Last October, I attended a symposium about managing biodiversity in Victoria under climate change. One of the outcomes of that conference is a new website called VicNature 2050, which provides a list of 10 things all of us can do to help nature adapt to change over the next 35 years.
Critically, most of these suggestions are about working with other people and staying positive. Caring for Victoria’s natural diversity is going to be a big challenge in coming decades and everyone will have a role to play.
But I already recycle and use my own shopping bags!
The 10 things you can do for nature are not merely changes to your daily routine, like recycling. They are more likely to be changes to your attitude, approach and focus.
Climate change is a process that will amplify environmental problems, increase risks for native species and alter familiar ecosystems. Thinking about the future climate can be depressing and overwhelming, especially if we stay narrowly focused on what it will mean for ourselves.
I find it helpful to spare a thought for the species that live outside our windows – the millions of native plants and animals that make Victoria unique and give us a sense of place. They will not be able to retreat to air conditioned comfort on extremely hot days. Fires and floods will not only alter their distributions, it will challenge their evolutionary trajectories.
If you want to make a difference that lasts longer than your lifetime, now is a good time to become an active nature lover. Conservation and preservation of natural habitats is no longer enough, because they are going to change. Common species will decline, rare species will become common, and many will be forced to move across the landscape to survive.
Protecting nature will be a dynamic endeavour in which we confront an increasingly complicated series of choices. We will have to learn how to support the process of adaptation rather than preserving old patterns. To do this properly we need to become flexible, collaborative and proactive.
Australian scientists have been at the forefront of climate research for decades. One of the leading researchers at the symposium told us that predictions have not changed markedly in 25 years, so our vision of the future is clear. This does not mean that the science is irrelevant or incomplete, so I was sorry to see the news that CSIRO will be undergoing drastic cuts in the area of climate research. But I digress.
By 2050, average temperatures will be up to 2.5 degrees warmer, with fewer frosts, more heatwaves and more fires. The hottest summers we remember now will be the new normal. We can expect more intense storms in summer and less rain in winter and spring. Sea levels will rise and coastal flooding will increase. To learn more about the future climate of your home town, use the Climate Analogue tool at this website.
In the coming decades we will be living in a world that is outside of our experience. Our current understanding of best practice will no longer apply. We need transformational change, which means working in ways that are unlike anything we are currently used to.
How can we prepare for and manage such change? The ten things list was put together by ecologist Ian Lunt from presentations and discussions at the October symposium. Based on scientific evidence and input from people who have spent their careers managing nature in one way or another, the ten things are a great place to start.
1. Listen, engage and work with people
People with different backgrounds and experiences will have to come together to take action. Join a local group, get active, and find common ground. Respect other people’s values, especially the original Australians, and do what you can to get children outdoors to create a new generation of nature lovers.
2. Accept that natural areas will change
The environments we are used to will change as new species move in to fill gaps created by once familiar species that can no longer cope. This new mix of species must be allowed to thrive because they are going to provide natural systems that are resilient to the new conditions. This will be a challenge, because species that we might have considered weeds or invaders may become valuable.
3. Protect reserves and look after nature on private land
National Parks, state lands and other reserves must remain undisturbed, where natural processes can create the new natural for each part of our state. But remnants and plantings on private land will be critical. Plant a native garden or create habitat on your property, choosing species that are most likely to survive.
We will need long-term funding stream for such projects that is flexible and responsive to local conditions, so campaign for increased conservation spending.
4. Remove threats such as clearing, weeds and feral animals
More natural areas will be needed as climate change intensifies, so it will be essential to manage threats such as clearing, pollution, development, unsustainable harvesting, weeds, grazing, feral animals and unsuitable fire regimes.
5. Use natural processes like fires and floods to promote diversity
Wetlands require both floods and dry years, estuaries need tides, forests and heath-lands rely on specific fire regimes. For resilient ecosystems, we must manage natural processes so they promote natural diversity. We may have to replenish key habitat features by introducing shade, hollows, and aquatic plants.
