Sunday environmental round up

Oct 10, 2021
sun hills
(Image: Unsplash)

Thirty per cent of tree species are at risk of extinction, an issue of vital importance to city dwellers. Disasters are linked and compound each other and share human-induced root causes. Summer night-time temperatures rising. Angus Taylor touting ‘positive energy’.

The world has approximately 60,000 species of trees, of which 20 per cent are directly used by humans for food, fuel, timber, medicines and horticulture. Unfortunately, 17,500 tree species (30 per cent) are at risk of extinction, 440 of which are on the brink with fewer than 50 individuals in the wild. 142 have already gone extinct. High on the danger list are magnolias, oaks, maples and ebonies. Islands, that often contain species found nowhere else, have the highest proportions of threatened species. St Helena, Madagascar and Mauritius, where 60–70 per cent are threatened, are particularly vulnerable.

The greatest threats to trees and the percentage of trees affected are displayed in the figure above. Climate change is a small but growing threat as extreme weather events, rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, sea level rise and the  increasing risk of fires take their toll. The vandals don’t regard the loss of a few tree species as much of a problem, conveniently forgetting or being ignorant of the central place of trees in most natural ecosystems, the stability they provide to the land, the habitat they furnish for millions of species of animals, plants and microorganisms, and the storage they provide for 50% per cent of the world’s terrestrial carbon. Botanic Gardens Conservation International have five recommendations:

  • Extend protected area coverage for threatened tree species
  • Ensure all globally threatened tree species are conserved in botanic gardens and seed banks
  • Increase the availability of government and corporate funding for preservation
  • Expand tree planting schemes and target threatened and native species
  • Increase global collaboration to tackle tree extinction.

You can explore Australia’s 3214 native tree species here and the status of your favourite tree here.

Deforestation is very much an issue for city dwellers. Deforestation contributes 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions which cities experience in multiple ways. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events wreak havoc. City residents experience the harmful health effects of bushfire smoke. Urban water sources are polluted with sediments from cleared forest lands. Increasing proximity between cities and forests contributes to the emergence of new infectious diseases. Cities4Forests, a network of cities dedicated to protecting and restoring forests locally and globally, have launched the ‘Call to Action on Forests & Climate’, urging governments and companies to improve their policies and investments to support forest conservation, restoration and sustainable management. They suggest four ways for cities to enhance forest conservation:

  1. grow urban forests — and ensure that the benefits are equitably shared across the city;
  2. protect upstream forests for water security — downstream communities paying upstream communities to protect nature;
  3. take political action for forests — mayors and city authorities can use their political, cultural and economic power to influence regional and national government policies;
  4. use purchasing power to halt deforestation — most deforestation is driven by the desire to produce and sell commodities, the vast majority of which are bought in cities. Cities and their residents can change what they purchase to support sustainable agriculture and local livelihoods.

Interconnected disasters

‘Nobody is an island. We are all interconnected. Our actions have consequences – for all of us’. So begins the summary of an illuminating analysis of 10, at first glance quite different, disastrous events that have occurred during 2020 and 2021: Amazon wildfires, Arctic heatwaves, the Beirut explosion, floods in Vietnam, Chinese Paddlefish extinction, COVID-19, Cyclone Amphan on the India-Bangladesh border, the desert locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa, bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the Texas cold wave. The report describes how events far apart in time or space can be connected (for instance the Arctic heatwave and the Texas cold wave), how they co-occur to compound their disastrous effects (for instance Cyclone Amphan during the Covid epidemic) and how individual behaviours are related to environmental destruction (for instance the high demand for meat fuelling deforestation and wildfires in the Amazon).

The most important aspect of the analysis, however, is the demonstration that disasters share a few common anthropogenic root causes, principally greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management (each related to seven of the 10 disasters), undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making, particularly related to loss of biodiversity (6/10), insufficient national and international cooperation (5/10), prioritising individual profits over social concerns (4/10), and globally increasing demand for food, energy and materials (4/10). All of these are currently on an upward trajectory.

