Cancún condemns ocean acidification to footnote

If we had known in 1992 what we now know about the impact of ocean acidification on the marine food chain, would we have taken more urgent steps towards low carbon economics?

Let’s imagine that the landmark Rio “Earth Summit” held in that year had elbowed aside climate change concerns and instead agreed to establish a UN Framework Convention on Ocean Acidification. Many of the familiar ways of thinking about the impact of carbon dioxide emissions would be turned upside down.

We would console ourselves with the thought that climate change is the price paid for the role of the atmospheric carbon sink in slowing dangerous ocean acidification.

We would find a certain justice in the idle rich being punished for their carbon profligacy. They face a potential shortage of lobster and oysters, not to mention how scuba-diving in their favourite tropical reef resorts may become boringly monochrome.

We would find no solace in plans for adaptation, that pragmatic but damaging concept which allows politicians to think that climate change can be bought off in dollars.

In the oceans there are no available tools for adaptation to carbon dioxide pollution. The plankton are on their own in the acidifying soup, their adaptation antennae locked hopelessly into evolutionary timescales.

Most surprising of all in this fantasy scenario, we might discover the US playing a leadership role in cutting back on fossil fuel dependence. Even in today’s real world, the US is the only country sufficiently anxious about ocean acidification to have passed legislation addressing the problem (alas not yet in the context of the emissions which cause it).

Unfortunately, we have to wake ourselves up to the 2010 Cancún climate change agreement, 29 pages of wishful bureaucracy in which the subject of ocean acidification is reduced to a wretched footnote.

The scientists are not to blame. The reports that influenced the Rio summit – the IPCC 1990 1st Assessment Report and its 1992 Supplements – recognised the basic ocean chemistry but only in the context of particle pollution and the overall carbon cycle.

All the research funding went to climate change. And the prevailing mood was relatively optimistic that carbon dioxide emissions would be stabilised.

Instead emissions have rocketed by 40% since the 1990 baseline. A recent publication by the Ocean Acidification Reference User Group warns that: “if levels of atmospheric (and oceanic) CO2 continue to rise at current rates, then by 2018 around 10% of the Arctic Ocean is projected to have crossed this threshold (at which marine organisms cannot form shells by calcification).”

From that point, we’re heading for trouble. As with global warming, what’s happening in the Arctic is making nonsense of those global averages which guide policy. Carbon dioxide dissolves more readily in cold polar water which then heads south on deep ocean currents.

The affluent oyster and lobster fishing economies of both West and East Coast US are beginning to twitch that stocks may be affected by upwellings of this acidifying cold water. These lobbies are sufficiently strong to have prompted a Senate hearing on ocean acidification earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the hotchpotch of campaign groups assembled around the UN climate change negotiations have expended vast energies in inserting peripheral interests into the texts, evidently ahead of ocean acidification. Valid as they are, these supplementary agendas are harmless pinpricks to the elephant in the room.

Until the US advances from its current pitiful offer of 3%-4% emission reductions, the goal of stabilising the climate is gridlocked. A higher campaigning profile for ocean acidification might conceivably locate a weakness in the armour of US public opinion.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK