Yes, the signs were there, but they weren’t clandestine messages written in the stars or in the chaos of tea-leaf dregs. We saw this one coming, but Australians chose to ignore the warning signs and opt for the American political model of extremism, religiosity, plutocracy and science denial.
Enter the ‘Tea Party’ of Australia – the ‘new’ Coalition where reigning Rex perditor Prime Minister Tony The Monk Abbott1 has, in just a few short months, turned back the clock on Australian environmental protection some 40 years.
Yes, we saw it coming, but it wasn’t a tautological fait accomplijust because it concerned a ‘conservative’ government. It’s difficult to remember, I know, that conservative governments of yesteryear implemented some strikingly powerful and effective environmental legislation. Indeed, it was the former incarnation of the Coalition government that implemented the once-formidable Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act under the direction of then Environment Minister, Robert Hill. A colossus of sorts, the EPBC suffers from many ailments. While it’s the only really bitey environmental legislation we’ve got, that colossus is a lumbering, limping giant missing more than a few teeth – it needs a complete overhaul.
As most Australians are unfortunately aware, The Monk repeatedly and defiantly promised to repeal the Labor-government carbon price implemented in July 2012, despite the absolute necessity to tax the heaviest polluters. While somewhat sheepish about his recent climate disruption denialism following his election in 2013, a denialist he remains:
“So consider the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, the small and the squirmy, the smelly, slimy and scaly. Consider the fanged and the hairy, the ugly and the cute alike. The more we degrade this astonishing diversity of evolved life and all its interactions on our only home, the more we expose ourselves to the ravages of a universe that is inherently hostile to life.”
excerpt from ‘Biowealth: all creatures great and small’ The Curious Country (C.J.A. Bradshaw 2013).
I’ve spent the last few days on the east coast with my science partner-in-crime, Barry Brook, and one of our newest research associates (Marta Rodrigues-Rey Gomez). We first flew into Sydney at sparrow’s on Monday, then drove a hire car down to The ‘Gong to follow up on some Australian megafauna databasing & writing with Bert Roberts & Zenobia Jacobs. On Tuesday morning we then flitted over to Canberra where we had the opportunity to attend the official launch of a new book that Barry and I had co-authored.
The book, The Curious Country, is an interesting experiment in science communication and teaching dreamed up by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Realising that the average Aussie has quite a few questions about ‘how stuff works’, but has little idea how to answer those questions, Ian engaged former Quantum star and science editor, Leigh Dayton, to put together a short, punchy, topical and easily understood book about why science is good for the country.
Yes, intuitive for most of you out there reading this, but science appreciation isn’t always as high as it should be amongst the so-called ‘general public’. Ian thought this might be one way to get more people engaged.
When honoured with the request to write an interesting chapter on biodiversity for the book, I naturally accepted. It turns out Barry was asked to do one on energy provision at the same time (but we didn’t know we had both been asked at the time). Our former lab head, Professor David Bowman, was also asked to write a chapter about fire risk, so it was like a mini-reunion yesterday for the three of us.
I have been thinking a lot lately about poor governance and bad choices when it comes to biodiversity conservation policy. Perhaps its all that latent anger arising from blinkered, backward policies recently implemented by conservative state and national governments in Australia and elsewhere that leads me to contemplate: What would I do if I had the power to change policy?
While I am certain I have neither the experience or complete knowledge to balance national budgets, ensure prosperity and maintain the health of an entire country, I do have some ideas about what we’re doing wrong conservation-wise, and how we could potentially fix things. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list – it is more a discussion point where people can suggest their own ideas.
So here are 16 things I’d change or implement (mainly in Australia) if I were king for a day:
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how to run the perfect scientific workshop, which most of you thought was a good set of tips (bizarrely, one person was quite upset with the message; I saved him the embarrassment of looking stupid online and refrained from publishing his comment).
As I mentioned at the end of post, the stimulus for the topic was a particularly wonderful workshop 12 of us attended at beautiful Linnaeus Estate on the northern coast of New South Wales (see Point 5 in the ‘workshop tips’ post).
I hate to say it – mainly because it deserves as little attention as possible – but the main reason is that we needed to clean up a bit of rubbish. The rubbish in question being the latest bit of excrescence growing on that accumulating heap produced by a certain team of palaeontologists promulgating their ‘it’s all about the climate or nothing’ broken record.
The IPCC fifth climate change report lays out a carbon budget that we must follow if we’re to keep the world under a temperature rise of 2C over pre-industrial levels – the widely accepted level above which lies catastrophic climate change. According to the report, we can “spend” 1,000 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 in total. We’ve already spent more than half, and at the current rates we are on track to blow the other half in 30 years.
Not only is human society at risk from this unprecedented rate of warming, the ecosystems on which all life is based are also seriously under threat.
So it’s a timely moment to look at how we could avoid burning through our carbon budget, including controversial options such as nuclear energy.
This week marks the beginning of the Australian tour of a new documentary, Pandora’s Promise. The film aims to dispel myths and spark a debate about whether you can be simultaneously “pro-nuclear” and an environmentalist.
Even with the best of intentions to reduce the magnitude of future climate disruption, decades of focus on carbon pricing and the promotion of renewable energy sources cannot hide our failure to provide scalable, large, reliable sources of clean (low or emissions-free) energy.
Today, wind turbines and solar panels combined deliver only around 3% of total electricity consumption in Australia, with coal providing 70 %, and gas another 20 %. The contribution of renewable energy has decreased over time – in 1960 renewable energy contributed 19% (largely thanks to hydropower) and coal 76 %. Total renewable energy contribution today, including hydro, has shrunk to 9%.
This is thanks, in substantial part, to the mismatch between dispersed, intermittent wind and solar technologies and the large, continuous fossil fuels we need to replace.
These sobering statistics are in no way an argument to abandon renewables, but they are evidence of a serious failure to date and point to near-certain failure in future. Passing the blame to media, fossil fuel interests or other favoured scapegoats makes us feel good and is no doubt deserved. But we must also cease avoiding uncomfortable truths about the inadequacy of the solutions we have advocated to date. Read the rest of this entry »
Why is Australia going down this reckless path? It’s all down to the state governments – especially in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.
For the conservative politicians currently holding sway in these States, it seems it’s time to generate some quick cash while cutting park budgets – and never mind the impact on Australia’s imperilled ecosystems and biodiversity.
In Victoria, for instance, land developers are now being allowed to build hotels and other ventures in national parks. In NSW, recreational shooting and possibly logging will be allowed in parks if new legislation is passed. In NSW’s marine parks, bans on shore-based recreational fishing are being lifted [see previous post here].
Other parks in NSW and Queensland are being opened up to livestock grazing. In Morrinya National Park in Queensland, a strip of forest 20 km long was recently cleared for fencing, with new stock-watering tanks being established throughout the park. Read the rest of this entry »
Our postdoc, Tom Prowse, has just had one of the slickest set of reviews I’ve ever seen, followed by a quick acceptance of what I think is a pretty sexy paper. Earlier this year his paper in Journal of Animal Ecology showed that thylacine (the badly named ‘Tasmanian tiger‘) was most likely not the victim of some unobserved mystery disease, but instead succumbed to what many large predators have/will: human beings. His latest effort now online in Ecology shows that the thylacine and devil extinctions on the Australian mainland were similarly the result of humans and not the scapegoat dingo. But I’ll let him explain:
‘Regime shifts’ can occur in ecosystems when sometimes even a single component is added or changed. Such additions, of say a new predator, or changes such as a rise in temperature, can fundamentally alter core ecosystem functions and processes, causing the ecosystem to switch to some alternative stable state.
Some of the most striking examples of ecological regime shifts are the mass extinctions of large mammals (‘megafauna’) during human prehistory. In Australia, human arrival and subsequent hunting pressure is implicated in the rapid extinction of about 50 mammal species by around 45 thousand years ago. The ensuing alternative stable state was comprised of a reduced diversity of predators, dominated by humans and two native marsupial predators ‑ the thylacine (also known as the marsupial ‘tiger’ or ‘wolf’) and the devil (which is now restricted to Tasmania and threatened by a debilitating, infectious cancer).
Both thylacines and devils lasted on mainland Australia for over 40 thousand years following the arrival of humans. However, a second regime shift resulted in the extinction of both these predators by about 3 thousand years ago, which was coincidentally just after dingoes were introduced to Australia. Dingoes are descended from early domestic dogs and were introduced to northern Australia from Asia by ancient traders approximately 4 thousand years ago. Today, they are Australia’s only top predator remaining, other than invasive European foxes and feral cats. Since the earliest days of European settlement, dingoes have been persecuted because they prey on livestock. During the 1880s, 5614 km of ‘dingo fence’ was constructed to protect south-east Australia’s grazing rangelands from dingo incursions. The fence is maintained to this day, and dingoes are poisoned and shot both inside and outside this barrier, despite mounting evidence that these predators play a key role in maintaining native ecosystems, largely by suppressing invasive predators.
Perhaps because the public perception of dingoes as ‘sheep-killers’ is so firmly entrenched, it has been commonly assumed that dingoes killed off the thylacines and devils on mainland Australia. People who support this view also point out that thylacines and devils persisted on the island of Tasmania, which was never colonised by dingoes (although thylacines went extinct there too in the early 1900s). To date, most discussion of the mainland thylacine and devil extinctions has focused on the possibility that dingoes disrupted the system by ‘exploitation competition’ (eating the same prey), ‘interference competition’ (wasting the native predators’ precious munching time), as well as ‘direct predation’ (dingoes actually eating devils and thylacines). Read the rest of this entry »
On the continuing theme of the demise of laws designed to protect Australian biodiversity (see here, here and here), I’m reproducing our latest NatureCorrespondence on the issue. I know this might be slightly dodgy to do so, but given that it’s only a Correspondence, I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble. Besides, it’s too important an issue to hide away behind paywalls.
Policy and legislative changes by Australia’s state governments are eroding the vital protection of the country’s unique biodiversity.
Reserves are being opened up to ecologically disruptive activities, such as grazing by domestic livestock, logging, mining, recreational hunting and fishing, and commercial development. Protected habitats on private and leasehold land are imperilled too. Queensland and Victoria, for example, are relaxing hard-won laws that limit vegetation clearance on private land, further accelerating the loss of regional biodiversity.
Collectively, these actions increase the pressure on biodiversity conservation in protected areas, many of which are already showing biodiversity loss (for example, the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia). Ecological connectivity is being lost, which will hamper the dispersal of species and their ability to respond to climate-change effects. Read the rest of this entry »
Australia boasts over 500 national parks covering 28 million hectares of land, or about 3.6% of Australia. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re doing well in the biodiversity-conservation game.
But did you know that of those more than 500 national parks, only six are managed by the Commonwealth Government? For marine parks, it’s a little more: 61 of the 130-plus are managed primarily by the Commonwealth. This means that the majority of our important biodiversity refuges are managed exclusively by state and territory governments. In other words, our national parks aren’t “national” at all.
In a world of perfect governance, this wouldn’t matter. But we’re seeing the rapid “relaxation” of laws designed to protect our “national” and marine parks by many state governments. Would making all of them truly national do more to conserve biodiversity?
One silly decision resulting in a major ecosystem disturbance in a national park can take decades if not hundreds of years to heal. Ecosystems are complex interactions of millions of species that take a long time to evolve – they cannot be easily repaired once the damage is done.
It’s interesting when a semi-random tweet by a colleague ends up mobilising a small army of scientists to get pissed off enough to co-write an article. Euan Ritchie of Deakin University started it off, and quickly recruited me, Mick McCarthy, David Watson, Ian Lunt, Hugh Possingham, Bill Laurance and Emma Johnston to put together the article. It’s a hugely important topic, so I hope it generates a lot of discussion and finally, some bloody action to stop the rapid destruction of this country’s national parks system.
It’s make or break time for Australia’s national parks.
National parks on land and in the ocean are dying a death of a thousand cuts, in the form of bullets, hooks, hotels, logging concessions and grazing licences. It’s been an extraordinary last few months, with various governments in eastern states proposing new uses for these critically important areas.
Australia’s first “National Park”, established in 1879, was akin to a glorified country club. Now called the “Royal National Park” on the outskirts of Sydney, it was created as a recreational escape for Sydney-siders, with ornamental plantations, a zoo, race courses, artillery ranges, livestock paddocks, deer farms, logging leases and mines.
Australians since realised that national parks should focus on protecting the species and natural landscapes they contain. However, we are now in danger of regressing to the misguided ideals of the 19th Century.
We sent out this media release the other day, but it had pretty poor pick-up (are people sick of the carbon price wars?). Anyway, I thought it prudent to reprint here on CB.com.
Will Australia’s biodiversity benefit from the new carbon economy designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Or will bio-’perversities’ win the day?
“Cautious optimism” was the conclusion of Professor Corey Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. He is lead author of a new paper published in the journal of Biological Conservation which reviewed the likely consequences of a carbon economy on conservation of Australian biodiversity.
“In most circumstances these two very important goals for Australia’s future - greenhouse gas emissions reduction and biodiversity conservation – are not mutually exclusive and could even boost each other,” Professor Bradshaw says.
“There are, however, many potential negative biodiversity outcomes if land management is not done with biodiversity in mind from the outset.”
The paper was contributed to by 30 Australian scientists from different backgrounds. They reviewed six areas where Australia’s Carbon Farming Initiative could have the greatest impact on biodiversity: environmental plantings; policies and practices to deal with native regrowth; fire management; agricultural practices; and feral animal control.
“The largest biodiversity ‘bang for our buck’ is likely to come from tree plantings,” says Professor Bradshaw. “But there are some potential and frightening ‘bioperversities’ as well. For example, we need to be careful not to plant just the fastest-growing, simplest and non-native species only to ‘farm’ carbon.
“Carbon plantings will only have real biodiversity value if they comprise appropriate native tree species and provide suitable habitats and resources for valued fauna. Such plantings could however risk severely altering local hydrology and reducing water availability.”
Professor Bradshaw says carefully managing regrowth of once-cleared areas could also produce a large carbon-sequestration and biodiversity benefit simultaneously. And carbon price-based modifications to agriculture that would benefit biodiversity included reductions in tillage frequency, livestock densities and fertiliser use, and retention and regeneration of native shrubs. Read the rest of this entry »
The Monarto Restoration Project will provide an internationally recognised opportunity to experience and engage with wild Australia as it was.
Our aim is restore and expand habitats at Monarto to represent what used to exist in the region before clearing for agriculture and the introduction of pest species. Monarto used to be teeming with wildlife. The remnant vegetation at Monarto is unique as it is located at the cross-over of two vegetation communities (the Mt Lofty Ranges and Murray Mallee). This means it provides important habitat for a range of threatened bird and plant species. However, there are still a number of species in danger of being lost from the area, so we need to focus on restoring habitat to support them too.
We provide an opportunity to see the bush in a way that is no longer possible in most parts of Australia. We hope to help you see what we have lost and encourage you to participate in conservation. It gives us the opportunity to include everyone in on-ground conservation work and pass on skills that can be applied beyond a day or this project. With your help we can reduce the impacts of pest species on the property and re-introduce some of the native species that are now locally extinct. Read the rest of this entry »
If you haven’t read about what we’re up to, here’s a brief re-cap:
Late last year we were awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant in which we proposed to examine experimentally the cost-benefit trade-off between biodiversity and carbon using a replicated planting regime. The approach is quite simple, but it will take many years to pay off. What we are asking is: how many different species and in what densities are required to restore a native woodland from an over-grazed paddock that provide the biggest long-term biodiversity and carbon benefits simultaneously for the lowest costs?
Today we announced a HEAP of positions in our Global Ecology Lab for hot-shot, up-and-coming ecologists. If you think you’ve got what it takes, I encourage you to apply. The positions are all financed by the Australian Research Council from grants that Barry Brook, Phill Cassey, Damien Fordham and I have all been awarded in the last few years. We decided to do a bulk advertisement so that we maximise the opportunity for good science talent out there.
We’re looking for bright, mathematically adept people in palaeo-ecology, wildlife population modelling, disease modelling, climate change modelling and species distribution modelling.
The positions are self explanatory, but if you want more information, just follow the links and contacts given below. For my own selfish interests, I provide a little more detail for two of the positions for which I’m directly responsible – but please have a look at the lot.
I’ve had a busy weekend entertaining visiting colleagues and participating in WOMADelaide‘s first-ever ‘The Planet Talks‘. If you haven’t heard of WOMADelaide, you’re truly missing out in one of the best music festivals going (and this is from a decidedly non-festival-going sort). Planet Talks this year was a bit of an experiment after the only partially successful Earth Station festival held last year (it was well-attended, but apparently wasn’t as financially successful as they had hoped). So this year they mixed a bit of science with a bit of music – hence ‘Planet Talks’. Paul Ehrlich was one of the star attractions, and I had the honour of going onstage with him yesterday to discuss a little bit about human population growth and sustainability. It was also great to see Robyn Williams again. All the Talks were packed out – indeed, I was surprised they were so popular, especially in the 39-degree heat. Rob Brookman, WOMADelaide’s founder and principal organiser, told me afterward that they’d definitely be doing it again.
But my post really isn’t about WOMADelaide or The Planet Talks (even though I got the bonus of meeting one of my favourite latin bands, Novalima, creators of one of my favourite songs). It’s instead about a paper I heralded last year that’s finally been accepted.
In early 2012 at the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) symposium in Adelaide, the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) put on what they called the ‘Grand Challenges’ workshop. I really didn’t get the joke at the time, but apparently the ‘grand challenge’ was locking 30 scientists with completely different backgrounds in a room for two days to see if they could do anything other than argue and bullshit. Well, we rose to that challenge and produced something that I think is rather useful.
The paper is a rather in-depth review of how we, 30 fire, animal, plant, soil, landscape, agricultural and freshwater biologists, believe Australia’s new carbon-influenced economy (i.e., carbon price) will impact the country’s biodiversity. Read the rest of this entry »
Ecological societies around the world (e.g., Ecological Society of Australia, British Ecological Society, Ecological Society of America, Czech Society for Ecology, Société française d’Écologie, etc. - see a fairly comprehensive list of ecological societies around the world here) are certainly worthwhile from an academic standpoint. I’m a member of at least three of them, and over the years I’ve found them to be a great way to meet colleagues to discuss various aspects of our work. The conferences are usually a lot of fun (although I’ve generally found the Ecological Society of America conferences are too huge and unwieldy to be terribly beneficial), the talks are usually pretty good, and the social programmes tend to demonstrate just how human we scientists can be (I’ll let you read into that what you want).
An outsider could easily argue, however, that most ecological societies are archaic bastions of a former time when ecology was more a theoretical endeavour for academic circles, with little of practical use in today’s society. I’d agree that many components of these societies still hold onto elements of this sentiment, but it’s fast becoming clear that ecological societies can play an immensely important role in shaping their countries’ environmental policy. Read the rest of this entry »
all this unprecedented warming is happening on a template of highly degraded land- and seascapes. Extinction synergies (more extinctions than would otherwise be predicted by the simple sum of the different pressures) mean that climate change exacerbates the extinctions to which we are already committed;
we show no sign of slowing emissions rates, partly because of the world’s ridiculous refusal to embrace the only known energy technology that can safely meet emissions-reduction requirements: nuclear power;
there are 7 billion hungry, greedy humans on planet Earth, and that number is growing;
Of course, I am biased being a co-author, but I think this paper really demonstrates the amazing power of retrospective multi-species systems modelling to provide insight into phenomena that are impossible to test empirically – i.e., questions of prehistoric (and in some cases, even data-poor historic) ecological change. The megafauna die-off controversy is one we’ve covered before here on ConservationBytes.com, and this is a related issue with respect to a charismatic extinction in Australia’s recent history – the loss of the Tasmanian thylacine (‘tiger’, ‘wolf’ or whatever inappropriate eutherian epithet one unfortunately chooses to apply). Read the rest of this entry »
Illegal logging is booming, as criminal organisations tighten their grip on this profitable global industry. Hence, it comes just in the nick of time that Australia, after years of debate, is on the verge of passing an anti-logging bill.
Illegal logging is an international scourge, and increasingly an organised criminal activity. It robs developing nations of vital revenues while promoting corruption and murder. It takes a terrible toll on the environment, promoting deforestation, loss of biodiversity and harmful carbon emissions at alarming rates.
Moreover, the flood of illegal timber makes it much harder for legitimate timber producers. The vast majority of those in Australia and New Zealand have difficulty competing in domestic and international markets. That’s one reason that many major Aussie retail chains and brands, such as Bunnings, Ikea-Australia, Timber Queensland, and Kimberly-Clark, are supporting the anti-illegal logging bill.
Illegal logging denies governments of developing nations revenue worldwide. Bill Laurance.
Illegal logging thrives because it’s lucrative. A new report by Interpol and the United Nations Environment Programme, “Green Carbon, Black Trade”, estimates the economic value of illegal logging and wood processing to range from $30 billion to $100 billion annually. That’s a whopping figure — constituting some 10-30% of the global trade in wood products.
Illegal logging plagues some of the world’s poorest peoples, many of whom live in tropical timber-producing countries. According to a 2011 study by the World Bank, two-thirds of the world’s top tropical timber-producing nations are losing at least half of their timber to illegal loggers. In some developing countries the figure approaches 90%.
Many nations export large quantities of timber or wood products into Australia. These include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, all of which are suffering heavily from illegal logging. Many Chinese-made wood and paper imports also come from illegal timber. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been pleading with timber-importing nations like Australia to help it combat illegal logging, which costs the nation billions of dollars annually in lost revenues.
The new Interpol report shows just how devious illegal loggers are becoming. It details more than 30 different ways in which organised criminal gangs stiff governments of revenues and launder their ill-gotten gains.
The variety of tactics used is dizzying. These tactics include falsifying logging permits and using bribery to obtain illegal logging permits, logging outside of timber concessions, hacking government websites to forge transportation permits, and laundering illegal timber by mixing it in with legal timber supplies.
The good news however, is that improving enforcement is slowly making things tougher for illegal loggers.
Accustomed to dealing with criminal enterprises that transcend international borders, Interpol is bringing a new level of sophistication to the war on illegal logging. This is timely because most current efforts to fight illegal logging – such as the European Union’s Forest Law and various timber eco-certification schemes – just aren’t designed to combat organised crime, corruption and money laundering.
The Interpol report urges a multi-pronged approach to fight illegal loggers. A key element of this is anti-logging legislation that makes it harder for timber-consuming nations and their companies to import ill-gotten timber and wood products. Read the rest of this entry »