Category Archives: Climate change

Dry Humour: Washing down the bitter pill of water security

Water, water every where

Nor any drop to drink

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Have you ever drunk fresh water? I mean truly pristine – untouched by the biological footprint of others.

Perhaps. I guess you could do it if you are a technophile with a hydrogen fuel cell in the back garden that you tap to make your morning coffee. The rest of us live in a gloriously messy organic world where water is continually cycled and recycled through biological processes.

The reservoirs and dams that supply our cities are not hermetically sealed plastic tanks – but lakes and rivers with living, functioning ecosystems of microbes, invertebrates, fish, birds – and all that goes along with that.

And more.

When you press flush, I know it’s good to imagine that the contents of the bowl are vaporized or spirited away – lord knows I’ve experienced plumbing emergencies where I’ve wished I could have magically made the returning materials vanish by clicking my heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home’. No such luck – our effluvia may vanish from sight, but they remain an issue to be dealt with – and ultimately return to the environment. And the waterways.

“Because it went into a river,” says Australian National Water Commissioner Chris Davis speaking in the Sydney Morning Herald “people conveniently forget where it started and no one really seems to mind”

This mental dissociation of our water supplies from nature is not a new phenomenon – the brilliantly witty, if alcoholically challenged, W. C. Fields knew he was mining a rich vein of societal insecurity when he quipped: “I never drink water; fish fuck in it” refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

Mmmm…cool refreshing water. Wait a minute, has this had fish in it?

When I was growing up, the idea of buying a bottle with nothing in it but water would have been laughable – to be written off as a modernistic retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes, or an undergraduate performance art project attempting a subversively ironic comment on consumer society. Today, PET bottles of cool clear water are a ubiquitous element of our cultural landscape – from the supermarket to the multiplex, and all stops in between.

In 2008, Australians consumed approximately 600 million litres of bottled water, spending over $500 million for the privilege, and accounting for the use of an even million barrels of oil in the manufacture, storage, transport, and refrigeration of all those – for the most part disposable – bottles.

This displays something of a curious disconnection with circumstance in a country where clean healthy water supplies piped to the home are a government mandated right. Indeed, a substantial proportion of the bottled water industry in this country consists of multinational corporations bottling our municipal water supply and selling it back to us at a massive premium. Seriously, stand up and take a bow, Coke and Pepsi – your marketing genius at the very least should be applauded.

At least we aren’t alone in this fixation. Zong Qinghou, one of the richest men in the economic powerhouse that is modern China owes his fortune to bottled water. His brand name – ‘Wahaha’ – even sounds like the maniacal laugh of a Bond villain. In light of the debated environmental footprint of the industry, either the man has an admirable appreciation of dramatic irony, or he needs to seriously look at whoever handles his global brand management.

Even out of a heat sealed plastic bottle though, to pretend that what you are drinking is untouched by the complexities of leaking, pumping, squelching biology would be laughable were it not so pervasive a force.

The recycling of water has been brought close to home in public debate recently with the news that Western Australia will soon become the first state in the country to put post-human recycled water into our drinking water supplies, not haphazardly by gradual percolation and leakage, or indirectly through release into the oceans and rivers, but directly, deliberately, and after comprehensive physical and chemical processing to render it safe and potable.

Journalistically, the Murdoch-dominated national press has largely taken a negative editorial stance on this issue. Whenever recycled potable water stories come up in The Australian or The Sunday Times, the term consistently used to describe the water is ‘recycled sewage’ conjuring images of turbid brown water and sulfurous odours. The ‘yuck factor’.

Learning from recent public policy failures in this area in the eastern states, however, the Liberal government are short-circuiting the ability of the popular press to agitate against the policy (and, not coincidentally, engender debate and boost newspaper sales), ruling out public consultation and pushing ahead on the basis of drought-proofing the state. After the success of a three-year trial in which waste water was treated to Australian drinking water standards and injected into an isolated suburban aquifer without incident, the government is signing off on a plan to recharge Perth’s groundwater systems with up to 35 billion litres of treated sewage per year – enough to supply the current needs of around 140,000 households.

Such initiatives look set to become a core element of future water security plans around the nation in coming years, with the Australian Federal Government providing $20 million of funding to prime the pumps, as it were, of the Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence.

Underlying such strategies and the massive engineering feats they entail at the State level are the findings of the Western Australian Government’s ‘Water Forever’ report into long term sustainability of potable water. In the face of a trinity of declining rainfall, decreasing groundwater yields, and increasing population, this study forecast an annual deficit of 120 Gigalitres by 2030, blowing out to a massive 265 Gigalitres by 2060.

Looking at those figures, you either bury your head in the sand (and hope it’s the free-flowing, well sorted, highly permeable sand of a previously untapped aquifer), or you face up to the reality that the water we use so liberally actually has to come from somewhere – and if Premier Colin Barnett’s earlier and much slated vision (to call it a pipe dream is really too cheap a metaphorical shot to even bother with) of a canal to carry water down from the Kimberley region in the more hydraulically endowed north of the state is a non-starter, there are only so many other options.

Desalination? Highly energy intensive unfortunately – and what do we do with all the extremely saline brines produced? All that salt still has to go somewhere, after all. What’s that you say? The Perth Desalination plant uses green energy? Hmmm…only if you believe accounting can save the world. Although the Western Australia Water Corporation proudly trumpets electricity for the plant being generated by the Emu Downs Wind Farm in the state’s Midwest, the relationship is really only an indirect one of power use offsetting – with the Kwinana plant actually plugged directly into the State grid to guarantee base load supply. Kind of what you’d want for a critical piece of infrastructure, to be fair – but not the clean green closed circuit you might expect from Water Corporation press kits. More desalination would inevitably mean an increased load on the power infrastructure of the state already stressed by industrial and population growth forecasts.

What about the old standby of co-opting natural systems to supply our cities? Again, regrettably that well is already dry – with the state Economic Regulation Authority recognising that all divertable surface water resources in the Perth region had been tapped by 2004, and groundwater production by some estimates already exceeds long term recharge capacity.

So what are our options outside the planned water recycling scheme?

Curiously, the simplest solution – to my mind the obvious one – of reducing water use and increasing efficiency struggles to gain traction in this debate. This principle of moderation is, to give the Water Corporation their due, one of the planks in their vision of water security, but seems to resonate with no-one…possibly because it touches the hot button issue of asking us to as a society exert some self control and pull our heads in, instead of catering to rapacious consumer desire like an insecure step-parent trying to buy our affection ahead of a family court hearing.

Fundamentally Australia is not actually that short of water.

We just do stupid things with it.

The worrying shortfalls forecast in the ‘Water Forever’ report assume business as usual…with Australians using an average of 70,000 litres of water per person annually – the highest consumption of any nation on Earth. Hang on to that idea for a second and swirl it around the bowl one more time – we Australians, with a national psyche rooted in sunburnt desert landscapes and an inveterate fondness for trumpeting our credentials as occupants of the driest inhabited continent on Earth, piss away (literally and figuratively) more of this precious resource than anybody else on the planet.

It’s not too hard to see where a lot of that water goes. For anyone not familiar with the lovely city of Perth (for which, I should add, that annual consumption figure climbs to a jaw-dropping 106 kilolitres per person), the metropolitan area includes a lot more verdant green lawn and swimming pools than you might expect for a dry Mediterranean climate.

In essence, we still suffer the cultural hangover of trying to recreate an English idyll in a landscape singularly unsuited to it – and it would be career suicide for a politician of any stripe to suggest cutting back on any of the well watered sports fields that dot the suburbs.

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth's verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round - really the best use of our limited resources?

Lawn sprinklers keeping Perth’s verdant green municipal carpet healthy all year round – really the best use of our limited resources?

