@WorldChanging - Oceans Are the New Atmosphere
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by Jen Biederman on 02/08/2009
WorldChanging.com Articles: Tools, Models and Ideas for Building a Better Future.
What we mean is, that concern for the state of the oceans and the potential impacts of the on-going catastrophic collapse of ocean ecosystems is reaching a pitch that we haven't seen on any other environmental issue other than the build-up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. We don't live in them - many of us have never even seen them -- but we're handily trashing them. And the state of the oceans is inextricably linked to the state of the planet as a whole.
Simply put, if the oceans crash, we crash, and the signs of impending collapse are everywhere. On the other hand, it's becoming clearer that new solutions and policies may actually give us the capacity to understand and prevent that crash, if we have the will.
Throughout recent history, most human impacts on the oceans have stemmed from a dramatic misunderstanding, both of their value and of their limits. For all the romance we've assigned them in art and literature, in reality we've used the Earth's oceans as waste dumps; as all-you-can-eat buffets; and as highways for global exploration, commerce and warfare.
The vast dead zones now spreading out from our coastlines appear to be largely the result of the vast rivers of chemicals, fertilizer runoff and sewage we're pouring into the sea. The mountains of more solid and buoyant waste (like household garbage) that many communities still dump directly into the nearest ocean are accumulating in shocking amounts, and degrading with unknown results.
But most troubling of all is ocean acidification, the result of relying on the oceans to absorb the CO2 that we spew into the atmosphere. There is increasing evidence that the problem of ocean acidification -- or "sour seas," as we heard it called a while back -- is worsening rapidly, foreshadowing potential impacts that could be catastrophic for all life on Earth.
As Alex has explained before, the threat of acidification is one of the main problems with many proposed geoengineering schemes meant to mitigate climate change. Some geoengineering ideas aim to lower the surface temperature of the Earth, for instance, by pumping huge amounts of small particles into the upper atmosphere. But these plans would do nothing about the CO2 we're still pumping into the atmosphere, much of which winds up dissolved in the ocean, making it yet more acid. Other plans are even more sketchy, such as the idea of "seeding" the ocean with algal blooms to trigger the uptake of more CO2 into the ocean. Proponents say this CO2 will be safely sequestered: but both scientists and governments disagree and have called for an end to these efforts.
The clear answer is a massive and aggressive planetary effort to first eliminate excess greenhouse gas emissions, and then begin pulling CO2 from the atmosphere through safe, terrestrial methods, such as afforestation and biochar. This should be combined, scientists say, with strong measures designed to curb the sorts of pollutants now killing huge portions of the ocean floor -- a problem that may well worsen as climate change continues to raise sea levels and increase flooding.
Although we often treat oceans (or the parts closest to us) as though they have defined borders and governing bodies, in reality they are, well, fluid. Like nearly every other system impacted by climate change, there is no fair distribution of cause and effect. Rather, the entire protective effort is only as good as the worst offender, and the destruction caused by some of us touches the lives of all of us.
That is why this year, as we work toward a new global climate deal, we also need to start pursuing a new global oceans deal. The law of the sea for ocean resources must be strengthened. It will take an unprecedented intergovernmental pact to recognize and chart a path towards a globally equitable and sustainable relationship to the extraction of food, minerals, oil and other substances. We need planetary agreements on fisheries' limits, limits that recognize that fisheries collapses have gone non-linear. We need to create and enforce marine sanctuaries, fund new research into fisheries and new approaches to ocean science and put what we already know about sustainable coastal development to work for people living in these most sensitive regions.
International alliances already recognize the importance of this task. Among existing agreements and accords are those outlined by the APEC nations' Bali Plan of Action Towards Healthy Oceans and Coasts for the Sustainable Growth and Prosperity of the Asia-Pacific Community (PDF):
We, the APEC Ocean-related Ministers, reaffirm our commitment to progress the 2002 Seoul Oceans Declaration by taking, subject to available resources and capabilities, substantial and concrete steps to balance sustainable management of marine resources and the marine environment with economic growth.
We, therefore, are determined to work domestically, regionally, and internationally, in the near to mid-term (2006-2009), towards:
I. ensuring the sustainable management of the marine environment and its resources;
II. providing for sustainable economic benefits from the oceans; and,
III. enabling sustainable development of coastal communities...