“Not only to the wellbeing of our oceans from an environmental perspective, but they have quite significant impacts on health, particularly in the Pacific Island communities, particularly when you’re talking about nano plastics.”
But Professor Abram, who works for the Australian National University, rejected the Prime Minister’s premise.
“I don’t think that is true,” she told the ABC. “Certainly plastic pollution in our oceans is a serious threat. It’s something people can actually see and so I think that makes it seem like a more immediate threat. But we’re already seeing that the oceans are taking a huge hit from climate change.”
Professor Abram was a lead author on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on Wednesday, which warned that warming oceans and melting sea glaciers would raise sea levels by between 30cm and 60cm by the year 2100 even if global warming were capped at two degrees Celsius.
She said oceans were becoming warmer and taking up much carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, which was causing greater acidification and oxygen loss.
“Plastic pollution on top of that doesn’t help but really these climate change impacts on the ocean are very real and they’re happening now.”
University of Queensland marine science professor John Pandolfi also disagreed with the Prime Minister.
“The plastics is just a smokescreen by the Prime Minister to cover the fact he’s not doing what he should be on climate change,” he said.
Professor Pandolfi said plastic pollution in the ocean was a serious issue but tackling climate change should be a bigger focus.
“It’s much more urgent and it’s the bigger priority,” he said.
This week Mr Morrison also told the UN that Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef was regarded as “gold standard” for large scale marine protected areas.
But ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies principal research fellow, Andrew Hoey, said climate change was the single greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef.
Dr Hoey said the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority did a good job of managing local problems.
“But they can’t manage climate change and that’s where the government is letting things down,” he said.
Dr Hoey said he had been diving on the reef for more than 20 years and had noticed substantial changes with more frequent damaging weather events.
“After some of those recent disturbances some areas pretty much looked like a moonscape,” he said.
Benjamin is a state political reporter