Still time for the Great Barrier Reef

Coral bleaching aerial surveys, 2017. Photo credit: Professor Terry Hughes, Coral Reef Centre of Excellence, James Cook University, Townsville.

Coral bleaching aerial surveys, 2017. Photo credit: Professor Terry Hughes, Coral Reef Centre of Excellence, James Cook University, Townsville.

I first dived a coral reef in 2001. Back then, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was a poster child for conservation success. Coastal managers I worked with in Fiji, Thailand, the Seychelles and Red Sea saw the GBR governance framework as a blueprint for sustainable coastal environmental management. How, then, has the Australian Government become an international embarrassment through consistently failing to acknowledge the greatest threat to the reef – climate change?

Today Professor Terry Hughes came to the University of Wollongong, hosted by the Global Challenges Program to talk about “Global Warming and the mass bleaching of corals” Terry described the geography of coral bleaching footprints on the Great Barrier Reef, based on aerial surveys of the 1160 reefs he undertook during the mass coral bleaching episode last year. He has just returned from re-surveying those same reefs after a second mass bleaching event this year. Surveying so many reefs enabled patterns and causes of bleaching to be explored. An accompanying Nature paper shows that bleaching is governed by heat stress (as opposed to water quality, or conservation zones). One of the main findings of this study is that local environmental management initiatives have no effect on coral bleaching: it is a global phenomenon to be managed by immediate global action to curb future warming.

C7CcQ3QXEAAyZQrPerhaps our best global political mechanism for addressing climate change is COP21. With participation from over 190 countries, the legally binding agreement reached at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 aims to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. We have already reached atmospheric carbon levels over 400ppm, which have driven a global average temperature rise of approximately 1°C. If all goes to plan under COP21, atmospheric carbon should peak around 450 – 500 ppm, then decline rapidly. That might mean another rise of 0.55°C for tropical oceans, which is survivable for corals, although the future reef communities may look very different. Indeed, the reef communities on the GBR have already undergone marked change in the last couple of years. If Australia took decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, that could be symbolic for the rest of the world.

So, what can be done to save the GBR? Tell the story of coral bleaching, write to your MP, join an environmental group. Write a submission – here is a list of submissions that I have enjoyed helping to work on as a councillor of the Australian Coral Reef Society over the last couple of years. These have helped shape both Federal and State reef policy plans, including advancing climate action to help Australia reach the under 2°C warming target. Climate change is a global collective action problem. There is still time for the GBR – if each of us acts now.

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