The frog in the equation

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In this story, the sting is in the tale

By David Salt

Frogs figure heavily in cautionary moral fables. But some frog tales are more helpful than others in serving as a guide to sustainable living. Consider these batrachian parables.

The boiling frog

Possibly best known is the parable of the boiling frog.

So this frog notices the water it’s in is warming, but doesn’t sense danger because the increase in temperature is so gradual that it doesn’t think to get out. Unfortunately, at a certain point, the water becomes so hot the frog dies.

This the fable of the frog in the saucepan, often referred to as the boiling frog story*. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring small changes and has been much used to warn of us about a variety of concerns from environmental degradation through to the rising tide of communism. Indeed, I alluded to it in my last discussion on humanity ignoring the increasing frequency of ‘natural’ disasters due to climate change.

While the story itself is has no basis in reality, frogs don’t hang around when the temperature increases beyond its comfort zone** – they are ecotherms, hard wired to respond to changing temperatures – the moral of the metaphor is important; don’t take incremental changes for granted when the trend suggests it will take you to a bad (even disastrous) place.

As metaphors go, it’s a great cautionary story; simple, evocative and brimming with intuitive truth. Don’t take cumulative little changes for granted.

And it’s been much used in campaigns on sustainability to warn us about where our rampant consumption of the Earth’s resources is taking us. We think it’s okay to clear that patch of bush (it’s only a tiny piece of nature); to turn a blind eye to a few more parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (parts per million! for God’s sake how insignificant is that); and to not even notice sea levels are rising (we’re talking millimetres, tides and waves are measured in metres, sea level rise is nothing by comparison) – we take it all for granted, only think of ourselves in the short term and, before you know it, we’re roasting in hell like a boiled frog.

So, the message and the metaphor is clear; be alert, be alarmed, temperature’s rising, do something. Don’t wait till tomorrow.

The drowning frog

Then there’s scorpion that wants to cross a river. It asks the frog to carry it over. The frog says: “No, you’ll sting me.”

“But then I’d drown with you,” responds the scorpion, “that simply doesn’t make sense.”

The frog acknowledges this, allows the scorpion to climb on its back and begins swimming. Half way over the scorpion stings the frog. As they go under the frog wants to know why: “Why did you do that? Now we’re both going to die!”

The scorpion responds: “Because I’m a scorpion.”

Of course, what the scorpion means is that scorpions, by their nature, will always sting. It’s not rational; it’s just how things work.

It’s been pointed out by some that this is a strange fable; there’s no obvious moral here. Everyone dies. And yet I suspect the ‘drowning’ frog is possibly more instructive than the ‘boiling frog’.

The disappearing frog

Actually, this final tale is not a parable but it alludes to an important metaphor – take note of the ‘canary in the climate coal mine’.

Species of frogs are disappearing all over the world. Over a third of all known species of frogs (and amphibians more generally) are considered at risk of extinction making them the most at risk group of vertebrates on the planet.

Frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s, coincidently the same period that saw unbounded economic growth begin to distort the Earth system, the so called Great Acceleration. The Great Acceleration continues to this day, but it now underpins an exploding biodiversity crisis.

More than 120 species of frog are believed to have gone extinct since the 1980s. Among these species are the gastric-brooding frog of Australia and the golden toad of Costa Rica. Habitat loss and degradation, pollution, disease, invasive species and climate change are the main threats putting amphibians at risk of extinction though in some cases what’s knocking them off isn’t clear.

Many environmental scientists believe frogs are good biological indicators of broader ecosystem health because of their intermediate position in food chains, their permeable skin (making them sensitive to toxins in the environment), and their aquatic/terrestrial life cycles. If something is slowly disturbing natural balances, it’s expected impacts will show up first in frog populations.

It’s not known why populations of the golden toad in Costa Rica crashed in 1987, along with about 20 other frog species in the area. These species lived in the pristine Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the population crash could not be linked directly to human activities, such as deforestation; but something was happening. Are frogs our planetary early warning system, our canaries?

Canaries were once used in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. The little birds would keel over before the gas was detected by the miners.

Temperature’s still rising

So what should we take away from these tales of frogs?

Clearly something is killing them at rates never before seen. Most of the drivers of their extinction are well understood (though not all) but humanity is not responding to the many small (and sometimes big) changes we’re seeing around us.

There’s a lot we could do immediately to slow their rate of loss: stop clearing native vegetation, invest more in our protected area system, and better resource research into frog disease (especially the chytrid fungus disease).

And the ‘elephant’ in the room is climate change as it multiplies all the other stressors impacting on frogs. And tackling climate change requires a transformation of the way humanity does business.

As it stands, humanity is doing neither (that is acting on immediate or longer term threats to frogs) and this is reflected in our abysmal multiple failures on meeting agreed targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

On the one hand, it’s all so ‘boiling frog’; except it’s humans not frogs who are basking in the slowly heating water, relishing the warmth while wondering why the canary has just fallen off its perch; could it have anything to do with that elephant over there that no one wants to talk about? What a menagerie of metaphor we find ourselves in.

For me, however, the ‘boiling frog’ fable simply doesn’t cut it. We can claim that we, as individuals, aren’t experiencing the changing ‘climate signal’ because it’s lost in the ‘weather noise’ – “gee it was hot last summer, wasn’t it?; and what about those fires”; “but summers are meant to be hot, and we’re always having fires”…

However, as a society, we can’t hide behind the incremental nature of global change. With an overwhelming scientific consensus coupled with over 50 years of empirical evidence, we can’t deny the ‘rising water temperature’ around us or the consequences of what all this means for future generations.

Which is where the ‘drowning frog’ (with the stinging scorpion on its back) comes to the fore. Except in this parable, it’s we humans who are the scorpion (and the frog is the Earth system that sustains us).

Why did we do it? It’s simply in our nature.

*Here’s another telling of the boiling frog story, a rather more eloquent version, from Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B: “If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.”

**Whit Gibbons from the University of Georgia wrote up this rebuttal on the truth of boiling frogs back in 2007. Quoting Dr Vic Hutchison, Whit recorded: “The legend is entirely incorrect! The ‘critical thermal maxima’ of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.”

Image by David Salt

Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020

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“Yes Senator? When will we save that adorable possum? I’ll take that on notice.”

By Peter Burnett

It seems that there are 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and that not a single plan had been finalised in the last 16 months! How do we hold government to account about this? Maybe the Senate Estimates Committee can extract some answers.

The average person is unlikely to have heard of Senate Estimates Committee hearings. Even when these obscure (and typically dull) proceedings generate the occasional political frisson, as they did with last month’s unexpected revelation that Australia Post had rewarded high performing executives with Cartier watches, the brand ‘Estimates’ will barely register.

Yet the Cartier watches revelation has now cost Christine Holgate, Australia Post’s Chief Executive, her job, and there were also casualties in the corporate regulator, ASIC. So, despite their obscurity, these are definitely proceedings to keep an eye on.

While Environment Estimates produced nothing as coruscating as the toppling of a CEO, for the aficionado there were, as ever, a few small gems among the dross.

To illustrate my point, in this blog I’ve focused on a perennial favourite with Senators in Environment Estimates – programs dealing with threatened species.

Nothing to see here, possums

One reason for the popularity of threatened species in estimates is that individual ‘cute-and-cuddly’ species such as the koala are very useful in drawing political attention to the complex issues of biodiversity decline and the parlous state of government efforts to do something about it.

Take for example the ongoing failure of the Commonwealth and Victorian governments to produce a recovery plan for Leadbeater’s possum after more than a decade.

Despite the very long delay in producing a recovery plan for the possum, officials gave evidence that they were “working very closely with Victoria”. Was the problem with the Victorian end, asked a Senator? Admirably, the Commonwealth official replied that she did not want to pass the buck to Victoria and so would “take responsibility for the timeframes”.

