By CHRISTINE FRANK
With the burning of fossil fuels, seawater temperatures are rising, giving impetus to fiercer hurricanes with more destructive winds and powerful storm surges. Warmer seas are eroding polar sea ice, allowing for the release of land-based glaciers from Greenland and West Antarctica, causing sea levels to rise.
Gigantic plumes of methane are being released from thawing permafrost on the Siberian Sea’s continental shelf, adding to global heating. With more freshwater from melting permafrost and land ice flowing into the sea, the salinity of ocean currents is changing, threatening the shutdown of the global thermohaline circulation that regulates the temperate climate of the Northern Hemisphere.
Coral reefs, which serve as nurseries and habitat for a wide array of marine species, are suffering from heat stress, bleaching, and die-offs. Due to the ocean’s absorption of human carbon pollution, seawater acidification is affecting the marine food web by undermining the ability of sea creatures to form shells and skeletons, and also affecting their hearing and navigation. As seawater temperatures rise, many marine species are migrating toward the poles, dramatically altering feeding patterns and predator-prey relationships in those regions. Due to the changing composition of life in the oceans, jellyfish blooms are becoming problematic in coastal areas and fisheries.
Besides climate change, there are other human interferences in marine ecosystems. Overfishing is depleting the top predators of the oceans, threatening their extinction, and some fisheries have already collapsed due to industrial trawling, which destroys huge numbers of other species with murderous and wasteful by-catch.
The flagrant dumping of radioactive coolant and ground water from the Fukushima triple-reactor meltdowns is irradiating the entire Northern Pacific and all life in it with radioactive isotopes. The impacts on marine organisms can be seen in bizarre tumors and increased vulnerability to disease.
Great thumping garbage patches swim in vast flotillas in the Pacific and Atlantic Gyres. There is even human trash on the seafloor. Sea birds are dying of starvation by mistaking plastic bits for food and have been found with gizzards full of nothing but our junk. Organisms that live in the sea consume plastic bits that break down into ever smaller microscopic particles, enter cells, and become delivery systems for deadly persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and dioxins.
Those dangerous poisons have been carried by wind and waves to the Arctic Circle , where indigenous peoples subsist off of the marine life and are at the top of the food chain. As a result, concentrations of PCBs and dioxins are the highest in the breast milk of First Nation women.
Nutrient overloading from nitrogen fertilizers gives rise to enormous dead zones at the mouths of all major rivers whose watersheds carry run-off from industrial agriculture. Toxic algal blooms from chemical fertilizers and factory-farmed animal manure are a serious threat to coastal marine life and humans and occur regularly.
The threat of deadly oil spills, such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, continually looms. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is primarily focused on fossil-fuel extraction and not on the development of renewables—far from it. As peak oil approaches, and the world scrambles for what’s left of the hydrocarbon reserves, the most extreme forms—tar sands, shale fracking, mountain-top removal of coal, and deepwater offshore drilling—are what they are going after.
Drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic, where icy conditions and rough seas make it impossible to recover a toxic spill, is still in their game plan. Preliminary to exploratory drilling, seismic testing for offshore oil and gas reserves must be conducted. That is already expanding in the Atlantic Ocean, undermining the ability of marine mammals such as whales and dolphins to communicate. U.S. Navy submarines also send out seismic signals, which cause whales to become disoriented and to fatally beach.
There seems to be no end to capitalism’s assault on the seas, and the Global Ocean Commission has issued a warning that the world’s oceans are on the verge of collapse unless things are turned around in the next five years. When one considers that 70% of the planet’s surface is water, it can be seen that a healthy ocean is absolutely vital to our well being. Humans cannot survive on a planet with a dying ocean, and we must restore this great body of water for the sake of all life on the globe.
Water is a vital resource that belongs to no one, yet is required by every living thing. Human beings need it for drinking, cooking our food, cleansing our bodies, washing our clothes, growing our crops, generating electricity, traveling from place to place, conducting our rituals and playing. In other words, we need it for Life. Yet, the planet’s supply of pure freshwater is dwindling overall because of pollution and waste.
With climate change, there have been profound changes in Earth’s hydrological cycle. Increased temperatures mean increased seawater evaporation and more water vapor circulating in the atmosphere. Wet places are becoming wetter, often affected by torrential downpours and destructive flooding or violent blizzards with heavy snowfalls.
The subtropic regions of the planet, which contain most of the world’s deserts, are expanding poleward. Arid places are becoming dryer, resulting in prolonged, withering droughts. Mountainous areas are experiencing depleted snowpacks and faster spring melts that gush rather than pulse through the warm season, making for much dryer summers. Rapidly shrinking alpine glaciers, especially in the equatorial regions, are leading to water shortages in the Global South.
Industrial agriculture is the largest user of freshwater. To irrigate thirsty crops, water is diverted from major rivers in one region to satisfy the needs of another so that they run as mere trickles into the sea, leaving delta wildlife to languish. Aquifers are being over-pumped way beyond their rates of recharge. Ground and surface water depletion is being exacerbated by droughts, increasing the withdrawals that go ever deeper not only for food production but to supply densely populated urban centers.
It is especially distressing when water is wasted at one end of the country on silly lawns, golf courses, and swimming pools while tap water has been cut off to Detroit’s working-class poor, who have lost their good paying industrial jobs, despite generous government bailouts for the automakers, to offshoring and globalization.
There are other ways in which people are denied access to the commons. With scarcity, comes hoarding and profiteering by greedy interests. Huge corporations have taken over municipal water treatment facilities, jacking up the price on this basic resource. In collusion with the IMF and the World Bank, giant transnationals are forcing privatization schemes upon the poor nations of the Southern Hemisphere, robbing indigenous peoples, peasants, and workers of their natural entitlements to pure freshwater.
Nestles, Coke, and other outfits are siphoning off natural springs and municipal sources and bottling the resource. Bottled water is an enormous rip-off. The plastic containers are made of petroleum, better left in the ground, and contain toxic chemicals. When not recycled, they are landfilled and leach endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) into groundwater and our bodies as well when we drink from them.
The other matter in regard to freshwater is whether it is actually fit to drink. Despite passage of the Clean Water Act, a regulatory tool riddled with loopholes, our waterways continue to be fouled not only by industrial chemicals but by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and agribusiness chemicals. The overloading of agricultural phosphates along with poorly treated human sewage, combined with heavy rains and warm temperatures, are the cause of the recent algae bloom in Lake Erie that threatened Toledo’s residents with toxic microcystis if they drank municipal water. Toxic algal outbreaks have been a chronic problem on the Great Lakes for some time. With climate change, water-borne diseases are on the rise in general.
Ninety percent of the some 80,000 chemicals on the market come from petroleum-based feedstocks. The human chemical body load of an adult can be as high as 250 compounds, with concentrations even higher in our children. Pesticides and herbicides are in ground and surface water everywhere, combining in synergistic ways with other chemicals.
Pharmaceuticals and birth-control hormones are released into our water courses through urination and because water treatment facilities cannot filter everything out. Endocrine mimics are feminizing male fish, amphibians, and reptiles who swim in the waters. In addition, treatment facilities add unnecessary chemicals to drinking water, such as chlorine and fluoride, that don’t belong in our systems and cause harm. Because of widespread chemical pollution, cancers and chronic illnesses are epidemic.
The other major sources of water pollution are the extraction of fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. The mountain-top removal of coal destroys not only the mountains and forests, but the hollows and streams, which are filled with toxic overburden. The numerous compounds in the water/chemical/sand mixture used for fracking shale gas and oil are another source of lethal substances. Plus, the water is reused as much as a dozen times, and becomes increasingly more radioactive before stored in poorly lined ponds or pumped into injection wells from where it migrates into groundwater.
Uranium mining on Navajo lands has made their water undrinkable. Then there are the oil spills from pipelines that run over and under waterways, which is why TransCanada’s Keystone XL must be prevented from crossing over the Ogallala Aquifer. The Great Plains cannot afford another spill of the scale in the Kalamazoo watershed.
Mining ores creates millions of tons of overburden. The huge slurry pits from tar sands, coal, and metal mining leach huge amounts of poisons into the water. The catastrophic breach in the Mount Polley gold mine tailings impoundment, which is leaking into British Columbia ’s streams, is a nightmarish example of what can happen.
Acid-mine drainage from hard-rock mining of both ferrous and non-ferrous metals from sulfur ores is everywhere throughout the American West. Rivers have turned yellow with sulfuric acid, rendering the water undrinkable and the aquatic environment unlivable. Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan ’s Upper Peninsula are threatened with acid-mine drainage in perpetuity if more mining is allowed there.
Added to this is an array of heavy-metal contaminants. Mercury, not only from coal-fired power plants but iron mining too, is transformed into methylmercury by bacteria in aquatic environments and bioaccumulates up the food chain.
All of our aquatic ecosystems are in trouble. Acid precipitation from sulfur and nitrous oxides has created dead lakes. Invasive species released with the dumping of bilge water from foreign vessels has completely altered the Great Lakes ecosystem.
As human beings have attempted to hammer Nature into submission, our waterways have been grossly over-engineered, with the straightening, dredging, and damming of rivers for navigation, electricity, and flood control and the deliberate draining of wetlands for cropland and urban development. Because of levees, rivers are no longer allowed to overflow onto their flood plains and deposit silt that renews the land. Wetlands no longer absorb excess precipitation, often making flooding worse, and wildlife habitat has been obliterated.
Damming prevents fish such as salmon from spawning, and many of our salmon runs have died out. Reservoirs, the creation of which has destroyed millions of acres of forests and habitat, silt up and emit methane. This reshaping of the landscape impedes the natural hydrological fluxes and flows required by healthy ecosystems to function.
The sanctity of the commons is being violated daily by the drive for private profit, and we are left with a compendium of water woes. Like the planet, our bodies are 70% water, and our brains 90%. When we become dehydrated, our ability to think and cope with stress is undermined. Water is the Essence of Life. Therefore, it must be protected. The onslaught against this vital resource must end now if we are to survive in a world being swiftly transformed by climate change.
Socialist Action is for System Change, Not Climate Change. We can cope with the magnitude of the problem through a democratically organized and collective effort. To start, a powerful mass movement must be built to bring down the limitless-growth economy that exploits Mother Earth as a mine for raw materials and a dump for wastes and replace it with an egalitarian, cooperative society that exists in complete harmony with Nature, while allowing it to regain its once healthy state.
To that end, we must:
• Stop all government subsidies to the Carbon Barons.
• Tax corporate polluters to the hilt.
• Nationalize the energy industry.
• End all fossil fuel combustion and biomass burning.
• Replace fossil fuels with renewable wind, solar, and geothermal energy to draw down carbon to a safe 325 ppm with zero GHG emissions.
• Decommission all nuclear power plants.
• Retool for green manufacturing & chemistry.
• Ensure a just transition for all workers.
• Ditch Big Pharma and return to natural healing.
• Launch public works for restoration and remediation of ecosystems & rewild our urban areas.
• Switch to chemical-free, organic farming & permaculture.
• Glean and recover materials from landfills; reduce, restore, reuse, and recycle for zero waste.
Photo: Plastic bottles on a beach.