Environmental crisis continues while COVID steals headlines

Amidst a global pandemic, organisations and programs such as The Wilderness Society SA, Outback Clean-ups Australia and the Adopt A Spot Scheme have being continuing to fight for the planet. (Image source: Boe Langford)

By Jenna Rawlings | @JennaRawlings

The start of 2020 saw bushfires ravage Australia and hit home the effects of climate change as our backyards burned.

Since then, climate and sustainability conversations and media coverage have dwindled due to the pressing issue of COVID-19. But, there is still plenty happening in the fight for our planet. In fact, many environmental activists and organisations are doubling down on their efforts throughout this global pandemic.

The Wilderness Society SA is an environmental group dedicated to protecting Australia’s land and sea, and areas under direct threat from proposals to expand the fossil fuel industry.

On The Record spoke to Wilderness Society SA director, Peter Owen, about what’s been going on in environmental news underneath the COVID cloud.

“Obviously, a huge focus of the world’s media focus has justifiably been on the COVID-19 situation, and in some ways, some of the discussion around the climate crisis has decreased in the mainstream media,” Mr Owen said.

He said Australia’s response to COVID-19 has overall been positive compared to some other countries, but in terms of climate, Australia is one of the world’s worst performers.

“In some ways, the two responses are diametrically opposed,” Mr Owen said.

Whilst June saw a drop in carbon emissions as countries tip-toed towards “normal”, the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for a “green recovery”: measures that help boost the economy and cut down CO2 emissions.

The world has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to pour investment into clean energy and create millions of new jobs, according to the IEA.

But longer-term recovery remains in the hands of policy-makers that will shape how countries move forward in climate change efforts after COVID-19.

Proposals such as the single-use plastic ban in South Australia and Queensland prove that efforts toward a sustainable future still persist.

“The amount of plastic piling up everywhere is a phenomenal issue,” Mr Owen said.

“Anything that helps reduce the amount of plastic pollution is going to have a positive impact on the environment.

“This is not something that can be delayed another 10 years…in some ways, it’s already been delayed decades and decades.

“It’s literally a couple of minutes to midnight as we speak in terms of the global clock.”

Mr Owen encouraged the government to continue to push on with the plastic ban and renewable energy, rather than continuing to mine fossil fuels.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the economics of renewable energy stacks up very favourably and in fact, the more the government tries to pour the public’s money into propping up fossil fuel proposals to try and make them competitive with renewables, the more we invest our countries resources in what is inevitably going to be stranded assets in the future,” he said.

“No matter how you look at it, [fossil fuels are] a bad choice.”

As one of the largest exporters of coal and gas, Mr Owen said Australia is a rogue country in its contribution to global climate change and that cutting down on fossil fuel consumption is absolutely critical at this point.

An article from Carbon Brief in February said the next 10 years are crucial for tackling climate change, with widespread recognition that CO2 emissions must fall 45 per cent by 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5C.

In an effort to raise global ambition, UN secretary-general António Guterres called for the 2020s to be a “decade of action”, and Mr Owen shares a similar call.

“Major change is possible,” Mr Owen said.

“We’ve had some pretty significant changes to the way the community is able to behave, things we’re able to do, things we can’t, and people on the whole have pulled in behind those recommendations by the scientists and said ‘if that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ll do it’.”

The ability of Australians to dig deep and support each other when the going gets tough was epitomised by during last summer’s bushfires, with campaigns like #BookThemOut and #LoveNSW supporting businesses and towns in jeopardy, but Mr Owen urged Australians to push on.

“There’s still a whole lot that we’re going to be experiencing for a long time in terms of the damage that’s already locked in to the climate systems globally…We can live in hope and wish that we don’t see fires like we saw last year, but chances are we may well, and one of the things that we need to do is start to act,” he said.

“We need to be using this opportunity as one to reset a lot of the ways we think across the planet; reset the trajectory we’re on around climate change.”

Many scientists say climate change has human hands all over it, and while everyday people may not be the overall cause, even they have been able to notice this may be true: evident in Twitter’s ‘We Are The Virus’ hashtag.

The Twitter phenomenon first started with people documenting animals returning to areas abandoned by humans due to COVID-19 isolation. The hashtag documented humanity’s failing relationship with nature.

Mr Owen agreed with the statement, to an extent. He said all of the “big waves”, whether they be bushfires or viruses, have one thing in common: they are symptoms of an unsustainable relationship with the rest of life.

