Many years ago I was made a Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, for reasons that had more to do with higher education than with architecture or town planning. I served on a judging panel or two, and tried to make myself useful. Some time later I became the Chairman of the National Capital Authority, which increased my interest in planning and enhanced my fascination with cities, especially developing ones. So I read what the Planning Institute of Australia (it dropped the ‘Royal’ not long after I became an Hon. Fellow) published in its journal, and profited much thereby.
Towards the end of last year I discovered that the PIA had published a document called Planning in a Changing Climate, which began in this forthright way: The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) accepts the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activity is changing our global climate, that irreversible change is already locked in and that the planning profession must address the reality of a changing climate.
Woah, there! I thought. I didn’t know that such a statement was being prepared, and certainly I had not been asked my opinion about a draft, which one might expect was the proper process in a professional body. So I read on.
PIA acknowledges that the effects of climate change are already being felt and that a changing climate poses significant challenges to our ecosystems, communities and economy… PIA notes that there is near-unanimous agreement among climate scientists that human-caused global warming is real and poses risk for human activity and natural systems… PIA recognises the need for urgent and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the need for complementary mitigation and adaptation strategies for reducing and managing the risks presented by climate change.
Wow! This is the orthodoxy, pure and simple. Now it is true that planners need to know that if there is a problem that applies to everyone they can rely on some agreed principles with which to address the problem. Indeed, the Statement goes on to spell out those principles, which are innocuous enough, though they bring in the word ‘resilience’, about which more anon. Eventually I thought I ought to write to someone, in this case to the new President of the NSW Division, Marjorie Ferguson, in whose journal, New Planner, I first read the Statement. Mine was a polite and simple response that questioned some aspects of the Statement.
The Statement says, correctly, that various levels of government have adopted policies that are in response to the view that human activities are the main cause of increasing global temperature, but it will clear to you that none of them have done so with any real force. The reason is straightforward. Our whole society depends absolutely on reliable, cheap electricity, and coal is the basis of about 73 per cent of it, with natural gas making up another 13 percent and hydro about 7 per cent. Renewables are tiny in comparison, and will be tiny for at least thirty years unless someone solves the storage problem and the intermittency of both wind and solar. No government is going to do anything drastic to affect the basis of our civilisation.
The Statement talks of ‘the reality of a changing climate’, and then its risks, but doesn’t say what the reality is or what the risks are. I certainly agree that ‘the planning profession needs to strengthen its understanding of climate-related issues’, but it won’t be helped in doing so by this Statement, which is simply empty of argument and evidence. Given the figures above, is the PIA seriously suggesting that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a priority? It would mean reducing the supply of reliable electricity to everyone, including hospitals, schools and factories. How would you propose doing this? Are the framers of the Statement aware that, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris the other day, that if the USA simply shut down its entire industrial base, you would not see any appreciable lowering of global temperature?
There was a little more in this vein, and towards the end I added the kind of warning I feel should go to every such organisation. Dealing with political expectations within the electorate, which is where all the fuss about greenhouse gas emissions and caring for the environment has come from, is a job for political parties… I belong to a number of academies and professional groups. I think they are always well advised not to enter the realm of political advice or pleading, which is essentially what this Statement does.
Well, President Marjorie, or whoever handles her email, didn’t acknowledge my contribution, let alone respond to it. I’m sure no president wants to deal with letters like mine once they have made a decision. But I didn’t feel that ignoring what I wrote was particularly professional, and left it at that. I do feel some sympathy for planners. They are constantly being told by governments that they must take account of this or that new factor, and it may well have been that the PIA felt that it should get in first, on the assumption that State and Federal Governments would go down the ‘climate change’ road together. I see no sign of that actually happening. Indeed, I don’t see any government doing anything of consequence in this area, and in a later essay I’ll look at some of the reasons that make me think that the waning of the AGW orthodoxy may be speeding up.
But the March issue of New Planner has made ‘Resilience’ its theme. Now what is ‘resilience’? Well, it’s a term psychologists use about people who are able to recover quickly from adverse circumstances and events. It is now being applied to communities too, and Sydney seems to have been asked to be one of the world’s hundred resilient cities. Resilience is about surviving and thriving, regardless of the challenge. I looked hard on the website, but I couldn’t see ‘climate change’ as part of the ‘challenge’ that cities have to face.
In the New Planner’s resilience theme, too, there is not much reference to anything about ‘climate change’, though there are nods to environmental and social sustainability without which there can be no economic sustainability, and an article whose authors seem unaware that food production has greatly increased, in part because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I’m not sure that anyone has yet provided a workable definition of ‘sustainability’, and I’m beginning to think that ‘resilience’ is yet another buzzword that enables some of us to go forward on the happy assumption that we know what we are talking about and that it makes real sense.
For all that, it was good to see that, having introduced its new Statement on ‘climate change’, the PIA is taking up instead the cause of ‘resilience’. Our large urban areas already accommodate 94 per cent of our population, and managing them and devising ways to make them better is a real task for planners. Dealing with the fantasy of catastrophic climate change is not.