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25 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:20am

Misplaced outrage and the Great Barrier Reef

When a Unesco draft report recommended the natural wonder be added to the World Heritage Committee’s “in danger” listing, the Australian government erupted.

By India Bourke

The perilous state in which inaction on climate change has placed the Great Barrier Reef should be a source of outrage. And yet this week the Australian government has opted once again for performative shock and denial.

When a Unesco draft report recommended on Tuesday 22 June that the natural wonder in northern Australia be added to the World Heritage Committee’s “in danger” listing, Canberra erupted. “If they really want to make an accurate assumption, I would invite them – the secretary-general and others – to get off their bums in their air-conditioned office in northern Europe, come across here, and actually put their head under the water and see for themselves,” Warren Entsch, the Australian government’s special envoy for the reef told reporters.

The controversy deepened the following day, when Unesco denied claims made by the Australian government minister Sussan Ley that the decision was the result of political pressure. 

An Australian government source even told Reuters it was believed China, which is hosting next month’s crucial World Heritage Committee meeting, was behind the move. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson dismissed the accusation as “groundless smear and slander”. (All of which is likely to fuel growing tensions between the two nations, as my colleague Jeremy has touched on before.)

Despite the Australian government’s fighting words, however, the dire health of the reef is indisputable. “There is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger,” the Unesco verdict states, requiring stronger action both on tackling climate change’s effects as well as improving water quality and land management. Importantly, it also notes that the Australian government’s climate commitments in a revised 2050 reef plan should be “in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement”.

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Charities and green groups have since come out with strong statements of support. According to an emailed statement from Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, which advises Unesco, the site has “been dealt with not only fairly, but on the basis of objective scientific assessment”. Nor has it been “singled out”, with more and more sites likely to be threatened by climate change if there is not “more effective action internationally under the Paris Agreement”. He added that “no government – other than Australia – has had any input to our reporting process”.

Greenpeace’s Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter also stressed that there should be “nothing surprising” about the recommendation. “The decline in the health of the Great Barrier Reef is chronic and fast accelerating, driven by the three unprecedented mass bleaching events that have occurred over the last six years,” he wrote in an email.

[see also: 8 Billion Angels: A “simple solution” to the climate crisis?]

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The clash reveals just how difficult it still is to get some nations – even highly developed, coal-exporting countries such as Australia – to accept responsibility for their contribution to the global climate crisis.

For Ritter, and many others, this should not be a point of contention in Australia’s case. “The Australian national government has no credible plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at speed and scale consistent with the Paris climate goal. What this means is the Australian government is driving the destruction of the reef.”

Similarly, when asked by the New Statesman whether it is fair to link a country’s Paris Agreement progress to its stewardship of a specific habitat, Australia’s Climate Council spokeswoman Lesley Hughes responded with a list of ways the government’s energy policy is endangering the reef, from approving new fossil fuel projects and infrastructure to investing in unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage instead of solar and wind.

Unless international agreement can be reached on 2030 emissions targets which keep the world well below 2°C of warming, it seems highly likely that we will see more such instances of deflection by individual nations.

This is something Australia has a knack for. According to Ketan Joshi, a climate analyst and writer based in Australia, talking up action on adaptation and resilience has become a common trope. “After the Black Summer bushfires, the government turned mostly to adaptation responses, and has notably worsened their position on climate and emissions,” he told the New Statesman. In this way, Australia is erasing “the flows of cause and consequence of atmospheric impacts”, he adds. 

Interventions to mitigate the impact of warming are essential if countless global habitats and species are to survive the coming era. Scott Condie, senior principal research scientist at CSIRO, an Australian government research agency, has modelled the effectiveness of different methods to protect and restore coral. Some of these, such as using “brightening” technologies to make clouds more reflective, could help cool and maintain the corals for 20 more years. And yet, he warns me: “While the results suggest that well-designed interventions may help slow the [reef’s] decline, urgent climate change action is necessary to save it.”

International recognition of this reality cannot come soon enough: the Unesco report came as a leaked landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week urged faster action to avoid catastrophic “tipping points” in temperature rise. 

With the world currently on course to suffer at least 3°C of warming, life on Earth is already set to be fundamentally reshaped. This dire situation won’t be improved by deflection, denial or by criticising the World Heritage Committee’s process (a letter signed by Australia’s Unesco ambassador, along with her counterparts from 11 other countries including the UK, has expressed “concerns” over the UN body’s decision-making). Any attempt to do so is an outrage in itself. 

[see also: New Statesman emissions tracker: the G7’s decarbonisation deficit]