The exquisite blotched butterfly orchid is an airy jewel of the Australian landscape



The butterfly orchid grows beautifully.
The Conversation/John Dearlarney

John Dearnaley, University of Southern Queensland

The blotched butterfly orchid (Sarcochilus weinthalii) looks fairly unremarkable when it’s not flowering, generally resembling the far more common orange blossom orchid. But when it flowers, it is exquisite. Dark purple blotches stand out on cream petals, resembling a flock of butterflies come to rest on rainforest trees.

Like the most of its genus, the blotched butterfly orchid is epiphytic, or an air plant: without roots, they absorb water from the air. The leaves are leathery and curved, and appear in groups of three to seven. They usually grow on the horizontal branches of tree hosts in dry rainforests in southern Queensland and northern NSW.




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Australia has 18 unique butterfly orchids, a number of which are under threat. As they are easily grown by orchid fanciers, they are often removed from natural locations and are becoming harder to see in their natural habitat, high up on rainforest trees in hilly terrain.



The Conversation

The genus Sarcochilus was named by Robert Brown, the naturalist on board the Flinders expedition documenting the east coast of Australia in the early 19th century. The name refers to the fleshy labellum, the showy front petal of the flowers.

The blotched butterfly orchid, Sarcochilus weinthalii was first collected by Ferdinand Weinthal, a notable early Australian orchid collector and grower near Toowoomba in southern Queensland in 1903.

My colleagues and I have been trying to learn more about the biology of these beautiful orchids, to help improve conservation efforts. We are studying populations sizes, life cycles, host trees and similar species in an effort to learn more about how and where they grow – and what might be pollinating them.

The total number of plants at our study locations is less than 200 individuals which is concerning. More troubling is now the complete absence of plants from several regular sites for the orchid. The presence of juvenile plants at the study locations suggests the remaining populations could still be viable, albeit with the spectre of inbreeding depression hovering over the smaller groups.

The orchid was quite adaptable to different tree hosts although there was preference for native hydrangea (Cuttsia viburnea) at one site. Plants grew on the southerly (shaded) side of their hosts, at heights varying from more than 4 metres above the forest floor to less than one metre above soil level. These latter plants were growing on a basalt boulder – something never recorded before.

Fungus friends

As part of our research we sampled the roots of the orchid and isolated a symbiotic fungus, identified by DNA analysis. Analysis of the fungal DNA showed something quite striking. Every orchid, from every location, had exactly the same fungus growing in its roots.

When orchid seed was combined with the fungus in the laboratory, plants grew considerably faster than controls. This suggests that both life stages of the plant require the fungus to provide nutrients.

This fungus will be integral for conservation efforts for the species. Strong growth of seedlings in labs and greenhouse will require the fungus to be present. Restoration efforts will need to check for the presence of the fungus to ensure transplanted populations thrive, and to support new seedling growth in re-established orchid populations.

We observed a number of insects visiting flowers of the blotched butterfly orchid, but most of these were small and unlikely to be capable of pollinating the species. Previous research suggests Sarcochilus orchids are pollinated by native bees.

What is the future for the blotched butterfly orchid?

In another species of Sarcochilus we have studied, S. hartmannii, we saw hover flies regularly visiting (and possibly pollinating) these orchids. So it’s feasible these insects are pollinating the blotched butterfly orchid as well – but we need more research to be sure.

Our work also found the orchids are vulnerable to land clearing, an issue that threatens many native Australian plants. Clearing not only destroys individual plants or populations, but provides conduits for the entry of aggressive exotic plant species like cat’s claw and climbing asparagus into fragile ecosystems.




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Leek orchids are beautiful, endangered and we have no idea how to grow them


And unfortunately, the blotched butterfly orchid grows outside national parks (as well as inside them), which makes them hard to protect from orchid collectors. Perhaps weightier fines are necessary to change the minds of recalcitrants who still believe collecting native plant species from the wild is acceptable!The Conversation

John Dearnaley, Associate Professor, University of Southern Queensland

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

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How to know if we’re winning the war on Australia’s fire ant invasion, and what to do if we aren’t


Fire ants like these can give a nasty bite.
Shutterstock/SweetCrisis

Daniel Spring, University of Melbourne and Jonathan Keith, Monash University

More than A$400 million of government funding is being invested in the latest round of the fire ant program in the hope of eradicating the invasive pests by 2027.

But recent reports on the ABC suggest the invasion is spreading beyond containment lines in south-east Queensland, and there are delays in responding to public reports of new ant infestations.

The claims are denied by Graeme Dudgeon, the new general manager of Queensland Government’s National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.




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Fire ants are native to South America but nests were first discovered in Brisbane in 2001. It’s thought they arrived via shipping at the Port of Brisbane.

They’re regarded as one of the world’s worst invasive species and have a painful bite which is why the Queensland Government has been trying to wipe them out here.

Is eradication possible?

An independent review in 2016 found the fire ants were confined to a region of south east Queensland and said there was an opportunity to eradicate the pests.

But the latest debate raises the question of whether eradication is the best plan, or would further containing the spread of the fire ants be a more practicable solution?

To achieve its aim of eradicating the fire ant problem, the program needs to progressively shrink the invasion.

If the invasion is shrinking too slowly (or is expanding), eradication won’t be achieved by 2027. Without ongoing monitoring of the invasion’s size, the program might be failing without the general public knowing.

But knowing the fire ant invasion’s size isn’t easy because there isn’t enough funding to survey all locations that might have them.

Estimates of the invasion

Using records of past fire ant detections, we have demonstrated how to estimate the invasion’s size when only part of the managed area is surveyed.

Our inference of the boundary of the fire ant invasion in April 2015. The different coloured polygons correspond to different levels of credibility that the boundary contains the invasion, with the outermost boundary corresponding to the highest credibility. Small crosses represent sites where nests have been detected, with the most recent detections in red and the oldest in brown.
Nature/Authors provided, CC BY

If this approach to estimating the invasion boundary is applied each year during the current program, we could estimate whether the invasion is shrinking fast enough to be gone by 2027.

The importance of this issue demands a rigorous scientific analysis using transparent data and methods. Without this, anecdotal evidence that the current invasion is spreading is all we have to indicate whether eradication efforts are failing.

The size of the fire ant invasion should not only be measured in terms of the total area within its estimated boundary but also the density of nests within this area.

Eradication won’t be achieved if both the invasion boundary and the density within it are increasing. This straightforward test to determine whether the program is failing has not yet been applied.

But such a test could be done if updated records of the fire ant invasion are regularly made available to allow for periodic estimation of updated maps of the invasion.

Never give up

Even if eradication by 2027 is unlikely, this does not mean we should give up, provided future control efforts can contain the invasion at an affordable cost.

If the current program fails to eradicate the fire ants, it may still set the stage for effective long-term containment of the invasion.

A poor outcome will result if current management efforts are spread thinly over the infested area, reducing the density of nests but not eradicating them from any suburbs.

A better outcome would involve shrinking the infested area, that is, eradicating the ants from many or most suburbs, so that subsequent containment efforts can focus resources on a smaller area.

Is it still early enough in Australia to shrink the fire ant invasion to a manageably small area and thereby protect most homes and most of the environment for a long time? The required information to answer this question is not yet available.




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But if Queensland’s eradication program has substantially slowed the spread so far, this provides confidence that continuing the program could effectively suppress the invasion. If so, we need to estimate what it will cost to keep out fire ants from most homes and most of the environment for a long time.

It’s often claimed that removing the last 1% of invaders costs as much as removing the previous 99%. If the current program removes all ants from most areas by 2027, this may provide large benefits without the extra cost of finding the last few ants in all infested areas.

Even if we do eradicate fire ants this time, it’s almost certain they will be back because they can readily hitchhike rides on ships.

So if governments can keep fire ant numbers down through ongoing containment, a lot of people and a lot of native species will benefit.The Conversation

Daniel Spring, Research Fellow, School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne and Jonathan Keith, Associate Professor, School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University

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

New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean



Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.




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History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.




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Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

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

Peace with nature: helping former Colombian guerrilla fighters to become citizen scientists



Ex-combatants learned to survey birds, plants and other wildlife.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Jaime Gongora, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Earlham Institute

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world with more than 56,000 recorded species, some 9,000 of which are unique. However protecting and researching this natural treasure has been extraordinarily difficult during Colombia’s nearly 55 years of internal conflict.

Since the 2016 peace agreement 21 scientific bio-expeditions have been carried out, most in areas that were previously conflict zones. This has led to the discovery of more than 150 new animal and plant species.




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This flowering of research offers a new opportunity to the thousands of ex-combatants now looking for productive and peaceful work. We worked with former guerrillas in our project GROW-Colombia to train them to protect Colombia’s biodiversity.

Jaime Gongora led workshops with former guerrillas on the promise of biodiversity.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

Who are the ex-combatants?

