With the Oceans and seas covering nearly 71% of Earth’s surface, its health holds the key to the well-being of the planet. And the reefs are a vital part of the ocean’s biodiversity. And the largest of them all, the Great Barrier Reef covering an area of approximately 133,000 square miles, and stretching for 1,429 miles lies severely damaged by extraordinary marine heatwaves.
Airlie Beach in Queensland is a gateway leading to the Great Barrier Reef and this is where Tony Fontes fell for its beauty and decided to make it his home. That was 42 years ago. The dive instructor wistfully remembers the crystal clear waters, the quality of the reef’s corals, and the unmatched diversity of marine life thriving in it.
The Slow Death Of The Great Barrier Reef
Now at 68, Fontes is a witness to the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef. And he was surprised and hurt when UNESCO delayed a plan to tag the Great Barrier Reef as being ‘in danger.’ They had succumbed to intense lobbying by vested interests in the government of Australia.
He had desperately hoped that this effort would have brought some respite to the Great Barrier Reef and offer it some sort of protection. It remains the largest reef ecosystem in the world and is even visible from space. Way back in 2014, UNESCO had warned that the reef was in danger and wanted it to be listed as such. A perfunctory effort at conservation by the Australian government was designed to give them some breathing space but didn’t bring any improvement to the condition of the decaying reef.
On June 21, 2021, the world body made an effort to place the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage list of sites that remain ‘in danger’ and said that climate change was proving to be its greatest threat.
The Australian government instead of concurring with UNESCO, hit out at the world body as they were more concerned with the billions that tourists bring in every year.
The Australian environment minister, Sussan Ley, trashed the draft recommendation saying the site hadn’t been studied thoroughly before making the recommendations. In a statement on June 22, she instead referred to a paltry $2.2B that the Australian government claimed it had made to protect the vast reef.
UNESCO backed its recommendation and clearly said that their announcement was a ‘call for action.’
UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s director, Mechtild Rossler told the media that the world is aware that the Great Barrier Reef is under a grave threat and this generation owes it to future generations to protect it.
The Australian government went on the offensive and Ley went on a whirlwind tour to drum up support for her opposition to the UNESCO proposal.
She lobbied extensively visiting 18 countries, eventually forcing a reprieve for her government. The UNESCO backtracked and the World Heritage Committee, represented by 21 countries, instead requested Australia to submit a report detailing the condition of the Great Barrier Reef in February next year.
Environmentalists Decry UNESCO’s Backflip
Under pressure from Australia, UNESCO backtracked and was greeted with derision by the world environmental and scientific community, concerned with the health of the reef.
Professor Lesley Hughes at Macquarie University in Sydney said that the environmentalists and scientists were hopeful of bringing international attention to the pitiable condition of the Great Barrier Reef, and the refusal by the Australian government to put forward a decent climate change policy. Many top scientists and environmentalists had earlier written to UNESCO about the refusal of the Australian government to be a part of the world community trying to cut down on carbon emissions.
Even the wildfires of 2019 and 2020 failed to move the Australian government even as an area double that of Florida was burnt totally.
PM Scott Morrison instead claimed that Australia’s greenhouse gases were only 1.3% of total global emissions. But if the total fossil fuels that it exports were taken into consideration, it would increase its rate of carbon emission to 5%. It would make it the 5th-largest emitter in the world, says Climate Analytics.
The Great Barrier Reef has lost over 50% of its original size in a quarter of a century. Marine scientists studying the reef released a report in 2020 that warm waters caused by climate change have led to 3 mass cases of bleaching in just the last 5 years. This has led to a sharp decline in the population of corals. Bleaching is caused by alterations in the condition of waters, says the study conducted by scientists at Queensland’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Fontes has witnessed the destruction first-hand over 40 years as he guided divers through the magnificent reef. He has seen many dive sites wither and die, and that phenomenon, he says, is happening all along the length and breadth of the reef.
The Australian government’s efforts have been local and piecemeal and it has made no attempts to address the greater issue of climate change. It continues to stonewall any attempts to address it, says Hughes.
Emma Camp has been experimenting on corals that can withstand warmer, and more important, acidic waters. The marine bio-geochemist from Sydney’s Institute of Technology says that her efforts might give the reefs some breather, but concrete steps to address climate change were necessary. Only by shifting from our dependence on fossil fuels, and addressing the issue of carbon emission, can we hope to address the issue, she says.
Fontes says that the most astonishing reef on earth is in danger, and we might not even have a reef to save in the near future if no steps are taken immediately.