Playing politics while the Barrier Reef burns

November 22, 2015
Australia has little time left to make changes to save the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is in immense danger and if nothing is done to save it, it will simply be destroyed.

Australia is the largest per-capita producer of carbon of any developed Western country, and it is a silent national disaster. The Australian Academy of Science, the UN and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have all stated that, in the face of rising carbon emissions decimating the reef, we cannot afford to do nothing.

However, nothing is exactly what is happening amid the political manoeuvring since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister in September.

By embracing the shambolic environmental policies of his predecessor, Turnbull is ensuring the continued destruction of Australia's most prized natural asset.

There was a brief moment when Turnbull's appointment looked like a last-minute reprieve for the Reef. For years he had been adamant about the need to address climate change, and damning in his appraisal of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott's environmental policies.

In 2009, he called them “a con, an environmental figleaf to cover a determination to do nothing”.

But in his very first Question Time, he had a sudden change of heart, calling the Direct Action scheme “a very, very good piece of work”. This may well amount to a death-sentence for the Reef, unless he shows himself willing to drastically overhaul the internationally criticised and entirely inadequate Direct Action plan for 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.

The government agency responsible for monitoring and protecting the reef, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), said the reef has lost half its coral in the past 30 years, primarily due to climate change.

The GBRMPA's Outlook Report 2014 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.”

That the reef and the environment are in direct danger from carbon emissions is part of a globally accepted scientific narrative, much of which is produced within Australia itself.

The Abbott government was enacting a disastrous environmental policy which almost literally sold the Great Barrier Reef out from under Australia's feet.

Abbott claimed he was “utterly committed to protecting” the Reef, but he pursued policies that his own governmental agencies, as well as the Australian Academy of Science, said were directly contrary to its survival. This included opening nine new coalmines in the Galilee Basin, the combined carbon output of which — an estimated 705 million tonnes a year — would be much more than Australia's current total output as an entire country. This policy is still under consideration.

Given the weight of scientific evidence, these policies were viewed as madness by the international community and by Turnbull himself. So why has he now embraced them? The answer lies either in desire for personal power, or a tactical move to accommodate his party.

When he last led the Liberal Party in 2008 he said: “I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am” and was promptly ejected in favour of Abbott. Perhaps he is simply unwilling to move against the anti-environmentalist mood of a political party that is heavily invested in carbon-producing industries.

Earlier this year, the government released the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan, which was roundly criticised for failing to deal with the climate impact that its own reef management agency called “its most serious threat”.

The Australian Academy of Science, reporting on the draft plan, said: “Based on overwhelming scientific evidence the Academy concludes that, in its present state, the draft plan is inadequate to achieve the goal of restoring or even maintaining the diminished outstanding universal value of the Reef.

“The plan makes no mention of climate change mitigation or targets for reducing the impacts of climate change, identified as the greatest threat to the reef in both the 2009 and 2014 Great Barrier Reef outlook reports.”

Australia has little time left to make changes to save the Reef. Unless it does, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to decline and eventually collapse.

The emissions targets that Turnbull is embracing are shamefully low, even compared with other big polluters. Australia's target of a 5% reduction from its 2005 levels by 2020 compares poorly with the US's emissions target of 28%.

Contradictory environmental policies, and taxpayer-funded journalists' junkets to Australia to give favourable reports on the Reef's health, is far from what Australia, or the Reef, deserves.

But unless Turnbull can regain his environmental convictions and stop playing politics, there may be a future, much less distant than we would like to think, with nothing left to preserve.

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