Climate polarity – when it comes to carbon emissions it’s the super-rich versus the world

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By David Salt

On the one hand we have Australia’s richest woman telling the privileged students of one of Australia’s most exclusive schools that global warming is not caused by humans.

On the other, we have the NGO Save the Children releasing an extensively researched (and independently reviewed) report pointing out global warming is caused by humans and the consequences of this are that children worldwide will suffer.

There is somewhat of a cosmic gulf between these two positions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to government action on climate change, it seems the beliefs of Australia’s richest woman are more important than the suffering of coming generations.

“Be very careful about information spread on an emotional basis or tied to money”

Australia’s richest woman, if you’re in any doubt, is the iron ore billionaire Gina Rhinehart; and she made her comments denying the link between human activity and climate change in an address to students at St Hilda’s in Perth, her old school.

In her speech she said humans do not cause global warming and warned against climate change ‘propaganda’. She said the girls should consider influences such as the sun’s orbit, volcanoes and “other scientific facts that I had the benefit of learning when I was at school.” (Note, these are standard red herrings put forward by the ‘Church of Climate Denial’.)

She believes people are being “overwhelmed by media and propaganda” regarding climate change and urged St Hilda’s students to “research for the facts.”

Gina Rhinehart is on old world climate denier with deep investments in the coal industry and a major supporter of the National Party, the political party that has effectively blocked national action on climate change in Australia for most of the last decade.

Her most breathtaking statement in her speech to her old, privileged school was: “Please be very careful about information spread on an emotional basis, or tied to money, or egos or power-seekers.” Breathtaking for its irony, lack of reflection and hypocrisy. And so sad for the truth it enfolds – that the money, egos and power-seeking of the super-rich trump the sustainable future of civil society itself; the ‘truth’ is that the power that the super-rich wield to protect their investments (against the interests of everyone else) is more potent than the democratic processes we established to steward the common good.

Over time, this blog, Sustainability Bites, has discussed the many reports that document the parlous state and degrading trends of our environment (think bleaching coral systems, burning forest biomes, extreme weather and collapsing biodiversity). We’ve also noted the growing chorus of appeals for action from government from all corners of society (think emergency workers, doctors, economists, academics and lawyers); all largely ignored by our national government.

All of this came to mind as I read Rhinehart’s message to her old school, and all of it I’m sure she would have simply discounted as emotional, biased and fear mongering being driven by people with vested interests.

What about the children?

About the same time as Rhinehart was delivering her world view on the state of the world, I saw a report from Save the Children painting a stark future for the children of the world. The report, titled Born into the climate crisis, reveals the devastating impact the climate crisis will have on children and their rights if nations do not work together to limit warming to 1.5C as a matter of the greatest urgency. Launched ahead of global climate talks in Glasgow, the report is based on new modelling led by researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

The report reveals that even if nations meet their Paris Agreement pledges, a child born in 2020 will experience on average: twice as many bushfires; almost three times as many crop failures; two and half times as many droughts; three times as many river floods; and seven times more heatwaves in their lifetime compared to what Baby Boomers have lived with (Rhinehart, I note, was born in 1954; right in the middle of the Baby Boomers).

In Australia, children born in 2020 can expect to experience four times as many heatwaves, three times as many droughts, as well as 1.5 times as many bushfires and river floods, under the current trajectory of global emissions.

This is not an isolated or ‘out there’ conclusion. It’s in keeping with predictions from a range of different sources attempting to understand and manage the consequences of climate change. The World Health Organization, as one other recent example, has just released a report confirming that climate change is the most pressing concern and threat to people’s health saying rising temperatures threaten to undo the past 50 years of improving global health!

It’s just not fair

According to the Oxfam, the world’s wealthiest 1% of people produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%. Thing about that.

The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called “polluter elite” – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

The world’s richest enjoy the fruits of economic growth. The world’s poorest, pay for it.

Oxfam makes a very strong connection between inequity and climate change. It says: “The fight against inequality and the fight for climate justice are the same fight.”

Further, it says governments everywhere need to end subsidies for fossil fuels (according to the IMF, the fossil fuel industry benefits from subsidies of $11m every minute!) and stop mining and burning coal. It’s fairly explicit about this: “Nowhere in the world should governments allow the construction of a single new coal-fired power station, the public health and climate costs of which are borne by the poorest and most marginalized communities worldwide.” Against this background it is to be noted that the Australian Government has just last week signed off on four new coal mines to proceed.

And, as Oxfam points out, climate impacts hit the poorest hardest. What’s more, climate change is pushing more people into poverty. The World Bank estimates that an additional 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 because of climate change.

Is it any wonder the super wealthy would rather not reflect on the many inconvenient truths associated with climate change?

Let them eat cake

It’s reputed that in the 1789 during an awful famine in France, the plight of the peasants was brought to attention of the queen, Marie Antoinette. They are starving and have no bread, she was told; to which she replied: “Let them eat cake.”

The queen was not popular with the people, seen as profligate and out of touch. The massive inequities present in France at the time precipitated the French Revolution, which led to the annihilation of the royal family. Marie Antoinette lost her head on the guillotine in 1793. Maybe she should have shown a little more concern and empathy for the poor of her nation.

Gina Rhinehart is a member of our planet’s super elite. Her outrageous fortune is based on minerals extraction and fossil fuel. She rejects the science underpinning our understanding of anthropogenic climate change, encourages others to do the same, and shows little regard for the plight of a growing number of people on this planet (including coming generations).

She has the right to her own beliefs but when those beliefs shore up the recalcitrant National Party causing our nation to turn our back on an effective climate change response, people have the right to call her out.

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she were to respond with “Let them eat cake.”

Banner image: Anthropogenic climate change is an inconvenient (and oft discounted) truth in the eyes of the super-rich. (Image by Tumisu from Pixabay)

Australia’s climate change policy is a marketing slogan!

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Our response to our greatest challenge is becoming increasingly absurd, surreal and totally untrustworthy

By David Salt

On opening this morning’s newspaper (Canberra Times, 4 October 2021, p7) I was punched in the guts by an enormous advertisement proclaiming:
“GOOD NEWS. AUSTRALIA’S ALREADY REDUCED EMISSIONS BY 20% (since 2005)
FIND OUT MORE AT POSITIVEENERGY.GOV.AU
AUSTRALIA’S MAKING POSITIVE ENERGY”

That’s really all it said, and the website it directs you to contains little more info either.

