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Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.
The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.
The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.
Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.
Getting to grips with the problem
First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.
This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.
More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.
Numbers don’t lie
Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:
a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface
about 1,300 documentedspecies extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent
about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions
85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans
a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.
A bad situation only getting worse
The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.
High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.
High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.
Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.
The danger of political impotence
Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.
Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.
revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing
rapidly eliminating fossil fuels
regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy
reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives
educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.
Don’t look away
Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.
Failing to acknowledge the magnitude of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.
Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.
With the cost of energy generated from wind and solar now less than coal, the share of Australia’s electricity coming from renewables has reached 23%. The federal government projects the share will reach 50% by 2030.
It is at this point that integrating renewables into the energy system becomes more costly.
We can add wind and solar farms at little extra cost when their share is low and other sources – such as coal and gas generators now – can compensate for their variability. At a certain point, however, there comes a need to invest in supporting infrastructure to ensure supply from mostly renewable generation can meet demand.
But by 2030, even with these extra costs, adding new variable renewable generation (solar and wind) to as high as a 90% share of the grid will still be cheaper than non-renewable options, according to new estimates from the CSIRO and Australian Energy Market Operator.
Calculating energy costs
International research, including from the International Renewable Energy Agency, suggests solar and wind power are now the cheapest new sources of electricity in most parts of the world.
Our estimates, made for the third annual “GenCost” report (short for generation cost), confirm this is also now the case in Australia.
We compare the cost of new-build coal, gas, solar photovoltaics (both small and large scale), solar-thermal, wind and a number of speculative options (such as nuclear).
What we’ve been able to more accurately estimate in the new report is the cost of integrating more and more renewable energy into the energy system, as coal and gas generators are retired.
The two key extra integration costs are energy storage and more transmission lines.
For any system dominated by renewables, storing energy is essential.
Storage means renewable energy can be saved when it is overproducing relative to demand – for example, in the middle of the day for solar, or during extended windy conditions. Stored energy can then be used when renewables cannot meet demand – such as overcast days or at night for solar.
Among options being considered for large-scale investment in Australia are batteries and pumped hydro energy storage (using excess renewable power to pump water back up to dams to again drive hydroelectric turbines).
Pumped hydro sites can provide storage for hours or days. There are three schemes in Australia: Talbingo and Shoalhaven in New South Wales, and Wivenhoe near Brisbane.
Battery costs have been falling steadily and tend to be most competitive for storage electricity for less than eight hours. South Australia’s big battery (officially known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve) is the most obvious example.
The other key cost to integrate more renewable energy generation into the electricity grid is building more transmission lines. Right now those lines mostly run from coal and gas power stations near coal mines.
But this not where new large-scale renewable generation will be. Solar farms are best placed inland, where there is less cloud cover, and in the mid to northern regions of Australia. Wind farms are generally better located in elevated areas and in the southern regions. We’ll need to build new transmission links to these “renewable energy zones”.
Transmission links between the states in the National Electricity Market (Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia) will need to be improved so they can better support each other if one or more are experiencing low renewable energy output.
So how much extra will it cost for Australia to have a higher share (up to 90%) of electricity from wind and solar (variable renewable energy)? The following graph summarises our findings based on 2030 cost projections.
The cost of generating energy from wind and solar (shown in light blue) is about A$40 per megawatt-hour (MWh). This is is slightly below current average market prices.
A higher share of renewable energy adds storage costs (in black) and transmission costs (grey and dark blue). These integration costs increase from A$4/MWh to A$20/MWh as the variable renewable energy share increases from 50% to 90%.
At 90% renewable energy, the total cost is A$63/MWh. But that’s still cheaper than the cost of new coal and gas-fired electricity generation, which is in the range of A$70 to A$90/MWh (under ideal assumptions of low fuel pricing and no climate policy risk).
The 2020-21 GenCost report is now in the formal consultation period with stakeholders including industry, government, regulators and academia. The final report is due to be published in March 2021.
How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.
When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.
About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?
Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.
We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.
We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.
Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.
Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.
Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.
The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.
Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.
Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.
Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.
incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets
penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely
and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.
Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.
Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.
