222 scientists say cascading crises are the biggest threat to the well-being of future generations



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Anthony Capon, Monash University

The bushfires raging across Australia this summer have sharpened the focus on how climate change affects human health. This season bushfires have already claimed more than 30 human lives, and many people have grappled with smoke inhalation and mental health concerns.

The changing nature of bushfires around the world is one of the tragic consequences of climate change highlighted in “Our Future on Earth, 2020” – a report published on Friday by Future Earth, an international sustainability research network.




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The report includes a survey of 222 leading scientists from 52 countries who identified five global risks: failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation; extreme weather events; major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; food crises; and water crises.

They identified these risks as the most severe in terms of impact on planetary health – the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.

Notably, the scientists underlined the threat that the interplay and feedback loops between these risks pose. In other words, each of these global risks worsens one another in ways that may cascade to create a worldwide systemic crisis.

For instance, it’s not just bushfires – it’s the combination of bushfires with drought, biodiversity loss, floods and ecosystem degradation.

We should not be thinking about them in isolation as politicians sometimes seem to do, for instance by proposing to respond to bushfires by simply removing vegetation.




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Ultimately, the report leads us to wonder: will humans continue to thrive on Earth? The answer depends on whether we can act together, with urgency, to reduce our footprint.

Hopefully, some good can come from this summer’s devastating bushfires. They might just help us wake up to the urgent need for climate action. The health and well-being of future generations depends on it.

The report isn’t all doom and gloom

Beyond these global risks, the report covers topics including food, oceans, politics, media and forced migration. The report doesn’t simply describe problems, it highlights where progress is being made, such as with technology.

The Our Future on Earth report found the bushfires are just one consequence of inaction on climate change.
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Much existing technology is being used to promote consumption in the pursuit of economic growth, rather than to safeguard ecosystems or to promote just and fair societies. But the report also highlights how the digital sector has immense potential for reducing emissions and empowering people to monitor and protect ecosystems.

This can include, for instance, using digital technologies to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions in buildings, transport and industry. And new imaging technologies are providing satellite data to monitor forests in real time, and track deforestation and illegal forest activity.




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But the “great acceleration” of economic growth during the second half of the 20th century has put enormous pressure on earth systems. Rapid expansion of broadscale agriculture and extensive mining in some regions has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Now, there is an opportunity to reverse this trend by harnessing investments and financial instruments for sustainable development, including green bonds, sustainability-linked loans and more.

Connecting crises through the lens of health

One way we can connect the five global risks, tackling them in a holistic way, is to think about human health. Specifically, human health offers a useful perspective on sustainable development for policy-makers for three reasons.




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First, it makes clear the need for action is urgent because extreme weather events – amplified in frequency, intensity and duration by climate change – are already affecting health.

This is not a future issue, we’re already seeing health impacts in Australia. Smoke from the fires has exposed about half of Australia’s total human population to hazardous levels of air pollution for weeks. And mental health experts are concerned about rising levels of anxiety about bushfires.

Health also makes the need for action more personal. There are compelling human stories about the loss of lives and livelihoods from environmental change for engaging policy makers. This isn’t an abstract environmental issue: it’s affecting real people in our local communities.

But it’s not all bad: there are health benefits from transitions to sustainable development. For instance, we’re able to, by 2030, reduce the 7 million annual deaths from air pollution by two-thirds.

Using this health lens can illuminate potential win-win-wins from sustainable development policy, and can help policy makers grapple with the enormity of the crises the world faces.

Health in all nations

Dr Gro Brundtland, who chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, contributed to Our Future on Earth.

She notes that a key message from the 1987 report remains relevant, explaining:

Our most urgent task today is to persuade nations of the need to return to multilateralism.

In other words, the future health of Australian people depends on people from other nations. Dr Brundtland is reminding us of the interdependence of all people on Earth.




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For Australia, this means we should be actively supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change. We also must carefully reflect on the health impacts in other countries from our thermal coal exports, as more than 440,000 premature deaths each year are associated with air pollution from coal burning.

Beyond humans, Dr Brundtland’s call for multilateralism is a broader reminder of the interdependence of all species – all animals, plants and microorganisms.The Conversation

Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

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

Buildings kill millions of birds. Here’s how to reduce the toll



These birds were killed by flying into a set of surveyed buildings in Washington DC in 2013.
USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab/Flickr

Norman Day, Swinburne University of Technology

As high-rise cities grow upwards and outwards, increasing numbers of birds die by crashing into glass buildings each year. And of course many others break beaks, wings and legs or suffer other physical harm. But we can help eradicate the danger by good design.

Most research into building-related bird deaths has been done in the United States and Canada, where cities such as Toronto and New York City are located on bird migration paths. In New York City alone, the death toll from flying into buildings is about 200,000 birds a year.

Across the US and Canada, bird populations have shrunk by about 3 billion since 1970. The causes include loss of habitat and urbanisation, pesticides and the effects of global warming, which reduces food sources.

An estimated 365 million to 1 billion birds die each year from “unnatural” causes like building collisions in the US. The greatest bird killer in the US remains the estimated 60-100 million free-range cats that kill up to 4 billion birds a year. Australia is thought to have up to 6 million feral cats.




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But rampant global urbanisation is putting the reliance on glass buildings front-of-stage as an “unnatural” cause of bird deaths, and the problem is growing exponentially.

In the line of flight

Most birds fly at around 30-50km/h, with falcons capable of up to 200km/h. When migrating, birds generally spend five to six hours flying at a height of 150 metres, sometimes much higher.

And that’s where the problems start with high-rise buildings. Most of them are much taller than the height at which birds fly. In Melbourne, for example, Australia 108 is 316 metres, Eureka 300 metres, Aurora 270 metres and Rialto 251 metres. The list is growing as the city expands vertically.

The paradigm of high-rise gothams, New York City, has hundreds of skyscrapers, most with fully glass, reflective walls. One World Trade is 541 metres high, the 1931 Empire State is 381 metres (although not all glass) and even the city’s 100th-highest building, 712 Fifth Avenue, is 198 metres.

To add to the problems of this forest of glass the city requires buildings to provide rooftop green places. These attract roosting birds, which then launch off inside the canyons of reflective glass walls – often mistaking these for open sky or trees reflected from behind.

Reflections of trees and sky lure birds into flying straight into buildings.
Frank L Junior/Shutterstock

A problem of lighting and reflections

Most cities today contain predominantly glass buildings – about 60% of the external wall surface. These buildings do not rely on visible frames, as in the past, and have very limited or no openable windows (for human safety reasons). They are fully air-conditioned, of course.




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Birds cannot recognise daylight reflections and glass does not appear to them to be solid. If it is clear they see it as the image beyond the glass. They can also be caught in building cul-de-sac courtyards – open spaces with closed ends are traps.

At night, the problem is light from buildings, which may disorientate birds. Birds are drawn to lights at night. Glass walls then simply act as targets.

Some species send out flight calls that may lure other birds to their death.

White-throated Sparrows collected in a University of Michigan-led study of birds killed by flying into buildings lit up at night in Chicago and Cleveland.
Roger Hart, University of Michigan/Futurity, CC BY



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We can make buildings safer for birds

Architectural elements like awnings, screens, grilles, shutters and verandas deter birds from hitting buildings. Opaque glass also provides a warning.

Birds see ultraviolet light, which humans cannot. Some manufacturers are now developing glass with patterns using a mixed UV wavelength range that alerts birds but has no effect on human sight.

New York City recently passed a bird-friendly law requiring all new buildings and building alterations (at least under 23 metres tall, where most fly) be designed so birds can recognise glass. Windows must be “fritted” using applied labels, dots, stripes and so on.

The search is on for various other ways of warning birds of the dangers of glass walls and windows.

Combinations of methods are being used to scare or warn away birds from flying into glass walls. These range from dummy hawks (a natural enemy) and actual falcons and hawks, which scare birds, to balloons (like those used during the London Blitz in the second world war), scary noises and gas cannons … even other dead birds.

Researchers are using lasers to produce light ray disturbance in cities especially at night and on dark days.

Noise can be effective, although birds do acclimatise if the noises are produced full-time. However, noise used as a “sonic net” can effectively drown out bird chatter and that interference forces them to move on looking for quietness. The technology has been used at airports, for example.

A zen curtain developed in Brisbane has worked at the University of Queensland. This approach uses an open curtain of ropes strung on the side of buildings. These flutter in the breeze, making patterns and shadows on glass, which birds don’t like.

These zen curtains can also be used to make windows on a house safer for birds. However, such a device would take some doing for the huge structures of a metropolis.

More common, and best adopted at the design phase of a building, is to mark window glass so birds can see it. Just as we etch images on glass doors to alert people, we can apply a label or decal to a window as a warning to birds. Even using interior blinds semi-open will deter birds.

Birds make cities friendlier as part of the shared environment. We have a responsibility to provide safe flying and security from the effects of human habitation and construction, and we know how to achieve that.


This article has been updated to correct the figure for the estimated number of birds killed by the cats in the US to “up to 4 billion”, not 4 million.The Conversation

Norman Day, Lecturer in Architecture, Practice and Design, Swinburne University of Technology

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

When introduced species are cute and loveable, culling them is a tricky proposition



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Lily van Eeden, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Jeremy T. Bruskotter, The Ohio State University; Mathew Crowther, University of Sydney, and Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney

Almost one in five Australians think introduced horses and foxes are native to Australia, and others don’t want “cute” or “charismatic” animals culled, even when they damage the environment. So what are the implications of these attitudes as we help nature recover from bushfires?

Public opposition to culling programs is often at odds with scientists and conservationists.

These tensions came to the fore last month when scientists renewed calls for a horse-culling program to protect native species in Kosciusko National Park – a move strongly opposed by some members of the public.

To manage the environment effectively, including after bushfires, we need to understand the diversity of opinion on what constitutes a native animal, and recognise how these attitudes can change.

Governments are responding

In Australia, native species are usually defined as those present before European settlement in 1788. Lethal pest control usually targets species introduced after this time, such as horses, foxes, deer, rabbits, pigs, and cats.

But fire makes native fauna more vulnerable to introduced predators. Fire removes ground layer vegetation that small wildlife would use as protective cover. When this cover is gone, these animals are easier targets for predators like cats and foxes.




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State governments have started to respond to this impending crisis. In January, the New South Wales government announced its largest ever program to control feral predators, in an effort to protect native fauna after the fires.

The plan includes 1500-2000 hours of aerial and ground shooting of deer, pigs, and goats and distributing up to a million poison baits targeting foxes, cats, and dingoes over 12 months.

Similarly, the Victorian government announced a A$17.5 million program to protect biodiversity the fires affected, including A$7 million for intensified management of threats like introduced animals.

But will the public be on board? Widespread media coverage of the recent fires and their impacts on wildlife, including the loss of more than a billion animals, might garner support for protecting native wildlife from pests.

On the other hand, efforts to manage animals such as cats and horses might be hampered by a lack of public support for culling charismatic animals that many people value or view as belonging in Australia now.

Different folks, different strokes

The distinctions many Australians draw – native animals are “good” and introduced species are “bad” – shape how people view conservation efforts. A survey we conducted in 2017 found people more likely to disapprove of lethal methods for managing species they perceived to be native.

In the same survey, we found nearly one in five Australians considered horses and foxes to be native to Australia.

This suggests either that a) people lack knowledge of Australia’s natural history or b) people disagree with conservationists’ definition of animal “nativeness”.

Calls to manage horses to prevent environmental degradation in Australian national parks are hugely controversial, with many people arguing the horses belong now.
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Many introduced species, such as horses and foxes, have existed in Australia for more than a century and have established populations across much of the country. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be eradicated.

Some people, including scientists, say we should just accept introduced species as part of Australia’s fauna. They argue current management justifies killing based on moral, not scientific judgements and introduced animals may increase biodiversity.




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But the issue remains extremely divisive. A central tenet of traditional conservation is that humans have a duty to protect native species and ecosystems from the threat introduced species pose. It’s difficult to do this without culling introduced animals.

Animal welfare concerns may also drive opposition to culling, taking the view that all animals, even non-natives, have intrinsic value and the right to live.

What’s more, non-native culling programs can be controversial when the animal is considered “cute” or “charismatic”, or of cultural value. For example, a plan to cull feral horses in the Kosciusko National Park in 2018 was met with public outrage, prompting the NSW government to overturn the decision.

Yet protecting introduced species in national parks goes against the very reason they were created – to conserve native ecosystems and species.

Some animals are more equal than others

When analysing public attitudes towards various species, we must also consider how attitudes shift over time.

In Australia, non-native animals such as domestic camels and donkeys were considered useful for transport and highly valued. But we ultimately turned them loose and relabelled them as pests when we started using cars.

We asked the Australian public whether they viewed dingoes, horses, and foxes as native or non-native in Australia.
van Eeden et al. (2020)

Interestingly, we’ve already accepted some introduced species as native. Humans brought dingoes to Australia at least 3,500 years ago. They’re described as native under Australian biodiversity legislation, and 85% of our 2017 survey participants considered dingoes to be native.

Perhaps its only a matter of time until more recently arrived species like horses and foxes are counted as native. Some scientists argue this shift should be based on how ecosystems and species adapt to these new arrivals. For example, some small Australian mammals show fear of dingoes or dogs, but they haven’t yet learnt to fear cats.

Native species can be pests too

Native species, such as kangaroos and possums, may also be culled if they’re perceived to be overabundant or damaging economic interests like agriculture.




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While the plight of bushfire-affected koalas on Kangaroo Island attracted considerable media interest, and the immediate welfare of any animal affected by fires is always a concern, koalas were actually introduced there.

They’ve been managed as a pest on Kangaroo Island for more than 20 years, and it’s unlikely the rescued koalas will be returned to the island. In this case, public concern transcends the distinction between native and introduced.

Public perception is important

We might never all agree on how best to manage native and non-native species. But effective environmental management, including after bushfires, requires understanding the diversity of opinion.

Doing so can help to develop management plans the public supports and allow effective communication about management that is controversial.

In fact, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage did undertake an extensive public consultation process in developing their horse management plan for Kosciuszko National Park, but it wasn’t used after the “brumby bill” gave horses protection in 2018.




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With human lives and many animal lives lost, response to the bushfires is already highly emotive. Failure to consider public attitudes towards managing animals will lead to backlash, wasted money and time, and continuing decline of the native species whose conservation is the goal of these actions.The Conversation

Lily van Eeden, PhD Candidate in Human-Wildlife Conflict, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Jeremy T. Bruskotter, Professor, School of Environment and Natural Resources, The Ohio State University; Mathew Crowther, Associate professor, University of Sydney, and Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney

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