Pesticide impacts on the Great Barrier Reef – Croplife misinformation?

By Jon Brodie.

The pesticide industry group Croplife have recently published their latest assessment of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from pesticide use. The report can be found at:

http://www.croplifeaustralia.org.au/files/Great Barrier Reef. pdf

The report is notable for its extreme ‘cherry picking’ of data with which to make the assessment. It uses one data set from a summary report (not the original science report) for the GBRMPA Marine Monitoring Program from 2007/2008 (Prange et al Reef Water Quality Protection Plan Marine Monitoring Program: 2007/2008 Summary Report pp18-19). Note the Croplife report was very recently released in 2010. The data used is from the use of passive samplers only which are generally deployed only in non-flood conditions and represents the ‘low’ concentration end of pesticide detections in contrast to samples taken in the wet season which are generally much higher (as you might expect).

Since 2007 a large number of pesticide studies in the GBR have occurred and the results have been published in the peer reviewed literature (journals) e.g. Lewis et al 2009; Davis et al 2008; Shaw et al 2010 in marine waters. River discharge of pesticide studies include Packett et al 2009, Lewis et al 2009; Bainbridge et al 2009. Peer reviewed technical reports are also numerous in this period and are all available on the web. Even before 2007 a number of pesticide papers were published with data from rivers and/or marine waters of the GBR e.g. McMahon et al 2005; Shaw and Mueller 2005; Mitchell et al 2005. Finally a considerable body of work on the toxicity of pesticides to GBR organisms (mainly recently from Andrew Negri’s group at AIMS) has been published in the peer reviewed literature since 2007 (and a lot before 2007 as well). If any other readers want access to any of this literature please contact me.

Croplife chose to ignore all this published information and data. When this data is taken into account the outcome is an entirely different assessment, opposite in conclusions to that presented by Croplife.

One wonders at the ethics of a ‘respectable’ industry organisation like Croplife putting out such misleading information. It’s also sad in a period when we are making progress in pesticide management in the GBR catchment with farmers investing in better application technology such as shielded sprayers (see photo) with the assistance of the Australian Government’s Reef Rescue initiative.

Wanted: another planet Earth by 2030

Key terms used in the 2010 Living Planet Report (by wordle) © WWF / Wordle

The latest Living Planet Report was released today by WWF and the Global Footprint Network, which finds we are now using resources and producing carbon dioxide at a rate 50 percent faster than the Earth can sustain.

It comes in perfect timing with the upcoming COP10 meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan from 18 – 29 October, where the Parties to the Convention will decide upon what actions to take to stem the loss of biodiversity over the next ten years. 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, and also the year which the Parties to the CBD had agreed to achieve a significant reduction of the rate of loss of biodiversity. Despite some wins from the conservation movement, overall it is clear that attempts to slow the destruction of nature have failed miserably.

Some of the key findings from the Living Planet Report are:

  • Since 1961, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has more than doubled
  • We’ll need 2 planets to support humanity’s demand by 2030, and 2.8 by 2050
  • The top 10 countries with the biggest Ecological Footprint per person are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium, United States, Estonia, Canada, Australia, Kuwait and Ireland
  • 31 OECD countries account for 37% of humanity’s Ecological Footprint
  • Brazil, Russia, India and China have the fastest growing Footprints, and are on a trajectory to overtake the OECD bloc if they follow the same development path
  • Countries such as Afghanistan & Bangladesh have Footprints that are too small to provide for basic needs

Amidst all of this doom and gloom, this year’s report has made a point of emphasising the intimate connection between the preservation of biodiversity and human well-being, and a message that the path to sustainability is possible – but we need to make changes to how we live, and how we measure progress, in order to fit within the limits of a finite planet.

“The challenge posed by the Living Planet Report is clear,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International. “Somehow we need to find a way to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly prosperous population within the resources of this one planet. All of us have to find a way to make better choices in what we consume and how we produce and use energy.”

Part of this transition to sustainability, I would argue, is to develop an economic system which recognises these limits, and which doesn’t require continuous growth in the consumption of natural resources and production of wastes in order stay affloat.

You can download the full report here, and also check out the many fantastic educational resources that WWF have developed alongside the report – including interactive graphs and maps, plus this cute video.

POAMA seasonal forecasts in Google Earth: Following thermal stress real-time!

The Climate Variability and Change Group at the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research (CAWCR) has released a series of important tools for tracking and projecting thermal stress and coral bleaching months ahead of their appearance on coral reefs.  After receiving an e-mail from Dr Claire Spillman, I immediately downloaded into my Google Earth and was impressed by the depth of information available on a geographic basis through these tools.  To view please see:  http://poama.bom.gov.au/experimental/poama15/sp_gbr.htm

Experimental real-time products available for the tropical oceans (30N-30S) include:

  • SST anomalies for leads 0-5 months (e.g. see the decay of the La Nina in the Pacific Ocean)
  • Probability of SSTA >= 0.6C
  • Degree Heating Months (DHM) – a measure of thermal stress
  • Probability of DHM >= 2.0
  • SSTA Skill for leads 0-5 months

Hindcasts of SSTA and DHM, together with skill, are also available for viewing in Google Earth. This capability was developed at the request of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), who are one of the primary users of our seasonal ocean forecasts. These forecasts form an important component of the Early Warning System in the GBRMPA Coral Bleaching Response Plan. Some of these products are already available externally as operational products (via Ocean Services) and others as experimental products (via POAMA web pages) and have been published/accepted in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Assisted colonization: Home on the range, or not?

Our rapidly changing climate is shrinking ecological ranges of many species to the point where extinction is a real likelihood within the next couple of decades.  One option is to move these species to new habitats where the future might be rosier.  A number of us discussed this during a workshop in 2008 and produced an article in Science’s Policy Forum section.  The issue is again in the news.  Richard Stone from Science magazine has written a thoughtful piece which exposes the latest thinking.

Science Magazine, Richard Stone

One of the hottest debates in conservation biology these days is to what extent scientists should help embattled species cope with climate change. All life forms, including our own, must adapt to climate change or dwindle and possibly perish. Scientists generally agree that first they should protect or shore up ecosystems, especially fragile ones such as cloud forests and coral reefs. Consensus breaks down, however, on what to do when a species can’t keep pace with a changing world. One camp insists that desperate times call for desperate measures. Habitat fragmentation caused by human activity has made it difficult or impossible for many species to migrate on their own to more suitable environments. Thus, a growing number of researchers argue that assisted colonization, also called managed relocation, is a vital conservation tool. Other scientists worry that momentum for translocations is building too fast.  For the full article, read it in Science magazine.

COAL: Limit on climate, and the catch.

Adam Morton
The Age
September 10, 2010
FOR those who think the worst climate-change projections would become a reality no matter what we do, think again.

According to research published today in the journal Science, global warming can be limited to 1.3 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2060 – less than the 2-degree rise that UN climate scientists warn is likely to trigger dangerous tipping points.

The catch? We can’t build any new carbon dioxide-emitting power stations or cars. Effective immediately.

The researchers acknowledge this is not realistic, but say it underlines that the most threatening sources of man-made climate change are yet to be built. ”If existing energy infrastructure [power plants, motor vehicles, furnaces] were used for its normal life span and no new devices were built … atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would peak below 430 parts per million and future warming would be less than 0.7 degrees Celsius [above today],” says the paper, led by Carnegie Institution of Washington academic Steven Davis.

The researchers found locked-in emissions were greatest in the world’s richest countries – the US, western Europe, Japan – and the emerging economic giants, particularly China.

Nearly one quarter of the world’s new electricity generation over the past decade has been coal-fired plant commissioned in Beijing.

Globally, the shift to clean energy sources has been gradual. Since 2000, nearly a third of new power generation has come from burning coal. Another third has been fired by natural gas – less greenhouse gas-intensive, but still a fossil fuel. Carbon dioxide-free energy sources have made up less than one fifth of the new generation. Of that, 17 per cent has been renewable energy – largely solar, wind and hydroelectricity.

Nuclear power, the largest source of installed low-carbon energy, has declined markedly since the 1980s and made up just 2 per cent.

The study only examined industries that emit greenhouse gas directly. Those that encourage people to boost emissions through the products they produce – petrol stations, oil refineries and factories that produce internal combustion engines – were not counted.

Running into ecological debt – Earth Overshoot Day 2010

Apart from playing host to one of the most unconventional election days in Australia’s history, August 21st also marked a rather unfortunate milestone – when humanity consumed all of the renewable resources that nature has been able to generate during this year.

Earth Overshoot Day is an initiative of the new economics foundation and the Global Footprint Network, and signifies the day in which human demand has outstripped the annual biocapacity of the Earth. Since the first Earth Overshoot Day in 1987, human consumption has been continuously growing beyond the sustainable limits of the planet –  it now takes one year and five months to generate the resources and the CO2  absorption capacity to meet that our annual requirements.

This year’s global overshoot milestone has come a full month earlier compared to last year – meaning the rate of resource depletion is becoming more rapid, and our ecological debt is worsening. It’s been known for some time that we are living beyond our means, but the growth in global consumption shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Indeed, continued economic growth (measured by the production and consumption of goods and services, or GDP) is necessary to keep our current global economy afloat. How can the maintenance of the economy be reconciled with the very obvious need to preserve our biosphere? This is clearly a dilemma, as the key issues facing humanity are really the symptoms of global overconsumption:

Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages — these are all clear signs that we can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.

Technological advancement is often cited as a way to consume resources more efficiently, leading to a relative decoupling of economic growth from consumption. But even if growth occurred at a slower pace, is it possible for the economy to grow continuously on a finite planet?

The folks at the new economics foundation and a growing number of other organisations and  individuals think that an alternative is possible – an economy which grows in quality, rather than quantity. A steady state economy is defined as one which remains within the biophysical limits of the planet – and is measured by indicators other than GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator.

Advocates of the model such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson think that a steady state economy is not only possible, but necessary in order to transition to a more sustainable, equitable, and happier society. Such a grand transition seems unthinkable in a world which is hooked on growth, and would be vigorously opposed by those with vested interests – working towards action on climate change is difficult enough! But perhaps the prospect of questioning growth is not quite as crazy as initially thought:

It has often been said that the lack of immediacy is the climate movement’s major handicap. The economic crisis we just faced certainly didn’t lack immediacy. There’s nothing more immediate than losing your house, your job, your livelihood, as so many did when the housing bubble burst.

Moreover, people weren’t oblivious to the fact that the crisis was caused by a bubble – by unsustainable growth in a certain sector of the economy. Public confidence in our economic model has already been shaken. To help precipitate its collapse, we need to start connecting the dots between the housing bubble and the much larger bubble that’s bound to burst when it collides in the very near future with the very sharp reality of a devastated planet.

Whatever the case may be, there is a lot of work to be done if we ever plan on living sustainably on the one planet we have – that is, not unless we depart for space within the next century.

New ocean life discovered at the ‘Hadal Zone’ – 11,000 meters deep, and pressure rises to 1,000 bar (or a ton per square centimeter)


The hadal zone: deep sea trenches over 11,000 meter deep (deeper than Mount Everest is high), the pressure rises to 1,000 bar, there is no light and food is scarce.

It (the Hadal zone) offers a glimpse of what life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, might look like. A new species of archaebacteria, Pyrococcus CH1,was recently discovered thriving on a mid-Atlantic ridge within a temperature range of 80 to 105°C and able to divide itself up to a hydrostatic pressure of 120 Mpa (1000 times higher than the atmospheric pressure). Excedrin Migraine won’t help down there.

This discovery was made by an international team of microbiologists of the Microbiology of Extreme Environments Laboratory in partnership with the Institute of Oceanography of Xiamen (China) and the Earth Science Laboratory. This archaebacteria had been isolated from samples by a Franco-Russian team that explored the mid-Atlantic ridge for six weeks searching for new hydrothermal vents.

The piezophilic microorganisms constitute a subgroup of extremophiles. Discovered on the site “Ashadze”(2) at 4100 meters depth, the deepest vent field explored so far, the CH1 strain was successfully isolated and assigned to the genus Pyrococcus, within the Euryarchaeota lineage of the Archae domain. The discovery extends the known physical and chemical limits of life on Earth.

The reason scientists believed for so long that life did not exist in the deepest parts of the sea is because the oxygen that filters down is centuries old, having formed near the surface through photosynthesis by microscopic plants known as phytoplankton.

(link to full text)

When ethics and resources combine …

Bill Gates

By Ian Wylie

Financial Times Published: August 9 2010 23:35 | Last updated: August 9 2010 23:35

The cold call asking you to pledge money to a charity is an uncomfortable conversation at the best of times. But what if the person on the other end of the line happens to be the third-richest man in the world?

It seems Warren Buffett, who has been calling up fellow American billionaires to ask them to donate at least half their wealth to charitable causes, also knows an evasive answer when he hears one. “Sometimes they’re just trying to get you off the phone,” he said last week. “A few people had dynastic ideas about wealth because they had inherited their wealth themselves. And then there were others who said they had a plane to catch.”

But, like the best charity street “chuggers”, Mr Buffett – who has already pledged to give away 99 per cent of his $47bn fortune – and his “Giving Pledge” partners Bill and Melinda Gates plan to keep asking, working their way through the Forbes 400 rich list.

Never has there been such an attempt by a group of the wealthiest people in the world to enrol their peers in such grand scale philanthropy. And in the process Buffett and the Gateses are trying to export their model of “philanthrocapitalism” or “venture capital” to the world.

Mr Gates has previously estimated that just 15 per cent of the super-wealthy give away large chunks of their fortunes, but he thinks this could rise to 70 per cent. After just two months of calls, some 40 billionaires have signed the pledge, including George Lucas, Barry Diller, Michael Bloomberg, Larry Ellison, Pierre Omidyar and Jeffrey Skoll. The pledge is not binding, but a moral commitment to donate more than 50 per cent of their wealth. It does not in volve pooling money or supporting one single cause or organisation. Charitable causes supported by these early signatories range from HIV programmes and the arts to brain research and Middle East peace.

Yet philanthrocapitalism has come under fire from critics who say billionaires are simply buying power and control. Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell has warned of their “disruptive effects on democracy”. An editorial in The Lancet in May 2009 expressed “serious anxiety about the transparency of the [Gates] Foundation’s operation” and questioned its “whimsical governance”.

Moreover, donating billions is not as straightforward as it might seem. Many charities are incapable of absorbing large sums of money, and some billionaires’ assets are illiquid.

However, for supporters of philanthrocapitalism, it is the influence and networks as well as the funds that billionaires have at their disposal that make their commitment so important. “What’s remarkable increasingly about billionaire families is that they have not only significant financial resources, but the access, opportunities, relationships and connections to have tremendous impact in very perplexing problems,” says Melissa Berman, chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Most of the 40 who have signed up to the pledge are already generous givers – yet the pledge is significant, says Michael Green, co-author of Philanthrocapitalism: How The Rich Can Save The World. “To have brought in people like Larry Ellison – who has blown hot and cold on philanthropy over the years – to make public his intention to give away 95 per cent of his wealth, is a big step change,” says Mr Green. “It raises the bar in that super-rich category where the question now is, are you going to sign the Gates/Buffett pledge?”

The timing is significant, as the worlds of business and finance struggle to redeem their reputations. According to one of the pledge signatories, investment banker Tom Steyer, the initiative is “changing the face of American business . . . to my mind it transforms the image of private enterprise from an old-fashioned extractive model where people are taking resources out of the system for their benefit and their families to a more regenerative model of capitalism where they are putting resources back into society.”

Also, in the current climate of budget cuts, indebted governments will be more likely to welcome wealthy philanthropists who share Mr Gates’ and Mr Buffett’s belief in co-funding and leverage – a conviction that, as Mr Buffett puts it, “private philanthropy can make the subsequent expenditure of public monies more effective”. The Gates Foundation, for example, has granted more than $650m in the past couple of years to schools, public agencies and other groups that align with its main education priorities.

Philanthropists using their money as risk capital to help governments spend money better is an emerging theme, says Mr Green: “The most striking thing Gates said when we interviewed him for the book was that the Gates Foundation is ‘just a tiny organisation’. He recognised that to tackle the problems he wants to tackle he can’t do it on his own. He wants to lever government money, and here in the UK there’s scope in this idea of ‘big society’ for that kind of partnership working.”

The pledge is a nudge too for donors to consider giving the money away during their lifetime – “spend down” their endowments within a specified timeframe to meet current needs, rather than have them dribble out grants from a foundation once they are dead. Unlike the philanthropists of former times, many new billionaires are young enough to take a more active role.

The initiative is also an attempt to apply a network effect to philanthropy. The more common it becomes, the more the wealthy will seek to do it, as they share experiences, plot strategies and exchange ideas.

“It’s not just about people pledging success – it is also about inspiring more families to talk about giving and philanthropy,” says Patty Stonesifer, former CEO of the Gates Foundation, who currently advises Bill and Melinda Gates and was present at the May 2009 dinner in New York where the idea of the pledge was hatched.

The agenda includes educating the super-rich on the Buffett/Gates model of “high-engagement philanthropy” and “results-oriented giving”, where the efficiency of the business world is injected into aid – where philanthropists “invest” their donations and use venture capital strategies and research tools and techniques to manage the performance of their “portfolios”.

According to Mr Buffett, pledge signatories will be invited to an annual summit to “spend a day talking about various problems of philanthropy and how better to do it”. And last month the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a $3.7m grant to RPA to publish donor education resources on its website for would-be philanthropists in the US and beyond.

Mr Buffett and Mr Gates are taking their model of philanthropy on the road. The pair will travel to China at the end of next month to meet some of its wealthiest business people, followed by a similar trip next March to India, which Mr Gates has already predicted will become second only to the US in its high-end philanthropy.

“Bill, Melinda and Warren started this pledge effort here in the US, in part because they realise that to be successful in any other country the effort will need to be led by local leaders,” says Ms Stonesifer. “That said, the basic idea – that those with great wealth can and should devote that wealth to efforts to leave the world a better place – has resonance around the globe.”

It seems that as Mr Buffett and Mr Gates – the Rockefeller and Carnegie of their day – spin their Rolodexes for yet another cold call, their mood is one of unstoppable momentum

Human being and fish can coexist peacefully

… or at least that seems to be what Australia’s Opposition leader thinks would happen if he stopped the expansion of marine protected areas in Australian waters:

In a policy aimed at marginal Queensland seats, Mr Abbott said a Coalition government would ”immediately suspend the marine protection process which is threatening the livelihoods of many people in the fishing industry and many people in the tourism industry”.

”All of us want to see appropriate environmental protection, but man and nature have to live together,” Mr Abbott said as he toured the seat of Dawson, in Mackay, which is held by Labor by 2.6 per cent.

Citing “Real action to protect our marine environments and fishing communities” , Mr Abbott wants to balance environmental protection with economic growth by first suspending the marine protected area process. But doesn’t tourism in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park  generate billions of dollars for the Australian economy annually?

The GBRMP re-zoning that resulted in an increase in strict protection from 4.5% to over 30% was of course intiated under the previous Howard government, and undertaken through a comprehensive research and consultation process. According to Mr Abbott, things have  gone awry since then, although so far the details on this are scanty.

Coalition policy would require consideration of peer reviewed scientific evidence of threats to marine biodiversity before future decisions are made about marine park establishment:

“We would not be interested in just putting lines on maps. If there’s something out there that needs to be protected, if it’s iconic and needs protection, we’d want to see the science and that science would have to be peer-reviewed.”

Fortunately, there is already a lot out there to suggest that the marine environment is under threat, fishing kills fish and that marine parks have benefits for biodiversity and maintaining fish stocks. Conservation planning software used world wide, and developed in Queensland, is used to assist in the creation of marine parks  in a way that seeks to achieve protection for biodiversity while balancing socio-economic objectives.  The science is light years ahead of lines on maps (although, this can be helpful as part of the community consultation process).

It’s encouraging to see the high regard that Mr Abbott places upon peer reviewed science on this issue, so for someone who gets his ‘facts’ about climate change from Heaven + Earth, perhaps a bit of consistency wouldn’t go astray?

“You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on”

Analysis of nearly 1,000 sperm whale tissues (sampled using a dart gun, not the Japanese harpoon method) reveals ‘jaw dropping’ levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury, and titanium:

“The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,’’ Payne said in an interview at the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting.

“These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean,’’ he said.

Roger Payne (a man with some pretty serious whale science credentials, being the first researcher to document whale songs back in the late 1960’s) went on to say “You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on”. If this holds true, it’s pretty disturbing:

“The biggest surprise was chromium,’’ Payne said. “That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.’’

Chromium, a corrosion-resistant material, is used in stainless steel, paints, dyes, and the tanning of leather, and can cause lung cancer in people who work in industries where it is commonly used.

Wise applied chromium to healthy whale cells in the laboratory to study its effect. He found that the concentration of chromium found in whales was several times higher than the level required to kill healthy cells in a petri dish, Payne said.

Link to full story here.