WPC2014: How to spin a reef

Cyclone Larry 2006

2006: Cyclone Larry bears down on the Queensland coast, roaring over the Great Barrier Reef.

Part 1

How we frame environmental issues affects the kinds of solutions we generate. Many of the discussions I heard at the IUCN World Parks Congress (Congress) sought to reorient protected area (PA) management efforts into broader geographic landscapes to engage bordering communities and industries in the process of ecosystem protection. Further re-framing sought to turn the question of whether we are protecting enough space into a question about what we hope to achieve through such protection, and whether the spaces we have selected (and seek to select) for protection will aid in achieving these goals.

There were also discussions on how to integrate ecosystem services, the naturally beneficial services that PAs provide to all life on earth, into our economic models: to re-frame the true costs associated with ecosystem loss and degradation into something economically recognisable and tangible. An example of an ecosystem service benefit is the value of mangroves, both as defenders of human infrastructure on storm-ravaged coastlines, and supporters of fisheries via their function as nurseries for juvenile fish. The economic value of an intact mangrove, when the above features are properly taken into account, can far outweigh the economic value of removing the mangrove to build new houses, resorts, or aquaculture ponds.

A political frame

Amidst the eager pursuit of solutions to the many challenges discussed at the Congress there were some notable instances of political framing of environmental issues, particularly by government representatives from the host nation, Australia. Given that the Congress started during the lead-up to the G20 Leaders' Summit held in Brisbane, it was not surprising to hear politically weighted words. What transpired was an exercise in framing environmental problems to sell solutions that fail to address the primary environmental threat(s). I'm not sure if this should be classified as spin or misdirection (or both), but it was interesting to see it play out in relation to at least two environmental issues, which I'll discuss below.

The first example relates to the old, 'wicked problem' of climate change. Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, addressed the opening plenary session of the World Parks Congress and took the time to highlight the Great Barrier Reef's iconic status, ecological, heritage and economic values, and its exemplary management, despite its deteriorating state and grave outlook. When discussing threats faced by the Great Barrier Reef, Ms Bishop conspicuously could not, or would not, utter the words 'climate change' and instead listed 'storms and cyclones' as the primary cause of damage to the reef. Here we see the political framing at work: by focusing on current damage to the reef (cause by storms) as opposed to its primary threat (principally climate change), Ms Bishop has re-framed the focus away from climate change.

Julie Bishop: ...Unfortunately, the fact remains that we are not in control of the single biggest cause of reef degradation: storms and cyclones are, for better or worse a fact of life in Australia’s tropical north. These natural weather events account for nearly half of all coral loss.

Equally, Australia cannot alone address the ocean warming that causes coral bleaching. Realistic global action to meet this challenge – with every country playing its fair part, particularly the major emitters – will help all countries better preserve the vital natural and cultural heritage... (source)

Her mention of the need for global emitters to play their part to address warming oceans was as close to the 'elephant in the room' as her address dared to stray. Climate change or global warming remained conspicuously vague, which appears political in lieu of the government's attempts to keep climate change off the upcoming G20 agenda. As hosts of the G20, the Australian government had fiercely argued for the forum to focus on jobs and economic growth and had resisted calls from other world leaders to put climate change on the agenda.

Julie Bishop at the WPC2014 opening plenary session

The Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop addresses the Congress during the opening plenary session [13 Nov 2014]

Re-framing the issue: President Obama kicks the frame

Managing the political discourse around climate change took a sudden turn for the worse for the Australian government when, on the eve of the G20 Leaders' Summit, visiting US President Barack Obama uttered the following words to a young crowd at the University of Queensland:

...Here in the Asia Pacific, nobody has more at stake when it comes to thinking about and then acting on climate change.

Here, a climate that increases in temperature will mean more extreme and frequent storms, more flooding, rising seas that submerge Pacific islands. Here in Australia, it means longer droughts, more wildfires. The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened. Worldwide, this past summer was the hottest on record.  No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part... (source)

The Queensland state and Australian Federal governments responded swiftly and with plenty of indignation. Julie Bishop sent a briefing note to the White House to correct Obama's apparent misapprehension of Australia's efforts to protect the reef. She was surprised that, despite outlining "to the US secretary of the interior [Sally Jewell] in considerable detail Australia's commitment and capacity to preserve the Great Barrier Reef," the US President still doubted the reef's future health.

