A bluffer’s guide to Australia’s premier environmental law

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and why it’s going so horribly wrong

By David Salt

Any casual reader of the news (and of this blog) probably would have noticed that Australia’s environmental law is in the spotlight at the moment. It’s being reviewed, analysed and attacked from multiple directions.

Anyone with half an interest in nature or biodiversity conservation probably believes it’s important that Australia’s environmental laws are strong and effective. However, most people have very little idea what those laws are, how they work and whether they are adequate.

Well, here’s a quick summary of what Australia’s premier environmental law is and what all the fuss is about. Think of it as your ‘bluffer’s guide’ to Australia’s environmental law.

Why would you bother with a bluffer’s guide? Because the legislation itself is impenetrable (see item 1).

1. What is Australia’s premier environmental law?

Each state and territory has its own environmental legislation but the nation’s premier law is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) created and implemented by the Federal Government. It was enacted in 1999, is over 1000 pages long, full of arcane legal language and has been described by some as ‘impenetrable’.

Fortunately, Peter Burnett (the co-producer of Sustainability Bites) is a lawyer and has taken the time to break the Act down into its constituent part and explain them in plain English (see ‘What’s in the EPBC Box’). It has 16 major components which come together to serve three broad functions:

Identify: The Act identifies which environmental values (threatened species and special places) should be protected. These are often referred to as ‘matters of national environmental significance’ and include World Heritage places (like the Great Barrier Reef) and nationally-listed species (like the Leadbeater’s possum).

Plan: The Act provides planning for the conservation of these environmental values; for example, developing recovery plans for threatened species and management plans for protected areas.

Assess: The EPBC Act assesses and approves developments that might harm the environmental values protected by the Act. The best known component in this third stream is project-based environmental impact assessment. The Act gives the government the power to block projects that adversely impact matters of national environmental significance.

2. Who doesn’t like the law?

Everyone.

Everyone has problems with the EPBC Act, but the issues are different depending on where you’re coming from.

Environmentalists complain the Act is not protecting the values it was set up to protect. Species and ecosystems are going extinct or degrading at an accelerating rate, and areas of special significance (like the Great Barrier Reef) are not being protected from global changes such as climate change.

Developers and farmers, on the other hand, complain the Act is making it harder to turn a profit and get projects off the ground. They claim the approval process is green tape that adds to the cost of a development and enables political green groups to attack them in the courts (lawfare).

3. What’s wrong with the law?

The problem with pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ with the EPBC Act is that you’ll be instantly dismissed by the ‘opposing’ side; and clearly I’m on the pro-environmental side. On this side of the fence, the claims of green tape and lawfare appear unsubstantiated and ideological (and for an excellent discussion on this see Peter Burnett’s last blog green tape and lawfare). However, they have been repeated so often they have become articles of faith to some groups.

On the other hand, there are a substantial number of studies showing the EPBC Act is failing to protect the things it was established to protect. For example, a new analysis by WWF Australia shows that more than a million hectares of threatened species’ habitat was cleared for agriculture in New South Wales and Queensland without referral to the federal environment department for assessment, one of the main purposes of the EPBC Act.

The Australian Conservation Foundation found that in the past 20 years, the period during which the EPBC Act was in force, an area of threatened species habitat larger than Tasmania (7.7 million hectares) has been logged, bulldozed and cleared. And they cite numerous case studies of where the government has failed to act even when something is referred under the EPBC Act.

Those who see the EPBC Act as a hindrance would simply discount such evidence no matter how well researched – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they!” Then they’d probably follow up with something like “but we’re here for jobs and growth!”

Possibly harder to dismiss (on ideological grounds) is the review undertaken by the Australian National Audit Office. Just released, it found the government’s administration of the EPBC Act to be inefficient, ineffective and had failed to manage environmental risk. It also found funding cuts to the department since 2014-15 had slowed down the assessment and approval times for developments. It is a scathing reflection on the Government’s management of the Act.

4. How could we make it work better?

It’s been pointed out by many people that the existing EPBC Act could operate with fewer delays while still affording the same level of protection simply by providing more resources for its operation. Between 2013 and 2019, the federal environment department’s budget was cut by 40%, according to an assessment by the Australian Conservation Foundation. So it’s little wonder approval processes slowed.

Underlining this, at the end of last year the Government put $25 million towards speeding up environmental approvals, in effect simply reversing part of their cost cutting over the years.

In addition to resourcing, more effort towards coordinating assessments between the federal and state governments would go some way towards speeding up the approval process.

Changing the law itself is another approach but this is a chancy approach because it’s hard to negotiate anything through the unpredictable numbers in the Senate. Towards this end, the Act itself requires that it be independently reviewed every 10 years. The first review in 2009 came up with a comprehensive set of reforms to improve the operation of the Act but amidst the political turmoil of the time nothing every materialised.

Today we are waiting on the interim report of the second EPBC review led by Graeme Samuel, former Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Much rides on this report and everyone is wondering what it will say so close on the release of so many other damning reports on the EPBC Act’s inability to protect Australia’s environmental values.

5. What’s right about the EPBC Act?

The EPBC Act is a strong piece of legislation. It gives the Minister for the Environment the power to block actions and developments that threaten environmental values that the Government has said it would protect. It causes developers to consider the environmental impact of their projects and hopefully modify their plans to ameliorate potential impact. These things are good.

However, if the Minister chooses to use her (or his) discretion to determine a development isn’t threatening ‘matters of national environmental significance’, and the government starves the Department of Environment (currently sitting in the Department of Agriculture) of resources making it impossible to collect the evidence and assess the true nature of any potential development, the Act is disempowered.

At the end of the day, every piece of law is only as good as its implementation. If the government is failing in its duty of care for the nation’s natural heritage then we should be holding the government to account, not blaming the law that is supposed to protect that heritage.

Which begs the question, when will we demand our Government be true to its stated claim that it does care for our environment? Will it be before the predicted extinction of koalas in NSW by 2050? What about the impending destruction of the last remaining habitat of the stocky galaxias, a critically endangered native fish threatened by the Snowy 2.0 project (a project that has just been given the green light by Environment Minister Sussan Ley)? These are just two stories in the news this week. Thousands of other environmental values are similarly at risk, awaiting the Government’s next move on how it deals with Australia’s premier environmental law.

Image by Bruce McLennan from Pixabay

For my next techno-trick – I’m going to make you forget about the problems facing the Reef

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Techno-fixing the Reef and other dangerous delusions

By David Salt

Science is telling us coral reefs are dying. Politicians, while ignoring and denying the science on climate change, are telling us science is going to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s called the techno fix, and it’s one of the oldest tricks around.

