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

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By David Salt

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

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

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

Hating koalas

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

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

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

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

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

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

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

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

We made a difference (?)

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

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

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

The political reflex

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

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

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

Better conservation policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust is the cornerstone of sustainability in an uncertain world

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

Clots in the system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risky business

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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

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

From Babel to babble and back again

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Information without trust is just dangerous hot air

By David Salt

Once upon a time the humans of Earth thought it would be a good idea to build a tower that reached high into the sky; so high that we could gaze across all the land, so high that they would be able to reach heaven and humans would be on the same level as God.

God saw the tower, the tower of Babel, going up and thought this was a very dumb idea, positively blasphemous.

He also noted that putting together such a large scale piece of infrastructure took a lot planning, coordination and cooperation. So, rather than smiting the tower, which some might label as an overreaction and would no doubt just cause them to build another, he instead invoked the curse of babble on the tower builders. The curse meant they could no longer understand what each other were saying. Sure enough, work on the tower came to an abrupt halt.

That should stop them talking up more stupid ideas, the Divine One probably thought.

And so it was that humans went off in their little tribes and developed separate cultures and civilizations. They knew about each other (the tribe on the other side of the divide) but direct communication was always a hassle because everyone used a different language.

Going to be a revolution

But you can’t keep a good (or a bad) human down. We figured out how to grow vast quantities of food (the Agricultural Revolution) and harness the energy of fossil fuels (the Industrial Revolution) and our numbers grew and grew.

More recently, we built clever machines called computers that could process vast quantities of information very quickly. And then we enabled those clever machines to talk to each other, and they became so portable that we could carry them around meaning that everyone could swap information with everyone else all the time (the Information Revolution).

And language became a trifling technicality solved with the push of a button.

The curse of babble was lifted, and who needed God anyway, because now our beautiful internet had given each of us access to the world’s information. Once again, we were elevating ourselves to the status of an omnipotent deity.

We had all of human knowledge at our finger tips. And that knowledge base was pretty impressive. Our technology, for example, had allowed us to understand more about the Earth and its component systems with greater precision than at any time in history.

Ironically, the technology that underpinned ‘the Great Acceleration’ of our ‘progress’ was also revealing that our activity was totally unsustainable.

Rising babble

But then bizarre things began happening as our infrastructure of information was again raising us up to God-like heights.

Many of our leaders (political and social) began declaring any news or information coming from other tribes was wrong or false.

And because there was so much information flowing through our media feeds, set to our specific profiles, it became possible to be completely inundated by the views and passions of just our own tribe (amplified in our own personal echo chambers) to the point that we began losing the capacity to listen to (or trust) information coming from other sources.

Somehow the curse of babble has descended on us again. We can understand the words being used by the other tribes, but we are losing the ability to actually hear what is being said. We don’t trust the source of the words and information being shared so we attack it or ignore it.

The cost of babble

Okay, all of the above is written in allegorical parable speak but you get my general thrust. Knowledge is power but without trust it’s as useless (and dangerous) as babble.

Writ large we see this modern babble weaponized by leaders and malicious actors all around the world. These days our many information sources all contain some degree of fake news, conspiracy thinking and fear mongering. It’s used to polarize, obfuscate and delegitimize the people outside of the tribe.

It’s a game played by the powerful to consolidate their power while weakening their enemy, those in the other tribe – be that another country or the opposing political party. But it’s a game with a horrible and enduring cost – the loss of trust and the erosion of social capital. And that sets up a vicious cycle in which the avalanche of information we all experience simply confirms our biases – that our tribe speaks ‘truth’ while the other tribe spreads falsehood, and should not be listened to.

A clear example of this is the Republican Party’s prosecution of the BIG LIE, that President Trump was robbed of election victory by the total corruption of the US democratic system. The Republican position has nothing to do with truth or evidence, and everything to do with power, polarisation and division. Trust lies bleeding and drowning under an avalanche of babble.

The consequences of this new curse of babble are profound and far reaching. In the short term we can expect it to manifest as rising levels of vaccine hesitancy (something already evident) as people stop trusting governments.

In the medium to longer term it delays and derails effective responses to climate change and environmental degradation (something we see at the moment in Australia) as people stop trusting science.

Nations with poor democratic safeguards like Russia and China are using weaponized forms of babble to interfere with the running of the other countries be it undermining trust in electoral processes (think Trump’s rise in 2016) through to directly degrading infrastructure and markets.

Indeed, if we can’t see the signal (information) from the noise (babble), we’re all one step closer to the shouting turning to real world fighting. Armed conflict, with the horrible price it brings, is not far behind any descent into babble.

Investing in trust

Trust is the only sure inoculation to the malaise of babble.

We need to trust our governments and the information they base their decisions on. That trust is based on a strong institutional framework that ensures the integrity and transparency surrounding government and corporate processes. And that institutional framework must constantly be tested, queried and scrutinized (through audits, corruption watchdogs, fair elections and a vital free independent press).

In the age of babble, none of this is guaranteed.

Mighty vested interests are attacking the foundations of our trust every day. If those foundations give way, all that we hold precious could tumble down.

Image: Hubris goes before a fall: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

Nine reasons to make more of an effort on climate change, PM

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And if you can’t see the sense of this, then speak to your wife

Dear Prime Minister

Please take real action on climate change.
Please follow the advice of our best scientists, thinkers and institutions.

Yours sincerely

David Salt
Sustainability Bites

PS: Here are nine other groups who feel the same way.
If you feel able to dismiss this combined wisdom, maybe consult your wife [see item 10]!

