On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster

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When the going gets tough, the government hides behind resilience

By David Salt

Have you noticed that when the chips are down, and I mean really down, our political leaders frequently invoke ‘resilience’ as the thing that’s most important? We’ve seen it following massive floods, devastating cyclones and, most recently, in response to the bushfire catastrophe (that continues to unfold as I write).

What’s this about?

In my time I’ve written a bit on resilience. While I think resilience science can offer many insights on the challenges that currently beset us, I don’t see its current deployment as anything more than a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan.

When a massive disturbance overwhelms a country’s capacity to continue with ‘business as usual’, governments do their best to reassure the community that everything will be alright, even though they are often impotent in the face of that crisis.

When that flood wipes out critical infrastructure, for example, it’s often apparent that despite the government’s grand claims, it can’t make the rain stop or move people and emergency services to where they are needed. And when that happens, they often fall back by saying: ‘we’ll get over this, we are resilient.’

Or when the fires are so extensive, as we are witnessing now, and whole communication networks and the road system goes down (and everyone is on edge while choking on endless smoke), we know there is only so much the government can do, but we want reassurance that it’ll all be right. And what is the Prime Minister telling us our priorities should be? “That resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” he said.

We are resilient

What’s the attraction in invoking resilience? From a political point of view, I think it’s twofold.

The first relates to our belief of the ‘rightness’ of the system we are in. Yes a fire/drought/flood might knock us down but we are ‘good, hard working people that care for each other’. We may be knocked down but our inherent qualities will help us triumph over adversity, get us back on our feet and prosper.

You’ll hear this refrain time and again following disasters from political leaders at every level, from the town mayor to the prime minister, each crafting their message of resilience to their own group of people, reassuring them that they are ‘right’, they are ‘good’ and ‘they’ll get over it’.

Consider Premier Anna Bligh’s now famous statement following the unprecedented Queensland floods in 2011: “We are Queenslanders,” she told the public. “We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

That’s the basic definition of ‘resilience’, it’s all about how we cope with disturbance, and we like to think there’s something inherently right and good about our system (municipality/state/country) that will enable us to triumph. ‘We are Queenslanders/Victorians/south coasters/insert place name here, and we are tough…’

Politically speaking that’s exactly the ‘we-are-righteous-and-shall-overcome’ message that a government wants to convey to the electorate so invoking ‘resilience’ is an attractive notion; especially when it’s clear there’s not much they can actually do.

The second attraction for invoking ‘resilience’ is that everyone has their own idea of what it means and it’s impossible to measure in a precise manner. Consequently, it’s an ambiguous goal that is easy to hide behind while avoiding accountability.

So far, our Prime Minister’s invocation of resilience seems more about avoiding talk on emissions targets and climate change policy than any genuine engagement with the idea.

The new ‘sustainability’?

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has similar weaknesses (or strengths, depending on your perspective and degree of cynicism) to resilience but sustainability (and sustainable development) have been around for longer as a policy goal. Having been seriously worked on for at least the past 40 years, sustainability has had a lot of time and energy spent on working out how it might be operationalised.

‘Sustainability’ was also a ‘made up’ word to embody efforts to respond to the damaging effects of unbounded economic growth. In this way, sustainability had meanings loaded into it. ‘Resilience’, on the other hand, is a real word that now labels many different approaches to managing systems (people, families, communities, cities, nations and ecosystems to name a few) to help them overcome disturbance. People have their own idea what it is to be resilient.

All models (or framings) are wrong but some are useful (to paraphrase George Box). Sustainability, with all of its shortcomings, enabled national and international conversations to take place around the connections between the economy, society and the environment. It also allowed notions of equity and justice to be incorporated into our thinking. And, while it’s still a work in progress, the sustainability project is still an important and potentially critical element of our species ongoing survival.

Many faces of resilience

Resilience too has many weaknesses as a strategy and policy goal. For starters, what resilience approach are you talking about? It has separate origins and applications from many disciplinary areas with the disciplines of psychology, emergency relief, engineering and ecology being the main four fields from which it has emerged. Each considers resilience at a different scale and with a different purpose though all are concerned with how the systems we are interested in cope with disturbance.

The value of resilience is that it is a systems approach that engages with the complexity of the system of our interest (for example, in psychology that’s individual people, for ecology that’s social-ecological systems).

