Act now to prevent another crisis, says expert

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IN the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the lead expert of a new environmental report says people need to act now to save the world from a different kind of crisis later. 

ANU’s Prof Albert van Dijk, who is the lead author of the latest “Australia’s Environment Report” says climate change is, in many ways, similar.

Prof Albert Van Dijk

“It happens slower, but it also poses an existential threat: we already saw massive impacts last year. Acting now can save a lot of pain later,” says Prof van Dijk following record hot weather, drought and a devastating bushfire season.

He says last year was neither an outlier nor the “new normal”.

“Last year was just another step down on the continuing descent into an ever more dismal future – unless we finally take serious action,” he says.

He argues that the global response to the coronavirus pandemic – which has overwhelmed health systems in many countries and smashed the world’s economies – offers a silver lining, with a model of how humanity can tackle the climate change crisis.

“The COVID-19 crisis shows that we can take the local and global actions necessary once society understands the seriousness of a threat,” he says.

He says the 2019 report makes for grim reading: a story of extreme drought, heat and fire.

“Rainfall was the lowest in living memory, and many heat records were broken,” Prof van Dijk says

“The number of days over 35C across the country last year was 36 per cent more than the average for the previous 19 years, and that average already includes the effect of global warming to date.”

The ongoing dry conditions led to a vicious cycle, with extremely high temperatures further drying out the continent and keeping ocean moisture away, Prof van Dijk says.

“We saw large fish kills and the poorest soil conditions since well before 2000 impacting heavily on ecosystems and farming. Crop growth was a quarter to a third below average,” he says.

“The tinder-dry forests in eastern Australia provided the fuel for a dramatic fire season that started in Spring and only eased off last month.”

The report is an annual report from the ANU, who has a team that brings together a vast amount of information on the state of Australia’s environment, using data from satellites, field stations and surveys.

The team uses this information to calculate indicators of environmental health, ranging from population pressure to weather, bushfires, rivers and wetlands, soil condition, vegetation and biodiversity.

Fires burned through many biodiversity hotspots, such as the World Heritage Gondwana Rainforests and Blue Mountains, the alpine regions, Eastern Gippsland and Kangaroo Island.

“It was not just koalas that were affected, and at least they won’t go extinct. But more than 100 other animal species lost a large part of their habitat and are now at risk, not to mention many more plant species,” Prof van Dijk says.

The 2019 Australia’s Environment Report will be available via

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