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Acidification Threatens Oceans' Food Web

(Trip Van Noppen is President of Earthjustice)

It started in 2005, when baby oysters began dying by the billions in Oregon and Washington. At first, the fishermen weren’t worried, hardened by years of dealing with nature’s fickleness. But, when the die-offs continued year after year, seamen and scientists alike started seeking answers.

What they found is that the impacts from carbon pollution that scientists have been warning about for decades are occurring now. It turns out that while the world’s eyes have been trained on the changes to the land, the ocean has been quietly undergoing its own transformation.

As carbon pollution increases, oceans absorb the carbon, creating acidic waters that are hostile to species that build shells or skeletons of calcium carbonate. Affected species include corals, tiny sea butterflies known as pteropods and, of course, oysters. All play crucial roles in the marine food web. In addition to the West Coast’s multi-million dollar oyster industry, this unprecedented change in ocean chemistry is also predicted to negatively impact the 1.5 billion people who depend on the ocean’s bounty for their livelihood.

This week, two of my colleagues and I are representing Earthjustice at the United Nations Rio+20 Earth Summit to bring the urgency of ocean acidification to the forefront of the climate change debate. The oceans have already acidified by 30 percent since pre-industrial times. And scientists tell us with certainty that ocean acidification will inevitably worsen even if CO2 emissions are reduced significantly, because the oceans will continue to absorb CO2 until an equilibrium is reached with atmospheric levels. It’s merely a matter of chemistry.

To prepare for the inevitable acidification to come, scientists agree that building resiliency is the best strategy to help ensure that as much marine biodiversity as possible survives. Here at Earthjustice, we’re working to stop overfishing, establish marine protected areas and reduce pollution to help buffer against the waves of climate change impacts. At the Earth Summit, we will be using our expertise to lobby nations in getting stronger agreements that build ocean ecosystem resilience. We will also be working to bring unity across coastal nations. Low-lying coastal areas like Bangladesh and Pacific Small Island Developing States like Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which are on the front lines of this issue, cannot afford to wait.

Acidification may be an ocean-sized problem, but solutions do exist. What we need is concrete action from world leaders to address our climate, energy and environmental issues. That action should start with the U.S. delegation to Rio+20, led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

We also need to stop subsidizing the destruction of our planet. Right now, world governments give almost $1 trillion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, yet fossil fuels are acidifying our oceans, polluting our air and draining our wallets. Why should we pay companies to do that?

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