The script that burns us

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But what lies beneath our inability to engage with catastrophic fire

By David Salt

The fire emergency is over; for today, anyway. The drought, however, shows no sign of breaking and it promises to be a long, hot, fiery summer. Summer hasn’t even officially started for goodness sake but everyone is scared, frustrated and not a little angry; though who should bear the brunt of this anger depends on who you ask.

We’re scared by the science, by the forecasts and our own experience of recent summers telling us that things are changing for the worse. We’re frustrated because our political leaders are wasting their energy on obfuscation and political fights rather than seeking real engagement with the issue. They fortify their walls of denial rather than build bridges of consensus on a way forward.

There’s been a lot of media commentary on the fatuous point scoring and sniping of recent weeks as our political leaders attempted to shift the focus (and blame) in the face of catastrophic fires. Lives, houses and habitat were scorched, but our leaders seemed more concerned in blaming the other side.

We’ve seen it all before and, tragically, we’ll see it all again, and possibly very soon. I don’t just mean more catastrophic fires. We’ll see the exact same arguments erupt with the next emergency, and the one following that. And, as night follows day, the war of words we’ve just seen was also completely predictable.

The script

So, what’s the script? When the fires return and get out of our control, tearing apart life and certainty, observers will say climate change is multiplying the stress and we need to act on the fire and climate change. Then the government will say we can’t worry about climate change till the emergency is dealt with. The greens (with most scientists onside but not entering the fray) will say this is outrageous and the government will then attempt to shout down anyone trying to extend the debate beyond the immediate emergency.

At some point, as the damage from the fire is measured, some political leader (usually from the conservatives) will inevitably blame the scale of the disaster on inadequate hazard reduction burning that should have taken place before the fires took off. They’ll blame inadequate preparation (from the government authorities) as well as too much influence from green-leaning, inner-city yuppies.

Much media attention has been given to this script in recent weeks, and each of the details it contains has been raked over in some detail. Rather than repeat that analysis* I’d like to consider what lies beneath these arguments and ask whether we are doomed to simply see them repeated into the future.

The ideology

Why can’t our conservative government acknowledge climate change is real, present and an existential threat? It’s a question that has bugged me for many years.

Yes, climate denial serves vested interests, fossil fuels being key. Yes, changing the status quo is always a challenge. But I’ve always felt to generate and sustain the level of comprehensive denial we’ve seen propagated in recent years that you needed an underlying idea that trumps all other considerations.

For me, that idea is that climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change, including more taxes and higher prices to pay for mitigation).

This was the theme of my first blog in Sustainability Bites (A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change) and my conviction on this point has only grown. I won’t elaborate more on this, read it yourself if you’re interested. However, I reckon the script of denialism is never going to change until we appreciate the bedrock of ideology it emanates from.

Dominion

The second part of the script on hazard reduction burning relates to the belief that humans are in control, it’s our God-given right. The destruction resulting from catastrophic fires is because we simply aren’t exerting that control.

Instead, the argument goes, we’re pandering to conservationist (green) cliques, declaring too many national parks, preventing management from whipping the landscape into a more amenable (and safe) shape. Our folly, according to this set of beliefs, allows fuel levels to build and catastrophic fires are the inevitable result.

This ideology fundamentally ignores the nature of the complex adaptive systems, the social-ecological systems of which we are a part. We can control bits of these systems but we are not in control (though we would like to think that we are). No amount of hazard-reduction burning will deliver us from catastrophic fires but it’s the refrain our leaders fall back on as the ashes cool.

It’s a similar response from those wanting more dams to drought proof us. In both cases it’s a partial solution to a complex problem that is probably impossible to implement and wouldn’t fix the problem anyway. But it gives our leaders something to say, a fig leaf of intent to cover their impotence and denial.

Future replay

Given their deep ideological roots, I believe it’s inevitable the fire script will simply be replayed during future fire events. But maybe the growing dissatisfaction over our leaders’ inability to respond to the context of the fires will overwhelm its denial. The levels of outrage over recent weeks I think have surprised many.

Or maybe we’ll simply endure the government’s intransigence and vote them out at the next election (noting we failed to do this last time). Unfortunately, while we wait, listening to pitiful tune the Government is playing, Rome is burning.

By the way, did you hear the latest news? The World Meteorological Organisation has just released figures on greenhouse gases in 2018 and it makes grim reading. There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas emissions (despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change).

*Analysing the current fire emergency: If you want to see an excellent-science based discussion on the connection between climate change and catastrophic fires see Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze or Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?. For an equally solid analysis of the pros and cons of hazard reduction burning, see Controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire. There’s no question our Government is on the wrong side of science (and history) in their framing of the ongoing bushfire emergency.

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay

On the taboo of triage

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Some hard choices we don’t want to even think about

By David Salt

Former leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson, made an astounding comment last week during an address to farmers and industry leaders. “Government ministers are not turning up at events if they have the word ‘climate’ in the title,” he claimed.

Hard to believe but everyone knows that political parties of different stripes avoid certain words that trouble the ideologies that underpin the core beliefs of that party. As George Orwell frequently noted (and dictators often put into practice), language is power.

And it’s not just things tagged ‘climate’. I was amazed to observe the word ‘biodiversity’ disappeared from almost all Government messaging after the Liberal Party (under Tony Abbott) took office in 2013. How is it possible that a term like biodiversity*, that emerged from the academic field of conservation science and surely carries no political baggage at all, is seen to be politically taboo?

Priorities

In a general sense I’d ascribe it to broad government priorities: first we fix the economy, then we look after the environment. It’s a common mantra of political leaders and particularly so for those at the conservative end of the spectrum. I won’t discuss here why I believe this prioritisation of economy first/environment later is wrong (on so many levels) because that’s a big and hairy discussion better left to another time. However, it’s closely related to another taboo: don’t question the primacy of economic growth – growth is good, ad infinitum.

Of course, the empirical evidence on climate change and biodiversity decline is incontestable in terms of evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus. Which is not to say the evidence isn’t contested in the ideological arena of political power? Just consider the denialists’ most recent effort, a publication titled ‘There is no climate emergency’. It was reviewed and shown to be a text-book example of the denialist dark arts exhibiting bias, inaccuracy and cherry-picked information.

However, surely it’s easier to not mention something rather than expend considerable effort in constructing an ever more elaborate lie to deny the existence of that thing.

Which leads me to a taboo word so consequential that we must never breathe its name: triage.

Well, that’s not completely true. In medical settings like hospitals and treating wounded soldiers on battlefields, ‘triage’ is a common and accepted term. Indeed, the idea was born on the Napoleonic battlefield.

Triage comes from the French word ‘trier’, which means to separate, sort, sift or select. It’s all about setting priorities when the need is urgent and resources are limited. On the battlefield (or in a hospital’s emergency ward) doctors and nurses triage patients to ensure appropriate care is given as quickly as possible depending on available resources: “This soldier we can save, this soldier we can’t.” “This patient needs immediate care, that patient will have to wait.”

Triage this

Medical triage underpins some of the toughest decisions humans have to make but society accepts this process because these decisions are made by trusted experts working for the common good.

But when it comes to other forms of triage – namely conservation triage, landscape triage or enterprise triage – we’re entering dangerously taboo terrain.

Conservation triage refers to prioritising resources for threatened species (eg, “this species we can save, this species we can’t do much for so let’s stop wasting funds on it”); landscape triage refers to prioritising resources for different types of land use (eg, “we’ll support farmers working in this region but not those working over there”); and enterprise triage refers to prioritising resources for different business sectors (eg, “renewables is an emerging industry that should be supported but manufacturing is a mature sector that can’t be propped up”).

From a political perspective, these forms of triage are never to be mentioned because as soon as you do you draw a target on yourself. If you suggest that government should favour one thing while letting another fade away you’ll be accused of picking winners and giving up on losers.

Winners and losers

When triage is applied to threatened species the debate becomes particularly heated. If any politician even dares to suggest that resources might be better used if they were prioritised to where they might have the greatest impact, the media (and opportunistic politicians from the other side) immediately ask: “Which species are you giving up on?!”

It’s an effective attack because the broader community believes no species should go extinct, and the government is careful to avoid any discussion on whether this expectation is being met.

Of course, this expectation is not being met. Indeed, the reverse applies. The world is witnessing a biodiversity catastrophe and Australia leads the developed world in our rate of extinction.

