The real climate change debate

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Beliefs trump evidence while the truth disappears in the babble

By David Salt

A few years ago American comedian John Oliver ran a skit on the way most mainstream media run debates on climate change. He lampooned the way they inaccurately portray the debate as a balanced affair in which a climate expert is pitted against a climate skeptic. The viewer sees one person versus one person – a 50:50 debate. But, as Oliver points out, the scientific consensus supporting climate change is an overwhelming 97%. To portray the debate as a 50:50 divide is inappropriate and dangerously biased.

Oliver demonstrates the ludicrousness of this by staging a ‘statistically representative debate’ in which three climate-change deniers argue their cant against 97 climate scientists who drown out the naysayers with their chorus of facts.

It’s a great skit, much loved by climate researchers and science communicators everywhere. If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you. Indeed, I regularly screen it in a talk I give on ‘science and policy’. And, I note, it’s been watched by well over eight million people with 77,000 giving it the thumbs up with around 3,000 giving it the thumbs down – fairly close to the 97% scientific consensus.

So, having praised Oliver’s efforts, and lauded the skit’s central conceit, I’m now going to call it out for demonstrating two critical weaknesses in the overall effort to communicate the seriousness of climate change; flaws that are hampering current efforts to bring about enduring policy reform.

Belief vs evidence

The first relates to Oliver’s contention that facts are more important than people’s beliefs. He begins by pointing out that a recent Gallup poll found that 1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change and think this issue has been exaggerated. Oliver retorts (to much laughter) “who gives a shit, that doesn’t matter; you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact; you might as well have a poll on which figure is bigger, 15 or 5? Or, do owls exist? Or, are there hats?”

But, as we have seen increasingly over recent elections both here and abroad, beliefs do trump facts. We make fun of people’s beliefs, regardless of their relation to evidence, at our peril.

When I looked for stats on current beliefs in the US on climate change I found results from multiple surveys. Most suggested there was a growing acceptance of the reality of climate change, that young people had higher rates of acceptance and believed that governments should be doing more, and that Republican voters had significantly lower rates of belief.

One recent survey by Yale University of over 1000 adults found that a record 73% of Americans polled agreed that global warming was happening, marking a 10% point increase since 2015. The results were trumpeted in Forbes news under the banner New Survey Finds 3 Out Of 4 Americans Accept The Reality Of Climate Change, which is really pretty much the same as the figure quoted in the Oliver skit, just framed in the reverse way (1 in 4 Americans are skeptical about the impacts of climate change).

Speaking with one voice

And the second issue raised in the Oliver skit relates to the cacophony of scientist cries as the ‘statistically representative debate’ gets underway. The point he was trying to make is that the weight of evidence drowns out the denialism if you line them up along the lines of the 97% scientific consensus (97 scientists vs 3 deniers).

But I couldn’t hear any message; it was drowned out in the babble. Indeed, the only line you actually hear is that of the deniers who get the first line in: “Well I just don’t think all the science is in yet and settled,” says the denier. Oliver then asks for what the scientists think and you can’t hear anything from then on as the 97 voices speak out in unison.

So, Oliver’s point is made with comic impact but I think he also highlighted the problem of what the public hears when confronted by multiple voices spewing out endless facts and figures, impenetrable graphs and numbers loaded with dense techno-speak expositing doom and gloom if we don’t dramatically change our ways.

On the other side* is a tiny minority of players (usually representing unstated vested interests with deep and well-funded ideological roots) putting out simple, well-crafted messages of uncertainty, sowing seeds of doubt that, with time, flower into vigorous weeds of denial that prove ever so hard to pull out. Their seductive message is that this whole climate change thing is big and complicated, we’re still figuring out what it means, but we’d be fools to change the status quo while so much uncertainty is present. Let’s do nothing for now, keep the economy growing as we have for the past 50-70 years and some way down the track we’ll fix up the climate if indeed it turns out to be broken. And, if it does need fixing, our wonderful science and market forces will provide the solution.

It just isn’t fair

Scientists live and die by the evidence they generate. In their world facts win and beliefs inevitably bend to the weight of evidence, even if it takes a while. It’s a numbers game; over time the evidence builds and a scientific consensus forms (or shifts).

