Australia’s motto: “Screw the environment!”

2 09 2015
Mmmmm! I love coal!

Mmmmm! I love coal!

An article originally posted on ALERT by April Reside (with permission to reproduce).

The Conservative Tony Abbott government in Australia is proposing alarming changes to Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 — a remarkable move that would prevent environment groups from challenging many damaging development projects.

This has all come to a head over the Carmichael Coal Mine — a plan to build a massive mine in central Queensland in order to export 60 million of tonnes of coal to India each year.

Coal, of course, is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and India’s plan to burn it by the shipload for electricity is bad news for the planet.

The Abbott government is in a tizzy after after a community organization, the Mackay Conservation Group, challenged the approval of the Carmichael Mine in Australia’s Federal Court.

The community group says Environment Minister Greg Hunt didn’t properly consider the impact the mine would have on two threatened species, the yakka skink and ornamental snake.

The mine site also sustains the largest population of the southern subspecies of the black-throated Finch, which is endangered.

The implications of the mega-mine go well beyond a few imperilled species. If the mine goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in the world — and the emissions from burning its mountains of coal would cancel out all gains made from Australia’s current emissions-reduction strategy.

On top of the frightening precedent it would set, the Abbott government appears to be double-dealing. Read the rest of this entry »

Scariest part of climate change isn’t what we know, but what we don’t

7 08 2015

© Nick Kim

My good friend and tropical conservation rockstar, Bill Laurancejust emailed me and asked if I could repost his recent The Conversation article here on

He said:

It’s going completely viral (26,000 reads so far) in just three days. It’s been republished in The Ecologist, I Fucking Love Science, and several other big media outlets.

Several non-scientists have said it really helped them to understand what’s known versus unknown in climate-change research—which was helpful because they feel pummelled by all the research and draconian stuff that gets reported and have problems parsing out what’s likely versus speculative.

With an introduction like that, you’ll just have to read it!

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”: so goes a Danish proverb attributed variously to baseball coach Yogi Berra and physicist Niels Bohr. Yet some things are so important — such as projecting the future impacts of climate change on the environment — that we obviously must try.

An Australian study published last week predicts that some rainforest plants could see their ranges reduced 95% by 2080. How can we make sense of that given the plethora of climate predictions?

In a 2002 press briefing, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence, distinguished among different kinds of uncertainty: things we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. Though derided at the time for playing word games, Rumsfeld was actually making a good point: it’s vital to be clear about what we’re unclear about.

So here’s my attempt to summarise what we think we know, don’t know, and things that could surprise us about climate change and the environment.

Things we think we know

We know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen markedly in the last two centuries, especially in recent decades, and the Earth is getting warmer. Furthermore, 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. That’s consistent with what we’d expect from the greenhouse effect. Read the rest of this entry »

MPs’ ignorance puts national parks in peril

30 08 2013

greedyLed by Bill Laurance, our latest opinion editorial in the Higher Education supplement. Interestingly, it has already spawned a bilious and spittle-flecked response by Queensland’s Acting National Parks Minister, Tim Mander. Given the evidence, who’s side do you take? I’m happy that at least one of the worst culprit state governments is at least now paying some attention to the issue.

LAST week the world was appalled when Ecuador decided to open up one of its iconic national parks for petroleum development, with Leonardo di Caprio being among the chorus of dissenting voices. Yet the world should be even more disappointed in Australia, a far wealthier nation whose parks could be facing even worse threats.

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 »

Deforestation partly to blame for Queensland floods

17 01 2011

© recoverling

Last week I sent a fairly random Tweet about deforestation in south-eastern Queensland being partially responsible for the record floods there. It went more or less unnoticed, but I thought the comment deserved a proper explanation.

As many of you might know, my colleagues and I wrote an article a few years ago about the global-scale evidence for deforestation leading to a higher incidence and severity of floods in the developing world. This was fairly controversial, but it was nonetheless the first broad-scale evidence for the fabled deforestation-flood link yet published (in my not-so-humble opinion). Subsequent comment reiterated the point with new data.

Now, I will begin by saying I have no data yet to back up my Queensland-specific hypothesis, but I am contemplating a time-series paper on floods in Australia, especially after the events of the last month. This post is therefore merely a reasoned hypothesis.

The hypothesis itself is rather simple. Testing is not. I submit that the recent flooding in Australia has been exacerbated (not caused) by the rapid loss of forest cover over the last 40 years. We know that this is a particularly intense La Niña in Australia and our unusually high rainfall arises from this meteorological phenomenon, but I hypothesise that it wouldn’t have been as bad if this part of Australia hadn’t been so careless with its forest cover since the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »

More rain forest regeneration opportunities

5 10 2010

Last November I wrote about an exciting conservation research endeavour (see ‘How to restore a tropical rain forest‘)  in which I am involved called the Thiaki Rain Forest Regeneration Project taking place as we speak in the hinterland of north Queensland’s Atherton Tableland. I personally have done next to nothing on the project yet (UQ’s Margie Mayfield is leading the charge), so I can’t really update you on all the nitty-gritty of our progress. Regardless, I can say that some of the planting tests have been done, the species have been chosen and are growing happily in the nursery reading for planting in January 2011, and the baseline biodiversity assessments are well under way.

