Event_

Wild weather, lost land and persistent pollutants

Sydney Ideas is thrilled to welcome renowned environmental scientist, Professor Emma Johnston AO, the co-chief author of the 2021 Australian State of Environment Report and the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research). Professor Johnston will be joined by her co-authors to discuss key findings of the report and what is in store for our environment and wellbeing.

The extreme weather events from the past few years have shown that our future depends on healthy rivers, forests, soils and seas, which is why it is crucial to understand exactly what is at stake. The State of the Environment (SOE) report, a five-yearly independent review, commissioned by the Australian Government, is a critical piece in the puzzle. Its independent analysis from a team of scientific experts, offers a clear framework on how to address the myriad environmental issues we face and the projected future of our environment. 

Professor Johnston is one of Australia’s most distinguished environmental scientists, an elected fellow of both the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE). She also co-hosts the television series, Coast Australia, exploring the country's coastline.

Also joining the conversation will be SOE co-authors Dr Terri Janke, a Wuthathi/Meriam woman and an international authority on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property; the chair of the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute, leading environmental scientist, Dr Ian Cresswell; and Dr Sarah Hill, CEO of the Western Parkland City Authority. 

The 2021 SOE report is the first to include Indigenous co-authors and is the first to have a chapter explicitly  focused on Extreme Events (bushfires, floods, heatwaves, droughts, storms).

This Sydney Ideas event was held on Thursday 21 July, 2022 at the Charles Perkins Centre Auditorium.

Catch on-demand

Watch the video

Listen to the podcast


Audio transcript

FENELLA KERNEBONE

0:12 Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for attending tonight's event. It is a great pleasure to see you all here. For tonight's Sydney Ideas event. It's called 'Wild weather, lost land and persistent pollutants'. Tonight we're going to be examining some of the key findings of the State of the Environment Report that was released this week. My name is Fenella Kernebone. I'm the Head of Programming for Sydney Ideas. Before we continue, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, to culture and to water. We're here at the Charles Perkins Centre auditorium. It's a great privilege to be here and on this site at the University of Sydney and we are on Gadigal Land of the Eora Nation and I would like to pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. And further to that I would really like to pay an acknowledgement to the traditional custodians of Country where you might live, where you might work, where you might share ideas and connect with other people as well. So if you're in the room right now, and of course, if you're watching online, welcome to you too and I pay acknowledgement to their Elders past, present and emerging and I also extend that welcome and respect to all First Nations people who are present today. We have a fantastic event for you. And I'm going to allow the one and only Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney and Professor Mark Scott to introduce tonight's event and to welcome our speakers. Would you please welcome Professor Mark Scott.

MARK SCOTT

1:43 Well, thank you Fenella. Ladies and gentlemen wonderful to be with you at this Sydney Ideas event and can I also acknowledge traditional owners of the land on which we meet the Gadigal and pay my respects to Elders past and present. The traditional owners of this land have been educating and discovering here for 10s of 1000s of years and I pay my respects to Elders past and present. I reflect from time to time on the nature of news I can see around the room, there are lots of people from media who worked in media organisations and and I found when I was editing newspapers that no matter what the day was, there was always a front page story. That was the story you put on page one. And sometimes you'd look back at old newspapers and you'd find why on earth was that story on page one, it was an insight into the truly ephemeral nature at times of news creation that that day for whatever reason, that story had a focus. But pretty quickly, the world moved on the circus moved on. And the next day, there were other stories and the cycle continues on. I suspect that in the future, people will look back at newspapers this week at the State of Environment Report. And there'll be a clarity of insight and understanding about why that was news, why that was particularly important. And I suspect the themes that have emerged, the scientific insight from the researchers and the authors of the report that's documented, will truly stand the test of time as to where we were at this point in human history where we were at this point in our national history, and the crucial decisions that faced us as a nation from what the science was revealing to us. And so given the importance and the enduring nature of that news, it's been revealed through the report released this week, how tremendous it is here at the University of Sydney, we have this opportunity to hear from the authors and to engage substantively with the findings and the nature of their work. So it's my job to quickly introduce you to the members of the panel tonight and then to sit with you to experience their insight and to hear them engage with each other and engage with us as members of the audience. I'm delighted first of all to introduce Professor Emma Johnston to you. As of this week, Professor Johnston is the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research here at the University of Sydney. I was saying to her earlier that, that I think we do a media clipping service here, as many organisations do. She only appeared in 70 stories on her second day here at the University. As I said, we expect you to continue at that pace in the years ahead. As you all know, Professor Johnston is a highly awarded and world leading expert in marine science and conservation. And she's the co-chief author of this State of the Environment Report that we've all heard about. Joining Emma on the panel tonight is Dr. Terri Janke, a solicitor and Director of the Terri Janke and Company and one of the two report co-authors along with Dr. Ian Cresswell, Chair of the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute. And also joining them and an author of part of the report as well is Dr. Sarah Hill. Well known to many in the New South Wales Government. She's the CEO of the Western Parkland City Authority. We're honoured to be able to sponsor and host this event at the University of Sydney tonight, we have an ongoing commitment to sustainability here at the University. It's just 12 months since we launched our dedicated whole of University Sustainability Strategy, we've already made great strides. As of the first of July, we've switched to 100% renewable electricity across all our campuses and colleges and associated activities in and around the University. We have targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Zero waste to landfill by 2030. We are Australia's oldest university, we believe we're Australia's finest university, we want to be exhibiting leadership for good and leadership in this space. So will you welcome the panel members and we look forward to hearing them all tonight. Thanks for being with us.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

5:50 Okay, Emma, can I start with you, 70 stories this week? Are you tired? Are you okay? It's your first week how's it been going?

EMMA JOHNSTON

5:57 Yeah, look, I think I had a bit of management expectation, you know, expectation management to do with the media team. I'm thinking like, no, it's been fantastic look, it really is thrilling to have what is what I think is a really reasonable amount of attention paid to what is a really, really catastrophic situation for Australia, you know, situation in which we have twin climate and biodiversity crises in which we need really rapid, urgent action. We can't afford to be, you know, bearing this anymore. And previous reports, there has been a tendency to have the report tabled in Parliament, and then everybody goes away and the team disperses. And, you know, things go on as usual. It's gratifying that the minister has used this report this time around, the new minister has used this report to you know, really draw attention to these issues, but also as a platform for her work over the next few years. It's awkward that it was on day two of my role as Deputy Vice Chancellor Research that the new minister decided to release it seven months after we gave it to the previous minister. But we'll work it out.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

7:09 You will, congratulations for getting through this hectic week. Very quickly. You're the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research. If you can, in a sentence, say what you're most excited about in this brand new role. I know you've only just started what what would it be?

EMMA JOHNSTON

7:20 Oh, look the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research is the most wonderful, wonderful job. And it's no coincidence that I'm really passionate about a big problem like environmental management. And I'm the Deputy Vice Chancellor Research because really what the whole portfolio is about is supporting and being a champion and an ambassador for the solutions business, which is research. So research at the University of Sydney is addressing real world problems. But it's also getting at some of the most fundamental questions at the really edges of the known universe in a huge array of disciplines. And we have teams of researchers who are drawing disciplines together as well working on some of the greatest challenges that society faces. And my job is to look after them and to be the champion and to help guide them. And so it's it's a great privilege and an honour to be joining the team.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

8:11 It's fantastic to have you at the University. So moving on to the State of the Environment Report. And we'll hear from each of our speakers, of course, as well. The word sobering, grim, bleak, I've heard these said a lot over the last 48/72 hours as well. Top line overview, how significant is this report? What does it tell us really about the state of our environment? Emma Johnston 8:30 Yeah, look, it is really grim. It's it's confronting the probably the simplest way to explain it is in the 2016 report, which Ian and I were both involved in, as well, we, and in all the reports, this is the sixth report. So since 1996, all the reports, there's a lot of detail about predicting the impacts of climate change. It's said in every single report these these, these extreme events, and the more gradual effects have all been described, but they've been described largely in the future tense. I think in the 2016 report, we got around to saying, look, we pretty sure we were seeing this happening, we're seeing this species shifts, et cetera, we're seeing a slight increase with sink in storm erosion, etc. This report is is just a whole litany of case studies over the last five years of climate change, putting an extra layer of pressure on already stressed ecosystems. To the extent that we had to introduce an entire new chapter on extreme events. So an entire and each, by the way, the overview report, which is the summary of the other 12 chapters.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

9:42 Yeah, I was trying to read this before tonight, but there was 270 pages.

EMMA JOHNSTON

9:46 Yeah, but it's all online. So if you want to get into the details of the report, it is very accessible and you can dive deep. We go through the pressures and the state and the management effectiveness. This is the overview but then there's 12 chapters dealing with everything from Antarctica to inland waters, and urban environments like Sarah. So yeah, the stark contrast is that every environment that we consider and that we assess every situation is deteriorating. And the primary cause for that, is climate change layered on top of existing problems.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

10:19 Okay, it is definitely bleak. What's the response been like this week, Ian? I've heard quite a few. Yeah, I mean, I think Emma's done about 70 interviews, I've heard a few with each of you guys as well. Tell me, Ian. How's it been going?

IAN CRESSWELL

10:30 The response has been very good. And in fact, I've been trying to to de-bleak some of it because because I'm a little bit worried that especially some of the younger audience might feel like, there's no hope. Everything's terrible, and, and therefore no action. So what we do find in the report is places where we're starting to see greater involvement of citizens. So citizen science has is much greater now than it was five years ago. Terri will talk about our Indigenous co-authors and the involvement that for me was personally a great honour and revelation, to actually get to understand the value of wellbeing, from the Australian environment. And so my message this week has all been about getting people to reconnect with the environment at any way at the local level. Because we do know that, that if you if you take care of Country, Country takes care of you.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

11:30 For sure. Terri, maybe this is a good opportunity to hear about how the State of the Environment Report has really shifted the reporting as such, and with Indigenous co-authors across every every chapter, and including an Indigenous chapter. So tell me a bit about how this has been a game changer.

TERRI JANKE

11:47 Okay, well, it's the first time that there are Indigenous voices in just about every chapter or every theme of the report. So there were nine contributing Indigenous authors, all leading scientists and community members and researchers who put their voices to it, but also a lot of community voices as well. So there are a lot of yarns. So I'm saying that it makes the report really readable. And the spirit is there, you know, that connection to Country is a very strong story through there caring for Country. And as we embarked on working together, as a group of non-Indigenous and Indigenous collaborators, we were thinking, how do we put traditional knowledge, Indigenous science with Western science, and we developed a collaboration guideline that we would work together and points that were raised, we would match them with, you know, each each particular area. And those guidelines became the way that we, you know, we worked towards it. It was the first time I'm sure, there'll be a lot to be said about how we did it. But I overall, I'm very proud of the report.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

13:01 For sure. Emma, a question came through a bit earlier about the process. And I know Ian also alluded to it as well. What what was it like for you to go into this new process of writing this report, including this Indigenous co-authorship?

EMMA JOHNSTON

13:14 Yeah, it was fantastic. So the the guidelines that Terri's talking about, were really key to us being able to work together, I think, because we essentially established a very respectful, safe space for everyone to be working together. We agreed at the beginning that we weren't going to separate the the stories and the knowledge. So we were we've we've interwoven the two knowledge systems, or the many knowledge systems realistically. And we had agreed ways in which expertise would be acknowledged through that process, and that we would gather information from some from sometimes areas in which there was only an oral tradition. So the consultation with experts was fantastic. So the difference that it made as well for everybody was that we were able to more powerfully communicate connections between people and Country, because Western science has a tradition of separating everything into smaller and smaller and smaller bits, you know, reductionism. And in the environmental space, we've been, you know, expert at telling a story of only about the biophysical or the physical or the chemical situation, and that makes it easier for people to feel removed from that environment and feel like they can stay safe, even if the environment is changing, but it's actually not true. You know, we are deeply, deeply connected. And I think, Terri, you should talk more about Indigenous connections to Country but they forced us into a really much better space about talking about human wellbeing.

