Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Ecological alarmist scares have a lot in common with zombies. They seem to eat up people’s brains, they are mindless themselves, and most important, they are really, really hard to kill. Take for example the long-discredited idea, first overthrown by Charles Darwin, that coral atolls are under threat from sea level rise. Darwin showed that to the contrary, coral atoll were created by rising sea levels.
Despite being totally untrue, this nursery tale of rising sea levels threatening coral atolls was resurrected by the Sierra Club regarding the supposed fate of the South Pacific island state of Tuvalu, and used by the Sierra Club and other environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a cautionary tale to promote expensive energy.
Since then, a number of folks including myself have pointed out how ludicrous the claim is. And a study of historical aerial photos of the Pacific atolls by Webb and Kench showed that despite the rising sea levels, a majority of the atolls had either stayed the same or, in many cases, increased in size. To quote from the paper, “Results show that 86% of islands remained stable (43%) or increased in area (43%) over the timeframe of analysis.” And since the sea level was rising all that time, the claims of the Sierra Club have been shown to be total nonsense. But the bogus claim lives on, I read it again this week, so clearly not everyone has gotten the word.
Since I’m telling the story again, I’ll use a previous illustration, for two reasons. First, because it shows exactly how a coral atoll is built and sustained, and second, I drew it and as a result I am quite unjustifiably proud of it …
Figure 1. Cross section through a typical coral atoll. The living coral is shown in light green, and it is in the ring of shallow water between the dotted green line and the beach. The atoll used for the photo in this example is Tepoto Atoll, French Polynesia.
Now, undaunted by the untruth of their claims, the PR campaign goes on, with the atoll nation of the Maldives pulling stunts like an underwater cabinet meeting to try to raise money from their imaginary “plight” … in fact, begging for funds because your coral atoll is under threat from rising sea levels seems to be developing into a bit of a cottage industry.
So to provide a counterweight to this recurring myth, to drive yet another stake through the heart of this zombie, let me repeat the story of why the parrotfish should be the national bird of every coral atoll state and nation. I’ll give you the tale in a nutshell.
Coral atolls are not a solid “island” as we understand an island. They are not a solid chunk of land surrounded by water. Instead they are best thought of as a momentary hesitation in a (hopefully) continuous slow-motion river of coral rubble and sand. This slow-motion river is composed of nothing more or less than the bones of the reef itself, the broken off and ground up parts of the reef’s coral skeleton. A healthy reef grows ceaselessly, and its upper limbs are constantly being broken off by the endless waves when they dare grow too near to the life-giving light. This coral rubble is slowly swept by the waves up onto the atoll, and from there it is equally slowly returned by waves and wind back to the ocean.
The sad truth is, coral atolls are not held together by anything except temporal inertia. They are nothing but a loose pile of coral rubble and sand. And as you might imagine, such an unconsolidated pile is eaten away by every stray current and wind and footstep. Every moment of every day, every coral atoll on the planet is losing its precious land, eroded back into the ocean by the ceaseless pull of gravity, wind, and waves.
So how do coral atolls survive? Obviously, for an atoll to survive the ceaseless loss of its land to erosion, it must be continually replenished by an equally ceaseless supply of coral rubble and sand.
And if that supply of rubble and sand slows, the atoll shrinks. If that supply slows, the freshwater lens shrinks.
And if the reef dies, if that endless supply of cast-off coral stops?
The atoll disappears. Might take five years or fifty, but if the reef dies, the atoll disappears.
So the story in a nutshell is this:
Coral atolls grow and shrink, not based on sea level rise, but based on the health and vitality and extent of their coral reef—the unseen source of the (hopefully) endless river of coral rubble sand that keeps the atoll from vanishing.
The amazing thing about humans and coral atolls is that we can live there at all. There is a small freshwater lens that provides a bit of water. This lens is not contained by anything, but actually floats on top of the underground surface of the salt water that interpenetrates the lower part of the atoll. If you pump the lens of fresh water too much, you start pumping seawater. When there’s not enough rain, the well water becomes brackish. There is generally no topsoil worthy of the name, just salty coral sand mixed with a small bit of organic material. There are no sources of energy, no forests for wood, no oil or coal. There are not a lot of plants that can survive at all under such conditions. And the very existence of the atoll itself is at the mercy of the health of the reef, not to mention the occasional hurricane that can overtop the reef and push the pile of rubble and sand right back into the ocean, or wipe away one end, or cut a channel right through the middle. It is a tenuous existence even at the best of times.
So what is the real threat to the coral atolls? What’s the true story regarding the Sierra Club’s description of the washing away of part of an atoll in Tuvalu? Why do the islanders report that they are drawing salty water out of their wells?
The answer is that indeed these problems are the fault of humans … just not by way of CO2.
The big threat to the existence of the atolls comes from the local inhabitants mistreating the reef that keeps their heads above water.
And the big threat to the atolls’ fresh water supply is the combination of reef destruction and overpopulation.
For example, the folks in the Maldives have built a number of lovely tourist hotels. Of course, to build them you need mortar and concrete, and for that you need sand. Coral sand makes terrible concrete, but it’s all they have. There is no quartz beach sand available to build with, just chunks of coral and coral sand. So the Maldivians mined the coral from their reefs to use to build their hotels and houses. Then they brought in scads of tourists every year, to help them drink up the freshwater lens … and now they are saying that the industrialized nations should compensate them because their well water is brackish, and the atolls are washing away.
Now, as you might imagine, the truth in this tale is not popular in the atolls at all. Like everyone else in the world, folks there would much rather believe that their troubles are anyone’s fault but their own. So I understand them desperately trying to prop up the false narrative about CO2 and sea level rise being the culprits. When you live in a place that has nothing, you need to grab for every chance you can.
But I’m a man who grew up in the middle of the forest, and has worked extensively as a commercial fisherman. And like many people with that background, I’ve been a devoted environmentalist for my entire adult life.
Which is why I feel so betrayed by the hijacking of the big environmental NGOs by people obsessed with raising energy prices and restricting fossil fuel use. I can understand the islanders continuing the charade. I can’t understand the environmental NGOs not acknowledging their mistake regarding sea level rise, and moving on.
Because far from admitting that they were wrong, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and the like are still making these same bogus claims of danger to coral atolls from sea level rise, centuries after Darwin first showed them wrong, and when their claims have been shown untrue by actual measurement of the atolls involved.
This hijacking of the big environmental NGOs by anti-development forces directly harms the environment in a number of ways.
First, every dollar the environmental organizations spend on trying to raise energy prices (by attacking CO2) is a dollar not going to its declared purpose of helping the environment.
Second, the misidentification of the cause of atoll deterioration as being sea level rise has prevented people from noticing, addressing and correcting the actual causes of atoll deterioration, which are reef health and human overpopulation.
Third, blaming the innocent (far-away users of fossil fuels) for the woes that the atoll dwellers have brought on themselves just angers the unjustly accused. It doesn’t lead to solutions.
Fourth, it has led to a cottage industry of demanding reparation for atoll damage. Since the demands for reparation are being made by the very people who are actually causing the damage, this will not end well.
Fifth, and most important, the focus on raising energy prices (to reduce CO2 emissions) keeps the third world poor. The effects are already being felt in such actions as the World Bank denying loans for coal-fired plants in India.
How does that hurt the environment? The sad reality is that only when people have their basic needs covered can they afford to worry about the environment. No country has ever undertaken serious environmental repair and restoration until the people were generally well fed and clothed.
And inexpensive energy is an indispensable part of that equation. When did inexpensive energy turn from being the “savior of the American farmer” to being something that Western rich folks are denying to India?
The push for expensive energy by the “environmental” NGOs is hugely damaging to the economies of the poor countries, and through them, to the environment itself.
Because if the poor folk in Africa cannot get inexpensive energy for cooking and heating, they will eventually cut down every forest and burn up every stick of firewood on the continent. They will hate to do it, they will mourn the destruction … but unless and until they have some other way to cook and heat, the environment will be under huge destructive pressure. It’s a crazy, all-too-human paradox, that the only thing that can possibly save the global environment is the very economic development that many environmentalists oppose. And my concern for the environment is one reason that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life living in poor countries and working on their economic development.
So that’s why I feel betrayed. The same environmental organizations whose founding I cheered decades ago because they were protecting the environment, have morphed into monsters which are actively harming the environment in a host of ways, and setting humans at each other’s throats over imagined wrongs. Even worse, they think that inexpensive energy and economic development are the dangers … when the truth is that when half the planet is living on a couple bucks a day, inexpensive energy and economic development are the only things that will save us from slow-motion ecological catastrophe. I’m deadly serious.
The poor folks in Africa will burn every tree on the continent if the economic conditions demand it, and I would too if my kids were hungry. When your kids are hungry, all the barriers are down, all the boundaries are meaningless. Environmental destruction means nothing to a hungry man, and even less to a woman with hungry kids. I once asked a firewood seller in Costa Rica where he was cutting his firewood. “En el Parque Nacionál,” he said, “In the National Park”. I asked politely whether that might be, well, you know … illegal … “Oh, yes,” he said, “I feel bad about that, but when my children are hungry, what can I do?”
I had no answer for him.
And that is how, paradoxically and tragically, the anti-development, pro-expensive energy actions of the big environmental NGO’s are doing huge, present, and continuing damage to the poor and through them to the environment the NGOs are supposed to protect.
Now, does this make me want to stop being an environmentalist? Not at all. I know that the only way that my as-yet-hypothetical grandkids will be able to be commercial fisherfolk is if we take care that we don’t damage the ocean. Protecting the ecosystems and the natural resources are a no-brainer for anyone actively involved with the natural world.
So in response, about all that I can do is to not go gentle into that good night. This is me raging against the passing of the light.
And where do the parrotfish fit into all of this?
Well, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, parrotfish use their hard beaks to bite off chunks of coral. These chunks of coral are ground into sand by hard plates in the parrotfish’s throat. The parrotfish digests what’s digestible, and excretes copious amounts of the finest, loveliest, tropical beach sand. It’s interesting to watch, because they have to grind up a lot of coral to get a little food. As a result, sometimes when a school of them is surprised by something, and the whole school decides to simultaneously “dump the ballast and run”, the water where they were is instantly filled with a cloud of slowly descending pure white sand, while the parrotfish are now well down the reef.
Yes, it’s true. All of those lovely tropical beaches? They’ve mostly composed of coral that was lovingly hand-ground by parrotfish.
But creating tropical beaches, that’s just the benefit to the humans. The parrotfish are also vital to the health of the reef. This is because a coral reef is always in competition with various kinds of algae and plants. Since the coral reef is the only solid surface available, various green things are always trying to colonize the surface. This is to the detriment of the coral polyps who are building the reef. The grazing of the parrotfish is a major mechanism for keeping the greenery from overtaking the reef … I’ve seen overgrown reefs, and they’re not a pretty picture.
The parrotfish also exposes fresh coral surfaces when it bites out chunks of coral. These are then available for colonization by further coral polyps. As with most natural systems, the presence of grazers greatly increases the health and productivity of the reef ecosystem. And in addition to creating sand, when the fish are grazing they also break loose chunks of coral … coral that will eventually end up added to the atoll itself.
As a result, parrotfish are a “keystone species”, a species of special importance in the life of an ecosystem. The sad news is, the parrotfish sleep at night on reef, wrapped in a shroud of mucus. Strangest thing you every saw, you can go right up to them. As a result, since the onset of waterproof flashlights, locals and tourists have stripped many reefs of their parrotfish. Without the protection of the parrotfish, the reef declines, algae advances, and the sand production stops … and when the reef declines, the atoll shrinks and the lens of freshwater gets smaller …
And that is why the parrotfish should be the national bird of every tropical coral atoll—because without them the atoll is in trouble. It should not be fished for the market, it should not be killed by night divers to be served in restaurants. It should be off-limits, a protected species, both as a practical matter for the continued health of the reef, and as a symbol of the importance of the reef upon which depends the very existence of the atoll itself.
Is making the reef healthy all it will take to save the atolls? Well … no. They also have to stop the population growth. A coral atoll is tiny, only a few square kilometres of land. More importantly, the fresh water lens is correspondingly small. Since it is only replenished by rain, this limited water puts a practical maximum on the island population, a maximum which these days is routinely exceeded … and then they complain that rising sea levels are making their wells brackish. The wells are indeed getting brackish … but not from rising sea levels.
Like I said, this is not a popular message in the atolls, but unfortunately it’s the truth. I’d like to say that there’s some silver bullet for the atoll problems, but I don’t know of one. So all I can do is keep telling the real story, in the hope of counteracting the destructive propaganda coming from the Sierra Club and other environmental NGOs … I figure I may not slay the Hydra, but at least I might get a-head …
PS—please be clear that I am not speaking against the environmental movement, of which I have long counted myself as an active member. In large part, the movement is made up of local people working on important local issues.
Nor am I speaking against the real environmental gains that we humans have made. The cleaning of the rivers and the air in much of the industrialized world is a story of achievement and hope.
I am talking about the change in many of the big environmental organizations, which for better or for worse are the public face of the movement. The organizations have transmuted from being for responsible development and for the environment, to being against all development and thus actively harming the environment.
The environmental NGOs’ fight against affordable inexpensive energy is a modern tragedy. Inexpensive energy is the only hope for the poor of the planet, and the economic development of the poor is necessary BEFORE a country can start addressing environmental issues. As a result, the NGOs’ war on inexpensive energy is causing huge, long-term environmental damage.