Thursday, December 13, 2007

Death sentences

In Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and sixteen other distinguished marine scientists call for... decisive action.

Photos: extant examples of reefs from the Great Barrier Reef that are used as analogs for the ecological structures anticipated under the paper's coral reef scenarios. Photos by O. Hoegh-Guldberg.

A post on Dot Earth, Carbon Dioxide Is Double Threat to Reefs, summarises non-technically.

P.S. 14 Dec: The Guardian reports this as Acidic seas may kill 98% of world's reefs by 2050.


Anonymous Tom Goreau said...

4 Jan 2008, 20:54

To those seriously concerned about climate change and the future of coral reefs:

Climate change has been a minor subject on the coral list server until recently, when a flurry of postings, focusing largely on the merits of different cars rather than impacts on corals, appeared in response to a recent Science article. According to press reports, this article makes predictions, based on models, that climate change might begin to affect reefs in 50-70 years.

This is overly optimistic! In fact we could lose most of what is left in the next extreme hot year that exceeds 1998, and this could come at any time. Statistically, based on the Global Coral Reef Alliance database of global coral reef satellite sea surface temperatures since 1982, it is due this year. But we can't be exactly certain because of the noise in the climate system (I published many papers on this with Ray Hayes since 1990, none cited in the Science paper). The real news is that we have ALREADY passed the tipping point. And that what emerged from Bali was cynical abandonment of coral reef and countries that depend on them. The oil and coal burners chose to sacrifice reefs because they don't want to be inconvenienced by changing their polluting ways, and they don't care what happens to coral reefs, island nations, low lying coasts, or even the future of their own children. But they can't say that they weren't warned what was happening.

These opinions are based on empirical data, not on models (like the Science paper) that are only general qualitative descriptions of reality. If this seems like just another outrageous personal opinion, bear in mind that I am the only coral reef scientist with degrees in atmospheric physics and chemistry from MIT, Caltech, and Harvard. As a teenager I wrote computer programs that correctly predicted zonal wind speeds on Saturn decades before space probes confirmed them and was asked to do my PhD writing general circulation models to predict the climatic effects of CO2 increase. I refused to get back to coral reefs and warm water. I set up the first labs in the Amazon to measure greenhouse gases at high precision, made the first measurements of tropical jungle deforestation effects on atmospheric chemistry, and in the 1980s published half a dozen papers on stabilization of atmospheric CO2. When these were ignored, I went back to restoring coral reefs, the most financially unrewarding activity that I know.

Paleoclimatic data clearly shows that the IPCC projections for future climate change have seriously underestimated the sensitivity of temperature and sea level to CO2. The last time in earth history when global temperatures were 1 degree C above today's, sea levels were 7 meters higher than now, and hippopotamuses and crocodiles flourished in London, England. Because CO2 was then one third lower than today's value, the conditions then greatly UNDERESTIMATE what will happen when temperature and sea level eventually equilibrate with TODAY'S level of CO2, even if we never burn another gram of coal or oil or natural gas starting immediately. I showed this in briefings to delegates at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, predicting that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (and the later Kyoto Protocol to FCCC) was so weak that it was guaranteed to kill coral reefs. I warned that we would lose most corals to heat shock in the next decades if negotiators failed to stop global warming then and there. I showed that the IPCC had systematically underestimated the impacts for two very simple reasons: 1) the models they use fail to include the vast bulk of the positive feedback mechanisms that the empirical data proves exists in the Earth Climate System, and 2) the time horizon for their predictions was 1 to 2 orders of magnitude shorter than the response time of the system, so they only covered the initial effects, and missed the bulk of the total response.

As Senior Scientific Affairs Officer for global climate change andbiodiversity at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, I had a lot of input into the draft of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. At that point it was already clear that coral reefs were the most temperature sensitive ecosystem, and we had already developed the Goreau-Hayes HotSpot method for predicting the location, timing, and intensity of bleaching from satellite data alone before it could be seen in the field. Unfortunately this was widely denied and ridiculed by our colleagues, who later copied our data-based conclusions word for word as "common knowledge" without bothering to cite the sources…

I personally inserted the words "coral reefs"every place in the original draft UN Framework Convention on ClimateChange where they belonged, insisted explicitly on COMPLETE accounting of all greenhouse gas sources and sinks, and added that one of the goals of the convention was to protect Earth's most temperature-sensitive ecosystems. What the UN sent out to governments was vastly better than what they got back! Governments made scientific nonsense of the treaty by confusing net with gross fluxes, rewarding bogus carbon sinks while ignoring the real ones, failing to identify the most climatically sensitive ecosystems and requiring that they be monitored for signs of temperature stress, and failing to establlish trigger mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if such stress was in fact shown. Minutes after the Convention was passed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, I passed out leaflets describing it as a death sentence for coral reefs.

I was the only coral reef researcher at the UN Convention on Climate Change in Bali, on the delegation of Jamaica, on the delegation of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (an Inter-Governmental Organization representing almost all Caribbean States), as Coordinator of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development Partnership in New Technologies for Small Island Developing States, as President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, and as Science Advisor to Yayasan Karang Lestari (Foundation for Protected Corals, an Indonesian Non Governmental Organization that runs the world's largest coral reef and fisheries habitat restoration projects).

My briefings to the 41 member states of the Association of Small Island States (the island nations of the Pacific, Caribbean, and Indian Ocean) and to the Indonesian Government (the host country and home to the largest and richest coral reefs in the world), also passed out to all of the nearly 200 governments present, pointed out that: 1) the impacts of climate change had been seriously and systematically underestimated, and the threat was much worse and more imminent than recognized, with coral reefs and island nations being the first and worst victims 2) that we could lose most remaining corals in the next extreme hot year, 3) that the EU proposal to allow CO2 to rise to 450 ppm and temperature to rise by 2 degrees C (blocked by the US, Canada, Japan, the Arab oil producing states, China, India, and Russia for their own reasons) was unacceptable to small island developing states because it meant sacrificing coral reefs, fisheries, and shore protection against rising sea level, 4) that what was needed was to REDUCE atmospheric CO2 by AT LEAST one third BELOW today's levels, and 5) that the technologies to do so were proven and in hand, but were not being funded or even discussed. These technologies will be covered in detail in a book I am editing on Underutilized Technologies for Sustainable Development and Reversing Global Warming, which will be published in May 2008 at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

There is precious little time now left to act, thanks to decades of denial and obfuscation by governments and by many coral reef professionals, long after the heat shock cause of mass coral reef bleaching was thoroughly established by 1990. What Bali gave us is another two wasted years of talking while temperatures continue to rise without control, and corals and people die from extreme temperature events. That is why further delay is a capital crime against the environment. We must ensure that what climate treaties emerge two years from now deal with the real problems, not avoiding them, and promote the real solutions, not fake ones. While this may seem merely academic to those from rich countries, it is a matter of life and death for the island nations, especially the low lying ones, and for coral reefs.

For more information on the problems and the solutions, please see:

1) The first New York Times comment on the aftermath of Bali

2) The briefing to island nation delegations

The latter link may not work in all browsers. If clicking it says that the page can't be found, just copy and paste it into your browser window and it should work.

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
Global Coral Reef Alliance

6:44 pm  

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