Australian climate minister Chris Bowen has promised to introduce a Climate Change Bill when Australia’s newly-elected Parliament convenes in late July. The Bill won’t be available until then but we already have a fair idea of what it is likely to say.
The story so far
What used to be Australia’s main climate law, the Clean Energy Act 2011, imposed a price on carbon. It was repealed by the then-new Abbott government in 2014 as part of its ‘axe-the-tax’ platform.
As far as I know, this is the only reversal of a carbon price, anywhere, ever. Hopefully it will also be the last, because the abolition of such an effective policy instrument was a major loss.
Several other climate laws survived Prime Minister Abbott’s anti-climate change stance in amended form, including the Act establishing the independent Climate Change Authority (CCA). The CCA lost its power to advise on Australia’s overall emissions target but retained its power to review specific climate mitigation policies.
Some Australian states and territories have their own climate change laws that set targets, broadly similar to what Bowen is now proposing.
Shape of the new law
The Climate Change Bill will not seek to reimpose a carbon price — the government plans to use an existing law brought in by the Abbott Government known as the ‘safeguard mechanism’ to reduce allowable emissions for the largest polluters (over 100,000 tonnes C02-e) over time.
Rather, the new Climate Change Bill will deal with national targets. Minister Bowen outlined its content in a recent speech at the National Press Club.
The Bill will enshrine both Australia’s ‘net zero by 2050’ goal and its new Paris ‘nationally determined contribution’ of a 43% reduction in emissions by 2030.
It will also restore the CCA’s role of advising Government on future targets, starting with the 2035 target. In addition, the CCA will assess progress against existing targets, with these assessments made public.
Separately, the climate minister will be required to report annually to Parliament on progress in meeting targets.
Finally, the bill will paste the new climate targets across into the formal objectives and functions of several government agencies, including the Australian Renewable Energy Authority (ARENA, which makes grants for new but pre-commercial renewable energy technologies and businesses) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC, which operates in a similar space but makes loans rather than grants).
Some interesting implications
Bowen says that the twin aims of requiring the minister to report to Parliament each year are to force government to be transparent and to focus the minds of parliamentarians on climate change as ‘our most pressing challenge’. Hopefully he is right on both counts and Parliament will focus increasingly on the substance of climate policy and progress in reducing emissions and less on the political posturing that has been so dominant to date.
More interesting than the pasting of targets across into the ARENA and CEFC legislation is the proposal to paste the targets into the objectives of bodies that are not dedicated climate agencies, including Infrastructure Australia and the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund.
Such a requirement is likely to force these infrastructure bodies to expand their horizons beyond conventional cost-benefit analysis and to evaluate in detail whether there are more climate-friendly alternatives to what is proposed. For example, climate considerations might force the ditching of a road upgrade in favour of rail or sea-carriage for long distance freight.
In a similar vein, legally-enshrined climate targets should have a ripple effect on all government deliberations. In particular, I would expect the government to amend the cabinet handbook to require that proposals evaluate climate implications against the target, including by considering low-emission alternatives, on a routine basis.
Under such a regime, a proposal to purchase new tanks for the army would be required to consider electric propulsion or, more realistically in the short term, a commitment to use biofuels or other synthetic fuels, despite the additional expense. Failure to consider such alternatives would open the government to criticism that it was not taking its own legally-enshrined commitment seriously.
Getting the law passed
While Bowen made it clear that the government regards legislated targets as best practice for the policy certainty that they provide, he also stressed that legislated targets are not strictly necessary.
In this light, he says that the government is open to ‘complementary’ amendments but will withdraw the bill if it cannot secure Senate support for the fundamentals of its agenda.
For example, if the Greens and climate-friendly cross-bench Senators were to oppose the bill on the basis that the targets were not ambitious enough, the government would probably withdraw it. Clearly the government regards itself as treading a fine line on climate ambition and does not wish to risk being held to ransom by forces on its Left, as it was in the Rudd years.
On the other hand, it is less clear whether the government would regard amendments based on Independent MP Zali Stegall’s Climate Change (National Framework for Adaptation and Mitigation) Bill 2021 as ‘complementary’.
Would the government accept amendments to enshrine, not just the 2030 target, but a rolling series of five yearly ‘emissions budgets’ and a full ‘national adaptation plan’? Or would it agree to legislate for a permanent Parliamentary Joint Committee on Climate Adaptation and Mitigation with a supervisory role over the CCA?
What is it about the challenge of climate change that makes it so difficult to solve?
Clearly, it’s a complicated problem involving many interacting components. These interacting parts include the Earth system (and its billions of components), people (you and me), states and countries; organisations and institutions; unknowns; tradeoffs; winners and losers. We’ve spent decades of effort addressing this issue – including billions of dollars on research – and yet the problem of mounting levels of carbon emissions and accelerating environmental decline only seems to get worse. (Have you seen what’s happening in the northern hemisphere at the moment? And it’s only spring!)
Clearly, climate change is a big and complicated problem but it seems to me, having watched us deal with this challenge (and fail) over many years, what we’re not acknowledging is that it’s also a complex problem, and we’re not dealing with this complexity very well.
‘Complicated’ and ‘complex’ are words often used interchangeably but they are fundamentally different ideas. Do you know the difference? I’ll confess that for most of my life I didn’t.
So, what is complexity?
Complex systems scientists have been attempting to pin down what complexity is for decades. To me, most of their definitions are highly technical and only understandable by other complex systems scientists.
Here’s one commonly used definition set out by the famous evolutionary biologist Simon Levin in 1998 that encapsulates many of the ideas floating around complexity. It’s relatively short and sets out three criteria for defining a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems have:
-components that are independent and interacting;
-there is some selection process at work on those components (and on the results of local interactions); and
-variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system (through components changing over time or new ones coming in).
Sounds straightforward but what does it mean and why is it important? Here’s how I attempted explain it in the book Resilience Thinking*.
Cogworld vs Bugworld
Consider these two situations: Cogworld and Bugworld.
Everything in Cogworld is made of interconnected cogs; big cogs are driven by smaller cogs that are in turn driven by tiny cogs. The size and behavior of the cogs doesn’t change over time, and if you were to change the speed of the cogs of any size there is a proportionate change in speed of other connected cogs.
Because this system consists of many connected parts some would describe it as being complicated. Indeed it is, but because the components never change and the manner in which the system responds to the external environment is linear and predictable, it is not complex. Really, it is just a more complicated version of a simple system, like a bicycle with multiple gears.
Bugworld is quite different. It’s populated by lots of bugs. The bugs interact with each other and the overall performance of Bugworld depends on these interactions. But some sub-groups of bugs are only loosely connected to other sub-groups of bugs. Bugs can make and break connections with other bugs, and unlike the cogs in Cogworld, the bugs reproduce and each generation of bugs come with subtle variations in size or differences in behavior. Because there is lots of variation, different bugs or subgroups of bugs respond in different ways as conditions change. As the world changes some of the subgroups of bugs ‘perform’ better than other subgroups, and the whole system is modified over time. This system is self-organizing.
