The first casualty – do we really want a war with Mother Nature?

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By David Salt

Have you heard? We’re at war! And, in the fog of war, nothing is certain.

Well, one thing is for certain: the weather is going crazy. Have you ever seen anything like it?

The US went from killer heat waves, unprecedented drought, mega wildfires and hurricanes in the closing months of 2022 and then switched to unprecedented arctic snowstorms and monstrous flooding over Christmas and the opening days of what promises to be a very bumpy 2023.

“We’re in a war!” proclaimed New York’s Governor, Kathy Hochul, during her Xmas day emergency news conference as her state got pounded by some of the coldest temperatures and biggest snow dumps the region had ever seen. At that point, over 30 people had died in western New York alone, frozen in houses without power or trapped in stationary cars on gridlocked highways.

So, who’s the adversary here?

“We’re at war with Mother Nature,” explained the Governor. “And she’s been hitting us with everything she has.”

Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, also believes we’re in a war with Nature; however, she sees Nature as more as the victim than the aggressor.

“As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with Nature,” she said at the Biodiversity CoP15 conference at Montreal last month. “We need to make peace with Nature. Because Nature is what sustains everything on Earth … the science is unequivocal.”

Though, when has ‘unequivocal science’ ever been the deciding factor? (See ‘The first casualty’)

A world at war

As everyone knows, wars are times of change; in wars horrible things happen; people die, leaders are vanquished or created, maps are redrawn, and things are very uncertain. The status quo is smashed, and new things arise, both wonderful and terrible.

In recent years there have been many calls to ‘wage a war’ on climate change because the current status quo of incremental shifts, climate denialism and vested interests do not appear to be reducing humanity’s remorseless buildup of carbon in our atmosphere. We need action, we need transformative change. (Consider this call to arms during last year’s Climate Summit: We must wage war on climate change to save the Earth.)

In one of my first blogs on Sustainability Bites I discussed the call for a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ moment, a reference to the day Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Forces during the Second World War, thrusting the US into that global conflagration. Over 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the event transformed the nation overnight into a war machine that would go on to become the world’s leading superpower.

If Pearl Harbor catalysed the transformation of a nation to become a lean-and-mean fighting machine, what would it take to transform humanity into a united force willing to tackle climate change in a sustainable and effective manner?

Shocking

A few years ago I believed a significant climate-related disturbance might be what was required to shock humanity out of its complacency; overwhelm the status quo of inaction. Then we experienced unprecedented mass coral bleachings across the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017. These events, long forecast by scientists and harbingers of the death of our planet’s biggest ecosystem, received enormous attention in the media but almost no action from our conservative climate-denying Australian Government (above and beyond a lot of hollow rhetoric and a few extra dollars thrown at managing the reef; little to nothing was done about reducing our emissions or playing a stronger role in encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions, the root cause of the bleaching).

Then Australia was hit by megafires at the end of 2019, a season which has since been dubbed the Black Summer. Again, lots of media, no action on emissions or climate. (Indeed, our then Prime Minister was overseas holidaying at the time. On his return he infamously quipped, “I don’t hold a hose.”)

Since then we’ve had a run of La Nina years with historic flooding wiping away many of our regional towns.

These are just a few of the climate ‘shocks’ we’re experiencing in recent years in my home country Australia. But these disturbances don’t seem to be catalyzing transformative action. Yes, our climate denying conservative government was voted out of office last year (denialism was only one of its many flaws), and the new government is doing more on climate change; however, simultaneously, this new government is still approving large fossil fuel developments so in the ways that count it’s same old, same old.

Around the world similar climate catastrophes have been rolling out with ever increasing frequency, and 2022 will go down as the year that climate disruption came to everyone’s backyard. But has it catalysed transformative change? Not really. The big forum on the climate last year, the CoP27 Climate Summit, was largely seen as a failure. Transformative change was not even on the agenda. There were even moves to unwind things agreed to the previous year in Glasgow.

The first casualty

Which is why the hype and hyperbole is increasingly invoking the metaphor of war. Our world is sinking; climate disruption is unpicking the very fabric of humanity’s identity; our belief in a future with certainty is withering. In response, people are calling for action, big action, revolutionary responses as only occur in a time of war, and the calls are growing more strident and desperate.

But be careful about what you wish for. In war, society’s norms are thrown out the window. Truth is no longer regulated by our institutions, chaos reigns.

‘Truth’ is always a relative commodity, but it’s been under growing stress in recent times. For example, the pandemic saw a flourishing trade in disinformation around science-based vaccination programs, and politics is being played faster and looser with the truth all around the globe.

In many ways, there’s been a cold war around climate action for decades with the vested interests actively peddling disinformation to protect their investments. The climate cold war may be coming to an end as things heat up, as climate disruption takes central stage. The big question, though, is what replaces it?

Because, let’s be clear, the ‘war’ is not Mother Nature out to get us, or even us out to get Mother Nature. It’s actually about the great divide within humanity itself in which a small proportion of the people on this planet enjoy the benefits of enormous economic wealth and power, while a growing segment of the majority of Earth’s people are buckling under the growing burdens of climate impacts.

The world’s richest 10% account for around 50% of global emissions. An analysis last year by the Center for Global Development found that each Briton produces 200 times the climate emissions of the average Congolese person, with people in the US producing 585 times as much! Within a single month, the carbon emitted by someone living in the UK will surpass the annual emissions of citizens of 30 low- and middle-income countries.

And the inequities so apparent between countries are just as real within countries. As one small example, an analysis of energy use in the UK in 2019 showed that car journeys and flights taken by the richest British people – especially “white, wealthy middle-aged men” – used more energy that year than 60% of the population got through in total.

Truth is the first casualty of war. The war on climate is usually portrayed as a battle for or against Mother Nature. If that’s the way we continue to frame it then I fear the battle is lost before a single shot is fired.

Banner image by 12222786 from Pixabay

Fusion energy, if you look too close… you’ll go blind – miracle technology or miserable mirage?

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By David Salt

Technology to the rescue!

Our profligate use of carbon-intense energy has enabled humanity to soar on an ever-growing wave of economic growth. It has also tipped the Earth system into a different way of behaving (welcome to the Anthropocene).

Climate scientists have been warning us of the consequences of this for roughly 50 years. Unfortunately, by and large, our political leaders have ignored these warnings through a mix of denial, obfuscation and delay. They have done this because the short-term pain society would experience as we transformed our energy systems comes with a high political cost; so high it’s easier just to kick the can down the road. What this has translated to has often been the claim that tomorrow’s technology will solve tomorrow’s problem (brought about by today’s inaction) so let’s keep burning oil like there’s no tomorrow.

Only thing is, tomorrow’s problem came down to roost this year. India had historic heatwaves, Pakistan unprecedented floods, the US was hit by killer wildfires, Europe copped devastating heatwaves, floods and drought (ditto China)… and the list goes on. It wasn’t a bad year, it was a catastrophic one in terms of climate disruption, and it’s only the entrée to what’s ahead – welcome to the Anthropocene.

Carbon emissions, largely associated with the way we use energy, lies at the heart of this disruption. So, it is with great enthusiasm that headlines everywhere in the dying days of this disastrous year have been hailing the recent breakthrough in ‘clean’ fusion energy (eg, Breakthrough in nuclear fusion could mean ‘near-limitless energy’).

The fusion breakthrough

Fusion, as most people know, is the process that powers our sun. It involves fusing together hydrogen atoms to release vast quantities of energy, but it only happens under conditions of extreme heat and pressure, conditions that exist in stars.

Scientists have been working on recreating these conditions by focusing high power lasers on hydrogen atoms held close together within intense magnetic fields. They’ve generated fusion energy on several occasions but, up until recently, it’s taken more energy to produce the fusion reaction than has been produced by that reaction.

The breakthrough that has just been announced was made by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. It produced a fusion reaction that gave out more energy than was required to produce it. The lasers used to create the fusion used around 2 million joules of energy but the reaction emitted some 3 million joules; the first time a controlled fusion reaction has produced a net surplus of energy.

How cool is that? Humans are now capable of fusing atoms in temperatures and pressures 10 times higher than those at the centre of the Sun! Stand aside Prometheus, we’ll take it from here.

The fusion joke

But before you go ordering your own personal stellar power plant, keep in mind this technology has a few hurdles still to jump.

For starters, this ‘breakthrough’ is really a technical ‘proof of concept’ that fusion can be done in a controlled manner. The lasers may have used less energy than the fusion they produced, but the facility surrounding the lasers and the magnetic fields consumed around 300 million joules of energy to do the experiment. So, even in this experimental set up, the fusion reaction needs to generate 100 times more energy just to break even. (As it is, the net energy it generated in this experiment is about enough to boil a kettle, and could only be sustained for 100 trillionths of a second.)

Upscaling fusion to be a commercial reality has so many technical challenges that the running joke in the world of physics is that controlled fusion energy will take 50 years before it’s a reality. What’s more, scientists have been working on fusion for more than 50 years, yet that forecast of ‘it’s still 50 years away’ has never really changed.

Though, following this latest breakthrough, the Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Kim Budil, said on Radio National that she believed that operational fusion power plants might be possible in a mere two decades.

I think she’s dreaming – it’s the willfully naïve dream of the techno-optimist. Maybe the fabulous science being done at her lab will truly provide a guide for how fusion power plants might be built but the staggering – and I mean stupendously enormous – levels of resources (money, highly skilled people, land, infrastructure and, above all, political will) needed to build a fusion plant makes them projects bigger than any space race, and beyond the capacity of any single nation state. And how well have our big multi-state technological adventures gone so far? They exist, think International Space Station, massive radio telescopes and particle research facilities. However, none of these go even close to the resources that would be required by commercial fusion power.

As is often the case, a scientist, often a physicist, will make a breakthrough uncovering new realms of potential and say ‘problem solved’ (in this case, our energy needs will be met); claims which are then amplified and distorted by the media and political leaders to suit whatever ideological barrow they are pushing.

The fusion dream

The thing is, even if fusion power was a reality in 20 years, is it a solution we should be prioritizing?

Climate disruption is with us today and already tearing apart the fabric of our society.

We don’t have 20 years; we need to transition away from carbon-intensive energy now. We’ve literally wasted the last 20 years, and now the wheels are starting to come off project humanity.

To prioritize the ultra-expensive, highly risky idea of fusion energy as our salvation is really just one more form of climate denialism – we don’t need to change our ways because tomorrow’s technology will save us, so keep on consuming and polluting.

The irony here is that the real solution lies in natural fusion energy. That massive fusion reactor in the sky we call the Sun radiates a limitless supply of energy down on us every day. We’re starting to capture a tiny portion of that energy with photovoltaics (and wind turbines, wind is ultimately the result of solar radiation warming the atmosphere) but there needs to a massive switch from fossil fuels to renewables immediately. This is not happening.

Single fusion power plants are expected to cost between $20-65 billion dollars each and current research expenditures in the US alone are well over $500 million pa. Imagine what could be achieved if this level of funding was channeled into upscaling existing, relatively inexpensive and reliable solar technologies available today.

Or we could just continue to stare into the incandescent vision of endless ‘clean’ controlled fusion energy coming to our powerpoints sometime very soon. Just remember what happens when you stare into the Sun for too long.

Banner image: Image by 이룬 from Pixabay

New ‘Big Agenda’ for Nature faces many hurdles

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By Peter Burnett

This is a version of an article published on 12 December 2022 in The Conversation; it contains some additional material.

The Albanese Government’s ‘Nature Positive Plan’ reform package last week, announced by Environment minister Tanya Plibersek last week, is a much-anticipated response to Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It will be a major plank in the Albanese government’s 2023 agenda.

The plan is packed with policy announcements, most of which stick close to Samuel’s recommendations. Major stakeholders have welcomed the package, none more so than Samuel himself, who expressed ‘complete elation and unqualified admiration and respect’ for Plibersek.

The heart of the plan is a bold decision to drop the current ‘box-ticking’ approach to development approval. Instead, decisions must deliver environmental outcomes that reflect new national environmental standards.

As Plibersek puts it, the government now has a ‘big agenda’ supporting a vision of ‘net zero and nature positive by 2050’.

Dauntingly for her, the path of this big agenda stretches far over the political horizon and is littered with hurdles.

Here are ten hurdles the minister will have to jump, just for starters.

1. Climate trigger

The Greens and several cross-benchers have already criticised the absence of a ‘climate trigger’ in the reforms. This would expose large developments to having their carbon emissions limited as a condition of approval. Developments might even be refused for excessive emissions.

The government argues that regulation should not duplicate other measures, especially the safeguard mechanism, which already limits emissions from major facilities. Fair point, but so is the concern that Australia’s primary environmental law, designed to protect matters of national environmental significance, does not deal with the most significant environmental threat of all.

There is scope for a limited climate trigger, to fill gaps in climate regulation, so perhaps a deal will be done. Large-scale land clearing is climate-significant, but not regulated for carbon impacts. Similarly, Australia does not regulate large developments for their ‘scope 3’ downstream domestic emissions (eg, domestic gas production). Now that we have a Climate Change Act and an emissions budget, there is a case for a reserve power not to approve projects on the ground that there is no room left in this budget to accommodate these omissions.

2. Weasel words in the standards

Setting standards for nature-based decisions is cutting edge; the idea is to spell out exactly what a healthy environment looks like, and how much environment we need.

Samuel worked with stakeholders to include some draft standards in his report; in doing so he rightly counseled against ‘weasel words’ — words that rob the standards of their punch, like ‘as far as possible’.

But one person’s weasel words are ‘flexibility’ to another. It won’t be easy keeping the devil out of the detail.

3. Sell standards to states

To eliminate duplication, a major bugbear for business, the reforms provide for states to be accredited to take decisions that are otherwise for federal government, provided they meet the standards. If the states agree to meet the standards for federal decisions, environment groups may push to apply the standards to state-only decisions. States will resist being driven by federal policy.

4. Get into bed with states on regional planning

Regional environmental plans sit alongside national standards at the heart of the reforms. Standards will define what needs to be protected, while plans will say where protected values lie and how much protection is needed, on a traffic light system: red for irreplaceable, orange for values that can be offset, and green for minimal restrictions.

