A Climate of Denial: Coral Bleaching, Political Obfuscation, and the Climate Crisis

“It was catastrophic, gut wrenching and incredibly disturbing. That was one of the most comprehensive hard coral cover sites on the Reef and all of the coral in the shallows was fully bleached. That’s when we knew that we’d lost that site.”

Our guide’s words cut through the sea breeze blustering over the stern of our dive boat. Our tour group of about thirty, were sitting in our wetsuits, warming ourselves after another dive on Opal Reef off Port Douglas, listening to Paul describe his reaction to that first coral bleaching event and trying to make sense of what we had just experienced: “In 2016, the world lost a lot of its living coral and the Great Barrier Reef was no exception. What’s causing it is global warming induced rises in water temperature.” That day we had seen stunning congregations of staghorn and branch coral, delicate sponges, vivid blue giant clams, large boulder corals metres across, and myriad fish coloured in reds and blues and greens darting in and out of our way. But we had also seen large swathes of dead coral on the top of the reef, their skeletal remains just discernible behind a shroud of algae.

Over the last decade, my colleague Daniel Nyberg and I have been researching how corporations and business associations have responded to the contested political debate over climate change. This has involved an analysis of both corporate political activity around climate policy as well as investigating the practices companies are introducing in response to the “risks and opportunities” of the climate crisis. Recently we’ve been exploring climate hotspots; parts of the world that have already experienced climate change impacts. The onset of catastrophic coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in the summers of 2016 and 2017 and the virulent political debate that ensued, provides a powerful example of one such climate hotspot. After a week in Cairns conducting interviews with industry and community stakeholders, we were now in a boat on the edge of the Reef experiencing first-hand one of the implications of our climate-changed future; the demise of the world’s coral reefs.

The GBR is located in the Coral Sea off the coast of north Queensland, Australia and is made up of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. It is the world’s largest single structure made by living organisms and extends over 2,300 kilometres with an area of about 344,000 square kilometres. The Reef’s size and scale make it one of the most recognised ecosystems in the world, having been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1981.

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While the Great Barrier Reef has lost as much as half of its shallow water coral because of the back-to-back bleaching of 2016/2017, there are still areas of very healthy coral where cooler ocean water was able to circulate during the bleaching events. Opal Reef, August 2018. Image: Christopher Wright.

During the Australian summer of early 2016, the GBR suffered an unprecedented coral bleaching event as a result of a major El Niño weather pattern and a global trend of warming ocean temperatures resulting from climate change. Bleaching results from exposure of coral to unseasonal warm water temperatures (around 1 to 1.5° Celsius above the seasonal maximum mean temperature). In these circumstances, corals become heat stressed and expel the algae (single celled zooxanthellae) that live within their tissues and provide them with food. The 2016 bleaching event caused the death of two-thirds of corals along a 700km northern section of the reef – the single greatest loss of corals ever recorded on the Reef. The following summer a second coral bleaching event occurred, this time affecting corals in the mid-section of the Reef, a prime tourist destination. This unprecedented back-to-back bleaching meant that an estimated half of the shallow water coral on the Reef had died within a two-year period.

The decline of the Reef is one of the more graphic examples of human-induced climate disruption that we are now living through. While the Reef bleached during those unseasonally hot summers, politicians and corporate leaders scrambled to spin the disaster in the best possible light and placate growing public concern. Industries such as coal mining and tourism downplayed the threat of coral bleaching and the links to climate change and fossil fuel expansion, ignoring the science documenting the severity of the bleaching events caused by a warming ocean; a direct outcome of anthropogenic climate change.

So how do you justify the unjustifiable? In response to the coral bleaching of the GBR, implicated industries, corporations and their allies engaged in a process of political action which sought to deflect criticism of fossil fuel expansion and ensure the continuance of business as usual. This is a story of the maintenance of power and vested interests, changing the world we know before our eyes.

***

For the reef tourism industry, coral bleaching has been a marketing nightmare. During 2016 and 2017, coral bleaching featured extensively across international media, with major features in the world’s leading news outlets. A fictional obituary for the Reef went viral on social media as numerous documentaries broadcast images of fields of dying coral to a global audience.

Like a scene from the movie Jaws, the tourism industry’s initial reaction was to deny that bleaching was having any significant impact on the Reef and stress that tourists could continue to enjoy beautiful reef environments. However, denial could last only so long and in the aftermath of the second bleaching event in the summer of 2017, the industry recognised they now faced an existential threat. As one industry insider recalled:

I went into a meeting with most of the big tourism operators and GBRMPA [Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority] in early Feb and the data looked horrific… I think there was a sea change at that moment in that room where the key players went ‘oh f*ck, this is not a one-off!’”

Business and government responded by trying to downplay the severity of bleaching and stressing “practical solutions” which would encourage greater “sustainability” and Reef resilience. Major airlines, which featured the GBR in much of their advertising, pledged to contribute to programs to reduce sediment run-off and improve water quality on the Reef (ignoring the fact that aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of global greenhouse emissions!). Tourism operators committed to contribute to initiatives to reduce the coral-eating Crown-of-Thorns starfish. Plans were even developed for so-called “Reef Havens” that would feature underwater fans to better circulate water over prime tourism dive sites. These increasingly desperate responses sought to dispel growing public concern over the future of the GBR while ignoring the key threat of climate change. As leading marine scientist Professor Terry Hughes argued on social media: “In the absence of any meaningful action on climate change, Australia’s ‘commitment’ to the #GreatBarrierReef is simply a smokescreen.

With public concern mounting over the health of the GBR, in mid-2018 the Federal Government announced a grant of $440 million to the previously little-known industry charity the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. While critics noted the irony of an organisation run by executives from major fossil fuel companies seeking to “save the Reef”, the Foundation’s Chairman (a former Managing Director of oil giant Esso) argued their role was to improve the Reef’s ability to adapt and not to advocate for emissions reductions: “while the world works to tackle climate change on a global scale, there are many things we can and must do to build the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef right now.” Here, the Foundation stressed its ability for corporate fund-raising in which companies could “drive employee engagement, position them as an employer of choice, and contribute positively to reputation scoring or social licence to operate”. This meant that businesses could promote their contributions to Reef conservation as part of their broader marketing as “good corporate citizens”.

Of course, the focus on improving the Reef’s resilience through local initiatives neatly sidesteps the substantive issue of climate change and escalating carbon emissions that are the key source of coral bleaching. Indeed, the tourism industry remains largely silent on these issues today, with some tourism operators prohibiting their employees from discussing bleaching and climate change for fear of alarming the tourists!

***

“If they don’t get the coal from us, they’ll find it in another coal mine somewhere else right, in Indonesia or Brazil… But you don’t link a mine and the prospect of 5000 jobs to the death of the Great Barrier Reef.”

For the head of the local business chamber we were interviewing the issue was clear; there could be no connection drawn between the bleaching of the GBR and proposals for new coal mines in Queensland’s interior. Rural towns needed the jobs and growth that mining would provide, and after all wasn’t climate change a global issue? What difference could Australia make? It was an argument we’d heard a lot during our research and one that even our former Prime Minister had used; the so-called “drug-dealer’s defence” that Australia’s coal mining exports were irrelevant given the global trade in fossil fuels.

However, the destruction of large swathes of the Reef because of climate change had now put a critical public spotlight on proposals for new mega-coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. Despite fulsome government support for the expansion of mining and coal exports, a national protest campaign had emerged aimed at stopping the first of these new “carbon bombs”; the Adani Carmichael mine, which aimed to be the largest new coal mine in the Southern Hemisphere. The #StopAdani campaign featured movie stars, musicians, scientists and environmental activists, and had garnered national political traction, threatening to unseat politicians who supported it.

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Climate change has become a central political issue in Australia as extreme weather events such as coral bleaching, record-breaking drought, storms and catastrophic bushfires highlight the continent’s vulnerability to climate disruption. Time2Choose Climate Rally, Sydney, March 2018. Image: Christopher Wright.

However, the push-back from industry and government has also been strong and enduring. Government ministers and the mining industry continue to proclaim coal mining as “a mainstay of employment and economic growth in Queensland”. This view has been echoed in regional towns where the threat of coral bleaching is rejected in favour of the economic benefits of a possible new coal boom. Summing up local sentiment in the coal-port of Bowen, the local newspaper reported on local opposition to environmentalists:

“Proud Bowenites have torn down protest signs in trees, proudly flown Adani flags in the streets and many local businesses have refused to serve anyone sporting Stop Adani shirts…coal is not dead, Adani is not the devil and the Great Barrier Reef won’t die if we extract coal from the Galilee.”

The bleaching of the GBR thus feeds into a larger political debate about Australia’s role as the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas and the more fundamental contradiction between our fossil-fuelled economy and a habitable climate. Papering over this contradiction is at the core of much of the political posturing in response to coral bleaching. While coral reefs bleach and entire ecosystems are endangered, our corporate and political masters fiddle with local adaptations and band-aid solutions. Moreover, the policy shift from emissions mitigation to proposals to “adapt” to climate change ensures that fossil-fueled corporate capitalism can continue unabated. Thus, while there are plenty of commitments on climate change, what is missing is meaningful action in rapidly decarbonizing our economies.

***

Back on the dive boat at the end of our day on the Reef, I asked Paul how he dealt with the weight of our climate future and the likely demise of the world’s coral reefs. Far from the bright-siding of “resilience” and adaptation that dominates government and tourism industry communications, his response cut to the reality of our climate crisis:

“We’re at a point where we have to decide which side of history we want to be on. In not that many years’ time, there’s going to be a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of agonising over how we could let this happen…then people who have been bearing witness are going to need to step forward and sit in the dock…It’s a dark and horrible privilege but it’s one I don’t want to miss.”

 

This article was originally published in Anthroposphere: Oxford Climate Review, Issue IV, June 2019.

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