Ocean Acidification and the Law: Protecting Natural Resources from the Bottom Up

The abstract for my Vermont Law Review Note, which will be completed by May, 2018.

Posted: 14 Dec 2017

Date Written: December 12, 2017


The interactions between Earth’s oceans and land bodies make up one of the oldest natural cycles on the planet. Unfortunately, events on land have had a disproportionately negative effect on the oceans since the evolution of humans. One example that demonstrates this interaction is ocean acidification. Over the last 200 years alone, there has been a 30% increase in ocean acidity. This is the greatest increase in acidity since the Early Eocene Epoch, a time best known for high carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, no ice, and surface temperatures 9–14°C higher than today.

While scientists have been aware of ocean acidification for several decades, there is no clear consensus on its long-term ecological effects, and they are only now learning of some of the more detrimental effects. One of the most significant effects is on the health of plankton. Plankton are important to ocean ecosystem health because they form the basis for all marine food webs. This means the prolificacy of food webs is wholly dependent on these little organisms, including the health and well-being of charismatic mega-fauna (such as humpback whales and sea otters) that people normally connect with. These minute organisms also have a widespread impact on numerous economic sectors, e.g. fishing, tourism, birding, and outdoor recreation.

The question is: How can scientists make our country’s politicians and lawmakers aware of the persisting problem and encourage effective action? One way to start is by evaluating existing federal policies that can help combat some of the known causes of ocean acidification in the United States. To date, litigators have turned to the Clean Water Act (CWA) and a state’s Public Trust Doctrine (PTD) to argue for injunctions on actions that contribute to ocean acidification. Thus far, the courts have not been keen on broadening the existing interpretations of these legal frameworks to include ocean acidification. This Note suggests that there is an alternative federal statute advocates have not yet considered—the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).

Part I will provide necessary background information on ocean acidification and its environmental and economic effects. By understanding the connections between these three areas, politics will no longer be the determining factor. Part II will look at the effectiveness of ocean acidification’s current jurisprudence. Part III will provide in-depth detail on the CZMA itself and an analysis of why the CZMA is a better option than the strategies currently pursued. Key sections of the CZMA will be examined and applied—mainly the non-point source pollution regulatory requirement. Part IV will synthesize these findings to support the use of a bottom-up approach to tackle ocean acidification. This synthesis will serve as a guide to the federal and state governments on how to properly utilize the CZMA to address the issue of ocean acidification. Part V will conclude at the largest legal stage—international law. Since the United States plays a pivotal role in ocean management with its vast Exclusive Economic Zone, it is important to understand how this bottom-up approach fits into the bigger picture of combatting ocean acidification effectively, on a global scale.

Keywords: Coastal Zone Management Act, Ocean Acidification, legal analysis

Suggested Citation

Neary, Jaime, Ocean Acidification and the Law: Protecting Natural Resources from the Bottom Up (December 12, 2017). The abstract for my Vermont Law Review Note, which will be completed by May, 2018., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3086751

Jaime Neary (Contact Author)

Vermont Law Review ( email )

United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics