The UN is slowly warming to the task of protecting World Heritage sites from climate change


Jon C. Day, James Cook University

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has issued its strongest decision yet about climate change, acknowledging the worldwide threat posed to many World Heritage properties.

The decision (see pages 26-27 here), set to be adopted today at the completion of the Committee’s annual meeting in Krakow, Poland, “expresses its utmost concern regarding the reported serious impacts from coral bleaching that have affected World Heritage properties in 2016-17 and that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change”.

It also urges the 193 signatory nations to the World Heritage Convention to undertake actions to address climate change under the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial temperatures.

This decision marks an important shift in the level of recognition by the Committee tasked with protecting World Heritage properties, apparently jolted by the devastating bleaching suffered by the majority of World Heritage coral reefs around the world.

In the past, the Committee has restricted its decisions to addressing localised threats such as water pollution and overfishing, choosing to leave the responsibility to address global climate change to other parts of the United Nations.

In the preamble to its latest decision, the Committee has recognised that local efforts alone are “no longer sufficient” to save the world’s threatened coral reefs.

But while this is an encouraging progression, some members of the Committee are still struggling to come to terms with addressing the global impacts of climate change. This is despite the impacts becoming more pronounced on other World Heritage properties, including glaciers, rainforests, oceanic islands, and sites showing the loss of key species.

The World Heritage-listed glacial landscape around Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps.
Steinmann/Wikimedia Commons

The ‘jewels’ of marine world heritage

Last month, UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre released the first global scientific assessment of the impact of climate change on all 29 World Heritage-listed coral reefs that are “the jewels in the World Heritage crown”.

The report paints a dire picture, with all but three World Heritage coral reefs exhibiting bleaching over the past three years. Iconic sites like the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Northwest Hawaiian islands (United States), the Lagoons of New Caledonia (France), and Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles) have all suffered their worst bleaching on record.

The most widely reported damage was the unprecedented bleaching suffered by the Great Barrier Reef in 2016-17, which killed around 50% of its corals.

The scientific report predicts that without large reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, all 29 reefs will “cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century”.

Reefs can take 10-20 years to recover from bleaching. If our current emissions trajectory continues, within the next two decades, 25 out of the 29 World Heritage reefs will suffer severe heat stress twice a decade. This effectively means they will be unable to recover.

It should also be noted that the majority of World Heritage coral reefs are far better managed than other reefs around the world, so the implications of climate change for coral reefs globally are much worse.

All coral reefs are important

Almost one-third of the world’s marine fish species rely on coral reefs for some part of their life cycle. There are also 6 million people who fish on reefs in 99 countries and territories worldwide. This equates to about a quarter of the world’s small-scale fishers relying directly on coral reefs.

Half of all coral reef fishers globally are in Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific Island nations also have high proportions of reef fishers within their populations. In total, more than 400 million people in the poorest developing countries worldwide live within 100km of coral reefs. The majority of them depend directly on reefs for their food and livelihoods.

Coral reefs provide more value than any other ecosystem on Earth. They protect coastal communities from flooding and erosion, sustain fishing and tourism businesses, and host a stunning array of marine life. Their social, cultural and economic value has been estimated at US$1 trillion globally.

Recent projections indicate that climate-related loss of reef ecosystem services will total more than US$500 billion per year by 2100. The greatest impacts will be felt by the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on reefs.

Where else?

Recognising that the majority of the World Heritage coral reefs are expected to be seriously impacted by climate change is a good start. However, the Committee cannot afford to wait until similar levels of adverse impacts are evident at other natural and cultural heritage sites across the world.

The World Heritage Committee and other influential bodies must continue to acknowledge that climate change has already affected a wide range of World Heritage values through climate-related impacts such as species migrations, loss of biodiversity, glacial melting, sea-level rise, increases in extreme weather events, greater frequency of wildfires, and increased coastal erosion. To help understand the magnitude of the problem, the Committee has asked the World Heritage Centre and the international advisory bodies “to further study the current and potential impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties”, and report back in 2018.

The ConversationTwo of the key foundations of the World Heritage Convention are to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage, and to pass that heritage on to future generations. For our sake, and the sake of future generations, let’s hope we can do both.

