Why old-school climate denial has had its day



New South Wales, which was 100% drought-declared in August 2018, is already suffering climate impacts.
Michael Cleary

Michael J. I. Brown, Monash University

The Coalition has been re-elected to government, and after six years in office it has not created any effective policies for reducing greenhouse emissions. Does that mean the Australian climate change debate is stuck in 2013? Not exactly.

While Australia still lacks effective climate change policies, the debate has definitely shifted. It’s particularly noticeable to scientists, like myself, who were very active participants in the Australian climate debate just a few years ago.

The debate has moved away from the basic science, and on to the economic and political ramifications. And if advocates for reducing greenhouse emissions don’t fully recognise this, they risk shooting themselves in the foot.

Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are not falling.
Department of Environment and Energy

The old denials

Old-school climate change denial, be it denial that warming is taking place or that humans are responsible for that warming, featured prominently in Australian politics a decade ago. In 2009 Tony Abbott, then a Liberal frontbencher jockeying for the party leadership, told ABC’s 7.30 Report:

I am, as you know, hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change.

The theory and evidence base for human-induced climate change is vast and growing. In contrast, the counterarguments were so sloppy that there were many targets for scientists to shoot at.

Climate “sceptics” have always been very keen on cherrypicking data. They would make a big fuss about some unusually cold days, or alleged discrepancies at a handful of weather stations, while ignoring broader trends. They made claims of data manipulation that, if true, would entail a global conspiracy, despite the availability of code and data.

Incorrect predictions of imminent global cooling were made on the basis of rudimentary analyses rather than sophisticated models. Cycles were invoked, in a manner reminiscent of epicycles and stock market “chartism” – but doodling with spreadsheets cannot defeat carbon dioxide.

That was the state of climate “scepticism” a decade ago, and frankly that’s where it remains in 2019. It’s old, tired, and increasingly irrelevant as the impact of climate change becomes clearer.

Australians just cannot ignore the extended bushfire season, drought, and bleached coral reefs.

Partisans

Climate “scepticism” was always underpinned by politics rather than science, and that’s clearer now than it was a decade ago.

Several Australian climate contrarians describe themselves as libertarians – falling to the right of mainstream Australian politics. David Archibald is a climate sceptic, but is now better known as candidate for the Australian Liberty Alliance, One Nation and (finally) Fraser Anning’s Conservative National Party. The climate change denying Galileo Movement’s claim to be to be non-partisan was always suspect – and now doubly so with its former project leader, Malcolm Roberts, representing One Nation in the Senate.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that relatively few Australians reject the science of climate change. Just 11% of Australians believe recent global warming is natural, and only 4% believe “there’s no such thing as climate change”.

Old-school climate change denial isn’t just unfounded, it’s also unpopular. Before last month’s federal election, Abbott bet a cafe patron in his electorate A$100 that “the climate will not change in ten years”. It reminded me of similar bets made and lost over the past decade. We don’t know whether Abbott will end up paying out on the bet – but we do know he lost his seat.

The shift

So what has changed in the years since Abbott was able to gain traction, rather than opprobrium, by disdaining climate science? The Australian still runs Ian Plimer and Maurice Newman on its opinion pages, and Sky News “after dark” often features climate cranks. But prominent politicians rarely repeat their nonsense any more. When the government spins Australia’s rising emissions, it does it by claiming that investing in natural gas helps cut emissions elsewhere, rather than by pretending CO₂ is merely “plant food”.

As a scientist, I rarely feel the need to debunk the claims of old-school climate cranks. OK, I did recently discuss the weather predictions of a “corporate astrologer” with Media Watch, but that was just bizarre rather than urgent.

Back in the real world, the debate has shifted to costs and jobs.

Modelling by the economist Brian Fisher, who concluded that climate policies would be very expensive, featured prominently in the election campaign. Federal energy minister Angus Taylor, now also responsible for reducing emissions, used the figures to attack the Labor Party, despite expert warnings that the modelling used “absurd cost assumptions”.

Many people still assume the costs of climate change are in the future, despite us increasingly seeing the impacts now. While scientists work to quantify the environmental damage, arguments about the costs and benefits of climate policy are the domain of economists.

Jobs associated with coal mining were a prominent theme of the election campaign, and may have been decisive in Queensland’s huge anti-Labor swing. It is obvious that burning more coal makes more CO₂, but that fact doesn’t stop people wanting jobs. The new green economy is uncharted territory for many workers with skills and experience in mining.

That said, there are economic arguments against new coalmines and new mines may not deliver the number of jobs promised. Australian power companies, unlike government backbenchers and Clive Palmer, have little enthusiasm for new coal-fired power stations. But the fact remains that these economic issues are largely outside the domain of scientists.

Debates about climate policy remain heated, despite the scientific basics being widely accepted. Concerns about economic costs and jobs must be addressed, even if those concerns are built on flawed assumptions and promises that may be not kept. We also cannot forget that climate change is already here, impacting agriculture in particular.

Science should inform and underpin arguments, but economics and politics are now the principal battlegrounds in the Australian climate debate.The Conversation

Michael J. I. Brown, Associate professor in astronomy, Monash University

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

Undocumented plant extinctions are a big problem in Australia – here’s why they go unnoticed



Matchstick banksia (Banksia cuneate). There are only about 500 of these plants left in the wild at 11 different sites, with much of its habitat having been historically cleared for agriculture.
Andrew Crawford/Threatened Species Hub

David Coates, University of Western Australia

A recent survey on the world’s plants found a shocking number have gone extinct – 571 since 1750. And this is likely to be a stark underestimate. Not all plants have been discovered, so it’s likely other plants have gone extinct before researchers know they’re at risk, or even know they exist.

In Australia, the situation is just as dire. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently conducted two evaluations that aren’t yet published of extinct plants in Australia. They found 38 have been lost over the last 170 years, such as the Daintree River banana (Musa fitzalanii) and the fringed spider-orchid (Caladenia thysanochila).




Read more:
‘Plant blindness’ is obscuring the extinction crisis for non-animal species


But uncertainty about the number of plant extinctions, in addition to the 38 confirmed, is an ongoing concern.

Both studies pointed out the actual number of extinctions is likely to be far more than those recognised in formal lists produced by the Commonwealth and state and territory agencies.

For example, there is still a high rate of discovery of new plant species in Australia. More than 1,600 plants were discovered between 2009 and 2015, and an estimated 10% are still yet to be discovered.

The extinction of Australian plants is considered most likely to have occurred in areas where there has been major loss and degradation of native bushland. This includes significant areas in southern Australia that have been cleared for agriculture and intensive urbanisation around major cities.

Many of these extinct plants would have had very restricted geographic ranges. And botanical collections were limited across many parts of Australia before broad scale land clearing and habitat change.

Why extinction goes undocumented

There is already one well recognised Australian plant extinction, a shrub in Phillip Island (Streblorrhiza speciosa), which was never formally recognised on any Australian threatened species list.

Black magic grevillea (Grevilla calliantha) is known from only six populations within a range of 8 square kilometres. In the wild the species is threatened by frequent fire, habitat loss, invasive weeds, herbicide overspray, grazing animals and phytophthora dieback.
Dave Coates

Researchers also note there are Australian plants that are not listed as extinct, but have not been collected for 50 years or more.

While undocumented extinction is an increasing concern, the recent re-assessment of current lists of extinct plants has provided a more positive outcome.

The re-assessment found a number of plants previously considered to be extinct are not actually extinct. This includes plants that have been re-discovered since 1980, and where there has been confusion over plant names. Diel’s wattle (Acacia prismifolia), for instance, was recently rediscovered in Western Australia.




Read more:
‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


A significant challenge for accurately assessing plant extinction relates to the difficulties in surveying and detecting them in the Australian landscapes.

Many have histories associated with fire or some other disturbance. For example, a number of plants spend a significant part of their time as long-lived seeds – sometimes for decades – in the soil with nothing visible above ground, and with plants only appearing for a few years after a fire.

But by far, the greatest reason for the lack of information is the shortage of field surveys of the rare plants, and the availability of botanists and qualified biologists to survey suitable habitat and accurately identify the plants.

Purple-wood wattle (Acacia carneorum) is slow growing and rarely produces viable seed. Threats are not well understood but grazing by livestock and rabbits is likely to impact on the species.
Andrew Denham

What we’ve learnt

The continuing decline of Australia’s threatened plants suggests more extinctions are likely. But there have been important achievements and lessons learnt in dealing with the main causes of loss of native vegetation.

Our understanding of plant extinction processes – such as habitat loss, habitat degradation, invasive weeds, urbanisation, disease and climate change – is improving. But there is still a significant way to go.




Read more:
How I discovered the Dalveen Blue Box, a rare eucalypt species with a sweet, fruity smell


One challenge in dealing with the causes of Australian plant extinction is how to manage introduced diseases.

Two plant diseases in particular are of major concern: Phytophthora dieback, a soil-borne water mould pathogen, and Myrtle rust, which is spread naturally by wind and water.

Both diseases are increasingly recognised as threats, not only because of the impact they are already having on diverse native plant communities and many rare species, but also because of the difficulties in effective control.

Two Australian rainforest tree species Rhodomyrtus psidioides and Rhodamnia rubescens were recently listed as threatened under the NSW legislation because of myrtle rust.

Native guava (Rhodomyrtus psidioides) A tree species around the margins of rainforest between the NSW and the QLD border. The species is has now been listed as Critically Endangered. Surveys of rainforest areas infected with Myrtle Rust found that 50 to 95% of native guava trees were killed by the disease within a few years.
Zaareo/Wikimedia

While extinction associated with disease is often rapid, some individual plants may survive for decades in highly degraded landscapes, such as long-lived woody shrubs and trees. These plants will ultimately go extinct, and this is often difficult to communicate to the public.

While individual species will continue to persist for many years in highly disturbed and fragmented landscapes, there is little or no reproduction. And with their populations restricted to extremely small patches of bush, they’re vulnerable to ongoing degradation.




Read more:
How many species on Earth? Why that’s a simple question but hard to answer


In many such cases there is an “extinction debt”, where it may take decades for extinction to occur, depending on the longevity of the plants involved.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A recent study found of the 418 threatened Australian plants showing ongoing decline, 83% were assessed as having medium to high potential for bouncing back.

And with long-term investment and research there are good prospects of saving the majority of these plants.The Conversation

David Coates, Adjunct Professor and Research Associate, University of Western Australia

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