The Great Barrier Reef may have been spared the indignity of being listed as a World Heritage Area “in danger” this week, but the Reef’s woes are just beginning.
There are 962 properties on the world heritage list. Most of these are protected for their cultural values, while many, like the Great Barrier Reef, are protected for their natural values. Thirty-eight sites have been placed on the world heritage “in danger” list in recognition of the damage they have sustained or risks they face.
The World Heritage Committee agreed to postpone their review of the Great Barrier Reef to 2014, as the Queensland and Federal governments prepare reports into coastal development. But it isn’t just coal and ports that are the problem.
It is only a matter of time before the Australian government and the international community will have to face up to reality. Climate change is fundamentally challenging the way we go about protecting the environment.To protect the reef, look beyond the coast
Managing the Reef now can buy time while a global response is hammered out to deal with climate change and ocean acidification. But the Federal and Queensland governments don’t seem to recognise time is running out.
In fact, neither does the World Heritage regime itself. It remains based on a somewhat dated view about how natural environmental assets should be protected.
The 1972 World Heritage Convention, which defined how and what can be listed as World Heritage, is built on the premise that sites are best protected by conservation at the site. Historically this made sense. The Convention is one of the earliest environmental treaties, and concluded at a time when the main threats to world heritage were highly localised. It is a bit like a museum, seeking to preserve certain outstanding illustrations of cultural and natural property for future generations.
What it doesn’t do is account for natural change, or the much more serious threat of human-induced change. World heritage properties cannot be frozen in time. In the current geological epoch, which we can think of as the Anthropocene, the greatest single threat to many world heritage properties is climate change.
Back in 2004 a report from University of Sydney found the Howard government’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to support international initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions was one reason among several why the Great Barrier Reef might be included on the “in danger” list. We mustn’t let the current debate about development hide the reality of climate change.
World Heritage can’t address this. That is for other regimes, chiefly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to resolve. What World Heritage can do is draw attention to global threats that major environmental assets face. Its “in danger” listing process is a key mechanism to achieve this.
For well over a decade there has been discussion over whether the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on the “in danger” list. The main reason for this is the dawning realisation the Reef will be severely damaged by rising sea temperatures from climate change.2012: development the new threat
The recent discussions about the reef have focused on the range of developments proposed for the Queensland coast, such as new or expanded ports to facilitate coal exports.
This is based on a 2012 report from UNESCO and the IUCN. It warned Australia the reef would be placed on the “in danger” list unless this development was curtailed or properly assessed.
The report set out 14 detailed recommendations for getting the protection and management back on track. These included:
- no new port development outside existing port areas
- an independent review of developments at Gladstone and Curtis
- an independent review by internationally recognised and widely respected scientific experts of the overall planning, protection and management of the Reef
With official endorsement by the World Heritage Committee in 2012, it was clear the committee was keeping watch on the Reef, and that a brake had to be placed on coast developments.
On a positive note, the report observed that the actual management of the Reef was world-class, and considered the “gold standard” for conserving large marine areas.2013: still on the brink
In February 2013 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority responded to the 2012 report and its recommendations. Several aspects of the Government’s response have been subject to significant criticism, particularly in respect to Gladstone Harbour.
Media reports earlier this week indicated that discussions at the 37th Session of the World Heritage Committee turned on whether Australia was satisfying a host of “priority issues” for protecting the reef. These have been identified by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the IUCN, but not yet made public.
At the 2013 World Heritage session officials were satisfied that Australia was meeting some but not all of their recommendations. They gave Australia further opportunity before 2014 to show that it is meeting the Convention obligations. There’s an ultimatum of sorts on development – any new coastal development with an impact on the Reef’s heritage values will be considered a violation.
The June 2013 decision of the World Heritage Committee has, like the 2012 decision, again preserved the status quo for the Reef. While recognising the threats to the Reef, those have not yet risen to a level that would allow the Committee to list the property on the “in danger” list.
Without a move on climate change the reef will remain “in danger”, and not just on the World Heritage list.
Tim Stephens has undertaken consultancy work for Greenpeace and Australians for Animals in respect of the Great Barrier Reef.
There are some 700 known species of grasshopper in Australia. But, fewer than half have been described. This is creating an information gap, and some species have fallen in.
Schayer’s Grasshopper (Schayera baiulus) was first collected in 1842 from a property in north-west Tasmania. These few tattered specimens can be found in the Zoologisches Museum Berlin, and for 150 years were the only thing known about the species.
Efforts to rediscover this Grasshopper were at first unsuccessful but were then followed in 1988 by the discovery of several juvenile grasshoppers. These were from Cape Grim at the far north-west tip of Tasmania, and Rushy Lagoon in the north-east. These discoveries expanded the possible range of the species by around 100 km. Each of the small number of specimens was immature so there is slight doubt as to their precise identity.
Another species, the Pilliga Grasshopper (Genurellia cylindrica), is known from a single female specimen collected decades ago from Pilliga in New South Wales. It is the sole member of its genus but from this single female a specialist can determine that it belongs to a “tribe” of grasshoppers that live in shrubbery or on the twigs of small trees.Status
Schayer’s Grasshopper is on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. But is it threatened? It’s likely that once the precise habitat is discovered it will be easier to find the species. Some other grasshoppers from the same tribe do seem to have very restricted distributions.
A few visits to the Pilliga site have failed to locate any additional Pilliga Grasshoppers. Can we say that the species is “rare” or “endangered” or even “extinct”? At this stage we really do not know.Threats
At Pilliga fires and clearing have reduced and changed the habitat, although it isn’t known if this has impacted on the grasshoppers.
There is no strategy for conserving grasshoppers in Australia.Conclusion
The field of monography (detailed studies at the species level of related groups of plants and animals) is virtually dead in Australia. While a few positions still exist, the trend has been away from this tedious and often unappealing form of research towards the more trendy and grant-attracting fields like molecular biology.
We face a big problem in the future. Courses in plant and animal taxonomy have largely disappeared from most university curricula. This is not just a problem in Australia; it is occurring elsewhere as well.
All of this seems counter-intuitive when you consider the emphasis that we place on recognising and protecting threatened species. With fewer and fewer specialists, who will know enough identify and count these species?
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here
David Rentz does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Programs to measure climate changes may be heading for declines due to budget cuts
Scientists have adopted basic rules of management, such as: "You can't manage what you can't measure." This is a truism in climate science. In order to understand where our climate is headed, we need to know where it has been in the past, and where it is now.
Understanding the state of the climate is an immense engineering challenge. Think of trying to measure the energy of the oceans, or the chemistry of the Earth's waters. How about temperatures or chemistry of the atmosphere? What about the extent of ice (including both area and thickness)? How about sea level?
What is particularly challenging is that these quantities have to be measured all over the globe, not just in a few locations. Furthermore, they have to be measured continuously for decades. Some properties have been measured for very long periods of time, but this is no guarantee these measurements are accurate. Techniques and technologies change over the years.
Take, for instance, ocean temperatures. Measurements from as far back as the 1700s were recorded, but they were sparse in coverage. Later, more systematic measurements of ocean waters were made with canvas buckets, then insulated buckets, and then using more and more advanced systems until today, when approximately 3,000 automated floats continuously record and transmit ocean temperatures. Splicing together these records from differing technologies is challenging and often gives misinterpretations of long-term trends.
In the late 1970s, satellites began to take an ever increasing role in earth observations. Satellites have the ability to take thousands of measurements each day and cover the entire globe. They are, however, not without their own weaknesses. Satellites are only in place for short periods of time, typically a few years. This means they have to be replaced continually. Matching up data from different satellites with overlapping periods is challenging.
Satellites may also have biases that must be corrected. In the 1990s, two scientists thought they had shown that the lower part of the atmosphere was cooling – in contrast to expected global warming effects. It was later shown (here, here, here, and here) that the two scientists had made serious errors in their analyses of the satellite data. Now, all satellite data is in agreement – the Earth is warming just as we expected.
So what is the future of Earth observing systems? Will they survive in this era of budget cuts? The answer is, I don't know. But I can relate some key systems that we should look out for. One is the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) array which consists of 55 oceanic moorings that
measure ocean temperatures and interactions between the ocean and atmosphere in the Pacific. According to NOAA scientist Dr. Michael McPhaden, the moorings' health is rapidly deteriorating – 17 of the moorings are off-line and the amount of recorded data is at about 50%. In his words, this system is now "on life support". Consequently, planning for and adapting to natural disasters will be compromised.
Another critical set of instruments is the JASON satellite series. According to Dr. Joshua Willis of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this series comprises one of the most important observation systems we have. Those satellites measure, among other things, sea level rise. Accurate knowledge of sea level rise helps scientists understand how much extra energy the Earth is absorbing from greenhouse gases.
Another critical set of measurements deals with ocean chemistry. These measurements tell us how fast the ocean is absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. NOAA has a measurement program which it hopes will provide high-quality information about ocean acidification – another "greenhouse gas problem" that threatens certain types of sea life.
All of these programs, and many others I haven't mentioned, require adequate funding for equipment and personnel. Presently, many systems – in particular satellite platforms – are headed for declines in coverage. This means we will be operating blindly, in an information deficit. If we are to make good decisions about how to react to greenhouse gas increases, we need good information. When the economic costs of climate change are compared with the very modest costs of measurement, it seems that maintaining a robust measurement capacity is a no-brainer.John Abraham
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The Chicago Tribune writes that the legislation will force oil and gas companies to register with the Department of Natural Resources. In the permitting process they must detail:
- how the well will be drilled
- the amount of fluid used and at what pressure
- how it will withdraw water, contain waste, and disclose the chemicals used
Additionally, a 30-day public comment period begins seven days after the Department of Natural Resources receives a permit application; and people who suspect fracking has polluted their water supply can request an investigation forcing the Department of Natural Resources to investigate within 30 days and reach a determination within 180 days.
While other states like Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming, have rules or laws requiring companies to disclose chemicals used during the drilling process, Illinois is the first state to require fracking companies to disclose the specific chemicals used both before and after fracking occurs. Illinois will also be the first to mandate companies conduct water testing throughout the entire fracking process.
Hydraulic fracturing typically involves injecting a high pressure combination of water, sand, and a mix of previously undisclosed chemicals into fissures in underlying bedrock to allow natural gas to escape. The chemicals in this water-intensive process have come into question because of their potential to pollute groundwater. Currently, the most efficient way for gas companies to dispose of the chemical-laden water is to store it in underground wells where it may reach water sources in the future.
With fracking operations already established in the state, many people feel that this rule offers strong protection and should be seen as a model for other states. At first, oil and gas companies claimed that the mix of chemicals involved in fracking was a trade secret and therefore needed to be kept from the public. Parts of the Illinois law will limit the ability of fracking companies to claim that the chemicals used in their process are proprietary information.
This regulation could mark the beginning of a new wave of fracking legislation. Other states are working on similar rules.
The Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is drafting a rule that would require companies to register the chemicals they use through FracFocus.org.
California’s SB 4 has passed the Senate and moved to the assembly where, if passed, it will require companies in the state to disclose chemical names and concentrations in an attempt to bring transparency to the process.
As for the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management’s draft rules released in May fail to protect people from harm and instead protect the oil and gas industry from having to follow strong environmental standards. More disheartening is that BLM adopted the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bill written by ExxonMobil.
Illinois’ new law comes only after three months of the end of the state’s 2012 drought. The drought in Illinois last summer cut corn production to the lowest levels since 2008 and soybeans to the lowest level since 2003. Springfield residents were under mandatory water-use restrictions from July 31, 2012 until March 7, 2013.
Droughts in the Midwest will become more frequent and will cause more limitations on water usage as a result of climate change. Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The EPA has also estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year.
So while Illinois has passed what can be considered the strictest set of regulations for fracking in the nation, it has risked the state’s future access to water. Furthermore, it has likely increased the amount of pollution the state will release into the air and water. As the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club notes:
Fracking poses grave dangers to our communities, land, air, and water; and contributes to the continued destabilization of our climate. States like Illinois are largely on their own in facing these threats since Congress, in enacting one of the worst recommendations of the Bush-Cheney secret energy task force, exempted fracking from our most basic national environmental laws… These new regulatory measures are essential to provide a measure of protection for the environment and public health. However, new regulations will not make fracking safe, and our support for additional protections does not mean we have confidence that fracking can be done safely or without pollution.
Matt Kasper is the Special Assistant for Energy policy and Patrick Maloney is an intern for Energy policy at the Center for American Progress.
In 2014, Australia will host the G20 Summit. The Prime Minister’s Office has been canvassing privately for a Big Idea to present, something to take the green debate forward and put Australia’s stamp on it.
Here then is a proposal. What about getting the G20 to commit to free trade in clean technology goods? This is an idea that would do more to mitigate global warming – and give a boost to green growth and development – than all the efforts made under Kyoto to date.
A clean tech free trade deal would kick-start a flow of goods that would promote green growth and curb carbon emissions. It would bring China, India and Brazil into a much more positive trading relationship with the US, EU and Japan. And it would give the PM the opportunity to invite the newly announced head of the World Trade Organization, Robert Azevêdo from Brazil, to visit Australia.
There is an important precedent in our own region. Last year, APEC countries committed to reduce tariffs on “environmental goods” (listed here) to less than 5% by 2015. Australia was instrumental in securing this APEC commitment – the first in the world committing countries to introducing free trade in clean tech goods.
Getting other G20 countries involved would be a logical and sound progression. It would be feasible because China, the US, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Russia, Canada and Mexico as well as Australia are all APEC members and have already signed up.
A global free trade agreement in clean tech goods would have profound ramifications for greening economies. It has a very powerful precedent, in the IT sector. The huge surge in IT investments over the past 15 years is thanks to a similar agreement providing for free trade in IT goods. The 1996 Ministerial Declaration on Trade in IT products (better known as the Information Technology Agreement) envisages totally free trade in all IT goods and has garnered 70 participants since it was signed in 1996.
This agreement has teeth because it was adopted by the WTO. It drives a free trade momentum amongst the world’s leading economies, stimulating their adoption of IT products and helping to expand markets for IT producers. It drove the elimination of tariffs on hundreds of products, making them available to developing economies around the world. This agreement proves that free trade really does work – when it is targeted and really is free.
A global clean tech agreement could have exactly the same effect, ushering in a surge in investment in green technologies such as renewable energies around the world, through the promotion of free trade in clean tech goods. It would stimulate the adoption of clean tech goods by leading economies, help to expand the markets for clean tech goods (including exports from Australia) and generally accelerate worldwide progress to a green, low-carbon future.
A global clean tech agreement would be far more valuable to the world economy than anything achieved so far under Kyoto. A series of collapsed international climate talks have manifestly failed to make any dent on relentlessly rising carbon emissions. In 1990, the world emitted just over 22.7 billion tonnes CO2; by 2011 this had risen to 33.9 billion tonnes, with the trend going ever upward. In place of the reduction envisaged under Kyoto, there has been a 50% increase.
The idea of a clean tech agreement has the backing of the influential IT Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC, and of the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. A high-level workshop was staged in Washington DC in January this year to canvass support for just such an agreement.
A global free trade agreement in clean tech goods would be good not just for the green sectors, but for the wider trade
This proposal is radical and innovative. If Australia can do it, we would be a world leader. And we would do more for a shift to green technology than any number of Kyoto agreements.
John Mathews does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
“Star Trek” would have us believe that space is the final frontier, but with apologies to the armies of Trekkies, their oracle might be a tad off base. Though we know little about outer space, we still have plenty of frontiers to explore here on our home planet. And they’re losing the race of discovery.
Hollywood giant James Cameron, director of mega-blockbusters such as “Titanic” and “Avatar,” brought this message to Capitol Hill last week, along with the single-seat submersible that he used to become the third human to journey to the deepest point of the world’s oceans — the Marianas Trench. By contrast, more than 500 people have journeyed into space — including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who sits on the committee before which Cameron testified — and 12 people have actually set foot on the surface of the moon.
All it takes is a quick comparison of the budgets for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to understand why space exploration is outpacing its ocean counterpart by such a wide margin.
In fiscal year 2013 NASA’s annual exploration budget was roughly $3.8 billion. That same year, total funding for everything NOAA does — fishery management, weather and climate forecasting, ocean research and management, among many other programs — was about $5 billion, and NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research received just $23.7 million. Something is wrong with this picture.
Space travel is certainly expensive. But as Cameron proved with his dive that cost approximately $8 million, deep-sea exploration is pricey as well. And that’s not the only similarity between space and ocean travel: Both are dark, cold, and completely inhospitable to human life.
Yet space travel excites Americans’ imaginations in a way ocean exploration never has. To put this in terms Cameron may be familiar with, just think of how stories are told on screens both big and small: Space dominates, with “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and “2001 A Space Odyssey.” Then there are B-movies such as “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and everything ever mocked on “Mystery Science Theater 2000.” There are even parodies: “Spaceballs,” “Galaxy Quest,” and “Mars Attacks!” And let’s not forget Cameron’s own contributions: “Aliens” and “Avatar.”
When it comes to the ocean, we have “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Sponge Bob Square Pants,” and Cameron’s somewhat lesser-known film “The Abyss.” And that’s about it.
This imbalance in pop culture is illustrative of what plays out in real life.
We rejoiced along with the NASA mission-control room when the Mars rover landed on the red planet late last year. One particularly exuberant scientist, known as “Mohawk Guy” for his audacious hairdo, became a minor celebrity and even fielded his share of spontaneous marriage proposals. But when Cameron bottomed out in the Challenger Deep more than 36,000 feet below the surface of the sea, it was met with resounding indifference from all but the dorkiest of ocean nerds such as myself.
Part of this incongruity comes from access. No matter where we live, we can go outside on a clear night, look up into the sky, and wonder about what’s out there. We’re presented with a spectacular vista of stars, planets, meteorites, and even the occasional comet or aurora. We have all been wishing on stars since we were children. Only the lucky few can gaze out at the ocean from their doorstep, and even those who do cannot see all that lies beneath the waves.
As a result, the facts about ocean exploration are pretty bleak. Humans have laid eyes on less than 5 percent of the ocean, and we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of America’s exclusive economic zone — the undersea territory reaching out 200 miles from our shores.
Sure, space is sexy. But the oceans are too. To those intrigued by the quest for alien life, consider this: Scientists estimate that we still have not discovered 91 percent of the species that live in our oceans. And some of them look pretty outlandish. Go ahead and Google the deepsea hatchetfish, frill shark, or Bathynomus giganteus.
In a time of shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny on the return for our investments, we should be taking a long, hard look at how we are prioritizing our exploration dollars. If the goal of government spending is to spur growth in the private sector, entrepreneurs are far more likely to find inspiration down in the depths of the ocean than up in the heavens. The ocean already provides us with about half the oxygen we breathe, our single largest source of protein, a wealth of mineral resources, key ingredients for pharmaceuticals, and marine biotechnology.
Of course space exportation does have benefits beyond the “cool factor” of putting people on the moon and astronaut-bards playing David Bowie covers in space. Inventions created to facilitate space travel have become ubiquitous in our lives — cell-phone cameras, scratch-resistant lenses, and water-filtration systems, just to name a few — and research conducted in outer space has led to breakthroughs here on earth in the technological and medical fields. Yet despite far-fetched plans to mine asteroids for rare metals, the only tangible goods brought back from space to date remain a few piles of moon rocks.
The deep seabed is a much more likely source of so-called rare-earth metals than distant asteroids. Earlier this year the United Nations published its first plan for management of mineral resources beneath the high seas that are outside the jurisdiction of any individual country. The United States has not been able to participate in negotiations around this policy because we are not among the 185 nations that have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs such activity.
With or without the United States on board, the potential for economic development in the most remote places on the planet is vast and about to leap to the next level. Earlier this year Japan announced that it has discovered a massive supply of rare earth both within its exclusive economic zone and in international waters. This follows reports in 2011 that China sent at least one exploratory mission to the seabed beneath international waters in the Pacific Ocean. There is a real opportunity for our nation to lead in this area, but we must invest and join the rest of the world in creating the governance structure for these activities.
Toward the end of last week’s hearing, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, hypothetically asked where we would be today if we had spent half as much money exploring the oceans as we have spent exploring space. Given the current financial climate in Congress, we won’t find the answer to his question on Capitol Hill.
But there may be another way.
Cameron is currently in preproduction on the second and third “Avatar” films. He says the former will be set on an ocean planet. No one except he and his fellow producers at 20th Century Fox really know how much the first installment of the movie series cost, but estimates peg it at approximately $250 million — or 10 times the total funding for NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program. Since the original “Avatar” grossed more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide, if NASA isn’t willing to hand over a bit of its riches to help their oceanic co-explorers, maybe Cameron and his studio partners can chip a percent or two off the gross from “Avatar 2” to help fill the gap.
Come to think of it, if the key to exploring the oceans hinges either on Hollywood giving up profits or Congress increasing spending, maybe we are more likely to mine asteroids after all.
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Judy Li, an intern at the Center for American Progress, contributed to this work.
The thing about cellulosic biofuels is they’re produced from grass, wood chips, or other feed stocks that don’t double as food. More traditional biofuels, since they’re most often produced from corn, impinge on the food supply. The spike in corn demand — and thus the spike in corn price — that’s been fueled by America and European biofuel policies has arguably wrecked the food security of millions of poor people in developing countries around the world. And that’s on top the rising global food crisis from droughts and extreme weather driven by climate change.
