Case You Missed It
Going To Become Extinct," Eminent Scientist
September 17, 2016 "Information
June 16, 2010
FRANK Fenner doesn't engage in the
skirmishes of the climate wars. To him,
the evidence of global warming is in.
Our fate is sealed.
"We're going to become extinct," the eminent
scientist says. "Whatever we do now is too
Fenner is an authority on extinction. The
emeritus professor in microbiology at the
Australian National University played a
leading role in sending one species into
oblivion: the variola virus that causes
his work on the myxoma virus suppressed wild
rabbit populations on farming land in
southeastern Australia in the early 1950s.
made the comments in an interview at his
home in a leafy Canberra suburb. Now 95, he
rarely gives interviews. But until recently
he went into work each day at the ANU's John
Curtin School of Medical Research, of which
he was director from 1967 to 1973.
Decades after his official retirement from
the Centre for Resource and Environmental
Studies, which he set up in 1973, he
continued a routine established when he was
running world-class facilities while
He'd get to work at 6.30am to spend a couple
of hours writing textbooks before the rest
of the staff arrived.
Fenner, a fellow of the Australian Academy
of Science and of the Royal Society, has
received many awards and honours. He has
published hundreds of scientific papers and
written or co-written 22 books.
retrieves some of the books from his
library. One of them, on smallpox, has
physical as well as intellectual gravitas:
it weighs 3.5kg. Another, on myxomatosis,
was reprinted by Cambridge University Press
last year, 44 years after the first edition
Fenner is chuffed, but disappointed that he
could not update it with research confirming
wild rabbits have developed resistance to
the biological control agent.
study showed that myxo now had a much lower
kill rate in the wild than in laboratory
rabbits that had never been exposed to the
"The [wild] rabbits themselves had mutated,"
was an evolutionary change in the rabbits."
deep understanding of evolution has never
diminished his fascination with observing it
in the field. That understanding was shaped
by studies of every scale, from the
molecular level to the ecosystem and
Fenner originally wanted to become a
geologist but, on the advice of his father,
studied medicine instead, graduating from
the University of Adelaide in 1938.
spent his spare time studying skulls with
prehistorian Norman Tindale.
Soon after graduating, he joined the Royal
Australian Army Medical Corps, serving in
Egypt and Papua New Guinea. He is credited
in part with Australia's victory in New
Guinea because of his work to control
malaria among the troops.
"That quite changed my interest from looking
at skulls to microbiology and virology," he
says. But his later research in virology,
focusing on pox viruses, took him also into
epidemiology and population dynamics, and he
would soon zoom out to view species,
including our own, in their ecological
biological perspective is also geological.
wrote his first papers on the environment in
the early 1970s, when human impact was
emerging as a big problem.
says the Earth has entered the Anthropocene.
Although it is not an official epoch on the
geological timescale, the Anthropocene is
entering scientific terminology. It spans
the time since industrialisation, when our
species started to rival ice ages and comet
impacts in driving the climate on a
Fenner says the real trouble is the
population explosion and "unbridled
number of Homo sapiens is projected to
exceed 6.9 billion this year, according to
the UN. With delays in firm action on
cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Fenner is
"We'll undergo the same fate as the people
on Easter Island," he says. "Climate change
is just at the very beginning. But we're
seeing remarkable changes in the weather
"The Aborigines showed that without science
and the production of carbon dioxide and
global warming, they could survive for
40,000 or 50,000 years. But the world can't.
The human species is likely to go the same
way as many of the species that we've seen
"Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps
within 100 years," he says. "A lot of other
animals will, too. It's an irreversible
situation. I think it's too late. I try not
to express that because people are trying to
do something, but they keep putting it off.
"Mitigation would slow things down a bit,
but there are too many people here already."
It's an opinion shared by some scientists
but drowned out by the row between climate
change sceptics and believers.
Fenner's colleague and long-time friend
Stephen Boyden, a retired professor at the
ANU, says there is deep pessimism among some
ecologists, but others are more optimistic.
"Frank may be right, but some of us still
harbour the hope that there will come about
an awareness of the situation and, as a
result, the revolutionary changes necessary
to achieve ecological sustainability," says
Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human
ecology later in his career.
"That's where Frank and I differ. We're both
aware of the seriousness of the situation,
but I don't accept that it's necessarily too
late. While there's a glimmer of hope, it's
worth working to solve the problem. We have
the scientific knowledge to do it but we
don't have the political will."
Fenner will open the Healthy Climate, Planet
and People symposium at the Australian
Academy of Science next week, as part of the
AAS Fenner conference series, which is
designed to bridge the gap between
environmental science and policy.
1980, Fenner had the honour of announcing
the global eradication of smallpox to the
UN's World Health Assembly. The disease is
the only one to have been eradicated.
Thirty years after that occasion, his
outlook is vastly different as he
contemplates the chaos of a species on the
brink of mass extinction.
the population keeps growing to seven, eight
or nine billion, there will be a lot more
wars over food," he says.
"The grandchildren of today's generations
will face a much more difficult world."