Entering a no-analogue future

Featured

You’re seeing it happen around you right now

By David Salt

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

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

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

Welcome to the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust in the future

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepers awake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Dawn of the new normal(?)

Featured

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

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

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

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

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

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

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

Scorched coral

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new normal

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

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

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

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

A new light of day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The script that burns us

Featured

But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire

By David Salt

The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.

We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.

There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.

We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.

The script

So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.

At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.

Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.

The ideology

Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.

Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.

For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).

This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.

Dominion

The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.

Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.

This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.

It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.

Future replay

Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.

Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.

By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).

*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay

This febrile environment

The election is called, ‘peak crazy’ is on, and cynicism reigns at a time we can’t afford it

By David Salt

Australia has entered an election period (described as ‘peak crazy’ by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) and chickens everywhere are running around claiming the sky is falling.

Right-wing politicians are describing animal-rights activists as equivalent to terrorists and calling for them to be thrown in jail.

Our Prime Minister has accused the opposition Labor Party of attempting to steal our weekends because they announced a policy of 50% electric cars by 2030.

Carbon emissions are rising but our Government leaders are telling us we’ll make our targets at a canter (and their policy to date has actually seen emissions on average rise).

Adani’s new coal mine proposal in outback Queensland is being lauded in the regions as a source of jobs while simultaneously being condemned in the cities as an environmental horror.

It’s all so shrill, so hysterical, that large slabs of the electorate have simply switched off. No-one believes anyone and everyone seems to stop caring.

The same but different

On the one hand it was ever thus. Every election period is shrill and hysterical, every candidate smeared and compromised by the time it’s over. Then the government is returned (or changed) and life goes on. Normalcy returns.

On the other hand, things are different and we won’t be bouncing back to ‘normal’ no matter who wins.

We look around us and the evidence of climate change is real and present be it in the bleached degrading skeleton of the Great Barrier Reef or the millions of stinking fish corpses clogging the Murray Darling. Species are going extinct, droughts and floods are becoming more punishing.

We’ve just survived the most brutal summer on record but no-one believes there isn’t worse down the line.

The world is burning, figuratively and literally, but the chorus from leaders standing for election is that ‘she’ll be right’, and ‘trust us’. Such platitudes simply don’t cut it anymore, and voters are retreating into a bleak cynicism.

Rome is burning

Sometimes, however, a plaintive cry cuts through the crap.

Just prior to the commencement of the official election period I heard a former head fire fighter say on public radio that he was scared. The bushfires he was seeing in the last couple of years were unlike anything he had had to confront throughout his career. The fire seasons were longer, the burns more intense and covered a greater area. Our available resources weren’t coping.

He, along with former fire chiefs from every state and territory, were making a plea for government to acknowledge and act on the escalating risks associated with climate change. But as the country descends into a frenzy of election madness their hopes of being heard are dashed.

Your house is burning

So, our dedicated expert emergency managers are scared.

Well, I’m scared too. I’m scared of what’s coming at us; and I’m scared that our democratic process is not up to the challenge of engaging with the problems growing from the global changes we are creating.

I’m scared because our political leaders are presenting simplistic solutions to complex problems.

They tell us we can meet the challenge of sustainability and we don’t even have to sacrifice anything to achieve it. We can have our economic development and rest assured that it isn’t going to cost us the environmental capital upon which it’s based. We can have our cake and eat it.

And their assertions are so demonstrably wrong, with the evidence of this mounting around us all the time.

Yes, this is a rant*. It’s a release of the frustration that I (and many other voters) feel towards this election period that reduces important issues to sound bites, slogans and attack dogs.

The Earth is boiling and our polity is increasingly febrile.

If only our political leaders could show they care in a way I believe. Exhibit a little humility instead of hubris; acknowledge uncertainty instead of parading simplistic absolutism; and demonstrate that they too are a little scared of an increasingly frightening future.

“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

Those aren’t my words. They were uttered by a Swedish teenager named Greta Thunberg back in January when she admonished the planet’s economic leaders at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos for not acknowledging the growing catastrophe of climate change.

I feel that fear. I wish my elected representatives might too.

*I commit to be less ranty and more constructive in future posts. And I would point out that much of the angst the electorate feels during election periods (that I am ranting about here) results from our political parties pandering to vested interests, whipping up tribalism and focussing on the short term – three problems my colleague Peter Burnett focussed on in an earlier Sustainability Bite (in which he proposed several constructive solutions).