But cellulosic biofuels remain an up-and-coming technology, with a commercial viability that’s far from certain. So big breaks in designing the enzymes and chemical processes is a big deal.
What Frank Aylward and his fellow researchers did was go down to Panama and Costa Rica to study how leafcutter ants produce their food. The insects literally cultivate a fungus in their underground nests that breaks down the bits of leaves they bring back. (The ants can collect half the weight of a cow in leaf material per colony every year.) Aylward and co. were able to isolate and identify the enzyme the fungus uses for this process, and realized it could be a powerful tool for biofuel production. As they told Mother Jones, the enzyme could even make biofuel out of the other parts of the corn stalk that don’t serve as food for humans:
For making fuel, Aylward asks, “why don’t we use the rest of the corn plant? It’s because the sugars are tied up in cellulose and other things that are hard to break down. So we’re looking for enzymes that can help.” Enzymes are already used for this purpose, and a crop of businesses have sprung up in the biofuel boom to manufacture them, but Aylward believes his could be among the most efficient ever discovered. And using every part of the corn plant, including parts that typically go to waste, could make ethanol production more sustainable and boost its climate benefits.
Obviously, if we can crack the chemistry for turning the rest of the corn stalk into biofuel, while leaving the cob itself as food, that might largely circumvent the food security problem. Beyond that, even the feedstocks for cellulosic biofuels have to be grown on cropland. That encourages deforestation, and as far as the simple math of carbon budgets go, naturally occurring forests and grasslands remove more carbon from the atmosphere than cropland. But if we can create cellulosic biofuel from land that’s already being used to grow food anyway, that could massively improve the quality of our land use.
Granted, biofuels are probably never going to be the biggest part of a renewable energy economy. But they will be a part, and this will be an exciting development if it pans out. Aylward told Mother Jones he’s already been approached by private firms interested in manufacturing the enzyme and starting work on biofuel production, so here’s to hoping.
How hot is it up north?
It was so hot that Talkeetna, Alaska hit 96°F on Monday — warmer than Miami — blowing past the previous record of 91°F set in June of 1969 (and matched on Sunday). Talkeetna is the city that the TV show Northern Exposure was supposedly based on.
It was so hot the AP and others simply couldn’t resist headlines like “Baked Alaska: Unusual Heat Wave Hits 49th State.”
It was so hot that Valdez, Alaska hit 90, smashing the previous all-time record of 87 set in June 1953. The National Weather Service issued this release in ALL CAPS (either because they were so fired up by this heat wave or because they issue all such releases in all caps):
EXCITEMENT ABOUNDED THIS AFTERNOON ACROSS NORTHEASTERN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND AS UNUSUALLY HOT TEMPERATURES WERE FELT ACROSS THE REGION. FOR THE PAST SEVERAL DAYS . . . HIGH TEMPERATURE RECORDS HAVE BEEN TIED OR BROKEN . . . BUT TODAYS TEMPERATURES SOARED BEYOND ANYTHING PREVIOUSLY SEEN IN THIS AREA.
IN VALDEZ . . . THE DAILY HIGH TEMPERATURE RECORD OF 75 DEGREES SET IN 1997 WAS SHATTERED WHEN . . . AT 45 MINUTES AFTER 3 PM…THE MERCURY IN OUR THERMOMETER SHOT UP TO 90 DEGREES. AFTER A BRIEF DIP BACK INTO THE UPPER 80S . . . THE MERCURY AGAIN REGISTERED 90 DEGREES AT 15 MINUTES BEFORE 6 PM.
THIS ALSO CRUSHED THE ALL-TIME RECORD HIGH TEMPERATURE FOR ANY DAY OF THE YEAR . . . AND FOR THE MONTH OF JUNE . . . WHICH WAS 87 DEGREES AND WAS ACHIEVED TWICE . . . ON BOTH THE 25TH AND THE 26TH OF JUNE IN 1953. A LOCAL WEATHER SPOTTER IN TOWN RECORDED A HIGH TEMPERATURE OF 87 DEGREES NEAR THE HOSPITAL DURING THE MID-AFTERNOON HOURS TODAY AS WELL.
SUN-WORSHIPERS WERE OUT IN FORCE THROUGH THE MID TO LATE EVENING HOURS . . . AS THE TEMPERATURE AT 10 PM WAS STILL AN ASTOUNDING 77 DEGREES.
It was so hot that former governor Sarah Palin unquit her job on Fox News just so she would have an excuse to visit the East Coast. Well, maybe that wasn’t the reason, but still, it was friggin’ hot!
Climate Central notes in their story, “Alaska is one of the fastest-warming states in the U.S., largely because the nearby Arctic region is warming rapidly in response to manmade global warming and natural variability. In recent years, Alaska has had to content with large wildfires, melting permafrost, and reduced sea ice, among other climate-related challenges.”
New York is the latest to join the composting trend that doesn't take much time and has great benefits for the environment
New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced plans to introduce composting into the city's garbage mix with the goal of making it mandatory in a couple of years. The scheme has barely gotten off the ground and already some New Yorkers are fretting about the prospect of a future where they will be required to throw a banana peel in one bin and the non biodegradable sticker that was once attached to it in another.
Terrifying as such a prospect may be to composting virgins, however, one can only hope that such resistance will be overcome, as the benefits of diverting food waste from landfills far outweigh any (perceived) inconvenience.
Every year Americans throw out around 40% of the food they buy (pdf) and nearly all of that food waste (96%) ends up in landfills or incinerators. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than any other single material where it rots and becomes a significant source of methane a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. We shouldn't be throwing out this much food in the first place, of course, but as we are, it makes environmental and economic sense to convert this waste stream into a revenue stream. Composting it and turning it into a resource is an obvious way to do that, but still only a handful of American cities – most notably Seattle, San Francisco and Portland – have embraced this route. Despite their experience being a mostly positive one, composting is still the exception rather than than the norm.
This makes it all the more exciting (for composting enthusiasts like me anyway) that New York, a wasteful city by any standards, is going to be joining that elite group. If composting can work here, and there's no reason it shouldn't, then surely it can work anywhere. For it to do so, however, the public has to be on board and so far they have tended to be rather skeptical.
Much of the resistance to composting seems to stem from concerns about having extra bins in small spaces and a whole new range of smells to contend with. Writing in the New York Observer this week, Rebecca Hiscott summed up these objections as follows:
"We're all for eco-friendly initiatives, but we're really not enthused about the stench of day-old meals wafting through our shoebox-sized, un-air-conditioned apartment, thanks."
I get the bit about the shoe boxed size apartment, but news flash: we're already contending with the stench of day-old meals, the only difference now is that they are mixed in with our regular trash. It's interesting to note also that no one ever seems to object to having a huge (and stinky) garbage bin in their small apartments but the prospect of having three smaller bins (for trash, recycling and compost) is somehow daunting.
Let me shed some light on how it's all going to work: the city plans to provide single family homes with a special organics container with wheels and a lid that locks. Apartment buildings that choose to participate will have to buy their own bins that meet the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) specifications. Apartment dwellers will be provided with a small kitchen top container free of charge that they can then empty into the organics container at the same collection point where they dispose of their trash and recycling. So no mind blowing changes, people will still be carrying the same amount of waste to the same place, they'll just be carrying it in one additional container.
