Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex

Featured

By David Salt

If you could go back in a time machine some 20 years, what would you tell a younger version of yourself about climate change and how the world has responded to it in the last two decades?

Back from the future

“Well, young David, you know how many people are talking about climate change; and how scientists are forecasting horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption if we do nothing about our carbon emissions? Well, guess what? I’m from your future, from 2022, and you know what we did? We did nothing!

“And the scientists were right. We’re now experiencing horror weather, ecosystem collapse and mass climate disruption.

“Of course, it’s unfair of me to say we did completely nothing. In the past two decades there’s been heaps of talk, research and many agreements signed. And many of us now have photovoltaics on our rooftops.

“The scientific consensus on climate change has only firmed since the year 2000, and there have been efforts in various places on ways of reducing carbon emissions.

“However, by and large, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane have steadily, remorselessly, built up. (In 2000 we were around 370 parts per million CO2, in 2022 we’re over 412 ppm, over a 14% increase.)

“Here are few ‘milestones’ that you might want to reflect on from the past two decades (that’s the next 20 years from where you’re standing).

“As you know, there had been multiple international scientific consensus reports on the biophysical reality of climate change, most notably the IPCC reports of 1990, 1995 and 2001. These set out the very clear case for the scientific basis of the changes happening to the Earth system and what this meant for us, but they were quite ‘sciency’, bloated with technical jargon and largely discounted by the politicians.

“Then, in 2006, the UK released the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. It was significant because it was the largest and most authoritative report of its kind setting out the dire consequences for civil society. It found that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen, presenting a unique challenge for the world. The Review’s main conclusion was that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting.

“I’m telling you this, young David, because at this time (still six years in your future) it looked like all the political ducks were lining up for strong action on climate change.

“In 2007, Australia elected in a new government led by Kevin Rudd who declared that ‘climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation’ and proposed a comprehensive policy called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) that would put a cap on Australia’s carbon emissions. It would have placed Australia at the vanguard of global climate action.

“I have to say, young David, that up until this time I had begun to despair that any of our political leaders were going to do the right thing. And then Rudd stood up and said this was too important not to do something, we couldn’t abrogate our responsibility to future generations. I felt hope.

“But then the opposition conservative party decided to turn climate change into a divisive political battle, and the Greens said the CPRS wasn’t strong enough and voted against it… and the CPRS failed to pass through Parliament.

“And then Rudd said ‘Ah well, it’s too difficult to get through so we’ll park the CPRS and revisit it sometime down the line.’

“This moment is several years in your future, young David, but, mark my words, when you reach it your illusions that climate change is a tractable issue capable of being solved by good science and well-meaning people will be shattered. And it will be a significant moment in which you begin transforming into me, grumpy old David.

“Because you believed Rudd when he said this was the most important issue of our time. And you stopped believing him when he threw it to the side. (I note his party stopped believing in him after this, too.)

“And then I watched in horror as climate denialism started taking centre stage, populism trumped informed debate and the costs of acting were overhyped in order to prevent any meaningful action being taken. Stern’s mantra of ‘early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting’ were completely forgotten in the political shit storms that followed.

“And then the Great Barrier Reef started bleaching (2016), our forest biomes went up in flames (2019) and historic floods devastated the nation (2022). The most common adjective being rolled out in all these disaster stories is ‘unprecedented’ because the past is no longer a guide to what we can expect.

“In 2022 (the year in your future from which I return) the whole world is enduring ongoing climate catastrophes. India and Pakistan have just suffered their longest and most intense heat wave resulting in crop failures. Europe is reeling under the ‘unprecedented’ heat and the fires are expected soon. In the United States an ‘unprecedented’ drought is crippling the water supplies of their western cities. Many of our small island Pacific nations are facing an existential crisis as rising seawaters lap at their doors. And everyone everywhere is going a little bit crazy.

“And, young David, this is not ‘a new normal’. This is only the start of the warming that scientists were describing two decades (and more) ago, with some accuracy I might add. Yet still our political leaders allow today’s ‘sunk investments’ in fossil fuels to delay our actions.

“Oh, and speaking of investments, young David, one last thing before I’m back to the future; buy as much stock as you can in Apple and Facebook. But don’t tell anyone I told you, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble with the mechanic who runs the space-time continuum.”

It’s complex

So, what’s the point of this little thought exercise (above and beyond a reflection on my earlier poor investment choices)?

In recent weeks, Australia has been gripped by an energy crisis – not enough affordable energy to power the system at the beginning of a cold winter. Experts from across the energy spectrum have commented on the causes and solutions to this crisis, always noting they are complex and not quickly solved. In response, many people have accused the experts of obfuscating and hiding behind the idea of ‘complex’. Just tell us how to fix it, they cry.

But it’s true, I thought. It is complex. You can’t solve this energy crisis with simple and easy fixes. You increase energy supply here, and you throw out the system over there. Simple fixes to complex problems inevitably create bigger problems down the line or on the other side of the continent.

And the energy problem is only a small part of the bigger climate change issue, which is complex times complex. Greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in our energy, our food, our transport, in everything.

And yet, again, our political leaders tell us there is a simple solution, just vote for us. Anyone who acknowledges it is a complex problem with complex solution will be torn to shreds by the opposing party when they go for election. The costs to the present status quo (based on fossil fuel dependence) will outweigh calculations on future sustainability.

Stern’s claim that the “benefits of strong, early action on climate change far outweigh the costs of not acting” are valid, but completely lost in the complex world in which we live.

In some ways I’m feeling like it’s 2007 again. We have just elected a new government promising action on climate change and hopes are high. But I fear we’re still not engaging with the complexity of this challenge.

If I could turn back time, this is what I would be trying to tell our political leaders. Don’t treat climate change as a simple problem. It’s not. It’s complex. And complexity means you need to acknowledge connectivity between sectors, path dependency, non-linearity and threshold behaviour in key variables. All themes which I will discuss in up-coming blogs.

I titled this essay ‘Why can’t we fix this? Because it’s complex.’ Another way of framing that is encapsulated in the quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong,” (HL Mencken).

I believe climate change is a challenge that can be resolved, but only if we acknowledge that it really is a problem of complexity.

Banner image: Quick Young David, there’s not a moment to lose. The very future is at risk! (Image by Danny Springgay from Pixabay)

The IPCC has left me hanging on the line – more detail is not making a difference

Featured

After six goes you’d think they’d try something different

By David Salt

The way we communicate climate change is not working. This is not a new situation but it’s about time we acknowledged it.

The IPCC has just released its sixth report on climate change. Did you miss it? Probably not if you’re a scientist or you worry about the environment. For the rest of humanity, it sunk without a ripple; which is pretty amazing when most of the world seems to be dealing with unprecedented supercharged weather, floods and droughts.

The story in detail

Thirty years ago I was a science writer working at CSIRO Education. I was doing a story on the ‘greenhouse effect’, something associated with global warming, a phenomenon scientists were talking about but governments were largely ignoring.

I was speaking by phone with the Information Officer at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, a former climate scientist himself.

“So, this greenhouse effect describes what’s happening on our planet?” I put to Dr Smith [not his real name]. “The Earth’s atmosphere is trapping heat like a greenhouse, is that the story?”

“No, no, no!” Exclaimed Dr Smith. “The ‘greenhouse’ analogy is completely misapplied because it doesn’t capture what’s really happening. The Earth’s atmosphere is not like a greenhouse holding in warm air. What really happens is the Sun’s energy passes through the atmosphere, over two thirds of it, anyway, and is absorbed by the land and the oceans. It then gets re radiated in the form of invisible infrared light and…”

But I didn’t hear anymore. Unfortunately, our phone connection had cut out. I rang Dr Smith straight back but I couldn’t get through to him because his phone was engaged. I tried again five minutes later but it was still engaged. I kept trying again and again.

Thirty minutes later I got through. The reason his phone had been engaged was because he hadn’t noticed the line had dropped out. He’d kept on talking to me – for 30 minutes without interruption, never pausing for breath or checking to see if I was keeping up with him.

This is a true story but it’s also emblematic of the problem of scientists communicating complicated stories to non-scientists. They include all the details, they lecture rather than listen, and they don’t have much awareness of their audience or how the audience hears the information. They are frequently unaware that their message is even getting through.

Well, that was 30 years ago. Things have changed, right?

We know a hell of a lot more now, that’s for sure. But we’re still not doing anything about it.

Summer of the Greenhouse

The science of global warming was well understood by the 1970s. Data collected since the 1950s was showing that carbon dioxide levels were steadily on the increase. By the mid 70s, it was well established that the rising carbon dioxide was due to anthropogenic emissions (ie, humans were producing them).

The consequences of this were even being observed by the late 1980s. 1988 was the hottest and driest summer in history (at that point), and NASA’s Jim Hansen declared that the signal from climate change had emerged. He wrote: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Indeed, the hot northern summer of 1988 has sometimes been called the ‘greenhouse summer’. It’s very appropriate then that this was the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being. Jointly established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC was created to review all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic international responses to this global concern. The IPCC does not undertake scientific work itself but rather reports a consensus position.

In 1990 the IPCC published its first assessment report. It noted that greenhouse warming could result in ‘several degrees’ of warming by the middle of the following century.

More and more certain

In 1995 the IPCC released its second assessment report. Considerable progress had been made since the 1990 report in distinguishing between natural and anthropogenic influences on climate. The balance of evidence, it said, suggested a discernible human influence on global climate.

By the time of its third report, in 2001, the possibility had become a strong probability, and the rate of change was ‘without precedent for at least the last 10,000 years’. The ‘several degrees’ had become a precise band (somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius). This band of possible future warming became the basis for a mechanism to implement the Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 178 governments (though not the United States and initially not Australia either, though we came around in 2007 after a change of government).

The fourth assessment report, released in 2007, reported that anthropogenic harm was ‘already evident’ (though, as I already indicated, prominent climate scientists were actually claiming this back in the 80s).

2015 saw the fifth assessment report released. It basically said everything previous reports had said but with greater certainty and urgency. The IPCC pointed out that the longer we wait to reduce our emissions, the more expensive it will become. And it spelt all this out in a report coming in at over 2,000 pages long and citing 9,200 scientific publications.

The most detailed ever

Which brings us to the sixth and current assessment. It has 278 authors from 65 countries, cites over 18,000 references and is almost 3,000 pages long!! What does it say? I’m not sure. I haven’t had time even to read the 64 page summary for policymakers. I am interested, it’s just I’m not too fussed by the details. I accepted the basic story of ‘need for change’ over 20 years ago.

(Also, I got the gist of the assessment through comments I read on twitter, where brevity is the rule. And that gist is that climate change is real and now; the evidence is now overwhelming and unequivocal; cost of inaction is much bigger than doing something; everyone will suffer if we continue down the current path; and the window of opportunity is closing quickly.)

I’m more interested in the fact that such a detailed report can be so comprehensively ignored by pretty much most of the developed world, the section of humanity that has created this problem. News instead has been dominated by an actor slapping the face of comedian at the Oscars. (And in Australia, there’s also been much attention to historic floods destroying whole communities up and down the eastern seaboard. These reports often note the likely link to climate change and then revert to reporting efforts to put everything back just the way it was!)

The IPCC is like my Dr Smith. It’s feeding loads of climate detail down the phone to an audience that may not be there.

We don’t need more detail.

We do need more effective communication, greater engagement with more of the community, real policy integration and better leadership.

The next assessment report might want to consider that.

(I tried ringing them but their phone was engaged.)

