And for my next environmental trick …

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Will the federal government engage in real environmental reform before the election?

By Peter Burnett

One of my favourite environmental cartoons appeared in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris climate meeting. It depicts Australia’s environment minister (who was then Josh Frydenberg) as a magician performing for a domestic audience. The magician pulls a climate policy rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, a giant rabbit called ‘Paris’ peers round a curtain on the stage …

This October Prime Minister Morrison tried something of a similar trick, releasing the ‘Australian Way’, a climate ‘plan’ that ramped up Australia’s climate ambition to Net Zero by 2050, without the benefit of any new policy to support this heightened ambition.

With almost breathtaking hutzpah, Mr Morrison even told the domestic audience that ‘the Australian way shows a way for other countries to follow’! Meanwhile, a justified monstering awaited him at Glasgow …

A Magic Pudding

At the time of the PM’s announcement, my immediate thought was not of magicians but of Norman Lindsay’s 1917 children’s book, The Magic Pudding, in which Albert, the irascible pudding, is forever being eaten but is never consumed.

When the ‘modelling’ behind the plan was released, it confirmed my suspicion of ‘magical thinking’. For example, it uses an unrealistic baseline scenario called ‘No Australian Action’, in which every country except Australia reduces their emissions to achieve a below 2 degrees emissions trajectory. The scenario then assumes that the only adverse reaction to such free riding by Australia comes from investors imposing a capital risk premium.

Meanwhile, the costs of climate inaction, imposed by extreme weather, climate refugees and so on do not rate a mention.

Content-free reform

While the government has yet to display such blatant ‘magical thinking’ in its approach to reforming Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), it is certainly showing ‘magical’ tendencies in the sense that the ‘reforms’ it has announced to date contain nothing real.

Readers will recall that the EPBC Act was the subject of a major independent review by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020. The centrepiece of the Samuel Review was a shift from process-based regulation to outcome-based National Environmental Standards.

Releasing a reform ‘pathway’ in response to the Samuel Review in June this year, the Government announced that it would adopt Interim Standards that — wait for it — reflected the (process-based) status quo!

Yet all is not quite as vacuous as it seems. The government does have an agenda, just not one concerned with halting environmental decline.

Rather, its priority is to devolve environmental approvals to the states. It has labelled its devolution proposals as ‘single touch’ approvals and declared these to be the ‘priority reforms’ in its response to the Samuel Review.

While, on paper, there’s a timeline for substantive environmental reforms to come later, in reality, nothing happens until Parliament passes the necessary legislation.

The subtext? If you want environmental reform, you’ll pass our devolution laws.

Trouble is, the devolution laws are stuck in the Senate and are looking increasingly unlikely to pass. Cross-benchers have called the government’s bluff.

So, with an election looming, will the government be content to leave it at that?

One more shot in the environmental reform locker?

Well, the government has another shot in its environmental reform locker, but it is not clear how they will use it.

In the last federal Budget, they announced $2.7 million over three years to pilot a Commonwealth-accredited regional plan to ‘support and accelerate development in a priority regional area’. Tiny as it is, this is a response to one of Professor Samuel’s 38 reform recommendations.

Accrediting bioregional plans under the EPBC Act holds the prospect of both better-protecting the environment while also fulfilling the government’s dream of getting the federal government out of giving environmental approvals on a case-by-case basis and leaving that to the states.

Especially in light of the Senate bottleneck with the ‘single touch’ legislation, you’d think the government would have moved quickly with this project, to get some runs on the board before the election.

This expectation is reinforced by the Budget itself, with the largest share of the funding, $1.179 million, allocated to the current financial year.

Yet with the year almost half over, there’s been no announcement of a partnership with a state or territory for the pilot plan.

Going to plan(?)

So, is the federal government taking regional environmental planning seriously? If it does, there’s a lot of groundwork to do and statutory requirements to be met. ‘Bioregional’ plans, as the EPBC Act calls them, can be disallowed by either House of Parliament; they could also be subject to court challenge if substantive requirements were not met.

