I have long held that the greatest challenge posed by industrial carbon emissions is not anthropogenic global warming but ocean acidification.* Geoengineering and adaptation schemes offer policy makers answers to the problem posed by climate change; these options do diddly squat to reduce ocean acidification. If slowing acidification is indeed a noble goal, then emissions mitigation in the only possible option.
It is an option the world shall always forsake. The short term costs of issuing serious restrictions on carbon emissions are simply too high for any sane actor in international politics. Bar a major technological shift in energy production, I suspect this statement to hold true throughout the course of my lifetime.
The world should thus prepare for a future of acidic oceans. To this end I offer two recommendations, one for researchers and the other for activists.
Research concerning maritime resiliency is desperately needed. As ocean acidification has only been on scientist’s radar for the last few years, the literature on this subject is sparse. This needs to change. Environments are not static; maritime environments have experienced tumultuous disruptions in the past, and it is unreasonable to think that the carbon emitted over the last two centuries has not had an effect on ocean ecology. Investigating the rate at which ocean species are able to adapt to acidification would be particularly valuable. Like the mosquito born resistant to DDT, there will be species that adapt to – and even thrive in – the acidic oceans of the future. The question is how long the process of adaptation will take.
This is assuming that the adaptation is allowed to take place. Acidification will put coastal ecosystems on the brink. Overexploitation shall push these ecosystems over the precipice. It is my advise for activists focus their efforts on the second of these threats. Overexploitation** is the single greatest threat to reef environments. It is also preventable. If activists wish efforts to preserve ref and coastal ecosystems,they must focus with laser like intensity on limiting direct human disruptions. Jumping into the carbon wars will simply sink activists in a policy morass inhabited by ideologues and deep pockets. While idealists may try to break the system, attempting to strip mankind of its largest and most efficient source of power is – and always will be – a fool’s errand. There is only so much political capital to go around; investing all of it in carbon emissions schemes sounds the death knell of our reefs.
*For those unfamiliar with the topic I recommend this short 5 minute ‘micromentary.’ The gist is this: the ocean absorbs approximately one fourth of all carbon emissions; by 2050 this should cause the pH of level of the ocean to drop from 8.0 to 7.8. While it does not sound like much of a difference, it is worth keeping in mind that a similar shift in the pH level of the human bloodstream would likely result in death.This change in pH level will have a similar affect on marine populations, with delicate reef ecosystems being hurt the most.
**I am including anthropogenic habitation destruction under this label.
Reefs at Risk: A Map-Based Indicator of Threats to the World’s Coral Reefs
Dirk Bryant, et. al. World Resources Institute. 1999.
An honest and intelligent introduction to the human impact on coral reef ecosystems. This report is also notable for recognizing that the number of reefs that have been monitored is not large enough to support any universal claims on the state of reef ecosystems. (An updated version of the report is still in the works. See more about that here.)