If we reduce this over-consumption to a more moderate level though – say the Dutch average of 55,000 litres per person – or better yet the French 40,000 – the problem goes away for the forseeable future. Okay, for anyone who’s ever been in the Paris metro when the wind is blowing the wrong direction, there are still some potential downsides to that scenario – but we’re not talking about converting to the lifestyle of Bedouin nomads here.

At the end of the day, there really is no such thing as a free lunch – even if, like a catwalk model going through a period of low self esteem, all you order is water. With a Malthusian resource ceiling looming, current trends of water consumption in Australia – profligate Western Australia in particular – clearly cannot continue into the future. All that remains is for us to decide which version of our medicine is the least bitter.

At a fundamental level the range of solutions to this resource ‘crisis’ are probably no different to those of any of the other maladies of over consumption afflicting our society in the 21st century. We can take the engineering pathway – working more overtime to pay for the diet pills and exercise machines we know we’ll never really use properly…or we can just collectively put down the cake fork and get off the couch.


Old Men and the Sea – the curious persistence of willful disbelief in Anthropogenic Climate Change

Imagine yourself, for a moment, adrift in a storm-tossed wooden lifeboat. Yours is the only vessel in sight – the only refuge in the heaving sea stretching to the horizon all around you. With a sinking heart – rightly concerned by the potential consequences – you realise the water level in the bottom of the boat is rising. You have nowhere else to go.

Now, the environment in which you find yourself may well be the source of this water – the persistent rain, the sea spray washing over the sides, perhaps even marine bivalve Teredo navalis – shipworms, as they were known in the days of grand wooden ships plying the seven seas – chewing their way through the hull of your fragile boat. That doesn’t mean that the signal fire you lit in the stern might not also be causing a leak. It’s not like you have a leakage budget to work within – “it’s okay, I’m going to take on a gallon of water an hour, so I can shave some more wood out of the sides and stoke the fire, and the rain will ease up to compensate”. Aware that fire is known to consume wood, and that, as my boat is made of wood, I could reasonably infer that my cheery blaze might be a factor – and one over which I had control, the prudent thing to do until I was pretty darned sure of things would be to douse it.

Of course, despite my obvious and melodramatic allegory here, we’re not really talking about drifting lifeboats. Rather, in a summer in which the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has found it necessary to add new colours to the temperature scale on their national synoptic charts, changing climate is probably a fair topic for engaged conversation.

Although I’m a professional scientist, and try to keep myself pretty well informed, I’m under no illusion that I can offer a fair and valid critique of understanding in this area. If that’s what you’re after, I heartily suggest you check out the US Global Change Research Program ( Me? I’ll put my hand up right now and tell you I don’t fully understand the physics of greenhouse warming, the consequences of changing landscape albedo to a solar energy budget, the details of orbital precession, or the design and function of supercomputer models of climate sensitivity. Unlike a number of (usually self nominated) commentators on climate science though, my philosophy in these circumstances is not to go ahead and shoot my mouth off anyway – at least not without a few glasses of good wine inside me – so this is not principally an essay about the rights and wrongs of understanding on anthropogenic climate change.

Instead I want to talk about the (to me, anyway) curious fact that vested interests and enthusiastic amateurs from all walks of life – politicians, newspaper columnists, school teachers, Jeremy Clarkson – seem possessed of an unshakeable belief that their understanding of climate change and its causes should be given equal weight to, say, Roger Revelle, or the IPCC.

I’m not talking here about debate over how we, individually and as a society, should respond to climate change – what steps we should take, how the cost should be borne. Here opinion and debate clearly should be entertained as we move towards a social contract. But the facts of the matter, the understanding of physical phenomena, does not submit to willpower or popularity. You don’t get to vote by SMS on whether anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are a driver of dangerous levels of climatic warming or just a combination of snuggly global duvet and healthy plant food.

By way of analogy to the problem here – diesel has a greater energy content than unleaded petrol. I know that’s true because I read it on the internet. Logically then, if I start putting diesel into my car, it will be more powerful and go further on a tank. Right?

The fact that I used the word logically probably tells you everything you need to know about why it’s important that I listen to my mechanic rather than trying to fix my car myself.

