Focus Australia – Serious climate issues down under

By Kate Goldstone

For generations, people from all over the world have made their way to Australia on holiday to enjoy its wonderful warm, sunny weather and extraordinary natural environments. Plenty of families moved there permanently, seduced by the climate. Now New South Wales, the country’s most heavily populated state, is officially experiencing total drought, and Australia’s legendary hot dry weather is fast becoming more or a problem than a pleasure (1).

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as “rainfall over a three-month period being in the lowest decile of what has been recorded for that region in the past ” (2). The current very dry winter down under is intensifying the ‘worst drought in living memory’ in some areas of eastern Australia, with New South Wales, the provider of a quarter of the country’s agriculture, now 100% in drought. 23% of New South Wales is in a state of ‘intense drought’ and the rest is either in drought or drought-affected. And in the news’ grim wake there’s a growing litany of horror in the form of failing crops, dying livestock, and severe water shortages.

Some farmers are being forced to pay as much as a hundred dollars for a truck of hay to keep their beasts alive. Some are selling off their animals in despair. Others are digging in to wait for the rain… if it ever comes. In the Australian countryside farming suicide rates have always been higher than average. Now they’re around 40% higher than urban suicide rates, according to the national mental health charity Sane Australia (3).

The blame lies at the feet of climate change

Of course Australia’s weather is naturally varied year-on-year, and is affected by multiple complicated factors. Like much of the world’s weather it’s a chaotic system, and hard to predict. But all the same, a growing number of scientists are laying the blame at the feet of climate change. The Australian government itself admits the risk of severe drought could be more likely thanks to human-created global warming. As the Prime Minister PM Turnbull acknowledged, he doesn’t know many people in New South Wales who don’t think the climate is getting drier and rainfall becoming more volatile.

Government relief payments do nothing to fix the underlying issue

The Australian government is already paying out annual relief of as much as A$16,000 to affected farmers. The Prime Minister has just promised extra payments of up to A$12,000, in a move that has been criticised for being too little, too late. In a nation where drought isn’t a stranger at the best of times, it’s clear those in power are worried. But like most governments, they’re not doing anywhere near enough on the people’s behalf to mitigate climate change. Emergency relief doesn’t contribute to the fight against global warming, it merely papers over the cracks.

Australia is at more risk of runaway climate change than most

Worse still, The Guardian (4) reports that climate change could affect Australia more than any other continent. A science agency and Bureau of Meteorology report says they expect temperatures to rise as much as 5.1C in Australia by the year 2090. Scientists have long predicted that a 4C rise would be catastrophic, and that makes a hike of more than 5C downright terrifying. Unless action is taken to dramatically slash greenhouse gas emissions right now, officials say there’s a ‘very high confidence’ that temperatures will continue to rise steeply across Australia throughout the 21st century. Let things slide any further and the Australian government’s lack of real action could see the worst case 5C scenario become a reality.

How high temperatures affect humans

High temperatures affect more than agriculture, of course. If you’ve ever suffered through an exceptionally hot summer’s day you’ll know how nasty and uncomfortable it can be. The human body has an internal temperature of around 37C, and it dislikes being any hotter. Prolonged exposure to heat and humidity can easily kill you. If it doesn’t you’ll suffer muscle cramps because you’re dried out, short of vital electrolytes, and salt-deprived. If you’re not used to high temperatures you can suffer heat edema, where your hands and ankles swell up like balloons when your poor blood vessels dilate in an effort to radiate heat away. If you see little prickly red spots on your skin, it’s a heat rash caused by blocked sweat pores. If you stop sweating altogether, it’s time to worry – you’re on the road to potentially fatal heat stroke. When you heat up to more than 40C and lose consciousness, you’re in real trouble.

Extreme heat also results in dizziness, nausea, fainting, hallucinations, and something called heat syncope, where you get a temporary drop in the blood flow to your brain because you’ve lost so much fluid. Vomiting, diarrhoea and palpitations also reveal your body is not at all happy. No wonder, in summer 2003, an estimated 70,000 people died in the great European heatwave, which saw temperatures soaring to record levels for weeks on end.

