Category: environment

David Pocock leads sporting charge on emissions

Wallabies flanker David Pocock, along with teammates Bernard Foley and Dane Haylett-Perry, have announced their partnership with a scheme that aims to compensate for the carbon emissions associated with travel.

Earlier this year, musician Heidi Lenffer, from Australian band Cloud Control, launched FEAT. (Future Energy Artists), an initiative that would allow musicians to invest in a solar farm on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Lenffer was concerned about the carbon emissions generated by her group’s touring schedule and what she saw as her own contribution to the climate emergency. Now, FEAT. is opening up to other sectors and individuals.

When FEAT. was announced, Pocock responded via Instagram – “he was putting enthusiastic emoji responses on a lot of our posts,” Lenffer said – and contacted another songwriter, Jack River, who put the two of them in touch.

Pocock, currently with the Wallabies in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, told the Guardian that “as an athlete, you’re in a somewhat similar position to artists in that there’s no escaping what you do requires travel, and I’m very conscious of my personal contribution.

“To see what FEAT. was doing, and to see people like Heidi getting on with it and trying to harness that energy into actually building the future we know is coming and we all want to see, but need to speed up, that was really exciting.”

Lenffer said that while FEAT. started and would always be identified with the musical community, she was keen for the scheme to expand and be inclusive. “We see allies in other industries as being critical to the success of what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Money invested in FEAT. is being used to buy ownership stakes in a solar farm called Brigalow, near the town of Pittsworth in south-east Queensland. The floor price for investment is low, just $5. The farm will power the equivalent of over 11,000 homes for 30 years.

The former Wallabies captain presented the scheme to his teammates, trying to impress upon them the carbon footprint of a rugby tour. “It’s like any slice of the population. There’s some guys who were interested in it, others didn’t really see it as an issue,” he said.

“I just presented the guys with what FEAT. was doing, giving them an idea of the Wallabies’ emissions this year and suggesting we team with them as a way of investing an equivalent amount into renewable energy.”

He convinced Foley and Haylett-Perry to come on board. “They’re excited about seeing solutions to these problems that we’re facing … It’s ridiculous to think that changing lightbulbs and that sort of things is enough. Those days are over. We need a big system change.”

Pocock has been a vocal campaigner about the climate emergency, and has extended that to direct action: in 2014, he was arrested in a protest against Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in northern New South Wales.

He extended his support to the wave of school strikes started by Greta Thunberg. “If you look at social change, it very seldom just happens. It ends up taking a percentage of the population actually willing to give up their freedoms and engage in civil disobedience,” he said.

He also highlighted how global heating was already impacting on world sport, with a sharp message for rugby’s governing bodies. “I’m not playing rugby in Australia next year, but round one of Super Rugby is in January next year,” he said.

“Can you imagine, in the last weekend of January, playing 80 minutes of rugby? That’s the way that change is going to happen in sport, when a few players get together – and our player’s unions – and say, hang on, this is an issue that’s going to affect our sport.”

Asked what he would say to those who tell him to “stick to sport” – and many have – Pocock said “first and foremost, we’re all humans, and this is a much bigger issue than sport … It’s an existential threat.”

“Rugby’s a big part of my life and I’m doing absolutely everything I can to be playing at my best to be contributing to the Wallabies working towards us winning the World Cup and taking it back to Australia, that’s what we’re all working for.

“But I really believe that sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive, to be more forward thinking, and hopefully this is an area where sport can play more of a role, because we certainly aren’t getting the leadership from our politicians.

“When young people who are too young to vote tell us their futures are on the line, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not making it up, they’re listening to the best of the available scientific projections. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away, unfortunately.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 October 2019

Australian musicians band together to invest in solar

In the spring of 2017, immediately after the release of the Australian band Cloud Control’s third album, Zone, the band’s keyboard player, Heidi Lenffer, was contemplating what the their upcoming tour would cost. But this time she wasn’t just thinking about the money; she was thinking about emissions. Independent bands are used to running on a shoestring budget – a carbon-conscious Lenffer wanted Cloud Control to run a more environmentally efficient operation, too.

She began asking climate scientists in the field, and connected with Dr Chris Dey from Areté Sustainability. Dey crunched the numbers for Cloud Control’s two-week tour, playing 15 clubs and theatres from Byron Bay to Perth.

He found that it would produce about 28 tonnes of emissions – roughly equivalent to what an average household produces in a year. And that was just the national leg of an album tour that would take the band to the US three times.

“I had suspected that all of this flying, and all of the energy that goes into tours, can’t be very good for the environment – but there was no solution that existed beyond carbon offsetting,” Lenffer says.

Offsetting is essentially an attempt at equalisation: when you offset your flights, you try to compensate for your carbon footprint by donating to a program to suck it out of the atmosphere, via tree planting or sequestration somewhere else. Lenffer wanted to aim higher.

Partnering with the superannuation fund Future Super, and the developer Impact Investment Group, Lenffer has established FEAT. (Future Energy Artists): a platform that officially launches on Wednesday and will allow musicians to build and invest in their own solar farms.

Early signs are promising. As well as Cloud Control, other Australian bands already signed up include Midnight Oil, Vance Joy, Regurgitator, Big Scary, Peking Duk and Jack River. The first solar farm being built with their help is Brigalow: an 80-hectare project near Pittsworth on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

“At last, a project that takes the great passion many artists have for a healthy world powered by renewable energy, and makes it doable,” says Midnight Oil’s frontman, Peter Garrett. Paul Curtis, Regurgitator’s manager, talks about an “actively engaged citizenry embracing a more optimistic and progressive approach to the future”.

Lenffer wanted to tap into the creative drive of her industry to find a solution to a complex problem. “The environmental movement often lacks a positive premise for action,” she says. “It is exciting to own a piece of a solar farm. To do that collectively, we can leave a lasting, tangible infrastructure legacy and say, ‘We built that together.’”

Here’s how it works: money that artists invest in FEAT. is put into a portfolio which is managed by Future Super, and can be used to buy ownership stakes in solar farms or loaned to build their infrastructure. The land that Brigalow solar farm is being built on was previously used as a sorghum grain farm. It is now being leased from the land’s owner to build the solar project, whose progress is closely monitored by Impact Investment Group, which manages the underlying fund investing in Brigalow.

And artists can put forward as much as they can afford. Perhaps they want to throw in a one-off lump sum, or offer a percentage of their touring income; the idea is that everyone should be able to invest in their financial and environmental future – which is why FEAT. set a floor price of just $5 to set up an account.

FEAT. says the 34.55-megawatt Brigalow solar farm could power the equivalent of 11,300 homes for 30 years. (Looked at another way, it could generate more than 2,000 Cloud Control tours in renewable energy.) That energy is then sold into the energy market, with a target return on investment for artists of 5 percent a year.

The total emissions output of the global music sector is not well studied. A 2010 investigation into the UK industry found it was responsible for more than 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, much of it from live music. Most of that was transport, not just of band members and equipment, but fans: audience travel alone accounted for 43 percent of emissions.

A further 26 percent came from the lifecycle of CDs, which speaks to the age of the study. But, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow, the streaming age hasn’t made for a cleaner product: the energy required to store and process music in the cloud makes for an even worse carbon footprint than manufacturing and distributing CDs and records.

For artists, the pitiful royalty rates generated from streaming, and the crash in sales of physical product, means that live music makes up the bulk of revenue. For Lenffer, going on tour meant contributing to the global climate emergency – but she was willing to gamble that “a progressive community like the music industry would have the guts and imagination to embrace change”.

Lenffer says she was inspired by community movements overseas, particularly in Europe, where groups were banding together to buy investments in renewables. “Sporting clubhouses would install solar panels on their rooftops purchased by the residents in the area, [who] would then be paid back through the energy generated over a period of time,” she explains. “I found about 70 groups in Australia doing it, as opposed to around 500 in Scotland and 1000 in Germany.”

But as well as being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters per capita, Australians also have the highest take-up of rooftop solar. Lenffer says this statistic “shows that people are driving the change where our government is not”. And, compared with Europe, there are far more abundant solar resources available in our sunburnt country.

