Great Barrier Reef in danger: Don’t fight the diagnosis, fight the threats

The loss of the Great Barrier Reef would be incalculable for Australia.

  • At the end of June, UNESCO issued a draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” due to multiplying threats. The Australian government reacted by saying the decision was politically motivated, without addressing the problems.
  • The “in danger” proposal is currently being debated by the World Heritage Committee during its Extended 44th Session hosted virtually in Fuzhou, China.
  • “My plea to the government and to my fellow Australians: don’t let politics thwart science. Don’t fight the diagnosis. Fight the threats. The world is watching and the clock is ticking,” writes the former executive director of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority in this new opinion piece for Mongabay.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I’m a native of North Queensland. I love Rugby League, an arvo in my tinny angling for coral trout (translation: an afternoon in a fishing boat) and The Reef. These quintessentially Australian things shaped my whole life. So no one would be happier than me to say, “The Great Barrier Reef isn’t in any danger.” But that’s not true, and politicians saying otherwise won’t make it so.

At the end of June, UNESCO issued a draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger.” The Australian government feigned shock and dismay, saying the decision was just dirty politics fouling the UN World Heritage Committee.

But the Australian government can’t have it both ways. It cannot claim the World Heritage designation is so renowned and respected that it drives the reef’s annual AUD$5.7 billion tourism industry, and at the same time dismiss it as a sham, easily manipulated by craven political power brokers.

Clown fish. Photo © CoralWatch / WWF-Aus

On its face, the Australian government’s critique doesn’t hold water. Start with the fact that the World Heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef has been under scrutiny since the committee first expressed “extreme concern” in 2011. Since that time, the reef has endured three major, widespread bleaching events; the problems with run-off and pollution have gotten worse; and fishing throughout the World Heritage area has increased.

Much of the evidence included in the World Heritage Committee’s draft decision comes from Australia’s own data about these threats.

The 2019 Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report assessed that the long-term outlook for the ecosystem has deteriorated from poor to very poor. The committee noted that the deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the reef’s Outstanding Universal Value has been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident.

The draft decision also finds that progress has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan, in particular the water quality and land management targets.

One can see how calling attention to these assessments may be embarrassing for the Australian government, but claiming to be “blindsided” beggars belief. And what political motivation would the committee have for downgrading the crown jewel of World Heritage sites? Australia has long been one of the staunch supporters of UNESCO’s World Heritage program – the committee has nothing to gain from giving this ally a black eye.

Which leads a sensible observer to conclude that the Great Barrier Reef is, indeed, in danger. The reef has provided Australia with hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth through tourism and fisheries. The World Heritage designation recognizes its universal value, but its tangible economic value has flowed into Australia. It’s past time for Australia to invest in the future of the reef.

The first step is for Australia to commit to climate policy consistent with the globally agreed goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C. In April of this year at U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual climate summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated existing targets – 26-28% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, based on 2005 levels – placing Australia’s ambition well below that of the U.K., U.S., Japan, Canada and the European Union.

Great Barrier Reef near Cairns. Image by Rhett A Butler for Mongabay.

As it lags behind, Australia says it alone isn’t responsible for the coral-killing heatwaves caused by climate change. True. But this facile argument won’t provide much comfort when the reef is obliterated, and with it the livelihoods it sustained. An “in danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef could provide motivation – or cover – for reluctant politicians to take meaningful action on climate change. The government could secure international standing and domestic goodwill by transforming the nation into a renewable energy superpower, with wins for the economy and nature.

A final argument for delaying action is “the reef is resilient.” The caveat too often left out is that resilience requires a certain baseline of health. And the reef today – though far from being a homogenous whole – is unwell. There are healthy places and pockets of resilience along the reef, but without strong action soon, even these treasures will struggle to survive in a climate-changed world.

Short-term “bounce backs” cannot be sustained under business as usual. Pioneer species will occupy certain niches in the places where corals, sea grasses, anemones and the other denizens of the reef once flourished. But it will be a poor facsimile of “one of the richest and most complex natural ecosystems on Earth,” as it’s described in the World Heritage list.

The loss of the Great Barrier Reef would be incalculable for Australia. The dollars and jobs could be tallied up – but not the dreams the reef inspires, not the happy memories made with a snorkel, fins and sense of adventure, not the scientific discoveries yet to be made, not the feeling of awe one receives in the presence of one of our planet’s natural wonders.

So my plea to the government and to my fellow Australians: Don’t let politics thwart science. Don’t fight the diagnosis. Fight the threats. The world is watching and the clock is ticking.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.