The many forms of cooperation on coral reefs


At a time when the political world seems overfilled with evidence of human greed, selfishness, destructive competitiveness, and utter immorality, I found myself reading Tim Flannery’s 2011 book, Here on Earth: A natural history of the planet.  It’s not perfect, but it is a good read.  It lifted my spirits.

In it, Flannery contrasts the Medea and the Gaia hypotheses.  The Medea hypothesis, developed by Peter Ward, holds that natural selection drives a perpetual arms race among species that ultimately leads to system collapse.  The Gaia hypothesis, coined by James Lovelock, argues that the Earth system continually evolves to become more and more strongly interconnected as a self-organizing complex system with considerable resilience.  Flannery comes down in favor of Gaia, contending that natural selection is just as powerful in shaping affiliative, cooperative interactions and relationships within and among species, as it is in shaping competitive, predatory and other destructive interactions.  Let’s think of these as the win-win (Gaia) and the win-lose (Medea) interactions that characterize all interactions among living beings.  While I remain unconvinced that the planet is in the process of becoming some sort of living super-organism as James Lovelock proposed, I am persuaded by Flannery that we and all other species naturally have the capacity to develop increasingly strong affiliative responses, just as we naturally are capable of developing ever more savage destructive tendencies.

Two hypotheses about our relationship to Earth, Gaia and Medea, as visualized by Sarah Howell.  Image © Sarah Howell/

Because humanity changes through a combination of natural selection and cultural selection, our rates of change, in both positive and negative directions, are blindingly fast compared to those of our pre-civilized forebears, or those of other creatures.  This speed carries great risk because we have become a potent force for planetary-scale change, and change in bad directions (towards less well-integrated, less resilient, less effectively connected ecologies) can have substantial consequences before we are even aware of what is happening.  Flannery likens us to newborn infants still learning to function in our world; an apt metaphor that helps me understand why so many of us still do not appreciate the immense impacts of humanity on the planet over the last century or so, nor the urgency of the need to change course if we want to get to a ‘good future’ without going through hell to get there.

Evolution of cooperation

The easiest affiliative responses to understand are those within a social group of (usually) closely related individuals.  Quite simple genetics can explain the evolution of parental behavior, and the seemingly altruistic behavior directed towards one’s parents or siblings.  In these cases, actions that favor the survival of the relative can be selected for even when they lead to some risk or disadvantage to the actor.  Parents do risk their own lives to save their children, and siblings also behave altruistically to save one another; while we consider such self-sacrificing acts as noble, brave, loyal, they are also readily explained as a consequence of natural selection – taking a risk to help an immediate relative helps ensure the survival of copies of a substantial proportion of your own genes, and evolution is all about getting copies of your own genes to survive.

Extending such altruism to more distantly related members of your social group, or to random strangers, requires more complex genetic reasoning.  One argument made is that groups which contain at least some altruistic members will enjoy enhanced survivorship overall, relative to other groups comprising more completely selfish members.  Extending affiliative responses to other species requires even more genetic gymnastics, but the gymnastics are plausible and cross-species affiliative behavior definitely exists on our planet.  There are wonderful examples on coral reefs, and these are my topic today.  They are one more example of how coral reefs are magnificent, and why we should care more about their continued presence on this planet than we currently do.

Cooperation on coral reefs

Coral reefs are species-rich ecosystems.  Individuals live in close proximity to many others, of their own and other species, so opportunities for interaction are frequent.  Some of these associations among neighbors are symbiotic (literally ‘living together’), as mutualisms, commensalisms, or parasitisms.  Of these, only the parasitic ones are examples of win-lose interactions.  Symbiosis is a common occurrence on reefs, and many people have claimed the high frequency of symbiosis is a unique attribute of reef ecosystems, making them different to other marine systems.  I doubt there is anything ‘special’ about coral reefs in this regard.  So far as I know, nobody has yet demonstrated that symbiotic relationships on reefs are more common than they are in other ecosystems, once one adjusts for the very large number of species typically present there.  To put it bluntly, there are few examples of symbiosis on the tundra because that is an ecosystem comprised of few species, and the reverse is true for coral reefs.

Never mind symbioses for a moment.  A coral reef consists of a number of neighborhoods, each occupied by numerous individuals of many species.  Most of these individuals are quite circumscribed in their movements from day to day; they are resident in their neighborhoods.  Setting aside the sessile creatures such as corals, gorgonians and sponges, it does not take many visits, by snorkel or scuba, to recognize that each neighborhood has its own resident fish, crabs, sea urchins and so on that are reliably present day after day.  The fishes have neighbors that they recognize as individuals whether of their own or of other species.  I suspect the crustaceans are fully as aware; the worms, molluscs, echinoderms likely far less so.  Affiliative interactions do not require such awareness, but its presence enhances the possibilities.

A coral reef, such as this one in the Red Sea, is made up of neighborhoods, each with its own residents of various species.  Plenty of opportunities for interactions, affiliative or not.
© Vladimir Levantovsky.

Cooperative damsels

The thousands of damselfishes of the world can be roughly divided into the small, colorful, planktivorous ones (that help explain why the group was called damselfishes in the first place), and the larger, stockier, more drably colored and downright belligerent herbivores.  People whose experience is primarily in the Caribbean think of damselfishes as these belligerent beasts because they comprise over half the species present.  Those whose experience is primarily Indo-Pacific think of damselfishes as those delicate, colorful damsels hovering in vast shoals over every available coral-covered spur or slope, picking plankton one by one as the water streams past.  For them, the relatively far fewer belligerent ones are atypical of what damselfishes really are.

Lemon damsels (Pomacentrus moluccensis) and humbugs (Dascyllus aruanus) feeding on plankton above branching Acropora.  Not wandering, they are at home.
Photo © Luciano Napolitano.

When we see a shoal of the bright yellow damsel, Pomacentrus moluccensis, hundreds of individuals hovering 50cm to a meter or so above branching Acropora, we tend to assume they are rather boring little creatures with zero individuality.  Some of us simply classify them as ‘minnows’ or ‘fish food’.  Such creatures have not received the detailed attention from behavioral ecologists they might deserve, and I think we’d be surprised if some such attention was paid.  I say this because a long time ago a graduate student of mine, Bruce Mapstone, did pay attention to P. moluccensis, and while his focus was primarily demographic ecology, he tagged a few with subcutaneous latex paint marks, and discovered that the same individuals took up position over the same patch of coral day after day, that they hovered to the left and the right, above and below the same other tagged fish, and despite being ‘silly little fish’ could live a decade or more.  Now Bruce, in his wisdom, wandered away without ever publishing his results, got into more ‘important’ reef ecology, and eventually wandered clear out of the tropics to a career in Tasmania.  But think about the fish.  Day after day, the same fishes, in the same spatial relationship to one another, hovering over branching coral, feeding on plankton.  I’d never have believed that, and I would not be surprised if somebody one day discovers that their social behavior is a bit richer than just foraging beside their buddies!

The belligerent herbivorous damselfishes have received far more attention from behavioral scientists.  What is quickly obvious is that while individuals each tirelessly defend their own small territories from nearly every creature that comes by, they live in groups with contiguous territories, and spend lots of time arguing with each other across the shared borders.  In some cases, the local groups may exist because the habitat is patchy, and they have filled a patch of suitable habitat.  But in other cases, the habitat is not obviously patchy in this way, and these belligerent little fish still persist in living side by side.  Some of my earliest research once I arrived in Australia involved tracking real estate transactions among groups of territorial damselfishes occupying small patches of rubble habitat on the reef slope.  As new young juveniles arrived, as individuals grew, expanding the size of their territories, and as individuals disappeared, presumably because something ate them, space in the rubble patch would get reassigned, borders would be redrawn, and I would see that some individuals were gaining whilst others lost.  What made this particularly interesting to me was that there were three different species of damselfish in my rubble patches.  Their competition did not seem to be leading to clear winner and loser species over time, despite the fact that individuals were arriving and departing and a simple ecologist might be forgiven for expecting that over time the ‘superior’ species would come to hold all the territory.  But that is a whole other story.

