SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Department of the Environment said on Friday it had omitted its contribution to a U.N. report examining the impact of climate change on world heritage sites over concern it could create "confusion" and have a negative impact on tourism.
The World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate report, which was released on Friday with no references to Australia, has sparked outrage from climate scientists, who were not informed that their contributions had been removed.
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee last May stopped short of placing the Great Barrier Reef on an "in danger" list, but the ruling raised concern about its future.
The Department of the Environment said it was concerned that the "framing" of the report could have created confusion between the issues of the status of world heritage sites, and the risks arising from climate change.
"The department expressed concern that giving the report the title 'Destinations at risk' had the potential to cause considerable confusion," a department spokeswoman said.
"Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of World Heritage properties impacted on tourism."
Australian scientists said last month just 7 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, which attracts about A$5 billion ($3.61 billion) in tourism every year, has been untouched by mass bleaching and much of it was at risk of being destroyed.
Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, forcing coral to expel living algae and causing it to calcify and turn white. Mildly bleached coral can recover if the temperature drops.
Although the impact has been exacerbated by one of the strongest El Nino weather systems in nearly 20 years, scientists believe climate change is the underlying cause.
Will Steffen, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, who had been asked to contribute to the report, was dismayed to discover on Friday that all references to Australian heritage sites were missing.
"The science is really well known, that's not a problem at all so it's nothing new to the tourism industry. It's nothing new to the scientific community at all. So it's really hard to see what's so provocative in that report," Steffen told Reuters.
UNESCO had asked Steffen to review a case study on the reef, focusing on the increasing risks to tourism from climate change.
U.S. President Barack Obama embarrassed Australia by warning of the risk of climate change to the reef during a 2014 G20 meeting.
Australia is one of the largest carbon emitters per capita because of its coal-fired power plants.
Greenpeace Australia said the government could not hide the truth: "Our reef is suffering because of climate change."
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Robert Birsel)