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


By David Salt

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

Melt down

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

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

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

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

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

Blow up

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

And what caused this disaster?

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

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

Blow out

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

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

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

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

Integrity fail

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

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

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

Hollow credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissonance and disaster

These numbers simply don’t make sense

By David Salt

“It’s baffling,” says Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction. She simply doesn’t understand why nations are continuing to knowingly “sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”.

That’s a pretty strong statement but Mami has a special insight on the topic being the Chief of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. She’s seen the numbers (and was talking about them on Disaster Risk Reduction Day earlier this month).

In the last two decades there have been 7,348 recorded disaster events worldwide. By comparison, the previous 20-year period (1980 to 1999) saw 4,212 reported disasters from natural hazards. And the science is clear as to why, the rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike. (‘Spike’ is the word used in the UN press release but I feel its use is quite inappropriate here. The word ‘spike’ suggests to me a sudden deviation from some ‘normal’ state. Once you’ve passed the spike you return to normal but that’s not what’s happening here. There’s no return to normal in any historical timeframe.)

Here are some other numbers that should chill you. From 1980 to 1999, natural hazards killed 1.19 million people, resulted in economic losses totalling $1.63 trillion and impacted more than three billion people.

From 2000 to 2019, natural hazards killed 1.23 million people, resulted in economic losses of $2.97 trillion, and impacted more than four billion people.

Rationalise this

A rationalist might suggest these numbers are suggesting we’re doing better at ‘disaster’. We had almost twice the number of disasters in these last two decades but roughly only a quarter more deaths and a only a third more people impacted (mind you, economic losses almost doubled). In other words, on average each disaster is killing fewer people.

But such a rationalisation only works if you believe we have a better handle on preventing disasters as we sail into the future. The trend, regrettably, is ever upwards; just as it is with carbon emissions, global temperatures and sea level. Of course, that’s no coincidence, as climate change is at the core of most of these disasters.

Indeed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported that the increase in disasters from natural hazards is a direct result of climate change: “This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires.”

Floods accounted for more than 40% of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people, storms 28%, and extreme temperatures 6%.

If human activity (associated with unbounded economic growth) is the driving problem here, it makes you wonder about the label ‘natural’ when we talk about disasters caused by ‘natural’ hazards.


And this is where Mami Mizutori admits to being “baffled”. The science is clear, and has been since the 1970s, but now the evidence of what’s happening (that this science has long predicted) is rolling in like a killer hurricane. Species are going extinct and ecosystems are collapsing before our eyes. Coral reefs are withering while forests at unprecedented scales are going up in flames.

Maybe we can insulate ourselves from such evidence by closing the blinds and turning the air con up. But when the roofs and walls are ripped from our homes by cyclonic wind, and floodwaters tear through our accumulated economic capital, surely we begin to do something about it. And this is what these disaster statistics are telling us. Climate change is beginning to rip apart the human world as much as it is destroying the natural world.

Now when it comes to disaster management, it has to be said some folks in some places are doing it better. The UNDRR report indicates that there has been some success in protecting vulnerable communities from isolated hazards, thanks to more effective early warning systems, disaster preparedness and response. However, the agency warned that projected global temperature rises could make these improvements “obsolete in many countries”.

Currently, the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2% annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

Do something!

So with the scorching winds of disaster bearing down on us, why aren’t we doing more?

Because change is hard, it’s difficult, there will be losers, and there are powerful vested interests with their hands firmly on the levers of power – all the reasons we’ve discussed over time in this blog – because sustainability bites.

And there are aspects of equity and justice woven into this equation too. The poor are much more vulnerable to disasters. The UNDRR report said that the data indicates that poorer nations experience death rates more than four times higher than richer nations.

So the richer industrialised nations which are creating the problem of increased disasters (through climate change) are not, in the first instance, the places that are suffering the most. In other words, they don’t see it as their problem.

Then, on top of all this, there is that wonderful capacity of humans to adapt to changing conditions, in this case to normalise extreme weather. A study released last year in PNAS found people have short memories when it comes to what they consider ‘normal’ weather. On average, people base their idea of normal weather on what has happened in just the past two to eight years. This disconnect with the historical climate record is thought to obscure the public’s perception of climate change.

The researchers behind this PNAS study suggested this is a classic case of the boiling-frog metaphor: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling hot water and immediately hops out. If, instead, the frog in the pot is slowly warmed to a boiling temperature, it doesn’t hop out and is eventually cooked. While scientifically inaccurate, this metaphor has long been used as a cautionary tale warning against normalizing the steadily changing conditions caused by climate change.

This latest report on disaster and climate change is another wake-up call – the water’s scorching! Surely we have more sense than a boiling frog?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

On ‘resilience’ as a panacea for disaster

When the going gets tough, the government hides behind resilience

By David Salt

Have you noticed that when the chips are down, and I mean really down, our political leaders frequently invoke ‘resilience’ as the thing that’s most important? We’ve seen it following massive floods, devastating cyclones and, most recently, in response to the bushfire catastrophe (that continues to unfold as I write).

What’s this about?

In my time I’ve written a bit on resilience. While I think resilience science can offer many insights on the challenges that currently beset us, I don’t see its current deployment as anything more than a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan.

When a massive disturbance overwhelms a country’s capacity to continue with ‘business as usual’, governments do their best to reassure the community that everything will be alright, even though they are often impotent in the face of that crisis.

When that flood wipes out critical infrastructure, for example, it’s often apparent that despite the government’s grand claims, it can’t make the rain stop or move people and emergency services to where they are needed. And when that happens, they often fall back by saying: ‘we’ll get over this, we are resilient.’

Or when the fires are so extensive, as we are witnessing now, and whole communication networks and the road system goes down (and everyone is on edge while choking on endless smoke), we know there is only so much the government can do, but we want reassurance that it’ll all be right. And what is the Prime Minister telling us our priorities should be? “That resilience and adaptation need an even greater focus,” he said.

We are resilient

What’s the attraction in invoking resilience? From a political point of view, I think it’s twofold.

The first relates to our belief of the ‘rightness’ of the system we are in. Yes a fire/drought/flood might knock us down but we are ‘good, hard working people that care for each other’. We may be knocked down but our inherent qualities will help us triumph over adversity, get us back on our feet and prosper.

You’ll hear this refrain time and again following disasters from political leaders at every level, from the town mayor to the prime minister, each crafting their message of resilience to their own group of people, reassuring them that they are ‘right’, they are ‘good’ and ‘they’ll get over it’.

Consider Premier Anna Bligh’s now famous statement following the unprecedented Queensland floods in 2011: “We are Queenslanders,” she told the public. “We’re the people that they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down and we get up again.”

That’s the basic definition of ‘resilience’, it’s all about how we cope with disturbance, and we like to think there’s something inherently right and good about our system (municipality/state/country) that will enable us to triumph. ‘We are Queenslanders/Victorians/south coasters/insert place name here, and we are tough…’

Politically speaking that’s exactly the ‘we-are-righteous-and-shall-overcome’ message that a government wants to convey to the electorate so invoking ‘resilience’ is an attractive notion; especially when it’s clear there’s not much they can actually do.

The second attraction for invoking ‘resilience’ is that everyone has their own idea of what it means and it’s impossible to measure in a precise manner. Consequently, it’s an ambiguous goal that is easy to hide behind while avoiding accountability.

So far, our Prime Minister’s invocation of resilience seems more about avoiding talk on emissions targets and climate change policy than any genuine engagement with the idea.

The new ‘sustainability’?

The idea of ‘sustainability’ has similar weaknesses (or strengths, depending on your perspective and degree of cynicism) to resilience but sustainability (and sustainable development) have been around for longer as a policy goal. Having been seriously worked on for at least the past 40 years, sustainability has had a lot of time and energy spent on working out how it might be operationalised.

‘Sustainability’ was also a ‘made up’ word to embody efforts to respond to the damaging effects of unbounded economic growth. In this way, sustainability had meanings loaded into it. ‘Resilience’, on the other hand, is a real word that now labels many different approaches to managing systems (people, families, communities, cities, nations and ecosystems to name a few) to help them overcome disturbance. People have their own idea what it is to be resilient.

All models (or framings) are wrong but some are useful (to paraphrase George Box). Sustainability, with all of its shortcomings, enabled national and international conversations to take place around the connections between the economy, society and the environment. It also allowed notions of equity and justice to be incorporated into our thinking. And, while it’s still a work in progress, the sustainability project is still an important and potentially critical element of our species ongoing survival.

Many faces of resilience

Resilience too has many weaknesses as a strategy and policy goal. For starters, what resilience approach are you talking about? It has separate origins and applications from many disciplinary areas with the disciplines of psychology, emergency relief, engineering and ecology being the main four fields from which it has emerged. Each considers resilience at a different scale and with a different purpose though all are concerned with how the systems we are interested in cope with disturbance.

The value of resilience is that it is a systems approach that engages with the complexity of the system of our interest (for example, in psychology that’s individual people, for ecology that’s social-ecological systems).

When I use the term resilience science I’m talking about ecological resilience, the topic I have helped write two text books on. It’s a rich body of research and academic discussion that has revealed much about how linked systems of nature and people endure over time coping with a range of disturbances. It’s all about thresholds and tipping points, linked scales, adaptive cycles and transformation.

To really make a difference with resilience science you need to honestly engage with the complexity of the system of your interest. You need to respect those people with expert knowledge on how it functions, maintain healthy buffers of economic, environmental and social capital, and work within the limits of your system rather than ignoring them. (These are themes I will explore in future blogs.)

Unfortunately, when governments invoke resilience they use it as cover to continue doing whatever it is their vested interests dictate (which seems in Australia at the moment the continued support for more coal mining). They usually spin resilience as a magic bullet that solves a multitude of problems without ever being accountable for what it is they are specifically attempting to achieve.

And isn’t that the perfect escape for a government – ‘because of this fire/flood/drought we are down but we are not out. We are resilient and we shall triumph come what may.’

Image: Epicormic regrowth from bark of Eucalypt, four months after Black Saturday bushfires, Strathewen, Victoria, in 2009. (Photo by Robert Kerton, CSIRO. Creative Commons 3.0.)