The parlous state of our environment

Many observers, used to seeing Tanya Plibersek as shadow education minister and former deputy Labor leader, were surprised at her appointment last month as Minster for Environment and Water. Some thought it was a demotion.

She doesn’t seem to agree. When she stepped up at the National Press Club last week to discuss the State of the Environment report, or SOE 2021 (completed last year but withheld by the Morrison government), she spoke as if it was the challenge of her lifetime.

“Environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity, which could bring about societal collapses with long-lasting and severe consequences,” the report says. “Multiple pressures create cumulative impacts that amplify threats.”

Its findings ought to horrify us. Of its nine environmental categories – climate, extreme events, land and soil, inland water, coasts, marine, air, urban and Antarctica – most are in a poor state and all but one (urban) are reported to have deteriorated since 2016. 

It reports “abrupt changes in ecological systems” happening in Australia now, “valued and iconic” ecosystems at risk, marine heatwaves bleaching Great Barrier Reef corals, and bushfire severely damaging normally fire-resistant ecosystems.

Invasive species continue to burden the environment, the economy, human health and our way of life. Thousands of non-native species have been introduced deliberately or by accident over the past 200 years. There are now more foreign terrestrial plant species in Australia than natives.

With the state of the Murray-Darling system remaining on a knife edge, Plibersek said she was “gobsmacked” to read that of the 450 gigalitres of water which the basin’s 2013 management plan said should flow to the sea by 2024, just two gigalitres had been released.

I said the report “ought” to horrify people, but most people don’t see the damage because their lives have not (yet) been directly affected by it. Many view such language as “alarmist” – a word often used to dismiss proponents of strong climate or environmental action. 

This is at the heart of the awful mess described by SOE 21. The shelter and protection afforded by civilisation enables most of us to ignore nature’s nastier consequences. But extreme weather experiences in recent years should have underlined that continuing to ignore natural signals risks losing all that civilisation has given us, and more.

Plibersek is one of two ministers charged with leading Australia’s response to this mighty challenge; the other is Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change and Energy, charged with delivering an effective climate response and a massive transformation of our energy system. 

To even begin, they will have to join a lot of dots. Land, freshwater and marine management, biodiversity and carbon emissions are not discrete packages but parts of a whole. Their single all-encompassing brief is to ensure Australia remains habitable and its ecosystems viable. 

They’re up against it, and their biggest obstacle may be the federal system itself. SOE 21 noted that 93 per cent of the 7.7 million hectares of land cleared in the first 17 years of this century was not subject to federal environmental scrutiny. The states control land use in Australia, and until they agree to work with Canberra we can’t expect miracles.

The report points to “insidious” impacts of climate change “that disrupt the lifecycles of pollinators and beneficial predatory insects.” Loss of pollination, central to growing all our plant food, would make foot-and-mouth disease in livestock seem a side issue.

The implications of all this are huge, and a piecemeal, uncoordinated approach won’t cut it. As Graeme Samuel noted in his 2020 review of Australian biodiversity laws (which Plibersek says she supports), we must protect and nurture not just threatened species but whole environmental systems. 

Above all, we must get our priorities right. We must begin combined, coordinated efforts to deal with the impacts of urban expansion, land clearing, chemical pollution and invasive species. All current land and mine projects must remain within strict environmental limits.

Plibersek’s changes to environment laws, when they eventually materialise, must contain a climate trigger. More stringent oversight of land clearing and mining has to include preventing new fossil fuel projects of all kinds, including on-shore and offshore gas.

In settling into their new responsibilities, Tanya Plibersek and Chris Bowen will be well aware that awareness of environmental loss and climate change has lifted markedly among voters in electorates like theirs. 

They will surely know that the sort of casual indifference we’ve become used to is not an option, that they’re in this for the long haul, and they will need all the help they can muster, in the parliament and across the country.

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