November 13th, 2009 · 4 Comments · News, Real Dirt Fast


This week we had the spectacle of climate-denier-politicians Barney Joyce and Nicky Minchin (Nobel prize-winning scientists and philosophers that they aren’t) telling us everyone else with a doctorate and a brain is wrong and that they are right. Humans have nothing to do with climate change, they say. We actually don’t need to worry, our nest is big enough for 20 billion, squillion people, we can all do whatever we like and this carbon party we have happening right now is never going to end. We’ll just keep taking our pay cheques ’til the frivolities finish!

But then a couple of days later some of the planet’s leading coral reef scientists, including Charlie Veron, published a major new paper, warning that we might actually be in a tad of bother. Here is a couple of extracts from the paper…

The fossil record of reefs provides an unparalleled window into the effects of climate change through geological time. In the broadest context, today’s reef-forming corals have existed for 240 million years during which time they have been repeatedly decimated by climate changes from many different causes, most of which are linked to upheavals of the carbon cycle.

Although, on geological timescales reef ecosystems are clearly very persistent, the geological record offers crucial warnings that on human timescales reefs can indeed be lost, that a large proportion of coral and other calcifying species can go extinct and that once lost, reefs can take thousands to millions of years to re-establish. Perhaps most importantly, there is no evidence that reefs have ever experienced true parallels to today’s anthropogenically-driven combination of stressors. At the rate at which these stressors are currently compounding we are going into uncharted waters.

Already an estimated 19% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost and a further 35% are seriously threatened. As a result, one-third of all reef-building corals are considered to be at risk of extinction. To date, there have been a range of principal causes: predation by the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, sedimentation from urban development and deforestation, over-fishing, destructive fishing practices, eutrophication from agriculture and sewage, pollution from herbicides and pesticides, diseases, and global warming. However, global warming has now overtaken all other impacts in importance because it is the cause of increasingly destructive and extremely widespread mass bleaching events.

The multiple nature of stressors on reefs associated with climate change is unprecedented in human history and studies of its synergisms are still in their infancy. It is however, virtually certain that the likely consequences of multiple impacts will be synergistic, and far more severe than indicated from studies of individual stressors.

….Coral reefs occupy a truly unique position on Earth, for they are geological structures made by combinations of living organisms that have evolved the capacity to harness the abundant resources of air, seawater and sunlight. Reefs grow on solid substrates, but only at the interface of sea and atmosphere and only where light and temperature permit. To do this, reef-building organisms have evolved complex ecologies with tight interdependencies between key species, all dominated by many types of symbiotic relationships between plants and animals.

Reefs are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, especially disruptions to the pathways of the carbon cycle on which they are totally dependent. Unlike any other major ecosystem, such disruptions can be of both marine and terrestrial origin. It is therefore hardly surprising that reefs have been especially impacted by all the great mass extinction events of the past.

The outlook for reefs in the face of today’s rapid global warming is exceptionally serious. The mounting evidence warning of the imminent demise of reefs is perhaps the strongest signal yet that the planet is on the brink of an environmentally-led mass extinction, for this appears to have been what happened in the remote past. Whether or not this is so, reefs are likely to be the first major planetary-scale ecosystem to collapse in the face of climate changes now in progress. This raises the question: will this collapse be restricted to reefs or does it have wider implications? It is already clear that, although mass bleaching is a reef phenomenon, the effects of ocean acidification will directly impact all carbonate-dependent taxa: not only corals, but calcareous algae, most molluscs, many crustaceans, echinoderms and planktonic taxa, and other groups that rely on carbonates for skeletal growth. This includes fish which are particularly vulnerable during early stages in their life-cycle and also the pelagic ecosystem of the Southern Ocean which is dependent on krill. Research on these issues is still in its infancy, but the enormity of the threat is nevertheless real.

Ummm…I think maybe we should at least listen to the party poopers??

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jane Salmon

    Cretins are fine so long as they are not formulating long run policy for the planet. Cretaceans and those who have studied them seem more reliable on many fronts. Food sustainability is a thorn we have yet to grasp. The whole nation needs to shift to a Cuban style economy and model of agriculture if we are to handle climate change intelligently. Joyce’s scepticism about carbon trading is valid. It is but a wobbly first step to rationalising growth and the human carbon footprint. Far greater leaps forward are necessary. Limiting reproduction among the Nationals might be necessary.

  • Steve

    The climate-change deniers / sceptics in politics tend not to argue the science, but use any evidence of scientific or pseudo-scientific dissent, irrespective of merit, as ‘proof’ of their position. Their position is not a scientific one; it is ideological. This is especially evident when pushed on their stance, as they don’t work with the science but instead criticise those who they see as misusing science to pursue a ‘green’ (or in Minchin’s recent words “anti-industrial”) agenda. Beyond the basics, the science of climate-change is, unsurprisingly, far too complex for most people to debate. Al Gore went some way to addressing this problem. But ultimately it doesn’t matter how well the public or politicians might comprehend the science, as psychology can all too readily get in the way. The American Psychological Association has produced a useful report in this regard

    You’d have to expect those who benefit from the current regime of economic rationalism powered by fossil fuels and large corporations to be averse to the science of climate-change; not because of the science itself, but because of its implications for the dominant paradigm.

    There are clearly psychological issues here as the APA point out. The fear that motivates some to act, motivates others to deny, depending on their ideology, interests, etc.

  • Quentin Chester

    If, as Mr Minchin argues, climate science is nothing more than a ‘belief system’ I’d be interested to know what exactly in Nick’s universe isn’t a belief system.
    All the available evidence suggests the only world he can possibly imagine is one where everyone is as partisan, petty and ignorant as he is.

  • Jane Salmon

    Banning Christmas might be a good way of cooling the planet. The amount of ‘cheap’ polluting crap bought and sold in the name of ‘joy’ is insane. Give plants or give nothing!

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