07/30/2015 09:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When the Oceans Failed


Image: Ellmax Photos

It's December 2031, and my hand is tingling with an alert from Apple's latest wearable technology. I've received a new e-mail: The Daily Catch has landed in my inbox with global news on all things related to water. I have two options: I can watch a hologram, or I can go old-school and read the articles.

"One Tuna Sold for $20 Million to Japanese Billionaire," read one headline.

I remember thinking it was crazy when one tuna sold in 2013 for $1.7 million.

"Record Snowfall in Boston," read another.

No kidding. I look out my window  --  it's blocked by 13 feet of snow. The city is paralyzed. It was really bad when we had eight feet back in 2015.

"Quiz  --  Climate Change..."

I stop reading, close my eyes, and feel the unease wash over me.

All you hear about is water scarcity, water wars, failing crops, record heat, cold, snow, and flooding. Were the ocean and its problems at the root of the climate change problem? I cast my mind back to when I became interested in all things ocean-related. It was in 2010, when I went on a cruise around the Galapagos.

What I learned then surprised me. I found out that the ocean was the largest feature on earth, that it created more than 50 percent of the oxygen we breathed, and that it fed one billion people a day. That the ocean governed our weather, created most of our rain, employed 200 million fishermen, and churned out $2.5 trillion a year in economic activity, making it the seventh-largest economy in the world in 2015. From that moment on, I started paying attention to news about the ocean.

In 2014 the Global Ocean Commission, created by a nonpartisan group of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, reported:

Peer-reviewed scientific studies have underlined the interconnectedness between the planetary climate and ocean systems, and the central role that the ocean is playing in protecting us from the impacts of climate change.

Around the same time there was a bipartisan U.S. report called "Risky Business" that predicted that annual property losses from hurricanes and other coastal storms would hit $35 billion. Shifting climate patterns would result in declines in crop yields of up to 14 percent, costing corn and wheat farmers tens of billions of dollars. And heat wave-driven demand for electricity would suck an additional $12 billion per year from utility customers.

Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated,

Rising temperatures, changing precipitation, climbing sea levels, extreme weather will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters.

Check. Check. Check.

It was becoming obvious that burning fossil fuels created excess carbon, which was absorbed by the ocean, leading to greater acidity. This, in turn, reduced the availability of calcium carbonate, a building block for coral skeletons, shells for shellfish, and many other marine organisms. In 2012, shellfish hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest reported that production decreased by more than 40 percent over the preceding decade due to the acidic conditions.

Dead zones, areas where no fish could live, were proliferating. By 2015 there were about 450 around the world; the largest, found at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, was the size of Connecticut.

Sea life was under pressure, evidenced by large numbers of baby sea lion strandings in California in 2015, which experts attributed to changes in food availability. Sea bird populations were off by 70 percent from the 1950s for the same reason.

I remember reading that the oceans' apex predators -- those at the top of the marine food chain, like sharks, tunas, and cod  --  were depleted by more than 90 percent. It should have been no surprise that seafood fraud was endemic. Nationwide studies concluded that 33 percent of seafood was mislabeled, and every sushi venue tested in the nation's capital sold mislabeled fish. In New York, tilefish -- a fish on the FDA's do-not-eat list due to its high mercury content -- was discovered posing as halibut and red snapper.

With warming oceans, fish species migrated to cooler waters, threatening local fishing communities. Black sea bass, once most abundant off the coast of North Carolina, were being caught as far north as the Gulf of Maine.

Weather agencies all agreed: 2014 was the hottest year on record. NOAA assessed the 2014 annually-averaged temperature at 58.24 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.24 degrees above the twentieth-century average. A heating world was melting ice caps and glaciers. By 2015, the Arctic had lost three quarters of its volume and half of its thickness.

With 15 of the world's 20 megacities built up around old port towns and 60 percent of the entire world's population living in a coastal zone, how could I not have thought that rising oceans would eventually become a problem?

One of the first cases of mass displacement triggered by rising seas occurred in the first decade of this century, when villagers on Tegua, a small community in the Vanuatu island chain, were relocated to higher ground. Next, low-lying Kiribati, another Pacific Island, purchased land in Fiji, which Kiribati's president classified as an investment in the event the entire nation needed to move -- a prescient calculation, it turned out.

Climates patterns were obviously shifting; where rainfall was once reliable, it was less so. Swaths of Americans began suffering from drought, along with people in other parts of the world. California enacted historic drought-introduced water rationing, while Texas and Oklahoma set rainfall records. Cities worked hard to supply water to their citizens; Beijing's tap water was piped in from 850 miles away.

Despite the many signs of trouble in the ocean and elsewhere, climate deniers and their rhetoric helped soothe my conscience. We were told that the changes were part of the planet's life cycle, and that there was no proof that they were manmade.

Senator Inhofe, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, claimed in 2015 that the thought of human-induced climate change was egotistical:

"The hoax is that there are some people who are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful, they can change climate. Man can't change climate."

But the problems kept compounding in the following years. By 2025, a heating ocean had led to escaping plumes of methane, which had previously been stable on the ocean floor. Reported as a problem back in 2014, methane was known to be a potent greenhouse gas, around 20 times more efficient at trapping radiation per molecule than carbon dioxide. Changes in global ocean temperatures caused the hydrates to destabilize.

A heating planet was leading to other problems that I had hitherto chosen to ignore. In 2015, when scientists estimated that more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 virus particles existed in the world's seas, they outnumbered all cellular life forms by roughly a factor of 10. While everyone looked to China or India, the most grossly overpopulated areas of the world, for the next deadly virus to emerge, no one thought it would come from the heating ocean. The World Health Organization announced the discovery of a new deadly virus in 2029, just two years ago.

With hindsight, I could see the pattern building from the turn of the century and accelerating with every passing year. With pressure wrought by a failing ocean, a restless, thirsty, hungry, poor population grew. Collapsing states led to ideal conditions for terrorist groups to take root yielding a large number of marginalized and disenfranchised people from which to recruit. No wonder ISIS became so powerful.

2015 was the year I should have starting supporting ocean causes, sustainable fishing, alternative energy forms, a tax on carbon, and a ban on single-use plastics. Tomorrow is January 1, 2032 -- time for resolutions. I am going to support climate change initiatives and finally apply for my Ocean Passport. I am no longer a climate change denier, and my voice does count. It's time for me to take action.

Ghislaine Maxwell is the founder and president of the TerraMar Project, a nonprofit organization on a mission to build a global community around our shared ownership and love of the oceans.

This article originally appeared in Medium.