Will we leave the Great Barrier Reef for our children?

Amidst the current policy debate in Australia on climate change is a surreal argument that policies that will destroy the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) are acceptable and economically rational. Ross Garnaut was alive to the damage to the GBR when saying Australia should initially aim for a global consensus to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million. Garnaut (2008a: 38) was brutally frank in his supplementary draft report:

“The 550 strategy would be expected to lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs.”

His final report does not shy away from this conclusion (Garnaut 2008b).

The Australian and Queensland governments have always silently avoided this point when explaining the costs and benefits of their climate policies. Neither has ever stated a stabilisation target for the rise in global temperatures or greenhouse gases. To do so would expose them to the criticism that their policies will not save the GBR or a host of other ecosystems.

Garnaut’s frank admission reflects the findings of research of the impacts of climate change to the GBR since mass coral bleaching occurred globally in 1998 and 2002. Rising sea temperatures and increasing acidity of the oceans due to our use of fossil fuels are now well-recognized as major threats to coral reefs and the marine ecosystem generally in coming decades.

 Coral bleaching and partial recovery on Pelorus Island, GBR: (a) 1998; (b) 2002; and (c) 2004. Source: Schuttenberg H and Marshall P, A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching (GBRMPA, Townsville, 2006), p12.
Coral bleaching and partial recovery on Pelorus Island, GBR: (a) 1998; (b) 2002; and (c) 2004. Source: Schuttenberg H and Marshall P, A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching (GBRMPA, Townsville, 2006), p12.

In relation to coral bleaching the IPCC (2007b: 12) found that:

“Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals.”

The findings of the IPCC suggest that a rise of 1°C in mean global temperatures and, correspondingly, sea surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels is the maximum that should be aimed for if the global community wishes to protect coral reefs. The range of 1-3°C is the danger zone and 2°C is not safe. Supporting this conclusion Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues concluded in a review of the likely impacts of climate change to the GBR edited by Johnson and Marshall (2007: 295):

“Successive studies of the potential impacts of thermal stress on coral reefs have supported the notion that coral dominated reefs are likely to largely disappear with a 2°C rise in sea temperature over the next 100 years. This, coupled with the additional vulnerability of coral reefs to high levels of acidification once the atmosphere reaches 500 parts per million [CO2], suggests that coral dominated reefs will be rare or non-existent in the near future.”

The IPCC’s (2007a: 826) best estimate of climate sensitivity found that stabilising greenhouse gases and aerosols at 350 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents (ppm CO2-eq) would be expected to lead to a rise in mean global temperatures of 1°C, stabilising at 450 ppm CO2-eq will lead to a rise of 2°C, and stabilising at 550 ppm CO2-eq will lead to a rise of 3°C.

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