7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

Listen

7am Podcast

The scientist who predicted the death of the reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but now it’s on the cusp of being declared “in danger” by UNESCO.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but now it’s on the cusp of being declared “in danger” by UNESCO.

But scientists have been warning for decades that rising sea temperatures could kill off the Reef, though their concerns were largely ignored by the government.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the scientist who predicted the end of the reef, and why the Australian government doesn’t want to listen to him.

 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Professor of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.

 
Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am


Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but now it’s on the cusp of being declared ‘in danger’ by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
 

But scientists have been warning for decades that rising sea temperatures could kill off the Reef, though their concerns were largely ignored by the government.

 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe, on the scientist who predicted the end of the Reef, and why the Australian government doesn’t want to listen to him.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Mike, scientists have long been warning that the Great Barrier Reef is at risk because of climate change, but just how long have they known that…and how did they figure it out?

 

MIKE:

Well, let's start the story with a bloke called Ove Hoegh-Guldberg.

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“I am Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, I am a professor at the University of Queensland, and I have been someone who studied coral reefs for most of my academic career.”

 

MIKE:

Who from an early age wanted to be a scientist, particularly a marine scientist he was obsessed with a show in the 1960s called ‘Diver Dan’.

 

Archival Tape -- ‘Diver Dan’ Theme Song: 

“Below in the deep, there’s adventure and danger, that's where you'll find Diver Dan!”

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

I can visualise the TV set. Of course, it was black and white, right. And there was this ‘Diver Dan’ guy with all this adventure going on, he had an unlimited air supply, apparently.”

 

Archival Tape -- ‘Diver Dan’ Host: 

The ocean floor is unknown to man except for our brave hero Diver Dan, he’s searching the depths of the seven seas, now you may share in these strange mysteries.

 

MIKE:

Ove describes Diver Dan as ‘a great inspiration in his life’.

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“So it really came from just a fascination with nature. My first pet was a fish, was a goldfish. And I used to sort of use the goldfish to sort of really imagine what it was like in the deep sea...”

 

MIKE:

So 35 years ago, he was doing his PhD at the University of California. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“And I was in the laboratory of a guy called Leonard Muscatine at UCLA and he was getting in the early 80s, these samples sent to him from many parts of the world of corals that had gone white.” 

 

MIKE:

And that's when he became interested in this phenomenon of bleaching, of corals, where corals mysteriously lost their vibrant colours and turned ghostly white, and eventually died. And this was a phenomenon that scientists were observing on reefs around the world, you know, in the Caribbean and in the Great Barrier Reef and other places. But no one quite understood why it was happening. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“Was it too much sunlight? You know, was it too much temperature? Was it salinity? You know, was it rainstorms? Was it disease? And so I decided to work on that during the 80s” 

 

MIKE:

So Ove got himself a scholarship to come to Australia, went to Lizard Island and started experimenting with various possible causes. And he came to realise pretty quickly that it was a function of water temperature. Turns out corals are very, very sensitive to temperature changes to hot water. And so if the water got too hot, more than a degree or so above the normal, the corals would expel the zooxanthellae, that is the little microscopic algae with which they have a symbiotic relationship, and which give them their colour, and would bleach and eventually they would die. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“And so by the late 80s and early 90s, there was a sort of feeling that we were getting more and more of these things and that it might be related to climate change.”

 

MIKE:

And thus he made the link between coral bleaching, and climate change.

 

RUBY:

OK, so 35 years ago, which would have been back in the mid to late 80s, the scientist Ove established this link between high temperatures and coral bleaching. And Mike, in the time since, in that 35 years we have experienced a warming planet, we've had hotter ocean temperatures, and we've also seen more cases of coral bleaching. So does that mean that Ove’s hypothesis has essentially borne out in real life?

 

MIKE:

Well, yes, it does, is the short answer. In 1998, as he was conducting his research, the world experienced what was then the hottest year on record. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“In the tropical areas you saw the loss of coral reefs at a scale which had never been seen before. And that was really the first global bleaching event where it all went off together.” 

 

MIKE:

And also by that stage, the climate models were becoming more sophisticated. So Ove Hoegh-Guldberg worked to marry the climate science and the coral science and predict what was going to happen in the real world. And a year later, he detailed his findings and what he had to say was shocking. It was shocking even to him. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“I think it was shock. Everything was sort of turned up on its head, and not everyone agreed, but large numbers of scientists got it.”

 

MIKE:

His paper predicted that events as severe as the 1998 bleaching, which was then the worst on record, would likely become quite commonplace within 20 years. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“Fast forward to 2000, you know, 16, 2017 and then 2020. We had three major bleaching events across the planet, but particularly on the Great Barrier Reef, where in each case, you know, large numbers of corals died. So, again, it's another of these ‘proof of the pudding is in eating it’. There it is.”

 

RUBY:

Mm, Ove’s research has essentially been vindicated then. Though, I would say that's probably no consolation for him or for anyone, because what it means is that the Great Barrier Reef is, and has been, in trouble for a long time.

 

MIKE:

Well, that's exactly right. It is bad news. And Ove told me he'd actually have preferred to have been proved wrong. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“Essentially that paper at the end of the 1990s was correct, but I wished it wasn't. I wished I’d been shown to be, you know, wrong.”

 

MIKE:

And it’s continued to get worse. And about 50% of the reef's corals have just gone in the past 30 years. 

 

So the sequel to all of this is that in 2014, UNESCO, the United Nations science body, considered listing the Great Barrier Reef as being in danger. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter#1:

“Two of Australia’s world heritage wonders are at risk of being downgraded and declared in danger”

 

MIKE:

UNESCO recommended this to the World Heritage Committee, and Australian politicians and diplomats furiously resisted travelling around the world trying to prevent it from happening. 

 

Archival Tape -- Julie Bishop:

“We do not believe that it is in danger, in fact the Australian government is making every effort to ensure that the Great Barrier reef is preserved for generations to come.”

 

MIKE:

You know, for obvious reasons, they were worried about international embarrassment, for one. They were worried that tourists would stop coming to the reef, which is a pretty big concern considering reef tourism is worth something estimated to be around $6.4 billion, I think, and support 64,000 jobs. 

 

And of course, all of this was happening at the same time as the government was promoting the Adani coal mine project and generally continuing to to put its eggs in the basket of fossil fuel development.

 

So anyway, the bottom line is the government succeeded in 2015 when the World Heritage Committee considered the reef - the reef wasn't listed as being in danger, but now it's happening again.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter 2#:

“A China chaired UN committee has proposed to downgrade the health status of the Great Barrier Reef, declaring it in danger. The draught decision announced on Friday”

 

MIKE:

Last month UNESCO scientists again recommended that the World Heritage Committee put the reef on the endangered list.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified UNESCO member: 

“That's the list of properties that are facing crucial and critical challenges to their future, it's the list that you do not want your world heritage property to be on.”

 

MIKE:

And its draft ruling says that Australia is not doing enough to protect the reef from things like coastal development and chemical runoff from agriculture, dredging for ports, etc. But most crucially, it cited climate change as the major factor. 

 

So more than three decades later, and despite the pressure that he faced, Ove's warnings have proved right again. And the chickens could be about to come home to roost for Australia.

 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

Mike, a couple of weeks ago, we heard that UNESCO had published a daft ruling saying that the Great Barrier Reef was officially in danger with climate change a major factor in that. So how did the Australian government respond to that decision?

 

MIKE:

Well, the Morrison government's response was furious and misleading in multiple ways.

 

Archival Tape --Unidentified:

“Our officials have been blindsided in the way that they have, only a week ago we were reassured that this was not going to occur.”

 

MIKE:

The environment minister, Susan Ley, put out a press release accusing UNESCO of having, quote, singled out Australia in its state of Conservation Properties report. 

 

Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:

“And they've singled out Australia for this unprecedented approach without foreshadowing the decision, against the advice that they were giving us.”  

 

MIKE:

She claimed officials in her department had been assured in the week prior that the reef was not going to be recommended for listing as endangered, and they were stunned by UNESCO's ‘backflip’.  

 

The co-ordinator of UNESCO's World Heritage Marine Programme, promptly and categorically denied that any such assurance had been given either informally or formally.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified UNESCO Representative:

“The information that is used for the preparation of the draft decision, there's been at least six exchanges with the government of Australia. Als of that is very clearly detailed..”

 

MIKE:

But Ley’s combative media release said more than that, too. It suggested that UNESCO's recommendation was the result of flawed science. She complained that the draught decision had been made ‘on the basis of a desktop review without examining the reef firsthand’. So so she she went in pretty hard and speaking to reporters later, she went even further

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter 1#:

“Minister, thanks for joining us. Put simply, do you believe that the Great Barrier Reef is endangered? If not, why not?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:

“No, it's not. We're deeply passionate, committed and absolutely working flat out to protect our reef and we're deeply disappointed in the clear politicisation of the UNESCO process”

 

MIKE:

She suggested there was a dark conspiracy at the bottom of this intended to embarrass Australia. And she she pointed to the fact that China currently holds the chairmanship of the World Heritage Committee. 

 

Archival Tape -- Susan Ley:

“There is international politics at play and it’s a totally unreasonable process and outcome.”

 

MIKE:

And she said that clearly there was politics behind it and that had subverted proper process. These are quotes. 

 

RUBY:

Right. So is there any basis at all, Mike, for this suggestion that the ruling is a political decision and that China is involved in some way?

 

MIKE:

Well, no, it's essentially misinformation. And the tone, I think, suggests the government is very worried that when the World Heritage Committee meets in a couple of weeks from now, it will follow UNESCO's recommendation. So it's kind of setting up a straw man to give it an excuse if and when that happens.

 

But to give you more detail on this, I spoke to one of the world's leading reef researchers, Professor Terry Hughes, who is director of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. 

 

And he said for a start, the recommendation to designate the reef as in danger was not made by the World Heritage Committee, but by UNESCO scientists. Furthermore, he said, the World Heritage Committee, which comprises 21 countries, half of which rotate every three years and which is currently chaired by China, would not have seen the draft recommendation until it was released by UNESCO. So the suggestion that China is behind it doesn't hold water because China and the rest of the World Heritage Committee would not even have seen the recommendation. 

 

As to the claim that this assessment was made on the basis of inadequate information.

Hughes went through a long list of studies showing that there's actually abundant scientific evidence provided by people like him and Ove and more importantly, by the Australian government. The evidence for the Great Barrier Reef being in danger is very clear, and most of that evidence has been provided by the Australian government itself. So it should not come as a surprise to the Morrison government and it has nothing to do with China.

 

RUBY:

So why is the government taking such a combative and conspiratorial approach to this instead of siding with UNESCO and acknowledging the danger that the reef is in? 

 

MIKE:

Well, Ruby, it basically comes down to the underlying cause of the reef's deterioration, which is climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And that's not something that the Australian government really wants to acknowledge, because it can't on the one hand say ‘the reef is dying because of the burning of coal and gas’ when its political and economic agenda rests so heavily on the mining and burning of coal and gas. 

 

The federal Environment Department says that between the federal and Queensland governments, some $200 million a year is spent seeking to improve water quality, control pests such as the Crown of Thorns Starfish, increase the resilience of corals, etc. But for a start, that money is not nearly enough. It should be much more than that. And secondly, none of this addresses the reef's greatest problem, which is the one that Ove pointed out all those years ago and continues to point out, which is climate change. 

 

Archival Tape --Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“So if we had acted in 1980, we would have had a far smaller problem to solve than we have today when it's five times greater in terms of the emissions. The longer we wait, the tougher it will go and the greater the damage to our society will occur.”

 

MIKE:

For years, governments have been warned about the impact climate change will have on the Great Barrier Reef. And those warnings have proved accurate and the government has done nothing substantial to engage with this reality. Instead, it prefers to shoot the messenger. It feigns shock at a listing which confirms what it has already long known; that heating seas are killing the reef and that the reef may only have a few decades left before it is gone.

 

Archival Tape --Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

“The fact is that we are increasing the risk of death of our kids into the future as the environment changes, we're denying people the beauty of nature, you know. And so it really does beg the question. How do we sleep at night when we know that's almost certainly going to happen, and why aren't we jumping up and hitting it hard and getting this problem solved?” 

 

RUBY:

Mike, thank you so much for your time.

 

MIKE:

Thank you for having me.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today...

 

New South Wales recorded 35 locally acquired Covid-19 cases on Monday, including two more cases at the Summit Care aged care home in Sydney’s north-east. The two new cases bring the total of cases at the facility to five. 

 

The head of the aged care facility confirmed only one-third of the staff at the home have received their vaccinations.

 

New South Wales Premier Glady Berejiklian warned the next few days would be critical in deciding if the lockdown, which is due to end on Friday, will be extended or not.

 

Meanwhile, Queensland recorded four new locally acquired cases on Monday, all of which have been linked to previous cases. 

 

And Western Australia has eased its lockdown restrictions after the state recorded no new local cases on Monday.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Parliament House yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Forklifters and leaners

Morrison’s ludicrous suggestion that children be used to fill workforce shortages is his most desperate yet

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

Online exclusives

Image of Oliver Twist. Image supplied.

Oliver Twist’s ‘Jali’

With quiet charisma and gentle humour, the Rwandan-Australian performer weaves together vivid autobiographical stories in this one-person show

Image of South Australia Premier Steven Marshall addressing the media during a press conference in Adelaide, August 24, 2021. Image © Morgan Sette / AAP Images

Marshall law

Premier Steven Marshall claimed South Australia was “COVID-ready” when the state opened borders just as Omicron was emerging, but it now faces the same issues as the eastern states

Image of Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman and Peter Carroll appearing on stage in Girl from the North Country. Image © Daniel Boud.

‘Girl from the North Country’

Weaving Bob Dylan songs into a story of Depression-era hardship, Conor McPherson’s musical speaks to the broken America of today

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com