Ordinary people, extraordinary change: addressing the climate emergency through ‘quiet activism’


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Wendy Steele, RMIT University; Diana MacCallum, Curtin University; Donna Houston, Macquarie University; Jason Byrne, University of Tasmania, and Jean Hillier, RMIT UniversityAcross the world, people worried about the impacts of climate change are seeking creative and meaningful ways to transform their urban environments. One such approach is known as “quiet activism”.

“Quiet activism” refers to the extraordinary measures taken by ordinary people as part of their everyday lives, to address the climate emergency at the local level.

In the absence of national leadership, local communities are forging new responses to the climate crisis in places where they live, work and play.

As we outline in a book released this month, these responses work best when they are collaborative, ongoing and tailored to local circumstances.

Here are three examples that show how it can be done.




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Climate for Change: a Tupperware party but make it climate

Climate for Change is a democratic project in citizen-led climate education and participation.

This group has engaged thousands of Australians about the need for climate action — not through public lectures or rallies, but via kitchen table-style local gatherings with family and friends.

As they put it:

We’ve taken the party-plan model made famous by Tupperware and adapted it to allow meaningful discussions about climate change to happen at scale.

Their website quotes “Jarrod”, who hosted one such party, saying:

I’ve been truly surprised by the lasting impact of my conversation amongst friends who were previously silent on the issue – we are still talking about it nine months on.

Climate for Change has published a “climate conversation guide” to help people tackle tricky talks with friends and family about climate change.

It has also produced a resource on how to engage your local MP on climate change.

EnviroHouse: hands-on community education

EnviroHouse is a not-for-profit organisation based in Western Australia committed to local-scale climate action through hands-on community education and engagement projects, such as:

  • facilitating workshops on energy efficiency
  • visiting schools on request to provide sustainability services
  • collecting seeds to grow thousands of she-oaks, paperbarks and rushes along the eroded Maylands foreshore in Perth
  • teaching workshops on composting, worm farming and bokashi techniques to community members
  • giving talks on sustainable living
  • running a home and workplace energy and water auditing program.

Climarte: arts for a safe climate

Climarte is a group that

collaborates with a wide range of artists, art professionals, and scientists to produce compelling programs for change. Through festivals, events and interventions, we invite those who live, work and play in the arts to join us.

This group aims to create a space which brings together artists and the public to work, think and talk through the implications of climate change.

Why quiet?

Quiet activism raises questions around what it means to be an activist, or to “do activism”.

While loud, attention-grabbing and disruptive protests are important, local-scale activities are also challenging the “business as usual” model. These quiet approaches highlight how ordinary citizens can take action every day to generate transformative change.

There is a tendency within climate activism to dismiss “quiet” activities as merely a precursor to bigger, more effective (that is, “louder”) political action.

Everyday local-scale activities are sometimes seen as disempowering or conservative; they’re sometimes cast as privileging individual roles and responsibility over collective action.

However, a growing range of voices draws attention to the transformative potential of small, purposeful everyday action.

UK-based researcher Laura Pottinger emphasises that these everyday practices are acts of care and kindness to community — both human and non-human.

Her interest is a “dirt under the fingernails” kind of activism, which gains strength from a quiet commitment to practical action.

A wetlands restoration project is in progress.
Researcher Laura Pottinger argues that a kind of ‘dirt under the fingernails’ activism gains strength from a quiet commitment to practical action.
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Climate action, here and how

The climate crisis has arrived and urgent action is required.

By creatively participating in local climate action, we can collectively reimagine our experience of, and responses to, the climate emergency.

In doing so, we lay the foundation for new possibilities.

Quiet activism is not a panacea. Like any other form of activism, it can be ineffective or, worse, damaging. Without an ethical framework, it risks enabling only short-lived action, or leading to only small pockets of localised activity.

But when done ethically and sustainably — with long-term impact in mind — quiet activism can make a profound difference to lives and communities.




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The Conversation


Wendy Steele, Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Diana MacCallum, Adjunct research academic, Curtin University; Donna Houston, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University; Jason Byrne, Professor of Human Geography and Planning, University of Tasmania, and Jean Hillier, Professor Emerita, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When coral dies, tiny invertebrates boom. This could dramatically change the food web on the Great Barrier Reef


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Kate Fraser, University of TasmaniaThis week, international ambassadors will take a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Australian government’s efforts to stop the reef getting on the world heritage “in danger” list.

The World Heritage Centre of UNESCO is set to make its final decision on whether to officially brand the reef as “in danger” later this month.

To many coral reef researchers like myself, who have witnessed firsthand the increasing coral bleaching and cyclone-driven destruction of this global icon, an in-danger listing comes as no surprise.

But the implications of mass coral death are complex — just because coral is dying doesn’t mean marine life there will end. Instead, it will change.

In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered dead coral hosted 100 times more microscopic invertebrates than healthy coral. This means up to 100 times more fish food is available on reefs dominated by dead coral compared with live, healthy coral.

This is a near-invisible consequence of coral death, with dramatic implications for reef food webs.

