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The Double-Edged Sword of Climate Change

Words by Bill DiBenedetto
Energy & Environment

Devouring a tasty bushel of “mega-crabs” from the Chesapeake Bay is pretty good if you’re a big fan of the Maryland Blue Crab, but not so good if that enjoyment comes at the expense of the oyster population there.

Large water desalinization plants that will replenish water supplies hit by shrinking aquifers are good, but those plants require a tremendous amount of energy produced from heavily polluting coal-fired plants, a March 18 New Yorker story reported.

It’s hard not to get the feeling that addressing climate pollution is often a case of one step forward and two steps back. Or, like an intense and deadly game of whack-a-mole.

According to a recent Washington Post report, carbon pollution from power plants, factories and vehicles is settling in the ocean—resulting in super-sized crabs, lobsters and shrimp. While the crustaceans bulk up as they absorb CO2, high levels of carbon cause oysters to grow slower, the story continues. “In the Chesapeake Bay, where crabs eat oysters, this could lead to a multimillion [dollar] problem as mega crabs threaten the oyster industry.”

Increased levels of CO2 in the oceans make them more acidic. Science World Report say this spells trouble for creatures with calcium carbonate shells such as oysters and corals because the more acidic waters causes their shells to form slower, making them more vulnerable to predatory crabs and lobsters.

Research published in the journal, Geology, in 2009, found that crustaceans grew larger more rapidly as CO2 pollution increased. Chesapeake blue crabs grew about four times faster in high-carbon tanks compared to their counterparts in low-carbon tanks. But oysters exposed to high-carbon conditions grew at one-quarter the speed of those in low-carbon tanks, according to the study.

There is a bit of good news for marine life: the latest report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions dropped in 2012 to their lowest levels since 1994. Last year’s emissions — at 5.3 billion metric tons of CO2 — represent about a 4 percent decline over 2011’s 5.5 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions.

The environmental impact of climate change on the oceans is not a top priority for most businesses other than fisheries or cruise lines, but it should be, according to NeboWeb environmental specialist, Emily McClendon, in a 2012 column for Environmental Leader. The issue is how to protect ocean benefits, from providing food sources to helping control sea level rise, McClendon wrote.

Her solution: put a monetary price on the oceans. Evaluate ocean benefits from a monetary perspective and assess the cost to maintain them, which provides governments with factual data for allocating those costs and enforcing their payment. A new group — the Global Ocean Commissionwas formed in February with the goal to begin advising the United Nations on global governance of oceans by 2014.

With carbon pollution unlikely to cease anytime soon, climate change is becoming increasingly a question of balance and weighing often un-balanceable options.

[Image: Chesapeake Bay’s Crab Population’s Announcement by MDGovpics via Flickr cc]