Gourlay and Tunstall on dryland salinity

The Sunday program on salinity, as it related to irrigation and the Murray-Darling, was pretty old stuff; pointscoring about some silly past statements (such as the NFF/ACF proposal to spend $65 billion) combined with a Pollyanna view of the current situation, familiar in general tone to anyone who’s followed climate change denialism.

What was interesting and new to me was the claim, put forward by Rob Gourlay and Brian Tunstall that the standard model of dryland salinity, based on rising water tables, is wrong and that the real cause is poor soil quality. The show also featured a farmer who claimed to solve salinity problems by defying the advice of the experts. This reminded me of a much older challenger to standard hydrology, Harry Whittington and his interceptor banks, which I discussed briefly here

I haven’t worked on dryland salinity for a few years now, but I’ve followed the issue reasonably closely, particularly through the work of Dave Pannell at University of Western Australia, who’s one of Australia’s leading agricultural economists. Unlike me, Dave’s a bit of an enviro-sceptic* (he’s written favorably about Lomborg, for example), but no-one I know is better informed on dryland salinity. So I was interested to see his reaction to all this. Suffice it to say he’s unimpressed A quick summary

that the rising groundwater theory of salinity is wrong, and should be replaced by a theory based on soil health) is problematic, to say the least. Channel 9 interviewed almost all of the small band of scientists (the “soil-health teamâ€?) who have for some years been pushing this line, but not a single person who would be qualified to present the counter view. Now Australia is a big place, and there may well be different mechanisms in operation in different places. But for the soil-health team to claim that the rising groundwater theory is universally wrong is quite outrageous. …

The proponents of the alternative theory need to subject their ideas to the standard method of quality assurance in science, by publishing their evidence in a peer-reviewed journal. They have not yet done that.

*Not perfectly phrased. Dave takes a properly sceptical attitude to the evidence on salinity and other environmental issues he’s worked on, as all good scientists should do. At times, though, I think he’s too kind to people like Lomborg, who claim to be sceptics but are promoting a viewpoint that’s just as credulous as that of the environmental alarmists like the Club of Rome, but in the opposite direction.
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Yogyakarta earthquake appeal

I’ve been asked to post this appeal for help with the Yogyakarta earthquake from a group of international students* located in Java and therefore in a position to provide immediate assistance, which they are currently doing at their own expense.

* The writer of the letter is a friend of one of my postdoctoral fellows, Nanni Concu, so there’s no need to worry about the bona fides of the appeal.
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Bris Science tonight


*********** We believe the Universe began in a Big Bang, and is expanding around us. How Big and Old is the Universe? What is in the Universe, and how will it End? Brian will describe how we have used exploding stars, known as supernovae, to track the expansion of the Universe back some 10 Billion years into the past to answer these and other questions.

Brian Schmidt, an astronomer and Federation Fellow from the Mount Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University, uses distant supernovae to study the Universe. He led a group that discovered that the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate – a discovery that was named Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year in 1998.

DATE: Monday, May 29

TIME: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (doors open at 6:00pm); complimentary wine, soft drinks, and nibblies follow

VENUE: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (420 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley; see http://www.jwcoca.qld.gov.au for a map; parking is available on Berwick St next door)
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Time to go nuclear ? (repost)

As nuclear energy is getting an extensive discussion in the comments thread, I thought I’d repost this piece I wrote this more than a year ago. The only change since then is that the evidence for human-caused climate change has become even more overwhelming, though there are still plenty of people who combine global warming denialism (or a long track record of denialism, with no admission of error) with the claim that “nuclear power is the only solution to climate change.”


My column in yesterday’s Fin was about the option of nuclear energy as a solution to the problem of climate change, an issue that’s been discussed a few times here already. One point I didn’t make is that the availability of nuclear-generated electricity as a ‘backstop’ technology puts an upper bound on the costs of a strategy that would reduce CO2 emissions enough to stabilise atmospheric concentrations (this is much more than Kyoto which aims only to stabilise emissions from developed countries, as a first step to a solution).
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Bait and switch

On another important environmental issue, Jennifer Marohasy is claiming victory in her campaign against the Murray Darling-Basin Commission, CSIRO and other bodies undertaking research into the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin on the basis of a Sunday program, to be broadcast on May 28. In the trailer various people from bodies including MDBC, CSIRO and so on say that the Murray River is not dying, Adelaide is not doomed and so on. As a corrective to some of the more alarmist media reports we have seen this is all well and good.

But Marohasy wants to push this a lot further. In particular, she’s suggesting that I was wrong, in 2004, to criticise her for claiming that the MDBC was “promoting the myth of an ecological disaster”

The problem for Marohasy is that, far from propagating doomsday scenarios the MDBC has been pointing out its successes in the campaign against salinity for years, and was doing so in the very documents that formed the basis of our debate. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the MBDC Salinity Update 2003

One of the clear successes of the Murray-Darling Basin Salinity and Drainage Strategy 1988-2001 has been the coordinated efforts of community groups and Governments to control and reduce salinity levels in the lower parts of the River Murray, and this success has been widely recognised in recent years
(MDBC 1999, MDBMC 1999, 2001).

The improvement in long-term average salinity levels in the River Murray at Morgan since 1980 is shown below. This improvement in salinity levels has been in response to significant investment by Governments in dilution flows, building and operating salt interception schemes, and due to the effectiveness of State salinity action plans and Land and Water Management Plans.

The 1999 report, published long before Marohasy started her campaign begins “The Strategy has achieved a net reduction in River Murray Salinity … Despite the undeniable gains, salinity remains a pressing issue”

Marohasy wants to use the very successes cited here to attack the credibility of the body that produced them.
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More conversions on global warming

As CT commenters pointed out on my last post, there’s a rush of former sceptics announcing their change of views on global warming. Here’s Gregg Easterbrook and John Tierney. Ron Bailey, who changed his view on the science last year, has now taken the next step, observing that the economic costs of Kyoto are likely to be modest. Meanwhile, the Howard government’s push for nuclear power has turned a hitherto lukewarm endorsement of the science on global warming into positive enthusiasm on the topic.

But we haven’t seen much movement yet from the many local pundits who’ve spent the last few years denying the evidence on global warming and attacking those who presented that evidence.

For some, of course, credibility doesn’t matter. Like PP McGuinness, they’ll jump on to the nuclear bandwagon without ever admitting they were wrong about global warming. But I’d hope for something better from, say, Michael Duffy, who claims to be an advocate of reason, but has enthusiastically promoted climate contrarianism.

Employment in remote Aboriginal communities

I’ve been working on a paper on employment in remote Aboriginal communities for several months now, which I’ve been asked to present at an Econometrics Society conference in Alice Springs later in the year (not that it has much econometrics it). This was always going to be a challenging task, but I didn’t anticipate that the usual backdrop of resigned neglect would be replaced by the glare of publicity we’ve seen in the last few days.

I promised to put forward some ideas on the current policy problems facing Aboriginal Australians, and particularly the problem of economic development. It’s always problematic for white ‘experts’ to tell black communities what to do and I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to do this. Although I have given economic advice to Aboriginal organisations on a range of issues, I don’t regard myself as an expert on the problems facing Aboriginal communities. My perspective on the issue comes more from a consideration of the general economic problems of rural Australia and particularly the general decline in population and employment.

Although the writing is going slowly, my general position is pretty much the same as that set out by Ken Parish. This isn’t surprising since he and I, along with Rob Corr and others, had a long discussion on this issue a few years ago, and this had a big influence on my thinking.

It’s fairly clear that the idea of making remote Aboriginal communities self-supporting in a market economy is not feasible: the disadvantages of location are too great without considering the other problems these communities have. But there’s nothing sacrosanct about the market economy. Lots of people could be engaged in socially useful work if the limited ‘work for the dole’ embodied in the CDEP scheme were replaced by a full-scale commitment to permanent job creation. This would be far more cost-effective, in the long run, than allowing communities to sink into despair as so many are doing at the moment.

That still leaves open the question of whether people should remain in these remote locations. The latest fad is to suggest that people should be encouraged to leave, with no real consideration of where they will end up when they move into towns and cities. I’m hoping to look into some more creative options drawing on the literature on migrant workers and remittances in development economics. But there are no easy answers here (or, maybe, there are too many easy answers, none of them right).

The last of the sceptics

As the formal release of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change draws nearer, quite a few skeptics have been going public to say that the evidence is now overwhelming. Here, for example, is Michael Shermer, who, appropriately enough, writes the Skeptic column for the Scientific American. He’s no fan of eco-alarmism, but he is a skeptic in the true sense of the term – someone who demands convincing evidence but is willing, when presented with such evidence to change their views. And here’s Sir David Attenborough.

There may still be a few more such announcements to come. But it’s clear by now that the evidence is more than enough to convince genuine sceptics. Those who refuse to accept overwhelming evidence are more correctly described as denialists.
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