Japan plans to dump a million tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific. But Australia has nuclear waste problems, too


Tilman Ruff, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis

The Japanese government recently announced plans to release into the sea more than 1 million tonnes of radioactive water from the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The move has sparked global outrage, including from UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak who recently wrote,

I urge the Japanese government to think twice about its legacy: as a true champion of human rights and the environment, or not.

Alongside our Nobel Peace Prize-winning work promoting nuclear disarmament, we have worked for decades to minimise the health harms of nuclear technology, including site visits to Fukushima since 2011. We’ve concluded Japan’s plan is unsafe, and not based on evidence.

Japan isn’t the only country with a nuclear waste problem. The Australian government wants to send nuclear waste to a site in regional South Australia — a risky plan that has been widely criticised.

Contaminated water in leaking tanks

In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami resulted in the meltdown of four large nuclear reactors, and extensive damage to the reactor containment structures and the buildings which house them.

Water must be poured on top of the damaged reactors to keep them cool, but in the process, it becomes highly contaminated. Every day, 170 tonnes of highly contaminated water are added to storage on site.

As of last month, this totalled 1.23 million tonnes. Currently, this water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks, many hastily and poorly constructed, with a history of leaks.

How does radiation harm marine life?

If radioactive material leaks into the sea, ocean currents can disperse it widely. The radioactivity from Fukushima has already caused widespread contamination of fish caught off the coast, and was even detected in tuna caught off California.




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Four things you didn’t know about nuclear waste


Ionising radiation harms all organisms, causing genetic damage, developmental abnormalities, tumours and reduced fertility and fitness. For tens of kilometres along the coast from the damaged nuclear plant, the diversity and number of organisms have been depleted.

Of particular concern are long-lived radioisotopes (unstable chemical elements) and those which concentrate up the food chain, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. This can lead to fish being thousands of times more radioactive than the water they swim in.

Failing attempts to de-contaminate the water

In recent years, a water purification system — known as advanced liquid processing — has been used to treat the contaminated water accumulating in Fukushima to try to reduce the 62 most important contaminating radioisotopes.

But it hasn’t been very effective. To date, 72% of the treated water exceeds the regulatory standards. Some treated water has been shown to be almost 20,000 times higher than what’s allowed.




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The cherry trees of Fukushima


One important radioisotope not removed in this process is tritium — a radioactive form of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.3 years. This means it takes 12.3 years for half of the radioisotope to decay.

Tritium is a carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants, and is routinely released both into the water and air.

The Japanese government and the reactor operator plan to meet regulatory limits for tritium by diluting contaminated water. But this does not reduce the overall amount of radioactivity released into the environment.

How should the water be stored?

The Japanese Citizens Commission for Nuclear Energy is an independent organisation of engineers and researchers. It says once water is treated to reduce all significant isotopes other than tritium, it should be stored in 10,000-tonne tanks on land.

If the water was stored for 120 years, tritium levels would decay to less than 1,000th of the starting amount, and levels of other radioisotopes would also reduce. This is a relatively short and manageable period of time, in terms of nuclear waste.

Then, the water could be safely released into the ocean.

Nuclear waste storage in Australia

Australians currently face our own nuclear waste problems, stemming from our nuclear reactors and rapidly expanding nuclear medicine export business, which produces radioisotopes for medical diagnosis, some treatments, scientific and industrial purposes.




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This is what happens at our national nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The vast majority of Australia’s nuclear waste is stored on-site in a dedicated facility, managed by those with the best expertise, and monitored 24/7 by the Australian Federal Police.

But the Australian government plans to change this. It wants to transport and temporarily store nuclear waste at a facility at Kimba, in regional South Australia, for an indeterminate period. We believe the Kimba plan involves unnecessary multiple handling, and shifts the nuclear waste problem onto future generations.

The proposed storage facilities in Kimba are less safe than disposal, and this plan is well below world’s best practice.

The infrastructure, staff and expertise to manage and monitor radioactive materials in Lucas Heights were developed over decades, with all the resources and emergency services of Australia’s largest city. These capacities cannot be quickly or easily replicated in the remote rural location of Kimba. What’s more, transporting the waste raises the risk of theft and accident.

And in recent months, the CEO of regulator ARPANSA told a senate inquiry there is capacity to store nuclear waste at Lucas Heights for several more decades. This means there’s ample time to properly plan final disposal of the waste.

The legislation before the Senate will deny interested parties the right to judicial review. The plan also disregards unanimous opposition by Barngarla Traditional Owners.




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The Conversation contacted Resources Minister Keith Pitt who insisted the Kimba site will consolidate waste from more than 100 places into a “safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility”. He said a separate, permanent disposal facility will be established for intermediate level waste in a few decades’ time.

Pitt said the government continues to seek involvement of Traditional Owners. He also said the Kimba community voted in favour of the plan. However, the voting process was criticised on a number of grounds, including that it excluded landowners living relatively close to the site, and entirely excluded Barngarla people.

Kicking the can down the road

Both Australia and Japan should look to nations such as Finland, which deals with nuclear waste more responsibly and has studied potential sites for decades. It plans to spend 3.5 billion euros (A$5.8 billion) on a deep geological disposal site.




Read more:
Risks, ethics and consent: Australia shouldn’t become the world’s nuclear wasteland


Intermediate level nuclear waste like that planned to be moved to Kimba contains extremely hazardous materials that must be strictly isolated from people and the environment for at least 10,000 years.

We should take the time needed for an open, inclusive and evidence-based planning process, rather than a quick fix that avoidably contaminates our shared environment and creates more problems than it solves.

It only kicks the can down the road for future generations, and does not constitute responsible radioactive waste management.


The following are additional comments provided by Resources Minister Keith Pitt in response to issues raised in this article (comments added after publication):

(The Kimba plan) will consolidate waste into a single, safe, purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility. It is international best practice and good common sense to do this.

Key indicators which showed the broad community support in Kimba included 62 per cent support in the local community ballot, and 100 per cent support from direct neighbours to the proposed site.

In assessing community support, the government also considered submissions received from across the country and the results of Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation’s own vote.

The vast majority of Australia’s radioactive waste stream is associated with nuclear medicine production that, on average, two in three Australians will benefit from during their lifetime.

