Silver bullets only work in fairy tales so don’t make them policy priorities for climate change

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Simple solutions for complex problems don’t exist and it’s dangerous to think they do

By David Salt

The Morrison Government is placing enormous faith in silver bullets to solve Australia’s biggest challenges. And that should worry every Australian because silver bullets are based on faith, not evidence.

Consider, for starters, their underwhelming response to the corona pandemic.

Simple solutions for complex issues

First they told us (sold us) a covid app would be our passport to living free. If enough people signed up to it, they promised, it would be the key to unlocking our economy. Costing millions of dollars to develop and promote, the COVIDSafe app was indeed supported by most Australians but, unfortunately, it quickly sank without a trace as its promise of infection tracing proved hollow.

Then they reckoned AstraZeneca would be a silver-bullet vaccine enabling an exit from pandemic living, and they put all their (and our) eggs into the AZ basket. So sure of this were they that they supported the production of AstraZeneca in Australia ensuring there would be no supply line issues. And, because they were so confident in the AZ fix, they turned their back on the Pfizer vaccine when it was offered to Australia mid last year.

Unfortunately for the government (and all Australians), the AZ vaccine had a rare blood-clotting side effect (limiting who could get it) and it wasn’t as effective against COVID variants. The Pfizer vaccine, on the other hand, came up trumps but we hardly had any. The consequences of this are playing out as I write this.

There was never going to be a simple solution to the COVID pandemic – too many variables, too many things changing over time, too many fallible humans acting in irrational ways – and we really should never have expected one. But we SO hoped for one, and that’s what politicians excel at – selling hope.

They sold us fool-proof technology, gold-standard tracing and guaranteed vaccine solutions without risk, and we wanted to believe it was true. But, as American journalist Henry Mencken described it: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” And how wrong have we been so far in this pandemic.

The biggest silver bullet

But the biggest silver bullet being deployed by the Morrison Government is their promise that climate change will be easily solved by “technology not taxes.”

This isn’t even a ‘real’ silver bullet but some ambiguous future aspiration held up to convince voters that they (we) don’t have to worry about climate change; we don’t have to change or sacrifice how we live (symbolised by the term ‘raising taxes’) because science and technology will come to our rescue. A simple sales pitch to solve a massive and complex problem. And though it’s not credible, it’s a sales pitch that had wide resonance at the last national election where the price of responding to climate change was front and centre but the cost of ignoring it was largely ignored.

Of course the phrase ‘this isn’t even a real silver bullet’ is problematic in itself. That’s because ‘silver bullets’ aren’t real. They are a weapon from folklore, a means of killing werewolves (or in some fairy tales, witches). Given their mythical value, the term has become a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical and conclusive solution to a difficult and diabolical problem, like killing a powerful werewolf.

Given our politicians predilections for selling hope, silver bullets are their weapon of choice. Just keep in mind they aren’t real.

Beyond the fact that they’re mythical and don’t work, the problems associated with believing in silver-bullet solutions are legion. High up on the list are self-deception, lost opportunity cost and wasted time.

Dangerous on so many levels

If you buy into the belief that climate change can be fixed with a silver bullet – like say geoengineering a planetary heat shield to bring down temperature – than you’re deceiving yourself that you understand climate change. Instead of seeing our planet as a massively complex system you’re accepting the notion that the environment is a simple thing with knobs that humans can twiddle to optimise conditions. This is a dangerous self-deception held by some of the world’s most powerful people (who like to think they are in control). Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, is a proponent of geoengineering and once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem”.

And if we prioritise our limited resources to develop these silver bullet solutions because we’re kidding ourselves about the nature of the problem, then we’re not investing in the many capacities we need to stay resilient in a changing world. Believing in a quick fix, a magical solution that solves the issue without wholesale change, means we don’t have to tackle the deep, multi-scaled dimensions of the problem. If you can convince the electorate, for example, that pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere will keep the Earth cool, we stop investing in all the other things we should be doing in bringing down carbon emissions at all levels of society (which might explain why the fossil fuel sector is quite keen on geoengineering fixes).

Failing to acknowledge the real nature of the problem and investing in the wrong solution is obviously not a winning policy formulation, and this will eventually be apparent (in the long run Nature can’t be fooled). Unfortunately, by then the problem is usually worse, the damage often irreversible and addressing the issue a lot more expensive. If we opt for geoengineering solutions to climate change, following the same example, we may well be investing in silver bullets that use up what time we have to steer humanity away from the yawning abyss of climate breakdown. Indeed, it has been shown that the cooling effects of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere by natural events (eg, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1993) are short lived. They last a year or two then the heating trend caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions returns to its original trajectory as if the cooling effect had never occurred.

Firing silver bullets at coral

Consider the consequences of relying on silver bullets to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s recently endured three mass bleaching events from rising water temperatures. The scientific consensus is that the Great Barrier Reef is cactus if humanity can’t radically reduce carbon emissions.

The Australian Government has devoted its energies to blocking UNESCO’s efforts to declare the reef ‘in danger’ while telling the world we’re the world’s best reef managers. It’s promoting and investing in technological solutions such as identifying heat tolerant coral species that can cope with increased temperatures, cloud brightening (a form of geoengineering) to reduce the temperature of the sun, and even massive water fans to promote mixing and bring down water temperatures.

While I am sure there is merit in all of these investigations, they don’t address the central issue of climate change and increasing temperatures, and they won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. They are silver bullets deployed by the government to convince the electorate that a magical solution exists for a diabolical problem. And the solutions they are promoting (as the world’s best reef managers) don’t involve voters having to change behaviour or a need for the economy to be restructured.

The cost in believing in these silver bullets (above and beyond that they won’t work) is a failure to acknowledge what the real problem is, a diversion of resources away from solutions that do address the challenge, and the loss of critical years during which the Reef slips further and further into irreversible decline.

Myths

The metaphor of silver bullets is now firmly part of the political lexicon. Next time you hear it being invoked, ask where the werewolves are and then remind the speaker that simple solutions to complex problems are simply myths.

Image by illusion-X from Pixabay

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

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By David Salt

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

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

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

Hating koalas

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

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

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

‘Charismatic’ wins every time

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

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

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

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

We made a difference (?)

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

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

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

The political reflex

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

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

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

Better conservation policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of control with a smidgen of humility

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We do so much better when we acknowledge we aren’t in control

By David Salt

The wealthier a country or an individual household, the less concerned they were toward the seriousness of climate change. So concluded French and Australian researchers reviewing survey data from 10,000 households in 11 OECD countries. They hypothesized that richer households (and countries) are less concerned about climate change because wealth provides a buffer against some of the related risks. This leads people in wealthier countries and households to perceive a greater sense of control over climate change impacts, which in turn results in lower levels of concern.

Pretty disturbing, huh?

And yet it’s quite in keeping with Australia’s laggardly response to the growing spectre of climate change. Coral reefs can bleach and biodiversity can collapse but, as a developed nation, we continue to elect conservative governments that turn their back on climate change using misleading arguments about the cost of climate action on the economy (misleading and dishonest because it never factors in the cost of not acting – but that would involve listening to the science!). Whereas our poorer Pacific neighbours are very concerned about climate change and begging for us to do more yet we happily ignore them and their concerns.

And yet, in recent years the threat (and reality) of not being in control has brought out the best in many Australians (just not so much in our national government).

A Black Summer

Australians have considerable experience with bushfires but the fire season of 2019/20 – our Black Summer – was of a scale without precedent. The forest ecosystems along our eastern seaboard all went up in flames, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Prior to this fiery catastrophe, an eminent group of retired emergency workers pleaded with the government to take heed of the climate science, predicting a catastrophic fire season was just around the corner; but they were ignored.

“Don’t tell us what to do,” our national government effectively said. “We’re in control, we’ve got it covered.” Of course, as events were to show, they didn’t.

There was enormous loss of property and life; although given the intensity and scale of the conflagration mercifully few people perished when compared to earlier wildfires (173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday fire of 2009 as compared to 34 throughout the much bigger Black Summer period).

Indeed, it was the tragedy of the 2009 Black Saturday event that changed our national mindset to how we approach big wildfires. The hard truth of these fires is that they can’t be managed and when they occur the priority has to be saving life and getting out.

To my mind, the brutal savagery of the Black Summer was a wakeup call to our national identity. We’re not actually in control, and we should set our priorities accordingly.

The silver lining

We were still licking our wounds from the fires when a new uncontrollable menace began rolling around the world at the beginning of 2020 in the form of a novel corona virus, slaying the sick and aged in its wake.

Overseas, every populist leader who downplayed the threat of CoVid 19 in order to keep their economies chugging along (think Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Duterte) invited mass death into their populations with legacies still to be reckoned. A sense of superiority and control mixed with a fair degree of libertarian dismissal about the fate of others proved to be a fertile pasture for an incredibly infectious and highly lethal disease.

Back here we watched unfolding events with an uncharacteristic humility and respect for science. We had just been defeated by an environmental disturbance that had scorched the nation, and we demanded our leaders to do more than pay lip service to the science of epidemiology. We also acknowledged that we were all in this together, as we had done during the Black Summer, and that everyone needed to do their part.

Combine this with our island status and a modular federal constitution that enabled state governments to block internal movement, and Australia was the poster child of the pandemic. We eliminated the virus on our shores and the government dropped its ideological control and spent up big to keep the economic home-fires going.

However, in a globalised world, no country is an island, even if it occupies one. In Australia we saw multiple breaches of our quarantine defences as people returned from overseas. Victoria’s second wave was a massive wakeup call that this virus needed to be taken seriously and, again, as a nation we observed the rules (even when it meant constraining our personal liberties), trusted the judgements of our science experts and we prevailed. This thing was bigger than any individual regardless of their wealth, so we pulled together and responded well to the scientific evidence.

Victoria has now undergone two more lockdowns (we’re currently in the fourth). It is telling the nation again and again, we are not in control. And our response has been good.

Contrast that with India’s crippling outbreak when their leaders decided they had beaten the bug and declared business as usual prematurely. India, an emerging superpower, has been hobbled; it will likely never be the same again.

Giving up control

Giving up control is never easy, be it as a government with a strong ideological focus or individuals with a strong belief in their own wealth and personal freedoms. However, sometimes circumstances in the form of massive disturbances make giving up control not only possible but the desirable thing to do. Most recently we’ve seen it in the Black Summer and the pandemic, but examples of giving up control go back to the beginning of civilisation.

Researchers from Germany Italy have just published an analysis of studies on Mesopotamian civilisations that demonstrates that severe droughts actually led to society’s elites giving up control in order that their societies might cope better during these environmental crises. They showed that severe drought actually stimulated greater levels of cooperation between political elites and non-elites, and led to the development of important institutional processes that can still be seen in our societies today.

Incurable optimists (and most politicians) will often say every crisis is an opportunity. Australia, with its highly variable climate, seems to slip from environmental crisis to crisis. Maybe to really make the most of these events we need a smidgen of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not in control. If we could achieve this, then maybe we’d learn, adapt and prosper in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

We’ve shown we do well when we pull together, when the chips are down. Let’s hope our recent experiences with fire and contagion will enable us to sustain that humility long into the future.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

Words are cheap, but conservation is expensive

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The new Threatened Species Strategy is big on rhetoric and small on resources.

By Peter Burnett

What is it the Government is trying to achieve with its new Threatened Species Strategy? It’s stated aim, as its title suggests, is saving threatened species. However, if you consider the evidence it’s hard not to conclude its real aim is something very different.

Saving species

Several years ago, Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne and his colleagues published a study, Spending to save: What will it cost to halt Australia’s extinction crisis?, which found that, based on US expenditure, Australia would need to spend something between $910 million and $1.7 billion per year to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species.

This was roughly 7 to 14 times the $122 million that federal and state governments were spending each year between them on threatened species recovery. In other words, on a median figure, we’re spending around 10% of what is needed.

If you think that’s a lot, argued the authors, Australians spend twice as much on pet care. In fact, as Professor Wintle explained recently to a Senate Committee, it’s about the same as Australians spend on pet trinkets – diamanté collars and the like. [

What price the new threatened species strategy?

Last week, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley released the Australian Government’s new 10 year Threatened Species Strategy. According to the minister, this new strategy builds on the momentum of the first strategy, which was launched in 2015.

It’s not easy to tie actions under these strategies to expenditure, as successive governments have worked hard to make evaluation and thus accountability difficult. However, in the recent 2021-22 Budget the Government announced $18 million to protect ‘iconic’ threatened marine species such as turtles and seabirds, and $29.1 million to protect native species from invasive pests.

The Budget papers don’t break these particular figures down over the four year period that is generally used for budget funding, but on average that’s an extra $11.8m per year, roughly a 10% increase on the $122 million figure from the Wintle et al study or an extra 1% of what is needed. That’s very small beer.

The strategy will be underpinned by consecutive five year action plans, which are intended to identify priority spaces and places, along with ‘concrete actions and practical, measurable targets to assess progress’. The first action plan is in preparation.

A little history

Before releasing the new strategy, the Government released a discussion paper, in October 2020. The discussion paper described the previous strategy, which had concluded four months earlier, but gave no information on how successful the completed strategy had been.

It simply stated that the Threatened Species Commissioner was ‘working on a final report which will present a robust, evidence-based analysis of progress against these 2020 targets’.

Now, some seven months later, we have a new strategy, but still no evaluation on the previous one. So we don’t know if the new strategy addresses the failings of the old.

Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen before, with Australia’s overarching national biodiversity strategy as well: roll out the new strategy without evaluating the old. This conveniently avoids unnecessary embarrassment about poor performance, or, perhaps worse, the inability even to measure performance.

Anyone who contributed to developing the strategy would have had to make do with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s annual progress reports, which include extremely general statements such as the Year 3 report that ‘eleven of these targets were met, four were partially met and six were unmet’ and the Year 4 headline that ‘we continued work to support all targets, with a sharpened focus on those the year 3 report identified as needing greater effort’.

A little strategy

So now we have new strategy, but it’s all high level stuff, broad descriptions on problems and approaches that few could disagree with, such as the vision that ‘Australia’s threatened species are valued, protected and on the path to recovery’.

We do know that, responding to stakeholder comments, the new strategy has been broadened to add reptiles, frogs, insects and fish to the priority birds, mammals and plants identified in the first Strategy. And that it will include marine and freshwater species, as well as terrestrials.

The strategy also includes a new focus on ‘priority places’ to ‘expand the new Strategy’s influence across our land and seascapes’. These priority places will include sites where threat mitigation and habitat protection efforts will benefit multiple species and ecological communities.

The strategy will also expand the number of key action areas to focus Australian Government efforts to landscape-scale actions, including major threats like weeds and diseases.

The devil’s in the detail

As to the detail, well that’s coming in the first action plan, development of which will commence in June; ie, 12 months after the last plan expired. This delay in dealing with such an urgent problem doesn’t fill one with confidence.

But we know that the action plan will cover at least 100 priority species and 20 priority places. There will be a continued focus on feral cats and a new focus on invasive pests and weeds.

We also know that the action plan will attempt to foster greater community engagement through citizen science and partnerships between First Nations people, business and non-government organisations.

Forgive my cynicism, but references to partnerships with business and the like are often code for Government attempts to avoid responsibility and share blame. It reminds me of the statement in our national biodiversity strategy that ‘caring for nature is the shared responsibility of all Australians’.

But one problem is already apparent: the broader the plan the more thinly the meagre available resources are likely to be spread, because I can’t see the government suddenly turning on the money taps. (At least not in a properly targeted way. As I discussed in an earlier blog, the government announced a $100m Environmental Restoration Fund just before the last election, and then promptly committed most of it through election announcements, without any expert advice as to how this money might best be spent.)

What’s the real strategy?

From a policy point of view, there is a complete disconnect between the size of the problem (enormous) and the approach to the solution (narrow focus, tiny resources). Governments are not irrational; when they do something that seems irrational it’s usually because they are actually solving a different problem.

In this case, I think the problem they are solving is the political problem of being seen to be doing something credible about a problem that they either don’t acknowledge or don’t want to engage with.

On that logic, the recipe of conferring the title of Threatened Species Commissioner on a public servant; engaging stakeholders in lots of consultation; producing a glossy strategy and sprinkling a little money around looks quite good to me.

Unfortunately, unless and until there’s a real groundswell of concern among voters about biodiversity loss, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.

Banner image: The Endangered cassowary is threatened by a loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease. Recovering just this species alone requires serious resources. (Image by Jessica Rockeman from Pixabay)

Dead in the water

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

An ill-fated Royal Commission

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

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

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

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

A very angry book

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need more angry books

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

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

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

Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

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By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

‘Standards’ in name only?

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The government’s National Environmental Standards don’t do what you might expect

By Peter Burnett

Last month the federal government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 (the Standards and Assurance Bill).

The Standards and Assurance Bill is a follow-on to an earlier bill (the Streamlining Bill), which I’ve written about before (see Red Lines for Green Values).

The Streamlining Bill would amend the EPBC Act to ‘streamline’ environmental decision-making by enabling development approvals, following environmental impact assessment, to be devolved to states and territories. This idea used to be called the ‘one-stop shop’ approach but the government now calls it ‘single-touch approvals’.

The Standards and Assurance Bill provides for National Environmental Standards; it also establishes an independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner, tasked mainly with monitoring and auditing decision-making by states under devolved arrangements.

The standards should set hard environmental bottom lines, but if this bill goes through, they won’t. More on this in a minute, but first a little context.

Where are we going with this?

The government presents both bills as first steps in responding to the comprehensive reforms recommended by Professor Graham Samuel in his 2020 Independent Review of the EPBC Act.

While it is true that Professor Samuel envisaged the devolution of development approvals to the states as part of his reform package, it is quite a stretch to argue that these two bills are the first steps of a comprehensive reform process, for several reasons.

The most significant reason is that the government has not tabled a response to the Samuel Review and so we have no idea what the government’s environmental reform agenda is, if indeed it has one.

If these two bills are the first steps, then they are steps towards a secret, perhaps even unknown, destination. All we know about the government’s intentions is that its policy narrative on environmental reform has rarely strayed beyond its ‘cutting-green-tape’ mantra of regulatory efficiency.

Stuck in the Senate

But back to the two bills. The Streamlining Bill got stuck in the Senate after three crucial cross-benchers opposed it, not because they were fundamentally opposed to devolution, but because they wanted to be satisfied that devolved approvals would be made properly.

At that point, in November 2020, the government had tabled neither the Samuel Review, nor the template for bilateral agreements setting out accreditation arrangements. In other words, it was asking the Parliament to take it on trust (see Trust us? Well let’s look at your record.)

The government then introduced the Standards and Assurance Bill in February 2021. Environment minister Sussan Ley presented the Bill as a step in the reform process but, in the absence of a broader vision from the government, it’s hard not to see the Bill as an attempt to get the Streamlining Bill over the line by responding to cross bench concerns.

At first blush, the Standards and Assurance Bill does advance two key recommendations from Professor Samuel.

The problem is, that’s all it does. It’s very concerning that the government is resorting to a piecemeal approach to legislative reform.

With yet more horrific environmental news emerging in recent weeks (see ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing), the government’s approach is mystifying: they just don’t seem to get how urgent the need for action is, or don’t want to.

When is a standard not a standard?

As to the Standards and Assurance Bill itself, it’s the provisions on the standards that worry me.

In fact, I don’t think the ‘standards’ are standards at all. If standards for decisions are set by law, you’d be forgiven for expecting that an environmental approval that failed to meet the standards would automatically be invalid and that an interested party could get a court decision to that effect.

Not so with these standards. Here, compliance with standards will be a subjective question for the decision-maker. And the question will not be about compliance, but inconsistency. In other words, the question for the federal environment minister, or an accredited state decision-maker, won’t be ‘have I complied with the standard?’ but ‘in my opinion, is this decision not inconsistent with the standards?’

Because the question of inconsistency is made a matter of opinion, the courts will tend to uphold any decision based on that opinion, provided there is a rationality of some sort to it, because the courts are extremely reluctant to substitute their opinion for that of a statutory decision-maker.

This is particularly the case when one reads on in the bill and discovers that, in forming her or his opinion about inconsistency, the decision-maker can have regard to federal or state policy, plans, programs or spending decisions, indeed anything that might conceivably be relevant.

Lowering the bar

This opens up a giant back door to ‘trade-off’ decisions, the very antithesis of meeting standards.

The explanatory memorandum tabled by the government gives the example of a decision-maker approving impacts on the values of a National Heritage place if those impacts are ‘balanced by mechanisms that promote those values (which may, for example, be delivered through funding of activities by a state relating to the promotion of those values)’.

I have my own examples, hypothetical of course.

The federal environment minister might decide that a decision to demolish part of the Australian War Memorial (a National Heritage place) is ‘balanced’ by a government decision to spend a lot of money on building a new exhibition hall. Thus a standard that says the fabric of heritage buildings should be conserved could be met by demolishing some of that fabric!

Or a state minister might decide that the loss of a population of a critically endangered species is ‘balanced’ by an investment in research on the species, even if the standard says that all populations of critically endangered species should be maintained.

Note that these ‘balancing’ decisions would not required to comply with federal offsets policy, even though they are offsets by another name. So the bill opens a possible reduction in standards.

And just in case a nervous state decision-maker thought they couldn’t come up with a ‘balancing’ state policy, plan, program or spending decision (hardly likely), they can apply to the federal minister for an exemption in the ‘public interest’! Perhaps states will resort to this if they want to approve a controversial development and shift the environmental blame to Canberra!

But wait, there’s more

As if this wasn’t enough, the minister said in her second reading speech that the initial set of standards would reflect the existing EPBC Act, ie she will ignore the standards recommended by Professor Samuel, even though she’s had them since 30 October last year. The problem with the existing standards is that they are all either process driven, or so broad that only the most extreme decision would contravene them.

Moreover, once the states are accredited under existing standards, they, and development interests, can be expected to push back hard against any proposals to tighten the standards, probably relying on arguments about moving the goal posts and costing jobs.

Standards in name only

It all boils down to this: if the Standards and Assurance Bill is passed, the standards we will get will be standards in name only. They won’t be a step forward, but backwards.

Cross-benchers looking to be satisfied that devolved approvals would protect the environment are surely facing disappointment.

Postscript: The Senate Environment and Communications Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the Standards and Assurance Bill. Submissions are due by 25 March. See: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Protectionandbiocon

Image by Alain Audet from Pixabay

Gambling with Australia’s future – casinos before unis?

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Building a resilient future requires supporting our higher education sector

By David Salt

Australia’s university sector has been hit hard by the CoVID pandemic. The Government’s response has been to look the other way. The Government claims it wants to build a resilient future, but then it does nothing when our unis, which lie at the heart of our nation’s research, higher education and innovation infrastructure, are crippled by the closing of our national borders.

Down by 99.7%

Of course, closing our borders was necessary to manage this horrific pandemic but it also prevents international students from attending and enrolling in our institutions of higher learning, institutions which now depend on that money stream to operate.

According to Peter Hurley from Victoria University, in October 2019 almost 51,000 new and returning international students arrived in Australia. In October 2020, following the lockdown, this figure had fallen by 99.7% — to just 130!

Australia’s universities could lose $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023 according to new modelling by Universities Australia.

To much applause, the Government set up Job Keeper to help employers hold onto workers and shore up the economy as the CoVID lockdown bit hard. For some reason, universities were left out of this equation.

Crown Casino, for example, received $115 million in Job Keeper payments in the first four months of the scheme while the university sector received zero.

As economist Ross Garnaut (from the University of Melbourne) recently pointed out in The Australian Financial Review, Crown Casinos employed 15,000 people compared with 130,000 in universities (though unis contribute indirectly to hundreds of thousands more jobs). That’s right, the disgraced gambling behemoth Crown Casino is seen as a more worthy recipient of taxpayer’s dollars than our respected university sector.

Garnaut also noted the Biden administration’s initial CoVID stimulus package to Congress included a $US35 billion funding boost to the higher education sector, the equivalent of $3.6 billion to the Australian sector.

So why the enmity towards universities from our conservative national government? According to Gavin Moodie at RMIT University there are many reasons for this lack of support – cultural, ideological and structural. And it has manifested itself in many forms in the past from interfering with supposedly independent grant processes, rejecting peer-reviewed science on climate change and attacking universities when they seek to divest themselves of fossil fuel interests.

And now, when a global disturbance in the form of a pandemic threatens to rip asunder our economy and society, the Government finds a new way to disabling the university sector’s capacity to function; by ignoring it.

Navigating an uncertain future

The future looks increasingly uncertain. A resilient society would be investing in learning, experimentation and adaptation, all capacities cultivated and made available to the broader society via the university sector. Leaving this sector to wither is tantamount to nobbling our nation’s capacity to navigate through an uncertain future, to prosper in an age of rising disturbance. It simply doesn’t make sense.

That our national Government boasts at every turn how our success in this time of pandemic is because their policy is ‘science led’ is just doubling down on their hypocrisy. As with their stance on climate change, they cherry pick whatever information suits their short term political advantage. (I’m firmly of the belief that our nations’ success in containing the pandemic had more to do with luck and our exposure to the existential threat of the wildfires of the Black Summer than our governments listening to the science.)

In any event, the ‘science’ they listen to and fund is the science they believe feeds most directly into their own electoral fortunes. Medical science trumps environmental science, and always has (regardless of the complexion of the government).

If you’re in any doubt about this, check out the ‘quick guide’ to university research released by the Australian Parliamentary Library last month. It explains how Australian universities resource research activities. Based on key Australian Government data, it sets out the major sources and distribution of university research funding.

It shows, for example, that medical and health sciences get 30.6% of the available funding (in 2018) but environmental sciences gets only 3.5%; and this breakdown is quite consistent over the past decade.

And ‘the regions’ get the short end of the stick (again)

The Library’s quick guide also reveals another piece of hypocritical posturing from the Coalition, the party that says it stands for regional Australia. It shows that the Group of Eight (Go8, Australia’s top eight universities, sometimes referred to as the ‘Sandstone’ universities) get two thirds of all available research funding while the other 35 regional unis battle it out for the remaining third. This is not an argument to redistribute the little funding that’s available; it’s a good reason to increase the overall funding.

A recent report from the Gonski Institute for Education (at the University of New South Wales) shows that regional Australia is doing woefully on basic primary school educational attainment. So the Government is failing many of their key constituents at both the beginning and the end of the educational and research spectrum.

That’s something our political leaders (of all persuasions) would do well to take note of. Rural and regional communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. What’s more, rural residents are waking up to this truth (as documented in recent research led by the University of Newcastle, one of those regional universities).

Another inconvenient truth for our Government to deal with as they gamble with our future.

@davidlimesalt

Image: The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest uni. Australia’s university sector is the keystone of our nation’s resilience, and it has been forsaken by our national government.

Red lines for green values

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What ‘standards’ are we prepared to accept in an overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws?

By Peter Burnett

When Professor Graeme Samuel’s Independent Review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) is tabled, which must occur by early February, we can expect to see recommendations for a complete overhaul of Australia’s national environment protection laws.

In an interim report in July, Samuel declared the EPBC Act to be a failure. Auditor-General Grant Hehir reached similar conclusions in his contemporaneous review of federal environmental approval processes under the same Act.

Despite having received the Samuel Review on 30 October, the Government continued to press a bill it had introduced in August to ‘streamline’ environmental approvals by devolving approval powers to the States in advance of the Review.

Professor Samuel had supported devolution in his interim report in July, but only in the context of a full reform package built on a foundation of his proposed National Environmental Standards.

A Senate Inquiry into the streamlining bill prompted key crossbench Senators to oppose it, not because they were necessarily opposed to devolution but because the government refused to provide them with the Samuel Review and other key supporting documents.

At the last moment, environment minister Sussan Ley provided the Inquiry, and thus all of us, with a copy of the draft Standards from the Samuel Report.

The draft Standards are the key to national environmental reform and thus worth a closer look, even without the benefit of the full Samuel Report.

Why set standards?

The standards deal with the so-called ‘matters of national environmental significance’ that are protected by the EPBC Act. Some of these like World Heritage and threatened species are well known. Others, such as internationally significant ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, are not.

Despite being confined to the Commonwealth’s responsibilities, the standards address the bulk of Australia’s most significant natural environmental and heritage values (other than climate), and have implications for the rest.

A key problem with many environment protection laws, including the EPBC Act, is that they require decision makers to follow due process and to consider various policies and principles (in Australia, often built around the concept of ‘ecologically sustainable development’) but without setting a bottom line based on maintaining essential environmental values and functions.

This enables a culture in which decision-makers can, and often do, pay lip service to the environment while approving its ongoing decline. Sometimes this lip service is paid by burdening industry with numerous ‘strict conditions’, thus delivering a ‘lose-lose’ outcome.

National Environmental Standards could change all that. Their key purpose is to set minimum environmental outcomes, including for decisions devolved to states.

A good set of environmental standards will identify our most important environment and heritage values and define the level of environmental function needed to maintain those values over time. The effect of standards is to place off-limits any deliberate degrading of these values and functions. One result is that significant or irreversible environmental loss cannot be traded for an economic or social gain, no matter how large, except possibly in national emergencies.

The Samuel Standards

Professor Samuel delivered a set of 10 national environmental standards, one overarching and one for each of nine matters of national environmental significance. The Standards would be relevant to activities and decisions at all scales but their most obvious application would be in assessing development proposals.

Apart from being innovative in themselves, the standards introduce policy concepts such as a ‘principle of non-regression’ and the ‘ecological feasibility’ of biodiversity offsets.

They also give new recognition to some not-so-new concepts such as the need to consider the impacts of development proposals on a cumulative basis. This would address a long-standing concern of environmentalists that individual developments chip away at environmental values, a process known colloquially as ‘the death of a thousand cuts’.

Addressing cumulative impacts implies there should be a bottom line for each species and ecosystem. To take a current example, it implies that government should determine a minimum viable habitat and population for koalas, probably for each population region. As this threshold of viability was approached, development approvals with koala impacts would become increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to obtain. (The corollary is that if the threshold has been crossed, investment in recovery and restoration is an imperitive).

The standards are certainly not perfect. In discussions within a consultative group of which I was a member, Professor Samuel made clear his dislike for ‘weasel words’, a dislike that I share.

Unfortunately, the standards retain too many of these undesirable creatures. Some, such as ‘promote’ and ‘not inconsistent with’ come from the existing Act, while others such as ‘all reasonable efforts’ are new.

There is much to welcome and discuss in these standards, but I would start with an edit. This would be for policy clarity, not drafting elegance.

Red lines for a green solution?

The standards present the Government with a conundrum. On the one hand, with the EPBC Act declared a failure and the environment in ongoing and increasingly obvious decline, the case for reform is overwhelming and the potential of the standards as a foundation for action is great.

On the other hand, implementing standards would require a major and costly upgrade of our regulatory infrastructure, starting with what Samuel has described as a ‘quantum shift’ in the availability of environmental information.

Setting standards would also amount to drawing red lines for nature. As the Brexit negotiations most-recently illustrate, red lines can attract a world of political pain.

Image by Shell brown from Pixabay

2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene

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Banking on yesterday’s ‘normal’ is the worst form of denial

By David Salt

As 2020 draws to a close everyone is praying for a return to ‘normal’. We crave free social (mask-less) interaction and we all want to go to the beach for a swim without fear of catastrophic bush fires. And we want to jump on a plane and head to exotic locations and not worry about our health. And we also want the economy to be strong so we and our children are gainfully employed.

None of this was available to us in 2020 but hopes are high for decent rain this summer (in Australia, anyway), and effective CoVID vaccines are being deployed so there are growing expectations that we may now be able to control the CoVID pandemic.

But does that mean a return to ‘normal’ is coming our way? Our political leaders would like you to believe it; and all the rhetoric is about firing up the economy so the good times can flow.

Three new reports on what climate change is doing to our environment, society and economy paint a very different picture.

Bye bye world heritage

Last week the IUCN released a sobering Outlook report on the condition and trajectory of the planet’s 252 natural World Heritage sites. It found that a third of these sites are being threatened by climate change.

The outlook for five Australian World Heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. The conservation outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from “significant concern” to “critical” – the most urgent status under the IUCN system. Of course, the GBR is in serious trouble having suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years during the 2019-20 (Black) summer.

Three years ago UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that under a business-as-usual emissions scenario all 29 coral-containing World Heritage sites would cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century.

Keep in mind that World Heritage status is only awarded to places of outstanding universal value and where national governments make commitments to protect those values. Australia acknowledges the existential threat that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef but still refuses to taken any meaningful action on reducing our own emissions, let alone campaigning for better emission reductions around the world. That contradiction makes my country a major convention abuser.

Hello health blues

And if the loss of our world’s most precious natural ecosystems doesn’t sober you up, then maybe the annual report from The Lancet on Health and Climate Change will. Among other things it found:

-there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades),

-that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019

-145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.

These numbers put CoVID impacts into the shade but our political leaders feel free to ignore them because they range over temporal and spatial scales that lie beyond their electoral timeframes.

However, as the authors of The Lancet report note: “We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.”

Adding up our sovereign climate risk

Mirroring The Lancet’s report but coming from the economic end of town, a new report from Four Twenty Seven (an affiliate of Moody’s) has assessed sovereign climate risk. Among other things it found:

-Heatwaves: Over 25% of the world’s population in 2040 could be in areas where the frequency and severity of hot days far exceeds local historical extremes, with negative implications for human health, labour productivity, and agriculture. In some areas of Latin America, climate change will expose 80-100% of agriculture to increased heat stress in 2040.

-Flooding: By 2040, the number of people exposed to damaging floods is predicted to rise from 2.2 billion to 3.6 billion people, or from 28% to 41% of the global population, with roughly $78 trillion, equivalent to about 57% of the world’s current GDP exposed to flooding.

-Tropical storms: Over half of the population in small island developing nations are exposed to either hurricanes and typhoons or coastal flooding amplified by sea level rise. In the United States and China alone, over $10 Trillion worth of GDP (PPP) is exposed to hurricanes and typhoons.

The new normal

These are just three reports in recent weeks. They are backed by hundreds of other reports, analyses and research programs from all sectors of society that have emerged throughout this year and over recent decades. And they all bear the same message – human induced climate change has disrupted the ‘normal’. The devastation of recent years is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Yes, we need action on carbon emissions today but we also need a real acknowledgement from our governments of what is happening around us.

In Australia we are led by a Conservative government that is in profound denial of what the ‘new normal’ means. They place their faith in technology to deliver an endlessly growing economy in which no-one needs to sacrifice a scintilla of their way of life – it’s win win all the way.

They believe the certainty of yesteryear will return with a few percentage points of extra productivity and maybe a slightly better resourced emergency services sector.

And this can be seen in their refusal to commit to zero net emissions by 2050. They claim they won’t make such a commitment till they fully understand its impact on economic growth, till they know its cost.

They believe their economic modelling of what lies over the event horizon is more robust and dependable than the hundreds and hundreds of evidence-based reports warning us of the impacts of the climate change today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

The economy of 2050 will be so totally different, both in form and function, to the economy of 2020 that our Government’s position of using future economic cost to defend its lack of action on climate change today is fatuous, abhorrent and immoral. It is a fundamental denial of everything that’s happening around us today.

(This implicit denial also frequently spills over into explicit statements of denial. Consider yesterday’s outburst from Australia’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt who castigated a climate change warning from the United Nations secretary-general as an inconsequential “grand statement”.)

A new niche for humanity

Our Government’s denial of what the new normal means for society leaves us vulnerable. They claim they are making Australia resilient, when in truth they are doing the opposite, leaving us exposed.

Humanity has changed the very Earth system and we are only just beginning to appreciate what life in the Anthropocene means.

Earlier this year a group of eminent Earth systems scientists asked what this new normal meant for humanity. They found that temperature increases over the coming 50 years will see the migration of 1 to 3 billion people. One of the scientists, Marten Scheffer, explains the logic behind this analysis in a short engaging YouTube clip.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war destabilised much of Europe. We still don’t know what lasting scars this migration event will have. Multiply that by a hundred, by a thousand, and the world looks quite a different place.

We live in challenging times with an uncertain future. To be better prepared for that future we need real, widespread and effective efforts to eliminate carbon emissions. But we also need our leaders to acknowledge that this world is changing, and that they (with us) need to work with that change, not deny it.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay