John:Fighting for the Environment

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Fighting for the Environment

A speech by John Sinclair For Brisbane’s Mountains to Mangroves Festival 27th June 2007

From the Rhodadendrons of the Himalayas to the Nipa Palm forests of New Guinea; From the Outback and arid Uluru to North Queensland’s tropical rainforests; From the cloud forest summits of Lord Howe Island to the wetlands of Kakadu; From the sandblows of Fraser Island and — from the mountains to the mangroves — The environment is in desperate trouble.

In the last year I have been fortunate to have visited each of these environments and more. It is from that experience I would like to give you some insights into why the environment is so universally in such dire trouble.

The trouble is so serious that none of us can delegate the responsibility of fighting for the environment to others especially fickle politicians. We all have to actively begin addressing the issues ourselves.

In some cases it is in trouble because of invading species, ferals, weeds and an over-population of humans.

In some cases it is in trouble because of poor management, bad planning decisions, because of over-exploitation or over-use, or of new injurious agents killing out species.

But in every case there is one overlying contributor to which is severely exacerbating the global environmental woes — That is the insidious, invisible climate change. Climate change is heavily impacting of almost every facet of the global environment whilst it rapidly transforming it.

In January I revisited part of the Himalayas in northern Thailand which I had first explored in seven years earlier. Two aspects startled me.

The first was that the lichens and mosses which once dripped so prodigiously from the forest at the summit of Doi Inthanon , like the cloud forests of Mt Gower on Lord Howe Island and cloud forests globally were withering up. As a result of climate change tall mountains are shrouded much less frequently iin clouds. This is definitely noticeable in Lord Howe Island which is dominated by two dramatic mountains rising sheer from the sea. I always viisiit Lord Howe Island in the first week of May to gain some sort of coommparable snapshot that I can compare year after year. In 1988 I found it hard to photograph Gower and Lidgbird because they were in cloud for most of the nne days I spent there then. Now it is rare to see them on cloud. There is still cloud often above them but it doesn’t descend as low as it once regularly did.

The other thing I must note about the Thai Himalayas is that in 2000 the air there was so crystal clear that I saw a green flash as the sun set. For the last three years the sky over these grand mountains had been perpetually grey. The crisp clear sunsets and sun-rises are now dull red due to the industrial smog migrating south from Chine. I can only speculate about the impact of this and whether it will result in acid rain and whether it might over time change the pH of the soil.

Climate change is much more than just global warming. Warming sounds warm and fuzzy. The reality is that while mean temperatures rise the variations around that mean are getting ever greater. We are seeing heat waves followed rapidly by ice storms and record cold temperatures and unseasonal frost. The reality is that we are witness massive climate destabilization. It is hard enough on humans but what is iit doing to animals.

In May this year I was astonished to note that there were almost no Providence Petrels around the mountains when I arrived. Likewise there were few Red-tailed Tropic-birds. Because in recent years the sea temperatures around Lord Howe Island have risen by 1o C some are starting to worry about the impact of this on the food sources for these migratory seabirds. However after six days their numbers had built up to close to those I remembered from the past. They had arrived at least a week later than they have arrived in the past. The issue is though what will be the impact on those populations if the birds continue to arrive later every year and have a shorter nesting period?

Will the birds arrive late and also leave early lessening the chances of their chicks’ survival? This may also be said of the trans-equatorial waders which spend the Australian summer down under but fly off to Siberia to breed. On Fraser Island in late April many birds which should have already been in the Northern Hemisphere were lingering around the Fraser Island beaches soaking up our warmth. What will be the impact on their chicks?

Then on 8th June I noted the ornamental trees in Brisbane had just started to move into their Autumn tone. This is probably a month later than we should have expected. This seems to indicate that climate change will make it impossible for ornamental deciduous trees to survive in all but a few parts of Queensland in the future.

Weall know that many exotic trees are such as apples and stone fruits are out of their range in our sub-tropical Queensland.

What we now have to start thinking about is that many native trees which reach the northern limits of their range in South East Queensland will also start to drop out of the ecosystem within a generation. Such familiar trees as blackbutt, Sydney blue gums, scribbly gums and tallowwoods are all likely to be displaced in South East Queensland as a result of climate change. Our grandchildren will be growing up in a very un-natural “natural environment”.

I began fighting for the environment over four decades ago. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Judith Wright. At first I was concerned about “green” issues. I thought that saving habitat only involved protecting areas in National Parks and reserves and I initially found it difficult to get enthusiastic about Judith’s campaign against the Concorde supersonic aircraft as she railed about the destructive impact that it and other supersonic aircraft would have on the ozone layer. Most people found it difficult to relate to this and assumed that the impact was so marginal compared with the impact of land-clearing, logging, sandmining and pollution issues.

Forty years ago few could have seen what a visionary Judith Wright was in identifying that changes to our upper atmosphere will be the most serious issue now confronting not only humanity but indeed all life on earth. Back in 1967 she had already identified climate change as the most serious environmental issue.

I spent years fighting sandminers and politicians to stop sandmining on Fraser Island. Ultimately the campaign was successful.

But it now seems that if the sea levels rise as much as predicted by the climatologists as a result of climate change, then Fraser Island will shrink by a much greater area than would have been impacted by mining operations.

I spent another fifteen years fighting to stop the destructive logging on Fraser Island. Now I realize that the species the loggers were taking could all disappear from Fraser Island as a result of climate change within a century.

Until I began to assess the impacts of climate change on my beloved island I hadn’t anticipated such a transformation of its forests that could result from global warming.

Geomorphic Impacts

Wind Shifts

As we know climate change is much more than global warming. The climate is being destabilized. For example, already the number of days that the winds on Fraser Island blow from the north instead of from the south has increased very significantly.

