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Scientists Urge Governments To Protect Coral Reefs From Climate Change


President Trump says he'll announce very soon whether he'll pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. That's the international pact that the Obama administration negotiated back in 2015 with nearly 200 other countries. They held it as an historic deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.


On Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the impact of climate change is obvious. A study published today says in order for the world's coral reefs to survive, governments must prevent global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from the Great Barrier Reef. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: From what you have actually seen in the water, how is the coral fairing?

SCHMITZ: Well, I spent yesterday in the water with marine biologists who showed me coral that was hundreds of years old that for the first time anyone here can remember are all turning white. Some of the coral we saw starting to come back to life now that it's winter here, but much of it has died. You know, rising water temperatures have now killed two-thirds of a 400-mile section of the reef where I am now. And this has all happened within the last 18 months.

SHAPIRO: We've been hearing for some time about the problem of coral bleaching and the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Bring us up to speed on the recent history here.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, this is the world's largest coral reef. It's 1,400 miles long - as long as the coast from Vancouver to the Mexican border. It's made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs. It's the largest living organism on the planet. And because of rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change, it is now the largest dying organism. In the last 18 months, the Great Barrier Reef has had back-to-back bleaching episodes, where warm water turned much of the coral white, killing off a significant percentage of the reef.

SHAPIRO: In this report in the journal Nature, you wouldn't describe it as optimistic, but it does offer some hope for slowing or reversing the trend. What does it say?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. It offers a little hope. You know, the one interesting finding from the study is that even though the world's coral reefs have already been irreversibly damaged, scientists say they may still stand a chance of survival if the world takes measures to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or 3.5 degree Fahrenheit rise from pre-industrial levels. Earlier this week, I spoke to Terry Hughes, director of the Coral Reef Center at James Cook University and one of the report's authors, and here's what he said.

TERRY HUGHES: Rather than send the message that reefs are doomed and we need to, you know, freeze the eggs and sperm and grow them in aquaria, we would rather be a little bit more optimistic and say it's doable if we only try a lot harder.

SCHMITZ: So, basically, what Terry and the other scientists have concluded here is that the crisis of coral reefs is a crisis of governance, Ari, and that the answers won't be found in counting fish and surveying bleached and dead coral. But they'll be found in the halls of power, where governments are making decisions that impact the world's coral reefs.

SHAPIRO: When you look beyond Australia at other reefs around the world, what does this paper say the strategy should be?

SCHMITZ: Well, in the paper, the authors say that the current management of coral reefs is focused on conservation and restoring the conditions to what the reefs used to be like. And the scientists who wrote this paper are saying, look, you know, returning coral reefs to their past condition is no longer possible. Again, here's Terry Hughes.

HUGHES: What we should be aiming for is keeping reefs functional, recognizing that the world is on a conveyor belt. We are going to a new type of coral reef ecosystem. But if we're careful how we do that, we'll still have a functioning ecosystem that will provide benefits to people.

SCHMITZ: And on that note, the paper calls on scientists to change the way they do research and on governments to change the way they take care of these reefs and the way they're tackling climate change because, in the end, the biggest threat to places like the Great Barrier Reef is the rise in ocean temperatures. And according to this paper, governments need to try harder to prevent further global warming to save the world's coral reefs from dying out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz speaking with us from the coast of Australia on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Tough assignment, Rob. Thanks a lot.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.