While the devastating effects of climate change eradicate our koala population in huge numbers, the Government continues to ignore the issue, writes Sue Arnold.
GIVEN THE HORRIFIC loss of koalas to the raging bushfires, it’s time to recognise the koala not just as an iconic animal but as an umbrella species for coastal forest ecosystems. Ecosystems which are rich in biodiversity are slowly dying as a result of bushfires and drought greatly exacerbated by climate change.
It’s also time to understand the significant political and legal barriers created by State and Federal governments to ensure the eradication of this much-loved animal, with good reason as they see it. The koala is the canary in the coal mine in terms of climate change. Deal with koala issues and the climate change curtain goes up.
A brief look at the history of attempts to protect the koala is insightful.
In 2000, the U.S. Government responded to an extensive scientific submission by Australians for Animals Inc (AFA) by declaring the koala “threatened” under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The legislation sets out five criteria pursuant to any decision to add a species to the list. Satisfying one criterion is sufficient evidence for a listing. The AFA submission fulfilled the requirements of all five criteria.
A species is added to the list when it is determined to be an endangered or threatened species because of any of the following factors:
- the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;
- overutilisation for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
- disease or predation;
- the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms;
- other natural or manmade factors affecting its survival.
A “threatened species” is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
In 2012, Tony Burke, then Federal Environment Minister, designated Queensland, NSW and A.C.T. koalas as “vulnerable” under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), leaving Victorian and South Australian koalas to their fate under relevant State legislation.
In spite of close to 100 inquiries, strategies, plans, policies and recommendations by State and Federal governments since 1998, no outcome has resulted in habitat protection or any protection of the species. Yet every primary recommendation was the protection of habitat.
Under the current Commonwealth listing and nomination requirements, only the very dedicated few would attempt to scale a mountain of processes, all ending on the Minister’s desk where any recommendation to list or upgrade a species is entirely up to the Minister.
The guidelines for key threatening process nominations, in comparison with the U.S. criteria, demonstrate that the Commonwealth Government has ignored the critical environmental indicators, creating instead formidable barriers to protection and upgrading.
There are no emergency listing provisions under the EPBC Act, instead:
An invitation to nominate is extended by the Minister each year ahead of a new assessment cycle. Nominations submitted within the advertised invitation period and that satisfy the EPBC Regulations are forwarded to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (the Committee), who prepare a Proposed Priority Assessment List (PPAL) of nominations for consideration by the Minister. The PPAL may include species that are nominated by states and territories through the common assessment method process.
Climate change impacts on biodiversity have been carefully ignored by all governments, in spite of the recent assessment led by Professor Will Steffen for the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council.
The report concludes:
- Australia has many species that are unique to Australia and vulnerable to climate change.
- About 85 per cent of Australia's terrestrial mammals, 91 of flowering plants, and 90 per cent of reptiles and frogs are found nowhere else in the world. More than 50 per cent of the world's marsupial species occur only in Australia.
- Rates of extinction of species are likely to increase as the global average temperature rises by just 1.0 or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and likely to accelerate sharply as temperature rises beyond 2 degrees celsius.
Under the Department of Environment and Energy website dealing with ‘Loss of terrestrial climatic habitat caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases’, the Endangered Species Scientific sub-committee noted:
‘…that there is a strong body of evidence and opinion that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases is a contributor to climate change.’
This is a huge breakthrough at the bureaucratic level.
However, based on the usual voluminous word diarrhoea, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee was unable to take any useful action.
The TSSC believe that a nationally co-ordinated threat abatement plan:
- could not effectively reduce losses of climatic habitat, since the internationally-distributed causal factors (climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions) would continue;
- would not contribute any additional threat mitigation over and above current initiatives;
- would involve setting up further consultative bodies and duplicate consultation which has already taken place during development of the National Greenhouse Strategy (NGS); and
- would duplicate actions underway or planned as part of the NGS.
TSSC therefore consider that a nationally co-ordinated threat abatement plan would not be a feasible, effective or efficient way to abate the process.
However, the Committee recommended that the EPBC Act be amended by including in the list as a key threatening process ‘loss of climatic habitat caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases’.
Australian Federal and State governments have, as a result of their collective failure to address the appalling consequences of climate change evident in the intensity of bushfires, a drought that shows no sign of ending, dying forests and rivers and have demonstrated such levels of irresponsibility they should be sacked.
Coastal forest ecosystems are essential. The same forests that the NSW and Queensland governments continue to log in spite of ongoing drought and bushfires.
Entire ecosystems are being lost as gliders, possums, birds, bats, insects and many other species – the biological components that create these functioning systems – are destroyed.
Ecosystems can’t be restored or replaced, according to Professor Paul Ehrlich who recently carried out a lecture tour in Sydney and Adelaide.
Coastal forest ecosystems bring rain. They shelter and feed biodiversity. They provide shade and healthy soil, their roots bind rivers banks. In wiping out these forests, the environmental and economic loss is almost impossible to calculate.
In 2000, Professor Tony Norton wrote in support of the AFA scientific submission to the U.S. Government:
‘...climate change could cause the extirpation of the koala throughout the majority of its range.’
The recent assessment led by Professor Will Steffen sums up the urgency facing Australia’s biodiversity as a result of climate change:
A transformation is required in the way Australians think about biodiversity, its importance in the contemporary world, the threat presented by climate change, the strategies and tools needed to implement biodiversity conservation, the institutional arrangements that support these efforts and the level of investment required to secure the biotic heritage of the continent.
With a Prime Minister who believes in Armageddon, it’s no exaggeration to predict that Australia’s future survival as a thriving nation or a dust bowl is on the line.
Sue Arnold is an investigative journalist. She heads up Australians for Animals NSW Inc and the U.S. California Gray Whale Coalition. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.
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