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].
What kinds of security risks do we face?
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.
Increased climate migration and disasters
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.
Recommendations for a way forward
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.
A lack of urgency and response
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.
In this age of rapidly melting glaciers, terrifying megafires and ever more puissant hurricanes, of acidifying and rising oceans, it is hard to believe that any further prod to climate action is needed.
But the reality is that we continue to live in a business-as-usual world. Our media is filled with enthusiastic announcements about new fossil fuel projects, or the unveiling of the latest fossil-fuelled supercar, as if there’s no relationship between such things and climate change.
In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to sing the praises of coal, while members of the government call for subsidies for coal-fired power plants. A few days ago, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor urged that the nation’s old and polluting coal-fired power plants be allowed to run “at full tilt”.
In the past, many of us have tolerated such pronouncements as the utterings of idiots – in the true, original Greek meaning of the word as one interested only in their own business. But the climate crisis has now grown so severe that the actions of the denialists have turned predatory: they are now an immediate threat to our children.
A ‘colossal failure’ of climate activism
Each year the situation becomes more critical. In 2018, global emissions of greenhouse gases rose by 1.7% while the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by 3.5 parts per million – the largest ever observed increase.
No climate report or warning, no political agreement nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution. This simple fact forces me to look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure.
Many climate scientists think we are already so far down the path of destruction that it is impossible to stabilise the global temperature at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial average without yet to be developed drawdown technologies such as those that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On current trends, within a decade or so, stabilising at 2℃ will likewise be beyond our grasp.
And on the other side of that threshold, nature’s positive feedback loops promise to fling us into a hostile world. By 2100 – just 80 years away – if our trajectory does not change, it is estimated that Earth will be 4℃ warmer than it was before we began burning fossil fuels.
Far fewer humans will survive on our warming planet
That future Earth may have enough resources to support far fewer people than the 7.6 billion it supports today. British scientist James Lovelock has predicted a future human population of just a billion people. Mass deaths are predicted to result from, among other causes, disease outbreaks, air pollution, malnutrition and starvation, heatwaves, and suicide.
My children, and those of many prominent polluters and climate denialists, will probably live to be part of that grim winnowing – a world that the Alan Joneses and Andrew Bolts of the world have laboured so hard to create.
How should Australia’s parents deal with those who labour so joyously to create a world in which a large portion of humanity will perish? As I have become ever more furious at the polluters and denialists, I have come to understand they are threatening my children’s well-being as much as anyone who might seek to harm a child.
Young people themselves are now mobilising against the danger. Increasingly they’re giving up on words, and resorting to actions. Extinction Rebellion is the Anthropocene’s answer to the UK working class Chartists, the US Declaration of Independence, and the defenders of the Eureka Stockade.
Its declaration states:
This is our darkest hour. Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history, one which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear […] The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profit […] We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void.
Words have not cut through. Is rebellion the only option?
Not yet a year old, Extinction Rebellion has had an enormous impact. In April it shut down six critical locations in London, overwhelmed the police and justice system with 1,000 arrests, and forced the British government to become the first nation ever to declare a climate emergency.
So unstable is our current societal response that a single young woman, Greta Thunberg, has been able to spark a profoundly powerful global movement. Less than a year ago she went on a one-person school strike. Today school strikes for climate action are a global phenomenon.
On September 20 in Australia and elsewhere, school principals must decide whether they will allow their students to march in the global climate strike in an effort to save themselves from the climate predators in our midst, or force them to stay and study for a future that will not, on current trends, eventuate.
I will be marching with the strikers in Melbourne, and I believe teachers should join their pupils on that day. After all, us older generation should be painfully aware that our efforts have not been enough to protect our children.
The new and carefully planned rebellion by the young generation forces us earlier generations of climate activists to re-examine our strategy. Should we continue to use words to try to win the debate? Or should we become climate rebels? Changing the language around climate denialism will, I hope, sharpen our focus as we ponder what comes next.
Jaco Le Roux, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, Stellenbosch University
Earth is seeing an unprecedented loss of species, which some ecologists are calling a sixth mass extinction. In May, a United Nations report warned that 1 million species are threatened by extinction. More recently, 571 plant species were declared extinct.
But extinctions have occurred for as long as life has existed on Earth. The important question is, has the rate of extinction increased? Our research, published today in Current Biology, found some plants have been going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical average – with devastating consequences for unique species.
Measuring the rate of extinction
“How many species are going extinct” is not an easy question to answer. To start, accurate data on contemporary extinctions are lacking from most parts of the world. And species are not evenly distributed – for example, Madagascar is home to around 12,000 plant species, of which 80% are endemic (found nowhere else). England, meanwhile, is home to only 1,859 species, of which 75 (just 4%) are endemic.
Areas like Madagascar, which have exceptional rates of biodiversity at severe risk from human destruction, are called “hotspots”. Based purely on numbers, biodiversity hotspots are expected to lose more species to extinction than coldspots such as England.
But that doesn’t mean coldspots aren’t worth conserving – they tend to contain completely unique plants.
We are part of an international team that recently examined 291 modern plant extinctions between biodiversity hot- and coldspots. We looked at the underlying causes of extinction, when they happened, and how unique the species were. Armed with this information, we asked how extinctions differ between biodiversity hot- and coldspots.
Unsurprisingly, we found hotspots to lose more species, faster, than coldspots. Agriculture and urbanisation were important drivers of plant extinctions in both hot- and coldspots, confirming the general belief that habitat destruction is the primary cause of most extinctions. Overall, herbaceous perennials such as grasses are particularly vulnerable to extinction.
However, coldspots stand to lose more uniqueness than hotspots. For example, seven coldspot extinctions led to the disappearance of seven genera, and in one instance, even a whole plant family. So clearly, coldspots also represent important reservoirs of unique biodiversity that need conservation.
We also show that recent extinction rates, at their peak, were 350 times higher than historical background extinction rates. Scientists have previously speculated that modern plant extinctions will surpass background rates by several thousand times over the next 80 years.
So why are our estimates of plant extinction so low?
First, a lack of comprehensive data restricts inferences that can be made about modern extinctions. Second, plants are unique in – some of them live for an extraordinarily long time, and many can persist in low densities due to unique adaptations, such as being able to reproduce in the absence of partners.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation where we only have five living individuals of Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) left in the wild. These iconic trees of Madagascar are one of only nine living species of their genus and can live for hundreds of years. Therefore, a few individual trees may be able to “hang in there” (a situation commonly referred to as “extinction debt”) but will inevitably become extinct in the future.
Finally, declaring a plant extinct is challenging, simply because they’re often very difficult to spot, and we can’t be sure we’ve found the last living individuals. Indeed, a recent report found 431 plant species previously thought to be extinct have been rediscovered. So, real plant extinction rates and future extinctions are likely to far exceed current estimates.
There is no doubt that biodiversity loss, together with climate change, are some of the biggest challenges faced by humanity. Along with human-driven habitat destruction, the effects of climate change are expected to be particularly severe on plant biodiversity. Current estimates of plant extinctions are, without a doubt, gross underestimates.
However, the signs are crystal clear. If we were to condense the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year-old history into one calendar year, then life evolved somewhere in June, dinosaurs appeared somewhere around Christmas, and the Anthropocene starts within the last millisecond of New Year’s Eve. Modern plant extinction rates that exceed historical rates by hundreds of times over such a brief period will spell disaster for our planet’s future.
Jaco Le Roux, Associate Professor, Macquarie University; Florencia Yanelli, Researcher, Stellenbosch University; Heidi Hirsch, Postdoctoral research fellow, Stellenbosch University; José María Iriondo Alegría, Catedrático de universidad en el área de Botánica, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos; Marcel Rejmánek, Emeritus professor, University of California, Davis, and Maria Loreto Castillo, PhD Candidate, Stellenbosch University
This week many people across the world stopped and stared as extreme headlines announced that one eighth of the world’s species – more than a million – are threatened with extinction.
According to the UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which brought this situation to public attention, this startling number is a consequence of five direct causes: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species.
It’s the last, invasive species, that threatens Australian animals and plants more than any other single factor.
