Techno-fixing the Reef and other dangerous delusions
By David Salt
Science is telling us coral reefs are dying. Politicians, while ignoring and denying the science on climate change, are telling us science is going to save the Great Barrier Reef. It’s called the techno fix, and it’s one of the oldest tricks around.
The problem with the ‘techno fix’ is that it is usually only a partial solution. The allure of the ‘techno fix’ is that it allows us, and particularly our political leaders, to think we’ve solved the problem.
If the problem being addressed is a small one, then maybe a partial solution is fine. If the techno fix doesn’t live up to its hype, then let’s develop a new techno fix. Every time we try something new it’s to be hoped at the very least that we learn something.
But if the problem is big and important, then placing our trust (and limited resources) in a techno fix becomes dangerous and delusional. An example of this is what we’re doing with the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is overheating because of climate change. When corals overheat they eject the symbiotic algae that feeds them. The corals turn white, they look bleached, and if the temperature stays too high for too long the corals die. In the last five years there have been three mass bleaching events along the reef, each one causing unprecedented levels of coral death. In February the Reef was subjected to its hottest sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900. All the evidence suggests it’s only going to get worse.
Coral can recover if it’s given time but the forecasts are that, with increasing temperatures, mass bleaching events will increase in frequency – once every couple of years by 2030 and yet it takes decades to recover from a mass bleaching event. The world’s leading coral scientists predict the Great Barrier Reef will be lost if carbon emissions and climate change is not addressed. Of course, it’s not just the GBR that’s at stake, all coral reefs are being threatened.
And it’s also not just about rising temperature either. Greater storm damage and outbreaks of crown-of-thorn starfish are also wreaking carnage on the Great Barrier Reef; and both these factors also have strong connections to climate change.
The solution? Stop climate change. Do something to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, it’s one of the biggest challenges facing modern society. Yes, no country can do it on its own. However, it’s the only real chance we have of saving the Great Barrier Reef and other important coral ecosystems around the world.
In Australia, our national government is in complete denial over climate change but is sensitive to the fact that Australians love the Great Barrier Reef and believe our elected leaders should be protecting it – after all, we told the world we would when we go it listed as World Heritage and the Reef is an important part of our economic wealth employing around 64,000 people.
However, following the mass coral bleachings in 2016, 2017 and 2020 (not to mention declining water quality and massive outbreaks of crown-of thorn starfish) it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the line that the Great Barrier Reef is ‘the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world’.
Rather than acknowledging the connection between coral decline and climate change (and making climate change a policy priority), our government has instead been looking around for techno-fixes that may (or may not) help us manage bits of the unfolding catastrophe. I say ‘may not’ because many of the solutions being explored haven’t yet actually been demonstrated to work.
We’re talking about, for example, searching for corals that can survive in higher temperatures, developing methods to restore degraded coral, putting different coral species into frozen archives that we can use in the future, and researching geoengineering strategies that might provide temporary protection from heat waves*.
Last month the Federal Government announced a $150 million reef restoration and adaptation package that will fund some 42 concepts aimed at helping the reef cope with the growing threat of environmental degradation.
Don’t get me wrong, this is considerable money with many good people doing amazing things to protect the Reef. But at best, even if these strategies work as hoped (and that’s a big ‘if’), all we’re treating is the symptom of the problem, not the underlying cause. Maybe the condition of a few select reefs might be improved for a time (or their decline might be slowed), maybe we’ll create a ‘seed bank’ for some future age in which we’ve figured out how to reduce our carbon pollution to sustainable levels, but none of these efforts are doing anything to save the Great Barrier Reef that we have today. To believe they will work is delusional.
What such efforts do achieve, however, is to give an impression that the government is doing enough and that we don’t have to worry about the underlying cause. That’s dangerous thinking.
No such thing as a free lunch
As to my claim that the techno fix is an old trick, let me quote the ecologist Garrett Hardin who made this comment in his classic paper ‘The tragedy of the Commons’ some 52 years ago: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”
What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.
If we were able to protect the Great Barrier Reef it’s likely techno-fixes will play a part – maybe even buy us a little time – but without a concerted effort to address the underlying problem of atmospheric carbon pollution and a rapidly warming world then these technical solutions are really only being promoted to fool us into thinking that science will save us, and we as individuals don’t have to worry or change the way we live; that’s dangerous and delusional.
*Geoengineering is in many ways the ultimate techno-fix, and maybe it’s the ultimate delusion: that humans are in control of the earth system (and because we are in control we don’t need to worry about the degradation our activities are causing). Regarding the Great Barrier Reef, the proposal is to use snow cannons to shoot droplets of salt water into the air over the Reef. Salt particles in the air should brighten clouds over the Reef reflecting away sunlight and reducing heat on the reef (in theory). The researchers say it would cost $150-$200 million a year to run cloud brightening over the whole reef. Trials have begun but even these are raising controversy as some believe they are violating an international moratorium on ocean geoengineering.
Image: Bleached elkhorn coral off Magnetic Island (Photo by Klara Lindstrom, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.)