Banner image: Monikas_Wunderwelt @ Pixabay

A (very) short history of sustainability

A mud map of how sustainable development has grown up

By David Salt

For many, sustainability is a buzz word; a descriptor used and abused by governments (and corporations) all around the world to give the impression their policies of economic growth and development are simultaneously meeting the needs of society and the environment. But it’s more than just a hollow catch cry. Sustainability is a concept with substantive meaning and pedigree.

The growing body of evidence, unfortunately, is that our world is not on a trajectory of sustainability. If anything, we are accelerating away from it. However, there was a time, no so long ago, when there appeared to be a growing international consensus that sustainability was a real and achievable goal. When was that? Here is my (very) short potted mud map of sustainability (with a fist full of caveats at the end for me to hide behind).

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century was the century of human domination in which our species ‘conquered’ the final bits of the planet’s surface. We encircled the world with our communication cables (1902), reached its South Pole (1911), ascended to its highest point (Mt Everest, 1953) and then reached even higher with artificial satellites (Sputnik, 1957). We also made a real effort to annihilate many dimensions of our own culture in two world wars.

If the first half of this century was marked by massive global-scale disruptions (two world wars and a Depression) and empire failures (Britain and Japan especially), then the second half was characterised by population and economic growth of unprecedented scale. Population more than doubled, while the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. And it was in this second half that notions of sustainability were developed.

The 1940s: Reboot

My mud map begins in the aftermath of the Second World War; a time of mass destruction, renewal and new beginnings. The aim of governments was growth, stability and the kindling of hope for a prosperous future.

The tremendous economic growth that followed was in large part enabled by the ‘rebooting’ effect of the wars. These broke down old imperial and feudal institutions, opened up space for new institutions based on liberal-democratic and later neo-liberal economic principles, and empowered us with a new suite of powerful science and technology.

Survival was more the consideration than sustainability, but towards the end of the 1940s there was an international push to set aside bits of landscapes for wildlife and nature with the establishment in 1948 of the International Union for the Protection of Nature (which was to become the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, in 1956). Economic growth was the main focus and the environment was seen as a space separate from human activity.

The 1950s: Lift off

Today’s economy and environment has direct roots in the explosion in economic growth that took place in the 1950s, the beginning of the so called Great Acceleration. Population, GDP, energy generation, fertiliser consumption, water use and international tourism all underwent dramatic (often exponential) increases as the economy powered up.

The ‘sustainability’ of the environment was not really a question back then. The USA, a major driver of growth, was concerned about the ongoing supply of natural resources, but only as it related to feeding the economy rather than sustaining the environment. It set up a commission, the Paley Commission, which led to the establishment of the NGO called ‘Resources for the Future’. Its brief was to look at resource scarcity issues on an ongoing basis. The great environmental economist David Pearce identifies this as the founding of environmental economics.

The 1960s: Cracks in the model

The economy was growing strongly, living standards for many were improving, the rich were getting richer but the poor were getting less poor. Indeed, during these first decades after the war the gap between the richest and the poorest was decreasing (proof that a rising tide can indeed lift all the boats).

But underneath the growth and the technological mastery, cracks were appearing in the form of environmental decline. These concerns were embodied in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). It drew attention to the accumulating impacts of pesticides on natural ecosystems, and questioned the costs of industrial scale-agriculture.

Technology also gave us new frames for considering humanity’s role and place, with the race for the Moon providing new perspectives, metaphorical and literal, on our planet. Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’ in a famous essay in 1966 (and in 1968 we saw our fragile home in perspective for the first time in the famous ‘Earth Rising’ photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon).

Concern was growing as case study (eg, acid rain) after case study (eg, contaminated waterways) caused people to question the costs and benefits of economic development. Laws for environmental protection started taking shape and the idea of Environmental Impact Assessment took off (enshrined in US environmental law, NEPA, in 1969); yet the approach that evolved was more a ‘bottom up’ one of minimising impacts on a case by case basis rather than the holistic bigger picture approach that Boulding had advocated and NEPA, read as prose rather than law, clearly embodies.

The 1970s: Hopes are high

1972 saw the publication of landmark report titled Limits to Growth, one of the first formal efforts to understand what the consequences of unbounded economic development might be. Its conclusion was that our species was likely heading for some form of collapse in the mid to latter part of the 21st Century. (While widely dismissed by economists, a review in 2014 of the Limits-to-Growth analysis found its forecasts are still on track.)

The 70s saw many efforts by governments and community groups around the world to address the swelling list of environmental problems falling out of our rapacious growth. Key among these was UN Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference, in 1972. It catalysed many activities that were to prove pivotal to the manner in which we dealt with the environment, including many nations setting up their own environment ministries. It also saw the creation of UNEP (the UN Environmental Programme), and it put a greater focus on the connection between society and the environment. The Stockholm Conference was one of the first events where there was a strong acknowledgement of the need for poverty alleviation and its connection with access to environmental resources.

And it was during this decade that the term sustainable development began to see common usage. Indeed, the term was first used officially in the World Conservation Strategy launched in 1980, though at this stage the focus was on the environment alone.

The 1980s: Negotiations are had

‘Sustainable development’ took real form with the release of the report titled Our Common Future by The World Commission on Environment and Development (let by the indefatigable Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female Prime Minister) in 1987. The report defined a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It made sustainability an idea that involved acknowledging the linkages between the economy, the environment and society.

The mid 80s also saw the emergence of a massive ozone hole over the south pole (resulting from humans pumping ozone depleting substances into our atmosphere). This went some way to puncturing our complacency about environmental decline. Countries met and negotiated what they would do about the ozone problem, treaties were signed and these days ozone depleting emissions are on the decline.

Not so easily addressed, unfortunately, was the greenhouse gas problem in which a by-product of economic activity (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) was carbon-based emissions that distorted the Earth’s climate systems. Though the science of greenhouse warming was well understood and discussed in scientific circles in the 70s, it actually became visible in the late 80s. (In 1988 Jim Hansen, a leading atmospheric scientist at NASA, declared: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”)

The 1990s: Plans are drawn

In 1992 the world came together in Rio for the great Earth Summit in which nations would pledge how they were going to meet the great challenge of sustainability. A plan for sustainable development in the rapidly approaching 21st Century was adopted (Agenda 21) and an international agreement on biodiversity conservation was opened for signing.

Through the 90s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (formed by UNEP and the WMO in the 80s) began compiling an enormous brief of evidence that greenhouse gas levels were growing remorselessly and creating a raft of problems from shifting climate to sea level rise and extreme weather. But as the fear rose about the need to do something about carbon emissions, vested interests increased their efforts to discredit the science, and obfuscate the emerging picture.

And governments everywhere were discovering that policy positions developed to meet sustainability pledges came with real short term electoral pain, and that the prospect of deep change, transformational change, was simply too much to push through. Sustainable development is a moral imperative but the reality is that sustainability bites. Or, as President Bush said in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

The 2000s (the Naughties): Sustainability bites

As you’d expect, the beginning of a new millennium saw a lot of reflection, discussion and planning for a better world (a bit like my New Year’s resolutions to be a better person). There was the Millennium Summit in 2000 (and ensuing Ecosystem Assessment in 2005), a Rio+10 Earth Summit (held in Johannesburg in 2002) and a World Summit held in 2005. Millennium Development Goals were drawn up and agreed to, and almost all nations (with the US a notable exception) committed to reversing declines in biodiversity (the Convention on Biological Diversity, CBD).

And the manner in which many governments sought to deliver on their sustainability commitments increasingly invoked utilitarian values, a move supported by an emerging line of conservation science that demonstrated that nature provided benefits to humans that save us money (like native vegetation providing water purification). So, why don’t we start paying for the things that nature gives us, ecosystem services, and let the market optimise the delivery of these services? Some saw this as a dangerous move away from acknowledging nature’s intrinsic value.

But, just like my News Year’s resolutions, it didn’t take long for most governments to begin making excuses for why aspirations (for sustainable development) needed to take second place to the realities of day-to-day life: “as soon as we’ve secured a strong economy we can begin worrying about fixing up the environment.”

Targets adopted under the CBD meant that 2010 was supposed to be the line in the sand for biodiversity conservation but all countries failed to deliver on their commitments with extinction rates climbing and the drivers of extinction only accelerating.

The 2010s: Cracks in the ice cap

Sustainability, however you want to define it (and heaven knows it comes in many flavours), was proving a stubbornly elusive goal. But the negotiations continued.

The world’s nations continued to get together (Rio+20 in 2012, this time in Rio) but failed to agree on any major outcomes other than replacing a failed international body, the Commission on Sustainable Development, with a new one, the UN Environment Assembly); the failed Biodiversity Convention targets were replaced with a more nuanced set of goals (the Aichi Targets); the Millennium Development Goals (which some believed were quite effective while others said were unmeasurable) were replaced with a more nuanced set of sustainability targets (the Sustainable Development Goals); and the stalled climate change discussions actually reached half a consensus with the Paris Agreement (in 2015; though President Trump has since withdrawn from it).

In many ways, it’s the same old, same old; endless meetings, discussions, agreements and targets; one step forward, two steps back, another step forward; but, at the end of the day Bill Clinton’s 1992 election mantra ‘it’s the economy stupid’ sums up the approach of virtually every country. Which sometimes has me wondering that Rachel Carson, Kenneth Boulding and the doomsayers behind ‘Limits to Growth’ were simply wrong. The environment is undoubtedly in decline but we’re still standing, talking and aspiring to better things (most of us are wealthier, but at the expense of future generations). Clearly governments are almost unanimous in believing that the economy is what counts and if things get scarce then markets and technology will always find a solution; they have so far.

But those people calling for reflection and change were not wrong; and the 2010s and the emerging science are emphatically backing their calls for a new way of stewarding Spaceship Earth. We’re losing species and ecosystems that we depend upon. We are seeing changes to our climate and Earth system that are already stressing many parts of our planet (including our food and water systems); and the science tells us these changes are just beginning, promising an increasingly uncertain future. We are losing the challenge of sustainability and it’s not a challenge we can afford to lose.

Caveats and endnotes

This ridiculously short history only touched on a few of the elements that have contributed to the evolution of sustainable development (and only mentioned a couple of the thousands of identities – people and institutions – who have made important contributions to its story). And, clearly, dividing this history into decadal phases doesn’t reflect the real inflection points of its evolution, it is merely my effort to subjugate a complex, non-linear, multi-faceted topic into something that looks like time line with a simple narrative.

However, even the limited set of events described here tells us that the history of sustainable development has gone through life stages with different dynamics. It began as our faith in the economic growth model began to erode and it’s early days kept a tight focus on the environment; as it developed there grew a better appreciation of the connections between society, economy and environment; and as it reached maturity and asked for real commitment from its sponsoring actors, the reality of shifting the status quo has proven that much of its rhetoric is impotent.

In its youth sustainable development was driven by natural science. In its young adulthood, it began to take on it legitimacy from ideas founded in social values, rights and laws. And as it matured it cloaked itself in the robes of economics and markets.

Is it any wonder then that sustainable development is no longer a force for change (if it ever was)? Rather than challenge the paradigm of unbounded economic growth, it has been forced to work within the normative structures that put economic growth before all other goals.

So, if you were a doctor asked to prescribe a change to an ageing man whose life style is clearly leading to a miserable old age, what might you suggest? Because maybe this is the lens we need to look through when considering where to from here for sustainable development. And, maybe, just like our ageing patient, we need to be confronted with some hard truths about what the future holds (unless we sign up for some demanding therapies)?

Image: Earthrise, 25 December 1968. Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders. Earth is peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. (NASA)