In a race against time, warming waters and the prospect of ecological collapse, the “godfather of coral”, veteran Australian marine scientist Dr Charlie Veron, is championing a Queensland-based initiative to collect and safeguard species in a world-first “coral ark”.
“If you want to see the Great Barrier Reef forget about going to the Northern Great Barrier Reef because it’s gone,” Veron told the National Climate Emergency Summit in Melbourne yesterday.
“All of this is Russian roulette. The whole reef could be wiped out in one year. That is why we are starting the coral bank.”
Veron was contributing to an expert panel on ecosystems in collapse, alongside ecologist and biologist Professor David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University and climatologist and geophysicist Professor Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Centre at the US Pennsylvania State University.
The trio pulled no punches in their grim assessment of the impacts of the climate emergency on terrestrial and marine species before a capacity audience that was palpably distressed.
“Even if we waved a magic wand now and stopped emissions, the ocean would keep warming for another 20 years,” Veron explained. This is due to a delay in oceans responding to carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Mann added some positive context, noting warming at the ocean’s surface would be capped if and when humanity stopped greenhouse gas emissions.
But, he expanded, the deeper you go, “the more of a lag time there is with the deep ocean, it can be out of equilibrium by hundreds of years”.
“If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels it’s like rearranging deck chairs on the titanic,” said Mann. “This is not going to stop the boat from sinking.”
The inferno of this Australian summer has exposed similarly dire prospects for terrestrial ecosystems, with certain areas that should only be exposed to natural fire every 50 to 100 years now being exposed four times in the past 25 years, Lindenmayer said.
“The Bureau of Metereology had to develop a new colour to add to their map for temperatures above 50 degrees,” Lindenmayer said. “I think about the plant and animals who are integrated with this climate and weather on a daily basis.
“The distribution of things are changing rapidly all over the planet. Tropical fish are invading temperate water in Tasmania and there are widespread tree deaths.”
Moderator Jo Chandler, science journalist and lecturer at the Centre for Advancing Journalism (and editor of The Citizen), asked whether the panellists felt the crisis was such that traditional models of conservation needed give way to a more radical so-called “renewal ecology”, as some ecologists have urged, and to focus on radical interventions and salvage. She cited the example during this summer’s bushfire emergency of the operation to save the last stand of the Wollemi pine.
Lindenmayer responded that before that there was scope for meaningful action, most powerfully by removing “stressors” to the ecosystem to let it recover.
“We need to take intensive logging out of the system, this is what is making our forests more prone to fire.”
In terms of more focused aggressive operations that might salvage particular species, he said mapping exercises should first be undertaken to better understand what interventions can be done to “hold onto things like Wollemi Pine or other iconic species that need saving”.
There was also powerful potential in reforming laws to safeguard species. Australia’s mammal extinction rate was 34 times that of the United states, he said, attributing this to the success of the US Endangered Species Act
Terrestrial ecosystems were also being short-changed by government in terms of the protection they require, he said.
“Australia is only spending one tenth of what is needed to save its terrestrial threatened species. The cost of sorting this out is that of one submarine over a 10 year period.”
Lack of government resources was also an issue taken up by Veron. Initiatives such as the Coral Biobank and the epic Corals of the World website, which Veron and his partner Mary Stafford-Smith have been assembling for over a decade, do not receive government funding and were at risk of stalling without donor support.
Visitors to the corals website have found a pop-up notice on the landing page for the past three years alerting them it was still under development. Originally funded via grants from the US and entrepreneurs, Veron didn’t go looking for more support off shore after the Australian Government announced the now controversially awarded $444 million for the Great Barrier Reef, anticipating that his project would get money from that mechanism. It didn’t.
At the end of his bleak presentation on the state and prospects of the reef, he apologised to the audience. “I usually have jokes during my lectures, but not for this one”. He did, however, raise a laugh by quipping that he would have been happy with just a portion of what had been given away by the Federal Government in the “sports rorts” scandal.
After the end of the presentation, a woman who did not want to be identified, but who described herself as a pensioner, pressed a small wad of $50 notes on Veron and asked him to put it towards his work. He said he would use it to fund a research assistant.