Subtitle: And, eventually you know who, too
Writing for the News and Observer, coral reef and oceanography experts John F. Bruno and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg put the Gulf oil disaster into perspective, then, at Skeptical Science, John Cook took a few excerpts and added some commentary, to which this blog hastened to comment.
First, an excerpt from the article, “In the oceans, the heat is really on”:
The world is saturated by coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the impacts of this tragedy are localized, short-term and trivial compared to the broader effects of climate change. The oil spill has damaged the lives and businesses of many innocent people. Remarkably, however, every day we are releasing several thousand times as much carbon as the Gulf spill by driving, flying and consuming and by heating and cooling our energy-inefficient houses. Hundreds of years from now, when BP is forgotten and the gulf wetlands have healed, ocean life will still be affected by the fossil fuels we are burning today.
Cook’s commentary is defensive about how the authors could offend those affected by the BP oil disaster.
I don’t see this as diminishing the devastating impact of the oil spill. It brings home to me the strong visual impact of the oil spill hence the strong public reaction. Climate change is not so easy to process visually, dealing in long-term trends and impacts that stretch on decades and centuries into the future.
At the talk on climate change at the University of Qld, Ove explained the problem with climate change was it’s like littering and the litter not turning up until a decade later. The irony is the impacts from our CO2 emissions will dwarf the impacts of the oil spill.
The defensiveness is understandable. This blog initially avoided the entire article because it seemed deprecating to disaster victims, yet came to recognize that the authors attempt to emphasize scale, scope and speed, which for many, is a tough slog.
When this blog last conveyed the concern among oceanographers that Earth’s oceans are losing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, it reported that human activity—from coal-fired power plants to car tailpipes—is responsible for nearly 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide wafting into the atmosphere yearly.
We know that roughly 15 billion metric tons remains in the atmosphere for a century or more. A portion of the rest ends up in the ocean—acidifying saltwater and making the oceans inhospitable to calciferous marine life.
On Facebook, this blog carped about the tagline to the News and Observer article — “It’s not climate change, it’s ocean change!” — since the oceans and weather patterns are highly interrelated. The authors say something likewise within the body of the article: the Gulf oil disaster highlights (and sadly will show for a long time to come) how tightly coupled certain economic activity is to the health of marine ecosystems.
In retrospect, the costs of preventing the spill by installing more reliable safety systems are paltry in comparison to the economic losses in the tourism and fisheries sectors. The same is true for mitigating climate change. Responses that cost less than 1 percent of GDP growth over the next few decades are matched against massive impacts on people and industry, especially in coastal areas of the world.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “We could have saved” [Life on the Planet as We know It] “but we were too damned cheap.”
SK commentator Patricia W critiques the authors for still repeating “the long since abandoned target of under 450ppm.”
They also do not mention the effect on the planet’s oxygen supply which ocean acidification will probably cause if it kills off oxygen generating phytoplankton.
In this blog’s not-so-humble opinion, what the authors failed to communicate is the non-linearity implicit in their and others observations about human-caused CO2 emissions. The commentary does get to the idea, although with words like “catastrophe” and “catastrophic.” SK commentator Agnostic gets bonus points for noting the article failed to mention the effects of increased absorption of CO2 creating carbonic acid, particularly in cooler seawater.
These cause depletion of aragonite and other material on which calcifying marine life depends for production of protective shells. This is known to threaten a major marine food source, Pteropods (Thecosomata). Such a wide variety of fish depend on them as their main source of nourishment and consume them in such vast numbers that they have been appropriately described by Dr. Hoffmann (University of California) as ‘chips of the sea’.
Extinction of Pteropods is likely with increased absorption of CO2 and their loss may well threaten marine life which depend on them and, ultimately, humans who depend on marine life as a major source of protein.
While the presence of CO2 does stimulate seagrass growth, providing an enhanced nursery for some marine life, its ability to form carbonic acid poses a threat to corals which provide such an important environment for a wide variety of marine life. The loss of coral reefs endangers marine life on which humans depend.
- John F. Bruno: The Impact of Climate Change on the World’s Marine Ecosystems
- Ocean changes may have dire impacts on people – UQ News Online – The University of Queensland
- the Science articles (18 JUNE 2010 VOL 328, ISSUE 5985, PAGES 1437-1598)
- Polovina, J.J., Howell, E.A., Abecassis, M. (2008). Ocean’s least productive waters are expanding. Geophysical Research Letters, 35(3) DOI: 10.1029/2007GL031745
- Henson, S. A.; Sarmiento, J. L.; Dunne, J. P.; Bopp, L.; Lima, I.; Doney, S. C.; John, J.; Beaulieu, C. Detection of anthropogenic climate change in satellite records of ocean chlorophyll and productivity. Biogeosciences 7 (2010): 621-640, doi:10.5194/bg-7-621-2010.