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. https://www.youtube.com/embed/28SN9KixO2I?wmode=transparent&start=0

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.

The government would save $1 billion a year with proposed university reforms — but that’s not what it’s telling us (from The Conversation)

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Mark Warburton, University of Melbourne

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan released his Job-ready Graduates Package on June 19 2020. In his National Press Club address, he said it would help drive our economic recovery after COVID-19 and “put more funding into the system in a way that encourages people to study in areas of expected employment growth”.

He said the package would deliver an additional 39,000 university places by 2023 and 100,000 places by 2030.

But my analysis shows the growth in student places is illusory. It will not meet any additional demand from the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown or future growth in the university-age cohort.

I show that — over the period from December 2017 (when the government put a cap on demand-driven funding) to 2024 (when the job-ready policies are fully implemented) — the government will deliver itself an annual saving of nearly A$1 billion.

A bit of background

In 2018, the government used a legislative handbrake to stop student subsidies for bachelor degrees from growing by capping funding.

Before that, the government was providing funding to universities based on how many students had enrolled. A two-year freeze on funding was followed by population-based increases of less than the inflation rate.

This stopped new student places being subsidised. And over time, it eroded the number of places receiving a subsidy.


Read more: Demand-driven funding for universities is frozen. What does this mean and should the policy be restored?


There was no coherent plan for longer-term growth. The Job-ready policies are meant to fix this. If legislation passes, they will start in 2021 and be fully phased in by 2024.

New subsidy and student contribution arrangements would replace the current arrangements. The total revenue for a student place would be better aligned with the estimated cost of teaching in each discipline, removing the surplus funding now spent on other things like research.

Student contributions are being set to encourage them to study things like maths and agriculture, and to discourage them from studying things like history and communications. The government subsidy meets the remainder of the cost in each discipline.

These changes save the government money, but it spends some of it on “additional student places”. It also spends some on grants to promote links with industry and on resuming inflation-linked increases of the subsidies for student places.


Read more: Coronavirus and university reforms put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years


It is a complicated package. There is a three-year transition period in which existing students, whose contributions would otherwise increase, stay on the old funding arrangements.

If a university would get more funding for the same total number of students under the old funding arrangements, the government will make up the difference. Funding will be progressively increased to allow universities to provide more places over this three-year period.

The government didn’t release any analysis of the end point of its changes. What will have happened to university funding by 2024? Will there be more student places than when it first capped the system? Will it be spending more or less than in the past?

My calculations

In the pink scenario (below), I calculate funding for 2018 student load using current 2021 funding rates and no funding cap.

In the yellow scenario, I calculate funding for 2018 student load using current 2021 funding rates and with the funding cap in place at its 2021 value. I calculate how many places are no longer funded due to the operation of the cap using the average funding rate for all places.

In the blue scenario, I calculate how much the 2018 student load, combined with the growth in student places to 2024, would be worth in 2021 (in 2021 dollars) with the new Job-ready graduate funding rates.


The Conversation/Author provided, CC BY-ND

Comparing the pink and yellow scenarios

From 2018 to 2021, the funding cap has reduced university revenue by around $266 million, down to $12.6 billion. Using the average bachelor subsidy rate, around 23,000 student places are no longer subsidised.

Comparing the yellow and blue scenarios

University revenue declines by a further $0.5 billion to $12.1 billion. To earn this revenue, universities will have to provide around 11,700 more student places than in the yellow scenario.

Those 11,700 extra places arise from the Job-ready policy providing 3.5% growth for bachelor degrees at regional campuses, 2.5% for high-growth metropolitan campuses and 1% for low-growth metropolitan campuses.

The government is allocating other places to universities too (for national priorities, the University of Notre Dame Australia and Charles Sturt University’s medical school), but the total number of “new” places remains just over 15,000 – fewer than the 23,000 that have their funding taken away by the operation of the funding cap from 2018 to 2021.


Read more: The government is making ‘job-ready’ degrees cheaper for students – but cutting funding to the same courses


While universities lose around $0.5 billion in student place funding, they receive an extra $222 million as Industry Linkage funding. We are yet to find out what they need to do for that funding.

