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Climate change is coming for the Great Barrier Reef

Climate change is coming for the Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s government achieved its own peculiar climate goal last week: It managed to prevent the Great Barrier Reef from being listed as “in danger” due to climate change by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. UNESCO has been concerned about the reef’s status since at least 2012, and a draft decision published by the panel in June recommended the danger designation. In the end, however, Australia’s aggressive lobbying of other countries on the committee — including fellow climate laggards Russia, Oman and Saudi Arabia — paid off, at least for now.

The Great Barrier Reef — actually a mass of reefs that stretches 3,000 kilometers along the northeastern Queensland coastline — is important to Australia. Much-cited figures from a 2017 report by consulting firm Deloitte put the reef’s value at 56 billion Australian dollars ($41.4 billion), supporting 64,000 jobs and adding AU$6.4 billion to the economy each year.

The value of being seen as a country of natural beauty rather than a bad actor recklessly destroying a pristine natural wonder won’t be lost on Australia’s leaders. The current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is a former head of Tourism Australia.

And yet a diabolical political landscape has left the country’s climate policy at the mercy of a hard core of die-hard fossil fuel supporters. At last count, three prime ministers have been pushed out for attempting to limit the country’s greenhouse gas emissions; one of them twice over. Thermal coal is one of the country’s biggest exports, but so too are tourism and agriculture, which will also suffer as the world warms. Foreigners are always shocked that some of Australia’s biggest coal and liquid natural gas ports are on the lagoon of the GBR. Their ships sail right through it to get to market.

Australia’s conservative federal government, led by Morrison, is resisting making material improvements to its shoddy climate pledge.