My recent blogs have argued that there are five transformations implicit in Professor Graeme Samuels review of national environmental law, to which the Albanese government is about to respond.* The first transformation was to be driven by environmental outcomes rather than processes, while the second was to take Indigenous knowledge and values seriously.
Today I write about the third transformation, which is to simplify the processes of environmental regulation and harmonise regulatory outcomes between federal and state systems.
No more picking cherries
Proposals for regulatory streamlining, and for the alignment of federal and state environmental assessment laws, have been floated at various times over the last 30 years. Yet this goal remains elusive. Most recently, the Morrison government tried to pass streamlining amendments to the EPBC Act, but failed in the Senate.
The problem with the former Prime Minister’s proposals was that he picked the cherries (as he would have seen them) from the reforms proposed by Professor Samuel and pushed the other reforms out into the never-never. One of the messages from the (previous) Senate was that a majority of Senators wanted action that was comprehensive, not piecemeal.
Morrison’s reforms were dressed up as streamlining; however, they were better described as a devolution of responsibility from the Commonwealth to the states. Vacating the field is not a solution to duplication (at least, not here).
To my observation, the former Prime Minister didn’t have an environmental bone in his body. I’m convinced that he wanted to achieve ‘single touch’ approvals by simply extracting the Federal government from environmental decision-making as far as possible, rather than by negotiating a genuine compatability of different systems.
Officially, maintenance of environmental standards was part of the deal. In practice, it was a hollow promise: Morrison’s initial set of draft ‘standards’ were just a collection of process-based words taken from the existing law. They would have guaranteed nothing in terms of outcomes.
Easy as 1, 2, 3 …
In contrast, Graeme Samuel recommended a harmonising of both environmental processes and outcomes between federal and state jurisdictions. This is a much more ambitious proposal, although it’s easy enough to summarise.
In effect, Samuel wants to transform not just federal environmental regulation, but state regulation as well. His template is easy as 1, 2, 3:
Develop national standards for ecologically sustainable outcomes and give these standards shape locally through regional environmental plans
Build a leading edge, risk-based decision-making system, including comprehensive environmental information, extensive policy guidance, streamlined processes and strong quality control
Accredit states to take most of the decisions, which should be easy because everyone will be singing from the same song-sheet!
But in practice …
Step 2 is perhaps the easiest of a difficult bunch. With enough time and money, information systems can be built, processes automated, helpful policy guidance prepared, and so on. All this would speed up decision-making but alone it doesn’t remove duplication or guarantee improved environmental outcomes.
It’s the harmonised standards that holds the most potential. If the standards were sufficiently high to stop environmental decline and the environmental planning processes met the standards, the feds really could accredit the states and then drop back to a ‘trust but verify’ brief.
The major challenge lies with securing the necessary genuine federal-state partnership to deliver on this ambition. The underlying problem is that, constitutionally, Federal and state environmental responsibilities overlap and, with the possible exception of the Morrison proposals above, neither side wants to play second fiddle to the other.
At first glance, the states are responsible for managing the major components of the environment — land, water and air.
However, environmental problems have been recognised increasingly over the last 50 years as ubiquitous and broad-scale — often national, sometimes global. As the pioneering ecologist Barry Commoner put it in the 1970s, ‘everything’s connected to everything else.’
Federal responsibilities for international matters, along with the federal government’s ability to use non-environmental powers such as its power to regulate corporations, have enabled the Commonwealth to deal with concerns such as the extinction of species, by overlaying State land-management responsibilities with internationally- and nationally-driven policy imperatives.
In response, the states have pushed back against what they see as creeping federal control, and continue to do so.
Another problem is that although Samuel’s proposed national standards are, on their face, for federally-protected matters only, if the states were to sign up to them to secure federal accreditation, it would be hard for them to apply lower standards to the rest of the environment.
To adapt Alfred Deakin’s famous 1902 prophecy about Commonwealth dominance in fiscal matters, the states could find themselves, ‘legally free but environmentally bound to the chariot wheels of the central government’.
Hardly a recipe for success, is it?
Yet I think Samuel’s policy prescriptions are the right ones. The threats posed by environmental degradation operate at landscape, if not global, scale and are, ultimately, existential, as is becoming increasingly obvious as more and more ordinary Australians feel the impacts of extraordinary natural disasters.
And the solution is …
We simply have to find a way to unravel this impossibly-intricate Gordian knot of a problem. These problems are wicked enough without adding inconsistent and even conflicting regulation to the mix.
Tradition has it that Alexander the Great solved the problem by drawing his sword and cutting the knot. Might Tanya Plibersek turn out to be a modern Alexander?
Stay tuned for my own Alexander-like solution in a forthcoming blog.
Banner image: So much complexity, so much variation in the manner in which the federal government and state governments regulate the environment. What would it take to wipe the slate clean and start afresh? (Image by David Salt)
The Queen is dead, long live the King. Okay, we’ve said it, can we now please return to normal transmission*!
On the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, Australia sunk into a blackhole of mourning (described by some in the twitterverse as ‘mourn porn’). All news bulletins and national programming seemed only to talk about her passing, how good she’d been, and the 1,000 tiny (tedious) steps of what happens now as her son becomes King. We suspended parliamentary business for a staggering 15 days and declared a public holiday that, because of its suddenness, some believe may cost our economy over a billion dollars. All of this in a country on the other side of the planet from where she had lived, with a population whose majority want us to ditch the monarchy completely, and whose government for all intents and purposes is independently elected and run. What gives?
Of course, there are hundreds of stories currently doing the rounds at the moment on how wonderful and enduring Queen Elizabeth had been. However, for my money, the furore over her passing is more about what it means for our own identity – what and who we are.
The Queen has been our monarch for over 70 years. She’s always been there performing her many public duties through thick and thin; with a polished reserve, constancy and perseverance that is almost superhuman. She is universally lauded as a trusted and hard-working soul, a role model of public service, temperance and restraint. Her very existence gave us confidence in the stability and validity of the system of which we are a part, a confidence that this system would endure and be around to sustain ourselves and our children.
So, even though the Queen was growing old, her death still hit us like an existential slap. Yes, she was a good person, but suddenly her constant presence had vanished, and we all needed reassurance that the validity and dependability of our system was still there, that we still had good reason to believe in the certainty of tomorrow.
The Queen and the Great Acceleration
So much has happened during the 70 years of her queenship. If you think about it, her reign began in 1952, just as the ‘Great Acceleration’ of humanity was taking off; a time of unprecedented technological change, economic growth, exploding population and accelerating consumption. Beginning in the 1950s, humanity built more dams, converted more land to agriculture, eliminated more species and released more greenhouse gases than at any other time in history.
By the 1970s scientists were beginning to point out how unsustainable this development was, but the warnings did little to change our course over the next half century.
With the new millennium, the warnings started proving true. The ‘spotfires’ of deep droughts, floods and mass coral bleachings are becoming more intense and frequent. 2022 seems to have seen most of the northern hemisphere engulfed in one climate-ramped natural disaster after another. The US is burning, Pakistan is drowning while all our great rivers are withering. A climate crisis is emerging.
And, during this time, our trust in the institutional pillars of society have been eroded by neoliberal drivers and market forces. A recent Australian Prime Minister** observed: “We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency.”
‘False news’ and misinformation cloud all our reflection, as tribal partisanship displaces reasoned debate and good governance.
Throughout all this tumultuous, transformational change, the Queen was always there, always constant. The monarchy no longer had the power and influence of earlier centuries, but the Queen still represented all the symbols (flag, crown and anthem) that lay under everything we have built (and fought for, and in some cases died for).
For King, country and the higher cause
Part of that is what the empire built lies here on the other side of the planet. Almost 250 years ago, Britain deported felons to a remote settlement in New South Wales, and that convict colony grew and flowered to become a vibrant multi-cultural, economic powerhouse that we now call Australia.
For King/Queen, God and flag, we displaced (and oppressed) a pre-existing First Nations culture as if it had never existed (a process codified as Terra nullius). Indeed, Indigenous people were not given recognition in the Australian Constitution till the 1960s, and (against a backdrop of multiple appalling legacies in the areas of health, education and welfare) we’re still fighting over how their voice might be heard in our national parliament.
Australia leads the world when it comes to extinction rates, land degradation and per capita emissions of greenhouse gases. Until very recently, we have been seen as the climate change laggards of the developed world.
The belief in ‘Queen and country’ have been central to our society and how we have justified so much of our development trajectory; ‘yes there have been costs, people and cultures have suffered, but it’s all been done for a higher cause’.
The loss of ‘our Queen’
So, with the sad loss of ‘our Queen’, our very identity has been under siege as we reflect upon what it is we have built, and how much certainty is there that it will be there in the future.
The fact that the Queen was undeniably an honest, hardworking servant of the public only clouds our reflections. She was a ‘good’ person but what is the value of the institution she represents, and is this belief in the Crown really an appropriate justification for how we are developing this world?
I quipped at the beginning: ‘can we please get beyond this and let normal transmission return’. But on reflection, humanity can’t afford ‘normal transmission’. We’re driving off a cliff at the moment and the powers that be are only concerned with the condition of the car they’re driving, not where it’s going.
Actually, what we should be saying is: The Queen is dead, long live the King, and may we use this moment of fragility and uncertainty to honestly reflect on the world we have built in their names.
*Speaking of ‘normal transmission’, my recent blogs on Sustainability Bites have been reflections on resilience thinking. This blog on the Queen has been a bit of a divergence. And yet, thinking of the Monarchy as a complex adaptive system might reveal some interesting insights. For example, how much disturbance (and of what form) can the Monarchy absorb before it loses its identity, and begins to operate as a different system (ie, how resilient is this system)? And does the Monarchy have its own adaptive cycle? And during what periods might reform actually take root?
** Which recent Australian Prime Minister observed: “We face the spectre of a transactional world, devoid of principle, accountability and transparency?” I think this is a smart and incisive observation, so I am totally gobsmacked that it was uttered by PM Scott Morrison, the most unprincipled, unaccountable and secretive Australian Prime Minister in living memory.
Banner image: It’s only common cents – the Queen symbolizes certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. (Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay)
Why do simplistic three-word slogans have such cut through? Why does incumbency give a political party such an advantage? Why does a simple lie so often trump an inconvenient and complex truth?
The answers to these questions (and so many other mysteries surrounding the way election campaigns are run) lies in the way we think. And one of the finest minds alive today who has devoted much of his life on trying to understand how we think is a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman.
Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, distilled the essence of his research on how we think in a book called ‘Thinking, fast and slow*’. It’s around 500 pages long and quite dense in parts as Kahneman explains how he and colleagues** rigorously tested many assumptions on how humans think and make decisions. There’s a lot of detail presented, and I’m not saying it’s an easy book to take in; however, if you have any interest in how our inherent biases distort our decision-making processes then this is a must read.
In a nutshell, Kahneman describes how ‘fast thinking’ is what we do intuitively, almost thinking without thinking. ‘Slow thinking’ is when we analyse the information we’re processing. It takes time (hence it’s ‘slow’) and, most importantly, it takes considerable mental effort. Slow thinking helps us correct the biases inherent in our fast thinking but because slow thinking is hard, our brain often gives up on it because it takes too much effort. When this happens, we default back to fast thinking usually without even being aware of it; which is fine a lot of the time (like when you’re fending off a sabre tooth tiger) but can often lead to sub optimal (and sometimes awful) outcomes.
In the words of Kahneman
How does this relate to the way politicians prosecute their election campaigns? I’ll let Kahneman spell out some of the consequences.
On the ‘illusion of understanding’, Kahneman says (p201 in Thinking, fast and slow):
“It is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
My take: Politicians capable of telling a ‘coherent’ narrative do better than scientists attempting to explain to you a complex story with all the details.
On the ‘illusion of validity’ (p209):
“The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous.”
My take: We make many of our most important decisions based on what other people believe, people we trust, not on what we know. Scientists always believe more evidence and quality evidence will win the day (probably because the people they trust, other scientists, think the same way).
On ‘confidence’ (p212):
“Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.”
My take: Don’t confuse confidence with validity. Don’t believe, as most scientists do, that information with high uncertainty is always discounted.
On ‘the engine of capitalism’ (p262):
“Optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers. One of the lessons of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession [GFC] is that there are periods in which competition, among experts and among organisations, creates powerful forces that favor a collective blindness to risk and uncertainty.”
My take: Some people (in some circumstances) can fool all of the people some of the time.
On being a successful scientist (p264):
“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.”
My take: Scientists are human, too.
On not seeing flaws in the tools you use (p277):
“I call it theory-induced blindness: once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. You give the theory the benefit of the doubt, trusting the community of experts who have accepted it.
…disbelieving is hard work, and System 2 [thinking slow] is easily tired.”
My take: When your only tool is a hammer, all you see are nails.
On ‘reform’ and attempting to change the status quo (p305):
“A biologist observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest”…
…In human affairs, the same simple rule explains much of what happens when institutions attempt to reform themselves…
As initially conceived, plans for reform almost always produce many winners and some losers while achieving an overall improvement. If the affected parties have any political influence, however, potential losers will be more active and determined than potential winners; the outcome will be biased in their favour and inevitably more expensive and less effective than initially planned.
Loss aversion is a powerful conservative force that favors minimal changes from the status quo in the lives of both institutions and individuals. This conservatism helps keep us stable in our neighbourhood, our marriage, and our job; it is the gravitational force that holds our life together near the reference point.”
My take: Incumbent conservative governments have all the advantages when it comes elections involving reform and complex policy positions. Reformers wanting to shift the status quo have a very hard task because of the power of ‘loss aversion’. Also, a concentrated force beats a dissipated force, even if the dissipated force is greater overall.
On dealing with rare events (p333)
“When it comes to rare probabilities, our mind is not designed to get things quite right. For the residents of a planet that may be exposed to events no one has yet experienced, this is not good news.”
My take: Human thinking is not well adapted to deal with climate breakdown or biodiversity loss.
On good decision making (p418)
“They [decision makers] will make better choices when they trust their critics to be sophisticated and fair, and when they expect their decisions to be judged by how it was made, not only by how it turned out.”
My take: Good decisions are not just about good outcomes. Decisions should be judged as much by the process by which they are made, and that people take better decisions when they think they are accountable. (This quote, by the way, is the final line in the book.)
Kahneman’s quotes aren’t pithy generalised reflections that came to him as he was thinking about thinking. They are direct conclusions of multiple rigorous trials in which subjects were given options to choose between in which they needed to assess risk and possible outcomes.
And the research isn’t new or unreviewed. Some of his findings on cognitive biases and decision heuristics (the mental rules-of-thumb that often guide our decision making) go back some 50 years. Kahneman is recognised as one of the world’s leading behavioural psychologists, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his work on prospect theory (pretty good for someone who had never studied economics), and his work has been a cornerstone to the developing field of behavioural economics.
Of course, all of this is also central to marketing and politics: how do you communicate (sell) information to score a sale or bag a vote? You don’t do it by providing every detail available, like many scientists try to do. This simply switches people off.
Rather, you build a simple coherent narrative that you can ‘sell’ with confidence. You scare people about their losses if the status quo is threatened (as will happen if you ‘vote for the opposition’), and you frame your arguments for maximum salience to your target group.
‘Good marketing’ is about exploiting people’s cognitive biases and not overloading them with detail they can’t absorb. ‘Good politics’ is about simplistic three-word slogans and scaring voters into believing that change means they will lose.
Elections are all about good marketing and good politics
Good marketing and good politics often add up to poor policy, short-term thinking and vulnerability in a climate ravaged world.
Fossil fuel corporations (and conservative politicians in their thrall) have been manipulating community sentiment for decades, stoking scepticism and denialism about complex science, and preventing the world from responding to an existential threat.
Kahneman didn’t give them the blueprint for how this is done, but his science has revealed just how easy it can be to steer and nudge a person’s behaviour and beliefs if you understand how inherently biased our thinking can be.
The solution? There is no pill (red or blue) that can help people do more slow thinking and better reflect on the biases inherent in their fast thinking. As Kahneman has demonstrated throughout his career, humans simply think the way that they think. However, society has created many institutions that provide checks and balances on the way marketeers sell products and politicians acquire and use power. The integrity of these institutions is the bridge between day-to-day politics and good policy outcomes.
Australia is currently in election mode with a federal election only days away. Political integrity and climate change are a major concern to most Australians. Despite this, the incumbent conservative government has long resisted the establishment of an independent integrity commission to test the many claims of corruption that have been levelled at it over the years. And this government has been seen as dragging the chain on climate action (and lying about what they are actually doing).
And yet, our Prime Minister, a man who has been described as lacking a moral compass and being a serial liar (by his own colleagues!), is a masterful marketeer. Nick named ‘Scotty from Marketing’, maybe he should be retitled Australia’s ‘Prime Marketeer’. He knows how to spin a simple and coherent story and stick to it. He knows how to scare people about the costs of change, and divide communities by playing on people’s prejudices and fears. Using these skills he pulled off ‘a miracle’ victory at the last election.
Thinking fast has served him well. Now, for a meaningful response to multiple environmental emergencies, it’s time for a little reflection; a little more thinking slow is called for.
To be honest, I had never heard of Daniel Kahneman 15 years ago. But then I began working for a group of environmental decision scientists and his name constantly came up. Kahneman was the leading light who illuminated why our internal decision-making processes were so flawed, so biased. He was the ‘god’ who (along with his friend Amos Tversky**) had published the landmark paper ‘Judgement under uncertainty: heuristics and biases’ in 1974 in the journal Science, one of the most widely read papers of all time I was told. Well, I tried reading it and found it too technical and dense to take in.
Then, in 2011, Kahneman published Thinking, fast and slow. Someone described it as a 500-page version of his 1974 paper. Not a great sales pitch for me, I’m afraid.
However, just prior to the corona pandemic, I spied Thinking, fast and slow on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. It took over a year before I found the courage to open it (it was my big pandemic read), six months to wade through it, and another three months before I’ve attempted to write down why I found its wisdom so compelling.
So, for me, my journey with Kahneman has been a long one. And now that I have finished this blog, I can return Thinking, fast and slow to my friend Michael Vardon, who loaned it to me many moons ago. Thanks Michael, sorry about the delay.
** Amos Tversky
If I’ve interested you at all in Daniel Kahneman but possibly put you off reading Thinking, fast and slow (because who has time to read a 500-page horse pill of information on cognitive biases) then I highly recommend another book that covers the same ground but from a more personal framing. This one is about Daniel Kahneman and his life-long colleague and closest friend, Amos Tversky. The book is called The Undoing Project and is written by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Big Short and Moneyball, both about biases in the way we think and assess risk). It tells the story of Kahneman and Tversky, both Israeli psychologists, and how together they unpicked the many ways our thinking is biased without us even being aware of it. Not only does The Undoing Project give an excellent overview of the research described in greater detail by Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow, it also paints a touching portrait of the friendship between two of the world’s finest minds. Tversky tragically died of cancer in 1996.
In an effort to distract myself from Australia’s putrid federal election campaign, I’ve taken to watching disaster films, specifically Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, because they are both based on real-life events, they only remind me about the failings of our current political leaders. Both films carry powerful messages on the importance of good governance and the consequences of taking it for granted.
The award-winning series Chernobyl was created by HBO and went to air in 2019. It tells the events surrounding the explosion in Reactor 4 at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in 1986. It’s a story of nuclear nightmare, self-sacrifice, heroism and cascading tragedy. Underpinning the disaster is a tale of greed, corruption and power in which an ossified Soviet empire censored science that had years earlier revealed that the nuclear reactor design was flawed, and a hierarchy that only wanted good news, a tight focus on production targets and punished anyone who pointed out when things were going wrong.
The power plant was under-resourced, poorly equipped, and badly managed. When the Reactor 4 blew up, the local emergency response was totally unprepared and ignorant about what to do in a nuclear accident. The consequences were horrific for the attending fireman and locals watching on.
The inadequate local response was then matched by the broader Soviet response of denial and cover up, but the scale of the disaster meant it couldn’t be ignored as radioactive debris sprayed over Europe.
It was the worst and most expensive nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and many scholars believe it directly contributed the collapse of the Soviet empire a few years later.
The HBO series brilliantly captures the unfolding horror of the disaster following it from the moment of the accident through to the investigation much later in which scientists do their best to reveal the rottenness of the system that allowed the catastrophe to occur. The message is not well received and the whistle blowers pay an enormous price for their courage.
If anyone thinks that major disasters like this are the preserve of sclerotic dictatorships like the Soviet Union, you’re kidding yourself. A couple of months before the melt down at Chernobyl in 1986, the US experienced its own catastrophic failure when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew itself to smithereens 73 seconds after lift off. Seven crew died as a result and the whole Space Shuttle program was suspended for years. Some suggest the program never really recovered.
And what caused this disaster?
The Space Shuttle was touted as the most complex machine ever put together by humans, but what destroyed the Challenger was the failure of simple rubber O-ring seal on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. Except it wasn’t really a failure of an O-ring so much as a failure of governance. Engineers had known for many years the O-rings didn’t work very well in extreme cold conditions, such as were experienced at the time of launch, and even recommended against launching at that time.
But the mission, which had already gone through long and costly delays, was under enormous time pressures and somehow the concerns of the engineers, who sat at the bottom of the management hierarchy, were not conveyed to the decision makers at the top of the tree. The decision to go ahead with the launch was made, and the rest is history. (HBO really should make a docu-drama on this.)
Now maybe you’re thinking big disasters like these only occur when state-controlled hierarchies are in charge. If that’s the case, I recommend you see the 2016 film Deepwater Horizon which recounts the origins of the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
The spill occurred when the Deepwater Horizon, an ocean oil drilling rig operated by BP, caught fire when high-pressure methane gas from the well expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig. There it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform, killing 11 workers and setting off the largest environmental disaster in American history.
The film contends the disaster was the direct result of BP officials rushing through safety tests and ignoring the ageing infrastructure on board the drill rig. As with Chernobyl and Challenger, engineers were ignored, and production timetables were prioritized over safety and due diligence.
Though this was an accident in the commercial sector, it can also be said that government oversight and environmental protection and monitoring were found wanting.
When disaster strikes we are too often absorbed by the heat and light of the event itself. When we look past that, the real problem is almost always a failure in integrity around the way in which the system is being governed.
Good governance, transparency and accountability would have prevented Chernobyl, Challenger and Deepwater Horizon from ever becoming disasters. And if we want to prevent future disasters of this type, this is where we should be looking.
Which is why I got depressed when watching these movies because it just got me thinking about the failing integrity of leaders such as Johnson, Trump, Putin and our own Scott Morrison. These leaders have been actively eroding the integrity of the institutions that allow us to trust our governments and the processes they run. Without this integrity we won’t hear the warnings of the ‘engineers’ that the systems we depend upon have vulnerabilities and may be heading for collapse.
One excellent example of this in Australia is the recent revelations by Professor Andrew Macintosh that our system of carbon credits lacks integrity – that Australian Carbon Credit Units are being awarded to projects that are not actually capturing the carbon they claim. Macintosh, one of the architects of the system, claims the problem is poor governance, that the same people awarding the credits are doing the monitoring and the selling of the carbon credits. A market with integrity would allow for transparency, accountability and independent validation of what’s being bought and sold but our carbon market does not have these features.
The problem is that these carbon credits are being purchased by fossil fuel producers to offset their own carbon emissions. If, as Macintosh contends, 70-80% of the carbon credits do not represent captured carbon, then they’re not actually offsetting anything, but fossil fuel companies still have a green light to keep pumping out carbon emissions.
Now, maybe you can’t see Chernobyl or Deepwater Horizon in this story. However, our government has simply denied Macintosh’s claims, even though he has considerable empirical evidence supporting his case (and our government isn’t releasing the information that Macintosh has asked to be made public). Our government says the carbon market is fine, they won’t fix it, and our carbon credits are in high demand. Our performance on climate change is beyond reproach, they say (even though we trail the developed world in reducing carbon emissions). It’s like the Chernobyl operators ignoring warnings on the basis that the project is too good (too big) to fail; and they’ll only be punished if they say something.
In our government’s admonishment of ‘engineer’ Macintosh’s attempts to blow the whistle on this broken carbon market I hear the echoes of Soviet administrators and BP corporates claiming ‘push on, there’s nothing to see here’.
But the system is not good, carbon emissions are rising, people and species are dying from climate-enhanced weather extremes. And in response, our political leaders tell us not to worry, the systems they have in place will protect us. But those systems have no integrity!
Then, one more straw is added to the camel’s back…
Banner image: A scene from the HBO series Chernobyl in which military officers spray the accident site to kill all life in order to prevent it spreading radioactive contamination. The ‘fallout’ from this nuclear accident is still being experienced today.
Capitalism is a popular theme in Australian environmental policy at the moment, at least for Liberal governments.
Hardly surprising I suppose. The Liberal Party prides itself on being the natural home of free enterprise.
Addressing a business breakfast last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his audience that ‘We believe climate can be ultimately solved by “can-do capitalism” not “don’t do governments” seeking to control peoples’ lives.
As a three word slogan, ‘can-do capitalism’ would not have rated a further mention in this blog if it were not for the fact that, shortly afterwards, Matt Kean, recently-appointed NSW Treasurer (who also remains, for the time being, Environment Minister) popped up in a media interview spruiking ‘New Capitalism’ as the solution to environmental and other problems.
“I think it [New Capitalism] is very different [to Can-Co Capitalism],” Mr Kean told the Australian Financial Review. “I don’t want to make policies just for a news cycle, I want to make policies for a generation that will build a stronger and more prosperous nation for everyone,” Mr Kean said.
Kean’s ‘New Capitalism’
But there was more to it than that. Mr Kean went on to say that ‘I guess “New Capitalism” is looking at the environmental and social benefits of the decisions we take, not just the financial benefits.’
Still fairly ho hum and hardly new. This amounts to a very weak form of sustainability: ‘sustainable’ in a sense of requiring economic, social and environmental factors to be taken into account, but very weak because it does not require any particular weight to be given to social or environmental factors. Indeed, this formula doesn’t require any weight at all!
However, Kean continued, outlining “five pillars” of his economic portfolio, including “climate and sustainability”. A little more substance, but still just a topic and not really a policy.
Then it got interesting. Kean started talking about there being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the big structural issues in the economy. ‘There’s no point leaving our kids with a bucketful of money if we’ve left them with a mountain of environmental debt,’ he said.
What’s ‘environmental debt’?
Now you’re talking Matt. I’ve always thought ‘environmental debt’ was a useful concept, conveying clearly that we have borrowed someone else’s share of nature (the ‘someone else’ being future generations) and must pay it back.
But the term hasn’t been used much in our political discourse, perhaps because it is potentially so powerful and, to my mind, policy-specific.
In fact, the only serious mention of environmental debt I can recall in Australian political discourse comes from 30 years ago, when the Hawke government made reference to the importance of not saddling future generations with environmental debt, in the course of developing the now-long-forgotten National Strategy on Ecologically Sustainable Development.
But why does using up nature create a debt? Because Nature can only produce what each generation of humans needs if there is enough of each of its component ecosystems, its ‘natural capital’, to do so.
Call it ‘critical mass’ if you like. That’s just the way Nature works. Drop below critical mass in any ecosystem and you are in trouble.
This phenomenon has been explained by comparing Nature to an inheritance, coming in the form of a large fund that has been invested.
We can live off the natural ‘dividends’ or ‘ecosystem services’ forever, but if we draw down more than just the dividends, we start eating into the natural capital, condemning future generations to receiving fewer ‘dividends’ (and more trouble) from Nature than we have.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we have done.
So, if we value our children and grandchildren as much as ourselves, we owe it to future generations to pay back our over-consumption. (As an aside, try arguing against that proposition: Groucho Marx is reported to have said ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ But he was a comedian.)
And how do we pay back environmental debt? Through environmental restoration. Restoration can come from doing things that build Nature’ capacities (like planting trees) or from reducing things that harm Nature (like carbon emissions).
Don’t forget the accounts
And if Kean is serious about repaying environmental debt, there’s another implication: we need a way to measure it. Banks keep track of their loans by keeping accounts. As I’ve explained before, there is an now an internationally recognised way of keeping environmental accounts, the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts, or ‘SEEA’.
By recording the extent and condition of our ecosystems, and then identifying the minimum of such extent and condition (‘critical mass’) needed to produce the ecosystem services on which we all rely, we can then identify any shortfall as our accumulated ecological debt.
Environmental accounts could also be used to keep track of the gains achieved through environmental restoration, as we reduce the debt.
As you can see, that this is dangerous territory for a politician. Talk of environmental debt raises issues that are moral (always tricky), long-term (when most politics goes for the quick fix) and specific (raising the risk of being boxed in, to a potentially-unpopular policy).
But Matt Kean is a highly unusual politician, not only because he comes from the political Right but outdoes the environmental commitment of many on the political Left, but also because he’s been unusually successful in bringing his conservative colleagues along with his pro-environment policies.
In deploying the language of environmental debt, Kean may now be striking out further, into waters that, while not newly discovered, are rarely sailed.
Let’s hope his boldness pays off. Not only for ourselves, but for our children.
CoP26 has just concluded. Many are crying our leaders have lied to us; they’re not being ‘fair dinkum*’ when it comes to climate change.
And the Australian Government has just released its modelling behind their “Plan to Deliver Net Zero” emissions by 2050 (releasing it on the final scheduled day of the CoP, late on a Friday, guaranteed to minimise timely efforts to scrutinise it).
But you don’t even have to study it to see something’s amiss. Before you even interrogate the assumptions in the modelling (assumptions described as ‘wild’ by many experts) it becomes clear it doesn’t even meet it owns objective. Fifteen per cent of the reductions is based on unspecified future technology (with a further 10-20% is achieved through carbon offsets) so it’s actually a plan for 85% emissions reductions at best. Does this mean the Government is lying?
Lies all the way down
The business of ‘telling lies’ is dominating the news cycle at the moment with the very integrity of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, being put under the spotlight following the French President Macron saying “I don’t think, I know” when asked if he thought our Prime Minister Morrison had lied to him over the breaking of $90billion contract for submarines. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull endorsed this sentiment by observing: “Scott has always had a reputation for telling lies.”
Following this, Morrison was asked on radio if he had ever told a lie in public life. He replied: “I don’t believe I have, no. No.”
But, if he’s a liar, he would say that, wouldn’t he? The fact is, he’s been caught out on many occasions. News group Crikey, as just one example, has published a list of 42 lies Morrison has made in recent years with the evidence to prove it.
Some might say lying is merely a politician’s stock in trade, they all do it; and we have elections to enable voters to make a judgement on where lies the truth (or what ‘lies’ they are prepared to accept). But is this good enough with an existential threat like climate change coming at us like a runaway freight train? Lies might win votes but they don’t redefine the way the earth system functions. They might grease your way to an election win but they don’t deliver a sustainable future.
A world of lies
There are lies and there are lies; and, if we’re going to be honest, we all tell them.
The most obvious lie is the untrue statement told to deceive, often referred to as a lie of commission. It seems our ‘plan to deliver net zero’ is full of these.
Then there are the lies of omission, where we distort meaning by not including appropriate information in our pronouncements. In our ‘plan’, the biggest omission is a failure to model what happens if we don’t take action. That’s an omission big enough to drive a planet through.
Or there are lies of fabrication where we make stuff up; lies of minimisation where we underplay aspects of the situation we are describing; or lies of exaggeration in which we overstate things. The ‘plan’ is overflowing with each of these.
So many ways to lie. There are white lies, often told to comfort people; gray lies, in which we’re not sure who benefits; black lies where there’s no confusion, you’re clearly doing it for self-gain; and red lies, told out of spite to damage someone else.
Indeed, it’s easy to find any number of typologies to categorise lies (eg, the 5 types of lies) and liars (eg, the 3 type of liars). However, if you believe lying is ultimately wrong and damaging, possibly the more important questions to pose are: -is it on the increase (and why)? and -what’s the consequence of allowing ‘lying’ to become the new normal?
Liar, liar, pants on fire
Morrison has been caught out many times lying but few leaders can hold a candle to the mendacity displayed by President Trump. The Washington Post tallied up Trumps lies at a staggering 30,573 over the four years he was in office.
But Trump is hardly alone when it comes to outrageous lying. Whether its Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippine’s Duterte, the UK’s Johnson or Russia’s Putin, lying seems to be a standard tool of the trade, and it’s being wielded all the time. The strong impression is that more world leaders are lying more and more often; but how do you prove such a subjective assessment? Measuring the aggregate load of lies and how it changes over time is no easy task.
There are attempts by various groups to measure trends in transparency, corruption and good governance, all good surrogates for the lies of the land. But making meaningful, representative and repeatable comparisons is devilishly difficult.
Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index didn’t make any grand general statements like the world has declined overall or improved; but it did find that countries with strong democratic governance managed better, equitable and effective responses to COVID-19. Countries that performed well on the index invested more in health care, are better able to provide universal health coverage and are less likely to violate democratic norms and institutions or the rule of law. Countries with higher levels of corruption tend to be the worst perpetrators of rule of law and democratic breaches while managing the COVID-19 crisis.
On this index, Australia comes in 11th place (of 180 countries), scoring 77 points on the 100-point scale. Australia’s score has dropped 8 points since its peak in 2012 so even on a coarse index like this it seems our integrity is on the decline.
Another NGO studying governance trends around the world, the Global State of Democracy, found that populist parties are on the rise everywhere, nearly doubling in number over the last 15 years.
