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The Forum > Article Comments > Global climate change, the Great Barrier Reef and our obligations > Comments

Global climate change, the Great Barrier Reef and our obligations : Comments

By Don Rothwell and Tim Stephens, published 19/11/2004

Don Rothwell and Tim Stephens argue that we have a legal obligation to protect the Great barrier Reef

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I certainly agree that Australia is not doing enough to contribute to abatement of global greenhouse gas emissions. I have heard many strident views from overseas against Australia for its current stance. But I doubt that the argument to protect the GBR (Great Barrier Reef) is strong - essentially because it is the world's emissions causing global warming and Australia's contribution is a small part of that. Sure it is a strong moral argument. But this government does not seem to rate highly a need to protect the global commons. Other countries do, knowing that it will hurt their economies. But they also realise it is necessary to have a liveable world in a century or so.

The Australian Government has explained many times why it is not ratifying Kyoto; quite simply because the Government believes 'it is not in the national interest'. If you want more details than that then you are expecting more from this government which provides such facile, puerile and down right insulting 'reasons', than can be expected from such a government.

The government seems to have jettisoned the use of, and respect for, due process. It seems to be swayed by those who manage to get its ear. Look at the funny business that discriminates against imported alcohol but not against locally produced alcohol. And the PM didn't even remember discussing the issue with the Australian company person! Codswallop. More insults to our intelligence. Did someone say the John Howard lies?

Rather than hope a legal challenge (over the GBR) could force the Australian Government to ratify Kyoto, I sense it may be better to make our position known to all those countries (eg, European Union) who are now making sacrifices for this essential first step to help save the global commons. I can't imagine those countries will be happy trading with us between different levels of playing fields; Ie, their economies are carbon constrained by Kyoto and ours is not. The sooner those countries show their displeasure, eg by trade measures, at our selfish actions, the better. Not just selfish actions. Our position is downright treacherous to the whole UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process which we signed at Rio in 1992 - as did the USA. We should be in there making it work so that the developing countries can see that we are committed to making it work. Then in the second commitment period (2013 to 2018?) the remaining countries can be incorporated in a further protocol under the UNFCCC.

Submitted by GAIA, 23 November 2004
Posted by Gaia, Tuesday, 23 November 2004 10:00:06 PM
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Despite media headlines and also Rothwell and Stephens, suggesting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is being destroyed, or about to be destroyed, by crown-of-thorns, sugarcane farming (see, over-fishing, wonky holes, global climate change or something else, our Great Barrier Reef is still in good shape. Furthermore there was a statistically significant 4 per cent increase in coral growth rates over the last 100 years and evidence that calcification rates will further increase due to global warming (see Environmental Controls on Growth of the Massive Coral Porites, Lough & Barnes, Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 245: 225-243). That’s right, global warming might be good for coral growth. Furthermore, as long as sea-levels are rising the corals can grow up and up. It is the next ice-age that will leave the reef high and dry.

According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (see book titled, Status of the coral reefs of the world: 2002) Australia’s coral reefs are “predominantly in good condition due to low levels of human pressure … They are well protected from a relatively low level of stress from the small population that is not dependent on reef for subsistence. These reefs have exceptionally high biodiversity, favored by the massive size and diversity of habitats. Crown-of-thorn starfish predation and coral bleaching have been the primary disturbances affecting GBR reefs since 2000…bleaching was once again correlated with elevated temperature hotspots but these varied from the areas affected in 1998.”

While it has been claimed that the bleaching events of 1998 and 2002 were unprecedented, coral cores from the GBR and the mid-Pacific show bleaching scars from times past and the worst such event in recent centuries was in about 1740. These events, including the recent ones, are linked to strong El Nino weather patterns.

As regards Kyoto, I will quote from Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (see

“Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic about global warming, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adapting to the increased temperatures. Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto Protocol will have surprisingly little impact on the climate: temperature levels projected for 2100 will be postponed for all of six years.

Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol will be $150 billion to $350 billion annually (compared to $50 billion in global annual development aid). With global warming disproportionately affecting third world countries, we have to ask if Kyoto is the best way to help them. The answer is no. For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services. Isn't this a better way of serving the world?”

Cheers, Jennifer.
Posted by Jennifer, Thursday, 25 November 2004 12:15:04 AM
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If the climate is warming due to greenhouse gas emissions, there could be many plausible consequences, such as melting ice and polar bears not having a home. However, of all the ecosystems in the world, coral reefs are in virtually the best position to come through unscathed. They are certainly not the worlds canary as has sometimes been stated. Consider the following points

(1) Corals are a tropical species. They like warm water. Most of the species found on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), for example, are also found in areas with much warmer water.

(2) In a couple of hundred million years of existence, corals have survived through hotter, (and more seriously colder) periods.

(3) Coral tissue thickness, often seen as an indicator of coral health, is generally higher for corals in hotter water. Some of the highest tissue thickness' measured have occur around PNG where the water is far hotter than the GBR.

(4) for all the hype about the bleaching events on the GBR, most of the reef did not bleach and almost all that did bleach has almost fully recovered.

(5) From the statistical viewpoint it is highly improbable that bleaching only started to occur in the last 25 years. Bleaching on the GBR occurs in summers when there is a combination of low cloud cover and light winds. This drives up water temperatures to a degree or two about normal. The water temperature has not increased by a degree over the last 25 years and thus bleaching must have been occurring previously, though quite possibly at a reduced rate. The apparent increase in bleaching is quite possibly due to the very large number of scientists and managers who are now interested in the phenomenon.

(6) Data of coral growth rates from massive corals indicate that there has been a small but significant increase over the last 100 or so years. This is related to the small but significant temperature increase that has occurred in the last hundred or so years. This is not surprising, coral, by and large like hot water.

(7) Some corals clearly are killed by unusually elevated temperature. These are not the long-lived massive corals but rather the plate and staghorn corals. These susceptible corals have the living philosophy of a weed, i.e. live fast and die young. The massives are in for the long haul, they are like the forest giants that live for hundreds or years and must thus be able to withstand the extreme conditions, such as high temperature and cyclones, that will temporarily wipe out there frail but fast growing brethren.

(8) Even the susceptible corals seem to be able to adapt to higher temperatures by replacing the symbiotic plants (zooxanthellae) that are embedded within them with more suitable species.

(9) If we see a sealevel rise due to the thermal expansion of the ocean, we will see a great expansion in the area of the GBR under coral. This is because the reef flats, which now have almost no coral due to the FALL in sealevel of the last 5000 years, will be covered even by the lowest spring tides. The presently dead reef flats, which are a very large proportion of the reef (perhaps the majority), will come alive. So though rising sealevel might be bad if you live in a small South Pacific Island nation, it will be good for coral.

I have a very high regard for the hardiness of corals. The GBR was borne at a time of rapidly rising sealevel, very high turbidity and very rapidly rising temperature. Presently, they live in areas of extreme temperature (40 degree), in muddy embayments and in regions continuously affected by runoff. Provided they are not grossly overfished, as has happened in the Caribbean, they are very adaptable systems.

My message is that if you must make an argument for the Kyoto Protocol, then using coral reefs is a poor, and implausible choice. In the final analysis, corals like hot water, polar bears do not. Corals will do badly in an ice age, polar bears and alpine meadows can suffer in a warm period.
Posted by Ridd, Friday, 26 November 2004 1:36:25 PM
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It seems a following work by M.Kerjman is on topic:
Posted by MichaelK., Sunday, 24 April 2005 3:43:35 PM
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