Guest essay by Jim Steele
Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism
Great Barrier Reef With Exposed Coral at Low Tide
Being a Yankee I just recently became aware of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Media Watch (MW) and The Australian when I first attracted Hoegh-Guldberg and later MW’s wrath by posting my essay, The Coral Bleaching Debate: Is Bleaching the Legacy of a Marvelous Adaptation Mechanism or A Prelude to Extirpation?, to the blogosphere. The essay got widespread attention after being re-posted on Dr. Judith Curry and Watts Up With That’s websites. I garnered additional attention when The Australian’s Graham Lloyd posted a few excerpts from the essay as an alternative viewpoint. Oddly the subsequent discussions about coral resilience did not focus on coral biology and the emerging science my essay detailed, but instead Hoegh-Guldberg and MW chose to focus on “Jim Steele” the author. So let me first share my background.
I am a retired ecologist whose research on birds in California’s Sierra Nevada prompted the restoration of a watershed, which I proudly watched revive the vegetation and wildlife. My interests have always been broad, and as past Director of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, I developed a well-attended public environmental education program spanning various disciplines in biology, geology, astronomy and hydrology.
To advocate wise environmental stewardship and to better promote a more resilient environment, I have perused thousands of journal papers examining, analyzing and synthesizing the causes of ecological disruption and recovery, in particular the effect of landscape changes and regional climate change. The complex array of problems facing coral over the past million years had long captured my attention as I suspect it does for all ecologists. As with terrestrial systems, coral can be severely afflicted by local landscape changes and the effects of natural ocean oscillations. In contrast as recent research has shown, many reefs unaffected by human inhabitants now look the same as they did 1000 years ago. And that suggests most reef degradation is due to local factors.
I confess to having the bias of a terrestrial ecologist. I see hurricanes destroy large swaths of forest as well as large expanses of reefs. I see similar disruptions from ocean oscillations when dry La Nina conditions promote great swaths of destructive forest fires and El Nino events that cause wide spread coral bleaching. Despite specific differences, I see both ecosystems undergo similar recovery trajectories, often with a predictable succession of organisms. Large swaths of forest can lose 90% of their vegetation yet new vegetation soon appears as seeds long stored in the soil quickly germinate in the open landscape. Pine cones awaiting a fire, now spread their scales to drop their seeds. And buds that were safely sequestered deep within woody tissues quickly sprout. From an ecologists perspective it was no surprise to learn coral researchers are finding “cryptic polyps”, that like buried seeds, or sequestered buds, can quickly re-sheet a bleached coral colony.
Nor should it be surprising to learn bleached reefs due to tropical storms or El Niño’s would experience a succession of different organisms as they recovered. Bleached skeletons are typically first covered by “seaweeds”. Then as seaweed-eating fish multiply and prune back these fleshy algae, light-craving coral begin to slowly return to dominance. Some coral are fast growing like weedy species that first invade a burnt forest, while other coral are slow growing like forest species that inhabit a more stable environment. What was surprising to learn was severely bleached coral reefs can return to pre-bleaching status in less than 2 decades. This is a very rapid recovery compared to forests in the dry American west that often require a century or more to recover. However terrestrial ecologists would not claim that after a devastating forest fire, the trees are on the road to extinction. So claims that more resilient coral will soon go extinct from El Nino bleaching events appear a tad overly dramatic.
Furthermore knowing the Great Barrier Reef was left high and dry just 15,000 years ago when the Ice Age dropped sea level by 400 feet, and then returned to its present glory when sea level rose, made coral resilience a captivating nature story. In addition coral survived the Ice Age’s intense cold and then thrived in warmer waters 2 C warmer than today just 6000 years ago and 1 degree warmer just a thousand years ago. Such resilience to an ever-changing climate suggested scleractinian coral had evolved exquisite mechanisms of adaptation. And it soon became clear the secret to coral success was their symbiotic partners. As I researched the peer-reviewed literature, I became increasingly aware of the emerging science that coral can expel their symbionts which had once allowed them to thrive in a narrow set of conditions (resulting in bleaching) and then acquire new symbionts with different genes that allow them to thrive in a new set of conditions. By this symbiont shifting and shuffling, an increasing number of coral experts have suggested coral could rapidly adapt to climate change.
But such resilience is at odds with Australian coral researcher Hoegh-Guldberg who has made alarming claims that 95% of the world’s coral reefs would be gone by 2050. Coral resilience and adaptive bleaching, due to symbiont shifting, challenges Hoegh-Guldberg’s doom and gloom scenarios of slow adaptation. This debate over adaptive bleaching has been ongoing in the scientific literature since 1993 and has been somewhat divisive. So that this ongoing debate is hardly a contrivance of The Australian’s Graham Lloyd, as MW falsely tried to suggest.
Furthermore that debate had rarely, if ever, been brought to the public’s attention until I posted my essay The Coral Bleaching Debate: Is Bleaching the Legacy of a Marvelous Adaptation Mechanism or A Prelude to Extirpation?. After Graham Lloyd quoted a few excerpts in an article for The Australian, Great barrier battleground over coral bleaching, Hoegh-Guldberg and MW launched a campaign to characterize me as a fringe scientist and then attack Lloyd as “muddying the waters” with fringe science. But closer examinations reveal it was Hoegh-Guldberg and MW who were slinging the mud.
Hoegh-Guldberg has long attacked the adaptive bleaching hypothesis in the scientific literature. But he now had a new problem. How to discredit this emerging science of coral resilience without attracting too much attention within a more public arena. My essay contained too many facts and evidence about coral resilience that the public might embrace. So to defend his more alarmist stance, Hoegh-Guldberg engaged in a flimflam that worked like this:
Seek the public’s trust by emphasizing he is the coral expert and suggest Jim Steele is just a fringe scientist. Never discuss or debate any contrary scientific evidence as that only gives credence to alternative explanations. Then quietly step outside the arena of honest scientific discussion, and unscientifically attack the “arguers instead of the arguments”. Finally discredit any journalist who brings public attention to this debate by accusing them of only advocating “fringe science”. As discussed before attacking the arguer was one of Carl Sagan’s key science baloney alerts, and every critical thinker should dismiss such tactics. But discrediting the arguer and avoiding the arguments has always been the preferred and a successful tactic of dirty politics. So Hoegh-Guldberg and MW eschewed mainstream science ethics and chose a more expedient political tactic.
Hoegh-Guldberg initially executed his flimflam on a blog and never once discussed the science I presented. Instead he tries to demean “Jim Steele” as just being a “bird enthusiast”. And then by extension asks who would honestly quote a mere bird enthusiast about coral. But the answer was simple. I was the only scientist who had published an essay that synthesized the latest peer-reviewed mainstream science about coral resilience engendered by shuffling and shifting symbionts. And more importantly I had presented it in away the public could understand. Hoegh-Guldberg and MW apparently did not want the public to entertain such optimistic viewpoints.
Grahm Lloyd was attacked for simply reporting, “But Jim Steele, from San Francisco State University, puts a counter view, arguing the ability of corals to rapidly adjust to changing environments by modifying their symbiotic partnerships has been the key to their success for millions of years.
Steele argues bleaching, whether or not it results in coral mortality, “is part of a natural selection process from which better-adapted populations can emerge”.
“In contrast to researchers like Hoegh-Guldberg who emphasizes coral bleaching as a deadly product of global warming, bleaching is a visible stage in a complex set of acclimation mechanisms during which coral expel, shift and shuffle their symbionts, seeking the most beneficial partnership possible,” Steele says.”
To be clear, I do not suggest that symbiont shifting and shuffling will cure every coral problem. It merely has allowed coral to adapt to changing climates that were warmer and colder than today. It does not protect coral from tropical storms. It offers little protection from being smothered by sediments due to landscape changes. It cannot protect coral from predaceous starfish whose populations exploded due human pollution. Mainstream coral science has reported that 80% or more of coral mortality is due to storms and Crown of Thorns starfish. Bleaching causes only 5 to 10% of coral mortality and despite periodic bleaching, coral have evolved resilience to millennia of ever-changing climates. That Hoegh-Guldberg and MW avoid discussing this emerging science or coral resilience is telling.
I was contacted by one of MW’s “crack scientific investigators” Flint Duxfield. Duxfield emailed me asking for an interview explaining that they were investigating an Australian article by Graham Lloyd and Lloyd had quoted excerpts from my essay. I mistakenly thought Flint was sincerely interested in my side of the debate and uncovering the broader truths. But Flint never questioned any of the facts I had synthesized from peer-reviewed papers by coral experts. Instead Flint stated, “There have been some questions raised about your expertise.”
If you want to evaluate the expertise of a chef, as the saying goes, the “proof is in the pudding.” I knew my facts were quite accurate and welcomed Media Watch’s interview and any efforts to check my facts. Such a fact check would determine my level of expertise. Furthermore I did not want the public to be misled if I had made any mistakes. But it soon became abundantly clear MW was not interested in my “scientific pudding”. They hadn’t even bothered to “taste” it. MW was on a mission to persuade the public not to listen to any facts offered by Lloyd or myself.
I first asked Flint, “Are you a biologist”. He replied, “No!”
I asked, “Did you read my essay?” Flint again said, “No!”
Hmmmm. I now had to question Media Watch’s intentions. How could they evaluate the validity of my essay and expertise if they had never read the essay? Do they claim to be clairvoyants? Or was there another more sinister agenda?
As the interview progressed it was clear that Media Watch only wanted to do a hatchet job on Graham Lloyd, and to do so, they ignored, or perhaps failed to grasp, all my well-researched science, trying only to paint me as an untrustworthy fringe scientist. Flint harped on issues like did Lloyd get your permission to quote you. Or are you retired, Lloyd failed to say.
Flint asked if I was a coral expert. I said that depends on your definition. I have not carried out experiments on coral or monitored changes in coral cover or reef biodiversity. So in that sense I am certainly not an expert. But I am an expert biologist and my expertise in coral biology could be likened to an expert historian. I had perused, analyzed and synthesized hundreds of papers written by coral experts. You judge the expertise of historians by how well they assemble the facts and evidence. So please read my essay. Ask the other experts if had had my facts straight.
I asked Flint if he was aware of the benefits of shuffling and shifting coral symbionts. Again he pleaded ignorance but said Dr. Ruth Gates claimed adaptive bleaching had been disproven. I replied that was an abject lie as evidenced by increasingly published research that supports the adaptive bleaching hypothesis. It is not yet a proven hypothesis but no one has refuted it. When I asked what did Dr. Gates say exactly, Flint backed down saying he didn’t know, but it was written down somewhere. I don’t know if Gates was lying or Flint was bumbling.
One of the earlier predictions of the adaptive bleaching hypothesis stated that a multitude of various symbionts with diverse physiological responses would be discovered. That prediction has been confirmed and Gates has co-authored several papers characterizing some of these newly discovered symbionts. Gate’s research has also explored “assisted evolution” that seeks in part, ways to modify the community of coral symbionts and accelerate acclimation by artificially encouraging symbiont shifting.
In the 2015 paper Gates co-authored, Building Coral Reef Resilience Through Assisted Evolution she wrote, “Exposure to nonlethal light or temperature stress is common on reefs; in natural populations and experimental settings, such conditions have sometimes resulted in enhanced tolerance to coral bleaching (the breakdown of the obligate coral-Symbiodinium symbiosis in response to stress) during subsequent thermal stress events. This process of within-generation acclimatization is achieved by changes in the taxonomic composition [i.e. Symbiont shuffling and shifting] of the algal endosymbiont communities found in corals and/or processes likely involving epigenetic modification.” [my bold]
Knowing Duxfield was interviewing Gates, I felt certain she could confirm that my essay’s assertions about coral acclimatization via symbiont shifting cannot be dismissed as “fringe science”. But I was horrified by MW’s avoidance of the science, choosing instead to amplify Hoegh-Guldberg’s flimflam and belittle my abilities. MW’s concluding “damnation” of Lloyd was he failed to tell his audience I was not a coral expert but just a “bird expert”.
Media Watch’s presentation was titled “Muddying the waters on the Great Barrier Reef” and narrated by Paul Barry. Barry is a talking head whose expertise is mostly in economics, and he too has no expertise in science or biology or coral. Barry is not even a bird enthusiast.
Barry would ask and then reply to his own questions,
“So, is he [Jim Steele] regarded as an expert on coral? Answer, No.”
“Is he known to be an expert on oceans? No, again.”
“So is he a famous climate scientist? No he is not.”
Then Barry prepares the audience for the fruits of MW’s “astute and rigorous investigative reporting” that we would expect from such a devoted watchdog organization stating,
“so we asked Professor Gates about him.”
Gates reply, “I don’t know who this person is….”
That was it! I was flabbergasted! That was all MW asked? Did it matter if Gates knew me? Why was there never a discussion about whether or not I had accurately relayed information on symbiont shuffling and shifting! Why never a question if I had my facts straight. I became quite concerned for the Australian populace. If Media Watch was their watchdog, the fox is guarding the hen house.
In my essay I also reported Hoegh-Guldberg had a history of denying the enhanced tolerance acquired by symbiont shifting. He had a history of exaggeration and circular reasoning that had led other coral experts to accuse him of “popularizing worst case scenarios”, while others have accused him of persistently misunderstanding and misrepresenting the adaptive bleaching hypothesis. While Hoegh-Guldberg falsely argues there is no evidence for increased resilience due to symbiont shifting and shuffling, other researchers state, “flexibility in coral–algal symbiosis is likely to be a principal factor underlying the evolutionary success of these organisms”.
So I was eager to read how Hoegh-Guldberg countered those criticisms in a riveting MW interview. A famous coral expert like him should easily provide counter examples if this mere “bird enthusiast” was ill-informed. But he never refuted a word. Instead he chose to accuse Lloyd of “taking a sniff of there being something different to the scientific perspective and promoting it as a widely held belief. It’s scandalous.” But Hoegh-Guldberg mistakenly equates his perspective the “scientific” perspective. His is just one of many. One would think that MW’s investigative reporting might ask Hoegh-Guldberg why Gates and the other coral experts whose work I referenced, were finding enhanced tolerance of coral bleaching due to symbiont shifting and shuffling. There is more than a sniff of contrasting viewpoints. But MW investigated no further.
But instead as the final “evidence” of my supposed untrustworthiness, MW notes I am a climate skeptic who wrote the book “Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism”. They don’t tell the public I wrote the book due to the same concerns I had for Sierran meadows as I have for coral reefs. The obsession with blaming everything on global warming has misdirected our funding and research efforts away from real local problems that we can address and correct. It wastes funds on worthless remedies. Gates’ call to ban coal mining will never correct the injuries to coral from landscape changes, pollution and dynamite fishing.
Clearly Media Watch was trying to suppress a public discussion about the varying scientific opinions that divide the coral research community. Of course all researchers are concerned about coral as indeed I am. Researchers have long been concerned about bleaching at least since they launched the Great Barrier Reef expedition of 1928-29 and focused on warm weather coral bleaching. But it is local problems we must address.
There is a subset of scientists whose forte is synthesizing diverse data sets and research, evaluating contradictions and assumptions. Historically these synthesizers play an important role in scientific progress as they often see the forest through the trees. The iconic example is Watson and Crick. Initially they did not even know that the adenine and thymine bases were proportional in a genome. Nor did they recognize that Pauling’s failed model was due to an elementary chemistry mistake. Perhaps this was because Watson was also an avid bird enthusiast. Yet their view from the “fringe” allowed a synthesis of all the various avenues of research and that resulted in arguably the greatest discovery of our time, the structure of DNA.
I would suggest that Hoegh-Guldberg and Media Watch embrace the advice of another “bird enthusiast” and theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. He advised Caltech graduates, “you should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist. . . . I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”
In contrast Hoegh-Guldberg and Media Watch have eschewed that integrity. Instead of promoting a scientific discussion of alternative explanations that is accessible to the public, they have tried to suppress discussion and obscure any evidence that contradicts their tenuous claims. Even a bird-brain can see they do a great disservice to the scientific process. But Hoegh-Guldberg’s persistent efforts to discredit the adaptive benefits of symbiont shifting and shuffling, serve as blatant example of why Feynman also argued “Science is the belief in the Ignorance of Experts.”
Jim Steele is author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism