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The cognitive dissonance in dealing with mass coral bleaching

by | Mar 19, 2024 | 0 comments

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The fearsome ocean heating that devastated coral reefs across the northern hemisphere last year has now reached Australian shores where it’s doing the same thing – bleaching and killing the Great Barrier Reef. It’s no surprise to coral scientists who have been warning (and witnessing) this process for many years, but the tragic reality of what’s happening is not doing anything to shift the status quo that is causing the problem.

The cognitive dissonance around climate disruption in general – and the mass bleaching of corals specifically – is now of such epic proportions that it is reflected in every utterance from every institution associated with the unravelling environmental disaster that is being inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

Stay calm, we’ve got this

Take for example the latest fact sheet put out by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, an environmental NGO set up after the first mass bleaching in 1998 to “to find and grow the best solutions to protect the world’s greatest reef”. This fact sheet explains “How we predict Reef threats like coral bleaching”.

Issued just as the GBR is ‘melting down’, this explainer points out that “the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is one of the best managed reef ecosystems in the world”, a claim made and repeated by anyone and everyone associated with the GBR (so it must be true??). In any case, according to the explainer, the GBR is a big and complex place – “Keeping track of the entire Reef complex in real time is a near impossible task” so a lot of effort is put into modelling, integration and collaboration in order to make sure all the data being collected is giving us the most accurate picture possible.

But to what end? What does this picture allow us to do? According to the Foundation, “Data can be used to develop detailed maps, images and videos to show Reef ‘hot spots’ most at risk of bleaching, or other climate change impacts, and to avoid future bleaching events that strip coral of its iconic bright colours.”

Or maybe we don’t

Except, even as they tell us they’re working to “avoid future bleaching events”, the Reef is experiencing its worst ever bleaching event, and nothing being done by anyone associated with the “best managed reef ecosystems in the world” is changing this. In this particular event, it’s not just the sensitive species that are being hit; we are also seeing long-lived coral bommies being severely bleached.

“These bommies have been around for 200 years,” says bleaching expert Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. “So the fact that they’re dying under these conditions should set off the alarm.”

Of course, the root cause of the problem is anthropogenic climate change – human economic activity changing the composition of the atmosphere causing it to retain more heat, warm the oceans and kill our corals. Everyone working on the reef (NGOs, national park managers, science agencies and government departments) acknowledge this and say something should be done about it, and quickly – it’s just not their responsibility; it lies beyond their ‘jurisdiction’ (many say our government can and should be more proactive on climate change but I’ll come back to that in a moment).

Fiddling while Rome burns

Instead, the rich network of actors connected to the Great Barrier Reef spruik efforts to move threatened corals out of harm’s way, storing them in cooled aquaria for reintroduction once the heating has passed; or selecting corals with some heat resistance; or coming up with methods of cooling the reef – all of which sound nice and give the impression that good people are doing good things that will bear fruit when this dastardly heat spell is passed and things return to normal (or, if they don’t, humans are in control and we can adapt).

All of which is as good as pissing into an abyss. Or, as renowned reef expert Professor Terry Hughes recently summarized: “Attempts to restore depleted coral cover through coral gardening, assisted migration (by harvesting larvae) and assisted evolution (rearing corals in an aquarium) are prohibitively expensive and unworkable at any meaningful scale. In Florida, coral nurseries suffered mass deaths due to record sea temperatures last summer. The only long-term way to protect corals on the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere is to rapidly reduce global greenhouse emissions.”

This is not a new message; he, and many other reef scientists working on the GBR have been saying it for most of the last ten years. Professor Hughes did everything he could to spell this out following the mass bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 but was largely ignored by our Conservative government at the time.

The appearance of action

The Government’s response was to pour more money at Reef management and lobby UNESCO not to put the GBR onto its World Heritage ‘in danger’ list.

What it has not done is prevent the development of new fossil fuel projects. Indeed, according to the Australia Institute there are 116 new fossil fuel projects on the Federal Government’s annual Resource & Energy Major Project list, two more than at the end of 2021. If all proceed as estimated, they will add 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere by 2030. Australia exports nearly three times as much fossil fuel as the United Arab Emirates. On a per capita basis, Australia’s contribution to total CO2 emissions remains one of the highest globally and experts believe the combination of valuable export earnings and strong job creation in key parts of the country mean the Australian government is unlikely to make any radical curbs on coal and gas exports any time soon.

Nothing I have said here should be shocking or revelatory. Anyone with their eyes open will have read some or all of what I’m repeating here. The Great Barrier Reef is facing an existential threat of our own making. We know what the solution is but our current governance around the Reef is inadequate to meet the challenge.

We can’t speak truth to power; science does not guide our decision making; and we can’t acknowledge that current economic priorities (and vested interests) mean that “the best managed reef ecosystems in the world” is being hung out to bleach.

What we can do is pretend accelerating climate warming isn’t happening; that the Reef will repair itself when things cool down; and that our efforts should be towards assisting in that process when we ‘return to normal’. Did someone say cognitive dissonance?

Salt on the wound

And to rub salt into this existential wound, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation publishes a fact sheet explaining “How we predict Reef threats like coral bleaching” as the Reef experiences what is expected to be its worst bleaching event (till next time).

Don’t worry everyone, the Foundation is on the case. The same Foundation that was set up by, among others, a shale oil developer and a large asbestos producer. The same Foundation that received (without asking for it) a grant of $443 million from the conservative Coalition Government to co-ordinate reef research in 2018 (to show the Government was doing something for the Reef). The same Foundation that has just partnered with Qantas and announced a new fund that will help “accelerate the restoration of Australia’s reef systems, including investment in Coral IVF programs, corals with increased heat tolerance, and world-first portable coral nurseries”.

Want to save the reef? Demand our governments works to end greenhouse gas emissions. Oh, and maybe consider reducing your own emissions by not eating beef and ending your air travel, two of the behaviours linked to the greatest generation of greenhouse gas emissions. Or, if the cognitive dissonance is killing you, fly Qantas and believe their funding of ‘accelerated restoration’ is anything but corporate greenwash.

Banner image: Aerial surveys reveal mass coral bleaching event unfolding on the Great Barrier Reef: 08 March 2024: The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in collaboration with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have observed extensive coral bleaching caused by elevated sea temperatures during aerial and in-water surveys of the Reef. This information confirms that a mass coral bleaching event is taking place on the Great Barrier Reef which is the fifth such event since 2016. (Credit: Coral bleaching at Mackay Reef, northern Great Barrier Reef, February 2024. Image: AIMS | Grace Frank)


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