Plants are going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical norm



Plant extinctions have skyrocketed, driven in large part by land clearing and climate change.
Graphic Node/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Jaco Le Roux, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, Stellenbosch University

Earth is seeing an unprecedented loss of species, which some ecologists are calling a sixth mass extinction. In May, a United Nations report warned that 1 million species are threatened by extinction. More recently, 571 plant species were declared extinct.

But extinctions have occurred for as long as life has existed on Earth. The important question is, has the rate of extinction increased? Our research, published today in Current Biology, found some plants have been going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical average – with devastating consequences for unique species.




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Earth’s sixth mass extinction has begun, new study confirms


Measuring the rate of extinction

“How many species are going extinct” is not an easy question to answer. To start, accurate data on contemporary extinctions are lacking from most parts of the world. And species are not evenly distributed – for example, Madagascar is home to around 12,000 plant species, of which 80% are endemic (found nowhere else). England, meanwhile, is home to only 1,859 species, of which 75 (just 4%) are endemic.

Areas like Madagascar, which have exceptional rates of biodiversity at severe risk from human destruction, are called “hotspots”. Based purely on numbers, biodiversity hotspots are expected to lose more species to extinction than coldspots such as England.

But that doesn’t mean coldspots aren’t worth conserving – they tend to contain completely unique plants.

We are part of an international team that recently examined 291 modern plant extinctions between biodiversity hot- and coldspots. We looked at the underlying causes of extinction, when they happened, and how unique the species were. Armed with this information, we asked how extinctions differ between biodiversity hot- and coldspots.

Unsurprisingly, we found hotspots to lose more species, faster, than coldspots. Agriculture and urbanisation were important drivers of plant extinctions in both hot- and coldspots, confirming the general belief that habitat destruction is the primary cause of most extinctions. Overall, herbaceous perennials such as grasses are particularly vulnerable to extinction.

However, coldspots stand to lose more uniqueness than hotspots. For example, seven coldspot extinctions led to the disappearance of seven genera, and in one instance, even a whole plant family. So clearly, coldspots also represent important reservoirs of unique biodiversity that need conservation.

We also show that recent extinction rates, at their peak, were 350 times higher than historical background extinction rates. Scientists have previously speculated that modern plant extinctions will surpass background rates by several thousand times over the next 80 years.

So why are our estimates of plant extinction so low?

First, a lack of comprehensive data restricts inferences that can be made about modern extinctions. Second, plants are unique in – some of them live for an extraordinarily long time, and many can persist in low densities due to unique adaptations, such as being able to reproduce in the absence of partners.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where we only have five living individuals of Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) left in the wild. These iconic trees of Madagascar are one of only nine living species of their genus and can live for hundreds of years. Therefore, a few individual trees may be able to “hang in there” (a situation commonly referred to as “extinction debt”) but will inevitably become extinct in the future.

Finally, declaring a plant extinct is challenging, simply because they’re often very difficult to spot, and we can’t be sure we’ve found the last living individuals. Indeed, a recent report found 431 plant species previously thought to be extinct have been rediscovered. So, real plant extinction rates and future extinctions are likely to far exceed current estimates.

There is no doubt that biodiversity loss, together with climate change, are some of the biggest challenges faced by humanity. Along with human-driven habitat destruction, the effects of climate change are expected to be particularly severe on plant biodiversity. Current estimates of plant extinctions are, without a doubt, gross underestimates.




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However, the signs are crystal clear. If we were to condense the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year-old history into one calendar year, then life evolved somewhere in June, dinosaurs appeared somewhere around Christmas, and the Anthropocene starts within the last millisecond of New Year’s Eve. Modern plant extinction rates that exceed historical rates by hundreds of times over such a brief period will spell disaster for our planet’s future.The Conversation

Jaco Le Roux, Associate Professor, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Researcher, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Postdoctoral research fellow, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Catedrático de universidad en el área de Botánica, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, Emeritus professor, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, PhD Candidate, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Amazon is on fire – here are 5 things you need to know



Huge fires are raging across multiple regions of the Amazon Basin.
Guaira Maia/ISA

Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo, University of Sydney

Record fires are raging in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, with more than 2,500 fires currently burning. They are collectively emitting huge amounts of carbon, with smoke plumes visible thousands of kilometres away.

