- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2018
During the 2019-2020 bushfires thirty-three lives were lost, more than seven million hectares were burnt, more than 3,000 home destroyed.
In the most recent floods, which occurred following the writing of the report, tens of thousands of people were displaced, thousands of homes were lost, and many if rebuilt would be uninsurable with no guarantee against future flooding. The devastation is almost beyond belief and the tragedy is far from resolved. The toll on mental health will take years, if ever, to be known.
Governments at all levels were not prepared. On the questions of adaptation and mitigation they failed dismally. Homes were built on flood plains, planning authorities bowed to developers. Emergency services were overwhelmed – no fault of their own. It took courageous acts by communities to save lives.
The growing intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts, extreme heat, storm tides, bushfires, floods, cyclones, and other “natural” phenomena “can change natural and urban landscapes, and sometimes have irreversible impacts on ecosystems and human society.”
“The environment and human health are strongly linked, and environmental degradation affects our communities, economy and way of life. The current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards most of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.
“Our environment sustains all life, and the link between the environment and human wellbeing is well understood. Nature provides the essential services for our food, water and clean air; The basis for human livelihoods; cultural and spiritual connection; and physical health. Along with benefits for the environment offered by via biodiversity, contact with nature is associated with positive mental health benefits, and can promote physical activity and contribute to overall wellbeing.”
The report cites examples such as the impact of air quality has on human health from pollutants, the smoke from bush fires, and the extreme heat experienced in recent summers.
CARING FOR COUNTRY
The recognition of Indigenous knowledge and management of country, land rights, and self-determination is an integral part of every section of the report and seen as inherent to addressing environmental destruction.
The report explains that for Indigenous peoples the term “environment” is integrated with the term “Country.” “Country is more than the physical land, waterways and seas; it includes all living things on the land and in the seas, and it also includes the connected language, knowledge, cultural practice and responsibility.”
As Indigenous peoples’ lands and seas have been returned to their care, so were cultural management practices which have had good results. Indigenous Australians as the first scientists having “many respectful and reciprocal collaborations with other scientists are shaping a pathway for our nation’s future.”
“Caring for country is a cultural obligation.”
“Self-determination is key.” “Indigenous-led and government caring for Country, undertaken via holistic and long-term programs, is key to future success.”
“Current laws, policies and management approaches continue modes of colonialism and are inherently limited in their ability to wholly support Indigenous self-determination.” Australia’s intellectual property laws do not recognise Indigenous intellectual and cultural property rights which are important for protecting knowledge rights and practice management.
“Self-determination and access to country, along with major changes to Indigenous heritage legislation and significant government changes regarding free, prior and informed consent, are needed.”
“Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change in Australia because they use the environment differently, and the impacts are greater on their cultural knowledge and traditional practices. Impacts of climate change can displace them as a people away from their traditional lands, and can ultimately change the way they access and use Country to read climate.”
“A key element of the caring for Country movement and Indigenous land and sea ranger programs has been cultural fire management or comparable fire practices by local Indigenous knowledge holders.” The revival of cultural burning is well established in northern and central Australia, and has grown in recent years in the southern regions.
“Re-establishing Indigenous fire regimes and holistic traditional management practices can create many opportunities for Indigenous empowerment, contributing to significant cultural, environmental, social and economic benefits.”
CAUSES OF CRISIS
The report was commissioned by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. As could be expected it focuses on the natural sciences, the consequences of policy shortcomings, and what is needed.
It does not address the political and economic forces behind the devastation; why successive governments have failed to take the necessary actions to protect Country.
The fossil-fuel worshipping Coalition – Liberal and National Parties – has and still appears to be in denial about climate change. Labor has acknowledged the need to take measures, but its actions have fallen short.
The millions of dollars in donations that the major parties pocket from fossil fuel corporations are dictating their actions, or more accurately inactions. The Coalition by far is the worst offender. These donations should be banned and the system of political donations cleaned up with strict limits on campaign spending.
The mining corporations are behind the destruction of Indigenous culture and theft of lands. Their narrow, short-sighted pursuit of maximum profits will prove self-destructive in the end – not just for them but for humanity and life as we know it on planet Earth.
Capitalism drives environmental destruction.
Despite its grim and disturbing findings, the report does offer hope and a pathway forward.
“The increased frequency and intensity of extreme events will exacerbate their potential impacts on buildings and infrastructure, and the effectiveness of current engineering solutions. Changes in the distribution of events means that existing policies and regulations that are regionally based may need to be revised. Codes used during construction will need to encompass events likely to occur in the lifetime of the structure, and such codes will also need to be applied to maintenance and upgrade activities.”
It requires collaboration and cooperation between governments, businesses, and communities particularly Indigenous communities, to build resilient landscapes, to achieve balanced and equitable environmental, economic, social, and cultural benefits.
“Indigenous people have dealt with environmental change for millennia. Traditional knowing and seeing along with the principles of caring for Country are essential for meeting the environmental challenges of today and the future.”
“Working together, we can build resilient Country and people,” the report says, taking a positive view as to what can be achieved.
To move from unsustainable to sustainable development, a major transformation in environmental planning, assessment, and reporting in Australia is required.
There needs to be a national, coordinated, and transparent approach for environmental reports and approvals with the establishment of national standards.
“Some level of climate change is ‘locked in’ because today’s emissions will continue to influence future climatic conditions. […] The lack of cooperative engagement in climate change adaptation at the national level is noticeable and has worsened in the past 5 years.”
Labor Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek described the report as “shocking.”
She told the National Press Club when releasing the report, “[…] while it’s a confronting read, Australians deserve the truth.” Plibersek gave a passionate address on the failures of the Coalition government and the impacts of climate change on the environment and humans. “Nevertheless, I’m optimistic about the steps we can take over the next three years.”
“Legislating strong action on climate change is a great start,” she said.
Strong legislation on climate change is vital to our survival, but so far Labor is refusing to budge on its inadequate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by forty-three per cent by 2030.
Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in April 2022. As stated in Part 1 (see Guardian # 2017), Australian land has already warmed by 1.4°C.
Forty-three per cent by 2030 does not constitute “immediate and deep emissions reductions.” The science demands more.
Part 1 appeared in last week’s Guardian #2017.