Climate change is driving extinction

March 30, 2022
Melomys Rubicola once inhabited the Torres Strait and is now extinct due to climate change. Photo: DeJong/FLICKR/CC2.0

Climate change threatens the life and habitability of our planet and, right now, the eastern part of Australia is witnessing this first-hand.

The University of Queensland published a study in June 2016, documenting the first mammal extinction directly due to climate change. Melomys Rubicola, a rodent, inhabited a small island in the Torres Strait, off the north-east coast of Australia.

Unusually strong storm surges affected the island between 2004 and 2014, to such an extent that the small mammal has now become extinct. It is probably the first recorded mammal extinction caused by climate change.

A group of Torres Strait communities took the federal government to court last year over its lack of action in mitigating the effects of climate change. They are demanding that it cut carbon dioxide emissions by 74% by 2030 from 2005 levels to prevent the land they have lived on and cared for over 65,000 years from being flooded, the soils ruined by saltwater and becoming uninhabitable.

These may seem like two isolated events, but they are connected by anthropogenic climate change that is beginning to have a dramatic impact on human and ecological communities. In time, it will affect everyone and have consequences we are unable to accurately predict.

Australia’s east coast, from Brisbane to Sydney, is suffering an unprecedented wave of flooding which has claimed lives, left thousands homeless and devastated communities that may well have to relocate.

Extreme weather events are not random: they are becoming a regular occurrence. Sydney has had its wettest summer since 1991–92, with 665 millimetres of rainfall. Ocean temperatures around Sydney reached an all-time record of 26.9° Celsius on February 3.

Perth recorded the hottest January on record and the small town of Onslow in Pilbara recorded Australia’s maximum temperature on record — 50.7°C. Western Australia experienced a virulent heat wave this summer with more than 60,000 hectares burnt and WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services saying that never before have four level three fires been burning at the same time.

Extreme weather events are impacting both the land and oceans’ ability to support life. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather events will increase as long as global temperatures continue to rise.

Currently, we are experiencing an average rise of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, with nations signing the Paris Agreement agreeing to a compromise of insufficient measures to not exceed 1.5°C rise by 2100.

Leading meteorologist James Hansen said the 1.5°C barrier could be exceeded this decade unless mitigation measures are not taken. The planet may undergo a rise of more than 2°C by 2100.

Scientists have been predicting this for years. Australians are suffering as a result of climate change, but governments are in denial.

The Guardian recently warned the federal government was pressuring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to modify its statement that “The Great Barrier Reef is in crisis” to “The Great Barrier Reef is not in crisis yet”.

These MPs are trying to change the conclusions of scientists who, after decades of study and research, are warning that rising ocean temperatures are putting marine ecosystems and the survival of coral reefs at risk.

It is the politics of “techno-optimism” versus science.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is experienced in its efforts to undermine the IPCC’s conclusions. As recently as last October, energy minister Angus Taylor questioned whether there was a need to close coal mines, stating that scientifically unproven “carbon capture and storage” technology could be used in the short term until cleaner energy generation technology is more viable.

Following this, Australia refused to sign the agreement to reduce methane emissions at the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), joining China, Russia and India. Methane is one of the most harmful greenhouse gases.

The government does not intend to walk away from the powerful coal industry. As Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia Keith Pitt said: “Australia will keep selling coal for as long as the world keeps buying it."

Even though the government says it is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, approvals have this year gone to new coal and gas mines and to expand existing ones.

The effects of climate change with a temperature rise of just 1.1°C are proving devastating. Floods, heat waves and droughts have, and will, become more pronounced and will determine the habitability of more and more areas.

Right now, residents in Lismore are confronting the fact that they may become climate change refugees.

Governments have an obligation to accept the science of the unfolding climate emergency and adapt with scientifically-sound responses. Helping communities to become resilient requires institutional support and prioritising the health and wellbeing of citizens over the profits of fossil fuel companies.

The politics of climate denial and inaction is a crime against the ecosystems that sustain life and those who live in them.

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