The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia leads continents in mammal extinctions, climate report says

A dehydrated and injured koala receives treatment after being rescued from a wildfire in November 2019. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

SYDNEY — Australia’s unique wildlife is increasingly under threat from wildfires, drought and climate change, according to a much-anticipated expert report described as “shocking” by the country’s new environment minister.

The world’s driest inhabited continent has already lost more mammal species than any other continent in the past 200 years roughly when mass industrialization took off and continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline among developed countries, said a State of the Environment report published Tuesday.

“While it’s a confronting read, Australians deserve the truth,” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said. “We deserve to know that threatened communities have grown by 20 percent in the last five years with places literally burned into endangerment by catastrophic fires.”

The government-commissioned review by an independent panel of scientists was completed last year but held back from publication by the conservative previous government, the Coalition — which lost power after elections in May partly because it had resisted firmer cuts to carbon emissions.

Australia was one of the last developed nations to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050. (Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison quipped: “I don’t hold a hose, mate,” when questioned about his decision to go on vacation in Hawaii during devastating wildfires in 2019.)

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The increasing frequency and ferocity of natural disasters have pushed concerns in Australia about climate change to an all-time high, according to polls.

Scientists have warned that devastating wildfires such as those Australia experienced in 2019-2020, which killed 34 people and destroyed thousands of homes, could become regular occurrences. It is estimated that 1 to 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the fires.

In February, one of Australia’s most iconic animals, the koala, was officially moved from threatened to endangered status along the country’s east coast.

The country has also been hit by a string of serious floods in recent months, raising questions about how to prepare Australians to live in places where “once in a century” floods are becoming more common.

Tuesday’s report found that at least 19 Australian ecosystems are showing signs of collapse or near collapse. For the first time, Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones, Plibersek said. Meanwhile, marine heat waves have caused mass coral bleaching in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

As a historic and deadly heat wave scorches Western Europe, the report contained a salient warning for Australia’s cities, many of which are growing at faster rates than metropolitan areas in other rich countries. This growth has led to increased urban heat, waste and pollution and pressured increasingly scarce resources such as water and energy, the report’s authors said.

These maps show how excessively hot it is in Europe and the U.S.

Sydney, the commercial capital, has lost more than 70 percent of native vegetation cover through development, the experts wrote.

The urbanization is likely to lead to increased deaths, poorer sleep patterns and productivity, they said.

Between 2000 and 2017, Australia cleared more than 19 million acres of threatened species habitat across the country — much of it in small increments that meant no assessment under environment laws, according to Plibersek.

“After a lost decade, after a decade of going backwards, we can’t waste another minute,” the environment minister said.

The Greens and other lawmakers on whom the government relies in the Senate are pressuring the center-left Labor government to guarantee that a proposed bill targeting a 43 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 is just a floor.

The Greens want a more ambitious 75 percent cut but have signaled their willingness to support the legislation if the target is set as a minimum with obligations that cannot easily be unwound by future governments. Independent lawmakers are also calling for a mechanism to boost targets over time as an “insurance policy” against future administrations.

Plibersek said Tuesday that “too many urgent warnings were either ignored or kept secret” by the previous administration.

Jonathon Duniam, a lawmaker who speaks for the opposition Coalition on the environment, denied that the previous government had failed to act on the climate and challenged Plibersek to “get on with her job … rather than engage in partisan finger-pointing and game-playing.”

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