The scientific consensus on (anthropogenic) climate change has grown and solidified over the past 50 years. There is now no doubt in the world of science as to its reality or consequence, even if a small clique of deniers still warps the media debate. But this clique represents powerful vested interests, and their influence may take more than facts to shift.

Scientists believe their consensus will eventually permeate the societal debate; that, in a rational world, ‘facts’ will squash unfounded belief. But the real world isn’t always rational (or fair), and it doesn’t always conform to the rigorous black and white perspective of its scientific citizens.

*Sowing seeds of doubt is just one of several techniques employed by the climate-change denial lobby/collective. They also peddle conspiracy theories, cherry pick data, employ logical fallacies and set up fake debates. If you’d like to learn more about these dark arts and how they can be resisted, check on the University of Queenslands’ online course called Denial 101: Making Sense of Climate Science Denial. Highly commended.

Image: John Oliver stages a statistically representative debate. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjuGCJJUGsg

A (very) short history of sustainability

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A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)

Retreat from reason

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Environmental crisis, existential angst and electoral backlash

By David Salt

The story so far: A climate crisis has been called, the Great Barrier Reef is in the process of collapsing and our great inland waterways are dying. The government doesn’t seem to have a reasonable plan of response and, in any event, a national election is underway and no-one gives them a chance of winning. The opposition party has a more credible emissions target but the government says achieving this target will wreck our economy. The nation votes (18 May 2019) and, against all the polling, the opposition is repudiated and the government is re-elected. What’s the story?

Of course, the election outcome was much more than economics vs environment but I think the widespread anxiety about environmental decline was a major factor. But possibly not in the way many concerned environmentalists may have thought.

Future uncertain

Anyone who is aware of environmental issues is alarmed at the state of the world, be it collapsing biodiversity, wild weather or plastic pollution. Conditions are deteriorating, and in many cases the decline is accelerating. Policy responses so far are inadequate.

But even those people not up on the environment know something is happening. The floods are more brutal, the bushfires more horrendous, the heatwaves more cruel.

And life is increasingly complex. We have a world of information at our fingertips – more info than at any time in history – and more options to choose between. Social media means we’re in contact with everyone 24/7 and there are louder voices shouting at us from all directions. Houses are unaffordable, congestion chokes our cities and anxiety is our biggest growth industry. The future is increasingly uncertain.

What do you do when you have no confidence in the future? Indeed, there are people all around shouting it’s not just an uncertain future we’re facing but an environmental cataclysm (“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is!” one young climate activist named Greta Thunburg exhorted).

Three pathways from existential angst

I teach and write about environmental science. I am scared of what the future holds, and I’m saddened by the lack action being taken by our elected representatives. I often wonder how people deal with the prospect of a dark future.

A few years ago a colleague of mine (Richard Eckersley) posed a simple typology of responses to fears of the apocalypse. Now, I’m not saying the apocalypse is nigh, but I found his typology a useful model for how we respond to the existential angst associated with an uncertain future.

Richard suggested there were three basic responses: nihilism, fundamentalism or activism.

With nihilism, we basically give up. We’re going to hell in a handbasket and our individual actions don’t seem to make any difference so why care; let’s party till we drop.

But if you don’t want to give up and are prepared to accept the comfort of a simpler model of how the world behaves then maybe fundamentalism is for you. This might be the acceptance of a religious framework setting out what a good life entails (with a guarantee of heaven or paradise when you leave this mortal coil). Or it might be a secular framework of markets solving all our resource issues and creating a rising tide that will eventually lift all the boats.

And then there’s activism. In this response you don’t give up or accept a simpler model; you ‘act’ to make a difference. You think global but act local. You acknowledge the rotten unsustainability of what’s going on around you but you focus on something that you can do, some little bit where you can make a difference; and you hope that everyone else starts doing the same thing.

All roads lead to…

I’ve often wondered about this typology.

Nihilism and fundamentalism, while not saving the world, have a certain rational appeal to them. If the state and trend of the world is making you anxious, depressed and dysfunctional and you feel powerless to do anything then why not look for different ways of engagement. Drop out or sign up.

