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The power of nature has been dominant this summer—the heat, the drought, the dust and the terrifying spectacle of the bushfires, sweeping away all in their path.

Wherever the fires have touched they have instantly inflamed environmental debates—between those who believe nature should serve human needs and those who want to live in harmony with the environment—the bush-bashers against the tree-huggers. 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. However, conservation authorities and environmentalists argue that bushfires are inevitable and that we must find better ways of living with them.

Just as God was invoked by both sides in the Crusades, so the standard of science is now flown by both sides in the environmental debate. Keeping science apolitical is like keeping politics out of sport.
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 good condition, particularly in comparison to reefs elsewhere. Prominent reef scientists and conservationists, however, argue that the reef is in trouble—
under attack by rising sea temperatures which cause bleaching, by recurrent plagues of crown-of-thorns starfish, by chemicals from nearby agriculture, and by fishing and tourism.

The truth seems to be that a small proportion of the 2000-kilometre-long reef is affected by any one factor at any one time. The question is when to sound the alarm: when you first become aware of a potential threat—to stop the problem getting worse—or only if the impact is obvious and the situation life-threatening. By then it may be too late.

President Bush is also finding the environment politically hot. His administration has refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement, believing that regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is bad for the US economy. But across America, states and municipalities and even the Senate are passing laws that undermine the Bush position.

California, a state built around the motor car, is cracking down hard on vehicle emissions. New York is boosting use of renewable energy, and the six New England states have instituted a program of cuts to greenhouse gas emissions that go further than Kyoto. These states argue that their environmental measures will also make their economies more robust and efficient.

Environmental problems are generally so complicated that people find it easy to generate half-truths about them. There are many pressing, controversial issues—fish stocks, resources of fresh water, GM foods—with proponents of all persuasions waving scientific data. The alternative is to educate ourselves and establish impartial centres of knowledge that can provide a more balanced viewpoint. It was good to see, for example, that the Australian government funded a Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre last October.

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

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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