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.

Gambling with Australia’s future – casinos before unis?

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Building a resilient future requires supporting our higher education sector

By David Salt

Australia’s university sector has been hit hard by the CoVID pandemic. The Government’s response has been to look the other way. The Government claims it wants to build a resilient future, but then it does nothing when our unis, which lie at the heart of our nation’s research, higher education and innovation infrastructure, are crippled by the closing of our national borders.

Down by 99.7%

Of course, closing our borders was necessary to manage this horrific pandemic but it also prevents international students from attending and enrolling in our institutions of higher learning, institutions which now depend on that money stream to operate.

According to Peter Hurley from Victoria University, in October 2019 almost 51,000 new and returning international students arrived in Australia. In October 2020, following the lockdown, this figure had fallen by 99.7% — to just 130!

Australia’s universities could lose $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023 according to new modelling by Universities Australia.

To much applause, the Government set up Job Keeper to help employers hold onto workers and shore up the economy as the CoVID lockdown bit hard. For some reason, universities were left out of this equation.

Crown Casino, for example, received $115 million in Job Keeper payments in the first four months of the scheme while the university sector received zero.

As economist Ross Garnaut (from the University of Melbourne) recently pointed out in The Australian Financial Review, Crown Casinos employed 15,000 people compared with 130,000 in universities (though unis contribute indirectly to hundreds of thousands more jobs). That’s right, the disgraced gambling behemoth Crown Casino is seen as a more worthy recipient of taxpayer’s dollars than our respected university sector.

Garnaut also noted the Biden administration’s initial CoVID stimulus package to Congress included a $US35 billion funding boost to the higher education sector, the equivalent of $3.6 billion to the Australian sector.

So why the enmity towards universities from our conservative national government? According to Gavin Moodie at RMIT University there are many reasons for this lack of support – cultural, ideological and structural. And it has manifested itself in many forms in the past from interfering with supposedly independent grant processes, rejecting peer-reviewed science on climate change and attacking universities when they seek to divest themselves of fossil fuel interests.

And now, when a global disturbance in the form of a pandemic threatens to rip asunder our economy and society, the Government finds a new way to disabling the university sector’s capacity to function; by ignoring it.

Navigating an uncertain future

The future looks increasingly uncertain. A resilient society would be investing in learning, experimentation and adaptation, all capacities cultivated and made available to the broader society via the university sector. Leaving this sector to wither is tantamount to nobbling our nation’s capacity to navigate through an uncertain future, to prosper in an age of rising disturbance. It simply doesn’t make sense.

That our national Government boasts at every turn how our success in this time of pandemic is because their policy is ‘science led’ is just doubling down on their hypocrisy. As with their stance on climate change, they cherry pick whatever information suits their short term political advantage. (I’m firmly of the belief that our nations’ success in containing the pandemic had more to do with luck and our exposure to the existential threat of the wildfires of the Black Summer than our governments listening to the science.)

In any event, the ‘science’ they listen to and fund is the science they believe feeds most directly into their own electoral fortunes. Medical science trumps environmental science, and always has (regardless of the complexion of the government).

If you’re in any doubt about this, check out the ‘quick guide’ to university research released by the Australian Parliamentary Library last month. It explains how Australian universities resource research activities. Based on key Australian Government data, it sets out the major sources and distribution of university research funding.

It shows, for example, that medical and health sciences get 30.6% of the available funding (in 2018) but environmental sciences gets only 3.5%; and this breakdown is quite consistent over the past decade.

And ‘the regions’ get the short end of the stick (again)

The Library’s quick guide also reveals another piece of hypocritical posturing from the Coalition, the party that says it stands for regional Australia. It shows that the Group of Eight (Go8, Australia’s top eight universities, sometimes referred to as the ‘Sandstone’ universities) get two thirds of all available research funding while the other 35 regional unis battle it out for the remaining third. This is not an argument to redistribute the little funding that’s available; it’s a good reason to increase the overall funding.

A recent report from the Gonski Institute for Education (at the University of New South Wales) shows that regional Australia is doing woefully on basic primary school educational attainment. So the Government is failing many of their key constituents at both the beginning and the end of the educational and research spectrum.

That’s something our political leaders (of all persuasions) would do well to take note of. Rural and regional communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. What’s more, rural residents are waking up to this truth (as documented in recent research led by the University of Newcastle, one of those regional universities).

Another inconvenient truth for our Government to deal with as they gamble with our future.

@davidlimesalt

Image: The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest uni. Australia’s university sector is the keystone of our nation’s resilience, and it has been forsaken by our national government.

