The existential toll of climate change on wetlands – maybe we should go with the flow.

Featured

By David Salt

Every February we’re encouraged to think about wetlands as we celebrate World Wetlands Day. While society has come a long way in changing its mind about the value of wetlands – once they were smelly swamps, now they are precious, life-sustaining ecosystems – these days we’re stuck in a form of denialism about their prospects as climate change radically threatens their very existence.

The sad truth is, climate change modifies water levels, and the best protected wetland in the world ceases to be a wetland without water. Too much water, in the form of rising sea levels, will have the same outcome. If we can’t protect our wetlands in the space they exist today, do we need to make more effort to let our wetlands move with the flow?

Fifty-one years of Ramsar

Fifty-one years ago, on the 2nd of February 1971, one of the world’s most important international environmental conventions came into being with the adoption of the Convention of Wetlands. It’s important because it was the first international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international agreements on the environment. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas – being declared a Ramsar Wetland is akin to being listed as a World Heritage area – and the treaty has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

The adoption ceremony for the Convention was held in the Iranian city of Ramsar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and most people know this Convention as the Ramsar Convention. To mark the day of the treaty’s creation, the Ramsar Secretariat has promoted the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day, and it’s been run on this date every year since 1997.

The Ramsar Convention together with World Wetlands Day have transformed the way humans engage with wetlands. They’ve gone from ‘swamps’ only fit for draining and development, to critical land and water scapes that provide humans with a range of valuable ecosystem services in addition to being critical habitat for biodiversity conservation. Wetlands, in all their forms, are now recognised as precious and irreplaceable.

However, our efforts to increase awareness about the state and value of our wetlands have also revealed they are in serious trouble. The Ramsar Secretariat’s Global Wetland Outlook (newly revised this year) tells us that over a third of the planet’s wetlands have been lost since the Convention was enacted. Indeed, wetlands are our most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests. Land-use change is the biggest driver of degradation to inland wetlands since 1970. Agriculture, the most wide-spread form of land-use change, has damaged more than half of the Wetlands of International Importance (often referred to as Ramsar Wetlands). Climate impacts to wetlands are happening faster than anticipated. Rising sea-levels, coral bleaching and changing hydrology are all accelerating, with arctic and montane wetlands most at risk of degradation and loss.

Land locked and lost (or drowned)

And here’s an irony the Treaty’s designers probably never envisaged: The city of Ramsar, the place that gave the treaty its name, is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea shrinks under climate change and water extraction. Its surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades.

The Caspian Sea is actually a landlocked lake with a surface that is already around 28 metres below sea level. And it’s dropping by 7 centimetres every year. As temperatures rise with global warming, evaporation will accelerate this decline. The Caspian Sea will be nine to 18 metres lower by the end of the century and lose a quarter of its size. How do you sustain a wetland that can no longer be kept wet? Researchers believe the unfurling crisis will result in an ecocide as devastating as the one in the Aral Sea, a few hundred kilometres to the east.

Falling water levels are challenging many other major landlocked lakes and seas (consider the Aral Sea and Lake Chad) but most coastal wetland systems face the opposite problem – rising sea levels associated with warming oceans, another consequence of climate change. Sea levels are currently rising by between 3-4 mm per year but this is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. This could lead to the submergence of 20–78% of worldwide coastal wetlands by 2100!

Whether water levels are rising, falling or doing major damage through extreme weather events (think of this season’s unprecedented flooding all around the world), the prospects for the planet’s precious wetlands are darkening with every year. World Wetlands Day (and the Ramsar Convention) have played a valuable role in highlighting the importance of these watery ecosystems, as well as identifying wetlands of particular significance; but as climate change bites we need to face the grim reality that changing water levels mean that many, possibly most, wetlands cannot be protected by surrounding them in strong laws, good signage and a more receptive society. The sad truth is that shifting water levels mean many wetlands cannot be protected in their current spaces.

Just as the city Ramsar heralds this grim reality, the history of the Caspian Sea upon which it lies, may hold a possible solution. The Caspian Sea has a history of rises and falls. Around 10,000 years ago the sea was about 100 metres lower. A few thousand years before that it was about 50 metres higher than today’s level. Yet people who lived beside the sea were able to move with the fluctuating sea level. Back then, no large human infrastructure was around to be destroyed, and people moved (adapted) as required. The same applied to animal and plant species. Ecosystems simply moved up and down as the sea level shifted, as they had done over the past 2 million years or so.

In today’s world, with massive city infrastructure and property rights attached to specific locations, moving with a changing water level presents enormous challenges. And yet, doing nothing (ie, not moving) is not an option either. Roughly a tenth of the world’s population and assets are based less than 10 metres above sea level. Sea level rise means land currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable to annual flooding by 2050.

Water is the messenger

Jay Famiglietti, Executive Director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, recently observed that “Water is the messenger that delivers the bad news about climate change to your town, to your neighborhood, and to your front door.” Our first response, unfortunately, is usually to deny the message as we have so much invested in ‘sustaining’ the status quo. Economists would say we worry too much protecting ‘sunk investments’.

We’d rather reinforce and armour our shores against the rising tides, than consider moving to adapt to rising (or falling) water levels. Not only is this expensive and fails to address the underlying problem – sea level rise is predicted to accelerate, not stabilise – it makes us more vulnerable to the multiple threats being generated by climate change (eg, more intense storms and extreme rainfall).

In many ways, we’re doing the same with our wetland reserves. We’re managing them for the proximate dangers that threaten their natural values such as guarding against pollution, overexploitation and development. But, as with our cities and towns, we’re ignoring the consequences of changing water levels in a time of climate change. The places where we find wetlands today may not sustain wetlands into the future.

In some cases, wetlands have the capacity to move (migrate) with the water level as it changes. Some research is suggesting that sea levels could rise faster than a wetland’s natural migration rate. Other studies have shown their capacity to move is limited by how land is being used around existing wetlands.

The challenge of sustaining our precious wetlands in a time of climate change and changing water levels is enormous. The first step in meeting this challenge is getting beyond denial. Seas are rising. Lakes in many places are shrinking. We can see it happen, and there is a strong scientific consensus it’s only going to get worse. Given this reality, we need to extend the tool box of policy measures to conserve these vital ecosystems. It’s not enough to increase our protection of existing wetlands. We need to start planning on how we can facilitate their ability to move with changing water levels – to go with the flow.

Research is happening in many places around the world to explore what’s possible. For example, Australian scientists are developing the idea of “rolling covenants” to protect coastal ecosystems in the face of sea-level rise. These are conditions on land titles that permit productive use of land in the short term, while ensuring land use can shift over time to allow for coastal ecosystem migration in the medium to long term.

Of course, such provisions require considerable funding and a change in mindset on what is an appropriate way to use (and set aside future uses) of land. But such change is possible when society gets beyond denying what climate change means and works with the change rather than attempting to control it.

‘Making room’ for water

One of the best examples of this is the response of the Netherlands to the threat of rising sea levels and increased flood risk. The Netherlands is both flat and low lying, and has always been prone to flooding. More than half of the Netherlands is located on flood-prone land. Following two particularly horrifying floods in the 1990s, requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, the Netherland’s government adopted a new paradigm in water management.

Rather than building bigger dykes and dams to control the floods, they adopted an approach called making “Room for the Rivers” in which floods were better accommodated by the landscape. Many farms were converted to wetlands (proving a boon for bird life), land around rivers was dedicated to allow for flooding, and cities and towns were adapted to cope with flood waters.

The approach cost billions of dollars, many land holders were required to give up their homes and their farm land, and the whole community needed to change the way they dealt with flooding.

The result? Dutch rivers can now absorb about 25% more water than they could in 1995, and the recent episode of historic floods that devasted parts of Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, left the Netherlands relatively unscathed.

If the Netherlands can make room for their rivers and demonstrate the value of this approach to flood control, what would it take for the world community to ‘make room’ for our wetlands?

This World Wetland Day, we all need to consider how we can better go with the flow.

This blog originally appeared on The Global Water Forum

Banner image: Climate change is moving water levels. Moving water levels means wetlands also need to move. We need to ‘make room’ for our wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

A tale of two wetlands – what a difference a minister makes

Featured

Or is this about different approaches to political lobbying?

