Morrison government approves next step towards Adani coal mine


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government has ticked off on the groundwater management plan for the proposed Adani coal mine, an important but not a final step for the central Queensland project receiving the go-ahead.

The decision, taken by Environment Minister Melissa Price, comes after intense pressure from Queensland Liberal National Party members, including a threat by senator James McGrath to publicly call for Price’s resignation if she failed to treat the Adani project fairly.




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View from The Hill: It’s the internal agitators who are bugging Scott Morrison on Adani


But the Adani decision will not help Liberals fighting seats in the south, with strong anti-Adani campaigns in some key electorates.

Price said in a statement on Tuesday: “CSIRO and Geoscience Australia have independently assessed the groundwater management plans for the Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Infrastructure project”, and both had confirmed the revised plans met strict scientific requirements.

“Following this independent assessment and the Department of Environment and Energy’s recommendation for approval, I have accepted the scientific advice and therefore approved the groundwater management plans” for the mine and rail infrastructure under Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

She said the decision did not amount to final approval for the project.

It needed further approvals from the Queensland government before constructing could commence. So far only 16 of 25 environmental plans have been finalised or approved by the Commonwealth and Queensland with nine more to be finalised.

The project “must meet further stringent conditions of approval from the Commonwealth before it can begin producing coal,” Price said.

It had “been subject to the most rigorous approval process of any mining project in Australia,” she said.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan, a Queenslander who has been agitating for progress on the mine, said: “I welcome these further approvals. Now we need the state Labor government to stop dragging their heels and get on with the job of creating these jobs.”

Bill Shorten – who, like the government, has been caught between the conflicting imperatives of campaigning in central Queensland and in southern Australia on this issue – said the Queensland government now had to go through its processes.

Labor would “adhere to the law” and be “guided by the science,” he said. “We are not interested in sovereign risk.”

Referring to the pressure within the Coalition, Shorten said: “Trying to pressure people now creates a cloud over a process that didn’t need to be there but for the government’s division in their own ranks”.

Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler said that people across Australia would be asking themselves “how can you have any confidence that this decision was made on the merits of the case rather than because of the internal division and chaos in this government?”.




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Grattan on Friday: Scott Morrison struggles to straddle the south-north divide


The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Christian Slattery said “Coal-loving Coalition MPs appear to have strongarmed the Environment Minister into granting Adani access to Queensland’s precious groundwater on the eve of the election”.

Slattery said that if Price had been pressured to rush through the approval ahead of the election, the decision might be open to legal challenge.

He said the Queensland government was yet to sign off on Adani’s Black-Throated Finch Management Plan and Groundwater Dependent Ecosystem Management Plan.

“And, importantly, Adani does not have federal approval for the proposed above-ground water infrastructure it requires to support its proposed thirsty coal mine,” Slattery said.

GetUp said there would be a backlash against the decision. “The Coalition can expect to lose a swathe of seats around Australia for their capitulation to a single coal company at the expense of the community.

“A storm of local groups are already hard at work in Kooyong and Flinders, and now GetUp is going to make an extra 100,000 calls into Flinders and 80,000 calls into Kooyong. This could cost Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt their jobs”.

Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie said: “This decision is environmental vandalism at its most extreme, facilitated by the most useless environment minister the country’s ever seen”.

In a statement Adani complained about its treatment from the Queensland government.

“Throughout the past 18 months, the Federal Department provided us with certainty of process and timing, including the steps involved in the independent review by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia experts.

In contrast, the Queensland government has continued to shift the goal posts when it comes to finalising the outstanding environmental management plans for the mine and is standing in the way of thousands of jobs for Queenslanders.

It’s time the Queensland government gave us a fair go and stopped shifting the goal posts so we can get on with delivering these jobs.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?



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A dam near Gemtree, Northern Territory.
Shutterstock

Mike Letnic, UNSW

A federal parliamentary inquiry into stopping cane toads’ relentless march across Australia has proposed creating “waterless barriers” in the semi-arid land between Western Australia’s Kimberley and Pilbara regions.

Because cane toads need regular access to water to survive, the plan is to fence off man-made watering points like dams and tanks, creating the equivalent of a firebreak the toads cannot cross.

My colleagues and I have been working with the federal inquiry to create this proposal. Here are the facts.

What is a waterless barrier?

