Ian Lowe as the Guardian of the Environment — Part 1

Professor Ian Lowe has been an environmentalist for a long time — indeed, I can’t quickly think of anyone  who has been involved in that movement as long as him. He has written a lot, talked a lot and campaigned a lot, and is easy to read and to understand. He is currently the President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and patron of  Sustainable Population Australia. I mention him because two people have separately suggested that I read his recent speech to the National Press Club. So I did, and found that my tolerance for environmental lobbyists seems to be declining. It was a long speech, and I’ll comment on it in two posts.

I’m not at all opposed to environmental concern, to conservation, to leaving a small footprint, to recycling, or to planting trees. Like most of the people I know, I’ve been doing some of these things for a long while. What bugs me is the environmentalists’ characteristically high sense of urgency and alarm, as though these matters ought to be the top priority for everyone, especially for governments. With every respect to those who think so, I think that for most Australians — indeed for most human beings — they are not as important as finding somewhere to live, having enough food every day, having a job, and sorting out who we are. That doesn’t make the environment trivial, but it does mean that it has to have a lower place in the order of things.

Of course, you can create scary stories to show how important the environment is. Extrapolate today’s population far enough and there will be just one square metre for each human being. If all the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melted, the seas would be 20 metres higher, or whatever the scary figure is. If we go on dumping garbage as we are doing (or used to do, at least in my city) there will be a mountain of it a mile high. And so on.

I don’t know why the Press Club invited him to speak, but in the text I have says he asks ‘what it will take for Australia’s leaders to see through the myth of endless economic growth and start to tackle the ecological credit crisis’. Now I’m no growth fetishist, but it is plain for anyone to see that Australians like their high standard of living, and it is based on their having jobs that return a decent income. There are more people in Australia every year, partly through immigration, partly through natural growth, so we need some kind of growth to deliver the jobs. If we don’t have growth there follows a kind of regression: people without jobs need welfare, but when there are fewer people to provide the taxation, taxes must go up, or benefits down, or both. If the regression is sustained, we will have economic depression. We know about depressions, or at least we’ve read about them (my parents, now dead, did live through the last one). I don’t know what Ian Lowe means by ‘the myth of endless economic growth’, but I can’t see any Australian government’s deciding that it will put growth on hold for a few years while it deals with our ‘econologal credit crisis’.

What is that, anyway? Apparently, ‘We face a GEC – a Global Ecological Crisis. Our natural assets are stressed as never before’. He wants a new business approach that doesn’t ‘destabilise the climate’. It’s odd, that phrase, because it is not clear to me that our climate has ever been ‘stable’ — or, at least, I have no idea what that means or how he or I could tell what a stable climate was. After all, there have been floods, fires, heat waves, cold snaps and  droughts in our recorded history since its beginning in 1788.

How do we know that our natural assets are stressed? Lowe says that ‘Four consecutive State of the Environment reports show all the serious problems getting steadily worse’. I thought I should look up the most recent one, and see what it said. On my reading, that of 2011 offers a somewhat more cheerful finding. ‘There have been significant advances in many aspects of environmental management over the past decade’, the executive summary begins, and later it reports that ‘much of Australia’s environment and heritage is in good shape, or improving’. It worries about drought, but that was before the last three years of solid rain and floods.

There follows some familiar stuff about greenhouse gas emissions and the problems that are said to come through a changing climate, that in turn is said to come from our not doing enough about emissions (all of that I regard as quasi-political, if not quasi-religious). If you set that aside (since it is not about the present environment, and is highly disputable) then the report offers a balanced view, as it ought. After all, compared with fifty years ago there are many more national parks, including a marine park, there is a lot more conservation farming going, Australians generally are aware of the need to look after the environment in which they live, and seem to be much less careless about it than they used to be.

And a very recent CSIRO and ANU paper (which could not have been considered in the 2011 report) shows that the increase in carbon dioxide over the past generation has led to a greener earth, since carbon dioxide is of course the basic plant food. And my understanding is that forest cover in some of the planet is now growing rather than declining. On the whole, I would have thought that we aren’t doing a bad job in repairing some of the damage we have done, and we learn more every year about how to do that better. I expect to see that improvement continue.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll consider what Ian Lowe suggests that we all ought to do about this ‘crisis’.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Steven Cork says:

    Don, As an author of the 2011 State of the Environment Report, I have to point out that you have quoted very selectively from it. That report also expresses strong concern about degradation of soils, to the point that irreversible thresholds could soon be reached that could significantly reduce Australia’s capacity to produce food and maintain water quality into the future. I must also question you apparent assumption that the state of the environment is not strongly related to human well-being. I agree with you about the importance of “finding somewhere to live, having enough food every day, having a job, and sorting out who we are”, but that is precisely why some of us are concerned about environmental degradation: it potentially affects all of those things in very significant ways.

    As an academic, you appreciate the important of stating one’s assumptions and explaining how they have been reached. I thank you for stating yours, but it worries me that you have justified them with very selective use of information from a number of sources. For example, only citing the greening effect of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide while overlooking the many other implications is quite mischievous, in my view.

  • PeterE says:

    The body language is interesting the joyful, almost beatific smile, as he warns of our imminent demise from the superiority of his high moral ground. No, I am sorry; the Emperor has no clothes.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    For Steven Cork:

    My interest in the Report was simply to see whether or not Professor Lowe had used it correctly. It seemed to me that the Report was more balanced than he had indicated. That was all. Are you saying that the sections I quoted are wrong?

    • Steven Cork says:

      Not wrong, just selective.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Of course, but then, wasn’t Professor Lowe selective too? After all, he said that all the reports show the serious problems getting steadily worse. But that’s not what the 2011 report says, as I pointed out. It’s not my job to do an analysis of the Report, only to ensure that what Professor Lowe said had real force to it. It didn’t seem to.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    One assumption that may explain your position on climate change – in addition to your scholarly pursuit of the literature – is your statement: “Australians
    like their high standard of living, and it is based on their having jobs that
    return a decent income”. Australians are comfortable with their
    present lifestyle and this should not be jeopardized.

    On Q&A last week Cory Bernardi, for one, endorsed your views, especially in relation to coal exports and the coal industry; similarly, Michael Stutchbury, agreed with your sentiments above. It is hard to accept that the Coalition has a genuine policy to address climate change and they, too, generally support the statement above.

    In contrast, Bill McKibben was aghast at this type of thinking: he actually predicted that the damage done by climate change, once it gathers more momentum, will exceed the damage caused by WW1, WW2; and he indicated that most Australians are becoming disenchanted with droughts and floods.

    Bill McKibben is acquainted with the scientific literature and is in no doubt about the urgency of action; he is also shrewdly attuned to the economic realities, addressing superannuation and fund reps in Sydney during the week. His message: move your funds away from coal and don’t assist these dirty industries to add another 4% or so to increasingly dangerous atmospheric levels.

    Many in the audience were impressed with Linda Burney who said: Let’s just step back a minute and think of our the world we wish to leave our grandchildren, the environmental legacy we want to pass on. Indigenous thinking and strong values about the environment – dare I say it.

    I listened to Ian Lowe at a conference many years ago and his thinking, commitment and scientific knowledge were evident and he has been, in my view, a positive voice in Australian life for a long time.

    It’s interesting that Greg Hunt’s thesis thinking has changed through immersion in the political realities. It is interesting, too, that your disciplinary background has been in political science and is now strongly focused on the scientific thinking and research around climate change.

    One of the obvious conclusions from the Q&A program is that we accept Bill and Linda’s perspective and support critical action on climate change because our present material lifestyle, our wine and sherry, our epicurean cooking (all of which I appreciate) will not only be jeopardized but possibly swept away in a mighty avalanche.

    Prophets of doom have always flourished in biblical proportions but if their message becomes a reality, then woe and hell tidings to those who lured us into a false sense of security. In contrast, if those who oppose false prophets are turn out to be correct, then they will be lauded and the good times and the soft music will continue unabated. The difficulty is that the stakes are high and the music of the bugle is somewhat muffled.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Peter:

    It’s hard to know how to reply to your long and thoughtful post, But I’ll try!

    First, I didn’t say that the present lifestyle of Australians ‘should not be jeopardised’. My point was that no Australian government is likely to put economic growth on hold while it tackles what Professor Lowe sees an an ecological crisis. Now it might do so, if there were clear and compelling reasons. But the evidence is neither clear nor compelling, and governments in most countries are backing away from the notion that global warming is the greatest moral challenge of the century, or whatever Kevin Rudd said that sounds rather like that.

