OCEAN ACIDIFICATION SILENTLY ENDANGERS THE WELFARE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY – FOSSIL FUELS TO BLAME By Olivia Baaten While the nation’s gaze falls elsewhere, a silent threat lurks underneath the ocean waves. The sea is acidifying at an unprecedented rate, threatening marine species and the economies that rely on them. Human activity, specifically the unfettered combustion of fossil fuels, is […]
OCEAN ACIDIFICATION SILENTLY ENDANGERS THE WELFARE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY – FOSSIL FUELS TO BLAME
By Olivia Baaten
While the nation’s gaze falls elsewhere, a silent threat lurks underneath the ocean waves. The sea is acidifying at an unprecedented rate, threatening marine species and the economies that rely on them. Human activity, specifically the unfettered combustion of fossil fuels, is indubitably responsible for the degradation of the world’s oceans. One climate action non-profit, Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA), calls for phasing out fossil fuels to prevent the complete ruination of the oceans, an essential cultural and economic resource.
Ocean acidification is the process by which the pH of the ocean decreases as a response to an increase in dissolved carbon dioxide. Typically, the ocean acts as the world’s most important carbon sink, but there is an upward limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that the oceans can healthily sequester. As a global community we have far surpassed this threshold, and as a result the levels of dissolved carbon dioxide are decreasing the pH of the ocean in a catastrophic manner.
The weight of 500 billion Volkswagen Beetles, or 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been captured by the ocean since the Industrial Revolution. Correspondingly, the sea has paid a heavy price, as acidity has increased by 30 percent.
Fossil fuel companies are responsible for a massive portion of carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, they account for 93 percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide discharge in the United States. Despite publicly denying all responsibility, fossil fuel companies have been aware of their disastrous impact on the planet for over 40 years. In fact, ExxonMobil climate scientist James Black warned of the impending climate crisis in unequivocal language, “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” Although ExxonMobil clearly knew that their activity was accelerating global warming at unprecedented rates, it purposefully obfuscated its role in the climate emergency, eventually creating enough inertia to stop the United States from signing onto the Kyoto Protocol.
“When I was stationed on the Navy research ship RV Atlantis I learned how half of the world’s oxygen supply comes from the ocean. As the first officer mentioned, the collapse of the plankton due to ocean acidification caused by climate change and plastics is a ‘world-ending danger,’” said Alex Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran, and President of Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA). “We need to phase out our use of fossil fuels, before it’s too late.”
The damage the fossil fuel syndicate has caused is indisputable. Ocean acidification has a direct effect on many ocean species. As acidity increases, the sea water becomes hostile to species with hard protective shells such as crabs, mussels, urchins and can dissolve their protective coatings. As predicted, massive oyster die- offs have already been observed in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This imperils the survival of the species, and makes the food chain increasingly vulnerable to disruption.
Many more species are threatened as well, as the larvae of many types of fish are susceptible to acidic conditions. Some of these fledglings can lose their olfactory capacity, making them excessively vulnerable to predation. Even large predators such as sharks can become unable to smell in acidic environments, vunerabilizing their populations, and exposing the delicate balance of marine ecosystems to chaos.
As a direct result of marine degradation, the global economy faces daunting challenges. Coral reefs provide $30 billion worth in shoreline protection and in reef supported fishing globally. More locally, the coral reefs surrounding Florida are valued as an $8.5 billion asset, providing $4.4 billion in annual sales, $2 billion in income, and 70,400 jobs. The Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands rely on coral reefs for eco-tourism, protecting against flood damage, and fighting coastal erosion. Should the coral reefs degrade, the economic losses to coastal communities would be nothing less than cataclysmic. Divestment is the only viable path toward a sustainable future for these industries.
Fishermen and scientists are already seeing changes. Shellfish make up 87 percent of Maine’s fishing revenue, yet they are increasingly unable to survive in the wild. Acidic conditions are particularly inhospitable to shrimp, lobsters, clams, scallops and oysters. Maine’s $495 million lobster industry, the most valuable commercial fishery, could face the same steep population decline that has affected urchins, scallops, groundfish and shrimp. Maine lobster fishermen face overwhelming threats to yearly harvests, as overfishing, warming seas, and ocean acidification all present significant setbacks to lobster repopulation.
“With lobsters comprising 80 percent of the state’s overall fishery value of $616 million, Maine’s coastal economy is perilously dependent on this single fishery. We only need to look at the die-offs south of Cape Cod to see how climate change is having an impact,” said Rick Wahle, a University of Maine professor and co- author of a 2016 scientific paper based on research conducted by UMaine’s Darling Marine Center and by Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
Alaska’s vibrant fishing industry is gravely threatened by ocean acidification as well. In Alaska, many communities rely on fishing for subsistence, and value the fishing industry as a cultural cornerstone. Indeed, it is home to the nation’s most important crab fisheries. Moreover, the industry employs 50,000 people, paying $2 billion in wages each year. The pollution perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry jeopardizes Alaska’s very livelihood.
“Ocean acidification is not just an issue facing Alaska’s waters — it is a world-wide problem. Sadly, its effects are magnified in the Arctic. Alaskans rely on healthy oceans for our economic well-being, and it is critical that we tackle this urgent issue head on. I am proud to work with my friends on both sides of the aisle to ensure our most vulnerable marine regions and coastal communities are able to better prepare for the effects of ocean acidification,” said Congressman Don Young (AK-At Large).
Most coastal regions around the United States will be affected by ocean acidification. The Pacific region has already seen multimillion dollar losses to local economies. Sixteen of twenty three coastal regions around the United States have been designated “highly vulnerable” to ocean acidification. Economic collapse will certainly follow ocean degradation in these areas, affecting millions of Americans.
“Scientific evidence shows ocean temperatures are rising far faster than projected. Our fishing industries are at risk because of climate change. Our prized Maryland blue crabs may vanish. An ICCP Global Warming report confirmed that in 2017 and 2018 CO2 in the atmosphere increased at drastic rates. CO2 rains down into our oceans softening the shells of our crabs, mussels and oysters. Thousands of jobs are at stake, as well as our culture, because of this ocean acidification along with rising ocean temperature,” said Maryland State Delegate Pat Young, Marine veteran, Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) Leadership Council member. “Without action to phase out fossil fuel production, climate change will worsen. We need to enact a National Climate Plan not only to save our fisheries — to save the lives and livelihoods of millions around the world.”
There is some legislative action, at least to study the effects of ocean acidification. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree authored bipartisan legislation to support coastal communities grappling with climate change-related ocean acidification.
“For years, Congress has sat on the sidelines in the face of a climate emergency. Instead of trying to understand the issue through scientific research, many were trying to make sure we didn’t talk about the problem at all,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, when her bill passed the House. “It goes to show that it’s not controversial to study the changes happening to our oceans — in order to take action, we have to understand what we’re dealing with. This bill will ensure that state and federal officials as well as local coastal communities can better prepare for the changing acidity of our oceans. Today, science stands, and the House is moving forward to help coastal communities and industries to understand coming challenges from climate change.”
While Congresswoman Pingree’s legislation unanimously passed the House of Representatives in June of 2019, the Senate has yet to act. HR. 1716, the Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act would direct federal officials to work with state and local experts to study ocean acidity and deliver a public report on the socioeconomic impact of ocean acidification on coastal communities.
“I am pleased to and greatly appreciate Congresswoman Pingree’s work to study the issue, it’s an important first step,” said Alex Cornell du Houx, a former Maine state lawmaker, Marine combat veteran, and President of Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA). “A National Climate Emergency Plan needs to be implemented before it’s too late.”
Elected Officials to Protect America has proposed just such a National Climate Emergency Plan, and will pressure the federal government to take action on the climate crisis.
Such initiatives could have a tangible impact on marine conservation. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the most effective way to combat the acidification of oceans is to drastically curb fossil fuel consumption. If we act now, we can prevent significant decreases in fishery yield, and 30 percent of corals could be spared from extinction.