2040 foresight – humanity’s shifting niche in the Anthropocene

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Banking on yesterday’s ‘normal’ is the worst form of denial

By David Salt

As 2020 draws to a close everyone is praying for a return to ‘normal’. We crave free social (mask-less) interaction and we all want to go to the beach for a swim without fear of catastrophic bush fires. And we want to jump on a plane and head to exotic locations and not worry about our health. And we also want the economy to be strong so we and our children are gainfully employed.

None of this was available to us in 2020 but hopes are high for decent rain this summer (in Australia, anyway), and effective CoVID vaccines are being deployed so there are growing expectations that we may now be able to control the CoVID pandemic.

But does that mean a return to ‘normal’ is coming our way? Our political leaders would like you to believe it; and all the rhetoric is about firing up the economy so the good times can flow.

Three new reports on what climate change is doing to our environment, society and economy paint a very different picture.

Bye bye world heritage

Last week the IUCN released a sobering Outlook report on the condition and trajectory of the planet’s 252 natural World Heritage sites. It found that a third of these sites are being threatened by climate change.

The outlook for five Australian World Heritage sites including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests, has deteriorated markedly in recent years. The conservation outlook for the Great Barrier Reef has worsened from “significant concern” to “critical” – the most urgent status under the IUCN system. Of course, the GBR is in serious trouble having suffered its third mass coral bleaching in five years during the 2019-20 (Black) summer.

Three years ago UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre predicted that under a business-as-usual emissions scenario all 29 coral-containing World Heritage sites would cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century.

Keep in mind that World Heritage status is only awarded to places of outstanding universal value and where national governments make commitments to protect those values. Australia acknowledges the existential threat that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef but still refuses to taken any meaningful action on reducing our own emissions, let alone campaigning for better emission reductions around the world. That contradiction makes my country a major convention abuser.

Hello health blues

And if the loss of our world’s most precious natural ecosystems doesn’t sober you up, then maybe the annual report from The Lancet on Health and Climate Change will. Among other things it found:

-there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades),

-that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019

-145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.

These numbers put CoVID impacts into the shade but our political leaders feel free to ignore them because they range over temporal and spatial scales that lie beyond their electoral timeframes.

However, as the authors of The Lancet report note: “We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.”

Adding up our sovereign climate risk

Mirroring The Lancet’s report but coming from the economic end of town, a new report from Four Twenty Seven (an affiliate of Moody’s) has assessed sovereign climate risk. Among other things it found:

-Heatwaves: Over 25% of the world’s population in 2040 could be in areas where the frequency and severity of hot days far exceeds local historical extremes, with negative implications for human health, labour productivity, and agriculture. In some areas of Latin America, climate change will expose 80-100% of agriculture to increased heat stress in 2040.

-Flooding: By 2040, the number of people exposed to damaging floods is predicted to rise from 2.2 billion to 3.6 billion people, or from 28% to 41% of the global population, with roughly $78 trillion, equivalent to about 57% of the world’s current GDP exposed to flooding.

-Tropical storms: Over half of the population in small island developing nations are exposed to either hurricanes and typhoons or coastal flooding amplified by sea level rise. In the United States and China alone, over $10 Trillion worth of GDP (PPP) is exposed to hurricanes and typhoons.

The new normal

These are just three reports in recent weeks. They are backed by hundreds of other reports, analyses and research programs from all sectors of society that have emerged throughout this year and over recent decades. And they all bear the same message – human induced climate change has disrupted the ‘normal’. The devastation of recent years is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Yes, we need action on carbon emissions today but we also need a real acknowledgement from our governments of what is happening around us.

In Australia we are led by a Conservative government that is in profound denial of what the ‘new normal’ means. They place their faith in technology to deliver an endlessly growing economy in which no-one needs to sacrifice a scintilla of their way of life – it’s win win all the way.

They believe the certainty of yesteryear will return with a few percentage points of extra productivity and maybe a slightly better resourced emergency services sector.

And this can be seen in their refusal to commit to zero net emissions by 2050. They claim they won’t make such a commitment till they fully understand its impact on economic growth, till they know its cost.

They believe their economic modelling of what lies over the event horizon is more robust and dependable than the hundreds and hundreds of evidence-based reports warning us of the impacts of the climate change today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

The economy of 2050 will be so totally different, both in form and function, to the economy of 2020 that our Government’s position of using future economic cost to defend its lack of action on climate change today is fatuous, abhorrent and immoral. It is a fundamental denial of everything that’s happening around us today.

(This implicit denial also frequently spills over into explicit statements of denial. Consider yesterday’s outburst from Australia’s Resources Minister, Keith Pitt who castigated a climate change warning from the United Nations secretary-general as an inconsequential “grand statement”.)

A new niche for humanity

Our Government’s denial of what the new normal means for society leaves us vulnerable. They claim they are making Australia resilient, when in truth they are doing the opposite, leaving us exposed.

Humanity has changed the very Earth system and we are only just beginning to appreciate what life in the Anthropocene means.

Earlier this year a group of eminent Earth systems scientists asked what this new normal meant for humanity. They found that temperature increases over the coming 50 years will see the migration of 1 to 3 billion people. One of the scientists, Marten Scheffer, explains the logic behind this analysis in a short engaging YouTube clip.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war destabilised much of Europe. We still don’t know what lasting scars this migration event will have. Multiply that by a hundred, by a thousand, and the world looks quite a different place.

We live in challenging times with an uncertain future. To be better prepared for that future we need real, widespread and effective efforts to eliminate carbon emissions. But we also need our leaders to acknowledge that this world is changing, and that they (with us) need to work with that change, not deny it.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Last chance to see

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The contradictions of ‘sustainable’ tourism in a post pandemic world

By David Salt

Tourism is riven by irony. It can empower local economies, support meaningful conservation efforts and enable people to learn more about other cultures while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect upon their own. At the same time, the act of travelling to distant locations creates greater strain on the already stressed Earth system, homogenizes and commodifies intangible culture and often places intolerable pressure on limited resources in poor regions.

Tourism can bring out the best in us and yet it frequently comes with a price that few of us want to acknowledge.

But why even talk about this in a time of global pandemic lockdown? No-one is actually travelling at the moment (far fewer people, anyway)!

Well, as Joni Mitchell says: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and now that global tourism has been effectively shut down most of us are yearning for our holiday escape.

As the hotel reservations dry up and jet contrails that once criss-crossed our international skies fade away, what is it we can say about tourism and its impacts (both good and bad)? And what will (or should) happen when we get passed the pandemic?

Last week the UN released a policy brief asking these very questions, and it makes some telling points. We might all say we want things to return to ‘normal’, but when it comes to tourism, we really need a new normal. The old ways of doing things are clearly unsustainable.

The loss of an economic powerhouse

Something that is becoming blindingly obvious as the corona lockdown grinds on is that tourism plays a massive role in our economy.

According to 2019 data, tourism generated 7% of global trade, employed one in ten people and provided livelihoods to millions of people in developed and developing countries. As borders closed due to the COVID lockdown, hotels shut and air travel dropped dramatically. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals decreased by 56%, and $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost in the first five months of 2020. And most forecasts suggest worse is to come.

The UN is particularly concerned about the impact on small island developing states (in, for example, Palau, tourism generates almost 90% of its exports) and developing countries (in Africa, tourism represented 10% of all exports in 2019).

Tourism also provides a critical source of money for conservation, often in developing countries where there is little capacity for such work. For example, a 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization survey determined that 14 African countries generate an estimated US$142 million in protected-area entrance fees alone. The shutdown of tourism activities has meant months of no income for many protected areas and the communities living around them.

The loss of tourism income further endangers protected and other conserved areas for biodiversity, where most wildlife tourism takes place. Without alternative opportunities, communities may turn to the over-exploitation of nature, either for their own consumption or to generate income. There has already been a rise in poaching and looting, partly due to the decreased presence of tourists and staff.

Cultural conservation is also taking a beating. Many cultural organizations have also seen their revenues plummet with the lockdown. During the crisis, 90% of countries fully or partially closed World Heritage sites, and around 85,000 museums were temporarily closed.

And yet the pandemic has also had an environmental upside with significantly fewer carbon emissions resulting from the downturn in tourism activity. The tourism sector has an incredibly high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. The growth of tourism over recent years has put achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement at risk. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism has been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.

Return to normal

Taken together, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum. Everyone is pushing for a return to normal, an opening of our borders and the return of the stimulus provided by a growing economy. But that very return to business as usual would see an increase in the environmental decline that international tourism helps create. It’s the conundrum that modern life seems unable to solve, that our societal addiction to economic growth prevents us from engaging with the real costs of that growth.

Even the UN report on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism seems blind to this contradiction. It points out all the advantages that modern tourism brings but, even though it acknowledges its high environmental footprint, it proposes that we ‘tranform’ tourism as we get past the pandemic by doing it exactly the way we did it before but be a bit more clever about it.

