Climate change, Environment, Natural resource management

50 – Parallels between dryland salinity and climate change

There is a remarkable number of similarities and parallels between climate change internationally and dryland salinity in Australia. They include the way that the seriousness of both have often been exaggerated, the ineffectiveness of policies intended to address each issue, the large scale of response needed for prevention, and the long lags from taking action to observing a response.

Last week I attended a conference in Victoria BC (Canada) on economic aspects of climate change. As a small part of my presentation I made the point that, in a number of ways, the Australian experience with dryland salinity is remarkably similar to the international situation with climate change. Indeed the parallels between the two issues are striking. For example, consider the following.

The likely impacts and seriousness of both salinity and climate change have often been exaggerated. In any case, priorities should not depend solely on the projected impacts, but on the benefits and costs (not just financial) of proposed actions. Previously, people in Australia tended to focus on the seriousness of projected impacts of salinity but didn’t look hard at the effectiveness or expense of proposed actions. Similarly, the public debate on climate change seems to focus almost entirely on its impacts and not at all on the benefits and costs of possible responses to it.

The policies put in place for dryland salinity in Australia have been badly designed and will fall far short of meeting their objectives. The international policy response to climate change, the Kyoto protocol, is predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (its strongest advocate!) to have such a minute impact on temperatures over the course of a century that it would not be detectable.

In both cases, the scale of change in human behaviour and economic activity that would be needed to significantly prevent the problem is very great. The policy responses have not nearly come to grips with this. They are like using a really, really expensive umbrella to ward off a tornado.

The core policies for salinity have been woefully neglectful of investment in development of new technologies that would be commercially attractive. They have assumed (incorrectly) that suitable technologies already exist. Similarly, the level of investment in developing renewable energy technologies is miniscule compared to the projected costs of Kyoto compliance. In both cases the hope is that other policy measures will prompt innovation, but I think a more direct investment in innovative R&D would be much cheaper and more effective.

Both problems are slow to develop, and the benefits of preventative actions taken now will tend to occur only after long lags.

There is a lot of momentum in the projected development of both salinity and climate change. They will be very hard to stop.

Adapting to/living with salinity has proven to be one of the key responses. So it will be with climate change.

The experts in salinity used to be predominantly from one technical discipline area, hydrogeology. For climate change it is climatology. Balanced and effective prescriptions for action in response to complex environmental problems depend on the involvement of a range of disciplines. Well-intentioned and concerned climatologists have had a field day in the debate, but their prescriptions should not go unquestioned by people with a broader policy perspective. Many people from other disciplines have serious concerns about the way that global climate modellers have controlled the agenda, the directions they have taken the policy debate, and the way that their results have been publicly represented.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the likely future extent of dryland salinity in some regions (e.g. in the state of Queensland). Uncertainty about the future of climate change is great too. Indeed it is much greater and more pervasive.

Of course there are many differences as well. One prominent one is that climate change affects everyone, whereas dryland salinity is more localised in its effects, and sometimes is completely localised. Another difference is that scientists have played a very prominent embedded role in the climate change bureaucracy (the IPCC), whereas they have had almost no role in framing dryland salinity policy up to this point.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia