Category Archives: small blue planet

Your own pigs don’t stink, or the best way to replace end-of-life power stations with sustainable solutions

By Su Wild-River

Each year the ANU Sustainability Learning Community hosts a Great Green Debate but this year was different. Recognising that there is not debate that climate change is happening, the group instead organised a forum on solutions, bringing together technology and policy experts to discuss sustainable solutions to climate change and energy demands. And what a discussion it was.

The draw-card speaker was Adam Bandt MP, Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens, Federal Member for Melbourne and true inspiration. Adam reflected on a recent trip to Germany and the perplexing differences between Australian and German opinions on wind farms. Wind energy of course is one of the most promising green energy sources and by 2013, new power stations running on wind were about 2/3 the price of new coal – even without the carbon tax.

One of the biggest barriers to wind energy in Australia is Wind Turbine Syndrome, a peculiar condition affecting mainly English speakers who have been exposed to frightening information about wind farms. Adam Bandt believes that Germans are not affected because more than half of the country’s renewable energy infrastructure is owned by its citizens. He talked to a German farmer who confirmed he doesn’t complain about wind farm noise because he owns it, and “your own pigs don’t stink”.

After the trip to Germany, Adam says he spends most of his time wondering how we can increase community ownership of Australia’s renewable energy infrastructure. This is timely because about 40% of Australia’s coal-fired power stations are past their end-life and need to be replaced.

A German presenter gets in the way of the graph that Adam Bandt MP intended to photograph. Adam is the small, dark pointer at the front of the slide.

A German presenter gets in the way of the graph that Adam Bandt MP intended to photograph. Adam is the small, dark pointer at the front of the slide.

Windlab is well on the way to providing a solution to Adam’s dilemma. Garth Heron spoke about the Coonooer Bridge wind farm in Victoria, which is the first renewable energy project in the country with an ownership structure that includes the local farming community together with the developer. Garth also showed off Windlab’s wind prospecting technology and energy models showing the feasibility of electricity co-generation from solar and wind. In some places, the wind and sun can reliably generate baseload energy throughout most of every day, with more energy produced than is needed for many hours.

The bright future for renewable energy harvest went pocket-sized in Professor Hoe Tan’s presentation on nanotechnology solutions. He’s harvesting solar energy using photonic devices about the size of atoms and integrating them into bigger applications, hugely increasing the amount of electricity that can be generated.

With enough renewable energy capacity in the bag, the climate solution discussion shifts to battery technology. Professor Christine Charles is developing hydrogen fuel cells that could soon install rocket power into clean, green cars, as well as stationery settings.

Many commercial property developers are actively progressing the green energy agenda. James Bichard, the Development Manager at the Molonglo Group which designed the Nishi Building in New Acton explained how energy efficiency is fundamental to the design of their new, iconic cinema/office/apartment block which won the International Project of the Year at the 2015 Building Awards in London . Green energy doesn’t have to be elite either, with Nishi holding a proportion of it’s apartments at an affordable entry level for new home-owners.

Of course all of this needs financial support and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has the solution. This profitable government body secures financing solutions for the clean energy sector. The CEFC partners with commercial financiers and focuses on projects and technologies at the later stages of development which have a positive expected rate of return and have the capacity to service and repay capital. The CEFC’s 2013-14 Annual Report revealed a total project value of $3.2b, and a positive return of $2.40 profit for every dollar it invests.

Compact or large-scale combined solar and wind power generation, efficient battery storage, green buildings and the CEFC are quite possibly the best way to replace end-of-life power stations with sustainable solutions. These are all proven, cost-effective and available now. In light of these options it seems inexcusable for Australia’s Coalition government to threaten Australia’s Renewable Energy Target and its associated research, development and financial initiatives as they are this week in Australia.

Thanks Alexander Ferguson, Karen Hussey and the Sustainability Learning Community for these amazing stories to support our outrage. 

Regeneration and Conservation Connections

This article was first published at:

By Lesley Peden and Su Wild-River

At the recent Regen Festival, I delivered a workshop for the Upper Shoalhaven Landcare Council with Kristy Moyle from South East Local Land Services and Lesley Peden from Kosciuszko2Coast.

The workshop focus was connectivity conservation. This recognises the particular needs of different species for moving around within landscapes.  Animals like eagles, owls and kangaroos can readily move between disconnected, or thin patches of habitat, but most native species can’t.  Local threatened species like the Flame Robin, Golden-tipped bat, Green and Golden Bell Frog, Squirrel Glider, Long-nosed Potoroo, Smoky Mouse and Rosenberg’s Goanna, all need relatively in-tact vegetation to move about in the landscape. Disconnections within the Great Eastern Ranges can trap these species when fire, flood, drought or even a successful breeding season mean that individuals must move to survive.

During the workshop we discussed the ecological importance, and urgency of regeneration in the broad context of connectivity conservation. A key point is that the best conservation outcomes are achieved by being aware of the context and the different needs of the species using the landscape.

Between the detail and the deep blue sea: Optimising formal and informal science education

By Su Wild-River

This post was first published at

Five percent of our lives are spent in classrooms. Most of our science is learned in the real world. What are the implications for best practice science education?

Australia’s formal science education system is the subject of much current debate. Gonski famously reported recent declines in Australia’s educational outcomes, and after much capitulation, the incoming Coalition Government has committed to continuing the Gonski reforms. The new government also seeks world’s best practice teaching, and particularimprovements to the science taught in primary schools. But they also controversially lack a science ministry, and won’t be extending NAPLAN to science.

My daughter recently started high school and I wonder how much of the detail under the science education microscope will make it through to her beakers and Bunsen burners. I suspect not much. So I’m glad to know that informal science education (ISE) will have at least as much influence as her class time.

ISE is the learning you get from everyday settings and family activities as well as museums, zoos, aquariums, parks and structured activities outside of schools. There is a growing and vibrant body of evidence showing that ISE cultivates interest and understanding in science, and other disciplines that are losing ground in universities.

Perhaps the real question is not how to improve classroom teaching, but how to optimise its relationship with ISE.

It seems to me that ISE is ideal for stimulating the desire to learn, for generating questions and creating excitement. So when my daughter asks “why is the sea blue” she likes to hear that “its mostly water, which is blue in large quantities”. Then she’ll ask “why?” So I need to be ready with “water filters out the red light from the sky”. Being curious, she’ll ask why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell her that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than red light. All of this will lead to questions about the nature of light and molecules and so on.

This is where the benefits of a formal scientific education are clear. My ability to answer children’s questions, and indeed, my experience of the real world are vastly enhanced by the science I learned at school. The periodic table, photosynthesis, genetics and geomorphology all rank with the most exciting concepts I’ve ever learned, and I see them in action in the world all the time. Classroom teaching helped me to grasp the basic building blocks that became interesting through ISE. The combination of informal and formal learning ideally synchronises natural curiosity with substantive knowledge.

The costs of scientific illiteracy are also obvious. Scientists know that our method investigates phenomena empirically and acquires new knowledge by extending, correcting and integrating previous conclusions. So for instance, an IPCC report that anthropogenic climate change is increasingly certain, even while atmospheric warming is slower than was previously thought is the embodiment of good science as well as a reinforcement of the call for emission mitigation. But lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method, denialists mistakenly see such reports as proof that global warming is a lot of hot air, and fuel for their business-as-usual fire.

How do your curiosity and knowledge work together?

Killing whales is bad science

By Gillfoto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Su Wild-River

This blog was first published at

I love whales. So I was thrilled when the ICJ ruled against Japan’s controversial whaling program in the Southern Pacific Ocean. But what are this case’s lessons for scientists?

Catching whales for food and other products is traditional in many cultures, including Japan. But over the last century, human population growth and modern fishing methods loaded the odds against the cetaceans. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to prevent overhunting, provide for conservation of whale stocks and the orderly development of the whaling industry.

To achieve its objectives, the IWC sets catch limits for whaling, and in 1985/86, it established a moratorium on whaling that is still in place today. Since the moratorium, 22,721 whales have been caught commercially by countries objecting to the moratorium, 9,393 have been caught for Aboriginal subsistence harvest and 15,563 have been caught under special scientific permits. Of the latter 14,643 were caught by Japan under scientific programs called JARPA and JARPAII. 10,476, or 22% of the total whale catch, have been Southern Pacific. This whaling was the focus of the recent court case.

Australia claimed that Japan’s annual Southern Pacific hunt was not “for the purposes of scientific research”. It argued that scientific research needs defined and achievable objectives, to use appropriate methods, be properly peer reviewed and avoid adverse impacts on the stocks being studied. Lets have a look at some of these claims.

The research objectives, clearly and reasonably stated in the latest JARPAII Research Planare monitoring of:

  • the Antarctic ecosystem,
  • krill abundance and the feeding ecology of whales,
  • the effects of contaminants on cetaceans, and
  • cetacean habitat.

With regard to the methods, these take up most of the JARPAII Plan, but just two short paragraphs justify the killing of 14,643 whales for science. The reasoning is that age and stomach content surveys are essential for meeting the objectives because “meal size, blubber thickness and age at physical and sexual maturity strongly suggested inter and intra species competitions” (p.20). Therefore lethal sampling is necessary. This makes little sense to me, and I note that other cetacean research projects use alternative, non-lethal methods to gain research results consistent with the JARPAII objectives.

JARPAII researchers have ticked the box of peer reviewed publications based on their lethal research. One example is a paper reporting a 30% decline in Antarctic minke whale stomach contents by weight over 20 years, and suggesting that reduced krill abundance may be to blame. This longitudinal study would indeed have been difficult using the more common non-lethal method of post-mortems on beached whales. But to me it seems unnecessary to kill whales to learn about krill decline when this phenomenon and its implications are well established by other research.

Perhaps the lesson here for scientists is that if you do controversial research, you had better do it well, or risk international outrage and potential legal action.

But the IWC was not convinced by Australia’s case for JARPAII being unscientific on the basis of its objectives, methods and publications. And Japan for its part, argued that the court had no authority to decide what was and wasn’t science. Instead, the court focused on the lack of feasibility studies into a smaller lethal intake and an increase in non-lethal sampling to achieve its objectives. And indeed, this is a significant gap in the JARPAII research plan, since the potential for stock loss is not addressed in its discussion of sample sizes.

A big lesson for scientists is that ecological ethics are implicit in this ruling. It recognises that scientists have duties and obligations to ecosystems as well as to science and the public welfare. And interestingly, although human ethics, and biological ethics are relatively well established, ecological ethics are not. Ecological ethicists drawing on the precautionary principle have suggested that ecologists could take an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oathand vow to “first do no harm” in their research practices. JARPAII would clearly fail this test.

The ICJ has not insisted on strong ecological ethics in its ruling, just that non-harm be clearly considered. And just one day after the ruling, Japan has flagged that it may devise a more persuasive research program requiring whale killing. But let’s at least note the wake-up call for scientists to fully justify ecological research with dubious ethics.

What did you learn from this case?

In Search of the Climate Change Monster

Climate Change Monster

The Climate Change Monster Image Credit: Artwork by Thomas Bonin,

By Su Wild-River

This article was first published in No Funny Business on 18/10/2013.

If you are a climate obsessive like me, you spend a lot of time reading the science, watching the weather and taking action on climate change mitigation and adaption. Each new off the chart heatwave, warmest winter on record and extreme flooding event just reinforces the message that we are already feeling the personal effects of climate change. So why is the world backing offon action?

According to Cass R. Sunstein, the barriers are partlypsychological. Action would be easier if climate change caused a recent and repeatable crisis, had a clear and hateable perpetrator and posed an immediate threat. Extreme weather events have some of these features, but by definition, climate change doesn’t. It’s the bigger, slower trend surrounding and influencing weather, exacerbating the extremes, but never fully explaining them. The USA came up with Frankenstorm to help mobilise action on Hurricane Sandy. Does Australia need to name its weather demons to gain more traction against the Climate Change Monster?

The Climate Commission named Australia’s record-breaking heatwave of 2013 the “Angry Summer”. This weather demon attacked me directly – although I got off more lightly than others. I spent the catastrophic fire danger day cleaning up my rural property, spraying water on the chickens, and watching as the smoke from a bushfire 100km away came quickly closer before being halted by fire fighters and a creek. But even dangerous weather demons have several faces, and for many, the Angry Summer was a great day at the beach.

Weather demons like the Angry Summer are a powerful drawcard for science communication. Every time there’s an extreme weather event, the Bureau of Meteorology’s website is snowed under. In 2010-11 the BoM received 3 billion hits for its 30,000 warnings and 140,000 forecasts. The Climate Commission also has great graphics and regular updates, but while ‘weather deniers’ are unheard of ‘climate denial’ is still a most popular Australian spectator sport.

I was touched by the Climate Change Monster in 2014. The hateable perpetrator was the tiny, invisible Irukandji Jellyfish, perhaps the most venomous creature in the world. A fluther of these monsters were nearly 1000km outside of their normal rangewhen they stung and killed two friends of mine at Ningaloo Reef. The repeatability of the event and its potential threat is evident when I see elegant tropical fish while snorkeling in ‘temperate’ waters. It seems likely that the presence of Irikandji where they weren’t expected was due to the Very Much Above Average ocean temperatures in Australian oceans. But even though this event was more ‘climate’ than ‘weather’, climate change was not mentioned in the news reports on the tragedy.

The scientific consensus tells us that climate change is real and growing ever more dangerous. Scientific knowledge is essential for understanding and tackling climate change. But if we are psychologically hardwired to not see the climate for the weather, then solving this global crisis will take more than science. We need to find new and creative ways to focus public attention on climate change.

My Climate Change Monster is a giant, invisible and many-tentacled Climate Change Monster that creeps slowly then suddenly spits out deadly weather and venomous pestilence. How does the Climate Change Monster appear to you?

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