Climate policy is a fiendish problem for governments – time for an independent authority with real powers

Peter C. Doherty, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

From global epidemics to global economic markets to the global climate, understanding complex systems calls for solid data and sophisticated maths. My advice to young scientists contemplating a career in research is: “If you’re good at maths, keep it up!”

I’m no mathematician – my research career has focused largely on the complexities of infection and immunity. But as recently retired Board Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, I’ve been greatly informed by close contact with mathematically trained meteorologists, oceanographers and other researchers, who analyse the massive and growing avalanche of climate data arriving from weather stations, satellites, and remote submersibles such as Argo floats.

Read more:
Why Australians need a national environment protection agency to safeguard their health

My perception, based on a long experience of science and scientists, is that these are outstanding researchers of impeccable integrity.

Among both the climate research community and the medically oriented environmental groups such as the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia with which I have been involved, there is increasing concern, and even fear, about the consequences of ever-climbing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

The growing climate problem

Following the thinking of the late Tony McMichael, a Canberra-based medical epidemiologist who began studying lead poisoning and then went on to become a primary author on the health section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s five-yearly Assessment Reports, I have come to regard human-induced global warming as similar in nature to the problem of toxic lead poisoning.

Just like heavy metal toxicity, the problems caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases are cumulative, progressive, and ultimately irreversible, at least on a meaningful human timescale.

Regrettably, this consciousness has not yet seeped through to enough members of
the Australian political class. The same lack of engagement characterises current
national politics in Russia and the United States – although some US states, particularly California are moving aggressively to develop alternative energy sources.

The latter is true for much of Western Europe, while China and South Korea are committed both to phasing out coal and to leading the world in wind and solar power technology. In collaboration with the US giant General Electric, South Korean and Japanese companies are working to develop prefabricated (and hopefully foolproof) small nuclear reactors called SMRs.

At this stage, China (currently the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter) is humanity’s best hope – if it indeed holds to its stated resolve.

Political paralysis

Politically, with a substantial economic position in fossil fuel extraction and
export, Australia’s federal government seems paralysed when it comes to taking meaningful climate action. We signed on to the Paris Agreement but, even if we meet the agreed reductions in emissions, precious little consideration is given to the fossil fuels that we export for others to burn. And while much of the financial sector now accepts that any new investments in coalmines will ultimately become “stranded assets”, some politicians nevertheless continue to pledge tax dollars to fund such projects.

What can be done? Clearly, because meaningful action is likely to impact both
on jobs and export income, this is an impossible equation for Australia’s elected
representatives. Might it help to give them a “backbone” in the form of a fully
independent, scientifically and economically informed statutory authority, endowed with real powers? Would such an initiative even be possible under Australian law?

Realising that reasoned scientific and moral arguments for meaningful action
on climate change are going nowhere fast, some 41 Australian environmental organisations sought the help of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) to develop the case for a powerful, independent Commonwealth Environmental Commission (CEC) linked to a National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).

This week in Canberra, at the culmination of a two-year process, the environmental groups will present their conclusions, preceded by a more mechanistic analysis from the lawyers.

In very broad terms, the new agencies would do for environmental policy what the Reserve Bank currently does for economic decisions. That is, they would have the power to make calls on crucial issues (whether they be interest rates or air pollution limits) that cannot be vetoed by the government.

Of course, that would require a government that is willing to imbue them with such power in the first place.

Read more:
Australia needs stricter rules to curb air pollution, but there’s a lot we could all do now

While it’s a good bet that developing such a major national initiative will, at best, be a long, slow and arduous process, it is true that (to quote Laozi): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

The ConversationWhat is also clear is that “business as usual” is not a viable option for the future economy, defence and health of Australia.

Peter C. Doherty, Laureate Professor, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

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


Future ‘ocean cities’ need green engineering above and below the waterline

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Artificial islands can cause huge environmental issues for coastlines.
The Forest City Project

Katherine Dafforn, UNSW; Ana Bugnot, UNSW; Eliza Heery, National University of Singapore, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, UNSW

Population growth has seen skylines creep ever higher and entire cities rise from ocean depths. The latest “ocean city” is the Chinese-developed Forest City project. By 2045, four artificial islands in Malaysia will cover 14km² of ocean (an area larger than 10,000 Olympic swimming pools), and support 700,000 residents.

Often overlooked, however, is the damage that artificial islands can cause to vital seafloor ecosystems. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If proper planning and science are integrated, we can develop the design strategies that will help build the “blue-green” ocean cities of tomorrow.

Read more:
Concrete coastlines: it’s time to tackle our marine ‘urban sprawl’

Colonising the ocean frontier

Ever growing numbers of human-made structures are occupying our oceans. Cities built on artificial islands in the ocean are providing a solution for urban planners trying to manage the population squeeze.

And yet, so-called “ocean sprawl” dates as far back as Ancient Egypt. Over the past few centuries, artificial islands have been built through land reclamation. Land reclamation is the process of creating new land from existing water bodies.

Atlantis, The Palm Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates is built on an entirely artificial island.

The Netherlands, for instance, has been draining lakes and expanding its coastline to fight the advance of the sea since the 1500s. The Dutch actually built one of the first and largest artificial islands, which is now home to some 400,000 people. Japan’s third-busiest airport, the Kansai International Airport, was built on an artificial island in 1994. China has also been building into the oceans, reclaiming more than 13,000km² of seafloor and an estimated 65% of tidal habitat since the 1950s.

The artificial Eden Island in Mahe, Seychelles.

Using Google maps, we were able to identify more than 450 artificial islands around the world, including the famous Palm Islands of Dubai. These are often celebrated as engineering marvels, but at what cost to the marine environment?

We can’t ignore what lies beneath

Marine habitats have always been essential for human life in coastal regions. They provide food, building and crafting materials, and less-known services such as coastal protection, nutrient cycling and pollution filtration.

One of the World Map islands in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The creation of artificial islands causes large changes to the seabed by permanently smothering local habitats. In many parts of the world, existing habitats provide the foundation for artificial island construction. For instance, artificial islands in the tropics are often built directly on top of coral reefs. This leads to considerable destruction of already threatened ecosystems.

Land reclamation also impacts nearby habitats that are particularly sensitive to murky waters, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. In Singapore, land reclamation is associated with coral reef decline due to sedimentation and resulting light reductions. Singapore has lost nearly 45% of the country’s intertidal reef flats and almost 40% of intertidal mudflats.

When the ecological, economic, and social value of marine habitats are considered, artificial islands and ocean sprawl seem to be indulgences that we cannot afford. The effects would be akin to the suburban sprawl of the 20th century. To avoid this cost, we need to address the complexities of the underwater world in urban planning and development.

“Blue urbanism”

In his book Blue Urbanism, Timothy Beatley calls for urban planners to consider and value ocean ecosystems. He argues that we need to recognise the psychological value of human connections to blue space, and extend green practices on land into marine environments. While some artificial island developments such as the Forest City project are touted as “eco-cities”, more could be done both to minimise impacts below the waterline and integrate underwater environments into city life.

Why not combine a “Forest City” with the principles of a “Sponge City”? While native plantings in a forest city could help to reduce air pollution, sponge cities seek to “absorb” and reuse rainwater, thus reducing pollution entering the oceans through stormwater runoff. Around artificial islands, developers could also embrace the water filtration powerhouse of the oceans: active oyster reefs.

The location of future constructions should also be carefully evaluated to ensure the preservation of important marine habitats. Artificial islands have the potential to create fragmented seascapes, but with careful spatial planning and smart designs, they could create corridors for some climate migrants or those threatened species most at risk from habitat loss.

The ConversationDesigns based on ecological principles can reduce the impacts of artificial islands on natural habitats. However, applications of “blue-green” infrastructure remain largely untested at large scales. New designs, building strategies and spatial planning that integrate seascapes and landscapes are an opportunity for both “smarter” cities and experimentation for the development of successful blue-green technologies.

Katherine Dafforn, Senior Research Associate in Marine Ecology, UNSW; Ana Bugnot, Research Associate, UNSW; Eliza Heery, Research Fellow in Marine Ecology, National University of Singapore, and Mariana Mayer-Pinto, Senior Research Associate in marine ecology, UNSW

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