Activism*, on the other hand, while seemingly a positive response (in Eckersley’s discussion he describes it as ‘hope rules’ and a constructive response), has never seemed as ‘rational’. You can go ahead and make your own backyard a little more sustainable but it’s impossible to ignore that the surrounding neighbourhood is going to the dogs. Activism only salves the angst for so long before the outside reality seeps in and has you reaching for the bottle (nihilism) or the bible (fundamentalism). (Or maybe that’s just me cause I’ve always been a little ‘glass half empty’. I’ve been trying to make my own little difference for decades through engagement with environmental NGOs, and the angst is still rising.)

In truth, I don’t believe anyone goes down one path exclusively. Rather, we all adopt varying degrees of nihilism, fundamentalism and activism simultaneously in all our thought processes. We all want to make a difference through our actions, conform to some normative ideology without too many questions, and sometimes just forget about life and get wasted.

Why do we do this? Because the world is a complex place and that complexity is difficult and painful to deal with. Attempting to reconcile ourselves with that complexity, to fill the gap between our aspirations and what actually happens, creates a cognitive dissonance that wears us down.

To help us cope with this complexity, and the cognitive dissonance it generates, we will often deny that complexity (nihilism), subjugate it with simplistic models (fundamentalism) or just focus on a tiny bit of it to stop from being overwhelmed (activism).

Get real

So what does this have to do with a poor election outcome in Australia for the environment? To my mind a lot.

The government had been bagged for its abysmal performance on the environment and especially on our pathetic efforts to curb our nation’s greenhouse emissions. It decided it’s best hope for re-election was to keep it simple, make it about the economy vs the environment, play up the uncertain economic conditions coming our way, and damn the opposition for gunning for change (big change, uncertain change, change that will rob you of your accrued wealth).

We’re all suffering from change overload. We’re all carrying a degree of existential angst; angst that is being hypercharged by an environmental movement telling us daily that the end is nigh (climate crisis, extinction catastrophe, pollution apocalypse, blah, blah, blah). And with social media they can send us direct emails telling us this on a daily basis (I know this, I get their emails).

The polls tell us that more and more people are worried about climate change and the future but is it possible that the Opposition and the Greens have got it wrong when it comes to what the voters expect our leaders to do about it?

Fundamentalism: Maybe they don’t want reality and greater connection with the complexity that engulfs us. Maybe they want a simple answer or model of how things should work; take the government’s simplistic solutions on faith. (Maybe our emissions targets will prove to be adequate and we really will reach them in a canter despite all the evidence to the contrary.)

Activism: And maybe the comprehensive prescriptions of the opposition were too much to handle, and a more constrained form of engagement is all the electorate was after, or could cope with. (50% renewable energy sounds like a big change, couldn’t we just do a little more recycling?)

Nihilism: And if simple solutions or constrained actions still won’t help you deal with reality, why not damn the lot of them and vote informal (or worse, cast your vote for those absolute nutters on the far right, a hell of a lot of voters did).

Tell me I’m wrong.

*On activism: All models are wrong but some are useful. The ‘model’ presented here is my interpretation of how we cope with a complex world and growing existential angst. To me this model (in part) explains why a compelling rational case for a change in government, partly based on a better environmental policy, found no favour in the broader electorate. Beyond this explanatory value (and the guide it serves for messaging future campaigns), my model also suggests there’s no point in doing anything as we’ll eventually withdraw from the complexity of the environmental challenges we’re involved in (which is really another form of nihilism). What’s the point of being active? The point is that while acting may sometimes not achieve what we desire (in this case a sustainable future), it is our only realistic pathway to finding hope. Not acting, in contrast, simply leaves us hopeless (which is how I felt after the recent election result, but I’ll get over it).

Image by Maklay62 from Pixabay

Not in my backyard

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To save the planet we need ‘transformative change’!!! (But not in my backyard.)

By David Salt

Did you hear the sobering news last week? “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” says the UN-supported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind; IPBES announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating.

Consequently, IPBES says, we need ‘transformative change’; and by that they mean a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

Well, having sobered up, my first response to this science-based statement and ‘call to arms’ is to reach for the bottle.