Fires in Brazil increased by 85% in 2019, with more than half in the Amazon region, according to Brazil’s space agency.

This sudden increase is likely down to land degradation: land clearing and farming reduces the availability of water, warms the soil and intensifies drought, combining to make fires more frequent and more fierce.




Read more:
Amazon rainforests that were once fire-proof have become flammable


1. Why the Amazon is burning

The growing number of fires are the result of illegal forest clearning to create land for farming. Fires are set deliberately and spread easily in the dry season.

The desire for new land for cattle farming has been the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since the 1970s.

Ironically, farmers may not need to clear new land to graze cattle. Research has found a significant number of currently degraded and unproductive pastures that could offer new opportunities for livestock.

New technical developments also offer the possibility of transforming extensive cattle ranches into more compact and productive farms – offering the same results while consuming less natural resources.

2. Why the world should care

The devastating loss of biodiversity does not just affect Brazil. The loss of Amazonian vegetation directly reduces rain across South America and other regions of the world.

The planet is losing an important carbon sink, and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere. If we can’t stop deforestation in the Amazon, and the associated fires, it raises real questions about our ability to reach the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.

The Brazilian government has set an ambitious target to stop illegal deforestation and restore 4.8 million hectares of degraded Amazonian land by 2030. If these goals are not carefully addressed now, it may not be possible to meaningfully mitigate climate change.

3. What role politics has played

Since 2014, the rate at which Brazil has lost Amazonian forest has expanded by 60%. This is the result of economic crises and the dismantling of Brazilian environmental regulation and ministerial authority since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

Bolsonaro’s political program includes controversial programs that critics claim will threaten both human rights and the environment. One of his first acts as president was to pass ministerial reforms that greatly weakened the Ministry of the Environment




Read more:
Amazon deforestation, already rising, may spike under Bolsonaro


Regulations and programs for conservation and traditional communities’ rights have been threatened by economic lobbying.

Over the last months, Brazil’s government has announced the reduction and extinction of environmental agencies and commissions, including the body responsible for combating deforestation and fires.

4. How the world should react

Although Brazil’s national and state governments are obviously on the front line of Amazon protection, international actors have a key role to play.

International debates and funding, alongside local interventions and responses, have reshaped the way land is used in the tropics. This means any government attempts to further dismantle climate and conservation policies in the Amazon may have significant diplomatic and economic consequences.

For example, trade between the European Union and South American trading blocs that include Brazil is increasingly infused with an environmental agenda. Any commercial barriers to Brazil’s commodities will certainly attract attention: agribusiness is responsible for more than 20% of the country’s GDP.

Brazil’s continued inability to stop deforestation has also reduced international funding for conservation. Norway and Germany, by far the largest donors to the Amazon Fund, have suspended their financial support.

These international commitments and organisations are likely to exert considerable influence over Brazil to maintain existing commitments and agreements, including restoration targets.




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The world protests as Amazon forests are opened to mining


5. There is a solution

Brazil has already developed a pioneering political framework to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Deforestation peaked in 2004, but dramatically reduced following environmental governance, and supply change interventions aiming to end illegal deforestation.

Environmental laws were passed to develop a national program to protect the Amazon, with clearing rates in the Amazon falling by more than two-thirds between 2004 and 2011.

Moreover, private global agreements like the Amazon Beef and Soy Moratorium, where companies agree not to buy soy or cattle linked to illegal deforestation, have also significantly dropped clearing rates.

We have financial, diplomatic and political tools we know will work to stop the whole-sale clearing of the Amazon, and in turn halt these devastating fires. Now it is time to use them.




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Huge wildfires in the Arctic and far North send a planetary warning


The Conversation


Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Catastrophic Queensland floods killed 600,000 cattle and devastated native species


Gabriel Crowley, James Cook University and Noel D Preece, James Cook University

In February, about 600,000 cattle were killed by catastrophic flooding across north Queensland’s Carpentaria Gulf plains.

The flood waters rose suddenly, forming a wall of water up to 70km wide. Record depths were reached along 500km of the Flinders River, submerging 25,000 square kilometres of country. Cattle were stranded. Many drowned.




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Even though cattleman Harry Batt lost 70% of his herd, he was more concerned about the wildlife. He said, “all the kangaroos, and bloody little marsupial mice and birds, they couldn’t handle it”.

Harry was right to be concerned. As our research, published today in Austral Ecology, reveals, floods sweeping Australia’s plains have disrupted native species for millions of years. Now, as climate change drives more intense flooding, we will see this effect intensify.

Flooding causes major disruptions to gene flow

February’s flood came ten years to the day after a far bigger flood on the adjoining river systems that submerged an area larger than Ireland. It was this flood that first drew our attention to the plight of native species.

Noel was asked by Northern Gulf Resource Management Group to survey wildlife in areas affected by the 2009 flood. Over the following four years, he found almost no ground-dwelling reptiles, despite them occurring elsewhere in the region. They appeared to have been washed away or drowned.

Biologists have long known that many species’ ranges are interrupted by the Gulf Plains. Hence, these floodplains are considered one of Australia’s most important biogeographic barriers: the Carpentarian Gap.

Many closely related species with a common ancestor are separated by this Gap, including the Golden-shouldered Parrot of Cape York Peninsula and the Hooded Parrot of the Northern Territory. They are thought to have separated around 7 million years ago.




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South-East Queensland is droughtier and floodier than we thought


The Gap also separates many other species, including birds, mammals, reptiles and butterflies, at the subspecies or genetic level. Even more species found on either side are just absent from the Gulf Plains.

Huge flooding across the Gulf Plains, including the Norman and Flinders Rivers, in February 2009.
NASA Worldview, CC BY-SA

Flood impacts are immense and under-appreciated

When biologists first tried to find a reason for these patterns, they only considered aridity. They proposed Australia’s arid zone expanded to the Gulf of Carpentaria during ice ages.

There is no evidence for this, but the misunderstanding is completely understandable.

Any dry-season visitor to the Gulf Plains will find a dry, inhospitable environment with few trees or shrubs for shade, cracked clay soils, and lots of flies. European explorers described the region as “God-forsaken”.

But it can be quite a different place in the wet season.

Rains in the Gulf are caused by the summer monsoonal troughs or cyclones. About once a decade, these generate massive downpours. Historical records show at least 14 major floods since 1870.

So, to us, it seemed floods rather than aridity could be the cause of the odd distributions of plants and animals.

We set out to see whether Noel’s findings could have been caused by flooding or whether other factors such as soil, vegetation or climate were more important.

We also wanted to know what other effects floods might have on the region’s ecosystem. Could floods, by eliminating trees and shrubs, be responsible for the hostile appearance of the region? Could ground-dwelling reptiles and birds be underrepresented, not just at Noel’s sites, but on floodplains across the area?

To find out, we divided the area into floodplains and higher-altitude land, and generated 10,000 random sites across the Gulf Plains. We extracted soil, vegetation and rainfall data from national information sources, and examined the patterns.

We found trees and shrubs were significantly less common on floodplains than on land above the flood zone, regardless of soil or rainfall, and tree cover was further reduced on cracking clays. We concluded the plain’s open, hostile appearance is caused by a combination of soils and flooding.

We then examined all gecko, skink and bird records from the Atlas of Living Australia.

We found ground-living reptiles and birds were much less common on the floodplains, regardless of vegetation or soil. As expected, reptiles were more sensitive to flooding than birds, which can fly to safety during floods.

Finally, we found the sites affected by the 2009 flood had significantly fewer geckos and skinks than other sites across the Gulf Plains.

Increased flooding from climate change could have major consequences

Our findings have evolutionary significance that extends into the future. Repeated disruption of species across their distributions affects gene flow and ultimately produces new species. If floods become more frequent, as expected under climate change, so might the rates at which new species form.

They also have serious land management implications. Climate change planning emphasises conserving river corridors as safe refuges from arid conditions. However, periodic scouring of many of the nation’s floodplains – expected to increase under climate change – means that this approach needs rethinking.




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We conclude that on the most arid occupied continent on Earth, unpredictable floods may cause the most disruption to the Australian plant and animal life.The Conversation

Gabriel Crowley, Adjunct Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University and Noel D Preece, Adjunct Asssociate Professor, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia wants to install military technology in Antarctica – here’s why that’s allowed



Technology, such as satellite systems, can be used for both military and scientific purposes.
Shutterstock

Tony Press, University of Tasmania

This week, the ABC revealed that the Australian Defence Force wants to roll out military technology in Antarctica.