When I use the term resilience science I’m talking about ecological resilience, the topic I have helped write two text books on. It’s a rich body of research and academic discussion that has revealed much about how linked systems of nature and people endure over time coping with a range of disturbances. It’s all about thresholds and tipping points, linked scales, adaptive cycles and transformation.

To really make a difference with resilience science you need to honestly engage with the complexity of the system of your interest. You need to respect those people with expert knowledge on how it functions, maintain healthy buffers of economic, environmental and social capital, and work within the limits of your system rather than ignoring them. (These are themes I will explore in future blogs.)

Unfortunately, when governments invoke resilience they use it as cover to continue doing whatever it is their vested interests dictate (which seems in Australia at the moment the continued support for more coal mining). They usually spin resilience as a magic bullet that solves a multitude of problems without ever being accountable for what it is they are specifically attempting to achieve.

And isn’t that the perfect escape for a government – ‘because of this fire/flood/drought we are down but we are not out. We are resilient and we shall triumph come what may.’

Image: Epicormic regrowth from bark of Eucalypt, four months after Black Saturday bushfires, Strathewen, Victoria, in 2009. (Photo by Robert Kerton, CSIRO. Creative Commons 3.0.)

Five lies that stain the nation’s soul

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What really burns me up about our climate denialism

By David Salt

As I wipe the tears from my smoke-stung eyes and choke down the bile rising from my indignation, I ask myself why the angst? A large part of it is the remorseless lying we get day after day from our national government on climate change. It’s the big lies and small lies, the obfuscations, distractions and falsehoods that come at such volume that we start to distrust everything we hear; which I feel sure is part of the government’s strategy.

Multiple media players and experts attempt to filter the truth from the falsehood but it just keeps coming regardless.

For me, there are five overarching lies that subsume all the smaller falsehoods. And those five are:

1. We are guided by the science
2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change
3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)
4. We are a responsible international player
5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

1. We are guided by the science

This is one of the most oft repeated lies the government gives us day after day. It’s a claim completely repudiated by its actions when it comes to climate change, environmental science and sustainability in general. The scientific consensus is crystal clear on what the problem is and the appropriate solution. Yet the government ignores the evidence, cherry picks data to suit its own narrative, constantly throws out red herrings to give it cover, and disparages climate science in general (all the while claiming they are ‘guided by the science’).

But this lie extends beyond climate science to expert knowledge in general. They ignored repeated pleas from retired emergency managers for greater action in the lead up to the current fire catastrophe. And they ignored the economic consensus that has been around for years on the need for a price on carbon (this government reversed the ‘carbon tax’, the only policy that appears to have had any measure of success in curbing Australia’s carbon emissions).

The government claims it is guided by the science, that their policy is evidence based, but they lie. And in many ways all the deceit that follows is based on this foundational deception.

2. We are doing our bit when it comes to climate change

The government’s target of a reduction of 26-28% in carbon emissions (below 2005 levels by 2030) is not ‘Australia doing our bit’. It is not based on evidence, science or equity. It is one of the weakest targets amongst developed countries, is not aligned to what the science says is necessary to tackle climate change (the government’s own Climate Change Authority recommended a minimum of 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, the government’s response was an attempt to abolish the Authority and, failing that, ignore it), and the target not proportionate to the size of our population or economy. Our Prime Minister claims it is “credible, fair, responsible and achievable” yet all the evidence suggests the exact opposite.

3. We are good neighbours (to Pacific nations)

We ignore the evidence and refuse to even shoulder our fair share of the burden. Then we happily preach to the members of the Pacific Islands Forum that everything is okay and Australia is a great neighbour. To prove it, we throw $500 million in their direction (taken from the existing aid budget) so they can invest in “renewable energy, climate change and resilience in the Pacific”.

Keep in mind these are our neighbours. Unlike us, they haven’t contributed any carbon emissions to speak of, they haven’t enjoyed the benefits of economic growth but they are faced with existential threats arising from climate change caused by that growth.

We disregarded their fears and did our best to stop the Islands Forum from releasing a communique including references to phasing out coal and limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees.

4. We are a responsible international player

Having repudiated our neighbours our Prime Minister then visited the UN to tell the world what a great job we’re doing when it comes to climate change; both overhyping what we were actually doing while underplaying our culpability. He also did his best to distract everyone’s attention by talking up our efforts on plastics in the ocean, as if it were a problem of the same order as climate change.

