By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman
A whale was found dying off the coast of Norway last year. Thirty plastic bags were found in its stomach. At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. Some experts warn that by 2050, the oceans will have more plastic than sea life.
This summer, the world experienced an extraordinary number of record-setting events. There were extreme wildfires in California, British Columbia, Sweden and elsewhere. Phillip Duffy, executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, said that the enormous increase of fire activity experienced recently is driven to a large extent by climate change. Climate warming results in longer fire seasons and larger and more intense fires.
Record-setting heat waves occurred in many parts of the globe. Japan experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded. Eastern Australia had the worst drought in memory. Kerala, in southwest India, experienced rare and devastating rainfall and flooding.
All these events should be a wake-up call. The media and most people prefer not to be woken up. In the U.S., the news media is mostly involved in the daily diet of President Trump’s tweeting frenzies. Nature is rarely part of the political conversation.
We are inseparable from the living fabric of this world. Our relation to the rest of nature is in increasing jeopardy. What we do or do not do has consequences.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is promoting action on climate change, declaring that climate change moves faster than we do. He recently stated that the world now faces a global emergency over the oceans. In fact, he said, “our oceans are a mess.”
Why the oceans? The world’s oceans are vast, covering some three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and containing 97 percent of the world’s water. The oceans are the largest ecosystem on Earth; it is the planet’s support system, supplying fresh water (most rain comes from the ocean) and nearly all of the Earth’s oxygen. It serves as the world’s greatest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.
Much of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, leaving them vulnerable to storms, sea-level rise and coastal erosion.
The oceans are in trouble. Fish stocks are being crippled by overfishing; vast coastal death zones are being created by pollution and untreated waste discharged into the sea! In southwestern Florida, toxic algae and red tide has shown up in high concentrations along coastal counties, resulting in tons of dead marine life on shores.
Plastic waste is now found in the most remote areas of the seas. It kills marine life and is doing major harm to communities that depend on fishing. Discarded plastic forms a toxic soup. As the plastic breaks down, it is eaten by sea animals, causing illness and death. It can eventually enter our diet.
Another troublesome phenomenon is ocean acidification, which is disrupting the marine food chain and causing record-level ocean temperatures that are killing coral reefs and creating fiercer storms.
UN Secretary General Guterres sounded the alarm at last year’s Ocean Conference at UN headquarters in New York.
He urged that we combat land-based pollution, create marine protected areas, revive fisheries, build resilience of coastal ecosystems and communities and especially act on climate change. It is a challenging agenda.
While the oceans are not dying, the trend is very troublesome. This is a global problem and requires global attention. What is needed is political will to act. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson warned about current ecological trends. In 2009 he wrote: “the real problem of humanity is the following; we have Paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions and God-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous and is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”
Is this too pessimistic an assessment?
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.