Monday, May 15, 2006

After the Thaw

Great events in human history are captured in our memories like fish in ice at the sudden onset of winter. Frozen in time, to be thawed and trawled out in generations to come by curious grandchildren. What were you doing when it happened? Where were you? Who were you with? How did you feel?

Most of these defining moments are shared. The event happens. News flashes around the globe. For a moment we are transfixed, shocked, in awe. JFK has been assassinated…the Berlin Wall came down… the planes hit the twin towers… bonds are created as we share in the tragedy or the elation of the moment.

I recently experienced the defining moment of my generation - the event to dwarf all others. But strangely, I had it all to myself, staring at an email on my computer screen as I struggled to comprehend… humans are changing the climate.

My great grandchildren are unlikely to care about September 11, or about John Howard, or who won the world cup in 2006. They’re going to want to know how, in the space of only 4 generations, we created a mass wave of extinctions by triggering a climatic shift so dramatic that evolution was left flailing in it’s wake. And they’re going to want to know why my generation didn’t do anything when we knew it was happening.

Late last year, scientists revealed that the Siberian permafrost is melting. Researchers found that an area of permafrost spanning a million square kilometres - the size of France and Germany combined - has started to melt for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago.

The area in question, covering the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia, is the world's largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that, as it thaws, it will release billions of tonnes of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

It is yet another example of a scenario climate scientists have feared since first identifying "tipping points" - delicate thresholds where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures. The news managed to climb to the dizzy heights of story number 6 on the radio news. The lead story has already slipped from memory.

Much like the thaw of the permafrost or the dawn sweeping across the landscape, the realization that climate change is real and catastrophic spreads slowly. While I’ve had an intellectual understanding of climate change for many years and have followed the scientific developments with increasing concern, at some deeper level it just hadn’t sunk in. Now it has. And it’s not the loss of skiing holidays that is most concerning – it’s the loss of life.

A 2004 study published in Nature magazine examined the extinction risk from climate change in six biodiversity-rich regions, representing one fifth of the Earth's land area. The researchers concluded that from 15 to 37% of all the species in the regions studied could be driven to extinction by the climate changes likely between now and 2050. Climate change and the impacts of industrialization and over-consumption are driving a mass wave of extinction that is leading many scientists, like world famous paleoanthropologist, Dr. Richard Leakey, to predict that up to 50% of all species will be extinct within the next 100 years.

To put this in context, the fossil record reveals five great extinction episodes in the last half-billion years. The last happened 65 million years ago when dinosaurs became extinct. It has been calculated that the current rate of extinction is one thousand to ten thousand times the background rate – and rising. To draw the blunt but obvious conclusion - humans are now causing the sixth mass wave of extinctions in the 4 billion year history of life on earth.

Nature has always had to adapt to changing climate conditions. Indeed, it is one of the driving forces behind the process of evolution that has produced the staggering variety of life on Earth. But the very real fear is that the changes currently under way are simply too rapid for species to evolve new strategies for survival.

People can pack up their gear into cars and move (at least, wealthy people can). We can build dwellings. We can grow food in greenhouses. Other creatures can’t. Humans are incredibly adaptive to change – it is one of our greatest qualities, and, so it would appear, one of our greatest liabilities as we go about resigning ourselves to accept climate change.

A lot of us seem to have forgotten that our life depends on functioning ecosystems. Food, medicines, clean air and water are the obvious things. Maybe we really can keep living with dramatically reduced diversity of life on earth? But given that we only have the slightest clue about what life actually exists, let alone what functions it performs in keeping our global environment in equilibrium, it’s a pretty big gamble. It’s a bit like letting a neurologist remove 90% of your brain because they only know what 10% of it does. If there is one thing that we have learnt about ecology over the past 50 years it is that natural systems are complex and symbiotic. Changing one thing invariable results in flow on effects.

In the face of the enormous challenge posed by climate change, our elected political leaders are flailing aimlessly. The oil and coal industries have such a stranglehold over our economy and our public institutions that they stymie any attempts at change. Political parties on the right and left are beholden to big energy and are paralysed by a chronic failure of the imagination.

At this point, we don’t just need a 10% renewable energy target. We don’t need people just to buy energy efficient light bulbs. We certainly can’t pin our hopes on just cleaning up coal. We need a radical and urgent transition plan to a green economy. We need a green development programme that will make the Marshall Plan look like a Sunday school picnic. The transition away from destructive industries and their replacement with efficient, sustainable alternatives needs to be the basis of the next industrial revolution.