TERRI JANKE

14:48 Yeah, that was a new thing for the report. So much of it, focused on the health and wellbeing and that spiritual connection that Indigenous people have to land seas and sky Country came out very strongly. And we did have consultants who went out and spoke to people. So we've got actually a lot of Indigenous voices in the report and people talking about this deep spiritual connection and how the, the impact of, I guess, of colonisation and environmental laws or the systems limiting access to Country, but also as they watch changes to the environment, how that impacts them, and also detailing disaster things, particularly in the heritage space, such as the blowing up of Juukan Gorge, you know, it was devastating for Indigenous people, but for many Australians, so it details that so it is that caring for Country, which is a strong message in the Indigenous theme, but it sort of goes through the whole of the report as well.

IAN CRESSWELL

15:59 And it wasn't easy, actually. So a lot of our scientists were actually found it quite difficult, as, as did our Indigenous co-authors of actually trying to do that melding. So as scientists, we often well, we're taught, we're taught not to be emotional, we're taught to only have reference facts. And so trying to meld our facts that we knew and from Western science, with Indigenous stories, which is a different form of facts, was actually challenging. And I think everybody, all the authors grew from the experience.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

16:32 Maybe Sarah, this is a good opportunity to hear from from you, the co-author of the chapter on urban, what was the collaboration, like for you and listening to what Terri has to say, as well?

SARAH HILL

16:43 Well, firstly, let me say, as new kid on the block, it was pretty overwhelming to think that within 100 pages, you'd be writing around the state of the urban environment of which, according to the census is about 1800 or so different urban locations across our great country. So to talk about the urban environment, and all of the factors that are affecting it, and the state of it was was quite a, quite a, you know, a challenge in its own right. To work with people, though, that really embraced the idea of not just a built environment, as it was considered in the prior reports, but to have the support of my fellow authors here to think about a system a more holistic approach, rather than breaking it down to buildings and tarmac and asphalt. You know, this is about a whole system that works together. And it is about the natural, and the built environment coming together to create a great place. But working with an Indigenous author who just opened my eyes to a whole new layer of thinking around our urban environment. So simple, but really powerful revelations to me is that we don't have four seasons here in Sydney, there's six, and why are we not designing our cities to recognise that why are we not respecting that knowledge that we have have, and certainly what it means for embracing new designs, new approaches to our urban areas. So for me, it was a real awakening, but also importantly, a shift in the thinking around our urban areas and this critical interplay in interconnectivity that they have with our natural environment.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

18:22 For sure. Terri, maybe at this point, and just to acknowledge the fact that Terri actually has to leave early because she has another function to go to the you as well as co-authoring the entire report. And all the chapters, of course, that are featuring the Indigenous authors. There is the Indigenous chapter, you talked about it a little bit before, but could you talk us through some of the key findings from the Indigenous chapter?

TERRI JANKE

18:44 Right? Yeah. Well, the Indigenous chapter really goes into detail about what caring for Country is and defines that goes deep into it, and establishes that Indigenous people have this obligation or this stewardship to Country that is a fundamental cultural obligation. So flowing from there, you can see how the management of it, Indigenous people need to be involved in those key decisions around the environment. And it's not news in this report. The Samuel Review detailed in the review of the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, that there needs to be more involvement of Indigenous people in decisions about the environment. So too with heritage, and in light of the heritage disasters that have been happening. It really showcases the inadequacies of the Heritage laws that we have in Australia, and the need for change there. The report is not all sort of sad news. One of the good news stories is the role of Indigenous Rangers, and there are something like 2000 Rangers working in Australia on Country, caring for Country and the minister has recently announced further funding to that Indigenous Protected Areas are growing in the years 2011 to 2016. It grew, it grew by 4.5%. The ministers announced more now, but one of the things to also highlight is that the Indigenous estate is around 57% of the country. So Indigenous rights are pertaining to, you know, land and seas 50% of the country. So that really puts Indigenous people in a position to be able to manage Country care for Country use traditional knowledge and traditional knowledge is also a key theme of the report. The question that we ask is, why aren't we using more Indigenous knowledge solutions to the the environmental challenges that we face. So we see the example in cultural fire management coming out in the wake of the bushfires, disasters, more and more people looking at cool fire fire burning practices. But that's just an example of how Indigenous peoples knowledge could be used. We have Indigenous Rangers, Indigenous Women Rangers working on eradication of feral cats in the desert, you know, lots of co-management opportunities there. So Indigenous people want to have much more of a role there. And I think there's another key issue in the data that gets collected a lot of the scientific analysis that gets done using data, it needs to shift a bit to take into account Indigenous sort of measures. And that was a big thing for me and being one of the writers putting it all together, saying, how do we in the next one, look at how the data can be more aligned to this Indigenous worldview?

FENELLA KERNEBONE

21:58 Well, congratulations on the report, Terri, and I'm sorry, you have to leave us but can we please thank Terry Janke for her time. As we know, our authors have been really incredibly busy this week. So it is amazing that Terri was able to join us for the first 20 minutes. So thank you again, Terri. Continuing on, we're gonna go through some of the key findings. With our speakers right now. We'll discuss the report in more detail. But let's just quickly go through some of these key findings. Emma, you've touched on it briefly already. But how is climate change impacting the state of our environment in new ways? What are we seeing?

EMMA JOHNSTON

22:35 Yeah, look. So we've got changing frequency, intensity, severity, everything variability, even the even how variable the extreme events are, is changing. So it's intensely difficult to predict into the future now, and I just want to do a call out to all of our climate scientists across the country, and across the world, in fact, and these in particularly our ocean climate scientists who are working to do coupled ocean climate modelling, which is really empowering us to be able to make better predictions of what's going to happen to these extreme events. But the truth is, they're happening faster than a lot of predictions were made. In the changes are happening faster. And Australia is really at the forefront or the taking the brunt of a lot of that, that was predicted that Australia would be at the forefront of a lot of the climate change problems for a number of different reasons. But the extreme events have really taken a lot of us by surprise. And just give you an example and and explain some of the ecological background behind this. And I think it won't be hard for anyone, even if you don't have any ecological background, if you think about your garden, if you disturb your garden really quite a lot and quite frequently, the things that tend to thrive are the weedy species, species that can grow fast, reproduce quickly, they die young.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

24:01 You mean my chickweed? That I just have a lot of it.

