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Michael Kourabas headshot

Can the Great Barrier Reef Be Saved?


In 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Australia’s Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site.  Just 25 years later, however, UNESCO warned that climate change and other anthropogenic causes were threatening the reef’’s existence.  In fact, according to a 2012 report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the reef has lost over half of its coral in the past quarter-century.

Earlier this year, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee noted that conservation efforts at the reef were making some progress, but that significant dangers still remained.  The committee encouraged the Australian government to submit an updated progress report by early 2015, which the committee would consider when determining whether or not the reef deserves placement on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Earlier this week, the Australian and Queensland governments released a draft of the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Report, which they hope will allay UNESCO’s concerns.  Critics, however, think bolder action is required.

What’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef?

In short, the reef is threatened by a combination of unabated climate change, coastal development, and overuse/pollution.

Climate Change.  In its 2007 report on the effects of climate change on World Heritage sites, UNESCO noted that the global warming-related risks to the Great Barrier Reef are manifold.  Some of the biggest risks include sea-level rise, sea temperature increase, storm frequency and intensity, ocean acidity, and, most threatening, "coral bleaching."

Coral bleaching occurs when the warming of sea-water temperatures causes coral to expel the nutrition-providing algae that grows on the coral’s skin.  According to projections made at the time of the 2007 UNESCO report, warming in the Great Barrier Reef Region -- likely between 2 degrees and 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 -- will result in more frequent “mass bleaching events,” leading to widespread death of corals.

Development.  Perhaps most troubling has been the Australian government’s willingness to allow development along the reef. Earlier this year, the Australian and Queensland governments granted approval for the dumping in Reef waters of 4.5 million tons of dredged material as part of the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port terminals, which sit on the edge of the reef and serve as the major docking points for coal from the Galilee Basin.  Outcry from conservation groups led to the Abbot Point developers ditching the plan to dump the spoil into the sea, instead opting to deposit it on land (which raises its own set of issues).  Yet, dumping aside, Abbot Point development will continue.  In fact, as the Queensland government itself admitted, new coal mining projects will continue to emerge in the region, likely resulting in a need to further expand the coal export capacity at Abbot Point beyond initial projections.

Overuse/pollution.  The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders and its exploitation as a tourist attraction is vital to the Australian economy.  For instance, visitation to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2013 amounted to approximately 2.09 million visitor days.  International consulting firm Deloitte calculated that, in 2012 alone, the reef contributed $5.7 billion in net economic value and was responsible for just under 69,000 full-time jobs.

Although UNESCO noted that tourism in the region is relatively well-controlled and not a significant contributor to reef-wide degradation, it concluded that increasing use still poses a threat to individual sites within the reef, particularly when accompanied by discharge of vessel waste and excessive fishing -- to say nothing of the impact of land-based pollution, including fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide and human sewage runoff.

Australia’s plan

In response to UNESCO's warning, the Australian and Queensland governments released a draft of the Reef 2050 report earlier this week.  The report, which will be subject to public consultations until Oct. 27, does some things well:  It includes greater protections for marine life; aims to improve water quality by reducing the amount of pesticides that wash into the reef; and rules out port development in certain areas (not including Abbot Point).

However, the report stops short of minimizing dredging and banning dumping within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, which groups like World Wildlife Fund-Australia have urged.  In addition, the WWF has criticized the report for failing to “provide the billions of dollars required to restore the health of the reef” and ignoring “the significant weakening of state environmental laws.”  Felicity Wishart, Great Barrier Reef campaign director at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, called the plan "too little, too late” and characterized it as a missed opportunity.

Australia’s failure mirrors society’s -- but there's hope

A common criticism of the 2050 Reef report is that the dire situation at the reef requires bolder action.  In other words, the same criticism that could be leveled against our society in the face of the devastation likely to be wrought by global warming.

It's no secret that, despite the clear and growing threat posed by climate change, the problem continues to worsen and our leaders dither.  We’re spewing more carbon dioxide than ever into our atmosphere, while the extractive industry continues to spend astronomical sums in search of hydrocarbons that they will never be able to safely burn.

Yet, with bold action there may be reason for hope.  This Saturday, for example, 100,000 people will march through Manhattan in an unprecedented effort to draw attention to the problem of climate change.  The People’s Climate March is being billed as the largest climate march in history, and has already drawn the support of a diverse group of over 1,400 businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Second, as Naomi Klein argues in her new book, we can use the project of saving our planet to simultaneously advance policies that improve lives, combat income inequality, create real jobs and reinvigorate grassroots democracy.  Klein calls this a “people’s shock,” a play on the theory of her last book, "The Shock Doctrine," which argued that rights are most vulnerable in the wake of “shocking” events, like 9/11.   To Klein, the climate crisis poses the opposite possibility: a chance for sweeping progressive action.

If we can, as Klein puts it, use the fight against climate change to “right [society’s] festering wrongs at last,” then perhaps there is reason for hope.  In the meantime, you can join Saturday's march and help save the Reef.

Image credit: Flickr/farbenfrohewunderwelt

Michael Kourabas headshot

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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