Oceans Face 'Utterly, Profoundly Destabilizing' Threats, Says Environmentalist Bill McKibben
“You can’t have a working planet without a working ocean.”
In 1989, Bill McKibben wrote his first book, End of Nature, in which he explored the threat of climate change and other environmental crises.
Since then, the famed environmentalist, author, and educator has explored these themes in more than a dozen books, most recently Falter, while reporting prolifically in the pages of the New Yorker, the New York Times, and elsewhere.
McKibben recognized the existential threat of these issues early on and practiced a form of advocacy journalism, urging his readers to support climate action and conservation. He eventually founded the activist organization 350.org in 2007, which has become a global powerhouse of organizing and advocacy for the climate movement.
350.org’s very name highlights the challenges that lie ahead. It refers to 350 carbon dioxide molecules per million particles (ppm) in the atmosphere, a level that scientists have warned would bring severe environmental consequences.
Much of the effects of global warming have been borne by the ocean, which is facing “utterly, profoundly destabilizing” threats, McKibben said.
McKibben spoke with Global Citizen, ahead of World Oceans Day, about threats facing the ocean, what can be done to protect it, and green economic recoveries following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Global Citizen: What are some of the major threats facing the ocean?
Bill McKibben: Human beings spend a lot of time, for obvious reasons, thinking about what’s happening on land because that’s where we tend to live, but if we were actually naming this planet correctly, we probably would have called it Ocean. Simply because it’s a little harder to view doesn’t mean that the things that are happening in the sea aren’t of enormous importance. In fact, they’re of paramount importance. One of the things we’ve come to understand over the past few years is that most of the heat that we’re trapping in our atmosphere — because of the extra carbon we’re putting in the atmosphere — most of it, upwards of 90%, is being absorbed by the oceans, and the oceans are heating at a rapid rate, and this is very bad news.
We’re really beginning to sense just how bad it is through this phenomenon that scientists call marine heat waves. We can watch their effects on the most vulnerable ecosystems, like coral reefs, which are being decimated.
Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef between Townsville and Cairns, March 2017.
I think the current IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] estimate is that at a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, which there’s no way we’re going to stop short of, we’ll lose somewhere on the order of 90% of our coral reefs. I’ve spent time on the Great Barrier Reef and watched large parts of it turn into a graveyard. There are other big ecosystems that are taking it on the chin. The giant kelp forests are being killed off quickly, and these are huge sinks for carbon and hugely important for biodiversity. What’s happening in the oceans already is cause for enormous concern and as the century goes on and the temperature goes up, and as the upper layers of the ocean absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and hence become more acidic, that combination is going to be totally devastating.
A few years ago at this big conference of coral reefs, researchers said that based on current trends, at the end of the century, the planet’s oceans will be, “hot, sour, and breathless.” That idea of a noxious ocean, which we’ve seen a few times deep in the geological record, should be utterly terrifying — at least as terrifying as all the phenomena that we’re seeing on land, melting permafrost, the expanding droughts and floods, the giant storms.
GC: How do you explain ocean acidification to people?
People have said correctly that ocean acidification is kind of global warming’s evil twin. It comes from the same place — the spewing of carbon in large quantities into the atmosphere — but in this case, it manifests not in a change in temperature but in a change in chemistry.
The biological foundations of the ocean and the marine food chain and the planetary, biological system are things like plankton, and they need stable ocean chemistry in order to form their small shells and so on and so forth. We’re already seeing effects on the larvae of oysters and other creatures because the calcium chemistry is screwed up, and as those things cascade across the oceans, the effect will be enormous.
GC: Is it possible for marine food chains to collapse in the decades aheads?
We know that in the past, that’s what happened in the geological record when we poured immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, mostly through volcanoes. One of things we’ve seen is huge die-offs of species in oceans. The results were dire. It turns out that the ocean is not an inviolable refuge for life when things get chaotic and thrown into great enough flux.
GC: Oftentimes, people tend to only care about environmental crises when it affects them directly. In what ways do we depend on the ocean?
We think about half a billion human beings depend on coral reefs for sustenance. Coral reefs also play underappreciated roles in things like protecting atolls and islands from the action of waves. They perform a kind of wave-breaking function and with them gone that will diminish.
Oceans in general are a source of a huge amount of our protein and their the source of a huge amount of our oxygen.
You can’t have a working planet without a working ocean.
GC: Can the ocean recover if some of the negative inputs, such as carbon emissions, stop?
We don’t really know the answer to that question. It’s a kind of an experiment. We know that the less damage you do, and the sooner you stop doing the damage, the better our margins are. We’re no longer in a position to talk about absolute safety, and everything being OK — everything is not going to be OK. That’s not one of the options we have anymore. We’re talking about whether or not we can stop short of things being utterly, profoundly destabilizing, and the door, I think, is open on that point. We’ve waited a very long time to get started, and there are going to be very big consequences to that delay
GC: What can we do to protect the ocean?
The key job, as with everything else in the world right now, is to slow and then stop the flow of carbon into the atmosphere, and that means big changes in lots of ways. We have to make our lives far more efficient, and shift our lifestyles. We have to, with great speed, replace coal and gas with sun and wind as the basic power sources of our lives. We have to make agricultural shifts so that soil soaks up carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. These are under the basic rubric of reducing and staunching the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and there’s never been a more important task for human beings — and it’s one we don’t have a lot of time to perform.
GC: What are your thoughts on our current commitment to economic growth and pursuing green economic recoveries post-COVID-19?
I think that in a certain sense, we’re going to have to change our economies and reliance on growth ourselves or we’re going to have it done for us by the planet.
I don’t think it’s sustainable to keep growing our economies on a finite planet. I think it’s tricky business to figure out how it works. We just got through this COVID shutdown, which is unlike anything humans could have imagined before this year. Everyone stayed home, people stopped driving, they stopped working, and emissions fell, but they fell by less than you might have expected — 10% to 15%, which to me is a pretty strong indicator that an awful lot of the trouble is very much hardwired into the guts of our system and we’re going to have to tear out those guts and replace them. We’re going to have to tear out the gas and oil and stick in sun and wind.
It’s the only viable economic measure for dealing with the scale of these crises. In the US, we have 40 million unemployed. If you cast about for tasks that might occupy 5 or 10 million people, really the only one of that scale that you can come up with is the transformation of our infrastructure systems, and the retrofitting of our buildings and that kind of work.
I think we might be doing it even if we didn’t face a climate crisis, because we face other crises too, but clearly since we have to do it, this is the moment to do it.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.