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No Barrier: World wonder predicted to disappear

Julian Tompkin
October 30, 2018

Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef has endured two years of coral bleaching, with scientists warning of a looming catastrophe for the UNESCO protected site. Is it time to visit before the natural wonder is no more?

Australien - Great Barrier Reef
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Probst

It appeared no small victory for Australia’s conservative Federal Government, when in 2017 UNESCO made the unexpected decision to exempt Australia’s Great Barrier Reef from its 'in danger' list. But, before the government could whet its increasing appetite for coal-fired power, it quickly became apparent that the world’s largest coral reef system was presently in the midst of its second consecutive year of severe coral bleaching. According to some estimates it would ultimately lose up to 50 percent of all total coral.

A little over a year later and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now all but sounded the death knell for global reef ecosystems should global warming reach an average of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The report makes for grim reading, especially considering that in 2007 then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared climate change "the great moral challenge of our generation". Skip forward to 2017 and Australia appeared to have drifted into a parallel universe, where the conservative treasurer Scott Morrison strutted around the federal parliament in Canberra brandishing a lump of coal and proudly proclaiming "don’t be afraid." 

Morrison now finds himself the 30th Prime Minister of Australia. Coal is back in business it seems.

"These are confusing times," said WWF Australia’s Head of Oceans, Richard Leck. "The inconsistency between where Australian policy is, where the reality on the ground is, and where the reality of the future of coal is at, is a very confused landscape. What that means in Australia ultimately is that some of our greatest national assets, including the Great Barrier Reef, are in grave danger."

Read moreGreat Barrier Reef will suffer recurring coral bleaching by 2034, report says 

The great debate

At 2,300 kilometers in length and 344,400 square kilometers in scale, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on earth. Along with the Sydney Opera House, it is arguably Australia’s most recognizable site and welcomes over two million visitors per year.

So why would the Federal Government put such a vital national asset and icon in jeopardy?

Fueled by big industry dollars, conservative commentators and powerful climate change deniers, this vexed issue is driven more by polemic more than policy. But that polemic seems to be finally be listing, with the government last week scrapping a planned $10 million publicity blitz aimed at promoting the government’s 'good-news' policies for safeguarding the Reef's health - an apparent admission of the government’s inability to fool the public.

Australien - Great Barrier Reef
Coral island Michaelsmay Cay in the Great Barrier ReefImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Kaufhold

Chief amongst these 'commitments' was the awarding of an untendered $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation in 2017 - an organization concerned with the Reef’s palliative management rather than directly addressing the root cause of the looming catastrophe: greenhouse gas emissions.      

"I currently don’t have much faith that the government is doing its best to protect our intrinsic resources," stated Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, from the University of New South Wales' Climate Research Centre. "If they were investing that money into limiting what actually impacts the reef physically then I’d be satisfied, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. If they are going to take protecting the reef seriously then they need to stop pollution on the reef and make a greater effort in reducing climate change."

Read moreAustralia to spend half a billion to protect Great Barrier Reef

While the future of direct climate change action in Australia appears bleak, the country is steamrolling towards a federal election in 2019 that many local commentators are calling a referendum on climate change policy. The Great Barrier Reef is taking center stage.

While the future of the reef has been depicted as a deeply moral issue, it is equally a financial one. The Great Barrier Reef contributes approximately $5.4 billion dollars annually to the Australian economy, with local industries - including tourism - employing nearly 70,000 people.

Australien - Great Barrier Reef
Warm sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching on the Great Barrier ReefImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Torda

Coal exit

While Australia's ruling conservative government have consistently denied human-induced climate change on behalf of the fossil fuel lobby, the Great Barrier Reef may well be inspiring a people-powered revolt.

"The research shows the majority of Australians want Australia to have a more ambitious action on climate change," explained WWF's Richard Leck.

"Most Australians see protecting the Great Barrier Reef as the number one environmental issue in Australia, and without reducing our emissions and playing a leading role internationally we won’t have that ability to pass on the Reef in a healthy condition to our kids and grandkids," he added. 

But while the Reef has suffered both severe coral bleaching and the existential blight of the crown-of-thorns starfish, it retains its enigmatic allure as a popular global tourist destination.

Although some in the tourism industry on Australia’s northeast Queensland coast have reported a decline in numbers as a result of the marine heatwave, others are reporting a dramatic spike in business: a product of "last-chance" tourism.

Read moreAustralia tiger sharks killed after attack on tourists near Great Barrier Reef

Australien - Great Barrier Reef
Small transfer boats take tourists to the Great Barrier Reef - how much longer?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Kaufhold

One last chance?

Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick can identify with the recent rush to see the reef.

"Based on current pledges to globally reduce emissions we will still warm by 2.7-3C by 2100," she told DW. "The reef will irreversibly change. I am not going to prescribe to others what they should and shouldn’t do in terms of their travel plans or visiting the reef; but I know I’d like to take my own kids up there … before it’s too late."   

Leck guardedly agrees but maintains an ember of hope that Australians - and their global compatriots - can act swiftly enough to mitigate the damage.

"Of course, people are bringing their bucket lists forward as the reef might not be on that list forever," concluded Leck. "But there are still parts of the Great Barrier Reef that will take your breath away. It’s still inspiring and utterly breathtaking. It’s not yet a wasteland that has no natural value  it’s an incredible thing and one still worth saving."