By Peter Burnett

This is the story of two ‘Ramsar’ wetlands, one on the west coast of Australia, and one on the east. And it’s also the tale of two large developments, one affecting each wetland.

Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, made at Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. Australia has 65 Ramsar sites and we tell the world we look after them.

Domestically, Australian Ramsar wetlands are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) as ‘matters of national environmental significance’. This protects them from any developments that are likely to have a significant impact upon them, unless the environment minister approves the development, following an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The two wetlands

The first wetland borders a part of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. This wetland is subject to a $1.3 billion residential and tourism development by Walker Corporation at Toondah harbour. Originally submitted to then federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg in 2015, this controversial development appears to be stalled, as a draft environmental impact statement forecast by Walker for release in ‘early 2021’ has yet to be submitted to the federal environment minister.

The other wetland is on Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Hedland in Western Australia. This wetland lies near the proposed site for a large-scale wind and solar renewable energy project (known as the Asian Renewable Hub) being proposed by NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd.

The Renewable Hub would occupy a huge area of 6,500 square kilometres in the East Pilbara and produce a staggering 26 Gigawatts from a combination of wind turbines and solar panels. This is equivalent to the output of 15 or more large coal-fired power stations.

Originally aiming to supply power by undersea cable, the now-enlarged hub project will use renewable energy to extract hydrogen from desalinised water. The hydrogen will be converted to ammonia and piped 20 km out to sea, for loading onto tankers. The project was given ‘major project’ status by the federal government in October 2020 and is said to cost around $22 billion.

Both these wetlands provide important habitat for a range of water birds and migratory birds in particular. Migratory birds are also ‘matters of national environmental significance’, being protected by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. This meant that the species most affected by the developments are, in theory at least, twice protected.

Two recommendations for rejection but only one accepted

In both these cases the federal environment department advised the minister that the projects should be rejected upfront as ‘clearly unacceptable’, without going through the full EIA process.

In the Toondah Harbour case, minister Josh Frydenberg rejected the advice and allowed the project to proceed to its current assessment.

But it’s not as simple as that. Using Freedom of Information, The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) discovered that the minister received two consecutive briefs on the same topic, on the same day (see the ACF Submission to the independent review of the EPBC Act April 2020, pages 28, 29). One conveyed the department’s advice that the development was clearly unacceptable — this was the advice that Frydenberg rejected.

The second brief advised that the impacts on the Ramsar wetland and migratory species were significant and, in the case of the wetland itself, difficult to mitigate and offset. Frydenberg accepted this advice and decided that because significant impacts were likely, the matter should proceed to environmental assessment.

In the Renewable Hub case, current environment minister Sussan Ley accepted the department’s advice and stopped the project from moving into full EIA, at least for the time being.

In her official statement of reasons, she accepted that the installation of a marine infrastructure corridor through the Ramsar area would disrupt tidal flows, ultimately affecting the foodwebs on which the migratory birds depend. She also found that the foodwebs would be affected by ammonia spillage, desalination brine and a chronic increase in pollutants from a new town and shipping route.

Unusually, though not unsurprisingly given the identified impacts and uniqueness of the area concerned, the Minister also found that these impacts could not be compensated for by biodiversity offsets. Overall, there would be permanent and irreversible impacts to Eighty-mile Beach and its migratory species if the project proceeded in its current form.

Why the different decisions?

Why did one minister reject the department’s advice while the other minister accepted it? The differences might be down to simple differences in ministerial values or style.

But I think the two cases show different to approaches by developers to regulation.

Walker Corporation’s approach might be described as old style politicking, involving significant political donations to both major parties and backroom influence — Walker lobbied extensively against a ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision.

Frydenberg seemed so keen to allow the project to proceed that he wrote to a Queensland (Labor) minister floating the ‘option’ of the two governments working together to amend the boundary of the Moreton Bay wetland under the ‘urgent national interest’ clause of the Ramsar Convention. Frydenberg went on to note that ‘any proposed boundary change would need to have a ‘clear benefit to the ecological character of the wetlands a whole’, something that seems to me like clutching at straws to me (and also a bad look politically).

Walker Corporation sent executives to Geneva, to discuss a boundary change with the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, a most unusual move. The move was even more strange given that a file note subsequently released under FoI disclosed that Walker Corporation told the Secretariat that it could potentially reconfigure its development, including by restricting construction to an area outside the wetlands, or by looking ‘for other suitable development areas nearby’.

This was news to the department. ‘I wonder whether that is an error of what was discussed, given that it is at odds with Walker’s discussion with us to date, and the referral (which states that there are no alternatives to the proposal)’ wrote a senior department official to colleagues.

The hub consortium on the other hand appears to be playing with a straight bat. Despite the enormous size of the project, and its significance to Australia’s future as a ‘hydrogen superpower’, as Professor Ross Garnaut has termed it, apparently the consortium was not consulted about this unusual decision.

Yet the consortium issued a flat media release accepting the minister’s decision and committing to revising their proposal. ‘We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,’ they said. ‘[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.’

A tale of two approaches to political lobbying?

Both of these developer reactions are unusual. The chutzpah of Walker Corporation, to the point of taking its lobbying to Geneva, presumably to convince the Ramsar Secretariat that yet another Australian foreshore development represented an ‘urgent national interest’ is breathtaking.

And the environment department’s sending two briefs to minister Frydenberg, containing either conflicting or ‘alternative’ advice, is very suspicious. At a minimum, it represents an attempt by officials to avoid disclosure under FoI of a minister’s rejection of their advice by ‘splitting’ their brief. It should be investigated by the Public Service Commission as a possible breach of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

On the other hand, the apparently mild (to say the least) reaction of the Asian hub consortium is also breathtaking. I would have expected the proponents of something this big to have been throwing their weight around with vim and vigour.

Perhaps these developers are cool customers playing a very long high stakes game and figuring that the best strategy is to hold the tongues and get on with the job.

Perhaps they are expressing outrage privately and we just don’t know about it. If so, there is no sign of it in a recent FoI release.

In any case, these two wetland decisions leave some significant unanswered questions, the most important of which concerns the power of lobbying. These cases provide another illustration of why the EPBC Act is badly in need of reform.

Banner image: Australia has signed international conventions committing it to protect migratory bird species and wetlands used by migratory birds. Proposals to develop on or near Ramsar listed wetlands deserve close scrutiny, and shouldn’t be allowed if they threaten these wetlands. (Image by David Salt)

World Wetlands Day & Ramsar– the good, the bad & the ugly

Happy World Wetlands Day. On the whole, our wetlands are anything but happy.

By David Salt

Last week I wrote about the value of ‘days for the environment’ in general. That story was inspired by a story I wrote for the Global Water Forum for World Wetlands Day. Well, today (Tuesday, 2 February 2021) is World Wetlands Day. Given the parlous and declining state of the world’s wetlands, is this ‘day of celebration’ a help or a hindrance in getting appropriate action to save these vital waterscapes? The Ramsar Convention, which is tightly linked to World Wetlands Day, was enacted on the 2 February 1971. Fifty years on, how is it going, and how does it measure up to the looming challenges facing us in the coming half century? The post below originally appeared on the Global Water Forum.

The 2nd of February was chosen as the date for World Wetlands Day because it marks the day that the Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, was adopted back in 1971 – so named because the adoption ceremony took place in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

So that means that in 2021 the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old, making it the oldest international treaty for wetland and waterbird conservation, and one of the world’s most enduring and significant international environmental agreements. It’s been responsible for establishing the world’s largest network of protected areas, and has been used as a basis for other international conservation policies and national wetland laws.

And with the creation of World Wetlands Day, which kicked off in 1997 and is supported by the Ramsar Secretariat, it has served as a catalyst for many education programs, citizen science projects and community activities to raise awareness and help protect wetlands. Since 1997 the Ramsar website has posted reports from over 100 countries of their World Wetlands Day activities.

There was a time when a wetland was synonymous for ‘swamp’, a patch of water-soaked land ideal for reclamation and development; a place to be avoided. World Wetlands Day has played a significant role in alerting the broader community to the many values sustained in and around wetlands, and what is lost when they are transformed; which normally meant being drained, cultivated or built on. But is this annual celebration of wetland values actually contributing to saving them? There is much to celebrate but there is also so much more we need to do to secure the future of our precious wetlands as the planet moves into an increasingly uncertain future.

