Friday, July 4, 2008 | In September 2006, Tony Haymet, an Australian chemist, was named the 10th director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego. He came to Scripps from Australia’s national science research agency, where he served as science and policy director. In his two years at Scripps, four of the school’s climate change researchers have won Nobel Peace prizes and the institution’s global warming studies — and its other academic research — have continued receiving international attention.

We sat down with Haymet to get his assessment of the world’s oceans, to learn what evolutionary mysteries he’d like to understand about the ocean and to talk about his beef with NASA.

Assign a grade to the health of the world’s oceans.

I think we’re more worried about the oceans than we’ve ever been. In the 1950s, we thought of the oceans as an inexhaustible sewer where we could just dump all of our problems. And for a lot of the world’s history, that was probably true. When there were a billion people on the planet, with a little treatment, the world’s sewage probably could be handled by the oceans. With six billion people on the planet, the oceans and the atmosphere can’t absorb all the things people put into it. As far as the ocean is concerned, a lot of it has been invisible to now. The oceans are heating up. The top half mile of the ocean is heating up. We now have evidence that the acidity of the ocean is changing. After 44 million years, it seems that in the last 150 years we’ve changed the acidity. We also find algal blooms, so-called dead zones, where the concentration of dissolved oxygen is much lower than we think it should be. And we find huge pockets of pollution, plastics, in the ocean. All of those things mean we’re not taking care of business.

In terms of a grade, I hope it’s B-minus. But I’m a little concerned it’s C-plus.

You raise the idea of the global commons (the world’s shared resources such as the atmosphere) and the lack of value assigned to it. No one owns the ocean, no one owns the air. How do assign value to that?

Obviously, it’s an educational journey. We have made progress. We’re on a journey from say 100 years ago, when you had pea-soup fog in London, and rivers were polluted. In the United States, most of our estuaries are pollution-free. It’s becoming rarer and rarer in the developed world that you have this pollution.

The CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) problem we did address (to stop damaging the ozone layer). The Montreal Protocol (the international treaty to protect the ozone layer) was one of the greatest triumphs of diplomacy. We’ve turned the corner on the ozone hole. There is a communal disaster where no one owned the ozone layer, and no one deliberately set out to destroy the ozone layer. Somehow the planet did get together and fix that problem. That’s why I’m optimistic that we’ll rise to the challenge of the problems that have to do with our oceans.

Tell me about the challenge as a scientist of translating those sorts of issues related to climate change. There’s no ozone hole for climate change. There are individual data points that put together create a disastrous picture for humanity. But explaining the implications of a tenth of a point shift in pH in the ocean is quite another from saying there’s a hole in the part of the atmosphere that protects you from the sun’s rays.

Both are difficult. I take my hat off to Roger Revelle and David Keeling and my predecessors at Scripps. It’s been a 50-year journey. To come from 1957 where no one thought CO2 was a problem, (except for) a couple of theoreticians. The Scripps journey over 50 years has been pretty successful. They went from Roger Revelle and Dave Keeling and their dog thinking this was a problem to six billion people thinking it’s a problem — including Republicans and minus a few people. To me, that’s an amazing accomplishment. How you go from three people to six billion blows my mind. It’s the power of that Keeling Curve (which was the first documentation of the year-over-year rise in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels). I don’t know that it’s any more complicated than the ozone hole. Talking about ozone molecules being destroyed 10 kilometers up in the atmosphere is a pretty abstract thing to most people. …

Why has it taken so long with CO2? Remember candidate (George) Bush in 2000 was going to regulate CO2. I certainly believed that the struggle was over then. I never believed someone would run for president on that position and reverse himself. I was naive to think someone would make such a reversal, but it happened, and we’ve struggled for the last seven-and-a-half years.

You’ve praised clean technology efforts in China. I’m curious for your evaluation of those efforts in San Diego. Is it just talk? Or are we really poised to capture some of those jobs here?

I don’t think it’s just talk. California will definitely capture it. The Bay Area will certainly be a leader in this area. The question in my mind is whether we can have two centers, with San Diego being the other, and I think the answer is clearly yes.

I don’t know if I’ve praised China. China is serious about doing something. I think the push will be just like it was in currently developed countries — from the middle class. It’s the middle class that says we want clean air and clean water. I don’t think it’s a top-down thing. People don’t like algal blooms in their beautiful lakes. In terms of the scale of countries that will be affected by global warming, China is right up there. The grasslands of Inner Mongolia are drying up. It’s an iconic thing that people identify with.

China is often held up as the reason why we shouldn’t do anything. The saying goes, “As long as China is opening up one coal-fired power plant a week …” Your recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle said there are reasons for hope in China. I’m curious if you can expand on what you’ve seen tangibly that makes you say: Maybe this won’t be as bad as we think.

People have come to call the current standoff between China and the U.S. a “mutual suicide pact.” We’re not going to do anything because you’re not doing anything. That way, we are going to fry the planet. We are the two biggest polluters. That truly is a mutual suicide pact, and it is going to require at least one leader to break that suicide pact. This is different than mutual assured destruction in the nuclear era, but it’s equally crazy.

In China, what makes me optimistic, is related to the scientists I meet. They understand this is an issue that matters to China. There are also efforts by [non-governmental organizations]. They’re hands on, trying to do low-carbon cities. There are grassroots campaigns, people organizing to clean up their lakes, or people who are tired of their eyes being affected by pollution.

The science of climate has been refined (to a regional level). We’ve seen the regionalization of global warming’s impacts. Where does the science evolve from here?

There are a couple of things we have to take care of in a hurry. One is carbon soot, the things (Scripps professor Veerabhadran) Ramanathan is working on. Ramanathan would argue that next to CO2, carbon soot (from burning diesel and coal) is the next biggest contributor to global warming. We must deal with CO2, but if we can deal with soot, then we should deal with that problem, too. The second thing we have to take care of in a hurry is this ocean acidity problem. Scripps can contribute to that by looking at the effect of ocean acidity on the whole food web. So of course corals, and anything that secretes calcium carbonate, anything that makes a shell is going to be affected by acidity. There are even broader effects on tiny things in the food web, like terapods, little snails that make shells out of calcium carbonate. They have trouble in a world with an increasingly acidic ocean. So institutions like Scripps need to work out in a hurry how the food web is going to be affected, and how that’s going to affect everything that lives in the ocean, from our food supply, to fisheries, to the health of the whole ecosystem.

You wrote in a May 2007 editorial in The Washington Post that the country is shortchanging terrestrial science funding in favor of exploring Mars. Do we have our priorities wrong? Is NASA forcing us to forego earth-based and ocean-based research?

NASA is doing what it was told to do. NASA is a servant of the people, and the politicians we elected told NASA to go to Mars. And they’re doing a good job in doing that. What I was saying with my colleagues in that editorial is that we need to get the balance right between our exploration of Planet Earth and exploration of other planets. We don’t have the balance quite right. The U.S. has many (earth-observing) satellites that are nearing the end of their useful life, and we don’t have replacements. The Europeans and Japanese and Chinese are launching these earth-observing satellites with increasing frequency. I can see a day when we’ll have to get our data from those countries, and we don’t like it. America invented these things, and we should still be the leader.

An abstract question for you. You’re given a free pass to [have the answer to] one science-related question. What’s your One Big Truth that you want solved?

Certainly, I want to know how long we have in terms of acidifying the ocean. Whether we have 300 years or 50 years matters a great deal to me. I’d like to know the answer to that. In that same line, I want to know how the whole biology of the ocean is going to respond. I have a feeling that it will be easier to adapt to a slightly warming earth — even though it’s going to be expensive. It’s horrible, but it’s easier than adapting to an ocean that’s changing its acidity.

In terms of philosophical questions, there are very deep questions about the genetic makeup of the ocean and how evolution has worked in the ocean. What we find in the ocean is a lot of redundancy, many little organisms that to our eye at the moment seem to be doing the same thing. Whereas our understanding of terrestrial evolution is that organisms tend to specialize and occupy a little niche. So what’s the deal there? Is the ocean fundamentally different than the terrestrial planet? Or is it just our perception that these little organisms are doing different things but we don’t understand it? 71 percent of the planet is covered by ocean, and in terms of depth, it’s a massive living medium. The more we look into the genetic and evolutionary makeup of the ocean, the more questions we have. I certainly hope we have some answers to those questions while I’m still on the planet.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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