This time it is Dr. Peter Ridd (an expert in marine physics) who is claiming that there is an even greater swindle going on with respect to the Great Barrier Reef. The title of Dr. Ridd’s opinion piece dated 19th of July 2007, says it all – “The Great Barrier Reef Swindle”.
His thesis? Hundreds of scientists who work on the Great Barrier Reef are all also involved in the same sort of cover-up and conspiracy that we were told about in the Great Climate Change Swindle! Big news indeed.
Yes, same story, scientists make up the doom and gloom tale so that they can get lots of research money from unsuspecting agencies and donors.
Sound familiar? Jennifer Marohasy has written similar things in the past (and she loves his opinion piece!). Oh, and guess who Dr. Peter Ridd reports to in his role as Science Coordinator to the newly created” Australian Environment Foundation“? Yes, none other than its director, Dr. Jennifer Marohasy, also Environment Director to the right wing think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). Jennifer also does not believe that the Murray Darling River system is a mess or that carbon dioxide is such a big deal either!
Okay – some much for the fun. Let’s get down to the facts.
What are Dr Ridd’s key messages? They are (with my response underneath):
1. “corals are more tolerant to rising waters temperatures than first thought by most people..” This is a reference to a paper published last week by the Australian Institute of Marine sciences. I have read the paper, though it seems that Peter has not.
The message to Peter is that there is a big difference between a newspaper article and a peer-reviewed publication in a scientific journal. Peter links us from his text to the Australian and … Voilà … that is what the headlines say.
The more diligent of us of course went to the paper and discovered that it didn’t say what the headline (or Piers Ackerman) said it said. In fact, when we profiled it at our blog, Dr. Madeleine van Oppen, the lead author, felt compelled to put a correction on the record and said “The article in today’s Australian is a miss-representation of our work.” Pretty final don’t you think?
Yes, Peter, you will need to go to the original sources next time. That is what other scientists do.
2. ‘Corals are cockroaches’
When I first read this statement, I thought, oh dear, Peter’s lack of training in basic biology has let him down again!” No – I wont be snide, I did actually understand what he was trying to say – and I actually agree with him. Corals are like cockroaches in that they’re extremely difficult to make go extinct. Corals are able to reproduce on their own (asexually) and have some of the largest biogeographical ranges of any organism. This means that they can hang out for long periods as a single individual and still grow and ‘reproduce’ without needing another individual. Their large ranges mean that they are likely to have somewhere, even in a catastrophe, to find shelter and survive. Not that it makes them invincible but it probably increases the odds against their extinction.
What is the point here?
Peter is telling us that we don’t have to worry about the extinction of corals. I also think we don’t have to worry about the extinction of corals. But this isn’t the issue.
The issue is that corals may survive in geological time but may dwindle so that they become very, very rare. That means they won’t be building the reefs that house the thousands of species. Those thousands of species underpin a $5 billion economic nest egg given to us each year from Great Barrier Reef associated fishing and tourism.
Corals can survive catastrophes and have as demonstrated in the geological record. But what Peter doesn’t tell you is that corals are not common during these catastrophes and that it takes thousands if not millions of years the corals to rebuild the coral reefs off to a catastrophe. Trying telling our friends in the tourism industry that they will have to do without corals for 10 let alone 1,000 years!
3. “Corals like it hot”
And so do we. But if you push the temperatures up are too high for us (beyond our coping range) we have big problems. The extraordinary heat wave in Paris in 2003, when over 14,000 people died, is a case in point.
Corals have certainly adapted to the temperature of the local environment. At each of these locations, I will bleach and potentially die when they go beyond the local thermal threshold. Off Sydney, corals will bleach when the water hits 26°C. Off Gladstone, on the southern Great Barrier Reef, I will begin to bleach at 29°C. Off Townsville, they will bleach at 30°C.
Raise the temperature by a further 2°C at each of those locations, however, and the corals will die. Yes, each has adapted (over hundreds if not thousands of years) to the local temperature. But the issue here is not adaptation. It is the rate at which corals can adapt relative than the rate of temperature change.
What Peter Ridd doesn’t tell us is that the current rates of temperature change are at least a hundred times greater than the Ice Age transitions (the period in which the Earth went from being told with lots of on ice to warm like it is today). Yes, at least hundred times as fast. Go get the Vostok Ice core data and calculate it for yourself.
Given that fact, it is perhaps no wonder that mass mortalities of corals are on the rise. In 1998, there was a 16% decrease in the number of corals survey by the multinational Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN). Peter Ridd states that we didn’t lose many corals from the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 or 2002.
Another furphy. Let’s have a look at the actual numbers.
The official figure from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was that around about 5% of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died (“severely damaged”) in each event (1998, 2002). Doesn’t sound like much until you consider the size of the Great Barrier Reef? If one does the calculation, there are probably at least 40,000 km² of corals dominated communities on the Great Barrier Reef. If you use this number as a minimal estimate (and it probably is) then the loss of 5% of 40,000 km² of corals, represents a loss of 2000 km² of coral communities! If you can live with that happening every 3-4 years, Peter, then you’re a better man than I!
But you are right, it is not like what happened in the Western Indian Ocean, on the reefs of the Okinawa, or in Palau or off Scott reef in Western Australia, where between 50 and 90% of the corals disappeared from reefs during 1998. The problem is that the best science (published in peer-reviewed journals) indicates that the frequency of bleaching events is likely to increase in the coming decades. Do we have any credible data to say that we should NOT heed these projections? To my knowledge and expertise, no.
4. ‘Climate change is happened before and has been worse’.
This is a common line from some who focus on long time scales – namely the geological record, which has a time scale that goes well beyond that of the ecological (today). Some (only only a few like Bob Carter and Peter Ridd actually) say that “it’s has all happened before, so why are we worried that it happening today”.
There is a small but critical detail missing from this type of interpretation and conclusion. And that is that the sudden retreat of the glaze or the flooding of coastal Australia at the end of the last Ice Age occurred at rates that were at least a hundred times smaller than the current rate of climate change and what we’ll be seeing in the future.
That is, an early Australian would have to have lived to 5000 years old (not 50) to see the sorts of changes that we are likely to see in the next 50 years. It basically says that early Australians probably only had the vaguest notions that the climate was changing if they had any notions at all. Change was nothing like recent decades or that that is projected.
5. ‘We have been swindled’
At this point, Peter, after trundling through half-facts and half-truths comes to his final section. Here, he lists why he thinks we have been swindled. The first reason given is that “some very bad science is involved”. I have already tackled this above – I think it is a bit rich from a fellow who has not published his objections in a peer-reviewed science journal and has blundered with the facts and science above. Scientists constantly criticize scientific ideas through the vehicle of anonymous peer-review. That is all part of scientific progress. Why hasn’t Peter used this vehicle before?
Secondly, Peter indicates that the examination of the issues for the Great Barrier Reef is dominated by the biological science community which should (but doesn’t according to Dr Ridd) make reference more to the geological history of corals. It is interesting that Dr Ridd has glossed over the work on two of the most prolific authors on the Reef, John Pandolfi (University of Queensland) and John (Charlie) Veron (ex-AIMS now University of Queensland) who have produced a vast literature and trained generations of scientists with the methodology which is constantly calling on our understanding of the geological time frame in which corals and coral reefs have evolved. This sounds like the confusion that Dr Ridd had with thinking that we are worried most about the extinction of corals when we are not.
The last point that Dr Ridd makes is the old argument that scientists are feathering their nests and that they have to mention the “CC” word to get funded. This is a tired old conspiracy theory — the peer review system works in a way that would make conspiracy very extremely difficult. Try running a committee to obtain consensus out of 10 let alone 100 scientists! Granting success works on originality, tractability and having the goods (a solid track record in the peer-reviewed literature). In fact, if you had the track record, and had solidly based evidence that climate change was a myth, then you would probably become one of the most well funded scientists of all time!
In his conclusion, Dr Peter Ridd Peter states that it would be good to have the disgraced director Martin Durkin (producer of “The Great Climate Change Swindle”) come over to Australia and do make “The Great Barrier Reef Swindle”.
I suppose that choosing a producer who faked data, misquoted people and chose to use data selectively is the right man for your job, Peter.
But he isn’t my Sir David Attenborough!