[Coral-List] Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex science needed?

Peter Sale sale at uwindsor.ca
Wed Nov 1 16:32:28 EDT 2017

Mr/Ms Hill and list,
It’s great to know people from the business community are on coral-list.  I’m not the person to talk with about collaborations, only because I am no longer actively doing research, however I suspect several of my younger colleagues on this list could be interested.  Indeed, one of the gratifying happenings as coral reef decline has become more widely known is that some in the business community are stepping forward and helping.

You ask whether knowing the financial cost of reef decline would help persuade people about the urgency of this crisis.  My answer is that it will help some people, but it is not the only kind of information likely to resonate.  I tend to divide the world into those people who live far away from reefs, but may be in a position to contribute financially or in other ways to efforts to do something for coral reefs, and those people who live close to reefs, depend on them for sustenance, employment and coastal protection, but are able only to contribute to a small degree, and only locally to conserving them.  There are a few people who fall outside these categories – wealthy or politically connected people in tropical countries, for example.  My two categories of people respond to different messages, and one about costs and benefits can appeal particularly to the first group.  This messaging has already been done by various groups, but perhaps needs repeating.  There are substantial costs in lost ecosystem services when reefs decline.  Also, as has been said on this list many times, we scientists can learn to do a better job of communicating our science to the public.

My original post, and the more extensive comments on my blog (http://wp.me/p5UInC-ED), were directed primarily to environmental scientists, asking whether we are going to be capable of building the sophisticated understanding of how complex ecosystems like coral reefs behave that I think will be necessary if we are going to be able to steer the planet towards desired Holocene-like conditions for life.  I worry that our impacts on the planet have become so pervasive that we have got to start a far more coordinated, global effort to nudge the planet in desirable directions (slowing and eventually stopping the warming we are currently causing is a major, but not the only need at present).  But I see coral reef ecology (the part of the science I understand best) moving at a glacial pace to build deeper understanding.

I do not dispute the comments of people like  Phil Dustan who responded to my post, saying that we already have enough scientific knowledge to stop reef decline and we need to build the necessary will to act and get busy.  We know more than enough to make a damned good start, and it is disappointing that efforts (which have grown a lot) still remain inadequate.  But I don’t agree that we know enough and do not need more science.  I think the science community should continue to advocate for action now (both local efforts to conserve, sustain or enhance reefs, and global efforts to slow climate change and generally reduce the human footprint on the planet), but must also continue to do good, cutting-edge science that will build our knowledge and therefore our ability (in partnership with managers, policy-makers, and other stakeholders) to foresee difficulties, make rational judgements on priorities, and put truly effective policy in place.  My reason for posting was that I do not see the rapid advances in understanding that the environmental crisis demands; instead I see too much business-as-usual from a science community that could become way more effective.  If anything, I was issuing a plea for excellence in how we practice our science.

That I am making such comments from the privilege of ‘emeritus-land’ will probably annoy some of my colleagues, but, hey, ecology was never meant to be as easy as rocket science.

Peter Sale

From: J Hill [mailto:jhilltrustee at gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, November 1, 2017 12:40 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov; Peter Sale <sale at uwindsor.ca>
Subject: Are reef ecologists capable of building the complex science needed?

To Peter, Angela, Dennis and the Coral List,

I respect all of you and am grateful for the work you do for our oceans. I am not a scientist. I am a
businessman professionally and an advocate for our oceans socially. I served as CFO for a Forbes 400
family for over 25 years and am now Trustee for this family. My professional work is as an Independent
Family Trustee. I have been fortunate to serve on the Director's Cabinet at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
and the Board at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. I was fortunate to meet many
inspiring scientists who are working so hard for the benefit of our environment as I know all of you are as well.
I thank you. I did not accomplish nearly what I would have hoped to in those board opportunities which is why I
think the frustration I feel as a businessman is not entirely different to the frustration you may feel as a scientist
in the area of what to do about climate change and it's effect on our oceans and specifically our coral reefs. As
Dennis asks below as scientists are "we just documenting the obvious". As a businessman I ask "does my
time and financial contribution to work related to our environmental challenges do any more than temporarily
make me feel better without moving the needle at all in terms of solutions for our environmental challenges".
The common thread is a lot of compelling science and a lot of good intention but no meaningful change in direction.

In reading the email from Peter and the responses (see two excerpts below), I thought it was a good time to raise a
question for your comment especially from Peter, Angela and Dennis since they have been the most active in this

The question is how do you get the population at large to care enough about climate change's effect on our oceans
and coral reefs to demand change? I don't think you can do it through pure science. Nor do I think you can do it in
a boardroom or by writing a check. You can only do it by focusing on it's effect on people's financial well being. If we
could effectively get the message out that the declining health of coral reefs directly effects the general population due
to reduced fish habitat, weakened storm protection, greater damage to our homes and communities from more powerful
storms, decline in the quality of the air we breathe, loss of tourism etc. then maybe we could get the general population to
demand change because we are showing them that by doing nothing long term they will be negatively impacted financially.
It is easier to get the general population to support an environmental cause if they buy in to how they will be impacted directly
by non action.

In conclusion (I am sorry if this is too many words) my offer is to discuss with you developing a collaboration between the
business community and the scientific community to attempt to generate greater concern in the general population about the
long term impact of non action so we can be more successful in getting government and non government organizations to set
policy that aids the important work of addressing the challenges of climate change and global warming. For example, I
feel strongly that insurance companies could be effectively educated on why this should be important to them because
they have the most to lose financially from more severe storms caused by warmer ocean water etc. There are also issues
of national defense that are hitting the radar now in Washington as the military wakes up to the potential ramifications of
rising sea levels and melting ice.

I will stop there and invite you to let me know if you think having the financial impacts of climate change be more a
part of this discussion is potentially productive. Again, I submit these thoughts with great respect for the marine scientific
community. I truly thank you all for your hard work and dedication.

"From Peter Sale:
There is a challenge here for ecologists – how much better could our scientific understanding become – and
also a call to action. And I actually believe we ecologists can do far better than we are doing!"

"From Dennis Hubbard:  I think I am seeing more and more folks questioning whether our management/monitoring
schemes are just documenting the obvious."


jhilltrustee at gmail.com<mailto:jhilltrustee at gmail.com>
Independent Family Trustee
Former Non-Profit Board Positions:
Victim's Assistance Law Enforcement Board
Duke Children's Hospital
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Duke Nicholas School for the Environment
Former Special Field Agent for LA District Attorney

More information about the Coral-List mailing list