Future national need for a healthy environment

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Since the mid-1980s, it has become increasingly established that climate change will impact the lives of Australians, on the economy and the health of environmental assets. The interconnected functioning of natural processes requires us to look beyond the settler view of exploitation of nature. To do this we must somehow enshrine in law, such as through a Charter of Rights for Nature, the protection and restoration of valued natural assets vital to the nation’s long-term wellbeing.

The topic of the first Prime Minister’s Science Council was Global Climatic Change—Issues for Australia. The date was 6 October, 1989. Bob Hawke was the Prime Minister and chaired the full-day meeting. There were four topics: prediction of climate change from best scientific models; effects on renewable natural resources, issues for the Australian coastline; and potential for reductions in greenhouse gases in Australia. I was privileged to give the coastal presentation, other papers were mainly from CSIRO scientists. The papers were produced and published. Much of what we said is still relevant today.

The Prime Minister in his foreword stated:

      “The papers in this volume provide the basis for a much improved understanding of the likelihood of global warming caused by a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, of the possible effects in Australia of changes in climate, and of measures that can be considered to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. If global warming occurs, it is likely to affect many aspects of our lives in the years ahead and to require considerable changes in accepted patterns of behaviour” (R.J. Hawke,1989).

Here was recognition 30 years ago that there was sufficient scientific understanding of issues to warrant the Prime Minister of the day to raise the alarm that there could be “considerable changes in accepted patterns of behaviour”. Since then successive federal and state governments have poured millions of dollars into developing all aspects climate change research, and along the way make significant contributions to international science. It now possible with a high level of confidence to attribute climate change as one of the drivers to extreme events. And yet there remains considerable frustration and annoyance that national public policy is stalemated in addressing both mitigation and adaptation.

Decisions are being made at various levels in civil society to address climate change issues including in commercial world and legal judgements. Even some state governments have introduced legislation that address uncertainties of climate change in planning and management of environmental conditions. The NSW Coastal Management Act 2016 is one example. But, and it is a very big but, these actions reflect the absence of any over-riding constitutional power to protect natural values to provide for the health and long-term wellbeing of society. My understanding is that at least 110 nations currently enjoy a constitutionally protected right to a healthy environment. The introduction into constitutional law began in the 1970s with the Stockholm Conference (1972). Sweden was one of the first in 1974. I really enjoy the wording in the Ecuador constitution of 2010 which granted rights to the natural world (see articles 71-73). As discussed recently by the philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, while these articles may only be seen as words, they express ideas which are powerful and consequential, and tell a story about how we are in relation to the world and how we ought to live.

Countries such as Australia resolve environmental issues through legislation either at federal or state level. It requires a “legislative commitment” of a government to make a law or adopt a policy to protect natural values. Likewise, they are in a position to use legislation to harm the environment, land clearing is one example. We have nothing enshrined in Commonwealth law like Article 72 in Ecuador that states “Nature has a right to be restored”. As Bruce Lindsay in these pages has recently noted the wider tale of Australian settler culture transmitted to the present relates more to exploitation of a natural “resource”, essentially usufructuary. Nature in this sense is a factor in production and often the enemy that has to be conquered. Here property rights and issues of compensation become a dominant theme in the use of nature, not stewardship and recognition of the interconnected processes at work that are the essence of sustainability. Of course, steps have been taken from time to time to adopt policies and practices that attempt to heal the legacy of past environmental damage. However, it is my experience at all three levels of government that you can switch off such attempts as well as switch them on. It all relates back to “legislative commitment”.

What to do? First we must recognise what Bob Hawke was saying back in 1989 that global warming may require patterns of behaviour to change. That message from 30 years ago is getting through. Yet is relying on legislation or the policy position of the government of the day good enough? My experience says no. It is so easy in this country for the even simple things like a COAG Standing Committee on Environment and Water to be abolished as Prime Minister Abbott did in 2013; subsequent Prime Ministers have not felt inclined to restore this valuable mechanism of state-federal interaction. We must go further as we identify the huge national and international challenges of the new climate era, the Anthropocene. Climate change knows no borders. For this island continent, Australian society and its natural inheritance require a national approach for maintaining/restoring a healthy environment and productive economy. A Charter of Rights for Nature would be a step forward thus requiring the federal governments over time to ensure that its legislative powers are consistently used to protect and enhance those environmental values on which the wellbeing of society depends now and into the future.

Bruce Thom, former Chair National State of Environment Committee, 2001; Member, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists.

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019, posted 22 February 2019, for correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com