Dragons and Tribes: more about communicating the coral reef story to the public.


I’ve been pondering the relative lack of impact on people of the coral reef crisis.  Reefs have been degrading for a long time, probably ever since human populations became powerful enough to rearrange the landscapes near them or catch fish in significant quantities from their waters.  But degradation and loss of coral reefs has hastened over the last 40 years or so, and projections for the future are dire.  I thought that would prove a powerful wake-up call to humanity about what we were doing to our planet.  That did not happen.

This figure, from a recent paper articulating a triage approach to choosing which reefs to save shows a) the increase in atmospheric CO2 and major bleaching events, b) an image of bleaching coral, and c) a projection of episodes of significantly warm water, suggesting most reefs will be lost even if we do bring climate under control (achieve the Paris 2oC goal).
© HL Beyer et al.

I’ve been pondering because I want to know why this global change to coral reef ecosystems, so powerfully obvious to scientists, managers, and just plain citizens who spend time around reefs, has had a relatively minor impact on people around the world.  I vividly remember being at a coral reef conference about a year after the 1998 pan-tropical global bleaching event triggered by the strong 1997-98 el Niño.  Talk about the extent of the losses was frequent in the lobbies and bars, and there were numerous papers documenting just how extensively some coral reefs had been damaged.  One hope kept emerging; this would be the crisis the world needed to wake up to the risks of climate change.  Those corals would not have bleached in vain because, like so many canaries in coal mines, they would wake up the world.  Shows how naïve the science community can be!  We saw what was happening and understood what it predicted; rest of the world, not so much.

Severe bleaching has been hitting coral reefs only since the early 1980s (a), but the frequency of events is increasing (d) and very few reefs have now not been severely bleached at least once (b).  Most reefs have been bleached multiple times (c), and each time there is some mortality.  Overall, this is a grim picture for people who’d like to see reefs on this planet later this century, especially given that the return times are now insufficient for adequate recovery of reef ecosystem structure.  Figure © TP Hughes and Science.

While I am particularly sensitized to news about how coral reefs are faring as the climate changes, there is now abundant evidence from all over the world that our changing climate is having major impacts.  Yet still there remain many people who think climate change is unimportant.  It’s an environmental story, something that is ‘too bad’ or ‘a pity’ or even ‘Geesh, who’d a believed that’.  But it’s not a sign that we really need to move on combating climate change before it is too late.  Somehow, the great bulk of humanity is far less troubled by the signs climate change is leaving all about us than am I, or many other environmentally aware people.  Most people have no sense of urgency.

As I have pondered, as I have watched reactions when I speak on climate change to groups of citizens, and as I have lain awake nights wondering why most people just don’t get it, I’ve identified, talked about, and then discarded one explanation after another.  Most people have not yet been confronted with the evidence.  Most people do not understand the science.  Most people have been led astray by a powerful denialist campaign of disinformation and contradiction.  Most people have belief systems that just do not permit the possibility of existential crisis.  Most people are in denial because while they understand what is happening they are too selfish to make any changes to their lives to prevent it.  Each of these possibilities is valid, to a degree, for some of those people.  But even when I talk about these reasons for failing to see what is happening, that does not seem to sway people.  There has to be something more.

As a scientist, I have found it difficult to recognize that people do not make most decisions based on a rational analysis of the evidence.  As a person, who likes to think that he acts rationally most of the time, I’ve found it even more difficult to recognize that most people do not try and become rational evaluators of the evidence the moment a scientist points out to them that they should do so.  It is not that we fail to succeed at rational analysis of the evidence; it’s that we don’t put all that much stock in the value of acting rationally.  As a scientist, I now know that most people do not go through their lives acting as a scientist would.  And I have a nagging suspicion that I also do not go through life acting as a scientist would either.  Apart from the decisions we make in order to satisfy immediate personal needs – everything from scratching an itch, to grabbing food when hungry, to seeking sexual gratification – our decisions may contain an element of rationality, but they are also a driver of our behavior as members of social groups, and as such they are in turn driven by many other factors beyond a science-like attention to facts.  Two psychological papers demonstrate some of the complexity involved.

Slaying the Dragons of Inaction

A colleague recently drew my attention to a 2011 paper by Robert Gifford, published in American Psychologist.  Gifford is an environmental psychologist who investigates the psychological aspects contributing to why we think and act the way we do on environmental issues.  Under the delightful title, “Dragons of Inaction” his paper discusses seven general types of psychological barrier that together impede our ability to act to remedy climate change.  As Gifford puts it, there is a “gap between attitude (“I agree this is the best course of action”) and behavior (“but I am not doing it”) with regard to environmental problems.”  This gap is created by these dragons, the psychological barriers.  These are not new barriers devised by Gifford, but his paper was the first to bring discussion of them together.  Gifford identifies 29 different barriers, which he groups into the seven dragons.

A dragon made of pieces of a CD

The seven dragons are limited cognition, ideology, comparison with others, sunk costs, discredence, perceived risk, and limited behavior.  By limited cognition, Gifford means that we are famously less rational than we tend to assume.  Within this category, he includes the fact that our brains evolved to respond to immediate, personal threats (those stalking sabre-toothed cats), and ignorance.  He suggests ignorance on topics such as climate change includes both lack of knowledge that the problem exists (there are undoubtedly a few people still so ill-informed even in developed countries), and lack of knowledge about what to do about it.  Many people are unable to state precisely what is causing climate change and what possible remedies exist; and while knowledge of this type is growing, that learning is impeded by 1) the technical complexity of the subject, and by 2) the mixed messages in the media.  The latter arise due both to ineffective simplification of complex issues in publicly accessible media, and to deliberate denialist campaigns to distort or confuse, funded by groups or individuals with vested interests in continuation of present policy on e.g. use of fossil fuels.

To these obvious aspects of limited cognition Gifford adds environmental numbness, uncertainty, judgmental discounting, optimism bias, and perceived behavioral control/self-efficacy.  (I cannot resist observing here that ecologists are not the only ones who can make topics complicated in the process of explaining them!)

Environmental numbness arises because we are organisms that always tune out perceptions that are less immediately important to us, and because we also tune out repeated messages, the no longer new news.  Uncertainty is a barrier to responsiveness to environmental problems because we are organisms that tend to act in ways that favor immediate self-interest (those sabre-toothed cats again).  Since it is not possible to predict with certainty the pace, extent or consequences of future climate change, and since the science is usually presented along with accurate statements regarding degree of certainty, the human organism is predisposed to discount the risk of not acting to mitigate climate change, preferring to continue current patterns of behavior.  This effect of uncertainty creates real difficulties for those attempting to explain the science; making scientifically unjustified claims of certainty about future events might galvanize action by the public, but at the real risk of blowing up any credibility environmental scientists still possess.  Presenting the information accurately and dispassionately leads to a less effective uptake by the lay public.

By judgmental discounting Gifford refers to our rather weak capacity for correctly estimating risks at distant times in the future.  We tend to estimate risks of poor environmental outcomes as greater in other places than here even when there is no real difference, and we underestimate the severity of future risks here.  Consequently, we are less likely to act here and now to mitigate those risks.  Optimism bias refers to the widespread tendency to assume the best for ourselves.  Each of us will live forever in a happy and prosperous society even though other people will suffer and die.  I have difficulty seeing how Gifford separates optimism bias and judgmental discounting.  They seem to me like two sides of the same coin.

Limited cognition’s final aspect is perceived behavioral control, by which he means the perception that an individual’s actions can have any impact on future events.  Climate change is so complex and so global that it is common for individuals to shrug their shoulders and conclude that anything they might do will have no meaningful effect.  In Canada, while I often run into the ‘what good can I do’ comment reflecting this perceived lack of individual behavioral control, I also hear the comment, “Why should it matter if Canada reduces its CO2 emissions; we only contribute 1.7% of total emissions per year?”  That Canada still ranks within the 10 most highly emitting countries is forgotten, sometimes deliberately as a way of justifying inaction, but sometimes simply because of perceived behavioral lack of control applied not to the individual but to the nation.

The second of Gifford’s seven dragons is ideology.  He includes here worldviews, suprahuman powers, technosalvation, and system justification.  A commitment to free market capitalism is the worldview least likely to favor action on climate.  Formal religious beliefs in an all-powerful deity that cares about individual humans, more secular belief in an all-powerful ‘nature’, faith in humanity’s capacity for technological innovation to solve problems, and strong desire to not disturb the status quo socio-political system are other identified aspects of ideology.  In all these cases, the belief system provides strong incentives to not act on climate change.  Putting it more simply, beliefs trump facts.

This person is not putting beliefs ahead of facts, he’s just refusing to reach a conclusion!

Comparisons to others is the third dragon.  Included here are social comparison, social norms and networks, and perceived inequity.  People tend to act in ways that mirror actions of others.  Sometimes normative action is perceived and emulated (this tendency can be enhanced by effective social networks that facilitate the behavioral comparisons).  When societies are perceived as inequitable, the tendency to behave unselfishly is reduced.  Taken together its clear that changing behavior to achieve environmental goals has to take account of the social milieu in which the individual actors are embedded.

Sunk costs, the fourth dragon, includes behavioral as well as financial costs, conflicting values, goals or aspirations and attachment to place.  Habitual patterns of behavior are an impediment to behavioral change because they are habits, in much the same way that prior investment in particular ways of doing things – ownership of a car, for example – can impede changes in behavior because change will cost money.  Humans rarely find their various individual goals all aligned, and conflicting values, goals or aspirations can all impede the kind of behavioral change needed to solve environmental problems like climate change.  Attachment to place can give rise to classic nimbyism because of a desire that that place never change and, in this sense, such attachment becomes a sunk cost.  Of course, attachment to a place can also be a prime motivator for action to protect that place, including action to protect its climate.

Sunk costs are lost, whether or not you realize it.  But the act in many ways to stop us correcting views or changing behavior.  Cartoon © Scott Adams

Discredence, the fifth dragon, refers to tendency to disbelieve or even to be defiantly opposed to those supplying information and recommendations on environmental issues.  Trust is generally seen as essential for listeners to receive messages being delivered, and trust of citizens towards scientists or government officials can easily be lost. Sometimes recommended programs of action can seem unlikely to be effective, particularly programs that are modest in scope or entirely voluntary.  Perceived ineffectiveness does not encourage adoption and participation in the program.  A more aggressive level of opposition comes in the form of denial, sometimes simply a way of rationalizing a desire not to comply with or support environmental action, but sometimes denial is motivated by fear and becomes a way of blocking out bad news.  Also included under discredence is reactance, the tendency to react negatively to messages from particular distrusted sources.  Many people begin their assessment of information about climate change under an assumption that if it comes from a government agency, or from a member of ‘the elites’, it is not to be trusted.  Again, I’m unsure how I would differentiate lack of trust from reactance; the difference is nuanced.

Gifford’s sixth dragon is perceived risk.  This is the risk one takes on by changing behavior in order to address climate change – the risk of acting, rather than the risk incurred by ignoring the problem.  Again, Gifford sees several different types of risk in acting: functional, physical, financial, social, psychological and temporal.  Functional risks are risks that the new behavior will not be effective in combating the environmental problem.  Physical risks are direct risks to individual wellbeing incurred by changing behavior.  Financial risks refer to the possibility of added costs that may never be recouped, relative to the cost of continuing one’s life ignoring climate change.  Social risk is the risk of being ridiculed or ostracized by one’s social group because of the new behavior adopted, and psychological risk is damage to self-esteem such ridicule might provoke.  Finally, temporal risk refers to the time in planning and undertaking behavioral change that will have been wasted if the new behavior does not improve the environmental issue.  Gifford illustrates these kinds of risk by considering the purchase and use of a PHEV (plug-in hybrid) vehicle as a way of cutting one’s carbon footprint.  Such a decision carries each of these risks.  The PHEV, as new technology, may have problems preventing it from performing as expected (functional), it may be a less safe vehicle than the old SUV traded in for it (physical), it will certainly cost more to purchase (financial), owning it may invite scorn or ridicule from erstwhile friends (social) which may lead to depression (psychological), and the time taken in researching, deciding to purchase, learning how to operate it, and perhaps obtaining professional psychiatric help (temporal) may not have been worth it.

Who knew purchasing a PHEV could pose so many different kinds of risk?  I did it anyway.
Image of Honda Clarity © Car Gurus.

Having recently purchased a PHEV, I’ve found all these risks miniscule.  So maybe the PHEV option has become less risky since 2011.  Or maybe I am still busy justifying to myself that I made the right decision?

Gifford’s final dragon is limited behavior.  Today, many people are engaged to some degree in actions to reduce climate change.  Some people are more engaged than others, yet most of us could do more than we are currently doing.  As well as buying a PHEV, I could choose to become vegetarian and put solar panels on my roof (among many other choices), but I have not chosen to do so.  In this way, I have limited my behavioral change.  Gifford divides limited behavior into tokenism and rebound.  Tokenism involves the adoption of easier, less costly or less disruptive changes to behavior and then ignoring other possible changes.  Most of us are guilty of this to some degree.  Rebound occurs when, having made a behavioral choice in favor of reducing emissions, we slack off, perhaps bringing our carbon footprints back to where they were before we acted.  Taken together, tokenism and rebound act to limit what each of us might do in response to the climate emergency.  In essence, we are accepting that there needs to be a reduction in emissions of CO2, and we make some modest attempt in that direction; then we move on to other things (because it’s not healthy to obsess constantly about climate change), perhaps increasing our emissions in the process.

Gifford argues that these seven dragons of inaction need to be dealt with in any planning exercise or modeling effort designed to improve the acceptance of the need to act on climate change or similar environmental issues.  He notes that some of these dragons may be far more important than others, and like all good academics he calls for more research.  But he also makes clear that how individuals respond to messages about issues like climate change depends as much on social milieu, emotion, and motivation as it does on the nature of the message sent.  He also stresses that those of us seeking to inspire people to act on climate change need do the necessary research to identify ways of slaying these seven dragons.

Listening only to one’s tribe

The second article appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science in July 2018.  Written by Leaf Van Boven of University of Colorado, and two colleagues at UC Santa Barbara, the article is titled, “Psychological Barriers to Bipartisan Public Support for Climate Policy”.  It is specific to the USA context, but I believe the principles it highlights would apply, with variation in other countries also.

At the present time, there appears to be a stronger polarization of attitudes to climate change in the United States than is the case in most other countries.  For many reasons the issue of climate change has become particularly strongly politicized in that country, and politics there is now very strongly polarized.

Data from the League of Conservation Voters reveals a widening gap between Democrat and Republican members of US Congress.  This gap reflects the politicization of climate change in that country.  Image © Inside Climate News.

Van Boven and colleagues did three things.  First, they conducted in-depth interviews with four recently retired members of the US Congress – two Democrats, two Republicans, one of each from the House of Representatives and the Senate.  All four had had particular interest in climate issues and had worked on cap-and-trade or climate-tax proposals when in the legislature.  Second, they undertook two population surveys (in 2014 and 2016), each of just over 1000 voters from across the USA.  The surveys explored voters’ opinions of climate change issues, but also explored their expectations concerning the opinions of others.  Third, they had participants in the 2014 survey take part in an experiment in which each read a description of a climate mitigation strategy (a cap-and-trade strategy or a carbon-tax).  The participants were divided, based on the survey results, into Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, and half of each group received information that the policy they read about had been proposed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in Congress.  The other half were informed that the policy described had been proposed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

The results are interesting.  Van Boven and colleagues showed that the majority of Republicans as well as the majority of Independents and Democrats, accept the reality of human-caused climate change.  True, a smaller proportion of Republicans than of Democrats share this view – the mean response for Republicans was < +1 on the scale from -3 to +3 in each year, while the mean for Democrats was slightly less than 2.  But both distributions of responses were clearly on the right-hand side of the figure they provide.  Independents scored between Democrats and Republicans.

Results of surveys in 2014 (a) and 2016 (b) in which respondents were asked to rate a series of statements about climate change on the scale: –3 = strongly disagree; –2 = moderately disagree; –1 = slightly disagree, 0 = neither agree nor disagree, +1 = slightly agree; +2 = moderately agree; +3 = strongly agree.  It’s clear that Democrats agree with the idea of anthropogenic climate change more strongly than Republicans, but it’s also clear that the majority in both groups generally supports this concept.  Independents are intermediate in their responses in both cases.  Image © Van Boven and Sage Publications.

Van Boven and colleagues comment on how well hidden is the fact that most Americans of all three political persuasions accept the reality of climate change.  This observation seldom appears in media reports.  The observation that the great majority of climate skeptics (71% in both surveys) are Republican is the sort of result that does get emphasized by the media (while the fact that these are a minority (only 25%) of all Republicans is seldom spelled out).

The surveys asked respondents for their opinion on how the ‘typical’ Democrat or Republican would view climate change.  Respondents tended to underestimate the extent of support for climate change ideas by ‘typical’ voters from both parties, but they underestimated Republican support more strongly.  In other words, people think voters identifying with the two political parties are further apart in their views on climate than they are.

From my perspective, the most interesting result was in how respondents reacted to cap-and-trade or carbon tax proposals, depending on whether they had been told the specific policy had been proposed by Democrats or Republicans.  If people were rational decision makers, they would evaluate described policies in a way that was congruent with their own view of the importance and the cause of climate change.  But that is not what happened.  To a much greater extent, their responses were dictated by which party was reported to have proposed the policy.  Democrats disliked Republican policy and Republicans disliked Democrat policy even when the policy description was identical.

Figure showing actual responses by respondents of designated political affiliation as well as their expectations of responses by ‘typical’ members of each party, to policies ostensibly proposed by either Democrat or Republican legislators.  Democrats favor Democrat policy and Republicans favor Republican policy, even when it’s the same policy.  And respondents think ‘typical’ members of each party will give party even higher priority than they do themselves.  Figure © Van Boven and Sage Publications.

Conservation science has long recognized the importance of ‘respected local leaders’ in encouraging the adoption by a community of novel conservation actions.  It is always more effective if a respected older fisher is able to articulate the benefits of establishing a closed season or a no fishing reserve as a way of sustaining the local fishery.  Far better they hear it from the respected elder than from a youngish, foreign-looking stranger who flew in to talk to them one Friday.  The same clearly applies to American members of political parties, and, I suspect, to some degree, within all advanced societies.  Better we hear the novel proposal from someone just like us.  Otherwise, on what basis do we believe the message?

How Do We Have Rational Discussion and Consensus Building around Environmental Policy?

Climate change and the environmental crisis more generally inevitably becomes a political problem the moment we move from describing what is happening to talking about changes in our behavior to remedy, repair, or avoid such problems in the future.  Taken together these two papers tell us that the discussion cannot be assumed to be entirely rational, a dispassionate examination of the facts.  People do not work like that.

In discussing his seven dragons of inaction, Gifford has focused on impediments to individuals changing their own behavior to improve climate outcomes.  He has revealed a long list of ‘extraneous’ factors that impede rational decisions to act.  Van Boven and colleagues have looked at one ‘extraneous’ factor that influences how individuals respond to climate change or policies being proposed to deal with it.  The importance of political affiliation, both of the individual and of the messenger (politician) who offers a policy for consideration, is remarkably clear.  In Gifford’s terminology, there are three dragons acting here: Ideology, Social Comparison, and Discredance.

In the USA, bulwark of capitalism, anything that smacks of limiting individual action will be resisted by a large minority of people.  Many Americans are ideologically incapable of viewing socialist solutions to shared problems favorably – be they a clean environment or a functioning health or education system.  They have been vaccinated against approaches that do not begin with the primacy of individual freedom.  At present, political polarization in the USA is so pronounced that one’s political ‘tribe’ or social group is of major importance in determining how to respond to environmental messages.  And recommendations that come from outside one’s tribe are automatically discounted.  In less politically polarized communities these effects of ‘tribe’ will surely be less pronounced, but we’d be naïve to expect they would not be present.

Climate change is an immense problem which is only going to be solved by a monumental transformation of the human enterprise.  While ‘the market’ may well ultimately adjust our behavior, I don’t have any expectation that markets will move against short-term self-interest and in favor of long-term communal (actually global) benefit sufficiently quickly to avoid catastrophic changes to our environment.  The time lags in the climate system are simply too great, and the required shift in human behavior too large for us to rely on market forces, no matter what some economists may believe.  Market forces work best when they are serving short-term self-interest.  Where is the evidence they have ever worked against that in favor of long-term global interest?  Nor is climate change going to be solved by us somehow engaging significant numbers of individuals across the planet to each do those things they can do individually to rein in their carbon footprints.  Apart from the fact that individual actions would do little to transform continental scale power grids to the extent they must be changed, Gifford’s seven dragons have not magically disappeared simply because he named them and provided a list.  How do we get an individual like me, who certainly sees climate change as a major problem that must be solved, to go beyond the token steps I have taken so far in my personal life?  On the kind of time scale that we must adopt if we want a smooth transition into a safe post-Holocene world?  Individual action won’t go nearly far enough, fast enough to do the job, any more than will waiting for the markets.

Whether we admit it or not, we have already left the Holocene and will have to do what we can to keep the Anthropocene livable.  Knowing how and why we individually respond to climate messages as we do should help us forge better policy, likely not in time to save many coral reefs.
Cartoon © David Pope, Canberra Times

Solving climate change is going to require a global, political effort.  The largest such global effort ever attempted, at a time when we are still infants in learning how to behave as an effective global community.  We have been making halting progress until now, using the politically weak structures we have in place, and the pace has been distressing to those who recognize the problem and want to see solutions.  Political action requires consensus (except in systems run by autocratic strongmen), and global political action is particularly challenging in this regard – especially so in a world made up of nations with very different worldviews and modes of governance, including some autocratic dictatorships.  It is not the job of the scientist, or other technical expert, to solve the problems of how to effect global change, but that expert does have an obligation to attempt to provide sound information to people who have the skills to navigate the passageways, tunnels, and smoke-filled rooms that constitute the path toward effective political action.  Finding the most effective ways to influence political leaders, including finding ways to encourage strong coordinated pressure from constituents of those leaders, and finding effective ways to reward positive achievements while shaming inaction or action in inappropriate directions have to be high priority for those who want climate change brought under control.  Gifford’s seven dragons stand in front of each of us.  They are seven of a larger set of dragons, including some that focus only on derailing useful political progress.  The sooner all the dragons can be named and discussed, the sooner they can be tamed.

Categories: Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics, Politics | 3 Comments

How can we expect the average person, or even a politician, to understand what is happening to coral reefs?


Coral reefs should have alerted us by now

By now, everybody knows that coral reefs around the world are being seriously degraded by the effects of warmer water caused by climate change.  Occurrences of coral bleaching are far more frequent than they used to be (nobody had witnessed such an event prior to 1982), and their cumulative impacts have been a primary cause of the substantial loss of coral cover worldwide.  Estimates of loss over the past 30 years or so, based on sound scientific data, approximate 50% for both the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean, while less extensive data from other regions confirm these results are not unique.  This is a far more rapid rate of loss than that of rainforest, or forested land overall, and is clearly not a rate that is compatible with the continued presence of coral reefs.  Scientists are united in attributing major portions of this loss of coral to the effects, direct or indirect, of climate change.

The profound extent of the damage being caused to coral reefs, such as revealed in these contrasting photos from the Line Islands, should be a wake-up call to all about the need to address climate change.  Photos © Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Those of us who have spent our careers doing research on coral reefs have long wondered why what is currently happening to them has not mobilized deep concern across the world to do something promptly to reduce the risk of further human-caused climate change.  Indeed, I vividly remember being at a large international conference in 2000 where the effects of the strong 1997-8 el Niño were a hot topic.  Conversations kept coming back around to the hopeful expectation that the world’s first circumtropical mass bleaching episode would be the very strong wake-up call to the world that would begin the effort to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.  To us, the link was obvious, and the consequences of ignoring climate change were going to be devastating in many ways, far beyond our coral reefs.  Reefs were just the canary, doomed to suffer first and thereby warn the world.  But it did not turn out as we expected.

Ever since, reef scientists and managers have been struggling to articulate the story of coral reef decline in ways that will more effectively capture the attention of the public and lead to strengthened policy on climate around the world.  We have provided detailed case studies of bleaching events around the world.  We’ve explained the links between rising temperatures, bleaching, coral mortality, and reef degradation.  We have used powerful models to project likely futures.  We have helped document the enormous value of coral reefs, economically, esthetically and biologically.  And we have advocated for action, locally and globally, that would help sustain coral reef systems.  All seemingly to no avail.

I’ve come to believe that the failure of most people to get what I‘ll call the coral reef message is due to several factors, only some of which are under the control of the scientists and managers.  We can be blamed for part, but not all, of this failure.  The media also share part of the blame.  And the audience – that everyperson out on the street – shares the rest.  Let’s consider each in turn.

The scientists

Coral reef scientists, like other scientists everywhere, seldom find ‘the art of story-telling’ among the courses required during their graduate careers.  Somehow, we assume telling stories is easy, and we all know how to do it.  Fact is, we don’t, and peer review by journals, or at conferences, seldom addresses this gap.  Some of us even believe that telling stories is somehow not what a scientist should be doing; it smacks too much of entertainment.  Our colleagues put up with this deficiency and drive themselves to listen to our 15-minute conference presentations or read (or at least skim) our journal articles, even when the talks and the articles are mind-numbingly boring.  Real people are simply not that interested.  Randy Olson, long ago a coral reef scientist, has drawn my attention to the following cartoon that makes this point with respect to seminars or conference papers, but it applies to every written communication as well.  Properly designed, each has a structure that begins with some background (Randy calls this ‘and’), identifies the problem being addressed (‘but’), and draws a conclusion (‘therefore’).  A lengthier talk or technical article will have a more complicated structure – likely an overall ‘and, but, therefore’, with a series of two or more subsidiary ‘and, but, therefore’ sections within it.  Each such sequence of elements builds a story arc that generates, maintains and finally rewards interest by the listener or reader.

Cartoon © www.animateyourscience

While some of us are increasingly attending to story-telling in our conference presentations, very few of us bring this to our technical articles.  Too often, our articles are a succession of ‘and’ with no discernable story arc, just a long list of mind-numbing details.  Then too, the sequence of such details is often incompatible with story-telling.  The journals seem to go out of their way to impose a structure on articles that bears no relationship at all to story-telling; in some journals Materials and Methods, or ‘what was done’ becomes ‘supplementary material’ stored separately in an archive so the main text jumps directly from introduction to results; in others, Results and Conclusions come ahead of Introduction.  Naturally, scientists now read such articles by glancing at the opening paragraph, scanning the figures, taking a quick look at the final paragraph and then maybe reading more carefully.  This reading is not done for enjoyment, and the articles are seldom enjoyable.  Mostly, they are not memorable either.

Nor does peer review improve the quality of writing; the focus instead is on scientific accuracy and rigor – definitely important aspects of a technical article.  When we add deficient copy editing, a general tolerance of slang with meaning limited to those from the same subculture as the author, and the fact that few English majors end up as scientists it should not be surprising that technical articles are seldom models of effective story-telling and sometimes barely literate.  Yet it is the stories that make a piece of science memorable, and articles that are not remembered don’t get cited and might as well not have been written.

Science students are seldom taught how to communicate science effectively.
© Nature Education.

Well, OK, you say.  Technical articles are intended to convey information within the science community.  They were never meant to tell stories.  I disagree, but perhaps more important is the fact that we scientists also apply our story-less style to pieces of writing that are intended to reach a wider audience.  There are gloriously talented exceptions among us, but for the majority, our articles for the popular press come out as a long string of details: and, and, and, and, and.

Back when I began my own career, the process of publication took a year or more, with manuscripts and revisions being mailed back and forth across the globe before type was finally set and a journal issue printed.  I think we did a slightly better job of story-telling; I know we spent more care on each manuscript (and published far fewer).  Now, in a world of instant communication, peopled by far more scientists, under far more pressure to succeed, the production of poorly written articles does not generate much attention for the author.  Yet it is attention that is essential to maintain the stream of funding needed to do science, and scientists have learned to compensate for their nonmemorable technical articles by using social media and press releases to try and generate buzz each time a new article appears.

Many universities now have established publicity units that help with this buzz-making task; in others, the scientist has to go it alone, again with no formal instruction on how to do so.  But how do you generate buzz?  By telling effective and enticing stories.  Since we don’t know how to do that, we adopt an easy two-step trick to create enticing copy concerning a new piece of research: hype the story as new, different, the first report, a major breakthrough; and make sure the story contradicts prior studies or the current consensus on a topic.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are breakthroughs in science, there are major discoveries, and there are discoveries that completely redefine our understanding of some topic.  They deserve to be highlighted, shouted from the hills.  But every single article coming out of a scientist’s research lab?  No!  We all occasionally do confirmatory work, or routine baseline work needed to prepare for the breakthrough.  Papers reporting such work do not deserve a Hollywood treatment with searchlights in the sky and a stirring theme by John Williams.  Unfortunately, in our efforts to generate buzz about everything we do, we are creating a dull background drone.  We are also misleading the media and the audience.

The media

The advent of social media has been tough on the traditional media, or more specifically the professional media.  While the number of career journalists has almost certainly grown, the demands on their time are greater, and the degree to which they can afford to specialize on complex topics such as science has decreased.  The pressure to publish quickly has led to verbatim line-for-line reporting of the press releases created by those hyping scientists who are not very good at telling stories.  When the journalists have the time to write their own words, they latch onto the most sensational claims by the scientists and create the semblance of journalistic balance by citing one source from each side of any apparent controversy (journalists too are competing to be heard).

I’m not sure whether the science community deserves the greater part of the blame for the sorry state of science reporting because of our willingness to claim inflated importance for our work and to stress how it contradicts prior understanding, or whether the journalists are primarily to blame for taking the bait we feed them hook, line and sinker.  Between the two of us, we have made a mess of the reporting of scientific stories.

This mess is made worse when the topic, as is the case for climate change, impinges on the perceived vested interests of powerful individuals and corporations.  To protect their interests, these economically powerful entities have joined the communication effort with their own, often well-crafted, press releases and stories all designed to raise doubt concerning the scientific consensus or the degree of certainty of current scientific conclusions.  Many journalists, ill-equipped to discern scientifically shaky claims, incorporate into their own stories the material fed to them by these professional deniers.

My little survey

Last month I undertook a quick survey of recent media reports concerning coral reefs.  This was not a scientific survey, but a quick skim using Google, hunting out interesting articles much as would anyone attempting to keep up with what the media were saying.  I gave preference to well established print media, and reputedly ‘authoritative’ news sources including some web-only ones.  Here’s what I found.

On 28th April, Nature published the latest in the series of papers by Terry Hughes, James Cook University, and colleagues arising from their study of the 2016 bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.  This one included 16 authors, mostly from Australia but including three from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program in the US.  This is an important and authoritative account that focuses on the pattern of coral mortality in terms of extent of heating and of coral taxonomy, and on the longer-term consequences in terms of ecosystem structure and function.  They show that some heat-sensitive taxa died from the direct impacts of warming, that others died some time after loss of their symbionts due to the physiological impairment that resulted, and that still others died still later due to secondary mortality factors such as disease that were facilitated by the deteriorated condition of the corals following bleaching.  They paint a bleak future in which the Great Barrier Reef will substantially reorganize itself (in terms of species composition and relative abundance, and of ecological process) in an altered, warmer world, and conclude: “The large-scale loss of functionally diverse corals is a harbinger of further radical shifts in the condition and dynamics of all ecosystems, reinforcing the need for risk assessment of ecosystem collapse, especially if global action on climate change fails to limit warming to 1.5–2 °C above the pre-industrial base-line”.  (One has to read that sentence carefully to realize they have moved from talking about reefs to talking about all ecosystems on the planet.  They left it till a single closing sentence!)

This pair of images shows the congruity between extent of coral mortality during the 2016 bleaching event (left image) and the heat exposure (as degree-heating weeks) immediately prior (right image).  Figure © T. Hughes & Nature.

This article had first appeared online at the Nature site on 18th April, and Hughes had provided a press release.  Science Daily put the press release up on its site the same day.  The Atlantic printed an article by Robinson Mayer that depended heavily on the press release.  It is scientifically accurate and captures the main points of the Nature article, but the science is so wrapped in poetic metaphors that I think many less-informed readers would come away confused.   It begins “Once upon a time, there was a city so dazzling and kaleidoscopic, so braided and water-rimmed, that it was often compared to a single living body. It clustered around a glimmering emerald spine, which astronauts could glimpse from orbit. It hid warm nooks and crannies, each a nursery for new life. It opened into radiant, iris-colored avenues, which tourists crossed oceans to see. The city was, the experts declared, the planet’s largest living structure.”  A good thing that paragraph follows the simple title: “Since 2016, Half of All Coral in the Great Barrier Reef Has Died” otherwise who could guess what Mayer meant!  (One of the challenges in conveying science is to make the story interesting without losing the reader in the process, but I’m not sure such dense metaphors help.  Mayer skips easily from “a kind of invisible wildfire” which “mercilessly ravished the city” to discussion of topics as esoteric as “degree-heating weeks” (his italics), and back again, but does manage to avoid distorting the science.

Peter Hannam, science reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald, also made use of the press release in reporting, also on the 18th April.  He picked up on Hughes’ casual reference, when interviewed, to the reef being ‘cooked’ and this became the first word of his title:  ‘Cooked’: Study finds Great Barrier Reef transformed by mass bleaching.

On 19th April, things began to go downhill.  Graham Lloyd, environment editor at The Australian – flagship of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – drew upon the press release but put his story under the title “Not all scientists agree on cause of Great Barrier Reef damage”.  He quoted Jochen Kaempf, Flinders University, as saying “the claimed link between the 2016 heatwave and global warming has no scientific basis”.  This quote was out of context and concerned the detail of whether the anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in the reef region in 2016 was a direct consequence of climate change or not (in much the same way, scientists can rarely be certain that a specific storm, or a particular run of warm weather, was a direct consequence of climate change rather than an example of the high variability that characterizes all weather).  Kaempf supports the idea that climate change is degrading coral reefs and was one of 154 scientists who signed an open letter to the Australian prime minister in August 2016 protesting that government’s failure to tackle greenhouse gas emissions seriously.  The Cairns Post picked up on Lloyd’s creativity by generating an article the following day under the heading “Link between Great Barrier Reef bleaching and global warming “has no scientific basis”: researcher”.

Also on 19th April, Mikhail Matz, University of Texas, Austin, with three colleagues in Texas and Australia, published an article in Plos Genetics concerning whether or not corals had the ability to adapt rapidly to warming.  They had used information on genetic variation in the common and widespread Great Barrier Reef coral, Acropora millepora, and biophysical models of coral propagation along the length of the reef, to explore whether putative genes providing tolerance to warmer, more tropical waters of the northern GBR might be transmitted southward as climate warmed over the next 50 to 100 years.  Their modeling results suggested less tropical populations of this species of coral did have the capacity to evolve greater warmth tolerance in that way.  Media being media, promptly turned their attention in this new direction.  Pacific Standard, the California-based newsmagazine, published an article on 19th April with the optimistic title, “Corals Can Withstand Another Century of Climate Change”.  It drew on the Plos Genetics article, while avoiding mention of the fact that Matz and colleagues had looked at a single widespread species in a modeling exercise which showed that species might succeed given continuation of current warming rates.  The reporting is correct, and yet, by conflating ‘coral’ and ‘coral reef’, it suggests that reef degradation is no longer a problem.  For the reader who reads carefully, the article concludes with a final quote from Matz, “The only thing which actually will solve the problem is to stop climate change”, but many readers do not read carefully.

And so it goes.  Mikhail Matz was one of several coauthors of an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 25th April.  That article, headed by Phillip Cleves of Stanford University, essentially demonstrated that Acropora millipora, like other organisms, could be manipulated genetically using the CRISPR technology.  To do so, they had to collect newly fertilized coral eggs during the brief 1-2 day spawning window.  This very preliminary study was reported in The Independent under the heading “First genetically engineered coral created to help save reefs from climate change”, but that is far from what Cleve’s team had done.  They had achieved changes in a couple of genes that have nothing to do with tolerance to warming.  They held out the hope that in future, scientists would be able to identify genes responsible for heat tolerance or bleaching, and then use CRISPR to deliberately manipulate them.

Meanwhile, on 27th April, the Huffington Post website reported “The Dangerous Belief That Extreme Technology Will Fix Climate Change”.  That report was prompted by a small conference held at Harvard University earlier in the year.  It includes information on the likely cost (a few billion dollars) of solar geoengineering involving the delivery of sulphur dioxide to the stratosphere over a 10-year period and expresses concern that at such a relatively modest cost, there is little to stop rogue nations or individuals undertaking such action without sufficient preliminary risk analysis.

The risk is real.  We belong to a culture that has convinced itself, through numerous past successes, that technological fixes exist for all problems and it’s only a matter of time before we will find the fix for climate change.  The search for such a fix removes the urgency to undertake serious emissions reduction.  The Huffington Post article is timely.  It also reports that Harvard University already has an interdisciplinary Solar Geoengineering Research Program.  That program functions at present to encourage discussion and evaluation of such possibilities, but it could easily morph into a program to undertake such activities on our behalf.

The New York Times reported on 9th May that “Australia Pledges Millions of Dollars in Bid to Rescue Great Barrier Reef”.  This concerned a pre-election announcement by the Australian government that has been broadly criticized by the science community, given that government’s refusal to tackle climate change in any meaningful way.  This controversy was covered in the NYT piece, but a quick skim of the first, largely laudatory, half of the article would lead a reader to believe the Australian government was attending competently to the Great Barrier Reef’s problem.  (One irony not mentioned in the article – the funds are going not to the strong Australian reef science community, nor to the management agency responsible for the reef, but to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body without the capacity to do research or management, one led by people with ties to the oil industry.)

On 9th May, Earth.com advised, “Marine protected areas help coral reefs survive climate change” based on another new technical article, this time in Science Advances, by Bob Steneck, University of Maine, Pete Mumby, University of Queensland, and three others.  Their article reported on their detailed survey of protected and unprotected sites across the eastern Caribbean.  Mumby and Steneck selected only MPAs that were well-managed and actually succeeded in reducing fishing effort (there are many MPAs that have no measurable effect on fishing pressure at all).  These effective MPAs were compared to comparable reef sites open to fishing in a survey that included abundance and size distribution of larger groupers and snappers, and of parrotfishes, abundance of benthic turf algae, and abundance of young coral recruits.  The results showed that effective fisheries management via an MPA affected all of these, but that the extent or power of the effect was reduced at each step from the harvestable fish, to the algae, to the recruiting corals.  The idea that protecting parrotfishes and other herbivores on reefs will reduce algal populations, thereby permitting more effective settlement and growth of recruited corals is logical, but evidence supporting it has been weak even in the Caribbean where it may be most relevant.  This article establishes that the chain of hypothesized processes does work as expected and MPAs, properly managed, could enhance coral recruitment in places where otherwise algal growth will outcompete the corals.  It’s an important article.  But it certainly does not claim that MPAs help reefs confronted by climate change.  For Earth.com that is too fine a point by far.

Subsequent headlines I found were “Great Barrier Reef’s five near-death experiences revealed in new paper” (Sydney Morning Herald, 28th May), “How Justin Trudeau and Jerry Brown Can Help Save the Great Barrier Reef” (The New Yorker, 30th May), “World’s largest coral reef farm set for Fujairah” (Gulf Today, 1st June), and “Coral decline in Great Barrier Reef ‘unprecedented’” (The Guardian, 5th June).  These referred respectively to a new study of the geological history of the Great Barrier Reef over the past 30,000 years, the fact that political leaders of Australia, Canada, and California are doing little to reduce production of fossil fuels – the one essential action to assist coral reefs, a routine announcement of a new business enterprise in the UAE to farm corals commercially (the report was not clear on the uses to which the farmed coral would be put), and the release of the annual report from the long-term reef monitoring project run by the Australian Institute for Marine Science, a 30-year long record of coral decline on the Great Barrier Reef.  None of these directly relate to the 2016 bleaching or to the effects of climate change on coral reefs, but if one just scans headlines they suggest, respectively, that the GBR has nearly died five times, that the likes of Justin Trudeau and Jerry Brown can save it, that farming of corals is under way in the Middle East, so all is now well, and finally that the deterioration of the GBR is unprecedented.

Given my survey, I’m not surprised at all that the average everyperson is a bit confused about what is happening to coral reefs. The sequence of headlines bounces us back and forth from despair to optimism, journalists have been seduced by the hype in press releases by the scientists, errors in interpreting the science have been made (Earth.com), and in some cases (The Australian, Cairns Post) there has been a deliberate effort to mislead.  I think we should be able to depend upon the media to do a better job than this.

