Coral Reefs in Danger? Climate Champ to the Rescue


Rebecca Chan, a California Climate Champion and Columbia University sophomore, recently returned from Okinawa, Japan where she studied the effects of climate change on coral reefs and discussed the ramifications of a warming world with scientists and locals.

In 2004, Rebecca did her own study on marine ecosystems and climate change. She was a National Finalist in the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge and won second place in the California State Science Fair for her research on water pollution and its effects on water fleas. She is currently studying to become an environmental lawyer.

Treehugger was lucky enough to speak with Rebecca about her journeys.

Can you give us a description of the effects that climate change has on coral reefs based on what you've learned?
RC: During Professor Mariko Abe's lecture, we first learned about the importance of coral. Coral can only be found off the coasts of Japan, Australia, and the area around Malaysia. Although it only occupies 1/6 of the world's coastlines, it accounts for ¼ of the world's fish species and 1/10 of total fisheries' catch worldwide. Coral prevents land from being eroded by the sea, provides habitats to animals, and food and medicine for humans.

Climate change is posing a serious threat to the coral reef. Climate change leads to higher water temperatures, which leads to a higher starfish population. Starfish are a predator of coral, so this can be very harmful. Also, when sea temperature rises, species that normally inhabit the coral either leave or are forced to leave (we don't know which). When these species leave, coral becomes bleached. Coral can only provide about 10% of its energy needs for itself; the rest comes from the inhabiting organisms' photosynthesis. When these species leave the reef, the coral can no longer stay healthy.

What was the most environmentally disheartening thing that you discovered on your trip? And what is the most hopeful thing that you discovered?
RC:I think something disheartening that occurs to me during any kind of environmental endeavor is the inherent paradox that exists in trying to start environmental change. In order to raise awareness and accomplish anything on a large scale, you have to use resources. A flyer with an environmental message seems like a contradiction, and easy to dismiss ("See? Self-proclaimed environmentalists don't even save trees.") But you have to kind of get over that easy-way-out thinking and consider the matter in a different way. If that one piece of paper with facts on it makes one person think more carefully about water use, or energy resources, or even paper use, then that justifies using that piece of paper. If that one person decides to walk instead of drive to her friend's house, or start double siding copies, then that justifies that one flyer ten times over.

I find it encouraging and often inspiring to talk to people about environmental issues. Often people who aren't loud about how eco-friendly or environmentally aware they are know and do a lot that is environmentally friendly. It sounds cliché, but it's inspiring to listen to the other Champions and hear all that they have achieved, or the goals that they have set themselves for their own projects. It makes me want to work that much harder at my project, and I can only hope that my actions will have a similar effect on someone else--that's the only way to get everyone on board.

What can we, the folks at home, do to save coral reefs? What can we do to reduce the effects of climate change?
RC:For saving the coral reefs specifically, one of the most important things we can do is to protect our oceans. A great deal of the damage that the reef suffers is due to runoff. Keeping our storm water clean and preventing polluted runoff as much as possible (for example, by using biodegradable soap when washing your car or going to a carwash instead, or not over-fertilizing your garden) is a good start.

Education is extremely important for reducing the effects of climate change. People can educate themselves about the science behind climate change, and stay informed about policies regarding climate change. Once you understand what is happening, it's easier to speak up about what you would like to start happening.

The biggest way to stop climate change is to reduce consumption. Think in terms of reducing, not recycling. Instead of recycling your water bottles, buy a reusable one. Think about the "carbon cost" of your actions. Instead of buying a pineapple in November, how about a locally grown apple? Insulate your house. Turn off and unplug unused electronics. Buy energy and water efficient appliances. Use reusable containers instead of disposable plastic bags.

I think individual action is often stressed, but sometimes it doesn't feel like individual action can really make that big of a difference. And honestly, one individual's action really can't. But the idea is to act on an individual level, and inspire others to do the same. By making small personal changes, we can demonstrate and interest in and commitment to environmental issues. As members of an electorate, we should remember that our interests hold tremendous power. When enough citizens start to consciously make an effort to stop climate change, our elected officials will soon follow, and we can finally achieve substantial environmental legislation.

What else did you do in Japan?
RC:Something we tried to do at the American Climate Camp (held at UCSD last year) was to make an extra effort to minimize our own carbon footprints. We did this by taking on more commitments as a group, for example, not eating beef, taking 4 minute showers, and not using hair dryers or hair straighteners. I was happy to see that we did the same thing in Okinawa. On the first day, we actually got to participate in two of the Japanese champions' projects. One was decorating a Japanese fan, or "sensu," with a slogan and/or design related to our own projects. It was incredibly hot in Okinawa, and we used these fans throughout the week to avoid using the air conditioner. The other project was called eco-cooking--we cooked dinner outside on an open fire two nights in a row. I was a little doubtful at first (it was pouring), but the food was great!

This isn't your first trip to Japan; you went to the International
Climate Champions delegation that met with the G8 Environmental
Ministers in Kobe, Japan. Can you tell us a little about that trip?

RC:My first trip to Japan was very different than this recent trip. In May, all of the international champions from all of the 13 different countries (the G8 +5 countries) went to Kobe to finalize the statement we had written on climate change and to present that statement to our government leaders (specifically, our ministers of the environment. I presented our statement, the "Kobe Challenge," to Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the EPA at the time). We had written that statement a few months before, when all of the international champions had met in London.

The trip to Kobe was a very international trip; the theme was international cooperation, and the conference just happened to be held in Japan. The trip I recently took to Okinawa was for Japanese Climate Camp. Each country in the Climate Champions program does a Climate Camp each year, which is an opportunity for all of the champions of that country to meet up and discuss projects ideas, etc. This year, Climate Camp for the Japanese champions was held in Okinawa, and foreign champions were invited to attend. It turned out to be just Japanese champions and two American champions, myself and fellow California Climate Champion Anna Murveit. As a result, the time in Okinawa was very Japan-focused. It was great to feel more immersed in the local culture.


RC:Another big difference between the two trips was language. On past trips to London and Kobe, there were really only a few champions from the host country, and the rest were foreigners. We spoke English at those meetings. In Okinawa, the Americans were the only foreigners, and most discussions were conducted in Japanese, with English translation for us. It was very different, but very interesting and a good experience to not be a part of the dominant group.

What projects are you working on now?
RC:I'm currently working on an environmental education project in New York. I am a part of a group that runs an after school environmental education program for 5th and 6th graders in the Bronx. The main focus is to get the students motivated about school and to raise awareness about environmental issues. I'm in the process of trying to establish a link between this school in the Bronx and a middle school in Japan.

The International Climate Champions Program is run by the British Council, the UK's international cultural relations program.
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Tags: Coral Reefs | Oceans