Screening and Discussion of PBS Series "Changing Planet: Coral Special"

Thursday, April 11, 2024
Reinhard Krause/Reuters

Chief Climate Officer and Deputy Assistant Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (2021-23); CFR Member

Chief Executive Officer, Conservation International; Host, Changing Planet, PBS


Director, Coral Reef Conservation Program, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

Introductory Remarks

President and Chief Executive Officer, PBS; CFR Member

Ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of Maldives to the United States

The PBS series Changing Planet embarks on its third year of this seven-year project examining the issues facing the planet’s most threatened ecosystems. The “Coral Special” episode takes us to the Maldives for an in-depth look at coral reefs and the urgent efforts to help them survive climate change. In partnership with PBS and Conservation International, join us for a sneak preview of clips from the episode and a panel discussion with climate experts discussing efforts to save some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. 

BODURTHA: Well, that was a compelling preview of what’s in store for tonight. Good evening. I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the vice president of meetings and membership here at the Council on Foreign Relations. On behalf of our Board Chair David Rubenstein and our President Mike Froman, it’s a pleasure to welcome Council members and guests to this evening’s screening and discussion of the PBS Changing Planet series special on coral reefs.

I am fairly certain that in the Council’s 103-year history that this is the very first time we are devoting a full program to the discussion of coral reefs. And it’s wonderful to have—(cheers, applause)—no, and it’s absolutely wonderful to have a full house for this very important discussion on the impact of climate change on the health of our oceans. This is also the first time that the Council is joining forces together with both PBS and Conservation International. And we are delighted that our three organizations have this very special opportunity to work together.

To tee-up this evening’s program, and to introduce a uniquely qualified panel of speakers and a very special guest, I am delighted to welcome to the podium a Council member, who also happens to be the CEO and president of PBS, Paula Kerger. (Applause)

KERGER: As you notice, we were color coordinated—(laughter)—completely down to even the accent of the scarves. Anyway, thank you, Nancy. And thank you to everyone who’s come together for this special event.

You know, as we consider the state of our world and the existential threat of climate change, we believe that PBS has a central role to play inspiring people to care about this planet and empowering meaningful change. For more than five decades, we’ve presented the very best of science and nature programming, deepening understanding about the natural world, and bringing light to the most pressing global issues. And most importantly, making science accessible to people of all ages, all backgrounds, all walks of life.

We are home to award-winning documentaries and independent films, as well as groundbreaking programs on our series Nature and Nova. But the power and impact of our work extends far beyond the screen. We have 330 member stations that are in communities across this country. So we are profoundly local in the work that we do, as well as national in the scope and the reach of PBS. We bring attention to the challenges and opportunities facing communities across the country and give our stations the tools so that they can engage in conversation to really help build the communities in which we all want to live. And through PBS Learning Media, we bring the conversation into the classroom, engaging millions of educators and students with curriculum-aligned digital resources that are built specifically for the classroom.

So as we thought about all of our work ahead, and where PBS would put its priorities over the next years, we made the decision to focus even deeper on our changing planet. We decided that what we would do with our platform is not to sound the alarm. There are lots of people that are out there doing that. What we wanted to do is to highlight solutions, to connect global stories with local communities, and we wanted to share stories of hope and innovation that empower people to take action to believe in what is possible. So we launched for us what has been an unprecedented initiative to bring together the very best in science, history, and news programming. We now have more than 250 hours of climate-focused program in our library right now. And we added 20 percent more just in this last year.

And at the center of the work that we’re doing is an amazing story, and an amazing series, Changing Planet, hosted by Dr. M. Sanjayan. Sanjayan is CEO of Conservation International, which also happens to be our neighbor in Crystal City. And their organization protects the nature that people around the world rely on for food, fresh water, and livelihoods. Actually, I began working with Sanjayan many years ago on a series called EARTH: A New Wild. He was not at Conservation International at the time. And it was really the first opportunity that we had to work together. And I realized then what an extraordinary storyteller he is and how powerful he is in bringing people into the story in a way that touches them quite profoundly.

Changing Planet is one of our most ambitious climate programs yet. We built this together with the BBC, bringing audiences yearly updates from some of the most significant ecosystems around the world to highlight local stories with global implications. This is a five-year project. And this is now season three, which will premiere later this month. Sanjayan and team went to the Maldives to visit critical reef habitat and document groundbreaking science that is helping coral reproduce.

Reefs are critically important to the health of our planet. More than 500 million people worldwide depend on reefs for food, jobs, and coastal defense. And coral reefs embody the best and the worst of our climate crisis. There is a huge possibility—I’m stealing some of your stuff, I know—(laughter)—that coral could disappear from the Earth within our lifetime. But there is also really exciting science being done, as you’ll see in the clip we’re about to share, with teams collaborating from all around the globe to bring these critical ecosystems back from the brink.

Before we screen a clip from the show, I want to introduce our panel tonight. But before I do that, I want to introduce my colleague, Sylvia Bugg, who is sitting right in the second row here, who is the head of content for PBS. In addition to Sanjayan on the panel tonight, we’re pleased to be joined by Monica Medina, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Monica also served as the U.S. special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, the first person ever to hold that title.

We’re also pleased to be joined by Gillian Caldwell, deputy assistant administrator and chief climate officer—y’all in government have really long titles. (Laughter.) I’m just Paula, you know? (Laughter.) USAID, who is responsible for directing and overseeing all climate and environment work across USAID. And moderating our discussion tonight we’re really grateful that Jennifer Koss, coral reef conservation program director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could join us.

So before we get to the discussion, we have a sneak peek at the very first episode of season three of Changing Planet, which will premiere on April 24. Please, let’s roll the tape.


KOSS: Good evening, and thank you, all of you, for being here tonight. I’m Jennifer Koss. I’m director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program. And if I could take a slight moment to gush a little bit, very esteemed panel. I had the honor to work with Monica and a couple of her different roles, and then have worked with USAID and CI through our grant program and our interagency agreement. So, so wonderful to see you all.

