Monday, December 7, 2009

Sea Change

The meetings are underway, and already many fascinating things going on. This morning Mike and I attended presentations sponsored by the US Delegation on the state of climate change science, among which the most striking of which was one on ocean acidification. Acidification happens quite simply as CO2 from the atmosphere is taken up by ocean water (which incidentally is where half of anthropogenic carbon emissions end up - reducing the buildup of atmospheric CO2 well below what it would otherwise be).

Dr. Richard Feely (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) summarized research on this process of acidification, a topic that has received very limited attention in all the discussions of climate change, and as the panel pointed out, is essentially ignored in the Convention's treaty language. In true scientific fashion, Feely was restrained and empirical in style while conveying truly alarming observations. Global ocean pH has declined (i.e. acidification) in parallel with the rate of CO2 emission increase, to the point where in places (including all along the west coast of North and South America) ocean water has become corrosive of the shells of marine organisms. Models predicted that this should have begun occurring around 2016, but is now already regularly observed. These effects at the bottom of the marine food chain will of course ripple up through the entire system with potentially devastating impacts. Similar acidification is projected to spread from these local hotspots to the entire world ocean within a few decades. The human implications are equally stark: 1 billion people depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein; 30% of global protein is from this source.

Acidification thus goes hand-in-hand with the process of global warming - that is, both stem from increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide - but as a process is entirely decoupled from the climatic effects: acidification would occur even if there was no climatic change. This creates significant policy distinctions: there are far fewer options for mitigating acidification other than CO2 reduction. As filmmaker Sven Huseby (A Sea Change) stated, even if we are to come up with clever tricks for reducing future temperatures (outer space mirrors, reducing other greenhouse gasses), the only way to reverse acidification is by lowering CO2. The panel suggested that 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 is a safe level for oceans (which we passed in the early 1990s); today we are at 390 ppm, and rapidly approaching the 400-450 that would likely be catastrophic for ocean chemistry (well below the targets for mitigating climate change). This makes the timing of addressing ocean health even more urgent than the already urgent climatic considerations.

Jeffrey Short of Oceana suggested that the simplest and most effective policy is a carbon tax. Users of carbon would pay a tax (eg when buying gasoline) - because such a tax is regressive, it would then be 100% rebated to all individuals (carbon users and non-users alike), thereby creating a strong incentive to conserve energy while simultaneously reducing C emissions.

Climatologist Jim Hansen recently advocated a similar policy: "As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they’re going to continue to be used and their use will increase. So we have to put a price on carbon. And the money that is collected from this price must be returned to the public 100 percent, either as a monthly dividend or a payroll tax deduction or a combination of those. If we do those things, the problem becomes solvable. If we don’t, it is the biggest inter-generational injustice in the history of the world. We’ll be leaving our children and grandchildren with a situation out of their control. So we’ve got to begin to influence the polices that are being talked about. And what is being talked about in Washington now and in Copenhagen now is totally inadequate. It’s greenwash. It’s cap and trade with offsets, which will be just like the Kyoto Protocol. It will do nothing to reduce global emissions.”

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