    Second, that Bill McKibben doesn’t agree is neither here nor there. We each of us have a responsibility to decide what we think about this issue. It’s fine to accept what the orthodoxy says — we all do that one many things — but it is not fine to insist that others do so too, or that someone who accepts the orthodoxy must have right and truth on his/her side. Science doesn’t work like that, otherwise we would all still think that the sun revolved around the earth.

    Third, the dissenters about global warming have grandchildren too, and care for them. As much as I like Linda Burney (whom I have known for some years) her advice has emotional rather than logical force to it.

    Finally, our present lifestyle could be ended through a number of external factors, and even through an internal depression. The choice, as I see it, is not between doing the right thing and selfishness, but between rational attention to facts and argument, and accepting what others think.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    Thanks, Don, for your response to my last posting which was really just a quick-fire follow up to Q&A last week, especially the rather alarming image presented by Bill McKibben who suggested that climate change impacts will exceed those of WW1, the Great Depression and WW11.

    The more dispassionate questions that are of concern to many Australians are:

    1. “Is there clear and compelling evidence that greenhouse gases from human activities are causing global warming, as well as increasing climatic impacts in terms of heat-waves, floods and rain?

    2. Depending on findings from the scientific evidence, what actions (if any) should countries adopt to minimize greenhouse emissions?

    Like many people around the world, I am concerned about issues arising in climate change discussions but I lack the capabilities to independently analyse the scientific literature and derive valid conclusions. In that sense I have been reading your blog postings from time to time with interest and recognize that you are genuinely seeking to separate out the emotional and quasi-religious aspects from your assessments; that your conclusions are evidence-based, derived from the scientific literature and that in accord with a time-honored skeptical approach to scientific theory, you are certainly not going to accept orthodox views unless the evidence is compelling.

    The year 2000 bug was proposed as a huge expensive business problem facing our world and there was considerable alarm at the time but the reality never eventuated. Could it not be the same with climate change? Looking back on alarming phenomena that never eventuated, we can only appreciate those who spoke the truth and did not contribute to unnecessary urgency, fear and anxiety.

    Probably for most of us who can’t assess the scientific literature independently, it becomes a question of trust. So we give credence to people such as Al Gore, Tim Flannery, Ian Lowe, Bill McKibben; or organisations such as the CSIRO or the US National Academy of Sciences; or to consensus statements such as: of the comprehensive analysis of peer-reviewed climate research to date over 97% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming [http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024].

    Many also try to make sense of empirical data without scientific rigor. Our impressions are based on news of seemingly increasing severe flooding and bushfires in Australia, cracking ice caps, tornados in the US, opaque skies in many major cities of the world, tsunamis and earthquakes so that a doomsday philosophy builds up and takes on a life of its own.

    The politics of climate change is imbued with a quasi-religious fervor, as you indicate, and climate change conferences, climate change reversals [backtracking from the greatest moral challenge of our times], ABC/The Australian differences and clear boundaries between the Government and Coalition, only compound the dilemma for many Australians. We yearn for ‘certain certainties’.

    Throughout history the consensus/orthodox views have not always been correct and certainly the skeptical approach has been prescient on major scientific break-throughs. So your postings and thinking on these issues is of considerable interest but in terms of enhanced trust in your findings, it would be great to see you out of retirement, heading up a team of fifty or sixty researchers in different countries many of whom would be enmeshed in data collection at the very pointy end. I hope you are still upright on your chair after reading this last sentence because one only has one life and there is only so much one person can do!

  • Truth says:

    I see little here except opinion, surrounded by ignorance, narrow-mindedness and a superior attitude. Please read the scientific literature, or at least some science-communication before thinking you have the right to comment on such things. In this article, you promote uncertainty were there is certainty, a local importance in global issues, and the misuse and unfounded extrapolations of scientific research. I only hope that your readership understands the difference between ‘uninformed opinion’ and ‘fact’. Will this post make it past the moderator…?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    For Truth:

    I’m sorry that all you can see here is’ ignorance, narrow-mindedness and a superior attitude’. If you’ve read any of my other posts on ‘climate change’ (let alone the material in Writings), you will see that I have indeed read widely in the scientific literature. What do you think I have missed? More importantly, what do you think is ‘certain’ in all this, given that ‘certain’ is a word that scientists do not much use, at least, those whom I have known over the last fifty years. I’m not aware of any certainty.

    I’m happy to engage with you, but you don’t give me much to go on!

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