Loving the World to Death

Global warming – caused partly by flights to coral islands – is killing the world’s reefs

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 26th June 1999.

Environmentalists have long been accused of scaremongering. In Britain, where people are insulated from all but the most severe environmental change, massive ecological disruption still seems, to many people, utterly implausible. Corporate scientists, Telegraph journalists and TV series like the BBC’s Scare Stories and Channel 4’s Against Nature have sought to suggest that environmental catastrophe is simply a fantasy dreamt up by green pressure groups. I’m sorry to say that they have just been proved wrong.

At least one of the world’s great ecosystems is now on the point of total collapse. It will pull down not only the surrounding systems with which it interacts, but also the subsistence of some tens of millions of the developing world’s people. The meltdown has begun.

Last year, marine biologists reported that between 70 and 90 per cent of the coral reefs they surveyed in the Indian Ocean had just died. This year, much of the remainder is likely to follow.

The reefs, as every snorkler and scuba diver knows, support staggering numbers of other animals and plants. Though they cover only 0.3 per cent of the area of the oceans, they harbour 25 per cent of all the world’s fish species. While they are important fisheries in own right, they are also the spawning grounds of many of the species caught elsewhere. Some 9 or 10 million people survive solely by fishing on and around them. For many millions more, coral reefs act as the shock absorbers between their homes and the ocean. If they die and then break up, they will expose coastal communities all over the tropical world to repeated natural disasters. They are also, of course, among the foundations of the tourist industry, on which, for good or ill, many of the world’s poorest countries now rely as a source of foreign exchange.

Coral looks and feels like rock and, indeed, most of the reef is just that: encrustations of calcium carbonate, in some places thousands of feet thick. But the rock is formed by living organisms: tiny animals, or polyps, living in mutual dependence with microscopic algae. The polyps provide a home for the algae, and the algae, by turning the sun’s energy into sugars, provide food for the polyps. Their relationship is a great survival strategy in stable cicumstances. But because it suffers from all the afflictions of both animals and plants, coral is extremely sensitive to change.

The reefs are being destroyed by scores of human activities. They are being broken up by divers and traders collecting souvenirs and poisoned or blasted by fishermen using cyanide or dynamite. Many have been smothered by sewage or soil erosion: when the algae are deprived of sunlight they die. But by far the greatest affliction is global, rather than local. While all of us are bear responsibility for their decline, those who love the reefs most are, paradoxically, among those most culpable of their destruction. For the coral reef ecosystem is the first of the major victims of global climate change.

When the temperature of the ocean rises by more than a degree or so, the algae which live in the coral evacuate. As the sugars they produced run out, the polyps go hungry. Last year, which appears to have been the warmest of the millennium, the ocean temperature rose by up to 2.4 degrees. Thousands of miles of reefs in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf, South East Asia and the Western Pacific starved to death. This year the sea is likely to become warmer still.

Even when the corals are not killed directly by hunger, it seems to have made them susceptible to other ailments. In January, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that coral diseases have increased by more than 400 per cent in the past three years. Many of them are new to science, but seem to be linked with human pathogens: sewage pollution from coastal towns and tourist resorts appears to be infecting them, much as it might sicken human swimmers.

Nothing can save the world’s coral unless we begin, immediately, to keep our environmental promises and consume far less fossil fuel. And one of the things this means is that, if we truly value coral reefs, we must stop travelling around the world to see them, for long haul flights are rapidly becoming one of the major sources of global warming. Why is it that tourism always seems condemned to destroy that which it most loves?