Coral reefs rival tropical rain forests as Earth's most abundant ecosystems. Despite only covering 0.2% of the ocean floor, nearly one million distinct species of fish, invertebrates and algae can be found among the world's reefs. As a result of this cornucopia of life, it is commonly said that coral reefs are one of our most accurate indicators of the health of the wider ocean.
And this is something of a worry because, well, our coral reefs are in a whole world of trouble.
Battered for decades by warmer ocean temperatures, an acidifying ocean, haphazardly dropped anchors, irresponsible recreational diving operations and the widespread practice of dynamite fishing and bottom trawling, it is estimated that 27% of the ocean's coral reefs are already gone. A further 32% are at risk of being lost by 2050. It is against this backdrop that we should consider the recent news that the MV Tatoosh, Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen's super yacht, the 49th largest yacht in the world, has accidentally destroyed about 80% of a protected coral reef in the Cayman Islands.
That a yacht he owned was allowed to drag its anchor over thousands of square feet of coral, destroying the fragile environment, is a development that I'm sure will have pained Allen deeply – a large chuck of the $2 billion that Allen, a co-signed of The Giving Pledge, has donated to charitable causes in recent decades has been dedicated to wildlife conservation efforts, including millions spent to protect the health of the oceans and coral reefs. But yet despite these commendable efforts, the fact remains that 80% of a protected ecosystem has been destroyed by a super billionaire's mega yacht.
Perhaps the saddest thing about this is that it won't be Allen who will have to really face the consequences of this unintended destruction. It will be the local people who fish, dive and live around the reef. And what a familiar story that is: the wealthy trash the planet, the poor face the consequences.
While it is unequivocally clear that it is the world's poorest who are going to feel the greatest pain and die in the greatest numbers as a result of climate change and human-caused biodiversity loss, a recent report from UK charity Oxfam revealed that the richest 10% of the global population are responsible for over 50% of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest half of the planet only account for a mere 10% of global emissions. When we move up the economic scale the discrepancies grow even starker: members of the richest 1% have a carbon footprint some 175 times higher than those in the poorest 10%.
This is, of course, a trend that is true not just on an individual level, but at a nation state level too. Wealthier nations have far higher per-capita rates of carbon pollution. Furthermore, wealthy, developed nations have benefited from almost 250 years of carbon-intensive development that has altered and polluted our shared atmosphere. It is for this reason many argue that the West should shoulder a larger obligation to cut back on emissions than those nations least responsible for the current climate crisis. “We hope advanced nations will assume ambitious targets and pursue them sincerely. It’s not just a question of historical responsibility – they also have the most room to make the cuts and make the strongest impact,” Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi told world leaders at the COP 21. And now as I look at Paul Allen's super yacht, I find myself wondering if this is true on a national level, as Modi argued, then, surely, this reasoning is equally true at an individual level?
Former NOAA chief scientist, Dr. Sylvia Earle once argued that, in the battle to save our oceans, not only are individual actions important, in the end they are what will make the difference. For you and me, Dr. Earle explained, what that might mean in practice is choosing to eat lower down on the oceanic food chain, it might mean not eating seafood at all or it might mean choosing to cycle rather than drive and thus contribute less to the warming and acidifying of our oceans. And for those individuals who have, to borrow Modi's terminology, the most room to make cuts and to make a stronger impact, it might mean giving up even more. For the likes of Paul Allen, it might even mean, say, giving up super yachts that you rarely set foot on that burn through huge amounts of fossil fuels and occasionally drag their anchors over delicate coral reefs and devastate entire ecosystems – and regardless of how many millions you have poured into ocean conservation, that is what it might mean to be a billionaire who truly cares about protecting coral reefs today.