Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.
The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.
The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.
Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.
Getting to grips with the problem
First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.
This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.
More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.
Numbers don’t lie
Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:
a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface
About 1,300 documentedspecies extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent
about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions
85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans
a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.
A bad situation only getting worse
The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.
High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.
High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.
Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.
The danger of political impotence
Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.
Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.
revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing
rapidly eliminating fossil fuels
regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy
reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives
educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.
Don’t look away
Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.
Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.
Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.
What is the most common form of human infrastructure in the world? It may well be the fence. Recent estimates suggest that the total length of all fencing around the globe is 10 times greater than the total length of roads. If our planet’s fences were stretched end to end, they would likely bridge the distance from Earth to the Sun multiple times.
On every continent, from cities to rural areas and from ancient to modern times, humans have built fences. But we know almost nothing about their ecological effects. Border fences are often in the news, but other fences are so ubiquitous that they disappear into the landscape, becoming scenery rather than subject.
In a recently published study, our team sought to change this situation by offering a set of findings, frameworks and questions that can form the basis of a new discipline: fence ecology. By compiling studies from ecosystems around the world, our research shows that fences produce a complex range of ecological effects.
If fences seem like an odd thing for ecologists to study, consider that until recently no one thought much about how roads affected the places around them. Then, in a burst of research in the 1990s, scientists showed that roads – which also have been part of human civilization for millennia – had narrow footprints but produced enormous environmental effects.
Our research team became interested in fences by watching animals. In California, Kenya, China and Mongolia, we had all observed animals behaving oddly around fences – gazelles taking long detours around them, for example, or predators following “highways” along fence lines.
We reviewed a large body of academic literature looking for explanations. There were many studies of individual species, but each of them told us only a little on its own. Research had not yet connected the dots between many disparate findings. By linking all these studies together, we uncovered important new discoveries about our fenced world.
Perhaps the most striking pattern we found was that fences rarely are unambiguously good or bad for an ecosystem. Instead, they have myriad ecological effects that produce winners and losers, helping to dictate the rules of the ecosystems where they occur.
One finding that we believe is critical is that for every winner, fences typically produce multiple losers. As a result, they can create ecological “no man’s lands” where only species and ecosystems with a narrow range of traits can survive and thrive.
Altering regions and continents
Examples from around the world demonstrate fences’ powerful and often unintended consequences. The U.S.-Mexico border wall – most of which fits our definition of a fence – has genetically isolated populations of large mammals such as bighorn sheep, leading to population declines and genetic isolation. It has even had surprising effects on birds, like ferruginous pygmy owls, that fly low to the ground.
Australia’s dingo fences, built to protect livestock from the nation’s iconic canines, are among the world’s longest man-made structures, stretching thousands of kilometers each. These fences have started ecological chain reactions called trophic cascades that have affected an entire continent’s ecology.
The absence of dingoes, a top predator, from one side of the fence means that populations of prey species like kangaroos can explode, causing categorical shifts in plant composition and even depleting the soil of nutrients. On either side of the fence there now are two distinct “ecological universes.”
Our review shows that fences affect ecosystems at every scale, leading to cascades of change that may, in the worst cases, culminate in what some conservation biologists have described as total “ecological meltdown.” But this peril often is overlooked.
Fences clearly are here to stay. As fence ecology develops into a discipline, its practitioners should consider the complex roles fences play in human social, economic and political systems. Even now, however, there is enough evidence to identify actions that could reduce their harmful impacts.
There are many ways to change fence design and construction without affecting their functionality. For example, in Wyoming and Montana, federal land managers have experimented with wildlife-friendly designs that allow species like pronghorn antelope to pass through fences with fewer obstacles and injuries. This kind of modification shows great promise for wildlife and may produce broader ecological benefits.
Another option is aligning fences along natural ecological boundaries, like watercourses or topographical features. This approach can help minimize their effects on ecosystems at low cost. And land agencies or nonprofit organizations could offer incentives for land owners to remove fences that are derelict and no longer serve a purpose.
Knowing this, we believe that policymakers and landowners should be more cautious about installing fences in the first place. Instead of considering only a fence’s short-term purpose and the landscape nearby, we would like to see people view a new fence as yet another permanent link in a chain encircling the planet many times over.
There’s no way around the fact that Christmas has a large carbon footprint, from the travelling we do to the presents we give and the large amounts of food we eat. But it is possible to at least reduce the negative impacts. With climate change and carbon dioxide levels now major sources of concern, surely it is time to see what can be done to be friendlier to the environment, and the Christmas tree is a good place to start.
As editor of an academic journal on arboriculture – the cultivation of trees – this is something I know a bit about. There are various aspects to assess: how the trees are grown, how many years they are used for, and how they are disposed of or recycled. For artificial trees, we also need to consider what they are made of and how and where they are manufactured.
For real trees, there is a question of where they comes from and how they were grown. Sourcing your tree locally will cut down on transportation costs and emissions and support local jobs too. Habitat may be another issue, since trees grown on moors, heaths, and peat bogs are hugely damaging with massive losses of peat-carbon and biodiversity, and increased downstream flooding. It’s better to instead choose trees grown on arable fields or “improved” grassland of little ecological interest.
Don’t worry about the emissions
When buying a Christmas tree, people may worry about carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere when it is cut down and then, once used, disposed of. But there are issues and complications with this. Yes, you are cutting down a young tree which will either be thinned from a plantation of larger trees or be part of a single-aged crop all cut down at the same time. In the first instance, the loss of your tree will make no difference whatsoever to the carbon balance of the plantation since the other trees nearby will grow in compensation because competition for light and nutrients is reduced.
Even when a tree has been harvested as part of a single-aged crop, a proportion of its organic matter (and carbon) will remain as the dead root material and fallen leaves to be reincorporated into the soil’s carbon-bank. And if you recycle the tree after use as woodchip, then all that material is returned to the soil as well, and only a small proportion will return immediately to the atmosphere.
If you burn the old tree, then clearly both carbon dioxide and other pollutants go immediately into the air. However, even in this scenario, your tree can only return to the atmosphere the carbon which it took out in the first place – so there is zero net carbon loss. Our real concerns for carbon release are from burning of fossil fuels from below ground, and from damage to long-term carbon storage in peat bogs and fens. Disposal at landfill is much more damaging than incineration.
There is not much to choose between the different species of Christmas tree, at least in terms of carbon impact. There are issues, though, in terms of how trees are grown and particularly the use of pesticides in their cultivation, and potential damage to precious wildlife habitats. A recent example is the damage wrought to a peat bog in Cumbria by inappropriate planting of conifer trees.
An artificial tree, on the other hand, can have a relatively significant carbon footprint depending on what it is made from, and most of all, how many years it remains in service. Spread over ten years, the impact is negligible, but if it has been manufactured abroad, then the immediate carbon footprint is considerable.
How to reduce your tree’s footprint:
1) Buy a real tree, put it in a pot and use it over several years and finally plant it outside to live on. That way you will even mop up a little of your carbon footprint from other Christmas celebrations.
2) Recycle your real tree after use as woodchip or compost. Don’t bin or burn it.
3) Buy local and from a charity.
4) Avoid trees brought in from a distance and especially from an environmentally damaging source – ask the retailer where they are from. Better still, go direct to a local farm shop or National Trust site that is both producing and selling trees.
5) Ask for organically grown trees if possible.
6) Some growers make a donation per tree to an environmental charity – so ask when you buy.
Any “consumption” of goods has environmental impacts, but that is an unavoidable part of life. Christmas trees provide lots of pleasure for many people – just try to boost the good aspects and avoid or minimise the bad ones.
In our recent paper, we identify a major flaw in the current approach to listing threatened ecological communities for protection under the EPBC Act: the requirement to meet unrealistic condition thresholds.
In other words, where areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, they’re considered too degraded to warrant conservation and aren’t protected under the EPBC Act.
What’s an ecological community anyway?
An ecological community is a group of species that co-exist in a specific type of habitat and interact with each other. For example, a mangrove community is clearly different in structure and the types of plants and animals is supports, compared to what you would see in a salt marsh community nearby.
Just like individual species, ecological communities can occur over thousands of kilometres, even though examples of this type of community may only be found in small and patchy areas across that range.
For example, less than 5% of the box gum grassy woodlands remain in good condition. This critically endangered community is home to a number of threatened plant and animal species, such as the spotted-tailed quoll, but many areas have been degraded and cleared for farming, threatening their survival.
The flaw in the law
Most listings of threatened ecological communities contain very specific “condition thresholds”. These thresholds were introduced to the legislation in 2005 in an effort to prioritise habitats considered higher quality.
Condition thresholds are usually defined in consultation with experts and often involve very specific descriptive characteristics, such as minimum patch sizes or numbers of species.
If areas of a community do not meet these specific minimum thresholds, it means a landholder doesn’t require approval to clear or develop parts of a community, if those parts are perceived to be “poor quality” habitat.
For example, the condition thresholds for Coolibah-black box woodlands suggest protection only applies to woodland patches larger than five hectares. This ignores the ecological importance of smaller patches that increase the connectivity of habitat in the landscape.
What’s more, condition thresholds make it hard to justify conservation funding to restore areas that don’t meet those criteria.
Unrealistic thresholds threaten wildlife
This is bad for biodiversity conservation in Australia for two reasons.
First, excluding examples of a threatened ecological community from protection because they don’t meet restrictive condition thresholds assumes these areas have no ecological value.
This is clearly a flawed assumption, as small, disturbed or degraded remnants can still be important to conservation. They could, for instance, be a target for restoration, a source of regeneration for nearby areas of the community as part of a larger natural corridor, or a habitat for threatened species.
Let’s take the critically endangered ecological community of the Cumberland plain woodland in the Sydney Basin as an example. Only 9% of the woodlands’ original extent remains today.
Despite providing habitat for threatened squirrel gliders, bats, and land snails, urban development in areas containing the woodland were continually approved during the 2000s — a death by a thousand cuts for the species and communities in patchy conditions.
This is a problem, because most remaining examples of these wetlands are on private property and almost all have been modified by humans in some way, including damming. Few of these modified wetlands would technically qualify for protection.
Yet some of these modified wetlands still support diverse plants and animals and are important sites for migratory waterbirds, such as Latham’s snipe.
Because this threatened community has such a small distribution and very few examples remain (only 58 lagoons are left in the Northern Tablelands), excluding even a few because of unrealistic condition thresholds greatly increases their risk of extinction.
New attitudes in a changing world
It’s clear governance frameworks have struggled to keep up with the changes in ecosystems that human activity causes.
These frameworks are often based on a flawed assumption: that natural systems remain essentially the same over time. To prevent further biodiversity loss, we need better understanding of how, when and why ecological communities shift between different states.
Importantly, we need to change our approach to environmental governance frameworks, including seriously rethinking condition thresholds in the EPBC Act, to ensure we can continue to protect biodiversity as it rapidly changes before us.
After the 2008 global financial crisis, Green New Deals were proposed in various countries as a way to pick up the pieces of the economy. The general idea is to create jobs while rebuilding societies, by targeting environmental innovation as the key to economic recovery.
We’re in the midst of another global financial crisis that’s infinitely more crippling than in 2008, and the global pandemic that brought it on shows no signs of easing. So is now really the right time to, yet again, advocate for a Green New Deal?
In his speech to the National Press Club last week, national Greens leader Adam Bandt reiterated his push for the deal. He lambasted the Morrison government’s economic response to COVID-19 in the federal budget, which largely shunned renewable energy investment, calling it “criminal”.
The Greens’ proposal echoes Labor, business, unions and environmental groups, and even some conservatives, who think green policies are vital to strengthen the economy post-pandemic.
And they’re right, the Green New Deal is explicitly designed to assist recovery after a crisis. With many countries already taking on similar ideas, the Coalition government’s steadfast investment in fossil fuels will only hold Australia back.
What is a Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is an environmental version of economic stimulus, modelled upon US President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of massive public spending to create jobs after the 1930s depression.
It couples climate action with social action, creating jobs while reducing emissions, and reducing energy costs by adopting renewables. It’d come at a cost, however, to the fossil fuel industry.
The Greens want Australia to quit coal by 2030, and have an independent authority, Renew Australia, to manage a just transition for workers, create jobs and see no one left behind in the transition to 100% renewable energy.
Even the International Monetary Fund sees a global green fiscal stimulus, with investment in climate change action and transitioning to a low carbon economy, as the right response to the COVID crisis.
Green New Deals around the world
In the socially democratic Scandinavian countries, green-led economic recovery has been the go-to policy response to political, banking, fiscal and resource-based economic crises in recent decades.
Energy taxation, offset by cuts in personal income tax, and social security contributions have driven economic recovery. As a result, Nordic economies have grown by 28% from 2000–17, while carbon emissions have fallen by 18%.
In late 2019, before the onset of COVID, the European Union announced a Green New Deal worth €1 trillion in public and private investment over the next decade to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, this funding is no longer assured. The COVID crisis has put a hole in EU finances, caused divisions over spending priorities and seen few environmental strings attached to member country bailouts.
In the US, the Green New Deal featured strongly in the Obama administration’s grappling with the global financial crisis. Now, during the pandemic, it’s featuring again as a proposal from the Democrats.
Between September 2008 and December 2009, South Korea and China outstripped the post-GFC efforts of the rest of the G20 nations with their astonishing green stimulus spending of 5% and 3.1%, respectively, of GDP.
Today, South Korea is using its COVID response to trigger environmentally sustainable economic growth, spending US$61.9 billion to invest in wind, solar, smart grids, renewables, electric vehicles and recycling.
It’s clear nations around the world have decided a Green New Deal is exactly the right stimulus response to crises, including the current fallout from the global pandemic. So how is Australia tracking?
Australia risks being left behind
The lessons for Australia are, firstly, that it risks being left behind in the technological advances that come with shifting to a greener economy, if it neglects the environment in its COVID stimulus planning.
It should embrace the COVID crisis and the climate crisis as dual challenges, given Australia’s urgent need to reduce its emissions in electricity, transport, stationary energy, fugitive emissions and industrial processes.
Australia can be confident investment in clean energy that sets it on the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 will not only be rewarded economically, but also diplomatically, as it joins the global, willing climate coalition.
The UN chief economist, Elliott Harris, has called for Australia and other nations to
place more ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy at the centre of their COVID-19 recovery plans.
Instead, the Coalition government has given fossil fuels four times more stimulus funding than renewables, and has prioritised coal-fired power, carbon capture and storage, and gas industry expansion in its recent federal budget.
This is a risky investment strategy. The International Energy Agency sees a poor economic future for fossil fuels, with demand for coal on the decline and jobs in renewables expected to increase.
If the Coalition were to attempt it, a Green New Deal would ease the shift away from fossil fuels. It would focus, as such deals do elsewhere, on creating jobs by accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s time to get on board.
Making eco-conscious choices at the shops can be tricky when we’re presented with so many options, especially when it comes to milk. Should we buy plant-based milk, or dairy? We’ve looked at the evidence to help you choose.
Dairy has the biggest environmental footprint, by far
Any plant-based milk, be it made from beans, nuts or seeds, has a lighter impact than dairy when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the use of water and land. All available studies, including systematic reviews, categorically point this out.
A 2018 study estimates dairy to be around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than plant-based milks.
In the case of cow’s milk, its global warming potential — measured as kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalent per litre of milk — varies between 1.14 in Australia and New Zealand to 2.50 in Africa. Compare this to the global warming potential of plant-based milks, which, on average, is just 0.42 for almond and coconut milk and 0.75 for soy milk.
What’s more, dairy generally requires nine times more land than any of the plant-based alternatives. Every litre of cow’s milk uses 8.9 square metres per year, compared to 0.8 for oat, 0.7 for soy, 0.5 for almond and 0.3 for rice milk.
Water use is similarly higher for cow’s milk: 628 litres of water for every litre of dairy, compared to 371 for almond, 270 for rice, 48 for oat and 28 for soy milk.
Milks from nuts
Milk can be made from almost any nuts, but almond, hazelnut and coconut are proving popular. Not only do nut milks generally require smaller land areas, the trees they grow on absorb carbon and, at the end of their life, produce useful woody biomass.
Still, there are vast differences in the geographical conditions where various nut trees are grown.
California is the largest producer of almond milk in the world, followed by Australia.
Compared to other plant-based milk options, its water use is much higher and largely depends on freshwater irrigation. One kernel of California almond requires 12 litres of water, which raises questions about the industrial production of these nuts in water-scarce areas.
However the biggest environmental concern with almond production in the US is the high mortality of bees, used for tree cross-pollination. This might be because the bees are exposed to pesticides, including glyphosate, and the intensive industrial agriculture which drastically transforms nature’s fragile ecosystems.
In Australia, where almond orchards are smaller-scale and less industrialised, beekeepers do not experience such problems. Still, millions of bees are needed, and fires, drought, floods, smoke and heat damage can threaten their health.
Generally, the environmental performance of coconut milk is good – coconut trees use small amounts of water and absorb carbon dioxide.
Yet as coconuts are grown only in tropical areas, the industrial production of this milk can destroy wildlife habitat. Increasing global demand for coconut milk is likely to put further pressure on the environment and wildlife, and deepen these conflicts.
Hazelnut is a better option for the environment as the trees are cross-pollinated by wind which carries airborne dry pollen between neighbouring plants, not bees.
Hazelnuts also grow in areas with higher rainfall around the Black Sea, Southern Europe and in North America, demanding much less water than almond trees.
Hazelnut milk is already commercially available and although its demand and production are rising, the cultivation of the bush trees is not yet subjected to intensive large-scale operations.
Milks from legumes
Soy milk has been used for millennia in China and has already an established presence in the West, but the hemp alternative is relatively new.
All legumes are nitrogen fixing. This means the bacteria in plant tissue produce nitrogen, which improves soil fertility and reduces the need for fertilisers. Legumes are also water-efficient, particularly when compared with almonds and dairy.
Soy milk has a very good environmental performance in terms of water, global warming potential and land-use.
The US and Brazil are the biggest suppliers of soybeans, and the plant is very versatile when it comes to its commercial uses, with a large share of the beans used as livestock feed.
However, a major environmental concern is the need to clear and convert large swathes of native vegetation to grow soybeans. An overall reduction in the demand for meat and animal-based foods could potentially decrease the need to produce large amounts of soybeans for animal feed, but we’re yet to witness such changes.
Its seeds are processed for oil and milk, but the plant itself is very versatile — all its parts can be used as construction material, textile fibres, pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics.
Its roots grow deep, which improves the soil structure and reduces the presence of fungi. It’s also resistant to diseases, and it produces a lot of shade, which supresses the growth of weeds. This, in turn, cuts down the need for herbicides and pesticides.
Hemp requires more water than soy, but less than almond and dairy. Despite being one of the oldest crops used, particularly in Europe, hemp is produced in very low quantities.
Milks from grains
We can produce plant-based milk from almost any grains, but rice and oat are proving popular. However, they require more land compared with nut milks.
Rice milk has a big water footprint. More notably, it’s associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to the other plant-based options because methane-producing bacteria develop in the rice paddies.
Oat milk has been becoming increasingly popular around the world because of its overall environmental benefits.
But similar to soy, the bulk of oat production is used for livestock feed and any reduction in the demand for animal-based foods would decrease the pressure on this plant.
Currently grown in Canada and the US, most oat operations are large-scale monoculture, which means it’s the only type of crop grown in a large area. This practice depletes the soil’s fertility, limits the diversity of insects and increases the risk of diseases and pest infection.
Oats are also typically grown with glyphosate-based pesticides, which tarnishes its environmental credentials because it can cause glyphosate-resistant plant, animal and insect pathogens to proliferate.
The final message: diversify your choices
Organic versions of all these plant-based milks are better for the environment because they use, for example, fewer chemical fertilisers, they’re free from pesticides and herbicides, and they put less pressure on the soils. Any additives, be it fortifiers, such as calcium or vitamins, flavours or additional ingredients, such as sugar, coffee or chocolate, should be taken into account separately.
Packaging is also very important to consider. Packaging contributes 45% of the global warming potential of California’s almond milk. And it’s worth keeping in mind that wasting milk has a much bigger environmental footprint, and questions the ethics of how humans exploit the animal world.
If, as a consumer you are trying to reduce the environmental footprint of the milk you drink, the first message is you should avoid dairy and replace it with plant-based options.
The second message is it’s better to diversify the plant-based milks we use. Shifting to only one option, even if it’s the most environmentally friendly one for the time being, means the market demand may potentially become overexploited.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the postwar era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus human beings have never before encountered.
A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, and it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined by disease, inequality, malnutrition, stress and age.
It’s only months since we were overwhelmed with the bushfire disaster. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern sea- board burnt with an unstoppable ferocity. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals. The koalas screaming in agony were heard around the world. This was our global future burning before our eyes.
Then came this virus. And it has shut down much of the world by freezing markets and informal economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. But we should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather, they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
The climate emergency has not abated with the pandemic. Extreme weather is everywhere on the planet. Syria is gripped by its worst drought in 900 years. Locusts are swarming over East Africa. We are warned the climatic sweet spot of the Holocene that has made complex societies possible for the last 6,000 years is coming to an end, to be replaced by unbearable heat in some of the world’s most populous places.
This is the end of the “good times” for the world, but it has been a long time coming. COVID-19 is simply an accelerant. Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, for all that stands between us and disaster is good government.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Critical moral decisions
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by starvation or industrial slaughter or burnt alive in their torched villages or fire-bombed cities. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads.
The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. In Berlin, only the Russians seemed to know how to ration food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies were at a loss.
Civil society had been destroyed by oppression, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, inform on neighbours, refuse to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. And at the end, they had nothing. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute, damaged people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, so also had institutions, communities and infrastructure. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union and the former Eastern Bloc have problems now, their flourishing since 1945 has been a miracle. All have experienced a dramatic improvement in living standards in the past three-quarters of a century.
When this pandemic crisis ends, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, critical moral decisions will be required: do we reinvest and rebuild positively, or do we inflict austerity to pay down the debt quickly?
The deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War II, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water pipes and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be awful, and it will be the world’s turning point between collapse or recovery towards a new resilience.
JM Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that could produce the necessary funds without generating inflation. But the minute the second world war ended, 42% of the British workforce was made redundant.
How did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to the misery and chaos that were experienced after World War I? Rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new British Labour government passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945, issued its famous white paper, written by Dr HC Coombs titled Full Employment in Australia. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like mind.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from World War II. And Australia also had arguably the best government in its history under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people; that our Commonwealth was formed for the “common good”. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for the people who had sacrificed so much to win it.
Their postwar reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war, despite the demobilisation of the military and of war industries — and it worked.
They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Motors-Holden, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and, this time, soldier settlements that were better planned and more successful. They invested in national and international air travel. They trained hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to be skilled workers, and sent ex-service people to university. They opened Australia to non- British migration, changing us forever.
They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the Australian National University, to be a Princeton in the Pacific.
They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested in the CSIRO. Another term of office may have delivered a national health service. We had to wait almost another 40 years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
A new accord?
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope — and a model. We need national reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation.
Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60% of that effort needs to be in the bush.
National reconstruction requires political will, and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. Menzies followed the social democratic Labor lead — social housing, support for universities, infrastructure construction. In the 1980s, the Prices and Incomes Accord was struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke Government. The accord lost its way after time, but initially it did bring down unemployment and inflation, in return for Medicare and new social transfers.
A new accord would be a different social contract. It would require a summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the nation and the land, starting with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts. (Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.)
The accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which connect social and economic justice to environmental justice.
This new accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration among sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turning Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that the distinguished economist Professor Ross Garnaut envisages.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security, our pastoralists and, as we saw in the summer of 2019–20, our forests and native wildlife. National reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top: it must offer genuine participation in decision-making in how to transition to new industries and farming technologies.
We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we, too, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch, can build a high-tech food exporting industry that could replace coal and help feed a hungry world.
To do all this, we need a partnership between farmers, the private sector, workers, government and universities. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector, then as their part of the accord they should commit to providing secure jobs and vocational training. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision.
Above all, they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole. The economy will not ‘bounce back’ if no one has money in their pocket.
It is to be hoped that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neo-liberalism has spread like poison through the rich world.
It will be time to rethink the tertiary and vocational sectors and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than fragile, semi-private corporations.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that we can only pay back the debt by economic growth. Artificially balancing the budget via austerity leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises to get on with it restores prosperity so that we can grow our way out of debt.
A fresh narrative
Government cannot do it all. Business is the larger part of society, and reconstruction cannot be done without their cooperative engagement, expertise, creativity and resources. But what is possible with the new accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to “come together”. The “Green New Deal” is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a “green industrial revolution”; but we in Australia know how to strike accords and build institutionalised fairness.
Perhaps it does not matter what we call it: perhaps First Nations people will one day permit us to use their term Makarrata to express a new national social compact. We need to reconstruct Australia, better than we have before, and we need to do it for our very survival.
No one—no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no farmer, no pundit and no political party — has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds.
The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
This is an edited extract from What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Prof Janet McCalman AC, published by Melbourne University Publishing.
Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.
Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.
In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.
This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.
Code of silence
Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.
Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:
88 working in universities
79 working in local, state or federal government
47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
6 who could not be classified.
In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.
About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.
Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.
‘Ministers are not receiving full information’
Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).
Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).
Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.
Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.
One government respondent said:
Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).
University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).
One university respondent said:
I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).
Critical conservation issues suppressed
Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.
Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.
