Newman and Bishop's bizarre reef whinge to Obama

The personal offence senior Coalition politicians have taken from Barack Obama's statement of concern for the future of the Great Barrier Reef appears to indicate either they didn't actually read his speech or they suffer from a profound ignorance of scientific research that is decades old.

When President Obama said in his University of Queensland speech that he was concerned about the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from global warming, you’d have thought that it would go by relatively unremarked.

After all, the coral bleaching effect of hotter ocean temperatures has been a well understood, heavily studied and documented effect within the scientific literature for a very long time. Also, it is now well established that the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are being partly absorbed in the oceans making them more acidic, which is also likely to seriously undermine coral growth.

Yet the offended response from both Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and also Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to this comment has been astounding.

According to reports in The Australian, the Queensland Government was apparently outraged by Obama’s suggestion the Great Barrier Reef was gravely threatened.

Premier Campbell Newman told reporters in response to the speech:

“If the president is concerned about the reef I absolutely want to reassure him we’ve got a government that’s really solid on reef protection, and there are many examples of that,”

“One the things I’ll be doing in the future is making sure that US officials perhaps know more about what actually is going on because there’s been a very strong campaign of misinformation by green groups.

In addition, we learnt on Friday that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sent a briefing to the White House in response to his speech outlining, “our commitment and capacity to preserve the Great Barrier Reef”.

Bishop told ABC’s AM program that the government is “very confident that we were more than up for the challenge of preserving and conserving the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come”.

According to Bishop, this is because the government bans oil and gas drilling in the reef area, they’ve banned dumping of dredge spoil, and they are spending $180 million per year on trying to address water quality problems particularly associated agricultural fertiliser run-off. She had informed the US Secretary of the Interior about these initiatives and so was surprised by Obama’s comments, she told AM.

Yet Obama’s speech never makes mention of dredging, or fertiliser run-off, or oil spills in explaining his concern for the health of the Great Barrier Reef. He only mentions global warming.

Now either the Queensland and federal governments completely failed to read President Obama’s speech, or they are utterly ignorant of how rising levels of greenhouse gases will threaten the reef.

The acidification of the ocean from increasing concentration of CO2 and the effect it has on inhibiting coral reef growth is a matter of chemistry that happens irrespective of whether Campbell Newman and his government are “really solid on reef protection”.

In addition, irrespective of what Australian governments do about dredging, fishing or agricultural run-off, the Great Barrier Reef faces disastrous prospects of mass bleaching and die off if the globe doesn’t dramatically lower carbon emissions. The rate of warming we are on track to experience based on current policies is simply too fast for coral reefs to adapt, even if Australian governments did a better job on removing the other stressors on reef health.

The chart below taken from the IPCC Fifth Assessment of the scientific literature indicates that by mid-century 75 per cent of coral reefs are likely to be subject to severe bleaching events. This is based on the IPCC’s A1B emissions scenario which projects emissions levels similar to what the International Energy Agency currently expects based on existing governments’ policies.  

Figure 1: Percentage of reef locations that experience no bleaching, mild bleaching or as least one severe bleaching event under global warming of 3.2 degrees Celsius by end of 2100.

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) Fifth Assessment Report - Chapter 5 from Working Group II report

We are presently on track for about 3.7 degrees of warming according to the International Energy Agency yet as a new World Bank report released on Sunday explains:

“... even at warming of 1.5°C-2°C, significant, adverse risks are projected for a number of regions and systems, such as the potential for the complete loss of existing long-lived coral reefs.”

Obama’s speech is not a comment on the adequacy of government management of localised pressures on the reef’s health in any way. 

The fact that the Queensland and federal governments’ have interpreted it that way in their public protests suggests something extremely odd at work.  

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