EMMA JOHNSTON

24:04 Your rock chickweed. Yeah, exactly.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

24:05 Got it.

EMMA JOHNSTON

24:05 So what we're seeing because the frequency of disturbance events are kind of natural in one sense. And indeed, in Australia, across our vast continent, many of our ecosystems have evolved to deal with quite extreme events, extreme droughts, and wildfires, etc. But the intensity and the frequency is changing to the extent that they haven't really experienced those sorts of disturbances in their evolutionary history. So not only are we getting individual species being impacted, but the whole ecosystem is changing. And the prediction is that we'll be moving to a much more weedy set of species that are going to thrive in this sort of situation. What that means, say, for example, in the Great Barrier Reef where we've seen mass bleaching events happening 2016, 2017, 2020 and indeed 2022 as well so four in the last six years, is there's not enough time in between in those disturbances for a fully mature ecosystem to develop that would support the full range of biodiversity that you would see in a mature ecosystem. So you would see like an old growth rainforest, you're not getting, you're not going to be able to get your old growth, coral reefs, because you need a minimum of 15 years between major disturbances to get that, and now you're seeing this frequency. And so the prediction of a bleaching event every two years has been made within the 2016 report. I remember putting this into the report, and it was, was made that by 2050, we may see bleaching every two years, and everyone went, whoa, that's bad. But I can't believe that's going to happen. And now you're 2020 2022. And you're already talking about? Yeah. So that's one thing that's happening. The other thing is the emergence of brand new impacts that we've never seen before. So I'm a marine scientist myself. When the wildfires happened in 2019 2020, I had a team of fantastic researchers, some of whom may be in the audience, working from Townsville down to Bermagui looking at our very important productive estuaries, and looking at a whole lot of conditions and biodiversity within those estuaries. And the and the bushfires happened and I was standing on Coogee beach with literally ash washing up around my feet, saying this is going to have to have an impact in the coast in the estuaries. And I looked online and there was nothing documented documenting any previous impact of wildfires in those sorts of ecosystems. So I pivoted the research team to essentially go out straight up to the bushfires six months, 12 months 18 months after and document the first ever global situation in which we have dramatically changed the ecosystem condition of our estuaries and the biodiversity. So that's just something that no one ever thought to even look at, potentially something that will supercharge our estuaries to be very much more productive than usual. But in certain estuaries where the water quality is already problematic, it's going to prime them for very large phytoplankton blooms and potential fish kills. So you just that's just one example. But over the next decade, we're going to see a huge increase in the number of unpredicted ecological impacts, they're going to have to change the way we harvest from ecosystems, the way we manage ecosystems, the way we benefit from them in all sorts of ways.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

27:26 Okay, all right.

SARAH HILL

27:27 I get I get the sense that you could talk all night about that. Emma Johnston 27:31 Would you like to hear a bit more?

FENELLA KERNEBONE

27:34 I'd love some some de-bleaking but I don't think we've got time for that. Let's talk about the urban then. So thank you, thank you, Emma, you know, between climate change, you've got the pandemic, of course, we know that our cities now town, Sarah have suffered some pretty dramatic stresses as well. So what are we seeing in our environments?

SARAH HILL

27:51 Yeah, I think it's really important to pick up on that point around the changing shape of not only our natural environments, but but indeed, our urban as a consequence of what we've experienced is, you know, several, one in 100 year shocks in the last year, let alone last five years. So, you know, extraordinary shifts and changes in how we live, you know, and I'd have to say what we found in the report is some of them are very positive, you know, as as a city planner, trying to encourage people to travel less work more at home, you know, embrace their local communities, and certainly walk more and enjoy enjoy green spaces in their local area more is something that we could never have made happen at such an accelerated rate. And so some things have been incredibly positive. Others, as we know, have been hugely challenging. And many of those natural and challenging climatic events have increased in frequency and put huge stress and strain underneath the cities. What I'm finding interesting, though, is the interrelationship between our bigger cities which are growing and indeed, about 43% of projected growth is going to occur in Sydney and Melbourne alone. So that just gives you an idea about the bigger cities are getting bigger, and really the implications that that has to sprawl, but also density, health and wellbeing and so forth.

IAN CRESSWELL

29:09 And biodiversity.

SARAH HILL

29:10 And biodiversity. Absolutely. And that's that's the key point, because really, these are not ecological deserts. These, you know, very much the point, the report points to the fact that, you know, huge numbers, and indeed, you know, a very significant proportion of endangered species in terms of plants and animals live within urban areas. We're not, we haven't traditionally designed our urban areas to account for them. We're getting better at it, that is

FENELLA KERNEBONE

29:35 How can we get better at it? There actually, were some questions that have come in about the peri-urban areas and threatened species. Interesting to hear, it's also about our flora as well. Yeah, few questions about koalas. But how can we better manage this looking to the future?

SARAH HILL

29:48 Yeah, well, I think first things first, you know, that there is a real interplay between you know, the the density of development and locating in areas that we're not expanding our cities all the time and that we're really rethinking where the right locations are to, to locate our urban environments. And in fact, the fascinating thing is we're not taking a national view of this, we are really and certainly that the research shows that each state each territory is doing its own thing, you know, accommodating growth and projections in its own right. But there has not been a coordinated approach to this for some time. So in a first instance, where are we directing this growth and change to occur? And how are we taking that comprehensive view of it? And second of all, how are we thinking about our urban environment when we are developing it and designing it in a way that embraces the natural and certainly not just clearing out our open spaces, but really creating habitat that brings nature back into the city. COVID and the last few years of many of the challenges we've been facing, you have really showed us how important it is to people for their health and well being to experience that nature. And indeed, the nature and you know, ecology within our cities, is where most people get access to it. So the good news is that although, you know, tracking it, we've lost a lot of green space over the last decade, in the last four years, there's been a very concerted effort to start bringing it back. And you see a lot of the questions online, you know, how can an individual make a difference? There's a heck of a lot of ways that we can start thinking about how we live, how we travel, how we structure our lives, to embrace that back to this into our urban areas.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

31:31 We might try and get back to that question a bit later on. You said biodiversity Ian so you've, throwing you in the deep end here, we've lost quite a few mammal species more than any other continent, there are pretty grim statistics. How serious is the decline? Tell me about it.

IAN CRESSWELL

31:45 So so it is serious. And of course, the numbers relate to what's what we know listed species, we still actually only know 30% of Australia's biodiversity. So 70% remains unknown. So we're actually losing things that we don't know. So we're only be able to count the things we know, I think for the answer, part of the answer on the urban and the peri-urban is about us reconnecting back with nature. So there was there has been a trend to stop having native gardens and going back to roses and lawns, and watering and formal gardens. And as a consequence, in the particularly in the peri-urban areas, we're still seeing massive amounts of clearing of remnant vegetation, which is sometimes the only place left for quite a few different species. So there's a for me, the message is about getting Australians to reconnect with nature. And for me, the the Indigenous element has been fundamental. If if we can actually connect with Indigenous culture, then that actually takes us straight to Australia's plants and animals, flora and fauna. Their deep love and connection and commitment and honour is is heartfelt throughout the report. But actually, it's a way for all of us to actually have a richer culture, like and willing to share and appropriately have Australia become a better place. So, yes, there's lots of shocking statistics. And, and, as I said earlier, I'm concerned that people don't give up because things are grim. But at the same time, I do believe that we can get a whole lot better and actually quite quickly. So we have amazing community organisations already existing in Australia, like Landcare, like a whole lot of wildlife rescuers. And it's more about us actually joining in. So my plea is for everybody to actually seek out their local group, and to find a way of of better connecting to the real Australia.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

34:05 Absolutely. Emma do you want to add anything there?

EMMA JOHNSTON

34:07 Yeah. Look, I think it was interesting to see how the minister spoke about this as well, acknowledging the problems and and these aren't just the problems of the last government, right. These are the problems since colonisation that have taken place and land clearing has not significantly declined. If we could get our national handle on land clearing. If we could have cumulative assessments of the 1000 cuts that are happening which Ian's talking about, then we would actually be able to reverse that horrific trend of losing the remnants that are left. And you know, we are going to need legislative reform in order to be able to do that. We're going to need national standards. We're going to need consistent ways of measuring. So you might get six or eight different ways of measuring how much land has been cleared across the nation, depending on which state and territory you're in. So there's those sorts of issues. But in relation to the species, threatened species, you know, it is just so much more expensive to try and bring a threatened species back from the brink than it is to prevent that species getting to that threatened stage already. And I think when you hear, and you will hear over the coming months, arguments around how little money we have to spend on the environment, because we're in such a tragic economic situation, everybody needs to think about how much more it's going to cost if we don't act now. And we you know, we have been saying that as scientists since forever, in the biodiversity space, and for at least 40 years in the climate change space. But the reality really is hitting home now. Um, so for example, over the last five years, we had an increase in the number of threatened species of 8%. And that was despite millions and millions of dollars being spent on trying to turn around the trajectory of a list of priority species. It's very hard to do restoration projects, rebreeding projects rewilding projects. We have some fantastic scientists and ecologists out there. And they're trying their darndest. But it's, it's hard, and it's expensive, and it doesn't always succeed. So Australia did turn around the trajectory of 21 species over the last five years, which is brilliant. But our list of threatened species went from 1780 or something to 1920. So we're adding more quickly than we're reversing the trajectory of. And when you talk about protected areas, you know, one of the most efficient ways to protect species is to protect habitat, and sufficient amounts of habitat and connections between plots of habitat. And when you talk about that, you immediately step into ecosystem based management or protected areas management or otherwise known as national parks, marine parks, basically spatial ways of managing your environment, so that you can organise where your activities take place, like urban development, and you know where your fishing is allowed, but you also have space for ecosystems to be in their natural state with their natural number of predators, etc. And across the nation, over the last five years, we've had a tendency to announce more protected areas, and indeed, the overall total area of protection, under protection has increased. But if you look closely at the fine print, the level of protection within each of those areas has declined. So we are setting up paper parks that confuse people and don't really do much for the environment.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

37:35 Okay, so we're good at putting them on paper, but we're not very good at actually achieving them whatsoever.

EMMA JOHNSTON

37:39 They've got to be well enforced. They gotta have been supported by the local community. And they actually have to have protections in place. So they can't just be a marine protected area that allows for example, trawling.

FENELLA KERNEBONE 

37:51 Okay, how are we doing in terms of our protected areas, though, our national parks and reserves? Ian can you tell us a little bit more about how that actually is going? I mean, Emma's just touched on that a little bit, but it's a bit of bit of a bit of a sense of it.

IAN CRESSWELL

38:02 So the minister announced today that the new Australian Government yesterday that the new Australian government would fall in line with with a global target of 30%, protected areas, both on land and sea, we do, we do have 30% of our marine areas across Australia, more than 30% under some form of protection. But as Emma said, one of the issues that we have to grapple with is the zoning. So we need to make sure that those the management effectiveness of that zoning, and terrestrially, we've seen an increase in Indigenous Protected Areas, but unfortunately, Indigenous Protected Areas, and that's fantastic. So full stop, fantastic, great. Unfortunately, they don't have as the same amount of funding, and they don't have the same continuity as say a gazetted national park. So that's a huge issue that Indigenous custodians deal with is that they then get given an Indigenous Protected Area, but not necessarily forever, and also not, not necessarily with funding. So so there's a funding issue there. And then our, our sort of national parks and reserves that has slowed down significantly in terms of the number that we've had. New South Wales has actually because gazetted several new national parks in the last few years, which is fantastic. On the on the other side of the coin, I'm sorry to say that New South Wales is second in the country for land clearing, and in the period, I think it was 2017-2019, 70% of the clearing didn't have a permit. So there was no way of finding authorisation for that clearing. And, and so there's, you know, we have this complex layer of state and federal laws, but overall for all of the clearing in in the in a 15 year period 93% of it wasn't even referred to the Federal Environment Minister, because the job of of a proponent who wants to clear is they have to decide oh was this significant? Oh, no, it's not significant. So therefore, I don't have to refer it. So there's the but what we do know is the cumulative effect of, so maybe me just clearing my 1000 acres on my farm might not necessarily be a problem. But if everybody's doing it, and everybody is putting in pivot irrigators, then we're seeing a much bigger effects. I was very disappointed to hear several farmers came out against the the announcement by the Minister and saying that the report hadn't acknowledged the fact that farming has improved, we do acknowledge that the fact that farming has, has improved, and there's some fantastic work being done in reveg and regenerative agriculture. But it's pretty small. So it's a great start. But it's a very big country. So New South Wales is not immune, I'd actually say New South Wales is second worst. So therefore, what do we d? We need to get better combination of our laws at the federal level at the state level, and then also empower local councils because they themselves don't have either the funds or the capacity and the expertise to actually know what they're managing.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

41:29 I'd like to hear Sarah, some of your thoughts on this from a local council, local government level as well.

SARAH HILL

41:33 Yeah. And it's really interesting to come, to these points around really just that what we call in my world, the line of sight, you know, from Commonwealth to local government and back up again, and I think what we're learning increasingly in urban spaces is just how important that tri-level of government coordination is to actually getting things done. Otherwise, you're getting bits and pieces of the puzzle that don't actually work well together. So the urban chapter talks a lot about these examples. You know, really where Commonwealth and state government comes together with local to make things happen. City deals are a case in point. But I think also looking at more remote areas have a really important programme I've been involved in is roads to home for Indigenous communities that literally did not have a road to the home so that they could get, you know, sewerage or, or refuse collection or even a hearse to the, you know, the cemetery. So, you know, there's there's sort of these gaps in our systems that really cause enormous challenges for the health and wellbeing of our communities. As part of the report and sort of more direct response to your question, we we sent a survey to every local council in the in the country, we had a pretty remarkable response to, to the surveys, a lot of common, a lot of common approaches around regreening, and certainly urban forests, and, you know, putting vegetation back into to our urban areas, which was hugely encouraging, but also this everlasting challenge between the density versus sprawl and really trying to target the right mix in that regards. And this will always be the challenge for us. And I see on the Slido, you know, a couple of questions to me around flooding and Western Sydney. And I think that is that challenge where, you know, those before me, you know, really rezoned parts of Western Sydney, which in hindsight, now you say should not have been, and certainly on my watch, in my former role, we really pulled back a lot on that, let's not exacerbate the problems that we have. But how do we address these areas that are already rezoned where people are living, and you know, Western Sydney is particularly challenged as an area that is flood liable, but also, you know, is the hottest city in the world on some days 50 degrees, yeah parts of our city reached, you know, last year, so extraordinary challenges around heat. But really, so much of it comes back to the coordinated approach trees, water in the environment, designing our buildings to to be lower in terms of embodied carbon more efficient in terms of their energy use, and really trying to turn what is some of the biggest challenges in Western Sydney, into a way of showcasing to the world how we can be truly innovative and do things differently, balance our ecology, balance, all of the needs that we have of our citizens at the same time as doing things better. So there's a big theme about just don't build back, build back better, greener, smarter. All of those things that we aspire to do, and then we can really showcase to the world and that's the challenge.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

44:55 Absolutely. Thanks for bringing up some of those questions early too. By the way, we're gonna go to question just in just a moment where we mentioned extreme events, because there is a chapter in there, and you just brought up the the level of heat in Western Sydney. And you know, we're seeing this around the world. So tell me a bit about the chapter with the extreme events and why this was so important to include it.

EMMA JOHNSTON

45:13 Yeah, look, I don't think there's a centimetre of Australia that hasn't been touched by climate change over the last five years. And there are vast swaths that have been touched by extreme events, sometimes compound extreme events simultaneously happening or happening in direct sequence like the bushfires, then the floods that we had, people can remember that. So that's causing immense damage, I just have to say, if you want a bright spot, one of the things that happens when...

FENELLA KERNEBONE

45:41 I do actually

EMMA JOHNSTON

45:44 You know, one of the things that happens when we get these big rains, especially those that reach well into the centre of Australia, is that they cause breeding pulses of a large number of really important species, including our water birds. So you know, there's reports of something like 40,000, breeding pelicans, as a result of the recent floods. So yeah, so you know, in a natural cycle at a natural frequency, in relation to evolutionary history, these can be really positive parts of the Australian environment and ecosystem, indeed, they can be quite necessary to the survival of some of our species. So it really is about changing the frequency and intensity. And I guess I want to talk about the fact that for Indigenous people in particular, but for everybody, the where we have already built or have communities, these extreme events tend to impact much more heavily. And so a lot of what we need to do going forward is not only the be very climate aware, and much more climate resilient in the way that we support our communities. But we're going to have to move, change, you know, really, really be agile. So there is a whole research area of managed retreat. And that's managed retreat from coastlines, but it's also from rivers, of course, and helping ecosystems to survive, but also helping humans to survive by ensuring that we, we buy people out of places. So this isn't this cannot be an unfair way to transition. Yes, Australia has left things way too late. And we've made things much more expensive as a consequence. But we can't now leave the most vulnerable people in the lurch. So governments are going to have to step up and invest in change in a way that makes all of our systems more resilient.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

47:35 Fantastic. Okay, let's get through some questions. We've got quite a few here on Slido. Thank you so much for sending in your questions. We've got a whole number of I've got a couple that the audience has sent in a bit earlier. So I'll try and weave them in too so if we can try and do our answers as quickly as possible. I know it's a big subject. So you know, we'll see how we go. Okay. Question number one. 11 people have voted this one. So how do we address vested interests, developers, etc. influencing decisions within legal bounds, but in a way that is increasingly unethical as the environment is loss? And degrades lost and degrades? I would say