Review: Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou (Hardie Grant Travel)
Travelling through the Australian landscape is an often breathtaking experience raising many questions in the traveller’s mind — none of which can be answered by an online search engine when your internet connection fails.
What everyone needs is a travel companion like Loving Country, co-authored by Aboriginal Elder Bruce Pascoe and artist Vicky Shukuroglou. At first glance, it is a travel guide to some of Australia’s most beautiful Country but on closer inspection, it reveals honest, riveting yarns about the true stories of Country told by the people who know her best: the local Aboriginal people with ancestral connections.
In Loving Country, the pair travel across the continent visiting 19 locations including Bruny Island in Tasmania, the Western Desert region, Margaret River, Alice Springs, Broome and Kangaroo Island.
Connecting with local Aboriginal people sounds common sense but in so many instances, visitors will grab the closest Aboriginal person, even if they are not from the area, and with a “you’ll do” mentality, recklessly erase local knowledges.
Loving Country highlights the inadequacy and tokenism of this “tick-a-box” approach, as it tells the rich and complex stories of local Aboriginal peoples and their unique understanding of Country, born of thousands of generations connected to place.
In Wiluna, at the edge of the Western Desert, the local Martu ladies love a yarn, telling ancient stories as readily as they share the contemporary love story of Warri and Yatungka, a couple who fell in love despite their relationship being forbidden by tribal laws. In Queensland’s Laura Basin, local Indigenous rangers and Elders share their living culture, teaching the young ones how to catch cherabin (yabbie).
The generosity of custodians and storytellers at each location is what makes Loving Country unique. The book also provides invaluable information on how to connect with local people and knowledge: a necessity for meaningful experiences with Country and culture.
Complex and nuanced
Loving Country consistently reiterates that Aboriginal cultures are as complex and nuanced as the Country we call “Mother”. The subtext here is that there is no pan-Aboriginality.
In any given place it is not one people, one place, one language. Single ownership is founded in the Eurocentric possession of land and resources — a colonial imposition on the complex kinship systems of Indigenous cultures and their approaches to care and custodianship of Country.
Loving Country will be important for Aboriginal people connected to a common body of Country but who come from multiple nation and clan groups. For others, if you are hearing just one group name, please look beyond it and take the time to find out if there are others. You will find contradictions, ambiguities and inconsistencies but that’s OK. Embrace them all. Country means different things to different people but it will always be the one uniting force between us.
My only disappointment in the book was that Country was not capitalised. For Aboriginal people, the word Country is a proper noun, a name for the spiritual entity we understand her to be. Country does not just describe the physical landscape as it would for others. Country is our mother, we do not own her, we belong to her.
Rage and frustration
In Australia, we collectively idolise overseas tourist destinations for their apparent “antiquity”. Loving Country points out that as a nation, we give heritage listing to fence wire and bronze memorials to genocidal murderers. We then destroy sacred sites containing evidence of Aboriginal culture tens of thousands of years old.
Pascoe’s rage and frustration at Australia’s ambivalence towards the astounding Country and culture right under our noses is palpable.
He writes that Moyjil (Point Ritchie) in Warrnambool, for instance, has memorials to colonial heritage and agriculture, the success of which relied heavily on the exquisitely fertile soils created and managed by Aboriginal communities for millennia prior.
The local Gunditjmara people have always spoken of an ancient site on the Hopkins River. Pascoe describes recent research undertaken on the blackened stones of an ancient hearth there providing evidence of human occupation for 80,000 years.
Just 80kms south-east, in Cuddie Springs, writes Pascoe, a stone dish was being used to grind grain for bread 35,000 years ago. Soon after this find, he notes, a seed-grinding stone was found in Arnhem Land, dated at 65,000 years old.
Loving Country reveals page after page of both the ancient and contemporary knowledges of these magnificent places, leaving you feeling equal parts wonder and despair. It is a beautifully composed, riveting read scaffolded by Pascoe’s signature commitment to watertight research of the colonial archives.
Shukuroglou’s unpretentious photography showcases the raw, intrinsic beauty of Country. This book will leave you famished for red earth, rainforests, billabongs and big sky Country.