Okay, I’m sure the authors of this report would disagree with my summation. The report uses all the right words (resilience, competitiveness, innovation, green growth, digitalization and inclusiveness) but as far as I can see they are asking for all the benefits of mass tourism without acknowledging the costs of tourism when done as ‘business as usual’ (or the difficulty of reforming this business-as-usual approach).

The term ‘transform’ means different things to different people. To me it means a fundamental shift from the system you are a part of to something quite different. Transformation is not about a little change around the edges, and yet that is what I read in the UN report (noble though its aspirations are).

A new normal

If society was to really to engage with the sustainability of tourism in an uncertain future then maybe we should be talking about how we can protect the many environmental and cultural values of our top tourism destinations in a way that doesn’t involve travelling to see them.

How do we generate the resources required to steward our world heritage in a carbon constrained future? How might we enable access to these rich experiences in a meaningful and fair manner? How do we make tourism more than its current tradition of seeking the new, the pleasurable and the exciting? How do we cultivate this new tourism so that people in the developing world still receive the support they have come to depend upon from traditional tourism?

I believe most people would simply reject any notion of tourism that leaves behind the travel component, and people are hungering for their next hit of travel after this prolonged period of enforced homestay.

However, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that tourism is already under mounting pressure from a changing world, and that’s been happening long before COVID 19. Increasing areas of the world are falling out of bounds because of environmental collapse (think fire and storm for starters), political instability, lawlessness and disease.

Last chance to see

If you reject my thesis that tourism as we have known it has to profoundly change – to transform – then may I recommend this itinerary as your next grand tour: the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and Tuvalu. Call it your ‘last-chance-to-see’ tour, and tell your grandchildren you were among the lucky few who used their tourist dollars to experience some of the world’s wonders before they were lost forever.

Maybe that’s the human condition – ‘that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.’

Image: Image by kendallpools from Pixabay

The schadenfreude of corona

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and other lessons on intergenerational equity

By David Salt

It’s payback time for society; payback for the hypocrisy and self-serving twaddle that society cares about truth, freedom and justice. In practice we (as the individuals that collectively make up society) really only care about ourselves, our own resources and our own freedom; and we’ll do anything to hold onto the power to preserve our privilege. And the gulf between the lie we tell ourselves and what we actually do is now horrifyingly revealed as corona virus tears our communities apart.

Too strong? Well, you have to admit that there are many interesting intersections between the impact of corona and our notions of truth, freedom and justice. It also throws a wan light on society’s efforts on sustainability.

Truth

For starters, corona impacts are greatest in countries whose leaders have discounted or rejected medical expertise; think the US, Brazil and the UK.

There’s one classic graph going around (see figure 1) showing the escalating rates of infection in the United States over time. Next to the rising line are many of Trump’s tweets (with comments from other officials as well) constantly lying about the severity of the disease and the closeness of a cure. It’s surreal if you think about it. It’s also funny and very scary. It says something is quite rotten about the world’s ‘greatest democracy’, that blatant denial and lying can be the sustained response to a medical emergency that is seeing the needless death of tens of thousands of American citizens.

Figure 1: A graph showing US COVID-19 cases over time, and the US Government’s truth-less commentary as the pandemic unfolds.

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is another agent of falsehood constantly downplaying the coronavirus as nothing more than a “little flu.” He refused to take measures to contain the infection and undermined the work of mayors and governors who had sought to do so. He sacked two health ministers with whom he disagreed while praising the effectiveness of antimalarial drugs that science said were useless.

And then he came down with COVID-19 himself causing many Brazilians to say it serves him right after he downplayed the dangers of the pandemic – the headlines screamed Schadenfreude in Brazil, and who could blame them.

Freedom

Who can forget the protests both here in Australia and overseas (and especially in the US) of crowds of people demanding their right to associate as they like; no bans on their movements and no forcing of wearing face masks. It was surreal again with the medical experts telling us this way lays folly, this path leads to a blossoming pandemic and widespread death.

And did these freedom fighters accept this advice on what was responsible community behaviour? Not at all. They crowded the beaches, the shopping malls and bars; and the pandemic ramped up, death rates soared and everyone looked for someone to blame.

Officials in many US states that had demanded the economy be opened up immediately were now saying they had acted too quickly. A little more schadenfreude possibly?

It constantly amazes me how people demanding freedom are blind to responsibilities that go with that right.

