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Moment that mattered: Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is shown to be affected by severe bleaching

A turtle glides over bleached coral off Heron Island, a coral cay that forms part of the southern Great Barrier Reef near Gladstone, Queensland

A turtle glides over bleached coral off Heron Island, a coral cay that forms part of the southern Great Barrier Reef near Gladstone, Queensland

Most conversations about climate change aren’t particularly cheerful, and I’m afraid the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is no exception. This is the first time we’ve had bleaching for two consecutive years and 2016 was the worst bleaching event in the reef’s recorded history.

Bleaching is a general response of corals to stress. It can occur through all sorts of different situations, but we see it very clearly when corals are exposed to water temperatures that are higher than they’re used to at a particular time of year. Corals are an unusual organism: they can’t exist on their own, they can only exist with algae in their tissues. The algae photosynthesise – they use sunlight to create sugars and starches which become the food that feeds the coral.

When they are stressed, the corals basically throw the algae out of their tissues. Once the algae have gone, the coral skeleton is actually white. It’s the algae that gives coral its colour, and that’s why it’s called bleached coral. If the stress is relatively mild the corals can regain those algae, recover and carry on. If the stress is too severe or goes on for too long, then the corals can’t get the algae back and they die.

The only way to save the reef is to get temperatures under control, and that means lowering our use of fossil fuels. With the second year of bleaching in a row Australia is facing a crisis, but there is cognitive dissonance in our government. On the one hand it recognises the value of the Great Barrier Reef, not just as a natural icon but economically. Something like 70,000 people are employed as a direct result of the reef, mainly from tourism, and it brings at least $6 billion into the Australian economy each year. So its value is unquestioned.

On the other hand, coal is still a huge export earner for Australia and is currently very important to the economy. It does employ people, though not as many as are employed by the reef. I think the government has this peculiar notion that you can dig up, export and burn coal while at the same time maintaining the reef. We at the Climate Council [an independent environmental information agency, which was formed after the Australian government abolished the country’s climate commission in 2013] believe that those two things are simply not compatible.

“Am I optimistic about the future of the reef? There are still corals and fish alive. They can recolonise and rebuild, under the right conditions”

Public pressure to take action comes and goes. Whereas last year the bleaching was mainly to the north of Port Douglas and Cairns, places that not many tourists go to, this year it occurred to the south – the Cairns-to-Townsville area, where the bulk of people come to see the reef.

Finally, saw to see tourism operators and local people start to speak out a lot more, but the public can only maintain attention on a particular topic for a certain amount of time and now there’s much less pressure. Tourism operators are in a difficult position. In the short term they don’t want people to stop coming, and so they are worried that bad publicity about bleaching will deter visitors. Though in the medium and long term, of course, they realise that their livelihoods are dependent on a healthy reef.

It hurts me very deeply to see the damage that’s being done. The first time I ever went to the reef was 25 years ago, and I was blown away by the colours and the fish. It was just an extraordinary experience. Since then I’ve returned often, but when I went with the Climate Council this year

I was shocked at the level of damage. There has been a continual decline for years, but when I flew over and saw the destruction for myself, it really got to me.

The problem with the story is that there’s no easy fix: there’s no silver bullet, it’s more like silver buckshot. There’s so much that can be done from international down to individual levels. We need to keep pressure on our governments to meet and exceed the existing commitments to the Paris climate accord, especially in Australia. We have one of the highest per capita emissions in the world. While we don’t burn all the coal we produce at home, we do export it elsewhere for it to be burnt. We have an enormous responsibility.

I think the biggest challenge that we have in communicating about climate change is that the timescales are hard for people to grasp. It’s not like turning a tap on and off. It’s frustrating because if you do the right thing you want to see results straight away, but that won’t happen, because the climate system is so large and so complex. Whatever we do now, either positive or negative, the results will take a long time to come in – talk about delayed gratification.

Am I optimistic about the future of the reef? It depends on the day, really. I’ve seen obituaries written for the Great Barrier Reef and while people may genuinely feel that, I think that writing it off is both premature and very damaging. If we give the impression that it’s all over, people will give up and go, ‘Well, there’s nothing much we can do. It’s too late, move on.’

We have to stay hopeful. My general attitude, which I know many of my colleagues share, is that you have to put your pessimism in a little box and operate with your brain on optimism mode, because if we give up hope then we give up completely. And if we give up completely, then there isn’t anything left. The reef is a symbol of that. There are still corals alive, there are fish alive. They can recolonise, they can rebuild under the right conditions. Of course, if we don’t get temperatures under control, we’ll lose it entirely. It’ll just be a pile of rubble covered in a sort of a greeny-brown slime.

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