By all means, revel in these far off and dreamy locations but please keep in mind, Sacred Country is everywhere. It doesn’t matter how much concrete, glass or steel you lay down, Country is still here. Her ancient stories and enduring spirit live on in the hearts of local Aboriginal people across the continent.
When it comes to threatened species, charismatic animals usually get the most attention. But many of Australia’s plants are also in grave danger of extinction, and in many cases, the problem is getting worse.
New Australia-first research shows the population sizes of our threatened plants fell by almost three-quarters, on average, between 1995 and 2017. The findings were drawn from Australia’s 2020 Threatened Species Index, which combines data from almost 600 sites.
Plants are part of what makes us and our landscapes unique. They are important in their own right, but also act as habitat for other species and play critical roles in the broader ecosystem.
This massive data-crunching exercise shows that a lot more effort is needed if we want to prevent plant extinctions.
Spotlight on plants
Australia’s plant species are special – 84% are found nowhere else in the world. The index shows that over about 20 years up to 2017, Australia’s threatened plant populations declined by 72%. This is faster than mammals (which declined by about a third), and birds (which declined by about half). Populations of trees, shrubs, herbs and orchids all suffered roughly similar average declines (65-75%) over the two decades.
Of the 112 species in the index, 68% are critically endangered or endangered and at risk of extinction if left unmanaged. Some 37 plant species have gone extinct since records began, though many others are likely to have been lost before scientists even knew they existed. Land clearing, changed fire regimes, grazing by livestock and feral animals, plant diseases, weeds and climate change are common causes of decline.
Vulnerable plant populations reduced to small areas can also face unique threats. For example, by the early 2000s Foote’s grevillea (Grevillea calliantha) had dwindled to just 27 wild plants on road reserves. Road maintenance activities such as mowing and weed spraying became a major threat to its survival. For other species, like the button wrinklewort, small populations can lead to inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity.
Threatened plant conservation in fire-prone landscapes is challenging if a species’ relationship with fire is not known. Many Australian plant species require particular intensities or frequencies of burns for seed to be released or germinate. But since European settlement, fire patterns have been interrupted, causing many plant populations to decline.
Three threatened native pomaderris shrubs on the NSW South Coast are a case in point. Each of them – Pomaderris adnata, P. bodalla and P. walshii – have failed to reproduce for several years and are now found only in a few locations, each with a small number of plants.
Experimental trials recently revealed that to germinate, the seeds of these pomaderris species need exposure to hot-burning fires (or a hot oven). However they are now largely located in areas that seldom burn. This is important knowledge for conservation managers aiming to help wild populations persist.
Success is possible
A quarter of the species in the threatened plant index are orchids. Orchids make up 17% of plant species listed nationally as threatened, despite comprising just 6% of Australia’s total plant species.
Yet even for such a seemingly difficult species, conservation success is possible. In one project, scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, aided by volunteers, identified sites where the wasp was still naturally present. More than 800 spider orchid plants were then propagated in a lab using the correct symbiotic fungus, then planted at four sites. These populations are now considered to be self-sustaining.
In the case of Foote’s grevillea, a plant translocation program has established 500 plants at three new sites, dramatically improving the species’ long-term prospects.
But we aren’t doing enough
Our research found threatened plant populations at managed sites suffered declines of 60% on average, compared to 80% declines at unmanaged sites. This shows that while management is beneficial, it is not preventing overall declines.
Monitoring of threatened species is undertaken by government and non-government groups, community groups, Indigenous organisations, citizen scientists, researchers and individuals. Without it, we have no idea if species are recovering or heading unnoticed towards extinction.
Australia has about 1,800 threatened species. Of these, 77% – or 1,342 species – are plants. However the index received monitoring data for only 10% of these plants, compared to 35% of threatened birds, which make up only 4% of threatened species.
If you’re keen to get involved in plant monitoring, it involves just a few simple steps:
find a local patch with a threatened plant species
revisit it once or twice a year to count the number of individuals in a consistent, well-defined area
Australia must urgently change the way we prioritise conservation actions and enact environment laws, if we hope to prevent more plant extinctions.
