Three letters on the apocalypse

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

King hit

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

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

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

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

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

Three letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil society

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

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

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

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

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

The scientific consensus

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

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

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

Apocalypse now

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s the BOS?

The NSW Biodiversity Offset Scheme (BOS) will now apply to federal development approvals in NSW

By Peter Burnett

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley has announced new arrangements with NSW covering the application of biodiversity offsets under federal environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws. Under these arrangements the NSW Biodiversity Offsets Scheme (BOS) will cover both federal and state requirements and the federal policy on offsets will no longer apply.

Sounds complicated and technical, should we care? Absolutely we should. EIA is the cornerstone of our approach to environmental protection in Australia; offsetting has gone from being rare to common over the last 20 years; and the manner in which state and federal governments coordinate their approach to assessing development is key to effective environmental regulation. Everyone with an interest in protecting the environment should care about this new proposal.

Is this an improvement? Do the feds just want to get out of EIA? With offsets becoming the de facto bottom line in EIA, who’s the BOS now?

It is complicated

EIA is complicated, but doubly so under Australia’s federal system, where federal and state governments have overlapping EIA laws. Governments have been trying for decades to reach agreement on reducing the resulting duplication, but with limited success.

When the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was passed in 1999, one of its big selling points was that it would put an end to EIA duplication through a mechanism known as bilateral agreements, or ‘bilaterals’ for short.

There are two kinds of bilateral. An ‘assessment bilateral’ accredits a state to undertake a single EIA process to inform two approval decisions, one by the Federal environment minister and one by the state.

The more powerful ‘approvals bilateral’ accredits a state to assess and approve developments, without any federal involvement, on the basis that the state system has been accredited as meeting all federal environmental standards under the EPBC Act. The feds tried to go there twice, once under Julia Gillard and once under Tony Abbott, but these ‘one stop shop’ initiatives failed both times.

So we are only talking about assessment bilaterals here.

One of the problems with assessment bilaterals is that they combine two assessments into one but leave two separate approval decisions to be made, applying two sets of policy, including on offsets.

So this latest decision, under which the Commonwealth will apply the NSW BOS instead of its own offsets policy looks like it should streamline decision-making.

And that’s how Minister Ley and her NSW counterparts are selling it, of course. But what about substantive standards on environmental offsets? Does the BOS deliver environmental outcomes as good as, or better than, the federal offsets policy?

How do the two offsets policies compare?

The NSW BOS has some real strengths, especially that it is a statutory scheme administered by a government-controlled trust. This enhances governance by providing consistency, continuity and transparency. It leaves the non-statutory federal policy, which lacks even the basic transparency of a public offsets register, in the shade.

Nevertheless, some environment groups opposed federal endorsement of the BOS. A key concern was that the BOS is aimed at biodiversity generally, rather than at the threatened species and communities protected under the EPBC Act. As a result, it does not have a requirement that offsets address impacts on a ‘like-for-like’ basis, for example to offset an impact on the Eastern Quoll with something that benefits the Eastern Quoll.

NSW addressed this concern by amending its Biodiversity Regulation to impose a like-for-like requirement, but only for impacts on matters protected by the EPBC Act.

Another key concern raised by environment groups is that the BOS typically delivers smaller offsets than the federal policy, especially for species or ecological communities that have a higher threat status (eg, a species listed as critically endangered). The main reason for this difference is that the federal policy, unlike the NSW BOS, uses a discount factor, related to the likelihood of extinction. This discount factor increases the offset quantum as the threat status increases.

Presumably NSW objected to introducing a similar discount factor for federally protected species and communities. So the Commonwealth accepted the NSW position, justifying this with the argument the level of threat ‘would still be considered’ by the Commonwealth ‘as part of the broader regulatory process’.

Despite these soothing words, I think it’s unlikely that the Commonwealth will impose an additional offset in such cases, which arise regularly, because this would undermine the (streamlining) purpose of endorsing the NSW policy in the first place. At best, this caveat provides an escape clause to be invoked in egregious or highly controversial cases.

Different policies in different states?

One effect of Commonwealth endorsing a NSW-specific offsets policy is that this is likely to lead to different outcomes in different states. This is clearly undesirable from an environmental point of view, as ecosystems and bioregions straddle borders. I imagine Minister Ley might agree in principle but defend the difference in outcomes on pragmatic grounds.

