Last week, Outside Magazine published an “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef,” pronouncing the world’s largest coral reef system officially dead. This clickbait headline, designed to draw attention to the disastrous bleaching event that wiped out 22 percent of the reef this year – according to a survey from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority – instead created widespread social media panic, as many people mistook the somewhat sarcastic article for an actual death sentence.
This article was quickly deemed false by journalists and scientists, who also took to Twitter to express their frustration. By that point, the obituary had already gone viral, but within a few days, a number of news sites had published follow-up pieces that all followed the same general storyline: the reef is hurting, and it may be dying, but it’s not dead…yet.
“Dead and dying are two very different things,” wrote Chris D’Angelo in an article for The Huffington Post.
Disaster-scenario coverage of climate change issues isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s something we’ve been seeing more and more frequently as conditions continue to change. Just last month, scientists reported that we’d passed the 400 parts per million threshold for atmospheric carbon dioxide, prompting several news sites to publish articles claiming our impending doom. “Goodbye World: We’ve Passed the Carbon Tipping Point for Good,” screamed one headline from Motherboard.
This type of reporting is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, using a dramatic headline to get readers’ attention draws attention away from the complex science of the issue. In this case, it’s important to understand the factors that cause coral bleaching to happen: namely, warming ocean temperatures that stress corals and lead them to expel the algae that live and thrive in their tissues, which also help the corals stay healthy. This doesn’t kill the corals, but it does put them under additional stress.
“The reef is no longer as resilient as it once was, and it’s struggling to cope with three bleaching events in just 18 years,” said coral researcher John Pandolfi from ARC Center for Coral Reef Excellence at the University of Queensland in an interview with CNN.
Scientists around the world are researching the effects of bleaching. They’re also studying what ecosystem properties might allow some corals to be more resilient to bleaching events, and whether these factors can be applied to the broader coral population. Writing an obituary for the reef inaccurately discredits the numerous researchers – including those who published the survey on the Great Barrier Reef early this year – who are working to save the corals’ lives.
This sort of all-or-nothing viewpoint also allows people to believe that if we’ve already passed the threshold where the effects of climate change can be reversed, then we may as well not worry about it anymore. This line of thinking can be particularly dangerous, especially since now is such a critical time to act.
“From what we know about the psychology of listening to these kinds of messages, we tend to tune out when the bad news gets too overwhelming,” wrote Amelia Urry in a piece for Grist. “To get people engaged in solving problems, you have to focus on what can be done to help.”
Talking about problems and solutions in the same sentence isn’t easy, but it is essential if we want to stimulate collective action on climate change. Unfortunately, the obituary from Outside Magazine, along with other disaster-scenario reporting on climate change, does just the opposite of that.
“You don’t write the obituary of a loved one when they are diagnosed with a serious illness — you help them fight for their life,” said Terry Hughes, also from the ARC Center, in an interview with Grist.
When it comes to saving the reef’s life, sharing an inaccurate “obituary” on Facebook doesn’t count. Educating yourself and taking action on environmental issues does.