Monthly Archives: January 2020

Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

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The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action.  The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.

Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain.  At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”.  He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party.  There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments.  And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.

Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning).  China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining.  It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.

Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project.  The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think.  I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.

Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward.  That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time.  But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”.  And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation.  It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance.  Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..

Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment.  I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“.  However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record.  In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation.  The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of.  Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.

It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive).  Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney  has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels.  Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman  has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda.  Soon!

I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing  their country’s environmental impact.  The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.

The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.  The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address.   Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious.  That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.

If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems.  Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.  I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of  metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

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But we have to act fast.  Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.

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Feral bees in odd places; Australia reflections part 7

On a trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney yesterday Karin and I came across an interesting colonial-era statue in which a colony of feral, non-native honey bees had taken up residence.  These bees are yet another alien invasive species that can create conservation problems in parts of the world where they don’t belong naturally.  But it was funny enough to inspire a bit of Ogden Nash-style poetry on Twitter; you need to watch the video to fully appreciate it:

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Life between the tides: Australia reflections part 6

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That last post about climate change and politics was a bit heavy, for which I make no apologies.  But there’s always space for something lighter on this blog.  Sometimes it’s nice to reflect on what brought me to the point of being a scientist with an interest in biodiversity.  Some of my earliest exposure to natural history involved peering into rock pools on the coast near Sunderland in the north east of England.  In an old family album there’s a photograph of me aged about four, intently gazing at the welks, crabs and anemones as they wait for the next tidal surge to bring food or predators.  If I wasn’t in Australia I’d go and hunt that photo down and share it with you.  Right into my 20s my dad would tell any and every one about my childhood obsession with “gannin’ on the yocks”.  The word “gannin'” is north eastern colloquial English for “going” while “yocks” was me not being able to pronounce “rocks”.  “I’m gannin’ on the yocks” became a family catchphrase that could be used in any number of circumstances.  It might just sum up my professional career if I think hard about it….

Later, at school and then college, I took part in several class projects that involved running transect lines down the shore and examining the zonation of the creatures: more hardy organisms, predictably, at higher points, the sensitive species lower down.  Generations of biology students must have done similar studies.  Do they still?

These rocky shore reminiscences have been inspired by a great piece of writing about tide pooling by Sarah Jean McPeek over at the Lively Discussions blog.  I can’t match Sarah’s eloquent lyricism but I can match her love of a rocky shore.  There are some great ones on the coast near Coogee, ranging from very small, deep holes, up to huge, artificial ones that were built as ocean swimming pools. Here’s some photos:

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Holes within a pool.  This is a great opportunity for a rocky shore ecologist to do a replicated manipulation experiment:

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This is a different kind of experiment to test the hypothesis that water in large pools has evaporated enough to make it significantly more saline and thus increase the buoyancy of the human body.  Hypothesis supported:

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A classic wave-cut platform:

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This very distinctive seaweed is known as Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii):

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This pool is being influenced by a freshwater spring that’s coming in from the left:

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These fresh water streams and pools are important for the local coastal birds, including silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which belong to the same genus as black-headed gulls (C. ridibundus) in the northern hemisphere but which I think is a prettier species:

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Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) also enjoy the fresh water pools:

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Humans have inhabited this coastal area for at least 20,000 years and its the traditional land of the Cadigal people.  In more recent times the locals have enjoyed the huge tidal swimming pool known as Wylie’s Baths.  I’ve snorkeled here a few times and seen some beautiful fish and invertebrates:

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Much further up the coast at Port Macquarie, which we visited over Christmas as I recalled in this post, the geology is very different.  The rocky shores are composed of hard volcanic basalt rather than the softer Sydney sandstone:

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This is an incredibly dynamic environment.  According to my relatives in Port Macquarie, the place where Karin is standing was until recently a rock pool almost two metres deep that was rapidly filled up by the shifting sands of the coast.  Winter storms will probably scour the sand out again.  Will the limpets and barnacles have survived I wonder?

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Geology

Climate change, politics and a host of viewpoints: Australia reflections part 5

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It’s impossible to get away from discussions of climate change and its role in the Australian bushfires at the moment. It’s all over the Australian media, at least that part of the media that isn’t controlled by the Murdoch empire.  Politicians of various stripes are falling over themselves to declare their point of view and some careers are (hopefully) being harmed by crass statements that try to belittle expert, informed opinion – the latest example from Twitter is #NotAWeatherGirl, which has been trendingfor a couple of days now.

