It's not much of an exaggeration to say that water is life; our lives are necessarily linked to water's ebb and flow, the water cycle. As I type this, rain is pounding down outside; it's one of those violently beautiful summer thunderstorms in the Northeast. This part of the country is getting more water than ever -- too much, really, thanks to shifts in climate. Rainfall here keeps increasing, raising our flood risk. It's a complaint that probably sounds hollow to those in thirsty California, now experiencing one of the most severe droughts since records have been kept.
I spend a lot of my time finding ways to make climate change information accessible, empowering, less overwhelming, and even funny. It's much easier to laugh than cry, and it's usually easier to engage on a subject when there's less guilt and more encouragement. We need to move the conversation about climate change past how bad things are going to get, and into how we are going to solve the problem and complete a transition to a clean energy future.
Much of the climate disruption we're seeing has to do with changes in water. Floods, droughts, severe weather, sea level rise and changes in the spread of some infectious diseases are all caused by changes in water distribution. But the water impacts of carbon pollution don't stop there. The same pollution that's disrupting our climate is also causing fundamental changes to the chemistry of the world's oceans. About 50 percent of the carbon pollution we've put in the air has been absorbed by the oceans, making ocean water more acidic, as explained with an abundance of humor in "The Silence of the Clams," our most recent video:
It's worth a reminder that the level of consensus among scientists about all this is staggeringly high. Climate disruption -- or global warming if you prefer -- is real, and humans are causing it. That's the conclusion of 97 percent of climate scientists publishing in the field, the entire international community of scientists, every professional scientific society (except the American Association of Petroleum Geologists) and the 13 federal agencies that, in April, released the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which talks at length about those floods and droughts I mentioned above and their real-world costs. "Anthropogenic forcing," as the scientific papers put it, is a fancy way of saying humans have become a force of nature. We live in a warming world, thanks mostly to carbon pollution from our burning all the oil, coal and natural gas we can find for transportation and power, and deforestation.
Carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater transforms into carbonic acid, and thus uses up the carbonate many species, such as corals, need to make shells and skeletons. This means that carbon pollution is causing more than just climate hijinks for us land-dwellers. The oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution and are on track to reach a 150 percent increase in acidity by 2100. That level of acidity threatens marine ecosystems, livelihoods in the fishing and tourism industries and food security around the world, not to mention the availability of many kinds of seafood. (Oysters, anyone?)
Ocean acidification only occasionally makes news, despite its projected all-the-oceans-of-the-world impact. As you'd expect for a topic that centers on a part of the world we can't usually see, only a quarter of people in the U.S. have even heard of it. Conveniently, however, the way to solve the ocean acidity problem is the same thing that we ought to be doing anyway to solve our climate problem: vastly reduce our carbon pollution.
For once, there's some good news on the climate (and ocean acidification) action front. The Environmental Protection Agency is finally acting on the Supreme Court's 2007 mandate for it to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan, for which it is still accepting public comments (nudge, nudge) is an essential first step in building the climate cost into the bottom line for fossil fuel companies. Not the final solution, mind you, but an essential first step.
EPA's action is a good reason for optimism. (And is also helpful for that very reason; optimism in the climate change discussion is necessary to achieve action on the scale we need.) More and more, people are tuning in to the realities of man-made climate instability and what it means for human civilization. Most people in the U.S. now support climate action -- even if it costs them some money to do so. But, most also say they need at least a little more information on the subject.
To get appropriate policies in place to deal with our pollution problem, with climate instability and its impacts, we need the sustained support of an informed public. In the U.S. -- which has historically produced most of the world's heat-trapping and ocean-acidifying carbon pollution -- the public is still learning about the effects to land, water and human civilization. No doubt, the policy discussion will continue for some time. One thing, however, is clear: to protect ourselves, and all future people, we absolutely can and must do something.