Environment, Policy

123 – Crisis? What crisis?

Environmental policy in western democracies seems to be driven by crises. It is only when the clamour from scientists, the media and the public reaches a certain level of intensity that governments act. Think of climate change, the ozone hole, or the current water crisis in Australia. Is this a problem?

In my view, there are many adverse consequences from environmental policy being crisis-driven, as I’ll discuss below. I suspect that the nature of politics in a democracy mean that there is no way to avoid environmental policy being crisis-driven. At least while environmental concerns generally remain in the second rank of community and political concerns, below economic and social issues, there will always be a temptation for concerned people to dress things up in catastrophic clothes to attract attention. One cannot blame them; it can be so very effective. Problems that can arise when making policy in crisis mode include the following.


There is a tendency for crises to be treated as urgent, even when they are not. The risk is that we fail to take the time to do the required research and analysis to determine what responses will actually be effective, and cost-effective, or to develop more effective new responses. There is a tendency to rush into taking action, and to waste a lot of public money as a result.

An example close to my heart is salinity in Australia. In 1999-2000 this was built up into a national crisis, with the most extraordinary hyperbole appearing in a steady stream in the media. There was plenty of bio-physical and socio-economic research available at the time which should have guided policy design, but it was largely ignored in favour of doing something big and getting on with it. During program roll-out, there was a dominant focus on getting on-ground works implemented, and strong constraints on the use of program funds for research and analysis. As a result, most of the program budget of $1.4 billion has been spent to little effect.


In a crisis, there is a risk that the issue will become politicised, with each side of politics attempting to score political points off each other, rather than engaging in rational debate. Positions become entrenched. Debates are waged over trivialities rather than fundamentals.

In some cases, we see politicisation of the science. This doesn’t necessarily mean that scientists adopt positions that they judge will be appealing to their government. More likely, they will package their advice in politically appealing ways, and lose some of the balance and skepticism that are meant to be the hallmarks of science.

Crises can lead to group think, so that voices of dissent, or even voices calling for balance, can be ignored or demonised. It’s true that some of the voices of dissent are likely to be from people with a vested interest in the status quo, but for any complex environmental problem it’s also highly likely that there will be voices of dissent who have important contributions to make to the debate. If we dismiss all dissidents, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. When I first started making public comments about salinity that departed from the then-conventional wisdom, I got accused of all sorts of sins: being deluded, being a pessimist, being a self-promoter, being a Western Australian and being an economist. At the Second International Salinity Forum in Adelaide earlier this month, it was clear that the conventional wisdom has changed dramatically over the past eight years and I am no longer deluded. (I’m still Western Australian and an economist, though.)

The crisis might be exaggerated

The most striking recent example of an exaggerated crisis (not specifically environmental) was the Y2K Bug. Governments and the community were caught out in one of the all time great con jobs. Some of the people who were advising us about the crisis got rich.

There has also been a huge turn-around in the national perspective on salinity. If anything, it is in danger of being under-funded in the new policy regime. This may reflect a backlash against the scaremongering that went on eight or nine years ago. It suggests that scaremongering may work in the short term, but is not a sustainable strategy. Either people get crisis fatigue, or the truth comes out.

Crisis issues corner the resources

The crisis environmental issue of the day tends to crowd out other environmental issues in the clamour for resources. Because we lose our balance, we end up spending money on the crisis that has very little chance of yielding benefits, at the cost of not spending money on environmental (or other) projects of local importance that have much greater prospects of paying off.


The obvious advantage of crisis-mongering is that the crisis issue is more likely to get resources from policy makers. My point, though, is that there is a good chance the resources gained will be spent poorly anyway and achieve little, and that the resources come at a substantial cost. Another advantage might be that it helps to generate policy-relevant science. Under the galvanising force of a crisis, scientists seem to be more willing than usual to develop a synthesis of current knowledge of the issue, and to assist in developing policy-relevant packages of the science. I’m sure this can happen without a crisis, but it seems to happen less often, and to be less noticed.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Farm, food and resource issues: politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45: 1471-1480. Full journal paper (103K) Summary version (19K)