"Just a Matter of Ph"

This excellent post by reader Stormy appeared at Angry Bear today. It makes the point that whether or not you believe that human activity is contributing to global warming, CO2 emissions are making the oceans more acid. This makes them increasingly hostile environments for shellfish and coral reefs.

No kidding, we are talking about a possible mass die off of a big chunk of ocean life. As Stormy notes, “As anyone with a fish tank knows, as the Ph falls, the water becomes more acidic. Fish life becomes more and more problematical.”

Increasing ocean acidity is probably a simpler to model than the climate, but hasn’t gotten as much attention. Hopefully it will, soon.

From Stormy:

Global warming skeptics often praise the benefits of global warming. After all, the opening of the Northwest Passage means better trade routes. CO2 in the atmosphere means healthier plants. And who in northern latitudes would not wish for balmier days?

But there are side effects to our love affair with CO2 that are not often mentioned. In fact, whether the earth cools or warms is absolutely irrelevant to these effects. I repeat: Absolutely irrelevant.

One of the most startling effects is the acidification of the oceans. Since 1750, the oceans have become increasingly acidic. In the oceans, CO2 forms carbonic acid, a serious threat to the base of the food chain, especially on shellfish of all sizes. Carbonic acid dissolves calcium carbonate, an essential component of any life form with an exoskeleton. In short, all life forms with an exoskeleton are threatened: shell fish, an important part of the food chain for many fish; coral reefs, the habitat of many species of fish….

The formation of carbonic acid does not depend upon temperature. Whether the oceans warm or cool is irrelevant. Of concern only is the amount of CO2 that enters the oceans. And, as readers of my last thread might remember, we are accelerating our creation of CO2 at an alarming rate. According to the Energy Bulletin, China alone is planning of 562 new coal plants by 2012.

By 2012, the plants in three key countries – China, India, and the United States – are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.

According to one estimate, between 1750 and 1994, oceans absorbed 118 billion tons of CO2—and we were just starting serious CO2 production. As anyone with a fish tank knows, as the Ph falls, the water becomes more acidic. Fish life becomes more and more problematical.

This absorption has made the world’s oceans significantly more acidic since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Research published last year by Mark Jacobson, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, indicated that between 1751 and 2004 surface ocean pH dropped from approximately 8.25 to 8.14. James Orr of the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory further estimated that ocean pH levels could fall another 0.3 – 0.4 units by 2100.

In fact, by 2050,

…there may be too little carbonate for [in the Pacific] organisms to form shells as soon as 2050.

Since 1990 alone, Ph levels in the Pacific have dropped .0025. Such a drop may not seem significant until one understands Ph levels.

Both of the articles cited above are well-worth reading in full. The first article is perhaps the most germane, touching, as it does, on the causes of the Permian extinction, the largest mass die-off in the earth’s history. Yes, the oceans became acidic, far more so than ours will by 2100, I think, I hope.

What’s an economist to do with such studies? How do we measure the economic effects? Simply looking at the usual trade-offs doesn’t work. Does the opening of the Northwest Passage count as a gain here? I think not. Do balmier days count as a gain? Nope. And what if the earth is warming because of solar cycles or cosmic rays or giant bonfires stoked by giants in the earth? Not important. What is important is the amount of CO2 we are creating.

If economists understand basic chemistry—and I think they do—,

if they understand that we are producing prodigious amounts of CO2—and I think they do–,

if they trust the actual Ph measurements now being taken—and they should–,

then the argument is a slam dunk.

I like my old metaphor—and will again trot it out: We are all subprime borrowers. Right now our credit seems good. Life seems good. We look around and behold the miracle of our civilization, on its capacity to grow and on the energy it has harnessed.

But all things have their price; nothing is free. A glass of oil is less expensive, it seems, than a glass of bottled water. But is it? Perhaps we have borrowed too much from the ancient dead, those whose blood and flesh created all that oil. Maybe, like ghosts from the forgotten past, they will demand their own pound of flesh. We borrowed from them. Repayment may be sooner than we think.

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