Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Are We Capable of Protecting the Oceans? --Probably Not.

Transforming Earth (New Scientist)
BBC News asked that question to a number of experts at the beginning of the month ( Viewpoints: Are humans capable of protecting the oceans?  ) and, not being an expert, I’ve been grappling with an answer for the last couple of weeks.

According to BBC News:

The health of the world's oceans is deteriorating even faster than had previously been thought, a report says. A review from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) warns that the oceans are facing multiple threats.
They are being heated by climate change, turned slowly less alkaline by absorbing CO2, and suffering from overfishing and pollution. The report warns that dead zones formed by fertiliser run-off are a problem. It says conditions are ripe for the sort of mass extinction event that has afflicted the oceans in the past. Are humans capable of protecting the oceans and preventing a mass ocean extinction?

You can read the answers of some of the experts but take some time to answer the question yourself. For me, these last few weeks since the BBC News article ran was characterized by some dark assessments of our human capacity for spinning our wheels while strutting and fretting amidst looming financial disaster aka shutdown and debt ceiling Russian roulette.

When I think about the ignorance and mendacity demonstated from right-wingnut leaders and their constituents, the oceans and their inhabitants are doomed. Not all of the oceans critters— there will be blooms of jellyfish and blankets of toxic algae to take their places. Nature moves on.

As a rule, ends come with dramatic bangs; they more likely come with whimpers. And the effects of climate change, ocean acidification and marine dead zones will be felt and reported over many more lifetimes than those of us who are here today.

In better moments, I’m heartened when I read about geoengineering solutions like those highlighted in last week’s issue of New Scientist ( Terraforming Earth: Geoengineering megaplan starts now ) because engineering solutions can be pretty cool. The article talks about the well-known bromide of ‘plant a tree’ but on a massive scale. Then there are new technologies like growing crops and burning them to capture their carbon and burying it, sucking carbon out of the air and burying it, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow plankton to capture carbon (something like what was done off the BC coast), and throwing lime into the ocean.

These are expensive engineering solutions which would change the face of the earth and would draw screams and protests from environmentalists like me. But those are the kinds of engineering solutions it would take to remove the amount of carbon dioxide we currently have in the atmosphere and reverse the climate and acidification trends.

Maybe you don’t like it but it’s at least pretty interesting— and a lot more interesting than listening to Governor Jay’s climate change initiative proposals he presented last Monday. ( Inslee Wants To Explore State-Only ‘Cap and Trade’ Scheme ) Republican legislators immediately objected to his proposals and offered their best alternative solutions, such as Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) wanting nuclear power, no doubt to be sited in his district for job-hungry constituents.

But geoengineering solutions to remove carbon out of the atmosphere and to save the oceans are fruitless unless we humans modify our terrestrial behavior and reduce the amount of carbon we continue to put into the atmosphere.

That’s the part where the darkness settled over me these last two weeks. We used to say that if people understood what was happening to Puget Sound, they would work to save Puget Sound. A board member once tried to slay that by saying, “What do you want? A bunch of educated people watching Puget Sound go down the toilet?”-- meaning it took action, not understanding, to save the Sound. Like in philosophy, the gap between is and ought isn’t necessarily a logical progression.

It gets dark when I think about studies showing how people collect facts to reinforce what they already believe and discount facts that contradict their beliefs. How many Americans still believe we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11? How come more Americans are against Obamacare than the Affordable Health Care Act?

In the dark times I fault the ignorant— but I will reserve the deeper circle of Hell for the leaders who fan the flames of ignorance to exercise their power. Extinctions happen every day; I think the demise of much of what we know as life in the oceans today will be with a whimper and other forms of life will take their place. So, are we capable of protecting the oceans? Probably not.

What do you think?

--Mike Sato


  1. Two adavantages of the engineering solution ideas are 1) they recognize that there is a problem and something needs to be done and 2) they can be a starting point to assess the cost of taking no action at all. It is a starting point for assessing the coast of discharging CO2.

  2. Now Mike, Now Mike - Have hope fella!

    You, as much as just about anyone in these parts, know how much progress has been made. More will happen - much for the good. A big base of what will and what won't work is being built.

    It's about 60 years since Rachel Carson published The Sea Around Us. That was really the beginning of the popularizing of the vastness and the richness and the fragileness of the oceans. A long way come since then.

    If either of us put a stake in the ocean-ground 60 years hence, and tried now to describe how things will be then, we would not even be close, and probably way too pessimistic.

    At least these are the kinds of stories I tell myself as I traipse about trying to help as much as I know how ...

  3. Engineering solutions can help change behavior as well: take the simple application of sensors that tell you how fast you are going when entering the school zone. That instantaneous feedback may not make a speeder stop, but for most of us it will make us slow down. Imagine installing in all cars as standard equipment a sensor that provided instant feedback on the amount of carbon one was placing into the atmosphere with every mile driven; it won't stop us from driving but it will make us a lot more conscious of our everyday actions and, who knows what that might bring to bear?

    Sorry to be so dark about the prospects of the ocean's future. I think it's a corrective to my tendency to still want to save the world after all these years. The world will not be saved by me and that's not something to get depressed about. It simply means the task at hand is to save what I can save and, as you say, "traipse around trying to help as much as I know how..."