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Walpole, L. C., and W. L. Hadwen. 2022. Extreme events, loss, and grief—an evaluation of the evolving management of climate change threats on the Great Barrier Reef. Ecology and Society 27(1):37.

Extreme events, loss, and grief—an evaluation of the evolving management of climate change threats on the Great Barrier Reef

1Alluvium Consulting, 2International Water Centre, 3School of Environment and Science, 4Australian Rivers Institute, 5Griffith Climate Action Beacon, 6Griffith University


Coral reefs across the world have demonstrated an incredible resilience to disturbance, having persisted for over 200 million years withstanding local, short-term shocks such as cyclones and bleaching events, as well as large-scale, long-term global changes such as sea-level fluctuations. However, there are now many persistent and growing threats to the health and productivity of global reef systems such as the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), including water temperature change and subsequent coral bleaching, invasive species, severe weather events, and water quality degradation. Among these, it is widely acknowledged that climate change is the greatest threat to the GBR, with the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) releasing a position statement on climate change in 2019, compellingly arguing the urgent need for climate change action for the GBR. For the past two decades, researchers have strongly emphasized the need for vigorous implementation of management strategies that support global reef resilience. This study provides a critical review of the response to this call to action and the barriers and opportunities for implementing transformative resilience actions across a range of social-ecological and natural resource management contexts. Bringing the concepts of environmental grief and resilience thinking together, this study reflects on how back-to-back coral bleaching events in 2016–2017 have changed the framing of GBR management. However, there is more work to be done to ensure that all actors responsible for GBR management accept and embrace change in order to enable transformative resilience, which, for an environment feeling the heat of climate and non-climate pressures, will maintain at least some of their critical environmental, social, and economic values.
Key words: climate change; environmental grief; Great Barrier Reef; resilience


It is widely acknowledged that climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) (Hughes et al. 2003, De’ath et al. 2012, Fidelman et al. 2013, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) 2018, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) 2019b) and coral reefs globally (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999, Graham et al. 2014, Nyström et al. 2000). In recent years, the GBR has been exposed to several unprecedented climate-related events, including three coral bleaching events in 5 years (2016, 2017, 2020) coupled with the impacts from severe tropical cyclones, poor water quality from catchment run-off, population increase and urbanization, port expansion, fishing, and habitat loss (Prideaux et al. 2018, GBRMPA 2019a, Smith and Spillman 2020). These events and pressures have been instrumental in driving strategic investments to manage the GBR system (GBRMPA 2017, Commonwealth of Australia 2018a, Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) 2019). This has included the Strategic Assessment (GBRMPA 2014b), Climate Change and Adaptation Plan (GBRMPA 2012b), and the Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Commonwealth of Australia 2018a), along with significant regional and sectoral planning and action (Roocke 2013, Pickering et al. 2017).

Despite the huge ongoing investment in reef protection, few components of the reef management program have fully incorporated climate change and recognized that changes in the ecosystem are occurring now and are inevitable (Graham et al. 2014, Tan and Humphries 2018). Instead, management approaches have sought to resist change and to maintain a “sustainable optimal state” (Walker and Salt 2006). For the GBR, the primary focus of plans, strategies, and actions (Commonwealth of Australia 2018b, 2019) has been to increase system “resilience” to shocks and pressures that may be exacerbated by climate change and support ecosystems to return to a pre-disturbance condition (Morrison et al. 2020). This has led to a strong focus on improving water quality and managing species of concern, like the crown of thorns starfish (COTS; Hughes et al. 2015, Babcock et al. 2016). Fundamentally, these approaches assume that by controlling these non-climatic environmental stressors, the GBR can be protected and maintained in its current state. It remains to be seen whether these “building resilience” management approaches can safeguard the reef from significant climate impacts in the long term, but regardless, recent widespread and unprecedented coral bleaching events on the GBR in 2016, 2017, and 2020 signal the need for action and management responses that consider the future climatic state, rather than managing the system as a static state (Morrison et al. 2020). Although coral reefs are frequently exposed to disturbances and have shown the capacity to reassemble following disturbance (Nyström and Folke 2001, Hughes et al. 2003), a new sense of urgency has been reflected in more recent documents released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA 2019b) and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC 2018), with multiple lines of evidence indicating that tropical coral reefs are likely to disappear even if global warming is constrained to 1.5°C of warming.