In that case, could the official give the Senator any information about why it was taking so long and what were the problematic issues? It turned out that Commonwealth officials were trying to understand the implications of Victoria’s 2019 decision to exit native forest industries. Were Victorian officials not being forthcoming with the details? “It is taking longer than I would have expected to get those details from Victoria” came the understated reply.

In that case, could the official tell the Senator what monitoring there was of the possums? Answer: “there is a range of monitoring underway undertaken by the Victorian government under the regional forest agreement” [RFA] but the detail was a matter for the officials who looked after RFA’s and they would not be available until the evening.

What then was the official’s expectation as to the timeframe for completing the recovery plan negotiations? Official: “Knowing that I said ‘shortly’ last time, I’m hesitant to repeat that time frame.”

And so it went on, ultimately leaving us none the wiser as to why the plan was taking so long or when it might be finished.

Not much to see anywhere else, either

The story is no better and the information no more forthcoming at a higher level. So, on this matter of 172 species and ecological communities awaiting a recovery plan and not a single plan being finalised in the last 16 months: And how long will it take to get through this backlog, asked one Senator? “It will take a very long time,” came the helpful senior official’s reply.

The Senator moved on to the government’s Threatened Species Strategy. This initiative was announced by then-environment minister Hunt in 2015. It set targets to improve the recovery trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plant species by 2020. Although the announcement included several grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, there was no ‘new’ money associated with the initiative.  

In thinking about a flagship strategy such as the Threatened Species Strategy, one can almost see the political wheels turning in the minister’s mind. The ‘cute-and-cuddly’ factor works for governments just as well as it does for oppositions and cross-benchers. If one is responsible for nearly 2000 listed species and communities, has a small budget and cannot even keep pace with the paperwork involved in producing recovery plans, what does one do?

The answer, one might infer from the Threatened Species Strategy, is to focus on eliminating something can be the ‘enemy’ (feral cats), and on turning things around for a small number of well-known and/or photogenic species, representing about 3.5% of all listed species and communities. Even these limited objectives are characterised as a ‘stretch target’.

The evidence of officials at Estimates was that, although a final report would not be available until early 2021, after three years the trajectories of the 6 of 20 birds and 8 of 20 mammals had improved. It’s clearly hard to make progress even with a narrow focus.

Perhaps the final results will be better. Perhaps in anticipation of this the current environment minister, Susan Ley, announced recently that there would be a follow-on strategy, this time with a 10 year horizon.

Officials were coy, but the tenor of their evidence concerning this new program was that, once again, there would be no new money involved. So we should probably expect something much like the strategy just ending.

Of course, the government had recently put some significant new money on the table, announcing $150 million for bushfire recovery. Officials said that $28 million of this would go to the department for administration, including to support the preparation of recovery plans.

So we may be about to see a jump in production, and even implementation, of recovery plans. However, this is a one off figure in the context of the enormous environmental damage done by the Black Summer, so it’s hardly something to be welcomed.

And the game goes on

As a former public servant, now an outsider looking in, I find Estimates frustrating to watch. Although you do stumble upon the odd gem, most of what you hear consists of politicians asking politically loaded questions of bureaucrats, who respond with reams of blather, including repeated procedural statements like “I’ll take that on notice” and “that question needs to be directed to [someone else who isn’t here]”.

After one estimates committee which I attended, nearly 30 years ago, my department head commented that “they didn’t lay a glove on us.” From the public servant’s point of you, it’s about running the gauntlet without being wounded.

From my present vantage point as a citizen however, estimates is yet another accountability mechanism where the practice of holding governments to account falls far short of the theory. The game goes on: non-government politicians try and extract information from public servants for political purposes, while ministers and public servants work studiously to reveal nothing beyond the mundane.

As serious as the accountability issue is, the more significant problem lies with programs such as the Threatened Species Strategy, which target a tiny slice of the problem and even then struggle to achieve a modest set of objectives.

Like Rome, the Australia’s environment has been burning. And, like Nero, it seems that for government, the fiddle will remain the instrument of choice.

Image by David Salt