Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek last week welcomed a UNESCO World Heritage Committee decision not to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”. But what is “great news” to Plibersek is not great news for the reef. 

Leonard Cohen once wrote, “Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied”. Well, everybody knows that the reef is dying. The scientists know it. The committee who overruled them know it (recognising that it “remains under serious threat”), and Plibersek knows it. All the same, she has the nerve to celebrate the committee’s decision, which hasn’t even been made—the committee has simply delayed its determination for another six months, apparently to give the federal government time to act.

Since 2010, federal governments have been trying to stop formal international recognition of the reef’s perilous situation. If UNESCO were to list the reef as “in danger”, of course, it would only confirm what everybody knows. But for our climate-conscious rulers, what matters is not what is happening, only what is said to be happening. The most likely outcome of the listing would be more pressure to save the reef and additional funding and support from UNESCO to protect it.

But that is not what concerns the Albanese government, any more than the Morrison government before it. It understands that the Great Barrier Reef is a litmus test to determine how serious the government is about protecting the environment. An “in danger” listing would be a black mark against its environmental record, and could lead to the loss of heritage status—a trophy prized by the tourism industry. In other words, it would be bad for business.

For this reason, Sussan Ley (environment minister in the Morrison government) in 2021 went on a “whirlwind tour” of countries represented on the committee, successfully lobbying for their support to avoid the listing. Plibersek has had no scruples about similar efforts, declaring that she “spoke with the director-general [of UNESCO] personally on several occasions”, as well as with UNESCO ambassadors from other countries, impressing on them how different her government is from the last. For her, “Lobbying is about telling the truth about what we’re doing”.

But in the age of “net zero”, the truth is whatever governments want it to be.

In the draft decision released at the end of July, the committee pointed to “new, but still recent commitments” and “initial actions” by the federal government, such as a $1.2 billion funding boost to the Reef Trust and a phase-out of gillnet fishing (which will take until 2027). 

Yet anyone concerned with the truth might be inclined to point out that the government’s own Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority considers climate change “the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef”. That’s according to the Authority’s position statement on climate change in 2019, which explains that, to protect the reef, it’s necessary to take “the strongest and fastest possible actions” to reduce emissions.

Plibersek might point to her decision to reject Clive Palmer’s proposed coal mine (which would have been adjacent to the reef), a decision she has used to trumpet her climate credentials. But her trumpet cannot drown out the great brass ensemble belching out carbon: 116 new coal and gas projects in the pipeline, along with four approved coalmines and sprawling gas projects like Scarborough in development. 

Ninety percent of the heat created by these carbon emissions will be absorbed by the ocean, in which there are already unprecedented ocean surface temperatures and marine heatwaves, another of which is predicted to hit the Tasman Sea later this year. As I wrote previously for Red Flag, these heatwaves have been described as “wildfires of the seas”, destroying marine life much as a bushfire does terrestrial life.

Coral is the basis of ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef, providing a foundational source of food and shelter. Temperature changes stress the corals, forcing them to expel algae, a symbiote that provides them with food as well as their vivid colouring. This process “bleaches” the coral, exposing its white skeleton. Corals can live like this for a time, but frequent heatwaves will eventually finish them off—and that’s exactly where we’re headed. Kimberley Reid, a research associate with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and Monash University, explained in an August CNN interview that, with current global policies plotting a course for 2.7 degrees warming, “We’re very clearly on track to see at least a 99 percent decline in global coral reefs, and if that doesn’t scream the reef’s in danger, then I’m not sure what will”.

The oceans absorb not only heat, but carbon itself (a third of it, in fact). Combine H2O and CO2 and you get H2CO3, otherwise known as carbonic acid. Slowly and steadily, the ocean is acidifying, a process that reduces the ability of corals to build their skeletons. All this is still only a small slice of the picture. Heatwaves destroy kelp and seagrasses, and lead to mass fish die-offs. Increased ocean surface temperatures make tropical cyclones and floods more severe, damaging reefs and tearing up seagrass meadows. Rising oceans erode the coasts and erase nesting habitats.

Before such a wave of destruction, Labor’s “initial actions” are scraps to be swallowed up like krill as the climate crisis opens its maw wider.

And what of the government’s “recent commitments”? They are little more than a chloroform rag Plibersek used to smother the World Heritage Committee. Labor’s upgraded target of 43 percent emissions reductions by 2030 would not even meet Australia’s obligations under the Paris Agreement, which sought to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. In such a scenario, coral reefs are projected to “decline by a further 70-90 percent”, according to the Authority’s policy position. 

By opening rather than closing coal and gas projects, the government is helping to push the world towards a warming of 3 degrees. Or worse.

In such a world, the Great Barrier Reef will be dead, not “in danger” (or so Plibersek might console herself).

PHOTO: Coral bleaching off Heron Island in Queensland in 2016. Credit: The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey/Richard Vevers