I just got back from a week of vacation in Phuket, Thailand. I will admit it’s not the most pristine, interesting or beautiful part of Thailand but when you have a little kid you are not necessarily looking for a lot of adventure. How days have changed…
I love the ocean and I was looking forward to some nice beaches, warm water and even a little bit of diving. We stayed down at Kata Noi, on the south-western tip of Phuket where it is a little quieter. Given the time of year, the seas were pretty rough (there are quite a few substantial tropical storms in the region at the moment) and Max being an early riser meant that we were often down on the beach at the crack of dawn. Although beaches were swept every morning it was amazing to see what the waves had thrown up on the sand during the night.
Actually, not amazing – but depressing. Garbage. Tons of it.
One morning I got up particularly early for a run along the beach and after a couple of kms I just stopped. I was barefoot and there was a lot of sharp junk so I slowed down to just look at all the rubbish. I started reading labels, processing the different languages on containers and cans, poking around with a stick. Garbage had literally floated in from all over the Indian ocean – I found labels from Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and even Australia. To some extent, considering regional coastlines are some of the most densely populated in the world and there are major shipping channels nearby (i.e. the Straits of Malacca just around the corner) I suppose I shouldn’t have been overly surprised.
But still. Depressing.
Of course, by 8am it had all been tidied away and the first proper beachgoers were greeted with beautiful clean sands… idyllic.
A message in a bottle?
A couple of days later Zhenya and I left Max with a babysitter and went diving for the day in a marine park a couple of hours boat ride from Phuket. As we motored out toward Ko He island, I watched the incredible blue colors of the Andaman Sea, anticipating the first dive of the day. I just couldn’t wait to get into the water.
What a disappointment. Pristine and extensive coral formations – perfectly intact with absolutely no boat anchor damage or signs of blast fishing – and perfectly dead. It was like some dark and nefarious force had come in and just sucked all the color and vibrancy away and left behind the skeleton of the reef. Here and there you could still see little patches of color but one got the sense that it was a battle being lost, the last rebel strongholds against total destruction. There was a lot of fish and other types of reef flora were thriving but the coral was all but dead.
Unsurpringly, there was a lot of garbage on the reef too… bottles, cans, boat parts, fishnet tangles.
On the trip back to Phuket, I spent some time talking with one of the dive masters, an older Thai guy who had been running dive charters in the area for 20 years. He said that the coral bleaching started to get really bad in 2010 because of El Niño, apparently a lot of the major coral reefs in the area simply started to die. Even though the reserve we dived in has had boat control, mooring buoys installed to prevent anchor damage and is regularly patrolled for illicit fishing, the reef has not fared well. They no longer see larger predators in the area because the fish stocks are dwindling as the reef dies.
That evening I was feeling a bit empty and I couldn’t get the image out of my head of a plastic bottle smattered with algae (but with Sanskrit label – a large multinational company brand – still visible) sitting on a large dead coral head. I realized that the issue of our dying reefs, our dirty oceans, is not about climate change – it’s about pollution. I personally don’t need any more convincing that man-made climate change is real, and a serious issue for our planet.
But what I also think is that the focus of the debate we are having is wrong.
71% of the planet is covered in ocean. The activities that spew out CO2 (and other more potent greenhouse gases) into the air, also contaminate our land and waterways more generally. Our populations don’t just “benignly” emit carbon – if only that were true. Our power generation, our vehicles, our refrigeration and our consumption are all components of urbanization and it is the combined effects of pollution from these activities – air, land and water – that is killing our oceans.
What the climate change skeptics are really saying is that they don’t care about the fact that we are polluting the planet because the fact that we pollute is measurable and undeniable. It’s actually not about whether the temperature is rising, whether our ice caps are melting and whether our coastal populations or biodiversity is at risk due to temperature increase. The key issue is whether we can continue to pollute the way that we do – with CO2 levels only a partial side-effect – and not see collapse of our largest and most important repository of food and life on our planet – our oceans. When we focus on the issue of climate change, to some extent we are simply ignoring the primary issue that humans are net polluters, that pollution accumulates, and pollution will eventually kill our planet.
Instead of debating the impact of climate change, the skeptics need to get out of the office and start looking at the world we live in through the lens of pollution and contamination, not climate change. Walk a beach in Ko Samui at 6am in the morning and admire the garbage. Fly to Shanghai and feel unsettled after eating an expensive meal that is beautifully presented but leaves a worrying aftertaste of phenols in your mouth. Walk through the Black Forrest and see the effects of acid rain. Go to a place like São Paulo, the finance and business capital of Brazil’s “booming” economy, where the water is undrinkable and a comparatively small proportion of the population has access to sanitation. By the way ~50% of US waterways are unacceptably polluted and millions of Americans drink contaminated water – so this is not a “developing world” problem – it is within all of our communities and electorates – everywhere.
Environmental pollution is the real issue, not climate change. If only it were that simple…