Well, prior to our Supercharge Your Science extravaganza in Cairns and Townsville a few weeks ago, I visited Penny & Noel at Thiaki for a catch up, a discussion of what’s been happening and what’s about to happen. It was a great weekend (the family came along too) with good food, wine, ticks and leeches (biodiversity in action), and I’m getting more and more excited about what this project will deliver over the coming years.

In the meantime, a couple of ‘opportunities’ have arisen; in other words – we need some good PhD students to tackle some outstanding issues with the project. Read the rest of this entry »

How to restore a tropical rain forest

6 11 2009

thiakiHere’s a little story for you about how a casual chat over a glass of wine (or many) can lead to great scientific endeavours.

A few years ago I was sitting in the living room of my good friends Noel Preece and Penny van Oosterzee in Darwin chatting about life, the universe, and everything. They rather casually mentioned that they would be selling their environmental consulting company and their house and moving to the Queensland rain forest. Ok – sounded like a pretty hippy thing to do when you’re thinking about ‘retiring’ (only from the normal grindstone, at least). But it wasn’t about the easy life away from it all (ok, partially, perhaps) – they wanted to do something with their reasonably large (181 ha), partially deforested (51-ha paddock) property investment. By ‘something’, I mean science.

So they asked me – how would we go about getting money to investigate the best way to reforest a tropical rain forest? I had no idea. As it turns out, no one really knows how to restore rain forests properly. Sure, planting trees happens a lot, but the random, willy-nilly, unquantified ways in which it is done means that no one can tell you what the biggest biodiversity bang for your buck is, or even if it can compete on the carbon sequestration front.

Why carbon sequestration? Well, in case you’ve had your head up your bum for the last decade, one of the major carbon mitigating schemes going is the offset idea – for every tonne of carbon you emit as a consumer, you (or more commonly, someone else you pay) plant a certain number of trees (because trees need carbon to grow and so suck it out of the atmosphere). Nice idea, but if you deforest native ecosystems just to bash up quick-growing monoculture plantations of (usually) exotic species with little benefit to native biota, biodiversity continues to spiral down the extinction vortex. So, there has to be a happy medium, and there has to be a way to measure it.

So I said to Penny and Noel “Why don’t we bash together a proposal and get some experts in the field involved and submit it to the Australian Research Council (ARC) for funding?” They thought that was a smashing idea, and so we did.

Fast forward a few years and … success! The Thiaki Project was born (‘Thiaki’ is the name of the Creek flowing through the property north of Atherton – seems to be of Greek origin). We were extremely lucky to find a new recruit to the University of Queensland, Dr. Margie Mayfield (who worked previously with Paul Ehrlich), who was not only an expert in the area of tropical reforestation for biodiversity, she also had the time and energy to lead the project. We garnered several other academic and industry partners and came up with a pretty sexy experiment that is just now getting underway thanks to good old Mr. ARC.

The project is fairly ambitious, even though the experiments per se are fairly straight forward. We’re using a randomised block design where we are testing 3 tree diversity treatments (monoculture, 1 species each from 6 families, and 5 species each from those same 6 families) and two planting densities (high and low). The major objective is to see what combination of planting density and native tree species provides the most habitat for the most species. We’re starting small, looking mainly at various insects as they start to use the newly planted blocks, but might expand the assessments (before planting and after) to reptiles, amphibians and possibly birds later on.

But we’re not stopping there – we were fortunate enough to get get a clever soil scientist, Dr. David Chittleborough of the University of Adelaide, involved so we could map the change in soil carbon during the experiment. Our major challenge is to find the right combination of tree species and planting techniques that restore native biodiversity the most effectively, all the while maximising carbon sequestration from the growing forest. And of course, we’re trying to do this as most cost-effectively as we can – measuring the relative costs will give landowners contemplating reforestation the scale of expenditures expected.

I’m pretty proud of what Margie, Noel, Penny and the rest of the team have accomplished so far, and what’s planned. Certainly the really exciting results are years away yet, but stay tuned – Thiaki could become the model for tropical reforestation worldwide. Follow the Thiaki Project website for regular updates.

I’d also love to recreate the Thiaki Project in southern Australia because as it turns out, no one knows how to maximise biodiversity and carbon sequestration for the lowest cost in temperate reforestation projects either. All we need is a few hundred hectares of deforested land (shouldn’t be hard to find), about $1 million to start, and a bit of time. Any takers?

CJA Bradshaw

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© C. Madden