There are 10 catastrophic threats facing humans right now, and coronavirus is only one of them


Arnagretta Hunter, Australian National University and John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.

While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.

Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:

  1. decline of natural resources, particularly water
  2. collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
  3. human population growth beyond Earth’s carrying capacity
  4. global warming and human-induced climate change
  5. chemical pollution of the Earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
  6. rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. the advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
  10. national and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.

The start of ongoing discussions

The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.

The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.

The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.

The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.

COVID-19: a lesson in interconnection

It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.

The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.

It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.

Shared future, shared approach

The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.

The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.




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Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.

If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.

Prepare for the long road

The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.

The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.




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The shift from short to longer term thinking can began at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.

We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.The Conversation

Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown



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Elena Sánchez-García, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, University of the Sunshine Coast

Have you recently come across photos of cities around the world with clear skies and more visibility?

In an unexpected silver lining to this tragic crisis, urban centres, such as around Wuhan in China, northern Italy and Spain, have recorded a vastly lower concentration of air pollution since confinement measures began to fight the spread of COVID-19.

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Likewise, the Himalayas have been visible from northern India for the first time in 30 years.

But what about Australia?

Researchers from the Land and Atmosphere Remote Sensing group at the Physical Technology Center in the Polytechnic University of Valencia – Elena Sánchez García, Itziar Irakulis Loitxate and Luis Guanter – have analysed satellite data from the new Sentinel-5P satellite mission of the Copernicus program of the European Space Agency.

The data shows a big improvement to pollution levels over some of our major cities – but in others, pollution has, perhaps surprisingly, increased.

These images measure level of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, an important indicator of air quality. They show changes in nitrogen dioxide concentrations between March 11 to March 25 (before lockdown effectively began) and March 26 to April 11 (after lockdown).

Why nitrogen dioxide?

Nitrogen dioxide in urban air originates from combustion reactions at high temperatures. It’s mainly produced from coal in power plants and from vehicles.

High concentrations of this gas can affect the respiratory system and aggravate certain medical conditions, such as asthma. At extreme levels, this gas helps form acid rain.

Coronavirus: nitrogen dioxide emissions drop over Italy.

Declining nitrogen dioxide concentrations across Europe in the northern hemisphere are normally expected around this time – between the end of winter and beginning of spring – due to increased air motion.

But the observed decreases in many metropolises across Europe, India and China since partial and full lockdowns began seem to be unprecedented.

Nitrogen dioxide levels across Australia

Preliminary results of the satellite data analysis are a mixed bag. Some urban centres such as Brisbane and Sydney are indeed showing an expected decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentrations that correlates with the containment measures to fight COVID-19.

On average, pollution in both cities fell by 30% after the containment measures.

Like a heat map, the red in the images shows a higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide, while the green and yellow show less.



CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

On the other hand, nitrogen dioxide concentrations have actually increased by 20% for Newcastle, the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, and by 40% for Melbourne, a sprawling city with a high level of car dependency. Perth does not show a significant change.



CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

We don’t know why pollution has increased in these cities across this time period, as 75% of Melbourne’s pollution normally comes from vehicle emissions and most people are travelling less.

It could be because the autumn hazard reduction burns have begun in Melbourne. Or it may be due to other human activities, such as more people using electricity and gas while they stay home.

Pollution changes with the weather

Understanding how air pollution changes is challenging, and requires thorough research because of its variable nature.

We know atmospheric conditions, especially strong winds and rain, are a big influence to pollution patterns – wind and rain can scatter pollution, so it’s less concentrated.

Blue skies over Chinese cities as COVID-19 lockdown temporarily cuts air pollution.

Other factors, such as the presence of additional gases and particles lingering in the atmosphere – like those resulting from the recent bushfires – also can change air pollution levels, but their persistence and extent aren’t clear.




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Changes should be permanent

If the decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentration across cities such as Brisbane and Sydney is from containment measures to fight COVID-19, it’s important we try to keep pollution from increasing again.

We know air pollution kills. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates around 3,000 deaths per year in Australia can be attributed to urban air pollution.

Yet, Australia lags on policies to reduce air pollution.




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COVID-19 has given us the rare opportunity to empirically observe the positive effects of changing our behaviours and slowing down industry and transport.

But to make it last, we need permanent changes. We can do this by improving public transport to reduce the number of cars on the road; electrifying mass transit; and, most importantly, replacing fossil fuel generation with renewable energy and other low-carbon sources. These changes would bring us immediate health benefits.The Conversation

Elena Sánchez-García, Postdoctoral researcher at LARS group, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From the bushfires to coronavirus, our old ‘normal’ is gone forever. So what’s next?


Sarah Milne, Australian National University; Carolyn Hendriks, Australian National University, and Sango Mahanty, Australian National University

The world faces profound disruption. For Australians who lived through the most horrific fire season on record, there has been no time to recover. The next crisis is now upon us in the form of COVID-19. As we grapple with uncertainty and upheaval, it’s clear that our old “normal” will never be recovered.

Radical changes like these can be interpreted through the lens of “rupture”. As the social scientist Christian Lund describes, ruptures are “open moments, when opportunities and risks multiply… when new structural scaffolding is erected”.

The concept of rupture therefore explains what happens during periods of profound change – such as colonisation or environmental catastrophe – when relationships between people, governments and the environment get reconfigured.

This can help us to make sense of the bushfire crisis and COVID-19: we are in an open moment, when the status quo is in flux.

History of rupture

Colonisation is perhaps the most dramatic example of rupture in human history. Original ways of life are violently overthrown, while new systems of authority, property and control are imposed.

Novelist Chinua Achebe famously described the effects of colonisation on tribal people in Nigeria, with his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. But rupture tells us that things do not just fall apart – they also get remade.

We have researched rupture in Southeast Asia, where hydro-electric dam projects have devastated river systems and local livelihoods. New kinds of political power and powerlessness have emerged in affected communities, who’ve had to adjust to flooding, resettlement and an influx of new settlers.




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We’ve also found new relationships between people and nature in these contexts. For example, as indigenous people have been displaced from their ancestral lands, they must reestablish access to natural resources and forest-based traditions in new places.

Importantly, the rupture metaphor can be scaled up to help us understand national and global crises. Three insights emerge.

1. Rupture doesn’t come out of nowhere

Both the bushfires and COVID-19 expose how underlying conditions – such as drought, social inequality, and the erosion of public goods and services – contribute to a dramatic event occurring, and in turn shape how it unfolds.

Before the fires hit in late 2019, the drought had already brought many rural communities to their knees. The combination of dry dams, farmers without income, and towns without water meant local capacity to cope was already diminished.

Similarly with COVID-19, pre-existing poverty has translated into higher infection rates, as seen in Spain where vulnerable people in poorly paid jobs have suffered most from the virus.

From this, it is clear that crises are not stand-alone events – and society’s response must address pre-existing problems.




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Conversely, favourable underlying conditions – such as social cohesion, public trust and safety nets – can help us adapt and improvise in the face of rupture.

For example during the last bushfire season, a small and nimble community-based firefighting team formed at Mongarlowe in southern New South Wales. The group extinguished spot fires that the under-resourced Rural Fire Service (RFS) could not reach – saving forests, property and potentially, lives.

Such groups emerged from already strong communities. Social cohesion and community responsiveness is also helping societies cope with COVID-19, as seen in the emergence of community-led “mutual aid” groups around the world.

A community supply centre near Bega, NSW, helping residents after the bushfires.
Sean Davey/AAP

2. Rupture changes the dynamics of government

Rupture can also expose frictions between citizens and their governments. For example, the Australian government’s initial response to the bushfire crisis was condemned as insensitive and ineffectual. As the crisis evolved, this damaged the government’s credibility and authority – especially in relation to its stance on climate change.

Against this foil, state governments delivered somewhat clearer messaging and steadier management. But tensions soon arose between state and federal leadership, revealing cracks in the system.

The COVID-19 pandemic means that more than ever, we need competent and coherent governance. However fractures have again emerged between state and federal governments, as some states moved ahead of the Commonwealth with faster, stricter measures to combat COVID-19.

Furthermore, as economic stimulus spending reaches A$320 billion – including wage subsidies and free childcare – the government’s neo-liberal ideology appears to have fallen away (at least temporarily).

Critical lessons from other ruptures show that Australians must remain vigilant now, as old systems of authority rewire themselves. To stem COVID-19, governments have announced major societal restrictions and huge spending. These moves demand new kinds of accountability – as demonstrated by calls for bipartisan scrutiny of Australia’s COVID-19 response.

3. Rupture asks us to re-think our relationships with nature

When Australia burned last summer, few could avoid the immediacy of dead wildlife, devastated landscapes and hazardous air. Australians were overwhelmed by grief, and a new awareness of the impacts of climate change. New debates emerged about how our forests should be managed, and the pro-coal stance of the federal Coalition was challenged.

COVID-19 is also a wake-up call to humanity. It is one of many emerging infectious diseases that originated in animals – a product of our “war on nature” which includes deforestation and unregulated wildlife consumption.




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Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


As British writer George Monbiot argues, the pandemic means that we can no longer maintain the “illusion of security” on a planet with “multiple morbidities” – looming food shortages, antibiotic resistance and climate breakdown.

Rupture invites us to re-think our relationships to nature. We must recognise her agency – as firestorm or microscopic virus – and our deep dependence upon her.

Looking ahead

Indian author Arundhati Roy recently wrote that, in these troubled times, rupture “offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”.

The challenge now is to seize opportunities emerging from this rupture. As our economies hibernate, we’re learning how to transform. Carbon emissions have declined dramatically, and the merits of slowing down are becoming apparent. We must use this moment to re-align our relationships to one another, and to nature.The Conversation

Sarah Milne, Senior Lecturer, Resources, Environment and Development, Australian National University; Carolyn Hendriks, Associate Professor, Public Policy and Governance, Australian National University, and Sango Mahanty, Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turning to Easter eggs to get through these dark times? Here’s the bitter truth about chocolate



Pxfuel

Stephanie Perkiss, University of Wollongong; Cristiana Bernardi, The Open University, and John Dumay, Macquarie University

The coronavirus might make Easter celebrations a little subdued this year, but that doesn’t mean going without chocolate eggs. In fact, South Australia’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier reportedly said people should partake in the Easter treats “to cheer ourselves up … I’ve certainly got a good supply of chocolate eggs already”.

But before you fill your shopping trolley (online or virtual) with chocolate, we urge you to think twice about whether it’s ethically produced.




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Most chocolate consumed globally, including in Australia, comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa – which together account for about 60% of global cocoa supply.

Cocoa farming is a major driver of deforestation in the region. Despite growing global demand for chocolate, farmers live in poverty, and child labour continues to plague the industry.

More work is needed by big chocolate companies to ensure cocoa is produced sustainably and fairly.
CHRISTOF KRACKHARDT

Spotlight on Nestlé

The US Department of Labor has estimated that 2 million children carry out hazardous work on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Our research has examined Nestlé, which claims its chocolate produced for specific markets is sustainably sourced and produced. A number of its chocolate products are certified through the UTZ and Fairtrade schemes.

Nestlé has adopted the Fair Labor Association (FLA) code of conduct that forbids child or forced child labour, and requires certain health and safety standards, reasonable hours of work and fair pay. Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan also outlines the company’s commitment to sustainability in its Ivory Coast cocoa supply chain.




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But a 2016 FLA report said 80% of Nestlé’s cocoa procurement took place outside this plan. Of this part of the supply chain, just 30% was monitored by certification systems.

For the 70% of Nestlé cocoa farms outside certification programs, there was no evidence of training on labour standards or monitoring of working conditions. Assessors also found issues such as child labour, and health and safety issues.

More recently, Nestlé has stated its cocoa plan now covers 44% of its global cocoa supply, and the company is committed to sourcing 100% of cocoa under the plan by 2025.

On the issue of child labour, Nestlé last year reported it was “not proud” to have found more than 18,000 children doing hazardous work since a monitoring and remediation system began in 2012.

However the company would continue trying to eradicate the practice, including “helping children to stop doing unacceptable activities and, where needed, helping them to access quality education.”

Cocoa producers in West Africa are often poorly paid and subject to dangerous working conditions.
Wikimedia

Sweet sorrow: an industry problem

Other big chocolate players, such as Mars, Cadbury (owned by Mondelēz International), Hershey and Ferrero are also exposed to problems facing cocoa farming.

Many are taking action. Mars recently supported Ghana and the Ivory Coast in setting a floor price for cocoa, to increase the money paid to farmers.

In 2012, Ferrero promised to remove slavery from its cocoa supply by 2020.

Others have made moves towards better certification, including Hershey, which says it pays certification premiums to farmer groups who meet labour standards.

But despite years of pledges, progress across the sector is slow. The Washington Post last year reported major chocolate companies had missed deadlines to remove child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. It said brands such as Hershey, Mars and Nestlé could still not guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labour.

Child labour issues continue to plague the chocolate industry.
Public Domain Pictures

Bad for the planet

Cocoa farming is a major driver of deforestation as farmers cut down trees to clear farmland. For example in 2017, the Guardian reported cocoa traders selling to Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez and other big brands had sourced beans grown illegally inside protected rainforest areas in the Ivory Coast.

Rising demand for chocolate – particularly in India and China – also encourages farmers to increase cocoa yield by using fertilisers and pesticides.

A 2018 study found the chocolate industry in the UK produces the equivalent of more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. It took into account chocolate’s ingredients, manufacturing, packaging and waste.

And research last year by the CSIRO showed it takes 21 litres of water to produce a small chocolate bar.




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In response to the problem, Mars and Nestlé have pledged to make their cocoa supply chain sustainable by 2025. Ferrero has committed to source 100% sustainable cocoa beans by 2020, and Mondelēz intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by 2025, based on 2018 levels.

But pledges do not necessarily transform into action. At a United Nations climate change conference in November 2017, big chocolate producers and the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast committed to stopping deforestation for cocoa production. A year later, satellite mapping reportedly revealed thousands more hectares of rainforest in West Africa had been razed.


Wikimedia

What’s a chocolate lover to do?

Given the above, you might be tempted to stop buying chocolate brands that source cocoa from West Africa. But this would cut off the incomes of poor cocoa farmers.

Instead, choose chocolate independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade. This increases the chance that the cocoa was produced with minimal environmental damage, and workers are treated well.

If you can, check if the company has direct connections with producers, which means farmers are more likely to be fairly paid.

If all this sounds too hard to work out yourself, websites such as The Good Shopping guide, Ethical Consumer or Shop ethical! can help you find Easter eggs that are both ethically made, and delicious.




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The Conversation


Stephanie Perkiss, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong; Cristiana Bernardi, Lecturer in Accounting, The Open University, and John Dumay, Associate Professor – Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After another hot summer, here are 6 ways to cool our cities in future



Nigel Jarvis/Shutterstock

Komali Yenneti, University of Melbourne

Australia is a “land of climate extremes”. This is especially true for our cities, which have become hubs of extreme summer temperatures. This past summer was the second-hottest on record for Australia, following the 2018-19 record, with average maximum temperatures more than 2°C above the long-term average.

Frequent and long heatwaves are having serious impacts on energy consumption, public health, labour productivity and the economy.




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Even without global warming, cities already face a problem — the urban heat island effect, whereby inner urban areas are hotter than the surrounding rural areas. Urban heat islands are caused by factors such as pollution, energy consumption, industrial activities, large dark concrete buildings, asphalt roads and closely spaced structures.

Evidence from Australia’s major cities shows average temperatures are 2-10°C higher in highly urbanised areas than in their rural surroundings.




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Urban growth, heat islands, humidity, climate change: the costs multiply in tropical cities


Governments and policymakers can use a variety of cooling strategies combined with community engagement, education and adaptation measures to cool Australian cities.

1. Green infrastructure

Green infrastructure includes parks, street trees, community gardens, green roofs and vertical gardens. In tropical and subtropical climate zones, like much of Australia, green infrastructure is a cost-effective cooling strategy.




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Evidence suggests a 10% increase in tree canopy cover can lower afternoon ambient temperatures by as much as 1-1.5C, as the chart below shows. Similarly, in parks with adequate irrigation ambient temperatures can be 1-1.5°C lower than nearby unvegetated or built-up areas.

Maximum (above) and average (below) temperature reduction potential of different urban greenery techniques.
Komali Yenneti et al, Author provided

We can increase street tree canopy cover by planting more shade trees on footpaths, lanes and street medians. Where there is little space for parks and street trees, green roofs and walls may be viable options.




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2. Water-sensitive urban design

The use of water as a way to cool cities has been known for thousands of years. Water-based landscapes such as rivers, lakes, wetlands and bioswales can reduce urban ambient temperatures by 1-2°C. This is a result of water heat retention and evaporative cooling.

In addition to natural water bodies, various other water-based technologies are now available for both decorative and climatic reasons. Examples include passive water systems, like ponds, pools and fountains, and active or hybrid systems, such as evaporative wind towers and sprinklers. Active and passive systems can decrease ambient temperatures by 3-8°C, as the charts below show.

Maximum (above) and average (below) temperature reduction potential of different active and passive water systems.
Komali Yenneti et al, Author provided

Water-based systems are usually combined with green infrastructure to enhance urban cooling, improve air quality, aid in flood management and provide attractive public spaces.




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3. Cool materials

Building materials are major contributors to the urban heat island effect. The use of cool materials on roofs, streets and pavements is an important cooling strategy. A cool surface material has low heat conductivity, low heat capacity, high solar reflectance and high permeability.

Evidence suggests that using cool materials for roofs and facades can reduce indoor temperature by 2-5°C, improve indoor comfort and cut energy use.

Maximum (above) and average (below) temperature reduction potential of different cool surfaces.
Komali Yenneti et al, Author provided

Cool materials commonly applied to buildings include white paints, elastomeric, acrylic or polyurethane coating, ethylene propylenediene tetrolymer membrane, chlorinated polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, thermoplastic polyolefin, and chlorosulfonated polyethylene.

Lighter aggregates and binders in asphalt and concrete, permeable pavers made from foam concrete, permeable asphalt and resin concrete are standard cool pavement materials.




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Building cool cities for a hot future


4. Shading

Shading can decrease radiant temperature and greatly improve outdoor thermal comfort. Providing shading on streets, building entries and public venues using greenery, artificial structures or a combination of both can block solar radiation and increase outdoor thermal comfort. Examples of artificial structures include temporary shades, sunshades and shades using solar panels.




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5. Combined cooling strategies

Performance analysis of various projects in Australia suggests the cooling potential of the combined use of the different strategies discussed above is much higher than the sum of the contributions of each individual technology, as the charts below show. The average maximum temperature reduction with just one technology is close to 1.5°C. When two or more technologies are used together the reduction exceeds 2.5°C.

Maximum (above) and average (below) temperature reduction potential for a combination of technologies.
Komali Yenneti et al, Author provided

The chart below shows the peak temperature reduction for all cooling strategies.


Komali Yenneti et al, Author provided

6. Behaviour changes

People are significant contributors to urban heat through their use of air conditioning. The waste heat from air conditioners heats up surrounding outdoor spaces.

Projections show cooling demand in Australian cities may increase by up to 275% by 2050. Such a trend will have a great impact on urban climate, as well as increasing electricity use. If this is powered by fossil fuels, it will add billions of tons of carbon pollution.

Climate-responsive building design and adaptive design techniques in existing buildings can minimise occupants’ demand for cooling energy by reducing indoor and outdoor temperatures.




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We have the blueprint for liveable, low-carbon cities. We just need to use it


Cities must take a holistic, long-term approach

Local governments can prepare for and respond to heat events through emergency response plans. However, emergency responses alone cannot address other challenges of urban heat, including human vulnerability, energy disruptions and the economic costs of lower workplace productivity and infrastructure failures.

Long-term cooling strategies are needed to keep city residents, buildings and communities cool and save energy, health and economic costs.The Conversation

Komali Yenneti, Honorary Academic Fellow, Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New ways of ‘being together apart’ can work for us and the planet long after coronavirus crisis passes



Oxfam/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Andrew Glover, RMIT University and Tania Lewis, RMIT University

Most major corporate, academic and other networking events have been cancelled because of the risks of spreading the coronavirus while travelling or at the events themselves. This flurry of cancellations has even spawned a literally titled website: https://www.isitcanceledyet.com/. But the changes in behaviour now being forced upon us might benefit the planet in the long term as we find and get used to other ways of holding meetings.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving the development of these alternatives to physical travel and meetings much more strongly than climate change had to date. With many countries closing their borders, limiting domestic travel and imposing restrictions on large gatherings, few conferences are likely to proceed in the coming months of 2020.




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How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change


Old conference model is unsustainable

Traditional face-to-face conferences tend to be rather unsustainable affairs. Participants often fly from around the world to attend – usually accompanied by some carbon-intensive conference tourism along the way. For people who take just one long-haul flight per year, air travel is likely to be the single largest contributor to their carbon footprint.

If you make a long-haul flight to attend a meeting once a year that’s enough to greatly increase your carbon footprint.
Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock

The dramatic decline in conferences and other meetings is likely to contribute to a significant drop in carbon emissions from air travel in 2020.

Conferences and meetings have come to be regarded as important parts of professional life. They allow us to connect with people and ideas in our field, and can be opportunities to advance new knowledge.

But with so many of us effectively “grounded”, what are the alternatives to attending traditional conferences and meetings?

Digital conferencing on the rise

The use of digital conferencing platforms has skyrocketed in the past few weeks as more and more people work from home and travel is restricted.

Leading US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden even held a “virtual town hall” meeting recently as part of his campaign, although many users reported technical glitches and low-quality video plagued the experience.

Conferences are even taking place in virtual reality settings. These dedicated online conferencing environments are designed to mimic the venues conferences are often held in. These online events have large auditoriums, smaller “breakout rooms” and even socialising spaces to meet other participants through the use of digital avatars.

However, online conferencing need not be held in immersive 3D environments to be successful.

Exploring alternative formats

Most traditional conferences tend to be quite similar in format. They’re usually in a fixed location and run for two to five days. Presenters speak in front of live audiences on a fixed schedule.

Some digital conferences try to mimic this format, but others are trying to use the technology to open up the possibility for new types of event formats.

The “nearly carbon-neutral” conference model was initially developed to reduce the emissions associated with flying to conferences. Presentations are broadcast online over about two weeks. Participants can interact with presentations via accompanying text channels. The lectures and text messages are preserved online, creating an accessible archive.

Some events are being broadcast on the website Twitch. It’s a popular streaming platform where online gamers broadcast to – and interact with – surprisingly large audiences. This shows how conference organisers planning online events may need to look to communities who have been connecting and interacting “at a distance” long before any travel bans came into force.

The gaming community has led the way in developing mass meetings online.
Facebook

Do we even need video?

It’s common for conferences and other events to have Twitter “backchannels” where participants post short messages about their experiences of attending the event to a dedicated hashtag. People who are unable to attend can view these messages to get a sense of “being there”.

The “Twitter conference” has taken this a step further. The digital event just involves participants posting on a dedicated hashtag at a set point in time.

Events like this show conferences can be stripped down to what they are ultimately about: connecting with people and ideas that we’re interested in.

One size won’t fit all

It’s unlikely any one event format will suit every purpose. Organisers will need to be creative in how they schedule and plan events. They’ll have to consider what they want to accomplish and what types of participation they want to have.

Digital conferencing may even give less mobile groups – people with disabilities or caring responsibilities or who are averse to flying – an opportunity to attend events they might have been unable to take part in before.

Ultimately, the restrictions on air travel and social gatherings will force us to adapt to new ways of “being together apart”, both professionally and personally. We may not be able to share a conference space with our peers and collaborators, but we can still connect with them. We might even learn more about what type of travel is really necessary, with the invaluable benefit of reducing the pace of climate change.The Conversation

Andrew Glover, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, RMIT University and Tania Lewis, Co-Director of the Digital Ethnography Research Centre and Professor of Media and Communication, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia: Extreme Weather Update


Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face



When polling resumes after the summer, Scott Morrison may be surprised by the public’s assessment of his government’s handling of the bushfires.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Chris Wallace, Australian National University

The hope of many people enduring this summer’s firestorms is that better climate policy will arise phoenix-like from the ashes.

