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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper

Warning to the World: Australia's Climate Disasters. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired May 05, 2024 - 20:00   ET



DEAN: Madonna concert in Brazil last night. The queen of pop wrapping up her Celebration World Tour in Rio de Janeiro where fans waited for hours if not days to secure a good spot near Copa Cabana's beach. The 65-year-old artist performing for more than two hours. It is Madonna's biggest live concert crowd ever.

And I want to thank you so much for joining me this evening. I'm Jessica Dean. Have a great night and a great week. We'll see you back here next weekend.


Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest marine habitat and one of the natural wonders the world. But it's now in its seventh mass bleaching events since 1998, which means the warming waters around Australia are killing the coral, turning this vibrant ecosystem into an underwater graveyard.

This is just one of several climate crisis that's plagued Australia in recent years. There have been devastating wildfires and massive floods that are made parts of the country uninhabitable, and has decimated the population of native species like koalas.

CNN's Ivan Watson has been reporting on the climate disaster in Australia for years, and he recently traveled back to see the evolving threats firsthand, and how people are both contributing to the crisis and trying to find ways to fix it.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A once-in-a-lifetime experience. A chance to walk alone on a desert island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. All around me, turquoise blue water as far as the eye can see.

I'm on the edge of one of the most beautiful marine habitats on the planet. A natural wonder of the world. An underwater jungle teeming with colors, movement, life.

But on this journey off the coast of Australia, I learned about the death and destruction being caused by human activity, both on land and under the water. PROF. JODIE RUMMER, REEF SCIENTIST, JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY: The reef is

not fine.

WATSON: Unhealthy.

RUMMER: It's definitely feeling a lot of stress.

WATSON (voice-over): The temperature of this water is rising. The result, coral is bleaching and dying.

KATE QUIGLEY, PRINCIPAL RESEARCH SCIENTIST, MINDEROO FOUNDATION: What is happening now in our oceans is like wildfires underwater. We're going to have so much warming that we're going to get to a tipping point and we won't be able to come back from that.

WATSON: Growing up, I could never imagine one day visiting Australia. It was an exotic place on the other side of the planet. A land of koalas and kangaroos. Boasting natural treasures unlike any other place in the world. Decades later, I'm here enjoying this vibrant place. But also facing a frightening reality.

BARRY TRAILL, FIREFIGHTER AND CLIMATE CAMPAIGNER: It's ratcheting up and more and more people are being affected in their normal lives.

DAVID RITTER, CEO, GREENPEACE AUSTRALIA: Major destructive events. Fires, storms, floods. An unprecedented level. Unprecedented scale.

PROF. OVE HOEGH-GULDBERG, CHIEF SCIENTIST, GREAT BARRIER REEF FOUNDATION: Humanity is being threatened at a rate which I'm not sure we really understand.

WATSON: Australia is a country, a continent, on the frontlines of climate change. And it is threatening communities and its most iconic species.

To get to Australia's kangaroo island, drive straight south from Adelaide until you hit the ocean. And then board a ferry. It brings me to this remote place that's rugged, sparsely populated, and wild.

And it does feel a little bit like the end of the world. And that's partially true because from here for the next several thousand miles, it's open ocean until you hit Antarctica.

(Voice-over): Surprisingly, for an island named after kangaroos, my team and I initially had a hard time finding the animals.


Yes, that's sheep.

(Voice-over): After a day with no luck, we learned kangaroos prefer to come out at sunset when it's cooler but that's also a dangerous time for these animals.

Coco's mom was probably hit by a car.

BILLY DUNLOP, KANGAROO ISLAND WILDLIFE CENTER: Coco's mom was hit and killed by a car. Yes.

WATSON (voice-over): The small team at this wildlife center helps raise some of these orphaned animals by hand.

Hi there.

(Voice-over): Including Pearl, who seems pretty fond of humans.

This is a little bit like holding a child, but pretty fuzzy. And the other part about this is the fur really is soft.

(Voice-over): There are few things sweeter than cuddling a koala. My teammates couldn't wait for their turn.

That's cute.

(Voice-over): But then we learned the real reason Pearl is here.

DUNLOP: She had some burns through her ears and she still has lingering scar tissue there. We can't see obviously the parts of her hands and feet, but the leg was pretty badly burned on there as well.

WATSON: Four years ago as a tiny joey Pearl survived apocalyptic forest fires, which raged across Australia. Australians now call it the Black Summer.

TRAILL: I cannot overstate the severity on the scale and intensity and the duration of the 2020 fires. There's nothing else like it in any recorded history in Australia.

WATSON: Australia's extreme climate makes it more vulnerable to bushfires and floods, and climate change is exacerbating these natural disasters. Barry Traill, a volunteer firefighter and environmentalist, is seeing this firsthand.

TRAILL: It's going to get more often, more often. We're going to get more floods more often. If it's a wet year, it's going to flood more. If it's dry you're going to get hotter fires. That's just the physics of it.

WATSON: The fires destroyed thousands of homes and wiped out billions of animals.

DUNLOP: We had local people showing up here with 30, 40 animals in their car that they'd picked up on the way here or that they've, you know, gone back out to check their farm and had found, you know, a kangaroo with its legs, you know, melted off essentially.

WATSON: Did you and your staff have to euthanize 300 koalas?

DUNLOP: Yes. Yes. Yes, that was on us.

Leaves a lasting scar, for sure.

WATSON (voice-over): Those scars still raw for many survivors and for the families of the 33 people who died that summer. I'm Ivan. How are you doing?

(Voice-over): Justin Lang meets me at the stretch of highway where the fire killed his father, Dick, and his brother Clayton. The fire caught them as they were driving home after helping protect a friend's farm from the blaze.

This is glass from their vehicle, yes?

JUSTIN LANG, SON AND BROTHER OF FIRE VICTIMS: Yes. So that's the rear window.

WATSON (voice-over): We find pieces of their truck still here four years later.

Who thinks you could get burned to death driving on a road?

LANG: Yes. Exactly. They pulled off of the roads so they're out of the way but yes, the car combusted. The whole car was on fire.

WATSON: You mean the fire would have jumped from trees and the vegetation into the middle of a highway?


WATSON (voice-over): It's hard to imagine a bushfire engulfing a moving vehicle on a highway until you see footage like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've got no choice. We got to get through this.

WATSON: The smoke so thick it turned day into night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are actually through the front, but we still got zero visibility.

WATSON: The fires even created their own weather system. Fired tornadoes ripping across open farmland. A frightening example of the sheer power of the blaze. For the island's small population, it meant all hands on deck.

DUNLOP: I was splitting my time between jumping on a truck and, you know, doing fire groundwork and, you know, being here and doing wildlife works. So days during that fire where there was nothing anyone could do. You know, the weather was too severe and the fire was too hot.

This shows the area that was burned in 2019 and 2020. That fire burned 49 percent of the island's total land area.

WATSON: 49 percent, and Kangaroo Island is one of the biggest islands.

DUNLOP: It is third. Third largest island in Australia and --

WATSON: And half of it burned.

DUNLOP: Yes. WATSON (voice-over): The inferno destroyed almost all of Kangaroo

Island's Flinders Chase National Park. And yet today, I find evidence of some remarkable rebirth.


Four years ago, this was a burned-out moonscape that all of the greenery was destroyed. And you can still see the remnants of bushes and trees that are still charred from the 2020 fires. It's hard to imagine how any of the wildlife could have survived that inferno, but look, four years later at the regrowth, greenery as far as the eye can see.

(Voice-over): But the same cannot be said of the island's wildlife. And that includes kangaroos and koalas.

PROF. KAREN BURKE DA SILVA, KOALA RESEARCHER, FLINDERS UNIVERSITY: We estimated that there were probably 50,000 animals before the fire.

WATSON: On Kangaroo Island.

DA SILVA: On Kangaroo Island.

WATSON: Which has a population of about 5,000 people.

DA SILVA: That's right. So a lot more koalas than people. After the fires, it was probably more like 5,000 to 10,000. So it had a major impact on koalas.

WATSON (voice-over): We head into the forest. These scientists are tracking what's left of the island's koala population. Using satellite radio collars to pinpoint their location.


WATSON: Oh, yes, there it is.

(Voice-over): Our first discovery was unfortunately pretty bleak.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Poor little guy.

WATSON: But a few miles down the road, we have more luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So there's one here.

WATSON: Oh, yes.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then there's another one in the tree just over here.

WATSON: Hi there.

(voice-over): They weigh and check a female named Sunny before setting her free.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're very grateful to Sunny and she's free to go.

WATSON: I'd like to introduce you to Sunny. This is a female koala. She has been captured three times by the team here. And just had her satellite tracker removed. Take a look over here, part of the tree she's standing on still bears scorch marks from the previous fires here, which are believed to have killed off more than half of the population of the wild koalas on Kangaroo Island.

This animal is a symbol of this country.

DA SILVA: It's an iconic species.

WATSON: Is it in trouble?

DA SILVA: It's very much in trouble. Highly endangered. It may -- well, we're seeing it going locally extinct in different populations on the east coast.

WATSON (voice-over): Populations decimated by disease and habitat loss from logging and wildfires that are ravaging Australia.

DA SILVA: All of those catastrophic climate change impacts are directly affecting koala populations in Australia.

WATSON: Do you think this fire was a product of client climate change?

LANG: I think ultimately it was.

WATSON (voice-over): An Australian government report concluded the same. Harder to measure the impact on people like Justin Lang, still mourning after the Black Summer Fires killed his father and brother.

LANG: You don't expect it from brother, who was only 44, the old man was strong as an ox and I certainly expect him to be around for a few more years, so yes.



WATSON: I'm standing on a tiny part of the Great Barrier Reef. It is the world's largest marine habitat. And to see its true beauty you have to go underneath the waves.

(Voice-over): This isn't my first visit to the Great Barrier Reef. Six years ago, I came here to film a CNN report about this natural wonder of the world armed with only a mask and a snorkel.

That was pretty spectacular. (Voice-over): This time, I'm scuba certified. My guide is Professor

Jodie Rummer, a reef scientist at James Cook University.

How many species did we see of marine life just now?

RUMMER: Well, I'm a fish person. There's over 1500 species of fish here on the Great Barrier Reef.

WATSON: How many do you think we saw?

RUMMER: You can see them all today, but 100 species?

WATSON: A hundred?

RUMMER: Yes. It's an underwater rainforest. It's the most diverse (INAUDIBLE) on the planet. Above or underwater, I would argue. And it's been my inspiration for my entire career.

WATSON (voice-over): We're diving in February, the peak of the Australian summer.

This is like bathwater up here.

RUMMER: Right. Yes, we're in the sort of lowered mid-90 Fahrenheit.

WATSON (voice-over): Jodie repeatedly shows me coral that's turned bone white.

RUMMER: The reef is not fine. A lot of corals were at various stages of bleaching. And some had already been overrun with algae.


RUMMER: Dead. Yes, dead.

WATSON (voice-over): Up close it's a pretty depressing sight. Coral basically being cooked and killed by unusually warm water. What we see beneath the surface confirmed several weeks later by the Australian government.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, AUSTRALIAN MINISTER OR ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Our scientists have told us that we're facing a mass bleaching event. This is the seventh mass bleaching event since 1998.

WATSON: Experts once argued this habitat was too big to fail.

HOEGH-GULDBERG: And the Great Barrier Reef is the largest continuous reef system on the planet. It's 2,300 kilometers long and it is literally mind-boggling when you think that many hundreds of thousands of species are there on this ecosystem. This is huge. I mean, the size of it, if you want a repair this ecosystem once you've damaged it, it's going to take 1,000 years.


WATSON: Australia is experiencing a global record-breaking marine heatwave.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This extreme heat is causing what some scientists are calling the worst coral bleaching the state has ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We come here to determine how the coral reefs off the Florida Peninsula are coping with unprecedented ocean heat.

WATSON: In 2023, this weather pattern caused a massive die off of coral off the coast of Florida.

HOEGH-GULDBERG: What happened in Florida or the Eastern Caribbean in the last couple of months was sort of shocking. And we're seeing similar thing happening at the moment on the Great Barrier Reef.