The audience

And then there are the readers, the everypersons who, in talking to one another, create public opinion; who vote; who support (or not) government actions on climate change.  They also must bear part of the blame for the failure of communication, although in their case the blame is tempered.  They may be shirking the responsibility to be well informed and contribute effectively as members of their societies, but it is the education available in those societies and the cultural norms that have left many of them less able than they might be to evaluate the news provided by the media.

In advanced western societies today, one can generally say the following about the people:  The ability to evaluate news critically is weaker than it should be.  The sense that understanding the issues of the day is an important part of citizenship is poorly defined.  The capacity to discriminate fact from hypothesis or to spot the logical fallacies in an argument is more limited than it should be.  The distinction between belief and fact is poorly recognized.  And the idea that there are fundamental truths and absolute impossibilities is increasingly being questioned.

Add to these problems the fact that people are increasingly completing their formal educations with little retained ability to deal with quantitative data or to recognize the difference between linear and exponential patterns of change.  It’s not surprising that comprehending the scientific complexity inherent in any environmental science story becomes very difficult, even for the person trying hard to comprehend.  Add in also the special facts underlying any coral reef story:

  • Coral reefs are biogenic rocky masses that are dynamically balanced between rates of calcification by corals and some other reef organisms and rates of reef erosion due to wave action, storms, and action of numerous bioeroding species that drill into, dissolve, or bite off chunks of reef rock while consuming the algae that live in its surface layers.
  • Corals and coral reefs are entirely different entities despite the fact that bleaching is a response by corals that has direct consequences for reef degradation.
  • Corals are the major calcifying organisms on coral reefs, but they depend on an intimate symbiosis with minute photosynthesizing dinoflagellates that live within the coral’s tissues. Physiological stress, such as that caused by warmer than usual water, breaks down this symbiosis, and without their dinoflagellates the corals are compromised and may die.
  • Coral cover is a standard measurement to quantify the abundance of living coral on a reef and loss of coral cover is a measure of the extent of coral death caused by (eg.) a bleaching event.
  • ‘Death’ of a reef is a colloquialism referring to severe reef degradation because a reef is not a single organism capable of dying, but a collection of many organisms each of which may die. When many corals on a reef die it is common to speak of the reef as now ‘dead’ – it has lost substantial coral cover, but it will ‘recover’ if recruitment of new juvenile corals and growth of any corals that did not die substantially restore its level of coral cover.
  • There are many factors that can degrade coral reefs by reducing their coral cover, excessive warming, severe storms, outbreaks of the Crown of thorns starfish, numerous coral diseases, siltation, coastal pollution and sea level change are some of them. These factors can act together or separately and can be differently severe in different locations or at different times.

Such ideas (this list is incomplete) are part of the unspoken fundamental knowledge possessed by any reef scientist or manager, and by many other people, but individuals lacking this knowledge will find media accounts of what is currently happening to coral reefs difficult to interpret.

Image © PhD Comics.

Nor should we expect the everyperson to know the details of coral reef ecology, yet articles in the media are overflowing with such details, but not presented in a way that helps the reader get the gist of what is happening.  Poorly equipped to understand the scientific details, buffeted by sensational headlines, whipsawed back and forth between despair and optimism, is it any wonder that for most readers, the prevailing coral reef message is that “reefs are being harmed, scientists are making discoveries, there is concern, but there is also reason for optimism”?  And that is a story that is not particularly interesting, certainly not a story that will keep everypersons attention.  If you do not depend directly on a coral reef, it’s just another just-so nature story.

We can all do better

I don’t pretend that the discoveries arising from my half hour with Google are definitive, but I think they are representative of what would be found by an interested everyperson attempting to understand the coral reef crisis.  I recognize that there exist many gifted scientists able to communicate effectively with the wider public, and journalists able to read the technical literature critically and create factual yet interesting stories for the wider public.  I know there are members of the public who genuinely want to understand their world.  But I also know that the state of communication of the coral reef story can be improved substantially.  If anything, there are too many stories in the media that delve deeply into the nitty gritty of particular scientific studies, and too few that provided the needed overview and a wider perspective.

There are two parts of the coral reef message that deserve wide promulgation.  The first concerns our current understanding of the immense value of coral reefs biologically, economically and esthetically.  It deserves more than the reporting of some facts and figures about numbers of dependent people, contribution to GDP, and some vague waffle about solace for the soul.  I think the case can be made that we have an obligation to humanity, and a moral obligation to the planet as well, to act to minimize our unintended negative impacts on coral reef systems.  The second concerns the canary connection between the effects of climate change on coral reefs and the concern of many environmental scientists that human activities have begun to shift the planet beyond the planetary boundaries that define a ‘Holocene-like’ environment.  For me, this connection is ultimately what makes the ‘coral reef message’ deeply troubling, because a non-Holocene world is likely to prove a very difficult place for our civilization to continue to prosper.   We have it within our power to address the size of our footprint on this planet and are changing our behavior far too slowly.  A concerted effort to convey both these parts of the coral reef story to the everypersons, using effective story-telling techniques, could be far more effective in raising awareness and concern about the current decline of coral reefs, and in building understanding of the perils we are currently creating for ourselves around the world.  The societal changes needed are unlikely to occur without this.

Most of us remain blissfully unaware that we have left the Holocene for parts unknown.  The coral reef story gives us a preview of how things may turn out.
© David Pope/Canberra Times

Categories: Communicting science, coral reef science, In the News | Comments Off on How can we expect the average person, or even a politician, to understand what is happening to coral reefs?

Our Human Condition – Trapped by the Familiar. It’s why Governmental or Economic Decisions are So Often Wrong when Environment is Involved.


The current kerfuffle over the expansion of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline that ships tar sands crude from Alberta to an export terminal on the coast of British Columbia is a sorry story.  It demonstrates that most leaders seem incapable of looking outside the box, never mind acting outside it.  Anthropocene times require out of the box thinking and action.  Canada, like the rest of the world, sits within the Anthropocene yet carries on as if we still inhabit the tranquil world of the Holocene.

Lots of Kinder-Morgan pipe waiting to go into the ground.  Photo © Chris Helgren/Reuters

The Anthropocene – Not your Grandfather’s Holocene

As anyone who has read this blog regularly knows, I believe humanity is in the midst of a potentially existential environmental crisis – like many things environmental, it is a slowly moving crisis by human time scales, but also an inexorable one.  And it is a crisis almost entirely of our own doing.  Climate change holds center stage just now, but this crisis includes a number of aspects beyond climate change.  All of them need addressing, and the need for speed in this addressing gets steadily greater.  It’s a lot to demand of a naked ape whose entire history of civilized progress, from the earliest agriculture to our first tentative ventures out into space, has taken place in the benign paradise we named the Holocene.

Ah, the Holocene.  Those were the days, when one could deliberate, and re-deliberate, year after year, confident that the problem being deliberated about, while still present, was not going to get substantially worse.  Hell, sometimes, if one deliberated long enough, the problem went away all on its own.  Sea level has been essentially static for the last 8000 years.  Alpine glaciers reliably stored water for slow release into the headwaters of most of the major rivers of the planet.  Monsoons came predictably enough that a monsoon failure was a super big deal unlikely to happen several years in a row.  Local fisheries collapsed from being overfished, but there were always new fisheries around the next headland waiting to be used, and collapsed fisheries sometimes recovered.  There were good years and bad ones, sometimes times of real hardship, but the world was a dependable place that provided, by and large, dependable weather, adequate food, the other resources we needed, opportunities to prosper.

Over time we have removed much of the forests, striped most of the fishes out of the oceans, caused the extinction of large numbers of organisms, turned major tracts of land into monocultures of fertilizer-dependent crops, and scoured vast areas of seabed clean by dragging and re-dragging fishing gear across them.  We have redistributed organisms across the planet, sometimes to our own considerable inconvenience, and through imperfect health policies, have encouraged the evolution of pathogens immune to most of the remedies we can throw at them.