Jon C. Day, PhD candidate, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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We quibble over ‘lawfare’, but the law is not protecting species properly anyway


Ted Lefroy, University of Tasmania and Benjamin Richardson, University of Tasmania

The federal government is set to go ahead with its crackdown on environmental “lawfare”, which would restrict green groups’ legal standing to challenge mining approvals and other developments.

The Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications yesterday endorsed the proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, citing the “costs to proponents and consequences for economic activity when major development projects are delayed by judicial review”.

The move was first announced in August, in the wake of a successful Federal Court challenge to the approval of the planned Adani mine in Queensland (since reapproved).

At the time, Attorney General George Brandis described such litigation as “vigilante” action by “radical green activists”, while agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce added in an ABC radio interview that the only people who should have standing to challenge mine proposals are those nearby who might be affected by dust, noise or water contamination.

But by seeking to limit who has the right to appeal its decisions, the government misunderstands the purpose of environmental legislation.

The amendments not only go against the progressive development of environmental law worldwide, which has helped to make approvals more open to public scrutiny, but they are also a grave injustice to nature itself.

Appealing prospects

Under the proposed amendment, a person or group will not be able to appeal a decision unless they can show that they will be “aggrieved” by the development, which typically implies suffering some direct and material adverse impact.

But, as Joyce also acknowledged, this is not a simple matter of physical proximity. Groundwater pollution, for instance, can affect people living many kilometres downstream. Determining who is or isn’t aggrieved could represent an entire new source of green tape.

Moreover, silencing legitimate public concerns in this way does not guarantee that a government’s preferred projects will be protected from legal challenge – a lesson the Tasmanian government learned when green groups collaborated with financial investors to defeat the Gunns pulp mill, in spite of the ignominious Pulp Mill Assessment Act.

But there is something more fundamental at stake here.

Against the tide

The question of whom or what should be protected by environmental law was raised by the US scholar Christopher Stone in his 1972 polemic Should Trees Have Standing? He argued that only by granting legal rights to nature would we change the culture that sees nature as an expedient resource at our disposal.

This would help to resolve a false dichotomy raised by the US environmentalist Aldo Leopold in a 1949 essay that helped to kickstart the environmental movement, in which he wrote that “we abuse nature because we treat it as a commodity which belongs to us rather than a community to which we belong”.

Clearly, nature is both community and commodity.

In 1999 the Australian government came close to recognising this when it passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Yet this protection is constrained in various ways, such as by being limited to designated threatened species (about 1% of Australia’s named plants and animals), areas of national environmental significance (such as world heritage properties), or certain areas under Commonwealth management.

So while anyone who can show they are likely to be affected by a decision has standing, usually only plants and animals that are threatened with extinction can qualify for legal protection. To use a medical analogy, they can only bulk bill if they’re terminally ill.

Prevention vs cure

Should we really only consider protecting nature when it’s on the way out? The fact that only 9% of species listed as threatened have ever recovered sufficiently to come off the list (and many have promptly gone back onto it) suggests that the Act is not working, even for the species it covers. It is not working because it is often not triggered until it’s too late, and the list of threatened species just keeps growing.

People on all sides of politics are currently arguing about who is being excluded from the EPBC Act. Meanwhile the law is failing to protect the plants and animals that are supposed to be included.

An alternative vision that evokes Christopher Stone’s ideal is beginning to find legal expression in some countries, such as New Zealand, where a long dispute between the government and Maori over management of a major river concluded in 2012 with an historic agreement that the Whanganui River is a legal person, with its own rights. Two guardians, one appointed by the local Maori iwi and the other by the government, will protect the river’s interests forever.

The challenge for science and the law is to develop criteria for protection based not on how rare something is, but on how significant it is to both nature and people – as both natural community and natural commodity. We should then empower environmental groups or other entities to act as guardians of that protected interest – and to defend it in any court.

The Conversation

Ted Lefroy, Director, Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and Benjamin Richardson, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: Sea Shepherd Offer to Protect Coral Sea


The link below is to an article reporting on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s offer to assist Australia in protecting the Coral Sea.

For more visit:
http://www.cqnews.com.au/story/2012/06/18/sea-shepherd-coral-sea-protectors/