The article raises the issue of what is, or is not, legitimate use of technology under the Antarctic Treaty. And it has a lot to do with how technology is used and provisions in the treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty was negotiated in the late 1950s, during the Cold War. Its purpose was to keep Antarctica separate from any Cold War conflict, and any arguments over sovereignty claims.




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The words used in the treaty reflect the global politics and technologies back then, before there were satellites and GPS systems. But its provisions and prohibitions are still relevant today.

The opening provision of the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, says:

Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, [among other things], any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.

The treaty also prohibits “any nuclear explosions in Antarctica” and disposal of radioactive waste. What the treaty does not do, however, is prohibit countries from using military support in their peaceful Antarctic activities.

Many Antarctic treaty parties, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the US, Chile and Argentina, rely on military support for their research. This includes the use of ships, aircraft, personnel and specialised services like aircraft ground support.

In fact, the opening provision of the treaty is clarified by the words:

the present Treaty shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.

It would be a breach of the treaty if “military exercises” were being conducted in Antarctica, or if military equipment was being used for belligerent purposes. But the treaty does not deal specifically with technology. It deals with acts or actions. The closest it gets to technology is the term “equipment” as used above.

Dual use technology

So-called “dual use” technology – which that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes – is allowed in Antarctica in support of science.




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The term is often used to describe technology such as the widely-used GPS, which relies on satellites and a worldwide system of ground-based receiving stations. Norway’s “Trollsat”, China’s “Beidou”, and Russia’s “GLONASS” systems are similar, relying on satellites and ground stations for their accuracy.

What’s more, modern science heavily relies on satellite technology and the use of Antarctic ground stations for data gathering and transmission.

And scientific equipment, like ice-penetrating radars, carried on aircraft, drones, and autonomous airborne vehicles are being used extensively to understand the Antarctic continent itself and how it’s changing.

Much, if not all, of this technology could have “dual use”. But its use is not contrary to the Antarctic Treaty.

In fact, the use of this equipment for “scientific research” or a “peaceful purpose” is not only legitimate, it’s also essential for Antarctic research, and global understanding of the health of our planet.




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The technologies Australia deploys in Antarctica all relate to its legitimate Antarctic operations and to science.

There are also facilities in Antarctica used to monitor potential military-related activities elsewhere in the world, such as the monitoring stations used under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The circumstances under which modern technology would, or could be, used against the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty have not been tested. But the activity would have to go beyond “dual purpose” and not be for science or peaceful purposes.

Science in Antarctica is open to scrutiny

Science in Antarctica is very diverse, from space sciences to ecosystem science, and 29 countries have active research programs there.

And since Antarctica plays a significant role in the global climate system, much modern Antarctic research focuses on climate science and climate change.

But there has been speculation about whether Antarctica is crucial to the development of alternatives to GPS (for example, by Russia and China) that could also be used in warfare as well as for peaceful purposes. It’s unclear whether using ground stations in Antarctica is essential for such a purpose.

For instance, Claire Young, a security analyst writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the accuracy of China’s Beidou satellite has already been improved by international testing, so testing in Antarctica will make very little difference.




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This leads to another important provision of the Antarctic Treaty.

The treaty foreshadowed compliance problems in the remote and hostile continent by including an open ended provision for any Antarctic Treaty Party to inspect any Antarctic facility.

In other words, any party has complete freedom to access all parts of Antarctica at any time to inspect ships, aircraft, equipment, or any other facility, and even use “aerial observations” for inspection. This means the activities of all parties, and all actions in Antarctica, are available for open scrutiny.

This inspection regime is important because inspections can be used to determine if modern technology on the continent is, in fact, being used for scientific or peaceful purposes, in line with the provisions of the treaty.The Conversation

Tony Press, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We need a national renewables approach, or some states – like NSW – will miss out



In the absence of federal policy, states are pursing their own renewable targets.
Karsten Würth/Unsplash

Scott Hamilton, University of Melbourne; Changlong Wang, University of Melbourne, and Roger Dargaville, Monash University

Australia’s primary federal renewable energy target – to have 33 terawatts of renewable energy by 2020 – has essentially been achieved. There is much uncertainty as to what is next.

In the absence of a new national target, the states have been leading the way and driving renewable energy in Australia. Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland between them have invested some A$20 billion into building 11,400 megawatts of generation capacity.

