Coral Reefs, Climate Change, and Mobilization

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Normally, I’d start out with a big problem statement, but coral is so beautiful I think I’ll start with the coral itself, then with what people are doing to save it — because of course it needs saving, in the Caribbean, Australia, and elsewhere — and then the coral section from the latest IPPC report on the oceans, and why coral is important to the biosphere (and “the economy”). Then I’ll raise the question of mobilization.

For lovers of symmetry:

And for those with more asymmetrical tastes:

(Both images are from Coral Morphologic.) But what is coral? From NOAA:

Corals are sessile, which means that they permanently attach themselves to the ocean floor, essentially “taking root” like most plants do. We certainly cannot recognize them by their faces or other distinct body parts, as we can most other animals.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep into their inscrutable mouths. Residing within the coral’s tissues, the microscopic algae are well protected and make use of the coral’s metabolic waste products for photosynthesis, the process by which plants make their own food.

The corals benefit, in turn, as the algae produce oxygen, remove wastes, and supply the organic products of photosynthesis that corals need to grow, thrive, and build up the reef..

More than merely a clever collaboration that has endured between some of the tiniest ocean animals and plants for some 25 million years, this mutual exchange is the reason why coral reefs are the largest structures of biological origin on Earth, and rival old-growth forests in the longevity of their ecological communities.

Puny humans![1] This is the story that got me thinking I should write on this: “Coral gardeners bring back Jamaica’s reefs, piece by piece,” obviously because of the word “gardeners”:

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica (AP) — Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of color for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That’s where he’s headed.

He steers the boat to an unmarked spot that he knows as the “coral nursery.” ″It’s like a forest under the sea,” he says, strapping on blue flippers and fastening his tank before tipping backward into the azure waters. He swims down 25 feet (7.6 meters) carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate.

On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed — slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral.

When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually “transplant” onto a reef, a process akin to planting each blade of grass in a lawn separately.

Or planting rice. Therefore do-able, at scale?

Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year. And it’s not possible to simply scatter seeds.

A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral onto rocky outcroppings — a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself onto the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And so far, it’s working.

Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the island’s northern coast. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, but always made a living from the ocean.

Gardener, old-codger… Obviously, I’ve been taken in by a feel-good story! But not so fast:

“The coral are coming back; the fish are coming back,” says Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “It’s probably some of the most vibrant coral reefs we’ve seen in Jamaica since the 1970s.”

When you give nature a chance, she can repair herself,” he adds. “It’s not too late.”

So, do-able. Here is a similar story. From The Telegraph, “How an unlikely household item is fixing the coral reef at Thailand’s most famous beach“:

Scientists have come up with an unlikely way to restore marine life to a Thai beach that’s been ravaged by overtourism: superglue.

Maya Bay, a small cove made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s blockbuster The Beach in 2000, was closed indefinitely last October after buckling under the pressure of up to 5,000 visitors a day, all of whom arrive in boats that can damage the coral reef and pollute the water.

Since then, ecologists have been working to regrow the coral by glueing dead portions of it back onto the rocks; and futile as it sounds, the painstaking process is working. After about a week, the coral is stable enough to grip the terrain independently, the glue dissolves and the reef can flourish.

(I would bet that scientists are only needed to bootstrap the process, and that locals could do this very well on their own.)

So, not “futile.” Only painstaking. Do-able. Which is not to say that what needs to be done is being done. From Chapter 5 of the latest IPCC report, “Special Report: Special Report on The Ocean and Cryosphere an a Changing Climate“:

Warm-water coral reefs host a wide variety of marine life and are very important for tropical fisheries and other marine and human systems. They are particularly vulnerable, since they can suffer high mortalities when water temperatures persist above a threshold of between 1 – 2°C above the normal range. Such conditions occurred in many tropical seas between 2015 and 2017 and resulted in extensive coral bleaching, when the coral animal hosts ejected the algal partners upon which they depend. After mass coral mortalities due to bleaching, reef recovery typically takes at least 10–15 years. Other impacts of climate change include sea level rise, acidification and reef erosion. Whilst some coral species are more resilient than others, and impacts vary between regions, further reef degradation due to future climate change now seems inevitable, with serious consequences for other marine and coastal ecosystems, like loss of coastal protection for many islands and low-lying areas and loss of the high biodiversity these reefs host. Coral habitats can also occur in deeper waters and cooler seas, and more research is needed to understand impacts in these reefs. Although these cold water corals are not at risk from bleaching, due to their cooler environment, they may weaken or dissolve under ocean acidification, and other ocean changes.

(“Reef recovery typically takes at least 10–15 years.” That’s hardly geological time.[2]) More on the economic aspect from NOAA:

Coral reefs are one of Earth’s most productive ecosystems — both in terms of biology and cold, hard cash. Healthy coral reef ecosystems do everything from supporting millions of jobs to protecting lives and valuable coastal infrastructure, like hotels and roads, from storms and waves. In fact, each year coral reefs pump more than $3.4 billion into the U.S. economy. And that’s a conservative estimate!

Despite all they do for us, our coral reef ecosystems are threatened. Climate change, pollution from the land and harmful fishing practices top the list of threats. Fortunately, it’s not too late to protect these resources.

(I would bet $3.4 billion is off by a decimal point if you figure in knock-on effects.)

Now, mobilization. The screaming paradox of our times — readers will no doubt take me to task for over-simplifying — is that on the one hand, we have trillions of dollars in capital sloshing about that can’t seem to find a home with a reasonable rate of return; hence, stupidities like Uber, robot cars, the entire “innovation” economy, stock buybacks, and so on. And on the other, we have enormous infrastructural projects crying out to be mobilized, projects to recuperate the Nature without which capital cannot reproduce itself, no, not even on Mars or New Zealand, and all that opportunity is wasted. (Is it profitable? No, and so what? You and your children get to keep on living and breathing, so there’s that.) It’s insane. How many coral gardeners would one confiscated Uber fund? I would bet more enough to save the Caribbean. (Coral gardening would be a good job, too.) Of course, we ought to have a State that can mobilize such projects — without bringing tears to the eyes of Uber’s VCs, heaven forfend, or at least no more than strictly necessary — through approaches like the Green New Deal. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. And now, back to impeachment!


[1] Clearly, I need to declare coral an honoray plant, like fungi.

[2] Interestingly, coral reefs mitigate ocean warming, or at least “heat waves”).

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Susan the other`

    Thank you Lambert. “Is it profitable?” well yes, environmental reclamation is profitable, maybe not on Mars; but here and now on planet Earth it is. And not so much painstaking as slow-motion pleasure. I love this little essay. It’s a keeper.

  2. dearieme

    The imminent death of the Great Barrier Reef has been repeatedly forecast since the early seventies. Or even earlier, for all I know.

  3. rd

    If you can reclaim a coral reef by providing some new corals, adding substrate etc. then the damage is likely not due to climate change. Instead it is likely industrial pollution, sedimentation, anoxic conditions due to algal blooms from excess nutrients from agriculture and sewage, fishing with bottom drag nets, etc. causing the damage. These are all fixable at a local/regional level.

    We have an overall challenge of temperature and ocean acidification that is likely to cause major stress to corals, but that is still at the very early stages. The vast majority of coral reef destruction is due to local and regional damage that can be fixed without negotiating an international carbon treaty.

    Climate change and ocean acidification are significant long-term issues. But most environmental damage to date has been due to local, regional, and national industrial, agricultural and housing practices unrelated to CO2 released to the atmosphere.

    1. trogg

      There’s a lot killing reefs, but the temperature effect is easily observable. When the reef heats to a point you get bleaching. It’s climate change: we have all the hottest years on record in succession or near succession. A single bleaching doesn’t kill the whole reef, but successive bleaching events leave behind a wasteland.

    2. trogg

      There’s a lot killing reefs, and climate change is definitely doing it in the present. Whenever the reef heats to a point there is observable coral bleaching. When you have the hottest years in succession or near succession (what we’re having) it adds up. A single bleaching event doesn’t kill the whole thing, but a few bleaching events in succession leave behind a wasteland. There are other factors that leave room for unevenness. For instance, if the water is murky (perhaps after a rain storm) it might not get as hot in places. Yes, other things are killing reefs — tourists and fishermen trampling them, chemical sunscreen, and industrial pollution (and these might be repaired more easily by gardening)– but the temperature induced deaths are there to see.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Detailed studies implicated human over-development, not climate change. Damaged, bleached reefs occurred mainly in placed where there was heavy population thus pollution, sewage, etc. Reefs nearby but not subjected to human population–but same temperature–had increased, not died.

        The study in question was based on looking at all coral reefs IIRC–not a subset. The results surprised the researchers. There was a lengthy thread including the report at Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Climate change and ocean acidification are significant long-term issues. But most environmental damage to date has been due to local, regional, and national industrial, agricultural and housing practices unrelated to CO2 released to the atmosphere.

      Yes, an entire system is careening toward destruction, from the world’s atmosphere down to the lowliest beach hut. (Another way of saying this is that dumping your garbage in the air has the same sort of deletorious effect and ethical character as dumping your garbage in the sea.) That said, since one coral symbiont is algae, it would be highly unlikely if water temperature did not affect it, and that is driven by “CO2 released to the atmosphere.”

  4. elkern

    I totally agree with the Mobilization (a Real GND) Lambert advocates, but I’m not optimistic about reviving corals which have been hit hard by bleaching.

    Ocean temperatures and acidification are only getting worse until (long after?) we stop pumping extra CO2 into the atmosphere. So the nice warm waters where they’ve been growing for millions of years are probably going to see more heat waves, lower ph, and more bleaching.

    But maybe humans can help by “planting” new coral reefs further from the equator, in areas which were once too cool for corals? But acidification would still be a problem; dealing with that gets us into Geo-Engineering territory.

    But all this is pipe-dreams until we deal with the political/economic mess.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > reviving corals that have been hit by bleaching

      I know almost nothing about coral bleaching. But I picked up the factoid that it’s caused by the animal part rejecting the algae symbiont. Maybe the animal is waiting for another species of tenant to move in?

      1. PollyMath

        >caused by the animal part rejecting the algae symbiont.
        That’s true, it’s a stress response. Last I read, bleaching events occur to stressed corals in conjunction with heat waves. They can recover (get recolonized with algae) but they are more delicate while doing so and often do not survive. Having kept them in aquariums, they are surprisingly resilient providing you maintain the narrow band of parameters they evolved in.

  5. Tyronius

    Three things;
    First, tax the rich, so they don’t have more money than sense and go blowing it on silliness like Uber. Use those dollars raised to rebuild reefs and combat climate change.
    Second, I read somewhere that researchers are breeding corals to withstand higher temperatures and seen to be having success. Maybe fund efforts such as these with tax dollars?
    Third; we’re currently destroying the planet and everyone on it with a completely out of control military. Maybe aim some of those dollars at saving the environment so there’s someplace to live after we’re done saving the world?
    Crazy ideas, I know…

  6. James McFadden

    Rob Urie wrote an interesting piece in counterpunch last Friday concluding degrowth is the only viable solution.

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