My Seven Perspectives on the Great Barrier Reef

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I remember the first time I saw the Great Barrier Reef.  It was in early November 1968.  I had driven up from Sydney, parked my car in long-term parking in Gladstone, Queensland, and suffered through what seemed an eternity of a trip on the aptly named Saramoa, to arrive at Heron Island, and the Heron Island Research Station.  That cow of a vessel would roll and pitch in anything other than a glassy calm, all the while bathing its passengers in diesel fumes that somehow travelled a corkscrew path from engine room, out through the stack, down past the stern and then back and in the open door to the cabin.  After five or more hours of this, few arrived at Heron Island as comfortable as they were departing Gladstone, and I learned the value of getting out in the breeze and watching the horizon intently for the duration of the trip.

Heron Island gave me immediate access to the richest coral reef I had yet seen, filled with innumerable creatures for whom I had no names.  The small library at the research station provided some names of doubtful value, and I began to learn.  The scale of Heron Reef was impressive.  At low tide, standing on the shore, the reef stretched out to the horizon, and knowing it was just one tiny portion of the Great Barrier Reef filled me with wonder.  While I knew it had a history, and had not always been here, I thought of the Great Barrier Reef as eternal, something dependable that could be relied upon to be here, as it was then, forever.

Heron Island in 2008 – the reef flat, dry or close to it at low tide, stretches 5 km towards the east of the island.  It’s just one of numerous such reefs within the Great Barrier Reef complex. 
Photo © P Sale.

In 1968, Australians by and large took the Great Barrier Reef for granted.  It was largely unmanaged and underused.  It would have been overused but for the fact it was a long way offshore (Heron Island was 80 km off Gladstone), and Australians were not numerous.  They had a proclivity to overuse, however.  Spearfishing derbies were frequent and popular, and hook and line fishers seldom stopped when they had caught more than enough fish to eat.  But then, Australia was the country where it was said, “if it moves, shoot it; if it doesn’t, cut it down; and if it’s underground, dig it up.”  The ocean was ‘known’ to be full of fish, and the Great Barrier Reef stretched on forever.

I continued to visit the Great Barrier Reef regularly over the next 20 years.  I watched as Australia awoke to the incredible value of this amazing natural wonder.  Not long after that first visit as the Queensland government got ready to sell off mining leases along the reef, a simple bumper sticker made its appearance.  Save the Barrier Reef. 

Australia opened its eyes to the possibility that greed and the hunt for hydrocarbons might damage the Great Barrier Reef.  Suddenly that was not okay.  (That certain leading Queensland politicians had hefty investments in the companies being awarded the leases may have helped swing the tide.)  And so there was a Royal Commission – a whole lot of talking by learned people – that dragged on for a while but resulted in a changed perspective.   The country decided the Great Barrier Reef was too important to be dug over for oil and gas; Australia had a responsibility to care for it.  This was my second perspective on the Great Barrier Reef.

Fast forward to the heady days of the late 1970s and the 1980s, and Australia was proposing, putting into law, and establishing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  The Federal and Queensland governments cooperated in this venture, even when ruled by political parties of differing perspective!  Relatively large sums of money were spent and talented people with the necessary scientific and other skills were hired to manage what was, at the time, far and away the largest managed marine area in the world.  This became my third perspective on the Great Barrier Reef – the best managed, highly valued piece of marine real estate on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park remains one of the largest marine managed areas on the planet.  Its waters are zoned to permit different types of use at different places within the region, and management is done jointly by the state of Queensland and the federal government, through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.  Map © GBRMPA.

Around that time, the first mass bleaching of coral reefs occurred.  It was far from Australia, and I only learned about it when accounts appeared in the technical journals a year later.  But in 1982, reefs along the Pacific coast of Panama, north into Costa Rica and south into Ecuador, as well as reefs in the Galapagos archipelago to the west all bleached severely as corals expelled their algal symbionts, and turned ghastly, ghostly white.  Many of those corals subsequently died.  Reef ecologist, Peter Glynn provided the most detailed information on the event, and drew a tentative connection to the unusually warm water caused by what was, at the time, the strongest el Niño ever recorded.  I’d like to think I woke up to what might be happening at that time.  But I did not, and nor did many of my reef science colleagues.  I knew something important had just happened, but figured it was a problem for coral scientists to solve – just one more fascinating feature of coral reefs.

By the late 1980s, I had left Australia, was exploring coral reefs in the Caribbean, and the Great Barrier Reef settled into my past, as a hazy image of wondrousness, a profoundly impressive ecological system that I had been privileged to study and to know.  That was my fourth perspective on the Great Barrier Reef.

A Great Barrier Reef reefscape.  Photo © Pablo Cogolos & Afar Productions.

Fast forward to 1997-1998, when another el Niño, the first to be more powerful than that in 1982 and now the second most powerful ever, led to mass coral bleaching around the world.  That was the first time we had witnessed circumtropical bleaching, and that time it got through to me.  About bloody time, you say! 

Many parts of the Great Barrier Reef bleached, as did coral reefs in other regions around the world as summer and el Niño spread that killing warm water.  Slowly it dawned on me that the Great Barrier Reef, that magnificent example of coral reef development, that immaculately unlikely, improbable exuberance of evolutionary magic, might actually be at real risk of becoming degraded into a depressing mass of eroding limestone covered by algal turfs.  That became my fifth perspective on the Great Barrier Reef.  Massive as it was, we appeared to be in the process of eliminating it from the planet.

I had watched from afar as Australian scientists and reef managers discovered some of the inadequacies of their initial management of the Great Barrier Reef.  I had seen a progressive strengthening of regulations each time the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park came up for re-zoning.  I had watched as they grappled with the challenges of regulating the land management practices of people and communities who lived far inland from the reef, but whose fertilizers and pesticides were impinging on portions of the reef every time severe rain led to flooding.  And I had watched as they grappled with the similarly challenging, though perhaps more obvious, tasks of regulating fishing and tourism on the reef itself, all while tourism to the Great Barrier Reef exploded. 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was still the best managed large marine protected area in the world, though its management was definitely not perfect.  And management practices first developed there were being applied in other marine protected areas in other coral reef regions throughout the world.  My sixth perspective on the Great Barrier Reef was one in which that marine park, a paragon of how a country might protect a significant coral reef system, continued to be strengthened, all while threats to that park multiplied and signs of ecological stress became too obvious to ignore.  Despite the excellent park management, Australians were failing at the task of caring for the Great Barrier Reef.  Just this month, Andeas Dietzel from James Cook University and three colleagues published a report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B detailing the more than 50% decline in abundance of coral colonies of various size classes along the Great Barrier Reef between the mid-1990s and today.  Most of that loss is due to mortality caused by warming-induced bleaching, although other factors are also involved.

Change in abundance of coral taxa by colony size on the Great Barrer Reef between 1995/1996 and 2016/2017.  Histograms on left show change in size frequency.  Chart on right shows percent change in abundance for each of three size categories.  Image © Andreas Dietzel and colleagues.

During the first decade of this century, now based in Canada, I noticed the similarities in national attitudes of Australia and Canada to climate change.  Both countries have long relied on export of fossil fuels and other minerals for a significant part of their economies.  In Canada, the fuel has been mostly oil.  The hard to extract, hard to refine bitumen that exists in enormous quantities in northern Alberta has in recent years come to be the primary source, and Canada’s carbon footprint is high because of the reliance on this resource.  In Australia, the fuels have been gas and coal, the latter enormously abundant in deposits in Queensland and norther New South Wales.  Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, and since a third of Australian coal is exported from ports along the Queensland coast, and growth in the industry is primarily within Queensland, that industry has direct negative impacts on the Great Barrier Reef as well as its impacts on climate change.

Both Canada and Australia have mediocre records when it comes to taking action on climate change, and politicians in both countries have plenty of reasons for the poor performance to trot out when questioned.  Mostly they rely on the fact that Canada contributes only 1.63% of global GHG emissions while Australia contributes just 1.28%.  What difference would it make if either country reduced its emissions?  This facile argument could be used by any nation other than the nine with higher percentages of total emissions than Canada (if the EU is considered a ‘nation’, it also falls higher on the percentage scale than Canada).  It’s a great argument for doing nothing to reduce your emissions! 

Both countries also take pains to claim that it is none of their business what overseas purchasers of their fossil fuels do with the fuel – in other words, producers/exporters of fossil fuels cannot be held accountable for the damage done by using those fuels.  The same argument exonerates gun manufacturers and producers of cigarettes from responsibility for the human suffering that results from use of those products.  Canada also tried making the pitch that we produce tar sands oil ethically and whined about being a northern country which means we have to burn lots of energy to heat our buildings.  (It’s hard to imagine how ethical bitumen extraction might differ from unethical extraction.)  Never mind the ethics; try out the northern excuse on Sweden (0.11% of emissions) or Norway (0.10%) which, last I looked, are even more northern than Canada. 

Enthusiastic about their fossil fuel resources, Australia and Canada subsidize their fossil fuel industries substantially.  In May 2019, the International Monetary Fund released a study of energy sector subsidies by country in 2015 and 2017.  The more comprehensive 2015 data (subsidies grew slightly overall by 2017) reveal Canada and Australia among the more active although by no means the most benevolent countries when it comes to subsidizing this industry with tax dollars.  According to IMF, global fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 were US$ 4.7 trillion or 6.3% of global GDP; that total grew slightly to US$ 5.2 trillion or 6.5% of GDP in 2017.  Using the online data behind this report reveals that Canadian 2015 subsidies total US$ 42.83 billion putting it 5th among a group of 39 ‘advanced’ countries, and 17th overall among some 191 countries.  Australia fared slightly better with US$ 28.51 billion in 2015 subsidies putting it 8th among the advanced countries and 25th overall.  On a per capita basis, Canada, subsidizing its fossil fuel industry at $ 1191.41 per person is 8th among the advanced countries and 27th overall, while Australia is slightly worse.  Australia’s $ 1198.02 per person in subsidies to its fossil fuel sector, is 7th among the advanced countries and 26th overall.  As a Canadian, I’d like to see my $1191 used for something more productive than digging up Alberta’s tar sands.  As someone who cares about the Great Barrier Reef, I’d like to see Australia scale back its subsidies as well.

Both Canada and Australia persisted for as long as they could in claiming climate change was unimportant.  Canada, under the leadership of political parties of both liberal and conservative persuasion, routinely said nice things about combatting climate change, even signed onto international agreements, notably the Kyoto Accord, and then did nothing.  When Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, his government had the misguided honesty to maintain that climate change was a trivial issue about which there was considerable scientific doubt.  It was a time in which Canadian government websites ceased talking about climate change, and government scientists were actively muzzled to ensure they’d not reveal any disturbing evidence.  During Harper’s tenure, however, Canadian politicians largely gave up on that quaintly flat earth view – it ceased being national policy with the end of the Harper government in 2015.  But I’m still waiting to see the aggressive action on climate change that in-coming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised (and spending those $40+ billion in subsidies somewhere else would be a good start).

I’m sad to see climate denial still a well-supported stance in Australia.  While Canada made a valiant effort to reform its posture at the 2015 Paris climate conference, and its delegates were central to getting the aspirational goal of +1.5oC written into the agreement, Australia continued its lacklustre, vote-for-the-minimum performance and won several more ‘Fossil’ awards to add to its collection.  (I don’t know whether the Climate Action Network has awarded more Fossils to Australia or to Canada, but both have been frequent winners of this dubious distinction at climate conferences since these awards first began at COP5, Bonn Germany, 1999.)  Canada has yet to announce any meaningful expansion of its woefully inadequate commitment on greenhouse gases made at Paris, but Australia appears now to be in danger of backtracking and there is even talk of leaving the Paris Agreement (for some unaccountable reason, many Aussie pols seem to admire Donald Trump’s actions on the world stage).

