The Guardians of the Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s scientists are working against time and climate change politics to save their beloved coral reef.
The realization of just how profound a threat climate change poses to reefs is a fairly recent one. That first mass coral bleaching that occurred off the coast of Panama in 1982 and 1983 was initially believed to be the result of chemical spills. It wasn’t until 1984 that scientists finally identified warmer waters brought by an El Niño pattern as a key contributor. But it took almost two more decades before the scientific community began to seriously consider what global warming might mean.
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, deputy director of the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, was one of the first scientists to study how climate change could make bleaching more common. His study, published in 1999, was the first to link the rapid improvements in climate modeling with the developing science on bleaching to predict that global warming could become a global catastrophe for reefs. “[M]ost indicators point to the fact that mortality rates are likely to rise within the next few decades to levels that may approach almost complete mortalities,” he wrote.
Deciding it was important enough to reach a wider audience, the then-mid-career academic wrote a more accessible version of his research for Greenpeace that same year. The nonprofit launched a global campaign based on his work, attracting broad media coverage. Almost immediately, Hoegh-Guldberg found himself in the spotlight, attacked by conservative media commentators and politicians. His early work on climate change received some scathing peer reviews and “so-called friends were sometimes not so friendly,” his wife, Sophie Dove, who is also a marine biologist, recounted in a 2009 documentary.
“Most of the other researchers in the 1990s, and even into this millennium, were poo-pooing the idea that climate change was a significant threat to coral reefs,” Hoegh-Guldberg says of that period.
In the years since, other coral reef scientists have experienced pushback and criticism for speaking out about climate change. Charlie Veron says academics often feel that it’s unscientific to “parade the science to the general public.” But he — like Hoegh-Guldberg — believes that as the threat to reefs has grown, it has become imperative to reach out to the public.
In 2016, Veron gave 61 interviews on the threat of climate change to coral reefs, motivated in part by the amount of attention given to climate skeptics in the worldwide media. He says he quit his job as chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science because of the restrictions a government job imposed on his ability to speak openly about the threat of climate change.
And though the link between climate change and bleaching is more widely accepted now than it was in the late 1990s, it can still be risky for coral reef scientists in Australia to discuss their findings, as that kind of public commentary puts them in the middle of the country’s bitter debates about climate change and fossil fuels.
Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal. By 2019, it will overtake Qatar as the biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Much of this trade passes through the lagoon of the Great Barrier Reef. Gladstone, the departure port for scientists and tourists visiting the celebrated Heron Island, is also home to three LNG terminals capable of exporting 1.2 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, plus two coal ports totaling 100 million metric tons a year.
Three ports farther north on the reef’s lagoon can load another 190 million metric tons of coal a year, bound mainly for China, Japan, and South Korea. The Australian government is considering a taxpayer loan to support the plan of Indian conglomerate Adani Group to build a coal mine that can export 60 million metric tons a year through the most northerly of the ports.
The value of the LNG exports alone — about $14 billion last year — eclipses the estimated $5 billion that the Great Barrier Reef itself generates annually in spending, mostly through tourism. Tourism is more labor-intensive, though: The reef also accounts for about 64,000 full-time jobs, according to a report by Deloitte Access Economics — more than coal mining and oil and gas extraction combined.
Tour operators are not always staunch allies of reef research scientists. While some are vocal about the threat from climate change, others frequently exhort their colleagues to avoid “scaremongering” — there’s also a pervasive fear that reports of mass bleaching events will be bad for business — and instead advertise the fact that parts of the reef are still in good condition.
“Bleaching is a real bitch from a marketing perspective,” Col McKenzie, the executive officer of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, told the Sydney Morning Herald in March.
Politicians are also sensitive to this risk. Australian government representatives lobbied the U.N. World Heritage Committee not to list the reef as “in danger.” At the committee’s meeting in June, the Reef was not placed on the “in danger” list, although it called for accelerated action on water quality conservation, noted the 2016 and 2017 bleaching, and reiterated a request for another report on its condition before 2020. The following year, Australia successfully objected to the Great Barrier Reef being mentioned in a U.N. report on tourism and climate change.
Despite the recent mass bleachings and warnings from increasingly worried scientists, the World Heritage Committee confirmed again in July that the Great Barrier Reef would not be deemed endangered — a decision that Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s energy and environment minister, called a “big win” for his government.
Though Australia’s conservative prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is a strong supporter of the scientific consensus that climate change is a threat caused by human activity, many of the politicians he relies on to hold a single-seat parliamentary majority are not.
George Christensen, a representative whose votes Turnbull needs to pass legislation — and whose division includes three coal ports and reef resorts on the Whitsunday Islands — has likened climate science to the film Waterworld, describing it as “a lot of fiction dressed up as science.” In July, Sen. Matt Canavan, the recently reinstated minister of resources and a staunch supporter of the proposed Adani coal mine, tweeted that “instead of trying to save the planet in 2050,” the Queensland state Labor government “should just concentrate on saving jobs today!”
These attitudes drive coral reef researchers to distraction. “One has to ask, ‘Why don’t they get it?’” Hoegh-Guldberg says. “Is it because they’re complicit and they don’t care? Or [do] they know it’s a major issue but are too driven by greed? Or is it simply a failure to understand this dire situation?”