As well, we have made a mess from time to time, littering the world with left-over and waste items, some organic, many not.  For many years, the problem of littering was simply to move away, or move the litter away – ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’ was a mantra that came into use 4000 years ago when people in India and Crete independently discovered how to use water to flush human wastes through drain systems and away.  It proved efficacious in most circumstances until our cities became so large that we needed mechanical and microbial ways of hastening decomposition before diluting in a river or the ocean.  Now with a population exceeding 7 billion, and with an out of control chemical industry inventing novel compounds at a pace that defied efforts to screen them for safety before release into the environment, this mantra frequently seems insufficient.

Today, our tendency to pollute is poisoning the soil, deoxygenating the coastal ocean, and altering the composition of the atmosphere in ways that are modifying our climate.  Some places are worse off than others, but there is now nowhere on this planet where evidence of us, in the form of our messes, does not exist.

We are Trapped in a Box

In the Anthropocene, all these problems become progressively worse as our population grows and our mean standards of living increase.  And our pollution of the atmosphere is causing climate to change at a pace that has seldom if ever been seen before, and certainly not in the couple of million years since our species first appeared on the planet.  Now that we have photographs of our planet from space that tell us, wordlessly, that it is finite and alone – the only place in the reachable universe that can support our species –, and now that we have a reasonably good understanding of the more obvious environmental and ecological consequences of most of the bad things we are doing, one might expect the ‘wise man’ (Homo sapiens), or at least the leaders of groups of such wise men, might recognize this environmental crisis as important, a problem to solve, even an existential problem requiring urgent solution.

Except Homo sapiens is clearly mis-named.  Because we do not readily think outside the box.  Our societies, whether relying on democratic, feudal, socialist or other governance, have histories rooted in the Holocene, when the planet provided a dependable environment in which to plan and execute our noble enterprises.  Most of us, once we become powerful enough in our own eyes to presume we can control nature, have treated nature as the set of places, creatures and things available for us to use.  Sort of like a giant supermarket, full of items to pick up and carry out, with no cash registers in sight.  (This supermarket even has places where we can dump our left-over, unwanted, or otherwise useless things, free of charge.  Quite a wonderful place really!)

Because the natural world has been dependable in providing us with goods and services, and because we have built economic systems which ignore the costs of using nature as we do, governance (both political and business) has evolved, under all political systems, to maximize short-term, and personal gains, minimize short-term and personal costs, and assume the environment will somehow take care of itself no matter what we do.  This approach to governance leads to a political process that seeks to find consensus (also known as reaching a compromise) among competing entities within society in which the short-term and personal interests of all sides are met to some degree – the so-called win-win solution.  Possible wins or losses by nature are irrelevant to the process.  Governance has also developed procedures which can be guaranteed to take a long time, simply because the longer you spend deliberating the more likely one side will walk away, making the solution politically painless for those who remain.  In societies in which the governance is achieved by a government built through a process of election of individuals to office of limited tenure, the tendency to think short-term is amplified.  Few leaders think long-term, well beyond the end of their own mandate in office, especially if the long-term benefit will become apparent only at the end, while costs will be more immediate.  In other words, because of the ways in which we have traditionally treated the natural world, and because of the nature of decision making in our societies, we have learned to ignore environmental damage whenever preventing that damage cuts into the personal and short-term benefits of leading actors in the society.

In the Anthropocene, the risks to our societies of continuing to make decisions in this way are likely to rise to the point when they can no longer be tolerated.  Unfortunately, with our gift for short-term thinking, and the slow pace at which environmental problems usually develop, we are slow to learn, and will likely have to experience a number of ‘intolerable’ environmental crises before we mend our ways.

Kinder-Morgan Trans-Mountain Pipeline Twinning Project

All of which brings me back to Kinder-Morgan.  It was only a few years ago, that the twinning of the existing Trans-Mountain pipeline owned by the giant US company, Kinder-Morgan, was one of about four new pipeline proposals for shipping tar sands bitumen off to refineries or ports.  All were deemed ‘essential’ to the future well-being of the Alberta economy, and to prosperity across Canada, because projections were for tar sands production to grow substantially.  In a 2008 report on production, CAPP projected 2020 tar sands production to be 3.5 million barrels per day (MMBD), up from 1.2 MMBD in 2007.  Earlier predictions had been for 3 MMBD by 2015.  The rosy predictions created images in the mind of the Alberta landscape becoming covered by row upon row of barrels waiting to be shipped out; clearly, we needed lots of new pipelines to keep up with production.

CAPP forecast for tar sands production to 2030 as of June 2017.  Image © CBC News.

As things have turned out, future production estimates have been scaled back.  2015 came in under 2.4 MMBD, and CAPP is now predicting 3.1 MMBD by 2020 (and 3.67 MMBD by 2030).  The talk about three-fold increases seems to have dried up, although CAPP is still talking growth.  (Interestingly, the National Energy Board is more optimistic than CAPP, the industry spokesman!)

As well, industry spokespeople argued for the need for pipelines to ‘tidewater’, meaning anywhere except the US Gulf Coast, as a way of combating the differential value of Alberta crude compared to other North American or World sources.  By getting product to the east or west coast of Canada, the argument went, Alberta suppliers would be able to get their oil to market at a price nearly on par with the Brent crude benchmark.  In addition, following the 2013 rail accident, explosion and fire in downtown Lac Mégantic which claimed 47 lives, a new argument for more pipelines appeared; pipelines are safer than trains.  (Most people forget the Lac Mégantic accident had nothing to do with tar sands oil.)

Given all these arguments, anybody who questioned the necessity of all these new pipelines was dismissed as a head-in-the-clouds greenie who simply does not understand economics.  And yet, several knowledgeable people have questioned the necessity (and I have blogged about it here and here).  Among the doubters is David Hughes, an earth scientist who was for 32 years with the Canadian Geological Survey, and an authority on global and North American energy and sustainability issues (see an early comment here).  In May 2017, he authored a detailed assessment of Kinder-Morgan in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and Parkland Institute report, Will the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Tidewater Access Boost Prices and Save Canada’s Oil Industry?  This report is well worth a read.  In it, Hughes tackles each of the arguments in favor of new pipelines and finds them wanting.

National Energy Board’s anticipated growth in tar sands production, as constrained by the Alberta GHG emissions cap.  The reference, or average expected, case (black line) becomes constrained by the cap in 2025, the ‘high price’ trend in 2023.  Capping of production necessarily reduces future need for pipeline capacity.  Figure © CCPA/Parkland, based on NEB data.

Production estimates for the tar sands have been consistently optimistic, and Kinder-Morgan used estimates even higher than those used by the National Energy Board when articulating the need for the twinned pipeline.  The NEB predictions are higher than those from CAPP.  In 2016, NEB projected tar sands production would most likely reach 4.25 MMBD in 2030 and 4.8 MMBD by 2040, with the possibility of it reaching 5.3 MMBD if prices were unexpectedly high; Kinder-Morgan projected 5 MMBD by 2038.  Furthermore, the emissions cap introduced by Alberta, if obeyed, will prevent that degree of growth (assuming present-day emissions per barrel of product), and both the reference case and the high price possibility are constrained to 3.2 MMBD.  The emissions cap is hit in 2025 for the reference case.  With almost two million fewer barrels per day to move than Kinder-Morgan was predicting, the need for additional pipeline capacity no longer exists.

Hughes also demolishes the supposed price differential caused by the ‘landlocked’ status of Canada’s bitumen.  He shows convincingly, by graphing the historical trend in prices, that the differential that existed between West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude prices in 2012 and 2013 (when the Kinder-Morgan expansion was proposed) no longer exists and had not existed in years prior to 2011.  Fact is, the tidewater price at Houston is not significantly different to that at Vancouver or Halifax.

The differential in oil price that bringing tar sands product to ‘tidewater’ is supposed to correct – except there has only been a differential for a few years around 2012-13.
© CCPA/Parkland.

As for the argument that additional pipeline capacity was needed to reduce the risk of shipping oil by train, when the math is done, as Hughes reports, taking account of the effects of the Alberta cap on emissions on tar sands growth, there is surplus pipeline capacity even now.  New pipelines are not needed for this reason either.

The interesting thing about Hughes’ argument, and he has made it a number of times, is that it makes no mention of the need to reduce emissions and other forms of environmental damage (other than including the effects of Alberta’s (very weak) cap on emissions).  His arguments are based on the same economic and business cases that are used by proponents for every new pipeline being proposed.  And similar arguments have been made by others.  The business case is without merit.

If we add in a serious desire to improve environment and reduce the risk of climate change, the need for any additional pipeline capacity evaporates completely.  Canada’s current commitment under Paris (which we are not yet meeting) is woefully inadequate if climate change is to be kept under 2oC, and the existing Alberta cap on tar sands emissions barely constrains expansion.  Canada is going to have to do substantially more to reach its weak climate goals, and very much more to meet real goals for emissions reduction.  We can choose not to do this because we cannot afford the dent to our economy that winding down the tar sands would cause.  But that ensure we would be recognized permanently as a climate slacker, and would no doubt get some negative repercussions if we stuck our heels in.

I’m not going to belabor the environmental argument here; I’ve done so several times already and there are plenty of other sources of this information.  We are not going to be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to do our share to keep climate change below 20C if we also permit tar sands production to grow to the limit set by the Alberta cap.  This is not politics or economics, it is science.  The two goals are incompatible in this universe.  But, of course, our politicians are trying to treat this incompatibility like any other political problem.  And therein lies abject failure.

PM Justin Trudeau has staked his future on living up to Canada’s climate commitments (it would be a first for this country), and on sustaining Alberta’s fossil fuel economy.  He doesn’t seem to wonder if all those talented people employed in the tar sands might be able to do something useful that does not involve massive increases to our emissions.  Maybe he should read the recent Globe & Mail op-ed by Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia University and director of the Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.  In his 13th April article he articulated a vision of Canada undertaking the infrastructure development to more fully integrate its electricity grid, both across Canada and between Canada and the US, so that we could export emissions-free electricity produced chiefly from our ample hydropower and other non-fossil sources, including nuclear, into the US energy supply thereby aiding their decarbonization while encouraging the continuation of our own progress in that field.  To what he wrote I would add building a massive expansion of wind and perhaps solar farms in Alberta to further this effort.

Premiers Notley of Alberta and Horgan of British Columbia are also trapped by not looking outside the box.  Notley introduced a tepid cap on tar sands production that will not likely kick in until 2025, but now faces stiff opposition on her right because she has gone too far down a climate change path.  Trudeau promised her a pipeline if she’d do the right thing on climate and now it looks like the pipeline may not happen.  In British Columbia, John Horgan leads a minority government that opposes increased oil shipments out of their ports, or pipelines across their iconic landscape; he is propped up by the Green Party who are even more belligerently opposed to pipelines.  The conventional political compromise ain’t going to happen.

Meanwhile, preventing the pols from thinking carefully and deeply (yes, they do, sometimes) is a cacophony from the business sector arguing that if Kinder-Morgan is not built the world as we know it will come to an end (a rough translation of their perspective on the hit to Canada’s reputation as a place to do business).  While I understand that countries must provide a dependable environment for investment, I seriously doubt that the failure to build a pipeline in British Columbia will stop economic sectors other than those engaged in fossil fuel digging, processing and shipping, from continuing to see Canada as a nation of laws and reliable governance.  Would Google really have second thoughts about investing in Canada if Kinder-Morgan goes down?  Really?  Might not some economic sectors take renewed interest in Canada as a land which values its environment sufficiently to leave the tar sands in the ground and build opportunity in other ways?  And Kinder-Morgan’s signs of cold feet are surely an indication that the business argument for the pipeline is not quite as wonderful for all concerned as they claimed when making the application to build.

So, what is the outcome from the meeting in Ottawa between Trudeau, Notley and Horgan last weekend?  A typically political solution.  They could not find a consensus, but Trudeau and Notley agreed they could use national and Alberta tax monies to seduce Kinder-Morgan to go ahead, even though the regulatory battles will continue.  This is not an intelligent plan.

Meanwhile Canadian government websites continue to put as shiny a lipstick as possible on Canada’s appallingly weak progress on the climate front, and Trudeau’s hard-working Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna has until now been assuring Canadians that we are ‘on track’ to achieve our climate goals, while avoiding niggling issues like the 66 Mt CO2 emissions gap that still exists between Canada’s 2030 target and the realistic 2030 projection of emissions.  It’s a gap for which Ms. McKenna has only waffle words.  Her words in a mid-March interview show that she fully understands what is happening; once more Canada will put false tar sands economics ahead of environment and fail to fulfill its UN commitments made in those heady days in Paris.  All because everyone is staying carefully inside the box – a box where big investments in dirty things you can dig up and sell are more important than an environment worth living in.

Let’s Talk about the Oceans

Just to ram that last point home, last week’s copy of Nature included two research articles, an overview, and an editorial all talking about the erratic behavior of the AMOC.  AMOC is not some wooly-coated, brown-eyed, cuddly creature that lives in the Himalayas; AMOC is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and while many people have never heard of it they should be paying attention.  The AMOC is slowing down.

Diagram of the AMOC prepared by Levke Caesar for the press release accompanying the Nature article.  Surface currents are in red, deep currents in blue, and the color bar scale refers to ocean color.  The cool area in the North Atlantic, site of the subpolar gyre that marks the region where surface water is falling to deeper layers, and variation in sea surface temperature at this region appears to be a useful proxy for the strength of AMOC.  Image © L. Caesar/PIK.

The AMOC transfers vast quantities of surface waters, first carried to the North Atlantic on the Gulf Stream, to the ocean depths and back towards the tropics.  It happens because the warm, salty Caribbean water cools as it moves north until it becomes dense enough, despite its saltiness, to drop below the North Atlantic water.  This vast waterfall within the ocean drives the Gulf Stream and the major ocean circulation system that ensures that oxygen gets carried down to the depths, and that heat is transferred from the tropics to the temperate zones.  Back in the 1950s marine scientists began to work out the giant oceanic circulatory currents, and their role in determining climate.  Greenland ice core data suggested these current systems sometimes changed radically and suddenly triggering climate changes.  The AMOC was relatively strong and stable during the Holocene, but in 2005, a report in Nature described an apparently weakened AMOC, raising the possibility that it might be becoming unstable.  Work since then has revealed that its strength fluctuates in complex ways.  The two research articles in last week’s Nature confirm that the AMOC is now about 15% weaker, especially in winter and spring, which slows the flow of surface water to the depths.

The two articles, one by Levke Caesar, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, and 4 colleagues from Europe and the USA, and one by David Thornalley, University College London and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and 11 colleagues from Europe and North America, use radically different approaches to confirm this marked slow-down.  The teams’ results differ in the estimated date of on-set, with Thornalley’s team suggesting this pattern began around 1850 and Caesar’s group pinning the change to the mid-20th century.  The discrepancy is as much a comment on the difficulty of doing global-scale oceanographic research as on the different approaches taken.  Thornalley used paleoclimate data over the past 1600 years, while Caesar used high-resolution global climate models and data on sea surface temperature to reveal patterns of change in surface temperatures in the North Atlantic since the late 1800s.  Both teams attribute the slow-down to human releases of greenhouse gases and resulting climate change.  The take-home message for me is that this is one more glimpse of the seriousness of the climate crisis.  The slow-down of AMOC, likely triggered by the copious new cold fresh water being introduced to the North Atlantic as Greenland’s glaciers melt, could have sudden and serious consequences for the climate of Europe or for the Northern Hemisphere.  We don’t know how serious, nor how soon, nor how rapid such climatic changes might be, but they could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

And yet, content in our boxes, not looking out, we continue to make decisions about pipelines as if it was routine politics as usual.  Sometime in a distant future, people are going to look at the money wasted in building unnecessary infrastructure to prop up a fossil fuel industry coming to its natural end, the other vast sums of money wasted protecting cities from rising seas, from catastrophic floods, or from unending droughts, and compare them to the dollars that could have been spent productively building the new, low-emissions, decarbonized economy of the 21st century.  And they will ask, “How stupid were they?  Why could they not recognize what had to be done?  Why did they not work to prevent this difficult, dangerous world in which we now live?”  Guess I’m in my optimistic phase today – thinking there will be people in the future with time to think about such things.

If you don’t think outside the box, you’ll never figure out how to move Canadians towards effective climate policy.  Cartoon © Brian Gable/Globe & Mail.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Our Human Condition – Trapped by the Familiar. It’s why Governmental or Economic Decisions are So Often Wrong when Environment is Involved.