The application of different policies also made my lawyer’s antennae twitch. Not only does the the Constitution prohibit the Commonwealth discriminating between states in certain cases, but the EPBC Act itself contains sections that translate these constitutional prohibitions into specific bans.

For example, sections 55 and 56 of the EPBC Act prohibit the environment minister from discriminating between states and parts of states through bilateral agreements in certain circumstances. However, it turns out that neither the Constitutional prohibitions nor the sections of the EPBC Act apply in this specific case, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

So, as undesirable as it might be to have two different policies on the same thing, there is no law against it in this case.

Streamlining or watering down?

In the short term, whether this is a good initiative, a streamlining or a watering down in the interests of putting the states in the driving seat, is a mixed question.

Clearly it will reduce the regulatory impact of overlapping the EIA schemes. And the NSW BOS does have some significant strengths, which the Commonwealth would do well to imitate when it responds to the current review of the EPBC Act.

But it is a worry that the Commonwealth has adopted a policy specifying what is an acceptable biodiversity offset, but then decided that a lower offset is acceptable if the impact occurs in NSW.

In the longer term, however, the more important policy question is not whether an offset is acceptable under a policy, but whether it is sufficient.

This highlights a fundamental weakness of the EPBC Act itself, which is that the Act doesn’t specify any objective standard of environmental sustainability, but leaves it to the environment minister to decide what is ‘acceptable’. Something that is clearly acceptable to a minister may nevertheless fall far short of sufficient.

Hopefully the current review of the EPBC Act led by Professor Graeme Samuel will recommend an approach that sets clear benchmarks for what is sufficient to maintain biodiversity and ecological integrity, and then requires that those benchmarks be met.

Image by Terri Sharp from Pixabay

Entering a no-analogue future

You’re seeing it happen around you right now

By David Salt

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

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

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

Welcome to the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust in the future

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepers awake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A pathway for the Coalition to improve its climate change act


Reviewing the 2020 Climate Policy Toolkit

by Peter Burnett

The Climate Change Authority (CCA) has released its latest advice to the Australian Government on how to respond to climate change. It’s contained in a report titled: Prospering in a low-emissions world: An updated climate policy toolkit for Australia.

For a body with three seats out of seven occupied by former Coalition politicians, it’s a bit of a surprise as it favours strong climate action.

Who or What is the CCA?

The CCA was set up by the Gillard Labour government in 2011. The Climate Change Authority Act was one of 18 bills forming the Clean Energy Future package, the centrepiece of which was a carbon price (also known as the ‘carbon tax’). The carbon tax didn’t survive of course, but thanks to Al Gore’s powers of persuasion with Clive Palmer, the CCA Act did. The CCA’s role includes research, and this latest report is released as a ‘research report’.

The CCA has seven members. The chair, Dr Wendy Craig, has headed a number of statutory authorities, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and the Murray Darling Basin Authority. While not political, she is trusted by the Government, as seen in her conducting the recent review of the impact of the EPBC Act on agriculture, a review loaded with political sensitivities.

Also a member of the CCA is another former head of GBRMPA, Dr Russell Reichelt.

Most significantly, three members of the Authority are former conservative politicians. Kate Carnell is a former Liberal ACT Chief Minister; John Sharp is a former National Party transport minister and Mark Lewis is a former Liberal agriculture minister in WA.

Finally, Stuart Allinson has an industry background, while the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, is a member ex officio.

A updated Climate Policy Toolkit

The CCA produced its original Policy Toolkit report in 2015, at the request of government. This update appears to be unsolicited.

The report presents 35 recommendations about transitioning Australia to a low emissions future. But it does so ‘building on the Government’s current climate change policy settings’.

The Government rejected the CCA’s earlier advice in the lead-up to the Paris Conference in 2015 that it should aim to reduce emissions (on a 2000 baseline) by 40-60% by 2030. It is not surprising then that this report takes the Government’s 26-28% by 2030 emissions-reduction target as a given.

Because governments don’t like taking the tough decisions needed to fix the environment, advisers often stress economic opportunity when serving up unpalatable recommendations. This report is no exception, with Dr Craik declaring in her media release that ‘we need to position our economy for the coming changes in global trade and investment markets and seize on the opportunities before us, or risk being left behind.’

