New Film on Ocean Acidification Reveals Unseen Face of CO2 Pollution

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Global climate change has just acquired a new voice of reason, a morally persuasive guide with a healing touch. He’s an immigrant from Norway who came to the US as a boy and is now a retired educator and devoted grandfather who can still speak his mother tongue.

Meet Sven. Sven Huseby.

Over the last two and half years he went around the world to investigate the face of climate change as he found it reflected in the oceans, a journey he undertook for the sake of his attentive five-year old grandson, Elias.

The story of the journey and the poignant dialogue between Sven and Elias were captured on film by award-winning director Barbara Ettinger, who has created a tale of moral justice out of the fabric of undeniable ocean science, a tale which vibrates with the deep question of what we owe to future generations.

The film is called A Sea Change, and even conservative audiences filled with aggressive global warming naysayers find themselves afterward caught up in humbling discussions, persuaded that “it really is about the CO2, isn’t it?” as many of them end up saying.

For the elevated levels of CO2 which Sven finds in the oceans, with the help of scientists and other guides, is science that no one can deny.

It is thanks to the oceans that there is 30% less CO2 in the atmosphere, and that global temperatures are cooler, but scientists have collected disturbing evidence that the oceans are paying a high price for the ecosystem services they are being forced to provide. They are starting to succumb to ocean acidification — an advancing global climate catastrophe that is already upon us.

There is so much CO2 in the oceans now that their very chemistry is changing. It is change on a geologic scale that is accelerating and will take millions of years to reverse. It has been caused directly by the absorption of hundreds of billion of tons of man-made CO2 — so far — into the waters that cover most of the earth.

As its name implies, ocean acidification is resulting in measurable changes in the oceans’ pH. There is enough increased acidity already to cause microscopic shell-forming creatures at the bottom of the food chain to dissolve and die. Scientists fear that as acidification continues, the food chain above, which these creatures sustain, will starve and collapse. “Imagine a world without fish,” the film’s web site instructs. 

But watching the film, it’s impossible. It is interlaced with astonishing footage of ocean creatures of wondrous beauty. They inhabit an unknown world rendered haunting and alluring thanks to music courtesy of the Swedish group Vassen, Phillip Glass and others — and we’re reminded viscerally of our appalling ignorance and awakened to what’s at stake. 

“Look at that! I adore them,” Sven says, regarding tiny pteropods flap their calcium wings, defenseless in the water but for the attention of this curious and receptive Norwegian-American, it seems.

Sven is an able guide through the accelerating sea change, not only in the oceans, but in the the celluloid world of film as well. The Nobel Laureate-to-be pointing out inconvenient truths in a lecture hall is giving way now to this Everyman demonstrating the simple moral imperatives of preserving the natural world for future generations.

It’s hard not to be stirred to primeval depths when you watch a moment Sven and Elias share on a sandy coastline: Grandfather and grandson together witness the surfacing of a whale upon the ocean waters.

A Sea Change was a project that found Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger unexpectedly. They had just finished another film project, looking forward to some down time to recharge, when they read an article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Darkening Sea. Published in November 2006, the piece stunned the filmmakers.

“We were blindsided by the article. We think of ourselves as engaged and well-informed environmentalists, and this was just not even on our radar,” Huseby told SolveClimate. “Then we typed ‘ocean acidification’ into Google and got six citations — less than a single page.”

They were just two weeks into their planned three months of time off, but they were suddenly hooked by the urgency of the science. They got themselves invited to a closed scientific conference in Seattle organized by NOAA oceanographer Richard Feely, who became an enthusiastic supporter.

They realized the basic science could be appreciated by lay audiences and that Huseby could go on camera himself and follow the story back to Norway and his roots in a fishing family. Quickly, they found funders ready to support the project, and within months they were filming their first interview — with Elizabeth Kolbert. Now they are busy screening the film.

“Are we screwed?” someone asks from the audience.

At the podium is Dr. Edward Miles of the University of Washington, in one of the most disturbing sequences in the film, shot at a scientific conference. The attendees have dispensed with the niceties of polite academic disocurse. Dr. Miles pauses, and responds.

“Are we screwed? Ya, to a considerable extent. A world of 500 parts per million is a world of enormous environmental destruction. We ought to recognize that and say it.”

And then there is Riki Ott, the marine toxicologist, who talks just as plainly to Grandpa Sven in Cordova, Alaska, from the community that was devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. After the spill, Ott explains,

“Everything that we knew as normal just suddenly wasn’t. I think the way ocean acidification will hit these rural communities will be similar to what happened with the oil spill.”

Huseby asks her the question he has asked throughout the film — how should we talk to our children and grandchildren about this?

“I think of what Einstein said: ‘No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it,'” Ott responds.

“And I look at what is going on in Washington D.C.: ‘Stay the course! Drill the planet! Oil shales!’ No regard for water, other people’s lives, future generations. And here are these young kids going ‘No, we’re going to do it a different way.’

“The best thing we can do is encourage these kids.”

The film has a premiere on September 13 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It will be broadcast on September 26 on the Discovery channel.

Will it be submitted for an Academy Award? Huseby says not. Too many hoops to jump through, too time consuming, too expensive — too much of distraction for this Everyman with his own brand of urgent work to do.

To view the trailer, click here.