The Great Barrier Failure: Insufficient Domestic Policies, and Shortcomings of the International Political System

Located off of Australia’s Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef extends for over 2,000 kilometres and comprises of over 3,400 individual reefs, making it the largest stretch of coral reef in the world. At between 6,000 and 8,000 years old, the reef’s current polyp structure vastly predates the catastrophic threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. Evidence suggests that it began its formation during the time of the last glacial maximum, building around a structure of over 500,000 years old. The ecosystems of the area are home to tens of thousands of unique and vibrant species of flora and fauna, dating back millions of years. Many of these life forms have evolved little over that time, so successfully well-adapted were they. This particular profound expression of biodiversity cannot be found anywhere else on earth, and is of tremendous value, both to those native and indigenous to the area, as well as people around the world — not to mention the value it holds to the plethora of species for whom the reef is their natural habitat. Under pressure to protect the reef, in 1975 the Australian government passed legislation regulating its public and private use. Though it was in some ways successful, it also failed in many important regards, leaving the reef susceptible to a variety of environmental stressors. This has been helped in no way by a profound lack of accountability on the part of the international community. Holistic and comprehensive policies are required at all levels of government and institution for the purpose of ensuring the long-term health and sustainability of the bastion of ecological and biological diversity that we call the Great Barrier Reef.

Concerted efforts to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity of the reef date back to the middle of the 20th century. At the time, areas of the reef were slated for limestone mining due to its application as a cheap fertilizer. In addition, the then-premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was determined to open the entire reef up for oil drilling via an extensive mining scheme to exploit the resource for its monetary value. By 1969, the government of Queensland had granted an oil-drilling permit allowing exploration of the entire reef. Grassroots activists had been active since the early 60s, voicing their concerns over the potential harm that human activity could have on the reef and its ecosystems. It was following the 1969 actions of the Queensland government that the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (a leading environmental protection NGO) launched their ‘Save the Barrier Reef’ campaign. They utilized grassroots activism techniques such as distributing bumper stickers and conducting public opinion polls to raise public awareness, and increase public pressure on both the Queensland and the Australian governments. They also partnered with other organizations to further inform the public of the potential risks associated with the proposed drilling and mining practices. Their extensive actions garnered substantial support, and resulted in both the Queensland and the Australian governments passing measures to prohibit petroleum drilling. This was followed by perhaps the most important piece of legislation in the fight to protect the reef: the 1975 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

The 1975 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was the first of its kind. Written and passed by the federal legislative assembly in coordination with environmental experts, it was a comprehensive legal framework, establishing the marine protected area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP), and delineating its borders. The objectives as outlined were to “protect and conserve the biodiversity of the Marine Park, including ecosystems, habitats, populations and genes,” as well as to “regulate the use of the Marine Park” so as to ensure its “ecologically sustainable use.” To do so, the act also created the GBRMP Authority — an enforcement body, funded by the federal government, tasked with monitoring and managing all activity within the park. This was to be accomplished via zoning plans, with the objectives outlined being the guiding principles for all activity undertaken within the park. The Authority was also tasked with making recommendations to the appropriate governmental bodies so further policy action could be taken if required, once again focusing on what the act referred to as “ecologically sustainable use.” The act itself prohibited all mining and geological storage operations, as well as fishing, construction, waste dumping, and operating a vessel causing harm to the reef, unless otherwise authorized by the Authority. These sweeping protections incurred swift and severe legal penalties if transgressed, intentionally or otherwise, and remain in effect to this day.

The GBRMP Act was, and continues to be, a crucial tool in the fight to protect the reef and its ecosystems from many of the explicit dangers posed by human activity. Unfortunately, however, there exist a multitude of shortcomings in policy, both local and global, that have left the environment of the area severely devastated, and at serious risk of ecosystems collapse. At the local level, the Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS), Townsville, found that “[unregulated] runoff of soils, fertilizers, and pesticides from agricultural and coastal development has significantly affected inshore coral reefs.” This has been significantly exacerbated by the substantial loss of coastal wetland floodplains as a result of infrastructure development, which is no way prohibited by environmental protection laws. Also of concern are agriculture in catchment areas, sewage and stormwater discharges from marine outfalls, and waste and ballast water discharges from ships, all of which still occur legally. These create conditions of poor water quality, which directly supports invasive species such as the Crown-Of-Thorns-Starfish (COTS) that compete with the coral for resources. Another less acute but no less troubling source of harm to the reef comes from the fishing practices that still take place in and around some of the most vulnerable of areas. As outlined in the act, the GBRMP Authority has as one of its primary objectives the promotion of the “ecologically sustainable use” of the park. One might think that this emphasizes environmental stewardship and sustainability, however hidden within its text, the act defines “ecologically sustainable use” as, among other things, “recreational, economic, and cultural activities.” This policy is consistent with the principle of the compromise of liberal environmentalism as described by Steven Bernstein, which states that environmental protection must be consistent with the economic goals of the region in question. It however has proven very harmful, as the Authority allows regulated fishing in over 65% of the reef’s area, and remains “intense near the coast and urban centres.”

