We Can’t Rum from Climate Change, but We Can Get Involved

Sugarcane fields growing at the base of Walsh’s Pyramid, a beloved mountain outside of Cairns, QLD Australia (Source: Pyramid  Viewsa local newspaper in the Northern Queensland region).


The climate change discussion has long focused on the disastrous consequences of rising temperatures: melting ice caps leading to starving polar bears, or acidifying oceans leading to coral reef loss. One of the most devastating takeaways of the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report is that coral reefs will be completely lost if global temperature increases hit the 2C mark.

Climate change is certainly no small threat to diverse ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef; however, we often get too consumed by the enormity of the issues associated with it to investigate individual solutions.


So, what we do when we think about climate change?

The despair that accompanies the knowledge of ecosystem loss attributed to global climate change can have counterproductive effects on our effort in reducing our own carbon footprints and educating others on how to follow suit. Renee Lertzman, an environmental psychologist, suggests that “environmental melancholia” can cause people to obsess over specific behavioral changes – such as committing to plant-based diets or recycling – to the point where they become frustrated with those who don’t adopt the same values at the same speed.

I applaud those who live mindfully every day: those reducing their carbon footprint by decreasing their meat consumption, cutting back plastic use, and traveling via public transportation – better yet, via bicycle. However, a climate-conscious is not easy to quickly adopt, and the urgency for it can cause some to be too overcome with grief. Worst-case scenario, one chooses climate denial.


After all, the fate of the Great Barrier Reef is a heavy burden to bear.


Do not mistake this for an attempt at sugarcoating

If I may be so bold, I’d like to offer an alternative approach to maintaining a climate change conscious. This recipe for change simply calls for one to take a closer look at local environmental issues before they tackle saving the entire planet.

Take the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef, for example.

Sugarcane farms along the coast of Northern Queensland, parallel to GBR (Source: Sugar Milling Council).

While global climate change is the leading threat to the health of the GBR, other localized issues are also at play. Many people are familiar with the Great Barrier Reef as one of the largest living structures in the world. What some might not know is that the GBR is within proximity of the majority of Queensland, Australia’s sugarcane farming areas.

Australia is the second largest raw sugar export in the world, and 95% of that production occurs in Northern Queensland. Sugar that isn’t exported serves as the key raw material distilled into Bundaberg Rum, widely known as the famous Aussie spirit.

According to a recent study, sugarcane fertilizer loss contributes to 56% of the dissolved inorganic nitrogen In the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA). The nutrient loading from the run-off leads to poor water quality and outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish.

Crown of Thorn Starfish (COTS) once contributed to the health of the reef by feeding on overgrowing coral.  However, climate change has made it difficult for corals to reproduce, and the abundance of Crown of Thorn starfish gnawing away at the limited living coral is contributing to the struggle.

COTS are abundant in the GBR because nutrients in fertilizers feed phytoplankton. The starfish larvae have higher rates of survival with the surplus of fertilizer-fed plankton and a lack of predators from overfishing. More food for larvae means more COTS make it to adulthood, feed on coral, and reproduce. Ultimately, the starfish consume coral faster than they can regrow.


Snorkeling the outskirts of the GBR. I made a starfish friend in the shallows on my way back to shore (Starfish pictured is not a Crown of Thorn)

This information might be startling we tend to overlook the negative side effects of agriculture because it serves a critical role in our livelihoods.  It’s hard to find a balance between profitable farming and thriving ecosystems,  but is it necessary to sacrifice one in order to save the other? No. Plus, does anyone want to tell an Australian to reduce their rum intake? Definitely not.


Luckily, a balance can be met through communication, community support, and conservation.


All hope is not lost


Water quality improvement is not the be all end all to the obstacles the GBR will encounter, but improving the quality of the water entering the reef will benefit its overall health. Further, efforts to reduce nutrient loading will contribute to the reef’s long-term resilience to climate change and other disturbances


Recognizing this, local organizations are working closely with farmers to


Here’s my point.    


It’s much easier to focus on a localized approach to issues associated with climate change rather than taking on the weight of the global issues. For example, citizens of Northern Queensland can work directly with their local farmers, government, and community to incentivize and implement management strategies that reduce nitrogen run-off into the GBR.

Cairns Stencil Drain Project reminds community members to be mindful their impacts on water quality in the region (Source: CAFNEC Marine Response Team)

Educating one another about issues that can be approached at the local level can have a lasting impact and requires as little as an informed conversation.

I’m not saying, “don’t worry about the Great Barrier Reef, that’s not your problem.” I’m saying start small: learn about the practices of your local farmers, talk to a friend about

environmental issues within your own community, participate in citizen science, show up to community meetings and listen.


Most importantly, be mindful but go easy on yourself. Get involved – definitely vote – but remember, the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t built in a day.


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