Problem solved?

The problem with the ‘techno fix’ is that it is usually only a partial solution. The allure of the ‘techno fix’ is that it allows us, and particularly our political leaders, to think we’ve solved the problem.

If the problem being addressed is a small one, then maybe a partial solution is fine. If the techno fix doesn’t live up to its hype, then let’s develop a new techno fix. Every time we try something new it’s to be hoped at the very least that we learn something.

But if the problem is big and important, then placing our trust (and limited resources) in a techno fix becomes dangerous and delusional. An example of this is what we’re doing with the Great Barrier Reef.

Boiling coral

The Great Barrier Reef is overheating because of climate change. When corals overheat they eject the symbiotic algae that feeds them. The corals turn white, they look bleached, and if the temperature stays too high for too long the corals die. In the last five years there have been three mass bleaching events along the reef, each one causing unprecedented levels of coral death. In February the Reef was subjected to its hottest sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900. All the evidence suggests it’s only going to get worse.

Coral can recover if it’s given time but the forecasts are that, with increasing temperatures, mass bleaching events will increase in frequency – once every couple of years by 2030 and yet it takes decades to recover from a mass bleaching event. The world’s leading coral scientists predict the Great Barrier Reef will be lost if carbon emissions and climate change is not addressed. Of course, it’s not just the GBR that’s at stake, all coral reefs are being threatened.

And it’s also not just about rising temperature either. Greater storm damage and outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish are also wreaking carnage on the Great Barrier Reef; and both these factors also have strong connections to climate change.

The solution? Stop climate change. Do something to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, it’s one of the biggest challenges facing modern society. Yes, no country can do it on its own. However, it’s the only real chance we have of saving the Great Barrier Reef and other important coral ecosystems around the world.

Silver bullets

In Australia, our national government is in complete denial over climate change but is sensitive to the fact that Australians love the Great Barrier Reef and believe our elected leaders should be protecting it – after all, we told the world we would when we go it listed as World Heritage and the Reef is an important part of our economic wealth employing around 64,000 people.

However, following the mass coral bleachings in 2016, 2017 and 2020 (not to mention declining water quality and massive outbreaks of crown-of thorn starfish) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the line that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’.

Rather than acknowledging the connection between coral decline and climate change (and making climate change a policy priority), our government has instead been looking around for techno-fixes that may (or may not) help us manage bits of the unfolding catastrophe. I say ‘may not’ because many of the solutions being explored haven’t yet actually been demonstrated to work.

We’re talking about, for example, searching for corals that can survive in higher temperatures, developing methods to restore degraded coral, putting different coral species into frozen archives that we can use in the future, and researching geoengineering strategies that might provide temporary protection from heat waves*.

Last month the Federal Government announced a $150 million reef restoration and adaptation package that will fund some 42 concepts aimed at helping the reef cope with the growing threat of environmental degradation.

Don’t get me wrong, this is considerable money with many good people doing amazing things to protect the Reef. But at best, even if these strategies work as hoped (and that’s a big ‘if’), all we’re treating is the symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. Maybe the condition of a few select reefs might be improved for a time (or their decline might be slowed), maybe we’ll create a ‘seed bank’ for some future age in which we’ve figured out how to reduce our carbon pollution to sustainable levels, but none of these efforts are doing anything to save the Great Barrier Reef that we have today. To believe they will work is delusional.

What such efforts do achieve, however, is to give an impression that the government is doing enough and that we don’t have to worry about the underlying cause. That’s dangerous thinking.

No such thing as a free lunch

As to my claim that the techno fix is an old trick, let me quote the ecologist Garrett Hardin who made this comment in his classic paper ‘The tragedy of the Commons’ some 52 years ago: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.

If we were able to protect the Great Barrier Reef it’s likely techno-fixes will play a part – maybe even buy us a little time – but without a concerted effort to address the underlying problem of atmospheric carbon pollution and a rapidly warming world then these technical solutions are really only being promoted to fool us into thinking that science will save us, and we as individuals don’t have to worry or change the way we live; that’s dangerous and delusional.

*Geoengineering is in many ways the ultimate techno-fix, and maybe it’s the ultimate delusion: that humans are in control of the earth system (and because we are in control we don’t need to worry about the degradation our activities are causing). Regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the proposal is to use snow cannons to shoot droplets of salt water into the air over the Reef. Salt particles in the air should brighten clouds over the Reef reflecting away sunlight and reducing heat on the reef (in theory). The researchers say it would cost $150-$200 million a year to run cloud brightening over the whole reef. Trials have begun but even these are raising controversy as some believe they are violating an international moratorium on ocean geoengineering.

Image: Bleached elkhorn coral off Magnetic Island (Photo by Klara Lindstrom, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.)

Cultural vandalism in the land of Oz

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Criminal intent or just failed governance?

By David Salt

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. One tribe moves onto the turf of another tribe and trashes the cultural capital of the first tribe simply because they can; because the culture of the first tribe is an affront to their ideology or their sense of mastery. It’s a signal to everyone that the conquering tribe is the one in charge.

Last week a mining company blew up a cave in Juukan Gorge Western Australia as part of its mining operation. In so doing it destroyed Aboriginal heritage reaching back some 46,000 years.

What does this signal? That economic priorities trump everything else? That First Nation culture is to be respected but only when there is no price to pay? Or that our governance of cultural heritage is a sad joke?

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. Around the world there have been many recent episodes of cultural vandalism but this episode in Australia is on many scores far worse.

Blowing up the Buddhas

Many have compared what happened in WA with the Taliban who blew up the massive carved Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 (see David Pope’s cartoon).

It is believed that the monumental Buddha sculptures – one 53m tall, the other 35m – were carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan some 1500 years ago. Before being blown up they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the area was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In 2001, the fanatical government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, declared the statues an affront to Islam. The Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar said that “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols.”

And so it was, despite international condemnation, that the statues were blown to pieces by dynamite.

However, this act of desecration was deliberate, planned and trumpeted to the world. It wasn’t collateral damage in the pursuit of some other goal (such as the expansion of a mine). It was an end unto itself. Like it or not, agree with it or not, it was an act carried out by the government in control of the region.

From Prophet to profit: David Pope’s commentary in The Canberra Times.

Drowning the birthplace of ‘civilisation’

That was 20 years ago. Surely such explicit vandalism of the world’s greatest cultural heritage wouldn’t happen these days?

