Our new environment super-department sounds great in theory. But one department for two ministers is risky

By Peter Burnett

Good news, Australia – the environment is back. Our new government has introduced a new super-department covering climate change, energy, the environment and water.

But while the ministry move sounds great in theory, it’s risky in practice. Having one super-department supporting two ministers – Tanya Plibersek in environment and water, and Chris Bowen for climate change and energy – is likely to stretch the public service too far.

If a policy area is important enough to warrant its own cabinet minister, it also warrants a dedicated secretary and department. This is especially true for the shrunken environment department, which has to rebuild staff and know-how after having over a third of its budget slashed in the early Coalition years.

Supporting two cabinet ministers stretches department secretaries too thinly. It makes it hard for them to engage in the kind of deep policy development we need in such a difficult and fast-moving policy environment.

What are the politics behind this move?

Tanya Plibersek’s appointment last week as minister for the environment and water was the surprise of the new ministerial lineup.

Even if Plibersek’s move from education in opposition to environment in government was a political demotion for her, as some have suggested, placing the environment portfolio in the hands of someone so senior and well-regarded is a boon for the environment.

Having the environment in the broadest sense represented in Cabinet by two experienced and capable ministers is doubly welcome. It signifies a return to the main stage for our ailing natural world after years of relative neglect under the Coalition government.

It also makes good political sense, given the significant electoral gains made by the Greens on Labor’s left flank. While ‘climate’ rather than ‘environment’ was the word on everybody’s lips, other major environmental issues need urgent attention. Threatened species and declining biodiversity are only one disaster or controversy away from high political urgency.

When released at last, the 2021 State of the Environment Report will make environmental bad news public. Former environment minister Sussan Ley sat on the report for five months, leaving it for her successor to release it.

Now comes the avalanche of policy

Both ministers have a packed policy agenda, courtesy of Labor’s last minute commitment to creating an environmental protection agency, as well as responding to the urgent calls for change in the sweeping [2020 review] of Australia’s national environmental law (https://epbcactreview.environment.gov.au/resources/final-report).

That’s not half of it. Bowen is also tasked with delivering the government’s high-profile 43% emissions cuts within eight years, which includes the Rewiring the Nation effort to modernise our grid. He will also lead Australia’s bid to host the world’s climate summit, COP29, in 2024, alongside Pacific countries.

Plibersek also has to tackle major water reforms in the Murray Darling basin and develop new Indigenous heritage laws to respond to the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock art site Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto.

Can one big department cope with this workload?

Creating a super-department is a bad idea. That’s because the agenda for both ministers is large and challenging. It will be a nightmare job for the department secretary tasked with supporting two ministers. It’s no comfort that the problem will be worse elsewhere, with the infrastructure department supporting four cabinet ministers.

Giving departmental secretaries wide responsibilities crossing lines of ministerial responsibility encourages them to reconcile policy tensions internally rather than putting them up to ministers, as they should.

The tension between large renewable energy projects and threatened species is a prime example of what can go wrong. Last year, environment minister Sussan Ley ruled a $50 billion renewable megaproject in the Pilbara could not proceed because of ‘clearly unacceptable’ impacts on internationally recognised wetlands south of Broome.

Ley’s ‘clearly unacceptable’ finding stopped the project at the first environmental hurdle. That’s despite the fact the very same project was awarded ‘major project’ status by the federal government in 2020.

The problem here is what might have been the right answer on a narrow environmental basis was the wrong answer more broadly.

If Australia is to achieve its potential as a clean energy superpower and as other renewable energy megaprojects move forward, we will need more sophisticated ways of avoiding such conflicts. This will require resolution of deep policy tensions – and that’s best done between ministers rather than between duelling deputy secretaries.

Super-departments also struggle to maintain coherence across the different programs they run. While large departments bring economies of scale, these benefits are more than offset by coordination and culture issues.

An early task for Glyn Davis, the new head of the prime minister’s department, will be to recommend a secretary for this new super-department of climate change, energy, the environment and water. In addition to the ability to absorb a punishing workload, the successful appointee will need high level juggling skills to support Plibersek and Bowen simultaneously.

Ironically, in dividing time between two ministers, she or he will be the least able to accept Plibersek’s call for staff of her new department to be ‘all in’ in turning her decisions into action.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

(Banner image of two king parrots by David Salt)

Bringing ‘the environment’ in from the cold

By David Salt

‘The Environment’ is a tricky portfolio for any incoming minister.

The truth is, both major political parties are shy when it comes to campaigning on big environmental reform. Big reforms are very expensive, easily attacked (there are always lots of potential losers), difficult to implement in single terms of government and the implementing party doesn’t get rewarded at subsequent elections as there is rarely a large dividend for individual voters.

Consequently, the majors usually play a small target game when it comes to campaigning on the environment – say enough to suggest you’re concerned about the environment but don’t commit to too much. The aim is to differentiate yourself from the other team without raising the debate to such a level that people might start looking closely at what you’re actually proposing.

Consider how the outgoing conservative government campaigned on the environment when it was seeking to take government 9 years ago, and then how it performed. Back in 2013 the conservative party (the Liberal National Party, then in opposition) placed its focus on saving threatened species because the Labor Government was turning its conservation efforts towards a more holistic landscape focus.

Putting those plans into action

Back then Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for the environment, loudly trumpeted that his party would never turn its back on a threatened species, that his party would take positive action when it came to saving endangered animals. I remember him saying while Labor was happy to leave recovery plans up on the shelf, the conservatives would get those plans down and put them into action.

In many ways this suited the action orientated, anti-bureaucracy, managerial approach of the Abbott conservatives, in which they placed a tight focus on parts of the environmental challenge while ignoring the bigger picture.

As a campaign tactic it played well. It gave the conservatives a respectable fig leaf of environmental credibility; they hadn’t committed to too much; and it was different to Labor’s approach. When coupled with their intention to ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, deploy a green army and plant 20 million trees, the conservatives had an environmental strategy to bat away all probing questions. They went on to win that year’s election.

They didn’t win because of the brilliance of their environmental plan. That wasn’t the point; their plan was to neutralize the environmental debate at no net cost, enabling them to take up the fight to the Labor government on a number of other fronts.

Once in office they threw a few pennies towards threatened species research and management while gutting the environment department as a whole. They did their best to not talk about biodiversity conservation at all (the term literally slipped from view) while attempting to reduce the legal checks and balances surrounding development approvals that harmed biodiversity.

Nine years into their term of office and the pennies spent on threatened species research came to an end. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub was closed down despite the problem of threatened species only growing (in some cases accelerating).

While I’m talking about the last government, which has now left office, this is not ancient history. A couple of months ago, just before the election, the environment minister Sussan Ley scrapped the requirement for recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats. The move was quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April. (Ms Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.)

Book ends to a sad saga

While possibly a minor note in the symphony of neglect and vandalism that characterized the conservative government’s approach to the environment, the saga of recovery plans for threatened species is significant for two reasons.

First, it provides symbolic bookends to their nine years in office. They began in 2013 by trumpeting their superior management would see recovery plans put into action so real conservation outcomes would be realized. They finished in 2022, having gutted the environment department’s capacity to even produce recovery plans (recovery plans for many species were years overdue), by simply scrapping the requirement for those plans. It’s hard to get more cynical than this.

It’s also an important story because it shows how difficult it can be to campaign on the environment. People care about threatened species and habitats, but they vote on cost of living and perceptions on who is the strongest leader. The conservative’s campaign on threatened species was as cynical as it was hollow. It was cobbled together to provide the impression they were doing something on the environment, but they knew that when their approach was shown to be false the electorate would have moved on to focus on other issues.

In a sense they were right. The electorate still worries about threatened species but its attention has been grabbed by unprecedented wildfires, mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and floods. Accelerating environmental decline has become the new normal and the electorate has lost faith in the government’s ability to deal with it. The fact that Sussan Ley refused to release the latest State of the Environment Report (which was available months before the election) only heightened our concern.

Of course, the conservatives were defeated last month for a raft of reasons, with climate denialism, contempt for women, and a lack of integrity high on the list.

The Labor opposition played a small target campaign on many issues and especially on the environment. As things have turned out, it looks like this was a clever course to take. Having won office, however, what now?

Demoted to the environment

As the ashes begin to settle following their victory, the familiar game of ‘new government’ begins to play out. The broken defeated conservative party turns on itself; the new Labor government discovers the old government have left many nasty undisclosed secrets lurking in the books; and positions of power are divvied out.

One ‘surprising’ ministerial appointment was making Tania Plibersek the Minister for The Environment. Regarded by many as one of the new government’s star performers, Ms Plibersek had been the Shadow Minister for Education and was expected to keep this responsibility moving into government; indeed, it was her stated preference. Many media commentators suggested the switch to environment was a ‘demotion’.

As a ministerial posting, why would education be seen to be more important than the environment? To put it crudely, because the department of education commands more money as a policy area, and education probably influences more direct votes than the environment; and money and votes equals more power.

Personally, I’m delighted someone as talented and capable as Ms Plibersek has been given the responsibility for the environment, but the very framing of the position as ‘a demotion’ says a lot about how ‘the environment’ plays in politics. To coin an economic idea, the environment is too often seen as an externality to political life, it’s not part of the core business.

In from the cold

As an externality, the major parties will always be keen to downplay big environmental reform ideas because rocking the boat is simply unacceptable in a political campaign. (Witness the blowback from a price on carbon for the Gillard government.)

The solution is to bring the environment in from the cold, to connect it to the numbers that politicians see as central to what voters think is important.

One way of doing this is by developing environmental accounts that are incorporated into the economic national accounts that sit at the heart of so much political debate; to capture the environmental externality and bring it inside the tent.

Another way this might happen would be to have a trusted, transparent and independent office overseeing all development applications where there is an environmental impact.

How will we know that the environment has been brought in from the cold? We’ll know when the next ‘surprise ministerial posting’ to the environment is described as a promotion.

Banner image: Image by Eduardo Ruiz from Pixabay

A new government and a new environment minister – what now for Australian environmental policy?

By Peter Burnett

So Australia has a new Labor government, having secured its win on the back of a ‘small target’ strategy that meant saying as little as possible about substantive policy (including on the environment).

That’s nice for them, but what now for the environment itself, especially since Labor’s intended environment minister, Terri Butler, lost her seat to a Green?

Before I get to that, a little more on the environmental implications of the election results.

Despite both major parties largely ignoring the environment (see my last blog), it was quite a ‘green’ election, with the Greens picking up three inner-city Brisbane seats in the lower house to add to their base of just one, while also jumping from nine to 12 seats in the Senate, a 33% increase.

More than this, there was a ‘Teal wave’ in the lower house, with five supposedly-safe ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal Party seats falling to pro-climate-change ‘Teal’ Independents, joining Zali Steggall and several others to create a loose pro-climate cross-bench ginger group of up to nine.

Meanwhile, the Senate, with the addition of Canberra-based Independent David Pocock, now has a pro-climate majority.

Together these changes represent a major shift in favour of environmental action. (I’m going to assume that the pro-climate MPs will be generally pro-environment, although the degree to which this is ‘on the record’ varies between these MPs.)

While it’s hard to divine the reasons for this shift, I’ll go with conventional wisdom for the moment, which is that our recent horror years of drought, fire, smoke, storm and flood have brought climate change in particular into the homes many millions of Australians, literally.

Policy on the record

Until just before the election, Labor had well-developed policies on climate and water, but a small grab-bag of policies on the rest. At the last minute, Labor released a policy on environmental law reform, in the context of the previous government’s failure to table a full response to the 2020 Samuel Review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Labor promised a full response to the Samuel Review, but in the meantime says they will establish an independent Environment Protection Agency. The agency will have two roles, one concerned with gathering and analysing environmental information and the other focused on compliance with environmental regulation and assurance that environmental standards are being met.

Labor highlights that, as well as being a custodian for national environmental information, the EPA’s data division will take a ‘leadership role’ in environmental accounting. This is a welcome and overdue development for a decision tool that remains largely unrecognised.

Policy off the record

While Labor lifted its game at the last minute with its environmental law reform policy, they can hardly be said to be environmental-policy high performers.

Their ‘43% by 2030’ climate target, while a significant advance on the ‘26 to 28%’ target of the outgoing government, is still much criticised as falling well short of what the Paris target of ‘well below 2 degrees’ requires.

And the environmental law reform commitment remains, for the most part, a commitment to come up with answers rather than an answer in itself. Once the new government starts work on fleshing its policy out, they will find that the job requires much more than just a streamlining of environmental regulation and some extra money for a resource-starved department.

The really big challenges are a lack of clarity and ambition about environmental outcomes and a major under-investment in environmental restoration.

While the Paris targets and our ‘Net Zero by 2050’ commitments provide a clear policy objective for climate policy, the same cannot be said for other areas, biodiversity in particular.

Australia (and almost everyone else) has failed to engage seriously with international targets based on halting and reversing biodiversity decline and our existing domestic biodiversity policies are either meaningless waffle or non-existent.

And our data is so poor that even the experts find it hard to tell us what a policy to halt biodiversity decline would look like on the ground.

Our history of policy failure to date suggests strongly that if reversing biodiversity decline is to be the goal, major institutional change and major investment in environmental restoration will be needed, far beyond anything seen to date.

And the new minister?

The good news is that Tanya Plibersek has been appointed environment minister in the new government. Announcing her appointment, the Prime Minister said Ms Plibersek had a long-term interest in the environment and would be ‘outstanding in that area … particularly in the area of the Murray Darling Basin Plan … it’s very important that that actually get delivered.’

Ms Plibersek is a very experienced and capable operator with previous ministerial experience. She is often spoken of as a future leader and has political heft.

The bad news is that her challenge is not simply to be a political success in the role, nor even to deliver real progress on the ground. The real challenge is to lay the foundations for ongoing success, against a backdrop in which the goal-posts, thanks to climate change, keep moving further away.

Tanya Plibersek will need all her considerable skill and experience, and a significant dollop of Parliamentary and stakeholder goodwill, if she is to have any prospect of meeting this daunting challenge.

We wish her luck.

Banner image: The Australian numbat, now listed as Endangered. Widespread clearing of their habitat and predation by feral animals have led to their steep decline. Arresting the collapse of our biodiversity is just of several major environmental challenges Australia’s new government needs to tackle. (Image by Seashalia Gibb from Pixabay)

In the war of the colour chart, where lies the colour of resilience?

By David Salt

If you were trying to explain Australian politics to an outsider (an alien or an American, for example), you could do worse than falling back on a colour chart synthesis.

Australia has two major political sides, a red team and a blue team.

The red team is called Labor and supposedly places priority on workers and organisations that represent workers. Red might represent the colour of the blood that flows through the veins of the good honest wage earner.

The owners of the businesses that benefits from the toil of these honest workers believe the blood that flows in their veins is blue. Their political allegiance is to the idea of freedom and letting businesses and markets decide on priorities and that government should be kept small. They call themselves Liberals and their colour is blue.

But there are a couple of other teams we need to mention up front.

There’s also a party that claims its mandate is based on standing up for the people of regional Australia – farmers and miners on the whole – these are honest hard-working folk with strong roots in the soil. They’re a little red because they expect government to support them in the regions but more blue because they don’t like being told what to do. They call themselves the National Party, and I’m naming them ‘team brown’ after the dirt they toil over (even though their official colours are green and yellow).

Then there are the greens. No prizes for guessing what they stand for – it’s the environment. They want strong government regulation (or, as the blues and browns say, ‘pesky government interference’) on climate change, pollution and conservation. They are more aligned with the reds than the blues, and the browns largely hate them because they represent ‘government telling them what to do’.

Every three years Australians vote for someone in their region to represent them in our national government. These candidates largely come from the red or the blue team (though the blues have been in coalition with the browns for as long as anyone can remember) and Australia has always been ruled by the red team or the blue/brown team.

What else do you need to know? Well, you should be aware that all adult Australians have to vote (no discretion there) and that we have an independent organization that oversees the electoral process (the Australian Electoral Commission). This is important because Australians trust our electoral process and always accept the people’s verdict (I’m looking at you Mr Trump). Whenever the people choose the other side to govern, there is always a smooth transition of power. This is something the nation is very proud of.

Business as usual

Why am I telling you all this? Well, if you’re from another planet (or the US) you might be a little confused at how we’re responding to multiple environmental crises engulfing Australia (and the world).

Our coral reefs are bleaching, forest biomes are burning and low land communities are flooding. Climate change is exacting a horrible and growing toll on our nation (and the poor are copping it the worst), we have a very strong scientific consensus on what we need to do to address the problem (ie, reduce greenhouse emissions) yet our national government (which until last week was blue/brown) has been steadfast in its opposition to do anything about climate change. Many of its members are in strong denial that climate change is even real.

Whenever a proposal comes up to make a change to our economy to reduce greenhouse emissions, the government scares people about the cost of that change (without reflecting on the larger cost of not changing). This is exactly what happened at our last national election (in 2019, the same year of the Black Summer that scorched Australia’s eastern seaboard).

Over the last three years since then, our blue/brown government has done little about climate change while at the same time ignoring growing calls for an independent commission on integrity, turning its back on the pleas of our First Nations people for voice in our constitution, and largely ignoring cries from women everywhere for respect and agency.

Over the past six weeks the country has been dragged through an election campaign in which the blue/brown party claimed they should be re elected because the world was becoming too dangerous to trust anyone but them to lead us forward. It’s a powerful message that always favours the incumbent. They said they had a plan though few people knew what it was beyond keeping things the same.

The red party also they said they had a plan – a plan for change. But because they got beaten up at the last election over the cost of change, at this election the change they detailed was very small (a small-target campaign).

This left many people very depressed because both parties were saying the world was increasingly dangerous and that they had a plan, but both plans didn’t involve much change.

A new colour?

In many cities around Australia there were many people who normally voted blue who no longer trusted the blue party because they seemed to be ignoring growing calls for action on climate change and greater integrity in government. It seemed the blues were hostage to the demands of the right-wing conservative browns (the junior partners in government).

These disenchanted blue voters were reluctant to vote red but even more loathe to support the greens (often portrayed as fanatical and uncompromising in their zeal for environmental reform). However, they were damned if they were going to support the blues anymore.

Independent candidates (people with no specific colour preference) have long been a component of Australia’s political scene but they appear spasmodically and normally campaign on a limited range of issues in specific regions. They occasionally exert considerable influence when they hold the balance of power but they usually disappear after one or two terms. They normally get in because they have good grass-root connections with the communities they seek to represent.

In the lead up to our most recent election, however, something unprecedented occurred. High profile community-based independents stood for office in a range of blue seats in cities across Australia. They were almost all women with strong professional backgrounds, and would likely have been blue supporters in the past.

They became known as the teal independents, teal* being a shade lying between blue and green. And they proved phenomenally successful at the weekend’s elections knocking off some of the blue’s most high-profile candidates including the former treasurer (who had been touted as the next blue leader).

The colour of resilience is teal

Indeed, the ‘teal revolution’, as some have dubbed it, may go down in Australian political history as the day our political leaders finally heard the message resonating through the broader community: we want real action on climate change, and we want integrity in our political leadership. No more lies, denial and corruption; no more kow-towing to the fossil-fuel industry (listening to political donors rather than electors).

Though the counting still continues, it looks like Labor (the reds) will have a workable majority and can form government in its own right. However, they know they can’t ignore the broader community’s wishes on environmental reform and integrity. If they do they risk a similar revolt as with the teals (maybe a rufous rebellion). The Australian electorate now knows it can’t be ignored.

The blues, being overly influenced by the browns, thought they could ignore the wishes of electorate. They thought they could trounce the reds while laughing at the greens because they believed a sufficiently frightened public would shy away from change, stick with a status quo no matter how inadequate. The teals appeared as if from nowhere and proved them dead wrong.

Our now defeated former Prime Minister, a man without a moral compass and a prolific liar (according to his own party colleagues), often spoke about making Australia more resilient. By bowing to the browns he prevented meaningful change, and actually helped make the country less resilient. Perversely in terms of what he intended, his actions directly contributed to the rise of the teals and the destruction of his own party.

