Gaia In Peril

The ocean, an ally against climate change, generates 50 percent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and captures 90 percent of the excess heat generated by these emissions. It is not just ‘the lungs of the planet’ but also its largest ‘carbon sink’
By Subah Raman

IN the cold, unforgiving depths of the Pacific Ocean lies a vortex of spinning debris, thrice the size of France. One might envision miles of plastic bottles bobbing endlessly in the dark blue sea; the reality is not far removed. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) spans miles of endless plastic waste, resembling an untamable monster swarming the sea. It preys on small marine creatures and produces enough microplastic to affect generations within the food web. Despite our cessation of plastic straw usage, sea turtles still perish from suffocation and ruptured organs. Why is it that our individual actions seem insufficient? The turtles continue to die, the skies grow ashier, the punishing sun intensifies, and the rains bring floods, not hope.

Why has no one attempted to cleanse this vortex of spinning plastic? The GPGP’s remoteness from any country’s coastline absolves nations from taking responsibility or providing cleanup funds. Charles Moore, the discoverer of the GPGP, asserts that cleaning the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” that attempted it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program estimates that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. This lack of accountability leaves the Herculean task incomplete.

A significant contributor to marine pollution is corporate corruption within fishing industries. A 2018 study revealed that synthetic fishing nets constitute nearly half the mass of the GPGP, due largely to ocean current dynamics and increased fishing activity in the Pacific Ocean.

The Fishrot Files scandal, connecting Iceland and Namibia despite their 10,283 km separation, is a stark example of such corruption. The 2019 WikiLeaks release exposed widespread corruption within Namibia’s lucrative fishing industry. Leaked documents showed high-ranking Namibian officials diverting valuable fishing quotas to Iceland’s largest fishing company, Samherji, in exchange for at least $20 million in kickbacks.

The scandal led to significant economic and social fallout in Namibia, with job losses and a suffering fishing industry, impacting livelihoods and reducing government revenue for social programs. The Fishrot Files not only exposed financial malfeasance but also highlighted the environmental and social costs of corruption.

Namibia’s fishing industry, vital for its economy, depends on sustainable practices to maintain marine biodiversity and ecological balance. However, the alleged quota diversion to Samherji led to overfishing and fish stock depletion, disrupting the natural balance and impacting species diversity and ocean habitat health. This degradation contributes to the broader climate crisis by undermining the ocean’s ability to mitigate climate change.

The ocean, an ally against climate change, generates 50 percent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, and captures 90 percent of the excess heat generated by these emissions. It is not just ‘the lungs of the planet’ but also its largest ‘carbon sink.’ The ocean is also a remarkable source of renewable energy—offshore wind and ocean energy, derived from natural sources like wind, water, and tides, that don’t emit greenhouse gases.

Yet, corruption and greed persist, growing like a parasite on our humanity, with our environment and social fabric as collateral damage. It is unjust for the many to suffer the consequences of the actions of a few. This global climate inequality is seldom addressed. 

Global pop star Taylor Swift often makes headlines, but in 2022, she was spotlighted for a different reason. DataYard reported that her private jet emitted over 8,293 metric tons of CO2 in 2022—nearly 1,200 times the average person’s total yearly emissions, placing her in the Top Polluter’s Department. While all air travel creates carbon emissions, private jets produce significantly more per person—at least ten times more than a commercial flight.

Widespread criticism has grown as more people become aware of this audacious display of wealth and power. Planespotting, a trend popularised by college student Jack Sweeney, has enabled the tracking of some of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals.

The US Congress recently passed a bill allowing private aircraft owners to anonymize their registration information, a perk buried in a 1,100-page Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill signed by President Joe Biden on May 16th, 2024. It is another example of a government organisation protecting the wealthy while leaving the rest behind.

Ultimately, while consumers contribute to the excessive use of plastic through a “throwaway mentality,” significant changes can only occur at the level of international companies. Plastic production is part of the massive petrochemical industry, dominated by a few dozen companies that manufacture most products and a handful of multinational corporations controlling the plastic pellet market. These companies have a powerful lobby that ensures the growing production of plastics is not seen as a problem. Instead, they focus on waste management and recycling, evading responsibility.

(Subah Raman is an emerging environmental activist currently pursuing a degree in Biochemical Engineering)

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