To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws



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Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result.
Don Driscoll, Author provided

Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.




Read more:
Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut


Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Trends from 1978 to 2017 in the annual (July to June) sum of the daily Forest Fire Danger Index, an indicator of the severity of fire weather conditions. Positive trends, shown in the yellow to red colours, indicate increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. Areas where there are sparse data coverage, such as central parts of Western Australia, are faded.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology/State of the Climate 2018

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.




Read more:
Stopping land clearing and replanting trees could help keep Australia cool in a warmer future


In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.The Conversation

Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

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

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Scientists are developing greener plastics – the bigger challenge is moving them from lab to market



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Used once and done.
Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA

Richard Gross, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Synthetic plastics have made many aspect of modern life cheaper, safer and more convenient. However, we have failed to figure out how to get rid of them after we use them.

Unlike other forms of trash, such as food and paper, most synthetic plastics cannot be easily degraded by live microorganisms or through chemical processes. As a result, a growing plastic waste crisis threatens the health of our planet. It is embodied by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a massive zone of floating plastic trash, three times the size of France, stretching between California and Hawaii. Scientists have estimated that if current trends continue, the mass of plastics in the ocean will equal the mass of fish by 2050. Making plastics from petroleum also increases carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Much of my work has been dedicated to finding sustainable ways to make and break down plastics. My lab and others are making progress on both fronts. But these new alternatives have to compete with synthetic plastics that have established infrastructures and optimized processes. Without supportive government policies, innovative plastic alternatives will have trouble crossing the so-called “valley of death” from the lab to the market.

From wood and silk to nylon and plexiglass

All plastics consist of polymers – large molecules that contain many small units, or monomers, joined together to form long chains, much like strings of beads. The chemical structure of the beads and the bonds that join them together determine polymers’ properties. Some polymers form materials that are hard and tough, like glass and epoxies. Others, such as rubber, can bend and stretch.

A monomer of Teflon, a nonstick synthetic resin (top), and a chain of monomers (bottom).
Chromatos

For centuries humans have made products out of polymers from natural sources, such as silk, cotton, wood and wool. After use, these natural plastics are easily degraded by microorganisms.

Synthetic polymers derived from oil were developed starting in the 1930s, when new material innovations were desperately needed to support Allied troops in World War II. For example, nylon, invented in 1935, replaced silk in parachutes and other gear. And poly(methyl methacrylate), known as Plexiglas, substituted for glass in aircraft windows. At that time, there was little consideration of whether or how these materials would be reused.

Modern synthetic plastics can be grouped into two main families: Thermoplastics, which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling, and thermosets, which never soften once they have been molded. Some of the most common high-volume synthetic polymers include polyethylene, used to make film wraps and plastic bags; polypropylene, used to form reusable containers and packaging; and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, used in clothes, carpets and clear plastic beverage bottles.

Recycling challenges

Today only about 10 percent of discarded plastic in the United States is recycled. Processors need an input stream of non-contaminated or pure plastic, but waste plastic often contains impurities, such as residual food.

Batches of disposed plastic products also may include multiple resin types, and often are not consistent in color, shape, transparency, weight, density or size. This makes it hard for recycling facilities to sort them by type.

Melting down and reforming mixed plastic wastes creates recycled materials that are inferior in performance to virgin material. For this reason, many people refer to plastic recycling as “downcycling.”

As most consumers know, many plastic goods are stamped with a code that indicates the type of resin they are made from, numbered one through seven, inside a triangle formed by three arrows. These codes were developed in the 1980s by the Society of the Plastics Industry, and are intended to indicate whether and how to recycle those products.


Filtre

However, these logos are highly misleading, since they suggest that all of these goods can be recycled an infinite number of times. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling rates in 2015 ranged from a high of 31 percent for PET (SPI code 1) to 10 percent for high-density polyethylene (SPI code 2) and a few percent at best for other groups.

In my view, single-use plastics should eventually be required to be biodegradable. To make this work, households should have biowaste bins to collect food, paper and biodegradable polymer waste for composting. Germany has such a system in place, and San Francisco composts organic wastes from homes and businesses.

Designing greener polymers

Since modern plastics have many types and uses, multiple strategies are needed to replace them or make them more sustainable. One goal is making polymers from bio-based carbon sources instead of oil. The most readily implementable option is converting carbon from plant cell walls (lignocellulosics) into monomers.

As an example, my lab has developed a yeast catalyst that takes plant-derived oils and converts them to a polyester that has properties similar to polyethylene. But unlike a petroleum-based plastic, it can be fully degraded by microorganisms in composting systems.

It also is imperative to develop new cost-effective routes for decomposing plastics into high-value chemicals that can be reused. This could mean using biological as well as chemical catalysts. One intriguing example is a gut bacterium from mealworms that can digest polystyrene, converting it to carbon dioxide.

Other scientists are developing high-performance vitrimers – a type of thermoset plastic in which the bonds that cross-link chains can form and break, depending on built-in conditions such as temperature or pH. These vitrimers can be used to make hard, molded products that can be converted to flowable materials at the end of their lifetimes so they can be reformed into new products.

It took years of research, development and marketing to optimize synthetic plastics. New green polymers, such as polylactic acid, are just starting to enter the market, mainly in compost bags, food containers, cups and disposable tableware. Manufacturers need support while they work to reduce costs and improve performance. It also is crucial to link academic and industrial efforts, so that new discoveries can be commercialized more quickly.

The ConversationToday the European Union and Canada provides much more government support for discovery and development of bio-based and sustainable plastics than the United States. That must change if America wants to compete in the sustainable polymer revolution.

Richard Gross, Professor of Chemistry, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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

Scientists create new building material out of fungus, rice and glass


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Fungal bricks have the potential to create safer and more sustainable buildings.
V Anisimov / Shutterstock

Tien Huynh, RMIT University and Mitchell Jones, RMIT University

Would you live in a house made of fungus? It’s not just a rhetorical question: fungi are the key to a new low-carbon, fire-resistant and termite-deterring building material.

This type of material, known as a mycelium composite, uses the Trametes versicolor fungus to combine agricultural and industrial waste to create lightweight but strong bricks. It’s cheaper than synthetic plastics or engineered wood, and reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill.




Read more:
Affordable, sustainable, high-quality urban housing? It’s not an impossible dream


What a fun guy

Fungal brick prototypes made from rice hulls and glass fines waste.
Tien Huynh, Author provided

Working with our colleagues, we used fungus to bind rice hulls (the thin covering that protects rice grains) and glass fines (discarded, small or contaminated glass). We then baked the mixture to produce a new, natural building material.

Making these fungal bricks is a low-energy and zero-carbon process. Their structure means they can be moulded into many shapes. They are therefore suited to a variety of uses, particularly in the packaging and construction industries.

A staple crop for more than half the world’s population, rice has an annual global consumption of more than 480 million metric tonnes and 20% of this is comprised of rice hulls. In Australia alone, we generate about 600,000 tonnes of glass waste a year. Usually these rice hulls and glass fines are incinerated or sent to landfill. So our new material offers a cost-effective way to reduce waste.

Fire fighter

Fungal bricks make ideal fire-resistant insulation or panelling. The material is more thermally stable than synthetic construction materials such as polystyrene and particleboard, which are derived from petroleum or natural gas.

Rice hulls, glass fines and the mixture of rice, glass and fungus, before baking.
Wikipedia/Tien Huynh, Author provided

This means that fungal bricks burn more slowly and with less heat, and release less smoke and carbon dioxide than their synthetic counterparts. Their widespread use in construction would therefore improve fire safety.

Thousands of fires occur every year and the main causes of fatalities are smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. By reducing smoke release, fungal bricks could allow more time for escape or rescue in the event of a fire, thus potentially saving lives.




Read more:
How can we build houses that better withstand bushfires?


Bug battler

Termites are a big issue: more than half of Australia is highly susceptible to termite infestations. These cost homeowners more than A$1.5 billion a year.

Our construction material could provide a solution for combating infestations, as the silica content of rice and glass would make buildings less appetising to termites.




Read more:
Hidden housemates: the termites that eat our homes


The use of these fire-and-termite-resistant materials could simultaneously revolutionise the building industry and improve waste recycling.

Figure 3. Termite infestation zones in Australia.
termitesonline.com.au, Author provided

This is an exciting time to get creative about our waste. With China no longer buying Australia’s recycling – and new rules reducing plastic use in Australian supermarkets – we have the chance to move in line with communities in Japan, Sweden and Scotland that have near-zero waste.

Fungal bricks could be just one example of the creative thinking that will help us get there.


The Conversation


Read more:
The next step in sustainable design: Bringing the weather indoors


Tien Huynh, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sciences, RMIT University and Mitchell Jones, PhD Student, RMIT University

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

Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf



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The team used hot-water drilling gear to melt a hole through Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf to explore the ocean below.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Craig Stevens and Christina Hulbe

Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf is the world’s largest floating slab of ice: it’s about the size of Spain, and nearly a kilometre thick.

The ocean beneath, roughly the volume of the North Sea, is one of the most important but least understood parts of the climate system.

We are part of the multi-disciplinary Aotearoa New Zealand Ross Ice Shelf programme team, and have melted a hole through hundreds of metres of ice to explore this ocean and the ice shelf’s vulnerability to climate change. Our measurements show that this hidden ocean is warming and freshening – but in ways we weren’t expecting.

Instruments travelling 360m down a bore hole, from the snow-covered surface of the Ross Ice Shelf through to the ocean below the ice. After splash-down at about 60m, they move through the bubble-rich upper ice and down into the dark bubble-free lower reaches of the ice – passing embedded sediment that left the coast line centuries ago.



Read more:
Antarctic glacier’s unstable past reveals danger of future melting


A hidden conveyor belt

All major ice shelves are found around the coast of Antarctica. These massive pieces of ice hold back the land-locked ice sheets that, if freed to melt into the ocean, would raise sea levels and change the face of our world.

An ice shelf is a massive lid of ice that forms when glaciers flow off the land and merge as they float out over the coastal ocean. Shelves lose ice by either breaking off icebergs or by melting from below. We can see big icebergs from satellites – it is the melting that is hidden.

Because the water flowing underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is cold (minus 1.9C), it is called a “cold cavity”. If it warms, the future of the shelf and the ice upstream could change dramatically. Yet this hidden ocean is excluded from all present models of future climate.

This satellite map shows the camp site on the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.
Ross Ice Shelf Programme, CC BY-ND

There has only been one set of measurements of this ocean, made by an international team in the late 1970s. The team made repeated attempts, using several types of drills, over the course of five years. With this experience and newer, cleaner, technology, we were able to complete our work in a single season.

Our basic understanding is that seawater circulates through the cavity by flowing in at the sea bed as relatively warm, salty water. It eventually finds its way to the shore – except of course this is a shoreline under as much as 800 metres of ice. There it starts melting the shelf from beneath and flows across the shelf underside back towards the open ocean.

Peering through a hole in the ice

The New Zealand team – including hot water drillers, glaciologists, biologists, seismologists, oceanographers – worked from November through to January, supported by tracked vehicles and, when ever the notorious local weather permitted, Twin Otter aircraft.

As with all polar oceanography, getting to the ocean is often the most difficult part. In this case, we faced the complex task of melting a bore hole, only 25 centimetres in diameter, through hundreds of metres of ice.

A team of ice drillers from Victoria University of Wellington used hot water and a drilling system developed at Victoria to melt a hole through hundreds of metres of ice.
Craig Stevens, CC BY-ND

But once the instruments are lowered more than 300m down the bore hole, it becomes the easiest oceanography in the world. You don’t get seasick and there is little bio-fouling to corrupt measurements. There is, however, plenty of ice that can freeze up your instruments or freeze the hole shut.

A moving world

Our camp in the middle of the ice shelf served as a base for this science, but everything was moving. The ocean is slowly circulating, perhaps renewing every few years. The ice is moving too, at around 1.6 metres each day where we were camped. The whole plate of ice is shifting under its own weight, stretching inexorably toward the ocean fringe of the shelf where it breaks off as sometimes massive icebergs. The floating plate is also bobbing up and down with the daily tides.

The team at work, preparing a mooring.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Things also move vertically through the shelf. As the layer stretches toward the front, it thins. But the shelf can also thicken as new snow piles up on top, or as ocean water freezes onto the bottom. Or it might thin where wind scours away surface snow or relatively warm ocean water melts it from below.

When you add it all up, every particle in the shelf is moving. Indeed, our camp was not so far (about 160km) from where Robert Falcon Scott and his two team members were entombed more than a century ago during their return from the South Pole. Their bodies are now making their way down through the ice and out to the coast.

What the future might hold

If the ocean beneath the ice warms, what does this mean for the Ross Ice Shelf, the massive ice sheet that it holds back, and future sea level? We took detailed temperature and salinity data to understand how the ocean circulates within the cavity. We can use this data to test and improve computer simulations and to assess if the underside of the ice is melting or actually refreezing and growing.

Our new data indicate an ocean warming compared to the measurements taken during the 1970s, especially deeper down. As well as this, the ocean has become less salty. Both are in keeping with what we know about the open oceans around Antarctica.

We also discovered that the underside of the ice was rather more complex than we thought. It was covered in ice crystals – something we see in sea ice near ice shelves. But there was not a massive layer of crystals as seen in the smaller, but very thick, Amery Ice Shelf.

Instead the underside of the ice held clear signatures of sediment, likely incorporated into the ice as the glaciers forming the shelf separated from the coast centuries earlier. The ice crystals must be temporary.

None of this is included in present models of the climate system. Neither the effect of the warm, saline water draining into the cavity, nor the very cold surface waters flowing out, the ice crystals affecting heat transfer to the ice, or the ocean mixing at the ice fronts.

The ConversationIt is not clear if these hidden waters play a significant role in how the world’s oceans work, but it is certain that they affect the ice shelf above. The longevity of ice shelves and their buttressing of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is of paramount concern.

Craig Stevens, Associate Professor in Ocean Physics and Christina Hulbe, Professor and Dean of the School of Surveying (glaciology specialisation)

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

Climate scientists and policymakers need to trust each other (but not too much)



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Trust is everything.
oneinchpunch/Shutterstock.com

Rebecca Colvin, Australian National University; Christopher Cvitanovic, University of Tasmania; Justine Lacey, CSIRO, and Mark Howden, Australian National University

At a time when the effects of climate change are accelerating and published science overwhelmingly supports the view that humans are responsible for the rate of change, powerful groups remain in denial across politics, the media, and industry. Now more than ever, we need scientists and policymakers to work together to create and implement effective policy which is informed by the most recent and reliable evidence.

We know that trust between scientists and policymakers is important in developing policy that is informed by scientific evidence. But how do you build this trust, and how do you make sure that it genuinely leads to positive outcomes for society?


Read more: Nature v technology: climate ‘belief’ is politics, not science


In response to these questions, our recent Perspective in Nature Climate Change explores the dynamics of trust at the interface of climate science and policy.

We suggest that while trust is an important component of the science-policy dynamic, there can be such a thing as “too much” trust between scientists and policymakers.

Understanding this dynamic is crucial if we are to deliver positive outcomes for science, policy, and the society that depends on their cooperation.

What happens when there is ‘too much’ trust?

Trust between climate scientists (researchers in a range of disciplines, institutions, and organisational settings) and policymakers (civil servants in government departments or agencies who shape climate policy) is useful because it enhances the flow of information between them. In a trusting relationship, we can expect to see a scientist explaining a new finding directly to a policymaker, or a policymaker describing future information needs to a scientist.

Together, this arrangement ideally gives us science-led policy, and policy-relevant science.

But as scholars of trust have warned, there is a point beyond which these positive benefits of trust can turn sour.

Think about a hypothetical situation in which a scientist and policy-maker come to trust each other deeply. What happens if one of them starts to become loose with the facts, or fails to adhere to professional standards? Is their trusting counterpart more, or less, likely to identify the poor behaviour and respond appropriately?

Over time, a trusting relationship may evolve into a self-perpetuating belief of trustworthiness based on the history of the relationship. This is where scientists and policymakers may find themselves in a situation of “too much” trust.

We know that science advances by consensus, and that this consensus is shaped by rigorous research and review, and intense debate and scrutiny. But what if (as in the hypothetical example described above) a policy-maker’s trust in an individual scientist means they bypass the consensus and instead depend on that one scientist for new information? What happens if that scientist is – intentionally or unintentionally – wrong?

More trust is not always best. ‘Too much’ trust can cause perverse outcomes at the science-policy interface.
Adapted from Stevens et al. (2015)

When you have “too much” trust, the benefits of trust can instead manifest as perverse outcomes, such as “blind faith” commitments between parties. In a situation like this, a policymaker may trust an individual scientist so much that they do not look for signs of misconduct, such as the misrepresentation of findings.

Favouritism and “capture” may mean that some policymakers provide information about future research support only to selected scientists, denying these opportunities to others. At the same time, scientists may promote only their own stream of research instead of outlining the range of perspectives in the field to the policymakers, narrowing the scope of what science enters the policy area.

“Cognitive lock-in” might result, where a policymaker sticks to a failing policy because they feel committed to the scientist who first recommended the course of action. For example, state-of-the-art climate forecasting tools are available in the Pacific but are reportedly underused. This is partly because the legacy of trusting relationships between scientists and policymakers in the region has led them to continue relying on less sophisticated tools.

“Too much” trust can also lead to overly burdensome obligations between scientists and policymakers. A scientist may come to hold unrealistically high expectations of the level of information a policymaker can share, or a policymaker may desire the production of research by an unfeasible deadline.

What’s the right way to trust?

With this awareness of the potentially negative outcomes of “too much” trust, should we abandon trust at the climate science-policy interface all together?

No. But we can – and should – develop, monitor, and manage trust with acknowledgement of how “too much” trust may lead to perverse outcomes for both scientists and policy-makers.

We should aim for a state of “optimal trust”, which enjoys the benefits of a trusting relationship while avoiding the pitfalls of taking too trusting an approach.

We propose five key strategies for managing trust at the climate science-policy interface.

  • Be explicit about expectations for trust in a climate science-policy relationship. Climate scientists and policy-makers should clarify protocols and expectations about behaviour through open discussion as early as possible within the relationship.

  • Transparency and accountability, especially when things go wrong, are critical to achieving and maintaining a state of optimal trust. When things do go wrong, trust repair can right the relationship.

  • Implement systems for monitoring trust, such as discussion groups within scientific and policy organisations and processes of peer review. Such approaches can help to identify the effects of “too much” trust – such as capture, cognitive lock-in, or unrealistically high expectations.

  • Manage staff churn in policy and scientific organisations. When scientists or policy-makers change role or institution, handing over the trusting relationships can help positive legacies and practices to carry on.

  • Use intermediaries such as knowledge brokers to facilitate the flow of information between science and policy. Such specialists can promote fairness and honesty at the science-policy interface, increasing the probability of maintaining ‘optimal trust’.


Read more: Is this the moment that climate politics and public opinion finally match up?


Embracing strategies such as these would be a positive step toward managing trust between scientists and policymakers, both in climate policy and beyond.

The ConversationIn this time of contested science and highly politicised policy agendas, all of us in science and policy have a responsibility to ensure we act ethically and appropriately to achieve positive outcomes for society.

Rebecca Colvin, Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Australian National University; Christopher Cvitanovic, Research Fellow, University of Tasmania; Justine Lacey, Senior Social Scientist, CSIRO, and Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

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

It’s 30 years since scientists first warned of climate threats to Australia



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The Barossa Valley in 1987 – the year that Australians (winemakers included) received their first formal warning of climate change.
Phillip Capper/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Keen students of climate politics might recognise November 30 as the anniversary of the opening of the historic Paris climate summit two years ago. But you might not know that today also marks 30 years since Australian scientists first officially sounded the alarm over climate change, at a conference hailed as the dawn of the ongoing effort to forecast and monitor the future climate of our continent.

November 30, 1987, marked the start of the inaugural GREENHOUSE conference hosted by Monash University and attended by 260 delegates. The five-day meeting was convened as part of a new federal government plan in response to the burgeoning global awareness of the impending danger of global warming.

The conference’s convenor, the then CSIRO senior research scientist Graeme Pearman, had approached some 100 researchers in the months leading up to the conference. He gave them a scenario of likely climate change for Australia for the next 30 to 50 years, developed with his CSIRO colleague Barrie Pittock, and asked them to forecast the implications for agriculture, farming and other sectors.

As a result, the conference gave rise to a book called Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, which outlined rainfall changes, sea-level rise and other physical changes that are now, three decades on, all too familiar. As the contents page reveals, it also tackled impacts on society – everything from insurance to water planning, mosquito-borne diseases, and even ski fields.


Read more: After Bonn, 5 things to watch for in the coming year of global climate policy


Internationally, awareness of global warming had already been building for a couple of decades, and intensifying for a couple of years. While the ozone hole was hogging global headlines, a United Nations scientific meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985 had issued a statement warning of the dangers posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Pearman wasn’t at that meeting, but he was familiar with the problem. As he wrote after the 1987 conference, the strength of the Villach statement was “hardly a surprise, as recent evidence had suggested more strongly than ever that climatic change is now probable on timescales of decades”.

Meanwhile, the Commission for the Future, founded by the then federal science minister Barry Jones, was seeking a cause célèbre. The Australian Academy of Science organised a dinner of scientists to suggest possible scientific candidates.

The commission’s chair, Phillip Adams, recalls that problems such as nuclear war, genetic modification, artificial intelligence, were all proposed. Finally, though:

…the last bloke to talk was right at the far end of the table. Very quiet gentleman… He said, ‘You’re all wrong – it’s the dial in my laboratory, and the laboratories of my colleagues around the world.’ He said, ‘Every day, we see the needle going up, because of what we call the greenhouse effect.‘

Summit success

The GREENHOUSE 87 conference was hailed as a great success, creating new scientific networks and momentum. It was what we academics like to call a “field-configuring event”.

British magazine New Scientist covered the conference, while the Australian media reported on Jones’s opening speech, the problems of sea-level rise, and warnings of floods, fire, cyclones and disease

The GREENHOUSE conferences have continued ever since. After a sporadic first couple of decades, the meetings have been held biennally around the country since 2005; the latest was in Hobart in 2015, as there wasn’t a 2017 edition.

What happened next?

The Greenhouse Project helped to spark and channel huge public interest in and concern about climate change in the late 1980s. But politicians fumbled their response, producing a weak National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992.

The Commission for the Future was privatised, the federal government declined to fund a follow-up to the Greenhouse Project, and a new campaign group called Greenhouse Action Australia could not sustain itself.

Meanwhile, the scientists kept doing what scientists do: observing, measuring, communicating, refining. Pittock produced many more books and articles. Pearman spoke to Paul Keating’s cabinet in 1994 while it briefly pondered the introduction of a carbon tax. He retired in 2004, having been reprimanded and asked to resign, ironically enough for speaking out about climate change.

As I’ve written previously on The Conversation, Australian policymakers have been well served by scientists, but have sadly taken little real notice. And lest all the blame be put onto the Coalition, let’s remember that one chief scientific adviser, Penny Sackett, quit mid-term in 2011, when Labor was in government. She has never said exactly why, but barely met Kevin Rudd and never met his successor Julia Gillard.

Our problem is not the scientists. It’s not the science. It’s the politics. And it’s not (just) the politicians, it’s the ability (or inability) of citizens’ groups to put the policymakers under sustained and irresistible pressure, to create the new institutions we need for the “looming global-scale failures” we face.

A South Australian coda

While researching this article, I stumbled across the following fact. Fourteen years and a day before the Greenhouse 87 conference had begun, Don Jessop, a Liberal senator for South Australia, made this statement in parliament:

It is quite apparent to world scientists that the silent pollutant, carbon dioxide, is increasing in the atmosphere and will cause us great concern in the future. Other pollutants from conventional fuels are proliferating other gases in the atmosphere, not the least of these being the sulphurous gases which will be causing emphysema and other such health problems if we persist with this type of energy source. Of course, I am putting a case for solar energy. Australia is a country that can well look forward to a very prosperous future if it concentrates on solar energy right now.

The ConversationThat was 44 years ago. No one can say we haven’t been warned.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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