New COVID variants have changed the game, and vaccines will not be enough. We need global ‘maximum suppression’ (from The Conversation)

Daniel Cole/AP

Susan Michie, UCL; Chris Bullen, University of Auckland; Jeffrey V Lazarus, Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal); John N. Lavis, McMaster University; John Thwaites, Monash University; Liam Smith, Monash University; Salim Abdool Karim, Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), and Yanis Ben Amor, Columbia University

At the end of 2020, there was a strong hope that high levels of vaccination would see humanity finally gain the upper hand over SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In an ideal scenario, the virus would then be contained at very low levels without further societal disruption or significant numbers of deaths.

But since then, new “variants of concern” have emerged and spread worldwide, putting current pandemic control efforts, including vaccination, at risk of being derailed.

Put simply, the game has changed, and a successful global rollout of current vaccines by itself is no longer a guarantee of victory.

No one is truly safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe. We are in a race against time to get global transmission rates low enough to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants. The danger is that variants will arise that can overcome the immunity conferred by vaccinations or prior infection.

What’s more, many countries lack the capacity to track emerging variants via genomic surveillance. This means the situation may be even more serious than it appears.

As members of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Taskforce on Public Health, we call for urgent action in response to the new variants. These new variants mean we cannot rely on the vaccines alone to provide protection but must maintain strong public health measures to reduce the risk from these variants. At the same time, we need to accelerate the vaccine program in all countries in an equitable way.

Together, these strategies will deliver “maximum suppression” of the virus.

What are ‘variants of concern’?

Genetic mutations of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 emerge frequently, but some variants are labelled “variants of concern”, because they can reinfect people who have had a previous infection or vaccination, or are more transmissible or can lead to more severe disease.

Read more: UK, South African, Brazilian: a virologist explains each COVID variant and what they mean for the pandemic

There are currently at least three documented SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern:

  • B.1.351, first reported in South Africa in December 2020
  • B.1.1.7, first reported in the United Kingdom in December 2020
  • P.1, first identified in Japan among travellers from Brazil in January 2021.

Similar mutations are arising in different countries simultaneously, meaning not even border controls and high vaccination rates can necessarily protect countries from home-grown variants, including variants of concern, where there is substantial community transmission.

If there are high transmission levels, and hence extensive replication of SARS-CoV-2, anywhere in the world, more variants of concern will inevitably arise and the more infectious variants will dominate. With international mobility, these variants will spread.

South Africa’s experience suggests that past infection with SARS-CoV-2 offers only partial protection against the B.1.351 variant, and it is about 50% more transmissible than pre-existing variants. The B.1.351 variant has already been detected in at least 48 countries as of March 2021.

The impact of the new variants on the effectiveness of vaccines is still not clear. Recent real-world evidence from the UK suggests both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisations from the B.1.1.7 variant.

On the other hand, the B.1.351 variant seems to reduce the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against mild to moderate illness. We do not yet have clear evidence on whether it also reduces effectiveness against severe disease.

For these reasons, reducing community transmission is vital. No single action is sufficient to prevent the virus’s spread; we must maintain strong public health measures in tandem with vaccination programs in every country.

Why we need maximum suppression

Each time the virus replicates, there is an opportunity for a mutation to occur. And as we are already seeing around the world, some of the resulting variants risk eroding the effectiveness of vaccines.

That’s why we have called for a global strategy of “maximum suppression”.

Public health leaders should focus on efforts that maximally suppress viral infection rates, thus helping to prevent the emergence of mutations that can become new variants of concern.

Prompt vaccine rollouts alone will not be enough to achieve this; continued public health measures, such as face masks and physical distancing, will be vital too. Ventilation of indoor spaces is important, some of which is under people’s control, some of which will require adjustments to buildings.

Fair access to vaccines

Global equity in vaccine access is vital too. High-income countries should support multilateral mechanisms such as the COVAX facility, donate excess vaccines to low- and middle- income countries, and support increased vaccine production.

However, to prevent the emergence of viral variants of concern, it may be necessary to prioritise countries or regions with the highest disease prevalence and transmission levels, where the risk of such variants emerging is greatest.

Read more: 3 ways to vaccinate the world and make sure everyone benefits, rich and poor

Those with control over health-care resources, services and systems should ensure support is available for health professionals to manage increased hospitalisations over shorter periods during surges without reducing care for non-COVID-19 patients.

Health systems must be better prepared against future variants. Suppression efforts should be accompanied by:

  • genomic surveillance programs to identify and quickly characterise emerging variants in as many countries as possible around the world
  • rapid large-scale “second-generation” vaccine programs and increased production capacity that can support equity in vaccine distribution
  • studies of vaccine effectiveness on existing and new variants of concern
  • adapting public health measures (such as double masking) and re-committing to health system arrangements (such as ensuring personal protective equipment for health staff)
  • behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions, such as enabling ventilation, distancing between people, and an effective find, test, trace, isolate and support system.

Read more: Global weekly COVID cases are falling, WHO says — but ‘if we stop fighting it on any front, it will come roaring back’

COVID-19 variants of concern have changed the game. We need to recognise and act on this if we as a global society are to avoid future waves of infections, yet more lockdowns and restrictions, and avoidable illness and death.

Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, UCL; Chris Bullen, Professor of Public Health, University of Auckland; Jeffrey V Lazarus, Associate Research Professor, Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal); John N. Lavis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Evidence-Informed Health Systems, McMaster University; John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University; Liam Smith, Director, BehaviourWorks, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Salim Abdool Karim, Director, Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), and Yanis Ben Amor, Assistant Professor of Global Health and Microbiological Sciences, Executive Director – Center for Sustainable Development (Earth Institute), Columbia University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Morrison should appoint stand-alone minister for women and boot Andrew Laming to crossbench (from The Conversation)

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison is trying to have things both ways over disgraced Queensland Liberal Andrew Laming.

Laming, who has allegedly bullied constituents and photographed a woman inappropriately, announced at the weekend he won’t seek another term.

But he hasn’t been booted out of the parliamentary party, which is what should happen.

Having Laming go to the crossbench would wipe out the government’s majority, which is what the prime minister wants to avoid. The departure of Craig Kelly to the crossbench has already removed the Coalition’s working majority on the floor of the house.

When Nine on Thursday was about to run a story on the bullying, Morrison called in Laming and made him apologise in the house. Laming then trashed his own apology, saying on Facebook he didn’t even know what he’d apologised for. Morrison gave him another talking to.

On Saturday (speaking before the story about Laming photographing a woman stacking a fridge, whose underwear was showing, came to public light) Morrison told the media: “I spoke to him again this morning, and I’m arranging for Mr Laming, for Andrew Laming, to now go and get appropriate assistance through an appropriate course to build his understanding and awareness about his actions.

“And I think this is one of the important things that we need to do. The way you fix this is we’ve got to educate, inform and increase awareness to change behaviour. I want to see behaviour change.”

This sounds like some parallel universe – the prime minister “arranging” for Laming to get “appropriate assistance”, and suggesting he has to build “awareness about his actions”.

This MP has been in parliament since the 2004 election. He trained as a doctor. Let’s be frank: no MP needs a course to know gross bullying of people in his local community is appalling conduct for a parliamentarian.

As seems the way now with Coalition parliamentarians in trouble, Laming has gone on leave.

He said in a weekend statement he will “get assistance with courses in empathy and appropriate communication, not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathetic person than what the recent events have demonstrated.

