‘Coral reefs are the canary in the coalmine’: a chat with Dr Andy Lewis
Dr Andy Lewis is Magnetic Island local, which means the corals of Great Barrier Reef – plus 1500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays and more than 30 species of marine mammals – are literally his neighbours. He’s seen first-hand what climate change and marine degradation is doing to our oceans, and as the CEO of the Coral Sea Foundation, he’s at the frontline of efforts to protect, repair and maintain the reef ecosystem.
We had a quick chat over Zoom about science, politics, and the challenges and opportunities facing the next generations. Have a watch of our full chat, or read some highlights below.
Why is the Great Barrier Reef important and what’s happening to it?
The situation is there’s no doubt it’s suffering from the effects of climate change and the slow increase in ocean temperature and acidification. From a global point of view, this area is still the largest, biggest, most intact bit of reef left in the world. It’s suffered degradation but it’s by no means dead and gone. NOW is the time to be redoubling our efforts to ensure its survival.
The Reef has evolved in a setting over millions of years where it regularly gets disturbed – by extreme weather events, by crown of thorns starfish. Being in a state of recovery is the way it exists. The crucial question is whether the recovery potential of the reef is being severely affected.
Over the last say 10 years there’s been a number of major disturbances on the reef. A series of really big cyclones have affected it. Crown of thorn starfish. And thermal bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. It’s started to recover – there are baby corals settling around the epicentre of the destruction – and there are numerous reefs still in good condition. But overall, scientists are saying that there’s cause for concern.
We have a window to turn this around, but it requires emissions reductions, and quickly, and marine protected areas. Those are the only things globally that are going to save our coral reef ecosystems.
Why should I care about ocean ecosystems, if I’m just an average person living my life in the city or wherever else?
Coral reefs are the canary in the coalmine. By 2050, there’s going to be another 2 billion people on the planet. I just look at it and go, if the coral reef ecosystems are failing, then we don’t have much of a chance of feeding all those people and sustaining our civilisation in the long term. If the reefs are going down, we’re all going down.
For an average person in the city, what this means is we need to be driving for is this push towards renewable energy. It’s now the cheapest way to produce power, and Australia is blessed with the highest per capita endowment of renewable energy of anywhere in the world.
We have an opportunity in Australia to be a global renewable energy superpower. It’s sitting in our lap. But it’s being ignored and undermined by our current crop of politicians because they have so many vested interests in the oil and gas industry.
For an average person, we need to push our politicians in the right direction. This is the biggest transition in energy for a hundred years.
So you’re saying we can have our cake and eat it too. By focusing on renewables, we can make the reef healthier while creating new, amazing jobs and rebuilding the economy?
Yes, we need to clear the logjam. Our country has so much more potential than it’s currently realising. We should be the smart country of our region. We need to be more than India’s and Asia’s quarry. I could go on…
It’s changing – the youth led climate movement around the world is evidence of that.
It’s an exciting time. When people are faced with a choice between change and chaos, the majority of people choose change – we just need to facilitate that change.
When you’re talking to young people, high school and university and TAFE students, what do you say to them. How should they be acting right now?
They should think personally about their own individual consumption choices – their carbon footprint, of foods, material goods, resources. The internet gives us the ability to look deeply into the footprint of these choices.
The second thing is, the renewable energy thing is here and it’s in our best interest to do it. You guys need to vote, you need to make your voices heard.
The third thing is, unfortunately your generation has been handballed this situation. You’ll need to fix it. But with collaboration and new thinking, you can make the massive changes that will be needed to make things more sustainable. The way you’re living now, at the beginning of your life, is massively different to how you’ll be living in the middle and end parts of your life. That’s an opportunity. Build this momentum for change.
So you’re saying, we do the right thing now – cap our emissions, vote with our votes and wallets, achieve the Paris Climate Accord objectives – but there’s still going to be damage. So let’s talk mitigation and adaptation. How can humans help protect the reef to mitigate the damage that’s locked in already?
One of the major stories that comes out is that protected reefs in marine reserves recover faster, and get damaged less. We need marine protected areas, no matter what’s going on in the oceanic ecosystems generally. We’ve got 33% of the Great Barrier Reef in fully protected areas, but we need to focus on those areas directly to our north, in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands – they directly feed into the Great Barrier Reef, but they’re not protected. And getting those areas protected means working with the locals in a bottom-up approach.
I’m still convinced that the best way the system will replenish itself is if we preserve it. There’s a lot of tech solutions being proposed – genetically modifying corals, and so on – and we need to understand those, but a system on the scale of the Great Barrier Reef needs the system itself protected. And we need to do a huge amount of research as we go, to see what needs protection the most, and which species are adapting themselves and proving tougher.
The other thing is sea level rise. The inertia in the West Antarctic ice sheet is so big that the trillions of tons of ice in that thing are not going to change direction anytime soon. Sea level is going to continue rising for the next few centuries. We need to deal with the fact that coastal infrastructure is slowly going to be inundated. We need to work out what we can save, what communities we need to move.
All of these things are necessary to avoid the dislocations and breakdowns that can cascade and lead to conflict.
One of the big discussions has to be, how do we move human civilization forward in a sustainable way? Eternal economic growth isn’t working. We need the next generation to be innovating in this way too.
What do we say to the local communities who are just trying to lift themselves out of poverty? How do we balance the need to feed so many billions of people while protecting our reefs and forests and so on?
The answer to that is crystal clear. Marine reserves have more big fish in them, and these big fish produce far more eggs than smaller fish. That means an area of marine reserve maximises the fishery yield into areas outside that reserve.
In our case, we’ve been communicating that finding to locals in PNG – mostly young women who are able to advocate in their own community, saying that the fish stocks are better and bigger when we protect the big fish around the reef. We can help the locals set up these protected areas in the best place to maximise fish stocks in the future.
What’s the role of women and young girls in making these changes?
Empowering women is one of the crucial things that has to happen. I see that very clearly in places like Melanesia, where the women traditionally own the land and the sea country – you only owned land where your mother was from. So there’s a history of women making the decisions… than in the last few decades that’s broken down. Encouraging the women to regain the power they traditionally had is important.
And the other thing we found is the bulk of students coming through studying conservation or environmental management – the majority are women. There’s this huge resource of smart, well trained indigenous women in these places. So we set up this organisation called the Sea Women of Melanesia, kind of new age eco missionaries… and within a year or two they’ll be running it themselves, they won’t need our help anymore.
You ran for the senate in Australia in the last election, but why on earth would you want to get involved in politics? What do you want to get out of that?
I don’t have any real desire to be down in Canberra, but I look at it as a case of, if I don’t then who?
We need people who recognise that climate action is needed to solve all these problems we’re facing.
We didn’t win the seat, but we’ll run again in 2021. Because a lot of what has to happen requires political solutions. We need to change our leaders, not just our lightbulbs. The decisions made by our government will affect us all for decades to come. The vested interests are quite sickening, to tell you the truth – they’ll affect us and our kids. We need to enact the change we’re pushing for. It’s inevitable.
The guys in there now are on their last gasp. They’re the old guard, and they’re worried. It’s like South Africa and the apartheid regime. I speak to a lot of people who get despondent about the global situation, and the way governments and media disregard the science, and I just say, we’re about to go from candles to fires. You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire.
In climate action we’re just getting started.