World Bank, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided,
November 2012, at 11.
Surely I was not alone in being walloped in the face with a great big dose of irony when I unfolded this morning’s Bellingham Herald.
Above the fold: “Support for coal exports.” The article features a big picture of some determined-looking men carrying boxes of petitions in support of the Gateway Pacific coal export terminal.
(At least they aren't pretending that it isn't a coal export terminal any more.)
Below the fold: “State panel presses for action on threat from ocean acidity.”
As the article states, "[r]ising acidity levels in the oceans pose a serious threat to shellfish and other marine life, and tackling that problem in Washington state will require reducing carbon dioxide emissions. . ."
The “action” to be taken will involve the overstretched Department of Ecology and a little bit of funding for projects.
You know what? I’m getting sick of being the chump – the dutiful taxpayer who pays to clean the house, only to find that the Very Important Men of Business (maybe I was thinking about the Herald picture when that phrase came to mind) are throwing a giant frat party at the same time.
In accordance with Get Whatcom Planning’s time-honored role as a bastion of fiscal conservatism, let me save the state some money. Here’s the bottom line for ocean acidification, in three logical steps:
1. Ocean acidification is caused by increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That’s what the picture above demonstrates. It’s from a November 2012 World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided, which you can read here.
It’s not happy reading. It isn’t intended to be. As the President of the World Bank Group, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, stated in his introduction, “It is my hope that this report shocks us into action. Even for those of us already committed to fighting climate change, I hope it causes us to work with much more urgency.”
Here’s what the report says about the significance of ocean acidification (at page xv):
Apart from a warming of the climate system, one of the most serious consequences of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere occurs when it dissolves in the ocean and results in acidification. A substantial increase in ocean acidity has been observed since preindustrial times. A warming of 4°C or more by 2100 would correspond to . . . an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean. The observed and projected rates of change in ocean acidity over the next century appear to be unparalleled in Earth’s history. Evidence is already emerging of the adverse consequences of acidification for marine organisms and ecosystems, combined with the effects of warming, overfishing, and habitat destruction.
2. To stop, much less reverse, ocean acidification, we have to stop increasing the sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Soon. Not in the year 2020, or 2050, or 2100.
The World Bank report emphasized that we do not have time to putter about when it comes to ocean acidification. Here’s why:
Based on an estimate of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and surface ocean acidity, only very low emission scenarios are able to halt and ultimately reverse ocean acidification. If mitigation measures are not implemented soon to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then ocean acidification can be expected to extend into the deep ocean. . . .[S]lowing and reversing this will be much more difficult. This would further add significant stress to marine ecosystems already under pressure from human influences, such as overfishing and pollution. (World Bank report at 25, citations omitted.)
If we need more evidence about what needs to be done, the United Nations Environment Program came out with its own report, which looks at the “gap” between our current plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the emissions reductions that we need in order to keep the global temperature increase below 2° Celsius. That’s the standard benchmark for maintaining a planet that more or less resembles our current planet. We might call that the livable planet scenario – well, aside from sacrificing some island countries, which won't be livable because they'll be under water.
It is not an optimistic report. If we don’t assume that we can reach “negative” carbon dioxide emissions in the not-too-distant future, the odds of a livable planet go way down. "Negative carbon dioxide emissions" means that we need to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we add -- through massive planting efforts, or some technical means that isn't at hand yet. Of course, the more CO2 we put into the air now, the more we'll have to take out in the future. If we want a livable planet, that is.
3. If Washington State provides for coal export, to feed more coal-burning power plants, it is ensuring continued ocean acidification. No need for a panel or for projects or for further studies – we can put a fork in it right now.
The Gateway Pacific terminal proposes to export “thermal coal.” That’s coal that is burned in power plants.
Fossil fuel use is the most significant source of carbon dioxide. To be more specific, coal- fired power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide.
In a study released on November 20, the World Resources Institute estimated that more than a thousand coal-fired power plants have been proposed around the world. Three quarters of these plants are proposed in China and India.
More power plants. What would that do to the oceans? Acidify them beyond anything that Taylor Shellfish has seen to date. All of our messing around the edges won’t change that.
“But all the other kids are doing it!” you may say. Look at Australia! On the one hand, Australia knows that climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef. On the other hand, Australia is one of the biggest coal exporters in the world – with proposals to double, triple, quadruple its output in the next few years.
And sure, there’s no question that Australia needs to get its house in order. As an Australian author recently observed about that country’s irreconcilable policies towards coal,
"It’s really not that dissimilar to the son-in-law who everyone pretends is not that bad to keep up appearances, despite the alcoholic outbursts and odd bout of domestic violence. So long as when Christmas rolls round presents are a-plenty."
Sophie Trevitt, “Coal, It’s a Love Story,” Nov. 25th, 2012.
As much as I enjoy this metaphor, it occurs to me that drunken sons-in-law rarely threaten the survival of the entire Earth. The family story that the Bellingham Herald brought to my mind was Cain and Abel.
The one where one brother kills the other.
Let’s say that coal export is Cain and the oceans are Abel. Washington wants to love both of them, and is digging around the medicine chest to come up with an aspirin for Abel. But Cain is Cain, and adding a feel-good moment wouldn't change the end of the story.