When coral dies

Tiny, mobile invertebrates — between 0.125 and 4 millimetres in size — are ubiquitous inhabitants of the surfaces of all reef structures and are the main food source for approximately 70% of fish species on the Great Barrier Reef.

These invertebrates, most visible only under a microscope, are commonly known as “epifauna” and include species of crustaceans, molluscs, and polychaete worms.




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When corals die, their skeletons are quickly overgrown by fine, thread-like “turfing algae”. Turf-covered coral skeletons then break down into beds of rubble.

We wanted to find out how the tiny epifaunal invertebrates — upon which many fish depend – might respond to the widespread replacement of live healthy coral with dead, turf-covered coral.

A sample of epifauna under the microscope.
Kate Fraser

I took my SCUBA gear and a box of lab equipment, and dived into a series of reefs across eastern Australia, from the Solitary Islands in New South Wales to Lizard Island on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

Underwater, I carefully gathered into sandwich bags the tiny invertebrates living on various species of live coral and those living on dead, turf-covered coral.

But things really got interesting back in the laboratory under the microscope. I sorted each sandwich bag sample of epifauna into sizes, identified them as best I could (many, if not most, species remain unknown to science), and counted them.

I quickly noticed samples taken from live coral took just minutes to count, whereas samples from dead coral could take hours. There were exponentially more animals in the dead coral samples.

The Great Barrier Reef may soon be listed as ‘in danger’
Rick Stuart-Smith

Why do they prefer dead coral?

Counting individual invertebrates is only so useful when considering their contribution to the food web. So we instead used the much more useful metric of “productivity”, which looks at how much weight (biomass) of organisms is produced daily for a given area of reef.

We found epifaunal productivity was far greater on dead, turf-covered coral. The main contributors were the tiniest epifauna — thousands of harpacticoid copepods (a type of crustacean) an eighth of a millimetre in size.

In contrast, coral crabs and glass shrimp contributed the most productivity to epifaunal communities on live coral. At one millimetre and larger, these animals are relative giants in the epifaunal world, with fewer than ten individuals in most live coral samples.

Dead coral rubble overgrown with turfing algae.
Rick Stuart-Smith

These striking differences may be explained by two things.

First: shelter. Live coral may look complex to the naked eye, but if you zoom in you’ll find turfing algae has more structural complexity that tiny epifauna can hide in, protecting them from predators.

A coral head is actually a community of individual coral polyps, each with a tiny mouth and fine tentacles to trap prey. To smaller epifauna, such as harpacticoid copepods, the surface of live coral is a wall of mouths and a very undesirable habitat.




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Second: food. Many epifauna, regardless of size, are herbivores (plant-eaters) or detritivores (organic waste-eaters). Turfing algae is a brilliant trap for fine detritus and an excellent substrate for growing films of even smaller microscopic algae.

This means dead coral overgrown by turfing algae represents a smorgasbord of food options for the tiniest epifauna through to the largest.

Meanwhile, many larger epifauna like coral crabs have evolved to live exclusively on live coral, eating the mucus that covers the polyps or particles trapped by the polyps themselves.

Harpacticoid copepod are just an eighth of a millimetre in size.
Naukhan/Wikimedia, CC BY

What this means for life on the reef?

As corals reefs continue to decline, we can expect increased productivity at the base level of reef food webs, with a shift from larger crabs and shrimp to small harpacticoid copepods.

This will affect the flow of food and energy throughout reef food webs, markedly changing the structure of fish and other animal communities. The abundance of animals that eat invertebrates will likely boom with increased coral death.

We might expect higher numbers of fish such as wrasses, cardinalfish, triggerfish, and dragonets, with species preferring the smallest epifauna most likely to flourish.

The dragonet species, mandarinfish, feeds on the smallest harpacticoid copepod prey.
Rick Stuart-Smith

Invertebrate-eating animals are food for a diversity of carnivores on a coral reef, and most fish Australians want to eat are carnivores, such as coral trout, snapper, and Spanish mackerel.

While we didn’t investigate exactly which species are likely to increase following widespread coral death, it’s safe to say populations of fish targeted by recreational and commercial fisheries on Australia’s coral reefs are likely to change as live coral is lost, some for better and some for worse.




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The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly in danger, and it’s important that we make every effort to protect and conserve the remaining live, healthy coral. However, if corals continue to die, there will remain an abundance of life in their absence, albeit very different life from that to which we are accustomed.

As long as there is hard structure for algae to grow on, there will be epifauna. And where there is epifauna, there is food for fish, although perhaps not for all the fish we want to eat.The Conversation

Kate Fraser, Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The North American heatwave shows we need to know how climate change will change our weather


NASA

Christian Jakob, Monash University and Michael Reeder, Monash UniversityEight days ago, it rained over the western Pacific Ocean near Japan. There was nothing especially remarkable about this rain event, yet it made big waves twice.

First, it disturbed the atmosphere in just the right way to set off an undulation in the jet stream – a river of very strong winds in the upper atmosphere – that atmospheric scientists call a Rossby wave (or a planetary wave). Then the wave was guided eastwards by the jet stream towards North America.

Along the way the wave amplified, until it broke just like an ocean wave does when it approaches the shore. When the wave broke it created a region of high pressure that has remained stationary over the North American northwest for the past week.

This is where our innocuous rain event made waves again: the locked region of high pressure air set off one of the most extraordinary heatwaves we have ever seen, smashing temperature records in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in Western Canada as far north as the Arctic. Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6℃ this week before suffering a devastating wildfire.

What makes a heatwave?

While this heatwave has been extraordinary in many ways, its birth and evolution followed a well-known sequence of events that generate heatwaves.

Heatwaves occur when there is high air pressure at ground level. The high pressure is a result of air sinking through the atmosphere. As the air descends, the pressure increases, compressing the air and heating it up, just like in a bike pump.

Sinking air has a big warming effect: the temperature increases by 1 degree for every 100 metres the air is pushed downwards.

The North American heatwave has seen fires spread across the landscape.
NASA

High-pressure systems are an intrinsic part of an atmospheric Rossby wave, and they travel along with the wave. Heatwaves occur when the high-pressure systems stop moving and affect a particular region for a considerable time.

When this happens, the warming of the air by sinking alone can be further intensified by the ground heating the air – which is especially powerful if the ground was already dry. In the northwestern US and western Canada, heatwaves are compounded by the warming produced by air sinking after it crosses the Rocky Mountains.

How Rossby waves drive weather

This leaves two questions: what makes a high-pressure system, and why does it stop moving?

As we mentioned above, a high-pressure system is usually part of a specific type of wave in the atmosphere – a Rossby wave. These waves are very common, and they form when air is displaced north or south by mountains, other weather systems or large areas of rain.




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Rossby waves are the main drivers of weather outside the tropics, including the changeable weather in the southern half of Australia. Occasionally, the waves grow so large that they overturn on themselves and break. The breaking of the waves is intimately involved in making them stationary.

Importantly, just as for the recent event, the seeds for the Rossby waves that trigger heatwaves are located several thousands of kilometres to the west of their location. So for northwestern America, that’s the western Pacific. Australian heatwaves are typically triggered by events in the Atlantic to the west of Africa.

Another important feature of heatwaves is that they are often accompanied by high rainfall closer to the Equator. When southeast Australia experiences heatwaves, northern Australia often experiences rain. These rain events are not just side effects, but they actively enhance and prolong heatwaves.

What will climate change mean for heatwaves?

Understanding the mechanics of what causes heatwaves is very important if we want to know how they might change as the planet gets hotter.

We know increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing Earth’s average surface temperature. However, while this average warming is the background for heatwaves, the extremely high temperatures are produced by the movements of the atmosphere we talked about earlier.

So to know how heatwaves will change as our planet warms, we need to know how the changing climate affects the weather events that produce them. This is a much more difficult question than knowing the change in global average temperature.

How will events that seed Rossby waves change? How will the jet streams change? Will more waves get big enough to break? Will high-pressure systems stay in one place for longer? Will the associated rainfall become more intense, and how might that affect the heatwaves themselves?




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Explainer: climate modelling


Our answers to these questions are so far somewhat rudimentary. This is largely because some of the key processes involved are too detailed to be explicitly included in current large-scale climate models.

Climate models agree that global warming will change the position and strength of the jet streams. However, the models disagree about what will happen to Rossby waves.

From climate change to weather change

There is one thing we do know for sure: we need to up our game in understanding how the weather is changing as our planet warms, because weather is what has the biggest impact on humans and natural systems.

To do this, we will need to build computer models of the world’s climate that explicitly include some of the fine detail of weather. (By fine detail, we mean anything about a kilometre in size.) This in turn will require investment in huge amounts of computing power for tools such as our national climate model, the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS), and the computing and modelling infrastructure projects of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) that support it.

We will also need to break down the artificial boundaries between weather and climate which exist in our research, our education and our public conversation.The Conversation

Christian Jakob, Professor in Atmospheric Science, Monash University and Michael Reeder, Professor, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s threatened species plan has failed on several counts. Without change, more extinctions are assured


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, University of SydneyAustralia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.

The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:

…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.

Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.

How did the strategy perform?

The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:

  • feral cat management
  • improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
  • improving practices to recover threatened species populations.

Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.

Year Five - Final Report
Summary of the Threatened Species Strategy’s targets and outcomes.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Falling short on feral cats

Feral cats were arguably the most prominent focus of the strategy, despite other threats requiring as much or more attention, such as habitat destruction via land clearing.

However, the strategy did help start a national conversation about the damage cats wreak on wildlife and ecosystems, and how this can be better managed.

In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.




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Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.

The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.

On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.

feral cat holds dead bird
Feral cats were eradicated from just one island under the strategy.
Mark Marathon/Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Priority species: how did we do?

The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.

The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.

Mala with baby in pouch
Populations of the mala, or Rufous Hare-wallaby, were improving before the strategy.
Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy

What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.

The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:

  • the wrong actions were implemented
  • the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
  • the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.

All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.

For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.

Conservation worker releases woylie
The improved outlook for some species is due to conservation efforts before the federal strategy.
WA Department of Environment and Conservation



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What must change

According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.

We believe habitat loss and climate change must be addressed immediately.

Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.

Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.

Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.

Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.

The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.

However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.




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The Conversation


Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow



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David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The bushfire royal commission today handed down its long-awaited final report. At almost 1,000 pages, it will take us all some time to digest. But it marks the start of Australia’s national disaster adaptation journey after a horrendous summer.

The report clearly signals the urgent need to improve disaster management capacity in Australia. Closer examination of the report will determine if other recommendations are needed. But overall, this seems a realistic report that incorporates a diverse and complex body of evidence. And it arrives at recommendations likely to enjoy broad political, institutional and community support.

As the report states, the 2019-2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, but not the sole focus of, the inquiry. It also looked at floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis.

The recommendations demonstrate the Royal Commission is serious about shifting the status quo when it comes to managing Australia’s natural disasters – events that will become more frequent and severe under climate change. What’s needed now is political will for change.

Wildlife rescuer saves a koala from a forest fire.
Australia endured its own bushfire disaster just months ago.
David Mariuz/AAP

A picture of devastation

The commission received evidence from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. It recaps the damage wrought, including:

  • more than 24 million hectares burnt nationally

  • 33 human deaths (and perhaps many more due to smoke haze over much of eastern Australia)

  • more than 3,000 homes destroyed

  • thousands of locals and holidaymakers trapped

  • communities isolated without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services

  • estimated national financial impacts over A$10 billion

  • nearly three billion animals killed or displaced

  • many threatened species and other ecological communities extensively harmed.

The report noted every state and territory suffered fire to some extent, adding “on some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control”.

A new role for national government

The scope of the commission’s recommendations is vast. For government, it would mean changes across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, physical and mental health, community development, energy and the environment.

Broad areas of recommended change include a clearer leadership role for the federal government and establishing a national natural disaster management agency. The report notes while state and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, during the bushfire crisis the public “expected greater Australian Government action”.

Other recommendations include:

  • nationally consolidating aerial firefighting capacity

  • more capacity in local government

  • nationally consistent warnings including air pollution (especially bushfire smoke) forecasts

  • acknowledgement of the role of Indigenous fire managers in mitigating bushfire risks.

The commission says preparing for natural disasters “is not the sole domain of governments and agencies”. Individuals and communities must also ensure they’re prepared. As the commission notes:

While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019-2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.

The inquiry said governments have a critical role to play here, by providing information on disaster risks through community education and engagement programs.

The climate question

During last summer’s bushfire crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reluctant to draw links to climate change. And before the inquiry commenced, there was much doubt over whether it would adequately probe how climate change is contributing to natural disasters.

Significantly, the commission’s final report explicitly recognises climate change increases the risk and impact of natural disasters. It says global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”, but stops far short of calling for federal government action on emissions reduction.

The report says extreme weather “has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable”. It goes on:

Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for improved national climate and weather intelligence to support governments to implement, assess and review their disaster management and climate adaptation strategies.

Now’s the time to act

The commission acknowledged most of its recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done.

The commission also says while governments and others have backed the notion of improving natural disaster resilience, “support is one thing – action is another”. And the time to act, the report says, is now.

This is a key point. As noted by the report, more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters have been held in Australia to date. Many would have been time-consuming and expensive. And while many recommendations have been implemented and have led to significant improvements, the report said, “others have not”.




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So will this royal commission lead to substantive change? The inquiry suggests this will require that governments “commit to action and cooperate and hold each other to account”. Further, progress towards implementing the recommendations should be publicly monitored.

Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality. There is much work to be done by governments and others to iron out the legal, administrative, social and practical complexities of changing the status quo. And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.

Ultimately, these findings are small steps towards achieving natural disaster reliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this report can be read not as the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of the long road to climate change adaptation.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environmental activism goes digital in lockdown – but could it change the movement for good?



Greta Thunberg talks with Professor Johan Rockström about the coronavirus and the environment at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, April 21 2020.
EPA-EFE/Jessica Gow

William Finnegan, University of Oxford

The environmental movement’s past recently collided with its future. April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, a milestone for environmentalism. A few days later, a global school strike was organised by Fridays for Future, the international coalition of young people inspired by Greta Thunberg’s protests against climate change. But after months of careful planning, both occasions were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic – and went online instead.

So when social distancing measures are eased, will protests return to the streets, or do these events mark a turning point?

In 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans (10% of the US population at the time) participated in the first Earth Day. Back then, US senator Gaylord Nelson conceived of a national “teach-in” to raise environmental awareness and recruited Harvard law student Denis Hayes to organise the event.




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Earth Day at 50 – what the environmental holiday means today


Teach-ins had emerged in the mid-1960s as a hybrid of student sit-ins and informal lectures in opposition to the Vietnam War. Rather than going on strike, teachers and students occupied classrooms instead. According to environmental historian Adam Rome, 1,500 universities and 10,000 schools held Earth Day teach-ins in April 1970, “nurturing a generation of activists.”

A postage stamp issued to commemorate the first Earth Day, April 1970.
Michael Rega/Shutterstock

In the decades that followed, the environmental movement grew into a political and cultural force. Yet subsequent Earth Days failed to capture the urgency and grassroots passion of the original.

