Newton-John, Ellen DeGeneres and international campaign and runway models like Jarrod Scott, are all doing their bit to raise a collective awareness.
“Every time I come back to the reef it’s like saying goodbye to an old relative who is slowly weakening and dying,” says Flannery. “I find it very upsetting. Heron Island won’t be here if I live to be in my 90s and rising sea levels and death of coral will contribute to that. The clear-eyed view is we are seeing a system in transition. I don’t want to be one of those people who run off to see the last of something, I want it to be around for generations to come.”
According to the Melbourne based scientist, tourism is one way to get people thinking about the Reef—it generates publicity but also puts climate change at the front and centre of the discussion. And while bleaching has depleted a lot, there is still plenty to see.
“Most people say whatever and ignore it, but it’s like an iceberg, the problems are invisible but they’re eating away at our future,” says Flannery.
The latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, launched in South Korea last month, has warned governments that the window of opportunity to tackle climate change is rapidly running out.
“Global temperatures have risen 1°C in the era following mass industrialisation and this has directly affected Australians, with worsening extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, bush fires and coastal flooding,” said the Climate Council’s acting CEO, Dr Martin Rice.
The IPCC report found that current national pledges are not enough to limit warming to 1.5°C.
“It’s clear that concerted action from all countries, particularly significant greenhouse gas polluters like Australia, is critical if we are to keep temperatures below the 1.5°C limit,” says Rice. “Inaction has already cost us dearly. A 1.5°C world, our best possible future, will change our lives. It’s going to be tough to meet that target but we must strive to do so because a 2°C world would be much worse.”
The Climate Council, Australia’s leading climate change communications organisation, says the sea surface temperature around the Great Barrier Reef in early 2016 was the hottest since records began in 1900. And the resulting devastating bleaching was at least 175 times more likely due to climate change.
For scientists like Flannery, it was a biodiversity conference in Japan in 1999 that inspired him to pursue a life of campaign and commitment to climate change. His book The Weather Makers was released in 2005 to critical acclaim, earning him Australian of the Year in 2007.
The Weather Makers was inspired by a talk given at the conference by professor of environmental biology and global change at Stanford University, Stephen Schneider.
“I was invited to attend the same conference as Stephen and after listening to him speak it was a landmark moment for me in my career to make climate change my main focus,” says Flannery. “I knew a lot of the statistics about climate change in the back of my head, but I hadn’t calibrated the risk properly until then. That’s when I decided my life was going to be about climate change. I wrote The Weather Makers and told Stephen that. He was a total hero of mine, and one of the toughest I ever knew. He lived and breathed by his word, educating about climate until the end.”
As one of Australia’s leading thinkers on climate change, the reef holds a special place in Flannery’s heart. While it saddens him to see it vanish before his eyes, he says governments need to act at a policy level and society must put pressure on them.
“As a scientist you have your ego taken out of you early on. Your research paper isn’t your baby and has to suffer its own fate when the information is put out there. I don’t like rock star analogies and prefer to take a back seat,” Flannery says of his many accolades. “I don’t want to be that person who claims that space. Climate change is real and we must all act collectively. We are all equal and need one another to make that difference to our future and that of our coral reefs.”