Hobbling Australian Universities

He was a small man. At 5’8″ I’m no giant myself, but even I looked down on this lanky character. Yet, a decade on, I still remember that smug leer he would wear in response to my stress. He was the manager of another department, a life long friend of the store manager and my tormentor as a retail trainee.

If I knew then the career trajectory I would later take, his bullying would have had less of an impact.

As a trainee, I reported to the head office with frequent reviews of my traineeship. My experience was far from unique, talking with other trainees from other stores when we had our theory lessons.

Anonymously, I decided to report this back where it would be on record and could be audited.

However, as inappropriate as it was, eventually, by my handwriting, I was discovered. In the proceeding conversation, I was informed that my report would be seen by the independent auditors (which was my intention) and that I was risking the possibility of others enjoying this excellent opportunity I currently had.

And so, in that small oppressive room in the basement of my store (the door closed, of course), with two people from the head office looking at sternly at my from across the table, I took it back…

To go on and enjoy that smug leer.

Is it really possible to discuss uncomfortable criticisms about a boss in front of them? Arguably answering this question has been one of the hallmarks to the success of any religion; with the pretext of some invisible Big Brother overhead, capable of unthinkable punishment, why challenge the orthodoxy?

Gagging the free agent

The new government closed the Climate Commission. Of all the discussions relating to that, what interests me most is in response to the governments claim that Australian universities and the CSIRO are enough to provide the scientific evidence regarding climate change.

The response to this questions their ability to do so with the various political pressures placed on such institutes.

I don’t doubt the reality of this concern. Funding being a major concern, for one thing. Budget cuts seem forever on the horizon… Why would an institute want to be very vocal on a topic that the current boss seems at odds with? Especially when this boss is willing to close down vocal scientific organisations?

Politically correcting reality?

This is a real concern. Can we really have much confidence in the potency of Australian universities if their contribution to scientific endeavour and communication are, at least in part, stunted by political favour?

Micheal Mann once noted that a glacier was neither a Democrat or Republican, it just melts. Science is about precision and accuracy of our interpretation of the universe, regardless of its emotional or political ramifications.

How can a scientific institute possibly hope to function if it needs to place emotional or political pressures before precision and accuracy? It may as well offer Bachelors of Science in “Everything is okay” and “Don’t worry, you’re immortal”.

The school of good feelings and bad jokes

As it stands, it seems that Australia finds many of its so-called prime research institutes at the table, expected to respond to an emotional position before power brokers. For many reasons, I can’t help but feel they are stepping away, even if only a little, from uncomfortable conclusions opposing the position of these power brokers.

The smug leer is, as it was for me in retrospect, the least of anyone’s concern. We threaten to lose all respect in ourselves and our research if we allow political or emotional pressures to undermine the process. Research cannot be expected to place politics or emotions before rigour and still command respect.

About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.


How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.

About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

Why Australia is doomed: a case study of voting against self-interest

I’ve signed a couple petitions on Change.org and now get the odd email pointing to new petitions that may be of interest.

One that stood out asked for signatures to support the National Broad Band Network as was outlined by the ALP. It was created by Nike Paine, titled, “The Liberal Party of Australia: Reconsider your plan for a ‘FTTN’ NBN in favour of a superior ‘FTTH’ NBN”.

I signed it straight away. How could I not? The Coalition’s FTTN NBN is a joke, offsetting costs to another time to be fixed by a future government.

Yesterday, I received a follow up email regarding this petition, which has done pretty good, gaining 190,000 signees. A figure that the incoming minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has shrugged off. In the email, Turnbull is quoted as saying “wasn’t there an election recently…”

What struck me in this email was that Nick went on to write;

“I voted Liberal this time around, because I felt they would do a better job than Labor overall. I really want them to engage with people on this issue. It’s going to be a tough fight, but one we can win if all of us ensure the new government hear us.”

Ahhh… okay.

The Coalition’s FTTN NBN was far from a minor party platform. The Coalition have been ramping up their criticism of the ALP’s approach for the better part of a year and made their alternative plan one of the few genuine differences by which the voter could identify them… That’s how we got stuck with ‘Mr Internet’ and his dismissal of this petition.

It’s like me voting for Mr Abbott with the expectation that I might be able to sway him to Labour’s stance on, for interest stake, marriage equality or genuine climate change mitigation. I disagree with the Coalition on these two points, their NBN and a military response to refugees, hence why I chose not to vote for them.

It was nothing to do with a generic aligning to a particular party, I am very much a swinging voter (none are particularly likable), but entirely because these were the options. If the Coalition’s NBN plan was bad enough to motivate Nick to create such a petition, then it should have been important enough to vote against on election day.

On hearing that, my interest in this petition waned. Mr Internet has this one pegged.

Nick, you voted for the entire package, not parts of it. Surely you have childhood memories of a caregiver reminding you to eat your vegies as well. The same applies here.

Australia, 2013: The flat earth society… Good for international relations?

“Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.  And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here.”

– Obama, Remarks by the President on Climate Change, June 2013

Australia disagrees.

We have actually elected the new Prime Minister of the Flat Earth Society, for a meeting to run its course of the next three years.

Am I being harsh?

The individual in mind is notorious for his dismissal of anthropogenic climate change and global strategies to decarbonise economies. His direct action approach is akin to quadrupling the annual Australian forestry industry with the most optimistic assumptions, but worse in that it relies upon methodology that is highly uncertain and difficult to measure; soil sequestration. This, as a voluntary contribution from farmers with modest returns for the efforts seems far from a compelling strategy.

Australians voted in such a person, arguably not in favour of him personally, but rather against the frayed ALP. That, and the nice ideas of scrapping tax and persistent xenophobia regarding desperate refugees.

So yes, I’m drawn to such a conclusion and haunted by fear summed up but the last sentence of the quote above.

What will future Australian’s think of us who, when the world actually started building up some momentum on action on climate change, now including China and the US, both of which are showing genuine progress, we ducked out of the procession and down the nearest ally to hide out and have a few cigarettes?

The current Australian government does not speak for me. It is one that promotes unreasonable levels of individualism that stands in direct contrast to the evidence that shows increased equality and social mobility are positively correlated with happier, safer and healthier societies. It is one that promotes ideas such as the great northern development and direct action with total disregard for the empirical environmental evidence to the contrary. It is one that points to surplus in its most recent period as example of fiscal management, while ignoring that this came as a quick cash grab on what would have otherwise remained sources of revenue into the indefinite future, that is, privatisation.

It will be a government that provides much fuel for writers like myself, but will I be able to or will I simply balk?

Coalition’s carbon policy based on failed Labor scheme

By Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University


The government and the Coalition both want to manage land to reduce greenhouse emissions. But it’s not working. Flickr/Indigo Skies Photography

Australia’s two major parties have promised to reduce the country’s emissions by 5% by 2020, with two different approaches. Labor has used carbon farming as part of its approach; the Coalition is making it a centrepiece. But analysis of Labor’s approach shows it is likely to fail, whoever pursues it.

The Coalition has promised to tackle carbon emissions through Direct Action, and without a price on carbon or an emissions trading scheme. The plan hinges on reducing emissions at the lowest cost, which may include managing soils, forests and farming, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration or cleaning up power stations.

Direct Action will use and expand the current government’s Carbon Farming Initiative to achieve these emissions cuts, using the initiative as a platform to deliver an Emissions Reductions Fund.

But the initiative hasn’t come under scrutiny in its current role, let alone as a centrepiece for delivering Australia’s climate commitments. So, what is the Carbon Farming Initiative, and is it ready to take a starring role?

The Carbon Farming Initiative is the first national offset scheme in the world to include carbon credits derived broadly from natural resource management. It includes avoiding greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitrous oxides from managing livestock, crops and savanna burning, and sequestering carbon from reforestation and avoided deforestation.

It also includes planting trees to encourage carbon sequestration. At a landscape scale the scheme could transform regional Australia and provide major biodiversity and conservation benefits.

Farmers and foresters generate carbon credits for emissions reductions. Polluters can then buy these credits, known as Australian Carbon Credit Units. Presumably, the Coalition would purchase these credits under Direct Action.

That’s how it’s meant to work. Let’s have a look at whether it’s actually working.

The success of carbon farming depends on uptake. Treasury provides two scenarios for uptake of carbon farming based on two global action scenarios. The first is based on medium global action for stabilising greenhouse gases at 550 parts per million by 2100. The second is an ambitious global action scenario aiming to stabilise at 450 parts per million. The ambitious scenario is what Australia, and the world, agreed at Copenhagen in 2009 would avoid dangerous climate change.

Under the medium ambition scenario Treasury projected the carbon price to start at around A$23 per tonne in 2012-2013, with carbon farming delivering 6 Mt CO2-e (carbon dioxide equivalent, which allows us to account for other greenhouse gases).

The ambitious scenario fetches a carbon price starting at A$47 per tonne with 9 Mt CO2-e delivered by the land. Avoiding deforestation and reforestation makes up about two thirds of land sector abatement in both cases.

Carbon farming has now been running for nearly two years. What has it delivered? The answer is astonishing: virtually nothing.

Around 46,000 carbon units (each equivalent to a tonne of CO2-e) have been issued. This covers a little less than 1% of reductions needed for the year 2012-2013 under a medium ambition scenario, and about 0.5% of the ambitious scenario.

Why has carbon farming failed to achieve anything? One of the main reasons for this situation is that it’s not cheap to create offsets. In fact the idea that the land sector can provide low cost abatement is a bit of a furphy.

Under carbon farming, offsets are generated by developing a baseline level of emissions and crediting reductions from the baseline. The process is complex. Steps include:

  • becoming a recognised offset entity
  • opening a registry account
  • undertaking a project according to approved methodologies
  • submitting regular audit reports
  • applying for carbon credits and having them issued.

Rigorous “integrity standards” are required including permanence obligations, which guarantee sequestration of greenhouse gases for 100 years. Australia is one of the few in the world to have such a stringent rule and it is one of the major obstacles to investment. Others use tried and true risk-based approaches such as insurance, which allow for shorter contracts.

Also, carbon credits are considered financial instruments. This triggers policy frameworks established Australia’s Corporations Act and other legislation.

Even before you step on the carbon farming treadmill there are costs associated with registering legal rights to carbon. In Queensland, for instance, you need to contract a surveyor to map and register one stand of forest. This might cost in the order of A$500-$10,000 or more depending on the complexity of the forest stand and whether you are registering the whole property or not.

At year three after planting (based on the wet tropics forests which have high sequestration rates) you might have sequestered 10 tonnes of CO2-e per hectare. Your cumulative return might be in the order of A$230 (or about A$76 per year) per hectare. This return would not cover the costs of registering legal rights to the carbon, let alone the cost of survey and plan preparation or the costs of establishing the forest.

If it is high-environmental-value forest, surveying and planning might be in the order of A$25,000 to A$67,000 per hectare.

With the government bringing forward a floating carbon price that links the European Union’s carbon price, currently at around A$6, you can expect enough from carbon farming for lunch (one good lunch, or three sandwiches).

Ultimately to invest in carbon farming requires two things: an ambitious global action agenda, and certainty of the investment environment for decades. Both the government and Coalition have committed to a 5% reduction of greenhouse emissions below 2000 levels by 2020. This correlates more or less to the medium ambition scenario (and an acceptance of dangerous climate change).

Certainty might be guaranteed under an emissions trading scheme that has global links in a world of high ambition. Under the Direct Action policy, however, the first round of money to purchase lowest cost abatement would be July 2014. And this would be a year before the policy would up for review.

Given this, the chances of carbon farming delivering effective abatement from the land might be about zero.

Penny van Oosterzee is a director of a company that receives funding from the Biodiversity Fund for a rainforest restoration project.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Industry is shifting away from an Abbott styled “future”

The Australian Financial Review surprised me with a scathing article in reply to Tony Abbott. So much so that I was left wondering if Mr Abbott is even too out there for industry. It is great to see that Marcus Priest, in his post, Smoke and mirrors with carbon figures, just is not buying the claims.

In reply to the fear propagation about rising carbon pricing modelled over the coming decades, Priest wrote;

“Even if it ever reaches this level – which is debatable– companies are expected to reduce their carbon intensity offsetting the rising price.”

