The oceans are now more acidic now than they have been for 800,000 years, the academies said in a joint statement, and they predicted dire consequences for food production and the livelihoods of millions of people if this challenge is not addressed.
The absorption of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide causes irreversible ocean acidification, which the scientists say will cause "massive corrosion of coral reefs and dramatic changes in the makeup of ocean biodiversity."
Reef fish in the Soufriere area of St. Lucia, Caribbean Sea, 2007. (Photo by Lauretta Burke, World Resources Institute)
The warning is made in a statement published by the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science, and the academies of 69 other countries around the world - from Argentina to Zimbabwe - through their membership of the InterAcademy Panel.
Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society said, "Everybody knows that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to climate change. But it has another environmental effect – ocean acidification – which hasn't received much political attention."
The academies' statement was issued today at the opening of a preparatory UN climate conference conference in Bonn. Talks here will shape the Copenhagen negotiations, where agreement must be reached on carbon emission reduction targets needed to avoid dangerous climate change. This agreement will take up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off when it expires in 2012.
Delegates at Bonn are considering for the first time a real negotiating text that can serve as a basis for governments to start drafting a Copenhagen agreed outcome. The 53-page text covers the issues of a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, along with enhanced action on adaptation, mitigation and finance, technology and capacity building.
Tub of fish caught in Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii, 2007 (Photo by Charles Mulligan, Jr.)
But the issue of ocean acidification is not mentioned in the negotiating text, an oversight that the science academies warn could be catastrophic.
"Unless global CO2 emissions can be cut by at least 50 percent by 2050 and more thereafter, we could confront an underwater catastrophe, with irreversible changes in the makeup of our marine biodiversity," said Rees.
"The effects will be seen worldwide, threatening food security, reducing coastal protection and damaging the local economies that may be least able to tolerate it," Rees warned. "Copenhagen must address this very real and serious threat."
The joint statement calls for world leaders to explicitly recognize the direct threats posed by increasing atmospheric CO2 emissions to the oceans and its profound impact on the environment and society.
The statement emphasizes that ocean acidification is irreversible and, on current emission trajectories, suggests that all coral reefs and polar ecosystems will be severely affected by 2050 or even earlier.
In their statement, the scientific academies say the oceans have absorbed about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by human activities since the industrial revolution, resulting in rapid and irreversible changes in ocean chemistry.
The statement calls on world leaders to:
Delegates to the preparatory climate talks gathered at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn. (Photo courtesy UNFCCC)
One is the sixth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (AWG-LCA) and the other is the eighth session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP).
The AWG-LCA group will focus on a draft negotiating text for the climate agreement to be reached by governments at Copenhagen in December that will replace the Kyoto Protocol. It is expected to include both developed and developing countries, according to their capacities.
The Kyoto Protocol group will consider a proposal for amendments to the protocol for further commitments by the 37 countries that now are governed by the protocol, as well as a document on land use and forestry, and the protocol's flexibility mechanisms that allow countries to invest in greenhouse gas reduction projects outside their borders.
The UN's top climate change official, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer, said he is encouraged by negotiations to date.
"Within the talks, we have an almost complete list of industrialized nations’ pledges to cut emissions after 2012, so governments can see now more clearly where they are in comparison to each other, and can build a higher ambition on that basis," de Boer said.
"Meanwhile, the U.S. has committed to a Copenhagen agreement and a clean energy future. Industrialized countries are giving developing nations due credit for the climate change strategies they already have in place," he said.
"The Major Economies Forum began with a firm commitment to contribute positively to a Copenhagen agreement and, in response to the financial crisis, many national stimulus packages have been launched that include green economic objectives. With only 200 days before Copenhagen, time gets tighter but the world is not standing still on climate change."
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