Urgent action needed: Reef could die in 20 years

“If we don’t cut back on emissions very dramatically, we are going to look at loss of things like the Great Barrier Reef and other coral ecosystems,” Prof Hoegh-Guldberg said.
“If we take it seriously and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent in the next 30 years, we have chance of saving these ecosystems but this is the last time we have the option to choose.”

This warning from Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in the Courier Mail today typifies note of urgency in the early reports of the IPCC’s latest report, urgency that stems from the report itself.

You can access the Summary for Policymakers (yet to be copy-edited) from the IPCC websitealong with associated material, or go directly to the pdf file.

Andrew Bartlett was quick out of the blocks with lots of links and a promise to add more as they become available. Onya Andrew! A visit to his entry is highly recommended.

This introductory an post and LP posters may return for further analysis as time permits. I’ll extract the Australia and New Zealand summary for your convenience:

As a result of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation, water security problems are projected to intensify by 2030 in southern and eastern Australia and, in New Zealand, in Northland and some eastern regions.**

Significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some ecologically-rich sites including the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland Wet Tropics. Other sites at risk include Kakadu wetlands, south-west Australia, sub-Antarctic islands and alpine areas of both countries.***

Ongoing coastal development and population growth in areas such as Cairns and South-East Queensland (Australia) and Northland to Bay of Plenty (New Zealand), are projected to exacerbate risks from sea-level rise and increases in the severity and frequency of storms and coastal flooding by 2050.***

Production from agriculture and forestry by 2030 is projected to decline over much of southern and eastern Australia, and over parts of eastern New Zealand, due to increased drought and fire. However, in New Zealand, initial benefits to agriculture and forestry are projected in western and southern areas and close to major rivers due to a longer growing season, less frost and increased rainfall.**

The region has substantial adaptive capacity due to well-developed economies and scientific and technical capabilities, but there are considerable constraints to implementation and major challenges from changes in extreme events. Natural systems have limited adaptive capacity.***

** denotes High confidence About 8 out of 10 chance.

*** denotes Very high confidence At least 9 out of 10 chance.

What impresses is the relatively short time frame used in relation to other parts of the report and the high degree of confidence. Hoegh-Guldberg again:

“If we don’t cut back on emissions very dramatically, we are going to look at loss of things like the Great Barrier Reef and other coral ecosystems,” Prof Hoegh-Guldberg said.

“If we take it seriously and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent in the next 30 years, we have chance of saving these ecosystems but this is the last time we have the option to choose.” [Emphasis mine]

I heard on the BBC the comment that this report will be read by heads of state rather than just environment ministers. There is no doubt that it has been provided in good time for the G8 plus 5 (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) meeting in June, about which I plan to post soon.

In this regard the useful BBC summary says:

Several delegations, including the US, Saudi Arabia, China and India, had asked for the final version to reflect less certainty than the draft.

Angry disagreement, shouting matches and sessions deep into the night is what I heard. But it is good to see that the UN panel members extraordinarily debonair and alert to present their findings.

The Angst does seem to have been worthwhile.

Meanwhile here’s Minister Turnbull:

“In terms of the impact on Australia there’s nothing in the report that is not well known to us,” he said.

“Indeed most of the conclusions in the report come straight from work by the CSIRO which has been informing our climate change policies for some time.”

Good to know, Malcolm!

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35 comments on “Urgent action needed: Reef could die in 20 years
  1. Katz says:

    That’s an interesting article Obby. (No, I mean it.)

    There would be a more direct measurement of Mars’s climate in the size and extent of Mars’s ice-caps.

    It is well recorded that Earth’s ice-caps are dwindling.

    If this effect is extraterrestrial in origin, then one would expect, all other things being equal, that Mars’s ice-caps might be observed to dwindle too.

  2. Brian says:

    Next thing we’ll be told that it’s all because the sun’s getting hotter, which it is. But it’s been getting hotter for the last 40 million years while the earth has been getting colder.

  3. pablo says:

    If Prof. Hoegh- Guldberg is on the level then the two options he is offering on the Great Barrier Reef really amount to one – accept that it will be gone by 2037.
    By saying that emissions will have to be cut 80% by that date, it is very hard to see any chance of reconciling this prediction with the various current offerings of 50% by 2060 or was that 60% by 2050?

    In all of these ‘best estimates’ I suggest that in place of the next one hour ‘lights-out’ spectacular there be a series of Canberra sanctioned exercises whereby we try and get by on energy savings plus alternatives.

    If these practice runs were planned for, say a 24 hour period every six months or so, energy users could come to grips with using less. Gains, or failures, would be assessed without ‘spin’ and we could all get a realistic feel for what the future holds. We might even get closer to that figure put forward by the good professor. Otherwise see the reef while you can.

  4. tim says:

    Great summary, Brian (and Andrew Bartlett).

    This is the kind of angle that is desperately lacking in the MSM and major party policy debate on climate. Timelines and extent of the cuts necessary. Paul Kelly’s piece today http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21515264-601,00.html typifies the fact that it has become entirely divorced from scientific reality. I mean, try applying a simple cap and trade scheme that would achieve 80% cuts by 2037 (and a substantial proportion of those by 2020). That’s certainly not what Kelly, and the industry backers, have in mind, it would be safe to assume.

    I’d love to see an economic analysis of it, but I cannot imagine that such a scheme would have a lesser economic impact than a trading scheme supplemented by policy to encourage development of low emissions activities and industries fast.

    Robert or anyone, would you care to convince me?

  5. Brian says:

    On ABC Newsradio I heard the US NPR All things considered program today. They said that China and Saudi Arabia had successfully got the confidence levels reduced in several areas. Also the Europeans wanted a statement indicating that the great majoriy of emissions were coming from the advanced economies, successfully opposed by the US.

    The Independent has an account of the ructions that shows clear political interference in the process in the final phase. It’s pissing some scientists off and there is an indication that the problem might be worse in the next phase on mitigation (pdf) to be considered on 30 April – 3 May in Bangkok. That’s when the rubber hits the road.

    But we lack a definitive account so far on the extent and nature of the ructions. If anyone finds one, please let us know.

  6. Brian says:

    pablo, the ‘reef could die in 20 years’ thing was a headline in the Courier Mail and Hoegh-Guldberg does appear to have said it. I heard him on the radio this morning and from memory 20 years was the early boundary of a bandwidth he gave.

    So it’s a possibility rather than a probability, but the precautionary principle should apply.

    As I said on another thread, I think Stern may have been using the target of 90% by 2050 in private briefings. Personally, I’d like to see what George Monbiot has to say about it when I land his book Heat. Here’s a preview:

    But at least almost everyone now agrees that we must act, if not at the necessary speed. If we’re to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. [Emphasis mine]

    Tim on the Paul Kelly article, I can’t see how he justifies this pronouncement as it applies to Labor and the Greens:

    AUSTRALIA’S political class is about to face its moment of truth on global warming – the formation of a long-run national policy to achieve over decades a low-emission economy. This will involve more concessions by the Howard Government, political embarrassment for the Labor Party, the alienation of the Greens and shocks for the public, aware of the problem yet hazy about solutions.

    But the article does, I think, warn about the power struggle for control of the agenda:

    Have no doubt what is happening: Australia’s pro-market economic establishment in the Treasury and the BCA is trying to seize control of climate-change policy. The aim is to reverse the water policy saga where Treasury was sidelined.

    This sends a shiver up my spine. My experience in the public service at state level was that Treasury had great power and you couldn’t get past them unless you had a big bunch of Commonwealth funds behind you, as I did at times. But a bunch of bean counters or even economists don’t necessarily have superior policy insights in substantive areas. And as for the BCA…

  7. Bernice says:

    The reef loss is not just about econ-systems & wee fishes – its a living structure that protects much of the Queensland coast from the worst of tropical cyclones (and apparently tsunamis) – rising sea temperatures are modelling much larger storm cells – take away the buffer &……there goes the real estate

  8. Brian says:

    Bernice, that’s right and it’s a worry.

    Funnily enough in recent years cyclones seem to be staying further north than they used to, but it remains to be seen how the pattern develops. I recall one hitting the Gold Coast in the 1950s producing 36 inches of rain in 24 hours at Springbrook, still the Australian record. That’s from memory, so don’t quote me.

    Also I think Larry last year and a smaller one early in 2005 that hit further north were exceptional in their strength, a sign of things to come.

  9. observa says:

    Then again this might be the sign of things to come

  10. MarkL says:

    Yeah, Observa, the whackjobs and hysterics at the UN are at it again.

    In particular, I’d like to know just why the reef did not die 128,000 years ago (or 240,000 years ago, or 325,000 years ago) when the world was about 2.5 to 3 deg C warmer than it is now and Co2 levels were as high or higher than now. See http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=010405M.

    Damned mysterious, that….. But of course, ‘The Reef’ll be Rooned, said Hanrahan’ but a 2 deg C rise now – and it is all Bush’s fault and don’t dare question their religious beliefs on that matter.

    But maybe the Stone Age greenies and the Paleolithic UN stopped those bloody Neandertals using their SUV’s and made it all better.

    I bet Chimpster W Bushitler was to blame, anyway.

    What astounds me is that people actually believe this overhyped hysteria.


  11. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Well, yes, Bodywork Ornithologist reckons it’s the ocean currents but they actually cool the earth; this global warming is a giant con perpetrated by basketweavers.

    Anyway, with the Reef a pile of rocks we can start drilling for oil there, and knock out a decent passage through it for ships to facilitate trade, without greenies screaming blue murder. If there’s a rise in sea levels, more real eastate will become prime oceanfront, and then our GDP will go up – all our supers have a realo component, remember, hence another win all round. Plus Tasmania will get groovy by becoming subtropical. We’re on a winner.

    PS With hotter weather, chicks in bikinis more often, hey!

  12. Tim Lambert says:

    Actually, MarkL, the graph you linked to shows that in previous interglacials, CO2 levels peaked at 280 ppm, which is much less than the current 380 ppm. In any event, the reef is about 20,000 years old, so I’m not sure why you think it was around 125,000 years ago.

  13. Brian says:

    What Sir Henry said (I think).

    I’m not a climate scientist and it’s not for me to debunk the debunkers, but hre’s a few comments anyway.

    observa, I don’t think the whole GW/CC paradigm stands or falls on the number of hurricanes that hit the USA in the last couple of years. As I understand it, it’s one of the more marginal effects and we need to see how it works out over a long period of time. But in general terms if the ocean is warmer there should be more energy in the system, hence more powerful hurricanes.

    I notice he doesn’t mention the El Niño last year and what effect that might have had. There are a few other things he leaves out too.

    But you might ask the insurance companies how the incidence of destructive unusual weather events is going around the world.

  14. Brian says:

    MarkL that article is from 2004. I thought you had something new to offer.

    You started by sneering at “the whackjobs and hysterics at the UN”, which happens to be the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists with relevant expertise. It you think they’re nuts then anything I say isn’t going to convince you.

    On the matter of coral reefs, I understand they do come and go, and at times have virtually disappeared for millions of years. Also there is a definitional issue in what “die” means. I think they mean that the Great Barrier Reef would be sufficiently destroyed to substantially wreck the complex reef ecologies and let the surf roll in. It doesn’t mean every last bit of coral would be gone.

    Nevertheless the article makes a plausible case to begin with, but I lost confidence in him as I went. Everyone knows that the climate has fluctuated over the ages. He says that there is no correlation with CO2 levels, but he doesn’t mention other variables such as the disposition of the continents on the globe. Looking at the 65 million year graph how does he explain the PETM incident 55 million years ago. just a little blip that lasted 100,000 years or more and was associated with a significant release of methane.

    When he got onto the water vapour bit he really lost me. The effect of water vapour plus clouds is between 66 and 85% not 98%. You can read the rest of the story at the RealClimate article linked, but that’s when I became sure he was off his head.

    Also he doesn’t mention aerosols, which have a significant role. Why not?

    This apparently clever man doesn’t realise that we’ve never had human beings swarming all over the planet before in plague proportions. And no-one has dug up all the fossil carbon sequestered over 300 million years or so and flung it up into the air in a geological nanosecond.

    I’ve lost the reference, but recently one of the RealClimate scientists said that the relationship between extra CO2 in the atmosphere and temperature was as scientifically solid as dropping a bowling ball from a plane and expecting it to go down, not up.

    You’ll have to do better than that to dislodge the accepted paradigm.

  15. Brian says:

    Thanks, Tim L, I didn’t see your comment earlier, but I have to find something to amuse myself.

    Observa, along the way I found out that the US had 3 more hurricanes than average for an El Niño year last year. If the guy was fair dinkum why didn’t he mention that?

  16. observa says:

    What we do know is the IPCC are now 90% sure (80% if we take China, Saudi Arabia and Russia into account) that CO2 is the cause of serious GW. The news articles I refer to, are still significant noise, suggesting we can’t discount that 10 or perhaps 20% doubt. That’s my serious concern with the rush to cap and trade like Kyoto. I’d rather see carbon taxing, because it might be one helluva mess, if 10 years down the track of Kyoto, we discover that Mars and Earth are warming for the same reason, among many other possibilities. Essentially playing God with a grand plan like Kyoto is superficially attractive, but historically fraught with disaster.

  17. Brian says:

    Observa, there are two issues here related to scientific certainty. One is the precautionary principle and the need to act on the basis of what we know, given the seriousness of what we are dealing with.

    The other is the notion of scientific paradigm’s, which we know can change from time to time. We need to be open to science that seems to, or actually does, put an alternative view. I’d encourage you to keep drawing such science to our attention.

    In the case of the article MarkL linked to, IMHO that stuff has been considered and dealt with and bringing it up has no more than nuisance value.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    The other worry that I had about the article you linked to, Observa, was that one could grant that ocean currents have something to do with hurricane activity. It seems logical that they would. Yet we know that the Gulf Stream has weakened by up to 30%, presumably by the influx of fresh water from the melting in the Arctic, Greenland etc.

    Logically the thermohaline circulation (THC) (here’s an even more complicated version) carries these effects far and wide. Salinity in the waters near Florida could be affected. I’ve read somewhere that the monsoons may have been altered by this phenomenon.

    I wonder why the author didn’t mention these things, or might they upset his own little paradigm?

    As to playing God, the dominant paradigm says that AGW has overwhelmed the fluctuations of the natural pattern of climate change. Given the increasingly erratic pattern of the last five million years and the rather nasty cooling trend of more than 50 million years, playing God may just what we need if we get it right.

  18. Brian says:

    BTW who thinks the climate in Australia will be the same in 250 million years time?

  19. observa says:

    I’d point out more generally that we can allow GG and GW to become an all consuming passion, when the environmental problems we face are somewhat broader and deeper than that. Even if we stumbled upon or unlocked some great technological breakthrough immediately, with some clean, cheap, abundant energy source, we would still face the problem of using that energy to further utilise our natural environment. IMO, that’s where the GW phenomenon needs to be the catalyst for a total rethink about the constitution of our current marketplace. Without that, I think we’re all just running about like headless chooks. The answers lie there, rather than some grand plan. History tells us that and furthermore, there is no better point to start from than where we are right now.