Which of course, is the aim of carbon pricing. It’s not expected that industries would be emitting as much greenhouse gases per unit of output in 2020 or 2050 as they are today, meaning that it is not a reasonable comparison.

And I could not help but chuckle when the director of the company that Tony Abbott was claiming to be hindered by the carbon tax was quoted;

“The industry and the communities it supports have a very bright future under carbon pricing,”

But it is not like Mr Abbott often lets reality get in the way of a good camp fire story about the carbon tax to scare the audience…

Will a voluntary ‘Green Army’ really pack a punch?

At 19, I had left school a couple years ago and gave the prospect of university no serious thought. For me, the only sensible option that I felt was open was a trade or traineeship of some sort.

In the end, I selected a retail traineeship with a large company, which promised managerial certification to those who excelled in this initial year of training.

I had done well enough. However, I remember the day my involvement in this traineeship ended.

The course overseer came into the store I worked in and asked me to complete a 250 word essay and I would have the level 2 certificate in my hot little hand. Anyone familiar with NewAnthro knows how easily I can put together as many words (in fact I’m half way there now), but yet I refused to.

The store kept me on, however, yet part-time and I turned back to schooling and went to uni instead…

Why didn’t I complete it, you may ask? It would have looked good on the CV of a young bloke such as myself, if nothing more.

I just couldn’t do it.

The life of a retail trainee

In this role, my wage was pathetic – lower than any part time worker of 16 filling a weekend position around school. One other trainee who was actually 16 scrapped in just shy of $5 per hour. The two of us both worked more than 50hrs a week each to make ends-meet. Worst of all, we were largely fodder for the jobs no-one else wanted. The store manager even had the other trainee wash his car in working hours! At $5 per hour, he was getting a good deal – especially as it was the company paying for it.

There’s just over 250 words and my reason for rejecting any accreditation on offer. We were told our wages were docked to pay for our training. Yet it was easy to see, from the amount of trainees going through and the frustrations that many shared with me, that the company was making a killing on cheap labour.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve only recently become aware of the cogs behind the Coalition’s “Green Army”. Their method brings back memories of more than a decade ago.

Troops without cause

This Green Army is to be made up of trainees and volunteers. The incentive for the workers is apparently the reward of doing a good job (and maybe some piece of paper for their efforts). For the government, the incentive is clearly getting a crappy job done on the cheap.

School leavers and work-for-the-dole candidates are to make up this team.

I have been a school leaver, I have worked a traineeship and I am environmentally motivated. But how would I fair day after day, regardless of wind, rain or harsh sun, digging up weeds, planting seedlings and collecting rubbish in a short term role akin to community service?

Strapped to a mast or collecting samples in a pit, my work is always interesting. However, I get variation and recognition for my effort, which I doubt could exist in the Green Army
Strapped to a mast or collecting samples in a pit, my work is always interesting. However, I get variation and recognition for my effort, which I doubt could exist in the Green Army

Working in environmental research today, I do a lot of field work, from soil sampling to establishing new research facilities. It is often hard work, but I get my respite when I return to the office with data to manage and validate.

There will be none of this for the Green Army and unlikely to be much job prospects following the short term position as what they were trained to do will be done cheaply by new recruits after them.

I simply cannot see how this initiative will attract ongoing voluntary effort from young people when the prospects of the first few groups to finish prove to be little better than their own. Why would a young adult run around in the rain or heat in a high-vis vest for 6 months to obtain marginally better job prospects?

Sure, not all people in my position would have turned down the little report as I did – a certificate is better than none – but who is really benefiting from this initiative?

“Green Fodder”

When it changed so as employers could not dock the wages of trainees in my position, I saw the initiative quickly reduce in size. This tells me that the company was not doing it to obtain a high quality body of staff, but rather cheap fodder.

The “voluntary” in the Green Army rings alarm bells, at least to me. The Coalition are betting on a great uncertainty for the basis of their environmental package – one that seems to be based on exploiting cheap labour options.

I doubt the Green Army will be washing many cars, however I wonder if they would ever be to meet and maintain their desired troop numbers. If not, it is nothing but another failed act just waiting to happen.