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Critical Crossroads

Copenhagen Climate Change Negotiations

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Written by Meghan Swope      Add a comment

Only 0.1% of Earth's surface is covered by coral reefs, and in the past 40 years, we've lost about 50% of this small area.

Over 500 million people worldwide are dependent on coral reefs for food, income, and security.

When we reach 450 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, all reefs -- including the famous Great Barrier Reef in Australia  -- will be gone (We're already at about 390 ppm).

These are only three of the many facts and statistics that brought me to tears in a side event yesterday presented by the U.S. Centre. Although the U.S. was hosting, this expert panel featured distinguished guests from Australia, France (due to Samoa) and the island nations.

While studying abroad in Australia last semester, I visited the Great Barrier Reef and witnessed the ecological devastation occurring in many parts of this underwater world. Many students commented on the fact that, although it was still so beautiful, the reef doesn't look as magnificent as it once had. This is because, beginning in 1979, coral bleaching is occurring at a rapid rate. The calcification rate of oral reefs has simultaneously slowed by 14.5% since the 1990s, an unprecedented record of decline in the 400 years of record keeping and the up to 420,000 years of carefully calculated history.

As one of the experts put it, "This is a major issue. It's looming, and it's very predictable."

I was disheartened to hear that even getting our carbon count down to 350 ppm, which is a commonly agreed upon goal, will not be enough to save the reefs. Unfortunately, it is more likely that reefs may disappear over the course of the next 50 years.

Yes, I am deeply saddened that my future children will not have the same opportunity to take in this "underwater playground" one day. Yes, the scientific community will lose one of the most extraordinary "living laboratories" in all the world. Yes, I will likely never have a second opportunity to observe the wildlife found in the great "nursery's of the ocean" provided by coral reefs off the coast of Australia.

But none of this is what brought me to tears yesterday. That did not occur until a moving speech by a representative from the small island states who spoke to the threat to the very life of island peoples, something I hadn't given proper consideration to before. Coral reefs serve as a "first line of defense" for these small islands against your every day ocean waves. As island nations are so close to sea level, without the reefs these islands will likely be submerged, losing land, culture, and most importantly life.

The representative explained that if reefs disappear before the more prevalently discussed sea level rises occur, the small islands will still be swept away into the sea. Even if by some miracle they were able to survive, in some areas their entire income will be lost, as reef-generated tourism is the most significant source of income for many small island nations.

When comparing the threats of reef destruction and sea level rise, the island nation representative stated, "It's not a question anymore of whether these things are a threat. The question is, which is the shorter term threat? Unfortunately, it appears that both will occur at the same time."

1.5 To Stay Alive. This is the rally cry of the island nations, many of whom feel the survival of the reefs is the same cause, the same fight as the survival of their entire nation's people.

 



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