There are large areas of Australia that are naturally dry. Except after big rains, there’s very little above-ground water. When people began farming sheep and cattle out in the western ranges, they created artificial water points with the help of dams, tanks and bores.

These water points are refuges for cane toads during droughts and act as stepping-stones when it rains, because the toads can move safely from point to point. This is how they are colonising large areas of Australia.

But if the toads can’t reach open water they cannot live through a dry season. The proposal aims to restrict the toads’ access to the water, but still let the cattle drink.

The poisonous cane toads are considered non-native pests in Australia.
Shutterstock

What kind of fences are we talking about?

Many water sources are actually already inaccessible to cane toads. Steel or plastic tanks filled from pipelines or underground dams cannot be reached. Troughs give a very limited supply.

The main problem comes from turkeynest dams (these are classic dams: pools of water in the ground with a mounded earth edge). My colleagues and I did research years ago that found a simple 60cm fence is enough to keep cane toads out.




Read more:
We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


This doesn’t mean fencing dams is easy: the stations where this would be most helpful are very remote and have plenty of water sources, so fencing (and maintaining) them all presents a logistical hurdle. However many stations are increasingly replacing dams with tanks, which serve the same purpose (and lose far less water to leakage and evaporation).

Cane toads need moisture to survive.
Shutterstock

Another promising development is the number of farmers installing “cut-off switches” for the pumps that fill dams. This is a move away from the older system of turning on a pump and leaving it on until the generator ran out of fuel – perhaps days later. This meant considerable overflow, and created ideal conditions for cane toads. Tanks with solar panels and a cut-off switch that senses when a trough is full can save farms water, power and money, as well as stranding cane toads.




Read more:
Yes, you heard right: more cane toads really can help us fight cane toads


Would it affect native animals?

It’s true some of these dams are now part of the landscape – they’ve been there for a long time. On the other hand, we’re talking about areas that did not originally have much above-ground water before people showed up, and most animals native to the area don’t really need the water (of course, they will drink it if it’s there).

The other part of the equation is the presence of cane toads seriously threatens native wildlife. Cane toads are poisonous and kill native predators, with devastating effects to the environment.

Herd cows drinking water from a Northern Territory dam.
Shutterstock

How big does the barrier need to be, and won’t the rains let the toads cross anyway?

The cattle stations in northern Australia are huge – often 5,000ha. On this scale, just a handful of stations could make a huge difference.

Research suggests a barrier of 50km across could stop toads in their tracks.

The distance a toad can travel in a day varies highly with the environment and weather. In a hot, humid environment a toad might be able to travel roughly 20-30km during a wet season; during cold or dry weather they’re stuck where they are.

Therefore even after heavy rains there won’t be enough water in standing puddles or river beds to let the toads cross the waterless barrier. The puddles would dry out, leaving the toads stranded and without access to dams they would quickly die.




Read more:
The economics of ‘cash for cane toads’ – a textbook example of perverse incentives


Why should we do it?

Cane toads haven’t been found in this part of Australia, but we believe they will be soon. By creating waterless barriers we can cut them off.

Excitingly, this strategy also has potential to be used in other parts of the country to push cane toads back, reclaiming invaded areas.

Most of the pests Australia has really gone to war against affect agriculture. Cane toads, on the other hand, are an environmental pest: they wreak havoc on native fauna, but have comparatively little impact on cash crops.

Eradication of environmental pests receives comparatively little resources. This proposal would be both a win against a devastating invader, and also a symbol of how much we care for our natural environment, and how important it is to protect it.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW

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

Banning exotic leather in fashion hurts snakes and crocodiles in the long run


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Yellow anaconda (snake) skins pegged to dry by indigenous people in Argentina.
Tomas Waller, Author provided

Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.

We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.

The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.

But this decision is not supported by evidence.




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Too simplistic

Banning the use of animal skins in the fashion industry sounds straightforward and may seem commendable – wild reptiles will be left in peace, instead of being killed for the luxury leather trade.

But decades of research show that by walking away from the commercial trade in reptile skins, Selfridges may well achieve the opposite to what it intends. Curtailing commercial trade will be a disaster for some wild populations of reptiles.

How can that be true? Surely commercial harvesting is a threat to the tropical reptiles that are collected and killed for their skins?

Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.

If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?

Women raise Burmese pythons at a small farm on Hainan Island, China.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided



Read more:
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Biggest man-eaters in the billabong

The iconic case study that supports this principle involves saltwater crocodiles in tropical Australia – the biggest, meanest man-eaters in the billabong.

Overharvested to the point of near-extinction, the giant reptiles were finally protected in the Northern Territory in 1971. The populations started to recover, but by 1979-80, when attacks on people started to occur again, the public and politicians wanted the crocodiles culled again. It’s difficult to blame them for that. Who wants a hungry croc in the pond where your children would like to swim?

Saltwater crocs are the reason many beaches are not open for swimming in northern Australia.
Shutterstock

But fast-forward to now and that situation has changed completely. Saltwater crocs are back to their original abundance. Their populations bounced back. These massive reptiles are now in every river and creek – even around the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.

This spectacular conservation success story was achieved not by protecting crocs, but by making crocs a financial asset to local people.

Eggs are collected from the wild every year, landowners get paid for them, and the resulting hatchlings go to crocodile farms where they are raised, then killed to provide luxury leather items, meat and other products. Landowners have a financial interest in conserving crocodiles and their habitats because they profit from it.

Saltwater crocodile eggs collected in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided

The key to the success was buy-in by the community. There are undeniable negatives in having large crocodiles as neighbours – but if those crocs can contribute to the family budget, you may want to keep them around. In Australia, it has worked.

The trade in giant pythons in Indonesia, Australia’s northern neighbour, has been examined in the same way, and the conclusion is the same. The harvest is sustainable because it provides cash to local people, in a society where cash is difficult to come by.




Read more:
Elephants and economics: how to ensure we value wildlife properly


Decisions without evidence

A collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina.
Emilio White, Author provided

So the evidence says commercial exploitation can conserve populations, not annihilate them.

Why then do companies make decisions that could imperil wild animals? Probably because they don’t know any better.

Media campaigns by animal-rights activists aim to convince kind-hearted urbanites that the best way to conserve animals is to stop people from harming them. This might work for some animals, but it fails miserably for wild reptiles.

We argue that if we want to keep wild populations of giant snakes and crocodiles around for our grandchildren to see (hopefully, at a safe distance), we need to abandon simplistic “feelgood conservation” and look towards evidence-based scientific management.

We need to move beyond “let’s not harm that beautiful animal” and get serious about looking at the hard evidence. And when it comes to giant reptiles, the answer is clear.

The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Adjunct Professor, Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

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

Are more Aussie trees dying of drought? Scientists need your help spotting dead trees



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As climate change threatens Australian trees, it’s important to identify which are at risk.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY-SA

Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, UNSW

Most citizen science initiatives ask people to record living things, like frogs, wombats, or feral animals. But dead things can also be hugely informative for science. We have just launched a new citizen science project, The Dead Tree Detective, which aims to record where and when trees have died in Australia.

The current drought across southeastern Australia has been so severe that native trees have begun to perish, and we need people to send in photographs tracking what has died. These records will be valuable for scientists trying to understand and predict how native forests and woodlands are vulnerable to climate extremes.




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Understanding where trees are most at risk is becoming urgent because it’s increasingly clear that climate change is already underway. On average, temperatures across Australia have risen more than 1℃ since 1910, and winter rainfall in southern Australia has declined. Further increases in temperature, and increasing time spent in drought, are forecast.

How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk, and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.

Phil Spark of Woolomin, NSW submitted this photo to The Dead Tree Detective project online.
Author provided

Climate niche

All plants have a preferred average climate where they grow best (their “climatic niche”). Many Australian tree species have small climatic niches.

It’s been estimated an increase of 2℃ would see 40% of eucalypt species stranded in climate conditions to which they are not adapted.

But what happens if species move out of their climatic niche? It’s possible there will be a gradual migration across the landscape as plants move to keep up with the climate.




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It’s also possible that plants will generally grow better, if carbon dioxide rises and frosts become less common (although this is a complicated and disputed claim.

Farmers have reported anecdotal evidence of tree deaths on social media.
Author provided

However, a third possibility is that increasing climate extremes will lead to mass tree deaths, with severe consequences.

There are examples of all three possibilities in the scientific literature, but reports of widespread tree death are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Many scientists, including ourselves, are now trying to identify the circumstances under which we may see trees die from climate stress. Quantifying these thresholds is going to be key for working out where vegetation may be headed.

The water transport system

Australian plants must deal with the most variable rainfall in the world. Only trees adapted to prolonged drought can survive. However, drought severity is forecast to increase, and rising heat extremes will exacerbate drought stress past their tolerance.

To explain why droughts overwhelm trees, we need to look at the water transport system that keeps them alive. Essentially, trees draw water from the soil through their roots and up to their leaves. Plants do not have a pump (like our hearts) to move water – instead, water is pulled up under tension using energy from sunlight. Our research illustrates how this transport system breaks down during droughts.

Lyn Lacey submitted these photos of dead trees at Ashford, NSW to The Dead Tree Detective.
Author provided

In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from trees’ leaves, putting more pressure on their water transport system. This evaporation can actually be useful, because it keeps the trees’ leaves cool during heatwaves. However if there is not enough water available, leaf temperatures can become lethally high, scorching the tree canopy.

We’ve also identified how drought tolerance varies among native tree species. Species growing in low-rainfall areas are better equipped to handle drought, showing they are finely tuned to their climate niche and suggesting many species will be vulnerable if climate change increases drought severity.

Based on all of these data, we hope to be able to predict where and when trees will be vulnerable to death from drought and heat stress. The problem lies in testing our predictions – and that’s where citizen science comes in. Satellite remote sensing can help us track overall greenness of ecosystems, but it can’t detect individual tree death. Observation on the ground is needed.

These images show a failure of the water transport system in Eucalyptus saligna. Left: well-watered plant. Right: severely droughted plant. On the right, air bubbles blocking the transport system can be seen.
Brendan Choat, Author provided

However, there is no system in place to record tree death from drought in Australia. For example, during the Millennium Drought, the most severe and extended drought for a century in southern Australia, there are almost no records of native tree death (other than along the rivers, where over-extraction of water was also an issue). Were there no deaths? Or were they simply not recorded?

The current drought gripping the southeast has not been as long as the Millennium Drought, but it does appear to be more intense, with some places receiving almost no rain for two years. We’ve also had a summer of repeated heatwaves, which will have intensified the stress.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


We’re hearing anecdotal reports of tree death in the news and on twitter. We’re aiming to capture these anecdotal reports, and back them up with information including photographs, locations, numbers and species of trees affected, on the Dead Tree Detective.

We encourage anyone who sees dead trees around them to hop online and contribute. The Detective also allows people to record tree deaths from other causes – and trees that have come back to life again (sometimes dead isn’t dead). It can be depressing to see trees die – but recording their deaths for science helps to ensure they won’t have died in vain.The Conversation

Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

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

From Australia to Africa, fences are stopping Earth’s great animal migrations



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Wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Tanzania during their annual mass migration.
Jane Rix/Shutterstock

Bill Laurance, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

For time immemorial, many wildlife species have survived by undertaking heroic long-distance migrations. But many of these great migrations are collapsing right before our eyes.

Perhaps the biggest peril to migrations is so common that we often fail to notice them: fences. Australia has the longest fences on Earth. The 5,600-kilometre “Dingo Fence” separates southeastern Australia from the rest of the country, whereas the “Rabbit-Proof Fence” stretches for almost 3,300 kilometres across Western Australia.

Emus attempting to cross the Rabbit-Proof Fence in Western Australia.
Western Australia Department of Agriculture & Food

Both of these enormous fences were intended to repel rabbits and other “vermin” such emus, kangaroos and dingoes that were considered threats to crops or livestock. Built over a century ago, their environmental impacts were poorly understood or disregarded at the time.

Since construction these fences have caused recurring ecosystem catastrophes, such as mass die-offs of emus and other species trying to find food and water in a land notorious for the unpredictability of its rainfall, vegetation growth and fruit production.

Fatal fences

The same thing is happening across much of the planet. While a nemesis for larger wildlife, nobody knows how many fences exist today or where they’re located. A study that mapped all the fences in southern Alberta, Canada, found there were 16 times more fences than paved roads.

Scientists are waking up to the peril of fences, realising that from an environmental perspective they’re grossly understudied — “largely overlooked and essentially invisible,” according to a recent global review.

A zebra noses a fence in Kenya.
Duncan Kimuyu

In Africa, home to some of the most spectacular wildlife migrations, scientists found that of 14 large-mammal species known to migrate en masse, five migrations were already extinct. Proliferating fences, along with habitat loss and wildlife poaching, has sent ecosystems such as the Greater Mara in Kenya crashing into ecological turmoil.

And a 2009 audit of Earth’s greatest terrestrial-mammal movements showed that of 24 large species that once migrated in their hundreds to thousands, six migrations have vanished entirely.

Many remaining migrations are mere shards of their former glory. For instance, Indochina once had mass migrations of elephants and other large mammals, big cats, monkeys and birds — often called the “Serengeti of Southeast Asia”.

Elephants and Banteng graze in Kuri Buri National Park in Thailand, vestiges of a once-massive fauna that migrated annually across Indochina.
Pattarapong/iStock

The thundering herds of American bison – some numbering up to 4 million animals – which once dominated the plains of North America have all but vanished today.

How to save mass migration

There are two main ways to destroy mass migrations: killing the animals outright by hunting and over-harvesting, or stopping the animals from accessing food or water, typically by fencing them out or clearing and fragmenting their habitat.

As the human footprint rapidly expands, scary things for wildlife are happening all over. Research that one of us (Bill Laurance) led revealed that 33 African “development corridors” would, if completed, exceed 50,000 kilometres in length and crisscross the continent, chopping its ecosystems into scores of smaller pieces.

Cost-benefit assessment for 33 massive ‘development corridors’ that are proposed or under construction in Sub-Saharan Africa.
William Laurance

Beyond this, over 2,000 parks and protected areas in Africa would be degraded or cut apart by the massive developments.

Migrations are vulnerable even in the seas. Recent research shows that growing shipping traffic is an increasing danger to migratory great whales, basking sharks, and giant whale-sharks – all highly vulnerable to collisions with fast-moving ships, as well as disruption of their sensitive hearing and vocal communications by shipping noise and sonar, and pollutants from vessels.

But the inspiring news is that, if you remove barriers such as fences, animal migrations can spontaneously resume – like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

A Red-Billed Oxpecker, which feeds on skin parasites of African mammals.
Fernando Quevedo de Oliveira/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2004, a fence that had blocked a former zebra migration in Botswana was removed. By 2007 it was one of the longest animal-migration routes in the world.

And a few places on Earth are still free from fencing and fragmentation. The world-famous Seregeti ecosystem of Tanzania is an iconic example. In war-torn South Sudan, a spectacular mass migration of a million antelope — known as white-eared kob — is still intact because there are no fences.

And caribou still migrate in great herds across large expanses of northern Canada and Alaska.

Alarming news for Botswana

Collapsing migrations are a global concern, but right now conservationists are most worried about Botswana.

This mega-diverse nation in southern Africa is considering profoundly changing its wildlife management by expanding fences and cutting off wildlife migrations not considered beneficial to the country’s current priorities.

This would be a shocking decision, because Botswana’s wildlife conservation is almost entirely dependent on its mass migrations.

For wildebeest, zebra, eland, impala, kob, hartebeest, springbok and many other large migrants, isolation is a killer – destroying their capacity to track the shifting patterns of greening vegetation and water availability they need to survive.

And it’s not just grazing and browsing animals that are affected: entire suites of large and small predators, scavengers, commensal and migratory bird species, grazing-adapted plants and other species are integrally tied to these great migrations.

Lions attacking an Angolan Giraffe, one facet of Botswana’s complex migratory ecosystems.
Michael Cohen

Botswana is already sliced into 17 giant “islands” by fences, erected in colonial times to protect the livestock of European farmers from foot-and-mouth disease.

But foot-and-mouth disease is far more likely to be spread by cattle, not wildlife. Fence-free strategies for managing disease risk also have have great potential.

And nature tourism in Botswana is a large, vibrant, and growing part of the national economy. Ecotourists will continue to favour the nation so long as it maintains untrammelled areas and spectacular animal migrations.

Botswana is expected to have over 40,000 tourism-related jobs by 2028, showing their key importance to the national economy.
Travel & Tourism Economic Impact: Botswana 2018

But you can kiss a lot of those tourism revenues goodbye if Botswana shatters its great migrations – killing off the spectacular living panoramas that are a magnet for the world’s nature lovers.

If we can avoid fencing and bulldozing critical parts of the Earth, we could hugely increase the chances that our most vibrant wildlife and ecosystems have a fighting chance to survive.The Conversation

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and Penny van Oosterzee, Adjunct Associate Professor James Cook University and University Fellow Charles Darwin University, James Cook University

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