Tigers are one of the world’s most iconic wild species, but today they are endangered throughout Asia. They once roamed across much of this region, but widespread habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching have reduced their numbers to only about 4,000 individuals. They live in small pockets of habitat across South and Southeast Asia, as well as the Russian Far East – an area spanning 13 countries and 450,000 square miles (1,160,000 square kilometers).
Today Asia is experiencing a road-building boom. To maintain economic growth, development experts estimate that the region will need to invest about US$8.4 trillion in transportation infrastructure between 2016 and 2030.
Major investment projects, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative – one of the largest infrastructure projects of all time – are fueling this growth. While roads can reduce poverty, especially in rural areas, many of Asia’s new roads also are likely to traverse regions that are home to diverse plants and animals.
To protect tigers from this surge of road building, conservation scientists like me need to know where the greatest risks are. That information, in turn, can improve road planning in the future.
In a newly published study, I worked with researchers at the University of Michigan, Boise State University and the University of British Columbia to examine how existing and planned Asian roads encroach on tiger habitats. We forecast that nearly 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) of new roads will be built in tiger habitats by 2050, and call for bold new planning strategies that prioritize biodiversity conservation and sustainable road development across large landscapes.
Road construction worsens existing threats to tigers, such as poaching and development, by paving the way for human intrusion into the heart of the tiger’s range. For example, in the Russian Far East, roads have led to higher tiger mortality due to increased collisions with vehicles and more encounters with poachers.
To assess this threat across Asia, we focused on areas called Tiger Conservation Landscapes – 76 zones, scattered across the tiger’s range, which conservationists see as crucial for the species’ recovery. For each zone we calculated road density, distance to the nearest road and relative mean species abundance, which estimates the numbers of mammals in areas near roads compared to areas far from roads. Mean species abundance is our best proxy for estimating how roads affect numbers of mammals, like tigers and their prey, across broad scales.
We also used future projections of road building in each country to forecast the length of new roads that might be built in tiger habitats by 2050.
We estimated that more than 83,300 miles (134,000 kilometers) of roads already exist within tiger habitats. This is likely an underestimate, since many logging or local roads are missing from the global data set that we used.
Road densities in tiger habitat are one-third greater outside of protected areas, such as national parks and tiger reserves, than inside of protected areas. Non-protected areas averaged 1,300 feet of road per square mile (154 meters per square kilometer), while protected areas averaged 980 feet per square mile (115 meters per square kilometer). For tiger populations to grow, they will need to use the forests outside protected areas. However, the high density of roads in those forests will jeopardize tiger recovery.
Protected areas and priority conservation sites – areas with large populations of tigers – are not immune either. For example, in India – home to over 70% of the world’s tigers – we estimate that a protected area of 500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometers, contains about 200 miles (320 kilometers) of road.
Road networks are expansive. Over 40% of areas where tiger breeding has recently been detected – crucial to tiger population growth – is within just 3 miles (5 kilometers) of a nearby road. This is problematic because mammals often are less abundant this close to roads.
In fact, we estimate that current road networks within tiger habitats may be reducing local populations of tigers and their prey by about 20%. That’s a major decrease for a species on the brink of extinction. And the threats from roads are likely to become more severe.
Our findings underscore the need for planning development in ways that interfere as minimally as possible with tiger habitat. Multilateral development banks and massive ventures like the Belt and Road Initiative can be important partners in this endeavor. For example, they could help establish an international network of protected areas and habitat corridors to safeguard tigers and many other wild species from road impacts.
National laws can also do more to promote tiger-friendly infrastructure planning. This includes keeping road development away from priority tiger populations and other “no go” zones, such as tiger reserves or habitat corridors.
Zoning can be used around infrastructure to prevent settlement growth and forest loss. Environmental impact assessments for road projects can do a better job of assessing how new roads might exacerbate hunting and poaching pressure on tigers and their prey.
