If we don’t act soon, the world we leave our children will be in a sorry state indeed, leading Australian scientist Prof Corey Bradshaw tells Tom McKinlay.
Prof Corey Bradshaw’s 9-year-old daughter lives what sounds an idyllic existence. On their small farm outside Adelaide in South Australia, she has her chickens and her dogs and her cats, her goats and her sheep.
She’s an only child, but is not short of attention from adults and reads voraciously.
She has big plans; there are at least 25 careers she likes the look of, that she’ll undertake simultaneously: farmer, wildlife rescuer, self-sufficient bush dweller – feeding herself by shooting arrows at fish – scientist and more.
She is optimistic about the future. As she should be. A 9-year-old girl living in Australia in 2016 should regard the sky as no limit at all.
All this I learn from her father, ecologist Prof Bradshaw, who talks of his daughter with an enthusiasm unbounded.
It is fair to assume she has picked up some of her interest in the natural world from him.
He holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide.
And the ecologist, conservation biologist and systems modeller – with a University of Otago degree – has shared a great deal of his work with his daughter.
“She’s very much a farm kid, but because of who I am she gets to hear a lot about animal and plant systems around the world, and she’s travelled a lot with me and she’s a complete fanatic of David Attenborough,” the professor says.
So far, still so idyllic. But Prof Bradshaw’s work means he is at the forefront of alerting the world to what is not right with it.
Pollution, climate change, habitat loss, extinction.
His daughter has travelled with him to see species that might not be with us by the time she grows up.
“She’s hyper-aware of extinctions, in particular, and how climate change is contributing to that,” Prof Bradshaw says.
“I don’t pull any punches with her.”
In fact, he made her cry when she was 5 explaining climate change. She hasn’t needed to travel to know the pot is on the boil. Fires have forced the family to flee its South Australian property several times, not just at the height of summer.
One of the worst fires in the region struck in May a couple of years back.
“We were on the doorstep of winter and we had one of our worst fires in 20 years.”
So even without a scientist in the family, there are certain unavoidable truths for a child growing up in 21st-century Australia.
There will be home truths that he has not yet shared with his daughter: there are limits to what you can lay on a 9-year-old.
“I am of the opinion that we are getting to the point where within the foreseeable future – decades – that we are going to be subject to probably fairly intensive skirmishes or warfare between nations and even within nations for dwindling resources,” he says, on the phone from his South Australian home.
“I think the refugee crisis we are experiencing now is just the tip of the iceberg and it is only going to get worse.
“If you look at the ultimate cause of a lot of these uprisings, political or otherwise, around the world – for example, Arab Spring, the refugee crisis in Europe – you can look back and it often has a primary cause related to food or water availability, and usually it is in the pricing.”
Droughts and floods, extreme events, are what drive systems, he says. These will be the waypoints of our future. Think bell curves, he says.
If you change average temperatures by 1degC and your bell curve shifts to the right, extreme weather events that once occurred every 100 years, down the sharp end of the curve, now roll around, say, every 10.
It might not be more intense. Trees will die in a drought in the same way they always have, but they once had 100 years to recover. Now it’s 10. You can’t grow a big tree in 10 years. Not even a gum.
Now it’s one thing for the gums and all the life that depends on them to be struggling. But map the same scenario on to crop failures, Prof Bradshaw suggests, whether the result of drought, fire or cyclone.
“People aren’t able to recover in between.”
There’ll be scarcity, conflict, and a withering of compassion to accompany the further growth of refugee intake.
“That’s going to put a lot of pressure on societies like New Zealand and Australia that have a certain expectation of high standards of living. That will be challenged continuously, such that I don’t think that my child is going to have the same opportunities that I had.”
Opportunities for employment and pay will be poorer, food will be more expensive, standards of living in general lower.
“So I am trying to prepare her for that.”
That’s where the farm comes in. So the idyll comes a bunker. We’re not talking survivalists in the outback just yet, however.
Prof Bradshaw researches and blogs, and takes the science out into the world where it can do the most good, giving public talks, meeting the power holders and power brokers, in an effort to head off the worst.
“My personal view is that if I can delay a major crisis by even 10 years for my daughter, then I have done my job, both as a parent and as a scientist.”
The currency that might buy his daughter those 10 years is the hard data that supports change.
Prof Bradshaw is putting it together, working in a “transdisciplinary” fashion with colleagues across a range of fields, stretching his own endeavours from ecology and biology to take in energy systems and human demography.
Employing advanced mathematics, the professor builds models that encompass energy, emissions, agriculture, population, epidemiology and health to present scenarios for change that could win that 10 years, or maybe more.
“There’s a famous quote by the late ecologist George Box … he said ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’,” Prof Bradshaw says, lest anyone suspect hubris.
“Whole models are necessary simplifications of the universe of complexities. A model can only guide you, it can’t predict the future. So we use models to simplify these very complex systems into something that’s tractable in terms of decision making.”
They can identify the smartest decisions that give the biggest bang for a given investment.
“You can optimise for different things. If you are optimising just for short-term economic gains, that’s one thing; if you are optimising so that your daughter doesn’t die in a massive resource war in 2050, that’s a rather different optimisation function. That’s what we are trying to incorporate: keeping people happy and healthy, without destroying their long-term prospects.”
