How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

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Extinction (Philosophy-Policy) -- Summary
It is currently fashionable to characterize the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content as the greatest threat, though yet future, ever to be faced by the biosphere. It is also fashionable to claim that we must do now whatever it takes, at whatever the price, to stop the upward trend in the concentration of this supposedly diabolical constituent of the atmosphere. Representatives of the nations of the earth, for example, meet regularly to consider the issue and talk of the moral imperative we have to do something about it. But as they tilt at this greatest of all environmental issues ever to be created by the mind of man -- for it is by no means clear that it is, or ever will be, a bone fide problem in the real world -- they weaken our chances of successfully dealing with a host of environmental problems that truly do vex us, and that are literally crying out for attention.

In an editorial in the 9 August 2002 issue of Science magazine entitled "Science and Sustainability," for example, Leshner (2002) reports the following:

"One billion people throughout the world have no access to clean water. Two billion people have inadequate sanitation. Almost 1.5 billion people, mostly in cities in the developing world, are breathing air below the standards deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization."

And a few pages later, in the very same issue, Raven (2002) describes how mankind's usurpation of the planet's land area is proceeding at such a rate that by the end of the century it will have caused the extinction of fully two-thirds of the ten million or so other species currently found on the earth.

Where in the world are our priorities? We agonize over a future hypothetical scenario -- CO2-induced global warming, which many knowledgeable scientists are convinced will never occur -- while billions of people suffer from a host of very real health hazards in the here and now. And superimposed upon our problems is the great species extinction event for which we are slated to be responsible, which doubly damns us.

Do we divert our attention from these serious situations and focus it elsewhere (as on CO2) because we do not know the causes of our current real problems? Or do we neglect them because their solutions are so complex? If either of these reasons is correct, why should anyone give the governments of the world a mandate to totally restructure human society to fight a hypothetical problem of vastly greater complexity that may ultimately be found to have nothing whatsoever to do with its imputed cause? And if these reasons are not correct, there is even less justification for trusting those who would have us look upon CO2 as the devil incarnate; for what else could possibly justify our not confronting these important issues with all due haste and with every modern tool we have at our disposal? Are more devious forces possibly at work here? Or is our morality not even skin-deep, but worn only on our sleeves?

Whatever the answers to these disturbing questions might be, it is clear that the current brouhaha over atmospheric CO2 and potential climate change has relegated all of the very real environmental concerns of our day to second- and third-class issues. This situation is truly regrettable; for unless these more immediate and weighty matters are forthrightly addressed in a timely manner, whatever earth's climate may do in the future will be pretty much a moot point, especially for the millions of species of plants and animals that will have suffered extinction in the interim, as well as the billions of human beings who will have died prematurely, all as a consequence of environmental problems wholly unrelated to the air's CO2 content that could have been resolved but weren't.

Will this sad ending be the legacy of those who are determined to bring an end to the Age of Fossil Fuels? Very possibly. And unless we do something to stop their unscientific slandering of carbon dioxide, it will be our legacy too.

Leshner, A. 2002. Science and sustainability. Science 297: 897.

Raven, P.H. 2002. Science, sustainability, and the human prospect. Science 297: 954-959.

Last updated 20 January 2010