Review: David Pannell lecture—“Lost causes and big opportunities: Reforming environmental policy”

BY BEN HABIB.

La Trobe University, Faculty of Law & Management—Dean’s Lecture

Dr David Pannell

Lost causes and big opportunities: Reforming environmental policy

Thursday 16 September, 2010

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I’ll let you in on an open secret: bean counters and environmentalists speak two vastly different languages.  Government funding bodies speak the language of economics and accounting, while environmentalists are generally fluent in the language of ecology.  This observation forms part of the context for the University of Western Australia’s Dr David Pannell discussion of environmental policy-making and the funding of environmental initiatives in his lecture at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.

Pannell emphasised three main points in his presentation:

1.       Environmental budgets are small relative to the breadth and scale of environmental problems in Australia.

2.       These budgets are mostly spent poorly.

3.       To bolster their arguments for greater funding, environmental groups should adopt a business-like approach to grant procurement.

The small funding pool and the large number of project seeking funding means that government agencies necessarily have to perform triage, to make decisions on which projects should be prioritised.  For Dr Pannell, this allocation process is influenced a number of considerations over and above the environmental benefits of proposed projects, including economics, politics, community values, and legal issues.  As I found out in casual chat after the lecture, this no surprise to members of local environmental groups who have been through this process.

Dr Pannell also emphasised that funds allocated to environmental groups are often poorly spent.  The full remedy of environmental problems usually requires long time frames that are not compatible with the bureaucratic demands of funding bodies.  Sometimes this occurs because funding bodies expect to see deliverable outcomes within the short timeframes of the political cycle, which distorts the uses to which allocated funds are directed.  This can lead to a problem being framed in the media as a “crisis”, leading to the adoption of rushed, tokenistic policy responses because of a perceived “need to be seen to be spending money on the ground”.  As a consequence, money is often wasted for little environmental benefit.  Unfortunately, policies acquire momentum once they are legislated and are not easily changed or removed, even if they are acknowledged to be ineffective.

We come up against this problem again and again in the context of environmental policy-making.  Is our political system up to the task of addressing environmental issues, particularly existential problems like climate change?  Though not a theme addressed by Dr Pannell, the need to shift policy-making time horizons beyond short-term electoral cycles is a component of the broader evolution of our political system that is necessary in the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

To combat short-sighted environmental policy-making and to increase funding for environmental projects, Dr Pannell recommended that environmental groups adopt a “business-like” approach to justifying their projects as an economic investment—to speak the economic language of the government bureaucracy.  For environmental groups, this means framing the costs and benefits of their projects with a quantifiable monetary value.  There is an obvious logic to this argument.  When due diligence is followed, funding agencies will always want to ensure that they are making a sound investment.

This presents environmental groups with a conundrum.  Environmental damage and environmental benefits are often simply not quantifiable in monetary terms; it is not possible in many cases to assign them with a dollar value.  Environmentalists may also feel discomfort in adapting to a business paradigm that often contributes to the problem of environmental degradation, precisely because it cannot properly account for ecosystem services.

Like our political institutions, our economic paradigms must also evolve to account for ecological and resource limitations.  Part of the discomfort felt by environmentalists in adapting to a business-like model of project planning is that this business-like model itself needs to adapt to the changing realities of climate change and global energy insecurity.  As much as environmental groups need to learn the language of business in the context of limited financial resources, the bean counters need to internalise the principles of ecology to retain relevance in a situation of increasingly limited ecological resources.

The beauty of Dr Pannell’s presentation was that it highlighted, perhaps unconsciously, this paradox inherent in the contest for environmental funding.

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Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at politicsalburywodonga@gmail.com.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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