Eelco Rohling: A view from the ocean for Earth Day

On April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. Mostly, we use this holiday to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

The oceans cover some 72% of Earth’s surface; this is why we sometimes call the Earth the “Blue Planet.” Yet, in a time when people are talking about “the best deals,” the oceans are getting an extremely shoddy one.

Humanity is stretching the global oceanic ecosystem to its limits. Major impacts come from global overfishing, and from the physical destruction of critical pristine environments such as coral reefs and mangrove coasts. Combined, these reduce species diversity and richness, as well as breeding potential and resilience to disease. Our impacts on coastal systems are also strongly reducing the natural protection against wave- and storm-damage. We’d be wise to be more appreciative of, and careful with, our key food supplies and protection from the elements. After all, with 7 billion of us to feed, and with almost half of these people living within 100 miles from the sea, we have it all to lose.

Yet our deal with the oceans is even worse than that. That’s because the oceans also get to be the end-station for everything transported by water, which includes plastics as well as toxic chemicals. To boot, we have for many decades unceremoniously dumped vast quantities of society’s unwanted waste products directly into the oceans. Although legal frameworks have been introduced to limit dumping directly into the sea, illegal practices are still rife. In addition, indirect dumping via rivers—whether wittingly or unwittingly—remains a major headache.

As a result of our wasteful demeanour, we are leaving a legacy of oceans (and wildlife) that are visibly filling up with long-lived non-biodegradable plastics, which leads to graphic news coverage. In consequence, plastic pollution is now being billed by some as our oceans’ biggest threat today. It’s certainly a very visible one, with up to 240,000 tons of plastic floating in the oceans. And that amount is equal to only 1% or less of the amount of plastic that is available for entering the ocean every year. This illustrates the massive potential for the plastic problem to explode out of control.

Much less visible, but just as devastating, is the pollution of our oceans with highly toxic and long-lived chemicals—especially human-made PCBs and other organic compounds, along with concentrated heavy metals. PCBs are among the very worst threats because they are so long-lived and so toxic.

Some 10% of all 1.3 million tons of PCBs produced have made it into the oceans already (that is, about 130,000 tons). While this is alarming enough by itself, there’s up to 9 times as much waiting to be released and make its way into the oceans. All we can do to stop that from happening, is prevent any stored PCBs from making it into the open environment. So far, this has been done to 17% of the stores, while 83% have yet to be eliminated.

PCBs have become widespread in marine organisms, from coastal and estuarine waters to the greatest depths of the largest ocean: the Pacific. They cause an endless list of severe health problems, deformities, hormonal unbalance, immune-system weakening, cancer, and a decrease in fertility. Like most long-lived pollutants, PCBs accumulate into higher concentrations through the food web. Their accumulated impacts in whales already drive important infant mortality, as females pass lethal amounts of PCBs to unborn or suckling calves.

Nutrient-pollution is another big issue. This may sound like a strange type of pollution. After all, wouldn’t more nutrients just lead to more happy life in the ocean? When nutrients come in reasonable amounts, then the answer is yes. But when the nutrient flux is excessive—we then talk about eutrophication—all manner of problems develop. And the flux of artificial and human and animal waste-derived nutrients is excessive in many estuaries and coastal regions. Together with ocean warming, this has caused a rapid global expansion of regions where decomposition of massive algal blooms strips all oxygen from the waters, resulting in vast “dead zones” with completely collapsed ecosystems.

Finally, there is the sinister, lurking threat of global warming and ocean acidification. The current rate of warming has been successfully documented through scientific study, and is 10 to 100 times faster than ever before in the past 65 million years. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is caused by the oceans absorbing roughly a third of our carbon emissions. By now, the oceans have become about 0.1 pH unit more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution; that is an acidity increase of 25%. Projections for a business-as-usual emissions trajectory show a 0.3 to 0.4 pH unit change by 2100. In humans, a 0.2 pH unit change results in seizures, coma, and death. Fish, and most other vertebrates, are equally sensitive.

If the changes are slow enough, organisms can evolve to adapt. But researchers are very concerned about the extreme rate of acidification. For coral reefs, the combination of warming and acidification is certainly implicated in massive bleaching and die-off events that are going on around the world already. And let’s not forget that coral reefs house one third of all oceanic biodiversity, while oceans cover more than two thirds of the Earth surface.

The Oceans, by Eelco RohlingSo here’s my plea

We really need an Earth Day, but we need an Ocean Day as well—to build awareness about  this critical part of our planet.

At a passing glance, the oceans’ problems remain hidden under a mesmerising veil of waves and reflections. We need to remind ourselves to keep looking beneath the surface, and to keep taking this critical system’s pulse, lest it dies without us knowing about it. Maybe then we will realise how urgently we need to stop using it as a dumping ground and infinite food larder. That we instead should look for sustainable ways forward, not just for life on land, but also for life in the oceans.

