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 »





Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXIX

20 10 2016

Six more biodiversity cartoons coming to you all the way from Sweden (where I’ve been all week). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXXVIII

25 08 2016

Another six biodiversity cartoons for your midday chuckle & groan. There’s even one in there that takes the mickey out of some of my own research (see if you can figure out which one). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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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.
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Buying time

27 06 2016

farmOriginally published in the Otago Daily Times by Tom McKinlay

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.

Prof Bradshaw is coming to Dunedin next month as part of the New Zealand International Science Festival to talk on climate change, looking at it from his daughter’s perspective. Read the rest of this entry »





Extinction synergy: deadly combination of human hunting & climate change wrote off Patagonian giants

20 06 2016

MegatheriumHere’s a paper we’ve just had published in Science Advances (Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation). It’s an excellent demonstration of our concept of extinction synergies that we published back in 2008.

Giant Ice Age species including elephant-sized sloths and powerful sabre-toothed cats that once roamed the windswept plains of Patagonia, southern South America, were finally felled by a perfect storm of a rapidly warming climate and humans, a new study has shown.

Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published on Saturday in Science Advances, has revealed that it was only when the climate warmed, long after humans first arrived in Patagonia, did the megafauna suddenly die off around 12,300 years ago.

The timing and cause of rapid extinctions of the megafauna has remained a mystery for centuries.

“Patagonia turns out to be the Rosetta Stone – it shows that human colonisation didn’t immediately result in extinctions, but only as long as it stayed cold,” says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. “Instead, more than 1000 years of human occupation passed before a rapid warming event occurred, and then the megafauna were extinct within a hundred years.”

The researchers, including from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of New South Wales and University of Magallanes in Patagonia, studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, to trace the genetic history of the populations. Species such as the South American horse, giant jaguar and sabre-toothed cat, and the enormous one-tonne short-faced bear (the largest land-based mammalian carnivore) were found widely across Patagonia, but seemed to disappear shortly after humans arrived. 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 »








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