Our natural capital seems to have taken a big hit this year. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia suffered a significant bleaching event in May, and has not recovered as it usually can. My favorite and most reliable early warning publication of troubles on the horizon — Outside Magazine (Online) — brought home today what had been lurking on the edges of my awareness with their obituary for the reef. The losses must be expected to be literally catastrophic, unfathomable, and multidimensional in ways we cannot begin to comprehend. And, they are personal, too. As a few of you know, coral is what got me into this environmental economics business in the first place – so I owe it special debt!

The spring bleaching started feedback loops that are not petering out — the coral using fish and invertebrates (eaters, hiders, etc) are replaced by algae-eaters; the remaining coral is too weak to fight off stomach-extruding, coral-digesting Crown of Thorns sea stars (Acanthaster planci), intensifying the damages. The long term prognosis is not looking good – and that will impact tourist dollars, aboriginal gathering and food security, and a host of complex human dependencies on the reef for everything from carbon storage to sand production and storm impact abatement.

This comes only a fortnight after Science reported that the Australian government is reporting “substantial progress has been made toward protecting the Great Barrier Reef” in their annual report of the Reef 2050 plan.

The major accomplishments of the year may hint at where things have gone wrong. They are identified as:

(1) passing legislation which

(a) bans the sea-based disposal of capital dredge material in the World Heritage Area,

(b) restricts new port development to within current port limits and

(c) prohibits major capital dredging for port facilities outside four priority ports.

(2) providing additional monitoring to address the bleaching event in May, in which ” Initial monitoring indicate[d] that 22 per cent of coral on the Reef has died, with 85 per cent of the mortality occurring in a 600-kilometre stretch in the far north… Further surveys will be conducted … to make a final assessment of survival and mortality.”

As for that continued monitoring… In June, the Guardian reported how dim things were looking – and smelling. The before-and-after images and descriptions are grisly. The latest monitoring reports suggest nature is not repairing itself this time – setting off the requiems in the news.

HOWEVER –  this problem must be seen as much bigger than Australia’s, and will take much more than the country’s unilateral plan to save their reef. The worst damage is apparently NOT in the places of heavy human use and direct assaults on water quality that the actions to date aim to correct. That means that global pollutants generating climate change and its related transformers – sea temperature rise and ocean acidification – are more likely responsible for the dramatic damages than proximate causes under control of Australian ambitions. Global pollutants need global solutions. We have made some progress with the coming into force of the Paris Treaty. We must act to see that the world lives up to its obligations.

A final important matter:

Preface “dedication”in the Australian Reef 2050 Plan Annual Report and Implementation Strategy

The first text in the annual report is: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef area and have a continuing connection to their land and sea country.” So, while the whole world is poorer for these losses, once again the biggest burden, the highest bill, from pollution goes to native populations with the highest vulnerability and least power to protect the natural capital and ecosystem services flowing from that capital that have sustained them for tens of thousands of years.

Addressing these issues must be more serious than just presenting a pretty picture. The well known inequality of the threats from climate change to coastal regions do not stop at the water’s edge. The Australian plan is working to “build and maintain strong partnerships with Traditional Owners,” including priorities to help maintain and increase sea turtle populations – sea turtles that are frequently consumed for food in Pacific cultures – and sea turtles that highlight endangered species conservation efforts. These multiple goals must be better co-managed to the benefit of all. Conversations and actions to do this will undoubtedly be difficult but we must figure out how to bridge gaps in cultural understanding, between traditional ecological and scientific knowledge frameworks, and to work to right historical wrongs, if we are to progress toward a society  capable of adjusting to the many challenges of climate change to come.