So, the question is: Fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Treaty, is World Wetlands Day saving wetlands or providing governments with an opportunity to window-dress conservation efforts through tokenistic listings? Of course, it’s not a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But consider the following.

The good

The Ramsar Convention has been going for 50 years and is widely respected. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

The first Outlook was released a couple of years ago. It reports that the accuracy of global wetland area data is increasing. Global inland and coastal wetlands cover over 12.1 million km2, an area larger than Canada, with 54% permanently inundated and 46% seasonally inundated.

And, as we get a clearer idea on their extent, we also are able to more accurately value the ecosystem services they provide. In 2019, Nick Davidson and colleagues recently updated our best estimates of the value of natural wetlands and found that the (2011) global monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services as being a staggering $47.4 trillion per year.

In area, natural wetlands are only a small percentage of all natural biomes, around about 3%. And yet the ecosystem services they provide (for example, water purification, fish nurseries, carbon storage and storm protection) represent 43.5% of the total value of all natural biomes – small in area, big on services to humans.

Indeed, the ecosystem service of water provision is the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day. Wetlands hold and provide most of our freshwater. They naturally filter pollutants, leaving water we can safely drink. (Each year World Wetlands Day focusses on a different part of the value provided by wetlands. In recent years the themes have been biodiversity, poverty alleviation and protection from natural disasters.)

In many places around the world efforts are now going into restoring and recreating urban wetlands to improve water quality and amenity. Such restoration efforts are expensive but underline just how valuable the ecosystem services provided by wetlands can be.

The bad

So, all this is good. Most of the world has signed up to the Ramsar Convention, and we’re really beginning to document the extent and the value of our natural wetland systems with growing precision (though we are still to incorporate this information into our national decision making systems in a meaningful way; environmental accounts would be a good start).

But the growth of the human population, the development of our coastal zones and river deltas, and our disruption of the Earth system (for example climate change) are exacting a horrible toll which is being disproportionately felt by our wetlands.

The following figures come from the Global Wetland Outlook (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 2018), and are worth reflecting on. Wetlands have been in steep decline for centuries as the human population has grown and spread. Up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700 in places where data exist.

Unfortunately this isn’t a case of ‘we didn’t know better’ because the losses have accelerated more recently. Approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000.

As we lose our wetlands so we also lose the biodiversity that depends on them. More than 25% of all wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

And it’s not just the declining extent of wetlands that’s the problem. It’s also about the degradation of the wetlands that remain. According to the UN, more than 80% of waste water is released into wetlands without adequate treatment. In catchments that feed these wetlands, fertilizer use in 2018 was estimated to be 25% higher than in 2008, exacerbating nutrification and levels of decomposition resulting in declining water quality with impacts for flora and fauna alike.

And the ugly

Our wetlands are important. They provide a range of ecosystem services that are extremely valuable to humans. Indeed, many scientists believe wetlands are critical to our very survival and central to our quest for sustainability. Wetlands contribute to 75 indicators contained in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite this, wetlands remain dangerously undervalued by policy and decision-makers in national plans. How can this be? Given the pivotal role wetlands play in delivering global commitments on climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity and disaster risk reduction, how is it they are given such low priority?

And if that wasn’t ugly enough, the spectre of climate change hangs over our (inadequate) efforts to save these vital ecosystems. Climate change promises to reconfigure our coasts and drown many of our low lying coastal systems, while drying out many of our inland wetlands through higher temperatures and changed precipitation. Then there’s the impact from the growing frequency of extreme events such as intense heatwaves and severe storms.

In my country, Australia, we have witnessed mass destruction of seagrass meadows and mass dieback of our extensive mangroves in recent years from elevated temperatures; and this is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Rising sea levels are even now visibly transforming the floodplains in and around Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, the jewel in the crown of my country’s National Reserve System. Kakadu is one of the best managed and resourced national parks in Australia and the world. It’s a World Heritage site and contains two Ramsar Sites. But good management on site and world recognition is not saving it from climate change and rising sea levels.

Talk less, do more

To underline the existential threat facing so many of the world’s remaining wetlands, consider the situation of the town of Ramsar, the place where the Wetlands Convention was adopted half a century ago and which now carries its name. The level of the Caspian Sea, on whose shore Ramsar sits, is dropping 7 cm every year due to evaporation, a trend expected to increase as temperatures rise with climate change. As the sea recedes, the town is becoming landlocked and the surrounding wetlands will be gone within decades. What does that say about the dire outlook for these vitally important waterscapes that wetlands around Ramsar itself will simply disappear in the coming years.

It’s steadily shrinking size combined with pollution and invasive species has many researchers believing the Caspian is headed for ecocide on a massive scale, with nature and people paying the cost. What stronger signal could there be that the Ramsar Convention in and of itself is not enough to protect our wetlands?

And what about World Wetlands Day, a celebration on the day the Ramsar Convention came to life? I’m not saying it doesn’t generate great activity and build valuable awareness. But since it’s running in 1997 we have only seen an acceleration in the loss and degradation of our wetlands. It’s hard to argue the convention is turning the situation around.

Governments around the world happily host World Wetlands Day events and put out glossy brochures describing how wonderful their wetlands are (consider this from the Australian Government). These same governments are signatories to the Ramsar Convention (and the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity) yet they are never held to account when they fail to live up to the commitments they have made to ensure that our precious wetlands are being protected for current and future generations.

The 2nd of February should be a day of celebration of wetlands. However, fifty years on from the adoption of the Ramsar Convention, it should also be a ‘call to arms’ that so much more needs to be done to protect these precious ecosystems.

As the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (Rojas Urrego) says: “Without the world’s wetlands, we all hang in the balance.”

Banner image: The famous mangrove boardwalk in Cairns (Queensland, Australia). World Wetlands Day celebrates the many values of our precious wetlands. Unfortunately, wetlands are being lost and degraded at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)

Saving the Environment in a Day

You have 24 hours to save the planet! Your time starts now.

By David Salt

Can the environment be saved by proclaiming a ‘day for the environment’?

I once attempted to start a ‘day’ to save the environment. I called it ‘Anthropocene Day’ and its aim was to get people thinking about the impact of our species on Planet Earth (nothing too ambitious there).

What, you’ve never heard of ‘Anthropocene Day’? (Please tell me you know about the ‘Anthropocene’.) Well, that’s not surprising. The idea went nowhere. I managed to stage a public forum involving some leading scientists debating the pros and cons of when the Anthropocene began*.

The forum went well, we got a full house (at the National Museum of Australia) and generated some lively debate.

After the event, everyone said “what a great idea for a ‘think fest’; let’s do this again next year, but maybe even bigger! Heck, let’s make Anthropocene Day a Week!”

Then, when I attempted to get follow up action, everyone was too busy to do anything more and the idea, with my enthusiasm, fizzled. Clearly the world was too preoccupied for my great concept. (Or maybe the idea simply wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was.)

In any case, I began to think, does the Environment really need another ‘celebratory’ day to save it?

In a days

Now, most people are aware one environment day or another. Earth Day is celebrated on 22 April in more than 193 nations. World Environment Day, hailed as the “United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment”. It’s staged each 5 June in over 143 countries.

But do you know how many big days there are for the environment around the world? A quick net search turns up a Wikipedia list of around 130 days! That means approximately every third day the world is celebrating some worthy environmental cause – from International Zebra Day on 1 January through to Monkey Day on 14 December. (Sensibly the world is given time off in the week before Christmas to shop).

So, maybe the world simply can’t accommodate one more environmentally themed day; though Anthropocene Day was down for the 16 July* which meant it would only have had to share the time with World Snake Day.

However, even if we could squeeze in one more environment day (or even 10 more), would it actually make any difference?

World Reef Day (June 1) is not reversing the increased frequency of mass coral bleachings being witnessed around the world.

International Orangutan Day (19 August) isn’t doing much to reverse the clearing of the tropical forest the critically endangered orangutan depends on.

And Freshwater Dolphin Day (24 October) is unlikely to secure a certain future for the five remaining species of freshwater dolphin, all of which are endangered or critically endangered and live in degrading river systems.

In fact given the dire outlooks provided by multiple international groups like the UNEP, IPCC and IPBES on climate change and biodiversity you really have to ask what difference any of these environment days make.

Seeds of hope or fig leaves of distraction?

I think there are several strong arguments for and against the big day for the environment.

They encourage increased focus and energy around single issues, something that wouldn’t happen otherwise. They generate activity that builds awareness and sometimes even makes a difference to specific locations and species. Sometimes these activities produce environmental champions that dedicate their lives to saving some part of the environment.

On the other hand, environmental days often give the impression that major issues of environmental degradation are being addressed when in fact they’re being ignored. Sometimes this is by putting out pretty brochures while not doing anything substantive for the issue in question; some would describe this as greenwashing. Sometimes it’s by doing great work on the issue in question while ignoring its connection to other environmental issues like climate change. In this way we focus on the small picture while ignoring the larger context.

Consider World Wetlands Day (2 February). It’s one of the big environmental days of the year and it occurs next week. The day marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971. This occurred in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea (and the agreement is more often referred to as the Ramsar Convention).

Wetlands going under

This year the Ramsar Convention is 50 years old making it one of the oldest and most significant international environmental agreements ever formulated. One hundred and seventy countries have signed up to it. In signing up, a country agrees to conserve and wisely use all wetlands, prioritise the conservation of ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ (Ramsar Sites), and cooperate across national boundaries on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems and shared species (for example, migratory water birds). There are currently over 2,300 Ramsar Sites, covering almost 2,500,000 km2.

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat supports World Wetlands Day (which has been running since 1997) and also produces the Global Wetland Outlook which summarises wetland extent, trends, drivers of change and the steps needed to maintain or restore their ecological character.

All this is good but in their very own Outlook statement they record that 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. More worrying, approximately 35% of the world’s wetlands were lost between 1970-2015 with annual rates of loss accelerating from the year 2000. In other words, since World Wetlands Day has been running we’ve been losing wetlands at an accelerating rate. You could argue that the result may have been worse had World Wetlands Day never existed but you couldn’t claim this Day has saved our wetlands.

By the way, the city of Ramsar is rapidly becoming land locked as the Caspian Sea retreats as temperatures rise with climate change. Its wetlands will soon be no more.

On our side of the planet, the wetlands of Kakadu, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, is facing the opposite problem. The floodplains are being inundated by saltwater as sea levels rise, again associated with climate change. Our national government proudly supports World Wetlands Day and the Ramsar Convention while doing as little as possible against climate change.

More than greenwash

This isn’t an argument against World Wetlands Day or environmental days in general. But it is a call that such celebrations need to be more honest and reflective rather than just celebratory. They cannot merely be an exercise to making us feel good.

All indicators are telling us the environment is in serious trouble and in most cases that degradation is accelerating. If you are a fervent supporter of one of these events, ask yourself if it’s making a real difference to the situation it was established to address. If it’s not, look around for something that is making a difference and invest your blood, sweat and tears there.

But also ask yourself what you might do to make more of these events because they are opportunities to raise issues that maybe are forgotten most of the time. One colleague of mine checks each day to see what environmental theme is being celebrated. He uses this as a conversation starter with his work mates to find out what they think about the plight of sea turtles, frogs, zebras, pangolins…

I reckon that’s the right spirit to engage with these Days. Don’t ask “what this Day can do for me?”, rather consider “what can I do for this Day?”

*The Anthropocene refers to the age of humans, a time in which human activity has distorted the Earth System. Many researchers are campaigning to have it be declared as official geological time period. It began at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945 (the dawn of the Great Acceleration) though some scientists contend that it actually began with the invention of the steam engine (in 1778, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) or the development of agriculture (some 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution). Either way, it’s a great concept to get people engaged with what we humans are doing to the planet. And, while climate change is a central part of this story, it’s not the first thing argued so discussions on the Anthropocene don’t instantly polarise the debate as occurs when the topic of climate change is raised on its own.

Image: World Wetlands Day is held on 2 February every year. It encourages the community to learn about and celebrate the many values of wetlands, and governments to protect them for current and future generations. World Wetlands Day has been running since 1997. Since then, wetlands around the world have been lost at an accelerating rate. (Image by David Salt)