Giving people free bins is one thing, getting them to use them, and to use them properly, is quite another, however. The directive from the DSNY is simple enough: "if it comes from something that grows it goes into the compost". But seeing what ends up in the recycling bins in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I shudder to think what will end up in the compost.
According to Brett Stav, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which has been collecting food waste since 2005 and yard waste since 1989, putting the wrong stuff in the compost bin can lead to contamination that is very difficult to deal with after the fact:
"People use plastic bags to carry their food scraps to the compost bin and then throw the bag in as well. It only takes one plastic bag to contaminate a container."
Through aggressive education efforts, that range from distributing free compostable bags to paying visits on repeat offenders, the SPU has managed to keep contamination to about 10%.
Fee based incentives are also useful for getting people to put the right stuff in the right bin. San Francisco has been composting yard and food waste since 1996 and made it mandatory in 2009. Through its recycling and composting efforts the city has achieved an impressive 80% landfill diversion rate, compared to 34% nationwide and a measly 15% in New York. To encourage even more recycling and composting the city is introducing a new fee structure that will allow residents to lower their monthly collection rates if they opt for smaller black (trash only) bins and bigger blue and green bins for recycling and composting respectively.
So far New York has no plans to offer fee based incentives, but I hope the city does whatever it takes to get the public on board with composting, and I hope other cities in America follow suit.
Our current "out of sight out of mind" approach to waste disposal is unsustainable on every level. We should be well beyond the point where recycling and composting are viewed as annoyances rather than the necessary landfill diversion schemes that they are. We're not at that point yet, but with a bit of luck, New Yorkers might lead us there.Sadhbh Walshe
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Maine Governor Blacklists Newspapers After They Expose Administration’s Anti-Environment Commissioner
The same week the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel published an in-depth analysis of the administration’s work to undermine environmental protections, a spokeswoman told them they would no longer respond to requests, even for public documents, because the newspaper’s parent company “made it clear that it opposed this administration.”
The papers conducted an extensive investigation into a former corporate lobbyist appointed by LePage to be commissioner of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). What they found was that Patricia Aho has fought environmental laws and enforcement since her appointment in 2011. The positions she has taken include blocking implementation of a 2008 law to protect youth from dangerous chemicals, reducing enforcement on land developers, rolling back recycling programs, and purging information from the Department’s website. Each of these efforts benefit her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate industries.
In one article, the Press Herald describes a DEP with significant limitations placed on staff. Colin Woodard quotes a former director saying, “There was an immediate gag order put on staff and on staff’s ability to freely interact with the public and talk about environmental concerns or to make requirements of people.” The DEP has eliminated tens of thousands of pages from its website, including the official state climate change report.
Certain tactics carry over into other areas of LePage’s administration, considering its new policy to limit staff interaction with journalists doing their jobs. LePage himself has fought against increased wind energy targets, while touting conspiracies like the wind industry faking it with electric motors to pretend “wind power works.”
LePage has also threatened to veto an energy bill that increases energy efficiency and renewable energy targets.
United States coal exports set a new record in March, driven largely by increased demand from Asia. [EIA]
Coal exports from the United States in March 2013 totaled 13.6 million short tons, nearly 0.9 million short tons above the previous monthly export peak in June 2012. EIA is projecting a third straight year of more than 100 million short tons of coal exports in 2013, following annual exports in 2011 of 107.3 million short tons and record annual exports in 2012 of 125.7 million short tons.
Los Angeles will likely soon become the largest city in the U.S. to ban plastic bags. [Huffington Post]
Climate change will hit the world’s poor the hardest, trapping millions in poverty, the World Bank says. [Guardian]
A record-breaking heat wave in Alaska has sent temperatures soaring past 90 degrees, just months after the state endured a historically cold spring. [NBC News]
The Obama administration is trying to determine the social cost of carbon, an effort that includes attempting to quantity effects such as sea level rise, species extinction, changes in crop yields and frequency of storms. [New York Times]
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology pressed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz yesterday on the “proof” behind anthropogenic climate change [Politico]
More than 200 counties in Texas are still in a state of drought emergency [CNN]
An “extreme” wildfire in Arizona burned through 5,000 acres in just seven hours yesterday, aided by high temperatures and strong winds. [NBC News]
Air pollution in Singapore has reached a 15-year high, due to illegal forest burning in Indonesia [Guardian]
House Republican Dana Rohrabacher is taking issue with the term “climate denier,” saying the only other time the word is used in politics is when referring to Holocaust deniers. [The Hill]
Climate change is a major threat to migratory birds and is likely to cause declines and extinctions in many species, according to a National Wildlife Federation report. [Miami Herald]
Environmental groups and 10 states and cities have announced they will delay legal action against the EPA until the White House releases its climate change policy. [Reuters]
Droughts, floods, sea-level rises and fiercer storms likely to undermine progress in developing world and hit food supply
Millions of people around the world are likely to be pushed back into poverty because climate change is undermining economic development in poor countries, the World Bank has warned.
Droughts, floods, heatwaves, sea-level rises and fiercer storms are likely to accompany increasing global warming and will cause severe hardship in areas that are already poor or were emerging from poverty, the bank said in a report.
Food shortages will be among the first consequences within just two decades, along with damage to cities from fiercer storms and migration as people try to escape the effects.
In sub-Saharan Africa, increasing droughts and excessive heat are likely to mean that within about 20 years the staple crop maize will no longer thrive in about 40% of current farmland. In other parts of the region rising temperatures will kill or degrade swaths of the savanna used to graze livestock, according to the report, Turn down the heat: climate extremes, regional impacts and the case for resilience.
In south-east Asia, events such as the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2010, which affected 20 million people, could become commonplace, while changes to the monsoon could bring severe hardship to Indian farmers.
Warming of at least 2C (36F) – regarded by scientists as the limit of safety beyond which changes to the climate are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible – is all but inevitable on current levels, and the efforts of governments are limited to trying to prevent temperature rises passing over this threshold. But many parts of the world are already experiencing severe challenges as a result of climate change, according to the World Bank, and this will intensify as temperatures rise.
Jim Yong Kim, the bank's president, warned that climate change should not be seen as a future problem that could be put off: "The scientists tell us that if the world warms by 2C – warming which may be reached in 20 to 30 years – that will cause widespread food shortages, unprecedented heatwaves, and more intense cyclones.
"In the near-term, climate change – which is already unfolding – could batter the slums even more and greatly harm the lives and hopes of individuals and families who have had little hand in raising the Earth's temperature."
The development bank is stepping up its funding for countries to adapt to the effects of climate change, and is calling for rich countries to make greater efforts at cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Rachel Kyte, vice president of the World Bank, said it had doubled its aid for adaptation from $2.3bn (£1.47bn) in 2011 to $4.6bn last year, and called for a further doubling. She said the bank was working to tie its disaster aid and climate change adaptation funding closer together.
Aid from the bank to help poor countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions and pursue environmentally sustainable economic development stands at about $7bn a year, and is backed by about $20bn from regional development banks and other partners.
The report's authors used the latest climate science to examine the likely effects of global warming of 2C to 4C on agriculture, water resources, coastal ecosystems and fisheries, and cities, across sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-east Asia.
Kyte said the effects would be to magnify the problems that developing regions experience. More people would be pushed into slums, with an increased risk of disease. "We are looking at major new initiatives [in] cities; cities need billions of investment in infrastructure, but many developing cities are not really creditworthy," she said.
