Politics

Just Like Me, The Great Barrier Reef Is Extremely White And Slowly Dying

But actually this story is quite serious.

Great Barrier Reef

Overnight we were provided with more evidence of the rapid destruction of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change — this time it came in the form of an article in scientific journal Nature, which showed that 30 percent of the reef’s corals were killed thanks to a “catastrophic” coral bleaching episode in 2016.

If the news didn’t register with you this morning, you’re forgiven — we’ve been told about it time and time and time again — and eventually it just stops sinking in. You’d also be forgiven for not knowing about it if you only read certain News Corp papers.

This was the headline in The Australian this morning:

And in Cairns — the city that will be most affected by the destruction of the reef — readers of the Cairns Post saw this headline online:

The print edition of The Cairns Post at least ran with the headline, “Damage to reef may be forever”. Readers of The Courier Mail — by far Queensland’s largest selling newspaper — saw no news at all about the reef online or in print.

Last year, a Deloitte Access Economics report placed the value of the reef at around $5.6 billion a year — that is, if you don’t consider the reef to be priceless — so its destruction would be quite a big deal for the people of Queensland, but you would barely know that by reading News Corp papers today.

But Do All Scientists Agree?

Well, no. Just like not all scientists agree that humans are responsible for climate change or that vaccinations are good for children. But that doesn’t mean all scientific opinions are equal.

The contrarian comments in the News Corp articles come from Associate Professor Jochen Kaempf, an oceanographer in the College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University, who said that the coral bleaching events could be linked back to “anomalous weather events” such as El Nino, and aren’t necessarily proof that ongoing climate change is to blame.

“As such, an individual heatwave triggering coral bleaching cannot be linked to global warming as the process triggering an individual heatwave is fundamentally different from that triggering global warming,” he said.

Kaempf’s comments found their way into the media via the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC), which acts as a conduit between scientists and journalists looking for expert comment on scientific issues.

Here’s a link to all of the comments provided to AusSMC.

Junkee asked AusSMC whether it was responsible to give Kaempf’s comments the same weight as other experts when the overwhelming consensus is that climate change is hurting the reef.

“We don’t choose whether to include comments. If experts respond, and they are scientists with expertise in a relevant field, we include their comments. Jochen Kaempf is an oceanographer with many peer-reviewed publications, and so he was included in our broader request for comments on this paper,” a spokesperson said.

Which is all well and good until it gives certain publications a chance to cast doubt on a widely accepted scientific reality.

So What Does The Science Actually Say?

While you’re here, I may as well tell you what the Nature report actually says, because it’s quite important.

The paper is written by James Cook University Professor Terry Hughes, who has been banging on about coral bleaching and climate change for years now.

It reveals that 30 percent of the reef’s corals died in the great 2016 bleaching event that hit the reef. Once the 2017 bleaching event is taken into account, Professor Hughes estimates that around half of shallow water corals have died.

Hughes also says that climate change is undoubtedly contributing to the damage being done to the reef. As temperatures rise, bleaching events become more common, giving corals less time to recover. The back-to-back bleaching episodes in 2016 and 2017 were unprecedented and caused catastrophic damage.

Here’s what Hughes had to say this morning in response to claims that coral bleaching can’t be attributed to climate change:

Hughes was backed in the AusSMC release by a number of other scientists.

“When considering these conclusions, we should keep in mind that the conditions experienced in 2016 and 2017 are likely to become the new normal within decades,” said Associate Professor Pete Strutton from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

“This is yet another concrete example of the costs of climate change. The science is clear. We are doing massive damage to the Great Barrier Reef, and there is justifiable concern that some of the damage might be irreversible. A unique, global feature is being destroyed on our watch,” said Ian Lowe, Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.

And Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, DECRA research fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre, had this to say:

“The results of this study confirm our worst fears of the detrimental impact man-made climate change is having on the Great Barrier Reef, and our natural ecosystems as a whole.

“As human influence on the climate increases, so too will the intensity, frequency and duration of marine heatwaves that cause this sort of devastation.”

The good news is that it’s not too late to save the reef, according to Hughes.

“The Great Barrier Reef is certainly threatened by climate change, but it is not doomed if we deal very quickly with greenhouse gas emissions. Our study shows that coral reefs are already shifting radically in response to unprecedented heatwaves,” he said.

Rob Stott is the Managing Editor at Junkee. You can tell him climate change isn’t real here: @Rob_Stott