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THE ENVIRONMENT:

Is the World's Environment Near the Tipping Point?

A special report from the Oceans Alive campaign, with suggested solutions to the problem of global warming.

by Leslie Valentine

A special report from the Oceans Alive campaign, with suggested solutions to the problem of global warming.
Since humans began burning fossil fuels like coal and gas for power, we have released dramatically more carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping gases. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has soared to levels higher than at any time in the last 420,000 years, warming the earth on average by 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degree Celsius) over the last century.
Oceans as sponges: Absorbing heat and CO2
Oceans and forests naturally absorb CO2 and are sometimes referred to as "carbon sinks." Seawater also absorbs heat — it can store four times more heat per unit mass than air. In modern times, human activities have pumped CO2 into the atmosphere at a dramatic rate. The oceans absorbed huge amounts of both CO2 and heat in the last forty years, but not enough to keep heat and CO2 from building up in the atmosphere.

Environmental Defense marine ecologist Rod Fujita points out that because of the huge amount of heat the oceans are soaking up, "the oceans are saving us from faster climate change — in essence, they are a big fly wheel that delays rapid overheating of the earth, putting a brake on the climate system."

"That's the good news," he adds. "The bad news is that the oceans only slow the atmospheric warming down. Once the oceans come to equilibrium with a greenhouse-gas warmed earth, the excess heat will remain in the atmosphere and things will get much hotter."

Uncharted territory ahead
In effect, the oceans are taking up the slack for the atmosphere and delaying the full impacts of global warming. But where and how the oceans release this accumulated heat is uncertain at this point.

Scientists say that even if we cut our emissions of heat-trapping gases today, it would take centuries for gases now in the air to fall to more historically balanced levels.
What scientists do know is that even if we cut our emissions of heat-trapping gases today, it would take centuries for gases now in the air to fall to more historically balanced levels. And a growing scientific consensus suggests that changes are afoot in global ocean dynamics that could have profound ecological impacts. Even with major reductions in greenhouse gas pollution, significant changes loom for seabird and fish communities, ocean circulation patterns and basic processes of ocean chemistry. Without emissions cuts, the effects will be even worse.

Says Environmental Defense scientist Doug Rader, "The natural vagaries of climate plus greenhouse effects add up to substantial changes we will need to deal with — and plan for."

Solutions: What We Can Do
The debate over global warming has shifted from whether it is happening to how to avoid catastrophic damage.
The debate over global warming has shifted from whether it is happening to how to avoid catastrophic damage. "We're facing warming waters and major alterations in many oceanic processes and ocean chemistry, damage to coral reefs, and effects from sea level rise on marine ecosystems," says Environmental Defense scientist Doug Rader. "These are impacts we need to plan for and develop strategies for adaptation."
Make plans to reduce the damage
Rader, who played a key role in developing North Carolina's recently adopted Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, says we need similar "road maps" for all coastal regions around the country — and ultimately the world. He is working on a blueprint for Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds to project scenarios of how sea level rise, changing habitats, invasion of exotic species, pollution and other impacts of human intervention will play out by the end of the century. "The bottom line is that the area will not look like what it does now — but what it will look like and what can we do to limit the damage?"

Rader is optimistic that North Carolina is up to the challenge and sees the state as one of the leaders in planning for broad-scale changes to ocean ecosystems. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is drafting the first-ever fishery ecosystem plan. Recently, too, the state passed a landmark bill to address climate change.

Above all, Rader says, we need to invest in a new vision of the future — a national commitment to tackle climate change, one that engages diverse groups of stakeholders all working toward a common interest, one that seeks to balance economic gains with low-impact development and protection of critical habitat. "This would be an engagement similar to the plan to restore and protect the Everglades ecosystem," he adds, "which was really quite remarkable that so many different kinds of people managed to agree and get plan off the ground."

Environmental Defense recently teamed up with other groups and commercial fishermen to protect millions of acres of spectacular underwater habitat through a trawl buyout.

Keep other damage to a minimum
photo courtesy Oceans Alive
Commercial fishermen in California have agreed to create no-trawl zones off the coast.
Another tactic to ward off the worst impacts of global warming is to lessen other threats to marine ecosystems, especially in locales rich in biodiversity. Reducing destructive fishing practices, keeping habitat healthy and curbing pollution may help sea life withstand global warming impacts.

Creating marine protected areas (MPAs) based on careful scientific assessments can help buffer ecosystems as well. Says marine ecologist Rod Fujita, a member of the federal advisory committee working on a national network of MPAs, "we can help manage for resilience by working into protection plans factors such as siting the protected area around coral reefs known to be most resilient to warm water, and designating migration zones or migratory corridors for fish and marine plants, like those for land animals."

Forge partnerships
Recently Environmental Defense and The Nature Conservancy partnered with commercial fisherman to create no-trawl zones off California. (Trawlers are huge fishing boats that drag nets across the sea floor and damage habitat and catch sea life that is not used commercially.) Together, these groups protected nearly 4 million acres of spectacular underwater habitat, from deep canyons and seamounts to coral gardens and reefs. The groups shared information on where the fish were and where the reserves should be.

The protection of this vast area shows that bringing diverse groups together to forge creative solutions can work even on problems that seem impossible to solve. As broad and complex a challenge as global warming is, with a commitment to action, we can find ways to cope and head off the worst impacts.

Reduce global warming pollution
"Humanity may have only a narrow window of time left," says Environmental Defense climate scientist Dr. James Wang. "Perhaps a decade or so to begin the emissions reduction needed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that can avert devastating and irreversible impacts from global warming."
All these steps may only soften the blow of climate change if we do not act quickly to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

"There is no question we need more money invested in ocean research — it is grossly under funded," says Rader, "and there is so much about the oceans we don't know. We need more high-quality data on fisheries and ecosystems, and we need more extensive monitoring to take the pulse of the ocean — that is, to measure temperature, salinity, currents and biological processes that we know so little about." Still, we know enough today to take action now to address global warming.

"Humanity may have only a narrow window of time left," says Environmental Defense climate scientist Dr. James Wang. "Perhaps a decade or so to begin the emissions reduction needed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that can avert devastating and irreversible impacts from global warming."


Leslie Valentine is an editor and writer for Environmental Defense. This article is republished in the Chronicle with permission of Oceans Alive. For more information, visit oceansalive.org. The organization has published a complete report, available on the site, called "Hot Water Ahead: A Global Warming and Oceans Special."

A corroborating article from the August 11 Guardian Unlimited: Warming hits 'tipping point'
Siberia feels the heat It's a frozen peat bog the size of France and Germany combined, contains billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas and, for the first time since the ice age, it is melting


Copyright © 2005 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on August 11, 2005.

 
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