  20. observa says:

    To reiterate- the simplest, most effective constitutional marketplace we could think of to reduce GG emissions would be to agree to move the world’s economies to a carbon taxing regime only. Junk every other form of taxation (well you might want excise on beer and smokes perhaps) and go for the fossil fuel jugular. That would be as politically feasible as getting international agreement on Kyoto targets, let alone individually policing them. If you think like Al Gore, etc that GG/GW is the greatest threat to mankind/civilisation ever, then that marketplace is the best solution, bar none. However, the moment you waiver from that purist position, to consider other pressing problems, your constitutional framework begins to change. The question is, where does that process logically lead you? At present there’s just a lot of political static, rather than any serious examination of the issues. Kyoto is one international result of this junk economics, like banning plastic shopping bags and changing light bulbs. Our national politics reflects that at present with a mini auction of such largely, inconsequential, feel good, measures. Of course Howard’s right that deforestation is one of our problems(bucks for tree saving) and so is Rudd that we will need more renewables(solar subsides), but overall this is bucket rattling and Bert Kelly’s Cow stuff. It has nothing to do with sensible, environmentally sustainable farming practice.

  21. rob says:

    Wait…I thought is was already dead..

    Crown of thorns…no..it was the runoff from the cane fields..no…wait it was the tourists..no wait…Y2K (Ooops sorry that was the planes falling out of the sky)..nuclear winter..aaaaaaaaaaaghhhhh

  22. Helen says:

    Crown of thorns…no..it was the runoff from the cane fields..no…wait it was the tourists..no wait…Y2K (Ooops sorry that was the planes falling out of the sky)..nuclear winter..aaaaaaaaaaaghhhhh

    Is there a point in there somewhere?

  23. steve says:

    That’s my serious concern with the rush to cap and trade like Kyoto. I’d rather see carbon taxing

    Obby ,Howard has come out swinging and scrapped the idea of a carbon tax moments after the Productivity Commission Report was handed down this week. Priministerial Responsibility with no input from Cabinet, Treasury or anyone else no doubt. I thought this was the sort of Government that you had been calling for.

    Never position yourself between a Liberal Government and Ministerial leather Obby, unless you are prepared to be steamrolled. I do however admire your courage! It’s put you in the invidious position of having to support the left if you want your Federal representative to represent your views.

  24. hc says:

    Brian, Did you actually read the IPCC summary document or just extract the bit that had to do with Australia. The report didn’t make Professor H-G’s claims about the ref. Your heading doesn’t match up with what the IPCC said.

    You ridicule Turnbull but cite for me one observation about Australia that is new. Most of the generalities here have been pushed by CSIRO since 2001. Perhaps the claims about Cairns and other parts of Queensland coast going under water are new. The new claims about the MDB are not explained and represent only one possible outcome from those seen as likely.

    The claims about the reef are possible – anything is – but need to be firmed up with more work. The kind of hysteria you are evidently tryiong to whip up with this post does nothing to promote the case for dealing with real global warming issues.

  25. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    Oh come on Harry, we’re not being hysterical or alarmist enough. Malthus was only wrong in respect of food supply. We’ll all be rooned because of the psychopathology of corporations where human beings’ (and other living things’) needs are subsumed under the profit imperative. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a thermonuclear bang but a whimper in the heatwave.

  26. Brian says:

    hc, my titles are usually boring and descriptive compared with those of my fellow LP bloggers. I like them to be descriptive, but they are also a hook, together with what you put above the fold. Not excessively so, but if you don’t engage and give some idea of what the post is about fewer people will read it.

    Anyway I’d had less than two hours sleep when I wrote the post on Saturday am. I had trouble choosing a title and if I had my time over I almost certainly would have chosen something else.

    BUT, the subtitle comes from the Courier Mail article I linked to, which in turn is a simplified quote for:

    “I’d say with 20 to 50 years under the current unrestricted emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere it is highly likely that it will be significantly changed to the point where we no longer have live corals,” he said.

    So the 20 is the lower bound of the range in the Prof’s own words. And “die” is a reasonable interpretation of “where we no longer have live corals”. Compare this with the IPCC:

    Significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some ecologically-rich sites including the Great Barrier Reef…

    Like Andrew Bartlett, I wanted to highlight the Great Barrier Reef.

    My impression was that there was a note of urgency in the report.

    Now it is good that Turnbull is up to date on all these matters, and good to know that he listens to those who are paid to advise him (cf Ken Henry and Treasury). It was the latter aspect that I was referring to. So I wasn’t ridiculing him, but I do think that his response to the report has been inadequate, playing it down and giving the impression that the Govt is doing everything necessary and reasonable. If you picked that up from my tone it was intentional. My question is, Turnbull may have listened, but has he heard?

  27. Sandystone says:

    coral coral everywhere do we really need it in a election year?

    From my spot not many voters give a toss one way or the other………and thats what counts when your wish is to hold on to power over the masses.

  28. Brian says:

    So, Sandystone, you reckon Howard is on a winner in backing coal miners’ jobs over tourist jobs?

  29. steve says:

    hc, If it is true that there is nothing new since 2001, then it begs the question what has this do nothing Howard Government been doing in the meantime? Why haven’t we had a full debate and now ready to implement the solutions?

  30. Enemy Combatant says:

    Well do pardon us Harry (hc).

    “The kind of hysteria you are evidently tryiong to whip up with this post does nothing to promote the case for dealing with real global warming issues.”

    What fools we are worrying about our Great Barrier Reef and our biosphere while the economy is just zingin’. Longterm everyone’s a winner right? Plenty of good jobs right there to be made, profiting from the Extinction Trade.

  31. Andrew E says:

    Well, I’m doing what I can :/

  32. Cato says:

    Twenty miles from where I live are fossil coral reefs from more then 300 million years ago. They are preserved so well you can see each individual Coral polyp. This is in southern Ontario Canada.
    Coral first appeared more than 500 million years ago. In the time since, the Earth has had many warming and cooling periods.
    All the previous Global Warmings and Global Coolings, what caused those? How did coral survive those times?
    Apparently there have been times when the Earth was so warm, it had no ice caps at all. And other times it was so cold that is was almost covered in ice, and the sea levels were hundreds of feet lower. We had nothing to do with those occasions.

    Can somebody please explain what caused those disasters? And how come there is still life on this Earth after these disasters of the past?

  33. Brian says:

    Cato, the school I went to in the middle of last century didn’t teach biology, so I claim no expertise.

    It might be instructive, though, to look at the biggest extinction event of all, the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) extinction event 251 million years ago. It seems that it was probably caused by the release of huge quantities of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, but degrades into CO2 which lasts much longer in the atmosphere.

    There was another large release of methane in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), 55 million years ago, again with large temperature rises and significant extinctions.

    I gather the rest of the extinction events may have been caused by impacts.

    So now we are digging up carbon sequestered in the earth’s crust and putting it up in the atmosphere about 30 times faster than 55 million years ago. The uptick in the temperature back then shown in this graph lasted 100,000 to 200,000 years.

    It may be just as well that things are now warming up a bit, because we were in a strong cooling trend over more than 65 million years. Things were getting as cold as they had been for 450 million years, especially in the last 3 million years.

    Circumstances suited us very well in the last 10,000 years and we’ve spread everywhere. But these sudden changes in temperature and climate often close off the opportunities for particular species. It’s generally thought that if the temperature goes up by 5-6C then we’ll not do so well. We’ll lose land equivalent to the continent of Africa for starters.

    But we’ll survive as a species. In the past, if I’m interpreting this graph correctly, biodiversity has continued to increase in spite of setbacks. One can’t be sure, though. The earth has never seen a predator and a destroyer of habitats that came close to homo sapiens.

    But there must have been a few bits of coral that survived somewhere throughout. I believe they were very scarce for 10 million years after the Permian-Triassic event.

  34. melaleuca says:


    I think there is something like 20,000 species of coral and not all of them actually build reefs.

    Some species of coral, and in particular some of the “brain species” which do not offer much in the way of habitat, can begin to dominate a reef subsequent to prolonged warming. Hence the GBR and various other reefs may survive global warming but only as a barren monoculture. The fact that miniscule numbers of coral might cling on to existence, like the Wollemi pine, in some tiny remnant niches is not something we should be happy about. These facts are what tricksy folk like “Cato” fail to tell us.

    I enjoy your posts and look forward to more of them. Cheers.

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