If science is the answer, what was the question again?

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THE answer to the challenge of sustainability is NOT science and technology

By David Salt

It should be apparent from previous blogs that I am a believer in science and the scientific process. That said, in and of itself, I don’t believe science is THE answer when it comes to the challenge of sustainability. Yes, it has an important (and central) role to play but anyone who believes that science will save us is deluded. And when political parties tell us that science will be our salvation, there’s enormous potential for perverse outcomes.

The problem with science-as-our-savior has many dimensions including partial solutions and delayed action. And it has more to do with how science is used (and abused) by our political leaders than the science itself. I’ll deal with partial solutions in this blog.

Addressing symptoms

Science is not wrong or bad. Much of its application, however, is usually applied to one part of a complex problem, and our political leaders pick and choose which part that is and then usually ignore the bigger picture. In this way our science is often focused on the immediate issue and not the underlying cause. In many ways we address the symptom but fail to tackle the ‘disease’ that created the symptom.

More often than not, the symptom being addressed is a consequence of development and economic growth (and the way we make decisions around this growth). For example, declining water quality is the symptom but from over extraction of our rivers is the cause; extinction (symptom) from over clearing of habitat (cause), or climate change (symptom) due to carbon pollution (cause). The development generates economic activity and contributes to our quality of life but also comes with impacts on our environment that, at some point or other, come back to bite us.

And when our communities demand that our political representatives fix the problem (be it fish kills, mass coral bleaching or climate-change supercharged storms), our leaders turn to science and ask for quick fixes. And when scientists respond with the best science they can muster, the politicians will seize any skerrick of information they can that suggests they have a solution; that they are on top of the problem.

Silver bullets for dead fish

A small illustration of this: when billions of fish recently died on one of Australia’s major river systems, scientists pointed out the proximate cause of death was a lack of oxygen in the river water. It is possible to artificially aerate small patches of water and maybe keep some fish alive but the bigger problem is over-extraction of water and poor governance of the river system (something pointed out by the scientists).

Politicians seized on the quick fix and deployed manual aerators in a few locations (and maybe saved a few fish) but squibbed the bigger problem of over extraction because that involved changing the way we are managing the whole river.

Of course, this points to the nature of big environmental problems. They are multi-dimensional and complex. They are rarely fixed with single technological solutions, yet when the politicians turn to science that is what they really want – a quick fix, a silver bullet.

The problem with ‘quick fixes’ is that while they might address a symptom, they usually don’t fix the underlying cause. And ignoring the underlying cause usually leads to a worse (and possibly irreversible) situation down the line.

The biggest silver bullet of all

So let’s consider one of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time – climate change. The cause is humans pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a byproduct of our economic growth (acknowledging that this has growth has underpinned massive improvements in the quality of life by many people). A symptom of this problem is rising temperatures which has produced a raft of devastating impacts (one of which is mass fish kills).

The ultimate solution to the problem of climate change is to somehow decouple economic development from the environmental impacts it is producing. But that’s hard. It involves massive disruption to our economic system and probably a basic change to human values.

Or we could look for a technological fix that reduces the planet’s temperature (and not worry about the hard stuff relating to economic reform and changing behaviour). If this sounds like a ludicrous suggestion then you haven’t been following the news. The big talk around the planet at the moment is geoengineering, and specifically the injection of sulfide particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect away sunlight to cool the Earth.

By focusing on the symptom (temperature) and not worrying about the cause (carbon emissions) we are setting up subsequent generations for a gloomy future. Gloomy because we’re blocking sunlight (by deliberately polluting the upper atmosphere). And gloomy because rising temperature is only one of the symptoms of carbon pollution. Another is rising acidity in our oceans (an impact quite separate to temperature effects) leading to the collapse of marine ecosystems. And what happens to crop productions if we miscalculate and block too much sun?

A sting in the tale

This form of geoengineering has yet to be tested in any meaningful way and many scientists are urging caution. Playing with the planetary climate thermostat is not something done lightly. Who wants a technological fix that might wipe out the species?

And yet this story on geoengineering appears to be moving in a sinister direction. A couple of weeks ago, an effort by several countries at the UN environment assembly to better scrutinise climate geoengineering experiments was scuttled by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Why? Because their petrochemical industries see climate geoengineering as a pathway that might enable further expansion of fossil fuel use.

If that’s the case then this silver bullet is surely more of a Faustian Pact.

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.