It’s been 64 years since the world has been this close to Doomsday.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been updating the Doomsday Clock regularly for 70 years. On Thursday, they turned the hands to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.
That’s a bit closer than last year, when the clock was three minutes to midnight and the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953 when it was two minutes to midnight. That move came following the U.S. detonating its first thermonuclear bomb and Russia detonating a hydrogen bomb.
In the early days, the threat of nuclear war was the primary gear turning the clock’s arms. Climate change became a cog in 2007, moving the clock closer to midnight that year. Scientists invoked it in 2015 again, pushing the clock closer still to midnight. And in 2017, another cog was added: a rising tide of political leaders around the world making statements unhinged from facts.
Climate change facts are clear: that the world had its hottest year ever recorded in 2016, the third year in a row that mark has been set. Arctic sea ice has been decimated by repeated heat waves, seas continue to rise and researchers have warned of instability driven by climate shocks.
The cause is human’s pouring carbon pollution into the atmosphere.
“Facts are stubborn things and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is preserved,” said Lawrence Krauss, one of the clockmakers and a professor at Arizona State University.
Yet despite knowing all of that, scientists have stressed that the world is not doing enough to put humanity on course to avoid catastrophic climate change. David Titley, a professor at Penn State and one of the authors of the new doomsday clock report, said that while the Paris Agreement represents a positive step, the climate talks in Morocco late last year didn’t move the ball forward enough.
While these actions weighed on the decision to move the clock’s hands closer to midnight, scientists also considered another disturbing trend of world leaders espousing policies and making statements not tied to evidence.
There’s no more stark example than the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. He has espoused climate science denialism as have many of his cabinet nominees and advisors. He’s also made false statements on dozens of topics, from voter fraud to the size of his inauguration crowd.
This is hugely problematic when it comes to climate change, where the U.S. stands as an outlier with the only head of state to deny the science behind it.
This is the exact moment when the world needs to be doing more to address climate change. Yet the current administration of the world’s largest historical emitter is poised to ignore this fact, putting the future of humanity at risk.
“Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge,” the scientists wrote in their report.
Scientists said they only moved it forward 30 seconds because Donald Trump has held office a few days. There’s still a slight hope his actions could be different from his words. If they’re not, the hands of the clock may move even closer to midnight.
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A radical grassroots resettlement plan has transformed an ageing rural community, bringing together two groups with very different problems. In the tiny township of Mingoola, on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, local woman Julia Harpham was grappling with a common problem in rural communities.
The population was in decline, enrolments at the local primary school were down and farmers could not find labourers to help with manual work. Her town was dying before her eyes.
“Many of us have children who work in the city and aren’t going to come back to the farm because things have been so tough on the land,” Ms Harpham said. “You don’t like to see a community die. And there’s not much joy in a place with no children.”
Three years ago the local progress association decided to take a leaf from the region’s migrant past and looked for refugees willing to move to the area.
But when they began contacting refugee agencies they were told there would not be adequate support for refugees in the bush. “Every time I contacted any kind of refugee service they all said, ‘oh, no, these people need to stay in the city,'”At the end of last year matters became more urgent, with the announcement Mingoola Primary School would close if there were no enrolments in the new year.
Refugees yearn for space
Meanwhile in Sydney, refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni was grappling with problems in his community from central Africa. They had been displaced from Rwanda and neighbouring countries during years of bitter civil war.
The majority had rural backgrounds before having to flee their homes for refugee camps.
“If you ask them, ‘What was your dream when you applied to come to Australia and boarded the plane,’ they say, ‘We hoped we were going to be put in the countryside, to connect ourselves with agricultural life and have a garden’,” Mr Musoni said.
Instead they were resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated.
Moving to Mingoola
Mr Musoni led a small delegation from his community to Mingoola early this year to meet locals and see whether resettlement was viable.
On his return he put out a call for families willing to make the move; within a week he had a waiting list of 50.
He chose two families from Wollongong with 16 children between them. Six of the children were of primary school age, which would allow Mingoola Primary School to remain open.
Meanwhile, the community began renovating several abandoned houses in the area to accommodate the families, who moved to Mingoola in April.
Among the families who have settled there has been a great sense of gratitude.
“The people of Mingoola are good people, friendly people, lovely people,” refugee Jonathon Kanani said. “I don’t know how to say about the things that they do for us; I can’t describe that.”
