The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Corals have been turning up in my social media lately. Not the actual corals, of course, but stories about them. A very large coral reef has just been discovered in the mouth of the Amazon and the Great Barrier Reef is evidently badly bleached at the moment thanks to abnormally high sea temperatures. I figure this is a good time to talk about some coral basics.

Corals are animals in the same phylum as jellyfish—it seems odd that corals are climate losers while jellyfish might well be winners until one remembers that a phylum is a very large group. Sharks, for example, belong to the same phylum we do. So they’re not closely related, they just have very broadly similar structures.  Corals are colonial, so what might look like a single coral is actually a whole colony. Individual coral animals, polyps, are rather like tiny upside-down jellyfish, each sitting in its own cup-like exoskeleton.

Many corals depend on symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) for food, though they also grab and eat plankton. The color of corals depends on the algae in their bodies. Under stress, corals will expel their algae, turning white in the process. That’s coral bleaching. Bleached coral isn’t dead and can get new algae, but until they do they are extremely vulnerable (and, one imagines, hungry). Frequent or severe coral bleaching events can kill corals, as can any additional stresses that might occur while the animals are vulnerable.

Unusually hot water is one cause of bleaching. The warmer the water is, the faster the algae photosynthesize, meaning the more oxygen they release into the coral bodies. While corals do need oxygen to live, too much oxygen is a poison and the corals dump their algae to protect themselves. Corals vary in their heat tolerance, but they live at the upper edge of that tolerance, so even slight increases in temperature can hurt them. Bleaching on a large scale appears to be new–there’s no evidence for it before modern times.

Corals have very narrow habitat requirements, especially those that use zooxanthellae. Their water must usually be clear and sunlit, for photosynthesis, so they cannot grow anywhere more than a few hundred feet deep. The water can’t be too hot or too cold. In theory, a warmer world could support more coral, since a larger portion of the sea would be warm enough for them. In actual fact, though, climate change is moving too quickly—new reefs cannot establish quickly enough to balance out those lost to increasingly warm water in the tropics where they live. Rising carbon dioxide levels are also causing the oceans to become more acidic, and acid water eats away at the calcium-rich exoskeletons corals build. It’s not to the point where corals are shrinking, but they grow more slowly than they used to. Changing ocean currents and storm tracks also can stress corals and are also related to climate change.

This year is especially bad because it’s an El Nino year, which piles its own warmth on top of longer-term climate change.

Corals face risks from other directions, too, such as water pollution and physical damage from boats. So, as usual, the losses we’re seeing come from multiple sources. Between one thing and another, corals around the world are in trouble. Some areas have lost 80-90% of their corals already.

Obviously, corals are intrinsically important themselves, but coral reefs also provide a lot of habitat space for other animals. Some, like parrot fish, actually eat coral. Many others hide in nooks and crannies in the reef or take advantage of different microhabitats in different parts of the reef—a coral reef has a lot more surface area than a barren sea floor, so the reef essentially makes the part of the world it occupies a lot bigger. Something like a quarter of all marine species worldwide depend on corals.

Reefs are the oceanic equivalent of rainforests in terms of their biodiversity. If we lose the reefs, we lose the reef inhabitants–which is another example of how climate change can simplify and shrink the biosphere by taking out many species indirectly.

Lest this seem all like doom and gloom only, remember that we can still do something about climate change if we hurry. So don’t get so distracted by the presidential horse race that you forget to vote climate-sane people into Congress. Despite what you may be seeing on social media, voting matters.


They Actually Said It!

This past Saturday, Garrison Keilor devoted his News from Lake Woebegone radio monologue to bemoaning this year’s mild winter in Minnesota. I had not been following Minnesota weather this year, but apparently it has not been the deep and bracing freeze its residents have learned to expect–parts of the Eastern seaboard have been colder and gotten more snow. Mr. Keilor says that it is cold, severe winter that gives Minnesotans their regional identity, their chance to feel useful and competent. He is being comical, of course, but the best comedy has a heart of truth and his is very good comedy.

“Please, God,” he says at the end, “give us back our winter. We need it.”

Garrison Keilor is generally liberal but apolitical on air–it’s a big deal when he weighs in on a controversy or does more than poke equal-opportunity fun at public figures. A week or so ago, he made one of his very rare exceptions to point out that no one wants to find themselves at the mercy of an incompetent professional, such as an airline pilot complaining of a hangover or a surgeon who didn’t do well in med school–or a Congressman who doesn’t believe climate change is real.

An equally dramatic, but less fun, they-actually-said-it moment occurred on Thursday, on the PBS Newshour, when Gwen Ifill said the following:

Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will. The billionaire brothers are raising their collective profile this year as political kingmakers, courting presidential hopefuls and making plans to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 election, outstripping both major political parties.

Notice this: “Charles and David Koch may not be running for president, but they are certainly poised to decide who will.” That is not right. In the United States of America, the presidency should not be decided by a single pair of brothers who just happen to be two of the five richest people in the country. And while PBS has a reputation for a liberal bias, that reputation is largely undeserved. In fact, the PBS Newshour specifically has taken criticism for under-reporting climate issues and some PBS member stations or TV programs benefit financially from the Koch brothers, whose money comes, in large part, from the oil industry. Whether that criticism in turn is deserved is debatable, but clearly the Newshour, at the very least, gives the Kochs their due. For a news anchor on the show to openly admit that the brothers, and not the American electorate may choose our next president is a very big deal.

So, what are Mr. Koch and Mr. Koch planning on doing with the $889 million they hope to put into the 2016 election?

According to,

[The Kochs’ political action network] aims to advance a conservative platform that prioritizes austerity, deregulation, and privatization while opposing efforts to address climate change. Of Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that sits at the center of the Koch-backed political operation, the Post‘s Matea Gold writes: “the group’s ultimate goal is to make free-market ideals central in American society.”

Austerity, deregulation, and privatization together generally mean the principle that the government should neither limit the activities of those who make money nor engage in social programs and public services that might require the collecting of taxes for funding. The Kochs want a clean field in which to make money.

That may sound unfairly cynical–certainly free-market ideals are often presented in vaguely populist terms of freedom and fairness for everyone. But even if the brothers are not acting out of pure self-interest, their political agenda serves their personal interests very well. It’s also worth noting that although the Koch brothers and their immediate allies are hardly alone in pouring private money into politics–liberal shadowy donors exist as well–the Kochs operate on a completely different scale. Between their own money and the donations they receive, no other individual in the country can command the kind of cash either of them do.

These men have a long and established history of supporting–arguably, creating–climate denial, through both electoral politics and the support of denial-focused organizations. While the brothers probably donate much of their personal wealth to their causes, they also raise money from other donors. In either case, the donations are typically anonymous. Where the money goes is also hard to trace, but much of it goes into creating climate doubt. It is not difficult to see why, given that the family fortune comes from the oil industry. Interestingly, they own a chunk of Canada the size of Delaware that sits right on top of huge tar sands deposits–the same oil that would flow if the Keystone XL pipeline ever gets finished.

So let’s state this plain; Charles and David Koch want to buy the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections in order to prevent anyone doing anything about climate change. And they are already raising the money and choosing their candidates.

If they succeed, their climate-denier president will be able to roll back all the executive actions President Obama has taken. That means ignoring international agreements and tying the hands of the EPA. We will not only not move forward, we will move backwards. We’ll be locked into leading the world on warping the climate until at least 2020–a critical timeline, since we know the world has to transition away from fossil fuel beginning now in order to have any chance of staying under 2 C°. This election is make-or-break time, for all of us.

So, how likely are these people to succeed? Likely enough that I’m worried. And likely enough that the brothers themselves are betting millions of dollars on the project. But it’s not quite a sure thing. Almost half of Americans polled say that climate change is a major threat to the country, and while that number is much lower than it should be, it is politically  significant. Some two-thirds of the country actually support the EPA’s regulation of carbon and many are willing to pay extra to reduce emissions. If those people who believe the problem is real voted for candidates who also take climate change seriously, then we will get the presidency and possibly a majority of at least one house in Congress.

So, the climate deniers are already raising money and organizing. Are we?