In a new UNESCO report on climate change, mention of the Great Barrier Reef is strangely absent, despite its being a poster child for a rapidly warming planet. ©Kyle Taylor, flickr

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report on climate change titled World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate.

Normally, such a report would be of interest only to those who closely follow climate change news or who are involved in the tourism industry. But this publication is getting attention for two additional reasons: 1) Australia is the only inhabited continent on the planet that has no mention in the report, and 2) the report’s title was changed from its original, Destinations at Risk: World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate.

For me, the report also represents something that may be just as alarming as recent climate change news itself: censorship of science from a trusted, planetary-level organization.

The Great Barrier Reef comprises more than 3,000 individual reef systems and coral cays, hundreds of tropical islands and an abundance of marine life. ©Kyle Taylor, flickr

Australia holds sway

The draft of the UNESCO report initially included a key chapter on the Great Barrier Reef. But when the Australian Department of the Environment (now the Department of the Environment and Energy) previewed that version, it objected on two grounds:

1) The Australian government argued that the title of the report “had the potential to cause considerable confusion,” citing the fact that in 2015 the UN World Heritage committee had agreed not to place the reef on its List of World Heritage in Danger (which was at the insistence, again, of Australia.) If the reef then appeared as a case study in a UN report about World Heritage sites “at risk,” reasoned the government, it might bewilder people.

2) Australia contended that having the reef featured in the UNESCO report was “negative commentary” that would have impacts on its tourism industry.

Two million visitors per year are drawn to the Great Barrier Reef. ©dsopfe, flickr

The UN capitulated. Any mention of Australia disappeared from the report’s 108 pages, and the title was changed. Interestingly, no sections about any other country were removed.

According to scientists, as a result of climate change combined with weather phenomena, the Great Barrier Reef—which attracts about $6 billion in tourism revenue annually—is in the midst of the worst crisis in its recorded history. Unusually warm water has caused 93 percent of the reef’s 1,600 miles to bleach, forcing the coral to expel living algae. In the northern, most pristine part, researchers believe half of the coral may have died.

While coral bleaching is still discussed in the UNESCO report, the only specific reef ecosystems mentioned are of the French islands of New Caledonia in the Western Pacific. The report states: “Research suggests that preserving more than 10 percent of the world’s corals would require limiting warming to 1.5 C or less, and protecting 50 percent would mean halting warming at 1.2 C (Frieler et al. 2012).”

Neonicotinoids, which are ubiquitous in American agriculture, have been linked to widespread declines in pollinators. ©Liz West, flickr

Corralling and controlling the circulation of climate change science

It’s certainly not the first time scientists have been silenced when their work relates to climate change or nature. Late last year, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Jonathan Lundgren, submitted an article to the scientific journal Naturwissenschaften. It described how clothianidin—one of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids—harmed monarch butterflies. The paper was accepted for publication.

In February, Lundgren was suspended from his job at the USDA. He filed a federal whistle-blower complaint alleging his suspension was part of a harassment campaign after he had talked to a journalist about the risks of a new genetic-engineering technique pioneered by Monsanto, an agribusiness company. He had also peer-reviewed a Center for Food Safety report that criticized the overuse of neonicotinoids, which are ubiquitous in American agriculture and linked to widespread declines in pollinators.

Over the last few years, the government of Canada, too, has made it harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public. In 2008, scientists working for Environment Canada, a federal agency, were newly required to refer all queries to departmental communications officers. Now, according to CBC News, the government is restricting the flow of scientific information, especially when it concerns climate change, fisheries and Alberta tar sands—the source of the diluted bitumen that would have flowed through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Another place that climate change—with its hotter temperatures and drought—threatens is the World Heritage site of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. ©Rod Waddington, flickr

The parts-per-million problem

In truth, mention of the Great Barrier Reef in the UNESCO report probably would have had very little impact on tourism. Those deciding where to go on vacation rarely peruse United Nations reports on climate change. And that’s the irony: now that scrubbing the Great Barrier Reef from the publication has made headlines, you can find 126,000 results in less than a second when you search the topic on Google.

How we’ve gotten to the point where a trusted, worldwide organization such as UNESCO can omit one of the planet’s most iconic natural wonders in a report about World Heritage sites and climate change goes beyond comprehension. It’s hard to believe that this has happened in 2016, the year that atmospheric carbon dioxide measured in Antarctica topped 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest concentration there in four million years.

Two years ago, I wrote to you about the dangers of reaching 350 ppm. Scientists are saying—when they’re allowed to—that the whole Earth has now crossed the threshold to a 400 ppm future.

Even the Canadian government is restricting the release of scientific information, such as that on Alberta tar sands, the source of the diluted bitumen that would have been transported through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. ©Elvert Barnes, flickr

I don’t think that silencing scientists will somehow make the climate change crisis go away. Do you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,