So we’re going to start off, get right into some questions with you all. Immediately to you, and lucky that you know the smell of spawn. That’s amazing. (Laughter.) Amazing. So this isn’t your first television series. You’ve been doing this for almost two decades, and for a dozen documentaries. How did you end up getting into documentaries? And how has it shaped your approach to your nature conservation? And can you share a couple of the most compelling stories about this particular episode?

SANJAYAN: Sure. And thank you, Jennifer, and thank you to my panelists. And thank you for that amazing introduction, Paula. And also to the Council on Foreign Relations for having us here.

I got into nature documentaries completed by accident. I’m a scientist by training. I was asked to advise on a Discovery Channel show. And one thing led to another, they decided to put me in front of camera. The reason I keep doing it is I love stories. And the thing you might not know unless you’re in this world, is that a lot of documentaries aren’t really—they sort of scripted. Like, you kind of know what you’re going to see and how you’re going to see it. And they have to do it that way, even though they make it look real, because they’re spending enormous amounts of money flying people and crew. And if you’re there on the wrong day and you miss it, you miss it. What was special about this series and, frankly, special about virtually everything I’ve done with PBS, the discoveries have been absolutely real.

So even that small little moment of me realizing what coral spawning smells like was a real expression of discovery for me. And, you know, there are lots of amazing stories. Virtually every series we—every episode we did blew me away. But this one—you know, you only get a clip of this, so I really urge you to try and watch this when it airs on Earth Day. But here’s the thing that was amazing about this. So virtually every form of coral restoration involves basically taking a polyp, growing it in some fashion, sometimes accelerating that growth, and then replanting it. You can do it but you need time, you need people, you need money. It’s difficult and expensive to do. You can absolutely do it.

This was one of the first times that I had seen where researchers were trying to do this at real scale, the scale of kilometers, the entire atoll. And the reason is, two groups of scientists who had never met—they actually met on camera. Like, you never do this because it could go so badly wrong, right? (Laughter.) Like, it could all go wrong. And, Paula, you don’t want to know this. (Laughter.) But, I mean, this is, like, enormous amounts of money. But the group from New Zealand—Queensland, from Australia, had figured out how to collect very large quantities of eggs and sperm, and then create this IVF. Which they don’t just keep in a bucket, they actually put them in pens in the sea—like, very large—like this room sized, swimming pool-sized pens that are floating for like five, six days, then they release them on the reef.

But when you release those millions of spawn, they don’t settle. They swim off into the wild blue yonder. So how do you get them to stay on the reef? Well, that’s where the team from Bristol figured out that sound—it’s sound. Like, you know, he—that guy who you saw, Steve—he’s basically trained—he can train them in a lab. He can train larva to distinguish between rap music and jazz. (Laughter.) I’m serious. Like, they respond to sound. And you can actually sort of train them.

And he figured out that if he—basically he’s got cameras on the bottom of the ocean filming fish 24/7. Then he uses AI, basically, to take that, to figure out what key fish sounds are the most responsive to the coral. And then he basically plays them on speaker. So if you go to Laamu Atoll, Mr. Ambassador, and you swim out in the right season, you’ll see a kilometer of speakers on the bottom of the sea playing a soundtrack to call the coral lava in. And that was cool, to put those two pieces together. And very rarely in a documentary in real life you get the amazing chance to do that.

KOSS: Fantastic. So it’s fitting this entire episode is devoted to water. It’s been a big year for oceans. Countries are negotiating a global treaty on plastic pollution. The blue carbon market is gaining real momentum. And there’s been plenty of media buzz about rising ocean temperatures, which is critical for coral. So I’ll turn to you. You’re the chief climate officer at USAID. You also oversee a vast nature and biodiversity portfolio. I think people tend to think—understand the relationship between forests and climate, but the link between oceans and climate is perhaps less intuitive. Help us understand that connection. Why is ocean conservation important for climate mitigation and adaptation?

CALDWELL: Well, I feel funny speaking to a room full of, you know, oceanographers and marine specialists and more, but maybe before I get to that just noting that, you know, the oceans matter for people and for planet. You know, there’s three billion people around the world who rely on oceans for 20 percent of their protein. There’s over a half a billion people who rely on oceans very directly for their livelihoods. And of that half a billion people, 50 percent are women. So we’re talking about communities and economies that depend on this, right? And then we get to your question, which is: Why does it matter in the context of climate?

And as was referenced in that film, you know, 83 percent of the entire carbon cycle finds its way through ocean. So it was actually news to me a few years ago to learn that mangrove and sea grasses are some of the most carbon dense capacity in the world, more so than even some of the tropical rainforests that we refer to as the lungs of the planet. So even as we see the impacts of the climate crisis on the ocean, as the seas rise and threatened to engulf places like the Maldives and those atolls, and even as we see the acidification, the bleaching of those corals—which was so vivid in the film that we just saw—we know and recognize that preservation is key both to mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions themselves and to adapting to the consequences of the climate crisis.

Because those same mangroves and sort of terrain surrounding the edges of the ocean are the frontlines between human communities, their survival, and, indeed, their very existence. I mean, there are island nations now that are talking about what sovereignty means when your island goes underwater. And it’s a matter of years before the very first islands do that. So, I mean, the oceans are just absolutely critical. And beyond that, I mean, the enthusiasm that you have, Sanjayan—he wrote me an email just a few days ago to thank me for doing this panel. I could just even feel in the email the enthusiasm—(laughter)—and the childlike enthusiasm—(laughter)—that you have for this And, you know, you can see why, because it’s—even beyond the kind of instrumental dimensions, right? It matters for our abilities to survive and thrive on the planet, the beauty is almost breathtaking. So let’s do something about it.

KOSS: Yeah. Thank you for that answer. And a question for Monica. When it comes to conservation, oceans still lag far behind dry land. Only about 3 percent of the ocean is considered highly protected. You’ve worked in this space for many years. What accounts for that disparity? Why is ocean conservation so much harder? And how do we accelerate progress towards our 30x30 goals?

MEDINA: Thank you for the question. And it’s an honor to be on this panel. Thank you to the Council. Thank you to PBS for educating the public. Thank you to the Council for bringing us together. I hope this is the first but not the last panel on coral reefs, because they are important to global security and to international relations. And for many of the reasons that Gillian just outlined but I’ll give you one more.

More than 40 percent of the planet’s inhabitants live within a hundred miles of a coastline. That’s a lot of people that are impacted by ocean. So of course they matter. And you don’t have to read very far into the headlines to read about the South China Sea and, you know, the tensions there, or the Red Sea, or you name it. There are tensions all through the ocean, because they are a shared resource. Up to 200 miles, the ocean is governed by the country that it—for whom it is the coastline. But the rest of the ocean, 41 percent of the planet, is not governed by any one planet. It’s a shared—I mean, by any one country. It’s a shared resource.

And that makes it complicated, and something that we have to agree on. There is one global agreement called the Law of the Sea Convention. It has parts that deal with fishing and with marine transport. But there’s not, until recently, been anything that gave countries of the world the chance to protect parts of the ocean, and to conserve that incredible biodiversity that you saw just a little bit of in the clip. But last March, a year ago, the U.N. agreed on a global agreement to preserve the high seas for biodiversity protection and for conservation. To make parks out in those high seas areas that aren’t governed by anyone else.

And that is a huge breakthrough and gives me a lot of hope, because as much as those may be distant and far away what one of my mentors at NOAA says often, and I repeat it every time I can, the oceans are too big to ignore and too big to let fail. And so as far away and as vast, and as huge as they seem, they are fragile. And I think the clip, you know, about coral reefs just as the tip of the iceberg, if you will, on the fragility of oceans, and their importance to people all around the world.

So there is a lot of momentum around international agreement to conserve oceans. And this latest U.N. step forward is an important one. Only two countries have ratified the agreement so far, we need 60 for it to enter into effect. But dozens have signed it, including the United States. And I hope that within a year, we will have enough countries to ratify it, that it will go into force and we can start to create those marine protected areas that will help coral reefs rebound, that will help fisheries rebound, and that will help coastal communities and the people who depend on the ocean to have a vibrant healthy ocean for their, you know, sustenance or livelihoods. And for the inspiration, the wonder, that it is.

KOSS: Thanks. So Conservation International is among the founding partners of the Blue Nature Alliance. You’re on track to double the scale of global ocean conservation over five years. That equates to 18 million square kilometers. That’s an enormous feat, accomplished very quickly. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned along the way?

SANJAYAN: Partnerships are really hard. (Laughter.) Even with best intentions and best friends in the room. That’s a great question. So we set a goal about five years ago to get to 18 million square kilometers of ocean, meaning that we were going to put our hands up and say we’re going to help drive this and provide the support and funding and technical help to do that globally. And we’re on track. We’re actually ahead of track. And if we get everything in our pipeline done, we’ll probably end up with about 19 million square kilometers. So a little bit ahead of what we even imagined.

So what’s made it as successful as it has been? One is, you know, collaboration is really important. It’s hard to do. And we just have to keep practicing and keep working on it. And I think once you get over a certain barrier, then it becomes a lot easier. And we, all the partners, work to do this. The partnership is CI, the GEF, the Global Environmental Fund, the Rob Walton Foundation. Minderoo Foundation, and Pew, along with sort of an insular partner in the Moore Foundation. So all of those organizations put up funding to make this actually work.

The second thing I would say that really worked is real engagement with communities. You know, it turns out that if people can’t see it, it’s really someone else’s problem. And if you don’t link economic livelihoods with the resource, you know, linking the production with protection, linking the fisheries with conservation, in the long run you’re just using philanthropy to do the heavy lift. So we have to use that philanthropy thoughtfully and, you know, strategically to make that work.

And then the last one I would say is that when you have funding in hand, it’s easier to leverage other funding. So it’s like this thing—like, if you show up without anything to put on the table, the barrier to get to the next step is very high. What we had with this partnership is that we had some funding. And because we had that, during the deals, or making it work just became a lot easier. Now, having said that, we do want more partners. We’re actually in a deal-constrained environment right now. So we want more deals.

A brand new protected area is just getting established in the Dominican Republic, right? And that will take them from their—they have about 10 percent protected right now. This will take them over 30 percent. That was something that we had one of—we were one of the organizations—meaning, the Blue Nature Alliance—is one of the organizations to help do it. And so we do want more partners. We’d love to do something in the Maldives, if possible. And then, as Monica said, you know, the big, big—the big prize is how do you do this in the high seas?

KOSS: So let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about some of the broader issues in climate and conservation. So back to you, Monica. We’re living in a volatile world. But still, we’ve seen big breakthroughs in recent climate and biodiversity conferences. As a diplomat, you are in those negotiating rooms. Give us a preview of the next few years. What do you think is the secret to successful negotiations like COP-15 and COP-28?

MEDINA: Well, that’s a great question. And I have many answers. But I’ll start with the obvious one. And that’s the United States. We are a force for good. And I look out at this audience, and I see so many people who helped bring the areas beyond national jurisdiction, or the BBNJ agreement, biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, that agreement into—made it a reality. And who will continue to work until we get it all the way ratified.

The U.S. has led in ocean conservation and creating marine protected areas. There’s one more that the U.S. could do. And I’m hoping that the president will. He’s an ocean guy. He loves the beach, as most people know. You’ve seen him riding his bike out there. He’s from Delaware. He spends a lot of time at the shore. So I’m hoping that he will expand in an area of the Pacific Ocean that we’ve already conserved an awful lot of, and there’s a little bit more to go. And it is almost like a high seas area because it’s out there. It’s also a strategic area. So U.S. leadership really, really matters.

And I know that these negotiations are complicated, particularly in the world that we live in right now that is so full of conflict. And what I will say, from having sat in those negotiation rooms, is that there are some interesting dynamics. The first one is that the U.S. can be a counter to some of those countries who we consider to be our rivals or our competitors. Who in the past have been very influential with some of the developing world, but now the U.S., by cutting its own emissions on climate on greenhouse gases—the things that we are doing domestically give us a better opportunity to talk about our—about what we can do globally, because we’re walking the walk, we’re cutting our own emissions. And as the largest—second largest emitter, we really need to do that in order to have that credibility.

And the second thing is, we can lead by example. And so, again, these countries—small countries, but who have big ocean territories who are already at 30 percent—should be an inspiration to us. We, when I was at the State Department, created a group of countries that were at or close to 30 percent, trying to get everyone to make that pledge. I think there are lots of opportunities at big international meetings to get other countries to, again, pledge 30 percent, which is what scientists tell us we need to conserve of the planet—oceans, rivers, lands—we need to conserve 30 percent in order to keep it functioning. So it’s really, I think, incumbent on leaders in the world, like the U.S., to lead by example and then to help other countries get there, so that they too can—we can all conserve the ocean space that we know that we need to.

KOSS: Thanks. So, moving to you, the crises—these crises that we’re talking about disproportionately affect communities that benefited the least from the industrial revolution. As we start ratcheting up global goals around emissions and extraction, there’s a very real question of fairness. Why did the Maldives or Guyana need to forego the activities that made the U.S. and the U.K. rich? As a leader in development, how do you square those concerns? How can we reconcile the need for economic growth in the Global South with the need to neutralize emissions, reduce deforestation, and protect nature?

SANJAYAN: That’s a nice easy question. (Laughter.)

MEDINA: She’s got it!

SANJAYAN: Any of you like—I get, like, what’s the funnest thing you’ve ever done? (Laughter.) And you get, like, how dare we lecture, like the Global South?

CALDWELL: Well, I didn’t have to smell any coral spawn, so. (Laughter.) As a vegetarian, I’m not interested in that. (Laughter.)

Yeah, so in the land of negotiations we talk about common but differentiated responsibilities, highly technical term. But to put it bluntly, no, we can’t expect the same thing from small, developing economies. By the way, I don’t like the “developed” and “developing” framework at all. And I don’t have a better one, so I’ll stick with it for now. We can’t expect the same level of investment or focus on mitigation that we should expect of ourselves.

You mentioned the second-largest emitter. I actually think we’re the third-largest emitter now, but historically we’re the first-largest emitter, right? When you look at accumulated emissions—

MEDINA: Oh, that’s true. Thank goodness. All these things are already kicking in. They’re already working.

CALDWELL: Yeah. Yeah. So we and other industrialized nations absolutely bear the lion’s share of responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And even if the countries we’re talking about considered that their first and foremost responsibility, it would have an infinitesimal impact, right? Less than 1 percent in some of these cases on global emissions.

But you posit a sort of tension between development and mitigation. And that tension is dissipating because we—you know, the economics have changed so dramatically. I mean, the price of solar has gone down 85 percent since 2010. And the price of wind has gone down 55 percent since 2010. So when we’re working with our countries, we’re—the countries in which we partner, I mean, more than a hundred around the world at USAID, we’re functioning in a demand-driven context. What support do you need to develop in a sustainable way? And the demand signal is for renewable energy, because it’s cheaper. It’s a less effective—it’s a less expensive alternative. So, you know, we don’t have to worry in the way that we did, I think, at an earlier stage about the—you know, the tension between those terrains.

I mean, the other thing I’ll just say, of course, is that as much as we have to keep focusing on adaptation, because—on mitigation because the global stocktake shows us that we’re just way off course in terms of keeping global emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius, adaptation is critically necessary. And that is what these countries are most concerned about. How are we going to adapt to what is here now, which are the consequences of this crisis? And that’s why President Biden launched PREPARE, which is his emergency initiative on adaptation and resilience, at COP-26 in Glasgow. And it aims to reach a half a billion people worldwide with increased adaptation and resilience, through means like climate information systems.

Because even twenty-four hours advance notice can save lives and livelihoods when it comes to extreme weather events. And because farmers need more insight, both in terms of what’s forthcoming to know when to plant, you know when to sow and when to harvest, but also even in terms of the context of the markets and what’s going on vis-à-vis selling the crops that they’re growing. So, thankfully, we’re not in a place where we have to worry in the same way that we perhaps once did about an either/or dichotomy. And we’re really focused on propelling a clean energy future.

KOSS: Yeah. I mean, there’s now a growing economy in mitigation and restoration.

CALDWELL: Exactly.

KOSS: Who would have thought?

SANJAYAN: And, I mean—I mean, Gillian, you know, has spent a lot of time trying to create value, particularly in the Global South, on nature-based solution. I mean, it’s sort of—that’s how I got to first meet her, in those conversations. And I know for both Monica and her, you know, having that administration hat on, you know, or the government hat on, you know, creating value in other economies is really the way, rather than lecturing, right? If you can—if you can create sense that it’s in your enlightened self-interest, you’re going to make it—make it more successful.

KOSS: Yeah. So when we go to conferences, we typically end up talking about international agreements, global scale, big macro topics. But Changing Planet is very different. It’s all about local solutions and local leadership. Why make the focus of this series that way? Why is it so important to tell these microscale stories?

SANJAYAN: Well, I couldn’t—I am not good enough, or maybe PBS is, but it’s hard to do a great story about the conference that we go to. (Laughter.) I mean, oh, my God, the drama. (Laughter.) Although, you know—you know, at CBD, that was actually quite interesting, right? There was real drama until the very last minute, because, you know, basically, I think, DRC and Rwanda had to both agree to sign onto this thing. And no one knew whether they were each going to—there’s, like, there’s like a hundred and something countries, I don’t know, 190 countries had signed on.

MEDINA: But you had to have everybody. Have to have everybody.

SANJAYAN: And to have to—I mean, that’s the amazing thing as well, right? You’re in a moment right now where most of the planet has—I mean, there’s more commonality in protecting nature than any issue that I can possibly think of, right?

MEDINA: What he said.


MEDINA: Yeah, totally.

SANJAYAN: I mean, at a time that the world is hyperpolarized—like hyperpolarized—that you got 192 countries—you know, India and China, China and the United States, Rwanda and—

MEDINA: Russia.

SANJAYAN: Russia. Rwanda and DRC, all agreed to this. Now, either they’re incredibly cynical and they think nothing’s going to happen, or they all think that at the basis the people in their communities really do want this. So the onus now is on us, and you, to actually do something with this. Like, it’s almost like the governments have been, like, OK, you win. We’ll sign on. Now, what do you want us to do? So, I’d love to do the story about the big thing. But, you know, all stories are local and global. And I think you just have to find that character that you can get really excited about. So it’s just a way of bringing something big to TV.

KOSS: Great. So I’m going to turn to the audience right now and get you to start thinking about questions you might want to ask. I have one more question for Sanjayan. This is an unprecedent seven-year project. The point is to see how these bellwether biomes change over time. I understand that you’re traveling back to California this year. Tell us about what you saw on your last trip and what you’re hoping to see this time around.

SANJAYAN: Yeah. So the theory started with a trip that I did with the crew to the Yurok in Northern California. So I did my graduate work in California. And I didn’t really know that there’s over a hundred indigenous tribes in California. I never had met an indigenous person in California that I knew was indigenous in the entire time I spent in grad school there. And here, many years later, I get to go back to Northern California to the Yurok. And the Yurok are unique for many reasons, but one of the reasons is they were never moved off their territory. So they still have a sliver of their original land. And it’s along the Klamath River, a huge salmon-bearing amazing river.

And the Yurok are in the middle of the largest dam removal certainly in the United States, and pretty sure globally. The largest dam removal—it’s a multiple dam—removal project in the world. And it’s really to restore this huge, huge river. And what’s amazing about these people, you know, like, you can’t—you go there and you meet the community and hang out with them a little bit, and you start wondering like why aren’t they so pissed off with everyone else? Like, why aren’t they just absolutely, like, just mad at what has happened to their community and their world? And one of their elders who I spent time with basically said, look, I’ve gone through all those emotional feelings, and I don’t really have time for that anymore.

And the Yurok really believe that they are the rebalancers of the planet. They’re like the beaver. They, like, really just believe that they were put on the Earth to rebalance the planet. And they do a special ceremony every year, a dance, a ceremony, to rebalance the Earth. So this notion of restoring the climate, it’s like God’s work for them. It’s like, this is what we were put on Earth to do. And it’s an amazing story. I’ve been following it for now three years. I’m going back because the big dam’s coming down.

When I was first there for PBS condors weren’t there. Now there are condors. I mean, California condors, once down to a few dozen individuals. When I was in grad school, they were down to, I think, twenty-something. Now they are free flying in the Klamath. I mean, it’s incredible. And then this huge dam, like overnight, I think, you know, 80 miles are going to be open to salmon. So that’s what we’re hopefully going to film and see. And you’ll see it one year hence. And it’ll focus on water and this restoration of this amazing river.

KOSS: That’s fantastic. I’m just this week serving on a panel that will award bipartisan infrastructure funds—

MEDINA: Hooray!

KOSS: And grant, after grant, after grant all for California salmon.

MEDINA: Love that. It’s awesome.

SANJAYAN: Oh, fantastic! Yes, of course. Of course.

KOSS: A lot of traction. The Biden administration has done a nice job with those grants, so. And there’s a few coral ones in the mix too. (Laughter.)


KOSS: All right, so thank you to my esteemed panelists here.

So we’re going to turn to the audience. This is your time to ask a few questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ve got hands everywhere. Where are my microphone—this gentleman right in front of you with the red tie.

Q: Thanks. My name is Andrew Harding. I’m the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. I lead our portfolio on the South Pacific. I’m also a member of CFR’s young briefer series.

So I want to dive a little more into the geopolitical references made. So, to combat the climate challenges that have been presented by this panel, does that require bilateral and/or multilateral cooperation with China? And if so, how can we trust China to be a reliable and productive climate partner? Thanks.

KOSS: Who wants to take that one?

CALDWELL: Well, I’ll kick it off. Yes, obviously. China’s the number-one emitter of carbon emissions globally. And it’s incredibly important that they are engaged alongside all of the rest of the largest economies in the world in reducing emissions. I think, importantly, the U.S. and China agreed that China was going to expand its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the NDC, to include methane emissions. And that is very important, because methane is a highly toxic, short-lived climate pollutants, 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And it’s our best near-term opportunity to reduce emissions. So the fact that China’s focused on methane, alongside those greenhouse gas emissions is important.

The other thing to recognize, you know, as much as people, you know, like to be critical of China, is that they’re a juggernaut in the clean energy terrain. I mean, they completely dominate the production—the entire sort of pipeline of solar panel production. And that’s problematic, of course, because there’s been documented slave labor of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in China. And that’s completely unacceptable. We need to diversify our supply chains. And we need to have fair labor practices and appropriate environmental considerations when we’re sourcing all those rare earths and green minerals.

So there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think, you know, China put more renewable energy online domestically than any other country in the world in the last year. So there’s a lot of promising signs. And we have to keep that conversation going. It’s really important.

SANJAYAN: And, I mean, can I add just one—I mean, it’s a great question. I think it’s on lots of people’s minds. You know, I would frame it slightly different—I would sort of turn that question a little bit in a sort of different way. So, you know, fifteen, maybe twenty years ago I did a Discovery Channel documentary called Powering the Future. It was not watched by many people. (Laughter.) So don’t worry if you missed it. (Laughter.) But here’s the amazing thing. We filmed a lot of it in China. So I visited the biggest, sort of, you know, wind turbines there. I went to a car factory that—no, a battery factory that was making batteries for cars. This is way before Tesla. I mean, I wish—frankly, every company I visited I wish I’d invested, like, my few dollars into these things.

Why I’m saying that is my worry is not that China will say one thing and do another, and we’ll get bamboozled. My worry is that we will lose this race and the head start that we have in technology and trade and what the rest of the world will ask will not be provided by us or, frankly, the West. That’s it. And I’d rather not—I’d rather be—I’d rather it remain a competitive environment for American businesses.

Think this lady—sorry. I know she put her hand up. Sorry.

Q: Thank you. Hi. Sherri Goodman. Good to see you all.

Thank you. Thank you first to—I’m in many organizations, but I’ve been a longtime CFR member. So thank you to Mike Froman the new—and to Sanjayan for sponsoring this. We should have more programs like this at the Council. Thank you, Jennifer. Rick Spinrad, my good friend, would be very proud of what you’re doing. And thank you to all of you, Gillian and Monica, my good friend, and Sanjayan. I think this is great.

I want to connect corals, climate, and security, because that’s my thing. And we now know that we have super corals, right? So we know that we can invest in saving corals, as you’ve shown, Sanjayan, and the ambassador, in certain regions around the world, where we will get sort of a multiple back. So how do we think about our investment in those super corals, both for conservation and for the strategic importance of securing this both for our own alliances in the region across, particularly the Pacific, and also for the planet’s future?

MEDINE: I’ll jump in and say, first of all, thank you, Sherri, for being here. Sherri is one of the pioneers in connecting climate and security, and has always been a vocal advocate for the security community being more engaged on climate. And these corals are important because they are a source of protein for so many people. They do create potential conflicts unless we are protecting them as the fish stocks that depend on corals dwindle, and overall fish stocks dwindle. We know that that is an increasing source of competition and conflict around the world in small ways and big ones. And you don’t have to look very far to see the distant water fishing fleets sitting on coasts—on EEZ boundaries, and scooping up fish as fast as they can, and sometimes illegally fishing.

So we know that these issues may seem like they’re environmental and they’re, you know, kind of warm and fuzzy, and not really about security. But they are absolutely tied into global security. And, you know, you’ve been one of the leaders in raising people’s awareness about that. We have to conserve coral. We do have this horrible potential risk from climate change and the warming that we see. But on top of that, there’s destructive fishing practices, dynamite fishing, and nets that drag across the bottom of the seafloor and destroy so much of the coral habitat that’s out there. And we can’t restore it all. So we need to protect as much as we can. If we want to avoid conflicts, it’s really crucial.

KOSS: And I’ll just add, the growing body of science on what the ecosystem services are that corals provide is just expanding rapidly. And we have so many better ways to figure out exactly how corals are protecting coastlines, the infrastructure behind them, the lives and the livelihoods, and quantify that in economic terms. So we’ve seen huge policy shifts in the United States. FEMA is now much more amenable to paying for coral restoration as a preventative to risk reduction. And we’ve never seen that before. And FEMA has huge amounts of money compared to what I have in my program for coral restoration.

So the more we understand, the more we do the science and understand what the implications are for losing coral reefs, we’re getting more buy-in, more consensus. Scientists have come together in a way I’ve never seen them before. Egos are checked at the door. Data is shared. We’re, like, quick to fail and we need to, we learn from failing, then we go on to the next solution. So it’s happening. Unfortunately, it’s taken a crisis to get us there. But thank you for your efforts, because we’re trying our darndest to make sure that corals don’t fail.

Gentleman in the blue shirt.

Q: Hi. Thanks for being here. My name is John Krauss. I’m a researcher at a think tank, but I’d like to affiliate myself with my previous job which was on a trawling vessel off Long Island. So yeah, the Alicia J, shoutout. (Laughter.)

But so in my experience working on a fishing boat, I see a vast disconnect between people who work on boats and scientists trying to collect data on fish stocks, et cetera, state department of environmental conservation agencies trying to enforce regulations on fishermen and watermen, et cetera, as well as the Coast Guard. There’s a vast disconnect between the people harvesting our finite resources and the people trying to protect those. And it worries me that, you know, people are working in conflict. And with—given your experiences, do you think there’s, like, a solution to sort of bridging this divide, or—because to me, as someone who’s had very close experience with this issue, I find that this is really stopping us from working together on preserving these very precious, sensitive species. And thank you for your time.

CALDWELL: I think I have some personal experience with what you’re describing as well, because my brother lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts and he is a fulltime lobster and tuna fisherman. He harpoons tuna. Also not my favorite thing to watch, as a vegetarian. (Laughter.) But I’ve had a lot of conversations with him about this, right? Because he depends on this for his livelihood and he, likewise, has a word or two to say about, you know, law enforcement surrounding the work he does. He’s got a two-person boat and he’s barely kind of scraping by. But at the same time, he’ll talk about purse seine fishing, he’ll talk about China overfishing the seas, he’ll talk about the impact of climate change on the fishing stock.

You know, he used to be fishing cod. They’re all but eradicated in that terrain. He’s had to move to chum. I mean, he’s trying to make it work. And I think he is better attuned to the realities of the impacts of climate than, you know, many of us are, Likewise for farmers. Which is the irony, I think, when we talk about the deeply divided conversation within the United States and our Congress on this point, because in some of the reddest states in this country we’re seeing some of the most severe climate impacts. And these people know it, but it’s become politicized and there’s also, you know, the influence of the industries that, you know, want to preserve their own livelihoods.

