The culprit, according to the panel, is climate change — specifically, the rapid warming of the oceans. Last year, record-high ocean temperatures triggered a bleaching event that affected 93 percent of the reef. Almost half of the reef’s coral has died since.
The panel, which is made up of scientists and environmental experts, conceded that the best that can be hoped for is “maintaining ecological function over the coming decades.” It also argued that any response aimed at helping the Great Barrier Reef must include policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“Members agreed that in our lifetime and on our watch, substantial areas of the Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding ecosystems are experiencing major long-term damage which may be irreversible unless action is taken now,” the panel’s official statement read.
Speaking in Sydney on Tuesday night, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the death of the Great Barrier Reef “one of the great tragedies of our lives.”
John McCain just now, "I believe one of the great tragedies of our lives is the Great Barrier Reef dying."
— Nick O'Malley (@npomalley) May 30, 2017
McCain used to be extremely outspoken about climate change, going so far as to give an entire speech on the issue in Portland, Oregon during the 2008 presidential campaign. McCain used to support a cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon emissions, authoring several bills on the issue before his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Since that defeat, however, McCain has ceded ground on climate leadership, as the Republican party at large has become increasingly antagonistic towards domestic and international climate policies.
In 2009, McCain opposed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which would have created a cap-and-trade based system for carbon emissions. That same year, the League of Conservation Voters gave McCain a 9 percent on their annual scorecard. Every year since, McCain has scored below 32 percent — in 2016, he earned a score of 12 percent, registering just two pro-environment votes and 15 anti-environment votes.
This year, McCain voted to confirm Trump’s most anti-climate nominees, supporting Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
McCain’s comments in Sydney come as the Trump administration continues to debate whether or not to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which was signed by almost 200 countries in December of 2015. The agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. McCain voiced support Tuesday for remaining in the agreement, either in keeping with the commitments made under President Obama or by suggesting “modifications which would make it palatable for us and acceptable to us to join.” (Arguments in favor of renegotiating the agreement to obtain better “economic” terms for the United States ignore the fact that climate action, according to economic experts, will save the planet trillion of dollars in the long run.)
“If we don’t address [climate change], I am very much afraid about what the world is going to look like for our children and grandchildren,” McCain said.
McCain is not wrong to worry about his children and grandchildren: Climate change is indeed an issue that, if left unaddressed, will have devastating consequences for future generations. Because solving the problem requires fundamental transformations — in the way humans generate and use energy, transport ourselves, and manufacture goods — solutions require strong leadership and innovative thinking.