Australia and its environment – an unhealthy relationship

Australia has a poor environmental record2. Since European settlement over 100 species have become extinct, including 27 mammals, 23 birds, 4 frogs and 60 plant species7. Currently there are 1500 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and plants threatened with extinction7. In his seminar at Macquarie University, Professor Corey Bradshaw from The University of Adelaide discussed this dismal state of the Australian environment (with a healthy dash of politics), and the role that scientists need to play in reversing this devastating trajectory.

Habitat loss and degradation is the primary threat to biodiversity worldwide1 – and as mentioned by Prof Bradshaw, Australia is not helping the cause. Since European settlement there has been large scale land use changes3, mostly for agriculture2. This has resulted in 38% forest cover loss in around 200 years2,3. Most vegetation that remains is highly fragmented and/or disturbed3.

 Vegetation extent

Extent of vegetation in Australia: a) Estimated Pre-1750 and b) Present (2001-2004). Image altered from http://www.environment.gov.au/node/22149

 

The threat of feral cats to native mammals in Australia was also at the core of Prof Bradshaw’s discussion. The introduction of feral cats and foxes has led to a huge decline in small to medium sized native mammal species in Australia, including the extinction of 22 mainland species in the last 100 years6. As stated by Prof Bradshaw, the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo) may be the only last hope for ecosystems in Australia to minimise the meso-predator (feral cats and foxes) effects on native mammals. Instead of tackling this problem head on, governments continue to invest $10 million/year to maintain the Dingo/Dog fence2. This not only prevents dingos from being an integral part of ecosystem function in south-eastern Australia, but it is also a barrier to the migration of other animals2.

 Emus at the State Barrier Fence are deflected from farming land

Emu’s at the State Barrier Fence in Western Australia – an example of a barrier to migration. Displayed by Prof Bradshaw in his presentation. Image retrieved from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2013/02/controversy-over-was-rabbit-proof-fence-plans/

What is our government doing?

Concern has been expressed by Ritchie et al. (2013) about legislative and policy changes that have been made by state governments in recent years, particularly those favouring exploitative use of national parks. There has also been a relaxation of legislation that prevents vegetation clearing, such as on private land7. Bradshaw (2012) states that there needs to be large shifts in environmental policies. Although, with our present government, described by Prof Bradshaw as the environmental Abbott-oir, major policy shifts should not be expected any time soon.

 Tony abbott environment The Abbott-oir. An image from a blog post by Prof Bradshaw. Image altered from http://conservationbytes.com/2014/03/06/abbotts-no-more-parks-vow-a-bad-move/

 

Let’s control the population!

Many of us would believe that the sheer number of humans is the cause of this worldwide unhealthy relationship with the environment, and that population control is the easy answer. However, according to Prof Bradshaw, if a one child policy applied to every person worldwide, at the end of the 21st century there would still be the same amount of people that there is today! Hence, Prof Bradshaw believes that a population focus is not the solution.

 Population growth

 World population growth. Image retrieved from http://scholars-stage.blogspot.com.au/2010/08/notes-on-dynamics-of-human-civilization.html

 

A nuclear tangent

Prof Bradshaw’s discussion also focussed on the massive worldwide fossil fuel addiction – which isn’t contributing too well to the biodiversity crisis. It has been argued by Brook (2012) that nuclear fission can play a significant role in energy supply in the future, alongside significant expansion of renewables. According to Prof Bradshaw and Brook (2012), the use of renewables alone won’t be enough to end fossil fuel reliance. However, the main issue with nuclear power is societal acceptance5. With new technology such as the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), Prof Bradshaw states that not one single uranium would need to be mined, as it can utilise current nuclear wastes.

What can be done?

Due to the current state of Australia’s environment and politics, scientists simply need to be doing more2. According to Prof Bradshaw, many people may enter the field of ecology because of the many ‘cool’ phenomena to be studied and discovered. However, such scientists need to look at how they can address really big problems such as species conservation2. Prof Bradshaw states that we also need a united, strong scientific voice to directly advocate and lobby governments based on scientific evidence. Furthermore, ecologists need to get their research out into the public domain, as Prof Bradshaw has achieved with his successful blog “Conservation Bytes”.

Top 5 concluding points

  • Australia’s environment is in a bad state.
  • Policy shifts are required, but current environmental protections are being wound back.
  • Population control is not the answer
  • Putting emotions aside, nuclear power may be the only means to minimise global greenhouse gas production
  • Scientists need to unite and form a strong lobbying body to ensure policies are based on current scientific evidence.

References

  1. Baillie, J., Hilton-Taylor, C., & Stuart, S. N. (Eds.). (2004). 2004 IUCN red list of threatened species: a global species assessment. IUCN.
  1. Bradshaw, C. (2014, May 7). Sampling while Australia burns: we need more out-of-the-box approaches for scientists to change the world. BioSeminar. Conducted from Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW.
  1. Bradshaw, C. J. (2012). Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization. Journal of Plant Ecology, 5(1), 109-120. doi: 10.1093/jpe/rtr038
  1. Bradshaw, C. J., Giam, X., & Sodhi, N. S. (2010). Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. PLoS One, 5(5), e10440. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010440
  1. Brook, B. W. (2012). Could nuclear fission energy, etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case. Energy Policy, 42, 4-8. doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2011.11.041
  1. Kennedy, M., Phillips, B. L., Legge, S., Murphy, S. A., & Faulkner, R. A. (2012). Do dingoes suppress the activity of feral cats in northern Australia?. Austral Ecology, 37(1), 134-139. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-9993.2011.02256.x
  1. Ritchie, E. G., Bradshaw, C. J., Dickman, C. R., Hobbs, R., Johnson, C. N., Johnston, E. L., … & Woinarski, J. (2013). Continental-Scale Governance Failure Will Hasten Loss of Australia’s Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, 27(6), 1133-1135. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12189
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