The 50th anniversary Earth Day sought to address this by going back to its roots. Teach-ins were planned for classrooms and campuses across the world, but COVID-19 closed schools. The day of action evolved into a 12-hour live-stream during which actors, athletes, musicians, politicians, and even Pope Francis shared messages of environmental stewardship and climate action.

The school climate strikes originated in August 2018, when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg skipped school to protest inaction on climate change outside the Swedish parliament.

Within little more than a year, seven million students and their supporters were joining school strikes around the world and Thunberg was making headlines for her scathing speeches at the UN climate conference in Poland and [World Economic Forum in Davos]. Another global strike was scheduled for April 2020, but COVID-19 again pushed the event online.

The school strikes and annual Earth Day celebrations reflect different generations of environmental activism and different philosophies of protest. Yet both have been guided by the environmental slogan “think globally, act locally”. During the pandemic, environmental activists are now thinking globally and acting digitally.

‘Clicktivism’ and digital natives

I’m researching climate change education and youth climate activism in the UK. Like the protesters, I’ve been forced to adapt my plans and have been exploring the digital side of climate activism.

Online activism has been called “clicktivism”, or, disparagingly, “slacktivism”. It’s been characterised as impulsive, noncommittal and easily replicated, emphasising the lower risks and costs of political expression on social media versus protest and political engagement in the real world. But the relationship between digital technology and social movements is more complicated.

Researchers are split on the precise role of digital activism. From one perspective, campaigners can use social media to “supersize” their public engagement. This helps them to reach more people and bypass traditional media channels. Other researchers emphasise the power of the internet to help activists self-organise. Without the structure or hierarchy of traditional organisations, digital platforms can allow completely new forms of activism to flourish.




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A recent study found that climate advocacy groups that started on the internet, such as 350.org, have different online strategies, tactics and theories of change compared to older environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Founded in 2008, 350.org (which is both a URL and reference to the safe level of 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) led the first wave of internet-savvy, youth-driven environmental organisations.

Successful digital campaigns at 350.org have been described as a virtuous cycle where online tools spur offline action – the results of which can be documented and shared online to inspire further action.

Modern activists can film demonstrations using smartphones and share them online, reaching a much wider audience.
Rachael Warriner/Shutterstock

It’s too early to say how the school climate strikes of 2019 have influenced the broader movement, but current research is exploring how climate strikers are using Instagram and how collective identities on social media may drive collective action. As “digital natives”, these young climate activists grew up with the internet, smartphones and social media. Their movement uses memes and hashtags across YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, where Thunberg has more than four million followers.

While COVID-19 prevents offline action, thousands of #ClimateStrikeOnline social media posts show solitary protesters around the world armed with handmade signs, a virtual echo of where the movement started. When it comes to climate activism, digital natives are now leading the way. The revolution will be live-streamed.The Conversation

William Finnegan, PhD Candidate in Climate Education and Activism, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t blame the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It’s climate and economic change driving farmers out


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide

For the thousand or so farmers in Canberra in the past week venting their anger at the federal government, it’s the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to blame for destroying their livelihoods and forcing them off the land.

We can’t comment directly on their claims about the basin plan. But our research, looking at the years 1991 to 2011, suggests little association between the amount of water extracted from the Murray-Darling river system for irrigation and total farmer numbers.

That’s not to say there aren’t fewer farms in the basin now than a decade ago – there are – but our analysis points to the more important drivers being the longer-term influences of changing climate, economics and demographics.

Indeed our study predicts another 0.5℃ increase in temperature by 2041 will halve the current number of farmers in the basin.

Hostility to water recovery

The waters of the northern basin run to the Darling River and the waters of the southern basin run to the Murray River.
MDBA

Over many decades state governments in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia licensed to farmers more entitlements to water than the river system could sustain. The basis of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, enacted in 2012, was to rectify this through buying back about a quarter of all water licences to ensure an environmental flow.

A water entitlement, despite its name, does not guarantee a licence holder a certain amount of water. That depends on the water available, and that is determined by the states, which make allocations to each type of licence based on its type of security and current conditions.

With drought, farmers have seen their allocations severely cut back, sometimes to nothing. And partly because they see there’s still water in the River Murray, some are very angry.




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Hostility to water recovery in fact predates the plan’s enactment, to when the federal government began buying back water entitlements in 2008. The Commonwealth now holds about 20% of water entitlements across the basin. More than two-thirds of these licences were recovered between 2008 and 2012.

Lack of correlation

Our research thus covers the period of most significant water buybacks. It also covers the period of the Millennium Drought, from 2001 to 2009, when the amount of water extracted from the river system dropped by about 70%.

Yet we see little evidence reduced water extractions led to more farmers exiting the industry.

As a very broad overview of the situation, the following graph illustrates the lack of correlation between measured water extraction in the Murray-Darling Basin and decreasing farmer numbers.



Water extractions have varied significantly between years, with a big decline over the decade of the 2000s even while farmers’ need for irrigated water increased due to lack of rain. La Niña brought record rains in 2010-11. The current drought across the basin took grip from about 2017.

Yet farmer numbers have declined at a relative steady rate. Within the basin in the time-period we modelled, they fell from about 90,000 in 1991 to 70,000 in 2011. This can be seen as part of a wider trend, with total farmer numbers in the four basin states falling from more than 230,000 in 1976 to barely 100,000 in 2016.

It might be argued that because irrigated farms make up only a quarter of all farms, the overall numbers might mask a greater correlation between water extractions and decline in irrigated farms. While the specific impacts on irrigation farming in recent years warrant further study, there’s no signal in our data pointing to extractions making a discernible contribution to farmer numbers throughout the basin.

Modelling farmer movement

Our findings are based on a specialised data set of population and agricultural census information from statistical local areas from 1991 to 2011. We used climate risk measures from 1961 onwards.

The following infographic shows the exit pattern of farmers by local area between 1991 and 2011.



We included as many climate, economic, farming, water and socio-demographic characteristics as possible to capture historical farmer movements and create a model able to predict movements based on variables such as average temperature.

Need for a multifaceted response

Overall our modelling results suggests the most significant and largest influences on farmer exit are rising temperatures and increased drought risk, followed by the economic factors that have have been reducing the proportion of the population engaged in farming for more than a century.

Declining commodity prices, higher unemployment and urbanisation are strongly associated with farmer exit. Urbanisation, for example, has made it attractive for farmers on city fringes to sell their land to property developers and exit the industry.

Research suggests irrigators in psychological distress are more likely to want the basin plan suspended. Our research suggests their distress is probably not primarily driven by the federal government buying water entitlements from licence holders who sold them willingly. Water recovery and the basin plan is simply an easier focal point of blame than the longer-term trends making the farming lifestyle less viable.




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Nothing will be gained by focusing on short-term “fixes” at the cost of longer-term environmental harm. The problems facing all farmers cannot be addressed in isolation from longer-term global climate and economic trends.

As a society we have to decide what we value: do we want to see such a mass exodus of farmers from the land in the face of a drying climate? If not, future policy for the Basin must consider the real long-term drivers of farm exit and take a multi-faceted approach to climate change, water, land, drought and rural development.The Conversation

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why attending a climate strike can change minds (most importantly your own)



Young people around the world are joining the climate strike movement.
EPA/SHAWN THEW

Belinda Xie, UNSW and Ben Newell, UNSW

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


This Friday in the lead-up to the United Nations climate summit, children and adults worldwide will go on strike for stronger action on climate change. However, you may ask, is striking effective? What can it really hope to achieve?

Our research, recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests striking can promote the psychological factors most important for fighting against climate change.




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If you’re wondering what you, as an individual, can do to support action against climate change, joining a strike (and asking your friends, family and colleagues to come with you) is a very good start.

From belief to action

In our recent research, we surveyed a large sample of Australians. We asked them how willing they would be to personally act on climate change (for example, pay more for electricity), support social interventions (such as using public funds to give rebates to households that install renewable energy), or take advocacy action (such as send an email to government officials encouraging them to support mitigation policies).

We integrated previous research which suggests that a range of factors influence people’s willingness to act, so we could target the most important variables. These included socio-demographic factors, amount of climate change-related knowledge, personal experience with extreme weather events, and moral values.

Predicting who will act

We found that the three most important variables in predicting an individual’s willingness to act were affect, mitigation response inefficacy, and social norms.

Affect refers to how unpleasant climate change is to you. The influence of affect is well demonstrated by Tongan Prime Minister Samuela “Akilisi” Pohiva shedding tears in front of other leaders during the recent Pacific Islands Forum.

Feeling more negatively about climate change was strongly associated with a greater willingness to act – so should we just try to feel worse about climate change? We already know most Australians are worried about climate change, and the helplessness associated with eco-anxiety suggests that making Australians feel worse would cause more harm than good.

The second most important predictor was mitigation response inefficacy, or “inefficacy” for short. This is the belief that we should not or cannot effectively mitigate climate change, as reflected in statements such as:

Whatever behaviour we, as a nation, engage in to reduce carbon emissions will make no real difference in reducing the negative effects of global warming.

This sentiment is echoed in frequent reminders that Australia accounts for only 1% of global emissions. By suggesting that we cannot have an impact, while conveniently ignoring Australia’s very high per-capita emissions rate, these beliefs put the brake on mitigation action.

So how do we get past the idea that we can’t make a difference?

One way might simply be to remind people how effective collective action can be. For example, compare these two statements:

  • If one person for a week reduced their TV usage by 20%, then, in total, they would prevent 0.5kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.

  • If 1,000 people for a week reduced their TV usage by 20%, then, in total, they would prevent 500kg of CO₂ being released into the environment.

Recent research found the second statement is more persuasive and leads to greater pro-environmental and pro-social action. Although individual action alone is just a drop in the bucket, aggregating actions over more people makes the same individual action seem more bucket-sized and thus more effective.

This aggregation effect speaks to the power of the school strike. You may not feel like your voice is heard if you carry a sign alone, but this action becomes much more powerful when you are surrounded by tens of thousands of people doing the same.

