Oceans not just Warming

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People in low-lying coastal zones, like much of the state of Florida, might want to take a better look at the ocean waters that a new global warming report predicts will steadily creep ashore.

The seas aren’t just rising because of human influence on climate, as a United Nations panel reported last week. They are in terrible condition, too.

Advocates for quick action on ocean problems, which include red tide, dead zones, dwindling fish stocks and dying coral reefs are hitching their agenda to a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill aimed at combating global warming.

After all, these groups say, the oceans are a much bigger factor in global warming than the buzz about ethanol would suggest. They argue it isn’t enough to address warming by tackling greenhouse gas emissions; oceans that have borne the brunt of warming effects so far need attention.

“Everyone’s talking about climate change these days … but the federal government is ignoring a critical piece of the climate puzzle, and that’s the oceans,” retired Adm. James Watkins, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, told reporters last week.

Congress created the commission in 2000 and charged it with a comprehensive report on ocean health, which the panel released in 2004 with dire warnings and sweeping recommendations.

The White House has taken steps to achieve some of the panel’s scores of proposals. Congress made progress in December by updating the national fisheries management law that Bush signed in January — a major event considering the law technically expired in 1999.

But Watkins and environmental watchdogs say the efforts fall far short, given the magnitude of the problem and the role oceans play in climate change.

Watkins now co-chairs a private group called the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative with Leon Panetta, a former Clinton chief of staff who led an independent ocean study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. They want to capitalize on the growing determination in Congress to address climate change, which President Bush mentioned in his State of the Union address last month and is likely to be lavished with money.

“If 2006 is a year where we finally acknowledge the damage due to global warming … our hope is that 2007 will be a year of action to try to save both our planet and our oceans,” Panetta said.

A is for acid

The two oceans reports released in 2003 and 2004 described a deepening crisis. Global warming had yet to gain the steam it has in recent months among lawmakers now clamoring to address it. Ocean advocates say many of the problems are linked.

Oceans help regulate the temperature of the atmosphere and the frequency and severity of hurricanes and other weather events. But oceans, which also are getting warmer, are absorbing large amounts of the carbon emissions blamed for climate change. Many scientists say that makes oceans more acidic and harms marine life.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, Democratic chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, last week listed damaged coral reefs and fisheries among more commonly cited global warming effects such as severe storms and droughts.

“We need to act soon,” Boxer said at a hearing on global warming, “before we reach a tipping point when irreversible changes to the world we know may occur.”

The Bush administration says it has made progress on oceans since the U.S. Ocean Commission report in 2004. The White House reacted that year with an action plan, required by Congress, with 88 objectives. The administration said in a recent report it has met 73 of those goals, many of them creating new structures to coordinate policy and science at various levels of government.