Another constantly repeated note in our siren song of denial is that we’re but a small part of the problem emitting a paltry 1.3% of global emissions. He never then acknowledges that 1.3% coming from only 0.3% of the world’s population is actually a shocking record making us the highest emitter per capita in the developed world and one of the world’s top 20 polluting countries.

But it’s not enough to deny our responsibilities and mislead on our effort to this global cause, we have also gone out of our way to thwart efforts to curb global carbon emissions. At a UN conference on climate targets in Madrid only weeks ago Australia was accused of ‘cheating’ and blocking efforts to reach a consensus on how to make the Paris agreements on emissions work. ““The conference fell victim to the base positions of a handful of major polluting countries, Australia included,” a former Australian diplomat was quoted as saying.

So, it’s not enough that Australia is rated as the worst-performing country on climate change policy out of 57 countries, a new report prepared by international think tanks also criticises the Morrison government for being a ‘regressive force’ internationally.

We bully our neighbouring nations in local forums and then snuggle up to the world’s biggest climate change bullies (in this case the US and Brazil) on the international stage.

5. Our children should be optimistic about their future

After lecturing the world on how great Australia was in terms of its climate action at the UN in September, our Prime Minister then rebuked younger Australians for taking time off school to protest his climate inaction. He suggested Australian kids needed to be given more

“context and perspective” on the issue because, he says, “I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.” He said it was important Australian children were confident they would live in a “wonderful country and pristine environment”.

Well, that ‘pristine environment’ is now being engulfed in flames, communities are in despair and everyone is scared of a future in which we can only expect worse. What context and perspective is he talking about? And how is it possible for our children to be optimistic about their future when their present is in chaos and our national leaders won’t even engage with the real problem. They may be young but they’re not stupid.

Many many lies

Yes I get angry at most of the other deceptions foisted on us daily by this denialist government, this farrago of lies. I get upset when they blame a lack of hazard reduction burning as the real problem behind the fires, that they claim their policies are protecting the Great Barrier Reef or that this Coalition Government is responsible for the enormous investment in renewable energy. They are all dissembling untruths with strong evidence revealing what the real situation is.

But overarching these untruths are the five deceptions I have discussed here. We ignore the science and the expertise on climate change, we are not doing our fair share in addressing this challenge, we are poor neighbours and wretched global partners; and in doing all this we are destroying the hope of upcoming generations.

There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets; this is a wicked problem. But we cannot redeem our nation’s soul in regards to climate change until we honestly acknowledge the nature of this challenge and get real with our response.

Positioning ‘The Environment’

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A new year sees a new department for The Environment – What’s in a name?

By David Salt

As we grind to the end of a difficult year in terms of environmental decline and crisis, it’s worth noting the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a shake-up of the public service. Eighteen departments are to be reorganised into 14 mega departments on the grounds of improving efficiency and service delivery (though the details have not been made public and there is considerable skepticism on the value of these changes). Given our ongoing fire crisis, endless heatwave, mass fish kills and growing extinction list, a more responsive and effective Department of the Environment is to be hoped for. But rather than making The Environment a higher priority, this latest reorganisation appears to be signalling the exact opposite.

From DSEWPaC to DoE

Government departments are always changing names as governments reorganise the public service’s structure, roles and responsibilities to suit their agenda. Each change is a good reflection of the priorities of the group in charge.

Prior to the current conservative group (the Liberal National Coalition) coming to power, The Environment fell under the umbrella of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities or DSEWPaC.

It was a bit of a grab bag of issues but it signalled that ‘sustainability’ was a high priority for the Labor Government of the time, and that sustainability had strong connections across multiple sectors such as water and population. This reflected the growing consensus that has emerged in recent decades that sustainability needed to be integrated across sectors if it was to make a difference.

‘Climate Change’, the key sustainability issue of our times, had its own department, reflecting the political priority the Labor party had placed on climate change (and some believe this structure placed climate change closer to the central economic ministers/agencies). Prime Minister Rudd had, after all, declared climate change the great moral issue of our times (but then reneged on his pledge to do something about it).

On the outer

And then the conservatives stormed to power in 2013 under Tony Abbott and ‘sustainability’ was an orphan in search of a patron. SEWPaC became simply the Department of the Environment, and the Department of Climate Change was subsumed into it. Environmental budgets were cut and ‘The Environment’ was clearly on the outer.

Where possible, the government avoided talking about climate change or biodiversity, and the idea of sustainability was simply code for how do we get more efficient (and fuel even greater economic growth).

