[Coral-List] Communicating the Importance of Reefs to People

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Sat Mar 11 23:45:53 EST 2017

I've been following this and related discussions with interest.  Some readers will dismiss this thread as irrelevant chatter, but I believe we will not succeed in communicating effectively with the wider public unless we learn new ways of telling our coral reef stories.  The main story is full of dire news and we must convey its seriousness, but it is also possible to provide hope or inspiration by talking about what can be done differently to achieve an outcome where reefs prosper into the future (one idea about this is at the end of this rant).  Many of you focus narrowly on the reefs, which is understandable and fine; I think the bigger part of the story (and why reefs should be getting the enormous press exposure they now enjoy) is that what we are doing to reefs, we are also doing to other ecosystems.  We are degrading all of them, but reefs are simply the most sensitive ecosystem out there.  I think the message (which I have used in talks to good effect) that coral reefs could become the first ecosystem that we will eliminate on this planet if we continue business as usual is a particularly chilling one.  The tricky part is to make the 'here is what we need to do differently' part of the story something more than a mundane list of every management tool we possess (such as I provided in a post here a few weeks ago).  Simplifying the message to one particular thing, such as protecting grazing parrotfishes, or developing more effective restoration techniques, useful as these actions may be in some places, somehow cheapens the message.  It cheapens the message because deep down I think most of us agree that no one quick fix will work.  Indeed, none of the local efforts will do much good beyond providing a brief 'breathing space' for reefs if we do not bring climate under control - as witness the start of the GBR's new bleaching just months after the 2016 one.

It's for this reason that I remain undecided regarding the 50 Reefs Initiative.  I've read the PR material, and I've received a tiny bit more information from one of the scientists involved, but I still do not know what this project is actually going to do.  The PR is polished and more effective at reaching a broad audience than many of the reef science communication efforts, but it could be simply an environmental version of vapor-ware.  Done right, it should be possible to pick some reefs with a better than average chance of surviving climate and local threats.  But what will they do next?  Unless they are able to motivate countries to really dig deep in efforts to reduce GHG emissions, the selected reefs may still disappear.  (We are only 1 degree above preindustrial climate, and we see the damage from bleaching; what happens when we are 3.5 to 5 degrees above preindustrial?)  On the other hand, and I suspect this is what the participants are planning, with superior PR and positive stories of taking care of the local threats, it may become possible to galvanize stronger efforts on GHG emissions.  If not, the risk, noted by others, remains: that identifying the 50 reefs most likely to survive (because 90% are doomed) could lead to complacency re the rest of coral reefs (the doomed ones), and a sense that the world does not need to worry further about reefs, because the survivors are being well taken care of.  Ergo, we can let climate drift up a bit above +2 degrees because it was only ever coral reefs that were going to be seriously impacted (I don't believe this statement, but many people will).  In my view, while I am hopeful the participants will do something significant, but I fear the jury is still out.  In the meantime we should not rush to judgement.

I periodically post to my blog on the general topic of communicating the environmental crisis.  I've just put up one with what may be a new metaphor for the 'what we need to do' part of the reef story (at least I think it is new).  I suggest our problem is that we have got to steer the planet back to a good place to achieve an Anthropocene with a quasi-Holocene environment..  Just as the navigator on board Hokule'a uses the stars and other signs to steer by,  we must use stars that relate to the nine planetary boundaries of Johan Rockstrom as we steer our planet.  Instead of the reef as a canary in the mine, in my metaphor the coral reef becomes one of several climate stars.  I'd welcome your reactions.  (Much of the post is a comparison of the eerily similar recent histories of Australia and Canada and talks more about coal and tar sands than about reefs - those bits may be of less interest to this audience.  Still I welcome comments on the blog.)  If interested, it is at http://www.petersalebooks.com/?p=2418

Peter Sale
University of Windsor

More information about the Coral-List mailing list