The tragic irony of not undertaking robust conservation triage (which necessarily involves transparency and accountability) is that the pitifully inadequate resources available for threatened species conservation are poorly applied resulting in waste and ineffective conservation. Politicians pretend that all species will be saved while making ad hoc, reactive and opaque decisions to save whatever species is the flavour of the month. It’s not only inefficient, it’s quite immoral and represents a deep failure in leadership.

Whatever, don’t mention the word ‘triage’ as a tool of conservation. Not only is it a politically challenging process to prosecute, it also throws a light on our abject failure on threatened species conservation.

Don’t mention it

Similar arguments apply to other forms of triage, such as landscape and enterprise triage. Picking winners highlights the losers and throws a focus on the government’s failure in letting an unsustainable situation develop.

Attempting triage on land management, for example, would require the government to acknowledge that traditional farming is simply not appropriate in many Australian landscapes contexts, especially in light of predictions connected to climate change. Criticising farmers, of course, is another taboo.

It’s easier to simply not mention ‘climate’ (or ‘biodiversity’ or ‘triage’), and hope your pigeons don’t come home to roost until at least after the next election.

*On biodiversity: The word ‘biodiversity’ is a shortening of the term ‘biological diversity’ and broadly speaking refers to the variability of life on Earth. The word took on official usage in the 1980s (and its creation is attributed to the scientists Thomas Lovejoy and Walter Rosen). Truth to tell, while I attribute the demise of the term ‘biodiversity’ in political discourse to a plot by Abbott’s conservatives to avoid all science, a robust study of the decline of ‘biodiversity’ in conservation policy discourse in Australia has revealed that the downturn in usage began much earlier than Abbott’s rise to government in 2013. This study, led by Alex Kusmanoff at RMIT, suggests that from 2003 to 2014 the term ‘biodiversity’ was in steady decline while the term ‘ecosystem services’, an economic framing of the benefits of nature, was on the rise.

Image: Otis Historical Archives Nat’l Museum of Health & Medicine, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

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Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites

By David Salt

“A real engagement with sustainability has bite.” That was our contention when we (Peter and I) began this blog. Well, have we demonstrated that in our efforts so far? And have our reflections generated any useful insights, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? With 33 ‘bites’ now under our belt, I thought I’d take a look over what we’ve discussed so far and see if any themes are emerging.

If you read our blog’s ‘about’ page (which we haven’t touched since we began) you’ll see we had our own ideas on what ‘Sustainability Bites’ means. We said: “There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this debate on sustainability, but there are serious trade-offs and important consequences resulting from the decisions we make, and the way we make them.”

Those consequences are, if you like, the ‘bites’ of which we speak.

Governments will always sell their policy formulations as ‘win-win’ propositions but this is simply politically expedient fiction. There will always be ‘losers’ in any policy change and when it comes to sustainability those with most to lose are often big and influential ‘actors’ with considerable power in government decision making. Their vested interest in sustaining the status quo means the interests of future generations are forgotten. The present trumps the future.

33 bites, 5 emerging themes

The other meaning of the title of our blog is that we aim to serve up short, bite-sized stories on sustainability; stories based on emerging news and/or our research on various elements of the policy and science of sustainable development. So far we’ve produced 33 bites, roughly one per week since the beginning of 2019. I’ve listed these stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Going through that list I see five themes constantly emerging:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Of course, these themes arise from our interests in the sustainability sector. Peter comes from a policy background whereas I have been communicating conservation science for many years. However, I feel we have discussed enough examples to provide compelling evidence that these emerging themes are important (we would contend central) to any engagement with sustainability.

I have indicated in appendix 1 where a ‘bite’ is predominantly aimed at one of these themes should you want to read further. Many bites, of course, cross several themes.

And here are a few comments on each.

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

Achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions.

The more we (Peter and I) have pondered this point the more it seems the only way enduring change is achieved is through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Of course, there are many things you can do in the absence of a crisis and several of these we discuss. Importantly, when a crisis does occur, make sure there are effective policy solutions available to be deployed. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

Scientists gather evidence to better understand the world and inform our choices. Politicians gather evidence to maximize their electoral return (power). Often this involves the politician selling an ideology or plan which usually leads to presenting evidence to justify a specific idea or refutes a competing ideology. In other words, science and politics are antithetical in their process (something that both sides rarely acknowledge).

But it’s not just that politicians fail to act on what science is telling us; they simultaneously use science as an excuse for not acting on the clear and growing threat of global change. They hold up the promise and power of technology as something that will save us when things get too bad, thereby enabling them to ignore the risk (and implement appropriate policy) today.

It’s really quite perverse. Our leaders often ignore the science that undermines their (political) position but then hide behind the promise of science in defending the consequences of that position.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

The biggest obstacle to meaningful policy reform for sustainability is the inertia of the status quo, and this inertia is based on the politics of self-interest and short termism. It might be that the politics is driven by ideology or it might be that ideology is used as a weapon of power to shore up the politics. In many ways it doesn’t matter which, as both situations add up to today’s vested interests stopping the consideration of the future.

I would note that Peter and I both used our first blog in this series to talk about Conservative ideology. Peter spoke about sustainability actually being a central tenet of mainstream Conservative philosophy (the notion of the good steward). And I discussed how climate denialism was consistent with a Libertarian hatred of big government and constraints on personal freedoms.

4. The value of good policy

There are many policy tools available to government to tackle issues relating to sustainability. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies. He also discussed the role and value of the Productivity Commission and the Sustainability Development Goals (and several other policy institutions as well).

In all cases, these processes and institutions developed valuable ideas and assessments that ultimately failed to deliver real advances in sustainable development, not because they were flawed in themselves but because they weren’t implemented properly or integrated with other policy sectors.

A good policy poorly implemented can, in some ways, be worse than no policy at all because it gives the impression that a problem is being dealt with when it’s not, while the underlying problem just gets worse.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

Sustainable development is a complex and dynamic field, hardly surprising given we live in a complex and dynamic world. Many of our reflections have looked back in time to see where something has come from and how it has changed over time. Does this throw any light on the past, present and future of the sustainability project? We think so, and in support of this claim I give you a timeline of what we have discussed so far (Appendix 2).

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive treatise on the development of sustainability. It’s more a patchwork of ideas, a palimpsest of policy intent. But it’s not a bad start.

And we hope to fill in this patchy tapestry of ideas with greater detail as we chew on more bites in the future.

Image by vegasita from Pixabay

Appendix 1: 33 Bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: The potted timeline of Sustainability Bites

500 BC: Plato comments on the denuded hills of Attica. Five hundred years later Columella argues the need for the ‘everlasting youth’ of Earth. Also in this blog, are discussions on John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Margie Thatcher.
Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

1940s till now: Following the ‘reboot’ of WW2, the international community has made many concerted steps to develop a workable strategy for sustainable development.
A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed.

1941: Reflecting on how President Roosevelt prepared for war prior to the crisis of Pearl Harbour.
Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit

1945: Monday, 16 July, the world’s first atomic bomb is tested, and the Anthropocene begins (the world will never be the same).
Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

1966: New ways of perceiving the environment came to the fore in the 1960s, Boulding’s evocation of a Spaceship Earth was one of the important ones.
Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth

1969 (and the 1960s): The US drafts its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), marking the birth of modern environmental policy (ending a decade in which environmental decline was finally triggering legislative responses)
Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

1970s & 80s: The rise of environmental politics in Australia. It really began with the flooding of a beautiful Tasmanian mountain lake.
Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam

1972: Anthony Downs publishes on the ‘issues-attention cycle’
The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]

1972/73: The world confronts resource scarcity while simultaneously reflecting on measures of economic welfare. These were the antecedents of the environmental accounts.
An environmental accounting primer

1990s till today: A short history of attempts to reform Environmental Impact Assessment in Australia
Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments

1998: Australia established the Productivity Commission to enhance the government’s efforts improving our economy, society and environment (and probably in that order).
The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation

1999: Australia’s premier national environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is passed. Twenty years on, it’s in need of a major overhaul.
20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law

2000: The book ‘The Tipping Point’ is released
Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?

2005-2009: The United Kingdom shifts from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law. That goal is to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.
Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability

2015: The Sustainable Development Goals are adopted by the UN (following on from Agenda 21 in 1992 and the Millennium Development Goals in 2000).
The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash

2016/17: The Great Barrier Reef experiences mass bleaching under climate change
Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet

2017: Ex-Prime Minister Abbott denies climate change to an international forum
Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism

2017: At the same time that Abbott was denying the existence of climate change, the head of his Church, Pope Francis was saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”
Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue

2019: OECD delivers Australia an environmental report card (this is a process that more could be made of)
How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card

2019: Mass fish kills signal the latest impact of severe weather events (exacerbated by climate change)
Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills

2019: Geoengineering is being promoted as a silver bullet for climate change
Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution

2019: UN reports unprecedented losses in biodiversity (bit like similar reports in 2015, 2010, 2005; each worse than the one before)
Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change

2019: Australia votes and the Conservatives get back in, a repudiation of the growing calls for environmental policy reform.
Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism

2019: Latest outlook reports show the Great Barrier Reef is dying and government efforts to fix water quality are failing.
The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain

Sustainability and ‘big government’

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A ‘good’ reason to deny climate change

By David Salt

Why do people deny climate change? Are they ignorant? Are they stupid?

I’m a science writer. I place great store in the scientific process and accept what the overwhelming majority of scientists say about climate change – that it is real and endangers all that I hold dear (including the wellbeing of my children).

But I’m also aware that many powerful people don’t accept the scientific evidence on climate change, and these people go out of their way to block meaningful engagement and action relating to it.

A case study in denialism

As one example, Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of Australia (our most powerful elected office), recently told an international forum: “Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million or from 0.03 to 0.04 per cent. Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased. More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Now Abbott is dead wrong about the two central points in this quote. Weather events are becoming more severe because of climate change, and sea levels are rising. There are vast quantities of empirical evidence from multiple studies demonstrating this. What’s more, there is a strong scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change will increase significantly as carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise.

And yet Abbott is far from alone in his beliefs, and many powerful people from the Conservative side of politics peddle the same set of falsehoods that prop up climate-change denialism.

Are they ignorant? As Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott had ready access to the world’s finest scientists; indeed many have gone out to their way to explain the science to him. He had at his fingertips the best knowledge around but has either chosen to ignore it or not engage with it.

Is he stupid? He was a Rhodes Scholar and made it to the top office in the land. He’s not stupid.

In any case, ignorance and stupidity are just two ‘excuses’ that might be invoked in an effort to explain the irrational situation of powerful people denying a demonstrable truth. Greed, vested interest and corruption might be other explanations, as might the ideas of sunk investments and system inertia. While each of these ‘justifications’ might apply in some situations, for me they simply don’t explain the entrenched visceral opposition to the idea that we need deep and concerted action to address climate change.

A core belief

As a younger man I believed in ‘rationality’ and common sense, and that a fact was a fact. The challenge of climate change (and sustainability) was simply a problem of information deficit. In other words, more information would eventually solve the problem.

As I matured, the evidence supporting climate change increased. The case for doing something became ever more compelling. But, rather than act on that evidence, political forces gathered to neutralize our capacity to deal with it. Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, as one example, have been rising in recent years when our international commitment was to reduce them.

Better science and science communication is not working. Stupidity, ignorance and all the other possible reasons mentioned above play a role but for me they don’t explain the underlying force behind denialism.

And then I heard a talk by Naomi Oreske, a prominent science historian from the University of California (and co-author of the widely acclaimed book Merchants of Doubt) discuss the strategies of denialism. Whether it’s tobacco or ozone depletion or acid rain or pesticide regulation, the claims being made by deniers (she said) is always the same: extra regulation means an expansion of government and a constriction of freedoms – and this is an assault on Neoliberalism Conservative ideology which holds that big government is bad, markets are good and individuals should be free to maximize their wealth as they see fit.

As I reflected on this, it became crystal clear: the ‘idea’ of climate change is an existential threat to the ideology of free market fundamentalism (and Libertarianism). If we as a society acknowledge the clear and present danger of climate change (and the need for a deep and systemic response) then we are also acknowledging the need for bigger government and for greater constraints on our personal freedoms (in order to tackle climate change).

And the longer I thought about it the more I was convinced that here is ‘good’ reason underpinning climate change denialism. That’s ‘good’ as in strong, deep and powerful, not as in virtuous or right.

Anathema

Our world view is the well spring of our identity, the thing that gives substance to our meaning and to what we hold as important. And our world view is the frame through which we interpret everything around us, and the information presented to us. If that information does not conform to our world view, we often ignore it or distort it so that it does. Indeed, psychology has often demonstrated that attacks on our core identities often make them stronger.

In any case, the argument that a Libertarian ideology lies at the core of climate denialism makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also my response to Peter’s reflection on sustainability being a Conservative idea.

Maybe Peter is right; maybe I am too. Our arguments are not mutually exclusive.

If we are right, however, it’s reasonable to suggest that effective policy for sustainability will necessarily involve an engagement with Conservative and neoliberal ideology on several fronts. At the very least it will involve presenting ideas on sustainability and global change that are framed in a manner that Conservatives will engage with.

Environmental sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

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In the face of a worsening global crisis, can’t we find some common ground?

By Peter Burnett

‘The Environment’ has been a major public concern for more than fifty years now. Surveys consistently place the environment among the issues of greatest social concern, while numerous scientific reports continue to document a general and ongoing environmental decline. What’s more, the effects of environmental decline are becoming increasingly obvious, not only through intense heat, drought and cyclones, but also as previously unknown phenomena such as multiple coral bleaching events and arctic wildfires.

With all this concern and things getting worse, you’d expect action, but paradoxically, having gained considerable momentum in earlier years, environmental policy seems to be moving more slowly as the problem worsens, like an icebreaker that slows and eventually becomes stuck as it moves further into the pack ice. Even the Paris climate agreement of 2015, which looked at the time like a significant breakthrough into more navigable policy waters, now looks to have been no more than a patch of thinner ice. Optimists can retain some hope because of growing indications that renewable energy technologies might mitigate climate change, despite policy efforts. Yet technology is much less likely to solve other dimensions of environmental decline, especially biodiversity loss. We still need good policy.

The greatest obstacle to progress on policy is the polarisation of political views on the environment. In modern discourse, we have become so used to associating environmental concern with the political Left that we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for the environment, especially when seen through a sustainability lens, is actually a fundamentally conservative idea. Perhaps navigable policy waters can be found in the roots of environmental concern, among older notions of what we would now describe as environmental sustainability.

Good husbandry

Concerns about human impacts on the environment go back to antiquity. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato compared the denuded hills of Attica to bleached skeletons, while just over 2,000 years ago the Roman writer Columella lamented the depletion of agricultural land on the Italian peninsula.

Searching for a solution, he argued the need to maintain the ‘everlasting youth’ of the Earth through good husbandry. This is as clear a definition of sustainability as any you’ll find today.

In the early modern era, the roots of sustainability can be traced to the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke and his theories of private property. Locke argued that by investing their labour in harvesting goods from nature, individuals gained the right to regard them as private property. But he attached a proviso to this. The right to convert natural goods into private property would apply only where there was enough left in common for others, in good condition. This provides another good framing for sustainability.

In usufruct to the living

In the eighteenth century, the French Revolution prompted Thomas Jefferson to reflect on the rights of the present generation to bind those coming after, leading him to argue that ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’. This was a reference to the Roman civil law concept of ususfructus, which was the right to use the land and take produce, without impairing its capacity to produce. (This is not old hat. Margaret Thatcher made much the same argument in her famous statement to the 1998 British Conservative Party conference that no generation has a ‘freehold’ on the earth: ‘All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.’ )

Early sustainability concerns were not just philosophical reflections. Wood shortages affected a number of European countries in the early modern era. In 18th century this prompted discussion in German forestry circles on how to use natural resources in the interests of present and future generations, leading Von Carlowitz to propose a principle of nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use). This implied the need to keep the harvesting of trees within rates of regrowth.

Two centuries later, in 1908, US President Theodore Roosevelt, riding the Progressive Era tide of public interest in conservation, established a National Conservation Commission, which then made the first survey of the natural resources of the United States. Even into the early years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ of economic growth after World War II, the economist Ciriacy-Wantrup was arguing that we shouldn’t run nature down because the cost of restoring it would be unacceptably high.

Society is a contract…

None of these arguments is even slightly suggestive of what might be described today as a ‘Green Left agenda’. In fact, you could argue that conservatives were all over this issue more than a century ago. What is common to the arguments is an express or implied concern for the future, especially a social obligation to future generations. This is entirely consistent with the argument of another conservative, British philosopher and MP Edmund Burke, that ‘Society is a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born’. This concern is also the essence of ‘intergenerational equity’, the principle underlying the modern ideal of environmental sustainability.

With broad support for environmental causes on the Left, and with the strong conservative pedigree of sustainability, why isn’t there bipartisan support for policies to keep the environment in good condition for future generations?