A few years into the conservative rule, the Department of the Environment also took on responsibility for ‘Energy’ And, even though Malcolm Turnbull put the Environment first in the department title (it was now the Department of the Environment and Energy), no-one was under any illusion as to which sector called the shots.

The Environment part of the department laboured on with ever decreasing resources while the government undertook several reviews on how environmental checks could be streamlined in order to enable economic development to grow unimpeded.

The Department of AWE

And now we have the latest reorganisation – The Environment Department is now being subsumed into the Department of Agriculture along with water to become The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (or DAWE).

I think it would be safe to say, given the Coalition Government’s track record, that this new mega Department of AWE will place the protection of environmental values a distant third behind ramping up agricultural productivity and maximising the economic return on our troubled water resources.

As one example of that track record, earlier this year the Government ran a review on green tape and how environmental constraints (in the form of our national environmental law, the EPBC Act) might be lifted from farmers. Ninety percent of all land clearing in Australia is for agriculture and yet this review found that only 2.7% of the 6000 referrals considered under the EPBC Act have been for agriculture. In other words, the overwhelming majority of federal environmental regulation doesn’t even touch our farmers and still they complain and want even less constraint placed on them.

Well, now The Environment is truly back in its box and the new Department of AWE will likely ensure that’s where it remains (while this government is in charge, anyway).

Priorities and mental models

And this reveals a tragic reversal of the central tenet of ecological economics, that our society and economy are a subset of The Environment. Rather, this latest reorganisation suggests that The Environment is a subset of the economy and reflects the conservative catch cry that we’ll look after The Environment once we’ve fixed the economy.

As our farms, houses, suburbs, businesses, national parks and endangered species are all going up in flames, the lunacy of this ideology has never been so apparent. Our environment is failing and, as it does, it is bringing down the economy with it.

This is not the time to turn our backs on The Environment or see it as a marginal add on to our economy. And yet this is exactly what our Government seems intent on doing.

But we’re only a tiny part of the problem!

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The bankrupt philosophy underpinning the Morrison Doctrine

By David Salt

Seven suited powerbrokers sit in an air-conditioned board room discussing the morality of their business. Unfortunately, for them, their bank has been caught putting profits before people in manner which breaks the law and deemed morally repugnant. What are they to do?

David Pope, one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists, imagined what might have gone on in that boardroom. He suggested in his daily cartoon (in The Canberra Times, 24 November 2019) that maybe they could hide behind the argument of relativity: that their bank’s illegal money transactions were just a tiny fraction of the global total and that doing something different wouldn’t change the “child exploitation climate in the Philippines one jot”.

Of course, Pope was using the Westpac debacle to throw a light on the Australian Government’s hypocrisy in relation to our nation’s carbon emissions, something that is quite unmissable because he labelled this cartoon ‘the Morrison Doctrine’. That’s because Prime Minister Morrison used pretty much the same argument in defending his party’s approach to climate change. He said:

“Climate change is a global phenomenon and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change – we’re taking action on climate change. But I think to suggest that at just 1.3% of emissions, that Australia doing something more or less would change the fire outcome this season – I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison*, in The Guardian

To paraphrase, the Morrison Doctrine says that our ‘sin’ is but a small part of the overall ‘sin’ and doing something about our sin wouldn’t make much difference to the global total. The unstated part of this train of logic is: therefore, we needn’t bother because doing something will cost us.

The Morrison Doctrine: Image by David Pope, courtesy of The Canberra Times

The Doctrine fails for some sins

Pope’s cartoon is a fabulous parody of our Prime Minister’s defence and it’s worthy of reflection on several levels.

First, the Morrison Doctrine didn’t work for Westpac. The bank’s CEO at the time, was reported to have told staff that mainstream Australians were not overly concerned about what had happened.

“This is not a major issue,” he said. “So, we don’t need to overcook this.”

But, as it turned out, he was dead wrong. Mainstream Australia was appalled at the behaviour of Westpac and within days our political leaders had sensed this and joined in with the mob calling for heads to roll.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “these are some very disturbing transactions involving despicable behaviour”. Attorney-General Christian Porter said “this is as serious as it ever gets”, while Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Westpac of giving “a free pass to paedophiles!”

Westpac’s share price plummeted, its CEO resigned and its Chairman brought forward his retirement.