Have you heard of the ancient city of Hasankeyf? It sits on the banks of the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey. It may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, spanning some 10,000 years (leaving aside Australian Indigenous culture that goes back some 60,000). It shows examples of Bronze Age kingdoms, Roman influences and was part of the Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman Empires.

Well, if you haven’t seen it you’ve missed your chance. Hasankeyf has just gone under the waters of the newly completed Ilısu Dam. According to Turkey’s leaders, the dam will generate 10,000 jobs, spur agricultural production through irrigation and boost tourism (though many claim the only tourist drawcard in this region is the now drowned city of Hasankeyf).

The dam’s development has been a running sore for the country for many years but Turkey’s strong-arm leadership would not bend to any appeals – internal or external – on sparing the ancient heritage that lay in Hasankeyf. Their claim was the economic development this project would bring outweighed the heritage value of not proceeding.

Some would support such an argument saying a developing country has the right to place its economic development first and foremost. That once the economy has been developed, when it’s people on average enjoy a higher quality of life, then is the time for debates on protection of unique heritage values. It sits with a body of theory referred to as the Kuznetz Curve that suggests that social and environmental concerns are often dealt with once a nation has healthy and robust economy.

So what are we doing in the land of Oz?

None of this should give us comfort when it comes to our brand of cultural vandalism.

The site in Juukan Gorge destroyed by the mining giant Rio Tinto up in the Pilbara was well known for its outstanding heritage values. It’s the only known inland site showing human occupation through the last ice age. The shelters were in use some 46,000 years ago making them approximately twice as old as the famed Lascaux Caves in France.

Rio Tinto says it has apologised to the traditional owners of the site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto,” says Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Chris Salisbury. But apparently, it doesn’t matter so much that the mining giant even informed the PKKP they were planning to demolish the caves. The PKKP only found out about the plans when they asked, about a week before the demolition, for access to the shelters for NAIDOC Week in July.

Rio Tinto then went on to suggest that the PKKP had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties, something representatives of the PKKP strongly denied saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters (and again as recently as March).

While the demolition was legal under outdated WA heritage protection laws it’s hard to see how such cultural vandalism would have been allowed to proceed if there had been any public airing of what was about to occur.

According to news reports, the federal minister for Indigenous Affairs was informed about the imminent destruction of the caves in the days before it occurred but did nothing about it.

The WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs claims he didn’t even know the demolition was happening.

And the perpetrators themselves are making few comments (though they released an apology several days after the destruction – possibly realising that in so overreaching acceptable behaviour that their social licence to operate was in question).

Things will change?

Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here. At the very least there has been a terrible lapse in national and state governance, and an appalling lapse in corporate social responsibility. Everyone has expressed regret over what happened, but no-one has accepted responsibility.

Things will change our political leaders are belatedly telling us. WA hopes to pass its new improved Aboriginal cultural heritage bill later this year; the existing law that permitted this destruction is almost 50 years old and crafted in a different age when it comes to respecting Aboriginal culture.

Federal Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt has now called for Indigenous cultural protection to be addressed in the current review of the EPBC Act. It’s interesting that the discussion paper put out for the EPBC review seems to put a lot of emphasis on Indigenous issues. It’s ironic that this desecration by Rio Tinto should occur while this review is in train.

The caves at Juukan Gorge contained inestimable anthropological and cultural value, as did Hasankeyf and the Bamiyan Bhuddas. Unlike Hasankeyf and the Bhuddas, the caves lay in a stable, democratic and developed nation that tells the world it respects and protects Indigenous culture.

What happened last week at Juukan Gorge shines a light on the truth of this claim. It can never be allowed to happen again.

Image: Rio Tinto prepares explosives that will destroy a 46,000 year old Aboriginal shelter in Juukan Gorge. (PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.)

The man who shamed the PM

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and thereby saved Australia

By David Salt

How did we do it? How did Australia beat COVID 19 when most other countries failed; failure being their inability to prevent the overloading of their health systems and the consequent death of tens of thousands of lives that should have been saved.

Is it because Australia has better leaders? Better health officials? Better people? Better geographical positioning?

Maybe our island continent’s physical isolation helped a little but I don’t think the other human factors had much to do with it, not directly anyway. Our health officials delivered similar advice to those health officials overseas but leaders in other nations often ignored this advice and shut the gate only after the horse had bolted (then searched for a scapegoat when their citizens started dying needlessly).

But our leaders followed the scientific advice pretty much to the letter. However, this is not in keeping with their behaviour in recent years in which they felt free to ignore, discount, denigrate or deny scientific advice that ran counter to their politics and ideology – think death of rivers, collapse of coral reefs and skyrocketing extinction rates.

And yet this time they did listen. What’s more, they showed how effective our federal system of governance could be when federal and state governments pulled together. How did we do it? Why did we do it differently this time?

The answer, I believe, is that our nation was primed for an unprecedented national response to an unprecedented national emergency by an earlier unprecedented national emergency. And I’ll make my case on this using what happened when our Prime Minister mis-read this earlier unprecedented national emergency.

Our PM’s Black Summer

Remember our Black Summer? The fires were extinguished only a couple of months ago but COVID 19 has relegated that disastrous time to a different age. But I reckon it was our experience of Black Summer that made the difference on how Australia responded to the ensuing COVID 19 pandemic.

And maybe the defining moment during this horror season on wildfire was when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rebuffed after making a unilateral announcement to bring in the army reserve on Saturday 4 January.

It was already clear by that stage that the Federal Government’s standard command-and-control approach wasn’t cutting the mustard. But, true to form, our leaders pushed on hoping to push through. And they played down the connection with climate change: ‘let’s not talk about that now, we must focus on the emergency’.

But the fire emergency was still escalating so the Government called out the army reserve without telling the states and simultaneously put out a political ad telling Australia what a great job it was doing. And they did it on the very day the wildfires were at their unstoppable worst.

The real heroes of the moment were the firies and emergency workers. When the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was told of the army reserve call out (by the media, not by the Federal Government) he was flabbergasted describing the manner of the announcement as “atrocious”.

And the whole country sat back and wondered what an earth the national government was playing at. Can they not see that in a time of national emergency that politics and ideology has to take a back seat to reasoned, evidence-based, co-operative action?

Well maybe that reality became apparent because after that incident they went decidedly quiet, letting the states, who have primary responsibility for fire management, take the running.

