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

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By David Salt

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

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

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

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

In the words of Kahneman

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

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

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

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

On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):

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

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

On ‘confidence’ (p212):

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

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

On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):

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

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

On being a successful scientist (p264):

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

My take: Scientists are human, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On dealing with rare events (p333)

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

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

On good decision making (p418)

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

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

Kahneman’s legacy

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

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

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

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

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

Elections are all about good marketing and good politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Thinking, fast and slow

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

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

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

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

** Amos Tversky

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

Banner image: ArtsyBee at Pixabay

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

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By David Salt

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

Melt down

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

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

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

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

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

Blow up

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

And what caused this disaster?

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

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

Blow out

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

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

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

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

Integrity fail

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

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

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

Hollow credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Salt

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

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

The story in detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer of the Greenhouse

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

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

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

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

More and more certain

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

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

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

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

The most detailed ever

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

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

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

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

We don’t need more detail.

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

The next assessment report might want to consider that.

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

Banner image: Monikas_Wunderwelt @ Pixabay

Off the dial – Planet Earth is showing multiple instrument warnings

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But the dials don’t appear to connect to anything

By David Salt

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

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

Quick, stop the car!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is bonkers

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

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

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

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

Reading the dials

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let it rip

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

Our political leaders, however, are in no doubt.

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

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

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

So, who actually does have the ‘duty of care’? Who is responsible for tomorrow?

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By David Salt

The Federal Minister for the Environment does not have a duty of care to protect young people from the harms of climate change. This was the unanimous finding of the Federal Court earlier this week. It was a finding that left high school students crying, legal scholars frowning and Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, beaming.

Given this, the big question I want answered is, if not the Minister for the Environment, then where (and with whom) does the ‘duty of care’ lie?

Many reasons

Much has been made about the Court decision and why the judges overturned an earlier decision that the Minister did have a duty of care when approving fossil fuel developments. (And for one of the best analyses of the legal case around this issue I’d point you to the excellent Sustainability Bite Does a ‘duty of care’ to future children make any difference to environmental approvals? written by my colleague Peter Burnett; who, incidentally, predicted exactly this outcome.)

Another excellent summary of this decision can be found at The Conversation (Today’s disappointing federal court decision undoes 20 years of climate litigation progress in Australia) which neatly brings together the facts, history and findings surrounding this appeal.

At the end of the day the three judges each ruled in favour of the Environment Minister who, in her appeal against the original finding, contended that the stated duty should not be imposed on the Minister. However, each judge had their own reasoning for why this should be.

One judge said that climate change is a matter for government, not the courts. The ‘duty’ involves “questions of policy (scientific, economic, social, industrial and political) […] unsuitable for the Judicial branch to resolve”

Another said there wasn’t a direct link between minister’s power to approve the coal mine and the effect this would have on the children.

And the third said the EPBC Act (under which the fossil fuel development was being approved and which the Minister is responsible for) doesn’t create a duty-of-care relationship between the Minister and the children. He added that establishing a standard of care isn’t feasible and that it’s not currently foreseeable that approving the coal mine extension would cause the children personal injury, as the law is understood.

If not the Minister, then who?

All well and good, and I expect this makes much sense to all the lawyers out there. But, for me, it begs the question: if not the Minister, then who should hold the duty of care?

If we are allowing a development today that is harming the people of tomorrow, then shouldn’t someone be responsible for allowing this development to proceed?

Of course, the people of tomorrow include the youth of today. Some of these young people are profoundly worried about what they are seeing around them, about what the science is telling us.

For God’s sake, it’s not even being worried about gloomy forecasts; society is actually experiencing the horror of climate change as we speak. Climate enhanced flooding is wiping away families, businesses, hopes and histories up and down Australia’s east coast. Climate-enhanced wildfires are scorching communities, forest biomes and wildlife with a ferocity and at a scale never before witnessed. We’re losing our coral reefs, our wetlands and woodlands. We’re trashing our natural heritage and our prospects for the future.

Young people see this, they can connect the dots; and they despair at the denialism and prevarication being shown by government. Many are self-organizing and protesting on the streets calling for change (only to be rebuked by our Prime Minister).

Others are exploring different pathways to get the ‘grown ups’ to do the right thing for the future they will inherit; and one of these pathways involves testing our laws about who is taking responsibility for developments (like new coal mines and gas projects) that will only be adding to the already catastrophic level of carbon emissions our species are producing.

Where to look

I don’t appreciate the detail of the law on this but, like the students at the centre of this current court case, it seems to me that our political representative who has been made Minister for the Environment is a logical place to aim.

But, as the courts have ruled, this is a question of policy, not law! This is for the politicians to fix up.

What?

Our political leaders are refusing to engage with climate change on any meaningful level. They’re happy to fight about over-the-horizon net zero targets that they will never be responsible for. They pay lip service to the mounting scientific evidence while happily turning a blind eye to the growing pile of misinformation and corporate malfeasance seeking to distract us from any measure to constrain (or reduce) our carbon economy.

If not the Environment Minister, then who? Our Prime Minister or the Minister for Emissions? Their track record for lies and integrity is even worse than our Environment Minister’s.

Is it the responsibility of our corporate leaders and billionaires? Seems their short-term interests are tied to unbounded economic growth, so I doubt we’ll see much effort here.

Or should we look to the world government to impose effective and just sustainability limits on us all. Sorry, I forgot; there’s no such thing as a world government (though conspiracy theorists like to pretend that one exists).

There are, of course, international agreements that sovereign nations can enter into on how we care for the environment and the future. Think Ramsar Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement; Australia has signed up to all of them, and then failed to meet our commitments on any of them, just like all other nations.

At the end of the day, whether you’re thinking (or acting) globally or locally, no-one is actually responsible for tomorrow. ‘Duty of care’ for tomorrow is more a ‘vibe*’ than an ‘actionable’ item.

If duty of care on climate change is a question of policy more than a question of law then our whole polity is failing us and is in need of transformation. Who’s up for some serious reform?

*‘Vibe’ is a particularly Australian term arising from the cult classic 1999 movie The Castle in which a lawyer, Dennis Denuto, struggles to articulate to the judge why his clients, the Kerrigans, should be allowed to keep their home and not be compulsorily acquired for an airport development. Denuto says: “In summing up: it’s the Constitution, it’s Mabo, it’s the vibe and… no, that’s it. It’s the vibe.”

Banner image by byrev @ Pixabay

A billion-dollar bad idea is no escape clause for the Great Barrier Reef

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A big pledge for a big problem is no solution without integrity

By David Salt

“So, Minister, how exactly did you arrive at this one-billion-dollar price tag for saving the Great Barrier Reef?” asked the newly appointed Director of Government Probity.

“Well Ms DGP, as you will see from the extensive paperwork we’ve submitted, the figure of a billion dollars is based on extensive scientific, social and economic research compiled by the good officers of our well-resourced Department for the Environment.

“It’s a lot of money but what price do you put on saving a priceless piece of World Heritage; not to mention the economic return derived from people enjoying the Reef.

“Our scientists have pin pointed exactly the threats assailing this coral wonderland; our economists have worked up a precise list of actions we need to take to address these threats – costed down to the last dollar; and our social scientists have undertaken rigorous process of community engagement to ensure that the people on and around the Reef know what the situation is, and are ready to put their backs to the wheel to ensure the Great Barrier Reef will be there in all its glory for them, their children and grandchildren.

“It all brings a tear to your eye,” said the Minister (and, indeed, her eyes were tearing up). “But with something this important, it’s worth all the effort. It is, of course, simply the Australian Way!”

“Yes, thank you Minister,” responded the DGP. “Well done. It seems you and your Department have really done the due diligence on this one. The Reef is in good hands! The world thanks you.”

The Australian Way

Of course, there’s nothing much real in the above exchange. There is no Director (or agency) of Government Probity; the Department of Environment (subsumed into the bigger Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) is underfunded and overworked; and scientists do know what is killing the Great Barrier Reef – it’s climate change – but the Government is not listening to them. Our Prime Minister has described this approach to climate change as “the Australian Way”; but the world is not thanking Australia for adopting this path.

For all that, the Federal Coalition Government has pledged $1 billion dollars towards saving the Great Barrier Reef, one of the single biggest investments on an ecosystem in Australia’s history; surely, even if it’s only been done as a sweetener in the run up to a Federal election – that’s a good thing, right?

Let’s consider what a billion dollar buys you

For starters, it’s not an up-front payment but a promise to commit $1 billion dollars to reef-related programs over the next nine years – if the Coalition gets re-elected.

Most of that money ($579.9m) won’t go on the Reef itself but will be dedicated to water quality projects on land, the adjoining catchments from which water runs off onto the reef. Declining water quality has long been identified as a major threat to reef health. In 2016 the Queensland Government contracted economists to estimate how much it would cost to meet water quality targets through actions such as changing land management, improving irrigation and repairing erosion. Their best estimate was that it would cost $8.2billion over 10 years (that’s $820 million per year).

The Government’s promise of $570 million over 9 years (or an average of $63.3 million per year) suddenly doesn’t look so grand.

