Facing up to the truth about the Great Barrier Reef

Scientific experts say two years of back-to-back coral bleaching means the Reef 2050 plan cannot be achieved, once again raising the prospect the Great Barrier Reef will be designated ‘World Heritage in danger’ – the very thing Reef 2050 was supposed to head off.

The World Heritage Convention’s purpose is to preserve heritage values for the benefit of future generations.

The World Heritage in Danger list is designed to facilitate the protection of sites that face a serious and specific threat with the ultimate aim of restoring the sites to safety and having them removed from the ‘in danger’ list.

The evidence has been strong for several years that the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble.

The latest news that unprecedented mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017, caused by climate change, have killed almost half of the reef’s coral makes it indisputable.

Of course, the federal government has been in strenuous denial about the true state of the Great Barrier Reef for some time.

It developed a Reef 2050 plan that failed to recognise climate change as the key issue and spent millions on lobbying, diplomacy and international politicking to convince the World Heritage Committee we have everything under control and in danger listing is not warranted.

The news about the extent of coral mortality just reinforces what has been clear for a while – we don’t have this under control.

Our government’s denial is dishonest and inevitable.

It’s dishonest because it is untrue and seeks to mask and disguise the gravity’s of the reef’s situation.

It’s inevitable because honesty would entail accepting the true, perilous state of the reef, and the fact that climate change is at the heart of it, and, critically, the responsibility this would then require of Australia.

That responsibility goes well beyond preparing and funding the best possible Reef 2050 plan. It also means getting serious about cutting the pollution that is fuelling climate change and becoming a leading international advocate for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

In short, acknowledging the reef is in danger would require Australia to become a leader in tackling climate change, not the laggard it has been for the past 20 years.

And being a leader would mean upsetting some powerful vested interests that want to keep Australia’s energy systems stuck in the 20th century.

It would mean no new coal mines and a rapid transition away from our current dependence on fossil fuels. It would mean ending our reliance on coal fired power and transitioning rapidly and justly to a renewable energy future.

Obviously climate change cannot be tackled by Australia alone, but nor can it be tackled without us.

Australia used to pride itself on being a good global citizen. We played a leading role as a small and maturing nation after WWII in developing the international framework of human rights.  We were an early signatory to the Ramsar convention on wetlands in the early 1970s, and the first country to designate a wetland to the international register.  In 1974 we were one of the first countries to ratify the then new World Heritage Convention.

Then we lost our way.

Climate change and our historic reliance on fossil fuels are behind our loss of direction.

The federal government’s efforts to head off in danger listing seem to be motivated by a desire to ensure the Word Heritage brand can continue to be used to maintain the denial about the dangers faced by the Reef.

It appears to be more about denying Australia has a problem than about protecting the common heritage of humankind for future generations.

However successful Australia has been in maintaining the denial of climate impacts on the reef, and the claim that our governments are responding appropriately, this week’s news has shattered the myth.

The truth has caught up with us, as it always does.

The challenge now for Australia is to have the courage to fess up and accept the responsibility that accompanies the truth.

Image: Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef near Lizard Island, Queensland (XL Catlin Seaview Survey)


Skip to content