The environment


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Rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching

Since the main part of Economic Strategies’ work was already arts- and culture-related when the opportunity came to take up another challenge, it was a relatively modest methodological and conceptual jump to get involved in ecological studies – in both cases taking a long look into the future rather than looking at next year’s bottom line, and recognising the importance of preserving cultural, social and ecological sustainability.

How did that come about? This is the background:

Isobel and Hans’s son Ove Hoegh-Guldberg began a scientific career in the 1980s with reef-building corals as his specialty. This put him on the ground floor in what has also become a key factor in getting the message of climate change across – since coral reefs provided one of the earliest indicators of the damage caused by ongoing climate change. Coral reefs, in fact, have been called the global canary, in memory of the canaries carried into 19th century mines to check that there was enough oxygen.

Ove occupies the Foundation Chair of Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, and directs the University’s Centre for Marine Studies. His PhD thesis from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1989 was on the symbiotic relationship between the coral polyp that builds the reefs and the tiny algae named zooxanthellae living within the coral. They depend on one another for survival. The algae are highly sensitive to warming sea temperatures, and the past 30 years or so have seen increasingly frequent cases of coral bleaching, the visual evidence of algal death. The problem is that as sea temperatures rise the algae are living increasingly close to the temperature ceiling they can tolerate.

This is exacerbated during El Niño years, extreme expressions of the Southern Oscillation which causes major air pressure shifts between the Asian and East Pacific regions. The term El Niño refers to a sequence of changes in circulations across the Pacific Ocean and Indonesian archipelago when warming is particularly strong (every three to eight years). These temperature changes are superimposed on the existing trend towards higher sea temperatures, causing warming above the tolerance threshold to occur earlier than if there had been no El Niño effect.

In the El Niño year of 1998, average ocean temperatures increased by two degrees Celsius and 16% of the world’s coral reefs died. 2002 was another year of extensive damage. As sea temperatures continue to increase on trend, and with more severe and frequent El Niño events predicted, the survival of the world’s coral reefs over coming decades is threatened. Short-term deviations from the long-term temperature trend may suggest that the trend itself has changed, but there is virtually universal agreement among the world’s scientists that such evidence is deceptive.

Though there is an increasing understanding that coral reefs can be made more resilient to the warming by protecting them against pollution and other man-made damage and restoring balance to ecosystems that have lost important organisms such as herbivores keeping down algal growth, there is also increasing concern that the climate change factor has become more urgent, especially during the past two or three years. This makes the problem of how to protect coral reefs for future generations even more crucial.

Coral reefs, of course, are not the only ecosystems under grave threat, especially as global climate change is exacerbated by hitherto underestimated ‘positive feedback’ – basically that the warming is not just a linear process where more atmospheric greenhouse gases cause a regular progress in temperatures. It has become apparent that the rising temperatures can trigger enormous events, of which the most well-publicized to date has been the rapid melting of Arctic ice at a much faster rate than originally estimated and leading to predictions that sea levels will rise much more than the climate models in the early 2000s projected.

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Socioeconomics enters the picture

Greenpeace in 1999 asked Ove Hoegh-Guldberg to write a report on the scientific evidence of coral bleaching in the Pacific. Having done so, he was asked to supplement this with an analysis of the socioeconomic impact on the adjacent Pacific nations, and to do it urgently so the resulting report could be presented at the government-level Pacific Islands Forum in Kiribati in October 2000. This was August 2000, and he was a scientist not an economist, so what to do?

Well, he asked his father to be the socioeconomic lead author, and against all odds the task was finished in time, and Pacific in Peril was launched by a Greenpeace team accompanied by Hans at the Pacific Islands Forum in Kiribati. The venue was symbolic as Kiribati is one of the two Pacific nations most threatened by submersion as ocean levels rise, another greenhouse effect. The other island nation under especially grave threat is neighbouring Tuvalu, the world’s lowest country reported to be already the scene of significant ecological emigration as rising waters start to lap around islanders’ feet.

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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Following the reception of Pacific in Peril, WWF Australia asked the two main authors to study the future of the Great Barrier Reef along coastal North Queensland. This study was considerably larger and the authors had more time to develop their analysis. The report has three main parts (plus a concluding section on policy recommendations):

  • Scientific analysis including projections a century or more ahead based on the then current climate change projections
  • Socio-economic analysis based on available statistics on the main industries affected (tourism and fisheries), and economic and demographic analysis of each of the five regions adjoining the Reef
  • Four alternative future scenarios developed to identify the range of best and worst cases, as a background for devising policies to avoid the worst case scenario from becoming reality. The development of scenarios for these studies proved to be a powerful point in their favour. More on scenarios, including their use in the Great Barrier Reef study, in the next page of this website.

The report was co-sponsored by the Queensland Tourism Industry Council (QTIC) indicating the importance of reef survival for domestic and international tourism in Australia, especially in the Far North around Cairns. This has led to more general involvement into the subject of climate change and tourism,which has gained momentum from an almost standing start around 2003. See further Tourism and climate change below.

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Going abroad, to the Florida Keys

Ove described our Great Barrier Reef study at the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium in Okinawa, Japan, in 2004. This resulted in Economic Strategies’ ecological impact research becoming internationally funded, due to the attendance at the Okinawa symposium of the coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP), Roger Griffis, and the then superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) Billy Causey, since promoted to Southeast Regional Director for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program. They recommended that the approach should be tried in the only area of mainland USA with an adjacent coral reef system – the Florida Keys. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for all aspects of US research from satellites to coral reefs.

Hans was asked to do scoping research in 2005 to determine the feasibility of a two-year study to meet the goals of the research. The scoping study was completed successfully during and after visits to NOAA’s Silver Spring offices near Washington, DC, and the Florida Keys. He demonstrated the parallel between the Great Barrier Reef and Florida Keys studies in a presentation, in June 2005, to a representative section of NOAA and other officials, available here.

During 2006-07 Hans collaborated with the chief economist of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries, Bob Leeworthy, to devise surveys that could benefit the socioeconomic research objectives of the project, following which approval was granted to go ahead with the two-year study. It is due for completion in September 2009.

A paper on the methodology of the project (and general progress) was written as background for the Florida Reef Resilience Program’s Reef Resilience Conference on 22-24 April 2008.

The Florida Keys project like the Great Barrier Reef study makes heavy use of scenario development and planning. This is described under the appropriate heading of the next page.

Tourism and climate change

The tourist industry is the main economic activity affected by climate change in the Great Barrier Reef and Florida Keys, both parts of first-world countries. The impact of climate change, however, does not stop with the impact caused by degraded coral reef ecosystems. As part of the Garnaut review of the economic effects of climate change in 2008, Ove and Hans once again cooperated (paper here). Hans produced a background paper on the total impact of climate change on Australian tourism regions to back his contribution to the joint paper. Click here. To read the tables at the end, it may be necessary to download the file and use the rotate commands in Acrobat.

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The Coral Triangle

A recent environmental project concerns the Coral Triangle, the most species-rich coral area in the world, for both corals and fish. It comprises the waters adjacent to the Malaysian state of Sabah, the Philippines, the 15 easternmost provinces of Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Practically all of the Triangle lies within four of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world, selected for (a) extraordinary biodiversity and (b) threatened status.

In February 2009, the University of Queensland (through Ove Hoegh-Guldberg) contracted with WWF Australia to conduct a major study, within a very strict timeframe, of the Coral Triangle under climate change and other threats, looking forward to the end of the century and beyond. Hans was invited to join the study team as the second lead author, responsible for economic and social analysis and the development of best- and worst-case scenarios. The study will be launched by Ove and WWF at the World Ocean Conference in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia in mid-May 2009.

See further under scenario planning.

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Last updated: 26 April 2009

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