Coral or Coal?

The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s––and the world’s––greatest natural wonders. Composed of over 540 islands, the Reef has an extreme concentration of biodiversity, acts as a natural breakwater to minimize the impact of storms on Australia’s coastline, and preserves thousands of species in its fragile and unique ecosystem. Besides its wealth of natural benefits, the Great Barrier Reef is an immense economic engine for the continent, generating $6 billion in income each year and employing tens of thousands in the tourism and fishing industries. Australia’s Reef stretches almost 1,500 miles down its eastern coast, from the northern tip of Queensland down to Bundaberg. The Reef offers many scientific opportunities and ecotourism activities, including scuba diving, snorkeling, aerial tours, white water rafting, and boat tours.

As an exceptionally profitable region for Australia and a crucial reserve of biodiversity for the planet, the challenges the Reef now faces are both monumental and consequential. In 2016, the Reef experienced its highest ever rate of coral bleaching; a phenomenon caused by climate change and pollution that results in mass coral die-offs. Many scientists blame the killing of coral in the most severely affected portions of the Reef on coal mining enterprises, which are largely supported by the Coalition––the Australian political alliance of center-right and conservative parties. Given that the Reef is vitally important to Australia, why is the nation’s political leadership writing its death sentence with continual efforts to mine the area?

Extreme and sustained warm weather patterns have made the past three years particularly bad year for the Reef. A moderate El Niño hit in 2014, followed by a massive one in 2015. 2016 did not have the same El Niño effect, and may actually be seeing a reversal, cooling La Niña this winter. Despite this, the waters of the Western Pacific sustained the warming trend seen in the past two years, solely due to global warming. Warmer waters and increased pollution cause coral to bleach and eventually die, and if 2016’s bleaching incident is any indication, Earth’s largest living ecosystem could soon be in serious danger.

Coral and algae live in symbiosis with each other; the coral provides a home for algae, and algae provides food for the coral. When the coral becomes stressed due to pollution or warming waters––both exacerbated by nearby coal mining activity––the coral spits the algae out of its tissues, making it lose its vibrant colors, or bleach itself, and eventually starve to death. If the water cools down enough, the coral will welcome the algae back and may be able to recover over a 5 to 10-year period. With coral assessments beginning in May, scientists at Australia’s ARC Center for Coral Reef Studies have confirmed the largest bleaching event ever on the Great Barrier Reef has occurred in 2016. This time the northern, most pristine areas of the Reef were hit hardest, with 67% of corals dying. Fortunately, the southernmost reaches of the Reef remained largely intact, retaining their vibrant colors and drawing a diversity of species and tourists alike. Past research tells us that coral is able to recover from the brink of death, making it a remarkably resilient species. The process of coral bleaching can be reversed, albeit slowly and only if environmental conditions improve. Despite this prospect, the Australian government is currently in the process of approving the nation’s largest coal mine yet, which involves dredging 1.1 million cubic meters of waste near the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

While the Federal Government and its current Environment Minister extol the economic benefits of the new Carmichael Coal Mine, critics say Australia would be better off in the long run coal-free. Ceasing mining completely would create a short-term impact on growth but would allow for more long-term sustainable economic growth. Growth from mining is mostly temporary, as most of the jobs created only last until construction is completed. Once the mine is up and running, far fewer people are needed to staff it. Additionally, a working mine then has negative effects, such as increased pollution and warming waters, on other vital parts of the economy, including Australia’s massive tourism and fishing industries. Economists at the Australia Institute assert that the coal mine’s effect on job production appears to be overhyped, and the Carmichael Mine would probably only really create around 1,400 out of the 10,000 jobs they claim. The government is also doing all it can to downplay the bleaching threat; the Australian Department of the Environment intervened in the last Annual UN Report on Climate Change to have all mentions of the Reef and coral bleaching erased from the document.

The current plan to address the crisis is embodied in the Australian Government’s Reef 2050 Plan, a 35-year blueprint to improve the Reef through scientific and management adaptations. The Coalition has also promised to cut carbon levels 26-28% by 2030. Australia’s opposition Labour party promises a heftier 45% cut, with the minority Green Party promising even more stringent reforms. The 2050 Plan does have its merits, like adding $171 million of funding for Reef research and recovery, as well as creating early warning and response systems to coral bleaching. However, it has not attacked the underlying issues that will continue to degrade the Reef, most likely at a more rapid pace than the government’s action plan can respond to it. The federal government continues to approve the opening of coalfields in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which could result in the release of 705 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more than Australia’s output annually. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authorities agree that the nation cannot stop the established exporting bases of coking coal because they need them to make steel, but there is no reason to expand the thermal coal exports from around the Marine Park. Economically and environmentally, expanding the coal industry from its current state will only result in net losses in the long- term.

As part of the Paris Climate Agreement, Australia has agreed to the international plan to keep global temperature increases under 2°C. The world is currently seeing a 1°C global temperature increase, and in a large part of the Great Barrier Reef, this hike was enough to bleach 67% of its coral. Seeing these devastating consequences, even The Paris Accords may be too lenient to save this natural wonder under a 2°C increase. Coral bleaching does not just effect the Reef, but also has a domino effect that causes the entire ecosystem to suffer in biodiversity. When coral bleaches and loses its algae, fish that feed on the coral have to move away, followed by the birds that eat them, in turn affecting the vegetation on the surrounding islands that rely on bird droppings. Half a million people rely directly on the Reef and its islands for food, shelter, and income. Without the Reef in its naturally prosperous condition, the fate of these people, mainly indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders, is unknown. Recent studies reveal that 79% of Australians would prioritize the Reef over the mining industry, yet powerful lobbyists and the right-leaning government Coalition seem to have different plans. For Australia, the choice seems to be coral or coal, but they can’t have both. And while bleached coral is not yet dead coral, it is slowly dying, which is why action needs to be taken soon. There is promise in Australia’s opposition parties’ plans for the Reef, but it will take both local legislation changes to ban new coal mines, as well as a long-term international effort to reduce global water temperatures. While this is a tall order, it is in the economic and environmental interest of Australia and the world to keep the Reef alive and flourishing.

Rachael Hughen

Author: Rachael Hughen

Rachael is a sophomore in the Elliott School studying International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution and a minor in Geology. She is also a member of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams at GW. Rachael has a special interest in the region of Southeast Asia and hopes to work in the field of conflict resolution in this region after college. She is currently working for a human rights NGO in DC and has studied abroad in Finland. Other interests include running, hang gliding, and painting.