Climate Change is Ravaging Coral Reefs Throughout the World’s Oceans
Constructing new coal mines is the wrong response to the historic devastation of this key part of the ocean ecosystem, says Dr. Selina Ward
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore, I’m Kim Brown. The Australian Government has given permission for India’s Adani Enterprises to build the $16 billion Carmichael Mine in Australia’s Queensland, which would be the largest coalmine in operation in the world. It has been called the “death knell” for the Great Barrier Reef, which has recently experienced the worst die off ever recorded on the World Heritage site, according to scientists. It should be noted that, while coral reefs occupy only 1% of the Earth’s oceans, it has been estimated that they support as much as 25% of the all marine life. And with us to discuss this issue we’re joined with Dr. Selina Ward. She is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland, and she’s joining us today from Brisbane. Dr. Ward, thank you so much for being here.
SELINA WARD: It’s a pleasure.
KIM BROWN: So, talk to us about the effects of climate change and the effects that acidification has had on the Great Barrier Reef.
SELINA WARD: So, unfortunately, corals… reef animals, corals are very susceptible to climate change. And it’s not just one aspect of it; there are four main things that affect them. The first, most obvious one is temperature. So, corals are very… have a very narrow temperature range, in which they happy to live. Then there’s acidification, so that’s the amount of carbon dioxide that dissolves into the water. And as you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it’s taken up in huge quantities by the sea, and that changes the pH of the sea, so it becomes a little bit more acidic. So, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be as acidic as sulphuric acid, but it just means that it changes that pH enough to change the chemistry of the water. And that makes it really hard for animals to lay down their skeletons, to reproduce properly, all sorts of things. So, that’s a difficulty. So, then there’s increased intensity of storms and cyclones, hurricanes, as you call them, and that causes breakage of corals and other reef animals. And then the sea level rise, so as the sea rises, of course, it will go onto the land more which means you get more things from the land coming into the water. And they don’t want that, it also means that in parts the reefs will become in deeper water and some of them won’t be able to cope with that. So, you’ve got four things all happening at once. The most obvious one is temperature, and if the temperature is too high it will cause what we call bleach. And that means that they lose these little tiny algae cells that live inside them and give them most of their energy. And without those for a prolonged period they will die.
KIM BROWN: So, Doctor, has there been a rapid increase in coral die off and can we link that to climate change?
SELINA WARD: We certainly can. I mean we just had the biggest coral bleaching event ever to hit the Great Barrier Reef. It was a global bleaching event, so we’ve had difficulties on reefs all around the world. And in this particular bleaching event, certainly not our first, but the biggest to date, we’ve had a really high mortality, particularly in the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef. So there’s still plenty of beautiful parts of the Great Barrier Reef, I hasten to say, but we have had high mortality, particularly in the north and that’s definitely due to climate change, there’s no doubt about that. We’re also seeing already a change in the pH in the oceans and that’s been quite marked. And we’re definitely having some very intense cyclone and hurricane damage which is affecting reefs around the world.
KIM BROWN: So, until fairly recently, I understand, the importance of the coral reefs were underestimated in the larger oceans ecosystem. So how important are they for fish and directly for human populations that live off fish to sustain their diets?
SELINA WARD: There are so many ways that the coral reefs are really, really important to the world’s population. First of all they feed millions of people, it’s a major source of protein. And so if we do lose those reefs and consequently lose the fish associated with them, we’ll have to find another way to feed those millions of people. So, obviously, that’s really important, also an enormous numbers of people earn their income around reefs. So we’d have to find other ways for those people to support themselves. But really importantly, too, reefs provide a barrier to coastlines. So, if you think of an island nation that has a reef around the edge of it, that reef will very frequently protect that nation from swell that comes through. So, without the reefs you’re going to have the waves breaking directly onto those coastlines. So, if we put that together with sea level rise, that’s going to cause very, very severe problems for those sorts of nations. And then, of course, we’ve got the incredible bio diversity and, you know, it’s hard to put a value on that. You know, we have pharmaceutical industries that come out of reef animals, all sorts of things like that, as well, tourism industries.
KIM BROWN: So, will the Carmichael mine cause a direct threat to the reef, in your opinion? Because must Australia choose between coal and coral as a Guardian headline had suggested?
SELINA WARD: We scientists certainly see it that way, in that whilst it’s not so easy to say, right, the Carmichael Mine particularly will affect this coral over there and this coral over here, there are a lot of things going on. First of all, it’s a very large coalmine, so it will increase global emissions. So that will contribute to climate change. So, in that sense, yes, reefs of the world will be affected by the Carmichael Mine, but, climate change is the biggest threat to the reefs, so we have to do something about it. And we can’t just continue to increase emissions, and the Carmichael Mine is a really big increase in emissions. And whether or not those emissions of that coal, or that coal being burnt, attributed to Australia or not, is irrelevant, they’re still going into the pool(?) with global emissions. Now, aside from that, we also have the more localized effects of this mine, and that would be that the coal will be transported across the land by a rail link, on trains, and the coal dust then is blown to an extent off those trains, off the piles at the ports, and can go into the sea. And we know that we already have high levels of the toxins in coal dust in the area around where the port expansion that’s required for this mine, is located. So that’s already a problem and that coal dust is very toxic to marine animals. The port will need to be expanded enormously and that involves dredging of material in the seabed. And although that amount of dredging has been reduced in recent times, it’s still going to be a huge amount of dredging. And the dredging itself will stir up plumes of sediment, which is not good for the reef either. And, of course, in order to service that port we’ve going to have a huge increase in the number of ships that come in, and there are all sorts of problems associated with ship going through reef areas too. So, we can’t get away from the fact that the Carmichael Mine will be damaging to the Great Barrier Reef. And if that one goes ahead, then it’s very difficult to expect that the further mines that are proposed for the Galilee Basin wouldn’t go ahead as well.
KIM BROWN: Doctor, in June, during an election campaign Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised one billion Australian dollars in spending to protect the reef. In your opinion is this enough money, and what could be done or should be done, in order to take the steps to protect the Great Barrier Reef?
SELINA WARD: Well, the latest reports that have been made on how much we need to improve water quality enough, suggests that we need a lot more than a billion dollars. So we’ll need a lot more new money to improve water quality. And improving water quality is very, very important, but, if we don’t have tackle climate change, then in the long term, we will lose, or at least very substantially change our reefs anyway. So we can’t just think about water quality and ignore climate change. We absolutely have to address climate change. So we have to stop the coalmines, but we also have to do everything else we can to very, very rapidly reduce our emissions. And in the Paris Agreement, fabulous to have a global agreement, but that was for 1.5-degree increase. Now we’ve had this global bleaching this year and we haven’t reached 1.5 degrees. So, clearly, increasing the temperature any more is going to be a very big problem for reefs. So we have to do all we can to work on climate change.
KIM BROWN: Well, Dr. Ward, I know that the Carmichael coal mine is not your idea, but I know you have opinions about it because, you know, as you mentioned the Paris Agreement there seems to be at least a collective consensus among world leaders that action needs to be taken on climate change and here in the US we do have an expansion of renewable energy, in the form of wind and solar, but, at the same time, the United States government enables and promotes the practice of fracking for shale gas. Which is tremendously damaging, not only to the air, as it releases methane which contributes to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but it also has the potential to damage drinking water, as we’re seeing the big protests that are still somewhat ongoing in North Dakota with the Standing Rock Sioux protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. So why is Australia moving forward investing money in a coal-fired power plant in the year 2016?
SELINA WARD: That’s the question, isn’t it? Our government would argue, of course, that there are jobs to be gained and income for Australia, and others will argue that there will be many, many jobs if we continue to develop our renewables instead, and that we will generate lots of income from those, as renewables, and we have, of course, a great deal of sun in Australia so, solar is a very big possibility here. So, the arguments for coal generally are around jobs and money for Australia. But, I’m a reef scientist, so I don’t pretend to have answers to solving our economic woes, but the question here is whether we want to save the Great Barrier Reef and if we want to do that, then new coalmines are not the answer.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Selina Ward. She is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Dr. Ward, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SELINA WARD: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your interest in the story.
KIM BROWN: You’re very welcome. And thank you for watching The Real News Network.