On identity, complexity and a ‘little’ fossil fuel project off the West Australian coast

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By David Salt

Earlier this month I spotted a tweet that chilled my soul while neatly summing up the challenge of sustainability for our age.

Here it is:

In a nutshell it shows the CEO of a major fossil fuel company extolling the virtues of a massive new project, the Scarborough development, with a comment from one of the world’s top coral scientists describing it as ‘a crime against humanity’ (while asking the responsible politicians to respond appropriately).

One single development

We’ve discussed aspects of the Scarborough development (the biggest oil and gas development to be built in Australia in a decade, situated off the coast of Western Australia) a few times on Sustainability Bites (see Lies, damned lies and environmental economics). It’s worth repeating that an analysis by the company Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the proposed Scarborough project will be just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions! Think about that. Climate Analytics is under no illusion and points out this single project undermines the Paris Agreement (of which Australia is a signatory).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has calculated these emissions will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will, among other things, accelerate the decline of the Great Barrier Reef (which may partly account for the coral scientist’s dismay at Woodside’s promotional tweet).

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase at a time when the world is already overheating. This summer has seen unprecedented droughts, storms, fires and floods across Asia, Europe and North America. At this time no-one has even attempted to calculate the economic impact of the carnage from this northern summer, let alone tally the lives lost. And this situation only promises to get worse as carbon emissions increase.

A boon for the economy

Despite the accelerating impacts from climate change being felt all around the world, Woodside’s CEO tells us (though more likely she’s really wanting her shareholders and politicians to hear this) that Scarborough will “deliver value for Woodside shareholders and significant long-term benefits locally and nationally, including thousands of jobs, taxation revenue and supply of gas to export and domestic markets for decades to come.”

I cynical paraphrase might read: “let this project proceed and shareholders will be richly rewarded by quarterly rises in share price; while the enabling government can claim ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, regional development and a secure supply of energy well into the future (and definitely beyond your next election).”

The planet? Well, it may endure a little more heating but focus on the profits.

And humanity? Bits of it will do very nicely, thank you very much, from the increased economic activity. And those that don’t? Well, most of them don’t vote in Australia and they definitely aren’t shareholders in Woodside, so there’s nothing to worry about here.

In any event, the planet and humanity are not the focus of the CEO’s missive to the masses; she’s more worried about quarterly returns to shareholders.

The standard model

The standard explanation for this situation goes something like this: some people put the economy before all else and believe the ‘climate alarmists’ are overstating the problem. These people might even acknowledge the climate is becoming increasingly problematic but are confident that as the crisis grows we’ll make more of an effort to fix it, and science and technology will save us. These people think that radical action to reduce carbon emissions will cause deep and unjustifiable pain to the economy and everyone’s standard of living.

The other side (which includes most scientists) believe humanity is changing the Earth System in deep and unpleasant ways that will hurt everyone. We need to do something now. Enabling new fossil fuel developments is mad; some describe them as ‘crimes again humanity’.

Both sides think the other side is crazy, and many have stopped listening to anything coming out of the other side.

You might have your own variant on this ‘standard model’ of the sustainability challenge but I believe most people subscribe to some version of it: two sides/tribes, two sets of values/priorities, situation gets worse, both sides blame the other and after a while everyone stops listening to anyone outside of their own tribe. It’s simple and neat – my side right, your side wrong.

A more complex model

Now here’s a more nuanced explanation that uses a bit of complexity (resilience) theory. Each of the players/actors/groups in this situation are complex systems, and each has its own identity emerging from the structure, function and feedbacks that make up that system. Understanding the feedbacks is important to understanding the behaviours of these systems.

The politicians are very responsive to voter’s needs and the level of support received from party supporters (including lobbyists and political donations).

The fossil fuel companies are very responsive to changes to the quarterly returns on investment and shareholder sentiment.

The scientists are very responsive to changes in biophysical indicators of the many components that make up the Earth System, the respect of their peers and the papers they can publish.

And the voters just want to be able to pay their bills, have a little certainty in what tomorrow brings, and maybe have the occasional holiday.

These are interacting complex systems and expecting them to behave in simple rational ways doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the differences that emerge between them over time.

Pointing out that the other side is wrong may work well with your own tribe but it usually does nothing to change the behaviour of the other side.

However, understanding what’s central to the identity of the other side and working on the feedbacks that shore up that identity is much more likely to produce change.

If voters don’t believe the future is safe, if shareholders no longer trust their shares will yield dividends in the longer term, if politicians are only allowed to make fully accountable and transparent decisions, then the very identity of their systems change, as does its behaviour. Of course, changing these feedbacks is never easy.

Another thing about complex systems

Another thing about complex systems that’s very relevant to this discussion. They are non-linear. That means you can’t always predict how they’ll change based on how they have changed in the past. Sometimes big disturbances can hit your system and yet it can absorb them and its identity remains intact (the system is ‘resilient’). Other times, it will only take a small disturbance and the system’s identity collapses (unexpectedly and often quickly, does anyone remember the Soviet Empire?).

The Earth System itself is a good example of this non-linearity. The group of scientists who first proposed the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al, 2009) pointed out that the Earth System itself is a complex system that has considerable capacity to absorb disturbances (changing atmospheric concentrations, declining biodiversity etc) and still retain its identity. For the past 10,000 years, that identity has been one of a relatively stable climate that has enabled the rise of civilisation.

But this capacity to continually absorb disturbance has limits, sometimes referred to as thresholds. They proposed a set of planetary boundaries (possible thresholds) beyond which the stability of the Earth System could well be lost. They proposed nine planetary boundaries, most of which we have now transgressed.

In some ways, the scientists suggest, the complexity of the Earth System has lulled us into a false sense of security. All the change we’ve imposed on it (most of it in the last half century), has been absorbed by the Earth System and it continues to function in a way conducive for humanity. But, having crossed these planetary boundaries, we have exhausted the planet’s capacity to absorb further disturbance. Many now believe further incremental disturbance may change things drastically. Indeed, we may even be seeing this with the savage summer of 2022.

Which all serves to underscore how complex the challenge of sustainability can be. We are all complex units operating in complex groups within a complex Earth System. ‘Simply’ pointing out why the opposite side is wrong may score points with our side but does little to fix the problem. For that to happen we need a deeper engagement with the complexity in which we find ourselves, more reflection on what gives us (our tribe and our planet) our identity, and a greater respect for the things that impact on that identity.

Banner image: Civilisation rose during an epoch of climate stability. Now that stability is possibly breaking down. So far, our response to this possibility has been simplistic and ineffective. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the problem is complex. (Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay)

Lies, damned lies and … Environmental Economics?

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A single LNG development in Australia could raise the global temperature by a tiny amount. Should it be allowed? What has the ‘economics of substitution’ got to do with it?

By Peter Burnett

People frustrated by weak government responses to the Paris Agreement (with its goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2° Celsius and ‘pursuing efforts’ to achieve 1.5°’), continue to look for ways to pressure governments for stronger action. One strategy is to challenge fossil fuel developments in court.

In the latest Australian challenge, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) is challenging the federal approval given to Woodside Energy’s $16 billion Scarborough liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, off the Pilbara coast in Western Australia.

The formal basis for the challenge is, in essence, that Woodside obtained approval from the wrong federal regulator. Beyond that, it gets complicated. But it’s worth considering the details here because there are some very important principles at play.

Offshore Approvals and the Reef ‘carve-out’

Under Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) the federal environment minister would normally need to approve major developments such as Scarborough. However, in 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt switched off this requirement for offshore projects by, in effect, accrediting the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) to approve projects in his stead.

The basis for NOPSEMA’s accreditation is that its regulatory regime was assessed as meeting the requirements of the EPBC Act. But the accreditation had several ‘carve-outs’, including for projects likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). In other words, if a major offshore project was likely to have an impact on the GBR, then NOPSEMA could not approve it and the task but would revert to the minister for the environment.

ACF’s claim is that even though Scarborough is off WA, its total greenhouse gas emissions, especially the ‘scope 3’ emissions generated when the gas is burnt by overseas customers, will be so large that as to have a significant impact on the GBR, even though it lies on the other side of the country.

If the ACF win the case, this would trigger the carve-out and bounce the project back to Australia’s new environment minister Tanya Plibersek for a fresh approval process, something that could take years (which could well scuttle the proposal).

Overheating

An analysis by Climate Analytics found that the total emissions from the Scarborough project were just under 1.4 billion tonnes, three times Australia’s annual emissions. ACF argues that this will result in 0.000394 degrees of additional global warming that will harm the Reef.

Woodside may counter that this is not a significant impact, even on the back of existing emissions-driven climate change.

Is an extra 4 x 10,000ths of a degree significant? I think there is a good argument that when the GBR is already at a critical point, every additional measurable impact on the whole reef is significant. Keep in mind this is a single development which, by itself, has the capacity to create a measurable global temperature increase (at a time when the world is already overheating).

A second likely defence argument will be that 1.4 billion tonnes is a gross figure, which would be offset significantly, if not completely, by various factors, including that gas from Scarborough, relatively low in carbon intensity, will displace other fossil fuels with significantly higher carbon intensity. This is the ‘market substitution’ argument.

We have been here before. In 2015, environment minister Greg Hunt used a similar argument in successfully defeating ACF’s challenge to Adani’s huge Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. The Federal Court upheld the minister’s decision at both first instance and on appeal.

So, if this argument has failed before, why run it again?

Will the market substitution argument prevail?

The basic argument may be the same, but the legal context is different, notwithstanding that both cases concern the application of the EPBC Act. In the Carmichael case, the relevant arguments revolved around the meaning of certain words in the Act, including ‘relevant impact’.

However, the appeal judges did say that their decision was made on the basis of the particular arguments which ACF had put; they dropped a hint that a different argument might have led to a different result. With so much at stake, this alone is enough to make one think it was worth having another go at the market substitution argument.

I don’t know what arguments ACF and their lawyers have in mind this time around, but the Scarborough case turns on some different legislative words, especially on what is a ‘significant’ impact, as distinct from the meaning of ‘impact’ itself.

In this slightly changed context, I think the economic substitution argument could be attacked from a different angle to the one used in Carmichael. It goes like this:

If the total emissions from the Scarborough project, including scope 3 emissions, are ‘likely to have a significant impact’ on the GBR, the current approval from NOPSEMA is invalid and Woodside must refer the project afresh to Minister Plibersek.

Notwithstanding that significance must be decided on the basis of a likely net, rather than gross emission increase; the likelihood is that each of the factors said to offset the gross impact does not, on balance, reduce the gross figure significantly, for the following reasons.

Even if gas from Scarborough has a much lower carbon content than the fuel currently consumed by Scarborough’s customers, it is not enough to find that this low carbon gas would displace high carbon fuel for these customers. Rather, to achieve a net reduction, the high carbon fuel must be displaced from the entire market — ie, it must be likely that it will be left in the ground.

This is because, prima facie, if supplies of a fossil fuel are displaced by an alternative, basic economics (the principle that markets ‘clear’) suggests that the displaced fuel will be sold elsewhere, even if this requires a price reduction. This is especially true given that the global market for fossil fuels continues to grow, despite a Covid19-induced dip.

Then there is the policy argument, that because many countries have adopted Paris targets such as ‘net zero by 2050’, emissions from Scarborough will be offset by reductions that are driven by these targets.

Even if countries delivered on such targets in full and the 1.5° goal were achieved, the reef would still be under significant threat and Scarborough would still exacerbate that threat.

However, countries are not on a global trajectory for anything like 1.5°, so the backdrop to Scarborough’s impact is closer to a 3° increase. Worse, many countries have a history of promising more than they deliver, in some cases adopting targets that are little more than aspirations.

Finally, there is the argument that technological change will drive major emissions reduction through the shift to renewables. This is valid in some countries, but, globally, the renewables shift is more than offset by global increases in demand: otherwise, global emissions would not continue to rise.

At the end of the day, unless there is evidence that gas from Scarborough is leading directly to high-carbon fuels being left in the ground, the supposed offsets look rather vague at best, leaving it likely that Scarborough’s net emissions will be similar to its gross emissions.

Where are we headed with this?

I wouldn’t like to predict where the Federal Court will land, but I do think it is possible that the market substitution argument, at least under the EPBC Act, will prove to make little difference.*

If I were the federal government I would deal with cases like this by moving quickly to legislate a comprehensive climate policy regime, not to mention a wider and contemporary environment protection regime as recommended by the 2020 Samuel Review.

I would be thinking that it is better for governments to get on the front foot rather than risk the unpredictable results that can follow when people are driven to litigation by their frustration with outdated or missing laws.

*I know the argument has been rejected by the Land and Environment Court in NSW in the Gloucester Resources case (Rocky Hill). But the Court there had the power to review the decision on the merits, which makes a big difference, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

Banner image: New research shows global warming of 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels will be catastrophic for almost all coral reefs – including those once thought of as refuges. Should any new fossil fuel developments be approved in such a time? (Image by Maria Beger)

Last Chance Quiz – the Australian Government’s (non) response to queries on the environment

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By Peter Burnett

With an election called, you might want to inform your vote with the latest on the Australian environment and what the Government is doing about it. Unfortunately, the Government says: ‘Tough!’

As we all know, a federal election has been called for 21 May 2022. The Australian Government is now in ‘caretaker mode’, meaning it must refrain from major decisions during the campaign.

Before going into caretaker mode, it’s not uncommon for governments to make lots of major decisions immediately beforehand. This year, the vehicle for many of those big decisions was the Budget, handed down in late March.

For reasons likely connected with an internal Liberal Party brawl over candidates, the election was not called immediately after the Budget was handed down, but two weeks later. This meant that the business of Parliament continued, including ‘Budget Estimates’, in which Senators quiz officials about Budget initiatives and other things.

This turned Budget Estimates into a ‘last chance quiz’ about sensitive issues, including the environment.

Here are a few ‘highlights’ or, more correctly, lowlights from this ‘quiz’. I think they demonstrate well what priority the Government places on environmental issues (as well as good governance).

More budget honesty please

One of the political tricks of recent times has been to inflate budget numbers by announcing programs for longer and longer periods.

Once upon a time, spending was only for the coming year. Then it was three, then four. Four years is now the official period of the ‘forward estimates’ or ‘forwards’ as you sometimes hear politicians say.

But now politicians are making announcements for eight or nine years down the line. These commitments are un-legislated and go way beyond the life of the government, and are thus very rubbery.

For example, I wrote recently about the Budget announcement of $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef amounting to little more than ‘steady as she goes’, once averaged over its announced nine year timeframe.

Now we have, supposedly, $22 billion for clean energy technology. Not only does this figure stretch to 2030, twice the four-year estimates period, but officials told Senators in Estimates that much of it covered a continuation of ‘business-as-usual’ activity for bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and CSIRO.

Breathtakingly, one ‘key investment’, listed under the $22 billion clean energy spend, is the same $1 billion I mentioned above for the Great Barrier Reef!

The explanation was that this $1 billion was in fact a climate investment, not ‘clean energy’. Either way, as Manuel from Fawlty Towers would have said, ‘Que?

So, how much in the Budget actually represented ‘new money’ for increased policy ambition as part of a pre-election commitment?

Officials couldn’t say — they took it on notice. As a result, I can’t tell you! (And don’t hold your breath that any answers will be provided before the election.)

Clearly the Howard Government’s statutory ‘Charter of Budget Honesty’ needs an overhaul!

State of the Environment Report

We learned that his five-yearly report has around 1200 pages, cost $6m and was sent to the Minister last December. Unfortunately, we also learned that the law gives her until a date after the May election to table the report, and there are no indications that she will table it early.

So, if you want to inform your vote with the latest environmental trends, don’t look for the State of the Environment report!

Environment Restoration Fund

In my last blog I raised concerns that the $100m newly allocated to this fund would be used for pork barrelling, because that’s what happened to the previous round of $100m in 2019.

The new revelations in Estimates were that the Minister was yet to adopt any grant guidelines for this new round, but that priorities would include threatened and migratory species; coastal waterways; pest animals and weeds; and greening cities, with an emphasis on east coast flood recovery.

My concerns remain. In the absence of guidelines, this money could, once again, be allocated through election commitments, without scientific advice and without competitive applications. They got away with it last time, so why not do it again?

Threatened species at warp speed

The Auditor-General found recently that only 2% of recovery plans were completed on time; 207 remain overdue and there is no integrated process for monitoring implementation.

It turned out that in responding to the Auditor-General, the department had committed to ‘track and publish the implementation of priority actions in conservation advice and recovery plans for all 100 priority species under the Threatened Species Strategy 2021-30 by 2026’.

That’s right. In another four years, we’ll be able to see what’s going on for 100 out of nearly 2000 threatened species (ie, 5%). Now that’s what I call warp speed!!

More disingenuous bundling

The Budget headline for threatened species was $170m over four years.

But $100m of that is the second-round Restoration Fund discussed above, which could be given away as pork, while $53 million, previously announced, is for koalas, of which only $20m reserved for large scale restoration and animal health — I think there is a real chance that much of the money will be dissipated as small grants.

Another element of the claimed spend on threatened species is a new $20 million Queen’s Jubilee Program, providing grants for locals to plant trees, such as ‘large shade trees in a school or civic centre’ under the I can see Carnaby’s cockatoos and orange-bellied parrots lining up now!

The real gain for threatened species, on a proper science-based prioritisation? As usual, it’s hard to know, but it could be a few million a year. I’d say ‘chicken feed’, but chickens are not a threatened species.

What prospects for change?

You can see from my cynicism that I think this government tinkers with the environment while inflating and conflating its efforts so as to deliberately mislead the people. The ‘last chance quiz’ poked a few holes in this carefully contrived environment Budget narrative, but this doesn’t mean we are any wiser about what’s going on.

But I just can’t leave things on such a depressing note.

Would a Labor government be any better? Possibly, though they have yet to announce their policies and their general ‘small target’ approach holds little prospect of the the sort of bold (and expensive) action we need to halt the decline of Nature.

Perhaps the best prospects for the environment lie in a hung Parliament – the ‘teal Independents’ have been very strong on climate change and it’s hard not to think their attitude would spill into environmental policy more generally.

Hope springs eternal!

Banner image: Image by Mietzekatze at Pixabay.

Senate Estimates – slippery answers like bare-handed barrel-fishing

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The latest Senate Environment Committee ‘Estimates’ hearings

By Peter Burnett

Regular readers will know that I have written several times about what emerges from Senate Estimates. Estimates is a somewhat esoteric proceeding in the Australian Parliament (and some others) in which politicians ask questions of (mostly) bureaucrats about proposed allocations of money to spending programs.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. In practice, questions get asked about any official activity, right down to the micro level of when the official sent a document to a minister.

In return, officials, who are often the meat in the sandwich here, respond with lots of detail but work hard not to reveal anything of substance in their answers. It’s a bit of a game but sometimes the stakes can be quite high.

Despite having long left the bureaucracy, I have retained my interest in this ritual form of combat, partly for what it reveals about the art of public administration but, more relevantly here, for the little gems of information that spill forth about environmental programs.

As a participant, I was focused on surviving the stressful experience of a public grilling from the politicians. As an observer, I now have much broader aspirations to seeing the accountability mechanisms (for that is what the Senate Estimates is supposed to be) of Parliament work.

Unfortunately, they usually do not.

The most recent Environment Estimates were held in February. I’ve chosen several issues of interest below, one to illustrate the failings of Estimates as an accountability mechanism and another as a vehicle for arguing the need for improved accountability.

Dragging it out (that’s the Australian Way)

I sympathise with frustrated politicians trying to get straight answers to legitimate questions. To them, Estimates must feel like bare-handed barrel-fishing: it’s easy enough to get close, but landing a catch is something different entirely.

My example from the February Estimates concerns the modelling commissioned by the government to support its Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan — that’s the plan to implement the government’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, sanctimoniously subtitled in the ‘popular’ version of the plan as ‘The Australian Way’.

(Recall that the decision to commit to net zero by 2050 caused great division between the Liberal and National parties in the Coalition, and that the Nationals were said to have secured significant concessions from the PM in return for signing on, which the PM reluctantly felt he had to do, because Jo Biden and others were doing it.)

The story revealed over several Estimates hearings was that work on ‘the plan’ had started in February 2021.

The finalised plan was released on 26 October 2021, in the lead-up to CoP 26 in Glasgow, but the supporting modelling, which would have helped critics to ask penetrating questions, was not released until 12 November, after CoP 26 had finished.

Why the delay? asked the Senator. She complained that back in the Budget Estimates, in May, officials wouldn’t even confirm that they were doing the modelling. Then, at Supplementary Estimates, held just before the Plan was adopted, the government made a claim of ‘public interest immunity’ in relation to the modelling, meaning that it would not be released on the ground that it was the subject of current Cabinet deliberation.

Now, in February this year, officials were saying that they hadn’t released the modelling promptly, after the government announced the Plan, because they didn’t have the capacity to produce both the plan and the modelling for publication. In particular, officials said they needed more time to make the public version of the modelling ‘accessible’.

The questioning Senator was naturally suspicious. Had the Minister himself taken the decision about when to release the modelling? ‘I’d have to take it on notice to specifically check if the minister himself gave any particular direction’ replied the official, thus avoiding dropping the minister in the proverbial and further drawing out the accountability process.

You can see why this sequence of events would frustrate the Senate’s attempts to scrutinise a major decision.

The underlying answer to legitimate questions was that it is never the right time to ask for politically-sensitive information, until the moment chosen by the government to release it — that’s the Australian Way!

Peas and thimbles

On 28 January the government announced an ‘additional’ $1 billion over nine years in funding for the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Estimates questions were directed to ascertaining how this money would be allocated.

In this case the government had to be much more forthcoming because the questions related directly to the purpose of Estimates, which is to scrutinise proposed new expenditure.

So, officials provided detail, for example, that the funding would be allocated to the environment department and to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, but that no further money would be channelled through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a private body through which the government had channelled, in 2017, Australia’s largest and most controversial-ever grant of $443m.

Questioners also probed the governments’ decision to announce nine years’ funding, as this was far beyond the standard four year forward forward-estimates period.

Senators also elicited from officials that ‘the new money effectively dovetails with the decline in the existing funding commitments’ — ie, that much of this ‘new’ or ‘additional’ money was simply an extension of existing spending, which was declining, not because the job was done, but because governments often allocate funding for arbitrary periods.

Looking at these answers, it seems to me that the government started with the idea that they needed to be seen to be spending big to stave off the threat of an ‘In Danger’ listing for the Reef, and simply took the current spending that was about to lapse, decided to continue it, and just kept adding more forward years until they got to the politically credible figure of $1 billion.

That’s why nine (years) was the magic number, though of course officials didn’t say so! Interestingly, if they had used the standard four-year period, on a pro-rata basis the funding would have been $444m — almost identical to the controversial Reef Foundation grant!

A coincidence like that would never have done!

Unfortunately, however, the questions stopped short of asking whether any of the money was truly ‘additional’, ie, representing increased effort overall.

Once allowance is made for the fact that most of the money just extends existing budgets or programs, and for inflation, would there be anything left to represent a real increase? It appears not, although we can’t be sure.

And even if there were a real increase for the Reef, would that increase come at the cost of a reduction in environmental expenditure elsewhere?

In other words, does any of this ‘additional’ money reflect any additional effort for the environment? Or is it just a transfer from one environmental program to another

In theory, it would be possible to ask a series of questions that would force an answer this question.

In practice, obfuscation in official documents, limited time in Estimates and limited resources available to Senators to formulate a set of questions sufficiently comprehensive to force the answer, make such an exercise impractical.

A better way?

As an exercise in bare-handed barrel-fishing, Estimates is hardly satisfactory. While Parliament has other accountability mechanisms, most of these have their own problems.

And when a mechanism does work well, as we’ve seen recently with successful reviews of grant programs by that pesky Auditor General, the government counters by cutting his budget!

One solution to strengthen accountability would be — wait for it — to publish proper accounts! I’m talking about detailed accounts at the program level, which logically should form part of a comprehensive set of environmental accounts.

To date, the commitment of Australian governments to improved accountability, and to environmental accounts themselves, has been very limited, but … we live in hope!

Banner image: Senate Estimates is like barrel fishing with your hands. Lots of targets but most are slippery and impossible to hold on to. (Image by David Salt)

A billion-dollar bad idea is no escape clause for the Great Barrier Reef

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A big pledge for a big problem is no solution without integrity

By David Salt

“So, Minister, how exactly did you arrive at this one-billion-dollar price tag for saving the Great Barrier Reef?” asked the newly appointed Director of Government Probity.

“Well Ms DGP, as you will see from the extensive paperwork we’ve submitted, the figure of a billion dollars is based on extensive scientific, social and economic research compiled by the good officers of our well-resourced Department for the Environment.

“It’s a lot of money but what price do you put on saving a priceless piece of World Heritage; not to mention the economic return derived from people enjoying the Reef.

“Our scientists have pin pointed exactly the threats assailing this coral wonderland; our economists have worked up a precise list of actions we need to take to address these threats – costed down to the last dollar; and our social scientists have undertaken rigorous process of community engagement to ensure that the people on and around the Reef know what the situation is, and are ready to put their backs to the wheel to ensure the Great Barrier Reef will be there in all its glory for them, their children and grandchildren.

“It all brings a tear to your eye,” said the Minister (and, indeed, her eyes were tearing up). “But with something this important, it’s worth all the effort. It is, of course, simply the Australian Way!”

“Yes, thank you Minister,” responded the DGP. “Well done. It seems you and your Department have really done the due diligence on this one. The Reef is in good hands! The world thanks you.”

The Australian Way

Of course, there’s nothing much real in the above exchange. There is no Director (or agency) of Government Probity; the Department of Environment (subsumed into the bigger Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment) is underfunded and overworked; and scientists do know what is killing the Great Barrier Reef – it’s climate change – but the Government is not listening to them. Our Prime Minister has described this approach to climate change as “the Australian Way”; but the world is not thanking Australia for adopting this path.

For all that, the Federal Coalition Government has pledged $1 billion dollars towards saving the Great Barrier Reef, one of the single biggest investments on an ecosystem in Australia’s history; surely, even if it’s only been done as a sweetener in the run up to a Federal election – that’s a good thing, right?

Let’s consider what a billion dollar buys you

For starters, it’s not an up-front payment but a promise to commit $1 billion dollars to reef-related programs over the next nine years – if the Coalition gets re-elected.

Most of that money ($579.9m) won’t go on the Reef itself but will be dedicated to water quality projects on land, the adjoining catchments from which water runs off onto the reef. Declining water quality has long been identified as a major threat to reef health. In 2016 the Queensland Government contracted economists to estimate how much it would cost to meet water quality targets through actions such as changing land management, improving irrigation and repairing erosion. Their best estimate was that it would cost $8.2billion over 10 years (that’s $820 million per year).

The Government’s promise of $570 million over 9 years (or an average of $63.3 million per year) suddenly doesn’t look so grand.

