The Science on Ocean and Climate is Dire. We Know What to Do, Now is Our Time to Act

Upcoming climate events will provide critical opportunities for ocean supporters to call for action

You may have been hearing a lot about climate change this week. More than 170 news outlets from around the globe are engaged in a massive #CoveringClimateNow effort, next Monday is the United Nations Climate Action Summit and next Wednesday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its latest in a string of special reports on climate change. This is just the beginning of a series of global events playing out over the next year that will provide critical opportunities for ocean supporters to call for action, and for leaders around the world to answer the call.

Next week is one of the first major steps on that path of opportunity, with the release of a groundbreaking IPCC report on the ocean and climate. Last year the IPCC released the blockbuster report on the effects of 1.5°C of global warming and earlier this summer the panel released a special report on climate change and our lands. Next week, our ocean will also receive the focused attention it deserves. While almost every previous IPCC report or special report has addressed the ocean in some manner, next Wednesday’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate will be the IPCC’s first stand-alone assessment of our ocean and cryosphere (our planet’s icy regions).

Much like with previous IPCC reports, the news will be grim and headlines will likely draw a dire picture. The report will provide a consensus assessment of the latest climate and ocean science, all of which says that the ocean is getting warmer, acidifying and losing oxygen at an astounding pace. Sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate due to melting land ice and glaciers. Coastal flooding will increase in frequency as sea level rises, putting coastal communities and low lying islands at risk. Warming is causing marine life, including economically important fisheries, to move long distances in search of cooler water. Carbon dioxide is particularly problematic because it also causes ocean acidification, and our ocean is acidifying faster now than it has in millions of years. Our ocean also faces an increasing number of dead zones, areas where the amount of oxygen in the water is so low it makes life nearly impossible for marine creatures. Combined, these effects are putting marine ecosystems at unprecedented risk, and fundamentally threaten the food security, livelihoods and ways of life of billions and people in communities across the globe.

But it’s important to remember when digesting all of the ocean and climate change news next week that we already know what we need to do. Climate change’s effects are daunting, but the ocean can provide solutions to the climate crisis.  Here are the three key ocean-specific actions we must take:

1. We need to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, which also causes ocean acidification.

Container Ship
The science tells us that we need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees for the future of the ocean—our current goal of 2 degrees simply isn’t ambitious enough. This should include setting specific limits for carbon dioxide emissions based on acidification mitigation targets. The shipping industry is projected to generate 18% of global emissions by 2050. We need to bring those shipping emissions to zero by 2050, with a combination of policies that reduce fuel use a transition towards cleaner technologies. The ocean also provides opportunities for smartly-sited renewable energy development, such as offshore wind and tidal energy sources that can replace the fossil fuels we rely on now.

2. We must protect the ocean’s natural ability to store carbon.

Coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, mangroves and sea grasses suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and safely store it. They can sequester carbon at a rate of up to four times terrestrial forests. In addition to storing carbon, these ecosystems also provide buffering services that protect our shores from erosion, flooding and storms. We need to restore and protect these ecosystems so that they can continue providing these services.

3. We need to prepare for those effects from climate change that we can’t avoid.

Coral reef in Dry Tortugas National Park.
To adapt to rising sea levels and protect coastal communities we need to support regional ocean planning efforts; reduce the amount of stress we already place on the ocean through overfishing, chemical pollution and runoff and the increasing inflow of plastic; and prioritize green infrastructure. Measures to better manage the ocean and protect it from other stressors can help ensure it is in better shape to handle the effects of climate change. We must also use smartly designed, well-enforced and well-managed marine protected areas to preserve ocean ecosystems and biodiversity. Science suggests that in order to secure the future ecological functioning of the ocean, at least 30% of the ocean should be protected via an effectively-planned system that takes advantage of natural refuges and connects biologically rich areas.

These actions aren’t the responsibility of any one person. We need to see countries making ambitious commitments towards fighting climate change. This year provides many opportunities for countries to do so around the release of this IPCC report as well as at numerous international climate events that will culminate with COP 25 in Chile, which is the United Nations 25thClimate Change conference. But for all of us who won’t be a part of international climate negotiations, we can do our part by limiting the amount of stress we put on the ocean by reducing chemical runoff and plastic use and trying our best to shrink our carbon footprints.

So when the new IPCC report comes out on Wednesday, remember that while the news is grim, there are concrete actions we can all take to help our ocean. Our ocean will face unprecedented changes in the future, and it’s counting on us to protect it.

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