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

Sheppard, Charles Charles.Sheppard at warwick.ac.uk
Thu Nov 2 05:25:36 EDT 2017

Dear Peter and others
I read recently that CO2 levels reached 403.3 ppm, a level not seen since, Noah, Julius Caesar,  Gengis Khan, or whatever starting point that newspaper drew out of the air.

I read at the same time Peter Sale’s remarks about the ecological story being much more complicated than we thought.  I suggest though, with all respect, that reef complexity does not matter in the least.   Reefs are declining whether they are complex or simple, whatever we have done about it.

Why does their complexity not matter?  Partly because we DO know enough, right now, to know what the problems are.  Even if the ecosystem were quite simple it would still be too complicated for most of our lawmakers – who so often ignore what they don’t understand.  And things are not immediately desperate enough for us in the developed world to force action, even if they did understand it.  It IS desperate for millions of people, but as one very senior British lawmaker said to me once (unguardedly, after much liquid lubrication) ‘Well, they are a long way southeast of Dover’.  He of course was interested firstly in HIS electorate.  Perhaps his comment should not surprise us.

I would maintain that although it is actually an extremely complex issue in its 4-D detail, it is VERY simple in its main point: CO2 rise, extraction and pollution rise = coral reef decline.  

My point is, I don’t think it is a matter for science any more.  Yes, let us do all those research lines (multi-disciplinary, not myopic).  We know only a fraction about the ecology, but we understand more than enough to know what the consequences are of the sum of human activity.  It is a matter for sociology, psychology and politics (and of course money and vested interests).  Further unravelling of the detail (and I am all for that) is unlikely to change the trend.

Ever increasingly sophisticated ecological research (taking us further and further from lawmakers understanding), does not help answer: ‘How can we be useful given that those who rule us don’t particularly care?’

Having said that, my second point is a question: where are the journalists whose job it is to translate our science to the popular media?  We have all heard the cry: ‘you scientists do not or cannot explain it properly’.  This should be answered by ‘well no, we are busy full time trying to do the science in the first place’.  Translation of science to the public is a different skill.  People don’t ask journalists to do the original science, so why could it or should it work the other way round?    I have seen countless examples of the results of scientists miserably extolling their important news, and I fear that most readers do not get past the first few sentences.  And even if we do manage a pithy, gripping piece, a football or teen pop star misbehaving will trump our headlines any day.

It is exasperating to us to see such lack of care and action about something we think (=know) is so important.  But I suggest that a fix, if only to that problem, lies not with the complex research that a complex system needs, but will come (if it does) from a completely different direction.  We simply cannot do it, and proof of that is that while we have increased hugely in numbers of scientists and in our output, the reefs have continued to decline.  Why?  Is it really because we don’t do enough complex science to understand reefs?

Best wishes
Charles Sheppard

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