Climate Change and Institutional Self-fulfilment by Roger Underwood
I note that the Federal government has created a new agency called “The Department of Climate Change”. The department is not yet 10 months old, but is already well-established with a CEO, two assistant CEOs, four Divisions, thirteen Branches (including one devoted entirely to public affairs), and a large number of full-time public servants.
Given the current hysteria about global warming, and the plethora and complexity of emerging schemes involving carbon-trading, carbon-capping, carbon-off-setting, carbon-emission-minimising and carbon-taxing, I can understand why the government would want a single agency which can keep tabs on all this and drive their political agenda. I am also unsurprised to find that the department’s chief is an economist, and the ranks are studded with economists. This reflects the new focus of the climate change issue: no longer are governments seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions – rather they are seeking to identify the carbon-fighting measures which will have the least possible economic impact.
Nevertheless I am cynical about the creation of a new department whose budget, staffing, political influence and public status is dependent on climate change actually occurring. A Department of Climate Change needs climate change – no climate change will be (for them) a disaster. In other words, the bad-news scenario now has a bureaucratic home, its very own institution, a whole government organisation dedicated to promoting the prophesy of doom to its own advantage.
This phenomenon is not new. I was a junior officer in the Forests Department many years ago, and I recall how the environmentalists accused us of having been “captured” by the timber industry. They also accused the Mines Department of being captured by the mining industry, the Agriculture Department by the agricultural industry and the Fisheries Department by the fishing industry. (Curiously, they never saw any problem with the Department of Environmental Protection being captured by the environmentalist industry).
There is a difference between what the environmentalists call bureaucratic capture, and what I call institutional self-fulfilment. The former involves external influence on an agency by a special interest group to enhance its special interest; the latter is where an agency is working behind the scenes to ensure its own prosperity and survival. A classic historical example of institutional self-fulfilment was the work of the Rabbit Department in Western Australia. The Rabbit Department was created 100 years or so ago to wipe out the rabbit in WA. The agency grew rapidly, attracted a substantial budget, and undertook (on the advice of its senior public servants) a number of massive, expensive and ultimately useless projects. These included two “rabbit-proof” fences thousands of kilometres in length, the construction of which proceeded despite the fact that the rabbit was already west of the surveyed fenceline. I have talked to old farmers and pastoralists who regarded the department as a joke because it was well-known that departmental staff had no intention of eliminating rabbits. To do so would have been to do themselves out of a job. To make matters worse, the WA government (in the way of governments everywhere) was quite happy to come up with the one-off capital cost of building the fences, but not the recurrent costs of maintaining them properly. The fences became a joke amongst rabbits.
Similarly the bushfire issue in Australia is increasingly subject to institutional self-fulfilment. Bushfire responsibilities have been progressively transferred from land management agencies (who are concerned about fire impacts) to Emergency Services (who fight fires). Staff in Emergency Service agencies are trained and equipped for dealing with bushfire emergencies, not for management of the land where bushfires potentially occur. Don’t get me wrong – the firefighters do a great job, and are an essential community service. The trouble is, fire-fighting is their business, their raison d’être. Furthermore, it is well rewarded in terms of favourable media attention, a grateful public, political support and funds. But if there were no bushfires or an insignificant bushfire threat, the fire-fighting services would wither away. Thus their whole focus is on response after a fire starts, with investment in helitaks, water bombers, fire tankers, high tech equipment, super-gizmo headquarters, and lots of staff. What misses out is the essential but unglamorous work of damage mitigation, fire prevention, fuel reduction, fire trail maintenance, community education, law enforcement and so on, i.e., the year-in and year-out recurrent work of minimising the number and impacts of fires, and making them easier and safer to suppress. Far from being rewarded, fuel reduction burning is hated by environmentalists, who depict land management staff who carry out a burning program as irresponsible vandals, effectively undermining their political support. The way the current system is constructed, all the kudos go to the firefighters and none to the fire pre-emptors – a situation very well understood by Emergency Services chiefs.
It seems to me entirely predictable that the processes applying to rabbits and bushfires will also apply to the new Department of Climate Change. If it is to survive and prosper it will need rapidly to become a Department for climate change. I would be very surprised if DCC staff did not already realise that the security of their agency and their opportunities for recognition and promotion will be closely linked to the degree to which the media, community and politicians think that climate change is (i) imminent; (ii) disastrous; (iii) inevitable; and (iv) requiring the sort of complex economic and bureaucratic skills found only among the officers of the Commonwealth Public Service.
I can think of three ways all this might pan out. First, it might become apparent to everyone that climate change is a natural thing governed largely by non-anthropomorphic factors. Second, climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions might be confirmed, but it will become apparent that there is little Australians can do that will make a significant world-scale difference, even with massive economic self-abuse. Third, the penny might drop that we have real environmental/social problems which demand urgent national attention, i.e., diminishing and more costly oil, management of water resources, declining air quality in cities and killer bushfires. Now there are four issues which each deserve their own Federal department with four divisions, thirteen branches and offices packed with beavering staff!
Roger Underwood is a West Australian forester and writer, Chairman of The Bushfire Front Inc.