation is founded, then how can we trust in the future?

2020 has been an awful and tumultuous year full of ‘natural’ disasters, plague and populist politics. We want it to be over; we want some return to normal; but most of us are too scared to honestly engage with what science is telling us – that there is no return to ‘normal’ in respect of the Earth System.

Yesterday, as I write this, Trump announced he was CoVID positive (one of his few ‘positive’ tweets quipped one larrikin tweeter), one month out from the US election. Today it’s turning out the White House is actually a hotbed of infection. If things were uncertain, now they seem to be slipping towards deep chaos.

And chaos creates a feedback loop that can lead to despair.

The antidote to chaos is trust. When the chips are down, when the fire is lapping at our front door, when a pandemic stalks the streets; it’s trust in our leaders, our friends, our neighbours, our mainstream media, our emergency workers, and health workers (and other miscellaneous experts) that will see us through.

Trust is one of the bulwarks of community resilience, and in this year of tumult, I fear it’s often forgotten and been allowed to whither.

Science and truth

Trust lies bleeding and this has enabled our partisan politics to eviscerate truth; and that comes with some awful consequences. Consider the strange paradox of the power of science (and technology). It has enabled us to transform our planet while seemingly being impotent to save it.

On the one hand we have an enormous bank of evidence and a scientific consensus telling us that human activity has pushed Earth into a new state of being, referred to by many as the Anthropocene. Global modification involving too many carbon emissions, biodiversity decline and nutrient pollution (to name three planetary boundaries) is causing changes to our climate and life support systems. Our coral reefs are bleaching while our great forests are going up in flames. Sea ice is disappearing, the permafrost is melting and seas are rising – it’s everything science has been predicting but 2020 has seen those predictions become horrifyingly real.

Science has also told us what we need to do to reduce the impact of these changes.

On the other hand we see our political leaders pandering to the lowest common denominator; prioritising the short term over the long; and ignoring, discounting or rubbishing the science.

Consider this exchange a couple of weeks ago between President Trump and the California Secretary for Natural Resources in the wake of California’s horror fires:

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” – President Trump.

“I wish science agreed with you” – CA Natural Resources Secretary.

“I don’t think science knows actually.”- President Trump.

Trump has been denigrating and discounting the institution of science since he took office, as have many other populist leaders. It serves his political agenda and the coterie of vested interests that stand behind him.

He can stare into the flames of a massive and unprecedented conflagration and simply deny its reality and the science that explains it. That he is allowed to get away with this strikes me as surreal and absurd. However, that a sizeable chunk of America will simply accept what he says (they don’t think ‘science actually knows’ either) I find horrifying. They don’t trust science.

Trust this knowledge

It’s strange to think that we live at a time in history when science and technology (and specifically Information Technology) has made the world’s storehouses of knowledge (think libraries, universities and scientific journals) available to anyone with a smart phone or tablet. We have more scientists working today than at any time in history, and the power of science enables us to see further, or closer or finer than ever before.

And yet, in this same age, some 40% of Americans lap up every falsehood blurted out by a sociopathic anti-science president who has ignored all the warnings on climate change and CoVID to the detriment of his own country (and now looks to have fallen to the same infection he has shown no leadership on). A time when anti-vaxxers are on the rise, conspiracy theories abound and voodoo cures have as much currency as mainstream science.

I try to understand what explains this growing abyss between our burgeoning knowledge and the floundering confidence in that knowledge being shown by so many in the community; with one symptom of this gulf being the rise and rise of anti-truth tellers like Trump (and Bolsonaro in Brazil). And I think the answer has everything to do with the loss of trust.

Inequity and dispossession

It’s widely said that a major reason that Trump won in 2016 was because Hilary Clinton inadvisably described Trump’s supporters as “basket of deplorables”, people of little worth, who are ignorant and wrong-headed. It was enough, some believed, to rile them up and get them to spit in the eye of traditional politics and vote for Trump the outsider.

I think of that basket of deplorables as more of a barrel of the dispossessed. They largely come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and they no longer believe the future holds much for them. The status quo in recent decades seems to have enabled the rich to get even richer (truly filthy rich) while most of humanity looks at a bleaker and bleaker future.

Science reinforces this bleakness, shouting from the side lines that we’ll all be ruined if society doesn’t change to a more sustainable pathway.

And all the time inequity grows, while the winners of the status quo increase their stranglehold on the levers of power.

Trust lies bleeding.

In such an atmosphere, hyper charged by the reach and speed of social media, the simple solutions put forward by the Trumps, Johnsons and Bolsonaros of the world find fertile ground. And rather than solving the complex challenges rising around us, they sow further distrust and chaos.

Here’s just one topical example. According to Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic, 38% of media stories containing misinformation about the virus refer to the President: Trump is literally, not metaphorically, the single most important reason so many Americans distrust information they receive about the disease.

Cause or symptom

But the rise of the sociopathic liars I believe is a more a symptom than the cause of the problem. Their capacity to spread untruth is only made possible when a significant portion of the community don’t trust the mainstream media or the science it reports on.

Anti-vaxxers and Q-Anonists don’t get to spread their vicious conspiracies if the broader public is resistant to their poison; informed and responsive to real emerging threats.

And climate deniers (and the many vested interests that use them to sustain their wealth) won’t be able to distort and pervert important policy reform to move humanity to a more sustainable footing.

Today leaders are so obsessed with the impact of CoVID on our economic life (which clearly preferences society’s winners). Maybe we should all be rethinking our slavish neoliberal obsession with protecting traditional stocks of capital and investing more in social and environmental capital, and specifically making a few deposits into the rapidly draining trust bank.

Our capacity to absorb disturbance and sustain a quality life as we move into an increasingly uncertain future absolutely depends upon it.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay