Former Greens leader Christine Milne with her granddaughter Eleanor, August 2017. Photograph: Karen Brown/Karen Brown Photography
Australia’s white lemuroid possum became my symbol for habitat loss and global warming that will send one-third of species to extinction by mid-century...
It was 8 November, 2011 and I had just had one of the best days of my parliamentary career. We had made history when the Senate adopted legislation to implement an emissions trading scheme to address global warming. I was both exhausted and excited, having negotiated and shepherded the legislation through the senate for the Greens. It had been a long haul over many years.
Then an email landed in my inbox; after some preliminary congratulations, the writer and vice-chancellor of James Cook University, Sandra Harding, asked why I was wearing a polar bear badge in the newspaper photographs and not one representing an Australian animal.
I thought: “Oh for goodness’ sake, why can’t people just for once be pleased?” I decided to ignore it but then I checked out the sender and decided to reply. I wrote back pointing out that what I was wearing was an artwork, a brooch by Léa Stein, not a badge. I explained that I had deliberately chosen to wear the polar bear brooch for the debate because polar bears are the globally recognised symbol of global warming. They rely on the Arctic sea ice for hunting, breeding and travelling. With record temperatures in the Arctic, the ice is melting and retreating earlier in the spring and refreezing later in the autumn when eventually the temperatures drop. The changing pattern of ice habitat threatens their ability to feed, find a mate and raise cubs. There is nothing sadder than knowing that polar bears are drowning because of the loss of Arctic ice.
However, the critic of the polar bear brooch was not deterred. She told me she could produce a badge featuring an Australian white lemuroid ringtail possum, and that I should wear it to highlight the plight of tropical species far more endangered by global warming in the short term than polar bears.
I agreed to wear it at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in 2011. The beautiful white lemuroid ringtail possum used to make up about 40% of the population of possums that live in the cool misty rainforest above 1100 metres on Mount Lewis in tropical north Queensland. It was featured in the campaigns to protect the Wet Tropics in the 1980s. Biologist William Laurance, distinguished research professor at James Cook University, wrote:
Much has been written about how global warming will affect the colder parts of the planet – the polar and boreal regions, glaciers, and alpine mountains. In fact, some of the warmest places on Earth, especially tropical rainforests, could also be intensely vulnerable to climate change … many people are unaware that tropical species – particularly those specialised for cool, cloudy mountaintops – are often sensitive to hot weather … as temperatures rise mountaintop specialists have nowhere to go. Their populations will wither and shrink and potentially disappear altogether.
While recognising the impacts of global warming on polar bears, he pointed out that creatures living near the poles have adapted to seasonal swings in temperature, whereas tropical zone species are thermal specialists adapted to a narrow stable temperature range. He added that tropical species endangered by global warming probably outnumber their polar counterparts by 1,000 to one.
He illustrated the point by referring to the mass death of a colony of giant fruit bats in New South Wales on 12 January 2002 when the temperature soared to 42.9C, eight degrees higher than the average summer maximum:
The fruit bats normally just doze in the treetops through the day but on this afternoon they were fanning themselves, panting frantically, jostling for shady spots and licking their wrists in a desperate effort to cool down. Suddenly when the thermometer hit 42C the bats began falling from the trees. Most quickly died. The research team led by Justin Welbergen counted 1,453 dead from one colony alone.
The same thing happened in February 2014 when 45,500 fruit bats died in a single day as temperatures in Queensland rose to 42–44C. In December 2016 young bats started dropping out of trees in large numbers. The mothers had flown off, and the babies were not attached. They gradually dropped lower down the trees as they starved to death until they fell out. The causes were thought to be the El Niño weather pattern and loss of food and habitats as more land is cleared.
Over the weekend of 14 February 2017 south-eastern Australia was the hottest place on the planet. The mercury hit 46C, and thousands of bats fell dead to the ground.
Steve Williams and his team, also of James Cook University, specialise in the study of the impacts of global warming on tropical wildlife. They concluded in 2009 that species extinctions will increase dramatically if temperatures rise more than two or three degrees and that most of the wildlife found only in North Queensland will be wiped out entirely if temperatures rise the four to six degrees that is projected in the absence of a global concerted effort to restrict the rise to less than two degrees.
By 2016 Williams had observed that many endemic birds of the wet tropics are experiencing retracted ranges and have already moved uphill with only one degree of warming. He told me that the only other population of possums (Hemibelideus lemuroides) not on Mount Lewis has had to move higher up the Atherton Tablelands; at 1,000 metres you can find the animals but there are none in what used to be the lower part of its range below 700 metres. It is not a good sign for the diversity of life in the tropical forests. Once at the top of the mountain, there is nowhere else to go.
