by Professor Michael Clarke
As an ecologist who has had the privilege of studying Australia’s unique fauna for 38 years, it has been deeply disturbing to witness the carnage wrought by this season’s bushfires on our people, land and wildlife. Adding insult to injury, scientists are now being criticised by Tony Abbott for getting “religious” by arguing that there are, in fact, links between global emissions, record-breaking drought in parts of the continent, megafires and climate change. Then, never one to be outdone, Donald Trump in Davos chastised scientists for being “perennial prophets of doom” — who should, instead, put their faith in technology to solve the big problems.
The broad consensus among climate scientists tells me that we humans have poured out so many pollutants into the atmosphere that we are now on the verge of altering the planet’s climate irreversibly. This climate crisis is leading to the potential extinction of hundreds of species and the suffering of millions of people. So, for a former Prime Minister, who professes a faith, to dismiss the science because it has “almost a religious aspect to it” disturbs me both as a scientist and as a Christian.
The most recent estimates by ecologists indicate that 70 nationally threatened species have had at least 50 percent of their habitat burnt by the current megafires — including the Long-footed Potoroo, the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, and the Kangaroo Island Glossy Black Cockatoo. In Victoria alone, 12 species of frogs, 27 fish or freshwater crayfish, 11 birds, 22 mammals and 12 reptiles are of immediate conservation concern. One hundred and sixty-eight species of plants in Victoria have had at least 50 percent of their habitat burnt.
But these species have not suddenly become threatened just because of the current fires. We are seeing the cumulative effect of slow, steady, incremental habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation. This is death by a thousand cuts, with the megafires delivering the final lethal blow to species already on their knees.
The current bushfires may be unprecedented, but no one should be claiming they were unexpected. Climate and fire scientists have been warning us for years that the catastrophes we are now enduring would become more frequent due to climate change. So irrespective of whether or not an American president means to demean these scientists by calling them “prophets of doom” — they were right, which is a pretty fair test of a prophet in my book.
As a scientist, I find it ironic that some leaders reject the warnings of vast numbers of scientists about the dangers of inaction on climate change, while at the same time admonishing us to put our faith in technological fixes (developed by other scientists). The latter is naïvely optimistic; the former is simply irresponsible.
Frustratingly, it is also a distraction from the main challenge we face — which is moral, rather than scientific.
I genuinely hope scientists will contribute massively to helping the world address the climate crisis, but if history teaches us anything, it is that science and technology are not deployed in a moral vacuum. Everyday, we all make choices about the kinds of technologies we do or don’t employ, and those choices have consequences for the planet. Scientists can inform us about the likely consequences of that deployment, but what we do with that information comes down to our values and the values of those who lead us.
As a Christian, I deeply regret that many of us who claim to be followers of Christ have not taken seriously enough our responsibility to care for this precious planet, its people or its wildlife. There are at least three core principles of my faith that I can’t reconcile with any complacency towards the threats posed by climate change.
First, depriving future generations of the beauty and privileges we have enjoyed violates a basic commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” My generation’s negligence amounts to theft from future generations. Such flagrant disregard for the needs of our children and grandchildren simply can’t be concealed behind some misplaced optimism that God will bail us out at the end of the Age.
Second, a core tenet of my faith (and others) is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It may be true that Australia acting alone to reduce emissions would not have prevented the current — or future — bushfires. However, as one of the world’s most affluent nations, we have an opportunity and an obligation to lead and set an example for others (“From those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded”). If we can’t take serious action on climate change, who can? Our nation’s creative accounting practices in claiming historical carbon credits, coupled with excuses that our emissions are comparatively trivial by global standards and invoking the “drug dealers defence” to justify our coal exports (“If we don’t sell coal to China, somebody else will”), is to me, morally bankrupt — especially while also accepting extraordinarily generous donations from the governments and citizens of developing nations like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea to aid our bushfire recovery.
Aid agencies such as Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children, who support the most vulnerable people on the planet, recognise that inadequate action on climate change is also a justice issue here and now — not just an economic inconvenience or technological challenge. These agencies deal daily with the suffering of environmental refugees, whose homelands can no longer support them, and they are calling on governments to be bolder in reducing emissions.
Third, and finally, I think we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the extraordinary gift the Creator has entrusted to us. Our nation’s behaviour often reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance. My hope is that, like the prodigal, we will come to our senses and acknowledge our reckless ingratitude and the trashing of our precious inheritance. I hope we will seek the Creator’s forgiveness for our callous disregard for the suffering of those with whom we share the planet, and be part of the solution.
Originally posted 3rd February 2020:
Michael Clarke is Professor of Zoology at the Research Centre for Future Landscapes, in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University. In 2007, Professor Clarke was awarded the D.L. Serventy Medal by the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union for his outstanding contribution to the scientific literature in ornithology. In 2010, he was an expert witness in fire ecology at the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. In 2014 his research on fire ecology with Professor Andrew Bennett was one of three finalists for a Eureka Prize in Environmental Research. He served as the Head of the School of Life Sciences at LaTrobe University from 2011-2019. He is a fellow of ISCAST — Christians in Science and Technology.