David Suzuki: What we do to the oceans we do to ourselves

Our planet with its atmosphere is an exquisitely interconnected system of ocean, air, and land. Water flows through all of it and keeps it—and us—alive.

Water continually cycles above, on, and below the Earth’s surface, driven by the sun’s energy. It evaporates from the seas, transpires from plants and soil, flows from glaciers and aquifers, and falls as rain or snow.

It covers 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface. It can be liquid, gas, or solid. And it regulates the planet’s temperature.

Part of the way water maintains a fairly steady surface temperature on Earth is by mixing with carbon dioxide to create a heat-trapping blanket in the atmosphere. But when we pump too much carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air and water, it upsets the balance.

Even though our oceans and atmosphere are vital to all life, we often treat them as waste-disposal sites. We are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the plants on land and in the oceans can reabsorb and process, and so it builds up, trapping more heat and causing the planet’s long-term temperature to rise.

Many of consequences have been widely reported, but global warming’s effect on the oceans hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves.

As well as raising the temperature of the oceans, increased carbon dioxide concentrations cause acidification. The oceans absorb and store carbon, which makes them a good hedge against climate change. But when too much carbon ends up in the ocean, the ocean’s pH levels fall and the water becomes more acidic.

Scientists warn that this could have a significant impact on coral reefs, perhaps even wiping them out entirely. If the reefs disappear, half of all life in the oceans will go with them.

The process that affects corals—lower pH levels hindering their ability to calcify their skeletons —will also reduce the ability of phytoplankton to form calcium carbonate in their shells and skeletons. This, in turn, will reduce the ocean’s ability to absorb and store carbon, leading to increased global warming.

Despite the warnings from scientists, ocean acidification hasn’t been a big part of climate-change negotiations. That may change. In May, delegates from 76 countries at the World Oceans Conference in Manado, Indonesia—many of them island or developing nations that will feel the greatest impact of ocean acidification—drafted a resolution to put the issue on the agenda at the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

Let’s hope they succeed in waking up the world to this serious issue. We can’t continue to ignore the state of our oceans.

Of course, acidification—caused mainly by what we put into the air—is only one problem we’ve created for our oceans. We are also dumping a lot of crap (often literally) into our seas.

One of the most sickening images is of the giant plastic islands swirling in five ocean vortexes. One in the North Pacific is estimated to be larger than Quebec. Now a group of scientists and conservationists is planning to visit the vortex in an effort to figure out how to clean it up.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 13,000 pieces of plastic are floating in each square kilometre of ocean, and much of it accumulates in the five large swirling ocean gyres.

Marine animals eat the plastic as it breaks down, and contaminants work their way up the food chain, all the way to humans.

It offers hope to see the scientists looking for answers to this problem, and it’s good to see nations coming together in an attempt to address ocean acidification. But we must all do more to prevent these kinds of problems from occurring in the first place. We can do this by reducing our waste and emissions and by encouraging governments to show more leadership in protecting the Earth and oceans that cover most of its surface.

The oceans are where life is thought to have originated, as is indicated by the saltiness of our blood. The oceans flow through our veins and continue to give us life. Half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans. What we do to the oceans we do to ourselves. It’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8. The theme this year is “one ocean, one climate, one future”.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org/.



Point Grey Resident

Jun 6, 2009 at 12:10am

David Suzuki, I agree, “What we do to the oceans we do to ourselves”. So, what are we going to do about it, just talk about it or take action?

The acidity of the oceans is increasing from greenhouse gas emissions dissolving into the oceans (threatening sea life) and polar bears are drowning in the Arctic from greenhouse gas emissions melting sea ice used by polar bears to rest while searching for food. Meanwhile, TransLink is spewing out well over five (5) million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions annually (factoring in, not in service diesel buses) on the UBC trolley bus routes by operating diesel buses on the 99 B-Line route which runs along the No. 9 and No. 17 (hydro-electric of all things) trolley bus routes in Vancouver. Perhaps TransLink isn’t melting the Arctic ice caps on its own, but TransLink isn’t helping to prevent climate change with its careless use of diesel buses on the UBC trolley bus routes.

TransLink is mismanaged and is losing money. As a result, TransLink has had to resort to using diesel bus rapid transit (DBRT) in place of proper trolley bus, street car or light rail transit to meet the transit demand in Vancouver.

Whenever anyone complains about the obscene level of noise and pollution from TransLink operating hundreds (daily) of articulated diesel buses, which do not serve the local residents on the UBC trolley bus routes, TransLink just sweeps it under the rug and uses its political connections to smooth things over quietly.

David Suzuki, you are on the Greenest City Action Team; does the Greenest City Action Team have what it takes to stop TransLink’s obscene use of diesel buses on the trolley bus routes in Vancouver? Are we going to move to ban diesel buses on the trolley bus routes in Vancouver? The ball is in your court. Are we up to the challenge to do something or are we just going to talk about it and pass the buck?


Jun 8, 2009 at 9:52am

I see the blinkered lefties still won't take any responsibility for their own defeat at the polls - so they blame people like Suzuki instead of looking in the mirror, and instead of doing any actual research. Hey, Seth, what have you done for the environment over the past 40 years?

Steven Miller

Jun 12, 2009 at 3:38pm

For the record, is it correct that David Suzuki supports building a tanker port at Prince Rupert for exporting Alberta tar sands oil and does he support run-of-the-river power plants in B.C. that will provide export of electricity to the U.S.? I think these are important questions that concern environmentalists in Canada and the U.S.