My laboratory has recently entered the world of coral reef research - a tight knit, strangely competitive group that guards it's reefs and research closely. One reason is access: access to some of the critical reefs isn't something you can get everyday (so samples can be hard to come by) and all activities must be permitted - most reef's and their resident corals are protected (due to the Coral Reef Restoration Act - view this site for other legislation related to our oceans). Our coral reefs are threatened - and many of these reefs have specific corals that are considered to be endangered or threatened species, including species in the Genus Acropora (Staghorn and Elkhorn corals). Coral reefs are new to us - as a research area - so we're trying to keep up with what's going on in the world regarding reef health and management. We're playing catch-up.
So yesterday, a student in my lab working on our coral project sent me an interesting link to a BBC News article regarding the Belize Barrier Reef. This was interesting. Essentially, local scientists in Belize say that their reefs are devastated (which is hard to deny) - and that a hurricane could simply sweep away what remains. However they don't blame hurricanes for the loss of the reefs. Scientists from Belize and across the planet are "backing a petition pressing the United Nations World Heritage Sites Committe to acknowledge that climate change is already damaging world heritage sites." Five sites are being included in the petition: the Belize barrier reef, the Australian barrier reef, and glacier parks in Nepal, Peru and the Rockies (where glaciers are disappearing).
This is interesting. Historically, World Heritage Sites are designated as such so that sites are protected during war times - those who sign the treaty are committed to not damaging these sites (I wonder how this holds up?). If the UN accepts this case involving coral reefs, it would then open the doors for poor countries to sue wealthier nations for damages due to the emission of greenhouse gases. One of the biggest threats to our planet's coral reefs is rising ocean temperatures - proposed to be a direct consequence of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.
So Belize (as an example) could sue the US for the decline of their country's reefs. Their case is pretty solid - solid scientific evidence exists linking coral death to coral bleaching events and further linking these events to temperature. The Committee is meeting during the week of 8-16 July. The US has already announced it's objections to the petition - stating that there is no conclusive evidence linking greenhouse gas emissions and reef decline. However, the US also states that if the damage is occurring, it is accidential so it does not violate the World Heritage Sites Treaty. (This point sounds pretty lame to me). The US also states (according to the article) that "accepting the petition on a controversial issue such as climate change would spoil the harmonious relations of the World Heritage Committee." Huh? Is that a reason to not protect and preserve the most diverse ecosystem in our oceans? The last great place to look for novel anti-microbials, anti-cancer agents, etc? We should preserve the harmonious relations of a committee over protecting an ecosystem that provides the world with 20% of it's protein (from fisheries)? The world is a crazy place and I rarely understand the ordering of priorities.
But then I'm a scientist, not a World Heritage Sites Committee member. It'll be interesting to see what happens. But this is a global can of worms, for sure.