An urgent need to address change in the condition of the GBR aligns very well with the core concept of resilience thinking, with the appearance and application of multiple meanings emerging and diverging since the 1970s (Gunderson 2000, Folke 2016, Nyström et al. 2008). Walker and Salt (2006) defined resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” They go on to note that “at the heart of resilience thinking is a very simple notion—things change—and to ignore or resist this change is to increase our vulnerability and forego emerging opportunities.” Compellingly, Walker and Salt (2006) explain that the configuration and reconfiguration of our natural and social systems are often driven by extreme events rather than average conditions, and that “there is no sustainable “optimal” state of an ecosystem, a social system, or the world.” This contradicts the philosophy underpinning many natural resource management (NRM) strategies, which are based on the premise of trying to keep things as they are, or return them to how they were.

The concept of resilience has been defined in various ways in different arenas, but it goes well beyond the “return to normal” operational definition currently favored for the management of many natural systems (Nyström and Folke 2001, Grafton and Little 2017, Sinclair et al. 2017). Masnavi et al. (2019) and Chelleri et al. (2015) provide valuable literature reviews and critique resilience, resilience thinking, and resilience trade-offs in the context of urban systems. They define resilience as three (partially overlapping) stages that have short, medium, and long-term perspectives (Table 1). These range from resisting change as “resilience as recovery,” accommodating some change as “resilience as adaptation,” through to “resilience as transformation,” which embraces change by acknowledging alteration of the fundamental attributes of a system. This shift in the state of a system, within and beyond thresholds, is often shown as the “ball-in-a-basin” model (Fig. 1). In this study, using the definitions of Chelleri et al. (2015), resilience as recovery aims to “bounce back” following a shock, whereas adaptation seeks to adjust to actual or expected changes “by moving thresholds in order to makes the system persist within the same regime.” Resilience as transformation “refers to the alteration of fundamental attributes of the system, which will allow it to enter a new regime.”

Chelleri et al. (2015) argue that “a sustainable transformation should be the long-term goal, operationalized through the management of (different scales and approaches of) resilience.” They note that shifting resilience thinking toward transformation is a “critical and complex socio-political choice,” and that it usually only happens once the system is approaching dangerous thresholds. Anthony et al. (2016) suggest that reef managers globally are shifting focus from solely reducing stressors, to “supporting ecosystem processes that lower sensitivity, promote recovery and enhance adaptive capacity.”

In this study, we sought to critically evaluate shifts in the narrative around management of the GBR to explore whether there is growing acknowledgment of climate-driven change (in species, processes, or habitats) and the need to reconsider what protected areas are designed to achieve. To undertake this analysis, we coupled an evaluation of historical management documents with key informant interviews, in a bid to understand both individual and organizational views on the current state and likely fate of the GBR. Based on the above concepts of resilience thinking and recognition of the dangerous thresholds being approached for the GBR ecosystem (IPCC 2018, GBRMPA 2019b), the three-stage model of resilience thinking (Fig. 1) was used as a lens through which current management responses to the climate change threat could be explored.


The focus of the study was to develop an understanding of the management response to climate change threats, within GBR land-based catchments and the GBR marine system, and explore how resilience thinking can inspire management of the GBR that better accounts for climate variability and change. It did not seek to evaluate or address climate change mitigation efforts at the local, national, or global scales.

To explore how the focus and narrative around GBR management has changed through time, a critical review of key governmental policies and plans over the period 1975 to 2019 was undertaken. This review summarized the purpose, key themes and messages, and the degree to which climate change was considered in each policy, plan, or strategy. The analysis considered whether the key messages and priorities within each plan referred to climate change, and the degree to which actions and responses specifically addressed climate-related threats. Finally, these evaluations enabled each document to be mapped against the three theoretical types of resilience through a review of language and the intent around actions and priorities, to explore the degree to which management agencies have developed their thinking and planning with respect to resilience.

The critical review of policy documents was supplemented with a series of semi-structured interviews with key informants to understand how policies and strategies had transferred to on-ground action. A list of organizations critical to management of the GBR was collated, including federal and state government agencies, NRM groups, consultancies, research organizations and non-government organizations. From these organizations, a range of prominent actors in the GBR management and research space were identified as potential participants in the interview process, with 20 potential interviewees contacted. With some unable to participate, and others being identified through a “snowball” process, a total of 12 individuals were interviewed across nine organizations that collectively represent the reef governance space. Importantly, in the context of evaluating the evolving narrative around GBR management and climate change threats, all of our interviewees were well-placed to comment on management responses, as each has worked in GBR research or management for at least the past decade.

Most interviews were conducted over the phone, with notes taken and transcribed by the interviewer, coded, and de-identified for analysis. The interview questions (Append. 1) were approved under the University of Queensland Ethics Approval process, with individuals remaining anonymous with de-identified responses. Thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) was used to identify themes and patterns across the qualitative interview data.


The GBR region provides a prime example of the multi-layered, fragmented, and evolving nature of environmental governance in Australia’s complex political system (Fidelman et al. 2013). The GBRMPA and the Office of the Great Barrier Reef (OGBR) (within the Queensland Department of Environment and Science) are the primary agencies responsible for management of the GBR, with GBRMPA responsible for management of the Marine Park Area, in collaboration with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and the OGBR leading the water quality improvement program by reducing land use impacts.

Great Barrier Reef Management Timeline

There have been many prominent strategies, plans, and reports that have been released since the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its World Heritage listing in 1981 (Fig. 2). Many of these reflect medium to long-term (25–30 year) intentions for the management of the GBR. Interestingly, despite this long-term view, the majority of the documents are reviewed or superseded within 5 to 10 years, due to the rapidly growing scientific knowledge and shifts in local and global thinking. These changes could be a positive demonstration of adaptive planning or, alternatively, an indication of short-sighted and reactive planning and policy. Either way, the purpose, key messages, and level of climate change focus of these documents can help identify and assess trends in priorities, language, and concerns over time, and changes in the climate change narrative for the GBR, particularly as it relates to resilience thinking (Table 2).

The first strategic plan for the GBR was published in 1994 (GBRMPA 1994) as a “25 Year Strategic Plan,” aimed to maintain World Heritage values while allowing reasonable use of the Area's resources, with minimal reference to water quality, resilience, or climate change. In 2003, the “Reef Water Quality Protection Plan” (The State of Queensland and Commonwealth of Australia 2003) was released, acknowledging the pressure that catchment runoff has on the marine system, but with negligible reference to climate change. The 2003 Reef Plan demonstrated steps forward within the resilience paradigm at the time, suggesting that improving water quality was the “silver bullet” for protection of the reef, despite the growing body of scientific evidence highlighting threats and impacts.

Interestingly, a “Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Action Plan 2007–2012” was released in 2007 (GBRMPA 2007), aimed at “maximising resilience of the Reef,” and was reviewed and renewed in 2012 adopting the principles of ecosystem-based adaptation, but still focusing on reducing non-climate stresses (GBRMPA 2012b) and “resilience as recovery” through maintaining or improving the current condition of the reef.

There are countless initiatives aimed at protecting the GBR, including acts, regulation, policies, zoning plans, environmental impact assessments, compliance actions, and investment partnerships. As a result of the level of investment, sediment, pesticide, and nutrient loads have decreased since the 2009 baseline (Commonwealth of Australia 2015). Government and NRM bodies are undertaking considerable research, monitoring, and modeling to understanding of processes from paddock-to-basin scale to better inform management plans and practice change. Investment has been focused on “resilience as recovery,” aiming to reduce non-climatic pressures such as poor water quality, direct use, and COTS outbreaks, to improve the ability of the GBR to recover from climate-related pressures such as cyclones and water temperature-related coral bleaching events. The effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness, of these management actions are modeled using the paddock-to-reef model, which uses a climate time series from 1986–2014, which is limited in its representation of existing climate variability let alone future climate conditions (McCloskey et al. 2017).

Federal and state governments are investing more than $600 million to deliver actions in the Water Quality Improvement Plan (WQIP) for practice change, regulation, extension programs, catchment restoration, research, and monitoring and evaluation (Commonwealth of Australia 2018b). The Reef Water Quality Report Card assesses the results of management actions against various targets, and the 2017–2018 Report Card shows reasonably poor results and little progress in recent years despite significant investment (Commonwealth of Australia 2019). A review of the investment actions for water quality improvement for 2017–2018 showed no explicit climate change-related investments.

Critical Evaluation of How Climate Change Threats Have Been Managed

In 2013, Fidelman et al. carried out a critical review of multi-level adaptation to climate change in the GBR, examining over 100 adaptation strategies from local to federal levels. They noted that adaptation strategies often “report on intentions to act rather than adaptation actions” (Fidelman et al. 2013). Furthermore, immediate political imperatives were shown to often lead to short-term measures, without creating the conditions for proactive long-term transformative actions “that promote a fundamental change of the system once existing conditions are undesirable or untenable.”

Even though there has been a consistent message that climate change is the biggest threat to the reef since the 1990s, a change in strategic response that explicitly recognizes the impacts of climate change has been slow. However, recent publications, particularly those released by GBRMPA, have demonstrated a shift toward transformative resilience thinking and more interventionist approaches, rather than a focus on protection through “resilience as recovery.” There is also a clear trend in the narrative away from “resilience as recovery” to “resilience as adaptation,” and perhaps small but significant steps toward “resilience as transformation” (Table 2). Although interventionist approaches such as those in the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) are now more accepted and in fact directly promoted in campaigns to “save the GBR,” it remains to be seen if they are designed to embrace change by recognizing possible alternative future species and ecosystem structures and functions (Graham 2014, Morrison et al. 2020). Indeed, many interventionist projects remain focused on addressing the symptoms and resisting change. Regardless of their intent, perhaps these interventionist approaches provide a bridge to transformative resilience even if they are not entirely transformative within the current planning context.

One of the first steps in a changing narrative was the release of the Blueprint for Resilience (GBRMPA 2017), followed closely by the mid-term review of the Reef 2050 Plan. Critically, these documents emerged following the extreme and widespread coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. The Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (Reef 2050 Plan) (Commonwealth of Australia 2015) was released in 2015 as the overarching Australian and Queensland government action plan to work with partners to protect and manage the GBR, in response to the World Heritage Committee recommendation for Australia to develop a long-term plan for sustainable development to protect the outstanding universal value of the reef. The Reef 2050 Plan was updated in 2018 to include additional actions focused on adapting to a variable and changing climate, following the unprecedented coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (Commonwealth of Australia 2018a).

As part of the Outlook Report 2019 (GBRMPA 2019a), Leverington et al. (2019) completed an independent assessment of management effectiveness for the GBR, which assesses the management effectiveness against 14 different themes, including climate change. The assessment showed that, in general, the management effectiveness for climate change for the GBR is partially or completely ineffective and has been trending downward since 2009. For the 13 other themes, management was found to be partially or completely effective, with stable or upward trends. This either demonstrates the difficulty associated with tackling climate change threats or represents the bias toward action addressing non-climate threats adopted through the resilience-building philosophies that have dominated the framing of GBR management to date. One of the challenges here is that, even though the Reef 2050 Plan sets out the need for an adaptive management framework that recognizes that “to adaptively manage a system as complex as the GBR, its components and their cause-and-effect links need to be understood,” explicitly setting outcomes for social, economic, and environmental benefits, as well as recognizing the importance of effective governance arrangements (Commonwealth of Australia 2018a), there have been insufficient efforts directed at the first step of setting clear goals and then identifying gaps and preparing an effective action plan. This could be attributed to a general mindset of “building resilience” by reducing non-climatic pressures and supporting the reef to adapt through “resilience as adaptation” and not accepting the fundamental changes to the system that are likely to be generated by climate change.

There is no doubt that increasing the capacity of a system to recover from shocks is an important component of adaptive management, however, the cumulative impacts of recent coral bleaching events, cyclones, and COTS outbreaks with ongoing poor water quality and direct use impacts have demonstrated that increasing resilience as recovery or adaptation may not be adequate under future conditions (Hughes et al. 2017). In addition, progress made against water quality targets has been slow and limited (Commonwealth of Australia 2019, GBRMPA 2019a). More recently, interventionist approaches that may lead to more adaptive and transformative resilience are being explored through the RRAP and some of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) work.

The 2018 revision of the Reef 2050 Plan refers to new actions focused on “strengthening the resilience of the Reef to climate change impacts and preparatory activities to inform the comprehensive review of the Plan scheduled for 2020” (Commonwealth of Australia 2018a). These new actions are identified in the plan in “green” with a mid-term review (MTR) preface, but are otherwise largely unidentifiable as specifically targeted at reducing vulnerability to climate change. One of the new actions under “protect and restore ecosystem health” is to “develop technologies to facilitate recovery of degraded reefs, and to build increased resilience under forward climate scenarios, including assessing the feasibility of increasing the thermal tolerance of Great Barrier Reef corals” which has been implemented via the RRAP. The Australian Government provided $6M for the concept feasibility phase for the RRAP to investigate the best science and technology options to help the GBR resist, repair, and recover. These intervention techniques include cooling and shading reef structures and stabilization, coral reproduction and recruitment, biocontrol, field treatments, and seeding, which suggest a paradigm shift from “resilience as recovery” interventions to “recovery as adaptation,” and perhaps even some “recovery as transformation.”

In 2018, as part of the Reef Trust, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF) was granted the $443.3 million Reef Trust project, the largest ever investment in reef protection. 2019–2020 projects are focused on Water Quality ($23.5M), COTS Control ($4.33M), Traditional Owner Reef Protection ($16.3M), Community Reef Protection ($2.6M), and Integrated Monitoring and Reporting (GBRF 2019). The GBRF workplan shows a more explicit focus on climate change response, indicating a strategy to build both adaptive and transformative resilience. These responses to the threat of climate change may reflect the freedom that a non-government stakeholder has compared with state and federal agencies. Projects include:

  1. Resilient Reefs Initiative - a globally significant project: the first integrated model for building the resilience of coral reefs and reef communities.
  2. Protecting and restoring the bright spots - reef islands: with thousands of species relying on reef ecosystems for survival, we will focus on finding and restoring the spots we can and must save.
  3. Reef restoration - coral IVF (larval reseeding) - we will crack the code to rebuild coral reefs, restoring coral cover and healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems, to survive with a changing climate.
  4. Reef Restoration and Adaptation Science (RRAS) Component - annual work plan: based on the outcomes of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), which conducted a preliminary evaluation of the widest possible range of intervention techniques that could be used to protect the reef’s ecological functions and economic and social values and recommend a comprehensive research and development (R&D) program to develop and test the underlying knowledge needed to successfully intervene on the reef, at scale.

In June 2019, GBRMPA released a position statement on climate change (GBRMPA 2019b), compellingly arguing that: “Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Only the strongest and fastest possible actions to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the risks and limit the impacts of climate change on the reef. Further impacts can be minimised by limiting global temperature increase to the maximum extent possible and fast-tracking actions to build Reef resilience.” This call to arms seeks “transformative policy and cooperation” from Australian and international governments to take immediate action with regard to greenhouse gas emissions, in accord with the Paris Agreement (United Nations 2015), highlighting that mitigation is essential in parallel with adaptation efforts through building the reef’s resilience to increased pressures from climate change (GBRMPA 2019b). Although this study focuses on adaptation, this position statement indicates a change in the conversation and a public assertion from GBRMPA that the current level of national response to climate change mitigation is inadequate and if it is not addressed, this will have devastating impacts on the GBR, its environmental, social, and economic value, and potentially, its status as a World Heritage listed site.


As Fidelman et al. (2013) noted, many adaptation strategies and plans “report on intentions to act rather than adaptation actions.” Given the importance of stakeholder perceptions and their efforts to protect the GBR, interviews with key informants in the GBR research and management space enabled a better understanding of personal and organizational perspectives on the response to climate change threats at the strategic and operational levels. In addition, responses also gave an indication regarding to what degree individuals, their own organizations, and other organizations have (or have not) accepted the severity of climate change impacts and the likely unavoidable degradation in the health of the reef and its impacts on economic, social, environmental, and World Heritage values (IPCC 2018, GBRMPA 2019a).

Key Informant Perspectives on Climate Change Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

Climate change threat

All interviewees believed climate change to be the major threat to the reef. However, five participants noted that there remains a high degree of uncertainty around climate change, the ability to link cause and effect for various impacts to the reef, and the reef’s ability to recover.

Responding to the climate change threat

Some participants revealed strong negative responses to the question of how well the sector is responding to the challenges of climate change. Comments such as “we’re in desperate times,” “nothing we can really do,” and “we don’t do anything” typified this reaction. A number of participants suggested that climate change is not a big enough part of the conversation (for example, not having a separate chapter in the Scientific Consensus Statement), and one participant expressed the view that “blaming” reef deterioration on climate change can “let other anthropogenic threats off the hook.” One participant also projected the view that, at the individual employee level, climate change is front of mind, yet at the organizational level, there are still barriers to explicitly making climate change part of the strategic or operational response.

Resilience thinking

There was general agreement that “resilience as recovery” is an essential part of the management response. The views expressed by interview participants were consistent with the findings of Fidelman et al. (2013), in that there has been a lot of talk around the threat of climate change, but that explicit climate change action has been limited. Furthermore, actions have primarily focused on enhancing the ability of the reef to recover from increased disturbances from climate change, adopting the “resilience as recovery” view. Despite this strong focus on recovery, some respondents noted that there is an ongoing paradigm shift in thinking, with steps taken toward interventionist approaches that constitute a more adaptive, if not transformative, response to known climate change threats.

Five of the participants expressed the need for coordinated responses that match resilience efforts in the areas of water quality improvement and COTS management, with calls to adopt interventionist approaches, such as coral seeding. This approach requires coordinated, multi-disciplinary, and multi-stakeholder action, which will rely on collaborative approaches to define values and prioritize actions (Morrison et al. 2020). One of the challenges in this space comes with the fact that, owing to the governance arrangements, the strategic planning and prioritization for catchment-based and marine-based action are undertaken largely independently. A more coordinated prioritization approach will require not just a shift in governance, but also a shift away from “resilience as recovery” to “resilience as transformation;” this was reinforced by many of the statements made by the interview participants proclaiming that the current approach is not adequate and will fail.

When asked about their views on “triage” approaches, which effectively sacrifice parts of the reef to focus efforts on those most valued, participants were reluctant to recommend a “sacrifice” approach, preferring a prioritization approach, even if the resultant outcomes are the same. Interviewees highlighted the importance of communication and language used around climate change and intervention. Participants also acknowledged the social, cultural, economic, and environmental trade-offs that are unavoidable through prioritization processes.

Views of the future of the Great Barrier Reef

Participants expressed noticeably emotive comments about the future of the GBR in the face of the climate change threat, suggesting varying degrees of optimism, desperation, and absence of hope. These views lend themselves to an exploration of how perspectives and actions map to the concept of “environmental grief.”


Observations from our interviews, which revealed hope, despair, and a sense of impending loss in the participant perspectives, led us to explore how the Kubler-Ross “Stages of Grief” model (Kubler-Ross 1973) may be broadly applied to approaches to environmental challenges and natural resource management. The Kubler-Ross psychological model was designed to explain the process of dealing with, and ultimately accepting, loss or change (Kubler-Ross 1973). Here, we built on the work of Shiffman (2013), who explored climate change and other anthropogenic pressures as an environmental crisis, with “the collapse of natural and biological systems well under way,” and “the challenge no longer to prevent this but to somehow manage the catastrophe.” Given this context, environmental grief seems an appropriate model for reviewing the mindset of individuals and organizations involved in management of a complex social-ecological system, like the GBR, which is being threatened by the realities of climate change (Shiffman 2013, Kevorkian and Meeker 2004, Willox 2012). Shiffman (2013) explored society’s response to climate change through the lens of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief,” moving through the following stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Notwithstanding the clear scientific evidence that a given pressure (e.g., climate change) is happening, denial refers to the refusal to accept the diagnosis, particularly when symptoms are relatively mild. As anger sets in, there are often responses of blame and distrust, which may be somewhat justified, but do not work toward finding a way forward. In the bargaining stage, there is acknowledgment that something is happening, and the attempt to implement actions that are unlikely to respond to the reality of the situation. Depression refers to a feeling of loss of control or hopelessness with a situation, and recognition that some form of tragedy has become inevitable. Acceptance, the fifth and final stage of the Kubler-Ross model, refers to a “clear-eyed vision of reality,” making plans to move forward and taking ownership of the outcome.

Table 3 provides a discussion against each stage of grief based on an interpretation of interviewee responses and published reports and plans, where the loss (or change) being experienced is the loss of the current social, economic, and environmental values of the GBR. Application of the Kubler-Ross psychological model here, in the natural resource management space, enables analyses of the implications of individuals and groups within a collective being at different stages of the grief cycle when coordinated action and consensus is required. In the case of the GBR, the acceptance stage refers to having accepted that some degree of loss of the current value of the GBR is inevitable. Acknowledgment and acceptance of loss raises the proposition that, by there being a level of agreement that there will be some loss, the level of loss can be reduced and somewhat managed. In the context of published management documents for the GBR, the 2019 Outlook Report (GBRMPA 2019b) and the GBRMPA (2019a) Climate Change Position Statement reveal a previously unstated level of acceptance of a change in the state of the reef, and related loss of environmental, social, and economic value. This sense of almost inevitable change and loss is also very strongly borne out in the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C (IPCC 2018), which declares that “multiple lines of evidence indicate that the majority (70–90%) of warm water (tropical) coral reefs that exist today will disappear even if global warming is constrained to 1.5°C (very high confidence).”

To best understand where stages of grief can represent a barrier or a bridge toward resilience thinking, we propose that these conceptualizations can be aligned, as shown in Fig. 3. “Resilience as recovery” approaches reflect “denial” that climate change will lead to a change in the state of the GBR, and that business-as-usual approaches seeking to help the reef recover to how it has always been will be enough. “Resilience as adaptation,” however, reflects more of a “bargaining” mindset, whereby there is acknowledgment that there will be some change and that we can support the reef to stay within the bounds of its current state while supporting recovery within a confined degree of change. The state of “depression” could be seen as a state of hopelessness, as shown by some of the interview participants, and does not provide a strong basis for proactive, innovative, and optimistic planning and action. As indicated by Walker and Salt (2006), once change has been “accepted,” or ideally embraced, management actions that apply a philosophy of “resilience as transformation” can be enacted. Our grief-resilience thinking conceptualization highlights how all actors involved in management of the GBR must accept that change is inevitable in order to plan and implement a coordinated “resilience as transformation” approach that best protects the changing environmental, social, and economic values of the GBR.


