BOB DEBUS. How close to Armageddon do we have to get?

Feb 18, 2019

The 2019 OECD Environmental Performance Review for Australia, launched recently and reported in The Guardian if hardly anywhere else, makes horrible reading. Australia is home to a 10th of global species and is seen by many as synonymous with pristine coastal areas and an outback brimming with nature. However the country is increasingly exposed to rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, bushfires and drought”…  wildlife is in a poor state and its condition is worsening… Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2018-2030 appears “unlikely to catalyse progress”. With the exception of the Reef 2050 Plan funding for conservation and research is falling.  “Australia has no national long term vision on sustainable development…is one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the OECD, has no long term strategy for lowering emissions…and emissions are projected to increase by 2030.”

There have been intimations of catastrophe in recent weeks. Flames have lapped at sacred places that will be lost for ever if they burn: the ancient, irreplaceable ecosystems of the Tasmanian wilderness and rainforest in Queensland. The terrestrial heat waves across the country in January, like the floods of north Queensland in February, have no precedent.

There have been reminders that it is not only the Great Barrier Reef that is gravely threatened by marine heatwaves. Other World Heritage sites, like the unique Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, are also at risk severe damage. At Shark Bay the world’s most extensive remaining area of microbial bats and stromatalites — the earliest ecosystem in the geological history of the earth itself — is at the highest rating of vulnerability. It has been around for three billion years but why should we care if it’s lost now?

What’s the point of worrying about the report that 40% of the world’s insects are declining and a third endangered? Why should it matter much that a very high proportion of Australia’s vertebrate wildlife species is now in steep decline? How can it really be helped if the arrangements to provide a tiny few irrigators with water in periods of low flow are destroying the Darling River and all else that depends upon it?

The policies of a number of the present centre right governments in Europe are a reminder that indifference to nature conservation and hostility to those who care about it are not a part of conservative political ideology in history. But among the radical right of the United States and Australia it now is

We live still with the trajectory set by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. It’s not only that the approach of the Australian Government to emissions reduction in the energy and transport sectors is grotesquely inadequate. At a time when the scientific evidence says that one of the most important ways to reduce future emissions is to preserve and restore natural values of our landscape, conservative governments are doing precisely the opposite.

Funding for our proven and world leading system of Landcare is cut to vanishingly small levels  and stewardship payment schemes for farmers abolished. The Commonwealth has substantially withdrawn from policy development. Wherever the Coalition is in power oversight of natural resource management is left to the ministrations of the National Party — with consequences previously understood but again made quite shockingly clear in recent weeks by the revelations of the South Australian Royal Commission on the Murray Darling Basin Plan (and Four Corners before it). The Nationals benefit from the posture of the new radical Right but really they doggedly continue their established tradition of exploitation for private profit regardless of any environmental cost; which is by no means acceptable any longer to a great many in the rural community.

In New South Wales, the State with which I am most familiar, it is not just a matter of the secret and deliberate subversion of a once in a lifetime initiative to fix our inland rivers by the Nationals. A world class system of total catchment management has been dismantled; the logging of the carbon-rich native forest is permitted on an industrial scale; well negotiated policies to prevent further clearing of native vegetation on private land have been overturned; the expansion of the national park system has been halted, the budget for proper management of existing national parks has been crippled and legislation has been introduced for good measure effectively to turn our largest park into a feral horse paddock.

I understand that Pentecostalists like our Prime Minister rather look forward to Armageddon. Those of us who don’t must find ways to reverse the damage, to end the secrecy and the plain bad faith. We need to ensure that scientifically sound arrangements for environmental protection are asserted against vested interests and that they are actually enforced. After the experience of the last decade, the recent commitment of a future Labor Government to new environmental laws and the creation of a federal Environment Protection Agency to enforce them represents an altogether critical paradigm shift.

For my part though, I still have some hope that the prospect of Armageddon can shift the values of society itself. Many respectable economists believe that government can no longer afford to protect the environment and there is indeed plenty of excellent private conservation undertaken. However, Australia has a small population, most of it in cities, and it is not conceivable that adequate levels of conservation expenditure can be achieved across whole landscapes without substantial public investment in natural resource management, common enough in the past.

The Green New Deal gaining currency in the United States gives us clue.  The entwined crises of climate change and ecosystem deterioration are with us now. We all feel the climate changing; as I travel in many parts of the country I see the advance of weeds and feral animals, the loss of wildlife and the forests. Unless we achieve “deep decarbonisation” these things are bound to get worse.

If we drew a parallel, in this post-neoliberal era, between the past needs of post-war reconstruction and the present acute need to restore our environment, there would be no problem finding a great deal of money to avoid Armageddon.

Bob Debus was a long serving Minister for Environment and Attorney-General for the Carr Government in New South Wales and was more briefly Minister for Home Affairs in the Rudd Government


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