Australia recently gained an unenviable title: perhaps the first country to lose a mammal species to climate change. The Bramble Cay Melomys, a native rodent found on one tiny sand island in the remote northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef, reportedly became extinct after rising seas destroyed its habitat.
The melomys' likely extinction is a symptom of the massive changes taking place across the natural world. Faced with these changes, we cannot possibly save every species without increasing funding for conservation.
We should be trying to conserve everything we can, or at least minimising the number of plants, animals and ecosystems that are lost. The problem is that Australia’s conservation laws presume that we can preserve everything in its natural state. But in a changing world, we’ll have to be more flexible than that.
The new nature
Our conservation laws were drafted on the assumption that, if human intervention could be avoided or managed, plants and animals would survive in their natural, pristine environments.
We now know that that is not the case. Nature is dynamic. Humans have had a pervasive influence on the environment and recent research suggests that pristine environments no longer exist.
Climate change will rapidly accelerate environmental change. Shifting temperature and rainfall will shift the specific conditions that species depend on to survive. Everything will be on the move.
On top of these gradual climate shifts, more frequent and intense bushfires, storms and heatwaves will destroy some habitats and increase the threatened status of many species. In some cases, these extreme events may result in localised extinctions.
Climate change is creating new problems for biodiversity (such as new invasive species) and is making existing problems worse (such as by changing fire patterns).
What does conservation mean if we can’t save everything?
Far from making conservation law irrelevant, these challenges mean that conservation policy and laws are more important than ever.
Expanding land and marine reserves, restoring and connecting habitat with other areas, and reducing other threats such land clearing or feral animals are all important climate adaptation strategies.
But many Australian plants and animals will not be able to move fast enough to escape extreme events or to keep pace with their specific climate niches on their own. To conserve these species, we may need to engage in high‑intervention conservation strategies, such as assisted colonisation.
This involves moving an individual, population or species to a place where it has never been found before. This tactic is being investigated for the endangered Western Swamp Tortoise in Western Australia, as its wetland habitat begins to dry out.
Conservation laws in Australia were not designed to accommodate these kinds of dynamic and proactive approaches to conservation management.
Legal road blocks
Current conservation laws promote keeping or returning the environment to what it used to be, whether that is pristine or not.
In a recent paper, we looked at three ways laws may impede conservation in a changing world.
First, current laws emphasise maintaining the current status and location of ecosystems and their constituent parts, or returning them to an “undisturbed” state.
Second, they place high value on biodiversity that is rare, native and wild.
Finally, they emphasise reserves (especially on public land) as the sites for most conservation effort.
For example, national park laws typically require agencies to conserve national parks in their natural state. This is usually defined by the plants and animals that are already there or that have been found there in the past.
But some species might need to be moved into national parks, even if they have never been found there before, or out of national parks to somewhere more climatically suitable. Current laws do not let us do this.
Rather than an outdated idea of what is “natural”, we need new objectives that focus on diversity and ecosystem function and health. If introducing a plant or animal into a national park will increase its chance of surviving under climate change and will not undermine the health of the park’s ecosystems, the introduction should not be excluded just because the species is not “native” to that specific park. This approach would help species adapt through movement across boundaries.
Letting species go
Another example of a potential legal roadblock is the emphasis on individual threatened species in both legal protection and funding. For instance, the Coalition government has pledged AU$5 million for specific actions to protect some of the most endangered of Australia’s listed threatened species.
But this is an example of assuming that we can save everything. The contracting ranges and already precarious status of many listed species make it unlikely that we will be able to conserve them all, and impossible to do so in their historic locations.
Choices based on what species we fund are rarely transparent and the public is rarely consulted about what we value the most. We need to have a conversation about how we value species and ecosystems in a changing world. If more people realised that we cannot save everything, perhaps more people would demand that appropriate funding is allocated to saving as much as possible.
While funding remains limited, we need objectives that reflect the certainty of some loss of species in the wild and that clearly define the criteria we are using for targeting some species for protection while letting others go.
Our conservation laws direct how we will act to save species and ecosystems under climate change, and whether we will succeed. But climate change makes our current objectives unachievable.
We must not give up on conserving as much as we can as the climate changes. Laws can be used to help us achieve this goal. But we urgently need a national conversation about what reform is needed to ensure the best possible conservation results for Australia’s precious wildlife, plants and ecosystems.
Authors: Phillipa McCormack, PhD candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania