Despite the record heat scorching the South and Pacific Northwest, and record tornados striking the Midwest and South, we have not made the connection between these natural disasters and climate change.
Climate change still ranks 17th out of 21 as an important national issue, well behind the economy and health care costs.
While these “new normal,” record-breaking natural disasters are not able to move the climate needle toward fighting global warming, it’s possible that Flipper can.
Dolphin deaths are becoming the “canary in the ocean.” Their deaths are issuing a climate warning that Americans may not be able to ignore.
Recently, a killer red tide algal bloom off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties poisoned approximately 100 dolphins, an alarming number, along with killing hundreds of sea lions.
On the Gulf Coast, 327 dolphins recently died from red tide neurotoxin poisoning in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Remember the campaign against drift-net tuna fishing that was devastating to dolphins and led to the “Flipper Seal of Approval” for tuna fish?
While drift-net fishing killed whales, sharks and sea turtles, it was the killing of some 300,000 dolphins a year that caused the United States to join the United Nations in prohibiting this kind of commercial fishing.
In other words, Flipper — the namesake dolphin star of the popular 1960s TV show — shut down drift-net fishing over tuna. Perhaps Flipper can do the same in the fight against climate change.
People love dolphins. They’re smart, friendly and seem to have a perpetual smile on their faces. They communicate through language that includes different sounds for different purposes, as we do.
They clearly seem to have fun and have a social coexistence much like humans, and have even protected humans in the wild.
Unfortunately, because they are again dying at an alarming rate, they have again become the kind of symbol capable of moving human action — this time on climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency predicts climate change will lead to more red tide algal blooms killing more dolphins. Red tides are caused by the rapid growth of certain species of algae, which produce the toxin Karenia brevis that kills dolphins and other sea life.
These algal blooms are caused by increased nutrient pollution, such as agricultural runoff and sewage discharge, which fuel the growth of the algae.
The large, climate-related “atmospheric rivers” of rain that California experienced earlier this year washed large amounts of agricultural and sewage discharges into dolphin habitat. Scientists tell us these storms are part of the “new normal.”
The red tides, however, are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that ocean temperatures will be the warmest on record this year, influencing global weather patterns. This warming will also kill dolphins.
Warmer oceans mean more ocean acidification and threats to dolphins, which could include their extinction. Sound travels farther in acidic seas impacting dolphin (and whale) hearing (echolocation) that they use to find prey.
And warmer oceans destroy the marine food chain by killing seagrass, the foundation of the ocean food chain. As the seagrass disappears so do those species that depend on it for food, including apex predators like dolphins.
The larger issue here is what climate change is doing to our oceans.
Oceans control weather. Warmer oceans mean more hurricanes. Oceans slow climate warming by absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Too much carbon absorption means less oceanic CO2 control.
I fear these larger planetary services will remain unrelated to climate change for the majority of U.S. voters and therefore policy makers. Perhaps oceans, heat, storms and their consequences are just too large and intangible for people to grasp.
Dolphin deaths, however, are not.
Animal imagery has always created emotional cues for humans capable of translating emotions into behavior.
The World Wildlife Fund’s use of a giant panda as its logo is a classic example. It has come to symbolize the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature, leading to successful environmental campaigns, to which people contribute financially to protect species and habitats worldwide.
Flipper did the same in stopping drift-net fishing.
Dolphins have fascinated humans for millennia. We consider them good omens.
This love of another species, now threatened by climate change, can be used in the fight to stop global warming.
This will not only help restore our oceans’ critical atmospheric functions, but help ensure our continued existence in the natural world we are all dependent on.