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)

2020 hindsight

Earth, fire and water; and a deep foreboding on opportunities lost

By David Salt

Today [as I write this] is the first day of the Australian summer*. A hot north westerly is whipping up the temperature to an ‘uncomfortable’ 35 degrees C. I’d like to say ‘unseasonable’ but increasingly the ‘seasons’ make no sense. They did once, but that was about 20 years ago.

What a year

This time last year (December 2019) a fire raged down on the NSW south coast, unseasonably early but nothing to lose sleep over; fires, after all, are a natural part of the Australian environment.

But this fire simply didn’t go out. It burnt for months; chewing up forests, wildlife, homes, people, infrastructure and dreams. It stole Xmas, killed New Years, and blanketed eastern Australia in choking noxious fumes (closing down cities and killing scores of people in the process).

Then our city of Canberra was clobbered by an unseasonal hail storm (actually, it was the season for hail storms but this one was unprecedented in its ferocity). Forty thousand cars were destroyed in less than 15 minutes!

You may not believe this, but many of us joked at the time that given the run of disasters we had just endured that a plague just had to be just around the corner (CoVID had not been named at that instant)…

And now it is summer again. Temperature records are again being broken*; fires are again breaking out across Australia (though not with the intensity or scale of last year because it’s been raining); and forecasts are (again) for another mass coral bleaching.

Expect severe conditions, expect disruption; welcome to the Anthropocene.

By the way, everything we’ve experienced in the past year has been long forecast by science, if not in detail then definitely in spirit. However, our political leaders, experts in discounting long-term uncertainty while capitalising on short-term political expediency, have encouraged us not to worry about counting the costs decades down the line. (In fact, Prime Minister Morrison claims he can’t sign up to net zero by 2050 because he’s not able to count the costs 30 years ahead.)

But think where things were only 20 years ago. Imagine what we might have achieved if we had been honestly thinking about the costs we (and our children) would be paying in a couple of decades.

Twenty years in hindsight

So what were you doing, thinking and worrying about 20 years ago? Because Australia’s Radio National, along with many other organisations, journalists and academics (and the odd errant blogger), have been asking how has the world developed over the past 20 years – one fifth of the way into the first century of this new millennium. Among other things they looked at pop culture, technology, Indigenous affairs and health (apparently in the high income world in the last 20 years we’ve done well on aids and infectious disease but not so well on heart disease and obesity – who’d have thought).

What I haven’t seen is too many commentaries on sustainability policy over the last two decades – and yet there is so much to comment on in this space in Australia. Some pretty big ‘landmark’ laws and policies were put in place but have they addressed the challenges they were created for?

1999 (pretty much the same thing as 2000 so I include it in my 2020 retrospective) saw the launch of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act aimed at protecting our nation’s natural values (and specifically our biodiversity). It’s undergone two decadal independent reviews; has been the centre of an ongoing fight about green tape, farmer’s rights to clear and miner’s rights to destroy. It’s generated a lot of heat and light, and been the whipping boy of every conservative government we’ve had in that time (even though it was established by a conservative government). What it hasn’t done is slow or reverse Australia’s biodiversity crisis and during its operation we’ve lost a species of bat, skink and rat (and probably a whole lot more that we haven’t even noticed). More recently, we’ve watched on while once common icons like Tasmanian devils, koalas and platypuses have slid towards the precipice.

Then there was the National Water Initiative launched in 2004 aimed at dealing with the over-allocation of water to agriculture from Australia’s major river systems in the Murray-Darling Basin. This was followed a $10bn national plan in 2007, built around the nation’s first national Water Act, that aimed to place water management in the Murray-Darling basin on a sustainable footing and in particular to halt salinity, reverse the collapse of the Coorong and Lower Lakes in South Australia and the widespread degradation of wetlands, floodplain forests, native fish and waterbirds across the Basin. The Basin Plan made under the Water Act has been a failure. Remorseless politicking by irrigators and farmer lobby groups, and gaming of the system by the states saw cuts to the amounts of water provided for environmental flows, failing governance, water theft and cheating. Toxic algal blooms, dying towns and mass fish kills were the result.

And who could forget our merry lark involving putting a price on carbon? The Greens Party managed to block the first serious effort (something called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme) in a tangled dance involving a mega-maniacal Prime Minister named Rudd, a Machiavellian-styled opposition leader called Abbott and a failed international consensus staged in Copenhagen. It all came to tears in 2009 and directly led to the toppling of Rudd the following year (opening up a torrid decade of political instability at the national level).

The next serious effort was undertaken by the Gillard Government and resulted in a Clean Energy Plan that came with a carbon price scheme launched in mid 2012. And it worked. It’s been estimated that the scheme cut carbon emissions by as much as 17 million tonnes, the biggest annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 24 years of records in 2013 as the carbon tax helped drive a large drop in pollution from the electricity sector. But it also didn’t work in that the incoming Abbott Government was able to dismantle the scheme and Australia has gone from being a world leader in tackling carbon emissions to a world laggard.

No certainty

Of course, since then a lot of bad stuff has happened to Australia’s environment (and its people). In addition to the mass fish kills we’ve endured mass coral bleachings, collapsing ecosystems on land and unprecedented wild fires.

We’ve seen the brutal rise of despotism and nepotism around the world, the collapse of traditional media, the contraction of the rule of law, and an epidemic of conspiracy and fake news.

Looking back from the present day, the world of two decades ago seems a very different place. Back then I thought science held the answer, and truth would eventually win out. By and large, however, we have failed to meet the environmental challenges facing our nation (biodiversity, water security and climate emissions as three important examples), and we are increasingly unable to trust the very words that fill our multiple media feeds.

On the plus side, a new generation of young people are asking hard questions about the environment they are inheriting. They are prepared to talk truth to power, are questioning the paradigm of unfettered economic growth and are demanding climate justice in an increasingly unfair world.

There is no certainty about what the future holds, but with 40 years of climate change already locked in even if we could stop all carbon emissions tomorrow, we know that 2040 will be a place very different from the space we occupy today.

Banner image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*Mercury rising: And, as you may now have heard, on this the first day of summer, the data (from the Bureau of Meteorology) is in and Australia just had its warmest spring (and November) on record! The national mean temperature for spring was 2.03ºC above the 1961-1990 average, the first ever spring with an anomaly above 2ºC.