Unlike Cogworld, Bugworld is not a simple system but a complex adaptive system in which it’s impossible to predict the emergent behavior of the system by understanding separately its component subgroups. It meets the three criteria outlined by Levin: it has components that are independent and interacting; there is some selection process at work on those components; and variation and novelty are constantly being added to the system.
Complicated vs Complex
In Cogworld there is a direct effect of a change in one cog, but it doesn’t lead to secondary feedbacks. The cogs that make up Cogworld interact but they are not independent, and the system can’t adapt to a changing world. Cogworld might function very ‘efficiently’ over one or even a range of ‘settings’ but it can only respond to change in one way – that is working all together. If the external conditions change so that Cogworld no longer works very well – the relative speeds of the big and little cogs don’t suit its new environment – there’s nothing Cogworld can do.
In Bugworld the system adapts as the world changes. There are secondary feedbacks – secondary effects of an initial direct change. The bugs of Bugworld are independent of each other though they do interact (strongly – though not all bugs interact with all other bugs).
In our Bugworld, if we attempted to manage a few of the subgroups – eg, hold them in some constant state to ‘optimise’ their performance – we need to be mindful that this will cause the surrounding subgroups to adapt around this intervention, possibly changing the performance of the whole system.
Ecosystems, economies, organisms and even our brains are all complex adaptive systems. We often manage parts of them as if they were simple systems (as if they were component cogs from Cogworld) when in fact the greater system will change in response to our management, often producing a raft of secondary feedback effects that sometimes bring with them unwelcome surprises.
The real world is a complex adaptive system. It is more like Bugworld than Cogworld and yet it seems most of our management, policy and leadership is based on a Cogworld metaphor.
The consequences of complexity
Complex adaptative systems are self-organizing systems with emergent properties. No-one is in control and there is no optimal sustainable state that it can be held in. These are just two of the consequences that fall out when you begin to appreciate what complexity is all about, and they are pretty important consequences if you reflect on it.
Our political leaders will tell you they are in control, and that they have a plan, a simple solution that solves the problem of climate change without anyone having to change the way they do things. This is the message that Australians have been hearing for the past decade from our (recently defeated) conservative government. But we grew skeptical of these claims as we saw our coral reefs bleach and our forest biomes burn.
Why is climate change so difficult to solve? Yes, it’s complicated with many interacting components. However, more importantly, it’s complex and complexity is something humans don’t deal with well (let alone understand).
As one piece of evidence on this, consider how we think about thinking. What’s the image that immediately comes to your mind? For most people it’s a set of mechanistic cogs encased in a head (like in our banner image this week). If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. Because what you’re seeing is a representation of a complex system (you thinking) as a non-complex simple system (a set of cogs). The ‘cogmind’ is a fundamentally disabling metaphor.
And if you scale this up to the systems around us, how many times have you accepted that someone is in control, and that the answer is in just making the world a bit more efficient, a bit more optimal? How is that going for us at the moment?
If, however, we are living in a complex world, then maybe we should stop looking for the illusory optimal solution and start dealing the complexity in which we are all embedded. How is that done?
One set of ideas I have found helpful lies in resilience thinking. Rather than prioritising efficiency, command-and-control, reductionism and optimisation, resilience thinking encourages reflection, humility and co-operation, aspects on which I’ll expand in my next blog on complexity.
*Two decades ago I was asked by a group called the Resilience Alliance to write a book on resilience science. That book, co-authored with Brian Walker, one of the world’s leading authorities on resilience science, became the text Resilience Thinking. As I learnt about resilience science I discovered that it was all about dealing with complexity, an insight that transformed the way I understood the world.
Banner image: If you thought my ‘Cogworld’ was fanciful, how many times have you seen this representation of human thinking as mechanistic clockwork without questioning it. (Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)
A single LNG development in Australia could raise the global temperature by a tiny amount. Should it be allowed? What has the ‘economics of substitution’ got to do with it?
By Peter Burnett
People frustrated by weak government responses to the Paris Agreement (with its goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2° Celsius and ‘pursuing efforts’ to achieve 1.5°’), continue to look for ways to pressure governments for stronger action. One strategy is to challenge fossil fuel developments in court.
In the latest Australian challenge, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is challenging the federal approval given to Woodside Energy’s $16 billion Scarborough liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia.
The formal basis for the challenge is, in essence, that Woodside obtained approval from the wrong federal regulator. Beyond that, it gets complicated. But it’s worth considering the details here because there are some very important principles at play.
Offshore Approvals and the Reef ‘carve-out’
Under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) the federal environment minister would normally need to approve major developments such as Scarborough. However, in 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt switched off this requirement for offshore projects by, in effect, accrediting the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) to approve projects in his stead.
The basis for NOPSEMA’s accreditation is that its regulatory regime was assessed as meeting the requirements of the EPBC Act. But the accreditation had several ‘carve-outs’, including for projects likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In other words, if a major offshore project was likely to have an impact on the GBR, then NOPSEMA could not approve it and the task but would revert to the minister for the environment.
ACF’s claim is that even though Scarborough is off WA, its total greenhouse gas emissions, especially the ‘scope 3’ emissions generated when the gas is burnt by overseas customers, will be so large that as to have a significant impact on the GBR, even though it lies on the other side of the country.
If the ACF win the case, this would trigger the carve-out and bounce the project back to Australia’s new environment minister Tanya Plibersek for a fresh approval process, something that could take years (which could well scuttle the proposal).
An analysis by Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the Scarborough project were just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions. ACF argues that this will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will harm the Reef.
Woodside may counter that this is not a significant impact, even on the back of existing emissions-driven climate change.
Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? I think there is a good argument that when the GBR is already at a critical point, every additional measurable impact on the whole reef is significant. Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase (at a time when the world is already overheating).
A second likely defence argument will be that 1.4 billion tonnes is a gross figure, which would be offset significantly, if not completely, by various factors, including that gas from Scarborough, relatively low in carbon intensity, will displace other fossil fuels with significantly higher carbon intensity. This is the ‘market substitution’ argument.
We have been here before. In 2015, environment minister Greg Hunt used a similar argument in successfully defeating ACF’s challenge to Adani’s huge Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. The Federal Court upheld the minister’s decision at both first instance and on appeal.
So, if this argument has failed before, why run it again?
Will the market substitution argument prevail?
The basic argument may be the same, but the legal context is different, notwithstanding that both cases concern the application of the EPBC Act. In the Carmichael case, the relevant arguments revolved around the meaning of certain words in the Act, including ‘relevant impact’.
However, the appeal judges did say that their decision was made on the basis of the particular arguments which ACF had put; they dropped a hint that a different argument might have led to a different result. With so much at stake, this alone is enough to make one think it was worth having another go at the market substitution argument.
I don’t know what arguments ACF and their lawyers have in mind this time around, but the Scarborough case turns on some different legislative words, especially on what is a ‘significant’ impact, as distinct from the meaning of ‘impact’ itself.
In this slightly changed context, I think the economic substitution argument could be attacked from a different angle to the one used in Carmichael. It goes like this:
If the total emissions from the Scarborough project, including scope 3 emissions, are ‘likely to have a significant impact’ on the GBR, the current approval from NOPSEMA is invalid and Woodside must refer the project afresh to Minister Plibersek.
Notwithstanding that significance must be decided on the basis of a likely net, rather than gross emission increase; the likelihood is that each of the factors said to offset the gross impact does not, on balance, reduce the gross figure significantly, for the following reasons.
Even if gas from Scarborough has a much lower carbon content than the fuel currently consumed by Scarborough’s customers, it is not enough to find that this low carbon gas would displace high carbon fuel for these customers. Rather, to achieve a net reduction, the high carbon fuel must be displaced from the entire market — ie, it must be likely that it will be left in the ground.
This is because, prima facie, if supplies of a fossil fuel are displaced by an alternative, basic economics (the principle that markets ‘clear’) suggests that the displaced fuel will be sold elsewhere, even if this requires a price reduction. This is especially true given that the global market for fossil fuels continues to grow, despite a Covid19-induced dip.
Then there is the policy argument, that because many countries have adopted Paris targets such as ‘net zero by 2050’, emissions from Scarborough will be offset by reductions that are driven by these targets.
Even if countries delivered on such targets in full and the 1.5° goal were achieved, the reef would still be under significant threat and Scarborough would still exacerbate that threat.
However, countries are not on a global trajectory for anything like 1.5°, so the backdrop to Scarborough’s impact is closer to a 3° increase. Worse, many countries have a history of promising more than they deliver, in some cases adopting targets that are little more than aspirations.
Finally, there is the argument that technological change will drive major emissions reduction through the shift to renewables. This is valid in some countries, but, globally, the renewables shift is more than offset by global increases in demand: otherwise, global emissions would not continue to rise.
At the end of the day, unless there is evidence that gas from Scarborough is leading directly to high-carbon fuels being left in the ground, the supposed offsets look rather vague at best, leaving it likely that Scarborough’s net emissions will be similar to its gross emissions.
Where are we headed with this?
I wouldn’t like to predict where the Federal Court will land, but I do think it is possible that the market substitution argument, at least under the EPBC Act, will prove to make little difference.*
If I were the federal government I would deal with cases like this by moving quickly to legislate a comprehensive climate policy regime, not to mention a wider and contemporary environment protection regime as recommended by the 2020 Samuel Review.
I would be thinking that it is better for governments to get on the front foot rather than risk the unpredictable results that can follow when people are driven to litigation by their frustration with outdated or missing laws.
*I know the argument has been rejected by the Land and Environment Court in NSW in the Gloucester Resources case (Rocky Hill). But the Court there had the power to review the decision on the merits, which makes a big difference, for reasons too complicated to explain here.
Banner image: New research shows global warming of 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs – including those once thought of as refuges. Should any new fossil fuel developments be approved in such a time? (Image by Maria Beger)
If you could go back in a time machine some 20 years, what would you tell a younger version of yourself about climate change and how the world has responded to it in the last two decades?
Back from the future
“Well, young David, you know how many people are talking about climate change; and how scientists are forecasting horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption if we do nothing about our carbon emissions? Well, guess what? I’m from your future, from 2022, and you know what we did? We did nothing!
“And the scientists were right. We’re now experiencing horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption.
“Of course, it’s unfair of me to say we did completely nothing. In the past two decades there’s been heaps of talk, research and many agreements signed. And many of us now have photovoltaics on our rooftops.
“The scientific consensus on climate change has only firmed since the year 2000, and there have been efforts in various places on ways of reducing carbon emissions.
“However, by and large, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have steadily, remorselessly, built up. (In 2000 we were around 370 parts per million CO2, in 2022 we’re over 412 ppm, over a 14% increase.)
“Here are few ‘milestones’ that you might want to reflect on from the past two decades (that’s the next 20 years from where you’re standing).
“As you know, there had been multiple international scientific consensus reports on the biophysical reality of climate change, most notably the IPCC reports of 1990, 1995 and 2001. These set out the very clear case for the scientific basis of the changes happening to the Earth system and what this meant for us, but they were quite ‘sciency’, bloated with technical jargon and largely discounted by the politicians.
“Then, in 2006, the UK released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It was significant because it was the largest and most authoritative report of its kind setting out the dire consequences for civil society. It found that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the world. The Review’s main conclusion was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.
“I’m telling you this, young David, because at this time (still six years in your future) it looked like all the political ducks were lining up for strong action on climate change.
“In 2007, Australia elected in a new government led by Kevin Rudd who declared that ‘climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation’ and proposed a comprehensive policy called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that would put a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions. It would have placed Australia at the vanguard of global climate action.
“I have to say, young David, that up until this time I had begun to despair that any of our political leaders were going to do the right thing. And then Rudd stood up and said this was too important not to do something, we couldn’t abrogate our responsibility to future generations. I felt hope.
“But then the opposition conservative party decided to turn climate change into a divisive political battle, and the Greens said the CPRS wasn’t strong enough and voted against it… and the CPRS failed to pass through Parliament.
“And then Rudd said ‘Ah well, it’s too difficult to get through so we’ll park the CPRS and revisit it sometime down the line.’
“This moment is several years in your future, young David, but, mark my words, when you reach it your illusions that climate change is a tractable issue capable of being solved by good science and well-meaning people will be shattered. And it will be a significant moment in which you begin transforming into me, grumpy old David.
“Because you believed Rudd when he said this was the most important issue of our time. And you stopped believing him when he threw it to the side. (I note his party stopped believing in him after this, too.)
“And then I watched in horror as climate denialism started taking centre stage, populism trumped informed debate and the costs of acting were overhyped in order to prevent any meaningful action being taken. Stern’s mantra of ‘early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’ were completely forgotten in the political shit storms that followed.
“And then the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching (2016), our forest biomes went up in flames (2019) and historic floods devastated the nation (2022). The most common adjective being rolled out in all these disaster stories is ‘unprecedented’ because the past is no longer a guide to what we can expect.
“In 2022 (the year in your future from which I return) the whole world is enduring ongoing climate catastrophes. India and Pakistan have just suffered their longest and most intense heat wave resulting in crop failures. Europe is reeling under the ‘unprecedented’ heat and the fires are expected soon. In the United States an ‘unprecedented’ drought is crippling the water supplies of their western cities. Many of our small island Pacific nations are facing an existential crisis as rising seawaters lap at their doors. And everyone everywhere is going a little bit crazy.
“And, young David, this is not ‘a new normal’. This is only the start of the warming that scientists were describing two decades (and more) ago, with some accuracy I might add. Yet still our political leaders allow today’s ‘sunk investments’ in fossil fuels to delay our actions.
