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November 2014

There is a frenzy in the media about US President Barack Obama’s comment on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) during his speech at the UQ, at the margins of the G20 summit the other day in Brisbane, and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s response to these comments.

But I think both Julie Bishop and the media are getting it wrong. Translated in environmental economics speak, Obama was saying: ‘I put a very high passive use value on the GBR. This is composed of bequest value (the mention of children and grandchildren), option value (I have not yet visited but I would like to have the option to) and existence values (I value the GBR just because it is there)’. He was also suggesting that he is not alone, and probably represents the views of many Americans, but also many other citizens of the world. So, it is very likely that the global passive use values for the GBR run in many tens, and maybe hundreds, of billions of dollars.

This is because the GBR is such an iconic environmental asset, recognizable throughout the world, which implies that its protection (or otherwise) should not be exclusively left to Australia, and certainly not left just to the QLD government alone. The whole world should contribute to the preservation of the GBR, simply because the values that are placed on it are global, which is precisely why a global agreement on climate change is so important. President Obama made an important step in that direction at the APEC summit preceding the G20.

The fact that the Australian government is defensive about the issue just further points to the uneasy position in which the government finds itself, and particularly on the international scene. Australia should be more active on reaching a global climate deal, not the least because we are the custodians of some of the world’s most iconic environmental assets, such as the GBR. But this is in stark contrast with the political rhetoric of the government at home, which is bordering on climate change denialism.

So, rather than trying to explain to the world that the QLD and Commonwealth governments are doing something about the reef (which they do, but probably not enough), the Australian government should take a significant part in a global climate deal. This will be to the benefit of the GBR and other iconic environmental assets around the world, but also to the benefit of Australia’s international reputation.