Ladies and Gentlemen, can I just say it is enormously heartening to see so many people here today, especially when I know how very busy you all are and the vast distances many of you have travelled to be at this meeting, and I apologise if during what I have to say, it may be teaching grandmothers to suck eggs – you know so much more about all these things than I do!
But nevertheless, this event is vitally important, for while the world – apart from one or two outposts here and there – has begun to focus, at last, on the profound perils of climate change, far too little attention has been given to the increasingly devastating impact of climate change on the Ocean and its biodiversity. Even when set against the dire backdrop of the destruction of the tropical rainforests and the burgeoning illegal wildlife trade, the plight of the world’s coral reefs stand out in stark and desperate relief.
Now as you all know infinitely better than me, the reefs are by a long way the most diverse of marine ecosystems, whose biodiversity provides critical balance and equilibrium to our planet’s biosphere and helps to maintain the resilience needed to withstand the natural changes of a dynamic planet and even, up until now at least, have provided a buffer against the damage of the emerging Anthropocene period. It is, for me, literally incredible – and deeply irresponsible – that people seem to have regarded the loss of these rich natural systems as somehow just being the ‘price of progress’, rather than the arbiter of our vulnerability and the harbinger of our future.
In addition to being on the frontline of the intensifying impacts of global warming, coral reefs are challenged by, among other things, unprecedented rates of development of coastal areas and heightened pressures from overfishing, from destructive fishing and land-based pollution. If that were not enough, Ladies and Gentlemen, we now understand that the scourge of plastic in the Ocean is causing the rapid increase of lethal coral diseases. The combination of these impacts has already caused the unimaginable loss of fifty per cent of the world's tropical coral reefs over the past three decades. More recently, we have seen the most widespread and severe bleaching event on record sweep across the world's coral reefs, leaving behind terrible scenes of destruction. And if, as seems likely and as reported in Science Magazine in January, the interval between bleaching events is now six years, whereas it had been 30 years in the 1980s; and, moreover, if the ‘cool’ La Niña events are now warmer than the ‘warm’ El Niño’s were at that time, then the absolutely vital period of regeneration which the cool cycle provided may now not be available. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is truly catastrophic.
So there can be no doubt that we are at a critical tipping point (and how many times have I said that in speech after speech in recent years?), where we will either ensure, or fatally compromise, our ability to safeguard the world's coral reefs and the species that will support future generations of humans and countless other forms of life.
There is, perhaps, some tiny glimmer of hope in all this darkness. Momentum, albeit belatedly, to protect coral reefs is provided by global accords, including the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Sustainable Development Goals and through more recent initiatives such as the Coral Reef Life Declaration that Prince Albert and I launched at the "Our Ocean" Conference in Malta last year. We must be utterly determined that this unprecedented global level of support and commitment to curb greenhouse gas emissions will limit warming to a level that is tolerable for coral reefs. And, importantly, as many of you here today can attest, there are, fortunately, local management measures that can increase the resilience of coral reefs’ ecosystems by improving their prospects for recovery after bleaching events.
So, at this critical moment, I am encouraged to hear that the International Coral Reef Initiative has designated 2018 as the International Year of the Reef. This really must become the catalyst to tackle this issue at a scale that has never before been achieved and that brings together all sectors to work together as a global community. Be it national and local government, non-governmental groups, local communities, scientists, international agencies, companies, the finance community or individuals, each has a key role to play. The role of the media, not least of all, is crucial here and I am hopeful that Sky will lend its voice and vision to this debate for it must, with a real sense of urgency, be brought into the homes, hearts and minds of people around the world. In this sense it is clear I think, that awareness-raising films seem to be the only way of galvanising the public into the kind of reaction we are now seeing with regard to plastics in the ocean.
Now it is, of course, absolutely critical that the scale of the collaboration equals the size of the challenge. It is a daunting task, but perhaps one made less so by a realization of the economic benefits arising from success for, amid all the discussion of the sustainable Blue Economy that has emerged during recent years, there is perhaps no better example than that of tropical coral reefs.
The annual value of the services provided by these systems in an intact and healthy state has been estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars while, inversely, on-going reef losses are leading to very significant long-term costs which, perversely, are habitually not included in the economic decisions that affect reefs.
Unfortunately, the decline of coral reefs is already affecting many communities and this is only set to get worse. Island states in the Pacific face a combination of higher tides, due to rising sea levels, and crumbling reefs are causing storm surges that damage properties and contaminate drinking water sources. The loss of coral reefs, especially when twinned with overfishing, and when healthy coral reefs can generate five to fifteen tonnes of fish per square kilometre each year, is translating into fewer fish, thus local protein shortages which, if expanded, would be utterly disastrous for the more than 500 million people in 100 countries that rely on wild fish for daily sustenance and livelihood. So, the logical conclusion, you would think, is surely inescapable – that we must act, decisively and quickly, to prevent an ecological disaster that will lead to trillions of dollars of costs affecting hundreds of millions of people. You might very well come to this conclusion, and yet all attempts to monetize the long term value of healthy ecosystems and to create the urgently needed investment markets seem to be making agonisingly slow progress.
As is the case in relation to so many of the ecological challenges before us, the stakes are increasingly high and time very short. We must strenuously augment those initiatives that can provide platforms for future action; such as the Coral Triangle Initiative, a partnership of six countries in South East Asia working together to sustain the extraordinary marine diversity in that incredibly rich area of ocean; or, the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative that works with over 50 partner organizations to track and improve the health of the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef; or, indeed the example of the Government of Belize that has recently adopted a law to forbid further oil exploration in its Ocean waters.
An encouraging start has been made already this year with regions such as the Pacific where the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme declared 2018 the Pacific Year of the Reef by adopting a two-year campaign. Equally, many countries, some of which I am pleased to see are represented here today, are showing their support for the Year of the Reef; and this in addition to the emergence of new global initiatives and campaigns such as the 50 Reefs initiative being led by Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Nature Conservancy's work with the finance sector to insure coral reefs; and WWF's new initiative with U.N. Environment, adds up to a significant step forward.
Such initiatives, Ladies and Gentlemen, are desperately in need of encouragement and it occurs to me that a rallying cry for action on coral reefs would also be critically important at moments like the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting here in London, where 33 of the 52 Commonwealth States have coral reefs accounting for 44 per cent of the worlds reefs; and during the G7 Summit where Canada has placed the Ocean firmly on the agenda, and rather conveniently the leaders of the G7 will meet on World Oceans Day this coming June.
It is a common phrase now that rather than borrowing our present from future generations, we are stealing it. Well, the speed of the ecological marine cataclysm that we have engendered is such that not only will our children be faced with the monochrome legacy of the graveyard of destroyed reefs and the collapse of marine biodiversity, but the majority of us alive today will stand witness to the process. How, Ladies and Gentlemen, is it possible that, as apparently intelligent beings, we can allow this to happen?
And yet – and yet – the Ocean has an astonishing ability to heal itself, if, if given the chance. So Ladies and Gentlemen, we simply have to give it that chance, perhaps its last, for we must not only conserve what remains of these unique and vitally important ecosystems, but we must also allow Nature to restore what has already been lost.
I can only pray, therefore, that this meeting helps galvanize a global movement during this Year of the Reef to catalyse long-lasting initiatives that will increase the resiliency of coral reefs in order that they may survive the threats they face – at our doing. So we need action – not just more words – more than ever before and I can assure you, I am keenly interested to learn, in the next hour, how you intend to play your role. You certainly have my word that I will do whatever I can, wherever I can, to help stem the tide of this catastrophe and to restore hope that the right actions must and indeed, will be taken. So Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for all your efforts and your participation in this challenge that I hope we shall overcome.