“Oh, and speaking of investments, young David, one last thing before I’m back to the future; buy as much stock as you can in Apple and Facebook. But don’t tell anyone I told you, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble with the mechanic who runs the space-time continuum.”
So, what’s the point of this little thought exercise (above and beyond a reflection on my earlier poor investment choices)?
In recent weeks, Australia has been gripped by an energy crisis – not enough affordable energy to power the system at the beginning of a cold winter. Experts from across the energy spectrum have commented on the causes and solutions to this crisis, always noting they are complex and not quickly solved. In response, many people have accused the experts of obfuscating and hiding behind the idea of ‘complex’. Just tell us how to fix it, they cry.
But it’s true, I thought. It is complex. You can’t solve this energy crisis with simple and easy fixes. You increase energy supply here, and you throw out the system over there. Simple fixes to complex problems inevitably create bigger problems down the line or on the other side of the continent.
And the energy problem is only a small part of the bigger climate change issue, which is complex times complex. Greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in our energy, our food, our transport, in everything.
And yet, again, our political leaders tell us there is a simple solution, just vote for us. Anyone who acknowledges it is a complex problem with complex solution will be torn to shreds by the opposing party when they go for election. The costs to the present status quo (based on fossil fuel dependence) will outweigh calculations on future sustainability.
Stern’s claim that the “benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting” are valid, but completely lost in the complex world in which we live.
In some ways I’m feeling like it’s 2007 again. We have just elected a new government promising action on climate change and hopes are high. But I fear we’re still not engaging with the complexity of this challenge.
If I could turn back time, this is what I would be trying to tell our political leaders. Don’t treat climate change as a simple problem. It’s not. It’s complex. And complexity means you need to acknowledge connectivity between sectors, path dependency, non-linearity and threshold behaviour in key variables. All themes which I will discuss in up-coming blogs.
I titled this essay ‘Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex.’ Another way of framing that is encapsulated in the quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” (HL Mencken).
I believe climate change is a challenge that can be resolved, but only if we acknowledge that it really is a problem of complexity.
Banner image: Quick Young David, there’s not a moment to lose. The very future is at risk! (Image by Danny Springgay from Pixabay)
Good news, Australia – the environment is back. Our new government has introduced a new super-department covering climate change, energy, the environment and water.
But while the ministry move sounds great in theory, it’s risky in practice. Having one super-department supporting two ministers – Tanya Plibersek in environment and water, and Chris Bowen for climate change and energy – is likely to stretch the public service too far.
If a policy area is important enough to warrant its own cabinet minister, it also warrants a dedicated secretary and department. This is especially true for the shrunken environment department, which has to rebuild staff and know-how after having over a third of its budget slashed in the early Coalition years.
Supporting two cabinet ministers stretches department secretaries too thinly. It makes it hard for them to engage in the kind of deep policy development we need in such a difficult and fast-moving policy environment.
What are the politics behind this move?
Tanya Plibersek’s appointment last week as minister for the environment and water was the surprise of the new ministerial lineup.
Even if Plibersek’s move from education in opposition to environment in government was a political demotion for her, as some have suggested, placing the environment portfolio in the hands of someone so senior and well-regarded is a boon for the environment.
Having the environment in the broadest sense represented in Cabinet by two experienced and capable ministers is doubly welcome. It signifies a return to the main stage for our ailing natural world after years of relative neglect under the Coalition government.
It also makes good political sense, given the significant electoral gains made by the Greens on Labor’s left flank. While ‘climate’ rather than ‘environment’ was the word on everybody’s lips, other major environmental issues need urgent attention. Threatened species and declining biodiversity are only one disaster or controversy away from high political urgency.
When released at last, the 2021 State of the Environment Report will make environmental bad news public. Former environment minister Sussan Ley sat on the report for five months, leaving it for her successor to release it.
That’s not half of it. Bowen is also tasked with delivering the government’s high-profile 43% emissions cuts within eight years, which includes the Rewiring the Nation effort to modernise our grid. He will also lead Australia’s bid to host the world’s climate summit, COP29, in 2024, alongside Pacific countries.
Plibersek also has to tackle major water reforms in the Murray Darling basin and develop new Indigenous heritage laws to respond to the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock art site Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto.
Can one big department cope with this workload?
Creating a super-department is a bad idea. That’s because the agenda for both ministers is large and challenging. It will be a nightmare job for the department secretary tasked with supporting two ministers. It’s no comfort that the problem will be worse elsewhere, with the infrastructure department supporting four cabinet ministers.
Giving departmental secretaries wide responsibilities crossing lines of ministerial responsibility encourages them to reconcile policy tensions internally rather than putting them up to ministers, as they should.
The tension between large renewable energy projects and threatened species is a prime example of what can go wrong. Last year, environment minister Sussan Ley ruled a $50 billion renewable megaproject in the Pilbara could not proceed because of ‘clearly unacceptable’ impacts on internationally recognised wetlands south of Broome.
Ley’s ‘clearly unacceptable’ finding stopped the project at the first environmental hurdle. That’s despite the fact the very same project was awarded ‘major project’ status by the federal government in 2020.
The problem here is what might have been the right answer on a narrow environmental basis was the wrong answer more broadly.
If Australia is to achieve its potential as a clean energy superpower and as other renewable energy megaprojects move forward, we will need more sophisticated ways of avoiding such conflicts. This will require resolution of deep policy tensions – and that’s best done between ministers rather than between duelling deputy secretaries.
Super-departments also struggle to maintain coherence across the different programs they run. While large departments bring economies of scale, these benefits are more than offset by coordination and culture issues.
An early task for Glyn Davis, the new head of the prime minister’s department, will be to recommend a secretary for this new super-department of climate change, energy, the environment and water. In addition to the ability to absorb a punishing workload, the successful appointee will need high level juggling skills to support Plibersek and Bowen simultaneously.
Ironically, in dividing time between two ministers, she or he will be the least able to accept Plibersek’s call for staff of her new department to be ‘all in’ in turning her decisions into action.
‘The Environment’ is a tricky portfolio for any incoming minister.
The truth is, both major political parties are shy when it comes to campaigning on big environmental reform. Big reforms are very expensive, easily attacked (there are always lots of potential losers), difficult to implement in single terms of government and the implementing party doesn’t get rewarded at subsequent elections as there is rarely a large dividend for individual voters.
Consequently, the majors usually play a small target game when it comes to campaigning on the environment – say enough to suggest you’re concerned about the environment but don’t commit to too much. The aim is to differentiate yourself from the other team without raising the debate to such a level that people might start looking closely at what you’re actually proposing.
Consider how the outgoing conservative government campaigned on the environment when it was seeking to take government 9 years ago, and then how it performed. Back in 2013 the conservative party (the Liberal National Party, then in opposition) placed its focus on saving threatened species because the Labor Government was turning its conservation efforts towards a more holistic landscape focus.
