We are facing a biodiversity crisis. Since 1788, Australia has lost 30 mammal species and 29 bird species we had known and identified.
The real picture is probably worse than these figures indicate because the first independent national report on the State of the Environment in 1996 estimated that we had only identified about 15% of the species here. That first report said that we had a unique and beautiful environment, with much of it in good condition by international standards, but we also had some serious problems that needed to be tackled as a matter of urgency.
In 1992, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) agreed on a National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development. The Commonwealth, State and Territory governments committed to a pattern of development that protected our unique biodiversity, conserved the integrity of our natural systems and respected the needs of future generations. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence that recent governments, ALP or Coalition, State or national, adhere to those principles.
Five later reports in the State of the Environment, the most recently suppressed by the Morrison government and only released after the 2022 election, have all emphasised with increasing urgency the same fundamental problem. Increasing numbers of the species and ecosystems we know about are threatened.
A 2018 Threatened Species Recovery Hub report listed nine bird species for which the probability of extinction in the next 20 years is greater than 50%. The list included the orange-bellied parrot, the plains wanderer and the regent honey eater. The same report listed nine mammal species that are more than 25% likely to become extinct in the next 20 years, including Leadbeater’s possum.
The causes of extinction are well-known: habitat destruction, introduced predator species, and chemical pollution. All those are directly linked to our demands on the planet’s natural systems. As the 1996 report said, environmental problems result from the growth and distribution of the human population, our lifestyle choices and the technologies we use. To make the situation worse, all the pressures on our natural systems are now being supplemented by climate change.
We should not be surprised that climate change is affecting natural systems. What plants need to grow are carbon dioxide, water and warmth. We are changing all those factors. By changing growing conditions, we systematically alter the balance between different species. This changes the food available to herbivores, while their responses affect the food available to carnivorous predators. The changing climate also affects insects and disease vectors, so it should not be surprising that increasing numbers of our native species are threatened. As well as the gradual and predicted impacts of climate change, we are now experiencing a dramatic increase in the number and intensity of extreme events: floods, heatwaves, tropical cyclones and catastrophic fire seasons.
The fundamental problem is that our environmental science is not yet sufficiently advanced to predict the consequences. We are pulling random bricks out of the complex wall of life, unaware of when whole sections could collapse. As the latest report warned, we risk catastrophic outcomes. The natural environment is not just aesthetically valuable. Our health, living standards, cultural and spiritual fulfillment, and connection to country are all interlinked; our deteriorating environment threatens all.
There are some positive signs, protected areas within which threatened species are recovering and initiatives that respect and build on the knowledge of the Traditional Owners of Country. But the Samuel review found that the legal framework is inadequate. Our environmental laws are not protecting threatened species or endangered ecological communities. We urgently need our governments to move beyond their obsession with economic growth and recognise that our first duty is to protect the integrity of natural systems. We rely on those systems to provide the essentials of our life: breathable air, drinkable water, and the capacity to produce food.
Maintaining what remains of our unique biodiversity is not a luxury. It is critical for our civilisation.
Article contributed by Professor Ian Lowe AO
The John Sinclair Memorial Lecture is a biennial event hosted by FIDO commemorating the life and work of John Sinclair AO. John dedicated his life to the preservation and protection of K’gari (Fraser Island). This year’s lecture – Honouring John Sinclair’s Legacy: protecting our biodiversity, was held at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Sippy Downs Campus and delivered by John’s long-term colleague Professor Ian Lowe. A copy of his presentation is available online.