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Climate Watch: Reef under pressure

With Jenny Goldie

Ruling politicians didn’t like what Obama said, but it’s true: Reef Under Pressure

Was it rude of President Barack Obama to single out Australia in his address on climate change at the University of Queensland recently?

In calling on all nations to do more to tackle climate change, Obama referred to climate change risks to the Great Barrier Reef, saying:

… I want to come back, and I want my daughters to be able to come back, and I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit. And I want that there 50 years from now.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop took offence and publicly criticized the president in media reports, saying he seemingly had not listened to a briefing she provided on Australia’s “world’s best practice… “we do not believe that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger”.
Australian marine scientists were quick to respond, declaring the reef will be “slaughtered” by climate change effects including warming seas and ocean acidification.

Obama was “right on the money” and was stating fact, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Queensland University’s Global Change Institute, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We have one of the jewels of the planet in our possession and we should care a lot about climate and he wasn’t getting that from our leader (Prime Minister Tony Abbott),” Dr Hoegh-Guldberg said.

SMH reporter Pete Hannam continued: “Charlie Veron, a former chief scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, went further, saying the Abbott government was downplaying the dire future facing the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs everywhere.

“In the long term, that is the whole of this century, we are going to have the Great Barrier Reef slaughtered,” Dr Veron, a world authority who has scientifically named about one-quarter of all known corals, said. “There’s no doubt about that at all, if carbon-dioxide emissions keep on tracking as they are.”

In August, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released its latest five year report, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014. Perhaps Minister Bishop had only read the media release of her colleague Environment Minister Hunt, and not the report itself.

Australian government report disputes Julie Bishop’s beliefs regarding reef

In fact, the 311 page report says the greatest risks to the reef had not changed. These risks included climate change, poor water quality from land-based run-off, impacts from coastal development and some remaining aspects of fishing.

The northern third of the reef might still be in good condition but, in contrast, “key habitats, species and ecosystem processes in central and southern inshore areas have continued to deteriorate from the cumulative effect of impacts”. For instance, dugong populations, already at low levels compared to a century ago, had further declined in these areas. Humpback whales and loggerhead turtles are recovering but only slowly and only after significant declines.

Climate change remains the most serious threat and is already affecting the reef with far-reaching consequences for “decades to come”. Sea temperatures are rising, leading to added risk of coral bleaching, ocean acidification will increasingly restrict coral growth and survival, and there are likely to be more intense weather events.

The extent of these impacts will depend on how effectively the issue of rising greenhouse gases will be addressed worldwide. The impacts of increasing sea temperatures and acidification will be “amplified by other impacts such as nutrient run-off”.

Meanwhile the federal government agrees to the dredging of the inner channel and dumping of spoil, not on land but elsewhere in the inner channel; it facilitates the development of nine mega coal mines in the Galilee Basin, five of which would be larger than any currently operating in the country.

Were the basin a country, this development would make it the seventh greatest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. To assume 10,000 coal ships can ply the inner channel every year without accident is to defy rational argument.


Image: Toby Hudson

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