I don’t for a second doubt the evidence or the gravity of the declaration; it’s just that I’ve heard it all before. Pretty much exactly the same thing was said in the Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 released in 2015, the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 released in 2010, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, and at the proclamation of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 (and at its renewal in 2002).

The numbers in this 2019 declaration are direr but the underlying message is the same: situation awful and it’s getting worse and the awfulness is accelerating. To address it we need BIG change, transformative change, and we need it immediately.

A line in the sand

I think my pessimism about these declarations really took off in 2010 with the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook. 2010 was supposed to be a line in the sand for biodiversity conservation around the world.

Most of the world’s nations signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio (though the US, along with Andorra, Iraq and Somalia, never ratified it). In this Convention, signatories promised to do something about declining biodiversity.

In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (famously boycotted by US President George W Bush), signatories agreed to work to specific targets – these being to halt or reverse declines in biodiversity by the year 2010. To celebrate what signatories hoped would be achieved, 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

However, rather than demonstrate the success of the CBD, the release of the third Global Biodiversity Outlook revealed that biodiversity declines were accelerating (at all scales), that the drivers of decline (land clearing, invasive species, over exploitation, pollution and climate change) were growing and that the future was looking bleak.

‘We need transformative change’ was also the call at the time, but rather than exploring what that meant, a more comprehensive and nuanced set of targets (the Aichi Targets) was drawn up on what needed to be achieved by 2020.

Business as usual

Well, rather than witnessing a transformative change from this wakeup call in 2010, the world trundled along, business as usual.

The fight over greenhouse emissions seems to have stolen most of the available oxygen in the environmental debate, and rates of biodiversity decline have skyrocketed.

The IPBES report last week suggests we have a snowflake’s chance in hell of meeting the Aichi Targets (by next year); but even that shock announcement will quickly be forgotten in the relentless 24/7 media overload that is life in the 21st Century.

I’m not saying that the IPBES announcement last week was ‘wrong’, just that its framing reveals an inherent ‘disconnect’ with reality. The numbers presented (and the underlying trends they reflect) are horrifying, but the call for transformation just seems naïve (particularly so when that same plea is oft repeated).

In this instance, the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, observed: “by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.”

Taking on the status quo

Too tepid by half Bob. Those ‘interests vested in the status quo’ have been running the show since the beginning of the Great Acceleration back in the 1950s. That status quo is founded on unbounded economic growth and held together by neoliberal ideology. What’s more, the elites in all the developed world are the main beneficiaries of this status quo and are unlikely to seriously engage with the transformation that might change it.

And that’s the nub of the problem. It’s all well and good to say that environmental degradation is unacceptable (unsustainable) but transforming the status quo simply won’t happen of its own accord. The ‘broader public good’ is usually trumped by the ‘sweet self-interest of the successful man’*.

Which is why I included earlier a couple of references to the US not participating in the international agreements on biodiversity conservation. The US Government is very divided when it comes to international conventions that might constrain their business interests. As a general rule they don’t sign them.

“The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the event where the Convention of Biological Diversity was signed. Sustainability is all well and good, but not if it requires us to change the status quo.

The Australian backyard

Back in Australia the government response to the IPBES announcement was so poor it was comical. We are in election mode at the moment so the shelf life of any important news story is lamentably short. Our political leaders know that so when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the extinction report he claimed his government had already taken action on that, hoping no-one would follow up his statement. But, as it turned out, the PM was referring to a recent bill on the testing of cosmetics on animals, an animal welfare issue that has absolutely nothing to do with biodiversity conservation. All the while our Environment Minister said nothing.

Possibly more germane to this editorial on the difficulty of transforming the status quo, our Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the IPBES report “scared him”. We assume he was ‘scared’ because he knows the scientific consensus tells us that declining biodiversity has breached a planetary boundary with dire consequences for the Earth System and all who depend on it.

But possibly he’s really scared because if we do respond appropriately to the IPBES report then he could suffer a direct electoral backlash. That’s because one of the main drivers of extinction is land clearing and guess which electorate in Australia has the worst record for clearing of threatened species habitat? It’s the electorate of Maranoa where two million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed since 2000 – and it’s represented by David Littleproud, our Minister for Agriculture.

*Borrowed from the song “Girl, Make your own mind up” by Seven World’s Collide.
The verse it comes from reads:
“They’ll try to make you believe in the invisible hand
The sweet self-interest of the successful man
To believe in the chance however remote
The rising tide lifts all the boats”

Image: Stumps on the valley caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture in Madagascar (Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com)

This febrile environment

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The election is called, ‘peak crazy’ is on, and cynicism reigns at a time we can’t afford it

By David Salt

Australia has entered an election period (described as ‘peak crazy’ by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) and chickens everywhere are running around claiming the sky is falling.

Right-wing politicians are describing animal-rights activists as equivalent to terrorists and calling for them to be thrown in jail.

Our Prime Minister has accused the opposition Labor Party of attempting to steal our weekends because they announced a policy of 50% electric cars by 2030.

Carbon emissions are rising but our Government leaders are telling us we’ll make our targets at a canter (and their policy to date has actually seen emissions on average rise).

Adani’s new coal mine proposal in outback Queensland is being lauded in the regions as a source of jobs while simultaneously being condemned in the cities as an environmental horror.

It’s all so shrill, so hysterical, that large slabs of the electorate have simply switched off. No-one believes anyone and everyone seems to stop caring.

The same but different

On the one hand it was ever thus. Every election period is shrill and hysterical, every candidate smeared and compromised by the time it’s over. Then the government is returned (or changed) and life goes on. Normalcy returns.

On the other hand, things are different and we won’t be bouncing back to ‘normal’ no matter who wins.

We look around us and the evidence of climate change is real and present be it in the bleached degrading skeleton of the Great Barrier Reef or the millions of stinking fish corpses clogging the Murray Darling. Species are going extinct, droughts and floods are becoming more punishing.

We’ve just survived the most brutal summer on record but no-one believes there isn’t worse down the line.

The world is burning, figuratively and literally, but the chorus from leaders standing for election is that ‘she’ll be right’, and ‘trust us’. Such platitudes simply don’t cut it anymore, and voters are retreating into a bleak cynicism.

Rome is burning

Sometimes, however, a plaintive cry cuts through the crap.

Just prior to the commencement of the official election period I heard a former head fire fighter say on public radio that he was scared. The bushfires he was seeing in the last couple of years were unlike anything he had had to confront throughout his career. The fire seasons were longer, the burns more intense and covered a greater area. Our available resources weren’t coping.

He, along with former fire chiefs from every state and territory, were making a plea for government to acknowledge and act on the escalating risks associated with climate change. But as the country descends into a frenzy of election madness their hopes of being heard are dashed.

Your house is burning

So, our dedicated expert emergency managers are scared.

Well, I’m scared too. I’m scared of what’s coming at us; and I’m scared that our democratic process is not up to the challenge of engaging with the problems growing from the global changes we are creating.

I’m scared because our political leaders are presenting simplistic solutions to complex problems.

They tell us we can meet the challenge of sustainability and we don’t even have to sacrifice anything to achieve it. We can have our economic development and rest assured that it isn’t going to cost us the environmental capital upon which it’s based. We can have our cake and eat it.

And their assertions are so demonstrably wrong, with the evidence of this mounting around us all the time.

Yes, this is a rant*. It’s a release of the frustration that I (and many other voters) feel towards this election period that reduces important issues to sound bites, slogans and attack dogs.

The Earth is boiling and our polity is increasingly febrile.

If only our political leaders could show they care in a way I believe. Exhibit a little humility instead of hubris; acknowledge uncertainty instead of parading simplistic absolutism; and demonstrate that they too are a little scared of an increasingly frightening future.

“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

Those aren’t my words. They were uttered by a Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg back in January when she admonished the planet’s economic leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos for not acknowledging the growing catastrophe of climate change.

I feel that fear. I wish my elected representatives might too.

*I commit to be less ranty and more constructive in future posts. And I would point out that much of the angst the electorate feels during election periods (that I am ranting about here) results from our political parties pandering to vested interests, whipping up tribalism and focussing on the short term – three problems my colleague Peter Burnett focussed on in an earlier Sustainability Bite (in which he proposed several constructive solutions).

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

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Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If science is the answer, what was the question again?

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THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.