With nearly half the year gone, there’s probably not time before the election for much more than an announcement of a deal with one lucky state or territory to develop a pilot regional plan.

Not a lot of electoral bang there.

And there are also potential downsides. For example, the exercise of preparing a regional plan might reveal that the environment in that region in fact needs more protection (and more investment in recovery) that the government might like.

There’s always the base political option of not taking regional planning seriously and simply putting a federal ‘koala stamp’ on an existing, or rustled up, state plan. This could then be trumpeted as the first instalment of a major reform, though it would almost certainly bring on Parliamentary and legal challenges.

Certainly nothing for the environment in that. But would the Coalition see votes in it?

Or will it simply roll out some ‘practical environmental restoration’ (known to the rest of us as marginal-electorate-targeted environmental pork barrelling) as it did last time with the $100 million Environmental Restoration Fund?

Magic Pudding anyone?

Banner image: And for my next trick (Image by u_dg9pheol at Pixabay)

The lies of the land – “I don’t think, I know!” – Who suffers when truth lies bleeding?

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By David Salt

CoP26 has just concluded. Many are crying our leaders have lied to us; they’re not being ‘fair dinkum*’ when it comes to climate change.

And the Australian Government has just released its modelling behind their “Plan to Deliver Net Zero” emissions by 2050 (releasing it on the final scheduled day of the CoP, late on a Friday, guaranteed to minimise timely efforts to scrutinise it).

But you don’t even have to study it to see something’s amiss. Before you even interrogate the assumptions in the modelling (assumptions described as ‘wild’ by many experts) it becomes clear it doesn’t even meet it owns objective. Fifteen per cent of the reductions is based on unspecified future technology (with a further 10-20% is achieved through carbon offsets) so it’s actually a plan for 85% emissions reductions at best. Does this mean the Government is lying?

Lies all the way down

The business of ‘telling lies’ is dominating the news cycle at the moment with the very integrity of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, being put under the spotlight following the French President Macron saying “I don’t think, I know” when asked if he thought our Prime Minister Morrison had lied to him over the breaking of $90billion contract for submarines. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull endorsed this sentiment by observing: “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”

Following this, Morrison was asked on radio if he had ever told a lie in public life. He replied: “I don’t believe I have, no. No.”

But, if he’s a liar, he would say that, wouldn’t he? The fact is, he’s been caught out on many occasions. News group Crikey, as just one example, has published a list of 42 lies Morrison has made in recent years with the evidence to prove it.

Some might say lying is merely a politician’s stock in trade, they all do it; and we have elections to enable voters to make a judgement on where lies the truth (or what ‘lies’ they are prepared to accept). But is this good enough with an existential threat like climate change coming at us like a runaway freight train? Lies might win votes but they don’t redefine the way the earth system functions. They might grease your way to an election win but they don’t deliver a sustainable future.

A world of lies

There are lies and there are lies; and, if we’re going to be honest, we all tell them.

The most obvious lie is the untrue statement told to deceive, often referred to as a lie of commission. It seems our ‘plan to deliver net zero’ is full of these.

Then there are the lies of omission, where we distort meaning by not including appropriate information in our pronouncements. In our ‘plan’, the biggest omission is a failure to model what happens if we don’t take action. That’s an omission big enough to drive a planet through.

Or there are lies of fabrication where we make stuff up; lies of minimisation where we underplay aspects of the situation we are describing; or lies of exaggeration in which we overstate things. The ‘plan’ is overflowing with each of these.

So many ways to lie. There are white lies, often told to comfort people; greay lies, in which we’re not sure who benefits; black lies where there’s no confusion, you’re clearly doing it for self-gain; and red lies, told out of spite to damage someone else.

Indeed, it’s easy to find any number of typologies to categorise lies (eg, the 5 types of lies) and liars (eg, the 3 type of liars). However, if you believe lying is ultimately wrong and damaging, possibly the more important questions to pose are:
-is it on the increase (and why)? and
-what’s the consequence of allowing ‘lying’ to become the new normal?