1. The World’s brain trust

The Dalai Lama and Australia’s Peter Doherty are among 101 Nobel Laureates calling for real action on climate change and an end to coal and gas expansion. They believe that acts to invest further in the fossil fuel industry are “unconscionable” and have said so in an open letter to political leaders on the eve of US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate. The Nobel Laureates – including economics, physics, peace, medicine, chemistry and literature prize winners – are united on this. Please don’t dismiss the world’s brain trust.

Dalai Lama and Australia’s Peter Doherty among 101 Nobel Laureates Calling for End to Coal, Gas Expansion | The Australia Institute

2. Australia’s brain trust

If you’re in doubt about the world’s best scientists have to say (most of them are foreigners after all), maybe you’re more open to what Australia’s finest scientists are saying on the topic. And, indeed, the Australian Academy of Science has just released a landmark report exploring the risks to Australia’s future based on the current global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. And those risks are big to our economy, environment and society [and indeed, to your family, see item 10].

That report states that the world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is an absolute minimum, if Australia is to avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems.

Prime Minister, please read this report compiled by Australia’s finest science brains.

https://www.science.org.au/supporting-science/science-policy-and-analysis/reports-and-publications/risks-australia-three-degrees-c-warmer-world

3. The Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE)

This is Australia’s technological brains trust. ATSE believes this is a critical and timely opportunity for Australia to demonstrate strong action and leadership on climate. The evidence is unequivocal that extreme weather events like the recent devastating bushfires, storms and floods in Australia will increase in frequency as the planet warms. Please listen to them.

Leaders summit opportunity for strong action on climate | ATSE

4. Our premier science agencies: the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO

These are Australia’s two leading scientific agencies. They’re telling us that climate change is real and present, and the evidence is incontrovertible. The continued warming of Australia’s climate, an increase in extreme fire weather and length of the fire season, declining rainfall in the southeast and southwest of the continent, and rising sea levels are some of the key trends detailed in their latest State of the Climate report.

So far Australia’s climate has warmed by around 1.4°C since 1910. Southern Australia has seen a 10–20% reduction in cool season (April–October) rainfall in recent decades, while rainfall during the northern wet season (October–April) has increased since the late 1990’s, especially for northern Australia, with a greater proportion of high intensity short duration rainfall events. This impacts all Australians. Please listen to our own government scientists.

http://media.bom.gov.au/releases/805/state-of-the-climate-2020-shows-continued-warming-and-increase-in-extreme-weather-events/

5. The Climate and Health Alliance

Climate change is impacting our health Prime Minister. Thirty-two health groups recently released a joint statement calling on the federal government to address climate change in its National Preventive Health Strategy, which is currently in development. The Strategy’s Consultation Paper does not include climate change in its six focus areas, nor even mention “climate change”. Thousands more Australians will suffer from infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, heat stress, mental illness, violence, food insecurity, poor water quality and poorer nutrition. Surely you have to acknowledge this Prime Minister?

https://www.medianet.com.au/releases/191785/ and https://chf.org.au/media-releases/win-win-win-health-and-consumers-climate

6. Emergency Leaders for Climate Action

Former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services. This call went out prior to the Black Summer of 2019/2020, our horror fire season. It vindicated every word of caution from the Emergency Leaders group yet you’re still not listening Prime Minister.

Australia Unprepared for Worsening Extreme Weather

7. The Australian Medical Association

The AMA and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) recently called on the Federal Government to adopt a suite of key measures to help reduce the risk of further climate-related disasters. Everyone trusts their doctor, why can’t you Prime Minister.

https://ama.com.au/media/bushfire-anniversary-doctors-commit-work-together-health-impacts-climate-change

8. Farmers for climate action

More and more farmers are realising what the changing climate is doing to their security and their economic bottom line. 1.4 degrees temperature rise already is already pushing them to the limit. For example, broadacre crops such as wheat and barley have seen reductions in profitability by up to 22% since 2000. Decreasing farm profitability is leaving many Australians in rural and regional communities at risk of declining health and economic wellbeing.

Farmers want you to act now. As one farmer from Farmers for climate action puts it: “Over the last year, farmers have grappled with droughts, floods and some of the worst fires in living memory. Today we have a choice, but very soon that choice is going to be taken away. Will we choose to invest in a sustainable and profitable renewables-led recovery, or will we sacrifice our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren.”

You’re on the record saying you listen to farmers, that your respect them, Prime Minister; why are you ignoring them on this.

Farmers for Climate Action

9. Our biggest ally – the US

Last week, President Joe Biden announced the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is almost double Australia’s commitment (of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030) that was announced back in 2015.

The US administration is already racing towards net zero with a $US2 trillion infrastructure plan, including $US100 billion in rebates for electric vehicles. It is also eliminating oil and gas subsidies and has placed climate action at the heart of its foreign policy.

We are not in lock step with our biggest ally on this Prime Minister, indeed we are trailing the world on climate change intention and action.

US Climate Plan Dwarfs Australia | Climate Council

10. Jenny Morrison

If you dismiss this chorus of pleas for greater effort (from world-leading and nation-leading scientists and institutions) then please have a chat with your wife, Jenny. You have repeatedly claimed she and your children are at the centre of your world yet your government’s inaction on climate change is destroying their future.

The summer bushfires of 2019–20 in a tinder-dry country, or the three severe coral bleaching events within five years that caused a loss of over 50% of hard coral cover in the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef, demonstrate some of the consequences of a warming planet for Australia’s people, economy and environment. The risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, severe storms, major floods, bushfires and coastal inundation from sea level rise continue to increase and will be more intense and frequent as temperatures exceed 2°C of warming.

Your children are now teenagers. As they mature into their 20’s and 30’s (and beyond) they can expect many more ‘Black Summers’, severe floods and punishing droughts. This will impact on the economy and society they will inherit; it will directly affect their quality of life.

Jenny, you’re a former nurse, you know what all this means. Even if you don’t follow the science, surely you must acknowledge what the health sector is saying about the growing risk of climate change [see items 5, 6 and 7] and what this means for your children. Your husband, as our Prime Minister, can make more difference now than anyone but he’s not listening. Please, for you children, help him listen. There’s a lot riding on it.

Image by sippakorn yamkasikorn from Pixabay

Dead in the water

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Making more of the Royal Commission into ‘our greatest environmental catastrophe’

By David Salt

We all know the Murray Darling Basin is in trouble. We’ve all seen the graphic images of millions of fish gasping for air as they died and heard the desperate stories of towns running dry. But we also know the causes of this distress are complex and involve multiple layers of government, countless players and many vested interests. In an effort to uncover the truth behind this mess, the South Australian State Government set up a Royal Commission in 2018 to examine the effectiveness of the $13 billion Basin Plan, supposedly a blue print for saving the mighty Murray Darling River system.

Earlier this year Richard Beasley, Senior Counsel Assisting at the Murray-Darling Royal Commission, published a book, Dead in the water, on what the Royal Commission found. You should read it. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the failure of our environmental law and policy.

Many angry texts have been written about how our environment has been let down by government but this book stands head and shoulders above them all in terms of forensic rage. Dead in the water takes readers on a whistle stop tour of the ill-fated Basin Plan, one of our Nation’s biggest environmental investments. The Plan was supposed to repair the mighty Murray Darling River system but is instead enabling (and probably accelerating) its continued degradation and desecration.

If you want to read the full 756-page Royal Commission Report, please do. The Analysis & Policy Observatory has a neat summary of it here, together with a link to download the full report.

If you want to read a single plain-speaking, short article on the Report and what it found, you could do worse than scanning this story in The Guardian (summed up by its title: ‘Murray-Darling basin royal commission report finds gross maladministration’).

But if you want to experience the full rage of how bastard politics and corporate power was able to pervert science while despoiling some of our most prized natural and cultural heritage while having the audacity to claim the opposite, then read Dead in the water. It will leave you very angry. Indeed, Beasley subtitled his book – ‘A very angry book’. A bit of background helps you understand why.

An ill-fated Royal Commission

Beasley’s perspective on the management of the Murray Darling Basin was informed by his experience as Senior Counsel Assisting at the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission was established in 2018 by the South Australian Labor State Government to investigate the Basin Plan and how it impacts on South Australia. South Australia has a keen interest in this as it sits at the end of the Murray River. Leading the investigation was Commissioner Bret Walker SC, often said to be Australia’s pre-eminent senior counsel.

Walker handed down a damning report at the beginning of 2019. Among other things, he found that Commonwealth officials had committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions in drawing up the multibillion-dollar deal to save Australia’s largest river system; that the Plan ignored potentially “catastrophic” risks of climate change and failed to make use of the best science available. He concluded that the Basin Plan needed a complete overhaul including reallocating more water from irrigation to the environment.

Unfortunately, politics dogged the Royal Commission at every step. The Commonwealth Government prevented public servants from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources from appearing at the Royal Commission (the two key agencies overseeing the Basin Plan); and when Commissioner Walker asked for more time to complete his investigation the South Australian Government, now a conservative Liberal Government after a recent election, turned him down. When Walker submitted his 746-page report (containing 111 findings and 44 recommendations) they were warmly welcomed by the SA Government and then politely ignored.

A very angry book

Richard Beasley witnessed all this, indeed was a central player in the Commission’s search for truth.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to hear and see and read all the testimonies from multiple experts, stakeholders and witnesses on the degrading state of the Basin and the inadequacy of the Basin Plan to address this decline. To hear statement after statement that the Basin Plan clearly is not based on the best science available, is unlawful, probably unconstitutional, and definitely not fit for purpose.

And rather than have the bureaucrats, managers and public servants responsible for implementing the plan explain and justify why it is as it is, the Federal Government gags them, prevents them from speaking. And then the final report is effectively forgotten because there’s been a change in the South Australian state government.

If I were watching all this I think I’d whither with rage, shrivel with impotence. What would you do?

Richard Beasley walked away from the Royal Commission and wrote an angry book. And, because he’s a skilful writer with a lawyer’s sharp eye for detail and a wicked sense of humour, he laced his observations with wry humour, amusing anecdotes and personal asides. And his anger is palpable, and there are expletives aplenty.

Beasley didn’t want to simply serve up a slightly more plain-speaking version of the Royal Commission Report; he wanted to record his fury at the environmental disaster that is unfolding up and down our nation’s most important river systems. He wanted to enrage his readers about the deep injustices this disaster is propagating across the landscape (for starters the appalling dispossession of First Nations people). And he wanted to highlight the horrific failure in governance that has allowed this to happen.

We need more angry books

I wish there were more ‘Richard Beasleys’ out there who could capture so well the multi-dimensional nature surrounding poor governance, ecosystem collapse and the subsequent societal loss it brings. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many like him around. Most scientists, for example, are scared to get too emotional or personal in order to tell stories that really move people (and I say this having worked in science communication and with scientists for over 30 years).

I’m sure part of Beasley’s intent with Dead in the water was to vent his own rage. But possibly the greater aim was to enrage the broader community to challenge our governments (at all levels) on their appalling mismanagement of our natural heritage. I know I finished the book feeling quite outraged at what has been allowed to occur.

