Conservation & Science

Rolling up our sleeves in Marrakech

Kyle Van Houtan presents at the COP22 conference in Marrakech on Nov. 11, 2016. Photo by Beautifell Photography / Christine Ellman

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s director of science, is part of a panel addressing the ocean impacts of climate change. Here’s what he told the world.

At the turn of the century, I spent over a decade researching tropical forests. Most of this time was in Earth’s largest and most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystem: the Amazon rainforest.

“Amazon rainforest near Puerto Maldonado” by Ivan Mlinaric is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Tropical rainforests attract the attention of scientists, including me, because of two colliding facts: the astounding biodiversity they hold; and the alarming pace of their deforestation. Heaving with the breath of millions of unique plants and animals, the Amazon’s dense vegetation produces massive amounts of oxygen—an attribute that’s earned it a reputation as the lungs of our planet.

If we think of the Amazon’s trees as the lungs of the planet, then surely the ocean is its heart.

Earth’s blue heart

The ocean covers the vast majority of the planet’s surface, contains its largest ecosystems, and harbors more biodiversity than any other place on Earth. It is also the largest reservoir of carbon and heat. The ocean circulates this heat and moisture across the planet, which in turn drives weather patterns on land, productivity in the sea, and the epic migrations of marine life.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest water mass on our planet.

As the primary driver of the planet’s climate system, the ocean is inextricably linked to Earth’s ability to sustain life—including us. It is no overstatement to say the ocean is the heart of our climate system. One simply cannot talk meaningfully about the Earth’s climate without including the ocean.

Researchers recently estimated that tiny phytoplankton generate at least 80% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. So with every breath, we are breathing in the ocean. In the past 15 years, we’ve ramped up the role the ocean plays in models of our global climate system, too. This has improved both our understanding of Earth’s climate and our ability to forecast climate change.

We now see the ocean as the front line of climate impacts.

In the United States, the Obama administration has prioritized our government becoming “climate ready.” For such a vast and complicated geopolitical challenge, how can we as a global community change course? How do we prioritize? Where do we begin?

KillerWhales__British Columbia
Killer whale pod in British Columbia. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Jessica Fujii

Protecting the vulnerable

For the past several years, my work has focused on identifying which species are most vulnerable to climate change. We’ve learned  that reproductive strategies have a lot to do with it.

Large whales, for example, only give birth to one or two calves a year and invest heavily in each one’s survival. Mother orcas give their babies milk and teach them to hunt; the pod provides social connections and protects against predators. Most calves, as a result, survive to adulthood. In such species, climate impacts are buffered through social structure and parenting.

But a host of other species—like sea turtles, fishes and invertebrates—are totally vulnerable to climate conditions. This is because they produce a lot of offspring, but don’t invest much in their survival. Climate essentially acts as the parent for these species, influencing whether they struggle or thrive. Though no species can ultimately dodge the impacts of climate change, we can soften those impacts by investing in the places and populations that need it most.

A three-pronged approach

People from nearly every nation on Earth are here in Marrakech this week to implement the breakthrough agreements reached last year in Paris. Now more than ever, science is being heard on a global level. The way forward is for government agencies, businesses, universities and nonprofits to work together to forge solutions.

NOAA Fisheries groundfish
A multi-pronged approach helped recover West Coast groundfish populations and revive the fishery. Photo courtesy NOAA

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we take a three-pronged approach—applying science, market pressures and policy solutions—to tackle some of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems worldwide. We’re working across national boundaries to reduce the rate of ocean plastic pollution, conserve marine biodiversity, address the ocean impacts of climate change and support sustainable seafood.

In 1999 we developed Seafood Watch, which has grown to become a driving influence in global seafood markets. The science-based Seafood Watch rating system helps consumers and businesses choose seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean, now and for future generations. Seafood Watch is now developing a greenhouse gas calculator to help businesses and consumers assess the carbon footprint of their seafood choices.

It will take concerted effort by citizens and governments around the world, and a commitment to science-based management of marine resources, to protect our ocean for future generations. Monterey Bay Aquarium works both within the U.S. and internationally to advance effective, science-based policies for the health of our ocean—the vast living system that supports all life on Earth.

Music and companionship enliven the mood at the COP22 conference in Marrakech. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium / Kyle Van Houtan

A time for action

At this particular moment in Marrakech, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed. The expert presentations on the COP22 agenda underscore the dangers we face. And the outcome of the recent election in the U.S. may leave some feeling even more uncertain about the path ahead.

Yet we are joined here by tens of thousands of people from all over the world who care deeply about Earth’s climate challenge. As scientists, educators, clergy, policymakers, innovators and government officials, we are dedicated to do our part, and to find innovative, science-based solutions.

These U.N. climate talks are a reason for hope. The Paris Agreement is now international law, and the world is taking it to heart. It’s time to #ActOnClimate.

Featured image: The moon rises outside the entrance to the COP22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium / Kyle Van Houtan

One thought on “Rolling up our sleeves in Marrakech”

  1. I was in Morocco 2 weeks ago. They have a very long way to clean environment in that country. Trash, plastic bags, plastic bottles were all over the landscape and roadways all the way down to the oceanfront. Perhaps with this meeting being held now pressure will be brought upon Morocco and North Africa to clean up their environment and thus the oceans.


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