UNESCO Makes Plea to Save Coral Reefs from Global Extinction

Even those of us who have never gone diving picture coral reefs as among nature’s greatest spectacle: flashes and rainbows of color teeming with marvelous life, vast schools of fish, bright stars, alien-looking yet quintessentially terrestrial creatures.  Just to know they exist fills us with awe and hope.  Yet a comprehensive new study shows that the 29 coral reefs designated as World Heritage Sites—far older and more marvelous than the seven wonders of the world—will cease to exist by 2100 unless something is done about climate change.

reef 400x267 UNESCO Makes Plea to Save Coral Reefs from Global Extinction
UNESCO is doing what it can to save the world’s remaining coral reefs. Credit: Tom Nugent, FlickrCC

In response, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has called for the planet to come together and limit temperature rise to 1.50 C, the more ambitious, aspirational goal of the Paris climate agreement (with 20 C as the more realistic, yet still difficult, goal).

Researchers did not expect to be calling for such dramatic changes.  “We actually wanted to create a report that had a sparkle of hope,” showing “variations, and some reefs are going to do better than others,” says Dr. Fanny Douvere, coordinator of the Marine Program at UNESCO’s World Heritage Center.  The researchers had hoped to build on other reports that nature is resilient and dynamic enough to come back from stressful conditions.  Instead, the data showed utter devastation for the 29 reefs on the World Heritage List.  “The results were so sad and dramatic, that when we first got the results in, we actually redid the analysis to make sure there that we didn’t make any mistakes,” says Douvere.

The problem is playing out in real time over the last few years, with massive, worldwide bleaching events in 2015 and 2016, coinciding with the two hottest years on record.  In many places, “scientists are describing seeing and hearing a silent reef,” says Noni Austin, a staff attorney with the International Program at Earthjustice.  All that’s left of what once constituted a foundation for thriving life is vast stretches of ghostly, bone-white skeletons.  Marine life has disappeared from around the reefs, which have turned from brilliant colors to “white reef to dead reef covered in algae, very very silent and smelling bad,” says Austin.

Previously, bleaching events occurred only every decade or so, at most.  Since it takes 15-25 years to recover from such bleaching, unless something dramatic is done, “ecosystems will cease to exist, they will just cease to function as reefs” by 2100 when bleaching will be annual, says Douvere.  On top of the temperature increase, carbon dioxide emissions are acidifying the ocean while intensifying cyclones and hurricanes constitute “a triple whammy,” explains Austin.

With the situation dire, UNESCO took the unprecedented step of calling for a global solution that requires a serious commitment from virtually every nation on Earth.  Some may question the impact of a single United Nations agency calling for change, worrying that it will be discounted as just be one piece of rhetoric among many.  Yet Douvere describes the World Heritage Convention as “one of the biggest most respected conventions in human history, so well respected, adhered to,” one that “has a voice.”

Austin further describes the World Heritage Committee as “an incredibly influential body,” one that “can send monitoring missions, can highlight threats.”  It is also connected to advisory bodies with “significant technical experience” so that overall, the committee can spur “an incredible amount of political pressure.”  UNESCO’s call for change can make a difference.

The world’s reef systems constitute an amazing network of life with an aesthetic appeal that should be valued for its own sake.  They are the common heritage of humanity, among the “top hot-spots for biodiversity on planet,” says Douvere, sheltering a quarter of fish species.  This endows them tremendous economic value, since this ocean life provides millions of people with their livelihood.

The ripple effects on ecosystems of losing such jewels of life are also unknown.  “The oceans are so relatively little observed and researched,” says Douvere.  “There is so little we really know,” yet we are “losing whole sweeps of diverse ecosystems; obviously that will have an effect on other ecosystems as well.”

She further points out that barrier reefs help protect against extreme weather events, such as the brutal hurricanes that appear to be growing larger due to climate change.  Yet additional impacts of losing these ecosystems are largely unknown and will likely take us by surprise.

Even those who only care about U.S. interests should pay attention.  World Heritage reefs systems include two under American jurisdiction, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, encompassing more than 500,000 square miles off of Hawaii, and the Everglades National Park.  The United States, although a wealthy nation and historically the largest emitter of climate change gases, is “nowhere close to meeting their responsibility to protect World Heritage Sites, particularly coral reefs,” says Austin.

Of course, the most famous of coral reefs is Australia’s magnificent Great Barrier Reef, which has been in the news lately.  UNESCO’s decision, in early July, not to place the Great Barrier Reef on its list of endangered World Heritage Site has been criticized and might, at first glance, seem to contradict its warning that all 29 reefs are endangered.

Yet UNESCO wanted to make clear the far broader nature of the threat, with two thirds of reefs worldwide affected by bleaching.  The committee “was conscious and careful not to give all their attention to one reef that has a high profile,” says Austin.  The idea is to make clear that “the committee is very concerned to be addressing all coral reefs, not just one.”

Douvere adds that Australia has been more active than is generally realized in taking actions recommended by UNESCO to help the Great Barrier Reef.  Actions taken include limiting the number of ports being developed within the World Heritage Area, undertaking a strategic assessment and establishing a 2050 long-term plan, and not only matching a $200 million investment in water quality but nearly tripling that request.  “It also banned dumping of dredged material across the World Heritage area,” explains Douvere.

Given these efforts, and with the global nature of the problem, “honestly, saving the Great Barrier Reef from climate, Australia on its own cannot do,” says Douvere.  “Our task is to protect all 29” World Heritage reefs.

Reducing climate change to save reefs from extinction—among a multitude of impacts–“cannot be done with just one country,” says Douvere.  “It is a global problem and it requires a global solution.”  She adds that “an organization like UNESCO,” with a brand respected around the world, can “state the real problem.”  Only once people and nations around the planet understand the existential threat to coral reefs is there even a possibility of working together toward a solution.