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

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By David Salt

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

Here it is:

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

One single development

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

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

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

A boon for the economy

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

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

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

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

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

The standard model

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

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

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

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

A more complex model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thing about complex systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust lies bleeding

A world of science is there to save us – and nobody trusts it

By David Salt

Every day the world goes a little crazier, and with every slip everyone grows more fearful of what the future holds. Central to our fears is trust, or a lack of it. If we can’t trust our leaders, or the institutions upon which civilisation is founded, then how can we trust in the future?

2020 has been an awful and tumultuous year full of ‘natural’ disasters, plague and populist politics. We want it to be over; we want some return to normal; but most of us are too scared to honestly engage with what science is telling us – that there is no return to ‘normal’ in respect of the Earth System.

Yesterday, as I write this, Trump announced he was CoVID positive (one of his few ‘positive’ tweets quipped one larrikin tweeter), one month out from the US election. Today it’s turning out the White House is actually a hotbed of infection. If things were uncertain, now they seem to be slipping towards deep chaos.

And chaos creates a feedback loop that can lead to despair.

The antidote to chaos is trust. When the chips are down, when the fire is lapping at our front door, when a pandemic stalks the streets; it’s trust in our leaders, our friends, our neighbours, our mainstream media, our emergency workers, and health workers (and other miscellaneous experts) that will see us through.

Trust is one of the bulwarks of community resilience, and in this year of tumult, I fear it’s often forgotten and been allowed to whither.

Science and truth

Trust lies bleeding and this has enabled our partisan politics to eviscerate truth; and that comes with some awful consequences. Consider the strange paradox of the power of science (and technology). It has enabled us to transform our planet while seemingly being impotent to save it.

On the one hand we have an enormous bank of evidence and a scientific consensus telling us that human activity has pushed Earth into a new state of being, referred to by many as the Anthropocene. Global modification involving too many carbon emissions, biodiversity decline and nutrient pollution (to name three planetary boundaries) is causing changes to our climate and life support systems. Our coral reefs are bleaching while our great forests are going up in flames. Sea ice is disappearing, the permafrost is melting and seas are rising – it’s everything science has been predicting but 2020 has seen those predictions become horrifyingly real.

Science has also told us what we need to do to reduce the impact of these changes.

On the other hand we see our political leaders pandering to the lowest common denominator; prioritising the short term over the long; and ignoring, discounting or rubbishing the science.

Consider this exchange a couple of weeks ago between President Trump and the California Secretary for Natural Resources in the wake of California’s horror fires:

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” – President Trump.

“I wish science agreed with you” – CA Natural Resources Secretary.

“I don’t think science knows actually.”- President Trump.

Trump has been denigrating and discounting the institution of science since he took office, as have many other populist leaders. It serves his political agenda and the coterie of vested interests that stand behind him.

He can stare into the flames of a massive and unprecedented conflagration and simply deny its reality and the science that explains it. That he is allowed to get away with this strikes me as surreal and absurd. However, that a sizeable chunk of America will simply accept what he says (they don’t think ‘science actually knows’ either) I find horrifying. They don’t trust science.

Trust this knowledge

It’s strange to think that we live at a time in history when science and technology (and specifically Information Technology) has made the world’s storehouses of knowledge (think libraries, universities and scientific journals) available to anyone with a smart phone or tablet. We have more scientists working today than at any time in history, and the power of science enables us to see further, or closer or finer than ever before.

And yet, in this same age, some 40% of Americans lap up every falsehood blurted out by a sociopathic anti-science president who has ignored all the warnings on climate change and CoVID to the detriment of his own country (and now looks to have fallen to the same infection he has shown no leadership on). A time when anti-vaxxers are on the rise, conspiracy theories abound and voodoo cures have as much currency as mainstream science.

I try to understand what explains this growing abyss between our burgeoning knowledge and the floundering confidence in that knowledge being shown by so many in the community; with one symptom of this gulf being the rise and rise of anti-truth tellers like Trump (and Bolsonaro in Brazil). And I think the answer has everything to do with the loss of trust.

Inequity and dispossession

It’s widely said that a major reason that Trump won in 2016 was because Hilary Clinton inadvisably described Trump’s supporters as “basket of deplorables”, people of little worth, who are ignorant and wrong-headed. It was enough, some believed, to rile them up and get them to spit in the eye of traditional politics and vote for Trump the outsider.

I think of that basket of deplorables as more of a barrel of the dispossessed. They largely come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and they no longer believe the future holds much for them. The status quo in recent decades seems to have enabled the rich to get even richer (truly filthy rich) while most of humanity looks at a bleaker and bleaker future.

Science reinforces this bleakness, shouting from the side lines that we’ll all be ruined if society doesn’t change to a more sustainable pathway.

And all the time inequity grows, while the winners of the status quo increase their stranglehold on the levers of power.

Trust lies bleeding.

In such an atmosphere, hyper charged by the reach and speed of social media, the simple solutions put forward by the Trumps, Johnsons and Bolsonaros of the world find fertile ground. And rather than solving the complex challenges rising around us, they sow further distrust and chaos.

Here’s just one topical example. According to Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic, 38% of media stories containing misinformation about the virus refer to the President: Trump is literally, not metaphorically, the single most important reason so many Americans distrust information they receive about the disease.

Cause or symptom

But the rise of the sociopathic liars I believe is a more a symptom than the cause of the problem. Their capacity to spread untruth is only made possible when a significant portion of the community don’t trust the mainstream media or the science it reports on.

Anti-vaxxers and Q-Anonists don’t get to spread their vicious conspiracies if the broader public is resistant to their poison; informed and responsive to real emerging threats.

And climate deniers (and the many vested interests that use them to sustain their wealth) won’t be able to distort and pervert important policy reform to move humanity to a more sustainable footing.

Today leaders are so obsessed with the impact of CoVID on our economic life (which clearly preferences society’s winners). Maybe we should all be rethinking our slavish neoliberal obsession with protecting traditional stocks of capital and investing more in social and environmental capital, and specifically making a few deposits into the rapidly draining trust bank.

Our capacity to absorb disturbance and sustain a quality life as we move into an increasingly uncertain future absolutely depends upon it.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Confessions of a cheerleader for science

Don’t put off action today in the belief that science will save us tomorrow.

By David Salt

In the halcyon days of my youth I thought science was the solution and that clever technology would always be the shiny knight that would eventually come to our rescue. These days I think such beliefs are dangerous. They are dangerous because they build in complacency about making tough decisions now: ‘things might be getting worse but science will save us down the line so no need to interfere with business as usual’.

Selling science

As a younger man I was salesman for science. I had a science degree, I loved technology and I was lucky enough to score a job at CSIRO Education. My job was to get young Australian’s into careers in science, raise the profile of science & technology in society, and promote the value of research (which, by the by, also promoted the value of CSIRO, Australia’s premier research agency). It was a good job, one you could believe in, and I thought I did it well. I developed a popular science magazine called The Helix. For ten years (the 1990s) I was a cheerleader for science.

Now I’m not saying I’ve since turned anti-science, because I haven’t. I love a good science story when it’s well told. But over the years I started to question the claims that were routinely rolled out with every new announcement: ‘We’ve discovered a cure for the flu’; ‘this process will revolutionise waste disposal’; ‘this new material promises to transform industry; ‘our new breakthrough solves the energy problem’; and so on. Each story presented a new bit of science in such hyperbolic terms that the reader is convinced the world is about to be saved – science to the rescue!

Are things getting better?

But the areas I was most interested in – biodiversity conservation, ecology and conservation – things weren’t getting better.

Over time I grew ever more skeptical of the ability of science to turn these things around. Clearly science and technology was contributing to incremental (and sometimes transformative) increases in productivity, improvements in quality of (human) life and safety. But all the time the impacts of our escalating development was destroying and degrading the non-human parts of our world.

In the last ten years we’ve reached the point where there is a broad scientific consensus that human activity has actually distorted the Earth system, pushed it into a new way of being. Climate systems and hydrological cycles are no longer functioning as they have in the past. Species are being lost at ten to a hundred times natural rates, land is degrading, available freshwater is declining, and seas are rising.

Living standards have improved for developed countries but most developing countries are struggling.

And here’s a statistic that amazes me: In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. In other words, three quarters of the planet’s economic growth is being enjoyed by one fifth of the planet’s people, the people in developed nations. And yet it’s this economic activity that has pushed the planet out of its safe space of operation, and everyone will pay for that (and the poorest people will pay for it first).

Cognitive dissonance

So, on the one hand I was selling science as the answer to all our problems. But, on the other, economic development (fuelled by science and technology) was pushing the Earth over multiple planetary boundaries.

Indeed, every promised 5% increase in efficiency (or 10% or 20% or whatever you like) delivered through scientific innovation seemed to correlate with an even greater deterioration in environmental condition rather than an improvement.

About the time I was leaving The Helix I vividly remember a molecular researcher preaching to me about the new world opening up through nanotechnology. It would be a world in which anything was possible, a world without limit; a time in which humans would wield ultimate mastery over the very building blocks of matter!

I think this technological hubris was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was hyperbolic hyperbole. Did this person even listen to what she was saying?

In any event, that was 20 years ago. Nanotechnology has certainly transformed many areas of the economy but, over the same period, Earth’s sustaining ecosystem services have lost resilience and the future is looking increasingly dire.

Do scientists believe the hyperbole of science?

Back in the 90s there was much greater accord on climate change and the need to curb it. Since then the science on climate change has firmed; there’s almost no doubt (not in scientific circles anyway) that it is real, present and growing. But, ironically, the accord of past decades has become fractured and contested. And real effective action is continually postponed, a challenge for the next generation down the line.

About ten years ago I discussed the parlous state of the planet with a senior government scientist. This guy had charge of a large climate change research program. I asked him what he honestly felt about the world’s response to climate change. He said it got him seriously depressed; clearly governments everywhere were in a state of denial, prioritizing short term economic growth (business as usual) over long term sustainability.

But, he told me, he was sure that a time would come when the truth of climate change would sweep away the denialism. And when that happened, the incredible power of science would generate the solutions we need to tackle this existential threat.

And that got me thinking; scientists themselves believe that science will be there to save us.

So when governments and political leaders tell us that science will save us, and their scientists believe that too, then it’s okay that we stick with business as usual a little bit longer. Because no matter how bad it gets, there will always be a technical solution down the line to undo the harm we’ve done.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I stopped believing that decades ago.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay