Will EPA Heed the Pope's Call to Save Our Oceans?

06/30/2015 04:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

When it comes to saving our oceans, I'm wondering: What would Pope Francis do?

With his sprawling encyclical on the fate of our planet this month, the pope became an unexpected revolutionary. I never thought I'd see bold environmental leadership arise from this powerful, historically conservative institution.

By now, everyone knows about his call to fight climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and loss of the planet's biodiversity.

Pope Francis opened a unique opportunity for a renewed environmental movement with his landmark encyclical Laudato Si, or "On Care for our Common Home." Now the burden is on society to seize this moment and for the United States to robustly regulate carbon dioxide - the chemical compound that is warming our atmosphere and acidifying our oceans - as the powerful pollutant that it is.

The pope observes that the wealthy countries that have plundered and degraded the natural world "because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production" have the greatest duty to clean it up -- starting with the United States, among the world's top carbon dioxide emitters.

"Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us," the pope wrote.

Despite the growing climate crisis, the U.S. government barely even recognizes carbon dioxide as a pollutant, let alone one that it is serious about regulating in meaningful way. Despite some improvements, the federal government's regulation of carbon pollution has been timid under the Clean Air Act. We're still a far cry from cutting carbon dioxide in a way that will help us avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.

So imagine if the EPA were emboldened like Pope Francis we could use the full extent of existing laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and others to solve these problems.

During the heyday of environmental law reforms of the mid-1970s, Congress also passed another, broader law to act as a backstop when other measures fail: the Toxic Substances Control Act. So we at the Center for Biological Diversity, along with Dr. Donn Viviani - a retired scientist who headed the Climate Policy Assessment Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - have just formally petitioned the federal government to broadly regulate CO2 under the TSCA.

We lay out a litany of problems that carbon pollution is causing in our oceans as it increases their acidity, from the oxygen-deprived dead zones to widespread weakening of corals and shellfish that are unable to create the carbonate coverings they need for protection, problems that ripple up and down the food chain.

Our first-of-its-kind petition to regulate carbon dioxide as a toxic substance gives the Obama administration an opportunity to show important leadership on this global challenge just as international negotiators prepare for the Paris climate talks this December.

This is an urgent problem requiring immediate action, as the pope indicated: "Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity."

Nowhere is that more clear than in our oceans, which are collecting about 30 percent of our carbon emissions and becoming more acidic in the process and weakening the basic building blocks of life.

"Particularly threatened are marine organisms which we tend to overlook," the pope noted, "like some forms of plankton; they represent a significant element in the ocean food chain, and species used for our food ultimately depend on them."

He's right: When we save the oceans and all the life they hold, we save ourselves and a viable future for generations to come. Who can argue against that?

Society has solved difficult social and environmental problems in the past, and we can all work to fix this one. Now we need to call on EPA for bold leadership to do the right thing.