So, in the case or Westpac and the Morrison Doctrine, ‘our little sin’ did count. Not doing anything (or much) was simply unacceptable and believing otherwise was a hanging offence.

But the Doctrine works for the Government

I think the reason the Pope cartoon stuck with me is because of the many questions raised by Westpac’s corporate failure compared to our government’s failure on climate change. The big question is: Why is the Westpac sin seen as an unacceptable moral failure (for which the board must be held accountable) when no-one is held accountable for the policy failure on limiting carbon emissions?

There are many answers to this: the Westpac failure was well documented and the lines of accountability crystal clear; whereas the climate failure is global in scale, complex and it’s very challenging to hold individual people, institutions or governments directly accountable.

The Westpac failure followed on shortly after the Banking Royal Commission which exposed the corrupt heart beating behind so many bank practices so the broader community was already sensitised (and outraged) by corporate malpractice. The Westpac malpractice gave us a target to vent our sense of injustice on.

And the Westpac failure indirectly involved possible sex trafficking and exploitation of children, a moral crime deemed unacceptable by society; whereas conservative governments everywhere are framing climate change as an economic issue and doing their best to discount the moral consequences of inaction. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for example, summed it up best at the Liberal’s recent electoral victory when he said “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

A tiny part of the problem (?)

But maybe the reason Pope’s cartoon got me thinking so much was because it played on one of the central articles of the climate denialist’s cant: that humans have only added a little to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which in themselves are only trace gases. A little on a little surely can’t be the problem the scientists are saying, can it (and definitely not something worth sacrificing economic growth for)?

Well, it depends. The science says it matters enormously. The science says little changes to the atmosphere fundamentally shifts the Earth system. However, setting aside the scientific consensus, a little sin might be completely unacceptable when it involves transgressing community norms like the sex trafficking of children.

But this ‘little sin’ of economic growth heedless of the consequences is drowning the little children of low lying Pacific islands? It’s also destroying the livelihoods of all those families that depend on the ongoing health of the Great Barrier Reef? This little sin is pushing the climate to the point where it undermines our food security.

“There has to be some understanding of accountability for when these things happen.” These aren’t my words, they are Scott Morrison’s but he was referring to the Westpac failure, not his own on climate change.

*Australia’s little bit: whenever anyone says to you Australia is pulling its weight in producing only 1.3% of global emissions (as our PM constantly does) politely point out at only 0.3% of the global population we are the highest per capita emitters in the developed world.

Main image: Image by cinelina from Pixabay

The script that burns us

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But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire

By David Salt

The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.

We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.

There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.

We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.

The script

So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.

At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.

Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.

The ideology

Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.

Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.

For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).

This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.

Dominion

The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.

Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.

This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.

It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.

Future replay

Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.

Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.

By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).

*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay

I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!!

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How do scientists get attention when their science is ignored?

By David Salt

Our elected leaders are ignoring the science on climate change, turning their back on an unfolding biodiversity catastrophe and, in so doing, increasing our vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters while dispossessing future generations. If the scientist’s science is not making a difference, what’s a scientist supposed to do? Well, it seems increasingly they’re penning public letters to our elected leaders pleading with them to acknowledge the science and act on the evidence (rather than hide within their ideology and continue to prop up vested interests).

Last week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries and multiple disciplines published an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for urgent action on climate change. It pointed out that science on climate change has been well known for the past 40 years and, indeed, had only grown stronger over that time. While the letter generated considerable media attention, it was largely ignored by our political leaders.

Strengthen our environmental law

A couple of weeks ago, 240 of Australia’s leading conservation scientists published an open letter to our Prime Minister calling for stronger environmental law to protect our imperilled biodiversity. This was done in the hope that a soon to be announced decadal review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act might strengthen the legislation.

That review has since been announced but, despite considerable media attention given to the scientists’ letter, the government has framed the review as a way of making the environmental law more efficient, cutting the green tape that blocks economic development. And not one of the 240 scientists who signed the letter to the PM asking for stronger environmental law are on the EPBC Review Panel; indeed no biodiversity scientist is included.

Letters to governments from scientists are not an uncommon strategy employed to raise public awareness on issues, most often issues connected with sustainability. More than 12,000 European scientists signed a letter supporting the student climate strikes that took place in March this year. In New Zealand more than 1,500 academics released a similar statement of support.