The next largest slice of the billion dollars – $252.9m – will go towards reef management and conservation. Again, split that over 9 years and multiple institutions caring for the Reef and it’s not the boon the headline number suggests.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway because the best science says the reef is cooked if we don’t do anything about rising carbon emissions.

Indeed, the science on this is firming. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that 1.5°C of global warming would cause between 70 and 90% of the world’s coral reefs to disappear. In research just out, it’s been found that with 1.5°C of warming, which the world is predicted to reach in the early 2030s without drastic action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, 99% of the world’s reefs will experience heatwaves that are too frequent for them to recover.

None of the billion dollars promised to ‘fix’ the Reef is going towards reducing emissions. Analysts say Australia’s approach is aligned with heating closer to 3°C. The Australian Government is not introducing any new policies to tackle carbon emissions in the near term and claims that new (unspecified) technologies will deliver net zero emissions in 30 years’ time. Prime Minister Morrison describes this as the Australian Way.

A billion dollars of cover

At the same time, the Government is trumpeting its billion-dollar investment on saving the Reef to UNESCO in a bid to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage ‘in-danger’ list. A fortnight ago the Government released a report on why the Reef should be kept off this list.

The Morrison government argued every single World Heritage site can be considered in danger from climate change, and the Great Barrier Reef shouldn’t be singled out for a UNESCO status downgrade.

On the release of that report, Environment Minister Sussan Ley puzzlingly observed: “Reefs around the world are under pressure from warming oceans and in the face of that the Morrison government’s leadership in reef management and reef science is second to none.”

So, what are we to make of that? The Government acknowledges that climate change and warming oceans are killing our coral reefs – everywhere, not just around Australia – but chooses to do very little about it.

At the same time they are happy to commit a billion dollars to a cause they know is futile; maybe that’s why they don’t really care that this level of investment is patently inadequate to achieve even the outcomes on water quality they are targeting.

It’s enough to make you blush with embarrassment (and shed a tear of shame).

The real problem

The real problem at the heart of this treacherous affair is a total lack of probity. There is no transparency or accountability around these decisions; no connection between science, economics and funding pledges; no integrity behind government claims and action.

This is a billion-dollar bad idea but the greatest shame in this whole affair is that there is no mechanism (no independent office of government integrity) to hold our political leaders to account.

No, Minister. The Reef is not in good hands! And the world will not be thanking you now or in the future.

Banner image: The Great Barrier Reef is in big trouble. Will a big billion dollars make a difference? Not with an absence of probity. (Image by Sarah_Ackerman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

The existential toll of climate change on wetlands – maybe we should go with the flow.

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By David Salt

Every February we’re encouraged to think about wetlands as we celebrate World Wetlands Day. While society has come a long way in changing its mind about the value of wetlands – once they were smelly swamps, now they are precious, life-sustaining ecosystems – these days we’re stuck in a form of denialism about their prospects as climate change radically threatens their very existence.

The sad truth is, climate change modifies water levels, and the best protected wetland in the world ceases to be a wetland without water. Too much water, in the form of rising sea levels, will have the same outcome. If we can’t protect our wetlands in the space they exist today, do we need to make more effort to let our wetlands move with the flow?

Fifty-one years of Ramsar

Fifty-one years ago, on the 2nd of February 1971, one of the world’s most important international environmental conventions came into being with the adoption of the Convention of Wetlands. It’s important because it was the first international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international agreements on the environment. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas – being declared a Ramsar Wetland is akin to being listed as a World Heritage area – and the treaty has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

The adoption ceremony for the Convention was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and most people know this Convention as the Ramsar Convention. To mark the day of the treaty’s creation, the Ramsar Secretariat has promoted the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day, and it’s been run on this date every year since 1997.

The Ramsar Convention together with World Wetlands Day have transformed the way humans engage with wetlands. They’ve gone from ‘swamps’ only fit for draining and development, to critical land and water scapes that provide humans with a range of valuable ecosystem services in addition to being critical habitat for biodiversity conservation. Wetlands, in all their forms, are now recognised as precious and irreplaceable.

However, our efforts to increase awareness about the state and value of our wetlands have also revealed they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Secretariat’s Global Wetland Outlook (newly revised this year) tells us that over a third of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since the Convention was enacted. Indeed, wetlands are our most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests. Land-use change is the biggest driver of degradation to inland wetlands since 1970. Agriculture, the most wide-spread form of land-use change, has damaged more than half of the Wetlands of International Importance (often referred to as Ramsar Wetlands). Climate impacts to wetlands are happening faster than anticipated. Rising sea-levels, coral bleaching and changing hydrology are all accelerating, with arctic and montane wetlands most at risk of degradation and loss.

Land locked and lost (or drowned)

And here’s an irony the Treaty’s designers probably never envisaged: The city of Ramsar, the place that gave the treaty its name, is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea shrinks under climate change and water extraction. Its surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades.

The Caspian Sea is actually a landlocked lake with a surface that is already around 28 metres below sea level. And it’s dropping by 7 centimetres every year. As temperatures rise with global warming, evaporation will accelerate this decline. The Caspian Sea will be nine to 18 metres lower by the end of the century and lose a quarter of its size. How do you sustain a wetland that can no longer be kept wet? Researchers believe the unfurling crisis will result in an ecocide as devastating as the one in the Aral Sea, a few hundred kilometres to the east.

Falling water levels are challenging many other major landlocked lakes and seas (consider the Aral Sea and Lake Chad) but most coastal wetland systems face the opposite problem – rising sea levels associated with warming oceans, another consequence of climate change. Sea levels are currently rising by between 3-4 mm per year but this is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. This could lead to the submergence of 20–78% of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100!

Whether water levels are rising, falling or doing major damage through extreme weather events (think of this season’s unprecedented flooding all around the world), the prospects for the planet’s precious wetlands are darkening with every year. World Wetlands Day (and the Ramsar Convention) have played a valuable role in highlighting the importance of these watery ecosystems, as well as identifying wetlands of particular significance; but as climate change bites we need to face the grim reality that changing water levels mean that many, possibly most, wetlands cannot be protected by surrounding them in strong laws, good signage and a more receptive society. The sad truth is that shifting water levels mean many wetlands cannot be protected in their current spaces.

Just as the city Ramsar heralds this grim reality, the history of the Caspian Sea upon which it lies, may hold a possible solution. The Caspian Sea has a history of rises and falls. Around 10,000 years ago the sea was about 100 metres lower. A few thousand years before that it was about 50 metres higher than today’s level. Yet people who lived beside the sea were able to move with the fluctuating sea level. Back then, no large human infrastructure was around to be destroyed, and people moved (adapted) as required. The same applied to animal and plant species. Ecosystems simply moved up and down as the sea level shifted, as they had done over the past 2 million years or so.

In today’s world, with massive city infrastructure and property rights attached to specific locations, moving with a changing water level presents enormous challenges. And yet, doing nothing (ie, not moving) is not an option either. Roughly a tenth of the world’s population and assets are based less than 10 metres above sea level. Sea level rise means land currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable to annual flooding by 2050.

Water is the messenger

Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, recently observed that “Water is the messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighborhood, and to your front door.” Our first response, unfortunately, is usually to deny the message as we have so much invested in ‘sustaining’ the status quo. Economists would say we worry too much protecting ‘sunk investments’.

We’d rather reinforce and armour our shores against the rising tides, than consider moving to adapt to rising (or falling) water levels. Not only is this expensive and fails to address the underlying problem – sea level rise is predicted to accelerate, not stabilise – it makes us more vulnerable to the multiple threats being generated by climate change (eg, more intense storms and extreme rainfall).

In many ways, we’re doing the same with our wetland reserves. We’re managing them for the proximate dangers that threaten their natural values such as guarding against pollution, overexploitation and development. But, as with our cities and towns, we’re ignoring the consequences of changing water levels in a time of climate change. The places where we find wetlands today may not sustain wetlands into the future.

In some cases, wetlands have the capacity to move (migrate) with the water level as it changes. Some research is suggesting that sea levels could rise faster than a wetland’s natural migration rate. Other studies have shown their capacity to move is limited by how land is being used around existing wetlands.

The challenge of sustaining our precious wetlands in a time of climate change and changing water levels is enormous. The first step in meeting this challenge is getting beyond denial. Seas are rising. Lakes in many places are shrinking. We can see it happen, and there is a strong scientific consensus it’s only going to get worse. Given this reality, we need to extend the tool box of policy measures to conserve these vital ecosystems. It’s not enough to increase our protection of existing wetlands. We need to start planning on how we can facilitate their ability to move with changing water levels – to go with the flow.

Research is happening in many places around the world to explore what’s possible. For example, Australian scientists are developing the idea of “rolling covenants” to protect coastal ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise. These are conditions on land titles that permit productive use of land in the short term, while ensuring land use can shift over time to allow for coastal ecosystem migration in the medium to long term.

Of course, such provisions require considerable funding and a change in mindset on what is an appropriate way to use (and set aside future uses) of land. But such change is possible when society gets beyond denying what climate change means and works with the change rather than attempting to control it.

