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Issue #1573      14 November 2012

We are obliged to care for the environment

Conservation Council of Western Australia State Conference

It has been a big year for the environment in Western Australia as the profiles of a number of significant environmental issues have been making their presence known in the community. One organisation that has been at the vanguard of ensuring that the environment is at the front or close to the front of the consciousness of the decision makers of government, business and the broader community is the Conservation Council of Western Australian. With the state election just over four months away the CCWA held its annual state conference to discuss issues and strategies for preserving and promoting a healthy and vibrant environment for this and all future generations.

Mark McGowan and Piers Verstegen (left to right).

It was then ironic that one of the organisations with which the CCWA has been at logger heads over a number of environmental issues, the Liberal/National state government, had its Minister for the Environment, Bill Marmion address the conference.

Bill Marmion addressed the 60 delegates from a number of member organisations on the achievements of his government in looking after the environment, including stopping coal mining in the Margaret River region, the creation of land and sea conservation areas in the Kimberley, funding of Toad Busters in the far north and the creation of a Waste Authority to work out ways to reduce waste and the amount of waste which ends up in landfill. The irony of Bill Marmion’s address was that it omitted to mention the many areas that the government had failed to act or acted in a way which had excessively compromised the environment in their decision making. It was as though, if delegates believed what the Minister for the Environment was saying, there is no need for organisations like the CCWA!

Respected Noongar Elder Ben Taylor, who is also a committed voice for the environment, gave the traditional Welcome to Country and reminded wadjellas (non–Aboriginals), the key to good environmental management is “We do not own the land but are obliged to care for it.”

Piers Verstegen, director of the Conservation Council, addressed the conference on the current issues and challenges facing the environment and how the upcoming state election was “a one off opportunity to save the environment.” As the effects of climate change were beginning to make their presence known through a sustained drying of the climate and a gradual warming of winter and summer temperatures, challenges were occurring for various groups in the community to adapt and cope with these changes.

In regards to climate change Verstegen singled out for mention the “carbon fuel extraction industry in this state”. Especially fracking for unconventional gas which could have multiple negative consequences for the environment from an overuse of water supplies, contamination of ground water, massive leakages of methane and other gases-the former which is one of the worst contributors to green house gas emissions, and killing and mutation of wildlife. Verstegen had recently returned from as visit to several fracking sites in the USA and was disturbed by the effects it has had on the environment and peoples’ livelihoods. Other offending sectors of the carbon fuel extraction industry included the development of a conventional gas processing plant at James Price Point in the Kimberley, the proposed and almost approved Toro Energy uranium mine near Wiluna and the proposal for more coal mines in the state’s south west and Kimberley regions.

To be able to put the message about the environment out there amongst the people, Verstegen said that it was important to plug into social media and new media as “more people are accessing these media than all other forms of media combined.”

These forms of media were, “important tools to help build a movement to protect the environment.” They were opportunities to present a message or information on environmental issues and allow people to engage and respond directly. In particular younger people – 92 percent of people in their 20s use social media and now do most of their socialising on the net.

However, Verstegen reminded the conference that online social media was no substitute and will never replace physical political activism and demonstrations which presented actual people confronting antagonists to environmental protection. These were often at the location of the environmental places that required action and protection.

There were also workshops on community engagement and political lobbying which was important to getting an environmental issue on the radar of a particular political party and having it stay there.

A document was presented to the conference by Piers Verstegen which outlined the 12 Policy Priorities for the 2013 WA State Election. These included protecting the Kimberley which involves a number of environmental issues in itself. This includes both onshore and offshore, the Aboriginal and broader community, and protecting the marine environment of which less than three percent currently lies in protected marine sanctuaries, protecting our forests, woodlands and rangelands which are under serious threat from the impacts of climate change, logging, fire, and invasive pests and diseases. In addition keeping WA nuclear free, halting gas fracking, transforming our energy system and plan for climate change, securing our water future and keeping our food supply safe and our family farms in business.

Verstegen emphasised in regards to the policy priorities (which is a joint document with the Wilderness Society) that “It doesn’t make sense for the government to pursue a carbon intensive future rather than converting to renewable energy sources of which the state has abundant resources of solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy.”

Once we have renewable energy it also makes sense to conserve energy and use it wisely and this means planning for increased cycle use in Perth, and other forms of sustainable transport which includes light rail and keeping the Tier 3 Rail Network open and well maintained in the state’s wheat belt.

The State ALP leader Mark McGowan addressed the Conference and spoke of priorities that a future Labor government would give the environment which included changing some of the present policies of the current Barnett Liberal government to ensure that funding was available to care for the environment. This meant increasing resources to the state’s Climate Change Unit which currently only has four staff members, increasing the size and number of marine parks, saving all old growth forests where logging has resumed under the current government.

However, as long as a political party is wedded to the capitalist system as the ALP currently is, it is hard to see how they can effectively commit to a policy of resisting resource exploitation, as happens with social democratic governments the world over.

Senior Greens figure Giz Watson, who will be moving from her safe metropolitan seat to contest an upper house seat in the South West of WA, addressed the conference and spoke of the issues she encountered amongst the masses in her travels in her potential electorate. The voters are concerned about preserving the remaining wilderness of the south west, in particular the underground Yarragadee aquifer which underlines the health and vitality of the southwest and is under threat from mining and heavy extraction from its reserves. Also the health of the jarrah forests which are under threat from climate change which is causing the death of the forests through decreases in moisture and increases in temperature.

The environment and the effect which climate change has on the environment is an issue which is increasingly entering into the consciousness of people and therefore figures in the way we decide what sort of world we want. As if to underscore this point, as the conference participants were leaving, Hurricane Sandy, which had wreaked havoc in eastern Cuba, was gathering intensity and was about to hit the eastern seaboard of the United States of America with unparalleled fury.

Even in that nation of climate change deniers they have begun to take more seriously the impacts of man on the environment as nature has an uncanny way of responding when human activity begins to put ill-considered consequences into its path. It is not over yet as a snap freeze threatens to engulf the people of the north eastern USA still recovering from the rain and winds of Sandy.

* Richard attended the conference on behalf of the Australian Cuban Friendship Society which is a member of CCWA.  

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