In conversation with Current Conservation

30 11 2016

bradshaw-tinkering-with-warIn August I had the pleasure of visiting the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, India, and while there I was interviewed by Hari Sridhar of Current Conservation. I admit that I haven’t always fully appreciated the excellent conservation reporting done by Current Conservation, and now after having been interviewed by them, I’m becoming more aware of their value (and not just because I appear in their latest issue). I really encourage CB.com readers to check it out.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2014, Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook argued that, given the current momentum of human population growth, no demographic “quick fixes” will be enough to change its trajectory in the near future. Therefore, environmental policy will be served better by prioritising measures such as technological and social innovation and reductions in consumption, while treating population reduction as a long-term goal. On his recent visit to Bengaluru, I spoke to Corey Bradshaw about the genesis of this study and its implications.

Hari Sridhar: You say “our models clearly demonstrate that the current momentum of the global human population precludes any demographic “quick fixes.” If that is the case, what do you suggest should be done instead?

Corey Bradshaw: I’ll back up a little bit and give you some of the context for writing the paper, which will sort of explain the title and that particular conclusion. Often when I gave public seminars, where I would talk about some environmental problem and future predictions of its worsening, some member of the audience would stand up at the end and say: “Well, the problem is humans. There are just too many of us. So all we need to do is focus on reducing the human population and we will fix all of these other problems.” That came up so often that I began to think: “Well, how quickly could we fix the overpopulation problem?”

Being, among other things, a population dynamics modeller, I decided I could model the human population just as well to look at that question. What would it take and how long for human population to start to decline, either from interventions or catastrophes? Human demographers don’t typically consider catastrophe scenarios when they project human populations. It’s instead done under very strict policy criteria, typically under the expected status quo, with some slight variation in things like family planning and structural change, you know, things like age structure. But we decided to try out more extreme scenarios as well to address that question. So first we said “let’s just see what happens when we only adjust fertility”. We did that and the population trajectory was more or less insensitive.

Then we said “let’s see what happens if we impose mass mortality events of various types — a third world war, pandemics, nuclear warfare” — and still the population was fairly resistant, even to these big changes. What we took away from these results was this: yes, population size must be addressed and we should have started looking into this seriously, probably post World War 2 when we were just under two billion people. We need to address overpopulation, but it’s not going to be something that can be fixed suddenly or be reduced anytime in the next few decades. It’s a century-scale issue. Should we be aiming to reduce the total human population? Yes. Should we be encouraging fertility reduction and family planning? Yes. It’s just that these will have positive outcomes at the century scale. Now most of our environmental problems are not things that we can ignore for a century. They have to be dealt with now. So our argument basically was that if we can’t address the human population problem, in the sense of reducing its size quickly, then we need to turn our attention to more immediate fixes, such as addressing consumption and various environmental mitigation policies. That was our main message. But in so doing we managed to anger both sides of the ideological position on the human population debate. In saying that something must be done but it can’t be done quickly, we upset the low-growth proponents. And by saying that we should nevertheless aim for long-term population reduction, we upset the people who are utterly opposed to any sort of fertility reduction or any action on human population growth.

HS: That’s something I want to ask you about — tell us about the attention this paper got within academia and in the media.

CB: Yeah, in the academic setting it was interesting. There were only a few critiques written about the paper and they were fairly weak. As the saying goes “All models are wrong but some are useful”, but what our model said was defensible. I suppose some of the terminology and the interpretation were points of contention with some people, but by and large the scientific community was satisfied with the result. But in the media it was completely different. Almost every single journalist I talked to put a particular slant on the results. Because of those two diametrically opposite opinions, people appeared to read anything they wanted to into it. Most people in the media didn’t of course read the paper. They read the title and maybe the abstract and the odd sentence here and there, and took from that whatever their ideological position dictated. There was right-wing media, there was left-wing media, and each had its own bias. I think only a handful of interviewers seemed to grasp the concept, which I didn’t think was that difficult. It also got a lot of responses on these comment streams. I don’t read those most of the time, but there are a lot of crazy people on the internet now. I got all sorts of hate mail, and even indirect death threats. Not serious ones. Just some random person telling me I should be removed from the face of the planet, and things like that. That happens from time to time when you deal with controversial topics.

HS: In the paper, you come up with some figures for what the population will be in 2100, under different scenarios. Could you tell us how much uncertainty there was around these figures?

CB: There was probably much less uncertainty than for most other species that are modelled. Humans tend to census themselves fairly well and we have a reasonable understanding of how many of us there are right now. While demographic data like age-specific survival rates are missing from some parts of the world, generally speaking at the scale of regions it’s well-known. So in terms of measurement error, the current and even the trends in those demographic rates are robust. Some of the assumptions, such as how much longer we’ll live given future medical innovations, are somewhat uncertain. But as it turns out, we are living so long now that even slight adjustments to longevity don’t make much difference in the long-term to total population size. And even large assumptions about, say, juvenile mortality, don’t make a huge difference because for a long-lived mammal the most important parameter that modifies population growth generally is the survival of breeding females. And breeding-age woman around the world tend to have the highest survival rates, so all the other parameters have smaller effects on population size. So while environmental variability has a large effect on small populations, it has a comparatively small effect on large populations. And we are a very large population. Incorporating a lot of uncertainty didn’t really make much of a difference. But the future scenarios were uncertain – will there be a war, will there be climate change reductions in food availability that will lead to higher juvenile mortality, etc.? We know little about the probability these things will occur and how important they’ll be. Read the rest of this entry »





More things stay the same, more we retrogress

20 07 2016

obrazek_1idiommmmsmmWithin six months of Abbott and the Coalition seizing power in the 2013 Australian election, decades—if not centuries—of environmental damage and retrograde policies unfolded. But this was no run-of-the-mill incompetence and neglect by government—this was an all-out attack on anything with the merest whiff of environmental protection. The travesty is well-documented, from infamously axing both the carbon-pricing scheme and climate commission, eradicating Labor’s 80% emissions-reduction target by 2050, diluting the Renewable Energy Target, refusing to commit to enforcing the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act (fortunately, this is now law), defunding the only independent legal entity available to limit environmentally destructive development (Environmental Defenders Office), to even attempting to remove the rights of environmental groups to challenge development proposals (thankfully, that failed).

The Coalition’s backward and ineffectual climate change-mitigation policies alone are evidence enough for long-term damage, but their war on the environment in general means that even the future election of a more environmentally responsible government will not undo the damage quickly, if at all. As a result of these and other nearsighted policies, Australia remains one of the highest per-capita greenhouse-gas emitters on the planet, has one of the highest per-capita water uses of any nation, leads the world in mammal extinctions, continues to deforest its already forest-poor landscape, and is a society utterly unprepared to deal with the future challenges of a degraded planet.
Read the rest of this entry »





George Hubert Wilkins — Australia’s first whitefella conservationist?

6 07 2016

As many of you know, I have held the ‘Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change’ at the University of Adelaide since January 2015. My colleague and friend, Barry Brook, was the foundation Chair-holder from 2006-2014.

Initially set up by Government of South Australia to “… advise government, industry, and the community on how to tackle climate change …”, it now is only a titular position based at the University. While I certainly try to live up to the aims of the Chair, it’s even more difficult to live up to the namesake himself — Sir George Hubert Wilkins.

Given I’ve held the position now for over a year and half, I’ve had plenty of time to read about this legendary South Australian (I do choose my words carefully here). Despite most Australians having never heard of the man, it is my opinion that he should be as well known in this country as other whitefella explorers such as Douglas Mawson, Matthew Flinders, Robert Burke, William Wills, and Charles Sturt.

Sadly, he is not well-known, for a litany of possible reasons ranging from spending so much time out of Australia, never having a formal qualification in many of the skills in which he excelled (e.g., geography, meteorology, aviation, engineering, cinematography, biology, etc.), disrespect from other contemporary Australian explorers, and some rather bizarre behaviour later in his career. The list of this man’s achievements is staggering, as was his ability to thumb his nose at death (who, I might add, tried her hardest to escort him off this mortal coil many times well before a heart attack claimed him at the age of 70).

Many books have been written about Wilkins, but as I slowly make my way through some of the better-written tomes, one unsung aspect of his career has struck a deep chord within me — it turns out that Wilkins was also a extremely concerned biodiversity conservationist. Read the rest of this entry »





What immigration means for Australia’s climate-change policies

12 06 2016

After dipping my foot into the murky waters of human population demography a few years ago, I’m a little surprised that I find myself here again. But this time I’m not examining what the future of the global human population might be and what it could mean for our environment; instead, I’m focussing on Australia’s population future and its implications for our greenhouse-gas emissions trajectories.

