Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Obama eco-speech infuriates Aussie conservatives

Can somebody please bring Australia's right-wingers a crying towel?

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

Climate-deniers spit the dummy...

In addition to attending the G20 Global Leaders Conference in Brisbane last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a hard-hitting speech on climate change at the University of Queensland. 

This had Australia's right-wingers in a tizzy, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had specifically ruled out climate change as a topic for discussion at the G20 summit.

Obama, fresh off a major deal to reduce carbon emissions with China -- now overwhelmingly the world's biggest greenhouse-gas emitter -- wasn't willing to be gagged on the issue.  Hence his speech at the University of Queensland.

Abbott and company were especially annoyed by Obama's assertion that climate change threatened the iconic Great Barrier Reef, as suggested by a number of studies of coral bleaching and mortality during past heat waves, as well as rising ocean acidification.

Abbott is notorious as a pro-coal, pro-mining, no-more-parks, no-carbon-tax leader who considers global warming a minor annoyance -- a manageable environmental problem that's been massively overstated by wild-eyed greenies.

So perturbed was Abbott by Obama's assertions about global warming and the reef that he had his arch-conservative Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, attempt to rebuke Obama

Bishop -- well-known for other anti-environmental tacks such as her heated opposition to Australia's illegal-logging act -- decried Obama's speech and claimed that Australia was actually looking after the reef very nicely, thank you very much.

So nicely, in fact, that UNESCO has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

So nicely that Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, immediately labeled Bishop's comments as "not credible".  

"I loved Obama's speech," said Hughes.  "I thought it was spot on."

Such exchanges show that the Abbott government is sorely out of touch -- not just with many Australians but with the leaders of many other industrial and developing nations. 

Abbott and his colleagues are now clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution on climate change.  And no amount of crying on their part will change that.

 

Australia called 'most hostile' to the environment

The New Zealand Herald and The Independent have just posed a provocative question: Is Australia now the world's most environmentally hostile country? 

Wake me when it's over...

Wake me when it's over...

One could certainly list other nations with dubious environmental records, but Australia's place in the sun has fallen in the eyes of many, given a growing list of questionable policies from the conservative Tony Abbott government.  A partial list includes:

- The government's request to remove World Heritage protection for a large expanse of Tasmanian eucalyptus forest, which harbors some of the world's tallest trees

 -The decision to dump millions of tonnes of dredging spoil on the Great Barrier Reef (the UN has already threatened to list the Reef as "in danger" when its World Heritage monitoring committee meets in June)

- A well-documented resistance to meaningful action to combat climate change

- Allowing Western Australia to proceed with a large-scale cull of great white, tiger and bull sharks, in the face of strong opposition from many marine scientists

- A variety of alarming measures that are degrading the status and safeguards for Australian protected areas

- Efforts to seriously weaken Australia's recently passed anti-illegal logging bill (see our ALERT blog on this issue)

The leader of the Australian Green Party, Senator Christine Milne, has said such changes could make Australia a "global laughing-stock".  Let's hope the Abbott government sees the light in time.