Putting those plans into action
Back then Greg Hunt, the shadow minister for the environment, loudly trumpeted that his party would never turn its back on a threatened species, that his party would take positive action when it came to saving endangered animals. I remember him saying while Labor was happy to leave recovery plans up on the shelf, the conservatives would get those plans down and put them into action.
In many ways this suited the action orientated, anti-bureaucracy, managerial approach of the Abbott conservatives, in which they placed a tight focus on parts of the environmental challenge while ignoring the bigger picture.
As a campaign tactic it played well. It gave the conservatives a respectable fig leaf of environmental credibility; they hadn’t committed to too much; and it was different to Labor’s approach. When coupled with their intention to ‘axe the [carbon] tax’, deploy a green army and plant 20 million trees, the conservatives had an environmental strategy to bat away all probing questions. They went on to win that year’s election.
They didn’t win because of the brilliance of their environmental plan. That wasn’t the point; their plan was to neutralize the environmental debate at no net cost, enabling them to take up the fight to the Labor government on a number of other fronts.
Nine years into their term of office and the pennies spent on threatened species research came to an end. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub was closed down despite the problem of threatened species only growing (in some cases accelerating).
While I’m talking about the last government, which has now left office, this is not ancient history. A couple of months ago, just before the election, the environment minister Sussan Ley scrapped the requirement for recovery plans for 176 threatened species and habitats. The move was quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April. (Ms Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.)
Book ends to a sad saga
While possibly a minor note in the symphony of neglect and vandalism that characterized the conservative government’s approach to the environment, the saga of recovery plans for threatened species is significant for two reasons.
First, it provides symbolic bookends to their nine years in office. They began in 2013 by trumpeting their superior management would see recovery plans put into action so real conservation outcomes would be realized. They finished in 2022, having gutted the environment department’s capacity to even produce recovery plans (recovery plans for many species were years overdue), by simply scrapping the requirement for those plans. It’s hard to get more cynical than this.
It’s also an important story because it shows how difficult it can be to campaign on the environment. People care about threatened species and habitats, but they vote on cost of living and perceptions on who is the strongest leader. The conservative’s campaign on threatened species was as cynical as it was hollow. It was cobbled together to provide the impression they were doing something on the environment, but they knew that when their approach was shown to be false the electorate would have moved on to focus on other issues.
In a sense they were right. The electorate still worries about threatened species but its attention has been grabbed by unprecedented wildfires, mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and floods. Accelerating environmental decline has become the new normal and the electorate has lost faith in the government’s ability to deal with it. The fact that Sussan Ley refused to release the latest State of the Environment Report (which was available months before the election) only heightened our concern.
Of course, the conservatives were defeated last month for a raft of reasons, with climate denialism, contempt for women, and a lack of integrity high on the list.
The Labor opposition played a small target campaign on many issues and especially on the environment. As things have turned out, it looks like this was a clever course to take. Having won office, however, what now?
Demoted to the environment
As the ashes begin to settle following their victory, the familiar game of ‘new government’ begins to play out. The broken defeated conservative party turns on itself; the new Labor government discovers the old government have left many nasty undisclosed secrets lurking in the books; and positions of power are divvied out.
One ‘surprising’ ministerial appointment was making Tania Plibersek the Minister for The Environment. Regarded by many as one of the new government’s star performers, Ms Plibersek had been the Shadow Minister for Education and was expected to keep this responsibility moving into government; indeed, it was her stated preference. Many media commentators suggested the switch to environment was a ‘demotion’.
As a ministerial posting, why would education be seen to be more important than the environment? To put it crudely, because the department of education commands more money as a policy area, and education probably influences more direct votes than the environment; and money and votes equals more power.
Personally, I’m delighted someone as talented and capable as Ms Plibersek has been given the responsibility for the environment, but the very framing of the position as ‘a demotion’ says a lot about how ‘the environment’ plays in politics. To coin an economic idea, the environment is too often seen as an externality to political life, it’s not part of the core business.
In from the cold
As an externality, the major parties will always be keen to downplay big environmental reform ideas because rocking the boat is simply unacceptable in a political campaign. (Witness the blowback from a price on carbon for the Gillard government.)
The solution is to bring the environment in from the cold, to connect it to the numbers that politicians see as central to what voters think is important.
One way of doing this is by developing environmental accounts that are incorporated into the economic national accounts that sit at the heart of so much political debate; to capture the environmental externality and bring it inside the tent.
Another way this might happen would be to have a trusted, transparent and independent office overseeing all development applications where there is an environmental impact.
How will we know that the environment has been brought in from the cold? We’ll know when the next ‘surprise ministerial posting’ to the environment is described as a promotion.
So Australia has a new Labor government, having secured its win on the back of a ‘small target’ strategy that meant saying as little as possible about substantive policy (including on the environment).
That’s nice for them, but what now for the environment itself, especially since Labor’s intended environment minister, Terri Butler, lost her seat to a Green?
Before I get to that, a little more on the environmental implications of the election results.
Despite both major parties largely ignoring the environment (see my last blog), it was quite a ‘green’ election, with the Greens picking up three inner-city Brisbane seats in the lower house to add to their base of just one, while also jumping from nine to 12 seats in the Senate, a 33% increase.
More than this, there was a ‘Teal wave’ in the lower house, with five supposedly-safe ‘blue-ribbon’ Liberal Party seats falling to pro-climate-change ‘Teal’ Independents, joining Zali Steggall and several others to create a loose pro-climate cross-bench ginger group of up to nine.
Meanwhile, the Senate, with the addition of Canberra-based Independent David Pocock, now has a pro-climate majority.
Together these changes represent a major shift in favour of environmental action. (I’m going to assume that the pro-climate MPs will be generally pro-environment, although the degree to which this is ‘on the record’ varies between these MPs.)
While it’s hard to divine the reasons for this shift, I’ll go with conventional wisdom for the moment, which is that our recent horror years of drought, fire, smoke, storm and flood have brought climate change in particular into the homes many millions of Australians, literally.
Policy on the record
Until just before the election, Labor had well-developed policies on climate and water, but a small grab-bag of policies on the rest. At the last minute, Labor released a policy on environmental law reform, in the context of the previous government’s failure to table a full response to the 2020 Samuel Review of Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Labor promised a full response to the Samuel Review, but in the meantime says they will establish an independent Environment Protection Agency. The agency will have two roles, one concerned with gathering and analysing environmental information and the other focused on compliance with environmental regulation and assurance that environmental standards are being met.
Labor highlights that, as well as being a custodian for national environmental information, the EPA’s data division will take a ‘leadership role’ in environmental accounting. This is a welcome and overdue development for a decision tool that remains largely unrecognised.
Policy off the record
While Labor lifted its game at the last minute with its environmental law reform policy, they can hardly be said to be environmental-policy high performers.