6. Connect landscapes and use climate-ready plants
Landscapes that allow species to move far and move quickly will allow them to respond to change when they need to. We can plant trees to connect areas of native vegetation, or create shade along rivers and creeks. We can also build flyways and fish ladders to remove human-created barriers to dispersal.
Climate-ready plants are species likely to survive in a new climate. They will also have high genetic diversity, which improves the ability of species to adapt. Creating a list of suitable plants will take time and effort.
7. Welcome nature into our cities
Many threatened species live in urban areas, and by supporting parks and reserves we can protect them and improve livability for people as well. Cities are often in the most productive and biologically diverse parts of Australia and as they grow they invade endangered ecosystems. Connecting with nature is good for people. Research suggests that a green view from the office window improves productivity.
8. Record changes in our local area
Long-term monitoring gives us information about how species are affected by climate change and what might protect them. The more we know, the more we can anticipate and respond. There are many projects where citizen scientists can assist in the collection of data critical to land managers. Make a difference by joining nature based citizen science projects for birds, koalas, fungi, or national parks.
9. Promote diversity in all that we do
Diverse populations are more likely to be self-sustaining. Having many different species in our oceans, paddocks and parklands makes those ecosystems more resilient. Genetic diversity is important within species, so we need to select appropriate seed stocks and promote inter-breeding when we can.
Diversity in human communities is also key to ensuring that we have the range of skills and ideas needed in a changing world.
10. Keep positive, informed and engaged
Staying positive inspires others to help nature adapt to big changes. Not everyone has the same skills and interests, but everyone can make a difference. By doing what we can we remind ourselves that we are not helpless. By joining with others we remain part of the solution and benefit from being part of a community.
My summary of the ten things has been necessarily brief. Taken together they are the beginning of a process of developing more thoughtful and complex solutions for managing nature in Victoria. If you want to know more, visit VicNature 2050.
Given recent history, Australia’s scientists are right to be wary when the government casts its eye over the structure and budget of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
After all, we saw significant cuts under the Abbott government, with over AU$100 million stripped in 2014 resulting in hundreds of redundancies. The union estimated a 20% hit to CSIRO’s workforce.
In that light, the reaction to CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall’s announcement this week of a restructuring of 350 staff in a “Netflix style revamp” is not unexpected. That’s a reference to the online video-on-demand streaming company’s philosophy of: “Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”
While it appears that overall job numbers will remain static – or may even increase – it is concerning that right in the bulls-eye are areas responsible for key climate monitoring and modelling.
As Marshall argued:
Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?
Andy Pitman, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at UNSW, described the changes as “jaw-droppingly shocking”. The Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes argued that:
Our climate and environmental scientists are some of the best in the world. We wouldn’t stop supporting our elite Olympic athletes just as they’re winning gold medals. Nor should we pull the rug out from under our elite scientists.
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, said the CSIRO’s climate research was “pioneering and of a global standard” and she described the changes as “nothing short of appalling”.
While we know that the climate is changing because of human activity, we have not simply “answered” that question after the Paris agreement – many more questions remain […] Research in any field does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered.
These arguments are important. Australia has a critical need to understand not only how climate change is occurring, but how it will affect Australia. Our ability to understand a range of facets of climate change is critical for our ability deal with the urgent mitigation and adaptation challenges necessary to avoid dangerous warming.
Australia, we have to remember, is particularly vulnerable. Any loss in our national capacity to understand this issue is deeply problematic.
Perhaps the best insurance in limiting climate impacts is understanding the risks. The CSIRO restructure has us walking into the unknown blindfolded, relying on other research institutions to pull up the slack.
Yet we have to ask – how much climate research capacity does Australia need? If your answer is always “more”, then that doesn’t make grounds for serious discussion.
