reefer madness

27 February 2015

“Have you heard about what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef?” I ask, holding out a pamphlet to a sleepy NAB employee. It’s 7.30 a.m. I am doing my best to keep a smile on my face as suit after suit files past me disinterestedly on their way into work. “Have you heard about what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef?” I say again, this time to a lady who avoids eye contact with the expertise of an unprepared Arts student in a quiet tutorial. Clearly, it’s too early in the day to process my beaming dial. I don’t take offence. After all, we are in Docklands.

The Great Barrier Reef: one of Australia’s many beautiful natural icons, summoning thoughts of brightly coloured coral, clear waters, and Crush the Turtle. Located in Marine National Park, it covers an area greater than that of Victoria and Tasmania combined, and has its own unique thriving biodiversity, comprised of 3000 different coral reef systems. What is happening on the reef then? And what does NAB have to do with it? It’s all a bit complicated, to be honest. I have some of the answers.

In a nutshell: a multinational conglomerate called Adani is seeking to develop coal mines on the Galilee Basin, a huge coal basin in central Queensland. Doing this requires Adani to first expand upon the coal port at Abbot Point. This is where the Reef comes into it: Abbot Point is located just 50km from the Whitsundays, a stretch of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral islands. At the moment, Adani doesn’t have the cash to do this (they don’t have the strongest financial record) and has been seeking financial support from Australia’s big four banks. That is, Commonwealth Bank, NAB, Westpac and ANZ. This is why the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) has been hounding them – and their customers – in the nicest way possible, asking them not to fund this project.

Ask me about the science tied up in all this and for a long time all I could tell you was “Adani’s project will affect the Reef’s ecosystems.” This isn’t to say that this statement isn’t true. However, if you probed for anything more detailed I would try to distract you with questions about your favourite character from Finding Nemo. In being a boss environmentalist, however, it can help to have this kind of knowledge in order to communicate ideas to a wider range of people. So hold onto your pants, because I am about to give this “communicating” thing a shot and serve up some C-grade simplified science. (They don’t call me Angela Gore for nothing.)

One of the biggest primary threats to the reef – and here, when I refer to the reef, I am referring to the ecosystems and corresponding life there – is the occurrence of dredging. Dredging involves huge machines slurping up large amounts of sediment, rocks, sand and soil from the ocean floor so as to open channels for ships. With regard to the Abbot Point redevelopment, the total dredge spoils will equal three million cubic metres (which is, by the way, Quite A Lot). Sediment caused by dredging can cloud the waters and be pushed into areas of high coral density, significantly impacting marine organisms which require sunlight to thrive. If dredging complies with the standards set by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, it may prove to be a non-issue. However, no one really knows that for sure: there are significant gaps in the knowledge on this issue. Combine that with how little the scientific community knows about the complexities of the Great Barrier Reef, and dredging carries a high degree of risk, even when – as per the current plan – the dredge spoils are dumped on land.

The coal exported from this single basin, when burnt, is anticipated to produce yearly emissions which equate to a massive 20 per cent of Australia’s own annual emissions. In the broader scheme of things, widespread climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has a huge impact on coral reef systems by way of increasing ocean acidity and temperatures. The Earth’s oceans absorb carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, which in turn increases the pH levels of the oceans and reef systems. Already the pH of the world’s oceans has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 since the 1800s. Because pH is a logarithmic scale – whatever that means, bear with me – this signifies a 30 per cent increase in acidification. When carbon dioxide is absorbed into the sea, it combines with water and carbonate ions to form carbonic acid. Many sea creatures require these carbonate ions to build their shells and exoskeletons, and ocean acidification makes it a lot harder for them to do so. Ocean acidification has a huge impact on coral polyps, the little guys who actually make the reef. Increased temperatures result in coral bleaching. Microscopic algae zooxanthellae – please keep reading – live in coral and provide it with its primary source of food, as well as pretty colours. When things warm up, the zooxanthellae leave. The coral loses its colour and becomes more susceptible to disease.

Of course, this issue is so much more complex than the science alone can convey, and there are multiple reasons (quite apart from the damage to the Reef) why the Adani coal mines would be disastrous. (Hence why the AYCC and many other organisations have been working so hard to ensure that this project doesn’t go ahead.) Economically, this could have huge implications for tourism on the Reef. This is not to mention the risks associated with plummeting coal prices; to put so many eggs in the dirty energy basket is pretty risky when we are (hopefully) going to see a massive shift to clean energy. Politically, Australia currently has a government that is more or less pro-coal, and therefore pro-Adani. This creates complications for organisations and businesses opposed to the project (fingers crossed the Liberal Party under Turnbull is more environmentally savvy than it was under Abbott). For the Wangan and Jagalingou people – the traditional owners of the land where the largest mine has been proposed – the mining of the Galilee Basin presents a direct threat to their homes and cultural heritage.

Thankfully, some terrific progress has been made. In August, Commonwealth Bank publicly announced that their money would not be going to Adani. The company took a double hit when the Federal Court overturned their appeal for approval, thanks to the endangered status of yakka skink and ornamental snake (what meddlesome endangered species, messing up Adani’s destructive plans). All of our mornings spent irritating NAB employees paid off when they followed Commonwealth’s lead shortly afterwards, which resulted in some happy celebratory actions as opposed to the previously described please-tell-your-employer-to-not-destroy-the-reef actions. A federal case has been launched against Adani by the Wangan and Jagalingou people for trying to pull off some shady business. On top of all this, Adani got into even more hot water when it was revealed they had botched the figures of potential jobs. They are definitely persistent, but opposition to Adani continues to grow.

The Great Barrier Reef may only make up one part of the bigger picture here, but it has come to symbolise the fight. Australians love the Reef, and now more than ever it’s crucial we vocalise our adoration and take a stand. I understand this is a lot of information to process all at once, and doesn’t even begin to cover the intricate details of the science or the broader debate. However, I hope it has clarified some of the science and highlighted what a pressing issue this is. At the very least, now you know what to say when you next hear the question “Have you heard about what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef?”

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