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Coral Bleaching Is a $9 Trillion Problem

A new report forecasts a future where reefs go over a “tipping point.”

A coral reef in color and black and white.
Heatmap illustration/Getty Images

Coral reefs are a thing of wonder, both organism and underwater infrastructure that houses thousands of species of fish. They are also, as you might already know, in grave danger. Climate change is contributing to massive waves of coral bleaching around the world, from the Great Barrier Reef to the ocean off of Florida, where an extreme oceanic heat wave this year turned mile after mile of reef a ghostly white.

We’ve known about coral bleaching for years, but a new report out Wednesday draws fresh attention to corals’ plight, including reefs — along with ice sheets, rainforests, and ocean currents, among others — on a list of imminent climate “tipping points.” And if they go over the brink, the consequences could reach far beyond the ocean floor.

According to the report, about a billion people, or 13% of the world’s population, are estimated to live within 100 kilometers of a coral reef. Together, those reefs provide $9.9 trillion of economic value each year. Reefs are sources of both nutrition and income; in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is estimated to create 68,000 jobs and 5.7 billion Australian dollars of revenue each year, mostly from tourism. This means the risk to coral is a risk to humans, as well.

There’s still a lot we don’t know — “There are numerous pathways by which coral reef degradation may cascade into social and economic tipping points,” the authors write — starting with how exactly coral loss affects fish. Some studies have found that species like butterfly fish and parrot fish were negatively affected when their local coral bleached; other studies have shown fish communities getting on just fine.

But those bleaching events were limited. The authors of the “Global Tipping Points” report — led by Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, in collaboration with a couple hundred researchers from around the world and received funding from the Bezos Earth Fund — suggest that coral could soon suffer something catastrophic and nearly irreversible on a worldwide scale.

“Documented impacts of coral cover declines include a loss of fish species, reductions in overall fish biomass and productivity, and potential destabilization of the food web,” the authors write. “If reefs are forced by climate change into low-productivity states, and if these states in turn force fish communities across a tipping point into a less diverse and less productive state, many coastal human communities will be forced to modify their lifestyles in significant ways.”

It’s yet another example of the sort of compounding disaster that climate change tends to bring, and a reminder of the interconnectedness of the ecosystems we live in and rely on, even if we can’t always see them. As Benji Jones writes in Vox, scientists are doing their best to find ways to save coral reefs; soon, however, their jobs could turn entirely to resurrection.

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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Sparks

Coal’s Slowdown Is Slowing Down

Rising electricity demand puts reliability back on the table.

Pollution.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The United States has been able to drive its greenhouse gas emissions to their lowest level since the early 1990s largely by reducing the amount of energy on the grid generated by coal to a vast extent. In 2005, by far the predominant source of U.S. electricity, making up some 2.2 million gigawatt-hours of the country’s 4.3 million GWh total energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. In 2022, by contrast, coal generation was down to 900,000 GWh out of 4.5 million GWh generated. As a result, “U.S. emissions are 15.8% lower than 2005 levels, while power emissions are 40% lower than 2005 levels,” according to BloombergNEF and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

But the steady retirement of coal plants may be slowing down. Only 2.3 GW of coal generating capacity are set to be shut down so far in 2024, according to the Energy Information Administration. While in 2025, that number is expect to jump up to 10.9 GW, the combined 13.2 GW of retired capacity pales in comparison of the more than 22 GW retired in the past two years, according to EIA figures. Over the past decade, coal retirements have averaged about 10 GW a year, with actual retirements often outpacing forecasts.

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Trump Thinks EV Charging Will Cost $3 Trillion — Which Is Incorrect

Nor will charging infrastructure ”bankrupt” the U.S.

Electric car charging.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Shortly after being fined $350 million (more than $450 million, including interest) over fraudulent business practices and then booed at Sneaker Con, former President Donald Trump traveled to Waterford, Michigan, where he said some incorrect things about electric vehicles.

Even by Trump’s recent standards, Saturday’s Waterford rally was a bit kooky. During his nearly hour-and-a-half-long speech, the former president claimed that his opponents are calling him a whale (“I don’t know if they meant a whale from the standpoint of being a little heavy, or a whale because I got a lot of money”) and, improbably, claimed not to have known what the word “indictment” meant.

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This Chicken Named Potato Will Teach Your Kids About Climate Change

A chicken from the future, to be clear.

Future Chicken.
Heatmap Illustration/CBC, Getty Images

If I told you there was a chicken named Potato who was going to teach our kids about climate change, would you think I was kidding? Either way, I’m here to inform you that Future Chicken, an “ECOtainment platform” co-created by Catherine Winder and Annabel Slaight, launched last year, including original content like a TV show that airs on CBC and YouTube, games, and a podcast, all aimed at warding off climate doom and instead highlighting climate solutions.

Winder and Slaight have, to put it mildly, impressive resumes, with Slaight having been an executive producer of The Big Comfy Couch and Winder a force behind multiple Angry Birds movies. The show’s premise is fun, and was actually thought up by kids. The main character is a chicken (named Potato) from the year 2050, a time when climate change has seemingly been solved. She travels back and forth between the future and the present, sometimes talking about the solutions of her time.

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