The Global State of Democracy contends that the recent growth of electoral support for populist political actors around the world is rooted in several interacting trends: economic and cultural globalization, weakening nation state policy/autonomy, societal change, a polarized digital public sphere and a decline in support for mainstream political parties. The rise of populist parties, movements and politicians opposing established political elites can be seen as a reaction to the perceived underperformance of democracies and as a sign of crisis among mainstream political parties.
My interpretation of this is that when mainstream parties lie they erode confidence and trust in the electorate driving voters to populist parties, who usually lie even more. It’s a slippery slope.
Some lies are just seen as business as usual be it denial over the health risks of tobacco smoking to denial that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. These lies have the potential to kill millions.
There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence demonstrating that lying by our political leaders is becoming more prevalent. And every lie erodes the trust bank of social capital, the keystone of our society’s resilience to deal with the growing environmental challenges coming at us with greater frequency.
Morrison is a liar. His Government’s response to climate change and the CoP26 is tantamount to a lie. The Government’s calculation is that this doesn’t matter, that the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and our forest biome (as just two examples of the impacts of climate change) is a matter for future governments and generations, and that lying about this won’t cost them the next election.
But what is the cost if they do win the next election based on a lie? What is the cost of political leaders pulling down the blinds on transparency, junking accountability and dismissing integrity because it’s simply easier to get by with a lie? Incalculable.
*’fair dinkum’: to be true, authentic and to not lie (Australian synonym: passes the pub test). None of this applies to our current Prime Minister.
At the end of my earlier blog on Professor Partha Dasgupta’s recent review of The Economics Of Biodiversity for the UK Government, I posed the question of why the UK Government seems to be taking the challenge of biodiversity decline reasonably seriously while the Australian Government had made the biodiversity crisis such a low priority?
After all, it’s hard not to agree with Dasgupta’s basic argument that Nature is our most precious asset, that it is biodiversity that enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable, and that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to continue supplying us with the goods and services on which we will rely.
And, helpfully, Dasgupta has given us a clear recipe for fixing the problem:
First, ensure that our demands on Nature do not exceed its supply.
Second, change our measures of economic success to base them on wealth, not income alone (ie GDP).
Third, transform our institutions and systems to enable these changes for the long term.
The UK response
The UK’s response to Dasgupta formed part of a multi-pronged environmental push, taking advantage of the coincidence of three major global meetings being held in 2021. The first two were or are being hosted in the UK: the G7 in Cornwall, (June) and the COP 26 Climate Convention meeting in Glasgow (November). Then there was the COP 15 Biodiversity Convention in Kunming, earlier this month.
The Dasgupta Review helped the UK negotiate the G7 2030 Nature Compact, in which the G7 leaders committed to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, as part of a double commitment that ‘our world must not only become net zero, but also nature positive’.
A ‘nature positive’ outcome would be actioned across four ‘core pillars’:
Transition for example by reviewing environmentally-harmful subsidies;
Investment in nature, including identifying ways to account for nature in economic and financial decision making;
Conservation, including through new global targets to conserve or protect at least 30% of land globally and 30% of the global oceans by 2030; and
Accountability, including by producing ambitious and strengthened National biodiversity plans and more transparent metrics and success indicators.
The UK is also seeking to leveraging its COP 26 Presidency in Glasgow to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable international supply chains (supply chains that factor in impacts to biodiversity).
In its domestic response to the Dasgupta Review, the UK’s headline commitments were first, to adopt the ‘nature positive’ goal, defining it as ‘leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, and reversing biodiversity loss globally by 2030’; and second, to reform economic and financial decision-making, including the systems and institutions that underpin it, to support the delivery of a nature positive future.
Specifically, the government amended its Environment Bill, which already contained a mechanism for setting environmental targets, to include a legally binding target on species abundance in England for 2030. It is also legislating a ‘biodiversity net gain’ standard for nationally-significant infrastructure projects.
Finally, the UK co-sponsored a ‘30 by 30’ Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at the CBD COP 15 in Kunming, China. This pledge, currently supported by some 70 countries, is to protect at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
What about Australia?
While Australia has now moved, with great reluctance, to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it has displayed no interest in the Dasgupta Review or in making serious biodiversity commitments more generally.
Nevertheless, because Prime Minister Morrison announced this at the G7 meeting in Cornwall (as an invited guest) I think we can give part of the credit for this to Dasgupta and the UK: the PM would not have wanted to attend without a good ‘announceable’ in his pocket.
Anyhow, our 30×30 commitment comes on top of having exceeded (or, as the PM would say, beaten) our Aichi 2020 targets of 17% of land in reserve and 10% of marine areas in reserve, by reaching nearly 20% of land in reserve and 37% of marine areas.
In announcing our 30×30 commitment, the PM announced an intention to increase the area in marine reserves to 45%.
In her subsequent statement to COP 15 in Kunming, Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced plans to increase Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area network by another 3.7 million hectares of land and sea, and to establish two new Australian Marine Parks around the waters of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These would increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37% to 45%.
Despite the size of this increase, I think it represents talking up easy goals. As you can see, the marine reserves are in the Indian Ocean, well away from areas of significant economic activity on the Australian mainland.
Similarly, I think the government has found it easy to add further Indigenous Protected Areas to the reserve system because, again, most of them are away from areas of significant economic activity. The government has acknowledged this in Australia’s most recent report to the CBD in our most recent national report:
“despite this growth [in the size of the reserve system], only minor progress has been made since 2011 in meeting representation targets for ecosystems and threatened species. In part, this is because most growth has been in desert bioregions, so that representation improvements have been highly localised.”
UK v Australia: what’s the difference?
While no doubt there’s plenty of politics and padding in the UK’s response to Dasgupta, I think there is also plenty of substance to the actions they are taking. And legislating targets for species abundance and biodiversity net gain for major developments (along with an independent monitoring agency) should reduce the wriggle room substantially.
Australia, on the other hand, is all for the talk but not much for the walk.
Its not a plan at any cost. There’s no blank cheques here. It will not shut down our coal or gas production or exports. It will not impact households, businesses or the broader economy with new costs or taxes imposed by the initiatives that we are undertaking. It will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas, because what we’re doing in this plan is positive things, enabling things. It will not increase energy bills. It won’t. It is not a revolution, but a careful evolution to take advantage of changes in our markets.
That’s right. We’re all in favour of action, provided this comes at no significant cost to the budget, no taxes or other costs to households and no loss of production, exports or jobs (ie no costs to the economy. And no legislation.
Can you imagine what kind of policies meet these stringent no-cost, no-obligation criteria? That’s right. Marine reserves thousands of kilometres from both population centres and economically-significant activity.
UK v Australia: why the difference?
And why is this ‘Australian way’, as Morrison calls his approach, so different to the British way? I think it’s just the way the politics have played out. In Australia, the Coalition has demonised environmental policy for so long as being a creature of the ‘green left’, that the political cost of substantive action on the environment is just too high.
In the UK, it played out differently. Margaret Thatcher was in favour of climate action in the 1980s, while in the 2000s, David Cameron, then still in Opposition, was able to galvanise support for the Conservative Party with his line ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’.
Will the Coalition in Australia ever run such a slogan? Not in this political generation.
And if you can’t see the sense of this, then speak to your wife
Dear Prime Minister
Please take real action on climate change. Please follow the advice of our best scientists, thinkers and institutions.
David Salt Sustainability Bites
PS: Here are nine other groups who feel the same way. If you feel able to dismiss this combined wisdom, maybe consult your wife [see item 10]!
1. The World’s brain trust
The Dalai Lama and Australia’s Peter Doherty are among 101 Nobel Laureates calling for real action on climate change and an end to coal and gas expansion. They believe that acts to invest further in the fossil fuel industry are “unconscionable” and have said so in an open letter to political leaders on the eve of US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate. The Nobel Laureates – including economics, physics, peace, medicine, chemistry and literature prize winners – are united on this. Please don’t dismiss the world’s brain trust.
If you’re in doubt about the world’s best scientists have to say (most of them are foreigners after all), maybe you’re more open to what Australia’s finest scientists are saying on the topic. And, indeed, the Australian Academy of Science has just released a landmark report exploring the risks to Australia’s future based on the current global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. And those risks are big to our economy, environment and society [and indeed, to your family, see item 10].
That report states that the world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is an absolute minimum, if Australia is to avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems.
Prime Minister, please read this report compiled by Australia’s finest science brains.
3. The Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE)
This is Australia’s technological brains trust. ATSE believes this is a critical and timely opportunity for Australia to demonstrate strong action and leadership on climate. The evidence is unequivocal that extreme weather events like the recent devastating bushfires, storms and floods in Australia will increase in frequency as the planet warms. Please listen to them.
4. Our premier science agencies: the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO
These are Australia’s two leading scientific agencies. They’re telling us that climate change is real and present, and the evidence is incontrovertible. The continued warming of Australia’s climate, an increase in extreme fire weather and length of the fire season, declining rainfall in the southeast and southwest of the continent, and rising sea levels are some of the key trends detailed in their latest State of the Climate report.
So far Australia’s climate has warmed by around 1.4°C since 1910. Southern Australia has seen a 10–20% reduction in cool season (April–October) rainfall in recent decades, while rainfall during the northern wet season (October–April) has increased since the late 1990’s, especially for northern Australia, with a greater proportion of high intensity short duration rainfall events. This impacts all Australians. Please listen to our own government scientists.
Climate change is impacting our health Prime Minister. Thirty-two health groups recently released a joint statement calling on the federal government to address climate change in its National Preventive Health Strategy, which is currently in development. The Strategy’s Consultation Paper does not include climate change in its six focus areas, nor even mention “climate change”. Thousands more Australians will suffer from infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, heat stress, mental illness, violence, food insecurity, poor water quality and poorer nutrition. Surely you have to acknowledge this Prime Minister?
Former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services. This call went out prior to the Black Summer of 2019/2020, our horror fire season. It vindicated every word of caution from the Emergency Leaders group yet you’re still not listening Prime Minister.
The AMA and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) recently called on the Federal Government to adopt a suite of key measures to help reduce the risk of further climate-related disasters. Everyone trusts their doctor, why can’t you Prime Minister.
More and more farmers are realising what the changing climate is doing to their security and their economic bottom line. 1.4 degrees temperature rise already is already pushing them to the limit. For example, broadacre crops such as wheat and barley have seen reductions in profitability by up to 22% since 2000. Decreasing farm profitability is leaving many Australians in rural and regional communities at risk of declining health and economic wellbeing.
Farmers want you to act now. As one farmer from Farmers for climate action puts it: “Over the last year, farmers have grappled with droughts, floods and some of the worst fires in living memory. Today we have a choice, but very soon that choice is going to be taken away. Will we choose to invest in a sustainable and profitable renewables-led recovery, or will we sacrifice our future and the futures of our children and grandchildren.”
You’re on the record saying you listen to farmers, that your respect them, Prime Minister; why are you ignoring them on this.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, which is almost double Australia’s commitment (of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030) that was announced back in 2015.
The US administration is already racing towards net zero with a $US2 trillion infrastructure plan, including $US100 billion in rebates for electric vehicles. It is also eliminating oil and gas subsidies and has placed climate action at the heart of its foreign policy.
We are not in lock step with our biggest ally on this Prime Minister, indeed we are trailing the world on climate change intention and action.
If you dismiss this chorus of pleas for greater effort (from world-leading and nation-leading scientists and institutions) then please have a chat with your wife, Jenny. You have repeatedly claimed she and your children are at the centre of your world yet your government’s inaction on climate change is destroying their future.
The summer bushfires of 2019–20 in a tinder-dry country, or the three severe coral bleaching events within five years that caused a loss of over 50% of hard coral cover in the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef, demonstrate some of the consequences of a warming planet for Australia’s people, economy and environment. The risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, severe storms, major floods, bushfires and coastal inundation from sea level rise continue to increase and will be more intense and frequent as temperatures exceed 2°C of warming.
Your children are now teenagers. As they mature into their 20’s and 30’s (and beyond) they can expect many more ‘Black Summers’, severe floods and punishing droughts. This will impact on the economy and society they will inherit; it will directly affect their quality of life.
Jenny, you’re a former nurse, you know what all this means. Even if you don’t follow the science, surely you must acknowledge what the health sector is saying about the growing risk of climate change [see items 5, 6 and 7] and what this means for your children. Your husband, as our Prime Minister, can make more difference now than anyone but he’s not listening. Please, for you children, help him listen. There’s a lot riding on it.
How deep have we stuck our head in the sand when it comes to the environment?
By David Salt
On May 19 2019 the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, tweeted his now trademark catchcry following his ‘miracle’ election victory: “How good is Australia! How good are Australians!” (noting he was making a statement, not asking a question).
It’s now a standard part of his language of spin (how good is this, how good is that…) and it’s also much parodied. But in parodying ‘Scotty from Marketing’ I fear we often trivialise some of the damage his government is presiding over.
The opposition claims Australia is going backwards when it comes to productivity, equity, corruption, debt and trust; and have put forward numbers suggesting Australia is slipping back when compared with other nations.
However, for my money, the true problem with Australia’s performance is what we’re allowing to happen to the environment. We’re witnessing collapse after environmental collapse and our response it to talk up small victories (like our fight against plastic pollution) while ignoring the big picture. Our PM would have has pat ourselves on the back rather than focus on our withering natural heritage. We refuse to accept any form of responsible stewardship for our own environment while also shirking international effort to do better.
How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Consider these recent reports.
Australia the only developed nation on world list of deforestation hotspots Australia remains one of the world’s hotspots for deforestation according to a new report by WWF, which finds an area six times the size of Tasmania has been cleared globally since 2004. The analysis identifies 24 “deforestation fronts” worldwide where a total of 43 million hectares of forest was destroyed in the period from 2004 until 2017.
The 2020 Threatened Species Index Australia’s new Threatened Species Index (TSX) for birds, mammals and plants was released in December last year. According to the data released in the 2020 TSX, threatened plants have declined by 72% between 1995 and 2017 on average across all sites. At sites where conservation management actions were taken this decline is less pronounced, with a 60% average decline over the same time period. At sites with no known management, the average decline was 80%.
These are all recent reports and they are all saying the same thing. Our environment is in severe decline.
How good is Australia? Well, in one respect we are world leaders. As Suzanne Milthorpe from the Wilderness Society puts it (following on from the announcement that 13 more species are now confirmed as extinct): “It’s official; 34 mammal species have been lost from Australia and as these species are found nowhere else, we’ve also lost them from the planet and from all of time. There’s not another country, rich or poor, that has anything like this record.”
Just yesterday the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) filed a case at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal challenging Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s refusal to release documents requested under Freedom of Information laws about 15 ‘fast tracked’ environmental approvals. ACF’s case will challenge the Government’s use of ‘national cabinet’ exemptions to avoid FOI disclosures.
How good is Australia? How good are Australians? Given our sad record of environmental decline and wretched environmental stewardship, our repeated and growing failure to protect those natural values we told ourselves and the world we would look after, these questions/assertions border on the obscene; and yet they constantly go unchallenged.
Australia is doing an awful job of looking after its environmental heritage for today’s generation and generations to come. It’s time we stopped burying our head in the sand, for that is exactly what we are doing when we allow our national leaders to discount our common future. Consider Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s recent declaration (reported in The Guardian): “We are not worried, or I’m certainly not worried, about what might happen in 30 years’ time.”
How did we do it? How did Australia beat COVID 19 when most other countries failed; failure being their inability to prevent the overloading of their health systems and the consequent death of tens of thousands of lives that should have been saved.
Is it because Australia has better leaders? Better health officials? Better people? Better geographical positioning?
Maybe our island continent’s physical isolation helped a little but I don’t think the other human factors had much to do with it, not directly anyway. Our health officials delivered similar advice to those health officials overseas but leaders in other nations often ignored this advice and shut the gate only after the horse had bolted (then searched for a scapegoat when their citizens started dying needlessly).
But our leaders followed the scientific advice pretty much to the letter. However, this is not in keeping with their behaviour in recent years in which they felt free to ignore, discount, denigrate or deny scientific advice that ran counter to their politics and ideology – think death of rivers, collapse of coral reefs and skyrocketing extinction rates.
And yet this time they did listen. What’s more, they showed how effective our federal system of governance could be when federal and state governments pulled together. How did we do it? Why did we do it differently this time?
The answer, I believe, is that our nation was primed for an unprecedented national response to an unprecedented national emergency by an earlier unprecedented national emergency. And I’ll make my case on this using what happened when our Prime Minister mis-read this earlier unprecedented national emergency.
Our PM’s Black Summer
Remember our Black Summer? The fires were extinguished only a couple of months ago but COVID 19 has relegated that disastrous time to a different age. But I reckon it was our experience of Black Summer that made the difference on how Australia responded to the ensuing COVID 19 pandemic.
And maybe the defining moment during this horror season on wildfire was when our Prime Minister Scott Morrison was rebuffed after making a unilateral announcement to bring in the army reserve on Saturday 4 January.
It was already clear by that stage that the Federal Government’s standard command-and-control approach wasn’t cutting the mustard. But, true to form, our leaders pushed on hoping to push through. And they played down the connection with climate change: ‘let’s not talk about that now, we must focus on the emergency’.
But the fire emergency was still escalating so the Government called out the army reserve without telling the states and simultaneously put out a political ad telling Australia what a great job it was doing. And they did it on the very day the wildfires were at their unstoppable worst.
The real heroes of the moment were the firies and emergency workers. When the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was told of the army reserve call out (by the media, not by the Federal Government) he was flabbergasted describing the manner of the announcement as “atrocious”.
And the whole country sat back and wondered what an earth the national government was playing at. Can they not see that in a time of national emergency that politics and ideology has to take a back seat to reasoned, evidence-based, co-operative action?
Well maybe that reality became apparent because after that incident they went decidedly quiet, letting the states, who have primary responsibility for fire management, take the running.
Not a panacea
A little bit later during this unfolding catastrophe, Conservative political leaders including our Prime Minister started looking around for a scapegoat for the wildfires and, predictably, targeted environmental groups and the Green Party as responsible for preventing hazard reduction burning in the lead up to the Black Summer.
Again, Commissioner Fitzsimmons spoke truth to power saying that hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.
Fitzsimmons also pointed out that hazard reduction burning itself is extremely challenging and hazardous. What I didn’t know at that time but subsequently discovered on ABC’s Australian Story is that Fitzsimmons knows the perils of hazard reduction personally – his father burnt to death in a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s north in the year 2000.
So one of our true national heroes of the Black Summer, Shane Fitzsimmons, called out our national government on at least two occasions while simultaneously showing what calm dedicated leadership looked like. Many hold him up as the type of leader we need in a national emergency.
It takes a disturbance to be prepared for a disturbance
If there is a silver lining on our Black Summer it’s that it knocked the hubris and arrogance out of our national government’s approach to dealing with mass disturbance. Had it have been a ‘normal’ summer I believe we would have taken our lead from the UK or the USA on how to deal with Covid 19. And, in prioritizing the economy over the environment and discounting the science (our normal modus operandi), we would likely have led to the same death rates those countries are now experiencing (an outcome many are putting down to failed leadership).
Much has been written about how different countries have coped. It’s been suggested that South Korea and Taiwan have both fared well because they both previously experienced SARS and MERS, two respiratory pandemics very similar to Covid 19. They didn’t take it for granted and didn’t treat it like a flu, they responded appropriately.
I think our biggest risk now is believing the myth that Australia has done well because Australian’s (and Australian leaders) are a cut above the rest, that we are superior. We aren’t. We were lucky. Above all else, our decision makers approached the task of keeping Australia safe through the pandemic with a degree of humility, acceptance of the evidence and collegiality that has been missing from Australian politics for many years.
The smirk is back
And now, as Australia looks to be ahead of the (flattened) curve, I fear the smugness and arrogance is creeping back in. The idealogues are seizing back the pulpits, and tribal politics is beginning to strangle our winning formulation.
The months ahead look uncertain and strange. We’ve beaten the first wave but how will we go with the second and third?
The biggest national disturbance prior to this was the Global Financial Crisis in 2007. Once again, as a nation, we reacted strongly and well. But there was collateral damage. In the following year the GFC helped knock the wheels off our Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and our politics has been a shameless dog fight ever since.
There are two lessons here for our national leaders. The first is that circumstances (history and path dependency) play a large part in our triumphs and failures. The second, contained in the first, is that pride goeth before a fall.