If you have any interest in global climate change then the name of Prof. Michael E. Mann will be familiar to you, from his famous hockey stick graph, his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, his books on the topic, the RealClimate blog, as well as numerous media interviews and television appearances.  Until yesterday we’d not met.  But by coincidence, like me, Prof. Mann is also on sabbatical in Australia, is also working at UNSW, and is based near to us.  Via Twitter I invited him for a meet up to discuss what’s happening in Australia at the moment and to set it in a global perspective.  Karin and I met with Mike at a local café, along with an Australian journalist who has asked to remain anonymous, and we chatted for a couple of hours.  From the position of outsiders coming from cultures that politically are moving closer together, and with an expert local perspective, it was interesting to consider what the USA, the UK and Australia have in common and what’s different. And of course, Karin’s Danish heritage provided yet another perspective.  What follows is a short summary of our discussion and some additional thoughts.

One thing that’s clearly true is that the climate change deniers have lost.  Period.  There’s no faux science or dodgy statistics that they can fall back on that have any credibility.  Fudging the data, as some have tried to do for Australia, does not work anymore: anyone willing to listen can see through this charade.

The world’s weather systems are changing, and they are changing EXACTLY in line with the predictions based on human-induced climate change. These changes are causing massive disruptions to natural ecosystems and to human societies, from the drought and fires in Australia and California, to the flooding in Jakarta and the American mid-west, and in parts of the UK.  Karin’s been writing about this recently in relation to human stories from the bushfires and I recommend you take a look; as always, her take on such events complements my own.

The misery that these bushfires and floods have produced among citizens has prompted previously skeptical or agnostic politicians to act, or be seen to be acting.  Those that don’t (and we’re looking here at Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the increasingly desperate Donald Trump – who’d’ve thunk he’d try to start a war in the middle of a personal political crisis….?) are going to find themselves quickly out of office.  In this regard the British government is rather different, and Boris Johnson appears to be on board with the need to act on climate change.  Even Piers Morgan seems to be hurrying to get on to the right side of history.  But the danger is that it will be too little, too late.  Denmark, of course, along with other Scandinavian countries is showing just how much can be done to cut emissions from energy generation, travel and agriculture, and to invest in a more sustainable future.

In the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence, the consortium of right-wing media barons, plus vested business interests and unfriendly foreign agents, have adopted a different tactic. Rather than deny the science they are targeting the individual influencers who they see as a danger to their power. The vile abuse of Greta Thunberg is the most obvious example, but Mike’s come in for his fair share of abuse too.  Anyone with green credentials who flies or has a less than Spartan lifestyle is accused of hypocrisy, and the focus is being turned on to what individuals should be doing rather than what governments and industry can achieve much more easily and with greater impact.  In Australia it seems there is a campaign to down-play the role of natural processes in the bushfire crisis by claiming that it’s mainly due to a spate of arson, and that “Greenies” have made the situation worse – Twitter bots and trolls have been implicated in this conspiracy.

All of this is an effort to undermine sustainability arguments: that we can have a sound economy based on social justice, environmental protection, green jobs, and a transition to a low-carbon economy.  But we need some structural changes to the global economy, including getting away from this obsession with GDP and “growth”.  This doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and dismantling capitalism altogether.  We were agreed that we need to build on the best bits of capitalism and open democracy, and move forward with that, rather than tearing down what has been achieved in terms of human progress.  As I’ve mentioned before, Steven Pinker’s recent book Enlightenment Now has some great arguments on this topic.

Related to this is the fact that environmentalism does not have a political home – it is neither left- nor right-wing in focus: there are greens across the spectrum. Karin summed it up neatly this morning when she said: “Perhaps environmentalism is the catalyst to bring us together, no matter what our political beliefs or backgrounds are?”

This is important to appreciate because we all tend to gravitate towards others who share our views.  Meeting face-to-face with people like Mike and the journalist is inspiring but there’s always the danger that we are talking within a bubble, an echo chamber that just reflects backs our own perspectives on the world. The same is true of social media. One of the discussions we had was about who we aim our blogs, books and Twitter messages at: who are we trying to talk to? Those people too entrenched in their views, who will deny the impact of, or solutions to the world’s environmental problems are a lost cause.  Nothing will sway them.  Those who agree with us don’t need any further convincing: they are already strong allies.  But there’s a huge swathe of the population between these two poles that can hopefully be won over and convinced by sound arguments.  That’s who we need to reach out to, that’s who I hope is following the tragic events in Australia and elsewhere in the world, and seeing what is really happening.

