The 2016 Federal Election: Who cares?

bleaching Justin marshall coralwatch.org

The 2016 bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is the worst ever recorded. (Justin Marshall Coralwatch.org)

The 2016 Federal Election comes at a critical time for our environment and even human civilisation.

This is the first in a series of blog posts I will write to explain what’s at stake at this election or why we should care. In this first post I will address one of the most pressing problems facing our political system: climate change.

BOM climate data

The Bureau of Meteorology found this Autumn to be the hottest on record and April set a new record for temperatures.

The world just experienced the hottest month and autumn on record. 80% of Queensland is in drought. Earlier this year ancient Tasmanian forests were destroyed by unprecedented bushfires. And last week the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies revealed that 22% of corals along the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef, between Townsville and Papua New Guinea, died during this year’s bleaching event. This is the third bleaching event in 18 years and the worst  bleaching event ever.

The Great Barrier Reef is referred to as a canary in a coalmine on climate change because of the coral’s sensitivity to global warming. This year’s bleaching means our atmosphere is already saturated with greenhouse gases and a month ago we learned that greenhouse gasses made up 400 parts per million (ppm) of our atmosphere. All three of the bleaching events the Reef has experienced have occurred while global temperatures remain above 1 degree but under 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period. The Great Barrier Reef may recover in a decade but unless there is an immediate and drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a consequent deceleration of global warming the reef will lose its natural capacity to recover and the world’s largest living structure will be cremated.

The death of the Great Barrier Reef would not simply be an ecological disaster. More than 70,000 people and $6 billion per year depend upon the reef’s survival and if it was to die then it would be comparable to a national disaster like Cyclone Yasi, the 2011 Brisbane flood or the Black Saturday Bushfires. Our economy would lose $6 billion and about 70,000 people would be unemployed. However, because the reef’s death is unlikely to lead to human deaths and/or people won’t be forcibly displaced, it’s unlikely to meet the criteria for a national emergency response.

The next term of Government, and whichever political party forms that Government, will be critical to the future of our climate and the Great Barrier Reef. At the moment the reality of climate change may be easy for our politicians to ignore but soon it will be unavoidable.

The longer we delay a just transition to renewables the more likely we are to inherit an ecological and economic disaster.