One government respondent said:
We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.
University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:
By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.
Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:
A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.
The system is broken
Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.
Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.
One respondent said:
I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.
As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.
Change is needed
We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.
But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.
Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.
A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.
The Morrison government today declared it will axe buybacks of water entitlements from irrigators, placating farmers who say the system has damaged their livelihood and communities.
Instead, Water Minister Keith Pitt says the government will scale up efforts to save water by upgrading infrastructure for farming irrigators in the Murray Darling Basin.
The move will anger environmentalists, who say water buybacks are vital to restoring flows to Australia’s most important river system. It also contradicts findings from the government’s own experts this week who said farm upgrades increase water prices more than buyback water recovery.
The government has chosen a route not backed by evidence, and which will deliver a bad deal to taxpayers and the environment.
A brief history of water buybacks
Farmers along the Murray Darling are entitled to a certain amount of river water which they can use or sell. In 2008, the federal Labor government began buying some of these entitlements in an open-tender process known as “buybacks”. The purchased water was returned to the parched river system to boost the environment.
In 2012, the Murray Darling Basin Plan was struck. It stipulated that 2,750 billion litres of water would be bought back from irrigators and delivered to the environment every year. The buyback system was not universally supported – critics claim buybacks increase water prices, and hurt farmers by reducing the water available for irrigation.
The Coalition government came to office in 2013 and adopted a “strategic” approach to water buybacks. These purchases were made behind closed doors with chosen irrigators.
In a review of these buybacks released last month, the Australian National Audit Office found many of these taxpayer-funded deals were not good value for money.
The federal government ordered the review after controversy involving the 2017 purchase of water from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture.
The government paid A$80 million for the entitlements – an amount critics said was well over market value. The deal was also contentious because government frontbencher Angus Taylor was, before the purchase, a non-financial director of the company. The company also had links to the Cayman Islands tax haven.
Infrastructure subsidies: a flawed approach
The Coalition government is taking a different approach to recover water for the environment: subsidising water infrastructure on farms and elsewhere. This infrastructure includes lining ponds and possibly levees to trap and store water.
The subsidies have cost many billions of dollars yet recover water at a very much higher cost than reverse tenders. This approach also reduces the water that returns to streams and groundwater.
The justification for water infrastructure subsidies is that they are supposedly less damaging to irrigation communities. But the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) concluded in a report published this week that on-farm water infrastructure subsidies, while beneficial for their participants, “push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector”. This is the very sector the subsidies purport to help.
So why would the government expand the use of water infrastructure when it costs more and isn’t good value for money? The answer may lie in this finding from the ABARES report:
Irrigators who hold large volumes of entitlement relative to their water use (and are frequently net sellers of water allocations) may benefit from higher water prices, as this increases the value of their entitlements.
Farmers with limited entitlement holdings however may be adversely affected, as higher water prices increase their costs and lowers their profitability.
In other words, the “big end of town” benefits – at taxpayers’ expense – while the small-scale irrigators lose out.
Adding insult to injury, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists released a detailed report this week showing the basin plan is failing to deliver the water expected, even after accounting for dry weather. Some two trillion litres of water is not in the rivers and streams of the basin and appears to have been consumed – a volume that could be more than four times the water in Sydney Harbour.
The Wentworth Group says stream flows may be less than expected because environmental water recovery has been undermined by “water-saving” infrastructure, which reduces the amount of water that would otherwise return to rivers and groundwater.
This infrastructure, on which taxpayers have spent over A$4 billion, has not had the desired effect. Research has found those who receive infrastructure subsidies increased water extractions by more than those who did not receive subsidies. That’s because farmers who were using water more efficiently often planted thirstier crops.
We deserve better
It’s clear taxpayer dollars are much better spent buying back water entitlements, through open tenders, rather than subsidising water infrastructure. We can, and must, do much better with water policy.
Today, the federal government has doubled down on wasteful spending at taxpayer expense – in a time of a COVID-induced recession.
So what is on offer from the Morrison government? Continuing to ignore its own experts’ advice and delivering yet more ineffective subsidies for water infrastructure. Our rivers, our communities, and all Australians deserve much better.
A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.
In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.
We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.
Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.
Mining to prevent climate change
Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.
Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:
lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).
The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.
We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.
We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.
Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.
Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.
For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.
Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.
It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.
In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.
The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.
We need proactive planning
Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.
Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.
Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.
There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.
The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.