Jeff and Mike Mann

 

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Just published: Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal – download it for free

Figure 3

Back in April I posted a series of reports on a student field trip that I was involved with in Nepal, supporting our University of Northampton partner college NAMI in Kathmandu; the first one is here.  During that trip, my NAMI colleagues and I made some interesting observations about the role of generalist passerine birds and specialist flower-feeding sunbirds as pollinators of rhododendrons in the Himalayas.  This was subsequently followed up with another set of observations in which I didn’t take part, and then written up as a short research note.  I’m pleased to say that it has now been published in the new, open-access journal Plants, People, Planet.  Here’s a link to the paper which you can download for free:

Ollerton J., Koju N.P., Maharjan S.R. & Bashyal B. (2019) Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal. Plants, People, Planet 00:1–6. https ://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10091

The report really asks more questions than it answers.  It points out how important these rhododendron forests are for the people of Nepal but that we know virtually nothing about the pollination biology of the dominant trees and therefore the long-term persistence of Rhododendron species in the face of forest exploitation and climate change.  Our hope is that it stimulates both further research on the topic and increased awareness of how important it is to protect these habitats.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination, University of Northampton

How are the Australian bushfires affecting biodiversity? Australia reflections part 4

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Australia’s vast, unprecedented wildfires are going to have a devastating effect on the biodiversity of the country.  To fully understand why this is the case, you need to know something about where species occur and why.

Australia is a land of lizards.  Karin and I see them everywhere we walk and frequently encounter them in gardens.  Reptiles are the most diverse group of vertebrates in Australia, with more than 1000 described species.  Of these, over half are lizards.  One family alone, the skinks (Scincidae) accounts for almost 440 species, with species new to science being described every year.  Some of these lizards are physically extremely impressive, particularly the dragons (Agamidae – about 90 species) and the monitors or goannas (Varanidae – 30 species).  We encountered lace monitors (Varanus varius) over Christmas at Port Macquarie, in coastal bushland and (very dry) rainforest at Sea Acres National Park (see photos above and below):

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Spot the goanna:

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Growing up to two metres in length, they seem to arrogantly swagger through the bush as though they own it; which of course they sort of do – they were here millions of years before people arrived.  Smaller but still impressive are the Eastern water dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) – here’s male and female checking one another out:

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Much smaller but more charming are the various skinks that seem to inhabit every garden and green space in the city; this one seems to be the Eastern water skink (Eulamprus quoyii):

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And here’s where we get to the main point of this post.  All of the lizards I mentioned above are endemic to Australia, it’s the only place on Earth where they naturally occur.  But they are all widespread species found across a huge area in the east of the country, from Queensland to Victoria, a linear distance of over 2,000 km.  This is unusual for species in Australia, and indeed in the rest of the world; most organisms naturally occur over a much smaller area.  To see what I mean, look at the image below from Steve Wilson & Gerry Swan’s book A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia:

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The maps adjacent to each species description illustrate the distribution of these organisms. The garden skink and the grass skink live in suitable habitat over vast areas. But the other two species are much more restricted in their ranges, which are so small that they need to be highlighted with arrows.  The elongate sunskink (Lampropholus elongata) for instance is found only “in the vicinity of Grundy Fire Tower and “The Flags”” at 1180-1455 m in the Great Dividing Range.  This is more typical of species distributions in Australia: most are restricted, and some are extremely restricted.  This is true of other reptiles, plants, birds, insects and fungi, in fact all major groups, not just the lizards.  Such a skewed distribution of species occurrences, with many rare and localised, and a few common and widespread, is natural; it’s an outcome of the processes of natural selection and evolution.  But it’s been exacerbated by habitat loss across the world, including Australia.  According to the Wilderness Society of Australia, the country “has lost 25% of rainforest, 45% of open forest, 32% of woodland forest and 30% of mallee forest in 200 years”.

But even these figures do not reflect the full scale of the loss: I’ve seen estimates that more than 90% of the temperate rainforest exemplified by Sea Acres National Park has been destroyed.  Given what I’ve said about the limited distribution of many species, that must mean that locally endemic species have gone extinct in the past.  The huge extent of some of the Australian bushfires, individually covering tens of thousands of hectares and collectively around 6 million hectares, means that most or all of a species’ population could be wiped out.  To give just one example, a small marsupial mammal, the Kangaroo Island dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni), is found only on Kangaroo Island.  Indeed, it’s restricted to the western part of the island, where a large bushfire has been raging out of control in recent days.  We will only know whether this species has survived, and in what numbers, once ecologists are able to survey the area once the danger is over.

However even for widespread species the fires can have a massive effect on their genetic diversity, which is an important component of biodiversity.  When we lose individuals from a population we lose genetic variants too.  A recent assessment by ecologists at the University of Sydney has suggested that almost half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds have been killed so far by the fires.  Losses of trees and other flowering plants, as well as insects, spiders and so forth, will be much, much greater of course.

This destruction of biodiversity has a human impact too.  On television news reports we’ve heard farmers and fire fighters describing the emotional trauma of seeing animals on fire and hearing the screams of koalas as they burn in the tree tops.  All of this biodiversity serves to ensure that Australian ecosystems function effectively and sustainably now and in the future. Ecosystems which are crucial for reducing the future effects of climate change, for ensuring supplies of fresh water, supporting agriculturally-important pollinators and predators of pests, and bringing in billions of tourist dollars.  All in all these fires are a tragedy for Australian biodiversity, as well as for the human population of this fabulous country.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Climate change, Mammals