Bushfires caused by climate change had a significant impact on the survival of koalas while the Government continues to ignore warnings, writes Sue Arnold.
IN APRIL 1989, a Cabinet in Confidence minute detailed Cabinet’s agreement that ‘a strong commitment is required to address the greenhouse issue both nationally and internationally’.
Ministers Senator Graham Richardson, the Honourable Barry Jones and Honourable Stewart West were asked to respond to Cabinet’s request on options to enable Australia to respond quickly to possible changes in the environment resulting from increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Climate change was described as a ‘major global environmental issue’:
‘It is essential that the government has a response strategy for Australia. To avoid long term deleterious social, economic and environmental effects, Australia must develop long term strategies to minimise damage caused by these changes.’
The minute detailed that:
‘Trade and economic aspects of the greenhouse issue should be played down as emphasis on them might lead to criticism that the Government is catering to sectional, moneymaking interests rather than protecting the quality of life of all Australians.’
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet noted that:
‘This issue has the potential to generate the most significant, economic and political problems likely to confront Australian governments over the next two decades.
Internationally, the loss of land, including through desertification, may require the relocation of populations on a scale not previously encountered.’
The document is essential reading, providing strategies and an important historical focus on climate change. Almost 32 years later, the impacts continue to be ignored by governments resisting any decisive action in spite of evident damage.
Prolonged drought and the catastrophic bushfires have been cited as examples of the damage climate change is wreaking on this ancient land.
Australia lost an estimated 3 billion animals in the bushfires.
Between September 2019 and January 2020, over 12.6 million hectares burned across the continent. In NSW and Victoria alone, over 20% of the country’s temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome burned.
In a recent interview, Sir David Attenborough, now 94 years old, made some terrifying predictions:
We live in a finite world. We depend on the natural world for every mouthful of food that we eat and every lungful of air that we breathe.
Even the biggest and most awful things that humanity has done pale into insignificance when you think of what could be around the corner. There could be whole areas of the world where people can no longer live.
If there were no trees we would suffocate. By saving nature, we are saving ourselves.
Professor Hugh Possingham, internationally respected Australian scientist, has described the koala as an umbrella species for coastal forest ecosystems. In wiping out the koala, significant biodiversity is lost.
In NSW, remaining unburned forests are being logged in spite of an estimated 25% loss of primary koala habitat. Around 60% of the areas zoned for timber production were affected by the fires but logging resumed with only minor changes to conditions.
No government has taken steps to ensure biodiversity loss and climate change must now become the most important priorities to ensure an economic, environmentally sound future.
Scientists say that Australia is one of the most vulnerable countries on the planet to rising temperatures. According to an article in BBC News, Australia is also one of the world’s biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitters.
The UN found that ‘there has been no improvement in Australia’s climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected well above the target’.
According to the Climate Council, climate change is threatening Australian tourism.
‘Australia is among the top five destinations most vulnerable to climate change.’
Koalas and the Great Barrier Reef are top priorities for international visitors.
Climate change is predicted to cause an increasing number of impacts on wildlife such as increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather and shifts in plant phenology leading to increased extinction risk according to a paper by a number of expert scientists.
Recent research by the World Wide Fund for Nature found the world’s wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 68% in just over four decades.
More recently, an international group of scientists warned accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening the survival of all the planet’s species unless world leaders face up to the challenge and urgently act:
‘We are in a sixth mass extinction, and humans are in the driving seat, having already wiped out hundreds of species and pushed many more to the brink of extinction through wildlife trade, pollution, habitat loss...’
The experts warned that no leader or political system is prepared for the disasters associated with biodiversity loss or capable of addressing the crisis.
Professor Paul Ehrlich, one of the study’s authors said:
‘Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns.’
In Australia, the most obvious icon of climate change and species extinction is the koala.
With no let-up in the logging of native forests, bulldozing of remaining habitat for major urbanisation projects, infrastructure combined with ongoing failure by governments to adopt any policies of habitat protection, the koala is left in dire straits.
There have been plenty of warnings.
In 1994, a petition which resulted in listing the koala as threatened under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act focused on the impacts of climate change.
Professor Tony Norton described how the greenhouse effect would result in a significant impact on all ecosystems:
Scientists at the ANU have predicted that the koalas’ natural range will shrink markedly and shift, mainly due to changes in the distribution of trees on which it depends for food and shelter. ...climate change could cause the extirpation of the koala throughout the majority of its range.
...climate changes may disrupt existing human activities and lead to the locating of activities in previously undeveloped forest sites — sites currently occupied by the koala.
Identified as one of the ten most vulnerable species to climate change, globally, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and the Australian Academy of Science, governments continue to reject developing policy to establish climate change refugia.
The number of environmentally concerned Australians is growing exponentially. It’s almost impossible to understand or make sense of the complete lack of attention by governments and major parties to the most significant issues of our time.
Campaigns to save koalas need to focus on the outcomes of climate change and biodiversity loss.
A wall of silence by governments in response is no way to run Australia in 2021.
Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.
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