Australia needs an environment policy with a clear priority on steeply improving environmental outcomes, not further bending our landscape and its creatures into profit-yielding stress positions.
Australia’s most endangered marsupial, Gilbert’s potoroo, was almost burnt to extinction in the fire at Two People’s Bay near Albany in 2015.
The species was saved by the courageous firefighting and animal rescue efforts on the day. Since that time the painstaking work of local rangers and the valiant Gilbert’s Potoroo Action Group has stabilised the population, but only 30–40 animals now exist in their natural range.
In this summer of catastrophic fires the near wipe-out of the Gilbert’s potoroo and its tenuous recovery is a salutary tale. Our damaged and fragile environment is facing new threats. Our national protection framework has not yet risen to the task. While there is a recovery plan under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for the Gilbert’s potoroo it’s estimated that 40 per cent of threatened species have no such plan.
We are halfway through a summer of unprecedented bushfires on the eastern seaboard. So far 10 million hectares have been scorched and ecologists estimate more than 1 billion animals have been lost. Inevitably worse is to come because without habitat and food the survivors will fail to reproduce and many will starve. It is not unlikely that endangered species have been lost. It is certain that additional species will have become endangered and those already endangered will have been pushed to the brink.
Western Australia’s unique south-west biodiversity hotspot has been harmed by repeat fires in areas like the Stirling Range National Park and the Fitzgerald River biosphere. Three fires since 2015 in the Cape Arid National Park have put the Western ground parrot at severe risk.
All this comes against the background of an acute biodiversity crisis. The IPBES Report in 2019 showed that within a global tale of woe in terms of declining biodiversity, Australia has the bitter distinction of being a mega-diverse continent with a poor record of protecting its distinctive flora and fauna.
Despite repeated warnings about this awful fire season the lack of national preparedness has extended from the realm of human safety, community infrastructure, and livestock to the natural environment as a whole. A letter from 248 scientists to the Prime Minister in October last year warned of Australia’s extinction risk: “Current laws are failing because they are too weak, have inadequate review and approval processes, and are not overseen by an effective compliance regime.”
This is not the time for excuses and complacency. This is not the time for tall stories about how everything is going well and how we’re doing our bit in a canter. The facts speak for themselves. Instead of reduction in carbon emissions we have seen reductions in funding to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Instead of preparation for climate impacts we have seen the Secretaries Group on Climate Risk sidelined and the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework buried. The 2019 national implementation plan never even appeared.
It is notable that the government’s Threatened Species Strategy Year 3 Report was delivered six months late and that 10 of its 21 targets were not met. The Strategy was established to improve the trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds, and 30 plant species by 2020, but these targets are off-track and unlikely to be achieved.
Australia needs an environment policy with a clear priority on steeply improving environmental outcomes, not further bending our landscape and its creatures into profit-yielding stress positions. Australia has already suffered mass deforestation and the brutal impact of feral animals. We now add the scouring heat and drought of climate change with more frequent and more ferocious fires. When the fire season is over we need to consider the inadequacy of our environmental protection framework in addition to the inadequate preparations for community safety. That is why Labor has called for a national ecological audit, a meeting of state and federal environment ministers, and a change of course whose navigational logic is the relevant science.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 5 February 2020.