Not declaring the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ only postpones the inevitable

Originally published on


After much anticipation, the World Heritage Committee on Friday decided against listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

The decision ignored the recommendation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre — a recommendation based on analyses by Australian scientific experts of the reef’s declining condition.

In many ways, the outcome from the committee was expected. The Australian government fought very hard against this decision, including lobbying all the committee members, as it has done in previous years.

There was consensus among most of the 21 committee members to not apply the in-danger listing at this time. Instead, Australia has been requested to host a joint UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission to the reef and provide an updated report by February, 2022.

This decision has only postponed the inevitable. It does not change the irrefutable evidence that dangerous impacts are already occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. Some, such as coral bleaching and death from marine heatwaves, will continue to accelerate.

The reef currently meets the criteria for in-danger listing. That’s unlikely to improve within the next 12 months.

Read more:
The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain

Political distractions

Last month, the World Heritage Committee released its draft decision to list the reef as in-danger, noting the values for which the reef was internationally recognised had declined due to a wide range of factors. This includes water pollution and coral bleaching.

The draft decision had expressed concerns that Australia’s progress:

has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan [and the] deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the [Reef has] been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident.

A photo depicting two threats to the Great Barrier Reef: coal ships anchored near Abbot Point and a flood plume from the Burdekin River (February 2019); such plumes can carry pollutants and debris to the Great Barrier Reef.
Matt Curnock

In response, the government claimed it was “blindsided”, and said the UNESCO Secretariat hadn’t followed due process in recommending the decision. It also suggested there had been undue interference from China in making the draft recommendation.

These were political distractions from the real issues. During last night’s debate, one committee member strongly refuted the claims about interference from China and expressed concerns the dialogue had become unnecessarily politicised.

Following the draft decision, the intense campaign to reverse the decision began, with environment minister Sussan Ley undertaking a whirlwind visit to numerous countries to meet with ambassadors.

Read more:
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. There are a whopping 45 reasons why

The government even hosted international ambassadors from 13 countries and the EU, taking them on a snorkelling trip. And it reported an increase in coral cover over the past two years as good news, ignoring the fact the assessment had cautioned the recovery was driven by weedy coral species most vulnerable to future climate impacts.

This wasn’t the first time Australia has undertaken significant levels of diplomatic lobbying of World Heritage Committee members to gain support for its position.

In 1999, Australia also strongly opposed the recommended in-danger listing of Kakadu National Park, following the Jabiluka mine proposal. This led to an extraordinary meeting of the committee being convened in Paris, specifically to discuss this matter.

Australia is expected to hand in an updated report on the reef in February 2022.

More focus on climate change

During its current meeting, the World Heritage Committee approved the draft UNESCO Climate Action Policy, which will guide the protection and conservation of World Heritage sites.

This policy will be ratified at the UN General Assembly later this year, but the fact it’s still a draft was one of several excuses the Australian government made as to why the reef should not be “singled out”.

The reef is one of the most iconic marine protected areas on the planet. Given Australia continues to have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world, and has more capacity to address climate change than most other countries, it makes sense for the spotlight to be on Australia’s actions.

Marine heatwaves and water pollution are major threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

Not surprisingly, climate change was the central issue during the committee’s debate last night. UNESCO is now more focused on climate change than ever before, recognising the “window of opportunity to act” is now.

The delegates broadly agreed climate change remains the most serious threat, not just to the Great Barrier Reef but also to many other iconic World Heritage properties. Venice, for example, also dodged a potential in-danger listing at this meeting.

Rather than making challenging decisions now, it’s clear the committee is simply kicking the can down the road.

Some committee members remarked during the meeting about the need to “maintain the credibility of the Convention” and acknowledged that the world is watching. The spotlight on the reef, and on Australia, will only intensify in coming years.

The government’s own report from 2019 shows many of the values for which the reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981 have declined in recent decades. Yet every delay weakens Australia’s claim it is doing all it can to protect the reef.

Later this year, the next major international climate summit will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, where even more attention will be placed on Australia’s inadequate actions.

An in-danger listing is not a punishment

It’s important to remember that throughout the meeting, UNESCO and the committee made it clear an in-danger listing is not a sanction or punishment. Rather, it’s a call to the international community that a World Heritage property is under threat, thereby triggering actions to protect it for future generations.

Now, more than ever, it is important to expand efforts to reduce the locally manageable impacts, such as poor water quality, while rapidly accelerating action on climate change.

These efforts must occur locally, nationally and globally. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to stop the worst of the impacts now unfolding, not just on the reef, but on all the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

Read more:
Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up

Jon Day previously worked for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority between 1986 and 2014, and was one of the Directors at GBRMPA between 1998 and 2014. He represented Australia as one of the formal delegates to the World Heritage Committee between 2007-2011.

Scott Heron receives funding from Australian Research Council and NASA ROSES Ecological Forecasting.

Terry Hughes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Very genki, slightly kitsch, occasionally compelling: the Olympic opening ceremony put humanity in centre frame

Originally published on

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

The rising of the Japanese flag and the singing of the national anthem is the first moment of stillness. Devoid of external commentary, before a sea of empty stadium seats, it is a stark reminder of the pandemic.

More than any of the previous symbols of the “apart but not alone” theme, this image reinforces the optimism (misplaced for some, hopeful for others) of continuing with the games despite the obstacles wrought by the pandemic.

Olympic opening ceremonies come with certain expectations: large-scale choral movement, overhead camera work (Busby Berkeley on steroids) and fireworks. This year’s ceremony ticks all these boxes. According to the commentators, there are 694 fireworks in the opening moment alone.

The Tokyo artistic program is an eclectic mix of animation, live-action and pre-recorded performers. Stylised virtuosic performers combine with regular folk doing regular movement.

Heavy with symbolism, Channel Seven’s commentators leave little room for the viewer’s imagination. From the opening image of a blossoming seed, every symbol is explained.

Unmistakably Japanese

Performed under stadium-spectacular lights and music in front of a giant glowing effigy of Mount Fuji, the program is a series of discrete sequences.

For an “in memoriam” that references both the Israeli delegates murdered at the 1972 Munich games and those lost to COVID, dancer Mirai Moriyama epitomises the power of one individual.

From this sombre reflection we are abruptly transported to a representation of life in Japan’s Edo period. A stylised ensemble routine of building accompanied by a traditional work song morphs into a troupe of tap dancers.

An integration of ancient and contemporary, and the interplay between the individual and the ensemble, reverberates throughout the ceremony. A single violinist tuning up is gradually joined by other musicians to become an orchestra.

It is a fitting parallel to the coming together of the world’s athletes to create the Olympics.

Read more:
Forget the medals, the real game of the Olympics is soft power — and the opening ceremony is key

The parade of athletes is a sweetly shambolic affair. 205 nations later, the artistic programme resumes with its diverse snapshots.

Here’s an ensemble of clowns portraying the world’s media; now here’s some dancing children moving colourful boxes. Look up in the sky, there’s a ball of 1824 drones of light transforming into a rotating globe! Now, here’s some children, representing Asia, singing the Lennon/Ono classic Imagine.

A representation of Japan’s Edo period morphs into tap dancing.
Kyodo via AP Images

But wait, beamed in from some heavenly white void now they’re joined by Angelique Kidjo representing Africa, then Alejandro Sanz for Europe, John Legend for the Americas and finally, Keith Urban for Oceania.

Less of a linear narrative than previous opening ceremonies, this is a series of isolated, discrete sections. Less a celebration of the host country (although it’s unmistakably Japanese in tone and style) this eclectic mishmash of styles and performances becomes a durational performance where you can wander in and out.


The official speeches prior to the formal opening reference “the unifying power of sport”, the inclusion of refugee athletes and the adaption of the International Olympic Committee’s motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” to include the word “Together”.

“Together” speaks to a world lingering in the residue of COVID-enforced separations. Given the austerity of the times the ceremony is relatively subdued, but the optimism of the speeches is matched by the overriding exuberance of the performers. Not drowning, but waving (and there is lots of waving).

There’s no room for cynicism; only high-pep energy. The ceremony is very genki (a Japanese word without a direct English translation, roughly meaning “energy” or “pep”), slightly kitsch, but presents a surprisingly diverse representation of contemporary Japan.

The brightest spot in the post-parade section is an animated performance of pictograms depicting fifty sports. Moving the pictograms from two to three-dimensions via a kind of human-puppetry meets real-life stop-motion animation, it is equal parts hi and lo-fi and totally camp.

Its complete weirdness makes it un-look-away-able, as minor human errors show it for what it is: real people in real time, operating within a framework of precise choreography smashed up against the reality and vagaries of live performance.

It is completely compelling.

Then, just when you think they couldn’t add any more eclectic ingredients to the mix, enter performers from that most Japanese of ancient art forms Kabuki, paired with an embodied performance from contemporary Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi.

Unexpected and inspired

Beginning with the requisite video collage tracing the journey of the torch from Greece, we watch it enter the stadium and hand over person to person to the sounds of Ravel’s Bolero. There’s a moment’s respite from the slick technology and choreography when it lands with Japanese baseball legend and octogenarian Sadaharu Oh.

In this human moment, we are forced to slow down and experience the world in his tempo, giving a true sense of what it means to be alone together.

If a performance needs a big ending, then this one delivers with the appearance of tennis player Naomi Osaka to light the cauldron.

As explained by Kumi Taguchi in Channel Seven’s commentary, the choice is particularly significant because of Osaka’s hafu status (literally the Japanese word for “half”) as a person of mixed heritage. For this reason, Osaka has not always been accepted in Japan’s notoriously homogenous society.

Another significance ringing in the air around Osaka is the worldwide attention she recently received for speaking about the impact media scrutiny has had on her mental health and the vitriol which she has been subjected to as a result.

The ceremony ends spectacularly with Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic flame.
The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

These factors all contribute to making Osaka an unexpected and inspired choice.

As the symbolic Mount Fuji opens up and she ascends its internal staircase to the cauldron, Osaka lights the fire around which we can all gather for the next 17 days. And so, with yet another human moment, the games begin.

Leah Mercer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Radicalism mixed with openness: how Desmond Tutu used his gifts to help end Apartheid

Originally published on

AAP/EPA/Nic Bothma

This piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

A court in Colombia has recently been working to uncover the dread secrets of a long and bloody civil war. But rather than identifying perpetrators for death or imprisonment, it seeks reconciliation of the estranged and restoration of a torn social fabric.

Like many similar processes around the world over recent decades, this Special Jurisdiction for Peace was inspired by the most prominent such court, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Desmond Tutu.

This last public role for the Anglican archbishop embodied what made him the most influential figure of the new South Africa after Nelson Mandela, and a world religious leader comparable only to Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II in recent times.

Proud of his black African identity and culture, Tutu is an advocate of radical social change and a staunch proponent of non-violence. A pious Christian, he is at home with people of other faiths as well as those of none. His capacity to reconcile opposites and his unflagging hope about the human capacity to change has been influential in his country, his church and the world.

Read more:
Desmond Tutu’s long history of fighting for lesbian and gay rights

Early struggles

Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 to parents from Xhosa and Tswana backgrounds. He grew up in Sophiatown, a slum later demolished to make way for a whites-only suburb near Johannesburg. Their circumstances were not prosperous; his father was a teacher and his mother a laundress and then a cook.

His family were people of faith, but his most important religious influence in childhood was Trevor Huddleston, an Oxford-educated monk and priest then working in the slum. Tutu recalled Huddleston as the first white man he ever saw lifting his hat to his mother; in a place where white boys would taunt his educator father, this was striking. When Desmond came down with tuberculosis at 14, Huddleston brought books and conversation to him for months, which also had a lasting impact. Tutu would name his first child Trevor.

Like his father, Tutu first trained as a teacher, entering college in 1950 just as the National Party’s new apartheid laws were biting. After marrying Leah Shenxane, he began training for the Anglican priesthood in 1956, the same year Huddleston was ordered by his monastic superiors to leave South Africa to avoid arrest. The older priest’s memoir and exposé, Naught For Your Comfort, brought the Apartheid regime to wider international attention the same year.

Tutu with his wife Leah in 2014.
AAP/EPA/Nic Bothma

Tutu had embraced the Anglo-Catholic sacramental ethos and its pastoral heart shown to him, but was not yet drawn into activism or public witness, even as Nelson Mandela was responding to the new racial laws with boycotts.

After a few years of parish work, Tutu was sent for postgraduate study in London, focusing on Islam in Africa. This openness to learn about and from those who differed from him was a hallmark throughout his life. He returned from the UK to teach trainee clergy, but finding racism more markedly expressed in law galvanised his commitments.

He dipped his toe in the waters of protest – in characteristic ways, via prayers and sermon – at the student demonstrations in Fort Hare in 1968, driven by the black consciousness movement of Steve Biko (at whose funeral Tutu would preach in 1977).

Read more:
World politics explainer: the end of Apartheid

After more time away working with the World Council of Churches, where he was exposed both to Latin American Liberation theology and the Black theology emerging in the United States, Tutu became head of South Africa’s peak ecumenical church body, then successively bishop of Johannesburg and archbishop of Cape Town.

His criticism of Apartheid become more voluble and wider-known. He earned the wrath of white leaders for urging sanctions, famously saying in 1983:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandela in 1994, two of the towering figures of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
Jerry Holt/AP/AAP

While his opposition to Apartheid was admired, his insistence on rejection of violence did not satisfy some. The African National Congress found other religious allies like reformed theologian Allan Boesak, yet Tutu’s voice and influence grew stronger, in part because of his distance from the factions of the anti-Apartheid movement. His radicalism had emerged not merely as a religiously modulated version of contemporary politics, but something different.

Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his part in ending Apartheid.

After his retirement as archbishop, this same mixture of radicalism and uncompromising openness to others made his contributions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission controversial as well as effective. He was criticised for conciliatory moves towards both former prime minister P.W. Botha and Winnie Mandela. After the work of the commission concluded, his uncompromising support of gay and lesbian rights in an Anglican Church still globally riven over the issue became his most celebrated cause. Here he has proved similarly inspiring as well as hard to pin down to factional positions.

Tutu’s contribution to the end of Apartheid has been so remarkable in part because of its strong grounding in his faith. Tutu’s work suggests every culture and tradition may dig deep for what it brings to present divisions, and that the way to address oppositions based on identity may be to embrace our own. That way, we can understand that others can be embraced and listened to as well.

Read more:
Do truth and reconciliation commissions heal divided nations?

Andrew McGowan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Pfizer doses to be spaced out in NSW crisis, but state fails to get change in vaccination program

Originally published on

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Pfizer doses in NSW will be spaced out to enable more first jabs to be administered quickly, as the Berejiklian government on Friday declared the Sydney COVID crisis a “national emergency”.

But the plea by the state for Pfizer doses to be diverted to Sydney as part of a refocusing of the national vaccine program has fallen on deaf ears.

Scott Morrison indicated if any extra Pfizer supplies became available they would be directed to NSW – but he made clear there would be no change in the national vaccination program.

“Where there is a potential to put more vaccines into NSW, even beyond what we’re already doing, well, of course, we will seek to do that. But we are not going to disrupt the vaccination program around the rest of the country,” he said after a meeting of the national cabinet.

Vaccines are distributed on a population basis, although NSW was recently given a special allocation of 300,000 doses, half AstraZeneca and half Pfizer.

Morrison also said suppression was the key immediate means of stopping community transmission and getting on top of the outbreak that is concentrated in south western Sydney. “Suppression is the primary tool to achieve that, and vaccines can help that.”

Earlier, General JJ Frewen, who is in charge of the vaccine rollout, was dismissive of the suggestion supplies be diverted.

“Vaccines are only one part of a response to the outbreak like this,” Frewen told a Senate committee.

Other states made it clear they would not give up any of their Pfizer supplies.

Morrison said extending the time between Pfizer doses – normally three weeks – to six weeks was within the advice of The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). This would be done in NSW vaccination clinics.

He also said there was “agreement amongst the national cabinet that we need to continue to lean in to AstraZeneca, particularly in NSW”.

Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid on Friday called on ATAGI to review its advice on AstraZeneca in response to the growing risks posed by the outbreak of the Delta variant in NSW.

“As we don’t have enough Pfizer to use in a targeted rollout, the only option is AstraZeneca. It will save lives and help see life return to some normality in Greater Sydney,” Khorshid said.

ATAGI has preferred Pfizer for those under 60, although it recently qualified its advice in light of the Sydney outbreak.

As NSW on Friday reported 136 new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said “Sydney is on fire with this virus and we need a ring of steel put around Sydney”.

But Morrison said that at national cabinet Berejiklian had spelled out “in very specific detail the extensive lockdown” the state had in place.

“There’s nothing light about the lockdown in New South – in Sydney, I can assure you. My family are in it,” he said.

At her news conference on Friday morning, Berejiklian said Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and her team “advised us that the situation that exists now in NSW, namely around south-western and now western Sydney suburbs, is regarded as a national emergency.”

She appealed for the vaccination strategy to be redirected to south western Sydney, particularly to younger people who had to perform essential work such as the production of food.

She said there was a very young population in the affected communities, “and we need at least more first doses of Pfizer.”

Meanwhile figures given to the Senate COVID committee showed only 47.2% of residential aged care workers had had a first vaccine dose and 27.8% had received their second dose.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the PM’s apology and Brisbane 2032

Originally published on

University of Canberra Professorial Fellow Michelle Grattan and University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Paddy Nixon discuss the week in politics.

This week Michelle and Paddy discuss the proposed changes to the vaccine rollout announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday, which would allow regional pharmacies to apply to distribute the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Also discussed is the upcoming vote by the UNESCO World Heritage Commitee to label the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”, and the Summer Olympics and Paralympics to take place in Brisbane in 2032.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

You may have heard the ‘moon wobble’ will intensify coastal floods. Well, here’s what that means for Australia

Originally published on


Extreme floods this month have been crippling cities worldwide. This week in China’s Henan province, a year’s worth of rain fell in just three days. Last week, catastrophic floods swept across western Germany and parts of Belgium. And at home, rain fell in Perth for 17 days straight, making it the city’s wettest July in 20 years.

But torrential rain isn’t the only cause of floods. Many coastal towns and cities in Australia would already be familiar with what are known as “nuisance” floods, which occur during some high tides.

A recent study from NASA and the University of Hawaii suggests even nuisance floods are set to get worse in the mid-2030s as the moon’s orbit begins another phase, combined with rising sea levels from climate change.

The study was conducted in the US. But what do its findings mean for the vast lengths of coastlines in Australia and the people who live there?

A triple whammy

We know average sea levels are rising from climate change, and we know small rises in average sea levels amplify flooding during storms. From the perspective of coastal communities, it’s not if a major flood will occur, it’s when the next one will arrive, and the next one after that.

But we know from historical and paleontological records of flooding events that in many, if not most, cases the coastal flooding we’ve directly experienced in our lifetimes are simply the entrée in terms of what will occur in future.

Flooding is especially severe when a storm coincides with a high tide. And this is where NASA and the University of Hawaii’s new research identified a further threat.

Researchers looked at the amplification phase of the natural 18.6-year cycle of the “wobble” in the moon’s orbit, first identified in 1728.

The orbit of the moon around the sun is not quite on a flat plane (planar); the actual orbit oscillates up and down a bit. Think of a spinning plate on a stick — the plate spins, but also wobbles up and down.

Read more:
Predators, prey and moonlight singing: how phases of the Moon affect native wildlife

When the moon is at particular parts of its wobbling orbit, it pulls on the water in the oceans a bit more. This means for some years during the 18.6-year cycle, some high tides are higher than they would have otherwise been.

This results in increases to daily tidal rises, and this, in turn, will exacerbate coastal flooding, whether it be nuisance flooding in vulnerable areas, or magnified flooding during a storm.

The moon’s orbit isn’t on a flat plane. It oscillates up and down, like a plate would when it spins on a stick.

A major wobble amplification phase will occur in the mid-2030s, when climate change will make the problem become severe in some cases.

The triple whammy of the wobble in the moon’s orbit, ongoing upwards creep in sea levels from ocean warming, and more intense storms associated with climate change, will bring the impacts of sea-level rise earlier than previously expected — in many locations around the world. This includes in Australia.

So what will happen in Australia?

The locations in Australia where tides have the largest range, and will be most impacted by the wobble, aren’t close to the major population centres. Australia’s largest tides are close to Broad Sound, near Hay Point in central Queensland, and Derby in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

However, many Australian cities host suburbs that routinely flood during larger high tides. Near my home in Meanjin (Brisbane), the ocean regularly backs up through the storm water drainage system during large high tides. At times, even getting from the front door to the street can be challenging.

Derby, WA, has one of the biggest tidal ranges in Australia.

Some bayside suburbs in Melbourne are also already exposed to nuisance flooding. But a number of others that are not presently exposed may also become more vulnerable from the combined influence of the moon wobble and climate change — even when the weather is calm. High tide during this lunar phase, occurring during a major rainfall event, will result in even greater risk.

Read more:
High-tide flood risk is accelerating, putting coastal economies at risk

In high-income nations like Australia, sea-level rise means increasing unaffordability of insurance for coastal homes, followed by an inability to seek insurance cover at all and, ultimately, reductions in asset values for those unable or unwilling to adapt.

The prognosis for lower-income coastal communities that aren’t able to adapt to sea-level rise is clear: increasingly frequent and intense flooding will make many aspects of daily life difficult to sustain. In particular, movement around the community will be challenging, homes will often be inundated, unhealthy and untenable, and the provision of basic services problematic.

What do we do about it?

While our hearts and minds continue to be occupied by the pandemic, threats from climate change to our ongoing standard of living, or even future viability on this planet, haven’t slowed. We can pretend to ignore what is happening and what is increasingly unstoppable, or we can proactively manage the increasing threat.

Some coastal communities, such as in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, may experience flooding, even if they never have before.