‘Making room’ for water

One of the best examples of this is the response of the Netherlands to the threat of rising sea levels and increased flood risk. The Netherlands is both flat and low lying, and has always been prone to flooding. More than half of the Netherlands is located on flood-prone land. Following two particularly horrifying floods in the 1990s, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, the Netherland’s government adopted a new paradigm in water management.

Rather than building bigger dykes and dams to control the floods, they adopted an approach called making “Room for the Rivers” in which floods were better accommodated by the landscape. Many farms were converted to wetlands (proving a boon for bird life), land around rivers was dedicated to allow for flooding, and cities and towns were adapted to cope with flood waters.

The approach cost billions of dollars, many land holders were required to give up their homes and their farm land, and the whole community needed to change the way they dealt with flooding.

The result? Dutch rivers can now absorb about 25% more water than they could in 1995, and the recent episode of historic floods that devasted parts of Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, left the Netherlands relatively unscathed.

If the Netherlands can make room for their rivers and demonstrate the value of this approach to flood control, what would it take for the world community to ‘make room’ for our wetlands?

This World Wetland Day, we all need to consider how we can better go with the flow.

This blog originally appeared on The Global Water Forum

Banner image: Climate change is moving water levels. Moving water levels means wetlands also need to move. We need to ‘make room’ for our wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

50 shades of green – what shade of sustainability do you practice?

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By David Salt

What does the idea of ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

Most people, including me, would like to believe they are being sustainable, that they are passing on a meaningful future to their children; and you can only do this if you’re being sustainable.

At the same time, most people are a bit cynical about the use and abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ as it seems to appear in the sales pitch for every good and service we use. Governments claim it’s a criterion for every policy they develop; businesses build it into every mission statement they produce and every NGO currently operating cites it as one of their goals.

It’s a buzzword; it’s greenwash; it’s ubiquitous, amorphous and infinitely malleable. Depending on your political persuasion, cultural background, religion or socio-economic status, sustainability is ‘one person’s meat or another person’s poison’.

And yet, for all its ubiquity, the idea of sustainability is one that most people only have a hazy notion about. For most people, it relates to being kind to the environment, responsible for our behavior, and maybe fair with the choices we make.

The truth is, there is no universally agreed objective definition of what the idea means; and that’s despite whole journals, libraries and uni departments being devoted to it. However, if you’re involved in any area of policy, management or science relating to sustainability – or if you claim to be living a sustainable life – then you owe it to yourself to at least have given the idea some thought and be prepared to defend your own notion of what it means.

The emergence of ‘sustainability’

The idea of ‘sustainability’ was first given international prominence at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference) in 1972. It’s 50 years old.

Over the following decade the idea was refined and developed into a process that governments might work with. This process was called sustainable development, and its principles were set out in report, commissioned by the UN, called Our Common Future. This was released in 1987.

The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Over the quarter of a century that has followed the publication of Our Common Future, ideas on what ‘sustainability’ means have been explored, dissected, contested, deconstructed, rebuilt, trashed and/or reified. (For more detail on the major milestones along this road, see A (very) short history of sustainability.)

Broad or narrow? Weak or strong?

Some scholars, particularly in the early days, insisted that discussions on sustainability needed a tight focus on long-term ecological sustainability. What was it about the Earth system that sustains us? What is it that we can’t afford to ignore? Birds and bees, water and nutrient cycling, and photosynthesising plants are all essential for humans to exist. Should these things lie at the centre of any plan for sustainability? This narrower focus might be termed ‘environmental sustainability’.

Our Common Future coupled sustainability with the notion of development – sustainable development. The publication identified a much broader spectrum of issues to be covered by the concept, including political, social, economic, and cultural issues. This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘broad sustainability’.

And if the cloak of sustainability enfolds more than just the natural world, is it okay to substitute nature (natural capital) with human and social capital? Does it matter if natural vegetation cover is lost if we can replace it with a water treatment plant (which would replace the water filtering properties of natural vegetation)? Those that subscribed to this view, including ‘techno-optimists’, are described as supporting ‘weak’ sustainability.

Those that didn’t, including ‘deep ecologists’, believe that natural capital and other types of capital are complementary, but not interchangeable. You don’t replace a species lost with a machine that does the same function; these are not acceptable trade offs.

Let’s get personal

All this merely touches the surface of the ongoing debate on sustainability. What I hope to provoke here is a little introspection: What does sustainability mean to you? And What does sustainability mean for you?

For example, speaking for me:

I believe that ‘sustainability’ is a good thing. We should all be sustainable. It’d be a better world if we all were.

