Why Australia removed Great Barrier Reef from UN climate report

Australia pulled chapters about the Great Barrier Reef and a handful of other famous sites from a UNESCO report on World Heritage sites because of concerns about the report's potential to impact tourism. 

David Gray/REUTERS/File
Peter Gash, owner and manager of the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, snorkels with Oliver Lanyon and Lewis Marshall, Senior Rangers in the Great Barrier Reef region for the Queenlsand Parks and Wildlife Service, during a 2015 inspection of the reef's condition in an area called the 'Coral Gardens' located at Lady Elliot Island. Australia faces criticism for removing chapters about climate change's impact on the reef from a UN report.

The Australian government has come under renewed criticism for its attitude toward climate change after removing references to the Great Barrier Reef from a United Nations report on UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

Officials omitted sections about global warming's impact on the reef and the country's Kakadu and Tasmanian forests out of concern that the report could harm tourism, Reuters reports. 

The Department of the Environment "expressed concern that giving the report the title 'Destinations at risk' had the potential to cause considerable confusion," a spokeswoman told reporters. 

Critics are frustrated by the government's decision, saying that the harmful impact of climate change on these sites is already common knowledge.

"The science is really well known, that's not a problem at all so it's nothing new to the tourism industry," climate scientist and UN report contributor Will Steffen, a professor emeritus at Australia National University, told Reuters. "It's nothing new to the scientific community at all. So it's really hard to see what's so provocative in that report."

2016 has been the worst year yet for coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. Ocean temperatures have risen so much in recent years that zooxanthellae (tiny reef dwelling algae that lend color to coral) have left the coral in the reefs.

Reefs in the northern section are experiencing up to 50 percent mortality due to bleaching, Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, told the journal Nature. Only four out of 500 reefs surveyed between Australia and Papua New Guinea showed no sign of bleaching

Great Barrier Reef tourism added more than $4 billion to the Australian economy in 2012, with the tourist industry employing almost 69,000 people, according to a 2013 report. 

Losing such a money spinner would be a major problem for the Australian economy, but is it enough of a reason to block efforts to raise awareness of climate change?

Scientists say no, of course. Yet Australia's stubbornness regarding the Great Barrier Reef is nothing new.

In 2014, members of the Australian government criticized President Obama's mention of climate change and coral bleaching in the reef during a speech to G20 officials in Brisbane.

One politician, Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, spoke out and contradicted Mr. Obama's concerns, claiming that the reef faced greater threats than global warming. "It's not under threat from climate change because its biggest threat is nutrient runoffs from agricultural land [and] the second biggest threat is natural disasters," Ms. Bishop said in 2014, "but this has been for 200 years."

Adam Markham, the lead author of the UNESCO report, told The Guardian that he was particularly disappointed that the Australian chapters were not included in the report because they contained inspiring stories of progress, as well.

"Australia has a good story to tell about its climate science and it should tell it," said Mr. Markham, the deputy director of climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

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