Their ‘43% by 2030’ climate target, while a significant advance on the ‘26 to 28%’ target of the outgoing government, is still much criticised as falling well short of what the Paris target of ‘well below 2 degrees’ requires.
And the environmental law reform commitment remains, for the most part, a commitment to come up with answers rather than an answer in itself. Once the new government starts work on fleshing its policy out, they will find that the job requires much more than just a streamlining of environmental regulation and some extra money for a resource-starved department.
The really big challenges are a lack of clarity and ambition about environmental outcomes and a major under-investment in environmental restoration.
While the Paris targets and our ‘Net Zero by 2050’ commitments provide a clear policy objective for climate policy, the same cannot be said for other areas, biodiversity in particular.
And our data is so poor that even the experts find it hard to tell us what a policy to halt biodiversity decline would look like on the ground.
Our history of policy failure to date suggests strongly that if reversing biodiversity decline is to be the goal, major institutional change and major investment in environmental restoration will be needed, far beyond anything seen to date.
And the new minister?
The good news is that Tanya Plibersek has been appointed environment minister in the new government. Announcing her appointment, the Prime Minister said Ms Plibersek had a long-term interest in the environment and would be ‘outstanding in that area … particularly in the area of the Murray Darling Basin Plan … it’s very important that that actually get delivered.’
Ms Plibersek is a very experienced and capable operator with previous ministerial experience. She is often spoken of as a future leader and has political heft.
The bad news is that her challenge is not simply to be a political success in the role, nor even to deliver real progress on the ground. The real challenge is to lay the foundations for ongoing success, against a backdrop in which the goal-posts, thanks to climate change, keep moving further away.
Tanya Plibersek will need all her considerable skill and experience, and a significant dollop of Parliamentary and stakeholder goodwill, if she is to have any prospect of meeting this daunting challenge.
We wish her luck.
Banner image: The Australian numbat, now listed as Endangered. Widespread clearing of their habitat and predation by feral animals have led to their steep decline. Arresting the collapse of our biodiversity is just of several major environmental challenges Australia’s new government needs to tackle. (Image by Seashalia Gibb from Pixabay)
If you were trying to explain Australian politics to an outsider (an alien or an American, for example), you could do worse than falling back on a colour chart synthesis.
Australia has two major political sides, a red team and a blue team.
The red team is called Labor and supposedly places priority on workers and organisations that represent workers. Red might represent the colour of the blood that flows through the veins of the good honest wage earner.
The owners of the businesses that benefits from the toil of these honest workers believe the blood that flows in their veins is blue. Their political allegiance is to the idea of freedom and letting businesses and markets decide on priorities and that government should be kept small. They call themselves Liberals and their colour is blue.
But there are a couple of other teams we need to mention up front.
There’s also a party that claims its mandate is based on standing up for the people of regional Australia – farmers and miners on the whole – these are honest hard-working folk with strong roots in the soil. They’re a little red because they expect government to support them in the regions but more blue because they don’t like being told what to do. They call themselves the National Party, and I’m naming them ‘team brown’ after the dirt they toil over (even though their official colours are green and yellow).
Then there are the greens. No prizes for guessing what they stand for – it’s the environment. They want strong government regulation (or, as the blues and browns say, ‘pesky government interference’) on climate change, pollution and conservation. They are more aligned with the reds than the blues, and the browns largely hate them because they represent ‘government telling them what to do’.
Every three years Australians vote for someone in their region to represent them in our national government. These candidates largely come from the red or the blue team (though the blues have been in coalition with the browns for as long as anyone can remember) and Australia has always been ruled by the red team or the blue/brown team.
What else do you need to know? Well, you should be aware that all adult Australians have to vote (no discretion there) and that we have an independent organization that oversees the electoral process (the Australian Electoral Commission). This is important because Australians trust our electoral process and always accept the people’s verdict (I’m looking at you Mr Trump). Whenever the people choose the other side to govern, there is always a smooth transition of power. This is something the nation is very proud of.
Business as usual
Why am I telling you all this? Well, if you’re from another planet (or the US) you might be a little confused at how we’re responding to multiple environmental crises engulfing Australia (and the world).
Our coral reefs are bleaching, forest biomes are burning and low land communities are flooding. Climate change is exacting a horrible and growing toll on our nation (and the poor are copping it the worst), we have a very strong scientific consensus on what we need to do to address the problem (ie, reduce greenhouse emissions) yet our national government (which until last week was blue/brown) has been steadfast in its opposition to do anything about climate change. Many of its members are in strong denial that climate change is even real.
Whenever a proposal comes up to make a change to our economy to reduce greenhouse emissions, the government scares people about the cost of that change (without reflecting on the larger cost of not changing). This is exactly what happened at our last national election (in 2019, the same year of the Black Summer that scorched Australia’s eastern seaboard).
Over the last three years since then, our blue/brown government has done little about climate change while at the same time ignoring growing calls for an independent commission on integrity, turning its back on the pleas of our First Nations people for voice in our constitution, and largely ignoring cries from women everywhere for respect and agency.
Over the past six weeks the country has been dragged through an election campaign in which the blue/brown party claimed they should be re elected because the world was becoming too dangerous to trust anyone but them to lead us forward. It’s a powerful message that always favours the incumbent. They said they had a plan though few people knew what it was beyond keeping things the same.
The red party also they said they had a plan – a plan for change. But because they got beaten up at the last election over the cost of change, at this election the change they detailed was very small (a small-target campaign).
This left many people very depressed because both parties were saying the world was increasingly dangerous and that they had a plan, but both plans didn’t involve much change.
A new colour?
In many cities around Australia there were many people who normally voted blue who no longer trusted the blue party because they seemed to be ignoring growing calls for action on climate change and greater integrity in government. It seemed the blues were hostage to the demands of the right-wing conservative browns (the junior partners in government).
These disenchanted blue voters were reluctant to vote red but even more loathe to support the greens (often portrayed as fanatical and uncompromising in their zeal for environmental reform). However, they were damned if they were going to support the blues anymore.
Independent candidates (people with no specific colour preference) have long been a component of Australia’s political scene but they appear spasmodically and normally campaign on a limited range of issues in specific regions. They occasionally exert considerable influence when they hold the balance of power but they usually disappear after one or two terms. They normally get in because they have good grass-root connections with the communities they seek to represent.
In the lead up to our most recent election, however, something unprecedented occurred. High profile community-based independents stood for office in a range of blue seats in cities across Australia. They were almost all women with strong professional backgrounds, and would likely have been blue supporters in the past.
They became known as the teal independents, teal* being a shade lying between blue and green. And they proved phenomenally successful at the weekend’s elections knocking off some of the blue’s most high-profile candidates including the former treasurer (who had been touted as the next blue leader).
The colour of resilience is teal
Indeed, the ‘teal revolution’, as some have dubbed it, may go down in Australian political history as the day our political leaders finally heard the message resonating through the broader community: we want real action on climate change, and we want integrity in our political leadership. No more lies, denial and corruption; no more kow-towing to the fossil-fuel industry (listening to political donors rather than electors).
