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Coral Reefs – Reality vs Curation, Reliability, Greenwashing, Pollyanna Media, and Our Own Irrational Perception of the World.


You’ve all heard that coral reefs are being seriously degraded by climate change and other human interference; that they are on their way out and could be gone globally by mid-century.  You’ve also likely heard of amazing new technologies to restore, repair, or enhance coral reefs.  And you’ve probably also heard about, or seen, accounts of newly discovered, amazingly healthy reefs.  Globally speaking, are reefs at real risk or not?  We can ask similar questions for other kinds of environmental issue:  Is permafrost in danger of releasing vast quantities of methane?  Is the loss of biodiversity a critical issue for human societies?  Are world fisheries being managed sustainably?  Turns out that getting clear answers is difficult.


There are people who deny the reality of any claims that human activities are somehow degrading the environment.  For them, biodiversity loss and climate change are just myths.  They have their reasons for denying, but these denialists are not the concern here.  A majority of us (I hope) seeks to understand the world in which we live and do what we can to remain current with events in our world.

Mostly, we seek information informally.  Seeking to remain current may be done more or less methodically, but we seldom approach it in the formal way a professional evaluator of events such as a historian, a sociologist, or a political scientist might.  We have our own personal experience to draw upon, but mostly we use various sources of information (the media) that we trust, regularly or intermittently scanning them (newspapers, radio reports, websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and/or comments from our network of friends and acquaintances).  Today we have far more media sources available than was the case just 20 years ago, and we have dedicated apps such as Google for searching them.  Yet our ability to be well informed on issues remains limited – more limited than most of us realize.  Far more limited.

Globally, reefs may be in great shape, or they may be degrading rapidly.  They cannot be both and one photo of a healthy patch of reef does not tell us which conclusion is correct.  Photo from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, taken 2002 by James Watt, NOAA.

Let’s accept that there exists an objective reality that we should be able to learn about.  Globally speaking, coral reefs are seriously threatened, or coral reefs are doing fine – they cannot be both.  But here are five problems we all face in trying to keep abreast of news on environmental issues like health of coral reefs.  They even include our own rationality – it’s less than we might believe!


Our first problem is Curation.  Whether we believe it, or are even aware of it, all media sources of information are curated.  That is, they contain items of information that have been selected and placed there.  No source provides every bit of information in the world, and even if it did, there would be curation, in the sense that we’d receive some bits of information before other bits.  Curation means that choices have been made concerning which information is most important, or most relevant.  The nature of those choices is unique to each media source, although good sources of information on a particular topic should be expected to overlap a lot in the items of information deemed most important.

This chart shows that human editors (left, in red) choose a wider diversity and very different set of sources than do algoithms (right, yellow).  Image © Digital Information World.

Traditionally, curation was the responsibility of people — editors, publishers, or librarians.  Increasingly, in the on-line world, curation is done by apps.  Regardless how it is done, curation means that you receive the information that the curator thought most important, and that selection is only as reliable as the curator.  And, because there is so much information available, you necessarily will select from the items of information offered.  If, instead of browsing favored outlets, you searched for information using an app like Google, you are provided with a curated list that is tailored to what the app ‘thinks’ you’d most like to see – source selection on steroids.  Either way, you think you are getting access to all information about a topic but you are being handed a curated selection, and you are choosing from what is offered.  The potential for bias is huge.


Might we reduce the curation-caused biases by choosing reliable sources?   Information is seldom 100% correct, a completely factual account of reality.  In many fields of enquiry 100% accuracy is simply not possible, and information sources vary in their level of accuracy.  Curators have their own reasons for ranking items and correctness is not always a priority.  We can improve the accuracy of information we gather, by choosing media sources that are known to be more accurate.  But how do we decide?

Not an easy question.  No media source is going to voluntarily advise that it delivers inaccurate information.  And with the advent of so many new media outlets, deciding on reliability has become a lot more difficult.  Several decades back it was possible to learn which sources were considered by informed people (usually wealthy white male informed people) to be the most reliable.  A reputation for reliability was highly valued, took many years to earn, and could be squandered with a few mistakes.  That’s why changes in the ownership or editorship of a major newspaper were significant news events in themselves.  The reputation for reliability often carried with it a reputation for a particular political perspective, and sources based in particular countries were known to present information with a particular national flavor.  All of this remains true, except that with so many sources it’s hard to keep track (plus who is to say that wealthy white male informed people know what they are talking about anyway).  Today, a joe public in his basement is able to create a website that looks just as professional as one produced by the New York Times, The Times (of London), or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (known online as, so simple appearance is not much of a guide.

While the news media may once have focused on ‘reporting the news’ that is no longer the case.  Even the best media – the ‘serious’ newspapers, certain newsmagazines, a few websites – contain much that is not factual reporting of information.  They compete for eyes (in order to sell advertising) by including lots beyond news – opinion, human interest stories, sex, and what I’ll call environmental feel-good fluff for now.  While there are ‘serious’ newspapers like the New York Times which mostly have serious news on their front pages, there are hosts of other newspapers that feature scantily clad young women on the front page.  As well as curating information, these media are mixing authoritative reporting with other stuff designed to make the audience of eyes feel good.  The result is that even a trusted, authoritative news source contains lots of non-news, and some of this non-news is environmental.  To summarize so far, there are an enormous number of media outlets all of which select items of information to include.  These media sources vary in reliability and there is no easy way to determine which ones provide the best (most accurate) information.  Most of them offer a mix of items including some that are a lot more accurate than others, and the media do not do much to help us sift through them.  So much for the idea that the media now provide easy access to accurate information about our world.

Distortions of scientific news.

Assuming we can identify them, let’s set aside the opinion pieces, human interest stories, and sex, and focus on the reporting of scientific news.  A news report is a synthesis of some more or less factual data.   Presumably news reports of scientific discoveries will be reliable?  Well, perhaps.

In environmental fields, those raw data on which the news report is based are usually generated by scientists using particular procedures and equipment to query the natural world.  Those scientists, despite striving for objective interpretation of the data they collect, are humans with their own biases, preferences, or expectations, who ask particular questions in particular ways.  The results of their investigations, hopefully after careful review by peers, are never a complete investigation of all data that might be relevant to the questions they have asked.  In other words, scientists curate also, and news reports of their discoveries provide a further opportunity to select, to emphasize, or to spin the results.  None of this is evident in the news article prominently displayed in a newspaper or website.

It used to be that scientists quietly published their results in the technical literature, far from the eyes of the public, and news reports came slowly, long after the excitement of discovery was over.  The reporting tended to be dispassionate, often even boring.

Not any more.  Now, the pressure to succeed as a scientist requires that one’s research papers get read and cited by others.  Getting your new report covered by the media can help promote interest from other scientists as well as the broader public.  So scientists have learned to generate press releases to coincide with the publication of virtually anything coming out of their labs, and the universities and other research institutions that house these scientists actively support this promotion.  After all, if University X has lots of scientists getting quoted regularly in the media, it must be academically a much better institution than University Y. 

To be effective in attracting attention, these press releases often emphasize the uniqueness of the science, or the ways the new results contradict prior knowledge.  After all, why should a news organization be interested in a technical report that simply supports what is already known?  One result is that scientists often go a little further out on a limb in drafting their press releases than they do in the technical publication being promoted.  In my 2021 book, Coral Reefs, I discussed how this tendency is distorting the reporting of science.  We have to conclude that news about science, and hence, environmental news, can be inaccurate just as easily as any other form of news.


While scientists and the reporters who feed on their press releases may exaggerate, emphasize or in other ways distort the reporting of their discoveries (any press attention is better than no press attention), there is another problem that affects the reliability of environmental news reports.  This is the deliberate distortion of information about some product, process, or plan belonging to a commercial entity, or sometimes a government, to make that entity appear more environmentally responsible than it really is.  Greenwashing is most obviously seen in the propaganda – sorry, in-house, factual reporting of activities and plans – produced by the fossil fuel sector, but it is not limited to these.  The most skillful greenwashers, of course, feed material to journalists, seeking greenwashed articles in an apparently independent press.

As I write, a major greenwashing effort is under way by the Australian government assisted by fossil fuel corporations and by the powerful Murdock press empire in that country.  The mining and export of coal and gas are a major portion of Australia’s economy, and much of the coal exports go by way of ports on the Queensland coast and therefore through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  UNESCO has been on the verge of downgrading the status of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage for several years now, and it seems Australian politicians of all stripes want to retain a reputation for sustainable management of this iconic coral reef system while also continuing and expanding the mining and export of fossil fuels.

