As world leaders gather at COP23 in Bonn, Germany for the latest round of UN climate talks, there’s a topic that needs to rise to the top of the agenda: the effects of climate change on our oceans, and how that needs to inform our actions on climate.
Though we may more easily see and feel the effects of a changing climate on land, the less visible changes occurring at sea are of tremendous concern for our collective future. That’s because the ocean and its ecosystems do a lot for us – store carbon, produce oxygen, provide a “free” source of nutritious food and regulate the planet’s rainfall and weather. If we want the life and stability our ocean provides, we must do more, and much faster, to address climate change.
Oceans have been ‘carrying the planet’s water’ on climate change
The alarming truth is that climate change would have already killed us without the ocean. Since the 1950s, the oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the planetary warming caused by trapped greenhouse gases, according to a report from IUCN. If the heat trapped nearest the surface of the ocean had instead been trapped in our atmosphere, temperatures would have risen by staggering amounts, perhaps up to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s hard to imagine people surviving such an extreme climate shift.
The ocean’s rapid absorption of heat and excess carbon in the atmosphere has caused a range of massive impacts, such as ocean acidification, an increase in extreme storms and changes in the ocean’s primary productivity. These changes are damaging to us as well as our ocean’s diverse web of life.
Coral reefs are the canaries in the coal mine
Perhaps the most obvious impact is coral bleaching. Warming oceans lead to dying corals, which have destructive consequences for ecosystems, coastlines and the millions of people who depend on them. For example, once coral reefs are weakened or wiped out, coastlines become more vulnerable to extreme storms and the destruction they leave behind, yet another byproduct of climate change.
The planet has just emerged from three years of historic coral bleaching events - the worst in recorded history. Massive die-offs along the Great Barrier Reef, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, happened in the space of only a few months.
The destabilization of the Arctic
At the top of the world, warming seas and surface temperatures are causing the Arctic to unravel. A land and seascape dominated by ice for millennia, the Arctic is thawing, threatening our ability to stabilize the global climate.
A report released by the Arctic Council earlier this year warned that the loss of sea ice, land ice, melting of the permafrost and melting of the Greenland ice sheet will all have lasting effects on the world’s climate throughout the rest of this century. Changes in the Arctic will contribute to sea level rise, further warming across the globe and will also impact global weather patterns.
What the oceans need from COP23
While the ocean has absorbed the brunt of the impacts of our 100+ years of carbon pollution, it’s maxed out. It no longer has capacity to accommodate these intense levels of pollution and warming.
If we value what the ocean provides, we must act now to dramatically reduce emissions, faster and deeper than the path outlined in the Paris Agreement. We are already locked into a course of serious climate change – but the sooner we act, the more we will be able to minimize the changes occurring across the globe.
Given the long lag times in the oceans and the global climate, it will likely not be enough to simply decarbonize. A well-funded, comprehensive and collaborative international research effort is needed to look at how we can slow some of these changes.
We need all hands on deck to accelerate and scale the transition to a climate resilient and zero-carbon world, powered by renewable energy. It’s the only way to restore balance to the ocean and the planet.