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Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Key COP17 Issues » The Problem COP17 Isn’t Talking About

The Problem COP17 Isn’t Talking About

By Timothy Damon ’12

Many issues are covered during each COP, including a staggering 70 plus agenda items this time around. Some issues get much more treatment than others, but there is one that is getting no time at all. What could this mysterious topic be, you ask? Ocean Acidification (OA), the “other half of the carbon problem”.

I just attended a side event by almost the same name here in the Durban expo center. Its panel provided a refreshing splash of science in what has otherwise been a conference nearly devoid of such a perspective. Unfortunately, the news, though necessary, is alarming.

Earlier this semester, I wrote one of my research papers for the Mosaic on OA and its implications for human health and economy. The experts from tonight followed the same outline as my own work, beginning with the hard science and then considering impacts through the social sciences.

So what is OA? The science is quite straightforward. CO2 that is released into the atmosphere ends up being absorbed into the surface ocean waters. There, chemical reactions with the H2O cause a decrease in ocean pH – or an increase in acidity.

But why does this matter? It turns out that increased acidity has the effect of rendering the oceans less habitable for many of the organisms – like coral, mollusks, some plankton, and more – that are critical to the lives of marine ecosystems. And this in not only a problem for the sea life; globally, humans depend upon marine resources for much of our food and economic activity. Not worried yet? Well, Dr. Carol Turley, a Senior Scientist with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, warned our panel that negative impacts of OA are already detectable and may become much more serious within just the next 10 years!

Ironically, this is only 2 years short of 2020, the date US negotiators here in Durban seem to think should be the STARTING POINT for a new climate treaty (at any rate, they have been doing their best to shift the conversation from the discussion of post-2012 targets to one of post-2020 targets). I have been fortunate to go snorkeling a couple times in my life so far, and I would love to see even more. But if OA goes unchecked, there might not be much for me to see by the time I can travel in retirement – and my grandchildren might not ever see a vibrant coral reef, there just wont be any left.

The only way to reduce OA is by reducing CO2 emissions – fast. And even if we started doing so today, the process is already underway and there will be a lag before it comes to a stop. Add that one to your list of reasons for urgency on global climate action.

Obviously there are many issues the global community needs to sort out through the UNFCCC and other international bodies. Nevertheless, OA (and climate change in general) needs a major elevation in priority, as it has the potential to undermine many other efforts, from hunger and food security, to peace and stability, to economic vitality and development. We need action, and we need it now. Of all the problems today’s youth are set to inherit, this is one we really ought to address sooner rather than later.

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