Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Change is hard. So is cooking.

In February 2016 on February 29, 2016 at 2:08 pm


Sarah: I am not someone who happily reads instruction manuals.

Perhaps this says a lot about my personality: I can be inflexible, I think I know the best way to do things, and I regularly resist change.

For example, although I see many benefits associated with buying a Thermomix — on demand, yummy, lump-free custard being right up there — the thought of having to read step-by-step guides, and learn new techniques for making risotto, soup and sorbet turns me right off. It’d be an expensive outlay too, and take many years of use to pay for itself.

And hence I’ll avoid that purchase even in the face of very good evidence (I’m looking at you, Scientist Mags) that a Thermomix is an effective tool .

It takes lots of energy and commitment to learn new skills. You need even more passion and drive to change something that already seems to be working adequately. My old-fashioned approach to cooking works just fine, ok?

Our electricity supply system is another good example. Electricity was first used to power Australian homes in the late 19th century. At the time, coal was a familiar and available source of power. Australian towns and businesses thrived on finding, mining and selling coal.

Our electricity supply systems were set up with a constantly-burning coal station at the centre, and surrounded by extensive grids. Still today, transmission lines carry power from distant stations to specific areas, and then distribution lines carry power from each area to each individual consumer.

It works so well! Incredibly well. We built modern Australia on coal-fired power.

But there is a downside. Burning coal releases not just a constant and collectable source of energy, but also smoke and gases like carbon dioxide. We cannot ignore the impact these by-products are having on our world.

And so we must change.

It’s going to take effort. It’s going to cost money. It’s going to require a period of transition. But with new technologies and growing social demand we will eventually reach a point where the arguments for holding on to coal as a power source will be overwhelmed by the opportunities and clear benefits of using renewable sources of energy.

Just like my family thumps the table and demands Thermomix desserts, momentum will build towards an Australia that runs on renewable power.

Now excuse me whilst I go and hand-whip an omelette.

[photo thanks to]






Statistics. What are they good for?

In July 2015 on July 28, 2015 at 7:50 pm


Sarah: Statistics. What are they good for? While the answer is not ‘absolutely nothing‘, it’s kinda hard to nail down nonetheless.

Yes, it’s about numbers. It involves maths. It boils down to complex analyses. I’m afraid you’re gonna need a spread sheet.

But before you run away in a screaming fit of ‘whoah, that’s not for me!’, give me a wee chance to explain why statistics — also known as ‘stats’ — really matter.

Like last week’s post, it boils down to being human.

Over millions of years of evolution, us humans have developed some opaque but useful ways of making sense of our world. We look for patterns. We look for evidence that supports what we already believe. We aim for the path of least resistance.

All this makes sense when you’re living in a forest or a dessert and you’re hunting food every day and you’re keeping your eyes peeled for wild animals and you’re trying to stop your children eating poisonous mushrooms and you don’t understand why a visiting stranger with a snotty nose who sneezes all over your family can lead to numerous deaths in your community.

But if you live in developed world where you have the luxury of not being in survival mode 100% of the time, you can use science to make sense of your world.

Statistics is the tool we need to take the bias that comes with being human out of a scientific analysis.

It’s hard to explain, but maybe pulling in an expert will help. Last week I had the chance to chat with a man who knows a lot about statistics: Professor Corey Bradshaw.

I asked him quite simply:

“Statistics. What does it even mean?”

Here’s what he said:

“As humans, we tend to taint what we see with what we want to believe.

And what we want to believe is influenced by experience, by belief systems, by biased sampling — that means selective recall of information — in our own brains.

We tend to ignore evidence if it doesn’t fit.

Statistics is a tool that allows us to separate a perceived pattern from what’s really going on. It allows us to remove the bias. It allows us to make an objective conclusion about what the real relationship is. You can’t do that by eye.”

The proper application of statistics allowed Professor Bradshaw to extract a meaningful and unbiased conclusion from an enormous body of data describing extinction of large mammals, and climate records from the world’s northern continents around 10-50 000 years ago.

The conclusion was that small warm periods in the climate were directly linked with animal extinctions. It’s a conclusion that the human mind alone could never have reached amongst all the noise and distraction of thousands of data points.

You can read more about how climate change caused extinction of mammoths, bison and hairy rhinos in my article for The Lead South Australia here.

[image thanks to Adrian Sampson on flickr]

Feelings. And the F-bomb.

In November 2014 on November 12, 2014 at 2:20 pm

F bomb

Sarah: How does hearing reports on climate change make you feel?

Preparing school lunches this morning, I listened to a radio interview with conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy. Speaking to journalist Fran Kelly, Lovejoy was careful to present an urgent and yet optimistic view that attendees as the G20 Leaders’ Summit should be strongly considering a global biodiversity agenda as a way to support economies and mitigate climate change.

I agree with him. But the report made me anxious.

