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

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By David Salt

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

Melt down

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

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

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

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

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

Blow up

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

And what caused this disaster?

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

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

Blow out

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

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

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

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

Integrity fail

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

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

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

Hollow credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did farmers do the ‘heavy lifting’ under Kyoto?

Did anyone?

By Peter Burnett

My ears pricked up last week when I heard Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, say that farmers should be exempt from any commitment Australia might make to a Net Zero by 2050 emissions target because farmers had done the heavy lifting under Kyoto.

My ears were not to deceiving me because the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, would soon repeat the comment (Regional Australia ‘should not pay bill for climate target‘).

Australia’s Kyoto policies

This struck me as passing strange, since I had been researching the Howard Government’s Kyoto policies, which were based on a principle of ‘no regrets’ – ie, that policies to abate emissions of greenhouse gases should not place a significant burden on the economy, the budget or key stakeholders.

And farmers are certainly key stakeholders.

Over time, this ‘no regrets’ principle started to fray at the edges. First, the government enacted a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) in 2000. And in 2004, it committed a non-trivial $700 million for emissions reduction programs, although the lion’s share of this was aimed at fossil fuel industries, who were key government supporters.

Finally, in 2006, the government announced a domestic Australian cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme to be established by 2012, although it lost office before the scheme was fully developed.

Anyhow, the point is that even though the Howard Government did start to move away from ‘no regrets’ as public opinion shifted, at no time did any of their Kyoto- or climate-badged policies place any significant obligations on farmers (or on anyone for that matter).

They were some programs aimed at supporting farmers to take voluntary action, such as the Farm Forestry Program, which sought to encourage the incorporation of commercial tree growing and management into farming systems, but of course these don’t count as burdens.

So, if there were no Kyoto regrets, might ministers McCormack and Littleproud been thinking of something else?

Maybe the heavy lifting was for the EPBC Act?

Perhaps they were thinking of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)? Many farmers were outraged in 2001 when Environment Minister Robert Hill listed the Brigalow Ecological Community in Queensland as endangered. This meant that a farmer could not clear a significant area in brigalow country without an approval under the EPBC Act.

In practice, however, very few farmers seek land clearing approvals under the EPBC Act. Between the commencement of the Act in July 2000 and July 2008 (ie, early in the first Kyoto commitment period) the EPBC Act was only applied to 10 agricultural-related land clearing projects involving the removal of 6,200 ha of vegetation, constituting less than 0.2% of total national land clearing over the period (Macintosh 2009).

In any event, the EPBC protects biodiversity, not the climate.

Perhaps they were thinking of state land clearing laws? Certainly, several states did pass land-clearing laws in the 1990s. The most significant states here are Queensland and New South Wales, because that is where most of Australia’s land clearing was occurring at the time.

New South Wales began to limit the land clearing in a significant way in 1995, initially by policy and then by law, passing the Native Vegetation Conservation Act in 1997 and replacing this with the Native Vegetation Act 2003.

Land Clearing in Queensland in the First Kyoto Commitment Period

Queensland also began to restrict land clearing in 1995, enacting the Vegetation Management Act in 1999 and introducing a new regime in 2003-2004 with the aim of ending broad-scale land clearing by 2006. This new regime was apparently extremely effective, so, as a case study, it is the more interesting of the two states.

Andrew Macintosh from ANU has explained that when the Queensland reforms of 1999 and 2003-2004 were introduced, the Australian Government was engaged in negotiations with Queensland over the design of the laws and financial assistance for affected landholders.*

These negotiations were acrimonious and failed. As a result, the 1999 laws were watered-down and their commencement delayed, and there was no financial assistance, federal or state.

In fact, the Australian Government wasn’t just negotiating with Queensland, but with all states and territories. And its objective, at least on the surface, was not to support Kyoto but to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biodiversity, which had just received a poor review.

But back to Queensland, which rolled out a $150 million package to support the 2003-2004 laws. Macintosh found that while this helped farmers, it by no means eliminated their opposition and there were ongoing complaints about the scheme in operation.

Interestingly, Macintosh interviewed Peter Beattie about the Queensland scheme some years later. Mr Beattie, who was Queensland Premier at the time, said that there was little doubt the laws would have been introduced irrespective of concerns about climate change.**

Apparently it’s the same story with New South Wales; the laws made no mention of climate change and it was not raised as a significant issue when the laws were being designed.**

Who’s been doing the heavy lifting?

So, did farmers do the heavy lifting under Kyoto? The answer is ‘no’, because nobody did any heavy lifting under Kyoto. It is certainly true however that environmental laws have had an impact on farmers and that this has been the cause of considerable grief over the years, although sometimes affected farmers have been compensated.

The underlying and more difficult question is whether it is fair to curtail or even prevent land clearing, in the interests of protecting and conserving the environment?

For my own part, although I would not acknowledge an absolute right to clear land, as some farmers claim, I do argue that environmental laws are for the benefit of all. As a result, where they have a disproportionate impact, for example by removing from farmers a right to clear land, I believe we should spread the burden of those impacts across the entire community.

This might mean that we should be making structural adjustment payments to some farmers.

Or perhaps we should pay them for ecosystem services from their properties.

In that regard, the government is currently developing (again)*** trials for an Environmental Stewardship Program. If the trials are successful, we may see farmers being paid to protect or restore biodiversity on an ongoing basis.

In my view this would be a welcome development.

*Andrew Macintosh, ‘the Australia clause and REDD: a cautionary tale’, Climatic Change, 2012, Volume 112, Issue 2.

** Andrew Macintosh, ‘Mitigation Targets, Burden Sharing and the Role of Economic Modelling in Climate Policy’, (2014) Australian Journal of Public Administration, Volume 73 No 2.

*** An earlier Environment Stewardship Program was closed down.

Image by Alistair McLellan from Pixabay