The role of women and youth in changing the conversation on climate change

The role of women and youth in changing the conversation on climate change
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It all started with a group of schoolkids in Arkansas who wanted to help dying starfish.

In 2013, sea star wasting disease caused a massive die-off of multiple starfish species up and down the Pacific Coast of North America. The epidemic was a mystery. It seemingly emerged out of nowhere, causing starfish in the millions to disintegrate and die. Schoolchildren in Arkansas — well over 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean — heard the news and worried that starfish might disappear, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. They held fundraisers and sent $400 to Drew Harvell, a leading researcher on the topic, to help scientists find answers. Nobody asked the children in Arkansas to do this, but they wanted to help.

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The $400 sent by those Arkansas children really did help. The money funded initial monitoring that culminated last week in the release of important new research that provides some important answers. It’s now clear that warming waters were strongly correlated with the spread of the disease. Wherever unusually warm water temperatures went, destruction from sea star wasting disease followed, clearly implicating climate change. What happened to starfish on the Pacific Coast is now a little less of a mystery.

We also know that the disease hurt more than just starfish populations. It caused a cascading ripple effect through the ocean food web. Starfish eat urchins. Urchins eat kelp forests. Kelp forests serve as nurseries for young fish and playgrounds for seals and sea otters. Pull the starfish out of the ecosystem and the urchins reign supreme, eating every last inch of kelp forest. Kiss these amazing underwater ecosystems goodbye.

Our future and our prosperity are inextricably linked to the health of our ocean. If we don’t act on underlying threats like climate change, these impacts will be felt by our coastal communities. The sea star wasting disease is an example of how a cascade triggered by climate change can impact everyone from fishermen trying to earn a living to an eager six-year old on the beach exploring tidepools. 

This week, the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans & Wildlife will hear firsthand from a majority-female panel of expert witnesses about climate change and the oceans. What happens in the ocean doesn’t stay in the ocean, and climate impacts on marine ecosystems ultimately end up on someone’s doorstep. Coastal businesses, communities and jobs are all at stake, and Congress needs to ask tough questions about the risks the future holds.

For example, the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet, warming more than 99 percent of oceans in the last century. These warming waters are causing fish species to move north and to deeper water where it is cooler. Scientists predict that lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine could be cut by 62 percent by 2050. Fish populations are also moving further offshore to deeper waters, which make them more difficult and expensive to reach. As the lobster shifts to the north, more and more of it is in Canadian waters instead of U.S. waters.

 We applaud the House Natural Resources Committee for asking tough questions about the risks that climate change poses for the ocean, coastal communities and our coastal economy. And we’re even more proud that it’s a majority-women panel of witnesses representing their coastal communities to explain those risks. The time is now for Congress to heed the warnings and take action.

While the ocean problems from climate change can cascade into even bigger problems for nature and people, it’s important to remember that the solutions can cascade, too. Whether you live on the coast of Oregon or in land-locked Arkansas, anyone can be a seed for change. If a group of schoolkids in Arkansas can help spur groundbreaking science to help solve the mystery of sea star wasting disease and its links to climate change, anyone can help. With a new Congress in town, we have the first opportunity in years to get back on track. And we can guarantee that as Congress decides what to do, somewhere a group of schoolchildren will be watching.

Blanche Lincoln is a former Democratic U.S. senator from Arkansas, serving from 1999 to 2011.

Janis Searles Jones is the CEO of Ocean Conservancy.