Liar, liar, pants on fire

Morrison has been caught out many times lying but few leaders can hold a candle to the mendacity displayed by President Trump. The Washington Post tallied up Trumps lies at a staggering 30,573 over the four years he was in office.

But Trump is hardly alone when it comes to outrageous lying. Whether its Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippine’s Duterte, the UK’s Johnson or Russia’s Putin, lying seems to be a standard tool of the trade, and it’s being wielded all the time. The strong impression is that more world leaders are lying more and more often; but how do you prove such a subjective assessment? Measuring the aggregate load of lies and how it changes over time is no easy task.

There are attempts by various groups to measure trends in transparency, corruption and good governance, all good surrogates for the lies of the land. But making meaningful, representative and repeatable comparisons is devilishly difficult.

Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index didn’t make any grand general statements like the world has declined overall or improved; but it did find that countries with strong democratic governance managed better, equitable and effective responses to COVID-19. Countries that performed well on the index invested more in health care, are better able to provide universal health coverage and are less likely to violate democratic norms and institutions or the rule of law. Countries with higher levels of corruption tend to be the worst perpetrators of rule of law and democratic breaches while managing the COVID-19 crisis.

On this index, Australia comes in 11th place (of 180 countries), scoring 77 points on the 100-point scale. Australia’s score has dropped 8 points since its peak in 2012 so even on a coarse index like this it seems our integrity is on the decline.

Another NGO studying governance trends around the world, the Global State of Democracy, found that populist parties are on the rise everywhere, nearly doubling in number over the last 15 years.

The Global State of Democracy contends that the recent growth of electoral support for populist political actors around the world is rooted in several interacting trends: economic and cultural globalization, weakening nation state policy/autonomy, societal change, a polarized digital public sphere and a decline in support for mainstream political parties. The rise of populist parties, movements and politicians opposing established political elites can be seen as a reaction to the perceived underperformance of democracies and as a sign of crisis among mainstream political parties.

My interpretation of this is that when mainstream parties lie they erode confidence and trust in the electorate driving voters to populist parties, who usually lie even more. It’s a slippery slope.

Every lie hurts

Some lies start wars. The Gulf of Tonkin lie played an important role in escalating the Vietnam War. The Weapons of Mass Destruction lie was instrumental in kicking off the Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of people died in each of these wars.

Some lies are just seen as business as usual be it denial over the health risks of tobacco smoking to denial that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. These lies have the potential to kill millions.

There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence demonstrating that lying by our political leaders is becoming more prevalent. And every lie erodes the trust bank of social capital, the keystone of our society’s resilience to deal with the growing environmental challenges coming at us with greater frequency.

Morrison is a liar. His Government’s response to climate change and the CoP26 is tantamount to a lie. The Government’s calculation is that this doesn’t matter, that the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and our forest biome (as just two examples of the impacts of climate change) is a matter for future governments and generations, and that lying about this won’t cost them the next election.

But what is the cost if they do win the next election based on a lie? What is the cost of political leaders pulling down the blinds on transparency, junking accountability and dismissing integrity because it’s simply easier to get by with a lie? Incalculable.

*’fair dinkum’: to be true, authentic and to not lie (Australian synonym: passes the pub test). None of this applies to our current Prime Minister.

Banner image by Pixabay

Looking for little gems: Senate Environmental Estimates, October 2021

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Government priorities revealed in the detail of evidence from officials

By Peter Burnett

The Australian Senate holds ‘Estimates’ hearings three times each year. The official purpose of these hearings is to scrutinise estimates of proposed expenditure contained in Budget-related legislation.

In practice, the hearings are used mostly to extract information from public servants that can be used to attack the Government. The Senate rules aid in this by allowing questions on any spending, including money already spent, or any activity supported by government funds, including the activities of ministers and officials.

A favourite ‘game’ for Opposition MPs and journalists over the years has been to use the information to suggest that government members have their snouts in the trough. Examples include spending on redecorating the Prime Minister’s Lodge, or on flying ministers to Party fundraisers under the pretext of official business (including in helicopters).

Environment Estimates

I follow Estimates hearings for different reasons. I look for little gems of information about environmental programs, the sort of information that reveals something new, but which is not significant enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

The Senate held its second round of Estimates hearings for 2021 in late October. The Environment and Communications Committee heard evidence from officials administering a wide range of environment programs, including on climate change.

The government ‘team’ is always led by a government minister, who must be a Senator.

This often means that the minister at the table is not the actual minister for the portfolio concerned. For example, Environment Minister Sussan Ley was represented by Senator Jane Hume, Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy.

As a result, the minister at the table often does not have a deep knowledge of the portfolio. This amplifies the tendency, already strong in all ministers, to rely on speaking points and otherwise to argue, deflect and otherwise stonewall.

But the minister at the table can’t block officials from answering factual questions about government activities, like how much was spent flying the environment minister around the world to lobby against the proposed World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing of the Great Barrier Reef, where she went and who went with her?

The answer may or may not be a ‘little gem’.

On this occasion, I didn’t find the answer to the question about Sussan Ley’s peregrinations all that interesting. Rather, my little gems relate to climate, environment protection and Indigenous heritage.

Climate

These Estimates hearings took place before the government announced its switch to a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ climate goal. So, a lot of the questions were directed to pressuring officials to reveal what they knew about the as yet unannounced deal between the Liberals and Nationals on climate policy.

This generated a lot of verbal jousting, but little information. Much heat, little light.

My climate gem, however, involved an official confirming that the government’s projections on emissions (and thus its measure of progress towards targets) counted commitments made by the states, but only where officials had some confidence that the state concerned would actually take the promised action.

For example, if a State announced funding for a commitment, Commonwealth officials would count it in projections, but they wouldn’t if the announcement were ‘just a statement, for example’.

Later, once the government had released its plan to deliver Net Zero, ‘The Australian Way’, this gave me pause for thought.

I had read all 126 pages of this plan but could not find any new policies. This must mean that Australia’s projections before and after the release of the plan would be identical — some plan!

Environmental protection

Labor Senator Nita Green quizzed officials about media reports that the deal with the Nationals included changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. Sources said that changes proposed to the Act would make it easier for farmers and miners to do what they do, rather than have obstacles in the way.

Had the department been asked to provide any advice on potential changes or amendments to the Act in the last two weeks?

‘No, Senator’ was the reply.

If the Liberals and Nationals have agreed to amend the EPBC Act, and without advice from officials, the most likely amendment for farmers would be to exempt them from applying for approval to clear native vegetation on their properties, where this vegetation might be habitat for nationally-listed threatened species.

For miners, the exemption might be for the clearing of sites under a certain size.

I expect the justification would be that native vegetation is already protected by State land clearing laws and that the EPBC act should only apply where there was a direct impact on a known population of threatened species.

Such amendments would ignore the fact that threatened species rely on habitat to survive, that they are not always present in habitat and that State native vegetation laws are not necessarily designed to protect Matters of National Environmental Significance.

They would also fly in the face of the intent implied by the government in its limited response to the recent Samuel Review of the EPBC Act, that it ‘agrees with the central pillars of reform recommended by the Review’.

Those pillars include reversing the unsustainable trajectory of Australian environmental decline through comprehensive and legally enforceable National Environmental Standards.

Would this inconsistency concern the government? I don’t think so. In fact, without advice from officials, they might not even be aware of it.

Indigenous heritage reform

Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in May 2020 precipitated a national outcry. Although the approval was given by a WA Minister under its fifty-year-old Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, attempts by Traditional Owners to seek federal intervention through environment minister Ley’s office came to nought.

This was despite the existence of federal laws which might have been invoked to prevent the destruction.

The government scrambled to defend itself against allegations of bungling by Minister Ley.

This included convening a national roundtable meeting on Indigenous heritage reform. At the meeting, Ley linked reform to the then-current Samuel Review of the EPBC Act and advised of the government’s intention to address Indigenous heritage protection reform as part of its response to that review.

In its subsequent, partial, response to the Samuel review, the government committed only to ‘engaging’ with Indigenous peoples to ‘further canvass options and determine the key priorities and a pathway for this important area of reform.’

Asked whether this process was underway, an official replied that:

We have been discussing the issue with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance in relation to a pathway for consultation that would include Indigenous groups. So I would characterise that as certainly being underway but still at relatively early stages from the department’s perspective.

This is bureaucratic speak for consulting about consulting.

Officials then advised that they were close to an agreement with the Alliance. Once that was done, they planned to start consulting about the substantive issues of Indigenous heritage protection.

‘Is there a timeline for that?’ asked a Senator. ‘Not as yet’ replied the official. ‘What we are hoping is that when the partnership agreement is finalised and put forward will also be able to release an implementation plan at the same time.’

More process, more delay!

Was there ‘any truth to the assertion that this whole process is being run by the Prime Minister’s office and the environment minister, your boss, is just the face of the show?’ asked a Senator.

This prompted an intervention by the Secretary of the department, Andrew Metcalfe:

I think that’s a very unfair assertion given we have worked extensively with the minister and her office … But I can absolutely assure the committee that the minister is very heavily across the detail and has been very much determining the progress of the matter.

With all respect to Mr Metcalfe, a distinguished public servant, the minister could be ‘heavily across the detail’ and giving his department specific directions, without him knowing that she was being directed by the Prime Minister.

This is borne out by the next question: How involved has the Cabinet Secretary [a political staffer in the Prime Minister’s office] been? asked the Senator. ‘We have no knowledge of that …’ replied the Secretary.

While I have no inside knowledge, it would certainly be consistent with Scott Morrison’s political style, and the high risk of embarrassment associated with the destruction of the Juukan Gorge, that his office would be calling the shots

And that the government would be dragging things out to avoid having to make any substantive calls on Indigenous heritage reform before the election due by May 2022.

What these little gems reflect

While these little gems hardly sparkle, they do shed some light on the directions of the Morrison Government on environment.

Unfortunately, it looks to me to be politics all the way down with little priority on good policy reform.

On climate, the government has delivered a content-free ‘strategy’ on achieving its Net Zero target, while officials have confirmed that the federal government can claim the benefit of substantive state action. Great politics, poor policy.

On environment protection, it seems that the government is willing to ignore the parlous state of the environment and to run counter to its own rhetoric on reform, to buy off the National Party.

And on Indigenous heritage, it appears the strategy is to kick the can down the road, avoiding real reform before the next election. This is because real reforms would involve an impossible (for the government) choice between popular support for proper Indigenous heritage protection and maintaining the ability of industry to operate in culturally-sensitive places without having to risk a veto from Traditional Owners.

Good government requires hard decisions, doesn’t it? That’s why we have them!

Banner image: When it comes to the environment, the devil’s in the detail. (Image by pen_ash from Pixabay)

Entering the Absurdicene as the Anthropocene loses its relevance

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By David Salt

Forget the Anthropocene – Australia’s ‘bold plan’ for net zero by 2050 marks the beginning of an amazing new geological epoch: The Absurdicene, the age where the ridiculous and the self-serving trumps evidence and science. As our children are discovering, it’s not a great time for hope.

Goodbye Anthropocene

The much-discussed Anthropocene was one of the shortest geological epochs of the modern era. It began on the 16 July 1945 and ended on the 26 October 2021.

Why these dates?

Well, the 16 July 1945 was the day of the first atomic bomb test, a few weeks before Hiroshima was obliterated by the world’s first atomic attack. That first test left trace (but measurable) fission products in soil strata around the world. 1945 marked the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Great Acceleration, a time of unparalleled economic growth that has continued to this day.

From that time, humans have literally transformed the Earth System: slaughtering our biodiversity, modifying our climate, and polluting our land, sea and air. Earth systems scientists believe humans have become the dominant force on our planet, and that this warrants labelling this time as a new geological epoch – the age of humans or the Anthropocene.

