How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

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Sustaining the World of Nature in the Face of Growing Human Pressures
Volume 6, Number 20: 14 May 2003

In an assessment of progress in "measuring global change in wild nature," Jenkins et al. (2003) ask a simple but important question: "Are things getting better or worse?"

Their reason for posing this question derives from the Ministerial Declaration made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which was essentially a reformulation of the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity developed in Rio de Janeiro ten years earlier.  The three scientists say that national representatives assembled at these eco-confabs dedicated themselves, and their countries, "to protection and restoration of the integrity of our planet's ecological systems and identified as a major priority a significant reduction in the rate of current biodiversity loss at national and global levels."  With such laudable goals to guide the world's nations in setting aside a portion of the planet for the millions of other species with which we share the globe, Jenkins et al. wanted to see what progress humanity was making in achieving its stated objective.

The trio began by searching the published literature and available databases for global estimates of post-Rio de Janeiro trends in the areal extent of largely unmodified habitats within all major earth biomes.  When they were finished, they found they had only been able to obtain results for six specific habitats: tropical forests, freshwater wetlands, mangroves, sea-grass beds, marine habitats, and temperate/boreal forests.  Of these six habitats, area trends were downward for the first five; and when the sixth was introduced into the mix, the net result was an overall decline in global "wild nature" habitat area of 1.1% per year.

In addition to the glaring lack of information about global changes in the areas of other habitats -- such as estuaries, coral reefs, algal beds, grasslands and savannahs -- Jenkins et al. note that certain other vital information is also lacking, specifically, that having to do with the historical and ongoing degradation of habitats.  In the case of tropical forests, for example, where information of this type may sometimes be obtained, they report that "vertebrate populations are being depleted in these forests far faster than the forest itself is disappearing."

In concluding their treatise, the scientists say their "most striking finding is the dearth of information on trends at a global scale."  Indeed, they appear to be truly disillusioned by what they found, saying that "thirty years after the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme and eight years after the entry into force of the Convention on Biological Diversity, there is no program focused directly on documenting changes in biodiversity and natural habitat."  In the absence of such a program, they conclude that "the declaration of the World Summit on Sustainable Development is likely to continue to ring hollow and the target of reducing biodiversity loss will remain elusive."

These results suggest several important things to us.  First, if the powers that orchestrate such grand gatherings cannot even develop a valid current status report on "wild nature," even when they have told themselves they need to do so and have codified that resolve in international conventions and declarations, how do they think they could ever really do anything to actually preserve "wild nature," presuming they ultimately figure out what is needed to be done?  Second, if these enlightened souls are unable to accomplish the well-defined task of merely "counting what's there," how do they think they would ever be able to do something as difficult, dangerous and complex as manipulate earth's climate, as they propose to do in an international program they say is needed to save many species of both plants and animals from extinction?

In light of these observations, we feel that the track record of those who would guide us in these matters, as well as those who would implement their directives, is such that the lot of us working together would be wholly incapable of either (1) halting the inexorable destruction of nature that has historically intensified with human population growth or (2) changing the course of earth's climatic trajectory, which has historically responded to the directives of no one but God.  Hence, we feel it is imperative that humanity be given some assistance, above and beyond what it can do on its own, to help preserve "wild nature."

But where will the help come from?

If we will let it, it will come from atmospheric CO2 enrichment.  By not interfering with the clean and efficient burning of coal, gas and oil, which should allow the air's CO2 content to continue to rise, earth's "wild nature" -- in the form of its flora -- will be enabled to grow more robustly and abundantly as time progresses in consequence of the aerial fertilization effect of elevated CO2 and its propensity to dramatically increase plant water use efficiency, which dual developments will allow earth's fauna to do likewise, i.e., increase their numbers while enhancing their vitality.  In addition, the very same phenomena will simultaneously enable humanity to produce considerably more food on a given area of land with a given allotment of water, thus enabling both more land and more water to be held in reserve for nature.

As we have indicated in other editorials, however, neither man alone nor elevated CO2 alone is sufficient to meet the challenge that confronts us (4 September 2002; 19 March 2003).  Both approaches are required; for it is only after all that man can do that the added benefits of atmospheric CO2 enrichment will be able to keep us from appropriating the entirety of the natural world to meet our food and water needs a mere fifty years hence (Idso and Idso, 2000).

It would be sad, indeed, if well-meaning but wrongly-informed individuals were to prevent -- in a misguided effort to save "wild nature" -- the last best hope we have for actually achieving that goal.  We must convince them, through reasoned and rational debate, that it is in the best interests of all life on earth to allow the air's CO2 content to continue to rise.  To this end we have dedicated ourselves to maintaining this website, hoping its weekly articles and reviews will provide thinking people everywhere with ready access to the scientific information required to make the case for carbon dioxide.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2000.  Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Technology 7S: 33-56.

Jenkins, M., Green, R.E. and Madden J.  2003.  The challenge of measuring global change in wild nature: Are things getting better or worse?  Conservation Biology 17: 20-23.