Our study found the third most important predictor of willingness to act was social norms. Social norms capture the extent to which people important to you are acting on climate change (descriptive norms) and the extent to which you think those people expect you to act on climate change (prescriptive norms).

For example, the Uniting Church recently passed a resolution to support students and teachers striking. This may signal to these students and staff that attending the strike will be both common and endorsed, increasing their willingness to go along.

Earlier this year, a Lowy Institute poll found Australians rank climate change as the top threat to Australia’s vital interests. But for many of us, it is difficult to think of how we personally can reduce that threat.

Participating in the school strike would be an effective start.




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By attending the strike, you will increase the effectiveness of the strike for you and the others around you. And by encouraging your friends and family to go with you, you will promote the social norms that support climate change action.The Conversation

Belinda Xie, Scientia PhD Scholar, School of Psychology, UNSW and Ben Newell, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Will the discovery of another plastic-trashed island finally spark meaningful change?


Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Victoria University

Today we learnt of yet another remote and formerly pristine location on our planet that’s become “trashed” by plastic debris.

Research published today in Scientific Reports shows some 238 tonnes of plastic have washed up on Australia’s remote Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

It’s not the first time the world has been confronted with an island drowning under debris. Perhaps it’s time to take stock of where we’re at, what we’ve learnt about plastic and figure out whether we can be bothered, or care enough, to do something meaningful.




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Taking stock

In 2017, the world was introduced to Henderson Island, an exceptionally remote uninhabited island in the South Pacific. It has the dubious honour of being home to the beach with the highest ever recorded density of plastic debris (more than 4,400 pieces per metre squared).

What’s more, a single photo taken in 1992 showed Henderson Island had gone from pristine to trashed in only 23-years.

Now, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off the coast of Australia are set to challenge that record, despite being sparsely populated and recognised for having one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches.

A recent, comprehensive survey of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands revealed mountains of plastic trash washed up on the beaches.




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While the density of debris on Cocos (a maximum of 2,506 items per square metre) was found to be less than that on Henderson Island, the total amount of debris Cocos must contend with is staggering: an estimated 414 million debris items weighing 238 tonnes.

A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be “single-use”, or disposable plastics, including straws, bags, bottles, and an estimated 373,000 toothbrushes.

At only 14 kilometres squared, the entire Cocos (Keeling) Island group is a little more than twice the size of the Melbourne CBD. So it’s hard to envision 414 million debris items in such a small area.

Lessons learned

Islands “filter” debris from the ocean. Items flow past and accumulate on beaches, providing valuable information about the quantity of plastic in the oceans.

So, what have these two studies of remote islands taught us?

South Island. A quarter of the identifiable items were found to be disposable plastics.
Cara Ratajczak, Author provided

On Cocos, the overwhelming quantity of debris you can see on the surface accounts for just 7% of the total debris present on the islands. The remaining 93% (approximately 383 million items) is buried below the sediment. Much like the proverbial iceberg, we’re only seeing the very tip of the problem.

Henderson Island, on the other hand, highlighted the terrifying pace of change, from pristine, tropical oasis to being inundated with 38 million plastic items in just two decades.

In the past 12 months alone, scientists have made other, ground-breaking discoveries that have emphasised how little we understand about the behaviour of plastic in the environment and the myriad consequences for species and habitats – including ourselves.




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Here are a few of the shocking discoveries:

  • microplastics were reported in bottled water, salt and beer

  • chemicals from degrading plastic in the ocean were found to disrupt photosynthesis in marine bacteria that are important to the carbon cycle, including producing the oxygen for approximately every tenth breath we take

  • degrading plastic exposed to UV sunlight (such as those on beaches) was reported to produce greenhouse gas emissions, including methane. This is predicted to increase significantly over the next 20 years in line with plastic production trends

  • microplastic particles are ingested by krill at the base of the marine food web, then fragmented into nano-sized particles

  • plastic items recovered from the ocean were found to be reservoirs and potential vectors for microbial communities with antibiotic resistant genes

  • tiny nanoplastics are transported via wind in the atmosphere and deposited in cities and even remote areas, including mountain tops

Meaningful action

Clean-ups on near-shore islands and coastal areas around cities are fantastic.

The educational component is invaluable and they provide an important sense of community. They also prevent large items, like bottles, from breaking up into hundreds or thousands of bite-sized microplastics.

But large-scale clean-ups of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and most other remote islands, are challenging for a variety of reasons. Getting to these locations is expensive, as would be shipping the plastic off for recycling or disposal.

There are also serious biosecurity issues relating to moving plastic debris off islands. Even if we did somehow manage to clean these remote islands, it would not be long before the beaches are trashed again, as it was estimated on Henderson Island that more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic wash up every single day.

As Heidi Taylor from Tangaroa Blue, an Australian initiative tackling marine debris, puts so aptly:

if all we ever do is clean up, that is all we will ever do.

For our clean-up efforts to be effective, they must be paired with individual behaviour change, underpinned by legislation that mandates producers to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products.

Single-use items, such as razors, cutlery, scoops for coffee or laundry powder and toothbrushes were very common on the beaches of Cocos. Clearly this is an area where extended product stewardship laws (following the principles of a circular economy), coupled with informed consumer choices can lead to better decisions about the types of products we use and how and when we dispose of them.




