At the centre stage of the last two weeks of world news has been the US presidential election. It appears now that the election, as has been the case for many decades, will be a contest between the Democratic and Republican parties and that the Democrats will be led by Hillary Clinton and Republicans by Donald Trump. I’ve noticed that the rise of the latter has brought enough concern that Terence Tao, one of the greatest living mathematicians, has devoted a blog post solely to make the point that it is about time that people publicly stand up against Trump. Similarly, computer scientist Scott Aaronson and John Baez have written posts on the serious dilemma humanity faces with Trump’s rise.
I agree with all of this, Trump’s rise needs a serious response. We have seen his rise specifically within the Republican party, which has traditionally attracted individuals who believe success is embodied in the sorts of materialistic exploits at which Trump excels. Yet the duopoly that is the market we call the US election can easily tilt things to his favour. Back when Trump was obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate he was taken as a joke by much of the media, but now he is no longer taken as a joke, albeit that his baseless antics continue.
This news aside, I want to focus on some serious news local to Australia, where I live. On the 26th of May 2016 the report “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” was released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). From the report webpage: “The new report lists 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are vulnerable to increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, intensifying weather events, worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons.” It is clearly a subject that the whole world should be concerned about, the report’s basic conclusions would be in the common interest. But at the bottom of the page in italics this is written: At the request of the Government of Australia, references to Australian sites were removed from the Report (recent information about the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef is available on UNESCO’s website here:http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/3234).
This is blatant state censorship. No other nation has made the UN omit information in the report. Major news outlets like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and the national broadcasters ABC and SBS have reported the official government statement “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”
Let me say it clearly, this is a suppression of science, of academic freedom that I’ve never seen before in this country. The conclusions made by UNESCO are not opinions from controversial attention-mongering individuals. Suppressing freedom of speech from individuals or organisations within the country is in itself illegal and against democratic principles. This action is the blocking of information derived from many peer-reviewed scientific studies, not centralised to any specific institute, and going on over a lengthy period of time. The conclusions are relevant for the whole of humanity, the Great Barrier Reef has cultural and social importance for local communities as well as those communities that live on the other side of the planet. Only 7% of the Great Barrier Reef has avoided coral bleaching. It’s not just a matter about the present, it’s a matter to give the best environment for future generations.
The government’s argument is that the tourism industry will be affected negatively. Would it not increase tourism because people want to see the reef before it expires? Wouldn’t it bring the whole world together to mitigate the factors that are destroying such natural icons? I think the real reason for censorship is that the Australian federal election is within a month (2nd of July) and the government is aware that this report may be negative for their party’s performance. They’re aware that such reports will illuminate the government’s neglect of the reef, its support for fossil fuel, mining and livestock industries that are damaging the environment, and its suppression of peaceful environmental movements that are challenging the status quo.
By openly defending its censorship of scientific information the Australian government now represents the censorship of all sciences. Any scientific information is in danger of being suppressed if it “harms the nation’s interest”, whether it be on physics, biology, chemistry, medicine or even social sciences, and regardless of the reputability and neutrality of the organisation that has produced it . Who knows how many reports have already been suppressed from smaller organisations on all sorts of scientific issues?
Over the last few years government policies have been to censor details about the treatment of refugees on offshore detention centres and the nature of asylum seeker boat arrivals. I’m absolutely opposed to these policies on humanitarian grounds. The censorship of UNESCO’s report goes further as a dictatorial intervention on international scales on an organisation that should be independent from any pressure whatsoever. If independent scientific organisations cave in then where does the public look for unbiased information?
If you too feel it your responsibility to question state censorship, just like you may consider it your responsibility to do your bit to stop Donald Trump, please spread the word on this news so it won’t happen again.
Note: The Union of Concerned Scientists put up a draft of what should have appeared in the UNESCO report.