Let’s pursue that metaphor a little farther. Think about it – if this was your car we were talking about (and I might venture here that the climatic system of our entire planet might be a bit more important than that – even if you do wash yours more often than I manage and rotate the tires every 6 months) I doubt you’d be up for self diagnosis – or even taking the advice of Alan Jones – when your engine started knocking. No. I suspect that, like me, you would far rather trust the judgement and experience of auto mechanics who have trained for years and devoted themselves professionally to the diagnosis and correction of engine problems. Even if you did roll up to the workshop door with a worrying knot in your stomach over what they might find under the hood, and just how eye-wateringly expensive it might be to fix.

Yes, some mechanics are better than others, and there may even be shonky ones out there that don’t know what they’re doing, or worse, who are criminally intent on defrauding you by exaggerating or inventing problems. If you do your research though, and find out who other mechanics respect and what they think of each other’s work, I’m pretty confident you could probably do a good job of picking the right person to deal with any engine trouble you might have.

The problem, in its essence, is that ‘opinion’ is a complex and chimeric beast. It covers a spectrum from tastes or preferences, through views on issues of common concern – the ethical and political questions of the day, to views grounded in technical expertise – and here I’d include legal or scientific opinions. The common thread is that all these areas admit a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty – but not all are equal.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. It would be ludicrous for me to tell you that you were wrong to prefer sticky date pudding to cheesecake. Where this issue starts to go off the rails though is that we sometimes take opinions of the ethical and even the expertise-based sort to be unarguable in the same way such questions of taste are.

The silly – even embarrassing – thing here, at least for somebody coming from a Western philosophical tradition, is that Plato pretty much had this distinction sewn up 2400 years ago.

Today though all too often – whether by design or, I suspect usually more likely, ignorance, we seem to have forgotten this lesson.

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens and Federal Senator, argued long and vociferously against nuclear power throughout his career, despite not being a nuclear physicist. All well and good – but Meryl Dorey – leader of the Australian Vaccination Network (don’t be fooled by the name – this is a group vehemently opposed to childhood vaccination in all its forms) has used Brown’s record to argue that she should, in a similar vein, be listened to in regards to the healthcare of our children, despite having no medical qualifications of any stripe. The crucial difference between the two is that Dr Brown never represented himself as an authority on the physics of nuclear fission. He was always, entirely appropriately, commenting on policy responses to science, not the underlying scientific understanding. Dorey, in contrast, essentially tries to represent that her views should factor in debate regarding the biomechanics of vaccination and immune response itself – that her personal biases should be weighted equally to expert and scientifically validated opinion.

So – back to climate change – let’s take on board Plato’s distinction for a minute and ignore the opinions of the Nick Minchins and Lord Moncktons of the world. What do professional climate scientists – those experts who have devoted themselves to understanding the detailed interactions of climatic systems and earned the respect of their critical peers – understand to be happening to our climate?

First and foremost, our planet is warming up. Using any of a wide range of indicators (ocean heat content, sea surface temperatures, sea level, temperatures in the lower and middle troposphere, the rates at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting), the overall temperature of the Earth and the corresponding energy in our climate system are increasing.

According to a study recently published by a team of scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, there are now on average five times as many months with record-breaking high temperatures at measured locations worldwide than could be expected without significant and ongoing warming occurring. In parts of Europe, Africa and southern Asia, the figures are even worse – with instances of record-setting monthly temperatures exceeding statistical expectation by a factor of ten.

While there are a number of influences on the climate system, such as changing levels of solar radiation and abundance of atmospheric aerosols, independent climate researchers also almost universally conclude that this warming has been produced dominantly by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with a significant proportion of this emitted by human activities.

Now remember, that’s not me saying this – these are the expert opinions of the big beasts at the climate science waterhole with the expertise and experience to give their opinions real weight. These are the people we should be listening to.

