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Coral Reefs and Ocean Acidification: Effects of an unsustainable energy system

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Session Description: 

Ken Caldeira is a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University. He has conducted pioneering investigations into the threats of ocean acidification and potential environmental consequences of geoengineering. He has testified before congress and received awards for his work from the American Geophysical Union, World Meteorlogical Organization, and others.

Most of the CO2 released when we burn coal, oil or gas, is eventually absorbed by the oceans. Once in the oceans, the CO2 reacts with seawater to acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification has been shown to harm many marine organisms, including corals, under controlled laboratory conditions.

This talk will describe how we, for the first time ever, altered seawater chemistry in a natural ecosystem without any artificial confinement and measured the biological response. In this experiment, we added an antacid in an effort to bring seawater chemistry closer to what it was like in year 1750. The results of this expedition, published in Nature magazine this year, provides strong evidence that our carbon dioxide emissions are already harming coral reefs. This year, we will be returning to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to add CO2 to seawater and bring the chemistry closer to what it may be like in year 2100.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, where thinking long-term meant storing enough food to make it through the cold winter and thinking at large spatial scales meant considering the village in the next valley. But now we have the ability to affect the planet at global scale and for many millennia. We have hunter-gatherer minds, but are living in a technological world to which we are no longer adapted.

There are too many people on this planet to go back to a pastoral pre-technological world. Efforts to change human nature are largely doomed to failure. Thus, solving the climate and ocean acidification problems will involve building technological systems that allow human desires to be expressed and satisfied while protecting the natural environment.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Ecosystems
  • Water Cycle