People around the world will act on climate change to create a better society: study


Paul Bain, Queensland University of Technology

If we can convince people that climate change is real and important, then surely they will act: this intuitive idea underlies many efforts to communicate climate change to the public.

Initially it was very successful in increasing public awareness and support, but anyone aware of the protracted climate change “debate” can see that people who are still unconvinced are now very unlikely to be swayed.

In research published in Nature Climate Change today, my colleagues and I show that people will support action on climate change if it helps to create a better society.

Falling support

The importance of climate change as a public issue has been slipping since 2007 in countries such as the United States, and is given a relatively low priority across the world.

To reinvigorate people’s support for climate change action, we may need to look at options other than just convincing people that climate change is real. Rather than trying to persuade people that climate change is more important than their other concerns and goals, perhaps we should start with those concerns and goals and show how they can be addressed through tackling climate change.

For example, if action on climate change reduces pollution or stimulates economic development, people who value clean air or economic growth might support climate change action, even if they are unconvinced or unconcerned about climate change itself. These broader positive effects of climate change action are often called “co-benefits”.

But could such co-benefits motivate people to act? If so, might different co-benefits matter more to people in different countries? These questions have been the focus of our large international research project examining the views of more than 6,000 people from 24 countries.

Through this research, we aimed to identify the key co-benefits that motivate behaviour around the world to help create more effective ways of designing and communicating climate change initiatives.

Fixing climate change, fixing other problems

We asked people whether the social conditions in their country would become better or worse as a result of climate change mitigation, including a wide range of potential co-benefits.

We found that people grouped these co-benefits into larger clusters relating to promoting development (such as economic development, scientific progress) and reducing dysfunction (such as poverty, crime, pollution, disease).

As social psychologists, we were also interested in how addressing climate change could influence people’s character. We asked people how taking climate change action might result in people in society becoming more (or less) caring and moral (benevolence), and capable and competent (competence).

We related these four overarching co-benefits to people’s motivations to engage in behaviours to address climate change. These include public behaviours (such as green voting and campaigning), private behaviours (such as reducing household energy use) and financial behaviours (donating to an environmental organisation).

Around the world, two types of co-benefits were strongly related to motivations to act in public, at home, or in providing financial support.

People were motivated to act on climate change when they thought it would lead to scientific and economic advances (development), and when it would help create a society where people cared more for each other (benevolence).

Yet there was an important difference between who favoured benevolence and development. Making society more caring was a strong motivator for action across the globe, whereas promoting development varied in its effects across countries.

For example, development was a strong motivator in France and Russia, but only a weak motivator in Japan and Mexico. However, we could not identify a systematic reason for this cross-country difference.

Surprisingly, reducing pollution, poverty and disease was the weakest motivator of climate change action, despite issues like pollution and poor health being commonly invoked as co-benefits of addressing climate change, such as the US climate action plan.

Although mitigating climate change will produce these health and pollution benefits, these don’t appear to strongly motivate people’s willingness to act.

Critically, if people thought acting on climate change would improve society in these ways, it didn’t matter if they believed it was happening or not, or whether it was important. And it didn’t matter what political ideology they held.

This shows how these co-benefits can cut across ideological and political divides that are stalling climate change discussions.

Climate policy with something for everyone

The findings can help communicate climate change to the public in more convincing ways, but the real key is to ensure that climate change initiatives can achieve these development and benevolence co-benefits.

While the economic opportunities of addressing climate change already receive public discussion, it may be less obvious how climate change policies could help create communities where people care more for each other.

“Top-down” policies such as a carbon tax or emissions trading aren’t traditionally the stuff that helps build communities. However, policies that support “bottom-up” initiatives have this potential, such as engaging local communities in climate change activities that build friendships and strengthen networks.

Such community initiatives have been used to increase renewable energy use in the UK.

They have also been used with some success in sceptical communities in the US. Expertise and support for building these local initiatives are growing.

There is increasing recognition from the United Nations that successfully meeting the climate change challenge needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

These findings should strengthen the hands of those arguing for bottom-up approaches at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. If climate change policies and initiatives can produce these co-benefits for the economy and the community, people around the world will support action.


