One of the problems with mobilizing people to take action on environmental issues is that it’s not always immediately obvious to the public how changes in ecosystems will affect their lives. Whether environmentalists are fighting to save one particular species in a far-off rainforest, or to protect a specific ecosystem from oil drilling, or to prevent global temperatures rising several degrees, these campaigns seldom gain the kind of traction in public opinion they deserve. For many people, economic imperatives and national security anxieties can, at first, make environmental degradation appear inconsequential. But this comes only from a tragic failure to understand the interdependent nature of the world’s ecosystems. The current decline of the world’s coral reefs is a prime example. It would be easy for most people to miss the threat posed by the disappearance of these reefs.
In recent years, reports of dying reefs have become increasingly urgent, as one key Al Jazeera article outlines. One 2015 report from the World Wildlife Fund found that tropical reefs have seen a 50 percent decline in their reef-building corals over the last three decades. A UNESCO study last year showed that the world’s coral reefs risk dying out completely by the middle of the century, without global action to reduce carbon emissions and slow the warming process. In January, the head of the United Nations Environment Program warned that the world’s reefs are at a “make or break point,” calling on governments to “step up to concrete actions.” As early as 2003, NASA said that researchers were estimating that 60 percent of the world’s reefs were seriously threatened.
Some of this danger comes as a direct result of climate change. One study, published in January in the journal Science, found that the frequency of bleaching events has increased fourfold in recent decades. As recently as the 1980s, these events occurred once every 25 to 30 years, and are now occurring every six years, thanks to warming oceans.
In a bleaching event, the colorful algae inside coral, called Zooxanthellae, are forced out, as a result of extremely low tides or water temperatures that are too hot or cold. In a close symbiotic relationship, these algae receive shelter and supply nutrients, accounting for 90 percent of the coral’s energy, which risk starvation and death as a result of bleaching. These events used to occur only during warming El Niño events, but now, according to the January study, temperatures during the cooling La Niña events are warmer than during El Niños of 40 years ago. Bleaching events have killed as much as 50 percent of the coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the last several years.
But warming oceans are not the only reason for the global decline. Another recent study, published Science Magazine earlier this year, predicts that plastic pollution in coral reefs will increase 40 percent over the next seven years. Already, over 11 billion individual pieces of plastic more than 5 centimeters wide have polluted reefs in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Al Jazeera. Researchers have also found that corals covered in plastic have an 89 percent chance of becoming infected with a disease, up from four percent under normal conditions.
Over a quarter of marine species depend at least partially on coral for their survival. Reefs help to shield shorelines from storms and coastal erosion from strong waves. A 2014 study in Nature magazine showed that reefs help to reduce wave energy by an average of 97 percent, protecting as many as 200 million people. With extreme weather is on the rise as a result of climate change, it’s not hard to imagine how this loss of protection could damage coastal communities.
Reefs even serve as a key food source in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef provides $6 billion in revenue from tourism and fishing, and helps to employ nearly 70,000 people. The WWF estimates that reefs provide 30 billion annually in goods and services, with about one billion people depending on reefs for a food supply or income from fishing.
But most of all, the decline of reefs is symptomatic of larger threats to the world’s oceans from climate change and pollution. A New York Times article last year discussed coral’s role as the “alarm system of the oceans.” Coral is sensitive to changes in water temperature, dying as a result of changes as small as two or three degrees Fahrenheit. Ultimately, these same forces will threaten other marine ecosystems – many of which are equally essential to human populations, as well as the interdependent global ecosystem as a whole.
In the political sphere, these realities are easily buried under more immediate threats like unemployment and national security. It’s easy for the average person to tune out and let scientists worry about such problems. But ultimately, these issues can only be solved with political action on a large scale – starting with moves to cut carbon emissions and mitigate global warming. Large scale efforts are also necessary to combat plastic pollution. On a local level, intensive human activity from ships and tourism needs to be addressed, as described recently by marine ecologist John Bruno, writing for the Washington Post. Scientists are offering novel and creative solutions to save coral in the face of these threats. Current efforts to cool reefs in order to mitigate bleaching need to be scaled up and properly funded. Some projects are even working to selectively breed corals that can withstand bleaching, by gathering coral that has survived the events that killed off the rest of their reefs.
All these solutions, from global emissions reductions, to combatting plastic pollution, to reducing the impact of tourism, require substantial political muscle. In democratic societies, this will only be achieved when the public demands it. All of this begins with educating the public on the interdependent nature of the ecosystems on which we ourselves depend.