Our approach to climate and reef campaigning is a dead parrot


“The approach to climate and ecosystem protection campaigning that has been used for the last 40 years is out of date. We cannot keep accusing the Coalition parties and Labor of climate and environmental hypocrisy, when our own demands and policies bear no practical relationship to what we say we care for either…”
Philip Sutton

Our shared reef campaign – sorting out what needs to be done to be effective

On 30 May 2016, the Australian Marine Conservation Society published a media release on the Great Barrier Reef. The text of the release raises a really important issue: what needs to be done if we are to succeed in rescuing the Reef?

The release presents four key propositions:

  • Coral bleaching is killing large swathes of the Reef
  • Coral bleaching is caused by high sea temperatures
  • The main cause of these high temperatures is global warming
  • The main contributor is the mining and burning of coal

While these are true, they are out-of-date as a scientifically sufficient description of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Given the conditions that exist now (in 2016), reef rescue will not be possible if we don’t correctly diagnose the threat that it is facing.

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered serious bleachings in 1998, 2002 and 2016.  So, for the Reef as a whole, the repeat intervals have been four years and 14 years.  But coral reef scientists believe that for most coral ecosystems recovery from bleaching events takes 10 to 15 years, and some reef recovery can take up to 30 years.

The first two bleaching events killed about five per cent of the corals, but this year’s bleaching has killed at least 35 per cent.  Is this increase in damage random natural fluctuation or a trend related to temperature rise?

There is a very strong case that the earth is already too hot for the long term survival of coral reef systems.  And there is scientific certainty that a 1.5°C world is not compatible with coral reef ecosystem survival – beyond pitifully tiny areas of damaged and depauperate remnants.

The Earth is too hot for coral reefs – which means that if we are to rescue the world’s coral ecosystems our job now is to cool the earth very fast.
We need to be really clear about what this means. Stopping the Adani coal mine by itself will not save the Great Barrier Reef. We could stop the Adani mine and the Great Barrier Reef will still die – unless we do a whole lot more in addition.

What is the more that we need to do?

All of the following together, and delivered at extreme speed, will be necessary to save the world’s coral ecosystems and our Great Barrier Reef. We have to:

  • Stop investing in all new fossil fuel supply (ie. thermal coal, unconventional gas plus coking coal, conventional gas, and oil) and any other technologies that result in net greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Shut down all current uses of coal, oil and gas and any other technologies that result in net greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Create the necessary capacity to safely draw down all the excess CO2 in the air. This is a massive task – like reversing the work of the coal, oil and gas industries over the last 100 years – and it will take a great many decades and, under all estimates that are currently considered realistic, could take hundreds of years.
  • Provide immediate Earth-cooling to protect aggregate food production and biodiversity and to prevent the crossing of key Earth system tipping points like the liberation of the stupendously large carbon stores in the Arctic and the ten metres or more of sea rise due to the loss of large slabs of the ice sheets in Greenland, the West Antarctic and even parts of the East Antarctic – until natural cooling kicks in strongly enough to prevent these tipping points.  This initial fast cooling can only be delivered by solar reflection methods.

This is what has to happen to save the Great Barrier Reef.  Stopping the Adani mine is just a footnote in the necessary to-do list. But this action list to save the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of the Earth’s coral reefs – and a great many ecosystems and hundreds of millions of people across the globe – includes some actions that are not yet known to be safe enough. 

The global community has not yet developed methods for ensuring that (a) CO2 drawdown can be done at the needed scale and (b) solar reflection methods can be used – in a way produces a clear net environmental benefit. And clearly ifmassive drawdown and solar reflection methods cannot be delivered with clear net environmental benefit, then they should not be used.

However, we need to know that if the world does not work out how to deliver massive drawdown and the temporary use of solar reflection techniques with net environmental benefit – then the Great Barrier Reef and a great deal else will be destroyed.

This is where we have got to with the climate issue.

Such an understanding has huge implications for our campaigning and for election demands. Realistically, few groups will change their pitch in the middle of the national election campaign – so we will continue to see political demands made that have no hope of saving the things that we say we care for.

But after the election, we are going to have to come to terms with climate reality.

The approach to climate and ecosystem protection campaigning that has been used for the last 40 years is out of date.  It is finished.  It is a dead parrot. New approaches are going to have to be developed and deployed at great speed after the election.

We cannot keep accusing the Coalition parties and Labor of climate and environmental hypocrisy, when our own demands and policies bear no practical relationship to what we say we care for either.  It is not just the Emperor who has no clothes.

philip-sutton150Philip Sutton is co-author of ‘Climate Code Red’ and Strategist, RSTI. Read more on www.green-innovations.asn.au


Australian Marine Conservation Society – Media Release
30 May 2016



Confronting new statistics released by Professor Terry Hughes today show the coral death toll continues to mount on the Great Barrier Reef, with mass bleaching killing 35% of corals on the northern and central Reef.

This unprecedented scale of coral death is caused by climate change. This is the third mass bleaching event the Reef has suffered, with both the first two events killing 5% of corals throughout the Marine Park. 

“AMCS and its 200,000 supporters call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to urgently release a strong climate policy during the election campaign, that is linked to the vulnerability of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Imogen Zethoven, the Great Barrier Reef at the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“Sir David Attenborough has warned us the Reef is in grave danger: “The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence”. Yet so far we have heard nothing during the election campaign but the sound of silence from the Prime Minister on climate and the Reef,” she said.

“Scientists call this the ‘last chance election’ for the Reef, yet there appears to be no sense of urgency about the plight of our Reef from the PM. If the Federal Government can’t get serious about protecting the Reef after seeing this devastation unfold over recent weeks, when will it take action?

“Coral bleaching is caused by high sea temperatures. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the Reef recorded its highest average sea surface temperatures for February, March and April since records began in 1900. As of late May, Reef waters are still warmer than average for this time of year. The main cause of these high temperatures is global warming and the main contributor is the mining and burning of coal. 

“The Coalition must release a climate policy that makes a credible contribution to delivering a healthy future for our natural wonder. The alternative is we risk losing the Reef, the $6 billion tourism industry and the 69,000 jobs that rely on it. 

“The Federal government took action to ban sea dumping in the Great Barrier Reef. Now it’s time for the government to step up and deal comprehensively with the systemic issues threatening its very existence: climate change and farm pollution.”

“It must lift the bar or the next generation will lose the Reef,” she said.


» www.marineconservation.org.au

“It is fair to say we were all caught by surprise [by the scale of the coral bleaching]. It’s a huge wake up call. (…) There is a disconnect in the policy round governments issuing permits for 60 years for new coal mines and how that might impact on the Great Barrier Reef and reefs more generally.”
Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University

“We need to ask ourselves: are we as a nation so in thrall to the coal industry that we are willing to let the reef perish?”
Geoff Cousins, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation


“Saving the Reef”: The triumph of politics over science?

By David Spratt

The Great Barrier Reef is an election issue. Labor has just promised $400 million for the Reef. The government had previously committed $170 million, but one of Australia’s leading coral researchers says that “Australia’s plan for protecting Great Barrier Reef tourism is to pretend climate change isn’t it’s biggest threat.”

Neither of the major parties are opposed to the expansion of coal mining in Australia. The question is whether the policies of either major party will actually “Save the Reef,” or is this a case of politics triumphing over science?

Read more: www.climatecodered.org

» Read more about the Climate Emergency Declaration petition:

More information and opinions on this topic


» The Guardian – 21 July 2016:
Sections of Great Barrier Reef suffering from ‘complete ecosystem collapse’

» The Guardian – 7 June 2016:
The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare

“As Australia interferes with UN reporting of threats to World Heritage sites, the Great Barrier Reef’s fate is increasingly dire if not already sealed.”

» The Saturday Paper – 4 June 2016:
The real story on the Great Barrier Reef

» Sydney Morning Herald – 31 May 2016:
‘Huge wake up call’: Third of central, northern Great Barrier Reef corals dead

» John Birmingham, Sydney Morning Herald – 31 May 2016 :
Great Barrier Reef doomed but our dome will save us

» Philip Sutton, climatesafety.info – 18 May 2016:
What can we do with the reefs’ death spiral? Start with the ethics!

The Australian election and the Reef

» The Guardian – 31 May 2016:
Environment scorecard rates Coalition’s policies ‘woefully inadequate’
“The Australian Conservation Foundation’s assessment of the parties’ policies awards the Coalition 11 points out of 100, Labor 53 and the Greens 77.”

» The Age – 31 May 2016:
Environment scorecard: Coalition agenda ‘woeful’, lags behind Labor and Greens

The Australian ‘Reef-gate’

» Will Steffen, Climate Council – 31 May 2016:
Speaking out in defence of science: Great Barrier Reef & climate change

» Graham Readfearn, The Guardian – 30 May 2016:
Australia’s censorship of Unesco climate report is like a Shakespearean tragedy
Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is clearly at risk from climate change, so why would Unesco agree to censor its own report?



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