‘Time to stop hitting the snooze button, Australia!’ 

By Karen McGhee June 25, 2022
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That was one of the strongest sentiments to come from the nation’s scientific community following the release – finally – of the nation’s grim State of the Environment report.

Everyone in climate change, conservation and ecology saw it coming.

They all knew about the report and had been waiting for it to surface. Its release is said to have been stalled for political reasons by the previous Federal Government.

Now that the 2021 State of the Environment Report has landed it’s being seen as a massive wake-up call to the nation.

It brings together evidence that’s been growing during the past five years, and beyond, that Australia’s natural environment is under siege and the potential consequences for our wider society are dire.

“It’s like when you’ve had a big night and you’re waiting for the alarm and you hear it ringing but you don’t get up for a while,” Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic and Student Life at the University of New South Wales, told AG this week. “It’s now time to wake up!”

An opportunity to change

As calamitous as the report is, there’s certainly a sense among our research leaders that Australia can turn things around with the right political will and strong public support.

The latter is largely already here, Dr Dan Metcalfe noted to AG. He’s the Director for CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere and was the author of the Extreme Events theme in the 2021 report that dropped this week and the Land theme in its 2016 incarnation. (These reports have been produced every five years since 1995.)

“I think that because of the natural disasters we’ve seen over the last five years – the 2019-20 bushfires, a succession of floods and the like – that the environment, its state and its value, has really engaged the public psyche,” Metcalfe said.

“And so, yes, we are seeing the political narrative shifting a little bit, but that’s an indicator of public sentiment.

“The really exciting thing at the moment is we’ve got people – ordinary people across Australia – thinking about the environment and ecosystem services and about species and are concerned about them.”

Metcalfe has also been buoyed by a rising cooperative response he’s been witnessing among our nation’s scientists to find answers to the country’s most pressing environmental problems.

“At the same time we’ve been seeing that growing understanding and greater public engagement,” he explained, “I’ve also been really cheered over the last year or so that in state agencies, publicly funded research agencies and universities, there’s been a really collaborative response to the idea that we can’t solve this individually, the problem is so big that we have to do it together.”

In Australia’s innovation sector that’s meant that much of the usual highly competitive drive, for example, to publish first has been supplanted instead by a move to work collaboratively and constructively to share resources and expertise in the interest of achieving common goals.

“We are seeing a growing recognition that everyone needs to be involved, everyone has to play a part and that the only way we can do this is together.”

By way of example, he points to the success of work by CSIRO during the past five years in a project to clean up plastic pollution on Australia’s beaches that has also involved local councils and community groups. 

“There’s been a 29 per cent decrease [in plastic rubbish] on beaches in the areas it’s been operating,” Metcalfe explained. “And what it shows is that everyone has a role, it’s not just ‘can science find a new way of doing better recycling, a more circular economy, alternative plastics?’” It’s also highlighted, he says, that understanding and responding to the issue at a community level has been highly effective.

“So, at the innovation sector level we have got a collegiality like I haven’t seen before, and at the grass roots level we’ve got individual people in the suburbs, in the regions who are asking ‘what can I do?’, and we’re seeing that the little bits that people can do individually actually make a difference.”

A CSIRO project involving local councils and community groups to clean up plastic pollution on Australia’s beaches has been successful. Image credit: Otto Werner / Alamy

Give the report the response in deserves

Professor Kris Helgen, chief scientist and director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, says it’s vital that now we’ve been shown the scale of the problem, the response has to be of a similar magnitude.

“The most important take home message is that we are seeing so many ways in which the environment is affected and under threat and they are very well summarised in this report,” he commented to AG. “[But] one of the key messages here is that investment has not been proportionate to the threats and it really needs to be. We’re not investing enough to respond to these threats.

“These [reports] come every five years and this one is particularly dire. But to what extent can it light a fire for decisionmakers in Australia to say ‘enough is enough’?

“So, I think the measure of progress will be to what extent [will the response reflect that] we don’t want any longer to be the country of extinction, we don’t want any longer to be the country that is not seen to be scrambling on all fronts to be responding to threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

“We want to turn this on its head and we want to invest heavily in protection of our environment.”

Australia has been lacking, he said, in the sort of “strong environmental legislation” seen in some other countries “that kicks in to see that almost no species becomes extinct” in their jurisdiction.

We’ve been lacking a system, he said, that should be triggered to save a species when alarm bells begin ringing that it’s at risk of extinction.

“Every time we get a five-year report [like this] the hour is ever later, and we are now arriving at a late hour for temperatures to be hospitable and inhabitable across this continent and there might not be too many more five-year plans for us to wait before we really make the changes.

“A point raised was that maybe human economies and human societies can wait a little bit longer, but a lot of the biodiversity that we need to protect has reached its absolute end point of how long it can cope,” Helgen said. “If we don’t invest in protecting some of these things now – the species that are so under threat, the ecosystems that are under threat – we won’t be able to have them too much longer.

“The public reaction is happening, and we need the government reaction to follow.”

Reasons to be cheerful

Professor Crossley would like to see a tightening of environment-related legislation and its enforcement.  And he’s confident that pressure will also come as fewer people choose to invest in damaging technologies such as those that use fossil fuels.

He remains optimistic because of how he sees the country’s newest generations are responding. 

“Young Australians are growing up aware of the environment and also aware of, as this report highlights, the Indigenous custodianship of the land before European settlement,” he said. “So, we’ve got generations of people now growing up aware of these issues. This report shines a light on that and I think the education in Australia is good and will lead to a gradual cultural change that I think most people recognise and that will lead to legislative and material [shifts].”

Dan Metcalfe too remains optimistic: “The first step to making any change is to recognise what the issues are. And my sense at the moment is that we are as a society now recognising the problem.

“And if that recognition is sufficiently held then surely we should be able to make a difference.”

Related: Has Australia reached its environmental tipping point?