Not a panacea

A little bit later during this unfolding catastrophe, Conservative political leaders including our Prime Minister started looking around for a scapegoat for the wildfires and, predictably, targeted environmental groups and the Green Party as responsible for preventing hazard reduction burning in the lead up to the Black Summer.

Again, Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke truth to power saying that hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.

Fitzsimmons also pointed out that hazard reduction burning itself is extremely challenging and hazardous. What I didn’t know at that time but subsequently discovered on ABC’s Australian Story is that Fitzsimmons knows the perils of hazard reduction personally – his father burnt to death in a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s north in the year 2000.

So one of our true national heroes of the Black Summer, Shane Fitzsimmons, called out our national government on at least two occasions while simultaneously showing what calm dedicated leadership looked like. Many hold him up as the type of leader we need in a national emergency.

It takes a disturbance to be prepared for a disturbance

If there is a silver lining on our Black Summer it’s that it knocked the hubris and arrogance out of our national government’s approach to dealing with mass disturbance. Had it have been a ‘normal’ summer I believe we would have taken our lead from the UK or the USA on how to deal with Covid 19. And, in prioritizing the economy over the environment and discounting the science (our normal modus operandi), we would likely have led to the same death rates those countries are now experiencing (an outcome many are putting down to failed leadership).

Much has been written about how different countries have coped. It’s been suggested that South Korea and Taiwan have both fared well because they both previously experienced SARS and MERS, two respiratory pandemics very similar to Covid 19. They didn’t take it for granted and didn’t treat it like a flu, they responded appropriately.

I think our biggest risk now is believing the myth that Australia has done well because Australian’s (and Australian leaders) are a cut above the rest, that we are superior. We aren’t. We were lucky. Above all else, our decision makers approached the task of keeping Australia safe through the pandemic with a degree of humility, acceptance of the evidence and collegiality that has been missing from Australian politics for many years.

The smirk is back

And now, as Australia looks to be ahead of the (flattened) curve, I fear the smugness and arrogance is creeping back in. The idealogues are seizing back the pulpits, and tribal politics is beginning to strangle our winning formulation.

The months ahead look uncertain and strange. We’ve beaten the first wave but how will we go with the second and third?

The biggest national disturbance prior to this was the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Once again, as a nation, we reacted strongly and well. But there was collateral damage. In the following year the GFC helped knock the wheels off our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and our politics has been a shameless dog fight ever since.

There are two lessons here for our national leaders. The first is that circumstances (history and path dependency) play a large part in our triumphs and failures. The second, contained in the first, is that pride goeth before a fall.

Image by David Salt

Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites

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66 bites / 5 sustainability themes / the story continues

By David Salt

In a world staggering from one crisis to the next, stricken with plague and quarreling over solutions, where lies the true path to sustainability? Have we got a story for you, and we present it in 66 compelling chapters.

But can we sustain it

When we began Sustainability Bites I’m not sure how long Peter or I thought we could sustain it. It was a nice idea to write up our reflections on sustainability but how many blogs did we have in us? What would run out first: ideas, enthusiasm or available time?

Well, as it has turned out, we’re still putting them out a year and a half later. Indeed, we’re two thirds of the way to cracking a century!

I attempted to reflect on possible emerging themes arising from our musings back when we had completed 33 blogs (a third of a century; see Have we bitten off more than we can chew?), and I thought I’d repeat the exercise now at 66.

Back at blog #33 I suggested I could see five themes constantly emerging in our commentaries:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Well I think these five overarching themes still apply to our musings but I’m happy to say I don’t think we’re simply rehashing the same words over and over again.

History in the making

Our first 33 blogs set out what we believed sustainability involved, with commentaries on how governments here and overseas (though mainly Australian) were tackling the goal of sustainability. We reflected a little on the history of sustainability, called out inconsistencies between government rhetoric and action, and delved in to the ideology and culture of science and politics.

I’ve listed those first 33 stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Our second tranche of 33 essays covered the same basic ground but were developed in a time when sustainability policy seemed to go through enormous upheaval and contention as our nation endured disaster after disaster.

The big stories we commented on in several ways in our second 33 blogs included:
-the review of Australia’s premier environmental law, the EPBC Act
-the growing societal rejection of government inaction (and denialism) on climate change
-a season of unprecedented wildfires (and the politics it provoked)
-the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef
-the consequences of the pandemic on business as usual; and
-the use and abuse of crisis, hyper partisanship and ideology
I’ve listed those second 33 stories at the end of this blog as well (see Appendix 2) if you’d like to jump into any of these pieces.

Here are a few comments on the five themes I see overarching our individual stories:

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

In our first 33 blogs we came to the repeated conclusion that achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions. We concluded on several occasions that enduring change is probably only achieved through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Well, be careful what you wish for. This recent ‘summer of our discontent’ has brought more crisis than anyone thought possible (though all of it is well within predictions made by the scientific community).

Will change result? Almost certainly. Will it be change for a more sustainable future? Maybe. Or maybe it will see a massive decline in environmental protection as the economy ‘snaps back’ to full speed (double speed?) and crushes everything in its path.

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

This theme continued to develop in our second set of 33 blogs. Scientists cried apocalypse, wrote massive public letters, and called governments out time and again on climate denialism. Meanwhile forests burned, coral reefs fried and landscapes withered.

Everything the scientists were warning us about seemed to be coming true and yet our government held fast to its line that everything is okay and Australia should be proud of its performance. While grudgingly acknowledging that there might be a connection between the fires and climate change, it wasn’t something they could deal with till the crisis was passed. Having got passed it, now we only talk about the plague.

So what do I expect scientists to do? I really don’t know. If they become advocates or start manning the barricades then they’re no longer practicing science. And yet the science by itself seems so impotent.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

Surely something has got to give? The neo-liberal conservative ideology that sits behind climate denialism cannot be sustained given what our country (and the world) is enduring – surely? And yet it does. Could it be that when everything else has been burnt, withered and wasted, our ideology will still be standing, still declaring its intrinsic rightness – that would be the ideology of whoever is left standing. (It’s been pointed out to me that ‘denialism’ is driven by more than neo-liberal ideology. That might be so but it paves the way by promoting the view that the market will solve all problems and that non-market things do not count. Of course it’s much more complex than I present here, and there’s a strong thread of libertarianism interwoven through this tapestry of deceit. The net effect is continuing poor outcomes in the face of overwhelming evidence that we should be doing something different.)

4. The value of good policy

Whereas I tend to despair and begin to rant (as in point 3) when I consider the rampant environmental decline all around me (largely discounted by government), Peter looks for constructive policy solutions that may or may not be applied but at the very least deserve serious consideration. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies and how they relate to effective environmental protection (in both sets of 33 blogs).

It will be interesting to see if good policy takes the fore as we move deeper into this crisis riven year.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

The historical antecedents of sustainability policy was a much greater talking point in our first 33 blogs though it still featured in many of the second tranche. Possibly the reason for this is that it seems that history was being made even as we wrote the second set, and it was all we could do to reflect on what was unfolding around us.

Last year’s drought seemed to be a game changer but it was dwarfed by the scale of ensuing fires which in turn has been swallowed by the enormity of the Covid 19 pandemic (and somehow, while all this was happening, no-one seemed to notice that the Great Barrier Reef had been king hit by another mass bleaching event, the most extensive to date).

What will come out the other end of this run of crises is anyone’s guess but it’s a sure bet that what we think is happening now will likely be revised and reinterpreted many times as we move away from these tumultuous times – though possibly towards even more tumult.

Maybe I’ll have the answer by blog #100.

Image by Flo K from Pixabay

Appendix 1: Our first 33 Bites [in order of appearance with themes in brackets]

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

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

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

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

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

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

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: Our second 33 bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

34. Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites – looking back on 33 blogs[reflection, history]
35. What’s in the EPBC Box? – Unpacking Australia’s primary environmental law [policy, EPBC Act]
36. I’ll match your crisis and raise you one Armageddon – playing the crisis game [crisis, politics]
37. Federal environmental planning – planning should be strengthened in the EPBC Act [policy, EIA]
38. Shame Greta Shame – the use of ‘shame’ to affect change [politics, shame, denialism]

39. Is Corporate Social Responsibility an environmental ‘Dodge’? – [business, social responsibility]
40. On the taboo of triage – why politicians don’t talk about triage [politics, policy, denialism]
41. 2019 Senate Environment Estimates – [politics, policy, news]
42. I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!! – the value of the ‘letter’ from experts [politics, science culture, denialism]
43. Supplementary Environmental Estimates – [politics, policy, news]

44. The script that burns us – predicatable responses to wildfire [politics, ideology, denialism]
45. Announcing ‘Australia’s Strategy for Nature’ – what’s in this new policy [politics, policy]
46. But we’re only a tiny part of the problem! – unpacking denialist cant [politics, policy, denialism]
47. Will next year be a big one for biodiversity? – the importance of 2020 [policy, environmental accounts]
48. Positioning ‘The Environment’ – rearranging government departments [policy, politics]

49. Insights on government thinking from 20 years ago – release of parliamentary papers[policy, history]
50. Five lies that stain the nation’s soul – the government’s worst lies [politics, denialism]
51. Now is the summer of our discontent – reflecting on an awful summer [politics, disturbance]
52. On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster – hiding behind notions of resilience [politics, disturbance, resilience]
53. By all accounts, can we manage to save biodiversity? – environmental accounts to the rescue [policy, environmental accounts]

54. Conversations with the devil – false news is amplified by tribalism [polarization, tribalism]
55. A tale of two climate bills – laws proposed by an independent and the Greens [policy, politics]
56. Dawn of the new normal (?) – when will we acknowledge climate change [policy, politics, disturbance]
57. Insensible on coal – why is coal the elephant in the room[policy, politics, disturbance]
58. The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions – ‘net’ zero carbon emissions[policy, politics, offsets]

59. ‘Practical Environmental Restoration’– the Government always talks about ‘practical’ [policy, politics, offsets]
60. A good decision in a time of plague – the process is more important than the decision itself [policy, governance]
61. A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act – the 2020 climate policy toolkit [policy, politics, climate change]
62. Entering a no-analogue future – Covid 19 is giving us the world to come [Anthropocene, Covid 19]
63. Who’s the BOS? – Biodiversity offsets – state vs commonwealth [policy, politics, offsets]

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

Three letters on the apocalypse

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

King hit

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

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

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

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

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

Three letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil society

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

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

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

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

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

The scientific consensus

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

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

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

Apocalypse now

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

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

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

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

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

Entering a no-analogue future

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You’re seeing it happen around you right now

By David Salt

“We have reached a point where many biophysical indicators have clearly moved beyond the bounds of Holocene variability. We are now living in a no-analogue world.”

These are the words of Professor Will Steffen and colleagues from a paper published a few years ago on the trajectory of Planet Earth as it moves into the Anthropocene. These are truly chilling words yet their import is ignored by most people.

Well maybe that’s about to change. As we move deeper into the Covid-19 pandemic, their significance is surely taking on a sharper focus.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a proposal by many scientists of a new geological age in which humanity has become a ‘planetary-scale geological force’. It’s an idea that has been kicking around for the last two decades, and is finding increasing favour across the broad spectrum of academia, from the biophysical sciences to the humanities.

By ‘no-analogue world’, the scientists mean we can’t look at the past to guide our future. The Earth System is now behaving in ways that has no analogue in the past.

For the past 10,000 years, the Earth has behaved in a relatively predictable and stable way, in an age that geologists refer to as the Holocene. Scientists believe that if the Earth System was left alone (ie, if nothing interfered with the way it functioned), that Holocene conditions would continue for another 50,000 years.

However, in the last 10,000 years humans have become the dominant species on this planet and our activities have changed the very composition of the atmosphere, land and ocean – so much so that the Earth System is no longer behaving in the way that it did during the Holocene.

When it was originally proposed, most scientists suggested a good starting point for the Anthropocene was the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th Century as this was when the burning of fossil fuel (at this stage mainly coal) really ramped up powering the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

More recently, most Earth Systems scientists have revised their idea of when the Anthropocene started. These days they nominate the 1950s and ‘the Great Acceleration’ as a more suitable start date. While the Industrial Revolution was an important antecedent to the forces that brought about the Anthropocene, it wasn’t till the great exponential increase in economic development (what is now referred to as the Great Acceleration) that the human signal began to change the way the Earth System behaves.

Trust in the future

This is a big concept with big consequences. Climate change, for example, is but one manifestation of the impact of the Anthropocene though it’s a lot more besides.

And this idea that we can no longer look at the past to guide our expectations of the future is terrifying if you think it through. Our whole quality of life is based on the belief that we have certainty in the future. It gives us confidence to plan, to invest, indeed to hope.

When disasters hit us, our leaders tell us to not worry, things will return to normal soon. But what does ‘normal’ mean in the Anthropocene?

