08/30/2010 06:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill McKibben, Climate Change: As Phytoplankton Dwindle, The Earth Suffers ( The New York Review of Books )

What may turn out to be the summer's most important news story (and just possibly the millennium's) didn't make the pages of the Times. A study in Nature has concluded that as oceans warmed, phytoplankton--the tiny organisms that form the crucial first level of the entire marine food chain--were disappearing. In fact, since you need a subscription to read the whole study, let me reprint the key portion of the abstract here:

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth.... We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year.

Since 1950, the study found, the oceans have lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton. As these organisms account for the production of half the earth's organic matter, this is not good. It's like finding out that there's half as much money in all the earth's banks as we thought there was. But of course it's worse than that. No one knows for sure what happens when the oceans are diminished like this--that's the point. We're in a new and dangerous place, without a clue.

In any event, this development came a week or so after the Senate once again decided to do about climate change what it has done for each of the last 20 years: nothing. I doubt very much whether the Nature study would have made much difference, because hardly anyone in the Senate was really thinking about a warming climate. Instead, they were debating an "energy bill," carefully framed in terms of "energy independence" or "energy security" or "green jobs."

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