by Ebony Bennett, Deputy Director of The Australia Institute.
Watching Brazil’s National Museum burn this week was a tragic reminder that, if we don’t take care, we can snap the threads that bind us to our history forever.
Over a matter of hours, tens of millions of artefacts were reduced to ash. There’s no doubt it’s a disaster, but the news that it was likely preventable makes it a tragedy.
The Atlantic reported that “the burned building…had never been completely renovated in its 200-year history. It had long suffered from obvious infrastructure problems including leaks, termite infestations, and—crucially—no working sprinkler system”.
Whether it is 200 years old, 20,000 years old or 20 million years old, Australia should take care to avoid the same mistakes with our national treasures. Two of Australia’s world-renowned historic sites are facing preventable tragedies, but we’re using our own gas and coal to fuel the fire.
Firstly, the Great Barrier Reef. Earlier this week it was revealed that — during an unprecedented marine heatwave— the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the agency charged with protecting the reef from damage, had to scale back its monitoring of coral bleaching because it didn’t have enough funding. There’s no problem if you can’t see it, right?
In 2016, the Reef Authority was able to conduct more than 600 in-water surveys of reefs to assess the damage from bleaching. But in 2017, during unprecedented back-to-back mass bleaching events, the authority ‘relied mainly on aerial surveys conducted by other well-regarded research bodies’. We wouldn’t expect a hospital to fix broken limbs without an X-Ray, how can the Reef Authority fight threats to the reef if it can’t quantify the scale and dimensions of the problem?
While the Reef Authority ran out of money, this year’s federal budget saw the government allocate a $443.3 million grant to little-known charity the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
All six years of the public grant were paid upfront in a lump sum and the cash is currently sitting in term deposits with six banks, including the Big Four banks.
Why is this a problem? Even if we ignore revelations of the Big Four’s alleged money-laundering for terrorists, charging dead people fees and fees-for-no-service from the banking Royal Commission—stay with me here—the Big Four are also responsible for the majority of lending to the fossil fuel industry in Australia.
This week The Australia Institute and Future Super released a discussion paper Banking Against the Reef showing the Big Four lent $2.3 billion to fossil fuel projects last year that will collectively emit the equivalent of almost ten times Australia’s total 2017 emissions over the lifetime of the projects. Why would you invest in the cause of the problem you are trying to solve?
Just like every cigarette is doing you damage, every fossil fuel project is doing the climate damage. Crown of thorns starfish and agricultural runoff may be persistent threats to the health of the reef, but as the reef Foundation recognises, global warming is an existential threat.
That’s why the Great Barrier Reef Foundation should urgently divest its $443.3 million public grant from the Big Four. There are more than 50 fossil free local banks to switch to and it can easily align its investments with its mission to protect the reef.
Divestment is hardly a radical concept. In 2015 the ACT government became the first Australian government to divest, joining the trillion-dollar Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund (the largest in the world) in a worldwide movement that has shifted around US$7 trillion in assets under management out of fossil fuel related companies and activities. If and when the Reef Foundation divest from fossil fuels, it will be in good company.
To be fair, the Reef Foundation was not expecting the almost half billion-dollar grant. It did not have a policy to guide the investment of its undisbursed funding, but it has the opportunity now to build an investment policy that screens out any companies that directly contribute to threats to the Great Barrier Reef, including climate change. To do otherwise would be perverse.
Now to the other world wonder threatened by fossil fuel projects: the ancient rock art in Western Australia’s Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula.
Murujuga has been described as ‘the world’s greatest outdoor gallery’. It is more ancient than the pyramids of Egypt and home to more than a million engravings. The petroglyphs date back to the last ice age, when Tasmania was still connected to the mainland, and you can find carvings of the thylacine (the Tasmanian Tiger) there among carvings which include other extinct megafauna and the oldest existing representation of a human face on Earth. The engravings are the work and history of fifty millennia of Aboriginal people who lived there. The ‘newest’ petroglyphs were carved in the 1800s before colonists and police massacred the artists, the Yaburara People, or drove them from the land in what is known as the Flying Foam Massacre.
So Murujuga is a site of both Australia’s modern and ancient history and, here too, fossil fuel projects threaten its future. About 5000 rocks are estimated to have been destroyed by mining companies during the construction of the North West Shelf. Last year it was reported that the CSIRO, which is paid by the WA government and industry to monitor the impacts of industry emissions on the petroglyphs, made ‘a series of errors’ in its advice on the effect of acid deposition on the rock art.
So here we have yet another failure to monitor the degradation of Australian landmarks due to fossil fuel projects.
As then Treasurer Scott Morrison said ‘it is time that this historical and nationally significant precinct, receives the genuine attention it deserves…It will be an extraordinary landmark that people will come from far and wide to see’—only he was talking about erecting another monument to Captain Cook, not protecting Murujuga.
The Great Barrier Reef and Murujuga tell the story of the history of Earth, the history of the Aboriginal people who continue to live there and the history of Australia since colonisation.
The Reef Foundation is free to bank with the Big Four. Mining companies are free to keep the polluting the atmosphere (so far). Prime Minister Scott Morrison is free to pray for the protection of Indigenous rock art as he is to pray for rain in a drought (though I suspect Australians would also like to see some policy from their Prime Minister). There is nothing in Brazil’s Constitution that says they had to install sprinklers in their National Museum. Like Australia, it’s a free country.
But the destruction of the Brazil National Museum’s millions of artefacts, the back-to-back bleaching of the Reef and the destruction of ancient rock art in Murujuga are all reminders that—once lost—some things are lost to us forever.
Ebony Bennett is Deputy Director of The Australia Institute @ebony_bennett