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At Rio+20 Earth Summit, Two Places Where World Leaders Should Start

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World leaders are arriving here in Rio to address some of the most daunting issues facing our planet. To be sure, the myriad problems we now face because we haven't taken more action to address global warming and sustainable development can seem daunting: droughts in Africa; sea level rise in the South Pacific; violent storms in the United States and plummeting fish stocks around the world, to name a few.

It's easy to get lost in all that we need to do.

World leaders at the United Nations Conference on Sustainability in Rio (also known as the Rio+20 Earth Summit) should start with two issues at the foundation of our planet's problems: Fossil fuel subsidies and ocean acidification.

Each year, world governments give almost $1 trillion in tax breaks and subsidies to oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuel companies.

Think about that number: $1,000,000,000,000. Then think about what else we could do with that sort of money in our countries' collective coffers.

Never mind the fact these subsidies are going to well-off companies that don't need government assistance to survive. Oil and gas companies are among the most profitable businesses in the world. Do corporate behemoths that have a monopoly on our fuel system really need government handouts borne on the backs of taxpayers?

Continuing subsidies for oil, gas and coal companies continues our dependence on fossil fuels. And continuing our dependence on burning fossil fuels means continuing to forever struggle with problems that come with it, such as pollution, global warming, sickness and premature death. Each year, air pollution alone causes 35,700 premature deaths, 2,350 heart attacks and about 23,300 hospital visits in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, it looks like that's just the beginning. Almost every day, we're learning of new problems caused by our reliance on fossil fuels, such as the recent definitive determination that diesel emissions cause cancer.

Ocean acidification is another problem arising from fossil fuels that we're only beginning to understand.

Much of the carbon pollution we generate on land from burning gasoline, oil and coal dissolves into the sea. The oceans are vast, and for decades could handle our pollution.

But dramatic increases in carbon pollution from our fossil fuel usage have in turn resulted in dramatic rises in the acid levels of the oceans. The acidity levels of our oceans have risen 30 percent since pre-industrial times. Our seas are now choking. They simply can't healthily absorb all the pollution we're producing anymore.

Combined with pollution runoff from land, ocean acidification is now causing striking declines in populations of corals and other ocean creatures that form the foundation of life in the sea. And as those species decline, so do the fish that rely on them--the fish that over a billion people rely on for their primary source of protein.

We waited too long to act to avoid some of the climate-change induced disasters we're now experiencing around the globe. We're not too late to act to prevent new and rising disasters.

Our governments can take action now to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. They can use the revenues that would generate to develop better fuel alternatives, like solar, wind and biofuels that don't deplete our food stocks.

We currently give 12 times as much in subsidies to the oil and gas industry that we give to renewable industries. We should not be subsidizing industries that are destroying our planet; we should be supporting industries that will help us make our world better.

Committing to reduce our carbon emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy over time would put us on a path to reduce ocean acidification.

In the meantime, we can take other steps to build ocean ecosystem and marine life resilience to damage from acidification. We can reduce our pollution, stop overfishing and creating protected areas for marine life.

Here in Rio we've seen island nations and others that rely on the oceans showing great leadership. And we applaud the announcements made by the United States and other countries to begin working on a global monitoring system to track ocean acidification.

The final draft text that will be presented to world leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit includes positive steps to address ocean acidification, as well as marine pollution, fishing subsidies and overfishing. If vigorously implemented, these steps will help reverse the decline of our oceans.

But much more needs to be done, on both acidification and on ending fossil fuels subsidies.

The world needs its leaders to commit to take action on these issues. And then they need to make sure to follow through--before, once again, we're too late.

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