PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 6 October 2019

Oct 6, 2019

Synopses of two books: why climate change is happening quicker than expected and why civilisation will look very different soon. Antibiotic resistance is a serious and growing problem, not helped by spraying antibiotics on citrus trees in the USA. Microplastics are in the water we drink but that’s probably not a health problem, certainly not compared with what else is in the water many drink. Coal generated power is collapsing in the EU.

Ocean temperatures are rising faster than expected; sea levels also. Polar ice sheets, glaciers and areas of permafrost are melting quicker than expected. Why is this? Part of the reason, according to the recently published ‘Discerning Experts’ (co-authored by Naomi Oreskes, author of ‘Merchants of Doubt’), is that scientists consistently underestimate important climate indicators and the level of threat they pose. Three reasons are posited for this. First, scientists perceive a need to be seen to be speaking with one voice: ‘univocality’. Public disagreement about the quality or quantity of the available evidence and its interpretation is seen by scientists as providing politicians with an excuse for inaction. Second, scientists are loath to make estimates or draw conclusions if the evidence is not conclusive or, worse, if some is contradictory. Third, scientists believe that conservatism (under-estimation of a problem) is better for their careers and reputation that the opposite. So, in an effort to present a united collective voice and not be seen as personally extreme, scientists default to a minimalist conclusion – what everyone will agree with – and ignore plausible but outlying views. The authors’ recommendations: don’t see consensus as a goal, acknowledge and explain any differences of interpretation, explore other ways of making and expressing group judgements, and understand how policy makers interpret a report’s findings.

‘This civilisation is finished’ is the conclusion of Rupert Read, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion. Read sees three possible futures: complete collapse of civilisation and massive reduction of the population, possibly human extinction; a transition to some ‘new’ civilisation which is difficult to envisage; and a rapid transformation of our current civilisation to avert collapse but where the transformation will need to be so dramatic that the future will be very different from today. Read considers the second possibility the most likely and believes we should start planning for it now to avoid some ‘very ugly’ possible outcomes. The article is really a plug for the author’s book but is nonetheless interesting.

After 40 years in the public policy sphere I’ve learnt that when things are bad and you’re not sure what to do, there’s always one solution that’s a sure-fire winner: stop making things worse. It’s remarkable how often governments ignore this simple rule. This example concerns antibiotic resistance, a severe global problem that threatens the confidence (perhaps that should say complacency) we’ve developed over the last 60 years that infections can mostly be successfully treated. Doctors and patients have conspired to over-use antibiotics but that is only part of the problem. Most antibiotics are used, and are used most indiscriminately, in agriculture. So what has the US Environmental Protection Agency done (against advice from sibling health organisations in the US government)?… approved the spraying of 650,000 pounds per year of the antibiotic streptomycin onto citrus crops. This is about 100 times more streptomycin that is used medically each year in the USA. Why has the EPA done this? To treat citrus greening disease, a bacterial disease which renders oranges and grapefruits bitter and unsaleable. And … wait for it … there’s no good evidence that streptomycin even works in this situation!! This can only make matters worse for antibiotic resistance.

Microplastics have spread literally everywhere: deepest ocean trenches, high in the atmosphere, drinking (including bottled) water, food – the list goes on. Microplastics are formed from a wide range of chemicals and there is no strict definition of their composition or size, although generally they are regarded as being under 5mm in length; nanoplastics are under 1 micrometre. From a health perspective, microplastics pose three sorts of risks. Risks due to their particulate nature, the chemicals in them and microorganisms that attach to them. So should we be worried about the health risks from microplastics in drinking water? Not according to a WHO study that concluded that there are few relevant studies and that their methodological quality is generally not good, but what evidence there is indicates a very low risk of harm. Much more worthy of attention, the WHO says, is the half a million diarrhoeal-related deaths per year attributable to contaminated drinking water and the 2 billion people who drink faecally contaminated water. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t lots of other good reasons to reduce the use of plastics and plastic waste.

Pollies and others keep beating the coal drum here in Australia but other countries can see the writing on the (long)wall – is there anything better than a good mixed metaphor or a second rate pun? Coal generated electricity fell by 19% across the European Union in the first six months of 2019 – falls of 65% or more were recorded in the UK, Ireland and France. Renewable and gas generated electricity grew.


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