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The global plastic crisis requires immediate and wide-ranging actions that drastically reduce our plastic consumption. And large corporations and government need to adopt a leadership role.

In the EU, for instance, governments voted in March 2019 to implement a ban on the ten most prolific single-use plastic items by 2021. The rest of the world urgently needs to follow suit. Let’s stop arguing about how to clean up the mess, and start implementing meaningful preventative actions.The Conversation

Jennifer Lavers, Research Scientist, University of Tasmania and Annett Finger, Adjunct Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


The exploitation of the land and sea is the number one reason for biodiversity extinction, according to a new report.
Shutterstock

Michelle Lim, University of Adelaide

We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.

Last week, in the culmination of a process involving 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries, 134 governments negotiated the final form of the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).




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IPBES aims to arm policy-makers with the tools to address the relationships between biodiversity and human well-being. It synthesises evidence on the state of biodiversity, ecosystems and natures’ contributions to people on a global scale.

The IPBES Global Assessment provides unequivocal evidence that we need biodiversity for human survival and well-being. To stem unprecedented species decline the assessment sets out the actions governments, the private sector and individuals can take.

Importantly, a whole chapter of the Global Assessment (about one-sixth of the assessment) is dedicated to examining whether existing biodiversity law and policy is adequate. This chapter also outlines ways to address the vortex of biodiversity decline.

If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.

All four species of quoll have declined dramatically in numbers because of habitat loss or change across Australia, and introduced predators such as foxes and cats.
Shutterstock

What makes IPBES Assessments special?

IPBES is the biodiversity equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Assessments are a fundamental part of IPBES’s work.

IPBES Assessments review thousands of biodiversity studies to identify broad trends and draw authoritative conclusions. In the case of the Global Assessment, IPBES authors reviewed more than 15,000 publications from scientific and governments sources.




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Governments and stakeholders give feedback on the draft text, and experts respond meticulously to the thousands of comments before revising and clarifying the draft. A final summary of key findings is then negotiated with member states at plenary meetings – these meetings concluded on Saturday.

What did the Global Assessment find?

Human activity severely threatens biodiversity and ecosystem functions worldwide. About 1 million species are facing extinction. If nothing changes many of these could be gone within just decades.

But nature is vital to all aspects of human health. We rely on natural systems, not only for food, energy, medicine and genetic resources, but also for inspiration, learning and culture.

The report also reveals the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function is much less pronounced on lands managed by Indigenous peoples and local communities. It also recognises the significant role of Indigenous knowledge, governance systems and culturally-specific worldviews which adopt a stewardship approach to managing natural systems.

The report identified agriculture, forestry and urbanisation as the number one reason for biodiversity loss in land-based ecosystems and rivers. In the sea, fishing has had the greatest impact on biodiversity and is exacerbated by changes in the use of the sea and coastal lands.

This is followed closely by:

  • the direct use of species (primarily through harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing)

  • climate change

  • pollution

  • the invasion of non-native species.

These factors are aggravated by underlying social values, such as unsustainable consumption and production, concentrated human populations, trade, technological advances, and governance at multiple scales.

The Global Assessment concludes that current biodiversity laws and policies have been insufficient to address the threats to the natural world.




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What’s more, if nothing changes, neither the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets nor the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are likely to be met.

And yet, the Global Assessment has an optimistic outlook. It emphasises that if the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems are transformed then it is possible to achieve a better future for biodiversity and human well-being in the next 30 years.

But this is only possible if reform happens immediately, as incremental change will be insufficient.

What must be done?

Pollution is one of the main reasons biodiversity is in rapid decline.
Shutterstock

The Global Assessment puts forward these next, urgent steps:

  • we need to redefine human well-being beyond its narrow basis on economic growth

  • engage multiple public and private actors

  • link sustainability efforts across all governance scales

  • elevate Indigenous and local knowledge and communities.

The report also recommends strengthening environmental laws and taking serious precautionary measures in public and private endeavours. Governments must recognise indivisibility of society and nature, and govern to strengthen rather than weaken the natural world.

What can I do?

Produce and consume sustainably

Individuals can make meaningful change through what we produce and what we buy. Our food is an important starting point. You could, for instance, choose local or sustainably produced meals and reduce your food waste.

Champion the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities

Indigenous and local communities need to be included and supported more than ever before. The Global Assessment provides clear evidence that lands managed by Indigenous and local communities are performing better in terms of biodiversity. Still, these lands face serious threats, and Indigenous communities continue to be marginalised around the world.

Provoke governments to do better

Current biodiversity laws and policies don’t adequately address the threats to the natural world. The report recommends the world include biodiversity considerations across all sectors and jurisdictions to prevent further degradation of natural systems. We have an important role in rallying our governments to ensure this occurs.




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We are losing biodiversity at record-breaking rates. The majesty of the natural world is disappearing and with it that which makes life worth living. We are also undermining the capacity of the Earth to sustain thriving human societies. We have the power to change this – but we need to act now.The Conversation

Michelle Lim, Lecturer, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.