Not on the Paris Climate Table: A World without Oxygen or Human Rights
December 12, 2015
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
While some effects of climate change on the oceans -- including acidification and rising sea levels -- are well known, its effects on oxygen levels in the seas have largely been left out of the COP21 discussion in Paris. The latest draft also omits all references mandating protection of human rights -- including the rights of indigenous peoples. Indigenous leaders said the omission is a ploy by wealthy industrialized nations to avoid liability for their role in causing climate change.
Threat from Oxygen Loss in Oceans
Left Off Table in Paris Talks
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(December 11, 2015) -- While some effects of climate change on the oceans -- including acidification and rising sea levels -- are well known, its effects on oxygen levels in the seas have largely been left out of the discussion at COP21 in Paris.
"There's lots of meetings about small island nations, thinking about rising seas, and talking about acidification, but not about deoxygenation of the ocean," said Lisa Levin, an ocean oxygen expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
Like acidification and rising sea levels, low oxygen zones in the ocean also appear to be expanding as a result of climate change, Levin said.
But as world leaders are wrapping up talks aimed at a treaty to slow global warming, Levin said many of the negotiations failed to address the impacts of climate change on the oceans. The word "oceans" is mentioned once in the preamble of the latest draft of the agreement, Levin said.
This means climate change's impact on oceans won't be addressed by actions agreed to in the global treaty.
In the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California, oxygen levels have dropped between 20 to 30 percent in the past 50 years, Levin said. Globally, the losses are around 20 percent. The declines are expected to continue as ocean temperatures increase.
Low-oxygen zones occur a few hundred feet below the well-oxygenated surface, which gets a steady supply of oxygen from mixing with the atmosphere.
The boundaries of low-oxygen zones have been expanding, making more of the ocean uninhabitable to marine life that needs higher levels of oxygen. Such habitat loss could lead to a loss in biodiversity, scientists say.
"It will have pretty profound reverberations on water-breathing animals, and I think it's likely to be comparable to the affects on ecosystems to ocean acidification," said Curtis Deutsch, an associate professor in chemical oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle.
There are multiple mechanisms that lead to low oxygen levels in oceans, scientists say.
Climate change has warmed up the earth's atmosphere. In turn, the ocean has absorbed a significant amount of that heat -- in some cases around 90 percent, Levin said. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, and as the oceans warm it becomes more stratified and the deep and shallow layers mix less.
"If you go swimming in a lake in higher latitudes, in summer it's nice and warm on the surface but just below the surface it becomes really cold on a sharp gradient," said Tony Koslow, a fisheries ecologist at Scripps. "Basically, warm water is lighter and it expands and floats on the surface."
The effect of ocean stratification on mixing is important, Koslow said. Deeper waters get their oxygen mostly from the atmosphere. In the winter, storms help break down the warm-water surface layer and well-oxygenated water gets mixed down with deeper waters.
Unlike surface levels of the ocean, deep waters cannot get oxygen from photosynthesis because there's not enough light, Koslow said. In fact, deeper waters are usually losing oxygen because bacteria consume oxygen while digesting dead organic material like algae or phytoplankton that has sunk.
That risks undoing the balance of oxygen gained in deeper oceans and oxygen consumed by bacteria, Koslow said, which if left unchecked could have significant consequences.
"The mass extinctions in the past appear to be linked to periods of deoxygenation, that's why we're concerned," said Koslow, who is working with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to examine ecological change in the oceans.
To make matters worse, lower oxygen levels in the ocean can exacerbate climate change through feedback loops that lead to more warming.
"As the ocean warms, its capacity to contain dissolved gases decreases. Thus a warmer ocean will have less dissolved (oxygen)," Bradley Sageman, chair of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Northwestern University, said in an email. "It will also have a lower capacity to absorb [carbon dioxide], which is a positive feedback to warming."
Deoxygenation of the ocean can effect life on land as changes in photosynthesis of marine plant life can impact oxygen levels in the atmosphere. About half of the oxygen we breathe comes from land plants, and the other half from ocean plants called phytoplankton.
"Oxygen loss from warming oceans in the atmosphere is something like [a] 10 percent reduction over a century," Deutsch said. "It's not trivial but not huge either."
He added that oxygen loss could be reversed as quickly as it has dropped if world leaders take significant steps to cut carbon emissions.
"As soon as it starts to cool down it will start to reoxygenate. It wouldn't happen overnight, or in a year or a decade, but it happens on a fairly similar timescale as it did to lose I would think," Deutsch said.
