Controversial shock jock Alan Jones spent the last two days broadcasting from far-north Queensland as he helped launch a new website, Citizens of the Reef, an initiative of Tourism Tropical North Queensland designed to combat recent negative publicity around the Great Barrier Reef.
Jones, one of Australia's most prominent climate change sceptics, said he was on the reef to "deny the [climate] armageddonists the opportunity to badmouth Australia to the world and to paint Australia and Australians and Australian governments as environmental vandals by arguing that the reef is dead or dying".
Jones said "climate alarm evangelists" were failing to present the reality of the reef.
This year has been one of the worst on record for the reef, with a massive coral bleaching episode affecting 93% of reefs surveyed, killing almost a quarter of them. An Australian government "report card" recently gave the reef a D for the fifth year in a row.
This morning on his show, Jones interviewed Emmy-winning reef cinematographer and marine biologist Richard Fitzpatrick from James Cook University. These are some of the hard-hitting questions Jones asked, along with some things that scientists have been saying about the reef for months.
1. "Sharks, what can you tell us?"
Instead of that question, Jones could have chatted to Fitzpatrick's JCU colleague Professor Terry Hughes, who has been leading the coral bleaching taskforce. Here's what he told BuzzFeed News in April:
“We’ve never seen anything like this scale of bleaching before. In the northern Great Barrier Reef, it’s like 10 cyclones have come ashore all at once.”
“We’re getting close to the stage where the bleaching events are reoccurring quicker than the length of time it takes the corals to recover. That’s a recipe for ongoing decline.”
2. Jones: "I don't think people understand the enormity of [the reef], the fascination with it. The beauty of it. It's a story that needs to be told, isn't it?"
Sure, the reef is enormous. As is the scale of the coral bleaching crisis.
“Almost without exception, every reef we flew across showed consistently high levels of bleaching, from the reef slope right up onto the top of the reef,” Hughes said in March. “We flew for 4000km in the most pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef and saw only four reefs that had no bleaching. The severity is much greater than in earlier bleaching events in 2002 or 1998.”
3. Jones: “You’ve been filming the Great Barrier Reef for 27 years. In our lingo rather than the scientific lingo, why is [the reef] so special?"
Chairman and chief executive of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Dr Russell Reichelt said this month that claims the reef is dead are untrue, but acknowledged the severity of the situation.
"I am deeply concerned about the impacts of the mass coral bleaching event, which is affecting coral reefs throughout the world, including the Great Barrier Reef," he said.
"The 2016 mass coral bleaching, the worst bleaching event to affect the Great Barrier Reef, was triggered by record-breaking sea surface temperatures — reflecting the underlying trend of global ocean warming caused by climate change combined with a strong El Niño."
4. Jones: “Isn’t that a wonderful comment, 'You could spend a hundred lifetimes and not see all of [the reef]’. Yeah, go on.”
But as Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral reef expert from the University of Queensland and the director of the Global Change Institute, warned in June, there may not be a hundred lifetimes left for the reef.
“We are seeing a massive degradation of the reef through local coastal issues, but also, the underlying climate threat to the reef has put us right at the moment of truth here,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“We have to step up, or lose the reef. I think that’s very clear from the science. This is a very real scientific position.”
“We need to stabilise the climate as quickly as possible. That’s the urgent, deep action – the decarbonisation of Australia within 20 to 30 years. We’ve got to then beef up dealing with these local issues, which will also destroy the reef if we don’t address the two together."
5. Jones: “I don’t know why we don’t – this is what annoys me about all this – we don’t hear from people like you. We hear from all the armageddonists. You’re doing, I understand, currently, a 3D IMAX movie of the reef. When will that be finished … and what will we see?”
Climate Council chief councillor Tim Flannery recently made his own film after he returned to some of the most severely bleached areas, months after the crisis began.
“The coral that we had observed to be bleaching severely earlier in the year, most of that was dead,” he told BuzzFeed News. “People think that the bleaching event and its consequences are in the past. That is far from true. There will be ongoing consequences of this bleaching event for many years.”
6. Jones: "We’ve made a lot of progress in between. I mean, Tony Abbott and Campbell Newman, then he was replaced by Annastacia Palaszcuk, and they’ve put together this program for 2050. Are you confident that everyone understands [Australia’s] responsibility as custodians of the reef for the rest of the world? And you’re confident that we’re doing that well?"
“The biggest disconnect in Australian politics is a climate change policy that doesn’t have a plan to phase out coal rapidly,” Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said in June.
“It’s good that the government now sees the reef as being front and centre and acknowledges that climate change is one of the key damaging factors for the reef, and that water quality alone can’t solve the climate change issue.
“But unfortunately it’s not new money that’s being allocated – it’s coming away from other renewable energy projects.”
7. Jones: “[Tony] Abbott and [Greg] Hunt and co stopped all that dredging refuse going into the ocean and turned that back inland. So they were all positives, weren’t they?”
The government has pledged $2 billion to cleaning up the reef over the next decade, but this year's reef report card showed pollution needs to be significantly reduced in several key areas, with grazing and sugarcane management both scoring a D and river catchment pollution given an E.
Water quality and coral improved from D to C this year, but the report did not take into account the coral bleaching crisis, which will be included in next year’s report.
8. Jones: "A lot of work is being done now, working with farmers, to reduce run-off and nitrogen entering the reef. And that's critical, isn't it?"
Scientists agree that while reducing pollution and improving water quality is vital, the main threat to the reef is climate change, and there's no bigger symbol of that threat than the Adani coal mine proposed for Queensland's Galilee Basin.
“The Adani mine is singularly the worst thing this country could do – it’s unforgivable,” says the "godfather of coral", Charlie Veron, who has discovered around 20% of the world's coral species.
"Future generations are going to curse this present generation of Australians, because they’ve done more than anyone else to damage the environment.”
Rob Stott is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Rob Stott at email@example.com.
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