Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Coral reefs: The fierce urgency of now

Maribo's been on hiatus while I was preparing for and attending the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale. The conference is held only every four years; if you do any coral reef research, IRCS is not to be missed.

One of the overarching messages of the conference, featured in the plenaries, countless individual scientific presentations and the press coverage, was the urgency of dealing with climate change to ensure the survival of the world's coral reefs. I'll have more on the science later. Right now, I'd like to what we do with the science.

Several speakers strongly argued that the scientific community must do everything possible to raise public awareness of the threat that rising CO2 and ocean warming poses to coral reefs. At least two independent talks invoked the Barack Obama slogan that titles this post.

In connection with the International Year of the Reef, a collection of US agencies has created a set of advertisements for use by the coral reef conservation community. A nice, well-intentioned effort. Yet only one of the five (downloadable) advertisements deals with climate change, and that ad simply suggests that people purchase compact flourescent light bulbs, which is hardly a groundbreaking energy efficiency tip.

This seems completely out of touch with the message from the ICRS. Doesn't the community need a far, far stronger message? Any suggestions?


Rich Puchalsky said...

"This seems completely out of touch with the message from the ICRS. Doesn't the community need a far, far stronger message? Any suggestions?"

I may not be a green-washing ad agency, but here's doggerel at your service:

Coral reefs are dying, but they can be saved,
You must rise up now, you can't wait a day,
Global warming cooks coral, makes acid that burns
And we can't sit and wait while another year turns
Go to your business and your government
And tell them that nature is Heaven sent
We can stop using oil, we can replace coal
All it takes is that people work towards a real goal
We can stop global warming, and make the world well
If you won't save the reefs, then damn you to Hell

Caspar Henderson said...

As you know, Simon, this is a dilemma that comes up quite often. Scientists and others in positions of brief authority want to encourage a sense of empowerment ('Yes, we can' in one of the cliches of the moment), but they do not want to understate the challenges. It sounds like the material produced in association with ICRS was inadequate - certainly in comparison to the strong messages coming from leading scientists in other circumstances (see for example J E N Veron's recent book, reviewed here).

Scientists and those working with them need to take what they do as seriously as, for example, Joseph Rotblat did. They need to work with politicians and other thought leaders to deliver messages that say yes, this will be about blood, sweat and tears; but it will also be about massive co-operation and great achievement of a purpose and a bigger and nobler dream than, e.g., the Apollo programme. And they need to take risks to realise the programmes in line with these messages.

Anonymous said...

How about setting a shining example for the rest of the world and holding the ICRS virtually? The technology does exist, and not only would it cut back on all of the carbon emissions from thousands of folks flying all over the world, but would allow a far greater number of people to "attend". Yeah, it's a whole different way of doing business, but that's the point. We need big moves, not just new light bulbs.

If anyone at ISRS would like to seriously entertain this idea, I am closely associated with the CEO of an award-winning video conferencing company who maintains that such an undertaking is well within the capabilities of current technology. I would be happy to act as liaison.

Michele Miller, millerm@umd.edu

Anonymous said...

Peter Sales put out a good slogan during his talk in the management mini-symposium: "Safe the reefs - use a condom. 3.2 Billion by 2100 or bust" ... trying to address the elephant in the room - if our population continues to rise the way it is, then the reefs will continue to be in trouble. It seems crass, but it stuck in my head and wouldn't make a bad bumper sticker if you ask me.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that population control in and of itself is the answer. We could halve our population but double consumption and we'd be in the same boat as we are today. Many scientists believe that we are well within the carrying capacity of the planet. But without using available clean technologies for power requirements, we're dirtying the place up at rapid rate. Let's start using the technology we have!

Anonymous said...

Great point Simon, I agree completely. BTW, I tried to go through the various YOTR web pages to find out what 5 point solution I was supposed to be broadcasting, but never did find it. Could you possibly post it here and maybe on the list so we can have an informed discussion about this.

I also agree w anonymous in that reducing population is a red herring and will have zero effect on net emissions output since the main mechanisms through which we could do that (e.g., educating and empowering woman) would also increase consumption and fossil fuel usage. In fact some evidence indicates that we'd have an even great human footprint if there were fewer people.

Simon Donner said...

I have to agree with John. The planet's carrying capacity depends on how much energy and land the people on the planet are using.

Regardless, it may not be the place of the coral reef science community to call for population control. The scientific community simply needs to be communicating the serious (and immediate) nature of the climate and CO2 threat to coral reefs. That message was evident at ICRS.

Hence my disappointment that the IYOR ads (available at the link in this post) focus on:
i) not buying coral necklaces (rather obvious),
ii) not stepping on corals (ditto)
ii) reducing pesticide and fertilizer use (important, but a smaller concern in much of the tropics where there is little runoff onto reefs)
iv) using mooring buoys, rather than anchors,
and v) buying energy efficient light bulbs.

Again, the ads themselves are not bad. The problem is they do not measure up, not even close, to the challenge that coral reefs actually face, the challenge that was clearly laid out by the thousands of scientists gathered at the ICRS meeting last week.

The question is how to most effectively spread the news. Is the press coverage from ICRS enough? Or do we need new creative avenues for notifying the public and policymakers about the climate change threat to coral reefs? Let's keep the conversation going.

Caspar Henderson said...

Simon asks, 'do we need new creative avenues for notifying the public and policymakers about the climate change threat to coral reefs?'. Of course! One needs to be at least as well organised as the elite opinion-forming denialists. Here is a half-formed ideas that may well have been better explored elsewhere:

A group of leading marine scientists (including, for example, co-authors of recent papers such as Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification and One-Third of Reef-Building Corals Face Elevated Extinction Risk from Climate Change and Local Impacts) and conservationists should work jointly on a global communication strategy. Don't be shy! Get as active as, for example, James Hansen. Recruit Nobel Prize winners, community and peace activists, rock stars and movie stars to something like "Ten years [or whatever] to save the world's coral reefs, coalmine canary of the biosphere, from extinction."

Simon Donner said...

Caspar's call for scientists to be less shy, more Hansen-esque, is pretty similar to the message from Rich Aronson, the current president of the Int'l Society for Reef Sciences, at the meeting. People were receptive to Aronson's message. I suspect (and could be wrong) that many in the community are comfortable with speaking up, but uncomfortable with co-ordinated communications strategies like Caspar is suggesting.

Kaboom said...

Ocean acidification is something that the deniers cannot deny!

If the oceans are absorbing increasing quantities of Carbon, well, hello .... it is fermenting carbonic acids (HCO) which reduces the Ph of the sea-water, and presto! Our pristine coral reefs are being boiled away by acid, and we all know what acid does to carbonate sea-shells and crustaceans, don't we.

Up Welng said...

if i may throw in my 2 cents on his thread... i'm agreeing with everything simon and caspar have said here...

i was in ft. lauderdale as well and was disappointed with the conservation messaging for immediate and meaningful action... a lot of great notes could be heard in the overall chorus of alarm that was being raised, but a clear strategy never fully emerged beyond the ineffectual call for "awareness raising"...

i fear we will gather again in four years and have little to show for our call to arms...

what i think was particularly alarming was the lack of comfort scientists in attendance seemed to have in wanting to get politically active... i of course know the claim to appear non-partisan to better get scientific messages across to both sides of the aisle...

but if we are going to have meaningful changes for the "big bad" that was on everyone's mind at the meeting (climate and acidification), it's going to take political will and action....

rick macpherson

C W Magee said...

In bumper sticker format, my $0.02.

david lewis said...

I doubt if Obama is so fiercely urgent on climate. His recent speech in Germany put climate on a list as a side issue. He called on the world to emulate the determination of the Germans on this issue, which, if per capita emission plans contemplated there now were to spread to the rest of the world would, according to Hansen, be a "recipe for global disaster". Now Obama would respond as the US population woke up. but I see no evidence that he sees the issue like Roosevelt saw WWII, i.e. Obama isn't chomping at the bit ready to do whatever he can behind the scenes until he can wake up the US population to its peril.

People concerned about ocean acidification ought to prepare themselves for debate on the type of thing Paul Crutzen wrote about, geoengineering, as when the civilization wakes up they are going to be reaching for the planetary thermostat and Crutzen's suggestion that the stratosphere be injected with sulphur would doom the oceans to increasing acidity.

John Feeney said...

I wrote a longer comment which was lost. May I just suggest these two articles. The first shows clearly that at today's levels of per capita resource consumption we are in overshoot of the earth's carrying capacity for humans:


The second shows, through the use of ecological footprint data, that no remotely realistic reduction in per capita consumption would be enough, without also addressing overpopulation, to get us out of overshoot:


Our sheer numbers have passed the point of sustainability at any conceivable level of per capita consumption. This is common sense, really, when you think historically and consider, for instance, the implications of our reliance on limited stores of fossil fuels.

Our total resource consumption is merely the product of population size and the average per capita consumption. To suggest we should work hard on one factor while ignoring the other is therefore misguided. That is why scientists and others from around the world have come together to speak out this month on the population issue:


Through agriculture, we have learned not how to increase carrying capacity, but rather how to overshoot it at the increasing peril of our own and millions of other species. We have learned how to circumvent the normal regulatory mechanisms which, in other species, maintain a balance between population numbers and food supply. It seems to me we'd better think very seriously about that.