(Image via http://miragewhitsundays.com.au/)

How much international media attention will it take to get direct action and protect the Great Barrier Reef? Dr Anthony Horton reports.

THE CURRENT controversy involving Ellen DeGeneres and Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt is certainly not the first time (and probably won’t be the last) that someone with an international media profile has pointed out the need for the Turnbull Government to do everything it can to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

In an address to an enthusiastic audience at the University of Queensland in November 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama pointedly remarked that he wanted his daughters to be able to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef and one day bring their own children to see it.

On April 24 this year, a documentary filmed by the world’s most renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough was aired on ABC Television, highlighting how the Great Barrier Reef was created and showcasing the multitude of creatures that call it home.

Following the extensive social media coverage of Ellen DeGeneres’ comments, I was left pondering: how much international media attention will it take to get direct action to protect the Reef after the Federal election on July 2?

The Great Barrier Reef is not only an important ecosystem we need to protect for the benefit of people living in Australia, it is also critically important on an international scale. On the government’s Department of the Environment website, the Great Barrier Reef is described as

‘the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem’


'a globally outstanding and significant entity’.

It also points out that

'practically the whole ecosystem was inscribed as World Heritage in 1981’.

This reinforces that the reef must be afforded protection from inappropriate development. The legislative instruments in place to facilitate protection are The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 (amended in 2007 and 2008) and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Covering an area of approximately 350,000 km2, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most diverse natural ecosystems on Earth. Nearly 2 million visitors are drawn to it each year — sustaining more than 60,000 jobs and annually contributing $5 billion to the Australian economy. While the Reef commands respect from environmental, social and economic perspectives, for the purposes of this article I am focusing on the environmental protections the Reef provides the coastline it borders.

On 8 June 2016, Ellen DeGeneres filmed a video message stating:

“It’s critical that we protect this amazing place, and we’d like your help”

referring to the website ‘Remember the Reef’ established by the Disney Conservation and its partners to help preserve the Great Barrier Reef.

As an Australian scientist working in the climate change space, I am very happy that DeGeneres has drawn attention to the plight of Reef, particularly during the Australian election campaign — a campaign in which environmental issues (much less climate change) have been afforded so little discussion to date.

In response, Environment Minister Greg Hunt “bombarded” DeGeneres with numerous tweets defending his government and what it has done to help the Reef so far. Channel 9 Today Show co-host Karl Stefanovic also added to the discussion on June 9 by stating his concern that “she has got involved in that around the whole notion of selling a movie anyway” — in reference to the upcoming movie release of Finding Dory.

According to the ‘Managing Coasts with Natural Solutions’ report published in January this year by the World Bank Group Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) program, coral reefs:

  • Provide natural protection from flooding and erosion by reducing and dispersing wave energy by up to 97%
  • Supply and trap sediment found on beaches
  • Produce carbonates as they grow and, if they remain healthy, could require minimal maintenance funding in order to continue to protect coastlines

In the U.S., the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) spends $500 million each year to reduce flooding hazards. Brazil, China and Columbia are spending billions of dollars addressing the risks of flooding and other climate change related disasters. The majority of these funds are being spent on the construction of infrastructure such as seawalls.

The Great Barrier Reef provides this range of protective services mentioned above to the significant section of Australian coastline that it borders. And yet, in Australia we rarely (if ever) hear a discussion of how important these services are. It would be a great shame if these significant benefits were ignored, only to be discussed once the Great Barrier Reef has passed the point of no return and the coastline it borders is under threat from flooding and/or erosion — events that would result in significant environmental and financial costs.

A range of scientific disciplines play important parts in valuing the Great Barrier Reef. Understanding local climate patterns, chemical transport/cycling, as well as its structural integrity are critical to placing a realistic value on the reef.

According to the WAVES program report, process-based approaches are the best for valuing the coastal protection services that coral reefs provide. These process-based approaches use variables including storm surges, currents, sediment transport, and interactions between waves and structures to assess risks as well as measure the value of habitats in reducing flooding and other climate change related disasters. The report outlines five steps for estimating the benefits that coral reefs provide:

1. Estimating offshore hydrodynamics

In order to estimate offshore dynamics, it is important to first understand the oceanographic conditions that generate waves from wind in deep waters. An assessment of wind, waves, mean sea level, tides and storm surge is critical to understanding offshore hydrodynamics. The average and extreme offshore conditions for each of these variables must be gauged in order to understanding the range of conditions reefs are exposed to over a full year of four seasons. It is only once the full range of conditions are understood that appropriate reef management strategies can be implemented