Beasley’s book carries the subtitle: “A very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe… the Murray Darling Basin”. I think it’s possible to cast the Great Barrier Reef, our Box Gum Grassy Woodlands and many of our forest systems in the same light. If only we had more storytellers like Richard Beasley to get people angry enough to demand real action on all these catastrophes from our elected leaders.

We scored a ton! Open the champagne (?)

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Confessions of a (now slightly less) befuddled blogger

By David Salt

A standing joke between Peter Burnett and me is the line: “First we take Manhattan…”

By that we mean this blog Sustainability Bites will change the world one reader, one group, one city at a time (“First we taken Manhattan, then we take Berlin*”).

Of course, ‘converting’ your first million people is the hardest bit.

I share this with you because Peter and I (and Sustainability Bites) have just scored a couple of milestones. Last we week we posted our 100th blog**! We also signed up our 200th follower! Do the math yourself; we’re still some 10 million short of taking Manhattan, and at this rate Manhattan will have sunk under the rising seas before we even reach its shores.

The magical ton

Sustainability Bites has been going now for two years. Peter and I began this project in an effort to explore our own ideas on ‘sustainability’ and, in so doing, maybe contribute to the debate. The stretch goal was that we might even influence a few people in their thinking and, by extension, possibly have an impact on sustainability policy. Our thinking on this is spelt out on Sustainability Bites’ About page, and I reckon the description there (which we’ve never altered) still sums up our intent and ambition quite well.

I’m delighted and not a little surprised that we have lasted as long as we have. And I say that having been associated with several blogs where the initial enthusiasm and optimism faded as the blog creators (usually a group of early career researchers) discovered blogging takes a bit of effort and gaining a sizeable audience doesn’t happen overnight.

What’s more, I’m happy to say that Sustainability Bites has been pretty consistent in running a blog most weeks (there’s two of us, so that’s one blog per person per fortnight). Almost all of these blogs are original but a handful are repostings of our own stories from other places; last week for example both of us reposted our blogs from other sites.

When we reached blog #33 (Have we bitten off more than we can chew?) I reflected on what we were doing and asked if there were any themes emerging from our stories. I could see five emergent themes (and these are listed below in Appendix 1).

When we reached blog #66 (Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites) I again reviewed our collection of stories, and commented on how the second set of 33 stories was more influenced by the disasters and disturbances we were seeing unravel around us.

Even in the selection of my points of reflection (#33 and #66 – one and two thirds of the way to 100), it’s clear I had in mind that we were aiming for the big century, that magical ton**. And, as I did in those earlier review blogs, I have included a list at the end of this post of all of our blogs with the themes they relate to (see Appendix 1).

I could spend the rest of this blog talking about how the world has changed in the last 33 blogs but in actual fact, they’ve stayed much the same. The pandemic has revealed many of the cracks in our society, it’s one of the biggest disturbances to hit the world; and yet in most ways we remain heedless of the mounting evidence that our species is on track for ecological disaster. Bleaching coral reefs, mass wildfires in our forests, freaky weather and collapsing biodiversity don’t appear to be enough to convince our political leaders that massive transformative change is needed. What’s happening to the planet and how we as a society respond (though mostly it’s not responding) is the content of most of our blogs (see Appendix 1).

Rather than reflect on how the sustainability debate isn’t changing, I’d like to instead briefly reflect on the blog (and blogging) itself.

Well, we’ve made 100. Was it worth the effort?

Most of our blog articles run for between 1,000-2,000 words; so in 100 blogs we’ve racked up around 100,000 words. That’s enough words to fill a decent sized book, and they took many many hours to produce. Has it been worth it? And where to from here?

In terms of directly influencing the world by the sheer weight of readers of our blog, possibly it hasn’t been worth it. We have 200 followers (which includes our close friends and family who ‘have to’ follow us but probably don’t actually read the blog) and in a good month we’ll get over 700 visitors.

That’s not bad, and it’s taken two years to build this following. However, by the same token, it’s not Manhattan, and most of our readers probably don’t need convincing on environmental protection and sustainability (and the need to do better). In many ways we’re probably singing to the converted.

Beyond our direct readership, our blogs have influenced lectures both I and Peter have delivered in the past two years, and informed submissions that Peter has made into government enquiries, especially those relating to the review of the EPBC Act. And I have anecdotal evidence of our blogs having informed the thinking of many of our readers, some of whom are influential people. So there has probably been a ripple impact from our efforts, though measuring that value is difficult.

However, for me, the real value in Sustainability Bites has been the opportunity to put down in writing what I believe are the important dimensions of sustainability, and how they play out over time. Sustainability Bites is a space in which I discuss how I think the world works (my mental model) and attempt to rationalise that model against events as they unfold.

For example, how can President Trump so easily get away with denying the science behind the massive Californian bushfires last year as they turned people and livelihoods to cinders? (“I don’t think science knows actually,” said Trump at the time; I discussed this in Trust lies bleeding)? Or why does Prime Minister Morrison seem to listen to medical experts while turning his back on ecological experts? (I discussed this in Health trumps economy; economy trumps environment) And how can we acknowledge the idea of the ‘new normal’ and then believe we’ll simply apply old economic levers to restore service as usual? (I discussed this in 2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene) And don’t get me started on the widespread abuse of the quest for resilience (see On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster).

I’m not saying my take in these stories is right but my efforts to assemble the evidence, articulate the case and engage readers with the arguments has generated some genuine insights for me. All these examples just mentioned relate to complexity, feedbacks, power, politics and dissonance; and these elements lie at the heart of sustainability.

Where to from here?

