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.

Pecl’s concerns for our marine environment have only increased over those 14 years. Tasmanian inshore waters continue to be degraded by industrial activity including fish farming. 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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Robert Clifford’s world of possibilities

Two years ago, when even the coal-carrying former PM Scott Morrison saw that denying climate change was electoral suicide, he summed up the Coalition’s newly-minted net-zero emissions plan in three words: technology, not taxes.

It was a message designed to give the impression that government was on the case and to reassure voters that they need not fear being called on to sacrifice hard-earned wealth just to fix the climate. 

A similar mindset has been in play in Tasmanian politics. Promising only to consult with other levels of government, industry and the community “to work together on practical solutions”, climate change minister Roger Jaensch continued his government’s multi-year avoidance of any commitment to act on our stubbornly-high transport emissions. The state government wants others to rescue it from uncomfortable truths. It’s a cop-out, thinly disguised as policy.

The cop-out extends to governments, in Australia and elsewhere, waving through new fossil fuel developments – coalmines, oil wells, gas fields, multi-billion-dollar processing plants. The only impediment to this, anywhere, seems to be legal action by highly-motivated but cash-poor youth and indigenous groups.

The gargantuan global fossil fuel industry has for decades told us that technology – carbon capture and storage – will eventually save us by sucking heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air. All Australian governments have acquiesced by allowing that fallacy to linger.

For all that, technology will be part of our way out of this morass. The only measures of this are tangible results from tangible actions, and one such actor has striven all his life to make marine technology synonymous with his beloved island home.

Tasmanians have learned over a lifetime to listen carefully to what Robert Clifford says about the future of transport, because there’s a fair chance it will come to pass. A couple of weekends ago I joined an audience from Sustainable Living Tasmania to hear from this master shipbuilder how marine transportation might look in a world without fossil fuel, and see how his company is putting this into effect.

Because it’s a stop-start business depending on a succession of one-off orders, shipbuilding is especially vulnerable to economic fluctuations. When orders dried up early this century Incat went into receivership for nearly a year. Typically, Clifford traded his way out of insolvency by building and selling vessels on spec.

Either side of his 80th birthday early this year, Clifford and his iconic Tasmanian company worked their way through the biggest of many transitions in the company’s 46-year history. His lofty goal is to put Incat at the forefront of a revolution in shipbuilding now stirring around the world.

The revolution is all about greenhouse warming. Transport in all its forms accounts for about a quarter of fossil fuel emissions around the world. Road transport (Roger Jaensch’s great challenge) takes up three-quarters of that, and nearly all the remainder is shared about equally by aviation and shipping. 

Most shipping emissions come from 100,000 giant international freighters burning heavy fuel oil. Marine and aviation emissions, falling between national jurisdictions, have been left unattended, but now both industries are under pressure to clean up their act. Shipping is looking mainly at cleaner fuels, like liquefied natural gas, methanol and hydrogen. 

Another possibility is electric power. The world’s first autonomous battery-powered cargo ship, a 3200 tonne coastal vessel launched in Norway two years ago, is a minnow compared to the monsters 100 times its size plying the open ocean, but you have to start somewhere, and Europe is where the action is.

Incat’s focus has been aluminium passenger and vehicle ferries. A recent order for a 130m ferry able to carry 2100 passengers and over 200 vehicles started with diesel engines, but Clifford and his Argentine customer agreed that the ship’s light weight made it an ideal candidate for battery power. This will be the first battery-powered ship built in Australia, and the world’s largest.

So confident is Clifford of success that he’s openly envisaging his company becoming a global leader in sequential electric ship production, delivering each year a large ship of 140 metres or more and multiple smaller vessels at 70m. 

But as he also pointed out, electrical energy doesn’t come from nowhere. If electric ships are to be a success a lot of work has to be done to produce enough clean power to meet demand and deliver it to ships, in port or offshore, by charging or battery exchange. 

Remembering Robert Clifford speaking of maritime possibilities, I’m left wondering how he might tackle something closer to home, electrifying Tasmania’s road transport system. I feel sure of one thing: he wouldn’t be sitting on his hands waiting for others.

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Get ready for an uninsurable future

It’s no surprise that a UN think-tank issued yet another dire warning last week about accelerating global extinctions, groundwater depletion, melting mountain glaciers, space debris and unbearable heat. 

But this report, released by the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, based in Germany, goes further than usual, identifying a sixth “risk tipping point” now looming large: an uninsurable future.

This is at the heart of how climate change is affecting the prosperous West. Until around 2020, people of richer countries including Australia were able to set aside ecological damage, accumulating waste, space junk, deadly heatwaves or depleted groundwater as fringe issues that only “greenies” worry about. Now, however, they face something all too close to home.

Not being able to afford to insure the family home and the accumulated wealth of a lifetime is exactly what we in the developed world must now expect, says the UNU report, as Earth’s surface temperature charges past the “safe” warming limit of 1.5C.

The Interconnected Disaster Risks report is based on past and current observations and experience, and this is never more so than in the case of insurance. Since the 1970s, damage resulting from extreme weather disasters has increased sevenfold (inflation adjusted). Last year’s total of US313 billion is set to double again by 2040.

Insurance premiums around the world have risen steeply since 2015. Late last year reinsurers – the companies that insure insurers – lifted the prices they charged the industry by as much as 40 per cent, causing some US companies to withdraw completely from regions of that country suffering repeated windstorm, fire or flood damage.

In Australia, in the wake of the Black Summer fires and recurring damage from coastal storms, rain events and floods in multiple river systems, the insurance industry predicts that over half a million homes will be uninsurable by 2030.

The Actuaries Institute has found that in the 2022-23 financial year the number of Australian households facing home insurance affordability stress was over one in nine. In that year the median home cover premium rose 28 per cent to $1894. 

The institute’s website now features a national “climate index” – a series of annual snapshots of key elements of Australia’s climate since 1981. The index tracks changes in the frequency of extreme high and low temperatures, consecutive dry days, heavy rainfall, strong winds and sea level impacts, using data supplied by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO. 

In all of these categories, the maps change in colour from blue (comparatively benign) in earlier years to red (high incidence of extreme weather) in later years, especially over the past decade. The clear signal is a steadily worsening situation. 

Six years ago the Paris-based insurance giant AXA warned that the whole world would soon be uninsurable if the level of warming projected by science – 4C by 2100 – came to pass. This year, when observed temperatures at Earth’s surface have pushed past expectations by a wide margin, those earlier projections look modest indeed. 

We are used to seeing year-to-year temperature shifts of tiny fractions of a degree as Earth falls increasingly under the influence of greenhouse warming. But this year, ordinary mortals like me were astonished to see plots for the key indicators of surface temperature and sea ice cover move dramatically away from all past years – as they say, off the charts. 

One of the people least astonished was veteran US climatologist James Hansen. Last week his email newsletter discussed a new paper he has co-authored, “Global warming in the pipeline”, to be released by Oxford University Press next week.

Hansen’s team uses a three-pronged approach to assessing current climate: global climate models, paleoclimate history and current observations. He thinks the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies too heavily on models, leading to dangerous advice to policymakers that targets for limiting global warming can still be achieved via realistic phasedown of emissions.

Hansen accused leading IPCC scientists of forcing him to withdraw a statement in an earlier paper that 2C of global warming would be “highly dangerous”. “Such is the nature of the scientific reticence that has infected our scientific community,” he commented.

Whatever the truth of this, those IPCC operatives, Hansen and all other climate scientists agree that the sum total of climate policies and practical responses is grossly inadequate, and that official emissions targets are increasingly disengaged from reality. 

None of this is lost on insurance actuaries. So if your last home insurance bill was a nasty surprise, put your outrage aside. In the shifting sands of finance, there’s no more accurate measure of reality than insurance premiums.

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