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Delingpole's Great Coral Reef Delusion

Image: Australian Government - Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

Yes James, the Great Barrier Reef is threatened, no matter how much you try to lie about it

James Delingpole argues that coral bleaching is normal, especially in dramatic El Ninos, which he claims we've just had. [This article covers two articles written by Delingpole. Sorry, I am not going to link to Breitbart, but yes this is what he said] How accurate is this claim?

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) provides some information as to what coral bleaching is and how it is caused. According to their website, coral bleaching is caused by a breakdown in the relationship between the coral and a small marine algae called zooxanthellae. This algae lives inside the coral tissue and is a very efficient food producer, providing up to 90 percent of the energy required by the coral. It is this relationship that gives the coral its colour. If it breaks down, the coral goes all white as its skeleton is revealed and thus bleaches. At this point, the coral begins to starve, because most corals struggle to survive without the zooxanthellae.

Corals can recover if the zooxanthellae returns, although the stress induced by the decline of the zooxanthellae in the first place causes decreased growth and reproduction and increased susceptibility to disease. If the stress persists, bleached corals often die. Furthermore, it generally takes decades for coral reefs that have high rates of coral death following bleaching to recover.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority state clearly that the main cause of coral bleaching is heat stress from high sea temperatures. Even just a temperature increase of 1 degree C for four weeks can cause bleaching. Other factors include freshwater inundation resulting in low salinity and poor water quality from sediment or pollution runoff.

The GBR has experienced incidents of coral bleaching previously, for example in 1998 when 50 percent of the corals on the reef were affected. In 2002, another bleaching event affected 60 percent of the corals. In both incidents, about 5 percent of the reefs constituting the GBR were severely damaged.

So who would you trust to provide you with accurate information about coral bleaching? James Delingpole - an Oxford English Literature graduate who in 2011 was famously humiliated on national TV by Sir Paul Nurse of the Royal Society when he was forced to admit that he doesn't read peer-reviewed papers, or Justin Marshall, a biologist at the University of Queensland who spends a lot of time studying coral reefs? For me, I would be more inclined to listen to Marshall, rather than Delingpole.

Talking to The Guardian, Marshall says:

“What happens is the colony dies, the polyps disintegrate. The algae use that as fertiliser and grow very quickly over the coral head. And at that point it’s doomed. It’s going to break up. It’s like a forest where plants compete for light. On the reef you’ve got this continuous competition between the seaweed and the coral. And, in the conditions we’ve got at the moment, the seaweed tends to win because it’s warm and it’s got lots of rotting stuff around to fertilise it.”

It seems to me that Marshall isn't describing something that is normal. And I would be inclined to believe him personally.

Turning to other scientists, that is, scientists, not embittered English Literature graduates like Delingpole who they no longer have a home at The Telegraph, a paper published by Nature and written by seven highly qualified scientists, warns that:

"Mass coral bleaching events have become a widespread phenomenon causing serious concerns with regard to the survival of corals. Triggered by high ocean temperatures, bleaching events are projected to increase in frequency and intensity."
But this of course pins the blame on climate change, and we know that Delingpole is a climate change denier, so let's see if there is any other way in which coral bleaching can be assumed to be 'normal'. 
The Guardian article to which Marshall contributes his description of bleaching, tells us that "bleaching has probably always happened in small patches here and there during unusually warm and calm weather" but also that "it used to be extremely rare". So, in other words, The Guardian takes the position that bleaching isn't normal actually. In fact, the current pattern of repeated mass bleaching events didn't actually begin until 1979, becoming increasingly regular thereafter, not limited to the GBR of course, but with regular bleachings somewhere in the world occurring every year. Two more scientists produced a paper in 1990 firmly linking repeated bleaching to climate change, not El Nino. 
But instead of scientific papers, predictably, Delingpole turns to a local newspaper in Australia, which says the GBR is fine, although he does admit that it's "local dive operators saying this stuff and, of course, they have a vested interested in keeping the tourist industry alive". In return though, all he can spout is the tired old rhetoric of scientists having 'vested interests'.
It does seem though, judging from Delingpole citing comments made by Russell Reichelt, the chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in The Australian, that there is some misunderstanding of the scale of bleaching among some researchers. In response to an investigation by Professor Terry Hughes and his National Coral Bleaching Task Force Reichelt apparently says:
“I don’t know whether it was a deliberate sleight of hand or lack of geographic knowledge but it certainly suits the purpose of the people who sent it out. This is a frightening enough story with the facts, you don’t need to dress them up. We don’t want to be seen as saying there is no ­problem out there but we do want people to understand there is a lot of the reef that is unscathed.We’ve seen headlines stating that 93 per cent of the reef is prac­tic­ally dead”

Delingpole seems to take this as somehow giving him permission to claim the GBR "isn't in the remotest danger", which is quite clearly incorrect, judging by Reichelt's 'frightening enough' remark.

In support, Delingpole turns to an essay by Jim Steele, an ecologist apparently. Ah, but yes, Delingpole doesn't turn to any old ecologist, he turns to a climate sceptic 'ecologist'. Actually, Steele is more than climate sceptic, he is an outright denier. Unsurprising then that Steele should also pick on Hughes. However, Hughes has written at least one paper for Nature, so he must know something on the subject.   

What else is there in Delingpole's case of, so-called, evidence?

Actually, nothing. The most he has got to go on is Hughes, who, besides being a Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology with a Ph.d is also the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University Townsville in Queensland, Australia. Hughes is also a highly cited authority on coral reefs, with research interests in coral reef ecology, macroecology and evolution as well as social-ecological interactions. His work has focused on marine ecology, macroecology and climate change. He is also an ISI Highly Cited Researcher with career citations exceeding 33,000.

What does that mean? Well, ISI Highly Cited is a database of 'highly cited researchers' published by the Institute for Scientific Information. It is a measure of high esteem used by, among others, the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Delingpole is clearly trying to play 'divide and rule' here, capitalising on a professional difference of opinion between two scientists to try and sow doubt. 

But actually, it fails spectacularly, because Russell Reichelt, according to the GBRMPA website:

"...joined GBRMPA in 2007 as Chairman and Chief Executive. Dr Reichelt is a board member of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. He began diving on the Great Barrier Reef in 1968 and worked as a research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in the 1980s studying the ecology of coral reefs, particularly the crown-of-thorns starfish.

He has a PhD in marine science and has served as CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Chairman of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, and as a member of Australia’s State of the Environment Committee.

He has previously chaired the National Oceans Advisory Group, CSIRO's Wealth from Oceans Flagship Advisory Committee and Seafood Services Australia Ltd.
He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering; the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (UK); and the Australian Institute of Company Directors."

So, Reichelt says that what is happening to the GBR is 'frightening enough' - meaning, yes, there is something to be frightened of, while Hughes is also a highly esteemed authority on marine biology and coral reefs.

Meanwhile, James Delingpole is an embittered English Literature Graduate, who doesn't know how to research stuff properly (Oxford should quite rightly strip him of his degree in my opinion were such a thing possible), a climate change denier, someone who was spectacularly humiliated on prime time TV by the Royal Society and who has a penchant for making disguised threats against those he disagrees with.

Hardly grounds for trusting any word Delingpole says in my view.

James, you've failed (again). Please go away and shut up! 


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