The idea of travel can conjure a range of emotions, mostly jubilation, but for the climate conscious traveller, you might also feel guilt. Guilt that you’re visiting delicate natural environments, that you’ll be contributing to the carbon effects of flying or that you’re visiting a destination under great threat from our fossil fuelled atmosphere.
Before visiting the Great Barrier Reef, I felt conflicted by the notion of wanting to be an ethical traveller and yet potentially harming the very place I intended on visiting. I had questions; how could it be safe to travel to a place under threat and help contribute to its survival?
Having seen the Reef with my own eyes I can vouch that while this popular traveller destination is still under threat, it also needs visitors to see for themselves that the Reef is alive and worth fighting for. Many people around the world think the Reef is already dead and gone, and the apathy that comes with that is a huge threat to the Reef's future. Flying is of course a big contributor to carbon emissions, so whether it's Australians catching trains and buses up to the Reef or others overseas visiting sites of natural beauty closer to them, travel can be a powerful way to reignite our determination to fight for a healthy planet.
I got in touch with my friend Kate O'Callaghan from Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef to ask her advice for travellers who are unsure about whether it's safe to visit the Great Barrier Reef, despite the ever-present threat from climate change.
Here are the highlights from our chat:
The Great Barrier Reef draws big crowds from local and foreign visitors alike, three million a year in fact, what can travellers do to help protect the Reef as a visitor?
First and foremost, do your research and choose a tourism operator with the right eco credentials. Many operators are going above and beyond to educate visitors about the threats facing the Reef and to make their businesses as sustainable and as low impact as possible. It's important to support the businesses doing the right thing and to get an authentic experience.
If you're flying to the Reef, offset your emissions! Hardly anyone does it, but it's a really important thing to do and doesn't cost much. And of course try to avoid flying when possible!
Be mindful of the ingredients in your sunscreen. Sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate are known toxic ingredients to many wildlife species, including coral. Oxybenzone in particular can damage the DNA of coral and can cause corals to become more vulnerable to bleaching.
Lastly, when you return home, get out there and spread the word! Tell your friends what you've seen, reduce your carbon footprint, become an advocate for the Reef and vote for people who have strong climate policy. And become a Citizen of the Great Barrier Reef!
The stakes are pretty high when it comes to conserving the Reef, what steps can people take to protect the Reef?
The stakes are extremely high. The climate emergency is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and we are already witnessing the direct impacts of climate change on one of our most precious natural icons. If we're prepared to lose the Reef, what aren't we prepared to lose? But it's not all doom and gloom! Large areas of the Reef are still incredible, but the overall trend is one of decline in coral cover and diversity,
No matter where you are in the world you can take action:
1. Try to live as sustainably as possible – waste less, ditch single-use everything, cut your energy use, use public transport, offset your flights. It might not seem like much, but everyone must be part of the climate solution.
2. Vote with your wallet - every time you buy something, you are making a choice for the planet. Buy local, buy ethical and support companies doing the right thing.
3. Believe in the power of collective action - individually we are one drop but together we are an ocean!
4. Do not be paralysed by apathy - these issues can often seem overwhelming, but it's crucial not to give up hope. Turn that anger or sadness into something positive - every action and conversation matters.
The amount of single use plastics we use daily is staggering, what impact would it have on the Great Barrier Reef if we all switched to plastic-free alternatives tomorrow? And how long would it take to see results?
The impacts if we switched away from single use plastics would be huge and almost immediate – 900 million plastics bags were saved in Queensland alone during the first year of the plastic bag ban.
Apart from the reduction in marine debris - the most obvious and visible issue - there would be a significant reduction in carbon emissions which people don't often think about. Around 40% of all plastic manufactured is used in packaging - used only once, then thrown away. Plastic is a product of the fossil fuel industry and its manufacturing fuels climate change, the effects of which trickle into the atmosphere and eventually our oceans.
The back-to-back coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 were unprecedented, and a significant amount of coral cover was lost, primarily on the northern and central Great Barrier Reef, inshore where the water is warmer. But the Reef is enormous, the length of the west coast of the USA and made up of thousands of individual reefs, so the impacts were not uniform.
Get in the water and sure, you will see the impact of these events, but you will still be blown away by its beauty. Nature is incredibly resilient, and we can turn things around, but we need to act now. Tell your friends that the Reef is alive, that it's struggling, and that it needs our help - we can't just sit back and do nothing.
After chatting with Kate, my feelings of guilt dissipated. Visiting environments that are under threat caused by climate change can open our minds to their resilience and help us fight for their survival. We can see with our own eyes that there is still hope if we work together in conservation, education and build climate awareness. Destinations like the Great Barrier Reef require action not apathy. It's definitely not too late.
Written by Lexi Connors
Lexi Connors is an ethical travel writer, currently on a round-the-world trip with carry-on luggage. You can read more of her work on her travel blog. This article has been edited for content, read the original interview with Kate O'Callaghan here.