THE ENVIRONMENT | Globe Editorial

High risks on the high seas

July 20, 2011

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THE WORLD’S oceans provide a crucial environmental safety valve: The blue territory that covers 70 percent of the globe absorbs 80 percent of the heat we are adding to our climate, and about a third of carbon dioxide we are emitting into the atmosphere. A recent report by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, however, has found that the oceans may not be able to sustain these burdens much longer.

The report highlights a combination of factors that put us at high risk for, as the report puts it, “entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.’’ The combined effects of overfishing, marine pollution, and carbon emissions are responsible for this basic fact: Our oceans are degenerating far more quickly than previously predicted. This has consequences not just for marine ecosystems and species, but also for humans.

While these fundamental changes are occurring, our knowledge of the oceans is still quite limited. Only 5 percent of their total volume has been explored. As a land-based species, we don’t perceive systemic ocean damage as acutely as we do rain forest depletion or a rare bald eagle.

Creating a global governance system is a first step in protecting the marine environment. More than 150 countries now support the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international ocean-management treaty. The Obama administration does, too, but it is being held up by Senate Republicans, who distrust the United Nations and insist that the agreement may somehow harm American economic interests. In fact, clarifying rules is good for the environment and for business.

The recent report reminds us that while the oceans are large, humans have managed to change them. Without a long-term solution, the oceans cannot heal themselves.