I want to come back, and I want my daughters to be able to come back, and I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit [the Great Barrier Reef], and I want [it to still be] there fifty years from now. —President Barack Obama, at the University of Queensland, November 14, 2014
President Obama was reflecting the belief that has been spread around the world that the Great Barrier Reef is being destroyed by Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW). Australian scientists have been dining out on such stories for decades, stories that are embellished by climate alarmists, and amplified by the mainstream media around the world. As a response to such alarms, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) was set up in 1985 with the funds to monitor the Reef’s coral cover, which it has been doing ever since.
This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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As the alarms grew, so did the streams of money flowing to institutes, organisations and universities that could tag their projects with the aim of investigating damage done to the Reef. This was of particular interest to global warming alarmists, because corals were thought to be so vulnerable to the warming of the seas that they would act like canaries in a coal mine, warnings of what was to happen to the rest of the ecosystems and the globe as it warmed. The streams of taxed funds grew into rivers, and they were joined by tributaries from virtue-signalling companies like Coles and BHP. As the CAGW crusade gathered momentum the alarms got ever more frenzied—here is a sprinkling of the headlines since 2000:
2000: “The Great Barrier Reef faces destruction within the next century.” — UQ News, University of Queensland
2005: “Of all the ocean’s ecosystems, none is more diverse nor … more replete with beauty of colour and form than a coral reef; and none, the climate experts and marine biologists tell us, is more endangered by climate change.” — Professor Tim Flannery, Chapter 11 of The Weather Makers, “The Great Stumpy Reef?”
2009: “Reef-building corals are under increasing physiological stress from a changing climate and ocean absorption of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.” — National Centre for Biotechnology Information
2012: “Half the Great Barrier Reef gone in under 30 years, says AIMS study. The Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral in the past 27 years [since monitoring began], the devastation caused by a deadly combination of disasters.” — Environmental Reporter Malcolm Holland, News.com.au
2014: “The Great Barrier Reef faced with irreversible damage.” — Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald, March 6
2016: “50% of The Great Barrier Reef is Now Dead or Dying … This is the worst coral bleaching episode in Australia’s history, with reports of coral dying in places that we thought would be protected from rising temperatures.” — Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Climate Change Institute, in a statement to the University of Queensland. Reported by Forbes, April 24
2017: “Half the size of Texas, spanning 1400 miles, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet, it is rich in beauty and diversity, but it is dying, as the ocean waters warm … The only thing that’s going to deal with this global coral bleaching problem [is] regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. So, what if we do nothing to slow climate change? Coral reefs as we know them will not exist in the next ten, twenty, thirty years. We could single-handedly be responsible for the extinction of an entire ecosystem.” — PBS News Hour, March 23
2018: “The Great Barrier Reef Nearly Died 5 Times. This Could Be Its Last Chance. I have grave concerns about the ability of the reef in its current form to survive.” — Joe McCarthy and Erica Sánchez, Global Citizen, May 30
2018: “Global warming is killing the Great Barrier Reef, study says.” — CNN, April 18
2019: “David Obura: We are not doing enough to combat the decline of coral reefs. Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and overexploitation is key to sustainability.” — China Dialogue Ocean
2020: “The Great Barrier Reef is dying even faster than before. Here’s why that matters to all of us.” –– The Correspondent, April 8
2020: “Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half of its corals since 1995 due to warmer seas driven by climate change, a study has found. Scientists found all types of corals had suffered a decline across the world’s largest reef system … There is no time to lose—we must sharply decrease greenhouse gas emissions ASAP, the researchers said.” — Proceedings of the Royal Society, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Queensland. Reported by BBC October 14
2021: “The Great Barrier Reef is all but doomed, with between 70 and 99 per cent of corals set for destruction unless immediate ‘transformative action’ is taken to reverse global warming, according to a new report.” — Nick O’Malley and Mike Foley, Sydney Morning Herald, April 1
2021: “The reef today is about 70% or more dead as a result of repeated bleaching episodes, and the scientists tell us that if we get to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average the reef is going to be mostly dead and if we go up to two degrees it’ll be 99.8% dead, so we know that there’s a lot at stake.” Tim Flannery, Australia’s Climate Councillor, in his Talbot Oration, broadcast on Radio National’s Science Show, July 17. [NB: The same corals that thrive in the Southern GBR thrive in the Northern GBR, where the sea is 2.4 degrees warmer, and on reefs further north, where the seas are much warmer still.]
2022: “Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, threatening its very existence.” — Great Barrier Reef Foundation
2022: “$1b plan to save Great Barrier Reef will fail without climate change action, expert says … Dr Jodie Rummer says the reef will be doomed without more action on climate change.” — Zilla Gordon and Travis Mead, ABC News, January 28
2022: “Dire Warning for Great Barrier Reef. As UN inspection begins … Australia’s reefs and marine ecosystems are at grave risk of mass bleaching and extinction, a marine heatwaves research briefing from the Climate Council has found.” — Climate Council Media Release, March 21
2022: “Climate change is the greatest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs worldwide. Climate change is caused by global emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas).” — Australian government
2022: “Global warming is killing the reef, it will consume and destroy it. As well as 60,000 jobs that depend on the reef.” — Adam Bandt, MP, Leader of the Australian Greens, August 3
In 2021 Netflix made a documentary about the state of the Great Barrier Reef featuring international naturalist David Attenborough and Coral Reef scientist Terry Hughes. The following excerpts cover the main points of the alarms about the alleged threat to coral reefs, which are expected to be the first casualties of CAGW.
David Attenborough: “Corals bleach when the waters around them get too warm, something that’s happening with increasing frequency and intensity, as a consequence of global warming.”
Terry Hughes: “In big thermal extremes like we’ve been seeing during mass bleaching events in recent decades, they can actually die very very quickly—they cook. The footprint of a bleaching then is ten times bigger than the most extreme category five tropical cyclone, so they’re off the scale in terms of the size of the impact, and in terms of how frequently they are occurring.”
Attenborough: “Bleaching events used to be localised and rare but over the past two decades marine heatwaves have caused widespread bleaching. Three of the five biggest bleaching events have occurred in the past five years.”
Hughes: “We’re worried about that shrinking gap between one bleaching event and the next one. We’ve already seen back-to-back bleaching events that occurred for the first time on the Great Barrier Reef in two consecutive summers in 2016 and 2017.”
Attenborough: “Those gaps are critically important if the corals are to recover. Half the reef’s corals have already died.” [NB: Attenborough here claims that half the Great Barrier Reef’s corals had died—not just bleached, died! According to Terry Hughes in a TED talk, dead corals take between ten and 100 years to recover, depending on the species.]
Surveyor flying over the reef: “There’s so much white coral … Just about everything is bleached.”
Hughes: “Those surveys have now been done five times … the last three in 2016, in 2017, in 2020. It’s a job I hoped I’d never have to do, because it’s actually very confronting.” [Hughes had to stop talking in order to bring his distress under control. Maybe he asked that his catharsis be deleted from the documentary. If he did, the Netflix producer didn’t oblige—crying over bleached coral is alarmist gold.]
Attenborough: “We’re heading for a future in which the Great Barrier Reef is a coral graveyard.”
Terry Hughes: “The climate modellers are telling us, the biologists, that business-as-usual carbon emissions will result in back-to-back bleaching events every consecutive summer by the end of this century. We’ve gone past the tipping point for coral bleaching. Scientists and colleges like myself have been talking for decades now about global warming, and it has been frustrating that we haven’t been listened to.”
Has any man, woman, boy, girl or any in-between Australian not heard alarms about the imminent demise of the Great Barrier Reef, and the loss of the 60,000 jobs that depend on it, and the billions of tourist dollars that will be lost if the Reef is lost? I doubt that there are many people in any other alarmist country that haven’t heard about the Great Barrier Reef being in peril either—or that it’s already dead. I’m sure that if any of them had a magic wand they would fix the Reef for Terry. Come to think of it, one of them might have done that. What else could explain the reef’s miraculous recovery in a few months? This is the headline of the AIMS Long-Term Monitoring Program—Annual Summary Report of Coral Reef Condition 2021/2022:
June 2022: “Continued Coral Recovery Leads to 36-Year Highs Across Two-Thirds of the Great Barrier Reef.”
