Another Great Barrier Reef wipeout by The Australian

The Australian newspaper ran with a typical sensationalist headline this morning, titled “Report undercuts Kevin Rudd’s Great Barrier Reef wipeout“. The journalist in question might sound familiar – he is the same same journalist who penned the deliberately misleading “How the reef became blue again” article (see here for our response at Climate Shifts: “Why the Great Barrier Reef isn’t magically blue again“). So continues The Australian’s ongoing war against science, creating contention and deliberately clouding issues to sell newspapers. “Report undercuts Kevin Rudd’s Great Barrier Reef wipeout” – sorry Jamie, there is no undercutting here.

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.

One of the main issues in the article is that there is no ‘new science’ to be reported. Hugh and his team at the Australian Institute of Marine Science have been surveying these reefs annually since the early 1990’s. The ‘spin’ here is completely misleading, as there is no ‘new science’ or even a report to base the article on! The article continues:

Going head-to-head with Tony Abbott for the first time since he became Opposition Leader, Mr Rudd said the reef would be destroyed if global temperatures increased by 4C.

“I noticed the other day, by the way, that the Leader of the Opposition said that, if the worst-case scenario put out by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were to come to pass and we were to see global temperature increases of the order of 4 degrees centigrade, it did not represent any big moral challenge for the future,” Mr Rudd said. “Can I say that, if we saw temperature increases like that, as far as the Barrier Reef is concerned, frankly, it would be destroyed beyond recognition.”

Mr Rudd’s warning reflects the findings of the 2007 report of the IPCC that is under intensifying fire for exaggerating the threat to Himalayan glaciers and the Amazon rainforest. The IPCC predicted the reef would be subject to annual bleaching by 2030 if climate change continued unchecked, destroying much of its coral cover.

But after scouring 14 sites at the vulnerable southern end of the GBR last month, the team from Townsville-based AIMS found only a only a handful of “slightly stressed reefs”.

It seems to me that Kevin Rudd has managed to hit the nail squarely on the head, only for The Australian to then get it completely wrong. It appears that the article has managed to mix up the AIMS projections for this summers coral bleaching outlook with the long-term projections of coral bleaching in the region (30-50 year outlook). The ‘handful’ of slightly stressed reefs doesn’t negate the findings of the IPCC or Rudd’s claims that the reef will be destroyed if global temperatures increased by 4C. As Hugh rightly points out,

Dr Sweatman said a deep monsoonal trough, reinforced by tropical cyclones Olga and Neville, had averted “doldrums” conditions associated with coral bleaching on the reef.

Which is exactly what happened in 2006. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the GBR region experienced its eighth warmest year on record in 2009, and the warming trend is unmistakable.

Finally, the article strives to convince the general public that as scientists, we “fear” that mass bleaching events will become more frequent due to global warming, and our ‘fears’ have been substantially allayed. Although it makes for great sensational journalism, this simply isn’t the issue – this isn’t a “fear” but a scientific fact. Next time, let’s stick to fact over fearmongering and keep the science objective.

18 thoughts on “Another Great Barrier Reef wipeout by The Australian

  1. “Next time, let’s stick to fact over fearmongering and keep the science objective” but they won’t, Ove. Your inconvenient facts about the reef are in the way of Rupert Murdoch’s crusade for not just business as usual but ever increasing business as usual. If he has to destroy science in the process of keeping the public misinformed about what is happening to the world we all have to live in then that’s exactly what he will do without losing a moment’s sleep. The hacked email saga, and the resultant second wave of masses of denialism hitting every blog and letters to editor and newspaper column and shock jock radio programme, is achieving its purpose very nicely. You are being targeted as part of cleaning up the details of environmental damage reports, and preventing the public realising what the outcomes of climate change are going to be in practical terms.

    I have no doubt that the Australian’s war on science is just part of a general war, and we are losing, our side. And I don’t know how to turn it around.

  2. I agree with the David. What we are dealing with here it is an orchestrated campaign coming from people and institutions who it seems quite willing to sacrifice the truth in the pursuit of their own wealth. What really sticks in my craw, is the fact that the newspaper at the heart of this war on truth is called “The Australian”. The behaviour of journalists like Jamie Walker is hardly consistent with the values of our great country. Maybe they need to change the name of the newspaper to “The Denialist”?

  3. Keep in mind that the people who buy newspapers these days tend to be of a generation that had very little scientific education. They tend to be conservative, well-off because of investments in energy-intensive industries, deferential to authority (rather than sceptical)and have little concern for the future because they won’t be there. The type of person who regards Lord Monckton as a hero.

    The Australian is aware that this is the audience it must cater for. My feeling is that it’s time everyone realised that this newspaper long ago forfeited any claim to the respect it once commanded on the national scene. Why else would it be so desperate as to self-proclaim it’s the “heart of the nation”. It should be ignored to wither on the vine.

  4. You also have to remember that the Australian is known as the “Opposition Organ” for a reason. They’re running a contrary line against Labor in order to influence the Liberals. If Labor were against global warming, the Australian would be running pro-warming articles.

    The whole reason the paper exists (at dubious profit) is so Murdoch can have some form of political influence in Australia.

  5. New research casts doubt on the link between smoking and lung cancer. Despite doctors’ repeated warnings that pack-a-day smoker Jamie Walker would “very likely” develop aggressive lung cancer before his 50th birthday, his latest medical checkup revealed the 28-year old to be in “robust good health”. The clean bill of health comes just weeks after revelations that Mr Walker’s great Aunt, Doris, who “tried a cigarette once but didn’t like it”, lived to the ripe old age of 97. The latest findings cast further doubt on the already reeling “scientific consensus” that smoking causes cancer.

