Sometimes, too often in fact, it’s not what’s included in the text of a report that captures the attention. It’s what’s omitted from that report, often not mistakenly.

That’s a lesson learned and re-learned in the public policy field, but apparently not really absorbed in many cases.

Those who internalized the lessons from the early-70s Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation know well that it’s the cover-up, more so than the initial offense, that is the real crime. Only slightly more recently, the original “Jaws” in 1975 taught a similar lesson, as the fictional Amity Island town council sought to silence the truth in an effort to protect its tourism financial interests.

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News Analysis and Commentary

Advance now to a new report, “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate,” released May 26 by two United Nations agencies and the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS. In a somewhat dual-personality report that at times seems as concerned tourism as with impacts of climate change, the report paints a dire image of 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries around the world.

Around the world, that is, save for Australia and its, ahem, rather important Great Barrier Reef (GBR), by any practical measure a worthy entry among top-ranking heritage and tourism sites. And clearly one with observed and serious impacts from rising ocean temperatures, increased acidification, and continuing carbon dioxide emissions.

It ends up that the Australian government prevailed on the U.N. and its United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and United Nations Environment Program to omit any reference to GBR. Those Sydney folks must never have seen “Jaws.”

The third leg of this three-legged co-authorship stool, UCS, seemingly didn’t get the memo.

UCS posted the would-be Great Barrier Reef chapter on its website, thereby establishing itself as the adult in the room. The whole tawdry affair resulted, of course, in giving the GBR case study even more worldwide visibility than it otherwise would have had as one of a series of case studies.

First reports of that mischievous omission broke May 26 in the Guardian. Australian tourism and development lecturer Allison Anderson of Central Queensland University quickly followed up at The Conversation.

The New York Times on Saturday, May 28, added fuel to the missing case study saga with a page three piece bylined from Sydney and headlined “Australia Gets Some Bad News Cut From U.N. Study.”

North American sites listed as facing risks

So much for stifling news much of the literate world is already painfully aware of concerning the health of the Great Barrier Reef. (The New York Times on May 30 reported on a new study concluding that “mass bleaching” of the north part of GBR in recent months had killed “as much as half of the coral” while southern reaches show only “minor damage.” And the Australian government came out defending its management of GBR despite data indicating all is not well.)

So there’s the substantive report itself – the actual climate change impacts and risks. Those are reported in a series of case studies of 31 different sites, four of them in North America (Mesa Verde, Co., the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone in the U.S., and Old Town, Lunenberg, in Canada.)

The U.N./UCS report points to “unequivocal scientific evidence” that the changing climate “is fast becoming one of the most significant risks for World Heritage sites worldwide” (including in Australia).

“Among the most iconic places on the planet,” the report says, “most World Heritage sites are tourist attractions.” It points to tourism as “one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economic sectors,” accounting for about 9 percent of gross domestic product globally and 1 in 11 jobs. The report notes that tourism “itself is vulnerable to climate change . . . more extensive weather events, increasing insurance costs and safety concerns, water shortages, and loss and damage to assets and attractions at destinations.”

In Yellowstone National Park, for instance, the report points to a 1.17 degree C increase (just over 1.8 degrees F) in temperature in the Rocky Mountain states since 1985, most of it coming in the last few decades. Springs and summers are expected to grow warmer still in coming decades, with average temperatures warming by 4 to 5.6 degrees F by 2100.

The outlook for Yellowstone calls for shorter winter seasons and less snowfall and snow, and more days with above-freezing temperatures. The report cites “a steep decline” in snow from 1961 to 2012.

The earlier snowmelts are altering timing of peak stream flows which, combined with higher temperatures, lead to less and warmer water for rivers, resulting in a 26 percent decrease in native cutthroat trout.

With prospects for continued lengthening of the region’s fire season – already lengthened from five to seven months since the 70s – the report cautions of a possible loss of some of Yellowstone’s “iconic species and landscape characteristics.” It says that more frequent fires over time “are likely to lead to a transition from dense forest to a more open type of woodland, and a different, less intensive fire regime. . . . Fire may become limited not so much by temperature and dryness, but by the availability of fuel.”

Briefly addressing Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the report says its roughly 4,500 archaeological sites “are under severe threat of irreversible damage both from the increasing wildfires and from the flash floods and erosion that often follow.” It points to risks of more park closures and to tourism by the half-million annual visitors who contribute about $47 million to the local economy.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations to policy makers and site management authorities. It suggests, among other things, that sites be identified based in part on their vulnerability to climate change and regularly monitored; that “inadequate resourcing” of sites for climate adaptation be a focus of attention; that “detailed” climate adaptation and tourism management strategies be developed; and that risk-reduction and disaster response and preparedness strategies be put in place.

The full “World Heritage” report is online here. The would-be Great Barrier Reef case study is online here.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...