2. Estimating nearshore hydrodynamics

Waves change as they travel from deep to shallow water as a result of the local bathymetry (e.g. depth profile) and coastal morphology (structural features). In nearshore environments, waves undergo refraction, dissipation, diffraction and other sources of energy transfer. Characterising nearshore wave height and energy is an important part of estimating nearshore dynamics, and is in turn important to understanding how the reef protects the coastline that it borders

3. Estimating the effects of coastal habitat on hydrodynamics

Nearshore waves interact with habitats and other structures that attenuate (e.g. weaken) the waves and thereby reduce their energy. Coral reefs attenuate short waves (e.g. wind waves) as the waves break on them. Similar to the previous point, understanding wave attenuation is important to understanding the extent of the protection that a reef affords its immediate and near coastline

4. Estimating flooding

After waves pass over reef habitats, any remaining wave energy creates onshore flooding or erosion. A key part of assessing the risk of flooding is understanding the frequency of storms in the area. Following an assessment of the storm frequency, it is important to understand topographic elevation as lower lying areas will be more susceptible to flooding. The dimensions of the low lying area in which flooding occurs is defined as the ‘flooding envelope’

5. Assessing expected and averted damages

Assessing these damages involves calculating the number of people and assets within a flooding envelope. Once this is known, a damage function that describes the likely value of assets flooded under different storm frequencies (e.g. one in 10, and one in 100 year events) can be derived. Once this is derived, the difference in damages with and without coral reefs can be calculated

By now you’re probably asking yourself what Labor and the Coalition have pledged to do to protect the Great Barrier Reef. On 31 May 2016, Labor announced that an ALP government would allocate $500 million to protect the Reef through better research, co-ordination and environmental programs. Of this $500 million, $100 million would be spent by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), $300 million would be spent on programs to reduce nitrogen and sediment run-off, and the remaining $100 million would be spent on improving the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

Following Labor’s pledge, the Turnbull Government announced a $1 billion Reef fund that will provide concessional loans for clean energy projects that will reduce pollutant and fertiliser run-off and limit discharge from sewage treatment plants to the ocean thereby improving water quality. However, this $1 billion will come from the $10 billion fund administered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (established by the former Labor Government) to facilitate investment in renewable energy projects in Australia.

The Australian renewable energy sector needs as much funding as it can reasonably get in order to grow and sustain itself and the livelihoods of those who depend on it for employment. The protection of the Great Barrier Reef also needs as much funding as possible to ensure its endurance against the realities of climate change. The renewable energy sector and the Great Barrier Reef should not be in competition for Government funding — which is effectively what will happen under the current government’s announcement.

The conservation of the Great Barrier Reef must be given the highest priority and afforded the highest level of protection by the Turnbull Government as a first line of defence against storms, flooding, rising sea levels and other extreme weather events which can cause hundreds of millions or billions of dollars worth of damage, threatening people’s lives and livelihoods. As sea levels continue to rise, it stands to reason that recognising the value of the Great Barrier Reef is essential to the protection of coastal communities.

Post the double dissolution election, regardless of whether the current government is returned or Labor wins, one thing is very clear — the eyes of the world will be on what the Australian government does to protect the Great Barrier Reef. As the Ellen DeGeneres controversy demonstrates, a global audience (Australian voters included) are now wondering how much international media attention it will take to get direct action to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Prime Minister Turnbull would do well to take heed of Ellen DeGeneres’s call to protect the Great Barrier Reef

One of Minister Hunt’s tweets to Ellen DeGeneres on June 8 really struck a chord with me. Part of his message states that

‘We all have a role and the Aust govt is doing more than ever to protect it’.

I think many Australians would disagree with this statement (as we saw on Twitter when many Tweeps warned Ellen not to believe a word Hunt says), as I do along with my colleagues and other scientists in the environmental space. We argue instead that the Coalition is doing is still not enough to ensure the long-term survival and prosperity of the Great Barrier Reef. I absolutely agree with DeGeneres’s comment as reported by 9news.com.au that

“we should protect our oceans and protect the reef, and I don’t know what’s controversial about that”.

It is a truly sad day when we cannot express our concern for an environmental issue that we consider important — this is just what Ellen did, and I for one applaud her for it.

You can follow Anthony on Twitter as the Climate Change Guy @DrAnthonyHorton as well as his blog the Climate Change Guy.

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