Ms Harpham said she was being realistic about the situation. “We know that nothing is ever perfect,” she said. “But I’ve been stunned by the generosity of our community. Our priority is, are they happy? Because they weren’t happy in the city.”
For those involved in this social experiment, the hope is that its success can be replicated elsewhere to help other struggling rural communities. Mr Musoni now has 205 families on his database wanting to move out of the cities and politicians have been watching the Mingoola project with interest.
“I’ve had no hesitation in telling the Mingoola story, trying to encourage other people to look at the same program,” Mr George said.
Mr Musoni said the support so far had been encouraging.
“Julia and her community have shown it’s possible that regional communities can be welcoming to people from Africa,” he said. “They have broken the ice that was existing for us to get into the regional areas. So we feel so thankful to their efforts and their help.”
From the magpie geese to the mighty Barramundi and even a few crocodiles, the rehabilitation of a wetland adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef has also brought with it recognition for the traditional owners who bought back their land.
Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation recently won the 2016 Minister’s Award for Leadership in Sustainability as part of the Queensland Premier’s Awards. They were also finalists in the prestigious Banksia Sustainability Awards.
They’ve been responsible for restoring the Mungalla wetland, a vital ecosystem near Ingham, north of Townsville, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef and a nursery for reef fish.
When the Nywaigi people bought Mungalla Station in 1999, they knew their battle to truly reclaim and restore the land was only just beginning.
Around one quarter of the 880 hectare station is covered by wetlands, but these wetlands were choked by invasive weeds such as water hyacinth, hymenachne and aleman grass. The waters were so starved of oxygen that they were nearly barren of fish and bird life.
It wasn’t always this way. Older members of the Nywaigi people could recall when the wetlands were so full of life that the sky was black with magpie geese. The wetlands also hold great cultural value to the Nywaigi, but when Mungulla became a cattle station in the 1940s, an earth wall was built which blocked tidal flows into the wetlands and which turned them into freshwater which allowed for ponded pastures for the cattle.
CSIRO landscape ecologist Brett Abbott and hydrological modeller Fazlul Karim said their hydrological modelling suggested that removing the earth wall ~ called a bund ~ would allow the salt water to reach around 500 metres inland on a high tide, while research by a masters student working with the team also showed that salt water immersion was likely to kill many of the weeds.
So the wall came down, and the results stunned everyone involved.
The magpie geese have returned, along with nearly 280 other species of native bird. The waters are now home to at least nine species of fish, and serve as nursery grounds for some commercially and recreationally important reef fish such as barramundi and mangrove jack.
The flourishing wetlands have also attracted tourists, and there are plans for an elevated walkway through the wetlands that would help to bring in tourist dollars to be reinvested into ongoing rehabilitation efforts.
Jacob Cassady, director of the Mungalla Aboriginal Business Corporation that now owns the station, also stresses the importance of raising awareness not just about the coastal wetlands, but about the health of the Great Barrier Reef in general.
It’s possibly the first time that a bund has been removed to rehabilitate a wetland, despite the fact that there are well over a thousand similar barriers up and down the Great Barrier Reef coastline.
“Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is under significant bleaching, and that should be alarming, every Australian should be alarmed,” he says. “Have they forgotten that this is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and we just take what we’ve got in our backyard for granted?
“The wetland that we’re working in has a traditional story, and to restore the balance in that wetland is significantly important to the traditional owners,” he says. “When we had our workshops, one of the traditional owners said ‘healthy country, healthy people’.”
What do New York’s Highline Park, a bike that washes carrots when you pedal, and a village that when it built four water tanks, created an increased storage capacity and increased crop yield rates from 6.83 quintals per ha in 1977 to 14.32 in 1986, have in common?
They are a number of positive stories about our future and how we are dealing well with our environment, in places all over the world.
It is rare to hear environmental scientists sounding positive about the future. But that’s exactly what’s happening now with an international group of researchers. Because over the past two years, they have been gathering examples of positive initiatives of various kinds from communities around the world. These range from projects involving community-based radiation monitoring in Japan to ones designed to create healthier school lunches in California, to puffin patrols in Newfoundland that save baby birds from traffic.
These researchers believe that there are aspects of these projects that can be used either alone, or in combination with one another to build a better, more sustainable future.
The researchers have analysed 100 of the more than 500 projects that have been contributed to the website they have created, Good Anthropocene. As a result, they have identified some of the overarching trends in community initiatives that they believe can potentially play a role in creating a future that is both more just and more sustainable.
