by Ryan Kelly and Meg Caldwell
When an environmental issue merits a full-scale editorial in The New York Times, it’s a sign that the issue has broken out of the scientific literature and into the popular consciousness. Last Friday, 10 March 2012, The Times ran an editorial highlighting the human-caused change in the world’s ocean chemistry. One consequence of human-released carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an ocean significantly more acidic than it was just a few generations ago, and this change is accelerating in tandem with our carbon dioxide emissions.
The Times piece highlighted a recent article in Science that looked to the geological record for analogous periods in the past 300 million years of Earth history. That piece, by Bärbel Hönisch at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and many coauthors, found no obvious analogues to the present-day buildup of CO2, although they determined that we can look to several catastrophic incidents—periods of volcanic activity far greater than any seen by humans, for example—for some lessons for what we might expect the future to look like. This most recent article joins a host of others (such as Kump et al. 2009 and Zeebe 2012) that cover similar ground, each illustrating major ecological changes (such as mass extinctions) associated with changes to atmospheric chemistry more mild than the one we’re now experiencing. We are truly living in a no-analogue future, conducting a massive and uncontrolled chemistry experiment on the scale of the entire planet.
What remains to be seen is whether we have the political will to change human behavior before it becomes impossible to lessen the changes we’ve wrought. The Center for Ocean Solutions first addressed this topic in another Science piece, which outlined existing laws that we might use to fight CO2 and the other drivers of ocean acidification. We’ve just submitted a much more in-depth look at the same topic (draft available here), for publication in a law review. The Times editorial, and other popular press surrounding Hönisch and colleagues’ recent Science review, underscore the importance of finding practical ways of dealing with this environmental threat that has just begun to enter public awareness. We need to use all the tools we have—and fast.