Posts in 'Global Warming'

Ocean Acidification: A Hidden Risk of Global Warming

I love swimming in the ocean, but I also know plenty of people who wouldn’t dream of it. There are too many unseen perils: the ominous tug of a current, razor-sharp oyster shells, sting rays buried in the sand and shadowy, slimy things brushing past. Even my fishermen friends, who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, keep a respectful distance from the waves.

The ocean is awe-inspiring. We were born of it, and it gives us life by producing much of the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink. It is mysterious and vast. No wonder we speak of emptying oceans with teaspoons to describe impossible tasks.

Yet, unfathomably, we have accomplished the impossible. We have changed the basic chemistry of the oceans — drop by drop — in such a profound way that we may be destroying a web of life that we depend upon for our very existence. Those ocean creatures should be wary of us — not the other way around.

“Scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry so rapidly that we are outstripping the evolutionary pace of many organisms to adapt.”

The change we’ve introduced is called ocean acidification.

The basic science is pretty straightforward: Since the industrial revolution, humans have been pumping ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Some of that CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid.

The ocean today absorbs nearly a third of the carbon dioxide we produce, probably mitigating the impact of climate change. But the ocean has absorbed so much CO2 that overall acidity levels are rising, and at a much faster rate than previously thought.

More acidic water makes it harder — and ultimately impossible — for some creatures like oysters, corals and mussels to form shells, which are made largely from the calcium carbonate, plain old chalk, that occurs naturally in seawater.  That’s why acidification is sometimes referred to as “osteoporosis of the sea.”

Photo by Victoria Fabry
These tiny, lentil-sized pteropods are essential to the survival of creatures like the humpback whale. (Top photo: Limacina Helicina by Victoria Fabry.)
Humpback Whale and Calf

This process affects creatures up and down the food chain — from the tiny organisms that build the planet’s coral reefs and the plankton drifting with the ocean currents, all the way to the whales that feed on the plankton.

Also affected are the lentil bean-sized pteropods, delicate, balletic creatures that nourish many of the fish we then consume. In other words, the ability of all ocean life to sustain itself is being compromised.

Scientists have been surprised at how sensitive plants and animals are to even small changes in CO2 levels. Some creatures have shown an ability to adapt to more acidic waters; lobsters, for instance, harden their shells in an initial response to acidity. But for many creatures, acid is deadly: Their shells disintegrate. And many scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry so rapidly that we are outstripping the capacity of many organisms to adapt.

Because the science is fairly new, we still do not fully understand the long-term effect of increasingly acidic oceans. The ocean is a complex, integrated, self-regulating system; how it will change is hard to predict.

As we conduct this uncontrolled experiment on two-thirds of the planet, scientists are racing to find ways to make the ocean more resilient. Doug Rader, EDF’s chief ocean scientist, says: “Along with our partners from around the world — from Cuba to the EU, and beyond — EDF scientists are scrambling to understand why some reefs are more robust than others, why some fish populations bounce back, when others languish, and exactly what mix of strategies will suffice to maximize the resilience of the world’s oceans.

“One thing is already clear,” he adds. “Rebuilding ecosystem complexity, including restoring populations of large predators such as sharks, is central to the long-term survival of the seas.”

The Obama administration signaled its commitment to acidification research when it appointed Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lubchenco, a widely respected marine ecologist and former EDF Board member, has made clear, in Congressional testimony and elsewhere, the seriousness of this threat to the seas.

There is no controversy surrounding the science underlying the acidification of the ocean. There is no question about where the CO2 is coming from. There is no question about how the chemistry works. And there is only one known way to stop acidification: to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The more we reduce now, the less severe, and costly, the future consequences.

What can you do? Become an advocate for the oceans. Take care to minimize your carbon footprint—but keep in mind one of my favorite phrases: living sustainably is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s equally important to demand comprehensive legislation that cuts carbon emissions.

And go ahead, take a swim. Bathe in those natal waters, and give thanks for the life they support. The ocean has the capacity to heal itself much faster than one teaspoon at a time. We need to give it that chance. We would be doing ourselves a big favor — giving our grandchildren a chance to inhabit a livable planet.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate to cap the global warming pollution causing ocean acidification.

Editor’s note, 2/12: The list of animals that will experience difficulty in forming shells has been updated.

Healing the Ocean

Here are a few suggestions if you wish to learn more about the oceans in general, and acidification in particular.

