The Great Barrier Reef should be listed as a World Heritage Site “in danger,” UNESCO said in draft recommendations, echoing scientists’ warnings that climate change is ravaging one of the planet’s most iconic structures.
The United Nations’ cultural body said Tuesday the ongoing impacts of warmer temperatures along the reef — which have battered the structure and left large swaths of corals dying or dead ― warranted the dramatic move, which would call on the Australian government to pursue “the most ambitious actions to address climate change.”
Listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” would be a significant blow to Australian identity, although it would fall in line with warnings repeated by scientists for years that climate change has continued unabated. UNESCO says the designation is meant to “inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action.”
The suggestion prompted bewilderment and outcry from Australian politicians, who said the recommendations blindsided the nation. The country’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, said that the government would “strongly oppose” the designation and that UNESCO failed to adequately appraise efforts to save the reef.
“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended,” Ley told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “What else can you conclude but that it is politics?”
UNESCO, however, pointed directly to the Australian government’s “insufficient” progress to meet targets set out in its Reef 2050 plan, saying the nation must work urgently to counter the effects of climate change. Researchers have argued that while the plan cites climate change as the primary threat to corals worldwide, the effort largely ignores the phenomenon in plans to save the reef.
The agency also cited a series of devastating mass coral bleaching events along the Great Barrier in recent years, which have left swaths of the structure dead. The International Union for Conservation of Nature said the damage over the past four years was so bleak, it downgraded the condition of the reef to “critical” in December.
Australia’s “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,” UNESCO’s draft recommendations say. “The widespread effects of the consecutive coral bleaching events further add to the significant concerns regarding the future of the property.”
The World Heritage Committee will decide whether to embrace the recommendation during its meeting in China on July 16. If it does, it will be the first time a natural World Heritage Site will be listed as in danger primarily due to climate change.
Australian officials have been facing off against UNESCO for years in an attempt to avoid the designation. In 2015, the government successfully lobbied against the measure, even as it aggressively pushed forward with plans for gigantic new coal mines.
The Great Barrier Reef is still recovering from back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, when hotter-than-usual seawater washed over the corals, effectively cooking large stretches. During the phenomenon, once-colorful corals turn bone white as the algae that feeds them leaves their skeletons. If temperatures stabilize, the corals can recover and heal, but in severe cases they die.
A third mass bleaching event took place along the Great Barrier in early 2020, and scientists said at the time it was like watching the Louvre Museum “burn to the ground.”
A study released in October found half of the corals on the reef have died since the 1990s.