Science and scientists

Recently I was on a selection panel that awards the prestigious McKell medal in recognition of contributions to natural resource management in Australia.

Nominees for the medal are farmers, senior bureaucrats, consultants or researchers, all of whom went beyond the requirements of their job or business to lead, educate and understand best use of natural resources. We reached a point in the proceedings where the relative merits of the nominees were discussed.

As happens every year, there was considerable debate over merit. It is very difficult to compare the relative contributions of candidates from such diverse career paths. When considering the merits of a senior scientist nominated for his research efforts in conservation, one comment from a panel member, an experienced and pragmatic farmer, caught my attention.

He said he’d rather see a result with his own eyes than research findings that said the same thing.

This was because he felt more inclined to believe an outcome if he actually saw it.

I confess that it took me a while to process my colleagues comment, but I think the implications are profound.

It means that whilst science and scientists are revered, hard evidence is what persuades us when it matters most. And then, if all the evidence must be seen, then not only do we have little faith, but our ability to apply scientific discoveries will be limited.

After much debate the panel recommended the medal be awarded to a farmer.


Steady as she goes for carbon emissions


I love this graph.

It comes from the Australian governments economic modeling of their Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), the work by their economists that helped them to decide on how to configure the government effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Bear in mind they have set themselves a target of reducing emissions to 60% below 2000 levels by 2050.

That is to reach around 200 Mt CO2e.

What the graph tells us about Australian emissions is this:

  • At present we are at a tick under 600 Mt CO2e
  • If business proceeds as usual with no mitigation (black line), emissions rise steadily until we hit 1,000 Mt CO2e by 2050
  • In the CPRS scenario actual emissions (dark blue line) do not decline at all until 2030
  • The light blue line, that is the purchase of permits from overseas, parallels the business as usual line.

So this CPRS scenario projects is that actual emissions stay as they are now and Australia buys its reduction target through the purchase of overseas credits.

The government is saying that, economically, they need to keep things as they are, change only slowly, get more efficient to avoid increasing emissions too much and buy our way to the target reductions.

Or put another way. Despite great sunshine, wind a plenty, tidal and geothermal options Australia will continue to rely on coal for its energy.

The politicians will parade their CPRS as fantastic green policy, the way to preserve the environment, keep jobs, and deliver peace of mind over climate change.

The trouble is that they are colour blind and must have very sore behinds from their vantage point on the fence. Why act now when you can act later.

Don’t you just love them.


8,000 an hour

Do you know how many books are sold before you have bestseller? Or how many patients go through emergency rooms? Or the significance of 8,000 an hour? No, then read on.

All authors would love for their latest book to become a best seller. But it’s not easy. Sales in the order of 3,000 per week are needed to get onto the New York Times best sellers list, so it helps if you are famous or get to chat with Oprah.

Here are some other numbers:

  • Hospital emergency departments vary in size but on average each ER treats 600 patients every week.
  • A medium–sized high school might have 1,500 students enrolled.
  • A suburban train with eight carriages can ferry 1,600 commuters at time from their homes to offices in the city.
  • A person who goes about their business but does not take much exercise will take 6,000 steps in a day, whilst active individuals might manage 10,000.
  • At rest a human adult will breathe steadily, roughly 12 times in a minute and 720 times in an hour.

And here is another one. Every hour of every day there are 8,000 more people on earth.

That is two and a half times the number of book buyers, the weekly throughput of 13 ERs, enough for five high schools, and the passengers from five commuter trains, every single hour of every day. If you prefer bigger numbers, 8,000 an hour grows to 192,000 per day, 1.3 million per week, and 70 million per year.

Every year there are more people added to the global population (births minus deaths) than there are Frenchmen. In two and a half days we add more people than there are elephants in Africa.

Amazing isn’t it. Staggering even.

Makes you think.


Spending on the environment

The Australian government budget outcome for 2008 reported an expenditure of A$280 billion (US$180 billion at time of writing) or 25% of GDP.

Divided equally, 280 billion would give each resident of Australia A$13,340 and that was, more or less, what happened to the money.

Welfare, health and education combined to account for A$161 billion or 58% of the expenditure. People accept taxes as a necessity of life partly because these things, along with infrastructure, defense and other primary needs are best paid for collectively.

It makes sense to also pay for fundamental services such as clean air, fresh water, food and shelter. The food we eat and the roof over our heads we pay for after the taxman has taken his cut. What about paying for the rest?

The government spend on the environment is difficult to estimate. There is no line item in the budget, so we must estimate for the following:

  • A3.8 billion on agriculture, fisheries and forestry
  • A$3.2 billion on recreation and culture
  • A$16.6 on the public service

Let’s be generous and say this adds up to A$10 billion or 3.6% of the federal environment spend. That’s A$10 billion for a land area of 7,692,024 square km.

This rounded amount, A$10 billion, is a curious figure. It suggests that we can get clean air, clean water, conservation, and aesthetic outcomes for 21 million inhabitants, plus extensive natural resource exports, for $13 per hectare.

“Ah,” the skeptic would interject, “what about the monies spent by the state and local government, not to mention the huge amount of input from farmers, resource managers and community groups?”

Fair enough. Let’s double the amount to capture the contribution from all pockets in the government purse – $26 per hectare is now more than the defense budget… by $4 per hectare.

It makes you think that from the government perspective at least, the environment is free.


A wicked conundrum

A colleague of mine came to a meeting visibly shaken. He had just received a phone call to say that one of the union members he represents had been killed. A dead tree had fallen onto him.

The deceased man was a forester who had been about to begin a harvesting operation. It was a tragic accident.

Although occupational health and safety (OH&S) regulations allow for the removal of dead trees from forests to reduce the likelihood of similar fatalities, it would seem impossible to eliminate all risk to operators felling trees. Trees are large, unwieldy and, in Australia, many species are prone to losing branches and bows without warning. Yet when a person dies there is renewed pressure to tighten regulations.

However, there is a counter pressure. Many mammal and bird species in Australia rely on the holes that form in standing dead and large trees as roost and nest sites. Some of these species are rare and some of these are endangered. The retention of at least some of the larger and standing dead trees is considered a conservation imperative. Separate to those on OH&S, other acts of parliament exist to protect rare and endangered species that inhabit dead trees. Regulations in these acts limit the removal of standing dead and large trees.

What do regulators do with this mixed message?

  • Allow all dead trees to be removed to ensure human life is preserved.
  • Keep the dead trees and force workers to accept the risks.
  • Go away from mixed land use and assign areas to either forestry or conservation and only have dead trees in designated conservation areas.
  • Retain the trees for conservation in all areas but minimise the risk to the foresters with better training, equipment and access constraints.

When the law overlaps and when different government departments administer the regulations, it is not easy to come to a compromise. In the end we lean toward risk management, preserving human life first. We regulate to remove dead trees wherever there is risk and limit retention to the conservation estate. And this is understandable.

We fix the conundrum, but we unwittingly perpetuate the misnomer that conservation happens only in reserves. It doesn’t. It happens everywhere. Soon we must learn to manage whole landscapes, to protect the forester and the tree hollows. Then we will see the old laws and regulations replaced by new ones that promote rather than restrict.