Where is our grief over the reef?

If the slow destruction of a core part of our national identity won't move Australians to act on climate change, what will?

 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

This is an editorial for Issue 13 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan, who gets pretty sad thinking about current and future environmental issues, a lot of the time.

It’s become pretty clear over the past decade that progress on fighting climate change will be excruciatingly slow for at least the next decade to come. While this threat to the environment, the lives of current and future generations, and yes, the economy too, is as clear as it’s ever been, the effects have been far enough off for the governments of many countries to actively ignore. 

Australia doesn’t have that luxury. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, and along with it, Australia’s identity as a nation.

93% of the reef is currently affected by bleaching, a number that is set to only increase as water temperatures rise. Prolonged bleaching leads to irreversible coral damage, and the backbone of the ecosystem becomes unable to support the staggering diversity of fish, anemones, sea stars, sponges and algae characteristic of reefs in general and the Great Barrier Reef in particular.

Unfortunately, a changing climate isn’t the only threat to the reef. Agricultural run-off pollution on Australia’s east coast is disrupting the delicate nutrient balance necessary to allow reefs to flourish, while shipping activities and dredging are further ruining near-coastal water quality. 

Politicians were slow to react to these local threats until media coverage of the reef’s plight blew up earlier this year. During the July election campaign, the Coalition pledged $1bn over 10 years to help protect the reef (with the money unfortunately coming directly from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s coffers), while Labor pledged $500m over 5 years. But conservation experts say the reef needs an investment of at least $1bn a year for 10 years, 10 times more than is being offered by either major party. 

Of course, preventing local causes of reef damage, as vital as that is, will only delay the inevitable by a few decades if temperature trends continue. As such, the reef is a perfect symbol of inaction on climate change: it’s the proverbial canary in the coal mine, for both global temperatures and our society’s passive relationship to the environment. 

Australia’s identity is deeply tied to its natural landscapes and biodiversity. We’re a country known for our countless species not found anywhere else, living in iconic environments: red-sand plains, gum tree-filled bushland, ancient rainforests, and vibrant and colourful reefs. Losing any one of these should panic us to our core. But the fact that it’s not is arguably just as frightening. What does it say about modern Australia that we would let such a thing happen without any real fuss?

A great deal of Australians care about the reef, of course, but, as we’ve seen, action has been minimal. Threats of terrorism, which incite societal panic like no other, are frightening because they are perceived as an attack on shared ‘national values,’ and modern political reactions have been swift. One would think damage to our natural environments, particularly quintessentially Australian ones, would also be seen in the same light — as eroding our national character — but that’s not the case.

Outside of national pride, preserving biodiversity, particularly marine biodiversity, is incredibly easy to justify. Many people believe the natural environment is intrinsically worth keeping around: it has value outside of humanity’s experience. Even if you don’t share that view, it’s hard to overlook biodiversity’s economic, medical, technological and aesthetic value, particularly that of reefs. The environment is clearly important and worth keeping around, and the looming death of the Great Barrier Reef is something everyone should care about.

Politicians, non-profit organisations and researchers should be working together closely to manage the health of the reef   in a way that is actually effective: not token funding, sufficient funding; not token action, effective action. This should only be the first step — the next is to get serious about addressing climate change and set an example for the rest of the world.

Every Australian must feel like they have a deep, personal stake in both the reef and the state of the climate: because they do. Pressure from citizens keeps the political system as on-course as it can be, particularly when not doing anything is the simplest mode of action. A key part of Australia’s environmental heritage will be lost if nothing is done. The world as we know it will be lost if nothing is done. We can’t let that happen.

Yes, it’s easy to ignore long-term problems with complex solutions, to pass the cleaning up to future generations. But it’s harder to live in the aftermath, in a world quite a bit less bright and considerably less interesting. And the reef is dying right now — our children won’t get to enjoy it, sure, but neither will we. 

We owe it to Australia, and ourselves, to act. 

There's more about oceans in the rest of this issue of Lateral — and not everything's depressing! Although, we did go a little dark this month, I will admit. 

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.