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Environmentalists have crossed the Rubicon

21, December 2009

By Max Rheese

Environmental advocacy in Australia is increasingly producing perverse environmental outcomes that are changing the way we live, largely as a result of political decisions for electoral gain.

Somewhere after the release of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the protest movement of the 60s, environmental advocacy started to stray from the generally useful path it had taken in fighting for improvements to the way we used our forests, water, land and energy resources.

Society can be pleased with the many good outcomes for the environment resulting from persistent environmental advocacy up to about the early 80s.

Timber harvesting was scrutinised until it moved to world’s best practice operations; agriculture was put under pressure to change accepted traditional practices in favour of demonstrably better methods that lessened the effect of necessary agriculture on the landscape. Improvements were sought and gained in vehicle emissions leading to much improved air quality. It is unlikely these and many other improvements to our lives would have occurred without the campaigns led by environmental groups that achieved them. These campaigns led to self evident improvement in the environment and could be, in the main, supported by science and evidence.

These successes were undoubtedly a fillip to the environment movement which saw expansion to the point where many groups became bigger and more influential than their traditional adversaries. For some perspective, at the time of the 2004 Australian federal election the environmental campaign spending of the major environmental organisations was three times the combined expenditure of Australian political parties.

There is nothing wrong of course with the environmental movement organising itself so that it has layers of administrative staff, media officers and a multitude of campaign directors to jet off to Copenhagen, purchase research vessels and take out full page campaign ads in major newspapers to further their ideals, providing they operate in a transparent, democratic manner for the public good. After all, much of the money used to finance these activities comes from the public.

Activities of the environment movement in Australia today display few of these attributes.

In a desire to maintain relevance - not to mention careers and balance sheets - there must always be a campaign to win, whether that is for the good of the environment or not. The low hanging fruit had already been harvested; to stay in business environmentalists became more ambitious.

Campaigns clearly in the common interest gave way to campaigns steeped in ideology.

The changes to native vegetation laws earlier this decade in New South Wales and Queensland saw a neat fit between the ideals of the Wilderness Society, state governments and a federal government keen to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, even though it did not even ratify this agreement.

Basically, the new laws prevented farmers, many of whom had occupied their properties for three or more generations, from clearing native regrowth. The laws also prevented new clearing. These state laws prompted by the federal government allowed it to claim it was meeting its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.

On the face of it, this could appear to be a good environmental outcome. Not so. On 20 million hectares of western NSW and southern Queensland thousands of farming families are watching helplessly as native regrowth takes over their long cleared properties with near monocultures. Some properties are now 80 per cent covered with these thick stands of regrowth that preclude any understory or biodiversity. This was a result campaigned for by the Wilderness Society.

Not only is this a poor environmental outcome for significant areas of these two states leading to erosion and a lack of biodiversity, but the social outcomes are devastating as once viable properties will now not support farming families. One farmer from the Brindabella Ranges near Canberra, Peter Spencer, is perched ten metres up a communications tower on his property as you read this, 20 days into a hunger strike seeking compensation for the loss of property rights to satisfy an environmental campaign and the requirements of an international treaty regarded as a complete and utter failure in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Thousands of citizens of NSW and Queensland have been gutted on the altar of Kyoto and most Australians are not even aware of it. Wait until they see what a full blown emissions trading scheme can do.

Perhaps we can shrug that off as sacrifice for the common good? A Kyoto outcome financed wholly by struggling landholders, to satisfy green political agendas.

Major environmental organisations in Australia have a stated policy of stopping the harvesting of native forests and have worked incrementally towards this goal for more than 30 years, while at the same time campaigning for a ban on the importation of illegally harvested timber from other countries. It is well recognised that native forestry operations in Australia operate on world’s best practice that improves the management of our forest reserves while other countries do not. Surely it is better to provide timber and paper products that society craves under strict guidelines we can monitor, than to pursue an ideological agenda leading to increasing deforestation in overseas forests over which we have no control. Apparently not. Even though only 9 per cent of the forest reserve in Victoria is available for sustainable timber harvesting, under government supervision, campaigns to reduce this amount available continue.

There can be no good global environmental outcomes from the success of such a campaign, but it does mean another big tick win for Australian environment groups if they shut down sustainable timber harvesting in this country.

Campaigns to exclude timber harvesting and controlled, seasonal cattle grazing from the Riverina red gum forests of Victoria and NSW have already led to perverse environmental outcomes. This year four new national parks were declared in Victoria’s red gum forests along the Murray River, leading to the exclusion of seasonal cattle grazing which is the only effective means of reducing fine fuels in the forest of fire sensitive red gums. The Department of Sustainability and Environment conducted a small fuel reduction burn last year of 25 hectares that destroyed 80 red gum trees (PDF 1.33MB), some up to 500-years-old, in a known nesting site of the nationally vulnerable superb parrot. They recently conducted a 70-hectare burn near the Barmah township after townspeople agitated for fuel reduction via cattle grazing fearful of a repeat of Black Saturday firestorms coming from the 29,000-hectare forest nestled up against the township. This small burn appears to have killed more than 50 per cent of the red gum forest within the burn. The conservation values of the forest have been sacrificed to the ideology that low intensity, controlled cattle grazing, practised in the Barmah forest for 150 years, is harmful to the environment. The Victorian National Parks Association, Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth who campaigned for the national parks and the exclusion of grazing, have not commented on the destruction of habitat trees - the very values they sought to protect.

If people are regarded as an integral part of the environment, certainly a core value of the Australian Environment Foundation, then the Wild Rivers legislation enacted by the Queensland government on the Cape York Peninsula at the behest of the Wilderness Society produces a perverse environmental outcome. This legislation has fractured the close relationship between environment groups and Indigenous people as it precludes small scale development by Indigenous people to overcome welfare dependency, on land they have cared for and occupied for millennia. Backroom political deals between the Bligh government and environment groups hid the extent of the protection sought by the legislation until the state election was completed. Open, transparent and democratic this was not.

Perhaps the greatest environmental and financial impact on the largest number of people in recent times has been the success of the environmental movements No Dams policy in Victoria over the last 20 years. All Victorians are paying the price for a policy induced water crisis imposed by a cabal of environment groups opposed to more dams. For sure, Victoria is in the grip of drought like much of Australia and this should have sharpened policy responses, but the Victorian government sat on its hands hoping it would rain, not daring to announce new dams or implementation of water recycling for potable supply, fearing political backlash. Captured by the environmental ideology it courted.

The political solution to this environmental crisis needs to be in place before Premier Brumby faces the electorate in November 2010.

The two major solutions, with a price tag of $5 billion, were the building of Australia’s largest desalination plant and the transfer of up to 75 gigalitres of water from the parched catchments of northern Victoria - a scheme first rejected by the Brumby government as too expensive, but embraced when it realised the desalination plant would not be in operation prior to the 2010 election. The irony is that environment groups oppose both of these solutions, which they helped bring about by their ideological campaign flatly opposed to more storage capacity.

Without a doubt these political solutions to Victoria’s water crisis are a result of a No Dams policy that had little merit in the face of state government intention to grow the Victorian population by another million people in the next few decades. Clearly, the environment and the Victorian taxpayer have been the losers in this public policy disaster driven by a green agenda.

However, our biggest test is yet to come is the introduction of an emissions trading scheme [ETS] that purports to limit the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a largely naturally occurring and essential element for life on earth, to stop climate change.

Despite the compelling lack of evidence to link man-made carbon dioxide emissions with constant climate change, the environment movement is in overdrive seeking the imposition of an ETS to bring about a change in our energy use.

Climate realists continue to push for open and transparent debate on the science used to justify reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and that is resisted at almost every turn. That they continue to seek empirical evidence is hardly surprising given the continuing exposure of manipulation and fraudulent data, such as the hockey stick graph (PDF 188KB), promoted so keenly in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report, but absent without explanation in the Fourth Assessment Report.

While efforts to find efficiencies in energy use and replacement forms of energy are to be applauded and supported, the introduction of the proposed, prostituted ETS will not provide a good environmental outcome but will divert massive resources away from genuine environment issues.

The notion that spending $120 billion to reduce Australia’s 1.5 per cent of emissions by 5 per cent is a good idea is preposterous.

Harking back to Peter Spencer and thousands of other hard working farming families that have been devastated by our compliance with the Kyoto Protocol and one could ask: for what gain? Political point scoring by the Howard government, aided and abetted by an indifference of city based media and the populace at large to an unseen and marginalised group in society. But, citizens of a supposedly fair and just Australia all the same. We have collectively basked in the righteous glow of meeting our Kyoto targets, while ignoring the cost borne on our behalf by rural communities.

Divide and conquer, incremental campaigns that see rural communities further marginalised with little fallout in city based electorates that are the green movement heartland, ambit claims and a willingness to distort the truth manifest itself in an attitude that the end justifies the means: this has unfortunately become the hallmark of environmental campaigning.

Environmental advocacy needs to return to an evidence based approach in order to serve people, communities and the environment, rather than ideological agendas promulgated by minority green groups practised in manipulating the political system to their own advantage.

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

 

Published in On Line Opinion 18 December 2009

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