What can we do with the reefs’ death spiral? Start with the ethics!


The state of the reefs presents the climate action movement with a some very difficult issues that I think we will need to face up to urgently.

The most serious Great Barrier Reef bleaching events have been 1998, 2002 and 2016. The intervals between these events were: 4 years and 14 years.

Depending on the severity of the bleaching event and the robustness of particular local reef systems the recovery time is between 10 to 30 years. Some scientist say as a shorthand that most reefs need recovery times of 10 to 15 years.

So, on the face of it the average earth temperature is already too hot because the recovery times for the Great Barrier Reef are already too short.

Reef systems in a death spiral
My understanding from current climate science is that while this year’s extraordinary spike of warming – about 1.9°C above pre-industrial level – will not be repeated for some years, it would be quite possible to get new large-scale bleaching events in less than 10 years time – even with a lower temperature spike.

What this means, I believe, is that the world’s reef systems are currently in a death spiral driven by the CO2 level in the air now.

So what should we do?

Over the last 30 years climate campaigners have been working to build awareness of the climate issue and to get governments/nations committed to some sort. The conclusion of the Paris Agreement – assuming enough countries sign on to bring it into effect – brings this era of slow garnering of global support to an end. Or at least I think it should do.

But the Paris Agreement, at its best, locks in higher global average temperatures than we currently experience. This means that the overwhelming bulk of the world reefs will not survive and all the atoll nations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans will be submerged – along with the world’s large food producing river deltas – Ganges, Mekong, Nile, Yellow River, etc.

Start with the ethics
It seems to me that we need to switch the way we campaign – from here on. I think we have to start with the ethics: Do we really want to protect the world’s vulnerable people, ecosystems and species?

If so, we need to go to the ecosystem and human ecology scientists and ask them what conditions are needed for vulnerable people, ecosystems and species to survive and thrive? Then we need to go to the climate / earth system scientists and ask them what needs to be done – clearly now at emergency speed – to deliver these conditions.

I think we need to bring our demands and our campaigning up-to-date with the state of the climate as it is now – rather than how it was 30 or so years ago when climate activism first cranked up.

philip-sutton150Philip Sutton is co-author of ‘Climate Code Red’ and Strategist, RSTI. Read more on www.green-innovations.asn.au

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Dying reef is a political failure

This page contains numerous news stories and scientific findings about the Reef:

‘Dear environment minister, it’s time for simple logic to dictate your policies’
» www.climatesafety.info/reefbleaching