Working Group: Climate Change and Coral Reefs

The Climate Change and Coral Reefs working group was initiated to assess the state of knowledge on the predicted responses of coral species and coral reefs to rising temperatures, ocean acidification and sea-level rise. Coral reefs are important ecosystems of ecological, economic, and cultural value yet they are in decline worldwide because of human activities. From July 2011-July 2013, this multidisciplinary group of eminent scientists held multi-day meetings, drafted a scientific consensus statement, and reached out to international governments with a call to action.


Consensus Message

The consensus is that current changes in global stressors are unprecedented in magnitude and speed, and represent a fundamental threat to virtually all of the coral reefs of the world. Added to these impacts are local stressors that can typically reduce coral heath and growth so much that they are much less likely to survive global stressors. Protecting the most resilient of these corals from as many local stresses as possible is the best way to slow down the rate of coral demise. There are numerous place-based protective strategies that can help preserve coral reef community diversity and resilience at the local level.



The working group concluded that vast agreement exists among reef scientists about the importance, magnitude, and sources of many of the problems that face coral reefs around the world. Through extensive discussions about coral adaptation, biogeochemistry, calcification, and population dynamics in the face of multiple co-occurring stressors, the group concluded that sufficient understanding exists to voice a clear message. Due to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases—in combination with local stresses such as pollution, run-off from land, habitat destruction, and overfishing—coral growth and vitality are compromised and less resilient to further pressures. Ultimately reef preservation requires immediate and strong actions at both global and local scales. While global emissions are the primary driver, the critical message is that action at the local level can substantially reduce vulnerability of reefs to climate change impacts.

Broader Impacts

After this initial groundwork, working group members and COS leaders reached out to the global coral reef research community. An official announcement and invitation to support the statement was issued at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in July 2012, in Cairns, Australia—gathering over 3200 endorsements. The consensus statement drew attention from around the world with a well-reported press briefing on the first morning of ICRS 2012 that resulted in over 600 media stories. In a parallel effort to reach Pacific Island governing bodies, working group leaders presented the statement to three regional policy-focused groups, including the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures, the Council of Micronesian Chief Executives and the Pacific Islands Forum. Subsequently each of these government bodies adopted resolutions to “create laws and policies on the local, regional, and international levels to combat both local and global threats to coral reefs, especially climate change.” (APIL Resolution on Climate Change).

Purple finger coral, Angicourt Reef, Australia.  Photo Credit: J. Dengenhardt, Flickr Creative Commons.