June 18th, 2013


Author, The Attacking Ocean

Senior Lecturer, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

With more than 40% of the world’s population living in coastal areas, the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Rising sea levels are endangering infrastructure, homes, and even entire societies. Coral and shellfish are struggling to survive as the waters undergo acidification from CO2. What role do oceans play in the world’s economy? How will the changes be felt and how will communities adapt? Is there anything we can do to slow the tide?
Meg Caldwell, director of Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program at Stanford Law School, and executive director at the Center for Ocean Solutions, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, pointed to the tremendous damage along coastal areas from the El Niños of 1982-83 and 1997-98 as recent examples of what is likely to occur more in the future. Regarding adaption, she cautions against investing in sea walls, which have a limited life and can be detrimental to the environment. She said we might consider adapting how we build and develop along the shoreline, or take a longer view and move away from risky coastal areas. Of great concern, she said, would be to choose options that would put the most vulnerable peoples at greater risk—“areas along the coast where we have more socially vulnerable, less resilient communities, low-income communities, communities with lower education, communities that simply don’t have the social capital to bounce back.”
Brian Fagan, author of The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present and Future of Rising Sea Levelsspoke of historical sea surges and options available to defend against storm events today. Taking up Caldwell’s reference to vulnerable communities, he is particularly concerned for communities of subsistence farmers, such as those in Bangladesh. He envisions “thousands of environmental refugees who will have nowhere to go because their land is gone.” He went on to say, “There are no, to my knowledge, international policies for environmental refugees confronting this problem, which is going to be here, I think, within our great grandchildren’s lifetimes, if not before.”
Caldwell spoke of ocean warming and acidification, stating that measurements show that “since the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 30% more acidic.” The combination of warming ocean, acidification, and a lowering of oxygen, taken together, has a “squeezing out effect” for certain species. “Any species that relies on calcium to create an external skeleton or interior skeleton,” she said, “can be effected by acidification.” As an example, she talked about oceanic snails, a primary prey for juvenile salmon; this could potentially impact a major industry along the coast. She outlined a number of agencies that are working on various aspects of the problem, but she is concerned about foreclosing future options by committing to the wrong options today.
Fagan sees a need for education. “I am startled about how little informed the general public is,” he said. But, he added, “One of the lessons of history is that we are optimistic. Time and time again in history we’ve solved problems. The problems today are unprecedented, but I happen to believe that we’re ingenious enough to solve the problem.” And he added, “I really believe that the future lies in an informed citizenry.”
- Lucy Sanna
Photos by: Rikki Ward
Commonwealth Club of California
June 18, 2013

Brian Fagan, Author, The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present and Future of Rising Sea Levels
Meg Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in Law, Stanford University; Executive Director, Center for Ocean Solutions, Woods Institute for the Environment