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Simon Torok

Collaborate, motivate and activate communities

I recently completed a training course on how to engage communities, and you’d be surprised how a bit of structure in a discussion can help motivate people to take positive action to change the world.

Community engagement encourages participation in the decisions that affect . . . well, the community. However, to successfully engage people you need to do more than just turn up to a meeting.

The course, run by Macquarie University’s Australian Research Institute for Environment and Sustainability, explains how to capture the opinions of a representative group or engage a whole community, how to empower communities and develop closer working relationships with them.

For example, you have to ask the right people the right questions to get the information you need. You have to listen, document what people say, and analyse the information carefully. And when reporting your findings, it’s important to report back to the community and have them check that you’ve accurately captured their views.

Community engagement can take many forms, ranging from basic information sharing (such as through fact sheets, websites and media activity), to consultation (including surveys, interviews and public meetings) and active participation (involving citizen juries, consensus conferencing and other community collaborations).

We worked through real-life case studies, such as the Habitat Stepping Stones project that encouraged property owners to plant native species and create wildlife habitat in their backyards to address habitat fragmentation.

The training course includes topics such as designing and developing community engagement projects, building community resilience and capacity, and engaging diverse groups and volunteers of all ages.

For more information, see

Calendar photos bring ecology to life

Dingo puppies in the Great Sandy Desert (Pilbara Region), WA. Photo by Bradley Smith.

The 2018 Ecology Society of Australia calendar features spectacular images of Australian flora, fauna, landscapes, coasts, skies and marine environments.

Many disciplines contribute to ecology and ecosystem science, with research delivering a wide range of economic and social benefits for Australia. Ecosystems provide the environments where we live, work and spend our leisure-time; the settings for our industry, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and resource extraction; and the distinctive plants and animals characteristic of the Australian continent.

A weedy seadragon at Flinders Pier, Victoria. Photo by Richard Wylie.

The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) is the peak association of ecologists in Australia, with over 1,200 members from all states and territories. Scientell provides media communication support to the society, and is a proud sponsor of the calendar.

A flock of galahs in the Strzelecki Desert, SA. Photo by Christian Spencer.

The calendar features images from previous ESA photographic competitions, held every year with prizes for the best photographs of biodiversity, landscapes and ecologists at work. You can enter this year’s competition before it closes on 22 Oct, at

Order the 2018 ESA calendar at

An echidna in the Australian Alps near Mt Twynam, NSW. Photo by Charles Davis.

Lead influencing crime, Ice drug contaminating homes, and other highlights from CleanUp2017

700 scientists, engineers, regulators and other environmental professionals from more than 20 countries have been in Melbourne this week at the biennial CleanUp global forum.

CleanUp 2017, organised by the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), ran in Melbourne from 11 to 13 September. Delegates discussed many of the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today, including chemical weapons, climate change, asbestos, and per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

For example, one paper that caught our eye described how children exposed to lead in soil are more likely to commit crime as young adults. Dr Mark Cave, from the British Geological Survey, compared lead levels in soil with socio-economic information about health, wealth, employment, housing and crime in England. He found a link between soil lead and criminal behaviour in Derby’s urban environment, and said results in Australia show a strong relationship between childhood lead exposure and subsequent rates of aggressive crime. You can hear more about his work in an Australian Science Media Centre online media briefing.

For more details on our involvement in the conference, see our post on LinkedIn here.

Today Al Gore reminded me that when someone tells you something, do something

Ten years ago I saw the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Driving home from the cinema that night, I passed a car with its headlights off – and flashed my headlights at them using the local language for ‘you’ve forgotten to turn on your lights’. What happened next is a metaphor for climate change denialism.

Car headlights

Photo credits: Soumyadeep Paul 

The driver didn’t turn on their headlights, didn’t pull over to investigate what may have been be wrong, nor thanked me for alerting them to their oversight. They honked their horn at me. And kept on driving in the dark.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m provided with information about something that should inspire action, I’m grateful and try to immediately act on the new knowledge I have been given.

I don’t have anything against people driving at night with their headlights off: it’s an easy – albeit dangerous – mistake to make. But if they ignore a warning and keep driving, I’m inclined to judge them more harshly.

Listening to Al Gore speak today to the Ecocity conference in Melbourne, I was reminded of my experience a decade ago – and how that driver’s action was a lot like the denial of climate change.

I’ve been surrounded for years by scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding how the climate is changing due to human activities. With most people I meet, once I provide information on how the planet is changing, they understand and may even act to change their behaviour to do something about the problem.

But every now and then, I speak to someone who doesn’t ‘believe’ the facts. Despite being furnished with information, they don’t believe it, and keep living the way they always have. They may even get angry. Just like the driver who honked their horn at me when I warned them about their headlights being off.

Today I was in the audience at the Ecocity 2017 conference as Al Gore asked, ‘must we change, can we change, and will we change?’ He started with what is now well-known information about the changing planet: we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than at any time in the last 66 million years; that 16 of the world’s 17 hottest years have occurred since 2001. Indeed, he said we know global warming is happening because the hottest year on record now always seems to be the year we’re currently in.

Then things went very dark very quickly. Mr Gore explained that heatwaves in Australia are now five times more likely than in the past, and he showed videos from around the world of people, vehicles and aeroplanes stuck in melting tar as temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius. The audience was shocked by videos of disasters, near misses and dramatic rescues that brought to life the rise in extreme events due to human activities.

But hang on, he said, the hope is coming. We generate 16 times more wind energy than was expected a decade ago; 75 times more solar energy. In 2016, the UK generated more electricity from wind than from coal. Solar energy plus batteries will change the world, according to Mr Gore.

Unlike a decade ago, Al Gore is not just promoting the problem. He’s promoting the solution; he is promoting hope. He called for us to join those who use their voices, votes and choices to do something about climate change – in short, not to continue to drive around in the dark.

Short-circuiting a superpower, city by city

The US is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, but there are reassuring signs of action at a sub-nation scale.

At the opening of the Ecocity World Summit being held in Melbourne this week, I heard a lot about the many environmental initiatives my home city of Melbourne is taking. I was also pleased to hear the action being taken to address climate change at a regional level by the Government of my State, Victoria. These activities at city and state level made the lack of action being taken at the national level by my country, Australia, crystal clear.

The Hon Lily D’Ambrosio MP, Victorian Government Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, told delegates that it is now law in Victoria to have zero net emissions by 2050. Her comments were followed by Melbourne’s Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Arron Wood, who told us that cities and states will do the heavy lifting to meet national greenhouse gas targets. And during the day’s conference presentations, the message was clear: the role of cities and sub-nation governments such as states has become increasingly important in the face of country-level inaction and scepticism about climate change.

During the Ecocity World Summit media conference (which had the media-friendly title of ‘Driving climate action in a Trump world – how cities can circumvent a superpower’), Kevin Austin, Deputy CEO of C40, told gathered media that cities are a cause of climate change due to dense populations and the large proportion of global emissions they cause, and hence also need to be part of the solution. C40 is a network of 91 of the world’s cities that have committed to urgent action on climate change.

‘All cities need to be carbon neutral by 2050 or earlier,’ he said. Referring to US President Trump’s statement, ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’, Kevin said we need to abide by the Paris accord (to reduce global emissions to a level that would keep global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius), to do right by the citizens of both Pittsburgh and Paris, and the citizens of the world. ‘Cities can play a part on the national level, and also on the international level.’ (Pittsburgh’s Mayor, Bill Peduto, said that he was outraged at Trump’s statement, rejoindering that ‘It’s up to cities — not the federal government — to ensure carbon emission guidelines are being followed’.)

Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, told the media that local governments are the most critical force to keep the world’s warming close to 2 degrees. He said that a territorial approach – that is, action by cities and states – is very important. ‘Australia is a world leader in adaptation, and has been for a long time,’ he said. ‘The world is likely to overshoot the 1.5 degree target, so we need to prepare for adaptation now because some of this stuff is unfortunately going to happen.’

As Ronan Dantec, Senator for the Loire-Atlantique Region in France, said, ‘Now we are in a time of action.’

Climate change and health: the future isn’t what it used to be

Climate change could have far‐reaching consequences for human health across the 21st century. But there is at least some good news on how health systems are adapting.

‘It doesn’t take an extreme weather event to have an extreme health impact,’ said Professor Kristie Ebi, from the University of Washington, speaking at the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic conference in Canberra in February 2017.

People have a narrow capacity to adapt to high temperatures, so increasing ambient temperatures and heatwaves will increase vulnerability to heat-stress. Another consequence of climate change includes more pollen, which could exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Changes in water availability and agricultural productivity could increase undernutrition, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa. ‘The biggest health consequence of climate change will likely be undernutrition,’ she said.

Kris noted good news when it comes to adaptation to increasing health risks from climate change. ‘Health services are starting to use weather and other environmental data for forecast systems,’ she said. ‘For example, early warning systems of dengue outbreaks can help prevent transmission.’

You can read more about this work at

Scientell worked with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can read more feature articles about climate adaptation at

A safer, cleaner environmental future: the CRC CARE High School Essay Competition

Enter the CRC CARE High School Essay Competition with a 500- to 1000-word essay about contaminants in the environment (for a safer, cleaner environmental future) and you could win a great prize!

Choose from two categories:
* The Dr Roneal Naidu award for writing on chemical contamination and its effect on food quality and human health ($1000 prize)
* The CRC CARE award for writing on contamination of our planet: how can we ensure a clean and safe environment for future generations? ($500 prize)

Entries are open to students in Years 7 to 12. The best essay on each topic, judged on its writing quality, interest, newsworthiness, and scientific accuracy, will receive a cash prize and a trip to Melbourne for the CleanUp 2017 conference gala dinner (prize winners must be accompanied to the gala dinner by a parent/legal guardian, at their parent/guardian’s own expense).

CRC CARE (the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment) does scientific research to help stop or clean up contamination of our soil, water and air. Your essay can help!

To enter, click on the link below for more information and to download the entry form.

Entries close 13 August 2017.

More information:

Everyone has a good story

I had the privilege of interviewing half a dozen of Australia’s newest ecologists this week, after more than $1 million in funds for students were announced by the Ecological Society of Australia.

In speaking with just six of the 100 students who will share the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, I realised that every one of them had a fascinating story to tell about their research. I wish I had the time to write 100 stories.

For example, Mr Tom Botterill-James, from the University of Tasmania, is investigating how female promiscuity influences conflict in families of lizards, to solve a mystery of evolution – that is, why animals cooperate when cheating helps the fittest survive.

‘A key question in evolutionary biology is that if the strongest survive through the selection of the fittest genes, why do animals cooperate?’ Tom told me. He said helping family members, who share genes with relatives, helps the survival of their genetic material. ‘I hope to use these unique family-living lizards to boil down the basis of the evolution of family life, and find the initial triggers for the evolution of family living.’

A family of White’s skink lizards (photo by Geoff While)

More on this and other projects is available at

In another project, Mr Matheus Mello-Athayde, from the University of Queensland, is investigating whether a resilient coral found at the Great Barrier Reef can give hope for marine ecosystems under future global warming and acidification.

‘We’re all concerned about the devastating effects that climate change is having on reefs,’ he said. ‘I’m looking at a common coral that is resilient and trying to work out what it is that helps it do better than other species in the same areas, in the hope that this insight will help us protect reefs in the future.’

Ms Victoria Austin, from the Western Sydney University, is investigating why female lyrebirds mimic other species, and why some are better at it than others. She said the Holsworth grant will allow her to purchase equipment – including taxidermic models of predators such as goshawks, goannas and foxes – to investigate the function of female lyrebirds’ mimicry.

Victoria’s results may challenge how we think about the evolution of song and other vocalisations in birds. ‘It has long been held that song in songbirds is a result of females selecting the best males. But as females don’t need to attract males, the evolutionary pathway for females appears to be different to that of males. If we can use this species as a model to see how vocal mimicry evolved, it will have implications for our understanding of other species around the world.’

