Donald Trump Is Wiping Out the World's Coral Reefs and Small Islands And We're Not Doing Anything to Stop It

coral reefs and climate change
Coral reefs are highly sensitive to climate change, and may experience most damage at relatively low warming thresholds. “Once you've killed off the coral reefs you are no longer at risk of killing off the coral reefs,” explains Ken Caldeira, an environmental scientist at Stanford University. Dr. Line K Bay/Australian Institute of Marine Science

The island nation of Fiji hosted the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn last week, bringing attention to the plight of small islands under climate change. Fiji is already facing migration of its people, loss of coral reefs, and more intense cyclones such as the one last year that wiped out a third of its GDP. Fiji is also home to the Great Sea Reef, the third longest continuous barrier reef in the world.

All the countries in the world except the U.S. have now backed the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep climate change below 2 degrees of warming and strive for 1.5 degrees. However, to save coral reefs the world needs to meet the more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees, a level at which around a third of coral reefs may survive. Any warmer that this – and scientists expect virtually none of the world's coral reefs to survive.

There is still hope for the world's coral reefs, but President Donald Trump's stance on climate change means he is actively contributing to their destruction.

1.5 degrees: Last call for corals

This year, carbon dioxide reached record levels not seen for millions of years, making oceans more acidic. This reduces the ability of corals to build skeletons, which combined with rising sea temperatures and stronger storms is contributing to their death.

For this reason, coral reefs have been cited as one of the early causalities of climate change. Sometimes known as the 'rainforests of the sea', coral reefs support about a quarter of all ocean fish species. They are a vital part of ocean food webs and as a nursery for young fish, their loss would be devastating for ocean life.

Not only do more than 500 million people around the world directly rely on coral reefs for their livelihood, income and food, but coral reefs provide an estimated $375 billion per year in goods and services to the world.

President Trump's rejection of climate science not only affects coral reefs – it could affect life on earth. For instance, phytoplankton in the ocean produce over half the world's oxygen supplies. Global warming of six degrees could interfere with this, meaning oxygen levels would plummet and life on earth could suffocate. If we burn all known fossil fuel reserves, the planet could warm by more than six degrees as soon as the end of this century.

To achieve the Paris Agreement, we need to keep the majority of the world's fossil fuel reserves in the ground. However, last week, amid protests from campaigners, the United States hosted an event at the UN Climate Conference to promote fossil fuels. Trump is actively working against global efforts on climate change, leading to the destruction of the world's coral reefs and low-lying small islands.

Raising ambition

Existing climate pledges under the Paris Agreement are not nearly sufficient to achieve the two-degree goal, let alone to keep warming to a level that would save coral reefs. In fact, national pledges only add up to around 3.2 degrees. Recent data does not look good either – global emissions are expected to go up again this year after remaining relatively flat for three years.

In order to have a chance of enabling some reefs to survive, global emissions must peak immediately, which means coal power must be phased out within the next ten years. Some countries are doing this already, with Canada and the U.K. announcing this week a new global alliance on coal phase out.

Efforts have also begun to save coral reefs through coral gardening – growing the most resilient strains of corals and transplanting them into the ocean. However, it is unlikely this can be done on a large enough or fast enough scale to save huge reefs. There have also been calls for a global 'seed bank' for corals to preserve existing coral strains with the hope of restoring them later. This is urgent because damages have already occurred, for example, a third of Australia's Great Barrier Reef died from bleaching last year.

There is still a fading hope for coral reefs if we raise global ambition on climate change. Globally, renewable energy is getting cheaper which may make this easier, with solar energy costs expected to fall by a further 60% over the next ten years. Earlier this year, solar prices reached a record low in India, making solar cheaper than fossil fuels and prompting a rethink on coal projects.

In addition, many sub-national cities and states are raising ambition on air pollution and climate change. Several U.S. states including Washington State and Oregon have already joined the new alliance to phase out coal. There are also individual actions we can take – from buying efficient cars to eating sustainably.

However, President Trump is standing in the way. All countries will need to phase out fossil fuels by mid-century to meet the Paris climate goals. This will have to include Russia – one of the world's leading oil and gas producers and exporters. Trump's support for fossil fuels is giving Russia an economic gift, but condemning the rest of the world to mass destruction.

Unless Trump changes his stance, the world will hold the U.S. responsible for the damages to coral reefs and small islands. The clock is ticking, and time is running out.

Dr. Helena Wright is a senior policy adviser at independent sustainability organization E3G currently based in Fiji.

Donald Trump Is Wiping Out the World's Coral Reefs and Small Islands And We're Not Doing Anything to Stop It | Opinion