Ocean acidification is a creeping threat to the global ocean and life therein. Caused by human activity, this change in seawater chemistry will impact the future of the rich marine biodiversity and important ecosystem services for humans. Because many scientific uncertainties still remain despite large research efforts, the precautionary principle should be applied. With respect to ocean acidification and its effects on the ocean, responsibility needs to be taken for what future generations will encounter.
In environmental ethics, there is an understanding that the current human generation should act against further ocean acidification and, if possible, tackle its impacts. One of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (SDG 14). A target of these global goals is to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. The principle of minimising losses needs to be specified with precise targets. In particular, greenhouse gas emissions, the main causes for ocean acidification need to be addressed. Climate protection and ocean protection correlate closely with each other in this respect.
The rationale for fulfilling this sustainability objective should be that it benefits all life on Earth. The most common arguments derive from an anthropocentric perspective. It is for our own long-term wellbeing and in accordance with human values to preserve the ocean as we know and cherish it. This also applies to non-economic values such as the beauty of nature, recreation and a sense for the “greatness” of the ocean. Biocentric or ecocentric approaches that recognize an inherent or intrinsic moral value for living beings or ecosystems would postulate even stronger needs to prevent the ocean from acidification.
Assessing risks and identifying reasons for concern always means making a value judgement about which damage or losses are at stake and need to be prevented. A methodological basis for such environmental ethical judgements about ocean acidification is to assess in which way it affects marine ecosystem services that humans benefit from.
The ecosystem service approach, however, is anthropocentric and abstains from answering the question of a possible intrinsic value of nature’s creatures. It differentiates between provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Provisioning services like seafood production and regulating services like carbon sequestration are easy to comprehend and to accept as important values.
The value of cultural services for human wellbeing is often underestimated because these are difficult to quantify or to monetise. “Deep” anthropocentric environmental ethics argue that these values are good reasons for an ambitious conservation of nature as well as the ocean.
For example, the presence of a coral reef may shape the cultural identity, traditions and livelihood of a community for generations and at the same time have intense aesthetic and sentimental value to many other people. The loss of these reefs would not only be directly felt by the local community, or others who have sentimental values attached to the reef. Future generations would also be affected negatively.
The problem of ocean acidification – together with other problems – forces us to discard the last big illusion of infinity of nature. Humans have the power to profoundly alter even the ocean. By overcoming this illusion, we must accept our responsibility for the future ocean. Welcome to the anthropocene.
Frederike Böhm, Prof. Konrad Ott | Philosophy and Ethics of the Environment, Kiel University