Why Queenslanders need to be the first to step up and show we are Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s the largest living structure on Earth covering almost 350,000 square kilometres along Queensland’s coast. It’s an intricate marine system of 2900 individual reefs, housing more than 1500 species of fish. It’s bang on our doorstep, and it needs our help. ‘It’ is the Great Barrier Reef – our great natural icon. Following two major, devastating coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, the reef is now at crisis point. We’re staring down the barrel of a gun, figuratively, contemplating a future without the reef. And that is not something Earth Hour co-founder Andy Ridley is comfortable with. Cue a call to action. Cue the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, set to launch August. It’s time we unite to ensure the survival of the reef.
It was while working in Amsterdam in March 2016 (the ice having finally thawed from his beard) that Andy Ridley and the rest of the world learned a major coral bleaching event had critically damaged a significant section of the Great Barrier Reef along an 800-kilometre stretch north of Cairns.
The news came from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, which had conducted an aerial survey of the reef. In that northern section, only four of the 520 reefs surveyed showed no signs of bleaching.
The bleaching was attributed to global warming. Warmer-than-usual waters drive corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae (the coral’s colour and food source) from their tissue, turning the coral ghostly white. If allowed a recovery period before another bleaching, and conditions improve, many corals can be recolonised by algae, but the recovery period takes at least 10 years.
“The reef is one of the largest and most special icons on the planet; it holds a place in people’s hearts far beyond our shores here,” says Andy, who, while born in England and having lived around the world, was lured to Australia in 2002 by his desire to dive the reef.
In response to the 2016 bleaching report, Andy contacted a friend in Singapore with whom he’d had a conversation, years earlier, about designing the world’s biggest fish tank to display the reef’s reality on a daily basis. “That idea was sort of the preemptive to Citizens,” explains Andy. At the suggestion of his mate he contacted Alex de Waal at Tourism Tropical North Queensland. With TTNQ, federal government and Reef & Rainforest Research Centre funding, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and its committed team of three began to form, with Andy at the helm. The objective? Create a global movement based on a sense of shared common purpose around the long-term survival of the reef.
Andy relocated to Cairns in February this year with his family, wife Dr Tammie Matson a zoologist and accomplished elephant expert with North Queensland roots having grown up in Townsville, and their two children Solo, 7, and Shep, 3. Weeks later, in April 2017, the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies’ 2017 aerial survey of the Great Barrier Reef revealed further devastating news – that the reef had suffered another massive bleaching event, this time extending into the central zone between Cairns and Townsville, which was largely spared in 2016. Adding to the devastation was Cyclone Debbie, which tore through that same region in March 2017.
The survey estimated that 1°C rise in temperature had caused four bleaching events within 20 years – in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017. (No scientific research shows signs of bleaching before 1998, even studies of 400-year-old corals.) With no time between bleachings to allow recovery, 2016 and 2017’s back-to-back events are a major concern for the reef, Queenslanders and the world.
Deloitte research, released early July estimated the reef’s economic value at $56 billion, which in Deloitte’s numerical terms is 12 Sydney Opera Houses. “The thing with the Sydney Opera House though,” points out Andy, “is that you can repair it, you can rebuild it – the reef you can’t. The true price tag is ‘priceless’.
“If you’re prepared to lose the reef, what aren’t you prepared to lose?”
More than 450 million people around the world rely on reef systems for their livelihood. “In Queensland we have the most massive reef system in the world, we have some of the best scientists, we have a $6.5 billion tourism industry, we have an industry that relies entirely on the health of the reef, and therefore is extremely motivated beyond the cash…. So we’ve actually got the ingredients for a pretty extraordinary, globally relevant conservation organisation.”
And that’s significant when looking at our involvement as Citizens. “We’re trying to build an organisation, we’re trying to build a movement. We’re not trying to build a campaign,” emphasises Andy.
“It’s been a difficult couple of years in communication. When the first bleaching happened, I don’t think people were prepared in how to talk about this to the world. It’s horrifying to see how many media headlines around this use the word ‘dead’. One of the primary roles of the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is to say – hey, the reef is not dead!”
Coral are resilient little creatures and with global action creating better environmental conditions following the bleaching process they may recolonise and the reef could survive. The trigger here though is action.
“We need to face the reality of the challenges. Even if we nail the Paris targets now, we will still face the legacy of climate change for at least the next 20 years.” [In December 2015, 195 nations signed the Paris climate accord, agreeing to take action to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Looking at our current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, that’s about 20 years away.] “So how do we hit those targets as quickly as possible, and how do we build resilience around the reef as best we can? That’ll take almost a moon-shot level of innovation and design.”
Since news of the 2017 bleaching, Andy’s team has identified three pillars for Citizens. “The first pillar looks at what can we do in the way of direct intervention on the reef,” explains Andy. “There are lots of projects going on already, so: How do we tell that story? How do we help with innovation of that? How do we bring the thoughts, the minds, and the support to help with those direct intervention projects?
“For example, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Eye on the Reef is a pretty extraordinary project. How do we get more help and resources? How do we take that to the next level? The people at the marine park are hungry for that; it’s an opportunity.
“The second is the longer-term approach globally, which is looking at: What actions do you take in your house? What brands do you choose if you live in Beijing? How can a project in Rio have importance to the Great Barrier Reef?
“The third pillar is communication. How do you maximise empathy, inspire and communicate that in an authentic way that recognises both the beauty and the immediate challenges of the reef? And how do we communicate across the globe, almost at a one-to-one level?”
While Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is trying to achieve what has never before been done, Andy has worked relevant projects with transferred learnings. “With Earth Hour, we connected communities around the world. With Circle Economy we decoupled waste and useful resources from prosperity. We’re going to have 2.5 billion people going into the middleclass over the next 30-odd years. With 7.9 billion people on the planet, how do you have prosperity without just destroying everything?”
With Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef still in ‘start-up’ mode, Andy says his goal is to build a “super strong foundation, metaphorically”.
“We’re being pretty pragmatic,” he explains. “We know a good place to start is the community and businesses along the reef’s coast, whether in Bundaberg or in Cairns or in between. The second place is the visitors to the region every year, which is a pretty diverse cross section of people – how do we send those people home as Citizens to become the reef experts at their dinner tables, or in their classrooms?”
Currently, Citizens is rolling out a tourism toolkit, explaining what the organisation is and how to sign up. A statue will be inaugurated at Cairns’ Esplanade in August as a physical mark of the Citizens.
“The greatest threat we face is apathy.”
– Andy Ridley
At this launch stage, Citizens cannot afford websites in languages other than English. As it grows though, it will look for pathways around the world. “We’re trying at the moment to work out some really interesting partnerships in China,” explains Andy. “They have their own very compelling drivers for change, like air pollution in Beijing. So is there a real opportunity to engage with China.
“We are working with Microsoft already,” continues Andy. “There is opportunity with all of these different data sets sitting out on the reef – scientists, boats, every individual who goes out to the reef with a phone in essence becomes a data point…. How can a Citizen become valuable from a data perspective, not just to a big corporate for monetary value, but more for the good of the Great Barrier Reef or some other part of the reef.”
Growing up in rural Norfolk, England, Andy Ridley was far from the sun, sand and reef. Eager to explore the world, at 18 he got a flight to Hong Kong (funded by working in a potato farm). There he got a job working for a marine and land survey company, carrying very heavy batteries up hills to plug into transponders. “I was basically a donkey.”
Andy’s love of travelling eventually led him to Australia – lured in fact by the Great Barrier Reef. “I was working for the Prince’s Trust in London, looking after the big events like Party in the Park [large fundraising and awareness concerts in Hyde Park]. It was an amazing job,” recalls Andy. “I took six months unpaid leave to go diving on the reef; and I decided to stay here.”
That was in 2002. In 2006 while living in Sydney and working for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Andy and his team were in a restaurant mapping out ideas to promote climate change. On the back of a beer mat, Andy sketched out the original concept for Earth Hour – or the Big Flick it was initially called. Earth Hour grew from one city (Sydney) in its first year (2007), to 370 cities in its second year, and now more than 7000 cities or towns in 2017, Earth Hour’s tenth year. The grassroots phenomenon is now regarded as the world’s biggest movement for climate change.
“One of the great challenges with Earth Hour once we started it, was how do we go beyond the hour?” reveals Andy. “We didn’t really have a ‘beyond-the-hour success’ until Earth Hour 2012, when we got our first major conservation outcomes…. To be really candid, it was hard work to get beyond the symbolism. Even though we knew the symbolism was critically important. If you think about any major social movement – Suffragettes, Rosa Parks on a bus – symbolism is critically important, there’s always a moment of symbolism.” Andy isn’t sure what Citizens’ moment will be, but he believes the Citizens will determine it. “The more that Citizens is owned by the citizens, the better it will work. You’ll be surprised who the heroes in Citizens end up being.”
With his roles at the Prince’s Trust, WWF, Earth Hour, Circle Economy and now Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, exactly from where does his drive for change come? Andy says he always wanted to work for causes. “I’m of the LiveAid generation. I was 14 when I saw the LiveAid concert  and thought it was extraordinary you could get the whole world to mobilise behind something. It just seemed to me that we underestimate our ability to unite behind a common purpose. If you really want something to change, we are the first generation to be able to do it. I don’t think we’ve really done it yet.”
Perhaps Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef will be the platform to achieve that global change; real, long-term change that actually achieves the Paris targets. And as the reef’s immediate neighbours, we need to be part of the first wave of action. That’s what good neighbours do, they help each other in times of need.
“The greatest threat we face is apathy,” says Andy. “We have a leadership role here. Whether you’re in Townsville or Cairns, whatever your job is, leading by example we will inspire the world.”
So, citizens, let’s do this. Join the movement. Sign up at citizensgbr.org