Federation makes it almost essential that the federal government partner with states in preparing regional plans. Plans could be based on Australia’s 56 Natural Resource Management regions or 89 bioregions.

Plibersek has moved early, signing an MOU with Queensland to work together on regional plans on the day she announced the reforms. Even so, this is a long and winding road — time-consuming, expensive and politically challenging.

5. Forest deal

Regional forestry agreements (RFAs) are exempt from the EPBC Act, though both have been criticised for similar failings: inadequate conditions on development, inadequately enforced.

The Rudd government dismissed a similar recommendation pre-emptively. Labor still remembers the 1995 ‘siege of Canberra’, in which logging trucks encircled Parliament House.

One can almost feel the rumble of logging trucks in the cautious language of the plan to ‘begin a process of applying’ the new national standards to RFAs, in consultation with stakeholders.

6. Respect Indigenous views and values

Professor Samuel was rightly passionate about bringing true respect for Indigenous views and values into the EPBC Act. The challenges however do not stop with respectful engagement.

The Rudd Government endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and a Parliamentary Committee is considering its domestic application. A key UNDRIP principle is free, prior and informed consent. If we listen respectfully to Traditional Owners, but are told ‘no’, will this translate this into a veto?

7. Kick-start nature repair markets

The Albanese government has placed significant emphasis on the environmental role of the private sector, through ‘nature repair markets’. The plan promises to establish the functional components of these markets.

The government says it cannot foot the repair bill alone. That may be so, but the private sector is motivated by profit, supplemented at the margins by social licence and philanthropy. The government may build a market but with these motivations only a few will come. Often, there just is no business case for voluntary action.

It would be different if we put a price on biodiversity, as we briefly put a price on carbon but, thanks to Tony Abbott, that idea is ‘dead, buried and cremated’.

8. Offsets

Offsets seek to compensate Nature for approved loss, eg clearing habitat for construction. The compensation should be ‘like for like’, eg growing new koala habitat to substitute for cleared habitat. The bottom line is that if offsetting is not possible, nor is the development.

The plan will replace this last restriction with a rule that if offsetting is not possible, pay cash and proceed. Government will spend it on something else, applying a ‘better off overall test’ (BOOT).

If we run out of koala offsets, would feral cat reduction, which benefits quolls but not koalas, leave nature better off? Does the offset need to save two quolls for every koala lost, or is one for one enough? Tricky.

This policy would fit better with a policy goal of conserving whole ecosystems rather than individual species.

9. Build not just trust but support

Samuel found that all sides had lost trust in the EPBC Act. Some things are easily fixed. Full transparency, clear policies, reasons for decision given routinely.

Ironically, things that restore trust will tend to box decision-makers in, just as magicians would find it much harder to perform their tricks if we could see into the magic box.

10. Buckets of money

Of the many hurdles confronting Plibersek in the near term, the highest sits in her own Cabinet room, where she will seek funding in the 2023 Budget. One recent study found that federal and state spending, on threatened species alone, was 15% of what was needed.

Whatever funding is announced, history suggests it will fall several zeros short of what Nature needs.

Endurance race

The biggest problem with the EPBC Act has not been what sits within it, but what does not sit behind it. It has been chronically under-resourced and under-implemented. EPBC is a story of unrealised vision.

We cannot afford a repeat of the EBPC story — better to dig deep and make the Nature Positive Plan work.

Banner image: Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

A connection with tomorrow’s citizens – calling for a Ministry for the Future

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By David Salt

In a year of climate disasters, you’ve likely forgotten about what happened in India back in March and April. The country experienced its worst heatwave on record in terms of high temperatures, duration and geographical extent. At the end of April around 70% of India was stricken by the ‘event’, killing hundreds of people (probably a gross underestimate), and reducing crop yields by up to 35% in some regions. Heat waves are common in India but the science is suggesting they are now being supercharged by climate change. And things only promise to get worse.

I remember being appalled by the news reports I was reading at the time. Surely, when one of the world’s most populous nations is literally withering under global warming, right in front of our eyes, surely people start to act? Right?

Wrong! Just consider the hyperbolic rhetoric flowing from the just completed COP27 climate conference and its underwhelming outcomes. (What did António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, say? Oh, that’s right: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”)

And, as I suggested, if you’d even heard about the Indian heatwaves, you’ve likely forgotten them following the unprecedented Pakistan floods, Europe’s killer summer, the United States devastating hurricanes or China’s record drought. We’re becoming normalized to climate catastrophes!

In any event, back in May, after hearing me ask ‘can you believe what’s happening in India?’ for the twelfth time, a colleague gave me a copy of the book The Ministry for the Future to read. He said it’s full of interesting ideas about how to deal with the growing climate crisis and it begins in India during a heatwave (‘which you keep rabbiting on about’).

Delirium and fever

I thanked him, noted that (according to its cover) Barack Obama had highly commended it (clearly very ‘worthy’), and that it was over 550 pages long in really tiny type. I got home and put it on the reading pile where I expected it to gather dust because deep down I suspected it was just another technobooster effort to get us to believe that while the challenge was big, science would ride in to save us; something I’m very dubious about (and have discussed in the past). I probably wouldn’t read it at all. (I’m so tired of ‘worthy’ being drowned by ‘hypocrisy’.)

Then I came down with Covid, and for three days I suffered my own personal heatwave (high fever). And it was in this somewhat delirious state that I picked up The Ministry for the Future and began to read.

The opening chapter was truly nightmarish. It described a town in India trapped in an unrelenting heatwave in which almost everyone dies; except for a traumatized aid worker, Frank May, who miraculously survives but is scarred for life.

Frank searches for meaning and ends up getting to know Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry for the Future, a group established under the Paris Agreement to work on policies that take into account the needs of future generations. How will they save the world?

Wait a sec, I asked myself. Is this real? Is there such a thing as a ‘Ministry for the Future’? And why would Mary, a former foreign minister of Ireland, show any interest in a burnt-out husk like Frank (especially when her job is about saving the world)?

Is this for real?

Well, of course, there is no such thing as the Ministry for the Future. The book was written in 2020 by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR). Indeed, according to its Wiki entry, the book is classified as ‘hard science fiction’; which is to say that the science presented is pretty robust (which, I gotta say, strikes me as valid; the science came over to me as authentic and realistic). And yet it’s like no sci fi I’ve ever read. Indeed, I’d place it in that little known genre, ‘hard policy fiction’.

The plot begins in 2025 with a killer heat wave in India (Kim got that wrong, it actually hit in 2022) and ambles its way into the future up until the 58th COP meeting of the Paris Agreement and a bit beyond.

Despite my initial reluctance, I found myself enthralled by the dazzling spectrum of ideas being presented and the multitude of methods KSR employed to tell his story. Mary and Frank are central characters, and their perspectives helped ground the story, but at the same time they are peripheral to a complex tale that goes off in all directions.

The story consists of 106 relatively short chapters, but the detail in many of these (economic theory, climate science, history and governance for example) often makes the prose difficult to engage with and absorb. It really is a tour de force, but it’s not an easy or page-turning read.

