Silver bullets only work in fairy tales so don’t make them policy priorities for climate change

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Simple solutions for complex problems don’t exist and it’s dangerous to think they do

By David Salt

The Morrison Government is placing enormous faith in silver bullets to solve Australia’s biggest challenges. And that should worry every Australian because silver bullets are based on faith, not evidence.

Consider, for starters, their underwhelming response to the corona pandemic.

Simple solutions for complex issues

First they told us (sold us) a covid app would be our passport to living free. If enough people signed up to it, they promised, it would be the key to unlocking our economy. Costing millions of dollars to develop and promote, the COVIDSafe app was indeed supported by most Australians but, unfortunately, it quickly sank without a trace as its promise of infection tracing proved hollow.

Then they reckoned AstraZeneca would be a silver-bullet vaccine enabling an exit from pandemic living, and they put all their (and our) eggs into the AZ basket. So sure of this were they that they supported the production of AstraZeneca in Australia ensuring there would be no supply line issues. And, because they were so confident in the AZ fix, they turned their back on the Pfizer vaccine when it was offered to Australia mid last year.

Unfortunately for the government (and all Australians), the AZ vaccine had a rare blood-clotting side effect (limiting who could get it) and it wasn’t as effective against COVID variants. The Pfizer vaccine, on the other hand, came up trumps but we hardly had any. The consequences of this are playing out as I write this.

There was never going to be a simple solution to the COVID pandemic – too many variables, too many things changing over time, too many fallible humans acting in irrational ways – and we really should never have expected one. But we SO hoped for one, and that’s what politicians excel at – selling hope.

They sold us fool-proof technology, gold-standard tracing and guaranteed vaccine solutions without risk, and we wanted to believe it was true. But, as American journalist Henry Mencken described it: “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” And how wrong have we been so far in this pandemic.

The biggest silver bullet

But the biggest silver bullet being deployed by the Morrison Government is their promise that climate change will be easily solved by “technology not taxes.”

This isn’t even a ‘real’ silver bullet but some ambiguous future aspiration held up to convince voters that they (we) don’t have to worry about climate change; we don’t have to change or sacrifice how we live (symbolised by the term ‘raising taxes’) because science and technology will come to our rescue. A simple sales pitch to solve a massive and complex problem. And though it’s not credible, it’s a sales pitch that had wide resonance at the last national election where the price of responding to climate change was front and centre but the cost of ignoring it was largely ignored.

Of course the phrase ‘this isn’t even a real silver bullet’ is problematic in itself. That’s because ‘silver bullets’ aren’t real. They are a weapon from folklore, a means of killing werewolves (or in some fairy tales, witches). Given their mythical value, the term has become a metaphor for a simple, seemingly magical and conclusive solution to a difficult and diabolical problem, like killing a powerful werewolf.

Given our politicians predilections for selling hope, silver bullets are their weapon of choice. Just keep in mind they aren’t real.

Beyond the fact that they’re mythical and don’t work, the problems associated with believing in silver-bullet solutions are legion. High up on the list are self-deception, lost opportunity cost and wasted time.

Dangerous on so many levels

If you buy into the belief that climate change can be fixed with a silver bullet – like say geoengineering a planetary heat shield to bring down temperature – than you’re deceiving yourself that you understand climate change. Instead of seeing our planet as a massively complex system you’re accepting the notion that the environment is a simple thing with knobs that humans can twiddle to optimise conditions. This is a dangerous self-deception held by some of the world’s most powerful people (who like to think they are in control). Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, is a proponent of geoengineering and once referred to climate change as “just an engineering problem”.

And if we prioritise our limited resources to develop these silver bullet solutions because we’re kidding ourselves about the nature of the problem, then we’re not investing in the many capacities we need to stay resilient in a changing world. Believing in a quick fix, a magical solution that solves the issue without wholesale change, means we don’t have to tackle the deep, multi-scaled dimensions of the problem. If you can convince the electorate, for example, that pumping sulfur dioxide particles into the stratosphere will keep the Earth cool, we stop investing in all the other things we should be doing in bringing down carbon emissions at all levels of society (which might explain why the fossil fuel sector is quite keen on geoengineering fixes).

Failing to acknowledge the real nature of the problem and investing in the wrong solution is obviously not a winning policy formulation, and this will eventually be apparent (in the long run Nature can’t be fooled). Unfortunately, by then the problem is usually worse, the damage often irreversible and addressing the issue a lot more expensive. If we opt for geoengineering solutions to climate change, following the same example, we may well be investing in silver bullets that use up what time we have to steer humanity away from the yawning abyss of climate breakdown. Indeed, it has been shown that the cooling effects of sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere by natural events (eg, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1993) are short lived. They last a year or two then the heating trend caused by anthropogenic carbon emissions returns to its original trajectory as if the cooling effect had never occurred.

Firing silver bullets at coral

Consider the consequences of relying on silver bullets to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s recently endured three mass bleaching events from rising water temperatures. The scientific consensus is that the Great Barrier Reef is cactus if humanity can’t radically reduce carbon emissions.

The Australian Government has devoted its energies to blocking UNESCO’s efforts to declare the reef ‘in danger’ while telling the world we’re the world’s best reef managers. It’s promoting and investing in technological solutions such as identifying heat tolerant coral species that can cope with increased temperatures, cloud brightening (a form of geoengineering) to reduce the temperature of the sun, and even massive water fans to promote mixing and bring down water temperatures.

While I am sure there is merit in all of these investigations, they don’t address the central issue of climate change and increasing temperatures, and they won’t save the Great Barrier Reef. They are silver bullets deployed by the government to convince the electorate that a magical solution exists for a diabolical problem. And the solutions they are promoting (as the world’s best reef managers) don’t involve voters having to change behaviour or a need for the economy to be restructured.

The cost in believing in these silver bullets (above and beyond that they won’t work) is a failure to acknowledge what the real problem is, a diversion of resources away from solutions that do address the challenge, and the loss of critical years during which the Reef slips further and further into irreversible decline.

Myths

The metaphor of silver bullets is now firmly part of the political lexicon. Next time you hear it being invoked, ask where the werewolves are and then remind the speaker that simple solutions to complex problems are simply myths.

Image by illusion-X from Pixabay

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

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The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)

Risky business: When dealing with complexity, it all comes down to trust.

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Trust is the cornerstone of sustainability in an uncertain world

By David Salt

Humans are lousy at risk assessment. In some situations it’s close to non-existent. I have a very clear memory of how poor I was at calculating risk when the chips were down.

When my wife was in hospital delivering our first child, things didn’t go to plan; the plan being a short, easy, natural birth unassisted by pain relief. What actually happened was a long and painful labour which ended in an emergency caesarean. During this trial, after a seemingly endless and traumatic labour, the doctor offered my wife an epidural (a local anaesthetic in to the space around the spinal nerves in the lower back) to ease her suffering. It was in the early hours of the morning, we were at our wit’s end, and were open to any medical intervention that would ease my wife’s pain. However, before the epidural could be delivered, the doctor first needed us to sign a form acknowledging that we had had explained to us all the risks associated with the injection. These ranged from a 1-in-a-hundred chance of feeling nauseous to a 1-in-a-ten thousand chance of paraplegia or even death. We simply didn’t care, my wife needed an intervention. The doctor thought an epidural was sensible; we signed the form, the injection was given and relief was found.

Those risk numbers I just ‘quoted’ I made up. That’s because I really can’t remember what we were told. My wife can’t remember the whole episode. I was pretty stressed out, too. However, I do remember there was a risk, a low risk, of catastrophic outcomes of paraplegia and death.

I also remember being appalled that we were being asked to consider these possible catastrophic outcomes when we were so stressed already; it only added to our trauma. I assumed it was simply to give the hospital cover from litigation if things turned pear shaped. But, I thought, there had to be a better way.

That was many years ago. The pain and anxiety is long forgotten but the memory of my incapacity to rationally consider risk remains very strong.

Clots in the system

Fast forward to now, the end phase (hopefully) of a global pandemic. The risk assessment most of us (in Australia) are making is ‘should I get vaccinated’? For older people, like me, that means a jab of AstraZeneca, but a couple of people have died from a rare side effect involving blood clotting.