Some Anthropocene scholars have nominated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the true beginning of this epoch (18th Century); others have nominated the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution (some 10,000 years ago). The Earth System scientists I follow, however, reckon the Great Acceleration is a better starting point as it’s really when human activity began distorting the Earth System and we can exactly measure the transition with that first atomic test.

Nominating an end date is even more contentious, and doubling down with the declaration of a new geological epoch called the Absurdicene requires a degree of hubris rarely seen in the academic literature (and yet quite characteristic of many of my columns).

Hello Absurdicene

The 26 October 2021 was the ‘proud’ day the Australian Government launched a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. So ridiculous, hollow and surreal was the plan – so full of assumptions, half-truths and outright lies – that academics would look back on the launch of this plan as the day humanity lost its marbles and officially entered the geological period known as the Absurdicene. (I’m using Australia as a case study reflecting the absurdity of the wider world.)

Frankly, given the parlous and deteriorating state of the Australian environment (bleaching coral reefs and burning forest biomes being two of the most recent and horrific examples), and the impact this is causing to the Australian society, I feel it is simply inadequate to label the Government’s efforts to address this situation as even remotely acceptable or reasonable.

Indeed, not only does the Government fail to take effective action, it is, as I write this, undermining international efforts to address climate change at the COP26 in Glasgow. It is a part of a cabal of nations trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. A leak has revealed that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.

At the same time, Australia is considering more than 100 fossil fuel projects that could produce 5% of global industrial emissions.

And while this is happening, our Government tells us they have a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 that is based on taking no proactive action now and leaving the heavy lifting to future generations using yet to be developed technology.

This is more than just ‘inadequate’, it is so perverse that it no longer makes sense; it’s surreal, it is positively absurd.

Acknowledging the absurd

Which leads me to conclude that human interference with the Earth system has now gone beyond disturbing our biophysical systems to polluting our very social systems. Calling it the Anthropocene is simply inadequate because the human response to the global change that humans have caused is no longer rational.

The best science tells us our species is not sustainable. The evidence of this truth is mounting, and the impacts are being felt but our government’s response is one of denial and obfuscation while actually claiming they follow the science.

I regard the Anthropocene as a term that suggests that humans are acknowledging what we are doing to the Earth system and attempting to minimise the adverse impacts we are seeing around us. The Anthropocene is an age of human potency and amazing scientific insight. We have seen further, risen faster and influenced the very nature of things in ways that inspire awe, generate wealth and have transformed the very functioning of our planet.

The wealthiest have grown super wealthy, most of humanity have improved their quality of life, and everyone has unparalleled access to information (and the thoughts of everyone else).

But all these advances have come at the cost of declining natural capital, rising seas and a warming climate.

In the Anthropocene, we studied these changes, modelled their trajectories and discussed in meaningful ways what we needed to do to sustain humanity. We acted rationally, we believed in our leaders (many of them, anyway, and a few of them made a difference).

But, as the failure of COP26 (and the farce of Australia’s plan) is showing, this is no longer happening.

The world’s wealthiest 1% of people produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50% but these elite refuse to take responsibility for it. Evidence is disputed and denied; the super-rich refuse to sacrifice a scintilla of their privilege (though there are some notable exceptions); and governments appear to be working against the best interests of their own people.

Lies, misinformation and prejudice clog our social media; paranoia, fundamentalism and vested interest drive our politics; and fear and disillusionment overshadow the hopes of our younger generations.

So, if you accept that humanity is now acting in an absurd way (ie, you accept the premise of the Absurdicene) then maybe we need to be honest about the prospects of a rational process towards sustainability. Maybe we need to focus on why this absurdity prevails, and what we need to do to short circuit it.

Maybe the answer is not more or a better set of scientific evidence. What more evidence do we require?

Rather, we need a greater priority placed on those things that prevent absurdity from dominating, namely: greater integrity of our institutions, more robust accountability, transparency and a reason to trust our leaders – morality anyone?

Image by Jean-Louis SERVAIS from Pixabay