The white lemuroid possum was thought likely to be the first mammal globally to be driven to extinction solely by global warming, but that sad place has now been taken by a small rodent, the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), which lived only on a single low-lying island off the eastern Torres Strait. It was last seen in 2009. It is likely to have been driven to extinction by sea-level rise and ocean inundation, destroying its habitat and killing many individual animals.
The white lemuroid ringtail possum is not far behind. In late 2005 a severe heatwave hit the Mount Lewis region, coinciding with a failed wet season. Without misty cloud cover the possums could not withstand the heat and died. The survey conducted afterwards found only four possums, but since then there has been a very slow recovery. But with more extreme and more frequent heatwaves predicted as the world warms, it is only a matter of time before such an event coincides again with clear skies, and that will prove fatal for the white lemuroid possum on Mount Lewis.
"Just how empty and silent the seas and those landscapes become depends on us..."
Having agreed to take the badges to Durban and feeling devastated by the realisation that the possums’ extinction was looking me in the face, I began wondering if Léa Stein would design a white lemuroid possum brooch, not just because it would be beautiful but for global distribution as a way of raising awareness of the fact that global warming combined with habitat loss from mining and logging, urban expansion, commercial agriculture and invasive species will send one-third of all species to extinction by 2050. Stop for a minute and take that in.
Though Sandra Harding had delivered a badge to commemorate this magnificent creature, I put to her the idea of a Léa Stein brooch and asked for her assistance in having the university prepare and translate into French the work of their researchers and provide a high-quality image so I could send them to Stein. I talked to Léa Stein’s agent in Australia, Bruna Harrison of Harlequin Jewellers in Sydney, and put the idea to her; she was enthusiastic. Bruna told me that Léa, now in her eighties, is a recluse but still produces two designs a year. She does not use computers and has to be approached in person, so Bruna agreed that if information and a photo could be provided, together with a letter from me, she would give them to Lea on her next buying trip to Paris. Léa told Bruna that she would consider it.
A year went by, and I had given up thinking that anything would come of the idea. Then I heard from Bruna, who had been in Paris and could report that Léa had been working on the design but was having trouble with the tail. Finally the brooch was completed, in six different variations of texture. Three hundred were made available for early release in Australia before the global release in 2015. We were all incredibly excited that our project was about to materialise, and were quite blown away when we saw the brooches for the first time – a badge had been transformed into a stylised and stylish artwork. The brooch was launched most appropriately at the Global Tropical Biodiversity Conference at James Cook University in Cairns in 2014.
An auction on ebay listed as ‘Lea Stein White Lemuroid Ringtail Possum (Yuwa) Brooch’ Photograph: Ebay
I had been invited to deliver a keynote address there, and it seemed appropriate to bring together the Australian team who had made the brooch happen and the scientists on whose work we relied, and to celebrate as a group. It is a modern example of the age-old ways women work, in families, communities and life in general. This was a tale of four women: a French artist, a university vice-chancellor, a small business proprietor and an Australian Greens party leader, working together and combining our ideas, our skills, our nous and our networks to produce something beautiful, meaningful and multilayered.
When I wear that brooch, it is a statement that at the poles and in the tropics, our fellow species, which we have known and loved, are on their way to extinction.
I have a granddaughter who will be 35 in 2050. According to modelling of business as usual provided by Sophie Lewis at the Australian National University, the global land temperature will have increased by just over three degrees from my birth to when my granddaughter turns 35. I grieve that she will know silent and empty places where polar bears, white lemuroid possums, orangutans, elephants, giraffes and a myriad other species on land and in the oceans once lived.
Although the Great Barrier Reef will already be dead, just how empty and silent the seas and those landscapes become depends on us. It is why I will never stop being a campaigner to address global warming, environmental degradation, overpopulation and over-consumption, and I will never stop standing up to the governments and corporations that continue to drive them.
We are living in the Anthropocene, a period in the Earth’s history in which we humans have altered all the systems that support life on Earth. We are destroying the habitat that we and our fellow creatures need to survive. We live on a finite planet, yet we behave as if an increasing global population can continue to consume the Earth’s resources from forests and fisheries to fossil fuels at an accelerating rate and nothing will change. When I was born in 1953, the global population was 2.5 billion; it is now over 7 billion, and by 2050 it is projected to be more than 9 billion.
Christine Milne, An Activist Life.
If everyone consumes at the current rate of those of us in the developed world, why would we think that anything other than a reduced number of humans will have a place to live? When you add to that the impact of invasive species and overlay it with global warming, changing the climate and threatening food and water security for everything from plankton, plants and insects to reptiles, birds, animals and humans, you cannot escape the fact that we are living in the sixth wave of extinction and destroying our own home.
Saturday 18 November 2017 21.00 GMT
This is an edited extract from Christine Milne, An Activist’s Life (University of Queensland Press) in which she shares stories of her life through objects that have special meaning
original story HERE
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