NSW Intergenerational Report Ignores Elephant in the Room

PhD student Christine Winter analyses the latest NSW Intergenerational Report and its failure to address the costs of climate change

As published in The Fifth Estate, 2 June 2016

The NSW Government released its third Intergenerational Report last week. It’s an important document. From it, Government Departments, Councils, and business can draw critical strategic planning information. It’s important too for the youngest members of the electorate, those born this week, on whom the projections and planning will have greatest life-long impact. The government notes on page 2, ‘[t]he projections […] are not forecasts of the future […] they provide an informed view of how NSW’s economy and fiscal position could evolve over the next 40 years’. Appallingly, inexplicably, the report fails to address the costs of climate change.

Based on projections, it estimates the size of the economy ($1.3 trillion), numbers of people (11.2 million) and demographic spread, expenditures ($49.2billion), health and life expectancy, migration and infrastructure demands to support the population. And it estimates revenues. These assumptions provide the roadmap. Like all planning, they take the past as the base, adjust for change and project the future.

Astonishingly, given the threats to property, infrastructure, emergency services, healthcare, food security, water supplies, transport, lifestyles and welfare, the only, only, mention of climate change is on page 86. Here it is:

Enabling and growing opportunity does not simply mean lifting economic growth. It also means lifting living standards by improving the environment, social outcomes and income distribution. A strong and flexible economy can support these objectives. It will also allow us to deal with global changes, such as technological change, the impact of climate change and the economic rise of Asia. (P 86)

Here’s a picture of the economy and human enterprise in a self-contained bubble, separated from the nonhuman. That all human endeavour, the economy and human well-being are contingent on the environment in which they are immersed, from which they are inseparable, and draw sustenance and are entangled is elided. A strong economy depends on clement and predictable weather, stable foreshores, adequate fresh water, infrequent drought and flooding. But the government does not draw the link.

Thinking ‘maybe I’m the blind one’, I searched on related terms: sea level rise, coastal defences, coastal retreat, heat sink, storm surges, flooding, heat waves, drought, water shortage, artisan basin, conservation, trees, climate change adaptation, global warming. Not a single mention of any one of these. There is one reference to pollution from cars, and disease gets eight mentions mostly for chronic illness, and the reference to infectious diseases suggests they will decrease. Fire is there twice, in a discussion of new funding models for State Emergency Services.

The report ignores copious scientific reports on the impact of climate change. It doesn’t address rises in mean sea levels, or ‘100 year events’ — floods, droughts, forest fires for instance — that are occurring more frequently. It fails to mention people are already fighting to protect their coastal properties, experiencing flooding and drought and farmers are adjusting their crops and cropping cycles to adapt to the changes. Nor the recordings of tropical diseases occurring further south than ‘normal’, the migration of fish to waters further south and the bleaching of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef, all follow the patterns the scientists have predicted.

This is in intergenerational report — designed, one gathers from the introduction, to ensure the State neither inadvertently nor knowingly disadvantages future generations. On page 3 the Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, states:

‘We owe it to future generations to think deeply about the challenges that face us now and over the next 40 years. We must lay the foundations for a future that ensures the citizens of New South Wales have the best opportunities and quality of life no matter where they live or their background.’

A noble sentiment Ms Berejiklian, but somehow the greatest threat to opportunity and quality of life is just not part of your conversation.

What threat does climate change pose that this report could have, should have addressed? What will it cost to protect the Sydney Airport from sea level rise? And what is the risk to revenues of closing the Airport on stormy days and at spring tides? What will be the cost of protecting the iconic Sydney Opera House from sea level rise? How does the Government intend to address coastal protection for sea-front houses? Or relocation of threatened coastal communities? What provisions are they making for food security given changing weather cycles and soil degradation? Are they concerned about water supplies for a population projected to more than double over the forty years? What provisions are being made to finance disaster relief as the 100-year events occur more frequently?

Without a hint of irony the report tells us, well before we get to that single mention of climate change:

States levy mineral royalties on the extraction of a mineral resource. Currently, 87 per cent of this is thermal coal. Mineral volumes are projected to grow by 1.2 per cent a year in the long term, in line with estimates from the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

With the thermal coal price assumed to grow with the consumer price inflation minus any change in the terms of trade, royalty revenue is expected to increase at an annual average of 4.2 per cent over the [50-year] projection period’ (p75).

The State is predicting an ongoing increase in revenues from selling coal, a major contributor to climate change. There is no signal the Government expects to phase out mining to protect future generations or meet Paris Agreement obligations.

There are no provisions for an adaptation fund to transfer to future generations the material means to fight the effects of climate change. No royalty revenue directly applied to future generations’ welfare.

Like the three-year-old who ‘hides’ in plain view, believing you can’t see them because they’ve closed their eyes and they can’t see you, this Government seems to think if they don’t mention climate change they have no responsibility to account for its impact. They have shut their eyes and hope we don’t see the elephant in the room.

Missing an accounting for climate change and adaptation measures, this Intergenerational Report, like the Federal Government’s of last year is a chimaera. Built on half the story, it bequeaths future generations the expenses rightly ours, for it is this generation who reap the benefits of pumping carbon into the atmosphere, while forcing the costs into the future.

Christine Winter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney and SEI, is looking at how intergenerational obligations and duties are manifest in some Aboriginal, Māori and Amerindian communities and how they can inform a capabilities approach to intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of those peoples.

Image: Reuben Bedingfield ‘Newtown Festival 2011’ via Flickr Commons