I raise territorial damsels here because they do live in social groups, even groups comprised of more than one species.  Why do they do this, given that there seems to be enough available space in most cases for them to spread out and have more tranquil lives?  The late George Barlow of UC Berkeley, and one of the greats of behavioral biology, coined the term ‘dear enemy effect’ to describe the tendency of territorial species to live beside one another, and to behave less aggressively to known neighbors than to strangers.  This is certainly the case for territorial damselfishes.  But that does not explain why they cluster together.  Nor does the need for accessible mates – they could space themselves apart and still come together to breed with two or three quick flicks of their tails.  We have to broaden the frame of reference and remember that these fish are defending their territories from myriad species of fish and some invertebrates – any herbivore or potential egg predator gets particular attention.  And when we do, we find a wonderful example in which group living by territory holders improves their ability to defend their homes, while group foraging by roving herbivores increases their capacity to invade and feed within those same homes.

Cooperative grazers – using win-win to succeed at win-lose

While there are many solitary herbivores, many species of parrotfish and surgeonfish tend to travel in groups, of one or several species.  These are not the highly-organized schools of herring, sardine or anchovy, maintaining rigid spacing one from another as they perform intricate group gymnastics rivalling those of flocks of birds and swarms of insects, while leaving human synchronized swimmers far behind in their dust.  The herbivore schools are more like herds of cattle or sheep as they spill across the reef, munching algae as they go.  When such a group moves over the territory of a damselfish the defender’s capacity to defend is swamped, and plenty of herbivores get to feed within the territory.  Work by Susan Foster in Panama in the mid-1980s demonstrated how damselfishes were more successful at defending their algal mats when in larger groups, and that surgeonfishes were not successful at all in entering damsel territories when alone, but could enter and feed when in groups.  She showed that the feeding rate of blue tang within damsel territories was directly related to the size of the foraging group.  What we have here is pugnacious territorial damsels banding together as a group because the group of contiguous territories is better defended when they act together than individual territories could be, and roving herbivorous parrot- and surgeonfishes banding together as an effective way of managing to get some feeding done within damsel territories – two win-win affiliative responses creating two opposing groups of allies engaged in a win-lose war for access to food.

A school of Manini, Acanthurus triostegus, foraging across a reef at Hanauma Bay, Hawaii.
© Hanauma Bay Snorkel Tours.

Cooperative hunting

It’s not only reef herbivores that sometimes band together in feeding.  In a post in July 2015, I described a study showing how the coral trout, an important serranid piscivore on the Great Barrier Reef, solicits the help of a moray eel when foraging for fish in complex reef habitats.  Many reef scientists have observed predators of different species apparently teaming up to hunt for prey from time to time, but the particular study that caught my eye was an experimental one, which asked the intriguing question, “Will a coral trout solicit the help of an eel when the prey would be otherwise inaccessible to it, but not share the hunt with an eel if the prey is more accessible?  The short answer is ‘yes’ (read the post if you want more), revealing that not only do reef fish cooperate across species in hunting, but that they decide, depending on the particular circumstances, whether to seek out potential partners or not.  This is surely learned behavior of an advanced kind, and I’d love to know whether young coral trout (and eels) learn to cooperate by watching more experienced members of their species, or if these rather solitary creatures have to learn this by trial and error.  I’d also like to know how general a trait this is both within locations and across reef regions.

Just like a small cantina

To those of us who remember the first screenings of Star Wars, episode IV, in 1977, two or three scenes stand out clearly.  The Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine is invariably one of these.  An amazing collection of very different species, all gathered together, mostly though not entirely peacefully, enjoying their favorite libations while the bar tender served and the band played on.  There is tension in the air; brief savage fights break out, but there is also laughter at shared jokes.  Creatures that would not be friends at other times or places, come together in the cantina for enjoyment and deal-making.  For me, a cleaning station is the coral reef version of this cantina, particularly when it is busy and fish of many species are queuing up waiting their turn to be serviced.

Chalmun’s Cantina in Mos Eisley, Tatooine.  A little like a cleaning station with fish of many species lining up to be serviced?  Photo © Lucasfilm.

 As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of coral reefs knows, certain reef fishes set up cleaning stations which are visited by a wide range of species of fish (the cleanees) seeking to have parasites removed.  As is often the case, this phenomenon is better (or more extravagantly) developed in the Indo-Pacific than in the Caribbean.  In the Indo-Pacific, the most prominent cleaning stations are maintained by species of the genus Labroides, a medium-sized wrasse reaching about 10cm in length.  Labroides is an obligate cleaner, in the sense that it feeds on ectoparasites throughout its life, so long as other species of fish are available to be cleaned.  A number of other species of wrasses, gobies and other fish, and a number of shrimps clean in both the Indo-Pacific and the Caribbean.  For most fish other than Labroides, this is a juvenile occupation, although it’s a whole life career for some gobies.  Cleaning stations in the Caribbean, which lacks Labroides, are a far less dramatic engagement than what takes place at Indo-Pacific sites, where large fish of many species can be seen lining up awaiting their turn to be cleaned.

Given that cleaning requires that a small, nutritious morsel – the cleaner – must approach a larger, often piscivorous, fish with big teeth, all the while dancing seductively, and then cruise about close to its surface, touching it intimately, and even wandering into the mouth and gill chamber in search of pesky parasites, the existence of cleaning behavior is an amazing example of why reefs are wondrous places.  Cleaning is not a close association between two individuals of different species who might have learned to recognize each other and recognize the benefits of helping each other.  This is an example where one small species of fish has set up shop offering a personal grooming service that any other species of fish is welcome to request (or other large creature, because Labroides will clean turtles and divers just as willingly as large fishes).  These are creatures like Winnie the Pooh; they are ‘of little brain’.  A single misstep means one fewer cleaner exists.  How do cleaners know that it is safe to approach a cleanee?  How do cleanees know that a cleaner is offering a service?  Why don’t potential cleanees ever decide to enjoy a cheap meal at a cleaner’s cost, and then go to a rival station to be cleaned?  Put another way, cleaner fishes put themselves at far more immediate risk of death than any street prostitute ever does, no matter how bad the section of town she/he patrols.  Their clients are often many times bigger than they are, they are expected to put themselves very much in harm’s way, and their interactions are always cross-species.  People often have difficulty training their dogs to behave!  Who tells the naïve young coral trout that visiting a cleaning station is fun, but there are certain unspoken rules you must obey?

A wrasse, Novaculiththys taeniourus, being serviced by two Labroides phthirophagus at a cleaning station on a Hawaiian reef near Kona.  Photo © Mila Zinkova.

A new review of cleaning symbioses by David Vaughn of James Cook University, Australia, and three colleagues, to appear shortly in Fish and Fisheries, makes clear that the cleaning phenomenon is geographically widespread in marine and freshwater environments.  It is particularly apparent on coral reefs but that may partly reflect differing levels of researcher attention.  They list 208 fish species and 51 shrimp species as reported to engage in cleaning behavior, but many of these are facultative cleaners performing only occasionally or only during juvenile life.  They also report that cheating by both cleaners and cleanees has been documented; indeed, cheating may be quite common in the cleaner wrasses, Labroides which frequently ingests mucus and scales while ostensibly removing parasites.  Indeed, George Losey, who did much of the pioneering work on cleaner behavior maintained that Labroides was an inveterate cheat, really out to seduce other species by giving them all the tactile stimuli they want, in order to get a meal of mucus or scales, or parasites if any were present.  Cheating by cleanees, by eating cleaners, appears to be a lot less common but still occurs, and my wonder at how cleaning symbioses evolved and how they are maintained remains.

Cooperation with corals

Until now I have avoided the corals and other sessile creatures.  I tend to think of them as part of the habitat, the backdrop to an exciting play involving the more mobile creatures.  Yet they too are reef creatures, and they are important in many cross-species interactions.  Many reef scientists would begin, and perhaps end, a discussion of symbiosis with the relationship between corals and their algal symbionts, the zooxanthellae.  Given the importance of coral bleaching these days, and the fact that bleaching is the breakdown of this very close relationship, I should not ignore it.  The coral-symbiont relationship is a crucial factor in permitting the existence of coral reefs.  But that is all I will say – I prefer cooperative associations in which behavioral decisions (rather than physiological or chemical ones) are more obviously in play.

Many reef creatures, such as the lemon damsels I began with, use corals as shelter sites.  In many cases, including the lemon damsel, living coral is so strongly preferred that these fish will leave a coral after it has been killed, running the risk of not finding another suitable refuge.  One should call these associations with living coral a cross-species affiliative response, but they are not terribly interesting ones.  Except in cases where they are.

Gobies of the genus Gobiodon are tiny obligate occupants of branching corals of the genus Acropora.  They are widely distributed through the Indo-Pacific, and show evident preferences for particular host species.  They settle from the plankton into living Acropora colonies and are relatively long-lived (four years) for small gobies.  They spend their entire lives among the branches of their home colony, feeding partly on coral mucus, but also on small invertebrates and algal cells.  They usually are found in pairs.  In a series of papers beginning in 1997, Phil Munday of James Cook University, Australia, and colleagues mapped out the use of corals by the eight species of Gobiodon present on the central Great Barrier Reef.  Each species is associated with from 3 to 10 species of Acropora, but shows evident preferences for certain species.  Gobiodon species overlap in the species of coral occupied, and there is evidence of competition for host colonies.  Apart from the fact that the gobies only occupy living corals, there is little about this relationship to suggest it is an affiliative response between fish and coral.  But in 2012, the story changed.

Gobiodon histrio, nestled among the branches of its Acropora host with some fronds of Chlorodesmis fustigiata to the right.  Photo © Danielle Dixson.

Danielle Dixson and Mark Hay, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, reported their studies of gobies and corals in Fiji in an article published in 2012 in Science.  They had done a series of field and laboratory experiments using Gobiodon histrio and Paragobiodon echinocephalus, a second coral-dwelling genus, the coral Acropora nasuta, and a seaweed, Chlorodesmis fastigiata.  Both gobies are common in A. nasuta colonies at Fiji.  Chlorodesmis is toxic, and coral surfaces in contact with its brilliant green fronds are damaged or killed.

Corals that were empty or housing only crabs suffered substantial impairment when Chlorodesmis fronds were placed in contact with their tissues.  Those housing either species of goby were scarcely affected by the alga.  Algal mimics of nylon threads placed in contact with the coral also had no effect on coral performance.  Image © D. Dixson & Science.

Dixson and Hay demonstrated that rather than just being a case of gobies choosing to live among the branches of live coral, like so many squatters in an abandoned building, both species of goby were actively protecting their home coral from contact with the alga.  And the coral, when it came into contact with the alga, was releasing chemicals which served to summon the fish to its defense.  Their series of simple, yet convincing experiments showed:

  • that corals were damaged when fronds of Chlorodesmis were brought into contact,
  • that corals occupied by Gobiodon or Paragobiodon, but not by two other species of common coral-sheltering fishes, were protected from contact with the alga, because Gobiodon ate the offending alga while Paragobiodon bit off fronds and removed them from the vicinity of the coral,
  • that chemicals released by coral tissue in contact with Chlorodesmis attract Gobiodon, while Chlorodesmis alone does not, and
  • that when the toxic hydrophobic chemical is extracted from Chlorodesmis, and applied to a nylon twine mimic of the alga placed in contact with a coral, it still attracts Gobiodon.

Naturally, Dixson and Hay described these results using verbs like ‘signal’ and ‘respond’, even referring in a press release to Gobiodon as ‘coming to the aid of’ its host coral.  The study got plenty of press at the time.  Still, it is a surprisingly intimate association between very different kinds of creatures, acting in ways that provide benefits to both.  Personally, I find the unanswered question about Paragobiodon one of the most interesting.  Gobiodon, when alerted chemically attacks the alga and eats it.  It gets some food, and perhaps bolsters its own chemical defenses (it is toxic itself).  One can easily imagine it learning to associate the particular chemical as a sign that there is food nearby.  But Paragobiodon does not eat the toxic Chlorodesmis.  It responds just as strongly to the chemical signal from the coral, but then bites off fronds and carries them away.  Why?  Is it just a neat freak?  Or is it altruistically caring for its coral home?

I admit to being biased against corals and other sessile creatures.  I have focused almost entirely on fishes.  I’ve managed to avoid any mention of Nemo and his anemone home, but I want to finish with an example involving another anemone and a crab.  My attention was drawn to it just this month, when Laurie Richardson of Florida International University told coral list about a new paper.  (Not the best way for a scientist to keep up with the literature perhaps, but, hey, I am retired!)

Pom-pom or boxer crabs are tiny members of the genus Lybia, one of the many small crabs that occur on coral reefs.   They occur across the vast Indo-Pacific from the Red Sea to the shores of Hawaii.  Lybia leptochelis is a Red Sea species; like all members of the genus, it carries a small anemone in each claw which is otherwise weak and not suited for defense.  The anemones provide defense and they also catch food some of which the crab steals for its own use.  In the Red Sea, L. leptochelis carries anemones belonging to an as yet unnamed species of Alicia.  Even the smallest, recently hatched Lybia have minute anemones in their claws, although immediately on hatching they are unarmed.  The Alicia species has only been found on Lybia claws.

The boxer crab, Lybia leptochelis with its two Alicia anemones, one in each claw.
© Yisrael Schnytzer, PeerJ.

Now, what kind of relationship is this?  The crab clearly benefits from carrying the anemones around, and the anemone perhaps benefits by being carried to new sources of food.  That the anemone is very rare if present at all away from the crabs suggests strongly that this is an obligate partnership for both partners.  The article that caught my eye was published by Yisrael Schnytzer, of Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and three colleagues in the journal PeerJ at the end of January.  By means of a combination of field observations, aquarium experiments and genetic analyses, Schnytzer established that crabs deprived of one anemone will usually split the remaining anemone in two longitudinally, thus mimicking or facilitating normal asexual reproduction via fission.  They do this by holding the body of the anemone with both claws and slowly stretching it apart over a period of 15 min to two hours.  The authors have a neat video of this in the supplemental materials accessible from the article.

Crabs that lack anemones will fight with crabs possessing anemones and will usually succeed in taking one of the anemones away.  In such cases, both crabs cause the fission of their single anemones over the next few hours or day, so that each then has two.  In some instances, fighting results in only part of one anemone being ‘captured’.  When this happens the crab with the partial anemone will attempt to split the part to provide one small anemone for each claw.  Genetic analysis revealed very little genetic variation among anemones collected from crabs within the Red Sea study location, and showed that every crab sampled carried a pair of genetically identical clones.

