In the dark, without headlights, headed for a cliff

We are now enduring the second election campaign since a University of Tasmania neuroscientist, Lila Landowski, drew attention in the Mercury’s Talking Point pages to the fact that ours is the only Australian state without a chief scientist.

It may be argued that the lack of a chief scientist is no indication of the value we place on science in helping us find our way. We have many scientists in government service – more per capita than any other jurisdiction except perhaps the ACT – who we can call on to give advice when necessary. 

But it gives pause for thought that Landowski’s plea, during the early months of Covid when fake news was demonstrably causing people to die, got no response from Peter Gutwein’s government, nor from the one that followed under Jeremy Rockliff. 

Landowski is far from alone. In the past decade or so, voluntary groups like Climate Tasmania and the Tasmanian Independent Science Council (TISC) have grown out of a concern that big decisions are being made about our future without the sobering voice of someone – anyone – with the training and expertise to make an objective call as to their enduring value and viability.

It’s no coincidence that both of these groups focus heavily on matters environmental. Climate change looms large, and Climate Tasmania has long pressed government for stronger emissions reduction and adaptation measures. But the state of the climate is one of many massively complex, interconnected matters that together will make or break our future.

As the demands of an ever expanding economy increases pressure on natural systems, last month TISC took the time to compile a list of major Tasmanian issues that call for scientific advice. 

Besides climate change, it is looking at management over many years in marine salmon farming, forests, wildfire, freshwater and irrigation, the rollout of renewable energy and the state of the environment report – and underlying all of this, transparency and integrity (or rather, its absence) in government decision-making. 

TISC has yet to complete deliberating on these matters, and I won’t be part of that process, but here’s my take on where those important matters lie.

Over a decade or more, successive governments have created policies in all these areas – if “policy” is the right term for a mishmash of disconnected decisions – with little or no reference to scientific evidence and expertise that is demonstrably free from commercial ties. That includes the influence that comes from industry support of research programs such as forest and marine ecosystems.

The result is minimal or zero planning and a welter of greenwashing and other falsehoods and misinformation. This has left Tasmania’s natural systems in a wide array of habitats, including waterways, forests, wetlands and sheltered coastal waters, exceptionally vulnerable to damage. And much damage has been done.

Freshwater management is one case in point. Resources in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment for monitoring and reporting on the state of rivers, streams and lakes are way below par and have been for years. Political decisions have been made to create new irrigation schemes supplying cheap (read: undervalued) water without the detailed multi-year data needed to understand the water source’s capacity to meet demand. 

Salmon farming is another. The UK and other jurisdictions prohibit intensive fish-farming in sheltered, poorly-flushed coastal waters like Macquarie Harbour and Long Bay near Port Arthur. For years we’ve been promised offshore farming in deep water where nutrients and waste have little or no impact, but it’s never happened because the government has to this point agreed with the industry position that environmental impact in current inshore locations is minor.

The impact on forest harvesting of new national legislation covering environment protection, biodiversity and nature repair is yet to unfold, but the long-term future management of Tasmania’s native forest estate may turn out to be much more consequential than either of the major parties is prepared for.

Regular, comprehensive State of the Environment Reports are a starting point for all responsible environmental management. Tasmanian law requires a new one every five years. The Tasmanian Planning Commission has had to prepare the next report in just two years with no new resources, so it cannot provide the comprehensive coverage of past reports in the 1990s and 2000s.

If, as promised, the next one is completed by the middle of this year, it will be the first since David Bartlett was premier, in 2009. in 15 years. We’re yet to hear a peep in the campaign about this lamentable dereliction of duty.

Rough terrain lies ahead. We’re travelling in the dark, and we’ve switched off the headlights.

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