Our Diminished Oceans


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


What may turn out to be the summer’s most important news story (and just possibly the millennium’s) didn’t make the pages of the Times. A study in Nature has concluded that as oceans warmed, phytoplankton—the tiny organisms that form the crucial first level of the entire marine food chain—were disappearing. In fact, since you need a subscription to read the whole study, let me reprint the key portion of the abstract here:

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth…. We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year.

Since 1950, the study found, the oceans have lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton. As these organisms account for the production of half the earth’s organic matter, this is not good. It’s like finding out that there’s half as much money in all the earth’s banks as we thought there was. But of course it’s worse than that. No one knows for sure what happens when the oceans are diminished like this—that’s the point. We’re in a new and dangerous place, without a clue.

In any event, this development came a week or so after the Senate once again decided to do about climate change what it has done for each of the last 20 years: nothing. I doubt very much whether the Nature study would have made much difference, because hardly anyone in the Senate was really thinking about a warming climate. Instead, they were debating an “energy bill,” carefully framed in terms of “energy independence” or “energy security” or “green jobs.”

The diagnosis of focus groups and pollsters was that Americans “didn’t care” about global warming. That was certainly the tack taken by President Obama’s administration, which has consistently urged green groups to downplay global warming and play up the “clean energy future” instead. Most of the big Beltway environmental groups concurred with the idea, and so everyone went to work on a bill that actually passed the House in June 2009, albeit narrowly.

But even that bill would have done far too little to limit carbon dioxide. And when it went to the Senate, it was rewritten to win the consent of the big utilities, and filled with noxious compromises such as giving away the right to pollute instead of charging for it. One by one, the senators shaping the bill tossed pieces over the side: no restrictions on transportation fuel or on factories. But even those concessions weren’t enough—and Harry Reid didn’t even bring it up for a vote, realizing it would fail.

So maybe it’s time to actually start talking (from the White House on down) about global warming. Maybe it would help if everyone was reminded every day we’re in the middle of the planet’s warmest year, at the end of the warmest decade on record; that the Arctic is melting; that fourteen nations have set new all-time temperature records. And maybe it wouldn’t help—maybe, as Michael Tomasky suggests, the Senate is too broken. Maybe the fossil fuel industry is simply too powerful. But at the least, speaking clearly about our desperate situation, including from the Oval Office, would have the advantage of being true.

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