Saturday, December 8, 2007

Climate Change or Global Warming

The famous Watergate journalist Bob Woodward was speaking on the BBC today about his working life being an investigative journalist. He said that one of the most important things he and other journalists needed to do consistently is to be tough, to demand answers.

Over 30 years ago the hard questions he and his colleague Carl Bernstein asked about corruption in the Whitehouse landed an American president, Richard Nixon, in jail. But Woodward commented that over the years both he and other leading American journalists had grown too soft. For example, he had not asked those hard questions over weapons of mass destruction pointing out that WMD debates came not long after 9/11 so America's focus including his own, was turned elsewhere.

This week attention is focused on Bali where governments of the world have gathered to make tough decisions to curb climate change. Climate change?

The investigative media organisation IndyMedia is asking those tough questions trying to get to the bottom of why many journalists in Australia and elsewhere either ignored the plea to act on global warming or spent more space covering the sceptical view, thus raising doubt in the public's minds. This worked to limit their anxiety about the issue - and their lobbying power.

Climate change sceptics used ad hominem arguments to distort and disuade. Eco-activists and scientists like Professor Ian Lowe, the Wentworth Group, and many others globally including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continued to challenge the nay-sayers but the global media was often loathe to treat their science and their warnings seriously. With Al Gore's documentary, the truth was now out in the open. The time for debate and misreporting was over.

Drought came. The river basins and river flows began to retreat especially in inland Australia. The Murray River, the lifeblood of the country, was dying.

In his boook 'When the Rivers Run Dry' (2006) journalist Fred Pearce documents the parlous ecological state of rivers globally and says of the Murray that its death is evident in the giant river red gums that line its banks.

'The trees live up for a thousand years, hunkering down during droughts and then spreading their seeds after floods. But if the drought goes on too long, they die' (2006:249).

His book tells the story of rivers across the globe whose quality and flow are under severe threat. The risk is too great but the precautionary principle, it seems, is not being applied. For example, underground aquifers are being mined - drained - water is not being replaced.

Pearce calls for a water ethos - 'an ethos based ... on managing the water cycle for maximum social benefit rather than narrow self-interest' (348). It recognizes that in many religions rivers are revered as sacred, holy places for pilgrimage and baptism. Its significance in Aboriginal culture is found in 'waterholes and billabongs ... physical manifestations of the process of creation itself' (350).

A water ethos venerates water sources, cherishes water and respects all rivers - including the Brisbane River.

Pearce F, 2006, When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens when Our Water Runs Out, London, Transworld Publishers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Clever Dolphins

On BBC news this morning there was a marvellous news item about the cleverness of Amazon River Dolphins. Some males carry objects in their mouths such as weeds, sticks and clay as symbols of courtship and sexual display.

After a three year study of over 6000 dolphins, scientists found that there is a relationship between object carrying dolphins and aggression. They explained that such aggression is linked to those males who produce the most offspring.

This latest study adds to the research data on the tenacity of dolphin culture. For example, in Shark Bay in Western Australia, researchers found that dolphins use tools such as sponges to rest on to protect their bodies when they are foraging for food amongst sharp and rocky terrain.

Clever dolphins like the Amazon River Dolphins and other fresh and salt water dolphin species across the globe are sadly under threat from deforestation and habitat degradation. Research from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that threats to the Amazon River Dolphins are also due to their use as bait for destructive commercial fishing practices in Colombia.

This year the Yangzte River Dolphin known as the Goddess of that river has become extinct. And at the 10th International Riversymposium & Environmental Flows Conference held in Brisbane in September, scientists spoke of the dangers to river dolphins in other parts of Asia, especially along the Mekong in Cambodia, the Ganges in India and the Indus in Pakistan.

At the Symposium, speakers from the WWF explained that dolphins are the watchdogs of river quality, pointing out that a decline in river dolphin numbers represents a decline in water quality (increasing polluition and toxicity) which affects both water creatures and humans alike in terms of health, wellbeing and live-ability.

The Brisbane River is home to a number of dolphins. Recently the Brisbane Times reported that there is anecdotal evidence that imroved water quality in the river over the past few years has led to an increase in dolphin numbers along the river and in Moreton Bay. But little research in being undertaken on these local dolphin species, although it's suggested that 'the relatively timid Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, one of the two species of dolphin found in Moreton Bay, could also be susceptible to urban development.'

It's been estimated that there are about 160 Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphins in the Moreton Bay region (Hale et al 2004). According to whale and dolphin researcher Dr Mike Noad from the University of Queensland, dolphins have been coming up river possibly because of the higher levels of salinity in the river. Increasing saltiness of the river is linked with reduced fresh water run-off and low rainfall.

Scientists have been working to improve water quality in catchment areas and local streams and rivers but currently these areas in SE Queensland are suffering from damaging drought conditions. The Brisbane Times article went on to say that those 'streams that are degraded by poor riparian and catchment land-uses appear less resilient under drought conditions and therefore show declines ... [which have led] 'to high nutrient and sediment loads and low dissolved oxygen levels'. In contrast, earlier this year, the Courier Mail reported that 'Brisbane River is at a crossroads – 30 years of conservation work is finally bearing fruit – and marine biologists say it is in its best shape in years.' That's excellent news.

Hale, P, Brieze, I, Chatto, R & Parra, G, 2004, Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. In National Oceans Office. Description of Key Species Groups in the Northern Planning Area. National Oceans Office, Hobart, Australia.