A Sea Change: A Little-Known Side of Climate Change
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS: Top: Sven Huseby and grandson Elias on location in California during filming of A Sea Change, the first film about ocean acidification. (Photo: Daniel de la Calle, copyright © 2009 for Niijii Films.)
Bottom: Scripps Institute of Oceanography graduate students Carolina Behe and Tesa Pierce discuss ocean acidification at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church, August 5, 2010. (Photo: Mark Gabrish Conlan.)
“Imagine a World Without Fish,” says the tag line for A Sea Change, a 2009 documentary film by Barbara Ettinger shown at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church August 5. For Sven Huseby, Ettinger’s husband and essentially the star of her film, a world without fish is so inconceivable that, as he explains to us at the very beginning, he owes his existence to fish. His dad ran a fish market in their native country, Norway; his mom was a maid for a wealthy family who would stop at Huseby’s fish market to pick up food for her employers. She fell in love with the cute fishmonger, married him and Sven was the result. Generations later, Sven, a 60-year-old retired history teacher, finds himself explaining to his grandson Elias — co-star of A Sea Change — just how important the sea and its life are to him, and how they’re in danger from ocean acidification.
Never heard of ocean acidification before? Neither had I — and, for that matter, neither had Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger until they read an article in the November 20, 2006 issue of The New Yorker called “The Darkening Sea.” Written by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Darkening Sea” told the almost totally unknown flip side of the global-warming controversy. The well-known story is how the burning of fossil fuels is releasing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, raising earth’s overall temperature and threatening to melt glaciers and raise the level of the world’s oceans so that small island nations and coastal regions in big countries will be inundated with water.
What Kolbert and her sources in the scientific community explained in “The Darkening Sea” is that all that global-warming bad stuff would be happening even faster if it weren’t for the oceans, which absorb much of the additional carbon dioxide our consumption of coal, oil, natural gas and their derivatives, including gasoline, is pumping into the atmosphere. There’s a catch, though; as all this carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, some of it turns into carbonic acid and lowers its pH level. (In case you forgot high-school chemistry, pH is a measure of how acidic something is on a scale from zero to 14, with zero being totally acid and 14 being totally alkaline. If you had a chemistry set as a kid, the sight of Huseby and some of his scientific sources using pH strips to test samples of ocean water will bring back memories.)
That may not seem like such a big deal, but it is because sea animals have evolved to survive in the slightly alkaline environment (pH 8.2) of natural seawater. As the oceans become more acidic, plenty of species start dying, including plankton — the tiny creatures that, ironically, provide the main food source for the ocean’s largest animals, whales — and coral. “You could have food chains collapse, and fisheries ultimately with them, because most of the fish we get from the ocean are at the end of long food chains,” Thomas Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C., told Kolbert for her article. “You probably will see shifts in favor of invertebrates, or the reign of jellyfish.”
Among the stars of A Sea Change are pteropods, a form of zooplankton (there are two sorts of plankton: phytoplankton, which are plants; and zooplankton, which are animals) which are about the size of a child’s fingernail. They are naturally transparent, and the film offers views of their almost unearthly beauty. Huseby and Ettinger call them “sea butterflies” because they move in similar motions with their wing-like fins, and they’re able to survive because of their outer shells. Only as the level of dissolved CO2 in the water goes up and makes the oceans more acidic, their shells become opaque, turn brittle and ultimately disintegrate — making it impossible for the pteropods to survive and jeopardizing the lives of the fish and marine mammals that feed on them.
A Sea Change was presented at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest August 5 with two resource people present to lead a post-film discussion: Carolina Behe and Tesa Pierce, both graduate students at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. Behe raised eyebrows when she talked about having lived in Antarctica on a research trip to collect fish, but that’s been just part of her ocean-going odyssey. “I grew up in Oregon and became a commercial fisherman in Arkansas before moving to New York City and working with corporations who wanted to go green,” Behe explained. “I came to Scripps because I realized that we needed to work on the governmental level and not just do research.”
“I grew up here in San Diego,” said Pierce. “I sailed and rowed, and in biology I looked at a snail and a medical procedure for that snail shell. I want to work on ocean acidification and its effects on biology. I’m in my first year of working with a program that looks at the associations between the ecosystem, economy and politics.” Many of the questions for Behe and Pierce turned on the politics of global warming as an issue and how public opinion is turning against the scientific consensus that there is a major shift in earth’s climate and human activities, particularly fossil fuel use, are responsible.
Polls show a steady decline in the number of Americans who believe humans are causing global warming. Just a few days before the event at the church, U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid had cancelled a scheduled vote on a climate-change bill — one most environmentalists regarded as pathetically weak and unlikely to accomplish much to stop global warming — because he didn’t have the votes even for a much-compromised measure. And here in California, the state’s landmark climate-change bill, AB 32, is under assault at the ballot box by a group of out-of-state oil companies, who’ve qualified an initiative, Proposition 23, to “suspend” the law until unemployment in California goes below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. Since that has happened three times in the last 30 years — and the official unemployment rate in the state is now over 10 percent — that would essentially kill the state’s pioneering response to climate change and probably put out of business many of the start-up companies investing in alternative energy under AB 32’s guarantees of a market for it in California.
“Climate change has been made into a political problem, and it’s become a partisan issue,” Pierce said. Indeed, Pierce noted that the issue has become so politicized, advocates now prefer the term “climate change” over “global warming” because every time the weather becomes unseasonably cool — as it’s been through San Diego in the summer of 2010 — opponents say, “You see? There’s no such thing as global warming! It’s getting colder!” “Not all places will get hotter,” Pierce acknowledged. “Some places will get colder. The point is there’ll be more variability.” (New York’s weather during summer 2010 was among the hottest in history.)
The frustration among both Behe and Pierce — and most of the members of the audience — was palpable, especially since the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and humans are responsible is overwhelming. “There’s no doubt about it as a scientific fact,” Pierce said. “The uncertainty is over how big the climate changes will be. We should get over the idea that it’s a political problem. If we don’t address it, we will have more and more variations in climate and extreme weather events, like Hurricane Katrina.”
“We need to educate the public, because most people don’t realize how big a problem it is,” added Behe. “Just educate as many people around you and urge them to be politically active” — and start, both she and Pierce said, by urging them to vote against Proposition 23 to preserve California’s leadership in the fight against climate change.
One woman in the audience compared the strategies of oil companies and other corporations with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels to sow doubt about human responsibility for climate change to the decades-long effort by tobacco companies to deny the health hazards of smoking and turn that, too, into a political rather than a scientific issue. She said the oil companies had hired the same public-relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, that the tobacco industry had used, and Hill and Knowlton had used the same P.R. strategy: find a handful of scientists who disagreed with the consensus view, give them and their research a lot of publicity, and thereby convince ordinary people that this was still a controversial and highly debated issue within the scientific community. What’s more, as local activist Nelisse Muga noted, the mainstream media are complicit in this because “they’re telling us exactly what Hill and Knowlton tell them to say, and politicians and people in our leadership are part of this corporate machine.”
Another activist, Miriam Clark, mentioned a New Yorker article about James Hansen, the U.S. government scientist who first announced much of the research documenting human-caused climate change and was attacked and largely silenced for doing so. “The propaganda campaign is not to convince you that it’s not happening, but that there’s a major scientific debate,” she said. “It makes people feel helpless and unable to affect the political debate.”
One woman in the audience said at least part of the problem is that as American civilization has developed, people have not only moved out of rural areas and into cities — artificial environments where they’re less tied to nature than humans have been historically — but that even within cities most people move around frequently and therefore aren’t able to make comparisons to what the weather was like in their area a decade or so ago. North County resident Helen Bourne, who’s lived in the same place 13 years, said, “I’ve noticed a lot of changes. I used to see dolphins a lot, and now I’m seeing them a lot less. If we open our own eyes to nature instead of the news, it would give us better information.”
Not all the questions for Behe and Pierce were about the overall politics and public perceptions of climate change. They also got a few technical queries, including one on just what the evidence is that sea levels are rising. “It’s a very small amount,” Pierce conceded, “a few millimeters a year, but Louisiana is sinking and therefore they’re getting a greater amount of coast rising.” She also discussed how sea animals cope — or try to — with increasingly acid waters, saying that in tidelands the pH levels already vary more than they do in the deep ocean “and organisms can cope with it well, but as you increase the variability they have problems.”
One audience member mentioned Scripps Institute researcher Jeff Severinghaus’s studies of ice cores taken from Greenland. Scientists drill into ice from long-frozen regions and are able to analyze its content of CO2 and other dissolved greenhouse gases and use this information to deduce how the earth’s climate has changed over time. The person who discussed Severinghaus’s research summed up his conclusions: “There are periods of stability and periods of rapid change, and in the last 10,000 years we operated in an unusually flat period of temperature. The only explanations of changes in the ocean [recently] are those that depend on CO2 added by human activity. A longitudinal study at Scripps, replicated elsewhere, has shown a 30 to 40 percent drop in phytoplankton because of ocean acidification and climate change.”
At the close of the meeting, Tanja Winter, veteran activist and founder of the church’s Peace and Democracy Action Group, which put on the showing of A Sea Change, said, “We have to stop thinking about our own provincial neighborhoods. This is a world issue.”
“And it’s going to affect all life,” Behe added.