Critical actions include stopping further habitat loss and more funding for recovery actions as well as extinction risk assessments. It is important that these assessments adhere to consistent IUCN criteria – something that will be facilitated by the Common Assessment Method that has been agreed to by all States and Territories.
Finally, more funding for research into the impacts of key threats (and how to manage them) will help ensure our unique flora are not lost forever.
Australia’s peak marine conservation body, Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) has welcomed the passing of new Federal laws that will end the practice of shipping Australia’s waste overseas but highlights that the laws would not solve the plastic pollution problem in Australia.
The Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 will give effect to a ban on exports of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres agreed by Commonwealth, State and Territory governments in March.
AMCS praised the Federal Government for putting an end to the practice of shifting our plastic burden to other countries, but said the laws would not solve the plastic pollution problem in Australia.
AMCS plastics spokesperson Shane Cucow advised “the laws themselves will not reduce the plastic flowing into our oceans and harming marine wildlife like turtles, seabirds and seals.
“To really deal with the plastic pollution crisis in Australia we must make targets to cut plastic packaging mandatory. For years we have had voluntary targets for cutting plastic packaging and they haven’t worked.
“We need a nationwide framework for eliminating the most lethal plastics for ocean wildlife, like plastic bags, straws and cutlery.
“Every day we wait, more ocean animals are killed by the plastic in our oceans.”
Cucow said it was disappointing that amendments moved by Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson to ban single-use plastics and make plastic packaging targets mandatory had been defeated in parliament.
The legislation follows on from action on single-use plastics in some of Australia’s States and Territories. South Australia’s ban on single use plastics is due to begin early next year. The ACT and Queensland governments have both tabled legislation banning single use plastics that are thought will pass in February. Western Australia has announced plans to introduce a ban by 2023.
However single-use plastics bans are yet to be introduced into parliaments in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Global rates of warming are lower due to the inclusion of the oceans in the global average, with the oceans experiencing a relatively slower rate of warming than continental areas.
The long-term warming trend increases the likelihood of extreme events beyond our historical experience. In 2019, natural climate phenomena that drive our weather, including a strong Indian Ocean Dipole and a negative Southern Annular Mode, added to the local warming trend, setting a record for the Australian average annual temperature.
This annual temperature for Australia is similar to what we might expect in an average year if the world reaches the +1.5℃ warming since pre-industrial times.
The long-term warming trend is also increasing the frequency of extreme warm days. We have seen a rise in the number of days when the Australian average temperature is within the top 1% ever recorded.
The long-term temperature trend is also lowering the frequency of cooler years. The annual mean temperatures of Australia in the seven years from 2013 to 2019 all rank in the nine warmest years since national records began in 1910.
Barring unpredictable events such as major volcanic eruptions, projections show Australia’s average temperature of 2020-2040 is very likely to be warmer than the average in 2000-2020, as the climate system continues to warm in response to greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.
What’s driving our changing climate?
Australia’s Cape Grim atmosphere monitoring station, in north-west Tasmania, is one of several critical global observing sites for detecting changes in the gas concentrations that make up our atmosphere.
The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations has been the predominant cause of global climate warming over the last 70 years.
In 2019 the global average CO₂ concentration reached 410ppm, while all greenhouse gases combined reached 508ppm CO₂-equivalent, levels not seen for at least 2 million years.
Emissions of CO₂ from burning fossil fuels are the major source of the increase, followed by emissions from changes to land use. While the ocean and land have absorbed more than half the extra CO₂ emitted, the rest remains in the atmosphere.
Similar to surface temperatures over the continents, the State of the Climate report says sea surface temperatures are showing a warming trend that is contributing to an increase in marine heatwaves and the risk of coral bleaching.
Important changes are also happening below the ocean’s surface. The global oceans have a much higher heat capacity than either the land surface or atmosphere. This means they can absorb much more of the additional energy from the enhanced greenhouse effect, while warming at a relatively slower rate.
Currently, the oceans are absorbing around 90% of the excess energy in the Earth system associated with increasing greenhouse gases. The related increase in total heat content provides another important way to monitor long-term global warming.
Warmer temperatures cause the water in our global oceans to expand. This expansion, combined with the additional water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, is causing sea levels to rise.
