The Long Read by Sally Campbell
Science, Environmental Advocacy and Politics in 2020
I have found it increasingly difficult to listen to Donald Trump and other politicians as they spread what I know is false news, or half-truths to suit their political agenda or ego about just about everything. And in the UK, debates about coronavirus shut downs, to hungry children, to the guarantees by George Eustice of environmental protection through the Office of Environmental Protection. Then there are Trump’s tweets and put downs of scientists and statistics, usually in the middle of night, so I wake up to hear the latest and wonder if the world is going mad or is it me! How do we ensure honesty in journalism, on social media and within our political institutions’ conversations to ensure our communities and democracy survive?
Then I was given a book by Elif Shafak which I really recommend How to stay Sane in an Age of Division recently published.
...too much optimism generated complacency and ignorance and an illusion of perpetual progress. It has led to an assumption that human rights, women’s rights, minority rights and freedom of speech were values that other people in other lands had to worry about and fight for, but not the citizens of the democratic Western world… These were stable and solid democracies, after all….In the post pandemic world we understand better that no country is beyond such concerns. Now we are universally aware that history can go backwards…Democracy is hard to achieve yet easy to lose; it is an interconnected system of checks and balances, conflicts, compromises and dialogues.
There is another dimension; not just human interconnectedness but humans as part of the great natural ecosystems of the world, including climate, tides and weather. Most of us living near the sea are aware of the interconnected systems between the natural world and ourselves, after all the ferry stops when it is windy!! Papers and post come late or not at all, and the potential for our Coop to run out of milk is more than a passing thought. At a deeper level, we need data and science to explain our natural world, those checks and balances. With climate change, and environmental destruction on land and sea, it is so important that we receive good information, based on science, technology, engineering and mathematically managed data and research so there is sound advocacy. We have seen this too throughout the pandemic. Correct information needs to reach us all, that convinces us that it is truthful and we trust the givers of the evidence. That there is not one rule for them and one for us. Lack of trust in politicians damages our belief in democracy.
Science and Environmental Advocacy at Greenpeace
Most people do not live near the sea, and they may be completely unaware of the intrinsic value of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for sustainability of fish spawning grounds and future fish stocks. So how do environmental groups help us understand the value of the natural environment? Those who advocate on behalf of our natural world?
Most of us know about Greenpeace’s activities to improve local, transnational environmental outcomes and sustainable ecosystems around the world. This may be on their Pole to Pole expeditions, looking at fisheries, climate change demonstrations, microplastics in rivers and Antarctica or Marine Protected areas at risk through human greed, interference and short term money making ventures. The latest was the intervention in the North Sea Dogger Back MPA being trawled illegally. This recent intervention was graphically illustrated by dramatic photos and film of rocks being placed on the sea bed to prevent trawling and artist Fiona Banner, placing her boulder sculpture outside DEFRA’s office in London. This dramatic sculpture is a reminder to politicians of the importance of marine management. But what science backs up these expeditions to provide concrete data to governments, and us?
Nearly a quarter of the UK’s territorial waters are covered by MPAs, set up to protect vital ecosystems and species, including harbour porpoises and dolphins. This network of parks is a symbol of the government’s “world leading” target to protect 30% of ocean biodiversity by 2030. However, analysis of fishing vessel tracking data found that bottom trawling and dredging, the most destructive type of fishing on sea-floor habitats, is happening in 71 out of 73 offshore MPAs around the UK. The vessels, from the UK, other EU countries and Russia, spent an estimated 200,000 hours trawling or dredging across the seabed in offshore MPAs in 2019, based on their AIS (automatic identification systems) data. The findings, which follow reports by Greenpeace of an increasing number of foreign supertrawlers fishing in the same sites, drew accusations that the government is misleading the public over “paper parks” that fail to protect Britain’s seas.
Evidence Based Science to Highest Professional Standards
I recently (October 2020) watched and listened to a zoom meeting with the Greenpeace Science Unit at University of Exeter which carries out research and gives advice. There are 40 national and regional offices of Greenpeace around the world, which they support with science. The Laboratories carry out environmental forensics to the same standards as other forensic labs, for example those associated with police forces. There are 12 in the team at Exeter each with different expertise. Set up in the late 1980s in the University of London and later moved to Exeter in 1992, so has nearly 30 years of partnership with Greenpeace. The lab is now affiliated with the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at Exeter. It is free to conduct and defend its own research. It also introduces university students to their work.
The Science Unit Vision:
Apply science to inform Greenpeace’s Campaigns.
• Scientific expertise
• Best scientific practice
• Engage with the community
• Deal with emerging issues
• Represent Greenpeace at the science-policy interface
What sort of Research?
• Analytical research
• Environmental forensics
• Data analysis
• Modelling- air, water etc.
Examples of Recent Work Done:
• Microplastics in rivers, including the Clyde in Scotland
• Antarctica 2020
• Events that happen eg. The Wakashio bulk carrier, oil spill in Mauritius. Forensic science and advise on impacts with scientific information on oil slick
• Greenpeace Germany and Shell’s Brent slick, 40,000 litres of toxic waste “as normal” reported by Greenpeace
• Andrew Oil Platform and BP slick. “Normal everyday pollution” allowed. So sampling etc.
