Restoring Our Relationship with the Natural World


On 6th August, 2018, a paper was published on-line at the PNAS site.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS to its friends), is a highly respected science journal that has been published since 1915.  The article, by Will Steffen, of Stockholm Resilience Centre and Australian National University, and 15 co-authors from European and US institutions, was titled Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.  In it, Steffen and colleagues claimed that there now exists a significant risk that human-caused warming has already brought the planet close to a tipping point beyond which the action of various, naturally-occurring, positive feedback mechanisms will push the planet towards further warming.  Rather than allowing stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises, we would experience continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway, even as human emissions are reduced.  Their use of “Hothouse Earth” undoubtedly helped garner attention, but the idea of a runaway greenhouse effect has been around since James Hansen wrote Storms of my Grandchildren in 2009.  It’s a chilling prospect, but a careful read of Steffen et al suggests we are not quite there yet.  Maybe we will buckle down and undertake the massive behavioral and technological change to transition ourselves away from use of polluting sources of energy.

Planet Earth has been cycling around the glacial-interglacial cycle since the start of the Pleistocene, 2.6 million years ago.  Recent human activities have bounced it outside the normal path of that cycle (small globe just above center of image).  Steffen and colleagues fear we may be close to a tipping point at which non-anthropogenic, positive feedbacks will propel us onto a new trajectory towards a hothouse Earth with temperatures well above present day conditions.  With appropriate human action, it may be possible to move onto a sustainable path with temperatures little warmer than at present.  Points A, B, C, and D on the hothouse path refer to sets of conditions that may be reminiscent of times in the distant past, when Earth was substantially warmer than today.  Image © W. Steffen and PNAS

The notion that what people do as we operate our global economy plays a major role in determining the state of the planet is still novel, poorly appreciated, and even not yet heard by many people (see my earlier comments here).  The idea that we cannot continue on our present path, or even one close to it, without causing great changes to the nature of this planet remains an idea that many people have never taken seriously, and the idea that we must begin to act to steer the planet in a favorable direction is even less appreciated (I elaborate on this here and here).

In recent months I have been mulling over why this message is not getting through, because despite the growing evidence of the serious problems we are creating for ourselves, and despite the growing effectiveness with which this story is being disseminated around the world, only a minority of us understand either the seriousness or the urgency of our predicament.  Although people like me often talk about the environmental crisis, it is a growing crisis for our own way of life.  Rational self-interest should ensure that we are much more concerned than we are.

Few of us understand the real challenge of the Anthropocene; not only must we care for our planet, we have to steer it to safe places using skills we’ve never used before, much as modern Hawaiians learned to use ancient skills to move safely across its oceans.
Photo of Earth
©, Photo of Hokule’a © Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Among the several possibilities for why most people still don’t get this message – I have blogged about these possibilities here and here – is the nature of our relationship to the rest of the biosphere.  Because we have objectified nature, turning it into a storehouse of things freely available for our use and a garbage container for our waste, it is difficult for us to recognize that we might have responsibilities to nature as well as rights.  Because we have become so very powerful, we need to temper our actions so that we preserve the status of the biosphere, maintaining it in a state that, among other things, favors our own continued well-being.  In short, perhaps we need to evaluate and reconfigure our relationship to the natural world and begin to act as if we are an important part of the biosphere rather than its owner.  With that changed perspective, we’d be better able to accept the need to behave in ways that are environmentally sustainable.  And that brings me to #2018MSE.

Muskoka Summit on Environment

On May 24-25, 2018, the fifth Muskoka Summit on Environment took place at the Rene Caisse Theatre.  The fact that Summits have been held every other year since 2010, in a tiny town of 16,000 residents, speaks volumes for the degree of commitment towards environment in this part of Ontario.  True, we live in a marvelous place of rocks and trees and water, one of the top tourism destinations in North America, but Muskoka is also a municipality which walks the talk.  Municipal governments, the business community, and residents all recognize the importance of our vibrant natural environment to our economy and to our lives.  The existence of the Muskoka Summit is proof of that commitment, and a demonstration that even tiny communities, devoid of a university or other center of academic excellence, are able to develop ways to come together and deliberate on important environmental issues.  As in previous years, I took part as one of the organizers.