In a recent essay on Science Communication (‘Three Monkeys, Ten Minutes: Scientists and the Importance of Communication Skills’ – WordPress, 18 October, 2012), I used the metaphor of taking sides in a scientific debate you don’t understand being like weighing in to an argument in a language you don’t speak – a Frenchman and a German speaking in Spanish, let’s say – on the basis of liking one participant’s accent more than the other. In the field of climate change, the position of someone who would deny the reality of anthropogenic warming is even more tenuous, because as the debate stands its like 97% of the Spanish speakers in the room (everyone except Pierre’s mother and the crazy old guy whose brother was killed in the second world war and hates all Germans with an unquenchable rage, let’s say) agree that our French friend is wrong-headed and it’s Heidi we should listen to – but still there are non-linguists willing to back up the Frenchman with an unthinking “yeah, what he said” against all comers.

To come full circle to our fragile boat alone on the stormy seas – although the consequences of putting out my fire if it wasn’t reducing my vessel’s seaworthiness might be unpleasant (I’d be wet and cold – and frightened, alone in the vast empty expanse of the ocean), the consequences of not taking action if my hypothesis ultimately proved correct would be much, much worse.

More importantly, although I would really like to know exactly where the water was coming from and which source was the most important (sorry, scientific curiosity has me in its thrall), my first reaction wouldn’t be to set up an interim enquiry and design some experiments. No. Me? I’d start bailing.

Cuddles and Rainbows, or Extra-Crispy? The implications of Climate Change through Geological Time

Marking lab reports for an Environmental Science course I started teaching this year, I found it interesting that several students, after examining evidence of changing sea level and ice volume in the geological record, expressed a view that ice sheet collapse and rapid resulting sea level rise in the coming century are not causes for concern because they are natural phenomena. The logical mis-step here seems to be an equation of ‘natural’ with ‘good’ or ‘harmless’. Cyanide is a naturally occurring compound, but I think we would all be concerned if it was found in our drinking water. Salt water crocodiles are natural phenomena, but I sincerely doubt that a reasonable person could fail to be thoroughly exercised if they found one in their swimming pool.

My students are not alone though in taking climatic comfort from the geological record.

The idea does have some logical basis to it – but like all scientific concepts, the key is to look at the pragmatic implications of the arguments. Climate does change naturally over timescales of thousands to millions of years, for reasons well understood by scientists – subtle variations in our planet’s orbit, variations in the output energy from the sun, and variation in the intensity of global volcanism, amongst others.

Indeed, records of climatic conditions locked within geological strata show that the current climate is not the warmest in our Earth’s history – with global temperatures estimated to have been 6°C warmer 50 million years ago during the Eocene period, and as much as 8°C warmer 510 or so million years ago in the Cambrian. Nor are levels of CO2 – probably the most widely discussed of the ‘greenhouse gases’ contributing to recent anthropogenic warming of the planet – the highest they have ever been, with levels 2-4 times as high as at present for much of the past 500 million years.

More to the point, as we see here in this widely re-published figure from a study by paleoclimatologists Lorraine Lisiecki and Maureen Raymo, if we assume (possibly somewhat charitably – the figures are pretty loose on this) that anatomically modern humans have been around for the order of 200 thousand years, the temperatures recorded over that period indicate that we must have responded to, and survived, major climatic swings and attendant consequences in sea level several times in the past.

A record of climatic change over the past 5 million years, compiled from analysis of sedimentary cores. Reproduced from Lisiecki & Raymo (2005). “A Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ18O records”, Paleoceanography 20.

So is climate change all just cuddles and rainbows? Probably not, unfortunately. The fact that we as a species have lived through significant swings in climate does not mean it was necessarily a pretty period in our history. Nor that the same approach would necessarily be effective today.

The dinosaurs, after all, lived through a lot of change in their 160 million-odd years of planetary dominance, but that didn’t buy them any extra credit at the end of the Cretaceous.

Yes, our unparalleled abilities to reason and invent give us advantages over species pushed to the edge during previous periods of global change. But only – and this is a critical point – only if we use them.

To quote human induced global warming skeptic par excellence Ian Plimer on the subject of climate change in the geological record:

“Climate change has been with us for the 4,500 million year history of planet Earth. This is what climate does. It always changes. Changes in our lifetime may be natural”.

Again I sense here the implication that natural is synonymous with harmless – nothing we should worry about. Leaving that aside though, whether or not climate changes naturally is actually a distraction from the real question here – which is whether human activity is producing climate change of a magnitude too great and on a timescale too short to allow effective adaptation. If I might return to the opening paragraph of this essay to construct a somewhat fatalistic analogy, the fact that my taking cyanide would probably prove a lethal mistake does not make me bullet-proof. Just because natural processes produce changes in climate that may be deleterious to human societies on a local to global scale does not mean we shouldn’t be deeply concerned about the fact that human activities appear on the balance of evidence to be producing the same sort of effect, but on an even faster time scale.

To return to the inimitable Professor Plimer, writing here in his recent guide to refuting climate change ‘How to Get Expelled From School’ – a gift that keeps on giving to those in search of a quotable line:

“…a clever teacher would put you in your place and may suggest that the ideal temperature for an Eskimo is not the ideal temperature for someone living in the jungles of Borneo. You could then come back and suggest that this shows that humans can adapt to a great range of temperature so why worry about a warmer world”.

Leaving aside Plimer’s choice of the derogatory term Eskimo, the Inuit people of Arctic Greenland and Canada actually do offer a nice little case study of how to respond to climate change…albeit not conforming to the ‘business as usual’ agenda Plimer seems to be pushing.

Greenland’s arctic landscape was settled by Norse colonists from Iceland in the 10th century, at the height of an interval of unusually warm temperatures known as the Medieval Warm Period. For a time, the settlers prospered and built a flourishing community, but as temperatures fell at the end of that warm interval, the Norse stuck rigidly to their European diet and farming methods. In the face of the deteriorating climate, the Norse colonists’ lifestyle became progressively more marginal and eventually untenable, with both of their settlements dying out some time around the mid 1500’s. At the same time however, Inuit people, with a lifestyle and technology adapted to the cooler conditions continued to live successfully in the same landscape. So yes, humans were quite capable of adapting to changed conditions in climate – but those that tried to resist change and pursue traditional lifestyles in the face of climatic variations were eventually overwhelmed by the changes.

William Nierenberg – American physicist and co-founder of right wing think tank the George C. Marshall Institute seriously proposed in the 1980s that the effects of climate change could be dealt with by migration.

Now, although records of prehistoric movements are imperfect and fragmentary, it does seem likely that this is indeed how people responded to the previous episodes of climate change we see in the geological record. Take this one through to its logical conclusion though – a successful strategy for a nomadic species of a few hundred thousand souls ten thousand years ago may not be the first plan to reach for when you have an urbanised population pushing 7 billion divided into geographically based nation states all looking to find a climate refuge. Let’s be honest here, mass immigration of a coherent social group into a region already settled by a long established population hasn’t turned out to be such a great recipe for convivial relationships and lasting happiness in the Middle East.

This idea is elevated from Alan Jones mouthing-off-without-concern-for-the-facts territory to dangerously loopy by the fact that Nierenberg was speaking not as an individual, but as Chair of the US National Academy of Sciences Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee, and a key science adviser to the Reagan administration.

Fundamentally, migration as a response to climate change in the modern world is all very well if you have a summer home on Lake Michigan, but I have a sneaking suspicion Nierenberg wasn’t talking about opening his doors to Mexicans and Brazillians whose countries had gone from regular to extra crispy. As public information campaigns go, Nierenberg’s suggestion ultimately falls into the same tragicomic category as the 1950s ‘duck and cover’ ads in the USA suggesting school children should shelter under their desks in the event of Nuclear attack.

Yes, climate change has occurred through geological time – and even through human history and pre-history. There is also, however, a long record of buses driving down Stirling Highway just outside my office – so regularly, believe it or not, that you could almost think they operate to a timetable. And yet, despite that routine nature and predictability, I would still counsel you against standing in front of one as it hurtles down the road.