Climate Change

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(above photo © Carl Safina)

Climate change is the defining environmental issue of our time and our children’s time. Into one crowded elevator go conservation of nature, human health, the prospects for agriculture, international stability, national security, and of course energy policy and technology.

Climate change reflects our intensifying presence on the surface of this planet. Climate change is really many problems—including global warming and the acidification of the ocean—caused by too much carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.

There’s a third more carbon dioxide in the air than there was 200 years ago when the Industrial Revolution began, and more is constantly accumulating. Most of the “new” carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans was locked into fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum millions of years ago. Burning these fuels—as we do to create electricity and to power vehicles—releases this carbon dioxide.  Carbon dioxide is a harmless gas—except that it traps heat. And when carbon dioxide mixes with ocean water, it creates an acid, causing a change to the chemistry of the ocean.

Agriculture, deforestation, and other land use changes is the second leading contributor to rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gasses that contribute to climate change.

A Warming Ocean
Temperatures both on land and in the sea have risen at unprecedented rates over the last 100 years and particularly over the last few decades. In fact, 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001!

Rising temperatures are already causing numerous changes in the ocean.

  • A warmer ocean affects the placement (distribution) and concentration (abundance and density) of tiny plants and animals called plankton that form the base of ocean food supplies.
  • Fish are moving poleward, retreating to cooler waters.
  • Heat spikes over the last several decades have caused large-scale killings of corals.
  • The melting of polar ice caps is resulting in losthabitat for animals small and large, including algae, krill, penguins, polar bears, seals and whales.
  • As the ocean warms and expands and land-ice melts, sea level rises.

Ocean Acidification
The acidification of the ocean is also negatively affecting ocean animals. Ocean acidification is causing the shells of clams, oysters, snails and urchins to erode. And it is slowing the growth of coral reefs, putting their continued existence in jeopardy. There is evidence that ocean acidification can affect some fish too. It may reduce the survival of eggs and larvae and impair a fish’s ability to detect predators.

Finding Solutions
Fighting climate change requires a global effort. It requires a shift away from coal, oil, and gas to new, non-burning energy sources like wind, sun, tides, the heat of the earth (geothermal), and liquid fuels from specially grown algae. We have made some progress in recent years, but there’s still much more to do.

What You Can Do
There are many things that you can do to reduce your own carbon footprint, including turning off lights when not in use, switching to more efficient light bulbs, taking public transit or riding a bike instead of driving, reducing airplane trips, eating less meat, and wasting less food. Additionally, urging elected public officials to take action on climate change and exercising your right to vote are critically important too!

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