  6. Some very good points Graham, DT and John. I agree that we have a big job to do in terms of explaining the science in a way which becomes compelling to an audience that has little understanding and may not be inherently receptive. The question big is, do scientists have the skill and experience to undertake this task? Probably not – hence it is something that needs to be worked on.

  7. Ove, this comment (#11) from Gavin Schmidt over at RealClimate seems a rather apt response:

    Understood, but you need to see that the information conduit is a process. Scientists do their job and produce technically correct statements, and hopefully some context, and then the various levels of popularisers take that information and make pithier and more palatable (though less informative statements) that are nonetheless consistent with the scientific statements. So here, soundbites like ‘it’s weather not climate’, or ‘look globally, not locally’, can follow knowing that there is some factual basis for that. Scientists can of course be popularisers as well, but we can’t neglect the technical stuff that stands behind it.

    I’m sure there are many good journalists potentially willing, and more than capable of making the science compelling, but the information conduit is broken (or grossly distorted) by, what was it you said: an orchestrated campaign coming from people and institutions who it seems are quite willing to sacrifice the truth in the pursuit of their own wealth.

    Which, of course, is only restating the problem.

  8. Good point DT – my feeling is that we need to pull a workshop together that includes prominent scientists and journalists to discuss how we can go forward. This link between rigourous scientific fact and more easily understood messaging is critical as you have pointed out ( and as has been developed by Gavin Schmidt from RealClimate)

  9. Workshop, fine, but unless Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls and the business interest they represent are invited it would achieve little if anything. The problem is partly the journalists, and I am certainly critical of the way they behave, and, in most cases, the abysmal ignorance they reveal, but beyond all that is the ideology of the media organisation they represent. A journalist, or editor, who bucked against the ideology and policies of his owner would very rapidly become an ex-editor or ex-journalist.

  10. I actually think we can do a lot by working out how the two communities can be more effective together. This may mean lining up with journalists from Fairfax media which seems to be far more accurate in its reporting (well, almost always).

  11. Of course the other thing you’re up against (even with the best-intentioned media) is the expectation of ‘balance’ in reporting; that a countervailing point of view must be presented in the interests of ‘fairness’. Never mind that your ‘side’ is backed up by 100 years of peer-reviewed science, the skeptics must be given a voice. I imagine that this is where such a workshop might make some headway: in better enabling the typical journalist or science writer to evaluate the validity of competing claims, rather than falling back on ‘balance’ as the easy way out.


    Boykoff MT and Boykoff JM. (2004). Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press. Global Environmental Change 14: 125–136

  12. I guess the equivalent in terms of balance for reporting on the space program is to invite someone who believes that the earth is flat to the comment! with

  13. Update: Media Watch’s coverage of this story here

    Jamie Walker blames GBRMPA:

    What led me to say the findings will entrench scepticism about the effects of climate change is, in part, that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority issued a publicly warning last summer that a mass coral bleaching episode on the reef was imminent, but this never happened.

    Perhaps Media Watch would care to explore why GBRMPA has been more circumspect this year, when conditions were broadly similar to those early in the summer of 2008-09. A bit of legwork by Media Watch would have pulled up a piece The Courier-Mail published on December 19, 2009, warning that coral bleaching was likely this summer.

    Perhaps Mr Walker would care to explore the methodology behind GBRMPA’s coral bleaching forecasts in a bit more detail.

    Or take a look at what the GBRMPA actually said in the leadup to last summer:

    The best weather and climate information currently available for this summer from the Bureau of Meteorology indicates a greater than average risk that the Great Barrier Reef could suffer from widespread bleaching, Dr Marshall said.

    Although bleaching could occur this summer, we are not expecting it to be as bad as what the Reef experienced in 1998 and 2002, the two hottest summers on record, he said.

    The risk of sea temperatures increasing to levels which are stressful for corals depends on a complex interaction of regional water temperatures, local air temperatures, cloud cover, winds and rainfall.

    While mass coral bleaching may not eventuate, we will be keeping a close eye on conditions over the coming months, Dr Marshall said.

    Or what they said at the end of summer

    Sea temperatures across most of the Reef rose a massive 2-3 degrees above average in December which meant this summer was shaping up to be one of the worst years on record for coral bleaching due to the extreme heat.

    Above average sea temperatures are very stressful to corals and prolonged heat causes bleaching and ultimately coral death, so we were very concerned about the outlook for the Reef.

    In January, we got a reprieve from the risk of heat induced bleaching as wind and cloud cover from the monsoon cooled temperatures. But this was a mixed blessing for the Reef because storms in January and February caused record levels of rain and extreme flooding.

    This was a one in a hundred year flood event, where, in a rare consequence, we are seeing plumes covering very large areas of the Marine Park.

  14. It’s worth noting there was a mass bleaching on the GBR in 2009 but one caused by fresh, pollutant rich flood waters in the region between Townsville and Port Douglas. The extent and severity of the bleaching and mortality have yet to be published but shallow water corals around Magnetic Island, Dunk Island and other inshore areas were severely affected.

  15. Pingback: The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media » A Down-Under Journalistic ‘Wipeout’In Covering Risks to the Great Barrier Reef

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