Comment to The Ocean Policy Task Force: Research the Ocean Carbon Cycle

[The entry below is an expanded version of my comment to the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force.  For the actual comment, please see http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/oceans/.  I note that only about a dozen of the 750 comments include the word “carbon” (!).  The Ocean Project comment is enlightening too.]

To the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force,

 As an introduction, please refer to my 1/23/09 letter to Ms. Sutley (see my blog entry).  She replied that “…we will take your concerns into account as we work to fulfill this mission.”.  Now, you have a mission, and I ask you to sound a loud and clear alarm, and call for an unprecedented high level of ocean carbon-cycle research to save the oceans and our planet, before it is too late.

Here is a clear test of  President Obama’s science-based policies policy. Science has shown us the possibility of an ocean-equivalent to reforestation, now science is needed to see if it can be a real safe and effective approach.  Just maybe, “Save the algae, save the planet.”  We need to find out.

Carbon-Cycle Research as a Policy

Clearly, you have to consider are a very broad range of policy issues. Under the category of “Emerging Issues”, climate change is the elephant in the room.  I am asking you to push that issue, as an ocean policy issue requiring massive research, to the front burner of national and global policies, because, fundamentally, research has shown a viable possibility that the oceans hold the key to blunting, stopping or even reversing CO2 buildup that is causing (potentially profound) climate and ocean change.  There is evidence as well that not doing research condemns the oceans to destructive acidification and starvation as coral reefs and phytoplankton populations are reduced.

I should not need to emphasize the importance of preventing climate change, as the severity of droughts, floods, hurricanes, famines, and underwater coastal cities are all great risks to our prosperity.  You can add ocean impacts to that as well. If we truly value this planet, and truly own our responsibility to leave it to future generations in some semblance of the shape that we received it, then our top priority must be to clean up the mess that we have made.

We do not really know if ocean fertilization is safe or effective in reducing atmospheric carbon, and that is the problem. We do not know to what extent the oceans can safely sequester. We owe it to ourselves and generations that follow to do our best to find out in a careful, safety-first program.  Therefore this letter is a proposition that a primary ocean policy should be a massive, “moon-shot” level, comprehensive, longitudinal (longterm) and responsible research program on the ocean carbon-cycle.  We need to bring our best and brightest to bear on our planetary crisis: we need universities and NASA to focus on our earth for a decade or two. Mars will always be there (see my letter to the Planetary Society, below).

Maybe the oceans can only reduce CO2 by 10%, but maybe that 10% is what we need to buy time to avoid cascading changes, such as polar ice cap retreats or methane clathrate releasesFundamentally, we don’t know where the tipping point is, nor how far the planet will tip. That is a powerful reason to now apply resources to see if we can buy some critical time to allow our economies to reduce carbon emissions.

 Geoengineering

“Geoengineering” is on the upswing in attention and controversy. Many take a bandaid approachand attack the symptom of higher atmospheric CO2 by reducing solar influx with mirrors or high-altitude particulates.  These approaches ignore the other effects of higher CO2, like ocean acidification. All of the atmospheric CO2-reducing proposals (that I have seen) are impractically expensive; we cannot even get affordable sequestration at point sources like coal plants.

Even the thought of combining the words “geo-engineering” and “oceans” is scary enough to some people, scientists included, to avoid even discussing the topic. Admittedly, our track record is mixed.  We cannot afford to “screw up” the oceans.

The fact is that humans are geo-engineering the climate by putting a trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, by changing the landscape, by impacting ecologies everywhere. Where most would not hesitate to recommend reforestation as much as possible, talking about purposefully manipulating the oceans tends to cause a reflex denial.  It is perhaps understandable, in that the oceans are so unknown and acknowledged as vital to all life. 

My point is that that lack of  knowledge is the problem, and we can and should be good enough stewards of the oceans to find out what we need to know – just as we have become good gardeners of the earth.  Now we have a driving need to acquire that knowledge as fast as possible.

Complacency

It is not a relevant argument to say that relying upon the oceans to save us from our polluting ways is bad policy. Of course it is.  I’m not advocating relenting in any way on green energy and conservation. Not researching an approach because some people might become complacent is an issue about the people, not the approach.  The approach has to be part of a comprehensive solution.  Clearly, an ocean approach will only buy us some time – we still have to become carbon-neutral.

Questions

Please consider these questions:

  1. Do you acknowledge that atmospheric CO2 levels are far above historic levels?
  2.  Do you believe that the global economy returning to 1970 CO2 levels or even becoming totally carbon neutral (in X years time) will prevent profound climate change without significant negative effects?
  3.  Do you acknowledge that the oceans consume roughly 50% of atmospheric CO2?
  4.  Do you acknowledge there is evidence of phytoplankton populations being reduced, attributable to climate change?
  5.  Do you acknowledge that roughly a third of oceans have reduced phytoplankton populations, which may be stimulated with micronutrients?
  6.  Do you believe that a large, responsibly administered research program can determine the effectiveness and safety of ocean fertilization methods?
  7.  If you believe that reforestation is a legitimate means of terrestrial CO2 sequestration, are you open to appropriate comprehensive research to consider fertilizing phytoplankton as an ocean-based parallel?
  8.  What would you tell your grandchildren if we don’t throughly research the ocean carbon-cycle, and we could have?

Policy Suggestions

Here are my meager policy suggestions in layman terms:

  1. Need: Be clear that reducing our rate of carbon pollution is necessary, but it not sufficient to prevent climate change.
  2. Relevance: Identify that oceans are a key to atmospheric carbon and climate change.
  3. Knowledge Gap: Acknowledge that there is much to be learned about the ocean carbon-cycle.
  4. Research: Make learning about the ocean carbon-cycle, comprehensively and thoroughly, a national (and global) priority with a 10 or 20-year horizon.
  5. Stewardship: Emphasize the importance of protecting the oceans and research proceeding in a highly responsible, ethical stepwise manner, in concert with other countries.
  6. Prioritization: Resolve to apply all relevant resources, including NASA, to ocean research. Suggest a starting budget of a billion dollars. Encourage university programs and students to expand ocean programs.
  7. Prudent Vigilance/Non-complacency: Be clear that this program is a due diligence investigation to explore protection  and enhancement of the oceans and possible mitigation of CO2 pollution. There are no assurances that any significant CO2 sequestration will be possible, therefore nobody should rely the oceans to solve climate change, and the priority of non-carbon energy sources and conservation should remain vital.
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