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Existential risks to our planetary life-support systems

We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet. - Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chief climate advisor to the German Government It is not news that we are over stretching our planetary…

The future of Earth’s living environment is a non-issue in the current Australian election. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet. - Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chief climate advisor to the German Government

It is not news that we are over stretching our planetary support systems: we have known for some time. In a 2009 keynote paper in Nature titled “A safe operating space for humanity”, a group of 26 prominent scientists showed three of nine interlinked planetary boundaries - boundaries we must stay within to keep Earth safe - have already been overstepped (see Figure 1). Those boundaries include:

  • climate change
  • biodiversity loss
  • the biogeochemical cycles.

Kevin Trenberth, chief scientist of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, states:

Some of the human-induced changes are occurring 100-times faster than they occur in nature … And this is one of the things that worries me more than climate change itself. It’s actually the rate of change that’s most worrying … Ecosystems are not prepared for this jolt … And neither are many human endeavours, built around assumptions about how hot it’s going to be, how much it’s going to rain on our croplands, and how high the seas will rise.”

Figure 1. Planetary boundaries - the coloured star-like area represents the estimated current state and the corners of the red octagon circumscribed by the Earth are the estimated boundaries. Systems whose safe operating space could not yet be determined were left out. Rockström et al

This observation is dramatically demonstrated by the current rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases: this is at an unprecedented rate of 2 to 3 parts per million per year (see Figure 3). This renders our era – the Anthropocene – a major oxidation event.

Such a growth rate of atmospheric greenhouse gases is extremely rare in geological history. The only analogue is the excavation of billions of tons of carbon from carbonate and shale formation hit by asteroids, such as the K-T impact 65 million years ago and massive global volcanic eruptions.

The consequences for the biosphere - the sixth mass extinction of species - threatens to become a tragedy for human ideals and for nature.

What or who is responsible for the unfolding calamity?

As defined, the Anthropocene is a new geological era triggered by a species which has uniquely mastered ignition. We are using it to excavate and release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon accumulated in Earth’s crust over geological eras into atmosphere.

Once a species masters sources of energy larger by orders of magnitude than its own physiological process (for Homo Sapiens this has been fire, electricity and nuclear fission), the species can hardly be expected to have the wisdom and degree of responsibility to stop its inventions from getting out of control.

Figure 2. Estimates of fossil fuel resources and equivalent atmospheric CO2 levels, including (1) emissions to date; (2) estimated reserves, and (3) recoverable resources (1 ppm CO2 * 2.12 GtC). Hansen 2012a; Hansen et al. 2012b, Fig. 1

Unique among all species, humans adopted fire and combustion as their source of energy and power over nature. Over the last two million years, camped around fires, watching the flames, human imagination has grown to inquire, perceive future possibilities, develop fears, the craving for immortality, and the concept of gods. Fire has imparted a mythological quality to the human mind.

Once a stable climate was established in the Holocene (about 10,000 years ago), allowing cultivation and production of surplus food, this craving for omnipotence and omniscience was expressed by the building of monuments to immortality, the pyramids, as well as endless wars acquiring loot for this purpose.

Spiritual pantheism by pre-historic people such as the Australian Aboriginals has been transformed into admiration of sky gods and monotheism, then into crass materialism and the space cult.

But space exploration has taught us no other planet exists in the solar system on which the conditions exist for advanced life of the type hosted by Earth.

Since the greenhouse effect and its underlying laws of physics and chemistry were decoded in the 19th century, the question has arisen: to what extent will societies and their leaders accept the implications of the science for human industry and human future? Will the scientific method itself and the enlightenment form the basis of future decisions?

In 21st century Australia, the answer has been a resounding “no”.

Government and corporate decisions on climate change are being influenced by misrepresentations of the evidence. What began some 20 years ago as demonstration of solid empirical evidence has deteriorated to media-controlled debate replete with misunderstandings of the basic laws of physics, paleo-climate science, climate science, biological and ecological principles.

Figure 3. Relations between CO2 rise rates and mean global temperature rise rates during warming periods, including the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, Oligocene, Miocene, late Pliocene, Eemian (glacial termination), Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles, Medieval Warming Period, 1750-2012 and 1975-2012 periods.

A multitude of media outlets and hundreds of websites proliferate notions ignorant of peer-reviewed science. The lesson of numerous attempted debates with those who deny the reality of global warming, or attempt to attribute it to natural non-human factors, is that those entertaining these notions cannot be dissuaded by any amount of scientific evidence.

Climate change misconceptions include claims that:

  • temperature rise came before CO2 rise during the glacial terminations and that therefore the current rise of temperature is not the result of CO2 rise. However, the effects of CO2 and temperature variations are intertwined. During the last ~400,000 years glacial eras were terminated by periods of intense solar activity, affecting decreased CO2 solubility in warming water and thereby a rise in CO2 levels of the atmosphere. By contrast climate developments since the 18th century, when there was negligible or no rise in solar energy hitting the earth, were triggered by the anthropogenic greenhouse effect of the release of 560 billion tonnes of carbon, consistent with the basic laws of physics.

  • global warming is a recovery from the Little Ice Age. However, the Little Ice Age was caused when sunspot activity nearly ceased between 1650 and 1700, depressing global temperatures by 0.2-0.3C relative to preceding periods. By contrast, global warming from about 1975 has tracked toward more than 1.5C over the continents relative to pre-industrial temperatures.

  • cosmic rays flux affects warming. However, a dominant solar effect on the climate since 1970 is ruled out by measurements of solar radiation. The incidence of cosmic rays, which oscillate reciprocally with the 11 years sunspot cycle, has been shown to have minor effects on cloud nucleation and has not varied significantly since the mid-20th century.

  • carbon dioxide is emitted mainly from volcanoes. However, according to the United States Geological Survey (2012), sub-aerial and sub-marine volcanism emits approximately 150–260 million tons of CO2 a year. Anthropogenic emissions total about 35 billion tons CO2 a year.

Meanwhile, the unthinkable consequences of 4 degrees Celsius and higher temperature rise on the terrestrial atmosphere-ocean system have already begun. We are seeing a series of extreme weather events, reflecting the rise in energy/temperature of the atmosphere-ocean system – the “new normal”.

Does responsibility lie with vested interests and fossil fuel lobbies promoting carbon saturation of the atmosphere? Does it lie with media barons and their mouthpieces hijacking the information systems of democracies, or with cowardly political “leaders” - presiding over extensive demise of future generations? Or does responsibility lie with all of us, with the species?

Deceived by pseudoscientific misconceptions, Homo “sapiens” continues to march toward a cliff, taking much of nature with it.

Join the conversation

42 Comments sorted by

  1. Comment removed by moderator.

  2. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    Settled Science Climate Change mis-conception #3: cosmic rays flux affects warming.
    Sept. 4, 2013: From a Technical University of Denmark press release comes what looks like a significant confirmation of Svensmark's theory of temperature modulation on earth by cosmic ray interactions.
    http://www.dtu.dk/english/News/Nyhed?id={ABB2F1B4-F5F7-4452-BB39-9818EA7CB8F9}
    A paper published today in Theoretical and Applied Climatology appears to corroborate Spencer & Braswell’s 2011 paper concluding that…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Thanks Mr McGuire.

      Every previous "it's the sun wot dunnit" release has been debunked; have we any reason to think that this one won't?

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    2. Mark McGuire

      climate consensus rebel

      In reply to David Arthur

      Every previous one debunked? My, talk is cheap & links at a premium. Any reason why this one won't? Well, you couldn't. Otherwise, you would.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      New day, same old crap from the climate science deniers.

      "Cosmic ray counts have increased over the past 50 years, so if they do influence global temperatures, they are having a cooling effect."
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/cosmic-rays-and-global-warming.htm

      "Spencer and Braswell's study uses an overly simplistic climate model, their conclusions rely on using one particular data set, and their paper does not provide enough information to duplicate the study. The paper is fundamentally flawed and has no scientific merit."
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/roy-spencer-negative-feedback-climate-sensitivity-advanced.htm

      The Spencer and Braswell paper was so bad that the editor of the journal Remote Sensing in which it was published resigned.
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/Journal-editor-resigns-over-fundamentally-flawed-paper-Roy-Spencer.html

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    4. Jeremy Dawson
      Jeremy Dawson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      researcher

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      The science will never be "settled" when all it takes to "unsettle" it is some poster on a blog.

      The quote “atmospheric feedback diagnosis ..." is from the Spencer & Braswell paper - which has been debunked (see other comments); it's not from one of the new papers he has found. Presumably these new paper(s) that Mr McGuire refers to don't contain anything he finds worth quoting.

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Thanks for that excellent, witty, content-free riposte, Mark. Let me provide some content for you.

      Earth is warmed by absorption of short wave sunlight. Because of this, Earth's temperature can remain unchanged by returning the same amount of energy to space. That is, solar shortwave energy is balanced by the earth re-radiating to space as a 'black body' radiator with a characteristic temperature of ~255K; that is, from space the earth's spectrum is roughly that of a radiating body with an…

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    6. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Jeremy Dawson

      McGuire is one of the "zombie miners" who are prolific on the climate science discussions here.

      His modus operandi is to trawl the climate crank blogs for a rotting corpse of an idea which he then copies and pastes here.

      The Spencer and Braswell paper was so bad that I am sure the head was buried separately from the body. But somehow the cranks have managed to sew it back together and represent it as a new idea.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Thanks for that, Mr McGuire.

      Look, it's pretty well evident that the science is settled to the extent that human activities are the cause of at least 95% of climate change that has been observed over the last century or two.

      It's time, then, that the discussion turns to the motivation of those who persist in Denying what's happening. This is important, since it's their Denial that, as we have observed, has been responsible for much if not all of the failure for humanity to take corrective action - the corrective action that would otherwise have ensured a peaceful prosperous nation and world for this generation and all our heirs and successors.

      So, what motivates such furious Denial? One can only assume hatred - hatred for one's own children, one's own nation, hatred indeed for all humanity.

      Answer us this, Mr McGuire: when does "rebelliousness" became "betrayal"?

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    8. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Several facts, each on their own, mean that Cosmic Rays have zero long term effect on climate, not the least being the fact that there is zero long term trend in Cosmic Rays since 1950.

      Denialists like McGuire cannot even deal with this one fact alone. They cannot even get to square one.

      The science is 95% settled.

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    9. greg fullmoon

      being and doing

      In reply to David Arthur

      A coalition of strange bedfellows are denialists;

      One group are libertarians who disdain big anything, government, science, corporations. As free individuals they abhor curtailment of any thing they see as their right. Taxes and arbitrary pronouncements are anathema.

      I might add here that I share some of this concern, however civilization is a compromise in progress whose object is the advancement of the common or public good as well as the development of the individual, or rather that was…

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    10. Andrew Glikson

      Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Positive feedbacks constitute obvious consequences of rising land and ocean temperatures:

      1. The solubility of CO2 decreases with the rise of water temperatures, resulting in lowered capacity of the oceans to absorb atmospheric CO2.

      2. Increased evaporation with higher temperatures results in H2O greenhouse effects.

      3. Heat waves and fires - increasing with rising land temperatures (by ~1.5 degrees C since the 18th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkeley_Earth_Surface_Temperature) - release copious amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere.

      4. Melting permafrost releases methane - which disintegrates to CO2 - into the atmosphere.

      The list goes on.

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  3. Colin Samundsett

    retired BSurv

    Thanks Andrew - it’s an interesting experiment that Homo sapiens(?) is conducting. The general direction is clear enough (and appalling), but the unfolding fine detail a bit unclear - especially social response to particular events eg. “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” . Unfortunately(?), I only have maybe one more decade left in me so I will miss out on much of the very interesting escalation of developments. Colin

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  4. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    Regarding the role of cosmic rays:

    Solar activity and terrestrial climate: an analysis of some purported, correlations. by Peter Laut. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics 65 (2003) 801– 812

    "The last decade has seen a revival of various hypotheses claiming a strong correlation between solar activity and a number of terrestrial climate parameters: Links between cosmic rays and cloud cover, 1rst total cloud cover and then only low clouds, and between solar cycle lengths and…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Thanks for this article, Dr Glikson.

      While I consider the proposition that "Once a species masters sources of energy ... the species can hardly be expected to have the wisdom and degree of responsibility to stop its inventions from getting out of control." to be somewhat contentious, I daresay you'd proffer the one example we have available for study, homo sapiens, as evidence for the contention.

      I'm rather looking forward to the day after the Tax is Axed, when IPCC AR6 WG1 is released; how will our Leaders respond?

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Thanks for the summary description of mechanisms prevailing at onset of interglacial periods.

      Could you comment on a possible role for methane emissions during such periods? My reasoning is that if substantial methane emissions from both terrestrial permafrost thaw and from disruption of offshore methane clathrates occur, driving substantial warming early in interglacial periods before oxidising to CO2, and hence causing something of an "overshoot" of early interglacial temperature and sea level rise.

      It could also account for some of the delay observed in ice cores between onset of temperature and onset of CO2 increases.

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    3. Andrew Glikson

      Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

      In reply to David Arthur

      David

      Refer to Figure 3 in Hansen and Sato 2012 paper "Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change", showing CH4 varied between about 350 ppb (during glacial periods) and about 700 ppb (during interglacial periods.) http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2011/20110118_MilankovicPaper.pdf
      Since the 18th century CH4 rose from about 750 ppb to near-1800 ppb (IPCC-2007-AR4), namely at over 5 ppb/year (a rise of 1550 ppb to 1800 ppb occurred during 1978-2012) - a rate unknown since the PETM 55 Ma ago.

      These values place current greenhouse gas levels and growth rates at a category of their own and climate trends at an uncharted territory.

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    4. Andrew Glikson

      Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

      In reply to David Arthur

      David

      I wish you were right. Unfortunately the disconnect between trends in the atmosphere-ocean system and the human response has been growing and attempts at mitigation measures to date at most only token.

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  5. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Taking a planetary overview, it is not only the election that has been considering climate change barely luke warmly for like the photo gives the impression, it is well less than luke warm out there in the universe unless of course you're heading into a sun like star or a planet too close to one, Mercury or Venus for example.
    " Some of the human-induced changes are occurring 100-times faster than they occur in nature … And this is one of the things that worries me more than climate change itself…

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    1. Rick Sullivan

      Vast and Various

      In reply to Greg North

      That's probably your hardest to understand post yet, Greg/Greg team. If I've got it right though, you're doing your usual and trying (in any convoluted way you can) to justify the LNPs policies - in this case their lack of conscience and their inaction on climate change. So, I'll just say this again:
      HEY EVERYBODY. NEWS FLASH: GREG NORTH, COMMENTER OF COMMENTERS ON T.C. IS ACTUALLY A TEAM OF LNP SUPPORTERS.
      Please go away, Greg/Gregs.

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, the point is that we are entering uncharted territory. Nature is not ambling along as you say, but going from a canter into a gallop, ecosystems will not cope. The ocean is a large ecosystem, and we threaten most life in it as a total unless we stop pumping CO2 into it. If the average world temperature increase, does reach 5 degrees by the end of this century, that translates to 7 degrees over the murray darling basin, which will be catastrophically threatened, both as a viable food source…

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    3. Jenny Goldie

      population and climate activist

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Well said Alice. The IPCC report will be unambiguous and dithering is not an option. To go back to Andrew's final words: 'Deceived by pseudoscientific misconceptions, Homo “sapiens” continues to march toward a cliff, taking much of nature with it.' If only we weren't taking nature with us.

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    4. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Jenny Goldie

      So do I Jenny, and I appreciated Andrews last sentence too. Mark Lawson called me an activist, so that is what I do with pride. I'm out and proud and look forward to the new protest century. We can't afford to do nothing, I talk on behalf of things which can't. No fear Jenny!

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  6. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    David

    FURTHER COMMENT REGARDING CH4 AND GLACIAL TERMINATIONS

    Methane - due to its disintegration to CO2 within less than 100 years - is less readily measured than CO2, estimated from stomata pore densities, phytoplankton, B/Ca and other methods.

    Major methane release may be represented by light carbon (12C/13C) isotopic anomalies preserved in sediments.

    During glacial age terminations, when T rise occurred over periods on the order of 2 - 3 thousand years or longer (see Figure 3 in my article) greenhouse gas and T growth rates were as low as to allow species to adapt.

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  7. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "the species can hardly be expected to have the wisdom and degree of responsibility to stop its inventions from getting out of control". Why not? Why should we be exempt from the basic obligation to pursue informed action?

    "Or does responsibility lie with all of us, with the species?" Absolutely and our primary obligation is to inform ourselves of the facts and evidence, before forming an opinion on required action.

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  8. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "Homo “sapiens” continues to march toward a cliff, taking much of nature with it."

    Some people say that "tragedy of the commons" is a fallacy because, humans, being rational beings, will negotiate with each other to agree to avoid damaging the commons.

    We are about to see whether humans really are rational.

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    1. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      " humans, being rational beings, will negotiate with each other to agree to avoid damaging the commons."

      Did you just hear that Chris. A thud followed by laughter.

      That was the Psychologists of the world falling to the floor and rolling around in fits of laughter.

      What makes us Homo Sapiens so interesting is the many fascinating ways in which we are irrational.

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    2. Paul Wigton

      Geologist

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Some people still believe the Earth is flat, we didn't walk on the moon, and the Ice Ages are a myth: So what? Your point???

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    3. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Paul Wigton

      OK, I'll put 2 and 2 together for you.

      The original quote was:

      "Homo “sapiens” continues to march toward a cliff, taking much of nature with it."

      This is pretty much a consequence of Tragedy of the Commons, in spite of some people bizarrely believing that there is no such thing.

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  9. Gail Zawacki

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I wouldn't quibble with the dangers of climate change - in fact, I think they are usually grotesquely underestimated because the models do not factor in the exponential speed of amplifying feedbacks. However, I think it's amusing that there is so much attention on climate change even in an article which features the nine boundaries study indicating that the disruption of the nitrogen cycle far exceeds any other category.

    The disruption of the nitrogen cycle is causing profound degradation to…

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  10. Garry Baker

    researcher

    A good read Dr Andrew Glikson. Indeed, as good as it comes.

    However soothsayers are not in demand these days, given that word is out that money for our needed lifestyle changes will continue to be be tight because of the GFC, et al. Rather, a climate fix is something we will get around to when a dire need arises

    For example, if Manhattan Island or Shanghai get swamped by a metre of water. Or maybe a big ignition event up in the vast Tundra regions, where escaping methane gasses fire…

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  11. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    Gail

    Regarding the Nitrogen cycle:

    1. The radiative forcing induced by N oxidation to atmospheric N oxides is significant at 0.14-0.18 Watt/m2 (IPCC-2007-AR4).

    2. The effects of the N cycle on land vegetation and land clearing are taken into account in calculating CO2 release to the atmosphere.

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  12. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Irrespective of a hi-jacked MSM, a powerful lobby of vested interests, I agree

    ".... responsibility lie with all of us, with the species?"

    Guess we'll find out how successful Murdoch, Rinehart et al, have been later today.

    However, for a little spleen venting I highly recommend the following video just for the joy of watching the use of what is arguably our favourite 4 letter word, if you are offended, you have been warned:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qd1riF0Auw8

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Personally Diana, I would like to see a coalition of international companies, the best climate, economic, and biological scientists take a submission to government about the reality of the science and its impact on au and the world. Before this I would like to see major ads and articles in the papers and television comprehensively stating facts and absurdity. Journalists who do understand need to write comprehensively about this at every opportunity. I would like to think we are not in America yet. Front on please. What have you got to lose?

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    2. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Alice

      I would like to think that we are not the USA.

      We can act together for the long term instead of for immediate gratification.

      That Murdoch has not successfully placed his man (for now, who knows what he has planned...)

      That Labor will find its roots, get its sh*t together and get the message out to we, the people - MSM willing.

      That the MSM will start reporting news instead of opinion. Well, at least put opinion back on the editorial pages.

      That " a coalition of international companies, the best climate, economic, and biological scientists take a submission to government about the reality of the science and its impact on au and the world" are meeting with Abbott right now - giving the man a lesson in reality.

      Yes, I am a dreamer.

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  13. Chris O'Neill

    Retired Way Before 70

    "Or does responsibility lie with all of us, with the species?"

    Responsibility rests with voters in the sense that, if they make a mistake, then they are responsible. But what use is that if they cause the destruction of what's important for everyone?

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  14. William Hughes-Games

    Garden weed puller

    Great article giving a feel for human hubrus. Just one little niggle. First people are no better than modern man at preserving their environment - at least at first until they see what they have done. First people in Australia ate their way through an amazing fauna leaving a small remnant compared to what once was. The same occurred with every first people.

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