Great Barrier Reef
© Kyle Taylor, Flickr

Australia’s government is putting coal over coral. It’s an economic disaster

Greenpeace senior media campaigner Simon Black explains why the reef is an asset worth investing in

The Great Barrier Reef – that beautiful, wonder-of-the-world, makes-you-want-to-quit-your-job-and-travel-to-see-it reef off the coast of Australia – is dying.

At this point, saving it will cost cost billions of dollars; but letting it die will cost billions more.

A year ago, a professor called Terry Hughes, who studies coral reefs for a living, tweeted that he’d shown the results of his aerial surveys on reef bleaching to his students and then wept. “Climate change is not a future threat,” he told the media. “On the Great Barrier Reef, it’s been happening for 18 years.”



Local tourist companies are coming up with some seriously desperate measures like pumping the reefs with huge water pumps to cool the water down and save the coral. But the government seems to be focusing its energy elsewhere: on building the country’s largest ever coal mine, right next to the reef.

Why is the reef dying?

Here’s what’s going on: when the water around them gets too warm, distressed coral kicks out the algae living in its tissue which makes them go a white, bleached color. If water temperatures don’t return to normal within six to eight weeks after the bleaching, the coral dies.


Bleached Staghorn Coral
Bleached staghorn coral in the Great Barrier Reef. © mattk1979, Flickr.

In the last two years the Reef has been hit by two bleaching events, the second of which happened close to the two biggest tourist towns in the area. The reef supports around 70,000 Australian jobs and brings as much as $6 bn into the country per year. Losing it won’t just be an environmental disaster; it’ll be an economic one too.

What's the government doing about it?

But instead of putting the funds in to save the reef, state and federal governments in Australia are now expressing strong support for a new plan: creating a massive new coal mine in the Galilee Basin, in the same area – exactly the kind of thing that caused the increase in temperatures and bleaching in the first place.

The work is well underway: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in India last week speaking to the head of the mining company there to reassure him that any issues with the mine would be fixed, while his deputy Barnaby Joyce was back home on TV promising the mine would create tens of thousands of jobs.

“We can turn this into a cash cow for Australia,” Joyce said. He’s even talked about using a billion dollars of taxpayer’s money to build a rail line to a nearby coal port for the mine – so they’re clearly not shedding too many tears for the lost reef.

Greenpeace campaigner Sebastian Blavier has spoken out against the plans. “When we talk about bleaching we are talking about climate change, fueled by mining and burning fossil fuels like coal,” Blavier said. “Instead of supporting the dying coal industry our leaders must commit to keep taxpayers’ money out of coal mines.”

Coral Not Coal Protest, Australia.
Protesters during Indian finance minister's state visit to Australia. © Wikimedia Commons.

Short-term vs long-term: the economics of it all

At the end of the day this is a question of what kind of economics Australia wants to adopt. Our leaders are slow to take action on climate change, instead focusing on an industry that will provide them with quick short-term gains, but serious long-term losses.

"There's more than 20,000 jobs in coal in Queensland. 70,000 in the reef,” Professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist who reports for the Climate Council, said. "Economically, places like the Great Barrier Reef are worth far more in terms of jobs than coal mining.”

"That's very much in danger from our propensity to keep digging up, selling and burning fossil fuels. We are endangering having this asset into the future."

Simon Black is a senior media campaigner for Greenpeace.

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