Headlines from Earth Part I: Marine Biodiversity, Ozone & The Anthropocene

Every few days I sit down to write a post on what’s going on in the global environment and discover more that’s happening. But no wonder. Planetary conditions are changing rapidly. According to the United Nations, the human population hit 8 billion on 15 November 2022. The live calculator “World-o-Meter” shows that in the intervening four months, our population has grown by about 24 million. Nine billion is projected in about 2032. But while the pressure is mounting, there are also an increasing number who are taking action to stem or even reverse the impact. This post captures global news on a few environmental fronts. It’s an indicative snapshot of our planetary state of the environment and what’s being done to protect it.

Marine Biodiversity. An article recently appeared the journal Nature reporting that the United Nations brokered a landmark agreement to protect the biodiversity of the World’s oceans, after a decade of negotiations. The High Seas Treaty aims to help place 30% of the seas into protected areas by 2030, to safeguard marine nature and allow it to recuperate. This is the first international agreement on ocean protection for 40 years, when the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982. That treaty established an area called the “high seas,” but only protected 1.2%. The new agreement goes further by establishing limits on how much fishing can take place, informing shipping routes, and limiting deep sea mining and below 200m. Equity around marine genetic resources is also addressed. Given that more is know known about the surface of Mars than that of the ocean floor, tampering with the seas has unknown effects on climate, food security, and their ability to produce the air we breathe. This convention is a critically needed step in the right direction.

Climate. Last December, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their sixth assessment report: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. In it, the authors recognize the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies. They integrate this more strongly across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences than in earlier assessments. The result is that climate change impacts, risks, and adaptation are set against other non-climatic global trends like catastrophic biodiversity loss, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, ecosystem degradation, urbanization, human demographic shifts, distribution of wealth within and among nations, and a global pandemic. The upshot from this analysis is that all countries, especially those generating the most emissions, must create more ambitious climate action plans to eliminate emissions and mitigate their impacts. And they need the political will to follow through on them.

There is also an economic benefit for doing so. A little over a year ago, the global consulting firm Deloitte published a report on the economic impact of climate change. They concluded that failing to take decisive action on climate will shrink the US economy by $14.5TN. Conversely, the economy could grow by $3TN from measures to reverse impacts. Worldwide, failing to do something about the climate is predicted to cost the global economy US$178 trillion by 2070, while taking action could gain $43TN over the same period. However, according to NOAA’s climate change bureau, 2022 was the 6th warmest year on record, so it’s clear that not enough people are listening.

Ozone. A report from NASA last October confirmed that the ozone hole has been shrinking. The corroborates a statement back in 2019 from the United Nations that we can expect to see the hole heal during our lifetimes. The protective layer of ozone acts as a shield to counteract greenhouse gas emissions. A part of the layer was eaten away by chlorofluorocarbons, a propellant found in everything from hair spray to air conditioners. Every year, a seasonal ‘hole’ appeared in the Earth’s atmosphere, allowing harmful radiation to reach the planet’s surface. When the effects were discovered and published in 1985 in the journal Nature, the international community acted with uncustomary speed and within two years, the substance was banned almost universally in the landmark Montreal Protocol. As recently as this January, the UN reported that the hole is on track to disappear by 2040. Although too late for the many people who spent their youth in the sun on the beaches of the Southern Hemisphere, it’s still incredibly positive news. It shows that when something decisive is done, the environment is ready to respond.

The Anthropocene. This new geological epoch defines a period in time, so far notional, in which human activity became sufficient to create a distinct layer in the Earth’s crust. Imagine a million years from now (assuming there’s anybody around), geologists will be digging in a rock formation and come across a distinct layer of chemicals like Tributyltin and Bisphenol A mixed with billions of chicken bones and say “yep, we’ve found it. Put your masks on folks.”

At this point, the Anthropocene is notional, because any change in nomenclature must be accepted by the Working Group on the Anthropocene. They’re part of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS), which is a constituent body of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the largest scientific organization within the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). Although that seems like a lot of layers, the IUGS represents over a million geologists from most countries around the world, so their interests are highly varied.

The key question is at play is where on the planet lies a quintessential spot to detect the Anthropocene: to place the so-called “golden spike”. It must be a location where the rock formation is easily recognizable wherever it occurs around the world. For instance, anywhere in the world you go, rock of 67M old has a thin layer of iridium in it, made when a massive asteroid hit the planet, forming the Gulf of Mexico and spelling the end of the Cretaceous and the large dinosaurs. As late as last year, the list of candidates included sites around the world, including Flinders Reef (coral), Coral Sea, Australia, Vienna Museum Excavation (urban soil), Austria, and San Francisco Estuary (marine sediments), California, USA. The latest news is the sites have been narrowed down to just a few and voting of the final one could be a soon as next month.

Why should we care about the Anthropocene? Does it impact our daily lives? Not really. In fact, it’s our daily lives that are creating it. And, really, that’s just the point. Although it is the product of robust scientific analysis – we’re having an effect on the Earth’s crust in a measurable way – it’s also a tool for communication for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to use it.

So is it good news? I hope so. Science has provided us the knowledge and the tools and that can’t be underestimated.

But why were we ready to act to protect the ozone layer and won’t do the same for climate? In a thoughtful article in Time Magazine in 2019, Olivia Waxman concludes that dealing with the ozone was simpler (banning one type of propellant) than addressing climate (overhauling the entire energy system) and climatic shifts are too slow and variable to be immediately recognizable. The whole system is so massive that it takes many years to show a pattern of change and even then it’s inconsistent from year to year and place to place.

I’m hopeful, however, not only because history has shown that actions like the Montreal Protocol was able to happen back in the 80’s but that the High Seas Treaty is happening now. We have become a version of the asteroid at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. If we are going to make a difference, it’s actions like these international agreements that provide a roadmap – and boundaries – for human occupation on Earth.

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