Despite decades of scientific evidence highlighting the climate vulnerability of the GBR, this analysis highlights how the strategic planning environment for the GBR is lagging behind the state of knowledge. Indeed, past and current management approaches do not adequately encompass the climate change threat and likely losses of species, habitats, and processes. Instead, efforts have focused on “resilience as recovery” and fall short of “resilience as adaptation” and the opportunities created by “resilience as transformation.” Despite the state of scientific understanding, it is clear that management sits within the human domain, and this study has revealed how the prevailing individual or collective mindset can support or suppress a “resilience as transformation” approach to management of the GBR. This is critical given the dire predictions for the future of coral reefs globally (IPCC 2018). Acceptance of a future change in state in terms of system structure and function, and related changes in environmental, social, and economic values, would lead to a significant shift in the way the GBR is managed, liberating agencies and stakeholders to let go of the past and plan for the future. However, research has shown that this socio-political shift usually only occurs once a system is approaching dangerous thresholds (Chelleri et al. 2015). Perhaps we have reached this point for the GBR. Over the past 5 years, the GBR has been exposed to several unprecedented climate-related events, including three coral bleaching events and impacts from severe tropical cyclones, poor water quality from catchment run-off, population increase and urbanization, port expansion, fishing, and habitat loss. Given current evidence and projections, it is now time to accept change, explore possible future scenarios, and agree on the likely, acceptable, and aspirational future state(s) of the GBR (Morrison et al. 2020). To achieve this change in mindset, there needs to be increased dialog around the risks associated with a “resilience as recovery” approach when climate change forces the GBR over a threshold into a new state. It will also require a significant level of leadership at all levels—fortunately, GBRMPA is already demonstrating this with its most recent publications highlighting the need for stronger, more urgent climate action (GBRMPA 2019b). Critically, without acceptance, at all levels of governance, of the severity of the threat of climate change to environmental, social, and economic values of the GBR, it will be near impossible to build commitment to a long-term “resilience as transformation” approach.

Communication and language around climate change, trade-offs, loss, and acceptance will need to be improved and developed to support long-term strategies for the GBR. This represents an opportunity to move away from the “doom and gloom” message around GBR management and move toward embracing and working with change. Indigenous custodians of the GBR have witnessed and adapted to significant change in the physical and functional state of the GBR for thousands of years, and there are important lessons that can be learnt from the past to plan for the future, although it is also important to take note of the scientific evidence, which suggests that climate change will result in an unprecedented rate and intensity of change. Language around climate change in the GBR space has been somewhat constrained by political agendas, which hinders the ability of agencies to move forward and address climate change explicitly. Indeed, recent politically motivated efforts to keep the GBR off the “threatened” list of World Heritage Sites, highlights what is at stake and reiterates the degree to which acceptance of loss or change in ecosystem condition has not yet occurred, at least publicly, within some government agencies. Communication and management strategies need to be able to overcome barriers and instability caused by changes in government.

There is a need for an action plan that explicitly responds to climate change by balancing efforts that support the reef to recover from individual disturbance events, and more interventionist approaches that guide the direction and achievement of a possible “new state.” Many of these actions may not be significantly different to those currently listed in the 2050 Plan (e.g., water quality improvement) but can be framed in a way that supports the investment and sets realistic future-focused targets, under both likely and desired future states. This will require a clear definition of the agreed set of environmental, social, and economic values that are to be protected, even if they are delivered in a different biophysical form.

Acceptance of change is also critical to ensure that management actions explicitly consider climate variability, future climate projections, seasonality, and extreme events. Prioritization of significant investment in water quality initiatives, many of which also have local and regional economic and social impacts, is currently based on cost-effectiveness analysis informed by paddock-to-reef modeling, which has limited climate variability and is reported at the average annual scale. This process must better account for future climate and the associated threats for the GBR ecosystem. Indeed, the paddock-to-reef modeling should explore future scenarios. Interventionist approaches, and supporting scientific research, should seek to better understand and consider future scenarios and the “thresholds” created by climate change that will push the GBR into different states, and implement actions now that will protect values in the future.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We would like to thank each of the interview participants for generously giving up their time and for providing their honest opinions and insights into the past, current, and future management of the Great Barrier Reef. All participants demonstrated a high level of passion and commitment to protecting and restoring the GBR and we have great respect for all those working to improve the condition of the GBR.

We would also like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Wulgurukaba and Bindal Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef, their continuing connections to land, sea, and country, and the important value of traditional knowledge and culture in managing the Great Barrier Reef and Australia's natural resources.


Data/code sharing is not applicable to this article because no data/code were analyzed in this study.


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Correspondent author:
Lisa C. Walpole
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