Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sea Change Threatened by Coastal Development

By Ian Lowe

Coastal communities are battling to retain their natural assets in the face of increasing tourism and residential developments.

A Victorian community group has come up with an innovative scheme to draw attention to the impact of population growth on endangered species. The Surf Coast Energy Group held a forum on the region’s future in Torquay during the State election campaign. I was one of the invited speakers, along with Melbourne University climate scientist Prof David Karoly and Victorian botanist Geoff Carr. The purpose of the forum was to focus discussion on planning issues that will determine the future of the Surf Coast region.

Other coastal communities that depend on tourism, like Noosa and Port Douglas in Queensland, have decided to limit residential development and cap tourist numbers to protect the long-term appeal of their natural assets. Some people in the Torquay–Anglesea corridor would like to see a similar approach.

To make local people aware of the impact of population growth on endangered wildlife, comedian Rod Quantock was at the forum to chair proceedings and launch a series of Endangered Species condoms. Each pack featured one of six local threatened species: the barking owl, the growling grass frog, the southern brown bandicoot, the Pacific gull, the hooded plover and the rufus bristle bird. It is a clever way to draw attention to an important message.

The principal causes of species loss are destruction of habitat and introduced species, both of which are directly linked to the growing population. Hence family planning is a positive step to ease the pressure on endangered species.

Community groups around the country are doing great work to protect and restore habitat. I attended an inspiring forum in Brisbane in November, with local people sharing their experience of projects to maintain wildlife refuges and corridors that will allow plants and animals to respond to climate change. As well as hearing about local initiatives, like protecting tall trees to form a corridor for squirrel gliders, the forum also learned about successful projects in other regions, such as work to restore the remnants of the big scrub in northern NSW.

With state and national governments in denial about the problem, or actively making it worse, community action is the best hope for Australia’s biodiversity.

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The 2014–15 Commonwealth Budget was not a good one for science. The President of the Australian Academy of Science, Prof Suzanne Cory, went on the attack after hundreds of millions were taken out of funding for science programs. One calculation I have seen found that public science funding in real terms, adjusted for inflation, is now the lowest it has been for more than 30 years.

The government says that it has a problem balancing the budget, so it can justifiably ignore its explicit pre-election promises, like no cuts to education, health care, the ABC or SBS. At one level that might be defensible, although the Prime Minister did not say when bidding for election that all his promises were conditional on resource prices remaining strong.

On another level, I have always told my students that government funding is a statement of priorities – arguably the most honest expression of their priorities. When a government says it cannot afford to fund CSIRO or university science or Cooperative Research Centres, it is not saying that it absolutely has no money. It is saying that those programs are a lower priority than the activities it does fund, as well as being a lower priority than collecting more revenue, for example by pursuing tax avoidance by large corporations.

Scientists are justifiably angry about cuts to research funding when the government can still find billions to subsidise fossil fuel supply and use, not to mention the resources expended on trying to justify its studied inaction on climate change.

The good news is that local science writing seems to be blossoming. I was involved in judging the non-fiction section of the Queensland Literary Awards, and three of the five short-listed books were science-related.

If you are looking for some good summer reading it would be hard to find anything better than The Best Australian Science Writing 2014. I am obviously biased, because she included a contribution of mine, but I think award-winning author Ashley Hay has done a wonderful job of collecting more than 30 diverse and interesting pieces of writing about science.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.