by Tim Wilson, September 18, 2012
If a movie director was going to invent a name for the “ship of doom” they’d probably come up with “supertrawler”.
Let’s face it, supertrawler sounds bad. It’s super (and not in the good way) and it “trawls” the ocean rapaciously consuming fish into its vast nets and freezers of doom. When the word “supertrawler” is said out loud it almost deserves its own soundtrack.
But it’s politics that led the Gillard government to turn its trawl of duty from the Netherlands to Australia a wasted journey. Now the government’s legislative response means the same quota of fish can be taken out of Australian waters by smaller, less efficient boats. Their net sizes can be the same. And they can waste fuel and emit greenhouse gases by returning to shore to dump the fish before going out to get extra catch.
Unsurprisingly some scientists are arguing the government’s moves smack of “populism before science”.
Congratulations Environment Minister, Tony Burke. You’ve really chalked up another victory for the environment.
Sadly the government’s reaction fits into a much broader pattern of behavior by our nation’s politicians and their indifference to how legislative action can deliver environmental outcomes.
Take the Federal government’s current progressing of its Illegal Logging Bill.
The point of the Bill is to stop timber illegally felled in other countries from making its way into Australia and being sold as the desk that your computer sits on top of.
The objectives sound admirable on environmental grounds. Illegally logged timber “bad”. Legally logged timber “good”. And in many ways the government’s motivations are right.
But good motivations don’t ensure the policy response attracts the same qualities. Especially when the government’s own advisers concluded an Illegal Logging Bill wouldn’t work.
The Centre for International Economics was commissioned by the Federal government to investigate what any illegal logging law would do.
Their study concluded “0.034 per cent of global timber production, and 0.34 of products incorporating illegally logged timber … [so the Bill] could reduce the global costs of illegal logging by 0.34 per cent … and may not be fully effective in eliminating illegal logging”.
Put more bluntly, a new law won’t stop the small problem but we’ll all feel a warm inner glow.
The problem is it that the Australian timber industry will pay for our good intentions by carrying more cost to prove they’re not illegally logged impacting on their international competitiveness.
Not that illegal logging is alone.
Taxpayer-funded organisations are similarly lobbying the government to make consumer boycotts against palm oil easier.
You know the drill – forests are being converted into agriculture land to grow palm oil in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. And those palm oil plantations threaten orangutan populations.
So if we legislate to label palm oil on products, consumers can haze products that use it as an ingredient and save the orangutans.
Except, it isn’t that simple.
A recent study published by the New York Academy of Sciences found that there are a range of measures causing orangutan population loss, including farming practices and hunting by those on a subsistence living.
The study identified that ‘singling out a particular industry as the main culprit in this process ignores the contribution from others and is unlikely to lead to lasting solutions’.
Using simplistic measures like consumer boycotts might make ourselves feel better, but it only have a modest impact on addressing the root problem.
Worse, it could have the reverse effect and make it harder for subsistence farmers to survive meaning they convert more forest land for agriculture, not less.
That hasn’t stopped local retailers, like Subway, being targeted to change behavior in the false expectation that it will actually save orangutans.
That outcome wouldn’t be a victory for the environment. Unless a problem that is out of sight, is also out of mind.
Despite the reality of these simplistic campaigns their consequences were largely ignored in Parliamentary hearings into a Bill designed to drive consumer boycotts. Again, the passage of the Bill would have allowed us all to feel good about ourselves, even if it did nothing for the environment.
Businesses are rarely perfect. But in all three cases working with the companies involved seem like a more logical solution to achieving good environmental outcomes.
But as political responses to the supertrawler, palm oil and logging show, facts and evidence only play a small part behind grandstanding politicians who want to be seen to be in favour of the environment – even when there is no environmental benefit at all.