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Coral Reef Futures Forum

October 20th, 2007

I spent the last couple of days in Canberra at the Coral Reef Futures Forum, as part of my new Federation Fellowship is to look at economic approaches to management of the Great Barrier Reef. As one of the speakers said, a lot of the talks had people staring at their shoes in gloom, though the tone got a little more positive towards the end. I’m an optimist on ecological issues which is fortunate, because when you look at the threats facing coral reefs, you need a lot of optimism. Looking at historical data, even the GBR, which is much better managed than most reef systems is significantly degraded relative to 100 years ago, and a large proportion of reefs are at or near the point of no return, thanks to overfishing, destructive fishing methods and marine pollution. When you add regular bleaching due to climate change, and also acidification due to higher CO2 levels, the chances of saving much of the world’s coral reef systems do not look too good.

The most hopeful view is that, if we can fix the local threats like overfishing and poor water quality, the resulting increase in resilience (part of my project is to develop a more rigorous understanding of this popular buzzword) will offset moderate global warming, so that if we can stabilise the climate (an increase of no more than 2 degrees) we might save at least some reef systems.

A few observations:

First, it’s noteworthy how opinion has solidified on the point that bleaching (corals expelling their associated symbiotic zooxanthellae ) is a response to higher temperature driven by general warming of the seas, rather than being due to locally specific causes. Al Gore’s claim to this effect, listed as an error in the recent court case that has been exciting the delusionists, has the full support of everyone I talked to there. Given the regular claim that any scientist who accepts the evidence on global warming must have been bought off by the prospect of grant money, let me observe that the problems we already had with coral reefs are enough to keep every marine biologist on the planet gainfully employed for life without inventing new ones.

Sticking with the delusionists, it’s striking that the McIntyre fan club has been digging up the sorriest dead horse in the annals of delusionism, the urban heat island effect, and has more generally been getting excited about land surface records. Of course, no one at this meeting paid any attention to land surface measurements. The sea temperature records are not influenced at all by UHI and they tell the same story. And of course the satellite data that used to get such a big run is ignored by delusionists now that it confirms the surface records. Unless (as I have while editing Wikipedia for the last few years) you’d seen exactly the same kind of thing play out over the health risks of smoking, evolution, AIDS reappraisal and so on, you would find it hard to believe that anyone could push this nonsense.

While delusionists were thin on the ground, the skepticism that is associated with good science was not. The idea that intact mangrove forests and coral reef systems might provide protection against the destructive effects of tsunamis is appealing, and has been widely promoted, but, it seems, doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, and the evidence supporting it is an example of spurious correlation. At least that’s what Andrew Baird argued, and he seemed pretty convincing to me. Of course, this will be fought out in the peer-reviewed literature as it should be.

Another rather depressing point to come out was that acidification driven by higher atmospheric CO2 is worse in cold climates, which means that the prospect of reef systems migrating away from the equator in response to climate change is not promising. And of course this is a reminder that radically changing the composition of the atmosphere is going to have a whole lot of effects, which may interact in nasty and unexpected ways.

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  1. melanie
    October 20th, 2007 at 18:41 | #1

    Also alarming news on the BBC this morning that the north Atlantic has halved its rate of carbon absorbtion since 2000. They don’t know whether this is an oscillation or part of the climate change picture.

  2. October 20th, 2007 at 19:58 | #2

    “…the prospect of reef systems migrating away from the equator in response to climate change is not promising.”

    I’ve often wondered if there were any observation histories of Bermuda and Lord Howe Island, the northernmost and southernmost coral reefs in the world respectively, precisely in order to monitor any such spreading. Of course, they only exist at all because of favourable currents, so what happens there cannot be generalised readily, but they should be of some use as reverse canary-in-coal-mine tests to see if they start thriving more.

  3. melanie
    October 20th, 2007 at 21:34 | #3

    I was on Lord Howe a couple of years ago and there had been a bleaching event quite recently.

  4. October 20th, 2007 at 23:03 | #4

    Reading a fair bit of this literature I was struck by how little we know about the effects of climate change on biodiversity because we have no experimental data. Apart from uncertainty about the extent of climate change I think very little is known about biological resiliance even for particular clearly-defined species. The paleoclimatic studies of rapid climate change effects in the past were pretty useless in my view.

    People draw inferences – for example that Eucalytus species only survive in a certain temperature zone – and make judgements on this basis. But simple observation tells you that many Mallee eucalytus survive well in damp and cold Melbourne! The logic isn’t right.

    The most constructive results are that species will gravitate toward the poles and to higher altitudes. That is not very helpful.

    The issue with coral I think is complicated by the fact of sea level changes with climate change as well as the current problems of usage.

    My guess is that the practical policy guidelines are to do what you can to reduce all pressures on coals and possible try some human-based relocations further south – I assume that natural migrations over the space of 50-100 years are not on but maybe, for once, the paleoclimatic studies can help you on this.

    The difficulty is of course the complex synergies between corals and other forms of marine life. Translocating whole ecosystems is never going to be easy.

  5. October 21st, 2007 at 00:54 | #5

    Dear John

    I note that you describe yourself as “an optimist on ecological issuesâ€?. I would say don’t get too relaxed about this as there is a lot we don’t know. I spent the best part of seven weeks looking at several spots on the Great Barrier Reef in August – September this year.

    Each place we looked at had some evidence of deterioration. Some had predominance of soft corals, some had almost no fish, and others had evidence of bleaching, some of which was caused by cold snaps in the weather pattern. Run off from cane farming was also a big problem and so were the increased number of large ships or the small craft used by visiting tourists.

    We snorkelled in one bay on Magnetic Island where there were some corals eight hundred and one thousand years old. I think it is a bit glib to assume that ecosystems will just migrate somehow as the climate changes.

    I am sending the link to this article to someone who has expertise on global warming and coral reefs. Setting a target of 2 degrees leaves absolutely no room for error. That 2 degrees is enough to cause irreversible damage to the reef with runaway side effects and ecological collapse.

    As other comments have indicated, there is too much we don’t know and an increasing risk that the modelling will turn out to have been too lenient on the side of the develop-at-all-costs lobby. A more conservative model needs to be developed that is able to look at each element in the ecosphere and see how their interdependence works in the web of life.

    If tree species A flowers early and bird species B has not adjusted their migratory arrival at a food source in time for chicks to hatch when insect species C is not kept in check and kills off tree species A. Tell me this is going to be amenable to a technical fix? I think we should employ the precautionary principle and absolutely not rely on technology.

    If you are putting a monetary value on the reef, including its role in protecting the coast from storm surges and cyclones, the environmental services, the fishing industry (where this is still viable) and tourism, you have to agree that its value today may exceed the coal industry and certainly the heavily subsidised cane industry.

    If you could factor in the uniqueness of the Great Barrier Reef you may find that its monetary value could dramatically increase in the next twenty years. No one quite knows what it will be worth if we have the vision to protect it for the next hundred years.

    I can just imagine the next generation calling us idiots if we let the reef die. No environment means no economy. Just ask the nomadic herdsmen of the Horn of Africa, the Pokot of Northern Kenya, the Karamojong of North East Uganda, the Dinka of Southern Sudan.

    Of course, we could go on as we are – you know, how we have squandered the past twelve years with old-style trickster politicians pretending they care and refusing to do anything and refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol and sabotaging other nations’ efforts to cut emissions.

    If the Liberals get back in at this election, or if Labor gets in with a wapping majority and there are not enough Greens and Democrats in the Senate the Great Barrier Reef will be trashed in twenty years. Just think 2030 – and my granddaughter will have reached adulthood – and it will be all over. John, I know you are up against the legion of neo liberal economists who are some of the world’s most dangerously ignorant people. Please help to save the reef.

    Willy Bach
    Greens candidate for Griffith

  6. October 21st, 2007 at 08:18 | #6

    “we’ll all be rooned!”, and “those damned pollies!”, ahh, it must be spring in oz.

    guys and girls, you’ve had ample time to see that parliamentary oligarchy isn’t going to save us, it is the handmaiden of the capitalism that is killing us.

    if you confine your activity to complaints about the proclivity of pollies to do the wrong thing, you’re part of the problem. do inform yourselves about what democracy is, what can be accomplished with citizen initiative and direct elections. or admit that you are ‘delusionists’ too-

    imagining that ‘somebody’ will save you, as you’re too busy with your career to do it yourself, is the worst possible delusion.

    you think you’re depressed about the gbr? i’m depressed about the intellectual sheep that give rise to the need for ‘chatterati’ in oz english. there’s real cause for pessimism about the future.

  7. conrad
    October 21st, 2007 at 08:34 | #7

    If it turns out the Earth is really going to heat up more than 2 degrees (which seems like a lower bound scenarios these days) and the reef is going to get destroyed anyway, then I presume it doesn’t make too much sense to bother protecting it once that is confirmed (including that the reef won’t be resilient). We may as well get cheap fish for the next few years and assume what we have spent on it previously is a sunk-cost effect.

  8. mugwump
    October 21st, 2007 at 09:10 | #8

    I wouldn’t worry about the reefs too much. Think of all the biodiversity we’ll be able to create in 50 to 100 years when the great age of genetic engineering arrives.

    We’ll make today’s ecosystems look like the amateurish efforts of a blind watchmaker.

  9. Jill Rush
    October 21st, 2007 at 10:32 | #9

    al loomis,

    I am not sure what your post is about. It is a big assumption that people posting here aren’t doing a great deal more than posting here. Some such as Prof Q and Willy Bach are putting themselves out there to try and make changes or to educate the wider community about the issues- no doubt at a personal cost in terms of dollars and time and putting up with a great deal of negative feedback about motives, effectiveness etc.

    However unless mechanisms are developed at the political level then significant change is unlikely. We have seen a small move in our government’s position this year with an election looming. However unless it is an election issue which makes a difference in the kinds of people elected it won’t make a lot of difference.

    The dumbing down of the population through the failure to invest in education for education’s sake, where science is not encouraged except for its commercial value, has been a mistake which makes it more difficult to turn the boat around. It needs a cooperative federal approach where those involved understand the issues, the consequences and agree on the solutions.

  10. melanie
    October 21st, 2007 at 11:29 | #10

    Jill, Rather a lot of what passes for commentary here is really a version of schoolboy ‘who can piss further’.

    Politicians are very focused on a particular sector of the electorate who live in marginal seats because it is well known that the median voter wins. These marginal electorates are full of mortgagees with gardens that they can no longer water.

    A lot of those people are scared of climate change and therefore the efforts of scientists and even economists does influence their thinking. It’s important, though, to offer something positive, so any demonstration of economic benefits from mitigating policies is more likely to influence people than doom and gloom pronouncements that just make people throw up their hands in despair. Maybe JQ is wrong to declare himself an optimist, but at least his positive approach is in the right direction.

  11. October 21st, 2007 at 15:58 | #11

    I just want to say to the commentators who want to let the Great Barrier Reef die. I feel very sad that you are cynical about this.

    To Melanie I would say that I try every day to stay positive and believe that a. we can save the reef and b. that we have the political will.

    This link takes you to a link to The Big Switch and a picture of me snorkelling over an 800 year old coral. We felt like we were saying good bye to the reef – but I haven’t given up.

    http://www.thebigswitch.org.au/index.cfm?page=ourPoliticians.electorate&electorateUUID=4BEFA9F9-4235-F224-AD62F85F28D44890&event=savePost

    Regards
    Willy Bach

  12. October 21st, 2007 at 17:34 | #12

    We recently spent a couple of weeks at Ningaloo Reef on WA’s North West Cape, which is awaiting a World Heritage listing application. MY immediate reaction is that tourism will probably spoil the reef before climate change or economic development. It is clearly a delicate environment which is within swimming distance of the shore in many places. So are the whales and manta rays. A photo of one of four whales we encountered near Coral Bay is at “Labor View from Broome’. Good luck with the project. We need it.

  13. conrad
    October 21st, 2007 at 20:05 | #13

    I’m not cynical — just realistic. If you believe in global warming and you arn’t ridiculously optimistic about things (excluding new technology IMHO), then obviously you need to make judgments based on that. Given that a bunch of rich white people won’t do the slightest thing to reduce global warming (despite essentially zero change to their lifestyle), then I find it rather hard to imagine why a bunch of poor yellow/brown people would either (especially when that means not eating etc. to them), excluding self interest. If their best outcome is becoming rich with pollution, then presumably thats what they are going to do (its also current Chinese government policy).
    Given this, I’d rather see peope admit their losses when and if they happen and spend the money on something useful. If the barrier reef is going to die, then obviously it doesn’t make sense to invest huge amounts to save it.

  14. October 21st, 2007 at 23:50 | #14

    Excellent post still this is not exactly news. I know people who work in the Caribbean and South Pacific on corals and marine biology in general and they have been well aware for decades (at least two) that higher temperatures are driving bleaching exacerbated by other environmental stresses.

  15. October 22nd, 2007 at 11:03 | #15

    Conrad says, “If the barrier reef is going to die, then obviously it doesn’t make sense to invest huge amounts to save it”. Of course, this is a valid point to make.

    If the major parties have already decided that the Great Barrier Reef is not worth saving they should hand in this country’s custodianship to the World Heritage Committee. Tell them honestly that they are not prepared to lift a finger.

    They should also tell the people of this country that they have given up on the task because it is too expensive. I do not think that would go down very well at all.

    John Howard should finally admit that the past decade, the so-called dreamy years of his obduracy have been enjoyed at an enormous opportunity cost.

    I have written to Kevin Rudd and so far only have a ‘holding pattern’ response from a staffer. I would suggest that a lot of us should do this too if we care at all about the Great Barrier Reef.

    JQ, is there any chance of an estimate of the opportunity costs of having failed to act earlier?

    Willy Bach

  16. Caitlin Doney
    January 26th, 2009 at 23:22 | #16

    I am doing a project on coral reef destruction and conservation as my high school project. One of my questions is, coral creates waves, if all coral were to die, then there would not be waves. So if there were no waves, would that effect the tide? because I know that the moon is what controls the tide, but I did not know if waves would have anything to do with it.
    If anyone can answer my question I would be very grateful

    Thank You

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