Cancun as a Symbol for All that is at Stake in the Climate Change Fight

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

Jogging along the beach in Cancun, where this year’s climate negotiations are playing out, is a strange experience. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of hotels form some of the most intensive coastal development on the planet. Because of the hotels, the barrier beach under them can’t move inland as climate change melts glaciers and ice caps, raising sea level.

So each year the government piles sand on the beach to protect the hotels, and the gradually rising sea eats away at the pile — much like a rising tide encroaching on a child’s sand castle. The result is a steep cut in the beach, almost like a sand wall. Some of the hotels send staff out each day to carve steps into this wall so their customers can reach the ocean. It’s a less than optimal situation — you can’t run down to the deliciously blue-green water to test its temperature. But the alternative is to allow the sea to have the hotels, which bring billions of tourist dollars each year to this relatively poor corner of Mexico.

Fifteen miles south of Cancun sits the fishing village of Puerto Morelos, where a living coral reef protects the beach from the force of the waves. Here there is no wall of sand, just a gradual transition from the town plaza past a few palm trees and on down to the same blue-green, magical water. The reef at Puerto Morelos is part of the Meso-American Reef, the second largest coral reef system in the world.

The Meso-American Reef is the horn of plenty of this region. It nourishes the fish that grace local tables, it draws tourists, it provides homes for a rich diversity of marine life, and it protects beaches and coastal towns from violent storms. And it is dying.

A report presented at a side event to the Cancun climate talks on Tuesday evening found that, since 2006, the percentage of reefs in poor or critically bad condition has increased from just over 50 percent to 70 percent. Causes of this rapid decline include local factors like water pollution and coastal development. But climate change also plays a role, particularly rising ocean temperatures that cause coral bleaching. The decline and potential future death of the world’s second largest coral reef should be a warning sign — a structure that can stand up to hurricanes and tropical sun for millennia unharmed is likely a lot more resilient than things built by humans.

But in case the report didn’t hammer home the message, I had a very personal view of how humans are disrupting the reef ecosystem. On my way back to my hotel room last night, I found two baby sea turtles forlornly circling under a street light. Over the next hour I found more than 50 of the babies, and carried them down to the water. When I dropped them on the beach a foot from the waves, they turned and headed back for the hotel. You see, ever since the age of the dinosaurs, sea turtles have lived in an environment where the sea has been the brightest spot at night. The instincts of the baby turtles say head for the light—which now is the strip of hotels. I had to throw each turtle into the waves.

The side event on the Meso-American Reef was a call to action, and the turtles reinforced it for me. The leaders here at Cancún need to set aside limited self-interest in favor of the larger self-interest involved in preserving the climate we all depend on. This won’t solve the problem of hotel lights, but it will get rid of one more stress on the system and preserve the reef, on which the sea turtles and millions of people depend.

Frank Lowenstein is climate adaptation strategy leader at the Nature Conservancy

Video by: Frank Lowenstein/The Nature Conservancy

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Comments (3)

  • jenny


    It’s that setting aside of short term self interest that trips up everyone.


  • Laura


    Maybe all negotiators should be required to interact with baby sea turtles before they start their day. Must have been an amazing experience.


  • Bobby


    Awesome blog! Coral reefs and turtles, what a tragic combination of harm. We need more blogs from this guy.


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