Law has long struggled to address cumulative environmental threats, as activities interact and aggregate to cause larger problems, from global climate change to water over-exploitation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Using two well-known proverbs – the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the frog in a pot of water coming to the boil – this article critically examines how key elements of Australia’s most significant federal environmental and natural resources legislation treat cumulative environmental effects. Promising regulatory approaches are emerging. However, the structure and implementation of these linked federal legislative regimes ultimately permit metaphorical camels’ backs to be broken and frogs to be boiled. They risk insidious environmental degradation even in the absence of a conspicuous crisis. Judicial and policy development of key statutory concepts could guide a more effective response to incremental environmental change, and should be informed by experience of domestic, comparative and international legal approaches to controlling cumulative environmental effects.
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