Canadian scientists also seem very partial to a protest letter. Sixty Canadian scientists wrote to the Canadian PM on climate action in 2006. Eighteen hundred early-career researchers in Canada wrote to the Canadian Government in 2016 demanding scientific integrity in environmental decision making. And 250 international scientists signed a letter to the Canadian PM in 2017 warning about the international importance of Canada’s efforts on climate change.

A warning to humanity

One of the more notable letters penned by scientists on sustainability was the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, released back in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was signed by more than 1700 scientists including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences.

These concerned professionals called on humankind to cut back on our environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Now, surely in a rational world, when your best brains tell you we need to change because we’re heading for disaster, you sit up and listen. But did we? Not in any way that was really measurable.

You didn’t listen last time!

Twenty five years later in 2017 a new cohort of our ‘best brain’ scientists put out a second notice to humanity pointing out we didn’t listen to the 1992 warning. In this article they also showed graphs of resource use, carbon emissions and other key environmental indicators. In their timelines of these graphs they helpfully mark 1992, the year of the first letter. In almost all cases, consumption or levels of emissions either continued on their merry ascent or even increased in rate following the first ‘warning to humanity’. No government or industry, it seems, was too concerned by what the Union of Concerned Scientists thought was important.

In the second notice to humanity the authors wrote: “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.”

So what is a letter worth? If the response to the second notice is the same as to the first (‘well articulated’) letter, expect business as usual to continue or even to ramp up.

The pros and cons of letters

It’s easy to be cynical about these letter-writing exercises. They often come over as self-righteous and pious. First notice: ‘Listen to me, I am your oracle scientist. If you keep doing what you’re doing you will be sorry.’ Second notice: ‘You didn’t listen to me last time, now you will be very very sorry if you don’t stop what you’re doing!’

As we discovered in Australia in our recent national elections, people don’t like being told they are wrong and need to change, even when the evidence is overwhelming that we do need to change.

There’s also the argument that while a ‘first’ letter sounds revelatory, by the time we reach the 14th letter, it’s beginning to sound whiny and possibly ‘crying wolf’.

Having said this, it’s easy to be cynical and when these letters come out the deniers, party hacks and apparatchiks line up to start throwing stones; it’s easy to be cynical, but possibly it’s not all that helpful. Scientists should be encouraged to take their concerns to the broader public more often. The have the insights and knowledge that will likely prove critical when we get serious about sustainability and climate change. They need to be an active part of the broader conversation.

Communicating with non-scientists on technical and complex issues is never easy. Scientists should be rewarded when they make the effort. Many universities are now encouraging their scientists to be more active in the communication of their science (and its impact on society) to a broader non-scientist audience. We need more, not less of it.

There’s also the argument that throwing out one warning is unlikely to shift society. Change is always a challenge; just ask anyone who attempted to shift the status quo. You need to keep throwing pebbles because you never know when a message cuts through possibly precipitating widespread change.

And sometimes – when the message is well crafted, the timing is right and the need is obvious to all – sometimes a letter is what really makes all the difference. Einstein wrote* to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the US should start its own nuclear program – the rest is history.

*Actually, the letter was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who few people knew and signed by Albert Einstein who everyone knew. The message was well crafted, the timing was right and the need obvious to all.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

On the taboo of triage

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Some hard choices we don’t want to even think about

By David Salt

Former leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson, made an astounding comment last week during an address to farmers and industry leaders. “Government ministers are not turning up at events if they have the word ‘climate’ in the title,” he claimed.

Hard to believe but everyone knows that political parties of different stripes avoid certain words that trouble the ideologies that underpin the core beliefs of that party. As George Orwell frequently noted (and dictators often put into practice), language is power.

And it’s not just things tagged ‘climate’. I was amazed to observe the word ‘biodiversity’ disappeared from almost all Government messaging after the Liberal Party (under Tony Abbott) took office in 2013. How is it possible that a term like biodiversity*, that emerged from the academic field of conservation science and surely carries no political baggage at all, is seen to be politically taboo?

Priorities

In a general sense I’d ascribe it to broad government priorities: first we fix the economy, then we look after the environment. It’s a common mantra of political leaders and particularly so for those at the conservative end of the spectrum. I won’t discuss here why I believe this prioritisation of economy first/environment later is wrong (on so many levels) because that’s a big and hairy discussion better left to another time. However, it’s closely related to another taboo: don’t question the primacy of economic growth – growth is good, ad infinitum.

