At the COP21 (Conference of Parties) that concluded last week in Paris, leaders from around the world called for “urgent action” on climate change.
But according to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Mother Earth warmed by just six one-hundreds of a percent between 1998 and 2013, only one-third of the amount predicted by IPCC’s computer models. That’s the lowest warming rate in half a century, even as atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased by the highest rate ever.
This data makes it hard to accept Prince Charles’s dramatic assertion that we have just 20 months remaining to take action.
Underlying all this frenetic rhetoric lies the assumption that climate change is wholly man-made, ignoring the fact that the planet has been warming ever since it was covered by kilometres of ice.
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But there is a formidable environmental peril where urgent action is critical. And there’s absolutely no doubt that the growing damage is man-made. The world’s oceans are being devastated. From garbage dumping to shipping pollution to agricultural runoff to overfishing, the world’s most important natural resource is under imminent danger of passing the point of no-return.
Our oceans have become the world’s biggest dump, and plastic is the most destructive garbage of all. Every year, more than 10 million tonnes of plastic are discarded into the oceans. The impact on marine life and seabirds is appalling. An adult grey whale that washed ashore near Seattle was found to have three stomach chambers filled with plastic bags, surgical gloves, duct tape and even a golf ball. Sea turtles die after consuming translucent plastics they mistake for jelly fish. Sea mammals including whales and dolphins asphyxiate after being entangled in plastic fishnets. Starving Pacific albatross are found with stomachs full of plastic. Even arctic fulmars and thick-billed murres, inhabitants of one of the world’s most remote places, have been found with stomachs stuffed with bits of plastic.
Recently, scientists have made an even more alarming discovery. A 2014 survey estimated there were over five trillion pieces of plastic less than half a centimetre in diameter floating in the oceans. Despite that astounding number, it was still far less than the amount of plastic dumped into the ocean. The rest had broken into microscopic bits, turning the oceans into a kind of “plastic soup.” So the most insidiously harmful part of plastic pollution may be what can’t be seen. Plastic is being found in filter feeders such as mussels and oysters harvested commercially. Researchers are scrambling to determine the impact on plankton-dependent feeders that form the very foundation of the ocean’s food chain.
The man-made assaults on our endangered oceans don’t stop there. Bulk tankers often dump their chemical-contaminated ballast. Agricultural fertilizer runoff chokes fish-spawning streams before flowing to the ocean, where it creates hundreds of oxygen-starved dead-zones that asphyxiate all sea life.
Billions of people depend on the oceans for protein, and that resource is being harvested at unsustainable rates. The problem is particularly acute on the high seas. Two-thirds of the fish stocks beyond nationally regulated 200-mile limits are overexploited. And that is made even worse by the surreptitious dumping of millions of tonnes of dead fish back into the ocean as unwanted by-catch. Stocks of top-of-food-chain fish, including tuna, swordfish and marlin, have fallen by as much as 90 percent since the 1950s. And it’s not just the amount of fish caught, but the methods. Fishnets up to 30 kilometres long often kill whales, dolphins and other marine mammals while bottom draggers destroy seabed habitat.
There is a long list of what can and should be done. The 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was supposed to protect the high seas fishery, but enforcement has been dismal. Agricultural runoff and tanker dumping must be arrested. And while putting a global price on carbon is fraught with controversy and delay, global implementation of a simple deposit/return system would see plastic turned into recycling depots rather than being dumped into the sea.
COP21 focused on slowing global temperature growth between now and the year 2100, but our oceans could be lifeless long before that. It’s time for an international conference with an urgent action mandate to save our oceans.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.