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

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By David Salt

The scientist, the economist and the lawyer

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

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

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

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

Enter the politician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shifting piles of sand

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

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

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

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

Pile high society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere to sit

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

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

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

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. It’s also about water quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. An inconvenient truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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