Australia

Snapshots of a lifetime in a month

The assignment for this blog was to reflect on my study abroad experience in Australia, but how can you reflect on what felt like a lifetime in one short post? That’s always the dilemma for me. This post could be anything. I could focus on the fun times, be serious and wring significance from every detail, hone in on one aspect, cover everything. I could write a hundred blog posts about the same thing, showing it differently each time.

But sometimes the best reflection is not an interpretation, but simply a recap of the parts of the trip that you remember the most. The following snapshots are moments of my month in Australia that stood out in my memory.

May 22: It’s the day before I leave for Australia. I call my mom, hysterical. “What if I don’t make any friends?” “What if I don’t pack the right kind of clothes?” “Why am I more nervous than excited?”

May 23: Flash forward to the plane. My worries from the previous day are gone. It’s only leaving that is hard. I watch the clouds underneath the wing of the plane and think of how small I am.

May 29: It’s our first day in Brisbane. We go for a run on South Bank and hear the odd, wailing cry of an Australian raven. “That bird sounds like a baby crying,” I said. Bougainvillea drip from an archway, a shock of pink and green. (more…)

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Getting to know the grey nomads

National parks in the US have an interesting mix of visitors—go to any park, and you’ll see families with sticky-fingered children packed into suburbans, college students in brand-new hiking boots taking Instagram pictures at every turn, and veteran campers with their beat-up REI gear.

But the demographic at Carnarvon National Park was different. Anywhere I looked, I saw silver-haired, sexa- and septuagenarians with weathered, gentle faces. They were everywhere—hiking along the trails, hanging laundry at the campsite, sitting out by their campers in the evenings. Anyone under 50 was a rarity.

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A couple of grey nomads enjoy a meal outside their camper van. Photo credit: greynomads.com.au

After dinner one night, our bus driver, a lanky, stubbly Aussie named Colin, told me about these people, the “grey nomads.”

“Do they know they’re called that?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s a thing here. Some of them sell their homes and spend thousands of dollars on a camper, and just travel around the country until the end.”

A little research told me that the grey nomads are indeed a very established “thing” in Australia. Thousands of adventurous senior citizens pack their lives into their camper vans each year, fueling an industry of over $2.5 billion.

The movement started gradually around the early 2000s, when more and more older retirees packed up, plastered the back of their vehicles with bumper stickers reading, “spending the kids’ inheritance,” and hit the tourism trails. They live simply, staying at caravan parks instead of fancy resorts, and preferring hiking and enjoying nature to more expensive activities.

Colin said that the grey nomads follow the sun: they start out in the south, travelling around Victoria or South Australia, and work their way up to the warmer North as the winter advances. Their movements reminded me of migrating birds.

I thought about the older people I know. My granddad has a glass case filled with hundreds of roadrunner figurines of all shapes and sizes. My parents just built their dream home and are firmly rooted to their space.

They are such a stark contrast to these people, who look at retirement as a time to travel, and be free of the restraints of a settled life. Many grey nomads do keep a home to return to for Christmas or other important days, but many do not. I find this aspect of Australia culture fascinating—why is this the trend here, while in the US it seems like people become more firmly rooted.

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The sunrise over the “roof of Queensland” on Boolimba Bluff. The grey nomads often come to places like Carnarvon National Park and spend their days hiking trails like the one to this spot.

Our guide, Simon Ling, hit on a similar theme when he told us that 20 percent of Australians between the ages of 35-55 downsize. In other words, they purposefully take a job that pays less or move to a smaller house. The grey nomads, mostly falling in the 55-75 demographic, do more than just downsize. They compact themselves and their lives into a tiny space, and live in the wider world.

The concept of downsizing and reassessing values is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. The way people I know seek an excess of stuff reminds me of many people’s attitudes towards money. If you asked college students about their idea of success, they might say, “to work hard, make a difference in people’s lives—and to get a six-figure salary.”

Simon told us about a study, done by the Princeton Center for Health and Well-being, which shows that yearly income correlates with self-reported happiness only up to a salary of $75,000. After that, it disconnects. So why do people still seek to be above this line?