The updated advice

Despite this, there is some good advice in the recommendations. I’ve listed what I think are the highlights below (with my ‘translation’ of what I think they mean):

Develop a long-term climate change strategy that secures Australia’s contribution to the achievement of the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.
Translation: we should do our bit to stop temperatures rising, not just to meet (inadequate) national targets.

Governments should work together to support industries and communities facing an uncertain future to identify pathways for industries to evolve and remain competitive and to exploit new economic opportunities.
Translation: we don’t really like the Left-oriented phrase, the ‘just transition’, but we agree with the idea of managing the transition to a low carbon economy so that sections of the community are not disadvantaged.

Australia should aim to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement target using emissions reductions achieved between 2021 and 2030.
Translation: don’t claim Kyoto carryover credits.

Develop an international climate strategy to support a strong global response to climate change that minimises physical impacts on Australia and increases international demand for Australia’s emerging low-emissions export industries.
Translation: push other countries to up the ante as it’s in our national interest.

Review and update the 2015 National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy.
Translation: we need to do more in preparing to deal with the impacts of climate change.

In the electricity sector, advance electricity system security; fast-track reforms for integrating large amounts of low- and zero-emissions generation into the electricity market; align bilateral Commonwealth-State energy agreements with AEMOs Integrated System Plan; and increase certainty on the timing of the retirement of ageing coal generators to facilitate timely investment in replacement capacity and storage.
Translation: hurry up and fix energy policy.

Enhance the Safeguard Mechanism to deliver emission reductions from large emitters in industry, with declining baselines with clear trajectories and the ability to trade under- and over- achievement once baselines have commenced declining.
Translation: emissions trading, thou name shall not be spoken, though thy spirit be honoured.

For vehicles with internal combustion engines, reconsider implementing a greenhouse gas emissions standard for light vehicles and undertake a cost-benefit analysis of an emissions standard for heavy vehicles.
Translation: traditional transport can’t be left out of climate policy.

For electric vehicles, minimise barriers to electric vehicle uptake, including by: ensuring adequate infrastructure coverage on highways and in regional areas; considering implications for electricity network tariff reform and fuel excise revenue, and setting targets for electric vehicle adoption in government fleets.
Translation: Time to get serious about electric vehicles, including the tricky topic of new taxes to replace lost fuel excise.

Land use and agriculture activities should continue to be covered by the Emissions Reduction Fund, with credits continuing to be used as offsets for facilities covered by the Safeguard Mechanism.
Translation: Keep buying credits from agriculture until the Safeguard Mechanism above forces industry to buy them instead.

Introduce a Land and Environment Investment Fund (that is, a Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) for the land), to invest in low-emissions and climate-smart agriculture. Investigate and implement the most effective incentives to encourage the use of emissions-reducing inputs in agriculture.
Translation: Self-explanatory on the Fund. Farmers should be hit with carrots rather than sticks.

Recognise the benefits of a circular economy approach for emissions reductions, ensure the National Waste Policy Action Plan considers industry development, the waste hierarchy, research and development, training and barriers to adoption; and emphasises the creation of industries in regions undergoing transition.
Translation: governments need to drive us much further down the path of reuse and recycling.

Reinvigorate the National Energy Productivity Plan with enhanced ambition and additional resources, including by implementing a National Energy Savings Scheme that builds on existing state and territory energy efficiency schemes; strengthen and extend energy performance standards for appliances and commercial equipment (eg hot water products and pumps, boilers and air compressors); accelerate energy efficiency improvements for buildings.
Translation: energy efficiency has always offered cheap and low-pain options, so get on with it.

Continue to fund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and consider expanding its remit into other sectors requiring R&D for low-emissions technology or practice. Expand the remit of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to allow it to invest in emissions reduction technologies in all sectors to help overcome barriers to finance. Restrictions on the scope of the CEFC’s activities, its portfolio mix and the financial instruments it can use should be lifted. The Government should consider making further capital injections in the CEFC to fund this expansion.
Translation: the investment mechanisms that the Abbott government wanted to get rid of have proven very successful and should be expanded.

Together with the major accounting bodies, examine the phasing-in and mandatory reporting of climate-related risks and mainstream climate-related disclosures in companies’ audited financial statements. Assist the finance and investment sector to develop standards and verification processes for green finance products and services.
Translation: the impacts of climate change on business are here. This means getting companies into mandatory reporting but also capitalising as companies are driven by risks and stakeholders to mitigate their climate impacts.

Not a bad package overall

All in all, this is not a bad package, containing some carefully couched hints from a body that includes the Government’s own colleagues, to up the ante on climate, even on ‘no go’ areas like the 2030 targets.

Image: Part of Figure 5 from the report Prospering in a low-emissions world: An updated climate policy toolkit for Australia

A good decision in a time of plague

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

There is no perfect

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

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

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

Good decision making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transparent, fair and adaptive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What decision will we make next week?

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

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

And in a time of plague, trust is everything.

Image: Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

The new Government mantra (and more grist from the Estimates’ mill)

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held another round of its regular environmental estimates hearings and, once again, I thought I’d share with you what emerged. As I’ve said in the past, these hearings often contain valuable evidence on Government thinking and action.

The topics covered this time were mostly grist for the mill, but one item really stood out: the Government has become focused on something called ‘practical environmental restoration’? Heard of it? Neither had I.

Practical environmental restoration

The government has a bit of a thing about taking ‘practical’ action when it comes to the environment. This theme emerged as a way of contrasting the Coalition Government’s main climate initiative, the Emissions Reduction Fund, with the complexities of the previous Gillard Government’s carbon price (which Tony Abbott had labelled, confusingly but very successfully, as a tax).

And then there was the Government’s obsessive focus on the second-order environmental issue of plastic pollution while ignoring the first-order issue of climate change because this government is all about practical solutions.

In the last budget, brought down in the lead up to the 2019 election, the Government developed this ‘practical action’ theme further, introducing two new programs, an Environmental Restoration Fund ($100 million over four years) and a Communities Environment Program ($22.6 million in one year only).

Smells like a pork barrel

On the face of it, the Environmental Restoration Fund seems respectable. However, look a little closer one and it takes on the appearance of a pork barrel. With the fund established and an election called, the Government proceeded to make election commitments covering nearly 80% of the fund. According to a non-government Senator, some of the groups nominated as recipients knew nothing about the grants coming their way until contacted by someone from a Coalition Party.

With the government re-elected, these election commitments prevented the Environment Department from giving the standard advice about holding competitive grant rounds. It had no choice but to advise the Government to hold what officials described as a ‘closed, non-competitive’, funding round. This meant that the grant guidelines actually specified the recipients as the groups nominated in the Governments election commitments.

None of this is illegal, because various policy guidelines allow for standard procedures like competitive grant rounds to be overridden by election commitments. The theory is that the Government has a mandate to implement his commitments.

So it’s not a second ‘Sports-Rorts’ affair, with attendant allegations of illegality.

It is, however, a blatant case of pork barrelling, likely to lead to poor policy outcomes because the politicians have specified the grant amount, purpose and recipient without any public service or other expert advice.

With the environment in continual decline and a desperate need for restoration, this is another example of very poor governance.

School yard stuff

And the response of Minister Birmingham, the minister representing the Government at Estimates, to Opposition criticisms of the program? ‘I don’t have to sit here and accept hypocrisy from you. You made similar promises at the election.’

In other words, you are just as bad as us, so we can get away with this. At a time when trust in government is very low and the environment in significant decline, this is school yard stuff and a very sad state of affairs.

The Communities Environment Program is not much better. The fact that the program is limited to one year, immediately following at election, is unusual and strongly suggestive of the program being another pork barrel. The fact that the money is allocated to all MPs ($150,000 per electorate) allowing non-government MPs to access to the pork, is hardly a saving grace.

Again, this is bad policy. Small numbers of piecemeal local grants in a one-off program make no contribution to the big environmental issues that face the national government.

So what does ‘practical environmental restoration’ mean? Pork barrelling, obviously.

Grist for the mill

To finish, some quick ‘grist for the mill’ themes from Estimates:

  • There was the usual manoeuvering in which the Greens asked the Bureau of Meteorology questions designed to elicit strong statements about the severity of climate change, while One Nation asked questions directed to showing that the Bureau was cooking the books.
  • The Opposition was in pursuit of Warren Entsch, the Government’s backbench Reef Envoy: why was he so focused on single use plastics in the marine environment when it is such a small component of marine waste?
  • There were the expected questions concerning the impact of bushfires on threatened species. In short, the Government has convened an expert panel and the Threatened Species Committee is reviewing conservational advice and recovery plans, but it really is too early to have much data from bushfire-affected areas.
  • Opposition and Green senators are still pursuing Minister Angus Taylor’s alleged intervention in a compliance investigation concerning his brother’s farm in southern New South Wales. Officials advised, yet again, that this long-running investigation remains incomplete.
  • Senator Matt Canavan, formerly Resources Minister and now on the back bench, asked about climate change as an issue in environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. He is clearly concerned that an environmental assessment for a large oil and gas project off the coast of WA, requires the proponent to assess the impact (if any) of greenhouse gases (including scope 3 emissions) on features such as the Great Barrier Reef, which lie on the other side of the country.
  • While on the topic of environmental assessments, officials revealed that the Environment Department had received some funding for extra environmental assessment staff under the government ‘congestion-busting’ initiative. This reverses the trend over the last few years of regular staffing reductions in this area. It’s ironic that governments cause the problem through general cuts (the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, then ‘fix’ the resulting ‘congestion’!
  • Senators pressed the government on it’s electric vehicle strategy, due out in mid 2020, particularly given pre-election comments by the Prime Minister and other ministers about electric vehicles putting an end to the weekend. Perhaps rehearsing the lines that will be used to explain these pre-election comments away when the Government starts to promote electric vehicles in its forthcoming ‘Technology Roadmap’. Minister Birmingham made it clear that the electric vehicle market was ‘obviously one that is adapting in terms of the technical specifications’ and that ‘the electric vehicle strategy will no doubt take into account how those technical specifications are evolving.’

Image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

The zero sum game – from biodiversity to emissions

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

The magic in the pudding

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

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

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

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

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

Offset this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A green light for decline?

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

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

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

The devil is in the detail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insensible on coal

Why climate change policy is such a challenge for Australian politics

By Peter Burnett

As I write this, our national Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is mocking his Opposition counterpart as some sort of guru-seeking hippy for daring to suggest that Australia might adopt New Zealand’s idea of a ‘well-being budget’.

This is just the latest example of our very low level of Australian policy debate: the ‘well-being budget’ is a serious attempt to address the well-known limitations of GDP (basically national income) as a measure of ‘progress’. It is particularly relevant to environmental issues and deserves a considered debate. Perhaps I’ll write about it in another blog.

It’s easy to despair over the shallow debate involving the environment, particularly when the state of our environment has started biting us in ways that are, to deploy once again this summer’s most overused word, unprecedented.

Is political agreement on a rational and proportionate environmental policy even possible? I thought I would look at this question by focusing on the troublesome issue of coal and climate change.

A tough challenge even in an ideal policy world

Our quality of life has been built on fossil fuels. In Australia, one fossil fuel in particular, coal, has supported our lifestyle not only by providing most of the energy needed for electricity production, but also by serving as a ‘top three’ export-earner.

So, phasing out coal presents a double policy challenge.

It is common to reflect on the fact that climate change requires concerted global action. Yet it is uncommon to reflect on the system behind the international approach to orchestrating such action.

The underlying problem is one of too many people consuming too much stuff, most of which generates greenhouse gases, one way or another. This is a problem tailor-made for economics, a discipline often defined as the study of efficient allocation of scarce resources.

If we had asked economists rather than diplomats to come up with a solution, they would have told us that getting consumption down to sustainable levels is all a matter of ‘getting the prices right’ and that if ‘stuff’ produces too much greenhouse gas, the answer is to put up the price of ‘stuff’, in proportion to the amount of gas it generates.

In an ideal world, then, we would have ended up with a uniform global carbon tax, with the rate set at just the right level to disincentivise the production of excessive greenhouse gases. Problem solved.

The realpolitik of the Climate Change Convention

However, the real world is not built around economic theory. It’s based on nation states and their absolute sovereignty. International diplomacy is a parliament of equals, but with no overarching government to enforce the rules.

As a result, when countries agree on international action, they tend to do so by agreeing to regulate only what goes on inside their own borders, relying on other countries to implement their own corresponding regulation but usually without any means of making them do so.

With climate change, this system of each nation focusing on their own back yard leads to a system where by countries regulate domestic emissions not just from consumption, but also from production. Mixed models such as this tend to produce anomalies.

For example, resource-rich countries such as Australia are advantaged in comparison to manufacturing countries such as China. Emissions from manufactured goods such as tools and furniture will be counted mostly in the country in which they are produced, increasing export prices if carbon is priced, while emissions from natural resources such as coal are (mostly) accounted for in the country in which they are consumed, with little effect on export prices under a carbon price.

What’s more, if we did reduce coal exports by restricting new mines, any emission reductions would not count towards our international targets. This leaves us with an unbalanced incentive to promote coal mining, but only for export.

Just make the best of it?

Okay, so the model is less than ideal but it is not likely to change. So, despite its flaws, can we extract policy success (ie climate change mitigation) from the existing system?

If we stay focused on the outcomes rather than the inputs, as any good policy should, the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. Under this approach we’d be targeting greenhouse gas reductions and not coal specifically, even though coal is a major source of greenhouse gases.

In the case of coal we would still need to phase-out domestic use, although we could be technology agnostic and pursue emissions reduction generally rather than reduced coal consumption specifically. We would also want to reduce emissions reductions from coal mining, but again the measures could be industry-blind and not directed at mining specifically.

On the other hand, we would not target emissions reduction from coal exports, because these emissions would count towards the targets of our customers rather than ourselves. Nevertheless, because it is essential for the planet that we get out of coal on a global basis, we would need to work towards the adoption of increasingly ambitious targets and regimes internationally.

Success here would have the incidental effect of reducing demand for coal, including our own exports.

Is this feasible?

Even though we wouldn’t be targeting coal or exports, this approach would remain a hard sell domestically. Despite the double policy virtues of good prospects of climate mitigation success and compliance with the letter and spirit of international agreements, the politics would still be tough.

Domestic environment groups have managed to demonise not just the consumption of coal, but its production. They have done this for their own reasons, in part because domestic place-based campaigns are what they do best: the environment movement was built on them.

On the other hand, coal-producing regions would not be appeased just because we weren’t targeting coal directly. We’d still be taking action internationally that would harm the coal industry. Jobs would still be under threat and transition programs would still be needed.

So action on coal, or more accurately, action on emissions including those from coal, is politically feasible, but hardly attractive. The best policy path available barely dents the political risk and pain.

The conundrum with coal is the same as that posed by climate change more generally: would you like a moderate dose of pain now or a much bigger and tougher dose of pain delivered to your children? At this point in time it seems we are happy to pass the burden to our children.

Image: Then Treasurer (now PM) Scott Morrison holds up a chunk of coal in Parliament in 2017. “This is coal,” he said mockingly to the Opposition. “Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.”

Dawn of the new normal(?)

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

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

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

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

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

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

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

Scorched coral

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new normal

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

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

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

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

A new light of day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tale of two climate bills

One is about meaningful reform, the other more about politics

By Peter Burnett

Last month, Zali Stegall released her long-anticipated climate change bill. This month, the Australian Greens released a climate bill of their own. They are quite different pieces of legislation. One is quite solid, I think, while the other is more about politics than meaningful outcomes.

Zali Stegall, of course, is the Independent MP for Warringah. She stood against Tony Abbott, one of Australia’s leading climate change deniers (and former PM), on a platform of introducing meaningful climate change policy; and she won. Her bill has been under development since her election in May 2019. Against the backdrop of Australia’s horror summer, and the resulting rocketing of the environment to the top of the political agenda, it could not have been better timed.

The Greens’ climate bill, on the other hand, looks to me like it might have been drafted in a hurry, for reasons I will explain below.

Given the contrasting approaches of the two bills and the possibility that a Parliamentary committee might end up looking at both, it’s instructive to consider what they contain.

The Stegall Bill

The full title of Stegall’s bill is Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2020. As the title suggests, the bill establishes a framework for climate policy leaving it up to the government to develop climate mitigation programs that meet the targets set by the framework.

The bill would legislate a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and establish an independent Climate Change Commission, tasked with preparing a national National Climate Risk Assessment every five years. In response, the Government must prepare a national adaptation plan, together with five-year national emissions budgets and emissions reduction plans to meet those budgets.

Space doesn’t allow a more detailed examination, but you get the drift: the Bill sets the overarching target, while the independent Commission looks after the framework and keeps an eye on the Government. The Government’s job is to develop and implement detailed plans to meet the targets. If both parties do their job properly, national emissions follow a trajectory down to net zero 2050 while inflicting the least possible pain.

The Greens’ Bill

By contrast, the Greens’ bill has a much narrower focus. It’s full title is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Climate Trigger) Bill 2020, and it seeks to amend parts of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to introduce a climate ‘trigger’ for ‘emissions-intensive actions’; specifically land clearing, drilling exploration and mining (with the capacity to add others later by regulation).

The EPBC Act has nine triggers, for example one for threatened species and one for large coal and gas projects affecting water resources. The basic idea is that if a trigger is, well, triggered, by a development proposal, the development can’t go ahead unless it has been the subject of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a decision by the environment minister as to whether the project can go ahead, and if so, on what conditions.

In short, the Greens’ bill extends existing environmental regulation to land clearing and mining projects in order to reduce their climate impacts.

Two bills compared

Stegall’s bill is impressive. Although she was able to draw heavily on overseas precedents, the bill is well drafted and specific to Australian law and circumstances. It is complete to every last detail, including administrative matters like pay-and-leave entitlements for the Commission’s CEO.

I know Stegall is a lawyer and probably had lots of free expert advice. Nevertheless, she’s a first term Independent MP, with no party colleagues or resources to draw on. Yet she has produced a bill that is just as good as one that might have been produced by the Government with the full resources of the public service.

The Greens bill on the other hand is disappointing. The Greens have been around for a long time and have a much greater depth of resources available to them. Yet the bill is narrow, doing little more than bringing two major categories of development into an existing regulatory net, one which leaves it almost entirely to the environment minister to decide what, if any, emissions-reducing conditions to impose.

Even within this narrow scope, the bill doesn’t seem to have been well thought through.

A mining or land clearing project will only trigger an EIA if its emissions would likely have a ‘significant impact’ on the environment. Under the EPBC act, the environment is defined in wide terms. And ‘significant impact’ is not defined. Greenhouse gas emissions do not have a direct impact on living things; they have an indirect impact in that they change the climate and it is the changed climate which has an adverse impact on the animals and plants.

Finally, the Act doesn’t regulate cumulative emissions, which means that a decision about whether a project triggers the Act only considers the project in isolation.

When you take these factors together, it means that the emissions from a single project, such as a proposed mine, may not be ‘significant’ under the act unless they are so great as to change the climate, by themselves, something that would only occur with an enormous project.

As a result, I think there is a good argument that the Greens’ climate trigger would never operate.

The politics and the process from here

It’s important to emphasise that Stegall’s bill has not been introduced in parliament. Rather, Ms Stegall has simply released it by public announcement. A key reason for doing this is that the government controls the numbers in the House of Representatives, where Ms Stegall is a member. It is very unlikely that the Government will ever allow her to introduce the bill formally, because this would cause the government to lose control of the climate change debate (more than it already has).

Significantly, the bill is supported by Rebecca Sharkey of the Centre Alliance Party, which also has members in the Senate. One scenario is that, once it becomes clear that the Government will not allow the Stegall bill to be introduced in the House of Representatives, Centre Alliance may introduce it in the Senate, which the Government does not control.

Once introduced, a bill can be referred to committee, which provides a good platform for public hearings and a committee report to keep public debate on the boil.

This may be where the Greens bill comes in. Rather than have a first-time Independent MP steal their thunder, perhaps the Greens foresaw this scenario and want to have their own bill that can be referred to committee as well. This way they would not be left dancing to someone else’s tune.

Outside Parliament, the temperatures will be dropping as we head towards winter. Inside, it’s likely that the Stegall bill will warm up the Winter Sittings one way or another, whether under my scenario or another. If that’s the case, let’s hope the deliberations produce some light as well as heat.

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay