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If You're Not Terrified by Climate Change, Just Consider the Great Barrier Reef

Climate change is set to erode the reef at a record pace. What used to take centuries is now happening in less than a generation.
Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, Cairns, Australia (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Googanji people on the northeastern coast of Australia tell of a time when they could follow a river 25 miles through what is now ocean to the current location of the Great Barrier Reef. This story has been preserved without being written down for over 12,000 years, from when sea levels were 200 feet lower than they are today and the Great Barrier Reef was not a reef but groups of cave-pocked hills. The Great Barrier Reef is the best-protected reef in the world: a World Heritage site and an Australian marine park, home to hundreds of species of fish, coral, and sharks. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has successfully reduced threats to the reef from major industrial ports, agriculture, and poachers, and plans to spend over two billion dollars over the next decade to preserve the reef.

Despite this high degree of national protection and funding devoted to the reef, the leading expert on coral, Charlie Veron, told the Royal Society in 2009 that it is on track to be eviscerated within the next generation. Between 1985 and 2012, nearly half the coral in the Great Barrier Reef was lost to cyclones, crown of thorns star fish, and bleaching events. But Veron has described in detail how modern climate change is on track to change the ocean so drastically that corals and the reefs they build will be driven to extinction faster than in any previous mass extinction event.

The popular notion that climate change happens slowly and in small increments is a failure of human perspective. The rate of change happening in our environment is unprecedented over the past 450 million years of geological history.

Until the modern age, it used to take millennia to destroy a species completely. Today we can destroy natural habitats much more efficiently.

If the Great Barrier Reef is wiped out, it wouldn’t be the first time. Each of the five mass-extinction events have wiped coral out, after which coral re-evolved again from scratch. Corals and the marine life they support have battled changes in temperature, water levels, and weather events like cyclones and tsunamis. They have lost, died, and evolved again over periods of millions of years.

But the similarity between previous mass extinction events and what is happening today only sounds similar because we use the word extinction without much context for how extinction happens. Scientists call extinction an “event,” but the environmental changes of the past have occurred over tens of thousands—or in the case of the Devonian and Jurassic extinctions, millions—of years. Populations of animals, plants, etc. weren’t destroyed overnight or over centuries.

Until the modern age, it used to take millennia to destroy a species completely. Today we can destroy natural habitats much more efficiently.

The challenge here is that, to a casual observer, it doesn’t appear that the world is ending. The world seems to exist today in much the same way it did yesterday.

This is the case with the impending annihilation of the Great Barrier Reef. We don’t immediately grasp the importance of limiting climate change to a couple of degrees over the next few decades. The change can seem small, inconsequential. If we do happen to experience a moment of climate clarity, it is exceptionally difficult to use that information in a meaningful way—especially when what is required of us is a change to our way of life, a change that might require great cost (or at least great inconvenience) and still not be enough to save the reefs unless millions of others make those same sacrifices—and teach their children to do the same.

And so a growing amount of carbon dioxide will be contributed to the atmosphere this year as countries like America and China continue to use coal as a primary source of power generation and gasoline for transportation. Oceans will continue to act as a sponge for carbon dioxide, and surface temperatures will rise around the world. The increased water temperature will cause symbiotic bacteria in corals of the Great Barrier Reef to produce toxically high levels of oxygen, which will kill colonies of coral that are centuries or even millennia old and occupy the equivalent of Japan’s landmass under water. Even as leading carbon emitters find a path toward sustainable levels of carbon emissions, the allure of coal-powered energy is too powerful for developing nations to forgo.

If the Great Barrier Reef dies, something else dies with it. The most diverse marine ecosystem on our planet does not go gentle into that good night. The impact of a marine extinction event would likely mean the extinction of major elements of terrestrial life. The Great Barrier Reef is a canary in the mineshaft that can be seen from outer space.

A mere handful of human generations will destroy an ecosystem that has existed since the Ice Age unless we can develop lifelong commitments to atone for the sins of our parents. The tragedy of modern American life is that most of the communities that used to support lifelong commitments are in their own final stages of extinction. The ones that aren’t, primarily evangelical churches, don’t traditionally identify climate change as part of their mission, though this is slowly changing. The idea of making a lifelong commitment is antiquated. But this is exactly what is required of us, because a human life is very short, and it will be a long time before we can heal the damage that has been done.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.