I think the reason is evolutionary. We have been primed to want an excess, to be comfortable, to be padded. In the wild, animals will sometimes gorge themselves when there is an available food supply, because they cannot be sure of their next meal. Our bodies, too, show this tendency. We can eat and eat, until our tissues store the surplus in fat, until we are padded to an unhealthy extent. Humans are hardwired to seek excess.

But the way we live today means we do not need excess. In fact, some kinds of excess can be detrimental to ourselves, to our level of contentment, and to the planet.

Maybe the answer is to downsize. Or to take it a step further, and never upsize at all. Maybe we should look at our ideas of traditional success, and analyze the motivations behind them. Why is it a life goal to have a house with three TVs and a pool? Is it worth it to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to bump up my salary so I can buy a bigger truck? A bigger house? More needless collections of stuff?

I don’t think we need to give up all our dreams of excess, but I think the grey nomads are an interesting movement, and provide a good example of living simply without placing too much emphasis on unnecessary things. And although I probably won’t pack my life into a camper van and travel the parks of Australia, I think learning about the grey nomads has made me more conscious of the way I choose to live.

Reef reflections

The seats on our rickety plane from the mainland were made of a fluffy, fleecy material and smelled like a combination of pizza and ramen, but I didn’t notice any of that when I caught my first glimpse of Lady Elliot Island.

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Lady Elliot Island from the window of our plane

The island appeared on the blue expanse of the ocean as a green dot surrounded by a darker fan that I knew was the reef. When we touched down, the plane hurtled down the runway strip so fast that we were all convinced we were about to see the corals of the Great Barrier Reef from the inside of a sinking plane. Luckily, we had underestimated our pilot’s braking skills, and drew safely to a halt on the grassy runway, where we disembarked for orientation and a quick lunch.

The first thing we did on the island was suit up and head out to the reef for a snorkel. The water was a turbulent sheet, tossing our little boat to and fro over the waves, and every so often there were sprinklings of cold rain. When we reached a good distance, we put on our snorkel gear, shivering from the wind and from excitement, and jumped into the turquoise sea.

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Coral beds in the lagoon

As soon as my face broke the water, I was immersed in a wonderland of colors and shapes. Growing up, I had a book on reef creature identification, and I spent hours flipping the glossy pages looking at colorful, otherworldly animals. They all had a deer-in-the-headlights look, probably the result of flash photography. Here in the reef, I saw those animals in their natural habitat. Colorful parrotfish nibbled coral with their sweet, earnest beaks, forests of staghorn coral lay like the graveyards of a thousand elk, and a school of flashy silver trevally flitted by under us.

 

After our first snorkel, we were all hooked (not literally, fishing is not allowed on Lady Elliot), and went out in our flippers and mask every morning at 7 to paddle around the shallow lagoon to the east of the island. The water was only a few feet deep at high tide, and we were so close to the coral that we could have reached out and touched it.

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There were hardly any rocks on the island–just old coral skeletons

I saw fish of all shapes and colors, gently waving anemones, and friendly turtles that nudged my hand looking for back scratches to loosen the coat of algae on their shells. All these animals were amazing, but what really struck a chord in my contrarian heart were the sea cucumbers. These slimy, sluglike echinoderms are sought-after for Asian delicacies, natural medicines, and collagen used in anti-aging creams.

 

If fishing is a sport, collecting sea cucumbers is something of an easter egg hunt. They roll around in the tide, not even hidden, relying on their unappetizing colors to defend them against predators. Harvesting them is like taking candy from a baby, if the baby was the Great Barrier Reef, one of the largest wonders of the natural world.

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Fangirling over a sea cucumber, which is probably my new favorite animal

Throughout the trip, we attended lectures from our guide, Tyrone Ridgway, a program manager at the University of Queensland. Tyrone had sunbleached blonde hair, a soft voice, and a knack for creating engaging Powerpoints. He sprinkled his presentations with documentary clips and funny videos.

 

Tyrone showed us the types of creatures we would see in the reef, and taught us about the biology of corals—they’re pretty amazing! He finished up his little lecture series with presentations about threats facing the reef, such as overfishing, physical destruction, and coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures and other stressors.

I’m so glad I got to come to Lady Elliot and experience the Great Barrier Reef first-hand. It’s amazing to me that through every moment of my life, every hour I spend I a lecture hall, every movie I watch from the comfort of my couch, the reef is still here. The fish still flit through the clear blue water, and waves still push against this shore, grinding the skeletons of countless corals into fluffy white sand. It’s disconcerting to think about, and it really drives home how much we take for granted. I felt no telling itch when 1/3 of the reef bleached. Would I feel it if I woke up one day and it was gone?

Before coming here, I felt a little bit helpless about the climate change situation, and I still don’t feel completely empowered. The decisions that affect the largest producers of carbon emissions are made by huge corporations, backed by money and bolstered with solid, acceptable arguments—jobs, energy, the economy.

I close my eyes in torture scenes in movies because it is easier to avoid looking at something painful than to force myself to watch something that I can’t change or help. I have often felt the same way about climate change. I’m a tiny speck on a huge planet, and telling me to ride my bike more, take shorter showers, or turn off the lights when I leave a room is a little bit like telling me to help the characters in the torture scenes by not torturing people.

However, seeing the optimism of scientists and communicators like Tyrone and Dr. Kris made me feel much more hopeful and confident about the future of the reef, and the planet. At the end of one of the lectures, Tyrone showed us a graph plotting the number of whales in the ocean through time. The numbers were terribly low a few decades ago, but the graph showed an almost exponential increase due to a public outcry against whaling, which led to many people working to save them. It was so encouraging to see a positive example amidst the sea of grim predictions. I know I’m only one person, but if millions of people, each only one person, all feel the same, we can make a difference. We will make a difference.

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Our last sunset at Lady Elliot

Extra Pictures

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The diversity of the reef was incredible

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A sea urchin nestles in a coral bed in the lagoon

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Sea birds, such as these white-capped noddies, were more common on Lady Elliot than people. They were embarrassingly clumsy, their webbed feet being more suited to paddling in the water than to perching in trees

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A blue linckia sea star clutches a coral. We were able to pick up these sea stars and see their tube feet, which have several purposes including movement, feeding and respiration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I am fascinated with Aboriginal spirituality

On Tuesday, we heard a lecture from Australian scholar Mary Graham, who told us about the aboriginal perspective on life, the universe, and everything, basically.

Before now, I never had a reason to look far into this culture, or rather, a huge variety of cultures grouped under the catch-all designation of “aboriginal.” After Graham’s lecture, I was surprised at some of the beliefs and ways of life of the native Australian people.

Graham told us about their “dreaming,” a progressive, ever-changing collection of origin stories.

I was struck by the adaptive nature of the dreaming stories. Graham said, for an example, that there is an aboriginal origin story for Toyotas. She called it the Toyota Dreaming. People giggled, but Graham was serious.

“It is a fact, a thing that plays a role, so it has its own dreaming,” she said.

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Torres Strait Islander artwork of a woven Toyota truck. Photo credit: Balnaves Foundation

I was fascinated by the aboriginal idea of adaptable spirituality, and how, while many religions base their beliefs on ancient, unchanging documents, the aboriginal people are constantly adding to and changing their stories to fit reality.

This acceptance of change shows in their view on the climate as well. While aboriginal people are currently working with the government to try and combat some of the negative effects of climate change, they are ultimately prepared to adapt to any changes that occur as a result of the rising temperatures. (more…)

Bats and biospheres

In the community of Noosa, people live and work next to a group of grey-headed flying foxes. When we visited their nesting site on Wednesday, the huge bats were hanging like weird fruits from several trees, some sleeping with their wings tucked around them, some flying around. Seeing them reminded me of Austin, and the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

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Grey headed flying foxes roosting. Photo credit: David Kleinert

After learning more about Noosa, however, the contrast between it and Austin became clear. Noosa is a UNESCO-designated biosphere, where people live in an environmentally conscious way, and conduct scientific research on ways of living sustainably, in harmony with nature.

The city council oversees the community of Noosa, leading with what appears on the surface as an iron fist. They consistently shoot down proposals—here a resort, there a multi-story hotel, here a chicken farm. Rejected developers, like revenge-driven jilted suitors, sue the council for another chance at their multi-million dollar dreams.

The council wins around 90% of the cases.

“Or at least the important ones,” said council member Ben McMullen, who showed us around the council chambers, and took us to a scenic overlook of the green expanse that is the Noosa biosphere.

The restrictions to build in Noosa are stringent: buildings can’t be above three stories, and there is a population cap limiting the number of developments on the land.

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A view of the most heavily settled region of the Noosa biosphere.

Given the status of the Noosa community as a biosphere, these restrictions are well warranted.

The city planning policies lie in stark contrast to those in the US. Even in Austin, with its reputation for being a “green” city, huge, electricity-guzzling apartment complexes sprout like mushrooms, and the roads become increasingly clogged with cars of new residents as the city grows at a rate of almost 3 percent a year. It would be hard to imagine Austin, or really any Texas city, with a building height limit or population cap.

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A map of UNESCO biosphere locations in Asia and Australia. Photo credit: UNESCO

I enjoyed learning about Noosa, and the concept of a biosphere. I always knew they existed, but I had never fully grasped what they were. They seem to straddle the line between the excessive urban development of cities, and the strictly regulated wilderness of state and national parks. It’s interesting to think about a place where people balance these two values—human use and preservation of nature.

In a perfect world, every place could operate like these biospheres, where people live sustainably and learn from their experience.

Australia, part one: flying, fun, and (accidental) petty crimes

This is my first blog post from Australia! I’m writing from my bottom bunk in a Brisbane hostel. I can see the river sparkling from my window, and hear the loud cries of mysterious birds that sound a bit like goats and a bit like babies. What better time to reflect on my travel experience so far?

In transit

Flying to Sydney from Dallas reminded me of nights in my childhood when my parents let me stay up really late—there is something rebellious and exciting about boarding a plane at 9:30 p.m. for a 15-hour flight with no intention of sleeping. In hindsight, I probably should have slept a little more.

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The view from the window of the plane from Austin to Dallas.

The way there was uneventful, the highlights being a monstrous whole-page game of “dots” and two rounds of the alphabet animal game. This, along with minor laughing, garnered us several dirty looks from a woman across the aisle. I enjoyed the 15 hours spent in limbo, alternating between playing our road trip games, sleeping in strange, contorted positions, and skimming the newspaper and duty-free shopping magazines.

Reading the airport newspaper was unexpectedly refreshing and fun—I sometimes think American newspapers take themselves too seriously. The front-page headline on The Australian detailed an incident where several Australian judges showed heinous disrespect by—wait for it—wearing wigs in the courtroom. The headline and captions used copious amounts of wig puns. You can read more about the big wig decision here.

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Newspaper clippings, featuring Barnaby Joyce smelling a sweet potato.

Headlining the political section was a statistical gem with the best introduction I’ve read in a while, which involved a reference to the time prime minister Tony Abbott ate a raw onion. I love Australian news!

As excited as I was to arrive in Australia, I was almost sad when the plane finally touched down—mediocre breakfasts, packaged pretzels, and sprite in clear cups are never as tasty as they are on an airplane.

Sydney, or, three days of being underdressed and overexcited

Stepping out of the airport in Sydney was like stepping into a walk-in fridge. A really classy, beautiful walk-in fridge full of high-rise buildings, but the point is, it was COLD. With my tennis shoes and sandals, I felt unprepared for the weather, and also for the stylishness of Australia’s largest city.

The streets were a sea of sleek city folk, shod in short black leather boots. I made a game of counting the number of short black boots I could find, but I was not prepared for their sheer numbers and eventually gave up.

Despite the weather, I loved Sydney! The city was so beautiful and clean, like some huge caretaker lovingly brushed it with a feather duster each night. The hostel we stayed in was small and homey. The floors creaked and squeaked with every step, and the carpeted hallways reminded me of my mental picture of Number 12 Grimmauld Place from Harry Potter.

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Is it flirting with me? Or thinking about the best way to eat me?

