It’s 1996 and I’m in my last year of undergraduate studies at James Cook University, in Townsville. World coral expert Prof Terry Hughes cautions our class that on current trajectories, climate change and coral bleaching threaten destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. In another class, rainforest expert Prof Stephen Williams shares his concerns that increasing temperatures will force highly climate-sensitive animals – including the golden bowerbird and lemuroid ringtail possum – to move higher and higher up mountains in the ancient rainforests of the Wet Tropics, to cling to survival in cooler refuges. Of course, once trapped on a mountain top, there’s nowhere further for many wildlife species to retreat to.
As an optimistic 21-year-old, their warnings are unsettling, but I’m not panicked. I’m still hopeful science will help provide answers to the challenges at hand, and naively, I trust that our political leaders will act swiftly. In doing so we’ll avoid any genuinely dire outcomes for the wildlife and ecosystems so many Australians, and indeed people globally, hold so dear. After all, we are entwined with and completely dependent upon nature, so allowing its demise would be genuinely reckless, right?
It’s now 2022, approximately a quarter of a century later, and we’re just days away from what I and many others regard as a make-or-break federal election. But why the urgency now, and how have we arrived at such a juncture? In short: successive federal and state governments, led by both major parties, have unequivocally failed us and the remarkable plants, animals and other species we share this continent with.
Scientific warnings have been routinely ignored, critical and timely reports haven’t been released. Scientists have been bullied, gagged and their work suppressed. Environmental laws haven’t been enforced and, in many cases, have in fact been weakened. Funding for conservation actions, already piecemeal, is now so pathetic as to be laughable. Stark comparisons demonstrate the patent absurdity: the federal government a few months ago announced just $10m in funding for only 100 priority species of Australia’s more than 1,800 listed threatened species. Yet they still managed to find $4.5m for a whisky distillery and more than $100bn for submarines. If you fancy a dram, it’s bottoms up, but it’s bellies-up for many wildlife populations and ecosystems. “Everything is affordable if it’s a priority,” according to Josh Frydenberg.
Not only have the warnings of Hughes and Williams, and countless other ecologists, environmental and climate scientists come to pass, the damage has regularly been more severe and rapid than so many feared. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered four bleaching events in the last seven years alone – this year’s event reveals more than 90% of the Great Barrier Reef’s area surveyed is bleached – and sizeable portions, once vibrant and diverse, now lie dead, crumbling and replaced by algae. Many fish and other species dependent on coral for their homes are now also gone.
Lemuroid ringtail possum numbers have crashed spectacularly, where once they were abundant. A national icon, the koala, is now endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Threatened populations of birds, mammals and plants have halved or in some cases worse since 1985, and 19 ecosystems are collapsing, from the tropics to Antarctica.
The real tragedy here is that such events were as preventable as they were predictable, if political leaders had listened and acted, if they had exercised courage, compassion, care and common sense. We are told our minister for the environment has no legal duty of care to protect children from the climate crisis. But surely, given such positions of importance, at the very least our leaders have a moral duty to help ensure a world that’s biodiverse and a climate that is safe?
For so many of us, the historic and ongoing environmental destruction is excruciating; the pain is visceral. But despite the magnitude of the devastation, there remains a great opportunity and ability to turn things around.
Arresting Australia’s dire environmental trajectory will require change across society, and require us to confront our recent history and the continued toll it is taking. A colonial mindset and command-and-control relationship with the environment must end. To begin righting the wrongs we need:
Environmental policy and laws to be stronger, enforced and aligned. Continuing with widespread land clearing, feral horses in national parks, and establishing new coalmines, are inconsistent with conserving our native species and ecosystems.
An immediate and substantial increase in environmental spending. Goodwill and good intentions are common within the conservation community, but can only go so far against the number and scale of challenges we face. Industry and business are also increasingly concerned about the risks posed by environmental demise, and they are investing in and seeking stronger protection of nature and action on climate change.
A reduction of threats and amelioration of their impacts. No more important here is to recognise the dual climate and extinction crises: they compound each other. When we log forests we lose their ability to capture carbon, and threatened species such as greater gliders and Leadbeater’s possums lose their homes.
To listen to, learn from, and work with Indigenous people to care for and heal Country. The forced displacement of First Nations people from regions of Australia has caused immense harm, including the loss of cultural burning practices to manage fire. Supporting Indigenous self-determination and representation in land management and environmental decision making is essential.
Empower people and bridge divides. Conserving nature does not largely rest on our national parks and reserves. Many threatened species and significant areas of habitat exist on private land, and in our cities and towns. We must better engage and support landowners, farming communities and others, to achieve positive environmental outcomes.
To recognise the power of our individual choices. Governments must play their vital leadership role through policy and legislation, but it’s inescapable that the choices we make, such as what we eat, how often and by what means we travel, what we wear, and who we vote for, collectively determine our impact on the environment.
Whether it’s seeing a peregrine falcon effortlessly rocket between city skyscrapers, or a thorny devil trudging across the hot sands of our arid interior, or being overwhelmed by the kaleidoscope of colour of a coral reef, nature inspires and sustains us. Come 21 May, we must change our course and care more deeply for Australia’s species and ecosystems.