Playing (Australian) politics : Al Gore attacks Tony Abbott’s refusal to link bushfires with climate change

From the Guardian

Tony Abbott’s insistence that bushfires aren’t linked to climate change is like the tobacco industry claiming smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, Nobel laureate Al Gore says.

In light of the New South Wales bushfire disaster, the former US vice-president says the prime minister’s comment that bushfires are a function of life in Australia and nothing to do with climate change reminds him of politicians in the US who received support from tobacco companies, and who then publicly argued the companies’ cause.

“For 40 years the tobacco companies were able to persuade pliant politicians within their grip to tell the public what they wanted them to tell them, and for 40 years the tragedy continued,” Gore told ABC TV’s 7.30 program from Los Angeles on Wednesday night.

“Bushfires can occur naturally and do, but the science shows clearly that when the temperature goes up and when the vegetation and soils dry out, then wildfires become more pervasive and more dangerous.

“That’s not me saying it, that’s what the scientific community says.”

Gore said it was a political fact of life that politicians and commercial enterprise colluded to achieve goals after he was asked if there was a conspiracy between polluters and politicians.

“I don’t think it’s a commercial conspiracy. I think it’s a political fact of life,” he said. “It certainly is in my country. In the United States, our democracy has been hacked.

“Special interests control decisions too frequently. You saw it in our recent fiscal and debt crisis.

“The energy companies, coal companies and oil companies particularly, have prevented the Congress of the United States from doing anything meaningful so far, to stop the climate crisis.”

The Nobel laureate said Australia’s new Direct Action strategy was not workable.

“The meaningful way to resolve this crisis is to put a price on carbon and in Australia’s case, to keep a price on carbon,” he said.

He argues the price needs to be at an effective level with the market sending accurate signals so that renewable systems of energy are encouraged.


‘Ring of Fire’ Eclipse Wows Australia

Solar Eclipse
Solar Eclipse (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

People waking up in the Australian Outback Friday morning, along with other parts of the Pacific, were among the lucky few to witness a “ring of fire” solar eclipse, as the moon slipped between the Earth and the sun, covering everything but a blazing ring of light around the edges.

(DETAILS: Solar Eclipse Turns Sun into ‘Ring of Fire’)

The eclipse lasted between three and six minutes, depending on its location, and blacked out around 95 percent of the sun at its peak.

Source: The Weather Channel  

WATER : A Groundbreaking Agreement to Save Australia’s Ailing Murray River

English: The confluence of the Murray River an...
English: The confluence of the Murray River and the Darling River at Wentworth, New South Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Second version of a Murray catchment map
English: Second version of a Murray catchment map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2013 is UN Year of Water Cooperation, so here’s a good news story to kick-start a new focus for this blog and NAEE….Sandra Postel reports in National Geographic online. 

After years of debate, fiery protests and intense negotiations, Australia has adopted a historic plan to restore flows to the suffering Murray-Darling River Basin.

It is one of the boldest water pacts to restore nature on the books, and if successful, could offer a roadmap for overtapped river basins in other arid lands.

The plan aims to return 3,200 billion liters of water – about 13 percent of the Murray’s average annual flow – to the river system, which spans 14 percent of Australia’s territory, supports 39 percent of its agricultural production, and harbors 30,000 unique wetlands – 16 of them internationally recognized.  The basin is also home to the prized Murray cod, whose population has been decimated by excessive river diversions and many years of drought.

In signing the plan into law on November 22, federal environment minister Tony Burkeproclaimed, “There’s always been an excuse to delay. Delay ended today. We now have a national approach to the Murray Darling Basin.”

As if the stars had aligned for river protection, the agreement on the Murray came just two days after the signing of a historic agreement between the United States and Mexico to better manage flows in the depleted Colorado River Basin, including the Colorado Delta.

For Australia, the river basin plan represents an ambitious attempt to rebalance water use between farms, cities and ecosystems.  It sets flow targets across the four basin states – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia – and establishes caps on river diversions to ensure those environmental flows are met.  Those caps, or “sustainable diversion limits,” go into effect in 2019.

The Commonwealth government has already secured the majority of the water needed to execute the plan through investments of some $11 billion, most of them to buy water back from willing sellers.  But because of their effects on rural jobs and economies, those buybacks are highly controversial, and farmers and rural communities are hoping most of the remaining water needs will come not from additional water purchases, but from water efficiency improvements.

Toward that end, the Commonwealth has committed to spending an additional $1.8 billion on irrigation infrastructure upgrades and smarter water management, and Minister Burke is looking to the states to identify projects where those water savings can be realized.

For its part, much of the Australian conservation community is skeptical about the plan’s ability to succeed, arguing that at least 4,000 billion liters of water are needed to bring the river system back to health. The exclusion of groundwater pumping from the plan also raises concerns.  Because groundwater provides base flows for the river, increased groundwater extractions could reduce river flows, offsetting some of the plan’s restoration gains.

Full implementation of the plan will take until 2024, so only time will tell whether the plan does its job of restoring the wetlands and rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin to health.

But given its ambitious goals, and the diverse interests and numerous controversies that had to be mediated to get a final agreement signed into law, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan stands as an important landmark in 21st century river management.

[For more on the Murray River and the recent history of the basin plan, see my two earlier blogs,here and here.]

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

WILDLIFE UPDATE : Saving Australian endangered species – a policy gap and political opportunity

Brisbane City
Brisbane City (Photo credit: Bandido of Oz)
English: Parrot, Longleat safari park, Wiltshi...
English: Parrot, Longleat safari park, Wiltshire This is one of several of these exotic birds that had given a display of verbal and physical dexterity at the safari park. Big, brash and loud, very loud. This would appear to be a blue-and-yellow macaw (Ara ararauna) a native of tropical South America although this one will almost certainly have been bred in captivity. The species is on the IUCN red list of threatened species but is at the of ‘least concern’ end of the endangered species. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From Stephen Garnett, AustraliaTim Flannery, in his Quarterly Essay After the Future, is right to deplore the sudden abrogation of responsibility for threatened species by state and federal governments. The tragedy is that neglecting endangered species is the wrong thing to do on so many counts. It does not reflect the popular will of the people. And it is counter to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

To take the last point first. In Hyderabad recently the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity – which includes representatives of nearly all world governments – agreed to double the funding for the Global Environment Fund (GEF) to $10 billion a year. Although still less than required for improving the status of all threatened species and for protecting critical habitats, this was still a big step forward.

Significantly, India and several African countries also agreed to contribute to the GEF.

The world is taking a serious interest in saving species. And with good reason – there is increasing evidence that biodiversity loss has an influence on ecosystem service provision on a par with drought, ozone loss, acidification and climate warming. Species conservation is an investment in natural capital that provides enormous returns.

So why are Australian governments turning off threatened species? While Australia did contribute $23 million to the GEFthrough AusAid in 2011-12, here at home there is no coordinated national pool of funds for threatened species. The carbon fund and Caring for Country are lotteries in which winning tickets are too often captured by local agendas unrelated to the risk of species loss.

And the states and territories have always been poor cousins. While they have long employed threatened species managers – often deeply committed individuals who have devoted decades to retaining species for future generations – the operating money has usually had to be gleaned from a reluctant Commonwealth.

Since 2009 that money has been ever harder to obtain. That was when Peter Garrett got up at the INTECOL conference in Brisbane and said that funding would be given to protecting landscapes not species. I wonder if it weighs on his conscience, and those of his advisers, that this statement led directly to extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, the first mammal extinction in a generation.


The critically endangered orange bellied parrot.Roger Smith


For many senior bureaucrats, Garrett’s statement was a license not to care, to make muscular decisions not to fund, supposedly on the basis that this is what the elected government wanted. I have actually attended a meeting of senior “conservation” managers in Brisbane who were only half joking when they said they would like species to go extinct because of the trouble they caused.

The real trouble is that Garrett’s statement was built on two myths.

The first is that threatened species funding does not work. Bunkum. Australia has a remarkable record of bringing animals back from the dead. All around the country there are animals and plants that were reduced to near extinction. But through thorough research, clever management coupled with diligent monitoring, and sustained commitment from both government and the local community, the small numbers have increased until extinction is now improbable.

Saving species can be expensive – small amounts smeared across many species just leads to wastage – but it works. We could abandon some species – a decision for the public not public servants to make. But for a relatively tiny amount we couldsave all of them.

Part of the perception is that the lists are not kept up to date. For instance there are 28 species or subspecies of bird on the EPBC lists that do not meet IUCN Red List criteria. Erroneously listed species waste resources and erode confidence. However the problem is with the listing process, not the efforts of threatened species managers. The conservation status of over 100 birds is better than it might have been without conservation funding. Poor administration of a clumsy Act is no excuse for abandoning threatened species.

The other myth is that people do not care. Work by Charles Darwin University PhD student Gill Ainsworth shows that is wrong. In a survey designed to avoid bias, 75% said they would become upset if a bird became extinct (compared to 7% who disagreed); 74% said that people have a moral obligation to protect threatened birds (compared with 5%); and 47% said that the needs of threatened species can come ahead of people compared with 15% who thought the opposite.

There is a political opportunity here for the major parties to differentiate themselves. Though the Greens have organised a Senate inquiry into threatened species funding in Australia (submissions due 14th December), Tim Flannery is right – the Greens do not own threatened species. That is why the Australian Wildlife Conservancy is attracting corporate support. That is why many of the poorer respondents to Gill’s survey were willing to give money to threatened species protection if asked.

Ultimately of course threatened species protection is a political question. But it is also has deeper moral implications. What we do with our biological inheritance defines who we are as a people. Most countries are proud of their rare species and try to prevent extinction. For Australia our biodiversity should be seen as much a natural blessing as our mineral resources.

Great Barrier Reef loses more than half its coral cover

English: A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) r...
English: A Blue Starfish (Linckia laevigata) resting on hard Acropora coral. Lighthouse, Ribbon Reefs, Great Barrier Reef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Population explosion of coral-eating starfish, storms and acidification of oceans causing rapid decline, study finds. 

Coral cover on Australia‘s Great Barrier Reef has declined by more than half over the last 27 years according to marine scientists. The Guardian reports

Coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef has dropped by more than half over the last 27 years, according to scientists, a result of increased storms, bleaching and predation by population explosions of a starfish which sucks away the coral’s nutrients.

At present rates of decline, the coral cover will halve again within a decade, though scientists said the reef could recover if the crown-of-thorns starfish can be brought under control and, longer term, global carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

“This latest study provides compelling evidence that the cumulative impacts of storms, crown-of-thorns starfish (Cots) and two bleaching events have had a devastating effect on the reef over the last three decades,” said John Gunn, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Coral reefs are an important part of the marine ecosystem as sources of food and as protection for young fish. They are under threat around the world from the effects of bleaching, due to rising ocean temperatures, and increasing acidification of the oceans, which reduces the corals’ ability to build their calcium carbonate structures.

The Great Barrier Reef is the most iconic coral reef in the world, listed as a Unesco world heritage site and the source of $A5bn (£3.2bn) a year to the Australian economy through tourism. The observations of its decline are based on more than 2,000 surveys of 214 reefs between 1985 and 2012. The results showed a decline in coral cover from 28% to 13.8% – an average of 0.53% a year and a total loss of 50.7% over the 27-year period. The study was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Two-thirds of the coral loss has occurred since 1998 and the rate of decline has increased in recent years, averaging around 1.45% a year since 2006. “If the trend continued, coral cover could halve again by 2022,” said Peter Doherty, a research fellow at the institute.

Tropical cyclones, predation by Cots, and bleaching accounted for 48%, 42%,and 10% of the respective estimated losses. In the past seven years the reef has been affected by six major cyclones. Cyclone Hamish, for example, ran along the reef, parallel to the coast for almost 930 miles (1,500km), leaving a trail of destruction much greater than the average cyclone, which usually crosses the reef on a path perpendicular to the coast.

The starfish problem was first recorded in 1962 at Green Island off Cairns. “When we say outbreaks, we mean explosions of Cots populations to a level where the numbers are so large that they end up eating upwards of 90% of a reef’s coral,” Gunn said. “Since 1962 there have been major outbreaks every 13-14 years.”

The evidence suggests that outbreaks of Cots start two or three years after major floods in northern rivers.

In September, scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that Caribbean coral reefs are on the verge of collapse, with less than 10% of the reef area showing live coral cover. The collapse was due to environmental issues, including over-exploitation, pollution and climate change.

David Curnick, marine and freshwater programme co-ordinator at the Zoological Society of London, said many of the most endangered coral species around the world were also under severe pressure from the aquarium trade.

“Corals are notoriously hard to propagate in captivity and therefore the trade is still heavily dependent on harvesting from the wild.”.”

He said the results of the Great Barrier Reef survey were not surprising and the challenge for conservationists was to limit the localised threats to give reefs a chance to recover and develop resilience against the effects of climate change. “This is challenging but entirely achievable and there are many community-led projects around the world demonstrating this.”

Corals can recover if given the chance. But this is slow – in the absence of cyclones, Cots and bleaching, the Great Barrier Reef can regrow at a rate of 2.85% a year, the scientists wrote. Removing the Cots problem alone would allow coral cover to increase at 0.89% a year.

Reducing Cots means improving water quality around the rivers at the northern end of the reef to reduce agricultural run-off – high levels of nutrients flowing off the land feed and allow high survival of Cots larvae. Another option is some form of biological control of populations – Gunn said there were promising results from research on naturally occurring pathogens that could keep Cots in check, but it was not ready to be applied in the field.

He said the future of the Reef lay partly in human hands. “We can achieve better water quality, we can tackle the challenge of crown-of-thorns, and we can continue to work to ensure the resilience of the reef to climate change is enhanced. However, its future also lies with the global response to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The coral decline revealed by this study – shocking as it is – has happened before the most severe impacts of ocean warming and acidification associated with climate change have kicked in, so we undoubtedly have more challenges ahead.”


Australia : Plan to kill great white sharks that swim too close to beaches


Megalodon tooth with two great white shark tee...
Megalodon tooth with two great white shark teeth and with a ruler to see the size (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Western Australian officials have approved a plan to pre-emptively track and kill the endangered species. This is a tricky balancing act – looking after people yet living alongside Nature, in my view ….! The Guardian reports. 

Australian officials, under pressure to protect beachgoers after a string of deadly shark attacks, have approved a plan to kill sharks that venture too close to people in the water.

The plan, which was announced by Western Australia state premier, Colin Barnett, on Thursday, has infuriated conservationists and marks a sharp reversal of the current policy that permits the killing of sharks only after they have attacked.

“We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark,” Barnett told ABC radio. “This is, after all, a fish – let’s keep it in perspective.”

Barnett, along with the state fisheries minister, Norman Moore, announced the policy change as part of a AU$6.85m (£4.41m)) package of “shark mitigation strategies” aimed at reducing the risk of attacks on beachgoers.

There have been five fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the past year, prompting some residents to demand a more aggressive shark management plan. The new funding will pay for a fisheries department service to track, catch and kill sharks that get too close to swimmers, a study of shark enclosures at beaches, more jet skis for lifeguards and a GPS tracking program.

Great white sharks are a protected species in Australian waters, but the new policy would allow fisheries department officials to kill any great whites that present an “imminent threat to people”, Moore said.

After an American diver was killed by a great white in Western Australia last year, the government set tuna-baited hooks to try and snare the predator. It was the first time authorities used an emergency legal exemption from the state protection of great whites to hunt the animal in the interest of protecting the public. The shark was never caught.

The Conservation Council of Western Australia praised the additional funds for research and increased patrols but slammed the new pre-emptive kill policy as ineffective.

“We are concerned that plans to kill sharks that approach beaches applies a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach to sharks and is a knee-jerk reaction to public concern that will harm the environment without protecting swimmers,” the council’s marine coordinator Tim Nicol said in a statement.

Sharks are common in Australian waters, though the nation has averaged just over one fatal attack a year over the past 50 years.

Wildlife Update : Kangaroo Island a case of seals versus penguins…?

Distribution of the New Zealand Fur Seal, Arct...
Distribution of the New Zealand Fur Seal, Arctocephalus forsteri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
New Zealand Fur Seals
New Zealand Fur Seals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, is one of Australia‘s most popular tourism destinations, thanks to its profusion of native wildlife, which includes koalas, kangaroos and the world’s smallest penguin species.

But lately there have been dark goings-on in the animal kingdom: the New Zealand fur seals have been devouring the fairy penguins.

Penguin numbers have dropped by half on the island, according to some locals, who want the seals to be sterilised, relocated or even culled. Now they have come up with a new suggestion: shoot them with beanbag rounds – a method more commonly used to control riots – if they approach penguin colonies.

John Ayliffe, who runs nightly penguin-spotting tours, said five penguins had been taken by seals near the town of Kingscote in recent weeks. He warned that the seal population was booming and that, unless drastic measures were taken, the penguins on the rocky island could be wiped out. The lead shot “hits the seals like a punch and it will not penetrate the skin provided it’s fired from sensible distances”, he said, after which the seals would simply move away.

Conservationists, however, are horrified, and the state environment department says that “interactions between New Zealand fur seals and penguins are a natural phenomenon over which humans have little control”. It adds that the seals – a protected species native to Australia as well as New Zealand – are only now recovering from commercial sealing in the past.

Sealing, which was Australia’s first major industry after colonisation, nearly eradicated the fur seal. Although it was banned in the 1830s, fishermen were still allowed to kill seals deemed to be “interfering with fishing operations” until 1983.

In recent decades, the Kangaroo Island population has bounced back to about 25,000 – and the number of penguins has declined in tandem, claim tourism operators. One of these, Simone Somerfield, told The Australian last year that visitors to her penguin viewing centre had seen the birds ambushed by seals in the shallows and even chased on to the shore.

“Every now and again you would see one penguin being taken, and I would say, ‘Gee, that’s amazing, it’s like David Attenborough‘,” she said. “But then it was more and more and more, and then mass kills in which the seals were not even eating them. It was happening within a hundred metres and you have a complete view – it was like watching a horror movie.”

Seal populations are believed to have grown partly because of a decline in numbers of sharks and killer whales, their natural predators. Mr Ayliffe, manager of the Kangaroo Island Penguin Centre, said that in South Africa and Namibia seals were “harvested” because there was not enough food for them. “Harvesting is a major tool used internationally to manage numbers. It’s only a matter of time before we implement some control measures here.”

However, measures such as culling and relocation have been rejected by environmental authorities, who say they have proved expensive and largely ineffective elsewhere. New seals move into areas from which others have been removed, and relocated seals swim long distances to return to familiar feeding grounds. Moreover, penguins form only a small part of the fur seal’s diet, according to marine biologists.

Tim Kelly, of the Conservation Council of South Australia, said while he could understand the frustration of tour operators, the growth in seal numbers was a welcome development. He added there were other threats to the penguins, such as attacks by dogs and nest predation, which also had to be taken into account.