I just learned of four bills in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee that each in some way address the issues of ocean acidification. Of course I immediately wrote to my representative, Katherine Clark to encourage her to co-sponsor these bills and then vote for them when they reach the full House floor. Below is what I sent to her:
“I am writing to ask you to co-sponsor House bills recently approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee: H.R. 1237 (“COAST Research Act of 2019), H.R. 1716 (“Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2019), H.R. 1921, (“Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019”), and H.R. 988 (“NEAR Act of 2019”).
These bills all address the critical issue of ocean acidification. As I’m sure you are aware, ocean acidification is the “other carbon problem,” the first being global warming. The atmosphere and ocean interact with each other over approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface. This interaction leads to the absorption of millions of tons of carbon dioxide by the ocean every year. This is lowering the pH of the ocean and, due to a series of chemical reactions, reduces the availability of carbonate in the ocean. Carbonate is a critical ingredient for most shells and skeletons of marine life, including corals, plankton, shellfish, and crustaceans. Lack of carbonate is making it difficult for many larval organisms to develop and many adult organisms to grow. Extra energy has to be devoted to maintaining their structural components. This energy is diverted from energy that would otherwise be used for reproduction. This is leading to smaller population sizes of many planktonic organisms that start the food chains in the ocean. Reduced plankton populations translates into reduced populations of almost all other organisms in the ocean, including commercial fish and shellfish species and marine mammals. As a New Englander, I’m sure your recognize the importance of commercial shellfish and fish industries and whale watching tourism industries to our Massachusetts economy.
Please support the passing of these important bills by cosponsoring them and then voting for them when they make it to the full House floor for a vote.”
I encourage readers to contact their representatives as well. It’s important that our elected leaders know that we care about these issues. One state legislator once told me that a handful of constituents speaking up for something can sometimes be enough to motivate an elected officials to support the cause, because she or he assumes that for each person that cares enough to speak up there are probably many others who feel the same. If you want use my letter, go for it. Get your voice (or mine) out there.
Recently NPR released the results of a survey on teaching climate change in schools. Just over one thousand adults and five hundred teachers (presumably also adults, kind of strange wording) were surveyed. Of those surveyed, the majority of teachers, parents, and Democrats agreed that climate change and its impacts should be taught in schools. Just less than half of the Republicans surveyed (49%) thought the same. Interestingly, 12% overall thought that schools should teach students that climate change is happening but that they should not teach students about the impacts. I imagine this is because they deem the impacts “too scary” for impressionable youth. This hunch is backed up by the stat that 20% of teachers that were polled said their students were “too young” to learn about climate change. I personally think a bit (or more) of fear about climate change impacts is just what we need. I don’t sugar coat climate change when I teach my students (you should know that I teach high school students). I want them to be worried. I want them to make changes to how they live their daily lives so that they reduce their carbon footprints. I want them to demand change from their lawmakers and corporations they buy products from. People need to get scared. I asked my students about this today. They said it was important to learn about the impacts because it makes them want to do something. Some students have reported switching to a vegetarian diet. Others have reported unplugging electronics and chargers when not in use. Many have switched to reusable water bottles. They would not have been motivated to make those changes if they were not worried about the impacts of climate change.
The IPCC, at the request of the United Nations, published a report this past autumn on what effects we can expect to see if the average temperature of Earth increases by 1.5°C and 2°C. The Paris Agreement was focused on actions that would limit warming to this 1.5°C, acknowledging that greater increases would have widespread catastrophic impacts. We are going to hit the 1.5°C mark by 2030. It’s likely that we will see 3-4°C, or more, increases by the end of the century if we keep going with the current status quo. Often I don’t get much of a reaction from my students with the 1.5°, 2°, or even 3°C predictions. They, and most of the general public, don’t understand that 1.5° is an increase for the global average. The average of all temperatures on the planet. The poles are warming much faster than other places. For example, in 2016 parts of the Arctic were 6-12°C warmer than the average temperature between 1951 and 1980 (NOAA). Those differences in temperature have huge implications for the Arctic ecosystem. Warmer temperatures in the winter lead to less thick sea ice and faster melting of sea ice in the summer. Many Arctic organisms rely on the Arctic sea ice for breeding (seals) and feeding (polar bears, among many others). Additionally, increased exposed ocean surface area leads to higher rates of CO2 absorption. When CO2 dissolves in the ocean it makes an acid. The oceans are acidifying. One consequence of this is that the availability of carbonate decreases. Carbonate is a necessary ingredient for MANY organisms in the ocean to make their shells and skeletons. As carbonate decreases, so do the populations of plankton, corals, and shellfish. Many of these organisms form the base of the food chain. Reductions in plankton populations in the Arctic have reverberating consequences for most species in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Ok, I spent more time on the Arctic than planned. That was a bit of a tangent, but all stuff people should know. If you’re reading this blog you probably don’t need convincing that climate change is real and is having impacts already and likely will have devastating impacts in the future. But there are many people out there in the world that don’t “believe in” climate change (ie people that don’t accept or understand the science). Education is so important, for students and for teachers. Part of the problem is that many teachers don’t have the science background or feel they know enough about climate change to teach about it. If you look at the graph below, 17% of the 505 teachers surveyed confirm that this lack of knowledge keeps them from teaching climate change, so we need to teach the teachers.
The main reason that the teachers surveyed don’t teach climate change is because “it’s not related to the subject(s)” that they teach. I think this is kind of a lame excuse. Climate change impacts everything: economics, migration of people, health, tourism, aesthetics. Historic climate change had major impacts on Medieval Europe and Latin American civilizations, presumably we should be learning about the future by studying our history. There is a growing genre of climate change novels that could be incorporated into English classes. There is a wealth of data to be analyzed in math and statistics classes. I think that climate change could be worked into almost any course. For example, I teach Biology and Environmental Science. Environmental Science is an elective for seniors and is the only science class in the school that teaches about climate change, so only a small cohort of students gets that learning experience, so I work in climate change into my Biology course curriculum too. I’m lucky to teach in a school in which my fellow Biology teachers agree that all students should learn about climate change, so we all incorporated climate change into our unit on photosynthesis and cellular respiration. We talk about the natural carbon cycle with those two processes and then connect to how humans are interfering with that natural cycle. This, of course, meant we had to cut back elsewhere in the curriculum to have time to fit it in and climate change perhaps intuitively makes more sense to talk about in a Biology class than an English class, but again, climate change impacts everything, so I believe we should be talking about it everywhere.
As a teacher I understand that we make choices about what we have time to teach based on the state learning standards, and usually there is not enough time. And some teachers don’t have a lot of choice in terms of what they can spend time on. So there really needs to be a push on higher levels in the education hierarchy to make climate change education a priority. That change will only come if teachers and parents advocate for it. If you think this is important, contact your school committee members, your legislators and your state’s department of education. Get a discussion going. If you have kids, at “Open House” or “Back to School” nights or parent-teacher conferences, ask their teachers to teach about climate change. If you’re a teacher, try to work climate change into at least one curriculum unit or at least one day of the school year. We need a public that understands climate change and its consequences. “Knowing is half the battle” (children of the ‘80s will get that reference).
A week ago, a report was released by the United Nations’ IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) group that garnered a lot of attention by the media, even making it onto late night talk shows. This report stated that one million species are on the verge of extinction due to human activities and climate change. That’s 1,000,000 different organisms. Think about that. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history. The major difference this time is that a species (us) is causing the extinctions to happen (as opposed to a major asteroid impact, for example, when we lost the dinosaurs).
Jimmy Kimmel had some “fun” with this news, asking people on the street if we should save the Homo sapiens. I’m sure the interviews were cherry-picked for optimal entertainment, but sadly none of the people in the interviews he showed knew that Homo sapiens are humans. You should watch the video before reading on. Warning: there are some cringe-worthy moments.
People in this video bring up some commonly held opinions/ideas. One is that if someone hasn’t heard of a species then we can obviously live without it. Why save the Homo sapiens if we haven’t noticed them before this? The answer is simple. Biodiversity provides us with ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services include things like making oxygen that we need to breathe, filtering water, sequestering carbon, making soil so we can grow food, decomposing waste, and so on and so on. Imagine if we didn’t have bacteria or fungi. Our planet would look like the Earth portrayed in the Pixar movie Wall-E. There’s a great review article in PNAS journal that details many of these services. It was published in 1995, so it’s old now by science standards, but still relevant. There was also a movement in the 1990s to place value on these ecosystem services, a nod to the sad fact that, at the end of the day, it all boils down to money. A paper published in 1997 estimated that biodiversity provided us with $33 trillion worth of ecosystem services. In other words, if we had to do all the work that nature just does normally, we’d have to spend an awful lot of money. An update was published in 2014 estimating the value of ecosystem services at $145 trillion dollars. When we lose biodiversity, we lose money. That should have been the title of the UN report. Then maybe people would be more worried.
So, what can the average person do about this crisis? Buy less stuff. To make stuff, natural resources are mined or harvested. These practices destroy habitats and decimate populations. Eat less meat. The number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon forest is animal agriculture. Land to graze animals and land to grow monocultures to feed animals. Nearly 70% of the food that is grown in the U.S. is used to feed animals, not humans. Imagine if we grew crops to feed humans directly? We’d be able to let land go wild again. I’d love to see a day when natural habitats are expanding, not being destroyed. Also, try to avoid palm oil. Palm oil plantations are the biggest driver of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Africa. Palm oil is in MANY things. This shift came after the uproar over trans fats (unsaturated fats that have saturated). To assuage public panic about the unhealthiness of trans fats, companies replaced them with palm oil, which is naturally saturated. So, really the same thing. But it’s cheap and “natural”. And it keeps fats solid at room temperature. The World WIldlife Fund has an informative page listing some palm-oil containing products and a list of sneaky names that palm oil hides behind. It’s super hard to avoid palm oil. I just found a vegan butter to replace the palm-oil containing margarine that I use on occasion. Now I have to work on everything else. I recommend learning more about palm oil and deforestation and then write letters to companies urging them to find alternatives. Recently a student found a lab based in Somerville that is working on developing a synthetic palm oil in the lab using microbial fermentation. Demand change as a consumer. Remember the tuna boycott of the 1980s? That proved that consumer demand can make a big difference. Eventually these companies will come around. Hopefully before the rainforests are all gone.