Sustainability Bites

There is no such thing as a free lunch

This is not ‘higher than average’, this is the new normal

by | Apr 22, 2024 | 0 comments

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NOAA has declared a Global Mass Bleaching Event and Australia’s Prime Minister races to the Great Barrier Reef to make an announcement! At last, the world is responding to the existential threat of climate change. But wait, what’s this; the PM is actually in Gladstone (at the southern end of the GBR) to celebrate the shipping of fossil fuel to Asia! Is this some sick parody? No, it’s real life. Welcome to the new normal – just like the old normal but with none of the certainty we once all enjoyed.

So it’s official; the (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has just declared that the world is experiencing its fourth global mass bleaching event. Not that anyone following global environmental news would be in any doubt about this, having seen in graphic detail the images of bleached and dead coral from both hemispheres.

Well, at least we’re acknowledging it.

Higher than average?

Or are we? Because, in the same breadth, NOAA says: “Reefs worldwide are grappling with higher-than-average ocean temperatures, leading to widespread coral bleaching.”

“Higher-than-average ocean temperatures” suggests our oceans are above ‘normal’; that an aberration is hurting our precious reef systems.

But the truth is that coral reefs are being killed by anthropogenic heating; or, in simpler words, global warming caused by human activity.

Ocean temperatures are not above normal, the problem is that humans have created a new normal in which coral reefs can’t exist. That’s an existential tragedy not only for coral reefs but for all the life forms that depend upon coral reefs; and keep in mind one of those life forms is us. Over 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and livelihoods.

Look, I’m not going to go into any detail on the many economic, environmental or social values of coral reefs. Those arguments have been made in many robust ways by many good people in other places (see https://reefresilience.org/ as one example). The sad truth is that the many values of coral ecosystems (and the clear and present danger to them) are insufficient to bring about meaningful change in human behaviour in a timely fashion.

Business as usual trumps all

Instead, business as usual (BAU) trumps all other values and papers over the cognitive dissonance by seducing us into believing that the damage we see unravelling all around us, of which global mass coral bleaching is but one manifestation, is temporary, and that our beloved natural ecosystems will recover with time.

Witness the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, an environmental NGO established to protect the Great Barrier Reef, putting out fact sheets on how we can better predict mass coral bleachings just as the current mass bleaching event was taking off. They can predict these events with ever greater accuracy but no-one seems to be able to actually do anything meaningful to stop it so what’s the point? (This was the theme of my last blog post if you want more details on this.)

Or, to throw salt on the wound, on the very day NOAA declares a global mass bleaching event, our Prime Minister and Resources Minister fly to Gladstone, at the southern end of the Reef, to publicly celebrate the 1000th shipped cargo of gas to Asia.

Addicted to BAU

Fossil fuels are the biggest source of carbon emissions that are leading to increasing temperatures of our land, sea and air. This carbon pollution is broiling our coral reefs, burning our forests and changing our weather in a myriad of dangerous ways.

The world is addicted to fossil fuel, and Australia is addicted to the rewards of supplying it. Consider coal. Our current national government, which was elected in on a platform of meaningful action on climate change, has approved 4 new coal mines since it was elected in 2022, with another 25 mines currently being considered for approval. It’s been estimated the the world needs to be closing 6% of its coal power plants every year to avoid a climate emergency. Instead, a report by Global Energy Monitor found that coal power capacity grew by 2% last year!

The Australian department of the environment has also just approved Santos Barossa gas pipeline out to 2056. Described as the dirtiest gas project in Australia, it received a rapid project approval and was quietly announced on the eve of the Easter holidays. According to Rod Campbell, Research Director at The Australia Institute: “Barossa is just one of the 100 new fossil fuel projects under development in Australia. Australia is still transitioning to more fossil fuels, not away from them.”

Really, it’s just business and usual, but now the chickens are coming home to roost. The impacts of climate disruption, long forecast by climate scientists, are now killing our precious life supporting ecosystems (think, corals, forests and mangroves as examples) at an accelerating rate – right in front of our eyes.

And our response? Ecosystem collapse, in this case mass coral bleaching, is being caused by ‘higher-than-average ocean temperatures’ our environmental monitoring agencies tell us. NO, the collapse is due to the new normal we have created, but still refuse to acknowledge. Temperatures are going up, and will continue to rise, wreaking ever greater disruption.

We need to acknowledge our responsibility for the situation; and understand the many ways we delude ourselves that ‘things are a bit worse than average but they will go back to normal’. They won’t.

Drier, hotter, deadlier

By the way, have you heard that south-west Western Australia is drier than normal? It’s struggling through its driest six-month spell on record. Ecologists fear it will precipitate a massive forest collapse. (Though, what even is normal in WA. This horror dry spell follows on from a long-term drying that began in the late 1970s.)

Or, looking beyond our shores, India’s Meteorological Department has just warned it’s teeming population to brace for not just a hot, but abnormally hot summer this year. (This after India experienced hundreds of people dying in heatwaves).

And the World Meteorological Organisation recently warned that 2024 will likely be worse in terms of heat after global heat records across the world, including in Asia and India, were broken only last year – which was the hottest year on record!

That doesn’t sound normal.

Banner image: Coral bleaching on Eyrie Reef, March 2024.
(Reef snapshot details widespread coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – CSIRO © George Roff, CSIRO)

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