Our attitude going forward will make or break society. Chances are very high that a marine mass extinction will drag us, the ultimate overpopulated top consumer, along with it.

Eelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Conversations on Climate: Economists consider a hotter planet on PBS Newshour

NEW climate picIn Climate Shock, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman tackle the likely prospect of a hotter planet as a risk management problem on a global scale. As 150 world leaders meet in Paris for the UN Conference on Climate Change, both took the time to speak to PBS Newshour about what we know and don’t know about global warming:

Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

Read the rest on the PBS Newshour blog.

Wagner coverGernot Wagner is lead senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He is the author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang). Martin L. Weitzman is professor of economics at Harvard University. His books include Income, Wealth, and the Maximum Principle. For more, see and


An interview with Justin Farrell, author of THE BATTLE FOR YELLOWSTONE

Farrell jacketYellowstone, the world’s first national park and a spectacular geothermal hot spot, has long been a popular summer vacation destination, with its unparalleled scenery, hiking and wildlife. But it also sits at the center of endless political struggles and environmental conflicts. What can Yellowstone teach us about the worsening environmental conflicts worldwide? And what can the persistent clashes about Yellowstone itself teach us about cultural upheaval in the US? Justin Farrell recently sat down to answer these questions and give us some background on the writing of his new book, The Battle for Yellowstone, which was recently called “The most original political book of early 2015” by The Economist.

Why Yellowstone?

JF: Yellowstone National Park is the first national park in the world, and is a natural and cultural treasure of the United States. The history about how this happened is somewhat complicated, difficult, and imperialistic (as I describe in Chapter 1), but it remains a modern treasure nonetheless.

In recent years it has become a site for some of the most intractable environmental struggles in the world. As a prototype for conservation, these struggles have great impact beyond the bounds of the United States. This is why the issues I write about in the book draw so much attention from U.S. Presidents, Congress, environmental groups, local ranchers and farmers, national media, and millions of members of the public from outside of the Yellowstone region. Each year more and more money is poured into finding solutions, yet the toxic polarization rolls on.

What does morality have to do with anything?

JF: In and around Yellowstone there is a massive amount of energy put into solving these conflicts, and just about all of this energy is put into ascertaining more facts and technical knowledge about biology, ecology, economics, or law. While this is good, and we always need more of this, it has clouded what the conflict is really about, and hindered progress in a number of ways. Underneath this sort of reasoning is the notion that once people “have the facts,” they will make rational decisions based on those facts. Of course, we know this is not true.

Through several years of research on Yellowstone conflict, I ask more fundamental questions that reveal the sources of pre-scientific cultural, moral, and spiritual commitments that in many ways drive Yellowstone conflict. In the book I unpack this argument in much more detail, and describe empirically how environmental conflict in this area has intense cultural and moral dimensions that are often ignored, muted, or misunderstood by the participants in the conflict.

You’ve blended computational social science with traditional qualitative fieldwork. Can you explain why this methodological approach is important?

JF: Mixed-methods can open windows of insight that are often missed by a single methodological approach. I really enjoy computational methods, such as machine learning, text analysis, and network science. I wanted to blend them with the qualitative fieldwork in a way that worked together in a complementary way, rather than side by side. So my interview guides and choices for participant observation were many times informed by the computational social science. And vice-versa, the difficult interpretive work required by qualitative data was informed by what I found in the computational analyses. On a much broader note, I really believe that there are so many benefits to blending these types of research, and that qualitative researchers in particular should try to make use of computational social science because—as I try to show in the book (and in a class I teach here at Yale)—that there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of tools at our disposal that can help us better understand human culture.

What are the main theoretical contributions of the book?

JF: While the main contribution concerns morality and environmental conflict, there are four general contributions that fit more neatly into subfield boxes. I won’t go into too much detail here, but they are (1) a contribution to the (re)emerging field of sociology of morality; (2) bringing questions central to sociology of culture into the field of environmental sociology; (3) examining religion and spirituality in ostensibly non-religious or “secular” settings; (4) a methodological model and call for scholars to blend computational social science with qualitative fieldwork.

Environmental issues have become especially important in the 21st century, and will continue to do so. How might this book help solve the growing number of environmental conflicts around the world?

JF: The model and argument I develop in the book has broad application to any environmental issue where cultural factors weigh strong. My bias is that there are cultural factors weighing strong in almost any environmental issue, and are driven by larger conceptions and cultural commitments about what the “good” life looks like, and how we should go about living it in relationship to each other and to the natural world.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Read the introduction here.