Two Pauls – Ehrlich and Gilding – on transformation v’s collapse

Is there a sea change in our attitudes? Just as many people may not understand exponential growth and its consequences are we also missing another fundamental change – the underpinnings for a transformed society?

Paul Gilding has just made a case that climate change success is at hand. He says:

There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory…. [We’re looking at] the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen. ….

This time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.

There’s plenty of technical corroborating evidence. Such evidence includes Los Angeles switching off coal powered electricity, China building more wind than coal power for the first time ever in 2012 and Ros Garnaut highlighting how Australian business is radically underestimating China’s commitment to low or zero carbon energy. However, be careful of any technical examples like this – you can’t necessarily extrapolate from a city or country case to a zero carbon society – there may be, for example, geophysical limits to global wind power.

Balancing the positive signs are the scales of our multiple challenges. On the physical side human emissions of greenhouse gas have locked in climate change. Culturally, our societies tend to focus on the present rather than ‘rationally’ accounting for future risk.

As Paul Ehrlich recently put it this is a huge stretch – hard scientific debate variously puts the chances of avoiding a collapse of civilization at 10 per cent (others may go higher).

We’re left holding simultaneously to seemingly irreconcilable and mutually contradictory perspectives. Thin chance v’s on the cusp of a transformation.

Funny thing is they are both true.

Picture: Paul Ehrlich Canberra March 21 2013 by Anthony Burton.


Australia is in the grip of “a once-in-20 or 30-year heatwave” with extremes over 40 degrees. Despite the heat, and the likelihood that there will be many more extreme events like this as climate change hits, the Australian media almost universally omits to mention greenhouse gas, global warming or climate change in its reporting. A quick search (1, 2 & 3) finds less than ten stories.

The consequences, of extreme heat, are usually mainstream media material. For example 370 people died from extreme heat in Victoria during the same week that 173 people died from the 2009 Black Saturday fires in the state.  The same report predicts that extreme heat in Melbourne could, without mitigation by 2050, kill over one thousand people in an event.

Numbers like these seem to be losing salience in with the Australian public, or at least our media.  The lack of reporting certainly enhances research that demonstrates fear won’t do it and views that “Our leaders and the community at large are still in denial (or studiously unaware) of the realities of global change

So what might do it? Beyond Denial: Managing the Uncertainties of Global Change from Australia 21 looks at this. In it:

Paul Gilding, the author of “The Great Disruption,” … argues that rather than a steady decline, the human world will, in the next one or two decades, experience shocks of such magnitude arising from our disordered economic system, climate change and peak oil, that they will call forth an emergency crisis response that will enable us to harness human ingenuity to craft a genuinely sustainable future for those humans who survive the shocks. 

There’s plenty more here but, of course, no simple solutions for complex entangled problems such as global warming.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald The Heat and Dry is On

2012 a perfect storm?

George Monbiot and Ross Gittins, an environmentalist and an economist, both have two related and compelling reveiws of 2012 trends.

Ross writes about Jeffrey Sachs’ evidence for “the four business gangs that run the US“. Sachs’s highlights how:

”corporate wealth translates into political power … into further wealth … Wealth begets power, and power begets wealth,” Part of this power “has played a notorious role in the fight to keep climate change off the US agenda” underwriting “a generation of anti-scientific propaganda to confuse the American people.”

George covers 2012 as “the year we did our best to abandon the natural world“:

Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead we’re on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast. 

Australia however may have bucked some these trends (ironically as the world’s leading coal exporter). Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke, perhaps a little optimistically, points out “in 2012 we returned the Murray Darling to health, became the world leader on protecting the oceans…“. Australia also introduced a carbon price in 2012 and, within the context of what Sachs and Monbiot outline, this is genuine progress.

What is different? Leadership perhaps? A more civil society? An economy that still supports a broader environmental debate? Regardless of the fact that we are clearly far from a successful sustainbility shift on the scales needed (e.g. see Beyond Denial: managing the uncertainties of global change) are there some pointers to come from Australia’s 2012? It’s not easy to generalise from such trends so comments welcome!

Image: Giant fish made entirely from discarded plastic bottles. Rio, UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

World in Transition, a Great Transformation

Looking at climate change and sustainability challenges it’s clear that individual action, our actions, are necessary. However we struggle when faced by scale and speed – a fast and revolutionary global shift is needed. How can any one person make a difference?

