Conservation & Science

A landmark year for California’s climate leadership

It’s an uncertain time for our ocean.

The impacts of climate change aren’t always apparent on California’s scenic coastline. Photo by Robert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA

Sea levels are rising. Storms are intensifying. Seawater is becoming more acidic, and large areas of the ocean are losing oxygen. The global “conveyor belt” of ocean currents may be slowing, and many marine species are moving toward the poles.

These changes—caused by the heat-trapping gases we emit by burning fossil fuels—are destabilizing the ocean food web and threatening the long-term health of coastal communities.

But the ocean is resilient, and it can recover if we act quickly. At Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’ve made climate change and ocean acidification a priority. Our policy team encourages government action to reduce emissions and adapt to the changes already in motion.

This year, California’s leaders have made significant progress. During the 2016 legislative session, the Aquarium supported three successful state bills addressing climate change and ocean acidification. Here’s the lowdown:

Senate Bill 32 (Senator Pavley) – Sets a statewide limit on greenhouse gas emissions.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (seated) signs SB 32 on Sept. 8, 2016. He is joined by state leaders including bill author Sen. Fran Pavley.

WHY IT MATTERS: A healthy ocean supports healthy coastal communities. California’s ocean economy has the highest value in the United States, generating $42 billion annually. By reducing our emissions of heat-trapping gases statewide, we can better protect the fisheries, marine industries and ecosystem services our state depends on.

WHAT IT DOES: Since the passage of California’s landmark climate law in 2006, the state has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 100 million tons, reducing about half the pollution needed to meet its 2020 goal. In the process, California has attracted new clean-energy businesses, created hundreds of thousands of jobs, reduced pollution-related health costs and trimmed household electrical bills. SB 32 strengthens California’s climate leadership by setting a statewide emissions limit at 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. This aggressive, but achievable, target will help California meet its long-term climate goals—and combat the growing impacts of climate change on our ocean and coast.

OUR ROLE: The Aquarium met with the bill’s author to discuss strategy and submitted letters of support. The Legislature passed the bill, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law Sept. 8, 2016.

Assembly Bill 2139 (Assemblymember Williams) – Authorizes a science-based task force, facilitates research, and advances recommendations to address ocean acidification and hypoxia.

This coral reef habitat (with a reef octopus) is showing the early signs of hypoxia, when oxygen levels are abnormally low. Photo by William Djubin

WHY IT MATTERS: The ocean absorbs approximately one-third of the carbon dioxide we release by burning fossil fuels. This extra CO2 changes the ocean’s chemistry, making seawater more acidic. Ocean acidification affects marine life in profound ways—dissolving some animals’ protective shells, altering behavior and making it harder for some creatures to survive. Ocean acidification is a particular threat to California’s shellfish farms, which generate $26 million a year. Many ocean areas are also becoming abnormally oxygen-deficient, a condition called hypoxia. The range of impacts from ocean acidification and hypoxia threaten ocean ecosystems and our ocean economy.

WHAT IT DOES: AB 2139 requires the Ocean Protection Council to facilitate additional research on ocean acidification and hypoxia, compile data on its causes and effects, and recommend further legislative and executive solutions. The bill authorizes the creation of an ocean acidification and hypoxia task force and calls on the Ocean Protection Council to implement other West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel recommendations.

OUR ROLE: The Aquarium helped negotiate bill language and wrote letters of support. The Legislature passed the bill, and Gov. Brown signed it into law Sept. 14, 2016.

Senate Bill 1363 (Senator Monning) – Establishes a program to reduce the negative impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia along California’s coast.

Ocean acidification makes survival tougher for shelled marine animals, like this deep-ocean crab. Image courtesy of NOAA Ocean Explorer

WHY IT MATTERS: Growing evidence suggests ocean acidification and hypoxia are affecting the entire marine food web, threatening the health of ocean resources and the human communities that depend on them.

WHAT IT DOES: SB 1363 establishes the new California Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Reduction Program to help reduce the negative impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia along the California coast. The law implements key recommendations from the April 2016 report of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel—made up of prominent scientists from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. By taking swift action, California will become the first West Coast state to create a specific program responding to the panel’s recommendations.

OUR ROLE: Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s Vice President for Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, is a board member for the Ocean Science Trust, which worked with the Ocean Protection Council to convene the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel. The Aquarium negotiated SB 1363 amendment language, wrote letters of support and testified on the bill’s behalf. The Legislature passed SB 1363;Gov. Brown signed it into law Sept. 30, 2016.

The front lines of climate change

Sand Dollar Beach_Steve Lonhart  NOAA MBNMS
Climate change affects the land, sea, and all of us on Earth. Photo by Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

Climate change and ocean acidification are transforming the ocean faster than we can measure the change. Together, they represent the greatest environmental challenges of our time.

This suite of bills will help California protect our valuable marine ecosystems and coastal communities, while advancing science-based policies for a cleaner future.

Learn more about our policy work for ocean conservation.

Featured image: California Gov. Jerry Brown (seated) signs SB 32, a historic climate bill setting an ambitious statewide emissions-reduction target, on Sept. 8, 2016. Brown is joined by state leaders including the bill’s author, Sen. Fran Pavley, third from left.

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