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QUARTERLY ESSAY 66 The Long Goodbye

 

Correspondence

J. E. N. Veron

For me, The Long Goodbye is a sharp knife in an old wound. Old because scientists have been trying to alert the world to the horrors of climate change for coral reefs for more than twenty years. Despite what some laypeople think, scientists strive to be right – after all, that’s what science is all about – but when it comes to being right about the effects of climate change on reefs, none of us is celebrating. We’ve issued our forecasts and warned of times to come. Now those times are upon us and we all wish we had been wrong.

Some of the Great Barrier Reef is still in good shape, rivalling any coral reef in the world in most respects. Even so, no part of it is like it once was. Coal is not the only villain in this unendingly sad decline, but it now tops the list. Approval for Adani to mine the Galilee Basin makes no sense: deliberately wooing Adani, as the prime minister and Queensland’s premier have done, is short-sighted beyond belief.

Anna Krien spells out the story with a relentless accuracy born of detailed research. I would love to declare her article a work of polished fiction: polished it is; fiction it certainly isn’t. It leaves me wishing, once again, that Australia would wake up. In giving Adani the green light, we have dealt the reef the most damaging blow possible without bothering to count the cost. “Jobs and growth” is the Commonwealth government’s mantra, and that, it seems, is all that matters. Both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments have ignored our greatest natural asset, not to mention the income and jobs it generates, both vastly more than any coalmine ever could. Perhaps they have gambled on a notion that Australians won’t realise this and won’t punish them at the ballot box when the cards are on the table and we can all see the fiasco for what it is.

Greg Hunt, the Minister for the Environment and Energy, gave approval for the mine in October 2015. Following that, we had two years of back-to-back mass bleaching, the worst the reef has ever seen. Will Minister Josh Frydenberg, Greg Hunt’s successor, reverse Hunt’s approval? He has both the reason and the power to do so. In June 2017 environmental lawyers wrote to him on my behalf, spelling out the findings of studies to that date. Stripped of further detail and references, the conclusions are as follows:

  1. In 2016 coral scientists recorded the worst incidence of mass coral bleaching in the history of the Great Barrier Reef, mostly concentrated in the reef’s pristine northern third. This was followed, in March 2017, by a second mass bleaching in the middle third. The combined impact of these consecutive mass bleachings stretches for 1500 kilometres, removing the chance for corals within this stretch to recover from the previous year’s damage.
  2. A cause-and-effect analysis of the 2016 coral bleaching showed that higher sea temperatures dramatically raised the likelihood of a very hot March in the Coral Sea and, further, that bleaching events are virtually certain to increase in frequency and severity in the future.
  3. Due to ocean warming, 35 per cent of the corals in the northern and central Great Barrier Reef died in 2016, with 50 per cent mortality in the far northern section, making 29 to 30 per cent mortality across the entire reef.
  4. A May 2016 report underscores the gravity of the situation, highlighting the importance of a 700-kilometre swathe of the northern Great Barrier Reef, where on average 67 per cent of shallow-water corals died.
  5. Evidence of the severity and extent of the 2017 bleaching comes from many prominent reef researchers and is summarised in a peer-reviewed publication. This evidence prompted a summit meeting of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in May 2017.
  6. A further study published after Minister Hunt’s decision on Adani demonstrated that although the pre-stress conditions of gradually warming water were tolerated by corals that survived the first mass bleachings, corals progressively lose that tolerance with the higher temperature peaks now occurring, thereby reducing their resilience to future bleaching episodes.
  7. The proposed Carmichael coalmine will be one of the largest coalmines in the world, and it is estimated that the burning of coal from the mine will generate 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions over its proposed sixty-year operation. This will be among the highest emissions from a single source anywhere in the world, a significant contribution to global emissions and therefore to human-caused climate change.

When Minister Hunt gave his approval for Adani to develop and operate the Carmichael Coal Mine and Rail Infrastructure project, information about the extent and severity of the 2016 and 2017 mass bleaching events and the probability of the increase in frequency and severity of bleaching was not before him. In effect, we have moved from scientific prediction, which is open to challenge, to the current reality, which is there for all to see. Minister Hunt’s approval did not identify the impact that the Adani mine will have on the Great Barrier Reef, nor the increased likelihood of future bleaching events.

To maintain balance, the letter acknowledged the difficult position Minister Frydenberg is in:

We acknowledge that whether you exercise the power available to you under section 145 is at your discretion, there is no compulsion to exercise that power in light of the evidence outlined above. We acknowledge, too, that to revoke an approval would be a very serious step and a power that should only be exercised in exceptional circumstances. It is submitted, however, that the very significant bleaching events that have occurred for the past two consecutive years do in fact constitute exceptional circumstances. Maintaining the approval for the Adani mine under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is inconsistent with the need to protect the Great Barrier Reef from climate change. You have it within your power to revoke the approval, and we ask that you do so.

Frydenberg’s response to this letter was swift and simple. The mine was too far from the reef to make any difference and it was on land of little economic value.

That’s not very different from Greg Hunt’s answer during an interview on the same subject and his responses during phone and email discussions with me and with journalists.

“We take it seriously,” Hunt said. “That’s why we have stepped up action to assist with the crown-of-thorns eradication [which would help recovery but not affect bleaching], with water-quality improvement [the northern Great Barrier Reef has no water-quality issues], and with monitoring [which is precisely what scientists have been doing]. I think the best place to look is what the World Heritage Committee said. Only a few months ago, the World Heritage Committee examined the reef – it removed it from being on the watchlist, it rejected the proposal to have it [listed as] in danger, it raised the reef to the highest level, and the World Heritage Committee declared that under this government, Australia was the role model for the world in managing World Heritage natural properties. So the global umpire – the World Heritage Committee – declared Australia to be the global role model for managing World Heritage natural properties.”

On he went, pointing out that he had stopped capital dredging in reef waters (which his government had actually approved), and supported work on crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks (which has been ongoing since the 1960s) and water quality (which has actually had decreased funding). “I have spoken with World Heritage Committee authorities in recent months and in recent weeks. We have as a government been in contact with them, and their view is that we continue to be a preeminent manager.”

Really? I am writing these words in the press room of the forty-first session of the World Heritage Committee in Kraków, Poland, where I can faithfully report that Mr Hunt’s words come from a great deal of lobbying and do not have any semblance of fact.

Where does this leave us? Bereft of credibility, as far as the World Heritage Committee is concerned. The focus of the World Heritage Committee is now firmly on the effects of climate change on reefs, and it is certain to stay there.

On the domestic front I can only wonder about the climate-change denial implicit in Frydenberg’s and Hunt’s statements. Is it possible that neither of them believes in climate change? I hardly think so. Rather, it seems to be Coalition policy not to let the Great Barrier Reef and its climate change problems get in the way of coalmines, a policy they must believe is going to be popular enough with Australians to make it a vote-winner. If that is an overly cynical view, I can find no other. The Queensland government is on safer grounds: voters wanting to protect the reef have nowhere to go, as both major parties are pro-coal. But why is Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk going to such extreme lengths to woo Adani? This can’t be just due to ignorance, because Steven Miles, her Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and Minister for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef, is well aware of what is happening to the reef, and why. It is all about jobs here and now, even at the expense of North Queensland’s tourist industry. Just as Anna Krien described.

Australia is second only to Canada as the worst per-capita polluter of all major nations, and that appalling position does not even take account of our efforts to export coal as fast as we can. Australia is the biggest coal exporter in the world. And now we are prepared to mine the Galilee Basin, producing at least seven times the annual production of carbon dioxide of the rest of Australia. 

After concluding its forty-first session, during which I was given leave to speak as an NGO spokesperson, UNESCO expressed “its utmost concern regarding the reported serious impacts from coral bleaching that have affected World Heritage properties in 2016–17 and that the majority of World Heritage Coral Reefs are expecting to be seriously impacted by climate change.” Further, it “reiterates the importance of State Parties [to undertake] the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” And finally, it “notes with appreciation the willingness of civil society groups [NGOs] to engage in this process.”

Australia’s duplicity has become all too apparent to other countries. My words, subdued though they were, drew loud applause.

 

J.E.N. “Charlie” Veron is a former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has worked on all the major coral reef regions of the world and his work has underpinned most major reef conservation initiatives over the past two decades. He is the author of many books, including A Reef in Time: the Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End and A Life Underwater.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 67, Moral Panic 101.


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