It’s a cloudy, gray day along the coast of Virginia, and several people wearing waders are knee-deep in the tide. They peer down at the oyster bed below, while one crew member pokes around with a long That’s actually a GoPro in the water, and the woman running the show isn’t a marine biologist, but a communications guru with the blue-tinted horn-rimmed glasses to match. It so happens that Julia Roberson, with her bleached-blonde, Bieber-swept hair and Southern twang, is conservationists’ secret weapon against ocean acidification.
Roberson, 35, is perhaps an unlikely savior of the seas. Yes, she now directs the acidification program at the Ocean Conservancy, a leading environmental nonprofit in D.C., but her CV is pure PR, leaping from an early career in glossy magazines to a key player in an emerging national debate about the health of our seas.
Observers say she’s succeeding where so many scientists and activists have failed: taking what is often seen from the public’s perspective as an environmental problem and reframing it as a people problem.
In Roberson’s rendering, ocean acidification isn’t about climate change, or ocean health, or even about those bivalves in the seabed. Instead, it’s about farmers, jobs and tourism — and when she brings people to testify before Congress, the farmers are the stars, not the academics. “She’s what scientists have needed for a long time, though they probably won’t admit it,” says Mark Green, who teaches chemical oceanography at Saint Joseph’s College. The federal government this year upped its contribution to acidification programs from a measly $6 million to $30 million, a number of coastal governors have formed working groups to issue recommendations aimed at combating acidification, and several universities have secured funding to establish research centers.
Around 2007, shellfish along the Pacific Northwest coast began dying off, mysteriously. Oyster production plummeted as much as 70 percent, lost as though to some underwater plague. The cause was more prosaic: acidification. Larvae need a certain amount of calcium carbonate to build their shells, but as the ocean absorbs more carbon, its chemical composition changes — and fast. Ocean acidity has risen some 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution.
Talk of climate change is usually shrouded in science or politics. But with scientists almost unanimous and politicians divided along ideological lines, the conservancy movement’s main dilemma these days is public relations. Roberson’s strategy centers around the idea that acidification imperils “a way of life” — and her narrative that evokes nostalgia for an America that is not yet bygone: Fourth of July road trips to gray-shingled coastal towns, summers on the beach, clambakes and the like.
Listening to her talk you can almost feel the mist in your face and sand between your toes as your 10-year-old self frolics in the surf. Once you’re feeling sufficiently warm and fuzzy, well, cue the Jaws music — Roberson hits you with the notion that if acidification goes unchecked it’ll torpedo raw bars forever, and along with it the livelihoods of some 5,000 shellfish farmers. “It’s food and it’s jobs,” says Bill Dewey with Taylor Shellfish Farms, in Washington, one of many fishermen Roberson has brought to Congress to testify.
Roberson grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, inland, but the activist in her runs deep. At 7, she wrote town leaders begging them not to bulldoze an apple orchard for a Walmart, she says. She first got introduced to the fine art of environmental PR more than 10 years ago in Europe, when she joined an advocacy group lobbying French chefs to switch from open-water caviar, which was endangered, to a farm-raised variety. Roberson helped create a sexy campaign, during which they publicly held blind taste tests. As expected, once she got a few high-profile endorsers on board the rest followed, and not long after the United Nations banned the global trade of wild caviar.
As with any mention of climate change, some are skeptical. Matt Ridley, a best-selling author and founder of The Wall Street Journal’s Mind and Matter column, says based on everything he’s reviewed, ocean acidification is not going to be as much of a threat to marine life as some project. To make his point, Ridley points to an often-cited 2010 meta-analysis by Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies scientist Iris Hendriks that found marine life to be “far more resistant to ocean acidification than hitherto believed.”
It’s true that in some ways the science is still in its infancy. But most farmers have found that treating water and returning shells to the ocean floor can stave off acidification. “I’m not interested in working on hopeless situations,” Roberson says. Researchers think acidification may be affecting everything from sharks’ sense of smell to pink salmon populations and the bald eagles that eat them, which could have countless other unforeseen impacts down the road.
Hanging by the door in Roberson’s office is a small poster that reads, “The world is your oyster.” And this marathon-running, folk-listening, Southern belle wants to make sure it stays that way. “It’s totally selfish. I’m obsessed with oysters. And I want to keep eating them.”