I am 22 years old, a young person, caricatured as a free spirit unburdened by the losses and responsibilities of adult life.
Yet, I along with so many young people across Australia, am in mourning.
In the summer of 2019–2020, the deaths of billions of animals and plants from climate-driven flames, could be felt in the air and burned the backs of my eyes. Now, in 2021, as the Federal Government celebrates a hollow diplomatic win, I feel the same echoes of loss, but this time it is for the oceans of my childhood.
Earlier this week on the 23rd July, the World Heritage Committee deferred a decision to list the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area as ‘in danger’ after the Federal Government lobbied member countries of the Committee. This comes after an independent scientific panel within UNESCO found the ‘long-term outlook’ of the Great Barrier Reef has ‘deteriorated’ due to climate change and recommended it be listed as ‘in danger’.
The Great Barrier Reef is already deteriorating. In 2016 and 2017 bleaching events killed over half of all shallow corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Federal water quality standards are consistently not being met for the Reef. Even more damning, the Federal Minister is yet to decide whether to approve a number of major developments on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, including a mine less than 10 kilometres from the World Heritage Area.
The purpose of the ‘in danger’ listing under the World Heritage Convention is to garner international support for the ‘major operations’ that are ‘necessary’ to ‘restore’ world heritage properties that are currently degraded. It is a tool for the international community to hold individual countries accountable for humanity’s collective heritage and contribute to its safeguarding. The next step after an ‘in danger’ listing is for the property to be stripped of its World Heritage status. So far, only three properties have been delisted. The process of a world heritage property being delisted is considered an international embarrassment, especially for Australia, who has been a long-term supporter of the World Heritage Convention and boasts 20 World Heritage sites.
The ‘in danger’ listing is not enough to save the Great Barrier Reef. But it would help mobilise global resources to protect the reef and combat climate change. Such a listing is critical recognition of the long-lasting scars climate change will leave on the world’s heritage for future generations. It could also be a wake-up call for a Federal Government that continues to refuse to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, and who is ranked last in the globe for climate action.
But instead of responsible climate action, collective international action to protect our global heritage – a whirlwind, expensive campaign by the Federal Government has delayed action. Again.
This cynical marketing spin on the ongoing degradation of the Reef is nothing new. But, for young people and guardians of the Great Barrier Reef in particular, this latest episode in how the Government seeks to avoid accountability is painful.
These delays – both in recognising the costs of climate change and acting to reduce emissions – increase the burden on my generation. Every year the Federal Government is preoccupied with misrepresenting emissions data instead of undertaking the important work of emissions reduction, is another black summer or coral bleaching event in twenty years’ time.
When it comes to climate action, times is not on our side. When I am the Federal Environment Minister’s age, and the Federal Government is run by my peers, the Great Barrier Reef will be ‘in danger’ if not delisted. According to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, even if global temperatures stabilise at 1.5°C reefs will be at ‘high risk’ of permanent loss. Globally we are on track for 3-5°C warming by 2100. My generation is being left with the burden to address the climate crisis on the Great Barrier Reef. But by the time we will have the power to act, our Reef will be a murky tomb of white coral.
The actions my generation will have to take conserve Australia’s environment will be shrouded in mourning, touched with the bitter knowledge that the leaders that came before us could have acted. But didn’t.