And what is it that I think ‘sustainability’ is? I believe it has something to do with meeting the needs of today without trashing the needs of tomorrow; pretty much the ‘standard’ take on it.

Am I sustainable?

I recycle plastic, have solar panels and solar hot water, have long been involved in environmental education, use rainwater in the garden where I can, minimise the use of chemicals in the garden, drive on old car, compost, encourage my family to minimise our resource use, have been active in habitat restoration, grow food, work with recycled building materials, support worthy causes and, where possible, try to be a responsible consumer.

I’m not the best or the worst when it comes to ‘being sustainable’. But am I being sustainable?

While I haven’t done embodied energy and water accounting on my household and lifestyle, I am confident I am using way more than I am generating. At the scale of ‘me’, I am not sustainable.

And I know that my country, Australia, has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any nation, and the world is rushing towards a climate apocalypse and that my government is in total denial about this (we also lead the world in species extinctions). So, at the scale of my country, I am not sustainable.

And the world is currently suffering climate event after climate event. Australia is seeing its coral reefs, forests and mangrove systems wither under climate extremes, while the planet is careering past multiple planetary thresholds. On top of this, the world’s richest people are getting obscenely rich while the world’s poorest are drowning as the seas rise. At the scale of my planet, I am not sustainable.

Am I kidding myself?

Given this, do I really think I’m moving towards sustainability?

If I do, it must be a form of broad and weak sustainability? I must think that the natural capital being remorselessly lost at an accelerating rate around me today will be replaced by human capital (smart technology) and social capital (smart human organisation) at some time in the future. And I must believe it will happen before irreversible ecological decline makes our planet unliveable (for humans).

And, if I truly believe this, I must be an extremely optimistic techno-idealogue (who doesn’t read the news and is unaware of the negative environmental trends around me). Unfortunately, I am not these things but I still believe ‘sustainability’ is an important idea that we all should subscribe to. There’s more than a little cognitive dissonance here.

Of course, I’m not completely responsible for my country’s failings on sustainability. I didn’t vote for the bastards currently in office. And how responsible am I for the world’s efforts? Which introduces two other shades of sustainability – bottom up and top down; think global, act local; look after my own backyard but try and influence the backyards around me; while trying to get our political representatives to implement sustainable policy (at national and international scales).

All of which only hints at the incredible complexity embodied in the idea of sustainability.

So, what’s your idea of sustainability?

How’s it going for you so far?

Banner image: geralt @ Pixabay

Death of the Bogong – another of Nature’s icons bites the dust

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And this time it’s personal

By David Salt

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

So opined Jodi Mitchell back in 1970 when she protested against the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, an anthemic reflection on the price of progress.

But the line seems particularly apposite today, fifty years on, as we consider the latest victim of ‘progress’, the seemingly ubiquitous Bogong moth. The IUCN (the international body that monitors planetary biodiversity), has just placed the Bogong moth on its Red List of Threatened Species, not a list any organism wants to join.

Of course, the Bogong is a migratory moth so it’s not actually ubiquitous. For much of the year you never saw them but come migration time in and around Canberra, where I live, they suddenly appeared everywhere; in your cupboards, around your lights, behind pictures, everywhere.

They were once so common that their swarms were said to “block out the moon”. Twenty years ago, hundreds of thousands of them disrupted the Sydney Olympics when they were attracted to stadium floodlights; and many times they’ve invaded Parliament House in Canberra where “they land in your tea, your hair, your handbag and litter office ceilings, walls and windows.” This account, I’m sad to say, was only eight years ago.

From boom to bust

It’s believed Bogong moths have been migrating to the Australia’s snowy mountains every year for thousands of years. They do this around Christmas to escape summer’s baking heat by aggregating in cool mountain caves, literally coating the rocky cave walls like the scales of a fish.

The moths provided a rich source of food for other animals like the Critically Endangered mountain pygmy possum. They are also eaten by humans. First Nations people used to come together from all over the region to feast on the moths. It was a time of celebration, to have a big eat up and strengthen relationships. These ceremonies stopped with European colonisation; though the moths still continued their yearly journey in their billions.

Since the 1980s, however, scientists have detected steady declines in numbers of bogong moths. Then, in 2017 and 2018, their numbers crashed. Ecologists visiting caves at Mount Gingera in 2018 near Canberra reported that this site that had been known to house millions of the moths (17,000 moths per square metre), now only contained three moths! Not three thousand or three million, just three moths. Searches of another 50 known sites have turned up similar catastrophic absences.

