Australia Cuts Outlook for Great Barrier Reef to ‘Very Poor’ for First Time, Citing Climate Change

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living structure and has become a potent symbol of the damage wrought by global warming.

After a recent mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, researchers found a sharp drop there in the diversity of fish species that rely on reef habitats. Credit: Laura Richardson/ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

After a recent mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, researchers found a sharp drop there in the diversity of fish species that rely on reef habitats. Credit: Laura Richardson/ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/James Cook University

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Australia has downgraded the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef to "very poor" for the first time, highlighting a fierce battle between environmental campaigners and the government over the country's approach to climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a government agency, warned in a report released Friday that immediate local and global action was needed to save the world heritage site from further damage due to the escalating effects of climate change

"The window of opportunity to improve the Reef's long-term future is now. Strong and effective management actions are urgent at global, regional and local scales," the agency wrote in the report, which is updated every five years. 

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest living structure and has become a potent symbol of the damage wrought by climate change.

The deterioration of the outlook for the reef to "very poor"—from "poor" five years ago—prompted a plea from conservation groups for the Liberal-National coalition government to move decisively to cut greenhouse gas emissions and phase out the country's reliance on coal. 

Australia's Coal and Climate Change Challenge

Emissions have risen every year in Australia since 2015, when the country became the first in the world to ax a national carbon tax.

The World Wide Fund for Nature warned the downgrade could also prompt UNESCO to place the area on its list of world heritage sites in danger. The reef contributes AUD$6.4 billion ($4.3 billion in U.S. dollars) and thousands of jobs to the economy, largely through tourism. 

"Australia can continue to fail on climate policy and remain a major coal exporter or Australia can turn around the reef's decline. But it can't do both," said Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF-Australia. "That's clear from the government's own scientific reports."

The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles in a coral ecosystem that supports a wide variety of marine life. Rising sea temperatures as the planet warms are taking a toll on the corals. Credit: Raimund Franken/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

The Great Barrier Reef stretches over 133,000 square miles in a coral ecosystem that supports a wide variety of marine life. Rising sea temperatures as the planet warms are taking a toll, causing both severe coral bleaching and coral death. Credit: Raimund Franken/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

The government said it was taking action to reduce emissions and meet its 2030 commitments under the Paris climate agreement and criticized activists who have claimed the reef is dying. 

"A fortnight ago I was on the reef, not with climate sceptics but with scientists," Sussan Ley, Australia's environment minister, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. "Their advice was clear: the Reef isn't dead. It has vast areas of vibrant coral and teeming sea life, just as it has areas that have been damaged by coral bleaching, illegal fishing and crown of thorns [starfish] outbreaks."

Fivefold Rise in Frequency of Severe Bleaching

The government report warned record-breaking sea temperatures, poor water quality and climate change have caused the continued degradation of the reef's overall health.

It said coral habitats had transitioned from "poor" to "very poor" due to a mass coral bleaching event. The report added that concern for the condition of the thousands of species of plants and animals that depend on the reef was "high." 

Global warming has resulted in a fivefold increase in the frequency of severe coral bleaching events in the past four decades and slowed the rate of coral recovery. Successive mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 caused unprecedented levels of adult coral mortality, which reduced new coral growth by 90 percent in 2018, the report said.

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Published Aug. 30, 2019

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