The researchers pulled out six main overarching themes from the projects that were submitted. They are:
1. Agroecology ~ these projects generally adopt social-ecological approaches to enhancing food-producing landscapes. One example is the Satoyama Initiative in Japan where urban residents are working with rural people to revive underused rural lands through farm stays and volunteer work along with financial support.
2. Green Urbanism ~ these are projects that focus on improving the liveability of urban areas. New York City’s Highline Park, where native species have been planted on abandoned railway lines to create urban spaces where art, education and recreation intersect and are accessible to all.
3. Future Knowledge ~ these are projects which foster new knowledge and education which can be used to transform societies. One example is Greenmatter, a program in South Africa to provide graduate-level skills for biodiversity conservation.
4. Urban Transformation ~ these projects work to create new types of social-ecological interactions around urban space. One example is the Sukhomajri village in the Himalaya’s where the community became well-known in the 1980s for coming together to stop Sukhna Lake from silting up as well as for harvesting rainwater, and in the process transforming their village.
5. Fair Futures ~ these projects aim to create opportunities for more equitable decision making. One example is City of the Future Lüneburg 2030+ ~ a project that aims to envision the future city of Lüneburg, Germany in a way that it turns into more sustainable, livable and fair place. The project has been jointly developed by the sustainability oriented University of Leuphana, the local government of the Hanseatic City of Lüneburg, local NGOs and business as well as citizens.
6. Sustainable Futures ~ these are social movements to build more just and sustainable futures. One example is the US based Farm Hack project that was founded in 2010 by farmers and organizers who use the internet to share new ideas about food production and innovative tools to increase the resilience of sustainable agriculture and rural economies. One example is a bicycle powered root washer.
This project is exciting because it represents a big shift for environmental scientists to start looking at things positively,” says Elena Bennett, who teaches at McGill’s School of the Environment and is the lead author on a paper on the subject published today. “As scientists, we tend to be very focussed on all the problems, so to look at examples of the sustainable solutions that people are coming up with ~ and to move towards asking, ‘what do the solutions have in common’ is a big change.”
Bennett adds, “This is also a move away from the typical academic perspective of looking at things in a top-down way, where we the scientists determine all the definitions. We have encouraged people who are involved in the projects to define what makes a project ‘good. We wanted to see a variety of ideas about what people want from the future.”
The researchers invite those who are involved with sustainability projects of various kinds around the world to go to the Seeds of a Good Anthropocene website and contribute them.
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In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”. Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales, when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness.
Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the present but it has flourished recently.
“A worldwide increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,” wrote Albrecht, is “matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes”. Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.
Albrecht’s coinage is part of an emerging language-set for what we are increasingly calling the Anthropocene ~ the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. And what a signature it will be.
A total of 50m kilometres of holes have been bored in the search for oil. Mountain tops have been removed to get at the coal they contain. The oceans dance with billions of tiny plastic beads. Weaponry tests have dispersed artificial radionuclides globally. The burning of rainforests for monoculture production sends out killing smog-palls that settle into the sediment across entire countries. Humanity has become a titanic geological agent with a legacy which will be legible for millennia to come.
The idea of the Anthropocene asks hard questions of us. Temporally, it requires that we imagine ourselves inhabitants not just of a human lifetime or generation, but also of “deep time” ~ the dizzyingly profound eras of Earth history that extend both behind and ahead of the present. Politically, it lays bare some of the complex cross-weaves of vulnerability and culpability that exist between us and other species, as well as between humans now and humans to come. Conceptually, it warrants us to consider once again whether – in Fredric Jameson’s phrase – “the modernisation process is complete, and nature is gone for good”, leaving nothing but us.
There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism, the political presumptions it encodes, and the specific histories of power and violence that it masks. But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through.
Though it has its origin in the Earth sciences and advanced computational technologies, its consequences have rippled across global culture during the last 15 years. Conservationists, environmentalists, policymakers, artists, activists, writers, historians, political and cultural theorists, as well as scientists and social scientists in many specialisms, are all responding to its implications. A Stanford University team has boldly proposed that ~ living as we are through the last years of one Earth epoch, and the birth of another ~ we belong to “Generation Anthropocene”.
The word “Anthropocene” itself entered the Oxford English Dictionary surprisingly late, along with “selfie” and “upcycle”, in June 2014, some 15 years after it is generally agreed to have first been used in its popular sense.
‘What will survive of us is love’, wrote Philip Larkin. Wrong! What will survive of us is plastic!!
The Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy was created in 2009. It was charged with answering two questions: whether the Anthropocene should be formalised as an epoch and, if so, when it began?
The group’s report is due within months. Recent publications indicate that they will recommend the designation of the Anthropocene, and that the “stratigraphically optimal” temporal limit will be located somewhere in the mid-20th century. This places the start of the Anthropocene simultaneous with the start of the nuclear age.
Plastics in particular are being taken as a key marker for the Anthropocene, giving rise to the inevitable nickname of the “Plasticene”. We currently produce around 100m tonnes of plastic globally each year. Because plastics are inert and difficult to degrade, some of this plastic material will find its way into the strata record. Among the future fossils of the Anthropocene, therefore, might be the trace forms not only of megafauna and nano-planktons, but also shampoo bottles and deodorant caps ~ the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals.
A Scottish explorer credited as one of the founding fathers of Australia is set to have his name wiped from the map after his bloody past came to light. Angus McMillan ~ born on Skye in 1810 ~ has been celebrated with plaques, cairns and even comic strips after founding the harbour that went on to be Port Albert in South Australia.
As a tribute to his pioneering spirit the country’s most southerly electoral district ~ McMillan ~ was named after him. But now it has come to light that he massacred Aboriginal communities to the brink of extinction in a bid to seize more land for his fellow Scottish sheep farmers. His most notorious massacre occurred in 1843, when he led the slaughter of between 80 and 200 aboriginal men, women and children as revenge for the death of a single white settler.
Australian electoral authorities are now reviewing the ward’s name after activists have expressed outrage that it is named after a man known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.
Evan Ekin-Smith of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has said a name change will be considered at the earliest opportunity. He also said that AEC guidelines clearly indicate that naming a district after a man known for mass murder is not appropriate. In fact, they state the complete opposite: “Divisions should be named after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country.”
Russell Broadbent ~ the Liberal MP who represents McMillan ~ has been at the front of the drive to rename the district. He expressed hope that constituents would come forward to make their opinions known on the renaming. He said: “The renaming of an electorate resides with the AEC, which welcomes submissions from the general public on the matter.”
Pauline Durnin ~ a community campaigner ~ said: “I think we need to recall that when this constituency was named in 1940, Aboriginals were not included as citizens of Australia, nor had the right to vote. “I would like to see the McMillan electorate renamed in favour of the Gunaikurnai people.” The Gunaikurnai are the Aboriginal people who have lived in the district for some 20,000 years.
Photography by David Rayside
Edinburgh-based writer Cal Flyn ~ who discovered that McMillan was her great-great-great uncle in 2011 ~ also welcomed the move. Ms Flyn has written a book about her ancestor and his legacy and said: “It seems the wheels of progress turn slowly, but I’m glad to hear that the concern of Gippsland’s Aboriginal community are finally being heard.”
“Changing a name cannot change the past, but it is a symbol perhaps that the wilful blindness shown towards the darker seams of colonial history is coming to an end.”
~ Cal Flyn
Ms Flyn travelled to Australia to research her book Thicker than Water and discovered that on McMillan’s arrival in 1840 there were 2,000 Aboriginals in the area. By 1857 only 96 remained.
Professor Ted Cowan, a historian at the University of Glasgow, described McMillan’s actions as a “scar” on the reputation of Scots in Australia.
In spite of his diminishing reputation, McMillan is still celebrated in some areas. A community centre in Sale, Victoria, honours him with a sculpture featuring a thistle in representation of his Scottish roots, and a saddlebag containing human skulls, which he kept as grim trophies of his exploits.
Is it possible to have economic growth at the same time as a country is transitioning to a new climate economy?
There’s a debate about whether growth can drive, or even coexist with, climate stabilization. On the other side of the coin, it’s also a discussion of whether climate stabilisation can drive growth. The debates on growth and resources are complex, fractious and centuries old, and while they won’t be resolved in the immediate future, recent developments show that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stayed flat in 2014 and 2015 while GDP continued to grow.
This emerging trend is supported by 21 countries that have managed to reduce GHG emissions while growing GDP over the period from 2000 to 2014.