Australian scientists involved in monitoring the reef's health have spoken out against Ms Bishop's assessment and pointed out that the government's own report into the health of the reef warns of its deteriorating state. While the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)  Outlook Report 2014 notes that the "emerging success of some initiatives (such as improving land-based run-off) means some threats may be reduced in the future," its 'Long-term Outlook' chapter opens with the following:

The outlook for the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, along with most other coral reef ecosystems, is at a crossroad, and it is decisions made in the next few years that are likely to determine its long-term future. Unavoidably, future predictions of climate change dominate most aspects of the Great Barrier Reef’s outlook over the next few decades. The extent and persistence of the damage will depend to a large degree on the extent to which climate change is addressed worldwide and on the resilience of the ecosystem in the immediate future...

...Ultimately, if changes to the world’s climate become too severe, no management actions will be able to climate-proof the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.

(GBRMPA, 2014, p.267)

Julie Bishop's presentation sought to frame the problem as one of 'storms and cyclones' that are beyond our control, but even this is disingenuous in light of research indicating that climate change could have an intensifying effect on storms across the globe, and particularly in tropical regions.

Obama's re-framing of the discussion to include climate change exposed the narrowness of the Australian government's agenda. One need only look in the executive summary of the GBRMPA Outlook Report 2014 to see that President Obama's concerns were warranted: "Climate change remains the most serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef" (GBRMPA, 2014, p.7). Perhaps a briefing note to the Foreign Minister's office would correct her misapprehensions.

Spinning the reef

Julie Bishop's presentation of the issues affecting the Great Barrier Reef, and the management responses to those issues, resorts to cherry-picking and misdirection. It is cherry-picking to select actions such as banning the dumping of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Area (GBRMPA) (itself a policy back-flip, but let's not go there right now), or state and local management efforts to stem sediment flows into the GBRMPA--both positive, worthwhile, and laudable actions--while completely ignoring the government's voracious attack on all policies and institutions related to reducing emissions and addressing climate change (which is, you know, the biggest threat to the reef).

Actions to dismantle emissions reduction schemes include: Shutting down the Climate Commission, trying to shut down the Climate Change Authority (CCA), appointing an anthropogenic climate change sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target (RET), scaling back the RET, committing to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), refusal to participate in the Global Climate Fund (GCF), absenteeism or absenteeism of relevant ministers from global climate talks, repealing the carbon pricing mechanism (aka, the "carbon tax"), and implementing a scheme to pay polluters (Emissions Reduction Fund) as part of a heavily criticised 'Direct Action' policy that will not succeed in meeting emissions targets. These are not the actions of a government that is addressing climate change.

Damningly, UNEP has released its Emissions Gap Report 2014, which now predicts that Australia will be one of only four nations to miss its 2020 emissions targets.

Four parties – Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the US – are likely to require further action and/or purchased offsets in order to meet their pledges, according to government and independent estimates. Australia had been on track to meet its pledge in part through its carbon pricing mechanism, but this mechanism was abolished on 1 July 2014.

(UNEP, 2014, p.31)

Failure to act on climate change is failure to protect the reef against its "most serious threat." Julie Bishop has attempted misdirection by shining a light on all the positive investments into the reef's health, as though this mitigates the complete lack of action and, more alarmingly, negative action, undertaken to address the reef's primary threat. This is why I've described it as framing environmental problems to sell solutions that fail to address the primary threat. Furthermore, the Foreign Minister's surprise at President Obama's comments suggests that the government may have bought its own spin and actually believes that addressing threats other than the primary threat constitutes adequate protection of the reef.

Part 2

I would do anything for love the environment
(but I won't do that)

The government's avoidance of serious action on climate change is indicative of the continued prioritisation of the economy over the environment, despite the former being dependent on the latter for its continuity. This attitude is summed up in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's commitment not to pursue any action that could impinge upon the economy, as stated during his most recent visit to Canada.

We should do what we reasonably can to limit emissions and avoid climate change – man-made climate change – but we shouldn't clobber the economy. That's why I've always been against a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme because it harms our economy without necessarily helping the environment... (source)

I note that other Australian environmental policies promoted at the World Parks Congress make a lot of sense when derived from this axiomatic, economy-first position.