A female lyrebird (photo by Justin Welbergen)

Ms Dana Cusano, from the University of Queensland, is studying what motivates whales to make social sounds, and whether it matters if the noise from increased shipping means they can’t hear each other.

‘We have no idea what whales are saying,’ said Dana. ‘I’m looking at motivational information to figure it out. If we can work out how whales use sounds, and how important their calls are, we’ll have a better idea about how shipping will affect them.’

Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

That’s just a taste of the amazing research that’s underway in the field of ecology, and enhanced thanks to the funding announced this week.

The Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment has supported more than 850 students since it was established by renowned ecologist, wildlife biologist and philanthropist Dr Bill Holsworth and his wife Carol in 1989. It is managed through a partnership with the Ecological Society of Australia.

The media release announcing the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment winners is at

Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

Being a mentor can feel like being a mentee – in a good way.

Discussing the communication of scientific and technical information with the next generation, and influencing their thinking about it, is something I’d like to do for all students. As Director of the science communication company Scientell, I see it as vital that students have communication as part of their skill set.

So, when I was asked to be a mentor by the University of Melbourne, where I completed a PhD two decades ago, I jumped at the chance. But what surprised me was how much I learned.

Interactions with my mentee, Adam, were certainly two-way conversations. While I hope that he benefited from my mentor-like thoughts such as explanations of my career path, the opportunities for jobs in my area, and advice on specifics about science communication activities, I also benefited in talking with Adam about his plans – I was able to reflect on how his plans related to my own.
By going through a process of articulating my experiences and advice, I could reflect on my career, re-evaluate my own plans, and think about what my next steps are. So I was mentoring myself just as much as Adam.

There’s a video about my experience at

The program was a great way to support the next generation, and learn something in the process. It was also a good networking opportunity to meet other mentors, and reconnect with the university. Also, the program enabled me to interact with some of the brightest young minds in the country, so you never know, I may be knocking on Adam’s door one day asking him for advice!

For more on mentoring at Melbourne, see

Urgent action requires weighing up risks

Adaptation activities need to be informed by the best available science, but sometimes urgent action requires weighing up risks. A lack of information is no excuse for delaying action in an emergency.

This was the case at Port Fairy, 280 km west of Melbourne on the south coast of Victoria. The beach is often flooded, and erosion puts around 200 beach-front homes at risk of being undermined. Additionally, sea-level rise and erosion have exposed rusty metal, glass and asbestos from two decommissioned landfills.


‘The most obvious climate change issue is sea-level rise,’ says Robert Gibson, the Manager of Environment and Regulatory Services at Moyne Shire Council. ‘We’re already looking at properties being inundated and roads blocked off during storm surges, with sizeable rocks being thrown up that require a front-end loader to remove. Sometimes you need to bring a lilo to the beach rather than a towel!’

He says they are fortunate to have the local community conducting monitoring and sharing information, and Council has undertaken remedial action. ‘We’ve done studies on engineering solutions to the loss of beach sand, engineering assessments of the current sea wall, and designs for its upgrading, and started implementing some of these solutions,’ he says.

Robert says research has been fundamental to the decisions being made. ‘Without knowing the limitations of the current sea wall, it would be hard to justify the funding to upgrade it. With scientific information, we know we are doing what’s required for the long-term protection of the houses and assets on the dunes.’

Conversely, he says action to address the exposed tip site has not been as thoroughly researched. ‘It was at crisis point; rubbish was emerging from the dunes, so taking action was necessary with minimal research behind it. We trialled a 125-metre wave energy dissipation structure to mitigate erosion. Within weeks of construction, the structure was tested by a storm. After the storm you could clearly see the structure was the difference between minimal rubbish falling out of the tip, and having a catastrophe.’

Robert says they took a chance, as doing nothing due to insufficient information is not an excuse. ‘You need to weigh up the risk and rewards, and get the job done.’

You can find out more at

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up and join the discussion at