GIF: Panton Color Institute

On Thursday, the Pantone Color Institute announced its new color of the year. 2018, the year of ultra violet, will give way to 2019's year of living coral. And because the internet, people got angry.

Ambivalence about living coral popped up on Twitter as activists and scientists questioned if Pantone was being tone deaf choosing a color that is rapidly disappearing from our planet. There were jokes about how bleached coral should be the color of the year, that it’s millennial pink for climate deniers, that choosing the color itself was climate denial, and so on. Slate said Pantone might as well have called the new color “The Rare Coral That Has Not Yet Been Bleached, as It Inevitably Someday Will in This Increasingly Toxic Toilet Bowl We Call Earth.”

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To which I say, what is wrong with you people? This is an opportunity to change the narrative about the world we live in vs. the world we want.

As a climate journalist, cynicism is a feeling I’m all too familiar with. I spend all day thinking and writing about how the world is blowing its chances at a stable climate. I know intimately that if the planet warms by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, coral reefs will see widespread devastation, and that we are on a path that will shoot us well past that right now.

And yes, I know Pantone’s color of the year is going to be used to sell stuff. The company itself helpfully identifies a few options for how to use living coral in 2019, including makeup, home decor, “runway styles,” and my personal favorite, the catch-all “product.” I know that rampant consumerism is one of the key drivers of climate change, sending coral towards extinction.

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If you believe nothing can change, then yes, living coral is a slap in the face; a stinging reminder of the cycle of constant growth driven by fossil fuels that’s brought the world to this point. Yet when I saw that Pantone chose living coral as their color of the year, I was stoked.

Here was a chance to talk about one of the most beautiful organisms found on Earth that is also among the most profoundly impacted on climate change. Pantone itself notes this, if only obliquely, by pointing out that living coral is becoming “unfortunately more elusive.” And in statement to Earther, the company said “[w]e were inspired by the natural, colorful diversity of our oceans, and while Pantone is not an environmental organization, we are aware of the environmental concerns surrounding the dire state of coral reefs and marine life.”

The institute also describes the color—which it says it chooses each year based on combing the worlds of art, politics, society, and more—as “[s]ymbolizing our innate need for optimism.” Which is why I say screw (most of) the cynicism. Pantone didn’t create the color as a reminder of the stakes that every species on Earth faces or to spark radical change in consumer patterns. But there’s no reason climate activists, scientists, communicators, or whoever can’t subvert living coral. 

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We know that 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is a death knell for many if not most coral. We also know what it takes to keep the warming below that courtesy of a handy report put out earlier this year. The roadmap is there, living coral is a reminder of why we need to start using it.

Pantone has identified living coral as the color of optimism, and despite the gloomy outlook, coral researchers are nothing if not eternal optimists who we can celebrate. We’re talking scientists who are doing everything from breeding super coral that can handle hotter oceans to searching for deep sea reefs that could be refuges as the upper ocean gets too warm.

According to Pantone, the creamy pink tone is a “shade that affirms life.” If we want that shade to be part of life in the future rather than a memorial, then the world has some work to do. And there’s no better time than the year of living coral to get down to it.

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