Innovation and activism for the public good

The rise of strongman politics, contemptuous of democracy and backed by obscene wealth, is making it harder than ever to find truth in an ocean of disinformation and lies. In these distressing times we need more than ever people dedicated to the common good.

One such person is Mitchell Baker, who co-founded Mozilla in San Francisco in 1998 when a fading browser company, Netscape, gave away its source code to the public. Mozilla is now a world-wide community of millions that puts people ahead of profits in its advocacy for an ethical and trustworthy internet.

Another is Anthropocene Magazine, a reader-supported advocate for the science of sustainability – “environmental solutions, not just problems”. Last week it reported on a new study of the environmental cost of the internet (not so small, after all), pointing up the value of a decarbonised electricity grid and a longer life-cycle for electronic devices. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, found that the internet is responsible for an average of 55 per cent of an individual’s fair share of Earth’s mineral resources, and thanks to the energy it consumes, a fifth of per-capita carrying capacity for freshwater nutrient pollution and a tenth of sea and air pollution and ecotoxicity.

Aside from not renewing functional equipment, what can internet users do about this? Mozilla offers options like going audio-only on Zoom calls, lowering carbon emissions from your call by as much as 96 per cent, or demanding transparency on companies’ carbon emissions, or using certified e-waste programs to recycle devices.

If all this is doing in your head you might opt for a coffee, the internet user’s beverage of choice. Which creates issues of its own, such as what to do with spent coffee grounds, currently being generated at the rate of 18 million tonnes a year?

Here’s another idea from Anthropocene, which last week reported how researchers in Brazil (where else?) have discovered that coffee grounds can soak up a toxic pollutant called bentazone, a herbicide used on vegetable crops and now widely dispersed in the environment. And would you believe it? Coffee grounds can be used as a low-carbon fuel to make low-carbon cement.

Nothing was said about coffee grounds in the “green” cement proposal that cropped up in last week’s federal budget papers – a $52.9 million grant to Cement Australia to replace about 35 per cent of the coal used at its Railton plant – mostly with wood fibre and some shredded tyres. The company claims that the investment will cut carbon emissions by over 100,000 tonnes.

Another concrete idea in the news last week was a new process involving olivine, an abundant mineral most of us have never heard of, which works naturally but very slowly to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists have worked out how to hasten the sequestration process using sulphuric acid to produce a carbon-absorbing cement substitute.

That story brought back memories of a discussion I had many years ago with Tasmanian innovator John Harrison about a bright idea to make concrete more eco-friendly: a magnesium compound that absorbed carbon dioxide as it set into concrete. That technology wasn’t quite the game-changer he’d hoped for, but he still has “good technology ideas to give the world,” as he says on his Tec-eco website.

In the public good’s hall of fame, I would be remiss not to mention another Tasmanian, Lindsay Tuffin, who died 10 days ago. “Linz”, as he signed himself, was no scientist or technologist, but a journalist like me. Actually, not like me – he was brave, bold, fearless and ready to take on anyone who offended his strong sense of decency and honour. 

Lindsay first came into my life in 1970 when I was parliamentary reporter for the Examiner newspaper and he was a youngster learning the trade not long out of high school. Bright and confident, he once challenged me in a moment of youthful hubris to an arm wrestle, which to my surprise he won.

In subsequent years, mainly at the Mercury,  he steadily developed his journalist’s craft while honing his intellect by studying philosophy and religion. In 2002 his personal concerns about political corruption and the state of the environment led him to set up the online Tasmanian Times, a brash, insistent vehicle for political activism and the public good, which was to become his main occupation. 

A memorial service for Lindsay will be held from 2pm tomorrow at Phillip Stephens Funeral Chapel, 28 Riawena Road, Montagu Bay. From 6pm there will be a wake at the Hope and Anchor Hotel in Macquarie Street, Hobart. All are welcome to attend.

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Climate propaganda is beating climate science

We have made our bed and now we must lie in it. After 11 consecutive months of global mean temperatures well clear of all previous monthly records, it too late to avoid serious damage from human-caused climate change. Background warming will rise above 1.5C this decade and keep rising well beyond that. If we think today’s weather is unfriendly, it will get worse.

This is no fevered nightmare but a measured, evidence-based conclusion. The average concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is now rising faster than ever. At over 422 parts per million it is more than 50 per cent above what used to be normal and 17 per cent higher than what science has agreed is a safe limit.

Last week, UK environmental journalist Damian Carrington reported the findings of a Guardian survey of 343 leading climate scientists – all senior authors for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Almost 80 per cent had said they expected the global temperature by 2100 to be at least 2.5C above preindustrial levels, and nearly half thought it would be a catastrophic 3C higher.

Why have we failed so miserably to stop or retard climate change? The main reason, said three-quarters of the scientists surveyed, was political will: leaders who didn’t see climate change as important. They believe the best thing ordinary citizens can do to make a difference is to elect politicians supporting strong climate action. 

Australian voting patterns are starting to reflect this. The 2022 federal election saw swings – mainly but not only in urban electorates – towards candidates and parties with strong climate policies, notably Greens and Teal independents.

The trend is especially strong in Tasmania, greenest of Australian states. Having already sent five Greens and a clutch of environment-conscious independents to the lower house, voters have underlined their concerns about the climate by handing the prized seat of Hobart in the Legislative Council to the highly-experienced former leader of the Greens, Cassy O’Connor.

Relatively free of party control, the often-overlooked upper house brings a wide range alternative perspectives to matters of public importance, led by thinking independents prepared to put in a lot of effort. But their efforts notwithstanding, debate tends to be fragmented, directionless and all too often ineffectual.

Given her easy win and her party’s backing, O’Connor has much to offer a chamber famous for resisting government pressure and going its own way. Her many years of political experience both in and out of government will bring real weight to upper house debate on climate change issues. This will be something to watch.

Genuine, knowledge-based authority is something rare in party leadership generally, and it was dramatically absent in Anthony Albanese and his federal cabinet last week. 

Under pressure from the gas industry’s vast financial muscle and lobbying power, the government wilted, blinked and came out in support of new gas production, all the way to 2050 and beyond. Gas is every bit as problematic as coal, and the new gas strategy is a big win for fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis.

As if the industry needs help to shield it from financial risk, the government is funding an expensive mapping exercise to find more resources, continuing a long-standing rort that, along with generous tax breaks, underwrites long-term fossil fuel investment. Given the effort the Albanese government had put into a clean energy revolution, this is pure madness.

The Coalition has hedged its prior support for gas by adding nuclear to the energy mix. The Albanese government derided what they called this risky, massively-expensive nuclear option. Now, faced with the need to offset gas emissions, it has gone one better by backing with public revenue the even more risky, completely unproven technology of carbon capture and storage.

In the face of a renewed push by the gas industry to justify continued government support, the crowd-funded Climate Council promises to develop a “real” national strategy for future gas that will show why its continued use is so dangerous and to describe what we must do to ditch it “quickly and permanently”.

Half a dozen Labor MPs have raised concerns about the new gas strategy because it threatens their personal electoral success, but it will take more than a handful of party rebels to beat this lobbying juggernaut. 

The Albanese government’s failure to stand up to the fossil fuel industry is the latest in a long line of victories for greed over public good, and for propaganda over science. We need politicians possessing enough will and knowledge to break open the industry’s falsehoods. It can’t happen soon enough.

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The insanity of native forest logging

It may or may not be true, as suggested in some news reports, that before his jail sentence on a forest protest charge last week Ali Alishah set out to be a martyr by instructing his lawyer not to argue against his being locked up. 

Regardless, he should not be in jail. The law is only as good as the people who make it, and the harshness of Tasmania’s anti-protest laws serves only those wanting freedom to do what they like to the natural environment.

When magistrate Jackie Hartnett said that she had to send Alishah to jail because he had shown no contrition for trespassing in state forest, she surely knew that he could never be contrite for what he saw as protecting the Styx Valley’s trees and wildlife.

He’s been there before. Now aged 40, he was in his 20s when he was jailed for protesting building of a Tamar Valley pulp mill, in breach of a bail condition arising from an earlier protest action at the same site. The venture was proposed by timber company Gunns, then within months of complete financial collapse. 

Jen Sanger seeks to avoid the risk of going to jail, but in her own effort to defend Tasmania’s native forests she is Alishah’s equal. Where Alishah is a political adviser Sanger is a scientist, having won her PhD under the celebrated University of Tasmania ecologist Jamie Kirkpatrick.

As Alishah has repeatedly attracted the ire and derision of the political and corporate defenders of native forest logging, so has Sanger faced attempts by politicians and others to humiliate her for doing her job as a scientist: constantly checking data and openly declaring errors when they’re found.

We all make mistakes, but mostly they’re remedied and forgotten. Sanger had to endure public calumny when a scientific paper on forestry and fire, authored by herself, Kirkpatrick and one of their students, was withdrawn from publication in a US fire science journal in May 2020. 

This was done at the authors’ request after geographical data supplied by the Tasmanian government, differentiating plantations from other forests, was found to have been wrongly categorised, an error which appeared to weaken the paper’s hypothesis that logging raised the risk of dangerous fires.

It’s almost unnecessary to describe what happened next. Politicians and industry leaders, incensed at the paper’s conclusion that native forest logging made the bush more flammable, issued derisive public statements and demands for apologies. The Australian Forest Products Association called the research “fake”, and the national Institute of Foresters demanded an apology from the University of Tasmania. 

Liberal senator Jonathon Duniam said the paper was “error-ridden”. His Senate colleague Eric Abetz falsely claimed it got funding from the Bob Brown Foundation, accused Sanger of having been employed by the foundation when the paper was written and described her as a fake expert. When Sanger responded that their study was unfunded and the authors did not consult with any environment group before the paper had been accepted for publication, no-one was listening.

The questions about logging, wildfire and forest health remained. Now a book by David Lindenmayer, a senior ANU forest scientist who began his professional life with VicForests, has laid to rest any residual notion that logging is in any sense a process of forest renewal. 

In Forest Wars, subtitled “The ugly truth about what’s happening in our tall forests”, Lindenmayer lays out for a lay reader the long-term impact of logging these ancient eucalypt stands – the ecosystems destroyed and the carbon losses incurred – and why continuing to do this is plainly insane.

After Victoria’s devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires, a team of forest scientists led by Lindenmayer exhaustively investigated the industry’s contention that logged forests were less fire-prone. The study found that this applied only in the first seven years after logging, after which the fire risk rose sharply in the growing forest, and for decades remained well above average old-growth fire risk.

That finding was dramatically underscored by the 2019-20 Black Summer fires. Right across that huge fire range, fire damage in previously logged forests was much more severe than damage in unlogged ones.

I personally have experienced flack from professional forestry circles for reporting evidence that actual carbon emissions from high-intensity “regeneration” burns after logging were off the charts. When I asked for the “real” emissions figure I got no response. Until I do I’ll let the dense black clouds above these regular burns do the talking.

Burning forest and self-interest, political and financial, have this in common: they both blur the vision. Without clear air we will never get resolution. Our native forests will remain under the hammer and people like Ali Alishah will continue to go to jail.

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