Mass Global Coral Bleaching Wasn’t A Thing 30 Years Ago -- Until Exxon Made It A Thing

Exxon’s executives and their allies robbed us of a generation’s worth of action on climate.
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On my train ride home last week, as I got off a call with my colleague about our campaign around coral reef bleaching, the woman sitting next to me turned and asked, “so remind me how long you activists have been telling us that all the coral is bleaching?” She then completed her dig with a roll of the eyes.

She’s right - coral bleaching has been news a lot lately, as it was last year, and as it was practically every year before that for the last 20 or so years. Heck, I grew up thinking that it’s normal for mass coral bleaching events to take place every few years. But it turns out it’s actually not normal. A little delving into historical records shows that prior to the 1980s there were no signs of any global coral bleaching events for the past ten thousand years, and probably much longer. Just let that sink in. It’s only in the last 30 years that global coral reef bleaching has become a thing.

Dead coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Dead coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Speaking of 30 years, I’m 31 and it takes about that many years worth of data to be able to see trends rather than just anecdotes of climatic change. When you plot the warming of the oceans and global coral reef bleaching events across the timeline of my life, the trendline is devastatingly obvious - as this graphic from XL Catlin Seaview Survey demonstrates.

XL Catlin Seaview Survey

What that graph looks like in the real world is distressing to say the least. As Laurie Raymundo, a marine scientist from Guam explained last month:

“I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science. But sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I’ve been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying.”

That isn’t just a Guam experience - nearly every other part of the world with coral reefs has been going through the same thing in the past two years, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Andaman Islands of the Indian Ocean. What were once bright colorful coral reefs full of life have turned bleached white then murky brown as they’ve died and become covered in algae. Reefs support approximately 25% of all marine species. A massive coral die-off risks the livelihoods of 500 million people and goods and services worth $375 billion each year. All this is at risk as the oceans continue to warm and acidify.

That’s where the story about coral reefs tends to end in the media. But what if the coral reefs didn’t just die, but were killed? And what if their death could have been prevented, but such efforts were thwarted by a carefully considered plan to deceive the public and discredit the people who know most about coral reefs and climate change (you know, people like scientists)?

There is striking evidence now that there was such a plan, and it was concocted by a corporation so big it is the 8th biggest revenue earner in the world: Exxon. Internal documents and interviews with former staff members show that from the late 1970s until early 1980s, Exxon carried out extensive research to understand the scope of the global impact from rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and oceans, including spending more than a million dollars on fitting out an oil tanker with research equipment. They undertook research that few others were doing at this time. They wanted to be seen as taking a lead on the scientific understanding of the issue.

A summary of Exxon’s research was presented to management by its environmental affairs office. In the briefing, the company highlighted that preventing global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” If business as usual continued, the briefing suggests that “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered...Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

For those high up in Exxon’s management, the research highlighting that the increased use of fossil fuels would spell disaster was too dangerous to continue. The mid to late 1980s became a turning point for Exxon, and consequently for the world’s coral reefs, as it moved rapidly from an embrace of climate science to establishing the architecture of climate change denial as a means to protect its profits. Through lobby groups like the Global Climate Coalition, Exxon helped to bring together a powerful alliance of corporations who proceeded to actively deceive the public into mistrusting scientists and the basic laws of physics that explain climate change.

This created a perception that the scientific evidence was no longer certain or worth paying attention to. The strategy worked. At its peak the Global Climate Coalition was amongst the most powerful influencers of the UN climate talks. What should have been a short and effective decade or so of international climate negotiations starting in the early 1990s has turned into a rambling, highly contested process now well into its third decade.

Exxon’s executives and their allies robbed us of a generation’s worth of action on climate — engaging in what could be the worst corporate crime in history. To this day, Exxon is still helping to fund an extensive web of climate denial.

Yesteday a reply came in to an email I sent to supporters about Exxon’s role in causing coral reef bleaching. The supporter was short and to the point: “Nice try blaming Exxon, but we all use fossil fuels, we’re all guilty.” It reminded me of the lady on the train - both attitudes are the fruits of Exxon’s strategy of denial and uncertainty. Exxon seeded the culture of questioning and discrediting action on climate change as alarmist, and the mentality that even if humans are causing climate change, no one is to blame because we’re all to blame. We’ve been well and truly Exxoned, and it has cost us the reefs, and the many livelihoods that depend on those reefs.

Dead coral reef surrounding the Andaman Islands, Indian Ocean
Dead coral reef surrounding the Andaman Islands, Indian Ocean

If the executives of Exxon and its allies had acted responsibly when I was a child and played a constructive role in addressing climate change, then we wouldn’t be facing the litany of destruction from climate change that is gripping the world. From the death of coral reefs, to the rampant flooding in China and Louisiana, USA, the expanding boundaries of wildfires in Australia, Russia, Canada and USA, more deadly drought and heatwaves in India and the Horn of Africa, to leaving ski fields in New Zealand without snow, climate change is at our doorstep, and pushing in the door.

Exxon and its allies have well and truly left their mark on the world. They need to be held accountable. If we can shine a light on this most costly of corporate crimes, we’ll be one step closer to dismantling the power of an industry that’s still recklessly ― and knowingly ― driving the climate crisis.

As for the woman on the train, as her stop neared she rose to leave but then looked back to me, pausing in thought before saying, “I’m supportive of what you do, thank you.”

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