In any case, I think there’s a way forward, right, because these are—fishermen rely on conservation—like, an appropriate approach to fishing in order to sustain their own livelihoods and feed their families. And there need to be forums and conversations to facilitate a meaningful dialogue to enable people to engage and to recognize there’s a real difference between the small-scale fishermen and the large commercial fisheries, and the interests are very different, and they experience are very different. So it’s hard to generalize about what it means to be, you know, a fisherman in the world today.

SANJAYAN: You know, if I could add something quickly to that. You know, I think the trick is to link, you know, the—we need to find a way to link the resource extraction with the protection or conservation of the resource. When I was in college in Oregon we’d go to the small communities in rural Oregon and try to campaign there to stop logging, because logging was—you know, clear cutting was going on at massive scales. And it turns out that it’s not that the small communities don’t know what’s happening. I mean, they can see what’s happening to their hillsides. They know they’re running out of big timber. Like, they know that. But the way it’s—it had worked out, is that the logging industry there had linked the revenue from logging to the schools.

So every family in that little community, whichever community you went into Oregon, basically made this pact in their mind that said: Well, I’ll keep doing this for four more years, and then once my kid’s out then I’ll, like, take care of it. And every generation came along and did the same thing. And it was impossible to break that cycle. And I, as a parent, would do the same thing. And so we have to find models, and fisheries and ocean conservation probably lends itself better than any other, because the data is really there to say that marine protected areas and zones that are off limits for a particular time. So sports fisheries does this actually quite well. But, you know, in the commercial side, if we can create that virtuous cycle—so the more you produce the more you protect, the more you protect the more you produce, you then can start getting to what you’re trying to get to. Which are good people trying to make a living, knowing full well they want that resource to last forever.

KOSS: I think we’ve probably got time for two maybe three questions. There’s a lovely lady here in a black and white top.

Q: I’m Sophia Fernandez (sp), current high school student.

And I had a question about changes in awareness and new legislation that exists, or doesn’t exist, about deep sea conservation, and more specifically deep-sea mining.

SANJAYAN: All yours. (Laughter.) I mean, you’ve done a lot on this. I mean, you really have thought about this.

MEDINA: There is an international agreement being negotiated now. It’s part of the Law of the Sea Convention, that one that I was talking about before. It has these sector-by-sector agreements. And the one on deep seabed mining is being negotiated now. And it is really important to get it right. We don’t know an awful lot about the impacts that that will have. We know what mining does on land. We’ve seen the destruction it can cause. We know that it is a very challenging thing to do without disturbing. And so the idea of doing it in the ocean I think is frightening to a lot of people, and a lot of countries. And a lot of countries have spoken up and said: No. We will not allow it in our waters and we’re going to fight it. The French government is fighting it very hard all over the world, trying to get restrictions on deep seabed mining put in place in this agreement.

But there are other countries that want to see it go forward. And people do think we need these minerals for all the things that we know we need in order to have a renewable clean energy system. So we need to find that balance. You know, the understanding and doing no harm seems like a smart thing, especially when we haven’t seen this happen. You know, we don’t have a lot of experience. We don’t know—there’s so much about the ocean we don’t know. We’ve explored 5 percent of it. We’ve found, you know, a fraction of the life that exists out there in the ocean. It would be really terrible to destroy it. It is our life support system on this planet.

So there’s a lot riding on that agreement. And there are great scientists from the U.S. government working on it, although the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention. I probably should have said that from the very beginning. The U.S. has been a participant in the negotiations and we work through other governments in order—in particular in that convention, or in that agreement within the Law of the Sea Convention, the deep seabed mining one—the U.S. government works with other governments to help provide technical support and know-how, and know-how on how to develop regulation that will be really effective. And so we can play an important role, even when we’re not a member. I wish we would ratify the Law of the Sea Convention so that we could more fully participate in that particular one.

KOSS: Great. I think one more question. We’ve got a gentleman here.

Q: Thank you. (Coughs.) Excuse me. Harvey Alter from NIH.

You know, as the world drives up, the temperatures rise, we’re becoming more and more arid. Water supplies, rivers are drying up. There is going to be increased shifting, when we can afford it, to desalinization. But I understand that desalinization has some ill effects on the ocean. And what will this do to coral reefs. If you change the saline content by even a small amount, will that change reefs?

KOSS: That’s a great question.

SANJAYAN: Great question.

KOSS: And a very much related topic. One of the byproducts of climate change has also been that, in addition to oceans getting warmer, they’re also becoming more acidic. And that means corals can’t excrete their skeletons at the rate that they normally do. They may, in some cases, even see bioerosion. So when you change salinity properties, that changes which animals can live in which areas. And fish can migrate. If they’re in a thermal condition they don’t like, they can move. Corals don’t have that luxury. So if we’re talking about salinity regimes in the ocean through desalinization, that would be pretty immense.

But we do have corals that live in very different—the Red Sea corals are much more tolerant to thermal stress than other corals are. And I think the Red Sea is even a little bit more saline than other areas the world. So one of the good things about corals is they’re adaptive and they’re very plastic. And if you give them enough time, they will evolve to the new condition. But that’s what we’re trying to do is actually speed up evolution with corals and breeding more thermally resilient corals.

SANJAYAN: Well, I mean, I was just going to say, I mean, you know, it’s an interesting question, because you think, like, OK, desal, well, how much can you desal? And then surely it’s not—I mean, the ocean’s huge, like, immense. And so is this really going to make a difference? I never thought it would. But, you know, when we went to the UAE for the climate conference, there’s real impact now on the coast of the United Arab Emirates, particularly around on Abu Dhabi, because of the scale of the desalination that’s happening. And it’s absolutely changed the ability to restore some things, and then it’s created quite big sort of semi-dead zones in parts. I think it can be mitigated. I just think it’s going to cost to mitigate that. So I still think that sort of solar desal is really something that is in the future. But I think it comes at coastal degradation, which can be mitigated but it’ll be more expensive.

CALDWELL: Just one more point. I mean, yes, solar desal, right, because there’s also fossil fuel-based desalination. And, in fact, there’s a really interesting organization I met in Africa that is selling the carbon credits it’s generating by transitioning fossil fuel-based desal to—

SANJAYAN: Is it GivePower?

CALDWELL: Yeah, GivePower. But the other thing is the sluice, right? You know, what’s extracted, you know, whether that makes its way into the ocean, which is damaging, or even terrestrial terrain. It’s, you know, highly, highly toxic if it’s not properly managed. So, yeah.

KOSS: Well, thank you to the audience. You had great questions. We were a little bit stressed that people might not have good questions, but you proved us wrong. (Laughter.) And thank you very much to the panel members. Before we wind things up tonight, I’d like to invent—(laughs)—invent—invite Ambassador Ghafoor, is the Maldives ambassador to the United States, to come to the podium and say a few closing remarks for us. (Applause.)


MOHAMED: Thank you very much. Thank you, the organizers, PBS, Council on Foreign Relations, for organizing this event, and for inviting me, a specimen from the Maldives. I mean, I grew up in water, with water. Never realized the—I took it for granted, growing up with water, the corals, everything. I remember the first time I went into the sea and had the courage of—lost my fear to be able to go to the coral—edge of the coral, and dive into the water, and see coral for the first time with my own naked eyes. Our waters are very clear, so you could see even with your naked eye about fifteen, twenty feet. And I saw how beautiful the coral was, the different colors, the fish that were remaining there. And we didn’t have diving then. When I was growing up, diving was not a big thing in the waters. Although, it’s now one of the most well renowned diving spots.

I never realized that these corals died. I thought they lived there forever, it was—it would always be like that. So it’s both frightening and, at the same time, also hopeful to see what is being done about what’s happening to the coral, because coral is not only a source of life for us, it’s a source of life in every sense of the word. It provides a sustenance for the many types of fish that live there. It also is a mainstay for tourism industry. Who wants to come to the Maldives to see dead coral? And so having coral restored and knowing that it can be done, and knowing that there are people who are actually doing that, that is heartwarming.

I also never knew that coral had such a vast romance going on under the sea. (Laughter.) Romancing the coral. (Laughter.)

SANJAYAN: That’s very good, actually. (Laughter, applause.) That’s really good.

MOHAMED: Watching the episode on coral restoration, that was incredible. And the documentary was so well done. Congratulations. The coral restoration technology showcased in the video instills a profound sense of hope. Witnessing the innovative methods and dedication of researchers and conservationists offers reassurance that we possess the means to revive and rehabilitate the coral.

As I said before, it brought memories of my upbringing and my growing up in the Maldives. But it also made me realize not only the beauty, but also the vulnerability of the environment in which we live. We take the beauty of our islands, and the coral, for granted. But we never realize how vulnerable this is, living there. It’s often others who have taught us that this is vulnerable, and that it needs to be protected. This is not something that you naturally think of when you are—when your whole life revolves around surviving in the environment that is 99 percent water, right? And here, in countries like the U.S., you get out of home, you want to go visit a friend, you get into a car. In the Maldives, you arrive in the Maldives, you get onto a boat and go to the next. So just like you take it for granted land transport, we have to adapted to sea transport. And that lifestyle, that gives us—or lets us—that lets us take for granted that marine environment doesn’t always allow us to think of the vulnerability.

But, on the other hand, I can also say we have also been even traditionally fairly cognizant of protecting our environment. Long before people talked about, oh, you’re even aware of that, our government actually banned purse seine fishing with nets. We still fish one fish at a time on a line. And that is the most sustainable and most environmentally friendly method of fishing that you could have. But this fish that we catch every day, that depend on the bait and the other vessels that on the—this marine environment, if the corals die that is our bait or the meals for the fish that ceases to exist. Consequently, our fishes don’t grow and we are unable to actually—we lose that sustenance that we depend on.

So the coral restoration is really important and existential for countries like the Maldives. We are—every year we look forward to the UNFCCC meetings, the COP meeting that we have every year—or is it every two years?

AUDIENCE: Every year.

MOHAMED: Every year. (Laughter.) And we go there hoping that the world will come to an agreement. Over the years, there has been some movement, but we’ve also been saddened many times. Our hopes shattered. We had hoped—I remember way back in 2010s, when there was COP-15, when the war was trying to say, we stick to 1.5 degrees. And everyone was hopeful. But almost ten, fifteen years later, now it’s almost taken for granted 1.5 is not achievable. And while this may be—sort of can be shrugged off for some people, this is not something that we can shrug off. Because this is where our lives depend on, our country depends on.

People talk about Maldives going underwater, and some may even have heard about people saying that maybe we should buy land elsewhere. But believe me, nobody in the Maldives wants to leave the Maldives. Not because it is more beautiful than any other place, but it is the place where we grew up, where we have lived for centuries. And why should we be forced to move? Why should we have to go and live in another country or buy land? Because we live—we have always existed in a way that took care of the environment, like the way we fished, like the way we looked after the small islands. We have soil erosion, we adapt.

But given the pace of change that is happening now in climate change, we are no longer able to address these issues on our own. We look to the international community. We seek their support. We plead to them. We, as vulnerable countries, we need your assistance and your support. We do not deserve to disappear. We deserve to live. We deserve to exist, as any other population, as any the community does. And we hope that such work as there is now being carried out, and the attention that is being brought to these issues by people like you, and the awareness that is being increased, and even the return of U.S. to the Paris Accords, this gives us hope.

So it’s also on a note of hope that I will once again thank you all for organizing this event and bringing this very critical issue to the attention of everyone. I look forward to watching this on the PBS. I think I take much more—will be much more attentive on PBS programs in the future. (Laughter.) Thank you.

SANJAYAN: Thank you.


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