Though the counting still continues, it looks like Labor (the reds) will have a workable majority and can form government in its own right. However, they know they can’t ignore the broader community’s wishes on environmental reform and integrity. If they do they risk a similar revolt as with the teals (maybe a rufous rebellion). The Australian electorate now knows it can’t be ignored.
The blues, being overly influenced by the browns, thought they could ignore the wishes of electorate. They thought they could trounce the reds while laughing at the greens because they believed a sufficiently frightened public would shy away from change, stick with a status quo no matter how inadequate. The teals appeared as if from nowhere and proved them dead wrong.
Our now defeated former Prime Minister, a man without a moral compass and a prolific liar (according to his own party colleagues), often spoke about making Australia more resilient. By bowing to the browns he prevented meaningful change, and actually helped make the country less resilient. Perversely in terms of what he intended, his actions directly contributed to the rise of the teals and the destruction of his own party.
Resilience is all about changing as the world changes.
If resilience has a colour then it has to be teal.
*Teal is a cyan-green color. Its name comes from that of a bird — the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) — which presents a similarly colored stripe on its head.
With Australia heading to the polls at the end of this week, what better time to look at election policies on the environment, especially those of the two parties capable of forming government: a re-elected Coalition, or Labor?
Climate gets the lion’s share of environmental attention these days, so I’ll focus on the rest, but I can’t resist a couple of quick comments on climate before doing so.
First, both major parties have committed to net zero by 2050, but Labor is more ambitious in the short term, with a 2030 target of 43% (adopted in 2021), compared to the Coalition’s target of 26-28% (adopted in 2015).
As for Labor, they don’t have any measures for getting to zero by 2050 either, though they have supported their ‘43% by 2030’ target with policies and modelling.
Whoever wins government, they’ll need to get cracking on post-2030 policy, as 2030 is less than eight years away and climate is by far the biggest challenge for governments since World War II.
As to environmental policy on everything else, it boils down to ‘not a focus for us’ vs ‘not telling’. Let me explain.
The Coalition on the Environment
The Coalition at least has a policy, but that’s the high water mark of my compliments.
Climate aside, three things stand out.
First, for a party that likes to claim the mantle of being the best economic managers, they are heavily into creative accounting. A number of the claims in the Coalition policy contain big numbers, such as the claim that they are investing $6 billion for threatened species and other living things, but they puff these up by counting past spending and/or projecting a long way forward.
I’ve criticised this practice as ‘disingenuous bundling’. Certainly, one of the headline policies, ‘$1 billion for the Reef’ represents little more than business as usual.
The second stand-out theme is making a virtue of necessity. The Coalition has a reasonable policy on waste and recycling. And they quote the Prime Minister himself as arguing that ‘It’s our waste, it’s our responsibility’.
The back-story however is that we used to ship a lot of domestic waste to China, but they banned this from 2018. In reality, we had no choice but to fix the problem.
Again, the Coalition policy recites money spent on bushfire recovery and flood response, but practically speaking they had no choice in this. Hardly inspiring.
Finally, they tell you that they have put another $100 million into the Environment Restoration Fund. I’ve criticised this elsewhere as pork-barrelling.
All in all, if you ignore the pork, necessary disaster-response and the smoke and mirrors, it’s pretty much an empty box, though freshly wrapped.
Labor on the Environment
While the Coalition reached for the wrapping paper, Labor have gone for ‘keeping mum’.
Pursuing a small-target strategy overall, but forced by circumstance to engage with the high political risks of climate policy, Labor have gambled that they can run dead on the rest.
They have released a few topic-specific policies. Labor will double the number of participants in the successful Indigenous Rangers program and spend $200m on the Great Barrier Reef, on top of the Coalition’s $1 billion by 2030. They’ll also spend $200m on up to 100 grants for urban rivers and catchments.
A little more significantly, Labor’s Saving Native Species Program commits $224.5 million over four years to preparing overdue species recovery plans and investing in the conservation of threatened species, especially the koala.
Like the Coalition, however, Labor likes to make virtue out of necessity: more than 10% of this money goes to fighting Yellow Crazy Ants in Cairns and Townsville.
All of this is at the margins.
But on the big issues … silence.
What of the 2020 review of Australia’s national environmental law by Professor Graham Samuel? What about the ongoing decline identified by successive State-of-the-Environment reports?
Labor’s website cheerily tells us that: ‘Labor will commit to a suite of environmental policies that continues Labor’s legacy on the environment, and we’ll have more to say about this over the coming weeks’ (my emphasis).
Well, if the ‘coming weeks’ refers to the election campaign, time’s up.
And the winner is …
If you are looking to the major parties for vision and boldness on environmental policy then, with the possible exception of Labor’s climate policy, you’re destined for disappointment.
The Greens are always strong on environment, and have some well-founded hopes of winning an extra seat or two, so they are a definite option for environmentally-concerned voters.
With minority government a real possibility and the major parties reluctant to associate with the Greens, it’s the ‘Teal’ and other climate-focused independents like David Pocock in the ACT (collectively, ‘Teals’ for short) who look to have the most potential to up the ante on the environment.
Standing mostly in well-off inner-city seats and blending liberal blue with environmental green, the Teals may find themselves holding the balance of power, at least in the Senate and possibly in the House of Representatives as well. While climate is clearly their focus, I’d expect the Teals to push strong environmental policy generally, if the chance comes their way.
Banner image: Look closely at what both major parties are offering on the Environment and there’s nothing to get excited over. (Image by yokewee from Pixabay)
Why do simplistic three-word slogans have such cut through? Why does incumbency give a political party such an advantage? Why does a simple lie so often trump an inconvenient and complex truth?
The answers to these questions (and so many other mysteries surrounding the way election campaigns are run) lies in the way we think. And one of the finest minds alive today who has devoted much of his life on trying to understand how we think is a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman.
Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, distilled the essence of his research on how we think in a book called ‘Thinking, fast and slow*’. It’s around 500 pages long and quite dense in parts as Kahneman explains how he and colleagues** rigorously tested many assumptions on how humans think and make decisions. There’s a lot of detail presented, and I’m not saying it’s an easy book to take in; however, if you have any interest in how our inherent biases distort our decision-making processes then this is a must read.
In a nutshell, Kahneman describes how ‘fast thinking’ is what we do intuitively, almost thinking without thinking. ‘Slow thinking’ is when we analyse the information we’re processing. It takes time (hence it’s ‘slow’) and, most importantly, it takes considerable mental effort. Slow thinking helps us correct the biases inherent in our fast thinking but because slow thinking is hard, our brain often gives up on it because it takes too much effort. When this happens, we default back to fast thinking usually without even being aware of it; which is fine a lot of the time (like when you’re fending off a sabre tooth tiger) but can often lead to sub optimal (and sometimes awful) outcomes.