The facility will create a new, safe industry for the Kimba community, including 45 jobs in security, operations, administration and environmental monitoring.The Conversation

Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Margaret Beavis, Tutor Principles of Clinical Practice Melbourne Medical School

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

Food, tools and medicine: 5 native plants that illuminate deep Aboriginal knowledge



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Zena Cumpston, University of Melbourne

Over countless millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have harnessed the tremendous potential of plants, ingeniously using them for medicines, nutrition, to express our culture and to develop innovative technologies.

But as I learn more about First Peoples’ plant knowledge, I’m also better understanding the broader Australian community’s failure to recognise the depth and breadth of our expertise.

Aboriginal people, our culture and deep knowledges are often seen as “in the past”, fixed and stagnant.

Damaging perceptions which cast us as lesser and posit us as a
homogenous peoples, who were limping towards inevitable extinction before
the arrival of a “superior” race, still abound. Such tropes deny our dynamic place in the present day, and our ability to continuously adapt and innovate.

Below I’ve listed five of my favourite indigenous plants and the multiple ways Aboriginal people used them, and continue to do so.




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These plants are examples from my recent publication exploring Aboriginal plant use, and highlight our deep knowledge and holistic approaches to ecological management.

1. Spiny-headed mat-rush (Lomandra longifolia)

Spiny-headed mat-rush is a large tussocky plant found throughout southeastern Australia.

The Wurundjeri people particularly favour this plant for weaving cultural items such as necklaces, headbands, girdles, baskets, mats and bags for carrying foods, as well as for making technologies such as eel traps and hunting nets.

Spiny-headed mat-rush
Spiny-headed mat-rush.
Shutterstock

Its seeds are high in protein. They can be collected and pounded into a bread mix, with the core of the plant and the base of the leaves eaten as a vegetable.

Many diverse Aboriginal peoples use the roots to treat bites and stings. The caterpillars of several butterflies, such as the Symmomus Skipper, also rely on this plant for food and habitat.

2. Wallaby grass

There are around 30 types of wallaby grass in Australia. Native grasslands were once the most extensive habitat of Victoria’s western plains, but are now the most endangered plant community.

Wallaby grass
Wallaby grass.
John Tann/Wikimedia, CC BY

Grasslands provide food and habitat for a huge diversity of fauna, particularly birds, such as the peregrine falcon, whistling kite and Australian kestrels. Many animals, such as the legless lizard, little whip snake and fat-tailed dunnart, were once commonplace, but are now scarce in this endangered ecosystem.

Wallaby grass seeds make an excellent bread by pounding them into flour. The leaves and stem are also used to make cultural items, such as nets for fishing and hunting.

It’s also incredibly hardy – highly tolerant to frost, heat and drought, and requiring no fertilisers and little water. And it makes an excellent lawn, controlling erosion and weeds.

3. Bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa)

In summer, bulbine lily dies back to a dormant bulb, before re-shooting in late autumn. In spring, it displays vibrant yellow flowers.

Bulbine lily
Bulbine lily.
Shutterstock

Bulbine lilies can be found in all states except Western Australia, growing wild in tandem with milkmaids and chocolate lilies in the few areas of Victoria’s undisturbed remnant vegetation.

It’s considered the sweetest tasting of all edible root plants and is available year-round. You can find a plump, round, cream-coloured storage organ (a type of underground stem) under its stalk, which can be eaten after being roasted. Bulbine lily is also nutritious, a good source of calcium and iron.

4. Black kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus)

Aboriginal peoples from many diverse groups favour the fibrous kurrajong bark for making string for fishing lines, nets and bags, as well as body adornments such as headbands.

Flowers turn to fruit in the form of leathery pods. These pods contain highly nutritious yellow seeds, which contain around 18% protein and 25% fat, and high levels of magnesium and zinc.

Black kurrajong
Black kurrajong.
Luis Fernández García/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

To eat the seeds, you first must remove toxic yellow hairs surrounding them. They can be eaten raw and roasted, and have a pleasantly nutty flavour. The young roots of this tree also make an excellent food source and can provide water.

5. Black sheoak (Allocasuarina littoralis)

Favouring dry conditions, black sheoak is native to Queensland, Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, and can grow up to eight metres high. It flowers in spring, with either rusty-brown spikes or red flowers that develop into cones.

Its seeds are an important food source for many native birds, including parrots and cockatoos.

Black Sheoak
Black sheoak.
John Robert McPherson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Diverse groups of Aboriginal peoples use sheoaks for various purposes. The shoots and cones can be eaten, and sheoak wood can be used to fashion boomerangs, shields, clubs and other cultural implements because the wood is both strong and resists splitting and chipping.

In fact, the earliest evidence of boomerangs, found in the Wyrie Swamp in South Australia, were made from various sheoak species, and were dated at 10,000 years old.




Read more:
The art of healing: five medicinal plants used by Aboriginal Australians


The Conversation


Zena Cumpston, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

Hard to spot, but worth looking out for: 8 surprising tawny frogmouth facts



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Les Christidis, Southern Cross University

The tawny frogmouth is one of Australia’s most-loved birds. In fact, it was first runner-up in the Guardian/BirdLife Australia bird of the year poll (behind the endangered black-throated finch).

Tawny frogmouths are found throughout Australia, including cities and towns, and population numbers are healthy. We’re now in the breeding season – which runs from August to December – so you may have been lucky enough to see some pairs with chicks recently.

Here are eight fascinating things about tawny frogmouths that you might not know.

A Tawny Frogmouth and its chick.
You might have been lucky enough to see a tawny frogmouth chick recently.
Carol Smith, Author provided



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1. They are excellent parents

Tawny frogmouths are excellent parents. Both males and females share in building the nest and incubating the eggs, generally one to three. The eggs take 30 days to hatch, with the male incubating during the day and both sexes taking turns during the night.

Once hatched, both parents are very involved in feeding the fledglings. A young bird’s wings take about 25 to 35 days to develop enough strength for flight (a process known as “fledging”).

2. They mate for life

Tawny frogmouths pair for life. Breeding pairs spend a great deal of time roosting together and the male often gently strokes the female with his beak. Some researchers report seeing tawny frogmouths appear to “grieve” when their partner dies.

For example, renowned bird behaviour expert Gisela Kaplan tells of rearing a male tawny frogmouth on her property then releasing it to the wild. It found a female mate and raised nestlings. One day, the female was run over on the highway; Kaplan recognised its markings.

She found the male “whimpering” on a nearby post. Kaplan reportedly said: “It sounds like a baby crying. It affects you to listen to it.” According to Kaplan, the male stayed there for four days and nights, and did not eat or drink.

A pair of Tawny Frogmouths in a tree.
Breeding pairs spend a great deal of time roosting together.
Shutterstock

3. They’re not owls

Although tawny frogmouths are often referred to as owls, they are not. But they do resemble owls with their large eyes, soft plumage and camouflage patterns, because both owls and frogmouths hunt at night. This phenomenon (where two species develop the same attributes, despite not being closely related) is called “convergent evolution”.

Unlike owls, tawny frogmouths do not have powerful feet and talons with which to capture prey. Instead, they prefer to catch prey with their beaks. Their soft, wide, forward-facing beaks are designed for catching insects. They will also feed on small birds, mammals and reptiles.

4. They are masters of disguise

Tawny frogmouths are extremely well camouflaged and when staying statue-still on a tree branch they appear to be part of the tree itself. They often choose to perch near a broken tree branch and thrust their head at angle, further mimicking a tree branch.

A tawny frogmouth sits still on a branch.
Tawny frogmouths are extremely well camouflaged and when staying statue-still on a tree branch they appear to be part of the tree itself.
Shutterstock

5. They make strange noises

Tawny frogmouths are quite vocal at night and have a range of calls from deep grunting to soft “wooing”. When threatened, they make a loud hissing sound. Their vocalisations have also variously been described as purring, screaming and crying.

6. They can survive extremes

In colder regions of Australia, tawny frogmouths are able to survive the winter months by going into torpor for a few hours. In this state, an animal slows its heart rate and metabolism and lowers its body temperature to conserve energy.

On very hot summer days tawny frogmouths will produce mucus in their mouths which cools the air they breathe in, thereby cooling their whole body.

7. They need old trees

It’s not that uncommon to see tawny frogmouths dead on the road; they often flit across the road chasing insects at night and can be hit by cars.

Tawny frogmouth populations are holding relatively steady, but there is a shortage of old trees for nesting. They especially like trees with old branches as they mimic old branches and stick out like sore thumbs on young branches.

When one NSW council chopped down a suburban tree that a tawny frogmouth pair had reportedly used for years as a nesting site, one of the birds was photographed sitting on a nearby woodchipper — a poignant image.

8. They’re not good at building nests.

Tawny frogmouths are pretty slack when it comes to nest building. They simply dump twigs and leaves in a pile and that is it. Chicks and eggs have even fallen out of the nest when parents are swapping brooding duties.

Three tawny frogmouths in a tree
Tawny frogmouths especially like trees with old branches.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Laughs, cries and deception: birds’ emotional lives are just as complicated as ours


The Conversation


Les Christidis, Professor, Southern Cross University

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

Fewer flights and a pesticide-free pitch? Here’s how Australia’s football codes can cut their carbon bootprint



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Brett Hutchins, Monash University; Libby Lester, University of Tasmania, and Michael Ambrose, CSIRO

Australian sport’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkable. Major leagues reorganised with impressive speed to keep games going. Schedules dissolved, seasons were compressed and players relocated. And the once unthinkable is now reality: the AFL grand final will be held in Brisbane.

What if the Australian sport industry could apply the same urgency and innovation to a different but no less significant global crisis – climate change?

Each week, teams and fans fly vast distances, producing significant carbon emissions. And that’s not to mention their other activities. According to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, “sport’s contribution to climate change – through associated travel, energy use, construction, catering, and so on – is considerable”.

Professional sport has enormous power to influence positive change. So ahead of this weekend’s grand finals, let’s examine the carbon emissions of our major men’s football leagues: the AFL, NRL and A-League, as well as Australia’s Super Rugby teams.

Football players struggle in the heat
Players struggle in the heat during an A-League match between Melbourne City and Perth Glory in Melbourne last year. Sport is a major contributor to carbon emissions and resulting global warming.
Julian Smith

The carbon cost of football

Our small-scale study analysed air travel-related emissions for the final four rounds of 2019 regular season games. We used the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s measurement methodology to create a snapshot of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO₂-e) generated by flying teams to and from games in different cities.

Air travel from just one month of football competition in Australia across the four men’s codes generated emissions equivalent to about 475 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Across the codes, teams travelled 231,000km in a single month.

Here’s how each league compared:

– AFL: 18 teams travelled 72,316km across Australia, producing an estimated 187.4 tonnes of CO₂-e or about 10.4 tonnes per team

– NRL: Largely concentrated in NSW and Queensland, the 16 teams covered the shortest distance: 46,400km. They generated 92.1 tonnes of CO₂-e or around 5.7 tonnes per team.

– A-League: 62,660km of air travel, which generated 107.5 tonnes of CO₂-e. The team average (10.7 tonnes) is higher than the AFL and NRL, as teams are spread between Perth and Wellington in New Zealand.

– Super Rugby: the four Australian teams in 2019 produced 87.8 tonnes of CO2-e from 49,624km in the air, with a team average of about 21.9 tonnes. Two games in Tokyo increased this average, although the Sunwolves are now defunct. Nonetheless, teams also flew to Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand during the season.

Unsurprisingly, far-flung teams produced the highest CO2-e emissions. However, the relatively short Melbourne-Sydney air route is the second most carbon-intensive at around 34 tonnes, exceeded only by Melbourne-Perth. The 25 teams in Sydney and Melbourne (plus Geelong) mean many return flights between the cities are required each season.

Explore the full results in this interactive graphic:

Come fly with me

Full seasons ran between 18 and 27 rounds, depending on the code. The results prompted us to consider how leagues and fixtures might be organised to reduce the number of flights taken during a season.

Many teams are located in the Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong corridor (plus Canberra) and Melbourne/Geelong. So visiting interstate and New Zealand teams could play two or three fixtures in these locations before returning home. Depending on the code, similar arrangements are possible in southern Queensland, Adelaide and Perth.




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Organising teams into geographically proximate conferences, as Super Rugby does, is worth considering. This might mean, for example, that Melbourne-based AFL or A-League teams, and Sydney-based NRL or A-League teams, might play each other more often in front of large crowds in their home city.

Representative fixtures, such as the State of Origin rugby league series, could be shortened and based in one location. Teams could travel to play two or three games, then return home.

Even minor reductions in travel-related carbon emissions are worth investigating, and publicly showcasing, in an effort to spur more serious environmental efforts by leagues and teams.

AFL players board a plane
Sports teams regularly fly across Australia, creating considerable emissions from air travel.
Scott Barbour/AAP

Greening the game

There are other ways leagues can encourage a sustainable sporting future. In Britain, for example, League Two’s Forest Green Rovers is the world’s first carbon-neutral football club.

Its home ground features solar panels, electric vehicle charging points and a vegan matchday menu. The team plays on an organic pitch, cut by a solar-powered robot lawnmower, and collects and recycles rainwater. Clubs in Australia could follow this lead to achieve meaningful environmental credentials.




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Carbon measurement, reduction and offset strategies and environmentally responsible sponsorship policies are also needed.

Codes could hold environmentally themed rounds and games, and promote current and former sportspeople speaking about the need for action on climate change and environmental issues, such as:

Ballboy fainting in the heat
Officials assist a ballboy who fainted in the heat at The Australian Open tennis tournament. Major sports competitions are already being adversely affected by climate change.
Nic Bothma

Leading, not following

Last summer’s extreme weather in Australia was a taste of what’s to come under climate change.

Bushfires covered the Australian Open tennis in thick smoke. Cyclists in the Tour Down Under rode through bushfire-ravaged landscapes, and the three previous tours had stages shortened or modified due to extreme heat.

In other parts of the world, sports have been disrupted by events such as floods and reduced snow and ice cover.

Reducing the carbon footprint of sport is clearly in the interests of both the planet, and the leagues themselves. It’s now time for sport’s decision-makers to face reality.




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The Conversation


Brett Hutchins, Professor of Media and Communications Studies, Monash University; Libby Lester, Director, Institute for Social Change, University of Tasmania, and Michael Ambrose, Research Team Leader, CSIRO

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

This is how universities can lead climate action


Gabi Mocatta, University of Tasmania and Rob White, University of Tasmania

Universities are vital hubs of research and teaching on climate change. As large organisations, they also have significant emissions, which contribute to our climate crisis. Universities should therefore lead global action to limit climate change. How best can they do this?

It’s Global Climate Change Week. This annual event aims to encourage universities – staff and students – to engage with each other, their communities and policymakers on climate change action and solutions. As organising committee members and academics working on climate change, we explore here what leadership in university-based climate action looks like.

The reasons to act are obvious. In Paris in 2015, the international community agreed to pursue all possible measures to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But current policies have us on track for an increase of about 3.6°C by 2100.




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Climate change is the most important mission for universities of the 21st century


The need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is urgent – the consequences of not doing so catastrophic.

What university climate action looks like

Universities are big consumers and emitters – some sectors more than others. Universities also have the autonomy to make decisions on sustainability and are increasingly doing so, individually and collectively.




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Many universities are basing their efforts on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability includes radically reducing carbon footprints.

Organisations like the International Universities Climate Alliance and Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability support such efforts. Campaigns like Race to Zero, Countdown and the Global Colleges and Universities Climate Letter provide forums for institutions to commit formally to reducing emissions.

Tasmania, a case study

And what does this climate action look like on the ground? We’ll start with our university, the University of Tasmania – the case we know best.

The university recently ranked third in the world in the Times Higher Education university rankings for climate action. The rankings measure research on climate change, energy use and climate change adaptation.

Our university punches above its weight, with many climate change research groups and more IPCC authors than any other Australian university. Researchers in social sciences, law, education and humanities are also influential in the study of climate change and its impacts.

The University of Tasmania has closely audited and reduced emissions and offset its remaining emissions. Certified carbon-neutral since 2016, it’s one of only two Australian universities to achieve this status (the other is Charles Sturt University).

Divesting from fossil fuels

Fossil fuel divestment is a process of transition with three elements:

  • negative screening – no new investments in fossil-fuel-related industries

  • positive screening – investment in renewable energy and ecologically sustainable industries

  • phased withdrawal of existing investments in fossil-fuel-related industries and activities.

To mark Global Climate Change Week, the University of Tasmania has just announced it aims to divest from any fossil-fuel-exposed investments by the end of 2021. The university already has no direct shareholdings in fossil fuel companies. Its investment strategy will include positive screening, investing in companies that are working towards a zero-carbon economy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Many universities are making divestment the core of their climate action. In Australia, La Trobe started that trend in 2016.

Globally, one of the largest divestment pushes has come from the University of California Berkley. In 2019, it announced it would divest completely from fossil fuels in its US$126 billion investment portfolio and $70 billion pension fund.

Here in Australia, an ongoing campaign is pushing the 450,000-member higher education superannuation fund, UniSuper, to divest from fossil fuel investments.




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Want to know if the Paris climate deal is working? University divestment is the litmus test


Generating power on campus

Some universities are generating their own renewable power.

For example, Deakin University has developed an industrial-scale microgrid: a 14.5 hectare solar energy farm with a 1 megawatt central battery. The project integrates rooftop solar panels and smaller batteries across the Waurn Ponds campus.

The University of Queensland has set up and maintains a A$125 million solar farm just outside Warwick to offset its annual electricity needs.

UQ now offsets 100% of its electricity use with renewable generation.



Read more:
In a world first, Australian university builds own solar farm to offset 100% of its electricity use


Monash is investing A$135 million in its Net Zero initiative. Already partly solar-powered, the university has committed to carbon-neutral infrastructure and operations by 2030.

UNSW plans to expand its onsite solar generation and buy 100% renewable power for the remainder, reducing its emissions in line with keeping global warming under 1.5°C.

Universities can and must do more

Many universities have made a start, but they must be more ambitious as climate action leaders. All universities can and should take meaningful and visible action.

This Global Climate Change Week, students, staff, university communities, get informed. Urge your university to divest from fossil fuels, use renewable energy and commit to achieving net zero emissions – soon. Organise your own campus sustainability initiative, or get active in your university’s existing one.

Only by acting to understand and reduce their own climate impacts can universities be credible climate leaders. Their role as platforms for climate change research and engaged political commentary, as well as sustainable institutional practices, makes them global exemplars on climate action. In this, universities are essential to all of our futures.The Conversation

Gabi Mocatta, Lecturer in Communication, Deakin University, and Research Fellow in Climate Change Communication, Climate Futures Programme, University of Tasmania and Rob White, Professor of Criminology, University of Tasmania

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

You’ve probably heard of the Green New Deal in the US — is it time for one in Australia?


Kate Crowley, University of Tasmania

After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.

We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?




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In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.

The Greens’ proposal echoes Labor, business, unions and environmental groups, and even some conservatives, who think green policies are vital to strengthen the economy post-pandemic.

And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.

What is a Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.

It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.




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The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.

Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.

Green New Deals around the world

In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.

Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.

In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.




Read more:
‘Green Deal’ seeks to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050


However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.

In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.

Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.

Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.




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South Korea’s Green New Deal shows the world what a smart economic recovery looks like


It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?

Australia risks being left behind

The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.

It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.

Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.

The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to

place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.

Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.

This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.




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However, the government’s COVID advisory commission — led by a former mining executive, and criticised by independent MP Zali Steggall for lack of transparency — is recommending a gas-led, not green-led, recovery.

If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.The Conversation

Kate Crowley, Associate Professor, Public and Environmental Policy, University of Tasmania

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

Explainer: what is the electricity transmission system, and why does it need fixing?



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Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Shifting Australia to a low-emissions energy system is a big challenge. Much has been said of the need to change the electricity generation mix, from mostly fossil fuels to mostly renewables. Yet our electricity transmission network must also be overhauled.

The transmission network largely consists of high-voltage cables and towers to support them, as well as transformers. This infrastructure moves electricity from where it’s generated, such as a coal plant or wind farm, to an electrical substation. From there, the distribution network – essentially the “poles and wires” – takes the electricity to customers.

On Australia’s east coast, increased renewable energy generation is already stretching the capacity and reach of Australia’s ageing transmission network. New capacity is being built, but is struggling to keep up.

In his budget reply speech last week, Labor leader Anthony Albanese pledged to create a A$20 billion corporation to upgrade Australia’s energy transmission system. So let’s take a look at what work is needed, and what’s standing in the way.

Anthony Albanese, centra, with Labor frontbenchers
Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech included a $20 billion plan to upgrade transmission networks.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Starting with the basics

The electricity grid covering Australia’s east is part of the National Electricity Market (NEM). It’s one of the largest interconnected electricity networks in the world, and covers every jurisdiction except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The NEM comprises:

  • electricity generators (which produce electricity)

  • five state-based transmission networks, linked by interconnectors that enable electricity to flow between states

  • the distribution network (poles and wires)

  • electricity retailers (which sell electricity to the market)

  • customers, such as homes and businesses

  • a financial market in which electricity is traded.

The NEM’s transmission grid currently has a long, thin structure, running from the north of Queensland to the south of Tasmania and the east of South Australia. This reflects the fact that electricity has traditionally been produced by a small number of large, centralised (mostly coal and gas) generators.

Electricity transmission infrastructure
Electricity transmission infrastructure is expensive and complex to upgrade.

Who owns and runs transmission networks?

Australia’s electricity networks were originally built and owned by state governments, mostly during the latter half of the 20th century. Over several decades, interstate transmission interconnectors were built to share resources more efficiently across borders. The NEM was formally created in the late 1990s.

Between 2000 and 2015, several states either partly or fully privatised their transmission networks, leading to the mixed model of today. The transmission companies are monopoly providers, and the prices they charge are set by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).




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The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) operates the national market and is responsible for transmission planning. In Victoria, AEMO also decides on transmission investments. In the other jurisdictions, that role rests with the transmission companies.

In the past, electricity companies made some infrastructure investments far beyond what was needed – mostly in distribution networks, but also in transmission. This so-called “gold plating” of networks led to inflated costs for consumers, who ultimately pay for the investments via their power bills.

A $50 note in a power socket
The cost of transmission upgrades is passed onto power consumers.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why do the transmission networks need fixing?

Renewables have increased the total NEM generation capacity from 40 gigawatts to 60 gigawatts since 2007. More than 30 gigawatts of renewable generators and 12 gigawatts of energy storage are expected to come online by 2040.

In mid-2017, a panel led by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel recommended a plan be drawn up to create “renewable energy zones”. These would coordinate the development of new renewable projects with new grid infrastructure.

The zones were contained in AEMO’s 2018 “Integrated System Plan (ISP). It identified transmission projects that should start immediately, and possible future projects.

Two initial projects involve expanding the system’s capacity between Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. Possible future projects include a second interconnector between Victoria and Tasmania.




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But upgrading the transmission grid is easier said than done. The large size and cost of new transmission lines means planning and approval is subject to lengthy, intensive economic assessments.

What’s more, renewable energy generators are often built in regional areas, where solar and wind energy are plentiful. In many cases the electricity grid in those areas, designed in a different era, doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate them.

In September, the Energy Security Board (ESB), created by COAG energy ministers, said the transmission grid must be reconfigured along the lines of the ISP to suit the emerging mix of renewable generation and storage. This means upgrading existing interconnectors, and building new interconnectors and intrastate transmission from regional areas to coastal centres.

Transmission lines
The Energy Security Board has called for transmission infrastructure upgrades.
Shutterstock

Weighing the political promises

Labor leader Anthony Albanese last week released a A$20 billion “Rewiring the Nation” policy to upgrade the grid. It would establish a government-owned body to partner with industry, providing low-cost government finance for the upgrades.

The Morrison government, for its part, is also working on transmission solutions. It’s supporting projects prioritised in the ISP, including up to A$250 million allocated in this month’s federal budget.

Some states have separately accelerated their own high-priority transmission projects. However, none of the above measures effectively solve two big impediments to modernising the transmission network.




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First, the processes to identify, analyse and build transmission projects is too slow. Second, a state’s transmission infrastructure is currently paid for by consumers in that state – a poor fit for the increasingly integrated, and therefore shared, national grid.

Much work must be done to address these issues. Perhaps a government-owned national company could be established. It would own the shared transmission system, while AEMO would drive what gets built. Operations could be outsourced to a private company to deliver efficiencies.

Separating planning from owning would minimise the perverse financial incentives that led to past “gold plating”.

To minimise the risk of white elephants being built, strong, up-to-date benefit-cost assessments would be required.

Such alternatives will come with their own challenges. But the transition towards low emissions is too important for radical solutions to be ignored.The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

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

Some say neoliberals have destroyed the world, but now they want to save it. Is Scott Morrison listening?



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John Hawkins, University of Canberra

The International Monetary Fund this week delivered a somewhat surprising message. It warned Earth was on course for “potentially catastrophic” damage under climate change, and called for green investment and carbon prices to put the global economy on a stronger, more sustainable footing.

Of course, the message itself makes a lot of sense. The surprising part is that the IMF is the outfit delivering it.

The Washington-based IMF cannot be dismissed as a bunch of latte-sipping leftists. The organisation has traditionally been a bastion of free market economics and fiscal austerity, long detested by socialists.

It’s now abundantly clear Australia’s climate policies are at odds with even the most conservative approach to economic management. Increasingly, the Morrison government is an outlier on the world stage.

Person with umbrella walks past IMF building
The IMF has called for a green-led pandemic recovery.
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IMF calls for climate action

The IMF’s biannual World Economic Outlook projected a deep recession for 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Global economic output is expected to shrink by 4.4% this year.

The IMF noted while the recession has reduced emissions, the decline is temporary. It warned policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were “grossly insufficient to date” and global temperatures could increase by up to 5℃ by the end of this century. This would lead to “physical and economic damage, and increasing the risk of catastrophic outcomes across the planet”.

It said “an initial green investment push, combined with steadily rising carbon prices, would deliver the needed emissions reductions at reasonable output effects”. It went on:

The package would initially boost global GDP, supporting the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, but then weigh on global activity for a period, as the impact of the investment push wanes and carbon prices continue to rise.

In the second half of the century, the reduction in emissions would place the global economy on a stronger and more sustainable path.

So in other words, the IMF recognises that now is a good time to undertake green investment, because it has long-term benefits and can act as a useful short-term stimulus.

The outlook suggests the stimulus effect of the investment push fades after the first decade. But any slowing in annual economic growth is trivial. The longer term economic benefits of avoiding catastrophic climate change far outweigh any transitional costs.

And in a transition to a low emissions economy, fears of net job losses appear misplaced. The IMF says says “the evidence indicates that environmental policies have succeeded in reallocating jobs from high- to low-carbon sectors”.

Solar panels
The transition to a low-carbon future will not lead to net job losses, the IMF says.
Shutterstock

What is the IMF proposing?

The IMF’s proposed package involves the following tools:

  • an 80% subsidy rate for renewable energy production

  • a 10-year green public investment program in renewable energy, low-carbon transport and energy efficient buildings

  • carbon pricing, calibrated to achieve an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, after accounting for emission reductions from the green fiscal stimulus

  • compensation for poor households whose purchasing power is dampened by a carbon price.

The IMF says the plan is “growth friendly”, especially in the short term. The policies are designed to increase the price of fossil fuel energy relative to low-carbon energy, and reflect the harm fossil fuels cause through air pollution and global warming.

The IMF is not alone in its thinking. Some 27 Nobel laureates in economics have endorsed a price on carbon. And recent research has conclusively found carbon pricing lowers growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

Skyline filled with polluting industries
The IMF has called for a price on carbon.
Shutterstock

An unexpected turn

The IMF has long been a cheerleader for neoliberalism – a belief in free markets, free trade and small government.

But in this case it’s calling for market interventions: a new tax and government subsidies for certain industries. It’s not the first time the IMF has looked to be questioning its own neoliberal agenda, but it’s a twist nonetheless.

The IMF’s calls contrast starkly with the approach of the Coalition government. It dismantled the Gillard government’s carbon price in 2014, and has remained opposed to the measure ever since.




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The Morrison government has refused to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, nor will it target any further increases in renewable energy beyond this year.

Most recently, it is pushing for a “gas-led” recovery from the pandemic. This month’s federal budget included A$52.9 million to support the gas industry – including opening up five new gas basins.

It also allocated money to refurbish the Vales Point coal-fired power station in New South Wales, and A$50 million for carbon capture and storage technologies. Investment in renewable energy was scarce.

PM Scott Mlorrison
The Morrison government’s federal budget included money for gas and coal.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Australia adrift

As the IMF notes, limiting global temperatures will require a global effort. Calls to address climate change though a global green-led recovery have come from far and wide, including banks and investors.

South Korea has seizing the opportunity presented by the pandemic recovery, through a US$61.9 billion green plan aiming to create 659,000 jobs by 2025. China recently committed to net-zero emissions by 2060, and the European Union’s new climate target may see it exit the coal industry by 2030.

Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden, the election favourite, is running on a highly ambitious US$2 trillion climate platform, leaving Scott Morrison exposed.

It’s clear Australia is being left on the wrong side of history. And when even the IMF starts calling for dramatic climate action, Australia starts looking more isolated than ever.




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The Conversation


John Hawkins, Senior Lecturer, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

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

Cats carry diseases that can be deadly to humans, and it’s costing Australia $6 billion every year



Rotiv Artic/Unsplash

Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland; John Read; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Pat Taggart, and Tida Nou, The University of Queensland

Toxoplasmosis, cat roundworm and cat scratch disease are caused by pathogens that depend on cats — pets or feral — for part of their life cycle. But these diseases can be passed to humans, sometimes with severe health consequences.

In our study published today in the journal Wildlife Research, we looked at the rates of these diseases in Australia, their health effects, and the costs to our economy.

Professor Sarah Legge discusses the key findings of the study.

Based on findings from a large number of Australian and international studies, Australian hospital data and information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we estimate many thousands of people in Australia fall ill or sustain a minor injury as a result of cat-dependent diseases each year.

Our estimations suggest more than 8,500 Australians are hospitalised and about 550 die annually from causes linked to these diseases.

We calculated the economic cost of these pathogens in Australia at more than A$6 billion per year based on the costs of medical care for affected people, lost income from time off work, and other related expenses.

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It’s the most serious cat-dependent disease.

Newly infected cats shed millions of T. gondii oocysts (like tiny eggs) in their poo and these can survive many months in the environment.

Humans become infected when they ingest these oocysts, which are in the soil and dust in places where cats have defecated, especially sandpits, vegetable gardens or kitty litter.

Humans can also become infected from eating undercooked meat, if those farm animals have come into contact with cat-shed oocysts.




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Up to one-third of people globally are infected with T. gondii, most without knowing it. Australian studies have reported infection rates between 22% and 66%.

Once infected, about 10% of people develop illness; the other 90% have no symptoms.

Based on overall infection rates and Australia’s population size, we estimate there are more than 125,000 new infections in Australia each year.

Of these, around 12,500 people get sick, mostly with non-specific, flu-like symptoms that resolve within a couple of weeks; 650 require hospitalisation, and 50 die, with these more serious cases often experiencing brain swelling and neurological symptoms.

People with compromised immune systems, such as those with cancer or HIV, are at highest risk.

The parasite _Toxoplasma gondii_
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
Yale Rosen/Flickr

Pregnant women who become infected for the first time can miscarry, or their babies may be born with congenital deformities.

Based on reported and estimated T. gondii infection rates in newborns, about 240 infected babies are born in Australia each year.

More than 20%, or about 50 of these babies, will have symptoms that require life-long care, including impaired vision or hearing, and intellectual disabilities. Another 90 babies will develop symptoms, usually related to vision or hearing, later in life.

A woman holds her pregnant belly.
Toxoplasmosis carries unique risks for pregnant women.
Freestocks/Unsplash

Long-term impacts of latent infection

Even if the initial infection causes little illness, the T. gondii parasite stays with us for life, encased in a cyst, often in the brain. These “latent” infections may affect our mental health and behaviour, such as delaying our reaction times.

Many studies have found people with T. gondii infection are more likely to have a car accident. A review of several studies found if there were no T. gondii infections, car accident rates would theoretically be 17% lower.

T. gondii infections also appear more common in people with mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, and in people who attempt suicide. Reviews across many studies suggest that without T. gondii infections, there could be 10% fewer suicides and 21% fewer schizophrenia diagnoses.

There’s still debate over whether the parasite causes car accidents and mental health disorders, or whether the association is explained by another shared factor. But it is possible T. gondii infection is a risk factor for these issues, in the same way smoking is a risk factor for heart attacks.

Scientists are still discovering how T. gondii influences the brain, but studies on rodents suggest it may involve changed brain chemistry or inflammation.

Putting it all together

If we accept T. gondii infections do increase the risk of car accidents, suicides and schizophrenia, then considering the incidence of these accidents and health issues in Australia, without T. gondii, we estimate we could potentially avoid:

  • 200 deaths and 6,500 hospitalisations due to car accidents

  • 300 suicides and 4,500 suicide attempts

  • 800 schizophrenia diagnoses each year.

Combining deaths from car accidents and suicide with the 50 deaths from acute toxoplasmosis, we reach a total of 550 deaths related to T. gondii infection per year.

The hospitalisation total for T. gondii includes 650 for acute toxoplasmosis, 50 for congenitally infected babies, 6,500 for car accidents, and 800 for schizophrenia. We didn’t include hospitalisations for suicide attempts, as we didn’t have statistics on that. So this could be a conservative estimate, notwithstanding the fact there are other factors involved in car accidents and mental health issues.

Cat scratch and roundworm

Cat scratch disease is a bacterial infection (Bartonella henselae) that people can contract if bitten or scratched by an infected cat.

Typical symptoms include sores, fevers, aches and swollen glands. But more serious symptoms, such as inflammation of heart tissue, cysts in the organs and loss of vision, can also occur.

Prevalence figures are not available in Australia, but based on rates in the United States and Europe, where cat ownership patterns and cat infection rates are similar, we estimate at least 2,700 Australians get sick annually from cat scratch disease, and 270 are hospitalised.




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Your cat has toxoplasmosis and you’re worried? Join the club


Cat roundworm is a parasitic infection (Toxocara cati) that people and other animals can contract by accidentally consuming the parasite’s egg, which infected cats shed in their poo.

Most cat roundworm infections cause mild symptoms, but the migration of the larvae through the body can cause tissue damage, which can be serious if it occurs in a place like the eye or heart.

An adult cat round worm.
Beentree/Wikimedia commons, CC BY

What can we do?

Some 700,000 feral cats and another 2.7 million pet cats roam our towns and suburbs acting as reservoirs of these diseases.

There are no human vaccines for these diseases. Treatment for T. gondii infection in cats isn’t considered useful because cats usually shed the oocysts without the owner even realising the cat has the parasite. Cats can be treated to rid them of roundworm, but treatment for B. henselae (the bacteria that causes cat scratch) may not be effective.

But if you’re a cat owner, there are some things you can do. Keeping pet cats indoors or in a securely contained outdoor area could reduce the chance your pet will contract or pass on a disease-causing pathogen.

A cat sits on the windowsill, looking out onto the street.
If cats are always kept indoors they have a low risk of catching and spreading the disease.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

Cats should be kept out of veggie gardens and children’s sandpits. Washing hands after handling kitty litter and gardening, and washing vegetables thoroughly, can also reduce the risk of transmission.

As T. gondii can be contracted from infected meat, cooking meat well before eating, and not feeding raw meat to pets, can also help.




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The urban feral cat resevoir could be reduced by preventing access to food sources such as farm sites, rubbish bins and tips. We could do this with improved waste management and fencing.

People shouldn’t feed feral cats, as this can lead to cat colony formation, where infection rates are also higher.

Pet cats should also be desexed to prevent unwanted litters that end up as free-roaming ferals.

These steps would cost us and our pet cats little, but could prevent unnecessary impacts on our health and well-being.The Conversation

Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University. Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland; John Read, Associate Lecturer, Ecology and Environmental Sciences; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Pat Taggart, Adjunct Fellow, and Tida Nou, Project officer, The University of Queensland

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

Friday essay: crafting a link to deep time from ancient river red gum




Billy Griffiths, Deakin University

With a mischievous smile, Damien Wright gives the exhibit an unceremonious kick. The enormous, curved slab of river red gum rocks back and forth on the gallery floor, casting a wavering shadow over the “Do Not Touch” sign at its base.

A couple of anxious visitors shuffle over to investigate as Damien tells me how he made this wobbling wooden bowl, and why he chooses to work with the hardest, most challenging timbers.

Damien Wright, ‘Food Bowl’, 2017. Recovered Red Gum, 2800 x 1300 x 250mm.
Fred Kroh

The river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) once grew on the banks of the Murray River. Damien discovered the thick slab in a miller’s yard in Wodonga, where it had lain exposed to the elements for years, slowly warping in the heat. What others had dismissed as damaged wood, Damien saw as creative possibility: he relished the opportunity to work with wood that had been “cooked, cured and crazed by the sun”.

In his workshop in Northcote, Melbourne, he worked to accentuate the warp in the wood by curving the edges of the slab, creating a long, bowing channel, almost three metres in length and over a metre wide. Like all his work, this object is an argument he has made with his hands.

The rough, red, cracking grain of the wood runs lengthways across the piece, like gullies and rivulets spreading across a parched, burnt land. Damien encourages this comparison with his title, which is a pointed commentary on the mistreatment of the waterways on which the tree grew.

“It’s called Food Bowl”, he tells me. And then, gesturing to a knot in the centre, “It drains in the middle”.

Damien Wright, left, and miller Kelvin Barton with the slab that became Food Bowl, Wodonga, 2017.
Fred Kroh

For Damien, wood is a way of thinking about place and time — even deep time. A river red gum may grow for anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years before it falls. And as it decomposes over centuries it becomes a home for new life. Murray cod lay their eggs in drowned red gums.

To work with wood is to think beyond a human lifespan. When you look at something like the Murray-Darling system from the perspective of a grand old red gum, you see the fragility and inter-connectedness of the waterway, and how rapidly it has degraded with recent human interventions.

“And if you have that conversation about deep time in this country”, says Damien, “you have to talk about Indigenous people and this continent as an occupied and cultural space, not just a physical place”.




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River red gums were a part of Australia’s environment long before people arrived here. They grew beside the Murray River when it was a wide, cold, fast-flowing stream; they witnessed its transformation in the late Pleistocene into a narrow, sinuous, seasonal river; and they have remained, over the past 13,000 years, as the water has slowed and warmed, forming swamps, low sand dunes and small lakes along the channel, and seasonal wetlands in the wider riverine plain.

These mighty trees have also been absorbed into the social and cultural worlds of Indigenous Australians. Their roots have been dug and hollowed out to create bowls, their bark cut to craft canoes, and their limbs burned to warm camps and cook food. In recent millennia, they presided over the most densely populated areas of the continent.

A red gum along the Wagirra Trail in Albury, 2017. Before European settlement, wooden canoes were cut from the trees and used by the Wiradjuri people on the Murray River.
Sarah McPhee/AAP



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The ring trees of Victoria’s Watti Watti people are an extraordinary part of our heritage


Damien tells me how he seeks to evoke this deep history through his craft as he shows me two of his other pieces: a striking lantern (Black Lighthouse) he made in collaboration with Yolngu craftsman Bonhula Yunupingu, which glows like a fire through thin, black wood; and an elegant reading chair and angular side table called Ned — a riff on Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly helmet, which it closely resembles.

Each piece of furniture has been made from red gum in a stage preliminary to fossilisation. The wood is black and almost as hard as stone. It is known as ancient red gum.

While other native timbers enable Damien to explore relationships with the Australian environment, the ancient red gum opens a conversation about deep time on this continent.

Geomorphologist Jim Bowler was the first to identify the material as red gum; he used radiocarbon dating to place its age at about 8,000 or perhaps 10,000 years old. Later I call him and, over the phone, he sketches out the wood’s journey from the banks of the Murray River to the workshops of inquisitive artisans like Damien.

The tree would have seeded after the end of the last ice age, at a time when sea levels were rising and the climate was warming.

The rapid snowmelt in the Victorian Alps caused the mountains to shed huge amounts of gravel, which was then swept into the Murray River. As red gums fell into an ancient channel they were covered by this new gravel, which sealed them in the riverbank.

Preserved from decay by the acidity of the water, the entombed wood slowly absorbed enormous amounts of iron and silica. This oxidising and ebonising process is what makes it black through to the centre and hard, much harder than other red gum.

Articulating a future

Jim first became aware of the red gum when he received some samples at the Melbourne Museum in 1990. The damp and fibrous wood had been unearthed in a quarry on Yorta Yorta land in Wodonga, where it was regarded as a nuisance by those more interested in the gravel around it.

Jim and his wife Joan Bowler recognised the significance of the timber and were eager to see it preserved and used. They helped arrange for the director of the museum to provide “authentications” for woodworkers to make it into furniture, and Joan and her friend Annetine Forell travelled the country over the following two decades, drawing the remarkable material to the attention of millers and craftspeople.

The late Kelvin Barton, a miller, woodworker and seventh-generation farmer, became a crucial intermediary. He collected the ancient red gum in Wodonga, reducing its water content in his ersatz kiln to turn it into workable timber. This was how Damien, a long-term friend and collaborator, came to encounter the ancient red gum — indeed it was in Kelvin’s yard that he found the much younger slab that became Food Bowl.

Ancient red gum, Wodonga, 2004.
Damien Wright

Damien uses the ancient red gum to articulate his vision for Australia. He sees craftsmanship as a language: a practice that is refined over time to communicate knowledge, beauty and ideas.

He considers his furniture — in its functionality as well as its elegance — as an embodiment of this philosophy. Objects tell stories. They become part of our everyday lives and express everyday futures:

My argument is that to take a material that is ten thousand years old and to articulate that in a beautiful and passionate way and to make that a relevant thing to our lives or to peoples’ lives is a way of articulating a future for this continent. It’s a way of understanding our place in time. It’s a way of dealing with people. It’s a way of projecting forward.

Damien Wright, Reading Chair and Ned, 2017. Ancient red gum and recovered black bean.
Fred Kroh

Joan Bowler shares this vision for the ancient timber. In 2008, her company Australian Ancient Redgum donated a six-metre “Fossil Tree” to the Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, so that “children can sit under this ancient tree and look up through the hollowed out centre and dream of what was and what might be”.

Trees that were seeded after the end of the last ice age, that survived the ruptures of invasion and industry, have reemerged to offer a deep-time perspective of the continent.

It is a scale that reveals the long-term costs of short-term exploitation, and renders processes like the degradation of the Murray-Darling river system into sudden events.

Ancient red gum also invites a longer view of Australian history. And in the hands of Joan and Damien, it calls for the acknowledgement of cultures and histories that for so long have gone unrecognised.

This is an extract from Living with the Anthropocene, Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis, edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner & Jenny Newell (New South Books).The Conversation

Billy Griffiths, Lecturer, Deakin University

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