A huge effort to reincorporate these combatants back into civilian life is under way. Paramount is finding suitable jobs, to rebuild the country and offer stable wages.

A recent census found the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC-EP) consists of some 10,000 people. Ranging between their 20s and 40s, around three-quarters are men.

Around 40% of these ex-guerrillas have experience in environmental conservation, and 70% have agricultural skills. Some 10% would like to work in veterinary, aquaculture and animal production fields, 60% in agriculture, and 84% in terrestrial and river environmental restoration.

There is also increasing interest in ecotourism in the 26 Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ETCRs) where the ex-combatants are currently based.

Their interests, the new political environment, and nearly 20 tourism initiatives in the ETCRs provide a unique opportunity to promote biodiversity as part of the peace process.

Training ex-combatants to protect biodiversity

We wanted to teach ex-FARC-EP combatants some basic conservation skills and identify the potential of nature to create sustainable business opportunities.

We started with a national workshop with the representatives of 16 ETCRs from across the country. These members reflected on their personal and scientific perceptions of the natural world, mapped ecosystems in their local areas and canvassed ecotourism projects. We then discussed the contributions they made to protecting biodiversity before the peace agreement.

One participant, Curruco* had his own farm before being displaced by the armed conflict. He told us,

our participation in the workshops is evidence of our commitment to peace. We protected the fauna and flora during the conflict.

We then used case studies to teach our workshop members how to take inventory of the species in a given area, explored tourism of nature and conservation in Colombia and discussed business models for the use of biodiversity in ecotourism enterprises.

Some participants explore caves.
Mario Murcia, Author provided

One of the most interesting parts for the ex-combatants was learning techniques for making inventories. We used teaching stations where they learnt about indirect surveys, for example using footprints and faeces, and direct observation and capture. We covered the use of binoculars, trapping cameras, tablets and mobiles, access to taxonomic identification resources and some basic non-invasive sampling methods.

One of the participants, Solangie, had a remarkable knowledge of the Amazon forest. She said:

I enjoyed all the content of the training but I like the bird sightings and plant cataloguing the most because during my time as a combatant we were living among the fauna, including tapirs, reptiles, frogs and butterflies.

I was impressed with the training about plants because in our time in the jungle we used plants as medicine and health treatments.

We then used these skills in practical field work to collect and inventory plants, sight birds and explore caves. The resulting notes and photographs were documented with iNaturalist, an online repository considered a major drawcard in engaging the public in science around the world.

Participants graduated with new knowledge, skills and contacts in research and business.
Jaime Gongora, Author provided

Turning knowledge into business

We also wanted to give our participants a clear idea of how this knowledge could become profitable work. We hosted a business network forum, and 60 meetings were organised so FARC-EP ex-combatants could meet representatives of the major Colombian research institutions and agencies and gain support for their ecotourism and biodiversity initiatives.

Yesenia*, a mother of two, joined FARC at a young age after the paramilitary killed her parents. During the research, she said:

If we want this peace process to succeed it will require the continued involvement of the various components of society, including scientific institutions and universities.

Our work established two levels of organisation: a national biodiversity committee of ETCR representatives from across the country, and a committee of government and non-government institutions and agencies to coordinate and support their biodiversity and ecotourism initiatives.

All of this may sound relatively simple, but this is new and life-changing knowledge for people who were part of an armed conflict, fighting in the jungle against the government.




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One of us, Jaime, lived part of his life under this conflict, and found it very moving to see how the climate of trust has been changing. While there are, of course, considerable challenges, this was unimaginable before the peace agreements.


The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the University of Amazonia, Research Institute of Biological Resources Alexander Von Humboldt, Sinchi Amazonic Institute of Scientific Research, COLCIENCIAS-Colombia BIO, United Nations Development Programme, National Natural Parks Colombia, Vice-Ministry of Tourism, Social Economies of the Common, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, Verification Mission of the United Nations, British Embassy in Colombia, ETCR participants, the GROW Colombia team at Earlham Institute, The University of East Anglia and The University of Sydney.The Conversation

Jaime Gongora, Associate Professor, Animal and Wildlife Genetics and Genomics, University of Sydney and Federica Di Palma, Director of Science, Earlham Institute

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

Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy



Australia must invest in sustainable agriculture.
Author provided

Jacqueline Williams, University of New England

Australia has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to ending world poverty, halting biodiversity loss, and combating climate change. A recent report from the UN found land use – including food production – is responsible for around one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Australia has something of a sustainable agriculture policy vacuum, after years of a fragmented, stop-start approach.




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To honour our international obligations and respond to growing sustainability markets, Australia urgently needs a contemporary definition of sustainable agriculture, including agreed on-farm metrics.

Good policy abandoned

Australia spent more than a decade developing promising policies that defined sustainable agriculture with broad indicators for measuring progress.

In 1997 Australia passed federal legislation defining “sustainable agriculture” as:

agricultural practices and systems that maintain or improve […] the economic viability of agricultural production; the social viability and well-being of rural communities; […] biodiversity; the natural resource base [and] ecosystems that are influenced by agricultural activities.

The following year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management published a broad set indicators.

During the early 2000s a national framework of Environmental Management Systems was developed, and national pilots were conducted across Australia up until 2006.

Between 2004 and 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded farmers’ investment in natural resource management. However these surveys have not been replicated in more than a decade.

In 2005, the states and territories formed a joint working group to create a national approach to property management systems. This group met with industry representatives and regional land managers throughout 2006, and in 2007 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry planned a pathway for a national policy. There was much hope and enthusiasm it would soon become a reality.

However, since 2008 there has been no progress and little, if any, explanation for why this important sustainable agriculture policy initiative was shelved.

Current policy vacuum

It is concerning that Australia’s first progress report on implementing the sustainable development goals contains the words “sustainable agriculture” only once in 130 pages, as part of the heading for the goal of ending hunger.

The definition arrived at in 1997 is far too broad and simplistic, and can’t be used at the farm level.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture reiterated their commitment to improving sustainable food production, and said:

Australia is involved in global discussions about how best to measure sustainable agriculture performance […] However a globally agreed methodology has not been set for [agricultural sustainability].

Australia’s only substantial sustainable agriculture policy mechanism at the moment appears to be grants available through the National Landcare Program. This is reiterated by searching through key Coalition policy documents and the recent budget.

The budget allocation to the overall National Landcare Program is around A$1 billion from 2017 to 2023. New programs announced in the 2019 budget that build on this commitment include:

  • A$100 million over four years for the environment restoration fund,
  • A$34 million over four years for a new biodiversity stewardship program,
  • A$28.3 million for a new communities environment program for 2019-20, and
  • A$2 billion over 15 years for the climate solutions fund.

These programs combined equate to some A$354 million per year. But a coherent sustainable agriculture policy cannot be delivered through grants alone.

And even though these grants are substantial, past ABS surveys found that farmers invest at least A$3 billion a year in natural resource management. The Indigenous on-country contribution is currently unknown, but likely to be substantial.

Caring for country fund

Around 10% of Australia’s population lives in rural or remote areas. These comparatively small communities – largely farmers and Indigenous land managers – currently steward most of the country.

A review released in late July on how conservation laws affect the agriculture sector has recommended the federal government create a A$1 billion fund for farmers who deliver environment benefits from their land.

This mirrors calls from farmers for an ecosystem services fund.

If our 13.9 million taxpayers contributed some A$60 each per year in a “caring for country” levy, urban and rural Australians could more fairly share the costs – as well as the advantages – of sustainable land management.

We could start with revisiting the good work undertaken more than a decade ago in developing a national framework for property management systems.

Underpinning such a system, we need an independent and trusted source of metrics for farmers, land managers and agricultural industries. To this end, the University of New England is establishing a research hub to help develop just such a harmonised approach.




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There are many good news stories of sustainable agriculture around Australia, however our ongoing biodiversity crisis requires transformative policy change and federal leadership.

One bold first step would be addressing the current paradox of sustainable agriculture in Australia.The Conversation

Jacqueline Williams, Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

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

Adani beware: coal is on the road to becoming completely uninsurable



Insurers have to protect themselves against foreseeable risks. For insurers of fossil fuel projects, those risks are growing.
Shutterstock

John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The announcement by Suncorp that it will no longer insure new thermal coal projects, along with a similar announcement by QBE Insurance a few months earlier, brings Australia into line with Europe where most major insurers have broken with coal.

US firms have been a little slower to move, but Chubb announced a divestment policy in July, and Liberty has confirmed it will not insure Australia’s Adani project.

Other big firms such as America’s AIG are coming under increasing pressure.

Even more than divestment of coal shares by banks and managed funds, the withdrawal of insurance has the potential to make coal mining and coal-fired power generation businesses unsustainable.

As the chairman and founder of Adani Group, Gautam Adani, has shown in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, a sufficiently rich developer can use its own resources to finance a coal mine that banks won’t touch.




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But without insurance, mines can’t operate.

(Adani claims to have insurers for the Carmichael project, but has declined to reveal their names.)

Why are insurers abandoning coal?

By the nature of their business, insurers cannot afford to indulge the denialist fantasies still popular in some sectors of industry. Damage caused by climate disasters is one of their biggest expenses, and insurers are fully aware that that damage is set to rise over time.

Even so, a sufficiently hard-headed company might choose to work both sides of the street – continuing to do business with fossil fuel companies, while also writing more expensive insurance against climate damage.

The bigger problem insurers face is the risk of litigation holding fossil fuel companies responsible for climate-related damage. For the moment, this is a potential rather than an immediate risk.

As US insurer AIG, yet to announce a divestment policy, has observed:

Based on our monitoring, while the overall volume of litigation activity has increased, past litigation seems to have largely been unsuccessful on numerous grounds including difficulties in determining and attributing fault and liability to a particular company, and the judiciary’s deference to the political branches of government on questions relating to climate change.

Recent development suggest these difficulties will be overcome.

It’s becoming easier to finger climate culprits…

Until recently, the most immediate problem facing potential litigants has been demonstrating that an event was the result of climate change as opposed to something else, such as random fluctuations in climatic conditions.

Scientific progress on this “extreme event attribution problem” has been rapid.

It is now possible to say with confidence that climate change is causing an increase in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and weather-related events such as extreme heatwaves, drought, heavy rains, tropical storms and bushfires.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society has highlighted three extremes in 2016 that would not have occurred if not for the added influence of climate change:

  • a persistent area of unusually warm water that lingered off the Alaskan coast, causing reduced marine productivity and other ecological disruptions

  • the extreme heatwave that happened in Asia, killing hundreds and destroying crops

  • the overall global atmospheric heat record set that year.

…and to allocate liability

The second line of defence against climate litigation that has held so far is the difficulty of imputing damage to the companies that burn fossil fuels.

While it is true that all weather events have multiple causes, in many circumstances climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has been a necessary condition for those events to take place.

Courts routinely use arguments about necessary conditions to determine liability.

For example, a spark from a power line might cause a bushfire on a hot, dry, windy day, but would be harmless on a wet cold day. That can be enough to establish liability on the part of the company that operates the power line.

These issues are playing out in California, where devastating fires in 2017 caused damage estimated at US$30 billion and drove the biggest of the power companies, PG&E, into bankruptcy.

As a result there has been pressure to loosen liability laws, leaving the cost of future disasters to be borne by Californians in general, and their insurers.

Lawyers will be looking for someone to sue.

Adani is a convenient target

The question facing potential litigants is whether any single company contributes enough to climate change to make it meaningfully liable for particular disaster.

Adani’s Carmichael mine provides a convenient example.

Adani says the 10 million tonnes of coal it plans to mine will produce only 240,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but this is semantic trickery. The firm is referring only to so-called “scope 2” emissions associated with the mining process itself.

When the coal is burned it might produce an extra 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, amounting to about 0.05% of global emissions.

A 0.1% share of the damage associated with the California fires is US$15 million, enough to be worth suing for. Other similarly sized mines will face similar potential liabilities.

Once a precedent is established, any company in the business of producing or burning fossil fuels on a large scale can expect to be named in a regular stream of suits seeking substantial damages.

When governments are successfully sued…

The remaining line of defence for companies responsible for emissions is the history of courts in attributing climate change to decisions by governments rather than corporations.

In the Netherlands, a citizen action group called Urgenda has won a case against the Dutch government arguing it has breached its legal duty of care by not taking appropriate steps to significantly restrain greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage from climate change.

The government is appealing, but it has lost every legal round so far. Sooner or later, this kind of litigation will be successful. Then, governments will look for another party that can be sued instead of them.

…they’ll look for someone else to blame

Insurance companies are an easy target with deep pockets. Despite its hopeful talk quoted above, AIG would find it very difficult to avoid paying up if Californian courts found the firms it insured liable for their contributions to a climate-related wildfires or floods.

This is not a message coal-friendly governments in the US or Australia want to hear.

But the decision of Suncorp to dump coal, just a couple of months after the re-election of the Morrison government, makes it clear that businesses with a time horizon measured in decades cannot afford wishful thinking. They need to protect themselves against what they can see coming.




Read more:
Explaining Adani: why would a billionaire persist with a mine that will probably lose money?


The Conversation


John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia’s inaction on climate change


Michael O’Keefe, La Trobe University

The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu this week has ended in open division over climate change. Australia ensured its official communique watered down commitments to respond to climate change, gaining a hollow victory.

Traditionally, communiques capture the consensus reached at the meeting. In this case, the division on display between Australia and the Pacific meant the only commitment is to commission yet another report into what action needs to be taken.

The cost of Australia’s victory is likely to be great, as it questions the sincerity of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment to “step up” engagement in the Pacific.




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Can Scott Morrison deliver on climate change in Tuvalu – or is his Pacific ‘step up’ doomed?


Australia’s stance on climate change has become untenable in the Pacific. The inability to meet Pacific Island expectations will erode Australia’s influence and leadership credentials in the region, and provide opportunities for other countries to grow influence in the region.

An unprecedented show of dissent

When Morrison arrived in Tuvalu, he was met with an uncompromising mood. In fact, the text of an official communique was only finished after 12 hours of pointed negotiations.

While the “need for urgent, immediate actions on the threats and challenges of climate change”, is acknowledged, the Pacific was looking for action, not words.

What’s more, the document reaffirmed that “strong political leadership to advance climate change action” was needed, but leadership from Australia was sorely missing. It led Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga to note:

I think we can say we should’ve done more work for our people.

Presumably, he would have hoped Australia could be convinced to take more climate action.

In an unprecedented show of dissent, smaller Pacific Island countries produced the alternative Kainaki II Declaration. It captures the mood of the Pacific in relation to the existential threat posed by climate change, and the need to act decisively now to ensure their survival.

And it details the commitments needed to effectively address the threat of climate change. It’s clear nothing short of transformational change is needed to ensure their survival, and there is rising frustration in Australia’s repeated delays to take effective action.

Australia hasn’t endorsed the alternative declaration and Canberra has signalled once and for all that compromise on climate change is not possible. This is not what Pacific leaders hoped for and will come at a diplomatic cost to Australia.




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Response to rumours of a Chinese military base in Vanuatu speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy


Canberra can’t buy off the Pacific

Conflict had already begun brewing in the lead up to the Pacific Islands Forum. The Pacific Islands Development Forum – the brainchild of the Fijian government, which sought a forum to engage with Pacific Island Nations without the influence of Australia and New Zealand – released the the Nadi Bay Declaration in July this year.

This declaration called on coal producing countries like Australia to cease all production within a decade.

But it’s clear Canberra believes compromise of this sort on climate change would undermine Australia’s economic growth and this is the key stumbling block to Australia answering its Pacific critics with action.

As Sopoaga said to Morrison:

You are concerned about saving your economy in Australia […] I am concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu.

And a day before the meeting, Canberra announced half a billion dollars to tackle climate change in the region. But it received a lukewarm reception from the Pacific.

The message is clear: Canberra cannot buy off the Pacific. In part, this is because Pacific Island countries have new options, especially from China, which has offered Pacific island countries concessional loans.




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As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder


China is becoming an attractive alternate partner

As tension built at the Pacific Island Forum meeting, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters argued there was a double standard with respect to the treatment of China on climate change.

China is the world’s largest emitter of climate change gasses, but if there is a double standard it’s of Australia’s making.

Australia purports to be part of the Pacific family that can speak and act to protect the interests of Pacific Island countries in the face of China’s “insidious” attempts to gain influence through “debt trap” diplomacy. This is where unsustainable loans are offered with the aim of gaining political advantage.

But countering Chinese influence in the Pacific is Australia’s prime security interest, and is a secondary issue for the Pacific.

But unlike Australia, China has never claimed the moral high ground and provides an attractive alternative partner, so it will likely gain ground in the battle for influence in the Pacific.

For the Pacific Island Forum itself, open dissent is a very un-Pacific outcome. Open dissent highlights the strains in the region’s premier intergovernmental organisation.

Australia and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand’s dominance has often been a source of criticism, but growing confidence among Pacific leaders has changed diplomatic dynamics forever.




Read more:
Climate change forced these Fijian communities to move – and with 80 more at risk, here’s what they learned


This new pacific diplomacy has led Pacific leaders to more steadfastly identify their security interests. And for them, the need to respond to climate change is non-negotiable.

If winning the geopolitical contest with China in Pacific is Canberra’s priority, then far greater creativity will be needed as meeting the Pacific half way on climate change is a prerequisite for success.The Conversation

Michael O’Keefe, Head of Department, Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

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