I think the thing that won me over was that while it deployed science as one way of dealing with some of the impacts of climate change, it did so in a low key, realistic manner. None of the solutions he presented were silver bullets; and, more than many writers, I thought he gave a good accounting of the trade offs and gaming that occurred around every effort. He creates a very uncertain and complex future world, but one I found quite plausible.

So, while he engaged with geoengineering in the form of aerosols being dumped in the stratosphere (the dumping was done by the Indian Government in response to the heatwaves), the impact was minor (as our current science suggests it would be) and didn’t really fix the problem of over-heating. In the world of the near future KSR also dyed the Arctic sea yellow to increase its ability to reflect light (humanity having melted all the highly reflective sea ice) and drained the meltwater under glaciers to slow their disintegration (thereby reducing the speed of sea level rise).

Connecting with the future

But possibly the boldest and most fundamental change being proposed in the book was a combination of economics, technology and innovations in governance that, when combined, gave reason for people to invest in their future.

KSR sets out the idea that if today’s generation were paid to capture carbon but the payments weren’t made until well into the future, then maybe we’d take this task seriously. To this end, KSR suggests the creation of a carbon coin. Each coin represents one ton of carbon sequestered but were only paid out at some time in the future. People, companies, governments would only invest in generating carbon coin if they believed they could cash them in down the line, so they needed to trust the institutions that ran the coin (the world’s banks), and they needed to believe there was a future they could get to.

Block chain is proposed as an important technology here. It is rolled out everywhere, again led by banks and governments, because for this investment in the future to work there needed to be full accountability and transparency (not, say, like what’s happening currently with carbon offsets). Gaming the system wasn’t feasible, and with time the climate denying elites, whose power lay entrenched in the past, began to lose influence.

Simultaneously, grass roots ‘terrorism’ by disenfranchised segments of society were beginning to tear apart the status quo, and many societies were experimenting with different forms of governance that distributed power to the people (and refugees even began to be treated in a humane manner and assigned genuine rights).

Investing in the future

I wonder what it would take to get humanity to really begin investing in the future? It seems unprecedented climate disruption, with the certain prospect of greater disruption with every passing year, is not enough.

There’s way too much in The Ministry for the Future to even briefly summarise its many insights in this blog, but I hope I may have said enough to pique your interest. It took a dose of Covid to get me to read it; I hope it takes less for you to consider it.

I’ll leave you with one memorable quote from the book when an American town suddenly runs out of water:

“Remember what Margaret Thatcher said? There is no such thing as society?

…I can take them all to a place where they will eat those words or die of thirst. Because when the taps run dry, society becomes very real.”

Banner image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Losing it – the consequences of stepping over the threshold

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By David Salt

In Australia, we called the horrible summer of 2019/20 the Black Summer. Unprecedented heat waves and drought led to the biggest, most ferocious, most extensive wildfires this nation had ever known.

I wonder what the world will call 2022? Once again that word ‘unprecedented’ gets rolled out to describe a series of heatwaves, extreme storms, massive floods and record-breaking droughts. This year these events were happening all over the world (and especially across Europe, Asia and America during the northern hemisphere summer). Will it be the ‘Angry Summer’ or the ‘Season of our Great Discontent’ or maybe just the year of ‘Climate Breakdown’. (At what point do we know it’s broken?)

Or maybe the climate disruption will just continue and even grow worse, as many climate scientists are predicting, and 2022 will be wilfully forgotten as we struggle to deal with each new emerging weather crisis.

The idea of normal

When describing abnormal events, unprecedented episodes or historic happenings, you need to have some idea about what ‘normal’ actually means. In some cases this is relatively straightforward.

We have temperature records, for example, that go back for at least a century so it’s easy to define ‘normal’ with statistical precision. Our temperature has ranged between X and Y, and there is a different average max and minimum value for each month of the year. This August was particularly hot for many regions in the northern hemisphere, so when you hear on the news that temperatures broke records, or were above average, you can appreciate just what is meant.

The more variables you bring in (precipitation, wind speed, humidity, wild storms etc), the harder it is to characterise what is normal. Of course, these variables are what add up to weather, and long-term average weather is what we call climate.

If the weather gets ugly, we normally console ourselves that we just need to survive this rough patch and at some point the weather will ‘return to normal’ – the rains will replenish the dams after the drought or calm will follow the big storm.

‘Return to normal’ is a form of equilibrium thinking. Your world gets rocked by some disturbance, your equilibrium is thrown out, but you do everything you can to bounce back, to return to normal.

Of course, I’m talking about the notion of resilience – the capacity to cope with disturbance and bounce back (the word ‘resilience’ derives from the Latin ‘resilire’, meaning ‘to jump back’ or ‘to recoil’).

What’s normal for a complex system

‘Resilience thinking’ is all about how this idea of ‘recovery’ applies to complex adaptive systems. Complex systems have the capacity to self-organise. Resilience is the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still retain its identity, still continue to function in much the same kind of way.

In recent blogs I’ve attempted explain what complexity means, and how complex systems change over time, how they go through a pattern known as an adaptive cycle. The concept of adaptive cycles is one important building block of resilience thinking, the other is the idea of ‘thresholds’.

There are limits to how much a complex system can be changed and still recover. Beyond those limits the system functions differently because some critical feedback process has changed. These limits are known as thresholds.

When a complex system crosses a threshold it is said to have crossed into another ‘regime’ of the system (also called a ‘stability domain’ or ‘basin of attraction’). It now behaves in a different way – it has a different identity (or you might say it has lost its original identity).

In coral reefs there’s a threshold on the variable of the level of nutrients in the surrounding water. If nutrients become too high, the coral will be displaced by algae. The coral reef identity is lost, replaced by the identity of an algal reef.

On many rangelands there is a threshold on the amount of grass present. If the grass level falls below a certain level (because of too many grazing animals or a prolonged drought), shrubs begin to take over. The grassy rangeland identity is lost, replaced by a shrubland.

Sometimes it’s easy to cross back over to the identity you want, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s impossible.

Tipping points

In a recent blog I discussed how fossil fuel corporations are complex systems. The identity of this system is heavily influenced by quarterly profit statements; more so than any concern they might hold for longer term climate disruption. The levels of the profits in those quarterly statements likely has a threshold point, below which the fossil fuel corporation will likely change its business (eg, take on the identity of a renewables company, maybe) or shut down. Either way, crossing this threshold leads to a change of identity in this system. (Of course, what might put downward pressure on their profits is stronger government regulation or broader community rejection of the cost being imposed on society by the fossil fuel company.)

In my last blog I also said you could view the British Monarchy as being a complex system. Its identity hinges on public acceptance and support over time, something the late Queen Elizabeth II understood and worked with like a pro. Again, its likely a threshold point exists on this variable of public support, below which the Monarchy becomes vulnerable. QEII represented integrity, authenticity, stability and certainty. She had very high levels of social approval (social capital) that has ensured that the system of the Monarchy had resilience, even to the disturbance of her own death, and the Crown passed seamlessly to her son, now King Charles III. But imagine what might have happened if the Queen didn’t have that level of social capital. Or what happens if King Charles squanders that social capital? Smooth successions aren’t always the rule in the UK (or elsewhere), and many countries don’t need Queens (or Kings) to function.

Thresholds occur in many complex systems however they are often described as ‘tipping points’ where they occur in the social domain. In addition to the two examples I just discussed (profit levels and levels of public approval), tipping points might manifest as changes in fashion, voting patterns, riot behaviour, or markets.

Defining a safe operating space

So here is useful way of defining a system. Every system can be described in a variety of ways using a number of variables. The identity of the system can be characterised by an average range of those values. While kept in that range, the system will behave as you expect, be it a business, a monarchy, a coral reef or a rangeland. However, when the system passes a certain level on one of a number of key variables (eg, profit, popularity, nutrients, grass cover) – a threshold or tipping point – the system changes its identity and begins to behave differently (often in strange or undesirable ways).

Or, in other words, you can understand a system’s identity by knowing how much change it can take before that identity is lost, replaced by a different identity.

Not only are thresholds critical to understanding the behaviour of complex systems, they are the basic limits to whatever enterprise you’re responsible for or have an interest in. To use the phrase in a prominent analysis of global-scale thresholds (Rockstrom et al 2009), thresholds define the safe operating space of your system.

And how are we going in keeping our society in a safe operating space? Well, considering our experiences with the Black Summer of 2019 or the Angry Summer of 2022, not so well.

Climate and weather systems are complex systems too. Their current behaviour suggests they have been pushed over critical thresholds and their emerging identity is something quite new, quite destructive and terrible. Allowing the Earth system to cross these thresholds comes with an enormous cost to society, and will sorely test our own resilience as we cruise into an increasingly uncertain future.

Banner image: How much disturbance can your ‘system’ take before it loses its identity? It’s not just the intensity of a specific event (a single hurricane for example) that’s important, it’s also the frequency of such disturbances. The Great Barrier Reef can survive mass bleaching events if they only occur once every 20 years but it loses its ‘identity’ if they occur every few years (which is now what’s happening). (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast

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By David Salt

Earlier this month I spotted a tweet that chilled my soul while neatly summing up the challenge of sustainability for our age.

Here it is:

In a nutshell it shows the CEO of a major fossil fuel company extolling the virtues of a massive new project, the Scarborough development, with a comment from one of the world’s top coral scientists describing it as ‘a crime against humanity’ (while asking the responsible politicians to respond appropriately).

One single development

We’ve discussed aspects of the Scarborough development (the biggest oil and gas development to be built in Australia in a decade, situated off the coast of Western Australia) a few times on Sustainability Bites (see Lies, damned lies and environmental economics). It’s worth repeating that an analysis by the company Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the proposed Scarborough project will be just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions! Think about that. Climate Analytics is under no illusion and points out this single project undermines the Paris Agreement (of which Australia is a signatory).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has calculated these emissions will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will, among other things, accelerate the decline of the Great Barrier Reef (which may partly account for the coral scientist’s dismay at Woodside’s promotional tweet).

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase at a time when the world is already overheating. This summer has seen unprecedented droughts, storms, fires and floods across Asia, Europe and North America. At this time no-one has even attempted to calculate the economic impact of the carnage from this northern summer, let alone tally the lives lost. And this situation only promises to get worse as carbon emissions increase.

A boon for the economy

Despite the accelerating impacts from climate change being felt all around the world, Woodside’s CEO tells us (though more likely she’s really wanting her shareholders and politicians to hear this) that Scarborough will “deliver value for Woodside shareholders and significant long-term benefits locally and nationally, including thousands of jobs, taxation revenue and supply of gas to export and domestic markets for decades to come.”

I cynical paraphrase might read: “let this project proceed and shareholders will be richly rewarded by quarterly rises in share price; while the enabling government can claim ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, regional development and a secure supply of energy well into the future (and definitely beyond your next election).”

The planet? Well, it may endure a little more heating but focus on the profits.

And humanity? Bits of it will do very nicely, thank you very much, from the increased economic activity. And those that don’t? Well, most of them don’t vote in Australia and they definitely aren’t shareholders in Woodside, so there’s nothing to worry about here.

In any event, the planet and humanity are not the focus of the CEO’s missive to the masses; she’s more worried about quarterly returns to shareholders.

The standard model

The standard explanation for this situation goes something like this: some people put the economy before all else and believe the ‘climate alarmists’ are overstating the problem. These people might even acknowledge the climate is becoming increasingly problematic but are confident that as the crisis grows we’ll make more of an effort to fix it, and science and technology will save us. These people think that radical action to reduce carbon emissions will cause deep and unjustifiable pain to the economy and everyone’s standard of living.

The other side (which includes most scientists) believe humanity is changing the Earth System in deep and unpleasant ways that will hurt everyone. We need to do something now. Enabling new fossil fuel developments is mad; some describe them as ‘crimes again humanity’.

Both sides think the other side is crazy, and many have stopped listening to anything coming out of the other side.

You might have your own variant on this ‘standard model’ of the sustainability challenge but I believe most people subscribe to some version of it: two sides/tribes, two sets of values/priorities, situation gets worse, both sides blame the other and after a while everyone stops listening to anyone outside of their own tribe. It’s simple and neat – my side right, your side wrong.

A more complex model

Now here’s a more nuanced explanation that uses a bit of complexity (resilience) theory. Each of the players/actors/groups in this situation are complex systems, and each has its own identity emerging from the structure, function and feedbacks that make up that system. Understanding the feedbacks is important to understanding the behaviours of these systems.

The politicians are very responsive to voter’s needs and the level of support received from party supporters (including lobbyists and political donations).

The fossil fuel companies are very responsive to changes to the quarterly returns on investment and shareholder sentiment.

The scientists are very responsive to changes in biophysical indicators of the many components that make up the Earth System, the respect of their peers and the papers they can publish.

And the voters just want to be able to pay their bills, have a little certainty in what tomorrow brings, and maybe have the occasional holiday.

These are interacting complex systems and expecting them to behave in simple rational ways doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the differences that emerge between them over time.

Pointing out that the other side is wrong may work well with your own tribe but it usually does nothing to change the behaviour of the other side.

However, understanding what’s central to the identity of the other side and working on the feedbacks that shore up that identity is much more likely to produce change.

If voters don’t believe the future is safe, if shareholders no longer trust their shares will yield dividends in the longer term, if politicians are only allowed to make fully accountable and transparent decisions, then the very identity of their systems change, as does its behaviour. Of course, changing these feedbacks is never easy.

Another thing about complex systems

Another thing about complex systems that’s very relevant to this discussion. They are non-linear. That means you can’t always predict how they’ll change based on how they have changed in the past. Sometimes big disturbances can hit your system and yet it can absorb them and its identity remains intact (the system is ‘resilient’). Other times, it will only take a small disturbance and the system’s identity collapses (unexpectedly and often quickly, does anyone remember the Soviet Empire?).

The Earth System itself is a good example of this non-linearity. The group of scientists who first proposed the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al, 2009) pointed out that the Earth System itself is a complex system that has considerable capacity to absorb disturbances (changing atmospheric concentrations, declining biodiversity etc) and still retain its identity. For the past 10,000 years, that identity has been one of a relatively stable climate that has enabled the rise of civilisation.

But this capacity to continually absorb disturbance has limits, sometimes referred to as thresholds. They proposed a set of planetary boundaries (possible thresholds) beyond which the stability of the Earth System could well be lost. They proposed nine planetary boundaries, most of which we have now transgressed.

In some ways, the scientists suggest, the complexity of the Earth System has lulled us into a false sense of security. All the change we’ve imposed on it (most of it in the last half century), has been absorbed by the Earth System and it continues to function in a way conducive for humanity. But, having crossed these planetary boundaries, we have exhausted the planet’s capacity to absorb further disturbance. Many now believe further incremental disturbance may change things drastically. Indeed, we may even be seeing this with the savage summer of 2022.

Which all serves to underscore how complex the challenge of sustainability can be. We are all complex units operating in complex groups within a complex Earth System. ‘Simply’ pointing out why the opposite side is wrong may score points with our side but does little to fix the problem. For that to happen we need a deeper engagement with the complexity in which we find ourselves, more reflection on what gives us (our tribe and our planet) our identity, and a greater respect for the things that impact on that identity.

Banner image: Civilisation rose during an epoch of climate stability. Now that stability is possibly breaking down. So far, our response to this possibility has been simplistic and ineffective. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the problem is complex. (Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay)

Triggering the safeguard or safeguarding the trigger: Climate, large emitters and the EPBC Act

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By Peter Burnett

Last week’s debate in the Australian Parliament on the new government’s Climate Change Bill generated a surprising level of debate on a side issue, the possible inclusion of a ‘climate trigger’ in Australia’s most significant environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

So much so that I made it the subject of my last blog, in which I argued that we mostly didn’t need a climate trigger, because it would double up on the ‘safeguard mechanism’ that sets individual baselines for major carbon-emitting facilities like steelworks, and then reduces that baseline over time.

The exception was for actions that would generate significant carbon emissions but weren’t ‘major facilities’, which mostly means major land-clearing.

I’ve changed my mind. In light of last week’s debate, I now think we should have both a climate trigger and a safeguard mechanism, on the proviso that they must dovetail with each other.

Let me explain. As the government is committed to the safeguard mechanism but somewhat skeptical about a climate trigger, I’ll start with the former.

Safeguard mechanism

We don’t yet have the full detail of what the government is proposing — it has promised to release a discussion paper towards the end of August. We do know, however, from statements by climate minister Chris Bowen and from Labour’s election policy, that the gist of the proposal is to keep the existing legal machinery while reducing facility emissions baselines progressively to net zero by 2050.

The safeguard mechanism will apply to the 215 existing major emitters, together with any new facilities emitting more than 100,000 tonnes CO2-e per annum.

Climate trigger

A climate trigger in the EPBC Act would prohibit developments likely to emit more than a certain volume of greenhouse gases per annum (lets say 100,000 tonnes), without first undertaking an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and obtaining a development approval from the environment minister. Such an approval might simply require the developer to use the best available emissions technology at the time of construction, with no follow-on requirements.

Alternatively, much like the safeguard mechanism, it could require reducing emissions from an initial baseline. It might even allow emissions credits to the traded with other such facilities, although this could be complicated in practice.

Dovetailing a safeguard with a trigger

If used together, these two mechanisms would be seeking to occupy much the same regulatory space. That’s why I argued that a climate trigger should be limited to actions that are not caught by the safeguard mechanism, such as land clearing.

However, there are some benefits that are better delivered by one or other of the two mechanisms.

For example, it seems that many projects underestimate their likely emissions by a significant amount. The rigour of the EIA process, including the opportunity for public scrutiny, will help ensure early and accurate estimates of emissions, before the final investment decision is made.

Another benefit of a climate trigger is that the environment minister would have the option of saying ‘no’ to a proposal for a high-emitting facility. Sometimes outright rejection is the right answer, even where the government has no objection to the activity itself, as with Tanya Plibersek’s proposed rejection of Clive Palmer’s latest Queensland coal mine shows.

On the other hand, the safeguard mechanism is designed to facilitate emissions trading, which is something not readily available under the more traditional regulatory mechanism of an EPBC approval.

This leads me to suggest that we can have the best of both, provided we ensure that the two mechanisms dovetail with each other and so avoid duplication.

It could work like this.

First, there would be a whole-of-government policy specifying that major emitters would be subject to a facility-specific emissions cap, set by reference to the lowest feasible emissions from existing technology. This cap would then decline to net zero by 2050.

Second, under the climate trigger, the environment minister would limit herself to assessing the likely emissions under best low-emission technology and setting that level as the initial cap. She would do so knowing that her approval of the project would, in turn, trigger the safeguard mechanism.

In the end, we would have the benefit of both mechanisms but no duplication — just a hand-off from one regulator to the other.

Objections anyone?

Some might object to this ‘dovetail’ approach on the basis that Professor Graeme Samuel recommended against a climate trigger in his review of the EPBC Act in 2020.

This objection lacks substance, for two reasons. First the review did not extend to policy matters such as a climate trigger, but was confined to the operation of the existing Act.

Second, while Professor Samuel did note that previous governments had chosen not to use a climate trigger, an outcome he said he agreed with, he left it at that, without making any arguments of substance against a climate trigger.

‘Both/and’, not ‘either/or’

This debate has quite some way to run —the government will not be responding to the Samuel review until late in 2022 and will not bring forward legislation to amend or replace the EPBC Act until 2023.

However, it is clear already that there will be a major episode of brinkmanship played out between the government and the Australian Greens over the climate trigger. The Greens are determined to push for ‘no new fossil fuel projects’ while the government are equally determined not to ban these projects unilaterally, on the ground that if we act alone, other countries will take up the slack as a suppliers of fossil fuels.

I hope my ‘both/and’ approach will prove useful as that debate plays out.

If we stick with the ‘either/or’ approach currently on the table, then we can expect high-stakes brinkmanship in the Senate next year, as the unstoppable force of the Greens’ passion for avoiding climate disaster collides with the immovable object of a government that knows that its future depends on occupying the centre lane on the political highway.

Banner image: Some want a ‘carbon trigger’ to stop the development of big emitting facilities. Others reckon a ‘safeguard mechanism’ is enough to constrain emissions. Maybe we can dovetail them and get the best of both. (Image by catazul from Pixabay)

Should we include a climate-change trigger in national environmental law?

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By Peter Burnett

In Australia this week, all eyes (well most of them) are on Canberra for the first sitting of Parliament since Labor came to power in May. The first order of business is the promised Climate Change Bill, to enshrine the government’s promised 43% target.

While public debate on the bill has focused on the target itself and the nature of a possible ‘ratcheting mechanism’ to raise the target over time, there’s also been quite a bit of attention given to something that definitely won’t be included: a ‘climate trigger’ for environmental approval of large projects such as mines and dams.

Let me explain.

Triggering the EPBC Act

For constitutional reasons, our main national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), is based on a set of ‘triggers’. These are formally known as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. The triggers cover various things you’d expect to be of national significance, such as impacts to World Heritage places and threatened species, but not the most obvious candidate of all, climate change.

The EPBC Act was drafted by the conservative Howard Coalition government in the late 1990s as part of an overhaul of national environmental law. This bold reform was an unlikely project for a conservative government, but came about for two reasons.

First, Howard had courted the environment movement quite successfully in the 1996 election campaign, largely by promising a large pot of money (the National Heritage Trust) in exchange for privatising the national phone company, Telstra. There was a sentiment at the time that perhaps conservatives could care for the environment as well as progressives, by investing in it.

Second, Howard’s environment minister, Senator Robert Hill, was not just a skilled political operator, but a genuine environmental reformer (though perhaps a flawed one — see below).

In particular, Hill demonstrated an ability to navigate obstacles in government where others would have foundered on the political rocks.

Kyoto and the climate trigger

Despite Hill’s commitment to reforming environmental law he also led the Howard Government’s negotiating team at Kyoto, securing the notorious ‘Australia clause’, under which Australia was allowed to increase its emissions to 108% of 1990 levels, despite other rich countries being locked-into cuts.

Beyond this, also notoriously, Howard refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, despite Australia’s easy ride through with the Australia clause.

Howard had a real thing about action on climate change. Despite Australia’s easy ride, early on his major concern seemed to be that Australia might be taken for a ride, by being required to do more than its fair share of the ‘heavy lifting’. Later on, he seemed determined to hold out on ratification as a way of supporting the USA under George W Bush.

You can see why, despite being the most obvious candidate, climate was never going to be a trigger in the EPBC Act. Unfortunately for the government though, it had to do a deal with a minor party, the Australian Democrats, to get the EPBC Bill through the Senate.

Howard agreed to more than 400 Democrat amendments to secure passage, but wouldn’t include a climate trigger.

A climate trigger discussion paper

The government did however agree to consult about including a climate trigger by later amendment, and released a discussion paper on the topic at the end of 1999.

An obvious issue was the emissions threshold for the trigger. The lowest number discussed was 500,000 tonnes CO2-equivalent. This was said to capture 92% of emissions from new major facilities, such as power stations and aluminium smelters, then under construction.

Interestingly, today’s ‘safeguard mechanism’, enacted by the Abbott Government to support its Emissions Reduction Fund and requiring large emitters (currently 215 of them) to meet an individually-tailored emissions cap, has a threshold of 100,000 tonnes.

Even more interestingly, while the discussion paper canvassed some of the more technical issues associated with defining the trigger in some detail, such as whether emission estimates would be based on average or peak capacity, it completely avoided the significant issue of what kinds of requirements might be imposed on a new facility once the trigger was, well, triggered.

The discussion paper said this was because approval decisions had to be consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and should take account of issues such as jobs and international competitiveness. (Had they addressed the issue, I think the most likely approach at the time would have been to require that the proponent use ‘best available low-emission technology at reasonable cost’.)

Then there was the issue of carbon emissions from land clearing. The discussion paper simply excluded this topic; the implication was that land clearing was not a ‘project’.

I think this explanation and exclusion are tendentious. I suspect that the government never intended to introduce a trigger, but simply to go through the motions. In that context, any content beyond the barest minimum could expose the government to enemy political fire, for no gain (to them).

Back to the future

So, there we have it. No climate trigger. But should we have one now?

Labor is promising to re-orient the safeguard mechanism, under which emissions from the major facilities are capped.

The previous government kept resetting the caps, giving emitters an easy ride in meeting them. Now, the government will lower the caps progressively, as the theory says such a scheme should, forcing facilities to lower emissions or buy emissions credits.

Under that scenario, it doesn’t make much sense to apply a climate trigger to major facilities — anyone building such a facility already knows that its emissions will be subject to a reducing cap.

Even if a climate trigger applied, what conditions could the environment minister impose that would achieve more than keeping emissions under a reducing cap? (In theory, a trigger would allow the minister to block a project entirely, this seems unlikely).

What about land-clearing?

Then there’s land clearing. Although the significance of land clearing is usually seen in terms of habitat loss, it is also significant for carbon emissions where the vegetation concerned is of high quality (low quality regrowth areas are marginal in terms of carbon emissions).

At present there is no land clearing trigger in the EPBC Act, even for biodiversity-related reasons. And, unlike industrial facilities, there are no climate-related laws applying to land clearing.

Thus, above a certain extent and quality, there is a case for a climate trigger relating to land clearing.

However, states and territories all regulate land clearing for other reasons. Due to the complexities of doubling-up on land regulation, it might be more effective to combine a trigger with a national standard for land clearing and to switch off the trigger in states where clearing laws meet the standard.

And in the end?

At the end of the day, given Labor’s plans for the safeguard mechanism, the case for a ‘climate trigger’ is particular rather than general. It would make sense for the clearing of significant areas of land containing old-growth and other high quality vegetation, but that’s about all.

In any event, a climate trigger is off the agenda as an amendment to the Climate Change Bill, given climate minister Chris Bowen’s statement that the government would rather pursue its climate target on a non-statutory basis, than have policy change forced on it by legislative amendment.

But there will be a second opportunity, when environment minister Tanya Plibersek delivers on her commitment to introduce major reforms to the EPBC Act in 2023.

Then, unlike now, the government won’t have the clean option of simply walking away, because so much of the non-climate environmental reform agenda hangs off that reform.

Banner image by Yazril Tri Mulyana from Pixabay

Thinking resilience – navigating a complex world

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By David Salt

Our world seems to be coming unstuck at the moment. Climate fuelled weather extremes – floods, droughts, heatwaves and fires – are crippling large parts of humanity. Many people are grappling for answers; What do we do? Why haven’t we already done something about this? It’s not like we haven’t been warned (repeatedly and with comprehensive detail by our climate scientists and others).

I believe many of your problems lie in our inability to deal with the complexity of the world around us (my last two blogs discussed this very thing – we can’t fix this because it’s complex and complicated vs complex). One way of better appreciating that complexity and navigating a way through lies in the area of resilience thinking.

The word ‘resilience’

The word ‘resilience’ is now common in many vision and mission statements. But ask the people who use these statements what they think it means and you get a range of different answers, most of which relate to how something or someone copes with a shock or a disturbance.

Concepts of resilience are used in all sorts of disciplines, but it has four main origins – psycho-social, ecological, disaster relief (and military), and engineering.

Psychologists have long recognised marked differences in the resilience of individuals confronted with traumatic and disastrous circumstances. Considerable research has gone into trying to understand how individuals and societies can gain and lose resilience.

Ecologists have tended to describe resilience in two ways; one focused on the speed of return following a disturbance, the other focused on whether or not the ‘system’ can recover. People engaging with resilience from the perspective of disaster relief or in a military arena incorporate both aspects (ie, speed and ability to recover). Indeed, there is a lot of commonality in the understanding of resilience in the three areas of psychology, ecology and disaster relief.

In engineering the take on resilience is somewhat different. Indeed, engineers more commonly use the term ‘robustness’ with a connotation of designed resilience. It differs from the other three uses in that it assumes that the kinds of disturbances and shocks are known and the system being built is designed to be robust in the face of these shocks.

Resilience thinking

The ‘resilience’ that is being invoked in vision and mission statements relating to Australia’s environment is largely based on the idea of ecological resilience, and it’s all about the ability to recover.

The science underpinning our understanding of ecological resilience is often referred to as resilience thinking. The definition of resilience here is: the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks – to have the same identity. Put more simply, resilience is the ability to cope with shocks and keep functioning in much the same kind of way. 

A key word in this definition is ‘identity’. It emerged independently in ecological and psycho-social studies, and it is both important and useful because it imparts the idea that a person, a society, an ecosystem or a social-ecological system can all exhibit quite a lot of variation, be subjected to disturbance and cope, without changing their ‘identity’ – without becoming something else.

The essence of resilience thinking is that the systems we are dealing with are complex adaptive systems. These systems have the capacity to self-organise around change but there are limits to a system’s self-organising capacity. Push a system too much and it changes its identity; it is said to have crossed a threshold.

The systems around us that we depend on (and are embedded in) are linked systems with social, economic and bio-physical domains, operating over multiple scales. To understand what enables these complex systems to retain their identity, what keeps them resilient, we need to appreciate the linkages between these domains and scales. We also need to understand how the system is behaving within each domain and scale, because over time these components go through their own cycles (known as adaptive cycles) in which the capacity for change (and the ability to hang on to their identity) shifts.

Many ideas, many insights

Resilience thinking involves all these ideas. It is the capacity to envisage your system as a self-organising system with thresholds, linked domains and cycles.

Each of these ideas take a bit of explaining, something I’ll attempt in upcoming blogs (for a good guide, see Resilience Practice*). However, when you begin engaging with ideas relating to a system’s resilience, you begin to appreciate the world in a different way.

Some of those insights have been for me that no-one is in control, and you can’t understand a system by understanding the components that make it up – complex systems have emergent properties (for example, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).

We also need to appreciate that the narrower concept of ‘efficiency’ – ie, holding a part of our system in a state that delivers optimal returns (eg, food or fibre) without considering interactions with other domains or scales – leads to a loss of resilience, making it less likely that these systems will continue to deliver into the future. Efficiency is important but, by itself, it is not the solution to the challenge of sustainability.

We live in a complex world facing enormous challenges. Too much of our efforts so far have been directed to command-and-control approaches, techno solutions and improving efficiency. If the problems we were dealing with were simple and tractable, such approaches would work well. Unfortunately, our current approaches to sustainability are not working at all, and the problem is growing significantly.

Could it be we’re trying to solve the wrong problem? We’re managing a complex world as if it were a simple system.

*Walker B & D Salt (2012). Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press. Washington.

Banner image: Forests begin their recovery after Australia’s Black Summer of 2019/2020. (Image by David Salt)

What can we expect in Australia’s new climate law?

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By Peter Burnett

Australian climate minister Chris Bowen has promised to introduce a Climate Change Bill when Australia’s newly-elected Parliament convenes in late July. The Bill won’t be available until then but we already have a fair idea of what it is likely to say.

The story so far

What used to be Australia’s main climate law, the Clean Energy Act 2011, imposed a price on carbon. It was repealed by the then-new Abbott government in 2014 as part of its ‘axe-the-tax’ platform.

As far as I know, this is the only reversal of a carbon price, anywhere, ever. Hopefully it will also be the last, because the abolition of such an effective policy instrument was a major loss.

Several other climate laws survived Prime Minister Abbott’s anti-climate change stance in amended form, including the Act establishing the independent Climate Change Authority (CCA). The CCA lost its power to advise on Australia’s overall emissions target but retained its power to review specific climate mitigation policies.

Some Australian states and territories have their own climate change laws that set targets, broadly similar to what Bowen is now proposing.

Shape of the new law

The Climate Change Bill will not seek to reimpose a carbon price — the government plans to use an existing law brought in by the Abbott Government known as the ‘safeguard mechanism’ to reduce allowable emissions for the largest polluters (over 100,000 tonnes C02-e) over time.

Rather, the new Climate Change Bill will deal with national targets. Minister Bowen outlined its content in a recent speech at the National Press Club.

The Bill will enshrine both Australia’s ‘net zero by 2050’ goal and its new Paris ‘nationally determined contribution’ of a 43% reduction in emissions by 2030.

It will also restore the CCA’s role of advising Government on future targets, starting with the 2035 target. In addition, the CCA will assess progress against existing targets, with these assessments made public.

Separately, the climate minister will be required to report annually to Parliament on progress in meeting targets.

Finally, the bill will paste the new climate targets across into the formal objectives and functions of several government agencies, including the Australian Renewable Energy Authority (ARENA, which makes grants for new but pre-commercial renewable energy technologies and businesses) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC, which operates in a similar space but makes loans rather than grants).

Some interesting implications

Bowen says that the twin aims of requiring the minister to report to Parliament each year are to force government to be transparent and to focus the minds of parliamentarians on climate change as ‘our most pressing challenge’. Hopefully he is right on both counts and Parliament will focus increasingly on the substance of climate policy and progress in reducing emissions and less on the political posturing that has been so dominant to date.

More interesting than the pasting of targets across into the ARENA and CEFC legislation is the proposal to paste the targets into the objectives of bodies that are not dedicated climate agencies, including Infrastructure Australia and the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund.

Such a requirement is likely to force these infrastructure bodies to expand their horizons beyond conventional cost-benefit analysis and to evaluate in detail whether there are more climate-friendly alternatives to what is proposed. For example, climate considerations might force the ditching of a road upgrade in favour of rail or sea-carriage for long distance freight.

In a similar vein, legally-enshrined climate targets should have a ripple effect on all government deliberations. In particular, I would expect the government to amend the cabinet handbook to require that proposals evaluate climate implications against the target, including by considering low-emission alternatives, on a routine basis.

Under such a regime, a proposal to purchase new tanks for the army would be required to consider electric propulsion or, more realistically in the short term, a commitment to use biofuels or other synthetic fuels, despite the additional expense. Failure to consider such alternatives would open the government to criticism that it was not taking its own legally-enshrined commitment seriously.

Getting the law passed

While Bowen made it clear that the government regards legislated targets as best practice for the policy certainty that they provide, he also stressed that legislated targets are not strictly necessary.

In this light, he says that the government is open to ‘complementary’ amendments but will withdraw the bill if it cannot secure Senate support for the fundamentals of its agenda.

For example, if the Greens and climate-friendly cross-bench Senators were to oppose the bill on the basis that the targets were not ambitious enough, the government would probably withdraw it. Clearly the government regards itself as treading a fine line on climate ambition and does not wish to risk being held to ransom by forces on its Left, as it was in the Rudd years.

On the other hand, it is less clear whether the government would regard amendments based on Independent MP Zali Stegall’s Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2021 as ‘complementary’.

Would the government accept amendments to enshrine, not just the 2030 target, but a rolling series of five yearly ‘emissions budgets’ and a full ‘national adaptation plan’? Or would it agree to legislate for a permanent Parliamentary Joint Committee on Climate Adaptation and Mitigation with a supervisory role over the CCA?

Watch this space for a report on the debate.

Banner image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay