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Facebook or Twitter posts can now be quietly modified by the government under new surveillance laws

A new law gives Australian police unprecedented powers for online surveillance, data interception and altering data. These powers, outlined in the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Bill, raise concerns over potential misuse, privacy and security.

The bill updates the Surveillance Devices Act 2004 and Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979. In essence, it allows law-enforcement agencies or authorities (such as the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission) to modify, add, copy or delete data when investigating serious online crimes.

The Human Rights Law Centre says the bill has insufficient safeguards for free speech and press freedom. Digital Rights Watch calls it a “warrantless surveillance regime” and notes the government ignored the recommendations of a bipartisan parliamentary committee to limit the powers granted by the new law.

What’s more, legal hacking by law enforcement may make it easier for criminal hackers to illegally access computer systems via the same vulnerabilities used by the government.

What’s in the law?

The bill introduces three new powers for law-enforcement agencies:

  1. “data disruption warrants” allow authorities to “disrupt data” by copying, deleting or modifying data as they see fit
  2. “network activity warrants” permit the collection of intelligence from devices or networks that are used, or likely to be used, by subject of the warrant
  3. “account takeover warrants” let agencies take control of an online account (such as a social media account) to gather information for an investigation.

There is also an “emergency authorisation” procedure that allows these activities without a warrant under certain circumstances.

How is this different to previous laws?

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This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know

This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know

Earth has warmed 1.09℃ since pre-industrial times and many changes such as sea-level rise and glacier melt are now virtually irreversible, according to the most sobering report yet by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report also found escape from human-caused climate change is no longer possible. Climate change is now affecting every continent, region and ocean on Earth, and every facet of the weather.

The long-awaited report is the sixth assessment of its kind since the panel was formed in 1988. It will give world leaders the most timely, accurate information about climate change ahead of a crucial international summit in Glasgow, Scotland in November.

The IPCC is the peak climate science body of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. It is the global authority on the state of Earth’s climate and how human activities affect it. We are authors of the latest IPCC report and have drawn from the work of thousands of scientists from around the world to produce this new assessment.

Sadly, there is hardly any good news in the 3,900 pages of text released today. But there is still time to avert the worst damage, if humanity chooses to.

melting glacier
Escape from human-caused climate change is no longer possible. John McConnico/AP

It’s unequivocal: humans are warming the planet

For the first time, the IPCC states unequivocally — leaving absolutely no room for doubt – humans are responsible for the observed warming of the atmosphere, lands and oceans.

The IPCC finds Earth’s global surface temperature warmed 1.09℃ between 1850-1900 and the last decade. This is 0.29℃ warmer than in the previous IPCC report in 2013. (It should be noted that 0.1℃ of the increase is due to data improvements.)

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Cramming cities full of electric vehicles means we’re still depending on cars — and that’s a huge problem

This week, the NSW government announced almost A$500 million towards boosting the uptake of electric vehicles. In its new electric vehicle strategy, the government will waive stamp duty for cars under $78,000, develop more charging infrastructure, offer rebates to 25,000 drivers, and more.

Given the transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, it’s a good thing Australian governments are starting to plan for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

But transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.

So, let’s look at these problems in more detail, and why public transport really is the best way forward.

EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.

But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.

Let’s start with a few of the social issues. This includes the huge amount of space devoted to car driving and parking in our neighbourhoods. This can crowd out other forms of land use, including other more sustainable forms of mobility such as walking and cycling.

Men stand around a car

NSW Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean inspects an electric car following major budget announcements on electric vehicles. AAP Image/Joel Carrett

There are the financial and mental health costs of congestion, as well, with Australian city workers spending, on average, 66 minutes getting to and from work each day. Injuries and fatalities on roads are also increasing, and inactivity and isolation associated with driving can impact our physical health.

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The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

Suburban affluence is the defining image of the good life under capitalism, commonly held up as a model to which all humanity should aspire.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Yet with the global economy already in gross ecological overshoot, and a world population heading for more than 11 billion, this way of living is neither fair nor sustainable.

To live within our environmental means, the richest nations will need to embrace a planned process of economic “degrowth”. This is not an unplanned recession, but a deliberate downscaling of economic activity and the closely correlated consumption of fossil energy. We don’t argue this is likely, only that it is necessary.

You might naturally assume this will involve pain and sacrifice, but we argue that a “prosperous descent” is possible. Our new book, Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, envisions how this might unfold in the suburban landscapes that are currently emblematic of overconsumption.

The well-known documentary The End of Suburbia presented a coherent narrative of a post-petroleum future, but got at least one thing wrong. There is not a single end to suburbia; there are many ends of suburbia (as we know it).

Reimagining the suburbs beyond fossil fuels

Suburban catastrophists such as James Kunstler argue that fossil fuel depletion will turn our suburbs into urban wastelands. But we see the suburbs as an ideal place to begin retrofitting our cities.

This won’t involve tearing them down and starting again. Typically, Australia’s built environment is turned over at less than 5% per year. The challenge is to reinhabit, not rebuild, the suburban landscape. Here are some of the key features of this reinvigorated landscape:

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A circular food system can withstand crises like COVID-19 — and provide delicious meals

There are many hard lessons learned from the pandemic. One is that our food system needs a serious reboot. Luckily, we need only look to nature’s cycles for clues on how to fix it.

In a circular food economy, food waste becomes valuable, affordable healthy food becomes accessible to everyone and innovation uses a regenerative approach to how food is produced, distributed and consumed.

A pilot initiative in the Ontario city of Guelph and surrounding Wellington County, called Our Food Future, is Canada’s first circular food economy. It is demonstrating what a regional circular food model can look and taste like.

Falling out of sync with nature

The pandemic has magnified deep inefficiencies and inequity in the food system. On one hand, we see tremendous food waste and on the other, worsening food insecurity.

One estimate is that 40 per cent of food is wasted in our current system. Meanwhile, one in eight Canadians worry about their next meal, and one in six children who go hungry each day. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, the situation is even worse, with one in five residents experiencing food insecurity.

The food system has evolved into a linear model of take-make-waste. We take from the ground the nutrients needed to grow food, make it into many products that line supermarket shelves, and then consume it, thinking little of the waste produced. This linear model is out of sync with the cycles seen in nature that were inherent in food production practices for thousands of years.

Food, design and systems thinking

Wading through the complexities of the food system can be overwhelming, but there are many opportunities to design a better model. First, it’s important to see the connections between food and design.

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Early humans used fire to permanently change the landscape tens of thousands of years ago in Stone Age Africa

Fields of rust-colored soil, spindly cassava, small farms and villages dot the landscape. Dust and smoke blur the mountains visible beyond massive Lake Malawi. Here in tropical Africa, you can’t escape the signs of human presence.

How far back in time would you need to go in this place to discover an entirely natural environment?

Our work has shown that it would be a very long time indeed – at least 85,000 years, eight times earlier than the world’s first land transformations via agriculture.

We are part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists who study past human behavior, geochronologists who study the timing of landscape change and paleoenvironmental scientists who study ancient environments. By combining evidence from these research specialities, we have identified an instance in the very distant past of early humans bending environments to suit their needs. In doing so, they transformed the landscape around them in ways still visible today.

people excavate stone tools below the ground's surface

Crew members excavate artifacts at a site in Karonga, Malawi, where stone tools are buried more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the modern ground surface. Jessica ThompsonCC BY-ND

Digging for behavioral and environmental clues

The dry season is the best time to do archaeological fieldwork here, and finding sites is easy. Most places we dig in these red soils, we find stone artifacts. They are evidence that someone sat and skillfully broke stones to create edges so sharp they can still draw blood. Many of these stone tools can be fit back together, reconstructing a single action by a single person, from tens of thousands of years ago.

stone tools paired together

Middle Stone Age artifacts, some of which can be fit back together. Sheila NightingaleCC BY-ND

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The battle for the future of farming: what you need to know

The battle for the future of farming: what you need to know

It is widely agreed that today’s global agriculture system is a social and environmental failure. Business as usual is no longer an option: biodiversity loss and nitrogen pollution are exceeding planetary limits, and catastrophic risks of climate change demand immediate action.

Most concede that there is an urgent need to radically transform our food systems. But the proposed innovations for more sustainable food systems are drastically different. Which we choose will have long-lasting effects on human society and the planet.

Suggested innovations in food systems can be broadly understood as either seeking to conform with – or to transform – the status quo.

The future of farming is ours to decide. Raggedstone/Shutterstock.com

A technological future

Some want to keep the agriculture industry as close to existing practices as possible. This is true of the increasing number of corporate and financial actors who seek to solve the food crisis by developing new technologies. These technologies are envisaged as being part of what is being called the “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR). The “answer” here is thought to lie in a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between physical, digital and biological domains.

For example, the World Economic Forum is currently supporting agricultural transitions in 21 countries through its “New Vision for Agriculture” initiative. This initiative supports “innovation ecosystems” to re-engineer food systems based on “12 transforming technologies”. In this imagined future, next generation biotechnologies will re-engineer plants and animals. Precision farming will optimise use of water and pesticides. Global food systems will rely on smart robots, blockchain and the internet of things to manufacture synthetic foods for personalised nutrition.

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Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap

Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps.

Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.

The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air.

The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve “net zero”. This is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere.

Climeworks factory with tractor in foreground.
A facility for capturing carbon dioxide from air on the roof of a waste incinerating plant in Hinwil, Switzerland July 18, 2017. This is one of the handful of demonstrator projects currently in operation. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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Solar panels in Sahara could boost renewable energy but damage the global climate – here’s why

The world’s most forbidding deserts could be the best places on Earth for harvesting solar power – the most abundant and clean source of energy we have. Deserts are spacious, relatively flat, rich in silicon – the raw material for the semiconductors from which solar cells are made — and never short of sunlight. In fact, the ten largest solar plants around the world are all located in deserts or dry regions.

Researchers imagine it might be possible to transform the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, into a giant solar farm, capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy demand. Blueprints have been drawn up for projects in Tunisia and Morocco that would supply electricity for millions of households in Europe.

While the black surfaces of solar panels absorb most of the sunlight that reaches them, only a fraction (around 15%) of that incoming energy gets converted to electricity. The rest is returned to the environment as heat. The panels are usually much darker than the ground they cover, so a vast expanse of solar cells will absorb a lot of additional energy and emit it as heat, affecting the climate.

If these effects were only local, they might not matter in a sparsely populated and barren desert. But the scale of the installations that would be needed to make a dent in the world’s fossil energy demand would be vast, covering thousands of square kilometres. Heat re-emitted from an area this size will be redistributed by the flow of air in the atmosphere, having regional and even global effects on the climate.

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5 ways Norway leads and Canada lags on climate action

As major oil and gas producers and exporters, Norway and Canada share a particular responsibility for confronting the planet’s existential climate threat. However, their different political, economic and cultural features have resulted in major differences in their climate policy track records.

Overall, Norway is a leader on climate change performance and Canada is a laggard. The 2021 Climate Change Performance Index ranks 61 countries on their progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, renewable energies and climate policy. Norway ranked eighth overall, while Canada was near the bottom in 58th place.

Both countries face epic challenges in weaning themselves from petroleum dependence — and putting an end to exporting carbon emissions. Canada is a long way from winding down the oil and gas industry and implementing a green and inclusive recovery.

One of the advantages Norway holds is the high degree of equality and inclusivity in the policy process, which translates into a healthier democracy than Canada’s. This is something Canada can learn from and improve upon.

Canada produces 4.7 million barrels of oil per day — 80 per cent of it from Alberta — and exports 79 per cent to the United States. The carbon emissions from the consumption of those fossil fuel exports are almost four times greater than the emissions produced in their extraction and processing. These emissions aren’t attributed to Canada, even though it’s responsible for making them available.

Norway produces 1.7 million barrels of oil daily and, since the country runs mainly on hydroelectricity, exports almost all of it, largely to Western Europe. Norway exports 10 times more emissions than it produces domestically.

Norway’s exit ramp from oil dependence is bumpy. Despite some contradictory climate actions, Norway’s progress exceeds that of virtually all petrostates, with Canada trailing behind.

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Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

 

Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Do experts have something to add to public debate?

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face. Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

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It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

It’s time environmentalists talked about the population problem

Bob Brown is right – it's time environmentalists talked about the population problem
Credit: Shutterstock

In all the talk of tackling environmental problems such as climate change, the problem of population growth often escapes attention. Politicians don’t like talking about it. By and large, neither do environmentalists—but former Greens leader Bob Brown has bucked that trend.

Brown recently declared the world’s  must start to decline before 2100, telling The Australian newspaper: “We are already using more than what the planet can supply and we use more than the living fabric of the planet in supply. That’s why we wake up every day to fewer fisheries, less forests, more extinctions and so on. The human herd at eight billion is the greatest herd of mammals ever on this planet and it is unsustainable to have that growing.”

Research suggests our species has far exceeded its fair share of the planetary bounty, and Brown is right to call for the  to peak. It is high time others joined the chorus—not only other environmentalists, but those concerned with international development and human rights.

Population growth, by the numbers

COVID-19 has killed more than one million people. While undeniably tragic, the figure is minor compared to world’s annual growth in population, estimated by the United Nations at about 83 million.

In 1900, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion people. By 2023 it’s expected to hit 8 billion. According to the UN, it will reach 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

(The US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently forecast a lower peak of about 9.7 billion by 2064, falling to about 8.8 billion by 2100.)

Why is the population growing so fast? Much of it is due to advanced fertilizers and intensive farming practices, leading to higher crop yields that can sustain more people. Health care has improved, and people are living much longer. And many parts of the world have historically had high fertility rates.

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Analysis shows how the Greens have changed the language of economic debate in New Zealand

When Health Minister Chris Hipkins recently quipped that the Green Party is “to some extent the conscience of the Labour Party” he was not simply referring to polls suggesting Labour may need the Greens’ support to form a government.

Hipkins was also suggesting Green policies help keep Labour honest on environmental and social issues. So, what difference has the Green Party really made to New Zealand’s political debate?

Drawing on a study of 57 million words spoken in parliament between 2003 and 2016, our analysis shows the presence of a Green party has changed the political conversation on economics and environment.

In the recent Newshub leaders’ debate, both Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins agreed that “growing the economy” was the best way to respond to the economic crisis driven by COVID-19.

Their responses varied only on traditional left-right lines. Ardern argued that raising incomes and investing in training would grow the economy. Collins suggested economic growth should be advanced by increasing consumer spending through temporary tax cuts.

By contrast, Green parties in New Zealand and elsewhere have long questioned the impact of relentless growth on the natural resources of a finite planet. Green thinking is informed by ecological economics, which aims to achieve more sustainable forms of collective prosperity that meet social needs within the planet’s limits.

man and woman shaking hands
‘Labour’s conscience’: Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw sign the confidence and supply agreement that brought the Greens into coalition in 2017. GettyImages

The language of economic growth

The impact of this radically different view can be observed in New Zealand parliamentary debates. When MPs from National and Labour used the word “economy” they commonly talked about it in the context of “growth” (“grow”/“growing”/“growth”).

On average, National MPs said “growth” once every four mentions of “economy”. Labour MPs said “growth” once every six mentions.

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Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate

I heard that carbon dioxide makes up 0.04% of the world’s atmosphere. Not 0.4% or 4%, but 0.04%! How can it be so important in global warming if it’s such a small percentage?

I am often asked how carbon dioxide can have an important effect on global climate when its concentration is so small – just 0.041% of Earth’s atmosphere. And human activities are responsible for just 32% of that amount.

I study the importance of atmospheric gases for air pollution and climate change. The key to carbon dioxide’s strong influence on climate is its ability to absorb heat emitted from our planet’s surface, keeping it from escaping out to space.

The ‘Keeling Curve,’ named for scientist Charles David Keeling, tracks the accumulation of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, measured in parts per million. Scripps Institution of OceanographyCC BY

Early greenhouse science

The scientists who first identified carbon dioxide’s importance for climate in the 1850s were also surprised by its influence. Working separately, John Tyndall in England and Eunice Foote in the United States found that carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane all absorbed heat, while more abundant gases did not.

Scientists had already calculated that the Earth was about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius) warmer than it should be, given the amount of sunlight reaching its surface. The best explanation for that discrepancy was that the atmosphere retained heat to warm the planet.

Tyndall and Foote showed that nitrogen and oxygen, which together account for 99% of the atmosphere, had essentially no influence on Earth’s temperature because they did not absorb heat. Rather, they found that gases present in much smaller concentrations were entirely responsible for maintaining temperatures that made the Earth habitable, by trapping heat to create a natural greenhouse effect.

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Nobel prize-winning economics of climate change is misleading and dangerous – here’s why

Nobel prize-winning economics of climate change is misleading and dangerous – here’s why

While climate scientists warn that climate change could be catastrophic, economists such as 2018 Nobel prize winner William Nordhaus assert that it will be nowhere near as damaging. In a 2018 paper published after he was awarded the prize, Nordhaus claimed that 3°C of warming would reduce global GDP by just 2.1%, compared to what it would be in the total absence of climate change. Even a 6°C increase in global temperature, he claimed, would reduce GDP by just 8.5%.

If you find reassurance in those mild estimates of damage, be warned. In a newly published paper, I have demonstrated that the data on which these estimates are based relies upon seriously flawed assumptions.

If you find reassurance in those mild estimates of damage, be warned. In a newly published paper, I have demonstrated that the data on which these estimates are based relies upon seriously flawed assumptions.

Nordhaus’s celebrated work, which, according to the Nobel committee, has “brought us considerably closer to answering the question of how we can achieve sustained and sustainable global economic growth”, gives governments a reason to give climate change a low priority.

His estimates imply that the costs of addressing climate change exceed the benefits until global warming reaches 4°C, and that a mild carbon tax will be sufficient to stabilise temperatures at this level at an overall cost of less than 4% of GDP in 120 year’s time. Unfortunately, these numbers are based on empirical estimates that are not merely wrong, but irrelevant.

Nordhaus (and about 20 like-minded economists) used two main methods to derive sanguine estimates of the economic consequences of climate change: the “enumerative method” and the “statistical method”. But my research shows neither stand up to scrutiny.

The ‘enumerative method’

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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