A recent paper in the science journal Marine Policy asks if the current focus on plastic pollution is distracting society from even larger challenges facing the ocean, and if a focus on changing bottles or straws is distracting us from making more fundamental changes to the economy. As humans have pumped greenhouses gases into the atmosphere, almost all of the resulting heat has ended up in the ocean; as water gets hotter, that’s killing fish and coral reefs. The heat also leads to sea level rise and melts polar ice sheets, leading to even more sea level rise. Hurricanes are becoming more intense. Extra carbon dioxide is making oceans more acidic, so it’s harder for marine life to survive. At the same time, large-scale commercial fishing is decimating fish populations.

Plastic pollution may not pose the same critical level of threat to marine ecosystems as climate change or overfishing, argues marine scientist Richard Stafford, a professor at the U.K.’s Bournemouth University and author of the paper. He sees the corporate focus on plastic as a form of greenwashing. An airline can appear more sustainable if it bans plastic straws even if it’s not necessarily taking steps to reduce emissions from jet fuel. Consumers using reusable water bottles might see themselves as greener even as they board a long-haul flight between continents. “Looking at simple solutions [that] are consumer driven won’t really change the economics of the situation, which is probably what we really need to change to address the big issues,” Stafford says.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game: More attention on ocean plastic doesn’t automatically mean less attention on climate change or the need for broader societal change. Starbucks already buys enough renewable energy to power its stores in the U.S. and Canada, and packaging–long a more visible sign of its environmental footprint–is a logical step to tackle in addition. Plastic production itself uses around 6% of global oil (as much as aviation) and is also a source of emissions; by 2050, it may account for 15% of the total global carbon budget. Moving from single-use plastic to circular economy models, like systems of reusable packaging for food or deodorant, can make a measurable impact on emissions.

Stafford argues that there’s some evidence that people tend to fixate on one environmental issue at the expense of others.

Read the full article about prioritizing ocean challenges by Adele Peters at Fast Company.