Thursday, July 17, 2008

Conserving systemic failure in the face of climate change

Understanding current governance arrangements as 'structure determined systems' explains why politicians will continue to fail citizens in a climate change world

Yesterday the Australian Government released its much heralded Green Paper on emissions trading. Media reports generally suggest that the government has it right - in political terms! But what of other criteria? Beyond the headlines most commentators would agree that what is proposed does not go far enough quickly enough to address what the science is already telling us. Age journalist Ken Davidson makes the point that:

'There is a complete disjuncture between the green paper and the recent scientific discussion.'

Less commented upon is the moral imperative - what actions should a government be taking in relation to its citizens, to non-human 'nature', and thus future generations? Recognising that in regard to climate change no nation is an island, what can we expect of governments that run on an eighteenth and nineteenth century model of 'government' and, in Australia, a dysfunctional Federation formed over 100 years ago?

At an emotional level this Green Paper is a disappointment. Insightful systemic questions do not seem to be present. As with many I am distressed by the intellectual and political framing of the Green Paper. It is what one might have expected of a Howard Government forced into a corner on climate change - it says more about extant power relations in Australia than it does about anything else. It is about first-order change, or what Russ Ackoff calls 'doing the wrong thing righter rather than doing the right thing, even if not well'. Consequently the Green Paper has many elements designed to create the conditions for ongoing systemic failure - these include sending the wrong price signals to consumers and producers based on their carbon consumption or production and thus deferring the transition of Australia to an innovative, low carbon economy. Distortion in investment and thus market opportunities based on new business will be held back. The total subsidies to the large polluters, especially the coal industry, should be front page news but it is not. These companies, many of them multi-nationals, have known that change would come sooner or later yet they continue to hold Australian's to ransom (it is common knowledge that senior bureaucrats involved in Australia's climate change negotiations in the Howard era have left to join big resources companies on fat salaries).

The Green Paper makes the point that the bulk of Australian emissions come from electricity generation, transport and agriculture. Agriculture is excluded for the time being and in systemic terms there are other missing elements - the CO2 output from Australia's fossil fuel exports, the cost of CO2 in supply and marketing chains that are outside national boundaries and of course air travel.

The Rudd government seems inclined to move in a number of areas to achieve national coordination- something that is much needed, even though the devil will be in the practice that emerges! A test for the government will be whether there are meaningful moves arising from the COAG process for a national energy demand management strategy coupled with energy efficiency technologies and institutional arrangements? In a climate change world, uncertainty and complexity will be the main characteristics. In these circumstances local and adaptive or self-organising arrangements are likely to be more resilient and viable than centralised systems. This understanding creates a policy imperative for decentralised, community based energy systems to begin to replace some of the current centralised systems.

In the face of power dynamics and structure determined systems mounting alternative arguments, regardless of their rationality, makes little progress. So what is a structure determined system? A trite answer is that it is the system that delivers the politics we have. Let me give two analogies. A car has only two ways of moving - forward or reverse - because the design of the gear box structures what is, or is not possible. My other analogy comes from my visit to Dubbo Zoo last Sunday. The meerkats were the most popular exhibit with my nephew - and this was to do with their particular behaviour. For those who do not know, meerkats are social animals living in a large group . They have evolved social behaviours and roles - such as lookouts - to protect the group from predators. Despite the new context (meerkats are from South Africa not Australia) this behaviour was very much in evidence even though it is likely that all the meerkats were born in Australia where the same range of predators are not present (though eagles and foxes might be a possibility). It was thus fascinating to see how the meerkats reacted when a flock of galahs or cockatoos (Australian parrots) flew overhead. Of course the meerkats did what meerkats do - they too can be understood as structure determined systems.

So just like meerkats politicians do what politicians do because they are part of a structure determined system. In this regard three (or four) year terms for governments are just one manifestation of a much more complex situation. Utility companies that deliver social goods - such as water or energy - in which the main measure of performance is profit derived from sales of water or energy also exemplify the limitations of a structure determined system. In today's world the main social benefit from water and energy comes from how little is used and the efficiency of its use.

The end result is that we have the Green Paper we have - it is not fit for circumstances because, in a climate change world, our overall governance systems are incapable of managing the complexity that has to be managed into an uncertain future.