The government makes large savings from two sources – students and universities. On average it increases contributions from students and every extra student dollar reduces what the government pays. It also reduces funding overall to more closely align with discipline teaching costs. My model estimates it goes to 94% of its former value.

Total student contributions rise by around $564 million a year in the change from current to new Job-ready graduate rates. Students will pay an average of 48-49% of costs by 2024.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/hReb1/2/


The bottom line

Over the period from December 2017 to 2024, the government will deliver itself an annual saving of around $988 million. Around $266 million is from capping the system over the four years 2018 to 2021. Around $722 million is from the Job-ready policies.

Student choices will be little affected by changing student contribution levels, due to our income-contingent loan system, but restoring indexation of student subsidies is sensible policy. The lack of growth in student places into the future is not. It is essentially a policy to reduce higher education attainment levels.

Mark Warburton, Honorary Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

Latest $84 million cuts rip the heart out of the ABC, and our democracy (from The Conversation)

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Alexandra Wake, RMIT University and Michael Ward, University of Sydney

At the height of the coronavirus emergency, and on the back of devastating bushfires, Australia’s much awarded and trusted national broadcaster has again been forced to make major cuts to staff, services and programs. It is doing so to offset the latest $84 million budget shortfall as a result of successive cuts from the Coalition government.

In the latest cuts, wrapped up as part of the national broadcaster’s five-year plan,

  • 250 staff will lose their jobs
  • the major 7:45am news bulletin on local radio has been axed
  • ABC Life has lost staff but somehow expanded to become ABC Local
  • independent screen production has been cut by $5 million
  • ABC News Channel programming is still being reviewed.

Even the travel budget, which allows journalists and storytellers to get to places not accessible by others, has been cut by 25%.

These are just the latest in a long list of axed services, and come off the back of the federal government’s indexation freeze.

Announced in 2018, that freeze reduced the ABC budget by $84 million over three years and resulted in an ongoing reduction of $41 million per annum from 2022.


Read more: The ABC didn’t receive a reprieve in the budget. It’s still facing staggering cuts


The indexation freeze is part of ongoing reductions to ABC funding that total $783 million since 2014. In an email to staff, Managing Director David Anderson said the cut to the ABC in real terms means operational funding will be more than 10% lower in 2021–22 than it was in 2013.

To be fair, the way in which the ABC executive has chosen to execute the latest cuts does make some sense, pivoting more towards digital and on-demand services. Right now, the commuting audience that has long listened to the 7:45am bulletin is clearly changing habits. However, with widespread closures of newspapers across the nation, the need for independent and trusted news in depth, that is not online has never been more important.

ABC Life is a particular loss. It has built an extremely diverse reporting team, reaching new audiences, and winning over many ABC supporters and others who were initially sceptical. The work they produced certainly wasn’t the type commercial operators would create.

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic has slashed Australia’s commercial media advertising revenues. But the problems in the media are a result of years of globalisation, platform convergence and audience fragmentation. In such a situation, Australia’s public broadcasters should be part of the solution for ensuring a diverse, vibrant media sector. Instead, it continues to be subject to ongoing budget cuts.

Moreover, at a time when the public really cannot afford to be getting their news from Facebook or other social media outlets, cutting 250 people who contribute to some of Australia’s most reliable and quality journalism and storytelling – and literally saving lives during the bushfires – appear to be hopelessly shortsighted.

The latest Digital News Report 2020 clearly showed the ABC is the media outlet Australians trust the most.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/EjTOV/1/

These latest cuts join a long list of axed services in the past seven years. They include

While not everyone will miss every program or service that has gone, and even with its occasional missteps, there is no doubt the ABC is the envy of the liberal democracies that do not have publicly funded assets, particularly the United States.

Has the ABC’s budget been increased?

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has continued to suggest the funding cuts are not real, are sustainable without service reductions for Australians, and has claimed the ABC has received “increased funding”.

The minister’s comments are not consistent with data we published last year based on the government’s own annual budget statements and the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC.


Read more: A tale of two media reports: one poses challenges for digital media; the other gives ABC and SBS a clean bill of health


The government argues base or departmental funding is higher in 2020-21 than it was in 2013-14. The relevant budget papers do show that in 2013-14, the ABC was allocated $865 million for “general operational activities”. The most recent budget statement shows this has increased to $878 million in 2020-21.

So how can it be the ABC budget shows this increase when we have been arguing they are facing an overall cut?

First, we noted last year the complexity of the budget process, which means, for example, the reinstatement of short-term funding can be counted as extra funds, or the ending of such funds, while reducing an agency budget, will not appear as a reduction in allocation.

Second, the 2020-21 ABC budget reflects the inclusion of indexation for increases in CPI-related costs between 2013-14 and 2018-19. This is the funding that is being halted until at least 2021-22.

So despite statements to the contrary, nothing can change the fact the ABC has suffered massive cuts in recent years. The data published last year showed the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC, with an annual cost to its budget in 2020-21 of $116 million. As the table below shows, taking into account actual budget allocations and adding the items cut, frozen or otherwise reduced, the ABC should have funding of approximately $1.181 billion in 2020-21, not the $1.065 billion it will receive.

It is against this background the latest funding freeze, due to a failure to meet the impact of inflation costs, occurs. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, the three year impact is $84 million, and has resulted in the cuts announced today.

But more importantly, these ongoing cuts represent an attack by the federal government on the broadcaster, its role in democracy, and in keeping Australians safe, informed and entertained.

Alexandra Wake, Program Manager, Journalism, RMIT University and Michael Ward, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

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

View from The Hill: Tehan’s student fees are not just about jobs, but about funding and a dash of ideology too (from The Conversation)

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s higher education changes, announced last week, appear driven by three factors. How you judge the result will depend on where you sit.

In sum, the shake up will reduce student fees for courses in areas the government identifies as potentially job-rich and increase them for the humanities and certain other courses to produce a result that’s funding-neutral for the government.

The first driver of the policy is the surge in demand for places. This is coming both from what’s dubbed “the Costello baby boom” (“have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country,” Peter Costello said when treasurer) and from the COVID-flattened economy, which will stop many young people taking a gap year.

The government wants to manage this pressure without having to fork out more money.

Secondly, the changes reflect Scott Morrison’s overwhelming preoccupation with jobs. This is the main element in both his rhetoric and his policy across government. When he announced recently the national cabinet would be made permanent, he said its singular focus would be jobs.


Read more: Fee cuts for nursing and teaching but big hikes for law and humanities in package expanding university places


While it is understandable that at the moment most issues are being seen through the employment prism, in the longer term a government’s lens should be wider. Work (with the opportunity to obtain it) is critical to the well-being of the individual and the community. At the same time it is not everything, certainly not if people are to have rounded and fulfilling lives.

Finally, there does seem to be an ideological tinge to the policy, notably in the treatment of the humanities. The cost for these courses will rise by a massive 113%. This compares with hikes of 28% for law and commerce.

There is an anti-intellectual streak in this government, with ministers unsympathetic towards universities, which many of them see as breeding grounds for left-leaning activists. Education Minister Dan Tehan, for one, has been very critical of what he has identified as curbs on free speech in the universities.

This government and its prime minister are a very long way from Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies’s views. Menzies saw as one of his major achievements the expansion of Australia’s universities, and he had a broad view of higher education.

David Furse-Roberts wrote in a Quadrant article titled, “A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education”: “Far from functioning merely as utilitarian “degree factories” to churn out the greatest volume of graduates, Menzies esteemed universities as the great nurseries of civilisation. In addition to equipping undergraduates with essential training and vocational skills, the university would serve to cultivate the character of students and encourage them to seek truth and beauty in their chosen discipline.“

Menzies strongly defended the humanities (although it has been noted the “humanities” as taught in universities of his day looked rather different from much of today’s content). And, it should be added, universities then did not teach the wide range of vocational courses they do today.

The Morrison government takes a basically “utilitarian” view of universities. Indeed, universities have made themselves very utilitarian, as they have transformed into giant businesses – substantially in response to governments of both persuasions pushing them on the revenue front.

This strengthened the Australian economy, as higher education ballooned into a massive export sector.

But COVID has brought home the over-dependence of our universities on foreign students, for many thousands of whom they are now desperately trying to find a passage back.

It is not just the financial position of institutions that has been compromised by excessive reliance on overseas students, who pay so much more than the domestic cohort.

So have some academic standards, although this is not often publicly admitted. One hears frequent complaints, for example, from domestic students who find themselves working (and assessed) in groups with overseas students who have limited English language skills. And some staff feel under the pump to pass foreign students.

The COVID crisis should mark a point where universities take stock of how they are managing the trade offs between foreign income on the one hand and educational standards and the needs of domestic students on the other.

Coming back to the Tehan package for domestic students, the reaction has been predictably diverse, according to how various stakeholders see it affecting them. The winners are applauding; the losers cross.


Read more: Humanities graduates earn more than those who study science and maths


In terms of its broad effects Andrew Norton, professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University, believes it will not alter students’ choices substantially.

He tells The Conversation that student course choices are primarily driven by their interests. For most of them, that includes the career they hope for after finishing their degree. Students with firm goals would not change a fundamental life choice due to a change in fees, he says. Students who are less clear about exactly what kind of job they want after finishing their career will only choose within their range of interests.

Norton argues that if some students are not aware of courses that might interest them, then improved careers advice and course marketing would be a better solution than shuffling hundreds of millions of dollars in student payments between courses.

He says the changes raise questions of fairness. While those benefitting from lower fees, such as students undertaking teaching and nursing, will pay off their student debts more quickly than under the current system, those graduating from the humanities could be saddled with debt for decades. “This mix of windfall gains and heavy new debt burdens seems unnecessary to achieve the policy goal of improving graduate employment outcomes.”

The government will need to get its changes through the Senate. When it launched a sweeping plan to deregulate fees some years ago, it could not obtain parliamentary approval. It stresses this is not deregulation, but whether it will be more successful with this proposal remains to be seen.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

If more of us work from home after coronavirus we’ll need to rethink city planning (from The Conversation)

Halfpoint/Shutterstock

John L Hopkins, Swinburne University of Technology

We have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of people working from home as directed by governments and employers around the world to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

If, as some expect, people are likely to work from home more often after the pandemic, what will this mean for infrastructure planning? Will cities still need all the multibillion-dollar road, public transport, telecommunications and energy projects, including some already in the pipeline?


Read more: Flexible working, the neglected congestion-busting solution for our cities


World’s largest work-from-home experiment

Remote working was steadily on the rise well before COVID-19. But the pandemic suddenly escalated the trend into the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment”. Many people who have had to embrace remote working during the pandemic might not want to return to the office every day once restrictions are lifted.

They might have found some work tasks are actually easier to do at home. Or they (and their employers) might have discovered things that weren’t thought possible to do from home are possible. They might then question why they had to go into the workplace so often in the first place.

But what impact will this have on our cities? After all, many aspects of our cities were designed with commuting, not working from home, in mind.


Read more: Coronavirus could spark a revolution in working from home. Are we ready?


Stress test for NBN and energy networks

From a telecommunications perspective, the huge increase in people working from home challenges the ways in which our existing networks were designed.

Data from Aussie Broadband show evening peak broadband use has increased 25% during the shutdown. Additional daytime increases are expected due to home schooling with term 2 starting.

Research by the then federal Department of Communications in 2018 estimated the average Australian household would need a maximum download speed of 49Mbps during peak-use times by 2026. If more people work from home after COVID-19, the size and times of peak use might need to be recalculated.

Another factor not modelled by the government research was the potential impact of an increase in uploads. This is a typical requirement for people working from home, as they now send large files via their suburban home networks, rather than their office networks in the city.


Read more: Coronavirus: telcos are picking up where the NBN is failing. Here’s what it means for you


Recent research by Octopus Energy in the UK has found domestic energy use patterns have also changed since COVID-19. With more people working from home, domestic energy use in the middle of the day is noticeably higher. Some 30% of customers use an average of 1.5kWh more electricity between 9am and 5pm.

Conversely, data from the US show electricity use in city centres and industrial areas has declined over the same period.

Less commuting means less congestion

Closer to home, new data from HERE Technologies illustrate just how much traffic congestion has eased.

