The Guardian • Issue #2017

Listen to the science!

State of the Environment report

Part 1

Photo: bertknot – (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Overall, the state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.” (State of the Environment 2021 report)

The sobering State of the Environment 2021 report paints a grim picture, reflecting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report earlier this year. (See Guardian, #1999, “Climate Change Act Now!” and #2000, “Climate Change: Capitalism Killing the Earth”) At the same time there are some positives with swift, planned, and coordinated action is urgently needed.

“The oldest continuing cultures in the world, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, know that ‘if you take care of Country, it will take care of you’. By continuing to work together, we can heal Country and safeguard our future,” the report says. We are not taking care of Country. The message and consequences are stark.

The report is a comprehensive national assessment of the health of every aspect of our environment conducted by more than thirty experts over two years drawing on the best available evidence to guide policy and action.

Previous reports have been delivered approximately every five years since 1995. They covered rivers, oceans, air, ice, land, and urban areas. The 2021 report contains new chapters on Indigenous knowledge and connection to Country, climate change, and extreme weather events.

For the very first time Indigenous voices were involved in the analysis and one of the three lead authors, Dr Terri Janke, is a prominent Indigenous lawyer internationally renowned for her knowledge of Indigenous and cultural intellectual property rights. The other lead authors are Dr Ian Cresswell, an environmental scientist at CSIRO and Professor Emma Johnston, deputy vice-chancellor for research at Sydney University.

“Combining traditional and local knowledge, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have worked together to create this first holistic assessment of the state of Australia’s environment.”


The report warns: “Multiple pressures create cumulative impacts that amplify threats to our environment, and abrupt changes in ecological systems have been recorded in the past five years.”

At least nineteen ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.

Since 2016 the number of animal and plant species listed as threatened rose by more than two hundred to 1,918. The catastrophic 2019-20 bush fires killed or displaced up to three billion animals, which means the list is likely to grow as the consequences become clear.

Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world. In all more than 100 Australian species have been listed as either extinct or extinct in the wild. The major causes of the extinctions are land clearing and invasive species.

Land clearing continues and has reached the point where almost half is used for grazing. Areas used for forestry and cropping have also increased.

Native vegetation, soil, wetlands, rivers, and biodiversity continue to decline. Alarmingly, there are now more introduced plant species than native plants in Australia. The cost of weeds to grain growers is an estimated $3.3 billion.

Australia’s rivers and catchments are mostly in poor condition; water levels in the Murray-Darling Basin were at record lows in 2019 due to extraction and drought. In the past 150 years native fish populations have declined by more than ninety per cent.

There was mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef due to marine heatwaves in 2016, 2017, 2020, and since the report was written, another in March 2022. The coral is increasingly unable to recover in the time between bleachings.

The report warns that ocean acidification due to absorption of carbon dioxide is close to tipping point. Already it is having a disastrous effect on marine ecosystems and species.

Rising sea levels are taking their toll on coast lines and low-lying areas, including the Kakadu wetlands. Mangroves are encroaching on saltmarshes across most of Australia’s coast.

There are many factors behind the decline in our environment: ongoing land clearing, invasive species, pollution, and urban expansion. Despite the numerous positive environmental initiatives there has been inadequate investment, lack of coordination, failure to recognise Indigenous knowledge and culture, and legislative failure.

“Our environment holds the key to our survival and wellbeing. The natural world is not separate from the human world – it is the source of our food, water, air and raw materials. […] In a rapidly changing climate, with declining biodiversity, the general outlook for our environment is deteriorating. The impacts of this will affect us all.”

“Indigenous knowledge and connections to Country are vital for sustainability and healing Australia. Indigenous people have cared for Country across generations, yet Indigenous knowledge and worldview are rarely incorporated, valued or accessed by non-Indigenous environmental management.”


“Climate change threatens every ecosystem.”

The average Australian land temperature has risen by 1.4°C and sea surface temperatures by 1.1°C since the early 20th century, with most of the increase since the 1950s.

The report describes the impacts of climate change such as the worst recorded drought from 2017-2019, the catastrophic bushfires and the months of continuous rain that followed. That was written before the most recent devastating flooding along the east coast of Australia.

“For all aspects of our environment, the outlook is affected by the increasing pressure of climate change. Increasing temperatures on land and sea, changing fire and rainfall regimes, and rising sea levels and ocean acidification are having profound effects that will continue into the future.”

“Changes to our landscapes through habitat fragmentation, agricultural management practices, expansion of invasive species and other pressures are exacerbating the impacts of extreme events and inhibiting post event recovery. Competing pressures on water systems and changes in rainfall patterns are increasing the pressures on our environment.”

Some of the largest impacts are being experienced in Antarctica. Apart from the impact on species in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic environments, Australia’s climate and sea levels face substantial impacts.

The extreme weather events are affecting our soils, water, vegetation, and the species that rely on them including humanity.

We’re born from this land. We belong to the land. And we take care of the land. We respect this land. And we should only ever take from the land what we can give back to the land.” (Wurundjeri knowledge holder and Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin)

Part 2 next week looks at the impact of environmental destruction on humans, caring for Country, and the pathway forward.

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