Domestic policy shortcomings aside, global climate change has had even more drastic effects on the health of the Great Barrier Reef and its ecosystems. Between 1985 and 2012, the AIMS observed a decline in initial coral cover from 28.0% to 13.8% — a 50.7% loss. A main contributor to the decline was coral bleaching, resulting from increased temperatures and high solar radiation associated with global warming. Coral bleaching is the number one cause of loss to the earth’s coral reefs, as well as the largest threat for future loss. Not only are major coral bleaching events predicted to become more frequent, but the resilience and recovery capacity of the reef is predicted to substantially weaken over time. Along with higher temperatures, global ocean acidification due to anthropogenic climate change is also a major contributor to damage to the area. Ocean acidification significantly alters carbonate chemistry, and has caused substantial decreases in aragonite concentration, with future decline likely to be even steeper than has already been observed. Tropical cyclones also seriously threaten coral systems loss. According to Knutson et al., “future projections based on theory and high-resolution dynamical models consistently indicate that greenhouse warming will cause the globally averaged intensity of tropical cyclones to shift towards stronger storms.” These harsher storms will only serve to exacerbate the damage experienced by the reef and its ecosystems. 

This begs the question, however, of who or what is to blame. The domestic policy failings of the Queensland and Australian governments, while significant, were not responsible for the alarming increases in global temperature, nor were they directly responsible for the widespread threat of ocean acidification. Likewise, it could not be argued that the damage caused by rampant tropical cyclones was somehow due to a failure of the government to regulate them. These effects can, however, be attributed to failings on the part of the international system, and its contingency on the principle of national sovereignty. This principle discourages states’ focus on environmental externalities that threaten the international community, and rather focuses efforts on addressing “discrete problems” within a state’s sovereign territory. It also suppresses those living in ecologically threatened areas, namely the poor and historically disenfranchised communities, due to their “lack the ability to forcefully present their positions at international negotiations on sustainable development and environmental protection.” With environmental protection still emphasized in both the developed and the developing worlds as being secondary to economic growth and development, countries have refused to step up. Nations refuse to prioritize measures to keep global temperature changes under 2.0 °C, and in many jurisdictions, climate protections are being reversed by politicians, having co-opted the issue of climate change for political gain. This despite the widely available information gathered and shared by the epistemic community of climate scientists, as well as the assertive recommendations of international governing bodies such as the UNFCCC.

Holistic and comprehensive policies are required to adequately address the complexities of the profound biodiversity of the world’s ecosystems. Political scientists Lebel et al. propose three principles by which governance and policy implementation can do so for the purpose of enhancing the capacity to manage resilience. The first of these is the notion that “participation builds trust, and deliberation leads to the shared understanding needed to mobilize and self-organize.” This has been a specific source of international policy failure, in that the current international paradigm largely disenfranchises the needs and perspectives of those in the most vulnerable of communities because it is not politically salient to do otherwise. The second principle is the notion that “polycentric and multilayered institutions improve the fit between knowledge, action, and social-ecological contexts in ways that allow societies to respond more adaptively at appropriate levels.” These institutions notably include the transnational NGOs who, in the vacuum of states’ refusal to adequately partake in the commitment to environmental stewardship, derive “pragmatic, moral, and cognitive legitimacy” from their success in influencing government action and public policy. The third principle is the notion that “accountable authorities that also pursue just distributions of benefits and involuntary risks enhance the adaptive capacity of vulnerable groups and society as a whole.” As it stands, it is undeniable that those most affected by climate changes are not those who see the benefits of the environment’s exploitation; the imbalance is profound. These principles, when applied together, can serve as a strong foundation for environmental policy implementation moving forward. Swift action in the international community is required to combat the adverse effects of global temperature increase, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction due to increasingly violent weather patterns. It is guided by these principles that ultimately the Great Barrier Reef has the best chance to not only survive, but to once again thrive as a remarkable, distinctive, and unique example of the beauty of our world.


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