Death of the Great Barrier Reef: One scientist's planetary tipping point

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"Reef is fine", Pauline Hanson says after turning up 1000 km from bleaching. (Image via SBS)

Nearly a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef is dead and there has been no discernible political response, writes Dr Geoff Davies.

THERE WAS no big revelation, just a train of thought. Nearly a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef is dead and there has been no discernible political response. Global temperature is rising off the chart, only glancingly noted in the torrent of chatter. The decades-long trend of ever-more perverse and destructive politics continues. Societies are fragmenting.

For perhaps two decades I have held to the thought that while ever there was a chance of avoiding a planetary tipping point I would continue explaining how we can avoid the worst. Through that time, the path to a healthy, stable world has become clearer and more obvious, demonstrated in a thousand practical, small-scale ways. All that time, the window of opportunity was closing. It is, in my judgement, barely open any more.

Few seem to understand that even if we ceased greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the world would still warm for two or three decades more. That is about the time marine scientists give for the rest of the Great Barrier Reef to be killed off on present trends. I can’t see how the Reef can survive. Its loss, along with vast stretches of mangroves in our north, kelp forests in the west and rich continental shelf life across the south, will be see major collapses of ocean ecosystems, with unknown consequences for life on this Earth.

Global temperature has shot up by about 0.4°C over the past three years — about ten times faster than the trend since 1970 and an unprecedented rise in the 136-year global record. We have to hope it will ease back this year, as last year’s el Niño fades, but we don’t know if it will. There are about a dozen mechanisms that could tip us into runaway warming and we don’t know where those tipping points are.

Currently, the global temperature is about 1.3°C above the pre-industrial temperature and the best estimate of the “safe” zone is about 1.5°C. Politicians, without clear scientific reasons, have opted for a rhetorical 2°C maximum, but they’re nowhere near the actions that would accomplish that.

It’s possible “progressive” parties and groups will push back and retake governments over the next few years, but they would still have to battle the increasingly entrenched apostles of fear — not only in politics, but also in the media, which are more powerful, backed as they are by corporate spin machines intent on preserving their preceived entitlement. It doesn’t seem likely they will prevail, though that doesn’t mean they should stop trying.

So, I thought, I have to conclude the Reef is a goner. We might have outbreaks of sanity and luck, but I can’t hold on to that straw any more. I need to let go.

Most likely, there will be no Great Barrier Reef. Most likely, global warming will tip into irreversible runaway and run up to 4°C, or 6°C — we don’t know. Within a few centuries, we think and hope, the overheated Earth will radiate more energy, enough to overcome the blanketing by greenhouse gases and the temperature will steady.

The consequences for humanity may be somewhere between catastrophic and apocalyptic. Around half Earth’s millions of species may perish, throwing ecosystems into chaotic collapse, and unleashing plagues and famines. I expect many people will survive the coming centuries of chaos, but in a radically different world. Much will be lost that we cherish, those of us who have some awareness of this miraculous planet. Life will continue, but on a different and lower trajectory, perhaps to rebuild over tens of millions of years, as it has done before.

My train of thought having run its course, I left for Christmas with family. A few days later, returning on the train, I felt increasingly itchy. I found some patches of rash. Over the next few days, the rash migrated around my body, accompanied by a parade of other stress symptoms well known to me. My body was reacting to something. The only plausible cause was – and is – the letting go of the thing I had worked for a long time to help along — the survival of the world as we know it.

Since then, I have chosen to avoid rushing on with anything. I need a new approach. I need to ponder. I have not yielded all hope, but my hope now is to keep a flame burning, however small or large.

I don’t want to commit yet to a new direction, but I have some glimmerings. Many people already have chosen to defect from the dominant culture — the one that conquers, dominates and consumes. They are creating, in various ways, lives that value connection, with each other and with the Earth, and that take only what is sufficient and what will regenerate. If people are to have any future, that is how we must relearn to live.

The old culture subverts and suppresses the new way. It is useless to confront the old culture head on, but its days are numbered. It cannot survive for much longer. As it crumbles, or crashes, we can build a new one.

I presume there is a future for a sophisticated, globally-connected humanity, but one rooted in the wisdom of locality; one that chooses to conform with the needs of the living world, of which we are still intimately and inextricably a part. As we re-connect with localities, we can learn how much and what kind of regional and global culture might serve us, without threatening to disconnect and dominate. In this moment, that seems to be a worthy aspiration.

Dr Geoff Davies is an author, commentator and scientist. He blogs at Better Nature.

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