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 â€“ oil, coal, and natural gas â€“ 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.