The Bonfire of the Insanities 2- the EU’s Biomass Dilemma

The Biomass Greenwash revisited

I believe in Santa, fairies, leprechauns and unicorns; I believe that politicians don’t lie, that the Pope is infallible, and that capitalism provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number

But I don’t buy the biofuel greenwash!

As Abe Lincoln, said, you can fool some of the people some of the time, and most of the people most of the time. And yet, never underestimate the capacity and willingness of some people to swallow bullshit for decades. Probably became they NEED to believe that something is being done about climate change and carbon emissions, and the boosters of biomass promise clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power. As some wits might ask, what’s the point of having a big brain if we insist on not using it?

In an earlier article, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the Biomass Greenwash, we described how the European Union’s desperation to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels kicked off a demand for wood pellets for burning to generate electricity that in turn created an industry. Promising clean, green, renewable, carbon-neutral and sustainable power, it came for what it called forest waste, and then it came for the forest itself.

We revealed how a deliberate accounting error determined biomass burning to be carbon neutral, whilst a mechanism to prevent counting carbon twice became a rule that carbon wasn’t counted at all. Indeed, it was declared that the burning of biomass was “instant carbon sequestration” whilst emissions exuding from the new-age power stations were actually “biogenic carbon” – green power!

Since the widespread distribution of North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance’s hard hitting film  BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?the true scale of the biofuel greenwash is being given the publicity it needs. The true colours of rebadged, born-again power plants like Drax near Selby, Yorkshire, the world’s biggest and hungriest, and our own Redbank in the Hunter Valley (more on that later), are now there for all the world to see. And they are not green.

A backlash against this greenwash is growing apace in Europe and the USA. But not in Australia, it would appear. Government and industry are enchanted by the lure of biomass with its carbon credit rewards and the prospect of creating a dependent, profitable domestic supply chain.

“We, the people” have yet to cotton on to the biofuel industry’s corporate jiggerypokery and semantic sleight of hand. In Australia and elsewhere, the general public, forest industry nostalgists, conservative politicians, and, even, many environmentalists believe that we are saving forests from destruction by using plantations for jobs and construction timber, when in fact the former are few, supplanted by hi-tech mechanization, and latter is destined for pulp mills and power plants.

While we in northern New South Wales might be alarmed about re-tooled plants like Drax and those in Ireland’s Midlands, something wicked this way comes. There is little community awareness of what is looming, and state and federal politicians chose to keep quiet about it.

Our State government has started implementing its plan for 70-80% of renewable electricity in our region to be generated by burning trees. As we’ve seen in our own Tarkeeth State Forest, biomass extraction is a shockingly destructive practice, and it is one which is destroying environments and communities all over the world.

Biomass extraction in Tarkeeth Forest, Bellingen Shire

In this grave new world, whole log “residues” can be chipped and transported to power stations or transported and then chipped in the power station, as at Vales Point on NSW’s Central Coast and Cape Byron in the north. Native forest biomass burnt with or without coal or something else, props up emission intensive enterprises with its “carbon neutral, renewable energy, subsidy attracting” hypnotism. Or else, the forest biomass is exported, as pellets, woodchip or whole trees.

It is a new industry for our own Bellingen Shire which is now supplying biomass to Cape Byron Power’s co-generation plant at Broadwater south of Byron Bay, the north coast tourist mecca and real estate hot zone.

The plan for our region is for 70-80% of renewable energy to be generated from forest biomass. By the middle of the year the former coal-fired Redbank Power Station at Singleton in the Hunter Valley, will be rebooted and burning 100% biomass, most of it to be sourced from forests up the 400km away. Redbank will be one of the largest wood burning electricity generators in the world. At 151 megawats, it five times bigger than either Broadwater or Condong,

Paul Hemphill © 2021

See also in In That Howling Infinite, The Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash; The Return of the Forest Wars and If You Go Down to the Woods Today 

In a brief statement and a powerful interview on Bellingen Community Radio 2BBB, Bellingen academic Dr Tim Cadman makes the global  and local case against  burning trees for electricity. and here, you can watch his short FaceBook video about the Tarkeeth biomass and Broadwater power station here: ttps://fb.watch/v/3Is1JLwio/.  Follow the truck from forest to furnace

Tim Cadman: the truth about Biomass ‘Green Power’

My name is Tim Cadman, I am a Research Fellow in the Law Futures Centre at Griffith University,  specializing in environmental policy, governance, sustainability, natural resource management including  forestry, and climate change. I am a ‘pracademic’ and spend a lot of my time working in developing countries in practical on-the-ground action-based research, including Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian Amazon.