A little sifting through government websites and downloading of key documents reveals the government’s core strategies – to ensure there are lots of (often irrelevant) images of healthy reefs on every page pertaining to reef management, and to ensure that any but the most superficial of comments re climate change are banished to parts of the metaverse far removed from the Great Barrier Reef.  Thus, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s front page on “The Great Barrier Reef” includes several pretty pictures and suggests the reef is ‘under pressure’ but does not mention climate change once!   That page leads to “Managing and protecting the Great Barrier Reef,” also with pretty pictures.  This page reports billions of dollars’ worth of support to protect the reef and does mention climate change as one of many things being protected against.  Both pages lead readers to Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan 2021-2025, as the document that guides reef management and protection.  Downloaded, that document takes six pages before it states, “Global warming, and the climate change it drives, is the most serious and pervasive threat to the Reef” and “The long-term outlook for the Reef is critically dependent on limiting global temperature rise to the maximum extent possible, as quickly as possible (GBRMPA 2019b).”  And that just about does it for climate change. 

From then on Reef 2050 is all about just about anything other than climate change apart from a brief note that “… setting targets and policy mechanisms for Australia’s contribution to global emissions reduction is addressed through national and state sectoral-wide measures designed to meet Australia’s international commitments, including under the Paris Agreement.”  Not being discussed here, but sounds like Australia has everything under control!

Reef 2050 is also filled with beautiful photos of coral reefs.  And as I surfed deeper into the governmental websites and documents the pattern became clear.  Tell everyone how many millions the pols are spending to ‘protect’ the Great Barrier Reef and talk in detail about all sorts of things other than the obvious need to reduce CO2 emissions.  Meanwhile, far away, virtually, from these reef pages are pages about Australia’s energy policy.  There I discovered, in a summary document about achieving net zero the Australian way, that Australia will meet it’s 2050 net zero CO2 emissions commitment, chiefly by using blue hydrogen and CCS. 

The capture and permanent storage of carbon (CCS) will permit continued mining of fossil fuels (which will release more carbon once burned) and producing blue hydrogen fuel from natural gas also requires CCS.  Neither CCS nor blue hydrogen production is yet feasible at scale, yet Australia’s reduction of emissions is fundamentally dependent on these two processes – it’s a bit like planning confidently for a manned return trip to Mars before anyone has succeeded in putting a football-sized Sputnik into low earth orbit.  Wing and a prayer, anyone?  Tellingly, among other things it won’t do, Australia’s net zero target will be achieved without shutting down gas and coal mining and export industries and without cost to Australians!  This net zero plan, heavily promoted by Australia’s powerful fossil fuel sector, is a glorious mirage, a delaying tactic, a way to pretend while actually doing little.  And it is far removed (in the metaverse) from any of the wonderfully colorful (all those photos) and expensive things Australia is doing to care for the Great Barrier Reef.

The good news about this particular greenwashing exercise is that the educated Australian people see through it.  Press reports of yet more billions thrown in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef are met with pages of comment from the public, such as “the greatest barrier to the health of the reef is the federal government, which has consistently ignored the science, the experts and the evidence.”  Still, with an Australian election looming, I remember the last time when the country seemed to forget about the reef, or climate change, once in the booth marking the ballot. 

Greenwashing can be quite effective, and its not just Australia that does this.  (Indeed, as a Canadian, I should perhaps have chosen some wonderful examples from Canada’s tar sands industry – but they seldom mention coral reefs.)  Greenwashed articles, made to look like authoritative independent reporting, are a standard tool of the fossil fuel sector worldwide.


My fourth impediment to getting good information about environmental matters arises because of a Pollyanna tendency within the media.  Over the years, the curators have learned that a constant diet of serious, depressing, difficult or other typical news stops the audience of eyes from looking and clicking.  That’s one way of explaining why media are filled with human-interest stories, details of the private lives of people who are famous for sharing details of their private lives, scantily clad women, cat videos and so on.  This Pollyanna tendency – let’s all take a minute to cheer up – has a significant impact on the reporting of environmental issues, and particularly on the reporting of coral reef issues.  Stories, photos, videos about the environment can be uplifting when they reveal beauty, subtle but intriguing complexity, unexpected quirks in the lives of other species, or sheer cuteness, as in mother animals caring for their offspring.

Recently there has been a flurry of news reports of coral reefs in wonderful condition – newly discovered reefs, unexpectedly rich reefs in deep water, the largest individual coral colony ever seen.  Mostly these are reported as simple stories, but they get interpreted by the audience as evidence that all is well.  Probably because many of us would love to discover that all is indeed well.  They are nothing more than coral cat videos.  They mean nothing.  If it is correct, and I believe the data show this, that, averaged across the globe, coral reefs have lost half or more of their cover of hard corals, finding one patch of reef in apparently good condition, even if nobody had even suspected it was lurking there, under the waves, does not change that sad story.  Finding one giant boulder of apparently healthy Porites coral means even less.  Yes, it’s wonderful, but the reefs of the world have still lost fifty percent or more of their live coral cover and their future remains grim.

A 30m deep reef, 3km long, off Tahiti, newly discovered in November 2021.  But it does not tell us whether coral reefs are in trouble or not.  Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld and BBC News.

Where the Pollyanna problem gets worse is when the science community begins to understand this tendency of the news curators.  I think that time has now come.  Press releases reporting some aspect of coral reef science typically now include a beautiful photo of a patch of healthy coral reef, even a photo quite unrelated to the core of the story.  And press releases with such a photo, and with the usual tendency to hype the conclusions – ‘this is the first, most important, really exciting’ – stand an excellent chance of being picked up by the media.  Especially if the story is about a technique for propagating coral, attracting fish to an otherwise dead reef, or in other ways repair a damaged reef.  The fact is, most of us are not very good at recognizing the difference between the one-off or the small-scale, and the global average.  The short-term success in restoring a couple of square meters of reef by planting coral of the same species that got eliminated in the last heatwave, or the discovery of a single patch of healthy reef that was not know about before, is inconsequential when compared to the much larger set of data showing that reefs, across the globe, are on the way out.  Like Pollyanna, we grasp the little glimpses of hopefulness to avoid the reality we know is all around us.  The crazy thing is, if coral reefs were less gloriously mysterious, photos of them would not get used by the media curators to drive attention and clicks, and we’d all get less news overall, but a more accurate picture of how coral reefs were doing.


I started with a simple question.  Are coral reefs generally in good health or are they in trouble? I suggested that rationally they could not be both.  But I was being a little dishonest in assuming that the bulk of us are rational beings who seek to understand the world around us in a rational way.  Our lack of rationality is an underrecognized impediment that affects us all. Whenever we scan the media seeking to learn what is happening around us, we scan with a formidable set of blinkers that affect what we attend to and how we interpret what we see or hear.

Most of us live with a myth that begins, “The eye is remarkably similar to a camera…”  That sentence is true as far as it goes, but our brain/mind is decidedly not like an array of pixels or a sheet of film waiting to be exposed.  We commence analyzing and interpreting the information that arrives at each of our sense organs as soon as it leaves the receptor cell on its way towards the central nervous system.  Simultaneously, our subconscious mind is directing our sense organs to pay attention to particular stimuli or locations or events.  Our conscious mind deals with what gets delivered to it by this far from objective perceptual system.  And then our conscious mind proceeds to build a model of reality based on that information, but also on what it remembers and what it expects. 

If we want to believe that coral reefs are doing just fine, and climate change is nothing to be concerned about, we will.  It takes real work to try and determine the true state of coral reefs around the world, and yet our conscious minds are so good at self-delusion that we accept totally our imperfect, biased, fundamentally flawed picture of reality.  That’s one reason why it can be so difficult to convince someone who does not believe the world is the way you say it is.  Its also why antivaxxers are behaving totally rationally in their own eyes, why truckers can block major trade routes to defend freedom, and why the Australian Prime Minister believes that his country can continue to exploit massive quantities of fossil fuels, throw a few billion dollars in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef, and commit to net zero emissions by 2050, all while keeping costs down, inconveniencing nobody, sustaining the reef, and living happily every after, confident climate change is not really something to worry too much about.

Actually seeing the reality in front of us takes the kind of effort most of us are not used to committing to.  That, of course, is why the world used to rely on experts!

2 thoughts on “Coral Reefs – Reality vs Curation, Reliability, Greenwashing, Pollyanna Media, and Our Own Irrational Perception of the World.”

