But climate researchers have not given up hope. We asked a few Conversation authors to highlight some more positive stories from 2019.
Costa Rica offers us a viable climate future
Heather Alberro, associate lecturer in political ecology, Nottingham Trent University
After decades of climate talks, including the recent COP25 in Madrid, emissions have only continued to rise. Indeed, a recent UN report noted that a fivefold increase in current national climate change mitigation efforts would be needed to meet the 1.5℃ limit on warming by 2030. With the radical transformations needed in our global transport, housing, agricultural and energy systems in order to help mitigate looming climate and ecological breakdown, it can be easy to lose hope.
However, countries like Costa Rica offer us promising examples of the “possible”. The Central American nation has implemented a refreshingly ambitious plan to completely decarbonise its economy by 2050. In the lead-up to this, last year with its economy still growing at 3%, Costa Rica was able to derive 98% of its electricity from renewable sources. Such an example demonstrates that with sufficient political will, it is possible to meet the daunting challenges ahead.
Financial investors are cooling on fossil fuels
Richard Hodgkins, senior lecturer in physical geography, Loughborough University
Movements such as 350.org have long argued for fossil fuel divestment, but they have recently been joined by institutional investors such as Climate Action 100+, which is using the influence of its US$35 trillion of managed funds, arguing that minimising climate breakdown risks and maximising renewables’ growth opportunities are a fiduciary duty.
Moody’s credit-rating agency recently flagged ExxonMobil for falling revenues despite rising expenditure, noting: “The negative outlook also reflects the emerging threat to oil and gas companies’ profitability […] from growing efforts by many nations to mitigate the impacts of climate change through tax and regulatory policies.”
A more adverse financial environment for fossil fuel companies reduces the likelihood of new development in business frontier regions such as the Arctic, and indeed, major investment bank Goldman Sachs has declared that it “will decline any financing transaction that directly supports new upstream Arctic oil exploration or development”.
We are getting much better at forecasting disaster
Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology, University of Reading
In March and April 2019, two enormous tropical cyclones hit the south-east coast of Africa, killing more than 600 people and leaving nearly 2 million people in desperate need of emergency aid.
There isn’t much that is positive about that, and there’s nothing new about cyclones. But this time scientists were able to provide the first early warning of the impending flood disaster by linking together accurate medium-range forecasts of the cyclone with the best ever simulations of flood risk. This meant that the UK government, for example, set about working with aid agencies in the region to start delivering emergency supplies to the area that would flood, all before Cyclone Kenneth had even gathered pace in the Indian Ocean.
We know that the risk of dangerous floods is increasing as the climate continues to change. Even with ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gases, we must deal with the impact of a warmer more chaotic world. We will have to continue using the best available science to prepare ourselves for whatever is likely to come over the horizon.
Local authorities across the world are declaring a ‘climate emergency’
Marc Hudson, researcher in sustainable consumption, University of Manchester
More than 1,200 local authorities around the world declared a “climate emergency” in 2019. I think there are two obvious dangers: first, it invites authoritarian responses (stop breeding! Stop criticising our plans for geoengineering!). And second, an “emergency” declaration may simply be a greenwash followed by business-as-usual.
In Manchester, where I live and research, the City Council is greenwashing. A nice declaration in July was followed by more flights for staff (to places just a few hours away by train), and further car parks and roads. The deadline for a “bring zero-carbon date forward?” report has been ignored.
But these civic declarations have also kicked off a wave of civic activism, as campaigners have found city councils easier to hold to account than national governments. I’m part of an activist group called “Climate Emergency Manchester” – we inform citizens and lobby councillors. We’ve assessed progress so far, based on Freedom of Information Act requests, and produced a “what could be done?” report. As the council falls further behind on its promises, we will be stepping up our activity, trying to pressure it to do the right thing.
Radical climate policy goes mainstream
Dénes Csala, lecturer in energy system dynamics, Lancaster University
Before the 2019 UK general election, I compared the Conservative and Labour election manifestos, from a climate and energy perspective. Although the party with the clearly weaker plan won eventually, I am still stubborn enough to be hopeful with regard to the future of political action on climate change.
For the first time, in a major economy, a leading party’s manifesto had at its core climate action, transport electrification and full energy system decarbonisation, all on a timescale compatible with IPCC directives to avoid catastrophic climate change. This means the discussion that has been cooking at the highest levels since the 2015 Paris Agreement has started to boil down into tangible policies.
Young people are on the march!
Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science, UCL
In 2019, public awareness of climate change rose sharply, driven by the schools strikes, Extinction Rebellion, high impact IPCC reports, improved media coverage, a BBC One climate change documentary and the UK and other governments declaring a climate emergency. Two recent polls suggest that over 75% of Americans accept humans have caused climate change.
Empowerment of the first truly globalised generation has catalysed this new urgency. Young people can access knowledge at the click of a button. They know climate change science is real and see through the deniers’ lies because this generation does not access traditional media – in fact, they bypass it.
The awareness and concern regarding climate change will continue to grow. Next year will be an even bigger year as the UK will chair the UN climate change negotiations in Glasgow – and expectation are running high.
Greening our cities has become one of the great global imperatives of the 21st century including to tackle climate change. And Australia’s sprawling car-based cities are gradually changing to embrace green or living infrastructure.
Green cities bring together elements of architectural design and urban planning, often combining plants and built infrastructure to meet the needs of humans, such as our love of nature.
Trees, plants, waterways and wetlands can deliver climate conditioning, cooling cities by reducing the urban heat island effect. They also absorb carbon dioxide, filter wastewater and create habitats.
Living elements can be incorporated with built infrastructure at a range of scales, from individual buildings with green walls and roofs, through to citywide strategies. And there are a suite of strategies to guide more widespread integration of biological elements and ecological processes in cities.
In recent months, we profiled Australian examples of living infrastructure that show some of Australia’s approaches to developing green infrastructure, from greening Melbourne’s laneways to Canberra’s urban forest. These cities are already redesigning their water systems and implementing urban forest strategies to create green belts and protect and restore waterways.
Melbourne and Canberra provide some useful examples of the green cities movement, but to make it mainstream, these techniques need to be adopted widely through policies supporting more holistic and better integrated urban planning.
Why we need urban forests
Percival Alfred Yeoman was one of the first Australian pioneers of urban forestry. In 1971, he articulated a clear vision for enhancing cities with trees.
a “growing green guide” that provides practical advice to community and business groups on planning, design and maintenance of green infrastructure
the greening laneways strategy, which builds on the commercial revitalisation of Melbourne’s laneways over three decades. Laneways with greening potential were mapped and demonstration project developed to display techniques for making them more vibrant green spaces for business, tourists and locals to enjoy
an urban forest strategy, with an overall target of 40% canopy cover by 2040. And 5 to 8 million trees will be planted over coming decades for the greater Melbourne metropolis.
Canberra is often described as “a city within a landscape” and the “bush capital”. But its higher altitude, hot dry summers and cold winters bring a set of challenges for green infrastructure.
With more than 800,000 planted trees, Canberra is an urban forest. But these trees require special care and attention given they are ageing and suffering from a hotter, drier climate.
Wildfire also represents a significant risk where urban and rural areas connect. This means Canberra needs urban forests that will cool the city in warmer months without also escalating wildfire risks.
The ACT Government has committed to action on climate change, legislating targets for 100% renewable electricity by 2020 and carbon neutrality (no net carbon emissions) by 2045.
Integrated approach needed to expand green cities
Greening cities requires a holistic approach – for instance, not leaving the health of waterways entirely to water engineers.
Greening cities is more than just a technical challenge. Transforming the form and functions of urban systems, through urban forests and other living infrastructure, requires greater leadership and political commitment, integrated planning and community participation, and long-term thinking.
An integrated approach to greening cities involves mapping diverse opportunities and mobilising support for change in the community. As an example, urban storm water can be a productive resource when used in constructed wetlands or to irrigate urban forests.
And often urban drainage lines and wastelands can be transformed into green spaces, but it’s worth recognising there is intense competition for space for housing.
But for more widespread adoption of integration, institutional support within local governments and metropolitan water and planning agencies is needed.
So to scale up living infrastructure in our urban landscapes, we must learn from local success stories, conduct more research, and better understand how to deal with climate adaptation and mitigation challenges.
Let’s be honest – environment news isn’t always the jolliest, and 2018 was no exception. From climate change, to recycling, to energy policy, at times it has felt like we’ve been lurching from one crisis to the next.
So here are ten upbeat environmental stories from this year that prove it’s not all doom and gloom.
Cane toads cracked
In September, scientists announced they have decoded the cane toad genome, potentially paving the way for new weapons to repel the slimy invaders.
The successful effort potentially makes it easier to identify viruses that can be used to attack the toxic toads.
Bears on the mend
The treatment of bears imprisoned in Asian bile farms is heartbreaking. But the good news is they can recover from their ordeal if given the right care during rehabilitation, going on to lead relatively stress-free lives even after years of torture.
Blockchain isn’t just for bitcoin and other clever stuff best left to the financial experts. It can also help tackle illegal tuna fishing, helping to ensure the fish on your dish is more sustainable and bringing much-needed transparency to an important global industry.
Why did the fish cross the road?
Crossing roads is hard enough if you have legs. You might think it’s impossible for fish, and technically you’d be right. But Queensland researchers have invented a device that lets fish do the next best thing: swim upstream through culverts beneath the road, even if they’re facing a raging torrent in the opposite direction.
The excitingly named “epic duck challenge” proved that drones can do an even better job of surveying wildlife than human scientists. This development should help this under-resourced area of research finally take flight (sorry).
Hey, good lookin’
And before we leave the animal stories, there’s just time to take you back inside the world of million-dollar beauty pageants… for camels. We guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
Feeling the energy
Yes, it was a spirit-sapping year for energy policy, with one round of bickering after another. But throughout the year, South Australia’s big battery has been quietly kicking goals.
It celebrated its birthday in late November, and although questions remain over what will happen when its battery packs need replacing, it made A$13 million during the first half of 2018, and has generally been a roaring success considering that it owes its existence to some billionaires’ banter on Twitter.
This essay is republished with permission from First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review.
Five years ago, I was invited to participate in a global project on climate change. The aim was to engage 15-year-old students with the challenges posed by climate change and the increase of extreme weather events. The students would be asked to respond to the challenge through creativity, initially through an introduction to the science underpinning climate change. In the following 18 months, I visited schools in Ireland, England, Germany and Poland, and also worked with a group of students at Footscray City College in Melbourne. The project would culminate in an environmental youth summit at the International Literature Festival Berlin.
I consider myself an innovative and engaging teacher, and looked forward to the project. It took me only the one class to realise the challenge would be a difficult one. What I discovered in speaking to students was that while they were in no way “anti-science”, headline-grabbing climate change scepticism had impacted on their faith in their own ability to understand science, highlighting what I’ve always believed to be the motivation of sceptics: the undermining of our own confidence to think and grasp ideas.
It also took me little time to realise that, in general, the students felt badly let down by some adults: politicians, sections of the media and, to an extent, their own parents, who they felt had neglected an issue that would soon impact negatively on their adult lives. There were moments when I felt that the project was about to fail, until I was walking along the banks of the Maribyrnong River in Melbourne’s western suburbs and came up with an idea. I began that morning’s class with a simple prompt: “Tell me about your river.”
During the following months of travel across Australia and Europe, I learnt about a girl’s love for a pony paddock at the end of a street on a so-called “depressed” public housing estate on the outskirts of Dublin, a community hammered by the global financial crisis of the early 2000s. Teenagers living in the town of Hel, a decommissioned Cold War military base on the edge of the Baltic Sea, wrote and spoke of their anger about the deaths of seals along the beachfront near their homes due to contaminated sea water. And in London, I met kids from across the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe who took photographs of the sky above street corners and demanded it be freed from poisons.
We also discussed the relationship between climate change and the havoc created by “natural” disasters, including hurricanes, floods and ferocious bushfires such as the Black Saturday fires that devastated my home state of Victoria in 2009 and killed 173 people. I talked about country in the sense that Indigenous communities in Australia understand and experience it. We talked about a future, shared or not shared – the latter of which leads to our further disconnection from each other and place. Finally, I asked each student a question: “What are we seeking when we speak of climate justice?” The universal response was not restricted to justice for humans alone. My students had come to believe that if we fail to care for country, it cannot care for us.
At the conclusion of the project, a group of young global citizens, many of them labelled “disadvantaged”, many of them previously silent or ignored, shared a common belief, one as simple and yet complex as the difficulties we face in dealing with one of the great challenges of our time. The students agreed that we must listen to those who have lived with country for thousands of years without killing it, and in order to live with a healthy planet we need to tell stories of our experience with it, and our love for it. Stories that speak of a love of place encourage us to act ethically towards it. We must share our stories, and we must grant equal voice to the stories of others.
I turned 13 in 1970. My large family was living in a crumbling terrace in a lost triangle of Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne. We were hemmed in by the Collingwood Football Ground, a railway line and goods yards, and a row of derelict 19th-century textile mills. Behind the vacant factories lay a place of hidden treasures: the Birrarung (Yarra River), Dights Falls and another site of dereliction, the Deep Rock Basin, a swimming club built on a bank of the river 60 years earlier, which had become a ruin. This section of the river would occupy my teenage years, and would provide the source of my 2015 novel, Ghost River.
A dominant theme of both the novel and my teenage memory of that time is the terrible level of neglect and vandalism the river suffered. For more than a hundred years, the Birrarung had been treated as little more than an open sewer for the noxious industries built along its western bank. The river was also the dumping ground for the unwanted: stolen cars, animal carcasses, and those who occasionally suicided by jumping from one of the many bridges spanning the river, their suit pockets weighed down with stones. As Melbourne competed with Sydney for the title of “gangland capital of Australia” throughout the 20th century, the river was sometimes the last resting place of members of Melbourne’s criminal underground.
In 1971, the Victorian state government came up with the idea to build a new freeway, beginning outside my front gate, stretching into the leafy eastern suburbs. It was a plan that would destroy country. The freeway, planned to abut my river, would consist of five lanes in each direction, a utopian solution that would put an end to one of Melbourne’s most congested traffic locations. Or so claimed the glossy brochures dropped in the letterboxes of homes that would be demolished to turn a dream into reality. It would be only a short time after the opening of the Eastern Freeway that the state’s most recent super artery, opened to allow the city to breathe, would clog the city’s veins yet again. Over the following 40 years, many more freeways and extensions have been built, crisscrossing and extending the infamous Melbourne sprawl – a city that has undergone more than one quadruple bypass which is yet to save the patient.
The building of the Eastern Freeway required the obliteration of a vital section of the river at its confluence with the Merri Creek, a once majestic waterway winding its way into the north across Wurundjeri land. The Merri, as equally neglected as the Birrarung, faces a daily battle against urbanisation in the form of household rubbish, chemical waste and weed infestation. If our river and creek valleys are “the lungs of the city”, historically we have forced them to breathe toxins.
To visit the confluence today is to engage in a fiction. An interpretive sign where the two waterways meet instructs visitors that it was this very site where the first “Aboriginal school” was erected to educate local Indigenous children who had become the subjects of the colonial project. It may seem a harmless story to tell. And yet it reflects the omissions of both narrative and landscape histories underpinning the colonisation. Firstly, as with many ventures that set out to “civilise the native”, the Merri Creek school was a failure. Attendance was fleeting, if it happened at all, and Aboriginal communities of the area and its surrounds quickly lost faith in the empty promises of colonial authorities that their customary way of life would be retained and protected.
The “site” of the school’s location is not the site of the school at all. It cannot be so, as when the freeway was being built a section of the river was destroyed by bulldozers and explosives. (The regular blasts would rattle my nearby bedroom window.) The original meeting of river and creek was around a hundred metres north, and the location that people visit today is an ornamental construction with an ecological and human history less than 50 years old.
Such fibbing may not seem major when measured against the “big lies” of colonial history, such as the widespread murder of Indigenous people across Australia and the ecological destruction of country. After all, what is a mere hundred metres of lost or fictionalised country? Well, it’s everything. It’s the basis of another form of denialism within Australia and Western colonial societies across the globe: the denial of colonial violence, of attempted dispossession; the disregard shown for the rights and autonomy of country; and, of course, the denial of climate change and the urgent need to work for climate justice. When we tell stories of place, fiction can play a key role. But we must identify it as such, rather than use it as a convenient mask.
When I was around 14, a friend and I stole a bicycle from the Victoria Park Railway Station. We spent the next hour or so rattling around the cobblestoned back streets of Collingwood, me being dinked on the handlebars. We eventually became bored. (I also had a sore arse.) We bought a meat pie each for lunch, rode the bike down to the river and sat above Dights Falls eating the pies and smoking cigarettes. It was then that my friend told me he’d once walked upriver for a day with one of his uncles, who made his living from breeding ferrets and catching rabbits.
During the walk, they visited water holes and ponds, none of which ran into the river itself or appeared on any map. He also told me there were eucalypt trees in the water holes that “old blackfellas” had used to make bark canoes – scar trees. Without another word between us we hopped on the bike, my friend pedalling furiously along a narrow track. We rode for miles in the rain, past a massive paper mill spewing smoke from chimneys, past the towers of a 19th-century “lunatic” asylum, occasionally getting bogged in near-swamp conditions. I would have to jump off the handlebars and walk on until we came to firmer ground.
Just as I was losing faith in the truth of my friend’s story, he turned off the track. We parked the bike against a tree and I followed my friend through the thickest stand of trees that a boy who had rarely travelled two miles out of the centre of the city had seen. I trailed him through the bush, my thin running shoes buried in mud. The trees above us thickened and it became dark. I could hear the call of many birds, a foreign but comforting sound. Further on, the landscape gradually thinned and I could see the sky above me. The trail ended suddenly and I was surprised to find myself standing before a still stretch of water, stained with what I now know to be the tannins of bark and fallen eucalypt leaves.
We sat on the bank and smoked more cigarettes. Except for the birdsong there was no sound in the air, a sensation I had never experienced before. I watched a water bird gracefully glide across the surface of the water, also without making a sound. When I think back to that first visit to the billabong what I remember most clearly was that, although I had no words for how I felt, no poetry with which to express myself, it was the first time in the life of an Aboriginal “slum kid” that country had spoken to me. Although I wasn’t looking forward to the long and bumpy ride home in the rain, it was not the reason for me wanting to stay by the water. Without understanding why, I had never felt so at ease with myself.
That night, we arrived at my back gate after dark. I knew I would be in trouble from my dad, but I didn’t care. Before leaving him, I wanted to say something about the day’s adventure to my friend. I do remember that I thanked him for showing me his secret place, but also knew it wasn’t enough. Lying in bed that night and thinking about the billabong, I realised that I wanted to say to my friend that it was a beautiful place, but couldn’t do it. Which one of us would have been more embarrassed by the word, I couldn’t say. After all, at the time, we thought of ourselves the budding kings of a concrete jungle, and taking aside the romance of a life of thuggery, we lived in a world where violence was rarely threatened but often practiced. If I forgot about the billabong for a time, I now believe that amnesia came from having been denied the language to speak of it, to know it.
Return to the billabong
I live in Carlton, about a hundred metres away from the house I was born into 60 years ago. People who know me well also know that distance-running has guided my life for almost 40 years now. It saved me from alcoholism at a young age, swore me away from cigarettes and provided my mind with the clean slate I needed to discover a love of writing. I have run by many rivers in Australia; in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and, of course, my home town of Narrm (Melbourne). I have also run in cities around the world, including Wellington, Tokyo, Berlin, London, San Francisco, Gdańsk and Banff. Most lifelong runners have a favourite run, a special route, where they feel “at home” with themselves. I have such a run, one that returns me to the billabong.
I prepare for my run with a public transport “swipe card” in the pocket of my running shorts and some coins for the telephone in case I do myself an injury, break down and need to call my wife. (This has never happened, but I have learnt in life to prepare for all manner of potential disasters. And no, I have never had a mobile phone, which means I do not fully adhere to the notion of preparing for all disasters.) I leave home and catch the nearby train, get out at Heidelberg Station and begin the 12-kilometre run home, most of the distance being along a trail skirting the Birrarung.
Most runners are also pedants, each possessing a minimum of at least one inexplicable idiosyncrasy. I have several, one of which used to be the cardinal rule, never stop: not for an injury, a pedestrian, road train or traffic light. In older age, I have gradually weaned myself off this suicidal commandment. The need to stop can actually beat chronic injury or death, I have decided. I didn’t realise until I began my first river run from Heidelberg several years ago that I would be more than happy to stop during a run and contemplatively be with country. It was on that first run that I became eerily familiar with surroundings that I thought I had not visited before. It was on that first run that as I was jogging by a stand of mighty eucalypts that I realised I had returned to the billabong.
It sits around the halfway point of my run, and is now surrounded by the imposition of “civilisation”, non-existent when I first visited the water. I approach the billabong from a hilltop. If it is a sunny morning, its surface reflection will wink at me. If the wind is blowing from the south, I will pick up the scent of silted tea-stained water. The Eastern Freeway runs along the southern fringe of the billabong, and the flow of traffic is so constant that sitting by the water and listening, it is difficult to discern the sounds of an individual car or truck engine. The guttural hum is singular and unbroken. Remarkably, the bird call remains clear. I’m not sure if it has something to do with a variance in pitch, but the birds seem to have little trouble singing above the traffic.
It is not possible to know where I sat on the afternoon I first visited the billabong over 45 years ago. Memory is always suspect, and the landscape surrounding the billabong has changed dramatically over the years. The long section of riverbank running parallel to the freeway has been “beautified”, and the lush and private golf courses each side of the billabong compete with it for water. Most days when I visit, I sit and watch the passing joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and kite-flyers. I’m happy they enjoy the river, and I hope they also care for it. But occasionally I wish I could have it to myself. I wish I could enjoy the billabong in the way I did the day of our bike ride, knowing and not knowing how fortunate I was.
Selfishness is no virtue. What I wish for the billabong most of all, and my relationship to it, is that it continues to survive all it has been confronted by. Before the outsiders arrived in Wurundjeri country the billabong enjoyed a vital ecological connection with other waterways on country. Many of them have since been suffocated by occupation and development. The vast network of wetlands surrounding the Birrarung, from its birth in the mountains to its mouth at what we now call Port Phillip Bay, previously acted as both a repository of life and a sponge, absorbing and distributing water across large tracts of land. These days the river is governed, held in place, against its will. The same could be said for the billabong. And yet, its beauty and tenacity remain a force.
Love for places
I have recently worked with a group of Aboriginal Elders at a community centre in the far western suburbs of my city. Most of these wonderful people do not live on their own country. Some of them, members of the stolen generations, have never lived on country. Their place is the community centre where they meet four days a week to make art, to cook and tell each other stories – and, not surprisingly, many of those stories are stories of loss.
They, like the students I taught with five years ago, know little about the hard science of climate change. But they are people who take the care of others, the right to justice for others, very seriously. They are a humble group. If they feel bitter about the injustices that they have been subject to throughout their lives; they choose not to speak about it, to me at least, and they never write about it.
What they do is write and paint stories of the love of the places they live in, outer suburban streets, lounge rooms and backyards. They also write about a profound attachment to, and love for places they have never seen, not in this life, as one of the Elders explained to me. They make stories of the places, the country they were stolen from. In a material sense, the group is as marginalised as it gets. To an outsider they may appear powerless, perhaps inarticulate. They are neither. They have a story to tell, a story that they happily share. To love country and to be loved by it is the basis of their survival, and ours.
I love good news stories concerning the environment, wilderness and the like. We hear plenty about negative subjects – oil pollution, climate change, etc. So good news stories are always good to hear. So today I have another.
It is possible that the blind Indus Dolphin population may be increasing. The following link is to an article on the subject, which is very interesting.