Not because I think he’s wrong. I know many details of the science of climate change. There is undeniable evidence that our Earth is warming, that atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide are trapping heat and that human activities are driving this process.

The problem is I don’t feel like I’m doing anything about this which will make a difference.

I look at my ceiling lights and admonish myself for still not finding time to change them to lower wattage versions. I know we should be walking to school more, and minimising the use of our car (which would ideally be smaller).

In separate but related worries, I agonise over the tins of tuna I buy and whether the label ‘line-caught’ actually means anything.

As a consumer, is it within my control to have an impact on climate change? On rainforest destruction? On reducing fish stocks?

I feel like it’s not. It’s not a good feeling.

And it’s not just me. Scientists working directly in the field have been reported to experience negative emotions associated with their expertise. Madeleine Thomas reported recently,

From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties.

In discussing possible solutions to this problem for scientists, Thomas wrote of meditation, therapy and the creation of proper boundaries between work and personal life.

And the F-word.

Quoting fellow writer Brentin Mock, Thomas said:

[Mock] argues that scientists should start dropping F bombs.

“Forgive my language here, but if scientists are looking for a clearer language to express the urgency of climate change, there’s no clearer word that expresses that urgency than FUCK,” Mock writes. “We need scientists to speak more of these non-hard science truths, no matter how inconvenient or how dirty.”

If Lovejoy had dropped the F-bomb on my radio this morning would it have made a difference? It certainly would have attracted attention. I may have spat my coffee everywhere, for a start. I think the ABC would have received complaints, other media outlets may have reported on the interview and it might have received global attention.

Is it time for scientists to pull back a bit on presenting evidence, and start presenting their feelings?

[image thanks to Nathan Rupert on flickr]

Blame it on the scientists

In September 2014 on September 25, 2014 at 8:33 pm

disco science

Sarah: “Cause I’m feeling slightly grumpy and more than a little silly, here’s a little climate change disco.

Blame it on the scientists
(my sciencey version of this).

Our planet’s slowly warming, data’s accumulating
The ice caps yeah they’re melting, and that’s no lie
The seas are getting higher, the pH heading southward
Is it time to bid our coral reefs goodbye?

Don’t blame it on our power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the scientists

Don’t blame it on our power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the scientists

We all love to watch TV, and drive direct from A to B
When really what we need is green philosophy
It will change our world completely, why don’t you believe me?
Let’s overhaul the current strategy

Don’t blame it on our power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the scientists

Don’t you blame it on our power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on science, woo

I just can’t, I just can’t
I just can’t control carbon
I just can’t, I just can’t (Yeah)
I just can’t (Woo) control carbon

I just can’t, I just can’t
I just can’t control methane
I just can’t, I just can’t
I just can’t control methane

Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the scientists

Don’t blame it on the power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame on tree clearing
Blame it on the science

The thrill of science grooves me, the logic yeah it lures me
The devil’s gotten to me through a PhD
I’m full of need for learning, why can’t you come and join me?
Deficit model, it leaves you in a trance

Don’t blame it on the power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the scientists

Don’t you blame it on the power
Don’t blame it on the burning
Don’t blame it on tree clearing
Blame it on the science

Ow (power)
Ooh (burning)
Yeah (tree clearing)
Mmm (science)

You just gotta (power)
Yeah (burning)
(tree clearing)
Goddammit! Don’t blame science

Don’t you blame it (power)
You just gotta (burning)
You just wanna (tree clearing)
It’s so not natural cycles

We measured it with science (power)
Ain’t nothin’ else’s fault (burning)
But us and our consuming (tree clearing)
A century on (cee-oh-two)

It’s coz of human progress (power)
Yes it is our fault! (burning)
Industrialisation (tree clearing)
Lights on all night long (cee-oh-two)

Blame it on yourself (power)
Once more, it’s our fault (burning)
Emissions they need changing (tree clearing)
Can we do it now? (talkin’ ’bout science)

[image thanks to Exploratorium on flickr]

Degrees of change

In September 2014 on September 10, 2014 at 9:53 pm

vinyard 467048168_70ae6ea28d_b

Sarah: I’m absolutely delighted to feature as author of the Adelaide Hills Magazine Upfront article in the Spring edition. 

With the title ‘Degrees of Change’, the piece looks at climate change through the eyes of producers in the Adelaide Hills. I talked to wine makers, fruit growers and Bureau of Meteorology Senior Meteorologist and Climatologist Dr Darren Ray to gather anecdotes and evidence. 

While I clearly can’t reproduce the entire piece (the magazine website is here if you’re interested), here’s a breakout section from it in which I present my thoughts in the first person:

Hello, I’m Sarah and I’m a scientist.

