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

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

In the words of Kahneman

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

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

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

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

On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):

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

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

On ‘confidence’ (p212):

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

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

On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):

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

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

On being a successful scientist (p264):

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

My take: Scientists are human, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On dealing with rare events (p333)

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

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

On good decision making (p418)

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

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

Kahneman’s legacy

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

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

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

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

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

Elections are all about good marketing and good politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Thinking, fast and slow

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

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

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

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

** Amos Tversky

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

Banner image: ArtsyBee at Pixabay

International declarations and other environmental promises: A game for those who talk but don’t walk

By Peter Burnett

When is an international declaration on the environment worth the paper it’s printed on? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetorical question. Based on the way the Australian Government treats them, they’re not worth anything. Consider what we’ve recently said about forests and climate change.

When it comes to forests, Australia stands with Bolsonaro

I was a little taken aback when, at last November’s climate summit in Glasgow, Australia joined 140 other countries in signing the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

The declaration pledges to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and the signatories represent 85% of the globe’s forested land.

Surely this was great news!

Unfortunately, of course, it was too good to be true. Countries were playing the old environmental promises game again. All you have to do is sign up — no action required.

Even President Bolsonaro of Brazil had signed! The same Bolsonaro who has been widely condemned for accelerating the destruction of the Brazilian Amazon.

As a declaration, this document is not legally binding. It’s also full of weasel words like ‘sustainable land use’ and ‘opportunities … to accelerate action’.

And, of course, even if you cut down all the trees, it’s not deforestation … as long as you plant new ones!

Are they any more serious at the OECD?

More recently, environment ministers from OECD countries had one of their five-yearly (or so) pow-wows in Paris at the end of March. Australia’s minister Sussan Ley was one of the vice-chairs and of course the OECD Secretary-General, Australia’s own Mathias Cormann, was there to advise ministers in their deliberations.

The top agenda topics were climate and plastics and the meeting yielded a formal outcome, the OECD Declaration on a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All.

Now we’ll see some action, I thought — unlike the UN, the OECD regards ministerial declarations as legal instruments, having a ‘solemn character’, though in this case the declaration is not actually legally binding.

So, I thought (naively) if this is a solemn commitment they’ll have to act!

The declaration committed OECD countries to net-zero by 2050, ‘including through accelerated action in this critical decade with a view to keeping the limit of a 1.5°C temperature increase within reach’ (my emphasis).

You might think this would require Australia to increase the ambition of its ‘26-28% by 2030’ target, but I’m sure you’d be wrong.

The Australian Government would probably cite later words from the statement that ‘we underscore the need to pursue collective action’ to achieve the Paris Agreement. We’ll step up if everyone else does so first.

Alternatively, we might announce ‘accelerated action’ in December 2029. I’m sure the lawyers will come up with something to get us off the hook.

Ministers also committed to ‘strengthen our efforts to align COVID-19 recovery plans with environmental and climate goals to build a green, inclusive and resilient recovery for all.’ If you thought this would require Australia to increase its policy ambition and pursue a green recovery, again I think you would be wrong.

I expect the government would say (without hint of irony or embarrassment), that its stimulus efforts were already ‘green, inclusive and resilient’. Green is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

Plastic promises in Paris

Finally, ministers at the OECD pow wow committed to developing ‘comprehensive and coherent life cycle approaches to tackle plastic pollution’ and ‘promoting robust engagement in the intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024’.

Australia is on more solid ground here, as it has some genuine policy ambition on plastics. These were forced on it when China stopped all imports of plastics and other waste in 2018, including ours, but … it’s the result that counts!

And no doubt Australia is happy enough to commit to an objective of negotiating a convention on plastics over the next nearly-three years. After all, it’s only a process commitment.

Much of the rest of the declaration consisted of pious incantations or directions to the OECD bureaucracy to do more work on policy tools, data-gathering and the like. No problems here — apart from a few dollars to support the OECD machine, this work creates no obligations.

In terms of putting ‘walk’ over ‘talk’ (ie, actions over words), Paris rates just a little ahead of Glasgow. I’d give the Paris declaration 2 out of 10 and Glasgow 1.

Postcard from Mathias: feeling expansive in Paris

A couple of other things jumped out at me in reading the record of the OECD meeting in Paris.

How strange it is to my Australian ears to hear Mathias Cormann abandon his ‘tell-em-nothing, concede nothing’ Australian political style, in favour of spruiking the international environmental cause, even though he did so in very-OECD economistic terms. I’ve emphasised the interesting words:

Secretary-General, Mr. Mathias Cormann, stressed the importance of a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach to meeting the climate challenge. He set out key thoughts in this regard including the need to mainstream climate change across all areas, step up efforts on implementation, to secure real net reductions in emissions, mobilise investment and realign global flows towards the transition, the need for reliable data and monitoring, and the importance of enhancing efforts towards adaptation and managing losses and damages.

Esperanto anyone?

Of greater interest, the environment ministers had lunch with a group of business leaders. Emmanuel Faber, Chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and former CEO of Danone, a multinational food corporation based in Paris, stressed the need for:

a common language to understand the climate impact of portfolios, underlining this pivotal moment in developing such a common language that can guide decisions to align finance with environmental goals and avoid greenwashing (emphasis added)

We have such a common language in the form of the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA), adopted in 2012 and enhanced with a standard for Ecosystem Accounting in 2021.

In my view, what we really need is for governments to learn to speak it! (Reminded me of Esperanto — great idea, but a little lacking on the uptake)

While my main point has been to decry the dominance of talking over walking, in the case of environmental accounting, talking is walking!

Banner image: Vaunting ambitions declared in Paris amount to little back home.
(Image by GAIMARD at Pixabay)

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

By David Salt

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

Melt down

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

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

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

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

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

Blow up

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

And what caused this disaster?

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

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

Blow out

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

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

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

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

Integrity fail

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

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

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

Hollow credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chance Quiz – the Australian Government’s (non) response to queries on the environment

By Peter Burnett

With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’

As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.

Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.

For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.

This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).

More budget honesty please

One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.

Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.

But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.

For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.

Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.

Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!

The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?

So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?

Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)

Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!

State of the Environment Report

We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.

So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!

Environment Restoration Fund

In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.

The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.

My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?

Threatened species at warp speed

The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.

It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.

That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!

More disingenuous bundling

The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.

But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.

Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!

The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.

What prospects for change?

You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.

But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.

Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.

Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.

Hope springs eternal!

Banner image: Image by Mietzekatze at Pixabay.

Federal budget: $160 million for nature may deliver only pork and a fudge

By Peter Burnett

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s cash-splash budget has a firm eye on the upcoming federal election. In the environment portfolio, two spending measures are worth scrutinising closely.

First is a A$100 million round of the Environment Restoration Fund – one of several grants programs awarded through ministerial discretion which has been found to favour marginal and at-risk electorates.

Second is $62 million for up to ten so-called “bioregional plans” in regions prioritised for development. Environment Minister Sussan Ley has presented the measure as environmental law reform, but I argue it’s a political play dressed as reform.

It’s been more than a year since Graeme Samuel’s independent review of Australia’s environment law confirmed nature on this continent is in deep trouble. It called for a comprehensive overhaul – not the politically motivated tinkering delivered on Tuesday night.

A big barrel of pork?

The Environment Restoration Fund gives money to community groups for activities such as protecting threatened and migratory species, addressing erosion and water quality, and cleaning up waste.

The first $100 million round was established before the 2019 election. In March 2020 it emerged in Senate Estimates that the vast majority had been pre-committed in election announcements. In other words, it was essentially a pork-barelling exercise.

The grants reportedly had no eligibility guidelines and were given largely to projects chosen and announced as campaign promises – and mostly in seats held or targeted by the Coalition.

Given this appalling precedent, the allocation of grants under the second round of the fund must be watched closely in the coming election campaign.

A tricky Senate bypass

Australia’s primary federal environment law is known as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Under provisions not used before, the need for EPBC Act approval of developments such as dams or mines can be switched off if the development complies with a so-called “bioregional plan”.

Bioregions are geographic areas that share landscape attributes, such as the semi-arid shrublands of the Pilbara.

In theory, bioregional plans deliver twin benefits. They remove the need for federal sign-off — a state approval will do the job – and so eliminate duplication. And national environmental interests are maintained, because state approvals must comply with the plans, which are backed by federal law.

But the government’s record strongly suggests it’s interested only in the first of these benefits.

Since the Samuel review was handed down, the government has largely sought only to remove so-called “green tape” – by streamlining environmental laws and reducing delays in project approvals.

Bills to advance these efforts have been stuck in the Senate. Now, the government has opted to fund bioregional plans which, as an existing mechanism, avoid Senate involvement.

Meanwhile, the government has barely acted on the myriad other problems Samuel identified in his review of the law, releasing only a detail-light “reform pathway”.

A rod for the government’s back?

Ironically, bioregional plans may create more problems for the government than they solves.

First, the surveys needed to prepare the plans are likely to spotlight the regional manifestations of broad environmental problems, such as biodiversity loss.

And the EPBC Act invites the environment minister to respond to such problems in the resulting plans. This implies spelling out new investments or protections – challenging for the government given its low policy ambition.

The federal government would also need to find state or territory governments willing to align themselves with its environmental politics, as well as its policy.

Of the two Coalition state governments, New South Wales’ is significantly more green than the Morrison government, while Tasmania is not home to a major development push.

Western Australia’s Labor government has been keen to work with Morrison on streamlining approvals, but fudging environmental protections is another thing altogether. And Labor governments, with a traditionally more eco-conscious voter base, are particularly vulnerable to criticism from environment groups.

The government may fudge the bioregional plans so they look good on paper, but don’t pose too many hurdles for development. Such a fudge may be necessary to fulfil Morrison’s obligations to the Liberals’ coalition partner, the Nationals.

Tuesday’s budget contained more than $21 billion for regional development such as dams, roads and mines – presumably their reward for the Nationals’ support of the government’s net-zero target.

Bioregional plans containing strict environmental protections could constrain or even strangle some of these developments.

But on the other hand, the government may be vulnerable to court challenges if it seeks to push through bioregional plans containing only vague environmental protection.

For a government of limited environmental ambition bioregional plans represent more a political gamble than a reform.

Morrison has clearly rejected the safer option of asking Ley to bring forward a comprehensive response to the Samuel review, casting streamlining as part of a wider agenda.

Such a reform would have better Senate prospects and created room to negotiate.

Morrison could also have promised to reintroduce the streamlining bills after the election. But he must have concluded that the measure has no better chance of getting through the next Senate than this one.

What price fundamental reform?

If the government successfully fudges bioregional plans, the result would be watered-down national environmental protections.

This would run completely counter to the key message of the Samuel review, that to shy away from fundamental law reforms:

“is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems”.

Clearly, good reform is too expensive — politically as well as fiscally — for this budget.

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banner image: Feed them pork, win their votes. (Image by BeckyTregear @ Pixabay)

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

By David Salt

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

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

Many reasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not the Minister, then who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to look

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banner image by byrev @ Pixabay

Senate Estimates – slippery answers like bare-handed barrel-fishing

The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings

By Peter Burnett

Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.

In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.

Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.

As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.

Unfortunately, they usually do not.

The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.

Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)

I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.

My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.

(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)

The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.

The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.

Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.

Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.

The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.

You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.

The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!

Peas and thimbles

On 28 January the government announced an ‘additional’ $1 billion over nine years in funding for the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Estimates questions were directed to ascertaining how this money would be allocated.

In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.

So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.

Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.

Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.

Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.

That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!

A coincidence like that would never have done!

Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.

Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.

And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?

In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another

In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.

In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.

A better way?

As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.

And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!

One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.

To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!

Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)

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

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Australian Way

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

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

Let’s consider what a billion dollar buys you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A billion dollars of cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real problem

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

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

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

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

‘The Big Shift’ begins – sustainable development comes to Australia

Environmental policy changes under the third Hawke government (1987-1990)

By Peter Burnett

This is another in our series on the environmental policies of previous Australian Governments.

The story so far: In the previous instalment in this series on environmental policy in Australia, we saw how the Hawke Government was elected in 1983 on the back of a wave of environmental concern surrounding the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania. Unfortunately, having stopped the dam, the Government lost its enthusiasm for the environment. But the wheel was turning …

In the lead-up to the 1987 election Hawke swung back to a fairly strong pro-environment stance. Environmental concerns were on the rise and, in return for Labor’s campaign commitments in relation to environmentally-significant areas such as Kakadu Stage II, the environment movement had advocated a vote for Labor.

Graham Richardson, a backbencher but nevertheless an influential party fixer, was instrumental in negotiating these commitments. After Labor won the election, Richardson’s reward was not just promotion to the ministry as Environment Minister, but the elevation of the environment portfolio to cabinet.

Suddenly the environment was back at the centre of policy-making.

What Now?

Labor implemented the promises it made about expanding Kakadu; it also protected some other very special places including the Wet Tropics forests and Shelburne Bay in North Queensland.

But this wasn’t where the action lay for policy nerds. The most interesting action was to be found inside the Cabinet.

The ‘environmental turn’ had been driven much more by politics than policy. Flushed with success and now a cabinet minister, Graeme Richardson pressed for more of what some insiders deprecatingly called ‘one-off forays’, or ‘icons’, interventions to protect prominent bits of the environment with high public appeal, without a larger vision or plan about how to care for the environment.

While this approach held the prospect of more political success, it also caused deep frustration on the part of ministers with economic portfolios.

Events intervened. While the Hawke Cabinet didn’t know it at the time, 1987 was the year in which (what I would call) ‘The Big Shift’ in environmental policy began.

Sustainable development: will it sink or swim?

In mid-1987 the United Nations published a report, Our Common Future, or Brundtland Report as it was known.

This was no ordinary report. On the back of a several environmental disasters including the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the Brundtland Report was grabbing headlines.

Brundtland put a new concept on the table, ‘sustainable development’, which it defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

The Environment Department advised Richardson to raise the Brundtland Report in Cabinet, but he rejected this idea.

The archives don’t reveal why, but my guess is that Richardson wanted to continue his ‘icons’ approach.

Politically, the ‘icons’ approach was simple and successful. ‘Sustainable Development’, on the other hand, was a nebulous policy idea. Why risk it?

Policy fights back

But if Richardson thought he could apply a little of Sir Humphrey’s ‘masterly inaction’, he’d underestimated the Clark Kent-like Primary Industries Minister John Kerin.

At the suggestion of the head of the mining lobby, Kerin read the Brundtland Report. He writes in his autobiography that he saw in Sustainable Development a possible way to reconcile competing arguments on environmental management and began promoting the idea.

But Kerin had also built up a head of steam. In his submission to Cabinet, he was highly critical of:

“eleventh hour ad hoc responses to proposals … minimal recognition of the multiple objectives involved in resource allocation decisions and a propensity for parties to seek “winner take all outcomes” without understanding economic, social or environmental consequences.”

Kerin persuaded Hawke and other ministers to send Richardson and himself away to develop options for rationalising and improving the policy framework for decisions on what was blandly described as ‘competing land uses’.

Surprisingly, Kerin didn’t actually suggest that the government endorse Sustainable Development per se. Instead, perhaps hoping to hoist Richardson on his own policy petard, he made sure that Cabinet directed that the two ministers take into account the policy principles embodied in the dormant Nature Conservation Strategy from 1984.

While this strategy pre-dated the Brundtland report, it took a Brundtland-like approach of pursuing both conservation and development as essential.

Working the policy through

The work was delegated to officials. It must have been hard going, because it took officials from the environment and economic departments 11 months to prepare a report for Cabinet, during which they identified no less than 47 objectives and principles to be applied in resolving conflicting land-use claims! (Admittedly the principles were divided into categories; eg, economic principles, conflict resolution principles.)

And it seems that 11 months of dialogue had exhausted everyone, because, rather than telling the public servants to whittle the 47 principles down to a manageable few, Cabinet endorsed the lot!

Things weren’t as bad as they looked though, because the three principles at the head of the list of 47 were given primacy by being endorsed as ‘notable’.

More than this, Cabinet agreed to establish the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), an independent body which was to assess and report on major environment and development issues (but only if the government gave them a reference). And the three ‘notable’ principles were written into the RAC legislation.

So, round one in the fight for good policy went to Kerin and the economic ministers.

We now had a set of environmental policy principles and a body, headed by a judge, to report on major environment and development issues. (I’ll tell you what happened to the RAC another day.)

The principles

But what about the principles, I hear you say?

The first dealt with policy integration. Common sense really: consider conservation and development together, as early as possible.

The remaining two principles reflect the downsides of compromise.

The second principle was that there should be ‘benefit optimisation’, which seems like an attempt to graft environmental and equity considerations onto economic efficiency. But it takes the easy way out: while saying that decision-makers should look at all three factors (environment, society, economy), the principle gives no guidance as to how they can be reconciled to produce a single outcome.

The third principle, that in some cases both conservation and development can be accommodated concurrently or sequentially, and, in other cases, choices must be made between alternative uses, seems like weasel words to me, to play down the need to make hard decisions.

For example, the idea that a mine-site could be cleared of critical habitat and later returned to its previous condition without enduring loss, is wishful thinking. (Yet we can see that thinking in recent decisions that count site restoration as environmental offsets!)

The remaining 44 principles, never announced, included a number of existing principles, such as ‘polluter pays’ and some prosaic statements, for example that the costs of environmental consultation should be kept down.

The Big Shift begins

Despite all the hard work put into them, at the end of the day, this was a flawed set of principles. But they did mark a start, the start of ‘The Big Shift’ from an ad hoc protection of special places, to a systematic and integrated approach to environmental policy.

It’s ironic that this move was championed by the Minister for Agriculture, John Kerin, head of a ministry that has traditionally been focussed on production and not seen as a good friend to the environment, while at the same time the Environment Minister seemed disinterested in wider or deeper policy reform.

Top marks to John Kerin for a big effort.

Unfortunately, one attempt would not be enough. In fact, 35 years later, The Big Shift is by no means complete.

In many ways our environmental policy settings are just as ad hoc, opaque and reactive as they were in the late 1980s.

Banner image: Mossman Gorge, part of the Daintree National Park in Tropical North Queensland. The area was given World Heritage Status in the 1980s, a time in which there was considerable political reward for protecting iconic bits of nature. It was during these years that environmental policy began its big shift, moving towards a bigger picture on sustainable development. (Image by David Salt)

Could anything be ‘New’ About Capitalism and the Environment?

An opening for ‘environmental debt’

By Peter Burnett

Capitalism is a popular theme in Australian environmental policy at the moment, at least for Liberal governments.

Hardly surprising I suppose. The Liberal Party prides itself on being the natural home of free enterprise.

Addressing a business breakfast last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his audience that ‘We believe climate can be ultimately solved by “can-do capitalism” not “don’t do governments” seeking to control peoples’ lives.

As a three word slogan, ‘can-do capitalism’ would not have rated a further mention in this blog if it were not for the fact that, shortly afterwards, Matt Kean, recently-appointed NSW Treasurer (who also remains, for the time being, Environment Minister) popped up in a media interview spruiking ‘New Capitalism’ as the solution to environmental and other problems.

At first blush, this seemed like nothing more than a bit of political jockeying between two Liberal politicians who have a bit of form in the needling department, as Mr Kean seemed to be taking aim at Morrison.

“I think it [New Capitalism] is very different [to Can-Co Capitalism],” Mr Kean told the Australian Financial Review. “I don’t want to make policies just for a news cycle, I want to make policies for a generation that will build a stronger and more prosperous nation for everyone,” Mr Kean said.

Kean’s ‘New Capitalism’

But there was more to it than that. Mr Kean went on to say that ‘I guess “New Capitalism” is looking at the environmental and social benefits of the decisions we take, not just the financial benefits.’

Still fairly ho hum and hardly new. This amounts to a very weak form of sustainability: ‘sustainable’ in a sense of requiring economic, social and environmental factors to be taken into account, but very weak because it does not require any particular weight to be given to social or environmental factors. Indeed, this formula doesn’t require any weight at all!

However, Kean continued, outlining “five pillars” of his economic portfolio, including “climate and sustainability”. A little more substance, but still just a topic and not really a policy.

Then it got interesting. Kean started talking about there being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the big structural issues in the economy. ‘There’s no point leaving our kids with a bucketful of money if we’ve left them with a mountain of environmental debt,’ he said.

What’s ‘environmental debt’?

Now you’re talking Matt. I’ve always thought ‘environmental debt’ was a useful concept, conveying clearly that we have borrowed someone else’s share of nature (the ‘someone else’ being future generations) and must pay it back.

But the term hasn’t been used much in our political discourse, perhaps because it is potentially so powerful and, to my mind, policy-specific.

In fact, the only serious mention of environmental debt I can recall in Australian political discourse comes from 30 years ago, when the Hawke government made reference to the importance of not saddling future generations with environmental debt, in the course of developing the now-long-forgotten National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development.

But why does using up nature create a debt? Because Nature can only produce what each generation of humans needs if there is enough of each of its component ecosystems, its ‘natural capital’, to do so.

Call it ‘critical mass’ if you like. That’s just the way Nature works. Drop below critical mass in any ecosystem and you are in trouble.

This phenomenon has been explained by comparing Nature to an inheritance, coming in the form of a large fund that has been invested.

We can live off the natural ‘dividends’ or ‘ecosystem services’ forever, but if we draw down more than just the dividends, we start eating into the natural capital, condemning future generations to receiving fewer ‘dividends’ (and more trouble) from Nature than we have.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have done.

So, if we value our children and grandchildren as much as ourselves, we owe it to future generations to pay back our over-consumption. (As an aside, try arguing against that proposition: Groucho Marx is reported to have said ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ But he was a comedian.)

And how do we pay back environmental debt? Through environmental restoration. Restoration can come from doing things that build Nature’ capacities (like planting trees) or from reducing things that harm Nature (like carbon emissions).

Don’t forget the accounts

And if Kean is serious about repaying environmental debt, there’s another implication: we need a way to measure it. Banks keep track of their loans by keeping accounts. As I’ve explained before, there is an now an internationally recognised way of keeping environmental accounts, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts, or ‘SEEA’.

By recording the extent and condition of our ecosystems, and then identifying the minimum of such extent and condition (‘critical mass’) needed to produce the ecosystem services on which we all rely, we can then identify any shortfall as our accumulated ecological debt.

Environmental accounts could also be used to keep track of the gains achieved through environmental restoration, as we reduce the debt.

Going somewhere?

As you can see, that this is dangerous territory for a politician. Talk of environmental debt raises issues that are moral (always tricky), long-term (when most politics goes for the quick fix) and specific (raising the risk of being boxed in, to a potentially-unpopular policy).

But Matt Kean is a highly unusual politician, not only because he comes from the political Right but outdoes the environmental commitment of many on the political Left, but also because he’s been unusually successful in bringing his conservative colleagues along with his pro-environment policies.

In deploying the language of environmental debt, Kean may now be striking out further, into waters that, while not newly discovered, are rarely sailed.

Let’s hope his boldness pays off. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.

Image by geralt at Pixabay