09/30/2010 11:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Coral Reefs Are Trying to Tell Us Something: We Must Break Our Addiction to Fossil Fuels

Coral reefs have always been sources of wonder and imagination for me -- teeming with unbelievable life, from the beautiful to the bizarre and the powerful, all living together in a mysterious underwater world. In recent years, however, scientists have realized this world is threatened by a one-two punch on the horizon from carbon dioxide emissions that could be fatal.

Last week, the New York Times reported that scientists fear record high temperatures may cause large-scale loss of the world's coral reefs -- with indications that climate change is the culprit.

Coral is extremely sensitive to heat, and when temperatures spike for a few days it can cause massive die-offs. This process has been dubbed "coral bleaching" because these once vibrant, colorful reefs are transformed into stark white graveyards.

Scientists point to coral as a canary in the coalmine for climate change -- and their reaction to increased water temperatures isn't the only indication that carbon emissions are reaching dangerous levels. Last year I narrated a short documentary from the Natural Resources Defense Council called Acid Test that explored another one of the seas' warning signs: ocean acidification.

Like increased water temperatures, ocean acidification occurs because of increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. These emissions not only cause temperatures -- in the air and the water -- to heat up, they are absorbed by ocean waters where they turn into carbonic acid.

The increased acidity of our oceans threatens the creatures that form the base of the food chain in the sea, from plankton and shellfish, to -- you guessed it -- coral reefs. If they perish, what happens to the hundreds of thousands of species further up the chain?

Scientists aren't sure. But they can say with assurance: if we continue burning fossil fuels as we are now, we will double the ocean's acidity by the end of the century. And while it will be months before scientists know the full extent of increased water temperatures on coral reefs, this year is already only the second year of global coral bleaching on record, due to extreme temperatures.

Add the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico into the picture and the seas are sending us a clear message: we must break our addiction to fossil fuels. We must transition to clean energy that can't spill, run out, destroy entire communities & economies, or kill off these creatures and places of wonder.

The Senate's failure to act on either climate or the immediate needs of Gulf Coast communities shows just how tight a stranglehold Big Oil has on Congress. The nation will continue to suffer until Congress breaks this stranglehold. Congress needs to return to the task of passing clean energy and climate legislation that will put Americans back to work, reduce our reliance on foreign oil and create a healthier future for us all -- above and below the water's surface.