PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 5 May 2019

May 5, 2019

Land use is the focus this week. From threats to the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley and to Indigenous cultures and lifestyles in the Arctic to cities’ responses to the opportunities and challenges presented by climate change. But to start, news from UK that the parliaments in London and Cardiff have both passed motions this week declaring a climate and environmental emergency.

A week ago I mentioned the activities of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK. In response to the disruptions caused by XR’s activities and their lobbying of politicians the British House of Commons passed a motion declaring a climate and environmental emergency on (appropriately) Mayday. When XR’s leaders met the Environment Secretary Michael Gove the day before Jeremy Corbyn proposed the motion in the House Gove refused to declare a climate emergency. Prompted by the motion, however, Gove said I also want to make it clear that on this side of the house we recognize that the situation we face is an emergency. It is a crisis, it is a threat, that all of us have to unite to meet’. On the surface, this is a great victory for community mobilisation. The question now, of course, is whether the British government will take the sort of action that an emergency requires – for instance, an immediate end to fracking, new coal, fossil fuel subsidies and the proposed Heathrow Airport expansion, and a tax on aviation and shipping emissions (which between them make up about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions). The Welsh Government actually declared a climate emergency just before Westminster. A commitment by Morrison or Shorten to pass a similar motion on the first sitting day of Australia’s new parliament would surely be a vote-winner.

The Murray-Darling has featured prominently in the news for the last couple of years, with good reason. It is an object lesson in what happens to our environment when decades of ignorance, profiteering, neglect and incompetence (and possibly criminality) are allowed to dominate decision making and resource management. Surely we’ve learnt enough not to let anything similar happen along the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley. The Western Australian government is currently preparing a development plan for the catchment of the Fitzroy. Gina Hancock’s Fossil Downs company, among others, is pushing for the river to provide irrigation for greatly expanded pastoral activity. According to Hancock in 2017, 99.9991 per cent of the water in the Fitzroy currently runs out ‘uselessly’ into the Indian Ocean. ‘Uselessly’ … have we learnt nothing about the needs of rivers and their ecosystems not only for regular, albeit variable, flows but also for massive floods in some years? Indigenous and environmental groups in the region recognise the potential economic and social benefits of development but want to see a buffer zone around the river to protect natural flows and floodplains and an emphasis on Aboriginal agriculture, ecotourism and renewable energy.

The effects of environmental degradation on Indigenous people receives some attention here, particularly as it relates to climate change and marine problems such as rising sea levels, overfishing and ocean pollution affecting Australia or the Pacific Islands. We hear less about Indigenous populations elsewhere. The traditional hunting and cultural practices and lifestyles of Indigenous people of the Arctic, of whom there are about 400,000, are affected by the higher than average level of warming in the Arctic that is melting the ice and permafrost, and the increasing ocean acidification that threatens food security.  To add insult to injury, thawing of ice has opened the Arctic for exploration and drilling for (yet more) oil and gas. In common with concerned groups in Europe and Australia, Alaskan Indigenous groups are fighting back in the courts.

Duluth, Minnesota, sits at the western end of Lake Superior, just south of the USA-Canada border. In winter, it’s COLD. But is Duluth ‘the most climate proof city in America’, and why might it become attractive to climate migrants? With January temperatures in the distinctly chilly -7 to -16oC range, slightly warmer winters sound good to me. Then there’s the abundance of (what will become in many places increasingly scarce) fresh water in the lake, and because it’s well inland there’s not much threat from sea level rise. And while Duluth’s current population is 86,000, the city infrastructure can, apparently, accommodate 150,000, so lots of room for growth. Now I have no idea whether Duluth is or could be a nice place to live, or whether the current residents will welcome an influx of outsiders, but as the world warms and heat waves, floods, cyclones and sea level rise affect an increasing number of people’s homes and livelihoods, it’s inevitable that some (admittedly favouring those with the resources to choose where to move to and when) will think about relocating, within their own country or internationally. It’s essential that local, regional and national governments anticipate and plan for these migrations. Duluth seems to be leading the way. Is any Australian city following?

Cities currently house (in the loosest sense of the word) over 50% of the world’s population and generate about 70% of greenhouse gases. Many, including examples in Australia, are already acting to reduce their emissions and prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change. In New York City buildings current produce 67% of the city’s emissions.  As part of a broader strategy to deal with climate change, the City Council has introduced legislation to cap the amount of CO2 that buildings over 25,000 square feet can emit each year, and requiring an emissions reduction of 40% by 2030. Building owners will be fined if the cap is exceeded. Needless to say, not everyone is happy.

In a different but complementary response to climate change, cities are also recognising the potential of well-designed public spaces not only as great locations for relaxation, socialising, physical activity, demonstrating, entertainment, protecting and being in contact with nature, etc. but also as places to store storm water. Conversely, seawalls and levees don’t need to be boring concrete megaliths, they can also be constructed in ways that make them desirable public places.

The total land and water surface of the world is approximately 510 million km2. Most is ocean and about a tenth is habitable land. Humans are using 50% of the habitable land (5% of the total surface area) for agriculture. Despite their rapid expansion in recent decades, urban areas occupy about 0.3% of the world’s total surface area (think Queensland without Cape York). This is all nicely displayed in the figure below (from page 11 of the link).

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