Another Wednesday, another climate change headline – at least, that’s the way it seems, sometimes. This time, though, we’re not talking about renewable energy, failed climate legislation, or how one would go about moving an entire island nation (hint to moving companies: Looking to expand your business? I hear there is a market for aquatic services in the South Pacific!) Instead, we’re talking about two things: money, and the ocean. Now, normally, when you get those things together, you’re really talking about one thing: pirates.
Sadly, this climate change report isn’t about pirates.
Instead, a study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute has news sources buzzing today about the high cost of climate change to the world’s oceans. According to the study authors at this institute for environmental science and policy, in a “business as usual” scenario, the projected increase in global ocean temperatures would be 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
Before you go grab your bikini (NOT YOU, Dan) or take up surfing, let’s pause for a moment and consider what they say the impacts of such an increase would be. In addition to sea level rise, this temperature increase would result in faster ocean acidification, damage to aquatic ecosystems, loss of critical habitat such as mangroves and coral reefs, and an increased number of hypoxic (dead) zones in the ocean.
One of the major climate issues where oceans are concerned is that there is a feedback loop between higher water temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide that the oceans can absorb. Higher average sea temperatures mean that the ocean becomes less of a “carbon sink,” i.e. less carbon dioxide is absorbed out of the atmosphere, thus accelerating warming even further.
The long and short of it, though, is that the total cost of climate change to oceans – if we do absolutely nothing and maintain GHG emissions levels – could be a staggering $2 trillion dollars. And this figure doesn’t include or place a monetary value on species and habitats that would be lost, coastal communities that might suffer due to higher sea levels or changing weather patterns, or critical ocean processes like nutrient cycling. Instead, these calculated losses focus on five categories: decreased capacity of the ocean as a carbon sink, increased storm activities, impact to fisheries, sea level rise, and the loss of ocean-based industries, such as ecotourism.
While the devastating impact that climate change scenarios could have on the ocean is certainly not news, efforts to quantify damages in dollars and cents is certainly something that should get everyone’s attention. Ecosystem services aren’t just about pretty pictures of coral reefs, but industries, food sources, and a way of life that is part of the global economy. Of course – as is the case with any attempt to quantify costs, there are certain factors that will likely be debated, including the specific value of ecosystem services, the accuracy of predictions, and the inherent assumptions in the report.
That said, this report might be yet another good indication that it’s time to sit up and listen – a head’s up note to any legislators and policy makers who think that taking action on climate change isn’t worth the cost. At some point, the impacts won’t be about melting glaciers and polar bears anymore – it’s going to be about your bottom line.
Makes you think twice about the phrase “buried treasure,” huh?
The current release from SEI is as an executive summary; the full report is coming out as a peer-reviewed book later this year.