Protecting reefs, empowering youth

Share Your Story|Communication
Protecting reefs, empowering youth
November 6, 2018
Dr. Emma Frances Camp; University of Technology Sydney; United Nations Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals

Have you ever reached out and touched the Great Barrier Reef? Have you swum alongside its diverse flora and fauna, overwhelmed by the reef’s majesty yet saddened by its declining health? As a participant in the Great Barrier Reef Legacy research program, I had that remarkable opportunity last year. Collection bag in hand, a GoPro on my head, and a shark-repelling cuff fastened to my ankle, I braved the ocean water to recover samples of some of the most resilient coral species on Earth. My name is Emma Camp, and preserving Earth’s reefs has long been my passion.

The well-being of coral reefs has for decades been a reliable barometer of the state of our global climate, and over the past two years, more than 33% of the northern Great Barrier Reef has died, its colorful splendor replaced by the drab white of bleaching and the murky green of algal blooms. From my base of operations at the University of Technology Sydney, I have worked to better understand those varieties of coral best adapted to surviving warm waters, higher acidity, and the other challenges presented by global warming.

Coral reefs and mangroves

Rates of decline in reef biodiversity are alarming, but I know that all is not yet lost. I am optimistic that if we right the ship now, we may be able to restore much of the life stolen by unnatural ocean conditions. By studying corals successful at enduring the most extreme of circumstances, I am hoping to uncover clever ways in which we can utilize nature’s adaptations to stem the tide of reef degradation going forward. As we work to repair the damage we have already done to the Earth’s atmosphere, and brainstorm plans to repopulate some of the most severely affected areas, preserving the life that remains from further decline will be of the utmost importance.

I am an ardent believer in the power of youth to shape the ongoing effort to save our planet. In September of this year, I was recognized by the United Nations as one of 17 Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I was chosen on the basis of my field work, research and activism promoting a push toward a more sustainable future. I was especially thrilled to be named a Young Leader because I have always known that youth have a voice that demands to be heard. Many call us the leaders of tomorrow, but it’s up to us to be the leaders of today!


Currently, there are over 1.8 billion young people on this endangered planet of ours, and with this number growing, it is crucial that youth are empowered to fulfill their potential and contribute to the preservation of our astonishing ocean ecosystems. As a global community, we will not be able to achieve the sustainable development goals set forth by the UN if we do not engage young people all over in the process of rolling out solutions.

I firmly believe that every single one of us can make a difference in the fight against climate change. At a minimum, it falls to us to hold our governments accountable to their commitments with regards to reducing carbon emissions. We can all also explore ways to reduce our own carbon footprint, and use our collective voice—amplified in the age of the internet like never before—to tell our governments that we expect more. We are the current custodians of this planet, and we must take it upon ourselves to leave future generations with the planet we would wish to inherit.

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