Total global average sea level has now risen around 25cm since 1880, with half of this rise occurring since 1970. The rate of sea level rise varies around Australia, with larger increases observed in the north and the southeast.
The oceans are also acidifying due to changes in the chemistry of seawater, related to excess CO₂. The effect of this pH change is detectable in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Southern Ocean.
The wetter and drier parts of Australia
The State of the Climate report shows the trend in recent decades has been for less rainfall over much of southern and eastern Australia, particularly in the cooler months of the year.
The longer-term drying trend is likely to continue, particularly in the southwest and southeast of the continent. Most areas of northern Australia have had an increase in average rainfall since the 1970s.
Natural variability has always been, and will continue to be, part of Australia’s rainfall patterns.
Fire seasons: longer and more intense
The fires of 2019-20 are still very much on everyone’s minds, and the State of the Climate report puts the weather component of fire risk into a longer-term perspective.
Since the middle of last century there has been a significant increase in extreme fire weather days, and longer fire seasons across many parts of Australia, especially in southern Australia.
The 2020 report highlights many recent changes in Australia’s climate. Most are expected to continue and include:
warmer air and sea temperatures
increased numbers of very hot days
ongoing sea level rise
more periods of dangerous fire weather
longer and warmer marine heatwaves.
When these extremes occur consecutively within a short timeframe of each other, or when multiple types of extreme events coincide, the impacts can compound in severity.
Climate change is resulting in profound, immediate and worsening health impacts, and no country is immune, a major new report from more than 120 researchers has declared.
This year’s annual report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, released today, presents the latest data on health impacts from a changing climate.
Among its results, the report found there were 296,000 heat-related premature deaths in people over 65 years in 2018 (a 54% increase in the last two decades), and that global yield potential for major crops declined by 1.8–5.6% between 1981 and 2019.
We are part of the Lancet Countdown sub-working group focusing on human migration in a warming world. We estimate that, based on current population data, 145 million people face potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. This jumps to 565 million people with a five metre sea-level rise.
Unless urgent action is taken, the health consequences of climate change will worsen. A globally coordinated effort tackling COVID-19 and climate change in unison is vital, and will mean a triple win: better public health, a more sustainable economy and environmental protection.
Drought, fires and excessive heat
The 2020 report brings together research from a range of fields, including climate science, geography, economics and public health. It focuses on 43 global indicators, such as altered geographic spread of infectious disease, health benefits of low-carbon diets, net carbon pricing, climate migration and heat-related deaths.
The 2020 Lancet Countdown report found extreme heat continues to rise in every region in the world and particularly affects the elderly, especially those in Japan, northern India, eastern China and central Europe. It is also a big problem for those with pre-existing health conditions and outdoor workers in the agricultural and construction sectors.
While attributing heat-related deaths to climate change isn’t straightforward, rising temperatures and humidity will mean we can expect heat-related deaths to increase further.
Climate change is also an important contributing factor to drought. The report found that in 2019 excess drought affected over twice the global land surface area, compared with the 1950-2005 baseline.
Drought and health are intertwined. Drought can cause dwindling drinking water supplies, reduced livestock and crop productivity, and an increased risk of bushfire.
Mental health is also at risk, as Australian research from earlier this year confirmed. This looked at the declining mental health of drought-affected farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin over 14 years.
Climate change worsens risk factors for more frequent and intense bushfires. We need only look to last summer’s unprecedented bushfires in Australia as a stark illustration. The number of people exposed to the bushfires was amplified by expanding settlements and inadequate risk reduction measures.
Sea level rise, human migration and health
As the world warms and the sea rises, millions of people will be exposed to coastal changes, including inundation and erosion.
Sea-level rise has direct and indirect consequences for human health. In some places, water and soil quality and supply will be compromised due to the intrusion of saltwater. Flooding and wave power will damage infrastructure, including drinking water and sanitation services. And disease vector ecology will also change, such as higher mosquito densities in coastal habitats, potentially causing greater transmission of infectious diseases like dengue or malaria.
However, people and communities may adapt by moving away. In Fiji, for example, at least four communities have relocated in response to coastal changes. The Fijian government notes planned relocation will be a last resort only when other adaptation options are exhausted.
Relocation might also lead to health threats . This includes physical health consequences from altered diets, as fishing and subsistence agriculture may be disrupted. There are also mental health impacts from people losing their attachments and connections to their places of belonging.
But sometimes, migration responses to climate change can have health benefits. Moving from vulnerable coastlines might reduce exposure to environmental hazards such as flooding, be an impetus to seek healthier livelihoods and lifestyles, and improve access to health services.
Our estimation of the number of people facing potential inundation is based on projections of global mean sea-level rise and on current population data.
In a high emissions scenario with warming of 4.5℃, seas could rise by one metre by 2100 relative to 1986–2005. This would see 145 million people face potential inundation.
A collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet could cause five to six metres of sea level rise. Under this extreme scenario, 565 million people may be inundated.
It is important to note, however, that uncertainties constrain our ability to forecast migration numbers due to sea-level rise. These uncertainties include future environmental and demographic factors and potential adaptation (and maladaptation) responses, such as living with water or coastal fortification.
So is there any good news?
The 2020 Lancet Countdown report notes improvements in some instances, as some sectors and countries take bold steps to respond to climate change.
We are seeing, for example, health benefits emerging from the transition to clean energy. Deaths from air pollution attributed to coal-fired power have declined from 440,000 in 2015 to 400,000 in 2018, despite overall population increases.
But more must be done: we need sustained greenhouse gas emission cuts, increased greenhouse gas absorption and proactive adaptation actions. Yet global efforts to address climate change still fall short of the commitments made in the Paris Agreement five years ago.
We cannot afford to focus attention on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.
If responses to the economic impacts of COVID-19 align with an effective response to climate change, we’ll see immense benefits for human health, with cleaner air, healthier diets and more liveable cities.
Twenty years ago, UNESCO inscribed the greater Blue Mountains area on the World Heritage List for having “outstanding universal value”.
If you’ve travelled to the Blue Mountains, with its rugged sandstone cliff faces, hidden waterfalls and rich diversity of life, this value is undeniable. The Dharug and Gundungurra traditional owners long understood this value as they lived within and cared for Country (Ngurra) and, in turn, were nourished by it.
Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — the official advisor to UNESCO — rated the site as being of “significant concern”, a drop from “good with some concerns”. It’s now in the second-lowest category.
The news may be grim, but there are signs of hope. Despite threats of climate change, bushfires and decades of pollution, efforts are being made to minimise lingering impacts, and results are encouraging.
Ancient trees and unique animals
The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area covers just over one million hectares, divided into eight protected areas.
The largest protected area is Wollemi National Park (499,879 ha) in the north. This park is, famously, home to the last wild population of Wollemi Pine. These trees have a deeply ancient lineage tracing back to when the Earth’s land masses were all part of the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago.
The World Heritage area harbours 1,500 plant species, and 127 of them are rare or threatened. And in an outstanding example of the area’s uniqueness, it also contains more than 90 Eucalypt species — 13% of the global total.
The World Heritage area is also an important habitat for many rare and threatened animal species.
One celebrated seasonal visitor is the critically endangered regent honeyeater. Also under threat, and unique to the Blue Mountains, is the leura skink, which survives only in a handful of sensitive and vulnerable wetland communities.
In its new report, the IUCN lists eight current threats undermining the greater Blue Mountains area. The most worrying – those considered “very high threats” in the report — are climate change and bushfires.
The severe fires of last summer inflicted long-lasting damage to many Blue Mountains species that contribute to the unique biodiversity of the area. And climate change is an emerging environmental pressure threatening the delicate ecology of the region through rising temperatures and changes to rainfall.
The IUCN also rated invasive plant and animal species, such as foxes, feral cats, horses, cattle and deer, as a high threat. Mining and quarrying, habitat alteration and several specific aspects of climate change (storms, drought, temperature extremes) were also listed.
The IUCN also named potential threats from planned operations, including future noise pollution from the new international airport in Western Sydney. Another is the impact of periodic flooding from a proposal to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam for flood mitigation purposes.
Cleaning up their act
Climate change and bushfires require massive, coordinated national and international responses, but some major issues in the Blue Mountains can start to be resolved on relatively smaller scales.
For decades, the Blue Mountains have been flogged by a number of human pressures, such as an outdated sewage system from the City of the Blue Mountains and pollution from coal mining. While the environment hasn’t fully recovered, we’re pleased to see successes in the recovery efforts.
All Blue Mountains wastewater is now treated to a higher standard at Winmalee in the lower Blue Mountains and is released away from waterways in the World Heritage area.
Another important pressure in the Greater Blue Mountains Area is from coal mining, with UNESCO expressing concerns in 2001 about water pollution from mines, such as the one operated by Clarence Colliery.
This mine is in state forest adjacent to the World Heritage area boundary. Research from 2017 found wastewater discharging from the mine was severely contaminating water quality of the Wollangambe River and damaging the ecology for more than 20 kilometres.
For an internationally important site like this, which is home to more than 80,000 residents, all levels of government must adopt the concept of “planetary health”. This recognises that human health entirely depends on the health of natural systems and embraces Indigenous knowledge.
We’re pleased to see the Blue Mountains City Council is already on board. It recently announced plans to establish a planetary health leadership centre in Katoomba in partnership with universities and other educational institutions.
So while there is much to grieve, we can celebrate small successes in the Blue Mountains’ journey, which show it is indeed possible for a diverse array of parties and the broader community to work cooperatively, and start to better protect it.
Blue is a feature documentary film charting the drastic decline in the health of our oceans. With more than half of all marine life lost and the expansion of the industrialization of the seas, the film sets out the challenges we are facing and the opportunities for positive change. Blue changes the way we think about our liquid world and inspires the audience to action. Find out how to screen or download the film here. Along with the film is an ambitious global campaign to create advocacy and behaviour change through the #oceanguardian movement. To become an ocean guardian, see the website.
Cool Australia and Northern Pictures would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of GoodPitch² Australia, Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Caledonia Foundation and Screen Australia in the development of these teaching resources.
Like most people I have often struggled to find what I should really be doing with my life. I would go to work and come home feeling like it wasn’t the best use of my time. I would ask myself what do I really like to do. I went back and forth but I always came back to writing and exploring my creative side. It would be hard for me to take it seriously because I would always think of myself as average and not having the necessary education/experience. I was going through life as if my story was already written.
In the past few months I have in many ways started to wake up and become more focused. I have been on a journey to become the best version of myself and instantly I felt like I was on the right path. I felt the key was day to day progress and doing what truly makes me happy. I have become much healthier inside and out. I always kind of overlooked the effects of working out and eating right but I have seen the changes. When you see yourself improving it can effect your mood in great ways. As far as improving how I feel inside I have started going back to school and wanting to write more.
As I go after my goals I hope it can inspire others to reach their full potential. You can’t be afraid to dream. Whatever it is that you want to do you always have the ability. You won’t even have the chance if you don’t bet on yourself. So go out and take a chance and you will surprise yourself. Be a dreamer and fight everyday to reach your goals. I never understood the idea behind “realistic dreams”. Its okay if your dreams seem like a longshot because after all anything worth having is worth fighting for. I don’t have this great education or experience I can fall back on. In many ways I am just a normal person with some big dreams. I know its a longshot that writing will ever become more than a hobby but thats what will make me feel so grateful when my dreams are realized. It all has to start somewhere no matter what you wish to achieve. Nothing is impossible as long as you continue to fight. I hope that you realize that its never to late to rewrite your own story.
Soon it will be a new year and it has me feeling quite optimistic on what is to come. I have decided to stop putting it off and finally go back to school. It will be a challenge balancing everything in my life but it is a challenge I look forward to. I hope to write more about this challenge as I go forward.
What are some of your plans for the new year? New years traditions? Let me know in the comments! I wish everyone luck in the new year!
Sometimes in life we stop challenging ourselves because we get too comfortable. It is easy to stay in our Bubble because it seems safe. The thing is if you never challenge yourself you will never become the best version of yourself. It may be easy to keep toing the same things but then you won’t grow as a person.
Take the leap and challenge yourself and grow into the person you were meant to be. It easy to be scared of going for it because you are afraid to fail but remember anything worth having is worth fighting for. It also seems like people are afraid to dream and go after what they want just because it doesn’t seem realistic. There is nothing wrong with being a dreamer. After all we have one life don’t spend it settling for things you don’t want.
Go after the things you want even if it feels risky. Most importantly plan everything out and make a good attack plan for going after your goals. What you shouldn’t do is totally dismiss your dreams just because it is hard to accomplish. Success wouldn’t mean as much if it was easy. If you don’t give up on your dreams you can look back and know it was a long hard journey but you will be glad you stuck with it. Always be smart about your plans but don’t settle for a life you don’t want. Everything is still possible you just need to take a risk every once in awhile and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.
I used to always feel lost or feel like I was stuck. I would feel like everything in my world was mediocre and I would never be able to turn the tables. I would often wish I had a Mentor to help guide me to a better life. I would think if I had that everything would be okay. It was like I wanted someone to save me from the life I was living.
Then I got older and I never really found that person to guide me. I realized I had to guide myself to my own success. That is really the only way to accomplish your dreams is to save yourself. Trust me I get that you may feel stuck but there is always an alternate decision you can make. If you find yourself miserable in your job don’t worry there are choices to be made. Try going to school again and learn as much as you can to give yourself more choices. It will certainly help with feeling for fulfilled in your life.
The biggest thing to getting yourself out of a bad situation is planning. Try your hardest to plan out the details and find a escape plan. Plan your money and time and you will find a better option. Don’t under estimate the power of a fresh start. If you move to a fresh city and fresh career it will be like starting all over. If your feeling lost a fresh start could be just what the doctor ordered. Most importantly just remember its not to late to save yourself. There is a whole different side to your life waiting for you. Plan for your future and it will be everything you always wanted.
It is so easy to look back at a different time in your life and say you were so much happier. You may catch yourself wishing you could go into the past and relive these great moments of your life. You can’t stop change and it can be difficult to deal with change in your life. I know I have been guilty of looking back and feeling down because certain people fell out of my life. It happens to everyone as people drop in and out of our lives.
The question becomes how do you deal with these changes. For me I just view it as your world is ever changing and you have to evolve each and every day. You can’t dwell on the past because there’s nothing you can do. What you can do is control your present self and give your future self the best shot at happiness. I think everyone should take time to think about what they are thankful in their life. Who in your life are you grateful to have around? It could be anybody personal or professional. Take time to appreciate them because you never know if you will have another chance.
As they say the Tide is always changing and all you can do is evolve right with the world around you. Lets not look in the past but instead be hopeful for the future. Why think about how things used to be and instead lets ask ourselves how are things going to be? As always I hope this was helpful and we all learn to cope with the change in our life. I would love to hear from others and feel free to sound off in the comments. Let me know how you deal with difficult changes. Have a great day and lets spread the positive vibes!
When going towards your goals one of the most difficult things to handle is not getting noticed. You may be a tireless worker who says and does all the right things but at the end of the day you feel no one noticed. This is a horrible feeling as you feel as you are getting nowhere. You have to be mentally tough to avoid this feeling as it can cause you to feel depressed.
So how do we get people to Observe the hard work you put out there? Its not easy because you have no control over the situation. What you can do is look for any chance to leave a positive impression. Also try to connect with people who seem to notice you and go from there. Everyone is different but there will always be some people who will notice you and be willing to give you chances.
The most important thing is to not get discouraged when you feel that you are being overlooked. As long as you are looking for all the chances you can and trying to do the right thing then you have nothing to be ashamed of. The world is full of chances you just got to be in the right place at the right time. You may feel that peoples eyes aren’t seeing you but the good news is that there are eyes everywhere. Every business has different people in charge. Every city has different chances. Every year of your life brings different scenarios. If you are feeling overlooked have peace of mind knowing that this situation is isolated and there are chances everywhere. Have faith and know your chance is coming and it will change your life. The only reason you are being overlooked is that you aren’t in front of the right eyes. The right eyes will find you and you will be exactly what they were looking for.