simplistic journalism and coral mortality

tim ecott timecott at
Mon Nov 13 04:50:13 EST 2000

To pick up on the interchange between Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Osha Gray 
Davidson -

As a journalist I would like to add that there seems to be a fundamental 
problem here. 'Bad news about the environment' is beginning to rival the 
status of 'bad news about Africa' in terms of its ability to make editors 
and programme makers immediately switch off and say 'we've heard it all a 
thousand times, lets hear something different.'
Coral scientists (and I've interviewed a lot of them) are for once among 
scientists in general - in a uniquely privileged position. They seem to 
agree that the current dire state of the world's coral reefs is due to 
several key and identifiably anthropogenic factors. But paramount among the 
causes of mortality and bleaching in the Indian Ocean is global warming. And 
yet, and yet, it doesn't take long for someone to crawl out of the woodwork 
and say 'but aren't these things natural, doesn't the earth always go 
through cyclical climate shifts etc etc'

Given that it is reasonably easy, in layman's terms, to convince the 
'general public' that the sea is an essential component of our fragile 
biosphere, then there seems only one useful end to the debate about coral 
mortality - that the planet is in deep shit. As soon as people start arguing 
the finer points about whether corals will last 20 years or 50 years the 
debate is lost. Politicians and the 'general public' will never worry or 
take action about a possible catastrophe in two generations time. Take the 
current situation in Britain - we have been blessed with the worst flooding 
this century - fortunately in the run up to the conference on climate change 
in the Hague. Now, for once, our government has something to make them 
nervous on the issue.

The CORDIO report 2000, and the evidence from NOAA and the work of Ove 
Hoegh-Guldberg and all of the other research presented in Bali seems to me 
to be an absolutely crucial body of evidence that something very significant 
has to be done about greenhouse gases. Now, not in 30 years time.

If marine scientists think their work is worth anything then they have to be 
very careful not to start arguing the finer points about how long the reefs 
will survive. This is a classic case of arguing about where to put the 
deckchairs on the Titanic! If you want to take the debate further than the 
realm of the (very fine) coral list and get journalists who can get the 
story into the public eye then please stop bickering.

We journalists are certainly 'simplistic'. It is a simple issue. The reefs 
are dying and most of the world doesn't know about it - let alone care.

>From: "Ove Hoegh-Guldberg" <oveh at>
>Reply-To: <oveh at>
>To: "Osha Gray Davidson" <osha at>,        "mjrtom999" 
><mjrtom999 at>
>CC: <coral-list at>
>Subject: RE: a question and a debate
>Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000 08:50:18 +1000
>Dear Osha,
>Congratulations to you and the others on publishing the GCRMN study and
>brochure.  Very useful indeed and a major contribution to reef science and
>Your email caused me some concern however.  In particular, your description
>of the "simplistic" nature of the message "coral being gone in the next 20
>years or so" (mainly coined by journalists) seems to be simplistic in
>itself.  To say this is to miss the essence and careful study that resulted
>in conclusions that perhaps underlie this paraphrasing of the science.
>Perhaps a reading of the background to the broader statements underlying
>this one would be useful at this point.  In fact, I invite you to tell me
>(and the others that have flagged this possibility) where the science is
>That aside, I see your email as an opportunity to begin a wider debate.
>As I am sure you realise, the fact that oceans are warming rapidly (up to 5
>degree per century according to a recent NOAA press release) and we have
>seen increasingly (not decreasingly) severe outcomes (as is recorded in the
>excellent GCRMN account - 19% lost in the thermal event of 1998) from these
>increasingly severe thermal events, there is a major issue brewing.  One
>degree per century would be enough.  By 2020 (which I guess is your
>"simplistic" reading of the Mar FW Res 1999 study), we will be regularly
>over the sea temperatures that we currently know to cause (and can use to
>predict today - see HotSpot program) major coral mortality events.  What is
>perhaps more worrying, we will regularly see anomalies that will be double
>and even triple those we have seen in the past two decades by 2020.  We 
>nothing to tell us that this wont happen.  Currently, we have little
>evidence of the ability for coral reefs to evolve with a sea temperature
>that is changing at the rate of 1-5 degrees per century.  Again, we the
>evidence that corals will rapidly adapt to an ever increasing sea
>temperature is not jumping out at us.  In fact, we mostly have evidence to
>the contrary (mortality events, no decreasing trend in severity or 
>So - I ask you - where is the "simplicity" in the Mar FW Research (1999)
>hypothesis argument?
>A.  Is it in the sea temperature measurements?  Are the rapidly warming 
>a figment of our imagination?  Has Al Strong at NOAA been misreading his
>B.  It is in the climate models?  Are the Max Planck, IPCC, CSIRO, Hadley
>Centre, UN atmospheric and geophysical scientists got it all wrong?
>C.  Is it in the coral biology and the assessment of the impacts
>fundamentally flawed? Have we completely misinterpreted the meaning of the
>thermal events and outcomes of the past 20 years?  Can we say that 
>is trivial and will not effect coral communities in the long term?  Are the
>Okinawan reefs going to repopulate within the next 2 Years?  Is 19% loss
>every few years trivial - how many even 1998 thermal events could reefs
>sustain before corals become minor components?  Can we say that adaptation
>over a few years is possible (with an ever increasing stress profile)?  
>the faunal changes that occurred during the interglacial transition been
>Remember, this is not an argument about corals going extinct.  They 
>wont.  It is an argument about reef health and function.  That then flows
>over into the meaning of this for human users.  If corals become minor
>components to reef communities, can we say that the reefs they built will
>continue to function as they have when they were coral dominated?
>I look forward to your comments and to a wider debate among members of the
>coral reef community.  As I have indicated, the 1999 study was in some ways
>a "target" ... one which we needed to erect rigorously and one, which, if 
>can destroy scientifically, we will all rejoice (me included).  I stress 
>word "scientifically" - it is not enough to say you don't believe (as I 
>heard from some).  We must debate this in hard scientific terms with the
>idea of resolving the core issues.
>I look forward to joining the debate on my return from COP6 on Nov 24th
>Best wishes,
>Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
>Director, Centre for Marine Studies
>University of Queensland
>St Lucia, 4072, QLD
>Phone:  +61 07 3365 4333
>Fax:       +61 07 3365 4755
>Email:    oveh at
>   [Ove Hoegh-Guldberg]
>    -----Original Message-----
>   From: owner-coral-list at
>[mailto:owner-coral-list at]On Behalf Of Osha Gray 
>   Sent: Sunday, 12 November 2000 11:00 PM
>   To: mjrtom999
>   Cc: coral-list at
>   Subject: Re: a question
>   Hi,
>   Not sure, but maybe you're thinking of the posting below:
>   The "Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000" brocure (PDF document, by
>   Clive Wilkison, Global Coordinator) is now posted on the Global Coral
>   Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) page at: 
>   At that page click on: Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000. Its
>message about reef conditions, while dire, is not as simplistic as "coral
>being gone in the next 20 years or so." It is thoughtful and
>throught-provoking and, yes, alarming.
>   Osha
>   At 05:29 AM 11/12/2000, you wrote:
>     Hi all,
>         There was some mail being bounced around here recently about the
>     being gone in the next 20 years or so..? can someone please get me the
>     original refernce source for that "fact"?
>     I would be very much appreciative
>     thank you much
>     -tomas oberding
>   Osha Gray Davidson          Home page:
>   14 S. Governor St.          Phone: 319-338-4778
>   Iowa City, IA 52240
>   USA

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