A year after the Australian government implemented its carbon tax, there was no significant negative economic impact
The UK is an example of a country where economic growth and CO2 emissions have increasingly diverged. Between 2000 and 2014, the UK achieved six years of absolute decoupling where real GDP grew at the same time that carbon dioxide emissions declined. Over the 14-year period, emissions dropped from 591 to 470 million metric tons of energy-related CO2, while GDP grew from $2.1 to $2.7 trillion (constant 2005 U.S. dollars).
How Have Countries Decoupled?
There is not a single formula, policy or demographic trend that’s driven GDP-GHG decoupling across all countries. Sweden, for example, implemented ambitious policies including carbon taxes that supported its decoupling. Denmark’s rapid increase in renewable energy reduced emissions while stimulating local production. As illustrated in the table below, another key factor in many countries is a structural shift of the economy away from emissions-intensive industry.
Across the 21-country group, the average change in the industry share of GDP was a 3 percent reduction over the period, with an average CO2 reduction of 15 percent.
Shifting to a Low-Carbon Path
Decoupling of GDP and GHG emissions in numerous countries demonstrates the feasibility, and increasing prevalence, of the transition to cleaner modes of economic activity. These country-level decouplings are driving the global trend toward decoupling in 2014 and 2015. Beyond the aggregate trends described here, more information is needed on the potential leakage of carbon emissions to other countries as nations move their industries overseas, factors that enable sustained and absolute decoupling, and what’s needed to support larger-scale emissions mitigation.
Over the 14-year period covered here, the aggregate annual CO2 reduction for these 21 countries amounted to slightly more than 1 billion metric tons. Given that total annual global carbon dioxide emissions grew by more than 10 billion metric tons over this period, it’s clear that decoupling needs to be scaled up rapidly to have any chance of limiting average warming this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels ~ the current international target for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.
As countries focus on implementing the Paris Agreement, decoupling presents one option to address global climate challenges while preserving economic security.
When the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) ~ the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, consisting of 195 member countries ~ reviews and assessed the most recent scientific information on climate change, one of the central things they were concerned with are climate projections and future scenarios. That is, what the future climate is likely to be and what impact that might have on our economies, societies and ecosystems.
The IPCC regularly update a range of future scenarios based on factors that affect climate, like greenhouse gas emissions. They can show us what the future climate might look if we continue on the same greenhouse gas emissions trend, or if we reduce or increase our rate of emissions. They can then predict what is likely to happen if certain policies are implemented or actions are taken to curb emissions. Having commenced this work in 1988, the IPCC’s ability to model these future scenarios, and how we are tracking against them, has become increasingly refined.
Now, the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems is benefiting from this kind of scenario modelling.
Recently, in Kuala Lumpur, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) ~ which does for biodiversity what the IPCC does for climate ~ adopted an approach for using scenarios and models to inform policy making related to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The approach that was adopted by representatives of IPBES’s 124 member nations is spelled out in the report, The Methodological Assessment of Scenarios and Models of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The assessment was conducted by 83 experts and cited in more than 3,000 scientific papers and, in two rounds of peer review, received 4,066 comments from 230 independent reviewers.
“IPBES’s goal is to give policymakers and all of society a more complete understanding of how people and nature interact, and how policy and management decisions made today might affect these interactions in the future,” said Dr Simon Ferrier, the scenarios and models assessment’s Co-Chair and Senior Principal Research Scientist with CSIRO.
Examples include the use of scenarios and models to sustainably manage fisheries or to carry out land use planning that balances needs for development and biodiversity protection.
In setting out the rationale for using scenarios and model, IPBES had as an objective to move away from the current reactive mode of decision-making, to a proactive mode in which society anticipates change and thereby minimises adverse impacts, and capitalises on important opportunities.
“The scenarios and models assessment is the starting gun for mobilising scientists, decision makers and other stakeholders to jointly embark on an ambitious, global effort to better understand and use scientific information about biodiversity and ecosystem services,” said Dr Karachepone N. Ninan, the other Co-Chair of the scenarios and models assessment and Chairperson of the Centre for Economics, Environment and Society in Bangalore, India.
IPBES’s member nations also approved the commencement of a new global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services, which will be completed by 2019, and will measure progress towards meeting the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, 2011-2020, and the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Mobilisation of work on scenarios and models across the broader scientific community will allow this assessment to also explore the potential consequences of alternative policy options for maintaining and improving the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services into the future.
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