Oxygen: The New Climate Threat

Everybody knows that the problem with climate change is that too much carbon is being released into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. But one of the scariest stories about climate disruption may be the decrease of the concentration of oxygen. Yes, what allows us and all the other living beings to breathe, nothing less!

There is still lots that scientists don’t know about the processes involved, but the warning signs are clear and come from the oceans. 70% of the oxygen of our atmosphere is produced by marine plants, and in particular by plankton. But satellite images and various other measures are showing a steady decrease in the phytoplankton biomass over past decades. NASA reported that in the north Pacific Ocean, oxygen-producing phytoplankton concentrations are 30% lower today compared to the 1980s. And correlatively, the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere have been also on the decline. Professor Erwin Laszlo, an advisor to the UN, warns:

“…currently the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere is 21%, but it is down to 12 to 17% over major cities. At these levels it is difficult for people to get sufficient oxygen to maintain bodily health: it takes a proper intake of oxygen to keep body cells and organs, and the entire immune system, functioning at full efficiency. At the levels we have reached today cancers and other degenerative diseases are likely to develop. And at 6 to 7%, life can no longer be sustained.”

And so, the future of life on our planet depends on its tiniest creatures which occupy our oceans in ways that defy the imagination: there are a hundred million times more life forms in the deep blue seas than there are stars in the universe. Very little is known about such unfathomable diversity, and scientists are trying to quickly fill the gaps in their knowledge. If stories about plankton and oxygen have not yet made their way to the front page of the news, it may be because decades of climate change denial (even in the face of clear factual evidence and an extremely high level of probability) have made scientists extra cautious before making yet another dramatic announcement. But in their fear of not being taken seriously, scientists may be shying away this time from ringing a very critical alarm bell. As long as there is insufficient consensus on how climate change, by elevating the oceans’ temperatures and their level of acidity will impact the secret lives of the zillions of ocean beings, scientists may be holding back from warning people that the result will be its affect on the levels of oxygen on earth.

As concerned citizens, we don’t have to wait for scientists to be 95% sure of a looming catastrophe in order to make this potential threat a number one priority in the coming rounds of negotiations in Paris at the COP21 and beyond. Forget about raising seas and frequent hurricanes. The real story about climate is there: will we be able to breathe?

by Anna Miriam  (Paris, France)

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