• Beirut Port explosion, exposure, contaminants advice.
• Sudan and severe flooding events in many parts of Africa 2020 linked to climate change.
Managing Safety in the Field:
• Expansion of Preem oil refinery, Sweden, now cancelled as a result of Greenpeace scientific investigations.
• Covid-19. Greenpeace staff etc staying safe advice.
• Giving Guidance to Greenpeace International, duty of care, health and safety, including Hazmat (hazardous materials)
There are 2 offices and two labs, the first Chemical Preparation and the second Analytical. No chlorinated solvents are used in metal extraction from samples because of the waste problems of chlorinated solvents. The lab. maintains and calibrates safety equipment, respirators etc as well as giving advice on appropriate use. Clearly very well equipped. Sampling and extraction of trace solids and liquids, for example with parsley, looking for pesticides.
In the Analytical Lab the chemical forensics effort is an important aspect of the work. Chromatography and mass spectrometry are important tools in the analysis of chemicals. For example up to 252 different pesticides can be identified in samples, in food, soil etc. A similar process as used by police and drug detection in athletes. Gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry is used for certain chemicals. These are powerful tools for quantitative work and identifying “unknowns” Large intensive agriculture studies are undertaken, for example in Spain, looking for nitrates contamination of soils and water courses in areas identified with vegetable growing.
Plastics are in the forefront and a study of microplastics in UK rivers has been taken to the UK Parliament. Recently, the unit is developing new processes for microplastics. Such as identifying samples from Antarctica: the water samples are filtered, then the microscope and infrared are used to look at these as many plastics absorb infrared energy. The results can then be compared to a library of data for specific plastics, such as polyester. The sheer diversity of projects with plastics is fascinating and as a scientist I found the online visit truly inspiring.
Modelling is an important aspect of any scientific forensics. It can be used for air pollution, looking at different pollutants and polluters. An excellent example given was the air pollution over Jakarta in Indonesia with nitrogen dioxide from traffic being compared with the contribution with the Banten coal fired power station situated further west along the coast. The comparisons during the Covid19 lockdown and consequent reduction in traffic clearly showed the extent to which the coal fired power station was adding to problems of air pollution in Jakarta. The unit used satellite data from an EU satellite. Similar work has been conducted in Australia using computer models to show where air pollution goes and the health impact assessment. Australia has 22 coal fired power stations, some of which have no pollution control other than rudimentary ash containment, not even for sulphur dioxide. These studies were then linked to epidemiology and showed 800 premature deaths per year and prompted a move to more strict conditions. Australia has a large coal mining industry, so political pressure to change policy, using scientific data and public pressure for policy changes at government level is vital although difficult. (Greenpeace Report August 2020)
Expertise of staff. Chemists, plant ecologist, fresh water ecologist, biologist, data analyst and desk top research, admin support, planning and monitoring, ecotox ecology, all vital to the work and results achieved.
There is a wealth of knowledge and assistance on areas such as:
• radiation protection advisors with a Hazmat team and risk assessment
• measurement of strontium 90 in forest roots in Ukraine
• helping local NGOs with accident prevention and equipment, for example in Belgium when investigation over plastic factories emissions
• Greenpeace Russia and a huge spill of 21,000tonnes diesel in lake and rivers
• Climate and land use and emissions from all food systems
• Industrial farm emissions, forests and food. Some recent good news follows advising Greenpeace office in Mexico on the impact of intensive farming on water pollution with impact on indigenous communities. Recently the minister refused 6 farms on the Yucatan Peninsula
• Pole to Pole in 2020. Looking at the high predators- whales, dolphins, sharks. Involved with crew and ships (Arctic Sunrise and Esperanza). Looking at MPAs globally. Use of passive acoustic monitoring with continuous monitoring. Environmental DNA (eDNA) from water samples represents an opportunity for rapid, non-destructive monitoring of aquatic community composition as well as single species monitoring. Vitally important in population studies.
• Microplastic samples, the use of science to identify key messages for campaigns with the public
• Generating peer review publications to inform policy makers
• Document sea ice minimum. eDNA in the far north indicate changes in species distribution
• International waste (chemicals and pollution) and climate change
• International policy interface in 2020, with ambitious framework on Environment Policy/UN policy
• Explore opportunities for better policy through plastic life cycle
• Communicate the science with live streaming to help the understanding. For example 80,000 watched in China
• One scientific paper published in 2018 had 79,000 reads, in the top 1% of read papers in that journal. Getting the science findings out very important
• Modelling and the use of drones in surveying etc
• Looking at nanoplastics and bioplastics including microplastics and relative lifecycles. Recent work on UK rivers. Microplastics found in otters and in birds, for example dippers. Most UK rivers have been found to be poor. Informing policy decisions by governments is a vital part of the work.
• Future work? Pesticides and veterinarian drugs in water courses and inshore waters
Science underpins all Greenpeace work. So these labs are pivotal in providing back up to all the field work. The zoom meeting gave me an excellent insight into these aspects of the Greenpeace work with staff and equipment to be at the cutting edge of forensic science, data collection, modelling and communication of findings to the public. I had not previously realised just how professional and experienced the Unit is in support of all the field work. It gave me every confidence to support Greenpeace field work.
How do they stay positive in an uphill struggle to influence policy makers?
When so many negative things are happening associated with climate change, fisheries, land use, plastics the question was asked: How do you all stay positive? The answers were very enlightening. Seeing results, getting information out to the public, policy assistance, support to Greenpeace in the field and in projects, and getting results that are scientifically based that can change the knowledge and policies of governments, countries and the UN. The default position of Politicians is to call for more research than face up to the action needed. Greenpeace scientists are heading off that artificial cover.
But when politics intervenes?
What we all need in the coming years are good STEM students (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Sadly, there are too few politicians with knowledge in these areas or even general science. A large number of our senior ministers in government have completed a degree in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) or Law from Oxford University and are ill-equipped to handle wider priorities we now face. They are often too easily side tracked by the lobby groups working against sustainability, climate change, circular economies and for short term profit. Or in the UK at the present time, with a strategy to prove that the UK can go it alone after Brexit. Hearing Liz Truss, The Secretary of State for International Trade, and Head of the Department of International Trade heaping praise on her trade deal with Japan for agriculture and fisheries, my first thought was…”Good heavens the carbon footprint of getting food stuffs to Japan from Britain is enormous, how sustainable for the planet is that?” Transport was not in the picture at all, although we know the cost to the environment of container vessels on the high seas in terms of carbon footprint, and marine ecosystem damage. Indeed flying fresh Scottish farmed salmon in ice from Scotland to the Far East, China and Japan is hardly sustainable in terms of climate change and growing it in our inshore waters is not sustainable either! Climate change and sustainable food miles are clearly not a consideration with Ms Truss who is quoted about the latest idea of an enhanced trade deal with Australia, New Zealand, Canada. “Our new-found status as an independent trading nation will enable us to strengthen ties with countries around the world.
• Ambitious, wide-ranging free trade agreements with old friends like Australia and New Zealand are a powerful way for us to do that and make good on the promise of Brexit.
• Pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific will diversify our trade, increase the resilience of our supply chains and ensure the UK is less vulnerable to political and economic shocks in certain parts of the world.”
In its latest report to government this month, the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) highlights that England’s natural environment remains off track to meet the objective to improve the environment within a generation, set nine years ago in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper and put at the heart of the 25 Year Environment Plan. There is a lot of advocacy ahead for us all!
And there is another serious problem emerging which will affect us all. This week environmental lawyers and House of Commons select committee chairs have voiced concerns that delays to the Environment Bill mean the UK will have no supreme environmental protection organisation operational after Brexit. There is dismay that the Environment Bill has been delayed “yet again”, with further amendments to the legislation proposed. The chairs of two House of Commons select committees have written to the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, calling for transparency around the proposed ‘interim’ Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is be legislated for through the environment bill.
So what is the Office for Environmental Protection?
The OEP will monitor the government’s progress towards improving the natural environment and will investigate complaints regarding failures of public bodies to comply with environmental law. The regulator is needed in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Previously, the European Commission would have acted against the UK if, for example, it had failed to achieve statutory EU recycling targets. In future this task will sit with the OEP. Amendments to the Bill introduced on 21 October have prompted concerns about the future independence of the regulator. An amendment proposed by recycling minister Rebecca Pow would give the secretary of state powers to issue guidance to the OEP regarding its enforcement policy.
Neil Parish, chair of the environment, food and rural affairs committee, and Philip Dunne, chair of the environment audit committee (EAC), have expressed concerns about an “embryonic’” stop-gap form of the OEP in a joint letter to the secretary of state for DEFRA. They claim delays to the Environment Bill mean the proposed new independent regulator will now not be established as planned in time for the end of the Brexit transition period. Questioning the powers and structure of the provisional OEP, the two committee chairs have asked for guarantees about the independence, governance and budget of the new body, and set a deadline of 6 November for a response from the environment secretary.
So where are Science, Environmental Advocacy and Politics now?
We have all seen how our current national government has chosen their policy considerations over the science in this pandemic; sometimes in order to defend the economy. Similarly, I fear trade policy will overturn the science of sustainability and ecosystems to show Brexit was the right way to go. I am fearful that the Office for Environmental Protection will not be independent as was proposed, instead be subject to central government control. So we must support Environmental NGOs and ourselves confront politicians who propose policies that damage sustainability, our world environment, ecosystems and the future of our climate. I could be criticised for just focusing on environmental issues and ignoring our economic survival but the fact is that many of these are now so serious that unless we address them now, we will not have the natural resources to feed the World’s population and provide a sustainable supply of those materials required for our secure future.
Finally, a further quote from Elif Shafa (2020) How to stay Sane in an Age of Division. Profile Books, Wellcome Foundation:
….we have all the tools to build our societies anew, reform our ways of thinking, fix the inequalities and end discrimination, and choose earnest wisdom over hatred, humanism over tribalism, yet we don’t have much time or room for error while we are losing our planet, our only home. After the pandemic we won’t go back to the way things were before. And we shouldn’t.