A troubling environment | The Saturday Paper

Our environment is in deep trouble. We are all suffering as a result. Elected officials at all levels behave as if tackling the problem is a luxury, an optional extra if time and resources are available after meeting the much more important challenges of growing the economy. We are not even treating the symptoms and there is no appetite to address the underlying causes.

The latest report on the state of the Australian environment has finally been released. We should not have been surprised that the Morrison administration kept it under wraps. Secrecy was the defining characteristic of Scott Morrison’s ministerial career, whether it was refusing to talk about on-water matters, having his loyal supporters back Peter Dutton to destabilise Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, or not telling his own ministers that he had been sworn in to their portfolios. In this case, there was a compelling political reason to keep the report hidden until after the election: it paints a damning picture of neglect.

To quote directly from the key findings of the report, our environment is in poor condition “and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction”. It went on to say that “changing environmental conditions mean that many species and ecosystems are increasingly threatened”, observing that we have seen “abrupt changes in ecological systems” in recent years. Most fundamentally, the report reminded us that these are not just aesthetic issues. As it said, “Our health, living standards, cultural and spiritual fulfilment and connection to country are all interconnected and are negatively impacted by our deteriorating environment.”

The most obvious demonstration of this hard truth is the dreadful price climate change is imposing on communities in eastern Australia. The unprecedented bushfires of the so-called Black Summer and the recent flood events have not just taken an appalling toll on our natural environment. Lives have been lost, businesses have been ruined and whole townships devastated. As a New South Wales farmer said to me last year, we are seeing one-in-a-hundred-year events every year. The situation has accelerated since then, with one observer noting that Lismore has suffered – in this year alone – three events that would historically have been seen as one-in-a-hundred-year floods.

While that is the most visible demonstration of the costs of climate change, it is certainly not the only consequence for human health. The federal Health minister, Mark Butler, said in a recent answer to a question in parliament that climate change poses a range of health risks, from heat stress to changing patterns of vector-borne disease. There are many other environmental health concerns. It is estimated that about half of all cancers have an environmental cause, while respiratory distress from polluted air is a major killer around the world.

The sad truth is that we had plenty of warning. In 1996, the first independent national report on the state of the environment was delivered to the newly elected Howard government. The Keating government had started the process, responding to the 1992 Rio Earth summit urging countries to commission regular reports so that decision-makers would be aware of how things were going.

I chaired the advisory council that produced the 1996 report. It said that we had a beautiful and unique environment, much of it in good condition by international standards, and that some of our approaches had been recognised as models of good practice. It also identified five serious problems that needed urgent attention: the loss of our biodiversity, the state of our inland rivers, loss and degradation of productive land, pressures on the coastal zone and rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change. In the context of the 1992 decision by the Council of Australian Governments to adopt a national strategy for ecologically sustainable development, the report said that these problems would have to be addressed to achieve our stated goal of developing sustainably.

More than a quarter of a century later, the most recent report demonstrates that little or nothing has been done to tackle those problems. Actually, all the intervening reports at five-year intervals have shown they are getting worse. The recent review by Professor Graeme Samuel found that our environmental laws are totally inadequate and failing to protect our natural systems. At the national level, the law that allows a Commonwealth minister to intervene and halt a proposed development has been used only once this century – and even in that case, a change of leadership in Queensland meant the new government seemed comfortable with the decision. At the state and territory level, the imperative of economic development almost always takes priority over environmental concerns. Some of our most productive land has been sacrificed to the short-term gain from gas projects.

In the specific case of property damage and loss of life from extreme weather-related events, I remember discussions at the 1997 Kyoto climate change conference. The Howard government did its best to sabotage the process of developing the Kyoto Protocol by demanding a uniquely generous target that essentially allowed Australia to do nothing to slow climate change. That approach was in line with the global business community, which was saying openly that the problem did not justify doing anything to modify the pattern of economic development.

The exception was the insurance industry, the one commercial sector that was urging action. Representatives at the 1997 meeting said that the cost of property damage was increasing rapidly, making it hard to set premiums that would allow them to stay in business. One projected that by 2020 the realistic premiums actuaries demand would be unaffordable in many regions, warning that the consequence would be uninsured people losing their homes. This is exactly what we are now seeing in eastern Australia. The inevitable result is that governments have to intervene to help those people. As one observer noted, we are all now effectively paying a carbon tax, a requirement for our governments to spend taxpayers’ money to help people cope with the consequences of climate change.

So, what is the basic problem? Why is our environment going down the gurgler? The 1996 report said that no single government or commercial sector was to blame. In a sense, we are all indirectly responsible. The issues are the cumulative consequences of the growth and distribution of our population, our lifestyle choices, the technologies we use and the demands that makes on our natural resources.

Most of the environmental problems can be solved but the solutions require a comprehensive and systematic approach, integrating all aspects: the social and economic drivers as well as the ecological consequences. We still have a better opportunity than most countries to protect our environment and use our natural resources sustainably. But achieving that goal requires a fundamental change. As that report concluded, it “requires recognition that human society is part of the ecological system and integration of ecological thinking into all social and economic planning”.

I was reminded of this underlying problem by a recent discussion on the Insiders TV program. In the context of the jobs and skills summit, the journalists in the studio were unanimous that we need to increase immigration to the pre-pandemic level, seeing this as the easiest way to boost the economy. There was little support for the possibility of our skills shortages being addressed by governments taking responsibility to train local workers, or for urging employers to offer more attractive wages. And there was absolutely no discussion of the fundamental question of the need to live within the limits of our natural systems. If, as six reports have now recognised, our environment is being degraded by the demands of our current population, adding more people will generally make it worse. In fact, it could only not make it worse if our per capita demands were to be scaled back faster than the growth in population. But the Insiders discussion was all about how we could grow the economy, with absolutely no recognition of the need to integrate ecological thinking.

Surveys show that about 70 per cent of voters are opposed to returning immigration to pre-pandemic levels. That doesn’t mean there is broad understanding of the need to live within ecological limits. What it shows is that people see their quality of life declining as our cities grow. Roads and public transport systems are more crowded, access to public open space is restricted and ambulances queue outside hospitals. Our urban infrastructure has clearly failed to keep pace with our increasing numbers.

Those problems are, at least in principle, soluble. But the latest report reminded us that some of the damage we are doing is irreversible. We have never brought back an extinct species. There is no chance of repairing the damage to productive land within a human lifetime. Continuing decline is inevitable unless we recognise the need to live within the limits of natural systems.


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
September 10, 2022 as “Environmental limits”.

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