I urge you to watch Dr. Jane Lubchenco’s fascinating, jargon-free testimony before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming hearing, “The State of Climate Science” held on December 2, 2009. Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and was, until recently, vice-chair of the EDF Board of Trustees. She is a terrific teacher; her demonstration of the process of acidification is classroom-friendly, and makes the science clear.

Part One:

Part Two:

The Monaco Declaration, recently approved by 155 scientists from 26 countries, sets forth the acidification problem in a straightforward manner. It also addresses the option of geoengineering as a solution. (Bottom line: only cutting carbon emissions will work.) The paper, which came out of the Second International Symposium on the Ocean in a High CO2 World, concludes: “Ocean acidification is rapid, but recovery will be slow. The current increase in ocean acidity is a hundred times faster than any previous natural change that has occurred over the last many millions of years.”

The broader picture
State of the World’s Oceans, by Michelle Allsopp et al, is a comprehensive overview of the latest published scientific information about the condition of the oceans. It is written by scientists working at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the UK. It is also clear and accessible, though goes into some depth — I recommend this for the committed amateur as well as for the dedicated science student.

Rachel Carson is widely known for her influential book on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, but she wrote wonderfully and extensively about the ocean. She was a biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in the forties; her first job was to write radio copy for a series of weekly educational broadcasts, “Romance Under the Waters.” Two of my all-time favorite books are The Sea Around Us, which was bestseller in 1951, and The Edge of the Sea, which also became a best seller. Though some of the information is outdated, both of these books are eminently worthwhile. Carson’s style is poetic. She writes movingly about life in the tidal zones, and makes you care about those unseen, tiny, tough, resilient sea creatures. Her sense of wonder is contagious. After reading The Edge of the Sea, your beach walks will never be the same.

Nearly a half century after Carson’s books appeared, Dr. Rod Fujita’s Heal the Ocean: Solutions for Saving Our Seas, is a clarion call for action to stop the desecration of the seas. Fujita, a senior scientist at EDF, paints a picture that is both frightening and inspiring: He reveals the mysteries of sea life and of ecosystems gone awry due to humans’ over-exploitation: seagrass meadows where turtles once grazed, majestic kelp forests reduced to rubble from an explosion of urchins because their natural predators have been fished out, delicate coral reefs, harboring a quarter of the world’s fish, under threat everywhere from climate change and pollution. Dr. Fujita offers a wealth of creative solutions grounded in science and economics and backed by real-world examples. He makes you believe in the ocean’s ability to restore itself — if humans can become caring stewards of the seas.

Religion and Climate Change

The president of a religious institution isn’t the first person you think of as a likely EDF spokesperson. But in a recent television ad sponsored by EDF, Dr. Dan Boone, the president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee, made an impassioned plea for Congress to pass climate change legislation. “Please somehow find a way to let this global concern rise above partisan politics,” Dr. Boone said.  He’s descended from frontiersman Daniel Boone—clearly the pioneering spirit lives on.


Dr. Dan Boone pleas for Congress to address climate change.

The conflict between politics, religion and science has been with us for centuries; think of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin. Today there is rampant confusion between faith, something you believe in, and science, something that requires only connective leaps between hypotheses and demonstrable evidence. We seem to have lost our trust in the authority of scientists, no matter how impressive their level of training and achievement. A fascinating new Pew poll showed that Republicans are overwhelmingly less likely to “believe” the science of climate change than Democrats, who aren’t entirely persuaded either.

With every passing week, the scientific data gets more precise, and more frightening. Yet this has proven insufficient to move people to action. All the more fascinating, then, to watch the growing movement among religious leaders who use their pulpits to venture into environmental action. More than 10,000 congregations of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and other faiths are working in 30 states as members of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL). These religious leaders are clearly having an impact on people across the country who would never call themselves environmentalists.

IPL sees climate change as a profound moral issue, a matter of values—something many environmentalists have been wary of addressing, preferring to focus on technological or economic solutions as being less politically charged and ultimately more effective. But no matter what our approach, we all have something to learn from faith communities about how to bridge divisions and instruct, inspire and mobilize people.

The powerful message of Interfaith Power and Light—one that unites all faiths—is that people have a duty to be stewards of the earth. In loving God, we must love his creation. This is not, as some critics claim, about turning environmentalism into a religion; that is a perversion of what is actually happening. The fact is, in order to succeed in significantly altering the global course of climate change, we are going to have to harness all the power we have, whether it is the power of the market, the power of technology, or the power of heart and soul.

IPL is the brainchild of the Reverend Sally Bingham, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of California. Bingham is also a trustee of EDF. She founded The Regeneration Project whose mission is to deepen the connection between ecology and religion. IPL is the primary campaign and is a religious response to global warming. State chapters respond to a call to action: they agree to give sermons that explain the danger of climate change, reduce their own emissions, support public policy that cuts greenhouse gases, and promote the adoption of renewable energy technologies.

“Most people want to do the right and moral thing,” Bingham wrote to me recently in an email. “They just don’t sometimes know what that is. It is for that reason that religious leaders have such an important role. We need to take this issue out of the hands of the politicians and get it into the hands of the people at the grass roots level. Clergy can do this.”

Communities of faith, in other words, can provide moral leadership, something we desperately need amplified from many quarters. Think of the two major moral issues in America’s past – civil rights and slavery; the fight over these issues was led by communities of faith, united on moral grounds. “There are millions of people who don’t listen to politicians and who are skeptical of science, but who will listen to their clergy,” notes Bingham.

“The powerful message that unites all faiths is that people have a duty to be stewards of the earth.”

I spent my holidays reading some fascinating books on the subject of the climate crisis and our values, as I’ve long wondered what is keeping us, as a society, from wholeheartedly accepting the danger we face, and doing whatever it takes to ward it off. Many thinkers claim the human brain isn’t wired to handle long-term catastrophe; we need to see a real and present danger. Somehow, this isn’t a very good excuse.

I found a provocative and wide-ranging discussion of these issues in Down to the Wire, by David W. Orr; I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Orr argues that we must learn to cultivate “the arts and sciences of gratitude, which is to say, applied love.” We must be grateful for the gift of this world; that is the first step towards taking responsibility for the damage we have done to the planet. In a moving passage in his new book, Our Choice, Al Gore envisions the necessary social transformation: “Our way of thinking changed. The earth itself began to occupy our thoughts.” As Stephen Jay Gould writes, “We will not fight to save what we do not love.”

Martin Luther King Jr.Religious communities have often mobilized themselves to act in the name of love. (And, sadly, it must not be forgotten, the opposite.) They are well equipped to talk about values—those “habits of the heart”, as DeToqueville called them. The clerical message of members of Interfaith Power & Light is bracingly straightforward: help the poor, who suffer disproportionately from drought, flooding, famine and pollution, because it is the just thing to do; and heal the planet, because it is God’s gift to humankind, and we have no right to destroy it for future generations.

Love may be the common theme among these scientists, thinkers and clerics, but it’s not exactly the basis for a political platform. Nor is it scientifically measurable. But that’s why it is the most potent message of all, embracing the kind of idealism that can unite and inspire. We are daily bombarded with messages making us desire what we haven’t got. But going forward, the power will be with anyone who can persuade us to love what we do have, and what we are in danger of losing: the hospitable beauty of our planet. May the earth itself occupy our hearts—if not our prayers—in the coming year.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate that you believe in our moral obligation to stop climate change and protect our planet.

Portrait of a Preacher

Reverend Sally Bingham

Interfaith Power & Light founder Reverend Sally Bingham is sometimes referred to as “the godmother of the environmental movement in the religious community.” Bingham’s story is fascinating; she was a stay-at-home mother of three children in San Francisco when she felt a call to the Priesthood; at the age of 45, she enrolled in college, having completed only a high school education before marrying, and then went on to seminary.

She found her calling when she realized she never heard sermons about the importance of being stewards of God’s creation, a central mandate of any religion. On the weekend of February 13 and 14, members of her group Interfaith Power & Light will conduct a national preach-in on global warming and host discussions about putting faith into action.

Following are some excerpts of an email correspondence:

On Interfaith Power & Light: “We are growing so fast we cannot keep up. Every year new states come on—some red states, too, where faith is leading the effort.”

On Copenhagen: “Disappointment will be the flavor of the coming weeks, but at the same time we are energized to work even harder. Copenhagen established a short-term goal of persuading the U.S. Senate that it has a moral responsibility to limit greenhouse gases in this country. Faith leaders all over America know that we have a responsibility to protect the poor among us and that they are hurt the most and contribute the least to the problem. This is a justice issue, and for precisely that reason it is a religious one.

The religious community at large will be mostly pleased over Secretary Clinton’s pledge of $100 billion of aid to the developing nations. That is something we were working for.

On politics and religion: “Jesus said, ‘what you do to the least of us you do to me.’ Climate change is a moral issue first. It is a justice issue. We are supposed to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. You are breaking that commandment when you pour engine oil in the storm drain behind your house; it goes to your neighbor’s water. You pollute your neighbor’s air when you use electricity that is created by burning coal. Furthermore, it is insulting to God to blow the tops off the beautiful mountains that God called ‘good’. They are sacred.

On occasion a person will say ‘keep politics out of the church,’ but that usually doesn’t come from clergy. They know that we are the stewards of the earth and most religious leaders understand that upsetting the climate is more, much more, than a political issue.”

On the clerical role in social change: “When a society has to make a cultural change (like switching to clean energy and a green economy) it will not happen without the moral authority that comes from preaching by religious leaders. There are millions of people who don’t listen to politicians and who are skeptical of science, but who WILL listen to their clergy.”

Smart Grids: The Pecan Street Project

Because electricity is so readily available, we take it for granted. We forget how quickly we’ve gotten used to turning on the lights. As recently as the 1930s and ’40s—within living memory—Lyndon Johnson was just beginning to electrify rural areas of central Texas, which today include the state’s high-tech corridor. Watching the lights come on across the beautiful Hill Country was one of the proudest moments of Johnson’s life.

So it is fitting that the most exciting new development in the story of electricity is happening in the capitol city of Austin. The city is becoming a clean energy lab, staking out a leadership position in our energy future. The goal of the ambitious Pecan Street Project is to invent and deploy, at a significant scale, the most innovative urban power system possible. EDF has partnered with the city, Austin Energy, the University of Texas and corporate partners like Cisco, Oracle, Gridpoint and Applied Materials to develop the project.

Miriam Horn, co-author with EDF president Fred Krupp of the bestselling book Earth: The Sequel, and a team leader in Austin, says that this is the most interesting project she has ever worked on. “The old electric system is like a single-celled amoeba,” she notes. “Poke it, and it responds.” (Think back to 2003, when a branch falling in Ohio caused a blackout in the Northeast.)

Horn adds: “A smart grid adds brains and a nervous system. Instead of the one-directional system we have now—electricity is generated every time you ask for it—smart grids will be networked to find many different sources of supply, or to modify demand. They will enable dozens of things to happen instantaneously when you flip that switch, to find the lowest cost, lowest impact way to turn on your light.”

The Pecan Street Project is creating tools and installing 400,000 smart meters to give customers real-time information about, and control over, their energy use. “It’s like YouTube,” Horn says. “Citizens will no longer just be passive consumers but also energy producers with a system smart enough to manage itself according to their goals—buying them the cleanest power, or the cheapest, selling their homemade electricity when the price is right. Their refrigerator will know to cycle off for a few minutes when a cloud passes over their solar panels. They will be able to buy cars that run on electricity, and the car battery will know to charge at 2:00 am when windmills are churning out clean, cheap electricity and demand is low. And people will be able to sell electricity back into the grid—for a profit—during peak demand.”

Similar experiments are blossoming nationwide. President Obama recently announced a $3.4 billion stimulus grant to 49 states to deploy sensors and communications technology on transmission lines, substations and houses. This is a small down payment toward a safer, cleaner energy future.

But as EDF’s Mark Brownstein points out, a smart grid system will only work if, to the consumer, it is seamless, better than what we have now. “No one will adopt anything that has voltage fluctuations, or that is more expensive. And consumers have to get a share of the savings that smart grids will generate.” In addition, energy systems won’t come in one-size-fits-all models, but will be designed to make the best use of local resources. “Just as you wouldn’t dream of growing pineapple trees in your Rhode Island backyard,” says Horn, “the electric system in Seattle won’t be based on solar energy.”

Note to engineering students: this is the most exciting time ever to be in the energy business. If the future for the college graduate in 1967 was “plastics,” the future now, in one word, is “batteries.” Energy storage. That will make it possible to deploy energy from lots of different sources, even the sun, in the middle of the night.

Transforming the way we produce and use energy, the kind of change that can have a significant impact on global warming, must be developed system-wide. The Pecan Street Project captures a kind of world-altering approach, and its promise ignites hope. Sure, we’re consumers. But we’re citizens, too. It is ultimately up to us to demand a new system of power.

Personal Nature is powered by WordPress.

RSS feeds are available for posts and comments.

Share this Blog