By Gavin Fang for AM
ABC News ONlne, Posted 13 May 2009
- Audio: Climate change to cause wave of refugees (AM)
Australian scientists are warning of the possibility of a future wave of economic refugees from south-east Asia and the Pacific if one of the world's most important marine ecosystems is devastated by climate change.
The "coral triangle" is an ocean region about half the size of the United States to Australia's north that supports millions of people in coastal communities and is home to a diverse array of unique marine species.
But a report by the University of Queensland has found unchecked global warming could take a terrible toll.
The triangle's waters cover just 1 per cent of the earth's surface, yet many scientists regard the region as the Amazon of the Seas.
From Indonesia in the west to Solomon Islands in the east and the Philippines in the north, the marine environment is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.
More than three-quarters of the world's reef-building coral species and a third of the world's coral reef fish can be found within the waters.
But the new research shows global climate change is taking its toll.
The director of the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, says countries must act now to stave off climate change.
"If we travel down that road and we don't take action against climate change to the level that we should, we see a world about 50 years from now in which coral reefs are a remnant of what they are today," he said.
"In fact they may be actually functionally extinct. We see mangrove systems that support fisheries gone and what we see is food security plummet."
It is the loss of food stocks that has scientists like Professor Hoegh-Guldberg most concerned.
More than 150 million people, many already poor, live on the shores of the coral triangle, relying on its bounty for food.
"By the end of the century under the worst case scenario we could see as much as 90 per cent of those food resources having eroded," he said.
"You start to see that you are now destabilising human communities through the fact that there is just not enough food. So where do they go? We'll almost invariably see an increased level of pressure on Australia and New Zealand to provide the sort of intake that needs to alleviate these problems."
The authors of the Climate Change and Coral Triangle report say there needs to be an 80 per cent cut in global carbon emissions by 2050 to save the marine ecosystem.
But even that will not prevent some of the worst effects already being wrought in the coral triangle by climate change.
With that in mind leaders from 70 countries, including Australia, are meeting in Indonesia this week for the World Ocean Conference.
They will be looking to find ways to better protect the world's oceans in the post-Kyoto, climate change agreement that will take effect after 2012.
That will be negotiated in Denmark in December.
A 25 per cent cut in global emissions by 2020 is the target many countries, including Australia, have now indicated they might sign up to.
But Professor Hoegh-Guldberg remains unconvinced.
"There is no doubt that cutting Australia's emissions by 25 per cent is going to be a challenging task but it's only going to be worth it if we get down to 20 per cent of emissions by 2050," he said.
"And that's I think where we've got to go. We've got to show real action that shows we are progressing to decarbonise our economy as quickly as possible.
"I think we've got to take this issue as a global emergency and we are not doing that."