Cyber Cold War? The US and Russia talk tough, but only diplomacy will ease the threat

Originally published on

Patrick Semansky/AP

Over the past few years, tensions have been rising between Russia and the United States — not in conventional military terms, but in cyberspace. The issue came to a head at this month’s summit in Geneva, when US President Joe Biden threatened reprisals over allegedly Russian-backed cyber-attacks on US targets.

This confrontation first rose to global attention in 2016, when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported Russia had directly influenced the outcome of the presidential election, favouring the Republican candidate Donald Trump by hacking and leaking 60,000 emails from the private account of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign director.

Then, in 2020, a major cyber attack on IT firm SolarWinds compromised the security of a wide range of US government and industry entities, including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held Russia responsible for the incident, although Trump himself went against the consensus, seeking to downplay the attack and blame China instead.

Microsoft president Brad Smith described it as the “largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen”. Microsoft began investigating the attack after many of its customers were caught up in it, including major tech companies and federal agencies.

Russia denied any involvement in the SolarWinds incident, publicly rejecting what it described as “unfounded attempts of the US media to blame Russia for hacker attacks on US governmental bodies”.

The attack was ultimately attributed to a cyber-criminal group called Nobelium, which has continued to be active and allegedly perpetrated a series of cyber-attacks earlier this year, although there is no clear evidence it did so with Kremlin backing.

Fuel pipelines and black angus steak

More recently, the US Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack, which crippled the largest oil pipeline in the US, was attributed to a Russian cyber-mercenary gang codenamed DarkSide.

That was followed last month by an attack on meat processor JBS, shutting down parts of its operations in the US, Canada and Australia, and severely disrupting global meat supplies. This time the FBI pointed the finger at REvil, another profitable Russian-based cyber-criminal group.

In both of these cases, the victims reportedly paid ransoms to resume their operations. While this is expensive and arguably encourages future attacks, disruptions in operations can be even more costly.

The FBI claims to have recovered more than US$2 million of the ransom paid by the Colonial Pipeline Company.

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The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack and the SolarWinds hack were all but inevitable – why national cyber defense is a ‘wicked’ problem

A few weeks before the Colonial Pipeline attack, the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its cyber-meddling in US elections. But the US has now understandably made combating ransomware attacks its top priority.

The Ransomware Task Force, convened in December 2020 by Microsoft and leading tech security firms, called for global cooperation to tackle the ransomware threat and break its business model.

Does the US engage in similar activities?

The US is certainly known for its cyber-offensive capabilities. Perhaps the most widely reported engagement was the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program.

In 2015, the US Cyber Command and National Security Agency successfully hacked key members of ISIS, while the following year Wikileaks revealed the CIA had developed a powerful suite of hacking tools.

The US has both the capability and the motivation to conduct extensive cyber-infiltration of its adversaries.

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Cyber attacks can shut down critical infrastructure. It’s time to make cyber security compulsory

At this month’s US-Russia summit in Geneva, Biden talked about establishing cyber-norms and declaring certain critical infrastructure as off-limits.

This list identified 16 sectors that should be excluded from offensive action, including government facilities, IT systems, energy infrastructure, and food and agriculture — all four of which have come under suspected Russian-backed attack in recent years.

Some cyber-security advocates have criticised US strategies in recent years as being too weak. Biden’s comments at the Geneva summit seem to be an attempt to strike a firmer tone.

So is this the start of a cyber-war?

Cyberspace is considered the fifth domain for warfare, after land, sea, air and space. But the truth is that IT systems are now so ubiquitous that they are also firmly embedded in the four other domains too, meaning a successful cyber attack can weaken an enemy in many kinds of ways.

This in turn can make it hard to even define what counts as an offensive act of cyber-war, let alone identify the aggressor.

Although the Kremlin continues to deny any association with cyber-criminal gangs such as DarkSide or REvil, Russia nevertheless stands accused of giving them safe harbour.

How do we stop global cyber attacks?

The recent Ransomware Task Force report specifically attempted to address the issue of ransomware. But it also offers useful advice for countering state-backed cyber-crime. It recommends:

coordinated, international diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts to confront cyber-threats

establishing relevant agencies to manage cyber incidents

internationally coordinated efforts to establish frameworks to help organisations that are subject to cyber-attacks.

Successfully stamping out international cyber-attacks will be tremendously hard, and is ultimately only achievable with good diplomacy, trust, cooperation and communication.

While global superpowers continue to sponsor cyber-attacks on foreign shores while decrying attacks against their own assets, all we end up with is the virtual equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

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.

_Homo_ who? A new mystery human species has been discovered in Israel

Originally published on

Yossi Zaidner

An international group of archaeologists have discovered a missing piece in the story of human evolution.

Excavations at the Israeli site of Nesher Ramla have recovered a skull that may represent a late-surviving example of a distinct Homo population, which lived in and around modern-day Israel from about 420,000 to 120,000 years ago.

As researchers Israel Hershkovitz, Yossi Zaidner and colleagues detail in two companion studies published today in Science, this archaic human community traded both their culture and genes with nearby Homo sapiens groups for many thousands of years.

The new fossils

Pieces of a skull, including a right parietal (back of the skull) and an almost complete mandible (jaw) were dated to 140,000–120,000 years old, with analysis finding the person it belonged to wasn’t fully H. sapiens.

The Nesher Ramla mandible and skull.
Avi Levin and Ilan Theiler, Sackler/Tel Aviv University

Nor were they Neanderthal, however, which was the only other type of human thought to have been living in the region at the time.

Instead, this individual falls right smack in the middle: a unique population of Homo never before recognised by science.

Through detailed comparison with many other fossil human skulls, the researchers found the parietal bone featured “archaic” traits that are substantially different from both early and recent H. sapiens. In addition, the bone is considerably thicker than those found in both Neanderthals and most early H. sapiens.

The jaw too displays archaic features, but also includes forms commonly seen in Neanderthals.

The bones together reveal a unique combination of archaic and Neanderthal features, distinct from both early H. sapiens and later Neanderthals.

Are there are more of these people?

The authors suggest fossils found at other Israeli sites, including the famous Lady of Tabun, might also be part of this new human population, in contrast to their previous Neanderthal or H. sapiens identification.

The “Lady of Tabun” (known to archaeologists as Tabun C1) was discovered in 1932 by pioneering archaeologist Yusra and her field director, Dorothy Garrod.

Extensively studied, this important specimen taught us much about Neanderthal anatomy and behaviour in a time when very little was known about our enigmatic evolutionary cousins.

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If Tabun C1 and others from the Qesem and Zuttiyeh Caves were indeed members of the Nasher Ramel Homo group, this reanalysis would explain some inconsistencies in their anatomy previously noted by researchers.

The mysterious Nesher Ramla Homo may even represent our most recent common ancestor with Neanderthals. Its mix of traits supports genetic evidence that early gene flow between H. sapiens and Neanderthals occurred between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. In other words, that interbreeding between the different Homo populations was more common than previously thought.

Even more puzzling, the team also found a collection of some 6,000 stone tools at the Nesher Ramla site.

These tools were made the same way contemporaneous H. sapiens groups made their technology, with the similarity so strong it appears the two populations — Nesher Ramla Homo and H. sapiens — were hanging out on a regular basis. It seems they weren’t just exchanging genes, but also tips on tool-making.

And there was fire!

The site also produced bones of animals caught, butchered, and eaten on-site. These findings indicate Nesher Ramla Homo hunted a range of species, including tortoise, gazelle, aurochs, boar and ostrich.

Furthermore, they were using fire to cook their meals, evident through the uncovering of a campfire feature the same age as the fossils. Indeed, the Nesher Ramla Homo were not only collecting wood to make campfires and cook, but were also actively managing their fires as people do today.

Exposure of animal bones and lithic artifacts in the layer with the Nesher Ramla Homo fossils.
Yossi Zaidner

While the earliest indications of controlled use of fire is much older — perhaps one million years ago – the interesting thing about this particular campfire is the evidence that Nesher Ramla people tended to it as carefully as contemporary H. sapiens and Neanderthals did their own fires.

Most impressive is that the campfire feature survived, intact, outside of a protected cave environment for so long. It is now the oldest intact campfire ever found in the open air.

In sum, if we think of the story of human evolution like an Ikea bookcase that isn’t quite coming together, this discovery is effectively like finding the missing shelf buried at the bottom of the box. The new Nesher Ramla Homo allows for a better-fitting structure, although a few mysterious “extra” pieces remain to be pondered over.

For example, exactly how did the different Homo groups interact with each other? And what does it mean for the cultural and biological changes that were occurring for Homo populations in this period?

Continuing to work with these questions (the “extra pieces”) will help us build a better understanding of our human past.

Dr Michelle Langley is a Senior Research Fellow in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution and Lecturer in Archaeology in the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University. She receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Grattan on Friday: Blowin’ in the wind with Barnaby

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Scott Morrison is fond of telling his troops they’re in a boat. On Thursday he said Barnaby Joyce was “a wind in the sails”. Perhaps better described as a gale hitting the craft, some nervous Liberals would think.

Political life changed dramatically for Morrison this week. Whether Joyce’s elevation will benefit or harm the government at the election is an open question, but right now it is a massive complication for the PM.

It’s unleashed a battle over power within the Coalition, and it’s intensified the perennial difficulties on climate policy.

The surreal backdrop in this final week of parliament before the winter break was Morrison quarantined at The Lodge, looming “virtually” over House of Representatives members, while Joyce, following his Tuesday swearing in, occupied the PM’s chair at the centre table, the focus of attention.

To say the least, the symbolism was unfortunate. As Morrison said in another context, nothing beats being face to face. Being on a screen, upstaged by your unpredictable new right hand man, is an especially unhappy place.

Behind the scenes, Morrison and Joyce negotiated the terms of their partnership. In the open, the restored leader let the Nationals run riot, in a way we haven’t seen for a long time.

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View from The Hill: Nationals give Scott Morrison a muscle man to deal with — especially on net zero

In the Senate on Wednesday and then in the lower House on Thursday Nationals moved amendments on water, challenging the Murray Darling Basin plan, in an open split with the Liberals. At one point Peter Dutton, as leader of the House, was trying to shut down Damian Drum, the chief Nationals whip.

The water ploy was a gesture, and the revolt is said to have been in the pipeline for months and would, its proponents say, have gone ahead under Michael McCormack.

But for Joyce it was a convenient message to Morrison: the new leader is willing, if need be, to fight dirty to get as much as he can of whatever he wants.

Morrison’s problems on climate policy, hard enough before this week, have just increased substantially. And indeed, so has the internal dilemma the Nationals face on the issue.

Previously it was thought McCormack and deputy David Littleproud might be open to some deal so Morrison could embrace the target of net zero by 2050 (firming his present stance of reaching net zero “preferably” by 2050).

But Joyce has a history of opposing a 2050 target. Despite this Littleproud (who remains deputy) continued this week to signal that he could see a deal. That’s a very odd situation.

In prime ministerial circles they remain hopeful of a deal, on the basis that Morrison and Joyce are pragmatists and money can smooth the way.

But opposition within the Nationals to the 2050 target was one important driver of the Joyce coup. If he did a backflip, that would anger many followers. He’s privately been sticking to his position this week.

In an exercise that had critics quickly recalling Joyce’s $100 roast during the carbon debate of the Labor years, Nationals senator Matt Canavan, a confidant of Joyce, conjured up a spectre of net zero in the cattle industry.

“Every cow emits about 2300kg of carbon dioxide equivalent gases a year,” Canavan wrote in The Australian. “The CSIRO estimated last year that to reach net zero emissions we would need to start with a carbon price of $30 a tonne now. Even a relatively small cattle producer runs about 1000 head. So they would be up for a $70,000-a-year cost under a net-zero policy.

“By 2050, the price would rise to more than $200 a tonne, taking the carbon bill on your steaks to a whopping $400,000 per year, per farm.”

Canavan will be a significant player in the months ahead, and in the climate debate. Formerly resources minister, he has not sought to return to the ministry. Potentially he is both an influence on Joyce (he once worked for him), and also, as a backbencher, a tosser of grenades to remind the Liberals of the Nationals’ clout.

Warren Entsch, a Liberal who holds the north Queensland marginal seat of Leichhardt, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, put the other view.

“If the Nationals were really concerned about the livelihoods of farmers, perhaps they would do more to advocate for and enable the sector’s autonomy – rather than going off half-cocked and riding roughshod over a net zero 2050 emissions target.

“They might also like to consider what an increasingly warmer climate will mean for Australian agriculture,” Entsch said.

Unless Joyce shifts his position, Morrison surely can’t endorse the target. Joe Biden and Boris Johnson may or may not understand the concept of being “Barnaby’d”.

While the Joyce coup has transformed the dynamics within the Coalition, it wasn’t the worse thing confronting Morrison this week. That remains COVID and the flawed vaccine rollout. For all the numbers Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt sprout, the public are frustrated and weary and many people are worried.

The latest outbreak in NSW has seen fresh border closures and restrictions, and hit the state parliament – one minister has COVID and special arrangements were required to get the state budget passed. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said: “Since the pandemic has started, this is perhaps the scariest period that New South Wales is going through.”

COVID even wormed its way into the Barnaby story, with Joyce briefly absent at the start of Thursday’s question time because he thought he might have been a contact of a close contact (he was given an okay by a health official).

The rollout is still blighted by a shortage of supplies of Pfizer, hesitancy about vaccination in general and resistance to AstraZeneca in particular, and inadequate availability of convenient vaccination points.

Even limited outbreaks are disruptive, costly and unnerving, and there is always the danger of a major one occurring.

It may be, however, that the recent appointment of Lieutenant General “JJ” Frewen as COVID tsar is starting to improve the efficiency of the rollout. He’s asking a lot of questions, and bringing in some of his own logistics people to help with the organisation.

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Barnaby Joyce’s return, and John Anderson’s loss, is symbolic of a political culture gone awry

Frewen’s task, while waiting for more Pfizer supplies, is to get the rollout architecture into better shape. This includes improving communication with the public and relations with the states, and ensuring there are more channels for delivering the vaccines when extra doses arrive.

A lot is now riding on Frewen’s performance. But, inevitably, not all the federal health bureaucrats are happy to find their patch taken over by the military man. It’s another power struggle in Canberra.

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.

Cardiac arrests in young people — what causes them and can they be prevented or treated? A heart expert explains

Originally published on

Wolfgang Rattay/AP/AAP

On June 12, 16,000 spectators at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium and millions of viewers around the world watched in shock as Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen’s heart stopped.

Late in the first half of Denmark’s opening game of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament against Finland, the 29 year-old was running just after a throw-in and suddenly collapsed. It appears he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest.

Fortunately, he was quickly attended to by a medical team with full resuscitation equipment, who administered CPR and successfully used a defibrillator. Erikson survived and has been fitted with an implantable cardiac defibrillator. This is a small device which is connected to the heart and fitted under the skin. If a dangerously abnormal rhythm is detected, it will deliver an electric shock to the heart to try to restore a normal rhythm.

So how often do cardiac arrests happen in young people? What are the risk factors, and can they be prevented?

Cardiac arrests during sport are extremely rare. If you’re playing sport next weekend, you should go ahead in the knowledge it’s almost certain not to happen. The benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks.

But because events like this do happen, albeit very rarely, we need public venues to have good emergency plans to improve survival, including the widespread availability of defibrillators.

There have been some recent improvements in this regard in Australia. For example, defibrillators are now installed in all Coles and Woolworths stores nationally, and there are several programs to support rollout of defibrillators and emergency action plans to community sports clubs. But there’s still room for improvement.

Am I at risk? How often does this happen?

Sudden death from cardiac arrest in a young person is a very rare but tragic outcome. The baseline risk in Australia for people under 35 is 1.3 per 100,000 people per year, with 15% occurring either during or immediately after exercise.

Across all ages, there are 20,000 sudden cardiac arrests in Australia that occur out of hospital every year, and sadly only 10% of people survive.

It’s also worth remembering a cardiac arrest isn’t exactly the same thing as a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries is blocked, stopping blood supply to part of the heart. A cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood around the body, and can occur due to a heart attack or another cause.

The major causes of cardiac arrest depend on age. In people over 35, the vast majority are caused by coronary artery disease, where arteries supplying blood to the heart are blocked or damaged.

In people aged under 35, there’s no single major cause of cardiac arrest. Some of the conditions that can cause cardiac arrest in young people include:

a condition where the heart muscle becomes too thick, called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy”

other conditions of the heart muscle that make it harder for the heart to work properly (called “cardiomyopathies”)

a condition called “Long QT syndrome” which can cause a dangerously erratic heartbeat

Brugada syndrome”, which is a heart rhythm disorder.

However, 40% of sudden cardiac deaths in young people remain unexplained even after autopsy.

Is cardiac screening the answer?

Cardiac screening in young people looks for certain heart abnormalities that haven’t yet been detected. It’s common for elite and professional athletes in Australia and internationally, and is mandatory for young athletes in some countries, for example Italy and Israel.

This screening usually includes a “12-lead electrocardiogram” or ECG, which is a painless test that involves putting some sticky dots on the body and recording the electrical activity of the heart over a ten second period.

However, ECG screening cannot detect all of the conditions which can cause sudden cardiac arrests. This is because some conditions don’t show ECG abnormalities before a cardiac arrest.

Eriksen’s condition was likely in that category, because we know he had regular heart screenings while at Tottenham and these hadn’t shown any problems.

Medicare in Australia funds heart health checks for people who are middle aged or older, but not in younger people. This is similar to most countries. Other than in professional athletes and those with a family history, most professional bodies don’t recommend widespread screening of younger people because the risk of cardiac arrests is so low overall.

How else can we prevent sudden cardiac death? Defibrillators and data

The best strategy for preventing sudden cardiac death at any age is having defibrillators widely available. A defibrillator is a device that can analyse the heart’s rhythm and deliver an electric shock if needed. This can shock the heart back into a normal rhythm.

While they obviously can’t stop the cardiac arrest happening in the first place, they are crucial to survival once they do happen. Early access to a defibrillator can improve survival to almost 90%.

However, access needs to be very quick, ideally within 2-5 minutes, as we know the chances of survival drop by 10% for every minute of delay before defibrillation.

We also need as many as people as possible to be regularly trained to provide CPR.

Fabrice Muamba, a former midfielder for the Bolton Wanderers soccer team in the UK, was lucky to survive after he collapsed and his heart stopped on the field during a 2012 FA cup quarter-final.

Muamba, who recovered after he received CPR and 26 defibrillator shocks, last week voiced his support for defibrillators to be a legal requirement in public places in the UK. Ideally, Australia could also introduce a similar requirement to have defibrillators in public venues, supported by widespread CPR training (including how to use a defibrillator) to improve survival rates from out of hospital cardiac arrests.

In addition to defibrillators and CPR training, venues such as schools and sporting stadiums need to have good cardiac emergency plans so they can respond efficiently and effectively if someone’s heart stops.

Some of the conditions that are diagnosable prior to a cardiac arrest run in families, such as “Long QT syndrome”. So, it’s important to seek medical advice for anyone with a family member who has had cardiac arrest under the age of 40.

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In cases of cardiac arrest, time is everything. Community responders can save lives

Importantly, anyone who has any worrying symptoms should seek medical advice, especially fainting or collapse during exercise.

Finally, research projects such as the Australian End Unexplained Cardiac Death (EndUCD) registry are urgently needed to identify the underlying causes of cardiac death in young people so we can prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest.

Dr Jessica Orchard is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centenary Institute, University of Sydney and honorary Cardiac Research Fellow at Cricket Australia. She is supported by a Heart Foundation fellowship.

Politicians criticising women for ‘outsourcing’ parenting need a reality check. Here it is

Originally published on


During a heated exchange in a Coalition party room meeting about childcare subsidies, a male MP stated working women are “outsourcing parenting”.

The notion that working mothers are failing their children is nothing new. Derived from the Victorian era, notions of women as moral guardians of the family were a way to showcase new-found wealth. Having enough money for women to stay home was a serious indicator of class status.

But times have changed. These days, the majority of couple families have both parents employed even when children are infants, toddlers and preschool-aged. We have ditched the corsets and hoop skirts, so why do we continue to view mothers’ employment as a threat to parenting?

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It takes a village: why sending your kid to childcare isn’t ‘outsourcing parenting’

Mothers: all things to all people (but especially to children)

Victorian ideologies of separate spheres of work and family life, and distinct parenting roles for mothers and fathers, have given way to notions of intensive parenting. Today, parents are expected to provide time-intensive, one-on-one and expert guided care to their children. This forms one plank of “good” parenting as a way to ensure children are not only well tended but also prepared for increasingly unstable futures.

The pressure is on parents to solve problems of rising inequality, globalisation and declining earnings by ensuring children can read, play the violin, trade stocks and speak fluent Mandarin by the age of five. It is no surprise mothers feel stressed, time-pressed and overwhelmed.

The benefits to children of childcare

Added to this pressure is the notion that putting children into paid care so mothers (and fathers) can work is “outsourcing” mothers’ parental responsibilities.

Research shows there are tremendous benefits to children’s access to high-quality universal care, including increased language skills and better cognitive and socio-emotional skills. These benefits are long-term, leading to higher educational outcomes, greater likelihood of completing university degrees and reduced incarceration rates.

High-quality childcare is close to the silver bullet to improving children’s long-term well-being. It is a public good that keeps giving. Yet we stigmatise childcare in ways we don’t other forms of education.

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Fathers play a critical role in parenting

When it comes to childcare, the cultural narrative places the onus on mothers as solely responsible for children’s first five years. Just like the notion that women are better multi-taskers and men are “dirt blind”, this is a pernicious myth that disadvantages mothers, fathers and children alike.

Fathers today are more engaged in children’s emotional development than previous generations. Fathers who are more emotionally nurturing have children who are better able to achieve their goals in a healthy way, are more emotionally resilient and egalitarian in their partnerships.

So, we do fathers a true disservice in perpetuating myths that mothers are the natural nurturers and fathers are incompetent, disconnected and irresponsible.

Some politicians need a reality check

These political comments are also out of step with the views of Australian constituents. We ran an experiment in which we asked over 1,000 respondents about whether using childcare would hurt a prime ministerial candidate’s electability. The experiment switched genders to test if this produced different responses to male or female candidates.

Our sample reported that women prime ministers would be more electable if they had full-time help. And they viewed women and men prime ministerial candidates who outsourced this care as equally competent, capable, likeable and caring.

Our respondents viewed having children and being a good parent as critical to success as a prime minister, but did not punish women candidates for ‘outsourcing’ this care. Importantly, they also didn’t reward our candidates for having a stay-at-home partner. So, the National party’s male politicians (such as Matt Carnavan, George Christensen, Gerard Rennick and Terry Young) who hold the idea that the Australian public views paying for childcare as problematic is not borne out in our data.

Perpetuating gender myths causes much more harm than using childcare

Women continue to be held accountable against gender myths that aren’t supported by the science or our experimental study. The longer politicians and others perpetuate these false claims, the slower we are in reaching gender parity and closing income-based gaps in children’s long-term outcomes.

Leah Ruppanner receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Andrea Carson receives funding from the Australian Research Council to study political participation of women at the local government level.

Cramming cities full of electric vehicles means we’re still depending on cars — and that’s a huge problem

Originally published on


This week, the NSW government announced almost A$500 million towards boosting the uptake of electric vehicles. In its new electric vehicle strategy, the government will waive stamp duty for cars under $78,000, develop more charging infrastructure, offer rebates to 25,000 drivers, and more.

Given the transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, it’s a good thing Australian governments are starting to plan for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

But transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.

So, let’s look at these problems in more detail, and why public transport really is the best way forward.

Mounting disadvantage and health issues

EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.

But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.

Let’s start with a few of the social issues. This includes the huge amount of space devoted to car driving and parking in our neighbourhoods. This can crowd out other forms of land use, including other more sustainable forms of mobility such as walking and cycling.

There are the financial and mental health costs of congestion, as well, with Australian city workers spending, on average, 66 minutes getting to and from work each day. Injuries and fatalities on roads are also increasing, and inactivity and isolation associated with driving can impact our physical health.

Car-dependent cities also contribute to disadvantage for people who don’t have access to cars, and uneven financial vulnerability associated with the high costs of car ownership and use.

Indeed, some of these problems could be made worse — for instance, subsidies for EVs could end up favouring wealthier people who can afford new cars.

Read more:
Australian city workers’ average commute has blown out to 66 minutes a day. How does yours compare?

Mining for resources

A mass global uptake of EVs will generate major environmental problems, too. Most concerning of these is the use of finite mineral resources required for their construction, and the environmental and labour conditions of their extraction.

This was recently highlighted in a recent report by the International Energy Agency. As the agency’s executive director Fatih Birol said, there’s a

looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.

Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper are key ingredients required to make EVs.

As the report noted, EVs use double the amount of copper than conventional vehicles. EVs also require considerable amounts of lithium, cobalt and graphite that are hardly required at all for conventional vehicles. And it expects demand for lithium to grow 40-fold between 2020 and 2040, driven by EV production to meet climate targets.

There are better ways to cut transport emissions than greater uptake of electric vehicles.

There is considerable discussion of Australia’s natural advantage as a supplier of some of these minerals, as we have large reserves of lithium and rare-earth metals beneath parts of the continent.

But before governments and mining bodies rush to exploit these reserves, they need to ensure much more is done to avoid the injustices perpetrated against Traditional Owners and their lands and heritage. The recent appalling destruction at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto’s iron ore operation is just one example of this.

Read more:
Rio Tinto just blasted away an ancient Aboriginal site. Here’s why that was allowed

Mining also has its own environmental problems, such as land clearing and associated biodiversity loss, the pollution and contaminants it produces, and intensive water use.

The conditions of extracting these critical minerals in other parts of the world are dire. There’s the oppressive working conditions in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the conflict over Indigenous rights in Chile’s lithium mining areas, and environmental destruction associated with mining rare earth minerals in China.

Mining for rare-earth metals such as lithium comes with enormous environmental impacts.

Broadening ideas about transport

To focus on these problems is not to suggest the new policies on electric vehicles are unimportant, or that they don’t stand to have some positive environmental impact.

The point is private EVs are not a solution to the combined challenges of reducing our urban environmental footprints and making better cities for all, and that they have their own problems.

Instead, we should develop a good mass public transport system with extensive and frequent coverage. Alongside urban development with a more even distribution of jobs, services and opportunities, investing in better public transport could reduce car dependence in our cities.

This would have a range of environmental and social benefits: making more space available for people instead of machines, extending the benefits of mobility to people who can’t or don’t drive, and reducing demand for finite minerals.

Even fossil-fuelled public transport has fewer emissions than conventional car travel. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows the most fuel-efficient buses and trains generate less than half the carbon emissions per passenger kilometre of fuel-efficient cars. Of course, public transport powered by renewables will be even better.

Melbourne’s tram network is the biggest in the world.

But as things stand, we are far from having such a city. The benefits of good public transport and public services are unevenly distributed across our cities.

In Sydney, for example, there are significant investments in new public transport infrastructure in some parts of the city, such as Metro West and the recently completed North West Metro. There are welcome commitments to reduce emissions in that sector, too.

But we’re a long way from planning new developments and redevelopments to make public transport a viable alternative to cars. The lack of public transport infrastructure in newly constructed, master-planned estates on Sydney’s urban fringe is the most glaring example.

Read more:
Climate explained: the environmental footprint of electric versus fossil cars

Ultimately, it’s important that a transition to electric vehicles doesn’t dominate the discussion we need to have about urban transport.

Our challenge is to simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of different forms of transport, while also thinking much more broadly about the sustainability and justice of the system of mobility that’s so central to daily life in our cities.

Kurt Iveson has received funding for previous research from the Australian Research Council, the Henry Halloran Trust, and the City of Sydney.

If I could go anywhere: the ‘cathedral’ at Blythburgh that rises from the marshes

Originally published on


In this series we pay tribute to the art we wish could visit — and hope to see once travel restrictions are lifted.

A church, an ancient heap of flints, rises up, cavernous, through mist and marshes. The “Cathedral of the Marshes”, they call it. This is Blythburgh on England’s windswept Suffolk coast.

The landscape here is oppressive, bleak. And what man once made is quickly being lost to nature: sea erodes land.

Nearby, the parish at Easton Bavents almost completely perished centuries ago beneath the waves. Bare traces remain of the great medieval port of Dunwich five miles south.

Yet Blythburgh’s Holy Trinity stands tall, majestic even, a near-perfect expression of the mature perpendicular style of English Gothic architecture.

East Anglia is dotted with such archaic oratories, which exercise a remarkable hold over the English psyche. These churches are our public monuments, as Simon Jenkins has noted. But they are also memory palaces that enshrine a thousand years or more of history.

Names, dates, materials, shapes: they link us to lives, tastes, communities and faiths of the long forgotten. To visit such a place is to do more than admire. It is to commune with the past, marvelling in its reinvention as a foreign country and at how far we ourselves have come.

Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh Suffolk England UK known as the ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’.
Wikipedia, CC BY

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Far from the madding crowd

I used to visit Blythburgh as a kid. My Dad liked it here: the lonely desolation a tonic for the hustle and bustle of Cambridge’s university life.

His love of churches inspired me. In Ely and St Edmundsbury
we went to cathedrals together. At Orford and Long Melford he showed me the brasses and stained glasses.

But Blythburgh’s impression on me was always greatest. It had atmosphere — that intangible je ne sais quoi that comes from time and place and feeling.

The view from above and within the church.

Blythburgh’s mein is wistful and melancholy, the result of centuries of diminishing relevance and (mostly) benign neglect.

This sort of place inspired Benjamin Britten to opera and M. R. James to ghost stories. After all, the set of Peter Grimes and A warning to the curious is just a hearty walk away along the coast.

The magic here is that you are never quite sure you are truly alone, however drab or empty the space might seem. Another James story, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad tells of an encounter on one of the beaches round about. The protagonist, a young professor, finds a little bronze object which he blows. The rest is all chasing and shadows: pure Gothic horror.

As a kid, the tale terrified me.

The darkest of M. R. James stories hints at the dangers of intellectual pride and the failure to acknowledge forces we can’t understand.

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Watched over by angels

A church first stood in Blythburgh before 654 CE. That was the year King Penda of Mercia slaughtered King Anna of East Anglia and his son in battle. Anna’s followers brought their bodies here for burial.

The present building is mostly 15th-century. In this part of England those days were what Evelyn Waugh called the fat days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands.

Weathered and watching angels inside the roof.
Wikipedia, CC BY

Nearly all the current plan was laid out then: the languid nave, the capacious chancel, memorial chapels in the aisles, benches, monuments, font and the immense hammerbeam roof.

That roof: it protects the congregation from more than just the elements. A throng of angels, their faces serene but their wings aflutter, stand guard over those who sit on pews below.

The pews themselves are works of art, with carved poppy heads parading saints and seasons, works of mercy and sins personified.

A poppy head carving at the end of a pew depicts the sin of Slander.
Wikipedia, CC BY

Here, Slander brandishes his tongue, Gluttony his paunch, Hypocrisy his false piety and Sloth his bedgown. There, a man comforts the sick, another visits a prisoner, a third buries his dead.

This kind of delicate, intricate carving demanded the highest levels of skill possessed of medieval craftsmen.

Other churches have their own sacramentals, but Blythburgh’s are amongst the most beautiful and haunting. Spartan white walls and a clear, clean glass clerestory — the bandages of Reformation trauma? — only enhance the effect.

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An elegy to time

Blythburgh’s decline has been a long time in coming. The Reformation, an early blow, destroyed the priory which abutted the church.

The tower’s steeple fell in 1577 and its lack of resurrection somehow seems to symbolise this part of Suffolk’s gentle retreat thereafter into bucolic backwater.

In the 1640s, “Smasher Dowsing” and his men attacked the church’s art and icons, stripping the roof of half its angels. A parochial itch to shoot at jackdaws nesting in the rafters may have caused further damage in the 18th century.

Jack keeps time, if only for himself.
Wikipedia/Chris Gunns, CC BY

Victorian antiquaries restored the place to something of its former glory. But today, few come to worship in Blythburgh’s paludal “cathedral”.

The village itself houses just 300 souls and the locality, in the hinterland of a bird sanctuary, is best known as a haven for sailboats and as a twitchers’ paradise.

Inside the tower, a sombre armoured Jack-o-the-Clock from 1682 still keeps time. His baleful inscription: “As the hours pass away, So doth the life of man decay”.

The church, which has borne silent witness to countless other plagues, disasters, and wars, endures even now in its gloomy spot.

I glimpse it still from half a world away, an eerie greyness cloaking it with a salt wind from the sea.

Miles Pattenden has previously received research funding from the British Academy, the European Commission, and the Government of Spain.

‘You’re the best!’ Your belief in your kids’ academic ability can actually improve their grades

Originally published on


We have all met the parent who thinks their kid is the next Picasso or Einstein regardless of the evidence. But it’s hard to know if these beliefs are helpful or harmful.

Overly optimistic parents could reduce their kids’ drive to work harder and give them a false idea of the opportunities available to them. Or this same optimism could fill the child with confidence, kindle their self-belief and give them the courage to try harder.

We set out to discover which of these possibilities is most likely. We found a mother’s optimism about how good their child is in maths and reading consistently benefited children.

In our study, when a mum’s optimism was higher, their child gained better school results and their interest in school subjects increased. But gender stereotypes could get in the way. Mums were consistently more optimistic about their sons in maths and their daughters in reading.

We know kids from wealthy backgrounds often have better academic results and numerous academic advantages over their peers. We may also think wealthier parents are generally more optimistic about their children’s success.

But we found only modest and generally inconsistent evidence mothers’ optimism was more likely among the wealthy. More importantly, our findings that optimism leads to better school outcomes and more academic interest was the same regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status.

Is it better for a parent to cheer on their kid, or give them hard truths?

What we did

Grumbling about how every child needs a participation trophy these days is a common refrain. Back in the “good old days”, some might say, kids got hard truths and parents spurred their children to greater heights by grudgingly giving praise and pessimistically assessing their child’s academic performance.

We wanted to find out whether parents could benefit their children most by being a bit more optimistic or by laying down hard truths.

We used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). This data comes from 2,602 Australian children and their primary caregiver.

The primary caregiver in the data was almost always a mother, so we focused on them. But we think our results would be true for all parents and guardians.

Included in the longitudinal study was an assessment by mothers about whether their child was below average, average or above average in reading and maths performance.

We then matched the mother’s assessment of their child to the child’s NAPLAN results in the same year.

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This gave us insight into whether children’s grades in maths and reading actually were below average, average or above average.

Where mums judged their child’s maths and reading performance more positively than school results suggested, we called this optimism. We called more negative judgements pessimism.

We used the resulting optimism or pessimism data from one year and showed how this impacted NAPLAN and academic interest two years later. So we’d look at the data for year 3 and how this changed in year 5, for example.

Thus, we were able to show that mothers optimism and pessimism was associated with change in academic outcomes two years later.

Mums were more optimistic about their child’s ability than their child’s school results suggested.

We also found, on average, mums were more optimistic about their child’s ability than their child’s school results suggested. We found this not only improved their kid’s later school results but also increased their interest in school.

For example, lets imagine a child who scores in the 50th percentile in their year 5 NAPLAN numeracy test. Let’s also imagine their mother is more optimistic about her child’s ability than usual (specifically one standard deviation more optimistic than she usually is). Our results suggest this child will move up to the 55th percentile in the year 7 NAPLAN numeracy test.

In comparison, if this mother was more pessimistic than usual, the same child could expect to fall to the 45th percentile by year 7.

Could other factors be responsible for these results?

A child’s results could appear to be influenced by their mother’s confidence in them, when the influence is actually due to other factors such as the child having changed schools between the first NAPLAN test and the next. We used some relatively new statistical methods to ensure any pre-existing differences between participants (such as socioeconomic status, urban or rural residence, or private or public schools) could not easily provide an alternative explanation for our findings.

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These methods are not perfect and other alternative explanations for our findings are still possible. This includes differences between participants that develop during the course of the study. But our study provides more confidence than usual studies that find a correlation between two factors. So, we are relatively confident a mother’s optimism was really having the impact we saw.

Mothers showed some gender stereotyping

We found optimism sometimes varied depending on the child’s gender. In particular, mothers’ optimism often aligned with gender stereotypes that boys are better at math and girls are better at reading.

On average, mothers thought their daughters were better at reading than their sons.

Mothers were more optimistic about their sons’ ability in maths than their daughters’ and more optimistic about their daughters’ ability in reading than their sons — even if both performed just as well.

Other research shows parents with strong beliefs that girls are bad at maths tend to give homework help that is both intrusive and controlling. This could lead to poorer school results and reduced motivation.

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How does optimism help?

But how does optimism help kids succeed? We think there are a few ways. Other research suggests parents invest more time and resources (such as tutors) in their child’s education if they believe their child can be successful. Likewise, having someone in your corner can be a powerful motivator to try harder in school.

But could unrealistic optimism be damaging? There was some evidence in our study that too much optimism could be neutral or even harmful. But this was only true at very extreme levels, and the evidence was pretty weak.

We think the reason even extreme levels of optimism may not be detrimental because the world will do a pretty good job of keeping kids’ egos in check.

Our results reinforce the powerful role parents can play in the academic success of their children. The findings also contradict some people’s beliefs you must be cruel to be kind or that a parent’s role is to provide their children with a reality check.

Philip D. Parker receives funding from the ARC and the NHMRC.

Jake Anders receives research funding from UKRI Economic and Social Research Council, the Nuffield Foundation, and the Education Endowment Foundation.

Taren Sanders receives funding from the ARC and the NSW Department of Education.

Rhiannon Parker 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.

Bridging visas for three months granted to Tamil family

Originally published on

Three members of the Biloela Tamil family have been given bridging visas for three months, which will allow the parents work and study rights.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has granted the visas to Nades and Priya Murugappan and their elder daughter Kopika.

The status of the younger daughter Tharunicaa – whose illness and transfer from Christmas Island for medical care led to the government relocating the family to live in Perth – is unchanged, and she remains in “community detention”.

While she is now out of hospital Tharunicaa is to have medical treatment for some time.

The family will still be prevented from moving from Perth.

Tharunicaa’s status is the subject of a complicated legal battle as the Murugappans fight against deportation.

The government’s determination that the family should go back to Sri Lanka is on the grounds the parents have been found not to be refugees.

The family will continue to have access to government-provided housing, health care, schooling and support services.

If all four were on bridging visas they would not be entitled to the house they are now living in.

The family applied for the bridging visas last week, and the deadline for Hawke to make a decision came this week.

The timing coincided with Barnaby Joyce’s elevation to Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister. Joyce has spoken strongly for the family being allowed to go back to Biloela. But government sources said Joyce had had no influence on the visa decision.

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.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Sussan Ley and Terri Butler on the Great Barrier Reef being ‘in danger’

Originally published on

The government’s response to the UNESCO recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “in danger” was one of surprise and shock.

The recommendation will be considered at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meeting next month.

While the proposal calls attention to the need to address the effect of climate change and other factors which are degrading the reef, the government alleges it’s part of wider global politics.

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Environment Minister Sussan Ley is adamant UNESCO’s recommendation represents “international politics at play” which have “subverted the normal and proper process.”

In the background, the government points to China – which chairs the World heritage Committee – but Ley treads carefully.

“Others can make judgements about what those international politics are…”

“If the politicisation of a process that we have constructively contributed to for over 40 years is now going to be the norm, the points that I will make with the 21 member countries [on the committee] and others who might influence them is that this is the moment to reflect on what the World Heritage Committee is all about and consider the risk to your own properties.

“Because if the entire system is politicised, then we aren’t going to be acting in the interests of the natural heritage values of these places.”

Her opposition “shadow” Terri Butler wouldn’t speculate on what might be underlying the decision but “Australians would be very disappointed if they thought there was anything behind the decision other than concern for the reef.”

“What’s important here is for people to be able to have confidence in UNESCO in this decision making process.”

Butler says heading off the listing is important not just to avoid discouraging tourists from overseas but also for Australia’s image on the global stage.

“It’s really important [the government] demonstrate to the world they’re serious about protecting the reef, preserving it for future generations. And if they do that, they should also be in a position to fight really hard to avoid this particular listing.

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

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.