Putting these results with earlier results obtained by this team, it appears that Lybia leptochelis is an obligate carrier of the Alicia anemone, despite the fact that Triactis producta, an anemone commonly carried by other Lybia species is commonly present living freely in the environment.  Further, Lybia, by regulating the food available to its anemones practices a sort of bonsai, limiting anemone growth; anemones are closely sized to the size of the host crab.  When you add in the newly reported forced reproduction of the anemone, this relationship is looking a lot more like farming than a mutualism in which the partners gain almost equal benefits.  Does the crab view the anemone as a partner?  Well, even if the crab were capable of such thoughts, I doubt it would.  This is crustacean animal husbandry pure and simple, but it is still a great example of the complexity that is possible in the positive, affiliative interactions among creatures on a coral reef.  Win-win relationships, sometimes bizarre ones, are common on this planet.  Think about that next time you see a tweet from the Oval Office.  It IS possible to see things differently to the current view from there.  Even for little, orange crabs with weak hands.  Think of that next time you see the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Categories: animal behavior, coral reef science, Stories from a Coral Reef | 2 Comments

The Politics of Pipelines – Yet Again.


It is two minutes and thirty seconds to midnight.  The people in charge of the Doomsday Clock just moved the minute hand 30 seconds closer to catastrophe – the closest it has been since 1953.  The clock, which is adjusted annually, retreated to its most recent high point of 17 minutes to midnight back in 1991, with the Cold War officially over and progress being made on nuclear arms reduction.  Since then it has advanced step by step closer to midnight again, reaching three minutes to midnight in 2015.  There it remained until 26th January, 2017.

Lawrence Krauss (L), chairman of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” Board of Sponsors, and board member Thomas Pickering (R), a former U.S. Under Secretary of State as well as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Russia and other countries, unveil that the board has moved the minute hand of their “Doomsday Clock” by 30 seconds to a more ominous 2-1/2 minutes from midnight during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, U.S. January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The Doomsday Clock suggests the world is closer to disaster than it has been since 1953, and the US election has a lot to do with the recent adjustment.  Photo © Jim Bourg/Reuters

In the view of the committee of scientists who manage the clock, the global security landscape darkened over the course of 2016 as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s two most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change.  In particular, they point to how an already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.  The full statement is worth a read.  In it, they report that they always take “a broad and international view of existential threats to humanity, focusing on long-term trends.  Because of that perspective, the statements of a single person—particularly one not yet in office—have not historically influenced the board’s decision on the setting of the Doomsday Clock.  But wavering public confidence in the democratic institutions required to deal with major world threats do affect the board’s decisions.  And this year, events surrounding the US presidential campaign—including cyber offensives and deception campaigns apparently directed by the Russian government and aimed at disrupting the US election—have brought American democracy and Russian intentions into question and thereby made the world more dangerous than was the case a year ago.”  The report also notes that the only reason the clock was moved less than a full minute (for the first time in the clock’s 70-year history) was that Donald J. Trump had only been in office a few days.

Words matter, and Trump has offered plenty of these (despite his curiously limited vocabulary of mostly single-syllable words), but actions matter more.  In his first week in office, Trump has signed a flurry of executive orders, many designed to begin the process of rolling back Obama’s agenda in health, foreign affairs, and environment.  I’m concerned about his words and actions re the environment.

UnPresident Trump proves once again that he can sign his name, while staff look anxiously on.  Photo © Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty.

In their Doomsday Clock report, the authors devote two of their seven recommendations to climate change.  In the first, they ask that all countries “sharply reduce” their emissions of greenhouse gases and fulfill the Paris Accord promise of keeping global warming below 2oC, stating that this goal is consistent with the science, eminently achievable, and economically viable.  In the second, they speak directly to the USA, asking that the “Trump administration acknowledge climate change as a science-backed reality and redouble US efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions and support carbon-free energy sources, including, when economically reasonable and safe over the long term, nuclear energy.”  They add that “it is well past time to move beyond arguments over the reality of climate change and on to solutions, including fiscal measures—such as carbon markets and carbon taxes or fees—that encourage efficiency and put a price on carbon emissions”.

Needless to say, Trump’s words and actions so far have not been in this direction.  In fact, he is signaling very clearly that his administration will strip away environmental safeguards covering resource exploitation (he refers to ‘excessive regulations”).  In keeping with this, he has cancelled President Obama’s denial of the Keystone XL pipeline while inviting TransCanada to reapply and promising a swift (60 days) approval process, and has also removed Obama’s suspension of the Dakota Access pipeline application.  It seems Donald Trump wants to expand the USA’s extraction and use of oil, gas, and coal as quickly as possible – the exact opposite of what is really required.

Nothing like a rationally designed network for transporting liquid products.  Or is it just a whole lot of boondoggles?  Map produced by CAPP about 2010.

North of the border, Justin Trudeau’s impressive effort to get Canada finally moving on climate change is in danger of collapsing under a wave of exuberant enthusiasm for the rebirth of the Alberta tar sands, bolstered daily by news out of Washington.  Government policy was already becoming schizophrenic with significant positive moves on climate followed closely by approval of two pipelines despite the fact that ramping up production from Alberta’s tar sands will seriously impede Canada’s progress towards meeting its climate change commitments.  At a time when policies being put into place (with opposition from some Provinces and many individuals) do not come close to being sufficient to meet even the modest emissions goals so far committed to in Paris, the government only creates obstacles for itself by taking steps to encourage expansion in the tar sands.  Now, with Trump signaling that Keystone XL is virtually assured a rapid approval in the US, we have a third pipeline in play, and the oil sector in Alberta is frothing at the mouth.  Let’s take a step back and think a little.

Trump’s bluster may not result in Keystone XL getting built

I’m beginning to understand why Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey has closed down.  Their circus simply cannot compete with the Trump reality show in Washington.  Unpresident Trump has spent his first week in a frenetic display of activity signing ‘Executive Orders’, ‘Memoranda’ and other documents.  Some of these have immediate affect on the ground.  We saw this on Saturday with travelers being detained or rejected at airports, even when they were already residents with green cards and jobs to return to within the USA!  Others are just Trump’s usual show biz flim flam, worth little more than the paper they are written on.  Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or funding the construction of a wall along the southern border, for example, will require some action from Congress.

Don’t need a caption here – send in the clowns; meaning is clear.

The order re Keystone XL is simply a sign to Trans Canada to renew its application because, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, approval will be quick (<60 days) and easy.  There are some interesting stipulations – hire Americans and use American steel.  These stipulations appear to violate World Trade Organization rules and could lead to challenges.  Plus give the US government 25% of the revenue once the pipeline is operational.

Trans Canada has already stockpiled considerable pipe, and has planned since at least 2012 to source 24 per cent of its large-diameter pipe from Canada-based Evraz Regina; 26 per cent from offshore sources, and 50 per cent from a company in Arkansas.  On top of these problems, the world has changed in the past seven years, and Trans Canada might decide Keystone is no longer viable commercially (more on that below) even apart from Trump’s wish to take a 25% share of profits.  The executive order makes Trump look good to his base, but it does not guarantee a pipeline will be built.

As for Trump looking good… Watch his hair.  The poor man is starting to come undone.

Donald Trump’s hair farm near Tromsø, Norway.  Thanks to the boredpanda blog for a bit of hairy humor.  Photo © Daniel Kordan

Canada’s renewed love affair with pipelines

On November 29th, 2016, it was not too surprising to hear PM Trudeau announce that his government was approving the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan trans-mountain pipeline and the replacement and expansion of Enbridge’s line 3 from Alberta to the northern US.  In the same announcement, he rejected Enbridge’s bitterly contested Northern Gateway from Alberta to the northern BC coast.  He had already taken actions that will eventually establish a price for carbon across the country, and politically it was time to do something for the fossil fuel industry.