It is expressed loudly, fervently, sometimes abusively by people directly affected and those feeling solidarity with them.

It is also expressed secretly, whispered to like-minded confidants, by others who are part of or allied with the Liberal-National (LNP) coalition government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

On Sunday, Morrison indicated that he would take a proposal to establish a royal commission into the bushfires to his Cabinet.

But when it comes to climate policy, there are three possible scenarios in the aftermath of the crisis: everything magically changes for the better, everything stays the same or something different happens.

What these three scenarios look like

Everything magically changes for the better would look like this: Morrison announces the crisis has transformed his previous token admission of a link between bushfires and climate change into a revelation of the reality of global warming, with consequential policy change.

As logical and desirable as this seems, it is unlikely, not least because of Morrison’s character and personal beliefs.

Everything stays the same has a powerful impetus behind it. Morrison does not want policy change any more than his likely successor in the event of leadership change, Peter Dutton.




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Government-friendly journalists and commentators at News Corp and 2GB show no sign of changing tack either, so even if the government wanted to shift its policy, the media environment makes it difficult to do so. The forces of inertia are powerful.

Then there is the slim hope that something different happens. This scenario relies on all three of Australia’s main political groupings – the LNP, Labor and the Greens – realising they each face their own distinct climate policy challenge and rising to it.

As Australian burns, its politicians squabble over who’s to blame and how to prevent future disasters.
David Mariuz/AAP

Avoiding the appearance of a backflip

Opinion polls are not done over the summer holiday period, meaning the LNP has yet to see the impact of the bushfires on their public standing.

When polling resumes, Liberal and National MPs will understand the impact, and they won’t like it. Morrison and others will likely urge party members to hold their course since the next election is years away and a dozen other issues could distract attention from climate policy between now and then.

This tactic can prevail for some time but is not strategically sustainable: firestorms like those in the summer of 2020 will not be the last.




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The emerging LNP argument that inadequate hazard reduction burns are to blame for the current crisis is risible. The Australian who has emerged with the most credibility from the bushfires – NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons – rejects it out of hand.

The LNP’s challenge, then, is to realise its current position won’t hold strategically and to transition to better policy ahead of that becoming obvious, managing the optics to avoid the appearance of a backflip.

The challenge for Labor and the Greens

Labor is benefiting from leader Anthony Albanese’s call for “an adult conversation” in Australia about climate policy. He is astutely citing British Tories like the late Margaret Thatcher and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who long ago accepted and acted upon the climate science the Morrison government viscerally rejects.

Labor’s homework now is to reconcile the views and interests of members and supporters prioritising climate policy over mining jobs, and vice versa.

This can and must be done if Labor is to build a coalition of support big enough to win office and then enact the climate and other policies the current firestorms make so urgent.




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The Greens, meanwhile, need to have an internal conversation about whether they want to continue making perfect policy the enemy of the good – leaving Australia with no emissions trading system (ETS) at all, for example, because they would not vote for one that did not meet their every demand – or join in efforts to begin on the path to better policy.

Central to that conversation must be a realisation their current strategy isn’t working – the LNP keeps returning to power.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale has said the bushfires should be a
David Crosling/AAP

A possible way forward

There is an obvious point the LNP, Labor and Greens might momentarily agree upon to move policy forward. It is the ETS proposed by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2007.

Howard saw climate change coming. In late 2006, he established a prime ministerial task group on emissions trading chaired by the secretary of his Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold.

The Shergold Report, released in May 2007, said “emissions trading should be preferred to a carbon tax” and among the various kinds possible, a national “cap and trade” ETS was best.

In an address to the Liberal Party Federal Council in October 2007, Howard promised to establish a national ETS starting no later than 2012.

This will be a world-class emissions trading system more comprehensive, more rigorously grounded in economics and with better governance than anything in Europe.

Implementing an emissions trading scheme and setting a long-term goal for reducing emissions will be the most momentous economic decisions Australia will take in the next decade.

This emissions trading system must be built to last. It needs to last not five or 10 years, it needs to last the whole of the 21st century if Australia is to meet our global responsibilities and further build our economic prosperity.

Howard positioned the LNP as the party Australians could trust to implement an ETS in a way that gives “firms and families” the ability to “plan for the future with confidence”.

His authorship – and his framing of his ETS as an act of economic responsibility –provides a fig leaf Morrison can now use to move the LNP to a credible, sustainable and politically viable climate policy position.

“Something different” has to start somewhere. If Morrison can deploy the cunning he showed winning the 2019 election by drawing on Howard’s deep well of credibility within the LNP to implement the plan himself and then inviting – daring – Labor and the Greens to back him, it would be a signal political achievement.

And if Morrison doesn’t want to, Labor, the Greens, independent MPs and conscientious LNP MPs should vote together to turn Howard’s ETS into law right away. With political will, “something different” can start now.


Updates to add that the latest Newspoll, released late Sunday, shows Morrison’s standing has taken a massive hit over the bushfires, dropping nine percentage points as preferred prime minister from 48% to 39% since the last poll in early December. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese stood at 43% – a massive reversal of Morrison’s 14 percentage point lead over the Labor leader in early December.The Conversation

Chris Wallace, ARC DECRA Fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires, bots and arson claims: Australia flung in the global disinformation spotlight


Timothy Graham, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Queensland University of Technology

In the first week of 2020, hashtag #ArsonEmergency became the focal point of a new online narrative surrounding the bushfire crisis.

The message: the cause is arson, not climate change.

Police and bushfire services (and some journalists) have contradicted this claim.

We studied about 300 Twitter accounts driving the #ArsonEmergency hashtag to identify inauthentic behaviour. We found many accounts using #ArsonEmergency were behaving “suspiciously”, compared to those using #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behaviour of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election.

Bots, trolls and trollbots

The most effective disinformation campaigns use bot and troll accounts to infiltrate genuine political discussion, and shift it towards a different “master narrative”.

Bots and trolls have been a thorn in the side of fruitful political debate since Twitter’s early days. They mimic genuine opinions, akin to what a concerned citizen might display, with a goal of persuading others and gaining attention.

Bots are usually automated (acting without constant human oversight) and perform simple functions, such as retweeting or repeatedly pushing one type of content.

Troll accounts are controlled by humans. They try to stir controversy, hinder healthy debate and simulate fake grassroots movements. They aim to persuade, deceive and cause conflict.

We’ve observed both troll and bot accounts spouting disinformation regarding the bushfires on Twitter. We were able to distinguish these accounts as being inauthentic for two reasons.

First, we used sophisticated software tools including tweetbotornot, Botometer, and Bot Sentinel.

There are various definitions for the word “bot” or “troll”. Bot Sentinel says:

Propaganda bots are pieces of code that utilize Twitter API to automatically follow, tweet, or retweet other accounts bolstering a political agenda. Propaganda bots are designed to be polarizing and often promote content intended to be deceptive… Trollbot is a classification we created to describe human controlled accounts who exhibit troll-like behavior.

Some of these accounts frequently retweet known propaganda and fake news accounts, and they engage in repetitive bot-like activity. Other trollbot accounts target and harass specific Twitter accounts as part of a coordinated harassment campaign. Ideology, political affiliation, religious beliefs, and geographic location are not factors when determining the classification of a Twitter account.

These machine learning tools compared the behaviour of known bots and trolls with the accounts tweeting the hashtags #ArsonEmergency, #AustraliaFire, and #BushfireAustralia. From this, they provided a “score” for each account suggesting how likely it was to be a bot or troll account.

We also manually analysed the Twitter activity of suspicious accounts and the characteristics of their profiles, to validate the origins of #ArsonEmergency, as well as the potential motivations of the accounts spreading the hashtag.

Who to blame?

Unfortunately, we don’t know who is behind these accounts, as we can only access trace data such as tweet text and basic account information.

This graph shows how many times #ArsonEmergency was tweeted between December 31 last year and January 8 this year:

On the vertical axis is the number of tweets over time which featured #ArsonEmergency. On January 7, there were 4726 tweets.
Author provided

Previous bot and troll campaigns have been thought to be the work of foreign interference, such as Russian trolls, or PR firms hired to distract and manipulate voters.

The New York Times has also reported on perceptions that media magnate Rupert Murdoch is influencing Australia’s bushfire debate.




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Weeding-out inauthentic behaviour

In late November, some Twitter accounts began using #ArsonEmergency to counter evidence that climate change is linked to the severity of the bushfire crisis.

Below is one of the earliest examples of an attempt to replace #ClimateEmergency with #ArsonEmergency. The accounts tried to get #ArsonEmergency trending to drown out dialogue acknowledging the link between climate change and bushfires.

We suspect the origins of the #ArsonEmergency debacle can be traced back to a few accounts.
Author provided

The hashtag was only tweeted a few times in 2019, but gained traction this year in a sustained effort by about 300 accounts.

A much larger portion of bot and troll-like accounts pushed #ArsonEmergency, than they did #AustraliaFire and #BushfireAustralia.

The narrative was then adopted by genuine accounts who furthered its spread.

On multiple occasions, we noticed suspicious accounts countering expert opinions while using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag.

The inauthentic accounts engaged with genuine users in an effort to persuade them.
author provided

Bad publicity

Since media coverage has shone light on the disinformation campaign, #ArsonEmergency has gained even more prominence, but in a different light.

Some journalists are acknowledging the role of disinformation bushfire crisis – and countering narrative the Australia has an arson emergency. However, the campaign does indicate Australia has a climate denial problem.

What’s clear to me is that Australia has been propelled into the global disinformation battlefield.




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Keep your eyes peeled

It’s difficult to debunk disinformation, as it often contains a grain of truth. In many cases, it leverages people’s previously held beliefs and biases.

Humans are particularly vulnerable to disinformation in times of emergency, or when addressing contentious issues like climate change.

Online users, especially journalists, need to stay on their toes.

The accounts we come across on social media may not represent genuine citizens and their concerns. A trending hashtag may be trying to mislead the public.

Right now, it’s more important than ever for us to prioritise factual news from reliable sources – and identify and combat disinformation. The Earth’s future could depend on it.The Conversation

Timothy Graham, Senior lecturer, Queensland University of Technology and Tobias R. Keller, Visiting Postdoc, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely



It’s in our power to influence the climate by influencing the nations who help determine the climate.
Victorian government

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

One of the dominant ideas buzzing around the internet is that there’s little we can do to escape the prospect of more frequent and worse bushfires – ever.

That’s because there’s little we can do to slow or reverse the change in the climate.

Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions. That’s much more than you would expect on the basis of our share of world’s population, which is 0.33%. But even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions as soon as we could and started sucking carbon back in (as would be possible with reafforestation) it’d make little difference to total global emissions, which is what matters – or so the argument goes.

But this argument ignores the huge out-of-proportion power we have to influence
other countries.

There’s no better indicator of that than in Ross Garnaut’s new book Super-power: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity.




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We’re more important than we think

The cover of ‘Super-power’ by Ross Garnaut.
Supplied

Garnaut conducted two climate change reviews for Australian governments, the first in 2008 for the state and Commonwealth governments, and the second in 2011 for the Gillard government.

In the second, he produced two projections of China’s emissions, based on what was known at the time.

One was “business as usual”, which showed continued very rapid increases. The other took into account China’s commitments at the just-completed 2010 United Nations Cancun climate change conference.

China’s annual emissions matter more than those of any other country – they account for 27% of the global total, which is a relatively new phenomenon.

The bulk of the industrial carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere was put there by the United States and the Soviet Union, who have been big emitters for much longer.

Egged on by the US Obama administration and by governments including Australia’s under Julia Gillard, China agreed at Cancun to slow its growth in emissions, and at the Paris talks in 2015 hardened this into a commitment to stabilise them by 2030.

The extraordinary graph

Garnaut’s 2011 projections showed growth moderating as a result of China’s commitment, which was at the time a cause for optimism.

When he returned to the numbers in 2019 to prepare his book, he was stunned. Egged on by the example of countries including the US and Australia, China had done far, far better than either “business as usual” or its Cancun commitments. Instead of continuing to grow rapidly, or less rapidly as China had said they would, they had almost stopped growing.

The graph, produced on page 29 of Garnaut’s book, is the most striking I have seen.



Since 2011, China’s emissions have been close to spirit-level flat. They climbed again only from 2017 when, under Trump in the US and various Coalition prime ministers in Australia, the moral pressure eased.

From the start of this century until 2011, China’s consumption of coal for electricity climbed at double-digit rates each year. From 2013 to 2016 (more than) every single bit of China’s extra electricity production came from non-emitting sources such as hydro, nuclear, wind and sun.

There are many potential explanations for the abrupt change. Pressure from nations including the US and Australia is only one.

What happened once could happen again

And there are many potential explanations for China’s return to form after Trump backslid on the Paris Agreement and Australia started quibbling about definitions.
An easing of overseas pressure is only one.

But, however brief, the extraordinary pause gives us cause for hope.

Australia can matter, in part because it is hugely respected in international forums for its technical expertise in accounting for carbon emissions, and in part because of its special role as one of the world’s leading energy exporters.

Garnaut’s book is about something else – an enormous and lucrative opportunity for Australia to produce and export embedded energy sourced from wind and the sun at a cost and scale other nations won’t be able to match.




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Some of it can be used to convert water into hydrogen. That can be used to turn what would otherwise be an intermittent power supply into a continuous one that enables around-the-clock production of the green steel, aluminium, and other zero-emission products Japan, Korea, the European Union and the United Kingdom are going to be demanding.

It’s a vision backed by Australia’s chief scientist.

It wouldn’t have been possible before. It has been made possible now by the extraordinary fall in the cost of solar and wind generation, and by something just as important – much lower global interest rates. Solar and wind generators cost money upfront but cost very little to operate. Interest rates are the cost of the money upfront.

At least three consortia are drawing up plans.

There’s not much to lose

There’s much that needs to be done, including establishing the right electricity transmission links. But Garnaut believes it can all be done within the government’s present emissions policy, helping it achieve its emission reduction targets along the way.

What’s relevant here is that moving to ultra-low emissions would do more. It could give us the kind of outsized international influence we are capable of. It could help us make a difference.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.