Doomed Planet

Think Green, Vote Liberal

We’re all environmentalists now

The (almost) bipartisan agreement that allowed the passage of the renewable energy legislation has also led to the Coalition agreeing to negotiate changes to the ETS legislation. This astonishing bipartisanship on an issue that threatens Australia’s ability to compete internationally has quickly inspired a startling proposal on “how to save” Malcolm Turnbull by “doing a Whitlam”.

How come? First, based on his interpretation of the history of the Labor party, Nick Dyrenfurth claims that although Whitlam’s “short prime ministership is typically remembered for economic mismanagement and scandal”, he “drove the belated modernisation of the ALP” … “laid the groundwork for Labor’s unprecedented electoral success during the 1980s and 90” … (even) “perhaps the ALP’s Australia-wide dominance of the political scene during the 2000s” (“Turnbull needs to learn from Whitlam”, The Australian, 21 August). In short, Whitlam is an icon because he saved Labor from implementing its long-lasting platform commitment to socialise the means of production, distribution and exchange.

So why couldn’t Turnbull pick up the tab and become a Liberal icon? True, Dyrenfurth acknowledges that “it is increasingly clear that Turnbull will never become prime minister”. But that small problem could be overcome if Turnbull sets out to save the Liberal party from “the hardline right wing elements who are increasingly making the party electorally unattractive”. These are the obscurants who are “ignoring that environmental politics is here to stay and is likely to be the defining debate of the 21st century on how best to organise the economy”.

So could the Liberal party become the Environment Party and perhaps even join Labor in a two party government? Dyrenfurth does not go quite as far as this but, with Turnbull in basic agreement with Rudd about the war against warming, the opportunity is there.

After all, environmentalism is now spreading so far that decisions on a wide range of issues seem to involve the Environment Minister and/or acceptance by the Greens. Many examples spring to mind, such as whether the proposal for a supposed $50 billion gas project on Barrow Island would put at risk the local mouse, the spectacled hare-wallaby or the burrowing bettong (which are all said to be endemic to the island) and the flat back turtle swimming the surrounding seas – although Prime Minister Rudd has given the project an unofficial tick, Environment Minister Garrett still has to fly to Barrow to “inspect”!; whether the dredging of Port Phillip bay (approved by Garrett after a studied delay) has, according to the leading media spokesman for environmentalism (The Age, 22 August), ”left behind a host of unanswered questions about what is happening in the deep”, such as a possible diminution of anchovies to feed penguins; and to what extent landowners in the Dandenong ranges will now be allowed to fell trees and shrubs from their properties to protect their lives and houses. Weighing carefully the risk of losing green votes, Victorian Premier Brumby promised on 21 August (Herald Sun) to “shift the balance more towards landowners.” In the meantime, however, VCAT (of all organizations) has ordered a land owner in (fairly remote) Gippsland to replant 8 ha of land he cleared of scrub to reduce fire risk because “it ignores the environmental values of the vegetation” (Herald Sun, 22 August).

This is not the occasion to consider in detail the relative importance of humans and the environment other than to point out that “disturbances” to nature derive from natural as well as human activities: indeed some of the threatened species naturally threaten or harm fellow species. And history shows it is not unnatural for species to die out. But I do suggest that the relative downgrading of humans has gone far too far. One example may be the allocation of human and financial resources designed to preserve species when such resources could be used to help reduce human poverty or improve human health. 

On 20 August The Age reported that Garrett told the International Congress of Ecology that no less than 1750 species are on the threatened list but explained, sadly of course, that money to save endangered species is limited. This followed a report by the Department of Climate Change that “finds global warming will severely threaten a high proportion of Australia’s native and plant species”. The threatened list is compiled with advice from, naturally, the ”Threatened Species Scientific Committee” (TSSC).

And because money is limited, with $10 million already being spent on “politically popular” animals like the Tasmanian devil, Garrett tells us that “hard decisions are needed” on the fate of threatened species. But are “hard decisions” being made about the devil? It is reported that the main problem is inbreeding. Doubtless taxpayers will be pleased to hear that more appropriate marital arrangements are being made for that icon. The alternative would be to let the devil take its course.

The ABC, of course, quickly latched on to the endangered species ”problem”, conducting radio interviews with experts on (inter alia) climate. This naturally included the ANU adviser to Minister Wong on climate, Prof Steffen, who explained how difficult it is for animals and birds to adapt to major changes in temperature.

Yet on 21 August The Australian referred to a report by the ”Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre” (IACRC), about to be released by Agricultural Minister Burke, that indicates that rabbits are making a comeback along with various other feral animals and birds. According to Professor Peacock of the IACRC, all these animals and birds are adapting so well that they constitute a serious threat to farmers: clearly, Prof Steffen needs to sort things out with Prof Peacock! Birds, it should be noted, do the most damage, including native species.

It would be mischievous to speculate that the TSSC report contains threatened species which are also classed as feral in the IACRC report: the two Ministers will naturally have ensured no duplication. But there is a question as to whether global warming has contributed to the increase in the populations of feral animals and birds: warmth presumably encourages breeding and vegetation and reduces death rates. If so, is there a clash between, on the one hand, the Department of Climate Change report and the TSSC advice and, on the other hand, the IACRC report?

Why does global warming threaten endangered species while feral species are adapting and not endangered?

Of course, the really evil influence is the global warming threat that right wing elements say does not exist. Get rid of that danger and we will have fewer birds and native animals whether feral or not. Less vegetation too.

But hang on a second – won’t that make it more difficult to produce cattle, sheep and wheat for humans? Better perhaps to keep the warmth and deal with the ferals and endangereds in other ways. When it gets too hot in Queensland taxpayers would naturally be happy to subsidise the movement of threatened species, such as cane toads and bats, to Victoria.

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