SARAH HILL

48:12 To me? yeah exactly. Yeah, yeah. And it's slightly topical issue. Look, for me, it's, it's simple to say difficult to do. But we need to have an agreed over overarching view of what we want to achieve in urban areas and a very clear understanding of our ambitions. And they have to be strong ambitions around, you know, around net zero cities, really driving forward, better quality design, improving health and well being and so forth. So we need to have a clear and aligned view on that, then we need the research and the and the reports talk a lot to the research and the data to give that very clear evidence around that and that great, then transparency about how we achieve that. So it sounds like a very high level response. But certainly, you know, systems, and it's very difficult for a developer or anyone with a vested interest to move around something if there isn't a very, if there is, isn't a very clear and transparent approach to doing things. So you know, I always say transparency is our friend in what we do, and and certainly in planning cities, but also having a clear and aligned view of what good is and what our outcome is that we're trying to achieve. So you don't get lost along the way. And I think that bigger picture view of our urban areas, whether they are our big cities or more remote and, you know, smaller settlements is absolutely key. I just stressed the importance of place, though. And that's a very strong theme that comes through and really focusing, you know, like our oceans focusing around these areas, and recognising that it's no one organisation, developer, government's role to address these outcomes. We have to come together and focus around a place, I'm very blessed in my day job to focus around Western Sydney, the enormous challenges it has. But I have a vested interest in making sure we achieve the best outcome for for our newest city, but also for our citizens. And certainly those that, you know, that can't speak, but might be living in these areas and are often forgotten. So it's a really important.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

48:12 Emma?

EMMA JOHNSTON

48:20 Look completely agree. But I do want to stress also, I mean, open access to data about the environment, and real real time availability of data to all citizens, would be very empowering. And it has been where it has been made available. And I think it's going to be increasingly important for us to make just critical decisions about day to day life, do we go out today? Or is it too smoky? There are 400 additional deaths related to the bushfires that were associated with smoke exposure. And, you know, as you as you all recall, not many of us had a little app saying, 'Oh, don't go out today', we will making judgments based on the news radio. So open access to and better access to data. And another bright spot of the report is that we say available data is increasing and fantastic work by our national critical research infrastructures by the Bureau of Meteorology by the National Environmental Science programmes to make that data available. But secondly, is education. And I know that I've got a conflict of interest here then promoting education as part of the University of Sydney. But if we don't have a highly educated, critical thinking society, then information that is not evidence based, it's going to be promulgated really easily. And it won't be interrogated, and people will be making poor decisions. And I think it you know, it's not about just the sources of information that come in, it's about how those bits of information are critically received. And so we need to be really, really supporting independent evidence based education, free for all for as many people as possible across the country.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

52:03 We've got lots of questions. So let's try and do some quick answers.

EMMA JOHNSTON

52:05 That was a bit of a long answer

FENELLA KERNEBONE

52:06 So yeah, some really quick questions. There's one that came in earlier is how can we explain extreme weather events to young children? There's some other ones here about how can we help young people feel that their efforts are making a difference? There was also another question that came through, which is helping young people deal with climate anxiety. Ian maybe just some quick comments to talk to that

IAN CRESSWELL

52:25 Sure, and it's pretty simple. It's about actually not being overwhelmed by being acting locally and feeling comfortable in the environment. So so yes, Australia, can seem like a difficult place to live, but actually, when I'll go back to Indigenous elements, when you're actually at home in the environment, then it's not, it's just home. So so you can get rid of anxiety by better connecting. And so it's a pretty simple message, which is actually: go out, start to understand it. I agree with Emma actually, very much so. The more you understand your environment, your local environment, the more you value it, and therefore the more you care for it, and therefore, the more you'll fight for it. So education or knowledge is really the key. And by starting to understand your local area, and then the wider area, and then you know the region, then then you'll feel more feel more comfortable. I don't think kids need to be afraid, actually, I think kids, we have a beautiful country. It's fantastic. It's, I encourage everybody just to get out there. And it's yes, things are in decline. But they're coming off a high base in many places. We have beautiful river systems. We have beautiful mountains and beautiful parks. It's just it's about getting out there and actually participating in it.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

53:53 There is hope. Sarah, did you see another question in there that you thought was good for you? You got quite a few and we need to bring you back again, I think.

SARAH HILL

54:00 Yeah there's there's much to discuss. I just love the comment in here is, you know, does the environment need managing or or do people and I think that talks a lot to the message we were trying to say in our report is that it's not about, you know, the built environment versus the natural, there is a really important ecosystem here and both influence each other's well being and how we can work together in that way. Because without a wonderfully healthy natural environment, we're not going to have wonderfully healthy people. And that interplay is really, really key. So I love that.

EMMA JOHNSTON

54:34 That there is an interesting point here that I think we will be moving further and further to having to manage ecosystems if we want to have them have the full range of endemic diversity. And I say that in particular, we haven't talked about invasive species. But once you you let a rabid invasive species out. There is virtually no way of having a natural ecosystem unless you are managing the environment by either weeding or culling that invasive species because otherwise you'll just get full dominance. And, you know, our scientists and our ecologists are working on increasingly inventive ways of doing that there's a spectacular chemical that comes from a plant that only cats are susceptible, and all our native mammals are not. And so that's often used in traps. And like that's such a really innovative way of, of doing non destructive reduction of cats. And of course, cats are responsible for a huge number of extinctions across Australia. But the idea that we can just step out of the way and let the ecosystems look after themselves is a 1970s idea. You know, we can't just remove the threats by moving away, there's going to have to be increasing amount of active management.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

55:50 I'm going to really quickly go to the top two questions. And I'll just get each of you to do a comment here. Because I think I think they are really good way to finish. And again, thank you for your questions, watching online. And of course, here in the room as well. So the second question is together maybe a silly question, but from the bottom of my heart, given we know so much, and the message and the data has been so clear, for so long, why is change so damn slow? And our ambition so low? But the other question we've already touched on but I hope to finish on a bit of a positive note is, can we make a difference? What are the actions that we as individuals can do and can take for the benefit of a better future? So I thought that first question was an interesting one. But let's finish with that final one, what can we all do the priorities for a better future, Ian let's start with you, because de-bleak it for us again.

IAN CRESSWELL

56:37 My encouragement is to actually join with with local groups and try and just reach out to other people. So there are amazing organisations in Australia, like Landcare, it's actually had less funding than then it needs, but that it actually needs people. So I just encourage everybody to participate. And I don't think actually, I'm very optimistic. I think Australia has a clever society, where we're actually rich compared to just about every other country, we have the ability to make amazing changes, we have great scientists to come up with new innovations all the time. What we actually need is the population to get behind that. And that that's the bit that's missing, for me is this large bulk of people who perhaps not as well connected to what this beautiful country actually is. And I just encourage us all to find ways to do that.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

57:37 Absolutely. Sarah.

SARAH HILL

57:38 I've got three parts for my answer. For those who know me I think in threes all the time, the first thing I'd say is change is bloody hard. And, and you know, that's why it takes time. But when there is an urgency, and I think we're all seeing this now. And I think we are turning a corner, you know, change does happen. So I'm like you I, I had an Indigenous woman who is working in our office at the moment as part of an intern programme, and she ran plastic free Tuesday, this week. And you know, it was incredible, the response that she got to that. So here is, you know, to many of the points in these questions, one individual that's come into our organisation, you know, after a month of being with us is already driving this message strongly for very well received in our organisation. But I see we're at a turning point here with this next generation coming through saying, we're not going to put up with this anymore. So I think that's really exciting and really encouraging. But then I think there's so many things, and the report talks to this in the urban chapter that we just don't know yet. And really, what are the longer term implications of many of the things that are happening, we're changing the shape of our cities, the nature of our infrastructure, simple things around where energy is located in the country, we're now starting to change our networks from north to south. And, you know, we are in many ways at a turning point that we've got to take this very seriously. But I strongly believe the next generation, my kids aren't going to tolerate this.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

59:06 For sure. Emma, last last word.

EMMA JOHNSTON

59:08 Yeah look, I think, you know, really try and stay on top of what's happening, things are going to change really, really quickly, and the pace of change is going to accelerate. And that means that as a society, we're going to have to change which is which is difficult. But the more of us who understand what those drivers of change are and what the best options are that are being created by the scientists and the sociologists, etc. And pushing for those evidence based changes, then the better off we will be. I do think that if we cared as much about our environment and our ecosystem, as we do about our own human health, we wouldn't be in the situation that we're in. So I think there's a little bit of an element of not only removing that divide between environment and and people, which is what we've tried to do in this report with the strong help of our Indigenous co-authors. But there's also just stop being so self obsessed because it won't help in the long run. You know, if we don't make that connection, then we really will be on a very poor trajectory for a long time to come.

IAN CRESSWELL

1:00:15 You're sounding negative again.

EMMA JOHNSTON

1:00:18 Well, the psychology of it that we used to be told don't be negative, don't be alarmist because the psychologists of science were saying that just puts people off. Now psychologists of science is another whole group of them that are saying actually it's really effective.

FENELLA KERNEBONE

1:00:37 Well, I've learned a lot and it's been delightful finding out thank you for everybody watching online as well. I really appreciate your questions. Ladies and gentlemen, would you please thank Emma Johnston, Sarah Hill, Ian Cresswell and Terri Janke. 

The speakers

Professor Johnston is a highly awarded and world-leading authority in marine science and conservation and a former Dean of Science and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research). Professor Johnston’s current research focuses on global change, including marine debris, biological invasions, extreme events, and Antarctica's environmental future. As the past President of Science & Technology Australia (STA), an elected position, she is a highly influential figure in the Australian higher education and research sector.

Professor Johnston has led major research projects for industry, government, the Australian Research Council, and the Australian Antarctic Science Program and contributed to the development of international and national research strategies, priorities, and plans. She is a sustainability and diversity champion and a Chief Author of the Australian State of Environment Report 2021. She is also a trusted advisor working across a range of government and industry bodies.

Professor Johnston is an elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and the Royal Society of New South Wales (RSNSW) and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours for ‘distinguished service to higher education, particularly to marine ecology and ecotoxicology, as an academic, researcher and administrator, and to scientific institutes.’

 

Dr Janke is a Wuthathi/Meriam woman and an international authority on Indigenous cultural and intellectual property known for innovating pathways between Indigenous people in business and the non‑Indigenous business sector.

Dr Cresswell is the chair of the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute and has led several major environmental research programs in Australia developing fundamental tools for ecosystem management.

 

Dr Hill's work at the WPCA builds on the vision she co-created as the inaugural CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission. Under Sarah’s leadership, the Commission developed new ways of engaging with citizens, measuring and monitoring key planning outcomes and aligning growth with infrastructure, including introducing Australia’s first Place-Based Infrastructure Compact.

As Commission CEO and as Deputy Secretary in both NSW Treasury and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Sarah fostered a strong culture of collaboration that she has continued at the WPCA. Sarah also brings with her a wealth of technical expertise, drawing from her experience in senior planning roles in NSW and London, and in leadership roles at Hill PDA Property Consulting.

Sarah is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology Sydney’s Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building and continues to be a thought leader with a particular focus on the economics of cities and the feasibility of development. She is also Fellow and a past-President of the Planning Institute of Australia (NSW Division).

Sarah has received numerous professional awards locally and internationally, including the 2012 UDIA Women in Development Award, 2015 NSW and 2016 PIA Australian Planner of the Year.

Fenella joined the University of Sydney in 2021 as Head of Programming for Sydney Ideas. Prior to this appointment she was Head of Curation for TEDxSydney (2017 – 2021) where she led the programming for multiple events including one of the largest annual TEDx events in the world.

With a background as a presenter and producer for television, radio and podcasts, programs she has hosted include Art Nation & Sunday Arts on ABC TV; The Movie Show on SBS TV; By Design on Radio National; and her long running cult electronic music show, The Sound Lab on Triple J. Her most recent podcast, Art Life and the Other Thing was released in 2021 with the Art Gallery of NSW. Prior to this, she hosted two seasons of the Australian Film & Television School podcast, Lumina. As an MC, interviewer, speaker and ideas curator, Fenella has worked on countless events across the country and internationally.

She is on the Board of the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and joined the board of Performance Space in 2022. Her artwork, Here Lies Your Story, has been commissioned by the City of Sydney for Art & About and will be installed in March 2022.

You might also like