Dear EPA: Don’t leave ailing oceans out of climate plans 

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be in San Francisco tonight speaking at the Commonwealth Club about the best ways to tackle the climate crisis.

I’m happy Gina McCarthy is here — there’s no more urgent issue of our time — but I hope she pauses for a moment to look west to the Pacific Ocean. Yes, climate change poses huge threats to people and wildlife on land, but let’s not forget the massive toll it will take (and is already taking) on the world’s oceans and all the sea life that depend on them.

The EPA’s steps to address climate change are vital, yet they’re too timid to save our oceans. We need this agency to take a much more aggressive approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, which are dangerously altering our oceans even more rapidly than our air.

The oceans absorb about one-third of our carbon emissions and about 90 percent of the heat from our atmosphere, buffering against the damaging effects of fossil fuels on our climate. Recent research indicates the oceans are reaching a saturation point, reducing their ability to continue absorbing the byproducts of our growth-based economic system.

That buildup of carbon pollution is rapidly turning the oceans more acidic, which impairs the ability of animals to build the shells and skeletons they need to survive.

These changes in ocean chemistry damage the basic building blocks of life, from eroding plankton shells at the bottom of the food chain to destroying corals and stressing the basic life functions of fish and shellfish. Ocean acidification has been called climate change’s equally evil twin, and for good reason.

Developing an aggressive plan to reduce carbon emissions is a vital first step toward addressing these twin problems, and those of us in the environmental movement have been calling on President Barack Obama to match his often soaring rhetoric on the issue with more concrete actions before the Paris climate talks this fall. For example, the U.S. needs to leave more fossil fuels safely in the ground rather than allowing widespread fracking and new offshore oil leases in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, as it has proposed.

But McCarthy also needs to have the EPA take stronger actions to address ocean acidification directly. The agency recognized the threat back in 2010, invoking the Clean Water Act in calling for states to identify waters impaired by ocean acidification, and it promised to consider new water quality standards for ocean acidification. Yet the EPA’s follow-through has been lacking even as the scientific community finds this to be an increasingly dire threat to life as we know it.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 book, “The Sixth Extinction,” writer Elizabeth Kolbert notes that ocean acidification has caused at least two (probably three) of the Big Five extinctions in the Earth’s history, and that it’s a huge factor in the mass die-off that is now underway in our seas. Her research shows that a third of all reef-building corrals, sharks and rays are now headed for extinction, and that a third of all ocean life could be dead by the end of the century if we don’t take major steps now to reduce ocean acidification.

Between overfishing and pollution, we’ve treated our oceans as an inexhaustible resource, but the science is clear that can’t continue. It’s time for the Environmental Protection Agency to make combating climate change and ocean acidification its top priority.

Miyoko Sakashita is the oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in San Francisco.

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