However, major reductions in populations of marine life are likely, even if they don't go extinct, according to Deutsch.
Because the impacts from oxygen loss are not widely understood, Levin said oceanography experts are forming a coalition to better communicate the risks.
The Paris-based Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is hosting a meeting in San Francisco this weekend to form an ocean-oxygen research network aimed at gathering observations, research and communications, Levin said.
"So the people who study this will be formed into a network bringing together coastal researchers studying dead zones and open ocean researchers [who] study climate change-induced oxygen loss, and we hope that pretty soon the oxygen community will be speaking with a more unified voice," Levin said.
Despite the Paris agreement not addressing climate change's effects on the ocean or ways to mitigate that, Levin hopes the new coalition will be able to elevate the issue as world leaders continue to meet every five years to update the treaty.
Draft of Paris Climate Deal Omits
References to Human Rights
Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America
(December 11, 2015) -- The latest draft of the Paris climate agreement leaves out all references mandating protection of human rights -- including the rights of indigenous peoples, native representatives attending COP21 said Friday.
Indigenous representatives said the omission is an attempt by wealthy industrialized nations to avoid accountability for their role in causing climate change, and an effort to establish carbon-trading programs instead of simply cutting their own emissions.
"The new draft … omits mention of human rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples from any operative article," Alberto Saldamando, legal counsel for the Indigenous Environment Network, told Al Jazeera from Paris.
The latest draft, released Thursday evening, does mention the protection of human and indigenous rights in the preamble, but all other references to those rights in actionable articles of the agreement have been removed.
"In other words, there's no legally binding obligation to respect, observe our rights," Saldamando said, after warning on Thursday that the agreement risked overlooking those rights.
For some, the decision to scrap the references was not surprising.
"To be absolutely frank, our organization and me personally, I'm not surprised … that our rights as indigenous peoples are one of the most contentious and the ones that get left out of the agreement," said Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer for the Indigenous Environment Network.
Goldtooth said including actionable references to those rights would force top polluters to be held accountable for human rights violations resulting from climate change. "If you have nations already facing the reality of climate change, moving entire communities and villages because of its effects, who's accountable for that?" Goldtooth said. "Who's on the line?"
United Nations officials have acknowledged that the urgent issues faced by low-lying coastal communities and island nations, which are at risk of forced migration or evacuation because of rising seas and intensifying storms, is a human rights issue resulting from climate change.
"There can be no doubt that climate change has both direct and indirect impacts on a range of human rights, including the rights to life, food, water, health, housing, and development," Tauli Corpuz, United Nations special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in a press release Thursday.
Goldtooth said he didn't expect any changes to the final climate agreement, which is scheduled to be unveiled early Saturday.
"You'll see it in the preamble. It's a farce. It just goes to show that our political leaders are not truly concerned about the value of human diversity, human life or mother earth -- they're concerned about maintaining business as usual," Goldtooth said.
Instead of focusing on cutting carbon emissions at the source, top polluters have focused negotiations in Paris largely on promoting "sustainable development," which critics say is a mask to promote carbon trading markets that would allow developed nations to combat climate change through market-based mechanisms.
Such markets are programs aimed at controlling carbon emissions by providing economic incentives for emissions reductions.
To Goldtooth and other critics, those are false solutions. The only way to decrease global average temperatures is establishing mandated emissions cuts and keeping fossil fuels in the ground, he said.
Another approach pushed by developed countries is carbon mitigation, including attempts at conservation aimed at using forests to capture carbon from the atmosphere. The rights of those who live in the forests could be impacted, Salmanando said. Other indigenous communities are at risk from alternative energy projects, including hydroelectric dams that push native and other local communities from their own lands.
References to using indigenous peoples' traditional knowledge, which has allowed them to sustainably manage their environments, to combat climate change was also left out of the latest draft.
Despite the disappointment among indigenous representatives, they said grassroots actions and organizing in their own communities would continue.
As an example, Goldtooth pointed to the recent decision by the Obama administration to cancel the Keystone XL project, a $7 billion tar sands oil pipeline that would have carried crude from Canada through the US heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast, bypassing indigenous communities along the way.
"Everyone wants to congratulate Obama, but it was because of grassroots action, common people like farmers, ranchers and indigenous peoples from the tar sands to the Gulf Coast saying, 'We don't want this,'" Goldtooth said.
"That's what created that decision, and that's what we're going to keep on moving with, showing that if political leaders can't take decisive actions it is up to us as people to act," Goldtooth said.
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