Narelle Long

24 April 2014 — In terms of observations of Australia’s climate, Aboriginal Elders have an indisputable claim to the longest period of study, which is why their recognition that things have been rapidly changing is very relevant to appreciating the impacts of climate change.

In the NITV (SBS) documentary series The Tipping Points, the Elders and leading climate and marine scientists are combined for the final episode “Oceans – the Last Frontier”, and the result is a confronting look at how close we are to a major ecological breaking point.

Two young Indigenous environmental ambassadors, Narelle Long and Malcolm Lynch, feature in the episode. The first Aboriginal young people to travel to the Antarctic with climate scientists, they returned to Country to discuss with Elders what changes have been seen and what the implications are not only for the Indigenous communities but for the nation as a whole.

“Aboriginal Elders live off the land, they are there and present,” Ms Long told The Fifth Estate, speaking by phone from Adelaide. “And because they live off the land they have to factor in that what they are seeing [in terms of changes] is not natural.”

For the documentary, Ms Long returned to her grandmother’s country at Daly River, near Darwin, where she heard from Elders about the changes to the breeding cycles of key species including long-necked turtles, a major food source, and dragonflies, which are a major food source for barramundi. She was shown fields of water lilies that last year flowered at the wrong time for gathering, something that had a substantial impact on the community’s ability to maintain traditional diet.

There are also effects being felt such as more lengthy wet seasons, higher tides, greater flooding and more intense electrical storms. This is challenging both the traditional lifestyle and the traditional teachings on appropriate times for hunting and gathering. It is also directly threatening the ability of the community to remain on traditional lands, which in turn impacts the sense of identity.

Why this experience matters for the broader community is simple in Ms Long’s view. Climate change is affecting ocean ecosystems, which has knock-on effects for all the things people love about the sea.

“People who live on the coast, they love their fish and their seafood, and living near the beach. Something might happen to affect that such as there are less fish for hunting, sea level rises [affecting property] or acidification of oceans could have health impacts,” Ms Long said.

“It is a good beginning [to talk about climate change]. It’s important to get that message out there, and also to bring it back to Country.

“[The changes at Daly River are] a real life effect that could impact on our generation and certainly on our children. What legacy do we want to leave behind? We want to positively address climate change. The small things everyone can do to make a difference matter.”

The journey to Antarctica and working on the documentary have had a profound impact on Ms Long, who said she now wants to continue to share her experiences to “get people thinking about how they can live a more sustainable life”.

“It’s [also] about trying to make them understand the connection between Aboriginal people and the land… that’s really important, people in urban settings are not experiencing the effects of climate and weather to the same extent.

“The tipping points are closer than everyone might think.”

Malcolm Lynch returned home to the Tiwi Islands, where the impacts are obvious in the disappearance of places which have been swallowed by ocean levels rising.

Elders showed him ecosystem effects, where wattle trees that used to signal an appropriate hunting period are now flowering three months early, altering the people’s ability to implement a traditional teaching that has been sustainably guiding them for thousands of years. A tour guide shows him where billabong levels are changing, and new billabongs beginning to appear due to the rising water table.

Mr Lynch observes that for communities near the coastline, if they have to move due to ocean level rises, it can mean loss of culture and identity.

The documentary also examines the role the Great Southern Ocean has in mitigating global carbon. Under previous conditions, the ocean was storing around 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. However, changes to the salt balance in the water due to melting Antarctic ice and rises in temperature have combined to reduce its capacity to act as a carbon sink.

Ms Notenbloom also visits the marine scientists who are researching the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg tells her, “we are ignoring all the signs – this is the critical decade.”

He explains that at Heron Island, where a team of marine scientists have been studying the reef, a temperature rise of just one degree in the water sustained for a period of days, is enough to cause coral bleaching. This phenomenon has already been observed in the surrounding reef.

“The change is so rapid, life can’t adapt,” Professor Hoegh-Guldberg tells Ms Notenbloom.

Experiments carried out by his research team show clearly what happens to the reef and marine species dependent on it under various carbon emissions scenarios. The starkest example is what happens if we continue as is with emissions – almost every species of coral dies, and we will therefore lose the fisheries and tourism industries which rely on the reef.

Former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Professor Charlie Vernon, makes no bones about the fact we must act now to curb emissions, as not only the reef but the broader ocean ecosystems and all species – including ours – which depend on them are at risk.

“If we are going to have a worthwhile planet for our children’s children, we must act now,” Professor Vernon says.

The Tipping Points – Oceans: The Last Frontier will air on Sunday 27 April, 8.30pm on NITV (Ch 34 on free-to-air and Ch 144 on Foxtel).