The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying While The Government Continues To Invest In Coal

Coral bleaching in the Whitsundays. Image via the Australian Marine Conservation Society

The intense heatwave that ravaged eastern and central Australia last week wasn't just bad for our comfort and electricity bills -- it's also a death sentence for the already beleaguered Great Barrier Reef. The heatwave is expected to cause unusually high ocean temperatures on the reef, while newly bleached corals have been discovered off Townsville.

The next four weeks will present the highest risk for parts of the Great Barrier Reef, with huge areas being put on Alert Level 1 -- meaning coral bleaching is likely to occur -- and smaller sections receiving Alert Level 2, which indicates a high risk of mortality. In other words: once that part of the reef dies, it ain't coming back, and at this point there's nothing we can do but sit and watch it burn.

Alert levels for the Far Northern Reef, courtesy NOAA's Coral Reef Watch

"Last year we witnessed the worst bleaching event on record for our Reef," said the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Imogen Zethoven. "Tragically between 50 and 85 per cent of corals perished between Cape York and Lizard Island. Over the entire Reef, 22 per cent of corals are dead." That's 22 per cent of the largest living thing on Earth, and the only living thing that's visible from space.

The most alarming thing about all this is that the Government seems singularly unworried about the threat of climate change, stubbornly insisting on investing even more money in coal. While nothing can be done about the bleaching events likely to happen over the next four weeks, huge coral die-offs like last year's mass bleaching could soon occur every second or third year if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

If things continue on that track, the Reef could be completely dead within 20 years. Thank god for VR, right?

Coral bleaching near Townsville. Image via the Australian Marine Conservation Society

This comes at a time when Australia's climate change policies are weaker and more uncertain than they've ever been, with fairly conservative emissions targets which we're currently not even likely to meet.

Yet even while Australia's east coast sweltered and its reefs suffocated, our politicians were brandishing lumps of coal in the House of Representatives, bragging that they're not 'afraid' of it.

Plans to lend $1 billion in taxpayer's dollars to India-based multinational Adani continue to roll out, forshadowing the construction of the huge Charmichael coal mine and accompanying rail line -- right next to that currently-very-fragile Great Barrier Reef. The open cut mine is intended to continue pulling coal from the ground for another 60 years.

The very latest in horrifically unsurprising developments came earlier this week, when the federal government announced its intention to use money from the taxpayer-funded Clean Energy Finance Corporation to build -- guess what -- new coal-fired power plants. But don't worry, it's "clean coal" -- which more or less doesn't exist.

Thankfully the CEFC has already invested millions in wind and solar, but energy minister Josh Fryndenberg was at pains to point out that it was the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, not the Renewable Energy Finance Corporation. Interestingly, the Act that governs the CEFC fund expressly forbids investment in carbon capture and storage -- one of the main technologies that supposedly makes coal 'clean' by pumping CO2 emissions straight back into the ground. The government is eager to overturn that restriction, however.

Greens energy spokesman Adam Bandt pointed out how insane the plans were, saying: "Subsidising coal through the green energy bank is like subsidising asbestos through the health budget."

While this year is set to bring more investment in renewables such as large scale solar installations, it's still not enough. The reef will continue to die off in huge swathes while the federal government remains so strongly invested in coal.

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