“Humans do not have a sustainable relationship with the rest of life on this planet and we need to change that… Human behaviour is driving many of the other plants and animals to extinction.

“What’s been evident with the response to COVID-19 is that people are up to the challenges.”

Boe Langford is one such Aussie who has stepped up to the environmental challenge. For the past two years through Outback Clean-ups Australia (OCA), Mr Langford has travelled around Australia, removing rubbish and beautifying beaches and bushland.

Mr Langford said OCA has been affected quite a lot with COVID-19 restrictions as the organisation runs by road tripping around the Australian outback and cleaning areas he travels through.

However, due to COVID-19, some of those areas are closed to the public – restricting Mr Langford and OCA from rubbish removal there.

“I had a full YouTube program lined up called The Kimberly Clean Up series and that was going to be five 20 minute episodes of the Kimberly clean up and we haven’t been able to do that because of border restrictions,” he said.

“I made the choice to go back to Adelaide to stay with my family so that at least I was with them if anything happened and not thousands of kilometres away.

“We had some vehicle trouble so I ended up being stuck there for four months.”

Mr Langford said OCA uses vehicle sponsors from Victoria, one of Australia’s worst COVID-19 affected states, so it was a struggle to do vehicle repairs.

“I had no mirrors on the car for six weeks because they couldn’t get them out of Victoria.”

However, Mr Langford said COVID-19 hasn’t been all negative.

“[COVID-19 has] been a bit of a bummer… but at the same time it’s brought [partner] Kimberly and I together – she was overseas travelling and she had to come home – so, pros and cons.”

Together, Mr Langford and Kimberly make up two thirds of OCA’s crew and so far have removed 53,000 kilograms of rubbish around Australia.

“If we all do our part, it’s not a big job,” he said.

Mr Owen said we as Australians “have to make some phenomenal changes in the immediate future” to have any chance of avoiding a major ecological crisis.

“But the one wake-up call that a lot of these things have, it has allowed people to reconnect with their immediate surroundings and their immediate community and get to know their neighbours and start thinking locally.

“Because that is, I think, a critical component of the solution moving forward.”

Mr Owen’s comment about ‘thinking locally’ could not be better put into practice than the environmental organisation, Adopt A Spot Scheme (AASS).

Volunteers beautify our coastal areas with the Adopt a Spot Scheme. (By AASS.)

Unlike Mr Langford and OCA, Chris Lemar – the co-founder of AASS – said the organisation was almost unaffected by COVID-19.

Mr Lemar said the ‘adopters’ – volunteers for AASS – continued to clean their adopted spots in South Australia throughout COVID-19, as unlike other larger scale environmental groups, the focus is not on large gatherings of volunteers.

“One individual adopter will take care of a spot themselves when they’re ready to… this is their thing that they love to do so they just kept going and it sort of kept the group going,” Mr Lemar said.

“At least one or two people from the AASS have gone out and done a clean every day since May 2, 2019.

“We’re still on an unbroken record of 521 consecutive days of cleaning without a break.”

AASS – formerly Adopt A Surf Break – began in 2017 in the southern Adelaide suburb of Onkaparinga , and has since spread as far south as Goolwa Beach on the Fleurieu Peninsula to as far west as Black Point on the Yorke Peninsula.

“We have a linear community all the way along the coastline, all doing the same thing…it’s a separate community from all the other communities, like there’s no borders or crossovers…” Mr Lemar said.

“The idea is you get to know your spot: you know which weather conditions wash up the most rubbish, so you wait for the storm to finish, go down at low tide and pick up as much rubbish as you can before the high tide picks it up and washes it out again.”

AASS does more than just collect rubbish – the environmental group has partnered with several schools and surf life saving clubs in South Australia to educate and train younger generations on sustainable alternatives.

“We were never just going to be about collecting rubbish because unless you stop the flow, you’re never going to finish,” Mr Lemar said.

“That’s why it’s important that [co-founder] Carly Lynch has gone ahead and is trying to reduce the amount of litter that’s entering the system through education and showing alternatives.

“It’s great having kids picking up rubbish from the beach because they start picking up stuff they recognise… they think better of littering now.”

To find out more about The Wilderness Society SA visit the website, for information on the Adopt A Spot Scheme visit the AASS Facebook page and for Outback Clean-ups Australia, see the OCA Facebook page.

Originally published in The Junction.

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