  1. Thank you! You have many good points, which I don’t doubt in the least.+
    One small point I’d like to make is that I think that information overload existed before computers and the internet. Any large library has such a vast accumulation of human knowledge that no one can read or remember it all. In fact, a person would have to make a heroic effort just to read one full shelf out of a library. Most if not all of the material on any one shelf would not be of interest to any one person, reading a whole shelf, one book at a time, would be deadly boring. Everyone who goes into a library is interested in some things, and not others. Different people are interested in different things, and a large research library maintains vast holdings for the occasional scholar interested in something that no one else is interested in. All well and good. But human knowledge as a whole is vast compared to what any one person can read or retain or is interested in.
    I would maintain that that situation has been greatly exacerbated by the internet, and particularly in the area of news and opinion and propaganda. I would add to what you’ve pointed out that newspapers have over a long period, developed methods and standards for trying to minimize bias and alert users to possible bias. So newspapers usually have an “opinion” page separate from the news articles that compose the majority of the paper. That alerts the reader to the fact that opinion pieces are analysis and by their nature reflect opinions. Sometimes the paper may try to balance things by offering opinions from different viewpoints, sometimes maybe not. Another thing that newspapers try to do, is in news stories try to tell “both sides” of a story. People often have different views of events, and the stories will try to present some info from different viewpoints. This helps reduce bias in quoting only one side. By the way, “propaganda” is the deliberate biasing by selectively reporting just one side and trying to make it as reasonable sounding as possible, and may include factually untrue statements, but certainly avoids any information that does not conform to the point the author is trying to make. Newspapers also have ethical standards, like using reliable sources and requiring information provided to them to be backed up by multiple sources. Modern electronic media appear to do none of these things. You are exactly correct, anybody can put up a website and make it look as authoritative as the best sites, and users have almost no way to tell what it true and what is not. All this is driven by the fact that the internet is not policed, there are no standards imposed, everyone has completely free speech. With newspapers and books, there is a cost to producing them, which is high enough that they can’t print what everyone wants to say. So they have to be selective. Same is true of TV. But on the internet, costs are extremely low. That gives a powerful megaphone to anyone and everyone who wants to use it. And a normal thing in human society is that there are a lot of nutty people who want to get as much attention as possible. In the past, they were relegated to places like “speakers’ corner” in Hyde Park, London, famous for anyone and everyone making speeches. Usually people who can’t get attention of the newspapers or TV, because of their outlandish views, etc. Everyone in free societies have a right to free speech, but no one has the right to force companies to print what they say in newspapers or put them on TV.
    Part of the problem with modern media is that in electronic media, articles are rarely labelled “opinion” and they aren’t presented in a separate section. Further, modern media other than newspapers are full of “analysis” “pundits” and “opinion.” which are often presented as though they were fact, when they are not. There is a lot of analysis content, surely because people find it interesting. There is a bit of a move to have “fact checkers” since so much that is put out is factually incorrect. The propagandists then label the fact checkers as “fake news.” There are now news sources that are “aggregators” such as Yahoo News and Microsoft News. They simply pick out news stories from other sources and put them together for readers. It appears that they take NO responsibility for the veracity of articles they post. So they post things often that are highly biased, some are outright propaganda or disinformation. And this is the tip of the iceberg, social media and the fact that nearly everyone has a smart phone, means that all the nut cases, propaganda artists, outright liars, and criminally insane have as much access to the megaphones called “social media” as anybody else. And so social media quickly starts to emphasize what readers WANT to hear, over verified facts and truth. And society is already suffering from it.
    News outlets also have biases which come directly from consumers. So bad news stories tend to be a lot more common than good news. Another is that unusual things get a lot more coverage than common things, so “dog bites man” doesn’t get covered, but “man bites dog” does.
    To add a little bit of balance, it seems to me that not all the bias is on the side of those against conservation, the greenwashers and the pollyannas and so on. Probably a majority is, but not all of it is. I’ve seen a number of stories put out by conservation minded people over the years that were biased or distorted things in favor of conservation. For coral reefs, one of my pet peeves is that almost everyone in talking about the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, includes sea level rise as one of the bad things that climate change does to coral reefs. There is certainly some truth to it. It is well documented that on coasts where shallow reef flats have a heavy terrestrial sediment load, rising sea levels allows waves to move across shallow reefs and resuspend that sediment and drop it onto corals, making life harder for corals. Plus, soft terrestrial sediment on shores will be mobilized by those waves and deposited onto the corals. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes on Lanai island in Hawaii, and the best studied spot is on the south side of Molokai, Hawaii, both spots have amazing amounts of soil and mud washed down from pineapple fields that have nothing but bare dirt between the plants. So that is very real. But it’s only part of the story. Coastlines that don’t have that amount of terrestrial sediment, are places where increased water depth allows coral on shallow reef flats to grow upward more. It is called “accommodation space.” There are papers that document the effect, with increasing coral cover during periods with fewer low tides that kill coral that have grown too high on reef flats. So there is that flip side of the coin, increasing sea levels can help coral. But all I see is usually presented is the down side, not the up side. People know that global warming and climate change are bad, and then assume that everything they cause is bad. Simply not true. Increasing temperatures will be helpful to farmers at high latitudes. Less ice in the Arctic Ocean will mean that ships can go from Europe to Asia in a much shorter route, reducing travel time and saving on fuel. There are only a few such positive effects, they are the exception, but they do exist. But we don’t want to acknowledge those things, because we know (correctly!!) that the overall effect of global warming and climate change is and will be, very bad indeed. But the truth is that life is a bit more complicated, and we, as scientists, especially, need to not ignore or suppress facts that don’t fit with our views. The fact that global warming as a whole will have almost universally very nasty negative effects doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few, small, positive things. Our job as scientists is to do the best we can to reflect reality, not just our views. Which is quite contrary to what is happening in media, and has been happening for a long time, such as the spread of views about evolution by some religious groups, which is in heavy denial of reality, and was going on long before personal computers and the internet.
    So one of my recent arguments is that there is now hard evidence that some coral reefs are currently in better condition than most people think they are in. One of the best pieces of evidence is the AIMS monitoring data from the Great Barrier Reef. Check it out. It is data, not perceptions. Data is one of the ways we scientists try to avoid or minimize bias and get at what is reality, instead of just putting out opinions out all the time. Here it is: Scroll down to the graphs of percent live coral cover over time. Notice that both the Northern GBR and the Southern section, have had huge coral losses. Those losses were reported in multiple peer-reviewed scientific publications and news stories and appear to be beyond doubt. News stories were all over the media about it. “Half the corals on the GBR are dead” the headlines screamed. And it WAS true. But it is no longer. Notice,
    both the south and the north came roaring back, and now have as high coral cover as before the losses!! The death of the GBR has been greatly exaggerated (well, actually it WASN’T exaggerated, it was true. But it isn’t any longer.) And now what?? DEAD SILENCE. No one is celebrating in the slightest, no one is commenting, there are no news stories on it. Why??? Because it doesn’t fit with our idea (and it was mine as well!!!!) that “the reefs are dying.” Well, there is truth to that statement for SOME reefs. But NOT all reefs. I work around the Pacific, and I’ve seen a lot of reefs that are NOT dead. I’ve seen damage too. BOTH are true. Is that impossible to acknowledge, just because it doesn’t fit with our favorite idea?? People seem to be unwilling to acknowledge these facts, including scientists. There are plenty of people in the public who want to say that scientists are biased and not reporting the truth. If we don’t acknowledge the truth, we’re giving them ammunition, and the result will be the public even more divorced from reality. Being in denial of reality is dangerous for survival, just check out the people dying of Covid who deny that any such thing exists.
    So the next step in this saga is two recent publications which provide graphs of the world’s coral cover over time. We’ve never had that until now. I actually think few if any scientists would claim that all reefs are dead. And I hope there are none that say that no reefs have declined, because the evidence is overwhelming that there are a bunch of reefs that have declined severely and are functionally dead. I’ve seen some of those, like Jamaica. But the surprising, no astounding thing, is how little decline of world coral cover these two new graphs show. They’re based on 10’s of thousands of coral cover measurements from thousands of sources. Exactly how they were combined, and exactly what all data was included, is not immediately obvious, and the devil MAY well be in the details.
    So what are we to make of it?? Well, I think one problem is that our way of talking about these things is sloppy at times, and our thinking is sloppy. So everybody refers to the drivers of decline as “threats.” It doesn’t matter whether they are talking about 50 years in the future, or 50 years in the past, they use the same word. I think it would be clearer to talk about “threats” in the future only, since that is what “threats” literally means. And to talk about “impacts” in the past. In part, I think our sloppy thinking is that our view of what will happen in the future is based on what has happened in the past. That is not in itself a huge problem, but we seem to have gotten to the point where we think that in order to predict in the future that most of the world’s reefs will decline to ruin, we MUST say that all coral reefs have already declined greatly. But that is absurd. The future will NOT be the same as the past. There is mountains of evidence the future will be WORSE than the past. Because of what we humans are doing. People seem to think that showing that some reefs have NOT declined, even that the majority MAY not have declined (the two world graphs do not agree closely) pulls the rug out from under the prediction that we have much worse ahead. But isn’t it logical, that increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases are having a cumulative effects that will be much worse in the future than in the past?? Doesn’t it make sense that the destruction of coral reefs is at an earlier stage today, with really bad effects primarily in the Caribbean (and more so in the best studied reefs like Jamaica than other Caribbean reefs), and that the decline of reefs is going to spread and become commonplace and probably even universal in the FUTURE, but is not yet so?? Is it being polyannaish to acknowledge that there is hard evidence that not all coral reefs have lost most of their coral so far?? Is it a terrible thing to be glad that not all reefs are dead yet?? And isn’t that an independent thing, separate from what is going to happen in the future?? I argue that the terrible predictions of the future don’t depend on us closing our eyes to the reality that there are still reefs alive in this world.
    Mind you, mind you, that all this is about “live coral cover.” As many have correctly pointed out, “live coral cover” isn’t everything. You can have huge changes in community composition without live coral cover declining. Most of the monitoring data does not speak to coral community composition. That’s extra work, time, and funding to collect, and the funds have not been available. Plus coral species in the Indo-Pacific are very hard to ID, ID’s are uncertain, and the coral taxonomy is a MESS. There ARE some reports of big coral community changes, and we need more info before we assume that the only story is about coral cover.
    OK, one more about the future. And that is, some have had a deliberate strategy of not talking about the fact that if corals can adjust to higher temperatures, future coral declines might not be as bad as we have predicted. It is a hard fact that we know that corals can adjust at least some. One of the best pieces of evidence is that the threshold for bleaching depends heavily on whatever the average summer maximum is locally. The threshold temperature is not universal, it depends on local conditions. We don’t know whether the corals are changing within their lifetimes (acclimatization ) or over generations (adaptation = evolution) or both. Importantly, we don’t know how fast they can adapt or how much they can adapt. It is relatively easy to predict when sea surface temperatures in the future will exceed current bleaching and bleaching mortality thresholds. What we don’t know is how much those thresholds will increase over time. But it is clear that they WILL increase over time. Which makes future bleaching mortality harder to predict.
    I acknowledge that it may be that those who want to deny that reefs are in trouble may pounce on reports that reef decline has not been as bad as thought, and that future mortality might not be as bad as predicted. Actually, the fact that corals can adjust some has been around for quite a while, and I’ve seen no attempt to use that against conservation. Could be it has been used, but not widely enough that I’ve seen any evidence of it. And I think we scientists are in the evidence and truth business, and we have to follow where the evidence leads, the good, the bad, and the ugly, let the chips fall where they may. Further, I don’t think whether coral reefs are in trouble or not makes much difference to whether the world will take action on climate change. If they won’t do it because warming is threatening human lives and economies (which it is), then they are sure not going to do it because of coral reefs, people are far more concerned about their own survival and economies than they are about coral reefs.
    I’ll summarize saying that the known facts of decline of some coral reefs such as in the Caribbean but also elsewhere especially the Indian Ocean, are real and not in dispute. What has not been widely acknowledged is that the Great Barrier Reef has largely recovered from recent massive losses. And we now have reports that losses in other ocean areas are not as bad as the Caribbean, and maybe world coral losses are not nearly as bad as many of us have thought. But that is very separate from predictions of the future.
    Anyhow, that’s my 2 cents. I think it is important for us to acknowledge these things and debate them and try to develop even better information on the current and past status of corals, and predictions for the future, and keep the past and the future separate, they are two different things.

    1. Hi Doug, not sure what prompted this comment — the longest by far in the decade-long existence of this blog. Sorry I did not see it before now. I agree largely with what you are saying, thanks for contributing. Peter

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