In some ways, this is not a million miles from the models he creates in his work as an ecologist, where myriad variables are factored in to see how a change in one area or another might affect the whole.
For example, he describes, in a blog, how areas of Australia where there are plenty of dingoes also have plenty of native marsupials.
That’s because dingoes outcompete and kill introduced cats and foxes. Remove one variable, dingoes, and the biodiversity of the whole is negatively impacted.
Then there’s the research out just this past week, with which he was involved, showing that the ice age megafauna of South America were not wiped out just because humans arrived; it also took a rapid warming of the climate.
It reinforces the argument that separate impacts on an environment can work together to have a greater overall effect.
There’s a lot more of this sort of thing in his co-written book, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie, an outrageously wide-ranging romp through all that ails, combining top-notch science with street-level straight talking.
It explores the ways in which the United States and Australia – two nations of highly developed superconsumers with enormous energy footprints – can combine their most successful solutions in order to grapple with the dynamic effects of climate change.
“If you can come up with a complex solution to these complex problems, with the underlying evidence, and you hit enough sectors of society, you start to get meaningful change,” Prof Bradshaw says.
“I think that’s what a lot of the environmental movement has missed. It has focused solely on that environmental component and assumed most people will uptake the values that they have.
“Which they don’t. In fact, if anything, more and more of them go against them.”
If, on the other hand, the model encompasses a broader range of society’s values, enough people will say “hang on, let’s have a look at this again”.
“You start to get interest and uptake.”
All that said, a significant element of Prof Bradshaw’s prescription for a more sustainable Australia will strike many as a bitter pill.
Nuclear power generation, he says, is the answer to weaning the coal and diesel-dependent country off climate-changing fossil fuels.
“Putting up a few more wind turbines ain’t going to cut it,” he says with what sounds like typical Australian directness.
He was actually born and raised in Canada.
“That’s going to be part of it, but it certainly isn’t going to solve that problem.”
Nuclear power might just about get the country across the line: it’s low carbon and proven technology.
“If you installed an up-to-date, modern reactor, it is safer than coal by orders of magnitude by total mortalities,” he says.
Pollution from coal will be killing people now. He’s done the research.
“It’s a no-brainer.”
Nuclear power is illegal in Australia right now, but South Australia has set up a royal commission to look into the first step in the process: managing and storing spent nuclear fuel.
They’ll be looking at the arguments. Prof Bradshaw will be doing what he can to make sure they are based on good science.
A recipe for disaster
Population is the monster, says Corey Bradshaw.
There are 7.4 billion of us on the planet, heading for nine billion by mid-century and maybe 12 billion by century’s end.
Should you need any convincing, have a look at an online world population clock: the numbers tick up at a dizzying rate, adding mouths to feed. Almost another 40 million this year so far.
“Put all of this into context, plus all the stress we are putting on the system environmentally, and that’s just a recipe for an explosion of massive proportions,” Prof Bradshaw says.
“We are committed to lots of people, fewer resources, declining yields and increasing climate-change risks. The most optimistic person in the world cannot deny that this is a dangerous mix.”
It means that for every step forward in terms of environmental sustainability, society takes three backwards because there are more people consuming.
In a paper published this month, Prof Bradshaw linked Australia’s carbon emissions and its future targets for reductions, with immigration policy.
The upshot being maybe the country should rethink migrant totals because business as usual will make hitting carbon-cutting targets very difficult indeed.
Australia has a mountain to climb already.
It’s one of the planet’s biggest per capita emitters at a “whopping” 25-27 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person, per year.
Its Paris conference target is 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, almost certainly too little to avoid 2degC of warming.
But if immigration continues at current rates, Australia would have to halve its CO2 emissions per head in 14 years to hit the target.
Something that could only be achieved with a rapid energy revolution, Prof Bradshaw says.
That is underlined when you consider that cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 is closer to what the country actually needs to do to get even close to maintaining a 2degC world.
Under that scenario, it would have to reduce per capita annual emissions to 3-5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or to one-tenth of per capita current rates, if migration keeps the population growing at today’s rate.
In another blog he suggests that the density of the world’s human population could now be triggering a feedback effect that might make sensible decisions around the issue more difficult.
“We have finally entered a phase of compensatory resource competition [human density feedback] where the fight to dominate dwindling resources engenders more evidence-free ideologies,” he writes.
Which is to say, in our crowded world, people are ignoring the evidence of what they need to do and instead jumping aboard the Trump bandwagon or the Brexit train in the blind hope it might save them.
And Prof Bradshaw has a word of advice for New Zealand politicians, currently clinging to record migration rates to prop up what would otherwise be weak GDP growth numbers.
Forget GDP, he says.
“GDP is universally acknowledged even by economists as one of the worst indicators of total wealth, and yet we have this mantra about ‘increase the GDP’.”
Australian politicians are singing that particular song in the current election campaign across the Tasman for all they are worth.
GDP fails to take account of environmental damage, Prof Bradshaw says.
It won’t save us either.
It’s time to find a better measure of progress.
Prof Corey Bradshaw will give a talk, “How Climate Change is Degrading My Daughter’s Future: From Epidemiology to Economics”, at the New Zealand International Science Festival on Tuesday July 12, 7.30 pm to 9 pm. The festival runs from July 8-16. For more go to www.scifest.org.nz.