China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world



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A Chinese road-building corporation felling rainforest in the Congo Basin.
Bill Laurance, Author provided

Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.

Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.

But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.


Read more: China will need to be more transparent to achieve its development goals


To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?

Predatory force?

For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.

Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.

The author examining a Forest Elephant gunned down by ivory poachers in central Africa.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.

China is also the world’s biggest importer of illegal timber, a trade that imperils forests while defrauding developing nations of billions of dollars each year in timber royalties.

China claims to be working to reduce its illegal timber imports, but its efforts are half-hearted at best, judging by the amount of illegal timber still flowing across its border with Myanmar.

A queue of logging trucks in Southeast Asia.
Jeff Vincent

Infrastructure tsunami

More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.

China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

A partial representation of China’s One Belt One Road scheme, circa 2015.
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.

As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.

Why roads are so dangerous for nature.

Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.

Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.

A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.

Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.

These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.

Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.

A tiger relaxes along a grassy bank.
Matt Gibson/Shutterstock

Iceberg ahead

Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.

But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.


Read more: Developing countries can prosper without increasing emissions


President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.

Indigenous forest people in the Congo Basin become increasingly poor and marginalised as foreign miners, loggers and poachers invade their lands.
Mahmoud Mahmoud

Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?

The ConversationOf course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.

Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why has BHP distanced itself from legal threat to environment groups?


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australian environment groups this week found an unexpected supporter in BHP, the world’s largest mining company.

BHP has defended green groups’ right to receive tax-deductable donations, in the face of a concerted push from both the federal government and the Minerals Council of Australia.

Given the influential role of the environment movement in Australia, and the legal precedent that NGOs and charities can be political, the big Australian evidently sees value in defending them.

Environment groups’ tax status

Environmental organisations in Australia have traditionally been able to claim tax-deductible status under both the Income Tax Act and the Charities Act, in recognition of the fact that the work these groups do has a clear public benefit. But this status has now come under threat.

The federal government issued a report in 2016 entitled Tax Deductible Gift Recipient Reform Opportunities, examining the administration and transparency of the environment groups. The ostensible aim of this report was to ensure that tax-deductible donations to environmental organisations were being used properly.

Among its key recommendations was that environmental organisations would be required to seek tax-deductible status directly from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), and that they be registered as environmental charities in order to qualify. The report also recommended removing the list of environmental groups set out under the Income Tax Act.


Read more: Government inquiry takes aim at green charities that ‘get political


Controversially, the report also recommended that the ATO require environmental charities to spend at least 25% of their donation income on “environmental remediation work”, as opposed to campaigning or other activities. The government has subsequently indicated that it is considering increasing this percentage to 50%.

But the Minerals Council of Australia argues that environmental charities should be forced to commit 90% of their resources to on-the-ground environmental remediation, education and research, leaving only 10% for political advocacy.

Support within the LNP

Federal resources minister Matt Canavan has indicated his support for removing tax-deductible status from environmental organisations. In 2015 he stated:

…there are a large minority [of environmental groups] who are clearly engaged primarily in trying to stop fossil fuel development in Australia and I don’t think it’s right that Australian taxpayers, including people who work in the mining industry, be asked to fund those activities.

The Minerals Council of Australia has also backed the removal of tax-deductible status from environmental organisations, claiming that many of these groups are “not environmental organisations but rather professional activist groups whose objective is to disrupt and hamper the resources sector”.

The Minerals Council issued its own report documenting environmental organisations that is claims have committed or encouraged unlawful or unsafe activities or sought tax-deductible donations to support politically partisan activities.

The report specifically refers to activities by organisations including Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Nature Conservation Foundation of NSW, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and Australian Marine Conservation, arguing that their activities are against federal law.

It is also important to note that environmental organisations are not the only groups to receive tax-deductible status. Other groups, such as the Institute for Public Affairs, which often campaigns on behalf of large organisations to remove environmental protections, also has this status.

Environment groups can be political

Legally speaking, there is no doubt that environmental charities and other NGOs do engage in political activities in addition to their focus on public welfare and the environment. This does not prevent them from being treated as charities.

Indeed, in the landmark High Court decision of Aid/Watch in 2011, the court specifically stated that where it is clear that public welfare is a primary motivation, the fact that the organisation also has political purposes is irrelevant.

On this basis, an environmental organisation can engage in activities to promote political change while still maintaining as its principal purpose the conservation or improvement of the natural environment.


Read more: Australia needs politically active environmental groups


Even BHP agrees. In response to the Minerals Council report, BHP announced that it holds a different view. It argued that environmental organisations should not be stripped of their tax-deductible status, because these organisations perform important advocacy roles for policy development in a democratic society.

Subsequently, 100 BHP shareholders have put forward a shareholder resolution through the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility calling on the company to leave the Minerals Council of Australia. They argued that the Minerals Council’s position is directly at odds with “our company’s long-term financial and strategic interests”.

BHP has agreed to review its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia. It is not alone. In 2016, one of Australia’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas, AGL, left the Minerals Council, citing material differences in their respective policies on climate change and energy.

Environment groups should be allowed to do their work

At a time when we are facing a rapidly transitioning energy landscape – with the acceleration of climate change, renewable energy production, new technologies for unconventional gas extraction, and increasing concerns regarding groundwater depletion and contamination – environmental protection is a major public concern.

It’s hardly surprising that in a democratic framework, environmental organisations have become more politically active. They are striving to ensure that the research and education they conduct with respect to the environment is appropriately reflected within the Australian legal framework.

The ConversationThis work ultimately benefits all Australians. These organistions are constantly seeking to improve and protect the natural habitat in which we all live. In a democracy like ours, the work of these groups should not be drained of funding through changes to the taxation system.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Money can’t buy me love, but you can put a price on a tree



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Mountain ash in the Victorian Central Highlands.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Heather Keith, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Australian National University

What is something worth? How do you put a dollar value on something like a river, a forest or a reef? When one report announces that the Great Barrier Reef is worth A$56 billion, and another that it’s effectively priceless, what does it mean and can they be reconciled?

This contrast points to fundamentally different notions of value. Environmental accounting is a way of recognising and comparing multiple sources of value, in order to better weigh competing priorities in resource management.

In practice it is sometimes crude, but it’s been standardised internationally and its scope is expanding to include social, cultural, and intrinsic benefits.


Read more: What’s the economic value of the Great Barrier Reef? It’s priceless


Using environmental accounting we’ve investigated the tall, wet forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands to weigh the competing economic cases for continuing native timber harvesting and creating a Great Forest National Park. But first we’ll explain a little more about environmental accounting, and how we put a price on trees.

What we count

Essentially, environmental accounting involves identifying the contributions of the environment to the economy, summarised as gross domestic product (GDP). In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics standardises the data and reporting of these contributions in the System of National Accounts. The Bureau also produces environmental accounts that extend the range of information presented – e.g. water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.


Read more: Why we need environmental accounts alongside national accounts


But there are other things of value, like positive environmental and social outcomes, worth incorporating into calculations. Ecosystem accounting gives researchers a framework for doing this, extending the accounting to look at the value of different “ecosystem services” – the contributions of ecosystems to our wellbeing – and not just goods and services captured in our national accounts or environmental accounts.

For example, businesses and homes pay a price for water delivery, but the supplier doesn’t pay for the water that entered the dam. That water is an ecosystem service created by forests and the atmosphere. By assessing costs in the water supply industry, we can estimate the value of the ecosystem service of water provisioning.

The value of Victoria’s Central Highlands

Victoria’s Central Highlands are contested ground. Claims and counter-claims abound between the proponents of native timber production and those who are concerned about the impacts of logging on water supply, climate abatement and threatened species.

Our research has, for the first time, directly compared the economic and environmental values of this ecosystem. It shows that creating a Great Forest National Park is clearly better value.


Read more: Why Victoria needs a Giant Forest National Park


With any change in land management, there will be gains and losses for different people and groups. Assessing these trade-offs is complex, made even more so by patchy and inconsistent data.

Through careful accounting, we synthesised the available data and calculated the annual contributions of industries to GDP. In 2013-14, the latest year for which all financial data were available, these came to A$310 million for water supply, A$312 million for agriculture, A$260 million for tourism and potentially A$49 million for carbon storage. (There is no current market for carbon stored in native forests in Australia – more on that in a minute.)

All of this far exceeds the A$12 million from native timber production. Although timber production is a traditional industry, its contribution to the regional economy is now comparatively small.

The GDP contribution in millions of dollars by primary industries in 2013-14.
Author provided

The industries that use ecosystem services are classified as primary production – agriculture, forestry and water supply. This classification is comprehensive (it covers all economic activities) and mutually exclusive (there is no overlap of categories). Downstream uses of the products from agriculture, forestry and water supply are an important consideration for the industries as a whole, but are included in manufacturing industries and not in ecosystem accounts.

Older forests are more valuable

Native timber production involves clearfell harvesting (removing the majority of trees at the site) and slash burning (using high-intensity fire to burn logging residue and provide an ash bed for regeneration). Regenerating forests are younger, with all trees the same age, and have lower species diversity.

This means these young forests contribute less to biodiversity, carbon storage, water supply and recreation. Therefore harvesting native timber requires a trade-off between these conflicting activities.

Trade-offs between industries in their use of ecosystem services can be complementary (green) or conflicting (red).
Author provided

But more than 60% of the native timber harvested in the Central Highlands is used for pulp. This can be substituted by production from plantations that are more efficient and increased use of recycled paper. Both softwood and hardwood plantations can provide substitute sawlogs.

If we phased out native forest harvesting, increases in the value of water supply and carbon storage would offset the loss of A$12 million per year contributed by the industry. (It would also most likely increase profits for the tourism and plantation timber sectors.)

Older trees use less water than young regrowth, and allowing native forests to age would increase the supply of water to Melbourne’s main reservoirs by an estimated 10.5 gigalitres per year. That’s worth A$8 million per year. Security of water supply for the increasing population of Melbourne is an ever-present concern, particularly with projected decreases in rainfall and streamflow.

Older forests also store more carbon than younger regrowth forests. The federal government’s Emission Reduction Fund does not recognise native forest management as an eligible activity for carbon trading, but if this changed the forest could earn carbon credits worth A$13 million per year. This would provide an ongoing and low-cost source of carbon abatement, which could be used to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets, while the Victorian government could use the money gained to support an industry transition.

Of course, economic benefit is only one way of looking at land. We know that the Central Highlands is home to unique flora and fauna that cannot be replaced (much of which is increasingly under threat). But careful environmental accounting can help explicitly define the various trade-offs of different activities.

The ConversationIt’s particularly important when legacy industries – like native timber harvesting – are no longer environmentally or economically viable. The accounting reveals the current mix of benefits and costs, allowing management of this area to be reconsidered.

Heather Keith, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, and Michael Vardon, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

More than just drains: recreating living streams through the suburbs



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A drain carries water but does little else, but imagine how different the neighbourhood would be if the drain could be transformed into a living stream.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, University of Western Australia

Lot sizes and backyards are shrinking in Australia at the same time as building density is increasing. So we cannot afford to overlook the potential of existing – but neglected – spaces in our suburbs, like drains.

In denser living environments, we will need new types of green and open space to meet the needs of residents.

One such overlooked space is the urban water drainage system. As part of my research I’m examining the potential of a co-ordinated and integrated network of suburban streams.


Further reading: If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


The largest water catchment in the Perth metropolitan area is Bayswater Brook (previously called the Bayswater Main Drain). Largely for the purpose of improving water quality, in recent years work has begun to remake drains running through the suburbs into “living streams”.

Aside from the obvious benefits of water purification and stormwater management, these networks of suburban streams can be re-imagined as preferred paths through the neighbourhood.

Using established drainage routes capitalises on their existing connections through a suburb. This network could amplify the connections between parks and other green areas, providing a rich soundscape of birds, frogs and insects, and a diversity of sedges, rushes, melaleucas and other vegetation along the banks.

Look at the big picture

While the conversion of old infrastructure into living streams is not new, it has as-yet-unrealised potential to rehabilitate the large sections of open drainage that run in visible, connected ways through our suburbs. This elevates the idea of a living stream to a multi-layered ecosystem, one that includes multiple drains across the suburb.

The Bayswater Brook permanent drainage system runs through the northeastern suburbs of Perth. These drains can be dangerous and public entry to these areas is prohibited out of necessity.

Access barriers are unsightly but necessary because the existing drains can be dangerous.
Author’s own

The drains run along the rear of mostly low-density housing, hidden from streets.

An aerial view of houses backing onto a 90-metre long open drain in Perth.
Google Earth

Their condition is typically marked by weeds, minimal vegetation and stagnant water.

Fenced-off areas offer no public benefits to the neighbourhood other than drainage.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

The sheer number of these open drains across the metropolitan area offers a compelling opportunity to reconceptualise the system as a holistic and integrated network of ecologically restored streams. This requires co-operation between multiple levels of government.

A project by WaterCorp in Western Australia (which manages drainage infrastructure) has begun inviting local governments to submit proposals for use of the green space around drains. These are currently for small portions of the larger network, such as a pop-up park planned for a basin in Morley.

The benefit of doing this in a co-ordinated way – rather than single stream restoration – lies in the possibilities of making these spaces a genuine alternative to the street.

What are the benefits?

Typical drains (above and below) add very little to neighbourhood amenity.
Zoe Myers, Author provided

Zoe Myers, Author provided

By activating unused, off-limits areas at the back of houses, we can turn public space “inside out”. Providing a sequence of accessible paths creates a new option for pedestrians away from roads and cars, but still with an established, clear route through the suburb. We can have a space that is buffered from traffic noise without the isolation of an empty park segregated from main thoroughfares.

Many studies have convincingly found connections between the sounds of waterscapes and restorative emotional states and views. Having multiple entry and exit points as the streams thread through the suburbs would heighten the spaces’ usefulness as everyday pathways. Children could walk along the streams to school, or adults could take a short cut to catch the bus to work, maximising this kind of beneficial interaction with water.

Recreating natural habitats would also increase biodiversity and create a multi-sensory environment, as well as a cooler micro-climate. That would make it an even more attractive place to be in hot months. Encouraging a more natural flow of water through the streams would also reduce biting midges and mosquitoes, which thrive in stagnant water.


Further reading: Green for wellbeing – science tells us how to design urban spaces that heal us


Potentially the most convincing reason for local governments to rehabilitate drains is that living streams increase neighbourhood property values. Research has shown the effect is significant. In the Perth suburb of Lynwood, for example, median home values within 200 metres of a wetland
restoration site increased by A$17,000 to A$26,000 above
the trend increase for the area.

This in turn can support increased density. High quality nature spaces potentially offset the sacrifice of the usual backyard area, by increasing the number of people with direct access to these spaces.

Turning an urban drain into a living stream opens up a world of possibilities.
Author’s original render

The ConversationThere is a growing imperative to remove the false choice between designing for people or for nature. Remaking our old infrastructure for many new uses offers multiple benefits to our ecology and well-being. When a drain becomes a living stream it doesn’t just provide a new kind of open space but adds a new dimension to enjoying, and moving through, your suburb.

Zoe Myers, Research Associate, Australian Urban Design Research Centre, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tweet streams: how social media can help keep tabs on ecosystems’ health



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Social media posts, such as this image uploaded to Flickr, can be repurposed for reef health monitoring.
Sarah Ackerman/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Susanne Becken, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Griffith University

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.

Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.

This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.

Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.


Read more: Feeling helpless about the Great Barrier Reef? Here’s one way you can help.


Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.

Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.

Picture of health? You can learn a lot from holiday snaps posted online.
Paul Holloway/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.

In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.

After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.

Tweet heat map for the Great Barrier Reef.
Author provided

Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.

Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).

The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).

Casting the net wider

Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.

The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.


Read more: Survey: two-thirds of Great Barrier Reef tourists want to ‘see it before it’s gone’.


Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.

Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.

The ConversationWhile it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University; Bela Stantic, Professor, Director of Big data and smart analytics lab, Griffith University, and Rod Connolly, Professor in Marine Science, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia doesn’t ‘get’ the environmental challenges faced by Pacific Islanders



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Environmental threats in the Pacific Islands can be cultural as well as physical.
Christopher Johnson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Steven Cork, Australian National University and Kate Auty, University of Melbourne

What actions are required to implement nature-based solutions to Oceania’s most pressing sustainability challenges? That’s the question addressed by the recently released Brisbane Declaration on ecosystem services and sustainability in Oceania.

Compiled following a forum earlier this year in Brisbane, featuring researchers, politicians and community leaders, the declaration suggests that Australia can help Pacific Island communities in a much wider range of ways than simply responding to disasters such as tropical cyclones.

Many of the insights offered at the forum were shocking, especially for Australians. Over the past few years, many articles, including several on The Conversation, have highlighted the losses of beaches, villages and whole islands in the region, including in the Solomons, Catarets, Takuu Atoll and Torres Strait, as sea level has risen. But the forum in Brisbane highlighted how little many Australians understand about the implications of these events.

Over the past decade, Australia has experienced a range of extreme weather events, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which hit Queensland in the very week that the forum was in progress. People who have been directly affected by these events can understand the deep emotional trauma that accompanies damage to life and property.

At the forum, people from several Pacific nations spoke personally about how the tragedy of sea-level rise is impacting life, culture and nature for Pacific Islanders.

One story, which has become the focus of the play Mama’s Bones, told of the deep emotional suffering that results when islanders are forced to move from the land that holds their ancestors’ remains.

The forum also featured a screening of the film There Once Was an Island, which documents people living on the remote Takuu Atoll as they attempt to deal with the impact of rising seas on their 600-strong island community. Released in 2011, it shows how Pacific Islanders are already struggling with the pressure to relocate, the perils of moving to new homes far away, and the potentially painful fragmentation of families and community that will result.

There Once Was an Island.

Their culture is demonstrably under threat, yet many of the people featured in the film said they receive little government or international help in facing these upheavals. Australia’s foreign aid budgets have since shrunk even further.

As Stella Miria-Robinson, representing the Pacific Islands Council of Queensland, reminded participants at the forum, the losses faced by Pacific Islanders are at least partly due to the emissions-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by people in developed countries.

Australia’s role

What can Australians do to help? Obviously, encouraging informed debate about aid and immigration policies is an important first step. As public policy researchers Susan Nicholls and Leanne Glenny have noted,
in relation to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Australians understand so-called “hard hat” responses to crises (such as fixing the electricity, phones, water, roads and other infrastructure) much better than “soft hat” responses such as supporting the psychological recovery of those affected.

Similarly, participants in the Brisbane forum noted that Australian aid to Pacific nations is typically tied to hard-hat advice from consultants based in Australia. This means that soft-hat issues – like providing islanders with education and culturally appropriate psychological services – are under-supported.

The Brisbane Declaration calls on governments, aid agencies, academics and international development organisations to do better. Among a series of recommendations aimed at preserving Pacific Island communities and ecosystems, it calls for the agencies to “actively incorporate indigenous and local knowledge” in their plans.

At the heart of the recommendations is the need to establish mechanisms for ongoing conversations among Oceanic nations, to improve not only understanding of each others’ cultures but of people’s relationships with the environment. Key to these conversations is the development of a common language about the social and cultural, as well as economic, meaning of the natural environment to people, and the building of capacity among all nations to engage in productive dialogue (that is, both speaking and listening).

This capacity involves not only training in relevant skills, but also establishing relevant networks, collecting and sharing appropriate information, and acknowledging the importance of indigenous and local knowledge.

Apart from the recognition that Australians have some way to go to put themselves in the shoes of our Pacific neighbours, it is very clear that these neighbours, through the challenges they have already faced, have many valuable insights that can help Australia develop policies, governance arrangements and management approaches in our quest to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.


The ConversationThis article was co-written by Simone Maynard, Forum Coordinator and Ecosystem Services Thematic Group Lead, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Steven Cork, Adjunct Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kate Auty, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scientific integrity must be defended, our planet depends on it



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To conserve Earth’s remarkable species, such as the violet sabrewing, we must also defend the importance of science.
Jeremy Kerr, Author provided

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

Science is the best method we have for determining what is likely to be true. The knowledge gained from this process benefits society in a multitude of ways, including promoting evidence-based decision-making and management. Nowhere is this more important than conservation, as the intensifying impacts of the Anthropocene increasingly threaten the survival of species.

But truth can be inconvenient: conservation goals sometimes seem at odds with social or economic interests. As a result, scientific evidence may be ignored or suppressed for political reasons. This has led to growing global trends of attacking scientific integrity.

Recent assaults on science and scientists under Donald Trump’s US administration are particularly extreme, but extend far more broadly. Rather than causing scientists to shrink from public discussions, these abuses have spurred them and their professional societies to defend scientific integrity.

Among these efforts was the recent March for Science. The largest pro-science demonstration in history, this event took place in more than 600 locations around the world.

We propose, in a new paper in Conservation Biology, that scientists share their experiences of defending scientific integrity across borders to achieve more lasting success. We summarise eight reforms to protect scientific integrity, drawn from lessons learned in Australia, Canada and the US.

March for science in Melbourne.
John Englart (Takver)

What is scientific integrity?

Scientific integrity is the ability to perform, use and disseminate scientific findings without censorship or political interference. It requires that government scientists can communicate their research to the public and media. Such outbound scientific communication is threatened by policies limiting scientists’ ability to publish, publicise or even mention their research findings.

Public access to websites or other sources of government scientific data have also been curtailed. Limiting access to taxpayer-funded information in this way undermines citizens’ ability to participate in decisions that affect them, or even to know why decisions are being made.

News of the rediscovery of the shrub Hibbertia fumana (left) in Australia was delayed until a development at the site of rediscovery had been permitted. Political considerations delayed protection of the wolverine (right) in the United States.
Wolverine – U.S. National and Park Service. _Hibbertia fumana_ – A. Orme

A recent case of scientific information being suppressed concerns the rediscovery, early in 2017, of the plant Hibbertia fumana in New South Wales. Last seen in 1823, 370 plants were found.

Rather than publicly celebrate the news, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was reportedly asked to suppress the news until after a rail freight plan that overlapped with the plants’ location had been approved.

Protecting scientists’ right to speak out

Scientists employed by government agencies often cannot discuss research that might relate to their employer’s policies. While it may not be appropriate for scientists to weigh in on policy recommendations – and, of course, constant media commentaries would be chaos – the balance has tipped too far towards restriction. Many scientists cannot publicly refer to their research, or that of others, let alone explain the significance of the findings.

To counter this, we need policies that support scientific integrity, an environment of transparency and the public’s right to access scientific information. Scientists’ right to speak freely should be included in collective bargaining agreements.

Scientific integrity requires transparency and accountability. Information from non-government scientists, through submitted comments or reviews of draft policies, can inform the policy process.

Although science is only one source of influence on policy, democratic processes are undermined when policymakers limit scrutiny of decision-making processes and the role that evidence plays in them.

Let science inform policy

Independent reviews of new policy are a vital part of making evidence-based decisions. There is room to broaden these reviews, inviting external organisations to give expert advice on proposed or existing policies. This also means transparently acknowledging any perceived or actual vested interests.

Australian governments often invite scientists and others to contribute their thoughts on proposed policy. The Finkel Review, for example, received 390 written submissions. Of course, agencies might not have time to respond individually to each submission. But if a policy is eventually made that seems to contradict the best available science, that agency should be required to account for that decision.

Finally, agencies should be proactively engaging with scientific groups at all stages of the process.

Active advocacy

Strengthening scientific integrity policies when many administrations are publicly hostile to science is challenging. Scientists are stuck reactively defending protective policies. Instead, they should be actively advocating for their expansion.

The goal is to institutionalise a culture of scientific integrity in the development and implementation of conservation policies.

A transnational movement to defend science will improve the odds that good practices will be retained and strengthened under more science-friendly administrations.

The monarch butterfly, now endangered in Canada, and at risk more broadly.
Jeremy Kerr

Many regard science as apolitical. Even the suggestion of publicly advocating for integrity or evidence-based policy and management makes some scientists deeply uncomfortable. It is telling that providing factual information for policy decisions and public information can be labelled as partisan. Nevertheless, recent research suggests that public participation by scientists, if properly framed, does not harm their credibility.

Scientists can operate objectively in conducting research, interpreting discoveries and publicly explaining the significance of the results. Recommendations for how to walk such a tricky, but vital, line are readily available.

Scientists and scientific societies must not shrink from their role, which is more important than ever. They have a responsibility to engage broadly with the public to affirm that science is indispensable for evidence-based policies and regulations. These critical roles for scientists help ensure that policy processes unfold in plain sight, and consequently help sustain functioning, democratic societies.


The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Carlos Carroll, a conservation biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research.

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Kerr, University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, University of Ottawa, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.