US President Donald Trump has followed through on his promise to undo Barack Obama’s climate policies, signing an executive order to review his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan and any other regulations that “burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources”. The move potentially paves the way for the United States to walk away from its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.
America’s leadership on climate change has been patchy at best, yet under Obama the country made an important diplomatic shift – one that now looks to be fundamentally unravelling. Trump’s executive order, released on Tuesday, aims to dismantle the network of institutions and laws that regulate greenhouse emissions, and those that conduct globally important research to track climate change. The consequences, both at home and abroad, will be severe.
The order comes as little surprise. Trump, after all, has previously claimed that climate change is a conspiracy perpetrated by the Chinese government to gain economic advantage at America’s expense, and made a campaign promise to undo the Paris deal. His administration has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive of ExxonMobil. Trump also greenlit the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.
Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) caused alarm among environmental activists and EPA staff alike. Pruitt has a history of suing the EPA during his time as Attorney General of Oklahoma, and hundreds of recently released emails attest to his close relationship with the oil and gas industry.
The new executive order signals that Trump does not want climate research to be carried out by government agencies such as the EPA, NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a speech to Congress earlier this month, he outlined plans to slash the EPA’s budget. He has also pledged to reinvigorate the coal industry, and the Republican-controlled House has already rolled back an Obama-era regulation that prevented coal companies dumping their waste in rivers.
China leading the climate race
The irony is that while Trump may believe that the emissions targets agreed upon in Paris would weaken the US economy, particularly against China, the reverse is actually closer to the truth.
As my colleague Ben Habib recently argued, China now leads the world in renewable energy investment, a trend that will see it dominate the market in the decades to come. The Paris targets are one way that other countries can similarly encourage clean energy investment.
Meanwhile, China’s plans to move away from its heavy use of coal-fired electricity generation means the price of coal will continue to fall, making America’s cherished coal industry less profitable and exacerbating the economic and social costs to coal mining communities. With many analysts warning of a potential “carbon bubble”, Trump is in danger of backing the wrong horse.
The Chinese government’s desire to move away from fossil fuels is driven partly by serious domestic pollution and health issues. Instead of cutting research funds, the US should pay similar attention to the health of its own citizens.
The Pentagon has repeatedly warned that climate change is a threat to global security that will make existing challenges even harder to deal with.
Competition over scarce resources such as food and water have already contributed to the civil war in Syria, and increasingly violent conflicts over food and farmland in the Horn of Africa. These conflicts have contributed to a growing mass migration crisis, and longer droughts and irregular rainfall in agricultural regions will impact global food prices.
People in the Pacific Islands will likely lose their homes to sea level rise, potentially adding further to the migration of refugees from around the world. Some of the poorest countries in the world, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, will also face the impacts of sea-level rise, yet lack the resources to adapt to the changing environment. More frequent and intense storms and extreme weather events such as cyclones will create humanitarian crises that will require an international response.
Many of these crises will require an American response, whether through the provision of disaster relief and support, or through managing increased migration. When it comes to violent conflict as a result of climate-related tensions, it is likely that America would face immense global pressure to intervene.
It is clear that Trump has less appetite for international intervention than his predecessors. But nor does the White House appear to place any value on managing America’s own vulnerability to climate change.
If Trump’s climate policy takedown is successful, he may well find himself presiding over a country that is weakened economically, socially and politically, both at home and abroad.
The Night Parrot is unquestionably one of Australia’s most enigmatic, elusive and enthralling species. The final frontier of Australian ornithology, this cryptic parrot eluded dedicated expeditions to find it for nearly half a century.
Last week, a momentous chapter in the Night Parrot story was written, with the first photograph of a live Night Parrot in Western Australia. The photos come in the wake of several other recent sightings, including the parrot’s rediscovery in Queensland in 2013.
Despite media reports, the parrot has never been officially listed as extinct, with sporadic evidence of its existence throughout the 20th century.
But now we know for sure that the parrots are alive and found across the continent, we can move on to making sure they remain so in the future.
We know that Night Parrots favour spinifex or tussock grasslands, often close to inland wetland systems. But the areas of potential habitat are vast throughout inland Australia.
It has never been listed as “presumed extinct” or “extinct”. Reliable ongoing reports and the well-known cryptic nature of the species meant that the ornithological community considered it likely to have survived, albeit incredibly hard to spot.
The Night Parrot has been known to exist in WA since at least 2005, when a colleague and I clinched the first peer-accepted sighting in recent Australian history during an environmental impact assessment for the Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Cloudbreak mine.
