The Australian government said on Tuesday that it would oppose a plan by UNESCO to downgrade the status of the Great Barrier Reef following years of damage caused by climate change.
The UN cultural body wants to lower the World Heritage status of the natural site after warming waters led to the loss of half of its corals since 1995.
Australian Environmental Minister Sussan Ley protested the move stressing that the country had spent billions of dollars on trying to protect the reef.
“I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world’s reefs but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best-managed reef in the world for an ‘in danger’ listing,” she said in a statement.
Warming waters have caused massive damage to the corals that make up the Great Barrier Reef
Australian authorities plan to challenge UNESCO’s decision before the World Heritage Committee meets in China next month, Ley said. She added that it was a “back-flip on previous assurances from UN officials.”
Environmental campaigners said that the new status for the reef brought “shame” on Australia’s government which they accuse of failing to take action to reach zero emissions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pledged to reduce emissions “as soon as possible” without giving any concrete date. The Australian economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuel-powered infrastructure.
“The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change,” said WWF head of oceans Richard Leck.
Ley argued that the decision sent “a poor signal” to countries that are doing even less than Australia to protect their natural environments.
Of the 2 million-odd people who visit the Great Barrier Reef annually, a 2016 survey found that 69 percent were coming to see the UNESCO World Heritage site “before it’s too late.” And no wonder. The IPCC says that even if we manage to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, 99 percent of the world’s coral will be wiped out. Tourists can hasten their demise by touching or polluting reefs.
And what’s the carbon cost of flying to remote natural wonders under threat? A 2010 study found that the business of polar-bear safaris in Churchill, Canada, had an annual CO2 footprint of 20 megatons. Most visitors arrived by plane, and while 88 percent of them said humans were responsible for climate change, only 69 percent agreed that air travel was a contributing cause.
Along with the polar bear, one of the most iconic images of climate change must be the dramatic curves of an iceberg sculpted by the warming atmosphere. Gliding between the melting giants on a cruise ship is a haunting experience that tourists will pay huge sums for. In the early 1990s just 5,000 people visited Antarctica each year, compared to over 46,000 in 2018.
You don’t have to go to the poles to see vanishing ice. Kilimanjaro’s snowy peaks are a striking sight above the equatorial savannah of the national park, which generates €44 million ($50 million) from tourism annually. Many visitors climb to the Furtwängler Glacier — where 85 percent of the ice has vanished over the last century. The rest is unlikely to survive much beyond mid-century.
When Montana’s Glacier National Park opened in 1910, it boasted over 100 of the ice features from which it took its name. Now, there are fewer than two dozen. So dramatic is their retreat, that the park has become a center of climate science research. Some 3 million hikers and holidaymakers also visit the “crown of the continent” each year, soaking in the dying days of its ice-capped glory.
The Maldives are the archetypal tourist paradise: 1,200 coral islands with white beaches rising just 2.5 meters above the turquoise waters. In 2017, the president decided to build new airports and megaresorts to accommodate seven times as many tourists, and use the revenue to build new islands and relocate communities. He has since been voted out of office and faces corruption charges.
It’s not just islands that are going under as sea levels rise. Wetlands like Florida’s Everglades are disappearing too. Over the last century, around half the Everglades have been drained and turned over to agriculture. Now, saltwater is seeping into what’s left, making it the only critically endangered World Heritage site in the United States.
The Galapagos will be forever associated with Darwin, who realized their unique wildlife had evolved over countless generations in isolation. Today, they are besieged by visitors and environmental changes are happening too fast for species to adapt. Ocean warming has left iconic creatures like the marine iguana starving, while UNESCO lists tourism among the greatest threats to the archipelago.
The 2,300 kilometer-long (1,400 mile-long) coral reef is a unique living ecosystem that also draws large numbers of tourists every year.
The value of the natural wonder for the tourism industry is estimated to be $4.8 billion (€4.03 billion) a year in normal times. Thousands of jobs are reliant on the reef.
The Australian government itself downgraded the prospects of the reef’s long-term survival to “very poor” after extreme rising temperatures caused the corals to lose the algae that give them their colorful hues in both 2016 and 2017. These so-called bleaching events have continued in subsequent years.
ab/nm (AFP, Reuters)