A scientist's reflection on coal and coral

I fell in love with Puerto Galera when I was 15 years old. A coastal barrio in the Philippines, south of Manila, she was difficult to reach. After a three-hour ride from the city in a public bus, I would ferry across the bay for two hours on an outrigger canoe through choppy waters.

For those hardships, Puerto Galera offered a glimpse of heaven. Her waters were a holy, pure azure. Her lagoons provided sanctuary to corals growing like underwater forests in fluorescent pink and purple hues. Flitting through this aquatic jungle were fishes of all sizes, shapes and colors.

Puerto Galera was the church where I learned to worship creation. And, as any callow youth meeting his first love, I vowed to always protect her.

Since leaving Manila a decade ago, I contented myself with regular visits to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. But last year, I returned to Puerto Galera. While there, walking through a sudden outburst of monsoon rain, I felt ashamed for failing to keep childhood promises, for I returned to a place I scarcely recognized. The corals were white, shattered and chalky — victims of the earth’s changing climate. With warmer temperatures, the algae that live symbiotically with corals, imbuing them with colors, produce toxic compounds that eventually kill their hosts. My church was desecrated.

I was in Puerto Galera because of a decision I made earlier that year, during the March for Science in Washington, D.C., held on Earth Day, April 22. Thousands of scientists and allies of science converged behind the White House with placards. “I can’t believe I’m marching for facts,” one sign read.

Trudging toward the Capitol, I paused on Constitution Avenue to watch other demonstrators pull phones from their pockets and take selfies in front of the plaque identifying my office building at the time. “United States Environmental Protection Agency,” it read.

Inspired by my youthful affair with nature, I had become a scientist. At EPA, I worked with science data, developing a model of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. I wrote code to harvest information from monitoring stations, from satellite images and other sources. With all that data, I ran my model on a computational platform in the cloud.

I marched to protest the fog of irrationality descending upon Washington. I empathized with my fellow Americans beyond the Beltway who felt betrayed and ignored by the government — that seemingly monolithic, soulless machine. But within this machine toiled workers like me, anonymous drones dedicated to reasoned decision making, to evidence-based governance balancing economic need with quality of life.

Marching with the horde of physicists, economists, biologists and others, I knew I could not work for a president who attacks the very foundations of knowledge without even the appearance of the reasoned decision making to which his predecessors aspired. How could I? I came to the U.S. a penniless foreign student, and it has molded me into a scientist committed to empirical truth.

After deciding to leave EPA, I tried to find an institution in West Virginia where I could teach workers in the coal industry to mine big data. When that didn’t pan out, I returned to the Philippines, to a country where the opportunities for data analysts are made real by global companies who don’t care where their employees work, if they can reach the cloud. I trained Filipino graduate students in the marine sciences — young millennials eager to learn how to use data so they can ensure the survival of corals.

But I continued to be haunted by the coal miner. His and my students’ fates are linked through a chain of science-based facts. Burning coal generates gas, acidifying and warming the oceans, killing corals. Those corals protect the world’s coastlines from floods and provide sustenance and livelihood for many more people than could ever be employed by coal.

I will continue to reach out to those at either end of this chain of events connecting coal to corals. Nature is oblivious to alternative facts and fake news. Saving her depends on our shared ability to discern what is real.

Pasky Pascual is retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; his email is writepasky@gmail.com.

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