Sacrificing the Reef with militarism, mining, censorship and tokenism

John Glue

At the start of the election campaign Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt visited Cairns to re-announce $50 million in new projects to boost water quality, including efforts to keep sediment, fertilisers and pesticides off the Great Barrier Reef. This re-announcement was partly to allay concerns over research showing 93% of the Reef had been bleached and dire predictions that the Reef will be terminal in as little as 5 to 20 years.

The $50 million for the Reef highlighted that the government doesn't really think the health of the Reef is an important issue when at the same time they said they will spend $50 billion to buy 12 submarines. After some public outcry the government increased its pledge to $1 billion over 10 years to try and help the Reef. In contrast Reef researchers at James Cook University have proposed in a new report that the government needs to spend $10 billion over the next 10 years, which they say "is small in comparison to the Reef's economic worth of around $20 billion per year."

Although the government's smaller pledge of $1 billion over 10 years to reduce run-off on to the Reef is in principle a good idea, runoff and poor river water quality are small causes of coral bleaching and reef die-back compared to the impact of global warming. It is also a small amount of money compared to the billions of dollars the government has already committed to promote further land clearing, mega farms, mining, dredging and coal seam gas projects in North Queensland that will place greater burden on the Reef. Also, the government's recent approval of the Adani Carmichael coal mine near Bowen, the biggest in Australia, will greatly contribute to global warming and ocean acidification.

As the government is trying to avoid admitting or dealing with the fact that global warming is a major cause of coral bleaching, they have resorted to obfuscation, tokenism and censorship. Their censoring occurred recently when the Australian Department of Environment lobbied to have all references to the damaging impact climate change will have on the Reef as well as on Kakadu and the Tasmanian forests removed from the important UN report, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) scientist and spokesman Sean Hoobin said in a statement: "We have viable renewable alternatives that don't sacrifice the 67,000 jobs the Reef provides and that will generate thousands of new jobs. It will take several billion dollars to save the Great Barrier Reef from water quality threats. A reef rescue plan, on the scale of the one forged for the Murray-Darling basin, is needed."

WWF Australia has grave doubts the federal government will meet its current funding commitments to the reef or that the money committed will come close to what's needed to save it from agricultural run-off and sediment build up.

The decline of the Reef is a clear warning of the threat we are facing now from biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. There is growing awareness that if we try to maintain the current economic model that requires growth and expansion to stay viable and profitable, we are doomed for failure. No socio-economic system can keep on growing and expanding in a finite natural environment. It will inevitably destroy our ecosystems, natural capital base and social fabric in the process of chasing an impossible dream of ever increasing profits.

The problem with the "perpetual growth" business model is highlighted with the weapons manufacturing and warfare industries. The New York Times recently reported that the U.S. has just passed a new milestone ‒ President Obama has now been at war longer than any president in US history. Obama has taken military action in at least seven countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

These wars, which are often just orchestrated to secure fossil fuel supplies and other resources, are resulting in the bombing and destruction of whole, towns, cities and countries ‒ releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases which contributes to global warming and further damages the world's reefs. These wars also resulted in a record 60 million people been driven from their homes last year, turning many into refugees seeking asylum in other countries.

Australia, as a military ally of the US, is also obliged to match their ever-increasing spending on the military, as seen with the government's new order of 12 submarines from the French at an initial cost of $50 billion. With that amount of money we could begin the transformation to sustainable, organic, regenerative agriculture that would really protect the reef.

John Glue is a member of FoE Far North Queensland.

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016