GROWING UP IN RURAL AMERICA three hours away from the ocean, then-teenager Professor David Baker was a die-hard fan of French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau. His weekends consisted of binge-watching the researcher’s Undersea World series and reading his every other title. Baker was fascinated with corals’ innately idiosyncratic geometries and, rather than toys and cars, he dreamt of owning a saltwater aquarium. Fast-forward a few decades and Baker is today a coral scientist at The University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Biology. But his passion for the colourful sea creatures has evolved recently into a deep worry: “It should be scary to everyone what’s happening out there,” he says.
Of course, Baker is referring to the latest global massive coral bleaching this summer, the most widespread and longest in recorded history. The catastrophe has seen 93% of the 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef affected and 22% of it killed. In the Northern tip of the reefs plagued most seriously, once colourful corals that lived symbiotically with algae for energy have turned into stark white skeletons. Schools of fish and molluscs that used to congregate around corals for food and shelter have almost disappeared – what is left, instead, is the rotten smell from decaying animals. Worse still, bleaching is forecast to spread to the northern hemisphere in the coming months, affecting Hawaii, Micronesia, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico. All this, to no surprise, stems from global warming and rising ocean temperatures.
Indifferent as many are to the fate of coral reefs – often seen to be little more than picturesque holiday destinations for diving aficinados – the reefs are a treasure trove of natural pharmaceuticals such as the antiviral Ara-A, AZT and the anticancer Ara-C – and these are just the tip of the iceberg, with many more still unknown to science.
On the environmental front, coral reefs also play an immense role in coastline protection. They absorb and dissipate energy from strong storms and hurricanes so the coastline is saved from irreparable damage. A recent research by University of California, Santa Barbara shows that coral reefs on average help reduce close to 70% of wave height. “[In places] where we’re losing reefs, the damage of typhoons or hurricanes is starting to increase. We’re losing beaches and coastal properties worth billions and trillions of dollars.” Baker says.
Ever-rising temperatures since the industrial revolution have seen the already rare corals being lost at a rate of approximately 2% a year globally, and there are no immediate solutions such as reforestation is to deforestation. The ocean’s exceptional capacity to store heat means it is extremely difficult for it to cool down. “Climate change is essentially a death sentence,” says Baker. “It is an issue that needs to be handled by everyone, not just locally, regionally, but internationally.”
While marine biologists and climatologists have presented numerous data and papers to demonstrate the urgency to tackle climate change, efforts to reverse the trend, particularly in Australia – where the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem reside – have been sluggish.
“If you look at the records and the facts on how much carbon we produce per capita and how much deforestation is currently going on in our country, Australia should be ashamed of itself,” says Justin Marshall, marine biologist at The University of Queensland. “As a privileged country, we should be playing a greater role and moving much faster towards renewable energy.”
The latest official report from the Australian government, which has been subsidising the coal industry, shows that carbon emissions from electricity generation rose 3% in 2014-15, with power generation from black coal and brown coal increasing by 1.4% and 9.7%, respectively. Despite having agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions at COP21 in Paris last year, the government signed off on leasing Queensland’s Carmichael coal mine in April, an act that will not only emit 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, but will also lead to more pollution to the nearby Great Barrier Reef.
Since the government isn’t listening, Marshall shifted his push for conservation to the individual and the scientific community, which he laments, should have stepped up its game a long time ago.
“Ten years ago, I just made the decision that I’m now sick of sitting back and going to conferences, where academics get together, decide that there’s a problem, go away and think somehow that’s going to solve it. It won’t. We have to stand up and we have to do things more vocally. We have to shout louder and may have to do things that we find uncomfortable, like going to demonstrations, or organise group letters, or get out into the public and actually engage the community.”
To realise his vision, he set up the citizen science project CoralWatch with several other scientists at his university in 2002. Inspired by the line “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand” by Confucius, the programme engages non-scientists to experience reef management with the Coral Health Chart, which has allowed people from more than 70 countries to quantify coral health and contribute to the CoralWatch global database by matching what they see in the ocean with the standardised colours on the chart.
“We want to involve people so that they will understand,” Marshall says. “In a way, just reading a magazine article or even watching a documentary on TV is still just hearing or seeing about it. [But] through CoralWatch, we are encouraging people to monitor their local reefs and involve themselves in the problem, so they could start thinking about it. They’re feeding in their own minds and in the minds of people around them the potential to change and understanding.”
Sharing a similar philosophy is the well-known global movement Earth Hour, which prompted people to switch off their lights for an hour. “[In Australia], it has had great success in the last few years with specific ‘themes’ that focus on the different ways climate change is affecting us. In 2014, we had ‘Lights Out for the Reef ’, drawing attention to global warming impacts on the Great Barrier Reef,” says Kellie Caught, WWF-Australia National Manager of Climate Change.
If the giants are yet to be persuaded, these bottom-up, individualfocused programmes become our only hope. “Individuals can do a lot. They can look at their lifestyles and say: ‘how much energy am I using?’ They should choose the power they get from power companies wisely by choosing renewable energy. That will, in turn, force the government and the larger energy companies to realise that they need to provide renewable energy rather than carbon-based energy,” says Caught.
“Don’t focus on the negative. Don’t focus on the things that are uncertain. Don’t focus on the people that don’t want to change. Focus on the problem in hand, and look our kids in the face and say: ‘Alright kids! Let’s move towards a better world.’”