Fresh hot reality: acid and ice

“This is not speculation,” said Bill Ruckelshaus. “This is chemistry.”

Yesterday, a blue ribbon panel appointed by Governor Chris Gregoire and co-chaired by Ruckelshaus and Jay Manning released a far-reaching assessment and action plan on ocean acidification (or “OA,” which has been called “global warming’s evil twin” since they share a primary root cause – CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.)  The Washington Post covers it here.

It was the oysters that blew the whistle. “Between 2005 and 2009, disastrous production failures at Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries signaled a shift in ocean chemistry that has profound implications for Washington’s marine environment,” begins the report’s executive summary.  “The problem, in a nutshell, was ocean acidification.”

The declining pH (rising acidity) of the ocean can affect a wide range of organisms and life processes, including photosynthesis, growth, respiration, and reproduction.   The most dramatic effects so far appear to be on the “calcifiers” – organsims that use calcium carbonate to make shells, skeletons, and other body parts.   These include delicious favorites – scallops, mussels, clams, oysters, kelp, and such.  But more disturbingly for the whole marine food web, acidification is also threatening pteropds – tiny sea snails that play a vital primary role in marine food supplies.  Rising acidity is literally eating away at the foundations of the ocean food pyramid.

The panel’s recommendations include a variety of measures to reduce local sources of pollution that contribute to acidification, including wastewater discharges and nutrient runoff.  This adds powerful new impetus to the already-vital work of the Puget Sound Partnership.

But to the panel and the Governor’s credit, neither the report nor the Executive Order implementing its recommendations shy away from the biggest driver:  global emissions of carbon dioxide.  These emissions are changing the chemistry of the oceans as dramatically as they’re changing the chemistry of the atmosphere.  Average acidity (measure by hydrogen ion concentration) has already increased 30%.

State government could have balked, claiming little jurisdiction over the global energy investment decisions that drive carbon dioxide emissions.    But the Governor, in classic Gregoire style, came with her sleeves rolled up. “Let’s get to work,” she told the high-powered audience assembled for the release. “Let’s lead the world in addressing this global challenge.”

Critics might charge that Washington State is such a small part of the emissions problem that any state action is a futile gesture.   In an increasingly cynical political culture, this brand of irresponsible defeatism may be the most potent strategy for those determined to prolong fossil fuel dependence and undermine clean energy solutions.  But Washington’s not having any of it.

The sound of the truth alone – in an era of pathological denial about the dimensions of the climate (and OA) challenge – is a potent change agent.  And while of course no jurisdiction can solve it unilaterally, every step forward improves the prospects for other solutions.  Especially now, as political will for climate action rebuilds, this sharp focus on science and solutions is a breath of fresh air.

Meanwhile, the film Chasing Ice is puncturing denial with the overwhelming power of spectacular, visual images of the Artic melting.  The long, slow, breathtaking sequences of massive ice collapses create a space where all the yapping and equivocating and denial fade and ultimately disappear.  The effect is like being left alone with your conscience.

Check out the powerful impact it seems to have had on a former climate denier in this video:

Shocks of recognition, jolts of reality, are coursing through our information stream.  Can they defibrillate the body politic before it slips toward terminal climate unconsciousness?

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