Climate change is no joke, and even if we have more time on the clock than we thought, there’s still a clock ticking down. But while we focus on land, mathematicians have been looking at the oceans, and have a warning: We’re on track to potentially trigger another mass extinction in the world’s oceans.
MIT researchers looked at past disruptions of the carbon cycle, namely that animals produce carbon dioxide, and plants convert it into oxygen. Mass extinctions, such as the dinosaurs, tend to line up with severe interruptions of the carbon cycle, and marine species, in particular, take it on the chin. One extinction, the Permian-Triassic, wiped out 96% of all ocean species. They came up with a formula, sort of a degree of tolerance for ocean species; if we dump another 310 gigatons of carbon into the ocean, a mark we’re currently on track to hit, then we enter “unknown territory.”
It’s attention-getting, no question. The threat of climate change to the oceans is something even the military worries about. And it’s a good reminder that it’s not just us land-dwellers affected by what we do. But it’s also worth asking: Are we really on track for this?
The biggest factor here is that this time, the disruption is far more controllable. The Permian-Triassic, for example, was caused by some sort of geological process: Nobody’s entirely sure what, but likely suspects include volcanic activity, meteor impacts, or farting bacteria. Our current carbon cycle disruption is being caused by our actions.
That’s important because humans, once we’re motivated, can be surprisingly effective at cleaning up our messes. Thirty years ago, we passed the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, and it worked beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. It was designed to start modestly and build off the science, but it quickly snowballed to the point where, while the ozone layer isn’t entirely safe, what was an urgent risk has been mitigated substantially. It even stumbled backwards into helping mitigate climate change.
One can argue we’re seeing similar effects now. Fossil fuels are facing an impossible economic fight against renewables in the first place: The sun and wind are free, and it’s the nature of technology to become cheaper and more efficient over time. China, India, Britain, and other countries have either set a date to ban gasoline and diesel powered vehicles, or are already doing it, which would, de facto, mean the end of gasoline-powered cars in America. And we also can’t discount scientific innovation; we’ve only begun applying our minds to the problem.
That said, part of this innovation is because the alternative is frightening. Nobody wants to live in a world of uncontrollable climate change. So, while we have more control, this study is a good reminder that we need to act, and urgently.