[Coral-List] Public perceptions about climate change

John Bruno jbruno at unc.edu
Wed Oct 28 07:18:06 EDT 2009

Thank you Mel.  I really like your ideas about communicating threats  
to reefs.

But I think the ISRS may in fact be precisely an advocacy  
organization.  The first objective of the ISRS constitution is:  
"Promoting the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge  
and understanding of coral reefs", i.e., the purpose of the society is  
to advocate for (as in disseminate) our science.  There is no  
professional, ethical or practical reason to be shy about  
communicating our science, what we know about coral reefs, to the  
public.  And I think this includes direct communications to  
individuals and other organizations that get the facts about coral  
reefs and climate change wrong.

We cannot rely on environmental advocacy NGOs to communicate the  
science of coral reefs, particularly at high administrative levels and  
in the international media because in most cases they lack the  
scientific credibility and expertise.


"As one who lives 'on the fence' between science and advocacy, I can  
say it is a precarious position, but one we as a society (ISRS) are  
trying to carefully navigate."

What environmental scientist doesn't live "on the fence" between  
science and advocacy?  Or maybe more accurately; does such a fence or  
delineation even exist?  Communicating what we know about our subject  
is part of the job of any scientist, not an optional side-project.   
Communicating the results of ones findings is a fundamental component  
of science (or as my friend Sal Genovese likes to say, "if you don't  
publish it, it isn't science").  Personally, I don't find explaining  
science, i.e., educating people, at all precarious.  Even as an  
academic scientists this, i.e., advocacy, is literally part of my job  

Don Strong, the renowned ecologist and editor of Ecology, recently  
published an essay on the role of scientists and scientific societies  
in  environmental advocacy or "environmentalism" (Strong 2008-email me  
if you want a PDF of this):

"Whereas ecology is science and environmentalism sometimes is and  
sometimes isn't, the latter is necessary for the former. We ecologists  
have the same relationship to the subject of our studies as do art  
historians and archeologists to theirs. There is no opprobrium upon  
artists and archeologists advocating for the preservation of art and  
antiquities. Protection of the environment – environmentalism – is  
advocacy of what we study. Why should we not advocate for protection  
of the environment in our professional capacity?...The negative  
branding of environmentalism comes from groups that are part and  
parcel of the notorious war on science. They are dedicated to denying  
the environmental degradation that ecologists are documenting every  
day. Some of the most prominent of these groups are discussed by  
Jaques et al. in a review entitled, The organization of denial:  
conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism (Environ Pol  
2008; 17: 349–85). The authors document the concerted anti- 
environmentalism and complete disregard of these groups for anything  
connected with the environment. Jaques et al. describe the substantial  
financial backing, broad reach, and scores of authors that have been  
encouraged to spread disinformation regarding scientific findings –  
particularly about global warming – by conservative think tanks. The  
authors argue that these powerful entities seek to interfere with the  
scientific communication that is the basis of society's understanding  
of environmental issues."

Donald R Strong (2008) Ecologists and environmentalism. Frontiers in  
Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 6, No. 7, pp. 347-347.
doi: 10.1890/1540-9295(2008)6[347:EAE]2.0.CO;2

In regard to our media outreach concurrent with the 2008 ICRS, I  
agree; with the help of SeaWed and others the society did a splendid  
job.  But that was nearly 18 months ago.  This debate is moving too  
fast for us to only jump in every four years.

I guess what I am thinking about is a more focused effort on the major  
sources of disinformation; print media, cable news, talk radio, etc.  
relating specifically to climate change.  The weakness of some of the  
outreach efforts during the last international Year Of The Reef and  
the last ICRS was that far too many problems were being communicated  
simultaneously.  I realize there are countless threats to reefs.  But  
most of these are not being contested in a coordinated way.  We are  
not hearing widespread denial about overfishing, coastal development,  
nutrient pollution, etc in the media in the way that the public is  
being misinformed about climate change when they are told it isn't  
happening.  In fact, some big oil-funded think tanks such as  
CO2Science are making the case that reef loss and even bleaching are  
caused solely by runoff/water quality (http://www.co2science.org/subject/c/bleachinggeneral.php 
), disease (http://www.co2science.org/subject/c/bleachingdisease.php),  
etc and not by temperature per se (http://www.co2science.org/subject/c/bleachingtemp.php 
).  And see their screeds against the science of coral reefs and  
climate change here:  http://www.co2science.org/subject/c/calcification.php

Again, to be clear, I am not criticizing the ISRS or its officers-I  
think both are wonderful!  Nor am I suggesting we/it aren't doing  
anything.  So there isn't cause for anyone to get defense about this.   
I am only suggesting some additional actions we, or more precisely the  
Society or at least it's elected officials, might take on our behalf.

Sincerely, John

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