Justice

The burden of a pandemic is never shared equally. The poor, the old and the sick always suffer disproportionately, and so it has proved with corona virus.

The virus follows paths of least resistance; it breeds in places where people aggregate, places like migrant camps and ghettoes where social distancing is a physical impossibility. It’s spread by people who can’t afford to stay at home and self-isolate, so common now in our super-casualised workforce; or those who simply don’t know better, having not been included in government awareness programs. And once it takes hold it hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

The rich can lock themselves away, drive out of town to their beach homes, live on their savings while wagging their fingers at all those people they perceive to have done wrong, regardless of their circumstance. But, at some point, even the rich suffer as the economy freezes, their financial buffers drain away or they discover their friends, or parents or even themselves have been caught in the sticky web of infection.

Is this real justice then? We turn our backs on the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, and we’re surprised with the virus breaks out because people are going to work instead of isolating (or simply not doing the right thing because they were never told). Before we know it, it’s not just the poor; everyone is suffering as the economy goes into lockdown, and everyone is worried that it might be their parents next.

Intergenerational equity

Because that’s one feature about the COVID 19 pandemic that no-one can avoid. While it can lead to the death of younger people, overwhelmingly it’s killing the old.

And therein lies irony and possibly the ultimate schadenfreude.

Younger people aren’t as afraid of corona as older people. In many places younger people are breaking the rules, partying and mixing like there’s no tomorrow; and acting as the vector that spreads the disease. They’re also locked into low paying, insecure casualised jobs. They can’t afford not to turn up to work, so again the disease spreads.

Yes, they hear lectures about ‘doing the right thing’; but, increasingly, why should they care? The older generation clearly isn’t doing much to pass on a liveable planet, so why should they care about the older generation?

The older generation doesn’t seem to worry too much about the integrity of truth, or concerned about sharing their privilege, so maybe it’s only ‘fair’ that the older generation has to wear the cost of a pandemic disease that is disproportionately hitting older people.

There are many parallels here with climate change. Truth, freedom and justice are central to our effort to find some form of sustainable solution to the challenge of climate change. Yet our engagement with these ideas is mired in self-interest, the preservation of the status quo and holding on to existing power.

Humanity is on an unsustainable pathway. The science is clear but a meaningful moral response is absent. The rich and the elite will suffer as much as the poor and the vulnerable. And when the rich fall, some might say that’s schadenfreude*.

*[Justice-based] schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or “bad” is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a “bad” person being harmed or receiving retribution.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Health trumps economy; economy trumps environment

Political priorities hinge on voter values

By David Salt

As CoVID 19 burns it way through 2020, the economy is taking a king hit. And I don’t simply mean a downturn in economic activity and ‘wealth’ creation; I also refer to the hegemony of economic advice in our national decision making. Traditional economic advice is taking a back seat to health advice.

The environment, as always, isn’t given any priority despite the environmental catastrophe of the wildfires at the beginning of the year.

Political priorities

The reason behind this switch of priorities is self evidently political. We have been receiving an avalanche of information and media showing us how bad the pandemic can be and our political leaders have had little choice but to follow expert advice on how to tackle this highly contagious virus because the consequences of not following this advice would be political death.

As I have discussed earlier (see ‘The man who shamed the PM’), Australia was uniquely lucky in its engagement with CoVID 19. Our national government was reluctant to bring on the lockdown because of the economic pain it would cause (even in the dying moments prior to the lockdown the PM was keen to promote mass crowd gatherings and wanted to personally attend rugby league matches) but the Black Summer of fire had our leaders hypersensitive to the perils of delay in the face of disaster. Consequently, they listened and responded quickly to the expert advice they were receiving.

And when that advice (and the government’s response) appeared to halt the virus in its tracks in Australia there was wide spread praise for government action and a belief that we had defeated CoVID 19.

Now we’re facing a second wave of disease with an explosion of cases in Victoria stemming from a breakdown in quarantine procedures. The critics are lining up to berate the Victorian State Government for not doing enough (often the same critics who castigated the Government for being too slow to reopen the economy) but all governments (state and federal) appear to be very responsive to the expert medical advice on how we need to respond as a society – close the borders, step up testing, enforce a lockdown of affected areas and increase community awareness of appropriate (and inappropriate) social behaviour.

Just as the bushfire emergency primed us for this pandemic emergency, so this breakout in Victoria is sustaining our vigilance and readiness to act on expert advice.

Real costs

Of course, this advice runs contrary to many economic advisers and business interests encouraging the government to open up the economy again.

Indeed some economists, such as Professor Gigi Foster from the University of NSW, say there’s a strong argument suggesting Australians would have been better off if the economy was never locked down, even if a “very extreme epidemic” had occurred. She points out that there are real and significant costs (including increased loss of life) associated with the economic lockdown that are not acknowledged by health experts who are just focussing on the impacts of the corona virus.

The Prime Minister tells us the lockdown is costing the economy $4 billion a week and that we need to get one million Australians back to work.

Of course, every decision has a cost, but these costs vary over time and space with different impacts on different people. The costs that matter most to our political leaders are those costs their voters perceive to be the most important to them. At this instant, voters are most scared about the immediate health implications of an unraveling pandemic.

A hierarchy of concern

Yes, those same voters are worried about the death of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change. Indeed, a recent ABC poll found 60% of Australians believer climate change is real and present and “immediate action is necessary” (with another 24% feeling “some action” should be taken). The experts have provided the government with detailed advice on what action it needs to take to counter climate change but that advice by and large has been ignored, primarily behind the cover that it will hurt our economy.

The government is currently reviewing its premier environmental law and the line it is running is the primary focus needs to be on how it can be reformed to speed up economic growth (a line strongly backed by the resources industry).

Time and again we see it, the economy trumps the environment. Recall former Prime Minister Abbott’s words after the last election: “Where climate change is a moral issue we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”

However, in these strange times we’re seeing something new – health is trumping the economy. Could this be the proximity of the issue to your average voter? Considerations about the Great Barrier Reef don’t affect your average Australian on a day-to-day basis. The cost of petrol (and the strength of the economy and the employment market) does. However, the availability of toilet paper and the fear of your workmates, neighbours and family, trumps your concern about the strength of the economy.

Environment first

Which leads to a fairly sad conclusion when it comes to environmental protection; it will only become a significant priority (to our political leaders) when it is perceived (by voters) as being fundamental to their day-to-day welfare and intrinsic to their economic wellbeing.

As one voter, I hold these truths to be self-evident (ie, the environment is central to our quality of life), as do many of the voters whose lives were shattered by the Black Summer fires. But I’m certain this is not the case for the wider electorate where the environment is only a consideration after everything else has been addressed.

Until the environment is perceived as central to our sustainable health and wellbeing (and under immediate threat), it will always be trumped by other values. That’s something every environmental expert should keep in mind when telling the world about their latest scientific insight.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

The man who shamed the PM

and thereby saved Australia

By David Salt

How did we do it? How did Australia beat COVID 19 when most other countries failed; failure being their inability to prevent the overloading of their health systems and the consequent death of tens of thousands of lives that should have been saved.

Is it because Australia has better leaders? Better health officials? Better people? Better geographical positioning?

Maybe our island continent’s physical isolation helped a little but I don’t think the other human factors had much to do with it, not directly anyway. Our health officials delivered similar advice to those health officials overseas but leaders in other nations often ignored this advice and shut the gate only after the horse had bolted (then searched for a scapegoat when their citizens started dying needlessly).

But our leaders followed the scientific advice pretty much to the letter. However, this is not in keeping with their behaviour in recent years in which they felt free to ignore, discount, denigrate or deny scientific advice that ran counter to their politics and ideology – think death of rivers, collapse of coral reefs and skyrocketing extinction rates.

And yet this time they did listen. What’s more, they showed how effective our federal system of governance could be when federal and state governments pulled together. How did we do it? Why did we do it differently this time?

The answer, I believe, is that our nation was primed for an unprecedented national response to an unprecedented national emergency by an earlier unprecedented national emergency. And I’ll make my case on this using what happened when our Prime Minister mis-read this earlier unprecedented national emergency.

Our PM’s Black Summer

Remember our Black Summer? The fires were extinguished only a couple of months ago but COVID 19 has relegated that disastrous time to a different age. But I reckon it was our experience of Black Summer that made the difference on how Australia responded to the ensuing COVID 19 pandemic.

And maybe the defining moment during this horror season on wildfire was when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rebuffed after making a unilateral announcement to bring in the army reserve on Saturday 4 January.

It was already clear by that stage that the Federal Government’s standard command-and-control approach wasn’t cutting the mustard. But, true to form, our leaders pushed on hoping to push through. And they played down the connection with climate change: ‘let’s not talk about that now, we must focus on the emergency’.

But the fire emergency was still escalating so the Government called out the army reserve without telling the states and simultaneously put out a political ad telling Australia what a great job it was doing. And they did it on the very day the wildfires were at their unstoppable worst.