After training in the fields of immunology and reproduction, I’m well-versed in the history, theory and practice of science. I understand scientific methods and know how results are interpreted. I know science has strengths and weaknesses; I see its beauty and its flaws. With all this taken into account, I believe science is the best tool we’ve got to carry out objective – that is, unbiased – asking and answering of questions relating to our world. 

I’ve never specifically studied climate change. I don’t know all the statistics relating to this topic, I don’t have intimate knowledge of each international report into climate change. But I do believe it is happening. Why? Because it’s people just like me who undertake exploration of climate change, dedicating their working lives to asking questions and collecting data. Simply put, I trust scientists to measure aspects of climate change and report it accurately. I do not believe there is any plausible agenda for them to do otherwise. 

But it’s clear not everyone thinks the same way as I do. Skeptics are a vocal part of our landscape, and have developed well-honed arguments to counter the evidence that climate change exists. 

They introduce doubt by saying that all scientists don’t agree on climate change data (more than 95% of scientists agree on climate change). They say errors have been found in reports around climate change (some errors, yes, but that’s science – the majority of reports are solid). They suggest that in Australia and other countries extreme events are just part of the natural way of things (extreme weather events like droughts, heat-waves, tropical storms and bizarrely even frosts are now more common). The skeptics argue that carbon dioxide is natural and that volcanoes emit more C02 than we ever could (volcanoes contribute less than 1%). 

To me, the evidence is clear that we are currently locked into a phase of warming that is due to emissions from human activity since the industrial revolution. Such emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases that trap heat in our atmosphere. Unless we reduce emissions, this warming pattern will continue long into the future. 

So the pressing question isn’t whether it exists – but how we will deal with it. 


[image thanks to badjonni on flickr]



The climate is social?

In August 2014 on August 27, 2014 at 10:20 pm


Sarah: I’ve signed up for my first online course, an 8-week ‘coursera’ through the University of Melbourne entitled Climate Change

Why? Quite simply, I want to be better informed. Don’t get me wrong, I do strongly believe climate change is happening. But I also feel the need to know more. I want to see the actual numbers; I want to be able to argue the case with conviction; I want to wrap my head around some solutions. 

My first bit of learning hit me straight up between the eyes: week one of the course was not about science.

Huh? Surely they’d want to start with some evidence? But instead we heard from Professor Jon Barnett about climate change as a social problem – an issue of people.

By the end of John’s lectures, I could see why this was a good idea. Yes, climate change is about rising temperatures, melting ice, oceans creeping up in levels and acidity, and changing weather patterns. We can take this as a given – the evidence is solid.

But the primary reason we’re in this predicament, and also why we care, is because of us.

People, folks, homo sapiens. Humans created emissions, humans measure and interpret their changing world, humans suffer the consequences and humans have to come up with solutions to ensure the survival of our species and other animals and plants. 

In his lectures, Jon talked about his own particular geographical area of research, the Pacific islands. He spoke of differing levels of exposure, sensitivity and adaptability of the people in these nations to climate change. He talked us through impacts of increased rates of cyclones, altered rainfall (drought and extreme falls), sea level rises and altered local weather systems. He also imparted a sense of hope about the capacity of people to deal with the impacts of climate change, suggesting that climate change adaptation isn’t so different from thinking about sustainable development, and ethical economic development. Dealing with the social arm of climate change doesn’t have to be a massive step necessarily. 

But….with a proviso. Only if we keep the average global temperature rise to around 2 degrees C. After that, the rules will probably change. 

[image thanks to US Pacific Fleet on flickr]


Staking a claim

In April 2014 on April 11, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Scientists can be brushed aside as just another cultural group staking a claim on our resources.

It’s a concept which occurred to me whilst reading Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

The young bored mother Dellarobia Turnbow feels anger and resentment when a group of scientists arrive to study an unusual (and climate change-driven) aggregation of monarch butterflies she discovered in the hills above her house.

“Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature? These butterflies had been hers. She’d found them, she’d showed them to her son, in her name they were becoming beloved and important. They seemed to matter, like nothing else she’d ever possessed.

So how did an outsider just get to come in here and declare the whole event a giant mistake? These people had everything. Education, good looks, boots whose price tags equaled her husband’s last paycheck. Now the butterflies were theirs too.”

This kind of emotion arises when natural resources hold value for multiple stakeholders in the real word too. Governments, industries, farmers, mining consortiums, food producers and recreational groups fight with scientists to stake claims on forests, oceans, reefs, inland waterways and fertile land. Often, the guys with the biggest budgets and loudest voices win these battles.

Quite simply, scientists need to be more effective in running campaigns to explain, justify and garner support for their claims and thus compete on a level playing field with their opponents on the ‘other’ sides.

One step towards achieving this end is for scientists to get out into the community and listen to the experiences and views of the people they feel they are fighting against. To know your enemy, you must become your enemy, right?

Will Grant and colleagues at the Australian National University recently conducted a dialogue project, bringing Australia’s leading climate change scientists to round table discussions with local people across regional Australia. Called Up Stream, the story of the project has been documented in a series of four 7-8 minute video clips:

Ultimately, it’s only with the help of unique and multi-faceted projects like this that science even stands a chance.

[image thanks to John Haslam on flickr]

Day 309. Something fishy going on

In June 2013 on June 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm


There’s something fishy going on in our seas.

Oceanic animals are on the move.

Well yes….fish do usually swim around a bit. But the geographic range that a particular species of fish or other marine species normally inhabits is quite limited. Southern Bluefin Tuna like the cool oceans at the bottom end of Australia. Marlin tend to hang about in the relatively warmer currents along the Eastern coast of Australia.

So when fish like these start to appear outside of their normal ranges, scientist’s eyebrows start to rise.

Take for example this wahoo caught in South Australia recently. It was way out of its normal range, the Northern waters of Australia.

Its just another piece of evidence that ocean temperatures are increasing. And it’s just one of many data points which has emerged from REDMAP.

REDMAP is an online resource through which recreational and commercial fishers, SCUBA divers, boaters and scientists spot, log and map any uncommon marine species not usually seen in particular coastal areas.

Put together over years, data collected through REDMAP will provide a record of what species are on the move as the oceans around Australia warm. Other data already suggests that oceans around our country have warmed at over twice the global average, and even faster in the south-western and south-eastern regions.

REDMAP is hosted by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

I must disclose I’ve had a few chats with the lovely staff at REDMAP recently, particularly regarding my love of spotting marine species at the bottom end of Yorke Peninsula. They even sent me a precious copy of the out-of-print A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses of Australiasia, as well as a cool drink bottle (as shown in image above).

I can’t wait to get back to Yorkes and re-start my ocean watching in earnest. I’ll keep you posted.

NB You can also follow REDMAP on Facebook:

Day 290. Local and global

In May 2013 on May 29, 2013 at 9:54 pm


This week UK newspaper the Guardian launched its Australia edition.

The ‘paper’ is independent, digital and free.

Perhaps a reflection of its new expanded geographical focus, a story on watery deaths along the coastline of South Australia was available via click-throughs on the Environment pages at both the UK and Australia sites this week.

Written by Malcolm Sutton*, Warmer seas could lead to more dolphin deaths in South Australia describes the phenomenon of drastically elevated numbers of dolphin and other marine species carcases washing up on metropolitan and regional SA beaches in recent months.

The deaths are being officially blamed on algal blooms – growth explosions of floating microscopic algae – resulting from a prolonged period of elevated sea water temperatures during March 2013. Other theories include algal blooms due to discharge from the Port Stanvac desalination plant, and viral infection in heat-stressed, immunocompromised dolphins.

No firm answer will be available until autopsies on the dolphin carcasses are completed.

For me, the publication of the story on an international newspaper website shows how stories sourced from little-known places around the world can contribute to a body of evidence. In this case, the story has broad interest due to its connection with other stories on warming of oceans due to climate change (for other examples, see here and here).

*presumably the same Malcolm Sutton as he at Stock Journal

[image thanks to Les Haines on flickr]

Day 110. Maths

In November 2012 on November 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Maths. It’s important.

Perhaps I can help you see why.

This week the world is talking about a newly published international study which describes recent accelerations in loss of polar ice.

The abstract, or summary of the paper, is written in very dense language, and consists largely of terminology which can be hard to decipher if you’re not working in the field.

Rather than read through it word for word, for the purposes of this exercise just take note of the words which are which are in bold (my highlights):

We combined an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment to estimate the mass balance of Earth’s polar ice sheets. We find that there is good agreement between different satellite methods—especially in Greenland and West Antarctica—and that combining satellite data sets leads to greater certainty. Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively. Since 1992, the polar ice sheets have contributed, on average, 0.59 ± 0.20 millimeter year−1 to the rate of global sea-level rise.

The bold words all relate to maths. The point is that if you want to study, measure and estimate global climate change and rising sea levels, you need a thorough working capacity in maths.

Maths is critical to understand other aspects of our lives too. Here’s just a taste:

  • Measuring and trying to predict earthquakes;
  • Mapping the impact of tsunamis;
  • The movements of the oceans, including tides and temperature changes;
  • Weather forecasting;
  • How living species interact and compete for resources;
  • Predicting how drugs are cleared from our bodies;
  • Assessing risk factors for certain diseases or health outcomes;
  • Human processes such as finance, agriculture, water, transportation, and energy.

All these specialist areas, and more, need maths.

2013 is the International year of Mathematics of Planet Earth.  Down Under, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute is teaming up with societies and organisations in Australia to spread the word about the role of maths and stats in understanding the challenges of our world in a fun and accessible way.

Embrace maths! You need it.

[image thanks to dtweeny on flickr]