She pointed to Jakarta, where rising sea levels and decades of pumping freshwater from underground sources beneath and around the city were increasing its vulnerability to flooding. Choices would need to be made soon in many cities on how to stem the likely effects, but Kyte warned that the plans must be future-proof, citing Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which has been forced to rethink its flood preparations despite spending $2bn on them.
Green campaigners emphasised the need to try to avoid 2C of warming, which scientists stay is possible if countries bolster their ambitions to cut greenhouse gas ambitions in the near future.
Stephanie Tunmore, climate campaigner at Greenpeace International, said: "Fossil fuels are being extracted in burned in the name of development and prosperity, but what they are delivering is the opposite.
"Some major impacts from climate change are already unavoidable and rich countries must urgently support the poor and vulnerable to adapt. But massive increases in the future costs of adaptation and damage can only be avoided by investing in a clean energy future now."
The World Bank has come under fire in the past for funding coal-fired power plants in some developing countries. However, it said the move was the result of old policies and was being phased out.
- Climate change
- Climate change
- Global climate talks
- World Bank
- Global economy
- Sea level
- Natural disasters and extreme weather
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Forecast that Britain could be in middle of 10-20 year 'cycle' of wet summers delivered following gathering at Met Office
Don't worry, summer is on its way – but you might have to wait until 2023.
As the prospect of another gloomy Glastonbury and wet Wimbledon looms, leading climate scientists have warned that the UK could be set for a further five to 10 years of washout summers.
The grim conclusion was delivered after an unprecedented gathering of scientists and meteorologists at the Met Office in Exeter to debate the range of possible causes for Europe's "unusual seasonal weather" over recent years, a sequence that has lasted since 2007.
Many will have hoped for news of sunnier times ahead. But after experts brainstormed through the day they delivered the shock finding that the UK could be in the middle of a 10-20 year "cycle" of wet summers. The last six out of seven summers in the UK have seen below-average temperatures and sunshine, and above-average rainfall.
Stephen Belcher, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre and professor of meteorology at the University of Reading, stressed that the finding was not an official long-term forecast and does not automatically mean the UK will now have a further decade of wet summers. But, he said, the scientists' conclusion was that the chances of this occurring are now higher than they first thought.
"Predicting when this cycle will end is hard," said Belcher, who led the meeting of 25 scientists. "We have seen similar patterns before – in the 1950s and the 1880s – and we have hints that we are coming towards the end of this current cycle. However, it might continue for the next five to 10 years. There is a higher probability of wet summers continuing. But it's very early days in trying to understand why this is happening."
The scientists must now address what "dynamical drivers" are causing this cycle, Belcher said. The meeting debated a range of possible interconnected reasons for the unusual weather of recent years, including this year's cold spring and the freezing winter of 2010/11. The most likely cause for the wet summers, he said, was the Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation, or AMO, a natural pattern of long-term changes to ocean currents.
Other candidate causes that could be "loading the dice", as Belcher described it, include a shift in the jet stream, solar variability and fast-retreating Arctic sea ice. Aggravating all of these factors could be the influence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
Dr James Screen, who studies how melting sea ice impacts on the jet stream at the University of Exeter, said: "There has been a lot of talk about declining Arctic sea ice playing a role in our weather patterns, but really that's just one aspect of changes in the Arctic climate – which has seen rapid warming compared to other parts of the world. Those changes mean there is less of a difference in temperature between the Arctic and tropics, which could impact the position of the jet stream."
The scientists also debated how melting sea ice should be better incorporated into climate models, as well as how observational data – for example, deep-ocean temperatures – could be improved to help their understanding of the potential relationship between climate change and the recent run of inclement weather and record-breaking extremes.
Len Shaffrey, a climate modeller based at the University of Reading who is also currently investigating possible links between Arctic sea ice retreat and European weather, said: "There are some fascinating science questions emerging about the influences on our weather, for example, from natural variations in ocean temperature. There is also some evidence that the record low amounts of Arctic sea ice have influenced patterns of European and British weather, but this evidence is not yet conclusive either way."
The scientific debate about the role of the jet stream – the fast "river" of meandering, 10km-high air which greatly determines UK weather - is intensifying. This week researchers from the University of Sheffield published a study in the International Journal of Climatology showing how "unusual changes" to the jet stream caused the "exceptional" melting of the Greenland ice sheet during the summer of 2012. Scientists say they must now determine what is causing these "displacements", as they are known, in the jet stream.
Tourist bosses were trying to find silver linings. David Leslie, a spokesman for the tourism agency Visit Britain, said people did not come to the UK for the weather alone. "The weather here is as unpredictable as anywhere else," he added.
"The days of the UK being seen as a foggy, wet destination have passed. Hot, cold or mildly pleasant, the weather is not a deterrent for overseas visitors coming here to enjoy Britain's tourism offering, which remains the best in the world."Leo Hickman
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New documentary Grasp The Nettle shows how state inaction on climate change fosters direct action on society's margins
Two years before the Occupy movement sprang forth in New York and London, a motley group of land rights activists occupied a piece of disused land in west London to create an alternative model of moneyless, sustainable living. Little did they know they were about to embark on an extraordinary journey, at once harrowing and inspiring, that would take them into the heart of Westminster.
Dean Puckett's new documentary, Grasp the Nettle, follows the bewildering and even amusing exploits of this group over a one year and three month period. The result is a powerful film which raises often unsettling questions - not just about the draconian trajectory of state policy, but about the potential pitfalls of activism.
"We are creating an ecovillage community in the heart of this urban environment so we can promote and project a new way of living."
So declares the unofficial leader, Simon, on the day his motley band squat on an abandoned field in the midst of suburban Kew Bridge. The land had languished for over 12 years, a dumping ground for the rubbish of passing pedestrians.
As Dean watches on with his camera, in the next few months the ecovillagers rapidly convert what had been an eyesore for locals into a thriving community hub, dedicated to living ecologically without money.
They are a diverse bunch - mostly young people who have just emerged out of education and, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, are uncertain of their future as well as disillusioned with the status quo. The film demonstrates that today's eco-activists aren't just concerned about climate change and the environment, but are simultaneously worried about foreign policy and the 'War on Terror'.
One of them, Gareth, confesses that his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is his primary reason for being in the village - to avoid being part of a system which oppresses in many different ways. Another, known only as 'Friend', puts it this way:
"By digging up the past, and burning it in the present, we are burning the future: big time."
In an effort to learn more about the Kew Bridge Eco Village, Dean gives up his job and flat to move in, and ends up becoming part of the movement he wants to understand.
The film captures many moments of idyllic beauty, as the ecovillagers use the branches of hazel trees and recycled rubbish to build 'benders' - small, insulated homes; go "skipping" every few days to pick up food thrown away in supermarket bins; build a manually operated shower and compost toilet; create a local seed bank to facilitate local food growing; and help distribute sandwiches thrown away by central London cafes to the city's homeless.
The ecovillage quickly becomes more than a model of sustainable community living and a social hub - it also begins to attract people who already live on the margins of society: homeless people, the unemployed, alcoholics. Some of them are invited to stay - one, Ieaun, who describes losing his job a year earlier and sleeping rough, explains that he was welcomed to live in the village "to feel the power of the earth and of working together."