The real heroes of the moment were the firies and emergency workers. When the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was told of the army reserve call out (by the media, not by the Federal Government) he was flabbergasted describing the manner of the announcement as “atrocious”.

And the whole country sat back and wondered what an earth the national government was playing at. Can they not see that in a time of national emergency that politics and ideology has to take a back seat to reasoned, evidence-based, co-operative action?

Well maybe that reality became apparent because after that incident they went decidedly quiet, letting the states, who have primary responsibility for fire management, take the running.

Not a panacea

A little bit later during this unfolding catastrophe, Conservative political leaders including our Prime Minister started looking around for a scapegoat for the wildfires and, predictably, targeted environmental groups and the Green Party as responsible for preventing hazard reduction burning in the lead up to the Black Summer.

Again, Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke truth to power saying that hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.

Fitzsimmons also pointed out that hazard reduction burning itself is extremely challenging and hazardous. What I didn’t know at that time but subsequently discovered on ABC’s Australian Story is that Fitzsimmons knows the perils of hazard reduction personally – his father burnt to death in a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s north in the year 2000.

So one of our true national heroes of the Black Summer, Shane Fitzsimmons, called out our national government on at least two occasions while simultaneously showing what calm dedicated leadership looked like. Many hold him up as the type of leader we need in a national emergency.

It takes a disturbance to be prepared for a disturbance

If there is a silver lining on our Black Summer it’s that it knocked the hubris and arrogance out of our national government’s approach to dealing with mass disturbance. Had it have been a ‘normal’ summer I believe we would have taken our lead from the UK or the USA on how to deal with Covid 19. And, in prioritizing the economy over the environment and discounting the science (our normal modus operandi), we would likely have led to the same death rates those countries are now experiencing (an outcome many are putting down to failed leadership).

Much has been written about how different countries have coped. It’s been suggested that South Korea and Taiwan have both fared well because they both previously experienced SARS and MERS, two respiratory pandemics very similar to Covid 19. They didn’t take it for granted and didn’t treat it like a flu, they responded appropriately.

I think our biggest risk now is believing the myth that Australia has done well because Australian’s (and Australian leaders) are a cut above the rest, that we are superior. We aren’t. We were lucky. Above all else, our decision makers approached the task of keeping Australia safe through the pandemic with a degree of humility, acceptance of the evidence and collegiality that has been missing from Australian politics for many years.

The smirk is back

And now, as Australia looks to be ahead of the (flattened) curve, I fear the smugness and arrogance is creeping back in. The idealogues are seizing back the pulpits, and tribal politics is beginning to strangle our winning formulation.

The months ahead look uncertain and strange. We’ve beaten the first wave but how will we go with the second and third?

The biggest national disturbance prior to this was the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Once again, as a nation, we reacted strongly and well. But there was collateral damage. In the following year the GFC helped knock the wheels off our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and our politics has been a shameless dog fight ever since.

There are two lessons here for our national leaders. The first is that circumstances (history and path dependency) play a large part in our triumphs and failures. The second, contained in the first, is that pride goeth before a fall.

Image by David Salt

Washing off the virus

Will we throw the environmental baby out with the bathwater?

By Peter Burnett

In canvassing our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made bold statements about giving first priority to growing the economy through a business-led recovery. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has deployed equally strong language about an ‘aggressive’ deregulation agenda.

The strength of such language must give anyone concerned about the environment pause for thought. There’s no doubt the economy will need some heavy duty kick-starting as we recover from the COVID-19 disaster.

However, might this crisis be used to justify a political narrative about environmental regulation being ‘green tape’? Could we, in the name of curing the current big crisis, end up accelerating the next big crisis, brought on by environmental decline?

Wrapped in green tape

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley already has a predilection for the green tape narrative. Announcing the current review of the Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) last October, she cast the review as an opportunity to cut ‘green tape’ and increase certainty for business.

The environment itself was only mentioned in the context of ‘maintaining high environmental standards’. Ley expressed no concern about the ongoing decline of the environment itself. And this was well before the COVID-19 crisis.

It is fair enough for the Government to look for increased efficiency, including in regulatory processes, as part of a plan for environmental recovery.

In federal environmental regulation, my first suggestion for efficiency would have been to fund the regulatory process properly. Successive governments have reduced efficiency by whittling departmental resources away through inflated ‘efficiency dividends’, code for general cuts. As a result, delays have gotten longer and longer, but of course they could have been reduced again by restoring the money.

But it seems that the Government is already on top of this one.

In November 2019 (ie, still before the crisis), it announced a $25m ‘congestion busting’ initiative to reduce delays in federal environmental assessments, including by establishing a major projects team ‘to ensure assessments can be completed efficiently and thoroughly in accordance with the Act.’

Recently, Ley announced that this initiative was delivering what appears to be significant progress. As of December, only 19% of ‘key assessment decision points’ were being met. But by March 2020 this had improved dramatically, to 87%. What’s more, the Minister says that figure should reach 100% by June 2020, all without relaxing any environmental safeguards under the EPBC Act.

In other words, the problem of slow environmental approvals will be solved in a couple of months.

I must admit to scepticism about this claim. I suspect that the assessments are much more superficial than they once were, more reliant now on accepting information provided by proponents and state regulators.

I also suspect that the introduction of user-charging for federal environmental assessments a few years ago, together with limited resources for compliance, mean that there are fewer projects under assessment. This is because proponents abandon a bias towards referring projects on a ‘just-in-case’ basis, in favour of a risk management approach, under which proponents weigh the costs of referral against knowledge that compliance action for failure to refer is unlikely.

However, let’s take the Government’s claims at face value for the moment and accept that regulatory delays, at least at the federal end, are on the way out. What else could they do to speed up environmental approvals?

More juice in the efficiency lemon

Even if individual statutory timelines are met, overall timelines can still be reduced, first by removing duplication between federal and state processes and also by removing delay at the proponent’s end. This latter kind doesn’t count as regulatory delay but is, of course, still delay.

Duplication is a complex issue and reform is a medium term task. But short-term gains could be achieved administratively, by forming federal-state task forces, ie by putting regulatory staff from both levels of government into a single team, tasked with shepherding the project through all processes as quickly as possible.

In the past I would have said the politics wouldn’t allow this, but I would also have said that a thing called ‘National Cabinet’ would never work. These are extraordinary times.

Proponents could also contribute to a task force model. I wouldn’t recommend direct secondment of proponent staff to task forces, as this is mixing the foxes in with the hens, but by increasing resources for their own project teams proponents could improve quality and responsiveness, both of which are essential to timely environmental assessment.

Avoiding the temptations of short-termism

So there are some gains to be had. Yet the temptation in a crisis is to grab onto anything and everything that might conceivably help deal with the problem at hand, taking a ‘tomorrow-can-look-after-itself’ attitude to any longer term consequences. And this is no ordinary crisis.

Beyond the marginal gains of efficiency, trading parts of the environment itself for a short term economic hit could look very tempting.

The OECD is alive to this issue and has come out with all guns blazing. In a recent statement, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría argues, not just against weakening environmental standards, but in favour of stronger standards. In his view, governments should seize ‘a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery … a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader well-being goals at its core, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience.’

In other words, kill two birds with one stone. Use your spending on post-virus economic recovery to advance longer term environmental recovery. Gurría has a three point plan for this:

First, align short-term emergency responses to long-term economic, social and environmental objectives and international obligations (ie, leverage your investment).

Second, prevent lock-in, not only of high-emissions activities, but also of impacts on vulnerable groups, who have been the worst affected by COVID-19. A key way to do this is through a fair transition to a low-carbon economy.

Third, policy integration. Integrate environmental and equity considerations into the economic recovery. This means that infrastructure investment, as well as government support to virus-affected sectors, should pass the test of contributing to a low carbon economy.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The OECD is often described as a club for rich nations. And rich nations, including Australia, could be expected to take a conservative view about maintaining wealth.

Yet this advice sounds rather left of centre. In fact, in an Australian context, it is redolent of the mostly unlamented Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government, which aligned its short term emergency responses to long term environmental objectives (think Pink Batts, 2008) and also pursued a fair transition to a low-carbon economy by compensating low income earners for the impact of the carbon price (think Clean Energy Future, 2011).

In my view the OECD is right but, in Australia, its advice may be cruelled by our recent political history. If the Government were to take the OECD’s environmentally-responsible but mildly collectivist advice it would be accused of taking the Rudd/Gillard path to disaster.

On the other hand, if the Australian Government follows through on its current rhetoric of a growth-led recovery and aggressive deregulation, we may be headed for solutions that throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Which will it be?

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

A good decision in a time of plague

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

There is no perfect

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

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

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

Good decision making

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transparent, fair and adaptive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What decision will we make next week?

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

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

And in a time of plague, trust is everything.

Image: Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay