CHAS SAVAGE. The summer of our discontents

Feb 10, 2020

The only outcome that matters is the extent to which humanity manages to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Any talk about meeting or not meeting targets that is not grounded on this outcome is trickery and sleight of hand.

This summer of discontent provide governments of all persuasions with the opportunity to prepare for climate that is markedly warmer and a continent that will be stressed almost to breaking. To do so, they must change, act in good faith, focus on outcomes, rely on science and prepare the community for profound and widespread change. There is no time like the present to start.

Now is the summer of our discontents made inglorious by … bushfires, hailstorms, choking smoke, record high temperatures and climate change.
And the challenge for governments is how best to respond.

In the face of an emergency, a good government slices a response in three ways. The first is the need of the hour during which a particular event, a particular fire, say, is managed or fought.

The second is the focusing on needs after an event and what communities—human and animal, vegetable and mineral—demand over the medium term. The south coast, for example, of New South Wales—Cobargo, Eden, Batemans Bay—will need support to make it through what will be a very tough 2020.

The third is long term and is about understanding and addressing causes, about mitigation, preparation and adaption. This third element constitutes the structural challenge of the century. How as a society we manage the long term. And it’s complicated because we face a new physical reality that will profoundly change long-established economic and social structures. Equally difficult for us is the demand that we reconfigure our thinking about what is of value and what are our personal values.

This is a tough nut to crack, for not only must we look at the consequences of our actions but also the causes—what it is in how we live that poses a toxic threat to our continued existence.

So we start by asserting that if things are to change, then what we do must also change. Not just government, not just corporations, but us. All of us, great and small.

Our initial and necessary step is to set good faith as a loadstone. No doubt this is asking a lot because, for the past twenty years, climate change as an issue has been the plaything of a low and brute political calculus. We do not have to forgive those who used—and are still using—climate change as a means to advance venal interest, but we must ignore them.
Then comes science and facts rather than Facebook or Twitter ravings. Our capability to do good science and then incorporate good science into policy must become a national priority.

The Thodey review of the Australian Public Service made the explicit point that, ‘the APS needs to reverse the long-term decline in research and evaluation expertise and build integrated policy capability.’

The consequence is that the current institutions of government, gutted departments and threadbare research agencies are not fit for purpose. An imperative is to rebuild a public service and public institutions that have been run down and to turbocharge our institutional ability to research and analyse complex problems.

When it comes to a meaningful response to climate change, however, we must go further. Yes, we need more expert hands. Yes, these hands must have more resources. But meaningful action demands a framework, new institutional arrangements, that is independent of the meanness, the shallowness and the limitations of current political thinking.

The Reserve Bank of Australia is one possible model. The then Howard Government made the principled decision to take monetary policy out of the hands of the government of the day—effectively out of their own hands. The RBA, an expert and independent institution, was established to manage monetary policy and interest rates and make decisions that were too challenging for governments themselves.

The next critical step, once we have established and rebuilt institutions, is to operate with the understanding that unicorns do not exist. The climate is changing and this will have a material impact on us all. We know that inaction and indifference will make us worse off. The choice we then face is how  hurt is distributed and how do we support those who must be looked after. How we organise ourselves for the future become important. If we act now and invest wisely, we will restrict the damage and limit the hurt.

Of course, change that disadvantages a particular group is fiendishly difficult to orchestrate in a democracy. But that is the job of our elected representatives; they are paid to minimise harms and prepare communities for perils ahead.
Next comes the difficult reality that if governments are to mitigate damage and prevent harm then the response and thinking about measures must focus on outcomes as opposed to outputs or inputs. The only outcome that matters is the extent to which humanity manages to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Any talk about meeting or not meeting targets that is not grounded on this outcome is trickery and sleight of hand.

As a last point on how we recalibrate our way, we understand that delay imposes disproportionate costs. As a nation we have lost too many years to rancorous debate and we no longer have the luxury of time. The guiding rule therefore is to get cracking. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Design, implement, evaluate, adjust. Repeat.

Turning now from ideas of good faith to the question of what we actually should do, we start by considering likelihood and consequence.

To prepare, we have to better understand the impact of climate change in Australia. We must establish the base case and answer, on the basis of probabilities, how will climate change manifest itself in urban, regional and rural Australia.
This likely physical future then allows us to evaluate impact, the likely changes to:

  • agricultural systems
  • water resources, marine environments, natural reserves
  • small communities—those in arid lands, forests and those on coasts
  • regional towns
  • major cities
  • property, financial, insurance and energy markets.

This is not a comprehensive list and so a simple example will perhaps make the point. The then Department of Agriculture and Water Resources submitted to the Thodey review that: ‘climate projections for Australia predict large changes in future rainfall including lower rainfall in southern Australia and more severe droughts and floods.’

This is code for saying that our existing systems of agriculture—dryland and irrigated—are not sustainable. What we grow, how we grow it and where, will all change.

Research by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences shows that climate change is already having a material impact on Australian farmers:

  • Changes to the climate since 2000 have reduced average annual broadacre profit by 22 per cent, or around $18,600 per farm.
  • The impact was most pronounced in the cropping sector, where average annual profit declined by 35 per cent or $70,900 for a typical cropping farm, which represents an annual national loss of $1.1 billion.

The corollary is that rural and regional Australia will change. Communities will become smaller or larger; become extinct or flourish. And a good government would be thinking about how best to facilitate structural change.

In this country we correctly decided that we should not provide infinite taxpayer monies to inefficient shoe, television and car manufacturers. Rather, successive governments lowered tariff barriers and eliminated industry protection, and assisted individuals out of the old industries. Rather than leaving all to the law of the jungle and the bleak future of the scrapheap, governments facilitated structural change.

If we return to agriculture as our case study, the questions that we must ask include:

  • If drought is to become more frequent and more severe, precisely which areas will be most affected?
  • To what extent? What are the likely changes in rainfall and temperature?
  • What are the implications of drought that is more frequent and severe for different agricultural industries?
  • What are the implications of drought for water resources?
  • Can industries adjust to good health?
  • What industries are likely to become unsustainable?
  • Should the processes of adjustment and change—that is, the management of risk—be facilitated by government? If so, in what extent and to way?
  • Should all communities in remote, rural and regional Australia be supported and assisted? If so, to what extent? If not, how do we assist individuals to manage change?

Finally we come to the truth that as we address symptoms of climate change then so too we must tackle causes. Our starting point here is that we should systematically plan to reduce our emissions—and the best, least costly way is by pricing carbon.

But we cannot act alone here. Because Australia is not an island we are made vulnerable by the actions or inactions of the rest of the world. If the world does not change to reduce emissions, then we will be forced to adapt and adapt and adapt. We are vulnerable as a nation and adjusting will cost more than we currently know.

It follows that for Australia our priority must be to use our position of relative privilege to shift the international community in the direction that science, reason, evidence and humanity dictate.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER AND WARNING: This article takes as a reasonable given that humans have caused the climate to change and the planet to warm and that these changes, if not addressed, will have adverse consequences for the nation. Those who think otherwise are advised to read peer-reviewed scientific journals or reports that carefully reference such journals.

Chas Savage is the Chief Executive Officer of Ethos CRS. He is interested in policy, poetry and how citizens can best solve complex problems. Trained as an agricultural scientist and economist, he is not an expert in global warming and thinks on climate change we do best as a society by listening to those who are.

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