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

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

By David Salt

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

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

Simple solutions for complex issues

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest silver bullet

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous on so many levels

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

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

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

Firing silver bullets at coral

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

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

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

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

Myths

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

Image by illusion-X from Pixabay

The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

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

By David Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. It’s also about water quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. An inconvenient truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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?!!

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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?

Image: Image by smadalsl from Pixabay

We need a BIG win for the environment

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Something to make us proud again

By David Salt

When was the last time our government did something really big, something landmark in scale, for the Australian environment?

Putting a price on carbon in 2011 was pretty big. Unfortunately, thanks to the ideological malfeasance of the Abbott Coalition Government, this was aborted in 2014 just as it was starting to make a difference to our country’s carbon emissions, so this was more of a big loss than a win. (Also, that was more about our nation’s contribution to global sustainability than to Australia’s environment per se.)

BIG wins in our Nation’s history

No, for something ‘big’ I think you need to look further back. Maybe it was 2004 when the Howard Coalition Government established one of the world’s best marine national parks on the Great Barrier Reef by increasing no-take areas from 5% to 33% (using some of the world’s cutting edge conservation science – which happened to be Australian led!).

And, on the topic of the Great Barrier Reef, maybe you’d cite the disallowance of oil drilling on the Reef in 1975, or the Reef’s successful selection as a World Heritage site for its outstanding natural values in 1981.

These were all world-leading big wins for the Australian environment; actions that made us feel proud of our environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, though each action was internationally noteworthy, none of them are saving the Great Barrier Reef (or coral reefs anywhere) from climate change.

But big wins weren’t merely reserved for our beautiful and much loved coral reef (with the earning potential of billions of dollars each year). The nation also felt proud when conservationists (represented by the Australian Conservation Foundation) shook hands with farmers (represented by the National Farmers Federation) to launch the movement known as Landcare in 1989. The Hawke Labor Government threw in $360 million and proclaimed a Decade of Landcare.

So popular was Landcare that it paved the way for even bigger packages of funding in the form of the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) in 1997. The Howard Coalition Government forked up over $1 billion dollars (generated by the sale of Telstra) to drive the NHT. Some claim it was a bribe to get the public to accept the sale of our public telecommunications company (a claim I’ve made myself on occasion) but the significance here is that the success of Landcare and our desire to heal the land was strong enough for us to take the money.

The fact that Landcare hasn’t reversed the pattern of environmental degradation being witnessed across Australia or that the Australian National Audit Office found the NHT was ineffectual because the money was spread too thinly and without any real strategy reflected the enormity of the challenges we were facing. However, their establishment signalled the government was serious about the environment and the effort gave the electorate at least some reason to hope.

Standing together on ‘No Dams’

For my money, one of the biggest environmental wins in Australia was back in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government blocked the Tasmanian Government from building the Franklin Dam in south west Tasmania. The ‘No Dams’ campaign saw the will of the Australian people triumph over the vested interests of the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. As a nation we stood up, through the national government, and defended the values of a World Heritage river that was destined to be drowned. Saving it made the nation proud.

I think it’s true that we have had big environmental wins in the past; symbolic and real. But the examples I cite (from 1983, 1989 and 2004) are now many years old. And, if ever there was a time we needed something to make us feel good and try harder, now is that time.

Now more than ever

Now, as we see climate-fuelled disasters rise and rise we need a signal that we still have a capacity for wise environmental stewardship.

Now, as we see our children throw up their hands in despair, we need to provide them something to believe in.

Now, as we see tribalalised politics and polarising partisanship tear asunder community trust, we need to provide examples of partnerships and alliances between traditional adversaries (farmers and conservationists for example) to demonstrate good faith and common purpose.

Now, as we see fake news, conspiracy and hate speak fill our media feeds, we need to see good governance, accountability and transparency in taking on the environmental challenges that beset us.

So, as we launch into a new decade, I call on environmentalists and nature lovers everywhere (individuals, NGOs, public servants, business people, farmers, researchers and decision makers): keep up your good fight for sustainability, call out injustice where you see it, but put some of your mental reserves into coming up with ideas for something BIG for the environment that has the potential to build hope, common purpose and pride.

Image by alicia3690 from Pixabay 

For my next techno-trick – I’m going to make you forget about the problems facing the Reef

Techno-fixing the Reef and other dangerous delusions

By David Salt

Science is telling us coral reefs are dying. Politicians, while ignoring and denying the science on climate change, are telling us science is going to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s called the techno fix, and it’s one of the oldest tricks around.

Problem solved?

The problem with the ‘techno fix’ is that it is usually only a partial solution. The allure of the ‘techno fix’ is that it allows us, and particularly our political leaders, to think we’ve solved the problem.

If the problem being addressed is a small one, then maybe a partial solution is fine. If the techno fix doesn’t live up to its hype, then let’s develop a new techno fix. Every time we try something new it’s to be hoped at the very least that we learn something.

But if the problem is big and important, then placing our trust (and limited resources) in a techno fix becomes dangerous and delusional. An example of this is what we’re doing with the Great Barrier Reef.

Boiling coral

The Great Barrier Reef is overheating because of climate change. When corals overheat they eject the symbiotic algae that feeds them. The corals turn white, they look bleached, and if the temperature stays too high for too long the corals die. In the last five years there have been three mass bleaching events along the reef, each one causing unprecedented levels of coral death. In February the Reef was subjected to its hottest sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900. All the evidence suggests it’s only going to get worse.

Coral can recover if it’s given time but the forecasts are that, with increasing temperatures, mass bleaching events will increase in frequency – once every couple of years by 2030 and yet it takes decades to recover from a mass bleaching event. The world’s leading coral scientists predict the Great Barrier Reef will be lost if carbon emissions and climate change is not addressed. Of course, it’s not just the GBR that’s at stake, all coral reefs are being threatened.

And it’s also not just about rising temperature either. Greater storm damage and outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish are also wreaking carnage on the Great Barrier Reef; and both these factors also have strong connections to climate change.

The solution? Stop climate change. Do something to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, it’s one of the biggest challenges facing modern society. Yes, no country can do it on its own. However, it’s the only real chance we have of saving the Great Barrier Reef and other important coral ecosystems around the world.

Silver bullets

In Australia, our national government is in complete denial over climate change but is sensitive to the fact that Australians love the Great Barrier Reef and believe our elected leaders should be protecting it – after all, we told the world we would when we go it listed as World Heritage and the Reef is an important part of our economic wealth employing around 64,000 people.

However, following the mass coral bleachings in 2016, 2017 and 2020 (not to mention declining water quality and massive outbreaks of crown-of thorn starfish) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the line that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’.

Rather than acknowledging the connection between coral decline and climate change (and making climate change a policy priority), our government has instead been looking around for techno-fixes that may (or may not) help us manage bits of the unfolding catastrophe. I say ‘may not’ because many of the solutions being explored haven’t yet actually been demonstrated to work.

We’re talking about, for example, searching for corals that can survive in higher temperatures, developing methods to restore degraded coral, putting different coral species into frozen archives that we can use in the future, and researching geoengineering strategies that might provide temporary protection from heat waves*.

Last month the Federal Government announced a $150 million reef restoration and adaptation package that will fund some 42 concepts aimed at helping the reef cope with the growing threat of environmental degradation.

Don’t get me wrong, this is considerable money with many good people doing amazing things to protect the Reef. But at best, even if these strategies work as hoped (and that’s a big ‘if’), all we’re treating is the symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. Maybe the condition of a few select reefs might be improved for a time (or their decline might be slowed), maybe we’ll create a ‘seed bank’ for some future age in which we’ve figured out how to reduce our carbon pollution to sustainable levels, but none of these efforts are doing anything to save the Great Barrier Reef that we have today. To believe they will work is delusional.

What such efforts do achieve, however, is to give an impression that the government is doing enough and that we don’t have to worry about the underlying cause. That’s dangerous thinking.

No such thing as a free lunch

As to my claim that the techno fix is an old trick, let me quote the ecologist Garrett Hardin who made this comment in his classic paper ‘The tragedy of the Commons’ some 52 years ago: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.

If we were able to protect the Great Barrier Reef it’s likely techno-fixes will play a part – maybe even buy us a little time – but without a concerted effort to address the underlying problem of atmospheric carbon pollution and a rapidly warming world then these technical solutions are really only being promoted to fool us into thinking that science will save us, and we as individuals don’t have to worry or change the way we live; that’s dangerous and delusional.

*Geoengineering is in many ways the ultimate techno-fix, and maybe it’s the ultimate delusion: that humans are in control of the earth system (and because we are in control we don’t need to worry about the degradation our activities are causing). Regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the proposal is to use snow cannons to shoot droplets of salt water into the air over the Reef. Salt particles in the air should brighten clouds over the Reef reflecting away sunlight and reducing heat on the reef (in theory). The researchers say it would cost $150-$200 million a year to run cloud brightening over the whole reef. Trials have begun but even these are raising controversy as some believe they are violating an international moratorium on ocean geoengineering.

Image: Bleached elkhorn coral off Magnetic Island (Photo by Klara Lindstrom, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.)

Three letters on the apocalypse

Conveying global impacts of climate change often requires a smaller human framing

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It’s been hit by another mass bleaching, the most extensive to date. It’s the third mass bleaching in five years but this time it’s hardly caused a ripple in a world struggling to cope with a pandemic. We’ll get through this pandemic but the loss of the world’s largest coral ecosystem is a tragedy that will stay with us forever.

The progressive destruction of the Great Barrier Reef (and coral reefs in general) is the result of climate change and raised water temperatures. It’s a consequence of human activity. To address it we need to modify human activity but so far such changes have proved beyond the capacity of the societies in which we live.

Trying to engage people on the consequences of climate change can be very difficult. It’s big, its complex, and it’s happening all around us. There’s so much information to absorb (and disinformation to avoid), so many strongly held views, so many vested interests attempting to skew the debate in their own favour. It’s often hard to keep up, and so much easier to tune out. We need to explore stories that will keep people tuned in.

King hit

Do you remember when the first big episode of mass coral bleaching occurred early in 2016? I do.

Reef scientists knew something bad was coming their way and deployed a lot of cameras to capture the event. But the scale of death and destruction exceeded their worst fears. Ninety three percent of the vast northern section of the reef, the most pristine region of the GBR, was bleached leading to the death of almost a quarter of the coral.

If left alone, the reef would recover but all the modelling of our warming world suggested the bleaching events would increase in number and severity. Indeed, 2017 saw a return of the bleaching, this time focussed on the middle section. (And the 2020 event is hitting the southern regions.)

I felt sick in my stomach at the implications of what we witnessed in 2016 and was more than a little surprised when the Government glossed over the tragedy telling the world their 2050 Reef Plan was on top of the problem, even though this plan didn’t even deal with climate change.

Following those mass bleachings I remember attempting to communicate their significance to environmental science students I was teaching. I found that the actual numbers surrounding the event were so large and somewhat technical that they seemingly lacked impact, they were difficult to engage with.

Three letters

So, I searched around for commentaries by people and groups I trusted, and I attempted to convey the impact of this bleaching event using some of the words that I myself found moving.

The first message I used was in an email from a colleague, a marine ecologist. This colleague was a co-author on the Nature paper that categorically connected the bleaching with global warming and in this email she discussed the significance of the findings.

The paper showed that record temperatures had triggered massive coral bleaching across the tropics (it was way more than just the Great Barrier Reef). The study also showed that better water quality or reduced fishing pressure did not significantly reduce the severity of bleaching, something that the government had been hoping would save the Reef – indeed, this was the centre of their management strategy. What’s more, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of the bleaching in 2016, which debunked the hope that the reef might ‘adapt’ to warming.

This is all pretty important stuff but possibly it’s more technical than the broader community can easily absorb.

The reason I shared this email with my students was because my colleague finished with the statement: “This is the most depressing paper I have ever been involved in!”

Most researchers would be ecstatic to get their name on a Nature paper but the conclusions of this one signified the death of an ecosystem my colleague had devoted her life to.

Civil society

The second letter I shared with my class was a public letter from 90 eminent Australians to billionaire Gautam Adani to say Australians want clean energy, not a new coal mine. Australians who signed the open letter included senior business leaders, sporting legends, Australians of the Year, authors, farmers, musicians, scientists, economists, artists and community leaders. Names included Ian and Greg Chappell, Missy Higgins, Tim Winton, Peter Garrett and businessmen Mark Burrows, John Mullen and Mark Joiner.

Of course, the company Adani was (and still is) attempting to develop the Carmichael coal project in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland. The project involves a 60 million tonne per annum coal mine, a 388km long rail line and the construction of a new coal export terminal at the Abbot Point coal port.

The scientists are adamant the extraction of coal from this mine would be the death knell of coral reefs everywhere. The fact that this mine is in the backyard of the GBR only adds salt to the wound.

I shared this letter because it conveyed the deep visceral antipathy held by many of our community leaders to the growing impact of fossil fuels on the ecosystems we hold dear.

It should be noted that at the same time this letter was being delivered to Adani, the Queensland Premier and six regional mayors visited India to promote the controversial Adani megamine because it promised regional jobs.

The scientific consensus

The third letter was on a similar theme. It was from the Climate Change Council, a science-based group advocating action on climate change, to the Federal Government. It pleaded with the government to not support Adani in developing its rail line from the Carmichael Mine to the coast. It provided a thoroughly researched and well-articulated argument on what the science says about the impact of a new mega coal mine: “Supporting this mine would fly in the face of advice from experts who have collectively devoted over 1,200 years studying climate change, marine ecosystems and coral reefs,” the Climate Change Council said.

Their letter finished with this succinct plea: “We urge you, on behalf of the 69,000 people to whom the Reef provides a job, the 500 million people worldwide who rely on coral reefs for their food and livelihoods, and the millions of Australians who are passionate about the protecting the Reef, that you make your decision based on the science.”

I thought it was a fairly compelling argument myself, but then I accept the science. But the argument was largely rejected and ignored by the Government. The Adani mine was approved and is now under development.

Apocalypse now

I titled this story ‘3 letters on the apocalypse’ because it sounds punchy, and the point I’m making here is it’s difficult to punch through on environmental decline when it’s bigger and more pervasive than our senses (and cognition) can readily absorb. One way we can try is by sharing other people’s responses, putting the events into a human frame.

Think about how popular media attempted to convey the impact of the Black Summer super-fires eastern Australia has just endured. The numbers (burnt hectares, lost houses, lives ended) are literally beyond our ability to assimilate but the horror of individual stories of loss cut through.

While the word ‘apocalypse’ is hyperbolic I think it’s appropriately used here for both the mass bleachings and the super-fires. Its religious connotation is of an ‘end of times’, and that is quite fitting when applied to what’s happening on the Reef. The frequency of these events means that coral reefs like the GBR now have a new identity. They are turning into something else, a system which will have a different composition and structure, a system that is unlikely to provide us a rich yield of ecosystem goods and services that it currently does.

But the word ‘apocalypse’ has another meaning as well. It’s derived from the Greek word meaning ‘revelation’. The changes taking place on the Great Barrier Reef and the forests of south eastern Australia are indeed a revelation on the true nature of climate change. It’s a revelation we dare not ignore.

Image: Bleaching coral off Lizard Island, a casualty of the most recent mass bleaching event. Photo by Kristen Brown, courtesy of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Dawn of the new normal(?)

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

By David Salt

When did climate change arrive in Australia?

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

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

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

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

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

Scorched coral

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the Black Summer of 2019/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new normal

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

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

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

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

A new light of day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Best managed reef in the world’ down the drain

What’s happening around the Park makes a mockery of our ‘best management’ approach

By David Salt

Is it hubris, arrogance or duplicity when the country’s Minister for the Environment can claim, almost in the same breath, that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’ but that the science-based outlook for the Reef’s ecosystem has slipped from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’? I’m not joking, read her press release (it came out last Friday). How does ‘best management’ produce this outcome?

Well, it might surprise some of our readers to hear that I don’t actually disagree with the claim that the GBR is one of the world’s better managed reefs. It’s one of the world’s biggest marine parks with a significant portion of it off limits to all forms of development (around a third) thanks to the application of world’s best-practice systematic conservation planning. And the management of this world-heritage listed park is supported by a range of relatively well resourced institutions (GBRMPA, AIMS and the Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies to name three).

We monitor it well and in many areas we have led the world on reef science. And that’s as it should be because Australian’s love the Reef and expect our elected representatives to look after it. Economists tell us it’s worth looking after because it employs 64,000 people, generates $6.4 billion each year and has a total asset value of $56 billion.

The shadow of climate change

The trouble is, the looming threats overshadowing the Reef cannot be addressed by best-practice management within the Park’s boundaries. They originate outside of the Park and the Government claims it has limited power to address them.

In 2012, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) released a major peer-reviewed study that found the GBR was under significant stress and that it had lost half of its hard coral since 1985. The cause of this decline was threefold: storm damage (48%), outbreaks of Crown-of-Thorns starfish (COTS) (42%) and coral bleaching (10%).

All three threats had connections with climate change but the government (in this case the Federal Government and the Queensland Government who together share responsibility for the Reef) claimed climate change is a global issue beyond its capacity to control. (And, it should be noted, since this report came out the GBR has experienced catastrophic bouts of mass coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017).

No, climate change is something the government won’t buy into but what it says it can do is improve water quality.

Dirty water

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 COTS, encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience* – it’s ability to recover from disturbance.

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 it (including climate related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

Interestingly, the same day the Environment Minister released the appalling Reef Outlook report, she also released the 2017 – 2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card which gave a very gloomy prognosis: “Across all Great Barrier Reef catchments, water quality modelling showed a very poor reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen (0.3%) and sediment (0.5%). There was also a poor reduction in particulate nitrogen (0.5%).” What was it, bad news Friday or something; put all the garbage out at the same time (and this following on from the latest carbon emissions data showing Australia’s emissions are still rising over several years even though we say we’ll reduce them!).

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 anything. 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.

Rating the reports

This government prides itself on its managerial approach. However, no matter how well the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is managed, it is a sitting duck facing the coming onslaught of climate-related bleaching events and big storms. The fact that the government can’t even clean up water quality just adds insult to injury.

The science has been saying what we need to do for many years (indeed, see comments by Terry Hughes, one of the world’s foremost experts comments on coral reefs, on the Outlook report) but the government hides behind the notion that because one part of the reef system is managed well (the part inside the Park) then they have met their commitments. But that well managed bit is connected to the land component next door and the greater world surrounding it, and those connections are killing the reef.

So, in light of last week’s horror reports on the Outlook for the Reef and the 2017-2018 Reef Water Quality Report Card, I think it would be fair to rate the Government’s progress as FAIL with the comment: hubristic, arrogant and duplicitous; don’t try to dress up a failure as a good effort because to do so just makes it harder to take the tough decisions that are needed.

*Reef resilience – having co-written two textbooks on resilience science (Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice) that have played a large role in popularising the concept of resilience, it saddens by enormously to see the idea used by governments as a shield to hide behind when they are unable to engage with the science of climate change.

Image: A reef under stress on multiple fronts (Image ARC Centre of Excellence for Reef Studies)