For my next techno-trick – I’m going to make you forget about the problems facing the Reef

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Techno-fixing the Reef and other dangerous delusions

By David Salt

Science is telling us coral reefs are dying. Politicians, while ignoring and denying the science on climate change, are telling us science is going to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s called the techno fix, and it’s one of the oldest tricks around.

Problem solved?

The problem with the ‘techno fix’ is that it is usually only a partial solution. The allure of the ‘techno fix’ is that it allows us, and particularly our political leaders, to think we’ve solved the problem.

If the problem being addressed is a small one, then maybe a partial solution is fine. If the techno fix doesn’t live up to its hype, then let’s develop a new techno fix. Every time we try something new it’s to be hoped at the very least that we learn something.

But if the problem is big and important, then placing our trust (and limited resources) in a techno fix becomes dangerous and delusional. An example of this is what we’re doing with the Great Barrier Reef.

Boiling coral

The Great Barrier Reef is overheating because of climate change. When corals overheat they eject the symbiotic algae that feeds them. The corals turn white, they look bleached, and if the temperature stays too high for too long the corals die. In the last five years there have been three mass bleaching events along the reef, each one causing unprecedented levels of coral death. In February the Reef was subjected to its hottest sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900. All the evidence suggests it’s only going to get worse.

Coral can recover if it’s given time but the forecasts are that, with increasing temperatures, mass bleaching events will increase in frequency – once every couple of years by 2030 and yet it takes decades to recover from a mass bleaching event. The world’s leading coral scientists predict the Great Barrier Reef will be lost if carbon emissions and climate change is not addressed. Of course, it’s not just the GBR that’s at stake, all coral reefs are being threatened.

And it’s also not just about rising temperature either. Greater storm damage and outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish are also wreaking carnage on the Great Barrier Reef; and both these factors also have strong connections to climate change.

The solution? Stop climate change. Do something to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, it’s one of the biggest challenges facing modern society. Yes, no country can do it on its own. However, it’s the only real chance we have of saving the Great Barrier Reef and other important coral ecosystems around the world.

Silver bullets

In Australia, our national government is in complete denial over climate change but is sensitive to the fact that Australians love the Great Barrier Reef and believe our elected leaders should be protecting it – after all, we told the world we would when we go it listed as World Heritage and the Reef is an important part of our economic wealth employing around 64,000 people.

However, following the mass coral bleachings in 2016, 2017 and 2020 (not to mention declining water quality and massive outbreaks of crown-of thorn starfish) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the line that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’.

Rather than acknowledging the connection between coral decline and climate change (and making climate change a policy priority), our government has instead been looking around for techno-fixes that may (or may not) help us manage bits of the unfolding catastrophe. I say ‘may not’ because many of the solutions being explored haven’t yet actually been demonstrated to work.

We’re talking about, for example, searching for corals that can survive in higher temperatures, developing methods to restore degraded coral, putting different coral species into frozen archives that we can use in the future, and researching geoengineering strategies that might provide temporary protection from heat waves*.

Last month the Federal Government announced a $150 million reef restoration and adaptation package that will fund some 42 concepts aimed at helping the reef cope with the growing threat of environmental degradation.

Don’t get me wrong, this is considerable money with many good people doing amazing things to protect the Reef. But at best, even if these strategies work as hoped (and that’s a big ‘if’), all we’re treating is the symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. Maybe the condition of a few select reefs might be improved for a time (or their decline might be slowed), maybe we’ll create a ‘seed bank’ for some future age in which we’ve figured out how to reduce our carbon pollution to sustainable levels, but none of these efforts are doing anything to save the Great Barrier Reef that we have today. To believe they will work is delusional.

What such efforts do achieve, however, is to give an impression that the government is doing enough and that we don’t have to worry about the underlying cause. That’s dangerous thinking.

No such thing as a free lunch

As to my claim that the techno fix is an old trick, let me quote the ecologist Garrett Hardin who made this comment in his classic paper ‘The tragedy of the Commons’ some 52 years ago: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.

If we were able to protect the Great Barrier Reef it’s likely techno-fixes will play a part – maybe even buy us a little time – but without a concerted effort to address the underlying problem of atmospheric carbon pollution and a rapidly warming world then these technical solutions are really only being promoted to fool us into thinking that science will save us, and we as individuals don’t have to worry or change the way we live; that’s dangerous and delusional.

*Geoengineering is in many ways the ultimate techno-fix, and maybe it’s the ultimate delusion: that humans are in control of the earth system (and because we are in control we don’t need to worry about the degradation our activities are causing). Regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the proposal is to use snow cannons to shoot droplets of salt water into the air over the Reef. Salt particles in the air should brighten clouds over the Reef reflecting away sunlight and reducing heat on the reef (in theory). The researchers say it would cost $150-$200 million a year to run cloud brightening over the whole reef. Trials have begun but even these are raising controversy as some believe they are violating an international moratorium on ocean geoengineering.

Image: Bleached elkhorn coral off Magnetic Island (Photo by Klara Lindstrom, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.)

Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

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Joining the dots on Sustainability Bites

By David Salt

“A real engagement with sustainability has bite.” That was our contention when we (Peter and I) began this blog. Well, have we demonstrated that in our efforts so far? And have our reflections generated any useful insights, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? With 33 ‘bites’ now under our belt, I thought I’d take a look over what we’ve discussed so far and see if any themes are emerging.

If you read our blog’s ‘about’ page (which we haven’t touched since we began) you’ll see we had our own ideas on what ‘Sustainability Bites’ means. We said: “There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this debate on sustainability, but there are serious trade-offs and important consequences resulting from the decisions we make, and the way we make them.”

Those consequences are, if you like, the ‘bites’ of which we speak.

Governments will always sell their policy formulations as ‘win-win’ propositions but this is simply politically expedient fiction. There will always be ‘losers’ in any policy change and when it comes to sustainability those with most to lose are often big and influential ‘actors’ with considerable power in government decision making. Their vested interest in sustaining the status quo means the interests of future generations are forgotten. The present trumps the future.

33 bites, 5 emerging themes

The other meaning of the title of our blog is that we aim to serve up short, bite-sized stories on sustainability; stories based on emerging news and/or our research on various elements of the policy and science of sustainable development. So far we’ve produced 33 bites, roughly one per week since the beginning of 2019. I’ve listed these stories at the end of this blog in the order they appeared (Appendix 1) with links to each piece if you see something that catches your interest that you may have missed first time round (or maybe you only started following us recently).

Going through that list I see five themes constantly emerging:
1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis);
2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy);
3. The burden of politics and ideology (frustrating the development of good policy);
4. The value of good policy; and
5. The importance of history.

Of course, these themes arise from our interests in the sustainability sector. Peter comes from a policy background whereas I have been communicating conservation science for many years. However, I feel we have discussed enough examples to provide compelling evidence that these emerging themes are important (we would contend central) to any engagement with sustainability.

I have indicated in appendix 1 where a ‘bite’ is predominantly aimed at one of these themes should you want to read further. Many bites, of course, cross several themes.

And here are a few comments on each.

1. The challenge of change (and the importance of crisis)

Achieving enduring change is hard. Often it’s politically impossible. Vested interests, competing ideologies and weak governance frequently conspire to defeat our best intentions.

The more we (Peter and I) have pondered this point the more it seems the only way enduring change is achieved is through crisis. The status quo needs some form of disturbance to weaken its hold to enable a change in rules to occur.

Of course, there are many things you can do in the absence of a crisis and several of these we discuss. Importantly, when a crisis does occur, make sure there are effective policy solutions available to be deployed. ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

2. The culture of science (and its failure to influence policy)

Scientists gather evidence to better understand the world and inform our choices. Politicians gather evidence to maximize their electoral return (power). Often this involves the politician selling an ideology or plan which usually leads to presenting evidence to justify a specific idea or refutes a competing ideology. In other words, science and politics are antithetical in their process (something that both sides rarely acknowledge).

But it’s not just that politicians fail to act on what science is telling us; they simultaneously use science as an excuse for not acting on the clear and growing threat of global change. They hold up the promise and power of technology as something that will save us when things get too bad, thereby enabling them to ignore the risk (and implement appropriate policy) today.

It’s really quite perverse. Our leaders often ignore the science that undermines their (political) position but then hide behind the promise of science in defending the consequences of that position.

3. The burden of politics and ideology

The biggest obstacle to meaningful policy reform for sustainability is the inertia of the status quo, and this inertia is based on the politics of self-interest and short termism. It might be that the politics is driven by ideology or it might be that ideology is used as a weapon of power to shore up the politics. In many ways it doesn’t matter which, as both situations add up to today’s vested interests stopping the consideration of the future.

I would note that Peter and I both used our first blog in this series to talk about Conservative ideology. Peter spoke about sustainability actually being a central tenet of mainstream Conservative philosophy (the notion of the good steward). And I discussed how climate denialism was consistent with a Libertarian hatred of big government and constraints on personal freedoms.

4. The value of good policy

There are many policy tools available to government to tackle issues relating to sustainability. For example, Peter devoted several blogs to exploring environmental accounts and environmental impact studies. He also discussed the role and value of the Productivity Commission and the Sustainability Development Goals (and several other policy institutions as well).

In all cases, these processes and institutions developed valuable ideas and assessments that ultimately failed to deliver real advances in sustainable development, not because they were flawed in themselves but because they weren’t implemented properly or integrated with other policy sectors.

A good policy poorly implemented can, in some ways, be worse than no policy at all because it gives the impression that a problem is being dealt with when it’s not, while the underlying problem just gets worse.

5. The importance of history

To understand why a good policy is not implemented in an appropriate way, or why ideology so often trumps rationality, it’s important to understand the historical context and development of an idea or process. Many of the stories we have examined have long histories, and to understand why something works as it does it’s necessary to see from where it came and how it has changed.

Sustainable development is a complex and dynamic field, hardly surprising given we live in a complex and dynamic world. Many of our reflections have looked back in time to see where something has come from and how it has changed over time. Does this throw any light on the past, present and future of the sustainability project? We think so, and in support of this claim I give you a timeline of what we have discussed so far (Appendix 2).

Of course, this is hardly a comprehensive treatise on the development of sustainability. It’s more a patchwork of ideas, a palimpsest of policy intent. But it’s not a bad start.

And we hope to fill in this patchy tapestry of ideas with greater detail as we chew on more bites in the future.

Image by vegasita from Pixabay

Appendix 1: 33 Bites [in order of appearance with main themes in brackets]

1. Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion[Ideology; history]
2. Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism [Ideology, science]
3. Why Can’t We Agree on Fixing the Environment? Tribalism & short termism[Politics, crisis]
4. Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet [Change, crisis, history]
5. How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card [Good policy]

6. Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?[Crisis and change]
7. The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]
8. Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills [science culture, politics]
9. Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit [Crisis, good policy, politics]
10. Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam[Crisis, history]

11. Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments [Policy, history]
12. Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution[Science, ideology]
13. Environmental Impact Assessment and info bureacracy [Policy, politics]
14. Confessions of a cheerleader for science: delaying action because science will save us[Science, ideology]
15. Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment[History, policy]

16. This febrile environment: elections, cynicism and crisis[Politics, crisis]
17. 20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law [Policy, politics, history]
18. Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change[Policy, history, politics]
19. The value of Environmental Impact Assessment [Policy, history]
20. Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism [Ideology, crisis, politics]

21. Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability[Politics, policy, history]
22. A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed[History, policy, crisis]
23. Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth[History, policy]
24. A real climate change debate: science vs denialism[Science, politics, ideology]
25. Craik Review on green tape: environmental regulation impact on farmers[Policy, politics]

26. Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene [History, science]
27. An environmental accounting primer [Policy, history]
28. Displacement activityit’s what you do when you don’t have a real environmental policy [Politics, policy]
29. The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation [Policy, politics]
30. Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue [Politics, ideology]

31. The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash [Policy, history]
32. The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain [Science, policy, politics]
33. Doing the Tesla Stretch electric cars to our economic rescue [Policy, politics]

Appendix 2: The potted timeline of Sustainability Bites

500 BC: Plato comments on the denuded hills of Attica. Five hundred years later Columella argues the need for the ‘everlasting youth’ of Earth. Also in this blog, are discussions on John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Margie Thatcher.
Environmental Sustainability: a thoroughly Conservative notion

1940s till now: Following the ‘reboot’ of WW2, the international community has made many concerted steps to develop a workable strategy for sustainable development.
A short history of sustainability: how sustainable development developed.

1941: Reflecting on how President Roosevelt prepared for war prior to the crisis of Pearl Harbour.
Making a difference without rocking the boat The FDR Gambit

1945: Monday, 16 July, the world’s first atomic bomb is tested, and the Anthropocene begins (the world will never be the same).
Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

1966: New ways of perceiving the environment came to the fore in the 1960s, Boulding’s evocation of a Spaceship Earth was one of the important ones.
Kenneth Boulding and the spaceman economy: view from Spaceship Earth

1969 (and the 1960s): The US drafts its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), marking the birth of modern environmental policy (ending a decade in which environmental decline was finally triggering legislative responses)
Caldwell and NEPA: the birth of Environmental Impact Assessment

1970s & 80s: The rise of environmental politics in Australia. It really began with the flooding of a beautiful Tasmanian mountain lake.
Throwing pebbles and making waves: Lake Pedder and the Franklin Dam

1972: Anthony Downs publishes on the ‘issues-attention cycle’
The BIG fixWhy is it so hard [Crisis, politics]

1972/73: The world confronts resource scarcity while simultaneously reflecting on measures of economic welfare. These were the antecedents of the environmental accounts.
An environmental accounting primer

1990s till today: A short history of attempts to reform Environmental Impact Assessment in Australia
Ending duplication in Environmental Impact Assessments

1998: Australia established the Productivity Commission to enhance the government’s efforts improving our economy, society and environment (and probably in that order).
The Productivity Commission and environmental regulation

1999: Australia’s premier national environmental law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is passed. Twenty years on, it’s in need of a major overhaul.
20 Year review of the EPBC – Australia’s national environment law

2000: The book ‘The Tipping Point’ is released
Throwing pebbles to make change:is it aim or timing?

2005-2009: The United Kingdom shifts from a bland incremental climate policy to an ambitious goal, enshrined in law. That goal is to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.
Too late for no regrets pathway: a pathway to real sustainability

2015: The Sustainable Development Goals are adopted by the UN (following on from Agenda 21 in 1992 and the Millennium Development Goals in 2000).
The Sustainable Development Goals: game changer or rehash

2016/17: The Great Barrier Reef experiences mass bleaching under climate change
Wishing for a ‘Goldilocks’ crisis’A crack in the Greenland Ice Sheet

2017: Ex-Prime Minister Abbott denies climate change to an international forum
Sustainability, ‘big government’ and climate denialism

2017: At the same time that Abbott was denying the existence of climate change, the head of his Church, Pope Francis was saying: “Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.”
Framing climate change: is it a moral or an economic issue

2019: OECD delivers Australia an environmental report card (this is a process that more could be made of)
How are we going Australia’s OECD decadal Environmental Report Card

2019: Mass fish kills signal the latest impact of severe weather events (exacerbated by climate change)
Duelling scientists: Science, politics and fish kills

2019: Geoengineering is being promoted as a silver bullet for climate change
Is science the answer? Technology is not the solution

2019: UN reports unprecedented losses in biodiversity (bit like similar reports in 2015, 2010, 2005; each worse than the one before)
Saving the world’s biodiversity: the failure of the CBD and the need for transformative change

2019: Australia votes and the Conservatives get back in, a repudiation of the growing calls for environmental policy reform.
Retreat from reason – nihilism fundamentalism and activism

2019: Latest outlook reports show the Great Barrier Reef is dying and government efforts to fix water quality are failing.
The Great Barrier Reef: best managed reef in the world down the drain