Just published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Forum1, my paper with long-time co-author Barry Brook is entitled Implications of Australia’s population policy for future greenhouse gas emissions targets. It deals with the sticky question of just how many people Australia can ‘afford’ to house. By ‘afford’ I mean several things, but most specifically in the context of this paper is by how much we need to reduce our per capita emissions to achieve future reduction targets under various immigration-rate scenarios.

In many ways Australia’s population is typical of other developed nations in that its intrinsic fertility (1.78 children/woman) is below replacement (which is itself ~ 2.1 children/female). Yet Australia’s population grew nearly twice (1.88×) as large from 1971 to 2014. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most of our population growth is due to net immigration.

In fact, between 2006 and 2014, Australia welcomed a net of 215,000 new people per year (this means that of all the permanent immigrants and emigrants, a ‘net’ of approximately 215,000 stayed each year), which represents about 1% of our total population size (that latter most likely just ticked over 24 million). Read the rest of this entry »





Most-Bestest Environment Minister in the World, Ever

4 04 2016
Our Most-Bestest Minister Ever

Our Most-Bestest Minister Ever (i.e., the bloke on the left; interestingly, the bloke on the right leads one of the few countries in the world with a higher per capita emissions rate than Australia)

Australia has an appalling environmental record — hell, I have even written an entire book on our sorry state of environmental affairs. Of course, environmental damage is a slow accumulation of bad political decisions, neglect, corruption, greed and society’s general I-couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude, but the record of our recent government demonstrates not just classic political buffoonery and neglect, but an outright attack on the environment.

So it was impossible to restrain a disgusted guffaw when, in February this year, our ‘Environment’ Minister won the coveted ‘Best Minister’ in the World award at the World Government Summit in Dubai by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai.

Deserved ridicule aside, I was asked recently by The Conversation to contribute to a special report examining the profile performance of cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers, which is not only a responsibility I take seriously, but an honour to be able to provide a serious and objective appraisal of our Most-Bestest Minister Ever. My contribution dealt specifically with the environmental portfolio, so I appraised both the sitting Minister and the Shadow Minister. Judge for yourself based on their performances. Read the rest of this entry »





Bad science

10 02 2016

Head in HandsIn addition to the surpassing coolness of reconstructing long-gone ecosystems, my new-found enthusiasm for palaeo-ecology has another advantage — most of the species under investigation are already extinct.

That might not sound like an ‘advantage’, but let’s face it, modern conservation ecology can be bloody depressing, so much so that one sometimes wonders if it’s worth it. It is, of course, but there’s something marvellously relieving about studying extinct systems for the simple reason that there are no political repercussions. No self-serving, plutotheocratic politician can bugger up these systems any more. That’s a refreshing change from the doom and gloom of modern environmental science!

But it’s not all sweetness and light, of course; there are still people involved, and people sometimes make bad decisions in an attempt to modify the facts to suit their creed. The problem is when these people are the actual scientists involved in the generation of the ‘facts’.

As I alluded to a few weeks ago with the publication of our paper in Nature Communications describing the lack of evidence for a climate effect on the continental-scale extinctions of Australia’s megafauna, we have a follow-up paper that has just been published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? led by Chris Johnson of the University of Tasmania.

After our paper published earlier this month, this title might seem a bit rhetorical, so I want to highlight some of the reasons why we wrote the review. Read the rest of this entry »





No evidence climate change is to blame for Australian megafauna extinctions

29 01 2016

bw spear throwingLast July I wrote about a Science paper of ours demonstrating that there was a climate-change signal in the overall extinction pattern of megafauna across the Northern Hemisphere between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. In that case, it didn’t have anything to do with ice ages (sorry, Blue Sky Studios); rather, it was abrupt warming periods that exacerbated the extinction pulse instigated by human hunting.

Contrary to some appallingly researched media reports, we never claimed that these extinctions arose only from warming, because the evidence is more than clear that humans were the dominant drivers across North America, Europe and northern Asia; we simply demonstrated that warming periods had a role to play too.

A cursory glance at the title of this post without appreciating the complexity of how extinctions happen might lead you to think that we’re all over the shop with the role of climate change. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Instead, we report what the evidence actually says, instead of making up stories to suit our preconceptions.

So it is with great pleasure that I report our new paper just out in Nature Communications, led by my affable French postdoc, Dr Frédérik SaltréClimate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia.

Of course, it was a huge collaborative effort by a crack team of ecologists, palaeontologists, geochronologists, paleo-climatologists, archaeologists and geneticists. Only by combining the efforts of this diverse and transdisciplinary team could we have hoped to achieve what we did. Read the rest of this entry »








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