By Sarah Carr and Robert Olson

[Editor’s note: Sarah Carr is editor of MEAM. She can be reached at Robert Olson is a senior fellow at the Institute for Alternative Futures. He can be reached at]

Coastal and ocean ecosystems and communities are currently confronted with numerous devastating problems – sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, loss of top predators, dead zones, garbage, chemical pollution, habitat loss, and more – that do not have short-term solutions. If human societies are willing and able to address these issues, namely by reducing root causes and/or mitigating or repairing harmful effects, that work may require decades to show signs of success. However, these relatively long time scales are paired with much shorter political, management, and funding cycles – often on the order of years – as well as relatively short attention spans of the public for these issues.

Two particularly striking examples of political changes that could have dramatic effects on the marine environment include the recent UK “Brexit” vote to withdraw from the EU and the recent presidential election in the US. The Brexit withdrawal could lead to the UK weakening marine management efforts to achieve good environmental status of marine waters (as specified in EU Directives) in response to political and economic pressures. Similarly, the US election puts that country’s greenhouse gas reductions and other environmental protection measures in jeopardy. The new president-elect of the US, Donald Trump, has vowed to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action,” issued by the current US President Barack Obama which could be construed to include the US National Ocean Policy, expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and numerous climate change and sustainability initiatives.

If the problems are devastating, why is it so hard to sustain initiatives to fix them?

Problems affecting ocean ecosystems have always been difficult to address. They can be hard to see (e.g., ocean acidification, chemical pollution) even for ocean users. Manifestations of ocean problems can be highly episodic (e.g., more frequent and serious flooding events due to background sea level rise). The consequences of ocean problems can be difficult to connect to their root causes (e.g., shellfish corrosion due to acidifying waters). And, possibly most importantly, the regions and populations contributing to problems are often diffuse and different from those that bear the burden of the problems. For example, one of the world’s largest “dead zone”, in the Baltic Sea, is a result of runoff from numerous surrounding countries. And the harmful effects of global climate change will disproportionately affect poor countries despite the fact that the majority of emissions come from a small number of highly developed and/or highly populous countries.

In addition, sustaining public attention to long-term problems, not just ocean ones, is problematic in general. A fascinating report “Missing the Slow Train: How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy & Collective Action” published by the Wilson Center earlier this year describes some of the psychological and behavioral roots of this phenomenon. For starters, humans have evolved to respond to threats that involve intentional action to cause harm, immoral actions, imminent danger, instantaneous change, a high degree of certainty, and simple causes – many of which do not apply to the greatest threats to the ocean.

Furthermore, even when people do notice a threat, cognitive biases – such as undervaluing future risks, weighting current loss more than future gain, and believing one is at less risk than others from threats – prevent people from appropriately assessing the risk from a problem. And even when risks are understood, a number of social and psychological dynamics – including a desire to avoid disturbing thoughts and emotions and a tendency to base one’s actions on the actions of others – can prevent societies for agreeing on policy actions to deal with problems. [Editor’s note: For more detail on these issues, we highly recommend reading Wilson Center’s full report.]

Despite these difficulties, tenacious ocean health advocates and foresighted leaders have had some success in drawing attention to ocean problems and initiating programs and activities to address them. (A new standard that allows wetland restoration projects to receive credits in carbon markets and paves the way for increased funding of wetland restoration and conservation and the Marine Stewardship Council’s fisheries certification and seafood labeling program to promote sustainable fisheries are just two examples.) But maintaining and scaling up initiatives to address long-term problems is a perpetual battle due to changing government and funder priorities and mandates.

Finally, the persistent media bias towards novel and sensational news means that these problems often only receive attention immediately after a disaster or controversial report. This lack of continuity makes it difficult to keep public pressure on policymakers to sustain initiatives to address long-term problems.

Is there anything on-the-ground practitioners can do to ensure their work is sustained?

So what can coastal and marine conservation and management practitioners do to carry on work on problems and solutions with long time scales in the face of short-term budgets and management mandates? Most certainly there are no magic bullets. But here are some strategies and best practices that can be employed:

  1. Be willing to reframe the problem to connect with peoples’ daily lives and personal concerns.

    Address peoples’ concern for the well-being of their children and grandchildren. Talk about local issues. Use different frameworks for different groups. For example, the US is unusual in that a large number of citizens do not accept that climate change and its attendant consequences are occurring or are a result of human activity. Coastal and ocean adaptation planners can sometimes move past the controversy, however, by focusing on problems that people do see as a problem, such as increased flooding from more frequent storm surge events. MEAM recently interviewed three conservation marketing experts who provided great tips for how to successfully influence people to support environmental initiatives.

  2. Be prepared to take advantage of teachable moments or other unplanned opportunities.

    Unfortunate or tragic as they are, disasters such as oil spills and storm events can provide opportunities to connect with people, including policymakers, about what can be done to prevent future catastrophes.

  3. Connect with relevant businesses when possible.

    Many businesses plan long-term and want stability for the environments and natural resources their operations depend on. For instance, the aquaculture industry is deeply concerned about ocean acidification, and marine pollution may be a critical issue for coastal and marine tourism and recreation businesses. Alliance with businesses that are critical employers in a community may motivate politicians in ways that environmental advocates cannot. In addition, public-private partnerships can provide a (relatively) steady source of income through changing public and philanthropic funding cycles. The Blue finance project is currently working on long-term and sustainable non-public financing for marine conservation in the Eastern Caribbean.

  4. Engage high-profile champions to help deliver your message.

    They can bring visibility to long-term problems with their celebrity and can provide continuity through political changes.

  5. Provide consistent, long-term feedback on the severity of the problem and success of management efforts at addressing it

    Report cards or environmental indices that are updated regularly, such as the Chesapeake Bay Report Card and Ocean Health Index, can provide consistent and long-term feedback on (and public attention to) the severity of ocean problems and how well they are being addressed by management measures.

  6. Focus on what can be done and show that progress is possible.

    Despair does not often motivate people to act. A great example of a project working to show people that positive change is possible is #OceanOptimism, which broadcasts marine conservation success stories to over 60 million Twitter users.

  7. Use visualizations of the problem whenever possible.

    As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Great data visualizations can help people understand the magnitude and trajectory of the problem and solutions, and imagery can elicit powerful and motivating emotional responses.

  8. Engage new advocates through serious games and citizen science initiatives.

    Serious games provide a way for people to test hypotheses and take on the psychological state of being responsible for addressing an issue. Citizen science initiatives not only help further scientific knowledge, but they can encourage people to take ownership of a problem.

  9. Be prepared to give good advice on the long-term consequences of not dealing with the problem.

    Policymakers will want to be able to weigh a wide variety of policy options, and scenario planning and solicitation of expert opinion provide means of exploring a wide range of potential future conditions.

*The authors would like to thank MEAM readers, EBM Tools Network members, subscribers to the Coral List discussion listserv, and participants in a forum held by the Wilson Center on the Slow Problems report for ideas for this article. And as readers will note, most of the strategies described in this article involve working towards the same goal – sustaining momentum towards long-term solutions through societal awareness and advocacy. Marinez Scherer, professor at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (Brazil) and EBM Tools Network member, summed this up beautifully when she wrote:

“To keep projects working towards long-term solutions, society must be aware and empowered. Governments change, but the local community does not. Society can pressure managers to stay on track if, and only if, people perceive projects and actions are important. Education, education, education – empower people.”

Read a variety of other insights from practitioners on this topic and add your own.