I have been following, and attending the international climate change negotiations since 2001, when I exposed how forestry companies were clearing ancient rainforest on behalf of energy companies to create plantations for ‘carbon credits.’ Sadly, over twenty years later, this same problem is still besetting meaningful action on climate change.

I want to address so-called bio-energy, or biomass energy, and how it has become central to the destruction of forests in developed countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Europe, all in the name of ‘green’ power.

In the early days of the international climate negotiations an unintentional ‘loophole’ was created in discussions around what was termed ‘land use, land-use change and forestry’ (LULUCF). In the debate around how to count emissions from land use for agriculture, policymakers made a decision that all crops were the same, and as they were planted, harvested, and grew back, these emissions did not need to be counted. This included forestry, and this decision made its way into the Kyoto Protocol, and carbon ‘offsets’.

It doesn’t make sense for forests, which are not crops, are full of biodiversity, regulate climate, filter water, and provide a range of what are called ecosystem services that a field of carrots do not. This same problem, now admitted as such by many policy makers, has been repeated in the new Paris Agreement.

The consequence is that forests have now become a major source of electricity in Europe, the UK, and elsewhere.

As much forest as is grown across the UK every year is now burnt in just one power station, Drax, and is imported from the forests of the South east of the US, and the inland ancient temperate rainforests of Canada.

This same problem is being repeated here. In the mid north coast of NSW, under the guise of making use of what are called forest ‘residues’, large areas of forests are being cleared and converted to hardwood plantations. As with wood-chipping for pulp and paper, which originally was designed to make use of branches, such activities become a driver of deforestation, and the processing of ‘waste’ becomes the tail that wags the dog.

To make matters worse, there are now two converted sugar mills in the region that are  burning this wood for so-called ‘green’ energy and feeding it into the national grid. In short, our renewable energy is  contaminated.

And finally, to things even more dire, burning forests for power is worse than coal. The wood is wet, it is transported often up to two hundred kilometres in huge trucks, the source forest is burnt as part of forestry management. Capturing these emissions is just not possible.

This is the danger facing the forests of NSW. Forests are worth so much more, and in this period of unprecedented climate change, we need forests standing tall, not sent up the chimney.

Dr Tim Cadman © 2021

Tim Cadman BA (Hons) MA (Cantab), PhD (Tasmania), Grad. Cert. Theol. (Charles Sturt) Senior Research Fellow, Earth Systems Governance Project. Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law. Griffith University

The road to hell is paved with flawed intentions

We republish below the full text of an article that appeared in The Financial Times on 1st July. As the debate ramps up here in New South Wales, it is a timely and informative wake-up call for environmentalists and governments alike.

Like BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?, it reveals how dirty fuel and dodgy mathematics, a generous subsidies system and stringent climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without adequate safeguards. It will require “large-scale logging  of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch. And yet, current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production.

Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year. And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments. It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030. The politics of all this is perverse, says a former White House climate adviser.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defence Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says. However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners.

A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit environmental organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Oh yeah!

The EU’s Biomass Dilemma – can burning trees ever be green?

Camilla Hodgson, Financial Times ,1 July 2021

In May, a billboard appeared outside the EU parliament in Brussels playing a video that showed sparse, deforested woodland, spliced together with footage of the bloc’s top climate official, and the words “the EU burns forests as fuel”.

The protest formed part of a campaign by green groups to force Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president for the EU’s green deal, to strip forest biomass — combustible pellets burnt for energy — from the list of energy sources classified in Europe as renewable. The argument goes beyond definitions. Weeks earlier, nervous about the growing pressure on policymakers to change the rules, ministers from 10 European countries wrote to Timmermans to stress the “crucial role” played by bioenergy fuels, such as pellets, in helping member states meet the EU’s climate goals.

With a review of the bloc’s climate legislation imminent, ministers from countries including Finland, Estonia and Sweden asked for “all forms” of bioenergy currently labelled as renewable to also qualify as sustainable investments, “keeping in mind” the EU’s decarbonisation commitments.

It was a none too subtle reminder that if the status of biomass is changed it may be almost impossible for the EU to meet its target for renewables to provide a third of all energy usage across the region by 2030.

The fact that biomass pellets are produced from carbon-absorbing trees makes them controversial Biomass fuels include pellets, organic waste and crops grown for energy. They produce around half of the world’s renewable energy, and 60 per cent of the EU’s, and are treated as carbon neutral if certain sustainability conditions are met. Across Europe and Asia, the two main markets for pellets, governments hand out billions in subsidies to the industry each year.

But what producers use to make pellets — carbon-absorbing trees, which governments and companies are turning to as part of the solution to runaway climate change — makes them highly controversial.

EU policymakers are now debating changes to the treatment of wood-burning energy as part of a wide-ranging package of measures to cut emissions, due to be published on July 14 — revisions that could wreak havoc with the bloc’s renewable energy target and commitment to more than halve emissions by 2030.

“Without relying heavily on wood biomass,” many member states “will find it very difficult to meet their future commitments, be it emissions reductions or renewable energy commitments,” says Jorgen Henningsen, former EU commission director responsible for climate change.

Climate Capital

Any changes could also call into question the legitimacy of EU countries having used the fuel to cut emissions up to now, and narrow the options for further decarbonising the power industry and other sectors.

“The politics of it is so perverse,” says Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser. The idea that national targets might determine the future for biomass, rather than its true environmental impact, is “absurd”.

According to a leaked commission document, Brussels plans to prevent some forms of wood-burning energy from counting towards the bloc’s green energy goals. Campaigners say the changes must go much further, by excluding forest biomass from the renewables list altogether. “We should not be subsidising people to cut down trees and burn them,” says Ariel Brunner, head of EU policy at conservation group BirdLife International. “The notion that you can save emissions by burning carbon fundamentally doesn’t work.”

A heavily subsidised sector

The multibillion-dollar market for pellets — the modern iteration of a centuries-old fuel — took off in 2009, after the EU classified biomass, at the time little used, as a renewable energy source alongside solar and wind. That incentivised countries with clean energy targets to adopt the fuel, and made the industry eligible for subsidies. In 2018 — the most recent year for which figures are available — EU countries handed out €10.3bn in support for the biomass sector.

Growth over the past decade “has been tremendous”, says Thomas Meth, executive vice-president of sales and marketing at Enviva, a major US-based pellet producer. The EU’s 2009 move was “certainly one of the catalysts”.

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Much of the millions of tonnes of pellets used globally is made and exported from expansive forests across the US south-east. The US, Vietnam and Canada were the largest exporters of wood pellets by volume in 2019, according to UN data.

And as the world races to decarbonise, the use of wood-based biomass is expected to increase. In a report this year about the pathway to net zero, the International Energy Agency said solid bioenergy could produce around 14 per cent of global energy in 2050, compared with just 5 per cent last year.

UK power company Drax,a major user and supplier of pellets, says the market will be driven by “increasingly ambitious global decarbonisation targets”.

The industry insists swelling demand for these small, cylindrical chips can be met sustainably, and that responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral since the emissions generated by burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees.

Green groups challenge the neutrality argument, and warn that increasing production puts natural forests in jeopardy. Using more biomass will require “large-scale logging . . . of the forests we need to store carbon”, says Almuth Ernsting, from the campaign group Biofuelwatch.

Drax power station in Yorkshire. The industry insists responsibly produced biomass is carbon neutral, as emissions from burning pellets are sucked up by regrowing trees © Alamy ‘We need the right biomass’

The debate in the EU is coming to a head over possible changes to the bloc’s renewable energy framework — one of many pieces of legislation being updated to align with the region’s ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

“We are expecting an almighty fight,” says BirdLife’s Brunner. “There’s a very powerful bloc of European governments completely enslaved to the agricultural and forest lobby.”

A person familiar with the discussions in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the biomass question is “one of the most politically sensitive files” in the climate package. It has divided agencies, with the commission’s environment department wanting tougher biomass rules and the energy department pushing back.

But if European lawmakers strip “bio-based energy” from the renewables framework, “Europe will not meet any of its goals”, says Enviva’s Meth. Drastic changes are not “realistic”, he adds.

Timmermans himself has said that without biomass the EU will be unable to achieve its clean energy goals. “We need biomass in the mix, but we need the right biomass . . . I hate the images ofwhole forests being cut down to be put in an incinerator,” he told the Euractiv website in May.

Current EU rules permit the use of whole trees for energy production, though say this should be “minimised”. Critics say the rules are too lax, and that the combination of subsidies and climate targets incentivises the use of biomass without sufficient safeguards.

Under UN guidance, emissions from biomass are reported by countries in the land, rather than the energy, sector. As a result, importing nations can enjoy lower domestic emissions and rely on pellet-producing countries to count the carbon.

