#76: Save the Corals, Save the World (transcript)
Brian Kennedy: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn Emmett: My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian Kennedy: You wish. Hey Brian.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah. This is the podcast where we dive into a specific topic or question affecting everyone on this planet right now or in the next 10 years or so. If it can kill us or turn us into the Andromeda Strain, we are in.
Quinn Emmett: Our guests are scientists, doctors, engineers, politicians, astronauts, even had a reverend and we worked together toward action steps our listeners can take with their voice, their vote, their dollar and I'm increasingly feeling like in some vigilante way, with ... like Batman's belt with all the things he has.
Brian Kennedy: Cool.
Quinn Emmett: Maybe that should be the fourth thing. Voice, vote, dollar and batwing.
Brian Kennedy: Batwing. Yep. This is your friendly reminder that you can send questions, thoughts, feedback, drawings to us on Twitter at Importantnotimp, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join thousands of other smart people and subscribe to our free weekly newsletter at importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn Emmett: This week's episode is delightful. We're talking about snorkeling. It's so fun, and how what you see when you snorkel, or I guess in this case specifically what you don't see anymore means we're going to die.
Brian Kennedy: Great. This is going to get everybody to want to listen.
Quinn Emmett: No, it's really great. It's really delightful. Our guest is Dr. Kim Cobb.
Brian Kennedy: She was wonderful.
Quinn Emmett: Delightful, so impassioned and ... using all of her immense capabilities to sway folks like us and listeners out there and also the people who are in charge for better or worse, on the corporate level, on the market level and elected officials in government to take some fucking action so the ocean gets fixed I guess is the best way to put it.
Brian Kennedy: Gets fixed?
Quinn Emmett: Yep. That's where we are. 76 episodes and that's what I've got it down to.
Brian Kennedy: Yep. It's a great one. You should listen to it right now.
Quinn Emmett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Think about how much the idea of snorkeling makes you happy and then listen to this. Go to your happy place and then let us ruin it. All right, let's go talk to Dr. Cobb.
Brian Kennedy: Let's go Dr. Cobb.
Quinn Emmett: Our guest today is Dr. Kim Cob and together we're going to discuss Save the Corals, Save the World. Dr. Cobb, welcome.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Thanks for having me.
Quinn Emmett: For sure. Of course.
Brian Kennedy: Very excited and appreciative. Thank you. Could we ... Let's just get started if you don't mind doctor by telling everybody who you are and what you do.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah. I am a professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech and I specialize in climate change and specifically how the extremes of climate change are changing in the ocean with anthropogenic greenhouse gases and also how the past variations before we started emitting greenhouse gases, what their statistics were like and basically how that whole climate change phenomemon is changing the structure of these extremes.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's my obsession and I work in the deep tropics at sights in the middle of the pacific ocean and then deep in the rainforest of Borneo and so that keeps me going, keeps me crazy.
Quinn Emmett: That sounds just like our office in Studio City, California.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, same thing.
Quinn Emmett: Very similar. Brian, just because Dr. Cobb is here to talk about her obsessions, doesn't mean you get to talk about yours. That is a different podcast, different conversation.
Brian Kennedy: Okay. I was just about to start, so thank you.
Quinn Emmett: If you could not, that would be fantastic.
Brian Kennedy: No problem, different podcast.
Quinn Emmett: Okay, let's go.
Brian Kennedy: We said it before we started recoding, but what we'll do here to get us going is provide some context for our topic today with you doctor and dig into some action oriented questions that get to the heart of why we should get a shit about it and what you do and what we can all help to do about it and support you. Does that sound good?
Dr. Kim Cobb: That sounds awesome, thank you for that.
Brian Kennedy: We're happy to do it.
Quinn Emmett: We'll see. We've got to bring it home here. Dr. Cobb, we do like to start with one important question to set the tone for our conversation here today. Instead of saying tell us your entire life story, we like to ask, Dr. Kim Cobb, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Dr. Kim Cobb: I already gave birth to four people, so I've already done some of my part [crosstalk 00:04:55].
Quinn Emmett: It's enough!
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, that's already something. Aside from that, outside contribution to our future as a species, I would like to think that I am somebody who is really looking into the future of climate change impacts and with increasing urgency and somewhat degree of desperation trying to sound alarm bells, get people prepared, accelerate community action to protect themselves and ultimately yell and scream about reducing emissions so that we don't have to face the worst effects of climate change.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I'm trying to turn the needle here to the other side of the equation and really bring down these risks for humanity at large. I wake up everyday thinking about that. I'm not sure how much progress I make, but I figured it's a worthy goal.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, I feel like if there were a worthy goal, that would be it and we thank you for what you're doing and I'm curious, because it is such a grounded but ambitious and powerful mission, I'm curious, again without getting too much into your industry because I want to get into what you're working on, is there a specific relationship you could point to that was a catalyst for your endeavors and actions to get you to where you are today, to make you do what you do?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, I'm basically a classically trained climate scientist and that's where I thought I'd spend the rest of my life while policy makers digested those facts and acted accordingly to get the kind of policies we need in place, driven by those data sets. That's what I thought I would ... that's where I thought I would be right now, and instead I find myself in a place where science is broadly attacked, where the facts of the body of work that I have contributed to are denied on a regular basis by the most powerful people in the world and this is not what I would prefer to be doing, but yet this is increasingly what those of us who are trained in this field are challenged to do, which is stand up and defend our work and defend these facts and yell and scream until they enact the kinds of data driven policies that will keep communities safe.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's really where we find ourselves and it's been the last two years that I've been challenging myself to redeploy my skillsets from classical training in climate science in more applied work, thinking about how I could really help communities that are ... A whole variety of different scales move their needles to protect themselves and help us accelerate our transition to a low carbon future.
Dr. Kim Cobb: It's not an easy process, but I feel it is extremely rewarding and it's one that I find a huge community in service to that goal as scientists. Again, a massive redeployment here and it's fun to be a part of.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, it feels fun a lot of the time. A lot of the times it can feel very sad. Brian and I are definitely not classically trained climate scientists.
Brian Kennedy: Speak for yourself.
Quinn Emmett: Okay. Like I said, we don't need to get into it. I've spoken about this before, we got a comment once from an iTunes review, which are across the board five stars, one gentleman gave us three because he said it felt like we were doing what was called virtue signaling, which Brian then explained to me is basically saying things for the sake of being seen as saying them I guess, or becoming some sort of ... trying to become known about it in some way. I don't know, I'm not explaining it well.
Quinn Emmett: My retort to that is I think, like you said when you said you don't totally want to be doing this specific part of the job, I would love to not have this podcast and to not have to be doing the same similar version of that, which is bringing all of these voices and issues to light because we're not paying attention to them and because they're already devastating in so many different ways. I would love to not be involved in it in some way as much as I am enjoying it and learning so much from it and being inspired by so many folks out there that are doing it. It doesn't exactly lift me up a lot of days, but anyways.
Quinn Emmett: A little topic for what we're going to get into today. Doctor, sometimes this is super technical, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's more perspective. What we try to do is, many of our listeners are driving on scooters right now, so they can't exactly Wikipedia this stuff themselves. We try to dial it down to lowest common denominator for our audience.
Dr. Kim Cobb: The scooter riders.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, exactly. Who, 100% are not wearing helmets by the way.
Brian Kennedy: No, and they're riding on sidewalks. It's a nightmare.
Quinn Emmett: They're not allowed to ride on the sidewalks.
Brian Kennedy: It's been written very clearly.
Quinn Emmett: The point is ...
Dr. Kim Cobb: [inaudible 00:10:01] the scooter people as a fellow biker, so got to shout out to the scooter folks. We are of the same family. We need to work together.
Brian Kennedy: I love them.
Quinn Emmett: We couldn't be bigger ... Cars got to get out of here.
Brian Kennedy: Super supportive.
Quinn Emmett: [crosstalk 00:10:16]. Boats and bikes, that's it. Just protect yourself.
Brian Kennedy: Literally. It's not good.
Quinn Emmett: The point is, what we try to do here is meet our listeners where they are so we can get all on the same page because people have a hard time acting without real context, right? I want to frame this the right way, I think I understand, and again please, please do not take this as an insult to your life's work ... Why even our listeners don't understand the implications of something like coral reef bleaching or corals dying off entirely or The Great Barrier Reef going bye bye.
Quinn Emmett: It's not that they can't imagine it, right? They can see it. It's 2019. I can see a live cam of The Great Barrier Reef right now if I wanted to. We can see pictures and we can see timeline photos just like they show the ones of glaciers that have melted away.
Quinn Emmett: It's the same thing with all the many, many, many insect species we've taken down and are reported. Of course it's terrible, but it's hard to really conceive of one, I guess because people don't go outside anymore and two, because people, even our listeners, generally don't understand why insects are important or which ones eat the other ones and why. The ocean has it even worse.
Quinn Emmett: We read these massively damning reports about how the ocean has been, turns out, saving our ass for 100 years now absorbing something like, please correct me if I'm wrong, like 90% of the carbon we've been spitting out, retaining all of this heat that would otherwise be in the air.
Quinn Emmett: People aren't in the ocean, despite so much of humanity living on the coasts around the world, and if they were, if they understood and appreciated it, we wouldn't be dumping so much shit into it or shaking our heads at articles like those and then going back to avocado toast. Coral reefs are incredible and beautiful and at times nearly alien looking and they are one of the most magnificent features of planet earth, so people see them get bleached and think that's awful, maybe we won't go to Anguilla next year.
Quinn Emmett: After everything we've talked about on this show and the people we've talked to and hearing from the listeners, I feel like sometimes the primary reason why they're not moving mountains to save coral reefs or to understand why they're the tip of the sword is got to at least be in part because in so many ways, shit is very bad up here on land, right in their face all the time. Top down.
Quinn Emmett: Coral reefs are right down towards the bottom of their list to fix. We can't just for instance, switch to paper straws to save them and then feel better about ourselves. But, that's why we're here today. So, I want to help folks understand what it means that the coral reefs are bleaching and dying off, what it means what that occurs. What the reefs are leading indicators for. Keeping in mind everything I just mentioned, primarily that again folks, it turns out, and we'll link to it in the show notes, oceans have been our firewall against truly massive climate effects and that firewall is now breaking down.
Quinn Emmett: I want to dig into this doctor. Save the corals, save the world. To get everyone literally on the same page, let's take this way back to square one. Doctor Cobb, what is a coral reef?
Dr. Kim Cobb: A coral reef is a big pile of living organisms as well as passed organisms that provide the foundation for the living organisms and these corals are animals. At the coral reefs that we all talk about, the surface coral reefs, these animals are filter feeders and they build these really hard homes made of calcium carbonate and they have these really cool microscopic plant algae food factories embedded in their tissues as symbiont that provide a huge amount of their energy and this is an organism that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years to its current state and has been a perpetual facet and feature of our planet earth over that whole time.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Wildly successful, surviving mass extinctions and providing refuges for fish, providing structure protection for coastal communities all across the tropics, and of course jaw dropping beauty for those of us who have had the fortune of being in the water with it to witness these incredible macroscopic features of our earth. It's visible from space, so these are such an amazing structure from the microscopic elements, all the way up to the macroscopic earth scale elements of our planet and everything in between. It's really part of our earth and part of who we are as humans as well.
Brian Kennedy: Everything is connected. I love it.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, that seems to be a pretty recurring theme here as the world breaks down. Turns out.
Brian Kennedy: I think that's a pretty good description of why there are coral reefs. I'm probably wrong about this, but from what I understand, coral reefs are the most bio diverse ecosystems on the planet, is that right? Even more so than rainforests?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yes. That's true, and that's because of the wealth of microbes that are on the reef and invertebrates that are on the reef all the way up to the denizens that we all can see. Big fish and sharks that call the reef home as well, so the coral triangle is an area in the western pacific that is the most bio diverse region and I guess it's home to some millions and millions of species in a single several thousand kilometers squared. It's extremely impressive.
Quinn Emmett: That is wild. Yeah, I was going to ask ... I got this little tidbit from the internet, so it's probably wrong, but I was curious, this is a quote. "Despite covering less than .1% of the ocean floor, reefs host more than a quarter of all marine fish species in addition to other marine animals." Does that sound right?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, I think it's maybe closer to 75% of fish species at some point in their life cycle can claim a connection to coral reefs.
Quinn Emmett: Okay. Got it.
Dr. Kim Cobb: With respect to biodiversity, very important to recognize the value that they have for drug discovery, not something that most people think about, but there are hundreds of scientists around the world who prospect exclusively on coral reefs for advance drugs to treat human cancer and human arthritis and human Alzheimer's, judging ... You really try to look through the chemical inventories of these amazing systems. We've just begun to scratch the surface of what they could potentially provide to us.
Quinn Emmett: Instead we're bleaching them. Good. Good. Good. You mentioned that they've been around a long time. How long are we talking here? Are they ... Sharks have been around since the dinos, before that, after that?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Way before that. 260 million years here, so I talk about dinosaurs going extinct 65 million years ago right, with the big meteorite impact, we're talking way, way, way back and so, now you're going wow, these are systems that survived the extinction that killed the dinosaurs and yes, they did. These are organisms that survived the ensuing hothouse world 55 million years ago when most of the glaciers were melted and temperatures were much warmer and sea levels were much higher and many of my colleagues look to that world as an analog for future climate states, and yes, they survived that too.
Dr. Kim Cobb: They are incredibly resilient organisms over geologic time and this is really an indicator of their success evolutionarily and how much they have adapted over geologic time to weather the ins and outs of natural climate variations, and of course yet today, we are wiping them off some reefs already and increasingly large swaths of global reefs in the next coming decades and this is already underway.
Quinn Emmett: It's ironic and terrible that dinosaurs were around for tens of millions if not 100 plus million years, I can't remember what the exact timeframe is and homo sapiens is what, 200,000 years or something like that and coral reefs have survived all that, but we are the things that are taking them down. That's great work everybody.
Quinn Emmett: Are reefs more prevalent in certain parts of the world or the ocean naturally? Is it warm water, cold water, deep water, shallow water?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, so generally warm water, but there are some corals that are adapted to deep water environment. So, they can live down to a kilometer into the ocean and there are reefs that are adapted to cold water systems that are hanging out up in Ireland off the north sea. They don't look the same of course as the corals you would dive in Hawaii or Florida or Tahiti, but there are many, many, many different kinds of corals and so that's part of the amazing magic of corals is how many environments you can find them in today.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Really, the bulk of coral reefs lie around the equator and then you need to have land near the surface and we have some very deep oceans covering large portions of the equator and so that's not where corals grow. The warmest water and the shallowest seas as you probably can guess are in the west pacific and that's where we have these true hotspots of coral biodiversity and reefs that have evolved over really tens of thousands of years to be their current majestic scope and these are the reefs unfortunately that rest really closest to the threshold of water temperatures that were exceeding with large scale ocean warming and these unfortunately are going to be the first reefs that are likely to succumb to global warming.
Quinn Emmett: Got it.
Brian Kennedy: Well, coral reef 101, complete.
Quinn Emmett: Done. Got it.
Brian Kennedy: I feel like we should get a badge or something. Thank you for that.
Quinn Emmett: I don't know if we earned that, but go for it.
Brian Kennedy: Okay, doctor, let's talk about bleaching. What is that, why is that happening? Yeah, let's start with that.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, so coral bleaching is something that corals have adapted to survive very short lived ocean warming events. So, how short lived? Maybe two, three, four months? The kinds of temperature spikes that occurred over geologic time and this is a response that enables them to go into a completely dormant state and really avoid the damage of having their algo photosymbions that are embedded in their tissues producing too many oxygen free radicals and damaging the coral tissue instead of providing a net benefit through food production, they are providing a net harm when ocean temperatures get too warm.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Literally, the coral expels these colorful algo photo symbiont from its tissues, which leaves it completely white. It's a colorless organism without its algo symbiont inside of it and it also is missing that energy source in the form of [inaudible 00:22:30] from photosynthesis and so it goes into a state of absolutely dormancy. When I say absolute, I mean absolute. It doesn't build a skeleton. It ceases all metabolic function and it goes into this sleep state and it's waiting for ocean temperatures to get cool enough to be recolonized by photo symbiont and resume its normal operations and unfortunately, if this does not occur in a very short amount of time, the coral will starve to death.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's how you go from a healthy coral to bleached coral and then if the ocean temperatures remain too warm, the coral colony will die and it can't come back because you have to start from scratch. That's what we're seeing across these reefs with ocean warming.
Quinn Emmett: Quick question there. You said they'll go dormant and remain that way for a short period of time hoping that temperatures will drop. Obviously, you are basically Wonder Woman and work in geological timescales as opposed to Brian and I, what does a short amount of time mean?
Brian Kennedy: Did you say it was a couple months?
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, are we talking months, years, decades?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Oh my goodness. We are talking months. We're talking months.
Brian Kennedy: Gotcha.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Literally the coral may be drawing on reserve food stores or fat in its organism to try to limp through that period of dormancy and remain alive, but if water temperatures don't come back down in a matter of months, then it will die and so as coral reef scientists, we monitor the magnitude of the warming event that a given reef is experiencing as well as the duration.
