Australia's Removal From UN Climate Change Report Labelled 'Scientific Censorship'

'I was puzzled, then shocked, then disgusted.'

27/05/2016 3:25 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
The chapter on The Great Barrier Reef was removed from the UN report.

It was the report the Turnbull government did not want you to see.

An Australian researcher who reviewed part of a UNESCO report on climate change threats to world heritage sites says he was "pretty disgusted" that all mentions of Australia were removed due to pressure from the government.

The report, jointly published by UNESCO, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the United Nations Environmental Program, examined the impacts of global warming on 31 natural and man-made sites in 29 countries. It initially contained a chapter on the Great Barrier Reef as well as sections on Kakadu and Tasmanian forests.

The Guardian Australia revealed on Friday that the sections were removed following the Australian Department of Environment's objection that the information could harm tourism.

"We can all accept when things aren't accepted for scientific reasons. But that wasn't part of the process."

Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and head of the Climate Council, was approached in January to review the Great Barrier Reef case study.

"All I saw was one page and a half of text. I reviewed it, sent my comments back, and didn't hear anything else," Steffen told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Earlier this week, a draft of the report came out and I was given a copy. I looked through, saw my name but couldn't find the section I reviewed. There was nothing from Australia in there."

After hearing that the material had been removed from the report, the penny dropped.

"When you are part of a process like this, you like to see your work in there. You become very concerned when it gets removed for what appears to be political reasons.

"I was puzzled, then I was shocked, then disgusted."

According to a Fairfax report, the Environment Department intervened via Australia's ambassador to UNESCO, to avoid unwanted publicity that would negatively impact the reef.

"The department expressed concern that giving the report the title 'Destinations at risk' had the potential to cause considerable confusion," the department said in a statement.

"Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism... The department indicated that it did not support any of Australia's world heritage properties being included in such a publication for the reasons outlined above."

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was reportedly not involved in the intervention, a spokesperson told Fairfax Media.

Professor Steffen labelled the move "scientific censorship".

"We can all accept when things aren't accepted for scientific reasons. But that wasn't part of the process," he said.

In the excised section, the scientists commented on the risk of global warming to the Great Barrier Reef, that has been severely hit by its worst ever coral bleaching in recent months:

"The biggest long-term threat to the GBR today, and to its ecosystems services, biodiversity, heritage values and tourism economy is climate change, including rising sea temperatures, accelerating rates of sea level rise, changing weather patterns and ocean acidification."

According to Steffen, the report was a comprehensive compilation and not new research.

"There was nothing controversial nor inflammatory in there in any way.

"On important and fairly contentious issues like climate science -- particularly in democratic societies -- we need well-informed populations to discharge their rights as citizens. When that gets pulled, it certainly appears as some form of scientific censorship."

The government's intervention has been condemned and criticised.

Shadow Environment Minister Mark Butler said Malcolm Turnbull is "trying to bury the existence of climate change".

Senator Larissa Waters, Australian Greens deputy leader, agreed the Turnbull government "will stop at nothing to cover up the devastating impact its inaction on global warming is having on our World Heritage Areas and our magnificent Tassie wilderness".

"I am calling on Minister Hunt to publicly explain his role in this sorry affair including whether he was aware of the censorship before the report was published regardless of whether he was formally briefed by the Department," she said.

For Professor Steffen, it is "simply enough" knowing that the Australian government was responsible.

With a looming election, he hopes the 'cover up' raises the issue of climate change.

"We've had massive cuts to the CSIRO, and now we have the Department of Environment pulling out key information from a fairly innocuous report," he said.

"There is somewhat a vendetta against climate science at the moment, and I hope this leads to a deeper and calmer discussion about its role in our society."

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