Although the rules should deter producing countries from over harvesting, counting land sector emissions accurately is notoriously difficult — a view disputed by some in the industry. “The level of accuracy and transparency with which different countries measure and report land use emissions varies,” says Claire Fyson, policy analyst at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organisation. The risk is of “importing biomass that hasn’t been sustainably produced, or whose emissions from harvesting haven’t been accurately measured”, she adds.
Incentives for ‘burning wood’

The backdrop to the political jostling is a longstanding argument between scientists, campaigners and the industry about whether biomass is carbon neutral.

In February, more than 500 scientists wrote to the European Commission and European Council presidents, urging them “not to undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees”. They added: “Governments must end subsidies and other incentives that today exist for the burning of wood.”

Chopping down trees, shipping them around the world on carbon-intensive vessels and burning the wood for energy “doesn’t comport with the idea of clean energy”, says Sasha Stashwick, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based non-profit organisation.

Wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. © The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pellets can actually emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels when burnt, since wood is less dense. But the industry argues that those emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow. If the wood is being sourced from sustainably managed forests — where the volume of carbon stored in the trees is “stable or increasing” — the biomass is carbon neutral, the industry says.

The complex calculation of whether carbon measures are “stable or increasing” is done at a “landscape” level — vast areas surrounding pellet mills that can span millions of hectares. Enviva and Drax say assessments of the US forests they source from are done roughly every five years using the country’s Forest Service data, in addition to other monitoring.

However, landscape assessments ignore the fact that trees would have grown more and absorbed extra carbon had they not been harvested, say some scientists and campaigners. A reduction in the amount of carbon being absorbed “is effectively the same as a tonne more of emissions”, says Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a climate campaign group.

Broad landscape assessments can also obscure the effects on forests of pellet production as opposed to other uses of the wood such as making furniture or paper, says Timothy Searchinger of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. If forests are managed so that “they have no net growth, that’s negative for climate change”, he adds. Preventing additional growth is “so obviously wrong. Why does [the industry’s argument] take people in?”

The industry is keen to impress that it does not cut down trees that would otherwise remain standing. Instead, pellets are made largely from wood residues — such as offcuts from trees harvested for other purposes — that would normally go to waste or end up rotting.

“The forest is never harvested for biomass,” since it is more profitable to use the wood for furniture  or other products, says Jean-Marc Jossart, secretary-general of trade association Bioenergy Europe.

Non-profit organisations dispute this, and point to photos of trucks piled high with tree trunks en route to pellet mills. Belinda Joyner, a resident of Garysburg, North Carolina, who has spoken out against the nearby Enviva mill, says the trucks driving through town carry “whole trees”, adding: “I’ve never seen a truck with little logs.”

Enviva says concerns about whole trees are “one of the most common misperceptions . . . An untrained or uneducated eye often mistakes low-value wood for high-value lumber.” Large logs might be diseased or deformed, and unable to be used for other purposes, the company adds.

Net zero emission plans around the world map out an increasing use of biomass as countries race to dump fossil fuel energy. The IEA’s latest decarbonisation report estimates that the amount of land dedicated to bioenergy production could rise from 330m hectares in 2020 to 410m in 2050 — an increase roughly equivalent to the size of Turkey — if bioenergy use jumps as expected Stressing the need to proceed carefully, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre warned this year that most EU countries’ energy and climate plans did not “include an adequate assessment of the potential impacts of expanding forest bioenergy”. Only one out of the 24 woody biomass scenarios it modelled was likely to pose no risk to biodiversity and deliver short-term climate benefits, it concluded.

How the fuel is used may also change. Some strategies for reaching net zero talk about coupling biomass with nascent carbon capture and storage technology, which advocates say will generate “negative emissions”, in effect removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Critics say the technology is unproven at scale, and that negative emissions are only achievable if the biomass fuel is definitely carbon neutral. Without guarantees that it is, “we should certainly not be going full steam ahead” with the technology, says Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer at think-tank Ember Climate. “In theory, it can work,” he adds. But “you have to get things precisely correct along a complex supply chain.”

In its 2020 emissions inventory, the EU said the “very strong increase in the use of biomass for energy” had reduced carbon pollution across the region, though did not say by how much. will pay? Europe’s bold plan on emissions risks political blowback A lobbyist familiar with the discussions in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, says changes beyond those outlined in the leaked document are likely, and that efforts are under way to limit which types of forest biomass are eligible for subsidies. “The challenge” for lawmakers is partly how drastic changes will be seen, he adds: the EU may have to “stand up in public and [say] what we have been doing . . . hasn’t worked”.

Martin Pigeon, from environmental campaign group Fern, says the  commission is “really split internally”, and there is “a serious fight going on” between the energy and environment departments. “Timmermans and [commission president Ursula] von der Leyen seem to be trying to broker a compromise,” he adds. But the risk is that the commission continues to “tinker at the edges of current sustainability criteria . . . without [producing] anything of substance”. In the US, green groups are hoping the Biden administration steers clear of biomass as it works towards its new goal of halving emissions by 2030.

The controversy in the EU over how biomass has been classified and used — including the subsidy system that incentivises its use — should be a “cautionary tale”, says Laura Haight, US policy director at the PFPI. “It’s essential that we define our policies carefully so that we don’t have the outcome that [they have] had.

Broadwater power station NSW

The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change

“Thirty years ago, we had a chance to save our planet. Almost nothing stood in our way – except ourselves”.

 The New York Times recently devoted its weekly magazine to one article only, a lengthy feature by American novelist and essayist Nathaniel Rich.

Losing Earth is a historical narrative of the years 1979 to 1989, a decade when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of global warming and climate change. Complementing the text is a series of aerial photographs and videos taken over the past year by George Steinmetz. The article is based on 18 months of reporting and well over a hundred interviews. It tracks the efforts of a small group of American scientists, activists and politicians to raise the alarm and stave off catastrophe.

It will come as a revelation to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it.

As early as the mid ‘sixties, American scientists and intelligence experts were warning how increasing carbon emissions and what Rich describes as “the unwitting weaponisation of the weather” could alter weather patterns and wreak famine, drought and economic collapse. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee was its published its executive report on carbon dioxide warned of the rapid melting of Antarctica, rising seas, increased acidity of fresh waters — changes that would require no less than a coordinated global effort to forestall. In 1974, during Richard Nixon’s presidency, the C.I.A. issued a classified report on the carbon-dioxide problem. It concluded that climate change had begun around 1960 and had “already caused major economic problems throughout the world.” The future economic and political impacts would be “almost beyond comprehension.”

It was recognised that unless coal production and use was phased out and fossil fuel combustion dramatically reduced, the world was careering toward an existential crisis. And the all important questions were asked: Could the global warming trend be reversed? Was there time to act? How would a global commitment to cease burning fossil fuels come about,? And, crucially, who had the power to make such a thing happen?

The ritual repeated itself every few years. Industry scientists, at the behest of their corporate bosses, reviewed the problem and found good reasons for alarm and better excuses to do nothing. Why should they act when almost nobody within the United States government — nor, for that matter, within the environmental movement — seemed worried?

Why take on an intractable problem that would not be detected until this generation of employees was safely retired? Worse, the solutions seemed more punitive than the problem itself. Historically, energy use had correlated to economic growth — the more fossil fuels we burned, the better our lives became. Why mess with that?

In July 1883, National Academy of Sciences commissioned a 500 page report, ‘Changing Clinate’. Things were dire but there should be caution and not panic. Better to wait and see. Better to bet on American ingenuity to save the day. Yes, the climate would change, mostly for the worst, but future generations would be better equipped to change with it. America had solved every existential problem it had confronted over the previous generation; it would not be daunted by an excess of carbon dioxide.

The Washington Post called this “clarion calls to inaction”, loud-sounding nothing’s which the administration and the fossil-fuel industry willingly bought into.

Whilst acknowledging the phenomenon, scientists, politicians and fossil industry executives argued about the urgency and the means. President Reagan indeed appeared determined to reverse the environmental achievements of Jimmy Carter, before undoing those of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and, if he could get away with it, Theodore Roosevelt.

Because of the lag between cause and effect, it was unlikely that humankind would detect hard evidence of warming until it was too late to reverse it. At a congressional hearing in 1982, Melvin Calvin, a Berkeley chemist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the carbon cycle, said that it was useless to wait for stronger evidence of warming. The time for action was past … “It is already later than you think.”

Three decades ago, the problem was recognized by scientists, industrial leaders and politicians of all parties. But then, it was if a stupid bomb dropped. As Rich writes in his epilogue, “Everyone knew — and we all still know. We know that the transformations of our planet, which will come gradually and suddenly, will reconfigure the political world order. We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us”.

Can we turn things around? The prognosis is not an optimistic one. It would appear that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. “ … we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison”.

Read on…