Australia’s number one threat
Australia has an estimated 600,000 species of flora and fauna. Of these, about 100 are known to have gone extinct in the last 200 years. Currently, more than 1,770 are listed as threatened or endangered.
While the IPBES report ranks invasive alien species as the fifth most significant cause of global decline, in Australia it is a very different story.
Australia has the highest rate of vertebrate mammal extinction in the world, and invasive species are our number one threat.
Cats and foxes have driven 22 native mammals to extinction across central Australia and a new wave of decline – largely from cats – is taking place across northern Australia. Research has estimated 270 more threatened and endangered vertebrates are being affected by invasive species.
Introduced vertebrates have also driven several bird species on Norfolk Island extinct.
The effects of invasive species are getting worse
Although Australia’s stringent biosecurity measures have dramatically slowed the number of new invasive species arriving, those already here have continued to spread and their cumulative effect is growing.
Recent research highlights that 1,257 of Australia’s threatened and endangered species are directly affected by 207 invasive plants, 57 animals and three pathogens.
These affect our unique biodiversity, as well as the clean water and oxygen we breath – not to mention our cultural values.
When it comes to biodiversity, Australia is globally quite distinct. More than 70% of our species (69% of mammals, 46% of birds and 93% of reptiles) are found nowhere else on earth. A loss to Australia is therefore a loss to the world.
Some of these are ancient species like the Wollemi Pine, may have inhabited Australia for up to 200 million years, well before the dinosaurs.
Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees
But invasive species are found in almost every part of Australia, from our rainforests, to our deserts, our farms, to our cities, our national parks and our rivers.
The cost to Australia
The cost of invasive species in Australia continue to grow with every new assessment.
The most recent estimates found the cost of controlling invasive species and economic losses to farmers in 2011-12 was A$13.6 billion. However this doesn’t include harm to biodiversity and the essential role native species play in our ecosystems, which – based on the conclusions of the IPBES report – is likely to cost at least as much, and probably far more.
Rabbits, goats and camels prevent native desert plant community regeneration; rabbits alone impacting over 100 threatened species. Rye grass on its own costs cereal farmers A$93M a year.
Aquaculture diseases have affected oysters and cost the prawn industry $43M.
From island to savannah
Globally, invasive species have a disproportionately higher effect on offshore islands – and in Australia we have more than 8,000 of these. One of the most notable cases is the case of the yellow crazy ants, which killed 15,000,000 red land crabs on Christmas Island.
Nor are our deserts immune. Most native vertebrate extinctions caused by cats have occurred in our dry inland deserts and savannas, while exotic buffel and gamba grass are creating permanent transformation through changing fire regimes.
Australia’s forests, particularly rainforests, are also under siege on a number of fronts. The battle continues to contain Miconia weed in Australia – the same weed responsible for taking over 70% of Tahiti’s native forests. Chytrid fungus, thought to be present in Australia since 1970, has caused the extinction of at least four frog species and dramatic decline of at least ten others in our sensitive rainforest ecosystems.
Myrtle rust is pushing already threatened native Australian Myrtaceae closer to extinction, notably Gossia gonoclada, and Rhodamnia angustifolia and changing species composition of rainforest understories, and Richmond birdwing butterfly numbers are under threat from an invasive flower known as the Dutchman’s pipe.
Australia’s rivers and lakes are also under increasing domination from invasive species. Some 90% of fish biomass in the Murray Darling Basin are European carp, and tilapia are invading many far north Queensland river systems pushing out native species .
Invasive alien species are not only a serious threat to biodiversity and the economy, but also to human health. The Aedes aegypti mosquito found in parts of Queensland is capable of spreading infectious disease such as dengue, zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.
And it’s not just Queensland that is under threat from diseases spread by invasive mosquitoes, with many researchers and authorities planning for when, not if, the disease carrying Aedes albopictus establishes itself in cooler and southern parts of Australia.
What solutions do we have?
Despite this grim inventory, it’s not all bad news. Australia actually has a long history of effectively managing invasive species.
Targeting viruses as options for controlling rabbits, carp and tilapia; we have successfully suppressed rabbit populations by 70% in this way for 50 years.
Weeds too are successful targets for weed biological control, with over a 65% success rate controlling more than 25 targets.
The IPBES report calls for “transformative action”. Here too Australia is at the forefront, looking into the potential of gene-technologies to suppress pet hates such as cane toads.
Past and current invasive species programs have been supported by governments and industry. This has provided the type of investment we need for long-term solutions and effective policies.
Australia is better placed now, with effective biosecurity policies and strong biosecurity investment, than many countries. We will continue the battle against invasive species to stem biodiversity and ecosystem loss.
It started off as an enigma. Biologists at field sites around the world reported that frogs had simply disappeared. Costa Rica, 1987: the golden toad, missing. Australia, 1979: the gastric brooding frog, gone. In Ecuador, Arthur’s stubfoot toad was last seen in 1988.
By 1990, cases of unexplained frog declines were piling up. These were not isolated incidents; it was a global pattern – one that we now know was due to chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that was infecting and killing a huge range of frogs, toads and salamanders.
Our research, published today in Science, reveals the global number of amphibian species affected. At least 501 species have declined due to chytrid, and 90 of them are confirmed or believed extinct.
Where did the frog pandemic come from?
When biologists first began to investigate the mysterious species disappearances, they were at a loss to explain them. In many cases, species declined rapidly in seemingly pristine habitat.
Species declines typically have obvious causes, such as habitat loss or introduced species like rats. But this was different.
The first big breakthrough came in 1998, when a team of Australian and international scientists led by Lee Berger discovered amphibian chytrid fungus. Their research showed that this unusual fungal pathogen was the cause of frog declines in the rainforests of Australia and Central America.
However, there were still many unknowns. Where did this pathogen come from? How does it kill frogs? And why were so many different species affected?
After years of painstaking research, biologists have filled in many pieces of the puzzle. In 2009, researchers discovered how chytrid fungus kills frogs. In 2018, the Korean peninsula was pinpointed as the likely origin of the most deadly lineage of chytrid fungus, and human dispersal of amphibians suggested as a likely source of the global spread of the pathogen.
Yet as the mystery was slowly but surely unravelled, a key question remained: how many amphibian species have been affected by chytrid fungus?
Early estimates suggested that about 200 species were affected. Our new study reveals the total is unfortunately much larger: 501 species have declined, and 90 confirmed or suspected to have been killed off altogether.
These numbers put chytrid fungus in the worst league of invasive species worldwide, threatening similar numbers of species as rats and cats. The worst-hit areas have been in Australia and Central and South America, which have many different frog species, as well as ideal conditions for the growth of chytrid fungus.
Large species and those with small distributions and elevational ranges have been the mostly likely to experience severe declines or extinctions.
Together with 41 amphibian experts from around the world, we pieced together information on the timing of species declines using published records, survey data, and museum collections. We found that declines peaked globally in the 1980s, about 15 years before the disease was even discovered. This peak coincides with biologists’ anecdotal reports of unusual amphibian declines that occurred with increasing frequency in the late 1980s.
Encouragingly, some species have shown signs of natural recovery. Twelve per cent of the 501 species have begun to recover in some locations. But for the vast majority of species, population numbers are still far below what they once were.
Most of the afflicted species have not yet begun to bounce back, and many continue to decline. Rapid and substantial action from governments and conservation organisations is needed if we are to keep these species off the extinct list.
In Australia, chytrid fungus has caused the decline of 43 frog species. Of these, seven are now extinct and six are at high risk of extinction due to severe and ongoing declines. The conservation of these species is dependent on targeted management, such as the recovery program for the iconic corroboree frogs.
Importantly, there are still some areas of the world that chytrid has not yet reached, such as New Guinea. Stopping chytrid fungus spreading to these areas will require a dramatic reduction in the global trade of amphibians, as well as increased biosecurity measures.
The unprecedented deadliness of a single disease affecting an entire class of animals highlights the need for governments and international organisations to take the threat of wildlife disease seriously. Losing more amazing species like the golden toad and gastric brooding frog is a tragedy that we can avoid.