It’s not even worth saying that it won’t be easy. It will take the combined energies of our best planners, economists, artists, engineers, teachers, managers, scientists and farmers to make it happen. We already have a host of brilliant and practical ideas from some of the brightest and most creative thinkers of our time. What we lack is the collective courage and leadership to make the investments and to take risks - investments and risks that are commensurate with the size of the challenge. The consequences of the doing nothing are just far too devastating and irresponsible to contemplate.

My father spent his whole working life in the coal industry. The challenge of his generation of engineers was to grow and to manage the industrial revolution. They didn’t know about climate change back then. My first three years as a graduate engineer in the early 90’s were spent designing and building equipment for the coal, oil and gas industries. I didn’t really know about climate change then either. Now I do. And the thing about being human is that we have the capacity to learn from history. And between stimulus and response we have choice.

It seems clear enough. Either we rise to meet the challenge of our age - or we don’t. If we do, it will require a political movement to transform our economy – with a role for every single one of us. If we don’t, then our current political and business leaders will be inscribed in the record books as the drivers of, and collaborators in, the most senseless and destructive chapter in human history. And the rest of us will be secure in the anonymity of spectatorship – at least until those grandchildren start asking pesky questions.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Size matters - public opinion doesn't

Canberra Times, 8th May 2006
The release last month of a Federal Government discussion paper on the development of a national nanotechnology strategy created ‘nano ripples’ throughout the community – so small as to be imperceptible to the human eye. Nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution, redefining life as we know it, but with only one month for public comment, the development of a national strategy to manage the most powerful and transformative technology in human history will involve less public participation than a development application to retrofit your local pub. Given the stakes, it is high time that we sat up and started paying attention to the way this technology is set to reshape our world – and in whose interests.

The release of the discussion paper coincided with the first ever recall of a nanotechnology product. In Germany, there were 39 cases of serious respiratory problems and six people were hospitalized in late March after using the nanotech bathroom cleaner "Magic Nano". While it is not yet clear if nanotechnology is to blame for these health problems, the important point is that no government anywhere regulates nano-scale materials if the same chemical substance has been vetted at the macro-scale. Yet it is precisely because nano materials behave differently to their macro-scale counterparts that they are attracting so much investment and research interest.

Nanoparticles are generally understood to be particles below 100 nano metres in size (about one eighty thousandth of the width of a human hair) that take advantage of property changes that occur at the nano-scale. Nano-scale materials may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic than their larger scale counterparts. For example, aluminum oxide - used in dentistry because of its inertness - can spontaneously explode at the nano- scale and is currently being tested as a potential rocket fuel.

There are a wide range of concerns with nanotechnology, not least of which is the issue of nanotoxicity. The defense systems of the human body are generally not designed to deal with such small particles. In general, nanoparticles of 70 nanometres can enter the lungs, a 50 nm particle can enter cells and a 30 nm particle can pass through the blood / brain barrier.

In response to concerns over health and environmental safety, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom released a report in 2004 with a series of wide ranging recommendations. They recommend that “Until more is known about the environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible”; and that “Ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products”.

The problem is that the regulators are not listening. As the scientific evidence of nano hazards continues to mount, so does the number of products containing nanoparticles that are already on the shelves – from sunscreens to cosmetics, car parts and even food.

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far-reaching implications of nanotechnology are a little further up the development pipeline. Molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom and the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms have the power to literally re-make our world from the atom up, and to fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world.

However, readers of the discussion paper issued by the Australian Government’s National Nanotechnology Taskforce would be none the wiser about such issues. The aim of the paper seems to be to reassure the reader that nanotechnology isn’t really new and certainly isn’t anything to worry about. The speculative benefits of nanotechnology are pronounced with certainty from on high, while questions of risk, and even known hazards are heavily qualified and the waters muddied.

It is clear that there is an urgent and growing regulatory gap, where nano product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of environmental health and safety. If recommendations from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies haven’t triggered a regulatory response, it is unclear what will. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is waiting for the same kind of consumer and environmental backlash that emerged over genetically engineered foods?

The transformative power of the new nanotechnologies signals that it is time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past 200 years, scientists have altered our world as much, if not more than elected officials, yet they are accountable to nobody save the corporations that increasingly fund them. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs of the community and the environment — not the other way around. Just as scientists are exploring uncharted territory through the emerging nanotechnologies, so must we also explore uncharted territory in terms of how these technologies are managed — and crucially, in whose interests. The development of a nanotechnology strategy for Australia deserves far more public involvement and scrutiny than it is currently being given.

For more information about Nanotechnology, visit