Climate Change and the Ocean

Taking the ocean into account is critical for successfully addressing climate change, and addressing climate change is critical for the future of the ocean.

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Ocean and Climate

The glass of water you drank this morning. The air you’re breathing right now. Every moment of your life is touched by the ocean, even if you can’t see it. That’s because the ocean generates oxygen that sustains life on the planet, creates rain that feeds our crops and forests, provides fresh water for drinking and bathing and feeds millions of people around the world.

Life began in the ocean, and today, all life continues to depend on a healthy ocean to survive. The ocean is vitally important for all of us.

But the ocean provides another life-sustaining service that you may not be aware of. Decades of research have provided clear evidence of the ocean’s central role in regulating the global climate system and buffering against the impacts of climate change.  The ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat from climate change, and is the sink for roughly 30% of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. That means that without the ocean as a buffer, heating from climate change would already be intolerable for much of life on earth.

In addition, as carbon emissions increase, our ocean faces a combination of stressors. Warming ocean temperatures, melting sea ice and ocean acidification are affecting our ocean, wildlife and coastal communities right now. Carbon dioxide specifically has disproportionate impacts on the ocean because of ocean acidification; In fact, we’re changing the ocean’s acidity 50 times faster with carbon dioxide pollution than in at least the last 800,000 years.

So the question is: can the ocean continue to protect us?

Because of climate change, the ocean as a system is at risk, struggling to keep pace with rising temperatures, pollution, and the absorption of greenhouse gases (GHGs). To climate and ocean experts, it is increasingly clear that urgent action is required to preserve the essential functioning of both the ocean and climate systems, and that saving one can’t happen without saving the other. We can’t wait until the impacts of climate change are irreversible, we need to act together now for the sake of the ocean and the climate–and ourselves.

Take action for the ocean today

Make a pledge to our ocean—a promise that you will do whatever you can to preserve, protect and defend the ocean. Enforce accountability of legislators, decision makers and regulators as they make choices that impact ocean health.

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The Problem

Taking the ocean into account is critical for successfully addressing global climate change. Addressing climate change is likewise critical for the future health of the ocean. The two are inextricably linked. And yet, until now, climate actions and policies have not effectively taken the ocean into account.

Thankfully, we are seeing growing momentum from leaders across the globe to more fully incorporate the ocean into our climate thinking and action. These new calls for action provide a significant opportunity to harness that energy and turn it into meaningful action.

The stakes are high. If we fail to substantively take the ocean and ocean impacts into account as we address climate change, we run the risk of either failing to achieve our climate goals because we haven’t considered the role the ocean plays, or succeeding at reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall but still seeing ocean health collapse from disproportionate ocean impacts of carbon pollution on the ocean.

anna-zivian

“I want to do everything that I can to make sure that people can have good lives into the future, that we avoid the negative effects of climate change and that we do as much now as we can to make sure that the ocean remains healthy and that ocean life survives.”

Anna Zivian
Senior Research Fellow, Ocean Conservancy

Our Solution

To simultaneously protect our ocean and the climate, we must consider climate impacts to our ocean and its services when formulating and implementing climate goals. Now more than ever, we need new approaches and practical solutions to best incorporate ocean climate change into science, policy and management decisions on all scales.

First, we must increase our ambitions overall.  A two degree limit is not enough to ensure the health of the ocean and ocean ecosystems that we all depend on. We support increased ambition on the part of all parties to lower GHGs and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

We must also focus on specifically on CO2 reductions within general goal of GHG reductions; doing so will doubly benefit the ocean. That means understanding and tracking CO2 emissions in particular within the array of GHGs, looking at their impacts on the ocean, and acknowledging that global warming potential is not the only climate change-relevant aspect of GHGs.

We must also understand and protect the way ocean ecosystems naturally store CO2 and help govern the global carbon cycle, which makes Earth capable of sustaining life.  To do this, we must conserve and restore the ocean and coastal places that collect and store carbon using a science-based, data-driven approach. That includes protecting important places and reducing other human-caused stresses on marine and coastal ecosystems, as well as developing rigorous accounting and transparency regimes to ensure these solutions are additive and not providing loopholes to lower ambitions. We must reinforce ocean protections to safeguard ocean’s capacity to store carbon and include information on the status of ocean sinks in global assessments of progress to date and to come. At the same time, we must work with partners to identify management changes that will ensure that commercial, recreational, subsistence and other uses of ocean resources can continue sustainably into the future.

Sustainable ocean-based adaptation strategies are a critical part of ensuring we can prepare for the impacts of climate change we can’t avoid. We need to implement a diverse portfolio of sustainable adaptation measures and incorporate sustainable ocean-related adaptation as an integral part of adaptation discussions.

Understanding and protecting our ocean’s role in the climate system is critical to ensuring a healthy future for our ocean and being prepared for whatever comes next. Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re working hard to ensure a healthy, productive ocean and climate for us and all life that calls the ocean home by bringing the ocean clearly and concretely into the climate debate.

Take action for the ocean today

Make a pledge to our ocean—a promise that you will do whatever you can to preserve, protect and defend the ocean. Enforce accountability of legislators, decision makers and regulators as they make choices that impact ocean health.

Take Action

Be a part of our solution

Donate now to help us continue our research into the impacts of global warming on our ocean systems. Or even better, consider becoming a monthly donor, and support our ongoing efforts best incorporate this insight into advocacy, policy and mitigation strategies.

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Marine wildlife like our beloved octopuses are counting on us to protect their homes.

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