Recently I was talking to a political insider in Canberra who told me he’d heard on numerous occasions at dinner parties that tragically the Great Barrier Reef is dead.
The Reef is definitely not dead. Yes, there are conflicting messages about its state, but it is still spectacular, it is still worth seeing and it is still worth investing every ounce of effort to protect it.
These days the onset of summer brings the dread of a severe marine heatwave that could bleach and kill corals across a vast area. In our 1-degree warmer world, scientists now gather annually in Townsville to pool data on the likelihood of another severe coral bleaching event as happened in 2016 and 2017. Fortunately, a widespread and severe event this summer is not forecast at this point. Some coral bleaching is however, considered a possibility. This now appears to be the new normal, the best case, as against a spike of extreme heat with deadly consequences for corals.
Many Australians are rightly upset about the state of the Reef and despairing or angry about the lack of any serious action by the federal government to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the Reef’s existential threat. Yet judgement day is looming. As a World Heritage Area, the condition and management of the Great Barrier Reef is overseen by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.
The Committee is meeting in Fuzhou, China in July 2020 and will be reviewing Australian and Queensland Government actions to protect the Reef, as well as Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area. Australia is one of 21 countries on the Committee but countries whose sites are being assessed are not permitted to intervene in discussions and decisions about their own sites. Of course what happens behind the scenes can be and often is quite different.
The Committee requested a report from the Australian Government by 1 December 2019 on the state of conservation of the Reef. The Government duly sent the report on time. Essentially, the Committee will assess one thing: is the State Party – the Australian Government – protecting or restoring the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Reef’s OUV was defined almost 40 years ago in the original nomination document to inscribe the Reef on the World Heritage List. The original nomination document is a joy to read. It describes a vast and beautiful ecosystem in large part pristine, but affected by some local disturbances. It is one of the richest and most complex natural systems on Earth. The amazing diversity of life throughout the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem supports tens of thousands of marine and terrestrial species, many of which are of global conservation significance. No other World Heritage site contains such biodiversity. The 2,500 individual reefs and 900 islands provide some of the most spectacular maritime scenery in the world, above and below the water.
At the time of inscription, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which advises the World Heritage Committee stated “… if only one coral reef site in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef is the site to be chosen”.
The nomination states that the unparalleled size of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem means that most habitats and species can recover from disturbances such as cyclones and floods when huge pulses of freshwater flow from the adjacent catchment into the Reef’s salty seas. That’s the critical point: recovery. Since the severe marine heatwave of 2016 and 2017, the Reef has lost the capacity to bounce back to its former state. The amount of living coral has dropped dramatically in the northern two thirds. New corals are beginning to grow, but it is virtually certain that their growth will be interrupted by another severe marine heatwave in the not too distant future.
So can the World Heritage Committee break the deadlock over Australia’s climate policy paralysis? It may seem impossible to imagine, but 64,000 jobs in the tourism industry are dependent on the Reef’s survival, and many of those are in marginal electorates down the Queensland coastline. Could the Committee find a way through to persuade the Australian Government to do its fair share of emissions reduction to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C and safeguard the future of one of the planet’s most iconic World Heritage Areas? The famous Nelson Mandala quote comes to mind: “It always seems impossible until its done.”
Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist who has worked on Australian and global ocean health for nearly 30 years. She currently works for the Australian Marine Conservation Society on the ocean climate nexus with a focus on the Great Barrier Reef @ImogenZethoven