Australia's recently appointed Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, was at the Congress to promote the government's new AU$2 million (US$1.7m) suite of programs to address the decline of threatened species across the continent. Much of the media and, indeed, Mr Andrew's own presentation during the opening Parks plenary session, have focussed on the impact of feral cats on our native fauna. A cursory look at the targeted threatened species projects indicates that there is a suite of 10 projects with one project aimed at directly tackling the feral cat issue on Christmas Island and several others addressing feral cats through a more general invasive species controls. Invasive flora and fauna are a massive threat to our native plants and wildlife.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt at the Closing Plenary

Environment Minister Greg Hunt addresses the World Parks Congress during the closing plenary session [19 Nov 2014]

A couple of things about these projects leave me both applauding the initiatives and shaking my head at the same time. I applaud these programs because we need to take serious action to actively manage Australian ecosystems, which are suffering from a legacy of cumulative impacts (including the impact of introduced flora and fauna). Numerous World Parks Congress events emphasised the need for management with purpose, and were critical of protected areas that were effectively locked up and neglected. So I applaud the funding injection into PA management initiatives.

But I shake my head because these proposals also give me reasons for cynicism. Firstly, the World Parks Congress speakers made it clear that addressing protected areas in isolation has failed to account for the impacts that surrounding areas have on PAs. To what extent will these new programs address community and industry impacts that originate beyond National Park borders? And what protection is afforded to threatened species and their habitats if they lie outside the existing protected areas? Threatened habitats of the Leadbeater's Possum and the Regent Honeyeater, both under pressure from land clearing activities, spring to mind.

Secondly, invasive species are one of many threats to our native flora and fauna. Greg Hunt has singled out of feral cats for environmental control, narrowing the scope of environmental action to deal with just one of many invasive species, which is, again, just one of many threats. The government's State of the Environment Report 2011 (SoE 2011) lists the following threats to native flora and fauna:

  • fragmentation of habitat
  • climate change
  • land-use change
  • invasive species and pathogens
  • grazing pressure
  • altered fire regimes
  • changed hydrology

(State of the Environment 2011 Committee, 2011, p.640)

My head-shaking cynicism comes back to the issue of economics. It seems that our present conservation activities are only permissible if they do not "clobber the economy", or even nag the economy a little bit. Addressing the major threats of land clearing (habitat loss), climate change, altered hydrology and so on, requires greater management of human economic activities, which seem to be beyond the Environment Minister's jurisdiction. So I see the Environment Minister as being hemmed in by the wants of industry, mining, development, and growth-at-all-costs idealism and left to work within the existing park boundaries or on anything that has little to no economic impact: to play in the sandboxes while the rest of our government ministers and business leaders get on with the 'real' work. Perhaps that is too uncharitable, but it conforms to the government's play-book of avoiding anything that could "harm the economy."

Even the very positive investment of AU$6 million (US$5.1m) into the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), which I also applaud, fits the 'do not clobber the (Australian) economy' mantra.

Addressing climate change, restricting land-clearing, and other measures to conserve biodiversity cannot be achieved without some degree of economic impact. The impact, however, is not always negative, especially when balanced against the future costs of degraded ecosystems and species extinctions, as well as the positive opportunities to invest in new (clean) technologies and jobs. Indeed, new modelling by the World Bank suggests that climate change can be addressed while maintaining economic growth, which surely removes the ideological impediments to action.

Can modelling, such as the World Bank's, influence policy-makers to abandon their fear that addressing environmental problems necessitates a 'clobbered' economy? I certainly hope so, and maybe this is the silver lining: when the government's last refuge for inaction (the fear of a 'clobbered' economy) is shown to undermine its own agenda (the desire for growth), then perhaps the stars will finally align, the wheels will turn, the pennies will drop, and the winds will change, bringing with them the shift in political will that we require for global action.

So call me an optimistic cynic.


GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). (2014). Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, GBRMPA, Townsville. 327pp. [Available here]

State of the Environment 2011 Committee. (2011). Australia state of the environment 2011. Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Canberra: DSEWPaC. 940pp. [Available here]

UNEP (United Nations Environment Program). (2014). The Emissions Gap Report 2014. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya. 88pp. [Available here]


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