The thirty-six years were those that had been monitored, so as far as we know the coral cover of the northern and middle thirds of the reef is as high as it has ever been. Very little bleaching remained in the southern third either. (In fact, when margins of error are factored in, it equals the highest recorded coral cover.) But the southern third was not as well covered in coral as the northern two-thirds because it was recovering from an attack by starfish. And, ironically, given the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the projected one or two degrees of global warming in one or two centuries, corals recover faster in the warmer northern seas than in the southern seas that are 2.7 degrees cooler.
The following is the first paragraph of the AIMS Summary Report:
In 2022, the GBR continued to recover, registering the highest level of coral cover yet recorded in the Northern and Central regions over 36 years of monitoring. While recovery continues on many Southern GBR reefs, regional coral cover declined slightly due to ongoing outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish in the Swain reefs. Importantly, the trends in coral cover are highly variable across the GBR, and most reefs had between 10% and 50% hard coral cover.
So, in 2021, according to Attenborough, half the coral had recently died, which meant no more coral on that half for ten to 100 years. But in 2022 there is more coral than has ever been recorded! The second paragraph of the AIMS summary seems to be offering an explanation for getting their alarms so wrong right up to March 2022:
Above-average water temperatures led to a mass coral bleaching event in 2021/22, the 4th event since 2016 and the first recorded during a La Nina year, when conditions are typically cooler. The peak of this bleaching event was in March, and the accumulated heat stress, measured in Degree Heating Weeks (DHW), reached levels expected to result in widespread bleaching but not extensive mortality. In-water and aerial bleaching surveys recorded widespread bleaching across the GBR, with the most severe bleaching on reefs in the central GBR.
So, after years and years of alarm after alarm, declaring the worst coral bleaching, then even worse coral bleaching, then even worse than even that worst coral bleaching, past tipping point after tipping point, past declarations of doom then more certain declarations of even worse doom, towards “one of the greatest environmental catastrophes our country has ever seen”, declared by Australia’s Climate Councillor, which will lead us to “a future in which the Great Barrier Reef is a coral graveyard”, according to the world’s most loved and trusted naturalist, unreservedly and relentlessly, up until the unprecedented reef bleaching of March 2022. Then three months later we have unprecedented coral cover! Nearly all the accumulated bleaching and dead corals had gone, to give us the best ever coral cover. Who would have thought such a thing could occur?
Well, on July 27, 2017, as the world reverberated with predictions of doomed reefs, on his 2GB radio program Alan Jones interviewed Professor Peter Ridd about a chapter Ridd had written for the book Climate Change: The Facts 2017. His chapter was titled, “The Extraordinary Resilience of the Great Barrier Corals, and Problems with Policy Science”. The interview went like this.
Alan Jones: “Professor Peter Ridd [is] a professor of physics at James Cook University with particular interest and knowledge in coastal oceanography including human impacts on coral reefs. He has published over 100 papers in international science journals. His chapter ends in a way that the global warming alarmists wouldn’t like, when he talks about the lack of quality assurance in science, and he quotes the editor of the prestigious Lancet, one of medicine’s most important journals, saying: ‘The case against science is straightforward, much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue’. The Lancet editorial says science has taken a turn towards darkness. Not Alan Jones or Professor Ridd, the Lancet, [and] nowhere is this darkness more evident than in what Professor Peter Ridd tells us about the Great Barrier Reef. Professor Ridd, good morning to you.”
Peter Ridd: “Good morning.”
Jones: “Thank you for your time. You’ve addressed all these issues, you begin by saying the claimed imminent peril faced by the Great Barrier Reef has captured the public imagination … you say, ‘A visiting architect to my university revealed that his daughter, on discussing the latest reef bleaching event at school, came home depressed that she would probably never be able to see the Great Barrier Reef.’ And this myth has passed into received wisdom. Explain to my listeners that every decade or so, abnormally high seawater temperatures can cause corals to bleach, but what we are not told is that they recover.”
Ridd: “They certainly do, and you know they did certainly crash last year, and the year before, but when you look at it there’s three times more coral on the southern Great Barrier Reef than there was about five years ago when we had a big cyclone going through the northern part, which was hit by the bleachings. [They] had a reduction, but overall there’s about the same amount of coral, probably quite a lot more, than there was five years ago, in about the same amount as we have on average on the reef. The scientists make hay when it dies in a spectacular way, but they are very quiet when it quietly recovers …”
Jones: “Well, in this complicated argument about all of this, we can express this in pretty simple language, but there is one rather complicated word which [we] will get out of the way here, which explains everything and you do this brilliantly in your chapter, you talk about symbionts. Now these are things, are they not, that live inside a particular species of coral?”
Ridd: “That’s right.”
Jones: “And you say there’s a large variety of them … And some species of these symbionts inside the coral allow the coral to grow faster but will make them more susceptible to unusually warm conditions, other species of symbionts will give slower growth rates, but the corals are then less sensitive to bleaching … the corals can select the species of symbionts that give them the ability to adapt to the prevailing conditions.”
Ridd: “Exactly, and that’s why all the corals on the Great Barrier Reef [are] actually growing much faster in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Thailand where the water is much hotter, and they just juggle these symbionts.” [NB: Southern GBR waters average 25 degrees, Northern GBR 27.4 degrees, Indonesian reef waters above 29 degrees.]
Jones: “So there’s no problem there, but your issue is, when there’s no problem … we see on the television these white skeletons of bleached coral, and as you say they make graphic and compelling images to demonstrate the perils of climate change, but this only happens when the water gets hotter than normal and then the coral grows back.”
Ridd: “Exactly what happens. In fact when you look at corals they have a little thermometer built into them, so when you take a core of them from many many years ago, we know what the temperature was on the Great Barrier Reef when Captain Cook was sailing up the coast, it was actually about the same temperature then as it is now. It was colder about 100 years ago, but it’s recovered from that, so the temperatures on the reef are not even significantly warmer than average over 100 years.”
Jones: “One of the most significant things you’ve said, the point about corals that undergo bleaching in one year, will be relatively un-susceptible to similar high temperatures in the following year. In other words, the bleaching forces the coral to take on board, your words, ‘a better adapted strain of symbionts’, so corals have learnt a thing or two about dealing with temperature swings over 200 million years.”
Ridd: “Exactly, and the problem is that we can no longer rely on our science institutions, and this is a very sad thing. I often say we [are] like a ship on the ocean without a compass when our science fails, and we [have] got to do something about this. And in the US we have Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA then, who wants these red teams and blue teams so when a group comes out and says the reef is dying, that science will actually be checked. At the moment this science is almost never checked.”
James Cook University was not happy about the Jones interview, or about Professor Ridd making similar comments on Sky to Peta Credlin and Andrew Bolt, for example:
“A lot of this science that is coming out is not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame because we really need to be able to trust our scientific institutions, and the fact is I don’t think we can any more.”
In May 2018, James Cook University fired Professor Ridd. His alleged offence was “breaching his employment’s code of conduct”, by being “un-collegial”, which brought the university into disrepute. The university insisted it wasn’t denying academic freedom, but how can you identify shoddy scientific practices without being “un-collegial” enough to bring the shoddy practitioners into disrepute? Ridd sued the university for wrongful dismissal in the Federal Circuit Court and won $1.2 million compensation. James Cook University appealed, and after a costly battle (for Ridd and his supporters and the taxpayers who fund the university), the High Court of Australia ruled in the university’s favour.
The High Court’s decision must have sent a chilling message to every scientist in every university and scientific institution in Australia. If an academic of impeccable credentials, prodigious accomplishments and courteous presentation like Professor Ridd can be chopped down for telling and proving facts that may be deemed “un-collegial” by his embarrassed employer, their only course, if they want to forge a career in science, is to virtue-signal their adherence to the CAGW doctrine and avoid facts that contradict it.
Peter Ridd found supporters at Quadrant, Sky, the Murdoch press, and crowd funding, and the IPA made him an Adjunct Fellow to lead its Project for Real Science. But he was told that the ABC would not report anything he had to say, and the rest of the alarmist media treated him like a religious heretic. This is one of the disgraceful misrepresentations produced by his inquisitors:
2019: “Great Barrier Reef expert panel says that Peter Ridd is misrepresenting science. Exclusive: Panel head Ian Chubb compares the roadshow of Doctor Ridd to tobacco industry strategy defending smoking.” — Adam Morton and Ben Smee, Guardian, August 28
What Peter Ridd was saying has now been unequivocally vindicated. This demands an unequivocal apology.
Peter Ridd congratulated AIMS for not fudging its report, unlike some other reports, and “for its work across many decades” that “has paid off as it demonstrates that the reef cycles through periods of high and low coral cover. This is natural.” But “natural” has not been the assessment of the climate alarmist establishment. By highlighting every bleaching and coral death, and going quiet about every recovery, it has trumpeted ever louder the myth that CAGW is destroying the reef. This was how Peter Ridd summed up the message of the AIMS report:
This result is proof many science institutions have been misleading the public about the state of the reef. They claimed we had four devastating and unprecedented bleaching events since 2016. So much bleaching, death and destruction supposedly has never happened before and is because of climate change—and now we have record high coral cover.
What happens now? Do we get an admission that corals have never-before-realised capacities of rejuvenation? Or that thirty-six years of alarms about coral destruction have been exaggerated out of all proportion? Or do we start a new round of alarms every time the coral cover drops below this record high benchmark, always to be blamed at least in part on CAGW? Whatever way (and it is pretty obvious which path those with reputations and billions of dollars dependent on climate alarmism will take), we, the taxpayers who fund the climate alarm industries, deserve an explanation as to how so many scientists and institutions could get it so wrong for so long.
Well, as the Lancet, and half a century of climate alarms (beginning with 1970s alarms about Anthropogenic Global Cooling) attest, groupthinks that turn out to be dead wrong are not an uncommon phenomenon. When erroneous groupthinks occur in private companies, it is the owners who pay the price, as more self-critical competitors encroach on their territory. But government-funded institutions, like the ABC and most scientific institutions, are subject to no such checks on their groupthinks and guild-protection rackets. Universities have always been particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. Who was it that said this?
If the authority to which he is subject resides in the body corporate, the college, or university, of which he himself is a member, and in which the greater part of the other members are, like himself, persons who either are, or ought to be teachers, they are likely to make a common cause, to be all very indulgent to one another, and every man to consent that his neighbour may neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own.
Adam Smith wrote that in The Wealth of Nations in 1776.
It takes a brave and self-confident participant in a “collegial” groupthink to step out of its protection to become its target. But until someone has the integrity to do so, and the means of surviving with a voice, misdirecting groupthinks will be self-perpetuating—see the ABC and the universities. Peter Ridd has some ideas about how misdirecting groupthinks in our scientific institutions can be rectified. He should be listened to, before the greatest groupthink and guild-protection racket of our time, the CAGW doctrine, turns the alarms of imminent doom into self-fulfilling prophecies for the West, while dictatorships laugh all the way to fossil-fuelled supremacy.
But for now, we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing that our beautiful reef is doing just fine, and is going to be fine for a long time to come. Because regardless of how bad future back-to-back bleachings are, we now know that the reef can recover and adapt, as Peter Ridd explained in the Weekend Australian on August 5:
Old frail people can be easily killed by diseases such as flu that more robust people will easily survive. This is also true for ecosystems. If the Reef were on its last legs because of climate change and pollution, it would not recover as strongly from stresses. The decades of AIMS data have shown the Reef is strong, resilient, and fabulous.
And if, as climate alarmists have been claiming, corals are the canaries in the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming coalmine, the same can be said for the rest of the ecosystems, and for the planet.
John Dawson is the author of the Kindle book Climate Alarmism: And its Delinquent Children, the Green New Deal and the Great Reset