26/02/2016 5:33 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Our Addiction To Coal Is Forcing Us To Farm Coral

How on earth have we got to the stage where scientists have to consider introducing farmed coral in a World Heritage Area while we continue to burn coal to kill natural coral?


Farming coral -- this is what our addiction to coal is forcing scientists to explore, as we brace for a mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef and more sobering ocean acidification research emerges.

New data in Nature, collected on One Tree Reef in the southern Great Barrier Reef, provides the first in-situ evidence that ocean acidification, driven by global warming and carbon pollution, is stunting coral growth.

The researchers artificially reduced the level of ocean acidity to pre-industrial levels and found coral growth was about 7 percent faster than today.

As concerning as this is, stunted coral growth is not the most immediate threat facing the Great Barrier Reef.

Aerial view of Hardy Reef

Scientists and divers are poised along the Reef's coastline for the devastation of a mass coral bleaching event.

Since the beginning of the year, ocean temperatures have sat below the "bleaching threshold" but they're now rising to abnormally high levels.

According to Queensland scientist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, unless there's a reprieve we're set for "very significant bleaching" in the next few weeks.

The Great Barrier Reef Divers Group say they are on high alert -- ready to record the mass bleaching should our hopes for a cool-off be dashed.

As Tony Fontes, a dive operator with 35 years' experience, says: "If the Reef gets lucky this year and avoids a devastating bleaching event, we are simply playing Russian Roulette with its future."

To stop cooking coral in hot, acidic oceans we need to stop burning coal.

But, in a cruel irony, millions of tonnes of coal is already being shipped through the Reef's waters.

Aerial views of Coal Ships off Gladstone Harbour

And both the Queensland Labor Government and the federal Liberal Government want to dig up and ship out even more, with both having recently approved the Southern Hemisphere's largest coal mine in the Galilee Basin and the expansion of the coal port it would use, Abbot Point.

Indeed, neither of the old parties have ever refused any coal mine or coal seam gas project, despite all the scientific evidence about dangerous global warming and the enormous job and economic opportunities from clean renewable energy.

Despite the economic reality that the world is rapidly transitioning to job-rich clean energy, the old parties are wedded to coal and the political donations of this desperate industry trying to cling on through taxpayer subsidies.

So instead of governments dealing with the cause of coral death, scientists are being left to deal with the impacts.

International researchers are meeting this week at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville to discuss 'human assisted evolution' of coral.

The idea, which is in its early stages, is basically to farm coral to breed specimens that are more heat resistant.

Introducing farmed corals into reefs is risky and controversial.

According to AIMS scientist, Dr Madeleine van Oppen this would: "require careful ecological risk assessment together with a consideration of the ethical and socioeconomic implications."

How on earth have we got to the stage where scientists have to consider introducing farmed coral in a World Heritage Area while we continue to burn coal to kill natural coral?

It's a question that leaves me shaking my head in disbelief -- even more so considering that wiping out the Great Barrier Reef is, of course, only one part of the devastating future we face if we fail to rapidly transition to clean energy.

We have the knowledge -- we just need enough political will to tackle global warming and transition to clean energy, so we can save our precious Great Barrier Reef -- and the 63,000 jobs it provides.


Qld Senator Larissa Waters is the Australian Greens Deputy Leader and climate change spokesperson.