Example Of A Bottom-Up, Resource-Based Perspective On Environmental Risks – CBS 60 Minutes – “The Gardens of the Queen”

CBS 60 minutes presented an excellent example of the value of a bottom-up, resource-based prespective of risk as we have proposed in our paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2011: Dealing  with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based  vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and  Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press.

We urge focusing on 5 resources –  water, food, energy, human health and ecosystem function.

The 60 minutes show, televised on December 18 2011, and reported by Anderson Cooper,  is titled

The Gardens of the Queen

and looks at ecosystem function of a tropical coral reef.

Excerpts of text from the show include from Anderson [highlights added]

Coral reefs are often called “the rainforests of the ocean.” They’re not just biologically diverse and stunningly beautiful, they’re a source of food and income for nearly a billion people. They’re also in danger. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s reefs have died off and much of what’s left is at risk. There is, however, one spot in the Caribbean that marine biologists describe as a kind of “under-water Eden,” a coral reef largely untouched by man.

Anderson Cooper stated that

 I’ve been diving in many places all over the world and I’ve never seen so many large fish. Like this grouper here. There’s about six or seven Caribbean reef sharks like this circling around right now. Scientists will tell you the presence of so many sharks and different species of sharks, is a sign of a very healthy reef.

David Guggenheim [an American marine biologist and a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.} said that

I went to Veracruz, Mexico, and I was told about the magnificence of the Veracruz Reefs. And when we got there, we saw that 95 percent of that reef had died and it had died quickly since the last time scientists were there. And I felt like I was going through a city, a magnificent civilization that had once stood there, but it was burned out. Nobody was there.

Scientists say the world’s reefs are being harmed by a complex combination of factors; including pollution, agricultural runoff, coastal development, and overfishing. It turns out fish are essential to the health of a reef. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other leading institutions are also very concerned about climate change because they believe rising ocean temperatures are triggering a process called “bleaching” in which the coral weakens, turns white and often dies.


The reason this reef’s doing so well, Fabian Pina believes, is that it’s far from the mainland and well-protected.

Anderson Cooper stated that

Fabian [Fabian Pina is a Cuban marine biologist] and David have noticed some bleaching here, but the coral tends to recover after a few months, leading them to wonder whether there’s something about this reef that’s making it more resistant to threats.

David Gugenheim stated that

Maybe it’s because this ecosystem is being protected, it’s got a leg up on other ecosystems around the world that are being heavily fished and heavily impacted by pollution. So that makes it more resilient. That’s one of the theories that if we do what we can locally that these reefs have a better chance of being resilient to what’s happening globally.

There is a very important message from this news report. The risks to coral reefs are dominated by local interference by humans on its ecosystem function.  Such effects include local pollution (e.g. runoff from rivers and shorelines and from shipping; overfishing including the major predator species such as sharks).

What seems to be a minor, or even an inconsequential effect, is any warming of the ocean (i.e. global warming) despite the reference by NOAA in the CBS show  to bleaching (they also showed a calving glacier :-)).

Despite this short reference to  global warming in the CBS report, the report is quite an important addition to the broadening out of environmental issues beyond the myopic focus on global warming. The contrast between reef health near Veracruz, Mexico and the Cuba Preserve should convincingly show objective readers that coral bleaching from global warming is clearly not the largest threat to the health of tropical coral reefs.

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