The German Advisory Council on Global Change puts individuals at the heart of a radical new ‘business basis‘.  They say:

“individual actors can play a far larger role in the transformation of social (sub-)systems than the one that has been accorded to them for quite some time”

The council, a scientific advisory body to the German government, in its beautifully written 400+ page report (World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability) rest the prospect of a ‘Great Transformation‘ on 4 pillars:

  1. knowledge (evidence) based, 
  2. individual actors and change agents, 
  3. a proactive state (governments) and, 
  4. establishment of effective global governance. 

We’ve seen unsustainable societies – such as the USSR, communist eastern Europe, Libya and Egypt -fall in recent times. Today’s unsustainable global carbon society could be similar but we have to actively plan for our future.

The council compares our the change we’ll undergo to only two in human history – the neolithic (farming)  and the industrial revolutions. The difference is it requires consious guidance rather than the evolutionary change seen during these previous revolutions.

This ‘Great Transformation’, then, is by no means an automatism. It very much depends on ‘organising the unplannable’ if it is to succeed within the available tight timeframe. This is unique in history, as the ‘world’s great transformations’ of the past were the result of gradual evolutionary change.

And the Council’s take home line? It “has reached the ultimate conviction that the great transformation into a low-carbon society is not just necessary, but really feasible.”

More Love, Less Loss

We struggle with the word biodiversity. While deeply insightful and meaningful it’s a whole system, a new word, a multifaceted problem and anything but ‘cute and cuddly’.

So it’s highly refreshing to see Futerra take up the challenge of communicating this and generating positive action:

Imagine the incredible complexity that makes up life on earth, bottled up for mass appeal. What if the word ‘biodiversity’ represented not just a set of scientific concepts, but emotions of awe and wonder? Could biodiversity communications then trigger worldwide action to protect it?

We believe so. We’ve explored the psychological evidence to find out what actually drives people to conserve nature. We’ve taken a critical look at today’s biodiversity messages to see whether they align with the emotions of the people they are aimed at. And we’ve combined these with the principles of branding, not simply logos and slogans, but a coherent set of values and promises which will trigger action. The results are both provocative and exciting. They challenge us to deliver a new nature message.

Branding Biodiversity argues we’ll take action out of love. More Love, Less Loss. Back this up with the reasons for action ($s) and there’s a story for change.

There’s a lot that back this up such as Fear Won’t do It, the gap between knowledge and action and Futerra’s earlier Climate Change work.

A transformational society

This blog has been very quiet while I’ve been reaching into the evidence. In my work at the Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, there are an array of outstanding scientists. The evidence produced by this work is transformational. However, at the same time we simply – individually and collectively – do not act in our own self interest or on evidence. That is don’t act on this evidence at anything like the rate that would make rational sense.

There are many obvious environment examples from climate change to species survival but, money is often cited as the answer for why such action does not occur. This is something of a paradox as we will also ignore risk free financial returns that is actions we can take that will make us a profit. These are often profits that also create positive environmental outcomes.

This paradox challenges the idea of humans acting “rationally“, to maximise profit. New economics writer Eric Beinhocker recently summarised this succinctly. He “does not accept the orthodox theory that has dominated economics for the past several decades that humans are perfectly rational, markets are perfectly efficient, institutions are optimally designed and economies are self-correcting equilibrium systems that invariably find a state that maximises social welfare. Social scientists working in the new economics tradition argue that this theory has failed empirically on many points and that the 2008 financial crisis is only the latest and most obvious example.”

If you accept that humans often don’t act in a rational financial manner it’s then a small step to also challenge the idea that we’re not acting on environmental evidence simply because of the cost. And to start looking for a decent map of what creates effective action from evidence.

Effective action from evidence, and the lack of it, is the focus of the next few blog posts.

Image: Earth from above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Biodiversity to slow Climate Change

Photo by ratschan - Hövsgöl Shore West

Climate Change will have a significant impact on many of the world’s plants and animals. While we intuitively think that the reverse is true, that is vegetation may slow the impacts of such change (in addition to its ability to sequester carbon), this World Bank report contains a great case study.

