We all rely on healthy land, water, and air, not only for our survival but our ability to live fulfilling lives. Many of us find joy and replenishment in spending time in Australia’s natural spaces: our bush and desert, grasslands, rainforests, beaches, coral reefs, and even our local parks.
But in the two centuries since colonisation, increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction have led us down a grim path. According to Australia’s recently released 2021 State of the Environment report, the health of our environment is poor and deteriorating.
Our environment is in a dire state
The State of the Environment report highlights declining plant and animal species, habitat loss, and coasts under threat. At least 19 ecosystems are now showing signs of collapse or near collapse. Australia has bulldozed hundreds of thousands of hectares of native forest, now has more invasive plant species than it does native plant species, and has lost more mammal species than any other continent, with more than 100 mammals listed as extinct or extinct in the wild.
The report’s lead author, Professor Emma Johnston, said “in previous reports, we’ve been largely talking about the impacts of climate in the future tense. In this report there’s a stark contrast, because we are now documenting widespread impacts of climate change.”
Climate change is affecting all aspects of the environment, increasing land and ocean temperatures, creating changes to rainfall patterns and driving extreme weather — such as fire and flood — that affect the soil, water and vegetation that we rely on to survive.
Environmental justice and social justice are inseparable
The 2021 State of the Environment report is the first to include Indigenous people as co-authors. Previous reports focused specifically on the impacts on plants, animals and landscapes, but the influence of Indigenous authors means this iteration is also the first to speak to the reality of our interconnectedness: that the wellbeing of Country is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of people.
Jesuit Social Services recognises that social and environmental justice are intertwined and inseparable. The health of our environment affects us all, but it is those who are least responsible for environmental crises who are often most impacted by them.
Our 2021 Dropping off the Edge research into locational disadvantage across the country found that communities experiencing higher levels of social and economic disadvantage were also disproportionately affected by environmental risks and harms such as extreme heat and poor air quality. We know that it is people already experiencing inequity and marginalisation — such as those living in low-income housing, remote Indigenous communities and incarcerated people — who are among those hardest hit by the economic and environmental impacts of climate change. Our Prisons, climate and a just transition discussion paper, released earlier this year, highlights the overlapping social and environmental impacts of the prison system of some of Australia’s most marginalised people.