Why we cannot afford to hit snooze on the latest coral bleaching event

By Elise Springett | 20 May 20

This has been one of the toughest years in memory for my city, Cairns.

This is a community almost wholly dependent on tourism. This year has seen it hit with a series of disasters that are hurting families and businesses; a pain that we predict will continue long into the future, as the impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold.

At the beginning of 2020, the bushfire crisis impacted the number of international tourists visiting, due to misconceptions that the whole country was on fire. Then the coronavirus emptied our esplanade, cafes and restaurants of people altogether, plunging our Reef tourism industry into hibernation. Uncertainty pervades as we anxiously await to see which businesses – small and large – will survive the pandemic crisis.

In the midst of this, and following weeks of dire warnings about record sea surface temperatures, scientists announced a mass coral bleaching event on our Great Barrier Reef – the third in five years.

While we found small comfort in news that popular tourism spots near Cairns, Port Douglas and the Whitsundays had emerged with minor, or at worst, moderate bleaching, which our Reef will likely recover from, this widespread bleaching event was truly devastating news for the thousands who make their living from our magnificent world wonder. The increasing frequency of bleaching events is of great concern, with all of us wondering if tourism areas will be so lucky next time? Our community can’t afford to sit with our hearts in our mouths every summer anxious about bleaching.

Our Great Barrier Reef is a vast and diverse ecosystem, one of Australia’s most precious natural treasures and our region’s greatest asset. It is the reason my family, like so many others, call Cairns home. The Reef deserves our attention, despite the distraction and distress of the pandemic, our community cannot afford to hit snooze on this alarm.

Just as we have been listening to medical experts when tackling coronavirus, we must listen to the scientific experts when they warn us of critical threats to the health of our Reef.

In the long term, the health of our Great Barrier Reef will make or break the tourism and hospitality industries in our part of the world. As a community, we must come together, and make the changes that we know are essential to ensure its longevity. That means using our powerful voices to pressure our political leaders into taking decisive, reef-saving climate action.

Just as we have been listening to medical experts when tackling coronavirus, we must listen to the scientific experts when they warn us of critical threats to the health of our Reef. The science is clear: the only way to protect our Reef and our region’s future from the marine heatwaves which cause coral bleaching, is to act on the climate crisis. It’s time to end our dangerous use of fossil fuels and rapidly transition to renewable energy.

The fossil fuel lobby is pushing hard to lock us into even more dirty coal and gas as we rebuild from this pandemic. We’ve seen a splashy ad campaign from the mining lobby, a mining boss leading the COVID response team and a plan for thousands of new gas wells. But when it comes to economic recovery, we have a different choice, one that safeguards our Reef and dependent industries in the long term, by tackling both the Covid-19 slump and climate change. 

We need our politicians to make a positive plan for clean energy, not more of the fossil fuels which are driving bleaching events. It needs to develop a federal policy framework that will ensure Australia meets our Paris commitments to keep global warming no higher than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

We call on our politicians to give our Great Barrier Reef every fighting chance by improving water quality. To do this, they need to fund work in the Reef catchment on the farms, wetlands and creeks that flow into its waters. The Queensland Government introduced new laws aimed at improving water quality last year but there is still much work to be done to make sure the water around our Reef is clean. 

Powering our country by clean energy and cleaning up the water on our Reef can create thousands of jobs in regional communities, while simultaneously tackling the biggest threats to the health of this exquisite ecosystem.

My organisation is also supporting a green stimulus push by more than 70 environmental and land care organisations that, if taken up by the government, will fund numerous conservation projects that will help our Reef and landscapes throughout Australia, and create meaningful jobs along the way. For example, one idea to survey Reef health can provide local employment and a clearer picture of bleaching recovery.

Together we can rebuild and return to showcasing our beautiful marine life to the world. But only if we have a healthy Reef to share.