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Coral reefs, fossil fuels and climate change: Why Australia might be a luckier country than Canada.

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The G20 and the IUCN World Parks Congress

g20-20141115183938591021-620x349 Andrew MearesPrime Minister Tony Abbott poses with the G20 leaders for the family photo in Brisbane. Stephen Harper, second row left, looks uncomfortable already. Barack Obama is not looking at his host. Photo: Andrew Meares

Talk about a perfect storm. Australia’s right-of-center Abbott government has been hit by a G20 meeting in Brisbane in which climate did get onto the agenda, despite a firm wish by Australia to keep it off, and the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney which directed plenty of attention to the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. These two major events trundled in more or less simultaneously, while UNESCO’s stated concerns about the Great Barrier Reef, and whether it was being effectively managed, droned quietly in the background like some distant didgeridoo. All the while, the government was trying to talk up the economy, the need to export coal to China, faster and faster, and in ever increasing quantities, while minimizing the possible impacts on said reef of all the dredging being proposed to expand or build new coal export terminals along the Queensland coast. Along the way there was much confusion generated by government spokesmen who kept misquoting the advice about the Great Barrier Reef, delivered to them by various learned, and often government-funded, bodies.

Gladstone coal terminal Brisbane TimesThe coal terminal at the Port of Gladstone, one of the sites where expansion plans involve major dredging operations that could impact the nearby
Great Barrier Reef.  Photo – Brisbane Times

Canada’s PM Stephen Harper, who was at the G20, but avoided the World Parks Congress as if it were a place where he might catch Ebola, was probably smiling inwardly and thanking his lucky stars that Canada’s iconic scenic places, notably the Rockies and the Arctic, are either unlikely to be finished off by climate change (the Rockies), or so little appreciated by the average Canadian that their iconic status is not recognized (the Arctic). Aussie PM Tony Abbott, who from Day One has been taking lessons from Stephen Harper in how best to push a fossil fuel-based economy against the snarkiness of conservationists and thinking environmental scientists, is burdened by contrast with the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is both highly valued as a vital piece of Australia’s patrimony and a treasured member of the global A-list of biosphere bits; one for which Australia has nurturing responsibility. It is also being progressively degraded by the same suite of human impacts that are impacting coral reefs around the world. These impacts make it increasingly likely that we will not have any coral reefs later in this century, despite the efforts that are being made in many ways in many places (including in Australia, which has overall been doing a particularly good job until recently) to sustain these incredible ecosystems. The GBR, because of its iconic but fragile nature, makes life difficult for politicians who would avoid dealing with climate change. This may turn out to be a blessing for Australia in the long run, but there is clearly some pain for politicians at present.

History of Great Barrier Reef Management

By way of history, the management of the GBR since 1980 has been exemplary. Prior to that, the GBR was seen as yet another place to pillage and rape in keeping with the Aussie motto of the day, “If it moves shoot it; if it doesn’t, chop it down”. In Our Dying Planet, I tell the tale of the revolution in the general Australian attitude to environment that was brought about by a tiny Brisbane-based NGO named the Queensland Littoral Society, and its “Save the Barrier Reef” campaign. The Queensland Littoral Society has long ago morphed into the Australian Marine Conservation Society, and it continues to fight to protect the GBR and other marine environments. I believe the current, relatively good status of the GBR, and the high regard in which it is held by average Australians, can be directly linked to that long ago bumper-sticker campaign. The result was the declaration, in 1975, of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, at that time the largest marine protected area in the world.

Original_AMCS_Great_Barrier_Reef_sticker_smallA bumper sticker that saved a coral reef. The original Queensland Littoral Society slogan.

Declaration was the start. The process of planning and implementing management for such a large area took time. The Capricornia Section at the extreme southern end was the first to be zoned. It was proclaimed in 1979, and management was fully in place there by July 1981. Then followed the Cairns and Cormorant Pass sections in 1981, and all other parts by 1983. The zoning plans are subject to regular review and this has now occurred twice, with strengthened zoning introduced on each occasion. The current management plan was put in place in April 2004. The Great Barrier Reef also gained World Heritage status in 1981.

Management of the marine park has been as a multi-use marine management area, with most management focus addressed to fisheries, tourism, repeated outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfishes, and water quality. Water quality was initially seen as a lesser concern, but evidence of degradation of coastal reefs, and of the extent of dispersal of nutrient rich waters following flood events led to recognition that agricultural run-off was a significant issue that needed to be addressed. When high nutrients were also shown to be associated with enhanced survival by starfish larvae, the importance of managing water quality was seen to be even greater. The managing agency, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), was having some success working with the agricultural sector in Queensland to modify land, water and pesticide/fertilizer management practices, one of the rare examples world-wide of a marine management agency being able to influence human activities beyond the boundaries of the managed area.

GBR Map GBRMPAThe Great Barrier Reef Marine Park stretches about 1000 km along the Queensland coast, and encompasses an area about half the size of Texas. When first declared it was the largest marine managed area in the world.
Map courtesy GBRMPA.


Problems for the Great Barrier Reef

Things took a turn for the worse at the 35th Session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Paris in June 2011. At that meeting it was decided to conduct a mission to assess the status of the GBR to determine whether it should be included among World Heritage Sites listed as in danger. This decision was based on concerns that developments approved for Gladstone Harbor and nearby Curtis Island would cause significant deleterious impacts to the quality of the World Heritage Area, coupled with concerns that a recent, major cyclone, Yasi, had damaged about 15% of the coral reefs within the GBR. The mission took place in March 2012, and while it was agreed that the GBR did not need to be listed as ‘in danger’ at that time, there were a number of planned developments along the Queensland coast that appeared likely to cause unacceptable harm due to dredging activity and dumping of spoil. In addition to port development the mission report identified climate change, coastal run-off and water quality, and general increase in coastal development along the southern two thirds of the GBR as factors that were all trending in a direction that could lead to loss of World Heritage value. Some 14 specific recommendations were made to Australia, with the requirement that it act, and report back to the world Heritage Committee at its 2015 session.

Action by UNESCO led to, or encouraged, action by GBRMPA and other associated parties during 2012 to 2014 to undertake a strategic assessment, including a 25 year management plan for the GBR, and to develop the Reef 2050 Plan, a longer-term plan for sustainability of the GBR. The Strategic Assessment Report was published earlier this year, and the draft Reef 2050 Plan was opened for public consultation late in 2014 and is now being revised to final form. Meanwhile there has been continued pressure from within Australia and from overseas to curtail plans for port expansion in the GBR region, and particularly to be more stringent in requirements for dredging and dumping of spoil. There is little doubt that the change of government in Australia on 7th September 2013 has had significant impacts on how Australia has dealt with the pressures from UNESCO, and how it has approached the thorny question of port development. To begin with, one cannot help but assume that GBRMPA’s willingness to provide permits for the various dredge and dump operations was a consequence of governmental pressure to look after the economy.

I have written previously about the struggle between conserving the GBR and the desire to expand coal export capacity along the Queensland coast. The situation is evolving rapidly, and late in October the decision to dump 3 million tonnes of dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal port expansion within the GBR was changed. Now the intention is to use a convenient, but world-class wetland, dump the spoil there, and create ‘new’ land for development. Further, the Minister of Environment, in announcing this change also announced that the new dumping proposal will be fast-tracked, reducing the chance that careful environmental oversight might occur. Pressure is forcing the government to backtrack, but the backtracking is being done grudgingly. Meanwhile, the Queensland government, which over many years has tended to favor development over environment, is urging the federal authorities to move more quickly and act in favor of the coal industry.

The two assessment reports on the GBR from GBRMPA have not been well received by the science community or from conservationists. At the end of October, the Australian National Academy of Sciences delivered a scathing commentary on Reef 2050 Plan, stating that “the plan failed to acknowledge the reef had already suffered greatly from the pressures of climate change, poor water quality from land run-off, fishing and coastal development”, and concluding that “the Reef 2050 plan had insufficient targets or resources to reverse the reef’s downward spiral, documented by countless scientific studies and several government reports”. It also claimed that the “plan was overly concerned with short-term measures to appease UNESCO, rather than addressing the long-term challenge of restoring the reef”. What is really riling up the science community is the inability or unwillingness of GBRMPA to come out and state clearly and explicitly that unless climate change is brought under control, the GBR will continue to degrade – a message that the Abbott government certainly does not want to hear.

Lest there be any doubt about this message, a new paper just out in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series has confirmed what everyone suspected all along – that lowered pH does not just impact the capacity of corals to build their calcium carbonate skeletons. It increases the rate at which dead coral rock (limestone) slowly dissolves away. Nyssa Silbiger, and three colleagues, at the University of Hawai’i used 5 x 5 x 2 cm blocks of limestone, cut from dead skeletons of the massive coral, Porites lobata, and free of all living material. These were placed out in depths from 0 to 5 m on a portion of the Kane’ohe reef where pH naturally varies spatially from 7.83 to 8.03. They found that mean pH at a block, during a year-long deployment explained 64% of variation in the accretion/erosion ratio, with blocks in lower pH showing greater erosion. Limestone slowly dissolves, and bioeroders chew it up more rapidly, in water of lower pH.

Mr. Obama arrived at the Brisbane G20 meeting, fresh from his success in reaching a bilateral climate deal with China, and one of the people responsible for getting climate back onto the G20 agenda. While in town, Mr. Obama gave a speech at the University of Queensland. He said that the science showed that the GRB was being degraded, at least partly due to climate change, and that he wanted the GBR to still be there when his grandchildren (hypothetical grandchildren at this point) are old enough to visit it. There was a certain amount of understandable huffing and puffing by Australian government representatives. After all, it is considered undiplomatic to visit a country and lecture on its failings.

Julie Bishop cartoon re reef Canberra TimesForeign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop as a clown fish on a dead coral reef.
Cartoon by David Pope.

Then the huffing and puffing went a bit too far. The Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, was in New York on 21st November, and has the transcript of an interview she gave posted on her website. It’s rambling and repetitive as she tries to explain why she felt it necessary to send a briefing note to Mr. Obama after his speech. She claims she was only trying to ensure that the White House had the same information she had provided, before Obama’s visit, to the US Secretary of the Interior. She believed that the President had not been well briefed before his speech. The problem? She does not think the GBR is in danger. To quote from the interview transcript:

“I was talking about the work that we had done to preserve and conserve the Great Barrier Reef. Of course the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come and we do not believe that it is in danger. In fact the Australian Government is making every effort to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is preserved for generations to come and that was the point that I had made to the Secretary of the Interior and the point that we made to the White House after President Obama’s speech to reassure him that he can most certainly visit the reef, he can most certainly bring his family and that the Australian Government takes most seriously our responsibility as the custodian of this magnificent environmental and tourism attraction”.

Beautiful isn’t it? Apart from the run-on sentence.
The real problem, of course, is that Minister Bishop is living in a fluffy bubble of unreality. Her own government scientists and managers have said that the GBR is under threat. Earlier this year, GBRMPA released its quintennial GBR Outlook Report, in which it said,

“Climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef. It is already affecting the Reef and is likely to have far-reaching consequences in the decades to come. Sea temperatures are on the rise and this trend is expected to continue, leading to an increased risk of mass coral bleaching; gradual ocean acidification will increasingly restrict coral growth and survival; and there are likely to be more intense weather events. The extent and persistence of these impacts depends to a large degree on how effectively the issue of rising levels of greenhouse gases is addressed worldwide. The impacts of increasing ocean temperatures and ocean acidification will be amplified by the accumulation of other impacts such as those caused by excess nutrient run-off”.

You cannot get much clearer than that! In the Guardian, Graham Readfearn gives additional examples of government agencies saying quite clearly that the GBR is threatened. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent performance shows remarkable similarities in its utter disregard for fact to the many statements on climate that Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has made.

Julie Bishop commenting on Nauru claims 2 news com auForeign Affairs Minister Bishop seems to have a new hand signal – I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Photo from

COP20 at Lima

Now the climate conference is getting under way in Lima. Australia and Canada will be there, unwillingly, but there nonetheless. Ever since Abbott and Harper first met in Ottawa back in June, they seem to have been ensuring that their governments will perform on the climate stage with remarkable synchrony. Not quite synchronized swimming, but synchrony nonetheless. I feel prescient that I detected their bromance so quickly, even pointing to a photo showing Tony Abbott practicing the Stephen Harper ‘how-big-a-lie-am-I-telling’ gesture. In any event, they both made it clear then that they were not going to let climate change get in the way of either of their economies and would work together on this issue on the world stage.

Since then, the Abbott government has made a series of decisions that are ominously reminiscent of Harper government practice – chipping away at support for science, denigrating people who speak out against environmentally unsound decisions, and putting the rapid export of some of the dirtier fossil fuels far ahead of environmental sustainability or reduction of CO2 emissions. The New Republic seems to agree with my assessment that there is a pattern here. One asymmetry – Canada withdrew from Kyoto and is making no effort to keep its Copenhagen pledge; Australia gained a relatively easy target from Kyoto and has met it (albeit primarily through ‘accidents’ like the global economic collapse rather than through careful emissions reducing plans). And Australia introduced a carbon tax. However, the Abbott government has now cancelled its carbon tax, and seems bent on resisting further action on climate.

Despite the apparent similarities between policies of the Harper and Abbott governments, however, there is one big difference between Canada and Australia. Australia has an enormous, globally recognized, iconic natural system called the Great Barrier Reef. Like all coral reefs its ecological health is sensitive to a broad range of environmental conditions including temperature, pH, nutrient levels, turbidity, and siltation. Despite strong and responsible management over 30 years, the GBR has degraded, and will continue to degrade unless climate change is brought under control with average global temperature held at less than 2oC above preindustrial levels. The GBR is inconveniently located close to the important agricultural region of coastal Queensland, and various industrial ports along the Queensland coast that provide the exit gates for Australia’s coal exports. Canada does not have a GBR. Canada’s efforts to mine and export fossil fuels, particularly tar sands bitumen, create environmental damage far and wide – at present there are plans being developed or in place for bitumen pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific coast of British Columbia (Northern Gateway and Kinder-Morgan pipeline projects), to the Gulf of Mexico (Keystone XL), to the Atlantic (Energy East), and to the Arctic Ocean (Arctic Gateway). The environments compromised are, on the surface, less critical, less at risk of substantial damage, than is the GBR, although the mountains and the British Columbia coast that will be impacted by Northern Gateway have to come close. And that is why Harper may have a better chance of getting his way than will Abbott. The irony in this is that Australia has always thought of itself as ‘the lucky country’. Prime Minister Abbott may not be feeling ‘lucky’ these days, but the shape of the environment vs energy battle there is certainly lucky for the long-term.

Arctic GBR RockiesThe Canadian Arctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the Canadian Rockies – only one of these landscapes is existentially threatened by climate change and an internationally recognized environmental icon. Photos: Ellesmere Island, Pat Morrow; GBR, Stephanie Sykora, Rockies, Condenast, stock photo.

So, my prediction for today, for what it’s worth? Australia will ultimately recover from its bout of climatological misbehavior, and become a reformed, environmentally responsible country, well before Canada does, because the forces opposed to current policy in Australia have an easier battle to wage. They have an icon of enormous importance that is directly threatened both by climate change, and by the demands for new, larger export gateways for Australia’s coal. Canada lacks such an icon. Therefore, Canada will retain its claim to supreme climate Grinch-hood.

I do have one proviso… If some one of our national political leaders finds a way to articulate a vision for Canada that does not rest solely on ‘dig it up, ship it out’ resource extraction, we might get a new, more environmentally responsible government next year. And then Canada might also come in from the cold and join those responsible nations that are trying to do something about CO2 emissions.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Lima this week. Early press reports clearly identify Canada and Australia as laggards. Neither Harper or Abbott will attend. Instead their missions will be led by, wait for it,… Leona Aglukkaq and Julie Bishop. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these two could manage to say something accurate about their countries’ plans and performance?

Peru glacier wikimedia commonsMuch of the water powering Peru’s hydroelectricity plants is provided by rivers flowing from rapidly melting tropical glaciers in the Andes. These melting glaciers may help focus attention at COP20, now in progress in Lima.
Photo: Edubucher/Wikimedia Commons