should list the Great Barrier Reef
as a World Heritage Site that is “in danger
,” according to draft
recommendations, echoing scientists’ warnings that climate change
is wreaking havoc on one of the world’s most iconic structures.
The United Nations
Cultural Organization said on Tuesday that the ongoing effects of warmer temperatures along the reef — which have battered the structure and left large swaths of corals dying or dead — justified the dramatic move, which would call on the Australian
government to pursue “the most ambitious actions to address climate change.”
Listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” would be a significant blow to Australian identity, though it would be consistent with scientists’ warnings for years that climate change has continued unabated. According to UNESCO, the designation is intended to “inform the international community of conditions that threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List.”
The suggestion sparked confusion and outrage among Australian politicians
, who claimed that the recommendations had caught the country off guard. The country's environment
minister, Sussan Ley, stated that the government would "strongly oppose" the designation and that UNESCO had failed to adequately assess efforts to save the reef.
“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upturned,” Ley told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
UNESCO, on the other hand, pointed directly to the Australian government's "insufficient" progress toward meeting targets set out in its Reef 2050 plan, saying the country must work
urgently to mitigate the effects of climate change. Researchers have argued that while the plan cites climate change as the primary threat to corals worldwide, the effort largely ignores the phenomenon in plans to save the reef.
The agency also cited a series of devastating mass coral bleaching events along the Great Barrier Reef in recent years, which have killed swaths of the structure. The International Union
said the damage over the past four years was so severe that the reef was downgraded to “critical” in December.
UNESCO's draft recommendations state that Australia's plan "requires stronger and clearer commitments, in particular towards urgently countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water
quality improvement and land management measures."
The World Heritage Committee will decide whether to accept the recommendation during its meeting in China
on July 16. If it does, it will be the first time a natural World Heritage Site has been listed as being threatened primarily by climate change.
For years, Australian officials have battled UNESCO to avoid the designation; in 2015, the government successfully lobbied against the measure, even as it aggressively pursued plans for massive new coal mines.
The Great Barrier Reef is still recovering from two mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, when hotter-than-usual seawater washed over the corals, effectively cooking large stretches. During the phenomenon, once-colorful corals turn bone white as the algae that feeds them leaves their skeletons. If temperatures stabilize, the corals can recover and heal, but in severe cases, they die.
In early 2020, a third mass bleaching event occurred along the Great Barrier Reef, and scientists compared it to watching the Louvre Museum “burn to the ground.”
Half of the corals on the reef have died since the 1990s, according to a study published in October.