Global Warming Destroying World Coral Reefs, Costing Economy Billions

EDITOR’S NOTE:  With this post we welcome Jennifer Mueller, distinguished environmental author and activist, to our community of regular Causes bloggers.  We are delighted to have her with us.

The world’s coral reefs could be the first major ecosystem to face extinction due to global warming, according to a major report released this week by the UN Environment Programme. Coral reefs are critical to nearly a quarter of the world’s marine fish species, support the livelihoods of half a million people, and contribute more than $170 billion each year to world economies. The report concludes that the only hope for the Florida Keys, the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and other world oceanic treasures is to rapidly and dramatically reduce the amount of industrial carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Global Warming the Biggest of Multiple Threats to Coral Reefs

Toxic chemicals in polluted rainwater poisons the reef fish and coral. The worlds appetite for seafood leads to rampant overfishing of reefs. Divers damage reefs to harvest coral for jewelry and charismatic fishes for the world’s aquarium hobbyists. Even our enthusiasm for the beauty and wonder of coral reefs can be a threat as millions of visitors disturb habitat and shed sunscreen into the water. But, the biggest threat to coral reefs may be the world’s addiction to energy from fossil fuels.

Carbon intensive energy sources – oil, coal, and natural gas – are a major contributor to the 387 parts per billion (ppb) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that’s driving global warming. That concentration would be even higher if the oceans were not absorbing as much carbon dioxide as they are. Unfortunately, dissolved carbon dioxide alters the pH of the ocean, making the water more acidic and killing off normally long-lived, slow-growing corals that make up the backbone of the reefs. Warmer waters from global warming will also disrupt the ecological balance of the reefs. UN Scientists conclude that we need to bring global concentrations of carbon dioxide below 350 ppb to give the reefs even a chance at survival.

Loss of Coral Reefs Costs More than Environment

One of the many benefits coral reefs provide to the planet is to protect the coasts they surround from the impact of storms, something likely to worsen with climate change. Without the reefs, storms will do more damage to homes and businesses on land. For example, the World Resources Institute estimates that coral reefs provide between $28 and $50 million in shoreline protection services every year for St. Lucia, a popular vacation destination in the Caribbean. Neighboring Tobago benefits from $18 to $33 million in protection services. Coral reefs surround 44 percent of St. Lucia and 50 percent of Tobago. If either reefs collapse, tourism could drop off dramatically and storms could batter the resort facilities terribly.

Saving the World’s Coral Reefs

Efforts like that of Australia to protect the Great Barrier reef by cutting polluted runoff in half by by 2013 and nations designating more marine reserves off-limits to fishing and other commercial activity can give the reefs a little breathing space. But even massive conservation and pollution prevention efforts will not be enough without addressing climate change.

To bring down concentrations of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollution in the atmosphere, the world will have to quickly shift away from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy and enact binding limits on climate pollution. This December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to hammer out a world climate treaty. U.S. support for the treaty and strong action on global warming will be pivotal.

What Can You Do? Urge President Obama to support and sign a robust climate treaty.


Picasa user Yuriy / CC 3.0.
by Jennifer Mueller


Charles T.
Charles T.3 years ago

The damage to the Great Barrier Reef is from agriculture and that huge star fish.

Charles T.
Charles T.3 years ago

Can anyone answer me this question. How did coral live 1100 years ago it was warmer then today, 8000 years ago the Earth was even warmer. Coral reefs where thriving then so why the panic. To date there has been no explanation on how so little CO2 (380 ppm) can do anything to the temp. The CO2 level has been the same for the past 2 million years but the Earth's temperature has had some huge swings.

Connie T.
Past Member 3 years ago

It's interesting that the deterioration of the Great Barrier Reef coincides with doubly destructive cyclones on Australia's east coast.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

It will take spending twice as much money on energy now--once to buy the clean energy we need to use--and a second time to BUY as reserves to be kept unburned all the fossil fuel displaced by any change in public policy so we continue to buy at least as much fossil fuel each year (we don't have to burn it just because we buy it) as the fossil fuel firms could hope to sell with business as usual.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

All the powers that be care about is money. Thus arguments to persuade the powers that be that some proposal is in their enlightened self-interest have to be expressed in terms of money--preferably money that can end up on the bottom line of the firms of which those powers that be are the CEOs. So yes, it is the economy, stupid.

Rachel W.
Rachel W7 years ago

Mr Valentine,

in the past tens of thousands of years, the corals before are not what they now. The current coral reefs that we have now come from these ancestors, which are now extinct. Our corals may also follow suit if we do not do something and choose to be nonchalant about it.

Indeed, the damage of oil spills will eventually recover naturally, but in many years. The time taken for the coral reefs (if they are the same) to recover would be so long, that even your future generations would not be able to enjoy them before they are restored to their initial splendor.

Kei Lin C.
Kei Lin C7 years ago

i forgot where i read it from but it makes perfect sense: before you go into the ocean, apply sunscreen 15 min. early because if it doesn't get time to soak into your skin, then it'll just come off. Consequently, the sunscreen will just float on top of the water and bolck the sun from going to the coral reefs.

Lisa Koehl
Lisa Koehl7 years ago

Brian Valentine: I think you must be lost, this is Care 2. You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem; obviously you are the latter. Please take your uneducated self and go away.

Lyn C.
Lyn C7 years ago

Mr. Valentine, your simplistic comments don't bear witness to what we humans are doing to the planet! There are some things on this planet that just will never be able to to be replaced, and your inane comments do nothing to help.


Ronald N.
Ronald N7 years ago

The sadness of the situation in our world is based upon all the growing problems that seem to override each other. The environment is much more fragile than we have ever imagined . I have to say, the welfare of the environment is a major key to the betterment of all humans as well as all creatures and plant life that reside on this Earth.

The coral reefs have to be protected. That means the lowering of the carbon emissions is a absolute necessity. How does anyone fight a system so powerful and the ranks of the disbelievers of global warming grow. The oil and coal industry seem to continue their pace for more carbon based energy. Mountaintop removal for coal in the Appalachia's seem to go on without end and proposals continue the construction nuclear plants. Fertilizers, plastics and all sorts of chemicals are dischaged into the oceans of the world, with the United States the biggest culprit and the largest carbon footprint. I am ashamed and saddened by the attitude of mainly Americans corporations. These people have the resources and the wealth to change the problems. They may run PR adds on how friendly they are trying to become towards the environment, but the case remains bad things are still happening.