In a column for Foreign Policy, environmental advocate Will Potter attacked Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “the Green Devil,” further labeling him as “the Australian environment’s worst nightmare.”
As evidence, he offered up Abbott’s recent repeal of the nation’s carbon tax, his support for expanded logging in Tasmania, and the planned expansion of a coal terminal that would involve dumping dredged soil near the Great Barrier Reef.
Carbon tax repeal in particular was a major plank in Abbott’s electoral platform, and Australia is far better off having been freed of its detrimental impact. However, several other issues brought up by Potter show an even deeper misunderstanding of Australia’s environmental situation.
In the case of Tasmania, expansion of the forestry industry is something that the Tasmanian people firmly favor. In fact, recent local elections in Tasmania were seen largely as a referendum on the state government’s eco-activism, with the Green Party rendering itself politically toxic by opposing the construction of a new pulp mill (among other things). The pulp mill issue became so severe that the Greens were thrown out of the state’s governing coalition, and their former partners in the Labor Party rushed approval of the mill through the state legislature in an attempt to forestall the electoral backlash. The end result was an unprecedented landslide victory for the local Liberal Party, which installed a local Tasmanian government firmly allied with Tony Abbott.
Also, while the proposed removal of 74,000 hectares from UNESCO’s Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area may sound like a lot, the total size of the UNESCO-listed area is over one million hectares. It takes up a massive chunk of the State of Tasmania, and overlaps with multiple Australian National Parks. On the whole, it seems logical to conclude that, while the protection of Tasmanian biodiversity is important, the World Heritage Site’s current footprint is unjustifiably large.
This is also a key point of misunderstanding regarding the Great Barrier Reef, around which there is a protected Marine Park larger than the entire nation of Finland. The current plan to expand the Abbot Point coal terminal would dump dredged soil 20 kilometers away from the reef, and there is an ongoing debate about what the actual environmental impact of the project will be. Regardless of the conclusion, the reef itself is staggeringly massive compared to the size of the dredging project and is not under threat of destruction.
It is easy for Americans to romanticize the flora and fauna of Australia and assume that the exotic must be endangered. However, two of the three animals that Potter lists as exemplars of Tasmanian biodiversity are neither endangered nor endemic to Tasmania. Both the platypus and wedge-tailed eagle are listed as species of “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and both range over large swaths of the Australian continent. Indeed, Australia is one of the most wild places left on earth, with an amount of untouched land that would boggle most non-Australian minds.
American commentators would do well to remember that fact before criticizing Tony Abbott for putting tiny bits of that land to use in the service of his people.