Greenwashing and Gaslighting won't save the Reef
Updated: Aug 6
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and Prime Minister Albanese celebrated UNESCO's decision this week to defer listing the Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger'. The Minister reminded me of Morrison-era greenwashing and gaslighting when she tweet that it showed the government was "making a real difference" on climate change. That's rubbish. Deferral of the decision does nothing to negate the grave threat the Great Barrier Reef faces from climate change. There is no reason to celebrate.
The Great Barrier Reef is in very hot water, both literally and figuratively. The world witnessed the hottest month in Earth's history in July 2023 and August is getting hotter. Coral reefs across the globe are facing unprecedented bleaching challenges, and the Great Barrier Reef is no exception.
The Albanese government has made some marginal improvements, such as legislating net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 and ending gillnet use in the marine park. But these ignore the biggest cause of its demise - climate change that is happening now. The issue of water quality, while addressed to some extent, remains unsolved. And agricultural runoff and shipping pollution continue to pose significant threats.
The heart of the matter is rising greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is causing marine heatwaves that devastate coral ecosystems, leading to mass coral bleaching and mortality events. The Reef is already enduring a winter marine heatwave and is set to face El Niño conditions this summer. Unless we act urgently, the next two years will be catastrophic.
The government's claim of making a difference through its actions on climate change is nothing short of greenwashing. Approving new coal mines and supporting massive gas projects in the Northern Territory and Western Australia will dwarf Australia's annual emissions. These are not actions that align with the urgency required for a safe planet. And they certainly won't save our Reef.
While some may point to reports of coral regrowth during cooler La Niña years, the reality is that there is a breaking point beyond which coral communities collapse. Rising temperatures and intensifying marine heatwaves are pushing the Reef to its limits. We cannot afford to take a wait-and-see approach; we must tackle the root cause - greenhouse gas emissions.
Incremental efforts to save the Reef, like exploring heat-tolerant 'super-corals' and replanting baby coral, are no longer sufficient. The pace and intensity of climate change are outpacing our capacity to respond. These are just greenwashing measures and a distraction from what really needs to be done. The idea of finding and cultivating resilient corals at scale is unrealistic, particularly considering the limited timeframe we have to act.
As someone who has worked to support species on the Great Barrier Reef, I can attest to the devastation and heartbreak that comes with witnessing the decline of such an elaborate and magnificent ecosystem. The Great Barrier Reef has survived for over thousands of years. It is a national and global treasure. We risk losing it within a few short years if we fail to take bold and immediate action.
The decision to defer the Reef's 'in danger' listing doesn't change the reality on the ground. The Reef is in danger. And time is running out. Instead of celebrating perceived progress, the government must stop gaslighting us, face the truth and prioritise decisive action to mitigate climate change and protect the Reef and other ecosystems.
Greenwashing and gaslighting may appease and subjugate in the short term. But, especially from a government that purports to care about people and the environment, they're offensive and disappointing. And most importantly, they won't save the Great Barrier Reef. That requires immediate and serious climate action. The government must step up. It must take real action and lead the way in preserving this irreplaceable treasure that defines Australia's identity. The Reef's future, and our own, depend on it.
I took this photo on my way to Raine Island to help save the turtles when I was Threatened Species Commissioner.