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Issue #1568      10 October 2012

Great Barrier Reef – don’t let it die!

If capitalism stays, the reef dies. That’s the conclusion readers will draw from a landmark study completed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville recently. “The big concern going forward is that if nothing else changes then within 20 years the reef could be in a perilous state,” AIMS senior scientist Peter Doherty said. Half of the reef has disappeared in the past 27 years. Unfortunately, the environmental practices of agribusiness, the mineral resource export sector and the lack of real action on climate change by planners of capitalist economies in Australia and worldwide, threaten to hasten the demise of the remainder of the reef.

People want action. Over 100,000 Australians signed a recent petition to federal Environment Minister Tony Burke about reef-related issues. It was organised by online lobby group GetUp!. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef was place on the World Heritage Register meaning that it became the natural heritage of all the people of the world and their collective responsibility to preserve it. Australians have grown up aware of the wonder located off the north eastern coastline. Over 60,000 are employed in businesses that depend on visitors coming to view the reef and the spectacular marine life it hosts.

Threats to the Great Barrier Reef have long been major news throughout the country. The damage caused the crown-of-thorns starfish has featured in the media for the past 25 years. The relationship between the proliferation of the predator and pesticide and other run-off from agriculture are now understood. Crown of thorns outbreaks have accounted for 48 per cent of the destruction of the reef. But change is too slow in coming.

That danger is alarming enough but new hazards are being added all the time. The coal mining industry wants seven new ports along the coastline facing the reef to handle exports of coal and coal-seam gas. Dredging of more than 100,000 cubic metres of sea floor will be required. Some of that sea floor is in the marine park declared for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Over 10,000 ships per annum will carry the fossil fuels to their destinations with the inevitable accidents along the way. There are semi-regular reports of cargo ships running aground while trying to cut short their journey. In April, a Chinese coal-carrying cargo ship, the Shen Neng 1, ran aground on the Douglas shoal, a prohibited area within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

People’s concern at the recklessness of the expansion of coal mining in Queensland has forced the Commonwealth’s hand. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke outraged the Newman government by “stopping the clock” on the approval for the proposed Alpha coal mining project in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin. In June UNESCO had warned that it was considering placing the Great Barrier Reef on the shameful list of endangered places of world significance.

Exports of coal and coal-seam are directly related to the other major danger to the reef – climate change. Tropical cyclones have laid waste to 48 percent of the reef and these storms are becoming stronger and more frequent as the globe gets hotter. The rise in sea levels may put coral below the depths in which it can grow. Coral bleaching, which accounts for ten percent of the destruction, is brought on by disease, sedimentation and pollution but the principal cause at present is a rise in ocean temperatures.

Two years ago, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Don Henry, put it plainly: “The Reef is sending us a desperate message – enact laws that cut greenhouse gas pollution or risk losing the Great Barrier Reef. Ignoring this message will come at a great cost to the Great Barrier Reef environment, our tourism industry and our national identity.” Australia is one of the developed economies that have taken no significant steps towards halting climate change in the intervening two years. The carbon tax – with its loopholes for “trade exposed” corporations and indulgence towards coal-fired power generation – will not help the problem now killing the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate change and environmental destruction are among the major indicators that capitalism’s due date has well and truly expired. Economic crisis is another but, unfortunately, the burden imposed by the economic downturn has drawn some people’s attention away from the other pressing dangers. Workers are persuaded in the media that their jobs and living standards depend on the “let ‘er rip” development of Australia’s mineral resources. Climate change “scepticism” (i.e. denial) has been fostered by global corporate interests. Corporate “green wash” and government policy that tinkers at the edges of climate change have blunted the alertness of some. The time for complacency is over.  

Next article – Editorial – People power shocks shock jock

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