“When we share knowledge and passion, when we get organised and gain strength and momentum from one another, we make our will known. That’s when we achieve mighty things
Award-winning author and Australian Marine Conservation Society patron Tim Winton reminds us all that despair is not an option when it comes to climate change.
Ocean warming: A reality
We’ve heard a lot about warming oceans in the past couple of decades, and it’s always sounded so distant and technical. Even to me a two-degree jump in sea temperature sounded harmless. But that was before I saw what it meant. That’s when it got personal, when it literally hit me where I live.
During the summer of 2010-11, Western Australia had an unprecedented marine heatwave. One morning not far from where I live, beach-walkers saw seabirds massed along the shoreline. Birds as far as the eye could see. When they got closer they saw the tide-line covered with dead and dying abalone – thousands of them.
The sea had suddenly gotten too hot for these molluscs to endure. So they climbed out off the limestone reefs to escape, only to find themselves – out of the frying pan and into the fire – roasting to death on the sand. A mass stranding of abalone – no one had ever seen the like before.
Just think of it for a moment, a creature so desperate to escape its own intolerable world it casts itself ashore to die. The pathos of that. And consider what it might mean for all those other creatures, unseen and unnoticed, beneath the sunlit surface.
This event really shook me because abalone has been such an important part of my life. When I was a kid the shellfish was a local staple, growing in such abundance I could fill a string bag with them in 10 minutes before school. We called it muttonfish.
On our honeymoon my wife and I dived for them. Abalone was our first meal as a married couple, and in time we showed our kids how to collect them and cook them, just as our parents had taught us. But now, in our part of the world, the population is decimated and the fishery closed.
The Boiling Frog
People talk about the boiling-frog moment. Well, this was mine. Then last summer images started coming back from the Great Barrier Reef showing massive coral bleaching, and although I accepted the images and testimony of the scientists involved, I really struggled to accept the reality of what they were reporting.
This news wasn’t nearly as close to home as the abalone kill, but the implications were so much worse. Nearly a quarter of the world’s largest coral reef was either critically ill or dead.
For a sea lover and activist like me, this was a devastating development. For the scientists who’d been warning of an event like this for decades there was no sense of vindication, only sorrow. And for many Australians these events have been profoundly shocking. But the horror is compounded by the knowledge that during all this catastrophe the federal government has been ignoring global climate science and undermining renewable energy.
To add to this folly, the Turnbull regime has done everything in its power to smooth the way for the world’s biggest coal mine in the Galilee Basin just inland, effectively offering to subsidise the largest-known reservoir of carbon pollution and help unleash it into the atmosphere.
But despair is not an option.
And cynicism is just cowardice in a mask. Who can afford either?
The fight of our times
At moments like these, when our leaders traduce our interests, it’s important to remember that the ordinary citizen has real power. When we share knowledge and passion, when we get organised and gain strength and momentum from one another, we make our will known. That’s when we achieve mighty things, and no government or corporation can resist us.
Australians asserted their will at the Franklin Blockade, in the old-growth forests of WA, at Fraser Island and the Daintree. I was there to see it up close at Ningaloo. This is what I remind myself of, steel myself with.
We’ve reached a moment in history in which we’re fighting for the Great Barrier Reef’s very survival. The world’s largest living structure, a marvel visible from space, is in desperate need of help. And if the reef dies then we’re all in jeopardy because our survival depends on the health of the seas – 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is water, and when the oceans die life on this planet is no longer viable.
Custodians of our oceans
Humans are a remarkable, unrepeatable species. In recognising our dependency on nature we’ve come a long way in such a short period – it’s been a revolution in my own lifetime. But the natural world is now changing faster than our adaptive response.
We need to think and act faster, more consistently and more concertedly. In good faith. In common cause. Because this is fast becoming a rescue mission, not just to spare the corals, but to save our own kind. If we can’t save it, we’ve sealed our own fate.
A planet that can’t sustain its greatest reef will eventually become a place that won’t support human life. Like the abalone, there’s nowhere else for us to go.
Decisions made about the Carmichael coal mine will have an impact upon the reef, on our global atmosphere, on the state of our oceans. None of us can afford to get this wrong. We are creatures of the blue planet. If we cook ourselves here at home the only other option is a burning beach.