Books: the world’s coral reefs in mortal danger

Greenhouse-gas emissions will kill the Great Barrier Reef and result in mass extinctions, writes J E N Veron in A Reef in Time. Caspar Henderson hails the work of an “outstanding scientific mind”.

A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End
J E N Veron
Harvard University Press, 2008 

The Great Barrier Reef is, in marine biologist J E N Veron’s words, “nature’s pinnacle of achievement in the ocean realm, the embodiment of wilderness…a place of endless beauty that has endured when so many other places on Earth, cherished by generations past, no longer engender strong emotions or have been altered beyond all recognition”. And its destruction at human hands portends worse than most people can imagine. 

Why care about the loss of biodiversity? A simple answer is that not doing so will be more expensive than doing so. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a report  published in May 2008 by the German government and the European Commission, suggested that current rates of natural decline might reduce global gross domestic product (GDP) by 7% by 2050, with the world’s poorest people affected the most. But even if this cautious estimate turns out to be right, it is unlikely to tell the whole story.  

To see why, consider the Great Barrier Reef on the northeast coast of Australia, the largest single structure on earth made by living organisms. Tropical coral reefs are the most diverse, beautiful and intricate assemblages of life in the oceans — arguably on the planet — hosting about a quarter of all ocean species in less than 0.1% of its area. They provide food and vital ecosystem services to hundreds of millions of people in more than 100 countries.

The largest UNESCO World Heritage reef area on earth, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) forms the southern border of the global centre of reef biodiversity in Southeast Asia, and is the only extensive area of reef within the territory of a rich, industrialised country with the resources and expertise to protect it. 

And one could not ask for a better guide to the GBR than J E N Veron, the former chief scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). “Charlie” Veron is the author of the monumental three-volume Corals of the World, and is credited with having identified one in four of the known coral species. This is the work is of an outstanding scientific mind — informed by close observation over more than forty years — and by love.

Since the book appeared, Veron has written a short introduction to it on, (the blog of Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a lead author on a key paper on the future of the world’s coral reefs in the American journal Science). Veron writes:

“It may seem preposterous that the greatest coral reef in the world – the biggest structure made by life on Earth – could be seriously (I mean genuinely seriously) threatened by climate change. The question itself is probably already relegated in your mind to a ‘here-we-go-again’ catch-bag of greenie diatribe about the state of our planet. This view is understandable given that even a decade ago there were many scientists who had not yet come to grips with the full implications of climate change.

“Very likely you have a feeling that dire predictions about anything almost always turn out to be exaggerations. What you really think is: OK, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so there’s probably something in this to be worried about, somewhere. But, it won’t be as bad as those doom-sayers are predicting. When I started writing A Reef in Time, I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs, but even I was shocked to the core by what all the best science that existed was saying. In a long phase of personal anguish, I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in my own conclusions. No luck. The bottom line remains: the GBR can indeed be utterly trashed in the lifetime of today’s children. That certainty is what motivates me to broadcast this message as clearly, as accurately and, yes, as loudly, as I can.”

But Veron’s book does more than simply convey the central message that climate change – and, in particular, ocean acidification – threaten to destroy the GBR, and that action to avert this should be a top priority. It also does at least two other important things: it provides a brilliantly clear and authoritative introduction to much of the history of life on earth by focussing on the seven-tenths of the planet that is ocean; and it conveys the stupendous enormity of a mass extinction event which – unless somehow averted – is likely to be the biggest in sixty-five million years. Only five extinctions on such a scale have occurred since multicellular life began more than five hundred million years ago. 

The book also contains a wealth of fascinating detail about the GBR itself, including an extraordinary period only a few thousand years ago in which aboriginal peoples probably lived in caves under what, today, are coral reefs (following a sudden rise in sea level at the end of the last glaciation about 11,500 years ago).

So what hope for the future?  The English novelist Ian McEwan wrote recently of the strong undertow of apocalyptic thinking in the Christian and Muslim traditions, among others, and of the real and present danger this presents to the global community. McEwan hopes that the human spirit of curiosity and science may provide an antidote: “Where [environmental] calamities are posed as mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency, we cannot consider them as apocalyptic. They are minatory, they are calls to action.” But he worries that the narrative of science and human reason has only a tenuous hold.

This has to change, and it can do so, if leading scientists such as Veron and others continue to make the case for a future in which global concentrations of greenhouse gases are held to much lower levels than current trends suggest. It also will require millions and millions of individual and community decisions to engage in political, economic and cultural change. Australia and China, for example, will need to look again at ways they are generating prosperity in the short term by the massive mining and combustion of coal (see, for example, “Good days: Australia prospers from China’s resource needs”, Financial Times, April 2, 2008). Fine words from politicians do not scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Veron warns that by 2030 it will be too late. “We have to change,” he says. “I believe humans are good at change. But there is not an ounce of hope in a world that wants to procrastinate.”

His book ends a warning from the earth-systems scientist James Lovelock, words from some time before the May 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, but which have an added poignancy now:

“The planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their death. But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendents, will die.”


Caspar Henderson is an Oxford-based environmental journalist. He is writing The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, an exploration of the current extinction event and what comes next.