Is climate change less damaging to reefs than we thought?

The confusion whirlpooled as soon as headlines started to spin a 300-page report into one-liners.

  •  “Climate Change Isn’t Main Culprit in Decline of Coral Reefs” wrote the Caribbean Journal.
  •  “Climate change ‘not wholly to blame’ for reef death in the Caribbean” opined The Times of London.
  • “Climate change wrongly blamed as lead cause of loss of Caribbean coral reefs, scientist says,” was the headline in The Australian.

After the release in early July of the most comprehensive report of its kind, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, reporters tried to make it digestible for their readers. Editors also choose which parts to emphasize in their headlines.

Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.
Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.

The headlines are technically accurate, because the report does state that climate change appears less statistically important than other factors in the decline of Caribbean reefs. The problem is that many readers do not get past the headline, and they may jump to the conclusion that climate change is not relevant.

The better headlines, in my opinion as a journalist and a reader, are those that emphasize the countdown of “20 years” to annihilation.

Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost within 20 years’ without protection” wrote The Guardian. Its subtitle was also effective: “Major report warns that loss of grazing fish due to pollution and overfishing is a key driver of region’s coral decline.” This article is the one to read, and it reinforces my view of this newspaper’s environmental coverage as far superior to the New York Times or any other U.S.-based news agency.

In fact, the New York Times did not even cover the seminal report. In 2013, this so-called newspaper of record closed its environmental desk.

My award for the worst headline goes to Time magazine: “Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs.”

The worst soundbites and headlines were fostered by the report’s own public relation’s campaign to brand it as “From despair to repair.” It rhymes, but it has little reason. The report’s publisher, the IUCN, also released a cute video of the lead author discussing romance. What?

I understand the drive to put a smiley face on everything. Cute things make people smile.


Breast cancer advocates were smart to brand this scourge with the color pink. Nobody wants to wear a t-shirt that shows accurate depictions of cancer cells. But people must understand the deadly reality behind the prettiness in pink.

The public does not yet comprehend the seriousness of coral reef decline or even general environmental decline, as evidenced by the lack of public engagement. For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the issue of climate change was not raised in any official debate.

People demonstrate great concern for cancer because they see it, and they get it. Until people see and get the collapse of the ocean environment, editors and reporters need to portray it in very raw and ugly terms.

As for the report’s perspective on climate change, the article in The Guardian summarizes it well: “While climate change and the resulting ocean acidification and coral bleaching does pose a major threat to the region, the report – Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 – found that local pressures such as tourism, overfishing and pollution posed the biggest problems.”

It’s the people, stupid.



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