“The common thread of the last week has been not demonstrating anything close to understanding how my actions affect others. I intend to own those mistakes.

“I will also be obtaining clinical counselling, for a duration decided by others, but I will aim to complete it by the next parliamentary sitting”.

That is, when the government needs him back.

His leave is from electorate and committee work but Laming says his office will be “continuing to serve the community”.

Laming is the third embattled Liberal to go on leave in a few weeks. The others are ministers Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds.

Reynolds’ leave is a justified case – she has a heart condition.

It’s another matter with the others. Leave, frankly, looks like an excuse not to be around.

Morrison (who must be wishing he could get a bit of stress leave himself) will be bracing for any more revelations about people in his ranks.

It will be interesting to hear how he responds to the Sunday suggestion by two of his female backbenchers, Sarah Henderson and Katie Allen, on the ABC that MPs should be subject to drug and alcohol testing.

Henderson said she had heard “a few rumours about drugs”, although no names had been mentioned to her.

Meanwhile, early this week Morrison will announce his reshuffle. This involves shifting Porter and Reynolds but keeping them in cabinet, another compromise likely to be criticised as inadequate.

But a real test in this reshuffle is what Morrison does with the position of minister for women.

If he is serious about women’s issues, he should reallocate this post, at present held by the Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Payne has shown no sign she can drive the agenda for women. She certainly can’t carry the very difficult public debate for the government; she has been little seen on the issues in the last few weeks. She did not even participate when the PM addressed Coalition staff the other day.

Given the present crisis embroiling the government, Morrison should have a stand alone cabinet position of minister for women.

This article has been corrected to remove a quote wrongly attributed to Josh Frydenberg.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: Sex, power and anger — a history of feminist protests in Australia (from The Conversation)

Angela Woollacott, Australian National University and Michelle Staff, Australian National University

Rage and roar are two words commonly used to describe the events of Monday 15 March, when tens of thousands joined the March4Justice: the emotional rage fuelling the protests; the roar of angry shouting voices raised against the treatment of women.

The anger driving the marches around the nation connects the day’s events to earlier feminist protests in Australia, and by Australian women in London. For well over a century, feminists have been angered by women’s lack of equal rights, their treatment by governments, and issues surrounding sex.

Indeed, for some women this recent protest was just one more in a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights and expressing their anger.

This was especially evident in front of Parliament House in Canberra. The large and energised crowd was diverse: from babies to the elderly; mostly women but many men; Indigenous people and whitefellas; dogs and prams threading among university and school students and those in business attire on their lunch break.

Feminists of the 1970s generation were in abundance, expressing their demands through placards, t-shirts and with their voices. Elizabeth Reid, who served as Women’s Adviser to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam from 1973 to 1975 — making her the first women’s adviser to a head of government anywhere in the world — sat down at the front in a folding chair, a highly-deserved queenly position. Her presence and globally historic role were acknowledged by the speakers.

Reid’s friend Biff Ward, a key founder of the Women’s Liberation group in Canberra, was one of the speakers, appearing alongside younger women like Brittany Higgins.

Four women of different ages stand with a fist in the air.
Biff Ward, third from left, joined thousands of women from across the generations at the March4Justice. Jessica Whaler

It was a joy to observe this range of generations joining forces.

The March4Justice adds to the long history of feminists using public space in spectacular ways to draw attention to society’s gender problems. Anger, sorrow and issues surrounding sex run through this history.

But so too do themes of joy, hope and resilience.

The spectacle of women’s suffrage

Feminist protest in Australia began in the late 19th century, when women were galvanised en masse for the first time by the issue of voting rights. Many were angered by the inequality and violence they witnessed and faced on a daily basis. They saw the vote as the key to transforming society, believing it would allow them to elect leaders sympathetic to women’s rights.

Pamphlet reads: 'Womanhood suffrage. Public meeting. Protestant hall, Monday, 4th June, 1990.'
Pamphlets were distributed to invite women and men who supported the suffrage movement to rallies and meetings. State Library New South Wales

As the historian Marilyn Lake explains in Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, while all women lacked rights in the Australian colonies it was the plight of the married (white) woman that really captured suffragists’ attention. Upon marriage, women lost what little independence they had. They could not own property, easily file for divorce or maintain custody of their children.

The gender-based violence dominating feminist conversations in 2021 was also rife and politicised many early feminists. They were outraged wives had no personal autonomy and frequently suffered marital rape, unwanted childbearing, physical violence and economic control.

In response to this dismal situation, from the 1880s campaigns for women’s suffrage mounted. Local suffrage and other women’s organisations were formed and acted as pressure groups lobbying for change.

Read more: The long history of gender violence in Australia, and why it matters today

Activists like Louisa Lawson and Rose Scott made impassioned speeches, held public rallies and wrote to major newspapers to press for the vote, refusing to stay silent and submissive as was expected of women at this time.

Campaigns in Australia were more peaceful than elsewhere, but, like those marching for justice last week, suffragists were very much motivated by anger and frustration. They wanted to make a splash and used spectacle to bring attention to their efforts.

In 1891, Victorian women collected a massive 30,000 signatures on a 260-metre-long “monster petition”.

In 1898, two to three hundred women in the colony reportedly “invaded the club-room of the Legislative Council” to pressure members to pass a women’s suffrage bill.

Although unsuccessful at the time, the scale of these efforts revealed the force of women’s desire for change.

13 women in rows of three, in stiff formal wear of the time.
Suffragists about to march on the Parliament of the colony of Victoria, published in the Australasian on 17 September 1898. Trove

It is important to note the suffragists were almost exclusively concerned with the rights of white women like themselves. Aboriginal women — who endured even greater and more institutionalised forms of discrimination and violence — were not included in their vision for a new society based on equal rights. Then just as now, feminism had a significant race problem.

In 1902, white Australian women became the first in the world to enjoy the dual rights of voting and standing for parliament. They revelled in their new-found status as enfranchised citizens. But as daughters of the empire, they felt strongly connected to their British “sisters” and despaired they remained voteless after decades of protest. Some even travelled to Britain and contributed to its increasingly spectacular suffrage struggle.

Read more: Australian politics explainer: how women gained the right to vote

One Australian who captured imaginations in Britain was the performer and activist, Muriel Matters.

She was incensed by British women’s second-class status and, in 1908, famously chained herself to the iron grille separating the ladies’ gallery from the rest of the House of Commons, proclaiming “We have been behind this insulting grille too long!”

Both she and the grille — which many women saw as a symbol of their oppression — were removed in a dramatic scene, and Matters was sent to Holloway Prison.

The following year, Matters took her protest to the skies. Laden with a megaphone and 25 kilograms of flyers, and with a huge grin on her face, she crossed London in an airship emblazoned with the words “Votes for Women”.

There was a joyousness in this act of defiance. As Matters said: “If we want to go up in the air, neither the police nor anyone else can keep us down”.

Australian-born suffragette Muriel Matters prepares to take off in a dirigible air balloon from Hendon airfields, London, 16 February 1909. Wikimedia Commons

Vida Goldstein was another Australian who made waves in London. In 1911, she was invited by Emmeline Pankhurst — whose suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, was infamous for its militant tactics — to travel to London, where she participated in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession.

The scale of this event was huge. Over 40,000 people marched four miles across the city, in what Goldstein described as “the most amazing triumph of beauty and organisation”. They were watched by great crowds of spectators and ended with a rally at the Royal Albert Hall.

Goldstein, along with Margaret Fisher (the Australian prime minister’s wife) and Emily McGowen (the NSW premier’s wife), led the Australian contingent. This group carried a banner designed by Australian artist Dora Meeson Coates. It was adorned with the figures of two women — representing Britain and Australia — and the words “Trust the women mother as I have done”.

Five women, whole-length, full face, wearing full length gowns, jackets, wide brimmed decorated hats, standing in a row. Text reads: Mrs. Fisher, Mrs. McGowen and Miss Vida Goldstein from Australia.
Many Australian women took part in the Great Suffragette Demonstration in London, 1911, after they had won the vote back home. State Library Victoria

Vivid imagery and clever slogans continue to be part of feminist protests today.

The suffrage protests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used spectacle to draw attention to women’s grievances. They were driven not only by anger and frustration, but also an enduring sense of hope that sustained them in the face of adversity.

The roar of Women’s Liberation

The many protest marches of the Women’s Liberation era of the 1960s and 1970s were also driven in good part by anger. They were spurred, among others, by issues of sex: legalising abortion; access to the pill; the sexual double standard; objectification of women’s bodies; sexual harassment; and violence against women.

The anger was palpable in the size and noise of the marches, the protesters’ willingness to disrupt city streets and public spaces, the eagerness to shock spectators through casual styles of dress, and the deployment of both occasional profanities and popular music.

Women on the march wave their placards at the International Women’s Day march, Melbourne, March 8, 1975. Australian Information Service photograph by John McKinnon, via the National Library of Australia

Just as rage and roar have been used to describe the events surrounding the March4Justice, the Women’s Liberation anthem written and sung by Australian Helen Reddy featured the lines: “I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”.

Yet there was also a joy to some demonstrations of this protest era, especially the Women’s Liberation marches that allowed feminists to ventilate their rage, to prove to the world and themselves they were strong in number, sisterhood really was powerful and there were plenty of women who weren’t going to take it anymore.

Read more: Helen Reddy’s music made women feel invincible

Both the anger and the joy are well documented in the recent film Brazen Hussies. Brazen Hussies tells the story of the Australian Women’s Liberation movement from 1965 to 1975, covering its roots and rise.

Catherine Dwyer’s film provides insight into the anger fuelling the movement, from women’s individual stories of pain and injustice — the awful grief and trauma of having your baby taken from you because you weren’t married, the fury of being paid less for comparable work just because you were a woman, the trials of being a single mother, the enraging burden of shame due to the sexual double standard. And it covers the movement’s exclusion of Indigenous women and, to some extent, of lesbians through interviews with people like Pat O’Shane and Lilla Watson.

But there are also the triumphs and achievements: the legislative victories, the intellectual joys of feminist insights, the growing visibility of the movement.

That Australian Women’s Liberation was also marked by a sense of fun is perhaps best shown by a key event sparking the movement. On March 31, 1965, three Brisbane women dramatically protested their exclusion from the front bar at the Regatta Hotel in Toowong. When they were refused service (as was customary at the time for women in a front bar), two of the women chained themselves to the bar footrail, and the third took the key and threw it into the river.

It took hours for the police to remove the chain, and the event won an enormous amount of publicity.

Merle Thornton, Rosalie Bognor and Elaine Dignan were consciously playing on history when they staged this event, evoking the proclivity of suffragettes to chain themselves to fixed objects. It was also a clear echo of the moment when Muriel Matters chained herself to the grille in the House of Commons over 50 years before.

The fact protesters at the March4Justice were urged to wear black, and many did, signals a vital difference in its overall emotional affect compared to such earlier moments of fun.

The sombre colour of the rallies on March 15 was in stark contrast to the international suffragettes’ customary white dresses (with green and purple sashes), or the Women’s Liberation style of blue denim and colourful t-shirts, hippy skirts and dresses.

Black is the colour of sorrow, which was evident last Monday alongside the anger: sorrow at the terrible pain and suffering of women who are harassed, assaulted and raped, and not able to speak up, or are denied justice.

And sorrow at the fact women are still being harassed, assaulted and raped.

But even stronger than the sorrow was the anger at the Morrison government’s failure to deal with the assaults and allegations, or even to send a representative to the protest happening at its front door.

Fighting gender-based violence in 2021

Looking back at the history of feminist protest highlights striking continuities in the nature of gender-based violence and discrimination over time.

It shows the various ways women’s bodies have been controlled and abused.

It reveals how feminists have persistently protested their subordination, taking up space and refusing to be silenced. Anger, frustration and despair have driven people to action. Optimism, resilience and joy have empowered women to keep fighting even in the face of significant barriers.

21st century feminists are building on a substantial legacy of women’s protest. They are also grappling with the limits of feminisms past and present.

Indigenous women, leaders and community groups participated in many of the rallies around the country last week, drawing attention to the extensive trauma First Nations women have endured and continue to face. Their presence called for feminists to meaningfully engage with issues of race and to help end systemic injustice in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Trans and non-binary activists are calling for recognition gender-based violence disproportionately affects gender-diverse people. Feminists of the past largely viewed their fight through a gender binary. The challenge for today’s activists is to move beyond this.

Intersectionality exists as an ideal; the challenge now is to meaningfully put it into practice.

It remains to be seen what will come of the March4Justice and whether it lasts as a genuinely transformative cultural moment. What is sure, despite the many hurdles they have faced, Australian feminists have consistently found creative and captivating ways to express their indignation and visions for a better future. Feminists today can find inspiration in — and learn from — the various moments and the people who have shaped this history.

Brazen Hussies is now available on ABC iView, and will be broadcast nationally on ABC TV on Monday 5 April at 8.30 pm.

Read more: Bad times call for bold measures: 3 ways to fix the appalling treatment of women in our national parliament

Angela Woollacott, Manning Clark Professor of History, Australian National University and Michelle Staff, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Yes, Australia is a land of flooding rains. But climate change could be making it worse (from The Conversation)

Etching of the 1867 flood in the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, depicting the Eather family. illustrated Sydney News/author provided

Joelle Gergis, Australian National University

Over the past three years, I’ve been working on the forthcoming report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’m a climate scientist who contributed to the chapter on global water cycle changes. It’s concerning to think some theoretical impacts described in this report may be coming to life – yet again – in Australia.

The recent flooding in New South Wales is consistent with what we might expect as climate change continues.

Australia’s natural rainfall patterns are highly variable. This means the influence climate change has on any single weather event is difficult to determine; the signal is buried in the background of a lot of climatic “noise”.

But as our planet warms, the water-holding capacity of the lower atmosphere increases by around 7% for every 1℃ of warming. This can cause heavier rainfall, which in turn increases flood risk.

The oceans are also warming, especially at the surface. This drives up both evaporation rates and the transport of moisture into weather systems. This makes wet seasons and wet events wetter than usual.

So while Australia has always experienced floods, disasters like the one unfolding in NSW are likely to become more frequent and intense as climate change continues.

People watch swollen river
Flooding is likely to become more severe as the planet warms. AAP

Understanding the basics

To understand how a warming world is influencing the water cycle, it’s helpful to return to the theory.

From year to year, Australia’s climate is subject to natural variability generated by the surrounding Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans. The dominant drivers for a given year set up the background climate conditions that influence rainfall and temperature.

It is a combination of these natural climate drivers that makes Australia the land of drought and flooding rains.

However, Australia’s climate variability is no longer influenced by natural factors alone. Australia’s climate has warmed by 1.4℃ since national records began in 1910, with most of the warming occurring since 1970. Human-caused greenhouse emissions have influenced Australian temperatures in our region since 1950.

This warming trend influences the background conditions under which both extremes of the rainfall cycle will operate as the planet continues to warm. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture (higher water vapour content), which can lead to more extreme rainfall events.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture which can lead to more extreme rainfall events. Climate Council

Since the winter of 2020, Australia has been influenced by the La Niña phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Historically, sustained La Niña conditions, sometimes with the help of a warmer than average Indian Ocean, have set the scene for severe flooding in eastern Australia.

During these events, easterly winds intensify and oceans around Australia warm. This is associated with the Walker Circulation – a giant seesaw of atmospheric pressure that influences the distribution of warm ocean waters across the Pacific Ocean.

The last La Niña occurred in 2010–2012. It led to widespread flooding across eastern Australia, with particularly devastating effects in Queensland. The event caused the wettest two-year period in the Australian rainfall record, ending the 1997–2009 Millennium Drought.

Oceanographers from UNSW studied the exceptional event. They demonstrated how a warmer ocean increased the likelihood of extreme rain during that event, primarily through increased transport of moist air along the coast.

Their analysis highlighted how long‐term ocean warming can modify rain-producing systems, increasing the probability of extreme rainfall during La Niña events.

It is important to point out that changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns are still not as well understood as fundamental changes in thermodynamics. However, because regional rainfall changes will be influenced by both factors, it will take researchers time to tease everything out.

So what about climate change?

The theoretical changes to the global water cycle are well understood. However, determining the contribution of natural and human influences on climate variability and extremes – known as “attribution” – is still an emerging science.

More studies are needed to distinguish natural or “background” rainfall variability from recent human-caused changes to the water cycle. This is particularly the case in a country like Australia, which has very high yearly rainfall variability. This contrasts with some regions of the Northern Hemisphere with less variable rainfall, where a clear climate change signal has already emerged.

Right now, La Niña conditions are decaying in the Pacific Ocean. As expected, the 2020–2021 La Niña has brought above-average rainfall to much of eastern Australia. This helped ease the severe drought conditions across eastern Australia since 2017, particularly in NSW.

NSW rainfall total, week ending March 22, 2021
NSW rainfall totals for the week ending March 22, 2021. Bureau of Meteorology

What’s interesting about the 2020–2021 La Niña is that it was weak compared with historical events. The relationship between La Niña and rainfall is generally weaker in coastal NSW than further inland. However, it’s concerning that this weak La Niña caused flooding comparable to the iconic floods of the 1950s and 1970s.

The rainfall totals for the current floods are yet to be analysed. However, early figures reveal the enormity of the downpours. For example, over the week to March 23, the town of Comboyne, southwest of Port Macquarie, recorded an extraordinary 935mm of rainfall. This included three successive days with more than 200mm.

The NSW coast is no stranger to extreme rainfall – there have been five events in the past decade with daily totals exceeding 400mm. However, the current event is unusual because of its duration and geographic extent.

It’s also worth noting the current extreme rainfall in NSW was associated with a coastal trough, not an East Coast Low. Many of the region’s torrential rainfall events in the past have resulted from East Coast Lows, although their rainfall is normally more localised than has been the case in this widespread event.

Remember that as the air warms, its water-holding capacity increases, particularly over the oceans. Current ocean temperatures around eastern and northern Australia are about 1℃ warmer than the long-term average, and closer to 1.5℃ warmer than average off the NSW coast. These warmer conditions are likely to be fuelling the systems driving the extreme rainfall and associated flooding in NSW.

Sea surface temperature anomalies along the NSW coast. Bureau of Meteorology

A nation exposed

Weather and climate are not the only influences on extreme flood events. Others factors include the shape and size of water catchments, the presence of hard surfaces in urban areas (which cant’t absorb water), and the density of human settlement in flood-prone areas.

The Hawkesbury–Nepean region in Western Sydney, currently experiencing major flooding, is a prime example. Five major tributaries, including the Warragamba and Nepean Rivers, flow into this extensively urbanised valley.

Improving our understanding of historical weather data may help improve future climate change risk assessment. For example, past floods in the Hawkesbury–Nepean have been a lot worse than the current disaster. In 1867, the Hawkesbury River at Windsor reached 19.7 metres above normal, and in 1961 peaked at 14.5 metres. This is worse than the 13.12 metres above normal recorded at Freemans Reach on March 23.

It’s sobering to think the Hawkesbury River once peaked 6 metres higher than what we’re seeing right now. Imagine the potential future flooding caused by an East Coast Low during strong La Niña conditions.

It will take time before scientists can provide a detailed analysis of the 2020–2021 La Niña event. But it’s crystal clear that Australia is very exposed to damage caused by extreme rainfall. Our theoretical understanding of water cycle changes tells us these events will only become more intense as our planet continues to warm.

Joelle Gergis, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Could the Morrison government’s response to sexual assault claims cost it the next election? (from The Conversation)

Jeremy Piper/AAP

Sarah Cameron, University of Sydney

Today, thousands of Australians are expected to march around the country, angry and fed up at the treatment of women. In Canberra they will form a ring of protest around Parliament House.

This comes after Melbourne academic and entrepreneur Janine Hendry wondered how many “extremely disgruntled” women it would take to link arms around parliament to tell the government “we’ve had enough” (the answer is about 4,000).

It follows Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in a minister’s office in 2019 and an allegation Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a 16-year-old in 1988 (which he denies). It also comes amid multiple claims of a toxic work culture at Parliament House.

While Higgins’ case has sparked numerous inquiries, she claims she was not supported in the aftermath of her alleged assault. Regarding Porter, the government is resisting calls for an independent inquiry, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring him an “innocent man under our law”.

As Australia heads into another pre-election season, questions have been raised about the potential impact of recent events.

Women are obviously a significant demographic, and data shows they are already drifting away from the Liberal Party.

So, what’s at stake when it comes to women voters and the Liberals at the next election?

Gender and voting behaviour

The Australian Election Study is a nationally representative survey of voter behaviour that has run after all federal elections since 1987.

In 2019, it showed that although the Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election, the Liberal Party attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since 1987.

While 45% of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, just 35% of women did so. Parties on the political left also had an advantage among women, with 6% more women than men voting for the Greens, and a smaller margin of 3% more women voting for Labor.

Looking at the gender gap over time, we see it has actually reversed over the past 30 years. Back in the 1990s, women were slightly more likely to vote for the Liberal party, and men were more likely to vote Labor.

This has gradually switched, so men now prefer the Liberal Party and women prefer Labor. The gender gap in voting Liberal is now at its greatest point on record.

This reversal of the gender gap in voting behaviour isn’t unique to Australia, it has also been observed in other democracies including in Europe and North America.

Why are we seeing a gender gap?

There are a number of factors underpinning this transformation of gender and voting in Australia.

This includes tremendous social change, such as women’s increased participation in higher education. Higher education is associated with political ideology that is further to the left.

Women’s increased participation in the labour force is also a factor. The election study shows in 1990, 41% of union members were women, by 2019, that figure had increased to 55%.

Read more: Labor’s election loss was not a surprise if you take historical trends into account

But womens’ voting behaviour can also be attributed to major changes in Australia’s major political parties. Back in the early 1990s, women were similarly underrepresented in both the major parties — just 13% of parliamentarians in 1990 were women.