Then David Shayler arrives. Yes - the former MI5 whistleblower. The years of being pressurised by the security services appears, however, to have taken its toll. Shayler claims to be the latest incarnation of Jesus and the Messiah and now goes by the name "Dolores Kane".
When another ecovillager, Can, questions David's behaviour as he attracts increasing media attention, worried that his presence will be spun to portray the project as a cult, Shayler says:
"Well look at it this way. If you're bothered by a tranny and not bothered by people getting white phosphorous dropped on them in Gaza, you've got a problem."
But Shayler is the least of their worries. It soon turns out that the site is owned by developers who are planning to build a tower block of flats there. The ecovillagers argue that the development is against the wishes of the local community - and several local residents who visit the ecovillage including families corroborate this.
Tensions spark as the ecovillagers grapple with how to deal with the increasing numbers of homeless alcoholics creating chaos while trying to stave off the fast-approaching prospect of eviction. The film takes another turn when several of the villagers begin protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan outside Downing Street, carrying banners reading "We respect the soldiers. We do not support the war" and "Soldiers, come home alive!"
Eventually, they connect with veteran antiwar activist Maria Gallastegui, who is camped permanently outside the House of Commons at Parliament Square with the late Brian Haw. A dozen odd Kew Bridge veterans move in with her to create a "Democracy Village", fusing their environmental campaigning directly with a defiant politics of peace.
But fault-lines emerge as we witness glimpses of a longstanding feud between Maria and Brian, intensified by a constant barrage of police harassment, and a steady influx of homeless people seeking sanctuary from hostels which they describe as unsafe due to routine violence. As such, the film ratchets up from showcasing the admirable ideals of living sustainably and communally, to illustrating the whirlwind of turmoil that results as these ideals are forced to confront not just with government and private power - but also with themselves.
By the time it reaches its riveting climax, the film forces us to reflect on what makes activism worth doing - and how the internal conflicts of social movements can often be their own undoing.
But more than that, the film left me with the disconcerting sense that these activists have a point. Is something deeply wrong with our conventional democracy, when it simply cannot tolerate grassroots efforts to create self-reliant alternatives - alternatives that oppose the state's and corporations' ill-conceived decisions to doom us all to environmental catastrophe?
"We don't have the freedom to live as an ecological society", says Simon: "What's happening in the Democracy Village is a microcosm of the government's philosophy of solving problems by using force. We need to go beyond force and develop new ways of creating change."
Grasp The Nettle is being premiered at the Open CityDocs Fest in the Cinema Tent on Torrington Square, London WC1E, on Friday 21 JuneNafeez Ahmed
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This week Greens Senator Larissa Waters proposed significant amendments to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Some sought to better protect farmers and water resources from gas extraction. Others were aimed at protecting national parks and strengthening the Federal Government’s power to protect the environment. All were voted down in the Senate by the combined forces of the ALP and the Coalition. Their failure has profound significance for the protection of our critical environmental assets.
The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was passed by the Howard government. It was certainly not a radical move. The environmental NGOs and leading environmental scientists were divided at the time about whether the legislation was even worth supporting. Many argued that the new law was so weak it would achieve very little.
The main criticisms were that the Act provided limited conditions which would allow a Commonwealth Minister to intervene and overrule state approval for a development, and that even if those strict criteria were met it would still be optional for the minister to intervene. While a responsible Minister could act if the science showed clearly that a proposed development would damage the habitat of an endangered species or do serious damage to a threatened ecosystem, the law does not require that intervention.
One of the few instances of the Act being used by a Commonwealth Minister was Peter Garrett’s action to stop the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam on the Mary River. That dam had been proposed by Peter Beattie at the height of the drought-induced water shortages. With the change in the leadership of the Queensland government to Anna Bligh and the breaking of the drought by flooding rains, there was almost a sense of relief at the state level when Garrett canned the project. The cash-strapped Bligh government was reduced to selling public assets to fund the infrastructure demands of rapid population growth. It could not afford to pour money into a dam that wasn’t really needed. The project had also become a political embarrassment because of the evidence it would have been environmentally damaging.
The site of the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam Flickr/Patrick McCully
A review of the Act by experienced departmental head Alan Hawke identified several major shortcomings and recommended significant amendments. But neither the Rudd nor the Gillard government acted to strengthen the law along the lines Hawke recommended.
There was recently a serious move to weaken still further the capacity of the Australian government to intervene to protect the environment. The calls for “cutting green tape” constituted an explicit campaign to push the Commonwealth to abdicate its responsibility and cave in to the notoriously short-sighted pro-development agenda of state administrations. The Newman government in Queensland and the Barnett government in Western Australia have demonstrated clearly why we need a Commonwealth capacity to overrule irresponsible state approvals. The possibility of an Abbott-led Coalition government has led to increasing concern that the limited Commonwealth powers will not be used.
So the moves to tighten the EPBC Act were very important. The changes introduced by the government allow Commonwealth assessment of coal seam gas operations and large coal mines, but do not extend to shale gas and so-called “tight gas”. (While natural gas is normally extracted from relatively porous strata, “tight gas” is trapped in rocks that require extensive fracturing to release the gas.)
The further amendments proposed by Senator Waters, who was a lawyer working for the Environmental Defenders Office before being elected as Queensland’s first Green senator, would have given landholders the right to block proposed coal seam gas developments and would have given the Commonwealth explicit power to assess the impact of shale gas mining on water systems.
But the most fundamental change was the proposal to add national parks to the “matters of environmental significance”, which justify Commonwealth intervention.
The move was provoked by the recent actions of state governments to allow cattle grazing, mining, logging and shooting in national parks. Senator Waters argued that most people assume that the small fraction of our land set aside as national parks – about 4% – is protected from harmful development. But the attempt by the Victorian government to allow cattle to graze in the high Alps has been followed by the Queensland government allowing grazing of cattle and proposing to go back to logging national parks, the Tasmanian government supporting mines in the Tarkine and the continuation of some logging activities, and the NSW government allowing shooting.
The existing legislation does not give the Commonwealth power to intervene to protect a national park unless the proposed activity can be demonstrated to directly harm biodiversity. The proposed amendment would have greatly strengthened the hand of current and future Commonwealth Ministers to protect national parks from the sorts of proposals now being rolled out by state governments.
It is hard to understand why the government would not accept the amendments, unless it is trying to distance itself from the Greens in the lead-up to the September election.
Ian Lowe is President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
There’s a longstanding critique of the environmental movement which argues that somewhere along the road between the fight against the Franklin Dam and the fight for a carbon price everything changed. Environment campaigners cleaned up. Suited up. Lost their soul.
Protesters at yesterday’s anti-wind turbine rally in Canberra appeared to have followed a similar path. I went along to the Stop These Things anti-wind turbine rally (Stop These Things is an excellent, excellent name by the way) as someone interested in both the role of science in the anti-wind turbine movement, and as someone interested in the dynamics of protest politics more generally. But these academic motivations mask the fact that I also like to quietly troll my political opponents, and this looked like an occasion for a little mischievous fun.
I’ll admit it: I am in favour of wind turbines – subject to appropriate planning and environmental control – and I hoped that those against them would unveil a litany of strange opinions and bizarre connections.
What struck me was a rally that was, in essence, a disciplined repetition of modern greens politics.
