Scandal below the surface


The New York Times, 31 October 2006. Article.
The crucial issue this year is Iraq, and the most important issue this decade may be the risk that nuclear proliferation results in the incineration of Wall Street by terrorists. Both topics are spurring useful debate this campaign season.

But one of the more important issues this century is generating no serious discussion on the campaign trail. And, in place of a drumroll, let’s look at the chemistry experiment in which we’re all taking part.

If you think of the earth’s surface as a great beaker, then it’s filled mostly with ocean water. It is slightly alkaline, and that’s what creates a hospitable home for fish, coral reefs and plankton — and indirectly, higher up the food chain, for us.

But scientists have discovered that the carbon dioxide we’re spewing into the air doesn’t just heat up the atmosphere and lead to rising seas. Much of that carbon is absorbed by the oceans, and there it produces carbonic acid — the same stuff found in soda pop.

That makes oceans a bit more acidic, impairing the ability of certain shellfish to produce shells, which, like coral reefs, are made of calcium carbonate. A recent article in Scientific American explained the indignity of being a dissolving mollusk in an acidic ocean: “Drop a piece of chalk (calcium carbonate) into a glass of vinegar (a mild acid) if you need a demonstration of the general worry: the chalk will begin dissolving immediately.”

The more acidic waters may spell the end, at least in higher latitudes, of some of the tiniest variations of shellfish — certain plankton and tiny snails called pteropods. This would disrupt the food chain, possibly killing off many whales and fish, and rippling up all the way to humans.

We stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of plankton.

“There have been a couple of very big events in geological history where the carbon cycle changed dramatically,” said Scott Doney, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. One was an abrupt warming that took place 55 million years ago in conjunction with acidification of the oceans and mass extinctions. Most scientists don’t believe we’re headed toward a man-made variant on that episode — not yet, at any rate. But many worry that we’re hurtling into unknown dangers.

“Whether in 20 years or 100 years, I think marine ecosystems are going to be dramatically different by the end of this century, and that’ll lead to extinction events,” Mr. Doney added.

“This is the only habitable planet we have,” he said. “The damage we do is going to be felt by all the generations to come.”

So that should be one of the great political issues for this century — the vandalism we’re committing to our planet because of our refusal to curb greenhouse gases. Yet the subject is barely debated in this campaign.

Changes in ocean chemistry are only one among many damaging consequences of carbon emissions. Evidence is also growing about the more familiar dangers: melting glaciers, changing rainfall patterns, rising seas and more powerful hurricanes.

Last year, the World Health Organization released a study indicating that climate change results in an extra 150,000 deaths and five million sicknesses each year, by causing the spread of malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition and other ailments.

A report prepared for the British government and published yesterday, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, warned that inaction “could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.”

If emissions are not curbed, climate change will cut 5 percent to 20 percent of global G.D.P. each year, declared the mammoth report. “In contrast,” it said, “the costs of action — reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — can be limited to around 1 percent of global G.D.P. each year.” Some analysts put the costs of action higher, but most agree that it makes sense to invest far more in alternative energy sources, both to wean ourselves of oil and to reduce the strain on our planet.

We know what is needed: a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, a post-Kyoto accord on emissions cutbacks, and major research on alternative energy sources. But as The Times’s Andrew Revkin noted yesterday, spending on energy research and development has fallen by more than half, after inflation, since 1979.

Melting glaciers and corroding pteropods aren’t as sensational as a Congressional page scandal, or as urgent as the Iraq war. But they are just as scandalous. We have no responsibility greater than as stewards of our planet, and we’re blowing it.

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