The authors’ suggestions for doing better include:

  • stop looking at disasters in isolation;
  • pay simultaneous attention to the multiple root causes of interconnected disasters rather focusing on one root cause or one disaster at a time;
  • adopt early, no-regret, pre-emptive strategies and be conscious of avoiding negative impacts;
  • recognise and tackle trade-offs to create the most sustainable solutions;
  • look for integrated solutions with multiple benefits across different dimensions;
  • encourage international, national and individual action.

Hot summer nights

I think it’s widely known that the main danger to human health during heatwaves is not the high maximum temperature during the day but the high minimum temperature during the night. It’s very important for the body to have a chance to cool down. The dangers of global warming are nicely illustrated in the two graphs below which display the minimum night-time temperatures (oF) in summer in Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960s and (so far) in the 2020s. The most common minimum in the ‘60s was 74.1oF but by the early ‘20s this has increased by almost 10 degrees to 83.8oF. In the ‘60s 5 per cent of night-time minimums were abnormally hot but five decades later half of all nights were abnormally hot. (Nights are considered abnormally cold or hot based on the 5th and 95th percentiles of the 1960s temperature distribution.) In the hyperlink these two graphs are the beginning and end of an animation that nicely displays the change between the 1960s and the 2020s.

What he has to say probably won’t be that new to most readers but it’s the way he explains it all so clearly that makes George Monbiot’s article about tipping points worth a read. As global warming increases, climate breakdown won’t be the smooth, linear and gradual process that most modelling and strategies assume. Earth systems will absorb the increasing stress for a while but there comes a point when complex systems in equilibrium reach a break point. Then they ‘tip’ and establish a whole new equilibrium from which there is no reverse gear. While it’s impossible to be precise about when a system will reach its tipping point, increasing volatility – for instance the extreme weather events of 2021 — suggest that some Earth system tipping points may be a lot closer than we’d thought, for instance weakening of the Atlantic Ocean’s currents, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets, the Amazon Forest becoming a source of carbon rather than a sink, and the melting of the Arctic tundra releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

From this gloomy start, Monbiot goes on to criticise ‘net zero’ — not the basic concept which he sees as an essential component of keeping global warming to a relatively safe level, but the way it is (ab)used to shift responsibility to other industries and other people today and those in power tomorrow, and to place hope on technologies that are currently little more than pipedreams. Our leisurely pace of action and our unproven technologies are a ‘formula for catastrophe’; for condemning humanity, Monbiot suggests, to the geological record.

Positive energy

What we do today will define our tomorrow’ is the government’s punch line in its ‘Australia’s Making Positive Energy’ campaign. The campaign, about which I was blissfully ignorant until Labour Day when I noticed the full page ad below in the newspaper (page 6) and later saw an ad on the TV, was launched by Angus Taylor on September 19th. I’ve no idea what Positive Energy is but I think that I’ve discovered where Nancy Pelosi gets her information about Morrison’s climate leadership credentials.

Speaking of Labour Day, why is it the most low key of all our public holidays? To my mind, the many achievements of the labour movement over the last 150 years, including legislating an eight hour working day, are at least as worthy of a bit of razzamatazz as the arrival and departure of a talented storyteller, a disastrous military fiasco, the non-birthday of a foreign head of state and the beginning of a process of theft and abuse by a bunch of white supremacists. To justify the inclusion of this rant in my environmental brief, I do approve of celebrating the rotation of the earth around the sun. In fact, let’s have more public holidays focused on the environment and social solidarity because if we’re going to get out of the pickle were in these are the things we need to nurture.

Returning to my original question about Labour Day, Alan Austin’s analysis of the share of national income going to workers and profits (lowest and highest respectively in decades) and the real unemployment rate (highest in over 20 years) is informative, even if it does leave the question of cause and effect unanswered.

Art or science?

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