Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ocean Conservancy in Murky Waters

I have a lot of respect for the Ocean Conservancy. They’re one of the largest or maybe the largest protectors of mother ocean. Therefore I can only wonder…did the staffers at the Ocean Conservancy realize that, in their Fall 2006 issue of Blue Planet magazine, they were jumping into a muddy, questionable situation?

I’m referring, of course, to their article on iron fertilization . As you regular readers may recall, last July I published an analysis showing pretty convincingly that the iron fertilization debate has been driven to an unusual extent by personal bias and politics, not by a rational scientific approach. There has been an unseemly amount of fallacious arguments, spin tactics, and pushing of personal agendas. Thus a technology with great promise, potentially beneficial to the health of millions of human beings, and the planet, has not gotten the quality of examination it deserves.

That’s how it appears in any case, and there has been enough emails from other scientists to confirm that I’m not the only one who sees it that way!

As a net result, the ocean science community has taken an extremely negative view – far more negative, far too prematurely, than seems warranted by the sparse data collected so far. And now a leading environmental group has been recruited to this same negative position.

One claim is that involvement of commercial ventures is an invitation to abuse. Nonsense. Many types of ecological restoration are done by private companies, consultants, or engineering firms in every facet of the environmental field, from reforestation to wetlands restoration to toxic cleanup. Commercial involvement is nothing new, nothing unusual. Yet in this case, it seems that commercial ventures have been used as a “bogeyman”, to induce panic and to short-circuit the normal process of scientific discussion.

If handled properly , iron fertilization has potential to be good for the ecosystem. But that isn’t the story we read in Blue Planet. Instead we read such gems as this:

Others see it more simply. “The ocean has been proposed as a dumping ground of last resort for all sorts of human waste—everything from nuclear wastes to household trash—based on the idea that the ocean can absorb anything. Ocean fertilization is just another form of waste disposal,” noted Mark Powell, an oceanographer and Director of Fish Conservation at The Ocean Conservancy. “Let’s not trade the hell we know for the one we don’t.”

Now folks, this quote is just plain fallacious. There is no better way to describe it. Iron fertilization is a technique in which tiny trace amounts of a natural plant food—an iron supplement—is added to the water to restore normal levels of minerals, so that ocean plants can grow. As a side product, these plants absorb carbon dioxide, in a process that is absolutely natural to the oceans.

It’s the equivalent of adding a small layer of topsoil to help grow trees over a restored strip-mine, or adding some nutrients to help a marsh overcome some toxic spill. Imagine adding a single drop of liquid plant food to a 50 gallon aquarium, to help the plants grow.

Iron fertilization is a technique which, if done properly, might restore the health of the ocean commons and help restore ocean fish populations. Yet here is the Ocean Conservancy calling it “dumping” – painting a emotional picture of ecological villains who dump oil out of tankers or barrels of toxic waste. It’s an abuse of the English language and of the hearts and minds of green citizens.

Do we “know” that iron fertilization could help the oceans? No, we don’t know this for sure, and if the anti-irons have their way, we’ll NEVER know, because nobody will ever even try. That is the tragedy of pushing fear tactics in place of a more rational, reasoned scientific debate.

The worst part is…the world of green citizens probably won’t catch this. How could they know that much of this story is questionable? Reading the article, trusting the source, they will reactive reflexively, negatively, and next time some ocean scientist tries to propose this solution to help the ocean, that scientist will get shouted down. Thus the scientific method is undercut by creeping, insidious negativity.

And then, 50 years from now, when the coral is dead, the whales and major fish populations have starved, and the waters of the deep ocean are devoid of life, when our grandchildren ask us “Did you look for creative solutions to prevent this”? What will we say? “Well sorry kids, but actually we had a possible solution but we didn’t follow it up because there were a few people yelling about it, who managed to inflame people’s fears, and we didn’t want to challenge them.” Can you imagine saying that to your grandchildren, as you gaze across the dying seas?

I can’t, and I hope I don't have to.

PS. Don't be surprised if there is more discussion of this. Iron fertilization is now part of a worldwide debate over global warming and fish depletion. Billions of dollars and millions of lives at stake. You can be sure that if a potential cure has been bypassed, the public and the decision-makers will want to know about it.

Prior links on this subject:

First Annual Ranking of Top 3 Carbon Sequestration Technologies

Open Letter to the Marine Science Community: Has Personal Bias Derailed Science?

10 Years ago, Iron Fertilization Battle Lines Already Drawn


Note 11/17 -- edited to remove excess commentary