Opinion

Bleach-hot Reality: The Great Barrier Reef of your childhood is gone, what are you going to do about it?

SEI Honours Research Fellow, Jodie Pall reflects on the Global Warming and the Mass Bleaching of Corals public lecture and highlights the need for action.

Professor Terry Hughes is a big deal in the reef ecology arena and currently spearheads the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce. So when an undisputed expert has to hold back tears as he describes the future of our reef, you realise we must be in dire straits.

Hughes, speaking at the Sydney Ideas public lecture called Global Warming and the Mass Bleaching of Corals last week, sounded the death knell for the Great Barrier Reef. He was joined by three other panellists, all of whom emphasised the importance of taking climate action. While I could critique the event for who it failed to invite to speak about climate action and coral bleaching (Traditional Owners, Aboriginal activists, students, people who depend on or work near the reef who are not part of the educated elite), as a young climate activist I was powerfully touched and motivated to action and believe passing on the information from Hughes’ might inspire others to get involved in doing something about it.

The reef experienced two coral bleaching episodes in 2016, the hottest year on record, and another two in 2017. That’s four bleaching events with less than one degree of average global warming and if the predictions are true, we can expect innumerable more terrifying changes to be unleashed globally.

In 2016, Hughes’ surveyed the extent of severe bleaching along the entire Great Barrier Reef. His team found that the most severe bleaching occurring in the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef, where half of those reefs saw more than 65% coral death.

Hughes’ team will undertake an identical survey in 2017 regarding this year’s back-to-back beaching, but expectations are grim. Like Maria Byrne, Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Sydney, says, the damage of a pulse of warm sea surface temperatures is like “ten cyclones holding hands, walking toward the reef.” Byrne echoes Hughes’ message: we cannot afford to go above two degrees of warming under the 2020 COP21 target. If we don’t transition to renewables, we are likely to see annual bleaching events. Sadly but unsurprisingly, Hughes emphasises that even if we stay below that target, the fate of the reef is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Addressing the sombre audience, David Ritter CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific recalls a quote, “The earth is not dying; it’s being killed. And those that are killing it have names and addresses.” A complex of banks, federal and state governments as well as peak business bodies in Australia are investing in the destruction of the reef, he remarks. The government is lending $1 billion of taxpayer money to billionaire Mr. Adani to build Australia’s biggest coal mine next to the reef. At the same time, peak bodies are not addressing the issue and politicians are extolling the virtues of coal in parliament. Commonwealth Bank and Westpac have remained silent, and have not ruled out funding the new coal project expected to last for 60 years, well past the time of coal being considered a viable energy source.

All panelists urge that we have no option but to take action. They respond to the question we’re all asking ourselves: What can we do? Ritter lists a dozen of actions we can take including making a meal for your five closest friends and share Hughes’ message; write to your local member, a surprisingly effective measure given how few letters they generally receive; or get involved in an organisation that is already committed to taking action like the Australian Conservation Foundation, AYCC, Greenpeace, GetUp! or a #StopAdani group.

It is not unprecedented that people have taken radical action to protect reefs before. Iain McCalman, Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute, draws upon the lessons learned from the campaign to save Ellison Reef beginning in 1967, a movement led by John Busst, poet Judith Wright, and CSIRO forester Len Webb. At that time, threats of mining the reef and turning reef skeleton into fertiliser were resisted by passionate locals in a watershed event which has come to be known as the birth of reef conservation in Australia.

McCalman forecasts that this is our ‘Ellison Reef moment’; the Great Barrier Reef that we know from our childhood will never be the same, but while temperatures continue to rise, he and the other panellists urge us to act together to stop this train-wreck of climate disasters from destroying our future.


Jodie Pall is a 2017 Honours Research Fellow at SEI and a Research Assistant in the School of Geosciences. Jodie is a member of #StopAdani Sydney. She is deeply committed to working toward climate justice outcomes, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Sovereignty was never ceded.

Image: Petchrung Sukpong