wilson-boltUpdate: Andrew is at it again.  Either he doesn’t understand the science or he is wilfully distorting the information surrounding the impact of climate change on coral reefs.

See also this posting and this one on huge impacts of exceptionally warm water in Western Australia on coral reefs.

Update: this piece was first published back on Feb 10th, 2009 – I thought it would be worth bringing up to the top to highlight Bolt’s ongoing war against science.

After last nights airing of the Australian Story (click here if you missed the epsiode), the columnist Andrew Bolt has decided to play the wounded soldier, accusing ABC Australian Story of bias.  Like me, you might find this a little amusing coming from someone who spends most of his time spinning the truth on all number of issues at the expense of his unable-to-respond victims.  Apart from failing to tell you that the ABC went to great lengths to put up the full video of our exchange (which is up on their website here, and the fact that he got the last word), he continues to accuse the ABC of bias and scientists like me of being eco-alarmists.  In a very tiresome way he has trotted out the same old accusations despite the fact that he has been corrected endlessly.  So much for his adherence to the truth!

Anyway, here we go again:

Accusation 1.  “In 1999, Ove warned that the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure from global warming, and much of it had turned white. In fact, he later admitted the reef had made a “surprising” recovery.”

Firstly, Andrew has the year wrong – I think he meant 1998.  In 1998, 60% of the Great Barrier Reef bleached, and about 5-10% of the reef died. These are not my figures, but figures from the surveys done by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. All published in peer review journals rather than newspapers.  Secondly, it is true we as a scientific community were very concerned – rightfully so given similar events happened in the Western Indian Ocean in 1998, which resulted in 46% of coral reefs being destroyed.  One third of those coral reefs destroyed remain missing in action, and have failed to recover 10 years after the event.   Third, in all of Andrew’s comments so far, it is apparent that he fails to realise that we were talking about the risk of particular events happening.  As waters heat and corals bleached, there is the increased risk of reefs like the Great Barrier Reef being severely damaged.  I believe that it would be remiss of scientists not to communicate the concern about this increased risk – I challenge anyone who thinks that this is an alarmist strategy.

As for my comment about a “surprising recovery” – like many reef scientists, I was overjoyed to see that the Great Barrier Reef had fared better than the Western Indian Ocean. The fact that the risk had increased sharply but we got away with only 5-10% of the reefs being damaged was good to see.  Despite the small percentage though, 5-10% of reefs represents about 4,000 square kilometres of coral reef being destroyed.  That is, even though it wasn’t as bad as the catastrophe in the Western Indian Ocean, it was still a highly significant event.

Accusation 2. “In 2006, he warned high temperatures meant “between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s great Barrier Reef could die within a month”. In fact, he later admitted this bleaching had “a minimal impact”.

I stand by the statement that coral bleaching is a serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef – to date we have gotten off lightly compared to other areas around the world. Let’s examine what actually happened in 2006.  Early in that year, we saw an unusual and rapid warming of the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the risk of a major bleaching event escalated as temperatures climbed. Leading scientists from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were saying exactly what I was saying. Both US experts at NOAA and NASA came out with similar statements.  While the northern Great Barrier Reef looked like it might be damaged, the risk dissipated as summer progressed.  As it turned out, however, the hot water remained in the southern Great Barrier Reef and killed 30-40% of corals in that region. Again, the outcome was not trivial but it wasn’t as bad as the sorts of catastrophes we had seen in other reef regions around the world, such as the Caribbean and Indian Ocean regions.

Accusation 3. “In 2007, he warned that temperature changes of the kind caused by global warming were again bleaching the reef. In fact, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network in December said there had been no big damage to the reef caused by climate change in the four years since its last report, and veteran diver Ben Cropp said that in 50 years he’d seen none at all.”

Putting Andrew unsubstantiated quotes aside, there are some huge inaccuracies and problems in this missive.  Firstly, Andrew’s claim that the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network held this position has been disputed by one of the key scientists from the network.  Secondly, referring to the opinion of a veteran spearfisherman is fine, but runs counter to the objective analysis of the evidence on this issue. I have asked Andrew to read the paper by John Bruno and Liz Selig (both leading international coral reef scientists) who have examined 6000 separate studies done over the last 40 years, and have found evidence that coral reefs both on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Western Pacific deteriorating at the rate of 1-2% per year.  The challenge to Andrew is to show why this analysis of 6000 separate studies is wrong and why he and a few unpublished ‘experts’ are right – the paper is free online for anyone to read.

Afterall, in his own words Andrew admits:

“I am not a scientist, and cannot have an informed opinion on your research.”

Then, what are you really saying?

17 Responses to Same old Bolt, same old story.

  1. shashank says:

    Dear Ove
    I really enjoyed watching “The Heat of the Moment”…….we need more scientists like you who tend to look beyond the science and use it to preserve habitats and improve the condition of life of all creatures on this planet.
    Well I have always enjoyed, inspired and hope to follow your way of science…….
    Wishing the best
    shashank

  2. OveHG says:

    Thank you Shashank.

  3. Joseph Romm has some very useful comments on scientists debating climate change sceptics/deniers/delayers such as Andrew Bolt at http://climateprogress.org/2009/01/23/copenhagen-consensus-climate-economics-debate-bjorn-lomborg-peter-huber-philip-stott/

    One particularly important point is this:

    “NOTE #2 TO ALL PRO-CLIMATE-ACTION DEBATERS: The most effective way to win a debate (i.e. persuade an audience to your point of view) is to find one or more clear factual errors in your opponent’s remarks and beat over the head with them. Doing that a couple of times is infinitely more effective than sticking with your spiel and ignoring what they said, which is the equivalent to the audience of agreeing with them. If you can make them backpedal on one key point, the audience will tend to dismiss everything they said.”

    I thought you were too nice to Bolt and allowed him to make stuff up without pulling him up. If you accept a debate like that in the future, I recommend that you pin your opponent down when they make a false statement and force them to retract it.

    For example, where Bolt said, “I’m a sceptic of anything” you could have pulled him up by pointing out that true sceptics can be convinced by sound evidence. He refuses to accept anything that disagrees with his pre-conceived views so he is not a sceptic, merely someone who clings to his dogma that humans cannot damage the climate so any evidence to the contrary is wrong.

  4. OveHG says:

    Well said Chris. On review of the video discussion, I could see what you mean. Andrew spent more time getting excited over the meaning of the word ‘stable’ and less on admitting that the disappearance of Arctic summer ice (for the first time in at least a million years) was an extremely worrying sign. One of the ironies of my visit to Andrew was that the next week registered as the hottest ever in southern Australia. It’s sort of makes his inane comments rather meaningless doesn’t it?

  5. I think that Bolt’s reason for repeating the denialist line that “loss of Arctic sea ice is natural fluctuation” was not simply to sow disinformation but to change the subject from coral reefs, which is your area of expertise. By shifting the discussion to Arctic sea ice he avoided debating with you in your area of expertise where he knew he’d get creamed in any debate on the science.

    Joseph Romm’s post also comments on that technique:

    “NOTE #3 TO ALL PRO-CLIMATE-ACTION DEBATERS: The central debating tactic of the deniers and delayers is to raise arguments they know you are unprepared — or unwilling — to rebut. When they debate climate scientists, they typically raise points outside of that scientists’ area of expertise and/or focus on issues of cost, which they know climate scientists are very reluctant to talk about (since scientists are by and large trained not to opine on matters outside of their discipline). When they debate people knowledgeable about cost issues, they talk about the science. Either way, they score unanswered points and spread their disinformaton.”

    To counter Bolt’s technique in the future, I recommend that you pull him up and say something like, “I do not agree with your point about the Arctic, but let’s focus on coral reefs which is my area of expertise. You must agree that there was mass coral bleaching around the globe in 1998 and 2002 – do you deny any role of human emissions for greenhouse gases in those recorded events?” If he avoids the question, pull him back to it and keep hitting him with specific facts that he looks foolish to deny.

    Bolt also tried to have his cake and eat it too by accepting that he is not a scientist and could not comment on the science, but then saying that the science is wrong. Pull him up on that in the future.

  6. Bernard J. says:

    Bolt’s throw-away “I am not a scientist, and cannot have an informed opinion on your research” is exactly what one Tim Curtin should have the grace to utter on a thread at Tim Lambert’s blog, Deltoid.

    Curtin shows the same recalcitrance to understanding science that Bolt exhibits, with the added distasteful habit of typically claiming that scientists and scientific institutions, that disagree with his bizarre views of biology and climatology, to be scientific frauds, liars and incompetents.

    He has rather a lot to say about Ove too – for the morbidly curious, see the ‘debate’ I and several others are having with Curtin at

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2009/01/windschuttle_hoaxed.php

    It’s at post #203 that Curtin slanders Ove, although Curtin’s scientific bizarreness starts many, many posts earlier.

    If Bolt is anything like Curtin when pressed into a corner, I am not sure that any strategy would produce a satisfactory result for scientific truth.

  7. Billy Vaughn says:

    Hi Professor,

    Just one simple question. Did you make this statement in 2006?

    “In 2006, he warned high temperatures meant “between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s great Barrier Reef could die within a month”.

    Yes or no, please.

    • OveHG says:

      This is about risk. If we had reached higher temperatures, we would have seen higher coral mortalities than we did. This has happened in the past and is a consequence of the simple relationship between the size and length of a temperature anomaly. In 1998, for example, waters in the Indian Ocean reached the sorts of sea temperatures that I feared might occur in 2006, and many coral reefs across the vast western Indian Ocean area lost over 90% of their corals. Warming sea temperatures as a result of anthropogenic climate change increase the risk that we will see these sorts of sea tempeartures on the Great Barrier Reef. Just look at the steady rise in Coral Sea temperatures (http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=4324 and http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=4369) – not to be concerned given the trends in sea temperature and what we know about the sensitivity of corals would be foolhardy.

  8. Billy Vaughn says:

    Dear Professor,

    I will rephrase the question for you.

    Is the follwing statement

    A) True

    B) False

    “In 2006, he (that is you) warned high temperatures meant “between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s great Barrier Reef could die within a month”.

  9. OveHG says:

    Most probably. As explained above, the issue here is one of risk. The temperatures on the southern Great Barrier Reef were 2-3oC higher in the long term average in late Dec 2005 and early 2006, and were rapidly approaching and exceeding the temperature threshold known to cause mass coral bleaching bleaching. In late December 2005, large areas of coral Reef began to bleach heavily in the southern Great Barrier Reef. At this point, with temperatures like that and evidence that they were continuing to increase rapidly, there was no other way to call it but to say that there was a significant risk of mass coral bleaching on a wide scale.

    In 1998, temperatures increased to similar levels 2-3oC above the long-term summer maxima in places like the Western Indian caused many reefs to lose over 50% of their coral cover. What happened next was pretty interesting in that cyclone Larry and other weather disturbances stirred up the ocean and mixed the warm water in the top layer of the ocean into the cooler bottom layers, dissipating the heat and therefore the bleaching threat. I commented to journalists that I was generally relieved that we did not see what happened on the southern Great Barrier Reef spread to other parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

    By mid 2006, approximately 30-40% of corals in the Keppel islands (one of our study sites) had died. Our team (www.coralreefecosystems.org) then explored the recovery process, which was genuinely surprisingly fast given that the extremely hot conditions had only destroyed the top layers of coral colonies, but had left living coral tissue deep inside the coral tickets. Probably because Larry had come along and cooled conditions before the coral colonies had died completely. We published the results of this work in the peer-reviewed literature, pointing out some of the interesting properties of this recovery which included tissue regeneration over old coral skeletons. This led to comments regarding this unusual phenomena – which has not been reported in other reefs, which have not been so lucky (e.g. many of the Western Indian ocean reefs have still not completely recovered from the impacts of 1998). I made the comments at this point that the team was genuinely surprised/relieved about how quickly some of these coral colonies had recovered – leading to these the same comments been taken out of context by Andrew Bolt. Despite having been corrected many times, he continues to push the slanderous and fraudulent agenda of misrepresenting the actual facts of the matter.

  10. Billy Vaughn says:

    Dear Professor,

    You answer to my question of “Most Probably” is the basic problem surrounding the AGW debate. Every scientist who makes a statement regarding AGW says the recent warming is “Most Probably, Most Likely, Almost Certainly” caused by manmade CO2 emissions. As of yet, no positive proof has been forthcoming.

    I accept your reply that “. At this point, with temperatures like that and evidence that they were continuing to increase rapidly, there was no other way to call it but to say that there was a significant risk of mass coral bleaching on a wide scale.’

    However, your original statement:

    “… between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef could die within a month”

    was linked to the then alarmism of AGW.

    In your reply regarding the recovery of the reef you state:

    “This led to comments regarding this unusual phenomena – which has not been reported in other reefs, which have not been so lucky (e.g. many of the Western Indian ocean reefs have still not completely recovered from the impacts of 1998). I made the comments at this point that the team was genuinely surprised/relieved about how quickly some of these coral colonies had recovered – leading to these the same comments been taken out of context by Andrew Bolt.”

    Acknowledging that your team was surprised/relieved could be taken by many observers as an admission that your team is still lacking knowledge as to the reef’s intricate ecology.

    You must also accept that the ensuing outcome of your statements regarding the coral reef event, and the current recovery, has left you in a position of ridicule, a position that is being exacerbated by your continued exchanges with Andrew Bolt.

    In your reply you state that the call you made (which was treated as alarmist) was incorrect and that you were surprised by the outcome. For that I wish to say thank you. For a man who admits he is fallible is a man of honour.

    Yours sincerely
    Billy Vaughn

  11. OveHG says:

    Dear Billy,

    I beg to disagree. Good scientists carefully recognise that what they are dealing with is a series of probabilities. The use of terms like ‘likely’, ‘very likely’ at very carefully worked meanings ( go to the IPCC to get these definitions). At the moment, the accepted probability that the climate is warming as a result of the activities of mankind is considered to be above 90% (which is the IPCC definition of very likely).

    That is a very significant probability. If I were to give you a car which had a 90% chance of crashing, would you get in it? Clearly, the answer would be no.

    Right now, the probability that we will see devastating conditions on the Great Barrier Reef within 30 to 50 years is also above 90%. Hence my statements a not alarmist, they are alarming.

    As for the comment about ridicule, I guess you have to look at the people who are offering up to ridicule. Curiously, these people are not the expert community.

  12. OveHG says:

    I would be interested in hearing (Billy) as to why you’re so sure that climate change is not happening?

    (This being the logical extension of your comment regarding alarmist)

  13. OveHG says:

    John Bruno said:

    Billy, I think you are intentionally not getting it. We cannot know for sure what the future brings. And science works in the realm of probability. We can’t give you a yes/no answer. I know this is frustrating to the public, policy makers and politicians.

    “Acknowledging that your team was surprised/relieved could be taken by many observers as an admission that your team is still lacking knowledge as to the reef’s intricate ecology.”

    I can’t speak for Ove, but I agree, absolutely, there is heaps we don’t know yet and may never know. Reef ecosystems are wildly complex. You probably can’t imagine all the moving parts. It make the space shuttle or a human city look like a tinker toy. I am surprised by stuff, including my own scientific findings all the time! But you would be foolish to extrapolate that to argue we know nothing. Some things we know very well, beyond any doubt. One is that corals are very sensitive to temperature. Warm the water up by a degree C, they bleach. By a little more, they die.

    “You must also accept that the ensuing outcome of your statements regarding the coral reef event, and the current recovery, has left you in a position of ridicule, a position that is being exacerbated by your continued exchanges with Andrew Bolt.
    In your reply you state that the call you made (which was treated as alarmist) was incorrect and that you were surprised by the outcome. For that I wish to say thank you. For a man who admits he is fallible is a man of honour.”

    Billy, reef scientists are more relieved than you can imagine when reefs escape a big hit like a cyclone or a big warm spell. if you actually look at Ove’s statement, he said “could”. He didn’t say “will”. Thus his statement was correct. We cannot know if bleaching will occur next year but we are pretty certain that it will become more frequent and severe throughout this century, possibly in the coming decades. But frankly, you, Andrew, Ove and I are unlikely to live long enough to really see who was right and whether Ove really is a “alarmist”. With the solar maximum predicted to peak in about 10 years, we might know sooner rather than later. But I think the real test will come in 50-70 years, when we inch towards 600 or 700 ppm and 2-4 C more warming.

  14. Earl says:

    Although I am not a scientist, but a medical specialist, as I understand the way probabilities and likelihoods are discussed, I would shudder to attribute a specific figure to an outcome as complex as temperature prediction in 50-100 years time. We are often asked about life expectancy in ill patients and as a rule never provide a certain date because it is almost invariably wrong.

    Likewise, looking at short term weather forecasting with say an 80-90% 1-2 day accuracy, dropping down to under 50% by a week, how can you actually confidently predict long term weather when anything could change in the meantime? Assumptions and extrapolation are the bane of science although you can seek to increase accuracy it is a holy grail and one we can never approach.

    It doesnt mean we give up but I feel pretty disappointed to see people attributing such high probabilities to their own knowledge when time and again complex systems prove them wrong, e.g. economists predicting the gfc.

  15. David Carter says:

    Funding scientific research by grants has corrupted science. Money goes to the scientist with the most alarming tale to spin, which is why we are swamped with horror stories. Bolt knows the public is cynical about scientists, for too many predictions of doom never happen, none more so that around global warming. Pointing out Hoegh-Guldberg’s predictions feeds that cynicism. What is more concerning is how much truly beneficial scientific research goes wanting for the lack of an alarming tale to tell, soaked up people finding non-solutions to non-problems.

    • OveHG says:

      If there was credible research that showed that things were OK, then I think we would be seeing a different field of stories. Just imagine the headline – Great Barrier Reef getting healthier – published in the peer-reviewed literature? That would be sensational and would attract huge amounts of funds. Government and industry would be keen to fund the research because it would suggest they need to do less on an issue. No – your point David doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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