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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.