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World Science Festival Brisbane Highlights: On Nature and the Impact of Humanity

Brisbane officially hosted the World Science Festival from March 9-13th, the first city outside New York to do so. For the purposes of covering as much of this (honestly mind-blowing) event as possible, we’ll be doing highlights of the both the panels and the performances/exhibitions. Some interviews will warrant follow-up pieces, but we’ll cram in as much as we can in the recaps.

Based at South Brisbane’s science and performance precinct, the World Science Festival was brought to Brisbane by Queensland Museum after they approached and forged a six-year contract with the New York organisation, with the aim to host the yearly event indefinitely. Locations also included QPAC, QUT, UQ, Griffith University, the State Library of Queensland, GOMA and the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, along with hotspots around Brisbane City.

Panels ranged from reef protection to Aboriginal science to quantum physics, so buckle up folks! First up, we’ll see what the events showed us about the state of the environment and the work that’s being done around it.

“Can We Save Our Precious Reefs In Time?”

Undoubtedly one of the most gripping panels and headlined by National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence and legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle, this event ran the gamut on everything reef-related.

Moderated by science journalist Tanya Ha, “Can We Save Our Precious Reefs In Time?” packed in a range of expertise; panelists included Earle, Hawaii-based coral researcher and biologist Ruth Gates, University of Queensland Marine Studies and Director of the UQ Global Change Institute Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the world’s most highly-cited coral researcher Terry Hughes, Director of the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University Brendan Mackey, and Chairman and Chief Executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Russell Reichelt.

Short answer to the titular question: Nope! Long answer: No we cannot save all of our precious reefs in time. The panelists began by explaining that we’ve already lost almost half of the earth’s reefs, including parts of the Great Barrier Reef, to climate change, overfishing and pollution, with climate change easily the worst of the three.

We’re currently in the middle of the third and largest ever mass bleaching event, which is caused by higher temperatures affecting the symbiotic relationship between coral and the algae-like zooxanthellae. The loss of zooxanthellae can starve reefs of nutrients and colour, resulting in a bleached appearance. Increases in carbon emissions have also resulted in ocean acidification, which deprives reefs of calcium carbonate and negatively impacts their growth.

This isn’t to say there isn’t anything we can do to save the existing reefs, and Earle stressed that there’s plenty of reason to hope because we have the benefit of all of preceding human knowledge and “unprecedented perspective that the ocean makes our lives possible”.

“When I began diving in the 1950s, the perception was that the ocean was too big to fail, we could put things in we didn’t want, and it could recover, and we could take what we wanted,” Earle said. “We’ve seen half the coral reefs gone or state of decline since the middle of 20th century [but] we’ve learned more about the ocean since I started studying than all of preceding history.”

The overwhelming consensus was that we need to reduce carbon emissions to zero for reefs to survive, although even if this happened the long-term effects of global warming will remain at play for hundreds of years; we will not only have to mitigate climate change, but adapt to it. As well as limiting carbon emissions, Earle raised the issue of deforestation, which eliminates our major carbon catchment system, trees.

Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle appeared at two panels and championed reduced fishing, climate action and human innovation. Photos: World Science Festival Brisbane

Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle appeared at two panels and championed reduced fishing, climate action and human innovation. Photos: World Science Festival Brisbane

And while the 2015 Paris Agreement ensures world leaders are technically locked into keeping global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the panelists agreed we’re not doing nearly enough to meet this demand. In fact, Hughes gave Australia an “F-” for our climate change policies, citing the federal government axing the carbon-tax, reducing our Renewable Energy Target, and approving what would be the country’s largest coal mine, the controversial Adani Carmichael mine, in Queensland.

As Reichelt explained, we can also do more to manage direct pollution from things like tilling and water runoff, and increase education around reefs and climate change. The Marine Park Authority is also culling crown-of-thorns starfish directly, and creating fishing-free zones. Earles was passionate about limiting overfishing, describing the majority of fishing as “cosmetic” and pressed a need to shift dietary consumption to vegetables.

There was also a debate around coral that, for whatever reason, had survived conditions that would killed other kinds of coral. Gates, who is halfway through her research into making corals stronger, said we should focus on surviving reefs and study how we could might leverage the stronger performers. But Hughes and Hoegh-Guldberg argued the costs of reconstructing damaged reefs greatly outweighed the benefits, with Hughes estimating the cost of reconstructing one hectare of reef at $250 million.

In any case, the panel remained positive that the global effort to limit climate change will stop the complete destruction of reefs. So a more honest answer to the titular question would be, “hopefully”.

“In short, we have to protect natural world, which is dominated by ocean, as if our lives depend on it,” Earles said. “Because they do.”

“Dawn of the Human Age: Are We the Authors of Our Own Destruction?”

Is humankind on par with an asteroid? How about the Ice Age? How have homo sapiens impacted the earth over the course of its their (relatively minuscule) 200,000 years on the planet? And when did things get to the point that these catastrophes became comparable?

The study of humanity’s ecological impact in relation to the earth’s four and a half billion year history was on full display here. Moderated by legendary science journalist John Hockenberry and featuring Earle (again), Climate Council of Australia councillor Will Steffen, Macquarie University’s Distinguished Professor of Biology Lesley Hughes, and environmental policy analyst and Time’s “Hero of the Environment” Michael Shellenberger.

Much like the reef panel, “Dawn of the Human Age” looked at the environmental damage we’ve wrought as a species. But instead of focusing on one area of the planet, panelists took a billion-plus year view to our entire impact on the earth. Everything from the roots of ecology in German explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt’s work to the potential of nuclear power in combating climate change got a shout out, but a particular focus was on the controversial question of when exactly the sixth major mass extinction event, the Anthropocene or “Human Age,” officially started.

While Shellenberger took this as a loaded question, arguing that any answer would be political by definition, Steffen said that, in terms of a global spike in human activity, scientific criteria points squarely at the 1950s. This is because while things like the 18th-19th centuries’ industrial revolution and the use of nuclear weapons in WWII had enormous sociological and environmental impacts, the explosion of populations, technologies, pollution and globalisation in the 50s left indelible ecological marks on the Earth as a whole. 

These extinction-level causes included both land and ocean related-human activities that, as a biologist and oceanographer respectively, Hughes and Earle spoke passionately about.

Each individual species is a heritage item, all species are irreplaceable. Every single species is of more importance than anything we’ve made, because we can make it again. – Lesley Hughes

Where the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event asteroid wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, mining activities alone have now moved more sediment than all the world’s rivers combined. And where the K-Pg’s lingering impact winter made photosynthesis impossible, killing off plants and plankton, global warming has raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified our oceans.

Amidst the discussion on sustainability, Shellenberger raised a seemingly contradictory solution: move more people into cities. Arguing that humanity should just leave nature alone to recover, he spruiked the economic and environmental benefits of “the virtuous cycle of urbanisation”. For example, Shellenberger argues that people in cities have better access to jobs and, while they use more electricity, are statistically more likely to have fewer children.

And as we’ll see in the next panel, newer technologies will replace our need for fossil fuels and has, in many cases, already decreased our requirement for natural resources i.e. burning wood for power. He argues that the real challenge is helping developing nations improve economically and technologically without making the environmental mistakes of richer nations.

And for all the negatives consequences to scientific progress, panellists remained hopeful that humanity will ultimately not only find solutions that are sustainable, but cheaper and more efficient.

Science truly is the language of peace. – John Hockenberry

“Catching Up With The Jetsons: Cities in 2050”

Vertical farms, automatic cars, lab grown meat: what will cities look like 35 years from now? Depending on who you ask, they’ll either be advanced, sustainable utopias, or advanced, sustainable dystopias.

Moderated by local broadcaster Antony Funnell and based on an existing series at the New York event, “Catching Up With The Jetsons” offered a range of visions of the future. Panelists included artistic director at Austria’s Ars Electronica Gerfried Stocker, QUT’s Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Development and Discipline Leader for Environmental Sciences Cheryl Desha, CSIRO’s senior principal scientist in strategic foresight Stefan Hajkowicz , and Global Director for Arup Foresight Chris Luebkeman.

From Stocker highlighting fears around the human and class elements of town planning, as well as the responsibility of art to engage with technological issues, to Desha’s work in developing natural cooling and health solutions for cities through biophilic urbanism, the future of cities looks wild.

In terms of social considerations, the panel agreed that future cities will have to build more community areas and foster a greater sense of community; as the internet of things reduces our need to interact with people with things like working and shopping from home, our desire to see people will increase and become more important. This would require abandoning the idea of a CBD and creating a more fluid economic and social scene optimised for the individual; as Hajkowicz pointed out, we already have examples of this with Google and Facebook’s localised event, retail and dining suggestions. 

Updating infrastructure was another heady topic, as old buildings and streets are clearly not designed for newer technologies such as self-driving cars (Brisbane’s outer suburbs being a perfect example of this). This lead to a focus on transport, which most panelists argued would not only be greener and multi-modal (i.e. bikes, electric cars/trains/buses) by 2050, but again more focused on the individual, with ride-sharing technology applied to public transport.

Here, Stocker voiced disagreement that these plans empower the individual, arguing that regulated, interconnected transport systems would not account for the freedom to “opt out”. He also addressed the fact that automated and newer technologies will inevitably lead to unemployment in middle-income earning jobs like manufacturing and transport, although Hajkowicz argued that this is an institutional problem and innovation will actually open up more employment opportunities.

On the topic of privacy vs hyperconnectivity, Desha argued that the world is already naturally connected and, while behavioural science is a “Pandora’s box,” natural hazards such as air pollution require real-time monitoring.

Ask a quantum mechanic: everything is connected already. The notion of a human being afraid of being connected –  if that stops us imagining and us being limited, than I think that’s a detriment to our potential. – Cheryl Desha

Achieving any of these goals would require a stable political system and, unfortunately, this has historically required a dire threat (as in the Netherlands) or a one-party system (as in China).

While we’ll have to wait to see how any of this pans out, the fact that these long-term visions are being discussed and, in the case of things like vertical farming and innovative ride-sharing tech, actually implemented is encouraging. If there was any one theme throughout all these events, it’s that change requires both innovation and consistent, active participation.

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.