‘Sadness, disgust, anger’: fear for the Great Barrier Reef made climate change feel urgent



Tourists are experiencing ‘Reef grief’.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Matt Curnock, CSIRO and Scott Heron, James Cook University

Media coverage of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef may have been a major tipping point for public concerns around climate change, according to research published today.

Severe and extensive bleaching during the summers of 2016 and 2017 has been directly attributed to human-caused climate change. Much of the ensuing media coverage used emotional language, with many reports of the Reef dying.




Read more:
Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef


While the physical effects of the bleaching have been well documented, we wanted to understand the social and cultural impact.

Our research, including a study published today in Nature Climate Change, has compared survey responses from thousands of Australians and international visitors, before and after the bleaching event.

Reef grief

Our research team conducted face-to-face interviews with 4,681 visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region, in 14 coastal towns from Cooktown to Bundaberg, over June to August in both 2013 and 2017. We asked more than 50 questions about their perceptions and values of the Reef, as well as their attitudes towards climate change.

We found a large proportion of respondents, including Australians and overseas visitors, expressed forms of grief in response to loss and damage to the iconic ecosystem. Negative emotions associated with words given in short statements about “what the Great Barrier Reef means to you”, included sadness, disgust, anger and fear.




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Hope and mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief


Emotional appeals are widely used in media stories and in social media campaigns, and appealing to fear in particular can heighten a story’s impact and spread online.

However, a side-effect of this approach is the erosion of people’s perceived ability to take effective action. This is called a person’s “self-efficacy”.
This effect is now well documented in reactions to representations of climate change, and is actually a barrier to positive community engagement and action on the issue.

In short, the more afraid someone is for the Great Barrier Reef, the less they may feel their individual efforts will help to protect it.

While our results show a decline in respondents’ self-efficacy, there was a corresponding increase in how highly they valued the Reef’s biodiversity, its scientific heritage and its status as an international icon. They were also more willing to support action to protect the Reef. This shows widespread empathy for the imperilled icon, and suggests greater support for collective actions to mitigate threats to the Reef.

Researchers surveyed thousands of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in 2013 and 2017.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Changing attitudes

We observed a significant increase in the proportion of people who believe that climate change is “an immediate threat requiring action”. In 2013 some 50% of Australian visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region agreed climate change is an immediate threat; in 2017 that rose to 67%. Among international visitors, this proportion was even higher (64% in 2013, rising to 78% in 2017).

This represents a remarkable change in public attitudes towards climate change over a relatively short period. Previous surveys of Australian climate change attitudes over 2010 to 2014 showed that aggregate levels of opinion remained stable over that time.

Comparing our findings with other recent research describing the extent of coverage and style of reporting associated with the 2016-2017 mass coral bleaching event, we infer that this event, and the associated media representations, contributed significantly to the shift in public attitudes towards climate change.

Moving beyond fear

As a source of national pride and with World Heritage status, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to be a high profile icon representing the broader climate change threat.

Media reports and advocacy campaigns that emphasise fear, loss and destruction can get attention from large audiences who may take the message of climate change on board.

But this does not necessarily translate into positive action. A more purposeful approach to public communication and engagement is needed to encourage collective activity that will help to mitigate climate change and reduce other serious threats facing the Reef.

Examples of efforts that are underway to reduce pressures on the Reef include improvements to water quality, control of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and reducing poaching in protected zones. Tourism operators on the Reef are also playing an important role in restoring affected areas, and are educating visitors about threats, to improve Reef stewardship.

Clearly there remains an immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure the Reef’s World Heritage qualities are maintained for future generations.

However, maintaining hope, and offering accessible actions towards attainable goals is critical to engaging people in collective efforts, to help build a more sustainable future in which coral reefs can survive.


The authors would like to acknowledge Nadine Marshall, who co-wrote this article while employed by CSIRO. We thank our other co-authors of the Nature Climate Change paper, including Lauric Thiault (National Center for Scientific Research, PSL Université Paris), Jessica Hoey and Genevieve Williams (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority), Bruce Taylor and Petina Pert (CSIRO Land and Water) and Jeremy Goldberg (CSIRO & James Cook University). The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for the Environment, or the Queensland Government, or indicate commitment to any particular course of action.The Conversation

Matt Curnock, Social Scientist, CSIRO and Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coral reproduction on the Great Barrier Reef falls 89% after repeated bleaching


Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The severe and repeated bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has not only damaged corals, it has reduced the reef’s ability to recover.

Our research, published today in Nature, found far fewer baby corals are being produced than are needed to replace the large number of adult corals that have died. The rate at which baby corals are settling on the Great Barrier Reef has fallen by nearly 90% since 2016.

While coral does not always die after bleaching, repeated bleaching has killed large numbers of coral. This new research has negative implications for the Reef’s capacity to recover from high ocean temperatures.

How coral recovers

Most corals reproduce by “spawning”: releasing thousands of tight, buoyant bundles with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles burst when they hit the ocean surface, releasing eggs and/or sperm. Fertilised eggs develop into larvae as they are moved about by ocean currents. The larvae settle in new places, forming entirely new coral colonies. This coral “recruitment” is essential to reef recovery.




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The research team, led by my colleague Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, measured rates of coral recruitment by attaching small clay tiles to the reef just before the predicted mass spawning each year. These settlement panels represent a standardised habitat that allows for improved detection of the coral recruits, which are just 1-2mm in size.

Almost 1,000 tiles were deployed across 17 widely separated reefs after the recent mass bleaching, in late 2016 and 2017. After eight weeks they were collected and carefully inspected under a microscope to count the number of newly settled coral recruits. Resulting estimates of coral recruitment were compared to recruitment rates recorded over two decades prior to the recent bleaching.

Australian Academy of Science.

Rates of coral recruitment recorded in the aftermath of the recent coral bleaching were just 11% of levels recorded during the preceding decades. Whereas there were more than 40 coral recruits per tile before the bleaching, there was an average of just five coral recruits per tile in the past couple of years.




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Tropical marine conservation needs to change as coral reefs decline


Reef resilience

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest reef system. The large overall size and high number of distinct reefs provides a buffer against most major disturbances. Even if large tracts of the GBR are disturbed, there is a good chance at least some areas will have healthy stocks of adult corals, representing a source of new larvae to enable replenishment and recovery.

Larvae produced by spawning corals on one reef may settle on other nearby reefs to effectively replace corals lost to localised disturbances.

It is reassuring there is at least some new coral recruitment in the aftermath of severe bleaching and mass mortality of adult corals on the GBR. However, the substantial and widespread reduction of regrowth indicates the magnitude of the disturbance caused by recent heatwaves.

Declines in rates of coral recruitment were greatest in the northern parts of the GBR. This is where bleaching was most pronounced in 2016 and 2017, and there was the greatest loss of adult corals. There were much more moderate declines in coral recruitment in the southern GBR, reflecting generally higher abundance of adults corals in these areas. However, prevailing southerly currents (and the large distances involved) make it very unlikely coral larvae from southern parts of the Reef will drift naturally to the hardest-hit northern areas.

It is hard to say how long it will take for coral assemblages to recover from the recent mass bleaching. What is certain is low levels of coral recruitment will constrain coral recovery and greatly increase the recovery time. Any further large-scale developments with also greatly reduce coral cover and impede recovery.




Read more:
The 2016 Great Barrier Reef heatwave caused widespread changes to fish populations


Reducing carbon emissions

This study further highlights the vulnerability of coral reefs to sustained and ongoing global warming. Not only do adult corals bleach and die when exposed to elevated temperatures, this prevents new coral recruitment and undermines ecosystem resilience.

The only way to effectively redress global warming is to immediately and substantially reduce global carbon emissions. This requires that all countries, including Australia, renew and strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

While further management is required to minimise more direct human pressure on coral reefs – such as sediment run-off and pollution – all these efforts will be futile if we do not address global climate change.The Conversation

Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Much has been made of the federal government’s decision to invest A$500m into management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), A$443.3m of it to be administered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, of which I am the chief scientist.

If my conversations with colleagues in the reef research field are any guide, there is still a lot of confusion over the intended use of these funds, the disbursement process, and whether big business will interfere with how the reef is managed.

Filling funding gaps

Over the past five years, the foundation has funded or managed multiple research projects that aim to support long-term management of the reef. Many of these projects would be considered either too risky or not “pure science” enough to be funded by the Australian Research Council (the exception being the ARC Linkage program).

I mean “risky” not in the sense of posing a risk to the GBR, but rather to describe research plans that are at the cutting edge, where the potential rewards are high but so is the risk of failure.

