Keeping our promises: We can't let the Great Barrier Reef die

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The Great Barrier Reef is in dire straits (image by Dean Miller for Greenpeace).

While we've been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Barrier Reef has continued to endure bleaching which threatens its very existence, writes Greenpeace Australia CEO David Ritter.

WE ALL TEACH our kids about the importance of keeping promises. And when Australia makes a promise, we should keep our word.

The strength and reliability of our promise defines who we are as a country and how we are regarded by the rest of the world. It reflects on our integrity and character as a country.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the silence of the politicians and most of the media, over the last fortnight, there has been vast evidence of Australia’s breach of promise to the world, spreading like a giant white-out redaction over hundreds of miles of once rainbow-coloured coral reef.

In 1981, Australia promised the world that “to the utmost of its resources” our nation would “do all it can” to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

The promise was both to ourselves and future generations of Australians and to all humanity, in recognition of the outstanding, universal values of the Great Barrier Reef.

In this way, our magnificent Reef became the very first Australian property on the list of World Heritage in 1981 under the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

In the official Liberal Party campaign launch last year, Scott Morrision said that “[i]t is my vision for this country, as your Prime Minister, to keep the promise of Australia to all Australians".

And earlier this year, when Morrison was holidaying in Hawaii while Australia burned, he explained his absence on the basis that he had promised the trip to his family.

He told the nation:

“I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it.”

In recent weeks, as aerial surveys documented another mass bleaching event of our Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s breach of promise to our children, to all children, and to all of humanity, has again been starkly revealed. 

Australia promised to protect the Great Barrier Reef to the utmost of our resources. Instead, for years now, too many Australian politicians and business leaders have been complicit in a "big lie" to conceal the decisions that are leading, and have led to, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. 

Through their actions and inaction, Australian politicians have pursued the notion that it is possible to turn things around for the Reef without tackling global warming. This is simply untenable, because digging up and burning coal, oil and gas are driving the global heating that is bleaching the corals and severely damaging the Reef. 

Scott Morrison became the most public face of the big lie, when he carried that lump of lacquered coal into Parliament and said there was "nothing to be afraid of".

This time around, the appropriately immense national response to COVID-19 has provided cover for ignoring the monumental events on the Reef.

Professor Terry Hughes is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University and the leader of the project to survey the extent of the bleaching. His assessment is that the Great Barrier Reef has, this summer, experienced catastrophic reef bleaching, with 60 per cent of reefs across all three regions affected. The most widespread bleaching event ever recorded on the Reef.

It is the third "great bleaching" of the Great Barrier Reef in five years. In scale, regularity and severity this is all off the chart.

As Hughes has said previously, as a nation we have a choice: 

“Coal or corals, Australia? We can no longer have both.”

If we are to keep our word as a nation, then the solemn promise to use our utmost resources to protect the Great Barrier Reef has some clear consequences. We must stop burning coal, oil and gas as fast as possible, in line with the best available scientific advice on what is necessary to give our Reef a fighting chance of survival.

Integrity means keeping your word, even when it is difficult or inconvenient. But here, delivering on our promise is also in our national interest: consistent with what we need to do to secure the conditions for Australia’s future prosperity.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that limiting global warming to 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic climate change requires rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. The prosperity of our nation and of our coral reef requires the same action: to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels. The coral reefs and the people of Australia are part of the same natural community of fate.

In the current context of COVID-19, this recognition could not be more important. If spent the right way, the billions now being spent on securing the health and wellbeing of Australians can also put us on a path toward clean energy and the restoration of the natural world, including the Great Barrier Reef.

Long overdue action has never been more urgent. Better late than never: Prime Minister, it is time to keep our promise.

David Ritter is an Independent Australia columnist and CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, adjunct professor at Sydney University and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at the University of Western AustraliaYou can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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