WATSON: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg basically predicted this a quarter century ago. In this 1999 article, he wrote thermally triggered coral bleaching events will increase in frequency and severity in the next few decades. Corals are not keeping up with the rate of warming and they may be the single largest casualty of business as usual greenhouse policies. The article sparked a nasty backlash.

Did you anticipate death threats in response to an academic research paper?

HOEGH-GULDBERG: No, not at all. I also, you know, OK, what's going on here? You know, and you put it in front of you. How ridiculous?

WATSON: Have your predictions from 1999 followed that model?

HOEGH-GULDBERG: We are pretty close to what we predicted would happen has happened.

WATSON (voice-over): As carbon emissions drive climate change, the warming temperatures of the world's oceans keep breaking records.

HOEGH-GULDBERG: Not more than about 5 percent to 10 percent.

WATSON: At this rate, Ove predicts only a fraction of the world's coral will still be alive 25 years from now.

You're talking about a mass die off.


WATSON: Has this moved past coral reefs bleaching?

HOEGH-GULDBERG: Yes. So this is what's fascinating and quite terrifying is that the number of disasters that are happening is increasing on a decade by decade space, be that a huge forest fires in many parts of the world or massive floods.

WATSON (voice-over): Some of Australia's most recent floods, the port city of Cairns, a main gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. On December 18th, 2023, the worst rains in decades flood parts of the city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole street was a river.

WATSON: Including the home of Thomas Herridge and Trini Jacial Lillo.


TRINIDAD JACIAL LILLO, FLOOD VICTIM: The water were up to here when we left by.


WATSON: Carrying the girls.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes, we had one each.

WATSON (voice-over): Record high floods, a growing threat across Australia.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The most expensive natural disaster in Australia's history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we weren't looking at it with our own eyes it will be actually hard to even comprehend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Power lines, that's how high the water is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what we're dealing with, Larry and Carrie (PH), so excuse me if I keep watching my head. We're dodging out the powerlines.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just didn't see it possible that it was going to get to this stage.

WATSON (voice-over): February 2022, Lismore. The worst flood in its history turns this small city into a lake. In a region already prone to flooding, the scale of this disaster catches authorities by surprise. At least four people died, thousands need to be rescued. Among them, Kate Stroud.

This road, was this your escape route?

KATE STROUD, FLOOD VICTIM: Yes. So once we were rescued from our kitchen window by the gentleman on the jet ski, we were on top of the water, which we then had to duck beneath these power lines.

WATSON: At its peak the waters hit a level of 14.4 meters. More than 47 feet from here. That looks very high, but I'm going to give you some additional context.


This is part of the levy that is supposed to protect the town of Lismore from the Wilson River. Look over the wall and there you see the normal heights of the Wilson River.

STROUD: So that's the level that the flood came into this building in that flood.

WATSON (voice-over): Kate is an artist and longtime resident of Lismore.

This is your house?

STROUD: Yes. It was my house.

WATSON: Was your house.

STROUD: I don't live here anymore.

WATSON: Why don't you want to move back in?

STROUD: Because you can't move back into a place where you know that that can happen again.

WATSON (voice-over): In the early hours of February 28th, floodwaters fill their backyard.


STROUD: This is the flood, getting into our house.

WATSON: The rain doesn't stop, the water just keeps coming. Kate takes shelter in the attic.

STROUD: We'd saved everything we possibly could so there's no point in being in toxic water that was freezing cold and we hadn't slept for, you know, 24, 48 hours.

WATSON: A stranger on a passing jet ski rescues Kate.

STROUD: Some other surreal things that made it really feel like it was out of this world was that there were cattle on the top of some of the shop tops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the care on the roof.

WATSON: In the aftermath, a grueling cleanup. More than 70,000 tons of debris collected from the main shopping district alone.

What was the state of your home when you saw it again?

STROUD: Completely covered in a thick sludge of river mud and filth.

WATSON (voice-over): The filth so bad returning residents don't know where to begin. Two years later, Lismore streets appeared tidy and clean but look closer, and you see homes and businesses boarded up, casualties of the flood.

Steve Krieg had only been Lismore's mayor for a matter of weeks when the 2020 flood hit. It ruined his home and business.

How is the community doing now two years on?

STEVE KRIEG, LISMORE MAYOR: You know, it's still very fresh in everyone's mind. It's fractured our community somewhat. A lot of our residents that live on the floodplain have moved due to necessity as far as finances or emotional impact.

WATSON (voice-over): More than 1500 Lismore residents, many of whom could not afford insurance, still live in temporary government housing.

Did you have to be rescued?

PETER ROYCE, FLOOD VICTIM: Yes, I did. I nearly drowned.

WATSON (voice-over): 75-year-old Peter Royce spent hours trapped on the roof of his house.

If it was fixed up, would you want to go back to it?


WATSON: Why is that?

ROYCE: Oh, no. I wouldn't want to live in a flood zone ever again.

WATSON: It was that terrifying.

ROYCE: Yes, absolutely.

WATSON (voice-over): Authorities failed to predict the severity of the February 2022 flood in Lismore.

ELIZABETH MOSSOP, URBAN PLANNER, LIVING LAB NORTHERN RIVERS: It's really about the climate becoming unstable.

WATSON: Some urban planners want Australia to stop building on vulnerable flood plains.

Do societies have to consider giving up on some locations?

MOSSOP: I do think that that is one of a range of things that has to be in in the toolbox.

WATSON: Do you think a flood like this could happen again?

KRIEG: Yes. I'd be naive to say it'll never happen again.

WATSON (voice-over): Despite the threat, the mayor of Lismore is doubling down. He opened a new business not far from the river.

KRIEG: This is my home. It's a place that I know and I love it. I don't want to leave anywhere else and if I'm not prepared to invest in the city, how can I ask anyone else to?

STROUD: It will flood again. We just don't know when and we don't know how deep.

WATSON: Kate isn't taking any chances. She's found a new home on higher ground outside of the city.

STROUD: There's a lot of people that are still really struggling even with the sound of rain.

WATSON: The future of some disaster prone communities may be determined by how much trauma and hardship residents are willing to take.



WATSON: For the next phase of my journey, I'm headed back out to the Great Barrier Reef.

PETER GASH, LEASEHOLDER, LADY ELLIOTT ISLAND: OK. So we're going to put you up here, Ivan.

WATSON: To a place so remote only this puddle jumper can get me.

Did you get that?



WATSON (voice-over): A 13-seat Cessna Caravan. Flying an hour from Brisbane. Far out over the Pacific Ocean. We spot a tiny patch of green ringed by a halo of coral reefs.

GASH: We're looking at the beautiful Lady Elliot Island, the first island on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

WATSON: This is literally the start of this massive marine habitat right here.

GASH: The world's largest barrier reef starts right here.

WATSON (voice-over): Landing here is tricky.

GASH: We have to deal with the short runway with crosswinds and it's quite bumpy.

WATSON: The runway is only 650 meters long.


GASH: You got it?

WATSON: Got it. Yes. Wow. GASH: Welcome.

WATSON: Thank you. That was incredible.

(Voice-over): My pilot is Peter Gash. He's not just a pilot, he basically owns the island. Leasing it from the Australian government and running an eco-resort here with his family.

GASH: We made it our life's worth. My wife and I married. I went and learned to fly airplanes so I could bring people here.

WATSON: Peter wastes no time taking me out to see the island's underwater menagerie.

You look as comfortable underwater as you are in the sky.

GASH: Hey, Ivan, I came here 40 years ago, went underwater, and absolutely fell in love with the place. And how could you not? You've seen what it's like down there.

WATSON: I've never swam next to a sea turtle before. It's incredible. They just kind of glide along and they don't really seem to care that a human is kind of gasping and flipping around next to them.

GASH: Because humans have not bothered the animals for a long time since it's been made a protected zone. Because humans don't interfere which is look but don't touch. we don't spear, we don't fish, the wildlife is completely comfortable with us.

WATSON: These waters regularly visited by manta rays, and a resident dolphin named Bubbles. Meanwhile, above the surface, the island teams with seabirds.

GASH: At its peak, it's in excess of 200,000 birds.

WATSON: On this tiny island.

GASH: In this tiny little island. It's crazy to think that.

WATSON (voice-over): Peter gives me a tour.

What are these tags, for example?

GASH: That's our water storage.


GASH: Like I said we do salinize the water when we store, then we keep about 10 and 12 days of water.

WATSON: How much of the energy being used by the resort comes from solar power?

GASH: Hundred percent of it.

WATSON: Hundred percent. GASH: Hundred percent. We use all of the solar panel.

WATSON (voice-over): Lady Elliott Island didn't always look like this. In the 19th Century, settlers mined the island for bird guano, leaving the place mostly barren hard coral.

You can almost count the trees that were here in 19th Century.

GASH: Absolutely. There was almost nothing. This is a manmade forest. Everything you see here, we planted. I couldn't walk here 15 or 20 years ago because it was so rough. Here now, we've got natural soil. Magnificent.

WATSON: Is this from your compost?

GASH: No, it's from the trees. And the bird, that's bird poop, dead birds and trees and mulch. This is naturally forming. This is the island regrowing again. The island grows about three millimeters a year.

WATSON (voice-over): Peter is trying to run a profitable tourist resort and sustain this remarkable little island.

GASH: Human import pose the problem. Nature with a bit of help from humans, a bit a human input is now recovering.


That's rewarding, and what it tells me is if we can recover this small place, this little circle, we can recover this big place, this whole planet the we live on. Every single one of us can make a difference. It's not hopeless.

WATSON: Peter's message of hope is inspiring, but it's tempered by something we see underwater. Amid the reef sharks and sea turtles, there's coral bleached white. Enough to worry this island's greatest enthusiast.

GASH: What we do see is more and more bleaching, more and more stress on the corals. Hot water, the water warming, the environment changing and bringing up the water. To me that's a big risk.

WATSON: The damaged coral here part of the mass bleaching event caused by the marine heatwave along the Great Barrier Reef. A phenomenon that could threaten the entire ecosystem.

On this journey, I've seen how nature can rebound. This island is an example of a place that was a barren rock 30, 40 years ago, has regrown a forest, but there's another reality that's been hammered home. So even the success story here on this tiny island is vulnerable to the much larger pattern of climate change that we're seeing around the globe.


[20:51:10] WATSON: Every day trains rumble past, carrying coal to Newcastle. This is the last stop on my journey across Australia. An industrial city with a very busy port.

You have a cold ship kind of steaming in behind you here.

CRAIG CARMODY, CEO, PORT OF NEWCASTLE: Rather perfectly timed. That's right. So we are the world's largest to exporting in coal port. Our biggest trading partners are Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. We do about 165 million ton of coal a year, between 14 and 18 ships a day.

WATSON: Full of coal.

(Voice-over): Craig Carmody is the CEO of the Port of Newcastle.

CARMODY: It is not illegal to sell coal.

WATSON: He says Newcastle can't afford to stop selling coal even though he knows it hurts the environment.

CARMODY: I would literally devastate this business, devastate this town, and people would lose their jobs. Well, that's the Australian economy writ large.

WATSON: Australia is the second largest coal exporter in the world, as well as one of the largest global suppliers of natural gas.

On this trip across Australia, I've been talking to victims of fires and floods that were intensified by climate change, but this coal and gas producing country also contributes to the fossil fuel emissions driving the problem.

PLIBERSEK: We also need to do something about climate change.

WATSON: The current Australian government says it's committed to reducing greenhouse gases.

PLIBERSEK: We've legislated a pathway to net zero by 2050. It's why we're working hard to reduce carbon emissions in Australia. Do our part in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and also to and make sure that we transitioning Australia to more renewable energy, to get to our target of 82 percent renewable energy by 2030.

WATSON: But just last year, the same government approved opening four new coal mines.

ZACH SCHOFIELD, SPOKESPERSON, RISING TIDE: What I want people to know about Australia is that we are one of the world's largest fossil fuel exporting nations and that's been a position that we've held quite some time. It's not one that anyone should want.

WATSON: Zack Schofield is an environmentalist and resident of Newcastle. His activist group, Rising Tide, has staged protests briefly stopping one of these trains. In another waterborne sit-in Schofield was briefly arrested while blockading coal ships in the port.

Do you want this shut down?

SCHOFIELD: Not immediately, not overnight. You know, that's not going to help anyone in Newcastle nor in Australia. But what we do need is no new fossil fuel projects to be approved because that's just going to make the problem worse. As you can see today we've got so much sun, we've got so much wind. We've got a perfect opportunity to become a renewable superpower.

WATSON (voice-over): I'm surprised to hear both the environmentalist and the coal port executive calling for a gradual green energy transition.

CARMODY: We have been pursuing a strategy of diversification. So what our goal is while we are strong in coal, we'll build all these new businesses in clean energy containments and whatnot.

WATSON: You're running the world's largest coal exporting port. From what I'm hearing from you, you would like it to no longer be that.

CARMODY: Now you're going to get me in trouble with the coal miners. I want new businesses as big as coal for the day, whenever that day is, that coal declines.

WATSON (voice-over): Case in point, what appeared to be giant toothpicks lies stacked up on the grounds of the Port of Newcastle.


Look what's in storage here at the world's biggest coal port. Giant blades for wind turbines. And there is symbol of the hope that one day there will be a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

(Voice-over): Around 10 percent of Australia's energy comes from renewable sources like wind farms.

This is not somewhere you climb up to if you're afraid of heights. I'm 92 meters up, more than 300 feet on top of this wind turbine. And the wind is howling through here. The entire structure is actually swaying in the wind. And this wind farm alone can power some 75,000 homes.

The wind is just ripping through here. Is this a good day for your business?

JASON WILLOUGHBY, CEO, SQUADRON ENERGY: This is a great day. That's for sure. This is a really great wind resource. I think what we've seen today is a glimpse of what the future is going to be.

WATSON (voice-over): There appears to be consensus on the need for change. The question is, when?

HOEGH-GULDBERG: I mean, I think coal mines, which is unconscionable, I mean, this is a dangerous substance that is having a huge impact on humanity. RITTER: Australia is absolutely capable of shifting away from fossil

fuels in emergency speed and scale because we have an abundance of renewable energy.

DAVID WACHENFELD, RESEARCH PROGRAM DIRECTOR, AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF MARINE SCIENCE: The trajectory that we are on now is really quite scary, unprecedented. It's almost an everyday event because the climate is changing.

HOEGH-GULDBERG: So we're fighting a losing war. It's a fight for our survival and our kids'.

WATSON: In the end doesn't this all come down to our children?

This is a citizen science program.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello, and welcome to the reef. Over the reef.

WATSON: Schoolchildren by a cultural officer from Gunggandji, one of the aboriginal groups that are considered traditional owners of this stretch of the reef.

TARQUIN SINGLETON, CITIZENS OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: There's about seven, eight groups. They're called the Great Barrier (INAUDIBLE). They all have stories on how the reef came to be as it is today.

WATSON: The kids are here to take photos of the Great Barrier Reef and submit them to a growing database that's trying to better monitor this sprawling marine habitat.

These kids are clearly very comfortable way out in open ocean here over the reef, and just seeing them diving and swimming and enjoying the scene. It's really remarkable.

You guys aren't nervous out here in the open ocean? Why is that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Best place on earth.

WATSON: It is?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All the colors and the diversity of animals.



WATSON: What was the coolest animal you saw today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Probably the white tip shark or the turtles. They're amazing.

WATSON: So you think you guys will be able to snorkel and dive in these reefs when you're adults?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But not at this rate. Not at this rate. Unless we change.

WATSON: Are they in danger?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, definitely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Reefs around the world are endangered.

WATSON (voice-over): This sobering reality makes my own visit to the Great Barrier Reef bittersweet.

I just completed my first dive on the Great Barrier Reef. It was a spectacular experience. The neon colors, amazing. And I'm so lucky. I really just hope my daughter gets to see this and experience this one day the way I just did.

(Voice-over): Habitats and communities in peril. But if there's anything this journey across Australia has showed me, it's that there is so much here worth fighting for.


COOPER: The Great Barrier Reef isn't the only reef suffering from climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association recently announced we're in a mass global bleaching event, which means more than half the world's coral reefs across 54 countries and territories are being affected by the warming waters.

Thanks for watching THE WHOLE STORY. I'll see you next Sunday.