At a time when we are consumed by the threats to our health and the nation's economy from an unpredictable pandemic, a national committee has been considering the likely devastation from another existential global catastrophe - environmental collapse - which will not be controlled by a vaccine or drug.
This 10-year review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act could be a landmark event of the year, because its outcomes will have an enormous bearing on the future of our environment.
Less obvious is the fact that the review, chaired by Professor Graeme Samuel, will also decide the future of human health which depends ultimately on the recovery and responsible stewardship of our scarce freshwater supplies, our precarious climate, clean air, ecological services, productive land and on the economy.
Human heath and the environment are indivisible - despite our denial, we are fully dependent on the environment.
Bad omens abound, commencing with Environment Minister Sussan Ley's words that the review will cut green tape, further signalled by the questions asked by government which presume that a battered 20-year-old car can be repaired to formula one standard, and the departure of the committee's sole ecologist to a task deemed more important.
Current laws largely ignore the urgent need for environmental healing.
Since European arrival, human activities have caused extensive habitat loss from logging and clearing, introduced species and diseases driving declines in numbers of many native animals. Now climate change and its impacts, such as unprecedented fires, droughts and land and ocean temperatures, add a further extreme threat to biodiversity and the ecosystem services that are necessary for continued human health and wellbeing.
In the minds of the public, biodiversity loss is seen as the loss of koalas and other iconic species. However, these losses are just the tip of the iceberg, with thousands of stressed species also moving slowly to extinction. A recent study from University College London of 30,000 species from land and sea shows that rising temperatures from climate change will cause sudden precipitous deaths of thousands. Around 70 per cent of species will be at risk as this century progresses.
So what does this mean for our life support systems, for example food production? Australia has food security so why should we be concerned?
The 2019 Australian National University's annual Environmental Explorer scorecard documents a rapid and extremely severe decline in Australia's environmental integrity. As a result, exposure of our soils to the elements is increasing rapidly. Climate induced extreme weather events - particularly dust storms - can lead to erosion and loss of fertile topsoil.
Many regional Australians recognise the deterioration in their productive soil with rising temperatures and increasing drought. Soil is a living system and biodiversity loss includes its worms, nematodes, fungi and bacteria, which work together to release nutrients for good plant growth. While some measures are already in place to alleviate this loss, soil protection should be a key priority in future environmental laws.
Vision is needed.
Given these vast and highly complex challenges, it is clear that we need to do much more than reform - we need to transform our existing environmental laws. We need clear vision of new laws based on science and wisdom; not on political or state based expediency. These laws need to be developed through wide consultative processes, representing all sections of the community to preserve our life support systems
The laws must embrace all peoples, protecting the living environment, our communities and the health of individuals.
The laws and their implementation must incorporate holistic perspectives, knowledge and wisdom in decision-making and environmental custodial skills and practises of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that have sustained the health and wellbeing of themselves and their environment. This process could broadly expand on the current success of the Indigenous Ranger Program.
We have come to a point where there is no time to beat about our deteriorating bushland - if we want to have a chance at saving our current, iconic species we need new environmental laws that will have some chance of saving current living systems, the Great Barrier Reef, the Murray River system, the currently marginal pasture lands and the life in coastal waters. All are threatened with demise.
- Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University. Dr Melissa Haswell is incoming Professor of Environmental Wellbeing at Sydney University and Professor of Health, Safety and Environment at Queensland University of Technology