Resilience is all about changing as the world changes.

If resilience has a colour then it has to be teal.

*Teal is a cyan-green color. Its name comes from that of a bird — the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) — which presents a similarly colored stripe on its head.

Banner image: The Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) from Mangaon, Raigad, Maharashtra, India. (Photograph by Shantanu Kuveskar. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

It’s election time! For one party the environment is not a priority. For the other, it’s not something to talk about.

By Peter Burnett

With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?

Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.

First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).

Second, the issue is not just the target but whether there’s a credible path to achieving it. I’ve already criticised the government for tabling a plan for its new 2050 target without any new policy to go with it.

As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.

Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.

As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.

The Coalition on the Environment

The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.

Climate aside, three things stand out.

First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.

I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.

The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.

The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.

Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.

Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.

All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.

Labor on the Environment

While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.

Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.

They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.

A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.

Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.

All of this is at the margins.

But on the big issues … silence.

What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?

Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).

Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.

And the winner is …

If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.

The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.

With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.

Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.

Teal anyone?

Banner image: Look closely at what both major parties are offering on the Environment and there’s nothing to get excited over. (Image by yokewee from Pixabay)

Wanna save Planet Earth? Try ‘thinking slow’. In praise of Daniel Kahneman

By David Salt

Why do simplistic three-word slogans have such cut through? Why does incumbency give a political party such an advantage? Why does a simple lie so often trump an inconvenient and complex truth?

The answers to these questions (and so many other mysteries surrounding the way election campaigns are run) lies in the way we think. And one of the finest minds alive today who has devoted much of his life on trying to understand how we think is a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, distilled the essence of his research on how we think in a book called ‘Thinking, fast and slow*’. It’s around 500 pages long and quite dense in parts as Kahneman explains how he and colleagues** rigorously tested many assumptions on how humans think and make decisions. There’s a lot of detail presented, and I’m not saying it’s an easy book to take in; however, if you have any interest in how our inherent biases distort our decision-making processes then this is a must read.

In a nutshell, Kahneman describes how ‘fast thinking’ is what we do intuitively, almost thinking without thinking. ‘Slow thinking’ is when we analyse the information we’re processing. It takes time (hence it’s ‘slow’) and, most importantly, it takes considerable mental effort. Slow thinking helps us correct the biases inherent in our fast thinking but because slow thinking is hard, our brain often gives up on it because it takes too much effort. When this happens, we default back to fast thinking usually without even being aware of it; which is fine a lot of the time (like when you’re fending off a sabre tooth tiger) but can often lead to sub optimal (and sometimes awful) outcomes.

In the words of Kahneman

How does this relate to the way politicians prosecute their election campaigns? I’ll let Kahneman spell out some of the consequences.

On the ‘illusion of understanding’, Kahneman says (p201 in Thinking, fast and slow):

“It is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

My take: Politicians capable of telling a ‘coherent’ narrative do better than scientists attempting to explain to you a complex story with all the details.

On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):

“The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.”

My take: We make many of our most important decisions based on what other people believe, people we trust, not on what we know. Scientists always believe more evidence and quality evidence will win the day (probably because the people they trust, other scientists, think the same way).

On ‘confidence’ (p212):

“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”

My take: Don’t confuse confidence with validity. Don’t believe, as most scientists do, that information with high uncertainty is always discounted.

On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):

“Optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession [GFC] is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organisations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.”

My take: Some people (in some circumstances) can fool all of the people some of the time.

On being a successful scientist (p264):

“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”

My take: Scientists are human, too.

On not seeing flaws in the tools you use (p277):

“I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.

…disbelieving is hard work, and System 2 [thinking slow] is easily tired.”

My take: When your only tool is a hammer, all you see are nails.

On ‘reform’ and attempting to change the status quo (p305):

“A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest”…

…In human affairs, the same simple rule explains much of what happens when institutions attempt to reform themselves…

As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favour and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned.

Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals. This conservatism helps keep us stable in our neighbourhood, our marriage, and our job; it is the gravitational force that holds our life together near the reference point.”

My take: Incumbent conservative governments have all the advantages when it comes elections involving reform and complex policy positions. Reformers wanting to shift the status quo have a very hard task because of the power of ‘loss aversion’. Also, a concentrated force beats a dissipated force, even if the dissipated force is greater overall.

On dealing with rare events (p333)

“When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.”

My take: Human thinking is not well adapted to deal with climate breakdown or biodiversity loss.

On good decision making (p418)

“They [decision makers] will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decisions to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.”

My take: Good decisions are not just about good outcomes. Decisions should be judged as much by the process by which they are made, and that people take better decisions when they think they are accountable. (This quote, by the way, is the final line in the book.)

Kahneman’s legacy

Kahneman’s quotes aren’t pithy generalised reflections that came to him as he was thinking about thinking. They are direct conclusions of multiple rigorous trials in which subjects were given options to choose between in which they needed to assess risk and possible outcomes.

And the research isn’t new or unreviewed. Some of his findings on cognitive biases and decision heuristics (the mental rules-of-thumb that often guide our decision making) go back some 50 years. Kahneman is recognised as one of the world’s leading behavioural psychologists, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his work on prospect theory (pretty good for someone who had never studied economics), and his work has been a cornerstone to the developing field of behavioural economics.

Of course, all of this is also central to marketing and politics: how do you communicate (sell) information to score a sale or bag a vote? You don’t do it by providing every detail available, like many scientists try to do. This simply switches people off.

Rather, you build a simple coherent narrative that you can ‘sell’ with confidence. You scare people about their losses if the status quo is threatened (as will happen if you ‘vote for the opposition’), and you frame your arguments for maximum salience to your target group.

‘Good marketing’ is about exploiting people’s cognitive biases and not overloading them with detail they can’t absorb. ‘Good politics’ is about simplistic three-word slogans and scaring voters into believing that change means they will lose.

Elections are all about good marketing and good politics

Good marketing and good politics often add up to poor policy, short-term thinking and vulnerability in a climate ravaged world.

Fossil fuel corporations (and conservative politicians in their thrall) have been manipulating community sentiment for decades, stoking scepticism and denialism about complex science, and preventing the world from responding to an existential threat.

Kahneman didn’t give them the blueprint for how this is done, but his science has revealed just how easy it can be to steer and nudge a person’s behaviour and beliefs if you understand how inherently biased our thinking can be.

The solution? There is no pill (red or blue) that can help people do more slow thinking and better reflect on the biases inherent in their fast thinking. As Kahneman has demonstrated throughout his career, humans simply think the way that they think. However, society has created many institutions that provide checks and balances on the way marketeers sell products and politicians acquire and use power. The integrity of these institutions is the bridge between day-to-day politics and good policy outcomes.

Australia is currently in election mode with a federal election only days away. Political integrity and climate change are a major concern to most Australians. Despite this, the incumbent conservative government has long resisted the establishment of an independent integrity commission to test the many claims of corruption that have been levelled at it over the years. And this government has been seen as dragging the chain on climate action (and lying about what they are actually doing).

And yet, our Prime Minister, a man who has been described as lacking a moral compass and being a serial liar (by his own colleagues!), is a masterful marketeer. Nick named ‘Scotty from Marketing’, maybe he should be retitled Australia’s ‘Prime Marketeer’. He knows how to spin a simple and coherent story and stick to it. He knows how to scare people about the costs of change, and divide communities by playing on people’s prejudices and fears. Using these skills he pulled off ‘a miracle’ victory at the last election.

Thinking fast has served him well. Now, for a meaningful response to multiple environmental emergencies, it’s time for a little reflection; a little more thinking slow is called for.

*Thinking, fast and slow

To be honest, I had never heard of Daniel Kahneman 15 years ago. But then I began working for a group of environmental decision scientists and his name constantly came up. Kahneman was the leading light who illuminated why our internal decision-making processes were so flawed, so biased. He was the ‘god’ who (along with his friend Amos Tversky**) had published the landmark paper ‘Judgement under uncertainty: heuristics and biases’ in 1974 in the journal Science, one of the most widely read papers of all time I was told. Well, I tried reading it and found it too technical and dense to take in.

Then, in 2011, Kahneman published Thinking, fast and slow. Someone described it as a 500-page version of his 1974 paper. Not a great sales pitch for me, I’m afraid.

However, just prior to the corona pandemic, I spied Thinking, fast and slow on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. It took over a year before I found the courage to open it (it was my big pandemic read), six months to wade through it, and another three months before I’ve attempted to write down why I found its wisdom so compelling.

So, for me, my journey with Kahneman has been a long one. And now that I have finished this blog, I can return Thinking, fast and slow to my friend Michael Vardon, who loaned it to me many moons ago. Thanks Michael, sorry about the delay.

** Amos Tversky

If I’ve interested you at all in Daniel Kahneman but possibly put you off reading Thinking, fast and slow (because who has time to read a 500-page horse pill of information on cognitive biases) then I highly recommend another book that covers the same ground but from a more personal framing. This one is about Daniel Kahneman and his life-long colleague and closest friend, Amos Tversky. The book is called The Undoing Project and is written by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short and Moneyball, both about biases in the way we think and assess risk). It tells the story of Kahneman and Tversky, both Israeli psychologists, and how together they unpicked the many ways our thinking is biased without us even being aware of it. Not only does The Undoing Project give an excellent overview of the research described in greater detail by Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow, it also paints a touching portrait of the friendship between two of the world’s finest minds. Tversky tragically died of cancer in 1996.

Banner image: ArtsyBee at Pixabay

International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

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

By David Salt

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

Melt down

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

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

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

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

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

Blow up

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

And what caused this disaster?

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

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

Blow out

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

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

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

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

Integrity fail

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

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

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

Hollow credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The IPCC has left me hanging on the line – more detail is not making a difference

After six goes you’d think they’d try something different

By David Salt

The way we communicate climate change is not working. This is not a new situation but it’s about time we acknowledged it.

The IPCC has just released its sixth report on climate change. Did you miss it? Probably not if you’re a scientist or you worry about the environment. For the rest of humanity, it sunk without a ripple; which is pretty amazing when most of the world seems to be dealing with unprecedented supercharged weather, floods and droughts.

