Despite the government’s protests, it’s not possible to save the Great Barrier Reef without tackling global warming first
November 1, 2016 — At the core of the Australian government’s failure to protect our Great Barrier Reef is the big lie.
Through its actions and inaction, rhetoric, funding priorities and policy decisions, the Australian government has implicitly pursued the line that it is possible to turn things around for the reef without tackling global warming.
This is the big lie.
Last year, when the federal and Queensland governments released the Reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan, experts were emphatic about the deceit.
Eminent coral reef scientist Prof Terry Hughes commented that the “biggest omission in the plan is that it virtually ignores climate change, which is clearly the major ongoing threat to the reef”.
Great Barrier Reef historian Iain McCalman wrote that the new measures “deliberately ignore the dire long-term threats to the reef that are contained in the now unutterable words ‘climate change’”. “They are akin to investing in cures for a patient’s skin diseases while ignoring their cancer symptoms,” he wrote.
As the experts make plain, any attempt to decouple the future of the Great Barrier Reef from the quest to contain global warming is simply dishonest. As another expert, Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland, has said, we either “re-examine the current plans for unrestricted coal exports, taking proper account and responsibility for the resulting greenhouse emissions, or watch the reef die”.
Last summer, global warming killed a fifth of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals in the Great Bleaching. Yet the Queensland and federal governments claim that they will both act to save the reef and keep expanding the coal industry. Still the big lie persists. The Queensland state development and natural resources minister, Anthony Lynham, recently announced that special powers would be invoked to progress the Carmichael coal mega-mine as “critical infrastructure”. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, claims he’s acting to save the reef, yet there he was touting coal’s importance “for many, many decades to come”.
Business is complicit in the big lie. Various Australian companies support the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Yet some – like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton – are themselves actually coal miners. Others belong to industry peak bodies, like the Business Council of Australia, which lobbied to destroy carbon pollution pricing yet remained silent during the Great Bleaching of 2015 and 2016.
Most recently, the big lie has surfaced in the scandal of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, launched by none other than Alan Jones – who vociferously denies the existence of climate change. There is no reference at all to global warming or ending coal production on the website or the accompanying video.
The conceit of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is that every “citizen” who signs up can “vote” for conservation and scientific projects that will be on offer, “making decisions about the protection of this great natural asset”. It seems a perverse sleight of hand to direct people away from actual democratic participation.
The website indicates that the government is supporting Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. What this means is that instead of using its actual power to transition away from fossil fuels – the only thing that can ultimately save the reef – the government is engaging in the sophistry of faux citizen empowerment. The rhetorical effect of the whole mechanism conveniently shifts responsibility away from government and big business on to individuals.
It is time for governments to end the big lie by doing all they can to help our reef. This means calling time on the Carmichael mine project, moving rapidly towards renewable energy and bringing on the swift but just transition away from all fossil fuels.
There are also four steps for any business that doesn’t want to perpetuate the big lie. Firstly, any enterprise that doesn’t want the stain of white coral on its reputation needs to get out of the business of killing the reef.
Secondly, in corporate sponsorships and communications, companies can avoid the big lie by being clear and honest about the relationship between global warming and the plight of the reef.
Thirdly, members of organisations like the Business Council of Australia or the Queensland Resources Council should not put up with their peak bodies agitating against meaningful action on global warming.
And finally, businesses can be good citizens in calling for genuinely effective action from governments on these issues.
Judith Wright, the legendary poet and an integral actor in the first great fight between the Australian people and the fossil fuel industry in the 1970s, once wrote of “the silence between word and word, in which the truth waits to be heard”.
For as long as governments and big business perpetuate the big lie, the wait for truth remains.