2013: the year a whispering became a roar
17 January 2013
I want to live in a country where every kid can catch a fish, swim in unpolluted water and surf in clean waves, and he suspects he's not alone in this.
This blog first appeared on ABC Environment Online
IN 2012, I CAME BACK TO live in Australia after five years in London and the transition was not without some shocks. Of course, we still have much in common with what used to be called ‘the old country’, but there is also plenty of mutual incomprehension. It is not just the clichés – marmite or vegemite, warm beer or cold, whether to shed your clothes in the park when the mercury hits 21 – there are also more unexpected moments of cultural dissonance.
Take the oceans. My good British friends dream about Australia’s glorious oceans. Our magnificent coastlines, from Ningaloo in the North West to the Great Barrier Reef in the North East, are the subject of jealousy and fantasy.
And when they’ve saved up their holiday pennies, the Brits flock to our coastline, joined by holiday-makers from all over the world. I’ve lost track of the number of Europeans who have told me with excited eyes that they had been to the Great Barrier Reef and clearly been touched with a sense of awe that had never entirely vanished
As an Australian, though, this is a conversation that quickly becomes awkward, because of what we are doing to the Reef.
In 2012, the UN body responsible for World Heritage Areas – UNESCO – sent a delegation to Australia to investigate threats to the Great Barrier Reef. Their report was scathing, noting that the “unprecedented scale of development” in the World Heritage Area “poses serious concerns over its long-term conservation”.
The University of Queensland’s Chris McGrath goes even further, “No one likes to say it out loud, but we should publicly recognise that we are planning to destroy the Great Barrier Reef.”
Our government seems determined to turn the Great Barrier Reef into an industrial zone. Nine new coal export terminals are planned to be constructed in the World Heritage Area of the Great Barrier Reef. This will mean thousands more tonnes of dredging, the obliteration of vital habitats and a possible tripling in the number of coal ships travelling through the Reef every year.
If that was not enough, the millions of tonnes of extra coal we are planning to export will further worsen climate change impacts like ocean acidification. The planned expansion of Australian coal exports is part of an international energy scenario that spells doom for the Great Barrier Reef.
Since settling back to life in Australia I’ve spoken to more than one of my UK mates about what is going on with the Reef. The response of sheer incredulity is always the same. At least one friend simply refused to believe me when I told her that half of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover had already disappeared since 1985 and that Australian governments were now planning massive new industrial developments. Just for a moment I think she might have thought I was dabbling in a bit of Barry Mackenzie style national self-parody. But sadly the plans for the Reef’s systematic degradation are all too real.
Shockingly, there is now a significant chance that the Great Barrier Reef will indeed join the remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas – blown up by the Taliban in 2001 – and other wonders in peril on the UNESCO World Heritage ‘in danger’ list.
Yet the failure of government and destructive intentions of the coal industry are not the only tales in town. If you listen carefully, you can hear other very different stories being told
Queenslanders will tell you in dry elegy about the degradation of the inner Reef. On a trip to the sunshine state last year it was uncanny just how many people – from very different walks of life – used the same sort of words to express their anxiety and regret. ‘The reef is in trouble. It is just not the place I remember visiting as a kid’. These are the whisperings in our hearts, that despite the boom times, all is not right in Australia. That we cannot in good conscience let one of the wonders of the natural world slip into oblivion
As an Australian, and as a Dad to two young children, I think we need to listen to these whisperings.
2013 is a decisive year and the Great Barrier Reef is a global crucible for climate change and marine conservation. Will we stand by and allow the Reef to disappear? I don’t believe that we will. I believe that the same community outrage that so emphatically turned back the super trawler Margiris will rally to the cause of our Great Barrier Reef; that the whisperings of discontent will become a national roar, demanding action.
I think it goes without saying that we want to live in a country where every kid can catch a fish, swim in unpolluted water and surf in clean waves; a country where our kids have the chance to hand the place on in good order to their own children; a country in which a smart, balanced and resilient economy supports enduring prosperity.
I think we want to live in a country which protects a thriving Great Barrier Reef. I think we want to live in a country where our friends in the United Kingdom – and all over the world – are amazed at Australia for all the right reasons.
David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific