Proof is boring: land the plane.

The good doctor sat back down next to me, brow furrowed. “There’s not much I can do” – she whispered as she shuffled back into her seat. We were on a flight to Cairns, Australia, and she had just returned from attending a passenger who was ill. Seriously ill. In fact, the passenger was dying.

But the plane wasn’t going to land – because as the good doctor surmised – “if he’s going to die, he’ll do so whether we’re on the ground or in the air”.

So we kept on flying though the night. Rows of human bodies, covered in standard issue BA blankets and cocooned in our air-borne tube above the cloud – with one poor soul desperately struggling with life and death.

But nobody cared. Nobody cared, because apart from a select few, nobody knew.

And at some points in Cairns this week, at the international gathering of the world’s most preeminent experts on coral science – this situation struck me as an analogy for the way the world is dealing with the issue of climate change.

A coral calling

2,800 marine biologists from 80 countries had converged in Cairns, a coastal city in Oz for the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium (#icrs2012). In case you’re not down with the science – coral reefs are rapidly degrading (as elegantly shown by Terry Hughes’ opening address slides’ here). This is due to a catalogue of human errors, but climate change is proving particularly destructive.

EXPLANATION: SKIP IF NOT INTERESTED. Rising levels of greenhouse gases mean that more carbon dioxide is dissolving in the oceans, which in turn is resulting in warmer, more acidic oceans. Corals – calcareous creatures – are unable to grow and renew in such conditions, and are unable to keep up with the pace of change driven by humans’ carbon addiction. AND ITS OVER.

So coral scientists are sad. Indeed, they’re so sad that they’ve rung the changes by issuing a Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs. Clearly defined by Bob Richardson (President of the ISRS) as “a medical prescription for the world’s coral reefs” and “not a political statement”, the position documents solid agreement from a group of non-partisan, credible experts adds to the proof of climate change. Which from scientists, is what we need.

But to address the issue of climate change – to solve the problem and make a change – we need more.

Because proof is boring. 

This dawned on me as I sat through an assemblage of symposium scientists who felt the need to explain why they believed that climate change was happening (for a good 25% of their presentation), before getting onto the meat of what they were doing, what they had found, or what they were proposing.

Before I go on, I should point out that I like these people – I agree with their views – to all intents and purposes – I’m one of them. But this truly was a case of preaching to the converted. Everyone in that room agreed with the idea that climate change is already happening; coral scientists who don’t would be denying the evidence of their life’s work.

Yet the depressing data, gloomy graphs and stats of woe were reeled out over and over again. Even some of the scientists, who issued a call “to avoid the doom and gloom” – then started delving into the very same content. The effect was awful. I got goosebumps. My boss got cross. And everyone came out, shaking their heads in an owlish way, shrugging and resigned.

Landing the Plane

While its ok for the academic elite to stick to writing prescriptions – the rest of us need to escape the role of the “select few” in that plane on its way to Australia, overwhelmed by the thought that “there’s nothing we can do anyway”. We need to wake everyone up – start shaking those sleeping bodies – pulling off the blankets, disconnecting the ear phones and lobbying the pilot to land the plane. The sick man needs to be treated properly. Sure – he may well deteriorate, or even die anyway. But he’s got a hope.

I work for a charity called SeaWeb, which did an incredible job in pulling out the stories of the coral reef science gathering and feeding them to the world’s press. The 5 man team managed to achieve 3000 pieces of media coverage – indeed you may have read some such articles over the past week. And its because they told stories – they crafted them from the science, from the abstracts into tales of meaning, of relevance and interest.

And I think this is something our entire movement needs to imitate – engaging the public in a positive, constructive and instructive way

So this is my request to leave behind the nasty charts and the scary stats that makes us feel sick and without power. Instead let us tell stories about people and their families, to illustrate the science so that the whole world can know what’s going on. And then let us build on this engagement. Let us look for solutions to problems we’re encountering already, and to those we can see approaching on our horizon. Let us even look for opportunities within the change. Let us embrace our future. It may not be as blue as we want, it may not be as green. But it’s the one we’ve got – so lets stop fretting and get on with making it work.

If you’ve got any ideas about how we can do this proactively, I’d be really interested to hear from you. Please email me at .


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