Still pending is a decision on Trans Canada’s Energy East line through to Quebec and New Brunswick.  On Friday 27th January, the National Energy Board announced that all its past decisions on energy east are now cancelled and the approval process should restart.  (The tainted membership of the NEB has been totally renewed and other changes are anticipated.)  Energy East was facing stiff opposition in Quebec and some other jurisdictions, but some see Energy East as now doomed because of Trump’s action on Keystone XL.  The added capacity could not be justified economically.  Others see Energy East as vital for diversifying the markets available to Alberta, and particularly important given Trump’s evident protectionism.  The Alberta fossil fuel sector is simply overjoyed that there now seems to be movement, and federal support, for building more pipeline capacity.

Where does reality lie?  It’s not just Keystone that may not get built.  Government approval for any of the four Canadian pipelines in play is no guarantee that they will get built either.  There remains significant opposition to Kinder-Morgan and Energy East on environmental grounds.  Indeed, the environmental sector generally opposes all pipelines these days for the arguably good reason that ‘if you build it, oil will flow’.  In what follows, I am going to try and tease out the arguments and draw some conclusions.

The arguments for new pipelines

Setting aside environmental concerns for a moment, the tar sands of northern Alberta are a major petrochemical resource, giving Canada the third largest proven oil reserves in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.  The NEB reported total crude oil and bitumen resources in 2014 as 52.4 billion m3 or 330 billion barrels.  Proven reserves are currently 27.1 billion m3 or 171 billion barrels, and 97% of these reserves are in the tar sands.  Production is currently 682 thousand m3 per day, just under 5% of the global total.

While Canadians per capita have one of the highest rates of energy use, most of our oil/bitumen production is for export, and nearly all the anticipated growth in production is for export.  One argument specifically supporting the need for Energy East is that this pipeline would ensure safe transport capacity for western oil to eastern refineries to satisfy all of eastern Canadian requirements.  (At present, Canada imports 101 thousand m3 of oil per day into eastern ports.)  Energy East also becomes important if protectionism reduces access to US markets.

Because of the failure of the industry to build refining capacity in or near Alberta, and the failure of national and provincial governments to insist on this, expansion of tar sands extraction is limited by capacity to transport the product to markets south, west or east of Alberta.  One argument used to justify every pipeline seems to be that it is vital to the continued growth of the tar sands.  Two related arguments are that certain pipelines are needed to broaden the markets available to Alberta, shipping tar sands product to Asia from the west coast, or to Europe from the east., and that pipelines are needed to avoid the necessity of shipping by rail – a more expensive method and one deemed less safe.

Underlying all these arguments in favor of pipelines is the argument that it is in Canada’s national (read economic) interest to expand production in the tar sands as rapidly as possible.  I’ve argued against this stance in several earlier posts, but that does not mean that a majority of important people within the petrochemical sector of Canada, and many of our politicians, do not continue to use it.  For them, it is Canada’s destiny to exploit all available, economically viable natural resources.  Also seldom mentioned is the fact that corporations like TransCanada, Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan are in the business of building and operating pipelines.  And judging by photos in the media, they have a huge amount of shiny new pipe stored beside roads all over North America just waiting for an opportunity.

The arguments against

In June 2016, the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report titled, “Can Canada Expand Oil and Gas Production, Build Pipelines and Keep Its Climate Change Commitments?”.  Its author, J. David Hughes, is a geoscientist with 32 years of experience at the Geological Survey of Canada, and an authority on energy resources of North America.  I discussed this report soon after it appeared.

In his report, Hughes produces data challenging the argument that additional pipeline capacity is needed to permit any realistic expansion of production in Alberta.  Using NEB data, he demonstrates that there is already sufficient pipeline capacity to export all current production from Alberta, and shows that the existing capacity will be sufficient for the maximum amount of expansion that is likely to be permitted under Alberta’s new cap on GHG emissions introduced in November 2016 as part of the Notley government’s climate change action plan.  (He makes a tacit assumption that further reductions in the emissions per barrel of oil are unlikely.)

Current and projected oil transport capacity out of Alberta, and the maximum amount of production under Alberta’s emissions cap out to 2040.  With the cap in place, and assuming no breakthroughs that reduce per barrel emissions significantly, there is a healthy 16% surplus of capacity over need.  Figure © Hughes/Parkland/CCPA

Alberta’s cap on emissions is generous and would permit a 47% increase in oil production at current levels of emissions efficiency.  This is less than the rosy projections of tar sands enthusiasts a few years ago, but still a sizeable ramp-up.  Hughes’ point is that this cap removes the argument that new pipelines are needed to permit production to expand.  It is not going to expand more than 47% and there is sufficient pipeline and rail capacity to handle that, with about a 15% buffer to handle fluctuations in supply or transport.  What is particularly interesting to me is that I have been unable to find any rebuttal of his argument in the months since its release.  In fact, there have been additional reports that confirm his findings.

The argument that new pipelines are needed to avoid the use of risky rail transport was also rejected by Hughes, who claimed rail was used to a very small extent, and would only be needed to provide the surplus capacity in the future (see figure above).  Others have agreed with him, as recently as last week, although industry insiders continue to argue new pipelines are needed so they can phase out rail.

One argument that Hughes ignores is that by building new pipelines to west or east coast, Alberta is more easily able to diversify its clients.  The present pipeline map generally ships the stuff south.  A related argument, that we need pipelines to get the product from Alberta to tidewater, because of a substantial cost disadvantage when the oil is stuck in Alberta, is dealt with, and demolished in the Hughes report.  His words convince me that in a global market the differential that exists (and it fluctuates with market fluctuations) does so because of the relatively low quality of the tar sands product.  This is not the ‘light, sweet crude’ that flows out of Saudi Arabia or West Texas.  It is an almost solid, tarry stuff that has to be extensively modified and diluted with LNG simply to get it to flow through a pipeline.  Its subsequent refining is a complex and difficult process.  (All of which causes me to say, would it not have been far wiser to build refining capacity in Alberta, and sell a better product – but then, what do I know?  I am just an environmental scientist.)

Another ignored argument is the one about having to exploit the tar sands because they are there.  Hughes dismisses it on economic grounds (for the foreseeable future oil prices will be inadequate to justify expansion of production).  I think it is more about philosophy and how we view our place in the world.  I won’t repeat what I have said about it previously, except to note that when governments make this argument, it reveals they are thinking short term and only about revenues.

The biggest argument of all

The biggest argument of all against the construction of additional pipelines is the one that says Canada cannot afford the emissions cost of ramping up production of tar sands oil, because that will make it virtually impossible to meet the Paris goal of keeping warming to under 2oC.  While Canada has immense reserves in the tar sands, Canada pays a huge environmental price when they are dug up.  Setting aside the cost in despoiled environments, permanently contaminated water locked up in tailings lakes, and nasty chemicals strewn around the landscape, the GHG emissions are enormous.

Canadian production of oil is up 83% since 1999, and at an all-time high.  Tar sands production has increased 400% since 1999, and now comprises 61% of all oil produced.  The future growth projected by the industry and by NEB relies entirely on further increases in the tar sands.  The NEB states that anticipated changes between 2015 and 2040 are for a 96% increase in tar sands production and a 14% decline in other Canadian regions.  According to Hughes, if tar sands production increases as the NEB projects, the added GHG emissions will require by 2030 a 52% reduction in emissions from the non-oil and gas sectors of the Canadian economy simply in order to comply with Canada’s commitments under the Paris Accord (a 30% overall reduction by 2030).  At 2030, the oil and gas sector would be responsible for over half of Canada’s emissions (it is 26% at present).  This degree of change in the non-oil and gas sector is essentially impossible without economic collapse.

