Environment and Climate

Climate change is often framed as a number of battles: between science and opinion, sustainable development and economic growth, government control and individual freedom, or environmentalists and business leaders. All of these are simplifications of the complexity involved in our modern world’s developing adequate responses to human-caused climate change.

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On 18 January 1773, less than twenty-four hours after first entering Antarctic waters and concerned by the ice gathering around the Resolution, Commander James Cook surveyed the waters. A few hours later he wrote in his journal: ‘From the mast head I could see nothing to the Southward but Ice, in the Whole extent from East to WSW without the least appearance of any partition.’

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In Feeling the Heat, journalist and science writer Jo Chandler voyages to Antarctica (mostly), where she meets and talks with scientists about the meaning of their work. She reminds me of the eighteenth-century philosophical travellers, the first anthropologists who travelled to strange lands (Australia included) to observe the language and customs of savage peoples, and to learn from them. From ice field and coral reef, Chandler reports on the latest in climate science, as if meeting the inhabitants of a distant country where they do things differently.

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Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve by Libby Robin, Chris Dickman, and Mandy Martin

by
May 2011, no. 331

In recent months a significant part of Australia has been subject to deluge and flood. As the continent recharges its waterways and water tables, we are like an ant nest into which a curious child has thrust a hose – rushing about rescuing and shoring up, patching and rebuilding, behaving as if this upheaval is an aberration, and as if building towns and cities on flood plains is sensible.

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Christopher Booker is appalled that humanity has thrown its glimmering record of progress on the pagan bonfire of environmentalist superstition. He is shocked that the scientific community is helplessly in thrall to a cabal of corrupt hacks masquerading under theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s confected rubric. He is dumbfounded that ‘natural’ climatic fluctuations have been spun into some deranged ‘global warming’ conspiracy theory.

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Imagine a bookshop or library whose contents were shelved in a cross-generic way to include a section for Anthologies: this surely would be the largest division, encompassing all of the subsections of literature, science, music, philosophy ... The anthology (‘gathering of flowers’), with its impeccable classical pedigree, is the most comprehensive kind of book, catering in the contemporary reading economy to every conceivable market, from astral travelling, through gay fiction, ghost stories, long/short/tall stories, poetry of all persuasions, to travel in Turkey and Great Zoos of the World. There is a burgeoning publishers’ trade for the literary anthology – a ‘safe’ book, the serious reader’s stocking-filler, something with at least a few contributions calculated to entertain or edify.

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When the first specimen of the Platypus reached Europe in 1798, it was received with incredulity by zoologists. With anatomical and morphological characteristics seemingly belonging to reptiles, birds, and mammals, it simply did not fit into the existing classifications. Further, it appeared to lack mammary glands and therefore could not be classed as a mammal, yet it had obvious mammalian characteristics such as fur and a single bone comprising the lower jaw. It was also noted that there was only one external body opening, the cloaca, into which the uteri, the gut, and the kidneys empty. Hence the name Monotreme (having one hole) applied by English anatomist Sir Everard Home in 1802. Put simply, the Platypus created more than its share of headaches for taxonomists.

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Late in 2005, after months of delicate negotiations, the National Library of Australia announced a remarkable coup: the purchase of a previously unknown collection of fifty-six watercolours of botanical and ornithological subjects drawn and painted in Sydney in the years 1788–90, the cradle period of European settlement in Port Jackson. The significance of these paintings, unsigned and undated, had for many years gone unrecognised. The watercolours, apparently acquired as early as 1792, had been held in England over several generations by the Moreton family, the Earls of Ducie. Over several generations, their significance had apparently been overlooked or simply not understood; in time, the portfolio, though safely held, had been forgotten. It came to light in 2004 during a routine valuation of the estate of Basil Moreton, sixth Earl of Ducie. The eventual sale was negotiated with representatives of the present and seventh Earl, David Moreton, who was committed to honouring his family’s long connection with Australia on properties in Queensland. But before that, it was necessary to identify the works more definitively beyond their (then) presumed Australian subject matter.

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In 1978 the writer John McPhee, accompanied some geologists on a field trip to the American West, and in order to express their insights into the vast processes that had formed the present landscape, he coined the evocative and durable term ‘deep time’. With a sharp Australian eye, Tim Flannery has now done the same for the entire continent in this remarkably ambitious yet highly readable book. As an active research palaeontologist, he has a profound sense of the history of his discipline, and has the ability vividly and sometimes whimsically to put himself and the reader into the places of discovery and into the mindsets of the often testy pioneers in this fossil game.

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