Environment Opinion

Scott Morrison is a threat to the Great Barrier Reef

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Scott Morrison isn't living up to his prime ministerial duty to save the Great Barrier Reef (Image by Dan Jensen)

By failing in climate policy, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is also failing in protecting the future of the Great Barrier Reef, writes David Ritter.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I went to Kirribilli House to drop off a letter. I was accompanied by marine ecologist Professor David Booth, leading science communicator Laura Wells, Greenpeace’s general counsel, Katrina Bullock and a small group of activists who love our Great Barrier Reef.

The letter was written by some legal types, the fantastic lawyers who work at one of Australia’s national treasures, the Environmental Defenders Office.

I used to be a lawyer myself once and I know you can get some odd questions from clients (I can recall one occasion when the advice that I gave the client was to just take the library book back).

But in this instance, the question being addressed is even stranger than the troubled conscience of the gentleman with the overdue (to be fair, it was long, long overdue) library book.

As I have previously noted in Independent Australia, in 1981, Australia voluntarily promised the world that ‘to the utmost of its own resources’ our nation would ‘do all it can’ to protect the Great Barrier Reef under the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Left to right: David Booth, Laura Wells, David Ritter and Katrina Bullock outside Kirribilli House (Source: Greenpeace)

If you become the prime minister of Australia, you are bound to protect the Great Barrier Reef — it is not a matter of personal preference or partisan policy discretion. Maybe Scott Morrison genuinely hates clownfish and multicoloured coral, who knows? The point is, it doesn’t matter. The job is to ensure that Australia does all it can to protect the Great Barrier Reef to the utmost of our resources.

Now, it is common ground that the greatest threat to the long term survival of the Great Barrier Reef is climate change. It is also clear that one of the differences between global warming of 1.5 and two degrees is the survival of the Reef as we know it. Our beautiful Reef is badly hurting now and worse at 1.5 degrees, but two degrees spells pretty much the end of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

The globally agreed Paris climate goal ‘to limit global warming to well below two, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels’ recently reinforced by the commitment to 1.5 in Glasgow, is a pathway to the survival of the Great Barrier Reef. And, of course, Australia signed both the Paris and Glasgow climate outcomes.

But – weirdly, perversely, bizarrely, negligently, recklessly, criminally – the Australian Government has no credible plan or mechanism for reducing our national greenhouse gas emissions in line with what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Contrary to international treaty obligations, Australia failed to increase its emissions reduction ambition at or prior to Glasgow.

Then, last Friday afternoon, the Australian Government “took out the trash” and finally released the McKinsey modelling behind its widely derided 2050 net-zero plan.

In one of the most comprehensive take-downs of the work, Ketan Joshi noted that:

‘...the Government is targeting 2°C, which allows for worse emissions into the future at the cost of more severe and catastrophic impacts of warming, particularly in the Global South. In fact, 1.5°C is not mentioned a single time in the hundreds of pages of the report.’

So, just to be absolutely clear about this. The Prime Minister of Australia has an obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef. In order to protect the Great Barrier Reef, it is necessary to avoid two degrees of global warming. There is an international framework for avoiding two degrees of global warming. The Prime Minister is not complying with that international framework and is relying on modelling which targets two degrees of warming as the outcome.

Nothing could be clearer than the obligation of the Australian Prime Minister to do what is necessary for Australia to contribute our fair share to keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, to protect the Great Barrier Reef (as well as for innumerable other reasons).

Greenpeace asked the Environmental Defenders Office about this and you can read their analysis here. The letter that we carried to Kirribilli was a letter of demand that the Prime Minister do his damned job and come up with a national commitment to emissions reduction consistent with a 1.5 degree scenario.

It is disgraceful that it is even necessary to have to make such demands of our national leader, who is meant to exercise care and responsibility appropriate to the office — but we are where we are.

As it turns out, there is no letterbox at Kirribilli. In this democracy of ours, you can’t just stroll up to the Prime Minister’s official residence and drop off an invitation to a party — or a legal letter of demand on behalf of 1.2 million people. Fortunately, Scott Morrison also has an email address.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and adjunct professor with the University of Western Australia's Law School. You can follow David Ritter on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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