The wicked problem of complexity on the Great Barrier Reef

The inconvenient truth of an ‘in danger’ listing isn’t going to save this precious Reef

By David Salt

The Great Barrier Reef looks like being moved onto the ‘in danger’ list of World Heritage estates and the Australian Government is not happy about the change one little bit. Why? Because they don’t think the listing process is fair and they still reckon the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world. They also suspect China is out to get us.

The saga of the listing of the Great Barrier Reef has now been covered every which way by various media commentators. The science is crystal clear; the Reef is in serious and growing trouble. It’s hard to see how the Australian Government can escape the claim of gross negligence and mismanagement yet in this post-truth, hyper-partisan age it seems anything goes. The Government’s gripes with UNESCO of the in-danger list are not based on biophysical reality but on perceptions of procedural unfairness (and China has absolutely nothing to do with the UNESCO World Heritage committee’s decision).

Rather than focus at the minutiae of this ‘in danger’ listing, I’d like to reflect on the bigger lessons provided by how we’re dealing with the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, and what this means for all our precious ecosystems.

1. It’s not about how well the marine park itself is managed

Part of the Government’s defence this week has been that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is the best managed coral reef ecosystem in the world. Maybe that’s true in terms of resources committed to running the marine park. But it ignores that the biggest threat facing the reef comes from outside of this ‘well managed’ park.

The scientific consensus is clear, rising temperatures mean the Great Barrier Reef will not exist in the future. It doesn’t matter what band aids and grants are applied to the park itself. Unless we as a species reduce our carbon emissions (that lie behind climate warming) all coral reefs will be lost as they exist today.

Claiming that you are caring for a patch of nature while ignoring how that patch is connected and impacted by what happens beyond the patch is simply dishonest.

2. It’s also about water quality

The Government’s line on climate change is that this is a global problem. Australia by itself can’t solve global warming so therefore it’s not an issue that should be tied to the condition of the Reef itself.

Ignoring the fact that Australia is trailing the world on climate action (in many ways slowing an effective global response), what is it that Australia does take responsibility for? The answer is water quality on the reef.

Water quality refers to the levels of chemicals, nutrients and sediments ending up in Reef waters along the coast of Queensland. These ‘contaminants’ largely originate from land-based activities such as sugar cane, bananas and pastoralism. Declining water quality has been an issue for the Reef for much of the last three decades.

Poor water quality is a problem because it alters the balance of the Reef ecosystem – promotes outbreaks of coral eating Crown of Thorn Starfish (which eat coral), encourages algae to colonise spaces previously occupied by corals and generally lowers the Reef’s resilience.

Given the government’s impotence in the face of climate change, the strategy it has elected to follow is to focus on aspects it claims it can influence. In other words, clean up water quality by changing land management. We can’t force other countries to behave differently (in respect to climate change) but we do, in theory, have power over how we manage our own landscapes.

The belief is that if water quality can be improved, this will contribute to overall reef health which, in turn, means the reef should recover faster whatever disturbance hits (including climate-related episodes of bleaching and super-charged cyclones).

The Government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improving water quality. While water quality has slightly improved on some measures it’s unlikely any of the ambitious targets set will be met and overall marine condition remains poor.

So, even if we ignore climate change (exposing the moral void of our environmental stewardship), the strategy nominated by the government to protect the reef – improve water quality – is also failing to achieve much. And this is not an isolated statement, there have been many reports in recent years showing government action is not working in improving water quality.

Why is it so hard to fix water quality? Because it’s very expensive (though a lot less expensive than taking on climate change). The government’s own costing on what is required is $8.2 billion over 10 years, and so far it hasn’t even stumped up a tenth of this.

But it’s more than just money. Fixing water quality requires massive change to land management over a big area. A former NRM Chief said “We’re trying to get transformational change to an area twice the size of Germany with 10,000 farms on it. This is no small undertaking.”

Big and very complex.

3. Scale is the GBR’s Achilles heel

The size of the Great Barrier Reef makes it hard to comprehend; it’s over 2000 km long. But the time frames we’re dealing with also problematic when it comes to the politics.

One of the arguments the Government used when faced with an impending ‘in danger’ listing last week was that UNESCO hadn’t done its due diligence. UNESCO’s conclusions were based on a ‘desk top review’. They need to come out to the reef and see it for themselves, said the Australian Government, see the great work being done to fix it being undertaken by Indigenous people, school kids, tour operators and other worthy stakeholders. They need to take into consideration the ‘gee whiz’ science being done on finding heat-tolerant corals and efforts to shade the reef, thereby creating possible pathways of restoration (actions most reef scientists simply cannot work at scale).

Of course, whenever someone cries ‘the Reef is dying’, you’ll also find a ratbag politician prepared to point (and sometimes rip out) a piece of coral and say: ‘looks healthy to me, what’s the problem?’

The problem is a lack of science; the problem the politicians capacity to cherry pick the evidence that suits their claim (by focussing on part of the Reef that’s looks good while ignoring the overall trend of decline). The problem is a failure to acknowledge a healthy reef now is irrelevant against the prospect of intermittent catastrophic bleaching events in the future.

It’s great that bits of the reef are recovering from the last bleaching event in 2020 (and the events in 2016 and 2017) but it takes many years for full recovery and with forecasts for bleachings every second year within the next decade, the GBR’s days are numbered.

So, while the Australian Government says ‘look at this bit of healthy reef’ or ‘the reef is recovering this year’, it entirely ignores the scales of time and space over which this massive ecosystem functions.

4. An inconvenient truth

Science often refers to climate change as an ‘inconvenient truth’. But when dealing with complexity it’s easy to worm your way around the issue. Politicians can easily slide around biophysical reality because the ecosystems we are dealing with are big, complicated and complex. The scales of time and space these systems are operating at are not aligned with the 3-5 year political cycles in which inflation rates and the cost of housing dominate debates.

It’s too easy for the (Australian) politicians to claim “we’re the best reef managers in the world” while all the evidence says otherwise.

Big ecosystems (think the GBR, the MDB and our east coast forests) are complex and difficult to understand. They are connected to other systems and influenced by what’s happening at other scales. And climate change is only part of the problem.

Our politicians will encourage you to only look at the bits that are in accord with their ideology (eg, the park is well managed, don’t look beyond the park), and to only think about the problem in the scale of their political cycle (eg, the good work being done by well-meaning volunteers gives them hope that their efforts make a difference, which makes them feel good; don’t think about the next bleaching event beyond the political horizon).

So the inconvenient truth for me is that our complex ecosystems are in trouble but our systems of governance don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

The challenge then is not to better define the biophysical truth and expect politicians to change but to reform our governance such that it responds appropriately to ecosystem decline and collapse. For this to happen we need demonstrate to voters why that biophysical truth is important to the values they help dear and why they must hold our politicians to account.

The evidence is that our current management of the Reef, the Murray Darling Basin and our forests is unsustainable. If we wait for this ‘truth’ to become real then our ‘victory’ will be empty as the loss of these ecosystems will be irreversible. That’s an inconvenient truth we all need to acknowledge.

Image: Coming up for air on the Great Barrier Reef (Photo by David Salt)

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