Good question. I hope I have another 100 stories in me but I don’t want them to be a simple rehashing of what I’ve already done. But I’m confident they won’t be because I honestly feel the process of being part of Sustainability Bites has changed the way I think and speak about sustainability, biodiversity conservation and science in general. And maybe that’s the most important value emerging from this blog, it keeps me thinking and it changes the way I view the world.

And sometimes, not always but sometimes, I finish a story and think to myself: “that wasn’t half bad.” Even if it doesn’t change the world, and even if no-one reads it, I have created prose that I’m quite proud of. That’s reward enough in itself.

Now, see if I can do it again, and again; and, who knows, maybe taking Manhattan isn’t a pipe dream.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay 

*Of course, First we take Manhattan is a song by Leonard Cohen, one of his most famous. The first verse might be a mantra for a sustainability warrior. It reads:
They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

**For our overseas readers (and we know we have several), to ‘score a ton’ is a term often used in the game of cricket (Australia’s national summer pastime) meaning to make 100 runs or a century. Sustainability Bites has racked up 100 blogs. We’ve scored a ton!

Appendix 1: Topics and themes in Sustainability Bites

Five themes emerging in our commentaries:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

[Blogs in order of appearance with themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]
34. Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites – looking back on 33 blogs[reflection, history]
35. What’s in the EPBC Box? – Unpacking Australia’s primary environmental law [policy, EPBC Act]

36. I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon – playing the crisis game [crisis, politics]
37. Federal environmental planning – planning should be strengthened in the EPBC Act [policy, EIA]
38. Shame Greta Shame – the use of ‘shame’ to affect change [politics, shame, denialism]
39. Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’? – [business, social responsibility]
40. On the taboo of triage – why politicians don’t talk about triage [politics, policy, denialism]

41. 2019 Senate Environment Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
42. I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!! – the value of the ‘letter’ from experts [politics, science culture, denialism]
43. Supplementary Environmental Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
44. The script that burns us – predicatable responses to wildfire [politics, ideology, denialism]
45. Announcing ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’ – what’s in this new policy [politics, policy]

46. But we’re only a tiny part of the problem! – unpacking denialist cant [politics, policy, denialism]
47. Will next year be a big one for biodiversity? – the importance of 2020 [policy, environmental accounts]
48. Positioning ‘The Environment’ – rearranging government departments [policy, politics]

49. Insights on government thinking from 20 years ago – release of parliamentary papers[policy, history]
50. Five lies that stain the nation’s soul – the government’s worst lies [politics, denialism]

51. Now is the summer of our discontent – reflecting on an awful summer [politics, disturbance]
52. On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster – hiding behind notions of resilience [politics, disturbance, resilience]
53. By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity? – environmental accounts to the rescue [policy, environmental accounts]
54. Conversations with the devil – false news is amplified by tribalism [polarization, tribalism]
55. A tale of two climate bills – laws proposed by an independent and the Greens [policy, politics]

56. Dawn of the new normal (?) – when will we acknowledge climate change [policy, politics, disturbance]
57. Insensible on coal – why is coal the elephant in the room[policy, politics, disturbance]
58. The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions – ‘net’ zero carbon emissions[policy, politics, offsets]
59. ‘Practical Environmental Restoration’– the Government always talks about ‘practical’ [policy, politics, offsets]
60. A good decision in a time of plague – the process is more important than the decision itself [policy, governance]

61. A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act – the 2020 climate policy toolkit [policy, politics, climate change]
62. Entering a no-analogue future – Covid 19 is giving us the world to come [Anthropocene, Covid 19]
63. Who’s the BOS? – Biodiversity offsets – state vs commonwealth [policy, politics, offsets]

64. Three letters on the apocalypse – putting a human frame on disaster [climate change, communication]
65. Washing off the virus – what happens to environmental regulation after the plague [policy, politics]

66. Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites– two thirds of the way to a ton [reflecting on Sustainability Bites]
67. Is a positive environmental narrative possible?– [policy, politics, history]
68. The man who shamed the PM – Aust govt follows pandemic science only after fire crisis [crisis, politics, good policy]
69. Saving the environment via human rights – using human rights to stop a coal mine [politics, ideology, policy]
70. Cultural vandalism in the land of Oz – heritage governance and the destruction of Juukan Gorge [policy, crisis, history]

71. Have I got a (new green) ‘deal’ for you – a Green New Deal [policy, politics, history]
72. For my next techno-trick – I’m going to make you forget about the problems facing the Reef – the delusion of the technofix [science, policy, politics]
73. All’s fair in love and law? – green tape and lawfare [politics, policy]
74. A bluffer’s guide to Australia’s premier environmental law – the EPBC Act and review [policy, politics, history]
75. It’s time: for a national conversation on the environment environmental goals and information [policy, politics]

76. Health trumps economy; economy trumps environmentpolitical priorities around health and environment [politics, policy, crisis]
77. Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry – EPBC review [politics, policy]
78. The choir – lobbyists and powerbrokers – lobbying on the environment [politics, policy]
79. Effective environmental reform: What are the prospects?– [policy, politics]
80. The schadenfreude of corona – intergenerational equity [politics, crisis]

81. Happy Earth Overshoot Day! – tracking global sustainability [history, crisis]
82. The bumblebee conspiracy political horse-trading over environmental law [politics, history]
83. Last chance to seesustainable tourism in a post pandemic world [crisis, science, change]
84.
Trust us? Well let’s look at your record – trusting the government’s promises [politics, history, policy]
85. On target for disappointment – biodiversity targets as policy [policy, politics, science, history]

86. Environmental Standards: are they really the treasure at the end of the rainbow? – environmental standards as policy [policy, politics]
87. Trust lies bleeding – why we don’t trust in science [science, politics]
88. Australian court calls into question Regional Forest Agreements– forestry vs threatened possums [politics, policy, science]
89. Dissonance and disaster – disasters on the increase, climate change to blame [politics, science, crisis]
90. Game of Species: Budget Estimates October 2020– accountability on threatened species [policy, politics]

91. The frog in the equation – metaphors to understand how we deal with change [science, politics]
92. 2020 hindsight – changing planet in last two decades [science, history, policy, crisis]
93. Reforming national environmental law: first get rid of it, then fix it? – [policy, politics]
94. 2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene – change is the new normal [politics, crisis, science]
95. Red lines for green valuesenvironmental standards and what they mean [policy, politics]

96. We need a BIG win for the environment – historical environmental victories [history, politics]
97. From Silent Spring to the Franklin and back to Lake Pedder? – [history, policy]
98. Saving the Environment in a Day – the value of celebratory days for the environment [policy, history]
99. World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly – [history, policy]
100. A major report excoriated Australia’s environment laws. Sussan Ley’s response is confused and risky – [policy, politics]

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

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For once it’s later in the year but that’s nothing to cheer about

By David Salt

In 2020, Earth Overshoot Day is Saturday 22 August.

What that means is that humanity has consumed all the biological resources that the Earth can renew during an entire year (365 days) in just 235 days.

In other words, humanity currently uses 64% more than what can be renewed – or as much as if we lived on 1.6 planets.

Of course, the world doesn’t shut down on Earth Overshoot Day, it continues to function by borrowing from the future. However, there’ll be a reckoning some day; no-one can overrun their account for ever. Today’s crop of political leaders are betting that reckoning will occur on someone else’s watch.

The date for Earth Overshoot Day is calculated by the Global Footprint Network, an environmental NGO that has been making this calculation since 2006. The Network calculates the Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of resources the planet’s land and seas can generate in a year) and compares this to humanity’s ecological footprint (that year’s demand for things like food and urban space, and forests to absorb our emissions of carbon dioxide). Researchers then calculate the gap and project the results onto the calendar.

According to their calculations, we use up Earth’s biocapacity this Saturday (tomorrow as I type this).

Not everyone supports these types of calculations but I reckon any effort to get humanity to reflect on its unsustainable trajectory is worth noting. And Earth Overshoot Day is something that brings together a lot of data and gets relatively widespread attention so it’s worth a little discussion.

Are we there yet?

So what does Earth Overshoot Day tell us?

The prime message is that we’re unsustainable, living beyond our means, and stealing from the future of our children.

What’s more, we’ve been stealing from their future for some time now – since the early 1970s according to the Global Footprint Network (see Figure 1). Back then the Earth had the capacity to renew all that we consumed.

Figure 1: Earth Overshoot Day; 1970-2020

Earth Overshoot Day is not a fixed calendar day (like, for example, World Wetlands Day on the 2 February) as humanity’s ecological footprint the planet’s biocapacity is not constant. Our use of resources increases as our population grows and decreases as resource efficiency improves. Indeed, you can see a flattening of the curve during the past decade (maybe that’s the efficiency dividend from technology). And the Earth’s biocapacity changes as the planet changes (see the postscript on how Australia’s biocapacity was much reduced by the wildfires of our Black Summer).

Back when the Network began making these assessments in 2006, Earth Overshoot Day occured in late August. For most of the past decade it’s been in early August. The earlier the calendar day the greater the ecological overshoot.

Of course, different parts of humanity make different contributions to this unsustainable overshoot. The Global Footprint Network has calculated how life styles in different countries use up the planet’s biocapacity to different degrees (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Overshoot Days country by country

For example, if the whole world consumed like the United States we would hit Earth Overshoot Day on the 14 March – a whopping six months earlier than if it’s calculated for humanity as a whole.

But before we Aussies gloat about America’s profligate overconsumption, if the whole world consumed like Australia then we’d reach Earth Overshoot Day two weeks later on the 30 March – nothing to be proud about.

An unprecedented shift

But the reason a lot of people are talking about Earth Overshoot Day this year is because it arrives more than three weeks later than it did last year – that’s movement in the direction we want; to be sustainable using this measure we want the smallest overshoot possible (New Year’s Eve would be great!)

That’s an unprecedented shift between years. It reflects the 9.3% reduction of humanity’s Ecological Footprint from 1 January to Earth Overshoot Day compared to the same period last year.

Of course, this result was due to an unprecedented disturbance in the form of a pandemic that has crushed economic growth around the world. The Global Footprint Network has calculated this ‘improvement’ in sustainability is a direct consequence of the coronavirus-induced lockdowns around the world. This caused decreases in wood harvest and CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

“The fact that Earth Overshoot Day is later this year is a reflection of a lot of suffering, and the reflection of imposed changes to our lives,” says Laurel Hanscom, Global Footprint Network’s Chief Executive.

“I don’t think there’s a silver lining to that. One way or another, humanity will come into balance with the Earth. We don’t want it to be through disaster. We want it to be through intentional, designed efforts to make sure it doesn’t come at such a high and terrible human cost.”

Mind the overshoot

We’re all waiting for a vaccine for COVID. We all want international travel to recommence. We all want a job. Governments everywhere are promising to ramp up the economy as fast as they can (and they’ll cut back environmental regulation if they can to speed it up).

But we all want a quality future for our children too.

On Earth Overshoot Day 2020, maybe we should all reflect on exactly what it is we want and what we are prepared to sacrifice.

As Lauren says: “One way or another, humanity will come into balance with the Earth.”