Over the past decade we’ve seen strong growth in Australian Research Council funding of climate related Fields of Research (FOR) (see figure, below).
Is this enough to take up the slack? We just don’t know.
Similarly, it’s important to ask whether CSIRO’s “strategic alignment” will see a cut in its overall climate change research capacity. Will cuts in monitoring translate directly into jobs in mitigation?
CSIRO plays a key national role in coordination that universities may not be able to replace. It’s also important to recognise that it can take many years to build up scientific capacity – it may seem like a great guide for agile management in our years of innovation, but the Netflix model may just not work in some sectors.
But Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s comments bring us to an important point. Yes, it is certainly true – and right – that research in any field “does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered”.
Yet we must always ask if it is necessarily the case that such answers are best provided by direct government intervention as seen in CSIRO.
Curiosity driven research plays a key role throughout our scientific and innovation landscape. But just as much, there is a crucial role for guided research, with goals set by national environmental, economic and social aspirations.
CSIRO’s job is to answer a range of government guided questions, and to assist with solutions for the future. Marshall has stressed a pivot from measuring and monitoring climate change, to “figuring out what to do about it [and] how to mitigate it”. This is not, it should be stressed, a denial of climate change.
While the restructure was being announced, ANU’s new Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt was delivering his first major address to the assembled ANU community. His conclusion rings true here.
Our motto ‘First, to learn the nature of things’ has guided us well over our first 70 years.
But, […] we can build on it over the next 70. Yes, first, to learn the nature of things. But second, to teach what we have learned, and third, to use what we have learned for the greater benefit of all.
When it comes down to it, I want a CSIRO that follows a similar dictum – quite frankly, I’m more interested in climate change stopped than climate change understood.
CSIRO is set to cut dozens of jobs from its climate research units, as part of a wider series of job losses.
In a message to staff, chief executive Larry Marshall said that the question of human-induced climate change has largely been answered, and outlined a list of new priorities for the agency, including health, technology, and “big data” research fields such as radioastronomy.
“Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?” he said.
A reported 110 jobs could be lost in climate research, among a total of 350 job losses from CSIRO’s staff of 4,832 full-time positions.
Below, experts react to the news.
Neville Nicholls, Professor Emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University
For 30 years Australia has punched above its weight in international climate policy negotiations because the rest of the world recognised that our government was provided with high-quality, unbiased climate science by the Bureau of Meteorology and (especially) CSIRO. The crippling of CSIRO climate research means that from henceforth the world will view our future governments as captive to either left-wing activists or right-wing ideologues, unconstrained by science.
This decision cedes our place at the big table with the adults discussing what to do about climate change. From today we join the minnows on the little table on the veranda, waiting to be told what we will have to do by the grown-up countries that still have access to high-quality climate science.
Kevin Walsh, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne
The proposed cuts to climate science expertise at CSIRO are disturbing, at a time when climate change is becoming more important to Australia and to the world, not less important. It is very naïve to expect that climate science expertise can be substantially reduced in Australia and then expect that reduction to have no effect on our ability to understand and adapt to the potential impacts of climate change in this country.
Nor will our friends in the Northern Hemisphere pick up the slack for us: they have climate problems of their own. Australia’s unusual climate has always demanded that we pay particular attention to developing and nurturing our own expertise in climate science, a decades-long effort that now may be abandoned.
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, DECRA Research Fellow, Climate Change Research Centre, The University of New South Wales
The latest round of job cuts from CSIRO is nothing short of appalling. The climate research work conducted by CSIRO has been pioneering and of global standard. While we know that the climate is changing because of human activity, we have not simply “answered” that question after the Paris agreement – many more questions remain.
Like other scientific fields – such as biology, chemistry and medicine – continual research is required to continually improve our methods, understanding and knowledge. Research in any field does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered.
In terms of climate science, much more research needs to be done on furthering our understanding of these changes, monitoring the climate as it does change, and making our climate and weather models more efficient and improving their capabilities. Much of this work was undertaken by CSIRO, and so now a big hole will be left.
If we want to properly safeguard our country from climate change, we require ongoing fundamental climate research – we cannot create innovative and effective solutions towards climate change without it.
Andrew Holmes, President, Australian Academy of Science
Our climate and environmental scientists are some of the best in the world. We wouldn’t stop supporting our elite Olympic athletes just as they’re winning gold medals. Nor should we pull the rug out from under our elite scientists.
Australia is internationally recognised for its expertise and unique position in climate and environmental research. Realistically, there are no other countries in the Southern Hemisphere that are able to do what we do. We have a singular contribution to make towards global and regional climate knowledge, and with this role comes a great responsibility to the global community.
Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society, Griffith University
It is always disappointing when science is cut back, especially when we need to be more innovative to overcome the economic problem of falling commodity prices. It is particularly bad when the cuts are in such areas as Oceans & Atmosphere, Land & Water and Manufacturing, as these are critical to our chances of a sustainable future.
More worrying than the cuts is the language used by the new chief executive. There won’t be scientists sacked, there will be “reductions in headcount”! And these aren’t research areas, they are “business units”, headed not by top scientists but “business leaders”. The cuts are “something that we must do to renew our business”, according to the CEO. The language reveals that the government is trying to sabotage our public science body and turn it into a consulting business.
Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University
CSIRO climate scientists are world-class and are researching the most decisive factor that will influence the future of the world. To slash their numbers at a time when the urgency of understanding and responding to climate change has never been greater suggests that the government does not want to hear the facts.
Nerilie Abram, Associate Professor, Australian National University
The notion that somehow the question of global climate change has been answered is ludicrous. Yes, it is now absolutely certain that the greenhouse gases we have added to the atmosphere are causing Earth’s climate to warm, but that big-picture knowledge does not allow us to predict and prepare for the many ways in which climate changes are going to impact on the safety and prosperity of Australia in the future. To not invest in understanding this enormous problem will cripple this country’s ability to effectively respond to the many challenges facing us as the Earth’s climate continues to warm.
Climate models, including Australia’s ACCESS model developed by CSIRO researchers, have undoubtedly played an important role in proving the physical theory that greenhouse gases are causing Earth’s climate to warm. But one aspect where models consistently show we still have much to learn about exactly how the pieces of the climate jigsaw puzzle fit together is in their ability to accurately represent the Southern Hemisphere. Gutting Australia’s capabilities in climate science will severely hinder momentum in solving this and many other unanswered questions that will directly impact Australia’s future prosperity and security.
Steve Sherwood, ARC Laureate Fellow and Director, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales
Larry Marshall surely has a point about rejuvenating organisations and solving new challenges, but I worry about his statement that there is no further need after the Paris climate summit to understand climate change since we now know it is real. Effective action requires detailed understanding. For example, Marshall speaks of contributing to the proposed agricultural development of the Northern Territory, but we don’t know for how much longer this region will still support agriculture or even human habitation as the Earth keeps warming, nor how much drying (if any) Australia’s existing agricultural regions will experience. The groups that would help provide answers are the ones he says we don’t need any more.
Comments compiled with the Australian Science Media Centre.
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW Australia; Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE); Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science, Griffith University; Kevin Walsh, Reader, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Neville Nicholls, Professor emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University, and Steve Sherwood, Director, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Australia
The resumed growth of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions after almost a decade of consistent decline shows the scale of the challenge ahead if Australia is to meet its climate commitments.
This week’s RepuTex analysis forecasts that national emissions will rise 6% by 2020, with no peak in sight until 2030. The signs are that the uptick for 2014-15 marks a reversal of the recent downward trend proclaimed by federal environment minister Greg Hunt.