One tradition we have maintained ever since the first 2010 Summit has been to develop a communiqué that summarizes the outcome of our discussions.  In 2018, the Summit dealt with our relationship with the natural world, a relationship we find in serious need of restoration.  This year’s communiqué was not a statement outlining the steps to take in rebuilding that relationship – we did not arrive at a specific set of steps in just two days.  It was, instead, an attempt to state the problem, make suggestions, and raise possibilities.  Getting to that point was an achievement, given that sizeable numbers of people in western society have never given a thought to the nature of our relationship to the natural world, never mind, to the possibility that it needs to change.

It did not end up as a one-pager, let alone a single 288-character tweet, and it’s possible that at just over 4 pages it will prove too long for many people to read it through.  But I have faith that some people will.  And I also believe that it makes some arguments that deserve a wider exposure than it has received so far.  What follows is an unedited text (you can also download it here).  My hope is that it will stimulate the kind of thinking, and the kind of action, that will help bring about a major realignment of humanity’s view of itself in the world.  I see such a realignment in our future, giving far greater recognition to the needs of the biosphere than we in the consumer-based, global economy have typically shown.

Restoring our Relationship with the Natural World

A Statement from the 2018 Muskoka Summit on Environment



In 2018, humanity faces environmental challenges of epic proportion.  Through our success in building an enormous global population and a similarly large and dynamic economy, we have created a complex web of interacting problems that threaten the continued reliability of this planet as a place in which humans can live their lives.  Our actions have made us a major driver of the substantial environmental changes now taking place: changes to the climate, the landscape, the structure and dynamics of natural ecosystems, the availability of essential nutrients and that of numerous pollutants, and both the abundance and the genetic and biological diversity of life itself.  Ironically, we mostly understand what we are doing, and how we might correct our behavior.  Yet we are failing to mobilize sufficient will to act to make the changes that are necessary.  Telling people about the problems and asking for corrective action simply is not working.

The goal of this Summit was to examine our relationship with the natural world, and ask whether, and how, we might change it to build a greater commitment to act to bring the human enterprise into harmony with the biosphere.  Each of our speakers brought a particular perspective; this statement sets out the problem, and possible solutions. 

Our prevailing attitude to nature – that we own it, have dominion over it, or are entitled to use it – both objectifies nature, and sets us clearly outside it.  With nature objectified, environmental problems become minor ones, even irrelevant when compared to political, economic or other societal problems.  The reality is that humanity is one of many living parts of a complex, interconnected system that sustains life on this, the only planet known to support life.  We are inside nature, not outside.  We must do a much better job of informing people of the many ways in which environmental problems impinge on human well-being.  In this way we can better convey the urgency with which the environmental crisis must be addressed – ignoring it directly impacts our own lives and those of our children.  We must also do a better job of reporting environmental successes and describing solutions to present problems.  In other words, we have a major communication problem, rather than a science problem before us.  We can solve that problem using a coalition that draws from a broad range of expertise and experience to convey the reality of humanity in the 21st century — that we are a part of the biosphere, and that pragmatic self-interest, rather than tree-hugging naiveté, drives calls to alter attitudes and behavior.  Taking this approach, we should find far more success in reaching out to other people for whom the natural world is still a set of things available for our use.

Our perspective on the world

When we are asked to visualize a map of the world, most of us see some approximation of a Mercator projection, north pole at the top, with the familiar shapes of the land masses neatly subdivided into an irregular checkerboard of small and large patches in various primary colors.  For many of us, Canada is a cheerful red!  The real world does not look a bit like this; it is a mainly blue sphere with land masses colored in greens and browns, and any patchwork evident bears no relationship to the patterns we imagine.  Our image of the world has been shaped by our education, traditions, and cultural identity; it is an image which emphasizes ownership.  We imagine the land masses, and increasingly the coastal oceans, to all be owned by individual humans, by corporations or other socioeconomic constructs, or by one of a series of nation states.

Legal systems are societal constructs that exist to facilitate the interactions among humans, providing a framework of rules that helps us conduct our individual lives in ways that minimize conflicts with each other for space, for mates, and for food and other resources.  Two thousand years ago, legal systems were designed to sustain strongly hierarchical social structures with a sovereign individual at the top of the pyramid.  Over time, legal systems have evolved to lessen the differences in rights among individuals.

When the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, voted to approve the final text of its Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776, it included the now well-known phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.  That phrase, novel in its time, referred to white men with property.  Only in subsequent years did the US legal system extend these ‘unalienable rights’ to less wealthy men, to women, or to people of color.  Legal systems in Canada and other nations have undergone similar patterns of change[1] as humans, worldwide, broadened our conception of the entities deserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Non-human lifeforms and the forests, watersheds, or other ecosystems they comprise have until very recently been granted no such rights.  Instead, they have been objectified and treated (if treated at all) as property, things to be owned and used.  Meanwhile, non-living human constructs such as corporations, states or nations have been declared to be persons with most or all of the same rights as other people.[2]

It does not have to be this way.  In some societies that have developed outside the western tradition, recognition of rights has extended beyond humanity and its constructs.  This may also have been the case in our earliest social groups prior to the development of written law and the rigorously-structured legal systems mostly familiar to us.  It is worth reflecting on why legal systems which narrowly circumscribe those entities entitled to rights and privileges have come to predominate in the modern world.  It is worth asking whether this needs to be the case, and whether this is a good thing.

Our impacts on the environment

At present, humanity consumes natural resources at about one and a half times the rate at which they can be produced by our planet[3].  The waste products of our economies and our individual lives place nearly impossible burdens on natural systems, polluting water, soil and atmosphere.  Our impacts are now so large that human activities are a major driver in the planetary-scale changes taking place.  Many of these changes, such as those in climate, are now far more rapid than at any time in the history of civilization from the earliest dawn of agriculture.  The difference between this human-influenced world, and the world of the Holocene (which commenced 11,500 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene), is so great that the world geological community has proposed naming the present age the Anthropocene (the start date is currently under discussion).  Our impacts on the planet are expected to increase substantially as our population grows from today’s 7.6 billion to about 10 billion by 2050, and as our average standards of living increase across the world.  Our growing impacts have severe consequences for the biosphere, for many individual species and ecosystems, and for our own lives.[4]  While the ideal of environmentally sustainable human development has long been aspired to, and was formalized in the 1987 Brundtland Report[5], and in the 1992 Rio Declaration[6], the trend in subsequent years has been for continued degradation of environmental quality when viewed at a global scale.  We now face challenges of existential proportion.

In 2018, the UN IPBES[7] released a series of reports on impacts of land degradation.  They reported that less than 25% of the global land surface remains free of substantial negative human impacts.  This fraction is projected to become less than 10% by 2050, mostly in desert, high altitude, tundra or polar regions largely incapable of supporting human societies.  This degradation contributes significantly to biodiversity loss and loss of ecosystem services such as water purification, food security and energy provisioning.  It compromises the lives of 3.2 billion people and reduces global economic output by 10%.  The largest driver of land degradation is the expansion and poor management of croplands and grazing land which now comprise more than one third of all land on the planet.  Some ecosystems have been hit harder than others: globally we have lost 54% of wetlands since 1900 (an 87% reduction in the last 300 years).  All of Muskoka’s forests have been clear-cut at least once in the last 200 years.

In the oceans, the extent of human impacts began later, but is now catching up to that on land.  No part of the oceans remains unfished, and we have reduced the standing stock of fishery species by 90% over the last 100 years.  Bottom trawling, which resuspends 22 gigatonnes of sediment per year, has substantially degraded benthic habitat over 20 million km2 or 75% of all continental shelves, significantly reducing the productive capacity of these environments.[8]  Chronic pollution has generated over 400 dead zones in coastal waters[9], and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, three times the size of France contains about 80,000 tonnes of floating plastic debris[10].  Our atmospheric releases of CO2 have not only warmed the oceans, but the dissolved CO2 is reducing ocean pH at a rate more than 10 times faster than at any time in the last 66 million years, threatening the existence of many marine species.[11]  Our warming of the planet has likely already shifted the equilibria of the immense Greenland and Antarctic ice masses sufficiently to ensure sea level will continue to rise for the next several hundred years, submerging all of our coastal cities in the process.

There is now a real risk that human activities could push the Earth system outside that state in which it has existed throughout the Holocene, likely destabilizing it in the process.  A Holocene planet is the only planet civilized humans have known, and it is not clear that we could easily adapt our agriculture or our economies to a radically different world.  A precautionary approach suggests we’d be wise to rein in our environmentally destructive behavior and learn to live within the parameters set by the planet, as governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.[12]

Our need for a new perspective

Our impacts on our planet, as witnessed during the last couple of decades, were anticipated by scientists working in the mid-20th century.  Science is now providing clear projections of what the next few decades will be like, depending on whether, and how we modify our activities.  News about the environmental crisis is widely available, especially news of ongoing climate change.

There are substantial changes being made within our societies:  Our care of environment is much more effective than it used to be, at least in those places where a serious effort to manage is made.  Most nations are now transitioning towards a carbon-free economy that uses energy more efficiently and chooses non-polluting energy sources where possible.  And yet we do not seem to be able to move quickly enough.[13]  The global rate of greenhouse gas emissions has not yet begun to fall.  Most national commitments under the Paris Agreement are insufficient (often woefully insufficient) to achieve the objective of no more than a 2oC increase (from preindustrial levels) in average global temperature by 2100.[14]  Land degradation, biodiversity loss, and many other measures of our destructive impacts all continue to worsen, sometimes at increasing rates.[15]  Obvious problems, such as massive plastic, pharmaceutical, and other chemical pollution, grow worse day by day in the face of too feeble efforts to correct them.  Short-term personal, corporate, or political interests continue to be put ahead of longer-term communal or global interests whenever they clash.

Providing people with the facts of the environmental crisis, as understood by scientists, has failed to be a strongly motivating factor getting most people to change the ways in which we interact with nature.  Indeed, in some countries the topic has become heavily politicized and the science is either ‘believed’ or ‘denied’ depending on one’s political affiliation.   We need more effective ways of raising awareness of the need to change.

It seems very likely that our prevailing perspective on environment is a large part of our problem.  Our conventional societal attitudes and legal systems can blind us to the need to manage environment for the long term rather than for today.  Our objectification of nature is blinding us to the fact that nature has needs that must be fulfilled; that it cannot continue to provide for our needs, no matter how we treat it; that in the final analysis, the physical, chemical, and biological laws of nature trump any laws crafted by humans.




Several of the Summit speakers, from different perspectives, talked of the need to approach the natural world with respect, and the ethical responsibility we share to care for it.  While such ideas resonated with Summit participants, these are not widely accepted ideas among those of us raised in a modern consumer society.  We must find ways to bring such ideas to the broader community, to help all of us understand that we are a part of the biosphere rather than its owners, and especially to appreciate that the environmental crisis directly threatens our own lives, not just the well-being of natural systems.

Bringing about such a fundamental philosophical shift within society is a major educational challenge; one that cannot be met solely by asking scientists to make the results of their research accessible to the public.  To achieve it will require a multifaceted effort that draws upon cultural, spiritual, esthetic, economic and political, as well as scientific traditions.  Achieving this change in perspective will also require modifications to conventional legal and economic thinking, although the argument that this more inclusive perspective is incompatible with a democratic, capitalist society is almost certainly overstated.

Acknowledging the need for this fundamental philosophical shift does not obviate the need to continue efforts to address specific aspects of the environmental crisis, but it does help reinforce the idea that each specific issue is part of an overarching problem – the problem of how we moderate our footprint on this planet.  Individuals adopting a more inclusive perspective on the world are likely to be more sympathetic to the need to act quickly and responsibly to address environmental ills.

Discussions at the Summit revealed a number of strategies for more effective engagement.

  • We have much to learn from other societies, and from other genders, ethnicities or cultural groups within our own.
  • Disciplines outside the sciences, including indigenous knowledge and faith traditions, have valuable messages to enrich our understanding of this world we inhabit and share, but while seeking to speak beyond the choir, we must learn to really listen to one another when we offer differing ideas.
  • Participants recognized that effective communication is a learnable skill, one that should be mastered by all those interested in a more ethical relationship with the rest of the biosphere.
  • We must become better story-tellers, using available data to tell engaging stories and to paint clear pictures of the consequences of NOT acting to correct environmental wrongs.
  • We must make even greater efforts to truly engage the political community, getting beyond the photo op in a political world of short timelines, and constant campaigning.
  • We should focus on involving our children in the natural world, since you only take care of what you love, and love of nature is readily accepted by the young.
  • We might also search for new ways to recognize the rights of wildlife, trees, or nature itself, and the obligations those rights impose upon us; ways that resonate in a fast-paced world of gadgets and media that isolate us from environment.  Would we not benefit from giving Muskoka the respect and care it deserves by striving to turn it into the greenest region of Ontario?

While there is clearly much work to be done, there are reasons to be optimistic.  We have solved complex environmental problems in the past, and we largely understand the problems that currently confront us.  There are feasible solutions, using current technology, for the environmental challenges we face.  Indeed, the global environmental crisis could become the impetus we need to create a world where people live in genuine harmony with nature, and there are encouraging signs that we may be starting to move in that direction.  Achieving that world is a worthy though challenging goal for every individual who values life.  Continuing down that path requires only that each of us takes another step.  And then another, preferably while holding hands in a forward-thinking coalition.

It is much easier to care for a place if you love it first.  It is easier to love it, if you see yourself as part of it.  North Muskoka River, 2013.


[1] See Boyd, David R., 2017, The Rights of Nature: a legal revolution that could save the world, ECW Press, Toronto.

[2] Ibid.  Boyd’s book provides an accessible account of the evolution of legal thought and legislation on rights

[3] ‘our planet’ is used to refer to the planet on which humanity exists, not to suggest that we own it.  It is our home in this universe.

[4] Data on the current extent of human impacts on our planet are available in Steffan, W., et al., 2015, Science 347 (622), 1259855; Rockström, J., and M. Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press, New Haven; and many other articles and books.

[5] The Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future was the final, and primary product of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission, established as an independent entity in 1984 by the UN General Assembly, and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway.

[6] The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was the primary agreement of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 3 to 14 June, 1992.  The Rio Declaration included 27 principles intended to guide sustainable development by the 170 signatory countries, including (#15) the precautionary principle, and (#16) the polluter pays principle.

[7] IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a UN organization, released the Summary for Policy-Makers for its thematic assessment of land degradation and restoration in March 2018.  It can be downloaded at

[8] Oberle, FKJ, et al. 2016, What a drag: Quantifying the global impact of chronic bottom trawling on continental shelf sediment, Journal of Marine Systems 159: 109-119.

[9] Diaz, RJ, & R Rosenberg, 2008, Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems, Science 321: 926-929

[10] LeBreton, L, et al., 2018, Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic, Scientific Reports 8: 4666

[11] Jewett, L & A. Romanou, 2017, Ocean acidification and other ocean changes. Chapter 13 in: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I (DJ Wuebbles, et al. Eds.), U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, pp. 364-392.

[12] Rockström, J, & M Klum, 2015, Big World Small Planet, Yale University Press.

[13] Boyd, DR, 2017, The Rights of Nature, ECW Press, Toronto

[14] Hill, JS, reports on emissions commitments on 4th May 2018, at Clean Technica: The “Paris Tango” — Some Countries Step Forward On Climate Action, Others Step Back

[15] IPBES, 2018, Thematic Assessment of Land Degradation and Restoration, Summary for Policy-Makers.




Categories: Changing lifestyles, Climate change, Communicting science, coral reef science, Economics | 1 Comment

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, 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 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 (, 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?