Joining the dots (again) on Sustainability Bites

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66 bites / 5 sustainability themes / the story continues

By David Salt

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

But can we sustain it

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

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

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

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

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

History in the making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The burden of politics and ideology

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

4. The value of good policy

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

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

5. The importance of history

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Flo K from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m so angry I’m going to write a letter!!

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How do scientists get attention when their science is ignored?

By David Salt

Our elected leaders are ignoring the science on climate change, turning their back on an unfolding biodiversity catastrophe and, in so doing, increasing our vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters while dispossessing future generations. If the scientist’s science is not making a difference, what’s a scientist supposed to do? Well, it seems increasingly they’re penning public letters to our elected leaders pleading with them to acknowledge the science and act on the evidence (rather than hide within their ideology and continue to prop up vested interests).

Last week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries and multiple disciplines published an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for urgent action on climate change. It pointed out that science on climate change has been well known for the past 40 years and, indeed, had only grown stronger over that time. While the letter generated considerable media attention, it was largely ignored by our political leaders.

Strengthen our environmental law

A couple of weeks ago, 240 of Australia’s leading conservation scientists published an open letter to our Prime Minister calling for stronger environmental law to protect our imperilled biodiversity. This was done in the hope that a soon to be announced decadal review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act might strengthen the legislation.

That review has since been announced but, despite considerable media attention given to the scientists’ letter, the government has framed the review as a way of making the environmental law more efficient, cutting the green tape that blocks economic development. And not one of the 240 scientists who signed the letter to the PM asking for stronger environmental law are on the EPBC Review Panel; indeed no biodiversity scientist is included.

Letters to governments from scientists are not an uncommon strategy employed to raise public awareness on issues, most often issues connected with sustainability. More than 12,000 European scientists signed a letter supporting the student climate strikes that took place in March this year. In New Zealand more than 1,500 academics released a similar statement of support.

Canadian scientists also seem very partial to a protest letter. Sixty Canadian scientists wrote to the Canadian PM on climate action in 2006. Eighteen hundred early-career researchers in Canada wrote to the Canadian Government in 2016 demanding scientific integrity in environmental decision making. And 250 international scientists signed a letter to the Canadian PM in 2017 warning about the international importance of Canada’s efforts on climate change.

A warning to humanity

One of the more notable letters penned by scientists on sustainability was the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, released back in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was signed by more than 1700 scientists including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences.

These concerned professionals called on humankind to cut back on our environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

Now, surely in a rational world, when your best brains tell you we need to change because we’re heading for disaster, you sit up and listen. But did we? Not in any way that was really measurable.

You didn’t listen last time!

Twenty five years later in 2017 a new cohort of our ‘best brain’ scientists put out a second notice to humanity pointing out we didn’t listen to the 1992 warning. In this article they also showed graphs of resource use, carbon emissions and other key environmental indicators. In their timelines of these graphs they helpfully mark 1992, the year of the first letter. In almost all cases, consumption or levels of emissions either continued on their merry ascent or even increased in rate following the first ‘warning to humanity’. No government or industry, it seems, was too concerned by what the Union of Concerned Scientists thought was important.

In the second notice to humanity the authors wrote: “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.”

So what is a letter worth? If the response to the second notice is the same as to the first (‘well articulated’) letter, expect business as usual to continue or even to ramp up.

The pros and cons of letters

It’s easy to be cynical about these letter-writing exercises. They often come over as self-righteous and pious. First notice: ‘Listen to me, I am your oracle scientist. If you keep doing what you’re doing you will be sorry.’ Second notice: ‘You didn’t listen to me last time, now you will be very very sorry if you don’t stop what you’re doing!’

As we discovered in Australia in our recent national elections, people don’t like being told they are wrong and need to change, even when the evidence is overwhelming that we do need to change.

There’s also the argument that while a ‘first’ letter sounds revelatory, by the time we reach the 14th letter, it’s beginning to sound whiny and possibly ‘crying wolf’.

Having said this, it’s easy to be cynical and when these letters come out the deniers, party hacks and apparatchiks line up to start throwing stones; it’s easy to be cynical, but possibly it’s not all that helpful. Scientists should be encouraged to take their concerns to the broader public more often. The have the insights and knowledge that will likely prove critical when we get serious about sustainability and climate change. They need to be an active part of the broader conversation.

Communicating with non-scientists on technical and complex issues is never easy. Scientists should be rewarded when they make the effort. Many universities are now encouraging their scientists to be more active in the communication of their science (and its impact on society) to a broader non-scientist audience. We need more, not less of it.

There’s also the argument that throwing out one warning is unlikely to shift society. Change is always a challenge; just ask anyone who attempted to shift the status quo. You need to keep throwing pebbles because you never know when a message cuts through possibly precipitating widespread change.

And sometimes – when the message is well crafted, the timing is right and the need is obvious to all – sometimes a letter is what really makes all the difference. Einstein wrote* to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the US should start its own nuclear program – the rest is history.

*Actually, the letter was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who few people knew and signed by Albert Einstein who everyone knew. The message was well crafted, the timing was right and the need obvious to all.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

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Reflecting on the moment the world changed

By David Salt

Seventy four years ago, at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, the US military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Code named Trinity, the test was run out on a lonely New Mexican desert on an air force bombing range. Small by the standards of later tests, Trinity still managed to light up the surrounding mountains brighter than day, fuse the sand underneath it into radioactive green glass and generate a shock wave felt over 160 km away.

Yet the significance of Trinity extends way beyond that New Mexican desert, and even beyond the end of the Second World War which, with the aid of atomic weapons, was now only weeks away.

By some reckonings, 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, marks the beginning of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Seventy four years on, the trajectory of the Anthropocene should be at the fore front of all our thinking.

Written in stone

The Anthropocene is not yet an ‘official’ geological time period. Such decisions require a formal review and proclamation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a fairly conservative scientific panel not keen on mixing their science with fashion and politics (and the ‘Anthropocene’ is jam packed with political ramifications).

According to the ICS, planet Earth is still officially in what’s known as the Holocene Epoch, which began after the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago.

But many scientists have been unhappy with the title ‘Holocene’ believing human activity is now dominating the Earth system, and this should be reflected in the stratigraphic nomenclature – the Earth’s geological rock strata reflecting the deep history of our planet. The name ‘Anthropocene’ was proposed by the atmospheric chemist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Crutzen back in the year 2000.

For a new geological epoch to be declared the rock strata above a proposed boundary needs to distinctly different from those below, suggesting some major change in the processes that created them. But this difference also needs to be evident all around the world, indicating that the change is global and not merely regional in character.

Can human activity be seen in the geological record? You betcha! Particles of plastics, concrete and aluminium, all of undeniable human origin are now widespread around the planet and found in today’s emerging strata. But possibly the most undeniable material of human origin being found in the strata are radionuclides from atomic bombs, beginning with Trinity in 1945. Nothing like these substances had existed on Earth prior to 1945, but now they coat the planet.

While the radionuclides serve as an easily detectable marker, they only exist in trace quantities. Other artificial materials are so abundant we’re drowning in them. The total amount of concrete that humanity has produced, most of it in the post-1950 period, amounts to about a kilogram for every square metre across the entire surface of the Earth. The amount of plastic wrap produced since 1950 is enough to cover the entire planet in plastic. And enough aluminium foil has been manufactured to wrap the continent of Australia.

All of these stratigraphic markers begin to appear in significant amounts around the middle of the 20th century. This coincides with a time that is now commonly referred to as the Great Acceleration, a period of unparalleled economic growth and development. And it wasn’t just plastic production that skyrocketed; so too did water use, energy use, fertilizer consumption, international tourism, dam construction and paper production. Underpinning it all was a swelling human population and an insatiable drive to grow the economy.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

When Crutzen first began writing about the Anthropocene with colleagues he proposed that it began with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution from the second half of the 18th Century. This was because this period coincided with increasing levels of carbon dioxide associated with greater levels of coal consumption.

Other scholars have suggested the Anthropocence began much earlier, back with the Agricultural Revolution some 5-8000 years ago. The spread of agriculture also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions through changes in land management.

Others have suggested even earlier dates with human making their mark through the extinction of mega fauna in areas where they appeared.

Each proposal for the beginning of the Anthropocene has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your frame of reference.

From an Earth systems perspective, however, it is only from 1950s that the cumulative impact of human activity began to distort the Earth system itself. Humanity was changing the very behaviour of our planet. None of the earlier ‘start’ dates can claim this.

And, when you combine this with the crystal clear signal of radionuclides and their sudden appearance, I believe Trinity is the best candidate for the opening of this latest planet-shifting epoch – the Anthropocene. The fact that Trinity also symbolises our ‘mastery’ over matter by unleashing the dangerous power of the atom only reinforces the significance of the 16th of July 1945.

So, 74 years into the Anthropocene, where is it taking us? I don’t think we’ll need another 74 years to find out.

Image: The Anthropocene began with a bang. The Trinity explosion is pictured here 16 milliseconds after the detonation. The highest point of the explosion’s dome in this image is about 200 metres high. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If science is the answer, what was the question again?

THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.