The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
I was always saddened by The Giving Tree, a 1964 story about the friendship between a child and a tree. The tree happily hands over pieces of itself—apples, branches, and trunk—to benefit the child from adolescence through adulthood, but by the end of the story, a stump is all that remains. Despite its terrestrial setting, The Giving Tree could be taken as a cautionary tale about ocean acidification.
As its name suggests, ocean acidification is the process by which the ocean slowly becomes more acidic as it dissolves carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On the surface, this phenomenon sounds like a helpful way of trapping a potent greenhouse gas. But the ocean—like the Giving Tree—will ultimately suffer as a result…and so will the people who depend on a healthy ocean, including millions of women and girls.
Ocean acidification is the result of simple chemistry. Carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, which, like all acids, can dissociate into its chemical components. From the acidification perspective, the most important of these components are hydrogen ions. The higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic the water. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has absorbed 525 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide, resulting in a nearly 30% increase in hydrogen ion concentration. These statistics are the result of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, and other carbon dioxide-emitting activities.
Just as the Giving Tree surrenders its branches at great personal cost, so, too, does the ocean when it absorbs carbon dioxide. Aquatic species with calcium carbonate shells (like crustaceans, mollusks, and corals, just to name a few) struggle to build those shells because carbonate availability decreases in the presence of excess hydrogen ions. If the ocean becomes too acidic, existing shells may start dissolving. Acidification can also induce physiological changes, such as slowed metabolic functions in squid, faulty predator detection in fish, or bleaching of coral reefs . These changes to aquatic systems and species could cause marine ecosystems to collapse, making the ocean the equivalent of the Giving Tree’s stump.
That’s because marine species provide food, livelihoods, and other ecosystem services on which billions of people depend. Just as the child in The Giving Tree can only reap benefits from a healthy tree, humans can only benefit from a healthy ocean. While acidification won’t turn the ocean into a skin-burning swimming pool (a common misconception), it will impact fishing and tourism industries, coastal management, food security, and cultural traditions. Many coastal Indigenous communities, which rely on ocean resources for all the above, would face disproportionate impacts.
Women also suffer significantly from acidification-related ecosystem degradation because they perform most behind-the-scenes jobs in the seafood industry, such as cleaning, processing, and marketing seafood products. In these roles, women gain critical qualitative and quantitative knowledge about local fish stocks, often making them the first to notice when ecosystem changes occur. Yet their firsthand knowledge is usually missing from business decisions, policy actions, and research efforts related to ocean management.
Furthermore, women earn 64% relative to men’s wages in fisheries jobs when performing the same work, giving women fewer financial resources to build resilience to the ocean degradation that may affect their very employment. Women are also more likely to fish for subsistence purposes, making them vulnerable to food insecurity in the event of species decline.
But just as the Giving Tree’s demise was preventable, ocean degradation by acidification need not be a foregone conclusion. The degree to which environmental, economic, and social impacts of acidification are experienced will depend on how much carbon dioxide is taken up by the ocean. This, in turn, will depend on mitigation measures to curb carbon dioxide emissions and address the high levels already in the atmosphere. Empowering women as decision makers in ocean-related industries is likely to improve data collection and sustainable management of the ocean, including affected marine resources and coastal communities.
U.S. government efforts to combat the climate crisis relate to each of these goals. The State Department is advancing policies to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and its resources while catalyzing global action to tackle acidification, among other ocean challenges. Central to these policy and programmatic efforts at the State Department and beyond is the empowerment of women and girls to strengthen the adaptive capacity and resilience of communities. Meanwhile, agencies are expanding research on ocean acidification, monitoring acidification on the coasts, and building adaptation strategies.
I never thought The Giving Tree could be anything more than a children’s story about friendship and greed, let alone a subtle warning about marine resources. How could ocean acidification affect your life?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.