SOS: World’s Oceans Ebbing Toward Extinction
Foster City, CA
2018, Middle School, Prose
The year is 2050 – in evolutionary terms, the blink of an eye from now. After humans failed to heed the clarion calls of the world’s preeminent scientists, the planet is in its death throes, past the point of no return. The arctic region, for the first time in 100,000 years, is ice-free; polar bears and seals are on the brink of extinction (Taws & Fitzgerald, 2016). All tropical reefs have succumbed to global warming, overfishing, and coastal development (Ibid). The number of destructive storms has grown exponentially due to rising water temperatures (Holmes, 2017). Greenland’s glaciers have disappeared, increasing sea levels more than 20 feet, swallowing islands and coastlines; experts estimate that more than one billion people will be displaced from low-lying coastal regions by the end of the century (Degnarain & Stone, 2017). There are now more pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans than fish (Ibid). Yet the worst tragedy in this futuristic scenario is that we were warned, and failed to act decisively. Twice.
In 1992, some 1,700 of the world’s scientists, many of them Nobel laureates, issued an apocalyptic warning that humans were on a collision course with nature (VanZalinge, Feng, Aengenheyster & Dijkstra, 2017). “If not checked,” they said, “many of our current practices … may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know” (VanZalinge et al, 2017, p. 1). The letter went on to outline the impact that climate change would have on the oceans, the atmosphere, the land, the forests, millions of species of plants and animals, and access to clean water. The scientists concluded that a dramatic change in our stewardship of the earth would be required if “vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home … is not to be irretrievably mutilated” (BioScience, 2017, p. 1).
Since that warning 25 years ago, the average temperature of the Earth has risen half a degree Celsius, and annual carbon dioxide emissions have increased 62 percent (Hanley, 2017). There are now two billion more people on the planet and a third fewer mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish (BioScience, 2017). Logic and appeals to reason have given little intimation that humanity can be saved from itself. Still, a collection of 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a somber “second notice” to the world last fall: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory,” they cautioned (VanZalinge et al, 2017, p. 1).
The outcome of our climate crisis – indeed, our survival – will depend on decisions made now and over the next few decades. Yet the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, still in its infancy, is already on the wrong side of history, neglecting or negating the defining issue of our time: the rapidly failing health of our only planet. Trump has shown a callous disregard for science; a disdain for the concept of a world community and deep, abiding views that favor Big Business over our collective welfare. He is a loose cannon on the ship of state.
Such reckless thinking contributes mightily to America’s ecological footprint in the world by exacerbating ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species extinction, and catastrophic climate change, pushing our ecosystems to the brink of the abyss (Holmes, 2017). All of this has profound implications for the water we drink, the food we eat, and stable global weather patterns.
President Trump, and the naysayers who support and advise him, should look at what climate change has already wrought, according to the world’s scientific community. To wit: the amount of oxygen in the world’s oceans has decreased by two percent over the past 50 years due to global warming, with a 3-6 percent decline predicted by the end of this century, having a disastrous effect on marine life (Degnarain & Stone, 2017). Over the last five decades, oceans have become 30 percent more acidic because of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – upsetting a balance that has been stable for millennia – causing entire ecosystems to collapse and disrupting the food chain (Ibid). About a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels ends up in the seas, killing coral reefs, oysters, clams, snails, and lobsters; shellfish are the canary in the coal mine (Lorch, 2017). Populations of plankton – which support marine life, generate half the world’s oxygen, and slow climate change – have declined by 40 percent since 1950 (Holmes, 2017). The number of ocean “dead zones” continues to multiply, and the North Atlantic Gulf Stream has slowed by 30 percent over the past three decades, threatening to disrupt weather and agriculture even further (Ibid). Fifteen marine animals are now extinct due to human activity on our “pale blue dot,” to borrow from the late astronomer Carl Sagan, and more are at risk, including tuna, sharks, large rays, and sea turtles (Degnarain & Stone, 2017).
Yet, despite all of the empirical evidence to the contrary, Trump has labeled climate change a “hoax,” vacuously saying it is a Chinese plot to disrupt the U.S economy (Taws & Fitzgerald, 2016). It is not surprising, given his aversion to facts and tenuous relationship with the truth, that the American president was conspicuous by his absence when the leaders of 100 countries gathered in Paris in December to intensify the fight against global warming (Walt, 2017). Trump has rejected the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the French capital in 2015 to drastically curtail carbon emissions. Even war-torn Syria has pledged to join the accord (Ibid).
Trump, however, has retreated to the isolationist policies of “America First,” leaving the world looking to France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, as the de facto leader on climate change. Trump has embraced right-wing orthodoxies on the environment and has already taken steps to revive America’s flagging coal industry, with the support of Republicans in Congress, especially those who represent Appalachia. The U.S. president, barely over a year in office, has indicated he intends to reverse his predecessor’s climate change policies, increase fracking for oil and gas, and lift current restrictions on coal mining, all to the detriment of the world’s oceans. Most analysts agree that the coal mining industry cannot ward off market forces, led by cheap natural gas, that have been building for years. Paradoxically, the Trump administration is revving up oil and gas exploration on federal lands, an intervention that has roiled conservationists and accelerated the decline of gas prices (Wolfgang, 2017).
There are 643 million acres of federal land in the U.S., an area more than six times the size of California. Critics say this latest exploitation of natural resources threatens an iconic part of the country – and the western states’ identity. Even now, the Interior Department is drawing up plans to reduce wilderness and historic areas currently protected as national monuments, creating more opportunities for profit, at the expense of our oceans (Osborne, 2017).
Trump has also vowed to remove roadblocks to energy projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline and has promised to rescind rules on coal mining and drilling for oil and natural gas (Egan, 2016). The president has already signed legislation that quashes the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation that protected waterways from coal mining waste, enacted during the waning days of the Barack Obama administration (Henry, 2017). Coal is an environmental scourge. Its fumes pollute the atmosphere when burned to generate electricity, a process blamed for 13,000 deaths in the U.S. alone each year (American Lung Association, 2011). An increase in renewable forms of energy would result in cleaner electrical production, reducing the demand for fossil fuels like coal. These new energy sources, which release less harmful emissions into the atmosphere, would slow global warming and improve the health and vitality of our oceans.
In the final analysis, we are all citizens of this world, its borders now blurred by technology and mutual threats. As such, we share an obligation to provide for our common welfare and to protect the environment. Duty demands that we abandon fossil fuels and answer the call of renewable energy, both for ourselves and succeeding generations.
Of all the problems confronting humanity, climate change is the most global. The task of protecting our seas and converting to renewable energy should be a common effort, since bequeathing a habitable planet to our children hangs in the balance. Yet in the U.S., the fossil fuel industry, in its unbridled greed, exudes confidence for the first time in years as the nation abdicates its leadership role and imperils our oceans in the pursuit of profit.
American Lung Association. “Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants.” March 2011. Web. 17 March 2018.
BioScience. 13 November 2017. Web. 18 March 2018.
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Osborne, J. “Out West, Trump Eyes Federal Lands for Oil and Gas Boom.” Houston Chronicle. 21 January 2017. Web. 4 March 2018.
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Wolfgang, B. “Trump Energy Policies Push Market Forces to Crush Coal.” Washington Times. 23 October 2017. Web. 8 March 2018.
I chose to address the plight of the world’s oceans mainly because of the incredibly important -- and often overlooked -- role they play in climate change. It seems certain that life first evolved in the oceans, since water is the essential ingredient in the spark of creation. But when humans entered the evolutionary timeline, ecosystems began to deteriorate and collapse. From greenhouse gases, to noise pollution, to plastic trash, the environmental disaster we have wrought may already be irrevocable. From coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, to shellfish, the canary in the coal mine, our oceans are dying because of the fastest change in their chemistry in 300 million years. The prospects for recovery are bleak, especially since our reckless abuse of the planet is now countenanced by a U.S. president who governs more by greed than stewardship. Will we marvel, like pilgrims at the site of a miracle, as our oceans rebound? Or will we be left with only the pathetic lament: too little, too late?