Duelling scientists at 10 paces

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When it comes to ecosystem collapse, will ‘my’ scientist say something that overshadows what ‘your’ scientist says? If the game of science is played according to its own rules, probably not. Unlike the game of politics, in science evidence is king.

By David Salt

When the environmental chips are down, who do you turn to? When an environmental crisis can’t be denied or ignored, who do you call?

For many politicians, the call is put out for scientists who can provide some expert advice that might help. At the very least, it gives the pollies something to say, it delays a difficult decision and sometimes pushes the problem far enough down the road till the issue-attention cycle has cooled (or it’s past the next election).

Smells fishy

So it was last month when millions of dead fish began bobbing to the surface along the Darling, one of Australia’s great river systems. The stench was horrid and the pictures graphic. Locals were disgusted and made videos accusing river managers, political leaders and irrigators of incompetence, corruption and malfeasance. Where lay the truth?

Everyone had an excuse – ‘it was the drought’s fault!’ was one of the most common invocations – but the disgust of the local community and the graphic imagery flooding the news media swamped all protestations and the pollies were looking for something to hide behind.

Who do you call? An expert scientific committee, of course. They’ll give us sage, technocratic advice couched in big words and heaps of caveats that will allow the pollies responsible for this area to escape immediate responsibility. So far, so normal.

Two reviews are better than none

But this story, the case of the mass fish kills at Menindee, has a few novel edges to it. For starters, it wasn’t the government who asked for an expert review, it was the opposition party. And they didn’t choose the reviewers. Instead they asked Australia’s scientific brain’s trust – the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) – to select an independent panel and provide feedback in weeks.

The Government’s response? First they disparaged the AAS accusing it of being too close to the opposition party, and then they set up their own scientific enquiry (“a fair dinkum independent panel”) to provide another independent scientific review that would deliver its interim findings days after the AAS review.

So, here we have two ‘duelling’ science reviews studying the same environmental disaster, releasing ‘competing’ reviews in days of each other; one for the government, one for the opposition. Such a ‘contest’ is in many ways farcical and potentially damaging to the brand value of science.

Or is it? Truth to tell, the game of science is not the game of politicians. Politicians play to win elections (to gain power). They’ll promise anything they can get away with, often shirk the hard decisions that upset their biggest donors, and bend the truth as far the system will allow (and often further). They are kept in line by voter awareness and the many checks and balances that the democratic system has built around their power (though the pollies always appear to be watering down these constraints).

The game of science

The game of science is based on the collection of evidence, and the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. Scientists are kept in line by peer review, transparency and accountability.

Which is why I parenthesised ‘duelling’, ‘competing’ and ‘contest’ in the above description. Because while the Government clearly intended its independent review to overshadow the opposition’s independent review, that’s not how the eminent scientists who undertook the review saw it. They saw it as an opportunity to review the facts, to collect the evidence and throw a little light on an epic environmental disaster.

And, because the institution of science is relatively strong in Australia (if poorly resourced in the environment sector), the resulting reports (just released) made strong statements about deficiencies in management that were, for the most part, in agreement and complementary with each other.

The Australian Academy of Science’s report, Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee Region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019, found that: There isn’t enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic outcomes. This is partly due to the ongoing drought. However, analysis of rainfall and river flow data over decades points to excess water extraction upstream.

The second report, commissioned by the Government, Independent Assessment of the 2018-19 Fish Deaths in the Lower Darling, found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions… amplified by climate change.

Both reports said there had been inadequate scientific monitoring and a lamentable lack of consultation with the local communities on the Darling River over time. As the AAS report put it: “engagement with local residents, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, has been cursory at best, resulting in insufficient use of their knowledge and engagement around how the system is best managed.”

The evidence is in

In this short space it’s impossible to dissect the full set of causes (and solutions) of the eco catastrophe that the mass fish kills at Menindee has become. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that adverse weather, climate change, mismanagement, poor governance, greed and corruption have all played a role. It’s a complex, richly layered story that spreads out over multiple scales of time and space.

Politics will always look for simple solutions when disaster strikes, and politicians will often claim they have the silver bullet to slay the problem beast that has emerged. But complex environmental problems rarely have simple solutions (and silver bullets are but a myth). Good science usually points this out, though whether that results in better policy depends on many factors.

In this particular case, both sides of politics sought to use science as a political weapon. And both resulting reviews have concluded it was a lack of science in the first place that led to such a horrific environmental outcome.

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?