In this way, the GBR Foundation has filled a critical gap in funding researchers who are working at the interface of science, climate change, and reef management. This has included teams from multiple universities, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and CSIRO.

Decisions over funding allocations are made through a conventional procedure involving external and internal review and two scientific advisory committees with representatives from each of the major research organisations (the University of Queensland, James Cook University, AIMS and CSIRO), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and an independent chair.




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$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


As a professor of coral reef ecology at the University of Queensland, I participated in the foundation’s technical advisory group for several years and collaborated on several of the funded projects. As my own research focus includes how management can improve coral reef resilience, I was invited some months ago to serve as the GBR Foundation’s chief scientist, a part-time role alongside my main job as a University of Queensland professor.

I accepted this position for several reasons. First, scientists and practitioners have been calling for a major government investment in the GBR and I am keen to help steer the process in the most cost-effective way possible. I can help by ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process and that projects are subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Second, having been involved with the GBR Foundation for some time, I know that its approach is both inclusive and merit-based, soliciting the best minds irrespective of which insitution they work for. This is important if we are to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Third, the foundation’s decision-making process is science-led, and I have never seen any interference from the board. Although some people have expressed concerns over the board’s links to the fossil fuel industry, climate change has been the focus of the foundation’s funded research for as long as I can remember.

Funding focus

The government’s decision to entrust environmental management and research to a private foundation is not unprecedented internationally. The US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for example, receives funds from both government agencies and private donations, which it uses to fund a range of conservation programs.

The A$443.3m provided to the GBR Foundation is intended to pursue a range of aims:

  • improving the quality of freshwater reaching the reef (A$201m)

  • reducing the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish (A$58m)

  • engaging traditional owners and the broader community in reef conservation (A$22.3m)

  • improving monitoring of reef health (A$40m)

  • supporting scientific research into reef restoration, with a specific focus on tackling challenges created by climate change (A$100m).

The latter is particularly significant because this program aims to expand the toolbox of interventions available to reef managers as climate change continues to intensify.

Of course, reef researchers and managers can’t fix climate change on their own. Other funding and incentives will also be needed to help our wider society reduce greenhouse emissions.

But here’s the important point: dealing with climate change will necessitate a wide range of responses, both to address the root cause of the problem and to adapt to its effects. The A$443.3m will help Australia do the latter for the GBR.

Clarifying misconceptions

I’d like to clarify some of the misconceptions I have heard around the funding awarded to the GBR Foundation.

The funds do indeed consider the impacts of climate change, specifically in helping coral reefs – and the associated management practices – adapt to the coming changes.

Science will lie at the heart of the decisions over how best to parcel out the funds, and although the foundation’s board will sign off on the approvals, it will have no say in what is proposed for funding.

Those research and management projects that do receive funding will be carried out by the most appropriate agencies available, whether that be universities, small or large businesses, other charities, AIMS, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management organisations, and so on. All of these agencies are well used to applying for funding under schemes like this.




Read more:
The science and art of reef restoration


Finally, I have heard concerns about the involvement of major corporations on the Foundation’s board. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their view on the appropriateness of this. But for what it’s worth, my own is that progress on climate change will be strengthened, not weakened, by a close dialogue between those responsible for managing the impacts of climate change and those in a position to exert significant change in our society.

Many of world’s greatest innovations occur in major industry, and I hope this will also apply to the Great Barrier Reef.The Conversation

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Politicised science on the Great Barrier Reef? It’s been that way for more than a century



File 20180821 30599 8psjky.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Successive governments have seen the Great Barrier Reef not just as a scientific wonder, but as a channel to further economic development.
Superjoseph/Shutterstock.com

Rohan James Lloyd, James Cook University

The controversy surrounding the A$444 million given to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the federal government shows how politicised science has become on the Great Barrier Reef.

One reef scientist, who declined to be named, was quoted saying that the grant was “obviously” political, and accused the federal government of seeking to deny the opposition the chance to make the Great Barrier Reef an election issue.

But the politicisation of reef science, and particularly the Great Barrier Reef itself, is not new. It has a long history, stretching back to the time when the British empire was at its most powerful.




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In the nineteenth century, scientists studying the Great Barrier Reef were driven by the political winds and whims of British colonialists. For the most part, these scientists aided the mission of exploration and settlement. With every exploratory voyage, the value of the Great Barrier Reef as an arm of the empire grew, as scientists began to weave their insights into the reef’s biology and geology with evocations of its potential resources and suitability for settlement. Scientists such as Joseph Beete Jukes were particularly important in illuminating the Great Barrier Reef’s scientific mysteries and economic possibilities.

Around the time of federation in 1901, however, the politics of reef science took on a heightened nationalistic and provincial tone. Scientists asserted that the Great Barrier Reef’s value to Queensland and the nation lay specifically in its exploitable resources, and argued that it was the government’s responsibility to develop them.

As the science was in its infancy, reef scientists imagined that their field would inevitably develop in concert with the establishment of reef-based industries such as fishing and coral rubble mining.




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Death on the Great Barrier Reef: how dead coral went from economic resource to conservation symbol


In the early twentieth century, scientists suggested that a research station needed to be established along the Queensland coast. The idea was championed by natural historian Edmund Banfield, who wrote that it would “demonstrate how best the riches of the Great Barrier Reef might be exploited”.

Many scientists of the day believed that the government had failed to sufficiently develop the Great Barrier Reef, and feared that its dormant resources were at risk of plunder by our northern Asian neighbours. Reef science became caught up in the prevailing discourse of an empty and undeveloped northern Australia.

In response, Queensland-based scientists established the Great Barrier Reef Committee in 1922. The committee saw itself as having two roles: “pure” scientific research on the reef’s biology and geology; and the identification of commercial products that the reef could provide.

In 1928 the committee, backed by the British, Australian and Queensland governments, organised a research expedition to Low Isles, off the coast of Port Douglas.

The year-long expedition, led by British-born marine scientist Charles Maurice Yonge, aimed to find evidence of the reef’s economic potential. But the research, while significant to coral-reef science, offered little advice for the Queensland government despite its significant financial investment.

Nonetheless, the Great Barrier Reef Committee continued to leverage the state government’s interest in developing northern Queensland, and in 1950 it secured a lease on Heron Island. The committee was also given funding to build a research station on the island, after promising that it would reveal commercial products and boost tourism.

Heron Island, where the research station is still operating, now run by the University of Queensland.
UQ/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Heron Island research station was built at a time when only a few Australian universities offered full courses in marine biology. Reef science had always been dominated by geology, as researchers sought to understand how coral reefs were formed.

After the second world war, aided by more sophisticated drilling equipment, and governments eager to locate local oil reserves, scientists such as the Queensland geologist Dorothy Hill began studying the Great Barrier Reef’s mineral and petroleum reserves, and recommended several sites for further exploration.

Between 1959 and 1967 three exploration wells were drilled along the reef, but none showed signs of oil or gas. In the same period, the Queensland government granted 37 prospecting and exploration permits, 23 of them in the vicinity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Geologists’ role in this exploration meant that they were viewed with suspicion by their marine biologist colleagues when the “Save the Reef” campaign began in 1967.

Geologists were largely seen as sympathetic to the oil industry’s interests, whereas marine biologists typically aligned themselves with the views of conservationists. At the same time, scientists found themselves taking sides in response to the first outbreak of Crown of Thorns starfish in the 1960s.

Robert Endean, the scientist who campaigned for government intervention in the outbreak, found himself marginalised by the scientific community, faced backlash from tourist operators concerned by his claims of dying reefs, and eventually lost government support for his research.

During both the Save the Reef campaign and the Crown of Thorns outbreak, scientists were publicly scrutinised for how their research, and their public comments, impacted the debate. A similar pattern has played out over the mass coral bleaching that hit the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Today, it seems governments are seeking to make the Great Barrier Reef appear to be protected while scientists themselves leverage the political and public fascination, with the result that the Great Barrier Reef accounts for a significant proportion of Australia’s entire marine research output.

The issues of sediment and nutrient run-off, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, Crown of Thorns starfish, coal mines, and port developments have all complicated the politics of reef science.




Read more:
Not out of hot water yet: what the world thinks about the Great Barrier Reef


For half a century, the science has been overlaid with a wider discourse about the need to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. This idea, championed by scientists, politicians and civil society, shows no sign of subsiding.

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The Conversation

Today, the amounts of money involved may well be unprecedented. But the idea of reef science coming with political strings attached is nothing new.

Rohan James Lloyd, Adjunct Lecturer, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Geoengineering the Great Barrier Reef needs strong rules



File 20180727 106505 1psdsqe.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Can geoengineering buy the coral reefs more time?
Oregon State University/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Kerryn Brent, University of Tasmania; Brendan Gogarty, University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, University of Tasmania, and Jeff McGee, University of Tasmania

The Great Barrier Reef has experienced extensive coral bleaching over the past two years. Faced with this reality, scientists are proposing a range of options to save the reef.

A recent conference showcased new possibilities for enhancing Reef resilience, including boosting coral abundance and geoengineering techniques that would manipulate local conditions to reduce ocean temperatures.




Read more:
Great Barrier Reef bleaching would be almost impossible without climate change


These geoengineering approaches carry their own risks, and require careful management, even at the research and field testing stages.

Technology is needed to buy the reef time

Climate change is affecting the reef through bleaching events, species redistribution, and ocean acidification. Stabilising environmental conditions “to protect current reef biodiversity” requires that global temperatures stay below 1.2℃. Yet modelling of the global community’s current commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement suggests that global warming between 2.6-3.2℃ will occur by 2100. This would destroy the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.

Artificial marine clouds already occur as a result of shipping exhaust. Scientists propose simulating this to cool the Reef.
Liam Gumley, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

It is not surprising, then, that scientists are looking to buy the reef some time, while the international community works to stabilise and then reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The Commonwealth and Queensland governments have announced funding for feasibility projects aimed at manipulating surface water temperatures using three different techniques:

  • Creating a reflective surface film that would float on the surface of the water. Made from calcium carbonate (the same mineral as coral), the film would reflect sunlight, thereby lowering water temperatures and ultraviolet radiation exposure.

  • Marine cloud brightening to also reflect more sunlight away from the reef. The plan is to spray microscopic salt particles into clouds using customised vessels or modified snow machines. This increases the concentration of droplets in clouds and encourages smaller, more reflective droplets to form.

  • Water-mixing units with large, slow moving fans that will draw cool water from 10-30 metres deep and deliver it to surface areas to limit coral heat stress. In 2017 this proposal received A$2.2 million in Commonwealth funding, to test eight water-mixing units over a 1km square area of Moore Reef, off the coast of Cairns.

Engineering the climate of Australia’s most iconic natural system carries obvious risks. Indeed, Australia has a history of well-intended attempts to manage nature that have backfired because the risks were not fully understood.




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We must be confident that such technological interventions will protect the reef, not contribute to its destruction. This is a problem because scientific trials are supposed to identify and assess risks, so we won’t fully understand what impacts they have until such trials are undertaken.

Governance necessary for public confidence

Building public confidence that potential risks have been identified and addressed is essential to the long-term success of reef geoengineering proposals. Even feasibility studies can be derailed if they lack public support.

We need to develop governance frameworks to ensure we have the best possible chance of saving our most important natural wonder.
Yanguang Lan, Unsplash

The legitimacy and ultimate acceptability of reef geoengineering technologies therefore demands robust and transparent processes for funding, research, field testing and eventual deployment. Drawing on the Oxford Principles for Geoengineering Governance, the minimum governance standards should include:

  • criteria and clear processes for research funding decisions
  • public access to information about planned field testing
  • demonstrated compliance with Australia’s environmental laws.

Current environmental laws do not make special exemptions for scientific research or testing in areas of national environmental significance, such as the Great Barrier Reef. Any geoengineering trial that might have a “significant impact” on those areas is illegal without a permit from the Commonwealth Environment Minister. The Minister is guided by the precautionary principle and World Heritage obligations in issuing such permits.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act imposes separate approval requirements and makes protection of the reef the highest priority. This would suggest that the standard for environmental assessment for any proposal to run geoengineering trials on the Reef should be high.

It is unclear how the federal environment minister and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will evaluate whether the risks of field testing are small enough to justify granting their approval. The position is made more uncertain by the fact that the authority is directly involved in at least one of the projects. This uncertainty risks poor environmental outcomes and erosion of public confidence.

We need a strong framework for assessing and managing the risks of geoengineering, to address legitimate public concerns.

The ConversationAs the stewards of the reef, the Marine Park Authority is ideally placed to take the lead on developing this framework, to ensure we have the best possible chance of saving our most important natural wonder.

Kerryn Brent, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania; Brendan Gogarty, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania; Jan McDonald, Professor of Environmental Law, University of Tasmania, and Jeff McGee, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change, Marine and Antarctic Law Faculty of Law and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.