The Inchicore scientist battling to save the Great Barrier Reef

In Queensland, Prof Terry Hughes works to protect the world’s biggest coral system

FILE PHOTO: A man snorkels in an area called the "Coral Gardens" near Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, northeast of Bundaberg town in Queensland, Australia, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A man snorkels in an area called the "Coral Gardens" near Lady Elliot Island, on the Great Barrier Reef, northeast of Bundaberg town in Queensland, Australia, June 11, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo


The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s biggest coral system, lies off Australia’s Queensland coast. The state’s massive coal reserves and expanding mining sector have made Australia the world’s biggest exporter of the fossil fuel.

This juxtaposition symbolises the environmental tussle convulsing the world. Do we get out of fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions, or persist with their extraction while ignoring the dire consequences of an overheating planet – a planet whose coral reefs are under severe threat?

Operating on the frontline of this depletion of nature is Irish scientist Prof Terry Hughes, who monitors coral decline (or bleaching) and the role of science in identifying and addressing the problem. “His line of action is resolute. He is not afraid of challenging authorities on their ‘scientific illiteracy’ and irresponsible pursuit of economic interests, and he has braved difficulties and hostility,” the citation read when in December Hughes received an honorary degree from his alma matter, Trinity College Dublin.

Terry Hughes won the John Maddox (“standing up for science”) Prize in 2018. It came weeks after his research centre controversially lost government funding. After his win, he tweeted: “Scientists are people too. Watching coral reefs dwindle worldwide is emotionally draining – deep sorrow, frustration at the complacency, lies and inaction . . . and a touch of rage.”

Australia is custodian of some of the world’s most important ecosystems yet its prime minister Scott Morrison persists with climate science denial. His position enraged Australian citizens when bushfires razed vast areas of the country in recent months.

Hughes, originally from Inchicore in Dublin, studied zoology in Trinity. In 2000, he established the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies attached to James Cook University in Queensland. He specialises in global bleaching events caused by climate change.

Prof Terry Hughes: ‘Watching coral reefs dwindle worldwide is emotionally draining – deep sorrow, frustration at the complacency, lies and inaction . . . and a touch of rage.’ Photograph: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
Prof Terry Hughes: ‘Watching coral reefs dwindle worldwide is emotionally draining.’ Photograph: ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

The poster child

When corals are stressed they expel algae living within their tissues – algae are essential if they are to thrive – causing them to turn white.

There has been a disconnect in the minds of many Australians between fossil fuel extraction and its environmental toll, Hughes says. Even before the bushfires, there was growing public anger at the Australian government’s denial of the link between drought and climate change.

Under immense pressure during the fires, Morrison eventually acknowledged summers were “longer, drier and hotter than ever before”, while insisting he was taking action on climate change and promising Australia would beat Paris Agreement targets.

“The problem with the Great Barrier Reef is that not quite enough people care enough about it.” In the country’s last election the Liberal-National Coalition government got re-elected, just scraping home. “They’re pro-coal, pro-natural gas, and they want to continue to grow them,” says Hughes.

He was living in France in 2004 when a heatwave killed many older people. “When people experience climate change personally that’s when they sit up and take notice ... That was the big wake-up call for French people. There’s nothing like your house going on fire to get your attention.”

In Australia and other parts of the world householders are paying more money for insurance against floods and unnatural disasters, he explains. “Where I live the biggest threat is cyclones. Our house insurance has more than doubled in the last two years, but that’s fairly typical.”

Before coming to Dublin in December, Hughes was in Florida, where you can no longer get a mortgage longer than 10 years because of sea-level rise, yet another indication that climate disruption is already taking its toll.

But despite heightened public awareness, climate researchers continue to be subjected to vitriol, particularly on Twitter and especially if they are women. For males such as Hughes the vitriol is less, he says. “If somebody is insulting I block them.”

The person who nominated Terry Hughes for the Maddox prize had to make the case that he was standing up for science in the face of hostility. “It’s hardly a unique position. I think more and more people do see the need for scientists to stand out. It’s not something scientists are expected to do traditionally or that they are trained to do. We have an obligation to communicate what we know, [and] add scientific evidence to the civil discourse.”

Hughes says he is not comfortable in that space, “but I do it anyway”. At the centre he directs, they put resources into media training for early-career scientists and have built up a team they can draw on. “The last thing I want is for it to be perceived as a personal crusade by Terry Hughes.”

A 2015-2016 “bleaching event” affected 70 per cent of the world’s coral reefs. Such mass bleaching events are caused by rises in sea temperatures. Hughes has got past the upset he felt at the time. This was the third global event since 1998 so “in a sense there’s a feeling of déjà vu” with the climate factor increasingly a contributor, he says.

“Reefs are sometimes called ‘the canary in the coalmine’...It’s not a phrase I’ve ever used because I think it’s misleading. [It implies] that coral reefs are delicate, and they’re a harbinger of tougher ecosystems that go the same way in the future.”

It’s more the case that they are “the poster child”, he says: iconic and photogenic, so they get a lot of publicity.

But you don’t hear about other ecosystems like kelp beds around Ireland and New Zealand, “which have been absolutely hammered by climate change” likewise sea grasses and mangroves – arguably as important as the Amazon in sucking up carbon. “They’re all canaries in the coalmine. I don’t think there’s anything especially vulnerable about reefs. Practically every ecosystem in the planet is changing and has been for quite a few decades.”

Shorter recovery time

Bleaching has killed a lot of corals selectively. So the species mix is changing rapidly. Some are more vulnerable than others. Some are bouncing back faster than others. He is not sure what they will recover to between now and the next bleaching event. “It’s certainly not going back to what it was.”

Because of the scale of destruction, recovery will be much different. Typically there was decline after a hurricane, causing 100km of “narrow damage”, while baby corals on either side helping recovery now it’s dealing with 1,500 km of damage following bleaching.

The fifth global bleaching event could come as early as March, when summer temperatures peak. These events were unheard of when Hughes was doing his PhD in the US. Gaps between events give more time for recovery but they are getting shorter and shorter. Climate modellers are predicting that by 2050, “the gap will be nil; there will be routine bleaching every summer. That’s kind of an academic end point because you need a period between them for half-decent recovery”.

The single most effective action against this damage is to stabilise and then reduce emissions, says Hughes. “The Australian government is pouring money into coral restoration, which I believe is a smokescreen. It’s not effective at any sort of meaningful scale. It costs a fortune. It masks the fact that Australia wants to continue to grow the fossil fuel industry.”

He believes it’s a matter of time before sanctions on big fossil fuel emitters kick in: “Australia is one of them.” Ironically, it also has the world’s biggest solar energy resources.

Much of the Australian public is progressive: two million householders have solar panels. Yet he is profoundly uneasy seeing Australia’s government aligning with Trump in fostering fossil fuel development. This is concentrated in Queensland with “traffic jams of [exporting, fully loaded] coal ships across the Barrier Reef world heritage area”. Carmichael mine, owned by Indian company Adani, is set to become one of the largest in the world. When operational, it and adjoining mines will emit 750 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

A Unesco 2019 report shows 29 world heritage coral reef sites are vulnerable due to global warming. Four of them are in Australia. The report expresses concern about universal threats to reefs and glaciers that are “disappearing before our eyes” in Hughes’s words.

Traditionally, global warming was not seen as the responsibility of states, he says. The “multi-tiers” of governance world heritage partners; federal governments and state parliaments complicate matters. The over-riding issue is: Queensland and the Commonwealth government favour development of coal mines and fracking of gas. “If they were honest, they would admit there is a closing window of opportunity to make money from fossil fuel resources before they will have to be left in the ground.”

Consumption has already peaked in Australia, though it continues to export vast amounts not included in its “carbon budget”. Emissions are counted where coal is burned; not the country producing it.

The concept of accusing those who recklessly damage the environment with ecocide, Hughes believes, comes from a western world perspective of “let’s protect the biodiversity, let’s protect the species”.

The 400 million people depending on coral reefs for their livelihoods and food security “also value them but for a broader set of more basic reasons”. They are often in low-lying areas vulnerable to sea-level rise, where reefs are bleaching. Their reef fisheries are often heavily over exploited. “So if someone does not catch a fish, they may well go hungry; whereas in Australia they go to the supermarket and buy a chicken.”

‘A piece of coal’

The Great Barrier Reef supports 65,000 jobs in tourism worth A$6 billion annually to the Queensland economy. “The problem is that’s not quite enough money; coal royalties speak more loudly, as do political donations from fossil fuel companies.”

Adani promises thousands of jobs but modern coal extraction means this is impossible, he contends, as the industry has become “virtually fully automated” including huge driverless trucks and trains.

Hughes notes Ireland’s laggard reputation on climate action but highlights “Australia is still going up”, even more so since the current centre-right government took office and repealed a price on carbon “which was working beautifully” in changing behaviours.

“Our prime minister famously brought a piece of coal into parliament. What a thing to do!”

There was a debate on electric vehicles during the last federal election. “It was a scare campaign run by government.” There are no incentives to make the transition from fossil fuel cars, which inevitably will happen, he believes. But the government is so concerned about losing tax revenues from fossil fuels they are contemplating taxing EVs.

Australia signed up to the Paris pact “but actions speak louder than words”. Individual states are aiming much higher, and the electricity sector is evolving rapidly despite the Commonwealth government dragging its feet.

Australia has one big advantage over Ireland, in having a huge amount of space and capacity for capturing carbon, he believes.

The Queensland catchment draining into the barrier reef is the size of Germany. “It’s currently used for cattle rearing; sugar cane, bananas, mining and gas extraction. There’s not much native vegetation left.”

Reimagining how that area might be used could be of enormous benefit, not only to the Great Barrier Reef but also to ecosystems everywhere – if it were redesigned for carbon capture.

The world probably needs to grow two to three Amazon forests, he says. “It begs the question: where are you going to put them? Australia has a lot of space. With the right incentives it is realisable. All we need is a little bit of imagination and leadership.”

The coral issue is typical of other global crises, he suggests. Ultimately “it’s a crisis of governance”; poor governance of pollution, of fisheries and now of global emissions. There is progress and increased outing of laggards but “it’s all agonisingly slow”.

Greta Thunberg’s rise exemplifies the growing civil movement globally, he adds. Last September, one million people protested in Australia, “the biggest public protest since the Vietnam War”. Smoke in the air across much of southeast Australia since has brought public concern to an all-time high.

On the criticism he gets when he highlights the Great Barrier Reef’s vulnerability, Hughes stresses: “It hasn’t shut me up ... it’s tougher for younger, early-career researchers to be as vocal. And it’s no accident that in countries like the US scientists who are speaking out don’t work for the government. You don’t have to be evangelical about it, just present the facts. I try and let the data speak for itself.”

The evidence could not be clearer.

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