Putting the Euro crisis in perspective

I’m pretty sure the Euro isn’t going to last another year; at least not without throwing a country or two out of the single currency area and to the dogs.  I don’t think I’m particularly clever for seeing this – it’s obvious by now, and other people saw it coming from much further off.

The Euro itself is an abstraction, important only because of how it affects peoples’ lives.  It’s something I went from being suspicious of to supporting to now thinking was a historic mistake all along.  Perhaps that journey should be the subject of a future “I was wrong” post, but it’s not relevant here.  I’m more worried about the likely consequences of a Euro collapse or the ejection of one or more member states (which at this point looks like the less catastrophic way out).  I’m worried about the sheer number of people who would lose their shirts even if ‘all’ that were to happen were Greece getting thrown out and the Euro somehow regaining stability as a result.  I’m worried that there are so many precedents of that degree of economic pain leading to hatemongering, fascism and war.  I’m worried because it doesn’t seem like that big a leap from a Euro-area collapse to Germany in 1929.

And yet, none of this scares me as much as ocean acidification.

In the past five years or so, my understanding of ocean acidification has gone from a vague theoretical sense that it might be a problem, to the realisation that it’s already well underway and starting to affect our food supply.  It’s on my mind right now because the Sightline Institute just released a primer on the subject, and reading it brought home how much faster this is happening than was predicted five years ago.

The chemistry of this is simple enough.  About a third of the CO2 released in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans.  Because it’s taken out of the air, it reduces the greenhouse effect, but in water it forms carbonic acid.  This acidifies sea water, and reduces the amount of calcium available for marine animals to make shells and skeletons with.

Until the Industrial Revolution, this was in a somewhat stable equilibrium – just as terrestrial plants took up enough carbon to balance out the CO2 emissions from fires and animals, aquatic plants removed carbon from seawater at about the same rate it was being absorbed.  Since the Industrial Revolution, we humans set about releasing vast amounts of stored carbon by burning down much of the world’s forest and digging up long-buried stores.  This has pushed the carbon cycle far out of balance, and just as we can now see this as a ~1°C warming of the atmosphere, the average pH of seawater has decreased by 0.1.

Lekker!Just as with 1°C of warming, a change in pH of 0.1 doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the effect is unevenly distributed and some natural systems are surprisingly sensitive to small-sounding changes.  The detail in Sightline’s report that most frightens me is that oysters have not managed to spawn on the Washington or Oregon coast for the past six years.  Before we fucked it up, we had some of the best oyster habitat in the world, but now its entire industry is dependent on bringing juvenile oysters in from elsewhere – neither financially nor environmentally sustainable.

If this were just a matter of one species in one area, it would merely be sad.  But the NW coast is just the first place to see an effect that we can expect to spread everywhere unless we reverse the carbon emissions trend (oops).  And oysters are not the only species affected.  They seem to be the most sensitive, but most molluscs and many species of plankton will also be affected if this trend continues.  Between them, pteropods, krill and mussels are crucial links in a huge number of oceanic food chains, including those that support most of the fish people eat.  At the rate we’re going, I will live to see oceans that no longer provide useful food for people.

Say what you like about the financial crisis, but you won’t care about money if there’s no food left to buy with it.

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