According to the Australian Government, the chances of getting this serious but rare side effect (called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS) is four to six in a million people for the AstraZeneca vaccine. About one in four people with this condition may die.

Attempting to work out whether it’s worth the risk, I phrase it like this: there’s approximately a 1-in-a-million chance of dying of TTS from getting the AstraZeneca jab! But if corona breaks out we know it can, in some situations, kill over 1 in every hundred people*. Take the jab I say (and I did).

But my back-of-an-envelope risk assessment isn’t worth the shred of metaphorical paper it’s written on because, according to health experts, everything depends on context. It depends on your age, your genetic makeup, your country (and the laws of that country) and your behaviour. Each factor dramatically affects the risk calculation.

So, hoping for a more nuanced and understandable explanation of the risk I turned to the official government explanations** where they tell us:
“It is important that consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm from COVID 19 Vaccine AstraZeneca to ensure that they make a fully informed decision about receiving the vaccine.”

And then they provided numbers (cases of TTS per 100,000 vs hospitalisations and deaths prevented per 100,000 people in different age groups) for low, medium and high exposure risks to COVID.

I could not make any sense of this information (which contained no understandable summary or recommendation) and I would be surprise if your average “consumer” could do much better.

Indeed, so upset was I at the government’s effort to give the impression that it was doing a good job at helping “consumers weigh up the potential benefits and risk of harm” that my blood pressure went dangerously high (thereby significantly increasing my risk of harm).

Who do you trust?

I present these two cases of risk assessment – one personal, one affecting everyone – because I believe they reflect something well known to cognitive psychologists and decision scientists: humans are lousy at assessing risk. We are riddled with biases, delusions and faith-based truisms which skew and distort the information at hand; even if we had the mathematical acuity to combine the many factors that need to be considered as we make our risk calculation.

And yet, in spite of this, we make decisions around risk every day; and most of the time we get it right (or maybe that should read we don’t get it so badly wrong that we reap the worst consequences possible). How is that?

That’s because, even if we don’t like to acknowledge it, we follow the cues of the people and institutions we trust.

I was so angry at the hospital for forcing a risk assessment on me when I was least prepared to do it, but at the end of the day, the doctor thought an epidural was good and I trusted doctors and hospitals in general. I was able to move past the risk.

I can’t understand the government’s risk explanation around AstraZeneca but, at the end of the day, I do trust most of the people advocating AstraZeneca for the over 50s (including Australian Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, who had one himself), so I got the jab.

In a complex world with growing uncertainty, trust enables us to move forward. Or, conversely, when we stop trusting the institutions upon which our society is based (think governments, the rule of law, science, emergency services), our capacity to deal with risk is also lost.

Risky business

Which is why recent trends suggesting trust in governments in many OECD countries is deteriorating (and particularly in the supposed leader of the free world, the USA) we should all be very worried.

The future is increasingly uncertain. Report after report (such as on climate change or biodiversity decline or land degradation or pollution) is telling us we are moving in the wrong direction, often at an accelerating pace. We are living unsustainably with dark and risky consequences for the generations to come.

At the very time we should be placing a premium on trust and cooperation to help us navigate the choppy waters ahead, our political leaders seem instead hell bent on ramping up prejudice and tribal fear. Populism and nationalism seem to be winning formula, trust seems to be the victim.

Australia’s traumatic Black Summer and the ongoing unravelling story of the COVID pandemic tells us the world is an unpredictable and risky place. The best response would be a concerted effort to build up the trust bank in regards to government and our many important institutions. We need transparency and accountability around all forms of decision making, and a rock solid foundation of integrity upon which we can reliably place our trust.

If we believed in the manner in which decisions were being made by our elected leaders then we would all be in a much better position when it came to making our own decisions in the face of enormous (and often growing) uncertainty and risk. Trust me on this.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*According to some calculations I’ve read, while COVID poses a real and present threat, you’re around 12 times more likely to die by drowning; around 30 times more likely to die while driving a car; and 170 times more likely to die during a Caesarean.

**It’s important to point out that I read this vaccine advice on 11 June. I looked at this site a month earlier and the advice was different in terms of details, though the overall approach was the same. On both occasions their explanations and scenarios were essentially meaningless to me.