Creek Mouths

While more northerleys brings more “weed” into the beaches and affects fishing it is also changing the course of creek mouths. As a result Eli Creek’s mouth now southwards instead of northwards as it had been through all recorded history. Other creek mouths have also swung to the south.


But the biggest impact of the wind shifts has been on the sandblows. The sandblows have long been the most dramatic and the most dynamic features of the Fraser Island landscape. These are mobile patches of bare sand which have been swept kilometres across the landscape over the past 10,000 years by the prevailing south-easterly winds.

I have compared sandblows to glaciers in the impacts they are having in shaping the landforms and on the pace of their advance. Although the speed of their advance (measured in centimetres each year) is similar the forces are different. Glaciers are rivers of ice moving slowly downhill under forces of gravity. Sandblows are sheets of bare sand with the surface being continually swept uphill by surface wind erosion.

The sandblows are places where the eroding wind and the advancing vegetation managed to achieve a sort of stalemate. The sandblows slowly advanced inland re-sculpturing the landscape but the vegetation just managed to keep pace without ever being able to overtake it.

However now there are more countervailing winds from the north and the west there is much less sweeping and erosion from the south-east an he result is that the vegetation has at last had a chance to overtake the rate of the sandblow advance. At the current rate of infilling by the vegetation I doubt if there will be any of the large sandblows left on Fraser Island within another hundred years.

One of the major features justifying Fraser Island’s World Heritage listing will have been obliterated by climate change. But there are still many more aspects of climate change that are already impacting on Fraser Island.

Fauna Impacts

The sea around Fraser Island like the sea everywhere is getting warmer. That is allowing some marine life which is very sensitive to water temperatures to extend their range. Earlier this year Fraser Island made headlines when a marine biologist found deadly irukanji stingers in waters off Moon Point that were about to become part of a film set. But it is not only Irukandji that’s migrating in response to climate change. More turtles are now nesting on Fraser Island but more crocodiles are also venturing there more often.

Fraser Island is the northern limit for so many species including ground parrots and musk ducks. These are likely to disappear from Fraser Island and possibly from the planet as a result:

  • of more people demanding more consumer goods;
  • of more people wanting air-conditioning;
  • of more people wanting more wealth and then still more;
  • of more people.


As a result of the projected increases in temperatures resulting from climate change cane toads will be able to spread right across the Australian mainland if it ever becomes wet enough again. We know the extinctions these poisonous amphibians have caused as they have invaded the Northern Territory. What we are just realizing is that they had probably even more dramatic consequences here in Queensland before people started to realize that they were responsible for wiping out or many of our mammals, reptiles and birds before we had even properly recorded them. Now they may go on to have a similar impact in Victoria and Western Australia.

But we must anticipate much more than just the spread of cane toads as a result of climate change. The chances of keeping malaria bearing mosquitoes out of Australia are rapidly diminishing as temperatures and winds continue to rise

More Severe Events


Climate change is already helping to create more catastrophic cyclones. The most powerful winds in the world ever recorded were in the Northern Territory’s Wessel Islands last April when Cyclone Monica swept briefly reached Category 6 Status. This was something scientists hadn’t considered possible. Luckily there was no human present on the islands when the cyclone struck. However even with a lessened level of violence and much weakened it went on to lay flat an horrific proportion of Kakadu’s trees.

As well as more violent weather we must expect more droughts, a higher level of evaporation and a lower average rainfall as well as more frequent fire storms.

Some of the consequences of climate change are already here but unless everyone fights more actively to save our environment it is going to get much worse.

Economics versus the environment

We have grown up in a world dominated by economics. Most of us aspired to leave our children better off in financial and material terms than we were. By and large we have succeeded. But in the process we have wrecked the environment and our children and generations to come are going to inherit an Earth in much worse shape than we found it. It is even possible that unless everyone starts more actively fighting for the environment large parts of the world will be uninhabitable. For future generations they won’t be just fighting for the environment, they will be fighting for those parts of the world that remain habitable and for the resources to sustain their lives.

Some Remedies:

Let me suggest what we have to do if we want future generations of humanity to survive.

We need to demand and consume less.

We need to begin by looking at the volume of waste we are producing individually.

We should strive to get our personal consumption of water down to much less than Level 5 as a standard. I am living comfortably on less than 50 litres per day. That is a lot more than half the world’s population has to survive on. To reduce my water consumption I am wearing my clothes an extra day or two more and keeping my washing confined to less than one load per week. We have to remember that reducing water consumption also reduces energy consumption and in the process reduces greenhouse emissions.

We need to actively review our need to travel and what mode of travel we use. We need to share motor vehicle travel more actively and rapidly move away from the one-person per vehicle mindset which we witness daily in commuter traffic.

We need to walk or cycle more. (It will help our health in the process).

We need to make a more rapid conversion to public transport.

We should start by minimizing long-distance travel and use rail in preference to air travel.

We need to consider how we use heat and energy more actively with the intention of minimizing our consumption.

I have lived for 67 years without needing the air-conditioning which younger people now regard as an essential of life. Despite the cold snap last week I managed without any form of heating just by wearing more warmer clothes.

Future Generations

There are just so many ways in which each and every one of us can actually engage in fighting for the environment. But if we don’t ALL start fighting for it very actively very quickly then our grandchildren may well have a much bigger fight for even survival.

Just think about it. We thought that by amassing wealth we were going to leave them well off. Instead our processes for accumulation of wealth is going to leave them much worse off. But it isn’t too late to change our lifestyle and hopefully we can leave them something which is more sustainable.

My good friend Bob Brown has a motto which governs his life and which could usefully help us all if when making any decisions we ask, “Will future generations thank us for doing this?”

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