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Australia's Plan to Save The Great Barrier Reef Is a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

CARLY CASSELLA
1 AUG 2018

The Australian government has openly admitted that the Great Barrier Reef is on the brink of collapse. But that doesn't mean they are going to do anything about it.

While the federal government's "Reef 2050 Plan" acknowledges that climate change poses a deadly threat to the largest reef in the world, the key targets of the plan do absolutely nothing to curb the nation's steadily climbing greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Instead, the plan is composed solely of Band-Aid solutions. And that includes the government's recent pledge to spend nearly half a billion Australian dollars on the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

On the surface, the news appears exciting. At $443 million, it is an astounding sum of money and the single largest investment the reef has ever seen. But none of that matters when it's used incorrectly.

Thanks to the work of a Senate inquiry, it has come to light that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull personally approved $443 million of public funding to a tiny, private organization called the Great Barrier Reef Foundation - a charity with no more than six full-time employees and strong ties to the fossil fuel industry.

The Senate inquiry was set up to figure out why such a small foundation was given such a large sum of money without transparency or due diligence. And so far, the findings have been damning.

At the very first hearing, it was disclosed that the founders of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation include the late Sir Ian McFarlane, a Queensland shale oil developer, and John Reid, the head of Australia's biggest asbestos producer.

 

Even more telling, the "chairman's council" includes executives from heavy polluters like AGL, BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy - with each member on the council paying $20,000 to the organization in annual fees.

Peabody Energy is of particular interest here, as this company has reportedly funded several US climate denial groups and applauded President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

The managing director of the organization and apparently one of the only directors who could make time for the inquiry, Anna Marsden, said the charity would "always do what the reef needs us to do." She insisted that the partners would have zero say in how the money is spent.

Besides, she assured those in attendance, Peabody shares the organization's "commitment to moving forward and transitioning away from fossil fuels and ensuring we can build the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef."

None of this is very assuring when the current chair of the foundation, John Schubert, used to be an oil executive.

If Schubert has nothing to hide and is truly willing to cooperate with the inquiry, he's not doing a very good job of showing it. The chairman has declined to testify in front of the Senate inquiry on no less than four different dates, despite the fact that he was one of the only people in attendance at the meeting with Turnbull.

In fact, apart from Turnbull and the Environment Minister, Marsden says there were no other public servants in attendance at the meeting.

Environmentalists are worried that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is more interested in making room for industry than it is in saving the reef. It's not a bad hunch, especially when the foundation was originally set up to "create a charity to bring science and business together with a common purpose of protecting the Great Barrier Reef."

When these two objectives are fundamentally at odds, it makes sense why the Greens party oceans spokesperson Peter Whish-Wilson is worried that the foundation's industry interests will overrule its conservation goals.

 

"How much of it is going to be used to promote the companies and essentially greenwash some of these businesses that are key polluters?" he asked at the hearing.

The truth is, even if all that money was sent to a different charity or organization or agency, it would still not be enough. The Turnbull government wants to use that money for initiatives like reducing water pollution from agriculture, fighting coral-killing starfish, reef monitoring, and climate adaptation research.

While all of these steps are important, experts and environmentalists largely agree that they will not be enough to save the reef.

During the Senate inquiry hearing, Australian Conservation Foundation economist Matt Rose said any government serious about saving the reef "would also tackle the major drivers of the deterioration of the health of the reef, namely climate change and land clearing in reef catchments."

The science is clear. The best way to save our reefs is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But even though Turnbull is not a climate denier, he isn't doing much about the problem... at all.

In 2015, Turnbull replaced climate denier and coal industry ally Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister. From a climate change perspective, this seemed like a welcome change.

 

Unlike Abbott, Turnbull does not believe that climate science is "absolute crap" or "probably doing good," and the Prime Minister has repeatedly vocalized his support for carbon pricing and climate action throughout his political career.

In a 2009 blog post, Turnbull wrote:

It is not possible to criticise the new Coalition policy on climate change because it does not exist. Mr Abbott apparently knows what he is against, but not what he is for.

Second, as we are being blunt, the fact is that Tony and the people who put him in his job do not want to do anything about climate change. They do not believe in human caused global warming.

Three years later, and these words could just as easily be applied to Turnbull's own government.

Today, the Liberal party continues to support the controversial Adani coal mine, which would have a deleterious effect on the reef, and Turnbull's national energy guarantee scheme has not met the ambitious emission cuts that scientists say we so desperately need.

Clearly, the protection of the reef is not a priority. Just last month, it was reported that half a million hectares of forest were bulldozed in the Great Barrier Reef catchment over the past four years.

The Labour party's environment spokesman, Tony Burke, said this should never have been permitted.

"The Liberal party seems to think that they can turn a blind eye to the destruction of the environment and runoff into the Great Barrier Reef and then throw money to private organisations and pretend that the vandalism never occurred," Burke said.

While the Turnbull government remains in power, the reef doesn't stand much of a chance at all.

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