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Environment

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.

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.

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 https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/discussion/460/climate-change-and-health-the-future-isnt-what-it-used-to-be.

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 https://connect.coastadapt.com.au/.

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: http://www.cleanupconference.com/essay-competition
Email: simon@scientell.com.au

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 https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/public-policy-media/media-releases.

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 https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/dolphins-devils-corals-cane-toads-million-dollar-endowment-funds-australia%E2%80%99s-newest-ecologists.


Photo: Blue Planet Marine and CEAL

Book review: ‘Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them’

Surviving the 21st Century Australia has no better science writer than Julian Cribb. He is knowledgeable, extraordinarily well informed and superbly adept at presenting accurate, fascinating information in a way that just begs to be read.

His latest book is Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. The fact that we have survived for 16 years of the century shouldn’t lull us into thinking that the remaining 84 years will be straightforward. I write this review on the day WWF report that ‘worldwide populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have plunged by almost 60 per cent since 1970 as human activities overwhelm the environment’.

Each chapter in Surviving the 21st Century considers a great challenge, including mass extinction, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, universal toxicity, food crises, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies, and self-delusion.

It’s easy to describe problems, more difficult to proffer solutions. Cribb does this at each chapter’s conclusion in a section called ‘What we must do’.

Surviving the 21st Century does something that few other publications do: it comprehensively addresses all the main threats to us and to our planet. The holistic approach offers more hope than efforts to tackle problems individually, which can sometimes make matters worse.

Cribb knows intuitively how to convey information vividly and accurately. Writing about frogs, he states, ‘Two in every five of their known species face extinction’. That expression grabs you more than the ’40 per cent’ that most scientists would write.

Years ago, US journalists coined the term ‘Hey Martha’ for stories and news items so amazing that when you hear them, you just have to shout across the room, Hey Martha, listen to this!’. Surviving the 21st Century is full of such examples. They grab your attention and make you think, which is the whole point. Hopefully, sufficient numbers of people thinking will lead to action.

Here’s a ‘Hey Martha’ from the book: What consumes 10 kg of topsoil, 800 litres of fresh water, 1.3 litres of diesel, a third of a gram of pesticide and causes 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide to enter the air? Answer: the last meal you ate. Now multiply that by all the meals you’ve consumed and all the people on Earth. No wonder we have a problem. As Cribb puts it, ‘the human jawbone is among the most destructive of implements on the planet’.

Here’s another sobering anecdote for Martha: ‘Tonight around two hundred thousand more people will sit down to dinner than dined last night.’

You’ll be hard pressed to find a page without a fascinating factoid. Cribb certainly does his research, and knows how to craft that research into unforgettable messages.

What’s his recipe for curbing the impact on planet Earth of our insatiable hunger? Sustainable urban food production using recycled water and organic waste; teaching the next generation to value and respect food; apply a food levy to pay farmers and indigenous peoples to restore and maintain the environment; introduce a ‘Year of Food’, teaching respect, awareness and appreciation of food, in every junior school on the planet. There are many more suggestions on the menu. Each is thought provoking and a number are completely original. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with some of the ideas or think that they may be unfeasible, Cribb has set out a range of options well worth considering. Doing nothing is not one of them.

If you’d like to pursue any of the idea and possible solutions, Surviving the 21st Century includes a detailed list of references.

The ‘sapiens’ in homo sapiens means ‘wise’ in Latin. We can demonstrate wisdom by getting hold of a copy of Surviving the 21st Century and applying some of the recommendations to our own lives. We can recommend the book to others. We can alert our leaders to the book and its contents. We owe this to ourselves and to our planet.