Buchaniec: Seventy percent of the Earth needs our help

Catherine Buchaniec, Columnist

I don’t blame Walt Disney for my former idealistic, albeit inaccurate, view of our planet’s oceans. “The Little Mermaid” premiered in 1989, and while climate change was certainly wreaking havoc at that point in time, it was not regarded with noteworthy amounts of attention.

The colorful narrative painted by Disney was not true in 1989, and it certainly is not true now.

For me, instead of trash accumulations twice the size of Texas or micropollutants — tiny plastic fragments that can harm sea life and humans — the ocean conjured images of dolphins and cerulean waves. Throughout my elementary school years, the agreed-upon view of “under the sea” among children was one of brightly-colored coral and a place where “the seaweed was always greener.”

However, as we have come to realize these past few decades, all the fish are not happy. Moreover, we should all not be happy with the state of 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

Currently, our oceans have to weather a multitude of disasters: dying coral reefs, decreasing biodiversity, rising sea temperatures and the ever-growing buildup of plastic. Each of these issues adds up to an immense blight against our planet.

A few weeks ago, a report published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Science presented a shocking narrative: oceans are warming 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated earlier this decade.

Yet, this wasn’t front page news. This barely even made the news.

Granted, in the past year, we have been exposed to many climate reports, each foretelling one clear declaration: we are in danger. As I said in a column published last fall, climate change is our World War III. However, I neglected to mention the important role our oceans play in the global environment.

In creating our defense against climate change, it is hard to battle a problem that appears distant despite a constant bombardment of scientific reports. Why should we care about ocean temperatures rising?

Even for us college students, who attend a university several thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean, who are stressed with readings and extracurriculars — this is our problem. When we reach our 40s and 50s, we will be at the height of a climate catastrophe.

When carbon emissions are released into the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs the bulk of the gases, which causes oceans to heat up. Herein lies the main issue: warm water takes up more room than cold water. As carbon emissions continue to ensue, so will rising sea levels.

These rising levels present perilous futures for coastal areas like Florida, where some of the peninsula is less than 30 feet above sea level. When combined with the increasing magnitude of hazardous hurricanes, the homes of many Northwestern students in the Gulf region are facing grim forecasts.

What can you do about this? How can you take on the over 33 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide that were emitted in 2017, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 report?

The problem isn’t primarily you as an individual. It is corporations.

According to the Carbon Majors Report, produced by the Climate Accountability Institute, 100 companies, both privately- and governmentally-owned, have been the source of over 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Our oceans have paid the cost, absorbing up to 90 percent of emissions.

If we want to save the sea described so beautifully in “The Little Mermaid” and, moreover, the land above the sea, we need to hold these corporate conglomerates and government bodies accountable. However, in pursuing this accountability, we need to be mindful of the role we play.

Although companies are directly responsible for the operational emissions they produce when making products, the 70 percent statistic also includes emissions caused by regular people using products the corporations sell.

As future and current customers, we have the power of the purse to put pressure on these companies. The purpose of a corporation is to make money, and if we stand in the way of that, they will most likely have to come to the negotiation table — to start being on the side of humanity.

In addition to being responsible for rising sea temperatures and levels, corporations are also responsible for the flooding of plastic into ocean ecosystems. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo top that list.

Northwestern has a contract with Coca-Cola for beverage vending machines. We are among other Big Ten schools that have made these deals with these influential companies. Ohio State recently renewed its as part of an $84.7 million contract.

Imagine if the Big Ten pulled out. If we all said no.

Besides resulting in students living a lifestyle with less sugar, it could be the statement we need — the initiative we need to take to save 70 percent of the Earth.

Catherine Buchaniec is a Medill first-year. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.