In the words of Kahneman
How does this relate to the way politicians prosecute their election campaigns? I’ll let Kahneman spell out some of the consequences.
On the ‘illusion of understanding’, Kahneman says (p201 in Thinking, fast and slow):
“It is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
My take: Politicians capable of telling a ‘coherent’ narrative do better than scientists attempting to explain to you a complex story with all the details.
On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):
“The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.”
My take: We make many of our most important decisions based on what other people believe, people we trust, not on what we know. Scientists always believe more evidence and quality evidence will win the day (probably because the people they trust, other scientists, think the same way).
On ‘confidence’ (p212):
“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”
My take: Don’t confuse confidence with validity. Don’t believe, as most scientists do, that information with high uncertainty is always discounted.
On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):
“Optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession [GFC] is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organisations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.”
My take: Some people (in some circumstances) can fool all of the people some of the time.
On being a successful scientist (p264):
“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”
My take: Scientists are human, too.
On not seeing flaws in the tools you use (p277):
“I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.
…disbelieving is hard work, and System 2 [thinking slow] is easily tired.”
My take: When your only tool is a hammer, all you see are nails.
On ‘reform’ and attempting to change the status quo (p305):
“A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest”…
…In human affairs, the same simple rule explains much of what happens when institutions attempt to reform themselves…
As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favour and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned.
Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals. This conservatism helps keep us stable in our neighbourhood, our marriage, and our job; it is the gravitational force that holds our life together near the reference point.”
My take: Incumbent conservative governments have all the advantages when it comes elections involving reform and complex policy positions. Reformers wanting to shift the status quo have a very hard task because of the power of ‘loss aversion’. Also, a concentrated force beats a dissipated force, even if the dissipated force is greater overall.
On dealing with rare events (p333)
“When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.”
My take: Human thinking is not well adapted to deal with climate breakdown or biodiversity loss.
On good decision making (p418)
“They [decision makers] will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decisions to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.”
My take: Good decisions are not just about good outcomes. Decisions should be judged as much by the process by which they are made, and that people take better decisions when they think they are accountable. (This quote, by the way, is the final line in the book.)
Kahneman’s quotes aren’t pithy generalised reflections that came to him as he was thinking about thinking. They are direct conclusions of multiple rigorous trials in which subjects were given options to choose between in which they needed to assess risk and possible outcomes.
And the research isn’t new or unreviewed. Some of his findings on cognitive biases and decision heuristics (the mental rules-of-thumb that often guide our decision making) go back some 50 years. Kahneman is recognised as one of the world’s leading behavioural psychologists, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his work on prospect theory (pretty good for someone who had never studied economics), and his work has been a cornerstone to the developing field of behavioural economics.
Of course, all of this is also central to marketing and politics: how do you communicate (sell) information to score a sale or bag a vote? You don’t do it by providing every detail available, like many scientists try to do. This simply switches people off.
Rather, you build a simple coherent narrative that you can ‘sell’ with confidence. You scare people about their losses if the status quo is threatened (as will happen if you ‘vote for the opposition’), and you frame your arguments for maximum salience to your target group.
‘Good marketing’ is about exploiting people’s cognitive biases and not overloading them with detail they can’t absorb. ‘Good politics’ is about simplistic three-word slogans and scaring voters into believing that change means they will lose.
Elections are all about good marketing and good politics
Good marketing and good politics often add up to poor policy, short-term thinking and vulnerability in a climate ravaged world.
Fossil fuel corporations (and conservative politicians in their thrall) have been manipulating community sentiment for decades, stoking scepticism and denialism about complex science, and preventing the world from responding to an existential threat.
Kahneman didn’t give them the blueprint for how this is done, but his science has revealed just how easy it can be to steer and nudge a person’s behaviour and beliefs if you understand how inherently biased our thinking can be.
The solution? There is no pill (red or blue) that can help people do more slow thinking and better reflect on the biases inherent in their fast thinking. As Kahneman has demonstrated throughout his career, humans simply think the way that they think. However, society has created many institutions that provide checks and balances on the way marketeers sell products and politicians acquire and use power. The integrity of these institutions is the bridge between day-to-day politics and good policy outcomes.
Australia is currently in election mode with a federal election only days away. Political integrity and climate change are a major concern to most Australians. Despite this, the incumbent conservative government has long resisted the establishment of an independent integrity commission to test the many claims of corruption that have been levelled at it over the years. And this government has been seen as dragging the chain on climate action (and lying about what they are actually doing).
And yet, our Prime Minister, a man who has been described as lacking a moral compass and being a serial liar (by his own colleagues!), is a masterful marketeer. Nick named ‘Scotty from Marketing’, maybe he should be retitled Australia’s ‘Prime Marketeer’. He knows how to spin a simple and coherent story and stick to it. He knows how to scare people about the costs of change, and divide communities by playing on people’s prejudices and fears. Using these skills he pulled off ‘a miracle’ victory at the last election.
Thinking fast has served him well. Now, for a meaningful response to multiple environmental emergencies, it’s time for a little reflection; a little more thinking slow is called for.
To be honest, I had never heard of Daniel Kahneman 15 years ago. But then I began working for a group of environmental decision scientists and his name constantly came up. Kahneman was the leading light who illuminated why our internal decision-making processes were so flawed, so biased. He was the ‘god’ who (along with his friend Amos Tversky**) had published the landmark paper ‘Judgement under uncertainty: heuristics and biases’ in 1974 in the journal Science, one of the most widely read papers of all time I was told. Well, I tried reading it and found it too technical and dense to take in.
Then, in 2011, Kahneman published Thinking, fast and slow. Someone described it as a 500-page version of his 1974 paper. Not a great sales pitch for me, I’m afraid.
However, just prior to the corona pandemic, I spied Thinking, fast and slow on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. It took over a year before I found the courage to open it (it was my big pandemic read), six months to wade through it, and another three months before I’ve attempted to write down why I found its wisdom so compelling.
So, for me, my journey with Kahneman has been a long one. And now that I have finished this blog, I can return Thinking, fast and slow to my friend Michael Vardon, who loaned it to me many moons ago. Thanks Michael, sorry about the delay.
** Amos Tversky
If I’ve interested you at all in Daniel Kahneman but possibly put you off reading Thinking, fast and slow (because who has time to read a 500-page horse pill of information on cognitive biases) then I highly recommend another book that covers the same ground but from a more personal framing. This one is about Daniel Kahneman and his life-long colleague and closest friend, Amos Tversky. The book is called The Undoing Project and is written by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short and Moneyball, both about biases in the way we think and assess risk). It tells the story of Kahneman and Tversky, both Israeli psychologists, and how together they unpicked the many ways our thinking is biased without us even being aware of it. Not only does The Undoing Project give an excellent overview of the research described in greater detail by Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow, it also paints a touching portrait of the friendship between two of the world’s finest minds. Tversky tragically died of cancer in 1996.