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All that is old is new again. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a diverse crew of determined Australians fought with the utmost tenacity to save the Great Barrier Reef from the might of the fossil fuel industry. Vast tracts of the Reef were pegged for exploratory drilling by the oil industry and the rigs were on their way. Government seemed to be backing the drillers or weakly dissembling. Australian poet Judith Wright, then among the most dedicated and high profile defenders of the Reef, reflected in the midst of the campaign that all appeared lost: “We were despondent; all our efforts seemed to be coming to nothing.”

Yet just a few years later, the dawn broke. In 1975 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established and an unprecedented level of legal protection was provided to the whole wondrous ecosystem—”the closest most people will come to Eden”—as Wright called it. The triumph seemed almost unbelievable. A rag-tag democratic coalition of Australians had somehow managed to defeat the combined might of the global oil industry and their political lackeys within government. An extraordinary and unlikely victory had been won through the power and determination of the Australian people, organised and tenacious. As Wright would observe before she died, “The story of the rescue of the Great Barrier Reef still throws a light on the present and gives hope for the future.” In these circumstances it is wise to think about the first great struggle between the Australian people and the fossil fuel industry over the future of the Great Barrier Reef, even as we find ourselves amid the uproar of the second.

Undoubtedly, these are tough days for the Reef and for the millions of people who profoundly love the 2900 individual reefs and 900 islands, stretching for around 2300 kilometres, inhabited by countless magnificent and remarkable creatures. It is hard not to view the events of the last 12 months with profound melancholy. Scientists have been warning for decades that global warming could lead to ruin of the Reef through rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and an increase in the number of extreme weather events. Shocking to witness and unprecedented in scale, the Great Bleaching of the Reef that occurred in the summer of 2015-16 was definitely no surprise.

Much of coral’s incredible colour comes from minuscule marine algae known as zooxanthellae which live symbiotically within the polyps and are the source of most of the nutrition that coral relies on to thrive. When ocean temperatures rise, the coral polyps react to the changing conditions by expelling the zooxanthellae, leading to bleaching. In severe and protracted bleaching events, the coral will die. As last summer began and our thoughts turned to beaches, books and end of year breaks, the surface temperature in the Coral Sea reached record levels. Around 93 percent of the Reef was impacted by the mass bleaching event that followed. In June of this year, authorities announced that 22 percent of the Reef’s coral had died as a result. One diver, bearing witness to the environmental carnage, told The Guardian how he had climbed out of the water near Lizard Island bearing the stench of death, drenched in “the smell of millions of rotting animals”.

As the appalling news of what had happened to the Reef was learned and felt across Australia it was as if public language too had been bleached. The response of governments was inadequate at best and double-speak at worst. “We take it seriously,” said the then Commonwealth Environment Minister Greg Hunt as the extent of the bleaching started to become clear, but the words were ashen in his mouth and it is doubtful if anyone believed the doorstop protestation. Too often has the Commonwealth Government failed the test of good faith with the Australian people about global warming and the Reef. They have treated the Reef with the utmost cynicism, as just another problem of political reputation and media management. Regrettably, on the subject of the Great Barrier Reef, the words of the Commonwealth Government are as bereft of life as the once-living corals they have betrayed.

As Wright noted, “The Reef has its enemies, and its lovers.” It is hard to conceive of the Reef having antagonists, but how else can we regard the climate makers, the bosses of those thermal coalmining companies and others who produce and burn the fossil fuels that make the greatest contribution to global warming? The consequences of their actions have been known for years; above all it is the burning of fossil fuels that drives global warming. We can say with certainty that every executive and board member in every fossil fuel company—and of all the businesses which service them—must know full well the consequences of what they do. Their reputations now bear the mark of the white coral.

Meanwhile, it seemed to me that in the shops, the schools, the workplaces and the social gatherings, people didn’t really know what to say; a kind of blanching of conversation in the face of calamity. Occasionally I write an old-fashioned group letter to a small circle of people whom I know and trust. It is an opportunity to check in, but also to seek advice. Earlier this year I asked apropos of the bleaching, “How do you think we should be talking about what is happening?” Anomalously—because people are often generous with their thoughts—the note elicited little reaction. One colleague though, a 20-something woman of natural cheerfulness who works in publishing, did take the time to tell me how she was feeling. This is part of what she wrote:

I have been sitting with your email for the last few days, on my desktop, thinking and thinking. And I am struggling with an answer, because I don’t know how we should be talking about what’s happening and I wonder if it matters how we talk about it when so many of us don’t talk about it at all. I guess the first step is to start having the conversation—I feel so overwhelmed by it and the complexity and that I’m not learned enough on any of it.

Honestly and abashedly, my friend courageously admitted that, cocooned in the pleasantness of 21st century Australian life, she had only recently been struck that the impacts of global warming were not terrible abstracts, but were grimly concrete; that people and wild places were dying because of climate change. Although it was a frightening and painful realisation, she also seemed to find that to embrace the truth was liberating and galvanising. “This is a war,” she concluded, “and we must win.”

We tend to talk of military conflicts being won or lost in absolute terms, but there is never any victory without suffering and sacrifice. Those killed in the course of the brutal journey of war will never know the peace. Similarly, in the great struggle for an earth capable of nurturing life in all its splendid diversity there have been—and will continue to be—terrible losses along the way. As political theorists Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne wrote some years ago, “Many of the world’s poorest people have already collided with their sun, dying from disease, starvation, war, and abuse.” There are human beings, communities, ecosystems and species that are already vanished and their fate deserves our honest mourning and deep reflection. Yet there is so much left on our beautiful, lonely home in space that is worthy of our labours and of our love.

I have an absolute conviction that through our shared efforts we will make the complete transition to a world powered by renewable energy in enough time to save much that is magnificent and precious. Yet none of us can have any doubt that there will be further dreadful loss as we go. So we must simultaneously hold in our hearts and minds the awful truth of what is happening and the sunlit possibilities of the beautiful world that is still ours to create, indeed that we are now creating, through moments and patterns of astonishing social, political and technological progress, amidst the destruction that is also of our doing.

Judith Wright believed that “if disasters in the shape of weather, accident and climate change lie ahead, the work done already has shown what can be done to shield it from such dangers and has proved that people will agree, in the event, to supplying the help it needs.”

Profound historical turning points and moments of social progress require sustained commitment but they are not predictable in their form or timing. Wright’s memoir is redolent with descriptions of the sheer hard work; the unglamorous grunt and graft essential to achieving great political change, but even the great poet could not foretell the breakthroughs. The example is instructive. There are technological solutions to the problem of climate change if there is sufficient will. We must maintain our energy, our convictions and our will to succeed, never being quite sure when the instants of victory will come. In this, the second great struggle for our Great Barrier Reef, we must unflinchingly look at the darkness of the coal industry and the expanse of white coral and yet feel our hope rise and our determination surge.

David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia

Image: Gary Farr

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