More than 200 scientists have signed a letter urging “responsible” research into ways to contain global warming carbon dioxide in the world’s oceans. They want urgent action on the climate crisis, while making sure they don’t create any new problems by relying on the oceans to help in the fight.
Pollutants have devastated the global atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. This blanket of pollution is already warming the planet and causing more extreme weather disasters. One way to prevent climate change from getting worse is to remove some of these historic emissions from the atmosphere.
The oceans are already doing this for us, absorbing and holding fifty times more carbon than the atmosphere. What if humans could enhance this ability?
“While ocean-based CO2 removal methods have huge potential, there are also risks.”
This is what scientists want to better understand, along with any side effects that might come with messing with the chemistry of our oceans. Start-ups are already developing new technologies to sequester more carbon dioxide in the sea. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the impact this might have or what strategies might be more successful, the letter says.
“Although ocean-based CO2 removal methods have huge potential, there are also risks,” the letter states. “Society does not yet have sufficient information about the effectiveness or effects of any specific approach and therefore cannot make informed decisions about its widespread use.”
There are a whole host of ways to enhance the ocean’s ability to absorb and retain carbon dioxide. Some are natural, such as restoring coastal ecosystems that sequester carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Other strategies are more Technology dependent. For example, two startups in California have built pilot plants to filter carbon dioxide from the ocean. The idea is that taking carbon dioxide out of the world’s oceans will free them to absorb more of the gas.
These are all very early efforts, and penetrating the high seas is no substitute for preventing greenhouse gas emissions from accumulating in the atmosphere by dumping fossil fuels. Some environmental advocates are also concerned about new carbon dioxide filtration technologies harming marine life.
Today’s letter calls for controlled field trials to evaluate decarbonization strategies, along with third-party review of results. Safeguards must also be put in place to address any “negative or unintended consequences” and comprehensive policies to engage the various stakeholders.
Some of the big names in climate and environmental sciences have signed up. Among them is David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government between 2000 and 2007. James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist famous for warning the world about climate change during his testimony before Congress in 1988, also signed the letter.
“Doing nothing is immoral.”
The oceans have already taken a heavy hit from climate change. For example, a heat wave in the Atlantic Ocean is killing coral reefs in Florida this summer. Scientists are so worried about mass death that they’ve scrambled to get the corals out of the sea to keep them in wild labs until it’s safe to put them back in the water. Ultimately, what happens outside affects societies on Earth as well. Florida’s coral reefs provide an important buffer from storm surges and are home to thousands of species that are important to the local economy.
“I’ve seen this dramatic decline in ocean health…doing nothing is fundamentally unethical,” says Deborah Iglesias Rodriguez, chair of ecology, evolution and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who signed the letter. today.
And when it comes to studying new ways of using the oceans to tackle climate change, she says, “we need to at least know the risks and benefits, and see if we can help solve the problem we’ve created.”