The story in detail

Thirty years ago I was a science writer working at CSIRO Education. I was doing a story on the ‘greenhouse effect’, something associated with global warming, a phenomenon scientists were talking about but governments were largely ignoring.

I was speaking by phone with the Information Officer at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, a former climate scientist himself.

“So, this greenhouse effect describes what’s happening on our planet?” I put to Dr Smith [not his real name]. “The Earth’s atmosphere is trapping heat like a greenhouse, is that the story?”

“No, no, no!” Exclaimed Dr Smith. “The ‘greenhouse’ analogy is completely misapplied because it doesn’t capture what’s really happening. The Earth’s atmosphere is not like a greenhouse holding in warm air. What really happens is the Sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere, over two thirds of it, anyway, and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. It then gets re radiated in the form of invisible infrared light and…”

But I didn’t hear anymore. Unfortunately, our phone connection had cut out. I rang Dr Smith straight back but I couldn’t get through to him because his phone was engaged. I tried again five minutes later but it was still engaged. I kept trying again and again.

Thirty minutes later I got through. The reason his phone had been engaged was because he hadn’t noticed the line had dropped out. He’d kept on talking to me – for 30 minutes without interruption, never pausing for breath or checking to see if I was keeping up with him.

This is a true story but it’s also emblematic of the problem of scientists communicating complicated stories to non-scientists. They include all the details, they lecture rather than listen, and they don’t have much awareness of their audience or how the audience hears the information. They are frequently unaware that their message is even getting through.

Well, that was 30 years ago. Things have changed, right?

We know a hell of a lot more now, that’s for sure. But we’re still not doing anything about it.

Summer of the Greenhouse

The science of global warming was well understood by the 1970s. Data collected since the 1950s was showing that carbon dioxide levels were steadily on the increase. By the mid 70s, it was well established that the rising carbon dioxide was due to anthropogenic emissions (ie, humans were producing them).

The consequences of this were even being observed by the late 1980s. 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history (at that point), and NASA’s Jim Hansen declared that the signal from climate change had emerged. He wrote: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Indeed, the hot northern summer of 1988 has sometimes been called the ‘greenhouse summer’. It’s very appropriate then that this was the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being. Jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC was created to review all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic international responses to this global concern. The IPCC does not undertake scientific work itself but rather reports a consensus position.

In 1990 the IPCC published its first assessment report. It noted that greenhouse warming could result in ‘several degrees’ of warming by the middle of the following century.

More and more certain

In 1995 the IPCC released its second assessment report. Considerable progress had been made since the 1990 report in distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic influences on climate. The balance of evidence, it said, suggested a discernible human influence on global climate.

By the time of its third report, in 2001, the possibility had become a strong probability, and the rate of change was ‘without precedent for at least the last 10,000 years’. The ‘several degrees’ had become a precise band (somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius). This band of possible future warming became the basis for a mechanism to implement the Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 178 governments (though not the United States and initially not Australia either, though we came around in 2007 after a change of government).

The fourth assessment report, released in 2007, reported that anthropogenic harm was ‘already evident’ (though, as I already indicated, prominent climate scientists were actually claiming this back in the 80s).

2015 saw the fifth assessment report released. It basically said everything previous reports had said but with greater certainty and urgency. The IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become. And it spelt all this out in a report coming in at over 2,000 pages long and citing 9,200 scientific publications.

The most detailed ever

Which brings us to the sixth and current assessment. It has 278 authors from 65 countries, cites over 18,000 references and is almost 3,000 pages long!! What does it say? I’m not sure. I haven’t had time even to read the 64 page summary for policymakers. I am interested, it’s just I’m not too fussed by the details. I accepted the basic story of ‘need for change’ over 20 years ago.

(Also, I got the gist of the assessment through comments I read on twitter, where brevity is the rule. And that gist is that climate change is real and now; the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal; cost of inaction is much bigger than doing something; everyone will suffer if we continue down the current path; and the window of opportunity is closing quickly.)

I’m more interested in the fact that such a detailed report can be so comprehensively ignored by pretty much most of the developed world, the section of humanity that has created this problem. News instead has been dominated by an actor slapping the face of comedian at the Oscars. (And in Australia, there’s also been much attention to historic floods destroying whole communities up and down the eastern seaboard. These reports often note the likely link to climate change and then revert to reporting efforts to put everything back just the way it was!)

The IPCC is like my Dr Smith. It’s feeding loads of climate detail down the phone to an audience that may not be there.

We don’t need more detail.

We do need more effective communication, greater engagement with more of the community, real policy integration and better leadership.

The next assessment report might want to consider that.

(I tried ringing them but their phone was engaged.)

Banner image: Monikas_Wunderwelt @ Pixabay

Off the dial – Planet Earth is showing multiple instrument warnings

But the dials don’t appear to connect to anything

By David Salt

You’re driving along and one of the dials on the dashboard suddenly shoots way over normal. The car, however, seems to be travelling fine so you decide its an instrument error and ignore it.

But what if several dials begin overshooting? Oil pressure is up, heat is going through the roof, warning lights are flashing all over the console. What do you do? You pull over as fast as possible and try to find out what’s wrong because ignoring this multitude of warnings will likely wreck your car and possibly risk your life.

Quick, stop the car!

Well, multiple serious warning lights are flashing at us from all over the globe.

An unprecedented sixth mass coral bleaching event is sweeping up and down the Great Barrier Reef – in a La Nina year!

We’re still trying to dry out after historic floods generated by a series of ‘rain bombs’ up and down Australia’s east coast (with the possibility of more to come).

The US Mid-West is gripped by unprecedented drought (with Lake Powell behind the Hoover Dam, the world’s first super dam, hitting a record low this week).

Death Valley in the US has just recorded its hottest March day on record with a sweltering 40°C (records date back to 1911). Keep in mind winter has just finished for this part of the world.

But possibly the most alarming weather events being experienced at this moment are heat waves striking both Antarctica and the North Pole – alarming because it has climatologists and meteorologists in a spin.

Parts of eastern Antarctica have seen temperatures hover 40 degrees Celsius above normal for three days and counting.

“This event is completely unprecedented and upended our expectations about the Antarctic climate system,” said Jonathan Wille, a researcher studying polar meteorology at Université Grenoble Alpes in France.

“Antarctic climatology has been rewritten,” tweeted Stefano Di Battista, another noted Antarctic researcher. He said that such temperature anomalies would have been considered “impossible” and “unthinkable” before they actually occurred.

Meanwhile, what is being described as a record-breaking ‘bomb cyclone’ that developed over the US East Coast a couple of weeks ago is bringing an exceptional insurgence of warm air to the Arctic. Temperatures around 28 degrees Celsius above normal could cover the North Pole this week, climbing to near the freezing mark. Keep in mind the North Pole is still in its ‘polar night’. It hasn’t seen the sun for nearly six months.

This is bonkers

This is all so far ‘outside of normal’ that the implications of these observations are not yet appreciated by the experts who study these things. Indeed, the solid peer-reviewed science we depend upon to understand what’s been happening will take months and possible years to generate.

However, if the dials on your car were giving you this feedback, even if you didn’t understand exactly what it meant, you’d likely be pulling over immediately for fear of a catastrophic failure.

If the heating we’ve been experiencing so far has been frying our coral reefs, incinerating our forest biomes and washing away our homes and human infrastructure, then these huge anomalies in our Artic and Antarctic weather are specters of coming climate catastrophes.

As a science writer working in the sustainability space, I’ve been keeping an eye on many of the ‘planetary dials’ for years if not decades. I’ve watched the remorseless rise in CO2 levels, methane levels and temperature. I’ve shed tears over the criminal decline in biodiversity, and noted the growing extent, ferocity and frequency of extreme weather (floods and wildfires).

Reading the dials

Keep in mind these ‘dials’ are not privileged or secret information. They’re available to anyone wanting to read them. They can be found in regular reports from international agencies and institutions like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES (look them up if the acronyms are new to you).

Within nations there are multiple organisations monitoring and reporting on the environment. In Australia we have the BoM, ABS and CSIRO as well as dozens of universities and specialist organisations focusing on particular aspects of the environment (for example, the Great Barrier Reef has GBRMPA and AIMS).

The information is there; it’s all cross checked and peer reviewed. It’s reliable and solid; and it’s all pointing the same way: human activity is distorting the Earth system and it’s beginning to behave in unusual and dangerous ways.

The problem is, the dials don’t seem to connect to our decision making, the information they present is not linked to policy action. Worse, many vested interests (like the fossil fuel sector) actively work to discredit and ignore what the dials are telling us.

Our political representatives have funded (with your taxes) and announced the construction of these myriad dials – “today I announce the launch of this great new environmental monitoring ‘machine/invention/organisation/report/dial/whatever’; so rest assured, our environment is now saved!” But when it comes time to respond to what the dial then begins to tell us, the readings are discounted, denied or deleted. Acknowledging the information, it seems, comes with too high a political price.

What we need is a mechanism that connects the dials to the decision making. In concept, such a mechanism already exists. It’s called environmental accounting and while many have called for its widespread implementation (including Sustainability Bites), it’s yet to be adopted in a meaningful manner.

Let it rip

What we have instead, to continue with our car analogy, is a modern economy cruising along the highway of Planet Earth at an ever increasing speed (indeed, this metaphorical vehicle has been steadily accelerating since the 1950s). The way ahead is becoming uncertain and the road itself is turning very dangerous, full of pot holes and gaping cracks. Many are suggesting we should slow down, we can’t see what’s beyond the next curve, and we’re not sure if the vehicle is safe anymore.

Our political leaders, however, are in no doubt.

“She’ll be right, mate. The car is purring. Indeed, our policies, based on ‘jobs and growth’, guarantee stability and strength. No need for brakes. Indeed, we reckon the solution is actually a little more pedal to the metal. So, let’s see what happens if we let it rip!”

Governments around the world have been ignoring the dials for decades but Australia’s current government are world beaters when it comes to climate denial and inaction. In Australia we’re on the brink of a national election. Maybe it’s time to switch drivers.

Banner image: Why is that dial acting funny? (PublicDomainPictures  from Pixabay)