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Getting Real for Earth Day – Addendum


I am saddened to write this short comment on this particular day. But it emphasizes how unwilling, or incapable, humanity seems to be when it comes to living within the capacity of the planet to support us.

The world is currently in the midst of a major global coral bleaching event. If you have never heard of these before, they have been happening since 1998, and geographically extensive but not global bleaching events began happening in the early 1980s.

A person swimming under the water

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Bleached corals on a reef in Moorea, French Polynesia – likely from several years ago. Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images, from Grist.

Coral bleaching occurs when some environmental stressor disrupts the delicate relationship between a coral and its intracellular algal symbionts. Loss of the symbionts leaves the coral bleached of color and physiologically compromised. If the stressful conditions persist for a couple of weeks there can be substantial or near-total mortality of the corals. Otherwise recovery is possible although the corals remain physiologically challenged for some time and typically fail to breed in at least the next season.

It is undeniable that the numerous, extensive mass bleachings that have occurred since the early 1980s are being caused by climate change. The oceans are now warm enough that an event like an el Niño bumps temperatures up sufficiently to pass the bleaching thresholds.

The 2024 event is particularly severe, and there are reports from places like the Great Barrier Reef documenting massive bleaching over wide areas. NOAA has declared it a global event, the fourth such to occur (while including a photo of a coral colony that had recovered at the top of its text – what were they trying to say?).

I am saddened, not because a global bleaching is underway, though that is sad enough. I am saddened and angry because the reporting in the traditional and social media, which is almost entirely based on one or two press releases from reputable organizations like NOAA or the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has failed to point out what this latest bleaching means.

I have scanned numerous media reports, and none I could find have pointed out that the science community has been predicting since the late 1980s that continued climate change would result in more frequent and more severe bleaching events. With events at particular sites ever closer together in time, it would be impossible for coral populations to rebuild before being bleached again, with the inevitable consequence that reefs will ultimately be lost from the planet.

The IPCC has included coral reefs in its reporting on consequences of climate change and in its 2018 report documenting the substantial consequences for humanity if we managed only to keep warming to 2oC instead of 1.5oC, it stated:

“Coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C (high confidence) with larger losses (>99%) at 2ºC (very high confidence).”

That quote refers to coral reefs globally and the percentages are percentages of living coral present. In 2018, a typically conservative UN committee said if we did not get warming under control reefs would lose 99% of their coral by 2100. What is patently obvious is that we have not done nearly enough to rein in warming (greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to increase), and the reefs are suffering exactly as scientists said they would beginning in the late 1980s.

For the record, Professor Peter Glynn of University of Miami, who produced the first detailed accounts of an extensive mass bleaching event (Pacific Panama and Ecuador and the Galapagos, 1982-83) was justifiably cautious regarding causes in his 1983 report noting only that the bleaching coincided with a strong el Niño. By 1989, with further investigations in more places by more scientists, he was becoming persuaded. In a book he edited on the topic he wrote:

“If global warming causes repeated and/or protracted sea temperature increases comparable to the 1982-83 El Niño disturbance, then we could expect severe mortality of zooxanthellate reef building corals, and increases in the relative abundances of predators and bioeroders that would further increase coral mortality and bioerosion, leading to a rapid destruction of framework structures, and a diminished capacity for reef recovery in present-day coral seas.”

By 1998, with the first global event completed, the reef science community, including Glynn, saw the writing on the wall. And numerous reef scientists have been telling the public ever since that what is happening today was going to happen.

Yet, in 2024, the media report each bleaching, accurately explaining how it happens and the link to climate change, without reminding people that we have known this for 30+ years and our global economy continues to burn fossil fuels, pollute the atmosphere, and warm the planet. Our pitifully slow transition away from fossil fuels ensures we will exceed +2oC of warming and kill off all the reefs. That is the REAL message in 2024.

The public sees each bleaching event as a ‘very sad piece of news’ and fails to make the connection the media is failing to report. We are doing it still, and we will extinguish all reefs from the planet very soon, for no reason other than we just do not give a damn about much other than us and our precious economy. One day we might learn to recognize we need the rest of the biosphere and start to live within the limits a finite planet sets. In our impoverished future world we will finally know what we have lost.

Happy Earth Day.

2 thoughts on “Getting Real for Earth Day – Addendum”

  1. You have it exactly right!!! In addition, some people are saying that at the moment, we are about 1.7 C above pre-industrial levels. We all hope this is temporary, but it may not be. If it is not, we have blown right past the 1.5 C target for minimizing damage (which will still be severe). We thought we had 20 to 30 years to get emissions under control, now it looks like we are already where we thought we would be in 20 to 30 years. No matter how bad it is at the moment, reducing emissions will still make it so future damage is less than what it will be if we don’t reduce emissions.
    It’s NOT just coral reefs, it’s people as well. Already, heat waves are killing more people than all other weather events combined!! Phoenix, Arizona has 20 days last summer at least 120F. For anyone standing in the sun outdoors, that is potentially lethal. People survived only because of air conditioning. If the power goes off, a lot of people, especially the old, the infirm and the very young, will die. DIE!! They are predicting that areas around the Persian/Arabian Gulf will be the first places on earth to be uninhabitable by humans. Last summer, there were places there where birds and cats that could not find shade died.
    My fear is that if humans will not reduce emissions drastically to save human lives, they sure aren’t going to do it for coral reefs. I’m encouraged by what the US federal government is doing, the passage of an act of Congress that has significant action in it. Not enough. No nations have yet pledged enough, and most nations are failing to do what they promised. Some lawsuits are now underway, a court in Switzerland ordered the government to do more to protect people, by reducing emissions. Hawaii is suing the major oil companies for compensation for all the expenses they have had to pay for damage caused by human-caused global warming.
    We have not lost permanently yet, we must push and fight on even harder to save our planet!!

  2. A contributing cause to denial.
    This appeared on my FB page on Earth Day, courtesy of the Fraser Institute, Canada’s self-proclaimed number 1 think tank which may be true if the descriptors “libertarian-conservative” are included.
    The comments are “illuminating.”
    I’ve searched on the subject matter of the various articles cited in support of the author’s thesis and found that he ignored numerous sources calling those findings into question. This is not surprising as cherry picking is the modus operandi of the Fraser Institute.

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