Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the impact climate change is having on the Great Barrier Reef

15 June, 2020


I rise in support of this bill. This is retrospective legislation. It will amend the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 to waive the requirement that Great Barrier Reef Marine Park permit holders remit the environmental management charge to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from 1 January 2020 to 31 March 2020. This is very much taking into account the situation that the tourism industry and businesses around the Great Barrier Reef have suffered during this period. The waiving of this charge will relieve pressure on the tourism industry at a very challenging time. It's essential that, when we reopen our borders, we have a vibrant tourism industry to greet international travellers. The industry is essential to the communities in proximity but, of course, is also a major drawcard for our national tourism. Last year there were over 2.1 million visitor days to the marine park, providing extensive economic benefits, to local economies and more broadly. According to Deloitte Access Economics, the Reef supports approximately 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion to the Australian economy annually.

The Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary marvel of nature, unrivalled in its marine biodiversity and extensive geography. It extends over 14 degrees of latitude, or over 348,000 square kilometres, making it the largest living structure on earth. It is home to over 9,000 species of flora and fauna—between a quarter and one-third of all marine species rely on coral reefs at some point in their lives. Just last week we saw incredible drone footage of the 64,000 endangered green turtles swimming off Cape York Peninsula. It's no wonder that tourists come from all over the world to visit.

So whilst the pandemic is an immediate threat to the tourism industry in the GBRMP, especially around the Great Barrier Reef, as our borders are shut, the largest threat to tourism is not from this pandemic but from the longer term heating of the planet. In last year's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park outlook report, the authorities stated:

Gradual sea temperature increase and extremes, such as marine heat waves, are the most immediate threats to the Reef as a whole and pose the highest risk.

We have had successive marine heatwave bleachings in significant areas over the last several years and one only a few weeks ago. Terry Hughes, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, stated on the most recent bleaching: 'We saw record-breaking temperatures all along the length of the Great Barrier Reef. There wasn’t a cool portion in the north, or a cool portion in the south this time around. The whole Barrier Reef was hot, so the bleaching we have seen this year is the most extensive so far.'

This was at just one degree of warming. At 1.5 degrees of warming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that we will lose 80 per cent of our coral reefs, and that at two degrees we will lose 99 per cent. Deloitte Access Economics projected that this would be equivalent to losing at least $56 billion in environmental and heritage value. According to the marine park outlook, surveys indicate that people in the tourism industry are very concerned about the impacts of climate change on their businesses and livelihoods—and I would say that's rightly so.

The reef is the canary in the coalmine for the state of the oceans in general. Oceans cover 70 per cent of the surface of the earth and are essential in regulating the climate. Oceanographer Lisa Beal of the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science states:

The ocean is the flywheel of the climate. It sets the timing of climate change. It can do things like store heat in one place and release it somewhere else 1,000 years later.

The effect of ocean warming won't just result in the loss of coral reefs; it will affect many systems across the planet. For example, scientists have found that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is resulting in a slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation current by making water less saline, which makes it harder to sink and drive the journey of the current southward from Greenland. Now, you might ask, 'What does that do?' This will affect weather patterns in all countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, and even change rainfall patterns at the equator. For example, this will mean colder winters and hotter summers, greater flooding and extreme weather in Europe.

In our own hemisphere, a study released in the Journal of Climate found that increasing ocean temperatures are influencing how impactful and frequent positive Indian Ocean Dipole events are. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Indian Ocean Dipole events are one of the key drivers of Australia's climate. The dipole has three phases: neutral, positive and negative. Positive Indian Ocean Dipole phases are linked to less rainfall and higher-than-normal temperatures across Australia during winter and spring. Climate models suggest that the ocean-warming trend will lead to more frequent Indian Ocean Dipole events, and the associated dry conditions will be more intense compared to the present-day climate. The results of the increase can already be seen in the extreme weather events in south-eastern Australia, like the 'black summer' we've just experienced.

Whilst I support the measures of this bill, we must act collectively on climate change and balance our carbon budget. We cannot allow temperatures to just keep going up. Unfortunately, this government has still not made a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, despite the overwhelming consensus of the business sector and society in general. So I urge the government to do so before the next conference of the parties in Glasgow next year. There is undoubtedly an opportunity for a reset—to put stimulus, energy and the focus of the government towards a smart and clean future. If we don't get there—if we fail to flatten the curve on our emissions and we leave it until too late—we will lose much more than the reef and the tourism industry.