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Two decades ago an Australian scientist warned climate change would kill the reef. Since then, governments have steadfastly ignored what is happening. By Mike Seccombe.

Barrier Reef: Ley stunned by 22 years of warnings

An aerial bleaching survey of the Great Barrier Reef, March 2020.
Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

Thirty years ago, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg was a PhD student at the University of California. The Australian scientist had become interested in the phenomenon of coral bleaching, in which corals lost their vibrant colours and turned ghostly white.

The cause of this bleaching was still a mystery. Was it a disease, or related to levels of salinity or light, or something else?

Hoegh-Guldberg experimented with the various possible causes, and realised it was a function of water temperature. If the water got too hot, the corals would expel the zooxanthellae – the microscopic algae that give them their colour, with which they have a symbiotic relationship – and bleach. Eventually, they would die.

Thus the link was made between coral bleaching and climate change.

Over the decade that followed, Hoegh-Guldberg and other marine scientists researched just how sensitive corals were to temperature rises. The short answer was “very”.

At the same time, climate models were becoming more accurate. “That allowed me to take the climate models,” Hoegh-Guldberg remembers, “and say, ‘Okay, what’s the temperature going to be in 2050 or 2100?’ ”

In 1998, as Hoegh-Guldberg was conducting this research, the world experienced its hottest year on record. There was a mass-bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. The work to marry climate science and coral science was showing up in the real world.

A year later, Hoegh-Guldberg detailed his findings in the somewhat arcane journal Marine and Freshwater Research, published by the CSIRO in association with the Australian Academy of Science.

They were shocking, even to him. His paper predicted that events as severe as the 1998 bleaching – then the worst on record – would likely become “commonplace within 20 years”. He found that “the thermal tolerances of reef-building corals were likely to be exceeded every year within the next few decades”.

As he tells The Saturday Paper, his research saw no evidence of “miraculous evolutions” in corals that might change the outcome for reefs. They simply cannot live through multiple bleachings. “They can’t really survive more than one or two a decade.”

If reefs were to bleach every year, as Hoegh-Guldberg predicted, they would “disappear” by mid-century.

Unsurprisingly, given the degree of scepticism and outright denial expressed by some about human-caused climate change, his paper “did cause a stir”. Even other scientists suggested he was exaggerating the problem.

“No one had come out and sort of said it quite bluntly like that before,” he says. “And of course, I took flak from scientists and non-scientists, and nutters and all sorts.”

And politicians, too, particularly those on the conservative side, who even then had a long, inglorious record of shooting the messenger when it came to climate science.

Repeatedly, One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts sent dossiers to the vice-chancellor and members of the senate and academic board at the University of Queensland – where Hoegh-Guldberg is a professor of marine studies – demanding his sacking.

Shortly after his paper came out, Hoegh-Guldberg met former Liberal Environment minister Robert Hill. The exchange is documented in Marian Wilkinson’s definitive book on the hijacking of Australian climate policy by denialists and fossil fuel interests, The Carbon Club.

Said Hill, on meeting Hoegh-Guldberg: “Oh, you’re the author of that alarmist paper.”

Hoegh-Guldberg replied: “No, I am the author of an alarming paper, which is somewhat different.”

Within a few years, the scientific debate was resolved, and smart, evidence-based opinion came to appreciate that Hoegh-Guldberg’s was the appropriate description. Hill himself changed his mind. Not that Hoegh-Guldberg finds much satisfaction in having been proved right: “I would much prefer to have been wrong.”

In 2002, there was another mass-bleaching event. Since then, they have come with increasing frequency. There have been three bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in just the past five years, collectively affecting 80 per cent of the reef.

By 2007 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, under the then new Environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had come up with a Climate Change Action Plan. This was not as promising as it might have seemed.

The plan was light on detail and very light on funding – a paltry $9 million over five years. Importantly, though, it acknowledged climate change as “the greatest long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef”. It just did too little about it.

That same year the Queensland Conservation Council mounted a challenge to Xstrata’s plans for expansion of the Newlands coalmine in central Queensland, arguing it would contribute to global warming and harm the reef. The president of the Land and Resources Tribunal, Greg Koppenol, disputed the link between fossil fuel and climate change.

Others, for financial reasons rather than blind ideology, would prefer the bleaching and its links to climate change were kept quiet. They point to an estimated $6.4 billion a year and 64,000 jobs that depend on tourists wanting to see the reef.

In 2018, Col McKenzie, the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, representing more than 100 businesses in the Great Barrier Reef, made news by writing to the federal government and demanding it stop funding the work of another of the world’s leading reef researchers, Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

“I think Terry Hughes is a dick,” McKenzie told Guardian Australia. “I believe he has done tens of millions of dollars of damage to our reef in our key markets, being America and Europe. People won’t do long-haul trips when they think the reef is dead.”

Hughes’s sin was to draw attention to the results of his organisation’s research, documenting the decline in coral as a result of bleaching. The irony is that the scientists are every bit as concerned for the reef’s health as any tourist operator, even more so, and their work is focused on preventing its further decline.

After scientists documented the damage from the 2002 bleaching, for example, the Howard government responded with a rezoning of large parts of the reef to exclude commercial fishing.

In response to the evidence of the reef’s decline and criticism both domestic and at international forums, government now is spending much more on reef management. The federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment claims some $200 million a year is spent by the Commonwealth and Queensland, seeking to improve water quality, control pests such as the crown of thorns starfish, and increase the resilience of corals. But the money is not nearly enough and the focus of its spending is too narrow.

“Every year or so, the state of Queensland and the Commonwealth produce what’s called a water-quality report card, and they give catchment-by-catchment grades,” Hughes says. “They’re too often D plus or C minus. It’s a bit like the vaccine rollout: there’s been some modest progress, but the plan is not fully funded. The state of Queensland estimated it would cost something like $800 million or $900 million a year for a decade to fix water quality.”

Hughes says the current state Labor government has acted more effectively than their federal counterpart, through measures including legislating to limit land-clearing in Barrier Reef catchments, the imposition of cane farm nitrogen and phosphorus “budgets” to reduce fertiliser runoff, and buybacks of some land in sensitive areas.

But this does not address the reef’s greatest problem, the one Hoegh-Guldberg’s research pointed to 22 years ago: climate change.

Indeed, governments both Labor and Liberal, state and federal, continue to make it worse. No matter how much is spent on reef management, it is no more than smoothing the dying pillow so long as climate change continues unabated.

Fossil fuels, the cause of that climate change, continue to be exported to the world, ironically on ships passing through the very reef their cargoes will help to destroy.

When scientists make that obvious point, they are criticised for it. They are accused of having political agendas. Since Hoegh-Guldberg’s first predictions, there has been no broad or comprehensive attempt by government to address the impact of climate change on the reef and the very real prospect that rising sea temperatures will kill it.

“In science,” says Hoegh-Guldberg, “problem-solving is meant to be impersonal. You play the ball, not the person. But people have used those sort of tactics to try to deny the science. But of course, I’ve always said that it makes me more determined.”

So we come to the latest example.

When the United Nations scientific organisation, UNESCO, announced its recommendation last week that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on the World Heritage “in danger” list, the Morrison government’s response was furious and misleading in multiple ways.

In a media release, Environment Minister Sussan Ley accused UNESCO of having “singled out” Australia in its “State of Conservation of Properties” report. In fact, the report canvassed the status of dozens of World Heritage sites, across many countries, and called for several others to be added to the existing list of 53 properties whose “outstanding universal value” was in danger of being lost for one reason or another.

Undeterred by this reality, Ley further claimed officials in her department had been assured in the week prior that the reef was not going to be recommended for listing as endangered, and were “stunned” by UNESCO’s “backflip”.

The co-ordinator of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, Dr Fanny Douvere, promptly and categorically denied that any such assurance had been given, either formally or informally.

Ley’s combative media release suggested that UNESCO’s recommendation was the result of flawed science. She complained the draft decision had been made “on the basis of a desk top review … without examining the Reef first hand” or appreciation of “the outstanding science-based strategies being jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments”.

“In a call to the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne overnight, I expressed Australia’s dissatisfaction with the process that is being followed,” she said in the release. “I made it clear that we will contest this flawed approach, one that has been taken without adequate consultation.”

Speaking to reporters later, she went further, suggesting a dark conspiracy intended to embarrass Australia. She pointed particularly to China’s involvement on the World Heritage Committee. “Clearly there was politics behind it, and that has subverted the proper process. For the World Heritage Committee not to foreshadow this listing is appalling.”

Terry Hughes describes this as “misinfomation”. He begins a long recitation of the reasons Ley’s claims are wrong and why the government should not have been surprised by the draft listing.

For a start, he says, the recommendation to designate the reef as “in danger” was not made by the World Heritage Committee but by UNESCO scientists.

“The World Heritage Committee, which is the 21 countries, half of which rotate every three years, is chaired by China; but China would not have seen the draft recommendation until it was released by UNESCO.”

As to the claim this assessment was made on the basis of inadequate information, he cites abundant scientific evidence, provided by people such as himself and Hoegh-Guldberg, and more importantly, the Australian government.

“Australia itself has documented the decline of the Great Barrier Reef, primarily due to global warming and runoff, in the three Barrier Reef Outlook Reports that have been produced in the last 15 years, every five years up to 2019,” says Hughes. “The 2019 report – produced by the Commonwealth – downgraded the Barrier Reef from poor to very poor.”

He points out that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the scientific body that advises UNESCO, also produced a report last year. It listed the reef’s status as “critical”.

“So, the evidence for the Great Barrier Reef being in danger is very clear,” he says. “And most of that evidence has been provided by the Australian government itself. So it’s not a surprise; it’s nothing to do with China.”

Nor is this the first time the reef has been considered for an “in danger” listing. In 2015, the government managed to avoid listing, through a combination of lobbying and promises to better protect the reef.

“The Reef 2050 plan arose because of a directive from UNESCO for Australia to demonstrate that it was doing more,” Hughes says. “And that plan is now five years old. That the plan has nothing much to say about climate change, apart from acknowledging it as the No. 1 threat.”

Hughes says Australia is not being singled out. “UNESCO commissioned a report in 2018 on the vulnerability of the 29 World Heritage areas around the world that have coral reefs in them. Four – the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island, Shark Bay and Ningaloo – [are] in Australia. And I was part of that report; I’m one of the authors. All of those properties have shown multiple bleaching events in the last 30 years.”

What distinguishes Australia from the countries responsible for the stewardship of most of those sites, however, is its lack of action to address the underlying cause: climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“Australia is an outlier in that it has the second-highest per capita emissions in the world. Australia is a signatory to the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Agreement, but it hasn’t done anything much to achieve that target,” Hughes says.

“So UNESCO over the last couple of years has been moving towards linking a state party’s policy for climate change and for emission reductions to their responsibilities for management of climate-sensitive World Heritage properties.”

Ley and the government should not have been surprised, then, by what has happened. UNESCO, Hughes says, “has been broadcasting this over a number of years now”.

But the Morrison government has not been tuned in. Instead of climate action, Hughes says, “we have the gas-led recovery, Adani and other new coalmines and gas fields being subsidised and encouraged by the Morrison government”.

Just this week, the government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility announced it would provide $175 million towards a new coalmine in Queensland.

The final decision on the status of the reef will be made a couple of weeks from now, at a virtual meeting of the member states of the World Heritage Committee.

Usually, their determinations are unanimous, but that is unlikely this time. Apart from Australia and China, there are 19 other countries on the committee, and the government has been furiously lobbying them. Ley’s statement suggests the government is very worried.

But the larger point remains. For decades, governments have been warned about the impact climate change will have on the Great Barrier Reef. Those warnings have proved accurate. And yet the government has done nothing substantial to engage with the reality of this. Instead it feigns shock at a listing confirming what it has already long known: that heating seas are killing the reef, which may only have a few decades left before it is gone entirely.

This is the difference between alarmist and alarming, the one Hoegh-Guldberg pointed out, and governments still have not learnt it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "Barrier Reef: Ley stunned by 22 years of warnings ".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.