May 5, 2010
Bill McKibben (May 3) -- If you think that slick of oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico is a nasty sight ... well, it is. And so we'll probably do something about it. Within hours of the crude reaching the coast, an aide to President Barack Obama said new offshore drilling would be put on hold. But here's the problem: An even bigger slick -- this one of acid -- is spreading across the entire ocean. It's doing damage far more profound than even the oil. But since you can't see it, nothing's happened. Other Views: Halting new offshore oil and gas development because of this one isolated incident would be an even worse disaster, says H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis. The catastrophe in the Gulf shows the need for clean energy alternatives, says Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council. The day after the gulf rig blew out, the National Research Council quietly issued a report on what exactly carbon dioxide, which is warming the atmosphere, is doing to seawater. As the oceans absorb some of the carbon our factories and engines pour into the atmosphere, the "chemistry of the ocean is changing at an unprecedented rate and magnitude," the report said. "The rate of change exceeds any known to have occurred for at least the past hundreds of thousands of years." Already fishermen report that oysters aren't reproducing, and biologists are saying that coral reefs may not survive the century. "This increase in [ocean] acidity threatens to decimate entire species, including those that are at the foundation of the marine food chain," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Lautenberg, by the way, gets serious points for presciently standing up to President Obama in late March, when the administration ended a longstanding ban on offshore drilling. "Giving Big Oil more access to our nation's waters is really a 'Kill, Baby, Kill' policy," he said at the time. "It threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars." At a conference in spring 2009, Nancy Knowlton, an American researcher, described what's at stake with refreshing bluntness: "Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050." She's far from alone in her view. "We are overwhelming the system," says Richard Zeebe, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. "It's pretty outrageous what we've done." Pretty outrageous, sure. But here's the thing: Doing anything about it would mean confronting fossil fuel. Not telling BP to put better blowout preventers on its rigs -- that's easy. We'll definitely do that. But facing up, really facing up to our addiction to fossil fuel, that's hard. British Petroleum pretended to do it in the 1990s, when with great fanfare it changed its name to Beyond Petroleum. But it didn't mean it. Let's say we were serious about saving the ocean from crude oil, and from the acidification of carbon. We'd have to stop using oil, not to mention coal and gas. We'd have to take the steps urgently to move the world off fossil fuel and on to renewable energy. Those steps aren't impossible, but they do require a resource we're short on: political will. The energy legislation that Obama and Senate Democrats are ready to push is about as weak as possible. The oil companies were allowed to "suggest" the teensy fees they'd add to the price of their products. Lindsey Graham, the one Republican senator even considering signing on to the bill, described its merits as follows: "It's all about business." As late as Thursday, somewhat unbelievably, he was touting the idea that it would allow more offshore drilling. So far Obama has done too little to deliver on his promises to move us past fossil fuel. Now, sadly, that rig in the Atlantic is giving him a defining moment. Will he make cosmetic changes around the edges? Or will he stand up and tell the truth: As long as we're addicted to fossil fuel, there's no way to make the sea safe. Even when it's blue it's dying. Bill McKibben is the author of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet" and more than a dozen other books. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes for Harper's, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books and other publications, and is founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and 350.org. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.