Funding agencies need to screen proposed road developments using these tiger-friendly criteria before planners finalize decisions on road design, siting and construction. Otherwise, it might be too late to influence road planning.
There are also opportunities to reduce the negative effects of existing roads on tigers. They include closing roads to vehicular traffic at night, decommissioning existing roads in areas with important tiger populations, adding road signs announcing the presence of tigers and constructing wildlife crossings to allow tigers and other wildlife to move freely through the landscape.
Roads will become more pervasive features in Asian ecosystems as these nations develop. In my view, now is the time to tackle this mounting challenge to Asian biodiversity, including tigers, through research, national and international collaborations and strong political leadership.
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Craig Nitschke, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, University of Melbourne
The Federal Court recently ruled that a timber harvesting company couldn’t log potential habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum.
This decision led to the immediate protection of more Leadbeater’s possum habitat and will lead to further habitat set aside over the next ten years as native timber harvesting is phased out in Victoria.
But these short-term, site-based measures will not guarantee the long-term conservation of this iconic Victorian species.
Our new study modelled changes in forests over the next 250 years, focusing on 280,000 hectares of Victoria’s Central Highlands, home to the majority of remaining Leadbeater’s possums.
We looked at different scenarios of how both climate change and timber harvesting might play out. And we identified three important findings.
First, Leadbeater’s possum habitat is dynamic. It’s transient across the landscape over time as disturbances, such as bushfires, continually change the spatial distribution of hollow-bearing trees and young forests.
Second, while timber harvesting poses a local-scale threat, at a larger scale – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – bushfire poses the greatest threat to the species’ habitat.
Last, we found less than half of the area within current parks, reserves, and timber harvest exclusion zones provided stable long-term habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.
We used a set of four scenarios to explore how climate change and timber harvesting impact long-term habitat availability by focusing on the where and when hollow-bearing trees and dense understorey are found in the landscape.
The scenarios included projecting current climate conditions, and projecting a 2℃ rise in average annual temperature with a 20% reduction in yearly rainfall.
For each of these climate scenarios, timber harvesting at current harvesting rates was either excluded or allowed in areas zoned for timber production.
Our simulations showed bushfire, not logging, is the biggest threat to habitat availability for Leadbeater’s possum in the Central Highlands. As the cumulative area burnt by fire increased, the quantity and quality of Leadbeater’s possum habitat decreased.
Tthe 2009 Black Saturday fires burned almost half of its habitat, causing its conservation status to jump from endangered to critically endangered.
Bushfires have always been part of Australian landscapes and many species, including Leadbeater’s possum, have evolved alongside them. Eleven years later, Leadbeater’s possum are now recolonising areas burned in the 2009 bushfires.
But as climate change increases the frequency and scale of bushfires, our models suggest the Central Highlands landscape may support less suitable habitat.
While timber harvesting compounds the impacts of bushfires on Leadbeater’s possum habitat, across the landscape the effect is small in comparison. Timber harvesting reduced suitable habitat by only 1.4% to 2.3% over 250 years compared to scenarios without harvesting.
Within a coupe (the area of forest harvested in one operation), timber harvesting immediately reduces nesting and foraging habitat. But foraging habitat returns within 10 to 15 years and can be recolonised by Leadbeater’s possum – as long as nesting sites are nearby.
Protecting vegetation around waterways, in particular, was critical for the development and survival of hollow-bearing trees in an increasingly fire-prone landscape.
But while timber harvesting had much smaller impacts than bushfires, the two did interact. Over time, the cumulative impacts of timber harvesting and bushfire homogenised forest structure across the landscape, leading to smaller patches of habitat that were less connected.
This increases the risk of local extinction for populations of Leadbeater’s possum living in these patches.
A core question for the conservation of any threatened species is: how well does the network of protected areas protect the species?
Our modelling framework meant we could test whether current areas set aside for Leadbeater’s possum conservation actually provide long-term protection.
Over the next 100 years, less than 50% of existing parks, reserves and timber-harvest exclusion zones will provide continuous habitat for Leadbeater’s possum due to climate change.
However, we also identified approximately 30,000 hectares of forest outside the current network of protected areas that can provide stable habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.
It’s vital we put protection zones into the areas possums are likely to migrate to as the climate changes. These areas should be a priority for conservation efforts.
Historically, conservation planning has taken a static, site-based approach to protecting species.
This approach is doomed to fail in dynamic landscapes – particularly in fire-prone landscapes in a warming climate. For conservation planning to be successful, we need coordinated forest, fire, and conservation management that accounts for these dynamics across the whole landscape, not just in individual locations.
We need a vision for how to make our landscapes more resilient to the growing threat of climate change and provide better protection for the unique flora and fauna that inhabit them.
This will require government agencies responsible for land management and conservation to coordinate current management activities across tenures, while simultaneously implementing future-focused conservation planning. Our landscape-modelling approach provides a first step in that direction.
Craig Nitschke, Associate Professor – Forest and Landscape Dynamics, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, Managing Director for Biosecurity Risk Research, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, Remote Sensing Scientist and Ecological Modeller, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Ecosystem And Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne
The federal government’s Snowy 2.0 energy venture is controversial for many reasons, but one has largely escaped public attention. The project threatens to devastate aquatic life by introducing predators and polluting important rivers. It may even push one fish species to extinction.
The environmental impact statement for the taxpayer-funded project is almost 10,000 pages long. Yet it fails to resolve critical problems, and in one case seeks legal exemptions to enable Snowy 2.0 to wreak environmental damage.
The New South Wales government is soon expected to grant the project environmental approval. This process should be suspended, and independent experts should urgently review the project’s environmental credentials.
Snowy Hydro Limited, a Commonwealth-owned corporation, is behind the Snowy 2.0 project in the Kosciuszko National Park in southern NSW. It involves building a giant tunnel to connect two water storages – the Tantangara and Talbingo reservoirs. By extension, the project will also connect the rivers and creeks connected to these reservoirs.
A small, critically endangered native fish, the stocky galaxias, lives in a creek upstream of Tantangara. This is the last known population of the species.
An invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, lives in the Talbingo reservoir (it was introduced from coastal streams when the original Snowy project was built). Water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer this fish to Tantangara.
From here, the climbing galaxias’ capacity to climb wet vertical surfaces would enable it to reach upstream creeks and compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.
Snowy Hydro has applied for an exemption under NSW biosecurity legislation to permit the transfer of the climbing galaxias and two other fish species: the alien, noxious redfin perch and eastern gambusia.
Redfin perch compete for food with other species and produce many offspring. They are voracious, carnivorous predators, known to prey on smaller fish.
Redfin perch also allow the establishment of a fatal fish disease – epizootic haematopoietic necrosis virus – or EHN. This disease kills the endangered native Macquarie perch, the population of which below Tantangara is one of very few remaining.
If Snowy 2.0 is granted approval, it is likely to spread these problematic species through the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Murray rivers.
Four million tonnes of rock excavated to build Snowy 2.0 would be dumped into the two reservoirs. Snowy Hydro has not assessed the pollution risks this creates. The rock will contain potential acid-forming minerals and a form of asbestos, which threaten to pollute water storages and rivers downstream.
When the first stage of the Snowy Hydro project was built, comparable rocks were dumped in the Tooma River catchment. Research in 2006 suggested the dump was associated with eradication of almost all fish from the Tooma River downstream after rainfall.
The environmental impact statement either ignores, or pays inadequate attention to, these environmental problems.
For example, installing large-scale screens at water inlets would be the best way to prevent fish transfer from Talbingo Dam, but Snowy Hydro has dismissed it as too costly.
Snowy Hydro instead proposes a dubious second-rate measure: screens to filter pumped flows leaving Tantangara reservoir, and building a barrier in the stream below the stocky galaxias habitat.
