Environment: does bad news about the environment create doom loops?

Mar 5, 2023
Ecology and Environment Concept : Hand holding blue magic pen and painting green trees and blue sky.

We are losing trees and insects at alarming rates and Australia’s land and sea temperatures continue to rise. But does too much bad news create ‘Doom Loops’?

How to lose 15 billion trees

On February 23rd, David Lindenmayer, one of Australia’s many excellent ecologists who continue to highlight in the public domain the multiple threats to our natural environment, published an article in The Conversation about the loss of Australia’s giant trees, particularly in Tasmania and Victoria. Trees such as the mountain ash and white fig, which can grow to 100 metres and have girths up to 30 metres, are majestic in their own right but they also play essential roles in the local carbon, water and nutrient cycles, and provide vital habitat for many vertebrate and invertebrate animals, plants and fungi, not to mention their important spiritual and cultural significance. Lindenmayer reminds us of the past and ongoing threats to giant trees and implores us to do all we can to protect those that remain and ensure that young stands are protected so that some of today’s saplings and Gen Z trees can develop into giants.

One staggering statistic quoted by Lindenmayer from CSIRO research published in 1993 is that the Murray Darling Basin (an area larger than South Australia) has lost 12-15 billion trees since it was first settled by Europeans in the early 1800s. That’s about 60% of the trees estimated to exist there in 1788. Or to put it another way, 200,000 trees lost per day for 200 years!!, and that’s just in the Murray Darling Basin.

But hey, don’t worry, we’ve still got lots more we can lose

… and on the bright side, we could get an extra 32 million plastic bottles of water every year into the bargain.

That will be the outcome if approval is given for a water mining company to extract groundwater from the Springbrook National Park’s World Heritage-listed rainforest about 100km south of Brisbane.

The Australian Rainforest Conservation Society is taking legal action to defend Springbrook, arguing that taking the water will have harmful effects on the many threatened and endangered species of flora and fauna in the Gondwana rainforest, on the waterflow over Twin Falls and on the area’s World Heritage status.

This proposal is pure exploitative capitalism – exploiting the environment, exploiting human gullibility – for no useful social purpose. It will steal fresh water from the environment and change ecosystems. It will use fossil fuels to manufacture the plastic bottles. Most of the empty plastic bottles will end up in landfill or polluting the oceans and seashores. The public will be conned into buying the water with arcadian images and fanciful stories. If people must drink bottled water there are lots of other sources of H2O: taps, desalination plants, recycled sewage. Not so romantic; not so profitable; still pure, healthy water.

While over The Ditch

I recently spent four delightful days with friends walking the 75km Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand’s south island. The weather was great and the scenery spectacular. There isn’t much virgin forest left but native forest is re-establishing itself in areas where the previously extensive logging and farming has ceased. Serious efforts are also being made to eradicate the feral stoats, weasels, possums, etc., and the only feral animals I saw were sparrows. Regrettably, I did see a lot of invasive plants including foxgloves, thistles, daisies, ragworts and clematis.

The picture below demonstrates one of the less attractive aspects of the area (I mean that ecologically rather than visually). The many dead trees you can see in the foreground and on the far hillside are the remains of ‘wilding’ (i.e. self-seeded) pine trees that have ‘escaped’ from the numerous plantations in the area and destroy the natural vegetation. Fortunately, the Marlborough Sounds Restoration Trust has for many years now been systematically poisoning them one by one. Their achievement has already been massive (I could have taken countless pictures like this) but despite the enormity of the problem and enormousness of the task that remains they are determined to see it through.

Returning to the topic of big, old trees, our peregrinations also revealed this 1,000 year old Rimu, a conifer related to Norfolk Island and Hoop pines.

Environmental ‘Doom Loop’

According to a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research and Chatham House, humanity’s historical failure to tackle the climate and ecological crises has created (1) the need to tackle more and more serious environmental problems within an even shorter timeframe than if we’d started earlier, and (2) an increasing need to respond to the distressing human consequences of the escalating environmental problems. One risk is that the latter could further distract from efforts to rapidly decarbonise society and restore nature. The report refers to this as a ‘doom loop’: the failure to correct a problem in the first-place leading to further problems that draw focus and resources even further away from tackling the root causes of the original problem.

The way I see it, the scientific evidence and computer projections indicate that it’s definitely still possible to keep global warming under 2oC and possibly under 1.5oC but the historical evidence of the last 30 years clearly points to the fact that the global community won’t do what is necessary to achieve either of those goals.

In a similar vein, the report acknowledges growing cynicism about the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5oC, especially in light of the ongoing power of the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests. Concern is expressed about the effects this might have. On the one hand, the shock of realising that the 1.5oC goal is all-but unachievable might increase public pressure on politicians to take rapid effective action to tackle the root causes. On the other hand, thinking that 1.5 is no longer alive might be viewed by the public as proof that the changes required to achieve it are pointless, unrealistic or even undesirable and lead to hopelessness and disengagement. A whole range of not disinterested parties might then argue the need for greater investment in technologies that are unproven (e.g. Carbon Capture and Storage) and/or potentially very dangerous (e.g. Solar Radiation Management) which draws resources yet further away from mitigation actions. These may be pathetically insufficient but they are at least proven to be somewhat effective and safe. The outcome would be that ‘the world could head further into a spiral of accelerating environmental shocks and counterproductive, defensive reactions’.

The IPPR and Chatham House propose three broad responses to counter this strategic risk to our collective ability to achieve transformational change:

  1. Politics: anticipate and respond to narratives that delay or block the necessary transformational changes in society;
  2. Policy: move advocacy beyond incremental (and disjointed, I’d say) policymaking towards policies that create system-wide transformation;
  3. Analysis: improve policy-relevant analysis and communication of the risks arising from the deepening environmental crises.

The collapse of insects

Two-thirds of the world’s more than 1.5 million animal species are insects – beetles alone make up a quarter. For comparison, vertebrate species, that we tend to regard rather more fondly because they are appealing and/or food, number roughly 73,000.

The hyperlink animates (no pun intended) this graphic to highlight the sizes of various sections.

The value of insects to humans is diverse and enormous: essential elements of food chains, pollinators, recyclers, for example. But insects are on the decline. Up to 10% of insect species have been lost in the last 150 years. That’s the known ones, of course. There are many as yet undescribed insect species and it’s a fair bet that a similar percentage of those has been lost recently.

If you’re looking for the cause of this destruction, you can take your lead from Captain Renault and ‘Round up the usual suspects’: habitat loss, industrial farming with its insecticides and nitrogen fertilisers, invasive species and climate change, plus nocturnal light pollution. Particularly in trouble are bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and freshwater insects. And of course, fewer insects has cascading harmful outcomes for their predators – birds, bats and fish in particular.

Australia’s State of the Climate Report 2022

Every two years the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO collaborate to produce a report on Australia’s climate. The seventh edition published last year identified some significant ‘ups’:

  • Warming over land of almost 1.5oC since 1910
  • Sea surface temperature increase of 1oC since 1900
  • Increase in extreme fire weather and longer fire seasons since the 1950s
  • Increasing ocean acidity
  • Rising sea levels all around Australia
  • Increasing risk of coastal inundation …

… and some ‘downs’:

  • Decrease in April-October rainfall of 15% in SW Australia since 1970 and 10% in SE Australia since the 1990s
  • Decrease in the number of tropical cyclones
  • Less snow in alpine regions since the 1950s.

The report has excellent graphs to illustrate all of these points.

The coming decades are projected to bring:

Finally, if the editor will indulge me, here is another view of the stunning Marlborough Sounds.

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