Of course, if you look back through the environmental records for this time (and you don’t have to look far, it was only a few years ago) you’ll discover the Great Barrier Reef was undergoing another mass bleaching event, kelp forests were disappearing along with mangroves, and the nation was suffering an unprecedented drought (which gave us our Black Summer in 2019/20).

The decline of the Bogong moth is being connected to extreme drought (associated with climate change), pesticides and changes in agricultural practices. Last summer (2020), numbers were a bit better however, at best, they are only at 5% of what they used to be.

A connection severed

With their loss, we lose a tangible cultural connection to the history of our First Nations people. With their loss it’s likely we will also see the demise of the mountain pygmy possum which depended on the moths as a primary food source. Checks on the pygmy possum, which exist only in Australia’s alpine regions, have revealed dead litters in the pouches of females.

And while we found the Bogong moth a bit of a pest when they invaded our homes, stadiums and gathering places, they have become a creature of our own folklore; their presence signalling one of nature’s miracles in progress. I’ve never thought of them as beautiful (or cuddly) but their existence and behaviour filled me with a sense of awe and joy for the ineffable wonder of the natural world.

In 2018, scientists revealed one more facet of the amazing story of the Bogongs. Apparently they use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate from the grasslands in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland to reach the mountains – sometimes at distances of 1,000km. Their use of magnetic fields for migratory navigation is believed to be a first for insects. Ironic, isn’t it. A miracle partially understood just at the species itself appears to be moving into the twilight of extinction.

Again and again

This is not the first time a populous species that we thought would be with us forever has disappeared. In the 1800s the passenger pigeon in North America formed flocks that darkened the skies for several days at a time. With a population in the billions, no-one believed it could be at risk. But it was hunted in large numbers and its forest habitat was cleared. Its population collapsed over a few decades. Even when it was realised the species was in decline, 250,000 birds – the last big flock – were shot on a single day in 1896! The last individual passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The large grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) from the western US suffered the same fate. It went from a population of several trillion to zero in a few decades, when farmers destroyed its breeding grounds.

In Norway and across the whole of the North Atlantic, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) died out after people harvested them in large numbers.

We took all these species for granted and now they are gone – forever.

You don’t know what you’ve got

The loss of species and ecosystems is accelerating. It is not just the Bogong moth that has been added to the IUCN Red List. A number of other Australian species have gone on including the Grey-headed flying fox and the Arcadia velvet gecko.

Scientists have given us multiple warnings about the parlous and worsening state of biodiversity on planet Earth. Many believe it is a problem even more serious than climate change though the two issues are strongly interlinked. As with climate change, the collapse of biodiversity never seems to be a high priority with any government. It’s framed as a problem for tomorrow.

I grieve at this ongoing loss, but the demise of the Bogong is especially poignant. I have trekked up into nearby mountains to witness their summer cave refuges. I have seen them in their abundance, marvelled at their ancient life cycle and enjoyed eating a few cooked in the ashes of a camp fire (they taste like crunchy pine nuts). I have always looked forward to the yearly return of these large, ponderous brown moths. These simple experiences, however, are now no longer available.

What’s more, these experiences are unlikely to ever be available to my children or their children.

The idea that we will see Bogongs no more is an assault to our very identity.

‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ What does it take for our political leaders to acknowledge this loss and do something before its irreversible?

Banner image: Around Canberra there are several works of art celebrating the Bogong moth and its significance to our past and present. The one pictured here can be found on the grounds of the Crawford School at the Australian National University. I used it as a prop when lecturing to overseas students in an introduction to the Australian environment.

The bitter irony in the images shown here is that even as I was discussing this amazing insect with students (in 2017), ecologists were struggling to find any moths in the adjacent mountain range; a place they had over-summered in massive numbers since time immemorial.

The slippery slopes of failed environmental governance: Who accounts for the regulators?

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By David Salt

Liberia is having problems with its environmental governance. And so are we.

Deforesting a biodiversity hotspot

Logging companies are exploiting weak monitoring and enforcement of Liberia’s forestry laws. Apparently, a 2019 audit had found that around 14,000 cubic metres of timber supposedly harvested legally was actually untraceable (and therefore probably illegal) yet permits for the sale and export of much of the timber were still approved. Authorities have known about the case for more than two years, and done nothing. What’s more, the logging company responsible has a long and troubled history of violations.

Well, is anyone surprised? Liberia, a biodiversity hotspot, is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. It’s been ripped apart by civil war and disease, and corruption is endemic at every level of the Liberian government. Illegal timber harvesting has, in particular, been an ongoing running sore; as is the case in so many developing countries (like our nearest neighbours, PNG).

Thank God we can trust environmental governance in Australia.

Or can we?

