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Issue #1731      May 18, 2016

Culture & Life

Climate change

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the natural wonders of the world. It is the largest coral ecosystem on Earth. The tourists it draws to Queensland bring in $5 billion annually and account for close to 70,000 jobs. Climate change, however, if it is not prevented, threatens to destroy all this.

“When corals are stressed by unusually high water temperatures ... symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae, leave the corals’ bodies. [At high temperatures, the photosynthetic process that is carried out by corals’ symbiotic plankton becomes toxic for the corals. Because it becomes toxic, the corals spit out the plankton.] This changes their colour to white [hence the term “bleaching” for this condition] and can also in effect starve them of nutrients. If bleaching continues for too long, corals die.” – Chris Mooney, US science and environment reporter.

The Great Barrier Reef is actually a collection of contiguous individual reefs. “Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force has surveyed 911of its component coral reefs by air, and found at least some bleaching on 93 percent of them. The amount of damage varies from severe to light, but the bleaching was the worst in the reef’s remote northern sector – where virtually no reefs escaped it.”

Professor Terry Hughes, head of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, said “Between 60 and 100 percent of corals are severely bleached on 316 reefs, nearly all in the northern half of the Reef.”

The actual figures for the survey are: in the Northern sector of the Reef, 522 reefs were surveyed, 81 percent are severely bleached. In the Central sector, 226 reefs were surveyed, 33 percent are severely bleached. In the Southern sector, 163 reefs were surveyed and only one percent are severely affected.

Severe bleaching means that corals could die, depending on how long they are subject to these conditions. The scientists also reported that based on diving surveys of the northern reef, they already are seeing nearly 50 percent coral death.

Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution, commented: “The fact that the most severely affected regions are those that are remote and hence otherwise in good shape, means that a lot of prime reef is being devastated.”

And not on the Great Barrier Reef alone. “There already have been reports of mass coral death around the Pacific atoll of Kiribati this year – and widespread coral bleaching worldwide, a phenomenon that scientists attribute to a strong El Niño event surfing atop a general climate warming trend.

“This is, by far, the worst bleaching they’ve seen on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Mark Eakin, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch, which partners with the Australian National Coral Bleaching Taskforce.

Some scientists think coral bleaching this extensive is one of the signs that climate change caused by humans has reached the “dangerous” stage where ecosystems are unable to adapt naturally to it.

That doesn’t stop climate change deniers trying to find some other reason – anything, in fact. Even suntan lotion has been put forward as a possible alternative cause for coral bleaching.

But, although the oxybenzone in many sunscreens is toxic to corals, among the many factors that impact corals and bleaching events we can be pretty certain climate warming is the primary cause of the bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef because: (a) We know for sure there has been a period of unusually warm water temperatures there, (b) a check on Barrier Reef visitation records by area visited confirmed that the Northern area – the worst affected – is one of the least visited by tourists, and (c) this particular bleaching event has happened suddenly and involved a large amount of severe bleaching over a relatively short period of time. It’s really unlikely that any toxin added to the environment chronically over time could be responsible for such an acute bleaching event.

This is the kind of catastrophic ecological event that calls for an all round governmental response based on well-researched scientific advice. It would once have been given to Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for action, but since the federal Liberal government has chosen to gut the CSIRO, cutting its funding and forcing it to drastically reduce its staff, that option is no longer viable.

Instead both the Australian and Queensland governments are in thrall to the fossil fuel industry. There may be more money (and certainly more jobs) in renewable energy in the long term, but in the short term the ability to generate hefty profits belongs to coal and its relatives. This fact has big sway with both Labor and Liberal governments in Australia. After all, both the main bourgeois parties are eager to do the bidding of “the big end of town”. And the representatives of finance capital who make up – or control – the big end of town are almost exclusively interested in making profits.

Despite the tourist significance of the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland state government has approved the shipment through the Reef of the output of the proposed huge Adani coal mine in that state. (Coal it seems has more clout than tourism.) The movement of all the bulk carriers involved will not only put the Reef at risk through the normal course of their travelling though this World Heritage site, but in the event of an accident – a grounding, say – there is the potential for an environmental catastrophe.

Capitalist corporations are not renowned for putting the public interest before their quest for corporate profits, as witness the oil spills in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, catastrophes that should never have been able to happen. It will be too late to take action after the Great Barrier Reef has been devastated by greedy coal exporters and the pro-business governments they have in their pockets.

Playing fast and loose with the future of something of such international significance as the Great Barrier Reef should be seen as a crime against humanity, on a par with a war crime.

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