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February 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Diver’s Report From Copenhagen

how much time do we have to fin around living reefs?

from the February, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

I arrived in Copenhagen for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in December, not as a diver but in my volunteer capacity to organize the International Court for the Environment Coalition in the U.S. Quite simply, a movement is under way to create such a court to hold nations and multinational corporations accountable for environmental disasters. As it is, there is no accountability and no sanctions. The movement is modeled on the effort that created the International Criminal Court in the 90s.

A few steps after I emerged from my flight at 4 p.m. in the Copenhagen airport, I was greeted with a large sign stating: “Price of a dive vacation in 2050. 350ppm in CO2. Protect our oceans from acidification, which threatens corals, reefs as well as fish and shellfish stock. Find out how you can make a difference at”

Now we all know about coral bleaching and may have seen it firsthand. Increased water temperatures, happening rapidly now due to global warming, kills coral polyps, leaving behind just the coral structure, bleached white. While many reefs recover because warmer water temperatures aren’t sustained long enough to kill all the polyps, about 16 percent of the world’s corals bleached and died in 1998, as an example. That’s not all. The bottom cover of corals on Caribbean reefs has dropped by more than 80 percent in the past 30 years due to global warming and coral diseases, many of which are directly related to global warming.

I took in dozens of expert presentations on ocean-related issues, such as receding glaciers and the melting of Greenland’s snow and ice. Of course the ice melt, along with the expansion of seawater as it warms, is raising sea levels, an immediate concern of island nations. But a more significant threat to the health of the oceans is coming from increased acidification, attributed to the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Guy Midgely of the South African National Biodiversity Institute pointed out that coral reefs are the most immediately threatened of the ecosystems. They are being lost nearly five times faster than rainforest. While many scientists believe that increasing temperatures will make bleaching an annual event in a decade or two, acidification is not only killing reefs but poisoning the entire ocean. As more and more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, more is absorbed by the oceans. It’s rapidly altering ocean chemistry by dropping the pH level, meaning seawater is getting more acidic.

The acid reduces the availability of carbonate ions in the water, an essential element that corals, clams, urchins, oysters, mussels, shrimp, lobsters and even some plankton need to build skeleton and shells. Fewer carbonate ions mean many species are having an increasingly difficult time building their shells and structures and in many species the shells are thinner. Many corals are building a less sturdy structure, so coral reefs are becoming weaker and more susceptible to destruction from storms and wave surges, which decreases the natural barrier between raging seas and a human population on shore.

While a preponderance of data supports the deleterious effect of acidification on marine life, a study released in December by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute suggests that “different types of marine calcifying organisms will respond in very different ways to any future ocean acidification caused by increased CO2.” Justin Ries, who directed the study, says “Crabs, lobsters, shrimp, calcifying algae, and limpets could build more massive skeletons, while tropical corals and urchins, and most snails, oysters, and clams could be less successful at defending themselves from predators than they are today. . . . It’s hard to predict the overall effect on benthic marine ecosystems,” he says. “In the short term, I would guess that the net effect will be negative. In the long term, ecosystems could re-stabilize at a new steady state. The bottom line is that we really need to bring down CO2 levels in the atmosphere.”

That’s the thing about climate science. While scores of studies will clearly show a trend, one may show a counter trend. A critic can cherry-pick to argue contrary to the majority. Or claim America’s brutal winter as proof there is no warming (while ignoring the exceptional heat waves in Australia in January and November 2009). But the overwhelming evidence is inescapable. The burning of fossil fuels is changing the planet far faster than species can adapt.

Oceana, perhaps the most prominent citizen-based and ocean-oriented NGO, distributed a paper that showed which nations will be hardest hit by ocean acidification. Using criteria such as fish and shellfish catch and consumption, importance of coral within their economic zones and projected level of acidification in local waters, it listed the U.S. the eighth most vulnerable out of 25 countries, with Japan, France and the U.K. leading the pack. Its conclusion: Many of the most vulnerable nations are the largest producers of carbon dioxide -- the cause of ocean acidification -- and they have the greatest ability to stop it from worsening.

After the conference, the Associated Press reported on a team of experts led by an MIT professor who calculated that the average global temperature is likely to rise 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit above current temperatures over the next 100 years. Reef scientists don’t believe any coral reefs could survive more than 30 to 50 years, if that, with such an accelerated climb in temperature.

Everywhere I looked inside the convention center, the number “350” was painted on banners and backdrops and adorned T-shirts. That’s what many scientists say is the acceptable level of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, roughly the level back in 1990. Today, it exceeds 390 ppm, and the U.S. and the European Union are only aiming to stay below 450. Going above 450 ppm “will change everything,” NASA climate researcher Cynthia Rosenzweig told me. “There will be changes in water, food, ecosystems, health, and those changes also interact with each other.”

At that point, among other things, millions of people would be subject to regular coastal flooding, droughts would cause food shortages, coral reefs would dramatically die off, therefore affecting the ocean food chain, and about 20 percent of the world’s known species would be significantly endangered, according to Rosenzweig and other climate scientists.

But not much happened in Copenhagen among the leaders of the big nations to stop carbon dioxide levels from exceeding 450 ppm. This means there’s a fair to middling chance that we divers will be among the last generation to fin among living coral reefs-- and that’s just the least of our worries.

- - Ben Davison

P.S. If you’re interested in helping to create an international court for the environment to hold accountable those governments and multinational corporations that do serious harm to it, e-mail me at

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