The Australian government pushed to soften the wording of a major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate science authority, to say the Great Barrier Reef is not yet in crisis.
It has prompted accusations that the Morrison government had been unscientific, and was trying to play down the damage already being caused by global heating to avoid making deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
The latest major assessment by the IPCC, released this week, included a section headed: “The Great Barrier Reef is in crisis”. It said the world’s largest coral reef was already heavily affected by climate change, particularly ocean heating, which was leading to more frequent and severe coral bleaching. The 2,300km reef system has endured mass bleaching events in three of the past six years.
A bulletin by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a global thinktank, said Australian government officials suggested in a meeting about the wording of a report summary that it should say the reef was “not yet in crisis” and “coral reefs are under increasing pressure, but targeted measures and management could reduce risk”. They were supported by officials from Saudi Arabia.
The proposal, which Guardian Australia has confirmed independently, was opposed by France and several Caribbean island countries including Trinidad and Tobago, which argued coral reefs were already experiencing loss and damage. The original wording was ultimately retained in the report by consensus.
The director of Blue Ocean Consulting and an adviser to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Imogen Zethoven, said the trajectory of the reef was dire and the government’s attempt to not have that reflected in the IPCC report was “unscientific”.
“Scientists through the IPCC have said that the Great Barrier Reef is in crisis, and there’s a lot about it in the report, but the government has completely denied the crisis the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs around the world are facing,” she said. “Anything other than claiming coral reefs are in crisis is dishonest.”
Some IPCC scientists emphasised that the Australian government had ultimately joined 194 other countries in agreeing to the final wording of the summary report. They said negotiations over the text was normal practice.
But the chief executive of Climate Analytics and former IPCC lead author, Bill Hare, said the Morrison government’s attempt to change the wording was consistent with its previous attempts to play down the risk facing the reef.
“The claim that the reef is not yet in crisis is quite fundamentally wrong, but it’s symptomatic of what the Australian government had been doing,” Hare said. “This is just the latest iteration.”
Guardian Australia last year revealed the government had tried to block the passage of a Unesco recommendation that countries should try to keep global heating to 1.5C to protect world heritage sites such as the reef from the impacts of the climate crisis.
Hare said Australian government representatives had also unsuccessfully tried to water down a section of the IPCC report that said ecosystems including some warm water coral reefs were already reaching or surpassing “hard adaptation limits” at which they had limited capacity to adapt to further heating.
He said the final report, which summarises thousands of published peer-reviewed scientific studies, was essentially saying that coral reefs were “on the edge”. It said there was “very high confidence” that some natural systems in Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef, had already experienced irreversible change.
It found extreme events exacerbated by emissions – heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms and fires – were causing death, injury and financial and emotional stress, and their impacts were “cascading and compounding” across Australia’s nature, society and economy.
“There are so many things in this report that are so bad, and the government just wants to ignore them because the only way to deal with them is to get [greenhouse gas] emissions down,” Hare said. “The report shows it is urgent that we increase our emissions reduction target for 2030 to a cut of more than 50%.”
The Morrison government has resisted international and domestic pressure to increase its six-year-old target of reducing emissions to at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2030. Official projections suggest the country will cut emissions by 30%. Scientists say this is inconsistent with limiting global heating to well below 2C, a key goal the government signed up to at the landmark 2015 Paris climate summit.
A spokesperson for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, confirmed Australia had attempted to change language in the report and said the proposal “was both science-based and accurate, in line with normal practice”.
“We fully accept that global climate change needs to be addressed as the biggest threat to the world’s reefs,” the spokesperson said.
“The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world and our investments in science-based adaptation, regeneration and on-water management show that local science-based strategies are needed to improve resilience as the world reduces emissions, and that they can have a positive impact.”
The government announced in January an additional $1bn funding for Great Barrier Reef conservation projects over the next decade. It said more than half would be spent on improving water quality, including by limiting pollution from agriculture.
The IPCC report published this week is the second part of its sixth major assessment of the climate crisis. It found global warming caused by humans was causing dangerous and widespread disruption, with many effects expected to be more severe than predicted. It said there were options to limit the impacts if there was proper planning, but progress on adaptation was uneven.
A 2018 IPCC report found coral reefs were likely to decline between 70% and 90% if global heating surpassed 1.5C. If the temperature rise reaches 2C, more than 99% of coral reefs were projected to decline. Average global temperatures have already increased about 1.1C.
The Australian government last year successfully lobbied against UN scientific advice that the reef should be placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger. The 21-country world heritage committee is due to consider the reef’s plight again in June.