Let’s Look at Past Successes to Encourage the Vision of a Brighter Environmental Future

Too often the tone of environmental discourse —Crisis! Dire failure!—promotes hopelessness and paralysis. Brock Bernstein, President of the National Fisheries Conservation Center (Global Ocean Health is a program of NFCC), takes a different view. He was recently asked to write a blog entry for the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, and we think it’s an important message.

By Dr. Brock B. Bernstein

Pervasive doom and gloom dominates much of the popular news about the environment. Global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, wildfires, overfishing, or overpopulation—it all contributes to a feeling of despair and hopelessness, particularly among young people. This struck home for me on a personal level during a recent conversation with my college-aged son and a few of his friends—they felt they were “totally screwed” because of the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Cuyahoga River fire, 1952. Courtesy clevelandmemory.org

One value of getting older is that you’ve seen more and have a longer history to draw on. I grew up in southern California from the 1950s through the 1970s when environmental problems were severe and visible – air pollution (I remember frequent episodes of eye-burning smog that caused incessant coughing fits during water polo practice) and sewage contamination that led much of Santa Monica Bay’s beaches to be permanently closed to swimming (1,2). While I was in graduate school, I visited a colleague in Cleveland in the late 1960s, just a couple of years after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire again, because it was so polluted that, as Time Magazine put it, the river “oozes rather than flows” (Time, August 1, 1969).

Los Angeles smog

Smog over Los Angeles basin. Credit: Al Pavangkanan, CC BY 2.0.

And yet, we’ve solved many of these and other problems that seemed so overwhelming at the time, and we’ve made major progress on newer ones such as the ozone hole. One useful thing about getting older is that it provides some protection against the shifting baseline phenomenon in which our perceptions are dominated by more recent information while the past recedes in our collective memory and is not part of our current awareness. For good reason, environmental advocates typically focus on shifting baselines that cause us to see current, degraded conditions as normal. For example, the average size of top-of-the-food chain fish, such as swordfish, has declined substantially since the 1800s (3), to the extent that most people cannot even imagine a 400-pound swordfish. Yet shifting baselines also diminish our awareness of past successes and the effort that went into them. My son and his friends were only vaguely aware of southern California’s decades-long battle against air and water (2) pollution. As a result, they have no experience of hard-won success to draw on as they consider what their future holds. And because they’re not in the engineering facilities and meeting rooms where solutions to California’s current extreme drought and likely drier future are being crafted and implemented, they—and much of the rest of the public—don’t appreciate the stunning speed with which solutions such as stormwater capture and the potable reuse of treated wastewater are being developed and implemented.

Read more here

New England Takes on Ocean Pollution State By State

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, March 30, 2015

Portland, Maine — A group of state legislators in New England want to form a multi-state pact to counter increasing ocean acidity along the East Coast, a problem they believe will endanger multi-million dollar fishing industries if left unchecked.

The legislators’ effort faces numerous hurdles: They are in the early stages of fostering cooperation between many layers of government, hope to push for potentially expensive research and mitigation projects, and want to use state laws to tackle a problem scientists say is the product of global environmental trends.

But the legislators believe they can gain a bigger voice at the federal and international levels by banding together, said Mick Devin, a Maine representative who has advocated for ocean research in his home state. The states can also push for research to determine the impact that local factors such as nutrient loading and fertilizer runoff have on ocean acidification and advocate for new controls, he said.

“We don’t have a magic bullet to reverse the effects of ocean acidification and stop the world from pumping out so much carbon dioxide,” Devin said. “But there are things we can do locally.”

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says the growing acidity of worldwide oceans is tied to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and they attribute the growth to fossil fuel burning and land use changes. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased from 280 parts per million to over 394 parts per million over the past 250 years, according to NOAA.

Carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, and when it mixes with seawater it reduces the availability of carbonate ions, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said. Those ions are critical for marine life such as shellfish, coral and plankton to grow their shells.

The changing ocean chemistry can have “potentially devastating ramifications for all ocean life,” including key commercial species, according to NOAA.

The New England states are following a model set by Maine, which commissioned a panel to spend months studying scientific research about ocean acidification and its potential impacts on coastal industries. Legislators in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are working on bills to create similar panels. A similar bill was shot down in committee in the New Hampshire legislature but will likely be back in 2016, said Rep. David Borden, who sponsored the bill.

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New Challenges for Ocean Acidification Research

SpaceDaily.com January 2nd, 2015
Kiel, Germany

To continue its striking development, ocean acidification research needs to bridge ocean acidification between its diverging branches towards an integrated assessment. This is the conclusion drawn by Prof. Ulf Riebesell from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and Dr. Jean-Pierre Gattuso from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Universite Pierre et Marie Curie.

In a commentary in the journal “Nature Climate Change”, the two internationally renowned experts reflect on the lessons learned from ocean acidification research and highlight future challenges.

Over the past decade, ocean acidification has received growing recognition not only in the scientific area. Decision-makers, stakeholders, and the general public are becoming increasingly aware of “the other carbon dioxide problem”. It is time to reflect on the successes and deficiencies of ocean acidification research and to take a look forward at the challenges the fastest growing field of marine science is facing.

In the January issue of the journal “Nature Climate Change” Ulf Riebesell, professor for Biological Oceanography at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and Jean-Pierre Gattuso from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) urge the international scientific community to undertake a concerted interdisciplinary effort.

According to the two experts, future ocean acidification research will have to deal with three major challenges: It needs to expand from single to multiple drivers, from single species to communities and ecosystems, and from evaluating acclimation to understanding adaptation. “The growing knowledge in each of the diverging research branches needs to be assimilated into an integrated assessment”, Prof. Riebesell points out.

For the scientific community, it is obvious that ocean acidification does not occur in isolation. Rising temperatures, loss of oxygen, eutrophication, pollution and other drivers happen simultaneously and interact to influence the development of marine organisms and communities.

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Acid Oceans Can Be Fought at Home

Coastal communities can help combat ocean acidification by cutting back on water pollution
Jun 5, 2014, By Elspeth Dehnert and ClimateWire

For coastal communities in the United States, the path to confronting souring seas can likely be found close to home in their very own backyards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Acidification Program has established a successful monitoring program at the regional scale. A bit over one month ago, it made a startling discovery off the country's West Coast—proof that ocean acidity is indeed having a negative impact on marine species   Credit: Jeff Gunn via Flickr

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Acidification Program has established a successful monitoring program at the regional scale. A bit over one month ago, it made a startling discovery off the country’s West Coast—proof that ocean acidity is indeed having a negative impact on marine species
Credit: Jeff Gunn via Flickr

In fact, according to a recent study co-authored by several current and former Stanford researchers, there are several local and regional actions—many of which are not too costly—that can be taken to accelerate the adaptation to ocean acidification.

“We think of ocean acidification as being controlled by carbon dioxide, and it is, but there are a lot of different things humans do that affect the chemical equilibrium of the carbonate system in the coastal zone,” said Aaron Strong, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources.

He pointed to river discharge, local-scale upwelling, and nutrient and stormwater pollution as some of the major factors behind ocean water’s increasingly unbalanced acidity levels.

“Ocean acidification should become a part of the conversation among quality managers, stormwater managers, agricultural managers … and it tends not to be in that space,” Strong added.

To fill in the gaps, the study outlines current local and regional ocean-acidification management efforts and recommends nine other “opportunities for action” that state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, universities and industry can implement for about $1 million a pop.

“An international agreement on climate change to reduce CO2 is not the only solution,” he said.

Read more here

National Climate Assessment Released

May 6th, 2014, National Climate Report Overview

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska. This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.

Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.

Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.

Scientists who study climate change confirm that these observations are consistent with significant changes in Earth’s climatic trends. Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.

The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy. Some of these changes can be beneficial over the short run, such as a longer growing season in some regions and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But many more are detrimental, largely because our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future. In addition, climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.

This National Climate Assessment collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping us to see what is actually happening and understand what it means for our lives, our livelihoods, and our future. The report includes analyses of impacts on seven sectors – human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems – and the interactions among sectors at the national level. The report also assesses key impacts on all U.S. regions: Northeast, Southeast and Caribbean, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Hawai’i and Pacific Islands, as well as the country’s coastal areas, oceans, and marine resources.

Over recent decades, climate science has advanced significantly. Increased scrutiny has led to increased certainty that we are now seeing impacts associated with human-induced climate change. With each passing year, the accumulating evidence further expands our understanding and extends the record of observed trends in temperature, precipitation, sea level, ice mass, and many other variables recorded by a variety of measuring systems and analyzed by independent research groups from around the world. It is notable that as these data records have grown longer and climate models have become more comprehensive, earlier predictions have largely been confirmed. The only real surprises have been that some changes, such as sea level rise and Arctic sea ice decline, have outpaced earlier projections.

What is new over the last decade is that we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now. While scientists continue to refine projections of the future, observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from burning coal, oil, and gas, with additional contributions from forest clearing and some agricultural practices.

Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond, but there is still time to act to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts.

This report documents the changes already observed and those projected for the future.

It is important that these findings and response options be shared broadly to inform citizens and communities across our nation. Climate change presents a major challenge for society. This report advances our understanding of that challenge and the need for the American people to prepare for and respond to its far-reaching implications.

Read the full report here