Since then, Labor has dramatically increased its proportion of women in parliament, reaching 47% through party quotas as of the last election. The Liberal Party on the other hand, has made slower progress, reaching just 23% at the most recent election.

New research published in the journal Electoral Studies shows left-leaning women are more likely to support female candidates.

The Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’

So, even before the current crisis, the Liberal party was losing the electoral support of women.

The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has become a common criticism, not just by political opponents but also prominent Liberal Party figures including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour.

That said, election results are often influenced by the most important issues at the time of the election. The salience of different issues — shaped to a large degree by media coverage — can change considerably over time.

Approval ratings of Morrison from the Essential Poll show he lost a lot of support during the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, which he was perceived as handling poorly.

Since then, Morrison has benefited from Australia’s relative success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of a phenomenon known as “rallying ‘round the flag,” voters have supported him and the government during this time of crisis.

The next election

The election can be held anytime from August this year, although political observers currently expect it to be next year.

The electoral impact of current events will depend not only on the government’s response to the sexual assault allegations (and voter satisfaction with those responses), but also which issues are salient at election time. A historical sexual assault allegation against former Labor leader Bill Shorten was not a major factor in the lead up to the last election (he denies the claims and in 2014, police said they would not proceed with charges).

Read more: Polls say Labor and Coalition in a 50-50 tie, Trump set to be acquitted by US Senate

Interestingly, the Australian Election Study shows trust in government reached its lowest point on record in 2019 with just one in four voters believing that people in government could be trusted. In contrast, three quarters thought those in government were more interested in looking after themselves.

On the issue of sexual assault, recent polling data also suggests the government is similarly perceived as putting itself first. Of those polled, 65% agreed “the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who have been assaulted”. This includes half of Coalition voters, and a similar proportion of men and women.

Woman marching for women's safety in 2019.
Polls suggest voters don’t like they way the government has handled the Porter and Higgins cases. Jeremy Piper/AAP

Elections are decided on many issues and factors, including what is making headlines closer to election day, and the performance of leaders and parties.

But the growing gender gap in voting will be on the radar of both major parties. The Liberal Party ignores it at its peril.

Sarah Cameron, Lecturer in Politics, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t disturb the cockatoos on your lawn, they’re probably doing all your weeding for free (from The Conversation)


Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Australians have a love-hate relationship with sulphur-crested cockatoos, Cacatua galerita. For some, the noisy parrots are pests that destroy crops or the garden, damage homes and pull up turf at sports ovals.

For others, they’re a bunch of larrikins who love to play and are quintessentially Australian.

Along with other scientists, I had a unique opportunity during the COVID-19 lockdowns to study things that had intrigued me closer to home, perhaps for years. While isolating in the suburbs of Melbourne, I wanted to find out why cockatoos return to the same places, and what they’re after.

The answer? Onion grass, reams of it.

Onion grass is a significant weed, and I estimated in a recent paper that one bird gorges on about 200 plants per hour. A flock of about 50 birds can consume 20,000 plants in a couple of hours.

This significantly reduces the weed level and may make expensive herbicide use unnecessary. So if you have a large amount of onion grass on your property and are regularly visited by sulphur-crested cockatoos, it would be wise to let them do their weeding first.

When play verges on vandalism

Most of us see cockies whether we live in rural communities or major cities, but how much do you really know about them?

Two sulphur-crested cockatoos sitting on a branch
Sulphur-crested cockatoos nest in old hollow trees. Shutterstock

In late winter and early spring in many parts of Australia, flocks of sulphur–crested cockatoos can be seen grazing on the ground. They’re usually found close to water, nesting in woodlands with old hollow trees, such as river red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis.

Where these forests and trees are being cleared, the number of cockies falls. But they are resilient and adaptable birds, and have spread their range to cities and the urban fringe, where numbers are increasing.

Read more: Birds that play with others have the biggest brains – and the same may go for humans

The birds are known to play with fruits, hang upside down on branches or perform flying cartwheels by holding a small branch or powerline with their feet, flapping their wings as they do loop after loop.

Sometimes their play verges on vandalism as they follow tree planters, deftly pulling up just-planted trees and laying them neatly beside the hole.

While cockatoos feed on the fruits and seed of native species, they’ve adapted very quickly to the introduction of exotic species, such as onion grass from South Africa, which is plentiful and easy to harvest.

I observed flocks ranging from nine to 63 cockatoos at seven sites along the Maribyrnong River in Keilor last July and August. Onion grass was the only item on their menu.

A pest for humans, a feast for birds

Onion grass (Romulea rosea) is small and usually inconspicuous with grass-like leaves. It’s typically only noticed when it flowers in spring, producing pretty, pink and yellow-throated flowers.

Conspicuous onion grass with a small purple flower
Onion grass comes from South Africa, and is a big problem for native grasslands. Harry Rose/Wikimedia, CC BY

Onion grass can be a serious weed that’s very difficult to control. It’s not only a problem for agricultural land, but also for recreational turf and native grasslands.

In some areas, there are nearly 5,000 onion grass plants per square metre. This is a massive number requiring costly control measures, such as spraying or scraping away the upper layer of top soil.

Read more: The river red gum is an icon of the driest continent

Onion grass gets its name from its onion-like leaves. At the base is a small bulb, which works as a modified underground stem called a “corm”. The corm is what cockatoos will travel many kilometres for, to dig up and return to for days on end.

A brown bulb with small roots coming out
When cockatoos eat onion grass corm, it prevents the weed from regenerating. Harry Rose/Wikimedia, CC BY

Their super weeding effort

Like other native parrots, sulphur-crested cockatoos are famously left-footed. So it was interesting to observe them primarily use their powerful beaks to pull onion grass plants from the ground and dig up corms, using their left foot only occasionally to manipulate the plant.

Read more: These historic grasslands are becoming a weed-choked waste. It could be one of the world’s great parks

The cockatoos fed for between 30 minutes and two and a half hours. At each feed, one or two sentry (or sentinel) birds, depending on the flock size, would keep watch and give raucous warning should danger threaten.

The cockies could remove a plant and corm from the ground in as little as six seconds, but sometimes it could take up to 30 seconds. They then removed and consumed a corm every 14 seconds on average in wet soil and every 18 seconds from harder, dry soil.

Eight cockatoos on grass, with autumn leaves
When flocks feed, one or two sentinel birds keep watch for danger. Shutterstock

This means a flock of 63 birds could remove more than 35,400 onion grass plants in a feeding session lasting two and half hours. This is a super weeding effort by any standard!

Future partnerships

My further investigation revealed most of the corms were within 20 millimetres of the soil surface, so the holes left in the soil by the birds extracting the onion grass were shallow and quite small. This shouldn’t give seeds from onion grass any great advantage.

And they’re very efficient: the birds eat over 87% of the corms they lift, which then won’t get a chance to generate in future years. So, if we’re going to try to eradicate onion grass, it may be better to let the cockies do their work first before we humans take a turn.

We have a lot to learn about how our native species interact with introduced weeds, and more research might reveal some very useful future partnerships. They might be birdbrains, but sulphur-crested cockatoos really know their onions when it comes to, well, onion grass.

Read more: Running out of things to do in isolation? Get back in the garden with these ideas from 4 experts

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Herd immunity is the end game for the pandemic, but the AstraZeneca vaccine won’t get us there (from The Conversation)

Zoë Hyde, University of Western Australia

In the past fortnight, two vaccine stories made headlines around the world.

Novavax announced spectacular results for its phase 3 trial, while preliminary data suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine is ineffective against the South African variant.

These two vaccines comprise the bulk of Australia’s vaccine portfolio, and the results should prompt an urgent rethink of our vaccination strategy.

Australia won’t reach herd immunity with the current plan.

Australia’s strategy

Australia has secured access to 20 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 53.8 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, and 51 million doses of the Novavax vaccine. All of these require two doses for maximum effectiveness.

The federal government plans to begin vaccinating groups at high risk with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, then use the AstraZeneca vaccine for the remainder of the population.

The Novavax vaccine may be used at a later date.

But the efficacy of these vaccines is very different

There’s been some confusion over the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, because of a dosing mistake in one of the early trials. But what’s clear is that its efficacy with a standard, two-dose schedule is 62%.

In comparison, the efficacy of Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine is 95%, while interim results suggest the Novavax vaccine has an efficacy of 89%.

These differences matter, because if vaccine efficacy is below a certain level, it’s not possible to achieve herd immunity.

If we don’t achieve herd immunity, Australia could be dealing with outbreaks indefinitely

Herd immunity is the only sustainable, long-term strategy to prevent the virus from spreading throughout the community.

The proportion of the population needing to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity depends on both how contagious a disease is, and how effective the vaccines for it are. It can be calculated by a simple formula, the results of which are shown in the graph below.

Proportion of the population that would need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Author provided

The contagiousness of the virus which causes COVID-19, given by its basic reproduction number (R₀), is thought to be around 2.5. That means, on average, a person with COVID-19 will infect 2.5 people. Of course, some people infect nobody, while others infect many more in super-spreading events.

We’d need to vaccinate almost everyone in Australia to achieve herd immunity with the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t feasible.

Some people have medical conditions that prevent vaccination. We also won’t be able to vaccinate children for a while, because vaccines aren’t yet approved for this age group, although trials are underway.

However, we’d perhaps only need to vaccinate 63% of the population with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, or 67% if we used the Novavax vaccine. This is achievable.

Using the planned combination of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine will still require an unfeasibly large proportion of the population to be vaccinated, because children and teenagers make up about one-fifth of Australia’s population.

In practice, we’ll probably need to vaccinate slightly more people than these figures suggest, because vaccines likely protect against symptomatic disease better than they do against any infection. The figures for efficacy quoted above are for symptomatic disease.

But further unpublished results from the ongoing AstraZeneca trials, and data collected during the trial of the Moderna vaccine, suggest efficacy against infection may be reasonably close to that for symptomatic disease.

New variants threaten herd immunity

New viral variants have complicated the picture. They can threaten our ability to achieve herd immunity in two ways. More transmissible variants (with a higher R₀) mean more people will need to be vaccinated.

They can also directly affect vaccine efficacy, which we’ve seen in South Africa.

Preliminary data suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine is unable to prevent mild to moderate disease caused by the South African variant, and the efficacy of the vaccine dropped to 22%.

Read more: UK, South African, Brazilian: a virologist explains each COVID variant and what they mean for the pandemic

South Africa paused the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and will use the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines instead.

The South African variant has also affected the efficacy of the Novavax vaccine, which was reduced to 60%. We don’t yet know how the variant might affect the efficacy of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, but some reduction is likely.

What does this mean for Australia?

Australia is in an incredibly fortunate position, with almost no community transmission. Breaches in the hotel quarantine system are now the major source of outbreaks in Australia.

An increasing proportion of cases in Australian hotel quarantine are infected with variants. At least 18 cases of the South African variant have been detected so far.

Variants of concern are becoming dominant globally. These are what our vaccination strategy must prevent. AstraZeneca’s vaccine won’t protect us against the South African variant, but high-efficacy vaccines like those made by Novavax and Pfizer/BioNTech probably still will.

If Australia rolled out the AstraZeneca vaccine, we’d be starting behind the eight ball, and we’d have to do a second rollout to protect everyone against the South African variant.

But vaccination is going to be a mammoth task. To meet the government’s target of vaccinating all adults by October, Australia will need to vaccinate around 200,000 people per day.

Realistically, we’re only going to get one shot at achieving maximum population coverage, and so it’s critical that we get this right.

Is the AstraZeneca vaccine still useful?

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, argued the AstraZeneca vaccine is still useful because it can prevent death and severe illness 100% of the time.

In reality, that’s not a claim supported by science, because the AstraZeneca trial lacked statistical power to evaluate this endpoint. In fact, only two severe cases occurred during the trial, including one death (both of which were in the placebo group).

We’d need a much larger trial to understand how well the AstraZeneca vaccine prevents severe disease. This would provide the larger number of events needed to distinguish a significant difference between the placebo and vaccine group.

However, we can expect COVID-19 vaccines to be better at preventing serious outcomes than mild ones, and so the AstraZeneca vaccine might still do quite well against severe disease.

But we don’t yet know what the efficacy will be, and death isn’t the only outcome to consider. Vaccines must also be able to prevent the debilitating condition known as “long COVID”, which is relatively common, even in people who initially had mild COVID-19.

The Office for National Statistics in the UK estimates that 1 in 10 people experience persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks.

The AstraZeneca vaccine will still be very useful for countries battling second waves caused by the original strain of the virus. In this context, the vaccine will save lives.

It’s also very important to note that no safety concerns have been identified with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Australia should go for herd immunity

With no widespread community transmission, Australia can afford to prioritise a long-term herd immunity strategy, rather than focusing on a short-term goal of saving lives.

In addition to expected overseas supplies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Australia has the capacity to manufacture the high-efficacy Novavax vaccine domestically.

Unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the Novavax vaccine can be kept in a refrigerator, making it ideal for use in urban, rural, and remote Australia.

Australia must not squander this opportunity by proceeding with the rollout of a vaccine that’s already been proven ineffective against one of the world’s most concerning variants. Rather, we must use high-efficacy vaccines to build herd immunity, and secure Australia’s long-term future.

Zoë Hyde, Epidemiologist, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nationals’ push to carve farming from a net-zero target is misguided and dangerous (from The Conversation)


Rachelle Meyer, University of Melbourne

Prime Minister Scott Morrison might be warming to the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but federal Nationals leader Michael McCormack has thrown a spanner in the works by suggesting agriculture be excluded from the target.

On Sunday, McCormack told Sky News the Coalition government will not “whack regional Australia” just to meet a climate target. He went on:

There is no way we are going to […] hurt regional Australia, in any way shape or form just to get a target for climate in 2050. We are not going to hurt those wonderful people that put food on our table.

But the Nationals’ push is deeply misguided. It dumps the burden of emissions reduction on other sectors, and puts Australian farmers and the broader economy at greater risk of climate change damage.

Michael McCormack eating a piece of fruit
Nationals leader Michael McCormack wants farming exempted from emissions targets. Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Farming emissions: a sobering picture

Most emissions from the farming sector come in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

Livestock such as cattle and sheep produce methane when they digest plant material. This gas makes up about 70% of Australia’s agricultural emissions.

Nitrous oxide is released from nutrient-rich soils, such as soils where fertilisers have been applied or when livestock deposit urine and manure on the ground.

In 2019, agriculture produced almost 13% of Australia’s national emissions, or 69 million tonnes. Land clearing for agriculture also drives deforestation in Australia, which is responsible for about 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Combined, the emissions comprised about 18% of annual emissions in 2019 – equal to the transport sector.

Read more: Australia’s farmers want more climate action – and they’re starting in their own (huge) backyards

What’s more, agricultural emissions are projected to increase over the next decade. It’s estimated by 2030, the sector (excluding land clearing) will emit between 78 and 112 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. By 2050, that figure could reach 132.5 million tonnes, according to advice prepared for the federal government in 2013.

A report released last week by the expert Climate Targets Panel found Australia’s emissions must be slashed by 50% or more by 2030 to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Australia must meet this target to be consistent with the international goal of keeping global warming below 2°C.

Granting an exemption to agriculture may well mean Australia would miss the 2050 target. At the very least, it would place an unfair burden on other industries to pick up the slack.

Farm meets forest
Forests, which reduce carbon in the atmosphere, are cleared for agriculture. Shutterstock

A challenging task

No-one says reducing emissions from the agriculture sector will be easy. In contrast to, say, the electricity sector, where low-carbon technology (in the form of renewable energy) is already widely deployed, such technologies in farming are largely still immature or involve complicating factors.

For example, chemical inhibitors can be applied to soil to reduce the production of nitrous oxide. However, inhibitors vary in effectiveness and the reasons behind this are not well understood.

Alternatively, legume crops increase nitrogen in the soil, and including them in rotations can mean less fertiliser is needed. But if planting legumes means other additional crops are planted elsewhere, this may lead to indirect emissions.

Feed additives given to livestock are a promising way to reduce methane emissions. For example 3-NOP, a chemical pellet mixed into animal feed, has been shown to slash methane emissions from Australian farms. However, 3-NOP is not yet been approved for use in Australia and the price may yet prove prohibitive.

Also, most of the agriculture sector’s methane emissions come from large farms where graziers don’t often directly feed or interact with livestock. That means feed additives and similar options are not practical in these systems.

Diagram showing the global carbon and nitrogen cycles and their interaction with land use.
Diagram showing the global carbon and nitrogen cycles and their interaction with land use.

Emissions from farms, returned to the land

So while the above options are being ironed out, what’s the best way to cut emissions from agriculture? Research I published last year proposed one solution: pairing agriculture emissions with forestry “sinks” – an area of trees and soil that sucks up carbon dioxide.

In a neat synergy, methane and nitrous oxide last in the atmosphere for about the same times as carbon is stored in land sinks, such as trees and soil. So it makes sense to use land sinks to offset agriculture emissions.

Read more: Climate Change Commission calls on New Zealand government to take ‘immediate and decisive action’ to cut emissions

Carbon dioxide, such as that emitted from power plants, lasts longer in the atmosphere than farming emissions. It’s best dealt with by decarbonising the electricity and transport sectors, rather than offsetting with biological sinks.

So farmers could, for example, offset their emissions by planting forests. This would enable them to start meeting a net-zero target while new methods for emissions reduction are developed and brought to market.

Research has shown the land sector could potentially achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, using carbon sinks and a mass reduction in land clearing.

Shrubs in buckets.
Planting trees can offest emissions by farmers. Shutterstock

A clear way forward

Reducing the footprint of Australia’s agriculture sector is no simple feat. It will require:

  • substantial investment to address research gaps
  • incentives for farmers to adopt commercially viable mitigation options, such as anaerobic digestors to turn animal waste in intensive systems into energy
  • incentives for farmers to adopt options that are not commercially viable. This might mean reducing stock numbers when necessary, to restore degraded pastures which increases soil carbon stocks.

Australia’s agriculture is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change: bushfires and extreme weather, as well as changes to rainfall, temperature, soils, water, pests and diseases.

Farming should not be exempt from a net-zero target. Not only would this make the job of climate action harder for other parts of the economy, it will ultimately come back to bite farmers themselves.

Read more: Biden’s Senate majority doesn’t just super-charge US climate action, it blazes a trail for Australia

Rachelle Meyer, Postdoctoral Fellow (Farm Systems Analysis), University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Which universities are best placed financially to weather COVID? (from The Conversation)

William Potter/Shutterstock

Omer Yezdani, Australian Catholic University

2021 is when the impacts of COVID-19 really start to take their toll on universities, as more than 140,000 international students seek to return to study in Australia. My new analysis, presented in this article, reveals that if one in five international students don’t re-enrol, the loss of revenue would plunge half of all Australian universities into financial turmoil or budget deficit. While the impacts of COVID are unprecedented, modelling universities’ financial resilience shows which institutions fare better and why.

International students generated A$10 billion in fee revenue for universities in 2019. This in turn drives jobs, local industry, research and Australia’s reputation as a destination for quality higher education.

Read more: 2021 is the year Australia’s international student crisis really bites

Recent modelling by the Mitchell Institute estimated more than 300,000 fewer international students would be studying inside Australia by mid-year, if travel restrictions continued.

Universities employ more than 130,000 staff at 200 campus locations across Australia. Many of these jobs could be at risk. Universities Australia figures show at least 17,300 have already been lost.

Read more: COVID to halve international student numbers in Australia by mid-2021 – it’s not just unis that will feel their loss

Revenue and reputation: a self-reinforcing cycle

In total, 32% of all full-time-equivalent enrolments at Australian universities are international students. About a quarter (24%) of all university revenue comes from these students. Universities’ operating revenue fell 4.9% in 2020, with an estimated 5.5% fall to come in 2021.

International student fees are correlated with university rankings but are also a self-reinforcing cycle: more international students generate more revenue to fund more research, which in turn leads to better rankings and more demand.

Chart showing links between student fee revenue, university resources and reputation.
International student revenue increases university resources, which enhances reputation, which in turn attracts more international students. Author provided

Read more: New global ranking system shows Australian universities are ahead of the pack

Another risk factor for universities is the concentration of enrolments from just a few source countries. They are also concentrated in the largest institutions. One in four international students (25%) study at one of these five universities: Monash, RMIT, Melbourne, Sydney or UNSW.

The leading source of international students in Australia is China, with 36% of these students. It’s followed by India (14%), Malaysia (7%), Singapore (5%) and Nepal (4%). Just one or two geographic markets dominate international enrolments at most universities.

International students aren’t the only risk factor

The worst-hit universities may be those with small pre-COVID operating margins and high reliance on concentrated international student revenue.

My analysis shows a 20% fall in international student fee revenues would leave 22 universities in deficit or on the brink with a net operating result (revenue minus expenses) of 1% or less.

Those with a higher reliance on international students, less diverse revenue streams or a lower return on equity fare worse in the post-COVID modelling. The chart below shows the impact on university net operating results of five scenarios involving decreases in international students by 10%, 20%, 30%, 40% and 50%.

The net result decreases more dramatically for those with both a high reliance on international students and a limited operating buffer. In other words, the risks already existed – COVID amplified them.

Universities need a buffer to absorb shocks

Many Australian universities rely heavily on revenue from international students as part of their business model and global profile. Twelve rely on international student fees for more than 30% of their total income.

Table of universities that receive more than 30% of their total revenue from international student fees
Data source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Finance Tables, Author provided

While all the universities in the above table are registered not-for-profits, they need to remain financially sustainable. Any organisation involved in high-stakes global markets should have a buffer against rare and unexpected shocks such as the COVID pandemic. A requirement for financial buffers was legislated in the US following the global financial crisis but still remains a vexed issue.

The average net pre-COVID operating result for Australian universities was a healthy 5.6%. However, several started the year with a result of less than 1%. These universities included Charles Darwin (-3.1%), Notre Dame (-2.6%), New England (-1.4%), Macquarie (0.14%), Central Queensland (0.71%) and Charles Sturt (0.77%).

These results raise important questions for university boards. What is a responsible operating result considering the risks of the business and the markets in which it operates? Was “pandemic” already identified in risk registers? And what was done about it?

Significant revenue write-downs leave institutions with only a few levers to buffer the COVID shock while minimising risks to quality.

Read more: $7.6 billion and 11% of researchers: our estimate of how much Australian university research stands to lose by 2024

Chart showing top 10 operating results for universities assuming a 20% fall in international student fee revenue
Author analysis of modelling using data from Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Finance tables

On average, the above top ten universities generate 20% of their revenue from international student fees. The sector average is 24%.

The University of Melbourne gets 31% of its revenue from international student fees. That’s higher than the average, but its very healthy pre-COVID operating result of 13.9% provides breathing space.

Newcastle, QUT, Edith Cowan and the Sunshine Coast are in the top ten universities, but under this model have a potential post-COVID result of less than the sector average of 5.6%. Their risk exposure to international student fee revenue is still average or lower.

How should universities respond?

Three main conclusions can be drawn.

First, to underpin their financial sustainability and avoid risks to quality, universities must consider not only their reliance on international student fee revenue and market concentration, but also strategies to understand and define their appetite for risk.

Second, the model for online education when travel across borders is limited could be a long-lasting effect of COVID. Long-term strategies and regulatory practices to deal with this “new normal” of global higher education will be needed, beyond temporary regulatory flexibility.

Third, disruption to higher education is here to stay. Waiting for a time when the view on the horizon is clear for all to see may be too late.

Global higher education requires a new organisational ambidexterity. That means universities must revisit core operating models, re-imagine future potential and succeed on the disruptive edge.

Note: Department of Education, Skills and Employment finance tables used for this analysis may differ from institutional reports due to various accounting methods.

Omer Yezdani, Director, Office of Planning and Strategic Management, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s not just about the rise in anti-Semitism: why we need real stories for better Holocaust education in Australia (from The Conversation)

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Poland. Shutterstock

Jan Lanicek, UNSW

On January 27 communities worldwide commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz — the largest complex of concentration camps and extermination centres during the Holocaust. This is the first year the International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be marked nationally in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will address the event, which demonstrates the importance the government ascribes to Holocaust commemoration.

In October 2019, after two cases of serious anti-Semitism in schools (one where a Jewish student was forced to kiss the feet of another student) Josh Frydenberg urged schools to deliver more history lessons about the Holocaust. He said:

If they [bullies] understood and comprehended the atrocities of the Holocaust, they would be as insulted as anybody, including me, about these recent attacks.

Federal and state governments have provided funding to Holocaust museums, and Holocaust education is mandatory in years 9 and 10 in NSW and Victoria. It is also part of the history curriculum nationally.

Although the Holocaust is a universal symbol of evil, there is some feeling among Australians it has no direct historical relevance here. In 2016, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra unveiled a small exhibition with several stories connecting Australia to the Holocaust. But there was some opposition.

The Memorial director Brendan Nelson, commented that

One regular visitor to the Memorial told me emphatically that she was opposed to this exhibition. “This has nothing to do with Australia and the Australian War Memorial”, she said. She told me that she would never walk through it.

With the passing of most of the last survivors, it seems the horrors of the event are being lost with the younger generations. Surveys conducted by the Claims conference (an international organisation that aims to bring justice to Holocaust survivors) in 2018, showed 31% of Americans (41% of millenials) believe substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust.

Read more: Many young people still lack basic knowledge of the Holocaust

And almost half of Americans couldn’t name a single concentration camp during the Holocaust, despite the fact there were possibly more than 40,000 at the time.

Teachers need to consider new ways how to make Holocaust history relevant to new generations globally, and in Australia.

How the Holocaust is relevant to Australia

My historical research has brought to light personal stories connecting Australia and Europe during the second world war.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 Jewish refugees reached Australia shortly before the war. Most of them left behind relatives, often elderly parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends, who perished in the Holocaust.

In 1939 Mayloch Ruda from Warsaw, Poland migrated to Australia with his two daughters — leaving his wife Chana and three other children, Pola, Frania and Guta behind. This was a typical migration strategy, when the breadwinner left first to establish a new home overseas.

Mayloch applied for Australia to admit his family, but it was too late. The war closed almost all emigration routes from Europe. His wife and three daughters were soon imprisoned in the largest Nazi ghetto in Warsaw.

Mayloch and his two daughters remained in an intermittent contact with their family through the International Red Cross. The last message they received from Pola in November 1942 was delayed by almost six months:

We are in dire material conditions. Mother lost her sight. We plead for any help, as soon as possible. We all live together. We are waiting for help and the news.

Mayloch contacted Jewish humanitarian agencies to send his family food parcels, but it is doubtful they ever arrived. Most of the Jews from Warsaw, very likely including the Ruda family, were murdered in Treblinka.

After the war, the Rudas and others tried to locate their relatives, and if they survived, bring them over to Australia.

Another surviror, Max Heitlinger, who arrived in Australia in 1939 from Vienna, expressed these feelings in his memoirs.

I knew it was the end for all of them. I still wake up at night and cry in desperation and self-accusation.

Despite the immense interest in the history of the Holocaust in Australia their efforts and strategies have remained largely unknown.

The Holocaust is about human rights more generally

The idea Holocaust education could help combat rising anti-Semitism is not new. Surveys conducted in the past 15 years, however, suggest “Europe is experiencing rising levels of antisemitism […] alongside a growth in Holocaust education”.

The authors of the surveys write that for Holocaust education to be effective, the curriculum should also consider “the pre-existing cultural capital of students and the specific history of Jewish communities, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust in the country […] where the subject is being taught”.

Read more: New research shows religious discrimination is on the rise around the world, including in Australia

UNESCO recommends education about the Holocaust include elements such as a fostering critical thinking, education about global citizenship and an integration of gender perspectives to help unmask bias.

Stories like the above, of migrants in Australia separated from family, offer possible avenues for teachers to present the Holocaust as part of our history.

Using these stories is also crucial for understanding the diverse experiences in Australian multicultural society.

Photos of Holocaust victims and survivors from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Up to 10,000 Jewish refugees came to Australia before the war. Many left behind relatives. (Photos of Holocaust victims and survivors taken from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington) Shutterstock

Stories of separated families still happen today. Sadam Abudusalam, an Australian citizen, was separated for three years from his Uyghur wife Nadila and their child, who were left behind in China. The Chinese persecution of the Muslim Uyghurs was recently characterised by the Trump administration and the president-elect Joe Biden’s team as a case of genocide. Thankfully, Sadam was reunited with Nadila and their child in December 2020.

The study of the Holocaust offers immense opportunities to educators at all levels, but proper training is necessary for those who teach the subject.

But while the Australian government has mandated Holocaust education, the recent fee shake-up in universities — where fees for most humanities courses have risen – will unfortunately put learning about it in-depth out of reach for some students. And this includes prospective school teachers.

Australia must make it easier for students to learn about the history of our world so they can better teach it to school students.

The study of the Holocaust, as the ultimate example of genocide, allows teachers to raise the universal message of human rights abuses and mass violence. If we relate the Holocaust to our past and present context, we can facilitate a better understanding of the Australian place in the world and its relation to gross human rights violations around the globe.

Jan Lanicek, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History and Jewish History, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.