In the Holocene, ‘normal’ means things will return to how we used to know them. The flood / bushfire / earthquake (whatever) will pass and good (normal) days will return. And then we can get back to business as usual because that’s how it has always happened in the past.

But in the Anthropocene, the past is no longer a good guide to what we can expect in the future.

Sleepers awake

Along with most people who believe in science, I am scared of what the future holds. As a species we are not living sustainably, but ‘business as usual’ trumps all other forms of business. Efforts at reform simply don’t seem to make any difference to accelerating economic growth and the impacts of that growth (be that impact in the form of rising carbon emissions or declining biodiversity).

There’s a profound cognitive dissonance here. The evidence tells us we are headed for trouble. But society keeps on with economic growth because it underpins our quality of life and expectations of an even richer future.

When the Great Barrier Reef underwent an unprecedented mass coral bleaching in 2016 I thought the scale of this disaster, and what it signified, would galvanise a nation-wide response, that it would serve as a wake-up call to our soporific negligence around climate change. But I was sorely disappointed. Many people expressed sadness at the stress the Reef was under, the Government threw a few more dollars at the problem, but life proceeded as normal.

Then there was another mass bleaching in 2017, but this event caused barely a ripple in the broader community – ‘mass bleachings; been there, done that…’

The climate wars continued unabated with claim and counter claim creating a dissonant chorus of fact, ideology and fake news. People switched off, and a party with no climate policy trumped a party with too much climate policy at our national elections in 2019 (less than a year ago, seems like an age ago).

And then came the historic drought and the unprecedented fires of our Black Summer – only just finished.

But before we could catch our breath the world has been plunged into a terrifying pandemic.

No certainty

Suddenly many of the certainties we believed in changed overnight. We lost our jobs, we were told not to travel, all sporting events and entertainment involving more than two people together were cancelled, and everyone is in quarantine.

The future is suddenly a very uncertain place. What we did yesterday is no guide to what we can do tomorrow, and we’re all quite scared.

This is what a no-analogue future looks like; except it’s not in the future, it’s here now.

Many industries (and regional communities) are on their knees because of the coral bleachings, the drought and the mass forest fires. Such disturbances stress society and depress regional economies. We turn a blind eye to these consequences however because we believe there will be recovery of some kind in the future. That’s what has happened in the past.

But the pandemic has shocked us to the core because the certainty of things being the same is no longer there.

Sleepers awake. This is the Anthropocene and we need to engage with what it means.

First indications with our pandemic wake-up call are that we’re still asleep.

There’s been another mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the third one in five years and more extensive than the last two. The Conference of Parties meeting to discuss the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions has been cancelled suggesting climate change is still not a priority to world leaders. And the rhetoric coming from many industry groups is that governments need to dial back environmental regulations so the economy can get to double speed ASAP as soon as this pesky plague passes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A good decision in a time of plague

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Could it be there is no ‘right’ decision, just a good process?

By David Salt

What’s the best decision to make in a time of plague? Close your borders? Isolate your citizenry? Ration supplies? Close schools? Scorch the landscape? (Actually, for our east coast, the forests have already all been scorched and it doesn’t seem to be slowing the rate of infection.)

Of course, versions of all these actions are being applied in different measures here and overseas in the face of COVID-19. We have all been impacted by these decisions and most of us have strong views on which decisions are good and which are bad. Indeed the ‘strength’ of those views is on clear view in the twitterverse and in the mass media, and at times that strength is verging on the hysterical.

I can say from my own family’s experience, we are scared.

There is no perfect

I think most fair minded people would acknowledge that no-one has the perfect solution (or even a near perfect solution). Every option is problematic. Each comes with difficult trade-offs including constraints on personal freedoms, social isolation and reduced access to important goods and services. For some (eg, the wealthy), these trade-offs are inconvenient but they’ll cope. For many they are life changing; and for some they are life threatening.

What’s more, given the complexity of the systems being managed here, there is enormous uncertainty about how different options will actually pan out.

Given all this, surely we should all be more passionate about the process by the which a decision is made rather than it’s ‘rightness’ – because there simply isn’t a ‘correct’ answer. Or, in other words, rightness is actually more about the process of making a decision rather than the decision itself.

Good decision making

What are the ingredients of a good decision-making process in a time of crisis?

Here are a few key elements: the process needs to make use of the best information (and experts) available; it must be transparent, fair and adaptive. Above all, the process needs to be trustworthy.

Trust is not a given, it’s earned. It’s difficult to build and is easily lost. However, if the process is genuinely well informed by the science – and is transparent, fair and adaptive – the trust bank is built on solid foundations and will continue standing regardless of tough operating conditions, setbacks, slip ups and sub-optimal decisions – all of which are a given in a time of plague and mass disruption.

So far our governments haven’t done too badly. They have acknowledged the gravity of the situation, been open about the medical expert advice they have been receiving and how it informs their decisions, and have made some massive resource commitments to bolster the economy and ecology of our society.

Yes our governments (state and federal) have made many slip ups and sub-optimal decisions including slow responses, ambiguous and contradictory messaging, and letting cruise ships unload in Sydney with zero vetting. Yes it’s been messy, and social media has been even more venomous and judgmental than usual. But society is still functioning, riots don’t appear likely and the general public is acknowledging the need for harsh restrictions in the face of an unprecedented threat. (I hate using the word ‘unprecedented’ but it really does apply here. However, every pandemic is unprecedented because each is different. The Spanish Flu pandemic may have been bigger – so far – but it was a different world 100 years ago.)

In any event, while our response hasn’t been perfect, I trust our system and I’d rather be in Australia at the moment than in the US or the UK. The US, in particular, looks to be headed for grief on a massive scale. And they have a leader who says this disturbance will be over in a fortnight.

Transparent, fair and adaptive

For trust to be sustained in our decision making we need to see what it is based on. It needs to be a transparent process. We live in an open society with a free press and a strong set of institutions to validate information and the manner in which the government hand out resources.

Authoritarian governments might find it easier to impose draconian measures to counter a plague but the lack of transparency in such places is also a recipe for a plague to take off. Such was the case with the birth of the COVID-19.

We have a strong belief that government resources should be used for the common good and that the most vulnerable in society are looked after. In a time of plague this is doubly important, something our elected leaders are all too aware of.

The ‘rule of law’ is a particularly important component of being ‘fair’. That is the rules and constraints applied to the community are applied to everyone without fear or favour, something that is ensured by transparency and strong institutions. ‘Exceptionalism’, the practice of making rules for others but believing you are the exception – will simply not be tolerated in a time of plague and politicians caught out doing it are essentially robbing from the trust bank. That’s one reason I’m glad I’m not in the US at the moment. Their leadership has raised exceptionalism to an art form.

Being adaptive – changing your strategy to adapt to changing circumstances – is less often spoken about when it comes to coping with a massive disturbance. I think that’s because our leaders want to convince the population that they have the answers and there is nothing to worry about. I think this was on show during our recent bushfire emergency.

Such hubris is simply unacceptable in a time of plague. Our leaders need to acknowledge the enormous uncertainties facing us and have the humility to say they don’t have the answers and that we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is not a sin, not learning from them is.

This is where a brains trust of experts feeding into a transparent process of decision making is critical.

What decision will we make next week?

Have we done enough to counter this pandemic? Have we gone too far? It’s impossible to say. We’ll probably know in a month.

The only certainty is that more big decisions will need to be made in the coming days, and the situation will change significantly in the coming weeks. None of the decisions our leaders make will be perfect. I accept that. But, for the sake of my family and my society, may those decisions be transparent, fair and adaptive. If they’re not, my trust will wither.

And in a time of plague, trust is everything.

Image: Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions

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A game for mugs or a magic pudding that just keeps giving?

By David Salt

Zero net emissions by 2050! It’s the goal proclaimed by many countries around the world*, and it’s aimed at stemming the tide of climate change.

Zero net emissions is the recipe for enabling business as usual (ie, strong economic growth) while supposedly dealing with the externalities resulting from business as usual (ie, civilisation-ending climate change).

And it’s a political winner because governments aren’t targeting specific economic sectors (ie, the fossil fuel industry). Indeed, this far away from 2050, they aren’t being pegged down by too many specifics on how it will be achieved. The generic solution, implicitly and explicitly rolled out everytime, is that technology will save the day.

The magic in the pudding

So where is the magic that drives this ‘zero-net’ proposition? It’s in the ‘net’ bit. This framing means you don’t have to be ‘zero’ in your emissions in any specific activity, like burning coal if that’s what tickles your fancy.

But you do have to be zero in your cumulative effort. If you produce carbon emissions in one area then you need to do something somewhere else that removes that carbon so the cumulative impact (the net effect) is zero.

How do you remove carbon from the atmosphere? The traditional way has been to plant trees or do existing activities in ways that emit less carbon, a good example being using renewable energy instead of fossil fuel energy.

It works as a political solution because it means you don’t have to explicitly say who is going to bear the burden of reducing their emissions. At some point, however, someone, somewhere is going to have to change their behaviour – after all, sustainability bites!

Experience so far with zero sum policy games suggests they are tricky to establish and easy to work around (ie, cheat).

Offset this

What, you weren’t aware of other zero-sum games? They’re actually quite popular and one place where it’s really taking off is in the arena of biodiversity conservation. The name of this specific game is called biodiversity offsetting.

When it comes to any economic activity with impacts on biodiversity there are many rules and regulations to prevent the loss of species and ecosystems.

To begin with, the proposer of a new economic development must demonstrate their proposal isn’t adversely impacting any native species or ecosystems. If it does, the developer is required to state what they will do about it to remove that impact.

Indeed, developers are expected to apply a mitigation hierarchy to their proposal (see the South Australian Government for an example) in which they need to show how they will first:
1. avoid the negative impacts of their development but doing it in a different way. But if there is still impact, they need to then demonstrate how they will
2. minimise the size of the impact of the development; and then
3. restore the area to make up for the impact.

However, if the developer can’t avoid, minimise or restore the impact they create, they can now offset the damage of the development by doing something good for the environment somewhere else. If you clear a stand of native trees over here for a shopping centre, you might offset this impact by planting the same species of tree somewhere nearby.

The aim is to achieve ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ over time. See, it’s a zero-sum policy game.

The trouble is, in many places it’s been seen by developers as a green light for development and has resulted in many perverse outcomes.

A green light for decline?

For starters, many developers don’t even bother with the mitigation hierarchy (because avoiding, minimising and restoring all cost considerable resources and regulators often don’t check to see whether the impact can be mitigated) and jump straight to some form of offset proposal. But proposing offsets for developments are usually quite complex and there’s a lot of research around to show they often don’t actually offset the impacts of the development (in space or time).

In some cases, the development impact is on something that is irreplaceable like the potential loss of threatened species. In these situations it’s impossible to offset the potential loss and the development should be blocked. Instead, the developer is sometimes asked to do something that might be ‘equivalent’ to a direct offset, like contributing money to an education awareness program that may help save the species. Such indirect offsets are not actually offsets at all but they do give cover for economic development to proceed.

The overall outcome is that while there is a goal of no net loss of biodiversity, biodiversity is lost anyway. Around the world we are seeing a mass extinction event taking place and biodiversity offsetting does not seem to be making any difference.

The devil is in the detail

The lesson here is that great care needs to be applied to the establishment of any zero sum policy game. It needs to be transparent, accountable and enforceable. And it cannot be applied merely as cover for business as usual to proceed without any checks and balances.

Economic activity that generates positive carbon emissions (ie, above zero) needs to be accountable for matching these emissions with activities elsewhere that generate negative carbon emissions (ie, activities that remove carbon).

Governments oversee this process and need to establish robust and transparent frameworks that keep track of these activities and their emissions, and report this tracking in a clear and simple way so everyone has faith in the system. To sustain this faith, the monitoring and measurement will need to be independent of government; something along the lines of what Zali Stegall recommended in her climate bill.

A lot of thought will need to go into how you trade emissions across time (eg, savings emissions today to pay for extra emissions in the future) and space (eg, buying emissions savings from another country for an emission heavy activity in our own backyard).

While the law surrounding such net zero policies will be enacted at the national level, it’s likely this game will involve the trading of positive and negative emissions between countries so the net zero frameworks will need to operate with agreed international norms.

The System of Environmental-Economic Accounts is one existing framework that might help with all of these issues.

Maybe net zero emissions is a policy pathway that might engage opposing political forces, something that efforts to date have failed to do. However, to transform the call for zero net emissions by 2050 into workable and effective policy, much effort will need to go into creating intuitions that will hold governments to account and prevent them from fudging the figures.

Image: the cover of the UN Emissions Gap Report for 2019

*According to the UN Emissions Gap Report for 2019, most emissions — 78%— come from the top 20 economies, the G20. Of these, only five had pledged to long-term zero net targets (and this did not include the three big emitters: China, the US and India). Around 70 countries worldwide have made pledges of being carbon neutral by 2050.

Dawn of the new normal(?)

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Is this a wakeup call we will heed? Or is it just more false light?

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

Was it when the rising seas swept away the last little native rat (a creature known as a melomys) from a tiny coral cay off the northern tip of Australia around ten years ago? This was reported as the first species extinction directly attributed to climate change.

Or was it Black Saturday, 7 February 2009, when devastating bushfires in Victoria killed 173 people causing everyone to acknowledge that more intense wildfires could no longer be resisted.

Or was it in 2007 when our Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, declared climate change to be ‘the greatest moral challenge’ of our time (noting he was then displaced by a Prime Minister who claims climate change is ‘absolute crap’).

Or was it this Australian summer, dubbed by our current coal-loving Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to be our ‘Black Summer’? He then declared that we need to prepare for a ‘new normal’.

Of course, climate change has been impacting Australia for decades*, but it’s only been biting us with real venom in recent years. Unfortunately, rather than stimulate a significant, systematic and meaningful response, climate-change impact so far seems to have only galvanised the culture wars, entrenched the status quo and perpetuated inaction.

Scorched coral

To my mind, the inescapable consequences of ignoring climate change surfaced in the summer of 2016 with the mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. It destroyed around a third of the reef’s hard corals. It was then followed but another mass bleaching in 2017 destroying another third. The bleaching was caused by high water temperatures associate with global warming.

Of course, I say ‘inescapable’ because a larger more graphic example of the impacts of climate change would be harder to find; and it was an impact entirely predicted and widely communicated by a broad range of scientists. What’s more, those impacts came with severe economic, social and policy implications (in terms of World Heritage obligations) all of which had me believing this event would actually make a difference. (2016 also saw the massive loss of mangroves and kelp forests but these collapses didn’t carry the same direct human connection. They weren’t as visible, either.)

In the past we’ve discussed the importance of shocks and crises in breaking policy deadlocks. And I really thought the coral bleaching episodes might be a tipping point that might overturn our climate-change inaction. But I was sorely disappointed. Far-right, populist pollies like Pauline Hanson said the reef was in fine form, while holding up a piece of healthy coral from a portion of the reef unaffected by the bleaching; the Government said their policy settings were fine, while government agencies were putting out status reports describing the reef’s outlook as very poor; and fear campaigns on the possibility of losing regional mining jobs in Queensland outweighed concerns for the reef and led to the re-election of a conservative government with no effective policy for climate change.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of my incredulity, the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, a guy named Col McKenzie, urged the Federal Government to stop funding marine biologists because their reports on coral bleaching were “harming the tourism industry”.

The summer of 2016 (and 2017) left me somewhat desolate. If the ongoing death of Australia’s most beloved and precious ecosystem wasn’t a sufficiently powerful wake up call, what was?

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

I was sad about the ecological implications of the mass bleaching (and what it portends for the economically important eco-tourism industry of Queensland); but, truth to tell, it didn’t directly affect my quality of life.

The Black Summer of 2019/20, on the other hand, has shaken me to the core. In addition to scorching forests and beaches dear to my heart, it’s trashed the economies of regional towns where I know people; it’s battered the life out of the city in which I reside; indeed it’s poisoned the very air that I breathe. I’m also bracing myself for a set of dramatically increased insurance premiums on policies I’m already struggling to sustain.

All that has happened this past summer has been predicted by our climate scientists and climate workers (such as emergency service agencies). All of this has largely been discounted by our national government for most of the past decade.

But never before have so many Australian’s been hurt by so many climate extremes over such a large area and over such an extended period; nearly 80% of Australians according to a new survey. First it was drought, then wildfire (and smoke), flood, storms and hail.

Summer is almost over (according to the calendar) and it can’t come soon enough. ‘What else could go wrong,’ I asked myself. And, then, last night as I was closing down I spied an emerging story on the news wire – another wave of coral bleaching is hitting the Great Barrier Reef as temperature levels surge above average. Indeed, it could be even more extensive than the 2016/17 episodes.

In the next month we’ll see the extent of this bleaching event but it’s not looking good.

The new normal

In environmental terms, the ‘new normal’ has been with us for over half a century. Earth systems scientists have long been warning that the impact of humans on this planet has pushed our ‘spaceship Earth’ into a new way of behaving. Our activities are now distorting our planet’s very capacity to provide us with the stable habitat we need. Many refer to this as the Anthropocene.

This Black Summer is but a foretaste of the conditions we will need to endure in the summers ahead; summers that will likely be far blacker than this one past.

Our Prime Minister presents this new normal as merely a management issue, a need to organise our response agencies a bit better; so they can act with greater co-ordination if, god forbid, we should ever again see fires as bad as this seasons. He’s called a royal commission and seems to be looking among other things for a recommendation for new laws so that the Federal Government can declare states of emergency, call out the army and so forth without needed a request from the States,

But he’s not questioning our nation’s inadequate carbon emission targets or making any effort to show leadership to address the unsustainable trajectory our species is on. His ‘new normal’, then, is really just a minor iteration on the ‘old normal’. It simply isn’t going to do the job.

A new light of day?

A growing segment of the community is coming to this same conclusion. The student protests of last year, prior to the Black Summer, were suggesting the status quo may be breaking down. And the impact of these recent months may, finally, be the catalyst for genuine action.

And though I was upset over the lack of action following the bleaching events of 2016/17, the ‘truth’ they spoke about what is unfolding around us was heard by many, even those recalcitrant lobbyists for the reef tourism. Col McKenzie was much derided for suggesting marine biologists were the problem (rather than climate change). But he changed his tune. Following that episode he said it is time “to take a more public stance” on climate change.

“It was the bleaching events in 2016-17 that drove the message home,” he said. He added that it was reluctance within his 11-member board – particularly from tour operators who refused to accept ‘man-made’ climate change – that had restricted his own ability to speak out in the past. But those climate-change deniers have largely gone quiet, he said. “They realise it’s bullshit and we can’t be continuing it.”

So if the bleaching events of 2016/17 belatedly convinced this cohort of deniers, maybe there is reason to believe our Black Summer may belatedly raise the nation to action.

*Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Climate deniers will often suggest we don’t know enough or the jury is still out or it’s only an emerging science but the truth is the science has been around for over a century and the evidence confirming it has been conclusive since the 1970s – that’s 50 years ago! For an excellent guide to this history see the very readable ‘Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change’ in the New York Times.

Image: Bushfire smoke filters the sun in late January 2020. Image by David Salt