Last Friday night, 23 July, my Whatsapp was pinging every few seconds with new updates and comments from teammates around the country as we watched the 21 country World Heritage Committee (WHC) proceedings live online as they debated whether to place our Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage in Danger List.
Just over four weeks ago, on 22 June 2021, UNESCO announced its recommendation that the WHC downgrade the status of the Reef. The Morrison government reacted with anger and astonishment. But they should not have been surprised. Over the past ten years successive Australian governments have received regular warnings about the health of the Reef from UNESCO and their own government agencies. And sadly we’ve seen the ailing Reef with our own eyes, punctuated by the three devastating coral bleaching events caused by global heating in just five years.
The government responded to UNESCO’s recommendation by kick starting its lobbying machine to avoid the ‘in Danger’ listing at all costs and push the Committee’s decision into 2023. We began mobilising scientists, supporters and conservation advocates, bringing them together to make sure this moment triggered the action needed from our government to give our Reef the protection it so desperately needs.
The government took a ‘Team Australia’ approach, seemingly saying to the WHC how dare UNESCO tell us we’re not doing our job properly. But UNESCO was merely reflecting the government’s own science back to them. An ‘in Danger’ listing is not a punishment, it is designed to aid site protection and to ensure that, as custodians of some of the world’s most treasured places, countries take the correct measures to protect them. It would be an opportunity for the Reef to finally get the protection it needs. A true Team Australia approach means our government taking the climate action required now to protect the long term future of our Reef and the tens of thousands of tourism jobs that depend on it.
As the WHC meeting progressed to the Great Barrier Reef debate, we witnessed 12 member countries, one after another, repeat slight variations of the same lines – yes the Great Barrier Reef is definitely in danger from climate change but the Australian government needs more time. When it came to decision time, the result was that they did not agree to add it to the World Heritage in Danger list. At least not yet.
“The facts are the facts and the science is the science. The committee supported the science but did not support the ‘in danger’ listing,” Dr Fanny Douvere, Head of the UNESCO Marine Program said.
This was perhaps an unsurprising outcome, as an ‘in Danger’ decision would have been the first time a natural world heritage site had been listed primarily due to climate impacts. However, thanks in large part to the public campaign for urgent action AMCS was part of, the Morrison government failed to get the amendment it wanted, which was to kick the can down the road to 2023. Instead, the government now has six months to dramatically improve the Reef 2050 Plan and radically strengthen its climate policies. Australia has essentially been put on probation for its climate change, water pollution and other conservation policies affecting the Reef.
While the Reef was not placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger this time, the government has to report back to UNESCO by 1 February 2022 and the Committee will once again assess Australia’s performance at its next meeting in July 2022.
The heat is on
The heat is on the Morrison government. This tight time frame places substantial pressure on them to act to further protect the Reef from climate and water pollution in the run up to the next Federal election.
The decision also means a UNESCO Monitoring Mission will visit the Reef, applying further scrutiny to the action being taken to protect it.
The pressure now on our government is down to the skill, tenacity and unity of people with far less power, influence and resources than government ministers. With the backing of you, our supporters, eminent scientists, leading environmental NGOs and nationally and globally respected, well-known conservation advocates, we made the clear case for urgent climate action to protect the Reef – a message WHC could not and did not ignore.
Imogen Zethoven, representing AMCS, WWF-Australia and Earthjustice, made a speech to the World Heritage Committee following their decision in which she said that:
“The Australian Government’s first action must be to develop a plan aligned with limiting global warming to 1.5° Celsius, because that will give the Reef a chance. And the Australian and Queensland governments need to step up efforts to reduce agricultural pollution and increase protection for the Reef’s threatened wildlife.”
There’s not a moment to lose
Our collective efforts attracted global attention to the Reef and I’ve no doubt that the pressure we’ve been able to build will lead to more protection for our natural wonder over what will be a critical 12 months. This opportunity has energised our team as we now prepare for the next phase of our Fight for our Reef campaign. And there is not a moment to lose.
“We are fast approaching unstoppable climate change. If we don’t take drastic action to cut our global greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this November, our children and grandchildren will pay dearly for this failure,” wrote Peter Thomson and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg in The Guardian on Monday, 26 July.
If the Morrison government is truly serious about affording our Great Barrier Reef the best protection possible, and avoiding an ‘in Danger’ listing for our Reef, Australia must catch up with the other global leaders and commit to drastically reducing emissions. The movement away from fossil fuels is happening regardless of what our government does or doesn’t do and we are being left behind – it makes the news every day. Here at home we see the exponential growth in sustainable businesses, smart investors are putting their money into clean energy and withdrawing support from fossil fuels, local councils are investing in batteries and clean energy – this is all being led by people who know that this is not only the right thing to do, but doing good is good for business. Climate leadership is coming from everywhere but our government.
The economic outlook for fossil fuels is bleak but so too is the future of the Great Barrier Reef unless the Morrison government takes this opportunity to become a global leader in climate action, fully embraces the opportunity of renewable energy and starts planning a just transition that protects jobs, communities and precious natural wonders like our Reef.
With the same tenacity that we have shown standing up for the Reef since our first campaigns back in 1965, we will campaign until our Great Barrier Reef gets the protection it desperately needs and we will need you, our supporters by our side. Stay tuned for how you can be part of this crucial campaign.
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