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Peter Ridd: Great Barrier Reef groups score a spectacular own goal

Peter Ridd, The Australian

The false stories about the Great Barrier Reef will continue to cause trouble for Australia, reputationally and financially. The solution is to make our science and management organisations reliable again.

The recent furore over China influencing UNESCO to declare the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, has ignored the real culprits – Australian reef science and reef management organisations. They have been claiming for decades that the reef is endangered based on shoddy research. They loaded the gun and pointed it at Australia. The Chinese government merely said “thank you” and pulled the trigger.

It is also inconsistent to get upset with the Chinese government when, in 2019, the Queensland government did far more reputational damage to the reef by introducing pointless legislation to “protect” the reef from the supposed dangers of farm pollution.

This legislation, albeit well-intentioned, is causing direct financial loss to Queensland farmers as well as falsely telling the world the reef is in diabolic trouble.

Statements about the imminent doom of the reef can be found in important documents such as the 2019 Reef Outlook Report produced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The Chinese need not have read any further for their ammunition.

But this document is riddled with factual errors, exaggerations, logical inconsistencies, irrelevancies and scandalous omissions. It clearly has not been subjected to adequate quality assurance and reads more like an ideological document.

For example, it claims the reef is at high risk from agricultural pesticides, ignoring data showing pesticides are in such low concen­trations on the reef that they generally can’t be measured even with the most ultra-sensitive scientific equipment.

There also must be no doubt that the reef is in excellent shape. It certainly goes through spectacular natural cycles where large amounts of coral are killed, particularly from cyclones, but it always strongly recovers. The death of corals makes great headlines; the recovery is ignored. The latest data shows areas worst affected by the 2016-17 bleaching has totally recovered and all but one region currently has average or above average coral cover. Some areas are at near record highs.

The science organisations and self-selected “experts” of the conventional wisdom of the reef denigrate dissenters, whether they be politicians or scientists.

For example, an influential group of reef scientists released a public statement comparing my research on the reef with corrupt scientists who denied any link between tobacco and lung cancer.

The reef science organisations never debate in public. They do not engage in an argument they certainly will lose. It is easier to blacken the reputation of dissenters and it also keeps their troops in line. This is the cancel culture of the scientific mob.

Dissenting politicians are in a similar difficult predicament as dissenting scientists. Most politicians have been deceived by the supposedly reputable science and management organisations responsible for the reef.

Environment ministers, such as Sussan Ley, are supposed to be able to trust “the science”.

Other politicians realise the advice they receive on the reef is tainted by ideology and shoddy quality assurance, but they also know that to question “the science” would be political suicide. Step out of line and the orthodoxy enforcers at the ABC and elsewhere will swing into action.

But there is a small group of state and federal politicians, mostly Queenslanders, such as Matt Canavan, Malcolm Roberts, George Christensen, Nick Dametto and Stephen Andrew, who are prepared to stand up to the abuse from the mainstream media. Dametto recently has tabled legislation in state parliament to repeal the anti-farmer reef legislation. This legislation is far worse than what UNESCO and the Chinese have done. We will soon see which state parliamentarians effectively side with China and UNESCO, and which are squarely on the side of regional Queensland and Australia – metaphorically at least.

The false stories about the reef will continue to cause trouble for Australia, reputationally and financially. The solution is to make our science and management organisations reliable again.

I have been proposing the establishment of an office of science quality assurance that would be tasked with doing an audit of reef science. Who could argue against a little more quality assurance? But, unsurprisingly, so far it is not supported by [the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority].

I understand why the federal government is reticent to fund science quality assurance measures. It is scared it will be attacked by the science mob and the media for being deniers. But this appeasement approach must end.

The international pressure and financial costs for regional Queensland will get worse unless the true state of the reef is made known. It is the most fabulous, unspoilt, ecosystem on Earth, facing insignificant threats from farming and only a small risk from changes in climate.

Peter Ridd has researched the Great Barrier Reef for decades and is the author of Reef Heresy Science, Research and the Great Barrier Reef (Connor Court).

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