I should start out by reminding readers that I am a coral reef optimist, as previously stated in my first Cool Green Science blog post.

However, the news this week for coral reefs — and the ocean in general — is alarming and my optimism may quickly disappear if the global community doesn’t take appropriate action in short order.

What’s bringing me down? Scientists around the world have jointly issued a cry for help for the world’s coral reefs, citing new evidence that climate change has already pushed coral reefs to their breaking point.

Trying to better understand these latest developments, I had an interesting discussion this past week with my Conservancy colleague, Mark Spalding, who participated in an emergency coral reef meeting this past summer — assembled by the Royal Society in London — to sort out what should be done to save the world’s coral reefs.

From Mark’s perspective, the message from this summer gathering is bleak and I couldn’t agree more. The outcome of the meeting was a realization by global experts that we can’t just aim to reduce the rates of CO2 emissions in order to save coral reefs. We have to actually freeze the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere as soon as possible. In fact, we have to reduce the current CO2 levels in order for coral reefs and much of life in the ocean to survive.

The meeting outcomes have been published as a series of statements and recommendations this week in an expert journal, the Marine Pollution Bulletin. Along side this publication is a supportive document signed by many of the big guns in the field, including Sir David Attenborough, James Lovelock, and perhaps more ominously, the heads of several coral reef societies (these are the big guns, intellectually speaking, that don’t sign up to things unless the science is watertight).  For more on what was discussed at this meeting, check out a fascinating presentation given by Charlie Veron, the world’s foremost authority on coral.

For those human neighbors of coral reefs, we must also be implementing the best management we can muster since the evidence continues to demonstrate that healthy reefs are more likely to resist the impacts of climate change, buying us time to deal with the problem of increasing carbon emissions.

So what is the big deal about CO2 and the oceans? If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll be familiar with the problem of coral bleaching and how when the climate warms, so do the oceans, and coral reefs really can’t tolerate warming oceans very well.

Well, the problem is actually bigger than just warming seas and associated coral bleaching. About 1/3 of the world’s CO2 is taken up by the oceans. This changes the ocean’s chemistry, making it more acidic.

With the increasing load of CO2 on the oceans, a phenomenon called ‘ocean acidification’ is occurring. Basically, as the ocean becomes even very slightly more acid, some of the stuff that dissolves in the ocean no longer stays dissolved. That “stuff” includes the carbonate minerals that corals, and a host of other plants and animals, need in order to build skeletons and shells.

At first the impacts are going to be very subtle – things just won’t be able to grow as fast as before. But it’s is expected to become more difficult as the ocean’s acidity continues to increase and will likely affect the entire ocean food web.

In fact, an important component of the very base of the ocean food chain is tiny animals that live in calcium carbonate shells. That is a big ‘uh oh’ for the rest of the ocean to say the least. This raises serious concerns for the ability of the ocean to support marine life in the not too distant future.

So where’s the space for an optimist in all this? First off, it’s reassuring that The Nature Conservancy is doing it right.  Our reef resilience work is pretty much all we can do at the local scale, and it does help — we just need to do more of it.

Meanwhile, the Conservancy is working at another scale trying to bring leaders to the table and shore up the arguments for something very big in Copenhagen.

What’s all this about Copenhagen anyway? The news is abuzz at the moment with talk about the next chance to sort out on climate change. December’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is being touted by many experts as our last best chance. If we don’t “seal the deal” on a “fair, ambitious and binding” agreement between ALL nations the future indeed looks very bleak.

What’s struck me is that now, at 5 minutes to ecological midnight, the message has really sunk in. And not just among academics, or NGOs, or westerners.

Witness the Global Wake-Up Call (video above) that took place last Monday, with over 2,500 mini “flash mob” street-theatre demonstrations in 135 countries. 135 countries! I don’t think I could even name 135 countries. People taking part were as far afield as the Seychelles, Kiribati, Fiji, Jamaica and St. Lucia. It is inspiring to see so many people challenging their leaders to take action — I encourage you to take a peek.

As the clock counts down to Copenhagen, I am sending all my good vibes to our talented policy team and hoping that others will be inspired to speak out and encourage our world leaders to take action. Coral reefs, our oceanic planet, and the people that depend on it are counting on those at the Copenhagen meeting to make wise decisions and hold each other accountable.

To send a personal message to world leaders about climate change, check out The Nature Conservancy’s Planet Change initiative.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Alarming; and we need to be alarmed. Good job. Keep sounding the alarm.

  2. I’ve seen the bleached-out coral reefs off Anagada, BVI, and this is no joke! The ones I saw were DEAD! This was two years ago. . .

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