Our Diminished Oceans
Source Louis Proyect
Date 10/08/09/09:12
Our Diminished Oceans
Bill McKibben

WHAT MAY TURN out to be the summer’s most important news story (and just
possibly the millennium’s) didn’t make the pages of the Times. A study
in Nature last week concluded that as oceans warmed, phytoplankton—the
tiny organisms that form the crucial first level of the entire marine
food chain—were disappearing. In fact, since you need a subscription to
read the whole study, let me reprint the key portion of the abstract here:

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton)
account for approximately half the production of organic matter on
Earth…. We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and
estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year.

Since 1950, the study found, the oceans have lost 40 percent of their
phytoplankton. As these organisms account for the production of half the
earth’s organic matter, this is not good. It’s like finding out that
there’s half as much money in all the earth’s banks as we thought there
was. But of course it’s worse than that. No one knows for sure what
happens when the oceans are diminished like this—that’s the point. We’re
in a new and dangerous place, without a clue.

In any event, this development came a week or so after the Senate once
again decided to do about climate change what it has done for each of
the last 20 years: nothing. I doubt very much whether the Nature study
would have made much difference, because hardly anyone in the Senate was
really thinking about a warming climate. Instead, they were debating an
“energy bill,” carefully framed in terms of “energy independence” or
“energy security” or “green jobs.”

The diagnosis of focus groups and pollsters was that Americans “didn’t
care” about global warming. That was certainly the tack taken by
President Obama’s administration, which has consistently urged green
groups to downplay global warming and play up the “clean energy future”
instead. Most of the big Beltway environmental groups concurred with the
idea, and so everyone went to work on a bill that actually passed the
House in June 2009, albeit narrowly.

But even that bill would have done far too little to limit carbon
dioxide. And when it went to the Senate, it was rewritten to win the
consent of the big utilities, and filled with noxious compromises such
as giving away the right to pollute instead of charging for it. One by
one, the senators shaping the bill tossed pieces over the side: no
restrictions on transportation fuel or on factories. But even those
concessions weren’t enough—and Harry Reid didn’t even bring it up for a
vote, realizing it would fail.

So maybe it’s time to actually start talking (from the White House on
down) about global warming. Maybe it would help if everyone was reminded
every day we’re in the middle of the planet’s warmest year, at the end
of the warmest decade on record; that the Arctic is melting; that
fourteen nations have set new all-time temperature records. And maybe it
wouldn’t help—maybe, as Michael Tomasky suggests, the Senate is too
broken. Maybe the fossil fuel industry is simply too powerful. But at
the least, speaking clearly about our desperate situation, including
from the Oval Office, would have the advantage of being true.

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