Ocean acidification threatens livelihoods and lives. Can anyone be held accountable?

brown coral reef in the oceanNew research links carbon emissions from the major oil and gas producers to dangerous changes in the oceans’ chemistry

A change is brewing in our world’s oceans: waters are warming and becoming more acidic. The long-term effects of these changes could be ruinous for marine life worldwide, and for the people who depend on it for their food and income. The effects of warming and acidification—among other climate-related impacts on our oceans—are already being felt in some regions, as fish populations migrate, and corals die en masse. Who is responsible for these and future damages? And how can they pay for what they’ve done?

Acidification and its Consequences

While some emissions from burning fossil fuels are taken up by trees and other vegetation on land, much of the emissions lingers in the atmosphere, contributing to the blanketing “greenhouse” effect that warms the earth. The world’s oceans absorb the rest, which nudges its chemistry along the pH scale from basic toward acidic. Surface waters are now nearly 30 percent more acidic than they were in 1850. And ocean acidification is happening at a faster rate today than at any point in the last 66 million years. Projections show that if we do not reduce our carbon emissions, ocean surface waters could be more than twice as acidic in 2100 as they were in 2000.

Increased acidification is harmful to marine life. As carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, chemical reactions deprive marine organisms such as crabs and corals of the carbonate ions they need to build their protective shells. Studies done on commercially caught crab species in Alaska have found that crab survival rates drop consistently with more acidic waters. Coral reefs bleached by warming waters are less capable of rebuilding as their environment becomes more acidic. And populations of tiny shell-forming foraminifera—an important food source for many species—risk a sharp decline, threatening the entire global food chain.

“Within the next decades, we’re fast approaching a threshold where particular organisms won’t be able to survive,” says Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist at environmental advocacy nonprofit the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Warming and acidification are a one-two punch for many species, including our own.”

From large-scale fishing operations to individual subsistence fishers, ocean warming and acidification also pose an existential threat to the millions of people worldwide who depend on healthy oceans for their survival, Licker says.

She and her colleagues at UCS aren’t just studying the process of acidification, however. They’re at the forefront of scientific research showing that acidification and other consequences of climate change are, to a large extent, the result of the practices and policies of the fossil fuel industry.

Who Is Responsible?

Licker and her colleagues have been working for years to understand the link between specific effects of climate change and the largest industrial producers of carbon emissions, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron. Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at UCS, led a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change debuting a scientific formula that shows just how much responsibility for hotter temperatures and rising seas can be attributed to 90 private, majority state-owned, or national companies. This formula showed that emissions traced to those producers from 1854 to 2010 were responsible for 42 to 50 percent of the rise in global average surface temperatures, and 26 to 32 percent of global sea-level rise.

In 2019, Licker, Ekwurzel, and their team applied the same formula to attribute documented changes in ocean pH to specific companies, resulting in another paper published in Environmental Research Letters. They found that more than half of the increase in ocean acidity between 1880-2015 is tied to emissions from just 88 fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers, with investor-owned corporations led by Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips.

Cutting Emissions Is Imperative

The solution to ocean acidification is also the solution to global warming and sea-level rise, Licker says rapid, drastic, widespread cuts to carbon emissions.

Ocean acidification is such a rapid process, she says, that her team can track shifts in acidity in direct proportion to atmospheric carbon dioxide, just a year after its emission. “The swift reduction in emissions we need would most directly slow down the pace of ocean acidification. she says. “Knowing that there’s no reason not to advocate for action.”

First Steps Toward Accountability

By laying the groundwork of scientific evidence for attributing increased acidity in the world’s oceans to the major producers of fossil fuels, Licker and her team’s research offers a potential legal recourse to those suffering the consequences—a way to demand accountability and an end to unchecked carbon emissions.

“The science of attribution,” she says, “can help many of the people facing the most immediate impacts take steps toward economic restoration.”

This may be especially true for acidification “hot spots” including the South Pacific’s Coral Triangle, the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, the Arctic, the California current (which spans the coastal Pacific Northwest), and the Peru current (which runs along the western coast of South America). In the Coral Triangle alone, where the region’s marine biodiversity supports more than 100 million people, fisheries worth nearly $3 billion annually are at risk.

Licker and her team’s research includes some quantification of the risk to lives and livelihoods for each of these hot spots—such as the number of jobs that could be lost—along with specific changes to ocean water pH.

“If people at risk use our work in conjunction with regional studies dedicated to acidification, we have confidence that they could tie a portion of the harmful changes occurring in their specific location back to the fossil fuel producers,” Licker says.

During the 50 years that the fossil fuel industry knew about the climate-related risks of their products, companies could have taken steps to prevent the crises, including acidification, that the world now faces. Instead, these companies have poured money into disinformation campaigns to create and spread doubt about climate science.

Marine life, and all who depend on it for their livelihoods, are paying the price—when fossil fuel companies can and should be held accountable.

Pamela Worth, Seven Seas Media, March 2020. Article.

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Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

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