All this happens to humans… and to our fellow creatures, who also suffer and die when temperatures exceed the usual maximum. Australia’s precious Great Barrier Reef, for example, is dying fast, being bleached to death thanks to rising sea temperatures. And once it goes, that’s that – it’s gone. Half a million years of growth, and we destroy it within a few decades. It’s shameful.

No continent is an island

The thing is, no continent is an island. Climate change is global. No one country is protected from it, no one country can make it go away. If Australia doesn’t act fast enough on climate change, the USA will ultimately suffer. If the USA doesn’t act fast enough Europe will suffer. If the EU doesn’t act now, China will suffer. And so on. We’re all interconnected, as are our economies. When one part of a global economy nosedives, so does the rest.

Australia might just be facing a perfect storm. When you blend dire predictions with government inaction and a climate that might already be changing off the scale, the future doesn’t look rosy.

It’s time to force the world’s governments to act on our behalves, to try to secure a decent future for our children. Will you go to jail for the cause, the greatest challenge mankind has had to face since we made our way out of Africa? Can you support the cause in any other way? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Together we can make great things happen.

 

Sources:

(1) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-45107504

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drought_in_Australia

(3) https://www.sane.org/

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/26/climate-change-will-hit-australia-harder-than-rest-of-world-study-shows

(5) https://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles/five-awful-ways-extreme-heat-affects-the-human-body/51464

Can psychology help understand and combat ecological catastrophe?

By Derek Boswell

The issue of climate change has been gaining traction with each passing moment. Seemingly so, anyways: News articles and government reports portray a grim future where natural resources are scarce and natural disasters are all too abundant (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2018). Countless documentary films suggest no different (Guggenheim & Gore, 2006). To some, this comes with an added dose of irony: Capitalism – the very system which can be owed to their box-office success, is the supposed driving force behind global pollution. To others, the ingenuity of free-market capitalism will provide the answer to our environmental ills. Not only is there infighting among climate change’s adherents, there is also a battle over the seriousness, legitimacy, and relevance of this issue. Indeed, some concerned citizens have made meaningful changes in their own lives, but this amounts to only a fraction of what climate change reports call for (IPCC, 2018). Nevertheless popular sentiment suggests that climate change poses an existential threat to the Earth, so what’s with all the talk, and not all the action?

This article will take a look at one study in particular, which aims to mitigate ecological harm through unlikely means; psychology. In “Redefining Climate Change Inaction as Temporal Intergroup Bias: Temporally Adapted Interventions for Reducing Prejudice May Help Elicit Environmental Protection” (2017), researchers Rose Meleady and Richard Crisp shed light on the psychological barriers yielding this disparity between action, inaction and disbelief in climate change.

As is often the case when giving science away to the public; methods, findings, implications and applications are often muddled through a misunderstanding of scientific vocabulary. To some, “temporal intergroup bias” may at first glance appear incomprehensible jargon. Simply put, this describes the perceptions one makes of ingroup and outgroup peers, and the favoritism bias inherent towards the former. In this case, groups are defined temporally; as living and future generations (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). It is this former generation’s prejudice for the latter that lies at the center of Meleady and Crisps’s hypothesis (2017).

Now, one might ask; how could prejudice possibly mediate climate change engagement!? Prejudice is so often conceived as racial bias or perhaps gender bias, but it can just as easily be generational – and it mustn’t necessarily be explicit bias either. Meleady and Crisp aptly cited a phrase from Barrack Obama’s final presidential address as an example of this: It would “betray future generations” to not act boldly on climate change (2017). Likewise, they paraphrase Pope Francis in stating “the destruction of the natural world for our own benefit as a sin against God and future generations” (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

Minimal Groups Paradigm suggests that the formation of groups may be founded upon any uniting factor, however arbitrary it may seem (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). By seeing our current generation as a separate entity from future ones, Meleady and Crisp hypothesize that, due to a favourable ingroup bias, we see climate change as a presumably distant threat and an irrelevant concern for our generation (2017): In this context, ingroup members – the present generation – are making sacrifices for the benefit of a future generation (e.g. reducing fuel consumption, plastic waste, industrial farming). This comes with little perceived intrinsic reward for ourselves, with no chance of reprisal from the temporally distant outgroup; the future generation. When we choose to support ingroup members, or feel less compassion for outgroup members who experience harm, this in effect, is prejudice. Most importantly, this highlights how psychology does indeed play a role in prejudice – not merely politics and physical traits (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

These temporal intergroup boundaries are arbitrary. As Meleady and Crisp believe; they are likely a product of our desire to socially categorize our peers – predicated upon a psychological urge to find patterns where they apparently exist, rather than a logical, political goal (2017). It’s in this distinction that the beauty of Meleady and Crisp’s research lies: Rather than attempting to outright extinguish this supposed psychological desire – a futile endeavor – the scientists intend to flip that desire on its head: By redefining the parameters of ingroup and outgroup membership (2017).

In a small 2017 pilot study designed to test the efficacy of this approach, Meleady and Crisp had 140 participants randomly divided into control and experimental groups. The experimental group was tasked with identify five similarities between present and future generations. The control group had a similar task, albeit with irrelevant categories (e.g. cats and dogs). Participants then rated how similar they felt to future generations, with the experimental condition reporting statistically significant scores, compared to the non-significant scores of their control group counterparts. In other words, Meleady and Crisp found the result they were hoping for; by consciously breaking down these arbitrary intergroup barriers, we do indeed have the ability to identify with, and accept, those outside of our traditional groups (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

Meleady and Crisp took this a step further with two subsequent 2017 experimental studies. Both were conducted to determine if changing intergroup attitudes can also garner pro-environmental behaviours. The first study asked 80 participants to think about present and future generations (like in the first study) or sports (an irrelevant issue). Participants were then asked if they would purchase a more environmentally sustainable version of common products such as jeans, milk, and electronic devices. The second study had a similar design to the first, albeit with a key difference: Participants were asked if they would perform more environmentally conscious behaviours that transcended mere buying habits (Medleady & Crisps, 2017).

In both studies, the results met the researchers’ predictions: Not only can arbitrary intergroup barriers be broken down by demonstrating group similarity; this newfound similarity has the potential to foster better environmental stewardship behaviours too (Medleady & Crisps, 2017). This is all fine and well to say that a simple change in attitudes can be a great boon for establishing environmental concern, but is that really realistic? How could this research possibly generate tangible results in the real world, outside the laboratory? Surely, it wouldn’t be wise to make every ill-informed person on earth write down what they like about the next generation. Rather, I would contend that a far more reasonable, albeit somewhat sneaky application is at hand.

Our ideas about the world are not informed in a vacuum. What we read and how we feel about it is more important than ever. In what has been described as a post-truth era, the veritable weight of cold hard facts pales in comparison to emotional appeals (McIntyre, 2018). Each time a news article is written, a scientific report articulated, or dialogue with friends and family orated, it provides us with a valuable opportunity: If it can prompt us to consider personal relevance and why we should care for our fellow man or woman – no matter when they’ll inherit this planet – then perhaps we can find ourselves in a more ecologically-sensitive world. All the knowledge gained through scientific research can only be rendered useful if it is communicated well (McIntyre, 2018).

Communication is the sieve in the floodgate that strains words from actions: If done through dry and jargon-heavy means, our communication of this climate change problem only speaks to those who already know it’s a problem, while potentially alienating others. If done in a psychologically-sensitive way, the same statistics and findings can be transformed from informative to inspirational; helping one find congruence between their knowledge and feelings of the issue. That can ignite meaningful action, before it’s too late.

I would hope a more holistic method for communicating climate change findings is imparted before those findings become self-evident. In many ways, climate change is already here: A report from World Wildlife Foundation – which compiled data from dozens of climate scientists – suggests that humanity has killed over 60% of wild animals (World Wildlife Foundation, 2018). Likewise, a raise in global temperature of only a few more degrees would almost assuredly be catastrophic (IPCC, 2018). We are living in a dire situation, lying on the precipice of an ecological point-of-no-return. As such, it’s imperative we use every tool in our arsenal – including psychology – to combat this.

 

References

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Summary For Policymakers. Retrieved from http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

Guggenheim, D. (Director), & Gore, A. (Screenwriter). (2006). An Inconvenient Truth [Video file]. France: Paramount Pictures. Retrieved November 1, 2018.

Meleady, R., & Crisp, R. J. (2017). Redefining climate change inaction as temporal intergroup bias: Temporally adapted interventions for reducing prejudice may help elicit environmental protection. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 53, 206-212. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2017.08.005

McIntyre, L. (2018). Post-truth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

World Wildlife Foundation. (2018). Living Planet Report 2018: Aiming Higher. Retrieved from http://pure.iiasa.ac.at/id/eprint/15549/1/%255bEMBARGO%2030%20OCT%255d%20LPR2018_Full%20Report_12.10.2018.pdf

 

 

 

Climate Scientists: Extinction Rebellion Needs You!

By Bill McGuire

OK. Let’s not beat about the bush. While our world has been going to hell in a handcart, many of you studying and recording its demise have had nothing to say on the subject and have remained deep in the shadows, when what has been needed is for you to hog the limelight. The cod justification you have used is always the same; muttered excuses about the need for objectivity; about how you shouldn’t become involved in politics; about how you are merely faithful recorders of facts; a silo mentality that shields you from having to make difficult decisions or engage with others outside your comfort zones.

You know who you are.

In truth, the reason you have never liked to stick your head above the parapet is for fear of being shot at by your peers. As a fellow scientist I understand that – I really do. There is nothing worse than being ridiculed within your own community. It can, I know, mean loss of prestige, a squeeze on funding, and a closing down of opportunities for advancement. I understand, therefore, why you continue to play down anything that might draw attention; why you lie low; tow the party line. I know, too, what you really think and feel about climate change, because I have talked to many of you in private, and the response – without exception – has been that the true situation is far worse than you are prepared to admit in public. So, behind the facade, I know that you are torn between speaking out and holding back;  that you are as desperate as anyone for the measures to be taken that the science demands; most of all, that you fear for your children’s future in the world of climate chaos they will be forced to inhabit.

So, what to do.

Maybe the just-published IEA (International Energy Agency) World Energy Review 2018 will help to crystallise your thoughts and feelings and help convince you of the path you need to choose now. The report paints a picture of the future energy landscape that will send shivers of horror down the spines of all who give a damn about our world and all life upon it. The forecasts are – without exception – dire. By 2040, an extra 1.7 billion people are predicted to drive up energy demand by a quarter, most of it met from high carbon sources. The proportion of renewables in the energy mix is expected to have crept up to 40 percent, but coal is still forecast to be king of power generation, followed by gas. Instead of heading down fast, emissions in 2040 will be even higher than they are now, says the review, at a staggering 36 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective, just last month the IPCC, hardly celebrated – as you well know (you might even have been an author or contributor) – for its doom-mongering, warned that in order to avoid catastrophic, all-pervasive, climate breakdown, emissions need to be slashed by 45 percent within just 12 years, and reach net zero by mid-century. But even this will not be enough.

I don’t need to tell you that the chasm between what’s needed, and what the IEA forecasts will happen, flags the extraordinary scale of the uphill battle we face. If we are not to bequeath to our descendants a desiccated, lifeless hothouse, then we need your help and your support.

Now.

Today.

The time to worry about what your colleagues think of you is long gone. Prestige will mean nothing in the world to come; academic advancement won’t alter the fate of your children and grandchildren one iota. So, speak out, tell it like it is. Force those who need to know to listen. Welcome any flack and hurl it back ten-fold. Come down off the fence and choose the path to rebellion.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.