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Australians can’t agree on how to save the Great Barrier Reef and it’s getting ugly

A renowned coral reef researcher wants Australia to curb emissions, but some say there’s another way

by Arielle Duhaime-Ross
May 2 2018, 7:00pm

A recent study showed how vulnerable Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is to climate change, but the question of what to do about it is far from settled. Australians have yet to agree on how to balance a long-term strategy to save the reef against the short-term needs of an economy that relies on tourism — and fossil fuels.

A full third of the corals that make up the Great Barrier Reef were damaged in a bleaching event in 2016, according to a study published in April in the journal Nature . Coral bleaching occurs when ocean water gets warmer, causing corals to expel the colorful algae that live in their tissues. Algae provide coral with food, so without them, many die of starvation. Because of climate change, coral bleaching events are happening more often.

That’s what scientists like James Cook University researcher and renowned coral scientist Terry Hughes think the Australian government is failing to respond to. Instead of funding efforts to regrow coral or kill the starfish species that eats corals, he says the government should put all that money toward curbing emissions — dealing with climate change once and for all.

“There's kind of a smokescreen whereby governments are saying ‘we can fix this,’” without actually dealing with the root problem,” Hughes says. The only solution is to “deal with climate change. It’s the elephant in the room.”

But not everyone agrees. Col McKenzie, who runs a trade association for marine park tourism, received a lot of attention earlier this year after he told The Guardian Australia that Hughes is a “dick.” He says that although climate change is the biggest problem the reef faces, a lot can be done to help the reef on a local level, like killing starfish and reducing water pollution.

“[Hughes’] comment was that the marine tourism industry was shitting itself about its future and it's just simply not true,” McKenzie told VICE News. “If we protect water quality, if we can buy the coral time to adapt to the changing conditions, I believe we have a very good chance of success.”

VICE News visited the reef with Hughes, who’s recently found himself pivoting toward climate policy, and spoke with Mckenzie, who certainly hasn’t softened his stance on Hughes.