The next largest slice of the billion dollars – $252.9m – will go towards reef management and conservation. Again, split that over 9 years and multiple institutions caring for the Reef and it’s not the boon the headline number suggests.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway because the best science says the reef is cooked if we don’t do anything about rising carbon emissions.

Indeed, the science on this is firming. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that 1.5°C of global warming would cause between 70 and 90% of the world’s coral reefs to disappear. In research just out, it’s been found that with 1.5°C of warming, which the world is predicted to reach in the early 2030s without drastic action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, 99% of the world’s reefs will experience heatwaves that are too frequent for them to recover.

None of the billion dollars promised to ‘fix’ the Reef is going towards reducing emissions. Analysts say Australia’s approach is aligned with heating closer to 3°C. The Australian Government is not introducing any new policies to tackle carbon emissions in the near term and claims that new (unspecified) technologies will deliver net zero emissions in 30 years’ time. Prime Minister Morrison describes this as the Australian Way.

A billion dollars of cover

At the same time, the Government is trumpeting its billion-dollar investment on saving the Reef to UNESCO in a bid to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the World Heritage ‘in-danger’ list. A fortnight ago the Government released a report on why the Reef should be kept off this list.

The Morrison government argued every single World Heritage site can be considered in danger from climate change, and the Great Barrier Reef shouldn’t be singled out for a UNESCO status downgrade.

On the release of that report, Environment Minister Sussan Ley puzzlingly observed: “Reefs around the world are under pressure from warming oceans and in the face of that the Morrison government’s leadership in reef management and reef science is second to none.”

So, what are we to make of that? The Government acknowledges that climate change and warming oceans are killing our coral reefs – everywhere, not just around Australia – but chooses to do very little about it.

At the same time they are happy to commit a billion dollars to a cause they know is futile; maybe that’s why they don’t really care that this level of investment is patently inadequate to achieve even the outcomes on water quality they are targeting.

It’s enough to make you blush with embarrassment (and shed a tear of shame).

The real problem

The real problem at the heart of this treacherous affair is a total lack of probity. There is no transparency or accountability around these decisions; no connection between science, economics and funding pledges; no integrity behind government claims and action.

This is a billion-dollar bad idea but the greatest shame in this whole affair is that there is no mechanism (no independent office of government integrity) to hold our political leaders to account.

No, Minister. The Reef is not in good hands! And the world will not be thanking you now or in the future.

Banner image: The Great Barrier Reef is in big trouble. Will a big billion dollars make a difference? Not with an absence of probity. (Image by Sarah_Ackerman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

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

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

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)

The Fraser Government 1975-1982, greener than you might think

By Peter Burnett

Another in our series on environmental policy under Australian governments of the past.

I lived through the Fraser years. Because he was controversial, I have strong memories of how he was regarded, but on matters environmental my only immediate memory was that one of the reasons Fraser lost government was because he would not match Labor’s promise to stop the Franklin Dam in Tasmania. And yet, if you actually dig into his record, his government did get things done for the environment.

Dogged at the outset

Malcom Fraser was Prime Minister from 1975 till 1982. He was dogged by the controversy of how he came to the Prime Ministership, having collaborated with Governor-General Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

This was especially true during his early years. People used to turn up wherever Fraser was, yelling ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ After all, Whitlam had urged his followers to ‘Maintain Your Rage!’

Yet everything mellowed with time. Whitlam and Fraser even became firm friends, something that would have appeared inconceivable during the ‘maintain-your-rage’ period.

Fraser went on to develop a strong personal record on human rights, especially on Apartheid, and late in his life, he even endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for re-election, with the comment that she had been a ‘reasonable and fair-minded voice’!

And when I started researching Fraser’s environmental policies, I was more impressed than I expected to be.

Growing federal power on the environment

The Fraser Government came to power on a relatively bland platform of striking a balance between conservation and economic growth. It also made the specific commitment, which it did not deliver, to develop national pollution standards with the States. (These eventually came under the Keating government in the early 1990s.)

Its most prominent decisions were connected with major developments: the banning of sand mining on Fraser Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef; allowing the Ranger uranium mine while establishing Kakadu National Park to surround it; and failing to stop the proposed Franklin dam in Tasmania.

Yet Fraser was also active in ratifying and implementing international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species; and the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement.

On World Heritage, Fraser secured the listing of Australia’s first five properties: Wilandra Lakes in western NSW, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island and the Tasmanian Wilderness.

Fraser also carried through on several major Whitlam Government reforms, despite the rancour of the Dismissal. He developed the Register of the National Estate and signed the Emerald Agreement with Queensland to provide for cooperative management of the Great Barrier Reef.

But back to development projects. In 1976, following an Inquiry, the Government decided to block sand mining on Fraser Island and to list the island on the Register of the National Estate. Lacking the constitutional power to block mining directly, it did so by refusing to grant an export permit, a decision which it then defended successfully in the High Court.

Constitutionally, this was a very significant decision, as it would confirm the Commonwealth’s ability to insert itself into many areas of traditional state responsibility, including the environment.

In 1977, this time following two Inquiries, the Fraser Government decided to allow uranium mining in the Northern Territory, but subject to extensive safeguards, including a dedicated statutory monitoring regime, due to the sensitive location of the Ranger mine within an area subsequently established as the Kakadu National Park. (Despite being located in the middle of the area concerned, the mine and its access road were excised from the area declared as national park. Over 40 years later, the Ranger uranium mine is only now closing.)

