Get it Right, Washington Post, Climate Change Isn’t Causing a Decline in Coral Reefs

The Washington Post (WP) published a story detailing how the efforts by a Malaysian “coral gardener,” Anuar Abdulla, to restore coral reefs near his home have resulted in him being consulted on coral restoration efforts globally. Unfortunately, rather than simply delivering well earned praise to Abdullah for his worthwhile efforts, the WP had to turn the story into another in its on-going “Climate Solutions” series, blaming coral decline on climate change. This is false. Some corals have declined in recent years, others have expanded, and new colonies have been discovered. Of those that have declined, there is little support for any link to climate change, and a great deal of evidence pointing to other factors being behind local coral declines.

In the story, titled “One man’s lonely quest to save the world’s corals draws a following,” reporter Rebecca Tan writes:

For nearly four decades, the coral gardener [Anuar Abdullah] worked alone.Abdullah has spent his entire adult life restoring coral reefs, until recently working in obscurity — and at times, in poverty.

In a world rapidly losing its reefs to climate change and to environmental damage, he is now emerging as an increasingly influential expert on how to revive them. Governments and resorts have come calling, asking whether he can help with reefs lost to natural disasters and overtourism.

Tan acknowledges factors besides climate change are contributing to coral decline. She should have explored those in greater detail and left off her misplaced climate change harangue because there is no data to support the claim that long term climate change is causing coral decline.

As discussed at Climate Realism, here, for example, corals are hardy and resilient. The first corals arose during the Cambrian Period about 535 million years ago and the number and type corals increased dramatically more than 400 million years ago, coming into existence when global temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations were much higher than at present. Coral have proved adaptable, expanding their range, evolving, and thriving through periods of higher and lower temperatures than the Earth is either currently experiencing or can be reasonably expected to experience in the foreseeable future.

As discussed in Climate at a Glance: Coral Reefs, coral thrive in warm water, not cold water, and recent warming has allowed coral to expand their range poleward, while still thriving near the equator. Despite bleaching events, coral have expanded their range, and new coral reefs are discovered all the time. Science also shows that scientists have woefully undercounted the number or coral reefs and colonies in existence.

Nor, climate alarmists claims to the contrary, is there any evidence rising carbon dioxide levels are make Earth’s oceans and seas acidic. Since the oceans and seas are not becoming acidic, it is impossible for “ocean acidification” to be harming coral colonies.

If not warmer waters or ocean acidification, what factors are likely to have driven coral bleaching events in recent years. Tan named two of the culprits: natural disasters and overtourism. As explained in multiple Climate Realism posts other factors that have caused temporary or permanent damage to some coral colonies in various locations include: fishing and coral harvesting; coastal development and associated siltation and pollution; agricultural runoff; and pollution tied to sun block used by swimmers. While rapid influxes of warmer waters from natural shifts in ocean currents have caused temporary bleaching events on occasion, experience shows most coral recover from such events and multiple studies show corals can and do adapt to the gradual long-term pace of global warming.

Coral reefs are critical to ocean biodiversity. The world should be grateful for Anuar Abdulla’s efforts to restore coral reefs. He deserves all the praise he receives for this work. However, looking at coral reefs more broadly, in order to help coral reefs recover or make them more resilient to harmful impacts, one must first accurately identify the causes of their decline. The Washington Post, for the most part failed here. Because climate change isn’t harming coral reefs, trying to protect coral health by fighting global warming is a misplaced effort. Resources spent there, could be better applied to reducing or mitigating the true causes of coral losses—which, of course, is precisely what Abdulla is doing on a case by case basis.

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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