With the world’s nations having pledged in Paris to limit global warming to well below 2℃, it is clear that Australia (which joined the “high-ambition” diplomatic push for a 1.5℃ target also to be included in the agreement), will be expected to make far deeper emissions cuts than it has so far achieved.
December’s federal government update of Australia’s emissions showed that emissions for 2014-15 did not rise dramatically from previous years, but it also highlighted two key considerations.
One, for the first time in almost a decade, Australia’s emissions did not fall from one year to the next. And two, the volume of electricity generated in the National Electricity Market also failed to fall. As electricity generation is responsible for one-third of Australia’s emissions, an increase in electricity is likely to drive up emissions overall.
Also in December, the government updated its forecast of national emissions out to 2020, which contained both good and bad news. The good news is that under the rules defined by the Kyoto Protocol, Australia’s rising emissions won’t stop it from meeting its cumulative 2020 emissions obligations. The bad news is that Australia is not on track to achieve its absolute emissions reduction target of 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.
Clearly Australia needs to turn things around. But there is good news here too, because it already has a broad suite of policies that can cut greenhouse gas emissions. Among them is the newly released National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP), as well as the Renewable Energy Target (RET), the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) (which may yet receive a funding boost), and the Safeguard Mechanism, which comes into force later this year and is designed to ensure that big emitters don’t wipe out the emissions savings made by projects funded under the ERF.
Some measures to cut emissions are more cost-effective than others – replacing power infrastructure is expensive, for instance, while improving fuel efficiency actually saves money. Different economic sectors can thus be plotted on an emissions-reduction “cost curve”, as seen below.
Here’s how the various existing policies can each make a significant contribution.
Looking at the cost curve, we see that some of cheapest emissions reductions can be found in saving energy. As Australia’s energy productivity lags other G20 countries, the NEPP can drive both emissions reductions and deliver broad economic benefits by maximising the value derived from each unit of energy. The sooner we see key parts of the NEPP implemented, such as requirements for light vehicle fuel efficiency, the greater its impact on emissions.
Emissions Reduction Fund
Judging by the two ERF auctions held so far, it seems that the scheme will mainly encourage projects such as low-emission farming and land use changes. The Paris climate agreement called for nations to embrace their “common and differentiated responsibilities”, and land use is surely one sector where Australia has greater potential than many countries to cut emissions.
Renewable Energy Target
The RET has made inroads into decarbonising electricity generation without drawing funds from other programs. While economic purists argue against promoting low-carbon electricity ahead of cheaper emissions-reduction measures, the RET is crucial for delivering on the long-term need to decarbonise the power sector.
The author’s own analysis of the interaction between the NEPP and the RET demonstrates how these policies complement each other, as improved energy efficiency and the growth in renewables both reduce the demand for electricity from coal-fired power stations. Weaning ourselves off coal will be essential if we hope to achieve deeper cuts to emissions.
The Safeguard Mechanism
During the Paris climate talks, Hunt acknowledged what commentators had been saying for some time: that the Safeguard Mechanism, aimed at constraining Australia’s largest emitters, has many of the features of a baseline-and-credit carbon trading scheme, and can drive emissions reductions.
Emitters will only be penalised when emissions exceed their agreed baseline, thus reducing the scheme’s overall economic impact. This allows for a much sharper price signal when emissions are excessive, and can reward the best performers. Furthermore, the Safeguard Mechanism will generate demand for emissions reduction activities across the whole economy, beyond the projects directly funded by the ERF.
In the wake of the Paris climate deal, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement saying that it was essential to price emissions. With the Safeguard Mechanism set to establish a market for emissions reductions, working together with other climate change policies, perhaps Australia now has a set of complementary policies that can help restore some certainty to its response to climate change.
We just need to move quickly and in step with the rest of the world.
European settlement of Australia, and the exotic predators and herbivores they brought with them, caused rapid widespread biodiversity loss. As a result, for the past 200 years Australia has had the highest mammal extinction rate in the world.