We didn’t spend much time there though, because we were too busy doing stereotypical tourist things, such as visiting the Sydney Opera House (it kind of looks like bathroom tile up close), taking selfies on the harbor bridge, and admiring plants, friends, and traditional Chinese costumes in the Chinese Garden of Friendship.

 

Also, like the science reporters we are, we spent an excessive amount of time observing and researching the Australian white ibis, a huge city bird with a long, hooked black beak and off-white feathers. Wikipedia describes them as having an odd, unpleasant and distinct smell, which we encountered firsthand. Even with the smell, they were one of my favorite parts of the city.

Brisbane, or, the beginning of my life of crime

Picture this: a 20-year-old girl arrives in a strange city. No one knows her. She knows no one. She could reinvent herself, be whoever she wants to be. Perhaps she could embark on a life of villainy and intrigue.

Or, she could inadvertently steal breakfast from a high school gymnastics team. And then be too embarrassed to admit her mistake, and have to tough it out as the only non-teenage non-gymnast there.

Obviously, I fell victim to the latter situation. At least I had a stomach full of coffee, grapes, bananas, yoghurt, and granola to help me cope with the embarrassment.

Apart from the breakfast incident, however, Brisbane has been wonderful ever since I arrived on Friday morning. Downtown is like a paradise—we ran for miles along a trail beside the Brisbane river, and saw wild turkeys, interesting art, shining skyscrapers, gorgeous flora, and numerous impressive bridges.

Brisbane reminds me of Austin, only with different accents and less breakfast tacos. It’s funny how I still see and hear Texas everywhere I go. Green malachite formations in the Queensland Museum & Sciencentre remind me of Texas cacti. When people talk about “taxis,” all I can hear is “Texas.”

Everything about this trip has been so perfect it seems surreal. I’m trying to savor every minute of my time here, and I am truly ecstatic that I get to spend another month in this beautiful country!

What climate change is not

Sometimes the key to understanding a concept is first understanding what it is not. There is a lot of information out there about climate change that is ambiguous and just plain false. Here’s a brief overview of what climate change is—and what it isn’t.

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A graph showing the sudden increase in human-caused temperature increases. Photo credit: Robert Henson

Earth’s climate naturally fluctuates over geologic time. These changes are caused by long-term, gradual buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, mostly from volcanoes. This is the natural state of our climate. However, over the last few centuries, there has been a sudden, drastic increase in temperature across the globe. This is not the gentle ebb and flow of a healthy climate—this is human-induced climate change.

The main culprits in the current climate change are greenhouse gases humans produce by practices such as burning fossil fuels and raising livestock. These gases, such as carbon and methane, accumulate in the atmosphere, absorbing and trapping heat and warming the air.

Cows eat their feed in a barn after being milked at this Ixonia dairy farm. In 2009, the average Wisconsin dairy farm lost about $100 per cow each month - $4 million a day for the state’s dairy industry.

Methane accounts for around 19 percent of global warming. Each cow produces a volume equivalent to three bathtubs of methane a day. Photo credit: Michael Sears

And the warming doesn’t stop there. The effects of this increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases cause positive feedbacks (or vicious cycles, depending on how you look at it). For example, a warmer atmosphere causes more water to evaporate from oceans and lakes; the resultant water vapor adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The combined effect of greenhouse gases and these feedbacks has several consequences, which range from mild to drastic.

Oceans will become warmer and more acidic, due to an uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Water from melting ice may interfere with ocean currents important in maintaining our current climate distribution. The weather will become more extreme—rains will dump more water on already wet areas, droughts in drier places will be more devastating.

These consequences, like many droughts, floods, or other natural disasters, will predominately affect already disadvantaged people.

I analyzed a chapter in A Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change called “A Heated Debate,” which talked about the history of public opinion on climate change, and how it evolved from scientific fact to the debate it is today.

One part I found particularly interesting was a section about common arguments to the idea of climate change. In my experience, people generally have a basic understanding of the science involved, but they begin to doubt themselves when faced with opposition. Thanks to oil companies and other powerful lobbyists, climate change science is political—it is not just something you know, but something you must be prepared to defend.

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Al Gore is an expert at defending climate change science in the face of skeptics. Photo credit: Alex Moore

How to respond when your friend says…

“Climate change is a good thing if you think about it—I mean, we will be able to swim at the beach in December.”

Sure, unless the beach you wanted to swim at was along the Florida Keys, which are predicted to be underwater within the next century. While there are some effects of climate change that you might consider “good”—longer growing seasons, warmer winters, etc.—there are many less beneficial effects, and as with many natural occurrences, these will predominately affect the poor. So yeah, winters might be a little warmer, you could go to the beach more often, but some people will pay a much higher price.

“The way we are attempting to fight climate change is silly—there are better ways to spend government money.”

Economic arguments are pretty common—if the science is uncertain, why are we allocating huge amounts of money to remedies? The truth is, these remedies are turning out to be less expensive than we thought. Also, there is no way to know the price of coping with climate change as it advances, which may be much more than any preventative efforts. To quote Benjamin Franklin and also every grandma in the whole world, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

“It’s only warmed like 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980. If I raise my thermostat that much, I can barely tell the difference, so what’s the big deal?”

I know that doesn’t seem like much in the context of our day-to-day lives, but a 1.5 degree rise in climate is much more significant than an equivalent rise in weather temperature, or the temperature of your apartment.

 

Higher temperatures, lower research funding

 

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A dry dam bed in South Australia. Rising temperatures due to climate change are predicted to cause more heat, less rain, and longer fire seasons in Australia, according to CSIRO. Photo credit: John Coppi, CSIRO

In January, when the semester was young enough that I still had time to lie around reading, I was browsing Scientific American when an article caught my eye. The headline read, “Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs,” written by Gayathri Vaidyanathan. It struck me as weird, especially because Australia is one of the places that is being hit the hardest by climate change. What was its government doing cutting climate research jobs?

Reading the article didn’t give me any satisfactory answers. According to the story, enough influential people within the Australian government had decided that because “the science is already established,” there is no need to continue researching climate change, and that money would be better spent on innovation instead of basic research. It seemed awfully arrogant to me—“we already know all there is to know, why keep looking?”

The 110 scientists referenced in the headline worked in the oceans and atmosphere division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO—120 more in CSIRO’s the land and atmosphere program were also being relocated to new government jobs unrelated to their specialty. Sources in the article expressed sympathy for young climate researchers who were just getting started.

While the Australian government’s “the science is settled” argument covered—and I say that in the loosest way possible—the basic research aspect of the program, their explanation in the article made no mention of what seems, to me, one of the most important services CSIRO offers. For more that 40 years, CSIRO scientists have been collecting carbon dioxide readings from Cape Grim in Tasmania, adding a constant stream of data to what we know about the changing climate. CSIRO scientists said in the article that these readings are unlikely to be continued.

 

A CSIRO scientist at Cape Grim. Photo credit: John Woudstra

To me, this lays bare the real reason for the cuts—money. Moving of from “settled science” to “innovation” seems like a platitude to calm angry environmentalists, but discontinuing the carbon dioxide readings shows that “innovation” may come at too high a price. It’s a little bit like saying, “we know how the stock market works, what’s the point in checking prices day-to-day?”

Disregarding the unhappy content of the story, the article itself was beautifully written—my inner journalist had a field day over the pointed, clever lead:

“With an ax rather than a scalpel, Australia’s federal science agency last week chopped off its climate research arm in a decision that has stunned scientists and left employees dispirited.”

This brutal imagery of the lead set the tone for the rest of the article– decidedly negative, with the only firsthand sources quoted being angry research scientists. CSIRO executives were cited secondhand, and Australian government officials “did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.”

After reading this article, I am unsettled. At the Paris Climate Summit last year, nations from all over the world agreed to take drastic measures to reduce their emissions and limit the warming of the atmosphere. Less than three months later, in February, the Australian government cut these climate research jobs. It shows a lack of governmental concern about climate change. I hope that the Australian government can deliver on their promise of innovation, and that these cuts are compensated for by funding to other departments.