[Coral-List] Coral reefs in the UN Convention on Climate Change

Thomas Goreau goreau at bestweb.net
Fri Jan 4 20:54:38 EST 2008

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 reefs  
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 and  
biodiversity 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 (there is a word for this that I'm too  
polite to use here). I personally inserted the words "coral reefs"  
every place in the original draft UN Framework Convention on Climate  
Change 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  

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.

Best wishes,

Thomas J. Goreau, PhD
Global Coral Reef Alliance
37 Pleasant Street, Cambridge MA 02139
goreau at bestweb.net

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