Thankfully, approaches to adapting the built and natural environment to sea-level rise are increasingly being applied around the world. Many major cities have already embarked on major coastal adaptation programs – think London, New York, Rotterdam, and our own Gold Coast.

However, the uptake continues to lag behind the threat. And one of the big challenges is to incentivise coastal adaptation without overly impacting private property rights.

Read more:
For flood-prone cities, seawalls raise as many questions as they answer

Perhaps the best approach to learning to live with water is led by the Netherlands. Rather than relocating entire communities or constructing large barriers like sea walls, this nation is finding ways to reduce the overall impact of flooding. This includes more resilient building design or reducing urban development in specific flood retention basins. This means flooding can occur without damaging infrastructure.

There are lessons here. Australia’s adaptation discussions have often focused on finding the least worst choice between constructing large seawalls or moving entire communities — neither of which are often palatable. This leads to inaction, as both options aren’t often politically acceptable.

The seas are inexorably creeping higher and higher. Once thought to be a problem for our grandchildren, it is becoming increasingly evident this is a challenge for the here and now. The recently released research confirms this conclusion.

Read more:
King tides and rising seas are predictable, and we’re not doing enough about it

Professor Gibbs is a Non-Executive Director of the Gold Coast Waterways Authority, Green Cross Australia, The Moreton Bay Foundation and Reef Check Australia. Mark co-leads the Australian Government and GBRF-funded Reef Resilience and Adaptation Program (RRAP).

Forget the medals, the real game of the Olympics is soft power — and the opening ceremony is key

Originally published on

The Olympic Games are often hailed as a neutral celebration of athletic achievement. “The Olympic Games are not about politics,” wrote the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, in the Guardian last year.

In reality, the games have long been a platform for soft power: the use of culture and values to shape people’s opinions in order to achieve political outcomes — particularly internationally.

Regardless of how many medals are won or lost, this is the real game of the Olympics.

And for the host country, the opening ceremony offers an unparalleled platform for building soft power.

The biggest artistic event in the world

Included in the Olympic Games since 1906, the opening ceremony combines pageantry, ritual and performance. With key components mandated by the Olympic Charter, including an artistic program and a parade of nations, the ceremony offers a unique opportunity for the host country to frame a cultural narrative about itself.

No other artistic event in the world offers immediate access to such a large audience of global viewers. In 2016, 3.6 billion viewers watched Rio de Janeiro’s opening ceremony on television.

Accordingly, the opening ceremony has increased in size, scope and expense in recent years. Demonstrations of dance, music and theatre are explicitly designed to dazzle spectators while also presenting a politically strategic image to the world.

Beijing’s opening ceremony in 2008 framed China as a model of spectacle and national collaboration. Directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou at a cost of US$100 million (A$135 million), the event lasted over four hours and featured 15,000 performers. In one jaw-dropping sequence, 2,008 Chinese drummers performed in perfect unison.

For the 2004 opening ceremony in Athens, Greece endeavoured to highlight its heritage and connection to the Olympic Games of antiquity. The program included projections of the stadium used in the original games, a blazing comet that outlined the Olympic rings in fire, and an abstract reenactment of the progression of Greek civilisation.

At the opening of the 2012 London Games, Britain elected to emphasise its national musical legacy, with performances by Paul McCartney, the Sex Pistols and Arctic Monkeys. In a further nod to British popular culture, Queen Elizabeth II and James Bond actor Daniel Craig appeared to jump from a helicopter.

Broadcasting the perfect image

The last time Japan hosted the Summer Olympics was in 1964, and the stakes were unusually high. After the shame of the second world war and Japan’s subsequent exclusion from the 1948 games, Tokyo 1964 was key to its efforts to re-establish a positive international reputation.

The opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympic Games was the first to be live-broadcast around the world.
Kyodo via AP Images

With the development of satellite technology, the 1964 games were also the first to be live broadcast. The opening ceremony was suddenly a chance to showcase Japan at its best to a worldwide audience.

Symbolising Japan’s new era, the Olympic torch was carried into the ceremony by Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the city was bombed in 1945.

Read more:
Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the 1964 Games, is still a masterpiece

Because of the opportunity to access millions of international viewers at once, opening ceremonies have become a powerful tool of cultural diplomacy.

But such a public platform also has its risks, and the diplomatic cost of any incident that contradicts a country’s carefully curated image can be extreme.

Consider the dove debacle of Seoul’s opening ceremony in 1988, when dozens of doves were accidentally incinerated by the Olympic flame on live television.

Counting losses

Japan has already faced difficulties that threaten to tarnish its Olympic image. After a one-year postponement, the costs of this year’s games may exceed US$26 billion (A$35 billion).

With significant restrictions on spectators, Japan will not benefit from the typical boost from international tourists. This makes the country’s potential soft power gains from the televised opening ceremony all the more crucial in order to justify the financial investment.

Read more:
As the Tokyo Games begin, the stakes could not be higher for Japan — and the Olympics themselves

But even the televised spectacle will be taking place amid controversy. Only a day before the Opening Ceremony, the event’s director Kentaro Kobayashi was fired over a 1998 video in which he joked about the Holocaust.

Kobayashi is the third high-profile artist associated with the Ceremony to leave. Creative Director Hiroshi Sasaki resigned in March after calling a plus-sized celebrity an “Olympig,” while composer Keigo Oyamada left on Monday over historic bullying.

Japan’s success at building soft power will also be unavoidably lessened by the pandemic. The Opening Ceremony’s artistic program will take place in a largely empty arena — a reminder of the cost of the pandemic in terms of both lives and our ability to come together.

Each smiling team of internationally competitive athletes during the Parade of Nations will similarly be viewed against their nation’s efforts (and failures) to manage COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Olympic Committee is maintaining a running list of athletes and staff who have been infected while in Japan. Even before the Opening Ceremony, the list stands at over 100.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Eradicating smallpox: the global vaccination push that brought the world ‘arm-to-arm’

Originally published on

Edward Jenner vaccinating his son, held by Mrs Jenner; a maid rolls up her sleeve, a man stands outside holding a cow. Coloured engraving by C. Manigaud after E Hamman. The Wellcome Collection.

As the roll-out of COVID vaccines proceeds, it’s worth looking back on the challenges and successes of the early global spread of smallpox vaccination.

Smallpox (also known by its scientific name, variola) was a horrible, highly infectious disease, with a case fatality-rate of 30%. In 1798, Edward Jenner, an English country doctor, published data on cowpox (or “vaccine”, a term derived from the Latin for cow and increasingly preferred by Jenner; modern scientific name vaccinia). His data suggested this pustular disease found on dairy cows protected people from smallpox.

He detailed experiments in which he inoculated children with cowpox (usually by nicking the arm and inserting cowpox pus under the skin), and presented the inoculation of cowpox as a safe and effective way to prevent smallpox.

Jenner’s claims were initially met with scepticism. Even in Britain, vaccination was not taken up on any scale until 1800. By this time, though, cowpox samples were being dispatched overseas and attracting great interest as a way to protect people against smallpox. By 1805, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, people were already being vaccinated all around the world. By 1815, several million people, half of them outside Europe, had been vaccinated.

Sadly, however, the global eradication of smallpox was not achieved until the late 1970s.

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Four of the most lethal infectious diseases of our time and how we’re overcoming them

The wonder of cowpox

Smallpox was universally feared but people had learned to live with it. It was easy enough to recognise; victims became visibly ill before they became infectious. Crucially, people knew that if they survived the attack, they could be confident of lifelong immunity.

Learning to live with smallpox sometimes involved deliberately exposing children to the disease in the hope of a mild outcome. In Britain, it was found smallpox inoculation — that is, making a light cut in the arm and applying smallpox pus to the wound — resulted in far fewer deaths than in cases of naturally acquired smallpox.

It was as a practitioner of smallpox inoculation (which was also known as variolation) that Jenner found evidence people who had been casually infected with cowpox appeared to be immune to smallpox infection.

He put the theory to the test by inoculating a boy with cowpox lymph — taken not from the cow but from a vesicle or blister on a milkmaid’s hand — and demonstrating his resistance to smallpox by variolation.

Jenner’s presentation of cowpox as a safe and effective substitute for smallpox found corroboration in trials in London in 1799. It wasn’t easy to allay doubts among parents. Still, people were even more scared of smallpox, and recognised smallpox inoculation involved significant risk to the patient and the community. Cowpox was a game-changer.

More diaspora than roll-out

Although hailed as a boon, the new approach got off to a shaky start. Cowpox was rare, appearing only sporadically in dairy farms. The supply of vaccine depended from the outset on its propagation on human bodies. If the vaccine “took” on the child’s arm then, nine or ten days later, the ripe pustule was pricked to provide fresh vaccine.

Children of the poor were immunised at no charge and, on returning to clinics for examination, were put arm-to-arm with the next batch of children. Some vaccine was dried, often on cotton threads, as a future supply. Quality control was a major problem. In 1800, a cowpox institute was set up in London to propagate and distribute vaccine and in 1803 the Royal Jenner Society was established to promote the practice.

Cowpox was a rare disease, appearing only sporadically in dairy farms.
J. Pass, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The spread of the first vaccine was more diaspora than roll-out. Samples of cowpox on cotton threads were sent in the post, in Britain and overseas, rather in the manner of plant seeds.

Many samples proved useless on arrival, but by sending them in some profusion, it proved relatively simple to seed the practice in Europe and North America. Improvements in packaging even made it possible to send vaccine from Vienna to Baghdad, where it was propagated for onward transmission to India in 1802. Viable vaccine was even delivered, after a 154-day voyage, to Sydney in 1804.

The world arm-to-arm

Another approach to conquering the tyranny of distance was to move patients under vaccination. Early in 1802, Tsar Alexander approved an expedition to establish vaccination through Russia in which children vaccinated in one province were escorted to go “arm-to-arm” with children in the next. In 1803, King Carlos of Spain launched an even grander expedition that, by vaccinating a succession of children, delivered live vaccine to Spanish America and then across the Pacific to Manila and Macao.

Vaccination literally brought the world arm-to-arm. The rapid global spread of the vaccine itself owed a lot to the universal dread of smallpox but also to humanitarian enthusiasm and international collaboration.

A range of measures were used to embed the practice. In Berlin, children were given trinkets and medals. Poor mothers in Mexico and India were bribed to have their children vaccinated. In Austria, mothers whose children died of smallpox were named and shamed.

Some states moved rapidly along the road to compulsion. In France, where Napoleon was a great advocate of the practice, vaccination was urged as a civic duty but not made mandatory. In Denmark, a vaccination certificate was rapidly made a requisite for schooling, public employment and even marriage.

Complacency and lack of resolve

Aware of vaccine’s global success, Jenner and his colleagues deplored the loss of momentum in Britain itself. In London, the practice was under challenge from a noisy anti-vaccination lobby led by old-style inoculators.

A smallpox epidemic in 1805, while showing the value of vaccination, disclosed some failures arising from poor early practice. In claiming vaccination was for life, Jenner had set the bar too high. To the end of his life in 1823, he was reluctant to concede the need for periodic re-vaccination.

The major problem in Britain and elsewhere was complacency. The early success in suppressing smallpox, and indeed eliminating it in some places, led parents to neglect vaccination.

Outbreaks in the 1830s were a major shock and pushed the British government to fund vaccination in 1840 and to make it mandatory in 1853. Victoria — though not New South Wales — followed this lead. Although it was controversial and fuelled anti-vaccination sentiment, compulsory vaccination, with some provision for conscientious objection, played a vital role making the practice routine. This kept smallpox at bay, prompted improvements, and helped inspire the development of new vaccines.

From the outset, vaccination was seen as a means of eradicating smallpox. It saved countless lives, kept communities safe for as long as vaccination was maintained, and limited the severity of outbreaks.

The permanent elimination of smallpox required governments to provide the infrastructure and resources, and show the political will to incentivise if not mandate vaccination.

Although the disease was largely brought under control in the West, millions were still dying from smallpox elsewhere in the middle of the twentieth century when the World Health Organization committed itself to the global eradication of smallpox.

Read more:
Four of the most lethal infectious diseases of our time and how we’re overcoming them

Michael Bennett has received support for his work on this topic from the Australian Research Council.

He is the author of War Against Smallpox. Edward Jenner and the Global Spread of Vaccination (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

To watch or not to watch? The Tokyo Games raises difficult questions for fans

Originally published on

Sue Ogrocki/AP/AAP

When the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games officially begin on Friday night, they will do so with the host city under a state of emergency due to COVID-19.

For the first time in history, all Olympic events will take place in empty venues, with recordings of stadium noise from previous games and video celebrations among the innovations in place of crowds.

Meanwhile, sponsors, broadcasters and the host nation are all approaching the Olympics with less than the normal anticipation. What will this mean for fans?

How is this different from other sporting events?

Since COVID, sporting competitions, including European football leagues and the NBA in North America, have seen fans adapt to not being able to be there in person. This has included cardboard cut-outs in stadiums, apps to broadcast fans cheering from home into virtual audience walls, and supportive messages.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics were embraced by local and international spectators. Tokyo will be a very different games.
Dean Lewins/AAP

In this sense, fans showed an initial eagerness to participate in new forms of fan engagement and new rituals, embracing their connection to teams and fan identity.

This is something Olympics organisers will be hoping to capitalise on, despite polls showing fans find sport during the pandemic to be less enjoyable.

Normally, visible crowds provide points of connection and community, while crowd noise draws attention to what is happening on field and enhances excitement. Obviously, simulated crowd sounds and cardboard cut-outs are no substitute for the real thing.

The Olympic connection

At least for the Olympics, attendance for fans is the exception. The vast majority of the global audience would expect to rely on broadcast and digital media to experience the games anyway.

We also know sports fans place great importance on the games. This week, a new report by True North Research found of all our national teams, Australians had the highest emotional connection to the Olympic team — above the Matildas, cricket teams and Wallabies.

The Olympics normally stimulate immense levels of national pride and connection.
One argument for those wanting to support the Olympics is that they showcase sports, teams, athletes and nations “who don’t otherwise enjoy the international platform that mega events afford”. They also showcase human achievement — and people striving and sacrificing to chase their dreams and represent their country. It is easy to be drawn to the story of the games.

This year’s team — our second-largest ever, with 472 athletes from 33 sports — provides plenty of scope for fans to connect. Fans may not just feel the usual obligation to support our national athletes, but an extra sense of duty given the with significant challenges and setbacks of a pandemic Olympics.

How can fans support the Olympics in a country that doesn’t want it?

Despite the hype and the history, the Olympics are not an essential service. The lack of atmosphere, ceremony and celebration, alongside the uncomfortable reality of the event occurring in a pandemic, have the potential to complicate how fans enjoy and experience the games.

COVID-19 cases are growing once more in Japan and public sentiment in the host nation has been against the Olympics for months. The country has seen volunteers quit, hospitals display “Stop Olympics” messages on their windows and a petition in protest of the games.

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However, despite many Japanese citizens calling for the cancellation of the games, Tokyo’s hands are tied. Under the terms of the contract, only the International Olympic Committee has the power to terminate the Olympics. If Tokyo cancelled the games, Japan risks lawsuits, financial loss, as well as a damaged reputation.

The instability due to the pandemic has also allowed protesters to draw attention to broader societal, economic and environmental impacts of the games in hopes to shut down the Olympics beyond Tokyo.

There is already an established “NOlympics” campaign against the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, arguing the games exacerbate inequality and over-policing.

What does it all mean?

So, does victory in Toyko mean more or less than previous games?

For athletes, victory is victory. After a gruelling five years of training, qualifying and dreaming, it may in fact mean a whole lot more in a pandemic environment.

Read more:
Tokyo Olympics: how hosting the Games disrupts local lives and livelihoods

But for fans, the political distancing of key Japanese officials, citizens and brands and a global health crisis confronts them with a decision. Do they enjoy the Olympics as they usually might have, or do they turn away in support of issues that go well beyond sport?

There are no easy answers, but for fans it means Tokyo may be a more complex — and morally challenging — Olympics than they had anticipated. While Australia’s Seven Network has high expectations for broadcast numbers, it could prompt fans to re-evaluate how they connect with the Olympics beyond the pandemic.

Adam Karg consults to and conducts research for a number of organisation across Australia and globally. His research has received funding from organisations including the Australian Research Council, the Victorian Government, leisure and sport technology companies and professional leagues and/or teams spanning the Australian Football League, Big Bash League, National Rugby League, National Basketball League and the A-League.

Emma Sherry consults to and conducts research for a number of organisation across Australia. Her research has received funding from organisations including the Victorian Government, and national and state sport governing bodies including the Australian Football League and its clubs and the National Rugby League. Emma is a director with Tennis Victoria.

Kasey Symons consults to and conducts research for a number of organisation across Australia. Her research has received funding from organisations including the Victorian Government, and national and state sport governing bodies including the Australian Football League and its clubs and the National Rugby League. Dr Symons is also one of the co-founders of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective.

Sam Duncan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Fossil tooth fractures and microscopic detail of enamel offer new clues about human diet and evolution

Originally published on

Author provided, Author provided

Teeth can tell us a lot about the evolution of prehistoric humans, and our latest study of one of our species’ close relatives may finally resolve a long-standing mystery.

The genus Paranthropus is closely related to ours, Homo, and lived about one to three million years ago. Both Paranthropus and Homo are often considered to have evolved from Australopithecus, represented by the famous fossils Lucy and Mrs Ples.

The Paranthropus group stands out in our family tree because of their massive back teeth, several times the size of ours, and their extremely thick enamel (the outer-most layer of our teeth). This prompted the hypothesis that they ate mostly hard foods, and one of the most complete Paranthropus specimens was dubbed the Nutcracker Man.

But our study shows Paranthropus had very low rates of enamel chipping (a common type of tooth fracture), comparable to living primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees, which rarely eat hard foods. This supports other recent research about the diet of this group and should finally put to rest the nutcracker hypothesis.

Reconstructing diet from teeth

Our understanding of diet and behaviour during human evolution has changed markedly over the last decades — partly due to new technologies but also because of some spectacular fossil discoveries.

Teeth are often at the forefront of this research. They are by far the most abundant resource because they survive fossilisation better than bones. This is a fortunate circumstance because teeth also offer other information that helps us to reconstruct the environment of our fossil ancestors and relatives.

We can glean a lot of information from the microscopic scratches created by foods scraping along the tooth surface during chewing, the tiny particles preserved in dental plaque and the chemical composition of the teeth themselves.

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Before such techniques were developed and refined, researchers relied on looking at the overall shape and size of teeth, as well as wear and chipping visible with the naked eye. Small sample sizes and a lack of comparative material hampered these studies, but they provided some bold claims about the diet of our fossil ancestors.

For most techniques, we need large data sets from both extinct and living species for comparison. For example, a species that commonly eats lots of hard seeds and nuts should theoretically show high rates of tooth chipping. But without a large database of species, we wouldn’t know if 10% of teeth displaying fractures is normal for a hard object feeder, or simply an expected percentage caused by other factors.

Tooth chipping

In our recent research, we have studied a broad range of living primates and compared that information with data on fossil species. The results were surprising, with our species Homo sapiens and fossil relatives in our genus commonly showing high rates of chipping, similar to living primates that eat hard foods habitually.

Earlier studies regularly suggested humans evolved smaller teeth in the last couple of million years in response to cooking and processing foods and eating more meat, while Paranthropus evolved large robust teeth in repose to eating lots of hard foods.

This baboon tooth, an upper molar, has been chipped on the outside.
Author provided

But teeth can evolve in more ways than simply the overall size or the thickness of the enamel. The microscopic structure and composition of dental tissue can also vary among species. Could such variation explain chipping and wear differences among species?

If so, this could explain why small-toothed humans have lots of chipping on their teeth while the big-toothed Paranthropus has barely any.

Mechanical and structural properties of teeth

To address these questions, we sectioned teeth of several living primate species, including humans, to look at variation in mechanical and structural properties across tooth crowns. We collected non-human primate teeth from museums. Human teeth were donated by patients during routine dental treatments.

The mechanical testing involved a tiny diamond-tipped probe, which produced readings of the hardness and elasticity of enamel. We used high-powered microscopes and micro-CT scans to analyse the structure and mineral density of enamel.

Detail of the microscopic structure of a baboon’s molar enamel.
Author provided

The results show mechanical and structural properties are uniform among primate groups. The surfaces most prone to fracture in primates – the inner side of lower, and outer side of upper back teeth – have significantly harder enamel.

These patterns are similar regardless of the diet of the primates. This suggests the inner structure of enamel plays a crucial role in protecting the tooth, but these patterns have remained remarkably stable during primate evolution.

We argue that other tooth properties, including the overall size and shape of teeth, evolve quicker to cope with changes in diet. Therefore, the evidence from chipping patterns and tooth structure of living primates suggest Paranthropus rarely ate hard foods and their enormous back teeth likely evolved for other purposes, likely to chew large quantities of very tough leafy material.

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Human ancestors had the same dental problems as us – even without fizzy drinks and sweets

Why fossil humans have such high rates of chipping requires further research, but we propose several explanations, including accidental ingestion of grit and using front teeth as a “third hand” to hold non-food items. For example, large fractures on the front teeth of Neanderthals may be due to this tool-use behaviour, and small chips on the back teeth of Homo naledi likely relate to chewing grit-laden foods.

But it goes against the neat idea that we evolved smaller teeth when we started using fire and processing more high-quality foods, since heavy wear and fractures remained. The notion of nutcracker and cooking/meat-eating groups was appealing in its simplicity. Based on the changing shape and size of teeth through time, it seemed a reasonable hypothesis. But the actual wear and tear of fossil teeth tells a very different story that is slowly coming to light.

Carolina Loch receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust, Colgate, MedTech Core and the University of Otago. She is affiliated with the NZ Association for Women in the Sciences, Society for Marine Mammalogy, Latin American Society of Experts in Aquatic Mammals, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, International Association for Dental Research and American Association of Biological Anthropologists.

Ian Towle and Thomas Loho do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.