By Pranav Prakash:
The world awoke on Thursday to the most universally recognisable obituary report since the passing of Princess Diana. The Great Barrier Reef, which had survived the last 25 million years of environmental evolution, was reported to have met its end; this, at the hands of a species that still endlessly denies the catastrophic impact that it has had on climate change over the past few decades. Later it was accurately reported that while the reef is not ‘dead’, it is indeed ‘dying’.
Researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies who undertook an expedition earlier this year discovered that over a third of the corals in the Reef had already been killed and about 93% had been affected by coral bleaching. This phenomenon occurs when water that is warmer than it should be causes the corals to expel tiny algae that live in their tissues symbiotically and which typically help corals produce food through photosynthesis.
“If the corals were human, they would be on life support,” is how one expert succinctly personified the corals’ predicament. Several scientists now suspect that the corals may not be able to easily recover from the bleaching event as they have done so in the past. That we have managed to cause this much damage to the largest living structure on Earth is only as devastating as the idea that we’re still capable of such malevolence, with no end in sight.
In South Asia, Aisha, a sustainable development consultant with over a decade and a half of experience working with climate change, might see this as an anticipated sign of another impending demise closer to home.
Having lived in Maldives for most of her life, Aisha has witnessed first-hand, “the steady deterioration of the Maldivian corals“ that have served to protect the thousand or so islands of the atoll. With the islands standing at just 1.3 metres above sea level, on average, the threat that global warming poses for Maldives is greater than it is for most nations.
The coral reefs here, in Maldives, have been subject to bleaching, which is precisely what nearly killed the Great Barrier Reef. While the historic Paris Climate Agreement at the Conference of Parties (COP 21) last year has been lauded as an impressive move toward ensuring a more sustainable future, Aisha, like many Maldivians, fears it may already be too late.
Bleaching has hit South Asia almost as hard as it has, the Pacific. Another climate expert, Ayeen, admitted prior to the 5th Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum (APAN) in Colombo that the national fish of the Philippines has been driven to near-extinction owing to warming waters, which is the precursor to coral reef bleaching.
Many Pacific island nations hope that this year, the COP 22 scheduled to take place in Morocco in November will be as historic as the last, since the Paris conference adopted an ambitious but necessary target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Some others have taken matters into their own hands and adopted resolutions banning the expansion of fossil fuels in their respective countries, despite the fact that the fossil fuel industry continues to be part of climate change negotiations.
The APAN conference in Colombo on October 17 has, perhaps, a far more critical issue to deliberate on, one that will undoubtedly come up as policymakers and academics discuss adaptation strategies specific to South Asia.
With the Great Barrier Reef fighting for survival, Asian countries now have both a heightened sense of urgency as well as veritable proof of the scale of damage that climate change can cause to their coral reefs. National governments rising to this challenge might hopefully save us from the tragedy of another great funeral.