Dr. Kim Cobb: It's really a function of the magnitude and the duration, so the warmer the event then the shorter the duration that the coral will have before it goes into a more acute stage of starvation and the cooler the event, but it can be slightly longer, then the coral will have a better chance.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That is because there are stages of bleaching. So, a coral will maybe only partially bleach, not fully bleach. Fully bleached, a perfectly white coral really just has a matter of a month or two, if that, before it's going to tip into coral death. When we go out into these reefs that are experiencing acute warming, we see a whole rainbow of different scales of bleaching from corals that look perfectly fine and then right next to it will be a coral that is bleached 100% and then right next to that will be a dead coral and this just reflects the diversity that we have on these reefs and the different species that have different resistance levels and it's not until you get to the events that are super extreme that you're going to start wiping out most of those corals all the way through most of the species and all the way through most of the size classes et cetera. It takes a lot.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That is what we're seeing in these last several years.
Quinn Emmett: When did we first notice that this was ... that coral reefs were under threat and when did the ocean science community as a whole start going wait, this is serious.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Corals were always projected to be the canary in the coal mine for ocean warming because they sit so close to the bleaching threshold and it's something they have developed naturally and they have to be adaptive because they sit at these really, really warm waters and weather happens in the ocean too.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yet, it was really in 1997, 1998 that we had the first global scale coral bleaching and mortality event associated with what was at the time the largest El Nino event on record. This is a natural ocean event. It lasts for six to nine months. It's born in the tropical pacific, but it can spread very quickly to adjoining basins in the Indian ocean and Atlantic, and it brings water temperatures that can be an excess of 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average for months on end.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That really wiped out a very large number of reefs across the Indian and Pacific oceans in particular, and it was the first even that was surveyed even at some of the more remote sites in real time by coral reef scientists because it's an event that we saw coming through our climate prediction capabilities and people were able to mobilize. So, we had the first comprehensive surveys and it was very alarming to see that, but at that point, we still didn't know what the pace of ocean warming would be over the next several decades.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Now of course, we have the 2015, 2016 El Nino event as the new record breaking El Nino event occurring on an even warmer baseline, much more destruction than that event and of course, we're just waiting for the next shoe to drop with the next El Nino event and it's taken hundreds and hundreds of people many, many, many months of their lives to go out and collect these kinds of data that help us see the sheer magnitude of the threat to modern day reefs and what we've already lost.
Quinn Emmett: Wow. Just thinking about this the way headlines are phrased sometimes and the way that moves into mainstream conversation, I can see how people say things like boy, the oceans are warming and did you see that the coral reefs are getting bleached too, when probably the more correct understanding and translation is coral reefs are going through all these different stages of bleaching and some of them are starting to die, which means severe ocean warming is right around the corner. Does that make more sense as you mentioned there, as the canary in the coalmine sort of?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, the real story ... Yeah, I think the real story is that oceans are already warming dramatically and corals are already dying. Period. It's going to get worse.
Quinn Emmett: Right.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's really the bottom line from our prospective as climate scientists and coral scientists. This train is already well underway and it's a serious wake up call about how vulnerable ecosystems are, but also how vulnerable we are when we start to lose a major piece of function of our earth's system and we don't even know really what that's going to do, to be honest with you, but it's not going to be pretty.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, I've never been ... My therapist can tell you, never been a huge fan of the things I don't ... of being scared of the things I don't know. That's the dark place for me.
Quinn Emmett: All of that considered doctor, do you ... I know you've testified to Congress and things like that, do you ever still find it difficult to make your case in the grand scheme of shit we need to fix right now? Does that make sense? It just seems like every day, folks are being inundated by contribute to this, do this, this is one fire, this is not on fire, this is underwater, this and this. Where do you find the most success and I guess also, where do you find the largest frustrations consistently?
Dr. Kim Cobb: I find the most success and hope in reminding myself that not everybody has to care about the same thing and not everybody's going to care about the fact that coral reefs are dying today. Some people will care passionately enough that it's going to get them out of their chair and get them off of their computer and into the street and make them pick up that phone and call their elected official. But, it's not going to work for everybody.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I remember that and realize that it takes communicating in a very diverse way with very diverse people and it's going to take very diverse voices with different stories to tell. I'm only one of hundreds of stories that we could tell about climate change. I happen to care a lot about the ocean. I happen to share that love with many of my fellow humans on this planet and so for me, it's a big motivating factor.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I think when we get down to talking to folks who would prioritize human lives or our economy et cetera over something as remote as a tropical Pacific coral reef, I get that and I need to be ready with those talking points just as forcefully and passionately as I can speak about a coral reef in the middle of the Pacific ocean. It's not a one size fits all equations and I can't get upset by the fact that everybody has moved to the highest level of action by dying reefs. I get that. We have to work. That's why we need multiple voices and multiple perspectives.
Quinn Emmett: I think that's so nuanced and helpful, which is not waking up and going why can't I get the entire world to give a shit about coral reefs. It's almost picking your spots and understanding that there is this avalanche of things happening, but if you can find the right people, those people can hopefully make a big difference. Hopefully that's some of he folks out there listening, because it is a tremendous thing to see these things in real life and it is truly jarring and damning to then see them dormant or dying and think, something must not be good here. This cannot be right.
Quinn Emmett: We talked a little about ... You hinted at this earlier, let's talk about all of the sectors that disappearing coral reefs are impacting because it's not just the biodiversity of the local ecosystem itself. It's, I believe you mentioned tourism, there are sustenance issues and I believe and please educate me on this, coral reefs provide some flood protection as well in some ways.
Quinn Emmett: Tourism first, you mentioned so many of these corals are in tropical areas, places where economies are heavily driven by tourism and diving and things like that. Are we already seeing repercussions in those areas?
Dr. Kim Cobb: I think that you hear so many competing narratives coming out of Australia right now that has such a major portion of their economy tied to tourism on The Great Barrier Reef and you have elected government that would like to trumpet a story of resilience and recovery from the latest rounds of bleaching and mortality and pitting directly against evidence from the scientific community that this is a train wreck that's already underway and a couple sunshades and a couple million dollars is not going to cut it.
Dr. Kim Cobb: You have to reduce emissions yesterday, last decade, and so you really do see this playing out and the death throws of those people with deep vested interest tied to the maintenance of the fossil fuel industry and those muddied interests really telling a story that is completely false from a scientific perspective. But, on the other hand, you have communities like those in Florida that are deeply tied culturally and economically as well to the coral reefs, much closer to home of course here and they've been engaged in decades of trying to do whatever they can to apply scientific methods and conservation efforts to help their coral reefs get through some of this and some of the repeated hits that those reefs have taken.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I do believe we're already seeing wide scale damages from ocean warming and associated disease and degradation and I think that that's pretty clear at sites like Hawaii. I think that's pretty clear at sites like Florida and sites at The Great Barrier Reef and it's just a matter of how we can disentangle the economic data of what it might have been like if these reefs had been as resplendent as they were 10 or 20 years ago and what's going on right now given all the other economic hits that communities are taking for one reason or another. But, this is clearly going in a bad direction for those communities and many of them are waking up to this reality and trying to do something about it and lobby their elected officials.
Quinn Emmett: Sure. I think back to, without getting political here, when Obama did follow through on a lot of the bailouts of the economy back in 2009 and one of the numbers they always talked about was jobs saved and how it was a huge number, but jobs saved isn't as impactful as jobs lost or number of people who lost their healthcare or things like that.
Quinn Emmett: I think about you talking about disentangling the economic [inaudible 00:35:50] which is, I wish it were easier to say, to paint a more specific, nuanced picture of look, if the reefs weren't dying, this is what your tourism numbers would look like. But I imagine that that's a difficult task. I don't envy that.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, we have these large scale economic models that help us understand the economic damages from climate change and there are so many deep vulnerabilities across our economy with respect to climate change.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Of course, most notably sea levels rise and the trillions of dollars of infrastructure we have along the coasts here in the United States, let alone the global economy. Things like critical infrastructure for food production and vulnerabilities to crops. These are all things that we see playing out right now as well, and so I think for those portions of the economy that are tied to coral reefs, in the United States it's a very small number but in Australia it's a very, very large number so some of these conversations we can look to Australia and the vulnerabilities that they face that are so acutely tied to climate change.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We're talking about massive wildfires, really damaging floods, and loss of their reefs. They're really on the leading edge and so we can see these pitted narratives taking place in a way that they will continue to evolve in this country, but they're really facing near term profound economic threats from climate change down under.
Quinn Emmett: Talk to me about subsidence. I guess for the lack of a better word, of the edible marine species. The ones that are consumed, farmed, fished around the world. Which species are being most affected by this, by the ecosystem, the bulk of the ecosystem dying? Where is being affected the most and where are they going and then how is that affecting those local economies that depend on that for their own food, but also for the local economies, and let me know if none of that makes sense.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, that makes sense but there's a lot going on there as your question implies.
Quinn Emmett: Shocker. Big surprise. Yeah.
Dr. Kim Cobb: There are hundreds of millions of people who depend on coral reefs and the fish that are living on those reefs for their primary source of protein and so this is really a food security issue that we're facing when we talk about degrading reefs.
Dr. Kim Cobb: At the same time, many of these reefs and associated reef fish are under heavy over fishing pressures and other kinds of environmental threats related to coastal developments and unsustainable practices in these subsidence communities that it's every man and woman for themselves and very little regulation, deep corruption, very little protection for the reefs that are providing so much bounty, and so this is a compound ... Climate change is one of many threats that these communities face that are so dependent on the reefs, which is such devastating prospect that will have these very large and very poor communities that are going to be under coming their immediate food security threat from the loss of coral reefs.
Dr. Kim Cobb: The whole question of whether and how fish species respond to significantly degraded reefs is an area of very, very active research. At my research site in the middle of the tropical Pacific at an island called Christmas Island, we witness the destruction of 85% of the coral reef in 2016 related to the massive El Nino event that really swept the world and threatened so many reefs across the world.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We lost 85% of the coral reef over six months.
Quinn Emmett: God damn.
Brian Kennedy: Wow.
Dr. Kim Cobb: The reaction of the fish communities to that disturbance is an area of very important study and it's significantly lagged from when we lost the reef because there are fish that rely on the coral tissue for food. There are fish that rely on the corals for their nurseries. There are fish that rely on the tiny microbes that live in the coral. It's a whole cascade of effects that takes years to fully see and witness.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Some of these fish are very large and they live for many years, and those will be some of the ones that we may see impacted with the highest lag. But, unfortunately, we have seen big hits to the fishing populations at Christmas Island after this event and we continue to study those in partnership with coral ecologists and marine conservation biologists, that is not my work by the way. These are amazing scientists out of University of Victoria, Julia [Bomb 00:40:59] leading those efforts if folks are interested in looking her up.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I think she's down in the island right now, as she sends me videos of baby corals and it makes my day.
Quinn Emmett: We should have her on the cast.
Brian Kennedy: That's right. We'll do one of those underwater interviews.
Dr. Kim Cobb: She's amazing.
Brian Kennedy: Is that a thing?
Quinn Emmett: You didn't know? You've got to go ... The California Science Center in Los Angeles, they've got this great little feature in their aquarium in there. It's not the world's biggest aquarium. It's beautiful, but at 11:00 everyday, the diver who feeds the fish will go down. The aquarium has this big two story window, and the diver will go down and all the kids in the museum are rallied and they can ... The diver has a microphone underwater in front of the window and will answer the kids' questions from underwater and kids are just like, holy shit. How is this possible? It's the coolest thing in the world.
Brian Kennedy: Wow. That's pretty great.
Quinn Emmett: We'll have to do a podcast. Brian, we'll strap you in there with the sharks. It'll be great.
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, I was going to say, can I go in?
Quinn Emmett: Sure. Dr. Cobb, moving towards action. What are governments and NGOs and such doing to support the coral reefs directly? We know the U.S. Federal Government isn't doing much. What are places like Australia and more of the tropical locations doing knowing that we can't just ... The terrible example is switch to paper straws. What's going on, if anything?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Right. I do think that there are many trends, longstanding trends afoot that are really important to set aside large swaths of coral reefs and protect them from the other kinds of threats that so many tropical reefs face and hope that they can provide a refuge for corals that may be able to make it through these next decades of acute temperature stress and ocean acidification, which is something we didn't talk about. But, which is also a very major threat to continued prosperity of reefs.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Under more acidic conditions, corals have a harder time growing their skeletons. So, we really have that approach of sequestering some reefs and hoping that this will enhance the resilience of this precious ecosystem and provide seeds for future reefs. I think that's a great approach and that's important.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We see that happening across the tropics. Regulation and enforcement of that is critical. If there's no regulation enforcement, you might as well not have that marine protected area in place. But, what is becoming increasingly apparent is reefs ... No reef, protected or not, can escape the large scale train wreck that is ocean warming.
Quinn Emmett: True.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Right now, and addition of ocean acidification in coming decades, so it doesn't matter how protected you are if you lose 90% of your corals in that system over a year of acute ocean warming. What has become the rallying cry of the coral community, those of us who have witnessed this, who understand the problem, who understand the projections, is that we must absolutely move to reduce emissions now very, very aggressively to give corals the best chance of making it through the coming decades and there will be no bandaid and there will be no magic wand to wave to reverse this trend and protect reefs that are economically critical, ecologically critical and an intrinsic part of what we call earth if we don't reduce emissions urgently now.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's really become the rallying cry of the coral scientific community and something that you won't hear out of the politicians' mouths who say that they developed a new 10 million dollar fund for great barrier reef protection without mentioning emissions reduction. We're going to try to hold them to the science and the facts that really motivate this dramatic and urgent reduction in greenhouse gases.
Quinn Emmett: When we say things like hold them to these numbers and science and facts, sometimes I really do want to go pure vigilante Batman and actually hold them to it. Just chain them to something for example. Clearly, the current methods aren't getting through [crosstalk 00:45:30].
Brian Kennedy: Pin it. Staple it. Nail gun it. Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Whatever we got to do. Brian's down for really anything.
Brian Kennedy: I want to double check ... There definitely is no magic wand?
Dr. Kim Cobb: No.
Brian Kennedy: Okay.
Dr. Kim Cobb: There's not. Not right now. Some of the work that I'm really excited about, which is still sci-fi is the idea that we might be able to genetically engineer heat resistant corals that can help reseed devastated reefs with these resistant organisms and provide the reefs of the next century from resistant breeding stocks. You breed a prize poodle, you could breed a prize coral.
Dr. Kim Cobb: This work is actively underway and critically important, very expensive, tough stuff. It's not easy to grow corals. It's much easier to grow a poodle, trust me. What you want to do is support these research efforts that are really forward looking. They may not be able to deliver that promise today, but if we don't invest in those approaches, those science driven approaches, those research driven approaches today, we won't have them in 50 years.
Quinn Emmett: Right. We have to do these things simultaneously.
Dr. Kim Cobb: One of the examples of ... Yeah, we have to rub our head and chew gum at the same time. We are just going to have to aggressively reduce emissions to give them the best chance, and then because we know we have a train wreck in front of us anyway, it really is important to continue invest in the best science to inform the solutions that we hope we don't have to turn to as aggressively as they say in the worst case scenarios, but we really want to be able to help corals limp through this century as best we can and we need all those tools deployed. Not just the ones that are undergoing research in these tank experiments and the breeding of prize corals, but also those folks who are out there diving on devastated reefs today, trying to understand how fish populations are responding to the train wrecks that have already occurred.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We have these natural laboratories, these crystal balls to help us understand what we're facing in an ocean that is so profoundly altered, like these ecosystems are. Ultimately, we can use these degraded environments as laboratories for studying magic wands of tomorrow. Right? We can understand what works, what doesn't work and these are very precious opportunities, but we need to really deploy the full arsenal of science and engineering to try to really help corals get through this and the communities that depend on and frankly, the full function of our ocean and our earth.
Quinn Emmett: Sounds pretty fucking good to me. That moves us towards action. Like you were saying, we need to invest in these things, which is Brian's favorite part of the show.
Brian Kennedy: It is. I mentioned it briefly at the very start that our goal here is to provide very specific action steps that our listeners can take to support you and your mission, and we like to break it down into three categories. Voice, vote, and dollars. So, let's get into that and let's start with our voice. What are actionable, specific questions that we can all be asking of our representatives to support you?
Dr. Kim Cobb: The most important thing we need to do right now is to reduce emissions dramatically at scale across the entire economy, and the most efficient way to do that is to enact a price on carbon and it's very clear that's when you know we're actually getting serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Kim Cobb: There's a bill on the floor of the house right now called the Energy Innovation Act, which does just that. It puts a price on carbon and it's not in the form of a tax. It is something that comes back to every American in the form of a check and it's therefore called A Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax. It is the main goal of a group called The Citizens Climate Lobby, so if you really want to get engaged, you can fix many, many problems of climate change with a price on carbon and there's a local chapter near you, I guarantee it. Citizens Climate Lobby and that's their ... They have a laser focus on this and they've had it for quite a few years and they finally have a bill, it actually has words in it, to put a price on carbon.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We need more Republicans to support the idea of a price on carbon. They talk about the free market as a solution to almost everything. Well, let's let the free market decide how to quickly reduce emissions and win economically at the same time and there are many ways to do that and the market can really find those ways if we have a price on carbon and so that's what we need. We need folks to really step up and call their elected officials and ask them to support and sponsor this bill that's floating around and if they don't like that one, challenge them to say okay, how would you want to put a price on carbon? Because that's what needs to happen here.
