The year was 1972 and my father, Philippe Cousteau, Sr., was filming another episode of the famed series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. This particular installment, A Smile of the Walrus, chronicled the story of a changing Arctic ecosystem and the struggle of the various creatures, such as the walrus, to adapt. But 37 years ago, the changes being investigated by my father and grandfather were of a very different sort than those we struggle with today. At that time, the Inuit people were trading their dogsleds for snowmobiles, and their spears for rifles. The questions being asked were about the sustainability of a species in the face of man's technological advancements. Today, those advancements have given way to a whole new arsenal of problems that threaten not only the Arctic and its indigenous species, but the entire planet and humanity as we know it.
The Arctic is among the least understood places on the planet; however, we do know that its landscape is changing and evolving as quickly as cell phones and the Internet. You have probably heard or said at some point, "I could not live without my cell phone." Well, the world cannot live without the Arctic; it affects every living thing on Earth and acts as a virtual thermostat, reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet.
Now imagine, for a moment, if you lost control of the thermostat in your home or office; you would be pretty uncomfortable, right? Thankfully, most of us are fortunate enough to resolve this with a phone call or two (or three, depending on your maintenance guy). The Arctic isn't so lucky. It's warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing seasonal ice to melt at an astounding rate. According to NASA, since 1979, the average decline of sea ice per decade is almost 10 percent.
You're probably asking, "what does this have to do with me?" Well, if we continue pumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere, which is causing the sea ice to melt at the current rate, here are just some of the consequences (in the Arctic and in your backyard):
• Further decline of public health. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; from 1980-1994, the prevalence of asthma increased 75% in the US population. Amongst children under the age of five it increased more than 160%. Contributing factors include poor air quality and pollution. In fact, the fastest growing school clubs in Atlanta are asthma clubs. I have met mothers who struggle to keep their jobs because of their children's constant visits to the hospital, many of whom are uninsured; we all know how costly this is to our health care system. In my opinion, this is unacceptable and unnecessary collateral damage of our environmental neglect.
• Droughts and dwindling water supply. As the ice melts, the resulting salinity and temperature changes in the ocean will continue to cause shifting ocean currents and thus more severe and frequent climate disruptions from storms to drought, the kinds of droughts that are causing people to fight over dwindling water supplies from Darfur to the Middle East.
• Loss of jobs and food sources. The carbon output that melts the ice in the Arctic also causes ocean acidification, which results from the ocean absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (the same carbon dioxide that is the primary cause of global warming, hence the nickname 'the other carbon problem'). Often referred to as osteoporosis of the ocean, higher acidity prevents shell building creatures such as lobster, oyster, crab, shrimp, and coral from extracting the calcium carbonate from the water that they need to build their shells and are thus unable to survive. This will cause ocean eco-systems to collapse with disastrous consequences for not only the multi trillion dollar fisheries business, but also depriving the more than one billion people who rely on seafood as their only source of protein.
The Arctic is one of many issues that elected officials and policymakers are currently discussing in Copenhagen, Denmark, as part of the United Nations' (UN's) climate change summit. From December 7-18, representatives from countries around the world are debating ways to build a cleaner and more livable world than the one we live in today.
Whether you're on the ground in Copenhagen or not, you can affect the outcome by signing the UN Climate Petition and becoming a citizen of Hopenhagen. Hopenhagen is a movement, a moment and a chance at a new beginning. The hope that we can build a better future for our planet and a more sustainable way of life. It is the hope that we can create a global community that will lead our leaders into making the right decisions and fulfill the promise that by solving our environmental crisis, we can solve our economic crisis at the same time.
It's time that we stop debating the science as Earth grows sicker and our welfare is put into jeopardy. I'm all for debate and discussion, but we can do this and implement solutions simultaneously. Hopenhagen is a quick and easy first step but petitions alone won't solve this crisis. We must also individually and collectively consider the consequences of our behavior; from driving gas-guzzling SUV's that emit far more CO₂ than they should, to demanding that our elected officials institute the effective legislation that we need to combat this crisis.
My grandfather opened the first chapter of his story, A Smile of the Walrus, with an old nursery rhyme, "Did you ever see a walrus smile all these many years? Why yes I've seen a walrus smile, but it was hidden by his tears." As we open this new chapter in the battle against climate change, I fear that if we do not take action, then the smiles of our children, like the walrus, will be hidden by the tears they shed as they pay the consequences of our inaction, our apathy and our greed.
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