While the states have worked admirably to advance renewable energy – and federal energy policy has long been politically toxic – there is a clear cost to pursuing many fragmented policies instead of a unified vision.

Our research, modelling the effect of state versus national renewable energy targets in the National Energy Market system found there was little difference in the overall cost, but that states without strong renewable targets tended to miss out on investment.

We need national thinking

Most jurisdictions have net zero emissions targets by 2050. States also have ambitious but achievable shorter-term renewable energy targets and programs.

There are plenty of arguments for states pursuing their own renewable energy targets, not least because they can fill the policy vacuum left at the national level.

States are responding to the immediate need to replace retiring power stations and can explore innovation with greater ambition. It makes perfect sense for states to compete to attract jobs and investment.

But Australia’s federal government has a domestic and international obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. National policies are more efficient, can harness better resources across our diverse geography and maximise returns for the whole system.

What’s more – as many column inches have pointed out – strong federal policy improves investment certainty and reliability, lowering the cost of inevitable infrastructure upgrades. And those upgrades can be better integrated into our existing national electricity system if the building (and money) doesn’t stop at internal borders.

To provide some insight and help move the debate forward, the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Australian-German Energy Transition Hub have collaborated on research that was presented at an international conference in Denmark earlier this year.

Quantifying the difference

We simulated two scenarios: first, that all states implement polices to achieve their respective renewable energy and net zero emissions targets by 2050.

The second scenario assumed a national target would be used to result in the “same outcome” of 100% renewable energy by 2050.

The model calculates required energy investments with 5-year increments from today to 2050, including considering the existing generation currently operating. The model simultaneously optimises the mix of generation, transmission and storage to minimise the total system cost from 2020 to 2050.

A key difference in results is where and when new generation is built. Under the state-driven approach, unsurprisingly, investment shifts towards states with more ambitious targets.

The two figures below show how state-based targets drive more investment into Queensland than would be the case under a national target scheme.

Spatial distribution of renewable generation

Broadly speaking, under a national target, we see more efficient use of renewable energy and associated resources. NSW – with net zero 2050 target but no interim renewable energy target – would get a greater share of the renewable energy investment.

Change in energy generation %

NSW would consistently see substantially more investment under a national target scheme. This would be around 20% more generation in the 2030s in NSW, and up to 20 terawatt-hours more energy generated in the years 2030 to 2045.

The rollout of “where and when” to build new renewable and other generation to replace ageing fossil fuel power plants also impacts heavily on the sequencing and timing for major transmission upgrades across the NEM – especially interconnectors between states.

Transmission networks modelled.

The graph shows that under a state target based approach we build more transmission infrastructure earlier than under a national approach. Under a national target approach, we would end up building more transmission infrastructure – albeit later.

Again, broadly speaking, we would build more generation at renewable energy resource-rich areas such as NSW which happen to be near major demand centres like cities. This would delay the need for some infrastructure spend.

What about system reliability and energy costs?

The good news is it appears under either a state-based or a national target approach the outcome in 2050 is similar. The difference in total system costs is only about 1% higher in the state-based targets scenario – so, virtually nothing.

Evolution of electricity generation – total system.

State-based renewable energy targets lead to redistribution of renewable investments in favour of the states with a mid-term renewable energy target.

In the Australian context, the current state-based renewable energy targets have no impact on undermining power system reliability and virtually negligible impact on pushing up power prices.

Perhaps NSW should take particular note – as it would appear that it would benefit greatly from either a national target approach or an interim state target for itself.

The debate about state versus national approaches to energy policy has been going for the past 30 years and no doubt will be around for another 30. In the meantime, we need a stronger hand on the transition tiller or we will waste precious resources and time, and likely have major unintended consequences.




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The Conversation


Scott Hamilton, Strategic Advisory Panel Member, Australian-German Energy Transition Hub, University of Melbourne; Changlong Wang, Researcher, The Energy Transition Hub, University of Melbourne, and Roger Dargaville, Senior lecturer, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can environmental populism save the planet?


Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Populism and environmentalism are words seldom seen in the same sentence. One is associated predominantly with nationalists and charismatic leaders of “real people”, the other with broadly-based collective action to address the world’s single most pressing problem.

Differences don’t get much starker, it would seem. But we are increasingly seeing the two strands combine in countries around the world.

