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Toppling statues won’t be enough to save us from the next Great Dying

Scientists are still arguing about what triggered the Great Dying. But what’s agreed is that a dramatic increase in CO2, possibly volcanic, caused planetary warming that produced the biggest extinction ever; some 90 per cent of marine species and two-thirds of those on land. Most animals, most insects, most forests. Kaput.

So far, our 1.1 degrees increase on pre-industrial times is a fraction of that Permian warming. But NASA puts us on track for an average temperature rise of 6 degrees, and vastly more rapid than that million-year shift. Already there are alarming parallels – warming and acidifying seas, acid rain, uncharacteristic migrations, mass extinctions. Indeed, the International Energy Agency gives us six months to avert climate crisis.

When even an august scientific body calls for an end to capitalism – when, in its careful language, the Bonn-based Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recommends “steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth” to prioritise wellbeing and sustainability over profit – you know things aren’t just bad. They’re urgent.

That was a year ago. Now the language is more vivid. “Nature’s ability to sustain life as we know it …is declining at an alarming rate,” said IPBES executive secretary Dr Anne Larigauderie this month. “Species are going extinct … tens to hundreds of times faster than the average historical rate over the last 10 million years … this jeopardises our ability to meet basic human needs such as food and water.”

Yet everywhere you look, Australia behaves like the greedy schoolkid of climate class, wanting only to evade scrutiny, grab the cake and stuff it in gob.

Scott Morrison’s refusal to renew the clean energy targets, NSW’s support of fracking the Pilliga and renewal of its massive commitment to coal export blatantly undermine the Paris agreement. Gladys Berejiklian’s proud insistence that $333 million a kilometre for NorthConnex tunnel is good value because it cuts 15 minutes off the central-coast commute, is similarly counterproductive. Making driving easier simply prioritises efficiency over survival.

Smoke from the Australian bushfires soared into the Earth's atmosphere.

Smoke from the Australian bushfires soared into the Earth’s atmosphere.Credit:Stuff NZ

It’s as though that climate-exacerbated smoke plume, giving record carbon monoxide levels on Australia Day and rising to record heights, were some global smoke signal of our callow disregard.

Consider the Blue Warehou, a pretty leaf-shaped fish that the 2014 Threatened Species Scientific Committee found qualified as “critically endangered”, being at least 80 per cent depleted. Even the Fisheries Management Authority calls it overfished. But it’s not listed that way. Officially, it’s “conservation dependent” – a loophole category that allows it to be fished and sold.

No surprise, then, that blue warehou populations failed to replenish in the given time. But instead of tightening the controls, back in 2014, the government simply stretched the time frame from six to 16 years. That’s like moving Paris targets back a couple of decades because you can’t meet them.

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We don’t have to think like this. It’s possible, writes indigenous American Robin Wall Kimmerer, to choose your relationship with land. Possible to relate to land “like a native”.

Going native, in this sense, implies more than just not harassing Indigenous kids on the streets. It implies listening, learning, genuine respect; taking only what you need, never allowing greed to endanger life, recognising your land-relationship as a truer moral compass than all your thoughts-and-prayers together. It implies extrapolating the ancient spirit of mosaic fire-farming and wildlife management into the future. Bringing our black saints, like Mum Shirl, out into the sun we can all revere them. Going native is a language we need. ASAP.

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