(Not so) Pretty in pink

This vivid pink ad was brought to me by the Australian Government. In other words, my taxes were paying for this craven attempt to reframe the Government’s woeful efforts to address the existential challenge of our age – climate change. It’s enough to make you choke on your weetbix (which is what I literally did).

This, when the Government won’t even release a statement on what it intends to do about Australia’s carbon emissions weeks out from what’s regarded as the world’s most important climate conference ever in Glasgow – the crucial COP26 climate summit starting at the end of October (which the Prime Minister is now hinting he will not attend!).

This, following climate carnage around the world in the form of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes (not to mention Australia’s own climate catastrophes in the shape of bleaching coral reefs and record fire seasons).

This, following statements from our Deputy Prime Minister (leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce) that his party won’t sign up to any climate plan (a plan he’s responsible for producing) without knowing the cost (at the same time his party happily signed up to an un-costed nuclear submarine program expected to run to hundreds of billions of dollars).

Absurd, surreal and missing the point

It’s so absurd that it’d be funny if it wasn’t about the future of everything I care about.

It’s almost surreal in that Australia is now the climate laggard of the developed world, and yet we boldly (and wrongly) shout we’re doing our fair share, while the rest of the world gets on with serious discussions and greater commitments. And there’s plenty of evidence exposing our duplicity. Australia has been ranked last for climate action out of nearly 200 countries; we’ve become the climate joke of the 21st Century, a pariah on the world stage.

For let’s be clear about this, the Australian Government’s target of 26-28% emissions reductions (from 2005 levels) by 2030 is patently inadequate. Even when the targets were declared in 2015 by Tony Abbott, a renowned climate denier, they were perceived to be inadequate by the Government’s own climate science agency (which nominated a target of 45% as being what was required if we are guided by the science, a level rejected by Abbott). Since then the science has firmed (and delay has raised the urgency for action) and the call from climate scientists is now for reductions in emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Australian Government, by contrast, has perverted the discussion to focus exclusively on ‘over-the-horizon’ net-zero targets for 2050, and won’t even commit to this aspiration for that distant year (over 8 election cycles away). It’s academic anyway as climate scientists point out that the world achieving net zero by 2050 is at least a decade too late. In this sense, the climate denialists steering Government policy have won in their efforts to stop meaningful action.

And untrustworthy to boot

Unfortunately, even if we could accept the Government’s claims that our existing targets are acceptable and will play a role in the world addressing climate change, we can’t trust what they’re actually doing to meet those targets.

Recent investigations on Government emission abatement schemes are revealing them to be ‘cheap tricks and hot air’. The report by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and The Australia Institute found “avoided deforestation” projects do not represent genuine abatement as in most cases the areas were never going to be cleared. About 20% of carbon credits created under the federal Coalition’s main climate change policy do not represent real cuts in carbon dioxide and are essentially “junk”, the research suggests. The projects involve landholders being issued with carbon credits and paid from the government’s $4.5bn emissions reduction fund for not removing vegetation from their land.

Of course, the Government’s mantra is “technology not taxes” when it comes to emission reductions. However, once again, there’s little reason to believe their technology push is real or effective. Front and centre is their investment of $250m in carbon capture and storage. So far there’s been little success with this venture and now Australia’s leading miner, Fortescue metals chief Andrew Forrest, has come out and said : “it’s a good soundbite but it doesn’t work.” Indeed, he claims (and he should know) such projects fail “19 out of 20 times” (and even when they do work, they aren’t cost effective).

And we’re not pulling our weight even if these sham policies were to work. 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. We 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. We are among the top 20 biggest polluters in the world, and if you count our exports we’re the fifth largest.

Why is this occurring? According to Angela Dewan, an American journalist discussing Australia’s appalling performance on climate policy (see Australia is shaping up to be the villain of COP26 climate talks), the answer is simple: “It appears that lobbying fossil fuel companies have hijacked climate policy from the Australian people.”

What do you do?

So, what do you do if you have no effective climate policy but you’re worried that you’re lack of action might be hurting your chances of re-election? (The most recent Lowy Climate Poll, for example, found most Australians want Australia to increase its ambitions on climate change policy.)

Easy, simply tell everyone loudly and repeatedly you’re doing a great job, put up yet another catchy slogan (Australia is making Positive Energy!) and take out large striking ads across every form of media (in bright pink).

You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. Our current government seems to believe it can fool all of the people all of the time. I’m betting they’re wrong.

Banner image: ‘We’re on a road to nowhere…’ (Image by G John from Pixabay)

Blind faith in the future – the booming billionaire’s club

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The new space race is as unsustainable as it is unfair

By David Salt

Anthropologists in the 23rd Century struggled to make sense of the The Big Fall that had occurred some two hundred years earlier. So much of the human record had been lost. Clearly, as written in the physical record (tree rings, sediments, ice cores), there had been some form of climate catastrophe but the humans back then would have been aware of this, and their technology was strong, more powerful in many ways than the technology available to people after The Fall. Why then, didn’t they do something about it before it was too late?

Most peculiar, the anthropologists had found a series of massive rockets sitting silently on launch pads across a country once known as the United States. These weren’t weapons. They were launch vehicles but with minimal payloads. All they could do was carry a handful of people up into space for a short time before dropping back to Earth. In doing so, they emitted vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating the climate crisis, but to what end? Was it simply to give a few people a higher view of what was already obvious – that the planet was at breaking point? It really was a mystery.

Coming back down to Earth

Who could blame future generations from wondering what the hell we were thinking in allowing a small group of the super rich to spend billions of dollars on the quest to get into space at a time that our planet was slipping towards serious and irreversible environmental decline.

Our coral reefs are bleaching, the forest biome is burning, the sea is rising, and biodiversity is crashing. Human suffering is growing and the young are starting to give up hope.

So, in these dire times, what do the planet’s richest men think is the most important thing to do with their amassed wealth – fire up a race for space, and develop their own private rocket companies.

The shameless super rich

And, maybe to underline the sheer perversity of their priorities, they are going about this contest in a completely shameless manner.

Richard Branson (billionaire no. 1) turns up to the launch pad on the day of lift off (of the his Virgin Galactic) on a push bike, underscoring the enormity of the feat he is about to undertake, and shining a nice light on his dependence on a mode of transport that doesn’t use fossil fuel. Except it was all a marketing exercise to promote a bike company doing a cross promotional deal with Virgin, something they confessed to several days later.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (billionaire no. 2), returns to Earth on his spacecraft the Blue Origin and immediately expressed his gratitude: “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this,” he said. At first it was taken as a joke but everyone quickly realised he meant it; and he was then roundly criticised for the unsafe work conditions and low pay his Amazon employees have to endure.

Elon Musk (billionaire no. 3) set up a company SpaceX to develop his commercial space program. He purchased a large tract of land just off the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Texas border with Mexico, to build a launch pad and declared: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool.” That proved fortunate as several test rockets blew themselves to smithereens. But it wasn’t ‘cool’ because that land ‘with nobody around’ was a mosaic of nature reserves and home to a plethora of vulnerable species. Many conservationists are appalled that these ‘protected’ areas are now being showered in broken rocket bits.

Are they just toying with us

Or, if you want to be completely cynical, you might see these acts of lying, worker exploitation and environmental destruction as deliberate acts of misdirection – be my guest, get angry at these lesser crimes of self-centred narcissism; just don’t start examining the bigger issues behind this private space race. Those bigger issues include the misuse of precious resources, resource use that exacerbates dangerous global change, and the appropriate governance of the mega rich.

According to Eloise Marais, a physical geographer at University College London, each rocket launch releases 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide (split between 4 or so passengers). For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger.

Of course, there are many more plane flights than rocket launches but these early investments by the billionaire club are predicated on the belief that space tourism (and space industry in general) are about to take off big time so this mass release of carbon is only set to dramatically increase.

And it’s not just carbon that’s the problem. Space scientists in Australia recently identified stratospheric ozone depletion as a key environmental concern for space launches.

Of course, the billionaires claim this all about saving Earth, not burning it. Bezos, for example, said he hoped the flight would be the first step in a process that would eventually see environmentally-damaging industries relocated to other planets in order to protect Earth. He acknowledged it might take decades but you gotta start somewhere! I’m not sure we have decades, Jeff, so maybe we need another strategy to deal with those environmentally-damaging industries.

Maybe the biggest moral issue with billionaire’s space club is the sheer unfairness of it. The rich get richer on the benefits of ‘unbounded’ economic growth, and the poor get hit with the impacts generated by that growth. According to the UN, the world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50%! The wealthiest 5% alone – the so-called ‘polluter elite’ – contributed 37% of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.

Well, the billionaire’s space club is the latest manifestation of the disconnection between the wealthy elite and the planet that supports them. Do they really think their wealth will insulate them from mass ecosystem collapse?

Back to the future

Our 23rd Century anthropologists have made an important discovery in their quest to understand the mystery of the ‘rockets of the billionaire club’. The answer, they say, lies in an earlier anthropological work by a scientist of that time named Jared Diamond. A book of his called Collapse has been recovered. This book examined the fall of earlier civilisations, and detailed the end days of the civilisation that once existed on remote Easter Island.

According to Diamond, the people of Easter Island built great stone god heads to ensure their ongoing prosperity. The construction of these god heads consumed enormous resources but their faith in them was strong, and they kept producing them.

As the Easter Islander civilisation grew they chopped down all the trees and, in so doing, lost the capacity to build canoes to fish for food. Society was at risk so what did they do, they started carving more stone god heads, even bigger ones. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work. Society collapsed, people starved, and their biggest stone god heads can still be found half carved from the cliffs from where they originated.

Of course, said the 23rd Century anthropologists. The rockets of the 21st Century are the same thing – acts of blind faith in the face of environmental collapse. My faith is strong, my God will protect me, and here is my technological monument to prove it.

In light of what they must have known about the planet at that time, what can we say from this, the anthropologists asked themselves? They were blinded by their mastery and their technology, they weren’t very reflective, and possibly they were idiots, they concluded.

Banner image: Stone god heads in the quarry on Easter Island. Some scholars believe these were being excavated at the time of societal collapse on the island. Are our billionaire’s rockets possible filling the same function? (Image by SoniaJane from Pixabay)

Passing the buck – the rights and responsibilities of fossil fuel divestment

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What happens when the ‘Big Australian’ sees the writing on the wall

By David Salt

Heard the news? BHP, one of our biggest miners (and biggest emitters), is going ‘green’! Indeed this big news from the company that once promoted itself as the ‘Big Australian’. It began selling off its coal assets a couple of years ago and now it it’s dumping its oil and gas assets. It looks like it’s getting out of fossil fuels (such a dirty business), focussing instead on its profitable iron ore and buying up potash mines (so you can grow healthier plants, potash being an essential potassium plant fertiliser).

With carbon emitting fossil fuels so on the nose, it’s great to see our big corporates finally pulling their weight…

…until you look at the detail and realise it’s just ‘business as usual’ – profits before people and smoke and mirrors with a little greenwashing to tick the corporate responsibility box.

Better do something

As everyone is now noting, our planet is suffering under climate change (this week it’s Louisiana’s turn) and our very future is increasingly uncertain. The science, now half a century strong, is being borne out and the underlying problem is the carbon emissions from how we do business.

Coal, being a dirty (carbon intense) source of energy, is particularly smelly. In recent years many sections of society (for example institutions in law, economics and science) have been trying hard to stop our use of coal and this has led to coal assets falling in value.

Companies everywhere are divesting themselves of fossil fuels but coal is particularly problematic, and even coal companies are now divesting from coal. Consider, for example, BHP’s Mt Arthur, in NSW’s Hunter Valley. Two years ago the mine was worth $2bn. Now it’s a $200m liability that BHP is struggling to off load!

Regarding its oil and gas assets, BHP is giving Woodside all of them in exchange for shares in Woodside meaning BHP shareholders will own 48% of Woodside. Which sounds like a sleight of hand to me in which BHP can claim it doesn’t own them because the assets are actually owned by BHP shareholders. This means, according to the Guardian, that shareholders will be able to sell their shares if they want to reduce their exposure to fossil fuel assets.

Meanwhile, Green groups are saying Woodside doesn’t have a good record on managing fossil fuel assets after it sold a floating oil rig, Northern Endeavour, for a nominal amount to a company that collapsed three years later without paying decommissioning costs estimated at between $200m and $1bn. Woodside claimed the sale was all above board.

Passing the buck

Which raises the big and complex issue of what is to become of all these ‘stranded’ fossil fuel assets. Will big companies simply off load them for whatever they can get and let some other hapless soul deal with the repercussions?

And does getting rid of these assets mean they’ll stop producing carbon emissions?

Political philosopher Jeremy Moss believes BHP (along with other companies) is banking the profits from their failing assets, while washing their hands of the responsibility to do something about their past and ongoing contribution to climate change. Instead of selling these assets, he says, companies should retire the assets and wear the costs.

In a recent Conversation editorial, Professor Moss reckons that if fossil fuel producers are truly serious about their climate responsibilities then two things need to happen: Fossil fuel producers should retire their mines or wells instead of selling them and they should pay for the cost of restoring mined land. Governments also need to step up to the plate and establish a national inventory of liabilities and an independent body to monitor safety of former mine and well sites.

Sounds reasonable and logical, just not doable. Based on past performance (eg, decades of climate denial and effective lobbying to prevent proactive climate policy), I think it’s safe to say the big fossil fuel miners think it’s cheaper to manipulate government than be true to their rhetoric on social responsibility.

Having said that, fossil fuel miners are now being hard hit by the divestment movement. Financial institutions around the world have adopted divestment policies aiming to end or reduce their involvement in the carbon economy and it does appear that new investments in oil, gas and coal are drying up. Which is likely why BHP is quarantining its fossil fuel assets in this joint venture with Woodside.

The non-fossil fuel BHP entity (which gave away its oil and gas assets) is no longer a target of the divestment movement and can once again access international capital. The exclusive fossil-fuel BHP/Woodside entity will carry on emitting because of the enormous injection of assets from BHP, possibly the only way it could develop given the divestment movement is depriving it of traditional forms of capital and insurance.

And then the music stops…

It’s a win-win for the corporates (and their shareholders), and a lose-lose for the planet (and its inhabitants).

Of course, one day the music will stop and the corporates betting their profits on stranded fossil fuel assets will find there’s no chair for them to sit on. The Bank for International Settlements has suggested that when this happens there could be a collapse in asset prices of fossil fuel industries that could lead to a wider economic collapse along the lines of the GFC.

What might a win-win look like? That’s a win for corporates and a win for society. Based on a realistic costing of the impacts of climate change in coming years* and being realistic about the tiny chance that the big corporates play fair (ie, be true to their social responsibility and not interfere with governmental policy), I think the best we could hope for might be governments stepping in and buying out the whole fossil fuel sector at some cut (heavily-discounted) rate based on their falling asset value.

Corporates will always pass the buck. But governments are elected to protect society. So why not accept the situation and get our governments to actually accept the buck on our behalf?

Haven’t we already spent trillions coping with the corona pandemic (and misbegotten adventures in Afghanistan). Why not draw down the debt a bit further and buy all the stranded fossil fuel assets? We can then restore the minesites (a few good jobs there, I reckon), repurpose the assets we’ve picked up to maximise their social utility (oil rigs make excellent platforms for hotels) and wear the cost?

Yes, I know this will have me labelled as a pixie in cloud cuckoo land (and a communist to boot) but do the maths yourselves. The cost to us of buying these stranded assets versus the cost of allowing them to continue functioning (ie, destroying the planet after taking out the economy) surely makes it a rational thing to do.

*There are many robust estimates of the cost of climate change in the coming years from many respected institutions. They are all scary and they have all been ignored by the Australian Government. Here’s one:
Lack of climate action over 50 years will cost Australian economy $3.4tn and 880,000 jobs

Banner image: Stranded assets? Maybe with a lick of paint they’d make nice floating hotels. (Image by Elise Aldram from Pixabay)

Three experts and a politician in a sandpit – who has the real insight on climate policy in a connected society

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By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

There were three people at the bar – a scientist, a lawyer and an economist – arguing about how to solve the intractable problem of sustainability, and specifically climate change.

The scientist said we just need to know a little more, remove some of the uncertainty around our knowledge on the earth system (and what humans are doing to it), and then society would fall behind the overwhelming scientific consensus that something needs to happen.

The lawyer said we just need better laws proscribing what’s acceptable and what’s not. Better rules are the solution.

The economist said we just need to provide the right incentives for people to begin doing the right thing and discourage them from doing the wrong thing. Bad behaviour, said the economist, should simply cost more making it ‘common sense’ to be sustainable.

Enter the politician

“You mean, like putting a price on carbon?” said a greying, white gentleman in an expensive suit who had butted into the conversation. “That worked a treat for Australia’s climate change policy.”

“Actually,” said the economist, “it did work well until it was canned by the Abbott Government in 2013.”

“But that’s the point,” purred the politician. “We proposed to ‘axe the tax’ and the people voted us in and we did… axe the tax that is. Putting a price on carbon was electoral poison and may we never hear of it again.”

“And you, Ms Scientist,” he said turning on the person representing science…

“It’s ‘doctor’ actually…” stammered the scientist; but was totally ignored by the politician who was building up a good head of righteous steam.

“…how effective has all your additional science reportage been in winning hearts and minds? For God’s sake, the IPCC’s Sixth Report read like a horror movie in terms of what it’s predicting. Yet we were able to deflect its potency by describing it as horror porn and pointing out we were actually beating our emission targets. It quickly faded from the news cycle.

“And as for you, Ms Lawyer, it’s all well and good to let scared children block coal developments by dragging our Minister for the Environment through the court saying she’s abandoned her duty of care to the future but just you watch happens on appeal.

“Mark my words,” he boomed, “No higher court will uphold a judgement that threatens to block every major economic development that brings with it a residue of environmental harm. To do so would kill the economy, the voters won’t hear of it.

“No, don’t you worry your pretty little heads with all this sustainability clap trap. The adults are in charge, and we’ll make sure there’ll be technology aplenty to ensure our thriving economy continues apace!

“And don’t forget whose taxes keep you happy and out of danger playing away in your little academic sandpits,” he finished with a flourish.

Shifting piles of sand

“You might be surprised what you find in sandpits, Mr Member of Parliament,” hissed back the scientist. “Back in the 80s, physicists experimented with models of sandpiles and discovered they were complex systems. The more grains you add to a pile of sand, the more unstable it becomes. It moves into what’s called a critical state.

“As the pile grows, more and more parts of the sand slope become unstable requiring just one more grain of sand to trigger a slide. At a certain point there are enough small triggers across the pile that setting off one small slide creates an avalanche that can rearrange the whole pile.

“You might think you’re safe from one of the small slides but the interconnected critical nature of the pile means change will occur well away from the initiating disturbance.”

“Thanks for that,” quipped the politician. “I’ll remember that next time a blunder into a sandpit.”

Pile high society

“You don’t get it, do you?” snapped the economist. “Our colleague is actually describing society. You and your conservative brethren are trying to hold things in the same state because that best serves your vested interests, your fossil fuel backers. But our sandpile society is slowly building up a resistance to your efforts. And when the instability corrects itself, your lack of action means the correction will be big.

“Companies and governments, though not the Australian Government, are trying to figure out how to sustain themselves in this increasingly uncertain climate-afflicted world. More and more countries are signing up to economic measures like a price on carbon. Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms are being developed by the G7. Even coal companies, irony of irony, are feeling the heat as insurance companies refuse to insure them; companies are having to figure out how they can do this themselves.

“All these things are little patches of instability on the sandpile and it’s making the whole sandpile unstable. This is not just a physics model, economists recognise it all too well and have seen it at play in every economic upheaval from the Great Depression to the GFC.”

“And you piss on the law, Mr Politician,” chimed in the lawyer. “But do you not see what’s happening everywhere at the moment?

“It’s not just a few children disillusioned at your deceit and lack of action. It’s courts at all levels calling you out. The whole Sydney City Council just endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and, of course, most of the world signed up to the Paris Agreement. Citizens everywhere are now standing up and demanding what our governments are actually doing to meet these agreement.

“A Dutch court, in a landmark ruling, has just ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically deepen planned greenhouse gas emission cuts. This could trigger legal action against energy companies around the world.

“And a Paris court has found the French Government legally responsible for its failure to meet targets intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“So, Mr Politician,” said the scientist, taking back the reins of the argument. “What does it mean for your efforts to stop change when all sectors of society – law, economics and science just to mention three – begin building in checks and balances to force change? Your malfeasance enables you to disable some of our efforts – ‘axe the tax’, as you say – but over time the little efforts across society build up, the triggers accumulate, the demographics change and the evidence emerges.

“I’d say you’re sitting on a hypercritical pile of sand being peppered by little grains of sand. And each new grain, each new disturbance, could trigger the slide that triggers the avalanche. And when that happens, your smug self-assurance over the success of the games you’ve been playing will be unable to staunch the flow.”

Nowhere to sit

“And if we’ve scared you out of the sandpit, Mr Politician, think of it as a game of musical chairs,” observed the economist. “Unfortunately, I can’t hear the music anymore.

“And, thanks to you and your efforts, it looks like Australia doesn’t have a chair to sit on.”

Image: In the sandpit of life, a single grain of sand can change everything if the circumstances are ripe. For an excellent article on sandpiles as models of economic growth and disruption, see https://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-growing-economic-sandpile
(Image by Nuwanga Mavinda from Pixabay)

Silver bullets only work in fairy tales so don’t make them policy priorities for climate change

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Simple solutions for complex problems don’t exist and it’s dangerous to think they do

By David Salt

The Morrison Government is placing enormous faith in silver bullets to solve Australia’s biggest challenges. And that should worry every Australian because silver bullets are based on faith, not evidence.

Consider, for starters, their underwhelming response to the corona pandemic.

Simple solutions for complex issues

First they told us (sold us) a covid app would be our passport to living free. If enough people signed up to it, they promised, it would be the key to unlocking our economy. Costing millions of dollars to develop and promote, the COVIDSafe app was indeed supported by most Australians but, unfortunately, it quickly sank without a trace as its promise of infection tracing proved hollow.

Then they reckoned AstraZeneca would be a silver-bullet vaccine enabling an exit from pandemic living, and they put all their (and our) eggs into the AZ basket. So sure of this were they that they supported the production of AstraZeneca in Australia ensuring there would be no supply line issues. And, because they were so confident in the AZ fix, they turned their back on the Pfizer vaccine when it was offered to Australia mid last year.

Unfortunately for the government (and all Australians), the AZ vaccine had a rare blood-clotting side effect (limiting who could get it) and it wasn’t as effective against COVID variants. The Pfizer vaccine, on the other hand, came up trumps but we hardly had any. The consequences of this are playing out as I write this.

There was never going to be a simple solution to the COVID pandemic – too many variables, too many things changing over time, too many fallible humans acting in irrational ways – and we really should never have expected one. But we SO hoped for one, and that’s what politicians excel at – selling hope.

They sold us fool-proof technology, gold-standard tracing and guaranteed vaccine solutions without risk, and we wanted to believe it was true. But, as American journalist Henry Mencken described it: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” And how wrong have we been so far in this pandemic.

The biggest silver bullet

But the biggest silver bullet being deployed by the Morrison Government is their promise that climate change will be easily solved by “technology not taxes.”

This isn’t even a ‘real’ silver bullet but some ambiguous future aspiration held up to convince voters that they (we) don’t have to worry about climate change; we don’t have to change or sacrifice how we live (symbolised by the term ‘raising taxes’) because science and technology will come to our rescue. A simple sales pitch to solve a massive and complex problem. And though it’s not credible, it’s a sales pitch that had wide resonance at the last national election where the price of responding to climate change was front and centre but the cost of ignoring it was largely ignored.

Of course the phrase ‘this isn’t even a real silver bullet’ is problematic in itself. That’s because ‘silver bullets’ aren’t real. They are a weapon from folklore, a means of killing werewolves (or in some fairy tales, witches). Given their mythical value, the term has become a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical and conclusive solution to a difficult and diabolical problem, like killing a powerful werewolf.

Given our politicians predilections for selling hope, silver bullets are their weapon of choice. Just keep in mind they aren’t real.

Beyond the fact that they’re mythical and don’t work, the problems associated with believing in silver-bullet solutions are legion. High up on the list are self-deception, lost opportunity cost and wasted time.

Dangerous on so many levels

If you buy into the belief that climate change can be fixed with a silver bullet – like say geoengineering a planetary heat shield to bring down temperature – than you’re deceiving yourself that you understand climate change. Instead of seeing our planet as a massively complex system you’re accepting the notion that the environment is a simple thing with knobs that humans can twiddle to optimise conditions. This is a dangerous self-deception held by some of the world’s most powerful people (who like to think they are in control). Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, is a proponent of geoengineering and once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem”.

And if we prioritise our limited resources to develop these silver bullet solutions because we’re kidding ourselves about the nature of the problem, then we’re not investing in the many capacities we need to stay resilient in a changing world. Believing in a quick fix, a magical solution that solves the issue without wholesale change, means we don’t have to tackle the deep, multi-scaled dimensions of the problem. If you can convince the electorate, for example, that pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere will keep the Earth cool, we stop investing in all the other things we should be doing in bringing down carbon emissions at all levels of society (which might explain why the fossil fuel sector is quite keen on geoengineering fixes).

Failing to acknowledge the real nature of the problem and investing in the wrong solution is obviously not a winning policy formulation, and this will eventually be apparent (in the long run Nature can’t be fooled). Unfortunately, by then the problem is usually worse, the damage often irreversible and addressing the issue a lot more expensive. If we opt for geoengineering solutions to climate change, following the same example, we may well be investing in silver bullets that use up what time we have to steer humanity away from the yawning abyss of climate breakdown. Indeed, it has been shown that the cooling effects of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere by natural events (eg, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1993) are short lived. They last a year or two then the heating trend caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions returns to its original trajectory as if the cooling effect had never occurred.

Firing silver bullets at coral

Consider the consequences of relying on silver bullets to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s recently endured three mass bleaching events from rising water temperatures. The scientific consensus is that the Great Barrier Reef is cactus if humanity can’t radically reduce carbon emissions.

The Australian Government has devoted its energies to blocking UNESCO’s efforts to declare the reef ‘in danger’ while telling the world we’re the world’s best reef managers. It’s promoting and investing in technological solutions such as identifying heat tolerant coral species that can cope with increased temperatures, cloud brightening (a form of geoengineering) to reduce the temperature of the sun, and even massive water fans to promote mixing and bring down water temperatures.

While I am sure there is merit in all of these investigations, they don’t address the central issue of climate change and increasing temperatures, and they won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. They are silver bullets deployed by the government to convince the electorate that a magical solution exists for a diabolical problem. And the solutions they are promoting (as the world’s best reef managers) don’t involve voters having to change behaviour or a need for the economy to be restructured.

The cost in believing in these silver bullets (above and beyond that they won’t work) is a failure to acknowledge what the real problem is, a diversion of resources away from solutions that do address the challenge, and the loss of critical years during which the Reef slips further and further into irreversible decline.

Myths

The metaphor of silver bullets is now firmly part of the political lexicon. Next time you hear it being invoked, ask where the werewolves are and then remind the speaker that simple solutions to complex problems are simply myths.

Image by illusion-X from Pixabay

Forget charisma, save our insects! Never underestimate the politics swirling around charismatic megafauna

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By David Salt

Three insect scientists* recently spoke on Off Track on Radio National bemoaning the lack of resources going into invertebrate research and conservation.

If invertebrates make up over 90% of animals on earth, why do they receive so little conservation funding the researchers wanted to know? Good question insect scientists.

As the program finished, one of the researchers challenged the host of Off Track, a show devoted to exploring the world of nature, to ensure that future programming better reflected this breakdown of species. In other words, rather than doing most shows on birds, mammals and reptiles, the majority of programs should be on invertebrates, the things that make up most of nature. Everyone laughed at the comment, acknowledging the truth of the mismatch of current programming. However, there was possibly a fatalistic merriment in the laughter because they all knew in their insect hearts** that the media*** is always going to focus on the charismatic megafauna before all else when it comes to talking about nature. Such is life.

Hating koalas

And such was the disappointment of the insect scientists on radio about the plight of invertebrate knowledge and conservation that at one point they agreed that they were totally against koalas, Australias’ most iconic mammal (and so cute and cuddly). Of course, their ‘hatred’ was not aimed at the animal itself, but at the mismatch between the resources allocated to conserving the koala when the rest of nature was facing profound decline and in many cases extinction.

Rational conservation should be looking beyond species to ecosystems, the scientists opined. If we looked beyond saving individual species to the places that sustain all species (ultimately including ourselves) then we’d be achieving better conservation outcomes. We’d be saving the charismatic megafauna and all the unseen (often unknown) invertebrates at the same time.

They make a good point and it’s an argument that has been made many times in the past by many good hearted and wise conservation scientists and conservationists. Hearing it again last week on radio got me thinking about what happened when this approach was suggested at the national level some ten years ago, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

Unfortunately, being rational and looking beyond the charismatic threatened megafauna when framing your conservation priorities is an argument that simply doesn’t work. I wish it did. I wish society could be a little more honest with how it stewards biodiversity and do the job a little better, I really do. But with the world as it is at the moment, rational (and compassionate and humane) decision making around biodiversity conservation just doesn’t happen.

I base this belief on years of involvement with a group of environmental decision scientists from all around Australia and across the world (the main network was called the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions or CEED, you can read about the fabulous research it did on its archived website at http://ceed.edu.au/). The prime focus of all of these scientists was how to conserve biodiversity through better decision making. And the key to better conservation outcomes is decision making that is transparent, accountable and adaptable.

If we wanted better conservation we would be putting more resources into monitoring and managing our biodiversity. We wouldn’t only be worried about the cute and cuddlies (which always get the lion share of the resources), we’d be monitoring and improving our efforts over time, and we’d be considering our biodiversity on a number of scales (genes, species and ecosystems), not just charismatic species. (We’d be doing everything the insect scientists were pleading for last week on radio.)

The decision scientists in these networks published thousands of peer reviewed papers (in high impact journals) demonstrating why this is the way to go. They delivered hundreds of briefings to governments, business and industry groups; and produced stories and briefings for newspapers, magazines and social media.

We made a difference (?)

And there was a time, a bit over a decade ago, that I thought all this work, research and energy was making a real difference at the national policy level. We were being listened to and it felt like we were influencing national policy.

Possibly this was best expressed when the then Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, announced a change in focus in tackling conservation and threatened species. He said there needed to be a greater emphasis on ecosystems and how they function. We needed to be more holistic rather than adopting a band-aid approach of simply working on the most threatened species (all of which were mammals, birds or reptiles; insects hardly got a look in).

This would have been a major shift in conservation policy and reflected the science of the conservation scientists I was working with. Could it be that our political leaders were actually being influenced by what we were doing?

The political reflex

Possibly we were being listened to, but before the new approach could be enacted the opposition conservative party, led by Tony Abbott, cynically declared the new approach as ‘giving up on species’, something they would never do.

For this is always the problem with anyone proposing a shift away from a tight focus on only worrying about (and resourcing) charismatic megafauna. The first political response is always: ‘look, they’re giving up the koala (or mallee fowl or Tasmanian Devil or ‘insert favourite threatened species here’).’ And I do mean ‘always’, it’s a political reflex action. Voters care about koalas, they’ve never even heard of the Lord Howe Island Phasmid (a threatened giant stick insect).

Abbott’s (climate-change denialist-dominated) Liberal party threw out many bland and empty slogans in the run up to the next federal election like ‘We’ will: ‘kill 2-million feral cats’, ‘plant 20-million trees’ and ‘deploy a Green Army’ (and, most famously, ‘axe the carbon tax’). And, against a shambolically disorganised Labor Party, the conservatives won. The environmental decision networks got no more funding but the government instead funded a Threatened Species Recovery Hub while at the same time drastically slashing the budget of the environment department. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub did some great research, including a study on what resources would be needed to improve our failing track record on saving threatened species, but found there are no quick fixes for solving the problem of threatened species. The Hub was defunded earlier this year.

Better conservation policy

I don’t want to suggest that better policy on threatened species is impossible, just that it’s very difficult to achieve and no-one should kid themselves that it’s rational, accountable or transparent. Science is important but a hell a lot of science has been done in this area and politicians rarely use it to guide reform in this area.

What is needed is greater community awareness on the need for better decision making and the state of our country’s biodiversity. Citizen science and greater engagement with the public (and the education system) by environmental scientists play an important role here (eg, like the insect scientists on Off Track).

Just as important is the need for a process that feeds environmental values into our political and policy decision-making. Environmental accounts are possibly our best bet here but for it to flourish we need society to demand that it happens, and that requires a greater community awareness (which would be achieved if environmental accounts were more prominent). It’s a bit chicken-and-egg; one gives you the other but you need both.

I don’t know-what pathway will deliver us better environmental decision making (ie, transparent, accountable and adaptable). However, when people start demanding more of our political candidates than simply: ‘Save the koala!’ (kakapo/Tassie devil whatever) I’ll be satisfied that we’re making progress. What we should be demanding is: ‘Prove to us you’re investing our money in a way that’s making a difference when it comes to protecting biodiversity!’

Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that at the moment.

*Scientists who study insects, not scientists who are insects.

**These scientists are super passionate about the things they study, but they have human hearts. One of the insect scientists is Manu Saunders (based at the Uni of New England). She produces an excellent blog on conservation and insects at Ecology is not a dirty word.

***Off Track, IMHO, is an excellent nature program that does much better than most media in providing balanced coverage on biodiversity conservation and science. It does more than pay lip service to covering issues relating to invertebrates and its last four programs (at the time of writing) were devoted to insects. Having said that, most of its programs are devoted to charismatic megafauna.

Image: Who could hate a koala? But is it fair that it gets most of the funding when so many other species are on the lip of extinction? (Image by Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay)

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

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The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)

Risky business: When dealing with complexity, it all comes down to trust.

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Trust is the cornerstone of sustainability in an uncertain world

By David Salt

Humans are lousy at risk assessment. In some situations it’s close to non-existent. I have a very clear memory of how poor I was at calculating risk when the chips were down.

When my wife was in hospital delivering our first child, things didn’t go to plan; the plan being a short, easy, natural birth unassisted by pain relief. What actually happened was a long and painful labour which ended in an emergency caesarean. During this trial, after a seemingly endless and traumatic labour, the doctor offered my wife an epidural (a local anaesthetic in to the space around the spinal nerves in the lower back) to ease her suffering. It was in the early hours of the morning, we were at our wit’s end, and were open to any medical intervention that would ease my wife’s pain. However, before the epidural could be delivered, the doctor first needed us to sign a form acknowledging that we had had explained to us all the risks associated with the injection. These ranged from a 1-in-a-hundred chance of feeling nauseous to a 1-in-a-ten thousand chance of paraplegia or even death. We simply didn’t care, my wife needed an intervention. The doctor thought an epidural was sensible; we signed the form, the injection was given and relief was found.

Those risk numbers I just ‘quoted’ I made up. That’s because I really can’t remember what we were told. My wife can’t remember the whole episode. I was pretty stressed out, too. However, I do remember there was a risk, a low risk, of catastrophic outcomes of paraplegia and death.

I also remember being appalled that we were being asked to consider these possible catastrophic outcomes when we were so stressed already; it only added to our trauma. I assumed it was simply to give the hospital cover from litigation if things turned pear shaped. But, I thought, there had to be a better way.

That was many years ago. The pain and anxiety is long forgotten but the memory of my incapacity to rationally consider risk remains very strong.

Clots in the system

Fast forward to now, the end phase (hopefully) of a global pandemic. The risk assessment most of us (in Australia) are making is ‘should I get vaccinated’? For older people, like me, that means a jab of AstraZeneca, but a couple of people have died from a rare side effect involving blood clotting.

According to the Australian Government, the chances of getting this serious but rare side effect (called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS) is four to six in a million people for the AstraZeneca vaccine. About one in four people with this condition may die.

Attempting to work out whether it’s worth the risk, I phrase it like this: there’s approximately a 1-in-a-million chance of dying of TTS from getting the AstraZeneca jab! But if corona breaks out we know it can, in some situations, kill over 1 in every hundred people*. Take the jab I say (and I did).

But my back-of-an-envelope risk assessment isn’t worth the shred of metaphorical paper it’s written on because, according to health experts, everything depends on context. It depends on your age, your genetic makeup, your country (and the laws of that country) and your behaviour. Each factor dramatically affects the risk calculation.

So, hoping for a more nuanced and understandable explanation of the risk I turned to the official government explanations** where they tell us:
“It is important that consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm from COVID 19 Vaccine AstraZeneca to ensure that they make a fully informed decision about receiving the vaccine.”

And then they provided numbers (cases of TTS per 100,000 vs hospitalisations and deaths prevented per 100,000 people in different age groups) for low, medium and high exposure risks to COVID.

I could not make any sense of this information (which contained no understandable summary or recommendation) and I would be surprise if your average “consumer” could do much better.

Indeed, so upset was I at the government’s effort to give the impression that it was doing a good job at helping “consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm” that my blood pressure went dangerously high (thereby significantly increasing my risk of harm).

Who do you trust?

I present these two cases of risk assessment – one personal, one affecting everyone – because I believe they reflect something well known to cognitive psychologists and decision scientists: humans are lousy at assessing risk. We are riddled with biases, delusions and faith-based truisms which skew and distort the information at hand; even if we had the mathematical acuity to combine the many factors that need to be considered as we make our risk calculation.

And yet, in spite of this, we make decisions around risk every day; and most of the time we get it right (or maybe that should read we don’t get it so badly wrong that we reap the worst consequences possible). How is that?

That’s because, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it, we follow the cues of the people and institutions we trust.

I was so angry at the hospital for forcing a risk assessment on me when I was least prepared to do it, but at the end of the day, the doctor thought an epidural was good and I trusted doctors and hospitals in general. I was able to move past the risk.

I can’t understand the government’s risk explanation around AstraZeneca but, at the end of the day, I do trust most of the people advocating AstraZeneca for the over 50s (including Australian Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, who had one himself), so I got the jab.

In a complex world with growing uncertainty, trust enables us to move forward. Or, conversely, when we stop trusting the institutions upon which our society is based (think governments, the rule of law, science, emergency services), our capacity to deal with risk is also lost.

Risky business

Which is why recent trends suggesting trust in governments in many OECD countries is deteriorating (and particularly in the supposed leader of the free world, the USA) we should all be very worried.

The future is increasingly uncertain. Report after report (such as on climate change or biodiversity decline or land degradation or pollution) is telling us we are moving in the wrong direction, often at an accelerating pace. We are living unsustainably with dark and risky consequences for the generations to come.

At the very time we should be placing a premium on trust and cooperation to help us navigate the choppy waters ahead, our political leaders seem instead hell bent on ramping up prejudice and tribal fear. Populism and nationalism seem to be winning formula, trust seems to be the victim.

Australia’s traumatic Black Summer and the ongoing unravelling story of the COVID pandemic tells us the world is an unpredictable and risky place. The best response would be a concerted effort to build up the trust bank in regards to government and our many important institutions. We need transparency and accountability around all forms of decision making, and a rock solid foundation of integrity upon which we can reliably place our trust.

If we believed in the manner in which decisions were being made by our elected leaders then we would all be in a much better position when it came to making our own decisions in the face of enormous (and often growing) uncertainty and risk. Trust me on this.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*According to some calculations I’ve read, while COVID poses a real and present threat, you’re around 12 times more likely to die by drowning; around 30 times more likely to die while driving a car; and 170 times more likely to die during a Caesarean.

**It’s important to point out that I read this vaccine advice on 11 June. I looked at this site a month earlier and the advice was different in terms of details, though the overall approach was the same. On both occasions their explanations and scenarios were essentially meaningless to me.

Out of control with a smidgen of humility

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We do so much better when we acknowledge we aren’t in control

By David Salt

The wealthier a country or an individual household, the less concerned they were toward the seriousness of climate change. So concluded French and Australian researchers reviewing survey data from 10,000 households in 11 OECD countries. They hypothesized that richer households (and countries) are less concerned about climate change because wealth provides a buffer against some of the related risks. This leads people in wealthier countries and households to perceive a greater sense of control over climate change impacts, which in turn results in lower levels of concern.

Pretty disturbing, huh?

And yet it’s quite in keeping with Australia’s laggardly response to the growing spectre of climate change. Coral reefs can bleach and biodiversity can collapse but, as a developed nation, we continue to elect conservative governments that turn their back on climate change using misleading arguments about the cost of climate action on the economy (misleading and dishonest because it never factors in the cost of not acting – but that would involve listening to the science!). Whereas our poorer Pacific neighbours are very concerned about climate change and begging for us to do more yet we happily ignore them and their concerns.

And yet, in recent years the threat (and reality) of not being in control has brought out the best in many Australians (just not so much in our national government).

A Black Summer

Australians have considerable experience with bushfires but the fire season of 2019/20 – our Black Summer – was of a scale without precedent. The forest ecosystems along our eastern seaboard all went up in flames, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Prior to this fiery catastrophe, an eminent group of retired emergency workers pleaded with the government to take heed of the climate science, predicting a catastrophic fire season was just around the corner; but they were ignored.

“Don’t tell us what to do,” our national government effectively said. “We’re in control, we’ve got it covered.” Of course, as events were to show, they didn’t.

There was enormous loss of property and life; although given the intensity and scale of the conflagration mercifully few people perished when compared to earlier wildfires (173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday fire of 2009 as compared to 34 throughout the much bigger Black Summer period).

Indeed, it was the tragedy of the 2009 Black Saturday event that changed our national mindset to how we approach big wildfires. The hard truth of these fires is that they can’t be managed and when they occur the priority has to be saving life and getting out.

To my mind, the brutal savagery of the Black Summer was a wakeup call to our national identity. We’re not actually in control, and we should set our priorities accordingly.

The silver lining

We were still licking our wounds from the fires when a new uncontrollable menace began rolling around the world at the beginning of 2020 in the form of a novel corona virus, slaying the sick and aged in its wake.

Overseas, every populist leader who downplayed the threat of CoVid 19 in order to keep their economies chugging along (think Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte) invited mass death into their populations with legacies still to be reckoned. A sense of superiority and control mixed with a fair degree of libertarian dismissal about the fate of others proved to be a fertile pasture for an incredibly infectious and highly lethal disease.

Back here we watched unfolding events with an uncharacteristic humility and respect for science. We had just been defeated by an environmental disturbance that had scorched the nation, and we demanded our leaders to do more than pay lip service to the science of epidemiology. We also acknowledged that we were all in this together, as we had done during the Black Summer, and that everyone needed to do their part.

Combine this with our island status and a modular federal constitution that enabled state governments to block internal movement, and Australia was the poster child of the pandemic. We eliminated the virus on our shores and the government dropped its ideological control and spent up big to keep the economic home-fires going.

However, in a globalised world, no country is an island, even if it occupies one. In Australia we saw multiple breaches of our quarantine defences as people returned from overseas. Victoria’s second wave was a massive wakeup call that this virus needed to be taken seriously and, again, as a nation we observed the rules (even when it meant constraining our personal liberties), trusted the judgements of our science experts and we prevailed. This thing was bigger than any individual regardless of their wealth, so we pulled together and responded well to the scientific evidence.

Victoria has now undergone two more lockdowns (we’re currently in the fourth). It is telling the nation again and again, we are not in control. And our response has been good.

Contrast that with India’s crippling outbreak when their leaders decided they had beaten the bug and declared business as usual prematurely. India, an emerging superpower, has been hobbled; it will likely never be the same again.

Giving up control

Giving up control is never easy, be it as a government with a strong ideological focus or individuals with a strong belief in their own wealth and personal freedoms. However, sometimes circumstances in the form of massive disturbances make giving up control not only possible but the desirable thing to do. Most recently we’ve seen it in the Black Summer and the pandemic, but examples of giving up control go back to the beginning of civilisation.

Researchers from Germany Italy have just published an analysis of studies on Mesopotamian civilisations that demonstrates that severe droughts actually led to society’s elites giving up control in order that their societies might cope better during these environmental crises. They showed that severe drought actually stimulated greater levels of cooperation between political elites and non-elites, and led to the development of important institutional processes that can still be seen in our societies today.

Incurable optimists (and most politicians) will often say every crisis is an opportunity. Australia, with its highly variable climate, seems to slip from environmental crisis to crisis. Maybe to really make the most of these events we need a smidgen of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not in control. If we could achieve this, then maybe we’d learn, adapt and prosper in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

We’ve shown we do well when we pull together, when the chips are down. Let’s hope our recent experiences with fire and contagion will enable us to sustain that humility long into the future.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay