Disaster follows failures in integrity. Don’t think the Earth System is too big to fail.

By David Salt

In an effort to distract myself from Australia’s putrid federal election campaign, I’ve taken to watching disaster films, specifically Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, because they are both based on real-life events, they only remind me about the failings of our current political leaders. Both films carry powerful messages on the importance of good governance and the consequences of taking it for granted.

Melt down

The award-winning series Chernobyl was created by HBO and went to air in 2019. It tells the events surrounding the explosion in Reactor 4 at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986. It’s a story of nuclear nightmare, self-sacrifice, heroism and cascading tragedy. Underpinning the disaster is a tale of greed, corruption and power in which an ossified Soviet empire censored science that had years earlier revealed that the nuclear reactor design was flawed, and a hierarchy that only wanted good news, a tight focus on production targets and punished anyone who pointed out when things were going wrong.

The power plant was under-resourced, poorly equipped, and badly managed. When the Reactor 4 blew up, the local emergency response was totally unprepared and ignorant about what to do in a nuclear accident. The consequences were horrific for the attending fireman and locals watching on.

The inadequate local response was then matched by the broader Soviet response of denial and cover up, but the scale of the disaster meant it couldn’t be ignored as radioactive debris sprayed over Europe.

It was the worst and most expensive nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and many scholars believe it directly contributed the collapse of the Soviet empire a few years later.

The HBO series brilliantly captures the unfolding horror of the disaster following it from the moment of the accident through to the investigation much later in which scientists do their best to reveal the rottenness of the system that allowed the catastrophe to occur. The message is not well received and the whistle blowers pay an enormous price for their courage.

Blow up

If anyone thinks that major disasters like this are the preserve of sclerotic dictatorships like the Soviet Union, you’re kidding yourself. A couple of months before the melt down at Chernobyl in 1986, the US experienced its own catastrophic failure when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself to smithereens 73 seconds after lift off. Seven crew died as a result and the whole Space Shuttle program was suspended for years. Some suggest the program never really recovered.

And what caused this disaster?

The Space Shuttle was touted as the most complex machine ever put together by humans, but what destroyed the Challenger was the failure of simple rubber O-ring seal on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. Except it wasn’t really a failure of an O-ring so much as a failure of governance. Engineers had known for many years the O-rings didn’t work very well in extreme cold conditions, such as were experienced at the time of launch, and even recommended against launching at that time.

But the mission, which had already gone through long and costly delays, was under enormous time pressures and somehow the concerns of the engineers, who sat at the bottom of the management hierarchy, were not conveyed to the decision makers at the top of the tree. The decision to go ahead with the launch was made, and the rest is history. (HBO really should make a docu-drama on this.)

Blow out

Now maybe you’re thinking big disasters like these only occur when state-controlled hierarchies are in charge. If that’s the case, I recommend you see the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon which recounts the origins of the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The spill occurred when the Deepwater Horizon, an ocean oil drilling rig operated by BP, caught fire when high-pressure methane gas from the well expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig. There it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest environmental disaster in American history.

The film contends the disaster was the direct result of BP officials rushing through safety tests and ignoring the ageing infrastructure on board the drill rig. As with Chernobyl and Challenger, engineers were ignored, and production timetables were prioritized over safety and due diligence.

Though this was an accident in the commercial sector, it can also be said that government oversight and environmental protection and monitoring were found wanting.

Integrity fail

When disaster strikes we are too often absorbed by the heat and light of the event itself. When we look past that, the real problem is almost always a failure in integrity around the way in which the system is being governed.

Good governance, transparency and accountability would have prevented Chernobyl, Challenger and Deepwater Horizon from ever becoming disasters. And if we want to prevent future disasters of this type, this is where we should be looking.

Which is why I got depressed when watching these movies because it just got me thinking about the failing integrity of leaders such as Johnson, Trump, Putin and our own Scott Morrison. These leaders have been actively eroding the integrity of the institutions that allow us to trust our governments and the processes they run. Without this integrity we won’t hear the warnings of the ‘engineers’ that the systems we depend upon have vulnerabilities and may be heading for collapse.

Hollow credits

One excellent example of this in Australia is the recent revelations by Professor Andrew Macintosh that our system of carbon credits lacks integrity – that Australian Carbon Credit Units are being awarded to projects that are not actually capturing the carbon they claim. Macintosh, one of the architects of the system, claims the problem is poor governance, that the same people awarding the credits are doing the monitoring and the selling of the carbon credits. A market with integrity would allow for transparency, accountability and independent validation of what’s being bought and sold but our carbon market does not have these features.

The problem is that these carbon credits are being purchased by fossil fuel producers to offset their own carbon emissions. If, as Macintosh contends, 70-80% of the carbon credits do not represent captured carbon, then they’re not actually offsetting anything, but fossil fuel companies still have a green light to keep pumping out carbon emissions.

Now, maybe you can’t see Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon in this story. However, our government has simply denied Macintosh’s claims, even though he has considerable empirical evidence supporting his case (and our government isn’t releasing the information that Macintosh has asked to be made public). Our government says the carbon market is fine, they won’t fix it, and our carbon credits are in high demand. Our performance on climate change is beyond reproach, they say (even though we trail the developed world in reducing carbon emissions). It’s like the Chernobyl operators ignoring warnings on the basis that the project is too good (too big) to fail; and they’ll only be punished if they say something.

In our government’s admonishment of ‘engineer’ Macintosh’s attempts to blow the whistle on this broken carbon market I hear the echoes of Soviet administrators and BP corporates claiming ‘push on, there’s nothing to see here’.

But the system is not good, carbon emissions are rising, people and species are dying from climate-enhanced weather extremes. And in response, our political leaders tell us not to worry, the systems they have in place will protect us. But those systems have no integrity!

Then, one more straw is added to the camel’s back…

Banner image: A scene from the HBO series Chernobyl in which military officers spray the accident site to kill all life in order to prevent it spreading radioactive contamination. The ‘fallout’ from this nuclear accident is still being experienced today.

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