Tag Archives: Climate Change

Frostpunk – surviving a virtual cold snap

Over the past few days, I have been watching Christopher Odd play Frostpunk. Developed by Warsaw based 11 bit studios, the game is essentially a city-building simulator. However, game’s story centres around a small group of people who are trying to survive a very severe coldsnap. As a captain of this band of survivors, your goal is to ensure that your city has adequate shelter, food, medical care and most importantly, warmth.

Frostpunk is a city building simulator where the ultimate goal is to survive a global glaciation. (11 bit studios, 2018)

Watching the gameplay, two underlying environmental themes strongly stood out for me. The first was climate change. Although the game was unclear at the start about the cause of the coldsnap, there were some hints along the way with mentions of ‘global glaciation’ the ‘north-pole’. There are two theories among climate scientists that could actually lead to an actual global coldsnap. The first is the shutting down of the great ocean conveyor belt that helps circulate ocean temperatures. And the second paradoxically, can be caused by the warming of the Poles. As the Poles warm, the polar vortex (area of cold trapped in the atmosphere) weakens and the changes in air pressure led to the trapped cold escaping south.

In fact, earlier this year, Europe experienced an unusual, week long coldsnap that brought snow from the North-pole to as far as the Mediterranean. A number of people died, including in Poland where temperatures plunged to as low as -20 degrees. To help the most vulnerable such as the elderly and the homeless cope with the weather, emergency shelters were built across many European cities. In Greece and Italy, many Syrian refugees living in shelters reportedly died of hypothermia and many had to be moved to heated tents to prevent further loss of lives. The popular belief was that the coldsnap was due to a weakening of the Arctic polar vortex.

Frostpunk’s virtual world (perhaps inspired by the European coldsnap) is very, very cold, with temperatures ranging from -40 to -70 degrees (even colder). The deep snow and ice makes the world predominantly white. Trees are hard to comeby and the ones that are found in the game have no leaves and lean with the wind. To survive, the limited amounts of timber, coal and steel need to be harvested and used to build houses, medical facilities, streets, steam heaters and mess halls.

The second environmental theme evident in Frostpunk is overpopulation. As the city grows, more streets are built, the houses get bigger. To maintain warmth, more coal needs to be consumed and the chimneys and steam towers subsequently spew more smog into the atmosphere. Difficult decisions need to be made to keep your population safe as resources continue to dwindle. Do you burn your precious coal to keep the medical tents warm for the night or do you use the coal to keep the kitchen going? Failing to do so leads to hunger, illness and even death.

As your city grows, so does the use of scarce resources such as coal. As temperatures drop, more coal is needed to keep warm resulting in smog. (11 bit studios, 2018)

Watching Frostpunk made me wonder what we would do if we were in a similar situation. How would city and government officials prioritise precious resources? And more importantly, what will our society look like if we were to experience a global, natural disaster? Perhaps we will have to introduce new ethical and moral norms to survive. Even if they are controversial by today’s standards such as passing laws to legalise child labour (like Christopher Odd).

The team at 11-bit studios has done a marvellous job in portraying a virtual world built on environmental themes such as climate change and overpopulation. Frostpunk was compelling, beautiful and challenging and it once again reinforces the brilliant and powerful medium for storytelling provided by video games. I hope 11 bit studios continues to explore more environmental issues through this platform.


Cryoconites and climate change

Cryoconite refers to soot, dust and other particulate matter (such as heavy metal pollutants) that has landed on snow and ice. They can occur naturally from activities such as dust-storms, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. They can also be due to human activities such as coal mining, manufacturing operations, land-clearing and desertification. Once liberated, the small particles are carried by air and ocean currents around the world and deposited in some of the most remote polar and mountainous regions of the world.

Despite their ubiquity, the impact of cryoconites in the climate change saga has remained largely understated. However, with more and more effort directed towards mitigating and adapting to global climate change, cryoconites have started attracting the attention they deserve as a key player.

This is because cryoconites have been found to accelerate the impacts of climate change. The small particles of dust and soot reduces albedo – or natural reflectivity of snow and ice. Earth’s polar, snow and ice-covered regions act like natural mirrors by reflect incoming solar radiation back into space. Snow has an albedo of 0.9 while sea-ice has an albedo of 0.8. This mean that they reflect 90% and 80% of sunlight respectively.

Cryoconites blanket the snow and accelerate melting. Reproduced from The Guardian 2015. Image credit: Daniel Beltra

By contrast, snow and ice that has been discoloured by cryoconites can have an albedo as low as 0.2 (or even lower). The low reflectivity of the darker areas means that the absorb more heat from sunlight and melt much quicker compared to brighter areas. As the particles heat up they form small water-filled holes which further adds to the impacts of climate change. It creates a ‘positive feedback’ loop as the water (sea-water has an albedo of 0.06) absorbs more heat from the sun and accelerates the melting process. In some areas, these holes aggregate and form large pools and streams.

Known as ‘moulins’, the fast flowing melt-water carves its way through the surface of the snow and ice. Eventually, the melt-water burrows through the thick ice and reaches the bottom where it acts like a lubricant making it easier for larger bodies of snow and ice to slide, often into the sea.

The melting snow and ice can aggregate together to form large bodies of water. Reproduced from The Guardian (2015). Image credit: Daniel Beltra

Although the loss of sea-ice, snow and glaciers often happen in remote places, their loss has the potential for widespread ecological, cultural and geopolitical ramifications. Greenland, for example is losing an estimated 250 billion tonnes of ice per year. If it was to melt completely, global sea-levels would rise by about six metres. Further, the latest data indicates that the volume of water melting in Greenland caused the underlying tectonic plate to warp. On the opposite end of the world, scientists are concerned about West Antarctic Ice Sheet (known as Larsen C) breaking off. In a matter of days, the rift that is causing the ice-sheet to weaken grew by 11 km.

The Larsen C ice-shelf on the West coast of Antarctica is at risk of breaking off. Reproduced from NASA (2016). Image credit: John Sonntag

If the worst case scenario is realised, then the boundaries of many nations will need to be re-drawn. For some nations such as Tuvalu, the Maldives, and the Kiribati the rising sea-levels are already a fact of life. Wealthy nations with large coastal cities are also expected to suffer. Livelihoods which are intimately dependent on the rivers and streams that are fed by glacial melt such as the Mekong, Yangtze and the Ganges will be lost as the snow and ice retreat. And finally, considering that snow and ice account for 75% of global freshwater, their loss will undermine future resource and food security.

In light of the above, there are a number of strategies that have been put forward to drastically reduce the amount of cryoconites being produced due to human activities. Some strategies to do so include:

  • Setting higher vehicle emission standards
  • Using public transport
  • Promoting the rapid transition away from fossil fuels
  • Encouraging the government to stop the development of new open-cut mines
  • Stopping excessive tree-clearing, particularly, in NSW and QLD
  • Supporting and taking part in tree planting activities
  • Managing large-scale forest (bush) fires

Cryoconites have long remained on the backstage as the world grappled and continues to grapple with mitigating human induced climate change. However, their presence in snow and ice-covered regions of the world has been found to accelerate their loss. Thankfully, many of the strategies identified to address climate change can also have a positive impact in reducing cryoconites.

Hunt’s strict conditions look good on paper

We all breathed a sigh of relief when Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership of Australia. A more progressive and articulate individual like Turnbull would no doubt bring about a much needed shift in the government’s recalcitrant approach to dealing with climate change and environmental issues. Even the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt appeared to soften his stance and began advocating the importance of a clean energy future. According to Hunt, there is now ‘no excuse’ not to embrace renewable technologies. He even asked ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to facilitate Australia’s transition to a low/zero carbon future.

Yesterday’s decision to re-approve Adani’s Carmichael mine by Minister Hunt in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, showed that we were both naive and misguided to think that there was a shift in the government’s approach to the environment and climate change. Regardless of how progressive the leadership seems to be, it appears that nothing will stand in the way of short-term economic gains. The Federal Government has even moved to amend the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) to ensure that such large projects are not delayed by litigation. In fact, it was Adani’s Carmichael mine that drew the government to undermine such an inherent democratic right.

Minister Hunt has justified his decision by stating that the approval has ‘36 of the strictest conditions in Australian history’. A closer examination of some of these ‘strict conditions’ indicates otherwise. For example, Adani is to return 730 million litres of water per annum to the Great Artesian Basin for the first five years of the mine’s operations. The problem is, the mine will require an estimated 297 billion litres of water per annum for operations. Significantly more than the amount being returned. Additionally, it is safe to assume that the quality of the water being returned to the Great Artesian Basin may not be the same. Considering that the mining licence is for 60 years, it can be argued that Minister Hunt’s ‘strict condition’ fails to properly address the magnitude of the mine’s potential impact(s) on water security.

Another ‘strict condition’, is that Adani is to set aside 31,000 hectares as offsets for mitigation against the impacts of the mine’s footprint. Further, Adani is to provide 1 million dollars over ten years towards the management of native flora and fauna. Of particular importance are habitats for the Yakka skink, the Ornamental snake and the Black throated finch. At a glance, this appears to be an excellent ‘counter-balance’, however, offsets often do not work, as nuanced features such as micro-climates, competition and food availability are extremely difficult to replicate. The sheer size of the mine (28, 000 hectares or seven times the size of Sydney harbour) is also a significant barrier to the flow of genetic material between many species living in the area. There are also no guarantees that the offset areas will remain untouched, given the Galilee Basin’s vast fossil fuel reserves. Indeed, a number of other so-called mega-mines are in the pipeline for the Galilee Basin. The cumulative impacts of these mines will be catastrophic both at a national and international scale.  

The ‘strict conditions’ do absolutely nothing to address the significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that will be generated from Adani’s coal mine. At peak operation, the mine is expected to export 60 million tonnes of coal to India per annum. Burning 60 million tonnes of coal will produce roughly 130 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. Again, it is important to emphasise that the mine will operate for 60 years. The approval by Minister Hunt therefore not only undermines Australia’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, but also global efforts to curb dangerous climate change.

These so-called ‘strict conditions’ appears to do very little to protect the environment, or build community confidence that the government has made the correct decision.  Minister Hunt’s decision is a lightning rod that will attract much scrutiny and legal challenges are already being weighed by some organisations. More broadly, the approval of Australia’s largest mine is a reflection of a system that is broken when it comes to balancing economic development and protecting the environment for future generations. No doubt, those (such as myself) who thought that Turnbull would bring about a more progressive approach to environmental issues are now more wary of his government.

(The author would like to acknowledge Peter Foster for his help in proof reading this article and providing suggestions)

(The author would also like to credit Eric Vanderduys for the image of the Yakka Skink used as the feature image. It was originally published by the Guardian Australia which can be viewed here.)

Dutch Court adds momentum to climate change

Yesterday, a District Court in the Netherlands passed a judgement that is still reverberating around the world. For the first time, a group of citizens have successfully sued their government for not doing enough to protect them from the threat of climate change. The argument put forward by Urgenda, the environmental NGO representing the citizens, was that the government has a legal obligation to protect its citizens. The District Court agreed and after hearing scientific evidence of the impacts of climate change, ruled that the Dutch Government must increase its national emissions reductions targets from 17% by 2020 to between 25 – 40% by 2020 (based on 1990 levels).

While the ruling by the court is legally binding, the Dutch Government can appeal the District Court’s decision. Regardless of whether an appeal is launched by the Dutch Government, the ruling will have global significance as it may inspire similar cases in other countries. The groundwork for this has been established by the Oslo Principles (2015) which highlights the ‘essential obligations’ that Governments have in averting dangerous climate change. Already, there are reports that a similar case is about to get underway in Belgium, with about nine thousand plaintiffs.

The decision further adds to the ripples that have recently been caused by the Pope’s encyclical. The leader of the Catholic Church has reached out to the millions of followers calling for a fundamental shift from the business as usual paradigm to environmental stewardship. While climate change has been singled out (whether correctly or not) from the Pope’s message, it is grounded within the wider context of factors contributing to the current ‘human crisis’.

On its own merit, the overall bearing of the Dutch Court’s decision on the upcoming global climate negotiations may be negligible. Governments may move swiftly to curb similar court cases within their own jurisdictions. But when the decision is viewed together with the Pope’s encyclical, and the divestment movement seems to indicate that the Paris negotiations might actually (and hopefully) workout.

Tony Abbott the hyper-conservative

The Australian Prime Minister’s ideological opposition to national and international action on addressing climate change has been long standing and constant. Here are the most memorable quotes by the Prime Minister on climate change, fossil fuels and the environment. And given that his government is only half way through its term in Parliament, no doubt, there will be more memorable quotes to add to the list below.

  1. “Coal is good for humanity” (Sydney Morning Herald, 13/10/14)
  2. “Coal is essential for the prosperity of the world” (The Guardian, 4/11/14)
  3. “We have too much locked up forests” (Sydney Morning Herald, 5/3/14)
  4. “I see people (the timber industry) who are the ultimate conservationists” (ABC, 5/3/14)
  5. “I regard myself as a conservationist” (Sydney Morning Herald, 13/6/14)
  6. “When i’ve been up close to wind farms, there’s no doubt, not only are they visually awful, they make a lot of noise” (Sydney Morning Herald, 13.6.15)
  7. “The Renewable Energy Target is very significantly driving up power prices” (Australian Financial Review, 2/7/14)
  8. “The science of human induced climate change is crap” (The Australian, 12/12/09)
  9. “It seems that, notwithstanding the dramatic increases in manmade carbon dioxide emissions over the last decade, the world’s warming has stopped” (Sun Herald, 5/1/10)

World Parks Congress – Day Two

Day two at the World Parks Congress saw the start of the first plenary sessions. Again, the session did not disappoint , with some very high level dignitaries taking to the stage.

The first speaker to take the stage was Professor Patrick Dodson who highlighted the importance of indigenous culture and tradition and conservation. According to Professor Dodson; ‘reconciliation of humans also means the reconciliation of nature’.

United Nations Under Secretary General and Executive Director of the UNEP, Achim Steiner also took to the stage. He also emphasized the relationship between people and nature and how indigenous peoples all around the world have been conservation managers for thousands of years.

Steiner also reinforced the message from the Durban conference in 2004, that the youth need to take center stage in the management of protected areas. What stood out most from his speech was the fact that the United Nations was revisiting the concept of sustainability in an effort to redefine it and make it more reflective of current environmental challenges.

However, it was the smaller Pacific nations that stole the show, challenging the larger, more wealthy nations to get their acts together.

Firstly, the President of Palau, announced that he was creating 500,000 km2 of marine sanctuaries (no commercial fishing) within Palau’s EEZ.

Followed by the President of Kiribati, who, together with the other heads of the small island Pacific nations, would move to create the largest network of marine parks in their region.

The final accolade is reserved for the crew of the Vaka. The sailors are composed entirely of members from various Pacific Island nations, who have been sailing in a traditional canoe all over the Pacific on their way to the WPC. On their way, they have been campaigning and collecting messages from Pacific Islanders.

The messages have culminated into what is now known as the Pacific Promise, which seeks to lobby the global community into acting on climate change. The exploits of the Vaka crew and the Pacific Promise led to a standing ovation from the crowd.


Celebrations at the Pacific stall in the main Congress Pavilion post plenary session