Dr. Kim Cobb: We need a federal price on carbon. You can also point to successful policy labs in the northeastern U.S. and in California, where carbon markets have been in place and the world didn't end. So, I point people to look at those states and how they have fared and they've fared very well. We want to win the low carbon race of the 21st century as a country. We don't want to be left behind economically and really, left outside of the biggest global trend of the century.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's what I would ask people to do that is the most important thing. The other thing I would ask them to do is to think about how they're going to get the energy to sustain their engagement for this decades long battle that we will be waging. I actually mean that quite seriously, because it's very overwhelming. This is an intergenerational relay race as I call it. I just want to run as far and as fast as I can to hand off the baton to the next generation, and they're going to have to run as far and as fast as they can, et cetera, et cetera.
Dr. Kim Cobb: It's overwhelming and in the face of overt climate denial of facts and science, in the face of a cascade of impacts that are raining down upon us in incredible crescendo, it becomes a question that's really important. How do you derive energy to stay engaged? With that I would say, sometimes it feels like giving money to democratic candidates in the bottomless pit of fundraising is not energizing. I would say sometimes making phone calls to your policy maker that doesn't really care, doesn't seem like it's getting anywhere, how do you personally sustain an engagement?
Dr. Kim Cobb: This is a personal answer. I will tell you for me, it involves deep engagement in my local city governance structures where I can see a connection directly between my actions and results on the ground and how that chain, that value chain, goes from me to my city to my state to the federal government. I see that more clearly when I'm engaged in my local community. I've also become completely carbon obsessed, which is not saving the planet, right? I'm not really saving the planet with my solar panels and biking to work and vegetarian diet and composting, et cetera, but it allows me to feel more aligned with my life's goals and the values that I care about and it gives me great energy to keep making those phone calls to elected officials, to keep showing up for hearings about the utility decisions and it makes me writing more checks to those democratic candidates because I see how it all adds up and I feel rewarded every single day when I look at my solar panels and I love biking to work and I love my new bike family of crazy advocates who are in Atlanta fighting for bike lanes across the entire city.
Dr. Kim Cobb: This is where we find community. This is where we see connections between each other. This is where we build resilience. This is where we build and derive energy for this fight. So, that's the second thing I would say. Ask yourself how are you going to get the energy to continue in this battle in the face of all this devastation and second of all, keep your eyes on the big prize. Let's fight for a price on carbon at any scale that we can, but let's not leave the federal government out because we cannot afford it.
Quinn Emmett: I love every bit of that and couldn't agree more. There's this big discussion among climate and clean energy nerds about does it matter if you're taking personal steps, shouldn't you be fighting the utilities and for carbon price and all this, and it's like, well you can fucking do both and also, I mean at least to me personally, what I've noticed on the grass roots level and among communities, both hyper local and local or down my street or bigger. I live in ... Brian and I live in a county that's comprised of 88 cities. It's bigger than 40 states.
Quinn Emmett: When people are personally invested, they're probably going to be more likely to hold the people in power to task because they feel like they're doing their part. Even though it's not going to move the needle. Like you said, you're not saving the world with your solar panels. But, you feel like you're making a fucking difference and it makes you a little more likely to stand up to these people and say hey man, remember when you got elected by the people, all of whom now are fighting for bike lanes and solar panels? Do your part. You've got one job. One job.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah, and I think people are looking for a way to make a difference and even if that difference is just in your family or just in your work place, it really adds up and the other thing I would say is that the deeper I engage in obsessions about carbon, which I've gone really down the coo coo's nest on this, the more I see that there's so much low hanging fruit that sits between my family, my house and me personally and my work place. Georgia Tech is a small city, right?
Quinn Emmett: True.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I'm a faculty member there. I have a unique voice and we could start moving that city down the road to a low carbon future and every employee of a major organization could start to think about that as well, and so this completely false battle between individual and collective action I think is just so damaging and it doesn't allow us to see that it's not just me or my utility, it's every institution that sits between that we need to come with us and we all have access to these levers on that spectrum, from myself to the monopoly utility in Georgia to the state house, to DC ad we need to reach for those and we need to derive energy and we need to pump it up the value chain and point down the value chain and say hey, this is what I'm happy about today and this is what I'm gunning for tomorrow and this is my process and it's my road and it doesn't need to look like yours, it'll look very ... that's fine. That's fine.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah.
Dr. Kim Cobb: You can't be judging each other. There's no one size fits all. Do what you can. Stay in the fight. Build community. Lift each other up. Celebrate diverse approaches and voices. Is it really so hard? I don't know. It doesn't sound so hard to me and yet Twitter. [crosstalk 00:57:51].
Quinn Emmett: That's a different discussion. We're going to need a couple bottles of bourbon before we get into that one.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Right. Exactly.
Brian Kennedy: Awesome. Doctor, it's been so awesome. We've had you for an hour here, and we'll let you go because we know that you've got many other things to do, but seriously, thank you so, so much for your time today. We have just one more little segment that we like to call Not a Lightning Round and we have just some questions for you. Does that sound all right?
Quinn Emmett: Quick little questions.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Of course.
Quinn Emmett: Doctor, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Oh my goodness. I think it was in college when I realized that I would make a terrible doctor and that the planet was dying and that I might have a role in the earliest generation of scientists who are waking up to this reality and what a life that would be and that would certainly consume my brain and my heart for the rest of my life and that was why I changed to environmental science from pre-med and wow, what a good decision that was.
Quinn Emmett: What kind of doctor did you ... were you interested in being?
Dr. Kim Cobb: I don't know. I think that was part of the problem. I could never figure that out.
Quinn Emmett: Got it.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I don't know, do I really like people that much? Well ...
Quinn Emmett: Corals! Right.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah. Diving and rainforests.
Quinn Emmett: Yeah, it could be worse. We just got to make sure they don't go away and then you've got to be a doctor again.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's right.
Quinn Emmett: Dr. Cobb, who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Six months. There are so many people.
Quinn Emmett: Getting specific.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I will say ... Yeah, I will say somebody like Greta Thunberg would be one of the most obvious answers.
Quinn Emmett: She's my hero.
Dr. Kim Cobb: She's a representative of a whole cohort of folks that have brought new meaning to my work and moved the conversation and the important dialogues and discussions outside of the walls of science, where there's this protected ... These are the voices we need to listen to over there and no, there's a whole group of powerful stakeholders who are just as passionate as me, if not more, out there fighting for the same outcomes and using very different language coming from very different voices.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's just one of many voices just in the last six months that have brought incredibly new lines of thought for me, stimulating lines of though and renewed purpose and passion. I am so grateful for all those people who have joined this battle and dedicated their lives to this battle. We need a lot more folks that ... There really are any number of ways to stand [inaudible 01:00:56].
Quinn Emmett: Sure. I love it.
Brian Kennedy: Love it. Kim, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
Quinn Emmett: What's your self care?
Brian Kennedy: What's your [inaudible 01:01:07].
Dr. Kim Cobb: You're going to laugh. Lately I have been absolutely obsessed with the output on my solar panels, and I have an app.
Quinn Emmett: Nerd.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I have an app. There's an app for that. Turns out there's an app for that and I go on my app and I check my production for the day, and I check my carbon neutrality, how close I am. I think about how I could further tighten my belt to achieve carbon positive living instead of drawing down carbon or reducing carbon actively rather than just not consuming it.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I probably check that app, probably about 20 times a day.
Quinn Emmett: Wait, where are we at right now? [crosstalk 01:01:51].
Dr. Kim Cobb: On my good days, I'm probably on five times a day and I'm away from home, a bit out of my element and so I'm yearning to see my [inaudible 01:02:01]. I see them on my app. But, on my good days, I go through the whole day and I'm like oh my god, I didn't even check my panels today. What a great day. That's what I do lately, just because I got them turned on in the last month.
Quinn Emmett: Love it.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Before that, every day biking to work has been the single most important component of my mental health routine and so when I don't get on my bike every day, like now when I'm away, I feel it in my bones. I feel it in my brain and it throws me off back to a place that was one of passivity, of acute overwhelm and sense of isolation and so when I get on my bike, I see people in the park. I pass bikers. I remind myself what I'm fighting for with the city government. I remind myself that it all adds up. I remind myself that I'm in it every single day and that has become so important for me. That's what I say it doesn't really matter what the carbon is there. It's just about what energy you derive from your choices and how they add up for you and keep you in the game.
Dr. Kim Cobb: That's my other answer to that question.
Quinn Emmett: I love it. Yeah, the days that I don't run are the ones where I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I'm just like, bye bye. Crazy now. Last one, last one.
Brian Kennedy: If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Dr. Kim Cobb: Oh my God.
Quinn Emmett: We've had a wide range of books.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I would say Naomi Oreskes' Merchants of Doubt, because that was when I really was forced to open my eyes to the depths and persistence and sheer inertia of the climate denial machinery and how it has infiltrated our government, how it is tied genetically to the tobacco lies and vested interests and battles of the 1960s and 70s, sometimes the same people involved.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Those kinds of facts are so impactful and I think it's helpful to see the full extent of what we're up against and how you may think that you are amassing your personal opinions to not believing climate change or that we have a problem, but in reality, you are victim of a well orchestrated campaign to keep this out of the public dialogue and to bury facts and evidence and smear scientists. You are victim to that. So, that's the book I would Amazon Prime to him and I would love to read it to him and then follow up discussion with him, because I believe in having new conversations once facts and truth are on the table.
Quinn Emmett: I love it.
Brian Kennedy: Incredible. Even with him, that's so good of you.
Quinn Emmett: Above and beyond, doctor.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Absolutely, any day. I'm famous for inviting any conversation with Donald Trump any day he wants to call me, he knows where to find me. I would really enjoy that conversation.
Quinn Emmett: If you could patch us in on that, that would be great. [crosstalk 01:05:23].
Brian Kennedy: Yeah, if we could listen.
Quinn Emmett: Thank you for that.
Dr. Kim Cobb: I'll let you guys know. You guys [inaudible 01:05:32] exclusive. I'll give you the exclusive on that.
Quinn Emmett: You're swell. Dr. Cobb, we can't thank you enough for obviously taking the time to come here, for locking your children and your dog out of the house, and for obviously all that you're doing for the corals, for the ocean, for everyone effected. That includes all of us. This is one of those things. Again, I don't ... Not necessarily it's easy to understand, but I get why sometimes people are like oh, corals, that's too bad. It's not great and it's a good indicator that we need to be doubling, tripling, 10 x'ing, 100 x'ing our efforts here.
Dr. Kim Cobb: Yeah.
Quinn Emmett: Thank you so much.
Dr. Kim Cobb: It's not too great, but it's not too late. Let's leave on that little rhyming couplet there and I also want to thank you for all the work that you do in bringing these issues to the fore and having these conversations. It's so important that people find any number of different avenues to information that they might care about. So, thank you for allowing folks to see things in a new way, from a different perspective.
Quinn Emmett: It's quite literally the least we could do. Thank you so much. Enjoy sunny Massachusets and we will follow up with you soon. Thanks so much doctor.
Quinn Emmett: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of your for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant.
Quinn Emmett: As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
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Quinn Emmett: Please.
Brian Kennedy: You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn Emmett: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you for listening and finally most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian Kennedy: Thanks guys.