Lenffer sees the potential for her idea to catch on. “There’s no reason why this couldn’t go global,” she says. “If we can demonstrate it works here – which I feel like we can, because we’ve already got a number of big-name and emerging artists signed up – if we can take ownership over building the solar assets that are going to power our future, which we need to do as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be rolled out for every artist touring the world.”

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2019

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

The great broken promise of the Great Barrier Reef

Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.

They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.

But what if the promise was broken?

In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.

Around 75 percent of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $444 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.

“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.

The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.

Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.

Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.

Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.

We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.

Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.

The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.

But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.

Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.

As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”

He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”

Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”

Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.

“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.

“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”

“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.

For them, the promise has been kept.

John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”

Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.

Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48 percent of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42 percent to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10 percent to bleaching.

That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.

It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.

“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”

Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5 percent.

“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.

“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … Basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.

“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”

The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.

With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.

Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”

Hughes (no relation to the James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.

“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.

The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40 percent decline in juveniles.

She speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity.

We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.

I ask Miller how there can be such a dramatic difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.

“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”

John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … Further around the corner it’s just fine.”

He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.

But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.

“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”

The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”

The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The grim and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.

“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”

John Rumney puts it in starker terms.

“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50 percent dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50 percent of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.

“We’re on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.

“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.

“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”

First published in BuzzFeed, 9 July 2018. The Climate Council paid for flights and some costs.

How did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation “win lotto”?

It was a classic piece of public relations. A week before the budget, the federal government announced it was committing half a billion dollars to the ailing Great Barrier Reef, with the immediate aims of enhancing water quality, culling outbreaks of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and boosting scientific research funds that might aid the reef’s “resilience”.

There was no mention of climate change. That should not be surprising. The Turnbull government remains at war with itself over climate and energy policy, with many of its own members openly derisive of climate science and questioning Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep rises in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

That cohort predictably includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and his backers.

Publicly, the government is still supportive of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and remains roiled over the future of AGL’s Liddell power station, with pro-coal MPs urging Malcolm Turnbull to change competition laws to force the company to sell the station.

Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, are walking a tightrope: trying not to poke the bear on the party’s right flank by reassuring regional Queensland of its continuing support of coal, while confronting the dire state of the reef and the many more jobs, and seats, which may be in peril on the basis of current trends.

In the last few days, we’ve found out where the government’s money to aid the reef is being directed. It’s not going to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body that’s entrusted with the reef’s custodianship and advises the government on its care and protection.

Nor is it going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Instead, it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body with six full-time staff and five part-time staff, which generated a turnover of less than $8 million last year.

The body is focused on business cooperation. By its own description, the foundation “started with a small group of businessmen chatting at the airport while waiting for their flight, wanting to do something to help the Great Barrier Reef”. When asked, the government was not immediately able to say who these businessmen were.

The move to direct more than $443 million to this small foundation was so left-field it caught even its beneficiaries off guard. The foundation had not applied for the funds. “It’s like we’ve won lotto,” chief executive Anna Marsden told Fairfax’s Peter Hannam. “We’re getting calls from a lot of friends.”

Marsden said the organisation was seeking advice on how to cope with the sudden influx of funds.

In the past few days of Senate estimates hearings, more serious questions have been raised. There was no competitive tender process, and thus no opportunity for the government’s own scientific agencies to apply for the funds.

As Labor senator Kristina Keneally summed up: “I am trying to understand how [the] greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process, without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

To that end, Labor has lodged a Freedom of Information request. Others have pointed to the foundation’s links to corporate Australia, including fossil fuel behemoths BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy, as well as key banking figures.

“God help the Barrier Reef,” was the blunt response of the Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who has been indefatigable in his scorn for untested scientific solutions such as sun-shields, underwater fans and anything that fails to address the core issues of global warming and immediate decarbonising of the economy.

Similarly, acting chief executive of the Climate Council, Dr Martin Rice, described the focus on water quality and culling starfish as “a golden Band-Aid solution, because it’s not really getting to the root cause of the problem with the bleaching, and that’s climate change.

“When you look at emissions, we’ve had three years of emissions rising in Australia, and any true test of effective climate policy comes down to whether our emissions are going up or down. So there is no credible energy or climate policy in Australia … [Our] emission reduction targets of 28 percent are woefully inadequate; they’re not aligned with the science,” he said.

