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20 May 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 11:24am

Australia’s election campaign has failed its Great Barrier Reef

By failing to prioritise climate change, the country’s leading political parties are spelling a death sentence for its most famous natural asset.

By India Bourke

“I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Great Barrier Reef?,” the producer Tommy Eyres asked in a mini mockumentary released on TikTok and Instagram earlier this month. “There was another mass bleaching event, so they’ve just announced today that they’re going to change it from the ‘great barrier reef’ to the ‘good barrier reef’”. By 2028 it will be known as the “bad barrier reef”, he adds.

The world’s largest coral reef system is, of course, still named as it has been since William Saville-Kent’s 1893 publication of the illustrated Great Barrier Reef of Australia. But the dark wordplay is apt; the famously biodiverse ecosystem is in a dire condition. When the water becomes too warm, the bright and colourful microscopic algae called zooxanthellae that live inside the corals are driven out in a process known as “bleaching”. If it remains too warm, they cannot return and the corals die.

“The most recent mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is the fourth in just seven years,” says Simon Bradshaw, a research director at the Climate Council, with reference to a recent report showing a “devastating” 91 per cent of its surveyed reefs were affected this year. “What’s shocked scientists and the locals out on the reef the most is that this latest bleaching event occurred during a La Niña period, which we expect to be cooler and less dangerous for the reef. That’s never happened before.”

Climate change’s impact on rising sea temperatures is internationally recognised as a leading cause of coral death. Yet from the weak net-zero pledges of Australia’s two major political parties you wouldn’t think this was a big concern.

Both the Liberal Party and Labor Party have both pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – but by 2030, the former has only committed to a 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels, and the later to a 43 per cent drop. If every country followed the Liberals lead, the world would be headed for warming in excess of a catastrophic 3 degrees Celsius, experts estimate. If they followed Labor’s, it would still equate to a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius of warming – at which point the International Panel on Climate Change estimates that 99 per cent of the world’s corals would die.

How Australia’s politicians have been able to get away with this paucity of ambition at a time when the country is also being ravaged by wildfires and floods is an important question for the world at large. As Professor Tim Flannery has written for the New Statesman, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has placed much emphasis on the idea that technological fixes will solve the problem “over time” – a narrative which absolves the government from taking the necessary action.

Varying approaches to protecting the Great Barrier Reef are a helpful microcosm here. Gene-editing, assisted coral sex, or even 3D-printed terracotta coral substitutes might help the reef ecosystem cope with higher temperatures, but they won’t by themselves deal with the regular bleaching that is occurring because of elevated water temperatures as a result of climate change. The government’s “recalcitrant” reduction of Australia’s use and production of fossil fuels is contributing, says Richard Pearson from James Cook University. “The evidence is pretty clear that…if more action is not taken sooner…we can wave goodbye to the reef and many other environments as we know them.”

The problem, suggests David Ritter, the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, is that politicians claim they are protecting the reef, with specific actions and funding, such as the government’s 2050 Reef Plan, but unless they take action to reduce emissions, these initiatives can only go so far. He calls this state of affairs the persistent “big lie” being sold to Australian voters.

TikTok’s Eyres believes this weekend’s election could be the moment the government is called out for its lack of real political will to save the reef. “I’m confident the Australian public have been taken for a ride one too many times now,” he says. A vote for the Green party or the candidates running as Teal independents — all have climate targets in line with 1.5 degrees of warming — would be a “vote for the climate and the reef,” he adds. “This election is the 100 per cent the last chance for the reef in my opinion.”

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