The world's biggest coral reef ecosystem is experiencing "severe" bleaching as a result of climate change, environmental groups and Australian government officials are warning.
According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, recent underwater surveys have detected "substantial levels of coral mortality" in remote far north areas of the reef, due in part to higher-than-average sea surface temperatures. The Authority on Sunday raised its bleaching threat level to three—the highest level in its response plan, indicating "severe regional bleaching."
"Scientists are clear—we can have coal or the reef."
—Larissa Waters, Queensland Greens senator
And on Monday, World Wildlife Fund-Australia released underwater images taken of bleached corals around Lizard Island, showing "large sections of coral drained of all color and fighting for survival," as a spokesperson put it.
"As the IPCC has stated, coral bleaching is the most widespread and conspicuous impact of climate change," said the WWF's Richard Leck. "We can turn this around. The Reef can recover but we must speed up the shift to clean, renewable energy and we must build reef resilience by reducing runoff pollution from farms and land clearing."
Added Greenpeace Australia Pacific's Shani Tager on Monday, "The pictures we're seeing coming out of the northern Great Barrier Reef are devastating. The Queensland and federal governments must see this as a red alert and act accordingly."
But in fact, Australian environment minister Greg Hunt was criticized Sunday for "sidestepping" the central role of climate change and heat stress as the cause of the bleaching, the Guardian reported.
Instead, he highlighted the role of El Niño and omitted any mention of fossil fuels, leading the chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Kelly O’Shanassy, to say Hunt "appears to be confused about the cause of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef."
"This is a phenomenon that is firmly a result of climate change, fueled by burning coal," she said.
And Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters told the paper that both the commonwealth and her state government were complicit in allowing the reef to be "used as a highway for coal and gas."
"Scientists are clear," she said. "We can have coal or the reef."
In a statement debunking the El Niño "red herring," Australia's independent Climate Council echoed that charge, flatly declaring that coral bleaching "would not occur without the influence of climate change." The burning of coal is directly linked to the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef, added the organization's chief councilor, Tim Flannery.
"The emissions of greenhouse gases through the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for electricity is driving the rising surface temperatures and ocean acidity that pose the most serious threat to the survival of the reef," Flannery said. "If we continue to burn fossil fuels and warm the climate, we are likely to lose most corals worldwide in as little as 30 to 40 years. To prevent this tragedy, most of the world's fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground."
Greenpeace's Tager was even more straightforward, citing a pending government decision on whether to approve the controversial Carmichael coal mine. "The Queensland Government must stop acting in the interests of the coal industry and refuse the mining lease," she said. "The mining and burning of coal is driving climate change, warming our waters and bleaching the life and color out of our Reef."
"The Reef is of the world’s greatest natural wonders, it’s beloved by Australians and people around the world, and is home for thousands of species," Tager declared. "This is the highest warning possible for the Reef and it must be the line in the sand. Our Government’s addiction to the coal industry must be broken."