In truth there are good reasons why Australia has failed to move on emissions reduction.  Climate change denialism is alive and well in the Aussie population.  In a recent poll conducted by the University of Canberra early in 2020 of 40 countries, Australia had the third highest proportion of people who considered climate change unimportant.  This was a poll of people who consumed chiefly digital news.  True, the percentage considering climate change ‘not at all serious’ was only 8%, but the average among the 40 countries was 3%.  The percentage of Australian respondents considering climate change ‘extremely’ or ‘very serious’ (58%) was also lower than the average among countries (69%).  The 8% are more commonly found in rural districts, and so they have a greater effect than they might on electoral politics of Australia.  [The two more denying countries than Australia were Sweden (9%) and the USA (12%); Canada came in at 6%.]

The top end of the histogram showing the proportion of news consumers in each country that considered climate change not at all serious.  Image is from article in The Conversation redrawn from one in the U Canberra report, Digital News Report: Australia 2020.

These results are at first surprising given Australia’s recent experience with drought, fires and extreme heat, not to mention the Great Barrier Reef which has lost ~50% of the living coral it possessed in the mid 1990s.  In September, the British think tank, InfluenceMap, released a report that explored the way in which the fossil fuel industry has been particularly influential over a number of years both in lobbying governments on policies that would favor their industry and in dissemination of information designed to raise doubt about the science behind climate change.  In many ways, what they have uncovered is an Australian version of the effective denialism campaigns waged by the fossil fuel giants in the USA.  Influence Map also details how these same corporations have funded political parties and politician’s electoral campaigns, supporting both left-leaning and conservative parties.  The predictable result: government policies that favor continued development of fossil fuel resources, pay lip-service to, or act against activities that could hasten a transition towards a decarbonized society, and a sufficient population of supporters among the general public, particularly in less densely populated rural ridings which provide the core of support for right of center political parties.

Meanwhile, Aussie pols regularly denigrate the science community, and others who articulate the risks of unchecked climate change and demonstrate the evident impacts on the Great Barrer Reef and other parts of Australia’s environment.   What I find particularly depressing is the manner in which successive Aussie governments have paid lip-service to the need to curtail climate change while loudly proclaiming their intention to care for the Great Barrier Reef, while acting to support, if not strengthen the position of the fossil fuel sector in the economy.  They have, of course, been helped in this by Rupert Murdock’s News Corp, and its flagship paper, The Australian.

This, then, is my seventh and most recent perspective on the Great Barrier Reef.  A treasured icon, a national treasure, one that has been managed successfully, if not perfectly, since the 1970s that is being guaranteed a continuing decline by governments seduced by the fossil fuel industry into believing that there is no way forward for Australia that puts this coral reef marvel ahead of a continuing worship of the money to be made from digging up fossil fuels and shipping them out.  It’s a depressing perspective, signalling a national rejection of informed, inspired environmental management.  It is also one that risks collapsing the enormous success that environmental science has had in that nation.  Why spend money on learning how to better protect national icons like the Great Barrier Reef when protecting them prevents you continuing traditional carbon-intensive resource extraction?

Damaged by us, for sure, but still an incredible place, the Great Barrier Reef inspires as it reveals the superlatives of which time and evolution are capable.  Image © Trafalgar and The Real Word.

Will I get to gain an eighth perspective on the Great Barrier Reef?  That will depend on whether the Australian public demands better from their politicians than they have demanded until now.  From the other side of the world, I have no idea if that is possible.  But I’d like to believe that the pride, the sheer enjoyment, and even the reverence many Australians have come to see in the Great Barrier Reef provides a force capable of shifting the political leaders away from the enticements offered by Australia’s fossil fuel developers.  Time will tell.

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