What’s the Issue?
In this inaugural post of ‘What’s the Issue?’ where I discuss current issues on climate change and social justice, I’m going to talk about Australia’s iconic, but threatened Great Barrier Reef.
UNESCO along with other UN bodies and international experts have urged Australia for some time to take “accelerated action at all possible levels” on climate change. In June, UNESCO issued a scientific report to recommend that the Reef be placed on the ‘in danger’ list at the World Heritage Committee meeting this month, which was imminently rejected after some heavy lobbying by the Morrison government, and backed by some of its oil-rich allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – clearly a conflict of interest.
This is not the first time the Reef was recommended to be listed as in danger. In 2014 a recommendation was successfully lobbied by the Abbott government which would have stopped development policies including the dumping of capital dredge spoil in the protected area and limiting agricultural runoff on to the Reef.
Back in 2015 the IUCN brought climate change to the attention of the World Heritage Committee as a major threat affecting both natural and cultural World Heritage sites. If the committee followed the recent recommendation, it would be the first time a natural world heritage site has been placed on the “in danger” list in Australia (a recommendation to include Kakadu on that list was rejected in 2014) – but not the first in the world.
Natural World Heritage sites are areas of natural value recognised as the world’s most important protected areas, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, governed by the World Heritage Committee (comprised of 21 countries), and guided by the World Heritage Convention. Australia is a member of the Committee, but it was also one of the first countries to ratify the Convention in 1974, bringing it into force. Australia has 20 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List – 12 natural, 4 cultural and 4 both natural and cultural.
Natural sites are listed as World Heritage for their “unique natural values, such as the scale of natural habitats, intactness of ecological processes, viability of populations of rare species, as well as exceptional natural beauty.” The Great Barrier Reef was included on the list for its outstanding universal value and characteristics such as its size, globally significant diversity, geological evolution and superlative natural beauty (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154).
The health of the Great Barrier Reef, though, is under threat by impacts of climate change, development projects, and tourism. It is climate change, however, that has become the main issue for listing it as ‘in danger’. According to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook, climate change impacts can already be seen in 35 of 228 World Natural Heritage sites.
Climate change has known effects on the marine environment because of sea temperatures and levels, ocean acidity and currents, marine weather events including tropical cyclones, and geological pressures. So, climate change is seen as the greatest threat to the Reef, being held responsible for the cumulative effects of the mass coral bleaching events in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020. Coral bleaching is one of the first visible signs that the system is under threat, caused by rising ocean temperatures.
But, the World Heritage Committee on Friday ignored the scientific assessment recommending the listing due to government’s lobbying efforts. So, what is the Morrison’s government’s argument?
The government argue that State party must request or consent to inclusion on the ‘in danger’ list, and neither was given – that is Australia did neither ask for its inclusion nor agree to the listing, and as such this does not respect Australia’s State sovereignty as a party to the World Heritage Convention.
The criteria to be listed as being ‘in danger’ include if there is an ‘ascertained’ (specific, proven or imminent threat) or ‘potential’ (“have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics”) threat to its values. The Convention, however, is guided by the 1992 operational guidelines which state that a site may be listed as ‘in danger’ if: there are clearly ascertained and substantial threats to the values of the World Heritage area; and either an apparent inability of the State Party to manage the threats and remedy the problem. The Australian government’s inaction on climate change to the demise of the Reef is the link here. The ecological state of the Reef arguably demonstrates that it’s both – as well as an inability to manage threats and remedy the situation.
The decision is arguably political, not environmental as it would confer new obligations on the Australian government to take immediate and effective action on climate change to avoid any further damage to the Reef – action that is clearly not on the Morrison government’s agenda.
It would no doubt have implications for international environmental law, but the extent of those implications is unclear. This reminds me of my first day studying international law, when the professor asked “does international law even exist?” A pertinent question when ‘binding treaties’ are not enforceable by law or have loopholes by which states can escape via the excuse of State Sovereignty.
By singling out the Australian government as failing in its job as guardian of the protected area, the World Heritage Committee, along with United Nations human rights treaty bodies, the United Nations Environment Program and independent experts it is sending a message, holding governments responsible for the destruction of natural world heritage sites because of inaction on climate change.
Yet, this message, (which could be seen as precedence if we had enforceable global environmental legal mechanisms) without an international environmental court upholding the Rights of Nature lacks teeth. Even my 7-year-old son, with no formal knowledge of the international system can see the need for an International Environmental Court. When overhearing news on the car radio about the Australian government’s climate inaction the other day he said to me, “when I grow up, I’m going to make a world court for the environment, so that whichever country hurts nature, has to go to court and get in trouble!”
The Great Barrier Reef cannot, however, wait for him and the next generation of climate guardians to grow up. It’s time for or world leaders to grow up, face the scientific facts, take responsibility, but most importantly take immediate, urgent and radical action now to ensure that these places of natural value will still be around for the following generations.