Award-winning environmental filmmaker Barbara Ettinger’s latest documentary is about a topic so obscure that even some COP15 attendees haven’t heard of it: ocean acidification. But it’s also a topic of critical importance that threatens human survival. The film, A Sea Change, follows Ettinger’s husband, Sven Huseby (the co-producer of the film and a retired history teacher) in his quest to discover what’s happening to the world’s oceans. He finds that global warming is just part of the problem.
This week, Ettinger and Huseby are at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, screening their film and talking to policy-makers and scientists from around the globe. I talked to Ettinger Monday after their first screening. The film will be screened again on December 14 for the conference’s Oceans Day.
A Sea Change is about ocean acidification. What is it?
It’s a fairly straightforward phenomena. It occurs when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere combines with saltwater to form carbonic acid, which is essentially the bubbles you see in Coca-Cola. In the ocean, the carbonic acid makes it difficult for calcium carbonate to form, and calcium carbonate is essential for shellfish to form their shells. We looked at pteropods, snail-like creatures at the bottom of the food web that are extremely vulnerable to not being able to form a shell. It’s the primary food source for juvenile salmon and many other fish. This threatens the entire food chain.
You just had your first screening for A Sea Change in Copenhagen. How did it go?
The screening was 45 minutes ago, and it went very well. We had a mixed audience—people from all over the world. People asked some excellent questions, such as, “Why didn’t we know about this before?”
So… why didn’t we know about this before?
Scientists didn’t know about this until 20 years ago. They knew that the oceans sucked up the CO2, but they didn’t know that there was a limited ability of the oceans to do so. Once scientists realized there might be a problem, things unfortunately moved very slowly. It wasn't until the last six or seven years that it became obvious this was an urgent issue that needed immediate attention and research. And that’s where we stepped in, about three years ago, to make the film.
How did you come across ocean acidification?
My husband and I had just finished working on another documentary and were ready to take a break. We read Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article The Darkening Sea in 2006--the first major article describing ocean acidification--and were appalled and shocked. We immediately got on our computer and Googled “ocean acidification,” and only six citations came up [today there are 311,000]. We just looked at each other and thought, “We have to do something.”
Do you already see this affecting our marine life?
We know the acidic water is corrosive to shells of oysters in the Pacific Northwest, so they are not able to grow up to fully formed shellfish. There are also places where there are fewer salmon, and it’s possible that this is because they’re not able to find their normal food sources. The important point is that warming, pollution and acidification come together in a "perfect storm" of damage to marine organisms.
Do we exacerbate the problem by eating fish?
Not eating fish won’t really help this condition. The only thing that will change the outcome is cutting back on carbon dioxide, and it’s an outcome that will start showing more evidence in 20 to 50 years. We don’t want it to get to a point where it’s completely irreversible. Marine creatures have been adapting for a million years, but they can’t keep up with this current rate of change. If we cut our carbon dioxide emissions back drastically, it’s possible the marine life can adapt and survive.
What point do you want to get across in Copenhagen?
It’s clear that even here, ocean acidification is not that well known yet. It’s always a shock when we recognize how much more work there is to be done. Ours is the first film about ocean acidification, and our goal now is to drum up political support for putting oceans on the agenda. The single reason that ocean acidification exists is carbon dioxide. It’s not complicated. Currently, we are putting 22 million tons of carbon dioxide a day into our oceans--that's 30 percent of what we're putting into our atmosphere. On our website, there’s an action tab—some actions will take one minute (signing a petition), some will take 10 minutes, some will take a day. But in general, simple conservation methods are critical—unplug unused appliances, get a hybrid, change light bulbs, support alternative energy. There are so many things we can do that make a difference.