Oceans: Our First Line of Defense Against the Impacts of Climate Change

The Red Sea's reef is one of the longest continuous living reefs in the world. Credit: Unsplash/Francesco Ungaro
  • Opinion by Julie Packard (monterey bay, california)
  • Inter Press Service

So, with COP28 negotiations starting at the end of the month (Nov 30-Dec 12), I wanted to share some thoughts about why it’s absolutely essential to place the ocean front and center in the climate conversation because healthy ocean can be one of our best defenses against climate change, and too often it’s not even part of the conversation. It can help us avert catastrophe and shape-adjust a sustainable world where both people and nature thrive.

So, the ocean’s the largest ecosystem on the planet, and really our first line of defense against the impacts of climate change. It’s absorbed 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that gets emitted, and also, it’s absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat we’ve put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So that is a huge service that it’s providing for us.

The good news is, it’s resilient. And when we act to restore the health of the ocean where it’s been damaged, it responds. And then it can, once again, begin to deliver the vital ocean services that enables life to exist here on the planet. But unfortunately, it’s not, “too big to fail.”

As land creatures, of course, we are probably not wired much to think about the ocean. We live here on land, we breath air, and we really don’t think much about how its cycles are tied to our lives and the ability for life to exist here on the planet, and most importantly, how our choices affect it. And selfishly, we really need to start doing that.

So, ocean marine life provides a fifth of the animal protein we eat, and that may be a low estimate. But it is a major piece of food security on the planet. Its waters carry more than 90?percent of the world’s trade, moving goods and raw materials more cost-effectively than by any other means. And its shores are home to nearly half the people on Earth.

The ocean is truly, as we think about it, the blue heart of the planet. It’s the heart of our planet system most importantly; its currents and winds circulate heat and moisture around the planet, and the weather patterns that we associate it with all the different places where we live are all due to ocean and the stability that we’ve had in our climate over all this time, which is now being disrupted, as we’ve been so reminded, especially as the years go by. And, climate change is now fundamentally disrupting these ocean processes that sustain life on Earth.

Of course, sea level rise is putting at risk tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of coastal people, and often in the most vulnerable communities where there’s no protection, no building zoning to enable people to survive severe weather. And, intensifying harms as we’ve seen every day are costing billions of dollars, not to mention endangering lives, including here in the U.S. and everywhere. So, it’s really – it’s time to recognize that human health is directly tied ocean health.

Really, when you think about it, when we protect the blue heart of the planet, we are protecting home to the greatest diversity of life on our planet, and in so doing we’re safeguarding ourselves.

Well, so what does protecting the ocean look like? For starters, it means reversing destruction of the coastal habitats, where of course people love to live; creating more global marine protected areas where ecosystems can be intact and have a better chance of surviving and enduring through all the changes happening.

And something the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been spending a lot of time and energy on in the past 25 years has been ending unsustainable fishing and aquaculture practices because fishing and our extraction of biomass and marine life from the ocean is kind of our most basic relationship with the ocean that is damaging its ecosystems, and it’s something we know how to fix; that’s the thing about it.

So, along with sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture, we need to start helping coastal communities prepare for the changes that are already underway and adapt to these impacts of extreme weather and sea level rise.

We need to invest in science, the bedrock of good decision-making, and this has been such an essential piece of moving toward effective fisheries management; when you don’t have data, you can’t make plans to get things on a good track, and the same is absolutely true for really most of the ocean, especially the deep sea, where we’ve had very, very little information.

And of course, we need to use the science along – that we’ve invested with to inform any future plans. Of course, front and center of late is the discussion of mining the sea floor, which is really a case where we just are flying blind.

We have so little information about what’s there and what disruption we would cause, and we need to hit a big pause, hit the pause button on that, on that front, so we don’t rush headlong into the mistakes we’ve made on resource extraction on land without understanding the consequences.

And of course, something else that the aquarium’s been very involved with that’s been in the news is the UN global plastic treaty. This has arisen in recent years and has a very fast timeline, and it is absolutely connected to solving the climate crisis. And it’s an important thing to do for many other reasons, and right now, as we speak, it’s being negotiated in Nairobi because plastic throughout its life cycle, it’s a significant contributor to the climate crisis.

At least 4 percent, probably more, of global oil production goes to producing plastic. So, it is significant. It may be a bigger number than that, even. And also, of course, plastic throughout its life cycle, it’s damaging to ocean health and ocean’s – the ocean’s ability to be resilient in the face of all these other changes.

Then of course, most dramatically, most importantly, we need to reduce our commitment – need to execute on our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet those – meet the ambitions that we have set for COP28.

Also, I couldn’t be prouder of the leadership in my home state of California. We are advancing some very ambitious climate solutions and climate policies, moving toward a zero – net zero emission economy and going well. We have the science. We have the political support to be very aggressive on that.

And coastal cities everywhere now, as you know, they’re starting to factor climate change into their land use planning, which is absolutely essential, and building resilience into where development’s happening. And in California, we also created the nation’s first statewide integrated network of marine protected areas to protect ecosystem health in state waters.

And also, innovators in the private sector turning their creativity towards solutions like batteries that don’t require continued mining of rare earths on land and on the sea bed. So, that’s obviously a huge part of the solution, is that innovation. And then, of course, philanthropies are investing in the science and policy work.

Just a few big picture parting thoughts about the whole idea of nature-based climate solutions; and to really solve the climate change crisis, we’ve got to turn toward nature-based and community-driven solutions like restoring and protecting animals and habitats that make up healthy ocean ecosystems.

The thing is that safeguarding and strengthening these systems is going to help the ocean continue to buffer and protect us from all the damaging impacts of fossil fuel pollution that’s happening, and really protect us from the worst impacts.

Blue carbon habitats, mangroves, marshes, sea grass meadows, along with other ecosystems like kelp forests – they act as natural carbon sinks. And this is, again, something we’ve published research on the California coast showing how healthy ecosystem restoration improves the carbon sequestering abilities of these coastal habitats.

And along with it, you’re also improving water quality. We’re supporting sustainable small-scale fisheries. We’re protecting marine biodiversity all around. It’s a win-win-win.

And so, to maintain the ocean’s lifegiving function and to strengthen its ability to bounce back from climate impacts, we need commitments from our leaders, too, and we need to end unsustainable seafood production, treat plastic pollution as the global crisis that it is.

And when that’s part of the climate crisis and a grave threat to human health in terms of toxins in plastic along with the other issues around plastic that I mentioned, and in all of these arenas, the ocean is truly at the heart of solutions, and ocean action is critical to finding a path forward.

As a global society, we know what we need to do to get on a sustainable course and build a clean energy future. And we’re making progress faster than ever, and we have more tools to do the job than ever. So many of these tools were created in Silicon Valley. And, with my background, I’m an optimist around human ingenuity to solve problems, but also we need to be realistic and really bear down on making sure those solutions are well thought out.

I think others share my optimism. Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, who directed the UN Climate Change efforts that culminated in the Paris Agreement – in her words, the world is “already on a journey of exponential transformation,” and so am I.”

We’ve got to bear down and work on positive results that demonstrate success. So, for nearly 40 years now – we’re celebrating our 40th Anniversary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium next year.

We have been a voice for the ocean, and we’ve been taking action to improve ocean health, mobilizing the public’s awareness around its role and what we need to do. We’ve been preparing the next generation of ocean conservation leaders who are ocean literate, diverse, ready to act on its behalf.

And working with governments, businesses, and NGOs, we’re forging solutions to the biggest threats to the ocean and pursuing a vision of sustainable seafood supply, a plastic free ocean, and ocean policies that are based on the best available science and technology.

So together, working across sectors and borders, I’m confident that we can realize our most ambitious vision which is a zero-emission global economy, and the fate and future of 7.5 billion people depend on it.

Julie Packard is executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which she helped found in the late 1970s. She is an international leader in the field of ocean conservation, and a leading voice for science-based policy reform in support of a healthy ocean.

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