“If the world was to go with Australia’s Paris commitments we would be on target for a three-to-four degree [increase in temperature] and that’s devastating. We’re not going to see our iconic Great Barrier Reef survive that. And that’s not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one.”

But not everyone is in agreement about the foundation’s ability to deliver. Its website lists the CSIRO, the Smithsonian Institute and many of Australia’s sandstone universities as research collaborators, and its International Scientific Advisory Committee also includes GBRMPA chair Russell Reichelt.

Also on the committee is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. As far back as 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg predicted that the Barrier Reef would lose most of its coral cover by 2040, a claim that caused considerable controversy at the time.

“The shock to me of having predicted in 1999 that the reef was in trouble was to actually live it over the last three years, and it’s not only the reef that we should be worried about,” he says. “It’s the impact that we’re now seeing across ecosystems which we depend on. There’s real questions about food security.”

Ten days before the government’s announcement, the scale of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef – and the calamity it has already experienced – was brutally spelled out in a new paper published by Nature, which The Atlantic described as “a kind of autopsy report for the debacle”.

Terry Hughes was the lead author of a team of 16 international researchers. The paper reported that over the course of the summers of 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced bleaching so severe that one in two of the corals had died. Usually, this happens slowly. When subjected to heat stress, coral species expel the algae which both provides them with their colour and with nourishment. If the algae doesn’t return quickly to recolonise the corals, they starve.

In the waters around and north of Port Douglas, previously the most pristine section of the park, the water was so hot that the corals died almost instantly. “They cooked,” Hughes said.

“You could say it has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes told The Atlantic. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Hoegh-Guldberg doesn’t disagree with any of that, but he says that such a dire situation calls for outside-the-square thinking. “The downturn in the reef’s health has been rather dramatic, so we’ve got to start to do things differently,” he says. “I think it’s a welcome addition to what we need to do to solve this problem.”

Hoegh-Guldberg has an edge of desperation in his voice when he speaks to me. I put this directly to him. “That’s a very fair reading,” he agrees.

Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s most respected marine biologists. He is quick to point out that he sits on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s advisory committee. But while political questions remain over the funding, and why it was directed to this small body, he argues the urgency of the situation means the reef’s defenders must work with what they have.

“I think it’s wake-up time. This is not some sort of green-washing exercise by industry. I would not be associated with this if it was. People who are not involved may be sniping, and scientists are very good at that, so I think we just have to have a level mind here. This is an unusual time that is needing a very unusual solution.

“What we have to realise is, there’s no way we’re going to solve this problem by not involving industry. We’ve got to turn this ship around by going into the helm and working with all players, and if we have the right governance then I don’t think that the things people are fearful of will eventuate.”

Hoegh-Guldberg is also positive about scientific approaches to anything that could help get the reef through while the climate might be stabilised. “I think there’s some really serious interest in whether or not you can introduce gently, over decades, heat-tolerant corals, and the jury’s out on whether that’s going to work and we need to know whether that can be done.

“The normal way science would go would be, ideas would be bubbling to the surface, then PhDs would be done. Then scientists would eventually write papers and it would be maybe five to 10 years before you had ideas in place to design technical solutions and so on. We don’t have that time.”

Reichelt also looked for a positive angle on the funding. He issued a press release saying it was a “game changer”. Alongside the $443.3 million going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, his authority is getting the balance of $42.7 million over the next six years for its joint field management program.

“This is a hugely positive outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and comes at a critical time after back-to-back mass coral bleaching triggered by the increasing pressure of global warming,” Reichelt said.

“We’re delighted to continue working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as they explore the possibilities this funding provides, including opportunities to seek co-funding from investors to add to this investment.”

Significant questions remain about the Turnbull government’s motivations and its processes. The funding allocation remains deeply curious. Again we see the federal government outsourcing what would normally be the work of a government agency to a private body. It is likely the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will be spending its newfound money before we know why it was chosen to receive it. But for at least some of scientists involved, that may be a good thing.

