The Guardian • Issue #2092


‘Underwater bushfire’

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has confirmed a mass coral bleaching is taking place – the fifth in eight years. The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world spanning 2300 kilometres and made up of about 3000 individual reefs. “Coral bleaching is caused by excessive ocean heat, which is being fuelled by the continued burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas,” Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) CEO Kelly O’Shanassy said. For the past 12 months, ocean temperatures have been at record high levels causing thermal stress on the Reef.

Climate Council Research Director, Dr Simon Bradshaw, warned: “Another mass bleaching event will have major consequences to the health of our Reef, and the thousands of Queenslanders whose livelihoods rely upon it. What’s happening on the Reef right now could be described as an underwater bushfire. These abrupt changes underway signal even greater dangers, and the possibility of crossing points of no return in our climate system.

“Every new coal and gas project hurts the Reef and surrounding coastal communities, but governments keep approving these dangerous polluting projects,” Bradshaw said. It usually takes around ten years to recover from a mass bleaching and the reef has not had a chance to recover between recent episodes of bleaching.

Recent analysis by the Climate Council (CC), Underwater Bushfire: Vibrant Great Barrier Reef fading to a shadow of its former glory, shows how pollution from the burning of coal, oil, and gas projects is heating our oceans and cooking the Reef. “It’s now likely we are crossing a tipping point for tropical coral reefs worldwide, including this irreplaceable ecosystem,” the analysis says. “This has significant consequences for our wellbeing, coastal communities that rely on reefs for their livelihood and potential knock-on effects for biodiversity and climate that we are only beginning to understand.

“At least five fossil fuel projects have been approved under our outdated national environment law since the last mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef,” the CC said. The reef is changing with warming oceans and coral bleaching. The impact on the species that rely on the reef is still to play out.

Just how the Coalition and now Labor governments have staved off the Reef being placed on the World Heritage endangered list is incomprehensible. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said it was due to the significant investment and effort the Albanese government has made in protecting the reef for future generations. The federal government is spending $3.7 billion on the reef over seven years – just one third of the $11.1 billion that it provides in subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel sector in one year! “Absurdly, our governments don’t even consider the climate damage new coal and gas mines will have on places like the Great Barrier Reef,” ACF CEO Kelly O’Shanassy, said.

The Reef supports complex ecosystems and is vital for biodiversity and Australia’s economic prosperity. Dr Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland and one of the world’s leading authorities on coral, told the ABC 7.30 program: “The impact of climate pollution is driving our beloved Reef to the brink, and unless we act faster many other natural and human systems will tumble. The implications of these changes are unimaginable.”

Hoegh-Guldberg said corals that have been around for 200 years are dying. This should set off alarm bells. “It is time for us to urge all governments to take emergency action at a scale which matches that of the growing threats to life on Earth.”

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