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Shifts in tourists’ sentiments and climate risk perceptions following mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef


Iconic places, including World Heritage areas, are symbolic and synonymous with national and cultural identities. Recognition of an existential threat to an icon may therefore arouse public concern and protective sentiment. Here we test this assumption by comparing sentiments, threat perceptions and values associated with the Great Barrier Reef and climate change attitudes among 4,681 Australian and international tourists visiting the Great Barrier Reef region before and after mass coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017. There was an increase in grief-related responses and decline in self-efficacy, which could inhibit individual action. However, there was also an increase in protective sentiments, ratings of place values and the proportion of respondents who viewed climate change as an immediate threat. These results suggest that imperilled icons have potential to mobilize public support around addressing the wider threat of climate change but that achieving and sustaining engagement will require a strategic approach to overcome self-efficacy barriers.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study (SELTMP 2013; 2017)69 are publicly available from the CSIRO online data access portal at The R code used in this study is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Karen McNamara, Nick Pidgeon and other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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This study was conducted using data from the Social and Economic Long-Term Monitoring Program for the Great Barrier Reef (SELTMP: with funding provided by the Australian and Queensland Governments as part of the Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program (2017–2019) and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program, Tropical Ecosystems Hub (2011–2015). S.F.H. was supported by National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) grant (no. NA14NES4320003) (Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites) at the University of Maryland/ESSIC. The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government, the Minister for the Environment, the Queensland Government, NOAA or the US Department of Commerce.

Author information

N.A.M., M.I.C., P.L.P., J.G. and others designed the research and collected data. M.I.C., L.T., G.W. and N.A.M. analysed the data. M.I.C., N.A.M., L.T., S.F.H., J.H., B.T., P.L.P. and J.G. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Matthew I. Curnock.

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Fig. 1: Emotional words associated with the GBR.
Fig. 2: Changes in perceived threats to the GBR and in climate change attitudes.