Exhibit A in support of this thesis is the remarkable growth and impact of Extinction Rebellion, often known as XR.

When I finished writing a book on the possibility of environmental populism little more than six months ago, I’d never even heard of XR. Now it is a global phenomenon, beginning to be taken seriously by policymakers in some of the world’s more consequential democracies. Britain’s decision earlier this year to declare a climate emergency is attributed in part to 11 days of Extinction Rebellion protest that paralysed parts of London.




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Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish schoolgirl who has rapidly become one of the world’s leading climate activists, is another – rather inspiring – example of a rising tide of popular opinion demanding political leaders take action before it is too late. It is also a telling indictment of the quality and imagination of the current crop of international leaders that schoolchildren are taking the lead on an issue that will, for better or worse, define their future.

It is striking that so many prominent figures in international politics are not just buffoonish, self-obsessed and ludicrously underqualified for the positions they hold, but are also rather old.

I speak as an ageing baby boomer myself, and a childless one at that. My rather ageist point is that I simply don’t have the same stake in the future that young people do, who have perhaps 70 or 80 years yet to live.

The world will be a very different place by then. Without action on climate change, it could be positively apocalyptic. A “progressive” variety of bottom-up, populist political mobilisation of precisely the sort that XR is developing could encourage even the most obdurate elders to take note.

Even if there’s merit in the point that younger leaders might take climate change more seriously than leading members of the gerontocracy such as Donald Trump, does this make the redoubtable Ms Thunberg a populist? Not if we subscribe to the views of some of populism’s more prominent critics.




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Political scholar John Keane described populism (in The Conversation, as it happens) as “a recurrent autoimmune disease of democracy”, and a “pseudo-democratic style of politics”.

He’s got a point. The idea one person is uniquely capable of representing the otherwise inarticulate and neglected will of the people is highly implausible, not to say potentially dangerous.

History is replete with examples of things going badly wrong under the leadership of messianic megalomaniacs. There is a growing number of populists and demagogues in our own time, and many – especially among the young – are losing faith in democracy.




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When democracies can be captured by powerful vested interests and even the most compelling scientific evidence can be deliberately undermined and discredited, such scepticism is understandable.

But there is also a “progressive” version of populism championed by some on the Left (if such labels actually mean anything anymore) as a potential way forward. The anti-globalisation movement and the re-emergence of radical politics in Europe are seen as positive examples of this possibility. However, given the demise of Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece, the collapse in support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and the disappearance of the Occupy movement, such claims look increasingly unpersuasive.




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In defence of left-wing populism


And yet there are two features of climate change activism that make it different from normal politics, if such a thing exists any longer.

First, climate change transcends class, race, nationality, gender and religion – even if you don’t believe it’s actually happening, it will affect all of us (although it will disproportionately weigh on poorer nations, and the poorest within those nations). The good news is even some of the more conservative groups in our society are beginning to accept the evidence, if only of their own eyes.




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Second, the unambiguous impact of climate change is only a foretaste of what’s to come. Things are going to get a lot worse, as Australia’s strategic thinkers are beginning to recognise.

It is not clear whether the climate change movement is popular enough, however, as our recent federal election showed. Although it’s unlikely any of our major political parties will go the polls offering ambitious policies in the foreseeable future, eventually the climate will change politics everywhere. The only question is in what way.

Political pressure is one thing; meaningful change is quite another. The scale of the transformation needed in the way we collectively live and organise economic activity is formidable and frankly unlikely – especially in the very short time available to take collective action on an historically unprecedented scale. Policy change on this scale will inevitably create winners and losers.

What is to be done? Enlightened populism is – or could be part of – the answer. If our leaders are too dim, compromised or gutless to act, we have to keep nagging them until they do – or vote for someone who might.

Indeed, democracies are still fortunately positioned in this regard, and we should take advantage of that.




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A “lucky country” like Australia could actually play a leadership role by championing a Green New Deal and retrofitting the entire economy along sustainable lines. (If we were serious, it would also mean closing down the coal industry.)

While climate activists might conceivably pressure governments to act, it might be harder to win over the average voter. These are big issues. Unlikely as it might sound, the necessary counterpart of environmental populism is a micro-level engagement with the large numbers of people who either don’t know or don’t care.

Beyond lip service, we need to mobilise truly popular support for change. Now is a good time to start.The Conversation

Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.