Environmental science

Australian scientists hope grim new environmental assessment will spur government action Science

Australian scientists are hopeful that a dire new assessment of the country’s environment released today will prompt the recently elected government to act.

The State of the Environment report, done every 5 years by an independent expert panel, describes declining biodiversity, increasing heat waves and bushfires, growing impacts on human health and, above all, the existential threat of climate change.

None of that is surprising, says Terry Hughes, a coral reef ecologist at James Cook University, Townsville. “The report makes clear climate change is the No. 1 cause of the decline of ecological systems,” Hughes says. “The question is: What is this new government going to do about it?”

Hughes notes that the Labor Party won this spring’s election campaigning on a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 43% by 2030, a dramatic increase over the previous target of 26% to 28%. But he thinks Australia should be even more ambitious “given the vulnerability of the country’s ecosystems as highlighted by this report.”

The report was actually submitted in December 2021 to the Liberal-National Coalition, which came to power in 2013. But it was withheld in what critics said was a cynical attempt by the government to hide bad news and extend its reign. Even so, on May 21 voters resoundingly backed the Labor Party, with significant support for the Australian Greens and independents, who all favored action on climate change.

“Repeated polling puts the environment at or near the top of issues the public cares about,” says La Trobe University, Melbourne, ecologist Jim Radford. He hopes the report will convince the nation’s leaders to provide the necessary policies and resources.

Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s new minister for the environment and water, did not mince words when she summarized the report in a speech today in Canberra. “Australia’s environment is bad and getting worse,” Plibersek said, promising “a fundamental reform of our national environmental laws, and a new environmental protection agency to enforce them.”

Among the key findings in the report:

  • Over the past 2 centuries, Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent.
  • Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones.
  • Bushfires in 2019 and 2020 killed or displaced millions of animals and threatened human health with smoke.
  • Constantly rising sea surface temperatures are causing mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef so often that the corals cannot recover.

Climate change is exacerbating all those trends, the report asserts. The past decade was Australia’s warmest on record, it notes, and higher temperatures are threatening both terrestrial and marine life, including drying up rivers that provide communities with their only access to fresh water.

Australia has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The report details some progress toward that goal, but concludes, “a substantially increased rate of emissions reduction overall will be required.”

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