'As warming seas kill off one of the world's natural wonders, researchers are calling for urgent action,' Britons read in The Guardian newspaper this week. 'Last chance to save Great Barrier Reef, warn scientists', the headline read.

Inside, a double-page spread with large colour photos was headed, 'Bare bones: how climate change is bleaching the world's reefs to death'.

The BBC has also been covering the damage to the reef by coral bleaching, a direct result of warmer than usual water. 'About 35 per cent of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by bleaching,' the UK's most trusted news service reported.

In the USA, agenda-setting media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times ran similarly bold and urgent news pieces.

People around the world are worried about the reef, which is in Australia's care.

People around the world are worried about the reef, which is in Australia's care.

Australia's national daily also put the reef on the front page, but it had a very different take on the situation. 'Scientists 'exaggerated' coral bleaching' the headline read. The claim was that some 'activist scientists' and 'lobby groups' had confused people with references to percentages of coral death in different parts of the reef to make out the bleaching was worse than it really is.

Yet immediately following this coverage, top coral scientists were quick to point out that they had no need – or desire – to exaggerate the sad state of the reef.

'Twenty two per cent of whole GBR, 35 per cent north of Townsville. Different areas. Where's the exaggeration?' asked University of Queensland coral scientist Dr Selina Ward in a tweet.

'An inconvenient truth – shocking numbers speak for themselves. You decide how serious this is.' tweeted Professor Terry Hughes.

Clearly the reef is in serious trouble. Sir David Attenborough echoed many other mainstream voices in articulating the cause of the problem. 'The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten (the reef's) very existence,' he said.

The reef has become a major election issue in the minds of voters. Australians are entitled to ask what the political parties are offering to do about this problem.

The Coalition has pledged $171 million over six years, mostly to tackle run-off to the reef and improve water quality, as well as $6 million to combat the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish. Labor has promised $377 million of new investment for reducing water pollution, supporting research, and improving reef management as part of a $500 million fund over five years. The Greens' reef plan is for an extra $500 million over five years, plus a $1.2 billion loan fund to improve the health of the reef.

But, of course, the biggest threat to the reef is not run-off or crown-of-thorns – serious as these problems are – it's climate change.

This year's mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is about as stark a reminder as we could possibly expect that climate change is hitting Australia hard, and we must act fast to get ourselves out of the coal business.

That means phasing out coal-fired power stations, replacing that capacity with clean energy, helping affected communities with the transition, and definitely not approving any new coal mines.

Yet saying goodbye to coal is glaring solution that the major parties still baulk at.

Yet saying goodbye to coal is glaring solution that the major parties still baulk at.

Proposals like Adani's enormous Carmichael mine, slated for the Galilee Basin in central Queensland, are completely unacceptable.

If it goes ahead, the Carmichael mine would be the largest coal mine in Australia. At peak capacity, the coal from this mine is expected to add more than 120 million tonnes of pollution a year to the world's climate problem. That's considerably more climate pollution than the entire country of New Zealand produces annually.

It would entrench coal burning for many decades to come, would worsen climate change and damage the Great Barrier Reef. That's why the Australian Conservation Foundation is challenging Environment Minister Greg Hunt's approval of the Carmichael mine in the federal court.

In our case, we are arguing that the Minister's approval of the massive coal mine is inconsistent with Australia's international obligations to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which is a World Heritage site, protected by UN convention.

I don't believe Australians will let the Great Barrier Reef die. But it will take more than just hopes and goodwill to save it.

We will need to convince our politicians that it is time to say no to proposals like Adani's Carmichael proposal and create a future that is coal free.

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 in the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation
  • This article first appeared in Fairfax

 

 

Geoffrey Cousins

Geoff Cousins is a past president of the Australian Conservation Foundation; ACF Life Member