Hövsgöl National Park contains the ancient Lake Hövsgöl – known as “the blue pearl of Mongolia”. It is about 200 km southwest of Lake Baikal, in mountainous northern with long -40° winters. However the forest edge is retreating impacted by uncontrolled grazing by domestic animals – sheep, goats, and cattle – on the mountain slopes around the lake and the gathering of wood for fuel.

The loss of forest exposes the ground to sunlight and removes different plant covers that were insulating the permafrost. Preserving forest will slow the rate of permafrost melt and help to protect Mongolia’s water resources, biodiversity, and natural ecosystems.

The World Bank points out such lessons are relevant across Eastern Europe, Russia and the northern China mountains. Protecting these resources is not just for species but provides significant economic benefits.

Photo: ratschan – Hövsgöl West Shore. Read more in the report (pdf) on page 12.

Leadership on Climate Change – 2 minute youtube pitches

Action on climate change continues to challenge everyone. As Australia inches closer to a price on carbon Annabel Crabb (ABC’s Chief Online Political Correspondent) asks six leading Australian’s if anyone really has the courage to act.


Senator Penny Wong takes on this challenge. She was Australia’s Climate Change minister through our first two attempts to introduce a carbon trading scheme. Now the finance minister, she talks about how climate change exposes the shortcomings in our political system. We need to cooperate for the long term. The facts about climate change are obvious… yet they’ve become irrelevant. Watch her short opening pitch.


The full line up is Niki Vincent (Leaders Institute) introducing the forum and talking about the adaptive leadership challenge we face. She highlights “climate change means giving up on some things . But in such a shift there are many opportunities for liberation and creativity”


Andrew Stock (Origin Energy) is the first panellist to take on the challenge. He has no doubt that our society can tackle climate change head on. Previously the Marshall Plan rebuilt whole countries. Imagine what we can do like this to address this problem.


David Klingberg (Centrex Metals) focuses, in part, on the need to fund adaptation. We urgently need to review our funding priorities. He’s followed by Senator Wong “hardest action for politician is to ask people to act now to make tomorrow better” (video above).


Professor Mike Young (Environment Institute) highlights how counter intuitive we are about climate change. “Why would any nation go out and subsidise the destruction of the planet?” he asks. And we perversely almost ignore more significant price impacts, e.g. from much larger currency exchange price movements.


David Knox (Santos) puts forward the numbers on change. Santos action demonstrates the potential as does his own. As the company CEO he is nevertheless in part motivated and challenged by his children to make a difference.


Stephen Yarwood (Lord Mayor Adelaide) finishes the 2 minute leadership summaries with a another personal perspective. Am I being authentic? Ask your children, ask your parents. That’s why he drives an electric car and supports a carbon tax.


The full panel dissuasion with audience questions is also online – watch to the end of question time for a most pertinent and apt pacific island summary. Climate change is already impacting the questioner’s islands. People are currently already losing their land and culture as a result.


I get the last say summarising some of our panels discussion and some of paradoxes – do we really have the leadership courage? While other countries talk about green growth and deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts in Australia we are fractured. We have a highly polarised and divisive community debate.

Resolving climate change paradoxes – do we really have the leadership courage?

While other countries talk about green growth and deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts in Australia we are fractured. We have a highly polarised and divisive community debate.

Last night the Environment Institute and the Leaders Institute of South Australia took us beyond the division with a high profile team of panellists.

Our question – what leadership is needed to act on climate change?

The common thread on the night was vision – holding it, enabling it, moving our society to focus more on the future. However, the fact that we don’t currently have this is quite a paradox. It is manifestly in our common self-interest to act on this issue. Yet the fear and pain that people may feel seems quite out of proportion to the common explanation – financial costs.

Niki Vincent (Leaders Institute) put this succinctly introducing the forum and talking about adaptive leadership:

We are all going to have to give some stuff up. And I don’t mean the equivalent of the cost of a cup of tea in a café a day – or any of the other common economic measures about climate change.

The theme is picked up by Andrew Stock (Origin Energy). He highlights on climate change we experience news dominated by fear. At the same time we have 1,000 MW of solar installed by households across Australia. These are people acting from their hip pocket.

It’s a classic confusion. Stephen Yarwood (Lord Mayor Adelaide) illustrates it from the perspective of a business worried about action on climate change. The business person put to him that this means reducing car parking spaces and potentially trade (fewer shoppers). But, what the businesses really want is more people walking past shops, something you don’t necessarily get with more car parks and traffic.

Professor Mike Young (Environment Institute) also highlights this disproportionate fear. Changes in the Australian exchange rate, and costs caused by it for exporting industries, are massive compared to the very small (one to two per cent) climate price impact. But one is hot button topic and the exchange rate is almost disregarded.

This bizarre disjunction is mirrored with the business community and perspectives of big business attitudes. David Knox (Santos) talks about there being far more common ground between business and government than people are led to believe.

And all this is going on while we’re clearly feeling the impacts of climate change – now, as David Klingberg (Centrex Metals) points out.

But it is very hard to translate this knowledge and transcend the fears. As Senator Penny Wong explains:

It’s very hard for politicians to argue ‘people should act now for the benefit of the future’

Senator Wong also reminds us about the fragility of reform and consensus. It should never be underestimated how easy such consensus can fail. Annabel Crabb (ABC and the forum’s facilitator) ably illustrates this reflecting on how in just 4 years Australia has moved from both major political parties agreeing to, ‘a pile of political roadkill, a confused and hostile electorate’.

The common call from the whole group is to make time to dream, to vision, to talk about the future.

This work needs to be continuous to enable such change.

Download the full podcast of the event here.

Leadership in a Changing Climate. Does anyone really have the courage to take it on?

In Australia, we struggle to get the climate change discussion past immediate hip-pocket lines. Our public debate isn’t about the sort of future we want. Rather it’s much more around the fear of change and potential pain.

Tonight (Thursday 29 September 2011) some leading voices from South Australia try to step out of the immediate, lead our thoughts to possible futures, engage our hopes and potentials and, help think through the leadership needed to answer this pressing challenge.

This is at a Leadership and Climate Change Forum. Annabel Crabb, it’s moderator, points out we’re living in a modern day tragedy:

On climate change, this nation [Australia] essentially had consensus in 2007; our politicians applied themselves diligently to the situation and four short years later we’ve got a pile of political roadkill, a confused and hostile electorate and two protagonists who nobody likes, shouting themselves hoarse while their offsiders go through each others’ bins…

So how do we get past this? Panelist Senator Penny Wong says:

We have to continue to talk to the Australian people, talk with the Australian people about why action on climate change is important, why we can’t just let this go, why we can’t just say, ‘Let’s leave this for someone else to deal with.’

For panelist David Klingberg some of this is a mix of government and personal leadership:

I resent the government typecasting emitters as polluters; if you want collaboration it is not the right way to go about it. … In some ways I’m providing leadership by supporting what the Commonwealth has done with some modifications, the problem is with the industry there are a lot of people with vested interests.

In these quotes – and the longer articles they come from – there are many paradoxes. Conflicting positions that seemingly defy logic. Niki Vincent from the Leaders Institute of SA (which is organising tonight’s forum along with the Environment Institute) helps us to step through some of these issues.

Climate change is an adaptive problem – not a technical problem. Adaptive problems are tangled, complex, and involve multiple systems. Solving them requires new learning, creativity, innovation and new patterns of behaviour – changes of hearts and minds. Painful adjustments.

Another paradox is we have compelling evidence that action is in our interests. But our society is seemingly cognitively avoiding connecting with this evidence. We would say that we want a better life. But we don’t act to create it at anything like the rate that makes rational sense.

These conflicts and contradictions are inherent to any complex problem. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t solve them even though we will make many mistakes while doing so.

There’s a high powered panel discussing this tonight.
The livestream is here at 6pm Adelaide time and these are the instructions if you need help. Panel is:

  • Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the Gillard Labor Government,
  • Andrew Stock, Director, Executive Projects, Origin Energy Ltd
  • David Klingberg, Chairman of Centrex Metals and former chairman of the Premier’s Climate Change Council.
  • The Right Honourable Stephen Yarwood, Lord Mayor of Adelaide
  • Professor Mike Young, Executive Director of the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute
  • David Knox, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Santos Ltd

All facilitated by Annabel Crabb – political commentator and the ABC’s chief online political writer.