A rather fierce debate has been circulating in recent weeks in Australia about the state of the Great Barrier Reef, “the largest living thing on Earth”  and what should be done about it. Great Barrier Reef in the state of Queensland is one of the seven wonders of the world and pulls in large number of both domestic and international visitors each year.

Just to sum up the debate for those outside of Australia, several high profile academics, such as Professor Terry Hughes at James Cook University , recently published research showing an increase in the frequency of coral bleaching events worldwide (when water gets too hot and corals begin to die), including the Great Barrier Reef. This means that the reefs do not have enough time to recover from one bleaching event before next one occurs. Bleaching occurs due to normal than higher sea water temperatures, which impact on coral reefs.

The tourism industry has attacked these studies and called for defunding of Professor Hughes’ work. The sector is obviously nervous: if the reef gets a bad reputation, this can influence people’s travel decisions whether to come to see the Great Barrier Reef or not.

The government is now determined to invest 2.2. million dollars in installing underwater fans among other strategies in the hopes of cooling the water and enabling the reefs to persist in their current condition. Another strategy will be the culling of crown-of-thorn starfish from the reef, a program that again is against scientific experts’ advice and has not proven effective. These investments and strategies have gone to the expert panel review, which rejected them as ineffective and potentially causing more adverse impacts on the reef itself.

While Professor Hughes has continuously argued that the real cause of bleaching (increasing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and warmer sea temperatures) should be addressed, much of this debate has multiple views and frames that different actors are using to justify why their option to help the reef is the most effective.

To me, this is a classic case in how the definition of the problem drives the choice of the strategy or option.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Berkeley, explains in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” , how words are our frames to understand the world.

Try not to think of an elephant when you hear the word ‘elephant’. Most of us can’t not to think of an actual elephant because that word already has a particular frame in our mind.

Lakoff puts this simply: “frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions” (p. xv).

The party that is successful in using particular words and creating a frame in people’s mind (what the issue is about) has more buy-in from the public and better chances of influencing which strategy people vote for or accept.

It is not just about how you speak but which ideas you are able to spread by using particular words. Once people share or start accepting the particular idea that you are proposing (a particular frame), it will drive also the information or knowledge that they accept as valid in that particular case:

“To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off” (Lakoff, 2004, p. 17).

The reef debate illustrates this well: we have the frame of climate change (warmer sea water temperatures because of increases in emissions), science (studying the state of the reefs and bleaching), economy and livelihoods (bad reputation of the reef diminishing jobs and income), and invasive species (culling particular species off the reef to increase reef health). Each frame has a set of knowledge and information that is used as evidence.

All of the frames are interconnected in real life. But each will drive a different set of strategies to deal with the problem. The question is: which of these strategies are actually effective, can ensure the long-term health of the reef, and well-being of people who depend on the reef for their livelihoods but also for those who want to experience the beauty of the reef as tourists? (not to mention all the marine life and its wellbeing as well).

The science is clearly showing an alarming trend in the frequency of bleaching events and shows that something is occurring in the reef environment that did not use to happen. The tourism sector is aware of this frame of environmental damage but is trying to push a healthy reef frame in its efforts to continue attracting tourists to the area. The political frame seems to be focused on short-term solutions against scientific advice where some results can be gained by quick action.

The struggle for the reef and explaining the causal factors for its condition will go on without a doubt, but recognising and thinking about these frames can provide at least some clarity into where the conflicts are and why. Yet, not thinking about the damaged reef gets harder when the evidence of the changing trends is in.

As a scientist, my hope of course is that any policy or strategy decision is based on the most robust science possible. At the same time I recognise that I don’t understand yet all the complicated factors in this debate and I look forward learning more about the governance of the reef.

To end this with Lakoff’s words: “reframing is social change”. Whoever is most successful in spreading their ideas will eventually gain the most support for whatever action they propose, whether this is giant underwater fans or action to drastically reduce emissions.

What I do think though is that whatever decisions are made regarding the Great Barrier Reef, a long-term management strategy is needed that is responsive to changes in trends that include both slow-onset processes and extreme events. We are still learning how such strategies can be implemented on the ground. Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a learning process first and foremost but one that is clearly already here and not in the future.