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Drowning out the truth about the Great Barrier Reef

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Ove Hoegh-Guldberg dives into the media’s coverage of an Australian icon’s future. One of the most straightforward climate change storylines is the link between global warming and…

Mass bleaching at the Keppel Islands in 2006. Our greatest natural asset is under threat, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Andrew Bolt. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

MEDIA & DEMOCRACY - Ove Hoegh-Guldberg dives into the media’s coverage of an Australian icon’s future.

One of the most straightforward climate change storylines is the link between global warming and coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef.

When our reef waters get too warm, corals sicken (bleach), often causing disease and death. And when the corals go, many of the other organisms go with them. At the current rate of ocean warming, we will soon exceed the critical temperature at which this happens every year, causing the Great Barrier Reef to rapidly degrade.

The greater the amount of human-driven climate change, the less will be left of the Great Barrier Reef as we know it today. And the less fishing, tourism and other benefits we will derive from it as a country.

The science tells us that exceeding 2°C in average global temperature will largely exceed the thermal tolerance of corals today. It is already happening. Rolling mass bleaching events, unknown to science before 1979, are increasing in frequency and severity.

This simple set of linkages demonstrates the risk that climate change generally places on natural ecosystems.

It is supported by hundreds of papers and highly experienced and published experts from oceanography, climate science and marine biology.

Why is it then that commentators in the media such as Andrew Bolt and Jamie Walker consistently take a different view and posit, either directly or indirectly, that all those leading experts are fraudulent, dishonest or at best shoddy scientists?

Is it a genuine lack of understanding of the facts, or is it a deliberate strategy to confuse people about what is otherwise a very clear message about climate change and coral reefs?

Could it be that confusing Australians about the risk to our reef is highly prized by the people that fund their operations?

Let’s take Andrew Bolt. Andrew has been vociferous in his claim that scientists like me are alarmists, even deliberately deceptive.

He wraps us all up in the same blanket: me, Flannery and Garnaut. Quite an honour really, given the eminence of my co-accused.

Apparently, we do it because we are mad, we do it because we are on the take, and we do it because we are zealots!

Bolt has repeatedly claimed, for example, that I warned in 1998 “that the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure from global warming, and much of it had turned white. In fact, [I] later admitted the reef had made a “surprising” recovery.”

This implies that I got the events of 1998 wrong. Let’s examine his claim.

In 1998, more than half of the Great Barrier Reef experienced bleaching and about 5 to 10% of the corals that make up the reef died (about 4000 km²).

This was the largest mass coral bleaching event in Australian recorded history.

All of this has been reported in the scientific literature.

Other coral reefs did not get off so easily. In the Western Indian Ocean, 46% of corals were eliminated by the underwater heatwave that swept through the region in 1998. An estimated 16% of the corals were eliminated worldwide.

While 1998 was an extraordinarily hot year, it will be commonplace in a few decades time at the current rate of global temperature increase. As if to emphasize this point, 2010 was a shade hotter then 1998 and saw record bleaching in many regions.

If conditions had been as hot on the Great Barrier Reef as in the Western Indian Ocean, similar events would have transpired.

We did fear the worst, but we got lucky, hence the reference to “surprising recovery” when the heat stress was abbreviated by storm activity.

It is hard to see what I got wrong.

Despite my having responded to these issues, Andrew Bolt has not removed the misinformation and continues to this day to chant its content on a regular basis. I find it hard to believe that Andrew cannot understand this critical issue. Perhaps he doesn’t.

It is hard to practice as a humble scientist when powerful columnists like Bolt run amok. Drawing attention to their fundamental scientific errors and distortions only brings more insult and abuse.

Hardly what I signed up for when I began training in science over 30 years ago.

Is this simply bad journalism or an attempt to deliberately mislead the Australian public on this issue?*

Bolt is not alone.

The Australian has also been ahead of the charge with commentators such as Jamie Walker either not understanding or deliberately distorting the information on the risks of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef.

Jamie has published a number of incorrect statements about the Great Barrier Reef, rarely, withdrawing statements when they were proved wrong.

Jamie published the following opening statement to an article in February last year:

“Kevin Rudd’s insistence that the Great Barrier Reef could be “destroyed beyond recognition” by global warming grates with new science suggesting it will again escape temperature-related coral bleaching.”

The truth couldn’t be further from Jamie’s clumsy spin.

First, there was no “new” science or report, given the story was based on a single year of data from a survey program that the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences has been running for 19 years. It’s literally published every year.

Second, AIMS responded by saying “The latest AIMS monitoring observations of the Great Barrier Reef do not contradict projections of potential harm caused by rising sea surface temperature or any other consequences from increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

According to AIMS CEO, Dr Ian Poiner, “One or two seasons of no bleaching do not mean that the GBR is not threatened. It is over-generalisation to the point of unreality to extrapolate from one set of observations to what is going to happen to the GBR in the long term.”

As you can see, Dr Poiner statement is pretty unambiguous. Hardly grating up against Kevin Rudd’s statements!

These statements are also relevant to Andrew Bolt’s misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) of statements relevant to what will happen within a single year, versus what will happen in the long term.

But this is what happens over and over again in the Australian media.

By misreporting “facts” and smearing scientists' personal reputations, journalists are willfully misleading the public about the nature of the threat to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and one of our most valuable tourism assets.

And ultimately to our world.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article implied that Gina Rinehart has provided direct financial support to Andrew Bolt. There is no evidence to support this claim. This has been corrected.

This is the fifth part of our Media and Democracy series. To read the other instalments, follow the links here:.

This article is about the media’s representation of climate change - we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions.

Join the conversation

48 Comments sorted by

  1. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

    Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

    Naturally, it is always good to get the facts correct: Here are the various updates on the West Australian bleaching story. http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=6594.

    High temperature related bleaching and mortality have been relatively unknown in Western Australia until now - the extraordinary underwater heatwave reported by NOAA in this region is of concern.

    Look at the facts - hardly overblown.

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  2. Peter Smith

    (None)

    Bolt and Co don't have to live in the "Norf" Queensland quarry. This the literal coalface where the irony of digging up coal helps erode one of the few other industries of tourism - both in terms of climate change and Dutch disease. Sometimes I imagine the IPA wants to turn the Norf into an industrial wasteland to further some sort of sovereign right that keeps the greedy northern neighbours away and we get to the stuff first.

    And yes, this is exactly the point: "journalists are willfully misleading the public about the nature of the threat". Those that await a reckoning will be disappointed however. Bolt and Co will be dead long before they swallow the seawater.

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  3. Thomas Marshall

    Postgraduate Student

    I've seen the Bolt Report. It put me in a bit of a rage, but I was at the gym, so it was productive at least.

    People like Mr. Bolt help explain why a majority of people now want to elect a Coalition government and move away from making changes to prevent increases in carbon emissions.

    Misrepresentations like his, by being contrarian and sensational, sell well. Unfortunately it leads to bad government. Thanks Andrew!

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  4. Blair Donaldson

    logged in via Facebook

    It would seem our geologist friend who posted earlier this morning has deleted his comments. Which prompts a question, apart from shock jocks, when it comes to the the science arena, it's mainly geologists who continue to sing the climate change denialist tune. Why is this? In most other disciplines, the relevant experts are content to give the benefit of the doubt to those actually studying climate change phenomena.

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    1. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      Ove's take on the truth is an interesting one. If only we could all change our predictions to match the facts! Of course with the internet you can, and sometimes you can get away with it, but not in this case.

      Here's the text from his blog for his prediction about bleaching effects at Ningaloo Reef I downloaded in May.
      PREDICTION: We will see large-scale mortality of reef-building corals (30% or more) and many other organisms on reefs from Exmouth to Shark Bay along the West Australian coastline…

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      In a post with truth in the title it seems it is short on the ground here. I did not remove my comment, the editors did. It seems a sense of humour is lacking on this site.

      However the original comment, information about failed predictions at Ningaloo and some questions for Ove, about apparent alterations to predictions can be found at:
      http://abcnewswatch.blogspot.com/2011/08/adjust-your-predictions-to-match-facts.html

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    3. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Very easy to understand. This is science (skeptical and dynamic). The warnings regarding heat stress came from Coral Reef Watch at NOAA. When it was clear that the NOAA impact area didn't expand to include Ningaloo as expected, the outlook was better for Ningaloo. Hence my modification. Unfortunately, this not so for the Abrolhos reef system (which are some very significant and valuable coral reefs). Even though Ningaloo had a narrow escape, the impact of this unprecedented heatwave is still extremely serious.

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    4. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Odd then that you didn't indicate your original prediction had been modified.

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    5. Philip Gillibrand

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Blair Donaldson

      Blair,

      You asked "Why are geoloists opposed to climate change ?" Geologists are always slow to take up new ideas - something to do with time scales I think ! The geologist community opposed the idea of continental drift for many decades as well, so we shouldn't take their objections too seriously. I think they will be proved similarly wrong on anthropogenic climate change !

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    6. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Perhaps you should tell the editors, seems they are happy to allow Michael Ashley to personally attack some of the world's most respected climate scientists. Yet a minor accurate poke gets dragged down. Talk about double standards!

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  5. Chris O'Neill

    Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

    'By misreporting “facts”'

    Most people think they're entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Bolt thinks he entitled to his own facts.

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  6. James Doogue

    logged in via email @doogue.net

    My original post disappeared so I'll have another go.

    Coral Reefs - Not that straight forward: I am not an expert of reefs or climate science but I know the matters discussed here are not as simple and straight forward as the author would have us believe. Firstly whether the oceans are warming globally, and reefs are bleaching, does not provide an automatic connection to human activity, and it does not provide any evidence that we can do anything to stop what could well be a natural cycle. It is…

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    1. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Doogue

      James, a couple of quick responses (responding to numbered points above):

      1. "well qualified scientists"? I suggest you ask a simple question: when have "Bob Carter, David Evans, Stewart Franks, and William Kininmonth" published in the peer-reviewed literature on coral reefs, bleaching and climate change? Answer - never. So - their ideas untested in the scientific literature and hence are mere conjecture. http://theconversation.edu.au/whos-your-expert-the-difference-between-peer-review-and-rhetoric-1550

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    2. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Ove, your article isn't an article about the “media's representation of climate change” - it is an article about some journalist's representations and opinions, (particularly Bolt’s) about your position regarding climate change and the future of the Great Barrier Reef.

      If the article was about “the media's representation of climate change”, or even the media's representation of your concerns about the GBR, you would need to discuss the many supportive articles which have appeared in the media on…

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    3. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Doogue

      1. Let's face it - the facts stand with respect to the media spin. By reference to Tony Abbott was only that he was a prominent politician with an opinion on the Great Barrier Reef (you might remember, that he doesn't believe that the increased zoning of the Great Barrier Reef is a good thing - "Human being and fish can coexist peacefully” has been attributed to him in this regard. Nothing political intended, just a reference to a prominent public figure saying something about the Reef. I would also…

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    4. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Ove, once again you have let just about every point I raised go through to the keeper. On the one point you addressed about the science, I agree there is a difference between 'switching' and 'shuffling', but all the authors were saying is that "reefs can to a degree adapt to bleaching episodes by substituting their photosynthetic symbionts (zooanthellae)", which has been shown in the research.

      I'm glad you removed some of the original content from your response above, it was condescending and unhelpful…

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    5. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Philip Gillibrand

      I should have said it had been removed from the AR4 Summary for Policy makers. The Mann 'Hockey Stick' graph was prominently displayed as the first figure of the Summary for Policymakers of 2001 Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It no longer appears in the AR4 summary for policy makers and is hidden in the main body of the report among dozen temperature reconstructions and records for the northern hemisphere at the reference you point out Philip. In fact, even with my glasses for reading, I can't really make out Mann's graph among all that spaghetti.

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    6. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Doogue

      Interesting. James, you write - " the well qualified people I referred to are Carter et al, authors of the peer reviewed papers referenced and Peter Ridd. These do provide journalists with information to disagree with your views, whether you like it or not, and whether the journalists tend to over spin a particular point or position, which is definitely an accusation which could be levelled at many, scientists and journalists, involved in both sides of the climate change debate."

      Could you please provide the peer-reviewed papers by Carter and Ridd which are published in credible scientific journals? Opinion pieces in non-scientific journals don't qualify.

      What you'll find is that there are no recent articles by Carter, Ridd or anyone else that have been peer-reviewed and published in serious scientific journals that support the assertion that climate change is not happening or that impacts such as mass coral bleaching on coral reefs have other explanations.

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    7. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Ove, there is a comma after Carter et al to separate them from "authors of the peer reviewed papers referenced", and Peter Ridd.

      So the authors of the peer reviewed papers references (at point 1.) in my original post, are listed in that post.

      It is hard to not think you deliberately misinterpret what I have written. It is obvious you simply ignore points you can't or don't want to answer.

      And for the record - I have never stated a belief that "climate change is not happening" or that it wont…

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    8. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      Director, Global Change Institute at University of Queensland

      In reply to James Doogue

      If that is true, then how do you get to the "well qualified people I referred to are Carter et al" without having some test of their ideas in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

      You can't have it both ways. You may have shown that some people disagree with me, but you haven't demonstrated that these differences of opinion based firmly in fact and are scientifically valid points of dispute.

      By the way, the consistent and unjustified pounding that I and other scientists have received from both Bolt and Walker do need some explanation. http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=6713

      But let's put that aside. You refer to "sometimes extreme predictions". Why don't you list a couple of predictions which you think I've made and which you consider extreme? Best done concisely, if you can.

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    9. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to James Doogue

      "Ove, once again you have let just about every point I raised go through to the keeper."

      He probably doesn't have time to deal with all the points in a Gish gallop.

      "I thought it was obvious to readers that the well qualified people I referred to are Carter et al,"

      Carter is not well qualified in climate science.

      "I think it is generally accepted that Michael Mann's tree ring graph which Al Gore and the IPCC used extensively to claim present day warming was 'unprecedented', has not stood up to…

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    10. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to James Doogue

      My post was truncated. I'll try the rest:

      Mann's graph has stood up to scrutiny as subsequent results have proven. Its method introduced an insignificant (<0.1 deg C) bias.

      "The IPCC has removed it from their reports."

      That's a lie. It is in Figure 6.10 of of the AR4 WG1 report.

      "My understanding is that a poor statistical approach"

      It introduced an insignificant bias to improve the signal to noise ratio. That doesn't make it a 'poor statistical approach'.

      "allowed Michael Mann to achieve what was clearly a misleading graph."

      How could it be misleading if it agrees with subsequent results?

      "Whether that was deliberate or not I wouldn't know - it was bad science"

      You wouldn't know whether it was good or bad science either.

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    11. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to James Doogue

      Sorry I didn't guess what went wrong the first time. Try again:

      Mann's graph has stood up to scrutiny as subsequent results have proven. Its method introduced an insignificant (less than 0.1 deg C) bias.

      "The IPCC has removed it from their reports."

      That's a lie. It is in Figure 6.10 of of the AR4 WG1 report.

      "My understanding is that a poor statistical approach"

      It introduced an insignificant bias to improve the signal to noise ratio. That doesn't make it a 'poor statistical approach'.

      "allowed Michael Mann to achieve what was clearly a misleading graph."

      How could it be misleading if it agrees with subsequent results?

      "Whether that was deliberate or not I wouldn't know - it was bad science"

      You wouldn't know whether it was good or bad science either.

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    12. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to James Doogue

      "In fact, even with my glasses for reading, I can't really make out Mann's graph among all that spaghetti."

      And your point about MBH99 being put on the same graph as subsequent results that are broadly in agreement with MBH99 is what?

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    13. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

      At this point I'm happy for readers to look at what we have both written and make their own judgement.

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    14. James Doogue

      logged in via email @doogue.net

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris, I have addressed the issue of removing Mann's graph from the front page of the summary for policy makers in the IPCC AR4 but still including it among a dozen other graphs for Northern Hemisphere temperatures/proxies. If you wish to continue believing the MWP did not happen in the Northern hemisphere then that's your want. I would say that is misleading. Incidentally if you have a bad statistical model and you get the same results fromdifferent data sets, that does not lend any support for the quality of the model.

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    15. Philip Gillibrand

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to James Doogue

      Yes, James, science is a messy business isn't it, particularly earth science where we can't repeat experiments. It's rarely as clear cut as non-scientists like to believe. That's why we have to look at the weight of evidence as a whole, and not cherry-pick results. As others have commented, far from being discredited (except by those who don't accept any of the evidence), the Mann results have largely been supported by other reconstructions.

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    16. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to James Doogue

      "If you wish to continue believing the MWP did not happen in the Northern hemisphere then that's your want."

      If you wish to continue believing the MWP was warmer than the whole northern hemisphere today then that is your want. But you are contradicted by EVERY reconstruction shown in figure 6.10 of AR4 WG1's report, including the original Mann result.

      "I would say that is misleading."

      There is no way that a correct result can be misleading, even if it was produced by a seriously flawed method which in this case it wasn't. I pointed this out above but obviously your ideological shutters have come down and you can no longer see reason.

      "Incidentally if you have a bad statistical model"

      The big IF. I pointed out above that the method used in MBH98/98 does not produce a significant bias, less than 0.1 degrees C.

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  7. John McLean

    logged in via email @connexus.net.au

    I have already posted a mesage on this topic but it has been removed, supposedly in breach of some standard. Unfortunately the moderators(?) will not reply to my requests as to which standard I have broken so I must try again.

    The opening five paragraphs of this article seem intent on implying that the GBR is suffering under manmade climate change. This is nothing more than an assertion, moreover it's one that's refuted by the data.

    If these five paragraphs don'e stand up to scrutiny then the…

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    1. Peter Smith

      (None)

      In reply to John McLean

      From the article - did you read it?!

      "This article is about the media’s representation of climate change – we’d love to hear your opinions on that topic. If you would rather discuss the existence of climate change, there are many other articles on the site covering that issue: please take your comments to one of those discussions."

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  8. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Good to see your comment, Blair. While both the above and previous articles critiqued traditional media distortions of the climate science , it seems that despite all the good intentions of The Conversation certain people determined to discredit mainstream climate science grab every chance possible to attack , short of outright defamation. I guess this is inevitable given the open forum , but very depressing.

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  9. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Uwe keeps rabitting on about "peer [=pal] review. Here are some comments on Dea'th Lough and Fabricius (of AIMS Townsville, in the journal jokily called "Science", January 2009) of which Uwe, I suspect, perhaps wrongly, to have been the pal reviewer: “We investigated 328 colonies of massive Porites corals from 69 reefs of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in Australia. Their skeletal records show that throughout (sic) the GBR…” Not true, their archived sampling records are only from south of Lat 18 oS…

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  10. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Further to my previous post, here are the actual temperature increases along the northern GBR (north of Townsville) since 1948:

    Lats - 10 to -15 0.37 oC (trend 0.0059 oC p.a.)

    Lats -15 to -17.5: 0.35 oC (trend 0.0056 oC p.a.)

    Lats -17.5 to 20: 0.126 oC (trend 0.002 oC p.a.)

    The last are for roughly the area of the GBR between Cairns and Townsville. Could Uwe kindly explain his claimed temperature rise of 2 oC for that area? at the trend since 1948, the temperature will increase by only 0.18 oC by 2100. What price 2 oC?

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    1. Andy Casely

      Environmental Consultant

      In reply to Timothy Curtin

      Can you point me to where Goldberg claims a 2C rise for the GBR area? He speaks of a 2C rise in average global temperature.

      Insinuations about peer-review in your other comment are also not appropriate.

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  11. William John Hall

    Farmer/Philosopher

    The sceptics have successfully gathered an audience of superficial thinkers and non readers. But they have also deepened the support for the science with serious-minded Australians. The more the claims of the sceptics are checked out in the literature the more we trust the science. The sceptics have created thier own tipping point and it is working against them.

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  12. Timothy Curtin

    Economic adviser

    Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
    sez "..The change so far (in the Coral Sea) is about 1 degree". Since when? "The 2oC comes from concern regarding the future (with current heating occurring at around 0.1-0.2oC per decade). Here is the BOM figure for the Coral Sea http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=4324.";

    Actually the BoM's figure for average mean temperature of the Coral Sea is a gross exaggeration, at 27.2 oC for 1971-2000, when between Cairns and Townsville the actual for 1971-2000 was only 22.93 oC.

    All the same, using the BoM's figure of 27.25 and its actual trend rate of 0.0112 oC p.a. from 1948-2010, it only reaches 28.25 oC in 2100, still well below known warmth tolerance levels for coral reefs.

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    1. Danderson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ralph Watson

      It seems Mr Bolt's lawyer has forced a correction due to a baseless allegation sneaking its way into the original edit.

      I suspect if coral were similarly concerned about accuracy there'd be a few more forced corrections, but Mr Hoegh-Guldberg won't have to worry about that.

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  13. Aydin McKeon

    School Student

    Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, according to yourself, how many different species live in the Great Barrirer Reef? please respond, it's for my class.
    Thank you.

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  14. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    I've been studying the global 1998 'hot year' and so far have found no cause of it. It's not global - many weather stations show no anomalous peak, but I can find no pattern in those that do. If you accept the reasonable, that 1998 surface air temperatures were higher than many (but not all) other years before then, then two sets of questions arise.
    1. If the cause of the heating is not known, the cause might have affected coral rather than the temperatures of the surrounding waters and air, the…

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