I like how Bill McKibben talks about climate change in his book “Eaarth.” Humans’ impact on the climate is like “a huge experiment,” one that has never been run before. We get to watch it play out before our very eyes, without a control, and without any true sense of the outcome. We are only beginning to understand the scale of this experiment, and the consequences of running it. But it’s clear that there is change happening now. And it’s happening faster than anyone would have dreamed.
Of all the consequences of releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the most intriguing and unnerving to me is the change it’s causing in the ocean.
“It’s basic science,” said Brian Baird, former Congressman and the last speaker at a town hall meeting I attended in Seattle last month. The presentation, “Dissolving Before Our Eyes: The Acidification of Our Oceans, and Why It Matters to All of Us”. Speakers discussed the science, policy, and social sides of ocean acidification—and why we all need to pay attention.
Baird was referring to the simple formula that tells us why we can expect a progressively more acidic ocean in the future. It’s called ocean “saturation state,”—science has shown that when carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere by the ocean, chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH. With a decrease in pH, the ocean becomes an environment that dissolves calcium, a vital part of the shells and plates that many ocean dwellers need to survive.
The basic elements of the ocean food web consist of creatures like pteropods and zooplankton, which form from calcium carbonate and its derivatives, aragonite and calcite. These creatures are foundational to the food web and the fuel that most critters in the ocean need to thrive. Not only is the food source at risk, but we begin to see oysters, clams, and other shellfish not surviving through juvenile stages because of shell deformities. We quickly realize that this condition threatens not just those requiring shells. Ocean acidification affects the entire ocean ecosystem and the economies that depend on it.
Recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences suggest ways to classify, monitor, research, and evaluate ocean acidification, but none of those recommendations suggest steps we can take to mediate or reverse it. It’s like many of the problems associated with climate change; we’ll “stem the flow” if we globally reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% within the next 50 years. Otherwise, we’re looking at a seriously different world than what we see in front of us today.
But it’s not that “simple.” Even with a monumental societal epiphany, and with cooperation and agreement among industrialized nations to suddenly focus exclusively on alternatives to fossil fuel consumption, we’re still in for a bumpy ride.
Ocean circulation is slow. It takes 1,000 years for deep water from the North Atlantic to reach the surface of the Pacific. This means that most of the anthropogenic CO2 released into the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution is still in the deep ocean. Slow circulation, according to Dr. Richard Feely of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, means that we can expect another 30 to 60% decrease in calcification over the next several decades. Considering we are nowhere close to a “zero emissions” world, this is just the beginning.
To get to a world that begins taking action toward the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions, we need a social movement on a global scale.
Baird described social change in a series of stages, based on his years as a psychologist.
- Stage 1 – Precontemplation: characterized by denial and ignorance of the problem.
- Stage 2 – Contemplation: Ambivalence, conflicted emotions.
- Stage 3 – Preparation: Beginning to experiment with small changes, and collecting information about change
- Stage 4 – Action: Begin taking direct action toward achieving a goal
Nationally, we’re still working our way up the ladder to social change, and negotiating a process that may seem a little more inconvenient and costly than business as usual. I would challenge that no matter what your opinion is on climate change, you would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t appreciate the ocean.
What we have through science is a definitive answer; if we continue with status quo, this problem will persist, and the ocean will continue to change. We need action by every individual and by the world to begin to tackle this issue.
I have to believe that every little bit helps. Every time I ride my bike or walk instead of drive, I battle ocean acidification. Every time I choose local over global, I save some pteropods. When I grab a sweater instead of turning up the heat, or make sure every light is off before I leave, I’m making a difference. We have to move from knowledge into action, because there will be no room for excuses with generations to come.