Birds find me in my happy place

On Saturday morning I boarded a fishing boat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, along with 15 or so others, chugged more than 40 nautical miles out to sea, where the Australian continental shelf drops off into deep water. But we weren’t out there for the fish: everyone was carrying binoculars and camera gear. We were looking for pelagic seabirds – shearwaters and petrels that spend most of their lives on the wing.

Conditions had been perfect all week, with south-easterly breezes to help push the birds closer inshore. “We’ll see a Cook’s Petrel today,” I predicted, feeling cocky. Not that I had good reason to be: only one Cook’s Petrel has ever been officially recorded in Queensland waters. It’s a small, graceful grey and white seabird with a black eye patch that breeds in New Zealand. The boat stopped and a trail of foul-smelling berley was throw into the water.

Twenty minutes later, to everyone’s delight, a Cook’s Petrel came bounding in over the waves, investigating our berley trail without pausing as camera shutters whirred with excitement. Within a minute, the bird was gone. It turned out to be one of the few highlights of an otherwise surprisingly quiet day, but I live for moments like this. For a few hours, as the waves rolled beneath us, I was in my happy place.

Along with music, birds have been the magnificent, consuming obsession of my life. It started when I was eight. Memories get hazy here, and possibly unreliable, but the first flash was a chance sighting of an Azure Kingfisher on the Ovens River, in north-eastern Victoria, a few metres from where my father actually was fishing. I revisited that place with him a couple of months ago, where he’d been dropping a line in since he himself was a boy.

The kingfisher was what hooked me. I stared at it, dumbstruck. It was a very small bird, brilliant blue and orange, and it was perched motionless on a dead branch protruding above the waterline from a red gum that had collapsed into the river. Abruptly it plunged headfirst into the water, emerging with a yabby, which it whacked against the branch before swallowing it whole. And then, in another flash, it was gone.

For me, watching birds – or birding, to use the more active verb – was and still is an escape and a refuge. Earlier this year, a University of Exeter study found that it was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, conditions with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. Research fellow Dr Daniel Cox said that having birds around the home had a role in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.

This is where Guardian Australia and Birdlife Australia’s Bird of the Year poll comes in. One of the best things about birding, as hobbies go, is that you can do it anywhere: it doesn’t matter what species you’re looking at, whether it’s something as unglamorous and largely unloved as a bin chicken (ibis) or as obviously charismatic as a lorikeet. A life of birds is never boring.

Take for example this brief video taken at my local cafe of an Australian magpie and pied butcherbird, two of our finest songbirds, in a glorious duet. It’s the sort of thing that can change the entire tenor (pun unintended) of my day. I haven’t actually voted in the poll yet, mainly because as a lifelong birder I find it hard to choose, but musical leanings make it hard to go past the butcherbird especially.

Behind the frivolity of the poll is a serious message: even our most familiar and beloved birds, like the Laughing Kookaburra, are in decline. Part of the #teambinchicken push is motivated by sympathy: this scraggy, smelly bird was a natural denizen of the swamps of our Murray–Darling system, generally only reaching the coast in drought years. As the swamps were drained and the land irrigated, the ibis came to visit our cities and eventually decided to stay.

So birds have much to tell us about the country and our changing environment. The early arrival of summer migrants are clues to climate change, as is the expansion southwards of tropical species. Sometimes, this added level of environmental awareness has been heartbreaking to watch: over the last 35 years, I’ve watched once abundant species like the Regent Honeyeater slide towards the cliff of extinction.

But mostly, a life of birds has meant adventure and opportunity. It’s taken me to every corner of Australia, chasing down everything I could from the Kimberley to Cape York. Searching for brilliantly coloured pittas in the rainforests of Borneo. And most memorably, two voyages south on Australia’s Antarctic flagship the RSV Aurora Australis, counting seabirds for what was then one of the longest-running wildlife surveys anywhere in the world.

And yes, I’m a twitcher. I once flew to Perth, then drove flat out to Whim Creek, a mining camp in the Pilbara, to see Australia’s second ever Red-legged Crake, a small waterbird, only to find it had been eaten by a cat. That’s birding – things don’t always materialise on cue like that Cook’s Petrel. But it’s not about the numbers. Whether it’s on my block or out to sea, I prefer to think that I don’t find the birds, they find me: in that happy place.

First published in The Guardian, 30 November 2017