On Friday, while scrolling through Instagram, I came across a post describing how the Australian government has declared koalas an endangered species. Previously, they were listed as a vulnerable species, but their classification was being changed to endangered in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory after a recent drop in numbers. In order to protect the koalas, the prime minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has pledged about $35.7 million to restore koala habitats over the next four years.
Restoring koala habitats is a helpful measure that will certainly work to protect them; koalas have been losing their homes and, therefore, creating and restoring their habits will be extremely beneficial. However, this does nothing to address the root cause of the koalas’ declining population: climate change.
The effects of climate change on koala populations in Australia include wildfires, disease and elevated carbon dioxide levels that have impacted eucalyptus—their main food source. In addition, deforestation, caused by urbanization, which contributes to climate change, also significantly affects koalas’ habitats. Until the Australian government addresses climate change as a whole as well as its subsequent effects, koalas, among other populations, will continue to face the consequences.
Living in the U.S., most of us are likely familiar with the wildfires in California. Studies have shown that more than half of the acres that burn each year in California can be attributed to climate change. Similarly, wildfires in Australia are largely fueled by climate change; as of late 2020, researchers reported that climate change made fires in Australia approximately 30% more likely to occur. Due to climate change, summers in Australia have been getting longer and prolonged heat waves — the primary cause of wildfires — have been more frequent.
Between 2019 and 2020, a study found that approximately 60,000 koalas were killed by wildfires and a significant portion of their habitats were also destroyed. Regardless of these effects — not just on koalas but on the entire population of humans and animals in Australia — the nation is doing very little to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As of the COP26 conference, Australia was shown to have the highest greenhouse gas emissions from coal in the world on a per capita basis. Not only is this incredibly concerning, but despite the risks it poses for the population and the wildlife, the government is not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Australian economy is heavily reliant on coal, Morrison is largely unwilling to make changes to this industry to mitigate the effects of climate change. As of November 2018, the United Nations found that Australia had not improved their climate policies and would likely fall short of the goals set in the Paris Climate Agreement regarding greenhouse gas emissions.
Koalas are particularly affected by greenhouse gas emissions due to their diets. As carbon dioxide levels rise, protein levels in plants decrease significantly making koalas’ diets less nutritious. Due to this, they are more likely to face malnutrition and starvation.
Spending an exorbitant amount of money building new habitats for koalas is merely treating a symptom of the disease that is climate change. Once these new habitats are created, if the effects of climate change are not mitigated and the Australian government does not work to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions, there will be nothing stopping this cycle from occurring again. Koalas will once again lose their homes and their lives due to wildfires and changes in the environment that affect their diet and nutrition.
Disease is also a significant problem affecting the koala population. Many have likely heard the idea that most koalas are infected with chlamydia; this is not a myth. For koalas, when they are infected with chlamydia, cysts form inside adults that cause infertility. Climate change has further exacerbated this problem as research has found that in stressful environments — including when there are bushfires, drought and heat waves — koalas are more susceptible to the disease. Climate change has caused koalas to be in a state of constant stress, thus negatively affecting their immune systems.
The Australian government must begin taking this problem much more seriously. Climate change is actively working to decrease the koala population to the point where they are considered endangered species in three states.
Climate change will continue affecting the koala populations of Australia regardless of the new habitats the government spends money on. Rather than simply building these habitats and washing their hands of this problem, the Australian government must make changes to their coal industry — eventually leading to them divesting from such fossil fuels altogether — in order to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. It certainly does not have to be an overnight process, but to best protect the populations, divesting from these fossil fuels should be the end goal.
At this point, the koala population has been negatively impacted significantly. However, so have other animals, wildlife and humans both living in Australia and around the world. Governments, including that of Australia, must recognize the deadly consequences of climate change and work toward ensuring the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold for global warming is not exceeded. Wildlife and our own lives depend on it.