PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 19 May 2019

May 19, 2019

The shocking loss of biodiversity and the threat it poses for human welfare have been highlighted recently with reports on the global crisis and New Zealand’s parlous record. Threatened by climate change, Torres Strait Islanders have challenged the Australian government at the UN Human Rights Committee, arguing that the government is obliged to do more to save their homes. How best to communicate about climate change is summarised in an article in the New York Times. And while many nations are declaring climate emergencies, a young Australian sounds a note of caution. Finally a visual tribute to Bob Hawke.

The recent report on the loss of species across the globe by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has received extensive media coverage, particularly the estimate of one million species currently threatened with extinction. The many truly alarming findings are fairly succinctly summarised in the report’s accompanying media statement, and even more succinctly here. It is however worth highlighting here the five direct drivers of the losses, in descending order of importance globally: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms (e.g. logging, hunting and fishing); climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species. The report notes that: ‘Loss of biodiversity [is] not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue’. Despite the dire and worsening situation, the authors are clear that ‘nature can be conserved, restored and used sustainably’ and they present a wide range of strategies for consideration, most significantly calling for ‘fundamental reforms to financial and economic systems […] to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth’. Capitalism cannot exist without economic growth. Are the authors issuing a challenge to capitalism?

Talking of loss of species, I was in the north island of New Zealand last week and there’s no doubt that the countryside and coastline are pretty and at times spectacular. The ‘100% Pure’ advertising slogan plays strongly on the pleasing optics but a recent government report demonstrates that New Zealand’s natural world has been continuously and progressively destroyed since humans arrived 800 years ago. This continues today with, for example, pollution, urban development, the expansion of dairy farming and seabed trawling. Only about one third of the original native forests remain, mostly in mountainous areas. Wetland areas have been reduced by 90%. At least 75 animal and plant species have become extinct during human settlement. Of terrestrial birds, 74% are threatened with extinction. No wonder I saw more invaders – particularly blackbirds, starlings, sparrows, magpies and mynahs – than natives. The government says it is committed to remedial action but with even the best of intentions and effective policies it seems that a rear-guard action to prevent further losses and create some small safe havens is the best they can hope for in many areas.

Considerable research has been published on the science of communicating about climate change. What is most effective in ensuring people are well-informed, support the policies and behaviours necessary to combat climate change, and become personally active at home and work and politically? Should we scare them or give them hope; focus on shrinking habitats for animals and plants, future generations or themselves; their health or their wealth? The most effective strategies focus on personal, local and current problems (sorry polar bears and grandkids), tell stories rather than provide statistics, avoid provoking fear, and demonstrate that ordinary people can take effective actions. That’s all very well but we also have to remember that the threats are increasing daily and the timescale for action to avoid an environmental and human catastrophe is rapidly shrinking. In particular we cannot rely on ensuring that children are well informed. Yes, they should be but it’s the current generation who must act. If we leave it to our children, it will be too late.

That said, here is a very interesting perspective from a young person expressing concerns about the growing number of national parliaments declaring a ‘climate emergency’. The writer is concerned that calls ‘… for an “emergency mobilisation of government resources” lends itself to top-down corporate and government solutions that entrench disadvantage and disenfranchisement, rather than putting decision-making in the power of people and creating a better world for everyone, not just a wealthy few’. If you don’t know about the fantastic AYCC (the Australian Youth Climate Coalition), I encourage you to have a look at their website.

Many Australians are very aware of the existential threat posed by climate change to Pacific Island states. Only this week leaders of Pacific nations met the UN Secretary-General and called for more action from the developed world to halt global warming. But we hear less in Australia about the serious threats climate change presents for our own Torres Strait Islanders. So serious are the threats that Torres Strait Islanders, supported by the Gur A Baradharaw Torres Strait Sea and Land Council, are challenging the Australian government in the Human Rights Committee of the UN. The Islanders argue that international human rights law requires Australia to increase its emission reduction target to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 to prevent the rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion and inundation threatening the social and emotional wellbeing of their communities.

As a lifelong socialist, well since I was 15, I have to finish this week by paying homage to Bob Hawke. Below is Peter Dombrovski’s iconic Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River, Tasmania. If this was the photo that saved the Franklin, Bob was the PM who saved it.

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