How science can help you feel better

The passage of time was never more confronting to me than seeing Professor Gretta Pecl in the news last week as co-author of a new, devastating report on the state of the global ocean. She’s also presenting next Friday at the Tasmanian Ocean Summit, a public forum at Spring Bay Mill, Triabunna.

David Bartlett was Tasmania’s premier when I first met Pecl in 2009. She was the dynamic driver of a then-new citizen science initiative called Redmap, in which fishers were engaged to help scientists track the movement of marine species in ocean waters warming faster than anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.

Concerns for our marine environment have only increased over those 14 years. Tasmanian inshore waters continue to be degraded by industrial and other human activity. Ocean warming continues apace. And Redmap continues to record changes – too many of them negative – to marine ecosystems around Australia.

The Climate Council’s latest report, Code Blue, describes the ocean as “the beating heart of planet Earth, and the lifeblood for all humanity”. Drawing together threads from many disciplines including Pecl’s field of marine ecology, it reveals that this massive domain, habitat for the vast bulk of Earth’s species and covering over two thirds of its surface, is in grave trouble. 

“Parts of the ocean could reach a near-permanent heatwave state within decades,” it says. “Our iconic Great Barrier Reef may soon face annual mass coral bleaching. Entire island nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati could become uninhabitable this century as seas rise.” 

Besides taking up more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide we emit, the ocean also absorbs over 30 per cent of that carbon dioxide, which has made its waters more acidic – yet another threat to marine life. 

Evidence suggests all these trends may now be unstoppable, and that collapse of key ocean systems may already have started.

The news about climate change continues to worsen. Every day we’re confronted with yet another reason to feel gloomy about the future. But as Pecl sees things, we have no choice but to find ways to engage positively and constructively. 

In recent years Pecl has led 25 scientists from 13 countries on six continents looking at how people’s study of species on the move, with their links to human values and home localities, can help them engage deeply and coherently with climate change.

Published in the British applied ecology journal People and Nature, Pecl’s work showed how studying migrating species offers people many pathways to understand how climate change affects them personally – in particular how it affects structures and functions of ecosystems, human health, culture and personal security.

Citizen science gives ordinary people a vehicle for documenting changes to biodiversity. This can include collaborations with agriculture such as mapping occurrences of pest species, fisheries organisations to track shifting stocks, and healthcare providers looking at changing distributions of disease vectors. 

In recognising the importance of understanding how changing species distribution affects us, we gain pathways to connect with people on this wicked, complex issue in profound ways that can further engender action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

As Pecl’s paper makes clear, this is already happening in multiple ways and in multiple countries around the world. The practice, as always, will be patchy and imperfect, because that’s how we are. But citizen science like this is invaluable as a way for concerned people to deal with climate change.

The Code Blue report indicates that we are perilously close to critical tipping points in Earth’s climate story. On Saturday the veteran physicist James Hansen backed that up in a bulletin advising that “emissions in the pipeline assure that the goal of the Paris Agreement – to keep global warming well below 2C – is already dead”.

What are we to make of all this? One response to being told by science that the climate is screwed would be to pack up and go home (if we have one) or dig a hole and cover ourselves up. The world we knew is gone and hard times are ahead, but we just don’t quite know what comes next. The outlook is murky and ill-defined.

We do know that Earth will endure, and human life too. But for life to be worth anything, all the essential components of civil society – institutions, laws, public order, personal and communal security and so on – will need to survive. 

Critically important during the hard times ahead will be reliable information and open discourse, for which community-supported citizen science networks as fostered by Gretta Pecl and her colleagues will be an invaluable tool.

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