We must act fast to restore marine life

Not only is a healthy ocean essential for the welfare of more than 200,000 species who provide a critical role in innumerous food chains, including our own, and who face mounting threats from humans through increased ship traffic, pollution, destructive fishing practices, hunting, and direct capture — a healthy ocean also serves as a buffer against adverse impact to human life. Destroy that security zone and you make humans all the more vulnerable to the whims of the oceans. In Indonesia, for example, the coastal areas most protected from the tsunami in 2004 were the zones in which coastal reefs and mangroves were healthiest and most structurally sound. Consequently, as climate changes impacts are increasingly visible within the oceanic ecosystems through increased water temperatures, sea levels, acidity and coral bleaching, it is imperative that climate change policy reflects their vulnerability.

Remarkably, however, climate change policy at both the national and international level has exempted oceans from the debate. In 2007, for example, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had no experts on coral reefs when it published its seminal Fourth Assessment Report. Moreover, the United Nations annual conference on climate change, held the same year, organized only one event, out of 800, related to oceans. 

While the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House in the 111th Congress, does not specifically address imperiled oceans, it does commit our country, finally, to a target, albeit one not as aggressive as the European Union’s, for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. This is important for oceans.

Our oceans absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide that we, through our daily activities, release into the atmosphere. When the gas dissolves in the ocean’s water, it forms an acid. Given the world’s rising population (from 2 billion in the mid-20th century to more than 6 billion now) and resultant carbon dioxide released by the increased population, the world’s oceans are quickly becoming acidic.

Rising levels of acidity are not only killing numerous kinds of shellfish and breaking down coral structure critical to the ecosystem, they’re also creating uncontainable algae blooms that literally choke the ocean dry of other marine life. This is one of the reasons that China, in the lead-up to the Olympics, had to send thousands of its workers to its ocean shores to clean up the creeping algae overtaking its bays.

To reverse the damage, we must act fast. The Carnegie Institution at Stanford University in California found that, left unchecked, carbon dioxide emissions are likely to acidify the oceans enough to cause widespread damage to major reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, with more than 40 percent already showing dramatic signs of impact. More than 90 percent of the world’s reefs will remain in jeopardy even with substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Some marine scientists are projecting that reefs could cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, or perhaps even by 2050.

Endangered reefs mean endangered humans. If reefs die, we lose our buffer from hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. If reefs go, then so goes much of our fish stocks, about 70 percent of which depend directly on reefs for nutrients and food. But since our food and physical security is dependent upon these reefs existing, their disappearance is not an option for us.

We must make oceans a priority, or they will soon come, in waves, knocking at our door, forcing us to prioritize them. The oceans are filled up to the brim with carbon and could call it quits unless we act quickly. It is time we do so.

Honda is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.