It’s not hard to find bad news about the Great Barrier Reef but amongst the grim reports, there are signs of hope. First the bad news: The Australian Institute of Marine Science recently released its annual findings on the state of the Great Barrier Reef. Hard coral cover has shown a steep decline throughout the Marine Park. The loss of coral in all three regions (northern, central, southern) of the Park is unprecedented. Many reefs now have very low coral cover. The geographic scale of recent bleaching means that breeding populations of corals have been decimated over large areas.
But the Great Barrier Reef is the length of Italy and contains over 3,000 coral reefs. There are still many beautiful healthy reefs that can inspire and amaze. The Reef does have a future as functioning ecosystem, albeit with less biodiversity, but that depends on our political leaders acting with moral and political courage on climate change.
And now for the signs of hope: During the first severe coral bleaching event of 2016, the tourism industry felt under attack by the national and international media for reports that were in many instances inaccurate, with people across the world thinking the Reef was dead or beyond hope. The industry resented environment groups using the Reef as conspicuous evidence of climate change. Key power players in the industry tried to downplay the scale of the event.
In 2017, no one was expecting another severe bleaching event. It wasn’t an El Nino year. Tourism workers, divers and operators were shocked and worried. Further south of the severe bleaching zone, category 4 tropical Cyclone Debbie tore through the Whitsundays region. Approximately 28 per cent of the total reef area of the Marine Park was within the ‘catastrophic damage zone’. Companies received calls every day from people asking if the Reef was dead and worth coming to see.
Then, the tourism industry and conservation groups starting talking together about climate change. In early May this year, the peak body for the marine park tourism industry (AMPTO) and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) held a summit in Cairns and released a Reef Tourism Climate Declaration. For the first time, the industry demanded strong climate policies from our political leaders:
Despite the negative press, the Reef is a dynamic, vibrant, awesome place. But, like coral reefs around the world, it is under serious threat.
Climate change, mainly driven by burning coal and other fossil fuels, is the single biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. The carbon pollution from coal, oil and gas is heating the air and the oceans to dangerous levels. Coral reefs around the world were damaged during an unprecedented marine heatwave in 2016 and 2017.
It’s not too late to save our Reef but time is critical.
The federal government has a responsibility to honour the Paris Agreement and protect the Reef on behalf of all Australians, all humanity and future generations. Yet our representatives continue to support the expansion of coal and gas, including Adani’s mega coal mine.
To give our Reef the best chance for the future, Australia must join the rest of the world to rapidly phase out coal and other fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy.
We call on all our political leaders to stand up for Far North QLD businesses and jobs and fight for the future of our Reef.
At the global level, there was action too. The World Heritage Committee, which met recently in Bahrain, expressed its concern at the impact climate change is having on the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties. The body that advises the Committee on natural World Heritage sites – IUCN – found in its World Heritage Outlook 2 report that climate change is the fastest growing threat to natural heritage sites and will soon become the dominant threat. As a result, the Committee decided that an updated climate change policy be considered at its next meeting.
On 19th July, the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Forum approved an updated Reef 2050 Plan in response to the back-to-back bleaching events. The Plan recognises that these two events “have fundamentally changed the character of the Reef.”
It finds that “A concerted international effort to limit the effects of global climate change is essential to provide the best protection for coral reefs. Respected coral scientists have documented in peer-reviewed journals that most of the world’s coral reefs will not survive unless the global temperature increase is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. UNESCO (fully spelt) has found that drastic reductions in CO2 emissions are essential to giving coral reefs a chance to survive climate change.”
It recognises that “an additional 0.5 C of global warming is locked in already under the most optimistic carbon emissions path”. That means we’re already at the point where we have to take action to drastically reduce our carbon pollution – if we are to keep the Reef into the future.
But the Plan leaves the reader begging for action on climate mitigation. There isn’t even a recognition that Australia should do its fair share to reduce global carbon pollution. Under the World Heritage Convention, Australia has a moral and legal obligation to do its utmost to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef. Doing out utmost should mean thinking across borders, so that an ambitious emissions reduction target is a non-negotiable pathway to saving our Reef.
Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist. She currently leads a campaign for the Australian Marine Conservation Society to protect the Great Barrier Reef. @ImogenZethoven