Some extinct species were deliberately persecuted, such as the Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus, and some were neglected, such as the recently extinct Bramble Cay Mosaic-tailed Rat, Melomys rubicola.
Others, such as Gilbert’s Potoroo, Potorous gilbertii, appear to have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not yet extinct, but considered the most endangered marsupial in the world, it lost 90% of its natural habitat to a bushfire in late 2015.
When a species is lost from a community, the processes and functions it performed are also lost. All species contribute to the maintenance of their community ecology, but few contribute more than fossorial (digging) species such as bettongs, potoroos and bandicoots.
Bettongs are particularly important because most species mainly eat hypogeal fungi (truffles) and spread fungal spores wherever they dig.
As all Eucalyptus plants form a symbiotic relationship with hypogeal fungus during at least part of their life, spreading spores is one of the most important ecosystem services a mammal can perform.
Bettongs also facilitate seedling germination and establishment, soil aeration, incorporate organic matter and improvement moisture infiltration.
Before European settlement, at least five species of bettongs lived on mainland Australia, now (excluding the Rufous Bettong, Aepyprymnus rufescens, a similar beast but not of the genus Bettongia) only Bettongia tropica remains, and it’s listed as endangered.
The almost total loss of these ecosystem engineers from mainland Australia has far-reaching implications that may ultimately lead to vegetation succession, the gradual replacement of one plant community by another. In this case, it will be an impoverished one.
Last year, I published a description of the Desert Bettong (Bettongia anhydra) in the Journal of Mammalogy based on the skull and jaws of an animal that was collected alive near the southwestern corner of the Northern Territory in 1933.
Until now, it has been considered synonymous with its morphologically similar cousin the Burrowing Bettong, Bettongia lesueur. Sadly, the newly-identified Desert Bettong has never been encountered alive since. How many other native mammals have been lost without being recognised or have their remains resting in museum cabinets just waiting for the right person to look at them?
Recent breakthroughs in DNA research have shown that what were once considered wide-ranging species are in many cases species complexes. For example, molecular research on the Dusky Antechinus, Antechinus swainsonii, has revealed a complex of five species.
The good news is Australia’s biodiversity is richer than we thought. But the bad news is we’re still losing species at an alarming rate. So what can we do to reduce further loss of our unique mammals beyond protecting pristine areas?
Before attempting a restoration project, we really need to know what it is we want to restore. Many native mammals became locally extinct before historical records were compiled. As a result, Holocene (<10,000 year old) fossils provide better evidence of species distribution and habitat preferences than historical records.
Unfortunately, conservation and natural resource managers rarely consult the fossil record. If they did, they’d see that the modern distributions of many species poorly reflect their fossil distributions.
For example the Broad-toothed rat, Mastacomys fuscus, presently lives in alpine regions, but the fossil record shows that less than 1,000 years ago, it lived near sea level on the Fleurieu Peninsula and the Coorong.
The Mulligans Flat restoration project, in north-eastern ACT, is a great example where Holocene fossils were used to make evidence-based conservation decisions.
The research team used fossil and other evidence to identify species that once lived in their study area. Then, they prioritised the order of species reintroduction based on the range of ecological services each species performed.
Releasing Eastern or Tasmanian Bettongs, Bettongia gaimardi, was their first priority. Their reintroduction appears to be improving soil quality profoundly. I believe the practices used at Mulligans Flat should be applied to all future restoration projects.
The Eastern Bettong is considered secure on Tasmania and the Northern Bettong, Bettongia tropica, still persists naturally on mainland Australia.
All other surviving bettongs live on small islands. This affords protection from predators but limits population size, genetic diversity and reintroduction potential.
If we can’t restore original faunas, I think we have to seriously consider building novel, self-sustaining communities even if they lack present or past analogues. They may even need to include exotic species. Though it sounds extreme, it may be the only way to achieve lasting protection against extinction for what remains of Australia’s unique fauna.