This might be regarded as an example of the ‘striking a balance’ platform on which the government was elected; mining was permitted but the National Park was created and the potential impacts of the mine on the park were regulated by special regime.

A dam in Tasmania

In the dying days of the Fraser Government, one environmental issue, the Tasmanian Government’s decision to build the Gordon below Franklin dam, would come to dominate the political discourse.

The Federal Government opposed the dam, but, despite the precedent of Fraser Island, regarded legislative intervention as a bridge too far. So, instead, Fraser offered Tasmania $500 million not to proceed with the dam, but the offer was rejected.

Despite acknowledging that it may have the legal power to stop the dam, the government argued that its World Heritage obligations did not require it to override responsibilities that it thought properly resided with the States. It would thus fall to the new Hawke government to stop the dam (something I’ll discuss in a future instalment).

The World Conservation Strategy

The Fraser Government also deserves to be remembered for its work on conservation policy.

The United Nations had adopted the World Conservation Strategy (WCS) in 1980. Fraser later announced that all Australian governments had adopted one of its principal recommendations, that every country should prepare its own National Conservation Strategy.

This was a significant initiative, not only because it initiated Australia’s first national statement on environmental policy objectives, but also because the government’s intention was that the national policy conform to the principal objectives of the WCS, which were visionary: maintaining essential ecological processes and life support systems; preserving genetic diversity, and ensuring ‘sustainable utilisation’ of species and ecosystems.

In fact, this concept of sustainable utilisation anticipated the concept of ‘sustainable development’ by seven years.

With the Fraser government losing office before the strategy, the strategy passed to the incoming Hawke government as unfinished business (again, more on this in my next instalment).

How green was the Fraser Government?

Although they couldn’t bring themselves to stop the Franklin Dam by legislation, the Fraser government presided over an active environment agenda and a significant expansion of the federal environmental role. They were particularly strong on World Heritage and got the ball rolling on a coherent national conservation policy.

And the ban on sand mining on Fraser Island is a landmark in our constitutional and environmental history.

Fraser would later write in his memoirs that if he had his time again he would have used the federal power to stop the Franklin Dam.

I once heard Fraser say of his exit from the Liberal Party, ‘I didn’t leave the Liberal Party, they left me.’ I’m not entirely sure that’s right.

Image: Malcolm Fraser emerges from Parliament House on 11 November 1975, after announcing that Governor-General Sir John Kerr had appointed him caretaker Prime Minister. Fraser’s pathway to the prime ministership now dominates our memory of his time. (NAA: A6180, 13/11/75/31; Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence, Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2019).

Environment as Quality of Life: The Whitlam Government 1972-1975

By Peter Burnett

Author’s Note: This is another in our series covering the environmental policies of past Australian Governments

Most Australians have heard of ‘the Dismissal’, but to actually remember it you’d have to be at least into your 50s. The government headed by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was perhaps Australia’s most controversial, and certainly the only one to have be sacked by the Governor General.

This was a bold and sometimes reckless government, with a ‘crash through or crash’ reputation.

But it was also a visionary government. Even now, many Australians would know of Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s time’ election slogan and policy speech, though few would recall anyone else’s election policy speech, including those of our current leaders.

Whitlam and Environment

Environment had become a ‘thing’ by 1972, and Whitlam was all for it. However, the relevant parts of his policy speech were cast in terms of quality of life rather than environment per se. He did however make specific environmental commitments relating to urban tree-planting, national parks, water conservation and heritage.

Once Whitlam came to power, and consistent with his ‘crash through or crash’ reputation, he focused on passing legislation. His Government did not waste much time developing policy statements; they were a government of action.

To the extent that it articulated an environmental vision, it is best captured in the Governor-General’s Speech on the opening of the Parliament in 1973:

“[My Government] is, however, deeply conscious that economic growth and material well-being no longer reflect the whole aspirations and expectation of the Australian community, and that prosperity alone is no longer exactly equated with true progress. The Department of the Environment and Conservation proposes to develop a ‘human progress’ index to reflect the new and emerging human and social values in a modern society.

“In planning for this generation, my Government intends to protect the rights and national inheritance of future generations of Australians. The Government will institute a program requiring environment impact statements for all major projects involving national funds and national constitutional powers.

From vision to action

This sense of an enduring quality of life, which echoed campaign policy speeches, flowed through to three of the four laws that constitute the bulk of the environmental record of the Whitlam Government. (The promised human progress index never saw the light of day.)

The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (EPIP Act) delivered on the commitment in the Governor General’s speech to require environmental impact statements.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 provided for the establishment of federal parks and reserves, while the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 established the GBR Marine Park and the GBR Marine Park Authority to look after it.

From the 1960s, the Queensland Government had advocated oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest structure made of living organisms, and one of the most complex known ecosystems. The Wallace Royal Commission into drilling on the Reef, called by the Gorton Government in 1970, reported in 1974 but Whitlam immediately announced an intention to pass what became the Marine Park Act, to protect the reef from oil drilling.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 which established the Australian Heritage Commission and the Register of the National Estate, which would eventually list more 13,000 natural, Indigenous and historic places around the country.

While the EPIP Act was directed to the utilitarian purpose of improved environmental decision making, the remaining three laws concerned either the protection of natural places of significance to the nation and the conservation of its heritage. As Minister for Urban and Regional Development Tom Uren put it when introducing the Heritage Commission Act, the Government’s philosophy was to “beat the bulldozer mentality”.

The Whitlam government also made an early federal foray into water policy. In a ministerial statement entitled A National Approach to Water Resources Management, environment minister Moss Cass articulated the need for an integrated and planning-based approach to water resource management, applying social as well as economic objectives and the polluter-pays principle, supported by an extensive program of data-gathering and analysis.

Mainstream to the modern eye

All of this seems fairly mainstream stuff now, but it was radical at the time.

EIA was still cutting edge, having made its first appearance only five years before in the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). And heritage had only recently entered the popular consciousness with the imposition of ‘Green Bans’, by the radical Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, on demolition sites in The Rocks and other inner-Sydney locations in the early 1970s.

All of these laws took the Federal Government into the States’ backyards, not only Constitutionally but literally. And, as anyone who’s watched our State governments over time would expect, the States opposed such intrusions vigorously. The Feds, after all, were tromping all over traditional State responsibilities.

And yet, the statements about water resource management would not raise a policy eyebrow these days.

We’ve come such a long way since then … or have we?

Image: Whitlam’s Ministry in 1974. (National Archives of Australia, the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

How good is Australia?!!

How deep have we stuck our head in the sand when it comes to the environment?

By David Salt

On May 19 2019 the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, tweeted his now trademark catchcry following his ‘miracle’ election victory: “How good is Australia! How good are Australians!” (noting he was making a statement, not asking a question).

It’s now a standard part of his language of spin (how good is this, how good is that…) and it’s also much parodied. But in parodying ‘Scotty from Marketing’ I fear we often trivialise some of the damage his government is presiding over.

The opposition claims Australia is going backwards when it comes to productivity, equity, corruption, debt and trust; and have put forward numbers suggesting Australia is slipping back when compared with other nations.

However, for my money, the true problem with Australia’s performance is what we’re allowing to happen to the environment. We’re witnessing collapse after environmental collapse and our response it to talk up small victories (like our fight against plastic pollution) while ignoring the big picture. Our PM would have has pat ourselves on the back rather than focus on our withering natural heritage. We refuse to accept any form of responsible stewardship for our own environment while also shirking international effort to do better.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Consider these recent reports.

Australia the only developed nation on world list of deforestation hotspots
Australia remains one of the world’s hotspots for deforestation according to a new report by WWF, which finds an area six times the size of Tasmania has been cleared globally since 2004. The analysis identifies 24 “deforestation fronts” worldwide where a total of 43 million hectares of forest was destroyed in the period from 2004 until 2017.

Urgent action needed to save 19 ‘collapsing’ Australian ecosystemsA ‘confronting and sobering’ report details degradation of coral reefs, outback deserts, tropical savanna, Murray-Darling waterways, mangroves and forests.

Great Barrier Reef found to be in failing health as world heritage review loomsA government report card has found the marine environment along the Great Barrier Reef’s coastline remains in poor health, prompting conservationists to call for urgent action ahead of a world heritage committee meeting this year.

Implications of the 2019–2020 megafires for the conservation of Australian vegetation
More than 150 species of native vascular plants are estimated to have experienced fire across 90% or more of their ranges. More than three quarters of rainforest communities were burnt in parts of New South Wales. These contain many ancient Gondwanan plant lineages that are now only found in small, fragmented ranges.

The 2020 Threatened Species Index
Australia’s new Threatened Species Index (TSX) for birds, mammals and plants was released in December last year. According to the data released in the 2020 TSX, threatened plants have declined by 72% between 1995 and 2017 on average across all sites. At sites where conservation management actions were taken this decline is less pronounced, with a 60% average decline over the same time period. At sites with no known management, the average decline was 80%.

Australia confirms extinction of 13 more species, including first reptile since colonisationThis latest update cements Australia’s reputation as the mammal extinction capital of the world with 34 extinct mammal species. The next nearest nation is Haiti with 9 extinct mammal species.

These are all recent reports and they are all saying the same thing. Our environment is in severe decline.

How good is Australia? Well, in one respect we are world leaders. As Suzanne Milthorpe from the Wilderness Society puts it (following on from the announcement that 13 more species are now confirmed as extinct): “It’s official; 34 mammal species have been lost from Australia and as these species are found nowhere else, we’ve also lost them from the planet and from all of time. There’s not another country, rich or poor, that has anything like this record.”

Unaccountable, opaque and disingenuous

If that wasn’t bad enough, our national government is telling the world we’re doing a great job when it comes to reducing carbon emissions (something I discussed a year ago in Five lies that stain a nation’s soul) and we’re the world’s best coral reef managers (again, something the evidence categorically refutes, see ‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain).

The world is struggling with global change and climate disruption. In Australia, we’re doing our best to ignore what’s happening in our own backyard while denying we have any culpability.

To add injury to insult, our national government is attempting to shirk its responsibility to protect our national heritage by disabling key powers in our national environmental law (the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, EPBC Act); reducing accountability by cutting funds to the Auditor General; and reducing transparency by abusing Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions surrounding environmental decisions.

Just yesterday the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) filed a case at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal challenging Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s refusal to release documents requested under Freedom of Information laws about 15 ‘fast tracked’ environmental approvals. ACF’s case will challenge the Government’s use of ‘national cabinet’ exemptions to avoid FOI disclosures.

How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Given our sad record of environmental decline and wretched environmental stewardship, our repeated and growing failure to protect those natural values we told ourselves and the world we would look after, these questions/assertions border on the obscene; and yet they constantly go unchallenged.

Australia is doing an awful job of looking after its environmental heritage for today’s generation and generations to come. It’s time we stopped burying our head in the sand, for that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our national leaders to discount our common future. Consider Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s recent declaration (reported in The Guardian): “We are not worried, or I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time.”

How good is Australia?

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