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Why reef interventions are not enough



Latest forecasts from the NOAA indicate that the Great Barrier Reef may narrowly escape what would have been its fourth mass bleaching event in six years. But while this might feel like a chance to pause and enjoy a moment’s relief, it is a mere blip in the trajectory that is inevitable ecological disaster.

Main image: Turning off the emissions tap (Illustration Chris Johnston)

The health of the Great Barrier Reef is now in critical status. And with current efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees far from sufficient, suffice it to say, things are not looking so great for the Great Barrier Reef.

In a desperate effort to save the Great Barrier Reef from such grim predictions, reef managers have thrown their efforts into restoration and adaptation measures — i.e. plan B. For example, the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program is a research and development program which aims to ‘determine the feasibility of intervening at scale on the Great Barrier Reef to help it adapt to, and recover from, the effects of climate change’. From geoengineering cooler waters to developing heat-tolerant corals, it is the most comprehensive reef intervention program in the world.

However, while several feasible and effective reef interventions exist, are they really the best option we have to save the Great Barrier Reef? Restoration efforts are designed to help guide the Reef through the next few decades of locked-in warming but, they will only be effective if we combine them with a serious reduction in global emissions. And I am certain that many, if not all, reef restoration practitioners would agree.


'If reef managers could allocate just a fraction of the attention, funds and resources currently going into restoration efforts towards designing strategies and interventions that target human behaviour, then we may actually have a chance at saving the Reef.'


To illustrate, imagine filling a bathtub (the planet) at a rate much faster than the rate at which the water (greenhouse gas emissions) drains out. Leave the tap running for long enough and the bathtub overflows. You can mop the floor or try to slow the water down, but it will continue to fill until you turn off the tap.

Rather than turning off the tap (i.e. stopping the flow of emissions), reef restoration and adaptation interventions are akin to making the house flood resistant, so that when the bathtub does overflow (and it will), we can at least lessen the damage. In the coral world, this means trying to save the parts of the reef that matter, rather than trying to save the whole thing. But a flood resistant house won’t matter if the water never stops, and restoration won’t matter if emissions continue to rise.  

And yet, while funding and interest in reef restoration soars, we continue to let climate action slip by.

The latest version of the Reef 2050 Plan contained no serious commitment to mitigating climate change, stating that reducing Australia’s emissions was ‘outside the scope of the plan’. Instead it removes itself of responsibility and relies on the Federal Government’s woeful Climate Solutions Package.

While Australia may be a global leader in reef restoration and adaptation, we are a global embarrassment when it comes to climate action. And these two positions do not add up to a healthy reef.

Although perhaps not as dazzling as genetically enhanced corals, interventions that target human behaviour could be the answer to our coral reef crisis.

A recent study revealed that when asked about actions that could help the Great Barrier Reef, less than 5 per cent of Australians mentioned any action related to climate change (e.g. reduce energy use), and a mere 1.6 per cent mentioned any of the following: vote for politicians with strong climate policies, lobby governments to do more about climate change, write to political representatives to express concerns about climate change, and sign petitions such as those that call for an end to fossil fuel use.

These are arguably some of the most impactful actions individuals and communities can take, and yet, many are not connecting these behaviours to the health of the Reef let alone adopting them. Encouraging the wide-spread adoption of these so-called ‘civic behaviours’ could generate the political pressure needed to prompt serious action on climate change.

Behavioural interventions, such as those commonly used to promote health behaviours, have the potential to be hugely effective in motivating climate action for the Great Barrier Reef. Now this is more than your basic science communications or mass environmental campaign — human behaviour is far more complex. This is talking about interventions that are psychologically designed to target specific people and motivate specific behaviours. This could mean anything from communications and marketing-based interventions, to specially designed online platforms, to professionally guided nature experiences and outdoor education — pathways specifically designed to help people realise their potential as political agents and social change-makers in the fight against climate change.

Although ecological intervention has its role to play, rolling out theory-based and evidence-driven behavioural interventions, on local and national scales, could drive the climate action that we desperately need. If reef managers could allocate just a fraction of the attention, funds and resources currently going into restoration efforts towards designing strategies and interventions that target human behaviour, then we may actually have a chance at saving the Reef.

In his article Marine Biology on a Violated Planet: From Science to Conscience, Dr Giovanni Bearzi argues that given the current climate emergency, marine scientists must ‘cross the imaginary line that separates science from science-based activism’. For managers and custodians of the Great Barrier Reef, the time to cross that line is now.


Yolanda WatersYolanda Waters is an environmental social scientist and PhD Candidate at the Institute for Future Environments, Australia. Her research looks at how to engage the public with climate change to protect the Great Barrier Reef. She is also a dive instructor, coral enthusiast and keen ocean advocate.

Main image: Turning off the emissions tap (Illustration Chris Johnston)

Topic tags: Yolanda Waters, Great Barrier Reef, interventions, global warming, climate change, global emissions



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Existing comments

No mention of China! Australia is doing its bit to mitigate climate change. Mentioning the elephant in the room might make this contribution more useful.

Tony | 07 April 2021  

Tony—China has about 54 times the population of Australia. Of course they emit more. We should look at emissions per person, and by all accounts, few nations are currently "doing their bit" to mitigate climate change.

Sierra | 19 May 2021  

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