Australia 'Against' Listing the Great Barrier Reef As 'In Danger', Politics Playing a Role

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) called on the Australian government to list the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage site in danger, but Australian authorities disagree.

In a report released on Monday, UNESCO divulged that the long-term outlook on the reef has "deteriorated from poor to very poor," and that "there is no possible doubt" the reef was in imminent danger from climate change.

The draft recommendation calls on government officials in Australia to take action in order to reduce the impacts of climate change on the reef, saying that the government's "progress has been insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan."

The 2050 Plan's overarching goal is to stabilize the water conditions for the reef by 2050. "The Plan requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards
accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures," the report stated.

Australia's environment minister, Sussan Ley, said in a statement released on Tuesday that "The Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the world and this draft recommendation has been made without examining the Reef first hand, and without the latest information."

She added: "If it is being proposed on the basis of the very real threat of global climate change, then there are any number of international World Heritage Sites that should be subject to the same process.

"I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world's reefs but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best-managed reef in the world for an 'in danger' listing."

Ley said that she and Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke directly with UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay to make it clear that Australia opposed the process by which UNESCO approached the subject.

"This decision was flawed and clearly there was politics behind it, and that has subverted the proper process. For the World Heritage Committee not to foreshadow this listing is appalling," Ley stated.

The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches across 1,430 miles of Australia's northeast coast, and can be seen from space, has suffered the loss of more than half of its corals in the last three decades, and massive bleaching events in the last five years.

Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, and algae living in the coral tissue is expelled, turning the corals stark white.

Terry Hughes, a professor at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, told The New York Times, "Business-as-usual managing of the Great Barrier Reef is not stuff to stop its ongoing decline." He added, "We've got a narrowing window of opportunity."

Dr. Fanny Douvere, head of UNESCO's World Heritage Marine Programme, told Newsweek that Australia's reaction is "understandable," but the progress in the Great Barrier Reef "has been much slower than expected."

Dr. Douvere said that unlike when the reef was called "in danger" in previous years, "the issue at the time was not entirely the same as it is today."

The call for action at the reef, she said, is "an alert to the international community. Stating the facts as they are, it's a call upon all nations" to align their priorities.

A board of 21 members will be further evaluating the recommendation and will make a final decision later in July.

"We're in a very different situation today," Dr. Douvere said. "The Great Barrier Reef is, unfortunately, needing requirements to be listed as 'in danger.'"

Newsweek reached out to Minister Sussan Ley for comment.

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GREAT BARRIER REEF, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 20: Aerial view of coral banks, reef systems and the pacific ocean on November 20, 2015 in Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Australia officials recently opposed UNESCO's call to title the Great Barrier Reef "in danger" due to climate change, saying that key targets of a plan to stabilize the reef were not being met. EyesWideOpen/Getty Images