Thursday 22 July 2021


The health of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef is often in the news.  For years there has been recognition that its health is threatened by declining water quality as a result of land-clearing, agricultural run-off and the construction of large ports along the coastline as well as the spread of pests such as the crown of thorns starfish.

While water quality continues to be a major issue despite attempts to remediate the problem, climate change has now been recognised as the major threat to the Reef’s existence.

Researcher Ove Hoegh-Guldberg established the link between coral bleaching and climate change in the late 1990s.  When the water gets too hot, the corals expel the microscopic algae that give them colour (zooxanthellae) and bleach.  Eventually they will die.

While this link was disputed vigorously by climate denialists as well as fossil fuel interests opposed to effective action on climate change, the increasingly frequent bleaching events in recent years have shown just how sensitive corals are to temperature rises.

While the Federal Government claims to be taking the threat of climate to the Reef more seriously, it is still failing to take effective action on climate change.

Last month Federal Environment Minister Sussan  Ley  learnt UNESCO had made a draft decision to put the Great Barrier Reef on the “in danger” list.  She claimed the government had been “blindsided”, that the draft decision was “a deviation from normal process” and that it had been based on a “desktop review”. 

Australian scientists refuted her assertions stating that the Government should not have been surprised by the UNESCO scientists’ draft decision which will go to a meeting of the World Heritage Committee in a few weeks. 

Professor Terry Hughes, a coral studies researcher at James Cook University, stated that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the scientific body which advises UNESCO, produced a report last year which listed the reef’s status as “critical”. 

The dire state of the reef is another indicator that the Federal Government should urgently adopt an effective climate policy.

            - Leonie Blain

Published in the "Voices for the Earth" column in The Clarence Valley Independent , July 14, 2021.