The best and cheapest way to prevent damage from alien species is stopping the populations from establishing. Trying to control or eradicate pest species once they’re established is far more difficult and costly.
We believe the measures proposed by Snowy Hydro are impractical. It would be very difficult to maintain a screen fine and large enough to prevent fish eggs and larvae moving out of Tantangara reservoir and such screens would be totally ineffective at preventing the spread of EHN virus.
A six metre-high waterfall downstream of the stocky galaxias habitat currently protects the critically endangered species from other invasive species threats. But climbing galaxias have an extraordinary ability to ascend wet surfaces. They would easily climb the waterfall, and possibly the proposed creek barrier as well.
Such an engineered barrier has never been constructed in Australia. We are informed that in New Zealand, the barriers have not been fully effective and often require design adjustments.
Even if the barrier protected the stocky galaxias at this location, efforts to establish populations in other unprotected regional streams would be severely hampered by the spread of climbing galaxias.
Preventing redfin and EHN from entering the Murrumbidgee River downstream of Tantangara depends on the reservoir never spilling. The reservoir has spilled twice since construction in the 1960s, and would operate at much higher water levels when Snowy 2.0 was operating. Despite this, Snowy Hydro says it has “high confidence in being able to avoid spill”.
If dumped spoil pollutes the two reservoirs and Murrumbidgee and Tumut rivers, this would also have potentially profound ecological impacts. These have not been critically assessed, nor effective prevention methods identified.
Snowy 2.0 will likely make one critically endangered species extinct and threaten an important remaining population of another, as well as pollute freshwater habitats. As others have noted, the project is also questionable on other environmental and economic grounds.
These potential failures underscore the need to immediately halt Snowy 2.0, and subject it to independent expert scrutiny.
In response to the issues raised in this article, a spokesperson for Snowy Hydro said:
“Snowy Hydro’s EIS, supported by numerous reports from independent scientific experts, extensively address potential water quality and fish transfer impacts and the risk mitigation measures to be put in place. As the EIS is currently being assessed by the NSW Government we have no further comment.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that water pumped from Tantangara will likely transfer fish to Talbingo. It should have said water pumped from Talbingo will likely transfer fish to Tantangara.
Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.
While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.
Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:
The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.
The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.
The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.
The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.
It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.
The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.
It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.
The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.
The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.
Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.
If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.
The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.
The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.
The shift from short to longer term thinking can began at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.
We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.
Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
After the summer’s devastating bushfires, the New South Wales government announced a plan to airdrop one million poisoned baits in the state’s most vulnerable regions over the next year. The plan is aimed at protecting surviving native animals from foxes, feral cats and wild dogs.
This isn’t the first time aerial baiting has been used in NSW recently. As the fire season got underway in September last year, the government’s biannual aerial baiting program scattered baits over nearly 8 million hectares in the Western Division alone – dispensing 43,442 aerial baits and 115,162 ground-laid baits over the drought-stricken region.
In a study published this week, I explore Australia’s history as pioneers of this technology. The review raises serious concerns about the ethics and poor results of baiting programs, and the high uptake of baits by non-target species such as marsupials.
Aerial baiting has been Australia’s foremost weapon against pest species for the past 74 years. The initial target was the dingo, to protect unguarded livestock from being killed.
How Australia made poisoning animals normal
It started on Remembrance Day in 1946. Around 367,000 dry meat baits were airdropped across Queensland, each containing enough strychnine to kill an adult dingo. The campaign was considered a victory, despite only recovering one dingo carcass during the initial operation. Livestock predation apparently decreased; tracks in the sand vanished.
The following year, 1.5 million baits were distributed. Then in 1948 the quantity increased to 2.5 million baits across remote regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory.
The strychnine tablets took up to 12 tortuous hours for the poison to deliver its lethal kill. The baits used in research trials were still toxic after 14 weeks.
There was huge public criticism of the project at the time – much of it from graziers. They claimed ants and valuable pest-eating birds – magpies, small hawks, butcher birds, crows, ibis and curlew – were eating the baits.
In response, the Queensland government set up the first monitored trials. The 1954 report from the Chief Vermin Control Officer recorded:
In the dry season campaigns, the baits are dropped on water-holes, soaks, junctions of dried water courses, gorges in hills and all places where dogs must travel or gather in their search for water and game and in their movements with pups from the breeding areas.
The data recorded an average 14,941 baits dispensed for every dingo carcass recovered. Anecdotal evidence suggests the program was considered a success.
Then in 1968 – 21 years after aerial campaigns began – a four-year CSIRO study tested the effectiveness of aerial baiting. It found the 1954 report was far from conclusive – the dingoes may just have moved elsewhere. And it concluded: “clearly aerial baiting was not effective”.
But there was an important caveat:
It is important to emphasise that, though this aerial baiting campaign was a failure, such a conclusion does not necessarily apply to any other campaign.
On the strength of that, aerial baiting programs continued.
Despite millions of baits applied annually to the environment since the 1940s, Australia’s biodiversity has plummeted.
What’s more, developments in the technology haven’t come far. Raw meat baits eventually replaced dry baits in some areas. Strychnine was superseded by 1080, a less harmful poison to non-target native species, and less persistent in the environment.
Trials in the 1980s brought the bait-to-kill rate down to 750 to 1 (baits per dingo carcass recovered). This was considered a cost-effective and successful outcome.
Soon after, aerial baiting found a new market, becoming the frontline defence against Australia’s plummeting biodiversity from invasive predators.
In 2008, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority imposed a limit of ten baits per kilometre to reduce risk to non-target species.
Pest control agencies need four times that amount of poison to achieve a successful kill rate. Yet planes have been dispensing baits at this lower and ineffective rate since 2008.
Why? It seems a balance between wildlife safety and effective canine or predator eradication isn’t possible with this technology.
In fact, it has been impossible to accurately trace the fate of baits thrown from aeroplanes into remote terrain. Even ground baiting trials have proved difficult to monitor. A 2018 trial found non-target species consumed more than 71% of ground-laid meat baits, including ravens, crows, goannas, monitor lizards, marsupials and ants.
Four young dingoes died during this trial, representing only a 1.25% uptake by target. Despite monitoring with cameras and sand traps, 599 baits out of 961 in the trial disappeared without a trace.
These baits are not benign. Repeat doses can kill marsupials; non-lethal doses can kill pouch young. Secondary poisoning can also be lethal. Applying this outdated technology to vulnerable bushfire regions is from a historical viewpoint, potentially hazardous.
There are new technologies available to help protect and repair Australia’s fragile and broken ecosystems. Remote surveillance, drones, AI, heat sensing equipment, and more could locate populations and dispatch dangerous animals.
If aerial baiting continues, aerial surveillance could at least follow the fate of the one million baits and tell us what and who is eating them – who lives and who dies in the stripped-bare landscape.
One thing is for certain: halting the program would prevent hundreds of thousands of these poisoned meat baits ending up in the stomachs of our treasured native animals.
Climate change is already affecting the amount of food that farmers can produce. Several recent extreme weather events, which are only likely to become more frequent as the world continues heating up, provide stark illustrations of what this impact can look like. Climate change is already affecting the amount of food that farmers can produce. For example, crop sowing in the UK was delayed in autumn 2019 and some emerging crops were damaged because of wet weather. Meanwhile in Australia, considerable drought has been immensely damaging.
But climate change can also have a knock-on impact on farming by affecting the quality of seeds, making it harder to establish seedlings that then grow into mature, food-producing plants. My research group has recently published a study showing that even brief periods of high temperature or drought can reduce seed quality in rice, depending on exactly when they occur in the seed’s development.
Nonetheless, it is possible to breed improved varieties to help crops adapt to the changing climate. And the resources needed to do this are being collected and conserved in “genebanks”, libraries of seeds conserving crop plant diversity for future use.
In much of the developing world in particular, the supply of affordable, good-quality seed limits farmers’ ability to establish crops. Seeds need to be stored between harvest and later sowing and poor-quality seeds don’t survive very long in storage. Once planted, low-quality seeds are less likely to emerge as seedlings and more likely to fail later on, producing a lower plant density in the field and a lower crop yield as a result.
For this reason, investigating seed quality is an important way of assessing such effects of climate on cereal crop production. We already know that climate change can reduce the quality of cereal seeds used for food, food ingredients and for planting future crops.
The main factor that affects seed quality in this way tends to be temperature, but the amount and timing of rainfall is also important. This impact can come from changes in average weather patterns, but short periods of extreme temperature or rainfall are just as important when they coincide with sensitive stages in crop development. For example, research in the 1990s revealed that brief high temperature periods during and immediately before a crop flowers reduces the number of seeds produced and therefore the resulting grain yield in many cereal crops.
Our research has now confirmed that seed quality in rice is damaged most when brief hot spells coincide with early seed development. It also revealed that drought during the early development of the seeds also reduces their quality at maturity. And, unsurprisingly, the damage is even greater when both these things happen together.
In contrast, warmer temperatures later in the maturation process can benefit rice seed quality as the seeds dry out. But flooding that submerges the seed can also cause damage, which gets worse the later it occurs during maturation. This shows why we have to include the effects of changing rainfall as well as temperature and the precise timing of extreme weather when looking at how seed quality is affected.
Our research has also shown that different seed varieties have different levels of resilience to these environmental stresses. This means that farming in the future will depend on selecting and breeding the right varieties to respond to the changing climate.
The world now has a global network of genebanks storing seeds from a wide variety of plants, which helps safeguard their genetic diversity. For example, the International Rice Genebank maintains more than 130,000 samples of cultivated species of rice, its wild relatives and closely-related species, while the AfricaRice genebank maintains 20,000 samples.
Our finding mean that, when scientists breed new crop varieties using genebank samples as “parents”, they should include the ability to produce high-quality seed in stressful environments in the variety’s selected traits. In this way, we should be able to produce new varieties of seeds that can withstand the increasingly extreme pressures of climate change.
This article was amended to make clear that climate change increases the likely frequency of extreme weather events rather than being demonstrably responsible for individual examples.
With all of the burning and clearing happening in the Amazon rainforest, it was only going to be a short matter of time before a tipping point was reached and now a tipping point appears on the horizon. It would seem only a matter of 1 or 2 years before the Amazon is unable to sustain itself through rainfall. The link below is to an article reporting on the threat posed to the Amazon.
This is part of a new series looking at the national security challenges facing Australia, how our leaders are responding to them through legislation and how these measures are impacting society. Read the rest of the series here.
It is evident from Australia’s increasingly severe droughts and record-breaking heatwaves that time is running out to take action on climate change.
Yet, despite persistent calls from eminent scientists to reduce global dependence on fossil fuels, a call to action has gone unanswered by our political leaders.
And we aren’t just facing an environmental threat alone in Australia – there are significant implications for our national security and defence capabilities that we haven’t fully reckoned with either.
This point was made abundantly clear in a speech prepared for Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell at an event in June, excerpts of which have been recently published by the media. It noted that Australia is in
the most natural disaster-prone region in the world … [and] climate change is predicted to make disasters more extreme and more common.
If the predictions are correct, [climate change] will have serious ramifications for global security and serious ramifications for the ADF [Australian Defence Force].
Climate change works as a threat multiplier – it exacerbates the drivers of conflict by deepening existing fragilities within societies, straining weak institutions, reshaping power balances and undermining post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding.
This year’s IISS Armed Conflict Survey noted how
climate-related drivers for armed violence and conflict will increase as climate change progresses.
The survey points out that the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that escalated into civil war was preceded by the country’s deepest and most prolonged drought on record. One study has found the drought was two to three times more likely to happen due to climate change, and that it helped fuel migration to large cities, which in turn exacerbated the social issues that caused the unrest.
One of the biggest threats I identified was the possibility of mass migration driven by climate change.
There will be nearly 6 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region by 2050. And if the region has become increasingly destabilised due to climate change, many people will likely be affected by rising sea levels, water and food shortages, armed conflicts and natural disasters, and desperate to find more secure homes.
This is already happening now. Since 2008, it’s estimated that an average of 22.5 million to 24 million people have been displaced globally each year due to catastrophic weather events and climate-related disasters.
And a new World Bank report estimates that 143 million people in three developing regions alone – sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – could become climate migrants by 2050.
They will migrate from less viable areas with lower water availability and crop
productivity and from areas affected by rising sea level and storm surges. The poorest and most climate-vulnerable areas will be hardest hit.
Australia, with its very low population density, will likely be an attractive place for climate migrants to attempt to resettle. The World Bank has called on Australia to allow open migration from climate-affected Pacific islands, but successive governments haven’t exactly been open to refugees and asylum seekers in recent years.
If we don’t have a plan in place, our estimated 2050 population of 37.6 million could be overwhelmed by the scale of the national security problem.
Other experts agreed. American climate security expert Sherri Goodman described climate change as a “direct threat to the national security of Australia”, saying the region is
most likely to see increasing waves of migration from small island states or storm-affected, highly populated areas in Asia that can’t accommodate people when a very strong storm hits.
Australia would also struggle to respond to worsening natural disasters in our region either caused by or exacerbated by climate change.
As part of the Senate inquiry, the Department of Defence noted an “upwards trend” in both disaster-related events in the Asia-Pacific region and disaster-related defence operations in the past 20 years.
As alluded to in the speech prepared for Campbell in June, we could easily find ourselves overwhelmed by disaster relief missions
due to the severity and scale of future weather events, or due to a series of events that occur concurrently in dispersed locations.
This would stretch our available first responder forces – defence, police, ambulance, firefighters and other emergency services – even in the absence of any other higher priority peacekeeping missions around the world.
The Senate report listed 11 recommendations for action by national security agencies and the government.
Among these were calls for:
the government to develop a climate security white paper to guide a coordinated government response to climate change risks
the Department of Defence to consider releasing an unclassified version of the work it has undertaken already to identify climate risks to the country
the government to consider a dedicated climate security leadership position in Home Affairs to coordinate climate resilience issues
and the Department of Defence to create a dedicated senior leadership position to oversee the delivery of domestic and international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as climate pressures increase over time.
Some of these findings were contested. In their comments, the Coalition senators made a point of saying how well the government has been doing on climate change in the defence and foreign affairs portfolios. Sufficient strategies are in place
to ensure Australia’s response to the implications of climate change on national security is well understood and consistent across the whole of government.
They also considered that a separate recommendation on defence emissions reduction targets fell outside the spirit of the inquiry. They did not support it.
The findings in the report are a cause for concern. The recommendations lack timetables for action and a sense of urgency.
The Senate committee also admitted its own shortcomings. For instance, it couldn’t adequately examine the potential impacts of climate change on Australia’s economy, infrastructure and community health and well-being due to a lack of substantial evidence on these issues.
Furthermore, and most worryingly, it seems the government just doesn’t care enough. It has yet to table a response to the report more than a year later.
A welcome development would be if the government announced a climate change security white paper that clearly spells out where ministers stand on the issue and the specific measures we need to take to prepare for the threats ahead. It would also dispel the concerns of many Australians about our future readiness.
But the Coalition’s response to the Senate report is breathtakingly complacent and smacks of reckless negligence since Australia is on the front line when it comes to climate change and our national security faces undeniably serious risks.
Climate change is already presenting significant challenges to governance, our institutions and the fabric of our societies. It’s time we recognise the potential threats to security in our region, as well.