Paul will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 12:30 and 1:30pm AEST on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Paul Bain, Lecturer in Psychology, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ocean predators can help reset our planet’s thermostat


Peter Macreadie, University of Technology Sydney; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Graeme Hays, Deakin University; Rod Connolly, Griffith University, and Trisha B Atwood, Utah State University

If you knew that there was zero percent chance of being eaten by a shark, would you swim more often? Rhetorical questions aside, the fear of being eaten has a profound influence on other animals too, and on the way they use marine environments.

Turtles, for example, fear being eaten by sharks and this restricts the movement and behaviour of entire populations. But when the fear of being eaten dissipates, we see that turtles eat more, breed more, and go wherever they please.

It might sound like turtle paradise, but in an article published today in Nature Climate Change we show that loss of ocean predators can have serious, cascading effects on oceanic carbon storage and, by extension, climate change.

Cascading effects

For a long time we’ve known that changes to the structure of food webs – particularly due to loss of top predators – can alter ecosystem function. This happens most notably in situations where loss of predators at the top of the food chain releases organisms lower in the food chain from top-down regulatory control. For instance, the loss of a predator may allow numbers of its prey to increase, which may eat more of their prey, and so on. This is known as “trophic downgrading”.

With the loss of some 90% of the ocean’s top predators, trophic downgrading has become all too common. This upsets ecosystems, but in our article we also report its effects on the capacity of the oceans to trap and store carbon.

This can occur in multiple ecosystems, with the most striking examples in the coastal zone. This is where the majority of the ocean’s carbon is stored, within seagrass, saltmarsh and mangrove ecosystems – commonly known as “blue carbon” ecosystems.

Blue carbon ecosystems capture and store carbon 40 times faster than tropical rainforests (such as the Amazon) and can store the carbon for thousands of years. This makes them one of the most effective carbon sinks on the planet. Despite occupying less that 1% of the sea floor, it is estimated that coastal blue carbon ecosystems sequester more than half the ocean’s carbon.

The carbon that blue carbon ecosystems store is bound within the bodies of plants and within the ground. When predators such as sharks and other large fish are removed from blue carbon ecosystems, resulting increases in plant-eating organisms can destroy the capacity of blue carbon habitats to sequester carbon.

For example, in seagrass meadows of Bermuda and Indonesia, less predation on herbivores has resulted in spectacular losses of vegetation, with removal of 90–100% of the above-ground vegetation.

Stop killing predators

Such losses of vegetation can also destabilise carbon that has been buried and accumulated over millions of years. For example, a 1.5-square-kilometre die-off of saltmarsh in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, caused by recreational overharvesting of predatory fish and crabs, freed around 248,000 tonnes of below-ground carbon.

If only 1% of the global area of blue carbon ecosystems were affected by trophic cascades as in the latter example, this could result in around 460 million tonnes of CO2 being released annually, which is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of around 97 million cars, or just a bit less than Australia’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions.

So what can be done? Stronger conservation efforts and modification of fishing regulations can help restore marine predator populations, and thereby help maintain the important indirect role that predators play in climate change mitigation.

It’s about restoring balance so that we have, for example, healthy and natural numbers of both sea turtles and sharks. Policy and management need to reflect this important realisation as a matter of urgency.

More than 100 million sharks may be killed in fisheries each year, but if we can grant these predators great protection they may just help to save us in return.

The Conversation

Peter Macreadie, Senior lecturer & ARC DECRA Fellow, Deakin University and Senior lecturer & ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Technology Sydney; Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Graeme Hays, Professor of Marine Science, Deakin University; Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University, and Trisha B Atwood, Assistant Professor of aquatic ecology, Utah State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Inskip beach collapse: just don’t call it a ‘sinkhole’


Stephen Fityus, University of Newcastle

As was widely reported in the media, at around 10pm last Saturday night, a “sinkhole” opened up at a beachfront campground on the Inskip peninsular.

The thing is, it almost certainly wasn’t a sinkhole.

Unanticipated ground collapses occur around the world from time to time, and these generally get labelled “sinkholes”, for want a more appropriate term. Yet “sinkhole” is poorly defined and often misused, generally referring to some type of geological phenomenon that causes localised ground surface collapse.

In its strict sense, a sinkhole occurs when there is movement of surface soil or rock downward to fill a cavity in the ground below it. Thankfully, open underground cavities are not so common in nature, and are limited to a few characteristic geological settings.

The classic manifestation of sinkholes is in karstic geological environments, such as the Nullabor Plains. These are where the percolation of groundwaters through limestones and dolomites over geological timescales causes them to dissolve, leading to the formation of underground cave systems.

Where the span of the caves becomes too great, or the overlying roof rocks are too thin to support themselves, these may collapse. This produces the stereotypical sinkholes such as those known from Guatemala, Florida, Louisiana, and parts of China.

Sinkholes can also arise from anthropogenic activity, such as mining and engineering works. Poorly backfilled or capped mine shafts may subside if the backfill collapses or is washed to deeper levels in the mine by inflowing water, such as occurred in the case of the Swansea “sinkhole” near Newcastle, New South Wales, in 2014.

Shallow tunnels can also collapse, leading to a hole or depression forming in the ground above. Small sinkholes can also occur above breaks in unpressurised wastewater pipes if soil from around the pipes is able to collapse into the pipe and be carried away with the flowing water.

Sandy straight

So how does any of this explain the Inskip beach “sinkhole”? Well, it doesn’t. And from the photographs and available geological information, it seems like the event at Inskip beach is not a sinkhole at all.

The Inskip beach area is not undermined, and not known for the occurrence of limestones in its bedrock. So its very unlikely that the missing sand has been swallowed into some deep hole in the sea floor.

To understand the likely reasons behind the Inskip event, it is necessary to understand the geological setting of the Inskip peninsular. For millions of years, the coastal river systems of New South Wales have generated vast quantities of clean quartz sand, which have been delivered to the ocean.

Some of this sand is pushed up to create some of the best sandy beaches in the world. Meanwhile, the excess (and there is a lot of it) is swept northward along the coast by ocean currents until it reaches a place where it can be deposited.

Through a complex combination of ocean current, ocean swell, coastal morphology and bathymetric factors, Fraser Island in Queensland – the largest sand island in the world – is the repository for much of this excess sand.

The situation is complicated by the Mary River, which discharges into the ocean at the same place. This means that Fraser Island is separated from the mainland by a channel, which allows the Mary River to discharge to the ocean, mainly northward through Hervey Bay.

The southern end of this channel, the “Great Sandy Straight”, forms an estuary at Tin Can Bay, which accommodates tidal flows inward and outward between the Inskip peninsular and Fraser Island. And this is the site of recent collapse event.

It might look like a sinkhole, but it’s something quite different.
AAP Image/Higgins Storm Chasing

Slippery sand

Tidal channels are dynamic environments, carrying sand backward and forward on a daily basis, depositing sand, and then scouring it out again when the channel becomes constricted. If sand is spilled into a pile, it forms a slope at a characteristic angle, referred to as the angle of repose.

If a slope is made any steeper than this, it is potentially unstable and prone to collapse. Sands deposited to form the submerged banks of the channel are flatter than, or equal to, the angle of repose and exist in a stable condition.

However, if the sandy banks of the channel are steepened through erosion in the bottom of the channel, then the over-steep submerged slope may become unstable, resulting in a submarine landslide. Such a slide, initiated at the toe of the slope, will effectively see the slope unravel, with slices of the slope progressively slumping into the space created by the slumping of the slice below.

This mechanism fits well with the situation at Inskip beach, both in terms of the geomorphological conditions and the reported characteristics of the beach collapse.

Will there be more events like this? At some time in the future, most likely. But when, where and how big are all questions that are difficult to quantify without site specific geotechnical and hydromorphological data. Coastal environments are dynamic, restless environments, and the risks of sudden changes are small, but ever-present.

The Conversation

Stephen Fityus, Professor in Geotechnical Engineering, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Want to see the business case for green energy? Just look at China


John Mathews and Hao Tan, University of Newcastle

The narrative around renewable energy sources is typically framed almost entirely in terms of their contribution to reducing carbon emissions and thereby providing a means to tackle climate change. From this perspective, the drive for renewables is inseparably linked to international negotiations over reducing carbon emissions, which will come to a head at the United Nations summit in Paris towards the end of this year.

But this framing of the story struggles to explain the rise of China as the world’s renewables superpower. It is investing more in renewable energy production and manufacturing of renewable energy devices than any other country. Is China making these huge investments – not to mention launching a national emissions trading scheme – purely to accommodate the world’s desire to see carbon emissions reduced?

This is the question that we address in our new book, China’s Renewable Energy Revolution, published this month.

Our argument is that China is motivated by much more immediate concerns. Because of the dominant role played by coal in its rise as the world’s largest manufacturing economy, China suffers from catastrophic air pollution, particularly the toxic mix of tiny particulate matter that penetrates deep into the lungs of people breathing the air of Beijing, Tianjin, or other major industrial cities. The issue has prompted anger and social agitation, with the public demanding that environmental laws be enforced. (See, for example, the explosive impact of the documentary Under the Dome, by investigative journalist Chai Jing.)

Yet the real problem for China in continuing on a “business as usual” pathway is that it would become increasingly dependent on imports of coal, oil and gas – and therefore grow more vulnerable to price fluctuations and sudden interruptions to supply. More pointedly, as a relative newcomer to the global fossil fuel market, China is forced to locate supplies from more and more unstable parts of the world, putting it at financial risk from war, revolution and terrorism even in distant lands.

These concerns over energy security, and the immediate issue of air pollution, are in our view likely to be weighing more heavily on the Chinese leadership than concerns about climate change.

New paths to growth

Our view is that China is running into the limits of a predominantly fossil-fuelled expansion and now needs to find a new development pathway based on green growth and clean technology. This, we argue, is what lies behind its vast investments in renewables.

In per capita terms, China is of course not yet abreast of the developed countries in its overall energy consumption or its renewable energy use. But this is not evidence that China is going “light” on renewables; on the contrary, as a rising middle-level power, it still has plenty of room to grow its already large renewable energy industries.

Solar energy looks like having a bright future in China.
Reuters/William Hong

Even though per capita use is still modest, the absolute size of the renewables investment in China allows new industries to scale up, which in turn leads to lower costs as efficiencies are captured. Through the principle of circular and cumulative causation, this leads to further market expansion and further cost reductions. The cost reductions then create opportunities for countries in the rest of the world to become involved in renewable energy as well.

China is already on the record in viewing its clean technology sectors as key drivers of future prosperity and export platforms. The 12th Five-Year Plan, which ends this year, set out the comprehensive goals for China’s economic development. It featured seven Strategic Emerging Industries (SEIs) that were earmarked for special promotion, including three industries closely related to the burgeoning energy transition: energy saving and environment protection; new energy sources; and new-energy-powered cars.

The plan laid out a target that production value-added from these seven SEIs should reach 8% of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015. This target has since been raised to reach 15% of GDP in 2020. There could be no clearer demonstration of how China views the link between building energy security, improving environmental protection and creating the export platforms of tomorrow.

There’s a lot of financial mileage in battery-powered cars.
Reuters/Stringer China

China’s green business case

As we see it, China has a lot more riding on its renewables revolution than (just) climate change concerns. Important as these are, it is a profoundly convenient truth that the more China builds its export platforms around renewables, smart energy grids, and clean transport technologies such as fast rail and electric vehicles, the more it drives down its own carbon emissions and the costs of these clean technologies for everyone else.

The lesson for industrialised countries such as Australia is that renewables do not have to be framed solely as an issue of climate change and its mitigation. In keeping with the new emphasis of the Turnbull government on a 21st-century agenda, with the focus on tackling the challenges and seizing the opportunities created by industries of the future (such as renewables) rather than sticking with those of the past (coal), it is the business case that needs to be made.

China has shown very clearly that renewables make excellent business sense in the 21st century. Now it is up to Australian leaders, such as the new energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and assistant innovation minister, Wyatt Roy, to act on the same understanding and help build – finally – a great renewables industry in Australia.

The Conversation

John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management and Hao Tan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.