When the planned expansion of LNG production in British Columbia is factored in, the situation becomes still more dire.  Under these circumstances, reduction in emissions by the rest of the economy would have to be 59% in order to fulfill Canada’s climate commitments.

If, instead, expansion of the tar sands was limited by the Alberta emissions cap, and British Columbia develops just one of the three proposed LNG ventures, the situation is marginally better – the rest of the economy would have to reduce emissions by 47%.  Even this best-case scenario represents a near impossibility.

Hughes arguments from last June have not been rebutted to my knowledge.  Nor is he alone.  A number of climate experts, environmental scientists and others have warned of the enormous difficulty Canada faces if it wants to keep mining the tar sands while still complying with Paris.  Just this week, Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in The Tyee, makes the same argument, and cites a new report just out from Oil Change International.  And then there is the matter of the inadequacy of Canada’s Paris commitment.  If Canada is going to do its fair share in keeping the world to no more than a 2oC warming, the commitment made in Paris is going to have to be raised substantially.  Canada cannot have its cake and eat it too, and it certainly cannot have a rapidly expanding tar sands industry and hope to keep the world’s climate from spiraling out of control.

What is the best way forward?

I am an ecologist.  I am far more concerned about the capacity of the natural environment to sustain our livelihoods than I am about sustaining and growing an economy based on extraction and minimal processing of fossil fuels, until we run out of tar sands.  I do not have simple solutions for moving away from use of fossil fuels at an appropriate rate – one that does not disrupt our economy too much, but one that gets us out of that business as quickly as possible.  I do sense that there are likely to be severe dislocations in that industry as different countries around the globe recognize the need to move to a less carbon-intensive economy.

Others are thinking seriously about how Canada can move away from its over-reliance on the oil and gas sector.  Still others are looking at the winding down of the fossil fuel sector from a more global perspective.  The reading is not always pleasant, but it is available and we should all be thinking about this.

I recently came across a 15 December 2016 article by Alex Steffen, the journalist and author in 2012 of ‘Carbon Zero: Imagining cities that can save the planet’.  Titled ‘Trump, Putin, and the pipelines to nowhere’, his article is a scary read.  Central is his perspective on the ‘carbon bubble’.  The bubble exists because the damage caused by climate change is going to force us to leave large quantities of hydrocarbons in the ground.  While most people remain unaware of how serious climate change is, or of how combatting/coping with it is going to alter our lives, Steffen says the one group that surely knows is the people in the fossil fuel industry.  They know they have vast resources of high present value that are destined to become valueless when the bubble bursts.

What do clever people do when they know they are holding extremely valuable items that will at some future time become worthless?  They do not advertise this fact.  They act as if they are sure the value will always remain, and even grow.  Because the longer they can maintain the fiction, the bubble will grow, and they will make money.

Another group that recognizes the existence of the carbon bubble is the risk assessment and insurance industry, including people like Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, the global body designed to prevent economic meltdowns.  Last year, in a talk to Lloyds insurance group, he said he thought the carbon bubble was one of the biggest risks the global economy faces at present, and suggested governments should be looking for ways to deflate it gently.  Successful deflation of a market bubble can be a win, win for everyone.  Except for those heavily invested in the carbon.  Back to the fossil fuel sector.

According to Steffen, owners in the fossil fuel sector need to maintain the illusion that there will be continued high profits in that industry.  How would they do this?  By disputing climate science, by eroding confidence in the ability, integrity or honesty of climate scientists, by attacking the validity or worth of global climate agreements, by disputing the capacity of alternative sources of energy to replace fossil fuels, and by using every lever available to derail or delay the expansion of competing sources of energy.  They would also support putting a price on carbon, while working behind the scenes to ensure the price is kept trivial.  They might even team up with antidemocratic forces to impede efforts by communities to move towards a low-carbon economy.  Most of all, they would invest in infrastructure, to show that they are confident that investing more in this industry is worthwhile.  New exploration, new pipelines, ramping up production; after all, the larger the corporations become and the more jobs, taxes or royalties they generate, the more difficult it is for governments to shut them down.  Sounds familiar?

Steffen argues that the Trump administration, which is top-heavy with people invested in the fossil fuel sector, is tailor-made to help prolong the carbon bubble.  The Koch Brothers did not want to see Trump as the Republican nominee, and did not put any of their dark money towards his campaign.  But with hindsight, they could not have got a better President than they have in this one.  Steffen wonders if the suggested collusion between Trump and Putin might all make sense, given that Russia is a petrostate, with ownership heavily concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs surrounding Putin.  I reserve judgement on that, but I do think that we should all be watching what the US government does in the next few years in light of the carbon bubble.

(Aside: as I write, Time magazine has reported on the Koch brothers annual meeting with their supporters at a resort in Indian Wells CA, this weekend.  They are already planning to spend $400 billion in the 2018 midterm elections and are already disagreeing publicly with some of Trump’s actions.  The privileged are seldom satisfied; they want total control, and they are out to maximize their own profits.)

In the meantime, the rest of us should be divesting our tiny bits of investment in fossil fuels, while pushing our governments to focus on the climate, and on building robust economies capable of the actions needed to cope with pending climate change, and build a better future.  In a country like Canada, with an educated workforce, there are enormous opportunities in the new low-carbon economy.  Far better that, than stringing unnecessary pipelines all over the country, and it will help move the world towards a future with a livable climate.


As I was writing this post, the Trump Executive Order banning entry to the US for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim middle-eastern nations was generating chaos and demonstrations across the USA and around the world.  I am not going to blog about things I am poorly equipped to comment on, but Trump’s term is off to a very rocky start, and destabilization of the global order, such as it is, will disrupt the ability of nations to come together to solve difficult problems such as climate change.

The Doomsday Clock may now be set at 11.57.30 pm, but the chance for a good outcome on climate, and environmental sustainability, over the next few decades looks even dimmer then that.  At least I got to explore coral reefs when they were vibrant, exhilarating, superlative ecosystems; true jewels on this most amazing planet.

Do we humans not owe each of the many creatures in this image the opportunity to live out their lives in an environment that is not being damaged by our thoughtless actions?  Photo of reef at Palmyra Atoll in 2011 © Jim Maragos, USFWS/Wikimedia Commons.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

Save a Reef; Use a Condom


At a time when ethical behavior seems thoroughly old-fashioned and un-rewarding, when selfish greed appears to rule the day, an ethical argument could capture attention and galvanize action to save coral reefs.

It was July 2008, a long time ago now.  I and a couple thousand coral reef researchers and managers were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the 8th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) – a solid week of back-to-back talks, 10 or so taking place simultaneously, all coffee breaks, lunches and evenings filled with meetings, workshops and the conversations that scientists get into when they have a chance to get together.  Being quintessential nerds, scientists work harder at our conferences than do many other professions (think Medicine, Dentistry, golf courses, casinos), although we do squeeze in a remarkable amount of socializing around the edges.

I gave a paper in what was termed ‘mini-symposium 23’ on coral reef management.  Just 15 minutes, one of thousands given that week.  And being extra nerdy, I tinkered with my Powerpoint presentation right up until I gave it, adding one crucial slide at the end.  My talk was on a theme I have talked about many times before and since, and written about as well.  It’s title was “The management of coral reefs – where have we gone wrong and what can we do about it?

My theme was as follows: We are damaging reefs in many different ways, simultaneously, and the extent of our damage has expanded greatly with the size of our population and our global economy.  We need to recognize that we are the problem.  Then we need to work for a solution that begins with deciding whether we want to have reefs on this planet in the future.  BECAUSE IT REALLY IS OUR CHOICE.  I then discussed some of the impediments to effective management, including administrative/structural obstacles, and the fact that up-to-date science was not being transferred to managers efficiently.

In the printed abstract of my talk, I put it this way:

“Managers, when they have moved beyond the wishful thinking of paper parks and public awareness campaigns, have put undue faith in the effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas while ignoring both the lack of scientific underpinning of many management practices and the elephant which is rampant and growing over-exploitation of reef resources.  The result is a sad history of progressive decline.  Reefs suffer a diversity of often synergistic stresses.  There is a way forward if we first decide that we really want to have sustainable coral reef systems in our future.  This path requires that we firmly embrace the precautionary principle, that we recognize and reduce over-exploitation, and that we vigorously apply the science we have in hand to improve management now.  Along the way, we need to develop new science to provide a basis for more sophisticated management than is now possible.  There is hope for a future for coral reefs, but only if scientists and managers act now to reduce controllable stresses, freeing these ecosystems to better cope with less manageable pressures of climate change.  Achieving this future will require far more effective demonstration than yet achieved of the value of coral reefs to coastal populations.”

I subsequently published a commentary in Marine Pollution Bulletin, setting out this thesis and expanding on it.  It was not a bad talk, but, in truth I was not breaking much new ground.  Many of us were recognizing the seriousness of our demands on coral reefs, and the grim future that seemed to lie ahead.  Spring forward eight years, and it is doubtful whether many of the people present at that conference remember what I said.  Except for one comment.  That final slide I added at the last minute.

I said we needed some way to galvanize attention and enthusiasm to act.  To build political will.  Because it is easy to keep on doing what you are doing, including giving talks at conferences, while watching the slow decline – that’s what most of the coral reef community had been doing prior to 2008 and continue to do.  We are rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  I said we needed a campaign slogan, one that could be put onto tee-shirts and bumper stickers and spread across the web.  And then I put my proposed slogan up on screen.

save reef use condom

For the remainder of the conference, I kept having people I did not know come running up to me to comment on that slide.  Some told me of their own decisions regarding number of children (not really my business), but all agreed that we did need to face the fact that we were the real problem.  Too damn many of us, using too much of what the Earth provides, and using it too quickly.

In Honolulu, in 2016, at the 13th ICRS, several people came up to me to reminisce about 2008, and that slogan.  I have no idea if the behavior of coral reef scientists has changed in any significant way, but the message I wanted to convey was certainly received.  My tongue-in-cheek ‘campaign slogan’ was an effective hook to get my audience captured by my message.  And the message remained with some people for eight years.  I guess sex really sells.

Fast forward to the present

It’s now 2017.  The longest-duration el Niño since records began in 1950 (late 2014 to mid-2016) ended last summer, and weak la Niña conditions began in October.  These conditions prevailed into January 2017, but NOAA reports that situation will likely end by February, with neutral conditions through the northern summer when el Niño conditions will be again likely.  Widespread coral bleaching occurred as the ocean warmed above local thresholds in each reef location, and has continued to occur, despite the abatement of el Niño conditions, up until the present.  The ocean has just been too warm.  Bleaching on the northern Great Barrier Reef was particularly severe, and also well documented, with a major scientific survey that will provide some of the best estimates of extent of bleaching and of subsequent coral mortality.  News to date has not been good.

And as I write this, NOAA and NASA have just teamed up to report what we all expected; 2016 has been the warmest year on record, globally – the third year in a row to hold that title.  (2016 may get to keep its title longer than 2014 or 2015 did, but only if the el Niño expected to commence later in 2017 is not a big one.)  USA Today ran the news under the most catchy headline, advising that the world had not been this warm for 125000 years.  NASA provided a catchy animation revealing just how much warmer our planet has become.  And this image from the media release says it all (in a less animated way):


Nearly a full degree warmer than the 1901 – 2000 average (and 1.1oC above temperatures in 1880), 2016 was one warm year.  The el Niño pushed temperatures to a record that will probably not be met in 2017, although this year is still expected to be warm.  The likelihood of some further coral bleaching this year should not be discounted.

So, it is difficult to not be aware that coral reefs around the world are being damaged by a warming ocean.  This is not just information to be shared amongst reef scientists.  It is in the media all the time.  And if you search, there are plenty of media accounts that report it accurately, while also referencing the other things we are doing to reefs, and discussing the potential economic and other losses that eventuate as reefs decline.  Many people know about what is happening to reefs.  Mostly, they think of it as a ‘reef story’ or an ‘environmental issue’; it’s something happening on a coral reef far, far away.  Not vitally important.  So why don’t people care more than they do?

In my talk to reef scientists and managers eight years ago, I managed to get them to realize (and remember) that the real problem for reefs was us.  The wider public has not yet gotten that message.  I’ve written in previous posts about some of the reasons for our failure to connect.  Reefs may be too beautiful.  They are certainly too remote from most of our lives for people to make a real connection with them.  Maybe we have focused too much on making the science accurate, and not enough on our passion for keeping reefs with us.  In any event, the idea, so obvious to so many reef scientists, that reefs are like canaries in a mine, telling us, as loud as they can, that we are doing unimaginable harm to this world that sustains us, has simply not got through.

Getting the real message across

A tongue-in-cheek slogan is not the answer.  But I don’t think we have yet found the message that will resonate, capturing interest, engagement and commitment.  What is that message?  I can tell you a couple of possible messages that won’t work.

First, let’s be frank.  The world can survive without coral reefs, and we can survive without them as well.  To claim otherwise is ridiculous.  On the other hand, coral reefs are more than a frivolity that we should watch disappear without caring.  And, while reefs are exquisitely sensitive to environmental change, and therefore being hard hit by the stresses we are creating, no one should be naïve enough to think that reefs and only reefs are being seriously altered by our actions.

Ever since the first rugose and tabulate coral reefs of the mid-Ordovician (~460 million years ago) corals of some type have been present on this planet.  But unlike corals, coral reefs have had a more intermittent presence.  There have been several long periods of time in the past (10s of millions of years) when ocean conditions were not suitable for the formation of extensive reefs.  Low pH, high temperature, low oxygen levels, high levels of coastal siltation all have played a role in keeping the world free of reefs from time to time.  And each such interval has been followed by the development of flourishing reefs as large as any at present alive.  Sometimes the extinct reefs are near, or even under, present-day reefs; sometimes they are in what are now terrestrial deserts.  Each such ancient reef was a wonderful construction, built up over thousands of years, and supporting an abundant and diverse reef community.  During the periods without reefs, the ocean was a less diverse, less spectacular place, but it was still a functional marine ecosystem.  We cannot be truthful and argue that the biosphere has to include coral reefs.

Devonian reef at Geikie George WA 002570-786

This sheer cliff is part of an immense Devonian barrier reef, now 400 km inland at Geikie Gorge in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.  Reef were common at many times in the past, but there were also lengthy periods in Earth’s history when reefs were absent everywhere.
© WA Parks and Wildlife

Second, while reefs as we knew them in the mid-20th century are disappearing, the rocky structure will remain, so we must be clear about that.  If the degradation of coral reefs continues the current trend, shallow-water reefs up to 50m deep, or so, will cease to exist.  The rock will remain, but it will no longer have its living veneer of corals.  The rocky reef will still be occupied by numerous reef creatures, but there will be a significant loss of diversity – how much is unclear, because we do not know the full extent to which reef creatures are dependent on presence of living corals, but it won’t be 25% of all marine species.  The reef will be dominated by algae, relatively less topographically complex, and less productive of fishery species.  It will also be slowly eroding away, rather than growing.  So, the planet and the biosphere do not require reefs to be present, and the rocky structure will persist for a time.  There is also every reason to believe that some coral species will persist perhaps in deeper water, and that reefs could flourish again in the distant future.  Our argument for why we must not lose reefs cannot be based on a suggestion reefs are necessary to maintain the integrity of the biosphere (whatever that might mean).

If we do not bring climate change under control that future recovery of reefs could be very far off – far enough into the future that there is no guarantee that our species would be around to see them come back.  This points us in the right direction:  Our argument for protecting coral reefs has to be about people rather than about the reefs or the corals.  For example, in a world of continuing CO2 emissions, lack of growth of dead reefs may turn out to be the single most important change from a human perspective, because the algae-dominated reef will not keep up with rising sea level, and will provide less and less protection for nearby shorelines and our growing coastal populations as sea level rises.

The importance of coral reefs

What does humanity lose if the reefs disappear?  Coastal populations will have rocky reefs that are less productive of fishery species and provide reduced shoreline protection.  Life in coastal villages will be harsher, and reef fisheries will be less valuable.  Tropical coastal tourism may take a hit, because these coasts will no longer offer the spectacular dive sites they have offered before.  But most tourists do not dive, and countries that have reefs now, will likely still have hotels, beaches, and sunsets to continue luring tourists.  Also, divers who have grown up never seeing a rich coral reef will find eroded algal reefs a fascinating seascape to explore.  In other words, to use a specific example, while the Great Barrier Reef is credited with generating over $5 billion in tourism revenues each year, an all dead Lesser Barrier Reef would still bring tourists to Australia.  It would be a different tropical coastline, but still one worth visiting (unless the more severe weather that is predicted with continuing climate change turns out to be very extreme).  Old people would lament what had been lost, but the rest would mostly get on with enjoying their lives.

In my view, however, while the loss of coral reefs will lead to measurable, even substantial, losses in biodiversity, in fishery production, in coastal protection, and in tourism revenues, these changes will not be total, and tropical coastlines will potentially remain attractive environments in which to live and play – just not quite as wonderful as today.  The reality, of course, is that reefs are not going to disappear while the rest of the natural world remains vibrant, diverse and healthy.  In addition to the economic and quality of life losses that disappearance of coral reefs would bring, there will be economic and lifestyle losses due to the degradation of other ecosystems across the globe.  This total cost could be substantial, even existential if it seriously impedes our ability to grow food.  But as an argument for saving coral reefs… no.  This is far too abstract: be concerned about coral reef degradation because we may find it difficult to grow food when other ecosystems also degrade.

If we want to make an argument that will capture people and commit them to the necessity to save reefs, “economics plus quality of life” is not a good candidate.  Because the losses are not that enormous unless focus is directed away from reefs towards overshoot of planetary boundaries.

Ethics and Risk

I suggest there are two arguments which, properly framed, could move people to action.  One is ethical; the other pleads self-interest but as risk aversion.

The more I think about it, the real loss, if we allow reefs to disappear, is not an ecological or an economic one; the real loss is a loss of the ability to hold our heads high, confident that we are a benign presence, or even a force for good on this planet.  I say this, because I believe we have an ethical responsibility to sustain the biosphere.  We can decide now to behave ethically, and work hard to reduce the human footprint on reefs directly, and on the planet generally, knowing that only by reducing our impacts can we prevent the disappearance of coral reefs, and a lot more besides.  This is an ethical path because it honors the value in the lives of other parts of the biosphere, and recognizes that we do not have the right to knowingly cause the disappearance of an entire ecosystem from this planet.  Many people may not buy into this view.  The idea that the rest of the biosphere has rights and that we should be ethical in our interactions with other creatures is codified in few legal systems, and the inverse of the broadly held view that other creatures are resources available for our use.  Still, it is a view that seems to be gaining increasing support, and it should certainly motivate those who accept it.  The alternative to acting to sustain the biosphere is to decide not to change our present behavior.  We would then watch as our footprint increases, as we damage the biosphere in many ways, and as coral reefs disappear, all the while knowing that we are causing the changes, changes that did not have to happen.  In my view, that is not behaving ethically, and if we continue down that path we will not be ethical beings.


With the rights of nature enshrined in the Law of Mother Earth (Ley Marco de la Madre Tierra), Bolivia is one of few countries to have formally recognized the right of nature to exist.  Image of Pachamama, revered by native cultures of the high Andes.

But it is not just ethics; it is also about risk

Human civilization began with the invention of agriculture 8000 years ago.  The entire history of human civilization has taken place during the Holocene, an amazingly stable time climatically.  Yes, there have been ripples – the medieval warm period, the little ice age – but none of these have seen changes as pronounced as those in the last 50 years.  Our civilizations and our economies have evolved in a time when climate was remarkably dependable, sea level was essentially constant, and monsoon rains came in the expected seasons.  Our civilizations and our economies depend upon this predictability.  Growth in the abundance of humans, and the size of our economy is now causing great changes, and there is a real risk that we will push planetary systems beyond the boundaries that have governed their behavior during the Holocene.  That’s why there is a move to call our present time a new Epoch, following the Holocene – the Anthropocene.  Our declining coral reefs are evidence of these changes.

If we can believe the many books and movies, future worlds that follow societal or environmental collapse are not nice places.  When a complex, integrated system is stressed beyond its limits, it is taken apart haphazardly; what gets left behind is an unintegrated mess of bits and pieces that don’t work the way they used to.  It becomes not nice.  Living in such a dystopian world, and remembering, or reading about, the past, can erode confidence in human abilities to build, to create, to imagine.  And this happens at a time when the environmental and societal changes taking place strip away the technical expertise, knowledge, infrastructure and wealth needed to deal with a much riskier environment.  In a case where we are the cause of the collapse, the corrosive effect of memories must be severe.  How else to explain the way in which the collapse of a culture so often leaves descendants who are dispirited and seemingly unmotivated for many generations?

The kinds of changes we are causing on this planet can lead to conditions that are inimical to our own societies’ continued well-being.  It is not difficult to imagine situations in which civilizations degrade, strife among human populations increases, and natural disasters of various types hammer us back to a technologically simpler, socially rougher way of life.  Some of this might even be happening already in some parts of the world.  Collapses of past civilizations reveal a common pattern – the trigger for collapse often turns out to be a relatively modest environmental or climatic change.  The dramatic changes taking place on coral reefs tell us that the planetary changes we are causing are becoming severe; it is both reasonable and prudent to anticipate possible global collapse in our near-term future.  Acting to reduce our impacts on the natural world then becomes sensible, prudent behavior – acting to minimize perceived risks.


If our future still holds reefs like these, it will likely be a good one for humans too.  Photo of reef at Gulf of Eilat, at Wikipedia Commons.

There we have it.  Two arguments that use the deterioration of coral reefs as sign of a more general set of environmental changes we are causing; changes that alter the ways in which ecological systems operate; changes that make our way of life more difficult to sustain.  One appeals to our ethical sense.  The other to pragmatic self-interest in protecting our individual investments (both property and progeny) in the future.

We can watch the reefs degrade, and see our lives going downhill.  Or we can use the status of coral reefs as the measuring stick for how well we are doing in struggling to bring our footprint down to a size that is sustainable on this amazing planet.  Reefs of the 1950s could become our target, our star to sail by.  If we work hard to keep reefs from degrading further, and even harder attempting to bring them back to 1950, we will have to adjust our global footprint in many ways – less CO2, less pollution, less over-harvest of many kinds, less collateral environmental damage as we build infrastructure.  And the reefs will tell us how well we are doing.  Maybe we will fail, and a reef-free dystopia will come anyway.  While I’d much prefer the future in which we succeed, and reefs prosper again, I’d prefer the failure that comes despite our best efforts, rather than the failure that arrives because, like so many cud-chewing cows, we stood there watching as our actions continue to degrade our only home, and we did nothing.

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics | Comments Off on Save a Reef; Use a Condom