Green science

It has been one of those Australian summers where nature has been dominant. The heat, the drought, the dust and the ever-present, terrifying spectacle of the bushfires, sweeping away all in their path. Sadly, but not surprisingly, wherever the fires have touched they have inflamed environmental politics dividing those who believe nature should serve humanity, versus those who want to live in harmony with the environment.

On one hand, the forestry industry and others who make their living in the bush are calling for an increase in burning off, greater logging, and clearing the forest of fuel; yet conservation authorities and environmentalists argue that bushfires are inevitable and that we must develop ways of living with them. Most of us are caught somewhere between. And just as God was traditionally invoked against the infidels by both sides in the Crusades, so the standard of science is now flown into battle by both sides of the debate. Keeping science apolitical, like keeping politics out of sport, is never an option.

This sort of argument is not confined to the forest. According to a report released last December by the UN-sponsored Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the bulk of the Great Barrier Reef is in comparatively good condition. Many prominent reef scientists and conservationists, however, argue that the reef is in trouble, increasingly affected by rising sea temperatures which cause bleaching, under attack from recurrent plagues of crown-of-thorns starfish, polluted by sediment and chemicals from nearby agricultural land, and exploited by fishermen and tourists.

The truth seems to be that the proportion of the 2000-kilometre long reef impacted by any of these factors tends to be small. The question is when to sound the alarm: when you first become aware of a potential threat, or only if the impact is obvious by which time it may be too late to redress the damage?

Even President George W. Bush is finding the environment a hot political topic. His administration has refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement as it views the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions as bad for the US economy. Yet across America, states and municipalities and even the Senate are contemplating and passing laws which undermine the Bush position.

California, a state built around the motor car, is cracking down on vehicle emissions. New York is boosting the use of renewable energy, and the six New England states have instituted a program of cuts to greenhouse gas emissions which ultimately go further than Kyoto. These states argue that their measures will contribute to a better environment, and improve their economies. None of these problems has an easy answer, and there are many more waiting in the wings; fish stocks, resources of fresh water and genetically modified foods. Each issue has proponents of all persuasions waving scientific data to support their point of view. Does this make science the whore of the environment, bending before the will of all? No, it reflects the complexity of environmental problems, where people find it easier to generate half-truths. We have to educate ourselves and establish centres of knowledge which can provide balanced views. It was good to see, for instance, that the Australian government funded a Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre last October.

Without the aid of knowledge generated using the scientific method, we have no chance of sorting out the complexity which surrounds us.

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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