Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Palaeontologists have a fine time of it. They fossick around in obscure parts of the world where there are few people and take a hammer to rocks.

They have done this for generations, found lots of fossils, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Here are five of them.

  • 444 million years ago 86% of species were lost.
  • 375 million years ago 75% of species were lost
  • 251 million years ago 96% of species were lost
  • 200 million years ago 80% of species were lost
  • 66 million years ago 76% of species were lost.

These are, of course, the five mass extinction events in the fossil record. The last one being the most famous when all the dinosaurs copped it.

Here is another pattern they found

Over time diversity has increased despite these mass extinctions and several smaller ones in between them.

There are more species alive today than at any other time in evolutionary history, despite the obvious fact that humans are kicking the sixth mass extinction into existence.

This is the history of life on earth. It is dynamic with huge shifts in diversity but with an underlying driver powerful enough to increase diversity over time.

If you believe this evidence then a few core concepts become clear:

  1. Extinction happens.
  2. Large extinction events happen often enough to make another one inevitable.
  3. After extinction events, diversity recovers
  4. And for at least 150 million years the trend is for diversity to increase rapidly, noting that the non-avian dinosaurs were lost during this time.

Diversity happens because there is time enough for mutation and natural selection to hone any number of specialisms. When organisms specialise they are successful in a relatively narrow set of conditions. A proportion of species become vulnerable to change in those conditions.

Enter human beings. Modestly specialised initially but with a distinct advantage. They had the brains and communication to adapt to a wide range of conditions, especially when they tamed fire and then much later discovered fossil fuels.

Once in control of energy humans have appropriated over half the global biomass production, removed vegetation, getting rid of wildlife and altered the composition of the atmosphere. More than enough change for mass extinction.

Humans affected the change but change would have happened at some point. Tectonic plates moving to cut off ocean gyres, volcanic eruptions, another meteorite strike, it would happen soon enough, maybe 50 million years hence.

Is the reality of extinction too painful?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are just too much in the present day to accept timeframes beyond ourselves. Certainly, there will be huge consequences of extinction for our production systems, the ecosystem services we rely on, and the very liveability of the planet for our species.

We’ll need a lot of adaptation to survive.

What we might also remember as we plan for change and seek to retain what we can of the diversity of life, that extinction is real and inevitable. It is as much a part of the process of evolution as the creation of new types.

Should there be drought relief payments?

Should there be drought relief payments?

When it’s been dry for months, the last two crops have failed, and it’s still 40 degrees in the shade, you’d have to be a sociopath not to have empathy for the farmer.

No matter how courageous and resilient farmers might be, there are limits to what any human being can handle, physically, financially and emotionally. And drought is tough, really tough.

Even the most closeted city dweller should feel something and want to help. Donate maybe. Perhaps lobby for governments to assist in what is an obvious emergency. And that is what has happened in the current drought in NSW.

Public donations have come from all around the country and state and federal government have allocated drought relief funding because, more often than not, the human response to a crisis is to help.

Emergency assistance when drought is at its worst helps to alleviate the worst of this for those most affected. It is a natural and proper response. What is known about the effects of drought on rural communities is that not everyone is affected the same way, some really struggle and others ride it out.

Some farmers suffer acute or prolonged hardship. Other survive, some relatively unscathed. Typically the survivors have prepared their stock, kept fodder on their paddocks by resting them, closed down their crop production early and planted a cover crop, or have cash in hand from a financial plan that anticipated lean times. Some or all of these tactics make it possible to sit out dry times. These landholders are also in great shape to benefit when the drought breaks as it always does.

The thing is it was the same in the previous drought and will be the same in the next one. And there will be a next one. Some farmers need emergency help and others do not.

But Jacki Schirmer and her colleagues suggest that multiple inquiries and research studies have concluded that this approach is not enough and we need to support farmers in good times as well as bad. Perhaps get a little ahead of the emergency and promote some of the actions that the survivors knew about.

When water supplies dwindle we panic and forget about it when it’s been raining. The Australian federal government did the same with energy supply. Forget about it until the lights go out.

This is poor planning and terrible leadership.

There is great irony in a Minister handing out drought relief and making it a photo op for his leadership. If he was a true leader he would ask if there was anything that could be done about a drought in advance of it happening. For example, is there insurance that can reduce some of the pain? There is a solution for most farmers and, although this is a contentious suggestion, most farms can be drought-proofed to some degree. However, it requires planning, a long game and as Schirmer et al, support in the good times.

What should drought relief look like?

If the idea is not to need the emergency response, then ‘relief’ should happen before the drought, embedded in the production system.

This would include actions that are

  • more conservative to production
  • that promote retention of soil moisture (most actions that retain ground cover and reduce tillage),
  • that encourage soil carbon (because this helps retain soil moisture)
  • keep water on the farm by slowing down water movements (as Peter Andrews advocates)
  • production system change

Suppose you take the drought relief money, several billion at the last count, and use it as incentive payments to undertake actions that are consistent with this list.

It might just help.

Alternatively, incentivise commodity prices from drought-resistant production systems

Perhaps force landholders to pay back drought relief payments during the years of plenty.

Whatever the carrot or stick policy approach you’d prefer, they can all result in fewer landholders in strife.

So the answer culd be no, we shouldn’t have drought relief payments. Perhaps drought mitigation payments and restructuringturing instead.

How to interpret a percentage change

How to interpret a percentage change

Here is what the International Energy Authority said happened to carbon emissions last year across the globe.

Carbon emissions rose by 1.7 per cent in 2018 to a record 33.1 billion tonnes, with coal making up a third of the total increase

That is 560 million tCO2 more carbon emitted than the previous year.

That increase is equivalent to the total emissions of the international aviation industry or if you prefer, the annual emissions for Australia.

Recall that 1990 was a pivotal year for climate change issues. It was chosen, arbitrarily for those not in the know and all those with an ounce of common sense, as the benchmark year to compare targets for emission reduction.

In 1990 global greenhouse gas emissions were roughly 22.4 billion tCO2.

Rather than concern ourselves with the increase since then, yep it is half as much again, let’s focus on what a 1.7 per cent increase on 22.4 billion looks like.

It’s 381 million tCO2e

Buckets of water example

Now, let’s suppose that I have two buckets the size of laundry baskets. Each bucket is big enough to hold 50 litres of water.

The first bucket is the 1990 bucket. It contains 22.4 litres of water.

The second is the 2018 bucket and it contains 33.1 litres of water.

If each day I added 1.7% of the starting volume to each bucket (381 ml and 560 ml) in 72 days the 1990 bucket would be full.

The 2018 bucket is spilling water on the floor in 30 days.

Less than half the time!

Same percentage. Very different result.

The analogy is not quite reliable for the greenhouse gas issue. The atmosphere may be like a bucket in that it has a finite volume but it is a huge bucket unlikely to overflow with gas.

The issue for greenhouse gases is, of course, the way they alter the atmospheric composition and change the warming potential, retaining more of the sun’s energy as the proportion of greenhouse gases rises.

The per cent change result still holds. 1.7 per cent of the 2018 amount has a much bigger effect than 1.7 per cent of the 1990 amount.

Global population example

The global population growth rate in 2018 is around 1.1% or roughly 83 million people added to the mix each year.

This percentage gain is less than the 1.6% gain in 1990 that delivered roughly the same number of new people.

So again let’s do the bucket test. This time we’ll go with the 1.1 per cent gain and use slightly smaller, 10-litre buckets.

The 1990 bucket starts with 5.3 litres of water and the 2018 bucket has 7.2 litres.

If each day I added 1.1% of the starting volume to each bucket (58 ml and 79 ml) in 81 days the 1990 bucket would be full.

The 2018 bucket is spilling water on the floor in 35 days.

Lower percentage but a faster fill. Ouch.

Pay rise example

Is it fair to give a 1% pay rise to all employees in the company? Sounds fair.

Everyone gets the same proportional raise, all the boats get to float. Except that the CEOs 1% gets him a new fridge out of the first paycheck and the tea lady gets a coffee at Starbucks.

Be aware of percentages when the media spout them.

They are only useful if you know the amount the percentage refers to.

What to do about drought

What to do about drought

If you live in Australia long enough there are a few things that you will experience first hand.

You will witness the removal of a sitting prime minister by his or her best mates.

There will be storms and floods that will drown livestock, wet low lying carpet and put an array of dents in the bonnet of your Holden Commodore.

Hang around some more and you will come close to a bushfire because many of the native plants are highly flammable, especially when they dry out, the wind gets up and it’s 40 degrees Celcius in the shade, and they burn with terrible ferocity.

And there will be drought.

At some point, probably several, there will be weeks and months when it is so dry even the bones are thirsty. Likely this will coincide with temperatures that basking lizards find challenging. This is the truth and it always has been the truth.

Australia is not called the land of drought and flooding rain for nothing.

What to do about drought?

Well, it will happen. No amount of rain dancing, prayers and speeches from aged ministers can change this fact. There will be drought and it will be hard, harsh and intense for everyone who lives off the land.

So here is what we should do

  • Accept
  • Prepare
  • Let things go

Accept

The first thing is, do not to treat drought as a natural disaster or blame it on climate change, even if the frequency and intensity of drought might be changing for the worse.

Drought is an inevitable, unstoppable reality of life on a large dry continent, accept it.

Prepare

If anything is as inevitable as death and taxes, then it makes a lot of sense to do the boy scout thing and be prepared.

This means drought proofing water supplies, food production systems and the wider economy.

The many specifics would bloat this post but we are talking about investment in water infrastructure, grazing practices that retain groundcover, rural insurance subsidised by city folk through realistic food prices, choosing the local supply chains that are sustainable… the list is long.

Then, and this may be that hardest of the three, let things go.

Let some things go

It may not be possible for Joe to rear livestock on a property that has poor soils, no reliable water and was infested with rabbits for 50 years since the 1920’s. That landholding might just have to rest.

It may not be that the cod in the Murray can survive a drought if we choose to put the water onto the crops. Should we choose the cod, then we have to let go at least some of the irrigation.

In drought, there are zero-sum games everywhere that require specific choices.

Accept, prepare, let go

Accept, prepare, let go is very different to do nothing, act surprised and prop up poor preparation with drought relief payments.

We should give it a try.

Why it is wise keep judgement to yourself

Why it is wise keep judgement to yourself

My mum, who is chinwagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people.

Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in full possession of the facts and we let opinion rule.

My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in our day to day so as to avoid the risk of getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more.

There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct

Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Why are carbon emissions increasing?

Why are carbon emissions increasing?

The climate is changing.

After a few glasses of Chardonnay, even the most ardent sceptic would concede this reality. And the consequences are increasingly dire. The headlines of fire, flood, heatwave and crippling cold (all increasing in frequency and intensity because more energy is retained in the global atmosphere-ocean systems) are more frequent and dramatic, yet are only part of the story.

The everyday consequences are far-reaching too.

Ask a Sydneysider how often they turned on the air conditioner this summer; pretty much every day they’d say. Extreme heat keeps people indoors and makes them worry about their energy bills. Cold in Chicago does the same thing. There are some heavy psychological challenges from these consequences that run far deeper than cabin fever.

Then there is the guilt trip.

Rhetoric and considerable evidence have convinced most of us that climate change is our fault, the consequence of profligate emissions of greenhouse gases coming roughly a third each from our needs for energy, transport and agriculture.  

We are also told that the solution is emission reduction.

So why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

First reason is
context

One inevitability of the industrial revolution that began in the late 1800’s is that most human societies are not only dependent on fossil fuel energy, but they have also used it to grow.

More people, with ever greater needs and wants. This success means that use of fossil fuel to power people and agriculture are greater than ever. Indeed, most of the carbon emissions have happened in the lifetime of the baby boomers. Three-quarters of our fossil fuel burning has happened since ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in 1974.


This is a ‘locked in’ reason. We cannot go back and make different decisions any more than we could turn off the needs and wants of the 4 billion people around in 1974 or the 7.5 billion people doing their thing today.

Just like we cannot go back and imagine if Mouth & MacNeal from the Netherlands had won Eurovision in 1974 with their little ditty, “I see a star”. They came second.

Second reason is
behaviour

Estimates suggest that up to half of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of inefficiencies and waste: poor construction practices, food waste, sloppy supply chains, replacing goods that work fine with shiny new ones.

We also like to copy ostriches. Subsidies to fossil fuel businesses are estimated at $5 trillion globally. That is a lot of money to prop up emissions we are told we should be curbing.

Third reason is
we don’t want to stop emitting

The willingness to make the sacrifices to our lifestyles and wellbeing, real or perceived, to reduce carbon emissions is absent for most of us. Way too many everyday issues are way more important to us than breaking a few weather records. So what if they have to shovel some snow in Chicago.

The formal government agreements to counter individual indifference have failed too. The infamous Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, that’s 20 years ago. Since then global emissions have continued to rise.

There is some hope that renewable energy sources are becoming cheap enough for us to want to use them purely for back pocket reasons. This will see emission rates stall and even for coal and oil trail off towards an ignominious retirement (they will not go gracefully).

Again the reality is that market pressure was always needed to move the dial. Climate advocacy, legislation, or protocols were never going to generate the necessary willingness to act.


Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

Will global greenhouse gas emissions stop increasing?

Yes they will.

Most likely emissions will decline to pre-industrial revolution levels for three main reasons:

  1. Fossil fuels will become scarce and eventually run out
  2. Conversion of land for agriculture will slow to nothing once all the land that could be farmed is farmed
  3. Low to no emission alternatives to our current behaviours that produce greenhouse gases will be cheaper but just as satisfying

A more significant question is not will but when.

Should the three reasons follow their natural course it could be decades or longer before emissions slow and reverse back toward the natural background rate.

This means that every day in Sydney or Chicago will be a headliner for its extreme heat or cold, until it’s the norm and the headline changes back to the inane actions of famous human beings.

Why are global greenhouse gas emissions increasing?

Because of people.

Trite perhaps, but true nonetheless.


What do you see?

What do you see?

Magnificent beach isn’t it?

What do you see?

Wide expanses of sand, huge vista, no buildings and just one person and their dog as far as the eye can see (almost).

I’m guessing you would travel quite a way to visit such a place, especially if I tell you that it was a balmy 30 degrees in the shade when I took this photo.

This is Jimmy’s Beach at Hawks Nest, NSW, just one of the many truly beautiful places on the east coast of Australia.

On our walk along the crisp clean sand we saw dolphins in the ocean, a sea eagle flying over the dunes past sooty oystercatchers, pied oystercatchers, turn species too numerous to know, and any number of interesting shells. We’ll ignore the bull ant that bit my wife’s foot as we passed through the fringing woodland. That was truly painful.

You cannot see all these things in the picture but it is easy to imagine them and believe that they are there and that we saw them on our visit, even that you would see them too if you go there.

You should, it is a fantastic place.

But what else do you see in the picture?

There is a sign that says ‘No vehicle access past this point’.

The tyre tracks extend either side of the sign. This suggests that not everyone heeded its instruction. Clearly many a 4×4 passes up and down this beach, tyres let down to the lowest tolerable pressure. Most are driven by middle-aged white dudes looking for a place to throw a fishing line into the water. A few of them do it for a living.

You can also see footprints. Well, more like depressions in the sand, but evidence that many people visit this place. Obviously not all at the same time; but people are here, often. The sand is not blown into the ridges you’ll see in a desert, it is pot marked, trodden on.

Whilst at first glance Jimmy’s Beach looks like a remote wilderness, an unspoilt gem near the edge of the world. It isn’t. A time lapse image would tell us that people come here all the time, walking, jogging, swimming, driving, fishing, birdwatching, picnicking, sunbathing, surfing… any number of beach time activities.

All these visitors love it.

Many pinch themselves at their good fortune to be there. Some may not be that aware. Either way it is a public place that the law of the land says can be used by anyone so long as they abide by a few rules designed to prevent abuse of the privilege.

And that use is on the increase. In the campsite there is a flotilla of caravans drawn by large 4x4s with their tyres optimally inflated. These are the homes of choice of grey nomads, the older contingent of Australians enjoying at least part of their retirement on the road. They make up a sizeable chunk of the 12 million caravan and camping nights a year around the country and its increasing as the population ages and more people take to beachside touring.

How will Jimmy’s Beach fare as numbers of visitors increase?

Well the sand will be fine. The tides will ebb and flow and the waves will crash every minute of every day until the sun explodes.

We can be less confident about the animals.

As each visitor strolls quietly along toward the turns resting on the wet sand only one thing happens. At some point the birds take to the wing and fly off.

If this happens a few times a day then it is all in a day’s predator avoidance for an animal that is vulnerable on the ground. If it happens a few times an hour, then the energetics of it may bite. If it happens during mating or brooding it could influence breeding success. And there need be no intent to disturb. Walking along the beach is enough.

Does this mean restricting access to Jimmy’s Beach? No. What it means is that there are always an array of consequences that the presence of people have on nature, like it or not.

Our challenge is to recognise this and to plan accordingly.

So, what else do you see?