Of course, the empirical evidence on climate change and biodiversity decline is incontestable in terms of evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus. Which is not to say the evidence isn’t contested in the ideological arena of political power? Just consider the denialists’ most recent effort, a publication titled ‘There is no climate emergency’. It was reviewed and shown to be a text-book example of the denialist dark arts exhibiting bias, inaccuracy and cherry-picked information.

However, surely it’s easier to not mention something rather than expend considerable effort in constructing an ever more elaborate lie to deny the existence of that thing.

Which leads me to a taboo word so consequential that we must never breathe its name: triage.

Well, that’s not completely true. In medical settings like hospitals and treating wounded soldiers on battlefields, ‘triage’ is a common and accepted term. Indeed, the idea was born on the Napoleonic battlefield.

Triage comes from the French word ‘trier’, which means to separate, sort, sift or select. It’s all about setting priorities when the need is urgent and resources are limited. On the battlefield (or in a hospital’s emergency ward) doctors and nurses triage patients to ensure appropriate care is given as quickly as possible depending on available resources: “This soldier we can save, this soldier we can’t.” “This patient needs immediate care, that patient will have to wait.”

Triage this

Medical triage underpins some of the toughest decisions humans have to make but society accepts this process because these decisions are made by trusted experts working for the common good.

But when it comes to other forms of triage – namely conservation triage, landscape triage or enterprise triage – we’re entering dangerously taboo terrain.

Conservation triage refers to prioritising resources for threatened species (eg, “this species we can save, this species we can’t do much for so let’s stop wasting funds on it”); landscape triage refers to prioritising resources for different types of land use (eg, “we’ll support farmers working in this region but not those working over there”); and enterprise triage refers to prioritising resources for different business sectors (eg, “renewables is an emerging industry that should be supported but manufacturing is a mature sector that can’t be propped up”).

From a political perspective, these forms of triage are never to be mentioned because as soon as you do you draw a target on yourself. If you suggest that government should favour one thing while letting another fade away you’ll be accused of picking winners and giving up on losers.

Winners and losers

When triage is applied to threatened species the debate becomes particularly heated. If any politician even dares to suggest that resources might be better used if they were prioritised to where they might have the greatest impact, the media (and opportunistic politicians from the other side) immediately ask: “Which species are you giving up on?!”

It’s an effective attack because the broader community believes no species should go extinct, and the government is careful to avoid any discussion on whether this expectation is being met.

Of course, this expectation is not being met. Indeed, the reverse applies. The world is witnessing a biodiversity catastrophe and Australia leads the developed world in our rate of extinction.

The tragic irony of not undertaking robust conservation triage (which necessarily involves transparency and accountability) is that the pitifully inadequate resources available for threatened species conservation are poorly applied resulting in waste and ineffective conservation. Politicians pretend that all species will be saved while making ad hoc, reactive and opaque decisions to save whatever species is the flavour of the month. It’s not only inefficient, it’s quite immoral and represents a deep failure in leadership.

Whatever, don’t mention the word ‘triage’ as a tool of conservation. Not only is it a politically challenging process to prosecute, it also throws a light on our abject failure on threatened species conservation.

Don’t mention it

Similar arguments apply to other forms of triage, such as landscape and enterprise triage. Picking winners highlights the losers and throws a focus on the government’s failure in letting an unsustainable situation develop.

Attempting triage on land management, for example, would require the government to acknowledge that traditional farming is simply not appropriate in many Australian landscapes contexts, especially in light of predictions connected to climate change. Criticising farmers, of course, is another taboo.

It’s easier to simply not mention ‘climate’ (or ‘biodiversity’ or ‘triage’), and hope your pigeons don’t come home to roost until at least after the next election.

*On biodiversity: The word ‘biodiversity’ is a shortening of the term ‘biological diversity’ and broadly speaking refers to the variability of life on Earth. The word took on official usage in the 1980s (and its creation is attributed to the scientists Thomas Lovejoy and Walter Rosen). Truth to tell, while I attribute the demise of the term ‘biodiversity’ in political discourse to a plot by Abbott’s conservatives to avoid all science, a robust study of the decline of ‘biodiversity’ in conservation policy discourse in Australia has revealed that the downturn in usage began much earlier than Abbott’s rise to government in 2013. This study, led by Alex Kusmanoff at RMIT, suggests that from 2003 to 2014 the term ‘biodiversity’ was in steady decline while the term ‘ecosystem services’, an economic framing of the benefits of nature, was on the rise.

Image: Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0