On a sunny day in Sydney last Sunday Tim Flannery, former Australian of the Year, appeared on a panel of international journalists convened to discuss the reporting of climate science. Kerry O’Brien kicked things off by asking about the prognosis. Flannery said he wouldn’t answer until the young people at the Sydney Opera House had been given a chance to leave. Things were so dire he feared for their mental health.
My first reaction was that Flannery had developed a taste for the theatrical. No. In the conversation that ensued it became clear that the world cannot avoid 1.5 degrees of warming and the devastating damage that entails, and many far worse scenarios were in play. Flannery’s deep anger and distress was palpable. He said that once he’d viewed climate sceptics with the same indulgence you might afford an eccentric uncle, but now the gloves were off. Deniers were destroying the lives of our children.
Many countries are gripped by policy paralysis, he said, Australia chief among them. And journalism has utterly failed to convey the urgency and magnitude of the problem. Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, told the Antidote festival audience that in 2018 the major TV news networks in the US aired just two and a half hours of climate coverage. In the three prime-time US general election debates in 2016 there was not a single question on the topic.
So how do responsible journalists sound the alarm without sounding alarmist? At The Conversation we are committed to bringing you the voices of scientists and researchers who understand the evidence. We think the proper role for journalism is to provide the clean information that is the lifeblood of democracy. But we also understand it’s vital that these messages gain traction beyond the academic communities from which they emanate.
With this in mind we have recently appointed a new editor to lead our coverage of Environment & Energy. Nicole Hasham is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who for the past four years has been based at Parliament House covering environment and energy for the Nine/Fairfax newspapers.
Nicole will remain in the Canberra press gallery for The Conversation, bridging the gap between policymakers and scientists, and promoting a more informed discussion based on evidence and solutions. She will work alongside the deputy section editor Madeleine De Gabriele and will build on the work of her predecessor Mike Hopkin, who is now our Science and Technology editor.
The Conversation Australia has also joined more than 170 other media outlets in an initiative called Covering Climate Now, co-founded by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation. The idea is to provide a single week of dedicated high quality coverage of climate change ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23.
We see this as the beginning of a new phase in our climate coverage, a vital conversation between scientists and politicians. We don’t want to be alarmist, but if Flannery and the scores of scientists who share his view are right, we are sleepwalking toward disaster. We cannot rest until the scientists are being heard, and solutions are in place that can provide a secure future for all our children.
A startling phenomenon occurs after a bushfire tears through a landscape. From the blackened soil springs an extraordinary natural revival – synchronised germination that carpets the landscape in flowers and colour.
So what is it in bushfires that gives plants this kiss of life? The answer is smoke, and it is increasingly transforming everything from large-scale land regeneration to nurseries and home gardening.
The mystery of seed germination
Burnt plants survive bushfires in various ways. Some are protected by woody rootstocks and bark-coated stems; others resprout from underground buds. But most plants awaken their soil seed bank, which may have lain dormant for decades, or even a century.
However, this smoke-induced seed germination is not easily replicated by humans trying to grow the plants themselves. Traditionally, many native Australian flora species – from fringe-lilies to flannel flowers and trigger plants – could not be grown easily or at all from seed.
In recent decades this has meant the plants were absent from restoration programs and home gardens, reducing biodiversity.
In 1989, South African botanist and double-PhD Dr Johannes de Lange grappled with a similar conundrum. He was trying to save the critically rare Audonia capitata, which was down to a handful of plants growing around Cape Town. The seed he collected could not be germinated, even after heat and ash treatments from fire. Extinction looked inevitable.
The technique is simple. Create a smouldering fire of dry and green leafy material and pass the smoke into an enclosed area where seed has been sown into seed trays or spread as a thin layer. Leave for one hour and water sparingly for ten days to prevent the smoke from washing out of the seed mix. The rest is up to nature.
Taking smoke germination to the world
Soon after the de Lange discovery, I visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town. I was shown a few trays of seedlings out the back – some from seeds treated with smoke, some without. The difference was stark. Smoke-treated seeds produced a riot of green, compared to others that resulted in sparse, straggling seedlings.
But was smoke just an isolated African phenomenon, I wondered? Would 150 years of frustrated efforts to germinate some of Australia’s most spectacular and colourful species – from grevillea and fan-flowers to rare native heaths – also be transformed by smoke?
At first, the answer appeared to be no, as every attempt with Australian wildflower seed failed. But after many trials, which I oversaw as Director of Science at the Western Australian Botanic Garden, success came in 1993. Extra time in the smoke house and a serendipitous failure in the automated watering system resulted in the germination of 25 different species with seedlings. Some were thought to have never been germinated by humans before, such as wild-picked yellow bells (Geleznowia verrucosa) or the giant feather rush (Loxocarya gigas).
This discovery meant for the first time smoke could be used for difficult-to-germinate species for the home gardener and cut flower growers. These days more than 400 species of native seeds, and potentially more than 1,000, respond to smoke treatment. They include kangaroo paw, cotton-tails, spinifex, native bush food tomatoes and fragrant boronias.
Highway plantings, mine site restoration and, importantly, efforts to save threatened plant species now also benefit greatly from the smoke germination technique. For example, smoke houses are now a regular part of many nurseries, which also purchase smoke water to soak seeds for sowing later.
Smoke is also a powerful research tool used to audit native soil seed banks, which includes demonstrating the adverse affects of prescribed burning in winter and spring on native species survival.
Collaboration with research groups in the US, China, Europe and South America has expanded the use of smoke to germinate similarly stubborn seed around the world.
So what is smoke’s secret ingredient?
In 2013, an Australian research team made a breakthrough in determining which of the 4,000 chemicals in a puff of smoke resulted in such starting germination. They patented the chemical and published the discovery in the journal Science.
The smoke chemical, part of the butenolide group of molecules, was named karrikinolide, inspired by the local Indigenous Noongar word for smoke, karrik.
Karrikinolide is no shrinking violet of a molecule: just half a teaspoon is enough to germinate a hectare of bushland, which equates to 20 million seeds.
Smoke is sold to home gardeners and for commercial use in the form of smoke water, smoke-impregnated disks, or smoke granules. All contain the magical karrikinolide molecule.
Why not try it at home?
Home gardeners can try smoking their own seeds – but what you burn matters. Wood smoke can be toxic to seeds. Making your own smoke from leafy material and dry straw ensures you have the right combustible materials for germination.
For the home gardener, having a bottle of smoke water on hand or constructing your own smokehouse can make all the difference to germinating many species – including those stubborn parsley seeds. To find out more, a webinar at this link shows you how to use smoke and even construct your own smoke apparatus.
The agenda for change recognises that the perceived trade-off between agriculture and the environment makes little sense. If New Zealand trades internationally on a reputation for a healthy environment, continued degradation of water fouls the value of major exports. It also spoils the natural heritage that fuels the tourist economy and many New Zealanders consider a birthright.
The policy announcement reflects more than a decade of previous attempts, with the first draft notified in 2008, the first implementation in 2011, and major updates in 2014 and 2017. The new policy package addresses major deficiencies in the earlier versions, and has been fast-tracked to curtail freshwater pollution that has been allowed to get worse longer than it should.
The new regulations are designed to protect the health of entire ecosystems from excess nutrients. Some of the most compelling provisions draw clear lines where limits need to be set to prevent further slippage.
There’s a halt to significant expansions of dairy farming and irrigation, and limits on the use of nitrogen in some key catchments. Further improvements will better protect waterways and wetlands from grazing animals, and limits will be placed on recently criticised winter grazing.
Two significant steps will reverse the main cause of delays in the past. The first is an implementation at national level. This should reduce reliance on a National Policy Statement (NPS) that requires regional councils to implement changes to local legislation.
This step will be reinforced by signalled changes to the national legislation, the Resource Management Act, which in turn will make regional council actions less cumbersome and underfunded. Secondly, where the new NPS requires region-by-region action, caps on increasing agricultural intensity will apply until regional plans have been amended to comply.
These steps increase the chance of preventing further degradation. Some benefits, such as a reduced risk of getting sick from swimming, should come through quickly. Others, such as reduced nutrient loads of nitrogen and phosphorous and a healthier ecology in lakes and rivers, could take years or decades.
To improve freshwater quality, we will need reliable monitoring and modelling tools to measure progress. These will need to be an integral part of the process, even though any decisions are ultimately determined by values. Working through this challenge highlights two large issues that remain unresolved in the plan.
The first is a lack of monitoring tools. The announcement didn’t take up recommendations in the Freshwater Leaders Group’s report that described present tools as unsuitable for providing enough confidence to move forward. The implications are that promised investment to develop the nutrient-monitoring Overseer tool will only eventually get us what we needed years ago.
Tools need to connect nutrient management with farm and catchment planning. They should focus more on future solutions rather than quantifying impacts of past land use that led to freshwater pollution.
The role for Māori
The issue of water allocation is even more important given the constitutional role Māori play in New Zealand’s freshwater governance, enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi.
One of the most intriguing options left open to consultation is the extent to which Māori values will receive compulsory consideration, or alternately, be afforded consideration place-by-place by individual iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). The advisory body representing Māori interests in the environment and in land-based industries raised concerns that these options are too weak.
These concerns are substantially amplified by the recent report by the Waitangi Tribunal, suggesting that the delays and dysfunction associated with freshwater policies have disproportionately undermined the ability of Māori to maintain holistic cultural connections to water, and obtain fair value from lands recently returned to them by the Crown.
These concerns and the need for better planning tools that resolve past degradation and enable future investment ultimately go hand-in-hand. Māori businesses, enabled by treaty settlements, are leading innovators and investors using social and environmental values to drive high-value exports.
The release now opens a period of consultation and national debate. This will pit the passionate voice of the farming community against voices representing our freshwater ecosystems. But this is the first time a proposed plan brings together all aspects of policy we need to keep aquatic life healthy.