Not opposed to renewables, but… Will Grant
Where I and the assembled media looked for signs screaming “Ditch the Witch”, “Green Genocide” and “9/11 was an Inside Job”, every sign and t-shirt I saw was remarkable in its discipline, remarkably politically correct. Not one sign attacked Julia Gillard. Not one talked of grand conspiracies. Not one denied the scientific consensus on climate change.
Instead I saw “Wind turbines forced us to leave our homes” and “Yes solar … No wind farms”, and community based arguments such as “Collector says no to wind farms”. There were some antagonistic examples (“Stop the spin” and “sWINDle”) but even these were relatively innocuous. Certainly, the protestors pointed to a constellation of problems – health effects, impacts on birds, lack of reference to native title, high supposed costs and low supposed power generation – but none strayed from a tightly permitted pattern.
Among the speakers, a similar pattern was repeated. None – even the arch climate change fool Alan Jones – brought up or denied the science on climate change.
There were some slips and odd moments – Alan Jones trotted out a neat little parable about how the Soviets used to send the people to the gulags, but now we send the gulags to the people; the Citizens’ Electoral Council sought, once again, to convince me that the Pentaverate were using wind turbines to depopulate rural Australia. But in the main, people were – to use the modern marketers’ term so clearly in evidence in the planning – remarkably on message.
Much of the reporting of the rally has talked of it as a failure. The Herald Sun reported that “Alan Jones has lost a battle of the ‘wind wars’… failing to draw large crowds”, The Weekly Times Now called it a “flop”. The Age leapt on Alan Jones’ acceptance that “There aren’t a lot of people here”. Photos have gone around comparing the rally with a pro renewables rally held at roughly the same time, showing a 10:1 difference in attendance.
I’m not so sanguine.
We can assess these duelling rallies by attendance, by media coverage, by the passion of the attendees. Such measures are vaguely useful, but they miss out on what has happened here.
This rally showed skilled political organisation, connected directly with key on-the-ground communities. You could describe Stop These Things as an astroturf organisation guided by skilled political operators in the Institute for Public Affairs, in turn connected with a wider array of anti-environmental industries. Many others have done so, and I don’t particularly care to add to that discussion here. (Indeed, critiques like this are often used in precisely the wrong way: to damn the group in their potential supporters’ eyes, rather than change our own behaviour. The potential supporters of Stop These Things couldn’t care less about the IPA.)
What I do want to say is that those in favour of renewables should recognise groups like Stop These Things for the skilled – and dangerous – political operators they are.
In essence, the anti-wind turbine movement already has the near ineluctable force of nimbyism on its side: I don’t want them near me because they make me sick/ruin my sleep/kill birds I like/ruin my view/trample the lands of my ancestors/make me pee funny/make my neighbour rich. (Scientific friends, please note that I am making no argument about the veracity of these claims, except to say that those who believe such things certainly do believe such things). Stop These Things is now adding a layer of networking, guidance, strategic support and, potentially, funding.
You could call this nimbyism 2.0 … Or you could just call this just another strand of modern environmental political activism.
Here’s the thing: unless those in favour of wind turbines recognise and deal with this threat, networks like Stop These Things will add significantly – and perhaps ruinously – to the risk profile of every potential wind farm development. This is, quite interestingly, exactly the strategy of diametrically opposed groups like 350.org, who have sought to undermine the fossil fuel industries by casting them as a risky long term investment. City people rallying in favour of wind power simply isn’t going to affect that calculation at all.
While the Stop These Things rally networked slowly under the shadow of Parliament House, the rival pro-renewables rally ran with the Twitter hashtag #actonfacts. I’m with them in spirit, but this is a deeply flawed approach. Why?
Here’s a fact: we don’t act on facts. None of us do. Not Richard Dawkins, not Christopher Hitchens, not me, not you, not Meryl Dorey and not the activists in Stop These Things.
If we want to support the uptake of renewable energy, then we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than simply demanding that people do what the scientists tell them.
Down with this sort of thing! Careful now. Channel 4
Will J Grant does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Juliet Eilperin drops this vial of nitroglycerin into her latest Washington Post piece:
… according to several people familiar with his private remarks at the home of clean-tech entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, Obama expressed concerns about the political pain involved, saying that “dial testing” of his State of the Union speech showed that the favorability ratings “plummeted” when he vowed to act on climate change if Congress refused to do so.
Not exactly “profiles in courage.” Not exactly “the Environmental President.”
This may not come as a big surprise given how Obama’s once soaring rhetoric on the moral urgency of climate action has recently crash landed.
But what makes this particularly feckless is that dial testing is all but meaningless. Compared to using polls to determine political positions — a common if widely criticized practice — using dial tests to do so is like consulting your horoscope.
For those who aren’t political junkies, I recommend this introduction, “What Are Those Squiggly Lines on CNN Telling You?”
Dial-testing relies on hand-held dials that can be turned to register positive and negative reactions in real time. Participants in the focus group — 30 is a typical size — sit together and are instructed to continually adjust the dial to reflect how they react to a word, phrase, or sentence.
Here is a typical expert view of the value of dial group information:
Cliff Zukin, director of the public-policy program at Rutgers University and former head of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, argues that dial-testing is unhelpful and misleading. He points to the fact that the sample of voters is far smaller than even the tiniest poll.
“It has no scientific validity — it’s not a sample of anything that has generalized validity,” he says. What’s more, he argues, it introduces inaccurate numbers that assume a power of their own. “The problem with bad numbers is that people tend to believe their eyes.”
So the President is basing his climate policy decisions on something that has no scientific validity. Awesome. Perhaps next time it’ll be Tarot cards. Or denier blogs, which are much the same thing.
Even worse, it’s entirely possible that respondents give a negative dial reaction for something that in fact works.
CNN’s focus group is run by Rita Kirk, who concedes:
… there’s no way to know if they represent participants’ true reactions or what they think they should feel — as Kirk acknowledges, a significant body of research shows negative ads work even though voters, independents especially, claim to hate them.
What’s more, the process of dialing itself changes how the participants experience the debate. “[Participants] say they pay more attention, because they are focusing on the words,” says Kirk.
Assuming team Obama is only interested what independents think, it should be no surprise that many would have an instantaneous negative reaction when Obama says he might act alone. Independents are, by choice, not part of any political party, and they are well known to love pledges of bipartisanship. Obama, of course, has spent more time pushing the benefits of bipartisanship himself than explaining how and why Congress has been obstructionist on climate change.
Indeed, as we have reported, “Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009.”
How popular would it be if Obama were to pledge to enforce laws already on the books to reduce carbon pollution and advance clean energy? Stanford public opinion expert Jon Krosnick has found that candidates “may actually enhance turnout as well as attract voters over to their side by discussing climate change.”
Perhaps his second inaugural address should have gone like this: “Since the failure to act would betray our children and countless future generations, we will respond to the threat of climate change — if a small group of people listening to this speech like how I’ve phrased the idea.”
- Independents, Other Republicans Split With Tea-Party Extremists on Global Warming
- Pew Poll: Clean Energy Is A Political Wedge Among Republicans
- Gallup: 65% of Americans Have More Guts Than Obama, Support ‘Imposing Mandatory Controls On CO2 Emissions’
- Poll: Large Majority Of Americans Understand Global Warming Made Several Major Extreme Weather Events Worse