Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

LEARN | Environmental Risk?

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been challenged by a panel discussion about the impact of climate change on the Torres Strait Islands presented by a new social enterprise The Goodness Inc, and two seminars about the Great Barrier Reef presented by the Institute for Future Environments. These conversations highlight Australia’s – Queensland’s – specific social, cultural and territorial vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and provided opportunities to hear from diverse authorities.

The Goodness Inc has instigated an online petition urging the Prime Minister to fund the sea walls promised by the former government, as these are now in doubt. They note communities in the Torres Strait are severely affected by inundation from king tides and cyclonic weather. Flooding of homes, schools, roads and other major infrastructure are a common occurrence in low lying islands of Boigu and Saibai, and the central coral cay islands of Iama, Warraber, Masig and Poruma. With the cyclone season imminent, there is some urgency about making a tangible commit to the security of the Islands and its people. More information about the Torres Strait is available online at http://torresstraitclimate.org/.

The forum commenced with the screening of ‘Dire Straits’, a photo documentary of Saibai Elder Mebai Warusam, produced by photo-journalist Zoe Reynolds during her visit to the islands early this year. A panel discussion involved Senior Elder from Erub/Darnley Island Thomas Sebasio, descendant of Saibai Island and Cultural Advocate Nancy Bamaga and Queensland correspondent for SBS News Stefan Armbruster.

Thomas Sebasio believed the issue was not being treated as one of high priority despite the threat to lives, place and culture. He said Torres Strait Islanders across the country should ‘speak in one voice’ to advocate for the future of the islands. Nancy Bamaga stressed the importance of strengthening the Torres Strait Islander culture to mobilise support and to protect the islands from erosion, flooding, sea level rise and other climate change impacts. As one of the few journalists actively covering climate change impacts in the region, Stefan Armbruster said there was a need to reframe the issue as a matter of national security and warned that the promised funding for the response was disappearing. All speakers highlighted the archaeological and anthropological richness that would be lost and the cultural risk if the Islands were inundated and lost.

In the first of two seminars presented by the Institute for Future Environments, Professor Terry Hughes of the Coral Cooperative Research Centre and James Cook University addressed Ecosystem Resilience. He outlined the drivers of ecosystem change which were significantly attributable to human activity. This included human population growth and migration, wealth distribution and evolving markets and changing land use, pollution and natural resource use. He said that anthropogenic climate change was both impacting and impacted by ecosystem change. Importantly, given the scale of these drivers at the regional and planetary levels, there was a need to unprecedented cooperation. In outlining the concept of ‘planetary boundary’, he stressed the need to define a safe operating space for human development, which was not about limiting growth but managing growth within safe limits.

From the perspective of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) resilience, Hughes listed a range of issues that were having a significant impact on the reef including climate change (warming and acidification), runoff, dredging, shipping and overharvesting. The zoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) has addressed some aspects of this. However, he stressed that prevention is better than cure in promoting resilience as it was virtually impossible to restore coral reefs. He cautioned that there is a need to act quickly as there is a 20 year window of opportunity to deal with major issues and drivers. Hughes also went as far as saying that there was a need to make a decision between coal and GBR.

While the issues about GBR are complex, Hughes’ talk outlined the breadth of ecosystem interrelationships, noting that agricultural, mining and settlement practices and activities over a wide part of Queensland are directly impacting on the reef. The health of catchments and adjacent marine systems also impact on the health of the reef. Major storm and flood events were also part of this picture. Hughes also stressed that the coal industry is doomed with finance more difficult to obtain for fossil fuel projects due to high risk. He described the present ‘boom’ as a rush to extract fossil fuels before finance dries up.

He described the GBRMP as a visionary initiative that worked for a long time, but was now under threat due to the acceleration of drivers of change. This was presenting us – as a state and a nation – with a stewardship challenge which required matching the scale of drivers and problems with positive action and governance. This resonates with Richard Slaughter’s recent lecture in which he considered whether the human system (values and culture) or the ecological system (adaptivity and resilience) will tip first in negotiating climate change and the future. However, recent policy work in relation to GBR and resources claims to have addressed GBR impacts.

Often when we participate in or attend such discussions, a governance challenge is presented. This makes it clear that on matters of sustainability and equity, current arrangements are failing yet stubbornly persist. There is a question here for all of us about how we design and interact with governance systems. Hughes recounted that the GBRMP was introduced because there was a swell of public opinion and concern about it – citizens demanded that action be taken to protect the GBR. He put the challenge again to the audience at the seminar, asking How much fuss will Australian make?

Hughes also presented at a subsequent seminar, Securing of the Future of the Great Barrier Reef. He spoke of research into the consquences of losing large fish species from the coral reefs and outlined the results of studies. These studies demonstrated the need to protect large species and biodiversity as this ensures ongoing health of the reef as well as higher fish stocks. It was particularly important to recognise the economic value of goods and ecosystem services which should not be taken for granted.

The Queensland Museum’s Dr John Hooper spoke about biodiversity and the potential of bioactive compounds. He stressed the need to regard the GBR as a major resource for researchers, noting that 50% of pharmaceutical products were developed from naturally occurring sources. Consequently pharmaceutical, health and medical industries are beneficiaries of more stringent and careful management of the GBRMP. Research and preservation of the GBR is essential for diverse industries including tourism and health.

QUT Professor Kerrie Mengersen spoke about the importance of data. As a statistician, she outlined the improved technologies and approaches for data collection and analysis. The ability to obtain better data was providing a better picture of the health and resilience of the GBR. Like Hughes, her parting message was ‘it’s not too late’.

New technologies and robots were enabling the collection of better data and QUT Professor Peter Corke provided an overview of some of the technologies currently in use to support research endeavours. Such technology was enabling more precision in mapping and recording including the production of 3D models and simulations.

These seminars reinforced the value of open exchanges between scientists and the community to ensure that there was wider understanding of issues that are affecting us all. Subtropical waters were warming at a faster rate than other marine environments with subtropical fish found in Sydney Harbour for the first in thousands of years. Port expansion which required dredging and nutrient run off (fertilisers) were also impacting on the reef – and, for that matter, Moreton Bay. Recent policy work in relation to ports claims to have addressed GBR impacts.

A footnote was also included about new research published in Nature in which Australian marine scientists found the first evidence that coral may play an important role in regulating local climate by influencing cloud formation.

What’s missing, sometimes, is a socio-cultural outlook. The perspective put forward in the Torres Strait panel was an integrated one, woven from traditional knowledge and partnerships with scientific bodies and media. In part, Hughes recognised the importance of cultural values when he spoke of how public opinion forced the issue of GBR conservation. The governance challenge too has cultural dimensions. However, Corke pressed the point arguing that the human part of the system needed to be considered. Socio-ecological responses were vital for preserving marine (and other environments). There was a need to consider the interaction between communities and the reef and, like Hughes, Corke noted that the reef provides diverse services which can be taken for granted. In particular, in the contexts of both the Torres Strait and the GBR, it is important to consider how people value their environments and how their lives, wellbeing and communities are intrinsically linked to their protection.


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