Desperately seeking a rapid-onset response to a slow-onset event – the case of ocean acidification

I last wrote an article for this bulletin in July 2009 (Guest article #17). On that occasion, I reflected on the immense expectations surrounding the climate negotiations in Copenhagen and the need to ‘Seal the Deal.’ I can see many of you holding back a wry smile as you remember that ambitious campaign so soon forgotten.

Back in those heady days of hope and anticipation, amid all the noise and distraction, I highlighted the pressing need to not forget the changing ocean. I invited governments to acknowledge the impact of climate change on the ocean and find ways to proactively ensure its resilience. Longing for a rapid onset of reform, I called for an ‘ocean of change’ that would finally recognise the centrality and criticality of ocean health to both mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.

Alas, my hopes for a tsunami of reform – while not altogether in vain – were far from realised. Now in 2014, as ambition and hope again escalate in the recycled world of climate change negotiations, like an undefeatable phoenix the plight of the world’s coasts and oceans must once again be thrust to the fore to ensure their centrality in the solution is not overlooked.

Key among the myriad of challenges facing the marine environment is the slow-onset phenomenon known as ocean acidification. As atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration climbs, ocean pH falls. It’s that simple. Falling pH in turn makes it harder for marine life to capture carbonates and fix calcium to build shells and skeletons. It may be a death sentence for many species, particularly those where calcification is a part of their early life cycle. The impacts of ocean acidification will be felt at the microscopic scale, e.g. calcifying plankton, through to the habitat scale, e.g. coral reefs. The implications for the marine food webs and the provision of ecosystem services are potentially catastrophic with extinctions in the next 50-200 years being a very realistic scenario.

Clearly, more and accelerated science is urgently needed. In this regard, I am pleased to report that the Environment Laboratories of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Monaco are making this issue a focus of their work, using for example, radio-isotopes of calcium to better understand the past, present and future impacts of ocean acidification. This includes observing physiological and ecological effects under different climate change scenarios. In an effort to improve collaboration and shared learning, the laboratories operate the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC). This is currently funded by the Peaceful Uses Initiative of the IAEA; however the urgent need for expanded research, data generation and knowledge products far outweighs the resources that are currently available.

The challenge of addressing ocean acidification is a cross-cutting one, relevant to the three dimensions of the ongoing climate change negotiations: mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.

Mitigation: the only way to halt and reverse the trend of acidification at a global scale is to stabilise or reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations by substantially reducing carbon emissions. The reductions required to halt acidification may even be greater than those needed to halt warming.

Adaptation: investment in adaptation must look at 1) reducing other threats to the marine environment, such as pollution and over-harvesting, so that ecosystems become more resilient to acidification; and 2) helping coastal communities and industries, such as marine tourism and fisheries, adapt to a world where coral reefs are degraded and the base of the marine food webs is irreversibly altered.

Loss and damage: greater knowledge, dialogue, collaboration and resources are urgently required to understand and manage the risks – economic and non-economic – associated with ocean acidification. These risks need to be integrated into national development planning, poverty reduction strategies, and other relevant policies at global, regional and national scales.

Like many slow-onset events where the threat is not realised until a crisis emerges, ocean acidification has caught us napping. Only now are we awakening to its implications. Only through rapidly accelerated responses, such as significantly increased research and sustained dialogue, will we know where and how to insure ourselves against this major, global threat. I just hope we haven’t missed our chance.

David Osborn, Climate-L (IISD Reporting Services), 19 May 2014. Article.

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