Too steep to log

Over the last year it’s come to light that Victoria’s state-owned timber corporation, VicForests, has been illegally harvesting timber on some of the Central Highland’s steepest slopes, thereby risking the quality of water flowing from these landscapes. This is not a metaphorical slippery slope we’re talking about here.

If that wasn’t bad enough, an investigation undertaken by the ABC suggests the government regulator, whose job it is to monitor VicForests, was alerted to the breaches but failed to properly investigate.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time the timber corporation has been accused of illegal logging, nor the first time the regulator has been accused of ignoring it.

According to leading ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer, who has been researching these forested landscapes for decades, it’s the story of Australia’s “lawless” loggers, and a regulator failing to regulate.

Buried without consent

And then there’s the sad tale of the mining company Whitehaven Coal attempting to carry out the mass disposal of its mining tyres by burying them in the Leard Forest Precinct, on the ancestral lands of the Gomeroi traditional owners. The land is under a Native Title claim. Under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000, approval of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is required. Whitehaven has no such approval, something the Land Council has pointed out to them. Allegations have been circulating in the region that Whitehaven attempted to threaten Gomeroi with loss of jobs if they do not sign off on the tyre landfilling.

Sad as this sounds, the more worrying aspect of this story is that the primary environmental regulator for New South Wales, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), has given the okay to conduct the mass burial of mining tyres. While technically termed “agency advice” and not “approval”, the NSW EPA’s approval of Whitehaven Coal’s application to bury off-the-road mining tyres for the life of the Maules Creek mine, would be subject only to a “review” every two years.

This has led some to suggest that the NSW EPA has been captured by the coal industry in north west NSW.

Against the flow of law

Maybe you think a few thousand giant tyres buried on Aboriginal land against its owners wishes is small beer not worthy of losing any sleep over. If so, what’s your view on the state’s water supply being governed for the interests of irrigators and not the public interest? Impossible you say? Well, not according to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). It found that the New South Wales Government was favouring irrigators over other water users in a manner that went against its own laws!

In November of last year, ICAC released a damning report on water mismanagement in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The report detailed a history of water agencies’ ‘undue focus on irrigator’s interests’, including more than a decade of failure to give ‘proper and full effect to the objects, principles and duties’ of the Water Management Act 2000.

For example, the ICAC found that one of the State’s former top water bureaucrats had held a clear bias in favour of irrigators. It confirmed that this person had provided a select group of irrigator lobbyists with confidential legal advice as part of a strategy to undermine national water laws; that he conflated the commercial interests of certain irrigator groups with the broader interests of the entire state; and that he assumed that the interests of ‘direct’ water users trumped those of ‘indirect’ users (whom he helpfully identified as the environment and First Nations peoples).

Despite this clear finding, the Commission did not find that this approach (let’s call it ‘business-as-usual’) was ‘corrupt’ behaviour. This has led many to suggest that anti-corruption watchdogs are perhaps unable – or unwilling – to take on ‘regulatory capture’ of entire agencies. Regulatory capture might be defined as decision making by public servants that favours particular and regulated interests, rather than incorporating the broader public interest, or the objects of the relevant legislation.

A slippery slope

Corruption is a slippery slope.

There will always be bad actors out there attempting to get the most they can out of a system. That’s why we have laws to constrain them. But those laws are meaningless unless there is monitoring and enforcement to ensure they are respected. And that’s why we have environmental regulators established with these powers.

But we kid ourselves if we believe you can simply set up an environmental regulator and then just leave it – set and forget – because over time things change. Environmental regulators often face funding cuts making it difficult for them to fulfil their mission. Lobbyists influence political parties to modify regulation and oversight to benefit their industry groups, and companies do everything in their power to get the regulators to smile on their enterprise.

The examples I cite here are just those that have come to light in recent months, but it’s happening all the time. That’s why, with the best will in the world, it’s not enough to believe our environmental regulators can be left alone, out of sight, to get on with the job.

Their accountability, transparency and capacity to operate at arm’s length from companies they regulate all need to be constantly reviewed and tested. They need to be examined by a robust free press, questioned by an enquiring general public, and audited and interrogated by anti-corruption government agencies (auditors and independent corruption commissions).

And even if this all happens, things can still turn rotten. It’s a big challenge.

However, in Australia, our national leaders are still unable to create a decent anti-corruption agency despite years of promises. It’s clearly not a priority despite multiple failures over time.

There are so many reasons to feel sorry for Liberia and its attempts curb environmental degradation.

We don’t have those excuses. And we kid ourselves if we believe our environmental regulators are fit for purpose.

Banner image: tmcreynolds at Pixabay