Reef ‘doomsayers’ show breakdown in our science institutions

by Peter Ridd

The latest statistics on the amount of coral on the Great Barrier Reef, just released by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, should end 60 years of flawed predictions of its imminent demise.

The coral cover for 2023, averaged over the entire reef, was not statistically different from last year’s record-breaking high levels.

The reef now has twice as much coral as in 2012 when it hit a low point after being smashed by major cyclones.

Last year’s record-breaking result was also embarrassing to the GBR science institutions. They had proclaimed that the reef had just been devastated by four unprecedented hot water bleaching events in 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022 – but then it had more coral than ever. One might imagine the crisis talks in the reef-science institutions to agree on embarrassing corrections, but any such eleventh-hour acknowledgment of the facts was instead substituted by political spin.

Some damned the news with faint praise. It showed that the reef had some resilience left but was still doomed by climate change. Others managed to twist the story to make it bad news – it was only the fast-growing corals, called acropora, and ironically the most beautiful type, that had recovered and these are more susceptible to climate change.

So, all this record-breaking coral makes the reef more doomed than ever. Never mind that the acropora still takes five to 10 years to grow and was supposedly killed by those four hot-water bleaching events since 2016. They must have been non- events.

This year, AIMS carried on the tradition by spinning good news as bad by describing the record-equalling 2023 coral cover as a “pause in recovery”.

Media outlets love bad news, so when will they see that the bad news is about the reef-science institutions, not the reef? Their pathetic attempts to spin the good news as bad is final proof of their intellectual bankruptcy.

The truth is we have been scammed for decades, and the perpetrators have been caught out. Once-trusted science institutions have become untrustworthy. It is time they are subjected to serious scrutiny. Have they become ideological? Are they inclined to groupthink? Are they motivated by the funding imperative, which relies on the reef being perpetually doomed? How do they handle dissenters – are they ostracised or welcomed? What are their quality assurance systems that clearly failed? How did they get this so wrong for 60 years?

Clearly, many Australians doubt the veracity of reef-scientists. A poll by the Australian Environment Foundation found that, despite the merciless media focus on the “doom science” of the reef for decades, only 51 per cent think the reef is presently in poor shape.

But this breach of trust by our reef-science institutions is just one example of a far wider problem. And the general population is catching on. A Rasmussen opinion poll showed over 60 per cent of Americans agree that climate change is a religion used to help control people. And as Adam Creighton reported in The Australian, Rasmussen polls in January found 57 per cent of Americans wanted Congress to investigate the safety of Covid-19 vaccines, and few were getting boosted despite official recommendations.

Within a few years there will be a big cyclone, which is now known to be by far the biggest coral killer, or another plague of crown of thorns starfish, both of which are entirely natural. The amount of coral will reduce. Doubtless the headlines will say we have lost half the coral on the reef, as they have proclaimed many times in the past – occasionally truthfully. The science institutions will be happy. The money will keep flowing. The children will remain depressed. More costly red-tape will be imposed on farmers to “save the reef”, and the reef-tourism industry gets kicked in the teeth again by the bad publicity.

Or maybe we have finally reached the point where people can see what is happening. The amount of coral on the GBR changes dramatically from decade to decade, but the science institutions are making use of this natural variability, especially the times when the amount of coral falls, for non-scientific purposes.

The Great Barrier Reef is a good place to start bringing under scrutiny our science institutions. Record-equalling coral cover does not happen every year, and there is no better example of the untrustworthiness of some science institutions. We must audit reef-science. The inevitable outrage in the media will still serve to publicise the fact that we have, yet again, extremely high amounts of coral on the reef – hence the need to audit the science institutions.

CO2 Coalition Member Peter Ridd is an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

This commentary was first published in The Australian, August 15, 2023.

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