This was by no means the first sighting of Night Parrots in WA, with regular and reliable reports since at least the 1980s. But until 2005 none had provided sufficient detail to eliminate other possibilities. Further sightings have been monitored at another location in the arid zone since 2009 and that work is pending publication.
The significance of the latest find is immense. A dedicated team of birdwatchers (Adrian Boyle, Bruce Greatwich, Nigel Jackett and George Swann) has confirmed the existence of a population in WA. The discovery, resulting from a well-planned expedition, is the start of a real dialogue about Night Parrot conservation in WA.
The latest record cements the fact that Night Parrots are present at several locations in WA and potentially throughout arid Australia, including in regions rich in mineral resources.
In contrast to the Queensland populations, which have so far been found in national parks and pastoral leases, the WA situation sets up a quandary for how to manage development, Night Parrots and mining.
Mining and conservation
Our 2005 sighting was important because, given the parrot’s endangered status, FMG was required to provide offsets for potential disturbance to Night Parrot habitat. The offsets included avoiding areas of likely habitat on the Fortescue Marshes, and funding follow-up surveys throughout the areas surrounding the proposed mine. These unfortunately did not find further evidence of Night Parrots.
Research offsets from FMG also funded the writing of a national research plan for Night Parrots. This was later followed by on-ground research on Night Parrots at Pullen Pullen Reserve in Queensland, the population found by naturalist John Young in 2013.
Recent developments by other WA resource companies have seldom considered Night Parrots. My personal experience is that surveys usually look for endangered mammals such as Northern Quolls and Bilbies, but rarely search properly for Night Parrots. This is likely due to two main reasons.
The first is the incredibly cryptic nature of the Night Parrot. Clearly the species has evaded detection for so long because it is difficult to find.
The second is what I term “the Thylacine factor”. The only equivalent species in Australia that has the same degree of scepticism and mythology is the Thylacine.
Thylacines have (so far) not been rediscovered. But developers, consultants and regulators take the same attitude to Night Parrot sightings. The parrots are often seen as a mythical animal that doesn’t exist. The idea of looking for them is met with mirth.
Finding the parrots
Recent findings from research by Steve Murphy in Queensland, and other recent work in WA, are slowly providing us with the tools to overcome both of these issues. With better knowledge of their specific habitat requirements, including a need for long-unburned grasslands close to water sources, we can reduce the daunting challenge of Night Parrots potentially existing anywhere that spinifex is found.
The recent release of calls from the Queensland population and a new recording of calls from the WA population provide the most powerful tool yet for doing surveys. Playing back the calls can be used to elicit a response from any Night Parrots in the area. The call can also be used to identify calls from deployed remote recording devices.
As more populations are discovered and more evidence becomes available, this will help convince the public and decision-makers that the parrots are (hopefully) found across a wide range and need careful management, despite the difficulty of observing them.
Let’s hope government bodies will strongly enforce the requirement to search for Night Parrots in all areas of potential habitat within their known current and historic range. This should ensure that we don’t lose any parrots before they are even found.
Yet among this growing destruction there is a degree of resilience to climate change, as Australian animals and plants evolve and adapt.
Some of this resilience is genetic, at the DNA level. Natural selection favours forms of genes that help organisms withstand hotter and drier conditions more effectively.
Over time, the environmental selection for certain forms of genes over others leads to genetic changes. These genetic changes can be complex, involving many genes interacting together, but they are sufficient to make organisms highly tolerant to extreme conditions.
Some of this resilience is unrelated to DNA. These are “plastic” changes – temporary changes in organisms’ physical and biochemical functions that help them deal with adverse conditions or shifts in the timing of environmental events.
Plastic changes occur more quickly than genetic changes but are not permanent – the organisms return to their previous state once the environment shifts back. These changes also may not be enough to protect organisms from even more extreme climates.
What about Australia?
In Australia there is evidence of both genetic and plastic adaptation.
Some of the first evidence of genetic adaptation under climate change have been in vinegar flies on the east coast of Australia. These flies have a gene that encodes the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase. This gene has two major forms: the tropical form and the temperate form. Over the past 30 years, the tropical form of the gene has become more common at the expense of the temperate one.
Plastic adaptation due to climate change has been demonstrated in common brown butterflies in southern Australia. Female butterflies are emerging from their cocoons earlier as higher temperatures have been speeding up their growth and development by 1.6 days every decade. According to overseas research, this faster development allows butterfly caterpillars to take advantage of earlier plant growth.
In many cases, it is not clear if the adaptation is genetic or plastic.
The average body size of Australian birds has changed over the the past 100 years. Usually, when comparing birds of the same species, birds from the tropics are smaller than those from temperate areas. In several widespread species, however, the birds from temperate areas have recently become smaller. This might be the direct result of environmental changes or a consequence of natural selection on the genes that affect size.
In the case of long-lived species like eucalypts, it is hard to see any adaptive changes. However, there is evidence from experimental plots that eucalypts have the potential to adapt.
Different eucalypt species from across Australia were planted together in experimental forestry plots located in various environments. These plots have unwittingly become climate change adaptation experiments. By monitoring the plots, we can identify species that are better at growing and surviving in extreme climatic conditions.
Plot results together with other forms of DNA-based evidence indicate that some trees unexpectedly grow and survive much better, and are therefore likely to survive into the future.
We still have much to learn about the resilience of our flora and fauna.
There will always be species with low resilience or slow adaptive ability. Nevertheless, plastic and genetic changes can provide some resilience, which will change the predictions of likely losses in biodiversity.
Much like how our worst weeds and pests adapted to local climate conditions, as demonstrated many years ago, our local plants and animals will also adapt.
Species with short generation times – a short time between one generation (the parent) and the next (the offspring) – are able to adapt more quickly than species with longer lifespans and generation times.
For species with short generation times, recent models suggest that the ability to adapt may help reduce the impacts of climate change and decrease local extinction rates.
However, species with long generation times and species that cannot easily move to more habitable environments continue to have a high risk of extinction under climate change.
In those cases, management strategies, such as increasing the prevalence of gene forms helpful for surviving extreme conditions and moving species to locations to which they are better adapted, can help species survive.
Unfortunately, this means doing more than simply protecting nature, the hallmark of our biodiversity strategy to date. We need to act quickly to help our animals and plants adapt and survive.
In July 2018, Queensland will launch a container refund scheme, in a bid to boost recycling and reduce litter and pollution.
It will join South Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales (later this year) and other places around the world in offering a small refund on all eligible drink containers deposited at designated collection points.
Many of the details have been decided already, including the size of the refund: 10c a bottle.
But is Queensland missing a trick here? Economic evidence suggests that the scheme could be cheaper to run, and boost recycling more, if it was run as a lottery instead, with every recycled bottle representing a “ticket” to a prize draw.
In it to win it
Boosting recycling relies on people changing their behaviour. One of the strongest drivers of behavioural change is economics; that’s why container refund schemes exist at all.
But economists also know that the type and size of this financial reward can have a large bearing on people’s behaviour. For many decades, researchers have focused on working out which rewards prompt the most effort. One key question is whether participants respond better to small, reliable rewards, or to being offered a chance of a big windfall.
Research suggests that contests can be easily designed to incite higher levels of effort than the more humdrum piece-rate rewards. Such contests have already been shown to work well in other environmental contexts, such as allocating pollution permits to companies.
Instead of getting 10c per container, Queenslanders could instead be given an electronic ticket for each container recycled. These tickets – which could perhaps be linked to a householder’s council rates account or other personal identifier – could then be entered into a quarterly lottery. The state government would need to decide on the size and number of prizes, as well as the eligibility rules.
Eyes on the prize
Several benefits are clear. First, there is evidence that it is very easy to incite more recycling using a contest approach.
Lotteries are also more flexible – the prizes can be adjusted relatively easily to increase or decrease participation. If recycling rates are too low, the prize value in the next lottery could be increased. In contrast, adjusting the 10c container refund would be far more difficult once it has already been set up.
The scheme might end up costing less overall, too. As the lottery may have only one prize (or a few), the administrative costs would be minimal compared with a per-unit payment. Depending on the size and number of the prizes, the prize fund could also be smaller than the cost of paying millions of 10c refunds.
Finally, the government can control the geographical placement of container points. This would allow it to influence the number of participants and also the ability to focus on citizens that may have certain preferences for recycling, or risk preferences that enjoy lottery contests. Indeed, research shows that risk attitudes and citizens’ preferences have an important impact on contest outcomes.
A poorly designed lottery might conceivably work too well – recycling rates might become so high that they overwhelm the infrastructure or cause a glut of recycled materials. This has been shown to be possible when lottery-style contests are used in other environmental regulatory contexts. For example, contests that use pollution reduction as a lottery criterion can be too successful – driving down emissions hugely but at a significant cost to economic output.
Choosing the right-sized prize is crucial. If it’s too small, few people will be enticed to change their behaviour and take part. But if it’s too big, many people might stop using their kerbside recycling facilities altogether, “saving up” their recycling for the lottery. This would present a problem of “additionality”: the scheme would be capturing lots of bottles that would have been recycled anyway.
These are mere details, and the challenges of getting it right shouldn’t stop the Queensland government seriously considering giving the idea a go. It might make recycling a whole lot more exciting.