Image by stokpic from Pixabay

PS: Australia Wildfires 2019-2020: Running a biocapacity deficit for the first time in its history According to the Global Footprint Network, the devastating fires of the Black Summer of 2019-2020 have turned Australia’s biocapacity reserve into a deficit. This is startling since Australia has long been considered a biocapacity giant. With its enormous landmass characterized by wide-open spaces and its relatively small population, it has been blessed with a significant biocapacity reserve: since record keeping started in 1961, its biocapacity was consistently estimated to be two to three times the size of its Ecological Footprint. But not for the year of the fire!



Is a positive environmental narrative possible?

Maybe we should be turning to hope rather than fear

By Peter Burnett

One of the challenges of working in the environmental field is that both the news and the prospects are almost relentlessly negative. Bad things have happened and there’s much worse to come.

The public don’t like it either. There is research suggesting that trying to promote policy and behavioural change through fear, by warning people of likely environmental disaster, does not work and can even be counterproductive.

This made me wonder whether our environmental situation can be compared to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, experienced by people diagnosed with a terminal illness. The first two stages are denial and anger, words which seem to describe climate change denialism quite well.

If this is right, the obvious solution for those trying to build public support for stronger environment policy is to identify positive narratives that are based on hope rather than fear. I thought I’d look at some positive narratives to see whether they might provide support for better policy in Australia. I’m hoping this is more than just wishful thinking.

Imports down, national security up

The first narrative concerns import substitution. Although we produce a reasonable amount of oil, we export three quarters of it and import more than 80% of what we consume. This is because ‘oils aint oils’; different grades of oil are used for different purposes.

If we could replace imported oil with renewable energy, mostly by switching to electric vehicles, there’d be a double benefit, not including environmental gains.

Replacing an imported energy with renewable energy from local sources would improve our balance of payments, which is good for the economy. We could spend our import dollar on other things.

It would also benefit our national security by reducing our dependence on other countries, and thus our foreign policy concern with the Middle East, long an area of instability.

In particular, it would largely remove the need for us to hold a three month supply of oil in reserve, just in case international supply chains were disrupted. This is a policy that members of the International Energy Agency adopted in the 1970s after the first global oil crisis, brought on by OPEC countries imposing an oil embargo in response to the Yom Kippur war.

Australia has not been complying with this obligation in recent years and is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to play catchup by buying cheap oil and storing it in America until we can build enough storage here.

Post-carbon superpower

The second narrative is based on reshaping the domestic economy. In his 2019 book Superpower, Ross Garnaut argued that Australia’s wealth of renewable resources offered it an unparalleled opportunity to become an energy superpower in a decarbonising world.

His most powerful argument was that because green hydrogen (hydrogen produced from renewable energy) was best used at source rather than exported (because liquefying hydrogen for transport is energy-intensive and costly), we could shift from exporting mineral ores such as iron and aluminium, to refining those ores into metals domestically.

Recently, the Grattan Institute has buttressed this argument. In its report Start with Steel Grattan argues that, instead of exporting green hydrogen, we should use it to make ‘green steel’. Green steel is made by using hydrogen, rather than coal, to strip the oxygen out of iron ore, leaving water as the by-product rather than carbon dioxide. The metal is then refined into steel.

This is only the most prominent example. Australia’s wealth of mineral and renewable resources would allow us to move up the supply chain in a range of high tech, low carbon, industries, such as producing batteries for electric cars.

Yes we can!

I have called the third and most recent positive narrative to emerge ‘yes we can’, after President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan.

Although the COVID-19 crisis has been both a health and economic disaster, it has produced some unexpected positives.

One is national cooperation, led by a new body, the national cabinet. Another is public cooperation, manifested through high levels of compliance with the draconian restrictions associated with lockdown.

While it is too early to tell, it seems that the political ground may have shifted because of the virus. Commentators are talking about proceeding with reforms that, until recently, were gridlocked politically, like tax reform, all in the interests of helping economic recovery.

Beyond reforms related directly to economic recovery, I detect at least some sentiment that if we can cope with corona we can cope with other things too, so let’s make the most of the opportunity and deal with other threats as well.

This is the most tenuous of the three narratives.

Where to from here?

All three narratives are real and, for added effect, they could all be developed at once, as they are complementary.

This does not mean any of them will gain traction. They are only part of the recipe.

The missing ingredient is political will, which will emerge only with political leadership (a ‘pull’ factor) or a groundswell of public opinion (a ‘push’ factor).

Moreover, it seems equally likely that negative environmental narratives could gain traction, for example that economic recovery requires ‘sacrifices’, including the by-passing of any environmental concern that would delay a development approval.

However, I think you can see just from the examples I have provided here, positive environmental narratives are not only possible, they are viable.

Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we need to do to make them real.

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Three letters on the apocalypse

Conveying global impacts of climate change often requires a smaller human framing

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It’s been hit by another mass bleaching, the most extensive to date. It’s the third mass bleaching in five years but this time it’s hardly caused a ripple in a world struggling to cope with a pandemic. We’ll get through this pandemic but the loss of the world’s largest coral ecosystem is a tragedy that will stay with us forever.

The progressive destruction of the Great Barrier Reef (and coral reefs in general) is the result of climate change and raised water temperatures. It’s a consequence of human activity. To address it we need to modify human activity but so far such changes have proved beyond the capacity of the societies in which we live.

Trying to engage people on the consequences of climate change can be very difficult. It’s big, its complex, and it’s happening all around us. There’s so much information to absorb (and disinformation to avoid), so many strongly held views, so many vested interests attempting to skew the debate in their own favour. It’s often hard to keep up, and so much easier to tune out. We need to explore stories that will keep people tuned in.

King hit

Do you remember when the first big episode of mass coral bleaching occurred early in 2016? I do.

Reef scientists knew something bad was coming their way and deployed a lot of cameras to capture the event. But the scale of death and destruction exceeded their worst fears. Ninety three percent of the vast northern section of the reef, the most pristine region of the GBR, was bleached leading to the death of almost a quarter of the coral.

If left alone, the reef would recover but all the modelling of our warming world suggested the bleaching events would increase in number and severity. Indeed, 2017 saw a return of the bleaching, this time focussed on the middle section. (And the 2020 event is hitting the southern regions.)

I felt sick in my stomach at the implications of what we witnessed in 2016 and was more than a little surprised when the Government glossed over the tragedy telling the world their 2050 Reef Plan was on top of the problem, even though this plan didn’t even deal with climate change.

Following those mass bleachings I remember attempting to communicate their significance to environmental science students I was teaching. I found that the actual numbers surrounding the event were so large and somewhat technical that they seemingly lacked impact, they were difficult to engage with.

Three letters

So, I searched around for commentaries by people and groups I trusted, and I attempted to convey the impact of this bleaching event using some of the words that I myself found moving.

The first message I used was in an email from a colleague, a marine ecologist. This colleague was a co-author on the Nature paper that categorically connected the bleaching with global warming and in this email she discussed the significance of the findings.

The paper showed that record temperatures had triggered massive coral bleaching across the tropics (it was way more than just the Great Barrier Reef). The study also showed that better water quality or reduced fishing pressure did not significantly reduce the severity of bleaching, something that the government had been hoping would save the Reef – indeed, this was the centre of their management strategy. What’s more, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of the bleaching in 2016, which debunked the hope that the reef might ‘adapt’ to warming.

This is all pretty important stuff but possibly it’s more technical than the broader community can easily absorb.

The reason I shared this email with my students was because my colleague finished with the statement: “This is the most depressing paper I have ever been involved in!”

Most researchers would be ecstatic to get their name on a Nature paper but the conclusions of this one signified the death of an ecosystem my colleague had devoted her life to.

Civil society

The second letter I shared with my class was a public letter from 90 eminent Australians to billionaire Gautam Adani to say Australians want clean energy, not a new coal mine. Australians who signed the open letter included senior business leaders, sporting legends, Australians of the Year, authors, farmers, musicians, scientists, economists, artists and community leaders. Names included Ian and Greg Chappell, Missy Higgins, Tim Winton, Peter Garrett and businessmen Mark Burrows, John Mullen and Mark Joiner.

Of course, the company Adani was (and still is) attempting to develop the Carmichael coal project in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland. The project involves a 60 million tonne per annum coal mine, a 388km long rail line and the construction of a new coal export terminal at the Abbot Point coal port.

The scientists are adamant the extraction of coal from this mine would be the death knell of coral reefs everywhere. The fact that this mine is in the backyard of the GBR only adds salt to the wound.

I shared this letter because it conveyed the deep visceral antipathy held by many of our community leaders to the growing impact of fossil fuels on the ecosystems we hold dear.

It should be noted that at the same time this letter was being delivered to Adani, the Queensland Premier and six regional mayors visited India to promote the controversial Adani megamine because it promised regional jobs.

The scientific consensus

The third letter was on a similar theme. It was from the Climate Change Council, a science-based group advocating action on climate change, to the Federal Government. It pleaded with the government to not support Adani in developing its rail line from the Carmichael Mine to the coast. It provided a thoroughly researched and well-articulated argument on what the science says about the impact of a new mega coal mine: “Supporting this mine would fly in the face of advice from experts who have collectively devoted over 1,200 years studying climate change, marine ecosystems and coral reefs,” the Climate Change Council said.

Their letter finished with this succinct plea: “We urge you, on behalf of the 69,000 people to whom the Reef provides a job, the 500 million people worldwide who rely on coral reefs for their food and livelihoods, and the millions of Australians who are passionate about the protecting the Reef, that you make your decision based on the science.”

I thought it was a fairly compelling argument myself, but then I accept the science. But the argument was largely rejected and ignored by the Government. The Adani mine was approved and is now under development.

Apocalypse now

I titled this story ‘3 letters on the apocalypse’ because it sounds punchy, and the point I’m making here is it’s difficult to punch through on environmental decline when it’s bigger and more pervasive than our senses (and cognition) can readily absorb. One way we can try is by sharing other people’s responses, putting the events into a human frame.

Think about how popular media attempted to convey the impact of the Black Summer super-fires eastern Australia has just endured. The numbers (burnt hectares, lost houses, lives ended) are literally beyond our ability to assimilate but the horror of individual stories of loss cut through.

While the word ‘apocalypse’ is hyperbolic I think it’s appropriately used here for both the mass bleachings and the super-fires. Its religious connotation is of an ‘end of times’, and that is quite fitting when applied to what’s happening on the Reef. The frequency of these events means that coral reefs like the GBR now have a new identity. They are turning into something else, a system which will have a different composition and structure, a system that is unlikely to provide us a rich yield of ecosystem goods and services that it currently does.

But the word ‘apocalypse’ has another meaning as well. It’s derived from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation’. The changes taking place on the Great Barrier Reef and the forests of south eastern Australia are indeed a revelation on the true nature of climate change. It’s a revelation we dare not ignore.

Image: Bleaching coral off Lizard Island, a casualty of the most recent mass bleaching event. Photo by Kristen Brown, courtesy of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The real climate change debate

Beliefs trump evidence while the truth disappears in the babble

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

Belief vs evidence

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

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

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

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

Speaking with one voice

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

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

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

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

It just isn’t fair

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

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

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

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

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