Thursday afternoons from 5-5.15pm are normally the worst time of the week for traffic congestion in Melbourne. Last week the city’s roads recorded the sort of free-flowing traffic usually seen at 9.30am on a Sunday. Just 1.8% of Melbourne’s major roads were congested, a fraction of the usual 19.8% at that time.

All of Australia’s major cities are experiencing similar reductions. Transurban has reported traffic is down 43% on the Melbourne airport toll road, 29% on its Sydney roads and 27% in Queensland.

Passengers are also staying away from public transport in droves. For example, South Australian government statistics for Adelaide show passenger numbers have slumped by 69% for buses, by 74% for trains and by 77% for trams, compared with this time last year.


Read more: For public transport to keep running, operators must find ways to outlast coronavirus


What does this mean for infrastructure planning?

With these trends in mind, future investment in roads, public transport, energy and telecommunications will need to consider the likelihood of more people working from home.

Prior to COVID-19, Melbourne research found 64% of city workers regularly worked from home, but usually only one day a week, even though 50% of their work could be done anywhere. While the changes we are now seeing are a result of extreme circumstances, it is not inconceivable that, on average, everybody could continue to work from home one extra day per week after the pandemic. Even this would have significant implications for long-term urban planning.

The most recent Australian Census data show 9.2 million people typically commute to work each day. If people worked from home an average of one extra day per week, this would take 1.8 million commuters off the roads and public transport each day.

Many road and public transport projects will be based on forecasts of continuing increases in commuter numbers. If, instead, people work from home more often, this could call into question the need for those projects.

Areas outside city centres would also require more attention, as working from home creates a need for more evenly distributed networks of services for the likes of energy and telecommunications. Interestingly, such a trend could support long-term decentralisation plans, like those outlined in Melbourne’s Metropolitan Planning Strategy. And if such change encourages more people to live away from the big cities, it also could help to make housing more affordable.


Read more: Fancy an e-change? How people are escaping city congestion and living costs by working remotely


John L Hopkins, Innovation Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

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

Now Australian cities are choking on smoke, will we finally talk about climate change? (from The Conversation)

 

Blanche Verlie, University of Sydney

I moved to Sydney less than five weeks ago and the city has been shrouded in smoke haze on and off since then. I joke this is my “Sydney hazing” but it’s only now – having worked on climate change for over a decade – that I’m suddenly feeling burnt out. This is not in any way to compare my experience to those who have lost their homes, communities and loved ones to the bushfires.

But the smoke cuts through Australia’s clouds of climate denial that pretend we are neither vulnerable nor responsible.




Read more:
Australia needs stricter rules to curb air pollution, but there’s a lot we could all do now


We often refer to the “atmosphere” and “climate” of a particular space or community. We can be “on cloud nine”, “under the weather”, or “snowed under”. We know the weather affects people’s moods. My research, and that from a range of disciplines, is increasingly finding that human emotional, social and embodied experiences are intimately related to the weather and climate.

So, might people’s climate concern be changing now Sydney and Canberra have air quality on a par with Delhi?

Psychological smokescreens

Research is mixed on how extreme weather changes people’s perspectives on climate change. After severe storms and floods hit the UK in 2013 and 2014, scientists found those directly affected were more worried about climate change and supported climate change policies beyond direct, flood-related mitigation.

On the other hand, climate-change sceptics polled in the US in 2011 were more likely to recall the summer of 2010-11 as a normal one, despite record-breaking heatwaves across the northern hemisphere.

Some research has suggested climate change can prompt “information aversion”, where we actively or subconsciously avoid distressing facts and construct a safer, more comforting narrative.




Read more:
Air pollution may be affecting how happy you are


This tendency may be what drives such bracing platitudes as: “Australia is a sunburnt country”; “We’ve always had fires”; “Us Aussies are tough!”

A few face masks aside, the majority of us in Australia’s smoky cities have appeared to continue with business as usual: people just keep going to work. But I hope that, below this surface, the lingering taste of char at the back of our throats is sparking a change in the political atmosphere.

Igniting political change

No one should tell you how to feel about climate change, but I can tell you that you have a right to feel angry and sad. It is normal to feel overwhelmed – a word that once meant being literally inundated by water – in a world with rising seas and increasing floods.

Relatedly, droughts can leave us feeling drained. Awakening and sitting with these feelings is really important, but it’s also crucial not to dwell in despair.




Read more:
The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too


The social atmosphere is changing, of course: over the last year, around the world, we have seen millions of people take to the streets demanding stronger action on climate change. Our Aussie kids have been leaders in this regard.

Research and polling consistently find the majority of Australians are highly concerned about climate change and would back government policies to rapidly decarbonise the economy.

But research also tells us hardly anyone talks about their climate concern. For example, a recent study from Yale University found only 18% of Americans hear people they know talking about climate change once a month or more. It makes sense: climate change is scary and has become highly politicised, meaning it is hard to know where to start, what to say, or who to talk to.

While this is a coping mechanism to try to protect ourselves emotionally, these norms work to deny the significance of climate change, prevent useful personal and social introspection and stall community action.

So how do we create a change in the political climate? Those of us for whom a smoky city is our only tangible experience, so far, of climate change, need to step up and demand our government not only meet minimum international obligations, but become the renewable energy and climate policy leaders we could be. We also need to talk about climate change more: with our friends, families, peers and communities.




Read more:
Expect family talks about climate change this Christmas? Take tips from Greta Thunberg


Discussing the fires last week, one colleague mentioned she was fuming. This struck me as an empathetic echo of the smouldering state of our regional communities. My favourite sign from the school strikes has been “As oceans rise, so do we”. And now, I’d like to add, “As fires rage, so do we”.The Conversation

Blanche Verlie, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney

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

How drought is affecting water supply in Australia’s capital cities (from The Conversation)

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Western Sydney University

The level of water stored by Australia’s capital cities has steadily fallen over the last six years. They are now collectively at 54.6% of capacity – a decline of 30% from 2013.

We’re going into a hot summer and Sydney has just announced level 2 restrictions, the toughest for any capital. Data from the Bureau of Meteorology shows other capital cities facing mixed results.

The results show that Darwin’s water supply has lost about 25% over the last year. On the plus side, Melbourne’s supply actually increased over 2019, having fallen below 50% earlier this year, and now sits on 63.9%.

While the national average is trending downwards, the patterns for each city are very different. Sydney and Perth water supplies have had contrasting journeys over the last six years. In October 2013 Perth’s supply was a very low 33.8% and Sydney was a comfortable 91%.

Now, for the first time in many years Perth does not have Australia’s lowest level of all capital city water storages. As of last week, Sydney has taken this unwanted distinction from Perth.

For Perth residents, the news is good as their surface water storages are at a six-year high of 46.4%. In Sydney they are worried, as they have a six-year low of 46.2%.

Sydney has experienced a steep decline over the last 30 months, from nearly full storages (96%) in April 2017. The speed and severity of the Sydney drought is starting to resemble previous dry spells. One was in the 1940s and the other was the Millennium drought.

Perth has lived with the most water stress of any capital city. They have had to contend with a steady 45-year decline in rain. The inflow of water into Perth’s dams has also fallen dramatically.

Perth has adapted to its drying climate by sourcing water from many different supplies. It now uses its surface water storages for about 10% of its water supply. Much larger proportions of Perth’s supply comes from its two desalination plants, which unlike the other capitals are constantly in operation. It makes greater use of groundwater and highly treated recycled water. Perth also has permanent water restrictions.

Sydney’s desalination plant, after hibernating for 7 years, is now supplying water. It was switched on in late January 2019 when Sydney supply hit 60%, and can supply 15% of water demand. Unusually perhaps, the desalinated water does not reach all parts of Sydney.

Sydney Water has announced plans to double the capacity of the desalination plant. Construction is expected to begin soon.

Melbourne and Brisbane water supplies are currently at similar levels. However, since 2013 Melbourne’s storages have generally been lower than Brisbane’s. Melbourne’s supply has risen in 2019 after good winter rainfall in its catchments. The storages have increased from under 50% (49.6%) in late May 2019. Today, Brisbane storage levels are now at 59.2%.

Melbourne residents use less water than the other capital cities. In 2018 the average Melbourne resident used 161 litres per day, approximately 30% less than Sydney residents.

Melbourne’s supplies have also been supplemented with the reactivation of its Wonthaggi desalination plant in 2019. It is Australia’s largest desalination plant, capable of producing 410 million litres a day.




Read more:
Why Sydney residents use 30% more water per day than Melburnians


Brisbane also built a desalination plant after the Millennium Drought. In addition, they also made very large investments in Australia’s largest waste water recycling scheme. The Western Corridor recycled water scheme opened in 2008, cost $2.5 billion and features three advanced waste water treatment plants, with more than 200 km of pipelines and three advanced waste water treatment plants.

Hobart, Darwin and Canberra are the three Australian capital cities without desalination plants. Canberra has had a steady decline in its supply over three years. It was full in October 2016, gradually dropping to 51.6% in November 2019. Hobart’s storages were above 80% for most of the last six years. They were just above 90% 12 months ago and have since fallen to their current level of 72%.




Read more:
Fish kills and undrinkable water: here’s what to expect for the Murray Darling this summer


Darwin’s water supply was full as recently as April 2018. Now, 18 months later, it is just touching 54%. This is its lowest level in six years. Darwin, our tropical capital, has the most seasonal rainfall of Australia’s capitals. Typically, they have almost no rain June to September during their dry season, and a wet season of heavy rains from October to April.
However, the last wet season was one of the driest on record.

Adelaide’s water storage has fluctuated over the last 6 years. Adelaide gets more rain in winter and has dry summers, an opposite pattern to that of Darwin. Over the last 3 years the level has dropped from over 97% in October 2017 to just below 58%.




Read more:
Up the creek: the $85 million plan to desalinate water for drought relief


The desalination plant in Adelaide can supply up to 50% of its water supply. It has been operating in 2019, although not in the wetter months of July and August. The Murray also continues to supply a large proportion of Adelaide’s water supply. The Commonwealth has agreed to use drought funding for the Adelaide desalination plant, so more river water can be used by farmers upstream to grow fodder for livestock.

Australia is set for a dryer and hotter summer than average, particularly in the east. Coupled with continued high levels of household demand, we can expect further declines in water storage levels through the first half of 2020.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University and Jason Reynolds, Research Lecturer in Geochemistry, Western Sydney University

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

 

Australia’s populist moment has arrived (from The Conversation)

Australia’s populist moment has arrived

File 20190225 26177 1lt7ar5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Good economic times have allowed us to become complacent, meaning conditions are ripe.
Shutterstock

Warren Hogan, University of Technology Sydney

This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


Populism is driven by the view that everyday people are suffering economic hardship as the corporate and political elites prosper. A sense of rising inequality and injustice is the foundation stone of populist rhetoric.

In Australia, the financial services royal commission has lent credence to these concerns across a large part of the Australian community. Its hearings and reports give weight to the view that Australia’s middle and working classes have been systematically ripped off by their financial service providers.

What is of concern for us here in Australia is not so much the lightning rod that has been the findings of the royal commission, but the prospect of much harder economic times ahead.

Australia is not used to tough economic times. It has been 27 years since our last major recession. In the past 26 years, the annual average unemployment rate has climbed on only five occasions. It has been steady or fallen in 21 of the past 26 years.

The economic tide could well turn against us over the next three years. This, as much as anything, will give vigour to the kinds of populist voices that are wreaking so much havoc in other Western societies right now.

Populism is toxic to democratic societies. It preys on people’s worst fears and appeals to their darker instincts. Populism brings poor policy decisions and entrenches political dysfunction.

We are already seeing the effects that growing discontent with the major parties has on our political system. A surge of support for populist candidates and parties will magnify these problems.

Australian populism

Defining the concerns of populism is a tricky business. The most common is that economic and political elites benefit at the expense of the public, whether that be because the system is rigged against them or because those elites break social convention and even the laws to extract from the rest.

An extension of this perennial theme is that the elites, particularly in the business world, get away with it. The authorities do not pursue them and they are rarely held to account by the law.

Populism tends to be cultivated in an environment of poor economic performance and is exacerbated by growing inequality, real or perceived.

Australia’s democracy has a long history of stable centrist parties dominating the parliament and public policy. Since our Federation in 1901, the two or three major parties at the time of each federal election have averaged about 90% of the primary vote.

These moderate tendencies are regarded as a hallmark of our nation, and key to the resilience of Australia as a society. But, as the accompanying chart shows, there have been periods when voters have drifted away from the major parties with considerable enthusiasm.



For the first 30 years of our federal parliament, minor parties and independent candidates captured just 5% of the vote on average. The peripheral candidates were just that; peripheral and insignificant. That all changed in the 1931 election with the onset of The Great Depression and lasted right through to the second world war.

We experienced another extended period of major party dominance in the 1950s and the 1960s. In the 1970s a rising share of the vote started going outside the major parties and this has continued to this day. We now are in a situation where minor party and independent support is near the levels seen at the height of the Great Depression.

There also appears to be a greater polarisation within the major parties, particularly when they are in government. Not a single prime minister elected in the past decade has survived his or her first term of office – an unattractive milestone for a relatively young democracy.

Populism is always lurking below the surface of Australian society. It rears its head from time to time, but the broader community is pretty good at resisting its urges. A strong economy and low unemployment are critical ingredients in this success.




Read more:
What actually is populism? And why does it have a bad reputation?


It could be argued that Australia is less susceptible to populism than other Western democracies. Just look at the contrast between what has happened here in the past ten years and the experiences of the United States or Europe.

Sure, the minor party vote has increased and some of that has been to candidates pushing a populist agenda. But these forces have largely operated at the margins of Australia’s policy agenda.

Complacency is dangerous

The once-in-a-century commodity boom supported our economy through both the global financial crisis and its destructive aftermath. It was a luxury not afforded the US or Europe.

The end of the mining boom was greeted by a residential construction boom. That too looks like concluding. The forces of weak income growth, high debt levels and sluggish economic activity are upon us.

Income and output growth are going to be much harder to come by in Australia in the years ahead. We cannot assume that just because we have avoided a significant recession for 27 years, we will avoid another one.

The last thing the Australian economy needs in this environment is greater political discord.




Read more:
Rise in protest votes sounds warning bell for major parties


The major parties’ share of the vote is already at post-war lows. A new wave of populism that takes the vote of “others” to further heights could have serious consequences for effective management of our economy.

We have an open economy heavily burdened with debt and reliant on immigration and trade to provide a healthy underpinning to future economic growth. We don’t know how our economy would cope with a reversal of these key pillars of our modern prosperity.

Curtailing populist anger is a priority

Whether we like it or not, the evidence of misconduct in the financial services industry has become a flashpoint for popular discontent within Australia.

The financial services industry most certainly is not the root of all economic evil in our society, but that is irrelevant to the public mood and those who seek to take advantage of it.

The fact that the royal commission has laid bare such widespread abuse of market power means that right now the banking industry is the prime example of elites taking advantage of everyday people. Its extraordinary revelations have left Australians in a state of shock.

The broader community wants action, not just to prevent what was uncovered happening again, but to make sure that the people responsible are held accountable for the damage done.

Real or imagined, a lack of genuine accountability will mean people lose faith in the capacity of mainstream political forces and institutions to serve the broader community.

What is to be done?

If the moderate forces that operate in our parliament and government institutions are not seen to be delivering for the broader community, people will justifiably look elsewhere.

The immediate priority is to act following the final report from the royal commission. Commissioner Kenneth Hayne has made it perfectly clear that it is the role of the regulators, specifically the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

There is every likelihood that more dangerous economic waters lie ahead. Policymakers will need to be both decisive and agile to deal with the malaise, whatever form it takes.

We are not facing a new financial crisis, at least we hope we are not. We don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at the economy right now. But the government we elect will have to work closely with the parliament and our key economic institutions to guide the country through new and uncertain economic times.

An effective parliament will be more important than ever.




Read more:
The end of uncertainty? How the 2019 federal election might bring stability at last to Australian politics


The Conversation


Warren Hogan, Industry Professor, University of Technology Sydney

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