October 17, 2013

Congratulations, America, we just passed the “Let’s Not Shoot Ourselves and the World in the Kneecap for No Reason Act of 2013,” or whatever it’s called. The debt ceiling is raised and the government is back open. But the crisis has already done untold damage, and not just in terms of what the shutdown has done to the country.

There has been another form of damage, as well: The debt ceiling/shutdown drama completely sucked all the media oxygen out of every other topic. For weeks, the entire Washington media establishment has been consumed with a pointless hostage standoff whose final outcome was always obvious from the start. In the meantime, very real and serious problems are being almost totally ignored.

Here’s a particularly poignant example of just what this distraction entails. An ocean study was just released, and it contained truly alarming findings. Yet it got about the same attention as the latest distance record for paper airplanes. The study found that “the entire world’s ocean surface will be simultaneously impacted by varying intensities of ocean warming, acidification, oxygen depletion, or shortfalls in productivity.” Tony Barboza writes in the LA Times:

Those changing conditions will reduce the growth and size of sea creatures, increase mortality, disrupt ocean food webs and cause species to shift toward the poles and into deeper water, the study found…Shallow water environments, including coral reefs and seagrass beds, will see more drastic changes than deep-sea habitat, the study predicts.

The oceanic changes will affect between 470 million and 870 million poor people who live in coastal areas of countries that rely on the sea for food and jobs and have little ability to adapt, researchers estimated.

Probably the biggest single problem here is ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide from the air (about 40% of everything humans emit) dissolves in water in the form of carbonic acid, which makes the ocean more acidic over time. We’ve already increased the acidity of the world’s oceans by 30 percent. Think about that–we’ve seriously altered the chemistry of a body of water which covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface.

And the problem with the ocean becoming more acidic is that many foundational species (like coral and some plankton) form their shells out of calcium carbonate, which is more and more soluble in water the more acidic it is, making it harder and harder for them to survive. Essentially, we’re pouring vinegar into a place where critically important species build their homes out of baking soda. All the world’s corals will likely be gone by the end of the century.

What’s more, important things are happening when it comes to the battle to curb carbon emissions, and they are going largely unnoticed.

Right now the Supreme Court is hearing a case from polluters who are attempting to gut the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The court has let the agencies authority to regulate these gases stand, but it’s still a threat to their ability to control emissions through the permitting system. It could be a fairly serious blow to President Obama’s climate change strategy, which with no hope of significant legislation will revolve around EPA’s regulatory process.

For those who pay attention to environmental news, this new study is likely not at all surprising. But for some kind of action on carbon dioxide emissions it is first necessary for the media to be capable of paying attention to such news. Before meatpacking regulation there was The Jungle; before the EPA there was Silent Spring. Let’s hope with this crisis averted, we can pay some more attention to what is actually happening in the world.