Rob Jackson, Ph.D., is the Nicholas Chair of Global Environmental Change at Duke University and a professor in the Biology Department. He is also a co-chair of the Carbon Cycle Science Working Group—a group of researchers who recommend carbon cycle priorities for the coming decades—as expressed in the document A U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Plan. It is only in the most recent 2011 version of the plan, Jackson notes, that researchers have recommended treating humans as central to the Earth’s carbon cycle, to address emissions issues from cities and industrial activities and to better study the impact of the carbon cycle on species and ecosystems—including oceans. Below, Jackson talks about ocean acidification, hypothetical fixes and the world’s serious emissions problem.
E Magazine: How serious is ocean acidification?
Rob Jackson: It’s extremely serious. It’s insidious. It affects all of the oceans. We have a good understanding of the physical part of acidification, but we don’t have a good handle on the ecology surrounding it. Which species are most vulnerable. Which species will be better able to adapt to the changing pH. We know ocean acidification affects corals, shellfish, phytoplankton—the base of the food chain in the ocean. It could change everything we know about the way our oceans work.
E: Is there anything that can be done to reverse acidification?
R.J.: The oceans have absorbed about one-third of all fossil fuel emissions from human activity already. The only way to counterbalance that in the oceans as a whole would be to lime the oceans the way we lime a farmer’s field to reduce acidity. You’d have to mine lime and apply lime in a scale that’s larger than what we do for coal mining. You’re talking billions and billions of tons. It’s just not feasible.
E: Is it possible to institute changes on a local level that can address acidification?
R.J.: Local strategies can make a big difference, but at some point you have to think regionally and globally on this issue. That’s one of the sticking points in this. We can’t seem to get past the idea that the U.S. shouldn’t have to lead on this issue when emissions come from other places in the world, too. It is absolutely true now that China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The notion of a Kyoto Protocol-type agreement where countries like China and India aren’t included is outdated. That model no longer works. But on a per capita emissions basis China and India are still far below the United States. Those countries and other countries around the world look not just at emissions today, they look at cumulative emissions. They say, “Most of that carbon in the ocean is your carbon, even though our emissions are approaching yours today.” The U.S. alone cannot solve this problem, but U.S. leadership on this problem would go a long way to jumpstarting the rest of the world toward a solution.
E: What are the big strategies that the U.S. would need to put in place to seriously curtail emissions?
R.J.: If you could tackle two things in this country you would tackle vehicle emissions and power generation. And it doesn’t have to be 100% renewables in 10 years—that’s not possible. It’s a series of incremental choices that we make over the next few decades. Whether we’re going to build a wind farm or a new coal plant that will be on the ground for 30, 40 or 50 years. Each of those decisions individually has a many-decades effect on our carbon emissions.
E: Do you see public resistance against fracking and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline as positive signs that people want to move away from fossil fuels?
R.J.: I don’t necessarily think so. I think the resistance to fracking is a concern about human health. The tar sands perhaps, because tar sands extraction is environmentally destructive. I testified in a committee in the European Parliament and one of the questions from somebody in the audience to an industry person on the panel was: “If we exploit most of our shale gas in Europe that will put us well beyond the 450 or 500 parts per million target that we have. How can we consider doing that?” You never hear that kind of discussion in this country. We’re still fighting over whether increased gas mileage is a good thing.
E: You’ve worked on emissions reductions with energy and utility companies. Have you found these companies to be receptive?
R.J.: My first job was with the Dow Chemical Company where I was an engineer before I became an environmental scientist. I do have an understanding of the corporate world and some of the pressures that companies are up against. There are consequences of changing our energy infrastructure for utilities. A distributed network of solar and wind is harder for them to administer. For oil and gas companies, the idea that there could be a cap on carbon emissions is a threat to their business model. We really can’t pretend that it’s not.
E: Will addressing emissions reduction be stalled until after the election?
R.J.: I think it will be stalled after the election, too. I don’t see a political environment in this country where we’re close to any kind of comprehensive greenhouse gas or carbon bill, whether that’s cap-and-trade or a tax. I think we’re stuck tackling pieces of it through a transportation bill, an energy bill, a farm bill. You whittle away chunks of the issue through that. I don’t see any outcome for the 2012 election that would lead us towards a national greenhouse gas bill in this country.