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Australia rejects U.N. warning to list Great Barrier Reef as "in danger"

Scientists use mini-satellites to save coral reefs
Scientists use mini-satellites to save coral ... 03:23

The United Nations says the Great Barrier Reef has suffered such extensive damage that it should be listed as "in danger." The warning prompted an immediate rejection from the Australian government.  

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee warned Tuesday that "urgent" action is needed to combat the effects of climate change and preserve the remaining coral. The region has suffered three catastrophic mass coral bleaching events since 2015, caused by warming ocean temperatures

The report found that there is "no possible doubt" that the Reef "is facing ascertained danger." It found the government has not met water quality and land management targets, among other factors.

The committee will vote on the designation at an upcoming meeting in China next month. 

Adding the world's largest coral reef system to the endangered list could cause it to lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — which could significantly impact tourism and Australia's economy. It first gained heritage status in 1981, but failure by the government to take action to save the reef may result in its removal. 

Coral Bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia
Bleached coral on the Great Barrier Reef outside Cairns, Australia during a mass bleaching event, thought to have been caused by heat stress due to warmer water temperatures as a result of global climate change. Brett Monroe Garner / Getty Images

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said Tuesday that Australia will "strongly oppose" the recommendation, citing the government's $3 billion investment in reef protection. She called the U.N.'s approach "flawed" and claimed its actions are being taken "without adequate consultation." 

"Australian officials have been stunned by a backflip on previous assurances from U.N. officials that the Reef would not face such a recommendation prior to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting hosted by China in July," Ley said in a statement. "The Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the world and this draft recommendation has been made without examining the Reef first hand, and without the latest information."  

The reef is a key marine ecosystem, home to more than 1,600 species of fish and over 600 species of coral, according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It's also a big boost to Australia's economy, responsible for $6.4 billion annually and 64,000 jobs.  

"I agree that global climate change is the single biggest threat to the world's reefs but it is wrong, in our view, to single out the best-managed reef in the world for an 'in danger' listing," Ley said. 

Dead coral found at lady Elliot island.In the quest to
Dead coral found at lady Elliot island. In the quest to save the Great Barrier Reef, researchers, farmers and business owners are looking for ways to reduce the effects of climate change.  Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Climate Council, Australia's leading climate change non-profit, said the U.N. warning "brings shame" on the nation's government. Several organizations, including Greenpeace Australia, blamed Prime Minister Scott Morrison's continued support of fossil fuels and failure to take action against climate change.

"The situation is dire, and our response should match that," said spokeswoman and climate scientist Lesley Hughes. "It is important we remember that the Reef can be restored, but it needs a break from severe back-to-back bleaching events, and the only way to do that is to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions." 

In December, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lowered the health status of the reef from "significant concern" to "critical," noting that climate change is now the biggest threat to natural World Heritage sites. It has lost half of its coral to climate change since 1995, and its "critical" status is the most urgent designated status in the classification system of the UNESCO advisory board. 

"The prospect of losing the World Heritage status of our Reef will be a huge shock for many Australians, but it is a powerful message that our Government needs to urgently lift its ambition on the threats to its existence – climate change and water quality," said Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia. "The federal government should seize the opportunity to transform the nation into a renewable energy superpower." 

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